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The Mediator

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"An adventure?" Billa Baggins, a respectable genteel hobbit of the Shire, shivered and tried to convince herself it was a shudder. "No, no thank you. I have responsibilities here, you see. I'm the Shire's official mediator, and there's a thorny situation with the Cottons and Proudfoots - excuse me, Proudfeet - that I really need to sort out before it comes to a head. But do feel free to come to tea if you like, and tell me all about your adventures. I'm sure it would be a grand tale."

Gathering her embroidery, Billa stood and curtseyed before fleeing into her house, leaning against the door after closing it firmly behind her. Part of her wanted to open the door again, to chase after Gandalf and to be her mother's daughter, but she couldn't, not without knowing herself to be a disappointment to her father. She'd disappointed him enough when he'd been alive.

"Silly girl," she whispered to herself. "Adventures are for people who don't have people to take care of." Pressing her hands over her face helped to gather up her badly tattered composure and she let out a deep breath before moving to her writing desk and starting on the stack of correspondence. The crop reports were coming in, and there were two disputes already on who was allowed to hire which hands and three over which wedding would be held on which day. Some days, it was enough to make her wish she'd let Lobelia win in the dispute over who would become the official mediator. Worse, she had the sneaking suspicion that Lobelia had won, and was laughing up her sleeve at having tricked Billa into taking on all the responsibility of official meddling without any of the fun that came from meddling solely where you wanted to.

The rest of the day passed as her days usually did, except that she couldn't stop thinking of the wizard and his offer. She set off on her morning rounds the next day with it still much on her mind, although she deflected questions about her visitor with automatic skill. The day Bungo Baggins's daughter was tripped up by gossip from a dizzy young Chubb girl would be the day they rolled her to her grave. A visit from an old friend of the family would never be less than respectable, no matter how eccentric the guest might be. The rules of hospitality were very clear about that.

People would still talk, of course, but that was the way of things. And if the rules were contradictory and sometimes it felt like she would be smothered under the weight of them, well, at least she knew them all and could usually find a way to work them to her advantage.

The scratch on her freshly painted door made her stamp her foot in irritation before going inside, but cooking herself a nice dinner helped make her feel calm again. Someone would've seen who did it, and she could start a nice long brangle about it if the perpetrator refused to fix it. Maybe this time she'd have it painted a deeper shade; she'd have to consider it at some length.

The knock on her door was an unpleasant surprise, and the dwarf that invaded her home was frankly terrifying, but by the third set of invaders her fear had given way wholly to indignation. Gandalf's arrival did not help, and then being called a grocer! It was outside of enough, but Gandalf inclined his head to the bookstand where the huge tome of rules was set up, to be actively consulted and added to as part of her mediator duties, and she knew she was beaten. However eccentric, her guests had to be catered to.

The next morning seemed again just like any other morning, except there was a sense of emptiness to her home that hadn't been there before. Or, she thought, looking up at the portrait of her parents together that she kept in her bedroom, it would probably be more accurate to say that she successfully avoided thinking of the emptiness that she filled with the cares and tribulations of all the hobbits in the Shire, and even they weren't enough.

"No sense borrowing trouble." It was one of her father's favorite sayings, and certainly a dragon was a lot of trouble to borrow. Sitting at her vanity table to fix her hair before going on her morning rounds, she was struck by the way she looked, almost a stranger to herself in some way she couldn't define. Her face, always round, looked somehow undefined, her eyes lost. The striped dress with its full skirts looked fussy rather than neat, and the braids she always wore looked clumsy, especially when compared to the ones some of the dwarves had sported.

Trying to shake off her strange mood, she touched the picture frame as she always did and packed her basket full of the treats and tonics she usually brought with her, since you could never tell what someone would need. Except that she could, because it was always the same in the Shire, always, except when her mother would take her out walking and her father would fret until his girls were safely home.

She stopped dead when she saw the contract, sitting plainly on her desk and directly in front of the portrait of her mother. A note was on top, folded into a pyramid, with a single line in spiky writing: You are exactly like the woman that your father loved.

"No, I'm not," she said, burying her face in her hands. She was losing the part of herself that was her mother, and that's what had bothered her when looking in the mirror. Her mother had always been full of scorn for the "old biddies with nothing better to think of than other people's business." When had she become one of them?

Quickly, before she could think twice about it, she pulled her father's coat and her mother's travel pack out of the front closet and pulled them on, hastily signing the contract and not even caring that she'd accidentally spilled ink all over the rule book. Her shawl was under her coat and half-dragging on the ground, pack bouncing against her back, basket in one hand and umbrella in the other as she ran frantically, calling out to old Gamgee to lock her door and look after the place while she was out.

By the time she'd caught up to them she was so out of breath that she had to bend over and rest her hands on her knees while she caught her breath, vaguely waving the contract in the air when someone started talking. She managed to look up when it was taken from her, and was still out of breath as the leader looked down on her, tall as the mountain they were going to from the seat on his pony. She wasn't sure what to think of the way he looked at her, but it made her straighten her back and look back with all the dignity and pride that a Baggins should.

"Get Mister Baggins a pony." With that she was dismissed, unworthy of even being addressed, and if she hadn't been panicking at the thought of being forced onto one of the nasty beasts, she thought she could have hated him at that moment. No one would listen to her and shortly she found herself jammed into a saddle, astride no less, with her skirts a disordered mess that exposed the frilly lace edges of her pantaloons despite her best efforts at modesty.

Finally she heaved a sigh and gave up fussing with the attempt to fix the situation. "What can't be cured must be endured."

"Your father was very wise," Gandalf said as he shifted his horse to ride beside her. "And he loved your mother very much. He'd never had the slightest interest in any of the other hobbit girls, just the wild daughter of Old Took."

The reminder made Billa feel a bit better, and she tried to work out a way to sit that didn't have the pony's head knocking into her nose or the cauldron tied on behind the saddle bumping into her back. "Gandalf, I know you said they don't distinguish--"

"Nori, pay up!" She turned to see a small pouch of money flying through the air, followed by several others. She noticed that their leader neither caught nor threw any money, but Gandalf caught a larger one than most as he explained why.

"Really? Gambling? Father was right, you are a reprobate." She sat up and then promptly sneezed, digging through her basket for a handkerchief. Not finding one, she was at the point of asking them to turn back when the friendly one with the hat looked back at her with twinkling eyes and she shut her mouth again. Surely they would have to stop soon for a meal, and she could ask discreetly then.

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They showed no indication of stopping, even when the sun showed it was clearly past noon, and Billa resorted to pulling out one of the meat pasties she had packed to bring to Alaria Brambleshins, who had been feeling poorly and needed some help around the house. She'd just sunk her teeth into it when someone cried out, "Oi! The burglar brought food!"

"I'm sorry, it's just that we skipped second breakfast and elevensies, and it didn't seem as if we were going to stop for lunch." She looked around guiltily, aware that she'd committed a faux pas by eating without offering a share to everyone. "Would anyone else like some?"

All the dwarves seemed to charge her at once and she handed over her basket to the first one that reached her, hoping they'd be careful with the bottles of herbs that she kept there. Eventually the basket reached the elderly dwarf with the ear trumpet and he grunted as he looked through it, not finding even a crumb of food. He did start muttering the names of the herbs, or at least as much of a mutter as a deaf dwarf was capable of. "Are you a healer then, laddie?"

"Oh, no, nothing of the sort," Billa said, wondering once again whether it wouldn't be more proper to explain to the dwarves about pronouns rather than continuing to accept Gandalf's explanation that the dwarves didn't distinguish between the sexes and simply referred to everyone as 'he.' "Only some basic first aid that I picked up here and there. Even a little bit of usefulness is better than nothing."

He then proceeded to quiz her on every herb in her basket, his lips twitching at several when she explained they were for cooking rather than healing. "You're running low on valerian and lobelia. Where do you get more?"

"My garden, usually," she said. "Although there's an apothecary in Bree that I've visited before, when I had business there."

"Thorin! We'll be stopping in Bree." Ignoring the irritated look that was all the reply his peremptory declaration he received, the dwarf turned back to her and said, "Now then, you've got entirely the wrong idea of several of these and it's as well you don't know enough about proper drying and storage to have kept the full potency of the plants or you'd have killed someone long since."

Billa hunched down, feeling heartily ashamed, but anything she would've said was unnecessary as the dwarf continued. "I don't take on apprentices as a rule, but since you want to be useful I'll at least get you enough knowledge not to be dangerous."

As he started declaiming on the properties of the herbs she carried - and on the foolishness of practicing medicine without proper training and knowledge - Billa shot a look at Gandalf to see if rescue was imminent. It was not.

The closer they drew to Bree, the more nervous Billa became, looking around anxiously to make sure no one had seen her. Being in the company of men without a visible chaperone would be enough to completely destroy her reputation, let alone the fact that they weren't even hobbits. Dwalin - she was unsure of some of their names, but not his - stopped his pony and barked, "Is there a threat near, halfling?"

"I think it would be best if we entered town separately," she said, biting her lip. "We can meet again at the old oak on the other side, just by the road. Hardly anyone travels that way, certainly no one that anyone would listen to."

Thorin, also unmistakable for anyone other than himself, turned to face her with eyes blazing. "You would send us into an ambush, burglar?"

"No, you see, I'm not a burglar, but that's exactly the danger!" Sliding off her pony was difficult, but less so than maintaining her feet once she'd touched the ground. "My reputation would already be in tatters just for riding into town, let alone in the company of dwarves - and you must admit, none of you look very respectable at all - and then you'd call me a burglar and polite society would never... It would be unthinkable."

"You signed a contract, burglar. Any danger we face, we face together." Dismounting from his own pony with an easy grace she could only envy, he stood far too close and glared down at her. "And if you think dwarves are unworthy of respect, I would ask you to keep such sentiments to yourself."

"What? No, that wasn't what I mean at all!" He'd started walking again, leading his pony and hers with the reins held easily in one hand, the other free and resting on the hilt of his sword. She had little choice but to scurry after him. "No, you see, respectability is... It's different, it's not the same thing as whether you respect someone!"

He grunted, continuing on, and Billa looked around helplessly only to meet with scowls from all sides. "Surely you don't all think..."

It was quite clear they did, and she barely resisted the urge to stamp her foot. "Bother and confusticate hard-headed dwarves." With her nose firmly in the air, she marched down the road into Bree, ignoring the whispers that started as soon as she was spotted by the city hobbits. She didn't slow or stop until she'd reached the inn, where she went straight to the landlord. "I'll need a room to freshen up and a small meal sent to the room."

Looking behind her, the man said, "I won't have dwarves in here, little one. Their attitude to paying isn't always what it should be."

"You shall be paid," Thorin rumbled, his hand on his sword. "We will all require a meal, and provisions for the road." The landlord puffed himself up and Thorin looked completely unyielding, and Billa had had enough.

Drawing herself up to her full height, she stepped between them and said, "I am Billa Baggins of Bag End, mediator of the Shire, and you may put all of the expenses for my party on my account - I trust that will be satisfactory?"

Without waiting for an answer, she swept away and went directly to the room she always took when she stayed in the town, a tiny cubby that nonetheless had pretty sprigged roses on the wallpaper and a delicate china basin on a table next to a hobbit-sized mirror. She took off her hat and coat gratefully, her muddy shawl slithering to the floor.

"Excuse me, miss." Billa looked up with a smile as the inn's hobbit serving girl slipped in with a small smile and a nervous curtsey. "Your dwarves, miss, they're in the taproom drinking up a storm."

"Oh, let them," Billa said as she poured out some of the hot water the girl had brought and washed her face and hands. "Maybe they'll all get roaring drunk and we'll spend one more night in civilization before we head out on our adventure."

Her eyes wide, the girl - Tansy, that was her name - said, "It's true then, miss, that you're traveling with that group of, of..."

"Dwarves," Billa said with a calculated sigh, glancing at Tansy from the corner of her eye as she sat down to eat the meal she'd brought up. "Yes, it's a sad business, but my mother had promised her wizard friend to accompany them on this journey, and now I must fulfill her promise."

"As a proper daughter should," Tansy said, her eyes gleaming. "But, miss, all alone with all those men!"

Waving a hand, Billa said, "My mother's friend is quite adequate as a chaperone."

Tansy looked doubtful, as she should have, but the girl was willing to listen and so at least Billa's version of events would be spread far and wide as the girl bragged of her contact with the mediator. With a smile, Billa gestured for her to sit down; despite the girl's token protestations, she'd brought up two teacups knowing that Billa always took the time to chat with her.

At length, when a tap came at the door, Tansy leapt to her feet and hurried to gather up the remains of their tea. "I'd better be getting on, miss."

"I have some shopping to do, but I'll be back afterward and I want to hear more of your news, especially anything you can tell me about the east."

"Yes, miss." With a quick curtsey Tansy stepped out, revealing Oin standing outside the door. She edged around him, looking back to see if he'd actually enter the room, and Billa hurried to meet him outside.

"Come on, lad, that's enough lollygagging. Time to go to that apothecary."

Putting her hat back on, Billa took up her umbrella and said, "That will be one of our stops, yes."

The shopping trip was highly productive, even if Billa was certain that several of the shopkeepers were scandalized beyond reason, and by the time she returned to the inn there was a trail of errand boys behind her, carrying her purchases. It had the air of a parade, leading many of the Men watching to laugh and point, but if she was going to do this thing then Billa was determined to do it well.


Holding up her hand to cut Thorin off as he stood in front of the inn, radiating suspicion and hostility, Billa said, "I had business to conduct, Mister Oakenshield, and supplies to acquire."

"We don't need your charity," he said contemptuously. "And we cannot afford to be burdened with frivolous luxuries."

Tartly, she said, "If food is a frivolity, then your company certainly indulged in a lot of it, at my expense."

"You will be repaid," he said tightly, his arms folded in front of him.

"Of course," she said breezily, aware of their enrapt audience. "And at any rate, fulfilling a promise to my mother is worth any expense."

This broke through his glare as he looked at her in confusion and she took advantage, stepping past him and into the inn to direct the errand boys to deliver their packages to the table where the majority of the dwarves still sat. Each was sent on his way with a small coin, enough to be generous but not seem as if she was indulging in bribery. Having done as much as she could to ensure her story was as widely spread as possible, Billa nodded to Tansy and retired to her room to repack her mother's knapsack with the necessities she'd need with her and finally write the letter to Lobelia that she knew had to be sent.

When they set out again the next morning, Billa was once again placed on the pony, but this time the only thing flashed to anyone were the thick pantaloons she'd bought to wear under her dress, with many small pockets now sewn into the full skirt.

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The brief feeling of self-satisfaction she'd had at her own cleverness in preparing properly for the journey lasted a disappointingly brief time before she was once again cursing all horses, dwarves, and every single Took that ever passed down the urge to ever set foot outside one's front door. Oin seemed determined to name off every injury that was possible to receive, all the possible complications, and every possible treatment for them, and to quiz her on them. Bofur kept interrupting with jokes, which was welcome, although they often turned lewd, which was not. Myrtle was determined to make Billa's hipbones rise up through her ribs, and looked likely to succeed. Most worrisome of all were Thorin and Gandalf, locked in a heated conversation at the front of the group and frequently glancing back at her.

By the time they stopped for the night Billa was ready to collapse, but she was ordered to gather firewood and she had no real choice about it, not with everyone else also busy at various tasks. At least there was a meal after, and some quiet time when she could pull out her spare skirt and petticoat and start adding pockets. Soon enough a gambeson was dropped in front of her, along with a torn shirt.

"You could use tha' to make me some pockets," Dwalin said, his thick brogue just as rough and intimidating as it had been when he'd first made his way into her house. "And in exchange I'll tan the furs from the rabbits to make you a cushion for your saddle."

"Er... Of course, I'd be happy to help." Even if it hadn't been a request so much as an order. At least it gave her something to do to keep her hands busy, even if she might have wished for the garments to smell fresher.

They next day passed much the same way, and the next, although after she'd handed him back his gambeson with pockets made of her own scrap fabric and his mended shirt, she'd started being handed more clothes to mend. She drew the line, though, when Kili attempted to hand her what was unmistakably smallclothes, putting up such a fuss that no one handed her any mending at all for a day afterward.

Encountering the trolls was the most horrific experience of her entire life and she had a moment, directly after being used as the world's most abused hanky, that she genuinely wished to have died before such a thing had happened. Trying to scurry away hadn't helped, and neither did the looks she got from the others afterward, accompanied by a great deal of muttering about parasites and nothing being wrong with a masculine musk, at least if you weren't a dainty little dandy. Billa didn't bother to hide the fact that she was rolling her eyes.

Poor Myrtle wanted nothing to do with Billa when they finally gathered the ponies back up, and Billa didn't blame her. That some of the others had actually gone hunting for the troll hoard and spent hours in a cave that reeked of troll was beyond her comprehension, as was the thought that she might have to use the sword Gandalf had given her just after the first time he'd walked through the cave.

Everyone who wasn't digging in the cave was engaged in packing up the camp, but Billa refused to follow their lead. Instead she tethered Myrtle and sat down to start removing items from her pockets and into a saddlebag, starting with the small oiled silk bags that the apothecary had provided for transporting the herbs.

"What are you doing?" Dwalin was the one who asked when he came to check in on the progress, but she could tell the others wondered as well and that Thorin was seething.

"I am not going anywhere until I'm clean," Billa said firmly, trying not to tremble at the way the tattooed dwarf loomed over her. "If that means you all ride on ahead and I catch up, fine."

With a snort, Thorin said, "We've no time to be wasting on your delicate sensibilities, Master Baggins. We've lost enough of it as it is, thanks to you and my bumbling nephews."

"Oh, they're your-- Well, that explains the resemblance." Shaking off the distraction, she said, "How much more time would we lose with mounts rattled by the smell of troll? Not to mention that not one of us slept a wink last night."

"The lad brings up a fair point," Balin said, standing behind her and waving a hand in front of his nose. "I can't really stand the smell of him, I can't imagine the ponies would."

Dwalin looked at his brother with an air of injured feelings, but Billa just went back to making sure all of her pockets were emptied before she picked up the bag with her spare clothes. "There's a stream on one of my maps that should be just over the hill; it wouldn't really be out of the way."

With a look that showed how unhappy he was with the concept, Thorin nodded. "Very well. We'll stay camped here for half a day, long enough to get some rest and eat something."

"Thank you!" Billa's beaming smile seemed to catch him by surprise, but she didn't stay to see if he said anything further, picking up her skirts to run in the direction her map had shown. The sound of water was soon lifting her spirits, and even the fact that it was a good deal bigger than she expected, with a waterfall and a rushing current, wasn't enough to stop her from dropping her bag and wading in fully dressed.

Her skirt and petticoat threatened to sink her almost immediately and she pulled at the strings holding them around her waist, letting the cloth billow and float around her as she dove down to escape them, letting the pull of her body through the water draw her free and then doubling back to make sure they weren't pulled any farther away. She was weighting them down with rocks so the current could make a start on washing them while she took care of her hair first when she heard a wild whoop from the edge of the woods.

Gripping the rock she'd been about to put down, Billa turned to face whatever was coming and instantly regretted it, as she saw rather more than she had ever intended to of Kili and Fili. Completely naked and unashamed, they jumped into the water with such enormous splashes that she was bowled over, and had to fight to find her feet again and come up sputtering for air.

"Hey, Billa! Why're you still dressed?" The tug at her sleeve was met with a sharp smack to Kili's hand, and she folded her arms in front of her chest in a vain attempt at modesty.

Swimming around her, Fili said, "Thanks for this - we'd all have gone on, but it's nice to get a chance to cool off."

"Get out!" Her shriek was loud enough to scare several birds out of the trees, and the brothers looked at each other in confusion. "How dare you?"

Several of the other dwarves ran up, weapons drawn and in various stages of nudity. Billa shrieked again and covered her eyes, but not fast enough to avoid the permanently scarring image of Oin in all of his hairy nakedness. "What's wrong, lad? Are there snakes?"

Yes, she thought hysterically. And they should all be hidden by trousers!

"I'm afraid I should have explained." Gandalf sounded out of breath, but she didn't dare uncover her eyes to look in his direction. If she ended up seeing him naked, she'd have no choice but to gouge out her own eyes. "Hobbits, you see, are very modest people. It's unthinkable to be seen unclothed by any except your husband or wife."

Defensively, Kili said, "But he's still dressed, look - breeches and a shirt and everything except the big puffy bits that look like a skirt."

"Aye, but you're not," Balin said. "Stands to reason it's as shocking to see someone as to be seen."

She felt a rush of affection for the old scribe and nodded vigorously. "It's especially distressing with the opp--"

"In any case, I think, since the burglar was here first, Billa should be allowed to finish up before the rest of you join in," Gandalf said, cutting her off. She was definitely going to have to make time to talk to him about the way he kept obscuring her gender - were the dwarves actually offended by references to females? "Or perhaps the rest of you can go a bit further downstream, out of sight but still within hearing distance if anything goes wrong."

Amidst a general grumbling, and with several apologies from Fili and Kili for distressing her, the dwarves left her in peace, moving downstream and calling back until they confirmed that she wouldn't see them. Hurriedly, she ran to her pack and grabbed the soap before diving back into the water, making sure it was up to her chin before she dared remove the rest of her clothes and start scrubbing the filth from her skin and hair.

The clothes took longer to deal with, and she was still scrubbing the skirt when she looked up to see Thorin come out of the woods, although thankfully still dressed. "I thought you'd be done."

"Almost," she said, her voice a bit squeakier than she'd ever heard it. "The others are a bit further downstream."

"Aye, but I've no wish to be half-drowned by my nephews while bathing," he said. "I can wait for you to be done, and promise not to look upon you in the meantime."

It was immensely awkward, but Gandalf wasn't there and she didn't quite dare order him off without the full might of anger coursing through her. "Of course. I just need to wring out my clothes and get dressed. If you could perhaps turn your back?"

He rolled his eyes but did as she asked, and she hurried to drag her clothes over to a boulder on the shore where she could retrieve them once she was dressed. "Just... Just another few moments, please."

"As you wish," he said, clearly impatient but willing to indulge her. He must really have wanted to avoid his nephews and their games, although she couldn't wholly blame him. It would be hard to maintain the majestic and stoic facade when looking like a half-drowned terrier.

"I can leave the soap for you, if you'd like," she said as she scrambled into her spare set of clothes. "It turns out that it works a treat to take troll fluids out of cloth."

Shaking his head he said, "I thank you, but it would take too long for the clothes to dry, and I don't care to ride through the rest of the day in damp trousers."

"Don't you have..." She trailed off at the look on his face, remembering the innkeeper's talk about dwarves who couldn't pay, and the gossip about half-starved dwarves wandering through Bree and offering to do any paying work to earn a bite to eat on their way to the Blue Mountains. "Well, they can always be washed the next time we stop somewhere with water nearby."

"I thank you for your offer," he said, and though she looked at him suspiciously, she couldn't tell if he was smiling. She was not adding company launderess to her list of duties, though, no matter what he thought she'd offered.

Deciding to leave the skirt off for the moment, since she would still be wringing out the cloth and it made no sense to have both skirts wet, she said, "Of course, if we stopped at a proper town, I could buy some cloth and make a spare outfit for you, and it would at least be a change from mending."

"The others take advantage of your generosity," he said, and she heard his sword belt hit the ground. "I would hesitate to do the same."

"I offered," she said, hurrying to start on wringing out her voluminous petticoat. "Count it as a fee for my little sword if you must."

Nodding as he toed off his boots, he said, "It would be a fair trade, if the cloth were not too dear. Are you finished yet, burglar? The day goes by quickly."

"Oh dear. No, but I can turn my back until you're in the water and then finish up." Billa put words to action, covering her face with her hands and blushing as he laughed. "Is it safe?"

"Almost." She could hear the faint sounds of water splashing and risked a peek between her fingers, getting an eyeful of his naked back before closing her hands again. She was blushing fiercely, and she knew it, but she couldn't help thinking that he wasn't as hairy as she would've thought he'd be, and his form overall was... Well, it was pleasing to look at.

Wanting nothing more than to be gone from his vicinity, Billa hurriedly twisted the skirt, getting it full of wrinkles but removing a fair amount of water from it, and then doing the same with the rest of the clothes. They weren't dry by any stretch of the imagination, but they were at least not sopping anymore.

"Why do you wear those big things?" She glanced over and saw him rising out of the water, his bare shoulders visible and his wet hair pulled back. "They're unnecessary."

"It's.. It's indecent not to!" Grabbing her clothes and her pack, she fled for the campsite, trying to ignore the laughter she was leaving behind her.

At least it proved the dwarven king could laugh.

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The ponies were nowhere to be seen when she reached the camp again and she whimpered before tying her skirt on, stuffing the petticoat back in her bag but distributing the necessary items back amongst her pockets. She'd have to go look for the ponies, or somehow she was certain that Thorin would find a way to blame her for their loss.

At the last moment, she remembered to thread the sheath of her new sword through a sash and tie it around her waist, still hoping she'd never have an occasion to use us it. Still, it wouldn't do to leave it lying around and forget it; she'd never hear the end of it from the others, given how they twitted Fili on occasion for having left his dagger in an orc once, years ago.

The pony tracks were fairly easy to find, but then she was almost run down by a strange man riding in a sleigh made of twigs and pulled by what looked like rabbits, and before she could even think of what that might mean, there was a howling and she was running desperately from the biggest wolf she had ever seen in her life. She could feel the heat of its breath behind her and she fell to the ground, her arms covering her head and all she could think of was the Fell Winter and her mother falling down and the screams while blood splashed the snow.

"Get up!" The roar was loud, too loud, but it was blessedly clear, spoken in Westron and not the baying of a wolf. It was enough to bring her to the present and she stood shakily. Thorin was still pulling on his clothes, switching his sword from hand to hand as he put his shirt on over the spatters of blood from the hideous wolf-like thing. "What kind of coward hides his face rather than draw his sword?"

Billa couldn't argue with that, couldn't even think, because the creature was lying dead and all she wanted was to cry and cry. Gandalf was demanding to know who else Thorin had told about his quest, but she could've told them that most of Bree knew they had come this way, and the Rangers, even if they didn't know why. It didn't matter, because they could hear more howls and then they were running, Billa's pack bouncing painfully against her back as she tried not to fall or get in anyone's way.

She felt something catch her skirts and screamed, sure it would be the end of her, but then instead she was lifted up, avoiding a hole she'd been about to step into and she looked to see Bofur smiling grimly as he let her go again. Picking up her skirts so they wouldn't get in her way, she ran until it felt like her heart would burst and then ran more, until they were cornered next to a rock and Gandalf disappeared.

"To arms! The wizard has abandoned us!" Billa shook like a leaf as she was thrust back by Dwalin before he pulled out his massive battle axes, but she pulled her sword out anyway.

"Get under cover, lad, there's nothing you can do with that," Bofur shouted, but she shook her head even as she had to use both hands to keep the sword point from dipping to the ground.

Her voice high and shaky, she said, "I can give a wolf a bellyache if it eats me."

It amazed her that they could laugh at such a time, but laugh they did, even as Gandalf poked his head out from the rocks. "This way, you fools!"

They were almost to the crevice when the ugliest creature Billa had seen in her life peered over the rock, riding another of those things that looked like wolves, magnified and twisted into something from her worst nightmares. She couldn't scream as Kili shot it, making it tumble down from the boulders above them; she was too terrified even to breathe. It took a hard shove to make her fall down to where the others were, and she dropped her sword on the way down.

Ori handed it back to her without a word, even though she could see a shallow cut along his arm, and she shoved it back into the scabbard with no intention of ever taking it out again. Thorin was shouting, but since it wasn't at her she just floated forward, because surely if she just kept walking she would get away from all that horror, maybe even wake up safe and sound in her bed at Bag End, just like she had after her mother had killed the wolves.

She only stopped when she saw Rivendell, just as beautiful as her mother had described it and maybe more. Tears welled in her eyes as she wondered if her mother had stood exactly where she was, and if she would have been happy that her daughter was finally sharing her love for this serene and magnificent sight. Looking around at her companions to share the moment, she saw that they were looking at the sight in disgust, and that in at least one case, that disgust was directed at her as well.

"But--" She didn't know what she was protesting or even what she meant to say, but it was irrelevant as Thorin turned away, following Gandalf down the path to enter the city.

They reached it just as a party of mounted elves rode in, a horn blowing gaily as they dismounted, looking fluid and perfect and every bit as magnificent as her mother had said they were. The one who had been in the lead, with a circlet on his brow and a sheathed sword in his hand, looked their way and took a step forward. "Belladona Took?"

Gandalf said something in elvish and Elrond shook his head. "Of course, I forget the years passing by. I welcome the child of Belladona Baggins in her name, and the grandson of Thror in the name of his own illustrious and beloved ancestors."

"We accept," Billa said quickly, kicking the back of Thorin's ankle as he muttered something that she was sure was uncomplimentary. Ignoring the way his glare turned to her, she smiled and said, "Is there by any chance a healer available? At least one of us is injured, and all of us are tired and hungry."

This time it was Elrond who spoke in Elvish, and Billa was beginning to find herself unimpressed with his manners. Gandalf laughed and said, "Indeed, Billa is the mediator for the Shire, a position of immense responsibility."

Definitely lacking in manners, to talk about her in a way she couldn't understand what was said. The smile faded from Billa's face, even though they were shortly being led to rooms with proper bathing chambers and beds, great big soft things with featherbeds you could drown in. Billa was about to sink into hers when there was a perfunctory knock and then her room was full of dwarves.

What seemed an endless horde resolved into three - Dori with her saddlebag, which prompted her to give him an enormous hug on the spot; Kili with word from Thorin that he requested her presence as soon as convenient, which probably meant that he'd roared at his nephew to fetch the burglar, and Balin, who was waiting patiently for her undivided attention. Once he had it, he said, "Your sword training will start immediately. Bring the elvish letter opener you got from the troll hoard and follow me."

"But..." She looked longingly at the bed and then apprehensively at Kili.

"Come along, laddie, no time to waste. If I taught Thorin, I should be up to the challenge of instructing you, no matter how old I've gotten." With that he walked out, and there was little choice except to follow him.

Out in a courtyard, there was enough space to suit him and he said, "Right. Dance."

"Excuse me?"

"Dance. Any way you know how will be fine - I just need to see you move." Billa looked at him askance and he clucked his tongue. "Now, don't be shy. I can hum, or find someone to play - I think Bofur has his flute, or there'd be a harp here somewhere that Thorin could play."

Desperate to avoid being seen making a fool of herself by any more people than necessary, Billa said, "No, no, that won't be necessary - any dance?"

Balin nodded and she sighed before starting to hum one of the popular country dances, clapping to establish the beat before starting to move through the steps. It was odd without a partner, and probably indecent, but if she closed her eyes it was also so normal that she started moving faster as Balin increased the speed of the beat. It was like being back in the kitchen with her mother, dancing around as her father smoked his pipe and watched them indulgently.

She finally stopped when the beat did, flushed and smiling, only to have the smile fall away at hearing a polite round of applause. Her eyes flew open to see several elves, smirking as they looked her over. She sidled over to stand behind Balin and he patted her shoulder. "You've got a good natural rhythm, lad. Once you know how to hold your sword, you'll be able to wield it competently."

The elves said something in their language and laughed, prompting a glare from Billa. "That's very rude."

"So fierce for one so small!" An elf patted her on the head and smiled down. "You should stay with us, even after your companions move on. You'd be welcome here."

From the doorway, Thorin said icily, "I believe I called for my hireling to attend me some time ago."

"Hireling?" Billa scowled. First the elves were disappointing, even if their city wasn't, and now Thorin was basically calling her a servant? "Hireling?"

"Contracted specialist," Balin said soothingly. "Come along, Billa, come along. We can do some planning in your room, away from all these distractions."

Sweeping past Thorin grandly, her nose in the air, lasted just long enough for her to pass him and for him to grab a handful of the back of her skirt. "Burglar, I would speak to you."

"Well, I don't want to speak to you!" Yanking at her skirt was useless, and she crossed her arms. "I swear, I don't know whose manners are worse, yours or the elves!"

"The dwarf, definitely," called out the elf that had patted her on the head. Billa and Thorin turned simultaneously towards him, prompting another round of laughter. "Come, let us be peaceful! Dinner will be served soon, and there will be music and merriment enough to cry peace regardless of manners."

Billa felt herself softening, willing to accept it as an apology, but Thorin looked even more disgusted and dropped his hold on her skirt as if it was something filthy. "Obviously I must wait to speak with you until after you've finished cavorting with these... elves."

Compared to Thorin Oakenshield, Billa was a complete non-starter in terms of sweeping grandly out of a room. A small, nasty part of her wondered if he'd practiced it. Balin was turning his eyes to the heavens, and Billa quite understood the impulse. "I've never cavorted in my life," she called after him, although she was fairly sure he hadn't heard her.

"That's enough of that," Balin said. "Time to put you through some more paces, just to get an idea of what we're working with."

They worked in her room, so at least they were without an audience when Billa dropped her sword, twice, and managed to swing it in such a way as to slice through one of the bedposts. Balin patted her on the shoulder at that and told her to freshen up for dinner. "We'll try again tomorrow, if there's time."

Despite the exhaustion she felt, Billa was feeling good about the day's exertion as she went down to dinner. She'd actually practiced with a sword, and met elves and dwarves, and she'd had a lovely hot bath before slipping into the softest robes she'd ever felt, even if they puddled around her feet and strained just a touch at the hips. She stopped short when she heard Balin half-shouting, "Never seen such a numpty in my life. We'll be lucky if the boy doesn't kill one of us trying to pull his sword out, let alone swinging it."

"Aye, well, just don't let him treat you after he maims you," Oin said. "He'll put spiderwebs and ale on it instead of bandaging it properly."

The two of them laughed and Billa backed away silently, feeling sick with shame as she ran back to her room. She stopped halfway there, though, because it seemed like the dwarves would come find her for whatever reason they felt like at the time and a closed door was not the solid obstacle for them that it should have been. The thought of seeing any of them was enough to crack her composure and she turned away from the direction of the guest quarters, not feeling terribly choosy about her destination as long as it was far away from any and all dwarves.

Chapter Text

"Good evening." She'd been wandering the halls of Rivendell for some time, so tired that she couldn't feel the slightest urge to sleep but too stubborn to turn around and take a chance on encountering anyone. The quiet voice coming out of the darkness almost made her jump out of her skin, although at least the dwarf that had somehow found her wasn't one of the awful ones. Then again, she'd thought Oin and Balin at least partially accepted her, so perhaps her judgment on that was questionable.

"Good evening, Mister Nori," she said, and then blushed when he winced. "I'm sorry, Mister Dori, I'm still getting the names mixed up sometimes."

Kindly, he said, "You'll sort us out soon enough, I'm sure. You're a bright lad, Ori tells me."

"More like a useless numpty," she muttered, still feeling hurt at being judged and found wanting.

Patting the bench beside him, he said, "About some things, perhaps, but so are all of us."

With a sigh, she sat down beside him and looked out at a garden terrace overlooking a small waterfall. "Do you know, I could probably tell you most of the plants in this garden? But apparently all I could do with them is poison people."

"Certainly if you give a dwarf large amounts of verbena," Dori said.

"But verbena - I've had lemon verbena tea plenty of times! And it adds a lovely flavor to the ice lollys the fauntlings enjoy in the summer!"

Dori nodded sagely. "I thought as much. You see, if I were to drink your tea, I would become giddy and, after enough of it, I wouldn't be able to breathe."

Crestfallen, Billa said, "It never even occurred to me that plants might have different effects on the different races."

"Or to Oin, either, so don't feel too downhearted." He patted her hand kindly and said, "As for being useless, think on this - what use do you think a common old merchant like me is to Mister High-and-Mighty Balin? He wouldn't have the time of day for me if he had the option."

"Surely not! Why, you're by far the strongest member of the company - even Mister Dwalin couldn't help when Bunty cast a shoe, but you practically picked up the pony so it wouldn't break its leg!"

With a smile, Dori said, "So I did, but didn't you come up with the cunning pockets which we all now have? And haven't you kept the company from wandering around with holes in our clothes?"

"Mending," she said with a grimace. "I seem to have gone further than any hobbit in recorded history, except for my mother, only to do the same as I'd do by the fire at home."

"But you're doing it for us," he said, his eyes twinkling. "And I'm sure you'll find other ways to be of use. You did well enough with those trolls, didn't you?"

She was starting to feel a little better, but still said, "Gandalf saved us, not me."

"True enough, true enough, but you gave him time to do so." She couldn't resist returning his coaxing smile with a hesitant one of her own, and he sighed happily. "Stick with it, my dear. I stand to make a packet if you make it through to end with us."

"Why on earth would you make that wager? I'm not all that sure I would have that much faith in my abilities."

Shrugging, Dori said, "The odds were very tempting, very tempting indeed, and you remind me of myself when I was younger. Once I got my feet under me, I never let anything stop me from doing as I meant to."

"I can only hope to be worthy of the compliment." She smiled again, grateful to feel like she really did have at least one genuine friend in the dwarven company.

They sat in a comfortable silence for a few moments, until finally Dori said, "I think this will do nicely. I haven't seen a single leaf eater for more than an hour that I've been watching."

"Do for what?" Billa looked around the lovely terrace, wondering what distinguished it in any way from several she had passed.

"We'll make camp here," Dori said. "If they won't feed us properly, Bombur can make himself useful and go back to doing our cooking."

With a small laugh, Billa said, "They didn't feed you?"

"Oh, they fed us," Dori said. "If you call it eating to have grass and ferns on your plate."

"That doesn't sound like a very dwarven meal," she said, her eyes dancing. "Nothing to spill on your beard at all."

Holding up a finger, Dori said, "No fussing about the quaffing, now. It's an important tradition, sloshing the beer together to show you haven't poisoned each other, and drinking deeply to show that you trust the server."

"How..." Barbaric. "Fascinating."

Dori gave her a look that showed he wasn't fooled, but patted her knee. "Go fetch Ori from the library, if you please. And tell any of the rest of us that you see to meet down here."

The task would have been easier if Billa had the faintest idea where the library was, but at least in searching for it she found the kitchen. There was a girl willing to carry a message to the dwarves, and Billa sat down for what she hoped would be a decent cup of tea and a comfortable chat.

It wasn't until after three cups of tea and an uncountable number of biscuits and cakes that one of the elf girls that had sat down with her confessed amidst giggles that they had deliberately not served the dwarves any meat. "Oh, dear. They... That wasn't very nice."

"It's just a small joke," the girl said hastily. "They call us leaf eaters, so we just thought we'd give them leaves."

"I didn't realize that your two peoples were on joking terms." It was the closest Billa could come to a reproof, since it would be in extremely poor taste to actually criticize her hosts. It was most lowering to realize that, before her talk with Dori, she probably would have laughed.

Pulling a face, the girl said, "How could we be? Dwarves are ever a dissonance in the song of Iluvatar."

"And what are hobbits, then?" Billa smiled a little, remembering how her mother had laughed at the idea the elves had of hobbits being descended from Men.

"A pleasing descant," the girl said saucily, making Billa laugh.

The conversation ended soon after, with Billa yawning mightily as her second wind deserted her, and she stumbled her way back to her room without passing any dwarves or elves. It was something to be grateful for as she left a trail of clothes on the floor before crawling into the beautifully soft bed and falling deeply asleep.

Chapter Text

It was far, far too soon when she was woken up by the sound of her door being slammed shut, and she pulled the covers over her head with a whine of protest. "Come on, lad, up you get. It's time for a lesson."

A large part of Billa wanted to sulk and refuse outright, but what if there were more wargs and orcs or even just wolves? If she'd known how to fight, really fight, then maybe her mother wouldn't have suffered the wounds that had left her too weak to leave her bed, too dispirited to do anything but fade away to the only adventure left for her to conquer. Poking her head out of the covers, she said, "Could I have a few moments to get dressed, please?"

With a grunt, Balin said, "Be outside in five minutes, or you come in whatever you're wearing at the time."

"Yes, sir!" She waited until the door had closed behind her before scrambling for her pack, only to find her spare clothes gone. The clothes from the floor were gone as well, and she dove for the bed to wrap herself in a sheet before Balin took it into his head to come back. Nearly frantic at the thought of being made to dance around in nothing but a sheet, it took her longer than it should have to notice there was a small wardrobe with its door ajar, and inside it there were clothes about the right size for a hobbit.

There wasn't time to question things - although she'd be having words with someone later, imagine the cheek of sending someone to spirit her clothes away without asking first! She put on the clothes as quickly as she could manage and, although they were a bit loose and terribly old-fashioned, they were still comfortable. Balin entered just as she had finished the last button on the little jacket which covered the shockingly low neckline of the dress itself.

"Never leave your sword that far away from you," Balin said, picking it up from where it rested on a small writing table. "An enemy won't wait for you to fetch it."

"If I am not safe from enemies here, I'm afraid there might be no safe place in all of Arda," she said, reaching for the sword. "Will we be staying long? I wanted to visit the library."

Watching her strap the sword on, he moved her hands out of the way to adjust the way it lay against her side. "First things first."

"Of course," she said gamely. She came to regret it, but the sadistic old dwarf just seemed to find it funny when she started cursing him as best she knew how, moving from utterances that would be (barely) acceptable in polite company and progressing to words that she'd only heard from the dwarves themselves, when charging into battle or fighting with recalcitrant ponies or, in one memorable case, after Dwalin had dropped his own warhammer on his foot and poor Ori had blushed as bright as a peony.

"Oh, Mister Baggins, your pronunciation is as terrible as your swordsmanship," Balin wheezed, out of breath with laughter. "But you might yet get there, with practice."

Wiping the sweat from her forehead and wishing she could remove the long-sleeved jacket, Billa said, "Conkers. Conkers is the only battle hobbits were meant to engage in."

"Aye, well, you can demonstrate later," Balin said. "Go on and have a rest and a meal - we'll start again soon enough."

Awkwardly putting her sword back in its sheath, she said, "Too soon. Much, much too soon."

Lightly cuffing the back of her head, he said, "You did well today. Not as much strength as Thorin had as a youngster, but perhaps with a little more grace, and a lot less inclined towards flourishes than Dwalin was. If I could turn them into warriors, perhaps I can get you to give a warg more than just a bellyache."

"I'd never aspire to be a warrior," she said, feeling a small, warm glow in her stomach at the mild praise.

"No, and you shouldn't," Balin said. "But all of us must fight on this journey, and we must be able to trust your blade as well as your cleverness."

With a last fatherly pat on her shoulder, he gathered his robes around himself and left her to sink down onto the edge of the bed, needing a moment to catch her breath before she found a bath and a meal, or preferably both in conjunction. Her stomach was rumbling and so she forced herself to stagger to the kitchen, where she was promptly bundled off into a hot spring with soothing herbs mixed in. It was strange, being naked outdoors, but the garden she was in was completely secluded, and in any case she was too tired to object.

She dozed and ate and dozed again, only dragging herself out when she felt completely waterlogged. The fresh clothes the elves had provided were once again hobbit sized and old-fashioned, although they were also the softest things she had ever felt. Fingering the fabric of her skirt, she did her best to pull her wet hair into something resembling decency, settling for a loose plait that hung damply down her back as she made her way back to the main building and asked for Lord Elrond.

"Welcome," he said when she'd been shown into a lovely sitting room where he'd been waiting, holding his hands out to her for a brief clasp before conducting her to a sofa clearly designed with someone of her size in mind. "I'd always hoped that your mother would visit - her loss grieves me."

"How did you know her?" It wasn't a gracious phrasing, but as he'd introduced the topic, Billa was willing to forego protocol in order to learn everything she could about the mother she'd lost too soon.

Smiling, Elrond said, "She appeared one day alongside my hunting party, wearing the same pack on her back that you wore when you arrived, and demanded that I provide assistance to her people."

"That sounds like her," Billa said, feeling a sweet pain as she pictured her mother facing down the beautiful elves, made all the taller by being on horseback, and not feeling even a tremor of fear. "She never backed down from what she believed was right."

"She did not. Her spirit shone brightly for all to see - but it burned for the hobbit she had left behind, for whose sake she had ventured forth." With a small gesture, Elrond said, "Those are the clothes she left behind, when the waiting grew too much and she left Imladris behind to return home despite the peril."

Softly, Billa looked at her hands and said, "She loved adventuring but I think, in the end, she loved Father more."

"She always did," Elrond said gently, offering a handkerchief before she'd even realized she was crying. "And now her child is brought to my home in the company of dwarves and I find I am curious."

Dabbing at her eyes, Billa tried to recover herself. "Because they are a dissonance in the great song?"

"Some would say that. I have always believed, though, that dissonance makes a melody stronger." Wryly, Elrond said, "The elves are the Firstborn, it is true, but so am I - and it never meant I loved my brother less."

"Why are dwarves and elves so..." She moved her hands through the air, not sure how to phrase the question in a diplomatic way. Telling a king that his subjects could be childish and petty probably wouldn't go over well.

With a glint in his eye that said he knew exactly what she'd been thinking, Elrond said, "It is ever the way of brothers and sisters to have no greater enemy than each other. They can also be the greatest of friends, but I fear that will take some effort to achieve in this case."

"A lot of effort," she said, thinking of the way the dwarves would practically spit on the ground after having to acknowledge the existence of elves.

"They need my help, and I am not sure it would be wise to give it." Elrond closed his eyes for a moment, pinching the bridge of his nose. "The doings of Mithrandir once again spread chaos that we can but hope will end in peace."

Hesitantly, Billa said, "I would never presume to tell you what to do, but..." Twisting her fingers together, Billa thought of the way the dwarves sang of their home, of the way they remained so tight-knit that she thought she would never be part of their group, but then also of the way Dwalin had insisted on providing her with the rabbit-fur cushion he'd promised her, or the way Bofur smiled as he told her a joke to make her forget her own misery. "I will help them, in any way I can. They want... They want a home, a place for themselves that they don't feel they can find anywhere else."

He looked at her steadily and her voice grew in confidence as she spoke aloud what she hadn't realized she felt. "I would never be happy if I were driven out of Bag End, forced to wander around and never see my father's armchair or my mother's glory box. To have the whole Shire affected like that... I can't even imagine it, because even in the Fell Winter we were defending our homes, not threatened with having to leave them. I don't think I'd ever give up if I thought there was a chance to go back."

"They have earned your loyalty quickly," Elrond said gravely. "And you plead their case most eloquently. I, too, would miss my home fiercely in a similar case."

Sighing, Billa said, "I'm still not sure what I think of them, let alone what they think of me, but... I will follow it through, even if I will miss my bed and my clothes and my pantries."

"Then I will hope for the return of the daughter, as I hoped for the return of the mother," Elrond said. "And I also hope that, before you leave, that you will have the time to spare to tell me of her life and happiness."

"I would love that." His smile felt like sunlight, uncomplicated and warm, and Billa turned towards it like a flower. "Did she ever trick you into playing conkers?"

Chapter Text

Billa and Elrond talked for hours, sharing the memories they both had, and by the end Billa felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted from her. She had spent too long remembering her mother in sadness and guilt, picturing the wan figure that faded away and was followed too soon by her devoted husband. Now she lived in the memories of her vibrancy, her laughter and the way she would laugh and ruffle her husband's hair until he swatted playfully at her hands.

The conversation only ended when they were called to dinner, and Billa excused herself to go to the dwarves in their makeshift campground rather than join Elrond in the grand dining room the elves enjoyed. They were a merry gathering, passing around ale and plates of roast boar, and she was able to slip in unnoticed and sit down between Ori and Dwalin, close enough to exchange small smiles with Dori.

Soon enough, the dwarves were singing, playful songs with words they made up on the spot, passing around the next line at random and yet making it work. She was laughing so hard that she was crying by the time Balin dragged her to her feet and led her through a version of the sword drill he'd tried to teach her that morning. It went much more smoothly as a dance, even when someone tossed them a pair of sticks and they played at tapping them together throughout the pattern of the dance.

As the music sped up they did as well, faster and faster, the other dwarves laughing and cheering and stomping their feet in time, until eventually she lost the pattern of the dance and got tripped up by her own feet. The others roared with laughter as she fell against Bombur, getting tangled with him before he managed to get her to her feet again and she kissed the top of his head. Her cheeks hurt from how much she had laughed, even as Balin swatted her behind with his stick and told her she needed to get much better with her dancing if she ever expected to defeat anyone tougher than their cook.

"Burglar." Thorin's voice wasn't loud, but it didn't need to be. The rest of the noise died away, leaving Billa's ears throbbing at the sudden lack. "Balin. We are needed."

Billa couldn't think of a reason why anyone would call for her, but she didn't quite dare say so. Balin's smile had disappeared and she followed along behind him meekly, hoping she hadn't done anything wrong. Being led down through a series of caves really didn't help make her any easier in her mind.

Moon runes and prophecies seemed like things a hobbit had no business being involved in, especially with the way the dwarves and Gandalf seemed to be avoiding the disclosure of the journey's true purpose. She was all too guiltily aware that she'd already done so several hours before. The only thing that kept her from sidling away was that every time she thought of it, she would be pinned in place by a hard stare from Thorin.

"There are some who would not deem it wise," Elrond said, and she looked at him with a feeling of naked betrayal. He shook his head, holding up his hand in a pacifying gesture. "I will not stop you from leaving whenever you wish, although Mithrandir is called to a meeting of the White Council tomorrow to discuss the implications of this quest."

"Then we leave tonight," Thorin said, his face hard as he snatched the map back and thrust it into an inside pocket of his gambeson.

