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An Eye For Quality

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“Good morning.”

Bella started, dropping her book into her lap. Annoyed at the interruption, not to speak of the loss of her page, she looked up, and up, and up, her angry expression melting into one of stunned surprise.

“Good morning!” she stammered, quite taken aback to see such a tall and shabby-looking traveller standing so casually in front of her fine hobbit-hole.

“Belladonna Baggins, I believe? It’s a pleasure to see you again,” The stranger said, smiling.

“Bella,” she said, then bit her tongue. She abhorred rudeness, and the man, no matter how odd, had spoken kindly to her. “I prefer Bella,” she said again, in a lower voice.

He looked at her with gentle eyes. “Of course,” he said. “You always have.”

“I beg your pardon,” Bella said, attempting to regain her composure. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”

He laughed. “Most people could say the same. But perhaps I can help you, in this case. I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me.”

Gandalf?” she gasped. “Not the Gandalf who was friends with the Old Took so long ago! The one who told such excellent tales!” This was shocking indeed. Gandalf, if that’s who he really was, had not been seen in the Shire for years, since the passing of the Old Took. She had vague memories of Gandalf, whom everyone claimed was a wizard, from the big family parties she’d attended as a girl. He was reknown for his fireworks, and sometimes Bella wondered if she was the only one who remembered that he told the most magnificent stories, ones about far-off places, where secret princes undertook impossible quests and lonely travelers found riches beyond imagining. Could he have returned?

“The same!” Gandalf replied. “And, Bella Baggins, I am looking for you.”

Stranger and stranger, she thought. “What can you mean!”

“I am looking for someone to join in on an adventure,” he said quietly, crouching down a bit, as if he didn’t want to be overheard.

Oh! An adventure!” she whispered, because this was scandalous news. It wouldn’t do to have the neighbors find out. “Outside the Shire?”

“I should say so!” he answered.

“Further than Bree?” she asked, eyes wide.

“Well beyond,” he replied.

She leaped up, and took a step towards him, her book forgotten on the bench. “How far?

“Further than you imagine. Further than any hobbit has traveled in your lifetime.” Gandalf smiled at her. “Would you care to discuss the matter further?”

Her face fell, and her shoulders slumped, dejectedly. “I… ought not.”

Ought not?” Gandalf repeated, incredulous. “Since when have you cared for what you ought or ought not do? To think I have lived to be ought notted by the daughter of Belladonna Took!”

“See here, Mr. Gandalf!” she said, drawing herself up to her full height. “I have been scolded enough in my time that such a tone does not cower me. I will not be managed, not by my relatives and not by you, either! Good morning!” And with that she snatched her book and headed towards her door.

“Whatever do you mean?” Gandalf said, more pleasantly, stopping her in her tracks. “For it cannot be a good morning when I’ve made such an old friend so upset.”

Bella sighed and turned back to him. “Forgive me,” she said, “for I have been very unsociable today. But I cannot participate in your adventure. It would be most improper. Perhaps if you had come twenty years ago, or even ten. Not now.”

“Why not now, dear Bella? What happened to the young hobbit that loved maps and tales of faraway lands?” Gandalf said, gently.

“She grew up, I suppose, as we all must,” Bella said, clutching her book tightly and looking at the ground.

“Must we?” Gandalf asked, gravely.

“Yes,” Bella said, more firmly now. She looked up at him. “I have been reliably informed that I must, at the least. So you see, I cannot go on any adventures. But I hope you will come to tea, tomorrow.” She walked the rest of her way to the door, but stopped with one hand on the knob. “Please,” she said, turning to Gandalf, who had not moved from the path. “Please, come tomorrow. In fact, come tonight! I have a fine supper planned, and I would dearly love to hear some of your tales again.”

“I would,” he said slowly, as if lost in thought. “But I had planned to meet with someone. A foreigner. Adventuring business, you understand. Another time, perhaps. I’m sure I shall pass this way again someday. Perhaps another few years.”

“Oh! Do bring him!” Bella said, excitedly. “I would love to hear of his travels, if you think he would not mind.”

“I think you would hear a great many stories, if I had my meeting here tonight,” Gandalf said, enigmatically.

“Oh, you must,” Bella pleaded, quite taken with the idea now. “I insist on it!”

“Very well,” Gandalf said. “You’ve convinced me. Best make it a hearty meal, however. No doubt you’ve heard of the legendary appetites of dwarves.” And then he was off, moving down the lane at a brisk pace.

Bella stood frozen, hand still on the door. “Dwarves,” she gasped. Then she turned, dashing inside for her shawl. She had to go to the market immediately.

***

Bella stopped, halfway down the path out of Bag End, then turned and walked swiftly back inside. She had been so eager to start her preparations that she hadn’t realized she had no idea what one fed a dwarf!

Dwarves were uncommon, though not unheard of, visitors to the Shire, so this was not as great a predicament as it could have been. Bella’s father, Bungo Baggins, had been something of a scholar in his time, and had stocked Bag End with an excellent library, including many books about dwarves. Bella herself had always been partial to Elven literature, and rarely paid the etiquette volumes any mind, but she was a tidy little soul, and it was a matter of moments to find the book she wanted.

Dealings With Dwarrows: A Guide to Dwarven Castes and Customs, she read, settling into her favorite armchair. It was a large book, and quite heavy, and she wouldn’t have time to read even half of it before she had to start preparing supper. Happily, the first hundred pages or so seemed devoted to Dwarven origins and family trees. Later, she promised herself, she would look that over, as she was quite interested in history and genealogy, but for now she skipped ahead to Dwarven Etiquette.

Dwarves, she read, were a hardy folk that preferred to live in and under stone mountains. They were artisans and crafters that traded gems and metalwork for things like food and cloth, as they had few farmers or weavers among their numbers. Their smiths and carvers, however, were considered the best in the world, often devoting themselves to their craft with a focus and intensity not seen in other races.

One need not be over-concerned with table manners, the book went on, as most common dwarves did not study such things. Dwarven feasts were sloppy affairs, with the guests helping themselves to any food they wished, and often interrupting the meal to sing and dance or fight, as the mood struck them.

Bella frowned. Would her dwarf (for she already felt a bit proprietary about her upcoming guest) behave so? He was certainly welcome to any food in her pantry, for among hobbits it was considered the worst sort of rudeness to leave one’s guests hungry, but she preferred he not dance on the table, as one illustration depicted. Perhaps, she thought, she ought not put out her best dishes.

The book suggested that dwarves were not picky eaters, though they preferred meat and bread over greens, and after an hour or so reading, Bella felt quite prepared enough to do her marketing. She stood, leaving the book on her chair and straightening her shawl. On a whim, she flipped to the first page and glanced at it as she planned her shopping list.

Warning! the page all but shouted at her. She stopped, turning back to the book and giving it her full attention.


Warning!
Under NO circumstances should one offer a gift to any dwarf! Among dwarves, gifts are given only among family (or as a sign of courtship, if given through an intermediary, see page 302). To gift anything to a dwarf is a terrible presumption, as it implies a familial connection, or the desire to create such a connection. Items shared among dwarves are considered loans, the length of which may last generations (food being the exception, as it obviously cannot be returned. Hospitality is expected to be reciprocated, however). Should a dwarf offer you something, the appropriate response is to thank him for lending it, and to return it at a convenient time. If he clearly offers it as a gift, decline politely, unless you wish to allow him family privileges (see page 458). Should you accept, (not recommended) it is customary to acknowledge the honor being bestowed upon you.

Well! Bella frowned, closing the book and heading for the front door. Imagine, no gifts, ever! How terrible! Still, she was glad to know it. She would hate to offer something so insignificant as a button or a handkerchief, and unwittingly cause offense.

***

Among her relatives, Bella was considered a passable, though not exceptional cook, and she knew it. However, she was determined to make a good showing for her guests, and decided to overcome whatever deficiency they may find in quality by overwhelming them with quantity. This was her usual strategy, and it had always served her well among her hobbit callers. Her studies had not indicated she ought to expect a refined palate.

So she spent the day cooking. Being rather good at pies, she made six, half sweet, half savory. She put a pot of stew on to simmer, and set a few types of meat to marinade. Her afternoon was spent baking dozens of rolls and scones, and a few other desserts (she dearly hoped her visitors would stay late, and she was not above bribery). As the shadows lengthened, she grew nervous, and could only pick at her dinner. After the washing up, she set out a few of her best cheeses and smoked meats.

As she eyed her overflowing table, it occurred to her that she had, perhaps, overdone it. The thought did not trouble her; one did not often entertain guests from outside the Shire, and she would much prefer to have leftovers than to chance anyone going hungry.

As the sun set, she paced around the front hall, sternly forbidding herself from glancing out the windows every few moments. Belatedly, she realized she hadn’t thought to put on any of her nicer clothes, and she was briefly furious with herself. Sighing, she supposed it did not matter much; Gandalf did not seem overly concerned with propriety, and the dwarf would no doubt be more interested in the food than the mending near her hems.

A sudden, loud knock jarred her from her thoughts, and she ran over to the door. She paused there, not wanting to throw it open immediately and advertise that she’d been skulking about the entryway. But she could only wait a moment before pulling the door open, a welcoming smile at the ready.

She kept the smile on her face as she looked at the dwarf, but it was difficult. He was, without question, the most intimidating creature she had ever seen. He towered over her, nearly as tall as a man and almost twice as broad, and covered from head to foot in weapons and tattoos.

“Dwalin,” he growled jerking his chin up and down in a begrudging bow, “at your service.”

“Bella Baggins, at yours,” she replied automatically. They stood in the doorway like that for a few moments, before she realized she ought to let him in. Blushing, she stepped aside, and he walked past her.

“May I take your-” she started, reaching for his cloak, but he was already headed towards the kitchen, presumably following the smell of food.

He sat down at the table without so much as a by-your-leave, and started in on one of the meat pies. Part of Bella was annoyed at his lack of civility, but she supposed she could not take offense when the book had forewarned her. Besides, he looked like the type to have quite a few stories, and she intended to hear at least one or two before she let him out the door.

“So!” she said, brightly. “Do you know when Gandalf will be joining us?”

He shrugged, not looking up from his plate. Bella hesitated. Ought she sit and join him? It seemed improper to be dining alone with a strange man in her home. Yet surely it was even more rude to stand and watch him eat?

She was saved from deciding by a tap at the door. “That’ll be Gandalf!” she smiled, and ran back up the passage.

She opened the door and gasped. It was not Gandalf, it was another dwarf! An older one, from the looks of him, with white hair.

“Balin, at your service,” he said, as he gave her a proper bow.

At least this one knows his manners, she thought, as she replied politely. “Bella Baggins, at yours and your family’s. May I take your-”

“Brother!” Dwalin bellowed from the kitchen doorway. Balin smiled widely at the larger dwarf, and walked over to him. Bella thought they would embrace, and let out a startled squeak as their heads crashed together, but they did not seem to notice, being too busy catching up.

She then distracted by another knock at the door. Surely Gandalf this time, she thought, but she was once again mistaken.

The door opened to reveal two dwarves; “Fíli,” said the one with golden hair, “and Kíli!” echoed the darker one, as they bowed in unison. “At your service, Mistress Boggins!” Kíli finished.

She was quite tempted to slam the door shut again, but countless lessons in hostessing with her mother would not permit it. “Bella Baggins,” she nodded at them, not quite as graciously as she could have.

They did not seem to notice, as they were already making themselves at home. The shorter one, Fíli, was divesting himself of seemingly innumerable swords and knives, while Kíli, who had hardly any beard at all, was scraping his dirty boots on her mother’s glory box.

“If you wouldn’t mind,” she said, through gritted teeth, “that’s an antique.”

“Sorry!” he said, cheerfully, “I’ll just - Mr. Dwalin!” She did not know how it was possible, but he grinned even wider as he turned to greet his friend, tracking muddy boot-prints down the hall. Meanwhile, Fíli was looking for a place to store his weapons. Reflexively, she reached out her arms for them, but he shook his head.

“Bit heavy for you, I think, Mistress Baggins,” he said, lowering them to the floor near the coat rack. “Pity, I just had them sharpened.”

After that it was a bit of a blur; the door opened again and again as dwarf after dwarf arrived. They seemed to take no notice of her, though they greeted each other exuberantly and tucked into the food with gusto.

“Please sit down - can I get anyone anything - I beg your pardon, that is not a napkin!” Bella smacked the hand of whichever dwarf was wiping his mouth with one of her doilies. “That’s my crochet!”

“Oh aye?” he said with a wicked smirk. “Good game, I hear. If you’ve-” whatever else he was going to say was muffled as another dwarf clapped a hand over his mouth.

“Bofur, watch your tongue in front of our hostess!” the dwarf scolded gently. Bella smiled at him. “Mistress Baggins,” he said, “Please excuse Bofur. May I get you a cup of tea?”

“Sorry, Miss,” Bofur grinned, seemingly unrepentant, but he replaced the doily gently on her side table.

Bella was saved from having to answer by a familiar voice from behind her. “No tea, thank you Dori. A little red wine, I think, for me.”

“Gandalf!” she turned to him, hands on her hips. “What is all this?”

“Whatever do you mean, my dear girl? You invited us for supper, and here we are,” Gandalf said, taking the glass Dori had quickly fetched.

Before Bella could reply, one of the dwarves approached her hesitantly. “Excuse me,” he said, softly, his voice reminiscent of Dori, “I’m sorry to bother you, Miss Baggins, but what should I do with my plate?”

“Give it here, Ori,” Fíli said, plucking it from Ori’s hand. “Kíli!” he called, and tossed the dish down the hall straight at his brother.

Kíli’s hand was up even before he saw what was coming, as if this was a game they played often. He caught the plate easily, and threw it onward into the kitchen.

From the lack of smashing noises, Bella assumed someone caught it, but she was too stunned to go and see for herself. Another dish flew by her, then another. More dwarves joined in, and they seemed to be making a game of it; throwing them more and more dangerously as they sensed her distress.

“Stop that!” she cried. “What are you doing? Don’t-” She raised her voice as the dwarves began pounding her silverware on the table. “Stop! You’ll blunt them!”

“Oooh, did ya hear that lads?” Bofur winked at her. “She says we’ll blunt the knives.”

And they were off, as what she could only assume was the singing and dancing portion of the evening began. She had expected a song or two, and preferred it to a fight, which the book implied was the other option, but she hadn’t anticipated that their fun would come at her expense! She blushed fiercely as the dwarves flung her dishes from one corner of her home to the other, laughing at her vain protests.

By the time they reached the end of their tune, she was furious, and even the stack of clean dishes and the tidy kitchen did not soothe her. Just as she opened her mouth to throw all of them out, there was another knock at the front door.

All mirth vanished from the room. “He is here,” Gandalf said, solemnly. Startled by the sudden silence, Bella followed him to the door.

She went pass him, but Gandalf stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. He opened the door slowly, and the dwarf on the other side nodded slightly in his direction. “Gandalf,” he said politely, as he stepped inside.

“Thorin Oakenshield,” Gandalf replied, though it was more of a pronouncement than a greeting.

If Bella thought she had been intimidated by Dwalin, that was nothing to how she felt now. Though Dwalin was clearly a dangerous fellow, this dwarf had a grave manner, and none of the gruff amiability of his comrades.

He looked around, taking in his surroundings, and settled his gaze on Bella. She felt quite sized up, and it took every bit of her mother’s training to keep her from wringing her hands in her skirts. She wished, briefly, that she’d put on a nicer dress.

“So,” he said, already looking away. “This is the hobbit.”

It was a clear dismissal, and Bella, who was already frustrated with her visitors, was pushed into fury. “Bella Baggins,” she said, lifting her chin haughtily. “At your service.”

He turned, one brow raised at her tone. “She looks more like a nursemaid than a burglar, Gandalf,” he said, his eyes on her face.

I beg your pardon,” she said, as coldly as she could, because that was an insult any way you looked at it.

“Have you any skill with weapons,” he said, changing the subject and speaking directly to her at last. “Knives? Swords?”

“Oh yes, I am quite the swordswoman,” she said, scathingly, because this was really too much. “Why, last time the Tuckborough army marched on Bree, I myself beheaded twenty big men, and maimed threescore.”

The corners of his mouth lifted a bit, she thought, though it might have been a flicker of the lighting. “Very impressive,” he said dryly, and headed towards the others in the kitchen.

“You will explain yourself, Gandalf,” she hissed.

He seemed unperturbed. “In due time,” he said. “In due time.”

***

There was enough stew left, just, to put a bowl in front of Thorin. She begrudged it, but Bag End had entertained more than its share of odious visitors, and if Bella had not disgraced herself yet, she wasn’t about to start on one surly dwarf’s account.

At least the dwarves were quiet now, she thought to herself as they talked. She could almost piece together the conversation; Thorin was the leader, and the dwarves in the room where the only ones who would join him. She was quite interested, in spite of herself, and tried to sit unobtrusively and listen.

She was amply rewarded for her patience: an old map, a secret key, a lost kingdom and a people in exile. A dragon. It was the stuff all the best tales were made of, and if the dwarves hadn’t looked so serious and so sad, she would have thought it all nothing more than a story.

“And what do you think, Miss Baggins?” Gandalf said, interrupting her wandering thoughts.

She hadn’t been following the conversation closely, so she wasn’t quite sure what she was expected to weigh in on, and was embarrassed to be caught not paying attention. She stood, clearing the empty bowl and silverware from the table in an attempt to look busy. “Well,” she hedged. “I don’t understand what can be done against a dragon. I doubt it would make a difference to him if thirteen hundred dwarves had accosted my pantry tonight. But I still think poorly of the others for not coming. Your home should be your own again.”

The dwarves cheered at that, except for Thorin, who was watching her speculatively. “I would rather any one of the dwarves at this table than an entire army from the Iron Hills,” he said, turning to the others. “Loyalty. Honor. A willing heart. I can ask no more than that.” Another cheer, louder this time, and Thorin looked at Gandalf.

“Indeed?” Gandalf said, with a raised brow. Bella had no idea what he was implying, as Thorin had seemed sincere enough, but the dwarf seemed to take his meaning.

“Balin,” he said, looking back to the others. “The contract for Miss Baggins.”

Balin stood up cheerfully, patting his many pockets and finally producing a thick document, which was passed down the table and into the hobbit’s hands.

“What?” Bella said, because she could not think of anything else.

“It’s a standard contract, Miss Baggins, nothing terribly unusual,” Balin said calmly, as if this were quite the usual thing for him, which perhaps it was. “Give it a glance over, and let us know.”

“What?” Bella repeated, since she was no closer to understanding what was going on. No one answered her this time; the dwarves were talking amongst themselves, and Gandalf was blowing smoke rings as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

She looked down at the contract, as if it could enlighten her. Some words stood out: death, death, funeral expenses in the event of death, loss of life, loss of limb, compensation for loss of life and limb, next of kin notification, and oh, death.

She took a deep breath, and willed herself to be calm. Then she fainted.

***

She woke up in the parlor, with Gandalf bending over her. Someone must have carried her in here and set her on the sofa, she realized, and she dearly hoped it was one of the cleaner dwarves.

You,” she said, accusingly to the wizard.

“Excellent, you’re feeling better,” he said, serenely, straightening and walking over to her mantle. He seemed quite interested in some of the old family portraits, but Bella knew a feint when she saw one.

“Gandalf. Explain.” Her mother would be shocked at her tone, but there was nothing else for it. Clearly nobody was going to tell her anything unless she dragged it out of them.

“You seem to have fainted,” Gandalf said, moving to look at an old sketch of her father.

Gandalf,” Bella said, overcome with exasperation. “Clearly this is all by your design. Why are these dwarves here? What do they want from me? What is this contract?”

Gandalf turned back towards her. “The contract is to secure your services as a burglar for the company of Thorin Oakenshield in their attempt to reclaim the kingdom of Erebor. I believe you’ll find the terms quite fair - a fourteenth share of any profits, and all expenses paid.”

Bella gasped. “A burglar? I am not a burglar, Gandalf! I’ve never burgled so much as a spoon in my life!”

“Nonsense,” Gandalf replied. “If I say you are a burglar, then a burglar you are! Besides, everyone starts somewhere.”

“I’ll wager that most do not start by stealing from dragons!” Bella said, furiously. “But even setting that aside, I told you! I cannot go on any adventures!”

“No, you told me you ought not go, which is another matter entirely,” Gandalf said.

“In the Shire, what you ought not do, you cannot do! Everybody already thinks me strange enough, Gandalf, for living on my own as I do! As it is, I cannot visit my relatives without hearing what an odd lass I am, or explaining why I’ve never married. If I wander off into the wilds with a group of dwarves I may as well not come back!” Bella cried, putting her hands up over her face.

There was silence for a moment, then Bella felt the air move as Gandalf crouched down beside her. “Would you want to come back?” he asked, very quietly.

Bella looked up quickly. Hope bloomed in her heart, and thoughts she had long since forced herself to put aside resurfaced. Tears stung her eyes, and she blinked them away. Gandalf did not avert his gaze, but he said nothing, giving her a moment to compose herself and order her thoughts.

She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it, then tried again. “...No,” she whispered, and there it was. The secret Bella had hidden for years and years was out now, and she felt lighter for it, as if a great weight had been lifted from her chest.

Gandalf smiled at her, almost blindingly. “Well, there you are.” He gestured towards her writing desk, where the contract lay waiting. “Sign it. Help the dwarves. Leave the Shire and begin again.”

“But Gandalf,” she protested, though she was already moving towards the desk. “What can I do against a dragon? Even if we succeed, what will I do afterwards?”

“Against the dragon you will do what you must. You may find there is more to you, Bella Baggins, than even you know. Let afterwards take care of itself.”

“Very well,” she said, though she had no idea how her voice was so steady. “Yes, I accept.” And, thus decided, it was easy enough to pick up her pen and put her name to it.

***

Chapter Text

The dwarves talked well into the night, and after a few failed attempts to assign them all sleeping places, Bella piled all her spare pillows and blankets near the hearth and left them to sort themselves out. She had a lot to do if they were leaving in the morning, and it was getting late.

What did one pack for an adventure, she wondered. ‘All expenses paid,’ Gandalf had said, but what counted as an expense? Food, surely. But she was going to need more than food!

She would have to ask someone, she realized with a sigh. But whom to ask! The younger dwarves seemed most approachable, but Fíli and Kíli were talking animatedly to each other, and Ori, though sweet, was being fussed over by Dori and Nori, and Bella suspected he had not packed his own bag, anyway.

The older dwarves were mostly gathered around Thorin, and Bella struggled to put names to faces. It helped that the ones with rhyming names were apparently relations, as they had arrived together and looked alike. This seemed quite a sensible system to Bella, as it made remembering names much easier. Balin, Dwalin, Óin, and Glóin were talking to Thorin in the corner. Bombur sat by the fire next to Bifur, who was munching on a carrot (where he had found it, Bella did not know, as her cupboards were bare). Gandalf was nowhere to be seen, of course. But surely that was only twelve dwarves? Hadn’t there been thirteen?

She counted again. Still one dwarf short.

“Can I help you with somethin', Miss?” came a voice from behind her.

Bella gasped, pressing a hand over her heart. “Goodness!” She turned around, glaring at the missing dwarf. “You took a year off my life just now!” she scolded.

He grinned, “Ah, sorry about that. But you were standin’ there watching everyone, and I was thinkin’ you might need somethin’.”

She found she could not stay annoyed at him when he looked so cheerful. “Yes, well,” Bofur, she recalled his name was, “Mister Bofur, I wonder if you might help me? I’m trying to prepare for tomorrow, but I have no idea what I ought to pack.”

“Easily remedied!” he said. “Have you been travelin’ before?”

“As a girl,” she said, lowering her voice to almost a whisper. She did not often speak of her youthful adventures. “Some long rambles through the Shire. To Bree, a few times. Just day trips, lately.”

“Well, it’s not so different, packin’ for longer. Some spare clothes, as there won’t be much chance to wash ‘em. It’s a long trip - four months, if we’re lucky, and longer if we’re not.”

Four months? Bella gaped at him. He may as well have said four years. She reminded herself that she had wanted this, and anyway, she’d already signed the contract.

“I see,” she murmured. “What else might be useful? What did you pack?”

“Hm, let’s see. My knife, o’ course, and my carving tools. Keeps me busy in the evenings, which is nice. Some bandages, just in case. Flint for a fire. Oh! And a blanket. You’ll not want to forget that.”

“That’s all?” Bella asked, incredulous. Surely she’d need more than some clothes and a blanket in four months!

“Well, except for the food. But you don’t need to worry about that!”

“I see. Thank you, Mr. Bofur,” she said, and he bowed cheekily at her, then joined his family by the fire.

Spare clothes, at least, were a place to start. First, she went to the store-room to retrieve her old pack. She smiled when she saw its familiar, tarnished buckles and dirty straps. She checked an outer pocket and yes! Her old flint and tinderbox were still there. She was grateful for small mercies, as she did not anticipate having time in the morning to do any shopping.

Her old bedroll was on the shelf below, and she dragged that out as well. It was dusty, and would have liked to give it a proper airing, but it had been made well (being a present from her father on his birthday), and seemed to be in good condition.

Just as she was about to lock up, she had a thought. Standing on her toes, she patted around the top shelf for her father’s old trinket-box. It was pushed to the back, just out of sight, and she nudged it forward carefully. When she had it in her hands, she sighed at the familiar carvings that never failed to make her think of her Bungo Baggins, who had kept the box next to his favorite armchair, and let her trace its lines and whorls with her fingers as she sat in his lap.

Not prepared to open it in the store-room, she took it back to her bedroom, along with her bedroll and pack. She settled on the bed with the box in her lap, and pushed back the latch. The hinges were stiff, and she felt a bit guilty for not oiling them once or twice over the years, but that was quickly forgotten as she examined the box’s contents.

What strange things for her father to have kept so close at hand! Scraps of her old drawings, dried flowers, crumbled almost to dust now, pretty stones that Bella remembered picking up on the banks of the Brandywine, the summer they’d spent visiting Brandy Hall. A small locket, which caused Bella to tear up a bit when she saw it contained a curl of her mother’s hair. She closed the locket, putting it away with great care. But there it was, at the bottom of the box - her father’s old pocket knife! It would need cleaning and sharpening, surely, but one of the dwarves could no doubt instruct her.

Her father had never approved of her rambles, never encouraged her wanderlust the way her mother did, but he had supported her in his own way, always making sure she had adequate supplies, and that her equipment was sturdy and well-maintained. Some of her nerves eased as she set his little knife on top of her pack. She replaced the rest of the items in the box, and set it carefully on her bedside table before moving to the chest at the end of her bed.

She had to dig to find her old trousers; it had been a while since she’d gone walking. They still fit, and for that she was grateful. She did not relish the thought of traveling through woods and thickets for months in her skirts!

Although, come to think of it, perhaps she ought to bring at least one good dress? She likely wouldn’t have any use for it, but it would be better to have and not need than need and be found wanting, and there was plenty of room in her pack. She sifted through the trunk again, until her hand brushed something particularly soft at the bottom. She pulled it out, and almost shoved it right back again. It was a dress, all right, and a very fine one, if a little out of fashion. Her mother had bought it for her years ago, though Bella had never worn it.

Bella debated. It really was lovely, with a long skirt of soft, blue velvet. It brought up bad memories, but they were Shire memories, surely? Out in the world, it would just be a pretty dress. And anyway, what if they did kill the dragon? There would certainly be a party, and Bella could hardly wear trousers to that. That decided, she folded the dress and stored it neatly in a cloth at the bottom of her pack, along with her comb.

She laid out the trousers with a clean shirt for the morning, and packed a few others, along with a good supply of underthings. Going four months with three shirts wasn’t a pleasant thought, and she took a bit of soap from the kitchen and wrapped it in some paper. No doubt she would find the time for washing at some point. While she was in there, she gathered a few bandages and the little tin with the tea she used for headaches. She laughed at the sight of her empty pantry - it was just as well they’d cleaned it out, since she would not be here to eat anything!

That was nearly everything that Bofur had suggested, with the obvious exception of the carving tools, though Bella thought it would be wise to bring something to keep her hands busy. She headed into the study, thinking to grab her colored threads and one or two of her fine iron needles. They would be light, and useful for any mending needed on the road, and she could pass the time with embroidery if she needed to.

She was quite surprised to bump into Ori, who turned red and stammered in embarrassment at being caught inspecting her bookshelves.

She laughed at his apologies. “Do not trouble yourself, Mister Ori. Being a reader myself, I understand the draw. Does anything catch your eye?”

“Oh, yes!” he said excitedly. “I’m quite keen to learn more about hobbits, and to read some of your folk-tales.”

“Ah,” she smiled, “then I think you will like this one.” Crouching, she pulled a little volume from the lowest shelf. It was a book for children, with lovely color pictures and sweet morality stories, and she had delighted in it as a girl. “These are the kinds of stories hobbits tell their children. Mostly about misbehaving, playing tricks and sneaking off, the usual mischief children get up to. There’s always a lesson, but it’s a gentle one. Hobbits make indulgent parents.”

Ori’s eyes grew as big as saucers. “Oh, dwarves have nothing like that! May I?” he asked, reaching for the book. She handed it to him, and he opened the cover reverently, turning each page with care, as if he were reading a priceless volume.

It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him to keep it, but she remembered her research just in time. “You may borrow it, if you like,” she said, watching for any adverse reaction. “Indefinitely.”

He grinned, but then his face fell, and he tried to hand it back to her. “Better not,” he said, “it’ll just get ruined on the road.”

She waved his hands away. “Nonsense. It’s made to be read, and it’ll be much better off with you than it will be sitting on this bookshelf any longer.”

“Oh, thank you, Miss Baggins!” Ori said, snatching the book back and clutching it to his chest. “I’ll take good care of it!”

She smiled at him. “I’m sure you will. You can sit over there and look at it, if you like-” she gestured towards her chair, then blushed fiercely. She had forgotten the book she’d left out earlier, and there it was, its title proclaiming her ignorance in shiny gold-leaf: Dealing with Dwarrows.

Ori giggled. “Did it help?”

She sighed. “As much as it could have, I suppose. After tonight, I can’t believe the written word would do you all any justice.”

He laughed outright at that, and she left him to his reading. Gathering what she’d come for, she took a moment to consider whether or not such a large book would fit in her pack. It had been useful, to a point, and no doubt she still had much to learn about her new companions. Regretfully, she dismissed the idea; it was much too large and heavy to be carrying across the countryside. Anything more she needed to know, she must learn as she went.

***

The next morning, Bella woke up to an empty house. Her dishes were clean and put away, and her spare blankets had been folded and stacked neatly by the cold hearth. If it weren’t for her empty pantry, she would have thought she was recovering from a vivid dream.

There was a note on her mantlepiece, instructing her to meet the others at the Green Dragon Inn at eleven. She had a bit of time, so she carefully penned a note to Hobson Gamgee, informing him she would be traveling and requesting that he keep an eye on Bag End. She wrote another, more formal letter to her Uncle Hildigrim, asking him to monitor her financial obligations while she was away. She left both letters in the Gamgees’ box, hoping the delay in delivery would prevent her relatives from knowing her plans until she was well on her way past Bree.

That last bit of business taken care of, she hitched her pack up higher on her shoulders, and set off for Bywater, whistling as she walked.

She arrived with a few minutes to spare, so she chatted with Gerda Boffin, who was behind the bar, and bought herself a cup of tea and an apple tart. The dwarves began trickling in in twos and threes, bidding her a polite good morning, and (the younger ones, at least) eying her breakfast with envy. Remembering her empty pantry, she bought enough tarts to go around, and this was met with great good cheer and many thanks.

“Nothing like a good breakfast before a long day’s ride!” Glóin said, after devouring his in two swallows.

“Ride?” Bella choked. “No, thank you. I’m quite accustomed to walking.”

“Nonsense,” said Thorin, who had just walked in with Gandalf. “We can’t stop and rest whenever you tire.” He frowned at the empty pastry plate, and Fíli and Kíli looked away innocently. “Besides, we’ve already acquired a pony for you.”

So Bella watched Nori and Ori secure her pack to her saddle, determined to do it herself next time. Then came another challenge: getting on the creature. The dwarves mounted their ponies with ease, and she was just working up the nerve to make an attempt when she felt herself lifted right off the ground by her elbows!

She kicked indignantly as Fíli and Kíli, laughing, deposited her in her saddle. “Was that quite necessary?” she grumbled.

“I can’t speak to that,” Kíli grinned at her, “but it was funny.”

Bella sneezed. “Wretched creature,” she said, unsure herself whether she meant the pony or Kíli. She patted her pockets, then bit back an unladylike oath. “Botheration!” she said, loud enough that the dwarves turned to look at her.

“What’s wrong now?” Thorin groused at her.

“I forgot my pocket handkerchief!” she snapped. It was a silly thing, she knew, but she was irritated, mostly with herself for not remembering.

“Here, use this!” Bofur winked, ripping a hanging pocket off his cloak and tossing it back to her. It hit her square in the face, but she managed to catch it before it fell to the ground.

“My thanks for the loan!” she said, folding the cloth up carefully and stowing it in her pocket. It was clean enough, and she was glad to have it. The dwarves nodded approvingly to each other, seemingly pleased by her manners. She thought perhaps she should have made room for her book after all.

“Ho there! Is that you, Belladonna Baggins?” came a voice from the side of the road.

Bella signed. This was exactly what she had hoped to avoid. “Good morning, Auntie Camellia!” she called, waving dismissively and hoping that would be the end of the matter.

But it was not to be. “Stop right there!” Camellia Sackville-Baggins stepped into the road in front of Bella, hands on her hips. “What is the meaning of this?” It was a lucky thing Bella’s pony was a sweet, well-trained creature, and stopped on her own, as Bella would never have figured out how to make her in time.

“I am traveling, Auntie,” Bella said, making an effort to keep her tone even and pleasant. “Won’t you wish me goodbye?”

“I will not!” Camellia said, “Get down from that great beast at once! You just wait until your Uncle Longo hears about this! We expect little enough from you, strange as you are, but this is simply too much. You will make this family a laughing-stock! Taking up with dwarves!”

Bella’s face burned with embarrassment. Her aunt was dressing her down like a child in the middle of Bywater, with all of her new companions looking on! The humiliation was unbearable! “We can discuss the matter when I return,” was all she said, lifting her chin and ignoring the indignant squawk as she maneuvered around Camellia.

There was a soft thump, and when Bella looked back, her aunt was covered in mud and picking herself up off the side of the road, as if she had been brushed aside by one of the ponies.

The dwarves behind her were snickering, and no one would admit who had done it, but Bella didn’t press very hard. Gandalf had been the closest, anyway.

The rest of the day was very pleasant; the weather was warm, and Bella got to know the dwarves a bit better. They were a rowdy party, singing travel songs and yelling conflicting advice at Bella as to how to sit on her pony properly.

As she bedded down that night, she thought that she was more content at that moment than she’d been in years.

And then it started to rain.

***

It rained all the next day, and though they tried, none of the dwarves could entreat Gandalf to do anything about it (if he even could! Bella had her doubts, though the wizard would not comment one way or the other).

She did not understand why the dwarves were complaining so much. They had hoods and long cloaks, and were all in all much drier than Bella, who was soaked to the skin and utterly miserable. She half-considered turning around and returning to Bag End, and only the thought of her Aunt Camellia waiting on the doorstep kept her moving on.

The rain stopped for the evening just as they did, and Bella helped gather wood for the fire, though all she really wanted to do was curl up in her bedroll and shiver. Her wet clothes stuck to her unpleasantly, and her hair was plastered to her face.

“I should just take a knife to this,” she grumbled in frustration, shoving damp hair out of her eyes for the fifth time in a minute.

“Oh, don’t do it, Miss Baggins!” Dori gasped at her. “Surely it’s not come to that!”

“I think it has,” she said, pulling out her pocket knife. She had been speaking out of anger a moment ago, but now she could see the sense in it. Clearly her ribbons weren’t up to controlling her hair after a day in the weather, and she couldn’t be scraping it out of her face for the rest of the trip! She gathered a hank of hair to the front of her face and held her knife to it, looking for the best place to slice.

“Stop,” Glóin said, firmly, plucking the knife from her hands. “Cut your hair or don’t, that’s your business. But you’ll hurt yourself, trying to use such a dull blade.”

“Oh,” Bella flushed. “I had meant to ask one of you about that. It was my father’s, and I’ve no idea how to care for it.”

“That’s obvious,” Glóin said. “Come and watch me sharpen it then; I was going to clean my axes anyway.”

Bella followed obediently, and watched as Glóin cleaned her knife, drying it thoroughly and adding a bit of oil to the hinge. Then he oiled his sharpening stone, running the rough edge up one side of her blade, then the other, then alternating between them before switching to the finer side of the stone. In just a few minutes, he presented her with a very sharp blade.

“Thank you!” she said, happily. “Will I be able to buy one of those stones in Bree?”

“Oh aye,” he assured her. “Any smith will have a supply. Or ask one of the lads if they’ve an extra they might lend you.”

“I should buy my own,” she said firmly, and Glóin nodded approvingly. “Now then,” she continued to herself as she gathered her hair in a bunch. “Time to do something about this mess.”

“Miss Baggins! Wait!” Dori said, his face the picture of distress. “Is there no other way?”

“If there is, I cannot see it,” Bella shrugged. “I tied it back this morning, but it hasn’t held.”

“Well, braid it back!” Dori said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“I can’t,” Bella frowned. “I’ve no idea how.”

“It’s easy!” said Fíli. “Just divide your hair into three sections, put the left side over the middle, then the right side over the new middle, then repeat! Nothing to it!”

Bella started at him, because surely that had not made sense. “What?”

Fíli frowned. “Watch me. Kíli!” he called, and Kíli ambled over to them. Fíli turned him around, and demonstrated a simple braid. Bella tried to copy him, but she couldn’t see her own hair well enough, and it tangled. Dori, who was observing, blamed Fíli for explaining too fast, and Kíli for fidgeting, and demonstrated again on Ori, but Bella still couldn’t manage it.

“Sorry, Miss Baggins,” Dori said, with obvious regret. “I would do it for you, but it wouldn’t be proper.”

By this point the entire company was watching Bella struggle, and most were calling out suggestions.

“No, you’ve just done the left side! You’re on the right now! Don’t lose track!” Balin scolded her.

“Mind your fingers, the hair’s getting all mixed together!” Óin contributed.

“Ooh, ya almost had it. Best comb it out and try again now,” Bofur said, sympathetically.

“Enough!” Bella cried, “I can’t learn it this way. If none of you can help me, I’ll simply cut it and be done.”

“Wait,” said Balin, holding up a hand. “Technically, it wouldn’t be proper for any of us to touch your hair. But perhaps, just in this case, we can make an exception. It’s not as if you’ve any family to help you, after all.”

“Aye,” agreed Bofur. “Needs must, on the road. Better that than watchin’ her take a knife to it.” The company shuddered their agreement.

“It seems sensible to me,” said Dori. “Hobbits have no rules against such things, do they?”

Bella shook her head. “In the Shire, it would not be considered odd to fix a friend’s hair, though it is mostly something children do.”

Everyone looked to Thorin, as if awaiting a verdict. He frowned, clearly not happy. “Do as you will,” he grunted and turned back to the fire.

The dwarves all looked at each other. “Well, who’s going to do it?” asked Dori.

“Thought you said you would,” Óin replied.

“I - well-” Dori stammered.

“Let Ori or Kíli do it, they need the practice,” suggested Nori.

“Not Kíli, he’s hopeless!” Fíli protested, elbowing his brother away from Bella. “It’ll be worse than it is now, she’ll have to cut it.”

“Not me!” said Ori, turning red. “I couldn’t!”

“Sure you could!” teased Kíli. “Bet you’d like it!”

“Why not ask Bella what she thinks?” suggested Gandalf, and everyone relaxed at that.

“Yes, Miss Baggins,” said Dori. “You just pick anyone. We’re all at your service.”

Bella couldn’t recall a more awkward moment in all her life. She looked from dwarf to dwarf, but none would meet her eyes. “Very well,” she said, and marched over to where Dwalin was sitting near the fire.

“Here,” she said briskly, handing him her comb. He took it by reflex, and she sat down in front of him. He looked confused for a moment, as if she might not be serious, then shrugged and started combing out the snarls.

“What made you think this was a good idea?” he asked, under his breath. The other dwarves were staring openly.

“I knew they would not mock you for it, Mr. Dwalin,” Bella smirked, and he laughed.

“Don’t be so sure,” he warned her. “I have no skill at this.”

She shrugged. “I don’t care how it looks, as long as it’s out of my eyes. Braid it or cut it, it’s the same to me.”

Dwalin scowled. “I’ll figure it out.”

***

Dwalin, it was soon apparent, was the worst braider in the company, with the possible exceptions of Kíli and Bella herself. She thought she might have the hang of it, if only she could try on another person, but of course that was impossible among dwarves. There was always Gandalf, she supposed, but thankfully it had not yet come to that.

Still, Dwalin was as good as his word, and every morning he braided it back so it was out of her eyes. It never hung straight, always looser on one side than the other, and a bit crooked, but it stayed off her face, and Bella was grateful.

True to her prediction, no one teased either of them, but every time Dori looked at her hair, he would cringe visibly, until one morning he broke, and snatched her comb out of Dwalin’s hand.

“No more, I can take it no longer,” he said, nudging Dwalin out of the way and sitting behind Bella. “If I ever see such a bungled job again it’ll be too soon.” Bella laughed, but Dwalin looked a bit put-out.

In a very short time, Bella had two small braids running down the sides of her head towards the back, where her hair split into three larger ones. She tossed her head back and forth, pleased at how sturdy they felt. She thanked Dori, who looked very relieved.

“Wait,” said Kíli. “If Dori gets a turn, I want a turn.”

“I wouldn’t mind a try,” said Ori. “As long as Dori thinks it’s proper.”

That started an argument, and soon all the dwarves were listing the reasons why they ought to do her hair next.

“Enough!” shouted Thorin. “The hobbit is not a toy!” He turned to her. “Miss Baggins,” he said, more calmly, “what is your preference?”

That was an obvious trap, and Bella was not fool enough to fall into it. “I have no favorites,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Sort it out amongst yourselves. Or I could still cut it.”

That started a new argument, but after a short while, (and with the aid of Gandalf) the dwarves had worked out a rotation that started with Balin and ended with Kíli, whom Fíli promised to supervise. The only dwarf who was not interested was Thorin, but nobody seemed surprised by that.

And that’s how Bella ended up walking through the wild with her hair in two braids that stuck out to the sides (Bofur), a single braid that circled her head like a crown (Balin), a dozen little braids that hung loose behind her (Fíli), and something that sort of resembled a braid but was really more of a knot, which everyone complained about (Kíli), among others.

When they reached the village of Bree, Bella took a moment to hope that she wouldn’t run into anyone she knew, for if word of this got back to Aunt Camellia, she would track Bella down and murder her for certain.

***

Bree was a bustling village, and no matter how often Bella had been there in the past, it never failed to surprise her how small the man-sized structures made her feel. For once, she was glad of her pony, as she was sure she would have lost the dwarves in the crowd, had she been on the ground.

They made for the Prancing Pony, and while Thorin negotiated rooms from the innkeeper, Fíli dragged Bella towards the door.

“Come on, Miss Baggins,” he coaxed her. “My brother and I have some business in town. Join us, and we can visit the smithy afterwards and pick up your sharpening stone.” This seemed like a very sensible plan to Bella, who had not been looking forward to venturing into town on her own.

“Very well,” she agreed, “but shouldn’t we let Thorin know we’re going?”

“He’ll know,” Kíli said. “We always do this when we get to a village, he’s used to it.”

“Do you travel with him often?” Bella asked, as they left the inn.

“I’d say so!” Fíli said. “He’s our mother’s elder brother. He used to leave us back in Ered Luin with our Ma, but we’re old enough now for traveling.”

“This is our first long journey, though,” added Kíli. “I’ve never been so far from home before!”

“Neither have I,” Bella smiled. “At least, not once we leave Bree.” She noticed some of the local hobbits watching her with wary expressions, and her smile slipped. She touched her hair self-consciously, reminding herself that she probably did look strange.

Fíli noticed the looks, and elbowed Kíli, who frowned. Communicating silently, the brothers positioned themselves on either side of Bella, and glared until the locals looked away.

“I don’t think that’s helping,” Bella sighed.

“Why are they staring?” grumbled Kíli. “Is it so unusual to see a hobbit walking with dwarves?”

“Yes, in fact,” Bella said, “but I’m fairly certain they were whispering about my hair, just now.”

“Your hair?” Fíli asked, surprised. “Why? Óin did it, it looks fine.”

“I like it,” Kíli said, poking the lone braid that started just above her forehead and ran all the way back to her shoulders. “It looks fierce!”

“Don’t get any ideas, Kíli,” Fíli said. “You get better at doing regular braids, then you can try something fancier.”

“Plain braids are boring,” Kíli pouted, kicking at the ground. Fíli reached across Bella’s shoulders to pinch him, and it would have escalated to blows had Bella not grabbed both their arms.

“You still haven’t told me where we’re going,” she complained.

“Here!” said Fíli, stopping in front of a disheveled building. “Junk shop, perfect. Kíli, give me your money.” Kíli obediently handed over a few coins, and they all went in.

“What are we looking for?” Bella asked, eying the stacks of dusty, ill-mended furniture and shelves of mathoms.

“I’ll know it when I see it,” Fíli said.

“He really will,” added Kíli. “He’s got an eye for it. Let him loose in a place like this, and he’ll dig up anything valuable in the lot. We buy what we can and sell it somewhere else for a profit.”

“Expert treasure-hunter, that’s me,” Fíli said proudly, sifting through a box full of what appeared to be old spoons. “Ah!” he added. “This is a good one.” He passed the spoon to Kíli and kept looking.

“See?” said Kíli, passing it over to Bella. It was an ugly thing, dented and dark with use, and she thought it was probably worthless. “That’ll polish up pretty enough, wait and see.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Bella said wryly.

In the end, Fíli chose three spoons, two hideous brooches, a wooden box, and a few other odds and ends that Bella didn’t pay attention to. It all looked like junk, and she would be surprised indeed if any of it was worth more than the few coins they paid for them. Still, Fíli and Kíli were happy, and they stopped at the smithy on the way back for Bella’s sharpening stone.

When they returned to the inn, the rest of the company was just sitting down to supper.

“Fíli! Kíli!” Thorin glared at them. “I don’t recall giving you permission to abscond with our burglar.”

Only a nudge from Kíli stopped Bella from snapping at him. Abscond indeed, as if she were no better than the baggage! Fíli seemed unperturbed. “She needed to stop at the smithy, and it was on our way. We thought you’d prefer she be escorted.” Thorin opened his mouth to say something else, but Fíli distracted him by spilling his purchases over the table. “Look, see what we’ve bought!”

The dwarves fell upon the items, prodding them and trying to bend them with their teeth. “Silver,” Dwalin grunted, tossing one of the spoons to Kíli.

“I knew it!” Fíli said, winking at Bella. “Believe me now?”

“Fíli,” Kíli said, slowly, looking carefully at the table. “Are we missing-” he stopped as Fíli shook his head sharply, and they exchanged nods.

“You are lucky today, nephew,” Thorin said, smiling suddenly. He held up what Bella considered to be the ugliest brooch of the lot. “These stones aren’t glass. Two fine little emeralds for you!”

“Excellent!” Fíli crowed, accepting several slaps on the back from the other dwarves. “That’ll cover our costs twice over, before we even sell the rest.”

“Whenever that may be,” Thorin ruffled Fíli’s hair, still grinning. Bella was stunned. She hadn’t known Thorin could smile, let alone that he had such a lovely one. It was a pity he didn’t do it more often, she thought, then he might not look so unfriendly.

Dinner was a loud affair, and Fíli and Kíli bought everybody drinks to celebrate their windfall. Happily, the proprietor was an amiable fellow who only smiled at their antics.

Bella bid them an early goodnight, though she was a bit worried about where she would be sleeping. Surely the dwarves wouldn’t expect her to share a room with any of them, concerned with propriety as they were? Had they put her in with Gandalf?

“Here you are, little madam,” the innkeeper said, opening the door to a small room. “Mister Oakenshield explained you’d need your own quarters. It’s not fancy, but my wife made up a bed for you, and the door locks.”

“This will do very nicely, thank you,” Bella said, quite relieved. She was fairly sure she was standing in what had been a small store-room earlier that day, but was now set up with a comfortable-looking mattress and a candle on a little stool. Her pack was resting in the corner, and Bella sent a grateful thought to whoever had brought it inside. But at second glance, something was off - there was a cloth draped over it.

Bella leaned over to pick it up (there was hardly enough room to take a step), and sat down on the bed in surprise. Someone had left her a wool cloak, just like those worn by the dwarves! It was a plain grey and cut simply, but it was clearly new, and felt very warm.

'Who could have done this,' she thought to herself, 'and what does it mean?' Perhaps her book could have explained things, if it weren’t sitting unhelpfully in her study back at Bag End. Bella ran her fingers over the cloak’s soft hood, and cursed herself for a fool.

***

Chapter Text

They set out early the next morning, and if anyone thought it was strange to see Bella in a new cloak, nobody said anything, not even Kíli. That was enough to make her suspect conspiracy, because after so many days in their company, Bella had learned there was nothing a dwarf would not poke at, if he was curious enough. Still, she appreciated their discretion.

She had given the matter a lot of thought, and tried hard to remember the book’s exact wording, and she was fairly certain that if the cloak had been meant as a gift, someone would have had to say so, explicitly. In the absence of such an explanation, Bella intended to consider it on loan, though she did not know whom to thank for it. She was happy with her conclusions, as she would have had to decline a gift, and she dearly needed it. She vowed to show her gratitude by treating it with as much care as she could, given the circumstances.

So every evening when they stopped to rest, Bella would check her cloak over, brushing off the dirt, and using water and a little soap on any stains, if they were near enough to a river. The dwarves teased her for her pains, and assumed fastidiousness must be a common trait among hobbits, and neither Bella nor Gandalf chose to correct them.

One evening, after a particularly long day that had included a detour through a bramble-patch in search of blackberries, Bella was distressed to discover a small tear near her hem. She was extremely cross with herself, having known better than to tromp through such thorny woods, but Bombur had promised them a crumble (or as close as one could get, out in the wild), and she was powerless to resist such temptations.

With a sigh, she dug through her pack for her little needle-case, which had shifted to the bottom. She had no grey thread, of course, (grey being rather unpopular in the Shire, for it was considered a bit dull) so she decided to make do with black.

Before she could thread the needle, it was plucked from her fingers and held up by a grinning Kíli.

“Kíli!” Bella scolded. “Give that back at once! Those are easy to lose!”

“I wouldn’t lose it!” Kíli sounded offended. “Fíli might though, you know how careless he can be,” he said, tossing the needle over his shoulder to his brother, who caught it with ease.

“Hmm,” Fíli said as he examined it. “I could make a better one.”

“No doubt,” Bella said, rolling her eyes. “But in the Shire, that would be considered quite a good one, and I’d like it back, please.” She reached for it, but Fíli handed the needle to Dwalin, instead.

“Rubbish,” Dwalin agreed, passing it to his brother, who frowned at it.

“Look how dull the tip is,” Balin complained. “And such poor iron, no dwarf made this.”

“No, it’s man-made,” Bella explained, and all the dwarves gasped. After that, nothing would do but they passed the needle around, each taking their turn deriding its low quality and shoddy workmanship. Even Bifur snorted as he passed it between Bofur and Bombur.

