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Kíli positioned himself carefully to keep Dwalin between him and his Uncle as they walked through the inn; the Green Dragon, so the sign said. Odd name, and one that some of the Company had muttered held nothing but bad tidings for the quest, but the picture on the sign, of the titular drake holding an overflowing mug, its mouth open in either song or preparation to throw back its drink, was so merry-looking that he felt a bit hopeful. It didn’t seem possible that something so cheerful, and an inn so welcoming (once the occupants were deep enough in their cups not to be as wary of them as they had been at the beginning of the night) and a place so peaceful, could mean anything but good fortune for them all. 

He snorted quietly at his superstition, but a thundering yell had him crouching a bit behind Dwalin to be sure Thorin couldn’t see him. Thorin wasn’t angry at him, of course, but it had taken over three months of grueling tests and challenges before he would even grudgingly allow Kíli to come along; Kíli had no intention of risking his place in the Quest to reclaim their home because he had the bad luck to catch his Uncle’s attention at the wrong time. 

Although, if nothing else, Kíli was glad of the tests for the simple reason that seeing how hard he’d had to work had shut Gimli up. At barely forty-four, he was far too young to join the Company.

Kíli, at fifty-nine, was barely more qualified, but he’d proven himself. He was on shaky ground, but he was a member of the Company, just like Fíli. Thorin reached a new decibel, and Kíli offered an apologetic smile to the trembling barkeep. “YOU HAUL US ALL TO THIS LAND OF INDOLENT FARMERS, AND FOR WHAT?!?”

Impressively loud even for one of the Big Folk, Tharkûn roared back, “FOR SOMETHING YOU DESPERATELY NEED, AND WILL CERTAINLY FAIL WITHOUT!”

Shoving the doors open, Thorin did lower his voice a fraction, but Kíli could still see more than a few Halflings hiding, wide-eyed. “Then we will certainly fail, for you have failed to procure it!”

Tharkûn began to answer the accusation, but Dwalin cut him off, running ahead and divesting Kíli of his cover in the process. “Oi! Steal a single pony and I’ll have your hide!”

Moving to the side with Fíli, they had an excellent view of the supposed thief, or at least of his back: slightly built, as were all of these Halflings, but taller and thinner than most, coming to his shoulder, he would guess, rather than to the middle of his chest, which was the tallest he’d seen until now; longer hair than most, as well, tumbling down below his shoulders in brassy curls; amber-brown skin was visible under the ludicrously short trousers all the men-folk seemed to wear here. Kíli took all this in in an instant, sharpshooter’s eyes flicking from one detail to the next. Then the ‘thief’ turned around.

The sight of a young, coolly intelligent, but undoubtably female face (with a figure that was just visible through the open, too-large jacket to be just as undoubtably female) seemed to chase all coherent thought out of Kíli’s head, and he glanced slowly at Fíli to see the same shock on his sister’s face; Dwalin seemed just as shocked, as he’d stopped dead in the road as soon as she turned. The girl’s words were clear, a low, silvery voice carrying them easily through the open space, but it took a moment for Kíli to process them through his astonishment. “Stealing one of your ponies would seem to be somewhat counterintuitive, seeing as how I’m coming with you.”

At the same moment as Fíli, Kíli let out a shocked exhale; no one spoke to Dwalin like that, not even Thorin. Actually, considering most Halflings quailed at the mere sight of him, that made this girl remarkably brave. Or was she a woman? Her voice was mature enough, and what he could see of her figure was as adult as any of the women he’d seen in the inn, but to look at her face, he wasn’t sure she wasn’t closer to his age than to Ori’s; the lack of beard would’ve erased all doubt if Tharkûn hadn’t already informed them all that virtually no Halflings could grow beards. Dwalin looked just as shocked, but Tharkûn stepped forward before anyone else could, something lost and awed and old in his face. “Belladonna?”

The girl’s face tightened a fraction, but her voice was no less composed. “Belda. And before you tell me that I look exactly like my mother, bear in mind that that doesn’t tend to be meant as a compliment here in Hobbiton.”

Tharkûn shook his head slowly, leaning on his staff a bit more than usual. “I went to Bag-End yesterday morning—”

“To invite Mum on an adventure, I’m aware. I heard you from the study.” At the interruption, Kíli’s jaw dropped further; normally, only Thorin had the nerve to interrupt Tharkûn.

As Kíli expected, Tharkûn’s expression darkened into a scowl, but there still wasn’t half as much irritation in it as there usually was when it was directed toward Thorin. “If you heard me, then why did you not greet me as you should have? And why was that horrible woman in your home? I sincerely doubt even Bungo could have any patience for her.”

The girl’s expression darkened as well, but far more than Tharkûn’s, and now her voice did shake. “In order, I did not greet you because the last time I was foolish enough to let my guardians catch on that I wasn’t being entirely ‘proper’ and ‘Bagginsish’, I was confined to my room for a month. That ‘horrible woman’, to which I could add any number of descriptors, was in Bag-End because she has spent the last eleven years ensuring it is her home, not mine. And you’re right.” Inhaling deeply, eyes shining slightly as she craned her head up to meet Tharkûn’s gaze, her voice was even more unsteady when she continued. “Da would never have tolerated her, and Mum’s probably been rolling in her grave since they received custody of me.”

A shuddering breath escaped Tharkûn, and he rasped, “She— when?” Riveted by the scene as he was, Kíli couldn’t help but be a little fascinated by Tharkûn’s reaction; he’d never seen the wizard show anything but cool composure unless he was arguing with Thorin. But he also had to sympathize with the girl, Belda. He knew what it was to lose a parent.

She stared impassively at the wizard for a long moment, and spoke much more quietly than before. “You should have stayed a bit longer, last time. Then you might not have missed the funeral.”

His eyes fell closed, and an immense, pained sorrow seemed to radiate from him. “The Winter.”

Slowly, Belda nodded. “The Winter. They died less than a fortnight after you left. By spring, I and Bag-End were turned over to Longo and Camellia.”

Somewhat blearily, Tharkûn frowned. “Not to Gerontius? Or even to Mirabella?”

At the first name, the girl’s face had shuttered, and Kíli had a feeling why; at the second, she looked away and down, tilting her face away from Tharkûn and toward Fíli and Kíli. “I… wasn’t well. At first. Longo convicted Grandfather that I needed a steady, calming influence, not like in Tuckborough or Buckland. That ruled out all of Mum’s family, and since Longo and the rest would be taking Bag-End anyway, Grandfather thought it would be easiest for me to stay with them, where I was comfortable.”

Thinking over her earlier words, Kíli murmured, “That didn’t work out, then.” The girl’s eyes jumped to his as soon as he spoke, and he blinked at her, hardly daring to think she’d actually heard him from such a distance. Uvarovite-green eyes, stunningly vivid, flicked over him, then over Fíli, and he could only guess that she hadn’t noticed them until then.

Thorin stepped forward a moment later, glowering. “That doesn’t answer the question of why you seem to think you can simply join our Company.”

Belda raised an eyebrow at him. “Gandalf came to Bag-End yesterday for the express purpose of inviting Mum on an adventure. Seeing as how Mum was virtually the only Hobbit remotely qualified for anything of the sort, and given the complaints you so helpfully shouted loud enough for my cousins in Buckland to hear, you really need any Hobbit, not just my mother. And if you need any Hobbit, then that must mean that you need stealth, seeing as how that’s really all we’re better at than anyone else. And given that you’re in dire enough need that you followed Gandalf to… what did you call it? A ‘land of indolent farmers’? Well, I’m not sure how you can really turn down a willing volunteer.”

The sunny day seemed to dim as Tharkûn drew himself up, towering over Belda with more than his six feet, or so it seemed to Kíli. “You are not of age, Belladonna Baggins, and I will not desecrate your father’s memory by putting you in harm’s way.”