Gandalf shook his head, stroking his chin. "No. You must be here when Saruman arrives, or he will be in an easy position to bypass the meeting and stop you. No, you will leave while we are busy in our discussions; there is something I need to present to the council, in any case."

"Why did you warn us?" It wasn't so much a question as a demand, but Billa wasn't sure that Thorin could simply ask something otherwise, especially of an elf.

With a lift of an eyebrow, Elrond managed to convey how completely unimpressed he was by Thorin's bluster. He looked at Gandalf briefly in reproof, but finally shrugged. "Miss Belladonna Took was a dear friend, and her child has vouched for you and given you unconditional loyalty. I cannot deny the strength of that, even as I wish that I could convince Billa to stay."

"Oh! Oh, no, but thank you," she said quickly. "I promise, though, I will come back for a visit after we've finished, if I'm able to."

"I will look forward to it." Elrond swept out, followed by Gandalf, and Billa backed away from the edge of the precipice they had been standing on, wondering why the elves seemed to be so intent on building all of their surfaces next to sheer, unprotected drops.

She turned to Thorin to ask a question, but it quite flew out of her mind at the glare that he was turning in her direction. Her mouth opened and closed as she tried to think of something to say only to have the words die on her tongue. When he finally turned away contemptuously, she sagged with the relief even as she felt hurt. What had she done that was so wrong? What could she do to make Thorin not hate her?

The comforting pat Balin gave her shoulder as he followed Thorin didn't help much, and she sighed before making her way up the smaller, almost hidden staircase to the left. Wherever she ended up, it was better than having to trail them back and have the others pick up immediately on Thorin's attitude. She couldn't bear a return to the distance between her and the rest of the company, not after the feeling of acceptance that had swept over her at their impromptu party.

"There you are!" Rilas, her friend from the kitchens, bustled up to her and took her by the hand. "I'm to take you to the library, in case you'd like any of the books to take with you. Don't worry, I've got everyone in the kitchens making lembas and miruvor and even some of that awful sausage you showed us how to make."

"It's delicious and you know it is," Billa retorted. "I'll write a letter for you to send to the Shire and fetch my cookbook from my house; when I return, we'll see how many good hobbit dishes you've incorporated into your feasting here."

Squeezing her hand, Rilas said, "Just promise you'll return or, better yet, don't leave!"

"I can't stay and be a pet," Billa said. "I have to go and be a burglar."

Rilas was inclined to pout, but they reached the library and Billa didn't feel constrained to pay attention or indulge her in the face of what seemed like a limitless number of books. It somehow wasn't surprising that Ori was there, stealthily reading the titles of every book written in Westron. "We can take some."

"Can we?" Ori's eyes lit up and he almost instantly had five books in his arms. "We can't weigh ourselves down too much or Mister Thorin will be upset."

"So we'll have to choose carefully." Looking around, she sighed. "One hardly knows where to start."

"Ask the expert," Rilas said, gesturing to an elf that somehow contrived to look fussy and even a bit elderly. "Athae has every book in here memorized."

He looked up at that and waved a hand. "Back to the kitchen with you, wench. I'm more than capable of dealing with my own library."

"Of course. I don't doubt you in the slightest." Rilas blew him a kiss and skipped off, humming.

"Please excuse my wife - she's a giddy thing, but I would have no other." With a slight smile, the elf said, "Now. What is it you're looking for, so that I may help you find it?"

Billa blushed to think of what she'd heard of the man's intimate life, leaving Ori to start. "Do you have any books about dwarves? Or about Erebor?"

"Maps," Billa chimed in after Athae hummed thoughtfully. "And information about dragons. Oh, and how different herbs and remedies affect different races."

Leading them through the shelves, Athae reached out seemingly at random, stacking books into their arms until they were forced to shuttle between where he was gathering books and the large study table set before an open window. Dismayed at the size of the pile, Billa said, "I think we would need a separate pony just for books in order to take these."

"I can't even read elvish," Ori said mournfully, paging through a beautifully illustrated book about flowers.

"I know a few words of Sindarin, but not enough to be fluent, and no Quenya whatsoever," Billa said, studying a map to try to make sense of it despite not being able to decipher what was written on it.

With a few efficient motions, Athae had cleared about half of the books off the table and added one. "Perhaps if you could tell me what you need in more detail..."

"We're on a quest," Ori said grandly, and Billa shuddered as she thought of how Thorin would have reacted.

"We're on a journey," she said with a diplomatic smile. "And, unfortunately, it means we're extremely limited in what we can carry through the wilderness."

Sucking in his cheeks, Athae looked over the books thoughtfully before picking out two. "These will serve you well as they stand, covering the identification of plants to the east of the Misty Mountains and basic healing techniques for all of Arda's races. Come in the morning for them, and for the maps you will need."

"Can't we take them now?" Ori looked like he itched to stuff all the books in his satchel and run so far that none could stop him. Billa had only ever seen a look that covetous when Lobelia had seen the silverware that had been handed down to her father and then to Billa herself. It was a Baggins family heirloom, and Lobelia had craved the status of being a "real" Baggins as much or more as the actual silver.

"There are some things that will need to be copied, but they will be ready long before you will need them." With a small smile, the librarian said, "And, master dwarf, you may come back and visit after your journey, so that you can correct our texts on dwarf history and learn our language as you please."

Ori looked thrilled and terrified in equal measure, and he said, "I don't know... Elves, I mean, it's..."

"As you wish." Athae bowed and gestured gracefully to the door. "If you'll excuse me, there is much that must be done before your departure."

There was no way to avoid such a clear dismissal, and as they walked out, Ori said, "Do you think... I mean, it's not as if I'd have to like the elves, just to use their library, right?"

"I don't know," Billa said, trying to keep a straight face. "I've found it very difficult in the past to dislike anyone who provides me with books to read, unless they're very bad books indeed."

Punching her in the arm, Ori said, "Come on, the others will be waiting."

"Oh, no, I have my own room." Pointing to the left, she said, "It's just this way. Tomorrow will be soon enough to sleep on the ground; tonight I plan to thoroughly enjoy the luxury of a hot bath and a real bed."

Wistfully, Ori said, "That does sound nice. I've got to stay with Dori, though, otherwise he'll fuss and then Nori will get upset."

"I'd always wished for a brother," Billa said. "But it seems as if they're a mixed blessing."

Ori nodded fervently before wishing her goodnight as they parted ways. Billa was still thinking wistfully about what it might have been like to grow up with a big brother to cosset her, like Dori, or a younger brother to spoil. Would a sister have been as easy to talk to as Rilas or Tansy or even Lobelia?

If she'd been thinking about it, it shouldn't have been a surprise that Thorin was waiting in her room, looking beyond furious. As it was, though, the sight of him sitting at her writing table was enough to make her shriek and clutch closed the collar of the jacket she'd started to unbutton. "What on earth - how dare you, how dare you be in my bedroom? Do you know what would happen if anyone ever found out? I'd be ruined, that's what, and there would be no coming back from that!"

He didn't bother answering, just rolled his eyes and waited impatiently for her to stop and catch her breath. "I should not find out from an elf that my burglar has been talking out of turn."

"I'm not your anything," she snapped. "I'm entirely my own person, thank you very much, and there was nothing in my contract that allowed you to just barge into my personal quarters at any time and invade my privacy!"

"The contract specifies I provide your accommodations to all practical extent. Right of entry is implied." Waving a hand dismissively as she would have objected, he said, "You should be with the company. We could not reach you in time if there was danger, nor could you reach us."

It didn't seem as if he was going away, but that didn't mean she had to pay attention to him. Granted, he was hard to ignore, but she was willing to make the effort. Skirting around where he sat, she pulled out her pack and started laying out clothes, trying to decide whether to take along any of her mother's clothes or keep them here, to be better preserved. Her striped dress, once the height of sartorial splendor, was now fit only for dusters.

"You shouldn't take charity from the elves," he said in his rumbling voice, and it was her turn to glare.

"I seem to recall we had a discussion about charity before," she snapped. "I'll take what I need and say thank you, rather than cut my nose off to spite my face."

Standing up to loom over her, he thundered, "You are in my employ and you--"

Hands on her hips, she glared right back at him. "You might be king to the rest of the company, but you're not my king, nor my father! I'm going to do what's best for the company, no matter what your orders might be!"

His eyes locked with hers and the moment felt charged with something she didn't know how to define. He stepped closer, just a slight shift of his weight, and his eyes drifted half-closed, seeming to focus briefly on her lips. Before she could think about it much, he turned away and walked out, slamming the door behind him. Billa sank down onto the edge of the bed, feeling strangely shaky. Why had she yelled at him? And why did she feel so weak, now that he was gone?

Would he leave without her, angry as he was? The thought spurred her on and she hurried to pack, ringing for someone to keep an eye on the dwarves for her until she could drag her belongings down there to sleep amongst the company and make sure they couldn't leave her behind. Although she was going to take the featherbed down to the courtyard with her.

Chapter Text

In the end, Billa didn't regret having forsaken her bed on her last night in Rivendell, because the cheerful company of the dwarves was enough to make up for it. A steady stream of elves came through, delivering food and other supplies, although it seemed to Billa as if they were there as much to gawk as for any useful purpose. At least it meant there were plenty of people to send for more featherbeds after the others had tried to pile up with her on hers.

The books were among the last things to arrive, and Ori looked as if he wanted to spring up and kiss Athae for including a blank journal and a block of what they were assured was ink - it just needed to be mixed with water in order to be usable. The elf ignored both Ori's gratitude and Dwalin's threatening stance, although he did shoot Billa a look full of wry amusement. "Just make sure you study that Sindarin so we can have a proper conversation about books when you come back."

"We will," Billa said hastily, standing to usher the librarian on his way. "And will write, if we can."

He left with a small bow and Billa dared to hope the tension might be broken. Unfortunately it was a futile hope, and she was left to sit awkwardly and shift her belongings around in order to both pack away her share of the books to be carried and avoid noticing that no one was speaking to her. The next comment addressed to her was a curt order to stand up and move quickly down to the exit Lord Elrond had advised them to take.

The first stage was a blur of rushing away and making sure to stay hidden, but once they were well away from Rivendell and into the foothills, it started seeming more like one of the walking holidays Billa had taken when she was younger, before her responsibilities as Mediator had started taking up all of her time. Turning her face up to the sun, she sighed happily. "I'm going to freckle terribly. I probably should have replaced my hat."

"Freckles are beautiful," Dori said stoutly, and she grinned as she looked at him and at his two very freckly younger brothers.

"They're not considered the thing in the Shire - I've got any number of recipes on how to get rid of them, all kindly offered by well-meaning folk." Shrugging her pack higher on her shoulders and adjusting her grip on her umbrella, which doubled as a walking stick, she added, "Of course, my mother never gave a fig about that. She called them kisses from the sun, and would kiss each of the freckles on my face herself when she put me to bed."

"No," Ori said flatly, glaring at Dori.

His older brother coughed and tried to look as if he hadn't been smiling. "Just thinking ahead. You're much too old and grown up for anything of the sort, but I'll have nephews someday."

"Or sons," Ori retorted. "And good luck to them."

"We'll just have to kidnap them once in a while." Billa hadn't even noticed Nori falling into step beside them until he spoke, and it made her jump. "Be bad influences, keep them from growing up too prim and proper."

Frowning a little, Billa said, "What if they're girls?"

The three of them just looked uncomfortable at the question and fell silent. At length, Nori said, "That's not... It's not really something we talk about."

"I'm terribly sorry," Billa said hastily. "I didn't mean to be offensive - Gandalf explained that there were some, er, cultural differences, I suppose you could say. I should have paid more attention and not let my curiosity get the best of me."

From the front of the party, Thorin shouted, "Keep up! We've no time for market-day strolls!" Billa glared even as she picked up speed, concentrating on walking as fast as she could and amusing herself by imagining several painful and embarrassing fates for him to suffer, from a sprained ankle to his furs developing mange.

By the time the rain started, they'd missed lunch, were well on their way to missing dinner, and she'd developed a complicated mental scenario in which he was stung by bees, attacked by hay fever, invited to tea with Lobelia, and had his feet stepped on by horses wearing boots. The foothills had given way to bare rock, her feet were scraped and scratched and soaked through, her umbrella was utterly useless with the water spattering from all directions, and if she had to listen to one more word about gold, the primary topic amongst the dwarves for cheering each other up, she thought she might scream.

They stopped for dinner, if it could be called that. No fire, no shelter but a rock overhang, no meal other than lembas bread passed around and chewed with grim determination. Billa took hers and started walking again, because no rest was better than the pretense that rest would be possible in the circumstances. She heard a few groans, but the inevitable order to continue came as she'd expected, so she trudged on.

She almost couldn't find it in herself to be scared when the stone giants started fighting, exhaustion having completely dulled her senses. The terror only struck when she saw that Kili had almost fallen to his death trying to leap over to join his brother on the ledge they were still trapped on, only saved by the combined efforts of the three dwarves closest to him. Reaching out blindly, she took hold of Fili's arm, pulling him closer to her even as he screamed his brother's name.

"We must jump!" She wasn't sure who said it, couldn't hope to tell in all of the noise and confusion, but her hold on Fili as he moved was enough to set her in motion and she did her best to follow as they all leapt from the stone giant onto a ledge that would hopefully stay still.

She didn't make it.

Dangling from a tenuous hold, Billa closed her eyes and waited for her end, praying to all the gods that she could remember that the end would at least be swift and painless, or that she would be unaware if it wasn't. She could hear the others shouting and tried to focus on their faces, but her hands slipped again and she was clinging to a rock with one hand, made slippery by the rain and the blood from her scraped palm.

It was inevitable that she would slip, but when she did she jolted to a stop almost immediately, an arm like iron around her waist. She wanted to scream, but she couldn't when Thorin's face was inches away, shouting curses and ordering her to climb up. Scrambling to obey, she managed to raise herself enough to reach for the hands outstretched to her, falling into Balin's arms and sobbing as Dwalin hauled Thorin back up.

"Stop your caterwauling," Thorin snapped. "There's nothing you could do that would make you even more useless than that."

Wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand, Billa wished for nothing more than to be home, before she'd ever heard of such a thing as a lost dwarf kingdom and its impossible, frustrating, unfeeling brute of a king. "I should have stayed home, if I'm such a trouble to you!"

"You should have," he growled, and Billa was ready to stomp her way down the mountain and go, no matter the circumstances, when there was a shout from Dwalin and they all tumbled into the large cave he'd found.

No one felt much like talking as they all settled down, and Billa curled up in her bedroll so that she could cry undisturbed until she drifted off to sleep. She wasn't sure how long it had been - it couldn't have been very long, since her dress was still soaking wet and plastered to her skin - but she woke up to darkness and the unmistakable feeling of having begun her monthlies.

Moving slowly, she raised her head to look around and make sure the others were well asleep. They were, and thankfully Kili was on watch and already slumped over, so she'd never get a better chance. Carefully, she eased herself up and started to open her bag before a clinking buckle made her rethink the wisdom of doing that amidst the company. Once she'd found a discreet place to change, then she could find the clean rags and fresh clothes that she needed.

"Billa?" Kili blinked as she made to walk past him, and she would have cursed if she hadn't been trying to be silent. "Where're you going? Why've you got your pack on?"

"I just... I need to..." She hesitated over how to explain without explaining, giving him time to blink the sleep from his eyes and really look at her.

She followed his eyes down to where a red spot bloomed on her mint-green skirt and had never felt more mortified in her life than when he screamed out, "Oin! Oin, the burglar is bleeding from his tonker!"

That tore it. Billa tried to get past Kili, not wanting to face even one of them until she'd sorted herself out and perhaps even stopped blushing, but he wouldn't let her by and then Oin was grabbing her and shooting off a series of hard questions, including a scolding for not letting him know about the wound earlier. When he said direly that it could lead to the loss of 'the little hobbit,' Billa could take no more.

"Oh, for heaven's sake, how could I lose what I never had? I realize you have this cultural taboo against acknowledging sex but this is carrying the pretense much, much too far!"

The sudden silence was almost eerie. The sight of dropped jaws all around even more so. "Really, all I need is a moment to refresh myself and then we can all go back to pretending you believe I'm a man."

"You..." Dwalin, of all people, sounded squeaky. "You're female?"

"Well, of course I'm female," she said testily. "I've been wearing skirts all along!"

Meekly, Dori said, "So has Balin."

It was a fair point, even if the dwarf in question shot him a poisonous look. Too frustrated to think of modesty, Billa pointed at her chest and shouted, "I have these!"

As one, the eyes of most of the party turned towards Bombur's chest. Billa stomped her foot in frustration, and that was when the world seemed to fall away underneath her.

Chapter Text

Falling through the floor of the cave was terrifying enough in itself; if you couldn't trust solid ground anymore, what was left for a hobbit that hated heights and falling above all other things? It was made worse by starting and stopping repeatedly, bouncing from one rock wall to the next, each time seeing the terrified faces of the dwarves as they reached for her and struggled to put themselves between her and the next impact. She couldn't help screaming as she heard something crack when Gloin managed to protect her from one impact, but it made the look of pain on his face intensify and so she forced her lips tightly together to keep any sound from escaping.

The final landing was intensely jarring, a cage-like wooden structure swaying around them as they tried to find their feet. They were overwhelmed by untold numbers of goblins, foul and reeking and somehow just wrong. The dwarves fought like tigers, ferocious and determined, but they had no chance against the sheer number of enemies swarming over them. Someone's hand on her head shoved her to the ground and she stayed where she was put, nowhere near brave enough to do otherwise.

Screams in the dwarvish language rang out as they were dragged away one by one, fighting so hard that Billa whimpered as it seemed they would fall off the edge of the narrow walkways and bridges that stretched out over infinite blackness. Billa was being left behind and she crept forward, not wanting to be alone in this horrible place, no matter how much worse it would get wherever the goblins were taking the party. At least she wouldn't be alone.

"RUN!" Nori locked eyes with her, frantic and pleading, and she turned in time to scream as a goblin dropped down to seize her by the hair. Fumbling for her sword, she twisted and ended up overbalancing both of them, rolling over the side of the walkway and falling into oblivion once more.

Billa landed in a patch of giant mushrooms that smelled like Gloin's feet after he took his boots off. She was bruised and scraped from sliding against the walls on the way down, but it appeared, against all odds, that she was still alive. Unfortunately, so was the goblin that had attacked her, and she struggled to her feet in order to find a way to get away and possibly find her dwarves.

Standing up resulted in a great deal of pain from one ankle, but she forced herself to stand up regardless, as the goblin was snarling and trying to get up. Using her sheathed sword as a cane, she put a hand against the wall and started sidling along, biting her lip to hold back the whimpers that wanted to escape her.

Her eyes were adjusting to the darkness, starting to make things out in the weak light that glowed from some of the rocks and mushrooms. The first thing she saw almost made her scream, because a strange creature was looming over the wounded goblin and beating its head in with a rock. Billa trembled, her free hand over her mouth, as the creature looked up and around, seemingly right at her.

"What is it, precious?" The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere as the creature disappeared, then reappeared directly in front of her, its face much too close to hers. "Is it soft? Is it juicy? What is it?"

Billa didn't do anything as complicated as thinking. Instead, she did just as she had done in the past when a drunk or a lout got too close: she hit him very hard over the head with her umbrella. Only, in this case, it was with the sheathed sword she'd been leaning on in its place. "It is rude to start an introduction without offering your name first!"

"It hurts us!" The creature's howling was pitiful, but Billa just shifted her grip and kept her sword ready. Granted, it was a club until she could find a way to unsheath it without giving the creature an opening to go for her throat, but at least it was a weapon. "The elves made it, they made it, nasty, nasty, cruel elves!"

Cautiously, Billa said, "I am sorry if it hurt - I only wanted to make sure you didn't hurt me."

"We was not going to hurt the thing, no, we wasn't, precious!" Before she could quite be reassured by this, the creature clapped his hands and said happily, "We was just going to eats it!"

Waving the sword back in his direction and wishing desperately the blade was out, Billa said, "Well, I don't want to be eaten! It would be most improper for you to eat me without my permission, at any rate."

The thing wiped its spindly hands over the strands of hair that remained on its head. "Smeagol is not improper, grandmother. Smeagol is good, very good!"

Something about the name niggled at a memory, something about the history of why hobbits gave presents on their birthdays instead of receiving them. "That's a Stoor name, isn't it? Great fishermen, the Stoors."

"Yes, yes, juicy, crunchy, scrumptious fishes!" Clapping his hands again and hopping from foot to foot, the thing said, "Never thirsty, always drinking, all in mail, never clinking!"

"Oh, you like riddles." Billa was frantically trying to think of a way to be away from this creature and out from under the wretched mountain. Surely she could find Gandalf and find a way back to rescue the dwarves. "Perhaps we could trade riddles while you show me the way out?"

Cocking its head to one side, it said, "Is it lost?"

"Yes, and I need to be found immediately," she said imperiously, tilting her chin up and waving the sword. It was better than cringing, and thankfully the creature responded by bowing and scraping, resembling nothing more than a fauntling caught at mischief.

"Smeagol will help! Kind grandmother, good grandmother, Smeagol will help!" It reached for Billa's hand but backed away when the sword swung toward him again. "Follow us, follow us, precious!"

She did, shrugging her pack higher on her shoulders and keeping a steady grip on the sword, although she used a hand on the wall to support her weight in order to keep her weapon free. They traded riddles, the little creature gleeful and resentful in turns, but the air was gradually getting fresher and Billa took it as a good sign.

There was a soft clink, as if something had fallen, and Billa frowned as she reached down to pick up something that gleamed dully in the pale light. "Why on earth do you make that noise? Gollum, gollum?"

"Nasty, mean, calling us names." It turned back towards her, a look of such malevolence in its eye that Billa automatically took a step back, the ring she had picked up sliding over and around the tip of her index finger. "Nasty, horrible-- Thief!"

It moved with terrible swiftness back to where she'd last stood, sniffing along the wall where her hand had trailed, and Billa stepped softly to the side. She wasn't sure why it didn't just turn and attack her directly as it howled, broken nails digging gouges into its own skin as it cried out for its birthday present. It was a pretty enough thing and she thought it looked nice on her hand, but she would have given it back to the distressed creature if it hadn't interrupted its pitiful wails with, "We hates grandmother, we hates it! Smeagol will crunch its bones and take back the precious, yes, eat up the nasty little thief!"

She froze in place as it seemed to look right at her, but instead of leaping it looked around again, crawling on hands and knees as it searched for her. Looking down at the ring, she couldn't help but wonder if it was magic, and decided she needed to test it - and protect herself - by unsheathing the sword. It didn't react, even when she took a step forward, and she would have swooned with relief if it hadn't been so urgent to get out. The creature was already muttering to itself about where she might have gone.

With her skirt and the sheath gathered up in one hand, Billa followed the instincts of a people that lived underground (even if beneath hills rather than mountain ranges) and her nose for fresh air and made her way out of the caverns under the Misty Mountains.

Chapter Text

The sun felt heavenly on Billa's skin as she ran, ignoring the shooting pain from her ankle and all the other aches and soreness as she just focused on getting away. Away from that awful Smeagol creature, away from the goblins, away from cold and damp of the caves that felt as if it had soaked into her skin. She was finally forced to stop when a sob robbed her of her breath and she stumbled, falling to the ground in a fresh shock of pain. What had happened to her companions? Where was Gandalf?

Once she was a good distance away, she allowed herself to collapse behind a tree. She took a wobbly breath and then another, wanting desperately to burst into tears. It was far too much for one hobbit to contemplate dealing with, let alone a hobbit on her monthlies without any tea or chocolate to comfort her. There was no one else, however, and so she had to sort herself out and then find a way to get on with things.

After looking around to make sure there was no one near the little copse of trees she was hidden in - perhaps the ring only made one invisible in the dark or a cave, after all - Billa quickly stripped off her filthy clothes and redressed, using the things that were thankfully still readily available in her pack. Regardless of whether it had been her mother's, she rather thought she'd burn the dress at the earliest opportunity. Meanwhile, being relatively clean and back in her own clothes, with all of her handy pockets, made her feel capable of getting to her feet and starting to hobble back to the mountain.

"We have to go back!" The shout made her feel like laughing and clapping her hands, just like the mad little creature she'd left behind, because it was Thorin and that meant he was alive and she could rely on him to lead any rescues. She wouldn't even mind very much when he called her useless as he did so, or at least not very much, because he was alive.

Billa quickly gathered up her pack and her sword, only to pause when Thorin continued, "This is your fault! We would never have brought along a woman!"

Sounding entirely too calm, Gandalf said, "Now is hardly time to discuss such a trifling matter."

"Not when your trifle will lead to our deaths," Thorin said grimly. "We have no chance of surviving another encounter with the tender mercies of a goblin horde."

"Are you suggesting that we leave our burglar behind to face them alone?" Gandalf looked down at Thorin from his considerable height and Billa held her breath as she waited for the response.

Clenching a fist, Thorin said, "You know that we can't."

"The burglar died," Nori said, sitting up and putting a hand to a spot on his head and pulling it back with blood all over his fingertips. "He... She, she went over one of the walkways with a goblin at her throat. There is no way she could have survived."

"Then we're cursed!" Oin's voice rose above the babble of the others, and she wondered how he'd even heard what Nori said, as his ear trumpet was nowhere in sight. "To cause the death of a woman... Nothing we do will ever prosper again."

Billa's heart caught in her throat at the raw pain on Thorin's face, clearly visible to her as he turned to hide it from the rest of the company. "We should still go back. Her bones should lie with her ancestors."

The dratted man was going to get himself killed, and for what? Billa threw her bag onto her back and ducked behind a tree to take off the ring before stepping out. "Are we all here?"

"Billa!" Kili was the first to say her name, running to give her a hug but stopping just short, bowing instead. She rolled her eyes and hugged him just as she would one of her young cousins who suddenly felt too grown up to act like a child anymore. "You're alive!"

"Hobbits are sturdier than we look," she said wryly, pulling away and pushing the ring into a pocket so it wouldn't get lost. "Nori was right, I did fall, but I landed softly."

Eyes twinkling, Gandalf said, "And stole yourself away, as a good burglar should."

"How did you escape?" Thorin looked forbidding again, and she wasn't sure what to say. "And before us, if you had time to change your clothes."

Waving her hand through the air, she said, "That's not important now. What matters is... You shouldn't have gone back. I mean, even if Nori hadn't seen me fall, even if... You can't risk everyone else for me. Getting your home back is more important than one little hobbit, and you must promise me that you'll do nothing to risk yourselves if something happens to me."

Balin shook his head. "Lad, you don't understand--"

A howl in the distance made them all jump. It was unmistakably a warg, and there was no chance that it would be alone. They were running before any of them could consciously choose to do so, but Billa almost instantly fell behind as her ankle refused to hold her. Thorin picked her up and all but tossed her to Fili, and she found herself passed around like a parcel until Dori threw her into a tree and Gandalf touched the tip of his staff to her ankle, making it feel strangely disconnected from the rest of her but at least no longer painful.

The orcs and wargs approached as the sun sank in the sky, taking their time now that their quarry was trapped so thoroughly. Billa clung to her branch as the others fought the wargs, covering each other's escape into the trees. Gandalf started throwing flaming pine cones and soon they all were, driving the wargs back to where their orc masters watched and waited. It wasn't enough.

The pale orc was unmistakable, and Billa didn't need to understand what it said to shudder; the air felt foul just from his speech being loosed in it. Gandalf shouted for them to hold on, but the orc stepped forward with a terrible smile, pointing his mace directly at where she perched in a branch next to Thorin and Dori. Thorin looked at her briefly and then his face went hard and blank as he brought himself up to stand on the trunk of the fallen tree, getting his balance and then stepping forward.

Someone screamed Thorin's name, a desperate no, and it might have been her. He paid not the slightest attention, all his focus on the orc as he strode forward and broke into a run, his sword flashing. It seemed like he could conquer anything, but the white warg leapt and Thorin fell, only to rise and fall again when it went for his throat.

Billa scrambled to her feet, for once not thinking anything of the great height or the danger or how very small she was. All she could think was that he was alone, and he shouldn't be. Carefully, her whole body trembling with fear, she edged forward. There were more screams and she stopped, wanting to close her eyes and hide, to wait for one of the others to do something, because surely they would?

Then there was no time to wait anymore, no chance of letting someone else be the one to charge in, because there was no one else. She might be frightened, but she was more frightened of a world where she had to watch Thorin Oakenshield die than she was of anything that might happen to her. With a hoarse battle cry, she charged forward, knocking the orc off balance and then stabbing him over and over, until she saw another one move and raised her bloodied sword again, standing over Thorin with the grim determination that she would be killed before she allowed anyone to touch him.

The first of the warg riders was almost on her when she heard more battle cries and then there was Dwalin's axe and Fili's sword and she swung her own sword and moved her feet like Balin had taught her, dancing with warg and rider both as she struggled to stay alive.

She didn't realize the eagles were there until the warg that had been about to rip her throat out was picked up and thrown over the cliff's edge. She looked around desperately and saw that the orcs were retreating, being harried by sharp beaks and talons. An eagle picked up Thorin and she ran to pick up his shield as it fell from his hand, knowing he would want it back when he woke up. He had to wake up, no matter how pale and still he looked; he had to.

"Billa!" Kili was hanging upside down from an eagle's back, her pack dangling from one of his arms as he reached so far it seemed he would fall off. She found herself picked up in the eagle's claws and then tossed over the cliff, much like the wargs had been, only then she was on another eagle's back and holding on for dear life. "If I manage to make it through alive, I am never setting foot on anything higher than a stepstool!"

"Little sister, you will not fall."

She jumped, startled beyond words to hear the eagle speak, and then worried that she might have offended it; certainly not something she wanted to do when it was all that stood between her and certain death. "I apologize, I meant no disrespect."

The eagle didn't answer, and she began to wonder if she had imagined it speaking. They flew on for hours, towards the rising sun, and she kept shooting anxious looks at the others but most especially Thorin, the only one still being clutched in an eagle's claws instead of carried in the comparatively safety of its back. When they at last were set down on a bare, high rock, Gandalf was the first to reach him, and his grave look made Billa hesitate.

"The girl?" Thorin's voice was weak, but it was there and he was alive. Billa's knees went weak and she sank to the ground, unable to hold herself up for even a moment longer.

Her ears buzzed and she couldn't make out what Gandalf said in return, nor what any of the others said as they crowded around Thorin. It wasn't until he was on his feet, his piercing gaze on her face, that she could understand what was being said. "You! You nearly got yourself killed! What did you think you were doing?"

Saving you, she thought, but couldn't say anything as he picked her up, shaking her by the shoulders before gathering her into a tight embrace.

"You must never take a risk like that again," he said as he let her go, stepping back to a respectable distance. She wished he still had a hold of her, however scandalous it might be, because she really didn't think she could stand on her own. "Never, for all that I owe you my thanks, and my apologies for ever doubting you."

"Yes, well, I'll try to avoid certain death in the future," she mumbled, swaying.

He smiled, just a little, but it was enough to have her smiling hesitantly in return before she was being clapped on the back, pulled into rough hugs, and made much of by the rest of the company. Balin was the one who noticed she was struggling and held her up, his eyes twinkling. "You might make a decent swordsman yet!"

"Aye, but the lad's got to work on her battle cry," Dwalin said with a laugh.

"Oh, I don't know," Balin said, stroking his beard with his free hand. "It's not traditional, I grant you, but 'Come on if you think you're hard enough' does have a certain direct charm."

Blushing, Billa ducked her head, then looked up again in alarm as an eagle flew much too close, brushing Ori's face with the tip of a wing before flying off to join its fellows. Dori patted him down to check on him, much to Ori's disgust. "He was just saying goodbye! I had asked him if he could fly us to Erebor and he apologized for not being able to, because the Men in Laketown would just shoot them down."

"Our home." It was a whisper, but there was so much emotion in Thorin's voice that they all felt it down to the bone as they turned to follow his gaze towards the Lonely Mountain. It was beautiful, undoubtedly so, but Billa found that she couldn't look away from her companions and the raw emotions shown so clearly on all of their faces. She'd never seen Thorin look as happy, the hope and longing in his eyes almost painful to view.

Chapter Text

There was a cave at the foot of the stone outcropping where the eagles had dropped them off, and the company was soon gathered inside of it. Billa had once again been passed between the dwarves, each of them ranging himself on the steps down so that he could easily transfer her to the next without jostling her or her still-swollen ankle. Kili was the last one, and he whisked her off to sit next to the fire and placed her pack in easy reach.

"I wish I'd thought to put some food in there," she said as her stomach grumbled. "And Ori had the Sindarin dictionary, so my herbal guide is close to useless."

"You're forgetting something," Kili said with an impish grin, jumping to his feet and presenting Ori with a dramatic flourish. "We have pockets!"

Ori dug under his cardigan and pulled out the dictionary, making Billa clap her hands. Everyone else dug through their pockets and they ended up with a dinner of sausage and lembas. Not a feast, for it was possible to get sick of the elven bread, but it at least filled their empty stomachs. None of them had the energy to go hunting, not after as sleepless and terrifying a night as they'd had.

It was while they were eating that Gandalf announced he would be leaving them, that he'd already come further with them than he intended to and so would take them to a place where they could resupply and then they would part ways. The protests that instantly sprang up were silenced as Thorin's voice cut through all the rest. "Good. You can escort Miss Baggins home, with our thanks."

"I beg your pardon!" Any number of hobbits would have been able to tell Thorin that particular tone meant danger. Unfortunately, there were none around to inform him, although several of the dwarves sensed enough to sidle gently backwards, out of the space between their king and their burglar.

"We do thank you, Miss Baggins," Thorin said. "But this journey will be long and dangerous--"

"Oh, do you mean that we might face wargs and orcs and starvation and really unreasonable heights? Or are you referring to the, what was it Bofur called it? Oh, yes, 'furnace with wings,' an elegant turn of phrase for something expected since before I signed the contract."

Nodding regally, Thorin said, "Precisely. We would never have exposed you to a moment of it if we'd known that you're... Female."

"How on earth could you possibly have thought I was male?" She gestured towards herself and said, "Really, now. I may not be the prettiest lass in the Shire, but I've never been called masculine before!"

With a sour look at Gandalf, Thorin said, "We were too trusting, to take a wizard's word."

"Not once did I say Billa Baggins is male," Gandalf said, puffing calmly on his pipe as he sat with his back against the wall of the cave.

Pointing an accusing finger, Dwalin growled, "You said that the lad was wearing traditional attire for hobbits!"

Peacefully, Gandalf nodded. "So she is. Female hobbits traditionally wear skirts."

"Aye, and I suppose hobbits are shaped differently and the burglar is terribly self-conscious about it," Dwalin sneered.

"Technically that's true, since even our strongest men don't have muscles like the group of you do," Billa said. "Although it appears Gandalf twisted the truth to all parties. I suppose dwarves do have pronouns for women?"

Holding up a hand, Gandalf interjected, "They do not use pronouns for women, at least not in public; dwarven women on journeys disguise themselves to be indistinguishable from the men, and are referred to as such."

"Dwarrow women don't go on journeys! They are far too precious to ever risk harm befalling them!" Thorin ran a hand angrily through his hair, getting to his feet to pace. "I cannot allow--"

"How do you intend to stop me?" Billa's sweet smile stopped Thorin in his tracks. "Gandalf won't watch me the rest of my life - as soon as he leaves, I'll set out for Erebor again, on my own."

Eyes wide with alarm, Oin said, "You can't! It's certain doom, for any dwarf that allows harm to come to a woman is cursed to the end of his days and beyond."

"That is a pickle," Billa said. "Because, you see, I signed a contract and I intend to see it through. I'm a Baggins, and a Baggins will always keep their promises."

"Billa Baggins is still the key to your success," Gandalf said. "Without Billa Baggins as your burglar, your quest will fail."

Looking as if he'd bitten into something nasty, Thorin said, "So you said before, in those exact words."

Blowing a smoke ring that burst into a ring of butterflies, Gandalf said, "And I spoke truly."

"That's settled, then," Billa said brightly, smoothing her skirt down. "It's unpleasant to be tricked, but there's nothing to be done about it now."

With a growl, Thorin stomped out of the cave, his fur robe swirling majestically behind him. Oin cursed and stood, snapping his fingers at Billa. "Bruising, pain relief, fighting infection. Now, lassie, now!"

Scrambling through the herb packets, she tried feverishly to remember what he'd said to use to treat each, feeling like she had when she'd been called on in school to recite the list of Thains from the last to the first. She always got muddled somewhere around the twentieth.

Looking over the neatly labeled packets she'd placed in his hands, Oin grunted. "You forgot the yarrow."

"You didn't mention bleeding," she muttered, but handed it over quickly.

Shaking his head, he said, "Common sense, lassie, common sense. I won't always be around to tell you what needs doing!"

He went after Thorin and Billa had a moment to think, as the other dwarves were still holding back. Burying her face in her hands, she groaned. "What have I done?"

"Lad-- Lass, I'm not sure." Balin shuffled closer, coming to sit down next to her. "Here. It'll be up to you to keep this - none of us would hold you to it."

Billa took the contract she'd signed, frowning as she ran a finger over her own signature. "Would any of the rest of you be allowed to just turn back?"

"Allowed? Of course it would be allowed - we'd never keep a companion against their will. And how would we stop them, I ask you? Do you think Thorin would drag someone like Dori or Bifur into battle at the point of a sword?"

"I suppose that wouldn't be very sensible." Twisting her fingers together, Billa tried to make sense of her thoughts. "Do you really not have any women who ever travel?"

Balin looked uncomfortable, but still started speaking. "The fall of Erebor drove our people out into the world. We had no place to settle, no help from Elves or Men, no home and no comfort to be found. There was no choice but to travel, because the risk of remaining in any place was too high, much higher than the risks in traveling as a group, even if those were still too high.

"Men would hunt for us, convinced we had escaped the mountain with gold that they could have just for a bit of bloodshed, and any women or children they found... We quickly learned that there was nothing more pressing than to hide what we cannot replace or restore. We are not like Men, who have as many of one as of another; even in prosperous times, when we took pride in embellishing the beauty of our wives and daughters, there were two boys born for every girl. Since the fall... The number of children born to our clan can be counted on two hands, and none has been female. The time may come soon that there is no hope, and we last few will wait only to die and complete our extinction."

Billa's eyes had gone wide as he spoke, his voice soft but powerful. She could picture the movement of the dwarves through mountains and towns, set upon and derided and never finding any welcome. "But once you have your home..."

"It's what we hope for," Balin said, trying to smile. "Once we're back where we belong, where our people can feel safe..."

There was nothing she could think of to say, and so she didn't say anything. After a few minutes, Balin patted her shoulder and left her to stare into the fire as he sought out his bedroll. It was technically Fili's, but the younger dwarf had claimed it was much too warm to use it and had laid it out for Balin, carefully arranging it in a spot that lay flat and had no rocks underneath to twist the old dwarf's back.

She drifted off to sleep, sitting by the fire, and when she woke up she found that she'd been moved to her bedroll and covered with a thick blanket. It was a definite change from being prodded awake with the steel-toed boots of whatever dwarf had the watch before hers. When she'd gotten back from taking care of her morning ablutions, her bedroll and pack were nowhere to be seen, and certainly not in the mess she'd left them after digging out what she needed. Before she could wonder about it, she saw her pack on Kili's back and frowned.

"Come," Thorin said, even as Bombur passed her a piece of sausage wrapped in lembas. "There is no time to delay - Gandalf says we must still travel a good while, and we are out of food."

Billa paused with the food she had halfway to her mouth. Despite the encouraging gestures from some of the others, she wrapped it carefully and slipped it into her pocket, since her pack wasn't available. It rested against the ring, which she kept forgetting; she really needed to put it in her bag soon. Billa dithered about putting her sword on her waist or using it as an aid to walking so she could keep from limping as much, but then Dori and Fili formed a chair with their arms. "Up you go, Miss Baggins."

Looking at Dori as if he'd spoken a foreign language, Billa said, "Up where? Surely you can't actually mean to carry me?"

"Of course!" Fili was much too cheerful for this time of morning, let alone for trying to pick her up and drag her around like a knapsack. "We worked out a rota, although I could carry you the entire way myself."

Much, much too cheerful. She slapped his hands as he made to pick her up, ignoring his wounded look. "I'm not actually crippled, and it would be most improper to be... Be... manhandled. My reputation would be quite, quite beyond all hope of repair."

"You slow us down, burglar," Thorin said, his voice a low growl. "And you'll slow us down even more if you worsen your injury."

Setting her jaw mulishly, Billa stalked out of the cave, using the sword as a walking stick and hiding her limp as best she could. She'd barely gotten past Thorin when she found herself flying through the air only to land draped over his shoulder, the air escaping her in a woosh at the impact as her sword fell out of her hand.

The surprise of it kept her silent for a moment, just long enough for him to start walking. It woke her up to what she must look like and she started beating his back with her fists and kicking her legs. "Put me down, you oaf! How dare you touch a lady without permission?"

"He's only trying to help," Kili said, starting to approach but then jumping back when she gave him a look of pure rage.

Thorin's arm settled like a band of iron around her legs, and he steadfastly ignored her continued blows to his back even as her fists got sore. Gandalf, the rotter, just looked amused as they went past. Billa glowered but stopped fighting, since it was so clearly useless. "Not a gentleman in the lot," she muttered angrily. "No more idea of how to treat a lady than fish have of flying."

Chapter Text

She was finally allowed down when they stopped to rest and have some water, since they couldn't have any food. Billa took a vicious pleasure in eating the food she'd been given that morning, although despite her anger she was slightly worried by how pale Thorin looked. When they started again, Balin steered her towards Fili and she sighed before letting him and Dori lift her as they'd originally intended to. It seemed the dwarves were not going to let her walk, and at least this way she wasn't putting an additional weight on the one of them that had been chewed on by a warg the day before.

The next time they stopped, all hungry and several grumbling about sore feet, Nori handed her a crudely carved walking stick and she hugged him impulsively. Both of them blushed fiercely, but she was smiling as she said, "Thank you! Useful things are the best presents, and my muscles have been most cramped from holding still so long."

"No trouble," Nori mumbled, backing away. "Least I could do."

They walked for perhaps another hour, Billa's limp turning towards a hobble as she cursed herself and the dwarves for stubbornness. Finally, Gandalf stopped and said, "Now, my friend is used to living alone and may not welcome having so many thrust upon him unexpectedly; once I have introduced the idea to him, then you may start arriving by pairs, with five minutes in between."

Billa's lips tightened and she barely resisted the urge to use her new walking stick on Gandalf's shins. "Will we be throwing around his family heirlooms before or after we ask him for anything?"

"Beorn has been here since time immemorial, and will be here long after these rocks have worn away to sand," Gandalf said comfortably. "He lacks any such thing as heirlooms."

He'd said the last word as if it was an impossibly simple-minded concept to care about having anything handed down to you, and Billa really was going to hit him sooner or later. Crossing her arms, she sat down on a rock to pout while Gandalf led the invasion of someone else's home, in exactly the same way he'd had hers invaded. Was this Beorn going to be their new burglar, or perhaps now the company needed a smuggler?

"Come along, Billa, come along," Gandalf said, gesturing for her to follow him down into the valley, past a hive of the largest bees she'd ever seen.

"No," Thorin said flatly. Several of the others were also shaking their heads and moving to stand between her and the wizard. "She can barely stand on her feet thanks to her own stubbornness, and none of us know this man and whether he can be trusted. The burglar will not go with you."

Gandalf started to say something but was cut off by arguments from the other dwarves. Thorin, having spoken, contented himself with standing adamantly still, somehow seeming more threatening than the dwarves that were shouting and reaching for their weapons. Gandalf was getting testier as they carried on, and Billa felt too exhausted and cranky to put up with it for even a minute longer.

"You." Pointing at Bofur with her walking stick, she said, "You can help me to walk down there, and help Gandalf by being charming."

Forcing herself to her feet, she started hobbling along, leaving Bofur to catch up and offer his arm to support her. "Charming, am I?"

"Oh, you know you are," she said crossly. "Even if you choose the most inappropriate things to joke about."

With a grin, he swept her up, carrying her in front of him. "This, then, is officially a charming gesture, like in a ballad about some fair maiden being swept off her pretty furry feet."

Covering her reddened face with her hands, Billa said, "Mister Bofur, I think that's the most forward thing I have ever heard in my life!"

"Ah, don't mind me, then," he said. "Although you do look most fetching when you blush."

"You should never talk about a hobbit's feet, not unless you're courting," she said. "And even then, it's considered somewhat fast."

Nodding solemnly, he said, "I'll remember that, when I go back to the Shire."

"You'll be welcome any time you want to visit," she said, not able to help her smile at the thought that she might keep some of the friends she was making on this journey, even after they had their mountain and she was back amidst her garden and her gossip. "Although you'll understand if I don't bring out the good china."

Solemnly, he said, "I promise to take the best of care with your dishes."

The peal of laughter that brought out faded away as a half-dressed giant of a man loomed over them. He was even taller than Gandalf, and had absolutely nothing covering his arms or legs. Billa found herself grateful for Bofur's hold as the man looked at her with lowered brows. "What's this little thing?"

"This is Miss Billa Baggins, of Bag End in the Shire," Gandalf said. "Carried by Mister Bofur of Ered Luin. And I am Gandalf."

"Never heard of any of you," Beorn said, watching closely as Billa, recalled to herself and the proprieties, slid down from Bofur's arms and stood on her own feet with the help of her walking stick. "Why, it's a proper little madam, isn't it?"

Smoothing her skirt down, Billa dipped a brief curtsey. "Pleased to meet you, Mister Beorn."

"No misters for me," he said, bending down to look at her. "Are all of your people as small as you are?"

Only the thought of what the people back home would think if a Baggins backed down from impertinence made her hold her ground as he leaned in towards her. "We are perfectly sized for our own comfort. The rest of the world is too tall."

He laughed heartily. "A tiny sting from a tiny tongue! You may tell me why you are here, for I do not often welcome visitors."

"My friend Radagast has spoken well of your hospitality," Gandalf said. "And we are here because we lost our supplies when we fought goblins from the Misty Mountains."

"Whatever were you doing there?" Beorn frowned again, the expression like a thundercloud. "Radagast should have spoken ill of trying to cross the mountains while the stone giants are mating."

Billa choked at the thought, suddenly grateful that the experience in the mountains hadn't been worse. Gandalf started telling the story of the trip through the mountains and Billa looked up to see Dwalin and Dori making their way down the hill. She sighed, wishing they could go inside and sit down, then put a hand over her stomach when it rumbled audibly.

"Such a big noise from such a little thing!" Beorn poked her stomach and Billa's eyes went wide. Automatically, without any thought behind the advisability of it, she cracked a palm across his face.

From the corner of her eye, she could see Bofur had his mattock out and she shook her head at him frantically. He froze, his knuckles white on the handle of the weapon, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Prematurely, as it turned out, since Beorn straightened to his full height and picked her up to hold her at his eye level. She could hear dwarven battle cries ringing out and she wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.

"STOP!" Gandalf's voice seemed to shake the ground underneath them, but Billa still heard the jingle of the dwarves' armor as they ran.

"Put down the hobbit and we will allow you to live!" Thorin's voice didn't have the same reverberation as Gandalf's, but it still managed to seem like a knell for the end of the world.

Billa rolled her eyes. "It is incredibly rude to threaten your host. Honestly, your first response is always unreasonable and violent! Maybe, on occasion, things might be handled diplomatically."

A deep, rumbling laugh came from Beorn's chest, and his eyes danced as he looked Billa. "It seems to me that a slap is hardly diplomacy, little madam."

"Yes, well, a gentleman never puts a hand on a lady without permission," she said, guiltily aware that the rough manners of the dwarves might be starting to rub off on her. "Speaking of which, please put me down, right now."

"Will you protect me from your friends, then?" Beorn turned to walk inside his house, gesturing with his free hand. "Come. The little madam needs to fill her belly to get nice and fat again, and the rest of you might as well join her."

Billa cast a gimlet eye over the company, arching a brow. With reactions varying from shamefaced to mulish, they put up their weapons and fell into step behind Beorn. Ori let out a little scream as a dog on its hind legs presented him with a washbowl for his hands, but soon enough Billa was addressing herself to a cream puff as big as her head and an even larger mug of milky tea and so she felt she might just be all right in the end.

There was a great deal of conversation going on around her, but Billa was focused on finally getting a chance to eat until she was full. Every time she thought of slowing down or stopping, a new dish would be passed around or a particularly choice bit of cheese would be placed on her plate, and she would hum with contentment as she kept eating. When she could finally hold no more, she dabbed at her mouth with a napkin brought by a sheep with a pink ribbon around its neck, and was too tired to even find it odd.

Stifling a burp, she looked around sleepily to find herself the center of attention. "I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention. Is something wrong?"

"We're just waiting to see if you burst," Bofur said, and she made a face.

Very much on her dignity, she said, "I haven't been eating well lately."

"Was your skirt originally supposed to fit?" Kili's question was met with a sharp elbow to the ribs from Fili. "What? You know you've wondered about it, too!"

"Anyone who could fill out that much skirt would be too big to roll out of their smial," Billa said, looking wistfully at a cherry tart she hadn't seen before. "It's just the fashion - mine are fairly modest, but an old spinster really doesn't need to be in the latest styles at all times."

With a small chuckle, Gandalf said, "You are hardly old, my dear. Why, your great-great-aunt Aealla married when she was just two years younger than you are now, and went on to have quite the family."

"Yes, well, there's nothing anyone can do about the Tooks." Her hand flew to her mouth to cover a large yawn. "I'm terribly sorry, how rude of me."