Finally, it ended up with Thorin, who pressed it between his fingers, as if to bend it.

“Stop!” gasped Bella. “You’ll ruin it!”

Thorin glared the needle as if it offended him. “Look how weak it is. You ought to have better tools,” he complained.

Bella snatched it out of his hand. “You ought to have more sense! I don’t care what you think of it, I need it, and cannot replace it anytime soon! And it was expensive! Back home, most hobbits use bone or wooden needles, and are glad to have them!”

This caused another uproar, with some of the dwarves complaining about the strangeness of hobbits, and some of them grumbling about the terrible smiths in the towns of men, and the rest plotting future trade opportunities with the Shire, where there was clearly a market for good dwarven metalwork.

Bella ignored them all, and sat as close to the fire as she could, for the light. It was a small tear, and she mended it in only a few moments with tiny, neat stitches. Lifting it, she frowned at her work. The black thread was quite noticeable against the grey fabric, and Bella was embarrassed to have made such an obvious mend. If it had been one of her old shawls, she would have covered it with a bit of embroidery, but she didn’t think the proper owner of the cloak would appreciate the addition of a green vine or a colorful flower when she returned it. Still, anything would be better than such visible stitches, Bella thought.

Back in the Shire, Bella had been considered quite good with a needle, a skill she had learned at her mother’s knee. They had spent many happy evenings together, working on pretty linens for Bella, or, one memorable winter, an elaborate counterpane for her grandfather, the Old Took.

She considered covering the mend with a fivefold knot, which looked good in any color, even black, but somehow it didn’t seem quite dwarfish enough.

“Pardon me, Fíli,” she called across the fire. “What do you call that design on your jerkin?”

“It’s a traveling pattern,” Fíli said, walking over to her. He pointed to a spot near his collar. “See how it starts here and ends here? That’s for a journey.”

“Ma had it made up special for our quest,” Kíli added. “See? It’s on mine, too.”

“Come and sit by me for a bit,” Bella said. “I want to copy it.”

“What, with thread?” Kíli asked, confused.

“Watch and see,” Bella said as they settled beside her. She hadn’t brought much thread, but the tear was in just the right place that she could get away with adding the pattern to only the bottom corners of the cloak. She had Fíli show her again where the design started, and where it ended, and then she was off.

It was simple enough, just a few lines of varying thickness, crossing each other in a diamond pattern. Bella would have preferred something a bit more flowery, but it looked very striking with the black thread, and she was pleased with the result. She finished one side in short order, then the other, and held it up for inspection.

“What do you think?” she asked. In truth, she was a bit nervous - none of the other dwarves had any embroidered embellishments, so perhaps what she had done was not quite proper. But she thought it looked well, and it did hide the mend.

Fíli and Kíli each grabbed one of the corners, and Bella was gratified when they held them up to their own armor to compare.

“You’ve done it!” Kíli said, gleefully. “Everyone come and look!”

Bella held up her hands. “Oh, there’s no need for-”

“I like it!” Fíli sounded surprised. “And it must be lucky, a traveling pattern on a traveling cloak.”

“Give it here, lad,” said Óin, pulling it out of their hands. “Huh. Looks fine, Miss Baggins, right fine!”

“I don’t understand,” Dori said, baffled. “Where are the knots?”

“Oh!” said Bella. “You never knot embroidery! If it’s done properly, the back looks as good as the front, or nearly!” Of course at that, the work must be turned over, and the back inspected. All the dwarves agreed that yes, the back looked nearly as good, and that such a pattern on a cloak was very likely lucky.

“Would you do that to mine, Miss Baggins,” Thorin said, after looking it over. “I will pay you a fair price.”

“Here now!” Bella protested. “There’s no need to be insulting!”

Thorin frowned. “Among dwarves, it is a complement to offer payment in exchange for skill.”

“That is not the way for hobbits,” Bella said, blushing. “We are glad to do such things for our friends. If I took your coin, it would be as if I were your servant.”

“Forgive me then,” Thorin said, “For I meant no offense.”

“And I take none. Give it over,” she said, reaching for his cloak. “What a fine color!” she admired, running her fingers over the dark blue fabric. “Black won’t show on it, though. Would you care for white, or yellow, perhaps?”

“White, I suppose,” Thorin said, “if you wouldn’t mind lending me some of your stock. When we reach Erebor, I will replace it with silver.”

What funny creatures these dwarves were, Bella thought, that they couldn’t share so much as a bit of thread! “I’m sure I wouldn’t know how to stitch with that. You may replace it with plain thread, in Erebor or whenever you like.” She pulled out a length of white, and threaded her needle.

Thorin hesitated. “Do hobbits truly exchange nothing for such services?” he asked, as if he did not quite believe her.

“Nothing but thanks,” Bella said firmly.

“My thanks, then,” he replied gravely, and moved back to the other side of the fire, leaving her to her work.

“Do mine next, Miss Baggins, would you!” said Kíli. “Have you got any blue?”

“No, me!” called someone else.

Bella sighed, and wished she had brought more thread.

 

***

She finished Thorin’s cloak that night, and Kíli’s, and told the rest they must wait until the next day, as it was too dark to see properly. As was her habit, she dragged her bedroll away from the fire, as far from the dwarves as she could politely get.

“Better not, hobbit,” said Dwalin, as she passed him. “Not this far into the wild.”

“He’s right, Miss Baggins!” said Fíli, grinning. “There’s orcs everywhere out here!”

“You aren’t serious,” said Bella, though she was not quite sure. She looked towards Dwalin, but he only stared out into the darkness, impassive.

“Oh yes, totally serious,” said Kíli. “Orcs on wargs! They creep up in the night when the company is asleep and then-!” He made a slashing motion across his throat. “Blood everywhere!”

“And who do you think the wargs will eat first?” said Fíli, grabbing the end of her bedroll and tugging her back towards the fire. “You, Miss Hobbit, sleeping out on your own as you do!”

Though Bella knew they were teasing her, she could not dispute their logic. She had been sleeping rather far from the others. And really, wasn’t it better to be safe than eaten by wargs?

“So you think a night raid by orcs is funny, do you?” growled Thorin, stepping out of the shadows behind them. “An opportunity to tease our burglar?”

“No, Uncle-” Fíli started to protest, but Thorin cut him off.

“You know nothing of the world,” Thorin said coldly, then turned around and returned to the fire.

Fíli looked devastated, and Kíli put a hand on his shoulder. Bella felt terrible; they had been teasing, but she thought they might have been looking after her, in their own silly way.

“Don’t feel bad, lads,” Balin said, gently. “Your uncle has more cause than most to hate the orcs.”

Bella could not help watching Thorin as Balin told them of the battle for Moria. His stony expression did not change, not when Balin spoke of his murdered grandfather, or his father who had gone mad, or his own desperate heroism.

No wonder he was so unpleasant, having lost so much, Bella thought, sadly. She resolved not to be so sharp with him, next time they spoke. Or to try, in any case.

 

***

There was no singing the next morning, nor any of the boisterous chatter that Bella had started to grow accustomed to. It was as if Balin’s story had sobered the dwarves, reminding them why they were here, and of the grave importance of their mission.

Thorin was even more unbearable than usual, throwing out commands as if he had an army of followers to obey him, and dispensing criticism liberally. Bella found her promise not to snap at him sorely tested, and she spent most of the day lagging behind the others with Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur. This was very pleasant, as Bombur carried a variety of snacks about his person, and shared them generously.

By the time they were ready to make camp, Gandalf had clearly had enough of Thorin’s temper. Soon they were arguing over the campsite, their next destination, and Gandalf’s role on the quest in general. Irritated, Gandalf stormed off, muttering to himself about the stubbornness of dwarves.

Dinner was a quiet affair, with Fíli and Kíli away watching the ponies, and the rest of the company trying to avoid setting Thorin off again. Bella distracted herself from her worries by taking requests for embroidery. She left her spare needle out on the ground next to her, hoping to start another cheerful argument among the dwarves, but none took the bait.

After a while, Bella was quite uncomfortable, and a bit bored with the repetitive pattern, so she tucked her needle case back into her pack. “Had enough for now?” Bofur smiled at her, holding out two bowls of stew. “Run these down to the lads, would you?”

Bella took them, glad of the break and happy to help Bofur, who had somehow remained cheerful in the face of the day’s gloom. It was a short walk to the little clearing where they’d left the ponies, and Bella smiled at Fíli and Kíli. “Good evening,” she called. “I’ve brought your supper!”

“Thank you, Miss Baggins,” said Kíli, with none of his usual high spirits. Neither he nor Fíli moved to take the food.

“Is something the matter?” Bella asked, looking back and forth between them.

“Possibly,” Fíli explained. “You see, there were sixteen ponies when we got here-”

“And now there’s fourteen,” Kíli finished.

Startled, Bella put down the bowls of stew. “Well that is not good,” she said. “What happened?”

“No idea,” said Kíli. “But it was something big, judging by those trees.” He gestured past the ponies, to where several huge trees had been uprooted and strewn about.

“Look, there’s a light!” said Fíli, pointing into the distance. He headed towards it, Bella and Kíli following, until he stopped at the edge of the trees.

“What are those?” Bella squeaked, staring at the huge creatures in the clearing.

Trolls,” Fíli whispered, aghast, and he grabbed hold of Bella and Kíli, as if they might run ahead into the trolls’ midst.

“Look, there’s Daisy and Bungle!” Kíli said, pointing to where the two ponies were fenced in against the side of a hill.

Myrtle!” Bella gasped, as one of the trolls deposited two more frightened ponies into the pen. Though she did not enjoy riding, she had grown very fond of her pony, and could not bear the thought of leaving her to the trolls!

“And Minty,” Kíli groaned, dropping his head in his hands. “Thorin’s going to ride our arses to the mountain if we let those beasts eat his pony!”

“Kíli!” Fíli hissed, slapping his brother on the back of the head and nodding towards Bella. “Language.”

“No, he’s right,” Bella whispered before Kíli could apologize. “I can’t take another day of his black mood. We have to do something!”

Fíli nodded. “Go back to camp and fetch the others, while Kíli and I stand watch. If they go for the ponies, we’ll attack, so return quickly.”

“That is a terrible idea,” protested Bella.

“Yes, we don’t want Thorin finding out what happened!” said Kíli. “Can’t she, I don’t know,” he waved his hand vaguely, “burgle them back, or something?”

“No, Kíli,” Fíli scolded. “She cannot.”

“Here now!” Bella said heatedly. “How do you know what I can or cannot do! I am the burglar!”

Fíli looked torn. “No,” he said, after a moment. “Fierce you may be, Miss Baggins, but we cannot allow you to face three trolls on your own.”

I beg your pardon,” Bella said, barely keeping her voice down. “Allow me? I am not answerable to you, Fíli, or to anyone else, for that matter!” And with that she stalked into the clearing, as quickly and quietly as she could.

Hobbits are quite good at moving unseen, if they’ve a mind to, and the trolls did not notice Bella as she made her way to the ponies. She tugged at the knots holding their makeshift pen together, but she couldn’t budge them, and after a minute or so of struggling, she pulled out her little knife and started sawing through the ropes.

Glóin had put a good edge on the blade, and in a matter of moments, she had the gate open. The ponies, as if they sensed their peril, ran into the trees, and that’s when Bella realized she hadn’t thought her plan through. Ponies do not move as quietly as hobbits, and they whinnied and stomped as they escaped, leaving nothing but the echoes of a great commotion, and Bella in an empty clearing with three angry trolls.

“What’s this!” cried one of the trolls, as he made his way over to Bella in two great strides. He grabbed her, bringing her close to his face for inspection. “Never seen anythin’ like this. What do you make of it, Bert?” he asked, tossing her to one of the others.

The troll caught her ungently, and sniffed at her. “Never seen one o’ these before, whatever it is. Wouldn’t make more’n a mouthful.”

“The little blighter cost us our dinner!” growled the third troll. “Add it to the the pot!”

“I shan’t,” said Bert. “You ain’t the cook, William, I am! And I’m not going to trouble myself bonin’ and guttin’ this little bit o’ nothin’!”

“Then just give it over,” the one called William reached for her, “I don’t mind m’food cold.”

“Ah, I wouldn’t,” Bella said, desperately. “I really wouldn’t!”

All three trolls looked down at her, shocked, it seemed, at her presumption. “And why’s that, I wonder?” said Bert, after a moment.

“Because - ah - because he’ll ruin his dinner!” Bella said, appealing to his sensibilities as a cook. “You’ve made a - a fine stew there, I can smell it, and he’d rather fill up on raw hobbit? It’s an insult!”

“Oi, you’re right!” said Bert, pulling her away from William and wagging a finger towards the other troll’s face. “You’ll eat my stew and like it, or go hungry!”

“It’s the same among hobbits,” Bella babbled. “You work hard to put a nice meal on the table, and what do they do? Fill up on tarts before they arrive!”

“Just so,” Bert agreed, sagely. “No appreciation.”

“But now we haven’t any meat at all!” whined the first troll, still standing near the empty pen.

“Shut it, Tom!” snapped Bert. “I’m sick o’ your complainin’!”

“Well, what d’ya want to do with it,” said William, pointing at Bella. “If ya don’t want to cook it, and I can’t have it raw.”

“Aw, let’s set the little thing loose,” said Bert, lowering Bella towards the ground.

“Ya can’t be serious!” said Tom. “I’m starvin’! And maybe there’s more of ‘em about.”

“There you are, Bert,” William said. “We can catch and eat the others, and you can keep that one for a pet!”

“I like that!” Bert said, cheerily, lifting her into the air again. “D’ya think the pen would hold it?”

“Not with its legs workin’,” said Tom. “Give it here a moment.” And that was not good at all, Bella thought, kicking and struggling frantically.

Put her down!” roared a voice from the trees, and Bella cringed. Sure enough, Thorin charged out of the trees, sword in hand, the other twelve dwarves behind him.

He looked furious, and for a moment Bella wished the troll had simply eaten her, because oh, she would be hearing about this, no doubt of it.

Bert actually swung her at Dwalin, who lowered his axe and rolled out of the way just in time. After that, the trolls realized that the dwarves would not strike at Bella, and they tossed her among themselves, causing any dwarves in her path to scatter.

Still, an angry dwarf is a fearsome enemy, and thirteen of them were more than a match for even three trolls. Just when it seemed the dwarves were going to take the day, William held Bella up by her elbows.

“Lay down your arms!” he bellowed. “Or I’ll rip hers off!”

The dwarves froze, staring up at Bella, who thrashed and kicked in the air. She wanted to shout at them to run, because what good would it do to have them all captured, but she found she could not make her mouth work properly. Go, go, she tried to tell them with her expression.

Apparently, the only thing that showed on her face was abject terror, because Thorin stabbed his sword into the dirt with an angry growl, and the rest of the weapons followed. Bert snatched Bella and bound her legs together, apparently still intent on make a pet of her, while William and Tom stripped the dwarves and stuffed them into sacks.

They were strapping the dwarves to a spit when Bella saw a flash of something moving through the trees around them. Gandalf, she remembered. Had he come back for them? Would he be in time?

“Stop!” she shouted at the trolls, who were just about to put the dwarves over the fire.

“What for?” Bert asked, dropping her into the abandoned pony pen.

“You haven’t thought this through at all!” Bella scolded. “Cooking up thirteen dwarves for one supper!”

“But we like dwarf-meat,” said Tom, clearly confused.

“Yes, well, I hope you like being hungry in a day or so, when it’s all gone bad!” Bella said. “Dwarf doesn’t keep, everybody knows that! On account of - of the parasites!”

That caused a great hue and cry from the dwarves, but Bella ignored it. “If you’re smart,” she said to the trolls, “and I can tell you are, then you’ll ration them. Eat one or two today, then another in a day or so. They’ll last for weeks!”

“Right sensible,” nodded Bert, grabbing Ori and Bofur.

“Wait!” Bella yelled. “Not those two!”

“What’s wrong with ‘em?” William asked, poking at Bofur.

“Just look how small they are!” Bella said, trying not to despair at Ori’s cry of protest. “You won’t fill up on them. Put them back, and leave them to fatten up for a while.”

“Fatten up?” Tom said, clearly confused. “Wouldn’t we have to feed ‘em?”

“Um,” Bella thought for a moment. “No! No, they can fend for themselves! Dwarves eat rocks, you know.”

“What?” gasped Bert. “Really?”

“Oh, yes,” Bella nodded. “Nothing but rocks. That’s why they’re so crunchy. Crack your teeth, if you’re not careful.”

“I’m not eatin’ that!” Tom howled. “I won’t have me teeth cracked!”

“What rubbish!” said William. “Bert, your little pet is taking us for fools!”

“The dawn take you all!” cried Gandalf, appearing out of the trees and bringing his staff down on a boulder with a great crack! It split in two, and sunlight flooded the clearing, turning all three of the trolls to stone. The dwarves cheered, then started calling for someone to come and untie them, and Bella collapsed in relief.

 

***

The search for the trolls’ hoard began almost before the last dwarf was out of his sack. She counted them all twice, just to be sure they had everyone, then realized she did not see Thorin, who had been one of the first ones freed.

Not wanting to face him, she took a step backwards towards the trees, then another, then smacked against something solid. She sighed, and sure enough, when she turned around there was Thorin, smirking down at her. For a single, mad moment, Bella thought he was going to tweak her braid.

“Thank you,” she said quickly, to avoid saying something even more foolish. “For the rescue. It was well-timed.” He did not reply, just looked at her for a long moment.

“So, we eat rocks, do we?” Thorin said at last, his smirk settling into a small smile. “Did you read that in your little book?”

Bella felt herself blush all the way up to her hairline. “I am going to murder Ori.”

“Just don’t eat him,” Thorin advised as he walked past her, towards the others. “I’ve heard you’ll crack your teeth.”

 

***

Chapter Text

Apparently, the only thing that could restore a dwarf to good spirits better than a fight with trolls was a cave full of treasure. Bella, who would not have entered such a damp, reeking place for all the world, wanted no part of it, and went back to help break up the camp and gather the scattered ponies with Dori and Bombur.

“Come here, Bella,” Gandalf ordered, when they had packed up the last of the supplies and returned to the others in the clearing. “This was among the hoard,” he said, handing her a small sword in a leather scabbard. “It will glow blue in the presence of goblins or orcs. Keep it with you, and use it well.”

“I cannot wield a sword, Gandalf,” she protested. “I don’t even know how to put it on!”

The wizard looked pointedly from dwarf to dwarf, all of whom were rather heavily armed. “An insurmountable obstacle, I’m sure,” he said, dryly.

“Hmph,” Bella sniffed, ignoring him as she attempted to fasten the scabbard to her belt. Nori, who was just coming out of the cave, noticed her struggles.

“Not like that,” he corrected, taking the sword from her. He turned it around, then carefully fastened it to her other side.

“What is this?” Thorin asked, stalking over from where he’d been talking to Balin. He stared darkly at Nori’s hand near her waist.

Nori dropped the sword, and Bella staggered at its sudden weight on her hip. “There you are,” he said quickly, and rushed over to join his brothers by the supplies.

“It’s heavier than I expected,” she grumbled, trying to move the sword further up on her belt.

“Leave it,” Thorin said sharply, and she looked up at him with wide eyes. “It will be easier to draw, from that position,” he continued, his tone softer.

“Oh,” said Bella, looking down at it. She pulled at the hilt experimentally, but it seemed stuck.

“Like this,” Thorin reached over and gave the sword a small tug, just enough to pull it loose in the scabbard. “Don’t let it touch the sides as you draw it,” he advised. “You’ll hurt the blade.”

Bella pulled the sword free, gratified by Thorin’s nod of approval, and gave it a few slow, wobbly swings. She heard laughter, and turned around to see several of the others watching her, their hands pressed over their mouths.

“We’ll work on it,” Thorin promised, with no trace of mirth.

“Thank you for not laughing,” she said, quietly.

“I have trained many beginners, including my nephews,” Thorin said. “Some were even smaller than you.” At that he smiled a little, and she mirrored it with one of her own.

They stood that way for a moment, until he cleared his throat. “Miss Baggins-” he began, then froze, turning sharply towards the forest. “Something is coming,” he said, loud enough for the others to hear.

“Arm yourselves!” shouted Gandalf, and the dwarves drew their weapons. Bella raised her sword, but Thorin grabbed her upper arm and pulled her roughly behind him.

“Stay back here,” he growled, storming over to stand beside Gandalf.

Annoyed, Bella ran over to Dori, Nori, and Ori, who were standing near the mouth of the cave. Nori had a dagger in each hand, and Ori had his slingshot at the ready. “What should I do?” she wondered out loud.

“Stand behind us,” Dori advised, moving subtly in front of Ori.

Nori nodded. “And if anything gets to you, stab it.”

Suddenly, something exploded out of the underbrush, skidding to a halt in front of Gandalf and Thorin. “Thieves! Fire! Murder!” the thing cried, and after a moment of stunned consideration, Bella realized that underneath the filthy beard and dirty robes that were shouting at them was a man! A man on a sled, pulled by rabbits, of all things!

“Radagast! Radagast the Brown!” Gandalf cried warmly, sheathing his blade. After a tense moment, Thorin put his sword away as well, and the rest of the dwarves relaxed.

“What’s this all about?” Ori whispered to her, as Gandalf and Radagast began talking animatedly.

“I don’t know, and I’m not getting close enough to find out,” Bella said, firmly. “That is a wizard, and he looks crazed.”

Ori shrugged. “You needn’t. Nori will tell us,” he said, and sure enough, Nori had slipped away, quiet as anything, and was standing nonchalantly near the wizards, close enough to eavesdrop.

“Ori! Go and check on the ponies, there’s a lad,” said Bofur. “Have you got everythin', Miss Baggins?”

She was about to answer, when a terrible howl echoed through the clearing. “Wolves!” Bella gasped. “Are there wolves here?”

Bofur narrowed his eyes. “That was not a wolf.”

Before he could elaborate, a deep growl came from the trees beside them, and wargs with orc riders burst into their midst.

‘Oh, it’s just like Fíli and Kíli warned me!’ Bella thought wildly, as Bofur dragged her backwards into the cave.

“Wait here,” he said firmly, looking more serious than she had ever seen him. “Do not come out until I return.” She nodded, and he hefted his mattock dashed out to join the fighting.

Sick with worry, Bella squeezed her eyes shut and covered her ears, trying to drown out the terrible snarling and shouting coming from outside the cave. She did not open them until she felt someone grab her shoulder and give her a shake.

“Come on, we’re leavin',” said Bofur, propelling her forward into the clearing.

Bella looked at her feet, trying hard not to look at the bodies of the two dead wargs. “What about the ponies?” Bella asked.

“Gone,” Ori said, sadly.

“But how can we ever outrun them?” Bella cried, to keep herself from thinking of poor Myrtle.

“That mad wizard’s drawing them off,” Fíli said, his eyes scanning the tree-line.

“Come on!” shouted Gandalf, gesturing for them to follow. They fled to the plains, dashing from the shelter of one rock to another. Bella did not look around her as she ran, not wanting to know how near the wargs were to overtaking them.

“Come on, all of you! Quickly!” said Gandalf, running ahead of them.

“Where are you leading us?” Thorin demanded, and Bella would have laughed if she’d had the breath for it, because though she could see his point, this was really not the time for an argument.

Gandalf was of the same mind, apparently, as he made a disparaging noise and ran on. Before the dwarves could follow, a lone orc leaped onto the very rock they were sheltered behind!

The company made no sound, just waited for a frozen moment that seemed to stretch on for an age. Finally, Thorin turned to Kíli and nodded once, sharply.

Kíli swallowed, then nodded back and took three steps into the open. He nocked an arrow, then lifted his bow and sighted his target so slowly that Bella almost wailed in terror.

The orc was charging down the rock by then, and Bella was certain she was about to see her friend ripped to pieces before her eyes, but Kíli seemed perfectly composed, releasing the arrow as if he had all the time in the world.

It was a perfect shot, and the orc fell from the back of his mount with Kíli’s arrow through his throat. The rest of the dwarves rushed the warg, taking it down in a matter of moments, but not before the noise of their brief battle had alerted the rest of the orcs to their location.

“Quickly! This way!” Gandalf cried, from beside a particularly large rock.

“There’s more coming!” shouted Kíli, drawing another arrow from his quiver.

“Kíli! Shoot them!” Thorin ordered, as the dwarves closed ranks. Somebody pushed Bella into the center, and she could only watch as the orc hunting party grew nearer and nearer.

“We’re surrounded!” yelled Fíli, raising his swords as an orc charged towards him, but one of Kíli’s arrows sank into its chest before it was near enough to strike. He looked around wildly. “Where’s Gandalf!”

“He’s abandoned us!” growled Dwalin, hefting his axes and standing shoulder to shoulder with Thorin.

Suddenly, the wizard reappeared from behind the rock he’d been heading for earlier. “This way, you fools!” he shouted at them.

They ran for it, and Bella thought that the only thing louder than her ragged breathing was her erratic beat of her heart, or perhaps Thorin bellowing at them to move faster. She could have wept when they reached Gandalf and saw that he had discovered a tunnel leading below the rock.

“Go!” Thorin bellowed, as one dwarf after another jumped down. Bella hesitated at the entryway, and Dwalin picked her up bodily and tossed her in. Fíli caught her at the bottom, and set her on her feet. Bella stood next to him, and together they stared up at the mouth of the tunnel, watching the rest of the company descend.

“...Nine, ten,” Gandalf counted each dwarf, and Bella could feel her heart in her throat as she counted along with him. Finally, finally, Kíli slid into the tunnel, followed by Thorin, and she breathed again.

An orc fell in after them, crashing into the ground with a dull thud and rolling to a stop at Thorin’s feet. The creature was clearly dead, its eyes wide and an arrow protruding from its neck, which Thorin pulled out to examine. Disgust passed over his features, and he threw it to the ground. “Elves.”

***

Bella had heard many songs praising the beauty and serenity of the Last Homely House, and as she passed through its tranquil gardens and graceful archways, she thought to herself that no verses could ever really do justice to such a place. Even so, nothing gave Bella more pleasure than the sight of the bathing rooms, where a steaming tub had already been drawn for her. She filled it twice, and washed her hair three times before she felt fit to be seen in such grand halls.

After she was clean and dry, she rummaged through her pack for one of her cleaner shirts, but had to dismiss each of them as too grubby. Just as she was resigning herself to the embarrassment of soiled clothes, her fingers brushed against the rough canvas that wrapped her one good dress.

‘Well,’ Bella thought to herself, ‘Mother would be so pleased with me.’ But all her satisfaction evaporated as she unfolded the familiar fabric. The dark blue velvet was as fine as ever, and the white flowers embroidered along the neck and wrists were still as delicate and lovely as the day her mother had put them there, but looking at the dress sent a sharp pain through Bella’s stomach, and she would gladly have shoved it back into her pack.

Still, there was nothing to be done, it was either this or one of her dirty shirts, and a few weeks on the road had not lowered her standards enough to find the latter tolerable. So she put on the dress and brushed out her hair, which felt very nice, hanging lose and clean over her shoulders.

When she was ready, she followed the sound of elven music and dwarven grumbling to the dining all, where the company had already started on dinner. She sat down between Kíli and Dori, who looked up from his argument with Ori to smile at her. “What a pretty dress!” Dori said. “Pity about your hair, though.”

At the head of the table, Thorin looked at her incredulously. “Have you been carrying that with you this entire time?” he asked.

“Er-” Bella frowned. “Should I not have? It’s light enough, and you never know when you might need something nice.”

“And you believe that these,” Thorin gestured sharply towards the room, “elves merit your finery?”

“You look lovely, dear,” Balin smiled beatifically, interrupting before she could answer, “and the color certainly suits you.”

Thorin choked, and was slapped on the back from a smirking Dwalin. “What’s the matter?” he asked, all solicitousness. “Don’t you agree?”

Thorin scowled at him. “Eat your dinner,” he snapped, stabbing viciously at his plate.

Now it was Dwalin’s turn to frown. “There had better be meat coming,” he grumbled, pushing a bowl of greens away from him.

Dwarves, Bella thought, bemusedly. She was quite happy with her meal, not having had fresh vegetables since their night in Bree, and she ate contentedly as the others conversed. She even enjoyed the music, though she would not have admitted it to the company.

She wished she had thought to sit by Bifur, who was quietly picking at the centerpieces. She caught his eye, and raised a forkful of lettuce towards him in salute. He smiled at her, and made a gesture that caused Bofur, who was sitting next to him, to laugh himself out of his chair.

“You keep such thoughts to yourself, my lad,” he scolded his cousin, after he caught his breath.

Bella decided that there was no use trying to decipher their nonsense, and so paid them no mind. “How are you this evening, Kíli?” she asked politely.

Kíli was staring into his goblet, lost in thought, and appeared not to have heard her.

“Kíli?” Bella repeated, not used to seeing him so pensive. Before she could try a third time, Ori, in an attempt to avoid eating his greens, knocked his plate to the floor, where it landed with a clatter.

Kíli twitched at the sound, and dropped his cup. It hit the edge of the table, spilling its contents into Bella’s lap. “Oh!” she said, surprised, and tried vainly to mop at the mess with her napkin. “Is this red wine? I wish you had been drinking white,” she teased.

“I am so sorry, Miss Baggins,” he said, sounding aghast. She tried to catch his gaze, but he would not look at her.

“You needn’t worry about it,” she said kindly, laying a hand on his arm. “In fact, you have done me a favor; this dress brings up many old memories, most of them bad. I will be glad for the excuse to be rid of it.”

“See Kíli? It’s fine,” said Fíli, passing her another napkin.

“Please excuse me,” Kíli said, pushing his chair back from the table. “I am not fit for company just now.” He left the room, and Fíli rose to follow, but Thorin waved him back to his seat.

“No, give him a moment,” Thorin said, with a shake of his head. “It has been a difficult day.”

Fíli sat back down obediently, but he looked troubled. The table had fallen into an uncomfortable silence, and even Bombur only poked morosely at his plate. The elves, sensing the tension, took their instruments and left.

“Y’know lads,” Bofur said, after a few moments of silence. “We’ve still got some supplies. There might even be sausages enough to go around.”

“But what would we cook it on?” complained Bombur. “I doubt they’ll give us the run of the kitchens.”

“We could build a fire,” suggested Ori.

“With what?” asked Glóin. “It’s a trek down to the forest, and who’s to say they’d let us burn one of their precious trees.”

Everybody turned to Thorin, who appeared lost in thought. After a long moment, he stood up slowly, then hefted his chair over his head and slammed it down onto the stone floor, where it shattered to pieces.

“Oh dear,” Thorin said, calmly. “My shoddy elvish chair has broken beyond repair.” He looked pointedly at the others. “Perhaps one of you could deal with the mess? I would hate to leave it for our hosts.”

“Oh, aye,” Bofur said, his eyes crinkled with mirth. “That would be terribly rude of us, wouldn’t it?”

Before anyone could say anything else, Dwalin threw his chair mightily against the wall. “Whoops,” he said, expressionlessly.

Chaos erupted, as dwarf after dwarf started tearing at the furniture, smashing chairs and cackling madly. The exception was Bombur, who was busy making a careful pile of the wooden shards for a fire.

Horrified, Bella edged her way out of the room. She was deeply thankful she had fed them properly back at Bag End, now that she could see how they behaved when left hungry.

***

Bella couldn’t sleep after their meeting with Elrond, too caught up in thoughts of moon runes and strange prophecies. The dwarves were camped out in the dining hall, (a result of their host’s desire to limit the destruction, no doubt) but Bella had been shown into a comfortable bedroom, with soft blankets and a lovely view.

After an hour spent tossing and turning, she gave up, sliding out of bed and running a wistful hand along the cool, clean sheets. A walk would settle her, she decided. She would stroll once around the gardens, and then try to sleep again.

As she passed through the courtyard, she noticed a familiar figure in the lamplight. It was Kíli, sitting alone, his arms wrapped around his knees. He looked up as he heard her footsteps approach.

“Well,” she said as she settled down beside him, “it’s been a day, hasn’t it?”

He smiled, but it was a ghastly, forced thing, and she pinched his arm. “None of that,” she said, over his wince. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Just couldn’t sleep.”

“Ah,” she said. “Well, I’m glad you’re up. I couldn’t sleep either, and you’re good company.” When he smiled at that, slightly but truly, she relaxed. “There we are, much better,” she said. “Now, what’s really keeping you from your bed?”

Kíli sighed. “When I killed that orc - when Thorin nodded at me, under the rock - he trusted me. It was - I’ve gone hunting before and all, but I never-” he hung his head. “I just keep thinking, what if I’d missed?”

“But you didn’t miss, Kíli,” Bella said, gently. “You couldn’t have. Even I could have hit him at that distance.”

He laughed, and they sat in companionable quiet.

“Miss Baggins,” Kíli said, after a time. “Do you think orcs have mothers?”

“I’ve no idea,” Bella responded, after a thoughtful pause. “But I know that you have one, and that she would be glad you are here now, safe and sound.”

“I miss her,” he whispered, closing his eyes. “Don’t tell Fíli.”

“Fíli misses her too, I have no doubt,” Bella said. “You’re never too old or too fierce to miss your mother.”

She wrapped an arm around him, and he leaned his head on her shoulder. Suddenly, Bella longed for her own dear mother, who had sat up with her on many nights like this, brushing her hair and singing her favorite lullaby whenever Bella was too tired or fitful to sleep. It was strange, she thought, as she began to hum its familiar melody, how even so far from home, the stillness of the hour brought to mind her mother’s perfume, and the tune of long-forgotten songs.

“That’s pretty,” Kíli murmured, sleepily. “Are there any words?”

“Yes,” Bella said, “but they’re very silly. It’s a children’s song, for bedtime.”

“I don’t mind,” Kíli yawned. “S’nice.”

“All right then,” Bella whispered, and took a deep breath. She had a high, reedy voice, unsuitable for ballads or tavern songs, and it made her shy about singing in public, but Kíli was half-asleep, and she didn’t see the harm in a few verses. She began to sing, softening her voice as she went along, just as her mother had always done.

“Hush now my dear one, the time’s come for bed.
Put down your troubles, and lay down your head.

The stars have come calling, the moon’s out to play.
You’re safe in the peace at the end of the day.

Soon will come morning, but first comes the night.
Pull up your blankets, and put out the light.

The sun will return, so there’s no need to cry.
Sleep as the night sings the day’s lullaby.”

Kíli’s breathing slowed as she sang, growing regular and even, and she felt him relax against her side. She shifted slightly; he was heavy, and she would lose feeling in her arm before long, but she wasn’t ready to try moving him just yet.

“I like your song,” Fíli said from the doorway, voice pitched low. His hair was a wreck, and he dragged a blanket behind him. Bella could not help smiling; out of his armor, all rumpled and sleep-mussed, the resemblance between him and his brother was much more pronounced.

“Shush,” Bella said, brushing Kíli’s hair out of his face. “He’s asleep.”

Fíli walked across the room and sat down on the other side of his brother. “He’s always done this,” he said. “Wandered, if he couldn’t sleep, and passed out somewhere strange. I hate it. I can never fall asleep again, if I wake and he isn’t there.” He spread his blanket over Kíli and smiled so sadly that Bella would have embraced him if she could have moved. “I used to carry him back to bed, when he was smaller. Can’t do that now.”

“He’s a good boy,” she whispered, not wanting to wake him. “He was brave today.”

“He was,” Fíli agreed, “braver than me. When Thorin set him on that orc, I almost dragged him back again.”

“He’s so merry,” Bella said, trying to explain what it was that troubled her. “It doesn’t seem right, putting him in peril. Making him kill.”

“It’s what we’ve trained for,” Fíli said, very gently. “And part of a greater purpose. He will be his merry self again tomorrow, you’ll see. It was his first battle, that’s all.”

“I suppose that is why we are here,” Bella mused. “but you cannot ask me to like it.”

We are here because our mother pines for Erebor,” Fíli smiled at her, properly this time. “And because Thorin called us, and there is nothing he could ask of us that we would not do.”

“Your uncle is lucky to have you,” Bella whispered, reaching over and covering his hand with hers. “You are both good boys.”

That banished the last trace of melancholy from Fíli’s grin, and he squeezed her fingers. “Have you any brothers? Do we have a mob of angry Baggins-men on our trail, ready to haul you back safe to your little hobbit-hole?”

“Ah - no,” Bella said, looking down at her lap. “You needn’t worry about that. No one is after me, I assure you.”

“No one?” Fíli frowned. “No brothers, no cousins?”

“Oh, I have plenty of cousins,” Bella assured him, “but they will be glad to see the back of me. Most think I’m too strange to socialize with, and at least a few of them are after my home.” She forced a smile, trying to make a joke of it.

“But that’s terrible!” Fíli said, dropping her hand. Kíli made a noise at the sound, and he lowered his voice. “That cannot be true.”

“It sounds worse than it is,” Bella said. “I bring it upon myself, really. When my parents died, I ought to have moved in with relations, since I am unwed. But I didn’t like the thought of spending the rest of my days playing nursemaid to my cousin’s children, and living out of a spare-room no bigger than a pantry. So I stayed at Bag End, with my books and my embroidery, and I have been quite content.”

“Why should you have to leave your own home?” Fíli asked.

Bella shrugged. “It is a good-size hole, with more than enough room for a family. If I’d been married, or been a lad instead of a lass, no one would have said anything. But I am neither, and so they call me odd. It does not trouble me.”

“I think,” said Fíli, slowly, “that if you were as content as you claim, you would be back in your Shire, still. But their loss is our gain!” He grinned widely. “I am glad you are with us.”

Bella felt something in her chest, something old and long-broken, mend just a bit. “Thank you, Fíli,” she said. “I’m glad to be here, too.”

Together, they maneuvered Kíli so that he was laying across Fíli’s lap, and Bella covered them with the blanket.

“Goodnight,” she said, and then on a whim, kissed them both on the forehead.

Feeling much lighter of heart, she made her way back to her room, and slept peacefully until morning.

***

They left Rivendell as the sun rose, as quickly and silently as thieves in the night (which, Bella thought, as she remembered Elrond’s dining hall, perhaps they were).

Even as they climbed the sloping path into the Misty Mountains, Bella could not accustom herself to how very large they were, up close. She had never felt quite so small as she did while gazing up at their rocky summits, stretching high up over the clouds.

It was still light when they stopped to make camp, having found a wide enough ledge along the path for the group to rest comfortably. The dwarves were cheerful, and even Thorin looked pleased, probably for getting the better of the elves.

It was windier in the mountains than it was on the plains, Bella thought, trying to smooth down her braids, and colder. She warmed her hands around the bowl of stew Bombur handed her, and looked for a place to sit near the fire.

“Here, Miss Baggins,” Fíli waved her over. “Come and eat with us, and I’ll fix your hair for you.”

Bella thought that a very agreeable plan, and walked to where Fíli and Kíli had seated themselves, well away from the others.

“You really shouldn’t let Glóin help you with this,” Kíli complained, unfastening her braids and combing them out with his fingers.

“Why not?” Bella asked, surprised. “He doesn’t mind. He says it reminds him of doing the same for his son.” Fíli snorted, edging Kíli out of the way and taking over.

“I could have told you that,” he grumbled. “He’s given you the same style. Kíli and I have been saying all day that you remind us of Gimli.”

“Oh,” Bella laughed. “Is that why you wanted to fix it? Well, I shall take it as a compliment, that I look like a proper dwarf.”

“Not quite,” Kíli said, poking the pointed tip of her ear, then dodging out of the way as she swatted his hand.

“To look properly dwarfish,” Fíli lectured, dividing her hair into sections, “you really should have some kind of ornament here; a bead, or gems for a special occasion.”

“That’s a shame,” Bella smiled. “But I suppose I must make do as I am.”

“I’m sure we can find something,” Fíli said vaguely. “Kíli?” he nodded towards his pack.

Kíli obediently started sorting through it, pushing aside Fíli’s extra shirt, and all the valuables they’d gathered on the journey since the Blue Mountains, until finally he found what he was looking for. He grinned triumphantly, holding aloft two shiny silver bells, and then passing them to his brother.

“I found these in that junk shop in Bree,” Fíli explained, as he braided them into her hair. “In a box of scraps.”

“They were dirty, and they didn’t ring,” Kíli interrupted. “But I fixed them!”

Fíli nodded. “He did,” he said, fastening off her braid and giving it a little tug. The bells chimed sweetly. “Not the best silver, but I couldn’t pass them up.”

“Well, you did a fine job repairing them, Kíli,” said Bella, pulling her hair in front of her face to inspect them. “They’re lovely.”

“Glad you like them,” Fíli smiled, playfully tweaking her hair to make them jingle.

“Oh, where are my manners!” Bella put a hand over her mouth. “Thank you both for the loan.”

Fíli and Kíli looked at each other, and Fíli raised his eyebrows. Kíli nodded quickly, and they turned back to Bella. “We would be pleased,” Fíli said, slowly, “to make you a gift of them.”

Silence fell across the camp. All the quiet conversations and little noises that come from eating and fidgeting and general activity stopped as every member of the company stared at the three of them, mouths hanging open in shock.

Bella was stunned. She wished, oh how she wished she had finished that book. She must say no, she knew that much. To do otherwise would be to accept Fíli and Kíli as family, and she had no idea what that meant among dwarves, nor had she ever had much luck with relations.

But as she looked at their faces, at Fíli’s careful neutrality and Kíli’s open hope, all she could think of was how kind they had been to her, and how fond she was of them, and how terribly lonely she felt, late at night when there was nothing to stop her thoughts.

She should take down her hair, and return the lovely silver bells, and explain that she oughtn’t, couldn’t agree.

“Thank you,” she said, simply. “I am honored.”

If there had been silence a moment before, then there was pandemonium.

Fíli and Kíli were upon her instantly, hugging her between them. “Namad, namad,” Kíli whispered in her ear, and Fíli kissed her cheek, and murmured, “sister.”

The other dwarves were talking loudly amongst themselves, with expressions ranging from surprise to honest bafflement. A shock of nerves hit Bella suddenly, as she began to realize the magnitude of what she had done.

“Fíli,” Thorin said, his expression guarded. “A word?”

Fíli squeezed her arm reassuringly, then stood and followed Thorin to the other side of the camp. Kíli shifted into his place, positioning himself between Bella and the curious glances of the others.

“Kíli,” she said, tentatively. “I understand what just happened, in theory, that is. I mean - I know it’s something to do with family, but could you perhaps clarify?”

“Of course!” Kíli said, and she was silently thankful that he took no offense. “You accepted our gift, so you are our sister now, as much as if you were born to our mother. Just ours though, you’re not related to Thorin or Ma or Balin or Dwalin, unless you accept something from them, or they from you.”

“But why might I be related to Balin or Dwalin?” Bella said.

“Oh, they’re cousins of ours, like Óin and Glóin,” Kíli replied, carelessly. “So are Dori, Nori, and Ori, but I’m not really sure of the particulars.”

Bella nodded. “In the Shire it is the same, everybody is related to nearly everybody else. Hardly anybody keeps track, except those who have an interest in such things.”

Kíli grinned. “I surely don’t. Fíli could explain it to you better, or Thorin, maybe.” He reached out and prodded the bells in her hair, making them sing. “These suit you. We’ll have to take them out in the morning though. It wouldn’t do to bell the burglar!” He chortled. “Bell the burglar! I like that! It makes you sound like a proper dwarf-lady.”

“You may call me Bell, if you’d like to,” she smiled. “It’s more appropriate now than Miss Baggins, I suppose.” She hesitated. “I’ve never been anybody’s sister before. I’m not sure quite how to do it.”

“Hmm,” Kíli thought for a moment. “Well, don’t worry! You’re doing fine so far.” He patted her hand. “We’ll be looking out for you, now. Not that we weren’t before! But now it’s our job.”

“You said something to me earlier,” Bella said, deciding it was better to get all her questions out at once and be done with it. “but I didn’t understand it.”

“Oh,” Kíli flushed. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Why not?” Bella said, puzzled. “Was it something bad?”

“No! Nothing like that,” Kíli shook his head. “It’s just… we’re not supposed to talk about it to - well, non-dwarves.”

“Ah. I understand. Forget I asked,” Bella said. She was disappointed, but Kíli looked so morose that she had to smile. “I was only curious, I won’t press.”

“It’s not that,” Kíli said. “I want to tell you. You’re my sister now. Fíli and I don’t have secrets.” He fell silent then, and Bella patted his knee, not knowing what to say.

“Don’t let it trouble you, Kíli,” she said, finally. “I would hate to have spoiled the day by upsetting you.”

Kíli bit his lip and looked around the camp, as if to make sure they were far enough from the others to avoid being overheard. Once he was satisfied, he leaned towards Bella, cupping a hand by her ear. “Khuzdul,” he said, so softly that Bella almost couldn’t make it out. “Our secret language.”

Bella was shocked - she had never heard of such a thing! “Like the gestures Bifur uses?” she whispered back. “If so, you lot are unsubtle.”

She had expected him to laugh, but he looked as solemn as she’d ever seen him. “No, that’s iglishmêk,” he said, still very quietly. “Not something we teach outsiders, but not really a secret. Handy when it’s noisy, like in a forge. Khuzdul is sacred, handed down to us from Mahal, our Maker.”

Knowing she was pressing her luck, but too curious to stop herself, she whispered, in the softest voice she could manage, “namad?”

Kíli smiled, just a little. “Sister. I shouldn’t have said it, but-” he shrugged. “Well, it’s silly, but with dwarves, something isn’t yours, not really. Not until you name it in khuzdul.”

“Is it all official, then?” Bella teased, poking him in the ribs. “In the Shire, we would have just had a cake.”

“Would you?” Kíli asked, worriedly. “Do we need one?”

Bella laughed. “Not particularly. It’s just what hobbits do, for celebrations.”

“Oh, good,” Kíli smiled. “Well, you shall have it, I promise. Sooner or later.”

“More likely later,” Fíli interrupted, back from his talk with Thorin. “Room for me?”

“Of course!” Bella grinned at him, moving away from Kíli to make space.

Fíli frowned, nudging her back towards his brother and sitting pressed against her other side.

“So it’s going to be like that, is it?” Bella grumbled, but her heart wasn’t in it.

“Yep!” grinned Kíli. “Best get used to it.”

“You can’t blame us,” Fíli added. “Hardly anybody’s got a sister. We’re very excited.”

“Gimli’s going to be jealous!” Kíli predicted happily, throwing an arm over Bella’s shoulders. “I get to tell him!”

“But why should that be?” Bella wondered. “Are there so few lasses, among dwarves?”

“Barely any,” Kíli nodded. “And our families are small. That’s why everybody likes doing your hair. It’s nice, fussing over a girl.”

Bella looked around the camp. Almost all the dwarves were at least making an effort to hide their staring, glancing at the three of them discreetly from the corners of their eyes. Thorin stared openly, but to Bella’s surprise, he did not look murderous, or even angry.

“Was Thorin very upset?” she asked, timidly. She was not eager to find herself in his bad books.

Fíli shook his head. “No, just surprised, I think,” he said. “It’s not a common thing, what we’ve done. There will be talk, when we’re back among our own people. He wanted to make sure we were aware.”

Bella hesitated. “I don’t want to cause any trouble for you,” she said, finally.

“Don’t you worry about that,” Fíli smirked, touching the hilt of his boot-dagger. “It’ll be everyone else’s trouble.”

“We’ll take care of you, Bell, we promise!” Kíli said, bouncing a little. “Fíli told me about your other stupid relatives, but we’re nothing like that. I hate to think of it! Someday I’m going back to the Shire and I’m just going to start punching hobbits until I feel better.”

Bella laughed. “You mustn’t do that, Kíli! Most hobbits are very nice indeed. Even my family is not so bad. Most of them do want what’s best for me. Or what they think is best, anyway.”

“I suppose we can’t hold it against them, if they are so stupid.” Kíli sighed, his cross expression melting into a yawn.

“C’mon, Bella, time for bed.” Fíli stood, then turned to give her a hand up. Kíli grabbed her bedroll from her pack and spread it out between his and Fíli’s.

“What, there?” Bella asked, a little shocked.

“Of course!” Fíli said. “It’ll be warmer, and we can keep a better eye on you.”

“Thank goodness!” said Kíli. “It’s about time Fíli had somebody new to coddle. I’m bigger than him now, it was getting ridiculous.”

“You’ll always be my little brother, Kíli,” Fíli said, tapping him on the forehead. “But it’ll be nice, having a little sister.”

Little sister!” said Bella. “Surely I am the eldest!”

“Well, how old are you?” Kíli asked. “I’m seventy-seven, and Fíli is eighty-two.”

“Well - I’m only fifty, but that is quite middle-aged, for a hobbit!” Bella blustered.

Fíli raised an eyebrow at her. “Eighty-two is more than fifty, any way you count it,” he said. “Besides, it’ll be good for Kíli, not being the youngest.”

“Finally!” Kíli cried, his face suffused with joy. “Oh, I am going to boss you terribly! It’s only fair.”

“I’m still the boss of you, brat,” Fíli reminded him. “Now be nice, you’re scaring our sister.”

Kíli grabbed Bella, pulling her gently but inescapably into a cuddle. “No, Bell, don’t be scared! Everything’s going to be better now!”

“You are ridiculous, the both of you!” Bella said, struggling to free herself.

“Too late, you’re stuck with us,” Fíli said, pulling her out of Kíli’s grip.

They settled into their bedrolls, and slowly the noise from the camp faded as the other dwarves did the same. The fire grew lower and lower, and Bella was gratified to realize that in spite of the chill seeping up from the ground, for once she felt warm.

She thought she might like to get used to the comfort of sleeping between her new brothers, and the happiness she felt at being included in their small family, though she could do without all the fussing. Still, she found she could not begrudge them; it was rather sweet, if a bit overwhelming.

That would change, she thought sadly, once they reached the mountain and succeeded in their quest. Fíli and Kíli would be princes in Erebor, she realized, and would surely lose interest in the hobbit they’d adopted on the road. Then she would be alone again.

Suddenly, it was all too much, and she sat up, pressing her face into her hands.

“Are you still awake?” Fíli murmured, sleepily. “What’s wrong?”

“Nobody wants me,” Bella whispered, unable to put what she felt into words, “nobody chooses me.”

Somehow, Fíli seemed to understand. He took her arm, and gently pulled her back down to her bedroll. “Maybe they did not want you, but we do,” he said firmly, running a hand over her hair. “And anyway, it’s Kíli and I who are getting the better deal. You can trust me on that, Bella. I’m good at finding treasures that others cast aside.”

Bella could not help letting a little sob escape. “Thank you, Fíli,” she whispered, shutting her eyes tight. “I’m sorry to keep you awake.”

“I don’t mind,” Fíli said. “I really don’t.” He gave her hair a final pat, and pulled the blanket up over her shoulders. “Sleep, now.”

She drifted off slowly, and as sleep claimed her, she thought she felt a touch ghost over her brow. “Namad,” someone whispered, though she could not rouse herself enough to answer. “Lomil ghelekh.” And then softly, as if from a great distance, came the gentle hum of her lullaby.

***

The next morning was interesting.

“No,” Dwalin frowned stubbornly. “It’s my turn.”

Kíli glared at him. “Here now, that’s our sister! We’ll be the only ones touching her hair!”

“I don’t care if she’s your mother! It’s my turn!”

“I am going to tell Ma that you said that, Dwalin,” Fíli smirked at him. “I wonder what she’ll think?”