Impressively, she stood her ground, and just glared tiredly at the Wizard. “I may not be of age until autumn, but I haven’t been a child for eleven years, Gandalf. Da may not have had a taste for adventure himself, but he always supported Mum’s excursions, and ‘desecrating his memory’ would be leaving me here, with relatives he couldn’t stand, to be boxed in and confined until I am a shadow of myself, and every trace of my mother, of the woman he loved more than life, is erased beyond memory.” Tharkûn shrank slightly, the shadows fleeing as the sun brightened again, but she didn’t soften her glare a jot. “I will not stay in that smial a day longer, Gandalf. If you refuse to allow me to come with you, I’ll just follow you, and you’ll never even glimpse me until it’s too late for you to take me back here.”

Dwalin scoffed. “Do you think us blind, girl? We’ve been learning to hunt and track since before you were born; we’ll catch you in a day.”

Shaking his head, Tharkûn waved off Dwalin’s assertion. “No, unfortunately, she’s right. Hobbits are remarkably light on their feet; they can pass unseen by most, if they so choose, and unheard by all. Belladonna was more adept at the skill than most, and knowing her, she was only too glad to pass on her expertise. No,” he looked solemnly down at the victoriously smirking girl. “If Miss Baggins does follow us, even I will be unable to perceive her, barring anything unfortunate. We would have to keep a constant watch, and to return her to the Shire once she revealed herself, and we don’t have the time to spare.”

Now Thorin scoffed, and Kíli shared a concerned glance with Fíli; he wasn’t sure about the girl by any means, but if she was as skilled as Tharkûn thought she was, then they did need her, and if he was right that she shouldn’t come because she wasn’t quite of age, then neither should Kíli, since he wouldn’t be of age until nearly midsummer. “She would leave a life of careless ease so easily? No. No one would.” The bitter note in Thorin’s voice was obvious to Kíli, but he wasn’t sure that anyone else would hear it, comparatively unfamiliar with his uncle as they were.

Belda’s eyes darkened even further, then abruptly cleared, and she smiled at him, if it could be called that; the expression was as cold as ice, and as lethal as her namesake. “If you think that my life has been one of ‘careless ease’, then I suggest you ask Gandalf how he spent the Fell Winter, or you could ask any of the Hobbits currently eavesdropping on this conversation how my parents died and I was wounded, or, of course, you could ask Camellia how many times she’s barred me in my room or withheld my meals because I was behaving too Tookishly for her tastes.” 

Tharkûn inhaled sharply at her mention of the second punishment, and she grinned wolfishly at him. 

“In fact, I’m very nearly certain that when she hears about this, not only that I had an extended conversation with the Grey One, but that I asked Dwarves to take me with them, she’ll probably hold half my meals back for six months, at least. She’ll absolutely use it as proof that I’m incapable of making my own decisions and have me disinherited from what’s left of Bag-End. So, Gandalf, you have a decision to make. You can refuse to take me, and consign me to months or years of imprisonment in what should, by all rights, be my own home. You can refuse to take me, and leave me to scavenge what food I can while I follow you. Or, you can support my joining whatever this is and give me, at the very least, a way out of my cage.”

“‘Whatever this is’?” Ori sounded scandalized, which Kíli could understand, but he wasn’t sure he agreed; she obviously hadn’t been told anything of their purpose. “Don’t you know?”

Her eyes hardened as they fixed on something out of Kíli’s field of vision, almost certainly Ori. “No, I don’t, and to be perfectly blunt, I don’t care. I have seen enough trouble and violence to last a lifetime, far too much. And I would rather see another lifetime’s worth, I would rather live through another Fell Winter, I would rather face a bloody dragon, than stay here.”

Kíli huffed out a quiet laugh at the irony in her words at the same moment that Tharkûn did. “Thoroughly unHobbitish.”

In a display of more temper than she’d shown until then, Belda snapped, “Why do you think I want to leave?” As soon as the words were out, she stilled, closing her eyes for a brief moment, then fixed them thoughtfully on Thorin. “Are you going past Rivendell?”

Thorin scowled, but Balin answered her calmly. “Within a few leagues. We don’t intend to visit.”

Nodding, she looked at Thorin again. “A compromise, then. Even on ponies, it’ll take several weeks to get so close to Rivendell. You allow me to accompany you that far, and if I’ve proven to be nothing but a useless child, send me to Rivendell and I’ll find my way from there. No arguments, I won’t follow you, and you’ll never see me again. But if I prove capable, you accept me as a part of your Company.” 

For a few moments, Thorin just stared at her, a challenge in his eyes; she held his gaze steadily, and simply waited. At the sound of an ear-piercing screech, both of them, along with Kíli himself, whipped around to try and locate the source. Quietly, Belda spoke, and Kíli turned to her to see that she was wide-eyed and looked more nervous than she had when speaking to Kings and Wizards. “And I think Camellia just realized I’m gone. Whatever you’re going to decide, I’d prefer you did it quickly; a quick getaway will be far easier on horseback. Well, pony-back, but either way, she’s not much of a runner.”

An outraged sputter pulled both his and her eyes to an older Hobbit man, far shorter and stouter than her, with lighter skin. “You will do no such thing, you— you ungrateful waste of a Baggins! Camellia’s been kinder to you than you deserve, you Took! You’ve been a disgrace to the family since the Fell Winter, and I won’t stand for such flagrantly unHobbitish behavior!”

With a geniality that even Kíli could tell was paper-thin, she smiled, sickly-sweet, at the purple-faced Hobbit. “All the more reason for me to leave, Uncle Bingo, so that you can wash your hands of me.”

At her words, the rest of the Hobbits hiding in the woodwork seemed to gain a measure of courage, and Fíli and Kíli had to move closer to the group to avoid being trapped in the crowd; the Hobbits kept out of arms’ reach of her, but the stream of insults and criticisms they loosed was frankly shocking. Now that he was closer, he could see that he’d been right: she was barely tall enough to come to his shoulder, and half a head or more taller than any of the other Hobbits. The result was an odd mix of delicate, petite girl, and willowy giantess, depending on whether he was comparing her to himself or to the Hobbits. But despite the fact that any Dwarf would consider her well within her rights to strike back at them, she ignored the Hobbits with a tired sort of resignation, and only gave Tharkûn a silent, pleading look.

Feeling as though he were being watched, Kíli turned to see that Thorin was staring at him, an unreadable look in his eyes. For several seconds, none of them moved, and the Hobbits’ abuses filled the air. Finally, Thorin growled out a sigh as only he could. “Fine! But only to Rivendell!”

The girl’s face lit up in a beaming grin that made her look even younger, if that were possible, even as the surrounding Hobbits redoubled their vitriol. Another outraged screech silenced them all for an instant, wiping away Belda’s smile, and Tharkûn cleared his throat. “If we don’t wish to be delayed further, I suggest we set out now.”

Most of Kíli’s attention was on Thorin as he rumbled out an agreement, but he didn’t miss the eager, slightly frantic way she nodded. He also didn’t miss the fact that while everyone else was mounting up, she stayed where she was, looking a bit lost. As subtly as he could, he elbowed Fíli and nodded to her; Fíli nodded once at him and stepped a bit closer to her. “Do you know how to ride?”

Rose-pink bloomed over her cheeks, even spreading over her nose and to her ears, (which Kíli had never seen before, and wasn’t sure why the sight called answering warmth to his own cheeks), but she kept her head high as she answered her, though her voice was more unsteady than before. “I’d thought to just keep up on foot for now.”

Another screech, this time close enough to be discernible as the words, ‘where is she’, and Kíli exchanged a panicked glance with Fíli while Belda paled. Nudging him, Fíli tilted her head toward Kíli’s pony, Myrtle, and Kíli nodded as he caught his sister’s meaning. He only hoped that Belda wouldn’t react too badly. 

While Kíli mounted his pony, the crowd began to shift as Thorin, Gandalf, and the others at the front of the line edged their mounts forward, but all thought of subtlety flew out the window when a Hobbit boy even younger than Belda flung something toward her; Fíli’s hand snapped out almost too quickly for even Kíli to see, then opened with a wince to reveal a largish rock with sharp enough edges to have drawn blood. As Fíli spun, Kíli heard a rushed “Sorry about this, Miss” under the roar of the mob, and then Belda was sitting in front of him on Myrtle.

Mind momentarily blank due to the unexpectedly natural way she fit against him, he spurred his mount forward, able to go a bit faster than the rest had at first as the crowd had already cleared a path in front of them. Unfortunately, this also meant that he could either try (and fail, he could already tell) to ignore the way the pony’s gait made her rock against him, or he could steady her as best he could with an arm around her waist. 