Gesturing for one of the sheep to guide her, Beorn said, "Go to bed, little one. Do not leave the house in the nighttime, for even the fiercest of your guardians might have trouble protecting you on this night. My friends will help you with anything you might need if I have not returned when you awake."

Billa nodded and said what she hoped was a proper goodnight as she stumbled off to bed.

Chapter Text

Breakfast in bed was something she could get used to, even if it was delivered by a dog standing on its hind legs. The bed itself was what seemed to be a giant bag stuffed with wool, but compared to sleeping in caves and on forest floors it was the height of luxury. She might never have left the warm covers if she hadn't been forced to, but once she was up it seemed better to make use of whatever time she had to prepare for when they'd have to leave. Given the bruising pace set so far, she was surprised someone hadn't already knocked on her door to say they were leaving immediately.

The dwarves were sitting down to lunch, around a low table with log benches that were the right height for them, and Billa was happy enough at the thought of not having her legs dangling. She slipped onto the bench to a laugh from Bofur. "We were wondering if you were going to hibernate after that meal you had."

Reaching for a plate of scones, she said, "If hobbits were to hibernate, it would take more than that to tide one over for more than a night."

"But we've never seen you eat so much," Ori said timidly.

"There's never been that much available to eat," she said. "Except at Rivendell, but they know how to properly feed a hobbit, thanks to my mother's friendship with Lord Elrond."

Frowning, Balin said, "Have we not been feeding you properly, then?"

Guiltily aware that she'd sounded critical, Billa said, "No one would expect you to provide the full six meals per day, under the circumstances, especially when you've gone without yourselves."

"Six? We've been eating well on this trip with two or three!" Kili's interjection made Billa wince internally, and she wondered again if he could possibly be an adult when he seemed so much like a tween. Then again, what would someone that young be doing on a journey like this? Perhaps escaping something harder, if two meals a day was considered eating well.

"Hobbits like to eat," she said with a shrug. "It's one of the chief pleasures of home. Insult a hobbit's cooking and you've made an enemy for life."

Solemnly, Gloin said, "A dire fate, indeed. They might refuse to pass the mustard."

Looking at him sidelong, Billa said, "One dispute I mediated had lasted for three hundred years, passed down through generations, and involved three separate shunnings, two barn fires, and a vicious seduction by a faithless wastrel who refused to acknowledge his child."

"While I managed to secure an income for the mother, her reputation was so thoroughly destroyed that she had to leave Hobbiton, because no one would have anything to do with her, or let her for one moment forget her shame." Pushing away from the table, Billa said, "Excuse me, I've remembered something I meant to do."

She retreated to her room, sorting through her pack to pull out everything that needed to be washed - everything, basically - and what needed to be replaced. Her spare clothes were varying degrees of tattered, and she remembered her grand offer to make Thorin a spare set of clothes wryly. She'd have to make her own first, and hopefully do as good a job as the seamstress she normally hired.

Thinking again of poor Bryony and her little Bungo made Billa heartsick, and she wished she could somehow fly home to check on them. She'd have to see whether she could send a letter home, because surely by now Lobelia would be eyeing Bag End and thinking of how no one could doubt her as a real Baggins if she lived there. Hamfast would have his work cut out for him, keeping her out.

If she kept dwelling on such thoughts, she'd be finding the closest eagle and begging for a ride home. Shaking it off, Billa flagged down a sheep that was in the hallway and thought she managed to make clear what she wanted. It waited as she gathered an armful of clothes and then trotted along, leading her past the eating hall and to a room with a ridiculously enormous washtub; it was larger than Billa's bathtub back home. Still, it would do, even if there was nothing like a washboard to be seen.

After another trip to fetch the last of her clothes, Billa was finally ready to start. She had just fished out a pair of lacy pettipants when the door opened and Bombur stumbled in, the door slamming shut behind him without him doing it. Stuffing her underpants back under the water, she remembered her resolution to be calmer when responding to distressing events and took a deep breath. "Good morning, Mister Bombur."

"G'mrng." He was so flushed that his skin clashed with his beard, and Billa tried to think back to work out whether she'd ever heard him speak before. She couldn't actually remember a time, and the way he kept looking down and darting glances around the room made her wonder if he wasn't shy rather than unfriendly.

Accordingly, her tone was gentle as she said, "Did you need something?"

"Thorin sent me." It all came out in a single burst, the words seeming to run together. "About the laundry."

"Now, look, just because it's called women's work doesn't mean only women can do it," Billa said, her hands on her hips. "I don't care what he thinks I agreed to, I am not washing everyone's clothes for them."

Bombur had backed up against the door, looking as if he desperately wanted to throw it open and run away. "N-no, miss! It'd be beneath you! That's what I'm for!"

Pausing, Billa thought about it and incidentally tried to seem as non-threatening as possible. "Could you please explain?"

"It's, you shouldn't have to work," Bombur said, still fidgeting. "But it wouldn't be... I'm married, y'see, so it isn't like I'd... Gloin's just no good at washing clothes, tears his own whenever he even tries."

Billa pinched the bridge of her nose. "Tell me, are dwarf women allowed to do anything? No, wait, I'm not strong enough to hear the answer right now. Go get everyone else's clothes, and knock when you get back."

He looked at her in confusion and she said, "You all smell. Bring back all of their clothes and, after we're done washing yours and mine, they can finish up. And see if you can find anything resembling a washboard; the sheep didn't have the slightest clue what I was talking about."

Neither, it turned out, did Bombur, and after she'd explained they could hear a tremendous clatter outside the door of metal striking metal. Shortly, the door opened just enough to admit a hand holding out one of the serving trays from lunch, beaten into the general wavy shape of a washboard. Billa took it and looked it over critically. "It'll do for a start, but the grooves should be shallower, and there should be a frame around it to make it easier to hold and use. And if one of you could by chance figure out how to make a mangle, that would be amazingly helpful."

This, of course, necessitated a description of what a mangle was, and Billa wondered just how a race of skilled craftsmen, who apparently were tasked with doing laundry, hadn't managed to invent one. When she asked Bombur, once they were peacefully settled in to take turns scrubbing things on the washboard, he shrugged. "Mostly we don't have more than one set of clothes, so we wash them as we wash ourselves. How it was handled in Erebor, I don't know - mostly the people who survived were nobles or merchants, not serving people."

"That's a shame." It made her quiet, because once again it drove home how very privileged her life was compared to how the dwarves had to live. She'd never known a single day of want, of not having plenty and enough to share, and it made her feel incredibly guilty that she'd never really thought about people who couldn't say the same. Even the poorest of hobbits always had a place to sleep and food to eat, even if they had to apply to her or to the Thain in order to make suitable arrangements.

"You throw away the outside and cook the inside. Then you eat the outside and throw away the inside. What did you have for dinner?"

Billa blinked as the riddle pulled her from her thoughts, her lips curling into a smile as Bombur kept on diligently scrubbing the pair of trousers in his hands. "An ear of corn?"

"Bless me, I suppose that works," he said. "Although when my Dorildur told it to me, it was a chicken."

"Is that your wife's name?" If she ever returned to Bag End, Billa was going to double her laundry girl's pay. Her back was already protesting at the labor, and she was less than half done.

Shaking his head, Bombur said, "My eldest. Takes after his mother, but with my red hair."

"Oh, you have children! I'd thought..." Billa shook her head. "I'm sorry, I never know when I'm being inexplicably rude or just nosy. For hobbits, it's considered polite to ask after each other's family."

"It's all right." He smiled shyly and told her all about his wife and three boys. After a while Gloin came in with a better washboard and a rudimentary mangle, and stayed to talk about his own wife and son. By the time they'd finished with the clothes, she quite felt like the three of them had become friends, and she wondered wistfully if she'd ever have the opportunity to take them up on the offers of hospitality and being introduced to their families.

Chapter Text

Billa was able to sit down to dinner that night feeling clean, if tired, and it increased her cheer immeasurably. Beorn had returned while they were eating and demanded that they have an evening of entertainment, which didn't sound at all like a bad idea. Billa managed to rig up a way to show Bombur how to make popcorn, which was a big hit with all, but none more than Beorn; the giant man soon had his animal servants making enough to fill bowls upon bowls full.

The dwarves brought out what instruments they had and started playing and singing, the music getting fuller as the dogs and sheep dragged out harps and fiddles and presented them shyly to the dwarves. Where they came from, Billa didn't care to think about too closely; she was busy laughing as she drew Balin into another sword dance like they'd had at Rivendell, then showing Bombur one of the harvest dances from back home, and then the other dwarves were dancing as well. Bofur's head dipped up and down as he played his flute, but his steps were lively as he followed her through the pattern of the dance, until she turned and took Ori's hands to lead him through a complicated series of steps.

When at last she sat down, glowing with the exertion and feeling a twinge in the ankle that hadn't been long recovered from being sprained, Beorn was next to her munching popcorn. "So, are you courting with the old one, the fat one, or the one with the hat? The little one with the inkstained hands seems unlikely as a choice, but I suppose he might still be in the running."

Choking on the honeyed mead she was drinking, Billa squawked, "What? I'm not courting anyone!"

"No? Mark my words, little madam, before too long I expect you will be married to a dwarf, and carrying a little dwarf/hobbit child - a dwobbit!" Beorn laughed uproariously and slapped his knee. "Yes, a little dwobbit, with a furry face to match his toes. You will have to bring him for a visit, so I can tell the grand saga of his parents in their early courting days."

"You are a very rude man," Billa said repressively. "And horrendously inappropriate. Even if I was being courted by a dwarf, and even if it was possible to someday have children, it is only slightly more appropriate to talk about it when it makes me uncomfortable than it would be to drop your trousers and waggle your bottom at all those present."

"Burglar." Thorin's voice came from much too close, and Billa jumped. Had he heard her just then? Worse, had he heard Beorn? Billa longed to be able to disappear, but she had left the ring safely tucked into her pack, and in any case she would have to face him eventually. "I would speak with you."

Slinking away from Beorn's side, she followed Thorin out of the dining hall and into the quiet of the corridor beyond. "Did I do something wrong?"

There was a flash of something that might have been discomfort across his face before he was frowning again. "You should not have been washing clothes."

"Oh, spare me." Once again, he managed to annoy her faster than anyone ever had in her life. "Was there anything else? Should I not dance, or lift my own plate, or breathe on my own without dwarven assistance?"

"You have my permission to breathe as much as you like." It was said with a perfectly straight face, but she thought there might be a dash of levity in his eyes. "Although you might want to be more careful around our host. He seems to want to keep you."

With a laugh, she said, "You dwarves really take paranoia to an art form. I am sure our host does not want a pet hobbit, and if he did I know several who would volunteer just to be fed so well."

"He doesn't provide any meat," Thorin said sulkily.

"I am a skinchanger." Billa had some slight comfort in the fact that Thorin also jumped at how close Beorn's booming voice was, although his was more of a flinch while she all but fell against Thorin. "As I would not like to be cooked and served, I will not allow it to happen to any of my brethren."

Tilting her head, Billa said, "You change skins? Like a fur--" She let the word die at the growl from Beorn, and edged a bit behind Thorin. At least he was wearing a weapon, where she'd left hers in her room. Balin was right, you never knew when you might need it.

A little scream escaped her when Beorn dropped to all fours and the air around him shifted, until there was an enormous black bear where he had been. Billa was trying to tell herself not to panic, but it seemed as if she wasn't listening because she was hiding behind Thorin and clutching his shirt, the scent of the soap they'd used for the laundry almost as comforting as the warm strength of his muscles.

She didn't quite realize she'd closed her eyes until she opened them when Beorn laughed, back in his man form. "So protective. Are you angry with me, then?"

"Scaring someone so little is no harmless trick," Thorin snarled, and she wasn't quite sure what she thought of that. That she should probably let go, and at least pretend she wasn't small and frightened.

"I'm fine." Her voice quavered a little too much for it to sound convincing, so she cleared her throat and tried again. "I was just startled. Really, I'm fine."

"My apologies, little madam," Beorn said with a handsome bow. "May I escort you back to the dancing?"

He was almost too polite, but pointing it out would, in itself, be rude. Reluctantly, she let go of Thorin and took Beorn's outstretched hand. "Thank you."

The fun had drained out of the evening, and Billa excused herself as soon as she could, to a chorus of concerned comments and suggestions on how she might mitigate the effects of straining herself with too much work and dancing. Billa mightily resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She'd thought the dwarves were obnoxious when they were treating her like a bumbling child, but this cosseting since they'd found out her sex was somehow much, much worse.

She wasn't sure what woke her, but when she couldn't fall back to sleep she sighed and decided to find wherever the kitchen might be in this place and see if she could come up with some approximation of hot cocoa. There were sleeping dwarves and animals everywhere, it seemed, but it was easy enough to walk quietly and not disturb anyone.

Just beyond the kitchen there was a little room that had glass all around, and she could smell Dori's pipeweed from the doorway. Smiling at the thought of having a comfortable chat with her friend, Billa prepared two big mugs of warm milk with honey and cinnamon and brought them over, looking out at the starlight through the windows. "I thought you might like some, since I was making it anyway."

"Thank you." The voice was definitely not Dori's, and Billa was suddenly extremely aware that she was in a nightdress without a proper robe on and her hair hanging loosely down her back. Thorin didn't seem to notice how disheveled she was, though, and so she mentally shrugged as she handed him one of the mugs and sat down.

They sat in silence for a while, but it was a comfortable silence. The scent of the pipe smoke reminded Billa of sitting with her father when they would stay up late and wait for her mother to return from an adventure, and she edged closer to him without realizing until he held up the pipe with some amusement and said, "Would you like some?"

"Oh, no, I couldn't," she said, although she also couldn't quite make herself pull back. "It wouldn't... It would be unfeminine."

He looked at her and then at the pipe, bringing it back to his lips for another puff before he said, "I've never noticed it affecting my masculinity one way or another, and if it affected my sister in any such way, she certainly never mentioned it."

"I... I'm sure it wouldn't be proper." She was tempted, though, and very afraid it showed as he laughed and held the pipe out again. Before she could rethink it, she bit the end of the pipe and pulled in a breath, only to cough and put a hand over her mouth. "It feels as if I burned my tongue!"

"That's because you did," he said, and laughed again when she glared at him. "As I did, the first time I smoked a pipe. Maybe it's the proper thing to do, as everyone does it."

Still fighting the urge to cough, she said, "That's not what propriety is, although I'm not surprised you don't know that. It seems like no one cares about propriety except us hobbits."

"What is it, then? You speak of it often, but none of us have ever worked out what you mean by it," Thorin said. "Other than that it makes you... anxious."

"Such a polite word," she said drily. "I believe I had previously heard my behavior described as 'shomashundash' among other things."

Blowing out a smoke ring, he said, "Shomakhzundush. It means goose, although you're not supposed to know it."

"If you dwarves don't want me to learn your language, you shouldn't speak it around me," she said. "Although I'd thought that particular word meant something more... earthy."

"Soon we dwarrows will have no secrets at all," he said, leaning back. "We will have to trust in our burglar never to betray us."

Solemnly, she said, "I never will. I give you my word as a Baggins."

"I will accept it gladly." He offered her the pipe again and she shivered as she realized she was placing her lips exactly where his had been just a moment before. "For I've been told a Baggins always keeps their word."

She only coughed a little this time, exhaling slowly. "This reminds me of sitting with my father and mother, watching the stars. Father would be able to tell her all about each one's name and place in the sky, and she'd talk about how different they looked in far-off places."

"Why did you save me?" His question was so abrupt that she fumbled and would have dropped the pipe if he hadn't caught it.

Because I had to. "I... I don't know." Looking down at her hands, she said, "You would have done the same for me. Any member of the company would, so it's only right that I should do the same."

"Any member?" Her eyes darted to his face but she quickly looked away again, not sure what might be showing on her face and even less sure what to make of the blankness on his. "I suppose I thought... I thought wrong. Excuse me."

"Oh, but--" He stood and bowed and she didn't know what to do. "I'm sorry, I don't know what I've done, but I'm terribly sorry."

Shaking his head, he said, "You've nothing to apologize for. Get some sleep; if we can, I'd like to leave in the morning."

Short of clutching his arm and begging him to stay, there was nothing she could do but bid him goodnight. She waited for a few minutes, the tobacco smoke turning stale in the air that now felt much colder. With a sigh, she took the cups to the kitchen and took herself off to bed.

Chapter Text

The next morning, she woke up in an unspeakably foul mood, made all the worse for not having a real reason for it. She ate breakfast in her room, sullenly daring any member of the company to come and get her, and then found she was resentful that none of them did. The laundry was done; her pack was organized; sitting down to read lasted all of one paragraph before she slammed the book closed. Obviously hiding in her room wasn't the solution.

Picking up her sword, she strapped it around her waist and left her room, her petticoat rustling with every step she took. Once outside, she started working through the sword drills Balin had shown her, running through all of them in order and then repeating them until her muscles burned.

"Point up!" She was obeying before she thought about it, and then continued as Balin called out more instructions and corrections. Just as she thought she'd disgrace herself by falling down and refusing to ever move again, Balin called for her to stop. "That's enough for now, ladd-- Miss Baggins. You should rest."

"Come here, little madam," Beorn said, waving his enormous mug of mead and almost spilling his bowl of popcorn. "Tell me what has you so upset. Did one of your suitors get fresh?"

Practically growling, she shoved her sword in its sheath. "I do not have any suitors!"

It just made Beorn laugh, and she wiped away the sweat on her brow before taking a deep breath and letting it out. "Will you help us? We have a quest to finish, we can't remain here forever."

"I will, since I know your story is true." Gesturing to a seat beside him, Beorn said, "Send the old one to get the others. I will tell you what you must know about the Mirkwood."

The news was not good; Mirkwood was likely to be dangerous and guaranteed to be unpleasant, with no way to hunt for food and nothing fit to be eaten that grew from the ground there. Even the water would be suspect, and straying off the paths would be taking an unimaginable risk with their lives. "The perfect walking holiday, I'm sure."

She got a few sidelong glances for her mutter, but no one really paid much attention. Beorn kept talking, asking for details about the goblins under the Misty Mountains, and she stood. "If you will excuse me, gentlemen, I'm just going to go freshen up."

Slipping away was easy enough, but instead of going to her room she went on a walk through the garden, trying to puzzle through what was wrong with her. She was so changed from the hobbit she'd been when she left home, and she wasn't sure what she thought of that. Somehow, she felt closer to the dwarves she was traveling with than she did to neighbors and friends that she had known all her life, and even the vast majority of her actual relations. Was it just from being wrapped up in the excitement of the situation or was it something real?

No one would blame her if she turned back, except possibly Gandalf. The dwarves would encourage it, and everyone back home would say it's exactly what she should do. It would be the proper thing to do, the sensible thing.

And if she did it, she'd never be able to face herself again. Even if Gandalf wasn't telling the truth when he said the quest would fail without her - and certainly he'd proven his words should be examined carefully before being accepted - even then, she would never stop wondering what had happened. She wouldn't be able to help wondering whether Ori had ever gathered up the nerve to tell Dori to stop mothering him, whether Bombur's wife appreciated the recipes she'd told him about, whether Thorin...

Shaking off the thought, she sat down under a tree and looked up through the canopy of leaves. She couldn't go back, not yet. Maybe not ever, but that was something to be thought of later, after all this was done. For now, she had to work out how she was going to manage going forward.

For one thing, the issue with her gender was going to have to be settled somehow. Surely there was a way to find a middle ground between being treated as roughly as they treated each other and being so hemmed in she had to get permission to breathe.

The solution was so brilliantly simple that she kicked herself for not thinking of it sooner. She sat up, ready to run back to the house in order to get started, but then she heard footsteps and went still, not really wanting to be drawn into conversation when she'd need every available minute to work before they were dragged hither and yon behind Thorin once again.

As if thinking of him had called him up, she heard him speaking and groaned silently, leaning back against the tree so he wouldn't see her there. "Why are you really helping us? Gandalf said that you have little love for anyone, and do not lightly tolerate strangers - or dwarves."

"I am not helping you," Beorn said. "What do you know of the history of hobbits?"

Billa smirked as she pictured the look on Thorin's face at such a question. He was barely aware hobbits existed now; if he knew anything at all about their history, she'd make him her mother's famous honey cakes, and give him the recipe.

"They originated in the Valley of Anduin." Damn. She'd thought she was going to take the recipe to her grave. "The elves say they are related to the race of Men, but there are some who say they were created by Yavanna."

"All of that is right, although none of it is." Billa craned her head to see where Beorn stood, looming over Thorin although for once he didn't look as if he was doing it deliberately. "I will not tell all of my little cousins' secrets - they may not even remember them all, and it would do them no service to remind them. But, for the fact that my people once failed to protect hers, I will help your hobbit, which means I must help you."

His voice heavy, Thorin said, "Another debt."

Clapping a hand heavily on Thorin's shoulder, Beorn said, "Cheer up. I might have helped you just for killing the Great Goblin and giving me the chance to pick off the scouts that have been trying to cross my borders."

"We must leave," Thorin said. "Every moment we waste is time we give to the enemy."

"And time for you to recover," Beorn said. "So, for now, come! I want to see if the funny one with the hat will make a move to court the little one properly."

Billa rolled her eyes at that, wishing there was some way to convince Beorn that it wasn't even a little funny to make up his stories about how all the dwarves were swooning for her favor. Poor Bombur had almost choked to death when Beorn had suggested she should favor him, since he obviously enjoyed food almost as much as she did, and the young princes had taken to going around declaiming spontaneous ballads to the beauty of her earlobes or philtrum or any other nonsense they could come up with, although thankfully Bofur had stopped them with a clout to the head when they'd started to sing a truly shocking ode to her toes. They'd apologized after, and promised never to indulge in such smutty talk again.

The likelihood of Beorn giving up his entertainment was vanishingly small, though. Overall, having her pride damaged by the constant reminders of her never having been courted was a small price to pay for these days of comfort and plentiful food, not to mention the supplies and advice for continuing their trek. In the meantime, she needed to get a hold of a sheep. She had honey cakes to make, and a master plan to get in order.

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Feeling a bit nervous, Billa stepped out of her room with her pack on her back. The time had finally come to leave, and she'd spent two days frantically sewing in order to be ready on time. She still hadn't quite finished, but it was enough to be getting on with.

The noise of the others abruptly stopped as she stepped outside, at least until Beorn started laughing so hard that he had to sit down and wipe tears from his eyes. Billa felt quite put out at the reaction and crossed her arms. "Well? What's the problem?"

"It's improper for you to be without your skirt," Kili said in a strangled voice. "You said."

It was. It really was. But, then, who was going to see her? Reminding herself firmly of that fact, she said, "But it's also improper for dwarves to travel with women that aren't dressed like men, and the rules are very clear that, when possible, a guest's preferences for etiquette should be respected. Since you all stayed at my house when we began, you're all still technically my guests."

Beorn was laughing so hard now that she was concerned about his ability to take in air, and a few of the dwarves looked like they were only refraining from joining him through heroic self control. Adjusting the lapels of her father's coat, which she'd tailored to fit better, she said, "I hardly see what's so amusing."

"Lass, your shape..." She turned to face Gloin and he trailed off, clearing his throat. "Nothing. I mean, it's very clever. That's how hobbit men dress, is it?"

"Yes, although any true gentlehobbit would be ashamed of having a waistcoat so shabby." Fiddling with one of the buttons on the coat, she said, "I would've dressed as a dwarf, but Balin had mentioned something once about there being rules as to who could dress how, and I didn't want to trespass, not to mention the lack of beard."

Balin held up his hands as several of the company turned to look at him. "The lad-- lass did not consult me, I assure you."

"Don't you see? Now you can all go back to calling me laddie, or Mister Baggins, or even Bilbo - that's what my mother would've named me if I'd been a boy." Raising her hand to where her hair was pulled back into a neat queue at the nape of her neck, she said, "I suppose I should cut my hair to complete the look, but there are some men who still wear their hair this way. Is it all right, do you think?"

After a slight cough, Bofur said, "I don't think your hair is something anyone would be thinking on, if deciding on whether you're female."

"Good, then it's settled." Billa smiled and adjusted her pack on her back before smoothing the tails of her coat down over her hips. She still felt shockingly exposed without the bulk of gathered material at her waist from the skirt and petticoat she habitually wore, but the sense of lightness and lack of restriction was also exciting, in a way. The trousers were a little tight, but the tailor in Bree had assured her that was the proper style, and anyway there was no one this far east to quibble about hobbit fashions.

As she scrambled onto her pony's back, she saw Bifur making the sign she could have sworn meant 'peach,' but they'd had the last of the ones off Beorn's trees the night before at dinner. Hopefully Bifur wasn't upset with her for using so many of them in a fruit tart she'd made after she finished making the honey cakes. She still needed to find a way to present Thorin with the recipe, hopefully without making him ask in any way why she was doing so.

Beorn stood, wheezing slightly and still breaking into an occasional chuckle. Coming to stand next to where she sat on her pony, he kissed her forehead and said, "Come back and visit. Bring all your suitors and I will make more of your popped corn."

"I'll try," she said, smiling a bit stiffly at this one last reminder of his 'suitors' nonsense. "You'll always have an invitation to visit Bag End, whenever I return."

"The home that your father built with his own two hands to show his love for your mother, as you told us," Beorn said solemnly, even if his eyes were still full of mirth. "I would feel privileged to see it."

Slapping her pony's rump set her on her way, and soon they were moving away from Beorn's peaceful valley and on towards the depths of Mirkwood, Beorn's last admonition ringing in their ears. "Make sure you never leave the path!"

Chapter Text

There was a bit of confusion when they set out as to how they would go, as Billa's pony seemed to be the only one willing to be out in front; most of the dwarves hung back, swearing and scuffling behind her. It finally got sorted out after Billa heard some sharp smacks behind her and turned to see Bombur twirling his ladle and driving the others forward. Gloin came up on the other side of her and soon enough the three of them were chatting happily while the others rode ahead.

Billa had to admit, she had been more than a little tempted to 'forget' that they had promised to stop at the edge of the woods and send the ponies back. For all that she had been so reluctant to ever get on a pony in the first place, she'd gotten used to riding and it definitely made the miles go by faster. They'd even gotten Ori to come join them towards the back of the party, writing down some of the recipes that she and Bombur exchanged and helping her identify plants from the herb book she had. After the second time she and Ori had stopped to gather some plants with medicinal properties, Dwalin made a disgusted noise and told them to stay where they were; he was faster at mounting and dismounting, even if his idea of gathering the plants was to yank them up by the roots and thrust them in Billa's direction. She was starting to wonder whether she could fill a saddlebag with dirt and have a garden to carry with her, but again that depended on keeping the ponies as they traveled.

At the edge of the forest, the ponies stopped in their tracks and refused to budge any further. Billa tried to nudge hers forward and it looked at her reproachfully before taking two steps back, away from the abnormally long shadows cast by the trees. Reluctantly, she slid off the pony's back and shouldered her pack, adjusting it to hang correctly even with her bedroll and two waterskins added to it. This time no one would be volunteering to carry her pack for her; they all of them were loaded down to the point where they looked like walking luggage.

She assumed they were carrying extra food because of Beorn's strictures not to hunt or forage in the woods, but she was disabused of the notion when Gloin pulled out his pocketwatch and said, "Right, better to have second breakfast now or it'll run into elevensies."

"Beg pardon?" Billa tilted her head to look at him curiously, only to turn at Bombur handing her a small seedcake with a dollop of honey.

"We'll be feeding you properly now, lass, since now we know how we're supposed to." Gloin patted her shoulder and she looked around to approving nods.

No one else was eating, and it was incredibly hard to choke down a bite as they all stared at her. "Thank you. It's delicious, but we should keep walking."

Once they were moving and relatively unobserved, Billa got close to Bombur and whispered, "What on earth is going on? And do you want some of this?"

"No, it's for you," he said, although he did look at the cake wistfully as she held it out. "You need to keep your strength up. We brought enough food so that you could have all your meals."

Nibbling at the cake to give herself time to think - and because it was tasty - Billa thought about the maps she'd studied, both the ones the dwarves had and the ones she'd gotten from Rivendell. "Maybe we should be careful about rationing, since we won't be able to replace the food later."

"Don't you worry about that," Bombur said. "We've got enough food to carry us through for more than two weeks, even allowing for all your meals."

Billa frowned at that, because it seemed like too short a time for crossing the great swathe of the forest, especially if the path wasn't a straight line through. They wouldn't make as good a time on foot as they did on ponies, but it didn't seem the dwarves had accounted for the difference. "Maybe we could just skip the extra meals? I don't need to eat as much every day - I can just eat when the company eats."

He just shook his head, and soon enough Gloin pulled out his pocket watch again and declared it was time for elevensies, then lunch, then tea, and finally they all stopped for supper, and an extra bowl of stew was kept back for her dinner. Every time she tried to demur, the dwarves were polite but firm: they would feed her as a hobbit should be fed.

"If you can't get in through the door, crawl in the window," she murmured, drawing a laugh from Nori.

"Spoken like a true burglar," he said approvingly, smiling at her over the walking stick that he was refining into a true work of art with further carving and polishing. "One of your father's sayings?"

She nodded absently, trying to think of what she would do with the things in her pack, since she would need the space to store food. Maybe if she asked discreetly, she could give one or two things to each member of the party and thus spread the load with no one getting wiser. Although, she couldn't imagine a circumstance where she was willing to ask any of them to take her spare clothes, so perhaps it was better to be sneaky there as well, and stuff them at the bottom of the food bags, or roll them inside her bed roll.

"Oi, let's have a story," Fili called out, and she was pulled out of her thoughts with a smile. "Everyone takes a turn."

Balin went first, telling a story about young Thorin's first crush, and how he'd fallen out of his infatuation when he realized that the pretty dwarf he'd glimpsed in the women's quarters couldn't tell the difference between silver and platinum. It set the tone, and there were stories of ill-fated courtships, of funny mistakes and successful wooing, and Billa felt quite merry despite the oppressiveness of the woods around them and her own determination not to mention her sad lack of any wooing history whatsoever.

The next day she put her plan in motion, hiding the extra food she was given in her pack and shifting things around so no one would notice. It was harder to avoid feeling low as they went further into the woods and the sunlight, already rare, stopped being visible except as a slight glow through the canopy of leaves and trailing moss and spiderwebs. She started talking just to distract herself, about Bag End and scrumping for fruit from the best orchards and anything she could think of that reminded her there were still places in the world that were bright and beautiful.

Bofur was the first to pick up what she was doing and it almost seemed merry again as they walked, but the silences would drag on just a little too long, the laughter with just enough of an edge that none of them could forget the feeling of being watched from the shadows.

By the end of the first week, she was sure she could have described every inch of Erebor's magnificent gates, and library, and training grounds. Probably all of the dwarves could have walked through Bag End blindfolded and not have bumped into a single piece of furniture or wall, and could describe the story of her parents' courting while doing so. Her pack dug into her shoulders from the weight of all the extra food she'd hidden away, and she'd taken to wearing her skirts so that she could also use the pockets as well as free up space in her pack.

Still they trudged on, spending longer each day walking without ever having really talked about why. There was no way to tell how far they'd come or how far they had left to travel; it seemed as if they remained still in an endless sea of green shadows, with no landmarks that could reassure them of the passing distance.

The first day that she saw Thorin passing up his bowl of porridge so the others could have more, she silently unpacked the food she'd saved back into the food stores, not trying to hide but not making a show of it. He saw anyway, and came to stand next to her until she finished. "You insult us by showing you do not have faith in us to feed you properly."

"You insult me by expecting me to eat when others don't," she said, too tired to even put a proper snap behind her words.

It seemed he didn't have the heart to argue, either, because he nodded and returned to the fire to take a bowl of the porridge. When Gloin next pulled out his pocketwatch, Thorin shook his head and that was that; they returned to having two meals each day, one when they awoke and one before they fell into an uneasy sleep.

Chapter Text

Looking down at the churning water of the Black River, Billa felt distinctly ill. They were running low on food and water, but the river had such a greasy, unwholesome look to it that it wasn't even mildly tempting, even without the fierce warnings Beorn had given them against even touching the water. Finding a boat on the opposite bank was a stroke of luck, but the tension the party had been feeling since they'd entered Mirkwood erupted anew when it was time to decide how to cross.

"I'm tired of always being last." Bombur was almost snarling, an expression that sat ill on his friendly face.

"You shouldn't be so fat, then," Thorin snapped, and Billa bristled on her friend's behalf. "You and Dwalin can bring up the rear, and be the lightest boatload."

Stepping forward, Billa said, "I'm the smallest. The lightest boatload would be the two of us, so we can both be last."

"And if something attacks, seeing the biggest meal and the easiest one?" Thorin looked down his nose at her and she really wanted to slap the smugness completely off his face, and then maybe kick him in the shins until he apologized to Bombur.

"Of course, we poor helpless creatures couldn't possibly defend ourselves against the squirrels that are all we've seen in these woods," Billa said. "Neither could we go on the second boat, so there'd be big strong warriors to protect us from those vicious, truly brutal looking squirrels."

Thorin stomped off, leaving Dwalin to rearrange the order of the boats to send Bombur and Billa across on the second trip. Both Billa and Thorin studiously ignored each other as they waited for the others to cross, although Billa caught him glaring more than once as she sat on the grassy bank and leaned against Bombur's shoulder.

The last to cross were Ori and Dwalin, and it was as Ori had one foot on land and one in the boat that a deer ran out of the woods, leaping past Ori and across the river. Kili downed it with a single shot, but Ori had been knocked off balance and would have fallen into the river if Dwalin hadn't dived to catch him, throwing him in the boat before falling in himself. Billa's hands flew to cover her mouth and hold back a horrified scream, but Ori just scrambled to reach over the edge of the boat and hauled Dwalin to the surface, the tendons in his neck and hands visibly straining.

The rest of them ran to pull the boat to shore, Dori giving the rope such a heave that the boat shot out of the water and onto the bank. Dwalin couldn't be woken and Ori was practically crying as he frantically called the other dwarf's name and shook his shoulders. Balin put a hand over his chest and staggered, but then collected himself and said briskly to get whatever dry clothes they could before he started stripping off Dwalin's soaked clothes.

No one had any spare clothes that would fit him and so Dwalin ended up lying in the boat while wrapped in one of Billa's skirts, with the other balled up into a pillow under his head. His clothes and Ori's were laid out over rocks to dry, although the fire they managed to make was pitiful. Ori himself sat by the fire, constantly looking at Dwalin's still form and then back to the fire.

"Lad-- Ori." Balin knelt in front of him, putting a hand on Ori's shoulder. "Thank you for saving my brother. He is all I have left, and I will be forever at your service for what you have done."

Ori cried in earnest then, burying his face against Balin's shoulder as a child would against his father's. Billa looked away, discreetly wiping her own eyes, and wondered what they would do if Dwalin didn't wake up.

"We must press on," Thorin said, his voice choked and heavy. "We cannot afford to lose what light we have."

Bofur and Bombur exchanged glances, and Bofur said, "If we can have an hour, we could turn the boat into a cart, to carry Mister Dwalin and the packs. It would be less work to make sure the path is clear for wheels to roll than to carry a dwarf of his size."

Thorin looked them over, his eyes lingering over each member of the party before he finally nodded. "One hour. We'll fell trees to place across the river as well as to provide wood for the wheels."

They fell to, Billa and Bombur using the time to hastily inventory their supplies and account for the things that had been ruined when they fell with Dwalin into the water. Their food was growing ever lower, but they decided that they would be able to make a soup that night if they forwent some of the day's ration of water, and if Dwalin hadn't woken up by then they would at least have some broth to give him sustenance until he did.

No one allowed Billa to help pull the cart when it was done, but at least no one insisted she had to ride in it, either. Apart from not wanting to seem weak, it seemed terribly awkward, especially since Mr. Dwalin's clothes were still hanging from the sides of the boat as they'd stubbornly refused to dry when stretched by the fire. There were countless ways in which she had strayed from the path of being a proper hobbit, but traveling with a naked man's head on her lap was a very definite line that she refused to cross, even if he was wrapped in her skirt.

It took over a week for Dwalin to wake up, a week with one increasingly skimpy meal each day and an endless sea of green to all sides whenever Billa or Kili climbed to the top of a tree to see if there was any relief in sight. Ori had been trying to spoon some broth into Dwalin's mouth when the warrior coughed and lashed out, sending Ori flying with a sharp blow. Struggling to his feet, he rubbed at his face and said, "That halfling has excellent ale, if strange taste in clothes."

"Not this again," Billa grumbled, going back to stirring the pot with the night's soup, heavily flavored with the herbs she'd been gathering and carrying since the Shire. There might not be anywhere near enough meat in the soup, but at least it would be flavorful. "If there's anything more boring to talk about than my clothes, I'm sure I can't think of it."

She had once enjoyed clothes, even talking about clothes. An endless rehashing on whether it was more stupid to wear her skirts or her trousers had quite worn away her enthusiasm, long before she had ended it by declaring that she would go naked or wear clothes stolen from one of the dwarves if one more word was said on the subject. The fact that they'd been more shocked at the idea of her wearing their clothes than of being naked made her wonder at their priorities - and at just how masculine they might still think she looked.

"Where are we? This doesn't look like anywhere I've ever been." Dwalin cradled his head in both hands as if holding it together. "And just what was in that ale?"

Billa froze, the ladle dropping from her hands as she realized that Dwalin's memory had been affected by the fall in the enchanted river, but then Dori looked up from where he'd been tending Ori and charged, knocking Dwalin flat and then kicking him in the ribs. "I'll do worse to you when you're well again, you elf-loving--"

He cut himself off when Ori grabbed his arm. The weak firelight still showed clearly that half his face was a livid red, already darkening to purple. "He didn't mean it, of course he didn't mean it."

"I--" Dwalin swallowed hard, but then shook his head. "The lad needs to toughen up if he's going to go on this quest, although if it were my brother, I'd send him home."

At that, Ori dropped his brother's arm, giving Dwalin a look of disgust and betrayal. "Do whatever you want to him, Dori."

He stalked off, and Dori gave Dwalin a nasty smirk before following him. Dwalin just looked deeply, deeply confused. "Come along, little brother," Balin said, helping him up. "You've got quite a story to catch up on."

This would have been enough gossip for the Shire to feast on for a month, but Billa was too tired to even try to overhear the conversation. Instead she ate her share of the night's soup and curled up in her bedroll, feeling small and cold and alone as the darkness closed in with the feeling of a thousand watching eyes.

Billa woke up to the sound of laughter and music, sitting up and rubbing her eyes as she tried to work out if it was real. The dwarves were stirring and mumbling, but Bombur was already on the move, walking towards the lights and sound and the smell of roasted venison. Billa was on her feet as soon as it filtered through her sleep-fogged brain, but as soon as Bombur reached the circle of light, it disappeared like a popped soap bubble. She called his name, but then there was a hand around her wrist and she was pulled back against a hard chest. Thorin's hard chest, to be specific. "Let me go, they've got food. And Bombur."

"Hold still," he said impatiently, still holding her tightly as he sat down. "There's no sense stumbling around blind."

It made sense, even though she still wanted to argue if for no other reason than because she was tired and hungry and ready for a good hard argument with someone just to feel some relief. She settled for wriggling off his lap, although he kept a hold of her wrist and she didn't really protest; it was nice to feel anchored to something in the total blackness of the night.

She must have drifted off to sleep, because the next thing she knew was that she woke up to a feeling like hair tickling her neck. When she reached up to brush it away, her hand trailed more and she shuddered, jumping up to try to scrape it off. She fell down again, off balance from what felt like countless threads tying her legs together.

Pulling out her sword was instinctual, but its faint glow when she did let her see that she was partially wrapped in spider silk, and the giant spider that had done it was busily restraining Thorin despite his struggles. Billa snarled and charged, stabbing the spider between the eyes and then hacking and slicing as best she could while dodging its flailing legs and attempts to bite. Even in death, with its legs drawn up, the thing was about three times Billa's size, and it made her dizzy in retrospect to think of having fought it.

"Thorin!" The sight of him moving despite being almost completely covered in spider silk snapped her out of thinking about the spider's size, and she hurried to cut away the sticky strands that were holding him in place. "Are you all right?"

Pulling out his own sword, Thorin said, "Well enough, for having to be saved by a hobbit's sting. Where are the others?"

"You know as much as I do," she snapped. "But I doubt this is the only spider, so I'm guessing they'd prefer we not waste time arguing."

"Quiet." She might have taken offense, except she once again heard singing and saw the light of many torches glowing in the night. She took half a step towards them before stopping herself, since it would be smartest to stay together no matter what. Quietly, Thorin added, "We can't get tricked again."

She nodded, her eyes darted around as she kept her sword ready. There was nothing like daylight, but the reflected glow from the torches and the swords let them move forward, until they came to a stand of trees entirely surrounded by spiderwebs, and bundles of spidersilk that were still moving and occasionally cursing in dwarvish.

"How well can you hide?" The question surprised her and she looked at Thorin, wondering what he was really asking.

She couldn't quite make out his expression, and it bothered her. "We stand a better chance working together than with me cowering somewhere."

"Which is why I asked, how well can you hide? A distraction is vital, and you can't pull the cocoons down from the branches without dropping them."

Billa couldn't stop herself from beaming at the thought of being trusted and respected as an equal, instead of as a burden that needed to be protected. "I can hide very well. In fact..." Pulling the ring out from where she'd threaded it on a piece of yarn as a makeshift necklace, Billa popped it onto her finger to disappear. "Is this sufficiently hidden?"

"Later we'll talk about this," he said, reaching out blindly until he was touching her face. "For now, go out some distance and call out taunts. Keep moving so they can't pinpoint where you are, and try to give me as long as you can. If they're closing in, scream before you hide and I'll come running."

Covering his hand for a brief moment so she could lean into his touch, she said, "I'll do my part, I promise."

"Go." He stepped back, pulling a dagger from his boot. "Be safe, above all else."

She nodded, even though he couldn't see. "If you need me, scream."

His low laugh made her feel warm inside as she moved quickly and quietly through the trees, gathering small rocks as she went. When she'd gotten a good distance, she drew her arm back and threw a rock as hard as she could against the web. "I've squashed your cousins by the score! Come feel my sting, you... Attercops!"

Throwing another rock, she yelled out whatever nonsense crossed her mind, using the cover of the ring to dart forward and stab at the spiders when she could. They cried out wild threats and warnings to each other, but the important thing was that they were hunting for her, giving Thorin time to free the others.

The spiders were starting to close in on her, ringing around her position and getting closer with each word she said and each rock she threw. Using one of their own silk ropes, Billa hauled herself up and jumped down on a spider's back, driving her sword into its head and causing it to collapse underneath her. It made her feel strange and powerful to have defended herself and her friends, this time with full possession of her faculties and deliberate intent.

Shifting her grip, she stood again, ready to do battle. There was a harsh cry and she quickly changed course, running back to the clearing where Thorin had been freeing the others. A spider was lying crushed on the ground in front of Dori, Dwalin's warhammer buried so deep in its remains that it had sunk into the grass below. Ori was standing over it, spattered with blood and shaking.

Slipping the ring off, Billa rushed into the clearing. "Is--"

She couldn't say anything else, as Oin had grabbed hold of her and started checking her roughly for injuries.

"Good heavens, would you stop? None of this blood is mine!"

"You did well," Thorin said, looking at her gravely.

"She should never have been put in danger," Dwalin said stiffly.

It wasn't worth arguing about, and she slipped the ring back on. "I'll start guiding them back," she said. "Better not to leave any of this nest alive."

"Come back," Thorin said, his voice thunderous. "We can burn this wretched forest to the ground to deal with them, but I do not want us separated again."

The clearing lit up around them, the light of countless torches painfully bright. Tall, beautiful people seemed to step out of the trees around them, pointing bows at the dwarves. "You'll burn nothing, rock molester."

The dwarves tensed as if to fight, but Billa had slipped through the others to take Thorin's hand, giving it a squeeze. Thorin nodded and said, "Stand down. We merely wanted to be rid of your little pets."

"Why are you in our woods?"

"Why are you shirking your duty to protect travelers?"

Billa groaned. This wasn't going to end well.

Chapter Text

Stripped of their weapons and blindfolded, the dwarves marched in front of the elves as Billa scurried to try to keep up. She was out of breath quickly, and took a chance by calling softly, "Wait!"

Fili cleared his throat and repeated, "Wait!" in a truly wretched falsetto, but it drew the attention of the elves to Fili's rambling explanation of why they shouldn't leave their boat/cart behind. Thinking quickly, Billa passed by the cart and leapt onto Thorin's back, scrambling up until she could wrap her arms and legs around him and cling like a limpet.

The impact of her weight made him grunt, but he didn't wobble and grasped what had happened immediately. "My pack grows heavier than if I were to carry one of you," he grumbled, bending forward and hitching up both his pack and his passenger. "Let us forward, as I would not delay finding out when Mirkwood began imprisoning travelers."

Thorin must have looked odd with his back bent and his arms, wrapped around her legs, seemingly crooked around nothing. Several of the others also groaned about their packs and imitated Thorin's posture, which the elves ignored wholly.

For all that she could see where they were going and try to memorize the way, she wasn't expecting the noise of the giant gates closing behind them as they started descending underground. Thorin hitched her up and stroked his thumb briefly over the inside of her knee. It was really distracting, and possibly unnerving; it definitely made her shiver. "Those gates were made by dwarves -- probably these caverns, too, in a bygone age."

"The king will see them now." It was just as well that Billa was invisible, because the thought of an elven king seeing her as she was now, bedraggled and sweaty and covered in spider blood, was almost more horrifying than the actual spiders had been.

"What were you doing in my forest?" The king certainly didn't believe in wasting time on preliminaries. She could feel Thorin tense and she wrapped her arms tighter around his neck to make him stop and think. The elvenking kept talking, but none of the dwarves answered since Thorin didn't speak.

Billa looked around, since there was finally enough light and time to check on the others. She hoisted herself up further, her legs locked around Thorin's waist for balance so she could lean in and whisper in his ear. "Do they have Bombur?"

Thorin froze for a moment, his eyes flicking back to where she was invisibly leaning over his shoulder. When he looked around, his nose brushed against her cheek and the side of her neck, and she almost lost her balance. "A member of our party is missing."

"Our healers could do nothing for him," the king said, and Billa's heart fell. "He still has not spoken, but he has been fed and bathed and has worked in our kitchen to show his appreciation."

"We must see him," Thorin said, calling Billa's attention back from the sheer relief of knowing that Bombur, the brother she'd never had, was still alive and well enough to focus on his stomach. That he'd obviously pretended to be mute in order to avoid questions was an excellent bonus.

Glaring down from his throne, the elvenking said, "You are not in a position to be giving orders."

If Billa felt like smacking the snooty elf, Thorin was probably about to explode. Patting his chest as if her were a pet she needed to soothe, she got close enough that her lips were almost touching his ear to whisper. "No fighting yet. We'll make it through this and live to have a nice dinner and retire to a soft bed."

Thorin coughed violently and tugged at the front of his gambeson, almost knocking Billa off her perch. He didn't lunge forward to attack the elvenking, though, so Billa counted it as a victory. Some of the others were looking at Thorin like he was cracked, so Billa just held on and tried to wriggle to a more secure position, at least until Thorin clasped his hands over her crossed ankles to hold her still. The intimacy of his hands brushing over the fur of her feet made her feel like she'd been incinerated before ever reaching the dragon, for all that it was accidental and he could have no idea of just how inappropriate it was to do something so sensual in public.

"We're traveling. To visit family." She might have been a bit breathless, but she could still think and at least it was easier to feed discreet answers to Thorin this way than it ever had been to prompt the Old Took when he was having tea with someone he wanted to offend but couldn't without causing bigger headaches.

Voice rumbling, Thorin repeated, "We're traveling. To visit family."

"No one travels through the Greenwood without my permission," the king said. "And the dangers of travel are such that even family might not be a strong enough inducement."

What inducement could be stronger than family? Billa struggled to think of something, but Thorin spoke before she did. "Starvation is, if there is not enough work."

"That was good," she whispered, and Thorin gave a hint of a nod as the elvenking stared him down.

Finally, the king said, "We have work you may do, then, if you have earned the right to walk in my kingdom."

Billa started to sag with relief, but the fact that Thorin was still as a statue made her wonder if she'd missed something. The king gestured for his guards and Billa almost screamed as Thorin unceremoniously dumped her from his back, stepping forward and away from her. "And if we do not choose to work for you?"

"Why wouldn't you, if you're innocent travelers?" The king nodded and the guards seized Thorin's arms, lifting him off the ground as they dragged him away. Billa scrambled to her feet, ready to follow, but Thorin was shaking his head and looking significantly at the guards that were holding the weapons that had been taken off the dwarves. Then he was gone, the other dwarves all restrained, and the king said, "You'll be taken to your quarters for now. Tomorrow you will start your work."

She hesitated as the dwarves protested and the guards closed in, but the weapons were being carried out and Billa followed them, since she was fairly sure that had been Thorin's order. She could find the actual people later, since they had to be fed and could call out for her, but if Orcrist disappeared, it could be hidden forever.

"This one's nice," one of the elf guards said. "Wonder what elf those half-pints stole it from?"

"You know the king's going to take it," the other guard said, rolling his eyes. "Like Thranduil wouldn't claim anything shiny and expensive for himself. Don't even think of getting your hopes up about any of this stuff - I'd bet my hair that he's going to order it all melted down to make new trinkets."

Defensively, the other guard said, "You never know! Especially since the stuff we forge is crap compared to this."