Dwalin took an involuntary step back, then frowned and steadied himself. “I’m not intimidated by Lady Dís,” he growled.

“Then you are more fool than I thought,” grumbled Thorin. “Fíli! Kíli! Share with your cousin.”

Kíli narrowed his eyes. “But-”

“Share!” Thorin ordered. He stared off into the distance, as if determined to keep his dignity in the face of such a ridiculous argument.

Pleased, Dwalin settled behind Bella, who was pointedly ignoring the discussion and chatting with Ori. Fíli and Kíli sat in in front of her, crossing their arms and glaring at Dwalin for all they were worth.

“I don’t like it,” muttered Kíli, with a dark look.

“Stop that, you look just like your uncle,” Bella scolded. Thorin looked over at that, frowning. “Not - ah - not that that is any bad thing!” she added, turning red.

“You fit right in with the Durin-sons,” Dwalin chuckled, which seemed to please everybody. “But I’ll still be having my turn.”

***

Chapter Text

Bella had never heard such thunder. It sent rocks tumbling down the mountainside, and twice she had to grab hold of Fíli’s cloak when the stone path trembled beneath her feet.

“We must find shelter!” Thorin called from the front of the line.

Kíli patted her arm. “There’ll be a cave soon,” he assured her, though she suspected it was more to soothe himself.

“Look out!” Dwalin shouted, gesturing towards the sky. Bella looked up, terrified, to see a boulder fly through the air and crash into pieces against the peaks above them. Fíli grabbed her by the collar and pulled her sharply against the mountainside as rock shards rained through the air where they’d been standing.

“This is no storm!” Balin called, pointing back the way they had come. “This is a thunder battle!”

The dwarves all watched in fascination as the side of the mountain broke free, rising into the vague shape of a man. “Bless me!” Bofur cried, clutching at his hat. “Stone giants! The legends are true!”

“Take cover!” yelled Thorin, shoving Kíli and Dwalin against the mountain. Rocks as large as ponies hurtled through the air above them, smashing to pebbles where they struck.

Suddenly, the path tilted sharply, and Bella stumbled, nearly losing her footing and pitching over the edge. Only Nori’s quick hands saved her, pulling her back by her hood.

“Kíli! Grab my hand!” Bella heard Fíli yell, and she turned in time to see Kíli, who had been just ahead of them on the path, vanish into the darkness with half the company behind him, and Fíli reaching desperately towards the abyss.

Before she even had time to understand what had happened, the ground shifted again, bringing Kíli and the others back into view. “Kíli!” Fíli shouted, leaping the divide between them. He almost fell short, but Kíli grabbed for his hands, pulling him the rest of the way across and into an embrace.

The other dwarves on Bella’s side of the chasm followed suit, anxious to join the others before they missed their chance, and Bella knew she must jump for it. So with as much of a running start as she could muster on moving ground and wobbly legs, she leapt.

She knew as soon as her feet left the ground that she had misjudged it. She slammed into the edge, hands scrabbling frantically for purchase, but there was nothing to grab, and she felt herself slide over the side.

She caught the rough side of the cliff before she plummeted, but no matter how far she kicked she couldn’t find a foothold, nor was she strong enough to lift herself back onto the path.

“Bella!” Bofur shouted from above her. “Grab my hand!”

She looked up into the frightened eyes of her companions. Bofur was reaching for her, leaning halfway over the edge, but Bella panicked, and couldn’t make herself release her grip on her handhold.

“Come on, Bell! You can do it!” yelled Kíli, who looked ready to climb down after her. She could not allow that, nor did she want him to have to watch her fall, so she forced her hand to let go and reached for Bofur, pushing herself upwards with all her strength.

It was not enough. Her hand closed on empty air, and as she started to fall again, all she could do was hope wildly that Fíli would cover Kíli’s eyes. But then, as if by magic, she felt herself shoved roughly upwards, high enough that Bofur and several other dwarves could pull her the rest of the way onto the path and into her brothers’ arms.

“Bell!” Kíli cried, holding her too-tightly. “I thought we’d lost you!”

“She has been lost ever since she left home!” Thorin shouted, rising to his feet at the cliff’s edge. “She should never have come.” He turned away, motioning for the others to follow him.

Bofur knocked shoulders with her as he moved past, and a few of the others looked at her with sympathy. But their quiet comfort couldn’t ease the sting of Thorin’s words, and Bella, still gasping from her near miss, felt tears burn their way down her cheeks. She had never been so grateful for the dark and the rain.

“Don’t mind him,” Fíli whispered, pulling her hood up over her hair.

“He shouts when he worries,” Kíli nodded, sagely.

“He saved me,” said Bella, who had seen Dwalin pull Thorin up over the edge. “So I suppose he’s earned the right to yell.”

They found a cave a short distance away, and though Thorin and the others eyed it warily, there was no choice but to chance its shelter.

Bella had not gone three steps inside before Thorin beckoned Fíli and Kíli, and bid them join him just outside the entrance. She followed them quietly, careful not to be overheard, getting just close enough to eavesdrop.

“Fíli,” Thorin said, “In the morning, you and Kíli will return Miss Baggins to Rivendell. Say your goodbyes there, then catch up with us further up the path.”

“You cannot mean that!” Fíli protested, shocked.

“It isn’t her fault she fell!” said Kíli. “We should have grabbed her!”

“Perhaps it is not her fault, but it is the symptom of a greater problem.” Thorin said. “She cannot survive here, the wild is no place for her kind. The way will only grow more perilous. Is it not kinder to send her home, to the comfort of her own halls?”

“I told her that we would take care of her,” Kíli pleaded, his voice wrecked.

“And you will keep your promise,” Thorin said, gently, “by escorting her safely to back to the elves. Or would you rather see her tested by the dragon’s fire?”

Kíli blanched, and Fíli put a hand on his shoulder. “What about what Bella wants? We should ask her.”

Thorin scowled. “It isn’t up to her, nor to you. I am leader here, and this is my decision.” His face softened, slightly. “She will not blame you. This is what’s best, for her and for all of us.”

“So I am to have no say?” Bella interrupted, stepping out from the mouth of the cave. “You would make my choice for me?”

“There is no choice,” Thorin said, with finality. “You have a home, Miss Baggins, and that is no small thing to cast aside. Take it from one who has none.”

Bella bit the inside of her cheek and drew herself up to her full height, determined not to show him so much as the sheen of tears in her eyes. “We will see,” she said, and walked back into the cave, Fíli and Kíli following right behind.

“I’ll talk to him,” Fíli said, worrying a loose tie on his jerkin. “He’ll see reason in the morning.”

“It doesn’t matter, Fíli,” she said, dully. “I am used to being managed, by now.”

She stood there for a moment, bedroll clutched against her chest, until Kíli took it from her and spread it neatly over the rough ground. Fíli pulled her pack gently from her shoulders, stowing it carefully with his and Kíli’s, and ran a comforting hand down her back. Bella could not find it in her to be grateful for their solicitousness. She hated it; it felt too much like a goodbye.

***

Her thoughts were too troubled and tangled for sleep, and she did not try for it. Instead she lay awake, discarding plans as quickly as she could make them. She would not return to the Shire, that much was certain. And she could not impose herself on the hospitality of Lord Elrond, either.

She looked over at Kíli, who was frowning in his sleep. Her chest ached at the thought of leaving him, of never knowing if he and Fíli were captured or injured or lost. They had called her sister, and treated her with affection, and she could not leave them to danger, not now.

But she would never catch up with them, not if they took her all the way back to Rivendell. Assuming the elves would allow her to leave!

So she could not return to Rivendell, and Thorin would not let her stay with the dwarves. But, she thought, if she left before they woke, and they thought she was on her way back out of the mountains, perhaps they would simply move on. She could wait and watch, and follow them quietly. No one need know.

She sat up slowly, inching her way from between Fíli and Kíli. She dragged her bedroll behind her, but as it came free, Fíli furrowed his brow and made an inquiring sound. “Shh,” she whispered, patting his arm and soothing him quiet. “All is well.”

She gathered her things, flinching at the clink of her buckles as she fastened her pack.

“Where are you goin’?” asked Bofur, as she reached the mouth of the cave. “You’re not leavin’ in the middle of the night?”

“That is not your concern,” said Bella, primly.

“Of course it is!” he said, shocked. “You’re one of us now!”

Bella ran the back of her hand roughly over her stinging eyes. “But I’m not, am I?” she asked, bitterly. “Thorin said I should never have come, and none of you disagreed. So you may tell him that he was right, and that I have returned to Rivendell. Alone!”

“Wait, please,” Bofur said. “At least until mornin’. Allow one of us to escort you. None of us will feel easy, thinkin’ of you in the mountains by yourself.”

Bella’s anger faded in the face of his obvious distress. “Don’t fret, Bofur,” she said, sounding tired. “It’s two day’s walk, and much of the path is under the elves’ protection. I will be quite safe.” She put a hand on his arm. “This is for the best, you must trust me.”

Bofur looked torn. “I don’t like it. I ought to get Thorin - he’ll have my hide if he wakes and you’re not here.”

“That is the truth,” Thorin growled, stepping out of the shadows. “Bofur, you’re relieved. I will finish your watch.” Bofur hesitated, then nodded and left.

Thorin moved forward, grabbing Bella by the arm. “What are you thinking?” he hissed. “You plan to wander these mountains at night? You will fall to your death, or worse! I had not taken you for a fool!”

Bella pulled herself free of his grip. “How dare you!” she snarled. “Who do you think you are to give me orders!”

Thorin bristled. “I am the leader of this company-”

“Of which I am no longer a part,” Bella said. “You have made that quite clear. And so, I am no longer subject to your authority. You are not my king.”

“You will die if you leave now,” Thorin said. “I will not allow it.”

“Would you hold me against my will?” Bella gasped.

“Do not test me,” Thorin said, low and furious. “Not when it is your safety in question.”

“Uncle? Bell?” Kíli asked, sitting up and rubbing at his eyes. “What’s happening?”

“Go back to sleep, Kíli,” said Thorin, still watching her.

Kíli narrowed his eyes. “No, something is going on. And what’s that?” he asked, pointing at Bella.

More specifically, at her sword, which was glowing a bright, terrible blue.

“Wake up. Wake up!” Thorin bellowed, scrambling for Orcrist.

And then she was falling.

***

Her pack broke her fall, and she got to her knees gingerly as the goblins swarmed them. The dwarves made an effort to resist, but the creatures had overwhelming numbers, and the element of surprise, and herded the dwarves over one of the rickety wooden bridges without much trouble. But they did not notice Bella.

She crawled forward, trying to keep the dwarves in sight and locking eyes with Kíli, who was scanning the cavern frantically. He froze when he saw that she was uncaptured, apparently torn between trying to go back for her and keeping silent.

The choice was made for him as a goblin prodded at him with a pointed stick, and he was shoved, with the rest of the dwarves, around a corner. Bella drew her sword and followed, determined to keep up, but a small goblin dropped down on her from above before she could catch them.

She swung wildly, connecting with nothing but air as the goblin shrieked and dodged out of the way. Then he charged, waving his own blade, and it was all Bella could do to keep him off her.

He forced her back until she reached the edge of the platform, then reached out, determined to have his prize. She tried to evade his grip, but only succeeded in unbalancing herself, plummeting into the darkness, and pulling the goblin along with her.

***

Bella woke, head throbbing, to the sound of a bitter struggle. With a great effort, she turned her head towards the noise, and saw a creature unlike any she had seen before, grappling with the goblin that had put her in this predicament.

Bella held her breath, laying as still and silent as she could, until the thing brought a rock down on the goblin’s head with a final thud. Still, she did not move. Was this thing a friend? Could he help her find the dwarves, or lead them out from beneath the mountain? She did not know, and she was not yet willing to risk approaching the thing, not when she could not find her sword.

“Yes,” the creature muttered to itself, as it started dragging the goblin’s body down one of the tunnels. “Yes, precious! A feast for us, yes, yes! Gollum, gollum.”

It was almost more than she could do to keep herself from gasping, and as the thing moved out of sight, she started patting the ground wildly, searching for her weapon. Something that would eat goblin-flesh was nothing Bella wanted to face unarmed.

Her hand came down on metal, but she realized immediately that it was not her blade. Instead, her fingers closed over something cold and small, and as she brought it up to her face she realized that it was a gold ring. ‘How peculiar,’ she thought to herself, ‘but what a pretty thing,’ and she slid it onto her finger for safekeeping.

Bolder now that she could barely hear the creature, she risked sitting up, and put a hand to her throbbing forehead. And there was her sword, glowing faintly from behind a rock, its light fading as she lifted it.

She looked around. Tunnels stretched in every direction, barely visible in the dim light from above. She held her breath and listened for the rush of wind, or the trickle of an underground stream, but there was no sound except the far off mutterings of the strange creature.

After a moment’s hard thought, Bella decided that she preferred to risk a confrontation with the thing, rather than a lingering death wandering the dark tunnels. After all, if it could speak, perhaps it could be reasoned with. She sheathed her sword, so as not to threaten it, whatever it was, and staggered to her feet.

The creature had not gone far, apparently deciding it had no wish to drag its prize any further. Bella did not look at the body, and tried hard to block out the wet, smacking sounds the creature made as it ate.

Ahem,” she coughed, as quietly as she could, sensing that this was not a person she wanted to startle.

The creature looked up sharply, its eyes glowing like lamps out of the shadows. “What’s this, my precious?” it said, apparently talking to itself. “Did you hear that? Not a goblin, precious, oh no, gollum, gollum, the goblins are not so quiet as that. What can it be?”

“It wants our supper!” the creature said, in another tone of voice entirely. “Our treat! It will take it, snatch it!”

“Perhaps,” it went on, as if it were conversing with itself. Bella thought she ought to have tried the tunnels; this thing was apparently mad. Why did it not address her directly? “Perhaps it does, precious. Perhaps it does. But there might be something else it’s after.”

“The precious!” it cried, taking off down one of the passages.

Bella tried desperately to come up with a new plan. The creature could be no help, that was certain. It was crazed, violent and paranoid, and she did not trust her skill with a blade well enough to risk fighting it off. She could try the tunnels, relying on luck to lead her back to the surface, but that seemed a chancy proposition.

Before a better idea presented itself, Bella’s thoughts were interrupted by a terrible, heartbroken wail.

Gone!” The creature’s voice echoed around her. “My precious is gone!” In just a few moments, she heard it again, clamoring down the passageway. “Thief,” it muttered to itself. “Thief! The precious is stolen! We must get it back!”

Yes,” it whispered in its menacing second voice. “Yes, precious, yes! Gollum, gollum! And where would a thief go, my precious? My love? Where would he take it?”

“Goblins!” it shouted. “Up to the goblins! Oh-oh, but we can’t go there, precious, can’t! Can’t! Beat us and burn us they will!”

“No!” it corrected itself. “Not the goblins precious, not them! No stinking, sneaking goblin could get past us. And if did not come from the goblins…”

“The back door!” the thing cried, turning sharply and rushing straight towards Bella, too quickly for her to pull her sword in the cramped tunnel. She threw herself out of its path, bringing up her hands to ward it off, but it just kept running, passing her by as if she weren’t there.

Perhaps it had not seen her, she thought, wildly. Perhaps it had lived so long beneath the ground that it had gone blind. But no, surely it had been looking about the cavern? She was certain she’d seen its eyes move side-to-side as it passed. Why hadn’t it noticed her?

She looked down at the little ring, glinting on her finger. Could that be it? Could such a small thing have rendered her unseen? Was this what it had lost?

Either way, she must follow the creature, which was heading towards something it called the back door. It must be leading her out! She took off after it, her footsteps silent on the stones.

The creature dashed through one crevice, then another, and it was all Bella could do to keep him in her sight. Finally, it ducked into an opening so small Bella almost couldn’t fit through. She shucked off her pack, intending to pick it up once she’d made it, and winced at the loud clink of her buckles.

The creature turned, and its eyes focused immediately on her little pack. “Thief!” it shrieked. “You stole it from us! Give it back! Give us back the precious!” It flailed wildly from side to side, probably hoping to grab her as she ran by.

Bella shoved herself against the wall. She could see daylight ahead of her, and smell fresh air. If she could get past the creature, she would be free of the mountains! Her hand came to rest on the hilt of her sword. The thing could not see her. Even with her poor skills, she could finish it easily.

But as she looked at its snarling, panicked face, Bella knew she could not do it. It was a pitiful thing, and she had stolen its only treasure. She could not take its life. Still, it had killed a goblin, and she had no intention of letting it catch her.

She moved a few steps backwards, and then, with a running start, leapt over the thing’s head. It must have felt a breeze as she passed it, because it screamed and fumbled at the air above it. But it was too late! Bella was off down the tunnel, running as fast as she could towards the light.

Thief!” its terrible voice echoed among the stones behind her. “Thief! Curse it! We hates it! We hates it forever!

***

She ran until she was well clear of the mountain, never happier to feel the wind on her face. Once she stopped to get her bearings, she heard familiar voices in the distance, and made a beeline for them. There they were, all the dwarves and Gandalf, too! She ought to have known he would turn up just when he was needed.

She ran towards the clearing where they were standing, but slowed when she realized they were arguing amongst themselves. “We have to go back!” she heard Kíli shout as he gestured towards the mountains. “She got away from the goblins, I saw her!

Thorin took him by the shoulders. “She’s gone, Kíli! She could never have found her way through the tunnels. There is nothing to be done!”

“I don’t care!” Kíli’s voice cracked. “How can we just leave her?”

The other dwarves stood silently, looking downcast and uncomfortable. ‘I must stop this,’ thought Bella, stepping forward, near enough to draw their attention. But the dwarves said nothing, not even Balin, who was looking straight towards her.

‘The ring for certain then,’ she thought, ‘it must be. I am invisible!’ She went to slip it from her finger, but froze mid-motion at the sight of Fíli, sitting on the ground with his head in his hands.

“I lost her,” he moaned. “She was ours for a day, and I lost her.”

Thorin knelt down in front of his nephew. “Think, Fíli,” he said, in a gentle voice Bella had never heard before. “She was alone, frightened. Perhaps she saw a chance to return to the safety of Rivendell. Can we blame her, if she took it? Might that not be for the best?”

“No!” she cried, ducking behind a tree and slipping the ring into her pocket. She ran towards Fíli, throwing her arms around his neck. “No, you’re wrong! How can you say such a thing?”

“Bella,” Fíli sighed into her hair, and she gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. Before they could say anything else, Kíli wrapped himself around both of them, holding on as tightly as he could.

“I would never abandon you,” she whispered, just loud enough for the two of them to hear.

She looked up to glare at Thorin, but stopped short when she saw how he was watching her, wide-eyed and a bit wild. “How did you do it?” he asked, disbelievingly. “How did you escape?”

Bella reached into her pocket, thinking to show them the ring, but as her fingers closed around the cold metal, she paused. “I - well-”

“Does it matter?” Gandalf interrupted, peering at her with eyes that saw too much. “She is here now, and we should be glad of it.”

“It matters,” Thorin said, recovering his composure, but still staring at her so intensely that she wondered if he could read her secrets from behind her eyes. “We fought our way through those tunnels for the better part of a day. They twisted and turned upon themselves for miles beneath the ground, and you have no stone-sense to guide you. You could have gone out the way we came and been halfway to Rivendell by now. Why fight so hard to follow us? Why did you come back?”

Bella turned towards Fíli and Kíli, incredulous, because surely the answer was obvious? But they only looked at her, confused and hopeful, and she realized with a stab of guilt that they did not know, they had no idea how much she had come to care for them, all of them.

She turned back to Thorin, looking directly into his eyes so that he might understand her, this once. “I know what you think of me,” she said slowly, choosing her words with care. “You think I’m a soft, foolish little thing who knows nothing of the world and its dangers, and you’re not wrong. I am soft, and used to my comforts. All hobbits are.”

All the dwarves were staring now, and she took a deep breath and forced herself to stand tall and steady under their scrutiny. “I never fit in the Shire - too bookish, too strange, and I have been alone for so very long. I thought I had no place in this world. You know what that’s like, I think. But then I walked out my door and onto the road with all of you and everything changed, everything. No amount of safety or comfort could tempt me back. This is my place. Yours has been stolen from you. And I will help you take it back, if I can.”

As she was speaking, Thorin’s wary expression began to clear, and when she was finished, all the dwarves turned to him, as if waiting for some kind of pronouncement. Before he could say anything, a howl echoed through the trees behind them.

And this time Bella knew, without needing to be told, that it was not a wolf.

“Run!” bellowed Gandalf, and the company took off, heading away from the mountains as fast as they could move.

Bella ran as quickly as she could, but she was already bone-weary, and she stumbled and tripped through the underbrush.

“Come along, Miss Baggins!” Dori said, lifting her off the ground and throwing her onto his back as he ran by. She would have protested, but even with the additional burden of her weight, Dori was faster than she was, so she wrapped her arms loosely around his neck and squeezed her eyes shut.

The howling drew nearer, and over it she could make out the rough shouts of orc riders. One frontrunner burst into their midst, snapping and clawing wildly before Dwalin and Thorin took him down. The delay cost them, and by the time they realized they were running towards the edge of a cliff, the enemy was just behind them.

“Into the trees!” Gandalf shouted, and before Bella could blink at the absurdity of such a suggestion, Ori had lifted her from Dori’s shoulders and thrown her up to the branches with surprising strength. She grabbed one on instinct, pulling herself higher and higher as wargs circled them on the ground.

A huge orc, pale and one-armed, rode slowly out of the woods, a terrible pleasure glowing on his scarred face.

“Azog,” Thorin whispered, as if he were seeing a ghost. “It cannot be.”

The orcs swarmed beneath them, far too many to fight, taunting them and stabbing at their feet. Bella’s tree shook, and pitched back under the wargs’ weight, crashing into the tree behind it. Bella leapt for it, scrabbling at a branch until one of the dwarves steadied her. But then the tree moved again, and she was forced to jump from limb to limb as they fell, until finally she clung tightly to the last tree before the cliffside.

The orcs gathered below it, savoring their victory, when suddenly the dry ground around them burst into flame.

“Fíli!” Gandalf shouted, tossing him a burning pinecone. Fíli threw it, hard and true, into the orcs’ midst and they scattered, their mounts whining and cringing. In a moment, all the dwarves were so armed, and fire lit the air around them as it flew towards their foes.

‘That is why you bring a wizard,’ Bella thought to herself, tossing one of the burning pinecones between her hands before throwing it as best she could at the wargs.

The enemy retreated, and for a moment it looked like the dwarves might have forced a stalemate, but just at that moment, their tree finally gave up its hold, tipping them out over the the great chasm below.

The dwarves dangled from the branches, shouting and cursing as they tried to pull themselves up. Bella hung on as best she could, not seeing any sense in climbing her way that much closer to the orcs.

A heavy boot near her head caught her attention, and she gasped as Thorin, sword in hand, walked steadily down the tree-trunk. The dwarves behind her grew silent as their leader stepped into the fiery clearing, picking up speed as he ran towards his enemy.

He did not have a chance, Bella realized as Azog charged Thorin from atop his warg, knocking the dwarf to the ground. She shrieked at his bad form, for surely that was not sporting, but the sound died in her throat as she watched Thorin shudder in the beast’s jaws, then fall, unmoving, to the earth.

Fury burned within her, new and terrible, and she shook with it as she watched another orc approach their fallen leader, weapon in hand. Thorin was owed better than this. He had lost his home to the dragon. He had lost his grandfather to war and his father to madness. He had wandered, anchor-less, doing all he could to hold his people together, and keep the dream of their homeland alive.

It could not end this way, with Thorin lying in the dirt, having never even seen the Mountain. She would not allow it.

She pulled herself up onto the tree-trunk, running the length of it and hopping down from where the last of its roots clung to the cliff-face, never before so glad to be small and light.

She drew her sword as she ran, just as Thorin had taught her, but the orc standing over Thorin was already raising his weapon. She would not be in time to counter his blade.

She leapt, hurling her body into the orc with all the force she could manage. Expecting no resistance, the creature lost its footing and hit the ground hard, too surprised to struggle as she plunged her sword into his chest.

It took her two tries to pull the blade out again, but she managed, and then rushed back to stand in front Thorin, putting herself between him and his enemies. The pale orc narrowed his eyes at her, as if he couldn’t understand what she might be doing. Then he growled something in a rough language, and two more of his followers stepped towards her, weapons raised.

It was hopeless, Bella knew that. The first orc she had slain by luck - she had no chance against even one more, let alone two! She knew she was about to die at the hands of these foul creatures, far from home and for no purpose except to steal Thorin a few brief moments of reprieve.

But she had promised to help him, and she was a burglar now, so steal them she would.

She raised her sword, ready to make an attempt of it, when Fíli slammed into one of her attackers, twin blades flashing in the firelight. The second orc turned to help his comrade, but was felled by one of Kíli’s arrows through the heart.

The dwarves poured out of the tree, weapons swinging and voices raised in a war-cry Bella couldn’t understand. The orcs, stunned at the turn of the battle, were slow to react, and many were cut down before they could so much as raise their weapons. That did not last long, and too soon the air was ringing with the crash of blade against blade.

But the Pale Orc had not forgotten Thorin, and he made his way through the battle towards Bella, grinning with malevolence. She swung her sword wildly in front of her, determined to keep him away from Thorin just as long as she could, until the bitter end.

And then the eagles came.

***

Gandalf ran to Thorin as soon as the eagles dropped them over the Carrock. Bella felt sick at his obvious worry, and hung back when the rest of the dwarves circled their leader, not yet ready to find out if the worst was true, and all of her terror and foolishness had been for nothing.

She watched them carefully, her heart in her throat, until Gandalf sighed, leaning back on his heels and looking at Thorin with relief.

“The halfling?” Thorin slurred, stumbling to his feet with the help of Kíli and Dwalin.

“Bella is here, see? She is fine.” Gandalf gestured towards Bella, who smiled tentatively in relief.

Thorin stormed over to her without another word, scowling as he patted roughly over her upper arms, then down her sides to her hips, checking for wounds. When he found her unmarked, he stilled for a moment, breathing in ragged gasps. Before she could scold him for over-exerting his injuries, he smiled, so widely and so warmly that Bella thought she felt the chill of the morning recede.

And then, without any warning, he pulled her against his chest and embraced her tightly. “Did I say that you should not be here? That you ought to go home to your comforts?” he asked, laughter in his voice. Bella could do nothing but gasp in response, too confused to answer, and not quite able to breathe, besides.

He pulled away, keeping hold of her shoulders, his eyes so bright and soft with happiness that Bella felt her heart stutter and lurch in her chest. “I have never been so wrong in all my life,” he said, and as Bella looked into his eyes, she felt sure that this was the first time they were truly seeing one another. “Forgive me.”

Somebody whistled, (she suspected Dwalin) and the company seemed to take it as their signal to relax. Everybody cheered, and Fíli and Kíli rushed over to Bella, checking her for injuries just as their uncle had done, and flitting back and forth between scathing reprimands for doing such a foolish thing and babbled, desperate thanks.

“You oughtn’t have done that, Bell!” Kíli said, checking over her singed palms. “I mean, I’m glad you did, can’t argue with the results, really, but what were you thinking!”

“I-” Bella started.

“I never thought I’d see the day when I told somebody they ought to listen to Kíli!” Fíli scolded, pulling a twig from her bedraggled braid. “Somebody ought to show you how to use that sword of yours, before you get yourself killed!”

“We will,” Thorin said, still smiling as he pulled Bella away from his nephews, turning her towards the horizon. “Look,” he said reverently.

Bella followed his gaze and caught her breath. There, way off in the distance, a lone peak rose into the morning sky. “Is that what I think it is?” she asked, but the dwarves seemed too overcome to speak.

“Erebor,” Gandalf answered her, “the Lonely Mountain.”

“Our home,” Thorin said, his voice thick with awe. He put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing warmly.

“Nearly there now,” she said, to distract from her blush. “I do believe the worst is behind us.”

***

Chapter Text

“I won’t,” Bella said stubbornly. “I absolutely will not.”

“Come on now, be reasonable,” Fíli soothed.

“I am being quite reasonable!” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “I refused to be carried, like - like the baggage!”

“But look how high up we are,” Kíli said, gesturing broadly.

“And it’s hardly a gentle slope,” added Balin.

“I’ll be fine!” Bella protested. “I’ll go slowly, it will - stop, what are you doing!” she shouted, as Dwalin lifted her up by the collar and held her far enough over the edge to see just how distant the ground was.

“Ah,” she said, paling. “Well. Perhaps, if it will make the lot of you feel better-”

“It will,” Thorin interrupted, glaring at Dwalin until he set Bella safely on her feet.

“You’d better have Dori carry her,” Nori offered, and Thorin inclined his head in agreement.

“What? No. I’m going to do it,” Fíli protested, pulling Bella back a bit further from the edge.

Dori nodded at Thorin. “Of course, I don’t mind a bit.”

“Why would Dori do it? I thought I would,” Kíli said, puzzled. “Or Fíli, I suppose.”

“Dori’s very strong,” supplied Ori. “He beat Mr. Dwalin at arm wrestling once.”

Kíli peered at Dori, then up at Dwalin (as did a few other members of the company, though none quite so blatantly). “That cannot be true.”

Dwalin scowled furiously, his hands curling into fists. “He’s strong enough,” he muttered, and would say no more about it.

So Bella found herself clinging to Dori (she had refused to be strapped to his back, there were limits) as the dwarves and Gandalf slowly climbed their way down the steep sides of the Carrock.

“Just a bit more, Miss Baggins!” Dori called, encouragingly. “You’re doing very well!”

“Dori, you are carrying me down a mountain!” Bella yelled, exasperated. “Perhaps we might dispense with the formalities!”

“Oh!” said Dori, blushing. “Well, I would hardly call this a mountain. But certainly, if you like.”

Dori’s feet had barely touched the ground before Fíli was pulling Bella from his back.

“Thank you, Dori!” she said, standing on her toes to kiss his cheek.

He patted her on the head. “You’re welcome, Bella!”

A low grumble went through the company, and Fíli tugged Bella over to where Kíli was sitting, slumped against a rock. “Look at you!” she scolded, pushing his hair out of his eyes with gentle fingers. “You’re exhausted!”

“He’s had a difficult night,” Fíli said, tipping Kíli’s chin up to peer at his face.

“You’re hardly any better,” Bella said, pushing down on his shoulder. “Sit before you fall over.”

Miss Baggins has the idea of it, lads,” Bofur said, collapsing dramatically. “What’s say we have a bit of a rest?”

“No time for that,” Thorin grumbled, but his heart wasn’t in it. “We’ve no supplies and no idea where we are.”

“As to that,” Gandalf said, “we are some miles north of where ought to be, had we kept to the path through the mountains. And as it happens, I may know of someone close by to help us.”

“Close enough that we might stop for some food?” Bombur asked, hopeful. “I’m famished, and certainly Miss Baggins must be as well.”

“Fíli, why do they keep saying my name like that?” Bella asked, quietly.

He smirked. “You told Dori he could use your given name. I believe they’re trying to make a point.”

“Oh.” She colored. “Ah, please do call me Bella,” she called to the company at large. “All of you. I ought to have asked ages ago.” The dwarves seemed pleased, but were too worn out for a proper cheer.

“If it pleases you, lass,” Balin smiled. “But Bombur is right, we could all use a good meal.”

“I can go hunting,” Kíli offered. “I’m not too tired for that.”

“No!” warned Gandalf. “No hunting here; do not even speak of it! Not in a skin-changer’s lands.”

“What’s a skin-changer?” asked Bella.

“A person that changes his skin,” said Gandalf, witheringly. “Often he is a man. Sometimes he roams the forests as a great bear. But he eats no flesh; the animals you see here he treats as his children. To harm them is to make a terrible enemy.”

“Not more green food!” cried Ori.

“If you are lucky enough to dine at his table, you would be wise to eat what is put before you, Master Ori!” Gandalf thundered.

“Of course we will, Mr. Gandalf. Of course,” Dori said, pulling Ori behind him by an arm.

“I could still go and scout a bit,” said Kíli. “There may be fiddleheads or mushrooms or something.”

“It’s the wrong season for fiddleheads,” Bella said, poking him in the ribs. “If you don’t know that, I’m not eating any mushrooms you bring back.”

“I’ll go with him,” said Fíli, pulling Kíli to his feet. “If that suits you, Uncle?”

He waved them off, and they headed for a nearby strand of trees, tweaking Bella’s hair as they left. She sat quietly as the dwarves around her rested and talked among themselves, until she noticed Thorin lowering himself gingerly to the ground.

“Thorin?” Bella asked, not liking how stiffly he moved. “Are you well?”

“I am fine, Miss Baggins,” he answered. “Your concern is unnecessary.”

“The others seemed pleased enough to call me Bella,” she teased, moving to sit beside him. “Not you?”

He scowled. “It was improper, their bullying you.”

“Thorin,” she smiled, “I would be happy for you to use my given name.”

“As you wish.” He paused. “Belladonna.”

She made a face. “Bella,” she corrected. “‘Belladonna’ was always my mother. How did you even know it?”

“From Gandalf. We needed it for the contract,” he said, then added, in a lighter tone, “I could call you Bell.”

“Oh, look who’s bold now!” she mock-gasped. “I don’t know if Kíli will be best pleased by that.”

“And you?” he asked, all seriousness, but his bright eyes gave away his amusement. “Are you pleased?

“Actually,” she said, surprised. “I think I’m starting to prefer Bell. Isn’t that strange?”

“No, quite sensible. Bell is a good, sturdy name. Nearly dwarfish.”

Bella snorted. “I am a hobbit, not a dwarf. Don’t let the braids fool you. Or the cloak.”

“Or the name,” Thorin said agreeably. “Or your kin.”

She rolled her eyes. “Is it possible your injuries have affected your mind? I think I preferred you surly.”

“You had your chance to be rid of me,” he said, and though his voice was mild, Bella sensed an unspoken question.

“Yes, well,” she said. “No one was going to kill you until I had your apology. Now that I have, it’s between you and them.”

“Perhaps I ought to offend you again,” Thorin mused.

She bit her cheek to keep from smiling. “Perhaps.”

***

“Now,” Gandalf lectured, as they paused beneath the shade of a high hedge, at the border of their host’s bee-pastures. “We have reached the home of Beorn, who is a very great person. Be on your best behavior when I introduce you.” He looked pointedly at Thorin. “I will go and speak with him now, and Bella will go with me. In five minutes time, two more of you follow, then two more after that, and so on.”

“Why should we split up? For what purpose?” Thorin asked.

“He is a solitary sort of fellow,” Gandalf said vaguely. “Better to introduce you a few at a time, or he may simply throw you all off his land and be done.”

“That will never work,” said Balin.

“Yes it will,” Bella murmured, not really loud enough to be heard.

“Either way, you’re not taking Bella in there without us,” Fíli said, and Kíli nodded his agreement.

“Now now, I won’t allow any great peril to befall her.” Gandalf said. “She will be quite safe.” He pointed at Thorin. “Five minutes, no sooner. Now come along, Bella.”

They walked through a creaking wooden gate, then down a dirt path past what appeared to be a cow pasture, though it was full of horses and sheep as well, until they reached a large wooden house. Standing in the doorway was a huge man with a black beard large and bushy enough to impress even a dwarf. He was surrounded by hounds of all sizes, and he patted one on the head reassuringly. ‘This must be Beorn, the skin-changer,’ Bella thought.

He scowled at Gandalf. “Who are you and what do you want?”

“I am Gandalf,” he replied. “And this is Bella Baggins,” he added, pushing her forward. “We have lost our supplies and our way along the road, and are in rather desperate need of assistance.

The man’s expression softened slightly when he saw Bella. “These lands are no place for such a little thing,” he said.

“Indeed,” nodded Gandalf. “We have already encountered the goblins and orcs on our journey.”

“Goblins?” Beorn said, darkly. “And you escaped?”

“I killed the Goblin-King, and the rest of us got away in the confusion,” Gandalf said casually, as if that was the sort of thing he did most days.

Beorn snorted. “That sounds like quite a tale.” He frowned. “But what do you mean, the rest of you? I count only two. Did you lose some?”

“Ah, there may be one or two more - oh, look, here comes one now. Prompt as ever, I see, Master Oakenshield.” Gandalf glared at Thorin, who was moving briskly down the track.

“You said to wait the full five minutes, Gandalf,” Thorin smirked at him, a bit winded. “You didn’t specify that I must walk.” He turned to Beorn and bowed, as if to show Gandalf he had manners enough when required. “Thorin Oakenshield, at your service.”

“I have no need of your service,” Beorn said, gruffly. Thorin frowned at his rudeness, and things probably would have gone very poorly had Bella’s stomach not chosen that moment to gurgle embarrassingly.

“Oh!” She blushed, covering her mouth with her hand. “Please excuse me!”

It broke the tension, and Beorn laughed. “Come in then, the lot of you. I would hear your tale, though I doubt I will believe it, and we had better get this Little Bunny something to eat!” And he leaned over and lifted Bella off the ground, settling her on his shoulder.

As he carried her into the house, Bella tried very hard to ignore the sounds of a scuffle behind her, and the thump that sounded suspiciously like someone being hit with a wizard’s staff.

He did not set her down as they sat around his table, but he did hand her a thick slice of bread, dripping with butter and honey, so she did not feel too inclined to complain when he shifted her into his lap.

Thorin sat on the other side of Gandalf, away from Beorn, his face a careful mask of neutrality. He did not look at either Bella or their host as Gandalf began the story of their trek through the Goblin Kingdom.

“What is this?” asked a dark voice from the doorway. Turning, Bella was shocked to see that it was Kíli striding into the room, his hand on the hilt of his sword. She shook her head frantically, and he paused mid-step, eyes narrowed.

“Indeed, brother,” Fíli added, appearing at her side as if he were the one with the ring of invisibility. His voice was too soft, and Bella did not like the way he was staring appraisingly at Beorn.

“Fíli, Kíli!” she said, with as much cheer as she could. “I am so glad you’re here. Gandalf was just telling our host about our trip through the mountains.” She turned to Thorin, thinking he might restrain his nephews, but he only raised a brow at her, seemingly content to let matters unfold as they would.

“Bella, are you well?” Fíli asked, still watching Beorn, who looked amused.

“Quite well,” she said, sharply. “Do sit down, and let Gandalf finish his tale.”

Fíli nodded, and he and Kíli went to sit on either side of Thorin, crossing their arms and making no move towards the food.

“You must be hungry,” she said to them through gritted teeth. “Why not eat a little?”

Glaring at Gandalf as if he had betrayed them, Fíli reached for a slice of bread.

“Go on then!” said Beorn, smiling at last. “Before this Little Bunny eats it all!” And then, smirking right at the dwarves, he reached over and poked Bella lightly in the stomach.

The bread crumbled in Fíli’s fist, and Thorin and Kíli wore identical expressions of dark fury. “Ha ha,” Bella said, brightly, blessing her mother for every etiquette lesson she’d ever been given. “Mr. Beorn, you are quite the wit! Now Gandalf, you were saying?”

“What is this?” thundered Dwalin from the doorway, and Bella covered her face with her hands.

***

Though he claimed not to believe a word of their story, Beorn was impressed enough with the tale (and amused enough by the dwarves’ irritation over his treatment of Bella) that he offered them shelter for the night. Thorin, looking mutinous, seemed inclined to refuse, so Gandalf had accepted for all of them.

Dinner was a tense affair. The food was excellent, and though there was no meat, there was bread and honey and butter and jam and cheese in such abundance that even Dwalin did not complain, and greens too, though only Bella and Bifur seemed to enjoy them.

Beorn relinquished her to a chair at last, and Bella had hoped that would be the end of the matter, but the seat he chose for her was next to him at the head of the table, and to say the dwarves did not approve would be a grave understatement. Gandalf sat on Beorn’s other side, looking untroubled and occasionally silencing one of the angrier dwarves with a sharp kick.

Aside from screaming the first time her cup was refilled by a sheep, Bella spent the meal wavering between trying to ease the stiff, grumbling conversation and staring daggers at all the dwarves, who did not notice, being too busy themselves staring daggers at Beorn. Their host, on the other hand, was very merry indeed, trading stories with Gandalf, petting his animals as they cleared the dishes, and tormenting the dwarves with his solicitousness towards Bella, taking it upon himself to refill her cup once it was clear the sheep unnerved her.

He took his leave of them after supper, which Bella considered a small mercy. Gandalf vanished as well, which was probably a matter of self-preservation, as all the dwarves (particularly Fíli) had been eying him with a general ill-will. Both Gandalf and Beorn had warned them, very seriously, not to leave the house after dark, no matter what noises they might hear.

The door had no sooner shut behind Beorn and the dwarves were upon her, muttering dire warnings and leading her towards the enormous fireplace where they had all made themselves comfortable.

Fíli dropped down before it, pulling her to sit in front of him, and started unravelling the snarls in her hair with a gentleness that was at odds with his dark tone. “In the morning Kíli will go out to check for rabbit hutches. If he finds any that will fit you, we are leaving!”

“You cannot be serious,” Bella said. “Beorn has been a gracious host! I could do without all the lifting and carrying about, but it’s a small price to pay for food and a night or two of safety!”

“Who knows what he intends?” Fíli scowled. “Perhaps he thinks to add you to his menagerie!”

“I am not an animal, Fíli!” Bella said, irritated, and Kíli put a soothing hand on her arm.

“He thinks of them as his children, Gandalf said so!” Fíli replied. “And he seems quite taken with you. Who knows what price he might demand for his hospitality?”

“It’s lucky we only brought one hobbit,” Dwalin grumbled, from his chair opposite them. “Or he might try for a breeding pair.”

“Watch your tongue!” Thorin growled, slamming a fist against a small table. “Fíli is right. If anything seems amiss in the morning, we go. If he tries to prevent us, any of us, we fight him, though I prefer it not come to that.”

“He was trying to rile you,” Bella pointed out, “and he would have stopped if it had not worked so well.”

“Maybe that’s what he wants you to think,” suggested Kíli, which Bella thought was mad, until she saw that Thorin was nodding in agreement, and then she gave up hope for any sensible conversation.

“At least she is armed,” said Glóin. “It’s a lucky thing you didn’t lose your sword under the mountains, lass!”

“Yes,” Bella agreed. “I lost my pack though. Luckily I wasn’t carrying much, just some spare clothes and - oh!” she cried, patting at her pockets. “Oh no! Oh no, I’ve lost it!”

“What have you lost?” Ori asked, looking around him as if she might have just dropped whatever it was.

“My knife!” Bella replied, aghast. “My father’s knife! I had no pockets in Rivendell, so I put it in my pack, and my pack is now beneath a mountain!” She wrung her hands. “I’ve lost my knife, and my bells, too!”

She lowered her head, trying to cover her eyes. ‘Of all the things to cry about!’ she scolded herself. ‘The loss of a few trinkets is hardly the end of the world!’ But she thought of the little blade her father had kept so carefully, lost and lonely in the dark, and she could not stop the tears. And her bells! She was ashamed to have lost Fíli and Kíli’s gift so soon.

“I can’t help you with your knife, Bell,” Kíli said, “but you haven’t lost these.” And he pulled the little silver bells from a pocket in his cloak.

Oh!” Bella gasped, leaning over to wrap her arms around his shoulders. “You’re magic! How did you do it?”

Kíli grinned. “Dwalin handed them to me when he took them out of your hair. I was going to put them in your pack, but-” he shrugged. “I was happy, and they reminded me, so I thought I’d hold onto them for a bit. I would have braided them back in later!” he said earnestly, as if afraid she might take offense.

“Kíli, tonight you are my hero,” she smiled at him. “Would you put them in now?” It was the right thing to say, because Kíli beamed and slid over by Fíli, who was still struggling with her knots.

“I’m sorry about your knife, Bella,” Fíli said. “We’ll replace it in Erebor. It won’t be your father’s, but my uncle tells me there are such blades there as will never dull.”

“That seems excessive, for a pocket-knife,” Bella said wryly, and Kíli laughed.

“You’ll need a comb, as well,” he said, tugging lightly on one of her curls. “That would make this much easier.”

“Perhaps she’ll receive one for a courting gift,” Balin suggested. “It would be very traditional.”

Bella frowned. “That isn’t very kind,” she said, stung.

“What do you mean?” Kíli asked. “Do hobbits not give courting gifts? Or combs?”

“We do,” Bella said. “The men give flowers to show their intentions, and the women, food. But Balin is teasing me.”

“I was not,” said Balin. “You’ll be quite a wealthy woman if we take Erebor, with a connection to nobility, besides. You’re sure to have at least a few suitors. I imagine your brother will be your intermediary.”

“Accept nothing she would not like, no matter how great its value,” Glóin advised Fíli. “And refuse anything cheap or poorly made.”

“I have no idea what any of you are saying,” Bella said, feeling a bit lost. “Why would Fíli accept gifts intended for me? Not that I expect to see any. And certainly not that I would accept anyone who was after me for my money.”

“Technically, Kíli could also accept courting-gifts on your behalf,” Fíli explained, shooting his brother a look. “But he won’t, because anyone who would go around your eldest relative is trying to get away with something.”

“I think you had better speak more plainly,” Bella said. “Courting gifts?”

“Ah,” said Balin. “I see. When a dwarf wishes to pay court, he chooses a gift for his intended. Combs are traditional, as are knives, but it may be anything. They are given through a family member, usually a father or uncle, and if he finds the gift acceptable, he will pass it along. If she thinks it praiseworthy, courtship commences. If she accepts it without favor, he is invited to try again. And if she refuses it, she rejects him.”

“And only your men do this?” Bella asked, curious in spite of her discomfort with the subject.

“No, a woman may give a courting gift,” Balin said, thoughtfully.

“But they rarely get the chance!” said Dori “There being so few of them, many receive offers as soon as they come of age.”

“Bombur got one!” Bofur said, poking his brother in the side. “On account of his magnificent beard!”

“Did he accept it?” Bella inquired. “Or is it rude to ask?”

“Not rude at all, these things are generally quite public,” Balin said.

“I did,” Bombur blushed. “A set of iron cookware! Lost m’heart that day,” he sighed.

“I pity whoever tries to get a gift past Fíli,” Kíli grinned. “I wouldn’t have the nerve for it, he’s got too good an eye.”

“Don’t worry, Bella,” Fíli said, undoing a particularly bad bit of braid Kíli was stuck on. “I’ll let a few by, if they’re good enough. Only the best though.”

“No,” Bella said firmly. “No gifts. No courting. I want no part of it.”

“Of course not, if you don’t wish it,” Balin said. “No one would force you! But are you so set on it?”

“Completely,” Bella said. “No suitors.”

“But why?” Kíli asked. “You’re not planning to leave us, are you?”

“What do you mean?” Bella said.

“After the quest?” Kíli repeated, frowning. “Do you plan to return to your Shire?”

“I had not thought about what I would do afterwards,” Bella said. “Though I doubt I’ll return to Bag End. Are there any cities near the mountain where I might take up residence? I would miss you terribly if I had to go too far.”

“What!” cried Fíli. “You won’t stay with us in Erebor?”

“Well how can I?” Bella asked. “I am no dwarf, no matter how many braids you put in my hair.

“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” Fíli said, relaxing. “We’ll find you a room with ours. And you needn’t accept any suitors, if you don’t wish it. Many dwarves don’t.”

“Though I do wonder why you wouldn’t,” said Kíli.

“It’s a long story, and not a very good one, I’m afraid,” Bella said, trying to sound dismissive.

“Tell us!” Kíli insisted, and all the other dwarves looked interested as well, and Bella realized she could not escape.

“I was nearly engaged once,” she sighed, “many years ago, just before my coming of age.”

The room exploded into speculation: “Engaged?” “What happened to him?” “Did he die!” “Before you came of age?” Only Thorin stayed silent, staring into the fire with an inscrutable expression.

Nearly engaged,” Bella corrected. “Of course it could not be official until my birthday. But everyone knew there was an understanding, and it was expected that we would announce our intentions at my birthday party, which we had intended to do.”

She paused, and the dwarves were quiet as they waited for her to continue. “It wasn’t the best match for me - he was a bit older than I was, and his family was lower in station, but I didn’t care. My mother had a new dress made for the occasion - the blue one you saw - and we spent weeks party-planning. But then, a few nights before our announcement, he was overheard-” Bella took a deep breath. It hurt to continue, but no more than the twinge of a wound long-healed.

“He was heard in a tavern, telling people that he would soon be quite a rich hobbit, but that he would be working hard to earn such a comfortable living. He meant being married to me, of course. He was a fool to say something like that anywhere in Hobbiton. It got back to my father immediately, though I did not believe him when he told me.”

She sighed. “I was so certain he was wrong, and my father proposed a test. So I told him that my parents had changed their minds about the match, and threatened me with disinheritance. I told him that I did not care, and would be happy to live with him anyplace, and that was the truth. But I saw on his face how he really felt, when he thought there would be no money. He broke it off right away. He was kind about it.” She smiled. “Too kind, really. I would have preferred to shout, I think.”

“Do you love him still?” Ori interrupted. “Is that why you will accept no other?”

“Oh no!” Bella said, almost laughing at the thought. “No, no, I care nothing for him now. But I was terribly hurt at the time. And so embarrassed! I made my mother cancel the party. It was quite a scandal.”

“You’re well rid of him,” Bofur said. “It was a lucky escape.”

“You’re right,” Bella agreed. “But it quite put me off courting. There were a few offers after that, but I had no heart for it.”

“Well, you needn’t worry about it any longer,” Fíli assured her. “You’ll stay with us in Erebor, and court whoever you please, or no one, as it suits you.”

“If I am welcome,” Bella said firmly. “So I suppose we’ll see.”

“It is my mountain, surely it falls to me to decide who is welcome,” Thorin said, speaking for the first time since the conversation turned to courting.

“There you are, see!” said Kíli.

Bella smiled at his enthusiasm. “That wasn’t an invitation, Kíli.”

“It was,” Thorin said, mildly.

“Oh,” Bella blushed to the tips of her ears. “My thanks, then.”

He waved them away. “It’s a large mountain. We can spare you a room.” He stood up. “Get some rest, all of you. We may have to leave at first light.”

Fíli and Kíli got to their feet. “Coming, Bell?” Kíli asked.

She shook her head. “I’ll sit here for a bit, if you don’t mind. You go on, though.”

The others paused. “I prefer,” Thorin said, carefully, “that you not be without protection.”

She looked up at him, surprised. “Surely it’s safe enough? I will not leave the house.”

“It is not what roams out there that I worry about,” Thorin frowned. “Who knows when our host may return?”

“Not this again,” she sighed.

“I’ll sit up with her,” Bofur offered, holding up a bit of wood he was carving. “I’m not quite ready to turn in, myself.”

Everyone found that agreeable, and in just a few minutes, it was only Bella, Bofur, and Bifur left by the fire. They sat in companionable silence for a while, with Bifur making his gestures at Bofur, and Bella trying to puzzle them out. She had determined that a downward slashing motion meant knife, as Bofur handed one over every time he saw it, the more emphatic the motion, the bigger the blade.

“You must be looking forward to it,” she said, when her eyes grew too tired to follow their silent conversation. “Seeing your home again, I mean.”

“Us? Nah, we’re Blue Mountain dwarves, born and bred,” Bofur said, making a rough back and forth gesture towards Bifur, who handed him a scrap of sandpaper. "Never been to Erebor.

“Oh,” said Bella. “I hadn’t realized.” A few minutes more passed, with no sound other than the rough hiss of Bofur’s work.