So, with a muttered apology, he went with the (slightly) better option. She stiffened further at the contact (which he could feel too well with the entire length of her against his chest, her curls slotting neatly under his chin and catching every now and then on his scruff), and, thanking Mahal that she couldn’t see the violent shade of red he could feel he’d turned, he just managed to keep his voice level. “We’ll be going a bit more quickly once we’re out of the town, and it might be hard for you to stay on, so—”

“No, fine, it— it’s fine.” Her voice was as unsteady as before, but really, after nearly being killed, he couldn’t hold it against her. 

They rode a bit harder than was probably wise, but by midday, they’d reached another obstacle: a river. Bits and snatches of yet another argument between Gandalf and Thorin reached them, and Belda sighed. She’d relaxed against him, gradually, and settled into the rhythm of riding fairly well for someone who hadn’t even known how at first; yet another unfortunate effect of this was that now it was that much easier for Kíli to feel that she was practically skin and bones, compared to Dwarves and the Hobbits he’d seen. Keeping his head over hers, and feeling his chin bump into her scalp when he wasn’t careful, he asked quietly, “Can you hear what they’re arguing about?”

She was silent for a moment, most likely listening, then cleared her throat and answered just as quietly, and just as evenly as a few hours before. “Gandalf is taking us to the Brandywine Bridge as quickly as he can. The scowl-y one thinks we’re going the wrong way.” Momentarily speechless at her nickname for his King, Kíli tightened his grip on her unconsciously as she leaned forward. “Actually, he seems to want to ride over the Water to Budgeford, that way.”

She gave a tiny flick of her fingers north and settled gingerly against him again, some of her earlier stiffness returning. This time, one of her curls somehow found its way into his mouth, and he had to lean back to try and get it out without moving either of his hands; she stiffened further, and when he straightened enough to see, he realized that her hands were gripping the ends of her jacket, white-knuckled.

“I’m sorry, I should’ve tied it back—”

“No, it’s fine.” As soon as the words were out, he realized that he was echoing her, and felt another mortified blush creep up. Fíli, moving up to ride beside him while the road was wide enough, smirked at him, but stayed silent after Kíli glared at her. To be so familiar with any woman was presumptuous, but there really wasn’t any other option. It would be a long, awkward day, and there was nothing for it. Recognizing the look on Fíli’s face, Kíli hurried to speak before his older sister could embarrass him further. “Um, what did you call Uncle, again?”

“Un—” She stiffened again, and he could just see her grip tighten on her jacket as she took a slow breath before answering. “I’m sorry if I caused any offense, but I don’t know his name, so— but that’s my fault, isn’t it.” 

The last sentence, emotionless and near-inaudible, sent chills down Kíli’s spine, and he glanced at Fíli as she hurried to speak. “His name’s Thorin Oakenshield, and I’m Fíli, at your service.” 

Fíli gave a sort of half-bow from her pony, and Belda giggled softly. Quiet warmth spreading through his chest, Kíli tried to quash the goofy smile he could feel on his face. “And I’m Kíli.”

“Belda Baggins, at your service and your family’s. Although I suppose that goes without saying, if scow— if, um, Thorin is your uncle.”

Biting her lip against a smile, Fíli chuckled. “I suppose it does, a bit. And don’t worry about our being offended; we love Uncle dearly, but he does tend to be somewhat dour.”

Kíli chuckled. “He’s not always like this, of course, but he’s not exactly comfortable here.”

Scoffing, she started to say something, but a Hobbit on the side of the road interrupted her. “Belda?”

He was as tall as her, or nearly, but far better fed, and looked to be a bit older than the Hobbit who’d begun the onslaught that morning. Kíli pulled Myrtle to a halt as she answered, Fíli and most of the Company following suit. “Hello, Uncle Gorbadoc. You haven’t changed a bit.”

Staring up at her, eyes shining, he scoffed lightly. “I wish I could say the same, girlie. What’ve they been feeding you?”

Thorin and Tharkûn finally seemed to notice the holdup, and began to move closer; she shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not going back.” Expression shuttered, the Hobbit glanced uneasily between the Dwarves, but she shook her head again, raising her voice a fraction. “No, not because of them. Well,” she bobbed her head, nearly clipping Kíli’s chin, “yes, because of them in that they, with Gandalf’s endorsement, furnished my means of escape.”

She nodded to Gandalf as she named him, and he inclined his head to the Hobbit. Looking a tad more at ease, he looked up at her sadly. “You could stay with us.” The fondness in his face swept away any doubt Kíli might have had that the offer wasn’t genuine, but his tone seemed to indicate that he knew she wouldn’t accept it.

There must have been something in her expression that Kíli couldn’t see, as the Hobbit nodded mournfully a moment later. Her voice, when she spoke, was a bit thicker than it had been before, and shaking minutely. “Give my love to Aunt Mirabella, and to Prim. Tell Uncle Isengrim… Tell him he did what he thought was best, and that I never blamed him, or Grandfather.”

He shook his head. “Belda, if we’d known—”

“But you didn’t, and therefore, there was nothing you could’ve done.” She was silent for a moment, then quietly, almost too quietly to hear, finished, “Goodbye, Uncle.” Stepping back from the road, he said something of which Kíli only caught snatches of accented syllables. She simply inclined her head, and Tharkûn nodded sorrowfully, turning to face East again and prompting the rest of the Company to resume their journey.

More than a few of them stared at Belda a bit before they did, some (such as Dwalin) with disdain, some (such as Dori and Ori) sympathetically. He didn’t know what they were seeing, but Fíli was no help, as she just shrugged, wide-eyed, at Kíli. Clearing his throat, he tried, “Anyway, Uncle—”

“If you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk just now.” At her voice, Kíli froze; it was even thicker and more shaky than before, and now he could feel her breath hitching softly. He had no idea what to do, and Fíli just shrugged again when he looked to her.

Swallowing nervously, he adjusted his grip on the reins. “All right.”

She didn’t say anything further, even once her breath evened out, but she leaned more heavily against him, and he kept a carefully-gentle hold on her for the rest of the day, not sure why he couldn’t quite banish the heat in his cheeks.

Chapter Text

Bofur barely held back a laugh as the Hobbit girl crumpled to the ground, a vaguely surprised look on her face. Fíli and Kíli tried to catch her, of course, but they were just a hair too slow, and Bofur heard a contemplative ‘ow’ from where he was unpacking his pony, fifteen paces or so away. The Durins hurried to help her to her feet, pulling her arms around their necks when it was obvious that she wouldn’t be able to stand on her own. After checking that Bifur was alright, Bofur moved over to sit within speaking distance of the odd girl, who the siblings had lowered to sit near Tharkûn and the fire. “First time riding?”

She looked a bit surprised at being addressed, but gave him an almost-smile and a raised eyebrow. “How did you ever tell?”

Bofur and Tharkûn both snorted, amused, at her sarcasm, along with Balin and Nori. As Bombur bustled about getting dinner cooking, the Heirs fussed over her, giving her tips on her posture and such for the next day’s travel, and he watched her thoughtfully. Her eyes were still a bit puffy, but that was the only visible sign of her earlier tears. 

He’d been a bit impressed, actually, if worried; she’d begun crying in the middle of her conversation just before crossing the bridge, but the tears had been mostly silent, and if he hadn’t looked back every so often, he would never have known that she was still weeping. The hope that she wasn’t having second thoughts surprised him, though; after seeing how she’d been treated that morning, he didn’t want her anywhere near those Hobbits, though the one who’d brought her to tears had seemed better than the others. But to see any child treated in such a way, let alone a girl, would send fire through any self-respecting Dwarf’s veins.

Granted, she was nearly an adult, according to Tharkûn, and already an adult, according to herself. But as far as Bofur was concerned, she was still underage, and therefore still a child.

He missed the initial question, but he focused again when Tharkûn, frowning, rumbled, “On the contrary, my dear, I’d like to know the answer as much as Kíli.”

Jaw clenched, she looked between the three for a few seconds before finally answering, “They’ve never actually tried to hurt me before, but yes. Other than that, the way they acted this morning was usual.”