Thorin had definitely made the right call. Billa thought some of the dwarves might actually cry if their weapons were melted down, and with good reason. Grasper and Keeper, Dwalin's axes, had been presented to him by his father on this first day as a warrior, and were the only things he had left of his parents. Dori's bolos had belong to his mum (who may or may not have been female - the story had gotten a bit rushed and confused at that point). Each weapon had a sentiment attached to it, and Billa had gotten to know them all after the stories they had exchanged on the road. It was time to really become a burglar.

Burglary turned out to be simpler than she'd expected. Billa simply waited until the guards had finished piling the swords and axes and other weapons on a table and then carried them to another room, where she hid them with her pack in an empty barrel. A few didn't fit, so she stacked another barrel on top, open sides together, and used a bubbling mix of tar and pitch that the cooper had in a large cauldron to seal them together. Placed in the middle of a large grouping of barrels, with a sign in Sindarin warning not to touch any of them, she thought they would probably be safe enough while she found her friends.

Of course, she really shouldn't congratulate herself all that much, since a large part of her success was due to having a ring that made her invisible. She'd taken it off for a while, though, needing a break from the feeling of the world going dizzy and strange around her. It had just required a bit of caution to make sure she remained unseen even when an elf had entered the cooperage to check on some wood inside a drying kiln.

And now she had to find her friends, with no idea where to start, and then find a way for them all to escape, all without letting anyone even know she was there.

Slipping the ring back onto her finger, Billa did as she had done every other time in her life when she felt unsure of herself; she went to the kitchen.

Chapter Text

It took less than a day to find the majority of the company, and to find out quite a lot about the woodland elves and their king. Thranduil was apparently quite desperate to see himself as equal to other elven lords, ones descended from people who had traveled to the West to become enlightened and came back as High Elves. He didn't have as much treasure as they did, and his craving for treasure and for recognition had become entwined and grown ever stronger as Greenwood turned into Mirkwood without the king acknowledging the change.

There was plenty of other gossip to be had, and Billa kept both ears open as she waited, but as soon as anyone mentioned feeding the dwarves she was on her feet and ready to go.

She had to be careful, following the elves, because although she was invisible she could still cast a shadow in the torchlight. Still, it was no great task to slip along the edges of the group of guards accompanying the food down a rough corridor that rang with the sound of metal striking stone.

"This would be much easier if we were allowed some proper tools," Balin said as soon as the guards had come around the corner. The other dwarves were in various states of undress, with Dwalin shirtless as he swung a large hammer at the wall. Billa had to step quickly to avoid being hit with the head of it as it broke with the impact and scythed through the air.

Using the cover of Balin's conversation with the dwarf, Billa sidled over to Bofur and took hold of his hand. "Your weapons are hidden. Don't let him send them looking."

Bofur clasped her hand tightly for a moment before bursting out with, "Aye, we need a forge if we're to make what we need. There's enough iron in what we're digging to be getting on with, but not without a way to craft it."

"Aye," Balin said, giving Bofur a hard look. "It won't take much to set up - we can make most of the tools ourselves, with something to start with."

"The king will decide what you get," the head guard said. "Here is your food - eat quickly and get back to work."

Sliding around to stand behind Bofur, Billa put both hands on his shoulders so he'd know she was there. While she could have climbed on his back as she had with Thorin's, it seemed wildly inappropriate; he'd just have to pay attention and hear her when she whispered. "Are you all here?"

Bofur shook his head. "What about our friend? He's the best smith among us, he'd be dead useful. Unless he's dead, then he'd be useless."

"You bring shame to yourself if you dare suggest that any elf would harm a guest," the guard said coldly, gesturing for the other elves to leave.

"Oh, aye? What about prisoners, are they also safe from harm?" The elf didn't choose to respond, just glared before turning on his heel and stalking away.

As soon as the last of them was gone, Balin whirled on Bofur, eyes ablaze. Bofur shook his head, making a gesture in the air with both hands, as if tracing the outline of a woman's figure. Billa gasped. "My bottom is not that big!"

"Miss Baggins!" There was a general rush towards her and Billa had to duck to avoid being overwhelmed by the hands reaching out to find her. Dwalin grunted and started hammering the wall again, covering the noise the others made.

"I haven't found Thorin," she said, slipping the ring off but hiding in the shadows so she'd have a chance to put it back on if the guards returned. "But I did hide the weapons, so we'll be able to get them back before we leave."

Balin shuffled the others back to work, although they each made a point of patting Billa's shoulder or back on the way. The noise grew too much to think as they carved the rock to make the chamber ever larger. Closing the lid on a wooden chest that held various rocks, Balin gestured for her to sit down. "Giving dwarves mining tools. It's practically an invitation to leave."

"The numpties," she said with a shake of her head and he patted her hand.

"There's about ten feet of shale between us and the outside," Balin said, pointing at the wall where most of the dwarves were focusing their efforts. "We should be ready in three days."

Billa looked at the wall doubtfully. It looked to her like any other featureless expanse of rock. "How on earth could you possibly know?"

"How do you know how much water your tomatoes need to win prizes?" Patting her hand again, Balin said, "Go find Thorin. Keep your ring on and keep yourself safe at all costs."

With a nod, Billa stood and straightened her waistcoat, determined to do whatever was needed to get the party out safely. "Stay safe yourselves. I'll be back."

Feeling confident, Billa set out and promptly found herself wandering with no scent of food to guide her to the kitchen and point of reference to find anywhere else. The lighting was dimmer and the furnishings more expensive in these hallways, and the markings she'd put on the wall to find her way had been diligently scrubbed away. Billa found an unused bedroom, the layer of dust over everything reassuring her that the room wasn't used much, and felt so overwhelmingly tired at the sight of a bed that she crawled in and went to sleep.

She felt sticky and grimy when she woke up, more than ready to work out a way to bathe and eat and forget everything else existed. She couldn't, though, not when her friends were counting on her. With a sigh, she stood and made the bed back up, then used the corner of her coat to move the dust on the floor around so that the clear footprints were eradicated.

Creeping around, she realized she must be in the private quarters for the nobles or even the royals, since the opulence was unmatched by anything she'd yet seen. This was confirmed when Thranduil swept out of a room, the double doors swinging wide before him as he strode through them. She threw herself back against a wall instinctively, but followed as he went down a staircase, his robes billowing around him.

"So, will you be speaking today, Thorin, son of Thrain?" Thranduil pulled a key out of his pocket, using it to open a door at the bottom of a dark staircase. "I've never known any of your line to particularly enjoy silence."

Billa put a hand over her mouth to cover her gasp. Thorin had been stripped down to just his trousers, and she couldn't be sure whether the bruises that covered him were fresh or left over from the last fight with the wargs. A feral growl escaped him as he lunged towards Thranduil, only to be brought up short by a chain that went from the wall to an iron collar around his neck.

"This is all so unnecessary," Thranduil said, staying just out of range. "There's no reason for all this."

He waved a hand through the air, gesturing at Thorin, and Billa thought that, for the first time in her life, she might honestly hate someone. Thranduil talked more, trying to get Thorin to talk about why he was in Mirkwood, what he wanted, trying everything from taunting to promising alliances, but Thorin just continued to look impassive throughout after his initial outburst of rage. At length Thranduil sighed. "Very well. I will bring food tomorrow, if you will not throw it again. In the meantime, I trust you have enough lembas to eat heartily."

It was all she could do not to push him down the stairs when he passed her, but she held herself still and crept towards the door once she was sure he had disappeared. Standing on her tiptoes to look through the bars that were eye level to elves and dwarves but just a little too high for hobbits, she whispered, "Mister Oakenshield!Thorin."

His head went up sharply, his hair falling away from his face as he looked around. "Miss Baggins?"

She nodded before remembering that he couldn't see her. "The others are fine - Bombur is with them and they're all working at mining. We'll get you out soon."

"There is no key except for the one Thranduil wears," Thorin said. "You will not be able to... I should probably just agree to his terms, but it's--"

"Don't you dare," she snapped. "If you reward bad behavior, you'll just get more of it."

A small smile tilted up the corner of his mouth. "You sounded remarkably like my sister just then."

Ah. His sister. At least she was used to men seeing her that way, even if it still stung. "It was something my father used to say, but it's true. So just... Wait here, be patient, and I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Thranduil comes once a day, at about the same time," Thorin said. "It should be easy enough to avoid him."

"Right, then. I'm going to go tell the others I found you and then go find something to eat. I'll come back as soon as I can." She started to leave, but stopped when she heard the chain rattle. Going back to peer through the bars, she saw he was standing as close to the door as he could get, his hand outstretched but then falling to his side as he closed his mouth.

She couldn't think of anything to say and so she just backed away, fleeing up the stairs as if she would find the answers if she could just reach the top quickly enough. Unfortunately, she didn't even know the questions.

Chapter Text

Nori was the one who came up with the solution for the key dilemma, which made perfect sense. It would take a day or two to come up with the materials, though, so in the meantime he taught her how to pick locks as the others kept up the mining around them. They were close to being through, and several of the dwarves had started making side tunnels, so as to confuse any search that might be made of their escape route.

Billa spent hours wandering around the caverns, listening to elves talking and looking for possible escape routes. When it came time for Thranduil to return to Thorin's cell, she waited until he was stepping out and then entered his chamber before the door closed. It was luxurious, although less so than she'd thought it would be, and the writing desk was piled high with reports and correspondence. That, at least, was as she'd expected, and she took a few minutes to rifle through before sitting down to compose a letter.

To Elvenking Thranduil, greetings.

It does your kingdom no credit to chain a fellow monarch like an animal, nor to enslave a company of travelers for your own benefit. Free the dwarves and let us cry friends; there is no purpose to enmity between the Firstborn and the Children of Aule.


The Mediator

It was, perhaps, a bit stiff and formal, but then 'stiff and formal' was practically a requirement for anything official involving elves. It gave Billa a bit of a twinge to the conscience not to sign her name properly, but "Billa Baggins" would mean nothing to the king of Mirkwood, and she wanted to keep things as uncomplicated as possible.

Leaving the letter propped up on the desk, Billa wandered off to one of the other bedrooms, since she hadn't wanted to establish a pattern of always returning to the same one. Despite the invisibility there had been a few close calls, and she needed to stay alert and aware of her surroundings instead of being lulled into a false sense of security. After her nap, she snuck down to the kitchen to steal some food and made her way down to Thorin's cell.

She had no idea how he knew she was there, but his head snapped up as she approached. "Burglar."

"King." Standing just outside the door, she tried to judge the distance between where she stood and where she could reach. "Can you stand as close as possible? I want--"

What she wanted would have to wait, since there was the slam of a door and the sound of footsteps rushing down the stairs. Pressing herself against the wall, she held her breath as Thranduil came down the steps. He unlocked the door and flung a piece of parchment at Thorin, one that looked distressingly familiar. "What is the meaning of this?"

Thorin's lips twitched as he smoothed out the parchment and read the words on it. "It seems as if someone has taken an interest in how you treat your guests."

"To have a spy in my home, in my personal quarters..." Thranduil held his fists so tightly that his knuckles turned white. Billa kicked herself for not having left the letter somewhere more neutral, like at the dining table.

"Whoever wrote that letter, it was not one of my dwarves," Thorin said. Billa felt oddly proud of him for lying with such complete honesty.

Angrily, Thranduil said, "You are only chained because you insist on attacking the guards who bring your food! If you would stop threatening the safety of my people you would be free!"

"And my companions?" Thorin's face was carefully neutral as he rolled up the parchment. "I had not thought elves sunk so low as to capture slaves."

"Your companions are well-fed and being compensated for honest work," Thranduil snapped. "And they will also be free to go as soon as I have the assurance of knowing why they are on my lands, if not to threaten the well-being of my people."

Standing upright, his eyes blazing, Thorin said, "I have already given you my word that none of my company intends any harm to you or your people."

"Your word, but not an explanation," Thranduil spat. "And that was before your spy made himself known - what do you call that but harmful?"

"I call it a polite request," Thorin said. "Although a useless one, to appeal to the conscience of the elf who left my people to die."

Thranduil looked at him in disgust and stormed out, slamming the door behind him. Billa practically had to dive past him to avoid getting her coat caught in the door. As it was, she could only be grateful that Thranduil's temper kept him from noticing the noise of her brass buttons clinking against the stone floor.

"What are you thinking?" It was hard to roar in a whisper, but Thorin was giving it his best try. "Now you're trapped!"

"I was thinking that I needed to see if I could get you out of that collar," Billa said, standing up and brushing herself off. "And that he'll be back tomorrow, so I can get out then if we haven't gotten out together before then."

Rubbing his brow with one hand, he said, "Your lack of self preservation is just made worse when you try to make it sound logical."

"Oh, pish tosh," she said, checking through the door that there was no one around before slipping the ring off. "I'm very interested in preserving myself. It just so happens you're my best chance of doing so."

His eyes swept over her and she blushed as she realized that she'd been talking to a half naked man all this time. "Do you have any idea where your clothes might have been put? I can look for them once..."

She trailed off as he pointed to a pile in the corner of the room, just out of his reach, and she sighed with relief before fetching his shirt. "Why on earth they decided to strip you, I can't fathom."

"They were searching me for weapons," Thorin said. "And apparently don't find dwarrows as repulsive as you do, to need us covered at all times."

Shaking her head as she turned away to let him get dressed, she said, "It's just improper, to see someone of the opposite sex unclothed."

"Dwarrow women can look on whatever they wish to," Thorin said. "Examining their suitors is part of the process by which they determine whether or not they wish to be courted."

"Yes, well, we hobbits prefer to do our inspecting with all clothes firmly in place," she said, resisting the urge to turn around and look again, now that she was aware enough to pay attention. He really was quite muscled, and the hairiness was just enough to firmly delineate that.

She couldn't resist peeking when he remained silent, and breathed a sigh of relief (and perhaps a little disappointment) to find he was once again wearing a shirt. "Right, now that you're decent, I should take a look at that collar."

"You should also tell me about the plans for escape, other than freeing me." They settled on the little cot that had been provided for Thorin, Billa kneeling at his side so that she could lean in and get a good look at the lock on his collar.

He sat stoically as she worked with the lockpicks Nori had made for her, grunting when she explained that the others had made an escape tunnel and planned to walk out and continue their trek through the woods. He even managed to hold still as she explained her plan to seal them all in barrels to float down to Laketown, although when she got to the part about riding a barrel while invisible, he held up a hand. "Please. Stop for a moment so we might talk, as I believe you're likely to wave your arms about."

Billa frowned but sat back, tucking her lockpicks back into the bit of folded cloth they were stored in and folding her hands in her lap. He waited until she was settled and facing him attentively before he said, "I forbid you to even think about stuffing us into barrels, let alone ride one."

"You what?" She looked at him in disbelief, not sure she'd heard him right. "I beg your pardon, did you say you forbid me to think?"

"How can you be sure the person in the barrel won't suffocate if the barrel is well sealed, or drown if it isn't? How can you be sure the barrels won't get dashed on the rocks, with no way to prepare or survive? What happens to our weapons if they're in a barrel - if it's with a person, they'd be ripped to shreds, and on their own they'd just sink. And what--"

"All right, I get your point," Billa said sulkily. "But if we just stroll out of the tunnel, we'll have no idea where we are and we'll get recaptured immediately."

Thorin arched his eyebrows. "Impressive. You begged my pardon but didn't follow through with yelling after I explained myself."

"Yes, well, that will come soon enough if you don't come up with a plan," she said, sitting up to try the lockpicks again. "This is your quest, after all, not mine. I can't just always save the day."

"You do seem to have a talent for it," he said, his eyes dancing as he looked at her sidelong.

She felt her cheeks heating as she realized just how close they were, his face just inches from hers. If he were to turn, if she were to lean down... Her hands slipped and she accidentally scraped one of the tools over his collarbone, leaving a tiny trail of blood. "I think Nori may just have to copy both keys. I don't seem to have any talent for locks."

He nodded, putting a hand out to steady her as she scrambled backwards, trying to put some distance between them. Morning seemed a really long time away, and she wasn't sure what to talk about in the meantime. The weather certainly wasn't going to cut it.

"Why did you tell no courting stories, when the rest of the company did?" On the other hand, maybe they could talk about weather. She was sure, after all her years of practicing the smallest of talk, she could make something up.

Instead she found herself saying quietly, "I have no stories to tell."

"You never found yourself interested in any of the hobbits around you?" He very carefully didn't look at her, except that he kept stealing glances that she wasn't sure he was aware of. "It happens, sometimes, if a woman is devoted to her craft or prefers the company of other women."

She thought about accepting that explanation, but they were alone in the darkness and it seemed like it would be all right to share even the things in her life that caused pain. "More to the point, no one was ever interested in me, at least no one who wanted me for myself. There were a few that would have been content enough to deal with me along with my parents' money and home."

"I was offered a few of those courtships, before the fall of Erebor." He settled with his back against the wall, staring forward into the darkness. "It is not pleasant, to be an unwanted obstacle to someone's courting your wealth."

"Precisely." Moving back to sit next to him, even if she made sure to stay a respectable distance away, she said, "I've always been too managing. Lobelia seems content to have married someone who is happy to be managed, but I've never cared for people who always agree with whatever they're told. It speaks to a deficiency of intellect or will."

She could feel the shift as he nodded, but the light was too dim now to really see it. "I never faced that in courtship, but there were many who would advise me of whatever I want to hear, if only for the prestige of being my advisor."

"One thing about this trip is that it's highlighted that people are people, no matter what race they are," she said. "Although, really, it's distressing how little anyone cares for manners outside the Shire."

He gave a low chuckle and said, "Different people, different manners. For example, dwarrows consider it incredibly rude to complain about things that cannot be changed."

Digesting that for a moment, she said, "You're pulling my leg. You lot have complained about a lot of things!"

"Yes," he said. "But we were being very rude."

She burst out laughing and after a moment he joined her, his voice low and rumbly as he laughed. She wanted to turn to him and put her hands on his face and chest and neck, to feel the laughter coming from him as deeply as she heard it, but she just clasped her hands together and stayed where she was. "You're not at all what I thought you were, when we started."

"I could say the same," he said. "And more, since I believed in Gandalf's... misdirection."

"Well, I can safely say I never thought of you as a girl." Her eyes widened for a panicked moment and she said, "You're not, are you? I mean, are any of the company... I know Fili and Kili and Oin aren't."

His fingers brushed the back of her hand as he said, "Normally that is a question that is only asked in the late stages of courtship."

"That's..." She licked her lips to try again, the words stolen from her mouth by the feather-light touch of his fingers. "It's not something I'd ever thought to ask anyone, before."

"As far as I'm aware, none of the company is female," Thorin said. "And I most definitely am not."

Billa should probably not have felt as relieved as she did, and the fact that she was made her stiffen her back and remember that the conversation was highly, highly inappropriate. She started babbling, just to fill the silence that suddenly felt uncomfortable. "Hobbits are very clear on who belongs to what gender. There's what men are allowed and what women are allowed, and then what unmarried women are allowed to do, which is precious little. Being a spinster, of course, is the worst thing you can be, because you're someone to be pitied, like the last bloom left in the garden to wither on the vine. I used to quite long to be a widow."

"You wished for your husband to die?" He sounded both puzzled and horrified, and she laughed.

"That's the problem, isn't it? I wouldn't want to marry anyone just to wish him gone - what if he regains the will to live?" Scooting closer so she could get more of the blanket that was over their laps, she said, "It's nicer, though, being a widow. You don't get the pitying comments, since you were wanted at least once, but you're not actually burdened with any restrictions on your freedom. My great-grandmother Baggins took over my grandfather's medical practice when he died and no one thought anything of it."

Quietly, he asked, "Oin thinks highly of your progress. He would apprentice you formally if you wished to take up his craft."

"I'm not sure grunting and saying I might not kill anyone immediately qualifies as thinking highly of someone," Billa said. "And I put aside the thought of it years ago. I don't feel the sort of passion for it that would be required to endure the scandal. Haven't ever felt that sort of passion for anything, which I suppose is another reason why I never married. I couldn't settle for less than what my parents had."

"Did your father court your mother for a very long time?"

With a small laugh, she said, "I suppose it depends on how you count. My mother scandalized the Shire by chasing him for years - she'd declared she was going to marry him before she was even a tween, and never showed any signs of her attention wavering to anyone else."

He didn't say anything, but it was a welcoming silence, and she could feel the warmth of his body from where they were now sitting next to each other. "He had no intention of ever getting married - he was much older than her, and since he was the younger son, he wouldn't inherit his house or very much money. He'd always say that he had no idea what to do about the wild young girl that kept bringing him flowers and cakes."

"Are flowers and cakes one of the steps in the hobbit courtship rituals? Is there a meaning behind what sort of cake?"

Billa couldn't stop herself from yawning, and she wondered if he'd take it amiss if she leaned on his shoulder, just for a moment. "Oh, we don't have any rituals, nothing so formal. Men bring flowers as a token of their esteem, but there's various meanings for each flower, and when they come for visits most girls will serve their best dishes just to show off."

Sounding almost put out, Thorin said, "How does anyone know there's a courtship or marriage if there are no rituals?"

"Well, we all know because we see who's visiting who, or taking walks together, that sort of thing. If a pair is seen trying to avoid the chaperones, the engagement ring needs to appear soon after if the girl's reputation is to survive."

"Ah, so there are rings. At what point in the courtship are they presented?"

"There's only one ring - well, two, I suppose. When a man asks a woman to marry him, he presents her with a ring to show that they are engaged, and then when they get married, both of them will exchange wedding rings."

Thorin looked down at the rings he wore. "What of your father and mother? Didn't he present her with a house?"

"He did," Billa said, smiling as she leaned her head back against the wall. "There was a great plague, you see, and my father got terribly ill. My mother brought back the cure from the elves, and he was the first one who received it, saving his life. He proposed to my mother as soon as he woke up from the fever sleep."

He eased an arm around her and she leaned into the comfort and warmth of it. "She said that she wouldn't have him - that gratitude wasn't enough reason to marry anyone, and that he hadn't wanted her when she just had herself to offer. He set out to prove that he loved her, and built Bag End from the ground up so she would know he was serious about wanting a life with her. She made him wait six months before she would even consent to go on a walk with him, but they were married a month after that."

"Seven months is a very short time in which to have proven himself," he said thoughtfully.

"They were in love," Billa said softly, toying with the ring in her pocket. "I miss them. I wish I'd known even half as much then as I do now - I could have saved them, I'm sure I could have."

Rubbing his hand over her shoulder, Thorin said, "We can't change the past. If we could..."

"You're right," she whispered, swiping at her watering eyes. "I don't know what's gotten into me to talk this much. I'd originally come down just to bring you your pipe and some food."

He was quiet, and she couldn't seem to stop talking as she dug through her coat pockets. "I suppose it's probably squashed by now, sorry. The food, not the pipe, obviously. There's some pipeweed, although I don't know how good it might be, and then there's that the smoke might not clear... I don't know, do you suppose it matters?"

"We should be careful," Thorin said, his voice carefully neutral. "Make sure there's no sign of your presence here until we are ready to leave, and even then."

Handing him a sandwich that was only a little worse for the wear, Billa said, "Right. We still need to work out how we're leaving, and I suppose I'll have to put your shirt back where it was, and no pipe tonight."

"I think I have a plan." He shrugged off the shirt, handing it to her, and she folded it carefully before placing it back on the pile in the corner. She hesitated, unsure what to do, but he said, "You'll have to stay close, under the blanket, so that if anyone approaches I can wake you up to put the ring on."

It was sensible. It was a good plan. It was just completely indecent. "I do hate sleeping with the ring on. It gives me strange dreams."

She sat down again at the furthest edge of the cot, but by the time they had finished the food she brought and hashed out a compromise plan that they both thought might work, she was leaning against his shoulder again and struggling to stay awake. "Go to sleep," he murmured, "Rest. I'll take care of you."

"I know you will," she whispered, letting her heavy eyelids drift closed.

Chapter Text

Billa woke to find her head resting on Thorin's lap, one of his hands stroking her hair as he hummed quietly. Tilting her head up to smile at him, she said, "Good morning."

"You must put the ring on soon," he said, looking at the door. "And be ready to leave as soon as he arrives."

"Oh! Right! Of course!" Scrambling off the cot, she shoved the ring on her finger before she could think about how frightful she must look. Hopefully she hadn't drooled or snored or done anything else unladylike. "I should get the key impression."

Grumbling, he stood and stretched. "Useful as it is, I don't like not seeing you."

"It's not nice, wearing it," she said, taking the skeleton key Nori had given her and following his instructions on how to mark it with the grooves necessary to make a key that would fit the lock. "It feels cold as death, and it takes longer and longer to feel alive and warm again afterward."

He looked grim, but they could hear Thranduil's steps on the staircase and both went quiet. Billa backed up against the wall by the door, ready to slip out as soon as it was opened, and Thorin sat on the edge of the cot, facing the door with his hands on his knees. If he looked this majestic in a dungeon and without his shirt, she shuddered to think how regal and distant he would look on his actual throne. She'd never dare speak in his presence.

Which was just as well, given she'd be off somewhere in the world, maybe even back in Hobbiton, sent off with the warm thanks appropriate for a sister-in-arms or whatever you'd call it. Assuming she survived the dragon.

Thranduil stopped just inside the door and she held her breath, not daring to move. Thorin met his gaze and said, "I'm not attacking. I give you my word not to attack you or your guards as long as I am in your home, unless forced to in order to defend myself. Will the chain now be removed?"

Looking at him from the door, Thranduil said, "Why are you in my kingdom?"

"Traveling through. We'd be gone by now if you had not captured us."

"Where do you travel? Why?" Thranduil took two steps in, and she had just enough room to slip out. "Who is this Mediator? How did he deliver his note into my quarters?"

"As to the last, I don't know," Thorin said, looking at the door and tilting his chin up, a clear signal that he was telling her to go, but subtle enough that Thranduil wouldn't notice. "As to the first, I have already answered more than is your due or your business."

Frowning, Thanduil put a hand to his head, seeming to be overcome for a moment before he shook his head. "We aren't goblins. We are polite and kind to even our worst enemies."

Thorin didn't speak, just sat impassively with the collar around his neck and the chain draped over his back. Thranduil scowled and threw him a key. "You will tell me your purpose, or you will not leave this room."

This went on for a while longer and Billa hovered outside the door, wanting to have as full a report as possible before she went to find the others. Once Thranduil had left, closing the door firmly behind him, Billa crept back to peer through the bars in the door. "Thorin?"

He was at the bars a moment later. "Burglar. I'd thought you had gone."

"I wanted..." She trailed off as he found her hands with his and stroked a thumb over her knuckles. "Be ready. We're leaving here as soon as the key is made."

"Be safe," he said. "We will wait forever if it means less risk for you."

Drawing her hands away, she said, "I promise not to doom your quest by getting killed."

If he answered, she didn't wait long enough to hear it.

The part that could go wrong was the distraction, but it turned out luck was on their side: Thranduil had ordered a banquet for that night, without Billa having to resort to forging notes. When she got down to where the dwarves had been digging - they now had three large rooms with beautifully carved pillars, as well as two more caverns being carved out - Billa could hardly contain her excitement as she handed Nori the key blank. "We're leaving tonight if you can get the key to work."

"No pressure," Nori said, taking the key and flipping it in the air before making it disappear and then reappear from Bifur's ear. "Give me an hour and then we can leave at your pleasure, m'lady."

Clapping her hands, she said, "Oh, Nori, I could kiss you! This will be perfect, I know it."

Nori leaned towards her and she could've sworn he was blushing, but he was quickly hustled off by Ori, who bobbed his head apologetically at Billa. "He's just getting to work now."

"How is Thorin? Will he be ready?" Balin tugged at his beard as he asked, the only outward sign of his nervousness.

"He will," Billa said confidently. "We changed the plan a bit, though."

She had to explain, and then explain again, and there were still arguments going on when Nori came back with the key. Leaping to her feet, Billa snatched it out of his hand and kissed his cheek. "I'm going to go test this. If it doesn't work, then the discussion is pointless."

Popping the ring back on, she scurried out before anyone could do much to protest, let alone actually stop her. Excitement made her careless and she almost bowled over the young prince as she turned a corner. She approached the rest of the trip with more caution, until she was peering in at Thorin through the bars of his cell door. He was dressed again, the collar off, sitting with his back against the wall and his eyes closed.

It was completely irrelevant that he looked beautiful, much the same way that his mountain had been beautiful when they looked at it from the Carrock. Still, she took a moment to look at him, until his eyes snapped open and he looked right at her. "Who's there?"

"Just me," she whispered, fumbling to test the key in the lock. There was a moment when she thought it wouldn't work, but then she jiggled it and it turned as smoothly as she could've wished for. The door swung in and she grinned at Thorin before remembering he couldn't see her. "It worked."

"I can see that," he said, and she was glad that her blush was hidden just as thoroughly as her smile had been. "Once again, our burglar proves her worth."

Shyly, she said, "Nori was the one who made the key."

He was standing directly in front of her now, reaching out towards her. His hand landed briefly on her bosom and they both froze before he dropped his hand and cleared his throat. "My apologies."

"No, it's fine," she said, her voice a little too high. "Here, you hold on to the key. We'll move as soon as everybody's at the feast."

"Keep it," he said, pushing it back when she would have placed it in his hands. "What if I get chained again? Then you would have to have Nori make another key."

With a nervous laugh at the spark she seemed to feel coming from his hand, she said, "As hard as he blushed when I kissed him, I don't think he'd survive a second thank you."

He stiffened. "You have... feelings for him?"

"What? No, don't be ridiculous. It was just a small kiss on the cheek, nothing you wouldn't give to a cousin or friend," she said.

"I wouldn't," he said drily. "Dwarrows do not, as a general habit, give kisses to any but their spouse or intended."

Loftily, she said, "Hobbits kiss family, friends, and children, and right now the entire company counts as all three."

He looked thunderous at that and she slipped out of the room, swinging the door closed. "I'm going to go check everything's in place and then try to get some rest. I'd suggest you do the same."

"I won't always be locked away," he said, and she stood on tiptoe to look into the cell only to find herself face to face with him, her lips a breath away from his. Her heart was racing so that she thought he had to hear it, and she stretched in her tiptoes, too hypnotized by his nearness to think about what she was doing.

Footsteps in the corridor above broke the spell, and she stepped away hastily. "I'll be back."

The first hitch in the plan was that the dwarves were invited to the feast, something she hadn't counted on at all. She was bumped into by more than one person as she moved through the dining hall, but when she finally tracked down the members of the company they'd used the situation to their advantage, volunteering to bring in the extra food and so accustoming the elves to see them walk around with trays and casks and even full barrels. Amidst the hubbub, Dori simply picked up the doubled-up barrels that held their weapons and carried them down to their mining area.

Billa thought her heart would stop when an elf almost spotted Thorin in the hallway as she was leading him to the others, but apparently having him crouch in a corner while she covered him with her body and the flaps of her coat was enough to keep him out of sight. "If my kin ever find out that I literally hid from elves behind a woman's skirt..."

"It was my coat, and in any case I won't tell them," Billa said firmly. "Now come on, and be ready to do it again if someone else spots us."

They didn't speak again until they were safely at the mouth of the tunnel, which was hidden behind one of the polished and decorated walls of the anteroom on the right side of the main room they had carved out of the rock. Even then, Thorin went to the others to start snapping out orders and so Billa hung back to look around and wait for the next phase of the plan.

Billa was utterly amazed at the craftsmanship of the walls and tunnel, but when she said so Bofur shrugged. "We had some extra time, since it was a piece of piss-- er, piece of cake to set up the fake tunnel. It's like digging through a potato, this rock, although there was a bit of a promising vein of silver I wish we could've gotten to."

"Why couldn't you, if you had extra time?" Billa sat on one of the empty barrels that had held the weapons, rummaging through her pack to make sure the clothes she planned to change into were at the top, well above all the food they'd smuggled out of the elves' feast.

"No mining contract," Bofur said. "Technically, anything mined belongs to the owner of the land unless there's a contract in place specifying that the person doing the work gets a share. It's one of the oldest dwarf laws, and I'll not go to Mahal's halls with the stain of breaking it on my soul."

Tilting her head, Billa frowned. "So if a dwarf doesn't have permission to mine, he can't keep anything from the mine? What if he mines a ruby and sells it, and the owner doesn't know or only finds out later?"

"Rubies can be tempting - they're some of our most valued gems, since at their best they shine like life's blood and even at their worst they can be used for these lights that... Well, I'll explain that later, when I can show it to you." He winked and said, "I'm told it can be frightening for outsiders to see them, but you can cling to me if it helps."

"I'll keep that in mind," she said drily. "Although you didn't actually answer the question."

Pushing his hat back on his head, Bofur said, "So I didn't, although it's a bit of a ridiculous question, to be honest. No dwarf would do that who could properly call himself a dwarf. If anyone found out, he'd have his beard and braids removed, and be stretched before being cast out, never again to be seen or heard by dwarrows."

Her eyes wide, Billa said, "Maybe we should leave the key that Nori made, just to be sure we don't steal any of Thranduil's silver by accident."

"Aye, good thinking," Bofur said. "Here, we haven't put out the forge - give it over and I'll melt it down now."

She felt a twinge as she gave it to him, since she had thought to take it for a keepsake, but soon enough it had been turned into a molten puddle and then poured into one of the discarded dinner plates to form a little silver circle. She watched Bofur quickly etch a pretty oak leaf design on the front and marveled at the casual skill involved. "When people say dwarves are craftsmen, they really don't say the half of it."

"You'll make me blush with talk like that," Bofur said with a grin. "Go on, don't stop now."

Dori bustled up with a disapproving frown. "Come along, Billa, don't let this ruffian fool you. Most dwarrows can do better work when they're barely out of nappies."

Despite Bofur's protest, Dori pulled her away and whispered, "He's a good sort, but you can do much better." His gaze went significantly to Thorin and Billa blushed.

"I'm really not--"

How she would have finished the sentence was a mystery even to her, as she was interrupted by Thorin stepping into the tunnel as Balin said, "It's time."

The dwarves trooped into the tunnel, Billa's pack looking small and puny on Dwalin's back despite being overstuffed with food and what supplies she'd been able to scrounge. Billa fiddled with her ring as she went back to the door, waiting for her companion for the last phase of the plan. She'd thought it would be Dori, but it was Balin that met her at the door. "If there's any fighting, lass, stay to one side and make certain I can see you."

"If anyone's coming, crouch down," Billa said. "I can hide you, somewhat."

He nodded and they set off, although when they passed a storeroom Billa paused. "Mister Balin? Wouldn't the barrels make more of a splash if they had dwarrows in them than they would if empty?"

Following her gaze to the sacks of grain and other supplies in the open storeroom, Balin grinned. "Aye, they would. Good thinking."

A few minutes of experimenting showed that cloth wrapped around Billa would be invisible as long as it completely wrapped around her, even if Balin gripped part of it. With the aid of several tablecloths and the strong knots Balin had apparently learned from "a misspent decade in a port town, best not mentioned," they managed to carry a surprisingly large amount in a very short time, safely invisible and with a screen Balin could hold up to hide behind.

Balin could barely stop chortling as he stuffed barrels full of cured hams and sacks of grain and assorted other provisions before sealing them shut. They rolled them onto the closed trapdoor, ready to fall into the rushing water as soon as they were opened, then hid themselves and waited for the elves that were scheduled to send the provisions down the river.

It went even better than expected when they did, the worker elves complaining about the weight of the barrels but not daring to open them as the half-drunk supervisor insisted they just do as they were told. Once the barrels were safely away, Balin and Billa crept back to the tunnel, Balin waiting just inside and holding it open while Billa went to the closest occupied area and shouted, "The dwarves are gone! They must have used those barrels to escape!"

Quick as a wink she took herself off to the tunnel and ran pell-mell with Balin to join the others on the other side. The company was gathered behind the screen of tree branches and heaped earth, with Thorin on point ready to defend all of them should they be discovered.

The elven guard rode out, their red-haired captain in the lead, and thundered past their hiding place without slowing down. They waited still, making sure no one else would join them, but soon enough the company was traveling behind them as silently as they could. Billa was kept firmly in the middle of the group, once more wearing her pack and holding the hilt of her sword to keep it from banging against her shins.

In all honesty she thought they sounded like a traveling carnival, all jingling and stomping, but they seemed to think they were being sneaky and she really didn't have the breath to spare to comment on the matter. The elves were following the river and they followed the elves, occasionally sighting the barrels rolling and heaving through the water. Billa felt sick at the thought of her original plan, which would have had her clinging to the outside of one of the barrels, and silently promised herself to give each dwarf a grateful hug for digging the tunnel and saving her from that fate.

At length the guard slowed to a stop, approaching a section of the river where more elves were using long hooks to pull the barrels from the water to the shore and lashing them together into a crude raft. The guards used a form of sign language to communicate and they cautiously approached one of the barrels lying low in the water, differentiating it clearly from the empty ones. Several of the dwarves had to stuff something into their mouths to keep from laughing as the elves jumped back, weapons at the ready, only to face nothing more threatening than apples tumbling out of a barrel that had been split open.

"Search for them," the captain snarled, pointing her sword back in the direction of the elves' stronghold. "Have the entire palace turned upside down, and that dratted mine they were working in. If there's a stone left unturned, I'll find out the reason why."

The elves passed by the dwarves again, not seeing them hiding by the riverbank. The captain lingered just long enough to instruct the river elves to empty all the barrels and see all the contents returned to the palace before she followed her group into the dark of the woods. They never got the chance to obey, as the dwarves quickly overpowered them and Balin's knots came back into play, first to tie them up and hide them in their little fishing hut and then to lash the barrels together.

As soon as the last barrel was tied on, they pushed away from the riverbank and were off, letting the current of the river carry them away from the elves and out of Mirkwood.

Chapter Text

It was still night when they saw the town the Men had built on the Long Lake, and they remained quiet as they drifted past, their torches extinguished and the poles they had used to steer drawn up. One of the Men came out to peer into the darkness, but he was blinded by the light of his own torch and didn't see them beyond it, ultimately shaking his head and going back inside.

Billa was sitting in the middle of the raft, shivering and feeling quite, quite sorry for herself. She'd started feeling queasy from the moment she was picked up and deposited on the raft, and the longer they spent on the boat, the more green and ill she felt. She started at one point to crawl to the side in order to be miserably sick over the edge, but then one of the knots started coming loose and she dropped to practically hug the barrel she was resting on.

"If we go to Laketown, we could trade for ponies," she heard someone whisper. "The burglar might not make it if we row all the way to Erebor."

"And we might be captured again if we go to Laketown! We have enough food, thanks to Balin, and a little seasickness never killed anyone. We should go on!"

Waving a hand vaguely in the air, Billa said, "Just leave me here. If I live, you can find me at the closest place with a bath and a real bed available."

They were laughing at her, more heartily than she'd heard them laugh at anything since they'd laughed at Bag End - also at her, if she recalled correctly. She lifted her head to glare and they just laughed harder. She would have made an obscene gesture, if she'd known one and could lift herself up enough to deliver it properly. As it was, she just let her head fall back onto the barrel and groaned. "Hobbits aren't meant to be on water. We don't even swim, as a rule. Or take baths in tubs that are too big. Or go outside if it's raining too hard."

"Steer to the shore." Thorin's voice was brimming with amusement as he gave the order, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to kiss him or hit him. Probably both. "The burglar and Gloin can visit the town, gather intelligence and try to buy ponies and supplies. We'll secure the cargo, make sure none of the barrels took on water enough to ruin the food before we go to the mountain."

"You are a great man," Billa said from her prone position. "Dwarf. Dwarrow. Whatever you are, you are definitely great, and probably wise and powerful as well. Much better than any elf."

With a hoot of laughter, Oin said, "Don't flatter the king, laddie. He's insufferable enough already without being your favorite."

Billa waved a hand vaguely and then folded her arms under her head, trying to pretend she was at home, sitting on the bench in front of the gate and staying completely, blissfully still.

They finally docked and Dori helped Billa to her feet, her pack slung over one shoulder. "Come along, dear. You'll have to change before you go into town - no sense letting those Men see you like this."

"Oh! Oh, yes, of course," Billa said, her hands flying to her messy hair. "Maybe we can find a quiet place where I can have a bit of a wash?"

There was a grumble and an arm gesture from Bifur, and Dori drew himself up. "Now see here! I'm not part of this madness - you lot might not know what a gentleman is, but I--"

He was cut off as Billa stumbled, falling to her knees and then losing control of her stomach, thankfully over the side and downstream. Wiping her mouth weakly, she said, "I hate boats."

"Just carry her," Thorin said impatiently. "And make sure you turn your back and keep an eye out - the rest of us will be here."

Billa didn't think even Gandalf would argue with that tone, and she let herself be lifted and carried like a child, off the boat and a little way upstream, to a sheltered spot behind a large boulder. "There you go, dear. All better, and if you can get a bit of ginger while you're in town, I can make you a lovely tea to make your stomach right as rain again."

Smiling as she gave him a hug, she said, "Am I an honorary nephew?"

"Sister," Dori said with a fond smile, kissing the tip of his finger and tapping it against her nose. "You've plenty of kisses from the sun, but it's time to get changed and ready. I don't trust those ruffians."

Which particular set of ruffians he meant, she had no idea. She didn't much care in that moment, focused on rinsing out her mouth and giving herself the best bath she could using a soft cloth to wipe at her skin without ever being fully unclothed. Dori kept his back resolutely turned, humming tunelessly, and when she was done she said, "Could you help me with these laces? They're a bit loose."

"You need to eat more," Dori said fretfully, pulling at the laces. "And as soon as we've settled somewhere, I'm going to make you something much better than this disgraceful thing. It doesn't provide much protection at all."

"It's not for protection," Billa said with a laugh. "Unless you mean protection from gossip or slouching. It's just a corset."

Appalled, Dori said, "You're not wearing any armor?"

"It's not usually a part of hobbit attire, no," Billa said, laughing as she pictured herself dressed in steel and leather and furs, like the dwarves were.

"We'll just see about that," Dori said with a huff as they went back to join the others.

He moved immediately to talk to his brothers, and Gloin stepped up to Billa and said, "Come along, Miss Baggins. The soonest there, the soonest back."

"Of course," Billa said, adjusting the sword she wore so that it was hidden in the folds of her skirt. She'd leave it behind if she wasn't sure that even attempting to do so would get her scolded by at least half of the company.

Just before they left, Ori scurried up to her, holding out the thick woolen muffler that he usually used as a hood. "Miss Baggins! Wear this - Dori said you might need it."

She smiled, since it was a little chilly and it was more than large enough to use as a shawl. "Thank you, Ori. I'll make sure to bring it back safe and sound."

Gloin nodded in approval and started walking again, holding branches out of the way and holding out an arm to assist her over any patch of ground that seemed even minimally difficult. Smiling, she said, "Your wife is a very lucky woman to have such a gentleman as her partner. I'll be sure to tell her so when we meet."

"Oh, no, I'm the lucky one," Gloin said. "I've never known why Cati chose me, and she's never explained. It's not as if I'd question a gift from the Valar."

"Maybe I'll ask her," Billa said, wrapping the muffler more tightly around her arms. "I always love to hear stories of how people met and fell in love."

As they approached the town, Gloin said, "Leave the talking to me, lassie." She looked at him dubiously, but shrugged. She never liked to be the first one to talk in a negotiation, so it was just as well.

Just before they stepped onto the closest bridge, a Man carrying a bow stepped out of the woods to their left, falling into step beside them. "Ho, short stuff! What's a dwarf doing dragging around a halfling?"

"It's no concern of yours," Gloin said stiffly, his hand going automatically to his axe.

Billa didn't put a hand to her forehead and groan, but she really wanted to. "Our party was set upon by bandits and we were separated from the group. Now we need to buy supplies and possibly mounts in order to finish our journey."

"You're awfully far off track if your intent was to go to the Iron Mountains," the Man said. "Still, there'll be plenty of folk willing to sell to you whatever you need."

"A pony and cart," Gloin said. "And food enough to get us through a month or more of journeying."

Billa was a bit surprised by that, but she supposed it made more sense than trying to find an explanation for why they needed fourteen ponies, and if they could modify a boat into a cart that could traverse Mirkwood, getting an actual cart over rough terrain would be simple enough. "Would it be possible to have a cup of tea and a rest at some point? We've been walking so very long."

"Aye, mistress, I'll take you right to the inn." The Man gave a bow and smiled. "I'm Bard, by the way. I'm one of the town guards."

"Billa," she said with a smile. She'd felt better as soon as she was off the raft, but she still wasn't feeling completely right. Still, being thinner and weaker than normal just lent an air of verisimilitude to their tale of highway robbery. "We are very pleased to meet you, I'm sure."

Gloin just grunted as a response. "Where would I find the horse traders?"

Once Bard had given him directions, Gloin set off and Billa was left to crane her neck in order to look up at her companion. "Well, mistress, it appears that the privilege of escorting you falls to me. This way."

"Thank you," she said, placing the tips of her fingers on the crook of his elbow as he held it out. "It's very nice to meet someone with manners - I was beginning to think they didn't exist outside the Shire."

"Knowing how to be a gentleman is one of my collection of outdated skills," he said. "I can also dance a gavotte, exchange formal greetings with elves and dwarves, and possibly with thrushes, if I can ever find one."

Eyebrows raised, Billa said, "What a very peculiar set of skills, but I envy them."

"I'll show you the gavotte, if you stay for long enough." He smiled down at her and winked, making her laugh. "In here, mistress. I'll pay for your tea, if you don't mind - there are those who wouldn't scruple to attack a woman on her own for just a few coins, and I'd prefer to avoid that."

Her lightheartedness faded and she once again felt small and cold and tired. Bard conducted her to a seat and ordered tea and food for her, sitting and watching her as she ate. "Why would a hobbit and a dwarf travel together, this far to the north?"

"Work is scarce, and..." Billa dropped her eyes, trying to look shy. "People aren't always as accepting as they might be, of things that are different."

"They are not," Bard said, looking at her speculatively before he stood. "You will be safe here - I'll tell your dwarf where to find you before I go about my business. Safe travels - and come back to Laketown if you find nowhere else to accept your differences."

Billa thanked him quietly, watching as he went and then sinking back to become, if not invisible, then at least a mere background detail. She was really too tired to talk to anyone, and there was still plenty of food and tea in front of her. It was soothing, in a way, to just sit and listen to people talking about homely things, who was stepping out with who, what the stores had in stock, how wild the young people were these days, nothing like back in our day...

She'd almost been lulled into sleep when someone started talking about dwarves and she forced herself not to flinch as she listened to an old man rant about how the King Under the Mountain would return and bring rivers of gold back to flowing through the hands of the Men of Dale. The patrons at the pub seemed evenly divided between agreeing with him and mocking him, and ultimately Billa was glad that things resolved themselves in a song rather than a fight. It still sent chills up her spine, and she wiped her mouth carefully with a napkin before sliding out of her chair and easing towards the door.

Gloin met her just outside the inn, obviously on his way to see her. "Have you heard them talking about Erebor?"

"Keep your voice down," she whispered, pulling him to one side. "We don't know enough to trust anyone. Did you get the supplies?"

"Aye, they're being loaded in the cart," Gloin said. "But they charged dearly, and we won't have the coin to make it back to Ered Luin if this venture fails. I'd thought, if we brought Tho--"

Shaking her head fiercely, Billa hissed, "They expect rivers of gold! The price would only go up!"

Gloin stroked his hand over his beard and said, "Better to pay the price we agreed on than let him set his own price later."

"That sounds amazingly like one of my dad's sayings - pay now or pay later, but the price doesn't get smaller from the waiting." Billa linked her arm with Gloin's and said, "Come on. Let's go get the cart and join the others."

They were just about to pull away from the town when a pair of elves rode in, tossing the reins they held at the Man who had sold them the cart. "You! You're one of the dwarves that escaped from our king!"

Gloin went still, and Billa thought frantically before putting her nose in the air and saying icily, "Are you implying that my husband is some sort of criminal?"

That threw the elves off, and Billa pressed on. "I can assure you, my husband would never do anything to find himself in the position of having to escape anyone."

"That dwarf was in our hall last night--"

"Oh, really? Given that I was with him for the entirety of the night, I find that rather incredible." Billa looked the elf over again and sneered. "Unless you somehow mean to imply that I was part of this?"

The other elf said, "What's a halfling doing with a dwarf?"

"What business is it of yours who I love?" Billa said haughtily. "Drive on - we're done here."

Gloin set the wagon in motion, away from the river and where they had left the others. Billa sat with her back stiff, the very picture of feminine outrage, until they were well out of sight of the town. She sighed as she relaxed. "We need to stop soon. I drank a lot of tea."

The haste with which he pulled over was enough to have her biting her lips to hold back a laugh, but she was grateful for it. It was just as well that it wasn't until she was on her way back that Bard appeared from between the trees, otherwise she would have had a humiliating accident. "What on earth?"

"There's no way that a dwarf would be romantically interested in you, mistress." Bard stepped closer and said, "I mean no offense. You're pretty enough, for your kind, but you don't have the look of a beautiful dwarven woman. They had thick beards, armor, thick waists, muscles enough to swing a hammer and work at a forge... You're small, delicate, hairless - not at all the sort of woman they like."

Billa had neither the time nor inclination to work out why it stung to have it confirmed that she was ugly by dwarf standards. It's not as if she'd ever been beautiful by hobbit ones, either. "Was there a point?"

"You came to my town under false pretenses," Bard said. "I'd just like to make sure that it's not going to cause harm to any of my people."