“May I ask you a question?” Bella said, suddenly.

“Of course!” Bofur glanced up, surprised.

She hesitated. “You might consider it impertinent.”

He looked at her solemnly. “We’ll have to risk it, then.”

“Well, I’d like to know - when you said you weren’t from Erebor, it made me curious. The others are all related to Thorin in some way, Kíli told me. And they have a stake in reclaiming their homeland, besides. But if you seem to have no ties, either to the mountain or to Thorin, so what would make you join in on this mad quest?”

“Ah,” Bofur said, leaning back against a chair. “I can see why you’d be wonderin’. It’s a bit of a tale - you want the whole of it?” At Bella’s nod, he continued. “You’ve heard of the battle of Azanulbizar, where Thrór was lost? Balin told you of it, I think. Well, my brother and I grew up in the Blue Mountains, true enough, but our line hails from Moria. We’ll always think of that as our true home.” He frowned at his work, and made an adjustment with his smallest knife.

“When the call came for strong lads to take back Khazad-dûm - Moria, as you know it - Bombur and I joined up right away. Both of us were a bit young for it, but we’d grown up hearin’ about the splendor of Moria’s halls, and her wondrous mines, rich in mithril. So we were keen to have a look at the place, as you can imagine.”

He paused, looking at Bifur, who reached over to pat his knee. “It was horrible. Not much trainin’ in combat, Bombur and me. Bifur either, but he was a bit older and a sight burlier from workin’ the mines, so he came along to keep an eye on us. He-” Bofur paused, looking down at his hands. “He was injured, as you’ve seen. Many were, too many to count, and more than that were dead already. But we dragged him to the healers’ tents after the battle, because he still breathed and we were young and very foolish.”

Bella watched Bifur, who was humming softly to himself as he carved, and a chill ran through her.

Bofur went on. “The healers took one look at him and wouldn’t even let us cross the threshold. ‘Hopeless,’ they said, and they had the right of it, to be honest. You couldn’t even see his face, for the blood. We pitched a fit, o’ course, and they called for the guards. But who should storm out of the tent but Thorin Oakenshield, hero of the hour.” He paused, as if he were seeing it all again in his memory.

“He looked at Bifur that way he does, you know it? Like he can see you all the way through. And then he looked at us and he asked ‘your brother?’ ‘Close enough,’ I said, and he nodded, and turned to the healer, and I’ll never forget what happened then, not ‘til I rest in the Maker’s Halls. He said, ‘put him in with the nobles. Do all you can, and spare nothing. Enough of us have lost our brothers, today.’”

“What?” Bella asked. “Did he-”

“Aye,” Bofur nodded. “Prince Frerin. Cut down almost at the start of it.”

“Oh,” Bella felt her eyes sting with sympathy. “But Bifur was saved, at least.”

Bofur smiled at her. “He was. So y’see, we’re king’s men, the three of us, right to the end.” He winked at her. “And besides, they told me when I signed on that the ale was free.”

He blew the dust off his project and tossed it to her. She fumbled it a bit, but didn’t drop it. “Here you are then,” he said, and when she looked down, she realized she was holding a wooden comb. “A loan, so no worries. Not tryin’ anythin’. Keep it as long as ya like.”

“Thank you, Bofur,” she said, her voice thick. “You’re very kind.”

“It’s nothin’,” he smiled. “You’re one of us now, as I’ve said before. Ready to sleep?” She nodded. “Good. I daren’t go up without you, no matter how kind you think our host. I’d rather face the dragon than the others, if somethin’ were to happen.”

“Ridiculous, all of you,” Bella said, terribly fond.

***

It was even worse the next day. Beorn was in high spirits, having confirmed their story on his mysterious errand the night before, and without Gandalf to threaten the dwarves into civility, things very nearly came to blows.

“Where is our Little Bunny!” Beorn’s voice rang through the rafters. “I’ve a mind to show her the garden!”

“Quickly brother,” Fíli whispered, shoving Bella towards Kíli. “I’ll distract him, you get her out the door before he sees!”

“But I’d like to see the garden!” Bella protested. “I hardly got a look yesterday, and there were so many flowers.”

“I’ll show you,” Kíli promised. “We’ll look at all the weeds you want. Right now! Outside!”

“He’s coming!” hissed Ori from the stairway. Fíli looked around frantically. The loft where they’d slept had no other exits, not even a window.

“If you try covering me with a blanket, Fíli, I swear I’ll ask him to show me the entirety of the grounds.” Bella narrowed her eyes.

“Excuse me, Master Beorn,” they heard Thorin call from below. “What can you tell me of the state of the mountains?”

“Much,” Beorn answered, less exuberantly, “If I was of a mind to.”

“I’m concerned Gandalf left a few things out of his account, regarding the Goblin forces,” Thorin lied smoothly. “We saw far more of their city than he did, in any case. It may be useful to share information.”

“I suppose,” Beorn said, and their voices faded as they moved away from the stairs.

“Go! Now!” Fíli shoved at Kíli. “Keep her outside until you hear my signal!”

“Or until lunchtime,” Bella said, firmly. “Certainly no later than that.”

“Fine, but don’t blame us if you end up in a rabbit hutch!” Kíli complained. “You are no help at all!”

***

Chapter Text

Gandalf left them at the edge of Mirkwood, and Bella could not blame him. The dark woods had a menacing feel about them, and she half-wanted to turn around and go back to Beorn’s with the ponies. Even the dwarves looked as if they were having second thoughts, in the shadow of such a place.

The dire warnings they had received from both Gandalf and Beorn only reinforced Bella’s opinion that this was a place she should not be, but there didn’t seem to be any choice about it - she could hardly invite all the dwarves back to live with her at Bag End, however much Aunt Camellia’s reaction would amuse her. So on she must go.

She tried to take comfort in the weight of her pack - Beorn had burdened them all with so much food that the dwarves had nearly forgiven his treatment of her (except for Kíli, who kept muttering about bunnies and glaring at the fields around them with narrowed eyes).

After they entered the forest, the day passed slowly. The canopy above them blotted out the sky, casting everything in a dingy shadow that blurred the hours together as they walked.

She was no happier when they finally made camp. The light of their small fire couldn’t penetrate the thick darkness in the trees around them, and she was certain she saw eyes glowing in the underbrush. She shivered, though it was well past midsummer, and pulled her cloak tighter around herself.

“It ought to be warm, at least,” she complained, moving closer to the fire.

“Hang on,” Kíli reached over and plucked a fluttering moth from her hair.

“Ugh!” she recoiled. “It’s gigantic!”

“Never seen one that big,” he agreed as he released it. “Almost the size of a bat!”

Fíli reached over, brushing at Kíli’s back. “You’ve another on you,” he said. “Make that two. Look at the size of them!”

“Oh no,” Bella whispered, pulling up her hood as another moth flapped by her face. “Oh, they’re everywhere.” They were. In a moment, the air around them was full of powdery wings, and the soft thuds the creatures made as they knocked into the dwarves and the supplies and each other.

“Put the fire out!” Thorin ordered, batting furiously around his ears. Everyone ignored him, being too busy trying to keep the moths off. Finally, Bifur overturned the bucket of dirt they had ready by the fire, and stamped out the embers.

It was pitch-dark, without even starlight to see by, and Bella couldn’t make out the shape of her hand in front of her eyes. “Fíli? Kíli? Where are you!” she said, reaching blindly for where they had been.

“Don’t move!” said Fíli, and she froze, until she felt a hand come down on her shoulder. “Is that you, Bella?”

“Yes,” she said, loud enough to be heard over the grumbled panic of the other dwarves as they tried to find their kin. “Can you see at all?”

“Some,” he said, pulling her against his side. “Dwarves see well enough in low light, but the best I can make out here is shadows.”

Kíli sat down beside her, patting roughly down her arm. “All right?” he asked, running a hand over her hood.

“No,” she leaned into Fíli. “I can’t see anything, not even with you this close!” She closed her eyes, but it made no difference, the view was the same.

“Shh,” Fíli soothed. “It’s all right, we’ll help you. We can see well enough for that.”

“We should all try and sleep,” Thorin announced. “Since it seems we can do little else.”

Fíli gently nudged Bella over, until she was leaning against Kíli. “I’ll put out the bedrolls. You two wait here.” Bella nodded, though she didn’t know whether or not he could see her well enough to know.

She felt an insect brush against her hand, and she slapped at it furiously. “Bell?” Kíli asked, grabbing at her wrists. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t see!” she said, wrapping her arms around herself. “I may as well be blind, and who knows what’s on me! I could be covered in moths still!” Her voice hitched and she closed her mouth, not wanting the others to hear her distress.

“All right,” Kíli said, “all right, I’ll check, how about that?” He grabbed a corner of her cloak, and shook it a bit, then lightly brushed his hands over her hood and shoulders. “There’s nothing on you,” he said, gently. “They’ve gone.” He pulled her against him, tucking her head beneath his chin.

She coughed, panic still burning in her chest, turning her breathing ragged. “Everythin’ all right over there?” Bofur called out.

“Bell can’t see,” Kíli responded, over her quiet protests. “Not at all.” The dwarves muttered amongst themselves, concerned, and Bella heard heavy footsteps approach them.

“Bella,” Thorin said, gently. “Are you well?”

She took a deep breath, embarrassed at the attention her outburst had drawn. “Yes. Yes, I’ll be fine, thank you.”

There was a silence, and Bella wondered how clearly he could see her, cowering against Kíli as she was. Perhaps he was only nodding. “Stay with Fíli and Kíli,” he said, finally. “Do not try to move about on your own, or you may wander from the path.”

She wanted to say something cutting, because he must think her quite the fool if he felt the need to warn her of something so obvious, but her thoughts were a bit unsteady, and she only mumbled her agreement, very quietly.

She heard him step away, and Kíli tightened his grip around her shoulders. “Here now,” he said, and she could tell that he was smiling. “Goblins and orcs you face without trouble, but a few moths set you shivering?”

“It’s the dark,” she corrected him. “This place has me all out of sorts.”

“We’re set up. Kíli, can you find your way?” Fíli called from a little ways behind them.

“Easily,” Kíli answered, sliding a hand under Bella’s knees and lifting her as he got to his feet.

“Put me down!” she said, trying to work her way free. “It’s my eyes that are useless, my legs work fine!”

“Easier this way,” Kíli said cheerfully, as he carried her over to their beds. “Not like you weight much, and you’ll just trip over your feet, otherwise. Stop squirming!”

“Careful,” Fíli warned, jokingly. “If she falls, we’ll never find her.”

“She always turns up,” Kíli said, setting her down gently on her bedroll, and they settled in for the night.

She didn’t feel ready for sleep yet, still too restless with the last edges of her fright. She turned over, trying to find as comfortable a position as she could, considering there was only a thin blanket between her and the packed dirt of the path.

“I can’t sleep either,” Fíli murmured, and Kíli snorted from her other side.

“Who could?” he said, loud enough that someone from across their small camp grumbled at him.

“Too nervous, I suppose,” Bella explained, looking up into the darkness. “We’ve camped in so many places, but I’ve never felt so exposed as we are now, with no fire, and the trees all around. I just keep thinking - we could be attacked at any time, and I couldn’t do anything.”

“We’re right here,” Fíli said, taking her hand. “Nothing’s going to get through Kíli and I.”

“And Thorin’s keeping watch, anyway,” Kíli added. “So you couldn’t be safer.”

“I feel like I could be a bit safer,” she said, and Kíli shuffled closer, throwing an arm over her stomach.

“How’s that?” he asked, the first hint of tiredness seeping into his voice.

“Better,” she admitted. “But you needn’t, if it will interfere with your rest.”

She felt him shake his head. “Nah,” he said. “S’nice, really.”

They lay quietly for a bit, and Bella felt her eyelids start to grow heavy. “Bell,” Kíli whispered, close to her ear. “How does that song go again? The one from Rivendell?”

“Hm?” she blinked a few times. “My lullaby?”

He nodded. “I wouldn’t mind hearing it, if you still can’t sleep.”

She smiled. “Oh, well, if you wouldn’t mind.” But she started humming, quietly enough that she hoped the sound wouldn’t carry. After a moment, Fíli joined in, picking up the simple melody without trouble, and then Kíli did the same.

It was strange, she thought, hearing her mother’s tune in their deep voices. Strange, but comforting.

***

The days blended together after that. They rose as soon as the darkness receded enough for them to break camp, which was still so dim that Bella could barely make out who was who until well after they’d started walking. Their rests were seldom and brief, with a nervous tension in the air that hushed the usual friendly talk.

The nights were worse. They tried a fire a few more times, with the same result, and after that they simply did without. Bella thought cold rations every day were bad enough, but it was the darkness that pushed her towards despair. It pressed against her like a wet cloth, and even with Fíli and Kíli to comfort her, some nights she fell asleep weeping. It went on like that, day after day until she was sure she couldn’t remember the feel of sunshine, or a breeze through her hair.

The food began to run short, though they had been careful with it, and their small meals at dinner and breakfast shrank even further, with only a mouthful during the day, if that.

She tried to take it as a good sign, when the reached the river. There was some grumbling when Thorin forbade them from refilling their water skins, but Bella was glad of the excuse not to touch the murky liquid.

The dwarves seemed at a loss as to how to proceed. Beorn had warned them of this river’s dangers, but there was no bridge or ferry to aid their crossing. “Too bad that boat’s on the other side,” Bella said, “or we could have borrowed it.”

“Boat? You see a boat?” Thorin asked, leaning too far over the water for her comfort.

“Yes, pulled up on the far bank,” she said. “I don’t believe it’s even tied.”

“Do you reckon we could hook it?” Bofur suggested.

“It’s a long throw, but it’ll take a keen eye more than a strong arm to hit that target,” Dwalin said, peering towards the other bank. “I can’t see anything in this murk.”

Eyes turned to Kíli, but he shook his head. “You’d better have Fíli do it,” he said, practically. “You’ve seen him throw his knives.”

Everyone nodded, and in a moment Nori, who was clever at knots, had tied some of the large iron hooks from the packs to the end of their longest rope. Fíli took it, staring grimly across the water for a long moment before he threw. The hook hit the water with a splash. “Nearly there,” Bella encouraged, as he pulled the rope back. “You were only an arms-length short.”

He lifted the hook again, as if gauging its weight, and then hesitated. “Hurry up, Fíli,” Kíli rolled his eyes. “I’m getting bored.”

That seemed to jostle Fíli out of his nerves, and he made the second throw with a smile. It landed inside the wooden hull of the boat with a satisfying thunk they could hear across the river, and Bella felt a great swell of pride at his success.

The boat, which had been tied after all, came across with a bit of effort, and as Bella stepped onto the far bank, she was certain that things were finally starting to go right.

Then Bombur fell in.

***

It was exhausting work, carrying Bombur. Not that anyone wanted Bella’s help, of course, she was far too short, and had nowhere near the strength for it. But she could see the toll it was taking on the others. Kíli collapsed into his bedroll every night, and even Fíli had started rising slower and slower in the mornings.

Bella tried to help, filling her pack with as many of Bombur’s supplies as she could, but the additional weight, combined with small rations and long days of walking, was quickly sapping her reserves of strength.

Still, she could not bring herself to be too resentful. The dull hopelessness in Bofur’s eyes, and the gentle way he and Bifur cared for Bombur whenever they stopped to rest reminded her how easily it could have been Fíli or Kíli, trapped in an endless sleep.

When he finally woke, Bombur’s tears and the vivid descriptions of the feasts he had seen while dreaming only made things more miserable. Even Bofur looked unhappy as he tried and failed to ease his brother’s distress, and Bifur would not be budged from his spot beside Bombur, where he was gently petting his cousin’s hair.

It was a bad moment. They were tired and hungry, and seemingly no closer to reaching the edge of the forest, and Bella was certain that something truly dreadful was about to happen.

“Everyone!” Kíli cried, pointing into the darkness. “Uncle! Look!”

There, off in the distance, was a light.

***

“We must investigate,” Fíli argued. “It’s been too long since we’ve eaten, and this forest shows no sign of ever ending. Whatever is out there might help us, we have to chance it.”

“The wizard warned us not to leave the path,” Balin countered. “Who knows what creatures might dwell in such a place?”

“I doubt it could be anything friendly,” Bella chimed in.

Thorin seemed inclined to agree with them, but before he could take either side, Fíli interrupted. “Just send me, then,” he pleaded. “I can take a look and return without them seeing me, whatever they are.”

“Absolutely not,” Thorin shook his head. “You will never find your way back to the path.”

“We have to do something!” Fíli said, pointing at his brother. “Look at Kíli! He’s starving!”

Kíli scowled, and Bella was shocked to see how thin his face had become, and at the dark circles under his eyes. “Let me go, instead,” she offered, suddenly desperate for some way to help. “I am the burglar - they will never see me.”

Thorin raised a hand. “Peace. Fíli is right, we must risk the lights or starve on the roadside. But we will go together.”

“Aye,” Dwalin nodded. “The lot of us, or none at all.”

So they left the path, shoulder to shoulder. Fíli tried to tuck Bella between him and Kíli, but Thorin pulled her gently to his side. “Stay with your brother, Fíli,” he ordered. “Keep him safe.”

They were cautious at first, creeping towards the lights as silently as was possible for a troop of dwarves. “Do ya hear that?” whispered Bofur. “Music!”

“And food!” said Bombur. “I smell it!”

They moved closer, their steps quicker and more eager, until all at once the rich scent of food overcame their good sense, and they charged into the clearing. “Stop!” Thorin ordered, grabbing for Bella and Fíli. His hand closed around Bella’s hood, yanking her backwards, but Fíli evaded him, and before Bella could see what had happened, the lights went out.

She began to cry out, but Thorin pulled her against his chest, covering her mouth with his palm. “Shh,” he hissed at her, and they stood that way for a long while.

“What happened?” she whispered when he finally removed his hand. “The others! Where are they?”

“Captured,” Thorin growled, “Taken by those wretched elves.”

“Elves!” she gasped. “Are you certain?”

“There is no doubt,” he said, tightening his grip on her arm until she winced. “I recognized their insipid tune. But not before they ensnared our companions.”

“But what for? Surely they can’t object to helping a few hungry travelers!”

“Because they are treacherous!” Thorin shouted, loud enough to scare the birds from the trees. “Eager to draw upon friendship when there is gold to be had, faithless if there is no gain in it. Perhaps they are thinking of ransoming them.”

“We must get them back!” Bella cried. “We can explain, surely they have some stake in your quest!” She took a step forward, but Thorin kept hold of her arm. She could not bring herself to complain - without the elf-lights, she was as blind in the dark as ever.

“Never,” Thorin said. “Thranduil lives in fear of the dragon. He would not chance our waking him, not for less than the promise of all the gold in Erebor.” He frowned. “Perhaps not even that.”

“Well then,” Bella said, pulling her cloak straight and tightening her belt. “We shall have to mount a rescue.”

Thorin gaped at her. “You and I, against a kingdom of elves? You have lost your wits.”

“I don’t see that there is any choice,” Bella said, firmly. “Fíli and Kíli are in there, not to speak of the others, and I will not go on without them. You may help or not, as you choose.”

She waited, but he did not answer her smartly, as she half-expected. Instead, he pulled her towards him, and she thought he might be trying to get a clearer look at her face. “My nephews are lucky,” he said, in a low voice, “to have such a fierce champion.”

“They have earned my loyalty, all of you have,” Bella stuttered. “In any case, there’s little enough for us in these confounded woods.”

“We can do nothing in this darkness,” he agreed, guiding her to the ground with a light hand on her arm. When she was seated, he lifted the pack from her shoulders and covered her with her bedroll. “Sleep, if you can. I will keep watch.”

She tried, wrapping her blankets tight around her and laying down with her hands beneath her head, but she felt exposed without Fíli and Kíli on either side of her, making jokes and soothing her with their reliable presence. “This is useless,” she said, sitting up. “You may as well get some rest, I’m awake anyway.”

“You propose to keep watch?” he said, sounding amused.

“Oh, like you can see all that much better,” she grumbled. “By the time anything gets close enough for you to spot, it’ll be upon us.”

“Here,” he said, and she felt his arm go around her, pulling her against his side. He tucked her blanket back over her shoulder. “Try to sleep, at least. Think of Fíli and Kíli, they will need you at your best.”

“I am,” she said, pressing her face into his shoulder. “And it makes me so afraid. Who knows what’s being done to them?” He didn’t answer, only tightened his hold on her.

They were still for a long time, and Bella let her thoughts get away from her. What was happening to her brothers? Surely their captors would not treat them too cruelly? The elves at Rivendell had been kind. She took an unsteady breath and tried to soothe her nerves.

“Would you mind terribly if I hummed a bit?” she asked, tentatively. “Very quietly.”

Thorin started, as if he had been lost in thoughts of his own. “What?”

“That is-” she stammered, embarrassed, “there’s a song my mother would always sing me. And it reminds me of Fíli and Kíli now - they like it. I thought it might calm me, that’s all.” Then, in a voice barely loud enough to be heard, “I will be very quiet.”

“Yes,” Thorin said, swiftly. “If you think it will ease your mind.”

It did not comfort her so well, without Fíli and Kíli’s low voices to shore up her own, but it was better than the thick silence of the wretched forest, and good enough to lull her into sleep.

***

Thorin woke her as soon as it was light enough to see her hand in front of her face. “You didn’t sleep at all,” she said to him accusingly.

“Dwarves endure,” he said, dryly.

“Dwarves are more trouble than a house full of Tooks,” Bella grumbled. “Though both will clear your pantry. So!” she looked at him expectantly. “Is there a plan?”

“If the elves were feasting in this part of the forest, we must be very near to the heart of their kingdom,” Thorin said. “That is where they will be holding the others. Their stronghold is a series of caves and tunnels beneath the earth, guarded by a pair of enchanted gates.”

“That does seem difficult,” Bella admitted.

“Even if we could find them, once inside, there is no way out,” Thorin sighed. “I suppose I must try to ransom them. Perhaps Thranduil’s love of gold outweighs his fear of the dragon.”

“Let’s not give up so soon,” Bella shifted from foot to foot, her hand hovering over her pocket. “Besides... we may have an advantage they will not expect.”

Thorin raised an eyebrow. “Tell me.”

“I found something - back in the mountains. When I was lost,” Bella started to explain, then shook her head. “It would be easier if I showed you.”

Thorin nodded, and with a nervous smile, she slipped on the ring, half-expecting it to do nothing but leave her standing there, looking the fool. But from the look of unhappy surprise on Thorin’s face, she had been right about its magic.

He reached for her, his hands bumping clumsily against her shoulder. “What is this?” he he asked, roughly. “Undo it!”

She removed the ring, holding it up for his inspection. “When I wear it, I can move unseen.”

Thorin’s eyes fixed on her hand, and he stared incredulously. “You just happened upon this?” he asked. “And said nothing?”

Uncomfortable, she slipped the ring back into her pocket. “I haven’t thought of it much, to be honest. I can’t see what good it would have done us, before now.”

He shook his head, as if clearing it. “It matters not. But you are correct - with your little bauble, we may have a chance.”

“Do you have an idea?” Bella asked, eagerly.

“No,” said Thorin, clapping her on the shoulder. “But I have every confidence that you’ll think of something, once you get inside and scout a bit.”

Her eyes widened. “That’s madness! What would you have me do, tear down a wall?”

“Just look around, as I said. Find the others, and a way out. Another door, or a way through the gates. I will be there to help you.”

“I suppose I could do that,” she frowned. “But how are we going to get inside?”

He grinned. “That’s the easy part.”

***

The others had not gone quietly, leaving a trail of drag-marks and broken branches obvious enough for even Bella to follow, and she and Thorin found the elves without much trouble. Another time, she would have enjoyed her glimpse of their kingdom, with its fine, small houses dotted here and there among the trees, but the view was quite spoiled by a set of massive gates, and the knowledge that those she held dear were trapped behind them.

“Before we go on,” Thorin said, with a hand on her shoulder, “I must tell you that we are almost certain to fail. It is probable that the elves will never release me, and that you will be forced to either surrender and be imprisoned, or die, invisible, in their halls.”

“Thank you, but let’s hope we do a bit better than that!” Bella said.

He frowned at her. “My nephews will not thank me for this. Doubtless they would prefer I escort you to the edge of the forest and see to your safety before I return for them.”

“Just as well they aren’t here to run their own rescue.” Bella glared at him. “You may stop your dire warnings now, they will do you no good. I am going, and that is the end of the matter.”

She was shocked to see him smile, but that was nothing to how her heart thudded when he moved his hand to cup her face. “Loyalty, honor, and a willing heart,” he murmured, brushing a thumb over her cheek. “I did say I could ask no more.”

“You were not thinking of me,” she blushed, but she did not pull out of his reach.

His smile widened. “Not then.” He lowered his hand. “Come, let us retrieve the others. Who knows what havoc they may be wreaking on those fool elves.”

“I hope they locked up the good dishes,” she grinned.

***

Thorin approached the gates without trouble, and was apprehended immediately. Bella watched, close by and invisible, as the elves stripped him of his armor and weapons, and bound his hands with fine silver ropes.

“I am sorry for this, Master Dwarf,” said the ranking guard. “But there have been better times to visit the Greenwood.”

“I find that difficult to believe,” Thorin said smoothly, and Bella almost gave the game away by laughing. She followed them inside without incident, all the way to a spacious hall where an elf on a great throne surveyed the room, expressionless.

“My lord,” one of the guards said, kneeling, “We found this dwarf outside the caves, no doubt searching for his companions. Shall we put him with the others?”

The king waved towards Thorin’s bindings. “Not yet,” he said languidly, “and no need for those. We are old friends, are we not, Thorin Oakenshield?”

“Friends, Thranduil?” Thorin said, not moving as the guards unbound him. “That word must have another meaning, among the elves.”

The elf raised a brow. “You are impolite, for a guest in my halls.”

Thorin looked impassive. “‘Guest’ must mean something different, as well.”

“Perhaps a gesture of goodwill will remind you of your manners,” Thranduil smiled. “Kneel before me, and I will turn you loose.”

“And my kinsmen?” Thorin lifted his chin, and it struck Bella that even if he did kneel, which she had no doubt he would, to save the others, he would still look every inch a king.

Thranduil smirked, as if Thorin had pleased him by evading his trap. It looked more natural than his smile. “They must stay. They assaulted my people in the forest.”

“They came to beg, because you have lost control of your kingdom!” Thorin growled. “It is rife with wicked creatures that love the dark, so none may venture from the path to hunt or forage. And you allow it!”

“Do not speak to me of lost kingdoms,” Thranduil hissed, bearing down on Thorin in graceful strides that were not quite mortal. “I know why you are here, Thorin, son of Thráin, prince without a mountain!”

“Well,” Thorin’s lips curled, “it’s not to enjoy the scenery.”

Thranduil’s eyes widened, and for a moment Bella was sure that he would strike Thorin, but he only straightened, his face falling back into a mask of disinterest. “Your machinations will wake the dragon, which I cannot allow,” he said, with finality. “You will remain in my dungeons until I have your oath that you will abandon your quest.”

“Perhaps I will,” said Thorin, smiling as if he had won the upper hand. “Perhaps I won’t.”

Thranduil dismissed him with a wave, and Thorin walked out ahead of the guards, without prodding. Bella started to follow, but was distracted when one of the elves took Thorin’s gear in another direction. She paused, trying to commit his path to memory, and by the time she turned back to follow the dwarf, Thorin was out of sight.

***

After a few false starts, she began to get her bearings in the tunnels, though they all seemed similarly dreary and devoid of decoration. It was a large place, and not at all like her hobbit-hole, but soon she had memorized the path from the king’s hall to the kitchens, and from there to the store-rooms and back.

After that, it didn’t take long to find the dwarves. Bella simply found an elf that looked particularly irritated or disgusted, and headed off in whichever direction he was coming from. That’s how she found her way to an even dimmer and less pleasant set of caves, which she considered ideal for a prison.

It seemed the elves agreed with her, because almost as soon as she turned a corner she found herself face to face with Óin, though he was locked behind iron bars. She stepped out of his line of vision, and after checking carefully to make sure no one was coming, slipped off the ring. She would explain about it after they were free, she told herself. There was no sense in telling the tale a dozen times.

“Burglar!” Óin shouted as she stepped back into view. “Have you come to get us out?”

“Yes!” Bella nodded. “You’re the first one I’ve found. Do you know where they’re keeping the others?”

He frowned at her. “What? I can’t hear a word! Lost my ear trumpet in the goblin-caves,” he grumbled. “Where’s Glóin? Have you seen him?”

She shook her head, and his face fell. Frustrated, she wrung her hands. With the guards so close, she dare not shout, and she had no ink and paper to write a message. Then, looking down at her twisting fingers, she was struck by an idea. She moved her hands in the same pattern she had seen several times directed at Thorin behind his back, over the course of their journey. She was almost certain she knew what it meant.

“Lost,” Óin echoed, warmly. “Yes, that’s the right of it.” He smiled at her, his shoulders sagging in relief. “You’re a good lass. You’ll find him, won’t you?”

She nodded, thinking back to all the silent conversations she’d tried to puzzle out between Bifur and his kin, then attempted the gesture she had a good feeling meant ‘help.’

“You want my help, or offering yours?” he asked. Bella shrugged. “Well,” he said, “I was the first locked away, so I didn’t see where they took the others, but they marched them down that corridor.” He pointed to a turnoff a little ways ahead, and Bella signed her thanks.

“Don’t thank me,” he said, reaching out and taking her by the elbow. “Find the others. Get us out of here. And let no one see you use iglishmêk - it may ruffle some feathers.” She nodded, and he gave her a little shove. “Go on now.”

She left him with a little wave, wishing she knew more of the language. She would have liked to be able to tell him about Thorin, and that she would return when she could with news.

***

She found Glóin not far down the tunnels, fast asleep on the floor of his cell.

“Glóin!” she hissed, “Wake up!”

What!” he shouted as he shot into a sitting position. “I’ll fight all of you!”

“Glóin!” she said, exasperated. “It’s me.”

“Oh, burglar!” he said, relaxing. “Did they get you, too? How did you escape your cell?”

“No, they missed me in the forest,” she said. “I’m here to rescue you!”

“Excellent!” he grinned widely. “How?”

“Ah - that is the tricky bit,” she said, but he only shrugged.

“Well, you’ll think of something, no doubt. Have you seen my brother in here?”

She nodded, glad to have good news to offer. “Yes, he’s well and close by. He asked after you.”

Glóin snorted. “Of course he did, the mother hen. You tell him I’m fine. Just come and get us when you’re ready to go.” And with that, he lay back down to resume his nap.

***

Dori did not look as comfortable, standing in the middle of his cell, arms crossed.

“Dori!” Bella gasped, taken aback by his fierce glare. “What’s the matter?” she asked, a bit stupidly.

Bella?” he jumped, arms falling to his sides in surprise. “Oh, what are you doing in here? You leave right now, before someone sees you!” he admonished, walking up to the bars and pointing back up the tunnel.

“No, I’m here to rescue you,” she explained, hoping he would not ask her precisely how.

“And whose idea was that? Is Nori involved in this?” Dori asked, still frowning.

“No,” she said, “I haven’t found him yet.”

Dori’s shoulders slumped a little. “What about Ori? Have you seen him?” he asked, and she shook her head.

“I’ve only just gotten here,” she explained, trying to reassure him. “I’m sure I’ll find both of them soon.”

“Or Nori will find you,” Dori muttered. “They won’t hold him for long.”

***

“Bella,” Nori gaped at her when she found him. “You cannot be here.”

“But I am!” she grinned at him. “And I’ve found several of the others, including Dori!”

“No, you can’t,” he glared at her. “I’ve been timing the guards as they go by. They’re too frequent - you have no hope of sneaking around unnoticed for long.”

“I’m fine, Nori,” she said, looking around hastily. “But tell me about the guards.”

He pointed in the direction of Dori’s cell. “They come from that way, and head that way,” he said, gesturing down a far corridor. “Every four hours. I don’t see them come back again, so there must be another way to the guard station, which is a good sign.”

“How can you know it’s four hours?” Bella asked. “I can’t keep time down here all, without the sun to guide me.”

“The meals come too far apart to be three times a day, but not far enough to be once,” he explained. “Two patrols, then food. I’ve kept track; the pattern never varies.”

“Well, that is a help,” Bella said, impressed.

He winked. “This isn’t my first trip out of the mountains.”

***

When she found Ori, sitting calmly in his cell and engrossed in the book she’d lent him, she couldn’t help laughing. “Ori,” she said, fondly. “Have you held onto that all this time?”

He looked up, grinning, not seeming even a bit surprised to see her there. “I told you I’d take good care of it. Luck was with me in the goblin-tunnels; I’d been reading and it was in my pocket.”

“You are a marvel,” she said. “Are you doing well in here? Warm and fed?”

“Warm enough,” he admitted. “But barely fed - who can eat this stuff?” He kicked at his plate, which was still half-covered with the remains of his dinner.

“Oh Ori,” she sighed. “You have to do better than that! Look how thin you are!”

“But it’s all green,” he looked at her beseechingly. “I don’t like it.”

“I’ll tell Dori,” she threatened. “He’ll do something foolish if he thinks you’re not taking care of yourself.”

He shot her a wounded look. “Would you really?”

“Probably not,” she admitted.”But only to spare him the worry. You still have to eat!”

His shoulders slumped as he gave in. “All right. But tell Dori not to fuss?”

“I promise,” she said. “You can tell him yourself soon.”

***

Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur she found next, in a larger cell. “They put the three of you together! Some luck at last!” Bella said, and Bombur dropped a plate at the sound of her voice. Dirt spilled everywhere, and Bifur used his hand to sweep it on to his own plate without so much as looking up. “Everyone else is separated.”

Bofur grinned. “Thank Bifur! He played up his injury, and they put us here to look after him, not bein’ too keen on doing it themselves.”

“I am shocked at their lack of hospitality,” Bella smiled. “But what are you doing?

“Tunnelin’ out!” said Bombur, throwing aside another plateful of dirt. “How these fools expected to hold three miners of Ered Luin in a cell underground, I’ll never understand!”

“That hole must be two feet deep, and three wide!” Bella marveled. “How has no one noticed?”

Bofur laughed. “Bombur sits over it when they deliver our meals!”

“We’ve hit a bit of a snag,” Bombur changed the subject, red-faced. “It’s turned to mud at this depth. We must be near water.”

“That won’t hold us up for long,” Bofur promised. “We’ll be out in a jiff, but never fear! Bifur will make us come back for the rest of you. He’s the responsible one.”

***

Balin lay on the floor of his cell, snoring softly.

“Hello?” Bella whispered. “Balin? Are you awake?”

He sat up immediately, straightening his robes and smiling. “Hello lass. I was wondering if we’d be seeing you.”

“Were you faking?” she asked, brows raised to her hairline.

“Of course!” he beamed at her. “Never know what you might overhear, when no one thinks you’re listening.”

“Oh,” she nodded. “That’s sensible. Heard anything?”

“A good deal of complaining,” he said, cheerfully. “The guards are having rather a hard time with their new prisoners. Several are thinking of requesting a transfer.”

“I’d do the same,” she said. “Though hopefully we won’t be troubling them for long.”

“Just so,” he agreed. “Now, if you see my brother, make sure he’s not doing anything regrettable. Bless him, but he got none of our family’s brains.”

***

She followed a repetitive, echoing thud to Dwalin’s cell, and when she found him, it took him a few moments to notice she was there. He had made himself quite busy, slamming his shirt-wrapped fist repeatedly into the bars.

“I don’t think that’s going to work,” she said, hands on her hips.

“They’ll give eventually,” he grunted, not looking over at her. “Everything does. Where’s Thorin?”

“Captured.” The banging intensified, and she grabbed for his wrist. “Stop that, you’ll only hurt yourself.”

“What else should I do?” he glared at her. “I’m not staying in here.”

“Thorin and I have a plan - well, sort of a plan. A plan to have a plan,” she hedged.

He rolled his eyes. “That sounds like him, the great royal idiot. Dís is never going to let us live this down. Imprisoned by elves.”

“We’ll have you out soon enough!” she assured him. “But try not to damage yourself in the meantime. We might need to fight our way out,” she coaxed.

“Promises, promises,” he grumbled.

***

“Bell!” Fíli gasped, reaching through the bars to grab her wrists. “How did you get in here?” Before she could answer, he released her and took a step back, then dropped to the floor and covered his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he gasped. “But I thought you were alone in the woods, wandering and hungry. I knew Kíli, at least, was sheltered and fed here, but I didn’t see what became of you during our capture.”

“I was with Thorin,” Bella reached as far as she could through the bars, straining to put a hand on his shoulder. “So you know he has kept me quite safe, which is better than I can say for the rest of you!”

“Good,” Fíli said, wiping at his face with the back of his hand. “Somebody ought to. On my watch you’ve been lost under a mountain, attacked by orcs, nearly stolen by a bear, and starved in a forest. And now look where we are! I’ve made a poor showing as your protector.”

“Shush!” she said, gently. “I have no need of a protector - but I do need my brothers, and I wouldn’t trade either of them for the world.”

“Do you know where Kíli is?” Fíli asked, reaching up to twine their fingers. “I think I hear him shouting, sometimes, but I’m not sure. I hope I’m wrong.”

“What direction?” Bella asked. “I’ll find him, I promise.”

Fíli pointed. “Left out the door, and maybe downwards? This place is a maze.”

She smiled. “I know it. But I’ll find him and come back.”

“Be safe,” he warned her, tugging at her hand for emphasis before releasing her.

***

Finding Kíli was no simple matter. The tunnel outside of Fíli’s cell lead up, not down, so she had to explore every offshoot, looking for one that lead deeper into the caves. She wandered for what seemed like hours and hours, ducking into corners and barely breathing every time an elf passed near. Just when she was ready to sit down and cry for a bit, she finally heard the shouting.

Let me out!” someone yelled from far down a corridor. “Where is my brother? Where are my friends? Open this door!” That was followed by a loud banging, and then more shouting.

The area around the cell was deserted, and Bella couldn’t blame the elves for trying to avoid the noise. “Kíli,” she hissed, slipping off her ring. “Be quiet!”

Bell!” he shouted, then slapped a hand over his mouth. “Sorry!” he whispered. “But they never listen, anyway. I could scream ‘hurrah, they’ve come to rescue me!’ and nobody would turn up.”

“Let’s not risk it,” Bella said, dragging him to the bars by a sleeve and hugging him as best she could. “Are you all right? Have they been feeding you? Fíli is worried.”

He made a face. “Of course he is, why do you think I’ve been shouting?” His eyes widened. “Is he well? He fought like a mad thing when they dragged me off, I was afraid they’d do something to him.”

“He looked fine, just upset to be parted from you,” Bella assured him. “He’ll be better now, knowing you’re all right.”

“And Thorin? The others?” Kíli pressed. “Where is everybody?”

“I haven’t found Thorin yet, but the others are all right. Anxious, more than anything. Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur are trying to tunnel out.”

He grinned. “They’ll manage it too, I’ll bet.” Then his face fell. “You’re being careful?” he asked. “Safe and all? Gah,” he wrinkled his nose. “I don’t even know what to ask. I wish Fíli were here. Oh, food! Are you eating?” He frowned at his empty plate. “Come back in a while, I’ll save you half of mine next time they feed me.”

She winced. “I may have to take you up on that - I haven’t wanted to risk stealing anything."

“No risks, Bell,” he said, unusually solemn. “Be careful and quiet, you’re good at that. And don’t steal anything! I’ll keep aside part of my food for you.”

“What I need more than food is a bit of rest,” she said. “They don’t come down here often, you said?”

“Not much,” he frowned. “But could you sleep through my shouting? They might pass through more if I stop.”

She signed. “I couldn’t. You’re far too loud.”

He patted her hair. “Have a rest now, if you can. I’ve been yelling my head off for hours, I could use a break.”

“Later,” she shook her head. “Once I’ve found Thorin. I couldn’t sleep until then, anyway.”

“You’ll get us out of here, Bell,” he grinned at her. “I know it. Oh, it was so clever of us to snatch you up! Fíli really is never wrong about that kind of thing.”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, I’ll certainly do my best. I’m going to tell Fíli you’re all right now, before he thinks the worst.”

Kíli pulled her in for a kiss on the cheek, then let her go.

***

She retraced her steps as best she could, only going wrong once or twice, and correcting her course quickly. Fíli was glad of her news, and begged her to rest a bit before moving on.

“I can’t,” she said, regretfully. “I still haven’t found Thorin. He’ll think something’s gone wrong.”

“Something has gone wrong,” Fíli said, wryly. “We’ve all been captured by elves and locked in a dungeon.”

“Besides that, Fíli!” she yawned, and his face fell.

“I hate this,” he said. “Look at you, you’re asleep standing up, and pale as death.” He slammed a fist against the bars of his cell. “And I can’t do so much as comfort you. It’s maddening!”

She reached over to pat at his hand. “It’s a comfort to see you, alive and unharmed, not to speak of fed!” She put a hand over her stomach. “What time do they come by with your next meal? Kíli promised me half of his, and I sorely need it.”

“Here,” Fíli walked over to where his plate rested in the corner of his cell, and picked up most of a roll. “It’s not much, but they won’t be back for hours. I’ll save half of mine for you, too.”

She took the roll, breaking it into pieces and eating them as quickly as she could. It was cold and stale, but she couldn’t help the sigh of pleasure that escaped as she finished it. “Oh, it has been too long since I had bread!” she said, rapturously. Then she shook her head. “No, don’t put anything aside for me next time. Maybe the time after that. We’re all going to need our strength.”

“I can spare it,” Fíli said, looking happier. “The meals aren’t stingy, in spite of the day-old bread, and you’re far too thin.”

“Not the next meal,” she said, firmly. “Switch off with Kíli; we have all been hungry too long, and are none of us as stout as we should be.”

He opened his mouth to say more, but footsteps echoed down the corridor, and in a blink, Bella vanished.

***

She searched and searched for Thorin, wandering up and down the tunnels and delivering messages between the other dwarves as she retraced her steps. Exhaustion weighed her down, making her slow and clumsy, and twice she was almost caught when she fumbled the ring as she put it on. It was only luck that put her around the corner from the guardroom in time to hear two elves inside having an argument.

“You bring it to him, I did it last time,” one of the elves complained.

“It’s your job to do it every time!” the other replied, exasperated. “Why should it bother you, anyway?”

“He stares at me!”

“From behind iron bars!” Bella’s breath caught. They could only be speaking of Thorin, unless these prisons were vaster and fuller than she had seen. He was the only dwarf she knew would could unnerve with just a look. The elf continued, “go on and bring him his food. He can do nothing to you.”

“But his eyes!” the first elf protested. “I feel as if they would burn me.”

“Let me know if they do,” the other said, dryly. “We’ll move him to the kitchens and he can help prepare the meals.”

“You are terrible. You will be sorry indeed if I do not return.” This was followed by the creaking of a door-hinge, and Bella threw herself around the corner, desperate see where the elf would lead.

He emerged from the chamber, carrying a covered plate and scowling. His friend came out behind him, and patted him on the back. “Good luck to you. If you are not back shortly, I will send someone to fetch your remains.”

The elf moved on without deigning to respond, and it was all Bella could do to catch up without alerting him to her presence. His legs were long, and he moved through the corridors quick enough that she was forced to run, lest he get too far ahead and she lose him among the turns.

At last, he stopped outside a cell she had not seen before, set back out of the torchlight. He abandoned the plate in front of it and was off without a word, moving a little faster than seemed easy.

She approached the cell, still invisible as she peered inside. And there he was, the last of her missing dwarves, sitting against the back wall and staring darkly into the hallway.

“Thorin,” she whispered, slipping the ring off, and he stood up fast enough to be unsteady. She could not help smiling as she reached through the bars. “Found you.”

He stared at her for a moment, and she began to pull back, embarrassed. Before she could, he stepped forward, pressing her hands together between his palms. “I am glad to see you safe,” he said, softly. “What news of my kin?”

“All accounted for,” she said, trying to sound more assured than she felt. “All safe.”

“Do you know,” he said, distracted, “that my ancestors built these cells? The bars were forged in Erebor - a gesture of friendship between our peoples.”

“That’s rather terrible,” Bella made a face.

He hummed his agreement, then asked, “what have you seen?”

She told him about the maze-like dungeons, and how they had separated the company, from him and from each other. She mentioned Kíli’s yelling and Bofur’s tunnel, and that she knew where the weapons were stored, and any other details she could think of, not sure what might help. He listened carefully to all she had to say, then nodded.

“You’ve done well,” he said. “Better than I had hoped, to have found everyone so soon.”

“Not well enough,” Bella said. “If we can’t leave through the front gates, how will we ever get out?” She sagged against the bars, closing her eyes.

He grabbed her shoulder to steady her. “Are you ill?” he asked, touching her forehead.

“No, just tired,” she murmured, enjoying the deep rumble of his voice, and his warm hands.

“Have you not slept?” he chastised. “It’s been a day at least.”

“Feels like two,” she said, “but who can tell in a place like this? Anyway,” she sighed, “I couldn’t sleep until I found you, could I?”

There was a stretch of silence. “Then sleep now,” he said, gently. “I will wake you if anyone approaches.”

“Shouldn’t,” she said, letting herself slide to the ground.

“Should,” he corrected, kneeling beside her and brushing her curls off her face. She could almost hear his smile. “I will hum that song of yours, if you protest.”

“Maybe I ought to, just for that,” she said as sleep overcame her, and if he answered, she never knew.

***

The days that followed were very hard on Bella. She was cold, in spite of her cloak, and after a while she was sure she’d never shake the chill from her bones. The dwarves set aside some of their food for her, but she tried not to take much, as they were only eating twice a day themselves, and so she was always hungry.

She kept the ring on almost constantly, only taking it off long enough to check in on the dwarves and reassure them that Thorin was working on a plan.

Most of her time was spent creeping about, searching for opportunities or information they could use in their escape. But the tunnels seemed to go on forever, and she was hesitant to travel too far from the prison cells, for fear she would lose the way back, as Thorin had predicted.

From the way Fíli had begun to frown at her, she knew the lack of food and sleep was beginning to show, and though she didn’t like to worry him, she could not bring herself to visit him less. The few moments she spent with him and Kíli were her only comfort, and he seemed to sense it, because he did not scold or press her, though she could tell he wanted to.

She made her way to Thorin’s cell at least once a day, in spite of the time it took to reach him. He seemed anxious to hear her news, though there was precious little to tell him; the most she ever discovered were store-rooms and passages, nothing of any use.

She slept there, because it was far enough out of the way that the elves did not pass often, and she knew he would not fail to rouse her at the barest hint of footsteps. Still, she felt uncomfortable falling asleep in an open hallway, and kept her ring on. Once or twice she woke to Thorin’s hand on her arm or shoulder, as if he were checking that she was still there.

Nori could have told her how many days had passed, as he was keeping a careful count, but she made a point never to ask him. Over a week, she was sure, and the dwarves were beginning to get impatient. The exception was Thorin, who only nodded when she made her reports, and told her he had every confidence in her ability to burgle them out of there. It was all very distressing.

But then, when she was exploring a deep tunnel that lead to the king’s wine-cellars, she came upon the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen: two wide trap doors, open to reveal the gentle rush of flowing water. She barely stopped herself from clapping her hands in delight as she watched the elves pitch barrel after barrel into the stream, murmuring among themselves about deliveries and the settlement up the river.

She had found their way out. All they needed was the chance to use it.

***

Bella could have embraced the wine-steward when he invited the chief guard to join him in sampling the wares. When they passed out at the table, arm in arm, she very nearly kissed him. It must have been strong stuff, whatever they were drinking, because neither of them so much as twitched as she lifted his key-ring.

She went to Thorin first, running as fast as she could down the tunnels, and clutching the keys to her chest to muffle their sound. She didn’t even pause to take her ring off, just fumbled with the lock until the door swung open.

He did not move. “Bella,” he called, uncertainly, and she dropped the ring into her pocket, there being no point in subterfuge now.

“Of course it’s me! Have I come at an awkward time?” she said, sharply. “Because I can go and fetch the others-”

He flew out of the cell, grabbing her and crushing her against his chest. “You’ve done it,” he said, reverently.

She squirmed her way free. “I haven’t done anything yet,” she said. “But I do have a plan.”

He only stood there, watching her, and finally she grabbed his hand and started pulling him up the tunnels. “You haven’t mentioned any plan,” he said, allowing himself to be led.

“I didn’t want to jinx it,” she admitted, and he squeezed her fingers.

Kíli’s cell was next, and he bounced between Bella and Thorin like a mad thing, lifting her off her feet and clapping Thorin on the arm several times. Fíli was no better, he actually picked up Kíli, who laughed in spite of his protests.

So it went, as they gathered the others, with the dwarves slapping each other (and Bella, more gently) on the back and smiling as if they’d been apart for years instead of days.

After a brief delay to admire Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur’s tunnel, which was now five feet deep and buttressed with a mix of pebbles and stale elven-bread, Bella started to lead them to the lower tunnels.

“Wait!” Thorin put a hand on her shoulder. “We need our weapons. You know where they are.”

“Are you serious?” Bella shrieked. “Now?”

“Now or never!” Glóin said, and the others nodded in agreement.

“Fine!” she threw up her hands. “But if you’re caught again, you’re on your own!”

They rushed to the store-room where the elves had stowed their gear, and Bella tapped her foot impatiently as they armed themselves, hoping the additional weight wouldn’t interfere with her plan. “Let’s go!” she prodded. “I can’t believe we haven’t been spotted.”

“It’s night,” Nori said, stashing a knife in his hair. “Even elves sleep, surely.”

“How did you even know that?” she demanded. “Never mind, no time, tell me later. Let’s go.”

She led them down the tunnels that opened into the wine-cellar, only stopping once, to replace still-sleeping guardsman’s keys. It seemed the least she could do in return for his unwitting help.

“Here we are!” she said, waving at the open casks near the trap doors. “Everybody in, and be quick about it! The elves will be back soon, and we can all escape by water!”

“What, in a barrel?” Kíli gaped.

“Yes, in a barrel, unless you can hold your breath!” Bella snapped.

The dwarves looked at each other, then back to the barrels, doubt plain on their faces. Their reluctance sent her into a panic. “There is no other way!” she said, pushing at them. “Get in the barrels or go back to your cells!”

Still, none of them moved. “This is the only way out, and we are losing it!” she cried. “Please.”

They turned to Thorin, who stared at Bella as if he were about to make a profound judgement. “Get in the barrels,” he commanded them at last, without a waver.

The dwarves did, as quickly as they were able, with Bella and Thorin sealing them up as fast and as well as they could.

“See you soon!” she smiled at Kíli, who made a face as she dropped the lid over his head. In a few minutes, the job was done. “Now you,” she said, as she gestured Thorin towards the last open barrel.

He paused. “Not before you.”

“Thorin,” she said, slowly. “We cannot both get in a barrel. Who will get us out again?”

“I will,” he said, and Bella stiffened at the sound of voices in the corridor.

“You’re being ridiculous. They will see you! I have the ring!” she hissed, shoving at him.

He didn’t budge. “Swear to me,” he said, roughly, then paused as if he didn’t know what to demand.

“I swear I will beat you over the head with a broomstick if you do not get in that barrel!” she ordered, pinching his arm as hard as she could.

“What did we ever do without you?” he marveled, but he did obey, and she managed to get the barrel sealed and the ring on just as the door opened.

Dwarves. She despaired of ever understanding them.