Most of the Company exclaimed at that, but Bifur was the only one to approach her, speaking rapidly. She leaned back slightly, brow furrowed, and Bofur tapped his cousin on the arm; Bifur sat beside him without any further prompting, and Bofur met the girl’s gaze. “He asked, ‘why would anyone treat someone as young as yourself so dishonorably’. I was wondering the same thing, actually.”

Glancing between him and Bifur, she sighed, then lowered her eyes, brow still furrowed; the ambient noise in the camp dropped drastically, but she didn’t seem to notice. “They—” Biting her lip, she started over. “I don’t know anything about Dwarven politics, or culture, or anything, really, so I’m not sure how much sense this will make.” Raising her head, she met Bifur’s eyes, then his, and he got the sense she meant it as a warning, of sorts. 

Taking a deep breath, she leaned back on her hands, which only served to call Bofur’s attention to how thin she was compared to the other Hobbits. If there’d been a few other slim Halflings in the town, he might not have thought anything of it, but the fact that every Hobbit he’d seen—from the elders sitting in the sun to the children running around the hills—had been positively fat in comparison didn’t seem to bode well. 

“Among Hobbits, there are really two groups, or at least there effectively are. Hidebound Hobbits, such as Bagginses, and more adventurous Hobbits, such as Tooks. My father was a Baggins, and the epitome of one, at that.” A sad, fond grin crept over her even as a few fresh tears streaked down. “Quiet and respectable and utterly unadventurous. In all aspects but one.” Her grin turned a bit more impish, but the grief was no weaker. “My mother was his exact opposite: loud and brash, didn’t give a fig for what anyone thought of her, and I don’t think she ever in her life went six months without slipping off for some adventure or another, minor as they were. But he loved her, and she him.”

“They don’t sound very well suited, if you don’t mind me saying.” Bofur tacked on the last hurriedly, not wanting her to think he meant any insult.

She met his eyes with that same sort of surprise as before, and this time gave him a proper smile. “By all rights, they shouldn’t have been. But even though he had no appetite for adventure himself, he loved to hear about hers, and she always brought back books for him when she could. And she couldn’t bear to be tied down for long, but she always came home to him, and gladly. She told me once that home meant everything to her, but that half of the meaning was that she could trust it, and he, would always be there to come home to.” 

Sniffling quietly, her expression sobered somewhat. “But they epitomized the best of their families. Most Bagginses, and the other reserved families, for the most part, shared my father’s better qualities, but they’re also so bogged down by selfishness and gossip-mongering and pettiness that you wouldn’t think they were even related. I can’t tell you much about the Tooks and such, to be honest. I’ve hardly seen any of them for nearly a decade. Anyway, as I told Gandalf earlier, after my parents died, one of my father’s brothers got custody of me, and he and his wife have been trying to make me into a proper Baggins ever since.”

“And that’s bad?”

She smiled at Fíli, but it was the cold smile from that morning, almost more of a grimace than anything, and the blonde deflated a tad. “Seeing as how I am very much my mother’s daughter, yes.” Turning to face forward again, she stared into the flames for a few moments, looking almost as broody as their esteemed leader, before snorting suddenly, and smiling genuinely. “They’ve been trying to starve the Took out of me for eleven years, and where am I now? Camping with thirteen Dwarves and a Wizard.” Firelight dancing impishly in her eyes, she smirked at Bofur. “I don’t think they did a very good job, do you?”

“That doesn’t answer why you weren’t placed with your mother’s family, as you should’ve been.” At Tharkûn’s words, she stilled again, the tired impassiveness from earlier settling over her features and making her look older than anyone so young should.

Her eyes fell to her feet as she responded quietly, “I told you before, I wasn’t well. I wasn’t the only one, of course, but Longo and Camellia took over my care while I was recovering, and then insisted that they were the best equipped to help me. And then once I was healed, obviously I still needed to be watched by someone who knew how quickly my moods could turn, seeing as how I was still so irrational.” Bitter sarcasm drenched her last sentence, and her eyes shone a bit more in the firelight than before. “As for this morning…” She shook her head, eyes distant and thoughtful. “All the people there were my family, if only distantly, in some cases. In their eyes, I was shaming them all by even speaking to Dwarves, let alone begging to go off on some adventure. They were trying to correct my ‘errant behavior’, that’s all, and they know, after eleven years, or think they know, that I’m not particularly inclined to listen to them.”

“They…” Ori was slack-jawed, quill hanging limply from his fingers. “They were all your family?” Bofur shared his awe, to an extent, but he’d talked with Hobbits once or twice before, so it wasn’t as much of a surprise to him.

She just furrowed her brow at the scribe and looked to Tharkûn, who chuckled. “Dwarves don’t tend to have quite as many children as Hobbits, my dear. Ori, Nori, and Dori are brothers, and considered a bit of a large family by Dwarven standards.”

Now it was the Hobbit’s turn to gape, and she stammered a bit: “Wha— That— H—” Finally, she shook her head sharply, though she still seemed to be processing. “Well, better explain that, as well. I’m an only child, as is Longo and Camellia’s brat, Otho—”

“Belladonna Baggins!”

In possibly the most childish display she’d shown yet, she pouted sullenly at the scowling Wizard. “Little pest threw a rock at my head, I’ll call him what I like.” 

He didn’t look nearly appeased, but Fíli’s interjection surprised most of the Company. “So that was his name? I can’t say I approve of his choice of weapon, but I can’t fault his aim.”

The girl, Miss Baggins, turned to Fíli, petulance entirely replaced by concern. “That’s right, you caught it. Did you ever get your hand tended to?”

“Why would he need to?” The question sounded half a threat, but to her credit, she met Thorin’s eyes steadily while Fíli answered; a part of Bofur still couldn’t believe that anyone could listen to the Princess speak and not realize that she wasn’t a ‘he’, but o-Khazad weren’t exactly renowned for their perceptiveness.

“The rock he threw was sharp enough to slice my hand open. Only shallow, though; Óin said it’d heal before the month was out.”

Thorin just grunted, and Miss Baggins was silent for a moment, evidently waiting for either him or Fíli to say something further. When they didn’t, she cleared her throat. “As I was saying, I’m an only child, but that’s very rare. Da was the eldest of five, and Mum was ninth of twelve—” The Company, Bofur included, couldn’t hold back their astonishment, and it was quite a few minutes before she could continue, looking rather bemused. “Yes, well, twelve is unusual, but still. Most families have five or six children, so I have a rather ridiculous number of Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins.”

“And even so, you would abandon your family so easily?” Tharkûn looked as though he wanted to smack Thorin, as did, surprisingly, the Heirs, but Miss Baggins just raised an eyebrow.

“I’ve barely left Bag-End without having to sneak out for ten years, and even before the Winter, Mum and Da never got on well with his family. I’m related to them by blood, not by choice, and believe me, if it weren’t so very ‘unHobbitish’, they’d have thrown me out of Hobbiton years ago. They’ll make a fuss for a few months and then they’ll be glad to be rid of me. The only thing that might have kept me there was Bag-End, but that hasn’t been my home for years, really. Just the place where I live.”

“Then what do you hope to find by coming with us?” Thorin’s expression made it perfectly clear that he was expecting to hear something silly or naïve, but Bofur was still trying to process the concept that this girl’s family would so easily part from a girl not yet an adult.

But her simple, honest answer brought him out of his thoughts. “Something better. Wherever that may be.”

Bombur began ladling out stew before anyone could think of something to add, and there was relative silence for quite a few minutes as everyone ate; despite never seeming to eat faster than anyone else, the girl somehow managed to finish off her bowl and most of Tharkûn’s in the same time it took Bofur to empty his. Bombur brought her another serving without a word, tactfully ignoring her blush, which she finished just as completely as the first two; if this was a Hobbit’s usual appetite, it was little wonder that Tharkûn had been so disturbed to hear that her family had been restricting her meals. 

It was little wonder she was so thin compared to them.

And it was little wonder that she was so desperate to get away that she ran off with a group of complete strangers on nothing more than the word of a Wizard.