"We..." She trailed off as she heard a bird singing and looked to see a thrush perched on a branch near Bard. "You told me about listening to the birds deliberately, so that I'd think you have spies everywhere."

Bard inclined his head and she eyed him suspiciously. "How do I know you can actually talk to it, and aren't just winding me up?"

"I suppose you don't," Bard said. "Just like I don't know why you're here."

Drawing herself up to her full height, Billa said, "Then it appears we are at an impasse."

"Trust, mistress, would help us greatly." Running a hand through his hair, he said, "If you do something or discover something that might bring harm to my people, tell the birds and I'll consider that fair warning."

"I can agree to that," she said slowly. "Can you agree to let us go home without interference?"

He nodded and she curtseyed. "Thank you, Mister Bard, for the tea. Now, if you'll excuse me?"

Sweeping past, she did nothing to acknowledge his bow, or the little thrush that followed her back to the wagon. "Let's get the others," she said to Gloin as soon as she had reached the wagon. "We have a home to get to."

And if she happened to discreetly question Gloin about his wife's looks and confirm what Bard had said about dwarven beauty, that was certainly no one else's business.

Chapter Text

They couldn't all fit in the cart, not with all of the supplies they were carrying, but they had enough time before Durin's Day that they could afford to take the time to walk. This time Billa was just fine with taking the extra food she was offered, hoping that it would help stave off the weakness that she couldn't seem to shake from spending so long with the ring on in Mirkwood. She'd gotten sunburned the first day, her cheeks fiery red and her hair sticking damply to her neck and face when they'd finally stopped for the night, and Oin had called her a fool even as he gently smeared a soothing concoction over her forehead.

She woke up in the cart instead of by the fire and she spent the first several days of the trip there, sleeping and eating and sleeping more, only leaving her bed when nature's call couldn't be ignored. At first she worried that they would start again with thinking she was weak and useless, but then she pulled her blanket over her head and told herself crossly that she didn't care if they did. She'd traveled across the continent without her umbrella or hat or even so much as a proper handkerchief, and if she wanted to spend some time catching up on her rest, that was her lookout!

Soon, though, she was bored with sitting inside the cart, and stiff from not moving. The hope that she could just subtly fit back in with the company by continuing to walk after the stop for lunch was dashed, and she sighed. "I just want to stretch my legs. Really."

"Can't have you getting sick again," Dwalin said, gesturing to the cart. A brief look around showed she was not going to be getting any support from the others.

"I won't," she said. "I might not have anything to serve as a shade, but if I take my coat off and just rest when I'm tired..."

Things continued in that vein until almost teatime, and Billa finally gave in and climbed back into the cart, grumbling. "Stupid dwarves. Can't walk, can't move, it's amazing I'm not being tied to my bed for my own good. I wouldn't even be sunburned if I had my umbrella or even a proper bonnet, but I suppose dwarf women don't care about that sort of thing."

"Given we're an underground people, I can't say it ever comes up." Billa shrieked at Ori's voice being so close, and only his quick reflexes kept him from being slapped. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to startle you! It's just my turn to drive the wagon."

"No, I'm sorry," Billa said, her hand over her heart as she tried to calm down. "I shouldn't have said all that - I know you're all just, well, you're trying to be kind."

Ori gave her a half smile and said, "You're the first woman a lot of us have ever really spent time with. We're not quite sure what to do."

"Surely your mothers..." Billa wasn't quite sure how to finish the sentence.

"Oh, I'm pretty sure Mum was a female," Ori said. "It's not something we'd talk about, though."

Billa looked at him suspiciously. "Are you winding me up?"

"Only a little." Ori smiled and sat on the wagon bench, leaving enough room for her to sit beside him. "Men can't give birth, so it's not as if we don't all have a female parent."

"Your mum," Billa said, sitting down and settling her skirt around her. "At least that's something normal."

Shifting the reins around, Ori said, "Not really. Mum was a mage, so she had a lot of exotic ideas."

"A mage? But..."

With a small smile, Ori said, "If you get your pack, I'll show you her best spell."

Billa scrambled to get it, and when she came back Ori was reviewing something written in the book he now always kept in the pocket over his chest. She put the pack on the seat between them and he handed her the reins before frowning and letting out a deep breath. He looked much older and more serious as he pointed to the bag and said something complicated in the secret dwarf language.

All of the buckles on the pack came undone and he lowered his hand before smiling again, a bit shakily. "It doesn't always work, but it's an unlocking spell. It's come in handy a few times."

"That's amazing," Billa said sincerely. "I had no idea - we hobbits don't really have magic, not for anything like that. You're a mage! Incredible."

"Oh, no, I'm just a scribe," Ori said. "Most of our magic was lost with Erebor, and I would never be able to afford apprenticing to a real mage. I just know a few things from what Mum taught us and what I've found in books."

Patting his hand, she said, "That's all the more amazing, that you've taught yourself."

"Nori helped, and Dori always scrimped and saved to buy whatever books he could," Ori said. "I'm very lucky in my brothers."

"You are," Billa said, trying to keep a smile on her face. "I think I'm going to go lay down - I don't feel very good."

He didn't quite look as if he believed her but she smiled again and retreated to the back of the wagon, where her bed was still set up. Crawling in, she pulled the blanket over her head and made sure she was faced away from Ori before she let the first tear fall. No matter what happened, no matter how far she traveled or what she saw, she was still alone, a family of one, and the sick envy that overwhelmed her made her too ashamed to face herself even as she couldn't help feeling it.

The sun was low in the sky when she woke up, feeling muzzy and headachy from having cried herself to sleep. It was ridiculous to feel so sorry for herself, and the fact that she knew it just made it worse. Still, there was no sense in hiding and so she crawled back to the wagon seat only to find Ori wasn't there; Bifur was the one holding the reins.

For a moment she considered pretending she hadn't been about to sit at the front of the wagon, but she couldn't bring herself to be that deliberately rude. It wasn't that she disliked Bifur, it was that she didn't know him; there being no meaningful way to communicate made it difficult to know anything about him. He grunted a greeting as she settled in beside him, and then was quiet as they kept moving forward.

It was so peaceful that she'd become half hypnotized, staring forward at the clouds of dust stirred up by the horse's hooves and letting her mind wander freely until her mind cleared completely. At one point he fished under the seat and pulled out a bag which he dropped onto her lap; when she opened it to see some squashed sweets, he mimed taking one out and putting it to his mouth, then flapped a hand at her to make it clear who he thought should eat them.

"Thank you," she said, pulling out a candied violet and letting it dissolve on her tongue. "It tastes almost as wonderful as the ones my mother would make."

He smiled and turned his attention back to the horses, leaving them in a comfortable silence as they drove forward and she ate more of the sweets in the bag. He helped her down when they stopped for dinner, and sat next to her at dinner to hand her whatever choice bits Bombur picked out. She couldn't help but smile and thanked them both profusely, only to stop as Bombur choked and turned bright red.

"I'm not telling her that!" Bombur was glaring at his cousin, somehow managing to whisper in a way that garnered more attention than a shout. "No! And don't think Bofur will tell her either - you've got no business saying such things!"

"Tell me what?" Billa was dying of curiosity, and Bifur's gentle smile didn't alleviate it any more than Bombur's furious blush. "Really, I'd like to know."

Bifur repeated himself, much to the amusement of the members of the company that had stopped what they were doing to listen. This time Billa was less inclined to be understanding about being laughed at, and her face tightened as she stood. "If you don't want to tell me what I'm doing that's so amusing--"

"He offered to court you," Thorin said, not smiling in the slightest. "He says he'd be willing to take you to visit the elves as often as you wanted, if you would be willing to learn to speak to him with your hands."

Kili piped up with, "And that he's happy to step aside if you actually prefer--" He cut off on a gasp at Fili's elbow in his ribs, but Billa was fairly certain she'd got the gist.

"I really hadn't thought about courting with anyone - I know I'm not, well, just not that sort of woman," Billa said awkwardly. "But I would be happy to learn how to speak to him."

"Then we'll show you," Bofur said, settling down next to her, with Bifur still on her other side. "All right, let's start with the basics - what do you already know?"

Billa showed off the few words she was fairly certain of - lost, peach, hungry, things like that - and was pleased that she had the majority of them right. Soon enough a few of the others had joined them, and Billa was laughing as they all chimed in, teaching her random words and correcting her when she would accidentally 'say' entirely the wrong word. Even she had to laugh when, meaning to say "breeze," she instead made a sign that meant "passing gas."

By the time they were all yawning and moving to the bedrolls, Billa felt so much warmer that she had trouble remembering why she had felt so sad and alone earlier. She retired to the bed and curled up, only to lay awake for so long that all the noises of the camp died out and she was left staring at the top of the wagon in total silence. Not able to stand it any longer, she made her way out intending to take a walk or grab a snack, anything other than lying in silence.

"Burglar." She looked up to see Thorin seated slightly away from the camp, his face lit by the remains of the fire and the glow of his pipe. "Do not wander far."

"You always call me that." She sat next to him, adjusting her skirts to neat folds around her. "I do have a name. I won't even ask you to learn it in Hobbitish, just in the common form. Bill-ah Bagg-ins - see? It's easy."

The corners of his lips turned up as he said, "Miss Baggins."

"I suppose that will do," she said. "Mister Oakenshield. Or, rather, your majesty."

"We are companions. It is not suitable for you to use my title when we face this journey together," he said, holding out the pipe.

She took it, taking a small drag from it and not coughing at all. "You're using mine. Well, sort of. When I'm on official business, then my proper title is 'your honor.'"

"My majesty and your honor - we're a very lofty pair." There was no mistaking his smile now, and she couldn't help returning it.

"Well, when we're not feeling so lofty, especially if it's just the two of us, perhaps you could call me Billa," she said. "It seems like a very long time since anyone called me by my name, except by accident."

His smile turned a bit sly as he said, "I suppose you should call me by my name, then, although you can continue to call me Oakenshield if you prefer the title."

"I thought it was your last name," she said. "I'm so sorry, I was trying to be respectful."

"Were you? I thought you were making it clear that we were not on such terms as you are with the others, since you do not call Dwalin 'Mister Orc Slayer,' nor do you call Bombur 'Mister Architect.'"

Horrified, she said, "Should I have been? I'm so sorry, I didn't-- And you knew I didn't know. You..."

She smacked his arm, which earned her a rich laugh and not even a hint of a flinch. "The others spent about a week at the first trying to work out what mighty deeds you might have done to earn 'Baggins' as an honorific."

"Yes, well, I don't know about that; it's just my family name," Billa said. "There's been a Baggins as long as there's been a Shire, but I'm fairly sure it just comes from Balbo Baggins having a particularly fine bag."

"As do you," he said. "None of us have kept our packs as you have - is it enchanted to remain with you?"

She looked at the wagon, as if she could see her pack through it. "I don't think so? It was my mother's, so I'm very glad to still have it. It's... It's different, being on the road. At home I'm surrounded by the things my parents loved, but here there's just my mother's pack and what's left of my father's coat."

"And you," he said. "You most of all, as the way you speak of your parents makes it clear that you were well-loved by them."

While she would have liked to make an arch, teasing comment in return, she found that her throat was too closed up with emotion to manage anything of the sort. He allowed her the time to get herself in order, and when she finally spoke, it was a soft, "Thank you."

He nodded and passed her the pipe again, and they sat in silence, watching the stars.

Chapter Text

The way was getting rougher, what path there was disappearing into rough brambles and dead trees. They stopped to allow the horse a rest in one of the few patches of grass they'd seen and unpacked the wagon, inventorying the contents while reinforcing and redesigning the wagon and wheels to make it sturdier. Billa lay in the shade of the wagon's canopy, her stays loose and bodice unbuttoned as far as she could without being indecent. As it was, she wished desperately she could be like the dwarves and just dispense with her blouse entirely. It was incredibly unfair that they got to run around without shirts on as they chose, but she was stuck sweltering.

As she lay there, desultorily studying the herbal guide and consulting the Sindarin dictionary as needed, Oin came to settle beside her. "Weak, always tired, sleeping too much and a choleric disposition, falling easily into melancholia."

Frowning, she said, "Probably... tea, I suppose, until we can ask about the cause."

"Dori! Tea!" At Oin's shout, Dori started to make a rude gesture but then he spotted Billa and hastily put his hands down. "So. What's the cause?"

"What? No, I'm..." He folded his arms and just looked at her until she sighed. "Really, I'm fine. It's just this heat, and spending so long in Mirkwood with the ring on. I'll be fine with some tea and a bit more rest."

Bringing her a cup of tea and an apple, Dori said, "There, now. This'll help perk you up, little sister."

It spoke so directly to the painful thoughts she'd been having that she couldn't help herself from jumping up to hug him. "How did I get a brother so good?"

"No fair! Why does Dori get hugs and we don't?" Kili bounded over, Fili on his heels, and Billa shrieked as they wrapped their arms around her and squeezed.

"Get off! You're all sweaty!" Billa shrieked again as they just hugged her harder, but couldn't stop laughing as she batted at their arms. "Get off or my brother will beat you!"

"Ow!" Fili's hand flew up as a pebble hit the back of his head.

Ori smirked and twirled his slingshot. "You heard what our sister said."

Kili's eyes narrowed and he jumped on Ori, leading to a crack over the head from Nori, and then things descended into a general scrum. Billa found herself being pushed down as Dwalin flew through the air to tackle someone, laughing the whole time. Oin roared something about his apprentice getting damaged and she thought that might be the end of it, but then he waded into the fray and they were all tussling once again, with one notable exception.

Sidling behind Thorin, she said, "Aren't you going to stop them?"

"I wouldn't dare interfere in a family dispute," he said, his eyes dancing. "Weren't you the one who said they're all children of your family?"

She ducked quickly behind him as Dori and Dwalin almost knocked her over as they rolled past, each spiritedly attempting to strangle the other. "But..."

Whatever she might've said vanished completely from her mind as he flashed a smile at her. "It is only a shame we do not have any of the popped corn that Beorn so enjoyed."

"You're just as bad as the rest of them," she said, stomping her foot. "I'm going to make biscuits and not share with any of you."

Dwalin's head came up like a hunting dog's. "Biscuits?"

It gave Dori enough of an opening to deliver a blow that sent Dwalin reeling. Billa's hands flew to her hips and her voice cracked out like a whip. "Dori! You apologize right now or, so help me, you will regret it!"

With a mulish expression, Dori muttered, "'m sorry."

"All of you! Acting like fauntlings and over what? The wagon's not finished, the horse is going to get into the grain if it keeps nosing like it is, and what are you all doing? We--"

The next thing she knew, she was lying on the ground, looking up at an awful lot of dwarf nostrils. "What happened?"

"You fell over like a tree," Bofur said. "One minute you're yelling, the next you're flat on your back and pale as death."

"He's been overdoing it," Oin said. "The lass needs to rest, to get over the effects of that ring - all magic has a price, girl, and don't you ever forget it. We'll be lucky if this weakness is just temporary."

Putting a hand to her head, Billa struggled to sit up. "I could really use that tea."

Dori broke away from the group to fetch the tea, and Oin shooed the others away. Thorin refused to go, standing and glowering down at her so much that she wanted to put the ring on and disappear, rather desperately. "You will not wear that thing again."

"Not unless I need to," she said, rubbing her face with both hands. "And at Mirkwood I needed to. I'll be fine - burglary is what I'm here for, remember?"

"You will not wear it again."

Having made the pronouncement a second time, Thorin turned on his heel and stalked away, leaving her to stare after him in disbelief. "Pompous, dictatorial, overbearing, condescending--"

"And those are his good qualities," Bofur said, squatting down so he could look easily into her eyes and smile. "But I'd agree with him, personally, that anything that hurts you should be somewhere around the very last resort."

"Has anyone ever told you that you have a distinct talent for deploying big sad eyes?" She hadn't realized she had grasped the ring until she let go of it, letting it fall back to where it hung on its long string, just above her breasts. "Fine - only if it's absolutely necessary. Can I have my tea now?"

"Ori, bring her over to the shade," Dori said. "Nori, fetch my bag - she'll be cooler in something looser."

Billa drew back at that. "No, no, I couldn't possibly. It wouldn't be proper to... to..."

"You can stay in the shade until we leave," Dori said soothingly. "It's important for you to feel better - we'll take good care of you, you'll see."

Somehow, in her happiness at having someone willing to claim her as part of his family, she had forgotten about Dori's mothering instincts. Weakly, she said, "I've taken care of myself for a long time. Quite a few others, too."

"But, just for now, you don't have to," Dori said, and she looked at him for a long moment before hugging him again, hiding her watering eyes against his chest. She caught him exchanging panicked looks with Ori and it just made her cry harder, but when he started trying to pat her back it turned to a watery laugh.

"I'm normally never this emotional, I'm so sorry. This is almost as inappropriate as running around in your clothes would be."

Still patting her gingerly, Dori said, "Well, then, let's just sit and have that tea, shall we?"

He led her to the shelter and she went, still a bit sniffly, but in short order the three Ri brothers had her laughing, which brought the others to walk by conspicuously and chime in. The work on the wagon went slowly, but it got done and Billa felt her spirits lighten even with the looming specter of the dragon.

When the wagon was back together and she agreed to take a nap inside it, she stripped down to her shift and looked down at the ring. It felt heavier somehow, and she lifted it from around her neck to look at it. It really did look very ordinary, nothing like the finely crafted, ornate jewelry that others in the company wore. Still, she was a hobbit - she didn't need trinkets, and the fact that she kept reaching for this one when she'd promised not to wear it...

Forcing herself not to think about what she was doing, Billa tied the string to the ring and to her bag, then wrapped in in several layers of her clothes and buried it between her neglected sewing supplies and her books. If it was out of sight, perhaps it would stop coming to mind.

The next morning she woke up to the smell of sizzling ham and fried bread and the sounds of the dwarves arguing over who got to be served first. Billa pulled the blanket around her and scrambled out of the wagon, modesty and propriety falling far behind a truly appetizing breakfast on the list of priorities. Far, far behind. "Don't you rotters dare eat it all!"

Ignoring their gapes and that she could feel her hair straggling from its pins, she gave Bombur her most winsome smile and said, "I'm terribly hungry - is there enough for me?"

"As much as you want," Bombur said, smiling back.

Billa pushed her hair out of her face and adjusted the blanket around her, trying to work out a way to both eat and have something to wear over her shift. Going back to get dressed was not an option, not with the way the dwarves were eyeing the frying pan, or the way Bombur was keeping his hand meaningfully on his battle ladle. If someone tried to pinch the food there would be a fight, and the food might become a casualty. No, far better to just tie the blanket around her, over her breasts, and the only exposure would be her arms and some of her shoulders - only as much as would be shown off by a ballgown, really.

Eagerly, Billa sat down next to the cooking pan and accepted a plate from Bombur's hands, eating and making appreciative noises as he kept adding more to her plate, until she couldn't hold anymore and gave a discreet burp. "Oh! Pardon me!"

"It's good you've got your appetite back," Bombur said, and it was only then that she noticed none of the others had been served what she was eating - all of them were holding bowls of porridge, flavored with apples and honey.

Meekly, she handed her plate to Bombur and said, "That was delicious. And that porridge smells heavenly."

Within seconds, he'd dished up a bowl of it, pouring extra honey on it and even sprinkling some nuts on top. "Your wife is the luckiest woman in all of Middle-Earth. If you weren't already married, this breakfast alone would make me propose."

"You hear that, lads? She wants a man who can cook!"

Billa rolled her eyes at the catcalls that followed Bofur's pronouncement, standing up with queenly dignity despite the last of her pins giving up the fight and letting her hair fall past her shoulders. The blanket slipped but she couldn't hitch it up, not without risking it falling further, or one of the others grabbing her porridge. "Excuse me, gentlemen."

Her exit was somewhat ruined by the fact that, no sooner had she turned her back but the others started scuffling and she could hear rather too many muffled curses and threats with regard to who should get the remainder of the fried ham and bread. She should probably feel bad for taking so much of it, but it had been truly delicious.

By the time she'd dressed and savored her porridge, she was feeling infinitely cheerful, even humming as she walked along beside the wagon. Bifur had managed to put together an umbrella for her, so she was shaded from the sun as they strolled, and Oin had declared she could have a day off from being quizzed about plants since there were no plants to speak of in the vicinity, just the occasional patch of grass.

"It's a shame no one's been able to restablize the soil," she said, digging her toes into the dirt. "Even just scattering some grass seed would help, of course, but this could be good farmland with a bit of effort."

"This was farmland," Balin said soberly. "On the outskirts of Dale. Most of Erebor's food came from here."

Nodding, Billa said, "That explains why it's so level. It's good those stumps are there - they've kept the soil from eroding completely."

"It was an orchard." This time it was Dori who spoke, his voice soft and somber.

Slipping her hand into his, she gave it a gentle squeeze. "It can be again."

A bird burst out of cover from behind one of the tree stumps, flying around her face and twittering. She jumped back, startled, but it didn't stop its excited flying until Dori almost swatted it out of the air. "Damn sparrow!"

"That's a thrush!" Oin said excitedly. "As was predicted in the portents!"

Dori muttered something very rude about portents, but Billa's attention had been caught by another word entirely. "Bard said that he can understand what the thrushes say."

The bird perched on Dori's shoulder and seemed to nod. Billa looked at it in fascination. "Can you understand me?"

"More to the point, we can't understand it," Balin said. "There were once ravens in Erebor who could speak Common, but what became of them..."

The bird twittered again, hopping up and down on Dori's shoulder. Bifur grunted and made the signs for "bird understand."

"It probably wants to know more about restoring the land," Thorin said. "Its home was stolen, too."

The bird chirped and Billa nodded. "We've had wildfires sometimes on my land. Of course, we only had one that was this bad, and that was because Fred Noakes hadn't managed to get his still and aging barrels out before the fire spread - the explosion broke windows several miles away, although of course we all pretended we didn't know what caused it. Once we'd balanced out the ash, though, we had a really spectacular growing year, to the point where Old Farthingale tried to get some of Fred's whisky to fuel his next scheduled burn."

They were all looking at her as if she had spoken in tongues, even the bird. It seemed a bit excessive, even if she had rambled a tiny bit. Clearing her throat, Billa said, "Please tell Bard that, if he sends a letter on my behalf to the Shire and sufficient men to provide a guard, my farmers can provide the proper materials to hearten at least a hundred acres, and seed for planting. Just make sure he addresses it to Lobelia Sackville-Baggins - actually, just tell him I'll send him a letter to forward with instructions. If he'd like."

The thrush flew around Billa, delivering a joyous song before it flew back towards Laketown. The dwarves were still looking at her in amazement and she touched a hand to her hair, wondering if she had some bird doings in it or something else that would explain the sudden hypnotic fascination with her face. "Is... Is something wrong?"

Clearing his throat, Balin said, "That's... that was a very generous offer."

With a slight blush, Billa said, "Well, we all have a duty to the land, don't we? And it's almost time to rotate out the emergency seed stocks, so it's not actually as generous as it seems - they'd be thrown away otherwise."

"There are many who would charge the earth for rotten dregs, if they knew the desperation of the buyer," Thorin said.

"No one decent!" While Billa knew there existed horrible people in the world, even hobbits, it was still hard for her to conceive at anyone who could look at this desolation and not itch to fix it. "It's not right to turn away from someone who needs help."

Thorin gave her a hard look and then stalked off, moving ahead of the part at a rapid pace. Billa looked at his retreating back and felt like shrinking in on herself. "Did I do something wrong?"

"No, lass, no," Balin said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "We're just not used to people like you."

"I'm a very ordinary hobbit," she protested. "There's nothing special about me, unless you count being an old maid."

Giving her a last avuncular pat before he started walking again, Balin said, "Then it is unfortunate indeed that we have not spent more time amongst your people."

"When this is all over, you're all invited to come back to Bag End and you can meet some more hobbits, ones that are much nicer than me," she said. "And this time I can feed you properly, since I'll be expecting you."

Frowning, Kili said, "What was wrong with how you fed us before?"

Billa laughed. "Only one kind of pie? No trifle, barely any cakes, ale that hadn't reached its full flavor and no real cheese plate? It wasn't really more than an extended snack, nothing like I would have served if I'd had time to prepare."

They were looking at her again, the same look as if she'd grown an extra head. This time Billa just sighed. "Sometimes, I really think we speak entirely different languages."

Chapter Text

The mountain loomed ever larger, but didn't seem to be getting any closer. While they had ample supplies, the monotony was looming large and the dwarves were getting gloomier with every mile, as they spotted once-familiar landmarks that were nothing but shells and ruins. They were quickly coming to the point of having to decide where to begin exploring the mountain to find the secret door, but the map had nowhere near enough detail to stave off the petty, ongoing bickering. Billa wanted to scream at all of them, but she ended up just screaming as an enormous black bird fluttered directly in front of her face.

"You are the one who can heal the land?" The raven speaking brought the furor of response to its appearance to a halt, and Billa put a hand to her racing heart. "The little one wants to talk to you."

"It's one of the Erebor ravens - maybe even a descendant of Carc's!" Balin's face had broken into an enormous smile, and the raven turned to look at him. "We'd feared you all lost!"

The raven tilted its head to one side and said, "When we're done, I'll fetch my grandfather; he talks a lot about dwarves."

A burst of birdsong drew everyone's attention to the small thrush that was flying around and pecking at the raven's tailfeathers. After a moment, the raven said, "Right. This is... Translation's a bit iffy, but she wouldn't object if you call her War-Song. I'm Coarc - I'm here to tell you what she wants."

"Thank you for your help," Billa said, manners kicking in even as she wondered what it said about her life that this wasn't the strangest thing to ever happen to her. "Would you care for some refreshments? A bit of ham, or some dried fruit?"

This offer was accepted and in short order she was sitting at the back of the wagon, serving a tea of dried berries and shredded ham to a pair of birds perched on the backboard. She racked her brains to think of small talk, but couldn't really think of anything. Discussing the weather and families with a pair of birds was a bit beyond her ability to cope.

"The Master of Laketown refused to allow any men to travel as far as your home," the raven said. "Greedy old miser."

The thrush trilled a long line of notes, which the raven dutifully translated to, "Bastard."

"That is a pity," Billa said. "I suppose I can try to work out--"

"War-Song would like for you to bring what is needed," the raven said. "She is willing to swear her people to your service for now into eternity, in exchange for restoring some of the lands they once nested in."

Alarmed, Billa said, "I certainly don't need eternal servitude - Miss War-Song's people are free, they should remain so!"

"They don't have gold," the raven said, twisting its head to preen its wing. "But they will give anything, even their lives, to--"

"Instead of service, perhaps we could discuss friendship and alliance?" Billa took a sip of tea to restore herself before offering up another piece of meat for the thrush. "Your two tribes of birds have alliances with the Men and dwarves, correct?"

After a sharp chirp from War-Song, Coarc said, "Used to, yeah. Then they scarpered."

"Well, they're back, or going to be," Billa said. "We're on the way to take Erebor back for the dwarves."

"The giant fire-breathing dragon might be a problem there," the raven said drily, then snapped its beak as the thrush pecked it sharply. "Look, I'm getting to it. I'd like to see you do better."

War-Song let loose another torrent of chirps, then stopped and looked at Billa in such a way that it seemed to her she had just exchanged exasperated eyerolls with a small bird. "I can't guarantee anything, thanks to the previously mentioned firebreathing, but I can do my best to make arrangements, and write out instructions. If I survive--"

"Unlikely," said the raven.

"Yes, well, if I survive, then I can do a bit more." With a smile, Billa said, "In return, I have a question I need answered, and I'd like an exchange of promises."

The birds waited, and Billa brushed her fingers off, leaving the plate of foods for them within their easy reach. "I would like for both of your tribes to swear friendship with the dwarves of Erebor. And the hobbits of the Shire, of course, since those are my people, not just my companions."

War-Song hopped along the backboard and pecked absently at the wood before twittering to the raven. This was delivered as, "There's a bit of a prior commitment issue, kind of thing. With the Dale Men."

"I would never ask you to put my interests above the Men of Dale," Billa said. "But, perhaps, on equal footing? Just as you would never betray them to me, I would ask that you never betray me to them."

"Done," said the raven a moment later. "So what're you doing about the land?"

Clasping her hands together, Billa said, "First of all, I'll write a letter so that if anything happens to me, you or your people will know what needs to be done - and can receive the supplies if someone goes to the Shire to order them, although the issue of transportation still arises."

"If my companions and I live, though, I'll go to the Shire myself to get the supplies and hire people as necessary to transport the materials here, and I'll spend at least one growing season supervising to make sure the land will recover fully."

Shrewdly, the raven said, "Two growing seasons. And more if what you try doesn't work."

"That sounds fair," Billa said. "Especially if we could also agree on sharing information as needed, or possibly working out a way to get letters back and forth from the Shire."

That led War-Song and the raven to an exchange in trills and whistles, but finally the raven said, "Right, agreed. Exchange feathers and then ask your question."

Billa hesitated for a moment, then reached up to pull a single strand of hair from her head, which she exchanged solemnly for one of War-Song's dappled feathers. "There is a grey stone where you knock. Can you show us where it is?"

"That's easy enough," the raven said. "The snails in that bit of the mountain are tasty. Not as tasty as fresh eyeballs, mind, or a bit of sheep's liver, but still tasty."

"Excellent. I'll get started on that letter immediately, to be sure you'll have it, if you could talk to the dwarf with the long white beard about where we're going."

Retrieving her supplies after they'd left, Billa decided to sit at the front of the wagon so she could get some air as she worked. Fili looked up from the reins and smiled. "That was interesting to listen to. You gave away everything and got nothing more than some directions."

"You weren't really listening," she said with a smile. "I got quite a lot, especially since it was in exchange for something I would have done regardless."

Looking at her skeptically, he said, "You were planning to stay for two years? What about Bag End?"

Softly, so softly that she wasn't sure if she was admitting it to him or to herself, Billa said, "I can never go back, not to the life I had before. It was impossible from the moment I ran out of my door."

"Surely no one would dare to steal your home," Fili said. "We would help you take it back - Kili and I will escort you home and fight anyone who challenges you."

"Oh, my dear, I appreciate your offer more than words can say, but it wouldn't do. It would make things worse, actually, especially since the two of you are so handsome."

Fili preened a bit at that, and she thought the subject dropped. He proved not to be so easily distracted. "So if no one would steal it, what could the company of a handsome dwarf and his mildly tolerable little brother do to keep you from the home you love?"

"My house would still be there, and the land I own," she said. "But no one would speak to me. I'd be ostracized; no visitors, no friends, no family, nothing except my house and my money. No one would respect a fallen woman."

Looking puzzled, he said, "And you have fallen? From what?"

With a laugh, Billa said, "With as many sheer drops as we've faced, it's amazing I haven't literally fallen... Well, except for the goblin caves. But, no, it's just... Being around men with no other women around, it's not proper."

"That's not fair," he said. "How can you give up your home, just because you're working to get ours back?"

"I'm choosing to do it," she said. "Have chosen, every step of the way. That's different from having it stolen from you."

With a frown, he looked at her and said, "Then what were you planning to do?"

"Lord Elrond invited me back, since my mother was an elf-friend," she said. "I could always go there, although now I've got two years before I have to think about it."

"Well, now you're a dwarf-friend, which is much better," Fili said. "And I doubt Uncle's going to let you go anywhere."

The thought of belonging somewhere was too seductive, and Billa forced herself not to think about it. "I realize none of you really believe this, but I'm actually a grown woman, completely capable of making decisions. No one has to let me do anything."

"If you say so." Fili grinned impishly. "But five gold pieces say you end up staying with us forever."

"Respectable hobbits don't gamble," she said haughtily. "Or I would take your money easily."

That made Fili frown again and go quiet, which gave her time to work out exactly what she wanted to say in her letter home. The actual details of what was needed were simple enough - especially since old Gamgee had been the one to guide her through dealing with the aftermath of the wildfires, so he knew even more than she did. No, the difficult part was who to address the letter to, to make sure they'd do as she asked.

In the end, she addressed it to the Thain, but scrawled another note to tuck inside the first letter. Dear Lobelia: If I die, please allow Gandalf to bring any of my friends to you to choose a personal memento from my things - and know that I went to my death without quite forgiving you for tricking me into becoming Mediator. If I live, I'll send word and meet you at the spot where I received my only marriage proposal.

"You'd only received one proposal before you joined us?"

Arching an eyebrow at Fili, she said, "You do realize it's rude to read other people's correspondence, don't you?"

"Yes, but we dwarrows are nothing but rude and improper children," he said with a grin. "I have it on excellent authority."

"Well, if you must know, it's something only Lobelia would know about, so she'll know this letter is from me," Billa said. "Lobelia once told me I was the only person she'd ever want to marry, and if I'd fight for it so would she."

Nodding at a signal from ahead, Fili started to slow the horse down to a halt. "Why would it require fighting?"

"She was joking," Billa said, because she and Lobelia had both been saying it for more than twenty years. "Both of us were girls, so obviously it wasn't a real marriage proposal."

"You don't have..." Fili broke off, looking frustrated as he said something in Khuzdul. "I don't know the word for it in Westron. Similar marriage?"

It took a moment for Billa to think of what he might mean. "Do you mean like how Dwalin and Ori are courting?"

She hadn't thought of the fact that they were now stopped and surrounded by the others setting up camp. Others who could clearly hear her, as Nori let out a squawk and thumped Dwalin with a piece of firewood while Dori glared. Poor Ori just turned as bright a red as she'd ever seen on anyone's skin, and Fili laughed so hard that he fell off the wagon bench. "Oh dear."

"We are not," Ori said firmly, crossing his arms. "Although if you hit him again, I'll ask him just to spite the two of you."

As Dori started to sputter out a protest, Dwalin picked up Nori's arm and hit himself with the piece of firewood he still held. "Got a question for me, lad?"

"I do." It was almost a snarl, which was strange coming from the normally sweet Ori. "If you want something, why don't you work up the nerve to ask for it yourself?"

He stomped off, moving with surprising speed. Dwalin looked around miserably and didn't even lift a hand to defend himself when Dori walked up to him and delivered a punch that probably loosened some of Dwalin's teeth as it knocked him to the ground. "Well?"

"Well what?" Dwalin stayed on the ground, sitting up and rubbing his jaw.

"You certainly chased him enough when you thought we weren't looking, always following him around and making sure to sit next to him and giving him your weapons. And now, now you'll just let him run off? I don't think so," Dori said. "You can go after him or you can leave him alone, but not both - and if you ever upset him again, know that I'll kill you and never lose a moment's sleep over it."

Dwalin looked at him in shock, his jaw hanging open, then scrambled to his feet and hurried after Ori. A glare from Dori had the rest of the dwarves suddenly very interested in setting up camp, and Billa wasn't sure whether she should go to him or hide in the back of the wagon. "Billa Baggins, you come here right now."

The wagon. Definitely the wagon. Unfortunately, she was fairly sure he'd find her, even if she dug the ring out and popped it on. Since escape wasn't an option, she slipped down from the wagon to stand in front of him, her head bent meekly. "Yes, Dori?"

"Just... Remember for when it's your turn that no one is to start courting you until he's obtained your family's permission," Dori said. "Going on without it is disrespectful to you and to your kin."

"But I'm not going to be court--" A withering look from him stole the words from her mouth and she hung her head again. "Yes, Dori. If anyone wants to court me, I'll tell them to ask you first."

Patting her shoulder, he said, "Good lad. There's an order in which these things are supposed to be done, and where would we all be if we ignored that?"

"That's the most proper, hobbit-y thing I've ever heard any of you say," Billa said, starting to smile again. "Are you sure you're not really my brother?"

"Come along, Billa, we've got dinner to make," he said with a slight roll of his eyes, guiding her towards the campfire. "And then in the morning we're to follow your little birdies around the mountain."

Patting the pockets where she kept the cooking herbs handy, Billa said, "They're not mine. We're allies, not master and servants."

"Whatever you say." He wasn't paying attention anyway, too busy digging out the teapot. Billa didn't even have to ask, handing him the chamomile without a word. They both needed it, after the trying day they'd had.

Chapter Text

The grey rock they needed was easily found with the help of the birds, and the first thing they did was try the key. It did nothing, nor did Ori's spells for opening, and Bofur spent a few minutes tapping the rock at various places before shaking his head. "It'd be like trying to breathe through your ear. Bombur might see something I don't, but we couldn't tunnel through this if we had a thousand years."

Billa looked down the broken slope that she'd barely managed and shuddered. "I don't even want to think of walking back down; I can't imagine Bombur would feel the slightest inclination to walk up."

"Don't worry, we've got a plan." Bofur grinned. "Bombur will hurry to get here once he knows all the food and his favorite gossip are both staying up here."

With a snort, Nori said, "Don't lie, you're as eager as he is to find out who Violet Boffins chose in the end."

"Never claimed I wasn't." Bofur finished tying the knot he'd been working on and passed it to Dori. "Test this out, would you?"

Dori pulled on it with all his might, but the knot did not budge. "She must have chosen Olo. He's not only from a better family, he's more comfortable to be around. You'd need that for a good marriage."

"But Sando was more handsome," Nori argued. "And they had passion, which is the difference between marriage and adoption."

"Perhaps," Thorin said, making them jump despite his pleasant tone. "The hobbit courtship story hour could wait until we've secured our campsite and our supplies."

"Right," Balin said, watching as the others scrambled to put together a system of pulleys. "Besides, it's obvious that she chose the sophisticated, refined Mister Underhill."

Billa laughed, sitting down on a rock to watch the work going forward. "You've all forgotten - they weren't the only suitors. She had seven, and that's just counting the ones that proposed."

"You've thirteen," Kili said, stretching out beside her. "So you must obviously be better."

"Ridiculous child," she said, giving him a shove so he fell off the rock. "That wasn't funny the first time you said it, let alone the hundredth."

"But you have stolen all our hearts," Fili cried out, clasping his hands in front of his chest as he knelt in front of her. "Your kindness and beauty have won us over, despite your lack of beard, and all of us live to lay our treasure at your feet in worship!"

Casually, Thorin reached out and smacked the back of Fili's head. "You make our burglar uncomfortable with your dramatics."

"Sorry, Uncle," he muttered as Billa shot Thorin a grateful look. "Sorry, Billa."

"Don't do it again," she said repressively. "I know what I am and I'm fine with it, but there's no need to rub my nose in it. Despite my lack of beard."

Thorin's eyes flicked to hers and he said softly, "You underestimate yourself constantly."

"Back to work," Dwalin rumbled, giving her a chance to catch her breath as Thorin finally looked away. "The hobbit needs her bed and food."

Taking out a small notebook, Ori wrote something down and muttered, "Two point penalty for interference."

With the pure murder in Thorin's glare and the honest-to-goodness pout that Dwalin aimed at Ori, Billa decided she simply did not want to know. Ignoring the dwarves and their work, she dug out her herbs and started organizing and cataloging what she had, humming absently the whole time. She didn't quite realize it was a dwarf tune until they were all singing along, but it made the day go by faster and so when the song ended she just smiled and started another one.

There was still a day left before Durin's Day, and afterward Billa could never remember any specifics about it. They could go up and down from the ledge they'd dubbed the doorstep, thanks to the lift they'd rigged up with the cart, so surely they must have used it. There was plenty of food, so they must have eaten. There was laughter, although Billa couldn't remember any of the jokes, and there was plenty of time to spend a little time with all of them, although she didn't think anything was really said.

Durin's Day itself crept by, and Billa huddled in her blankets long past when the others were awake and moving around. It was finally time to face the dragon, to come face to face with the realization that none of them really expected to win, expected to see another sunrise. Seeing Dori sitting with his brothers, their hands clasped together, was enough to make her shiver at the sense of a final goodbye.

None of them would judge her if she left. They'd probably fix the wagon back up to take her to Laketown, guided by the birds that would be thrilled to guide her. If anything, the dwarves would be happier that way, because then she'd be safe, and she was fairly certain that it now mattered to them for her own sake, and not just because of her sex.

Despite the remaining heat from the late summer day, she felt chilly enough to wrap herself in the shawl Ori had given her, the weight of it a comfort as she walked away from the group, picking her way down carefully along the path. She stopped when she saw Thorin standing on a crag, his hair moving gently in the breeze as he looked to the west. He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that she tried to tiptoe away, but he turned and his eyes met hers, drawing her closer.

"Billa." He took a step towards her, his hand up as if reaching for her, and when she stumbled forward he caught her and held her. "Billa, after all this... I wish--"

"Don't you dare say you wish I was still back home," she said, her eyes watering. "Don't you dare."

"I wouldn't," he said softly. "I should, I know that I should, but..." He trailed off, lowering his forehead to touch hers, his hand around the back of her neck. "Please don't cry."

She tried not to, closing her eyes and bringing a hand up to touch his, to hold it where it was and keep the warmth of his touch for a little longer. They were all dear to her, each in their own way, but it was Thorin she turned to, Thorin that she always looked for, and she wanted nothing more than to wrap her arms around him and keep him with her forever. "I'm scared. I don't want to lose you."

The touch on her lips was so soft and brief that she wasn't sure if she'd imagined it, even after her eyes flew open to see him drawing away. "I cannot promise anything - it would be unfair of me to try."

"Of course," she said quietly, wrapping her shawl around herself again, colder than before. He was the king; even if he wanted her love, he could never return it. "I understand - just, please, try to think of your own safety, at least a little."

"If... If something should happen--" She was shaking her head and pulling away, but he took her hands between his, not letting her escape. "No, listen. If anything happens, whoever remains will take you to the Blue Mountains. There's a letter to my sister - she'll be your family, you'll always have a home, you--"

Finally succeeding in pulling away, she cried, "No! No, I won't listen to this, no, I won't promise anything that will make it easier for you to throw your life away. No!"

He reached for her again and she shook her head wildly, picking up her skirts and whirling to run, as if she could somehow get away from the thought of him, of any of the company, broken and bleeding and leaving her behind to mourn. He didn't follow her.

Chapter Text

"They're going to try to keep you out." Billa turned her face up from her knees to see Coarc the raven perched on a rock just above where she'd hidden to cry. "Right now the big question is whether you'd be more likely to forgive them if they tied you up or gave you something to make you sleep."

Wiping her eyes, she tried to figure out if she was surprised at all. She didn't seem to be. "Did they say when?"

"Just after they open the door, since they don't want you angry if it's going to be for nothing," the raven said. "I'm only telling you because the thrush said I had to."

"Of course," she said absently, patting her pockets to look for any bits of food. "Would you like some lembas?"

Flapping his wings in alarm, he said, "That stuff's murder on the digestive system, leaves you too heavy to fly."

"I still have a bit of jerky in my pack," she said. "I just may need some help getting to it before they decide to tie me up."

The look the bird gave her reminded her eerily of her Great-Grandfather Baggins. "You know that you're more useful to us alive, don't you? I thought we should let them, but War-Song thought it would be breaking the agreement not to tell you."

"All I need from you is a distraction," she said, standing up to pull herself together. "Can you do it?"

"You really are as queenly as they say, aren't you? At your service, madam, as long as you don't forget that payment."

Looking down her nose at him haughtily, she said, "A Baggins always keeps her word."

"Good to know," he said, flapping his enormous wings to his sides before he lifted into the air. "Any chance you could give me your word to procure some sheep eyeballs for me?"

"I'll think about it," she said. "Maybe I'll have them include some of the flock from the Blue Mountain farms when they bring the soil and seeds. Dori would like the wool, and they do like this sort of climate."

The crow flew along beside her as she walked back, forming and discarding plans as she went. Every one had the same first step - get to her pack and get the ring. After that, she'd have to see. She was in the middle of wondering whether a dragon could be poisoned when the raven said, "When you say flock..."

"Well, there's a difference between the mountain sheep and the farm ones," she said. "The flock on the mountains can reach up to a thousand, but that's because there's so much room for them. On the farms, the very biggest of the flocks only reach about sixty or so."

The caw let out by the raven sounded almost like a whimper. "How many would fit on this mountain?"

Thinking about it at least gave her a rest from constantly thinking of the dragon, and she frowned as she thought. "Well, I suppose to start with numbers would have to kept low, since we'd need time for the crops to come in to support them, and to see how well the grass takes for pasture. No more than thirty the first year, and then those might get culled so not the best breeding stock. Still, once the grass is put in, a few good ewes and there could be a good sized flock here, so long as enough land was kept for pasture instead of farms."

"Thirty?" She hadn't quite realized how big the raven was until it was in front of her, more than half as tall as she was after it landed. "You'd bring thirty sheep?"

Hesitantly, not sure of the correct answer, she said, "If we could? I'd have to consult someone over whether there's a safer way to travel than the route we took, since I'm fairly sure the goblins would eat them, and the shepherds, if we tried to take them through the mountains."

"I need to talk to my people." He lifted off into the air, leaving her to curse as she tried to think what she could use as a distraction now. She couldn't even call after the raven, since it was too close to the campsite and the dwarves would hear.

Taking one last deep breath, Billa steeled herself and walked into the camp, smiling shakily as Bombur waved her over, holding up a cup of tea. She would've loved to be able to take it, if the thought of being drugged wasn't so prevalent in her mind; there were at least four herbs for sleep in the collection, and those were just the ones she'd confirmed with Oin were safe for hobbit consumption. Billa shook her head and just went to where her things were laid out under a small overhang, sitting down and fussing with how her skirt fell around her sword to see what they would do next.

Dori sidled over, sitting next to her, and Billa smiled. "Oh, Dori, I meant to ask - do you know the colorfastness of this shawl? I wanted to embroider some designs on it... Let me find some of the colors I was thinking of." She started digging through her pack with both hands, swiftly untying the knot that held the ring in place.

"You can't really immerse it in water without preparation," Dori said, looking at the brightly colored thread she thrust under his nose. "The steel will rust if you're not careful - it's really best to spot-clean."

Billa paused at that, tilting her head to look at Dori. "Steel?"

"It's always been one of my best products," Dori said with a nervous smile. "Steel wire spun with wool to make a yarn that can make light but strong mail."

"And I'm wearing some, but you didn't choose to inform me?"

"Well, lass, you can be a little stubborn from time to time," Dori said. "And, really, a bit of sensible precaution..."

She sighed in resignation, because the protectiveness was one of the things she loved about her dwarves, even as it drove her mad with wanting to explain to them about choices and independence and allowing her to make her own decisions. "Thank you, I suppose. Now that I know, I'll make sure I have it on me at all times, just like my sword."

"That'll be good." Dori patted her knee and handed her back her embroidery floss. "Maybe tomorrow we can go through some of these and see if any are suitable, although I might re-spin some of it."

Billa nodded, her eyes flickering to the setting sun and the side of the mountain. "Is Thorin there with the key?" Dori nodded and she let her mind race, finally settling on simplicity for her plan. "Would you mind getting me a cup of tea? I think Bombur had some ready."

He looked away, unwilling to meet her eyes, and pasted on the most false smile she had ever seen. "Of course, dear. I'll be right back."

"Goodbye," she whispered, but by the time he had turned around she had disappeared. Dori cried out an alarm immediately, but Billa managed to avoid them all as they looked for her, arms outstretched to feel out her location. They'd be guarding the door, at least for the moment, and so she didn't bother to try for it yet. They settled when she made a point of being heard sniffling outside the camp, far away from the door, and she sighed. Hopefully, if they all made it past the dragon, that they'd forgive her for giving them a dose of their own medicine - literally.

Thorin was the last to be affected by the sleeping herbs she put in the stew, since he always waited until everyone had been fed to start eating, and he worked out what had happened as soon as the others started falling over. He did his best to rush to the door, blocking it with his body, but then he stumbled, rubbing a hand over his eyes. It looked as if he was trying to shut the door and she ran forward, unwilling to let his protectiveness cost him his home, the one thing he wanted more than anything.

"You can't stop me," she murmured as she caught hold of his shoulders, trying to get him to sit down before he fell and hurt himself. "I'm doing what I set out to do."

"No!" His hands went around her waist, trying to hold her with him, and the thought that this could be the last time she ever saw him made her cast her inhibitions entirely aside. Sinking her hands into his hair, she pulled his mouth down to hers and kissed him with all the desperation and hope and fear that she felt, with all the passion and determination to be part of his circle, part of the tiny group of loyalists who would fight and die for their king.

Then she kissed him again, more softly, the way she would have kissed him if they were home and safe and warm, with no more danger than a quiet evening in the country could offer. He kissed her back, gently caressing her lips with his tongue, and she moaned softly as she thought this was how things would be if he was just the local blacksmith and she was a pretty girl who had caught his eye. She never wanted it to end, but his hands started going slack and she helped ease him down even as he tried to cling to her.

"I'll come back, if I can." He reached for her again, but she kissed his forehead and disengaged his hand from her skirt, forcing herself to walk away from him and down the tunnel into the mountain.

Chapter Text

The corridor was beautiful, the walls smooth and shining with reflected light from the torch she'd brought. The dwarves who had carved out these walls had clearly put more time and care into the effort than they had into the caverns below Mirkwood, even though this was just a secret entrance. The main halls were probably breathtaking.

She would probably never see them. What could one little hobbit do against a dragon? The best she could hope for would to run away without more than a few burns, but even that was impossible. There was no way for her to run away that wouldn't end in watching the dwarves come down to face the danger without her, and that she wouldn't do. She would rather die, quite literally die, than face having to feel alone again.

It didn't mean that she wanted to die, and she stopped more than once to catch her breath when she felt like sobbing. Each step she took was a deliberate choice, and it seemed to take longer than the entire journey, than her entire life, to go from the start of the corridor down to where a red glow loomed ominously, the heat so intense that she felt sweat prickling through her skin.