***

The trip down the river made Bella long for the elves’ dungeon. She was soaked to the skin, and colder than ever, so cold she thought she might die of it, in addition to being half-mad with worry. The barrels knocked and banged into each other, and though she tried to keep track of which ones held the dwarves, it was too difficult.

She clung tightly to an empty barrel, wishing she’d thought to grab for Fíli or Kíli’s, so she might reassure herself that she hadn’t killed them with her foolish plan. They passed out of the forest as the sun rose, and Bella gasped to see how close they had come to the Mountain. She stared, trying to reconcile the ominous figure rising proudly out of the horizon and the longing and hopefulness with which Thorin and the others spoke of their home, but all that came to mind was that within slept a dragon.

It was agony, watching the men of the town herd the barrels so roughly to the edge of the water, and waiting for them to finish their work and leave was even worse. Finally, they headed back towards their strange village in the center of the lake, and Bella was free to slip off the ring and run to the nearest barrel.

She pulled at it, trying to haul it further up the bank, but it would not budge, so she pried desperately at its lid. It gave way all of a sudden, and she staggered back a step, then dropped it to the shore in her haste to check on whoever was inside.

It was Thorin. He glared at her balefully, but the effect was rather spoiled by the wet hair hanging in thick strands over his face. “Next time,” he said, roughly, “you go into the elvish prison, and I will make the plan.”

The weight of her relief nearly knocked her to the ground. “Oh, excellent, you’re alive,” she breathed, in a voice not nearly as sharp as she was aiming for. He crawled out of the barrel and tried to rise, but collapsed to his knees.

“Oh!” Bella said, leaning over to embrace him around the shoulders. “You’re not all right, are you?” she asked, her eyes darting between him and the other barrels waiting in the water.

“I am fine,” he said, though his voice was hoarse and unsteady. He put a hand over one of hers. “I only needed a moment.”

“I should go and free the others,” she said, not moving away.

Gingerly, and with a mighty effort, Thorin hauled himself to his feet. “Yes,” he said. “I am with you. Let’s go.”

***

Chapter Text

The other dwarves came out of the river no happier than Thorin, and most were a good deal worse for wear. Fíli and Kíli, whose barrels had been well-lined with straw, were the best off; their journey had been more or less comfortable, though tedious, and they were able to stretch their sore limbs and help Bella and Thorin free the others.

“Come on, old man!” Kíli said, dragging Dwalin up the bank by an arm. “Oof! Fíli, I need a hand.”

“Give me a moment!” Fíli called back, trying to pry Bombur loose from his own barrel. “Here now, I don’t like this any better than you. But try to help, at least!” But Bombur would only lay there, senseless, and it took Fíli and Thorin together to break the barrel into pieces around him and drag him from the water.

“Worst day of m’life,” Bofur slurred, as soon as Bella fought free the lid covering him. He didn’t even bother to stand, just crawled up the bank and collapsed in a heap next to his brother.

“We had our weapons,” Glóin groaned, checking the edge on his axes. “We should have fought our way out properly, not crept off in the night like rats.”

“Aye,” said Dwalin, scowling towards the river. “Next time, do us a favor and just leave us to rot.”

“Enough!” Bella shouted, pointing her finger at Dwalin. “I skulked around those wretched dungeons for days with barely any food or sleep. I carried your messages and kept your spirits up while you rested in your cells, waiting for me to do the impossible and find a way out. Which I did. Alone! And not only are you free of your prison, you are through the forest and within sight of your mountain. And still you complain! Well, I am sorry your trip was uncomfortable. Perhaps next time, like me, you can cling desperately to the outside of a barrel as it floats all night in a cold river! And I will stay safe and dry and wait for you to rescue me!” And then she burst into great, heaving sobs that were as much from relief as anger.

Fíli, who’d been approaching Dwalin with a very hard look in his eyes, changed course and headed for Bella, but Thorin got there first. Wordlessly, he put an arm around Bella’s shoulders, and gently pulled until they were seated on the muddy ground. Only then did he look back towards the others, sharply enough that even those who had said nothing flinched away. “I am sure what everyone meant,” he said pointedly, “was to thank you for everything you’ve done on their behalf.”

“No, no,” wept Bella. “I’m sorry. I know you all had a miserable time in those wretched things. I do beg your pardon, I’m just feeling poorly.”

“What’s wrong?” Kíli asked, planting himself on her other side and pressing his palm against her cheek. “You’re ice-cold!”

“I just need some food, and a bit of rest,” she said, closing her eyes and leaning into his hand.

“Of course we’re all grateful, Bella, you know that,” Dori began, but Thorin cut him off.

“Apologize later. Right now we must make for the town, and hope that its people are feeling kindly disposed towards travelers.”

***

The people of Lake-town were very kind indeed, and the excitement over their visitors (whose appearance might signify their own upcoming change in fortune) spread through the town like fire. Children who saw them in the streets ran home to tell their parents, and soon there were crowds peering out of doorways as they passed, whispering among themselves and pointing, if they were bold.

The king returns!” they said to each other. “The king under the mountain has come back!

The Master of the town met them outside of his great hall, surrounded by a contingent of armed guards, and the elven raft-men, who had escorted the barrels down the river. “That is them,” one nodded towards the company. “Those are the prisoners who trespassed on our lands, and escaped our king’s justice.”

“Is this true?” asked the Master, looking as if he hoped it was, so that he might send them off with the elves and be done with them.

“It is true that we were wrongfully detained on our journey through Mirkwood,” Thorin said, staring straight ahead, forcing the elves and men to step back in order to meet his gaze. “It is also true that we have returned to reclaim our homeland. I am Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, who was king under the mountain!”

This announcement caused a great ruckus among the townspeople, most of whom had been following silently as the company progressed through the streets. Children shrieked and sidled as close to the dwarves as they dared (which was still well out of arm’s reach) and some of the elders began to sing old songs heralding the king’s return.

“Why do you stop my companions and I outside your door, as if we were no better than common beggars, come to ask for scraps?” Thorin continued, tilting his head so the silver chain around his neck flashed in the sunlight.

Sensing the mood had shifted against him, the Master ushered them inside, giving Thorin his own place at the head table, and seating the others around him. The elves left quickly, no doubt to report to their king the fate of his missing prisoners.

Once food was put in front of them, the spirits of the dwarves improved considerably, and they tucked into the meal with gusto. “Ugh,” said Fíli, shoving a plate of baked apples away from him. “Slide this down the table, would you, Kíli? I can’t bear to look at an apple right now; my barrel reeked of them.”

“Shame, that!” Kíli said, taking a large bite directly off the serving tray. “Delicious!”

Fíli paled, and with a sigh, Bella reached over to move the plate herself. But her sigh turned into a harsh cough, which went on so long she bent double with the force of it, leaning on her arm over the table.

“You said food would make you better!” Kíli said, half out of his chair.

“Food and rest,” she said, waving him back into his seat. “A night’s sleep in a proper bed and I’ll be right as rain, I’m sure.”

Kíli looked towards Fíli, who shook his head. “I think Óin ought to have a look at you,” he said, running a hand over her back.

“I agree,” said Thorin, rising to his feet. “Keep an eye on her while I see about lodgings.”

“None of that will be necessary,” Bella said, sitting up straight. “I’ve taken a chill, that’s all.”

“If you can make it to a count of ten before you cough again, I will run and tell Thorin not to bother,” Fíli said, sounding terribly sure of himself. “One, two, three-”

Bella coughed, then glared at him through narrowed eyes. “Not a word.”

“Here,” he said, handing her a cup. “Drink, you’ll feel better.” She did, sighing as the cool liquid passed her throat. “You were right you know, earlier,” Fíli said, taking the cup from her limp fingers when she was through. “It’s our turn to take care of you, now. So let us help you to bed, and let Óin have a look at you. It’s little enough, after all you’ve done, and it will make us feel better.”

“You make it hard to object, when you are so reasonable,” she complained. “How does anyone ever win an argument against you?”

“Very few dwarves respond to logic,” he grinned at her. “Kíli would have punched me in the face by now.”

***

They were put up in an empty house near the edge of town. It was small, but the lower level was spacious enough for thirteen pallets, once the furniture was pushed against the walls, and there was a little bedroom upstairs for Bella.

“Why are they helping us?” she asked, as Fíli got her settled under a wool blanket. He and Kíli climbed up on the bed after her, and she leaned against their sides for the warmth.

“They have much to gain from the reestablishment of the old trade routes,” Thorin explained, glancing impatiently at the doorway. “If we are successful, they may even plan to rebuild the city of Dale, which was destroyed when Smaug took the Mountain.”

“So it was not only the dwarves who lost their home,” she said sympathetically, and Óin entered the room before Thorin could respond, with the other dwarves in tow.

“She has been coughing,” Thorin said, hauling Kíli off the bed and out of Óin’s way. “And her skin is chilled-”

“May as well stop talking,” Óin said, leaning Bella forward and placing a hand over her back. “Can’t hear a word. Deep breath now, hobbit.” Bella tried, but her muscles shuddered harshly as she forced air into her lungs, and another coughing fit overcame her.

Óin put a hand on her forehead, then squeezed her jaw. “Open up, let’s have a look,” he said, peering into her mouth. “As I suspected,” he nodded. “Infection.”

“In her chest?” Thorin asked, his fingers gesturing gracefully along with his words, for Óin’s benefit. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Can be,” Óin nodded, and Kíli scrabbled back onto the bed, making a place for himself by Fíli. “Lots of rest, keep her warm, and tea. Plenty of tea.”

“I’ll see to it!” said Dori, already heading towards the door. “Does anyone know her preferred blend?”

“Something to help her sleep,” ordered Thorin. “The rest of you - out.”

Nobody moved. “Was I unclear?” Thorin growled.

“Clear enough,” Balin said, smiling placatingly. “But the lass is sick on our account, and I don’t think any of us are keen to leave her.”

“Oh, it was not your fault,” Bella began, but Dwalin shook his head.

“Nah, you were right,” he said, kicking at the door frame. “You had it the hardest, back in that thrice-cursed dungeon, and then in the river. Shouldn’t have carried on so, ungrateful wretches though we are.”

“Anyhow, we’re all sorry,” Bofur said. “And we’ll make amends any way we can.”

“That is all well and good,” Thorin said, “But she is tired now, and ill. Your amends must wait until tomorrow, at the earliest, unless you would see her worsen.”

That sent them shuffling out, with regretful looks and promises to return in the morning. “That means you two, as well,” Thorin said, glaring over Bella at his nephews.

Fíli looked incredulous. “You’re not serious? Of course we are not going anywhere. She might need something.”

“Please, can’t they stay?” Bella pleaded, closing her eyes. “I’d rather not be by myself.”

Thorin frowned. “I had thought to - yes, fine,” he said, shaking his head. “But the slightest disturbance, and I’ll have Dwalin haul them out by their ears. And Kíli, get your boots off the blankets!”

Kíli got up sheepishly and walked around to the other side of the bed, shucking his boots and outerwear as he went. Fíli did the same on his side, and in a moment Bella was between them. It was a tight fit, even in a man-sized bed, and the dwarves had to contort a bit to avoid crowding her. “We’ll be fine, Uncle,” Fíli said, and Thorin rolled his eyes despairingly.

“You’ll have lost her under the bed by morning,” he predicted, shoving Kíli’s things into a neat pile.

“That was a bullfrog, and I was twenty!” Kíli protested, blushing.

“It’s a bigger bed. There’s room enough,” Thorin grumbled, as he closed the door to the hallway behind him.

***

Bella’s cough was no easier the next day, and her skin had gone from chilled to flushed and over-warm. Óin pronounced it a good sign, but nobody felt easy, seeing her so still and quiet.

Dori and Balin sat with her in the morning, ostensibly to keep an eye on things while Fíli and Kíli got breakfast, but neither left when Fíli returned, and over the course of the morning the rest of the dwarves made their way into the little room. They spent the day talking and seeing to their weapons, and Ori, Dori, and Balin took turns reading out loud from Bella’s book, which everyone seemed to find interesting.

She did better for the company, and by mid-afternoon her fever had come down enough that Óin declared her past the worst of it, though she still felt tired and out of sorts.

“I hope you’re well enough to come down for supper,” Fíli said, wiping at her forehead with a cool cloth. “Kíli’s been in town all day, mending pots and pans for coin. He said he promised you a cake.”

“You’re not serious,” Bella said, remembering the laden table from the night before. “We could have just asked for one. There may already be a cake here.”

“But then it wouldn’t be from Kíli!” he grinned. “Besides, it’s good for him. He likes the work, and it wouldn’t do to let his skills get rusty.”

“Is there even work for him? Surely they have a local man for that,” Bella said.

Glóin snorted. “Who would choose a man over a dwarf for their repairs? And some will be keen to test his mettle for the novelty, if nothing else.”

“Besides, he’s always been popular among the wives, our Kíli,” Fíli winked. “When he was younger they’d pinch his cheeks. Now... well, he still gets pinched.”

All the dwarves laughed, even Thorin, to Bella’s great delight. The sight of him, relaxed and amused enough to smile, was rare enough that she almost felt she ought to make a note of it, wherever such things were tallied.

“Do not make light of Kíli’s skills,” Thorin said, when he had regained his composure. “He is a fine tinker. Give him a hundred years, and he’ll be better still.”

“I would never!” Fíli snickered, not quite under control. “He is very good, far better than I.”

“Kíli finds joy in seeing broken things mended. You take no pleasure in such work, and it shows.”

Fíli shrugged. “I cannot delight in fixing what was poorly made to start with. Not when I could be making something of my own.”

“Oh, what do you make, Fíli? Swords?” Bella asked, craning her neck to get a better look at the knife he was cleaning.

“I have, though they are not so fine as my uncle’s,” Fíli said, sheathing the blade.

“He is a jeweler,” Thorin said, laying a hand on his nephew’s shoulder. “With skills enough to rival a dwarf twice his age.”

Fíli blushed. “That is not true. And I haven’t worked with anything really fine, so I would hardly call myself a jeweler.”

“He made a pair of earrings that fed us for a month,” Thorin boasted. “Salvaged the stones from some ill-made trinket he and Kíli picked up on one of their outings. Garnets, I believe?”

Fíli rolled his eyes. “Thorin, everyone has heard that story a hundred times.”

“They can hear it a hundred more, and I will not be tired of it,” Thorin said. “When we reach Erebor, you will have gems enough to practice on, that I promise.”

“Well I hadn’t heard it, and I think it’s lovely,” Bella said. “I can’t wait to see something you’ve made.”

“I’ll do you up some proper beads, when I can get the materials,” Fíli said, tugging on one of her braids. “Don’t expect too much though, I’m not so talented as my uncle claims.”

“Ah, let him be proud,” said Dwalin. “He’s all thumbs with delicate work. Does a fine blade though, I’ll give him that.”

“You should speak with more care,” Thorin said, tipping his chair back. “Or I am liable to forget myself, and tell stories of our apprenticing days. You know the one I mean.”

“You swore that would go with us to our tombs!” Dwalin growled, shoving at Thorin, who toppled against the bed. He hooked Dwalin’s knee with a foot as he went down, tripping him into Ori, and causing Dori to fling him into Glóin and Bombur in his haste to check on his brother. In a moment, only Bella and Fíli, who was sitting cross-legged at the foot of her bed, weren’t part of the chaotic rumble.

“I feel as if we ought to do something,” Bella said, wincing as Nori bit down on Bofur’s hand.

“Let them have their fun,” said Fíli, reaching up to catch a teacup out of the air.

“Well, in that case...” Bella giggled, as Thorin yanked Fíli over the side of the bed. They tussled for a bit; Thorin had the advantage of height and experience, but Fíli was terribly quick, twisting out of every hold Thorin tried to use to pin him.

When Balin overturned the teapot onto Dwalin’s head, Bella found herself laughing so hard that her cough returned, and all she could do was press a hand against her chest and grope blindly at the bedside table for her cup of water.

Enough!” yelled a voice from the doorway, and everything came to a standstill as Kíli stormed into the room. He moved directly to her bedside, walking over Bifur and Dori in the process, and put the cup directly into her still-searching hand before turning to address the room.

“I don’t know what is going on here,” he said, glaring at each of the dwarves in turn, “but my sister is ill. She needs rest, and quiet, and someone to hand her the blasted water when she coughs! Even I know that! Now, the townsfolk have brought us dinner, so you had better go downstairs and eat and get ahold of yourselves, or I will throw you out and tend to her myself!”

Most of them filed out, grumbling and looking abashed, and he nodded, satisfied. He turned to Bella. “What’s wrong?” he asked, at her stunned expression.

“It was like seeing Thorin in miniature,” she said, eyes wide. “Is that really my Kíli?”

“What a question,” he smiled, and she felt reassured immediately. “Miniature?”

“Oh, Kíli,” called Fíli from the doorway. “Did you get-”

“Shh!” Kíli interrupted him, looking meaningfully at Bella from the corners of his eyes. “Yes, I got it. Oh, curse it, it’s on the table and Bombur is down there! I’ll be back, Bell!” he said, as he ran out the door, with Fíli laughing as he followed.

Only Thorin remained by her bedside, with Dori hanging back by the door, something clearly troubling him. “Are you coming down?” he asked Thorin, frowning. “Because it isn’t proper, leaving you in her bedroom, I mean.” He bit his lip, then straightened, ready to hold his ground.

“Quite right,” Thorin said, rising from his chair and moving to the doorway. “We should all talk in any case, we have plans to make for our departure.”

Dori left the room, appeased, and Thorin shut and bolted the door behind him. Bella could not help but laugh. “I had not taken you for a trickster.”

“There was no falsehood, I should join the others,” he said as he returned to her bedside, eyes lit with humor.

“But here you are.”

“Perhaps I have missed our talks.”

“You chose your moment poorly then, you’ll be watching me sleep very shortly,” she murmured, leaning back against the headboard.

“It could be that I missed that, too.”

She smiled. “You are in a strange mood today.”

He righted one of the chairs near the head of her bed and took a seat. “Yes, I ought to apologize, as I recall you prefer me surly. But I cannot help feeling lighter of heart, with the Mountain so close.”

“Did I say that?” she asked, closing her eyes. “How wrong I was. I like seeing you smile much better.” She drifted at the edge of sleep for a while, lulled by the touch of a cool hand on her forehead, and a low voice coming from far away. Eventually, she opened her eyes, then snapped them shut against the light of the setting sun.

Idùzhib, do you wake?”

“Hmm?” she blinked, then forced her eyes open. “What’s that?”

Thorin brushed her hair out of her face. “I asked if you were sleeping.”

“No,” she turned her face into her pillow. “You called me something, I heard it.”

He smirked at her pout. “A fever-dream, perhaps?”

She smiled, amused and still half-sleeping. “Mama used to call me her Little Pretty. Was something like that? Pretty, I mean, I know you think me little.”

“Pretty?” he mused, pulling her blankets straight over her shoulders. “No, I would not have said that.” She frowned, and he smiled wider. “‘Pretty’ is for quartz and river-stones; you are nothing so common. There is a light in you that outshines even the Arkenstone, Erebor’s great treasure.”

“Oh.” She locked her gaze on the bedsheets, flushed in a way that had nothing at all to do with her fever. “So,” she paused, reaching for something, anything to say to that. “It’s nice, is it? This Arkenstone?”

He leaned back in his chair, one hand still resting on the edge of her bed. “It is the heart of the Mountain, and unique among all other gems, which look dull and plain beside it. My grandfather considered it a blessing on our line, and mounted it above his throne as a symbol of his right to rule. So yes, I suppose you would call it nice.”

“You are mocking me,” Bella looked at him through narrowed eyes. “That isn’t kind, when I feel so ill.”

His grin turned smug. “I am a poor nurse. If you want comforting, I will send for the others.”

“No!” Bella laid a hand on his arm. “No, I just - I mean, I am happy like this. With just you,” she stammered.

Thorin brushed a finger over her burning cheek. “I don’t understand it. Here you lay, pale and ill and far thinner than you should be, and I cannot bring myself to look away.”

Bella tried to laugh, but it hurt her throat too much. “I think that was meant to be a compliment, but I’m not certain.”

“You are lovely,” Thorin said, and his smile fell away, replaced by a look of surprise or determination, Bella could not decide which. “When you pulled me from the river, soaking and bedraggled as you were, I thought you were the loveliest thing I had ever seen. I think the same now. I do not expect I will ever stop thinking it.”

Stunned, Bella tried to reply, but could not bring herself to make a sound. She could feel her heart beating too fast against her ribs, and her eyes blurred with dizziness.

“I can make no promises now,” Thorin went on, his voice growing rougher. “I have nothing worthy to offer you. But when I am king-” there was a long pause. “In Erebor, we will talk again. The conversation will go differently.”

“If I were to speak of such things,” Bella said slowly, not meeting his eyes, “It would make no difference if the one who held my heart was a king or a blacksmith. And I would not care if we lived beneath a mountain, or in my little hole under the ground. And certainly,” she said, buoyed by the way he leaned closer, “it would not matter, not even a bit, what gifts he could give me.”

As gently as she had ever seen him do anything, Thorin tipped her chin up, forcing her to meet his stare, and suddenly she understood what that elf had meant when he spoke of feeling set ablaze. “There is a dragon at the end of this road,” she said, linking their hands. “Should we not take what happiness we can, while we may?”

“Your feelings are a credit to you,” Thorin murmured. “But a king is what you deserve. I cannot offer you less.” She opened her mouth to protest, but stopped when he squeezed her fingers.

“I would - I wish to tell you,” he said, scowling as he searched for the right words. “Since I started this journey, I have known the madness in my blood might overcome me, should we somehow succeed. It has been my shadow these many years, and all my life I have been on guard against it.”

He brought a hand to her brow, running a thumb along her temple as he continued. “I do not fear it now. There is no more room in my heart for gold, and I could walk through any dragon’s hoard and see only stones and metal. Another treasure has ensnared me, finer and rarer than any jewel.”

He paused, and Bella held her breath. “Until Erebor is reclaimed, my life is not my own to pledge. I committed it long ago to the restoration of my people. But whether I live or the great worm takes me, you have saved me yet again. I would have you know that, whatever else may come.”

“I suppose that must sustain me,” she said, when she could speak again. “Is the Mountain visible from this room?”

“Yes,” he said, brows raised, as if he had expected to hear something else. “If you stand by the door.”

“Help me,” she commanded, trying to sit up, and he lifted her into his arms without hesitation. “Not quite what I meant,” she said, as they crossed the room. 


“Shush,” he murmured into her hair. “Do you see it?”

“Yes,” she whispered, gazing past the window and the wooden buildings of the town, and the lake and fields beyond it, all the way to the peak of the Lonely Mountain. It loomed ominously over the horizon, but looking at it now she felt more than dread. The fear was there still, but it was mingled with hope and stubbornness and anticipation. For once, she was eager for them to be on their way again.

Yes, there was a dragon at the end of their road. But beyond that, there was a treasure.

***

Chapter Text

“So, you and Thorin?” Kíli winked at her, as they made their way up the western slope of the Lonely Mountain.

Bella blushed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, primly. “Shouldn’t you be keeping an eye out for secret doors?”

“I am!” Kíli protested, making a show of knocking against an outcropping of stone. “No doors here. But we’ve waited long enough to question you, so answer us now or when we meet back up with the company.”

“There is nothing to answer,” she said. “He has made me no offers or promises.”

“He better not have!” said Fíli. “Not without going through me. King or no, that would be a scandal.”

Kíli snickered. “Even more scandalous than him barricading himself in your bedroom. I thought Fíli and Dori were going to break the door down!”

“I would have,” Fíli grumbled. “If you had not been sleeping.”

Sleeping?” Kíli howled. “Oh, Fíli, did you believe that?”

“I was sleeping!” Bella said, blushing to the tips of her ears.

“Really?” Kíli snorted. “The entire time? We are not children, Bell, you can tell us the truth!”

“I was!” she repeated, face growing even redder. “We only talked for a bit, when I woke up!”

“Ah ha,” Kíli nodded, satisfied. “So you did talk.”

“What did he say to you?” Fíli demanded. “Did he talk of courtship?”

“No, nothing like that!” she said. “As a matter of fact, he told me he could make me no promises until he had reclaimed the mountain.”

I knew it!” Kíli yelled, loud enough that the crows on the rocks around them turned to glare. “Pay up, Fíli!”

Fíli scowled. “I will do no such thing, he has given her nothing yet. Anyway, last I checked, she wanted no suitors. Shall I warn him off, Bell?”

“Ah,” she said, looking up at the sky. “It’s possible I may have been a bit hasty, when I spoke before. Perhaps we ought to... erm... let events play out.”

“What, really?” Kíli frowned. “No, you said you didn’t want any suitors. Is it just because it’s Thorin? Because king or not, he can’t force you!”

“No, no, it’s not like that!” Bella said, raising her hands in protest. “I just - no, I’m not going to explain it to you, Kíli!”

“I don’t think anyone’s forcing her,” Fíli said, knowingly.

“I don’t like it,” Kíli complained, kicking at a pebble. “She was hardly ours for any time at all, and now she’ll go and be somebody else’s!”

“I’ll still be your sister!” she protested. “Won’t I? And anyway, I won’t belong to anyone!”

“Of course,” Fíli soothed. “Don’t mind Kíli, he’s only jealous. You know how dwarves are with their treasures.” He turned to his brother. “This is a good thing. Better our uncle win her than some dwarf from the Iron Hills.”

Kíli brightened. “That’s true. We’ll still see her all the time, this way.”

“And he hasn’t offered her anything yet,” Fíli went on. “These things take months, even after that.”

“You’re right!” Kíli said, happy again. “So we’ve still got ages. What do you think he’ll give?”

“Something horrible, no doubt. I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’ll let me decline it?” Fíli asked, resigned. Bella shook her head, and he sighed. “Fine, but think about it, at least.”

“Yes, make him work for it!” Kíli agreed with a smirk. “Our grandfather had his gifts rejected twenty-one times before one was accepted. What was it, Fíli?”

“A set of hair beads, made from solid rubies,” Fíli said. “That would be very appropriate. Just remember,” he went on, hastily, “only I can refuse, unless you change your mind about this whole courting business?”

“I will not,” Bella rolled her eyes.

“Then you have to accept it if I pass it along, whatever it is,” Fíli said. “And I warn you, Thorin picks terrible presents.”

Kíli made a face. “The worst. Sweets you hate, shirts that itch. Dusty old books of history that are no use to anyone.”

“I wouldn’t mind a book,” Bella said.

“Now that I would send back,” Fíli said. “We’ll all be rich as kings by then, he can do a bit better! And you’ll be a rather important hobbit, so it had better be impressive, whatever it is.”

“What should I expect?” she asked. “That is, if you really think he will offer anything.”

“He had better,” Kíli scowled. “After what happened in Lake-town.”

“It will probably be something extravagant, in honor of your status,” Fíli said. “A necklace as thick as your arm, or somesuch.”

“That sounds very impractical. Would I have to wear it?” Bella frowned. “Wouldn’t I fall over?”

“Probably at least once,” Fíli admitted. “And you must praise it, or he’ll have to try again, and it will get even worse.”

“Oh, what about a solid-gold Oliphaunt?” Kíli suggested, eyes shining. “Life-sized!”

That did not deserve a response. “Can’t we just do things the hobbit way?” she asked, dropping her face into her hands.

“What would that entail?” Fíli said. “No metal? No gems?”

“Flowers,” she said. “He would send flowers, or bring them in person, if he were bold.”

“That’s it?” Kíli asked, eyes wide. “That’s all? Any weed off the roadside? Fíli could never allow such a thing, you’d be a laughingstock.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Bella said. “You can’t give just any flowers - nothing wilting, obviously! And of course the type is important - you wouldn’t want to upset your intended before courting even begins.”

“The wrong type of flowers would anger you?” Fíli asked, as Kíli’s eyes scanned the area for what Bella could only assume were offensive blossoms.

“Not all on their own,” she said. “Don’t dwarves know the language of flowers? No, stop, I can see from your faces that you don’t.” She tried to think of a way to explain. “Every flower is a message,” she began.

“Is there some kind of code?” Kíli interrupted. “Does it have to do with the number of leaves?”

“No, no,” she laughed. “What I mean is - well, it’s hard to describe. For example, if I were to send you flowers, Kíli, I might choose daisies, to wish you good cheer. Or a sprig of fennel and white heather, for strength and protection before a battle.”

“What flowers are for courting?” Fíli asked. “Your intended, back in the Shire, what did he give you?”

“Daffodils,” Bella said. “which mean unrequited love. Generally a plea for returned affection,” she smiled. “Not a prediction of things to come.”

“It’s all too complicated,” Kíli shook his head. “I couldn’t pick out a daffodil to save our lives, and those meanings sound tricky. Better to let Thorin give you whatever it is, and pretend to like it. It doesn’t have to be a great compliment. Just say it’s shiny, or nice.”

“I’m sure I’ll manage,” Bella rolled her eyes. “Say, is this the start of a path?”

***

Finding the door was the easy part, compared to the tedious waiting that came afterwards, but soon enough the setting sun on Durin’s Day revealed the key-hole, and the way into the mountain lay open before them.

The dwarves looked at each other, discomfort obvious on their features, even in the fading light. “Well,” said Glóin. “Here we are then.”

“Indeed,” nodded Bombur. “Indeed.”

Dwalin crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the mountainside. “So, who’s going in first?”

“Me, I presume,” Bella said, pulling at her cuffs. “I’m ready.”

Fíli looked appalled. “What?

“To go and take a look around,” she continued, puzzled. “Aren’t I the burglar?”

“Oh no, not this again,” said Kíli, turning a beseeching look towards Thorin.

She frowned. “Now, don’t start. This is why you brought me - I signed a contract!”

Balin nodded. “You did,” he said, pulling the folded paper from an inside pocket of his cloak. “I have it here, if you’d like to take a look at it.”

Bella gaped. “Have you held on to that all this time? All this way?”

“Of course!” Balin frowned, as Fíli snatched the contract out of his hand. “Thorin wouldn’t have trusted me with something so important otherwise.”

“Bella, you signed this?” Fíli gasped, flipping through the pages. “Did you even read it?”

“I think we’re a bit beyond that now, Fíli,” she said, with a wave of her hand.

“Either way,” he said firmly, handing the contract back to Balin. “I see nothing that obligates you to go first into that tunnel!”

“It’s only sensible!” she protested. “I am quieter than you dwarves, and smaller! And then there’s this,” she said, pulling the ring out of her pocket. “Look!”

She slipped it on her finger, causing an absolute uproar among the dwarves. “Calm down!” Thorin shouted over the commotion. “Everyone be still a moment! Bella, take off the ring, if you would!”

She reappeared, grinning, and Kíli grabbed her hand, holding her in place. “Sorry,” she said. “I should have explained first.”

How did you do that?” asked Nori and Dwalin together, shooting each other distrustful glares.

“It’s the ring,” she said, holding it up. “I found it, when I was lost beneath the mountains.”

“That’s how you got past the elf-king’s guards!” Nori exclaimed.

She nodded. “Yes, I couldn’t have broken you out without it, or found my way back through the goblins.”

“I think we had better have the whole story,” said Thorin. “And get to the bottom of this once and for all.”

***

If Bella had been worried the dwarves would think less of her after she revealed the ring’s secret, those fears were quickly put to rest. Most seemed impressed by her outwitting the creature beneath the Misty Mountains, and everyone agreed that having a magic ring would be a help to them on their quest. Only Fíli and Kíli looked unhappy when she finished her story. “I can’t believe Thorin knew before we did!” Kíli complained.

“You could have told us, Bell,” Fíli said, frowning. “Did you think we’d try to take it?”

Her mouth fell open. “No, never!” she protested. “Honestly, I hadn’t given it much thought before we were caught in the dungeons - there were too many other things on my mind. And then afterwards, in Lake Town, I forgot it again.” She narrowed her eyes, puzzled. “Isn’t that funny, that it should slip my mind so often?”

“It is strange,” Kíli agreed, somewhat mollified. “If I had a magic ring, I think I would tell everybody.”

“Pray that never happens,” Fíli rolled his eyes skyward. “I should never feel safe again, anywhere in the world.”

“In any case,” she said, putting her worries over the ring out of her mind. “I should go into the tunnel and see what’s what. Smaug may not even be in there!”

“He is,” said Óin. “Dragon-smoke pours from the base of the mountain, near the river. Can’t you see it?”

“That is not proof,” argued Balin. “He may have left long ago, or he may sleep.”

“There is only one way to know for certain,” Bella said firmly. “And it isn’t to sit out here and hope he comes calling.” Fíli and Kíli protested, but most of the others saw the sense in her plan, and in the end they looked to Thorin for his decision.

“You will come back,” he ordered, staring at Bella until she felt uncomfortable. “If you see the dragon, you will turn around immediately.

“Yes, yes, whatever you say,” she said. “I don’t actually want to be incinerated, you know!”

No one could argue with that, and so Bella was permitted to enter the tunnel. Her steps slowed as she neared the end, because she could make out a light in the distance, and there was only one explanation for that.

‘I ought to go back,’ she thought. ‘I did promise, and they will be very angry with me if I don’t. But,’ she argued with herself, moving a few steps closer. ‘Someone must look. I am quieter than any of the others, and I have the ring.’ Still, it took all her resolve to take the last step out of the tunnel, into the room beyond.

The treasure-hall glowed with a red light that faded to flickering against the stone walls, which were lined with weapons of all types: shields of every shape and design, bright spears tipped with gold and set with glimmering gems, and swords and knives beyond counting. But that was nothing, nothing at all compared to the endless sea of gold and jewels that covered every inch of the floor, and settled in drifts that rose higher than the ceiling of her hobbit-hole.

She edged her way into the room, stepping as lightly as she could over the coins, not wanting to make a single sound. As she rounded one of the treasure piles, she saw him.

Smaug slept, stretched indolently across the largest mound of treasure, his bat-like wings curled over his back. Steam billowed from his nostrils, but other than that there was no hint of life in him.

Bella had seen enough. She took a step backwards, then another, her eyes locked on the dragon for any sign at all that he was aware of her intrusion. He did not stir, and finally she turned away, heading for the tunnel as quick as she could.

Just outside the tunnel’s entrance, something caught her eye, sparkling from amid a pile of gold coins. She brushed them aside carefully, and gasped when she saw what she’d uncovered: a stunning white gem, bigger than her fist, and carved with so many facets it was almost smooth to the touch. In a room full to the brim with treasure, it stood out like a lily in a field of daisies.

“I bet I know what you are,” Bella breathed, reverent. She cast a furtive look around, eying the dragon for any movement. Then, when she was satisfied, she slipped the stone into her pocket.

***

“Well, he’s in there all right,” was the first thing she said, after clearing the door out of the mountain and taking a great gulp of fresh air.

“Did you see him?” Thorin said, grabbing her by the shoulders. “Did he see you?

She shook her head. “No, no! He was asleep, as far as I could tell. Curled up on a pile of treasure.” She narrowed her eyes. “Which, by the way, it would take a hundred burglars a hundred years to smuggle out of the Mountain! You ought to have engaged a blasted dragon-slayer!”

Thorin scowled, and Balin laid a comforting hand on his arm. “It’s not so bad as all that,” he said. “We have the prophecy on our side, after all. And we’ve come this far.”

Thorin straightened. “Yes, you’re right. Let me think on it.” He turned to the others. “Get some rest, all of you. We will have much to discuss, come morning.”

***

They woke Bella before sunrise, and questioned her for several hours about precisely what she had seen inside the mountain. There wasn’t much to tell; she described the layout of the room as best she could, and the position of the dragon within it, but she had not stayed long enough to notice anything really useful. She didn’t mention the white stone, which sat heavily in her pocket.

“We have the element of surprise,” Dwalin suggested, as Thorin sketched the outline of the room in the dust on the ground. “But our weapons are useless against the creature’s blasted scales.”

“Every worm has his weak spot,” Bella murmured, though she could not recall any on Smaug.

“What’s that?” asked Thorin, looking up from his plans.

“Oh, just something my father used to say,” she answered, fiddling with her cloak. “Could it be true?”

The dwarves looked at each other. “It is possible,” Balin said, grudgingly. “I have heard such things before.”

“The dragon has long rested comfortably under the Mountain,” speculated Nori. “Untested, who’s to say he’s been maintaining his armor?”

“He took no notice of me last night,” Bella offered. “I can go in again, now that I know what to look for. I think I could get a bit closer.”

“That’s a fine idea,” Glóin beamed at her, just as Dori said, “I don’t care for that idea at all.” They glared at each other, and soon enough the entire camp had broken into an argument. Only Bella sat silently, looking troubled.

“Kíli,” she said, pulling her brother away from a fight with Nori, “can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” he said, dropping to the ground beside her. “But wouldn’t you rather ask Fíli?”

She shook her head. “No, he’s busy,” she said, gesturing to where Fíli and Thorin were having an animated discussion with Dwalin and Óin. “And I think this is more your type of problem, anyway.”

He raised a brow at her, and she blushed. “Have you ever-” she began. “Have you ever thought about doing something that you knew was foolish, but you wanted to do it anyway?”

He snorted. “You just described my life, Bell,” he said, throwing an arm around her shoulders. “Now, what’s this all about?”

“I’m thinking of taking something,” she whispered, glancing around to make sure no one was paying attention. “Something I shouldn’t.”

Really?” he asked, delighted. “What?”

“You’d never believe me,” she sighed.

He smirked. “Well, that doesn’t make me less curious. But whatever it is, you are a burglar, as you’re so fond of saying. Isn’t it your job to take things?”

She brightened. “That’s true. You’re absolutely right.”

His smirk bloomed into a wide grin. “Well there you are, I helped! And anyway, if you get in trouble, Fíli will get you out again. He lives for that; it would be inconsiderate to deprive him of the chance.”

“That’s also true,” she laughed. She gestured towards the others. “Do you think they’re getting anywhere?”

“Nah,” he shrugged. “They’ll be at it for hours. So if you’re going to try something, now’s the time.”

“Thank you, Kíli,” she said, getting to her feet. She took a deep breath, then another, willing her heart to stop beating so frantically against her chest.

“Excuse me, Fíli,” she called, voice light, but hands nearly shaking with nerves. “I’ve got a present for your uncle. Pass it along for me?” And then she tossed the Arkenstone, casually as you please, into her brother’s outstretched hand.

***

“Oh, Bell,” Kíli breathed, loud in the sudden silence, “you are more cunning than we ever suspected.”

The company stared, motionless, at the jewel, but Fíli’s eyes were locked on Bella’s. She met his gaze for a long moment, then nodded ever so slightly, and he sighed as if he had come to a hard decision. “Uncle,” he called, without turning away from her, “Bella Baggins offers you a gift. Will you accept it?”

Without a word, Thorin snatched the gem from Fíli’s grasp. He turned it this way and that in his hand, running his fingers over its facets and letting the light shimmer and reflect into a thousand points on the ground.

“Is that-” Ori whispered, covering his mouth with his hand.

“The Arkenstone,” Balin said wondrously. “It’s a sign, it must be!”

At last, Thorin looked up. “Beautiful,” he said. “But I have seen lovelier.”

The others gasped, then went so silent the slight breeze over the rock-face echoed like a hurricane. “What?” Fíli growled, taking a step back. “Do you accept with disfavor? Do you decline?

Thorin held up a hand. “Peace, Fíli. The gem is without flaw. But even so, I find I prefer the sight of she who gave it.”

“Kíli,” Bella whispered, nervously. “Does that qualify as praise?”

“I’m counting it,” Fíli said, levelly.

“Thank you,” Thorin said, his eyes locked on Bella. “Now, as I have accepted, I believe we’re entitled to a moment alone?”

Fíli scowled. “A moment only,” he warned, stepping out from between them. Thorin motioned Bella forward, and she followed him down the path a little ways, until they were out of sight of the others.

She looked up at him, more anxious than ever. He had accepted the gift, yes, but he could hardly have done otherwise. And she certainly couldn’t say he looked pleased.

“Do you know what you’ve done?” he said, the corners of his mouth lifting in amusement.

“Have I shown you insufficient honor?” she asked, dryly, swallowing her nerves. “There were plenty of bits and bobs in there, I could try again.”

“When you said you had a gift for me,” he said, smile widening, “I was prepared to accept whatever pretty bauble you pilfered from the dragon’s hoard, and heap praise upon it. But the Arkenstone.” He laughed, delighted. “Kíli is right, you are cunning. Even had I wished it, you chose the only item in the Mountain I could not refuse.”

“So you do not object,” she sighed, relaxing.

“Well, my position is awkward,” he said, and Bella would have sworn he looked cheerful. “It is expected that I will return the gesture with a gift of equal significance. You have set me a mighty quest.”

“Oh,” she colored. “I did not know.”

“I would not change it,” he said. Holding the gem up to the level of her face, he gazed back and forth between them. After a moment, he lowered his hand. “It is a stone,” he said, his voice warm and thick with awe. “After all these years of worry, only a stone. I could leave it by the roadside without a thought, were it not a gift from you.”

She ducked her head, blushing mightily. “No sense getting too high-spirited,” she reminded him. “There is still the dragon.”

He actually laughed. “Good!” he said, tossing the jewel into the air and catching it in one hand. “I could slay him single-handed. Ask me,” he said, his grin settling into a soft look as he slipped the stone into his pocket. “Right now I feel I could do anything, if only you asked.”

“Fíli will come to collect me soon,” she said, unable to keep from smiling. “So I’d rather we stay here a bit longer, if it’s all the same to you.”

“That suits me perfectly,” he said, taking her hands. “Cunning indeed.”

***

All talk of the dragon paused at this new development, and Bella walked back into the midst of the others to a chorus of whistles and applause.

“Well,” Fíli said, leaning against her shoulder. “If you were hoping to avoid receiving one of his terrible presents, I’m afraid you will be disappointed.”

“He told me,” she smiled. “But it will take him a while at least, to top mine.”

Kíli could not stop laughing. “I don’t think even Fíli could get you out of this one, Bell,” he choked out. “Oh, his face. I will never get over it, never!”

“Fíli’s face, or Thorin’s?” Bella asked.

“Everyone’s!” Kíli snickered. “The dragon could have flown through the camp, spitting treasure, and no one would have taken any notice. Ma’s going to chew gravel when she finds out!”

Fíli brushed a hand over her hair. “You’re sure, Bell?” he asked, solemnly.

She nodded. “Quite sure. It did not suit me, the waiting and speculating. This way it is on my terms, which is much more satisfactory.”

He grinned. “As long as you’re happy.” Kíli poked him in the side. “Yes, all right, Kíli! His face was very amusing.”

“Ow!” cried Bombur, pressing a hand to his head. Conversation stopped as everyone turned to look at him. “Somethin’ hit on me! It felt like a rock!”

“Look!” pointed Ori, when one pebble, then another, began to roll down the slope beside them.

The ground began to tremble beneath their feet. “No,” Thorin whispered, staring into the sky.

Dwalin grabbed for his axes. “DRAGON!” he bellowed, shoving Ori behind him.

“Into the tunnel!” Thorin ordered, grabbing Bella and Kíli by their elbows and propelling them towards the entrance.

“Our bags!” Fíli shouted, turning towards the supplies. Dori snatched the back of his hood, and yanked him back.

“No time!” he shouted, moving through the doorway just as the dragon burst through the gates with a sickening crash.

“Is everyone in?” Thorin asked, as Fíli passed him.

“Aye, close it!” Dwalin said, peering out at the dragon, who was circling overhead.

“We’ll be trapped!” Glóin protested.

Thorin shook his head. “No help for it, if he-”

“He’s spotted us!” Bofur shouted. “Shut the door, now!

Working together, the dwarves slammed the heavy door shut with a solemn thud, and no sooner had the seam of the doorway disappeared into the rock than the mountain began to shake in earnest. The dwarves stumbled, and Bella fell to her knees as something slammed into the side of the mountain, just where the door had been.

Fíli pulled her to her feet, and she clung to him in the darkness as the dragon hit the mountain again, and then a third time.

Finally, silence fell, with nothing but the ragged breathing of the dwarves to give away their positions in the darkness. “Is everyone accounted for?” Thorin asked. Each of the dwarves answered in turn. “That is something, at any rate, though we must assume our ponies and supplies are lost.”

“Forget the ponies,” growled Dwalin. “How do we open the door?”

They fumbled with it, running their fingers over the blank rock wall, looking for hidden catches, but it was too dark, and they found nothing. “So, we’re trapped,” sighed Dori.

“There is one way out,” suggested Fíli, turning to the mouth of the tunnel, where they could make out an ominous red glow.

“You’re not serious,” said Bofur. “He’ll be expecting us now! He knows we’re here!”

“What choice do we have!” yelled Kíli. “We can’t stay here forever!”

“Let me do it,” Bella said, trying to keep her voice steady. “I’ll go and have a look around again, like we planned. I may see something we can use against him.”

“There is nothing to be used against him!” Fíli protested. “Not when he knows we’re here! You are not going back in there!”

“I have to!” she said. “I took the stone, I woke him. Me. I must put it right.”

“We woke him,” Thorin said. “The dragon has ever been the flaw in our plans. Now there is only one route open to us. We cannot go back, so we must move forward.”

“Into his lair?” Bella gasped. “No. You did not see him, he is huge, a monster! There must be some other way.”

“We knew it may come to this,” Balin said, gently. “At the end of the journey, there was always the dragon.”

She had thought of it often enough, but at that moment it was treacherously clear that there were only fourteen of them, to do such an impossible thing. “There isn’t any hope at all, is there?” she asked, then clapped a hand over her mouth, appalled at herself.

But the others only laughed. “Not much,” Glóin said. “There never was. But we are dwarves, and this is our home. Thorin is our king. We will not go down easily.”

“I must face the dragon,” Thorin said, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “This has been my quest and my destiny since he drove us out of Erebor. Mine alone,” he said, looking from one of his companions to another. “If any of you choose not to go on, speak now,” he continued, “and no blame upon you. It is more than even a king could ask.”

There was a weighty silence, as the dwarves looked at each other, then down the tunnel, where the treasure hall glowed red. Finally, Balin stepped forward.

“I swore I would follow you,” he said, standing tall, like years had fallen off his shoulders. “I am not so faithless as to leave you now.”

“Aye,” nodded Dwalin, bumping against his brother. “The sons of Fundin have your back.”

“To the death, Cousin!” Glóin shouted, hefting his axe.

Óin sighed, leaning against the stone wall. “Yes, fine, to the death.”

“Count me in!” cried Ori, raising a fist. “Let’s give Smaug a taste of good dwarven iron!”

“Me too,” agreed Dori, putting his hands on his brothers’ shoulders. “We haven’t come this far just to give up.”

Nori drew his daggers. “I suppose I’d rather die with the rest of you than starve in this filthy tunnel.”

“We’re with you,” said Bofur, with Bombur and Bifur nodding alongside him. “‘Til the end.”

“Until the end,” Fíli repeated, and Kíli bowed his head.

“So be it,” Thorin said. “I could find no finer companions, if I scoured every corner of Middle-Earth.” He turned to Bella. “You have earned your place amongst us, several times over. You need do no more.”

“What would you have me do?” she glared at him. “Wait here, while the rest of you go off and face the dragon?”

He scowled, taking her by the arm and walking her a ways down the tunnel. “Yes, I would have you stay here. Is that so surprising? Thinking of you in peril, I feel my will falter.”

“I will help you,” she said firmly, “for I am also one of your company, and furthermore I swore I would.”

“How?” he asked, shaking her slightly. “You are no warrior!”

“I know that!” she said, pulling free of his grip. “Do you think I am a fool? Of course I am no warrior - I’m not even a proper burglar! But I have not come so far and gone through so much to be left on the doorstep!”

He stared at her in that measuring way of his, and she pulled herself straight under his gaze, for once glaring right back. “If we live,” he said, “if we both survive-” He choked, and said no more.

She sighed, and reached up to brush the tips of her fingers along his cheek. “Is it so unlikely?” He looked down at her, his silence answer enough. “All right. Well, I suppose we must try for it anyway.”

She took a step back, but Thorin grabbed her roughly by the shoulders, pulling her against his chest. “Mukhuh Mahal bakhuz murukhzu,” he said, leaning down to kiss her forehead. “Mahal’s hammer shield you.”

“That’s very grand,” she said, smiling a bit. “A hobbit would just say ‘good luck’ - but I suppose hobbits do not often face dragons.”

“Good luck,” Thorin said, closing his eyes as he released her. “Fíli! Kíli!” he called. “Escort your sister to the entryway. I must speak with Dwalin.”

Fíli and Kíli sprinted to her side as she started down the tunnel. “Please don’t, Bell,” Fíli said, when they reached the end. “Stay back here. If we should fail, you could sneak past him afterwards, and escape through the front gates.”

“To nothing and no one,” she said, gently, shaking her head. “And anyway, I could not do it. If we fall, it will be together.” She reached over to take one of his hands, and Kíli took the other.

“Together,” he echoed, and Fíli nodded.

“Or not at all.”

She smiled. “I know my preference,” she said, kissing them each on the cheek. Before they could say anything more, she slipped on the ring, and moved the rest of the way towards the treasure-hall.

Just before she left the tunnel, she turned back. They were still there, side by side and looking in her direction, though they could not see her, their faces as inscrutable and immovable as stone. She stopped to take one more look, just in case it was her last.

Regret rose in her throat like bile, choking her. Had she ever told them what it had meant, to be part of their family? Did they know how much she cared for them, that she would risk anything to help them survive? Would she ever see Kíli smile again, or hear Fíli’s warm laughter? If she were slain, would they remember her? Would they speak of her, or sing her lullaby?

She blinked back tears, and swallowed as best she could. There was no use in such thoughts, she told herself, tearing her gaze away. All she could do for them now was go on, into the dragon’s lair, and find something, anything that might protect her brothers. She walked through the mouth of the tunnel, pushed on by a terrible, fierce love that burned in her chest, hotter than any dragon’s fire, and left no room in her heart for fear.

***

She stepped into the hall slowly, staying close to the edge of the room as she made her way towards the prone form of the dragon. Moving silently, she crept over a mound of gold, hoping a closer look would reveal some flaw in the beast’s shining armor.

“So, little thief,” Smaug said, and Bella nearly fell over from the shock of it. “You’ve come back for more.” His eyes flicked open, and for a moment she was certain he could see her, right through the magic of the ring.

“I am no thief,” she said, slipping between two piles of coins. Her voice shook, and she almost dropped to her knees, so fiercely was she shaking, but she made herself think of Fíli and Kíli, waiting for her in the tunnel, and felt herself steady.

“You took something of mine - a paltry enough thing, not even gold,” the dragon mocked, flicking his wing. “But poor as it was, you stole it.”

“Something of yours?” she asked. “That can’t be so. Did you mine it? Shape it? Buy it in the marketplace?”

“It was mine by right!” Smaug growled, his tale lashing back and forth, sending coins spraying out behind him.

“If there is a thief here,” she continued, as if he had not spoken, “it is not me.”

“Well, if you are not a thief, what are you?” the dragon said, snaking his way between the treasure piles, nostrils widening as he tried to sniff her out. “No dwarf, I can smell that, and no man. Tell me now, and perhaps I will spare you. I might find some use for you as my servant.”

“You are very wise, oh Smaug the terrible,” Bella said, twisting her hands together to keep them from trembling. She had read enough to know that dragons did not keep servants, or at any rate, they did not keep them long. But they did love riddles, and she could use that to distract him, for a little while at least. “I am no dwarf, nor man, nor elf, either!”

The dragon stilled. “I will ask you once more,” he breathed, and she knew she had caught his interest, “what are you?”