As Bofur watched, Balin moved to sit near her as Bombur handed her a fourth serving; she blushed again. “You needn’t bring any more, I’ve had enough for tonight.” 

Tharkûn huffed. “I’ll thank you not to lie, Belda. We departed before Elevensies and haven’t stopped for a meal since; I’ll not have you starving now you’re with us.”

“Elevensies?” 

Tharkûn chuckled at Ori’s question. “Hobbits have no less than six meals a day, Master Ori, and prefer seven.” This, of course, was met with incredulity from most of the Company, but watching her eat, just as hungrily as before, Bofur could believe it; Thorin, clearly, could believe it as well, as Bofur caught a few snatches of muttering about ‘eating them out of house and home’. Tharkûn sent a glare the King’s way, but easily answered the Company’s questions: “Well, now, let’s see. Breakfast, Second Breakfast, Elevensies, Afternoon Tea, and Supper.”

“You forgot Dinner.”

He chuckled again; Bofur was a cheery man, but even he was starting to wonder about Tharkûn’s apparent mirth. “So I did. Afternoon Tea, Dinner, then Supper.”

Looking slightly shell-shocked, Bombur began to ladle out another bowl, but the girl shook her head entreatingly. “No, don’t— I don’t need another.” Ducking her head, she muttered, “I’ve gotten by on less than this.” Head bowed as it was, she didn’t see the sorrow that moved over Tharkûn’s face, or the glances exchanged throughout the Company. 

But there was nothing more to be said about that subject, so Bofur smiled. “So, lass, I’m sure you’re curious why we needed a burglar.”

Her head shot up. “Burglar?!” Letting out a shocked laugh, she shook her head, grinning. “I can see why you needed a Hobbit. Although,” she looked a bit worried, “I hope you don’t expect me to be an expert. I’ve never stolen a thing in my life.” Tharkûn huffed, but said nothing; evidently, she knew what he was thinking of, as she threw him an irritated glance. “Carrots and mushrooms don’t count, Gandalf. Everyone steals those.”

He raised a bushy brow at her. “‘Everyone’ does not manage to pilfer two baskets’ worth and get away unscathed.”

She waved a hand slightly, dismissing his words. “It was a rainy day, that’s all; he couldn’t track me. But why do you need a burglar?”

Balin cleared his throat, drawing her attention to him. “We are Dwarves of Erebor, lassie. Have you heard of Erebor?” Shaking her head, she continued eating, looking like nothing more than one of Bombur’s tots settling in to listen to a particularly engrossing story. “It lies far to the East, over ranges and rivers, beyond woodlands and wastelands. It’s known as the Lonely Mountain in some places, as it has a single, solitary peak. And it is our home. We were driven out many years ago, and our Quest is to reclaim it.”

“But there are those who don’t believe it can be done.” The eyes of all present turned to Thorin, though Bofur noticed that she didn’t stop eating, only slowed. “They say that it is a fool’s errand, that the Quest is ours and ours alone. To prove them wrong, we must retrieve the Arkenstone.”

“Arkenstone? What is that?” Tilting her head as she spoke, she set her bowl down beside her.

“The symbol of the Line of Durin. With it, no Dwarf would dare refuse us aid.”

Raising an eyebrow incredulously, she deadpanned, “Yes, that’s helpful.”

“It’s a gem, lass.” After tossing a pointed glance at Thorin, she focused entirely on Balin as he continued, “A large, white gem, more valuable than anything else in the mountain. We need a burglar in order to recover it without waking the beast.”

Staring at him expressionlessly, she repeated, “The beast.”

Feeling a bit preemptively wretched, Bofur took upon himself to make sure she knew exactly what she was getting into; he’d never forgive himself if she died because she came along when she should’ve stayed safe at home. “That would be a reference to Smaug the Terrible, chiefest and greatest calamity of our Age.” Tharkûn was starting to glare at him, but Bofur ignored him as best he could. “Airborne firebreather. Teeth like razors, claws like meathooks. Extremely fond of precious metals. Think furnace, with wings.”

“A dragon.” He nodded; she still looked incredulous, but he could tell she understood now. “You intend to steal from a dragon. No, actually, you intend for me to steal from a dragon.” There was a laugh in her voice, but he couldn’t tell whether it was hysterical, morbid, or scornful.

“If you wish to turn back—” She cut Thorin off with a sharp glare.

“I believe I’m entitled to a moment or two to process the information, thank you.” True to her words, she was silent for a few moments, eyes distant, then exhaled abruptly in what might have been a laugh. “Well, I can’t truly say I would have chosen differently had I known before.”

“You’ll still come with us?” The young Prince looked more than a little hopeful, and Bofur had to suppress a smirk when he remember how cozy the two of them had looked sharing a horse, both of them ruby-red and flustered.

Her tone was wry, but her smile was sincere as she turned to Kíli. “I said I’d rather face a dragon than stay in the Shire, didn’t I? Can’t change my mind now and make myself a liar.”

Glóin, surprisingly, was the one to speak up, his voice gentle; in retrospect, Bofur should’ve expected it from the only other father in the group. “Lass, there’s no shame in turning back. You didn’t know what we would ask of you, and this is far too much for anyone as young as yourself.”

Sighing, she met his eyes evenly. “I appreciate your concern, but it’s unnecessary. A Baggins always keeps her word, and I give you all my word now that assuming you allow me to accompany you to Erebor, I will take the Arkenstone from Smaug, and I will do whatever is required of me in the meantime.”

Silence met her words, but Thorin broke it after a few moments. “Balin.” 

The elder froze in the process of pulling a scroll out of his jacket, and half turned to the King. “She must sign the contract, Thorin.”

“She is not of age.” Scowling, she opened her mouth, but Thorin continued before she could speak. “If she remains with the Company past Rivendell, then she will sign, and not before.”

Having seen how reluctant the King had been to bring his nephew and niece, Bofur knew that he was likely trying to give her as long as possible to change her mind while she could, but by the way the girl’s scowl faded into something more despondent, he didn’t think she’d heard anything but a rebuff.

“Belladonna, a word.” Tharkûn stalked off before anyone could say anything, so, with the siblings’ help, she stood shakily and followed the Wizard.

 


 

Gandalf

 

Judging that he was far enough from the Company that they wouldn’t be overheard, Olórin waited for Belda to join him. Lowering himself to the grass, he lit his pipe as he waited; she appeared shortly, but her progress was slow, and a pang of remorse struck him for forgetting she’d never ridden before. She’d managed, somehow, to persuade one of the ponies to walk beside her in lieu of a crutch, and if it hadn’t been for her expression, she’d have looked exactly like her mother at her coming of age.

But Belladonna had never been as grim as her daughter when he and Belda had spoken earlier. She’d always been as mischievous as her soul-form, and as wild. Bungo had been quietly industrious, as could be expected, but he’d been optimistic to the end. Before the Fell Winter, Belda had behaved much like her mother, as well, though she’d spent just as much time reading with her father. 

Olórin closed his eyes for a moment. He’d been gone too long, far too long. And he had the horrible feeling that Belda had been the one to pay the price for his negligence.

He extended a hand to her once she was close enough, and she took it mutely, using her grips on him and the pony, which he now recognized as Kíli’s, to lower herself slowly, rather than falling as she had before. Once she was settled beside him, and Myrtle was grazing a ways away, he kept hold of her hand, the sharpness of it chilling. “Oh, my dear, what have you suffered?” Her hand twitched, but she didn’t respond, and he sighed. “I should have been there.”

At that, she shook her head quickly, though her voice was no louder than his. “You didn’t know. It’s not your fault.”

“Yes, it is, kit.” She stilled, and he continued quietly. “I had to leave at first, but I should’ve come back to check on you rather than assuming you and your parents were well. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”

For a long, long moment, she was silent. Then, clumsily, she moved to sit more closely beside him and leaned heavily against his side. “I accept your apology, and yes, I forgive you, Afi.”

The once-familiar endearment brought rare tears to Olórin’s eyes, and he hugged the girl gently to him. “I haven’t been called that in some time.”

She huffed lightly. “I haven’t been called ‘kit’ since the Winter. I missed that.”

A minute or so passed in silence before he allowed himself to murmur, “I miss them.”