The gold was the first thing that struck her eyes, sparkling dully in the torchlight. She'd thought, over the course of the journey, that the dwarves talked entirely too much about gold, especially when they were trying to convince her that it was more than something shiny and pretty. They had described some of the varied words their language had for gold, the different ways it could gleam, and she'd thought them mad.

She didn't think so now, entranced by the treasure piled in great heaps around her on all sides. Her feet moved her forward without her intention and she breathed reverently, wondering how much a fourteenth would be, and whether she could sneak some into her pockets to keep with her, just to look at and to have. Slowly, she reached out towards one of the piles, a heap of coins as tall as her chest with cups and necklaces and even a tiara peeking out.

Before her hand could touch any of the glinting treasure, they started pouring away as a shape underneath started rising, and a blast of steam sent her cowering backwards. She fell under the weight of all the gold bouncing and hitting her, and it just made her want to laugh, for having gotten herself killed without even getting a look at the dragon.

Except that wasn't quite right, because it was the dragon in front of her, shedding gold like water as it moved its head this way and that. She held her breath, carefully scooting back towards the corridor, which would be too narrow for Smaug to enter. If she could make it, she could run, and then they could warn Laketown, gather an army, do something to prevent this calamity from striking without any warning.

There was no chance to retreat; the dragon brought its tail around, blocking off the exit and keeping her near his flared nostrils. It flicked out its tongue, seeming to taste the air like a snake, and she felt so woozy that her knees started to give out. There was a clear circle of coins around her feet, and when she looked down she could see her shadow stretching like an arrow to show exactly where she was standing.

His mouth opened as she stood, frozen, staring directly down his throat and seeing a distant, bright blue flame. The voice of the dragon, when it spoke, rattled through her bones like an earthquake. "Are you a princess?"

Faintly, sure that she must have heard wrong, Billa said, "Beg pardon?"

"There was supposed to have been a princess here," the dragon rumbled. "But all the dwarves smelled like iron and sweat, not feminine at all."

Trying to shuffle backwards, Billa said, "Dwarves have very unique ideas about gender."

He sat up, using his claws to scoop up the gold underneath her, bringing her up to his face. Her torch fell, but the glow of his breath reflected from the gold and walls to let her see. She almost wished she couldn't.

"You smell like a princess." Smaug drew in a breath, which made her hair fly around her face. "Maidens of a suitable age are so rare..."

Billa almost fainted. Really, she should have been much less respectable. She was fairly certain Thorin would've agreed to it.

Smaug's grip on her shifted, and he said, "You have a smell of dwarf on you, and you can't be seen. Maybe you're not a princess."

"Well, you see..." Coins started falling between Smaug's claws, and the very long way down was brought home to Billa with sharp clarity. Hastily, she pulled off the ring so he could see her, since he already knew where she was. "It's, well, it's part of the royal regalia. So we can go out amongst our people unseen and make sure everything is as it should be."

Setting her down - so far away from the entrance that she could barely see it through the hills of gold, of course - Smaug looked her over critically. "You are not dressed as a princess. Perhaps you are just food, after all."

"Fashions change," she said, shaking out her skirts. "How long have you been down here? You probably still think princesses wear pointy hats, don't you? Those went out of style ages ago."

"You are insolent," Smaug said, a flame flickering out from his nostrils. It caught the hem of her skirt on fire and she screamed, trying to tear the skirt off and stamp the fire out. Smaug closed his claws around her and slithered out to a corridor outside the treasure room, where a caved-in section had water gathered in a small pool.

She was grateful that he'd thrown her in and put her out, probably, but the first thing to actually come out of her mouth when she surfaced was, "That was unspeakably rude!"

"Perhaps you are a princess," he said musingly. "Surely only someone pampered and spoiled would be so dimwitted and haughty."

"I beg your pardon!" It was undeniably and unmistakably a screech. If Billa had been capable of rational thought, she would have been embarrassed about it.

Smaug looked at her consideringly, pinching the back of her dress between two claws and dangling her in front of his face. "Maybe a test, to make sure. I've waited too long for a real princess to enhance my hoard - no sense settling for an impostor."

Billa's blood ran cold as her temper and terror gave way to the implacable reality that she should already be dead, and soon would be if she couldn't find a way to be more clever than an ancient dragon. The first step should probably be to stop antagonizing him. "I'm sure I could pass any test, although I don't think there's any mattresses around to pile up, or at least none I'd willingly touch, given the likelihood of mold. Or any peas, for that matter, although I'm sure a small rock could serve as a substitute."

"How did you get here? Smaug sniffed her carefully, and she could have sworn he was frowning. "Why? You smell of dwarf, but you're not one."

Mentally apologizing to Thorin for her presumption, and hoping he never found out, she said, "I'm engaged to the King of Erebor. We traveled together, but there were complications."

"I am the King!" The dragon drew itself up to its full height, and Billa swayed perilously from his claws as he sped through the dark corridors of the mountain, coming out to land on a crumbling watchtower. Billa stumbled and clung to the parapet to avoid the dizzying fall down to the rocks below. "Let them show themselves! I will defend what is mine!"

If she wasn't frozen with terror, she might have despaired enough to crawl forward, to never have to see what this beast would do to her only real friends. She could vaguely see shapes moving on the plains, torches that looked so small they might have been fireflies, and her eyes welled with tears before she furiously blinked them away. It was time to be every bit as cold and calculating as she'd been accused of being, back in the Shire when people were gossiping about her. It was time to save her friends, because any other option was unacceptable.

"I can call birds," she said softly, then much louder, shouting to be heard over the sound of Smaug's wings beating. "I just, I need some light first, but I can call birds. Isn't that traditional for princesses?"

Smaug turned and breathed fire at the roof of the tower, heating the stones until they glowed and cast a faint light, supplementing the crescent moon enough for Billa to be able to see the dragon clearly. He sparkled with a brilliant, prismatic light, and Billa said faintly, "Are those diamonds?"

"Of course." The dragon almost preened, flicking a claw against the glittering carapace over its stomach. "Lesser wyrms might settle for gold or colored stones, but I have nothing but the very best."

Billa's mind raced with two very important facts. The first was that, for all of Smaug's boasting, there was a distinct weak spot visible on the left side of its breast. The other, which she'd learned from Bofur, was that diamonds could actually burn and disappear into smoke fairly easily. Now the trick was finding a way to use either of those pieces of information. "Well, then, all the more important that I prove I'm the right princess for you."

Stepping up to the edge, Billa started calling out, then made up words to a silly song, just to seem more like a princess in a fairy story. She wasn't sure what the dragon thought of it, but he didn't kill her and so she continued, singing about her true love melting away her protection, of the poison of betrayal that exploited her weaknesses and flew straight to her heart, interspersing it with regular songs about harvests and seasons just to throw off suspicion.

Her voice was growing hoarse when War-Song flew out of the darkness and came to land on her hand, twittering gracefully before bumping her head against Billa's cheek. She almost cried in relief, stroking a finger gently over the thrush's head in silent gratitude.

War-Song gave what was almost definitely a nod as the rest of her flock flew around them, flying in a cloud around Billa and shielding her briefly from Smaug's gaze. Billa whispered, "Can you warn them?"

Smaug roared as a heavy stone flew threw the air, barely missing his head, and then another followed shortly after. A great roar of flame speared through the night, showing the shadow of two catapults being pulled back again by tiny figures that had to be her dwarves. Billa lifted her hand, launching War-Song into the air in the desperate hope that she would be able to pass on something.

Shaking, Billa pulled out her sword and faced Smaug and trembled. "I challenge you. For the life of my friends. Dragons have to accept challenges."

"Not from treasure," he roared, snatching her up as he launched himself into the air. His claws dug into her shoulders and her hands spasmed open and closed, letting her sword fall endlessly and disappear as the dragon roared again, and she could see the cloud of birds flying into his face, thrushes and ravens pecking at his eyes and at the spaces between his scales, harrying him and driving him ever so slightly backwards and higher, hovering over the tower so that all Billa could see as she looked down was the deep red glow.

Then his claws opened and she was falling through the fathomless darkness of the night sky.

Chapter Text

Billa felt like she fell for years, the wind tearing at her hair and clothes, making her skirt flatten against her legs and billow out behind her and tears sting her eyes. Her life didn't flash before her eyes, just the faces of her friends and a sense of resignation. She just hoped she'd bought them enough time.

The first raven was visible only when it was almost upon her, flying directly at her as if it would collide with her and only just circling around at the last possible moment. It placed itself underneath her chest, its wings spread out to the sides as if it intended to fly with her on its back. She spread her own arms out, bringing the sides of her skirt up like her own set of wings. It was a useless gesture; the most that the raven could do, the most she could so by spreading the cloth, was to slow down the rate at which she fell; at most, the raven was buying a few more seconds of life for her at the cost of its own. Her soul cried out at the thought, selfishly wanting it and horrified at the same time.

Another raven appeared, and another, moving shadows that gleamed under the crescent moon and shifted to fly underneath her, one after another, a whole flock stacked up to support her weight and slow her fall, until she wasn't falling anymore but being carried, angling towards the top of the tower where the rocks still glowed like a beacon.

The descent was shifting and perilous, with Billa in constant fear as the ravens moved underneath her. There was a sharp pain when she landed after tumbling the last few feet, rolling to a stop against the superheated rocks and shrieked as the hair on the back of her feet was singed, the skin on her legs blistering as she scrambled away and tore frantically at her steaming skirt as it scalded her hands. If not for the impromptu bath from Smaug earlier, it would have been aflame.

Her breath was harsh with sobs as she staggered towards the edge of the tower, desperate to see if Smaug was attacking the dwarves. She could see torches and movement but no detail, and she filled her lungs to scream out, "Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!"

A roaring cry was her response and the torches started moving towards the tower. Billa slumped down, leaning her back against the parapet as she struggled for each breath, the pain from her bruises and blisters seeming to hit all at once, with the continuing ache of wondering whether her dwarves were safe, whether Smaug would come back, and then she wasn't thinking anything, just closing her eyes and shutting down entirely.

She woke up to a painfully bright light and groaned, burrowing her face into the pillow it rested on before she realized it wasn't actually a pillow but rather someone's thigh. Her attempt to scramble away made Thorin jump, his hand falling away from her hair as she worked out who it was and tried to apologize for startling him.

"Startled? Is that what you call it, then, giving me the worst fright of my life as you marched in to face a dragon and left me helpless?" His hands clenched into fists and he looked away abruptly, his eyes closing for a brief moment. "We watched you fall."

"I couldn't get left behind," she whispered, because her throat hurt in a way that felt like words that shouldn't be said. "I couldn't."

He met her eyes then, stealing her breath completely with the tangle of raw emotions visible there. The moment stretched on, but then Oin was there, edging Thorin out of the way before flipping her onto her stomach. "Laddie, if you ever again use what I've taught you against me, I will turn you over my knee, so help me."

Billa squawked as Oin pulled out a knife and started cutting through her pantalets. "Really, this is... Is privacy too much to ask for? And I don't think I have any burns that far up."

"You heard her, lad. Off with you." Thorin didn't have to be told twice, fleeing as if he'd been faced with something even more terrifying than goblins. Billa felt distinctly less than flattered, and that was apart from the indignity and pain of Oin examining the blisters on the back of her legs. She looked around to distract herself and realized for the first time that they were surrounded on three sides by the ruins of a building, with the fourth open to the air.

She hadn't noticed the blankets underneath her until they were bunched up uncomfortably, digging into her stomach. It at least served as a distraction from feeling exposed to the open air as Oin cleaned out her injuries, muttering about carelessness and why anyone would roll in the dirt with popped blisters. "You're just lucky they're mostly on your legs, but you're a giant bruise and your bum's going to have a scar. Something to brag about to the lads, eh?"

"I doubt highly there would ever be a situation in which I willingly talk about a scar, let alone one in such a delicate place." She had intended an icy tone, but it was somewhat hampered by the fits and starts of her groans as he cleaned the cut and sealed it closed with some kind of poultice and bandage.

When he was done, he smacked her on the flank and stood. "Wear a skirt and leave off the pants until this heals up a bit. Someone will be along shortly to carry you up into the mountain, now that we've got the gates mostly fortified."

She caught the dress he threw at her and pulled it over her head. "Getting carried again? You lot are determined I should forget how to use my legs."

Oin grunted, but she thought it was a laugh. "If it would stop you running into danger, the idea has merit."

Her pack was next to her, obviously placed there while she was unconscious, and it made her start to laugh uncontrollably to see it there. It was a little dirtier than it had been when she left the Shire, and the buckles which had been bent had all been fixed. Otherwise, it was exactly the same as it had ever been, exactly the same as it had looked when her mother would pull it out of the closet and have Billa help her pack for an adventure. Had her mother felt like this after she'd gone to the elves, like she'd been changed forever and could never go back?

What would her father think of her now, half wild and a world away from the Shire? Was she herself as unchanged on the outside as her bag? What would she have thought of herself if the prissy little madam she'd been had met the hobbit who was carried by a dragon? Was there anything left of the Billa who had quietly enjoyed her books and her garden and watching the progress of life on her farms, except for this battered pack?

"We still get the sheep even if you've gone mad, right?" Coarc landed on the half-tumbled wall and tilted his head to look her over. "Only, granddad's talking to the old dwarf about the line of Carc being faithful, but a sheep's a sheep and you promised thirty of them."

"I promise you, you'll have your own flock of sheep even if I have to stay and be the shepherd," Billa said fervently. "I owe my life to you and your brethren."

"The dwarves of Erebor acknowledge the debt as ours." Billa jumped, not having noticed Thorin's return until he spoke. "The service you have provided is worth more than words can say."

The raven dipped his head. "Just so long as we get those sheep, mind you."

"All that and more," Thorin said gravely.

"Yeah, I heard what the others were saying about you two." Coarc looked at him sideways for a moment, then flapped his wings as if confronting a threat. "You know what dragons do to gold, right? Only dwarves aren't exactly sensible about the stuff in any case, and dragons make it a lot worse."

Thorin stiffened. "Our treasure is none of your concern."

"Suit yourself." Coarc flew into the air, disappearing towards Laketown.

Bill was left to look at Thorin in an awkward silence. Finally, she said, "If you sling me over your shoulder again, I'm going to dye your hair pink."

He folded his arms, looking down at her implacably. "If you attempt to worsen your injuries through a refusal to accept help, I'll accept the pink as a badge of honor, earned by protecting you from your worst enemy."

"I'm only stubborn if people are rude," she said. "You can't just sling me around like I'm one of your belongings."

He didn't roll his eyes, but it was a close thing. "You've said that we have no idea how to behave from the first. There is nothing new about your complaint."

"You are impossible," Billa said, struggling to her feet and swaying as she stood. "All right, fine, but not over your shoulder. Even clinging to you like a monkey was better than that."

Shouldering her pack, he said, "That might be difficult, with your injuries. May I?"

She nodded and he scooped her up, cradling in front of his chest. She told herself firmly that it was not at all romantic - it's how he would have carried a child who had fallen asleep before bedtime! - and that there was absolutely no excuse for swooning. Nor for putting her hands on his shoulders and chest, to feel the strength in his muscles as he held her.

"Put your arms around my neck," he said, and how was she supposed to resist that?

Heroically, she did what he asked without melting against him, burying her hands in his hair or resting her head against his shoulder. She was, however, a bit too breathy as she said, "Aren't you too important to be carrying around a stray hobbit?"

"Yes," he said. "But I might not be important enough to be allowed to carry you."

"That's..." Billa cleared her throat so as to avoid actually saying that it was the most romantic thing she'd ever heard. "Flattery is really unnecessary."

He nodded, a smile playing with the corner of his mouth. A mouth she'd kissed, although he hadn't mentioned it so maybe he didn't remember, or didn't care to remember? "I agree, which is why I have never lowered myself to flatter anyone."

If he didn't stop saying such amazing things, Billa was not going to be responsible for her actions; he would bear the full blame for her attacking him and making sure no dragon would ever mistake her for a princess again. She licked her lips at the thought and wondered whether she dared to say anything - maybe she could attempt to flirt, even though she'd been spectacularly bad at it when she was younger and hoped to attract suitors.

Luckily, she was saved from making a fool of herself by Fili and Kili approaching them, each with an enormous smile and gold jewelry heaped everywhere on their persons that it would fit. Billa tried her best not to actually glare at them for the rescue. "Uncle! You should see - there's a whole room full of armor, and even some mithril!"

"Good," Thorin said, picking up his pace. "Our burglar needs more armor than a shawl."

"It's a good one, though," she said, not willing to hear Dori's work disparaged. "I'm certain that Smaug's claws would've pierced my shoulders if I hadn't tied it around me."

Thorin's arms tightened around her at that, but when she squeaked he loosened them again. Kili laughed and started to speak, but the combination of an elbow from Fili and a glare from Thorin made him close his mouth again.

Chapter Text

The treasure room was even grander than she remembered it, and Billa wanted nothing more than to join the others in exploring every nook and cranny, everything shiny and beautiful and only surpassed by the next thing that caught the eye. Moving was painful, though, and so she ended up lying on her side, every single bedroll and spare item of clothing owned by the company piled up into a sort of mattress underneath her. She couldn't help smiling indulgently as she watched them roam around, laughing and throwing coins at each other like young hobbits would throw snowballs.

Fili was the first to come back to check on her after Thorin disappeared, saying something about checking on the ravens. The blond prince strolled over with an enormous diamond tiara and dropped it on her head before falling to one knee in a dramatic bow. "At your service, Queen Baggins."

"You shouldn't say those sorts of things with actual royalty around," she said, reaching up to push the heavy crown back from where it had slipped down over her eyes.

"Does that mean you won't accept my gift and my fealty?" He was still kneeling, looking up at her with pure mischief in his eyes, and she laughed.

It wasn't to be thought of that Kili would be left out, and he slid across a pile of gold on his knees to end up next to his brother. "And mine, my queen," Kili said breathlessly after he'd righted himself from both the dramatic entrance and Fili's slap to the back of his head. "At your service."

He extended his arms and put his head down, offering up his gift on both palms. Billa took it just to see what it was, and laughed when she saw it was an enormous diamond ring. "I can't take that without promising to marry you. Rings are different."

Kili looked horrified, which might have stung a little more if she wasn't laughing so hard at him tossing it over his shoulder and then digging through his pockets until he found a bracelet. "There. And it matches your crown, look!"

"So it does," Billa said, holding out her arm for him to clasp it around her wrist. Tilting her chin up, as much to keep the tiara from sliding down as to heighten her imperious gesture, she waved a hand regally. "I accept your fealty. Rise, my champions!"

They both took her hand and kissed it before standing up, and Billa couldn't manage to keep up the pretense as she burst into giggles. Soon enough the others were joining in on the game, bringing her various baubles until her arms were covered in jewels and she wore so many necklaces that she'd fall over if she tried to stand. Each one went through the pretense of swearing fealty to her as queen, much to her continued amusement, and each got his own title because they wouldn't settle for less than what Kili and Fili had gotten.

Nori was the last, bringing her a diamond and gold scepter that was about the size of the walking stick he'd given her at Beorn's. His mouth twisted, he said, "I've never much held with kings, but I suppose I'm already at our queen's service."

"Well, then, you shall have the most important job of all, then," she said with a grin. "You, Nori Light-fingers, are now and forever my official burglar!"

The company roared with laughter, especially Nori, and when Thorin walked in carrying something shiny, Billa was so overcome that she had tears in her eyes and literally rolled off her makeshift cot. Thorin snapped something in Khuzdul, which combined with the renewed pain from her injuries to make her smile fade away. She pulled herself to her feet as Balin responded, also in the dwarrow language, and then leaned on the scepter as Thorin's gaze locked on her and her knees trembled.

His face transformed with a smile that almost made her melt into the ground, and then he was kneeling at her feet and presenting his gift in the same exaggerated manner Kili had, his arms extended and his head down in supplication. She wasn't even the slightest bit tempted to laugh.

"I offer you--"

"Smaug is dead!" The elderly raven that liked to talk to Balin flew into the treasure room, trailing shed feathers. "An army marches on Erebor, an army of Men and elves!"

The happy mood was broken immediately, and Thorin's face looked like a thundercloud as he stood. "They seek to steal our treasure - the elves have craved the Arkenstone since the day it was discovered!"

Billa had heard enough about the Arkenstone on the trip to write a scholarly treatise on it - it was usually the only thing that could be certain to distract the dwarves when they were waxing rhapsodic on the topic of gold. "Is it certain that they're not coming to help?"

"Not hardly," Coarc said scornfully as he settled in to perch on Billa's scepter. "That Master of theirs has them all riled up about how they're owed for you setting the dragon on them. They mostly kept him away from the city, but people still died."

"But surely the elves--"

Coarc cawed in a way that sounded like a laugh. "Stopped to help, didn't they, but they were already on the march to claim the treasure before Smaug even reached Laketown."

"They'll never take what's ours," Thorin said, his eyes burning. "How fast can one of your people fly to the Iron Hills?"

"My grandson is our fastest flier," the old raven said, casting a beady eye on Coarc. "Even if he is a foolish young jackanapes."

"Then go, tell my cousin Dain what has happened here." The raven looked to Billa for confirmation before taking off, which made Thorin scowl and turn away as he started to bark out orders.

Billa reached up to slide the tiara off her head, wincing when it caught in her hair. Each of the dwarves was being assigned a task, something to help make the company safe, and all she was doing was sitting here amidst shiny rocks. Billa stayed quiet as she listened, taking off the bracelets and earbobs and necklaces and placing them carefully inside the circle of the crown she'd removed, wishing things were different, that she could be more useful.

When at last Thorin turned to her, it was to drop the silvery cloth he'd been holding into her lap. "Wear this at all times."

"What is it?" She held it up, surprised at how light the metal links were. "Chain mail?"

"Mithril," he said. "Never be without it, or your sword. I will not always be near enough to protect you."

She nodded solemnly, struggling to pull the armor over her head. "What can I do to help?"

"Stay out of trouble," he said brusquely. "Find the Arkenstone. I will check on you when I can."

He swept out, his cloak billowing behind him, and she looked around the treasure room weakly. In all of this untold mass of gold and treasure, how on earth was she supposed to find one single jewel?

Not by sitting around, that was for certain. Billa forced herself to her feet, feeling creaky and tired. First she'd find where their supplies were, then she'd see what kind of system she could devise for searching in an orderly fashion. A bit of organization, that's what was called for.

It was two days before the armies came, two endless days of waiting and fretting and digging through piles of gold that had been marked off in a grid pattern by copper wire she'd found on the first day. There had been an organizational system once, but it had been abandoned in favor of just making giant piles of everything all mixed together. The dwarves were in and out, seeming to be soothed by being able to look at the gold and run it through their fingers before they went back to work on fortifying their defenses, with a fallback plan of sealing themselves into the treasure room.

Billa felt suffocated by being in there, half blind and longing for the feel of a breeze against her face, but every time she left the treasure room, she returned to find Thorin searching, asking her if she had made any progress in finding the Heart of the Mountain. It was all the worse that he tried to be reassuring when she said no, telling her that he had faith that she would find it and so help him keep his grandfather's greatest treasure safe from those who would steal it from him. He'd lost so much already, had struggled for so long, and if he wanted some shiny rock more than anything, well, hadn't she been unreasonably attached to her mother's china?

When the armies arrived, she was working in section A21, using a bucket and sieve to sort coins from gems for easier categorization. The birds that had been flitting in and out to keep her company were suddenly no longer there, and she frowned as she straightened up, adjusting the mithril coat where it had ridden up under her sword belt. Ignoring the ache in her spine, Billa started to make her way out to the battlements, only to be turned back by Dwalin at the door of the treasury.

"Better not," he said. "There's enough going on without worrying about you catching a stray arrow."

Billa looked at him in alarm. "They're shooting at each other? What do they even want?"

"What they always want, the bastards." The words had a bite to them, but mostly Dwalin sounded tired. "They want us to give in, to give up, to let them have what we have just because they want it. They want the reward with none of the risk, and we're just in the way."

There didn't seem to be a proper response to that, and she laid a hand on his arm comfortingly. "They won't get past us. We've been through too much to let anyone write us off."

He nodded solemnly, but his eyes were twinkling and so she smiled and patted his shoulder before going back in to renew her search. It would be a weight off everyone's shoulders if she could find the stone, if nothing else but so the dwarves would rest in between their shifts of guard duty instead of searching alongside her. Their supplies were not infinite, and although they would be able to use the secret tunnel to go out of the mountain, there was every chance that the armies camped on their doorstep would follow any new supplies back in.

After an hour of working with renewed determination, Billa flopped onto her bedding, thoroughly demoralized. It would take years to sort through all of the heaps of treasure, decades if she was working alone. The mithril, while light, wasn't weightless and she couldn't quite work out how to wear her swordbelt comfortably while also wearing the mail. Her muscles ached, the cut across her bottom itched, and there was something digging into her stomach from under the pile of blankets.

Ignoring it did not work, and she grumbled as she flipped over to try to get comfortable without lying on that one particular spot. Finally she huffed and got to her feet, flipping blankets and clothes this way and that as she tried to track down the source of her discomfort. She would have just moved the bed, but this was the one spot in the whole room that wasn't sectioned off, and rearranging the wires would be an even bigger headache.

The gleam of white light made her freeze, and she dropped to her knees to dig through the heap of jewels and more of the endless gold coins until more and more of the strange glow was exposed. The Arkenstone was so big that it filled both of her hands as she drew it out, pale and perfect and shining with an inner light that made the light from the torches look grubby. She looked into the heart of it and had a moment of wanting desperately to keep it, to hide it away and steal home with it, keeping it on the mantel next to her ring.

"What on earth am I thinking?" Shaking herself out of the moment, Billa wrapped the Arkenstone in the folds of her shawl and slipped her ring on to duck past where Dwalin still stood on guard. She stopped at the top of the stairs to catch her breath, and when she heard what was being shouted between Thorin and the Men below, she squeaked, "This is about money? That's what they want?"

Thorin's head snapped up and he looked around, his eyes narrowed. "Take off the ring. Now."

She did, tucking it into a pocket of her skirt before she stepped forward. "Is it true? All they want is money?"

"They want to be paid for taking us prisoner, for selling us goods at triple their cost, for warning them about the dragon's coming and telling them of his weakness," Thorin said. "And they come in force to make their demands, refusing to let my kinsmen through. I will not allow them to take so much as a copper penny from me on those terms."

Billa's mind raced as she stepped forward, leaning as far as she dared over the nearest merlon. "You, down there! All you want is money? You're here to collect gold?"

The elvenking and the Man with a bow - Bard, that was Bard down there demanding treasure, and the thought was disappointing - both sputtered, but an ugly Man with straggling reddish hair shouted back, "We deserve remuneration for the losses we've suffered!"

"Burglar! Go back to your search and--" Thorin's words called her back to what she'd actually come out for, and his words cut off as she revealed the Arkenstone and presented it to him. "You found it."

She smiled a bit at the reverent look on his face, blinking against an odd urge to cry even as she held it out for him to take. "I told you I would. A Baggins keeps her word."

He took it and stepped away from the wall, sinking down to sit on the ground and just stare into its depths. The others had gathered around him in awe, and she was left standing on her own, breathing deeply as she thought of what Dwalin had said and what she could do. Gathering her courage, she licked her lips and tried to remember the exact words that Thorin had used when talking to the ravens. "I'm Billa Baggins, and I acknowledge the debt as mine. I'll pay you, and you'll give up any claim against the dwarves or Erebor."

"How much?" The ugly Man's shout was immediate, while everyone else seemed frozen in place.

"How much do you want?" Bofur was trying to pull her away from the edge, questioning her sanity in a fast mutter, but she shook her head and held her ground. "I won't ask how much you need, since that doesn't seem to be the main factor at work here."

Bard burst out with, "We do not come here out of greed! We come to make sure our people won't starve after being driven out of their homes, again!"

"Aye, and that's why you've the elves with you that allowed the slaughter of my people despite our alliance." Thorin's hand was tight around the Arkenstone as he stood and glared defiance at the group on the ground. "Leave my home, elf - you showed a talent for doing so before!"

"Oh, for heaven's sake, that is not helping," Billa hissed at him. "My share of the treasure is more than enough to pay them with plenty left over."

His eyes met hers and he said, "You don't have to give up anything - my kin are here and we will fight--"

"Don't be an idiot," she snapped, turning away from him to shout once again. "Then we are agreed? I will pay you what you need, and you will agree to leave us in peace?"

"We will need a surety," the ugly Man called back. "You speak prettily enough now, but if we did not have our army here..."

Billa saw that several of the Men and elves were raising their bows and pointing them towards where they stood. She felt a flare of panic and said, "Yes, of course, surety. I have a contract which entitles me to--"

"Entitles you," the Man said. "So come down, deal with us in person, and that will show you are serious."

"I forbid it," Thorin said instantly, seizing her arm as if she'd been going to hurl herself down to the ground. "You will not go down there."

Trying to pull herself from his grip, she said desperately, "I have to, don't you see? We're running low on supplies and we're exposed here - they've got two armies against fourteen of us, and I--"

"You don't trust me to protect you?" He let go of her, letting her stumble back from the edge. "You don't believe that I would keep you from harm?"

Dragging up a smile, she said, "You would, obviously, even though you're not responsible for my welfare. It's just, this way I can protect you, and all of us, and they wouldn't hurt me, knowing I'm the only one who would pay them."

"Or they would torture you, thinking to gain even more than you would give them," he said. "They don't deserve anything!"

"Not even the ones who lost their home?" She said it softly, reaching for his hand. He pulled away, looking down as if confused to find he still held the Arkenstone. "You'll see, it won't--"

She gasped as he lifted his arm and threw the gem down as hard as he could, hitting the Man who had still been demanding she come down in the chest. The gem bounced into Bard's hands, and he closed his hands around it reflexively.

From the top of the wall, Thorin sneered. "There is your surety, and may you choke on it."

"Thorin, no!"

His eyes blazed as he turned to look at her and she shrank back from it as if from a physical blow. "Take her to the women's quarters. Get this burglar out of my sight."

Chapter Text

"You shouldn't have done that," Dori said nervously once they were out of sight of the others, tugging at her hand to hurry her along as he escorted her deep into the mountain. "He was already furious. Now, he's going to be enraged."

"Let him," Billa said, defiant despite the knot in her stomach. "What do I care about treasure? It's not as if I was ever going to go back to Bag End trailing a caravan of jewels. The neighbors would never have stopped talking."

Dori shook his head, hustling her along. "Just apologize, and make sure you don't say anything that you know he won't like. He'll forgive you, I know he will."

"I know the treasure means a lot to you dwarves, but it's all just mathoms to me," she said. "My wealth has always been in land and livestock and crops -- the money's just there for a convenient way to decide how many bushels of wheat to trade for one cow. It wouldn't matter if it was made of gold or... or paper, just so long as it was agreed on what it was worth."

Dori had stopped dead, staring at her as if she'd said that her mother was a warg. "That's... Billa, that's obscene. Gold is... Gold is gold, it's just... Don't ever say something so horrible again."

"Oh, dear." She'd known they loved gold, of course she'd known, but she hadn't realized it was so personal. "Why..."

For all that she wasn't sure how to phrase the question, Dori knew exactly what she was asking. "It's not because it's beautiful, or even for wealth. It's... We were created of the rock, to wield and shape it, and the things we mine are the bones and heart and blood of the earth. They're a gift, a privilege allowed for us to share in by the grace of our creator, who crafted us with love and skill, the same as we do when we work our own crafts. Gold is proof that the earth abides, part of our marrow as we are part of the rock."

Swallowing hard, Billa said, "I had no idea."

"Most don't," Dori said, patting her arm. "Now, we're almost there and then you just sit tight and I'm sure everything will be fine."

Dwalin was looming just ahead, and responded to Billa's smile by holding up an open box. "Your ring, mistress. You'll keep the box, but not the key."

"But that's--" She cut herself off when she realized she was clutching the ring, as if she needed to protect it from being stolen. "Fine. But if I end up getting killed because I needed to hide and you had the key, I'm haunting you forever."

"Just as well Thorin will have it, then," Dwalin said. "He'd appreciate it more."

Billa dropped the ring in the box quickly, pulling her hand back as if it had been burned. The urge to keep it, to slide it up her sleeve or just refuse to lock it up had been distressingly strong. Maybe Thorin had the right of it in ordering her not to wear it, even if he had no right whatsoever to give her orders.

"In you go, dear," Dori said, guiding her through a door that was at least twice her height.

Dust was everywhere, along with ancient spiderwebs that made her shudder and put her hand on her sword, but underneath that she could see the remnants of bright colors and complex designs. When she turned to ask Dori about a carving, she was just in time to see his guilty expression as he closed the doors and barred them from the outside. She ran back to test them, shaking the door handle but not budging the door itself. "I'm a prisoner?"

"Of course not," Dori cried, but it wasn't very convincing, especially given that Dwalin had rumbled "Aye" at the same time.

She heard the sharp smack of a blow and then Dori said soothingly, "Now, it's just for a little while that you need to stay there, just so you're safe until things settle down a bit. Really, it's only proper - you should have been in there from the first, without having to put up with being around a bunch of uncouth men."

"So I'm to be chaperoned by being locked up and you see nothing wrong with this?" Her voice steadily rose until she was practically shrieking, but it did no good - she was still faced with a closed door, and no response beyond vague assurances and retreating footsteps.

The rooms would be lovely when they were cleaned and restored; it was clear that no effort or expense had been spared in building it. There were lovely filigreed arches, mosaics with gold incorporated into the designs, and the remnants of what must have been lush fabrics draped along the walls and over couches piled high with pillows. The fact that there were bars over the windows was chilling, though, and she started walking along the walls, looking for anything that might provide an escape.

She ran back when she heard the door open, stopping short when she saw Thorin putting down what looked to be most of their remaining supplies of food and water. "You expect to keep me prisoner for some time, then, without needing to check on me."

"There will be a battle," Thorin said. "Orcs and wargs are approaching in untold numbers, and it's no great feat to determine where they intend to go."

"No," Billa whispered, shaking her head and backing up a step. "No, not now. Not when we were going to be safe."

Taking one of her hands in his, he said, "You will be safe. They will never enter Erebor, and every one of us will give our lives rather than see you come to harm."

"And what happens to me when you throw your lives away? I molder away here, just another set of bones trapped in the ruins because no one knew to look for me." He turned pale and she snatched her hand back, using it to shove him backwards. "What do you think it would be like for me, left to wonder if I could have done anything, if I could have helped, if--"

"I will not see you hurt! Have I not lost enough, that you think I should lose everything, once again? What help you can give is making sure that you are safe, protected, so that I can go into battle with my mind on who I'm fighting instead of on who may be threatening you, what you might--"

He cut himself off abruptly, looking away from her and lifting his chin in the way she'd started to recognize meant he was trying to deal with a strong emotion without giving in to it. She wanted to reach up and kiss his jaw, to bring his focus down on her instead of on whatever remembered horrors were turning his eyes so distant. Instead she waited, clasping her hands together and giving him the time and space he needed to gather his thoughts.

"You have not broken a promise, even if it seemed like you betrayed me," he said at last, looking down into her eyes. "So I would have you promise to stay where it's safe, to guard your life and your safety above all things."

"I... I can't," she said softly, wringing her hands together. "I'm sorry, I can't, because I can't lose you."

Leaning down to rest his forehead against hers, he said, "It seems we've been here before."

"Thorin, I..." She trailed off, her breath seeming like something solid that lodged in her throat and in her chest, and her eyes were drifting closed before she felt herself being lifted into the air and placed firmly on a high surface. "What--"

He was already at the door, pausing with it half-closed. "I will return for you, if I can."

"Thorin! I am never going to forgive you for this! Come back!" He looked regretful, but he still closed the door and lowered the bar to hold it that way.

The words she said would have caused any of the hobbits who knew her back home to blush, and possibly faint. As it was, they were entirely inadequate to express her rage at being locked in again, having to scramble down from the top of a gilded wardrobe where he'd placed her so he could make his escape. Thorin Oakenshield was not going to have to worry about orcs once she got a hold of him.

If she got a hold of him, which was looking less likely as she started to walk through the women's quarters, taking a torch with her to examine the walls and windows for any sign of an escape route. The bars on the windows were locked from the inside, but she had no key and Nori's lessons on lockpicking seemed like a distant memory. She even tried Ori's unlocking spell, as best she could remember it, but all it did was make the bars on the window shake.

Giving up on the window, she started exploring again, following the faint scent of fresh air until she found a courtyard which had obviously contained fountains once. They were long since dry, the bases cracked and full of the rubble from broken statues with faint traces of gold left behind. The deep gouges on the floor and walls made it clear that Smaug had been there, and had torn out the golden decorations to take back to his hoard.

A section of the wall was letting in light from somewhere, and Billa scrambled towards it, frustrated to find it was too high to reach even after she climbed the nearest pile of rubble. She could hear noise from outside, the clash of steel on steel and screams of defiance and of pain, but she couldn't see anything, and no one came when she called out for help.

Grimly, she started piling up more rubble to build a makeshift staircase, bringing her closer to the hole. It looked like it would be big enough to allow her to escape, but she had to reach it first, trying to ignore the noise of the battle and the terror that one of her dwarves might already have been hurt without her being able to do anything to help. Her fingernails broke as she clawed at the rocks, her toes scrabbling for a foothold on the wall as she climbed the last of the distance, falling and then climbing again.

She could see a flutter of dark wings as she started to pull herself through, and she called out, "Coarc! Coarc, is that you?"

An orc roared as it loomed over her, and she would have fallen backwards if it hadn't seized her and hauled her out, his hold impossible to break. She screamed and pulled her sword but it just laughed, throwing her to the ground and calling out to a group of orcs that were nearby and pointing at the hole Billa had just come out of. Lunging forward, she plunged her sword into its thigh and pulled it back out quickly, leaving it to lurch and fall forward as blood fountained out of the wound.

There was no time to do anything but lift her sword again as the orcs that had been called over charged. There were only three of them, but that was three more than Billa thought she could handle, alone and defending an entrance to Erebor that no one else knew existed. She turned to face them, her sword dripping with the blood of the orc that was now motionless on the ground.

"Du bekar!" It was barely a squeak, but saying it gave her courage and she took a step forward, then another. She was running then, surrounded by black feathers and cawing and then the ravens that had flown in around her were attacking the orcs, pecking at their eyes and gouging them with their claws. It was enough distraction that Billa could use her sword to dispatch them easily, one at a time.

Panting, she said, "How goes the battle? Thorin, the dwarves?"

"They're outnumbered," one of the raven said. "Good fighters, but getting overwhelmed."

"Find Gandalf," she says desperately. "Find the eagles, or Beorn, anyone you can find who is nearby and would fight against orcs and wargs. I will pay handsomely in any coin that is called for."

They lifted off and she wiped her sword on one of the orcs before thrusting it back into the sheath and looking grimly around. The first priority would have to be making sure that no one could find the hole, let alone use it, and so she started dragging rocks towards the hole, gritting her teeth against the pain in her hands. An elf appeared just as she was finishing up and she abandoned the effort, not wanting to trust anyone with the secret. Instead she looked him in the eye and said, "Where are the dwarves?"

"A halfling?" He stared at her in shock, his sword lax in his grip, and she rolled her eyes.

"The dwarves, the dwarves of Erebor. Can you take me to them?"

Shaking his head, the elf said, "This is no place for one of your kind. Come, we must take you somewhere safe."

On the one hand, she was even less inclined to let some random elf coddle her than she'd been inclined to let Thorin do it. On the other hand, it gave her an escort past the chaos just outside this sheltered section of mountain. "Where is safe in all this?"

"I will take you to my king." That was definitely not going to happen - Thorin would have an apoplexy, seeing her cozying up to Thranduil; he'd instantly think that she'd decided she'd be safer with elves than letting Thorin protect her. Still, she followed the elf as he moved out of the shelter of the rocks, dodging the main body of fighting by dint of sticking close to the craggy slope of the mountain.

She slipped away when he took out his bow to choose targets below, wishing desperately that she had her ring. It was easy enough to creep along, the angle of approach meaning that she was able to look down and see quite a lot of the battlefield, even if it looked like jumbled chaos until she could start to sort out who was who.

Giving a sharp whistle was probably not the best thing to do in terms of staying hidden, but it meant that several of the birds that were flying around the battlefield came to her, settling on her arms and shoulders. "Where is Thorin?"

"Out front, where else would he be?" Coarc preened the hair behind her ear, shifting so that the little thrushes that had perched on her shoulder were knocked away. "The elves were backed into a corner and so he brought his group out from defending the gates to help them."

Billa felt warmth suffuse her chest at the thought that her dwarves were cooperating instead of holding grudges, but she ruthlessly tamped it down. If a harvest couldn't be managed without someone supervising, how could a battle? "Who is coordinating the forces?"

"There's five armies out there," Coarc said. "And not one of them's talking to another except with swords."

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Billa said, "When all this is done, I'm requiring every king everywhere to spend a year apprenticing as a hobbit. Maybe then they'd get some common sense."

"Might be a bit difficult for granddad," Coarc said. "And that king the eagles have would definitely get huffy."

"Oh, just... Come on. We're going to do something to help, but first I have to get somewhere where I can see."

The ravens led her to a hidden path through the hill that was their main territory, attacking ruthlessly any time a warg or orc approached until she could dispatch it. In between she explained her idea, and by the time she reached the base of the lookout tower, there was a network of birds flying over the battlefield and reporting both to her and to the commanders in the field. A company of archers were near her tower and the commander sent a request to join her on the high ground, which she granted. They were making a difference, the eyesight of the elvish archers and the experience of their commander made them more effective in directing the battle coordination, and so she left them to it and picked her way back down to where a field hospital was being set up behind the tower.

Oin was there and she froze, wondering if he'd try to send her back into hiding, but he jerked his head to one side instead, indicating where several elves lay in cots. "They refused to allow me to treat them. See if you can do anything with them."

"How are Thorin and the others?" She probably deserved the fact that her only answer was an irritable grunt as he turned to work on his next patient, especially as the ravens knew to bring her news of her dwarves and to tell Thorin she was safe.

Moving through the tent, she got the elves to agree to treatment by dint of telling them in Sindarin that if they wanted to die, they'd have to get themselves out of her tent under their own power. Truthfully, she wasn't doing much beyond cleaning and bandaging wounds, although she was thankful for all the time she'd spent studying her herbal guide when she could give them the correct herbs for pain relief; the ones the dwarves habitually used were toxic for elves.

Time moved in a blur, screams and blood and pain all around as she did what she could and wished it wasn't so pitifully little. At one point she looked up from the patient she was working on to see that the elf holding him down was Thranduil, his face grimly intent as he watched her working. The poor boy didn't stop struggling until the pain of his wounds overcame him and he slipped into unconsciousness. Her eyes flicked up to the elven king and she said, "I can't save that leg, I'm not good enough."

"No one can," he said, his face reflecting anguish. "Finish it; I have no talent for healing and he cannot wait for a healer to be spared from our camp."

"Oin!" Whatever feelings the elves might have about the dwarves working on them, they would have to get past them, because Billa was not going to be the person performing an amputation. "I need you! Now, please!"

She got a basin ready for him to wash his hands and handed him a towel when he'd finished with that task. "Have you got the ointments ready? Bring that brazier - we don't have much time, quickly, quickly!"

The surgery was gruesome and bloody, over quickly but horrific enough to become part of Billa's nightmares for the rest of her life. Oin had handled cutting off the mangled remnants of the elf's leg just below the knee, cauterizing the wound quickly, but it was Billa who had to apply the poultices to draw off the pain and stave off infection, who had to hold off Thranduil with one hand when the boy had bolted upright and the king had tried to stop Oin when it would have meant the boy bled to death. Tears had streamed down her face the whole time, and when it was finally done she wiped her face and washed her hands, bone-weary but steeling herself to move on to the next patient.

"Who are you?" Thranduil placed a hand on her shoulder after he spoke, drawing her attention, and she sighed.

"Billa Baggins, of Bag End in the Shire," she said. "I'm part of the company of Thorin Oakenshield."

Inclining his head, he said, "I owe you a debt. My guardsman is young and foolish, but treasured for all that."

She nodded back tiredly. "As are my dwarves." Turning away from him, she went on to her next patient and then the next, until there were none that weren't already being taken care of. When the elf healers had arrived was a mystery to her, but there were enough of them that Billa was chased out, told to take a break before her very tiredness pushed her into a mistake.

Once outside, she took a deep breath and held the fresh air in her lungs as she tried not to cry. It was all too much, and she'd never been meant for this sort of thing, for this much pain and fear and hopeless, anguished waiting.

Chapter Text

Crows were circling in the sky, carrion seekers waiting for their chance to feast, and Billa found herself in motion before she intended to be, throwing rocks at the birds just as she would've at the old crows that liked to come and steal her berries at home. She was tired, so tired, and the reminder that death was all around, that it might have already claimed one of her strange new family was unbearable. She picked up more rocks, her hands scrabbling through the dirt, but then Coarc was flapping in front of her and she dropped them guiltily. "I'm sorry."

"Nasty things, me and mine will be dealing with them later," he said, perching on her shoulder again. "Your king sent me to check on you. The battle's moving this way, since even the orcs are bright enough to realize they're just so many open targets for those archers."

"We'll need to move the wounded," Billa said, rubbing a hand over her face. "And tell the commander. Have we heard back from the messengers that went to the eagles?"

Using his beak to pull some of her hair back, Coarc said, "Those toffs don't hurry for anyone. Come on, up to the tower with you."

"You go," she said, brushing him away with one hand. "You're the fastest flyer, aren't you? I'll be along in a minute."

"Yes, my queen," he said, giving his cawing laugh as he swirled around her. "Just remember that you're wanted alive, and preferably not missing anything that'd interfere with your shepherding."

She watched him fly off and smoothed her skirt down before using her fingers to twist her hair back into place as best she could. It was ridiculous, and she knew it was ridiculous, but the ordinariness of making herself presentable helped her face the prospect of having to start again, of having to be strong again.

The evacuation was being organized perfectly well before she got there and so she was just another pair of hands, packing and moving things, until suddenly there was a warg and she was the only one with a sword and both hands available. It wasn't a matter of thinking; she didn't consciously remember anything of what Balin had taught her, didn't plan a strategy or even think about what she was doing. She moved, and her sword moved, and she kept on because there were more enemies.

It should have been loud, and frightening, and horrible. Instead she was detached, as if she was asleep and her body was just moving without her knowledge. She didn't stop, couldn't, until her sword was wrenched away from her and then she was being held tightly, her face pressed against someone's armor, and then she was crying because it was Bifur and he was running his hand over her back, whispering soothing nonsense.

Clutching his beard with both hands, Billa drew a ragged breath and then another, trying to compose herself. "Is-- Is everyone safe?"

Bifur nodded, smoothing a hand over her hair and smiling before urging her to turn around. She blushed to feel the weight of innumerable stares, and buried her face against Bifur's shoulder. "I'm terribly sorry, I don't know what came over me."

"Battle," Bombur said gently, laying a hand on her shoulder. "Come on, you need to go back to the healers."

"Orcs!" Kili loosed an arrow as he gave the warning and Billa found herself pushed behind Bombur and shielded by Bofur on the other side, while the others threw themselves into attacking the horde of orcs that threatened to overwhelm them. They fought together easily, Fili's blades flashing as he drove an orc back into Nori's dagger, Bombur and Dori literally tearing a warg apart with their bare hands as each grabbed a leg and pulled, Bofur and Ori smashing enemies into the ground and Dwalin hacking down everything in his path as Balin danced in between and parried any attacks directed at his brother.

The noise was insane and Billa wanted to cry again, but then Gloin was there, hustling her away and she followed him, ducking away from the fighting as much as she could, except someone called Thorin's name and so she turned around, feeling her mind recede into vagueness again as she reached for a sword that lay on the ground.

She never reached it, because Kili was on the ground, laughing Kili that saw everything but never knew what it meant, and her mind went sharp again as she rushed forward, crawling at one point when she'd had to go down to duck under a sword thrust; it didn't matter, because nothing was going to stop her from reaching him. Fili knelt next to him, his hand on the arrow that was piercing his brother's chest, and Billa shrieked and threw herself through the air, tackling him before he could jar it further or make a move towards pulling it out. "You'll kill him! Let me, let me!"

The conditions weren't anything like what she'd want them to be, but she managed to break off enough of the ends of the arrow to stabilize the wound around it without it being constantly jarred back open, talking to him the whole time to keep him calm. Fili was knocked down beside them, winded rather than hurt, and she practically knelt on his chest to get him to stay down. He snarled at her to let him go, and she snapped, "Hold this so he doesn't bleed to death while I check if I've got anything to use on him."

His compliance gave her the time she needed to look around, judging how much ground they'd have to cover before getting Kili to a proper healer. Thorin was fighting his way towards them, looking desperate and haunted, despairing as he opened his mouth to shout something that she couldn't hear. She followed his gaze to see a gruesome smile on the face of the pale orc bearing down towards them.

Billa scrambled for a sword but Fili was on his feet and fighting, leaving her to resume trying to keep Kili from losing too much blood. The pale orc laughed as it fought against Fili, but then Fili managed to slice across one pale thigh and it snarled before knocking Fili over with a blow to the head that left the boy lying still and pale. Billa felt like her heart had stopped, but then he moved and she closed her eyes in a brief but heartfelt thanks to the Valar as he crawled towards her.

Thorin's shout was positively bloodcurdling as he went in low, less than an inch from chopping the pale orc in half. It sneered as it swung an axe at Thorin, snarling something in its guttural language that Billa was just as happy not to understand.