“I am something different, something in-between,” she said, taking a few steps closer, eying his rough scales for any weaknesses. “I am the rabbit that rides the bear. I walk beneath mountains and soar over the open land!”

“Some beast, then?” Smaug asked, turning his head in her direction. “I would not think a creature would have any use for gems.”

“I take what I do not love, because I love one who may not take,” she said, moving out of the path of his gaze.

The dragon snorted, and Bella wondered if it were her imagination, or if the room felt a bit warmer. “That is easier. So, whatever you are, you did not come alone!” Piles of treasure broke and crashed like waves as he made for the tunnel. “I will roast your companions, thief and feast on their bones before I return for you. Will that loosen your tongue?”

Stop!” she shouted, clawing her way up a mound of gold and ripping the ring from her finger. “Do not touch them, you worm, you cowering lizard! Do not dare! I have befriended wizards! I have haunted the halls of kings! I have held fire in my hands and pulled those I love from the water. Do not dare defy me! I am the beginning of your end! I am the bell that tolls your downfall!

“Bold words!” roared Smaug, whipping back towards her, scattering gold in all directions. “They have won you a prize - I will eat your heart before I start on your companions!”

Bella watched the dragon bear down on her, his great roar echoing in her ears, and his claws crashing against the metal covering the ground, and felt a distant serenity overtake her. She was seeing her death, she knew, and she had brought it down upon herself, but she could not regret her final moments, not if they bought her friends a little more time.

Khazâd ai-mênu!” someone yelled in the distance, and the room erupted as the dwarves poured through the tunnel, scattering across the the room and surrounding the dragon like a plague of gnats.

Smaug turned, bellowing his frustration as the dwarves took turns stabbing at his scales and ducking away before he could reach them with this sword-like teeth. That there was so few of them was an advantage, Bella realized, falling to her knees. It would have been impossible to smuggle an army into the treasure hall, and even if they had, Smaug could wipe out a garrison with a single flick of his tail. But fourteen! He could barely see them in the low light, and even when he did spy one, there was gold enough to hide behind, while the other dwarves provided distraction.

In fact, it seemed that the real danger wasn’t even the dragon, it was the coins and gems flying through the air, stirred by his great wings and kicked up by his feet and tail. Something hit Bella in the shoulder, knocking her back, and she tried to block the onslaught by crawling behind a treasure-pile.

A shield landed next to her, thrown by Fíli, who had picked up one of his own and was using it to defend his brother as he fired his arrows. He gestured at her sharply, and she fumbled for it, shoving her arm through the too-big straps and bringing it up to cover her face. Better protected, she scanned the room and realized that all the dwarves who could spare a hand had picked up shields, covering themselves and their companions as they harried and charged the dragon.

Smaug roared, turning suddenly and sending the dwarves scrambling. One didn’t move fast enough, and the tip of Smaug’s wing sent him flying, landing hard against a mound of gold. “Bofur!” Bella screamed, running to his side as best she could through the flying debris. “Are you hurt?”

His eyes were closed, and he did not answer. Terrified, she put her hand on his chest, but the slight rise and fall of his breath reassured her that he was not yet finished. Spurred by a new purpose, she stepped over him, putting herself between him and the dragon. Several heavy items slammed into her shield, and it was all she could do to keep them from knocking her in the head, or falling on Bofur.

The dragon reared up, higher and higher, until his head nearly touched the glittering ceiling. His wings spread, spanning the cavern, and his chest, crusted with gold and gems, sparkled in the light. ‘He is almost beautiful,’ Bella thought to herself, ‘the way storms are, if you watch them from a distance.’

Something caught her eye - a dull spot on Smaug’s sparkling breastplate, just over his left breast. For Bella, whose sharp eye could find one crooked stitch in a wardrobe, it may as well have been a beacon.

“There!” she screamed as she pointed, as loud as she could. “Aim there!” It did her no good. She couldn’t even hear her own voice, not over the dragon’s roaring, and the ground-shifting crash of metal against stone.

She looked around wildly, but the only dwarves she could see were Dwalin and Thorin, side by side, facing the dragon. She waved her arms, desperate to get their attention, and when that failed, she scooped up a handful of coins and flung it towards them as hard as she could.

The coins landed at their feet, catching their notice, and they looked in Bella’s direction at last. Her hands shaped gestures she was betting all their lives she remembered correctly. “Chest - left - open,” she signed, hoping she had done it right and been understood.

Dwalin’s eyes widened, axes falling to the ground, and without looking he reached behind him for the spear Thorin was already pressing into his hand. He looked up at the rearing dragon, taking his time to find the place Bella had shown them, and she saw him smile when he finally did. The spear flew, straight and terrible, and Bella didn’t breathe until it pierced the dragon’s heart.

Smaug fell, hitting the treasure with a force that shook the mountain, sending the gold cresting in a last, great slide towards Bella and Bofur. She tugged frantically at his arm, but he didn’t move an inch, or stir, and she almost laughed, because had she really seen the dragon slain just to die under a pile of gold?

There was nothing for it - she threw herself over Bofur, covering his head with her arms, and closed her eyes tightly, braced for the impact.

It never came, and she looked up at coins and gems flying in all directions, over her head and in front of her face, but none were touching her, and she turned to find Fíli and Kíli beside her, shoulder to shoulder, kneeling behind shields braced between them and the breaking crest of metal. It must have hurt, Bella realized, because Kíli tipped back and nearly lost his balance, but Fíli grabbed him by the arm and held, until they were steady as stones in a river.

It felt like they stayed that way for an age, but really it was only a few seconds until the last coin clinked to stillness, and the silence covered the cavernous hall so suddenly that it almost made her panic again. Something shifted beneath her, and she looked down into Bofur’s wide, startled eyes.

They were surrounded in a moment, and she staggered to her feet, meeting the dwarves’ concerned expressions one after another. She turned to back Bofur, who was getting a hand up from Dwalin, and then looked to the corpse of the dragon, which lay, immense and unmoving, before them.

“Bella,” Fíli said carefully, still on the ground beside her. “Are you all right? Are you injured?”

They were all alive, Bella realized, all alive, and none of them too terribly hurt. Bruised and scratched, but whole, every one of them! They had slain a dragon. The mountain had been reclaimed! Why were they so solemn? Did they not understand? She laughed, a bit hysterically.

“Bella!” Thorin grabbed her shoulders, shaking her a little. “Speak to us!”

She fell to her knees, slipping easily from his grasp. “All hail Thorin Oakenshield,” she gasped, her voice choked with surprise and relief and the last remnants of her terror. “King under the Mountain!”

There was a long, weighty silence as the dwarves looked at each other, and each of them stood a little straighter as the realization of their victory dawned on their faces. Bella, who had expected a thunderous cheer, was shocked as, one by one, they fell into the embraces of their companions, tears pouring silently down their cheeks.

“Stand up, Bella,” Thorin said, his voice hoarse, clutching Fíli and Kíli tight to his chest. “Do not bow to me.” He looked from dwarf to dwarf, all of whom were watching him with joyful, tear-streaked faces. “None of you must ever bow to me.”

At that, they did cheer.

***

The aftermath was chaotic, as Bella expected. If they had not thought what they would do once they reached the mountain, they certainly hadn’t considered how to proceed after slaying the dragon. No one was too eager to approach the corpse, still as it was, and it was far too large to drag out the front gates, regardless.

The dwarves spent several hours gleefully sorting through the treasure piles (giving the dragon a wide berth), and were now on an expedition to the front gates. Thorin in particular seemed eager to reach the outside of the mountain, mentioning some messages he had to send, and the others had gone with him, except for Bofur, who was still a bit dazed, and his kin. Bella elected to stay behind with them, too worn out for the lengthy walk to the Mountain’s entrance.

Bitterly cursing the loss of her bedroll, she tried to make up a spot to rest with her cloak. It was wretchedly uncomfortable, and she wondered if perhaps that was why Smaug had been so irritable, sleeping on gold every day as he did.

“Excuse me,” came a voice from behind her. She opened her eyes and rolled over. 


“Oh, hello Bofur,” she said. “How are you feeling?”

“Better, thank you,” he said, with a hint of his usual smile. “M’head still aches somethin’ fierce, but the room stopped spinnin’.”

Bella sat up. “Well, it’s a start. Did you need something?”

The smile fell off his face, and he shrugged. “Wanted to talk to ya, without the others. Figured this might be my only chance.”

“Oh!” she patted the ground beside her. “Well, have a seat then. I warn you, it’s not as cozy as the dragon made it look.”

He flinched. “Nah, better not. It’s just - Bombur told me what you did. Savin’ my life and all.”

“That is not quite true,” Bella frowned. “Fíli and Kíli saved us both, if you remember.”

“You would have,” he said, with no trace of his usual grin. It was beginning to unnerve her, a bit. “They told me what happened, when I fell. You had time to run. You had to choose between my life and yours, and you chose me.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to make light of it, brush it away with a joke and a smile, but he looked so intense and unhappy that she knew it would not go over. So instead she told the truth, plain and unadorned. “That was not the choice; I could never have left you. So it was either try to save you, or watch us die together.”

“And you chose me,” he repeated, like he was trying to make something clear.

She shrugged. “Obviously. It was only sensible. I’m not sure what you’re after.” He stood still for a long moment, as if he expected her to speak further.

“My family and I are at your service, now and always,” he swore at last, bringing a fist to his chest, over his heart. “We will not forget.”

“Bofur, there is no need,” she said. “We are companions, it was a battle. Any one of the others would have done the same.”

“Perhaps,” he said. “But my oath stands. Only call for us, and we will come.”

“Well, I thank you,” she said, uncomfortable. “Will you sit, now?”

He smiled, only a little, but it made her feel better. “Nah, finish your nap. I’m goin’ to have a bit of a lie down, myself.”

“Fair enough,” she said, laying down again. “Do let me know if you figure out how to get comfortable on this heap.”

“Aye, I’ll do that,” he said, laughing as he walked away.

***

“Bell!” Kíli shook her by the shoulder. “Are you sleeping?”

“If I was, I’m not any longer,” she grumbled, sitting up. “How were the gates?”

Brilliant,” Kíli sighed, dropping to the ground beside her. “The tunnels go on for miles and miles, all lined with carvings, and the ceilings glitter like the open sky at night. It’s like something out of a tale!”

“Why Kíli, you could be a poet,” Bella teased, poking him in the arm.

“Shush,” he smiled at her. “You can’t blame me for being excited - we’ve spent our whole lives hearing about the wonders of Erebor; who would have thought it’d all be true!”

“Not me,” Fíli agreed, sitting beside his brother. “I wish you’d come along, Bell. The corridors don’t reek quite so badly of dragon.”

“You get used to it,” Bella said, with a wave of her hand. “Rotting dragon, that’s a smell I’m not looking forward to.”

Kíli made a face. “Ugh, it’ll get all over the treasure.”

“Thorin will figure it out,” Fíli promised, pulling a little bag out of his pocket. “But speaking of treasure, look what I scavenged for you.”

He tipped the bag, and a dozen golden bells, no bigger than a thumbnail, spilled into his open palm. “Very pretty,” she smiled at him.

“Here, let me,” said Fíli, tugging her over by her cloak. She allowed it unresisting, and soon her hair was covered with a lattice of braids, each hung with a chiming bell.

“Oh!” Bella said, reaching into her pocket and pulling out her silver bells. “Put these in too.”

Kíli frowned. “But the new ones are so much nicer! Those don’t go at all.”

“They are very beautiful,” Bella admitted. “But I prefer my old ones, if it’s all the same to you.”

Fíli pressed a kiss to her cheek, and gave the silver bells pride of place beside her temples. “There, done.”

She tossed her head from side to side, laughing at the clamor. “We’ll all find these tedious before too long,” she warned.

“There’s gems enough to swap them for, if we tire of the noise,” Fíli smirked. “You do realize you’re sitting on a literal mountain of treasures?”

“I would trade it all for my feather bed,” she grumbled, swatting at some of the coins and sending them rolling down the pile. “And maybe a pie.”

“Ooh, I could go for that,” Kíli agreed, “Like the one I had back at your place, in the Shire.”

“Kíli, did you eat an entire pie?” Bella said, appalled. “Those were for everyone!”

“I remember that! I tried to take a piece, and he bit my hand,” Fíli complained.

Kíli snorted. “It was a meat pie, you would have done the same.”

“I’ll make one for each of you,” Bella promised. “When we get the ingredients. And someone finds the kitchen. I shudder to think of the state of it.”

“Make me another pie, and I’ll help you clean it,” Kíli promised. “Make more of those scones and I’ll clean the whole place.”

“That’s the nice thing about you dwarves, you do appreciate my cooking,” Bella mused. “Once we get some proper supplies, I’ll make you anything you like. After all, we’ve slain the dragon. This time, the worst really must be behind us.”

***

Chapter Text

The following day was extremely busy. The dwarves threw themselves into the task of dismembering the dragon, chipping away at his breastplate and prying at his scales. It was slow going, and many fine blades were bent beyond repair in the attempt. There was no help for it - Smaug had been a creature of flesh and blood, and they could hardly leave his body to rot inside the mountain.

Óin and Glóin, who had a keen interest in armor-smithing, salvaged as many intact scales as they could, though most chipped or cracked as they were pried off. It was ugly, filthy work, and Bella was happy to be left out of it. She, Bombur, Nori, and Ori spent the morning exploring some of the rooms that had not been too badly destroyed by the dragon, and scavenging what comforts they could to take back to the treasure hall. Most everything fabric was filthy and fallen to pieces, but some of the chairs were intact, and Bella had high hopes that some of the rooms further from the dragon’s lair would be better preserved.

After a few hours of exploring, they found a kitchen. It was worse than Bella had feared, sticky with dust and whatever remained of its long-ago stores. Happily, the plumbing still worked, and the thought of another cold supper was enough to get them scrubbing. In a short time the room was clear of the worst of it, though Bella suspected that the smell would linger. As they worked, Nori and Ori went to fetch the supplies from the treasure-hall and find something to burn on the hearth.

Thorin had told them to expect his cousin Dáin, king of the dwarves of the Iron Hills, to arrive with fresh forces and supplies within the week, so Bella and Bombur were generous with the rations. They cooked up as much of a feast as they were able to, out of the salted-fish and hard bread the people of Lake-town had given them, and Nori scrounged a few bottles of wine from somewhere (a filthy cellar, by the look of him and the bottles), and that evening they had quite a merry party.

“Three cheers, for Dwalin Dragonslayer!” Kíli shouted, lifting his drink into the air and only sloshing a bit of it onto his plate.

The others cheered, stamping their feet and pounding on the table, except for Dwalin, who scowled and shook his head. “Do not call me that,” he said. “Thorin put the spear in my hand, and the hobbit guided my aim. The rest of you bought me the chance. I couldn’t have done it alone.”

“It was your throw that downed him, and so you must suffer our praise,” grinned Thorin, slapping him hard on the back. “They will herald your deeds from here to the Blue Mountains, if I have my way.”

“Save me from the gratitude of princes,” Dwalin groaned, slouching in his chair and looking towards his brother for help.

“What about Dwalin, King’s-Arm?” Balin suggested, hiding a smug grin behind his hand.

“I like it,” said Thorin, and the others chorused their approval. He raised his mug. “To Dwalin, my arm and right hand!”

Everyone raised a cup, in spite of Dwalin’s eye-roll. “If I hear so much as one verse of a ballad, you’ll wish for a death as quick as the dragon’s,” he grumbled, emptying his drink in one swallow.

***

The next day was as busy as the one before it. The dwarves split their time between seeing to the remains of the dragon and fortifying the Mountain’s gates, which had been badly damaged during Smaug’s attack. The work started at sunup, and though Bella was ill-suited to help with either task, she made sure to have a hearty lunch waiting for them at midday.

“I’ll help you clean up, Bell,” offered Fíli afterwards, as she began to fill the sink with dishes.

“Would you? Only if you have the time, of course,” she smiled. “It’s been a bit lonely this morning, with everyone working so hard.”

“It’ll be better in a few days, when Dáin arrives,” he said, pumping water into the basin. “He’ll bring dwarves enough to help, until our people come from the Blue Mountains. I can’t wait for you to meet our mother!”

“Do you think she’ll-” Bella paused, searching for the right word. “Approve? Of me, I mean.”

Fíli laughed. “She can hardly disapprove, after all you’ve done!”

“She will appreciate the grief you’ve caused me, if nothing else,” said a voice from the doorway.

Bella put her hands on her hips. “Grief! You’ve got nerve, Thorin Oakenshield, accusing me of grieving you.”

“Has something happened?” Fíli asked, wiping his hands dry on his shirt. “Kíli was to join you at the gates, have you seen him?”

“All is well, I sent him on ahead with the others.” Thorin walked over to stand beside his nephew. “I owe your sister a gift,” he said, pressing a wrapped parcel into Fíli’s hands. “This is but the first installment.”

“Perhaps,” Fíli said dismissively, as he opened the bundle. He nearly fumbled it when he saw what it contained, the cloth wrapping fluttering, forgotten, to the ground. “Is this mithril?” Fíli gasped, unfurling a mail shirt that shone like reflected moonlight, and testing its strength between his fingers.

“It does not rival the Arkenstone,” Thorin said, brow raised. “But it will do for a start. I forget that you have never seen it. We will have to supplement your training at the forge.”

“You do nothing by halves, do you, Uncle?” Fíli laughed. “I was of a mind to refuse your gift, whatever it was, but I know when I’m beaten.” He turned to Bella, who had stilled as soon as Thorin spoke of gifts, her arms still piled with dishes. “Sister, Thorin, son of Thráin would give you a gift. Will you see it?”

Wordlessly, she set the plates back on the table and reached for the shirt, and Fíli put it gently into her hand. It was ice cold, and made of tiny rings that draped like silk over her arm, and the weight of it startled her, so that she almost dropped it before she recovered herself. “Oh!” she said. “Well. Very beautiful, certainly. Very - er - shiny. Thank you.” She turned to Fíli. “Did I do that right?”

Thorin doubled over, bracing his hands on his knees as he laughed. “Bella, that is mithril, out of the mines of Moria,” Fíli said, pained. “Bright as silver, harder than steel. Back when it could be mined, it was worth ten times its weight in gold. Now-” he swallowed. “It is a kingly gift.”

Thorin plucked the shirt from her hands and dropped it over her head. “I have seen our burglar charge orcs and taunt dragons,” he said, his voice still warm with humor. “No lesser metal would I trust with her safety.”

“Fine, fine,” she said, pushing her arms through the sleeves. “Go on and laugh, I am sure I look quite ridiculous.”

“That is not the word I would use,” Fíli grinned, straightening her collar. “It suits you!” He turned to Thorin for confirmation, but whatever he saw on his uncle’s face made him step in front of Bella, frowning and unhappy. “We’re finished here,” he snapped.

“Fíli, what’s wrong?” Bella asked, putting a hand on his elbow. “Has something upset you?”

“We are allowed some privacy now,” Thorin said, keeping his eyes on his nephew. “It is not within your purview to refuse.”

Fíli snorted, and turned to Bella. “I will be just over there,” he said, pointing towards the doorway. “Within shouting distance.”

Fíli,” she said, scandalized, as he turned back to glare at Thorin, who looked smug.

“I wouldn’t be so quick to taunt me, Uncle,” Fíli grumbled as he walked away. “The matter is not yet settled, and I can still make things difficult if I choose.”

Thorin ignored him, turning to face Bella and looking at her as if she were the only other soul in the mountain. “I have been waiting to talk to you,” he said, quietly.

“Must we keep exchanging presents, if we want a few moments alone?” Bella complained, stepping forward until she stood before him.

Thorin laughed. “I’m afraid so, though it does not bother me. There is much that I would give you, now I am able.” Bella looked at her feet, blushing, and he tipped her chin up with a finger. “What’s this?” he smiled at her. “You were not so bashful when you faced down the dragon. Am I more fearsome?”

“No,” she admitted. “And at the same time, yes. But if you had seen me with the dragon, you would know that I was shaking apart with nerves.”

“I heard it all,” he said. “We were at your heels, waiting at the mouth of the tunnel. I did not trust your ring to shield you.” His face grew serious. “When the dragon spoke, it was as if I were watching the Mountain fall again; I could barely make out his words over the roaring in my ears. Why did you not retreat?”

“What good would it have done?” Bella asked, puzzled. She reached up, covering his frown with the tips of her fingers. “He would have killed us all, or starved us, if his flames could not reach.” She grimaced. “Did you really hear everything?”

She lowered her hand, and he took it in both of his. “I heard you taunt the dragon, though he would have killed you,” Thorin said, softly.

She shook her head. “He was going for the tunnel - he knew you were there. There was no choice.”

He stood there, watching her quietly, with a look in his eyes she could not begin to decipher. “What are you thinking?” she asked, uncomfortable.

The corners of his lips turned up. “It is foolish, and I would rather not say.”

She brightened. “Oh, come now. You could do with looking foolish a bit more often; you’re far too dignified.”

“Another time,” he said, tucking one of her braids behind her ear.

“Uncle!” Fíli called, rushing into the room with Kíli right behind him.

“So soon, Fíli?” Thorin sighed, taking a step back. Bella frowned, and he shrugged at her regretfully.

“It isn't that,” Kíli said, panting and out of breath. “There are men at the gates, and elves! Hundreds of them!”

***

All of the dwarves rushed out to the wide terrace that overlooked the gates of the Mountain, with Bella following as quickly as she could. She had to stand on her toes to see what lay beyond the low wall, until Kíli quietly gave her a bit of a boost.

Spread out on the plains around the mountain was a great company of elves, armed with bows and spears and standing at attention behind their King, who rode before them on a great elk. At his side was the Master of Lake-town, flanked by guards and riding at the head of his own men, though they were fewer in number.

“Thorin Oakenshield!” One of the Master’s guards rode forward, a tall man with dark hair, who carried a bow larger than Bella herself. “My heart is glad to see you restored to your rightful homeland! But why have you shut your gates against us? Are the men of the Lake your enemies?”

“I have no quarrel with Lake-town,” Thorin said. “Or hadn’t, until I was interrupted by your army at my door. What is your purpose here?”

“I am Bard,” the man called, “heir of Girion of Dale, your ally, and I serve as guard to the Master of Lake-town. Will you not come down and speak with him?"

“I will not,” Thorin said, though he had sucked in a breath at the name of Girion, “while you keep company with the king of Mirkwood, who has used us ill. Why have you come, Thranduil?”

The elf rode forward, inclining his head in Thorin’s direction. “Two nights ago, the ground shook, and smoke faded from the base of the mountain,” he said, levelly. “The elves were not the only ones to notice these signs. Word has spread by now of the dragon’s death, though it was not said that any had survived his passing.”

“I see!” said Thorin. “Your purpose is clear to me now. You thought the Mountain and all its treasures unguarded and free for the taking, and rode out with all speed!” He took a step back from the wall, his hands balled into fists at his sides.

“I must disappoint you,” he continued, forcing his fingers open and squaring his shoulders. “Durin’s line once again sits on the throne of Erebor. And the delegates of Mirkwood are unwelcome in my halls.”

“Do not be so quick to refuse our friendship. You have taken back the mountain,” Thranduil called, smiling slightly below blank eyes. “But can you hold it? Thirteen dwarves I kept in my dungeons, and no more have traversed the Greenwood. Hardly an army.”

“We are dwarves enough to slay dragons,” Thorin shot back, motioning at Kíli to draw his bow.

“There is no need to mention armies,” Bard called, raising a hand for quiet. Thranduil looked at him askance, and even Thorin paused. “We have not come to challenge your kingship, but to see if the rumors were true.”

“And now you have seen they are,” Thorin said, still furious. “So I ask again, what is your purpose?”

The Master moved his horse forward, past Bard. “Have you so soon forgotten the people of Lake-town?” he yelled. “Who supported your quest with food and shelter?”

“I have not,” said Thorin, “nor do I leave my debts unpaid, though some would consider the re-establishment of Erebor’s trade more than enough recompense. But if you wish, I will throw down coins enough for our supplies and a few nights of lodging.”

“There is also the matter of the wealth of Dale,” the Master continued. “Stolen by Smaug when he took the mountain.”

The dwarves burst into an angry furor, but Thorin remained silent, staring steadily at the men until the Master looked uncomfortable. “Well, what say you?” he said, stepping back between his guards.

“I say that you are a fool,” Thorin said softly, and everyone quieted to hear his words, “to stand as an enemy before my gates and demand Dale’s legacy. Profit from an alliance with Erebor would make such wealth into a pittance.”

“If it is so little to you,” the Master rallied, “then send it down, and we may discuss more pleasant matters.”

“Leave my Mountain,” Thorin ordered, and the other dwarves tensed at his tone, their hands moving towards their weapons. “Go now, and do not return unless it is without elves or armies. Then perhaps we will discuss what you are owed.”

He turned away from the wall and walked into the Mountain without waiting for a reply. The others followed, but Bella took last look over the wall. The Master was pointing at Bard, and from the look on his face whatever he was saying was nothing terribly friendly. Bard bore it stoically, and Thranduil watched with either disdain or amusement, Bella could not tell.

***

Word came after supper the next day that Dáin and the dwarves of the Iron Hills had arrived, but were prevented from approaching the Mountain by the Master of Lake-town and his men. This news sent Thorin shaking with rage to the wall, almost faster than Bella and the others could follow.

You dare?” he bellowed to the men and elves, who were still camped at the foot of the Mountain. “You dare threaten my kin at the gates of my own kingdom?”

“It seemed prudent,” called the Master, whom Bella noticed the elves were giving rather a wide berth, “who knows how long it may take you to see to our claim, once you are well-supplied and busy with rebuilding?”

“I will see to your claim now,” Thorin said, his hand closing around the hilt of his sword.

“Not just yet, Master Oakenshield!” cried a voice from behind the Master. “I would speak with you first.”

“Gandalf!” Bella cried, dizzy with her relief. “You’ve returned! Someone lower a rope for him!”

“No need,” the wizard called, stepping out from a group of elves. “I am quite comfortable down here. Will the rest of you join me?”

Thorin scowled. “We will not. Long enough we have waited to reclaim these halls. If you would seek council with me, it will be in my own kingdom.”

“I am not here only on your behalf,” Gandalf answered, gesturing with his staff towards the leaders of Lake-town and Mirkwood. “But I do bring news from the west! A legion of orc riders approaches, led by Azog. They are great in number - no single army could stand against them.”

“Thorin,” Bard called, “your kin stand ready, five-hundred strong. We would fight at their side, and drive the orcs back to the Misty Mountains.”

“Listen to Bard,” Gandalf advised. “It will take the combined forces of dwarves, elves, and men to counter this threat. Will you not come down and talk it over?”

“Let my kin through,” Thorin said, through gritted teeth. “As a show of good faith. Let them pass my gates unmolested, and I will come and speak with you.” Bella gaped at him, shocked at this concession.

“You need not look at me like that,” he said, low enough so that only she and the rest of the company heard him. “I am not so stubborn as to be blind to our current danger. I will meet them halfway.”

“No,” said the Master, moving in front of Bard. “You are in no position to give orders. Until we have agreed on the distribution of the treasure, we will hold the gate.”

Thorin growled, taking a step away from the wall. “They will not be reasonable!” he said, and Balin stepped forward.

“My lord Thranduil,” he said, as Dwalin held Thorin back by an arm, “We were allies once, though we have gotten off to a poor start. The orcs must have come through your kingdom, the road around Mirkwood is too long for them to have done otherwise. Our forces could help you drive them back. Is that not more valuable to you than dragon treasure?”

“The elves are not here to make war on the dwarves for gold,” said Thranduil. “Nor do we rally to the defense of one who calls us his enemy.”

“Go then,” Thorin said. “Return to your woods, and take the men of the lake with you! We dwarves will defend our own, as we have always done.”

“Not yet,” said Thranduil. “I would not disregard the counsel of Mithrandir so lightly. We will tarry yet a while.”

“You may tarry until there is naught but your bones on the mountainside,” Thorin said coldly, before he turned and walked back into the mountain.

“Thorin!” Bella said, chasing after him, “we cannot leave it like that! We must make them see reason!”

“Reason!” Thorin exclaimed, stopping suddenly in the hallway. “Reason! They have threatened my kin! That is reason enough for war! And even then, I gave them a chance for diplomacy. Would you have me concede to their every demand?”

“Of course not!” she replied, stumbling to a stop before crashing into him. “But we are running out of time! I am sure Gandalf would not be here if the situation were not very serious.”

“I think Thranduil would meet with you,” Balin said, as the other dwarves caught up to them. “He does not seem so interested in the gold. But you cannot go down without dealing with the Master, and the Master will not bend.”

“Let’s try again,” Bella pleaded. “I am sure that Thranduil and Gandalf can persuade him.”

“I vote no,” growled Dwalin. “Thorin has been more than fair. They must let Dáin through, if they want our help against the orcs.”

“I agree,” said Bofur. “They’re between us and the them, after all. Who’s to say that we cannot withstand the orcs, once the elves and men thin them out?”

“The wizard doesn’t seem to think so,” said Glóin, “And I reckon he’s seen many a great battle in his day. I’m not saying we give in to the Master,” he said, raising his hands. “Only what I think of your strategy.”

“You heard Gandalf,” Bella said. “It will take all our combined forces to withstand the orcs. The men will not see sense, and the elves will not bestir themselves to make them. Therefore it falls to us to do what needs doing.”

“And what is that?” asked Thorin. “Suppose I give that man the treasure he asks for. Do you think that is where it will end?” He laughed, bitterly. “No, I know his kind. He will never be satisfied. I will hear no more.”

“Balin, my contract, please,” Bella said, holding out a hand. He passed it over, and she shoved it into Thorin’s chest, crumpling the paper. “Show me,” she demanded. “Show me where it says I may not question you.”

He pushed her hand aside. “What would you have me do,” he asked, his voice low and rough. “Meet their demands? Buy their aid? They keep my kin from the Mountain!”

“I know that!” Bella yelled. “They’re behaving horribly, and the elves don’t deserve so much as a brass button! But there is a greater threat coming, and we need their help.”

“I will not meet with them, not while they sit armed outside my gates,” Thorin said, with finality.

“You cannot say the men have no claim,” Bella said, trying one last argument.

“I never said that,” Thorin said. “If Girion’s heir came to talk of Dale, I would listen. If Lake-town asked for reparations for their hospitality, I would reward them generously. But no one has come to talk, and they have not asked. They camp on our doorstep, wielding swords and making threats, and I will not bow to it. We have our kingdom back, our stronghold. No dwarf will bend to the whims of men and elves, not while I rule here.”

Bella looked down at her contract, unclenching her fist and smoothing out its creases. She folded it neatly and stowed it in her pocket before looking up at Thorin, who watched her with dark eyes. “If a dwarf may not bend,” she said at last, “a hobbit will. Let me go and speak to them.”

Never,” he growled, taking a step away from her. He turned to look at the others. “Go. I would speak to Miss Baggins.”

She gasped, wounded at his use of the honorific, and the other dwarves filed out as she blinked back tears. After a moment, only Fíli and Kíli remained, looking mutinous. “I speak not as your uncle, but as your king,” Thorin growled. “Go. We will be done shortly.”

Kíli looked at Fíli, who hesitated for a long moment, then nodded. They walked away slowly, and Bella knew they would not go further than one step out the door.

“You must think me a poor king indeed,” Thorin said when they were gone, “if you imagine I would allow you to do such a thing. They would keep you, no doubt in hope of a ransom. And I would pay it.” His hand started towards her, but dropped against his side. “If they had you, they could demand anything that was mine to give.”

“Thorin - no,” she said, shocked. “I cannot believe they would do that. Gandalf would never allow it.”

“Gandalf!” he laughed, humorlessly. “He has his own interests, which he plays very close to the vest. Where was he when we were imprisoned? When we faced the dragon?”

“He has been a good friend to us,” Bella said, lowering her eyes. “And he put me in your path, so I cannot think ill of him. Let me go down. I will make them see reason.”

Thorin shook his head, his face blank. “No. I have made my conditions plain. They will speak with me as allies, or not at all.” And with that he turned away.

Her vision blurred as she stumbled from the room, straight into Fíli. “Bell,” he said, lifting her off her feet into an embrace. “What happened?”

“He will not change his mind,” she whispered, pressing her face into his shoulder. “And I worry that we will die of it.”

“He isn’t wrong though,” Kíli said, as Fíli set her back on her feet. “If we give in now, what’s to keep them from demanding gold for everything? You can’t count on friends you pay for.”

“That is a problem for the future,” Fíli argued. “The orcs are our problem now.”

“You cannot want to give those thrice-damned elves anything!” Kíli protested. “Or that Lake-man, either. He has a slimy feel about him.”

“Of course I don’t!” Fíli sighed. “This is a useless debate, anyway. Thorin has decided, and he is the king.”

“Hobbits do not have kings,” said Bella, grimly. “And I can’t sit here and do nothing.”

Fíli shook his head. “Our uncle is proud,” he said, “but he has lead our people well for many years. He will see what’s right.”

Bella leaned her head on Kíli’s shoulder, closing her eyes. “We should get some rest,” she said. “Perhaps things will look brighter in the morning.”

***

Bella lay quietly in the dark for a long time, waiting for Fíli and Kíli to fall asleep. They tossed and turned for hours, and she nearly nearly wept when their breathing finally slowed, evening out the rise and fall of their chests.

She rose silently, gathering her cloak and sword, and, after a moment’s thought, put on her mail shirt under her clothes. It was cold against her skin, and she shivered as she crept as softly as she could to the outer wall.

“Bella,” Bombur greeted her from his seat by the archway. “What brings you out so late?”

“I - well,” she said, startled, having forgotten that Thorin had set a watch. She looked frantically at the rope, debating whether or not she could lower it and climb down before he alerted the others.

He followed her gaze, then sighed. They stood there for a long moment, and Bella could see deliberation on his face. “Well, you’re just in time to do me a favor, as it happens,” he said, in the end. “I need to go in and talk to Bofur. Think you could keep an eye on things out here for a bit?”

She blinked, confused. Surely it was obvious what she was planning? But he nodded at her, slow and knowing, and then she understood. “Of course,” she murmured, her hands fidgeting with the hem of her cloak. “Take all the time you need.”

“Thank you,” he said solemnly, as he headed into the Mountain. “As you know, my kin and I are always at your service.”

***

She made her way down to the camp with little difficulty, slipping invisibly past the guards all the way to the entrance of a large tent, where the men of the Lake were taking council with Gandalf and the elves. She removed her ring before approaching, and was quickly apprehended by the sentries. “I beg your pardon!” she said, pulling uselessly in their grip. “This is quite unnecessary. I have come to talk!”

“Bella Baggins!” Gandalf said warmly, as he stepped out of the tent. “I thought I heard your voice. Has Thorin seen sense at last?”

“No,” she sighed. “He doesn’t know I’m here.”

Gandalf frowned. “You had better come and sit down,” he said, leading her inside. The space was set up with a large table, around which sat the Master of Lake-town, Bard, and Thranduil, behind whom stood another pale-haired elf.

“This is Bella Baggins,” Gandalf said to them, gesturing towards her. “Bella, I believe you know the men of Lake-town. This is Thranduil, king of the Greenwood, and his son, Legolas.” They nodded at her, and she curtsied, trying not to let on that she had seen the king before.

“Sit down,” Gandalf said, pulling out a chair. “And let us hear what you have come to say.”

The chair was too tall for her, and she had to jump a bit to reach the seat. Even sitting, the table came up high against her chest. She tried to bear it with dignity. “My lords,” she said, lacing her fingers in front of her, “there is an army on the way. They aim to take the mountain, and not only do you leave the dwarves without allies, you will not let their reinforcements pass. Can we not put aside our differences until the threat is over? Are you so keen to have orcs for neighbors?”

“It is the dwarves who will not meet with us!” the Master complained.

“And why should they!” anger flared up in Bella’s chest, and she glared at him. “The dragon was barely cold before you showed up, in force! You have kept them from their kin and threatened them! Withdraw your men, or let the other dwarves through, and Thorin will talk with you. I know he will!

“Are you so sure of that?” Gandalf asked, exchanging a look with Thranduil. “Is it the soldiers that hold Thorin back, or the loss of the treasure? I had feared the gold-madness of Thrór would overcome him, if he retook the Mountain.”

“Gold-madness?” Bella spluttered, “Thorin isn’t gold-mad, Gandalf! He’s furious at all these elves and men camped on his doorstep and spouting threats! Anyone would be!”

“Really?” Gandalf raised his brow. “You are certain of this?”

“I myself put the Arkenstone into his hand, and he swore to me he did not feel its pull,” she said, firmly. “There is no madness here. Let the dwarves from the Iron Hills through, and you will see.”

“That we will not do,” said the Master. “None will pass until the dwarves give us what we are owed.”

Owed?” Bella asked, cooly. “Did you slay the dragon?”

He eyed her appraisingly. “Perhaps it does not matter,” he said, suddenly more cheerful. “The dwarf-king dotes on this little creature. He might offer much, in exchange for her safe return.”

“That,” Gandalf said darkly, “I will not allow.”

Bard shook his head. “The halfling came here in good faith, I will have no part in kidnap.”

Thranduil said nothing, but he looked at the Master coldly, and his son put a hand on the hunting-knife at his belt.

“As you say,” the Master shrugged, his eyes still on Bella. “Though I do not see what else we might get out of her. She does not speak for the dwarves.”

“And you wonder why they hesitate to bargain with you!” Bella cried, pushing away from the table. “You - you foul thing. You should be grateful I have come, for Thorin would give you nothing, and rightly so!”

“I rule Lake-town, whose citizens are the heirs of Dale,” the Master said, puffing out his chest. “It is right that the city’s wealth should come to me, however the means.”

“Is it?” wondered Gandalf. “Dale’s king has an heir, and it is not you.”

The Master narrowed his eyes at Gandalf. “There is no Dale. That city is dead and burned.”

“It could be rebuilt,” Gandalf said, pulling out his pipe. “There is gold enough for such a project.” He turned to Bard. “What do you think?”

The man looked thoughtful, and Bella was impressed at how self-possessed he was in such mighty company. “The people of Lake-town have long hoped for the kingdom under the mountain to rise again, that Dale might follow,” Bard said. “I would not see that dream die now, so close to fruition.”

“He has no authority here,” the Master hissed.

Bard stared at him levelly. “I have the loyalty of my men, who followed me here, and not you,” he said. “That is all the authority I require.”

“Then it’s settled,” Bella said to the Master. “You have both shown your quality, and I find yours wanting. Bard may speak for your people, if we strike a bargain.”

“I see!” the Master stood up from the table, knocking his chair to the floor. He turned, pointing a finger at Bard. “You are delighted by this, no doubt. You have long been jealous of my position in town, which you feel should rightfully have come to you!”


“I have served you well for many years,” Bard said, calmly, “and never moved to usurp you, though I could have, and perhaps should have. Go now, and let me try to salvage this disaster, before the orcs slaughter us all as we squabble.”

The Master left, and his fury calmed something inside of Bella. She turned to Thranduil, looking at him thoughtfully. “Though I cannot approve of their methods, I believe the men do have some claim to a share of Smaug’s hoard,” she said. “The elves are another matter.”

“You are a strange creature, to speak so,” the king said, raising a brow at her. “We are not your enemy, nor are we enemies of the dwarves.”

“Truly,” Legolas interrupted. “We thought your company fell with the dragon. I cannot fathom how you slew him.”

“Together,” Bella said, crisply. The others said nothing, waiting for her to elaborate. When it became apparent that no more was forthcoming, the prince shook his head slightly and went on.

“You said King Thorin might make peace with the men. Do you believe he will speak with us, if we withdraw our forces?”

Bella flushed. “That I cannot say. Imprisoning him on his way to the Mountain was not a good first step towards diplomacy.”

Thranduil narrowed his eyes. “We have offered our hand in friendship to the dwarves, and they have rejected it. Our alliance with his forefathers will buy Thorin Oakenshield only so much.”

“Oh yes, by all means, let us discuss this friendship,” Bella said. “And what a blessing it was to them when Smaug drove them from their homeland.”

“You saw the dragon,” Thranduil said, coldly. “And the results of his machinations. Not even with all of my people could we have retaken the mountain. Should I have spent their lives in the attempt?”

“You should have done something!” Bella said, bringing a fist down hard against the table. “You were there when the dwarves fled the dragon’s fire! What comfort did you offer their widows and orphans? Did you provide them shelter? Solace? So much as a crust of bread? I have seen with my own eyes the hospitality of your halls, my lord, so do not speak to me of your friendship.”

Thranduil stood, cloak billowing behind him, and left the tent without a word. His son stayed behind, staring down at his own clasped hands.

Bella turned to Bard. “I have offended everyone else, so I suppose it is your turn, now.” She pulled her contract from her pocket, pressing it flat on the table and sliding it over to him. “As it says here, I am entitled to one-fourteenth of the profits of our venture. You have not seen the dragon’s hoard, so I will tell you - that is wealth beyond calculating.”

She leaned back in her chair as he glanced over the document. “What do you propose?” he said when he was satisfied.

“I will sign my share over to you, Bard, heir of Girion, to stand for the wealth of Dale. You may oversee its disbursement between the elves, who are your allies, and the reconstruction of your city,” she replied, savoring his shocked expression.

At this, the elf prince looked up, meeting Bard’s eyes across the table. “And in exchange?” Bard prompted, after a moment.

“Your men, and the elves, will stay and fight with the dwarves against the orcs,” Bella said. “Further, you will guarantee the safety of Thorin Oakenshield, and his heirs, and all the dwarves in his company.”

Bard laughed. “You ask the impossible. Fight at his side, that I will do. My men will follow me over the Master, if we fight for Dale. And I could broker a deal with the elven-king to help us, for he is not so unfriendly as you think. But you cannot ask me to promise the safety of so many. Such a thing cannot be done.”

“I do ask it,” Bella said, firmly. “Erebor is only a mountain, and its treasure a pile of metal and rocks. The lives of my friends are the only things in it of any value to me whatsoever. If you feel you cannot defend thirteen dwarves, with two armies at your disposal, tell me now and I will find someone who can!”

Bard looked towards Legolas, who met his gaze steadily. “We are allies,” the elf said. “Whatever bargain you make here, the Greenwood will uphold it.” He turned to Bella. “My father has lived long, and seen much that lies heavy on his heart. Now our kingdom slips into shadow, and we cannot hold the darkness at bay. Do not think so ill of him.”

“Protect my friends,” she replied, “and I will sing his praises from the mountaintop.” She turned back to Bard. “Well?”

“The chance to rebuild Dale is not one I would ignore lightly,” Bard said, standing. “I accept your bargain. Legolas, will you inform your father? I must speak with Gandalf.”

The elf nodded. “I will.”

“Return to the mountain, Miss Baggins,” Bard said, taking her contract and stowing it in his vest. “I will escort you to the wall. We will defend your people, or fall in the attempt. My word on it.”

***

It was too much to hope that her absence would not be noted. “Bella!” Fíli shouted, as soon as she was within sight. “Get back up here this instant!

Kíli took hold of the rope, which was still laying over the wall, but Thorin pulled him back onto the terrace. “What have you done?” Thorin asked slowly, as if Bella had pierced him to the heart.

“You should thank the halfling!” Bard called up. “She has settled our dispute. Our forces are with you, and we have sent runners to call for your kin. Already they approach the mountain.”

Thorin ignored him, staring at Bella with a mixture of shock and betrayal. “You thought I could not protect you,” he said, dully. “You prefer to trust your life to the elves and men.”

“No!” she cried, running to the base of the wall. “No, that is not it at all! It is not my own life that concerns me.”

He held up a hand. “Enough! Stay down there with your friends, if they bring you such comfort. I will trouble you no further.” He turned, walking quickly out of her sight, and though she had expected his anger, she was staggered by the pain it caused.

Fíli and Kíli looked at each other, and then Kíli went for the rope again, his brother at his heels. “Stop!” Bella yelled at them. “Stay up there with Thorin and the others!”

“Either you are coming up, or we are coming down!” Kíli shouted back, throwing a leg over the wall.

“No, I mean it! You must trust me! Stay with your uncle,” she said, and Fíli threw his hands into the air.

“We do trust you! It’s these armies we’re worried about!” he said, but he pulled Kíli behind the wall again.

Bella waved them back. “Everything will be fine, but do not leave Thorin! Promise me!”

Fíli narrowed his eyes. “For the moment!” he called, tugging his brother away by his hood.

“Does this change the terms of our bargain?” Bard asked her, as Fíli and Kíli disappeared inside the mountain.

She took a moment to steady herself, then drew herself up to her full height before answering. “No. It stands.”

“Halfling,” Thranduil called, as he approached them, Legolas at his side, “It will not be long now, ere our foes arrive. Stay close, and my guards and I will watch over you.”

She shook her head. “I thank you, but no. I have a sword, and must do my bit to help.”

He smiled, ever so slightly, the most genuine expression Bella had ever seen on his face. “I had not taken you for a warrior.”

“I may surprise you yet,” she said, forcing a grin as she slipped on the ring and vanished from their midst.

***

The battle started before midday, and began well for the elves and men, who had learned the details of the orcs’ approach from Gandalf and the ravens. Their advantage did not last long, however; the enemy had come in force, and it was only the ferocity of the dwarves from the Iron Hills that kept their allies from being driven back against the Mountain.

Bella made her way up its slopes, near enough to the gate to see Thorin and company burst out of Erebor, weapons flashing in the sunlight. Bella watched, terrified yet hopeful, as two garrisons of elves and men converged on the dwarves, shielding them from a sea of enemies as they cut their way towards Azog.

She could not help the scream that escaped as one of the orcs broke through the line of elves, charging towards Thorin with his sword raised. He died before he could get within swinging distance, an arrow in his chest and an axe through the skull. Bella cursed herself for making a sound, as several of the dwarves were looking towards the place where she stood on the mountainside, and she was grateful she had already put on the ring.

Harsh laughter from behind her made her turn around, and she was horrified to see that a troop of orcs had climbed around the side of the mountain, and were moving in on the dwarves from the rear. Bella nearly shrieked again when the one nearest to her drew a bow and a terrible barbed arrow. She ran towards him, hand on her sword, but she was too far and knew she would not be in time to prevent his shot.

Just as he was about to fire, a squadron of elves charged in from the other direction, throwing off his aim and engaging him and the rest of the orcs in combat. She took a moment to bless Thranduil, and her relief distracted her enough that she failed to dodge out of the path of a fleeing orc.

Brightness exploded behind her eyes as the edge of his shield connected with the back of her head. She staggered, going to her knees as the battle raged on around her. She fell forward onto her hands, and spent long moments raggedly forcing her breath in and out of her lungs.

When the ground seemed firm again beneath her, she tried to rise, but dizziness dropped her into the dirt again. As slowly as she could, she began to crawl, dragging herself down the path off the Mountain. After resting there for a few minutes, until she felt steady enough to stand. She took a hesitant step, and then another, then stopped to lean against an outcropping of rocks. Her head burned, and she felt something wet on her neck that she had a bad feeling about.

A familiar voice caught her attention, and she knew, even before she dragged herself around a turn in the path to see, that it was Fíli, growling something fierce in khuzdul and fighting two orcs all alone. She held her breath as he dispatched them one after the other, his swords slashing gracefully through the air.

“Fíli!” she gasped, taking off the ring and making her way to his side. “Where’s Kíli?”

He actually laughed as he pulled his sword free of the corpse of a fallen orc. “Trapped with the others, behind your army of mercenaries!”

“Not worth half what I paid for them, if they let you escape,” Bella scowled.

“I was very motivated,” he said, grabbing her wrist and pulling her over to him. “Did you think I wouldn’t come? You ought to have known I’d find you, wherever you wandered.” He ran a hand over her hair, and his fingers came away red. “Bell,” he said, eyes wide and horrified. “You’re hurt!”

She batted at his hand. “It’s nothing!” she said as he turned her around, “only I feel a bit wobbly.”

“You’re covered in blood down your back,” he growled. “We need to get you out of here, now.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, guiding her along as they made their way towards the gates. Light and sound began to fade, and as they went she leaned more and more against Fíli.

“Almost there, Bell,” he whispered, propelling them forward. “That’s my girl, hold on a bit longer. Don’t you want to see Kíli? He will be anxious to tell you all about his prowess in battle.”

“I need to sit, Fíli,” she slurred, sagging towards the ground.

“Oh, Bell, no,” he cried, pulling her back up onto her feet. “I can’t carry you now, I need my hands.”

She closed her eyes, slumping against his shoulder. “I can walk. Just give me a moment.”

He lowered her gently into a sitting position, then sheathed his swords. “Bell,” he said, kneeling beside her and cupping her chin. “Open your eyes.” She obeyed sluggishly, blinking until his face came into focus. “That’s right, look at me. I need you to stay awake, namad, all right? I’m going to carry you, and you’re going to stay awake and keep an eye out for enemies. Can you do that?”

It seemed an impossible task, with her eyelids so heavy, and her limbs weighed down with tiredness. “You go,” she said. “Find Kíli. I’ll put the ring on, and you can come and get me afterwards. When it’s safe.”

Never,” he said sharply, giving her a little shake. “Leave you bleeding in this wretched place? Kíli would send me back with an arrow through my heart if I tried.” He pulled her against his chest, wrapping an arm around her shoulders, and another beneath her knees. “Besides, don’t you remember our agreement? Together, Bell, or not at all.”

Suddenly, a heavy rock crashed into the ground beside them, sending a cloud of dust into the air. “What’s happening,” she asked, dazed.

“Orcs on the mountainside!” he yelled, lifting her into his arms and breaking into a run. “They are coming! Keep your head down!” Rocks showered the ground around them, until she could barely see through all the dirt they kicked up.

She heard a sickening crack, and Fíli fell hard to his knees, then all the way forward onto on the ground. “Fíli!” Bella screamed, crawling to his side from where she’d fallen. She shook her head, forcing her vision clear. Orcs were streaming down the path, nearer and nearer, and she tried and failed to push herself to her feet.

She grabbed Fíli by the shoulder, shaking him as hard as she could. “Please wake up,” she begged, her chest burning with panic. “Please, please.” But his eyes remained stubbornly closed.

“All right,” she sighed, blinking back tears and laying down on the ground beside him. “That’s all right.” She reached into her pocket for the ring, drawing it out as steadily as she could with trembling hands.

With all the strength she had left, she took Fíli’s hand in hers and forced the ring onto his smallest finger. He vanished, and she rolled onto her back to stare into the cloudless sky.

The world dimmed, narrowing to a point of light directly before her, and as she fell into the dark pool of senselessness, the last thing she saw was a blur of green and gold, and the flash of a silver blade.

Chapter Text

“Good morning,” Fíli smiled, as Bella’s eyes slitted open. She groaned, shutting them against the light, scowling when he laughed.

It took another moment before she gasped, realizing where she was and the circumstances that must have brought her there. “Fíli! Are you all right?” she asked, as she tried and failed to sit up.

Gently, he pressed her shoulders back down against the mattress she was lying on. “I am quite well, and will tell you all about it, but we have to be quiet. Look,” he said, lifting his gaze, and it occurred to her that there was something warm pressed against her back.

Gingerly, she turned her head to see Kíli, frowning in his sleep. There was a tiny crease in the space between his eyes, but when she moved to brush her thumb over it, he shifted, throwing an arm across her middle and nuzzling into her shoulder.

She could not help smiling. “The poor thing,” she said softly, turning back to Fíli, who was sitting in a chair at their bedside. “Is he injured?”