Sniffling softly, she wiped at her face, though whether at her nose or eyes he couldn’t tell. “So do I.”

Another minute passed, and another. Finally, he sighed. “You need to tell them, kit.”

“You know I can’t.” Unfortunately, she was right. Hobbits’ heritage was a closely-guarded secret, perhaps their most so.

“Having a shape-changer among the Company would be a great boon.” Especially if she took after her mother as much as he suspected she did; Belladonna had been absolutely fearsome in her fox-form.

“They’ll have one anyway, if I can convince them to let me stay. Besides which, as everyone seems so concerned with, I’m not of age yet.” Remembering that, he tightened his grip on her slightly; she shifted to lean more fully against him.

“They’ll find out when you come of age, kit.” It wasn’t as though it was subtle, or at least it shouldn’t be. A Hobbit’s coming of age was marked by his or her First Shift, and he’d supplied the fireworks for more than one party. They were huge celebrations, usually lasting most of the night and into the morning, with food and drink aplenty, and whatever soul-form the new adult had, he or she was welcomed by family, friends, and pack alike. 

Belladonna’s coming of age had been unusual in that she was the first fox for several generations, but she’d always been rather solitary, so it hadn’t bothered her. But Belda took after Bungo in that, she always had. Beavers weren’t especially social creatures, but family was extremely important to them, and Bungo had been no exception. He would have floundered if he’d been alone as Belladonna was, and Olórin couldn’t help but think that Belda would be much the same.

She, evidently, thought differently. “Not if I hide it.”

“On the road? In the middle of Orc territory, or worse?” The First Shift was entirely involuntary, and exhausting, as well, once .

“I’ll figure something out.” The stubborn edge to her voice was more than a little reminiscent of Bungo, and Olórin hid a pang of grief. He’d lost too many friends to count, but each and every one was as painful as the last. He would mourn Bungo and Belladonna for the rest of his days, however long Eru gave him. And he would mourn new friends, as well; Belda, Thorin, the Company, Arathorn, and others not yet born. They would weigh on him as much as those that came before them, but he’d long since learned that even a single day spent in laughter and peace with one of his friends was well worth an eternity of grief. 

Every day was a gift from Eru, as was Belda herself. “The perfect mixture of your parents, do you know that?” He hadn’t thought before speaking, or he might have thought better of the words, but even so, he wouldn’t have expected her to press her face against his robes, shaking with near-silent sobs.

Despite all his years, he still hadn’t the faintest idea how to comfort anyone, let alone a young girl, and so he just kept his arm around her and waited. Fortunately for him, she calmed after only a minute or so. “I’m sorry, I just— Everyone says I’m my mother through and though, that there’s nothing of my father in me, that—”

She didn’t continue, but he could imagine what they must have said all too well. “I take it you were being literal when you said you were ‘very much your mother’s daughter’?”

As he’d hoped, she snorted lightly, and nodded; he suspected she was using the hem of his robe as a handkerchief, but he couldn’t bring himself to scold her. When she didn’t still have tears in her voice, perhaps. “All the prey-families have been terrified of me almost since the Winter.”

As befit shape-changers, Hobbits were the only sentient peoples besides others of their type to be able to detect the differences between the scent of prey and predator. As such, the families were divided by that distinction as much as the lines she’d told the Company. But movement caught his eye, and he nodded to Myrtle, still grazing contentedly. “And yet the ponies have no fear of you.”

She scoffed lightly, but he could hear the confusion in her voice. “Full animals never do. They aren’t affectionate with me like they are with prey-Hobbits, but they aren’t afraid of me, either. Mum couldn’t get within ten paces of a pony before it started to get nervous, but I rode that one all day and she’s still fine.” Quietly, she clicked her fingers, and the pony ambled over to her with no further prompting. Lying down in front of them, the pony stretched out her head to nudge Belda’s hand gently, then clacked her teeth and drew her head back, keeping it relatively low. “I don’t know as much about ponies and horses as I wish, but I know that’s not the way she would act if she were afraid of me. She has to be able to tell I’m a predator. But she’s not afraid of me, even though she’s just an animal; she ought to be driven by her instincts more than Hobbits. But thinking, reasoning Hobbits are the ones who act as though I’m going to eat them at any moment.”

He watched all this with a frown; she was right, the pony wasn’t afraid of her, but there was something about her behavior he couldn’t put his finger on. He was as much of an expert on ponies as Belda, and he wished he could consult with Aiwendil over the matter. He could only offer part of an answer, but he hoped it would help anyway. “There is such a thing as overthinking, my dear. It’s possible that the others have ignored something they should’ve heeded.” She only nodded, and he glanced down, but couldn’t see anything past her curls. Though he was curious: “You know your form, kit?” 

She did, obviously, she had to; the awareness would have crept in over the last decade, couched in dreams and cravings and burgeoning instincts, but what he was truly curious about was whether she would tell him. Among Hobbits, only family and perhaps the closest friends were told before the coming of age party. Part mischief, part self-preservation, and part shyness, it was rather taboo to tell anyone who wasn’t completely, utterly trusted to keep the secret. He wouldn’t push her if she chose not to tell him, and he would understand if she didn’t, but he was curious nonetheless. She nodded. “I don’t think I’ll be any help before we reach the Lonely Mountain, but I think I’ll have an edge once I’m inside.”

Letting out a slow breath, relief spread through him. With how certain she sounded, and her earlier statement about being her mother’s daughter, she had to be a fox, or something similar, something small and even more stealthy, which would ensure her safety in Erebor far better than anything he could do. Nodding, he readied himself to resume his ‘normal’ cheer; it was easier, usually, to smile and chuckle than to let himself show the grief that dogged him. “All the more important we convince Thorin, then.” A thought occurred to him. “It might be a good idea to introduce you.”

Chapter Text

Dwalin scowled at the fire as Bombur cleaned up dinner. He couldn’t hear the Halfling moving about the camp. He never could; she’d been as silent as a wraith since she’d adapted to riding enough not to fall over her feet every five seconds. That, in and of itself, was irritating enough, but he couldn’t even track her using the ponies, as they were eerily noiseless when she was near them. Granted, when she wanted to be heard, there was no ignoring her; she was downright blunt in her confidence, and he’d had to suppress a grudging, and growing, respect for her sharp tongue. It was somewhat easier when she was disrespecting Thorin, but he couldn’t fairly dislike her for it, as she never said a word to the King unless he provoked her. 

Actually, she barely said a word to any of them unless she wanted something. She bantered with the Heirs easily enough, and spoke easily with Tharkûn, but only rarely took the initiative. The debacle the night before had been one such case, or begun as such. She’d been the one, paler than usual, to ask about the cries that had echoed over the hills. Of course, then she hadn’t said a word for the rest of the night, prompted or not, but even so. 

Though, mute didn’t mean unable to communicate; she’d evidently not been told of Thorin or the siblings’ ranks, and glared fiercely at Tharkûn until he excused himself, beard twitching suspiciously, for a smoke. Any lingering distance between herself and the Heirs had faded quickly, and by now she was back to her usual, irritating self.

Instinct borne of a century and a half of experience prompted Dwalin to look up, and somehow he wasn’t entirely surprised that the Halfling was standing in front of him, arms crossed. Her expression wasn’t angry, though. If anything, it was challenging. “Teach me to fight.”

Most of the sound in the camp died away, but she didn’t react, though he could tell by the way her pointy ears twitched that she noticed. “Why?”

He wasn’t opposed to the idea; if she could fight, that would be one less youngling for him to watch, or would be if she weren’t a lass, but he wanted to hear her reasons first. He wasn’t going to waste his time on a bored child. 

But she didn’t pout, or glare, or even react in any way that would indicate that she hadn’t been expecting the question; she just spoke calmly and clearly. “Because every time we hear so much as a twig break, you look toward me, then to the Princes,” there was a slight, pointed emphasis on the title, and she glanced at Tharkûn irritably before meeting Dwalin’s eyes again, “which I’m going to assume is because I’m young, female, and defenseless, and since there’s only one of those that anyone can do anything about, teach me to fight.”