It seemed like they were moving too fast for the eye to follow, but at the same time so slowly that each blow took an eternity to fall. Thorin left a gash that went down the orc's face and chest, but then the orc connected a blow and Thorin staggered, going on one knee and barely able to bring up his shield to stop the orc from taking off his head.

Throwing a rock was useless, since it didn't hurt the orc in the slightest, but it distracted him enough to focus his attention away from Thorin and so it did enough. Billa trembled as she picked up one of Fili's swords, stepping forward to place herself in front of the pale orc. Her hands were sweating so much that she wasn't sure she could hold it and she wanted nothing more than to run away, to hide from the evil glint in the creature's eye as it looked at her and licked its lips.

The step it took towards her was the last step the pale orc ever took. With a wordless cry, Thorin pulled himself up and drove his sword up between the orc's legs, slicing through to cleave through the belly and ribcage, leaving the remains of the pale orc to fall down in two halves.

Thorin slumped to the ground, his shield arm falling in a way that looked wrong, and Billa dropped the sword she'd picked up to run to his side. "Thorin? Thorin! Speak to me, I need to know--"

Billa choked on her own words as she saw the wound to his shield arm, so deep and bloody that it seemed the arm was halfway to being cut off. Hurriedly, she tore a strip from her skirt for a tourniquet and yelled for a stretcher. "You're going to be all right, I promise. You have to be."

"A Baggins never breaks a promise," he said with a small smile, reaching up with his good arm to push her hair back behind her ear. "But I'm afraid that's one you shouldn't make."

"We're going to get you to the healers," she said desperately. "They'll fix this, they will."

He traced a hand over her cheek, his movements slow and clumsy. "Get Balin. There is one thing I must do, before anything else."

Billa looked at him helplessly, looking up to see Fili and Kili both being carried from the field, and a third stretcher being brought for Thorin. Eagles were flying through the battlefield, harrying the orcs and wargs into a panicked retreat that herded them directly into the path of an enormous rampaging bear that she was sure was Beorn. "They're here, they'll take you to the healers--"

"Balin," he said firmly, his face convulsing with pain as his hand went to cover his stomach. She was horrified to see blood seeping between his fingers. "Hurry."

He was there as soon as she'd called his name, panting with exhaustion as he dropped down to kneel beside his king. His eyes were full of unshed tears, but when Thorin gave him instructions in rapidfire Khuzdul, he nodded and pulled himself together before turning to Billa. "Take his hand and repeat after me, please."

As soon as her hand was clasped around Thorin's, Balin started, "I take you as my own, to create a life together as we create--"

"What on-- Thorin, this is--" Billa shook herself and tried to think of what to say in response to what sounded very much like marriage vows.

His hand tightened around hers and he said, "You don't care for gold, so let me give you back your reputation, your home. You'll get to be a widow, as you wanted."

"No!" She pulled away wildly, only to find Dwalin's hands on her shoulders, pushing her back down. "Please, he needs a healer, there's no time!"

"He won't go until it's done, lass," Balin said, bringing her hand back. "If you care for him as I think you do, you'll say the words quickly - say, 'I take you as my own' and that'll be enough."

Clutching Thorin's hand, Billa said brokenly, "Thorin, I take you as my own."

Weakly, he brought her hand to his mouth for a kiss before whispering in Khuzdul, his eyes fluttering closed as Balin declared them married and promptly dragged Billa back so the others could lift Thorin onto the stretcher and run with him towards the field hospital.

Billa was left to look down at the bloodstained patch of earth where he had lain, thinking uselessly that she'd gotten married with her hair hanging in disarray around her shoulders and her dress tattered and bloodstained. No flowers, no veil, no guests or party, just a battlefield and the despair of knowing that her bridegroom didn't believe he would live to ever truly be hers.

Hanging her head, she dug her hands into the soil and prayed with every fiber of her being for the Green Lady to help and strengthen her king and husband.

Chapter Text

Every movement was a struggle, her bones aching with the effort of hauling herself to her feet. Thorin was out there, and Kili, and who knew how many of the others were injured? She didn't have any time to waste with being shocked or exhausted and so she clamped her teeth together against the pain of her stiff joints and stood. People had been moving all around her, gathering up wounded, and she turned to follow them towards wherever the hospital tent had been moved to when the battle came near.

She'd been so caught up in the flow of people around her that she didn't notice the hand on her arm until she was jerked backwards. Billa cried out from surprise more than pain, but it just got her pulled more roughly to one side, away from where she could see the healers working. "Let me go! Let me go, I need to see Thorin!"

"A halfling has no place saying the king's name so familiarly." The dwarf holding her was sneering, and she looked at him in shock, her mouth opening and closing as she tried to think of what to say.

Dwalin saved her from having to say anything as he knocked the dwarf that held her to one side and said, "I'd say more that a great lump like you has no business talking about our queen like that."

The dwarf sputtered and protested, but Dwalin was pulling her along and she could feel the rest of the company closing ranks around the two of them, keeping a barrier between them and everyone else. Dwalin leaned in and rumbled in her ear in as much of a whisper as he was capable of. "They're rounding us up, all of us that can walk. Thorin and the lads are with Oin, so they're safe even if they won't wake up. We've got to move quick so there's still a throne waiting when Thorin decides to get his arse out of bed."

"But they can't!" Even as the words left her mouth, Billa knew that she was being hopelessly naive. The difference between the people circling now to claim Thorin's birthright and Mirabella Banks taking Bell Gamgee's aubergine to enter in the vegetable contest at the annual fair was a matter of scale, not intention.

Dwalin's hand tightened on her elbow as they reached a crowd that had gathered in front of the healing tent, and Billa's eyes widened as she saw that the Bard and Thranduil were talking to a dwarf that was making assurances about how of course they would get treasure, and Erebor would be a great friend to the elves and Men from then on, and Billa's blood boiled. "I beg your pardon, but you have no right to promise any of that! Who do you think you are?"

"What does a halfling--"

"Our queen is half of nothing," Dori said icily. "And if you use that term again, king or no, you'll face me in a duel."

Arching an eyebrow, Thranduil turned to face Billa fully. "Billa Baggins of the Shire is the name you gave, with no mention of being queen."

"The battlefield is rarely a place for titles," Balin said, smoothing down his beard as he stepped forward. "And our queen is a modest woman, who rarely uses all the titles she bears. However, I can assure you, the betrothal and coronation were conducted by the crown prince with every due ceremony, and the final formality of the wedding ceremony was conducted in accordance with the king's wishes."

Billa tried to keep her face still, since if Balin was bothering to come up with whoppers like that, he probably wouldn't appreciate her giving the game away by laughing. Then it wasn't funny as Dori chimed in with, "Her coronation crown was the one presented to Thror's queen by the dwarves of the Iron Mountains, and the betrothal was sealed with the gift of a mithril shirt."

"And, of course, as queen, she's regent," Balin said. "And the only person who can make any agreements on behalf of Erebor."

It seemed like dozens of glares focused on her at that, and Billa shrunk back a bit. "I need to see my husband."

"There's agreements to be finalized first." This came from the Man that had been insisting on surety before, and Billa's hand twitched with the urge to reach for the closest umbrella-like object and beat him with it.

With a slight smile, Thranduil said, "There are more wounded than just Thorin Oakenshield. Perhaps we can make our agreements after we are done with tending the wounded."

Billa nodded firmly, clasping her hands together. "The wounded and the dead need our attention now. The treasure will still be there when we're ready to discuss it."

"And give you time to hide it away, to--" The ugly Man's face twisted with his outrage, but Bard cut him off with a backwards pull on his elbow and a quick whisper in his ear. "Of course. Never let it be said that the Master of Laketown was ungracious to a grieving woman. By all means, see your... king."

Billa curtseyed, a stiff smile on her face. "I'll send a messenger when I'm ready - perhaps we could gather everyone together at once when it's time to discuss treaties? I'm sure it would be too exhausting to try to deal with each other one at a time."

"Of course," the Master said, with a smile he probably intended to be charming.

Sweeping past him, Billa focused on the healing tents, allowing Dwalin to guide her until she was looking at Thorin's face, grave and still, Oin's words washing past her in a rush. Traumatic injury, time is the best healer, he just needs the best of care and that's what he's being given, the arm might be able to be saved. She listened to all of it, holding very still, and at the end of it took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Billa stood up and leaned over the bed, brushing her lips over his forehead. "I'll make sure your kingdom is still here for you," she whispered. "Just wake up soon, please."

"Oin," she said as she straightened, turning away from Thorin so she wouldn't cry. "Gather the others. We have some planning to do - and I need a cup of tea."

The night was a busy one, but by morning she and the company had gotten a plan underway, at least enough to start with. By morning, Billa was more exhausted than she'd ever been, but she washed her face and hands and arranged her hair before stepping out to meet the Master and Dain, both of whom were waiting outside the tent. "Good morning, gentlemen! I was just about to send someone to fetch you - how fortunate you're here!"

Before they could talk, she said, "We're about to enter Erebor, and I thought perhaps you could both lend your elegance to the procession."

"The gates are impassable," Dain said. "I've dwarves working--"

"Good heavens, never say they're damaging our gates? Of course they're impassable, that's what keys are for," Billa said. "No, tell them to stop at once. At noon, we will have a formal procession into Erebor according to dwarrow custom, with the king and his honor guard taking precedence, as is proper. The two of you would be next, as visiting royalty, although... Oh, dear, I suppose Bard should technically be next, as the king of Dale."

The Master sputtered at that, but Dain continued to look at her impassively. "Once we have the procession sorted out, then we can make a start on getting things ready for the formal treaties. There's a lot of work to be done, not least of which is to make sure we are not literally standing over the dead of Erebor while discussing how to divide the wealth of Erebor. It might not make for the best historical record."

"All perfectly correct," Dain said, shooting the Master an inscrutable look. "Most of my soldiers here are Erebor natives. Any deviation from protocol would mean a revolt."

Sucking in a breath, the Master nodded and said weakly, "Protocol is always important."

Billa clapped her hands together and said, "Excellent. If you'll excuse me, I have some preparations to make, I'm sure you understand."

"Of course, your majesty." Dain gave her a nod and swept out, but his guards stayed behind. Billa would have liked to dismiss them, but Balin had warned her it might give offense to refuse any honor guard offered by Dain. Instead she smiled and curtseyed, leaving the tent herself to follow Ori to the spot that had been prearranged as having the most visibility in the entire camp.

There was a cup of tea waiting for her and she smiled as she sat down with some of the healers that she'd worked with in the tents, elves and dwarves and even a Man or two. For once, she allowed the chatter to be about her rather than sharing gossip about other people, answering questions about the Shire and the journey that Nori had planted. Soon enough, there were more questions being asked, and the people surrounding them had given up all pretense and were listening openly, even calling out questions of their own.

Someone brought a box for her to step on, and she laughed. "I'm sorry, I don't think it will help. I'm a good size for a hobbit, but all of you out here in the world are much too tall to notice a little thing like me."

"You're the queen!" The voice came from the back of the crowd, but if that wasn't Bofur, she'd eat his hat.

There was a cart nearby - the convenience of it staggering to anyone who hadn't been part of the company's planning - and she allowed herself to be helped up so that she stood above the crowd. "I am, although I'm fairly new at it. I've been a hobbit all my life, though, so you'll have to forgive me for it being a habit."

After allowing for the laugh that went through the crowd, she called out, "Do any of you have any questions? I know that kings and queens get caught up in only talking to each other, but I was just a farmer back home, and I always wanted to know what would affect me and my lands."

"What're the dwarves planning?" There were other questions, and similar ones, but that had been the one she was waiting for.

"I can't speak for all dwarves everywhere," she said. "But the dwarves of Erebor are home. Thorin Oakenshield is King Under the Mountain. And I... Well, for starters, I'd like a dress that's not more rag than cloth."

There were assorted laughs and cheers again, and she she smiled before allowing it to fade. "We can't forget... I wasn't here, I can barely imagine the losses of a people driven out of their homeland, can't think of the sheer devastation to both Erebor and Dale. No, never forget."

"Our first priority will be to hold official mourning rites for those we lost here on the field and for those that were lost when Smaug first came, and all those who were lost when the dwarrows were forced to wander." She took a shaky breath, rubbing at her throat for a moment before she continued. "Our next priority is living. We'll repair, rebuild, and reclaim the farmlands - in ten years, Smaug and his desolation will be nothing but a memory."

It was going according to plan, and she smiled with satisfaction only to cry out when someone from the crowd threw a rock and it sent her tumbling off the cart. It seemed like there would be a riot, with jeers about halflings audible even above the general noise, and she fought off the hands trying to help her up to scramble back onto the cart. "Stop! Stop, this now!"

From behind her, she could hear Bofur curse, then there were the notes of his flute playing a familiar tune. In a quavery voice, she started singing, "Far over the Misty Mountains cold..."

The Company had joined her before the end of the phrase, and soon enough others were joining in, until she could pause to dab at the blood that dripped from the cut on her cheek. She only started singing again when it was time for the new verse that Ori had written the night before, one which celebrated that they had returned. The second time through the verse, a good portion of the crowd was singing along.

After the last note faded, Billa straightened her back, smoothed down her skirt, and said firmly, "Let's go home."

Chapter Text

By the time Billa reached the doors to Erebor, the company was in place, ready to swing the gates open. They'd improvised a wheeled stretcher so that Thorin was the first to enter, with Billa walking beside him. Fili and Kili had their own stretchers, and the company marched around them as an honor guard, followed by Dain, Thranduil, and Bard, the Master doing his best to keep up. War Song rode on Bard's shoulder, twittering away, and Coarc flew circles around the dignitaries, occasionally giving his raucous laugh, especially when most of those present startled at Beorn and the king of the eagles joining the procession just behind Dain.

Billa was hard pressed not to laugh along with him, but the oppressive grandeur of the entrance hall was enough to keep her from embarrassing herself or Thorin, even if he wouldn't have known. She squeezed the hand she was holding and promised herself that she would stay strong for him. If she could keep the Shire from exploding into a mass of resentments, feuds, and burnt cakes, she could handle keeping things under control, just until he woke up.

The procession started breaking apart, with Thorin and the boys being taken off to the women's quarters, since they were the most secure location in the entire mountain and she wasn't about to take any chances with their safety. She didn't know Dain, not really, but closer relatives had done worse than interfering with a patient's care to gain less than Dain stood to get if something happened to the three dwarves between him and the throne. It wasn't distrust, really, it was just a sensible precaution.

People were swooping in with tables and charts and lists, moving to and fro as things were being organized. Billa started to slip away, intending to find Balin, but then she felt a hard blow to her ribs and she was falling sideways. If Bard hadn't reached out and caught her by the arm, she would've gone over the edge of a chasm, straight down what looked like an endless drop.

"Railings! Why is it not one, not one of the other races on this entire continent believes in putting up a damned railing alongside any of the insane, unnecessary, and frankly ridiculous number of sheer, perilous drops? Are all of you mad or careless? What kind of-- What if there were children? Just how many toddlers just amble off one of these... these death traps? Honestly! Is it too much to ask that there just be some damn railings put up as a simple safety precaution?"

She was panting when she finally stopped, her feet once again on the ground and a clear space all around her. There was utter and complete silence all around, and the amount of shocked stares were, really, quite excessive. Crossing her arms, she said, "Doesn't everyone have work to do?"

Amidst the general shuffling, Billa moved away from the edges and tried to slip unnoticed through the crowd. People kept bowing to her, which was disconcerting; she tried telling herself it was just a more formal version of the nods of greeting that hobbits exchanged. She could deal with Mabel Lorican always dropping something nervously as she curtsied and tried to pretend she hadn't; she could deal with dwarves looking at her with a mix of curiosity, hostility, and a guarded sort of admiration.

One look of complete and utter loathing caught her attention, but before she could do more than notice it, Dori had a hold of her arm and was guiding her along. "This way, dear, this way. It's not much, but we've got a bit of a kitchen sorted out, and I've had them start making some cakes for your tea."

Billa had never been busier in her life, and it amused her to realize that most of the people around her thought she was being idle. Balin had come close to actually saying something critical after the fifth time she'd waved off his requests to review mining contracts and settlement agreements, but he hadn't quite brought himself to follow through on it. Instead, he'd sighed heavily and left them on her desk before following her to inspect the accommodations being provided for the natives of Erebor who had made the journey from the Iron Hills.

"After this, I need to meet with War Song," Billa said as they walked, the velvet of her skirt rustling softly. The Men had been eager enough to provide materials for fine clothes, theoretically as presents to celebrate her wedding. She'd much rather have had some nice lawn or calico, something that could be easily washed after traipsing around corridors full of dust and ash and worse things. Instead, she'd had to make dresses from silks and laces that would've set tongues wagging back home if they were used for a ball gown, let alone something for everyday.

"My queen," Balin said, and Billa braced herself for hesitant, careful disapproval. "There have been rumors--"

"That I'm feather-witted? I thought that one was rather clever." Laying a hand on Balin's arm, Billa said, "I'll only have one chance to be underestimated. Trust me."

That earned her another sigh. "I will always do my best to serve the House of Durin."

"As will I, now that I'm part of it." She would have given him a hug, but that would have led to rumors that could have bad consequences; Dain's loyalists would love any excuse to declare her marriage invalid, and any physical sign of affection would be taken as licentious conduct. "Have you heard from Nori?"

"I have," Balin said, his face twisting into a scowl. "His report is as expected."

Grinning, Billa said, "For Nori, you mean."

With a look that wasn't nearly as censorious as he meant it to seem, Balin said, "For a burglar. They're all difficult."

She was laughing as they entered the refugee quarters, and several of the older dwarves glared. She composed herself as best she could, smoothing down the hair she'd clasped together under her chin to look vaguely like a beard. From a distance, if you squinted a bit. It was odd to have her hair down, let alone arranged in front of her neck, but it helped her to feel more like part of her people. A few of the younger dwarves had even asked her about how she braided it. Dori had helped her hold an impromptu lesson, although the dwarves had taught her more than she'd taught them. She had a strong suspicion some of them might be girls, given the giggling, but reminded herself firmly that it was none of her business.

The tour was simply a matter of allowing herself to be led around by dwarves showing obvious pride in their accomplishments. Erebor had been mostly grown around the Great Forge, but now in the process of rebuilding, the dwarves were taking the opportunity to plan out layouts and decorations with more unity and purpose. There were a distressing number of memorials, but the grief was peaceful, the acceptance of a loss that had been borne long ago. Burying the skeletons that had remained was a catharsis, and Billa had attended innumerable funerals where joy and relief were as present as sorrow.

"Your Majesty?" It came from a young dwarf with violently red hair and a downy fuzz barely worthy of being called a beard. He must have been born just before the fall to be so young that his voice still squeaked. "We prepared tea -- we hope it's as you like it."

Billa smiled, because somehow it had spread to all the dwarves that hobbits needed to be fed at every opportunity, and plied with tea whenever possible. She approved. "Thank you, that would be lovely."

Inhaling deeply as she brought the cup to her lips, she said, "Oh, it's been so long since I had a nice verbena tea."

The clatter of a cup falling and shattering brought her mind away from the sense memories inspired by the scent of the tea to remember the first real conversation she'd had with Dori. "Oh, dear. Maybe the rest of you shouldn't drink the tea."

"Someone tried to poison the queen!" People were shouting and axes were being waved around. Billa sighed and took a restorative sip of tea only to find herself the focus of an absolutely silent room.

"I was thirsty," she said meekly. "And verbena isn't poisonous to hobbits. Very few plants are, actually."

Trembling, the young dwarf stepped forward. "I-I accept the responsibility of failing--"

"What's your name?" Billa had almost snapped at him not to be ridiculous, but stopped herself in time. There was very little she could think of as delicate as a fauntling's pride, and dwarves were probably worse.

"Genner," he said, standing so upright that his chin quivered. "At your service, my queen."

She nodded and held out her hand, doing her best to look majestic instead of nervous; courtly gestures did not come to her naturally, although the dwarves seemed to love them. "Did you intend to harm me?"

"No! No, Your Majesty, you're-- you may be strange, but you're King Thorin's choice, his companion, I would never--"

This time, she couldn't stop herself from smiling as she cut off his babble with a squeeze to his hand. "Then what you're taking responsibility for is the failure to prevent someone else from harming me? Just yes or no, please."

There were murmurs in the crowd but she ignored them in favor of keeping complete focus on Genner's tense face. He nodded, a sharp jerk of his chin, and she could see sweat prickling along his hairline. "Yes."

"In that case, I can only think of one suitable consequence." Looking steadily into Genner's eyes, she said, "As soon as this conference is over, report to Balin for your training. A dwarrow of the Queen's Guard needs to know how to identify the threats he's tasked to prevent."

She steadily ignored both the renewed whispers around them and the gape-mouthed shock and admiration on Genner's face, keeping a pleasantly neutral expression on her face. Finally, he stammered, "You-- I will serve you forever, my queen."

"Thank you," she said, clasping his hands between hers. "For now, though, you can serve me best by continuing to make your parents proud of the excellent dwarrow they raised. And, perhaps, bringing me one of those cakes that I smell?"

It wasn't a very funny comment, but the break in tension made the crowd laugh with relief. Genner rushed to serve a selection of tea cakes, but insisted on taking a bite from each one before allowing her to taste anything. She looked over at Balin for some help, but he was looking at the young dwarf with such complete approval that she knew there was no hope for an ally in discouraging the boy from risking himself to protect her, even if the risk from the cakes seemed minimal.

Balin allowed a few minutes for refreshments, just long enough to be gracious, before he made noises about a pressing appointment and hustled her out. The amount of bowing directed at her as she took her leave was gratifying, because she'd been successful in blunting the crisis of the attempted poisoning, and mortifying. It was definitely not respectable to be gazed on worshipfully; Lobelia would never let her hear the end of it if she ever saw it.

"You'll have to stop going into crowds of people," Balin said as he guided her back to the chambers set aside for the royal family. "And no more food outside of what Bombur prepares."

Shaking her head, Billa said, "If I can't form a connection with the people of Erebor, I won't be able to hold things together until Thorin wakes up."

Just mentioning his name made her desperate to see him, to regain the determination to do whatever she needed to do in order to prove herself worthy of his faith in her. Balin seemed to understand, following her to the chamber where the three Durins still slept. Only Kili had shown signs of waking since the battle, although the medicines for keeping down the pain levels were probably part of the reason for the extended sleep.

She went to Thorin first because she had to, taking his hand in hers as much to reassure herself he was still warm and alive as to provide the anchor that Oin had thought might draw him back. Once she'd calmed down at his touch, she moved to Fili and Kili, leaning down to kiss both boys on the forehead. Bofur and Dwalin, the two dwarves currently guarding the Durins, were so used to the routine that they barely looked up from their card game.

Just when she had resettled herself by Thorin's bedside, his hand once again in hers, Balin said, "Our queen was almost killed today. Again."

That paused the card game, both dwarves looking at Billa expectantly. She ducked her head and muttered, "It wasn't really poison."

"She drank verbena," Balin said. "And then ate cakes that had been prepared by the same people. She was even trying to get to them before the food taster."

Bofur threw his cards down while Dwalin rolled his eyes and said, "Of course she did."

"You'll have a fiercely loyal guardsman if she doesn't get him poisoned," Balin said. "She refuses to stop eating whatever someone hands her."

Snorting, Bofur said, "You'd think she'd have enough practice at it, with how much she refused food from us."

"I didn't need to earn your affections," Billa said. "I just needed to keep us all alive as long as possible."

The snort could've come from any of the dwarves, but it came from Kili. Dwalin was the fastest to reach him, Billa and Bofur only a step behind. Kili seemed as if he was trying to speak but choking on the words, managing only a hacking cough as Dwalin helped him to sit up and Balin brought him a cup of water.

"Fili?" It was the first word Kili managed, more than a croak than speech. "Thorin?"

"Alive," Balin said, which eased the tension in Kili's shoulders so much that he slumped forward. "Not awake yet, but they'd lost enough sleep on the journey that they may well need the rest."

Kili reached for the water and frowned as his hand trembled. "What's going on? Is Mum here? Who's in charge?"

"I suppose you are," said Billa as she fluffed his pillow.

"Merciful Mahal, no." Both sons of Fundin spoke in concert, but their looks of shock and horror were nothing compared to how completely appalled Kili looked.

"I can injure myself again." Looking at the cup, he said thoughtfully, "Drowning's supposed to be peaceful, isn't it?"

"Aye, apart from the pain and the clawing desperation to breathe," Bofur said. "Although, think of the--"

Billa had been growing paler as he talked, until Dwalin shoved Bofur to the side and put her chair behind her. She fell into it without even a hint of grace, and Bofur looked a bit ashamed of himself. "Sorry, lad. Forgot about your delicacy."

"Drowning is...." She shuddered, trying to pull herself together. "Hobbits don't float very well."

"You should remember that before attempting to fly again," Kili said. "If you keep your feet firmly on the ground, Uncle might be spared a few grey hairs."

Drily, Billa said, "I'll do my best not to be dropped from the sky by a dragon again."

"It'd be for the best," Balin said.

"Although, I wonder if the birds would take us flying," Kili said. "It was fun, with the eagles."

With a laugh, Billa said, "You can ask. After you're completely healed."

Sternly, Balin said, "And after Thorin is awake, or... or we know more. Definitely after this conference."

"But..." Billa trailed off, because her objection had been automatic -- surely an heir trumped a queen, particularly under these circumstances -- but the thought of Kili trying to sit through preparations for the conference, let alone the actual negotiations, refused to actually form in her mind. She got as far as picturing him smiling at Dain's right hand, a dour dwarf named Segun, and then it shifted into an evil, about to play a massive prank sort of grin.

"Precisely," Balin said. "No, the prince will have to remain too weak to leave his bed."

Dwalin nodded. "Best if we pretend he's still asleep."

Tilting his hat back on his head, Bofur said, "The royal family needs extra security, after the poisoning attempt. We can use Billa's scaling back her exposure as a reason to deny all visitors."

Her lips twitched as the others nodded solemnly, even Kili. "So I'm scaling back, even though I just said it's important not to?"

"It's to protect us all," Bofur said piously, although his eyes were dancing. "Especially Kili."

"You're diabolical," Billa said with a sigh, knowing she was defeated. "You'll have to promise to bring me the people I ask for, without questioning why. And give me Dori as my guard, since he'd be the best help to me."

That earned her a round of dubious looks, but she ignored them in favor of smoothing Kili's hair back from his forehead. "I'm glad you're back, sweeting."

His eyes filled, but he blinked hard and swallowed, forcing himself to stay composed. "I want my mum."

"She's on her way," Billa said soothingly, still stroking his hair. "You'll have to make do with an auntie in the meantime."

Grasping her hand, he kissed the back of it and murmured, "I knew you'd accept Thorin."

"He'll be awake soon," Billa said, wanting to avoid for now the subject of why Thorin had married her and what he was likely to think about it when he found out he wasn't dead. "Oin says they can hear us, that will help them come back."

"I could hear you, sometimes," Kili said. "It was confusing."

He fell back, his eyes fluttering closed. Billa and Bofur exchanged panicked looks, but Dwalin just ran a hand over his head and smiled. "Oin will check on him, but he's just asleep for now."

Billa longed to stay, to crawl over Thorin and shout in his ear that they needed him, especially now that Kili had confirmed that there was a chance he could hear her. She couldn't afford to take the time, not with how little of it remained before the conference, and she had to content herself with leaning in to whisper in his ear how much she missed him. She couldn't resist brushing a small kiss over his brow, and didn't realize she was crying until she was pulling away and saw one of her teardrops fall on his still face.

"I'm sorry, I do beg your pardon," she said, not looking at anyone as she dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. "It's most unseemly, I know."

"It would be unseemly if you didn't feel deeply for our king," Balin said, patting her hand. "Surely the little birdies can do without you."

Pulling herself together, Billa took a deep breath that was perilously close to a sigh. "Unfortunately, we cannot do without them, and War Song is probably already waiting. There'll be time enough after... there'll be time enough."

She could feel sadness and disapproval from the others, but she straightened her back and walked through the door to her chamber with as much of Thorin's majesty as she could borrow. As soon as the door closed behind her, she slumped against it and closed her eyes.

"You're looking more green than pink," Coarc said critically. "Is that something which normally happens with you groundlings?"

Waving a hand, she said, "I just need to get some sleep. Oh, tell all the birds not to eat anything they're offered -- someone tried to poison me, you and War Song would be logical targets."

"There's been poisoned meat and seed put out since the first," Coarc said. "We've been taking care of it."

Appalled, Billa said, "You should have told me!"

"Oh, aye, like you've told your dwarves about being followed when you went down to the kitchen," Coarc said. "And your dress ripped on a nail, not an axe, right?"

Grimacing, Billa said, "Of course you know about that."

"We've got eyes everywhere," Coarc said, everything about him radiating smugness. "We've worked out a deal with the rats."

That was enough to give Billa pause. "Rats?"

Coarc gave his croaking laugh and said, "The ones that came with the wagons are soft compared to the ones that survived the dragon years, but it was still a fight until we started to mediate."

Faintly, Billa said, "You're mediating a dispute for rats? How do you even speak to them?"

"Raven can speak any language," Coarc said, as slowly and carefully as he would speak to a child. "It's why I can talk to you."

"Oh. Oh, of course. Well, do give the... the rats my best." Despite her efforts, Billa couldn't help shuddering.

Even War Song seemed to be laughing at her this time. "All right, so maybe my diplomacy skills aren't quite up to rodents."

"Just as well it's not your treaty," Coarc said. "You're not the only one as can make things happen."

"I'm not sure sometimes if I can do anything at all," Billa said. "I'm so scared, and Thorin--"

War Song chirped and perched on her shoulder so she could nuzzle and preen Billa's ear. Billa felt comforted, even as Coarc translated what she was actually saying. "Queens have no time for feeling sorry for themselves, and warriors with the enemy in the nest even less. Pull yourself together and fly through until it's time for eggs and berries."

Billa sighed and ran a finger over War Song's head, gently smoothing her feathers. "I don't know if I'll have children, but I promise there'll be berries."

"Not as if you don't have enough dwarves," Coarc muttered. "Childish enough for anyone."

That startled a laugh out of her, small and stunted but still real. "You're right, of course. Both of you."

"So, right, on with the reports," Coarc said. "The relays are in place. Give us an hour and we can get a message to your Shire, although the raven at your Lobelia's house is complaining."

"Tell him to agree to whatever she suggests," Billa said. "Especially if it involves cleanliness or decoration, both are near and dear to her heart."

"Yes, well, madam refuses to allow any order to be transmitted unless she gets your recipe for lemon cake."

"Oh, that-- that opportunist!" Billa stomped her foot and huffed. "She knows that's my recipe, not the family's."

Still grumbling, Billa sat down to write out the recipe, along with a few strong words on the importance of helping family and the dangers of using other people's needs against them. While she wrote, she let the flow of gossip from Coarc wash over her, interspersed with the trills of War Song contributing what her people had learned. It wasn't enough, not to be certain, but it would do to give her a lever into understanding the kings and dignitaries that she'd be facing off with.

Once the birds had wound down, Billa asked, "What about the mines?"

"Best part, innit?" Coarc cackled, even as War Song raked him impatiently with her claw. "You're the one that owns them."

Billa froze, turning to face him. "Are you sure?"

Nodding, the raven said, "They sent something called a Gamgee down to check. The caves go under your sheep pastures in the mountains, and the entrance is on land Lobelia's selling you. There's copies of the deeds and pictures of the dwarves in charge coming by relay."

"Bless her," she breathed. "No wonder she wanted the lemon cake. It's a wonder she didn't want Bag End."

"We'll test the relay in pairs," Coarc said. "But there won't be any trouble, especially with the eagles meeting the sheep at the pass through the mountains."

"Another alliance of yours? They barely agreed to attend the talks when I asked them."

Coarc flapped his wings before resettling himself. "He wouldn't, would he? Mister High and Mighty wants to make sure no one gets the impression he's anyone's servant. Doing a favor for other birds, that's something different, espeically if it means food that doesn't have to be fought for."

"That's why you needed the extra sheep," Billa said. "I hesitated to ask, in case you thought I was questioning your right to them."

"Trusting. I like that in someone who gives me things." Coard flinched away as War Song pecked him sharply. "Oi. See if I keep interpreting for you if--"

He was cut off by War Song raking a claw down his side, causing him to squeak and flap his wings before hunching in on himself protectively. "Blasted woman always has to have things her way."

"Yes, well, obviously things are run better when we're in charge," Billa said with a small smile. War Song trilled but started preening Coarc's feathers, putting him back in good order. "Something the rest of Middle Earth will find out soon enough."

Coarc gave his rasping laugh. "Wonder if it'll upset the rest of them as much as the dresses have sent the dwarves in a tizzy."

"What's wrong with my dresses?" Billa smoothed her skirt down fretfully. "I knew they were too fancy, but--"

"If anything, they're not fancy enough," Coarc said. "But the real problem is the other dwarves wearing dresses."

"But what on earth is so wrong with that? I thought Gundred looked lovely - her embroidery would make Lobelia weep with envy."

Both birds were silent as they watched her until she sighed. "That's exactly the problem, isn't it? That she's choosing to be she. I'd be willing to lay quite a substantial wager that Dain and that awful Segun have made comments about her choosing not to be a dwarf."

"At least you catch on well." Coarc shifted to rub his beak over War Song's head. "Get some sleep. You can spend tomorrow with your Thorin and then be ready for the meeting."

Billa closed her eyes and nodded. She'd gathered as much information as she could; there wasn't anything else she could do to be prepared. Taking the time to center herself would do more good than any amount of information gathering, and the need to be near Thorin was like a physical ache.

"Yes," she said softly. "Yes, I'll rest. Thorin needs me at my best."

Chapter Text

The morning of the conference, Billa woke up feeling surprisingly comfortable, and warmer than she'd been since leaving Bag End and her stack of eiderdowns. She snuggled deeper into the bed, pressing herself against what her fuzzy mind decided must be the biggest and best hot water bottle ever made. Billa stretched and cuddled closer, sliding her hands over the bumps and ridges covered by a fine cloth. She hummed with pleasure as she rubbed her nose against what was probably the firmest pillow ever made, although that could be forgiven with how delicious it smelled.

"Your majesty." The voice didn't belong, but it was soft enough to ignore. Probably for someone else, except...

Awareness trickled through, bringing a blush in its wake as she realized that she'd been running her hands over Thorin's chest and burying her face against his side. The discreet coughing from somewhere behind her truly did not help matters, nor did the way her dress slipped off her shoulder as she pulled her way to a seated position. "I fell asleep."

"We thought we'd make you a bit more comfortable," Dori said, bringing a tea tray to set over her lap. "You didn't want to let go, and I couldn't see you going to deal with those nasty elves with your back in knots."

Sniffing at her tea, she looked at Dori and said, "Lemon verbena?"

"You like it," he said. "And there's some of the young ones who will be awed at knowing you drank poison before going into battle. Ori tells me it will make the poem more impressive."

"Goodness knows I'll need as much help with that as possible." If no one else was going to mention that she'd been molesting Thorin in his sleep, she certainly wasn't going to quibble about having her clothes loosened-- even if it felt like it had been accomplished by simply cutting a line down the center of the dress and her stays, right along her spine. It was just as well that the dwarves rarely let her wear the same dress twice, since this one would need some dedicated mending and pressing before it could be worn again. "Did the laundry workers bring up my coat?"

"Did you see the lovely dress that the tailors made for you? The goldwork is stunning -- the whole story of Durin the Deathless is told along the hem."

Nodding, Billa said, "I can't read it, but it's gorgeous. I'll still need my father's coat."

"But it's so worn." Dori's voice was practically a wail, as it had been the last time they'd argued over what she would wear to open the negotiations. He was clearly resigned to her stubborn insistence, but determined to at least make an effort to protest. "There's not even any embroidery to speak of, and the dress underneath it is so plain... You're our queen."

Sighing, Billa said, "I'm also a hobbit, and if I can't have Thorin with me in person, then I'll have him and my father both with me as best I can."

Dori's face softened as he fussed over her pillows, blinking hard before he straightened up. "I'll just get your clothes ready then, as we talked about. You take a moment to yourself -- we moved the princes last night."

He bustled out and she drank her tea, forcing herself to eat some of the breakfast he'd brought along with it. She couldn't manage much; the scent of the tea reminded her too strongly of the Shire, but that wasn't her home anymore. Her home was lying beside her, and the thought was enough to make her put her tea tray aside and turn to look at Thorin.

He looked so still, so pale and cold, that she couldn't stop herself from clinging to him, throwing away all thoughts of propriety or decorum in favor of feeling the warmth of his skin and the steady reassurance of his heartbeat. She was careful not to jostle him unduly, but she needed to be close to him, as close as she could possibly get. "I need you so much."

There was no response, and Billa wanted to slap him, to kiss him and shake him and demand that he wake up and save her from doing everything so differently from what he would have done, and probably from what he would have wanted. She wanted to cry and pull the covers over her head and refuse to come out.

"You may hate me, by the end of it," Billa whispered. "I hope I'd have the strength to stay, but I don't know if I could. And I do miss Bag End, so much sometimes that it hurts. I don't think I've seen sunlight in days. I tried to ask, but even our company couldn't seem to understand why anyone would be unhappy being always underground."

With a sigh, she traced a finger over his jaw. "Maybe what I'll do, if I don't go to Bag End, is just build a little cottage somewhere near the nesting grounds where I can tend sheep for the ravens and sit in my garden in the evenings, looking out in the distance towards home."

Drifting off into silence, she listened to his breathing, her hand on his chest to feel the reassurance of it rising and falling. "Just promise you'll never lock me away again. I wouldn't survive in a cage."

She felt a hitch in his breath and held her own, watching him intently in the hope of seeing any flicker of movement. He continued to lie in perfect stillness until Dori bustled in again, bringing the clothes she'd asked him to procure, and she sighed again before leaning in to whisper a goodbye in Thorin's ear before she pulled herself together. She may have been a liability when they started into the wilderness, and the best she could do as a warrior was get out of the way of the better ones. This, though.... She could do this.

And hopefully, Thorin would forgive her for it.


Billa was the first to arrive for the negotiations, seated just beside the ornate throne at the head of the table, with her crown resting on the cushion of the throne. There were scrolls all around her, organized but seeming haphazard, and she had an embroidery hoop on her lap with an assortment of silks on a small table at her side, which also held a tea tray and a delicate assortment of cakes and biscuits. She continued sewing placidly as the various dignitaries came in and seated themselves with their retinues standing behind them, only speaking to offer refreshments which were summarily refused.

The men immediately settled down to talking, trading clumsy barbs as they tried to pretend they weren't there solely for money. Thranduil in particular seemed adamant in his insistence that he would never lift a finger just for gold, although at no point did he volunteer to leave without any. The Master and Dain were the ones speaking the most, continuing their argument even as Elrond and Gandalf entered and sat at the table. It was only when the King of Eagles flew in through the large skylight and settled on a throne-like perch that they even paused their haggling.

The kings kept their countenances smooth; it was the elves and dwarves ranged behind them that reacted with a range of shock and amusement. The Master was turning purple with frustrated rage, but Bard was hiding a smile as he fed berries to War Song, occasionally allowing Coarc to steal one.

"It is unhygenic to have birds indoors," the Master sniffed. "Especially where real people might be eating."

Lowering her embroidery, Billa said, "I beg your pardon, sir, but what is your definition of a 'real person'?"

He blustered for a moment, then settled with, "It must be obvious, of course, that I meant the way we, most of us, that is, all appear very similar, which is an outward illustration of a fundamental capability of thought."

"I see." Billa looked around the table and said, "Man-shaped, as it were."

"Precisely," the Master said, smiling broadly and clearly gearing up for another long speech.

Billa cut him off by saying sweetly, "Then I suppose I should apologize for my presence at the table, since I am not shaped like a man and so, presumably, am not a person."

Gandalf and Elrond were both obviously smothering laughter; Coarc didn't bother to hide his, even after his grandfather pecked him sharply. Balin just buried his face in his hands, apparently having given up on shooting Billa looks to encourage or shame her into taking part in the proceedings.

With a pinched face, the Master said, "If your majesty prefers to be excused..."

"I don't see how that's possible," Billa said. "If is, after all, my personal debt being settled. Erebor owes nothing to anyone."

In the dead silence that followed, Billa smiled, counting five seconds before she said, "Surely, gentlemen, you all remember that my king did not agree to paying any of you anything. I acknowledged the debt as mine, not as Erebor's."

"We have fought and bled together since," Thranduil pointed out, his voice careful even as he darted a glance at Elrond.

"Which is why I will overlook all the awkward circumstances and just look on this as rewarding those who helped us on our quest to reclaim Erebor." Billa smiled thinly. "The only one missing is Beorn, who offered his hospitality to us graciously, without a hint of coercion or cupidity. I was waiting for him to arrive before we began to discuss the distribution of one-fourteenth of the treasure of Erebor."

She picked up her embroidery again, ignoring Balin's beaming grin as handily as she ignored the Master's gabbling and Elrond's barbs to Thranduil. It wasn't until the men were starting to compare their roles in the battle that Billa spoke up again. "Gentlemen, I'm sorry, I must protest! On behalf of your people, I must make sure that there is never a hint in any of the history books that any of the armies on the field were there as mercenaries."

"My army could not be bought for all the treasure of all the dwarves in Arda," Thranduil said icily.

"Nor mine," Dain said, bristling with outraged dignity.

The Master didn't look as convinced, but Bard gave him a hard look and said firmly, "Men are no less than elves or dwarves, mistress, as--"

"Do not speak to our queen so familiarly," Balin growled, his hand going down to rest on his sword hilt.

A booming laugh was as much warning as Billa got before she was swept out of her chair and into a hug. "Little madam! Although, now I suppose you're 'little majesty'."

"Surely majesty is always the exact right size," Billa said, patting her hair back into place as Beorn set her down. "Never too big nor too small."

"Am I too late for the slaughter, then?" Beorn looked around the table and smirked. "Bring me the popped corn and we shall parley."

"That was what we were attempting," Balin snapped. "Before you laid hands on the Queen of Erebor."

Grandly, Beorn sprawled in the only remaining chair. "Carry on, then--"

Predictably, the Master was the first to find his voice. "Smaug stole from us-- do you now intend to keep what does not rightfully belong to you? I demand that every bit of what was taken from Men be returned before the treasure starts being divided."

Really, this whole thing wasn't going to take any skill at all if he kept playing into her hands like that. She'd thought that there might be some challenge, but it was like a tea party for fauntlings. "Of course. We've already identified some of the treasures Smaug took from others -- I believe we've identified part of the royal regalia of Dale, which we'll return immediately -- I assume there are no objections?"

Dain scowled as his second took a step forward, waiting until he'd subsided before saying, "Anything taken out of the treasure must be proven to belong to Men -- they can't simply stroll in and take whatever they want."

"All cultural treasures will be respected," Billa said. "And provenance must be established to lay any claims."

With a gesture, Billa summoned Genner to roll in the cart that was piled with the crowns and scepters and jewels that the dwarves had identified as belonging to Dale. The young dwarf had proven invaluable, both for his unwavering loyalty and for his ability to sort out which guards shared it.  "All of these were gifts from the dwarrows -- our records confirm it. And, of course, the Arkenstone was Thror's personal possession, so we can sort both items out immediately."

The Master's hand flew to his pocket, knuckles white as he clutched it closed. "This is my surety!"

"The terms of which have been fulfilled," Billa said. "What is being returned is not only more than you had before you marched on Erebor, it is more than the cost of bringing the army of Men here -- and it is not your anything. The surety was for all of those gathered to claim a part in Erebor's victory."

The Master looked fretfully between Billa and the pile of treasure, his eyes blinking rapidly. "But.... No, this isn't right." He looked around in search of support, but found no one that would meet his eyes. "Are you holding our own belongings hostage? That, that could be construed as an act of war! You have no right--"

"The Arkenstone," Billa said, holding her hand out. "Or are you threatening war here, in front of all our neighbors and allies? Tell me, would any of these worthies go to war so that you can keep what doesn't belong to you?"

The Master looked around again, desperately, but finally lifted the Arkenstone out of his pocket, pausing to gaze into its depths and lick his lips. "Perhaps…"

Closing her hand over it to block his sight, she said softly, "You will have what is yours."

His fingers closed reflexively, but then he blinked rapidly and nodded, releasing his hold on it and looking towards the tea cart piled high with treasures. "Thank you."

"Gentlemen, by your leave, I believe you need to get some idea of the scope we've been discussing," she said, tucking the Arkenstone in her pocket and brushing off her hands. "While I have something I need to return to my husband. There are guides waiting who can take you to the balconies overlooking the main treasure room, should you wish to see it. Shall we reconvene in an hour?"

Smiling brightly, she focused her attention around the table, bowing her head to each person in turn. At the last, she offered Bard a curtsey equal to the ones she'd given the other kings and said, "And, your majesty, we are happy to restore the outward symbols of the rulership of Dale to the heir of Girion."

Thranduil and Elrond shared a smirk, then seemed to regret it as they both looked away. Gandalf's eyes were twinkling at Beorn, who was whispering in his ear. It was impossible to tell who looked more shocked of Bard or the Master, especially when Billa said cheerfully, "There, now everyone has what belongs to them, at least of the things brought to the table. In an hour, gentlemen!"

She hadn't even cleared the door before the Master was remonstrating with Bard about the proper disposition of funds and the duly appointed authority over the Men of Laketown, Dale being a relic of the forgotten past. War Song trilled and Coarc duly translated that the thrushes had an alliance with Dale, and so if Dale did not exist then Laketown would owe them everything they had as payment for the warning of Smaug's coming.

She smothered a laugh as she picked up her pace, her skirt swaying around her with soft rustles and the light clink of the beads that had been sewn onto the hem. The company wasn't gathered where she expected them, but the guards that were there assured her they'd been briefed on what to do in order to let their guests see the treasure without in any way getting to touch it. Billa nodded and forced herself to stay long enough to give them each a few words of encouragement before giving in to the urge to hurry to Thorin's chamber. It might be a foolish hope, but part of her thought that perhaps Thorin would wake up for the Arkenstone, and she was eager to put it to the test by placing it in his hands.

Just outside Thorin's suite of rooms, she stopped to catch her breath and smooth down her skirts, giving her hair a quick pat since she couldn't actually see if it was still in order. Before she could finish pulling herself together, the door flew open and she'd barely managed to dodge it before Ori leaned out to seize her arms and drag her inside. "What on earth?"

"He's awake," Ori hissed, pulling her through the small antechamber and shoving her into Thorin's bedroom. She stumbled and almost fell, the breath catching in her throat as her eyes met Thorin's.

"Burglar," he said, his eyes burning as they met hers. "Billa."

Her heart seemed to stop, her muscles frozen as she wanted more than anything to throw herself at him and sob, to kiss him over and over again, to lay her head on his chest and just listen to his strong heartbeat and the rumble of his voice. At the same time… He had called her burglar, not wife.

"The Arkenstone," she croaked out, licking her lips to restore some moisture to them. "I got it back for you - I know how important it is to you, how much you value it."

He looked between the stone and her face, his brow furrowed. "You--"

Whatever he would have said was lost as Balin entered the room in a rush, the door slamming closed behind him. "You, laddie, are still incapacitated, even if I have to chop a limb off you myself."

Billa couldn't help shuffling closer to Thorin, her hand automatically going to the hilt of her sword. She wasn't the only one, but Balin just waved dismissively and continued. "Do you know what your queen has done? Invading armies are agreeing to divide only one-fourteenth of our treasure - and getting defensive about how they only intend to take what they need! The Men are squabbling among themselves, and Thranduil is so busy trying to seem more regal than Elrond that he's talking about how elves are above petty concerns about greed. And that's in less than an hour of actual talking!"

Weakly, Thorin said, "My queen?"

"It's… I've just been taking on the duties, while you've been recovering," Billa said hastily, not wanting to give Thorin a chance to remember the rage that had led him to shut her away in the women's quarters. "Now that you're awake, of course, I wouldn't presume…"

"You're the queen," Dori said firmly. "Nothing you do is presumptuous."

Irritably, Balin said, "The point is, she needs to stay at the negotiations."

"Of course, but shouldn't the King of Erebor attend the Accords of Erebor, now that he can?" Billa wrung her hands together, unbearably nervous at the way Thorin's heavy gaze never wavered from her. "Especially once the other hobbits arrive--"

"Your people are coming here?" Thorin struggled to sit up, Dwalin moving swiftly to support him. "How? The Misty Mountains…"

Blushing, Biulla murmured, "I made a treaty with the eagles. Well, with the thrushes, who then made arrangements with the eagles, and the ravens for the relay, and the Tooks are hiring rangers to serve as bodyguards. Um. In addition to an existing caravan that's been traveling the Great East Road, just through a different pass. It's hard to keep secrets from birds, especially if they know what to look for."

"I… I see," Thorin said, still sounding far too weak. "Just how long have I been unconscious?"

"Three weeks," Balin said.

Billa couldn't stop herself from murmuring, "And four days. Three weeks and four days since the battle."

His face drawn, Thorin looked at Kili as if to reassure himself that he was still there before he said, "Fili is with Dain?"

"He hasn't woken up," Kili said, his breath wheezing ever so slightly. "But he will, I can feel it. He's getting closer every day."

"Of course he will," Billa said firmly. "You Durins are too tough to be killed so easily. And I've been doing my best to show honor to your station."