Fíli chuckled. “No, only tired. He has been tending you diligently for two days and will be very cross to hear that you woke just after I forced him to rest.”

“Two days?” Bella asked, shocked. “I never slept so long!”

“Óin did not call it sleep,” Fíli said, the mirth disappearing from his face. “Not the first day, anyway, when he wasn’t sure you’d wake again. But then yesterday you breathed easier, and he said you’d be all right.”

She blinked. “What happened to us?” she demanded. “It could not have been so serious; I don’t feel hurt at all, only sore and very tired. And - oh Fíli! Your head!” It all came back to her then: her wound, their struggle to make their way to the gates, Fíli, lying senseless on the path. She struggled to sit up again, and Fíli stood abruptly, leaning over her and forcing her to lie still.

“Bell, Bell!” he said, gripping her by the arms. “Shh, you can’t get out of bed yet! I’m fine, I swear it! Everyone is!”

“Everyone?” she gasped, as she stopped struggling against him. “Fíli, I saw you fall! The orcs - we were saved?”

Fíli smiled. “We were,” he said, releasing her and sitting down again. “By the prince of Mirkwood, no less.”

“Thranduil’s son? Legolas?” Bella asked, trying to remember.

“The same,” Fíli replied. “Say what you will about the elves, that one honors his agreements. He took it upon himself to follow me when he saw I’d evaded the others, and found you lying across the path.”

Bella sagged against the mattress, her heart racing at how very close their end had been. “But how did he find you?” she said. “Didn’t I-” she reached down to check her pockets, but found her worn travel-clothes replaced with an oversized linen shirt.

“You did.” Fíli held up her ring, suspended on a silver chain. “The prince was very surprised when he went to check on you and tripped over me.” He pressed the chain into her hand, leaning in to tap their foreheads together.

Lifting the chain to put it on, her hand brushed against cloth, and she realized that her head was wrapped with bandages. “Oh!” she said, looking at Fíli with startled eyes.

“You lost a lot of blood,” he said quietly, pulling her hand away from her wound. “If that elf hadn’t found you when he did-” Fíli paused to wrap his fingers around her wrist, squeezing gently. “Dwarves are hardy folk, Bell. I woke as he prodded at me to determine what I was. It was only luck that I felt your ring on my hand, cold as it is, because I think he suspected some dark power.”

Bella settled against Kíli, letting her eyes drift shut as Fíli continued his story. “He asked me if I could stand, if I could wield my swords. And then I had to watch as he ran you down the path towards the gates, faster than I could follow. I watched him spirit you away and all I could think was that it might be the last time I saw you alive. That I had not come in time, not done enough to save you.”

“Fíli,” Bella said, turning her hand to take his. “You found me. Who knows where I’d be if you hadn’t come looking? Probably still out there, lying invisible on the mountainside.”

Don’t say that,” he whispered, closing his eyes. “I have been thinking it for two days, I cannot bear to hear it aloud.”

She pulled her hand free of his grip, bringing it up to tuck one of his braids behind his ear. He looked pale, and terribly tired, and his skin was dotted with scratches and smears of dirt around the edges, as if he’d only had time for a quick wash at a basin, instead of a proper scrub.

“Thank you, Fíli,” she said, pressing her hand against his cheek. “Thank you for coming to find me. For trusting me, when you had no reason. For taking care of me all this time and all this way.”

He opened his eyes, and her next words caught in her throat, but she took a breath and forced them out, because after everything, he deserved to hear them. “Thank you for choosing me.”

He leaned into her hand, smiling foolishly. “You cannot say you haven’t paid us back in kind, Bell. You freed us from prison, you walked into a dragon’s lair on our behalf. You went against Thorin,” and at that, he lowered his voice, “and traded your share of the treasure to ensure our safety - yes, Gandalf told us everything. But even without any of that, I would do it again. All of it.”

She made a noise could have been either a sob or a laugh, and he hushed her as he tucked her back in under the blankets. “You need to rest,” he said, crossing his arms on the bed beside her, and laying his head down. “And so do I.”

“You should go and find a bed,” she murmured, as she closed her eyes.

“I’ll sleep better here, in arm’s reach of the both of you.”

***

When she next woke, it was to the sight of Kíli, leaning over to stare into her face, eyes narrowed. “Why are you looking at me like that?” she yawned, stretching as best she could around his hovering.

“I’m trying to figure out how to keep you from sneaking off in the night again,” he complained peevishly. “We’ve already tried bells!”

Bella looked away, guilt churning her stomach. “What choice did I have? You wouldn’t have let me go alone, and you couldn’t come with me.”

“Fíli says we’re not to lock you in, though you deserve it,” Kíli went on, ignoring her question.

“Speaking of that,” Bella said, looking around. “Where are we?” Somewhere in the Mountain, that was obvious from the stone walls, but wherever they were was nowhere near as filthy and disheveled as the rooms they’d explored near the treasure hall. She lay on a sturdy bed made up with clean sheets, and there was a small desk pushed up against the wall opposite her, which was hung with a blue curtain run through with silver threads.

“Do you like it?” Kíli asked, his glower melting into a pleased smile. “Fíli found us a set of rooms! There’s a sitting area through there,” he pointed towards the doorway, “and another bedroom on the other side of it.”

“It’s lovely,” she said, trying to sit up. Kíli took her hands and dragged her the rest of the way, until her back was pressed against the headboard. “Much nicer than where we were before.”

“It is the royal wing,” Kíli shrugged. “There’s only one passage down here, and I doubt Smaug could have fit.”

“The royal-” The shock startled her, and she doubled over, coughing. “Kíli,” she choked out, lifting her eyes to glare at him. “I don’t belong here! I’m not even sure I ought to be in the Mountain at all!”

“Why not?” Kíli said, clambering onto the foot of her bed. “We said we’d get you a room with ours, remember? Ages ago.”

“Without getting into all the ways it’s inappropriate,” Bella hissed, looking around for her clothes or her pack, anything she could use to escape, “have you forgotten that Thorin banned me from the Mountain?”

Kíli blinked. “Oh,” he said. “I had, actually. But I’m sure he’s over that now, since everything’s turned out so well.”

“Are you?” she said, scathingly, swinging her legs around and lowering her feet to the stone floor. “I’m not! And I am leaving now, until I’m certain your uncle doesn’t intend to throw me over the wall!”

“Stop!” Kíli cried, yanking her back onto the bed. “You can’t get up yet! Fíli will shout at us!”

Only a sudden onset of vertigo kept her from struggling. “Where is Fíli,” she asked, leaning against Kíli’s shoulder. “I might want to shout at him for a bit.”

“No shouting,” Kíli chastised, wrapping an arm around her to hold her in place. “Until you’re better,” he amended.

“I’m sorry, Kíli,” she sighed. “I haven’t even asked how you are. Fíli said you wore yourself out looking after me.”

He grinned. “Looking after the both of you! Didn’t he tell you, he could hardly walk a straight line for a whole day after he made his way back to the gates.”

“What!” she cried, outraged. “That wretch, he never said!”

“Don’t fret,” Kíli tightened his arm around her. “No one else had so much as a scratch, thanks to your meddling. So we dumped you both in this bed, and I brought him water and food and anything else he demanded until he recovered enough to insist we switch places.”

“But where is he now?” Bella asked.

“Oh, some dull meeting,” Kíli flopped backwards onto the mattress. “Thorin has been in talks with Dáin and Bard for days, and Fíli’s expected to sit in and listen. I hope he brings back food.”

“How did I know you’d say that,” Fíli said, balancing a tray on one hand as he nudged the door open with an elbow. “Oh good, Bell’s awake.”

Finally,” Kíli said, getting up to rescue the tray as it wobbled. “What’ve you brought us?”

“I don’t care if it’s cold salted fish again, I feel as if I haven’t eaten in days,” Bella said, sliding up towards the headboard as Kíli settled on the end of the bed.

“Nothing so dreary!” Fíli said cheerfully, pulling up a chair. “We’re well supplied, thanks to Dáin, and when I told the others you’d woken up, Bombur made this up special for you.”

Pie,” Kíli cried, bouncing on the mattress. “And cheese, and ale! Oh, you should have woken up days ago!”

“At your service,” Bella said dryly, reaching for a piece of bread. They emptied the tray in short order, with both Bella and Fíli looking the other way as Kíli took what was, strictly speaking, more than his share of the meat pie.

“That is much better,” Bella said, pushing the tray away. “I can think properly now, though a good wash would improve matters still further, no doubt.”

“There’s a bathing room down the hall,” Fíli said, leaning over and pulling a cloth sack out from under the bed. “But first, there’s something you need to attend to.”

“What’s all that?” Bella asked, as he put it down on the blankets in front of her.

Kíli reached for it, but Fíli batted his hands away. “Presents!”

“Fíli, did you accept more courtship gifts on my behalf?” Bella asked, shocked.

Fíli shook his head. “They were not for me to refuse, Bell.” He turned to Kíli. “I left something in the workshop. Can you run and fetch it for me?”

Kíli frowned, his shoulders slumping into a sulk. “But I wanted to - oh fine,” he said, flinching at Fíli’s look. “Be right back!”

He left, walking as quickly as he could without breaking into a run, and Fíli nudged the bag towards Bella. “I couldn’t refuse these gifts,” he explained, “because they’re not for courtship. They’re from the others in the company, and only you can decide whether or not to accept.”

She stared at the bag, not sure what to think. “But why?” she asked, blankly. “They have not come to see me.”

“Of course they have!” Fíli said, surprised. “It took Kíli and I both to get rid of them, and even then I think Dwalin only went because we wouldn’t let Thorin in.”

“You wouldn’t?” she gaped. “He tried?”

“Several times,” Fíli said gently. “But I told him it was your decision whether you would see him, and so he must wait until you woke. The others I threw out once Óin said you were past danger. I thought you’d prefer to wake without an audience. Was I wrong?”

“No,” Bella shook her head. “You were right. It’s only - I thought they were angry with me. For leaving.”

“No one is angry,” Fíli said. “Thorin could not meet with the elves and men, but you could. Everyone saw the sense in that. And it worked out well enough, though there was some grumbling their shielding us like nursemaids.”

“And they sent these?” she asked, gesturing towards the bag. “Gifts, for me? Like my silver bells?”

“Just like,” Fíli confirmed. “For you to accept or decline, whichever you please.”

She smiled at him. “Well, I made a good choice the last time, wouldn’t you say?” But he looked back at her solemnly.

“Before you say yes, there’s something you need to know,” he said. “This kind of thing is usually done in person, in front of witnesses. That’s our way. But the others asked me to make sure you got their gifts as soon as you woke, and for good reason.”

“But why?” Bella asked. “What’s the hurry?”

“Because they want to keep you,” Fíli said. “Whatever happens with Thorin, they wanted you to know that you have family here in Erebor, and these gifts are strings that tie you to the Mountain, to us. So you should be certain that’s something you want.”

“Oh,” she said, looking down at the bag again, as if it could offer some insight. “What do you think?”

“Dwarves are covetous,” Fíli admitted with a rueful smile. “And I will hate sharing. But you aren’t metal or stone, to keep under lock and key for myself. Anyway, I’ll still be your eldest brother.”

Bella raised a brow. “I can’t see how you could’ve arranged that.”

He grinned. “Of course I am! Who’s been your brother longer than me?”

“Is that how it works?” She laughed. “I suppose it is sensible. But before I decide anything,” she said, reaching over the bag to take his hand, “you chose me first, long before I had earned my place among you, when I was no better than a hindrance. It was you who got us here, Fíli, and if this tale has a happy ending, it was you who brought it about. I will not forget that.”

He didn’t answer, just tightened his grip on her hand, and she reached for the bag. “All right, let’s have a look at them.”

Fíli plucked it from her grasp, settling it on his lap and loosening the knot that held it shut. The first item he pulled out was a leather helmet, reinforced with thick bands of iron and inlayed with bronze. “From Óin and Glóin,” he said. “That would have been useful a few days ago.”

He dropped it over her head, being careful of her bandages. It fit well enough, only sliding down her nose a little when she tipped her head back. “I accept,” she said, taking it off and putting it gently to the side.

“These are from Balin and Dwalin,” Fíli continued, handing her a folded square of felt. She opened it, puzzled, to see a neat row of metal needles, their tips dagger-bright and dangerous. “Nice,” Fíli nodded approvingly. “See Bell, this is dwarven craftsmanship.”

“Very thoughtful,” Bell said, a little afraid to touch them. “I accept.”

The next item Fíli handed over was a scroll which, when unrolled, was covered in neat rows of sketches. Bella recognized many of them from the weapons and armor she’d seen in the treasure-hall, and the intricate carvings lining the walls of the Mountain itself.

“Dori knows all the old patterns,” Fíli explained. “He must have had Ori draw them out for you, once Nori scrounged up some ink and paper.”

“I accept,” Bella whispered, wiping the back of her hand across her eyes. She ran her finger over the clean lines, already envisioning how they would look hemming cloaks and edging collars.

“Not done yet,” Fíli slid the page out from under her hands. Her fingers flexed at the loss, and she realized he was holding out the final item from the sack - a wooden box with a hinged lid, no bigger than her two hands together. The image of the Mountain had been carved into the top, and dwarf-runes ran along the edges. “From Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur.”

“It’s lovely,” she breathed. “What do the runes say?”

“Traditional khuzdul blessings. ‘Mahal, keep safe my treasures’ and the like,” Fíli said. “That’ll be useful - I know I wasn’t the only one scrounging through the treasure piles for pretties to give my dear sister. You’ll need a place to keep them.” He winked at her.

She put the box down gently. “I accept.”

“Just one more, now,” Fíli said, though the sack was empty.

Bella did a quick mental tally. “No, that was everyone.”

Fíli only smiled as Kíli ran back into the room. “I have it!” he panted, pressing a tiny bundle into his brother’s hands.

“From Kíli and I,” Fíli said, undoing the cloth wrapping. Two silver beads, fashioned in a complicated pattern of woven wire, dropped into her hand. “This,” Fíli explained, taking one, “is a fourteen strand braid. Kíli made the wire, and I made the beads.”

“Fíli,” Bella sighed, “they’re beautiful.”

“Well,” he said, unfastening one of her braids and sliding the bead on, “I did promise you a set, if you recall. And they’re very appropriate, more so now than ever.”

“And we certainly weren’t going to let the others outdo us,” Kíli said, as Fíli fastened in the other one. “Didn’t Fíli do a good job?”

“You both did,” Bella said, leaning over to press a kiss to his cheek. “I’m lucky to have such fine craftsmen for my two eldest brothers.” That startled a bark of laughter out of Kíli, who hugged her. “What’s this,” she said, smiling at his enthusiasm.

“I just realized - when it comes to you, I outrank Dwalin,” Kíli said, rapturously. “This is a wonderful day!”

“Good luck with that,” Fíli smirked, punching him lightly on the shoulder. Then he turned to Bell. “Let’s get you cleaned up, and you can go down and see everyone at supper, if that suits you? They’ve set up tables near the kitchens.”

“Perfect,” Bella smiled, shaking her head to make her beads click. “But first, there’s something I need to know.”

***

True to her prediction, Bella felt incalculably better after a thorough wash and a change into clean clothes. The three of them walked to the dining hall together, and Bella could not help admiring the beauty of the stone halls, lined by carvings and set with gold and gems. This, she thought, was Erebor as it was meant to be, and for once she understood what drove the dwarves to long for it so fiercely.

As if he could hear her thoughts, Fíli put a steadying hand on her shoulder. “Thorin may be in there,” he murmured. “And he has been asking to speak with you. But this is not the place I would choose for that meeting.”

She swallowed. “Please, not here. I must talk with him, I know, but not in front of so many others.”

He nodded. “Let me see what I can find out,” he said, flagging down one of the Iron Hill dwarves, who had been put to work clearing empty platters into the kitchen. “Pardon me, is the king at his table?”

The dwarf shook his head. “No, he’s come and gone, with some of Dáin’s counselors.”

“Perfect,” Fíli said, thanking him and heading into the dining hall. He froze in the doorway, and Bella nearly walked into him. “Oh, curse it, he’s tricked us,” Fíli swore, taking Bella by the arm and dragging her away from the head table, where the only empty chairs were directly in front of Thorin, who raised a brow at them.

“Let’s just sit somewhere else,” suggested Kíli, looking around the crowded room.

“We can’t,” Fíli said, his eyes still locked on Thorin’s. “He’s saved us places. You and I must sit with him, at least, or there’ll be talk.”

“There’s always talk,” Kíli rolled his eyes.

“I’ll have to speak to him sometime, I suppose,” Bella said, trying to keep her voice steady. “Let’s not let it trouble us.”

Fíli shook his head. “Not here, not on his terms,” he said. “Ma would never forgive us if we let him win that easily.”

“Let who win what?” came a familiar voice from behind them.

“Bofur!” Fíli exclaimed, clapping him on the shoulder. “Your timing couldn’t be better!”

“Did you need someplace to sit?” Bofur asked, his brow furrowed in confusion. “Most of us are down that way.” He pointed towards the back of the room, where the rest of the company was watching them.

“Victory, from the jaws of defeat!” Fíli crowed, shoving Bella at him. “Here, take Bell, would you? Kíli and I must sit with Thorin, or he’ll just think of something else.”

“We’ll find you afterwards, Bell!” Kíli called cheerily, as Fíli dragged him towards the head table.

Bella looked up at Bofur, who had caught her by the shoulders. He flushed, dropping his hands and taking a step back. “It was presumptuous of us, I know-” he began, not meeting her eyes, but was interrupted by Bella, who threw her arms around his neck.

“Thank you, Bofur,” she said, as he stood there, shocked into stillness. “Tell me if I do this right,” she murmured, dropping her voice so that only he could hear. “Nadad.”

He lifted her off her feet, spinning her around before setting her down with a grin. “Yâdùshun, namad,” he said, laughing. “A pleasure. And yes, that was perfectly correct.”

He lead her over to the table, past the curious (and occasionally unfriendly) looks from the strange dwarves that filled the room. No one said anything as she approached, but the others looked at her expectantly.

“So, it’s to be a family dinner?” she grinned, and the table erupted into cheers. Bella went around the table from dwarf to dwarf, thanking each of them in turn, and if any of them were shocked to hear her whisper a word of khuzdul, no one let on.

“There’s just one thing that bothers me,” Bella said, once she’d sat down. “Something I’ve thought about for a long time, but never felt quite able to ask before.”

The dwarves fell silent, looking at each other worriedly. “What’s that, lass?” Balin said, taking it upon himself to speak for all of them. “If we can answer you, we will.”

She smiled. “I hope you can, because I simply cannot go on without knowing: who left the traveling cloak in my room? Do you remember?”

Everyone relaxed, and one or two of the dwarves grinned at each other. “Of course we do!” said Nori. “You looked as miserable as a wet cat when we rode into Bree.”

Bofur interrupted, elbowing his brother. “It was Bombur who mentioned that you were lookin’ a bit worse for the wear-”

“And Dori was worried you might catch a chill!” Ori added.

“Everyone debated whether we ought to loan you something warm-”

“-and if so, what?”

“And who?

“In the end, it was Thorin who told Glóin to purchase you a proper cloak with some of the company’s funds,” said Balin, looking at her knowingly.

“And I put it in the room with your pack!” Ori finished, proudly.

“Oh,” Bella smiled at all of them. “Well, I thank you. I could not have done without it!”

“Less talking, more eating,” Dwalin grunted, pushing a tray in her direction.

Dori nodded, filling her plate too high. “Dwalin is right. You’re far too thin still, and you’ve had an injury! A few good meals is just what you need.”

It was useless to protest, so she ate everything she was given while the dwarves recounted the details of the battle she had missed. Even with Bella’s contribution, it had been a close thing, with Thorin and company fighting through the hordes as best they could to make their way to Azog.

She listened as they described it all, rapt and anxious in spite of knowing it had ended well, and in the end she happier than ever in her choice of Bard, who, with his last arrow, had slain the Pale Orc just before he could reach Thorin.

After that, the conversation shifted to lighter fare, with Glóin describing how the renovations were coming along in the forges, and Dori lamenting the poor manners of the dwarves from the Iron Hills.

The familiar cadences soothed Bella’s nerves, and when she had finished eating she rested her head on Bifur’s shoulder and savored the knowledge that for once, everything she cared about was out of danger.

“How are you feelin’?” Bombur asked her from across the table. “You’re lookin’ a bit tired.”

“Am I?” she asked, leaning back in her chair. “Well, perhaps I am, a little.”

Bifur patted her arm, and Glóin stood, pulling her chair out and offering her a hand up. “Come on, I’ll take you back to your rooms,” he said.

She looked over at Fíli and Kíli, sitting side by side across from Thorin, who was glowering at them. “Or I could go and free those two,” Glóin offered, giving her a wink.

“Would you?” she asked, thinking of the empty rooms waiting for her.

“No trouble,” he shrugged, clapping Balin on the arm. “Give me a hand with his majesty?”

Balin rolled his eyes. “If I must. Though if his temper doesn’t break soon, we’ll all be reminiscing fondly about the dragon.”

“Come along, hobbit,” Dwalin said, as Balin and Glóin made their way to the head table. “We’ll walk with you. The princes’ll catch up.”

They all paused when Bofur was waylaid by an acquaintance at the door out of the dining hall, and soon the rest of the company was laughing and chatting with a few of the Iron Hill guardsmen. Not knowing any of the dwarves they were gossiping about, Bella quickly grew bored, and uncomfortable with the considering, wary looks some of the foreign dwarves were giving her.

The company seemed to be enjoying themselves, and Bella didn’t want to interrupt their conversation, however keen she was to get back to the privacy of her room. She thought she remembered the way well enough, though, so she started down the corridor, assuming the others would catch up when they were finished.

She took one turn, then another, and started to feel uneasy at how similar all the passages looked. No longer sure she was on the right track, she turned around, trying to retrace her steps.

“Halfling!” someone behind her yelled, and she stopped automatically. She turned to see that she was face to face with a dwarf she did not know. He was not so tall as Dwalin or Thorin, but he was burly, and had the look of one who’d seen his share of tavern brawls.

“Can I help you?” she asked politely, wondering what he might want.

He peered down at her, then frowned and grabbed her by the elbow, hard enough to make her cry out. “You’re a funny little thing,” he said, forcing her to turn so he could finish his inspection.

“What are you doing?” she yelled, pulling against his grip. “Let go of me!”

“Just wanted to see what all the fuss was about,” he said. “Heard you caught the king’s eye, then sold him out. That so?”

“Let go,” she yelled again, pulling hard enough that she lost her balance, and only his hold on her arm kept her from falling.

Get your hands off my sister!” somebody howled, and Bella looked up to see Ori leap at the larger dwarf. He dropped her, and her arms windmilled for a moment before she hit the stone floor.

She took a breath to steady herself, bringing a hand up to cover her nose and cheek, which had taken a good knock, then got to her feet. The dwarf had subdued Ori easily, and was pressing him against the wall, his forearm against Ori’s neck.

“Stop!” she ordered, beating her fists against his back. “Put him down.

That was the sight that greeted Bofur as he rounded the corner: Ori, pinned against the wall, and Bella with blood on her face. “What’s all this, then?” he said in a voice that set Bella’s heart beating faster in alarm. It was a voice she had never heard from Bofur before, quiet and dangerous, and it made her truly afraid.

“Not your concern, Miner,” the large dwarf said, but he stepped away from Ori.

“Is that so?” Bofur said as he moved towards them, “because from where I’m standin’, it looks like you’ve bloodied my sister, and put your hands on my dear friend, and I think you’ll find that to be very much my business.”

“He didn’t hit me,” Bella said, putting a hand on Ori’s shoulder. “I fell.”

“He caused it!” Ori protested, pulling out his slingshot and stepping between her and the dwarf. “He grabbed her, I saw!”

“Shut it!” the dwarf said, raising a hand to strike him. Before the blow could land, Bofur laid him out flat with a swift punch to the jaw. That might have been the end of it, but it was the dwarf’s bad luck that Kíli, Dwalin, and Nori chose that moment to follow Bofur around the corner.

They took in the scene, and before Bella could get a word out, Dwalin was pinning the dwarf’s arms behind his back, and Nori was tying his hands together with a length of thin rope he seemed to produce from nowhere. Kíli ran to Bella, pulling her further away from the stranger, who seemed stunned.

“What happened?” Dwalin growled, moving his grip to the back of the dwarf’s neck.

Bofur and Ori explained the situation while Kíli poked at Bella’s bandages worriedly. “Do you need Óin? Did you hit your head?”

“No,” she said, pressing a hand against her cheek. “Just a bit of a bump, that’s all. Everything’s fine.”

“Ori, run and tell Fíli what happened,” Bofur ordered, turning back to them. “Be quick. This idiot’s fate falls to him. Kíli, take Bella back to her room, and stay with her until you hear otherwise.”

“You can’t leave me out of this,” Kíli said, glaring darkly at their prisoner. Dwalin slapped the back of his head, hard enough to make him stagger.

“You are her eldest brother here,” Bofur said, “which grants you the privilege of looking after her. Now take it, while we see to darker business.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Bella said, scowling at Kíli’s abashed look. “I doubt this fellow will try such a thing again. No need to raise a fuss.”

“Why are you all so taken with this creature?” the dwarf said, struggling against his bonds. “In league with men and elves, I heard-” His words were cut off as Nori backhanded him, bloodying his lip.

“Enough,” Dwalin said, shaking him roughly. “Kíli, take her and go.”

Kíli took her by the arm and started to lead her down the hallway, but at the last moment she turned back and ran over to Bofur, leaning to whisper into his ear. “I don’t think he intended me harm,” she said. “Whatever happens, please don’t-”

“I’ll remind them,” he said, taking her gently by the shoulders and nudging her towards Kíli. “Go on and clean up now, if Fíli sees you bleedin’, nothin’ you or I say will save this fool’s skin.”

It was a good argument, and it sent Bella and Kíli rushing down the passages. She couldn’t quite keep track of every turn and corridor, but their path sloped down gently, and she got the sense that they were moving closer to the Mountain’s heart. Finally, Kíli paused in front of a familiar door, but Bella’s mind was elsewhere, and she crashed into his back.

“All right, Bell?” he asked worriedly, leading her to a chair.

“All right,” she confirmed, wiping a hand across her face. The blood had dried, and she felt it crack and smear over her skin. “I need to get cleaned up before Fíli gets back. Would you mind fetching a basin?”

Kíli looked torn. “I shouldn’t leave you,” he said, rubbing a thumb over the blood on her chin. He sighed. “But you’re right, we can’t have this. Stay in your room, and don’t open the door until I get back?”

“I promise,” she said, looking down at her hands. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

“Here now,” Kíli said, pulling her to a chair, “this isn’t your fault. None of it.”

Tears burned at her eyes, but she couldn’t summon the energy to blink them away. She was tired, so tired and sore and sick to death of feeling caught up and on her guard, and all at once she desperately missed Bag End. No matter how out of place she had felt in the Shire or among her kin, her little home had been filled with warmth and the comforting memories of a happy childhood. Here, surrounded by strangers and unfamiliar stone, she felt suddenly and utterly adrift.

She leaned over, pressing her face into her hands and letting her grief take her in great, ugly sobs. “Bell!” Kíli cried, kneeling beside her and wrapping his arms around her waist. “Don’t cry, don’t,” he pleaded. “It’s over now, the others took that dwarf away, it’s done!”

“It’s not that,” she choked out, rocking a little. “It’s just - I shouldn’t have wandered, and everyone was so upset. And I betrayed Thorin, and Fíli almost died, and it’s too much. The world is too big, or I’m too small in it.”

“Look at me,” Kíli said seriously, and she dropped her hands. His eyes met hers, wide and with an unusual solemnity. “You did not betray Thorin, no more than he betrayed you. And Fíli is fine, he’s fine, Bell. We all are. He took an injury, but you cannot lay that at your feet - who knows what might have happened if you’d done things differently? We could all have fallen.”

Don’t say that,” she said, closing her eyes again. She felt him lower his arms, then heard him rise and sit on the bed.

“And why shouldn’t you wander the Mountain?” Kíli continued, speaking gently. “This is your home. No one has the right to touch you here. I’ll kill anyone who tries.”

Oh,” she cried, wiping away the last of her tears as he pulled her onto the bed beside him. He ran a hand over her hair, and she was comforted in a way that the empty rooms of Bag End, familiar though they were, could never hope to match.

***

After they both felt a bit better, Kíli went to fill the washbasin, and Bella changed her clothes again. By the time Fíli arrived, slamming the door so hard it echoed through the corridor, she felt good as new.

“Good evening, Fíli,” she said cheerfully, as he stormed over to her.

“Tell me you’re all right,” he ordered, checking her bandages and peering at her face. He ran a finger over her bruised cheek, gentle in spite of his tone.

“I’m perfectly well,” she said, in as reassuring a voice as she could muster.

“What happened?” asked Kíli, who was sitting on the bed. “Did you teach that fool some manners?”

“No, I took his beard and threw him whimpering out of the mountain,” Fíli growled. “He can learn his manners back in the Iron Hills, if Dáin will have him.”

“Oh,” Bella said, covering her mouth with her hand. “That seems overly harsh.”

Harsh?” Fíli said, balling his hands into fists. “Harsh? He should have thanked me on his knees! Thorin would have flown his wretched hide from the mountaintop, and I cannot say the thought did not cross my mind!”

“Should’ve let him,” mumbled Kíli.

Fíli sighed, dropping onto the bed and leaning his head back to look at the ceiling. “Bofur said Bell didn’t want that. I hope he was right.”

Bella went over to sit beside him. “He was,” she said, holding his hand up and comparing it with hers.

“What’re you doing?” Fíli asked, bemused and quieter.

“I was thinking of making you up some gloves. You can’t mean to wear those heavy leather ones all the time now, and some of those corridors were cold,” she said. “What do you think, Kíli, blue or green?”

“Green for him, blue for me,” Kíli said. “But don’t get any ideas about jumpers. Ori wears enough for all of us!”

“Fine, fine,” she laughed. “Though I hope you’ll let me try some of my new patterns on your tunics. Then I’ll have projects enough to keep busy for months, once I find a source of thread.”

“Lake-town will have some,” Fíli said, lifting one of her hair beads and letting it swing back against the other. “I’ll send for it. Your friend Bard is quite pleased with us at the moment. He and Thorin have been speaking of Dale, and what it might take to rebuild the city.”

“Really?” asked Bella. “So soon?”

Fíli nodded. “It’s a bit late for building this year, but we’ll spend the winter getting ready and start construction after the last frost. Bard traded some of his gold in exchange for dwarven labor, so it should go quickly.”

“That’s wonderful,” Bella said. “Is he still here? I’d like to go and see him tomorrow, if it’s convenient.”

“He is,” Fíli said. “And I’ll take you. Are you feeling up to visitors? The others will be arriving soon, to check on you.”

She cringed. “Is this about today? Are they still angry?”

“No one is angry,” Fíli said. “They worry for you. It would be unkind of me to keep them out, though I will if you want me to.”

“No,” she sighed. “I’d like to see everyone. Only-” she paused.

“What?” Kíli prompted, sitting up.

“Could we get some food, and make a party of it?” she asked. “That would be better than everyone sitting in a temper.”

“That,” Fíli said, smiling at a grinning Kíli, “is an excellent idea.”

***

The others arrived in groups of twos and threes, bearing platters and bottles enough for twice their number (even counting Bombur). Bella was strongly reminded of her first meeting with all of them, back at Bag End, though she counted this one much more pleasant, since she didn’t have to worry about her dishes.

After they’d eaten, some of the dwarves brought out instruments they’d scavenged from the treasure hall. They played and sang several merry tunes including (to Bella’s chagrin) the one from that long-ago evening, which seemed to be titled “That’s What Mistress Baggins Hates.”

They had not quite reached the end of it before Bofur dropped his flute from laughing, and Fíli and Kíli began juggling everyone’s empty mugs between themselves. Smirking, Dwalin threw a plate in the mix, and then a fork, but the princes only winked, and called for more.

A heavy knock at the door interrupted things, and the mugs clattered to the floor (though Kíli caught the plate and set it on the table). Cautiously, Fíli went to open it.

It was Thorin, harp in hand. “May I come in?” he asked Fíli, who looked over at Bella before answering. She nodded.

“Of course,” he said, swinging the door wide. Dori stood as Thorin entered, offering the king his seat, which was accepted graciously.

No one spoke for an uncomfortable moment, or looked at Thorin or Bella. In the end, it was Dwalin who broke the tension. “Where’d you find that thing,” he grinned, prodding at the harp.

Thorin smiled slightly. “My rooms were just as I’d left them. This was badly in need of tuning though.”

“Well, let’s hear it,” Dwalin said, settling against the back of the sofa, and the others murmured their agreement.

Thorin looked down at the instrument, running a finger over the strings before he began to play. It was a quiet, almost mournful tune, and one by one the others added their voices to it, humming along in low harmonies.

“Someone will have to think up some new verses for that one,” Balin said, when the last notes had died away.

“It was lovely,” Bella said quietly. Thorin’s eyes met hers, but if he meant for her to read anything from his expression, she could not tell.

Before he could say anything, Fíli spoke up. “Bella is tired,” he said, looking around the room without letting his gaze settle on anyone. “I think it’s time for all of us to seek our beds.”

“Yes,” she said, lowering her eyes. “Thank you all, that was truly lovely.”

***

She slept fitfully, snared by troubled dreams where she was grabbed by angry hands, or trapped alone inside the Mountain while a fierce battle raged outside its walls. She tossed and turned until finally the visions blurred into her childhood bedroom, with its familiar toys and blankets, and the sound of her mother’s lullaby echoing in her ears.

When she opened her eyes, she could still hear it, soft and sweet and beautifully familiar. She lay still, breathing silently and shallowly to hear it better, and when the melody reached its end, it began again.

She stood, following the sound to the far wall of her bedroom. Whatever was making the music lay on the other side, that was certain, though Bella didn’t know how she could hear it through a solid wall of stone.

With great effort, she was able to nudge the heavy desk out from the wall, wincing as it scraped across the floor. When it had moved enough, she slipped behind it, sliding the hanging curtain out of the way until she was face to face with a door.

The song was louder now, and she didn’t hesitate for a moment before lifting the latch, pushing the door open smoothly and stepping into the room beyond.

It was a well-appointed bedroom, with a fire burning on a large hearth, and two oversized chairs before it. On one of those chairs sat Thorin Oakenshield, who stared at her, eyes wide, as the last notes of Bella’s beloved song echoed through the chamber.

“You play beautifully,” she said, very conscious of her thin nightshirt, and thinking longingly of her robe and bed shawl, across the world at Bag End. “I meant to tell you earlier.”

She waited for him to say something, but he only stared, fingers poised over the strings. “Well,” she said, to fill the silence, “this is very inappropriate, I know, me being in your bedroom. I do apologize - I’ll go-”

“Stop,” he said hoarsely, as she stepped backwards towards the door. “Wait. I was not expecting to see you - you caught me by surprise.”

“Forgive me,” she blushed, looking down at the floor. “Only I heard the music, and I knew it must be you, and-” she took a breath, trying to force the words out, but nothing would come.

Carefully, and with deliberate slowness, Thorin put his harp on the table beside him. “It was not my intention to disturb you. I would have thought Fíli insist you take a different room, any but the one connected to mine.”

“But he chose that room for me,” Bella said, looking up at last. “Perhaps he did not know. The door was covered by a curtain; I would never have thought to look for it, if I hadn’t heard the music.”

“Perhaps,” Thorin said, but she could tell from his tone that he did not believe it.

Bella hesitated. Her appearance there was the height of impropriety, and that she ought to murmur a polite apology and retreat. But some wild, Tookish part of her whispered that this may be her last chance to be alone with Thorin, to take comfort in his reliable presence, which beckoned her like a lodestone. So she stood there, not quite bold enough to look up, but not ready to leave, either.

Thorin seemed willing to allow it, and it was only after a long stretch of silence that Bella forced herself to speak. “There is something I need to say to you.”

“Yes,” he said, softly. “I rather thought there might be.” At his tone, she looked up to see that he had turned away from her and was staring into the fire, his face void of any expression.

“I would like to start by offering you my most sincere apology,” she said, and once she began, she found the words came easily. “I cannot regret my choices, but it grieves me that they caused you pain, which was never my intention. I beg you not to consider my actions any reflection on you. My only motivation was an unwillingness to see any of your lives at risk.”

“You need not apologize,” Thorin said, still not looking at her. “As you have said before, I am not your king, that you must follow my orders.”

“But that was so long ago,” she protested, taking a step forward. “Surely things are different now?” He turned to meet her eyes, surprised, and she blushed when she realized what she had said. “Were different, I mean. I’m sorry.”

Whatever expression had shown on his face vanished, and he nodded, once. “It doesn’t matter. If you wish my absolution, you have it, though I maintain there is nothing for me to forgive.”

She blinked rapidly, desperate to keep the tears stinging her eyes from spilling onto her cheeks. “We must disagree. I hurt you, and that is something I never wanted. That’s the other thing I needed to say. I - this isn’t right, that you should be forced to see me every day. You have regained your home, finally, and I am making you uncomfortable in it. I know it will be several seasons before Dale is fit to inhabit, but when it is, I will go. I can go to Lake-town in the meantime, if you wish, or even back to the Shire, though I hope it has not come to that.”

Giving up the battle, she wiped a hand across her face, cursing herself for not bringing a handkerchief. When she looked up, he was at her side, pressing a square of linen into her hand. “You think I wish that?” he asked, as she dabbed furiously at her eyes. “You think I want you gone?”

“I don’t know,” she said, her voice unsteady. “But you seem so unhappy when you look at me, and I cannot endure it.” Gently, gently, he took hold of her by the elbow, lowering her arm so that they were looking at each other face to face.

“I do not merit your consideration,” he said, as the tears ran over her cheeks and gathered at the corners of her mouth. “You have done nothing but help me, and I repaid you with cruelty, time and again. But you have often been kind to me, even when I did not deserve it, and so I must depend on your generous nature once more. I beg you - do not leave the mountain. I can bear anything else, anything but your absence. You need not speak to me, nor see me if you do not wish it, but I could never rest easy, if you were not here.”

“Thorin,” she whispered, reaching out to brush her fingertips over his temple. “I thought you knew - my feelings haven’t changed. I would do you any kindness.”

“I cast you out,” Thorin said, almost pleadingly, tightening his grip on her arm. “You traded your fortune to protect me and mine, and I turned from you. I owe you a debt I can never repay.”

“There is no debt between us,” she said, as something warm and bright fluttered in her chest for the first time since she’d woken up inside the Mountain. “But if it will ease your mind, I will ask you a favor, so that you might consider us even.”

“Anything,” he said, fervently, releasing her arm and taking a step back to fall to his knees before her.

She smiled, ever so slightly. “Do not agree so easily, it is no small favor.”

“Ask me to move the mountain,” he said, head bowed, “and I will see it done.”

“I have heard,” Bella said, pressing a hand against his cheek, “though I will not say from where, that before a dwarf may lay claim to something, he must name it in your secret language. Is this so?”

Thorin nodded, bringing a hand up to cover hers.

“Then tell me, I beg you,” she continued. “How would you say ‘beloved’?”

Ghivashel,” he whispered. “Is as close as you could come to it. Treasure of treasures.

She smiled. “A mighty compliment, among dwarves.” She ran a finger across his brow, and over his cheek, and when he closed his eyes, she leaned close to whisper into his ear. “Ghivashel.

He gasped. “I never - I don’t-”

“I hadn’t thought to ever hear you stammer,” Bella teased, kneeling on the floor beside him. “It is very charming.”

“I am powerless to stop it,” Thorin admitted, and gracious, was he blushing? “To see a second treasure lost and reclaimed in one lifetime - it is more than I deserve.”

Now it was Bella who blushed, and Thorin took her hand and brought her knuckles to his lips. “I swear that I will make this right,” he said, folding his arms around her to pull her close and press a kiss against her hair.

The stone floor was too hard against Bella’s knees, and the chill of room made her shiver, but she did not care even a little, and they stayed there, whispering to each other, until it was nearly dawn.

Chapter Text

A knock at the door woke Bella the next morning, well past the time she would usually have risen. “Who was that?” she murmured sleepily to Fíli, when he let himself into her room a few moments later.

“A messenger from Thorin,” he said, looking at her curiously. “He requested a meeting with us this afternoon. I accepted, but if you’d rather we didn’t-”

“No!” she protested, unable to keep the smile off her face. “I mean, yes, we ought to go. I don’t mind!”

Fíli narrowed his eyes at her. “You’re cheerful this morning,” he said, though it was more a question than an observation.

“Am I?” she said brightly. “Perhaps because it’s such a lovely day!”

Fíli looked pointedly at the windowless stone walls, then back at Bella. “All right, what’s going on?” he said. “Tell me.”

Fíli,” Bella protested, lowering her eyes and looking (rather obviously, she realized in retrospect) towards the hidden passage to Thorin’s room. “There’s nothing to tell.”

“But when did you - oh no. You found it, didn’t you?” Fíli said, covering his face with his hands. “The door?”

“You knew?” she gasped, shocked.

“Of course I knew!” Fíli said. “It’s why I picked these rooms. So that when you married Thorin, we could turn this bedroom into your study or sitting room, and it would be connected with ours.”

“That’s a wonderful idea!” Bella said. “And a bit sneaky of you.”

He sighed. “Yes, it seemed clever enough then. We had better not tell Kíli you’ve been wandering; this time I may not be able to stop him from locking you in.”

“I won’t do it again, I promise,” Bella said, feeling a bit guilty. “I didn’t know what was on the other side, when I opened the door.”

“No, I suppose you couldn’t have,” Fíli said, glaring at the hidden door through the curtain that covered it. “You sorted yourselves out, I hope?”

“Yes,” Bella blushed. “Or rather - I think so. I suppose we’ll find out this afternoon.”

“If you have, Dwalin’s going to be insufferable,” Fíli said, smiling at last. “He bet Nori it would take another week.”

***


After lunch, Fíli took Bella to one of the small chambers near the throne-room, set aside for meetings between the king and his advisors. “It’s not to late to change your mind,” he said quietly as he knocked on the stone door. “We could switch rooms if you wanted.”

A shake of her head was all the response she could give before the door opened, and Thorin ushered them into the otherwise empty room. “Sit, please,” he said, gesturing towards a round stone table, ringed with seats that were just a hair too high for Bella to manage comfortably.

“Fíli,” Thorin began once they were all seated, “your sister has indicated that she would be willing to accept the continuation of my courtship.”

“That is lucky for you,” Fíli said coolly, ignoring Bella’s elbow against his side.

But it seemed Thorin took no offense, because he only nodded. “I agree. I have sworn to her that I will make amends for my actions at the gate, and I intend to uphold that promise.” He turned to Bella. “In light of that, I have a request. I would like to know the courting traditions of your people, so that I may honor them, and you, by seeing them done.”

“Oh,” Bella said, blushing. “That’s a lovely thought, really, but not at all necessary-”

“Flowers,” Fíli interrupted. “Hobbits begin courting with a gift of flowers to their intended. There’s some kind of code to it.”

“I’ll have someone look into it,” Thorin said, making a note on one of the many pages strewn on the table before him.

“It’s not a code,” Bella frowned. “And there’s no need for this. I’m happy to follow your ways, though I confess I’m not sure what else must be done, now that we’ve exchanged presents.”

“Dwarves have long engagements,” Thorin said. “To accommodate the crafting of the marriage gifts.”

“More gifts?” Bella sighed. “I don’t know where I’ll find another arkenstone.”

Fíli laughed. “Not to worry. Marriage gifts are made by the giver, and not exchanged until the night before the wedding.”

“Well, I hope you’re not expecting anything from the forge,” Bella said. “I am no smith.”

“There are no requirements,” Thorin said, “except that it come from your own hands.”

“I’ll manage,” Bella said. “Now, what else? Besides gifts.”

“That’s all,” Fíli said, confused. “Once courtship gifts are exchanged and accepted, you begin planning the wedding.”

“That’s all?” Bella echoed, mouth open in shock. “That cannot be all!”

Thorin and Fíli looked at each other. “Why not?”

“Because - because-” Bella spluttered. “That would mean we are engaged! And I cannot be engaged without knowing about it!”

“But you’ve accepted one another,” Fíli said. “What more is there to do?”

“Don’t you have family meetings?” Bella asked. “We have not even had any sort of discussion about where we will live, and who provides what. There has been no announcement!

“Dwarves love fiercely,” Thorin said, looking at her intently. “And only once. When two dwarves have settled on one another, no disagreement or family quarrel will put them asunder. Our courtships are simple affairs.”

“Oh,” Bella said, looking down at the table. “I see.”

Thorin hesitated. “I can see this is not your way,” he said slowly, as if each word were being pulled from him. “You need not consider yourself bound-”

“No!” Bella interrupted, looking up quickly. “That is not what I meant at all. It isn’t the - the engagement that bothers me. Only that I did not know.”

“Tell us,” Fíli prompted. “How would it be done, back in your Shire.”

Bella thought for a moment. “We’re a bit beyond the start of it now, but in the Shire, Thorin would have indicated he wished to court me with flowers, as you said. If I wanted to encourage him, I would cook him a meal, or send him a gift of food. Then our families and friends would consider us courting, but not yet engaged. We would spend time together - supervised, of course - and if that went well, he would request a meeting with the men of my family, where I would not be present.”

“What is the purpose of this meeting? And how much of your family would be there?” asked Thorin, making more notes.

“Oh, everyone would go,” Bella said, carelessly. “The idea is for the family to get to know him, to see if he’d fit in well with them, and if the match were suitable. But everyone in the Shire knows everyone else, or nearly, so usually it’s just a chance to give the suitor a hard time. I would have a similar meeting with the women of his family, on a different night, for the same reasons.”

“And if it were to go well?” Thorin prompted.

She blushed. “If it went well, our families would give permission for an engagement, which would be announced at some kind of gathering, usually a party.”

“Well,” said Fíli, “that doesn’t seem so complicated. But what’s the purpose of the engagement, if you don’t prepare gifts? Why not just marry?”

“Oh no,” Bella shook her head. “There’s still so much more to be done! Once we were engaged, there would have to be a meeting between the heads of our families, where we’d hammer out the details of the marriage.”

“What details?” asked Thorin.

Bella shrugged. “I’m not sure - I’ve never been to one. But I know that before the Old Took would agree to the match, he made my father promise to build my mother a new and comfortable hobbit-hole.” Bella smiled. “She was his favorite daughter.”

Thorin smirked. “I shudder to think what Fíli might demand of me.”

“I warned you not to taunt me, Uncle,” Fíli said, with a gleam in his eye. “Already I can think of a few ideas.”

Bella sighed. “I wouldn’t grow overconfident, if I were you,” she warned Fíli. “He can pick any relative he likes to negotiate on his behalf.”

“Must I?” Thorin asked. “Surely I am the head of my family. And if you think I am afraid to face my nephew over the bargaining-table-”

“Oh no!” Bella protested, wringing her hands. “You can’t speak for yourself! It’s not done!”

Thorin shrugged. “As you say. Whatever your customs dictate, I will obey. It is little enough, by way of penance.”

“Thorin,” she said, “I haven’t asked for any of this, and I don’t need it. Truly.”

“It’s not much to ask, Bell,” Fíli said, cutting off her protests. “You are a hobbit among dwarves, and we have not done all we should to make you comfortable.” He looked pointedly at her feet, which did not quite reach the ground. “Besides, I like the sound of that family meeting. You would not deny us that.”

Fighting back a smile, Bella stood up. “I suppose not. But if you’ll excuse us,” she said, looking at Thorin, “I need to speak with Fíli on the subject of marriage-gifts.”

“Of course,” Thorin said, straightening his papers. “I have some matters to see to myself.”

They made it as far as the door before Fíli paused and, with a sigh, turned back, walking over to Thorin and leaning in to speak to him quietly. “Not daffodils,” Bella heard him whisper. She grinned at him.

“Oh shush,” he said, fighting back a smile. “He’ll need all the help he can get.”

***


Months passed, and Bella and the dwarves were so occupied with the clearing out and rebuilding of Erebor that she had very little time to think of courting at all. She was nearly always busy, helping to clean and straighten the ruined dwellings, and making room for the dwarves who would be returning from the Blue Mountains.

It was dirty, tedious work that caused Bella to rise early and stumble, exhausted, into bed each night, but she was glad to be able to contribute something to the Mountain’s reclaiming, and her efforts did not go unnoticed or unremarked upon by the dwarves from the Iron Hills. Over time, they began to grow quite fond of her, particularly as she always made the time to see that food and drink was brought to wherever the work was the most unpleasant. In fact, they made something of a pet of her, often going out of their way to call her over to see some uncovered artifact, or a clever bit of carving that had been hidden beneath the rubble.

As busy as she was, Thorin and the others were even busier, especially Fíli. His position as Thorin’s heir kept him running from one side of the mountain to the other, in order to report to Thorin on the progress of the restoration. Kíli, who did not have the temperament for such dry tasks, threw himself into the rebuilding with enthusiasm. In keeping with his self-appointed role as her unofficial bodyguard, he usually ended up working wherever Bella happened to be on a given day, so he was with her when a messenger arrived from Thorin, bearing a wooden box no bigger than her palm.

“It can’t be a present?” Kíli asked, raising his eyebrows. “Not without going through Fíli, or any of us.”

“It does seem odd,” Bella agreed, wiping her hands on her apron and frowning at the more stubborn stains before picking up the box and sliding open the latch. When she saw what the box contained, she laughed, loud enough that Kíli looked at her oddly.

“Show me!” he demanded, turning it back and forth in his hands once she’d given it over. “Oh,” he said once he’d gotten a good look. “Well, it’s pretty enough, and he’s overdue for giving you another gift, but he shouldn’t have sent it to you directly. You ought to send it back.”

“No, Kíli, look,” she said, taking it out of his hand. “Your uncle has sent me flowers.” And he had, in the form of a brooch no bigger than her smallest finger. It was green and silver, and set with sparkling white gems shaped to look like tiny blossoms.

“Flowers? Really?” asked Kíli, peering at the little gems with narrowed eyes. “It is this one of your hobbit secrets?”

“Hobbits don’t have secrets,” Bella replied, smiling foolishly at the brooch. “And they are lilies of the valley, I believe.”

Kíli rolled his eyes. “Of course you do! You have your flower code and your thread-smithing.”

“It’s called embroidery, and there’s nothing secretive about it,” Bella sighed, because this was an old argument. “In fact, I’d be glad to teach you. But it takes a great deal of time and patience, and-”

“No no no,” Kíli interrupted, raising his hands in protest and scowling petulantly. “Keep your secrets! But I’ll remember this, next time you overhear some khuzdul and get curious!”

“They mean returning happiness!” she exclaimed, louder than she meant to. “A lily of the valley signifies the return of what makes you happy,” she repeated, more quietly.

“Oh,” Kíli smiled. “You could have just said. Still, that’s very nice.” And he took the brooch and fastened it to her dress for her, above her heart.

Bella wore it faithfully over the weeks and months that followed. and it eased her mind when days would go by without an opportunity to do more than greet Thorin as they passed each other in the hall.

It wasn’t until the last frost melted away into the first shoots of green grass at the base of the Mountain that Bella began to worry Thorin might have changed his mind. But he spoke to her warmly when they found a moment, and she still felt his eyes on her over the breakfast table, where she sat securely between Fíli and Kíli most mornings. Then, one day in the middle of spring, it became clear what Thorin had been waiting for.