Slowly, he rose to his feet and to his full height, holding her eyes all the while; he was slightly gratified by the fact that as with Tharkûn the day they’d left Hobbiton, she didn’t back down an inch. “And what makes you think I’m going to spend my time tutoring children?”

He could see a faint tension in her neck, now, but her expression didn’t change other than to raise an eyebrow. “Fíli and Kíli look at you every time they so much as draw their swords. Even if you don’t usually teach, they trust you to correct them when they’re wrong, at least as much as they do Thorin.”

At that, he couldn’t stop a shred of disbelief from showing, and her jaw tightened. But she still didn’t retract the statement, and he had to admit, if only to himself, that it had been an impressive inference. She was right, of course; he’d been teaching the pups since they were old enough to hold weapons, but not for several years, other than the occasional correction. Despite himself, he was curious. The Halflings they’d seen in the Shire had been soft, well-fed, obviously not a fighter among them. But this chit had spine, he had to give her that, and she’d learned to ride well enough. Keeping a relatively neutral expression, he growled, “Axe or sword? What’s your weapon of choice?”

The only clue to her relief was an easing of the tension in her neck and jaw. “I’ve no idea. I’ve never even held a weapon.” He just grunted, seeing a long slog ahead of him.

 


 

Belda

 

Belda groaned inaudibly as she rolled her shoulders. Now that her legs finally didn’t feel like they were about to fall off at the end of the day, her arms took their place. But it wasn’t as though she could complain; she’d brought this on herself, asking Dwalin to teach her. But with how often Fíli and Kíli looked to him or Thorin for approval, she didn’t trust them to teach her without needing to be corrected, and while Glóin and Thorin were as skilled, or seemed to be, one solely wielded axes that looked to weigh more than her, and the other had hardly looked at her since that first night with the Company. 

She was rather torn about that, really. 

On the one hand, he looked so angry all the time that she usually wanted to hide rather than draw his eye. On the other, it gnawed at her that she still wasn’t a member of the Company, that there was still a chance she would be sent back to the Shire. Though the second was a moot point, as she’d rather chew off her own leg than go back for anything longer than a visit. 

But still. She wasn’t a fox, like her Mum. She wasn’t made to be solitary. Alone in a crowd, she was growing used to, but entirely alone? She’d had far too much of that in the last decade.

And she was as far from a beaver as one could be, but she was like her Da in that she needed to be useful, she needed a place. She needed a pack. And she was a little scared at how dearly she already wanted to be part of theirs. Not that they could rightly be called a pack; most of them, save the ‘Urs, certainly smelled like a family, even if the ‘Ri’s common scent was faint enough that they couldn’t be closer to the others than cousins, but Bofur, Bombur, and especially Bifur didn’t share any scent with the rest. They were certainly a family on their own, and close-knit enough that Bifur smelled somewhere between brother and cousin to the other two, but the only scent they shared with the rest of the Company was that of travel, ponies, and metal.

But by necessity, if by nothing else, they were all pack. Just not hers. She was running out of time to convince Thorin to let her stay, and she was out of ideas on how. She hadn’t given a single word of complaint as she learnt to ride, or about the small rations, she’d volunteered to tend the ponies, and done well, she thought. She’d even approached Dwalin a fortnight before, and been pleasantly surprised at how natural it felt to wield the daggers Fíli lent her to practice with. She was hardly a Dwarf, and certainly not any sort of experienced traveler, but she was doing her best not to be a burden, not to be useless, not to be defenseless. And for just over a month, now, Thorin had only looked at her with a dismissive sneer, if he looked at her at all, and she knew that he would send her away soon.

She didn’t know what to do.

But for now, she would content herself with the fact that the rain had finally stopped after days of constant downpour, that Dwalin had said her footwork was improving, if nothing else, and that her dreams, the night before, had been of flying over the clouds. Those dreams were always her favorite. 

But then she would remember what she was, and who surrounded her. These Dwarves had lost their home, some of them their families, because of a dragon. They cursed Smaug almost constantly, and all his kind. If she did stay, how could she ever tell them the truth? How could she hide it from them? And most of all, once they knew, how could they do anything but chase her away, or worse? 

They were Dwarves. They would never tolerate a dragon, even a Hobbit-dragon.

But she had time, or so she hoped. Her coming of age wouldn’t be until the end of September, and if she remembered her maps correctly, they would easily reach Erebor by then, if they kept up this pace. If they did, then maybe they would let her stay long enough to deal with Smaug. The thought sent a chill down her spine, but it was a possibility. She had no idea how big Smaug would be, if he’d grown since taking Erebor, if he’d wasted away without a steady supply of food, but if anyone or anything could challenge him, she could. She knew exactly how big she’d be once her First Shift came (long enough to curl halfway around Hobbiton), she knew that she’d be well able to fight (with curved claws long enough to slot around the door to Bag-End, and teeth sharp and long enough to rip through trees like so much pastry, though without armor), and she knew that the Dwarves had no thought of fighting him except to use the Arkenstone to gather an army. 

Maybe… maybe if she killed Smaug, they wouldn’t kill her?

A nudge on her arm called her out of her thoughts, and she looked up, hiding a flinch, to meet Bofur’s smiling eyes. “Alright there, lass?” 

Blinking at him, she realized that night had fully fallen, and that Gandalf still hadn’t returned. An empty bowl was in her hands, and she realized, as well, that she’d eaten without even noticing. Smiling, and doing her best to keep it from being visibly self-deprecating, she met Bofur’s eyes again. “I’m fine, thank you. Do you need help with anything?”

He nodded, and she stood, brushing off her trousers. “Yeah, take these to the lads? They’re watching the ponies.” He held two bowls out to her, and she set off without any more fuss.

The way the Dwarves acted around her was odd. She’d seen them, a few times when she’d wandered off (to take care of business or to tend the ponies), when they were alone, when they didn’t realize she was watching, and they were… boisterous, she supposed would be the best word, or perhaps exuberant would be better. Then, when she returned to the group, they would all fall silent, and when they resumed their conversations, even if the subject was the same, their voices were low, and they were just generally restrained. Even Fíli and Kíli did it, and Gandalf never seemed to notice. It wasn’t much, compared to some of the other things she’d had to get used to, but it was one more reminder that she wasn’t really part of the Company.

She passed most of the ponies as she walked, keeping a careful eye on the bowls to make sure she didn’t spill, and as she passed, they all clacked their teeth at her, one by one, before returning to their grazing. She still wasn’t sure why they did that, but after a month, she didn’t really care. The siblings, on the other hand… 

She slowed to a stop as the tops of their heads came into view, facing away from her, and took a few moments to gather herself, safe in the knowledge that they hadn’t heard her coming. Fíli, she didn’t mind being around; she was fun, she’d had lots of tips about fighting with daggers for her, and Belda thought she might be a good friend, if Thorin let her stay. Granted, Belda still didn’t really understand why everyone pretended Fíli was male, despite Gandalf explaining it that first night before they rejoined the others. But Kíli… 

She couldn’t help it. Really, she couldn’t, but every time she saw him, she just wanted to reach up and feel his beard, or scruff or whatever he wanted to call it. It looked so scratchy and nice, and she was starting to think that that was her dragon instincts talking, but even so, she just wanted to touch hi— it, touch it, not him, that would be ridiculous. But still, ever since that first day of traveling, when he’d had his arm around her and his scent had surrounded her, even covering the scent of his pony, her heart had raced every time she was too close to him. He couldn’t hear it, she could tell, and she didn’t blush or sweat, and she was careful not to stammer or anything equally embarrassing, but still. Mortifying.

Almost as mortifying as the fact that Kíli tended to muddle her name first thing in the morning, and being called ‘Miss Boggins’ had become a bit of an inside joke between the two of them and Fíli. Well, that wasn’t mortifying in and of itself, but when one took into account how ridiculously pleased she felt whenever he used the nickname…

It didn’t help that she’d been riding with him because he and his sister had been protecting her, even if she would never have said, before that day, that she needed protection from her family. Escape, yes, but none of them had ever actually tried to harm her before then. Ignore? Yes. Starve? Yes. Lock the door to her room and board up the windows so that she couldn’t even tell what time of day it was, let alone escape? Yes. But never harm. She’d had Fíli’s blood on her jacket because she’d protected her; still had, in fact, as there hadn’t exactly been many chances to do laundry on the road. To her, though she was aware not to Dwarves, it had essentially been scent-marking. She’d had Kíli’s arm around her waist, and if she hadn’t been able to smell for herself that none of the Dwarves were shape-changers, she might have thought that the way his chin kept bumping into her hair had been scent-marking, as well. 