Billa's nerves were overwhelming her, and she couldn't quite stop talking as she tried to say anything that might gain Thorin's approval. "We've held the proper rites for the people who were lost. I attended the funerals but made sure to stay out of the actual rituals so they wouldn't be profaned by non-dwarrows. Well, a non-dwarrow. I really did think it was important that the royal family be represented - the people need to see that you care, even if they had to settle for me in the meantime."

"No one would settle for you," Thorin said, his eyes still locked with hers. She had to look away, staring fixedly at the floor to try to control the urge to cry at the confirmation that Thorin could never consider her adequate, let alone worthy of being his wife in truth.

There was a sound of a sharp blow and then Thorin was saying, "Your superiority… Obviously you -- What I meant--"

"It's all right." Billa dredged up a smile. "I understand, it's all right. The important thing is that you're awake now, so Erebor will have its rightful King."

"Not before the end of the negotiations," Balin said firmly. "The best thing you can do for Erebror is lie there and try to stop being such a numpty."

Thorin struggled to throw the covers off, but was stopped short by the inability to fully raise his shield arm, and the obvious pain it caused him to try. Billa started forward and then stopped herself, her hands closing as she stepped backward. He didn't want her, and the faster she got used to the thought that he wasn't hers to care for, the better.

"I should… I should prepare for our-- for the guests." Billa straightened her back and stood as regally as she could, hoping her legs wouldn't collapse from under her. "It seems I still owe service to Erebor before this is all over."

She could feel Thorin's gaze on her, but she couldn't bring herself to meet it. She curtseyed instead, retreating out of the room only to stop with her back to the wall next to the door and gasp for breath. She could hear the sound of a brief scuffle and it pushed her into motion, away from every single confusing, infuriating dwarrow that she loved.


Gandalf caught up with her outside the kitchens, his eyes twinkling as he watched her listen to a cook detailing all his woes in trying to get decent help and how the elves were sending back all the meat like they were too good for his cooking. Billa spoke soothingly, agreeing with everything that she could and making gentle suggestions for everything else. Eventually he huffed that he wouldn't serve the elves any more meat unless they asked, and see how they liked it. Billa agreed gravely that he must judge what was best, and made her escape in the haze of his satisfaction at the compliment.

Before she could be waylaid again, Gandalf offered his arm to escort her and they walked in stately silence until they were well away from prying ears. Finally, once they were safely in a secluded alcove, Gandalf smiled broadly and pulled her into a hug. "My dear Billa! Your mother would be so proud - and your father, too, for bringing proper hobbit manners to the furthest corners of civilization."

"I'm not sure manners is the right term," Billa said wryly. "I've never met people so greedy, and that includes Fatty Higginbottom and his introduction of fourth breakfast."

"Ah, my dear Billa, dwarves are not heroes, but they did always intend to pay you," Gandalf said with a small chuckle. "They are calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money, but they're not all treacherous and bad lots. Some, like Thorin, can be decent enough people if you don't expect too much - and, perhaps, provide a good example."

The last was accompanied by a wink, which she thought was supposed to be a flattering implication of her own goodness. She was too frozen to respond, feeling desperately cold inside as she wondered what Gandalf's goal had been in helping Thorin in the first place, if his opinion was so low. The fact that he thought he was being liberal and open-minded just somehow made it worse. "Do you really think so?"

Putting his hands on her shoulders, Gandalf looked deep into her eyes and said, "It is the responsibility of all the races of good to aid and guide those for whom goodness is not a natural state. It is the only way that the peace and enlightenment of the west can spread and be be shared and enhanced."

"Enlightenment," she said through stiff lips. "Like the elves?"

"Yes, it's… Billa, what is wrong?" Gandalf frowned, putting a hand against her forehead. "You're white as a sheet."

"Just a slight shock," she said. "I'll be all right in just a moment."

Smiling again, he kissed her forehead and said, "With you as their conscience, the dwarves will not be able to help being good."

Her jaw tightened, and Billa said, "The dwarrows of Erebor will have no cause to feel bad while I have breath in my body. Now, I do beg your pardon, but I must prepare for the negotiations."

Sweeping him a deep curtsey, she stepped away from him with a tight smile and walked away as fast as she could without actually running. The dwarves were greedy? They weren't the ones going to someone else's homeland with armies in tow. Whatever goodness and enlightenment the elves might possess, an immunity to greed wasn't among their virtues - and no one seemed to expect it to be.

Well. There would certainly be some people reviewing their estimation of good conscience; she would make certain of it.

Chapter Text

"Gentlemen, I'm glad you were able to see the scope of the problem we're dealing with," Billa said as she sat down at the table again. This time, she left her embroidery on her chair and picked up her crown, placing it firmly on her head before sitting on the throne. "Erebor's wealth is literally unmeasured, and therefore our first step must be to determine the value of it."

"We will take ours in gold, mistress, and soon," Bard said, his eyes hard. "Dale must be rebuilt immediately, as we were the ones burned out by the dragon twice."

Coldly, Billa said, "If it is simply gold coins that you desire, then name your price so you can be paid and begone, as any beggar or tradesman might be. It will be up to you to explain to your people why you chose payment over justice - and took less than they were entitled to."

"You have no right--"

"I have every right," she snapped, slapping her hand on the table. "Unless your people can eat gold coins, I am the one who will be feeding your people, just like I am the one who will determine what to do with the lands you have given up so that you can be paid in gold - and never mind that your crops are dying even in the Laketown lands that the dragon never touched."

Through his teeth, Bard said, "It is for my people that I seek the means to buy food where we cannot grow it."

"Who will sell it to you, and at what price?" Billa sat back, folding her hands in front of her. "The dwarrows of Erebor were forced to wander, which means they are everywhere, and they will return the same generosity they received, when they were the ones in need."

Billa paused for a moment for that to sink in, letting each dignitary at the table ponder the prospect. Distantly, Billa whispered, "And you'll probably call them greedy for it, thinking yourselves just."

The silence stretched out longer, until Gandalf broke it by saying, "Perhaps you could tell us what you propose, my dear."

"I propose that we begin by counting what's there," Billa said. "An equitable division can only help us all, and prevent any nastiness in the future."

"And we are to take your charity in the meantime?" Bard was fuming as he spoke, his fists clenched tight. The Master, who until now had been sitting quietly and fingering a scepter from the Dale regalia, gave a brief whimper and tugged at Bard's sleeve. "No! We are not here for greed, and I will not allow--"

With a heavy sigh, Billa said, "Can we all agree that no one here is motivated by greed, only justice?" Even Bard couldn't quite stop himself from looking at the Master. "None of the Men, nor elves, nor dwarrows, nor hobbits, nor crows, eagles, thrushes… No one here represents a people who would want to be led by the greedy and ignoble."

Beorn laughed. "Little majesty, do all hobbits rule as you do?"

"Well, I am the Mediator for the Shire," she said, ignoring the choking noise from Thranduil. "It's hardly the first time I've had to find a way for all parties to get what they want, even if the first step is to work out what that actually is."

Shuffling through the scrolls in front of her, she handed one to Bard and said, "These are the maps drawn up according to the specifications given by War Song as to which lands they officially claim for their services to Erebor and Dale."

War Song chirped, which Coarc duly interpreted. "And by right of conquest and colonization."

With a cough, Billa said, "All of you will receive a copy, of course, and there will be appropriate compensation as necessary and negotiated."

"It seems everything will be negotiated and agreed upon." Elrond arched an eyebrow in amusement. "I begin to see what your mother meant when she told me about hobbits and their habit of talking."

"I suppose," Billa said. "Although we're also very good at counting, which is why the team of hobbits coming to restore the desolation to productive land will also supervise the counting and classification of all the treasure of Erebor. Nothing will be excluded without the approval of the accounters and at least two representatives of the people gathered here. That way we can all be sure of having our best interests looked after."

"Unless the hobbits decide they want everything." Billa couldn't quite tell who muttered it, but Elrond laughed.

Gandalf's beard twitched and he said, "You misunderstand hobbits if you believe that. A more stubborn race you will never meet, but they would happily give away all claim to a mountain of gems in favor of a good cup of tea and a cream cake."

"It would have to be a pretty good cake," Billa said. "Unless I was very hungry, or they weren't my gems. It would be improper to bargain with someone else's mathoms."

"Your mother called my crown a mathom," Elrond said. "And a few other things. The closest she came to translating it was 'treasures,' but that never seemed quite accurate."

Before Billa could tactfully confirm that, Gandalf shook his head and said, "The actual translation is 'useless dust catcher.' There's a hall of mathoms where things like that are thrown in case anyone wants to look at them, but hardly anyone does."

"The point is, hobbits have no interest in treasure and so can serve as neutral arbiters," Billa said. "Although, of course, most of the time their duties will be out in the fields."

"So the hobbits will rule us all?" Thranduil was sitting so stiffly that his back didn't touch his chair, his eyes boring into Billa's.

It was very hard not to roll her eyes. "Why on earth would we want to? The fact that any of them are even willing to leave the Shire in the first place took a great deal of persuasion, but we owe it to the Green Mother not to leave the land in the mess you big folk have made of it. As soon as the land is growing again, the hobbits are going home, so this nonsense about money will have to be sorted by then. I won't abide the foolishness of having to fight over gold again."

She only realized belatedly that she had been waving a scroll around like a sword, jabbing and gesturing with it towards the men around the table. She promptly let it fall, clearing her throat as she settled back in her seat. "So, yes, the point is, you'll be able to spend against your share as long as the records are kept clearly and honestly. It only makes sense that way."

"And who keeps the records?" Thranduil arched an eyebrow, and Billa thought meanspiritedly that it was a pale imitation of Elrond's habitual gesture. "Surely not the dwarves; everyone knows--"

"I'd advise you not to finish that sentence," Dain said, leaning forward. "Because one thing everyone knows is that you imprisoned the king and--"

"Now is not the time to talk of such things," Gandalf cut in hastily, leaning forward.

Billa flicked her eyes over him and couldn't help a slight sneer curling her lips. "By all means, let us move past the enslavement of my dwarrows for the crime of traveling. I'm sure the Elvenking had excellent reasons."

"I would never--"

Before Thranduil could fully express his rage, Elrond interrupted calmly. "I'm sure it was a misunderstanding. Hospitality to travelers is a sacred duty of the First Children. An elf would no more violate the rules of hospitality than… There's nothing to compare it with. It's unthinkable."

"Quite," Billa said, resolutely not looking at Thranduil or his frozen expression. "In any case, we are veering from the topic."

"That topic being giving away the wealth of the dwarrows to elves." Dain looked like a thundercloud, and Billa could feel the point where everything could go wrong coming to a head.

Sitting up straight, she tilted her chin upward so the light glinted off her crown. "Not one copper of what belongs to dwarrows is going to change hands. I will not allow anyone to impugn my husband's honor, nor his right to every pebble of Erebor."

Pulling out her contract, Billa waved it at Dain. "It is my wealth that is being given away, freely, and all that I ask is that you all show a tenth of the dignity and honor that Thorin showed when he had to lead his people away from their home, grieving and abandoned by every friend that he should have had, that his people should have had, when they were without a home and starving. He had an army - did he march on any of your homes? No, he did not - he went to Moria, to try to retake the first homeland his people had lost without anyone lifting a finger to help."

"In short, gentlemen, you are cordially invited to either take what I give you as a gesture of kindness and alliance, or you may leave our mountain and return to your homes, leaving us to ours."

"Madam, I--" The Master's eyes popped wide as she turned and gave him the same glare Lobelia's husband had gotten when he tried to slip one of Bungo's silver spoons up his sleeve.

"The proper form of address is 'your majesty.'" Gesturing to the guards, she said, "Content yourself with the diamonds you've had your people prying out of Smaug's carcass, and whatever Dale wishes to give you. There will be no trade or alliance between Erebor and Laketown, not while you are its ruler."

His stammers turned into a red-faced anger, but the instant that he took a step towards her, Genner and another guard stepped forward, axes at the ready and faces grim.

The Master protested in a brief squawk before the guards seized him by the elbow and took him away quickly. Billa waited until the door closed and gestured to the scribe that had been sitting so quietly in the corner she doubted anyone had noticed his presence. "Please make sure the official record shows that the Master of Laketown was escorted out peacefully after a disagreement. And let the accounters know to remove Laketown from the calculations - the one-fourteenth will now be divided… well, as we decide here."

"For my part, Imladris needs no gold," Elrond said. "But we will gladly exchange friendship with Erebor, along with her queen."

"The Iron Mountains will not take from Erebor what has just been regained," Dain said. "Our axes and our arms will always be ready to defend our cousins."

Smiling, Billa said, "Gentlemen, you are the epitome of grace and generosity, but I'm not sure why you would take from me the opportunity to reward my friends."

While Elrond made another pretty speech, to the accompaniment of ever more sour faces from Thranduil, Billa sorted through the scrolls in front of her and hoped no one would notice that she'd already had prepared the copies of the scroll she'd handed Bard earlier. A discreet gesture to a guard and they were distributed to all those seated at the table, with the copies for the birds unrolled and weighted down for ease of study.

"I believe we should all be able to agree on this as an appropriate place for the placement of the new Dale, along with the ravens' sheep pastures and the Grand Matriarchal Empire of the Mighty Thrush Warriors."

More than one of the assembled blinked hard at that, and there were several stifled smiles. Coarc rustled his feathers and said, "On behalf of her serene highness, the empress War Song, I would like to remind those assembled that they have not personally pecked a dragon in the eyeball, and so any groundlings that have something to say about who is and isn't a warrior entitled to own and name their own things can shut his bloody cakehole. Lit'rally, if necessary."

"No one was suggesting that any of you were less than honorable," Thranduil said, his voice carefully neutral.

"Honor is as honor does," Billa said. "Coming to the aid of the people of Laketown and throwing everything you had into the fight against the orcs, even to working in the healing tents yourself, is more than honorable enough for anybody. I think the true spirit of the Greenwood was on display then, no matter what preceded it."

Billa continued, not giving anyone else a chance to speak. "It grieves me sorely that I have no easy solutions to offer in the fight against the poison creeping over your lands. At least the devastation caused by Smaug was natural enough to be remedied by natural means. How you have borne up so long under such a relentless, unnatural attack on your lands… It speaks to an unparalleled strength."

"Attack?" Balin's face had grown steadily redder as she spoke, and he burst into speech as soon as she had stopped. "Mirkwood hasn't been attacked, they deserted us, left us to die--"

Holding up a hand to stave off the rest of Balin's tirade, Billa said, "Of all people, our company knows firsthand the horror those woods offer now, but the records show it wasn't always so. In fact, the change started quite abruptly before spreading gradually. Anything like that is either an attack or a cataclysm."

Shrugging slightly, as if it would remove the weight of multiple stares from her shoulders, she said, "One of the Mirkwood scribes actually has an excellent chart, showing the spread pattern. I asked if he'd be willing to work for me, but he's far too loyal. It's a shame; tracking down where a disease starts is an absolute necessity for the mountain herds."

"Oy, write down that we want him as a gift," Coarc said. "No use eating sick sheep."

"People aren't property," Billa said patiently, having tried to explain the concept before. "You'll pay the shepherds from your share of the gold."

Grumbling, Coarc said, "Show them shiny coins and groundlings will do anything, but what happens if they smarten up and decide they want the sheep instead, or those big bastards with the horns and the ring in the nose? Groundlings are awfully quick to pick up stones and arrows."

"No one in Erebor will, or on your land," Billa said, again with the patience of an argument that had been repeated indefinitely. "And if they do, they'll be punished just as they would be if they attacked a dwarf or a Man."

The king of eagles, who had been surveying the proceedings in regal silence, grumbled and said, "Are our small cousins the only ones to get this privilege?"

"Of course not," Billa said. "All of our allies are equal, whether they have feathers or not."

"Now, that's as may be," Bard said. "And if you want to give animals and blighted lands to these birds you're welcome to, with my compliments, but if the eagles come to steal our animals, we're entitled to defend ourselves, same as we would shoot at any rustler."

"Would any rustler offer payment?" Billa turned to the eagle and said, "Would you trade gold for food?"

The eagle gave a stately nod. "Provided we are not harmed. If attacked, we will respond."

Nodding, Billa said, "Of course, no one would expect otherwise. Before we leave, we'll settle the issue of fair prices and how to deliver payment, but the fundamental agreement stands - we are all allies and trading partners."

The nods from around the table were grudging, but they existed and that was enough to start with. Discreetly allowing herself a relieved breath, Billa said, "Well, gentlemen, I think this has been a productive first day. We've agreed to cement our alliances, uphold the rights of the owners to keep and work their own lands, and that we will all supervise each other's claims to make sure no one takes more than what is fair. Everyone here has honorable intentions, and we all are working to do what is best for our people. That's more than many conferences in history have accomplished in weeks - I think, gentlemen, that you are to be congratulated."

Billa stood, careful to keep her crown balanced and her back straight. "I must go and check on my husband, but I hope you will continue to enjoy our hospitality. If I do not see you at dinner this evening, I look forward to meeting you again in the morning. Good evening."

With that, Billa gave those assembled a deep curtsey and made her way out of the room as fast as she could without being so crass as to hurry. They needed time to ponder everything that had happened and, like all males ever born, find a way to make it all their own idea.

Chapter Text

Billa had never been so frustrated in her life, and that was saying a lot considering she had been close personal friends with Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, nee Bracegirdle, for more years than she cared to remember. The conference had dragged on for a fortnight, meeting for hour upon endless hour on a daily basis, but there was precious little progress since every detail had to be talked to death before they'd agree to even pass the sugar. Billa mostly just left them to it, working on her embroidery and sharing Beorn's popcorn when she got peckish. They only needed the occasional reminder to mind their manners, whether it was her murmur of "we're all friends here, gentlemen," or a rumbling growl from Beorn about what language should be used in the presence of a lady. She didn't think any of them even noticed that she was the one providing scrolls with numbers and calculations that supported the arguments she favored, but that was as it should be.

The only one she thought might suspect was Dain, who watched her constantly. It would have been unnerving to be watched so closely under any circumstances, but the fact that she still wasn't sure if he was the one behind the attempts to kill her made it infinitely worse. All she wanted in the world was to talk to Thorin about it, but she had barely seen him, and when she had it had been a trial to endure how formal and stiff he was. She hadn't dared broach any subject that was even vaguely personal, especially because he was so obviously tired that she didn't want to burden him having to deal with her feelings and her urge to beg him not to send her away.

She was thinking through the entire mess of her so-called marriage - again - when she accidentally stabbed herself with her needle, crying out as a drop of blood welled through the cloth. It seemed suddenly past all bearing, and tears welled in her eyes as she stared at the ruined pattern.

All conversation stopped and the men looked at her with expressions of shock and horror. Billa sniffled, discreetly wiping her eyes with a corner of the cloth as she stumbled to her feet. "I… I'm sorry, gentlemen, it's just… It's just so hard, listening to you argue when I just want you to get along."

With a brief curtsey, she fled the room as if wargs were after her, running from the argument that had started over who had been the one to make her cry. One more moment of playing peacemaker and she would prove herself to be more childish than the lot of them by throwing herself to the ground and having a full-on screaming tantrum.

She was halfway to her room before she stopped in her tracks. Why? Why should she hide away, waiting and hoping that Thorin might come to see her and say something, anything, about what she'd done and was still doing? Even yelling at her would be welcome, because at least she could yell back, and fire in his eyes would be better than the cold formality he'd maintained the few times he couldn't succeed in avoiding her.

Enough was enough. Marching down to the kitchen, she shoved the doors open only to pause when all the workers stopped to stare at her. With a small smile and wave, she sidled over to Bombur and picked up a knife to start chopping vegetables. It was a familiar enough sight that work went back to normal, although enough people were still looking that Billa made sure she continued smiling as she said lowly, "He wouldn't take food from anyone else, even if you were inclined to let him. You're going to tell me where he is."

Bombur had a moment of very obviously wanting to pretend ignorance, but something in her smile or the way she was holding the knife made him gulp and say, "I can't. He ordered us, he's the king."

And a queen who wasn't wanted didn't mean much against that. Billa understood it, even if it hurt. "You're going to tell me anyway."

Refusing to look at her, Bombur repeated plaintively, "I can't!"

"You will," Billa said, slamming the knife down on the onion she was chopping so hard that half of it flew across the room. "Or, so help me, I'll pluck out your beard one hair at a time, curdle your milk, and tell Dori you made me cry."

Tears really were gathering on her eyelashes, and Bombur said hurriedly, "Look, I can't. I can't tell you that the passage behind the left gate is blocked off for a reason, or that there's no one allowed back there, not even us. Just, whatever you do, put that knife down and stop crying before someone thinks I've done something."

Letting the knife fall to the cutting board, Billa impulsively threw her arms around Bombur and hugged him before stepping back. "I won't thank you, since you told me nothing."

With a firm nod, Bombur said, "Don't you forget it. Now get out of here so we can get on with the cooking."

"Yes, of course," she said, scurrying away so she could get to the gates without anyone dragging her back to the talks. She spotted Balin and ducked behind a pillar, taking more care not to be seen as she crept through Erebor, getting closer and closer to the gates.

She was almost there when a hand closed around her hair and dragged her backwards into the darkness.

The scream was instinctive, as was biting down on the hand that got clapped over her mouth. She thought she tasted blood as she struggled, and definitely saw stars when her assailant used his hold on her hair to bang her head against the wall. "Gutter filth, prancing around like an elf whore - you should've learned to mind your betters."

"If I had any--" Her assailant pushed her against the wall again, cutting off her breath and her reply, and she fumbled to try to reach her sword.

"Thorin will kill you," she spat out, getting her hand free and raking her nails across his face.

Blood poured down his cheeks as he closed a hand around her throat. "Thorin and his brats will die soon after you."

The threat to the Durins made her fight harder, kicking at him and tearing her skirt as she got a hold of her sword only to have him crush her hand over it before throwing her to the ground. His boots were heavy and thick, reinforced with good dwarrow steels and studded with rubies.

Curling up and scrambling away from the kicks he aimed at her, she tried to think of a way out. Her only hope was to distract him long enough to get to the sword he'd thrown across the room or the door behind him. "Does Dain know? That's the one thing I couldn't work out - were you breaking the most sacred dwarf law on your own, or by his orders?"

He landed a kick against her ribs, but the mithril shirt she wore under her dress absorbed the brunt of the damage. Rolling away from the blows, Billa gasped, "Are those my rubies you're wearing?"

"Filthy, lazy--" Segun was panting as he chased her around, trying to stomp on her as she rolled on the ground. "They're mine, they're ours, we deserve them."

She finally got her hands on her sword and scrambled to her feet, backing away as she tried to hold it steady. "The Iron Mountains don't have gold or gems, and dwarves aren't much for farming, are they?"

Segun loomed over her, blood still oozing from the scratches on his face. "You should be dead."

Backing further towards the door, Billa said tartly, "You should be ashamed."

With a roar, Segun dove for her, tackling her to the ground. His hands clamped around her throat and he knocked her head against the stone of the floor, making the room spin around her. Her lungs burned from the weight of his armored body pinning her down, compressing her chest so she could feel her ribs creaking. There was no way for her to fight; she closed her eyes and waited to die.

The shock of being able to take a breath was so great that she couldn't think or speak, just lay still and take great heaving lungfuls of air. A hand closed on her shoulder and it galvanized her into skittering away, looking around desperately for a way out before she realized Segun was on the ground, not moving, and Dain was holding his hands up to show he wouldn't touch her again.

It wasn't enough to let her trust him, but then he held out her sword to her and it helped to have it in her hand, even if she had to use her other hand to hold on to the wall for balance. "Did you know? Are you part of this?"

"Women are to be protected," Dain said, his hands still up as he stayed a respectful distance away. "I don't understand why Segun would attack you - I only found you because I had some questions about your bringing in food for Dale."

"Why didn't your dwarves bring food? That's the main thing I haven't worked out." Billa swayed and had to let the point of her sword sag until it touched the ground. "None of us cared very much about the dwarves that were mining without asking anyone since they didn't really bother the sheep, but they bought their food same as anyone. Why didn't they send more back?"

Segun groaned, turning over only to fall down again. Dain stepped between them, a hand resting on the warhammer hanging from his belt. "My lady, I have no idea what you just said. My dwarrows go out regularly to buy what we can, even if there have been some lean years in recent times."

"Especially with all the refugees from Erebor that you took in," she said. "The rubies should have paid for a lot, though - just look at his boots!"

Looking between Billa and the boots, Dain said slowly, "Segun's family found a productive seam on their land."

"Not unless he's a long-lost Baggins," she said. "There've been dwarves mining in our pastureland on the edge of the Blue Mountains for over a year now, and they've been bringing rubies and small food shipments back through a hidden pass in the mountains."

Dain's face had been getting stiffer as she talked, until she stopped for breath and he seized Segun by the hair, pulling him up to meet his eyes. "Do not bother to lie, you poisonous-- Why? Why didn't you feed our people?"

"You would have found out." Segun was hanging limply from Dain's grasp, not even moving to protest when Dain spit in his face. "I brought in what I could, but you're so honorable... You would have told us to stop."

They stared at each other, long enough for Billa to wonder uncomfortably just how closely Segun had been advising Dain, and why she'd never heard a word of gossip about it. Finally, Dain dropped Segun to the ground and said in a shaky voice, "You... You and those who helped you, those who knew... You will go to Moria."

Segun made a noise of protest, reaching towards Dain, but he stepped back and shook his head. "The honorable thing, isn't that what you called it when you suggested it for those too loyal to Thorin to accept me if he died? A way to send away the traitors in our midst while leaving their families their dignity."

"You can't," Segun wailed, reaching for him. "It was all for you, I've done everything for you, don't send me away!"

"You can accept your sentence or we can have a trial," Dain said, his face a mask of pain. "I cannot... You are dead to me."

Segun shrank in on himself and Billa looked away, feeling an unwanted rush of pity. Her chest and throat felt sore, and all her earlier anger and determination had faded away. Quietly, she moved to the door and would have slipped away if Dain hadn't held a hand out to her and said, "Please, wait. I will call guards to come deal with... with this trash."

It didn't take long for the guards to arrive, looking between them before pulling Segun's unresisting form away. Dain slumped down after they'd gone, his stony countenance melting away to leave only a tired sadness. She thought again about slipping away, but the motion made Dain's head snap up and he wiped a hand over his eyes before saying, "I am ashamed."

"You saved my life," Billa said, patting her pockets to find a handkerchief. "And you didn't know what he'd done, you couldn't have."

Shaking his head, Dain said, "I should have, but I didn't ask. I didn't want to ask."

"I haven't the faintest interest in mining," Billa said. "I would have discreetly handed over the title, only..." She trailed off, not sure how to say diplomatically that she'd been waiting to find out for certain who had been involved in trying to kill her.

"What kind of creature are you, to regret not being able to give away a fortune that was being stolen from you?"

With a shrug, Billa said, "I'm a hobbit."

"Are hobbits immune, then, to poverty and greed?"

"No, of course not, no one is," she said. "There'll always be people who want more than their neighbor just so long as there are people, but we're very lucky that the Shire provides food and comfort in abundance, and those are the things we want the most."

Dain looked a bit steadier now, gazing at her unwaveringly before finally bowing his head. "We should be better, I think, if we learned from you. Please excuse me, your majesty - there is much to be done and I must... I must deal with Segun's betrayal of our people."

"Surely..." She trailed off into silence and he tried his best to give her a smile before turning to leave. She stood alone, waving off the guard that would have stayed to escort her and just leaning against the wall as she tried to make sense of the world again. She was tired, so tired, and she couldn't stand the thought of one more person calling her by a title that she had no real right to. It all had to end, because the thought of being trapped under all the gold and grandeur of Erebor's throne, always next to Thorin but never truly close to him...

She couldn't live like that. She just couldn't.

Chapter Text

The thought of just leaving was so tempting that it was almost beyond her ability to resist. She could go to her room, fetch her traveling bag and use the ring to hide away until she'd gotten well out of Erebor. Coarc could make sure Balin found the last of the scrolls with her plans on them, and she could cross the mountain with the caravan when it returned. She could probably even talk Gandalf or Elrond into accompanying her all the way to the Shire.

After all that he'd lost, though, and with how seriously Thorin took his responsibility to protect everyone around him, she couldn't just disappear. She owed it to him to take herself off his hands properly, to assure him that he owed her nothing.

She walked more slowly this time as she set off to find him, keeping a hand on her sword and another on the wall as she made her way to where Bombur had said Thorin would be. No one stopped her, not even the guard that had been posted in the corridor, and she made her way down through the last tunnel to the sound of hammering. It wasn't until she was close enough to start seeing light that she heard the cursing.

It was unmistakably Thorin, and she rushed forward with her mind full of images of him being attacked while he was all alone, no one to turn to as he was set upon. Biting back a cry so she wouldn't give any warning, she pulled out her sword and plunged forward into a sunlit room that turned out to completely lack any enemies whatsoever. Instead there was Thorin, looking at her in utter, stunned confusion.

"You shouldn't be here." He scowled, looking grim and forbidding, but the effect was almost completely undone by the wood shavings floating through the air and peppering his hair and beard.

"I'll go," she said, backing away. "I'm sorry, I--"

He took two quick steps forward, reaching for her. "You've been hurt! Who did this? Have you sent for Oin?"

"No, I…" She had to look away from the intensity of his eyes, and it meant she finally took in the fact that there was sunlight, inside Erebor, and it came from two round windows next to a large round door. "It's… It's just like Bag End's."

Looking around, she could see the ceiling had been carved to mimic the wooden beams of her home, and there were wood panels stacked haphazardly near a leaning pile of wood that appeared to have coat pegs on it, near where her own entry at home had a bench to sit on and clean your feet after you'd removed your coat. "You… Why are you doing this?"

"You miss your home," he said. "And sunlight. And…" He looked down, his shoulders slumping. "It was supposed to be finished when you saw it."

"I don't…" She swallowed hard, looking around again before meeting his eyes. "I don't understand."

He ran a hand through his hair, dislodging wood shavings and drawing attention to his forearms, bared by his rolled-up sleeves. Billa flushed and averted her eyes, but found she couldn't quite keep her eyes away from him. Even the bandages and scars on his shield arm didn't make him any less attractive; to the contrary, they emphasized just how strong he was, and that he would use that strength to protect her.

Billa had been so lost in her contemplation of him, and efforts to stop it, that it was a surprise when he spoke. "I've done so much wrong, but I wanted to show you, to have you see… It's not good enough, I haven't had enough time and working in wood is not natural to me."

"What is it you wanted me to see?" She looked around, trying not to get her hopes up. "Would these be like the women's quarters?"

"They would be your quarters, for you to invite anyone in that you choose to, and…" He paused, looking away and blowing out a breath before continuing. "For you to leave at any time that you choose. There will be no possibility of ever being locked in, even when I would have you safely away from danger."

Softly, she said, "You heard me. While you were unconscious."

"It was like I was trapped in my own body," he said. "I couldn't respond or even see, just listen. You were in danger and I couldn't protect you, and I couldn't even begin to apologize for the mistakes I've made."

Hesitantly, she said, "So you know…"

"How much you long for home," he said. "How frightened you are that I might imprison you in a sunless world. How determined you are to do the right thing for my people before you leave us. Before you leave me."

Billa took half a step forward, wanting to wipe the sorrow from his face, but was stopped in her tracks by the blazing fire in his eyes as he looked at her. "I don't know any pretty words to give you, no delicate ways to tempt you to return my feelings, but I love you and I can't… Erebor will not be a home if you are not here."

"Thorin." Her voice cracked and her eyes were heavy with tears as she reached for him. "You don't have to tempt me, your words… I love you, I've loved you for so long, and I've worked so hard to be the queen you deserve, but--"

He took her hand and brought it to his lips, kissing her knuckles and then her palm with a fervor that was almost worshipful. "You are so much more than what I deserve, I am afraid to ask you to settle for such a broken wretch of a dwarf."

"You're settling for a bossy old maid that no one ever wanted," she said wryly, stroking her fingers softly over his bearded cheek. "We sound so much grander when we use our titles."

"Honor and majesty," he said, a smile starting to curl his lips. "But can you truly be happy here?"

Feeling greatly daring, she stood on her tiptoes to brush a kiss over his lips. "As long as I have you, I will always find my happiness."

"I will never imprison you, and I will always strive to give you what you need," he said solemnly, leaning down to rest his forehead against hers. "But if you leave, I cannot promise that I will not follow."

"Promise me you will," Billa said with a laugh as she wound her arms around his neck. "And I will promise that if I think of leaving, I will come and find you again."

He kissed her then, or she kissed him, his hand cradling her cheek as she pressed her whole body against his. It was everything she could have dreamed of, every romantic ending to a fairy tale that she had ever sighed over, but it was happening to her and it was real, with soft sighs and twinges from her bruising ribs and small gasps for air. It was when they both pulled back for a breath at the same time that a giggle escaped her and then he was smiling and they were kissing between laughter, which was somehow even more perfect despite never having featured in any of her stories.

It wasn't until he started kissing her neck that he stopped, making her whimper despite the indignity of making such a noise. "No, please, don't stop, please."

"You were hurt," he said, gently shifting her hair aside. "There are bruises - Billa, who did this? Where was Balin?"

"I'm a burglar," she said. "I gave him the slip."

Tracing a finger lightly over her throat, he said, "You will give me more gray hairs than even Kili. I know you're safe with me now, but seeing these marks on your skin frightens me more than any orc ever could."

"It's over now," she said, grateful that he couldn't see the rest of the bruises that were hidden by her clothes. "I think Dain is hurting a lot worse. I've had worse bruises from falling off those dratted ponies, but I've never been as betrayed by someone so close to me."

Thorin fell silent, still cupping her face in his hands. "Have you not? I did not think you would forgive me - I didn't dare to hope for it."

Gesturing around them, she said, "You were making a home for me."

"I still am," he said. "A proper courting gift, as you should have. It served your father well, and I intend to follow his example."

"Then you should hire workmen to do the majority of the actual work," Billa said with a grin. "Father was many things, but a master carpenter was not among them, and he was absolutely hopeless with the plumbing. He made the plans and paid and decorated. He was quite skilled with a needle - all the chair covers were his work."

He froze for a moment and Billa fought hard to hold back her laugh. "It's very nice. The arches are beautiful."

"I wasn't sure if I had them right," Thorin said. "You will have to stay and make sure that your home is as comfortable as you might wish it, should you accept it."

"As long as you're there, it will be perfect." She might have said more but he kissed her again and she found that she was quite speechless as she sank her hands into his hair and kissed back.

Chapter Text

Waking up by degrees, Billa groaned at the soreness of what felt like every muscle in her body, including several she'd not previously been aware of having. She was mostly lying on Thorin, her skirt pulled over them as a makeshift blanket, and she was fairly certain that there was a hair bead pressing into her knee where it rested on the floor. "I'm sure there was supposed to be a bed involved in being taken to the marriage bed."

"You're the one who informed me I wasn't allowed to stop." Thorin's voice was a low rumble in her ear, and she shivered. "I seem to recall some threats being made."

"It's ungentlemanly of you to remind me of that," she said, poking at his shoulder since it was the closest thing available. "In fact, I'm certain it's not gentlemanly to even remember it."

Grunting, he smoothed a hand over her hair. "Your husband is not a gentleman, as I will treasure the memory until I am taken to Mahal's halls, and it will comfort me through the long sleep after."

Billa was torn between melting into the ground or tackling him for more kisses. The latter would have won, but when she tried to move, all of her bruises woke and she grunted from the pain. "Truly, I'm afraid I must insist. I'm much too soft for this hard, stone floor."

Biting off what she was fairly sure would have been a curse, Thorin scrambled to sit up, cradling her in his arms. "I should not have-- you needed care, not--"

"You gave me exactly the sort of care I wanted," she said, running her hand over his chest in much the same way she'd done when distracting him from her bruises after he'd taken off her mithril shirt. "Never doubt that."

"You are distracting me deliberately," he said, his touch on her sides feather-light. "This was a serious attack, to have left such marks, even through your armor."

"Thank heaven Dori's such a fusspot about my always wearing it," Billa said. "And that my husband presented it to me in the first place, since that's part of how they got me declared queen. Balin and Dori concocted a story about a ceremony--"

"It was no story," Thorin said. "My family and council accepted you as their queen, as did I. The blasted raven just interrupted before you could formally accept or reject my offer of courtship."

With a soft gasp, Billa said, "You... I thought... I'm a hobbit. I'm not a dwarf, I never can be. No one would choose someone like me to be royalty-- I'm not suited for airs and graces."

"You are the only person I could ever choose to share my life and heart," he said, stroking a hand over her hair. "I am sorry that they must come with a crown. I would spare you the weight of it, if I could."

"Yes, well, if you were a fishmonger, I would learn to live with the smell," she said, "And if you were just a smith, I'd need to learn how to work the bellows and repair leather aprons. As it is, I can at least use my existing skill at gossip for something useful."

Smiling at her fondly, he said, "Is it gossip you would call it? Balin's reports have said more along the lines of negotiation that could wring blood from stones and have them apologizing that they couldn't give more. Ruthless, he called you, and so cunning that no one notices until they're counting their fingers afterward and wondering how many they had to start with."

Gasping, Billa said, "But-- I never, I'm not... I thought Balin liked me."

"He would walk through fire for you," Thorin said, so obviously smothering a laugh that she felt hitting his shoulder was the only proper response. "Your tendency to violence is one of the reasons, yes."

"Why would he say such horrible--"

Lifting her hand to his lips, he said, "He could not have paid you any higher compliment. The ability to bargain well is highly prized among our people; it has been the difference in the past between feeding our children and watching them starve."

Billa felt heartily ashamed on behalf of her people, and of herself for never noticing that there was such suffering among a people that she had always dismissed as distant and conforming to what was said about them. "The few dwarves that ever came near the Shire were always so proud and unpleasant. Hilda Flaxenstile was reduced to tears when a group with children insisted on paying to pick up her windfalls as they passed through instead of bargaining her down from the first price she quoted. After that, I made sure everyone knew to quote the price they wanted, but I never thought to make sure they had enough."

"They would have refused any charity," Thorin said. "But as queen of Erebor, you may order every dwarrow to be fed as you please."

"Cream tarts for everyone." Billa, sitting up straighter, smiled down on him. "I'm going to end up changing things. I can't help it; I'm not a dwarf, and I can't act like one."

Smoothing her hair back, he smiled at her tenderly. "I did not fall in love with a dwarf, not in all my years of life. If you are never anyone but yourself, I will be content as I never expected to be."

"Good, because I really don't think any of the ladies are planning to give up their dresses." Billa grinned impishly, leaning down to kiss him quickly. "I think some of the ladies might be men, but there seems no delicate way of asking."

"It would be less rude to actually lift their skirts," Thorin said. "And even that would be enough for a lifetime of banishment. A dwarf is a dwarf; it is no one's business what is under a dwarf's clothes."

Feeling greatly daring, she ran a hand over his chest and stomach. "I feel like this might be my business. Just mine, mind you."

He pulled her into a hungry kiss, leaving her breathless and clinging to him. She was just starting to work out whether it was possible to indulge in marital intimacy without being intimate with the floor when his touch gentled and his kisses turned soothing. "I forgot myself."

"If you apologize, I promise I will hurt you." Billa shifted in his lap, trying to settle on a position that didn't make her ribs feel like they were on fire while at the same time not drawing attention to her pain.

She failed at the latter, and he scowled. "Dain was supposed to protect you."

"He did. He's the one that stopped Segun." She felt as if she'd said it a thousand times, and hitting her forehead against his shoulder seemed appropriate. Under her breath, she muttered, "Not that either of you cared to inform or even look at me."

"I looked at nothing else." Tilting her chin up, he said, "You were so distant, so formal--"

"I was distant?" Billa cried out. "You were so cold, I thought you were only tolerating my presence. I was bracing myself for having to leave rather than have to live with forcing you to keep me at your side."

With a small smile, he said, "You were foolish. A hint of warmth from you and I would have found the courage to beg you to stay."

She wanted to kiss him again, but managed to restrain herself. "Even though Dain disapproved?"

"He didn't disapprove," Thorin said, then backed down when she gave him a withering look. "Dain was worried that Balin was using you to plot something that might not benefit me, and then that you might be more loyal to your people than to me. I would have had the same concerns if it was his mountain."

"Never trust anyone without a beard, is that it?" Billa grumbled and poked him in the side when he laughed. "Who was with you all along, I ask you? It's a bit late to suddenly be concerned after the dragon is dead."

"He would have come if he could have," Thorin said. "If it had just been his decision, he would have been at my side as Fili and Kili always support the other."

With a huff, Billa said, "I hope you don't think I'm going to let myself be ruled by advisors or anyone that would keep me from your side if you're throwing yourself into danger. Dain may let himself be overruled by whoever he likes, but I'm the only one in charge of me."

"I cannot promise that I will ever be happy at the thought of you facing danger." Thorin's voice was a deep rumble as he caught and held her eyes with his. "I cannot even promise to always be reasonable or kind. I can only promise you that I will always try, and that you will always be the only treasure I truly need."

Smiling, she said, "I can live with that, just as long as you understand that I will do exactly as I please after I've listened to your concerns."

"I would expect nothing else," he said, smiling fondly. "You have never shown any talent for following orders."

Before she could decide if she was complimented or insulted, there was a tentative knock from the passageway. "Billa?"

Groaning at the sound of Dori's voice, she knocked her forehead against Thorin's shoulder. "Can't we just tell them all to go away?"

"At once," Thorin said, opening his mouth as if to shout only to have Billa slap her hand over it. Slightly muffled, he said, "I would have paid them and bid them gone weeks ago."

"That is because, my darling, you have no vision." Tapping his cheek, she said, "But it's good to know you won't cast me out for giving them money at all."

His eyes went soft again as he said, "I would follow you."

A voice from the doorway snapped, "Very touching, but not the point." Billa dragged her eyes away from Thorin to see Balin brought up short by Dori grabbing the back of his robes and pulling him back, only for Balin to feint right and then go left to get around him. "Would you stop fussing, you old windbag? No one cares about their tonkers, I need to tell the lass what happened after she left!"

"She ain't got a tonker, y' mardy can o' mabs!" This time Dori didn't let go after he pulled Balin back, leaving the other dwarf to struggle as his robes got pulled tight against his throat. Billa could see the muscles in Dori's forearm flexing as Balin's struggles pushed his sleeve up, but did nothing to actually break his hold.

After opening the door with his free hand, Dori somehow twisted his grip to send Balin sailing down the corridor. Dori turned back with an ingratiating smile, smoothing a loose strand of hair back. "Excuse me, your majesties."

He slammed the door behind him, and shortly they could hear shouting and curses coming from behind the door. "Oh dear," Billa said. "I'm absolutely certain that is not a nice word."

"No," Thorin said, standing up and helping her gently to her feet. "The bathing chamber isn't finished, but it will be better than anything we had on the road."

Trying not to wince, both at the increased shouting outside and the protests of her muscles, Billa said, "We should hurry. I don't want Balin to get hurt."

"He's a warrior," Thorin said with amusement, handing her a towel from a small stack and fiddling with a pipe to pour hot water into a basin.

"Who was just bowled out of the room like he was the ball in a game of ninepins," Billa said as she used the damp cloth to clean herself. Thorin stopped to look at her and she blushed, all thoughts going out of her head except for the things they had done together the night before.

Breathlessly, Billa whispered, "Stop that."

His eyebrows raised in question as he stepped towards her, burning intensity radiating from him. "Stop… Stop looking as if you intend to… to devour me."

"But I do intend that," he said, getting closer.

"We have to get dressed," she said weakly, trying to cover herself with a towel that was much too small for the job. "Really, we can't make all those kings wait around just because…"

Tugging at her towel, Thorin said, "Because your husband desires you?"

"Well, yes," she said, leaning her head to one side as he bent to kiss his way down her neck. "Oh, sweet mercy, you're… you're impossible."

"Do you want to stop?" His breath against her skin was the most sensual thing imaginable, the soft prickle of his beard making her tighten deliciously.

With a soft moan, she said, "No, but we must."

For all that it had been her idea, she felt bereft when he stepped away. "As my queen wishes. But tonight…"

"Oh, yes," she said, then blushed anew at her own eagerness. "Just as soon as we are done with the negotiations."


Walking into the council chamber with all eyes on her was almost as nerve-wracking as entering the mountain to face the dragon, with the added indignity of Gandalf's eyes twinkling in a most distressing way. "Gentlemen, I apologize for the unseemly way I took my leave yesterday. I should not have let my distress at the strife overcome me like that."

"Perfectly understandable," Dain said, glaring around the table as if daring anyone to disagree.

Beorn looked as if he were about to make a jest, but after looking at Billa's face seemed to decide otherwise. "I think your fun is drawing to a close, little majesty. The kings agreed to a plan while you were absent."

"Splendid!" She hadn't been able to get a clear answer from Balin as to what had gone on in the time that she'd had between dressing and arriving at the table, but she'd gotten the impression he was equal parts ecstatic and terrified. That would have helped more if it hadn't been his general state of mind throughout. "I'll do my best to understand it."

"The elves will provide a special wire thread, which will be included in the weaving of a sort of cloth paper," Elrond said. "It will then be written on with a special ink provided by the Men, so that it cannot be duplicated by anyone without the resources of this council."

Billa's brow wrinkled with genuine confusion. "Forgive me, gentlemen, it sounds more like my embroidery than a solution for the concerns we've discussed."

"That way no one can cheat and claim they've been issued more chits than they have," Bard said. "But it's easier to tally than gold pieces, since we each use a different standard weight."

"Aye, and varying levels of purity," said Dain, his disdain clear in every syllable. "There's no sense demanding good coin for goods and then spending dross."

Trying to keep her face from giving away her dawning delight, she said, "Of course, but they'd be equal to a certain amount of gold, wouldn't they? From the treasure that you're all splitting?"

"They've voted you a share as well," Coarc said. "So's you've got an independence from your husband if you need it."

Blushing, Billa said, "That's very kind, but I don't think that will be an issue."

"You must not prevent us from rewarding our friend," Thranduil said gravely. "It wasn't the queen of Erebor soothing my ailing kinsmen, but a simple hobbit."

"Gentlemen, this is…" She raised her hands to her flaming cheeks. "I'm speechless."

She chose to ignore the mutter of 'first time for everything,' especially since she couldn't tell exactly who said it. It shortly became obvious when War Song pecked Balin's hand before bursting into song. The King of Eagles gave a huff which she thought was a laugh, and Coarc's grandfather fluttered his wings and said, "Really! Why, I've never heard such language!"

Once she'd finished and fluttered back to her perch, Coarc cleared his throat and said, "Did you want that word for word? Because I don't know if groundlings even have some of those words."

"Perhaps just the gist of it," Balin said, dabbing at the blood on his hand with a napkin.

"Basically, anyone from outside that fights any of you will have her to contend with, but anyone at this table that fights against the hobbit will have their eyes pecked out by her imperial majesty personally."

From the doorway, Thorin said, "Erebor welcomes the alliance and will follow a similar policy."

"Thorin Oakenshield! So good to see you up and about!" Gandalf stood, sketching a half-bow before clapping him on the shoulder. "Your queen has been doing much in your absence."

"My queen has my full trust," Thorin said, somehow managing to look down his nose at Gandalf despite the height difference. "As can be expected."

Patting him on the shoulder again, Gandalf cleared his throat and said, "Quite right, my boy, quite right."

Billa couldn't help smiling at how regal Thorin looked, his dark blue robes and perfectly groomed hair and beard making him look so majestic that it would have terrified her if she couldn't see the answering spark in his eye as he reached for her hand and kissed it before taking a seat on his throne. "My apologies for the delay in joining you. I hope you have all been afforded all due hospitality."

"Quite." Thranduil's voice could not have been colder if there had been ice coming from his mouth, and Billa could see all her work going up in flames.

Without losing her smile, she stepped quite heavily on Thorin's foot. "I appreciate your faith in me, dearest."

"Shall we get on with the signatures?" Balin gestured towards the parchments laid out in front of each of them. "If no one has any further objections?"

If anyone did, they didn't say so, and each copy was signed by all attending with the help of attendants who passed them from person to person. It was only after the last one was signed that Thorin spoke again, and to her vast surprise it was to Thranduil and Elrond. "I would ask a favor of the elves, apart from the agreements."

Elrond inclined his head slightly, and Thorin continued haltingly. "My nephew… my heir. He has not woken and there is much told of elven healing. We would… I would pay in whatever coin was needed to see him well again."

"Let us not speak of payment," Thranduil said, his eyes softening for the first time since Thorin had entered the room. "Your healers helped my people during battle, with no thought of reward. Your own people can be no less dear to our healers."

Billa could have burst into song, although for considerably less bloodthirsty reasons than War Song. This went well beyond everything she could have hoped for, especially when Elrond also volunteered to help. She debated following them to keep the peace, but she had to trust them out of her sight at some point, and she needed to bid the others goodbye before they returned to their homes, armies and agreements in tow.

Taking a moment to gloat over the final agreement would have to wait until she was alone, and could compare the text with what she'd written before the conference as the exact goals she was working for. The majority of them would be identical; they had even copied word for word phrases that she had repeated throughout, no doubt thinking themselves original and clever.

She wondered when it would occur to anyone that she had just established a system of currency based on special paper and an agreed-upon value - while the dwarrows kept the gold that was sacred to them safely stored away. Probably not until well after they were all used to using it.

And almost certainly long after they realized they could not war amongst themselves without destroying their alliances and facing a combined army of all the nations surrounding them. All in all, she thought she was due an extra tray of cakes with her tea that evening.