“Kíli! Bell!” Fíli shouted, as he burst into their rooms in a Kíli-like fashion. “The caravans from the Blue Mountains have arrived!”

“Ma’s here!” Kíli shouted, leaping up from his chair and running over to tug his boots on. “Come on, Bell!”

Bella smiled at him. “You go ahead; I’ll meet her later. She’ll want some time alone with the two of you.”

“Fine, fine,” Fíli said, leaning over to drop a kiss on her cheek. “Supper tonight then?”

“Sounds lovely,” Bella called, as Kíli dragged Fíli towards the door by his arm. He threw it open so fast he nearly barreled into Thorin, who was standing in the doorway, his hand poised to knock.

“Kíli,” Thorin said dryly, amused. “Fíli. May I have a moment?”

“Of course,” said Fíli, though Kíli nearly quivered with impatience at his side.

“Months ago I gave your sister the first part of my courting gift,” Thorin said, handing Fíli a wrapped parcel. “This is the balance.”

“Well, you kept it long enough,” complained Fíli, undoing the wrapping. “I thought you had-” he stopped, staring at whatever the fabric had hidden. Then, with meticulous care, he folded it back up again. Laughing quietly to himself, he looked up at Thorin. “I know when I’m beaten,” he said, and he turned to Bella.

“Here,” he said, pressing the bundle into her hand and squeezing her fingers around it. “Open it once we’re gone.”

“What in the world,” Bella said, as he left the room, pulling a now-protesting Kíli behind him. She turned to Thorin. “That’s not how it went before.”

“It’s an unusual gift,” he said, the corner of his mouth quirking into a hesitant smile. “Open it.”

Bella looked down at the little parcel with dread, terrible visions of giant emeralds or something equally preposterous running through her mind. Biting her lip, she threw back the fabric and saw what it was that had so startled Fíli.

It was her father’s knife.

“What,” Bella said, her eyes filling with tears as she looked at the little blade, clean and serviceable as ever, and none the worse for wear after its months beneath the Misty Mountains. “How?”

Thorin shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “I sent a raven with my orders, and a description of the tunnel exit,” he said. “I am not without allies in Ered Luin, particularly now.” He paused, waiting for her reply, but when it did not come, he continued. “None of your other things were salvageable, I’m afraid. That gollum-creature must have scattered them down the passage. But the knife was well enough, with a little attention.”

After a few more moments of silence, he spoke again. “I thought you would prefer this - if I was mistaken-”

“How long?” she interrupted him, her voice thick and unsteady.

“What do you mean?” he asked, thoroughly bewildered.

“When did you plan this?” she said, still looking down at the knife in her hand. “How long ago?”

He took a step forward, reaching out to close her fingers over it. “The moment you realized it was gone. You wept for it,” he said, his voice growing rougher. “And now you weep again.”

With her free hand, she reached up to touch her cheeks and realized he was right, they were damp with spilled tears. “So I do,” she said, smiling. “But it is happiness, this time. You could not have chosen better - I would rather have this than any treasure in the Mountain.”

Thorin smiled. “I ought to take offense to that, I think.”

“If you do, I will beg your pardon,” Bella said, tightening her grip on the blade’s handle before slipping it into her pocket. “How shall I thank you?”

“That,” Thorin said, taking another step closer, “is a very dangerous question.”

“Is it?” Bella said very softly, looking up at him through her lashes. “And yet, I am not afraid.”

Thorin’s smile widened, and he leaned towards her, only to be interrupted by a sudden knock at the door.

Bella gasped, darting out of Thorin’s reach. “Come in!”

“Don’t come in!” ordered Thorin, but it was too late. The door swung wide to reveal Dori, who looked around the room with suspicion.

“Am I interrupting something?” Dori asked, glaring fiercely at Thorin.

“Yes,” Thorin growled, trying to shut the door. “Go away.”

Ignoring him, Dori held the door open with one hand and apparently no effort. “I will not! This is highly improper. Does Fíli know you’re here?”

“He knows!” Bella said hastily. “Thorin has given me a courting gift, you see.”

“Ah,” Dori relaxed, pushing the door open wider and stepping into the room. “Well, as I didn’t meet Fíli in the hallway, I’m sure it’s been quite long enough. Besides, your things have arrived from the Shire, and I’ve brought them down.”

“Oh!” said Bella, pushing past Thorin and Dori to look into the hallway. “I didn’t think they’d really send them, even with Gandalf passing along my letters.”

“Why wouldn’t they?” asked Dori, lifting one of the large trunks and carrying it into the sitting room. Not to be outdone, Thorin picked up the other, only wincing a little at its weight.

Hesitantly, Bella undid the latches and threw open the first trunk. “What could it all be? I told them they could keep the household goods; I have no need of dishes and the like, but it will be nice to have my clothes again,” she said happily, as she pulled out one dress after another, running her hands over their familiar textures.

“Look!” she exclaimed, when she reached the bottom. “My father’s trinket-box! And the portraits of my parents that hung over the fire! They didn’t have to send these!” Confused and delighted, she hurried over to the other trunk, fumbling the latches in her haste.

“The linens my mother made for me,” Bella said, pressing the blanket against her cheek. “They shouldn’t have - they’ll be far too small for the beds here. And her tea set. My favorite books! Look at it all! Didn’t they want them?”

“There’s a letter,” Dori said, pulling it out from where it was stuck against the interior of the lid. “See if they say.”

Bella took it from him, raising an eyebrow at the familiar handwriting. “It’s from my aunt Donnamira,” she said, not opening the flap of the envelope. “No doubt she’ll have a lot to say.”

With a sigh, she opened the letter, holding it gingerly away from herself, as if her aunt might reach out from the page to scold her. But as she read, she drew the page closer and closer, until it was inches from her face. “She says...” Bella began, “she wishes me every happiness on my engagement.” She looked up at Dori and Thorin, who were watching her with identical expressions of wary confusion.

“Gandalf must have told them,” Bella said, looking back down at the letter. “She goes on to say that Bag End will be kept in the family - not the Sackville-Baggins branch, thank you very much, Aunt Donnamira. And that-” Bella swallowed, and took a deep breath, “and that if I ever wish to go home, it will be returned to me at once.”

“But isn’t that a good thing?” Dori said, passing her a neatly-pressed handkerchief. “Though I hope you haven’t changed your mind about staying?”

“Of course I haven’t,” Bella said, wiping at her eyes. “But - I thought they’d be glad to be rid of me. That they didn’t care for me, and-” Overcome, she covered her face with her hands, and Dori hurried to wrap his arms around her shoulders.

“There, there,” he soothed, patting at her hair. “Of course they care for you. Family always does, whether they approve of you or no. You may take my word on that.”

“She said to remember my family would always love me, and that there would always be a place for me in the Shire,” Bella sobbed into his shoulder. “Why didn’t they ever tell me that before?

“Because then you would not have left,” Thorin said quietly, still standing by the abandoned trunk. “And you were meant to come to Erebor. To us.”

“Thorin is right,” Dori murmured, leading her gently over to a chair. “This is your home now, and we’re glad to have you. And won’t you feel better, with some of your own things around the place?”

“I suppose so,” Bella said softly.

“Well, there you are,” said Dori. “Now, Thorin will need to go and oversee the arrivals from Ered Luin, I think?” He looked at Thorin for confirmation, and the king nodded. “So why don’t I send for Ori and Nori, and we’ll sit with you a while and help you unpack?”

“Oh, don’t go to any trouble,” Bella protested, smoothing her hair and straightening her dress.

“No trouble at all, dear,” Dori said, tutting at the state of her braids. “And anyway, I feel a sudden urge to see my foolish brothers.”

Bella nodded, folding her aunt’s letter and putting it carefully into her pocket. “So do I.”

***


“Tell us again how it’s going to go,” Dwalin said, as he dragged two more chairs into the large sitting room he shared with Balin.

“You and the others will sit there,” Bella said, pointing at the hodgepodge collection of chairs and couches that was piling up near the fireplace, “and Thorin will sit there.” She nodded towards a lone chair, set across from the rest. “You can ask him whatever you like, to make sure he’s a good fit for - well, you know. For the family.” She blushed.

“Whatever I like?” grinned Kíli, as he and Fíli carried in another barrel of ale. “That could be dangerous.”

Dori tutted at him from his place by the fire, where he and Balin were sharing a pot of tea. “Now now, we’re here for Bella, not to amuse ourselves.”

Bella waved his protests away with a hand. “It’s just a formality by this point, isn’t it? Even in the Shire, these meetings are mostly the chance to have a bit of fun, making a suitor nervous.”

“Threaten him, you mean?” grinned Bofur, sliding a platter of rolls away from his brother. “Not yet, you have to wait until everyone gets here!” he said, smacking at Bombur’s hand.

Bella grimaced. “Maybe this was a bad idea. We ought to call it off.”

“Not on your life!” said Glóin, dropping onto one of the couches and making himself comfortable. “We’ve been waiting for this for months!”

“Yes, I’ve had my questions ready for ages,” said Ori proudly, pulling a scroll out of his pocket. It unfurled all the way down to the stone floor.

“You can’t ask all of that!” Kíli protested, picking up the end of the scroll and tugging on it. “Everyone’s got to have a turn!”

“Where’s your list, then!” Ori cried, tugging back, wincing as the paper started to tear. “Let go, this took six revisions!”

Kíli dropped it, throwing his hands in the air and looking around the room for support. “I haven’t got a list! Does everybody else have a list?”

Half the dwarves nodded, and the other half started to laugh. Silence fell as the two sides looked at each other, and was just as quickly obliterated as an argument broke out.

“No one said there had to be a list,” Bombur said, reaching subtly for the plate of chicken.

“Of course I wrote out my questions, how else would I remember to ask him about the incident at the training forge-”

“Can we ask about that? Hang on, I want to make an addendum. Has anybody got a pen?”

“But when do we get to threaten him?”

Bella, resigned to the idea that the evening was no longer in her control, slipped into the next room, where she planned to watch everything through a crack in the doorway. She felt no embarrassment - spying and eavesdropping were as much a part of these traditions as questions and threats, and something in her thrilled a bit at experiencing these events for herself, at long last.

She looked around, narrowing her eyes at the dim light before settling them on a low stool, which she dragged behind the door and out of sight. By virtue of having the largest quarters, Balin and Dwalin had won the right to host, much to the chagrin of the others, and judging from the weapons and armor neatly lining the walls, Bella would be waiting out the evening in Dwalin’s bedroom.

A loud knock at the outer door silenced the argument in the sitting room, and Bella held her breath as Balin went to open it and admit her intended.

The others remained silent as Thorin entered, watching him with judging eyes as he took his place in the chair before them, looking unbothered. “Everyone,” he greeted them, reaching out to snag a mug. “I hope this evening finds you well?”

“We’ll be the ones asking questions!” Ori said, half-rising out of his chair. Dori sighed, and Kíli slapped a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing, but Thorin only nodded.

“Of course,” he said, looking past the lot of them to gaze into the fire. “Whenever you’re ready.”

The room exploded with noise, as each of Bella’s twelve brothers tried to speak over the others, half of them holding up various papers as they shouted, and some of them slamming fists or feet into the furniture to make their points. Thorin only smiled as he nursed his drink.

Enough!” shouted Dwalin, getting to his feet and pointing a finger at Thorin. “What are your intentions towards my sister?” The room quieted only a fraction as the other dwarves spoke up in support of the question.

“Yes! What are your intentions?”

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten Lake-town!”

“How long have you been planning this - this seduction?

“What did happen that night in Mirkwood?”

“Be quiet!” cried Glóin, glaring at everyone. “We’ll get no answers this way. Now,” he said, looking at Thorin, “Dwalin asked you a question about your intentions.”

Thorin scowled, apparently having hoped the debate would carry on a bit longer. “I intend to marry her, and throw the rest of you meddlers out of my mountain.”

“You’d think,” said Nori, shooting a wink towards Bella, “that someone who was hoping to win our approval would be a bit friendlier, wouldn’t you, Bofur?”

Bofur nodded, elbowing Glóin in the ribs. “Oh aye, more than a bit, I’d say. But perhaps he’s forgotten that we could put an end to his whole bleedin’ courtship, if we were of a mind to?”

“He forgets nothing,” snorted Óin as he refilled his mug. “Just thinks we wouldn’t dare to do it! Ha! He’ll be surprised, won’t he!”

The others chorused their agreement, and Thorin (who perhaps sensed that the evening wasn’t going as he’d expected) raised a brow at Fíli, who only smirked.

“After all,” Fíli said, as if he were savoring every word, “who’s to say he’ll treat our sister properly? Am I the only one who remembers the incident at the wall?”

Twelve angry gazes turned towards Thorin, who fidgeted uncomfortably. “Bella has accepted my apology for that.”

“Bella is entirely too forgiving,” said Kíli, in a dark enough tone that the others looked at him in surprise.

In the other room, Bella was silently panicking. This wasn’t how such evenings were supposed to go at all! There ought to be more laughter, and questions that would perhaps embarrass Thorin a bit, but nothing so upsetting! And really, wasn’t it just like dwarves to turn such a simple thing into an incident?

“The lass may have forgiven you,” said Glóin, “but she’s ours to look after now. I won’t say that she doesn’t know her own mind, but Kíli is right - she may forgive too easily.”

And really, that was too much, Bella thought to herself, but before she could storm into the room, Dwalin interrupted. “The hobbit is blooded in battle,” he said, looking from dwarf to dwarf, “and her choice is not ours to question. But,” he said, pointing at Thorin, “She has been hurt on our watch and on our account, more than once. Things are different now; we will not allow such a thing to happen again. Best you remember that.”

“I will,” said Thorin seriously, as the room murmured its assent. There was quiet for a time, while the company figure out how to proceed.

“Ah,” said Balin, leaning back in his chair and smiling contentedly at the hushed room. “Did you ever think we’d see it again, lads? Erebor, as she should be.”

“I know what you mean, old friend,” said Óin, taking a swig of his ale. “Still a ways to go, but she’s getting there.”

“It isn’t what I pictured,” Fíli admitted, looking into the fire. “It’s grander than I imagined, and darker. Sometimes I’ll be alone in an empty hall, and it’s like I can hear the voices of all the dwarves that were here before.”

“I’ve heard it too,” said Bofur, knocking shoulders with Bifur, who nodded his agreement. “All three of us have. It’s better now that the dwarves from Ered Luin have come, but there’s a shadow over this place that didn’t leave with the dragon.”

“Give it time,” advised Dori, as he refilled Ori’s teacup. “The markets have already begun to reopen, and there’ll be Dale again in a year or so. And in the meantime, a wedding will be just the thing to spread some cheer through these halls!”

That brightened the mood considerably, and the rest of the evening passed in a merry blur, and as the drinking went on, the suggestions for the festivities grew more and more ridiculous.

“You ought to line the main hall from the front gates to the throne room with silver bells! Y’know, as a symbol.

“Don’t be foolish, there isn’t any wind in side the mountain. How will they ring?”

“Oh, surely someone’ll jostle them. That can be Kíli’s job.”

“What about a solid gold oliphaunt? If we put wheels on it, you could ride it!”

“Should we invite the elves?”

That was met with a resounding no, and several bits of food were tossed at Ori, who had suggested it. Even Dori looked appalled.

The party broke up shortly afterwards, with each of the dwarves trying to excuse themselves before they were obliged to stay and help Balin and Dwalin tidy up. Bella was relatively certain the others had forgotten her presence by then, and so she slipped her ring on and followed Thorin, who had been the first to leave.

She crept up behind him as he moved through the quiet corridors, not saying anything until he reached the door to his rooms, where she laid an invisible hand on his arm. “I think it went well, don’t you?” she said.

“A rousing success,” he agreed, grave and seemingly unsurprised. “Are you planning to stay invisible?”

“I might be,” she said warmly, and, feeling bold, she leaned in to press a kiss against his cheek.

“What was that for?” he smiled, somehow locking his gaze exactly on the spot where she’d retreated.

“Usually we’d get a bit of time alone after one of these evenings,” Bella explained, glad he could not see her blush. “I forgot to mention it.”

“You are forgiven,” Thorin said. “Though if you wished to make amends, you might start by removing your ring.”

“I have made amends enough!” she laughed. “And anyway, I have to get back before they miss me.”

“If you must,” Thorin grumbled, but she saw the amusement in his eyes and knew it was only for show. “But know this, I won’t wait long for my revenge.”

“Oh?” she said. “And how is that?”

“Because,” Thorin said, smiling as if he’d won a victory. “Tomorrow you meet with Dís.”

***


“Ah, Miss Baggins,” Dís said, looking up from her tea. “Please do come and sit.”

Bella did so, perching uncomfortably on the edge of a wooden chair that was ever-so-slightly too big for her, and looking around the room as if she expected someone else to appear from the shadows.

“I have been looking forward to this evening,” Dís said, leaning forward to fill Bella’s cup. “We have not spent much time together, you and I, and there are so many questions I’ve been waiting to ask you.

Bella straightened, a lifetime of awkward teas and disapproving chats with her aunts had prepared her for this. “Of course,” she said smoothly, taking a sip of her drink. “You must feel free to ask me whatever you wish. We are to be sisters, after all.”

“So my brother tells me,” Dís said. “You can imagine my surprise when I heard the news. It was nearly as shocking as when I learned my sons had acquired a sister.” She paused, eying Bella appraisingly. “What is it about hobbits, I wonder, that so captivates the men of Durin’s line?”

“The curls, I think,” Bella said blandly. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about dwarves, it’s that unruly hair will drive them to madness.”

Dís laughed, and some of the tension bled out of Bella. “I worried you would not approve,” she admitted, hands tightening around her cup.

“Why is that?” Dís said, taking a sip of her tea.

“Well, just look at him,” Bella said. “He ought to have someone very grand. And I - well, I’m only a hobbit.”

Dís considered Bella over the rim of her cup, before delicately setting it in its saucer. “You think my brother very proper, don’t you, Miss Baggins?” she asked.

“Of course!” Bella said, surprised.

“And you consider him dutiful? Stoic?” Dís prompted. “Much like my Fíli?”

“I - yes, I suppose so,” Bella replied.

Dís nodded. “Everyone does. But it was not always so. When I look at Kíli, I see my brother just as he was in our youth - generous with his smiles, quick to laugh. It is life that has made him hard, Miss Baggins, and I begrudge this world all his every frown and sorrow.”

“Oh!” said Bella, bringing a hand to cover her mouth. “I did not-”

“So you see,” Dís continued, waving away Bella’s sympathies, “I cannot object to anything that lightens the burdens he has claimed for himself. You know what it is, I think, to love one’s brother.”

“I do,” Bella said firmly, on surer ground now. “I would do anything for mine.”

Dís smiled slightly, just enough that Bella could see the echo of Kíli’s teasing grin in her face. “Just so,” she agreed. “Even take tea with a hobbit.”

Bella raised a brow. “Or live among so many confounded dwarves.”

Dís laughed, throwing her head back and bracing her hands on her knees. “Oh, we will get along fine, Miss Baggins,” she said, when she got her breath back.

They took their tea in silence for a time, but Bella had a feeling that Dís was merely waiting for the right moment to continue her questioning. And eventually, it came.

“There is something I would like to know,” she said, and at Bella’s nod, she continued. “I hope my question will not cause offense, but I must ask, regardless. You seem agreeable enough, Miss Baggins, and I know you must be a good sort, for my sons to love you as they do. Kíli you might fool, if you were of a mind to, but never Fíli; his judgement in such matters far outstrips mine.”

“That is not a question,” Bella said, amicably.

“Why my brother?” Dís said, leaning forward in her chair. “From what I have heard, you hobbits are gentle, merry creatures who value your comforts. But there is nothing comfortable about Thorin. Do not mistake me, I love my brother and count you lucky that he has chosen you. But why would you choose him?”

Bella paused - this was not the question she had been expecting, and she felt she ought to give it as well-considered a response as she could, on the spot. “When I was a girl,” she said, looking at Dís, to see if a lengthy explanation would be allowed. At her nod, Bella went on. “When I was a girl, I did not get on well with the other children. I preferred my books to their company, and when our parents forced us to play together, their treatment seemed like cruelty, though I see now that we simply didn’t understand each other.”

“Hindsight often illuminates such things,” Dís nodded.

Bella smiled slightly. “Indeed. So when my mother would bring up my eventual marriage, as a mother does, it made me nervous. Marry one of those cruel creatures, who pulled my hair and stole my things? I would as soon have run away. And so I thought, ‘whoever I must marry, let him be kind. That is all I ask.’”

“That is not my brother,” Dís said, flatly. “He is many things, but no one would call him kind.”

“No,” Bella shook her head. “No, you are right. I have known kind men, and in fact I nearly married one, and it is not a word I would use to describe Thorin.”

“You were nearly married before?” Dís said, sitting up in her chair as if this were the first thing Bella said that had surprised her. “How can that be?”

“He was older. Not one of my playmates whose teasing had bothered me so,” Bella said, embarrassed that the bad decisions she had made in her youth and her loneliness should still be cause for gossip, after so much time and so much distance. “And he was very gentle with me, always asking about my books and my garden. I was not afraid of him, and young enough that I confused that for love.”

Dís leaned forward. “But you did not marry him.”

“No,” Bella shook her head. “He ended it, but so kindly that it seemed almost churlish to resent him. And so I gave it up, and would have no more suitors. Because what use was courting when you could not even count on kindness to make you happy?”

“Sad,” Dís said, “but I see the sense in it.”

“And then I met your brother,” Bella smiled, “and thought he must be the rudest person I had ever met. The first thing he said to me was an insult, and on my own front mat!”

Dís closed her eyes in embarrassment. “Yes, that sounds like him. Though I doubt he meant it as such.”

“I agree, he is just plainspoken,” Bella nodded. “I learned that about him quickly. He says what he thinks, always, without regard for feelings or politics, and he made it no secret that he thought I should not be on his quest. And even now, I can’t say he was wrong.”

“And yet, you are here,” said Dís.

“It was a close thing,” smiled Bella. “I was not prepared for such a journey, and nearly perished several times before we made it past the Misty Mountains. But there is once incident in particular that I think will answer your question, and I hope you will forgive me for being so long about it.”

“I will let you know,” Dís said, “when I have heard your answer.”

Bella nodded. “I fell from a ledge on the path through the mountains. The others reached for me as I clung to the cliffside, but it was Thorin who saved my life, swinging down to boost me into their grasp. But in doing so, he lost his grip, and if it had not been for Dwalin, he would have fallen to his death.”

Dís stared; apparently no one had told her about that part of the journey, and Bella hurried to continue. “He nearly died, but he never hesitated, though I had not been useful to him in his quest so far. He blistered my ears afterwards, too,” Bella said, smiling at the memory.

“I was very angry, and it some time before I realized that out of all the things he ever said to offend me, and no matter how useless he thought I was, he never seemed to regret saving my life, though it nearly cost him his own. Because your brother is not a kind man, but he is a good one, and that is what matters, to me.”

Silence fell over the room, broken only by the clink of Bella’s cup against the table. She looked at her hands, a bit embarrassed at her words. After a moment, Dís spoke. “Thorin has informed me that after these meetings, it is expected that I will slip away, so the two of you may spend some time alone. Is that correct?”

“It’s considered a favor,” Bella said, heat rising to color her face. “And only done if the family approves of the match. There is no obligation.”

“Of course,” Dís said, smiling slightly. “He would not have mentioned that, knowing how I love to irritate him.” She stood, setting her cup down carefully, and taking a moment to straighten the tablecloth. “I must beg your pardon, and ask that you excuse me for a few minutes while I see to other matters.”

Dís paused at the doorway. “My brother would tell you that he has no need of my approval, and it would be no lie. Still, it may please him to know that I offer it freely. Do let him know, if you should see him before I do,” she said, breaking into a grin as she shut the door behind her.

Bella stood there for a moment, happy and confused all at once, until another door opened, one she hadn’t noticed in the shadows beside the fireplace. Thorin stepped into the room, and Bella turned to face him, not trying to stifle her smile, though she knew she must look over-eager.

“You heard that, I assume?” she said as he walked over to her. “I think it went well, don’t you? Did you - how much did you hear?” she asked, blushing and taking a step back, so that she bumped into her chair. He kept moving forward, crowding her against the chair and looking down into her face, intense and serious. “Thorin?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Stop,” he gasped. “Do not test my control. One more word, one, and that will be the end of it. I will throw you over my shoulder and haul you down to the deepest heart of the mountain, behind stone walls and iron doors and away from anyone who would dare to so much as look upon you. And I will unbind the braids others put in your hair, and strip you of anything forged by hands besides mine, and in that place, Ghivashel, treasure of all my treasures, you will belong to me, and only me, if even one word more passes your lips.”

Oh!’ Bella’s mouth moved silently as he leaned down to touch their foreheads together.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, after a moment. “I’m sorry. I have control of it now, I swear to you. You are in no danger.”

Bella reached over to take his hand, lacing their fingers together. “I was not afraid.”

“Your hobbit ways are a trial,” Thorin said, leaning in close to her ear. “I have the heart of a dwarf, and it has given itself to you. It is hard to bear the waiting.”

“Yes,” Bella said. “I have been very patient already. We have walked a long road together, you and I, and I would not change a step of it. Not if you are my journey’s end.”

***


“Bell!” Fíli said, jostling her out of a sound sleep. “Bell, wake up!”

Scowling, she swatted at him without opening her eyes. He laughed, putting a hand on her shoulder and shaking her a bit. “I’ve been waking Kíli every day for over seventy years,” he said. “You’ll have to swing a bit harder than that.”

“Don’t think I won’t,” she growled, throwing back the covers and sitting up. “It’s too early to be up, Fíli.”

“Is it?” he asked, still grinning. “Go back to sleep then. Oh, and we’ve been summoned to a meeting with Thorin after lunch, to discuss your future marriage. Which he has just announced at breakfast. I thought you might like to know.”

What,” she gasped, stumbling out of bed and tripping over the blankets in her haste. “He what?

“Announced your engagement,” Fíli repeated, putting an arm out to steady her. “At breakfast. Weren’t you listening?”

Dwarves!” Bella shrieked, throwing her arms into the air. “Insufferable!

“I know,” Fíli commiserated, patting her shoulder. “We were all sorry you missed it. I brought you back a scone.”

“Wait,” Bella said, turning to look at him with wide eyes. “Thorin has requested the meeting? Today?

“Today,” Fíli agreed. “I take it your discussion with Ma went well?”

“I think so,” Bella said, digging through her chest of clothes for something appropriate. “She did say she approved. You might have warned me she was terrifying.”

“It seemed cruel,” Fíli said, leaning against the bedpost and laughing at her irritation, “when you must face her regardless. Better you go into it with hope.”

“You’re a terror. I see where you get it from, now,” she said wryly, pulling out a green overdress.

“Not that one,” Fíli said, bending over to shift her things around. He pulled out a blue dress, one Bella had not yet worn. “Wear this, it will throw him off his game.”

“We have more important things to worry about than my outfit, Fíli!” Bella rolled her eyes. “We have hardly any time to prepare!”

“This is important,” Fíli insisted. “He’s made the first move by not giving us enough warning! We’ll need every advantage if we’re going to win.”

“The point is not to win,” Bella sighed, but she laid the dress out on the bed, checking it for creases. “The point is to reach a compromise that ensures the marriage will begin smoothly.”

Fíli snorted. “Smooth or not, I think you would be happier with a dwarven compromise.”

“Oh? What’s that?” Bella asked, looking up.

“When you get what you want, and the other side compromises.”

***


“Oh, confound it,” Fíli whispered as they entered the meeting hall. “He’s brought Balin to speak for him. He’s taking this very seriously!”

“It could be worse,” Bella whispered back, trying not to smile. “He could have brought your mother.” Fíli froze, and Bella laughed aloud at his look of horror.

“I tried,” called Thorin from across the table. “But she would not come. I believe she is quite taken with you.” He smiled at Bella as she dragged a still-shocked Fíli to their seats. “Or perhaps she thought it would be amusing to see me outmaneuvered by her son.”

“Good afternoon, Lass,” said Balin, looking up from his papers. “I hope the suddenness of our meeting wasn’t an inconvenience.”

“Of course not,” Fíli said smoothly, regaining his composure and pulling out some notes of his own. “We’ve been prepared for some time now.” This was a lie, the only preparation they’d had time for was a frantic discussion over breakfast, but Bella thought he carried it off rather well.

“Excellent!” Balin smiled. “Now, just to make certain I understand the rules here - I will speak for Thorin, and you will speak for Bella?”

“Yes,” Fíli said. “They will not speak, except to us.”

“Might I ask why?” Balin asked, looking at Bella. “We have not yet begun.”

She shrugged. “Tradition, mostly. But also to direct our bad feelings towards someone besides our intended, should this turn contentious.”

“Ah, very sensible!” Balin said. “Very clever! Though I’m sure it will not come to that. Let’s see now,” he said, shuffling some pages. “Shall we start with living arrangements?”

“As good a place as any,” Fíli nodded. “I presume he’d like her to move into his quarters?”

“Well, he can hardly move into her room, can he?” Balin said easily. “They’re spacious chambers.”

“We’re prepared to concede that,” Fíli replied without looking up, “on the condition that Bella may make any changes she wishes, to the furnishings or the decor.”

Balin frowned. “Those rooms have been as they are for five hundred years.”

Fíli raised a brow. “It may have escaped you, but my sister is a hobbit. That she is willing to live inside a mountain at all is a concession. Surely you’re not going to make a fuss over a few doilies, to make her more comfortable?”

Balin opened his mouth, probably to protest further, but Thorin leaned over to whisper in his ear. They exchanged a few words, and Balin looked back across the table, his face serene once more. “Of course, our sister’s comfort is our highest priority,” he said, and Bella had to kick Fíli under the table when he rolled his eyes. “We are prepared to concede her right to make any changes she wishes, with the exceptions of the carvings around the fireplace. They’re nearly a thousand years old,” he explained, looking at Bella.

“Of course!” Bella said. “I doubt I’ll want to change anything anyway-”

“Bella,” Fíli whispered, stopping her words with a hand on her arm. “Shouldn’t I be doing the talking?”

“Yes,” she murmured, low enough that she hoped only he could hear. “But it feels wrong, to demand such things.”

“I think that’s why I’m doing the talking,” he said, looking at her seriously. “I can do this, Bell. I’ve been trained in negotiation.”

“Yes, you’re right, I’m sorry,” she said, patting his hand. “Please, keep going, you’re doing splendidly.”

He grinned, then looked back across at Balin and Thorin, who were watching them expectantly. “The fireplace will not be changed. Moving on - there’s a room connected with Thorin’s that would be ideal as a study or sitting room. As no one else is currently occupying it, Bella would like to lay claim to it, for her personal use.”

Balin nodded, flipping through his papers as if he had expected the question. “Unfortunately,” he said, looking smug, “I believe that room has an occupant.”

If he had intended to unsettle Fíli by challenging his ruse, he was not successful. “It will be cleared out by the day of the wedding,” he said calmly. “If you have no other objections?”

Balin looked pleased. “None, as long as she does not intend it as a bedroom.”

Fíli flushed. “The room must be hers to use as she sees fit. If my uncle cannot keep his wife in his bed, surely that is his problem?”

Thorin scowled, and Bella covered her face with her hands, but Balin looked unperturbed. “Any way she sees fit,” he nodded, “except a bedroom.”

Irritated, Fíli leaned over to Bella. “I don’t think he’ll budge on this,” he said. “If you decide to move out, we’ll find you a new room.”

“I don’t think we should plan on my moving out, Fíli!” Bella hissed. “I have no intention of ever doing such a thing!”

“You never know,” he said, “and it wouldn’t hurt to have it to hold over him.” He sighed at her dark expression. “Very well. A study or a sitting room only.”

“Thank you,” Balin said, making a note of it. “Shall we move on to the wedding?”

Fíli nodded. “Bella would like to have the wedding at midsummer. It’s considered auspicious among her people.”

“That’s only two months away!” Balin protested. “Hardly enough time to plan a wedding, not to speak of a marriage gift!”

“Have you not started?” Fíli asked, mildly. “Bella is nearly finished.” Bella, who had not been expecting the lie, fought to keep her face blank. In truth, she had only just started Thorin’s gift, though she knew she could finish by midsummer, if she worked at it.

“I suppose we could get everything done in time, if we delegate,” Balin grumbled.

Fíli pushed a sheet of paper across the table. “Our thoughts exactly. Here are our suggestions.”

Balin took the page, placing it between himself and Thorin as he read aloud. “Dwalin in charge of security - yes, we agree to that. Myself as officiant? That is very kind, we agree to that also. Bombur for the food? Hold on a moment,” he looked up. “Bombur is a fine cook, for a traveling company. But can he prepare a feast for two hundred nobles? Would he want to?”

Fíli lifted his chin. “Bombur is a fine cook, as well as being Bella’s brother. No doubt he will acquit himself admirably.”

Balin made a face. “But surely for a wedding, something a bit more… refined?”

“If Bombur does not feel up to the task, you may assign it to whomever you wish,” Fíli offered. “But he’ll hardly be cooking it all by himself.”

Balin looked at Thorin, who raised a brow at him. “Very well,” he grumbled. “Bombur it is.”

“And of course, Bella will pick her own dress,” Fíli continued, as if he expected to be challenged. But Balin only nodded.

“Whatever she likes,” he said, “though she may want to make sure it goes with the royal jewelry.”

Bella elbowed Fíli, eyes wide, and shook her head. He leaned down to try and talk to her, but she just shook her head again, crossing her arms in front of her. He sighed. “Bella isn’t fond of jewelry,” he explained to Balin. “And for someone her size, the royal jewels may be a bit much.”

Balin looked at Thorin. “We had not considered her stature,” he admitted. “If you could give us a moment?” Fíli nodded, and Balin and Thorin leaned down, whispering furiously.

“You’re going to have to give them something,” Fíli whispered to Bella. “You can’t be married with no jewels!”

“I’ve seen the stuff you lot pulled out of the treasure-pile!” she hissed back. “I won’t be able to walk!”

“We have a suggestion,” Balin said, causing both of them to look up. “Thorin’s sister had a set of jewelry made up for her as a girl. It’s a delicate set, and an heirloom. It would be very appropriate.”

Fíli looked at Bella. “That’s as good an offer as we’re likely to get,” he said, in a low voice. “My advice is to take it.”

Bella slumped down in her chair. “Fine,” she sighed. “As long as Dís doesn’t mind.” She tried to smile. “After all, it’s not like it’s a great heavy crown, or something equally ridiculous.”

Fíli blanched. “We accept your offer, pending my mother’s approval,” he said, “except for the crown.”

“Did you have something else in mind?” Balin asked, taken aback.

Fíli closed his eyes. “No crown at all,” he said, as if he was forcing the words out.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Thorin said, but Balin shushed him.

“Now Fíli,” he said, “think! She cannot marry your uncle bare-headed!”

“We can make up the difference with hair-pins,” Fíli offered. “Or beads.”

Balin shook his head. “That simply won’t do. For a miner’s daughter, maybe, but not for the bride of a king! What will people say, if your sister stands up to be married in nothing more than a few beads?”

“Perhaps they will think well of me, that I would not let their idle gossip affect my sister!” Fíli growled, and Bella laid a hand on his arm.

“Would it be that much of a scandal, Fíli?” she asked.

He opened his mouth to protest, then closed it again, considering his words. “If you were a dwarf, it would be,” he said at last. “But your ways are not ours. We will explain, if anyone asks.”

Bella frowned. “Will people think badly of you?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Fíli said, squeezing her hand. “People are always complaining about something. You can’t let it worry you.”

After a moment of thought, Bella closed her eyes. “No, it isn’t worth all of that. I will wear the crown,” she sighed. Her eyes flew open. “But a small one, if you please!”

Fíli smiled at her. “You trust me?” he asked.

She blinked. “Of course.”

He turned back to Balin and Thorin. “Bella will wear a crown, but it will be one I provide for her.”

Balin hesitated. “You are a fine jeweler for your age, Fíli,” he said, “but hardly a master. And there are only two months.”

“You may trust me not to embarrass my sister,” Fíli said sharply. “I know the limits of my capabilities.”

“Very well,” Balin said. “I will speak to Dís this evening. You may come along and have a look at the set if you like, so you can match it. Is there anything else?”

“There is one more thing,” Fíli said, looking down at his papers. “But before I mention it, I want it clear that I do not approve of this request, and only bring it up because Bella demands it.”

Balin and Thorin looked at each other, curious. “Go on,” Balin said.

Fíli swallowed, then squared his shoulders before continuing. “In the event that a son should come from this union, it is Bella’s request that he be removed from the line of succession.”

“What?” Balin gasped. “That’s outrageous! It is out of the question!”

“I accept,” said Thorin, looking calmly at Fíli from across the table.

Fíli’s jaw dropped. “You cannot be serious!” he protested. “I brought it up for the form of the thing, but-”

“I have an heir,” said Thorin. “He has paid for his place with sweat and blood, and will rule with wisdom. When I meet my fathers in the halls of waiting, I will be proud to leave our people in his hands.”

Fíli’s grip tightened around the pen, until Bella feared it might snap in two. “Thank you,” she said, breaking the silence. “I would ask nothing more.”

“Nor I,” said Thorin, rising from his chair. “I look forward to midsummer.”

“To midsummer,” Bella smiled. “And the end of a long road.”

***


The weeks until the wedding passed swiftly, and it seemed as if everyone in the mountain threw themselves into the preparations with good cheer and a light heart. Bella spent many afternoons with Bombur, planning the menu, and more long evenings with Dís, who had offered to help her with her dress. Balin and Ori barricaded themselves into the library to plan the ceremony, and the rest helped wherever they could find an opportunity to be useful. Even Nori was caught hanging silver bells above the marketplace (though he would not admit where he got them).

With all that needed to be done, Bella found it very difficult to steal a moment or two to work on Thorin’s gift. There was hardly time for anything elaborate, but in the end she felt she’d done as well as she could, and when she presented it to him on the night before the wedding, it was with only a bit of nervousness.

It was only her and Thorin in the little sitting room she shared with Fíli and Kíli, who had been left with Dwalin to ensure they didn’t try to eavesdrop. So they were quite alone when she brought out her project, and unrolled it over the little table where Thorin waited.

“It’s your family,” Bella said hurriedly. “And the mountain, do you see?”

It was the mountain, or at least, as close as Bella could come to depicting it with ink-black threads against white linen. And within it were the names of all the folk of Thorin’s line, with veins of gold thread around them, studded here and there with gems. In the center, above the name of Thorin’s grandfather, was a tiny opal, shaped to resemble the arkenstone he had so loved.

(And if a chip of emerald drew attention to Fíli’s name, or a sapphire embellished Kíli’s, well, no one could begrudge Bella her favorites.)

“I see,” Thorin said, a broad smile breaking over his face. His eyes followed the silver line from ‘Durin’ at the peak, all the way down to ‘Fíli’ and ‘Kíli’ at the Mountain’s heart.

“You included Dís,” Thorin smirked, pointing at his sister’s name. “She’ll be pleased.”

“I included all the women of your line, as far back as Balin could remember,” Bella said, looking worried. “Should I not have done?”

“Dwarves guard our secrets as we do our treasures, and our women are considered both. We do not like to share even their names,” Thorin said, his hand lingering near the name of his mother, next to Thráin’s. “But I do not object.”

He rolled the tapestry up carefully, taking care to create no creases, and tied it with the bit of ribbon. “I will hang it above the throne,” he promised, placing it gently on the table. “It will be an heirloom of my line.”

“You needn’t do that just to please me,” said Bella, blushing.

“I would do much to please you, but this pleases me,” Thorin said, cutting off her protests by reaching into his pocket for a small book with a tooled leather cover, which he handed to Bella. “Here. Your gift.”

The Tale of Denar the Carver and His Wife, Náv,” Bella read. “A book?” she asked warmly, flipping through the creamy pages and admiring the neat black lettering.

“One of our stories. A copy, I’m afraid, I am no scribe,” Thorin explained. “but my father was strict in his lessons, and I have a fair enough hand. The cover was trickier, I have not worked with leather since before Fíli was born.”

“You wrote me a book,” Bella said dreamily. “Can I go read it now?”

He smiled. “There will be time for that later.”

“There won’t,” Bella protested. “Tomorrow is the wedding, that will take all day! If I don’t read it now it will be days before I get the chance.”

“What if I told it to you,” Thorin offered, reaching out to close the cover. “Would you stay?”

“I suppose that depends on how well you tell it,” Bella teased, but she lowered the book to her lap.

He frowned, and a faraway look passed over his face, as if he were trying to remember the words. “Denar was a stone-carver from the Grey Mountains,” he began. “His skills were those of legend, and our folk sing of them still, though his works were lost to dragon fire long ago.

“The women of the kingdom vied for his attention, and more than one had sworn never to wed, if they could not have him. He took no notice of them, occupied as he was with his craft, but in time, the joy he took in his work faded, and he began to long for a wife.

“So he met with all of them, from the richest noblewoman to the poorest scullery maid, and though he found some of them beautiful, and some of them kind, and some of them clever, and one or two of them all of those, none of them moved his heart.

“In despair, he sent for a block of marble, one of the last to be mined from Khazad-dûm, before its fall, and in his grief he went at it with file and chisel. Day after day he carved, stopping only to send for finer and finer tools, until there were no more to be had, and then he forged his own, and when his neighbors spoke of him, they called him Denar the mad.

“And though his workshop was brightly lit with mirror-lamps, he moved his carving to the mountain’s summit, ranting about the light. The statue was finished in moonlight, and with the last stroke of the sand-cloth, Denar collapsed at its feet.

“It is not known whether it was Denar’s skill, or a gift of the stone itself, but some magic brought life to the stone woman, who was called Náv, and she lifted her maker into her arms and carried him down the mountain.

“Under Náv’s care, Denar healed, and they wed on the mountaintop where she awoke, and were together all of their days.” Thorin paused, looking up at Bella, who was watching him, captivated.

“This is a popular story among lovers who believe, like Denar, that their chosen was made for them alone, and the only one suited for them in all Middle-earth,” he said. “But that is not why I chose it for you.”

“Then why?” asked Bella, hugging the small volume tight against her breast.

Thorin reached out to cup her face, brushing a thumb over her cheek as their eyes met. “My heart was stone,” he said, simply. “You gave it life.”

Bella stared at him. “I do not understand,” she said, after a long stretch of silence, “how you can be the same dwarf who called me a nursemaid on my welcome mat.”

He grinned, happy and careless, and in that moment Bella understood what Dís meant when she compared her somber brother to her merry son, and she made herself a silent promise to draw out as many such smiles as she could, in whatever time would be given to them.

***


“I’m getting married today,” Bella said to herself as she stood before the mirror, trying hold back her panic. “I’m getting married today. And my hair looks like a bird’s nest!”

“True,” said Dís, as she entered the room without knocking. “But at least the dress is beautiful.”

Privately, Bella thought the dress far too elaborate for hobbit standards, with its long gauzy sleeves and silver trim against white and green velvet, but she and Dís had fought enough battles over it that there was no need for her to say so. And in any case, Dís was right, it was undeniably lovely.

“Yes, you did a wonderful job,” Bella agreed, fiddling with the laces on the bodice. “And you look splendid.”

“I know,” Dís smiled, giving her full skirt a bit of a twirl. She’d elected to forego Bella’s “austere hobbitish compunctions,” as she called them, and her night-blue dress sparkled with studded sapphires. “Has Fíli not been by with the jewelry yet? It’s getting late.”

“Not yet,” Bella said, uneasy. “I hope he comes in time to help me with my hair.”

“I’ll do that,” Dís said, gesturing towards a chair. “Sit.”

Bella thought of refusing - should would have much preferred Fíli help her, and she did not care to be ordered about on the morning of her own wedding! - but it seemed silly to protest when the offer was made out of kindness, so she sat.

Dís stood behind her, separating her hair into the tiny sections that would create a net of intricate braids. “I saw your gift to Thorin,” she said as she worked. “Already it hangs behind the throne.”

“So soon?” Bella asked, trying to keep her head still.

“I believe he went straight there from your meeting,” Dís said, reaching into a cunningly hidden pocket for a jeweled bead. “He was very proud.”

“And you?” Bella asked, braced for the worst. “What did you think?”

Dis’s hands slowed, carding gently through Bella’s hair for a moment. “I think,” she said, in a softer voice, “That out of all the histories of my family on the walls of this Mountain, yours is the only one that bears my name.”

Bella didn’t know how to answer that, so Dís finished her hair in silence, stopping only to add a bead or a jewel to catch the light. “There,” she said when she was finished. “Very nice.”

Bella moved to the mirror, craning her head around as far as she could in order to better admire the effect. Dís had tamed her hair into so many tiny braids that it hung like a shining curtain over her shoulders. “Very dwarfish,” she said, wryly, but she was not displeased.

“It suits you,” Dís said, “and I was glad to do it. But I came here with another purpose.”

Bella looked at her expectantly, and she continued. “Bella,” she said, in a soft voice, “I don’t know what force brought you to our Mountain. Perhaps it was fate, as my brother says, or perhaps it was only chance. I care nothing for such matters. But you have made a place for yourself amongst us, and today you marry our king.” She paused, staring at Bella’s face as if she were searching for some sign of understanding.

“You will marry our king,” she repeated, after a moment, “and he loves you. That gives you a power over his heart, and however you wield it, you hold the fate of the dwarves in your hands. I came to caution you, or perhaps to beg. Please use it wisely.”

“I do not want such a power,” Bella said, unnerved. “Hobbits do not concern ourselves with such things.”

“No concern for power,” Dís echoed, “and no love for gold. What then, do hobbits care for?”

“Food,” Bella smiled. “And music. Good cheer. We are a simple folk.”

“I’m not so certain of that,” Dís said, almost to herself. “Still, would that more of us valued such things. It would be a merrier world. Perhaps you will make it so.”

Unsettled, Bella could only nod.

“Fíli will be by soon with the jewelry,” said Dís, moving towards the door.

“Thank you again for lending it,” Bella replied, for want of anything more substantial.

“Keep it,” Dís said, with a careless shrug and careful expression. “It does not suit me now. A gift between sisters.”

“Then I will treasure it,” Bella said solemnly, “as a gift from my sister.”

Dis inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement, but Bella detected a hint of a smile as she left the room.

Fíli arrived a few minutes later, with a stack of wrapped packages in his arms. “Good morning,” he said cheerfully, closing the door behind him with his foot. “I brought some of your things.”

“Good morning,” Bella repeated, eying the packages warily. “What am I supposed to do with all of this?”

He laughed, setting them on the desk beside her. “I suggest you let me worry about that,” he said. “I ought to have come sooner, but I was distracting Kíli. He’s far too excited, and has been trying to improve the decorations.”

“Oh goodness gracious,” Bella said, squeezing her eyes shut. “Were there any survivors?”

“Bofur fought him valiantly, and was lead on a merry chase through the tunnels for his efforts,” Fíli said, his eyes bright with amusement. “But it was Bifur that grabbed him, and made him hand over all the ribbons.”

“Ribbons!” Bella echoed, confused and horrified. “What was he doing with ribbons?”

Fíli paused for a moment, considering. “Better I don’t tell you, honestly,” he said. “I told him to stay with Thorin, and make sure Uncle didn’t offend anyone before the ceremony. With luck, that will keep him out of trouble.”

“With luck, that will keep the both of them out of trouble,” Bella said, relaxing for the first time since she’d put on her dress. “Why Fíli, you look handsome!” she said, admiring his green velvet doublet and cape.

“Were you expecting mail and leathers?” he teased, making her blush, because actually, she had been expecting just that. “Well, you’re half right, I’ll put my jerkin on for the feast. Just in case.”

“Should I wear my mail?” she asked, only half joking.

“You could!” he replied, as he started to unwrap the parcels he’d brought in with him. “Náin the second wed Túl Swiftaxe on the battlefield after a goblin skirmish, with the both of them still in their bloodied armor. That’s one of Kíli’s favorite stories.”

“I’ll have to have him tell it to me,” Bella said, standing on her toes to peer over his shoulder, trying to get a glimpse. “I suppose that’s the jewelry.”

“You needn’t look so worried,” Fíli said, opening one of the wooden boxes on the desk, and gently lifting out a silver chain, set with white and green stones. “It’s a plain enough set, you’ll hardly notice it.” He draped it around her neck, fastening the clasp behind her. “Nice,” he said, admiringly. “Gold is more traditional, but Durin’s line is partial to silver, so it’s quite suitable. I believe it was made by my mother’s uncle.”

“Well, it suits the dress,” Bella said, though really she could not complain. It was light enough, and she found she really didn’t mind it, or the bracelets that made up the rest of the set.

“Why Fíli,” she said, as she turned in a circle before the mirror. “I look just like a proper dwarf, wouldn’t you say?”

“Not quite,” he said, holding up the last parcel. “Your crown.”

“Do I even want to see?” she sighed, looking forlornly at the bundle in his hands.

He grinned. “I suppose that’s up to you. You could always close your eyes while I put it on you.”

That made her smile a bit. “Better to know what I’m getting into,” she said, taking the package. It was very light, too light for its size, and she looked at it with suspicion. “Fíli,” she murmured, pulling back the wrapping, “what have you done?” The last of the fabric fell away, and Bella took a long look at the thing she had so dreaded.

No metal. No jewels. Only a circle of pale-pink roses, braided into a bridal crown.

“How did you know?” Bella asked, overwhelmed with a surge of relief and affection. “I never said - there seemed no point. There are no roses on the Mountain.”

“But Lake-town has its share of gardeners, and Bard is very fond of you,” Fíli said, taking it from her hands and positioning it gently over her braids. “As to how I knew - I have seen your Shire, and we have been family for nearly a year now. It was not a risky guess.”

“Won’t Thorin be angry? You tricked him,” she said, even as she wrapped her arms around his neck, and pressed a kiss to his cheek.

“I think he will be inclined towards forgiveness, today of all days, if it makes you happy,” Fíli said. “Besides, I have held up our bargain. I promised to make you a crown, and so I have. Do you like it?”

“Of course I like it,” Bella laughed, reaching up to touch the soft petals. “You knew I would.”

Before he could answer, they were interrupted by a clamor from the hallway, and the thud of running footsteps outside the room. “Hide me! Hide me, Fíli!” Kíli shouted as he barreled through the door, slamming it behind him. “Bell! You look pretty!”

“Weren’t you supposed to be watching Uncle?” Fíli asked, taking his brother by the shoulders and brushing off his blue doublet, which Bella noticed was a copy of Fíli’s own. Someone had also wrestled him into a silver coronet, and two slim braids hung from his temples.

“Watch my hair, Fíli!” Kíli complained, batting at his hands. “Ma threatened me with dismemberment if I mussed it! And Thorin threw me out after I hid his boots.” He winked at Bella. “I told him he should embrace your hobbit customs, today of all days! He didn’t agree.”

“You’re lucky he’s been in a good mood,” Fíli said dryly. “I’m surprised he didn’t take your head. Come on now, it’s time to go.”

“You call that a good mood? I would rather he were dour.” Kíli grinned, bouncing a bit in his excitement. “You oughtn’t marry him, Bell, he doesn’t deserve it,” he said, even as he offered her his arm.

“I have done so many things I oughtn’t, since the day you all came knocking at my hobbit-hole,” Bella smiled, linking her other arm with Fíli’s as they stepped through the door. “I don’t intend to stop now.”

***