Whether or not he’d intended to, he had marked her, both of them had, and she had to remind herself, several times a day, now, that she wasn’t a member of their pack. But her heart didn’t seem to want to listen.

Once she was as composed as she was likely to get, she moved closer, intentionally making a bit of noise so that she wouldn’t surprise them, but even so, they didn’t move. There was just enough space between them for her to stand, though she was careful not to touch them (as that would be altogether too self-indulgent) as she presented the bowls to them. When they still didn’t move, she glanced between them several times (trying and failing not to let her eyes catch on Kíli’s beard and eyes and lips), before venturing, “What’s the matter?”

She was looking at Fíli as she asked, and so Kíli’s voice made her heart jump a tiny bit more than usual as her eyes leapt to him, and she had to force her eyes up to his, away from his lips. “We’re supposed to be looking after the ponies.”

“Only we’ve encountered a…” Fíli met her eyes nervously, and she remembered with a jolt that in Dwarf-years, Fíli was only a few years older than her. “…slight problem.”

“We had sixteen.” Stubbornly, she kept her eyes on Fíli, though Kíli’s voice again sped her heart a fraction.

“Now there’s fourteen.” 

Blood running cold, she looked out over the ponies as the siblings were doing. Thorin had been the one to assign them this duty, she remembered, and they looked up to him at least as much as she’d always looked up to her Mum. Instinct, though not reason, screaming that her pack-mates were in trouble, she could only form one coherent thought. “We are not telling Thorin.”

 

“Daisy and Bungo are missing.” The hair on the back of Belda’s neck was already standing up, but Kíli’s news didn’t help.

A pang of guilt struck her for not noticing that her own pony was gone, but try as she might, she could only tell Minty and Bungo apart by scent, and (the pony she now knew to be) Minty was grazing peacefully upwind a little ways off, just visible through the trees. Kíli was striding toward Fíli, standing by a felled tree on the other side of the clearing, and she moved to join them. She’d gone over halfway, past where she’d set the bowls down a minute earlier, before she was assaulted by the most horrible scent she’d ever had the misfortune to encounter. As quickly as she could, she clapped her hands over her nose and mouth, but she still had to fight a swell of nausea, the funk lingering on her tongue sickeningly. “Yavanna’s frost-bitten Ears, what the bloody den is that?!”

The siblings just furrowed their brows at her, and she realized she’d been muffled enough to be nearly incomprehensible. Kíli took a few steps toward her. “Miss Boggins?” 

This time, even the nickname couldn’t break through the revulsion the scent had brought up, and she shook her head helplessly, risking enough of a gap between her hands to make her words actually comprehensible. “You can’t smell it?” Almost immediately, she pressed her hands down again, though she moved a bit closer to the siblings as she groaned, “Ohh, now it’s in my mouth.” 

Quickly, she moved upwind of the tree, and risked a tiny sniff; evidently, the scent had mostly been on the tree, though there were still traces of it.

“What is it?” She just shook her head at Fíli; she had no idea. Fíli looked over the tree again, but was distracted quickly. “Hey. There’s a light.” She moved a bit further into the forest, jerking her head in the direction she was looking, and Belda hurried after her, along with Kíli; the two of them had been on the same side of the tree, after all. Clearly, how close they ended up beside each other, crouched behind another log, was a complete coincidence. And if she was just a tiny bit closer to him than to Fíli, well, that was just because of how uneven her footing was, of course. “Stay down.”

She leveled a flat glare at Fíli; she was not a silly fauntling, thank you, she knew very well how to hide in a forest. Endless games of hide-and-seek with her Mum had taught her that, and more besides. The sound of coarse, harsh laughter wafted to them as the wind shifted, and she clapped her hands back over her nose and mouth so roughly that she half-thought she’d have bruises in the morning. Gagging, she barely managed to answer Kíli’s questioning glance. “That would be the smell.”

More laughter, now accompanied by grunts, drifted toward them, and Kíli’s expression darkened tremendously; it tripled his resemblance to his uncle. “Trolls.”

In near-simultaneous blurs of movement, both siblings vaulted over the log and moved stealthily (for Dwarves) toward the distant campfire. For a moment, she tried to figure out how to follow them without moving her hands, and she allowed herself a petulant groan when it became evident that it would be impossible. Resignedly, she steeled herself against the reek and dropped her hands from her face, arms screaming at her when she tried to vault over the obstacle as the siblings had done; thanks to her training with Dwalin, she was already quite a bit stronger than she had been, but seeing as how she’d already been sore before all this…

She followed them easily, her old forest-skills returning quickly, though even so, she could tell she was rusty. The wind shifted again as she caught up, and a fresh, disgustingly strong dose of the scent made her eyes water terribly at the same moment that her hands shot up, of their own volition, to block her airways. The result was that she half-tripped, half-careened into Kíli, and he steadied her, hands on her waist, as they crouched behind a tree while the crashing of something huge and clumsy and far, far too close for comfort went past. From what she could see of his expression, he looked very concerned, and if her vision hadn’t been so blurry, she might have been able to appreciate it more, but as it was, she was just a bit preoccupied with the hulking shape she could just make out. 

Blinking away the blur, she forced herself to lower her hands to steady herself on the wood. “It’s got Myrtle and Minty!” 

It, or perhaps he, held one pony under each arm, and the way they whinnied, desperately trying to get away, sent a frisson of something dark and feral and possessive through her; with it came a phantom feeling of lashing a non-existent tail, and she had to consciously stop herself from baring her teeth or trying to extend claws that weren’t there yet. The fact that the Trolls intended to eat the ponies was self-evident, and she didn’t waste her breath on voicing it. 

But the siblings had told her more than enough stories of various hunting mishaps for her to know that they would have at least a fraction more idea what to do than she did. “What’s the plan?”

She kept her eyes on the camp as Fíli spoke, taking in what she could see of the Trolls, the ponies, the campsite as a whole. “We need more information.”

Kíli nodded, his hand tensing where it still rested on her back; she ignored the sensation as best she could, but her heart still raced. “We need to get closer.”

She stilled. “No. I need to get closer.” Kíli inhaled sharply, his hand clenching in her jacket, while Fíli shook her head rapidly; she looked between them as she hissed, “I can get closer than either of you, and they’ll never know I’m there, and I might be able to get the ponies away. Besides,” she looked toward the camp again, visions of herself rescuing the ponies and bringing them back single-handedly dancing tantalizingly at the back of her mind, with flashes of Gandalf’s proud smile, Dwalin’s gruff thanks, Thorin’s ready acceptance of her into the pack. If she did this, there was no way that they could call her useless, there was no way that they could send her away. “I’m the Burglar, aren’t I? Trolls would seem to be good practice for a dragon.” Not that she really intended to sneak up on Smaug, but you never knew. He might be bigger than she expected.

A low sound pulled her eyes to Kíli; he’d started to say something, but stopped himself before the word, whatever it had been, could be recognized. No, she realized, Fíli had stopped him, and the two of them had a quick, though heated, exchange in that language Bifur always spoke. With how rarely the others spoke it even when she was away from the camp, she guessed that it wasn’t meant for outsiders’ ears, much like Hobbitish, and so she politely pretended not to hear them. 

She couldn’t help listening anyway, though. The sound of it was like no language she’d ever heard before, like a thunderstorm in a forest, or perhaps a rockfall, but she’d never actually heard a rockfall, so she couldn’t be sure. After a minute or so, which she largely spent planning out a route to the camp that would keep her downwind of the Trolls, Fíli addressed her in Westron, and she turned to her. “You’ll just look around and come back.”

Delicately, she promised, nodding, “I’ll be careful.”

The siblings took that as promise enough and didn’t argue further when she slipped silently away; clearly, they weren’t used to Hobbits. Even the most honest Hobbits knew how important it was to say exactly what they meant, or run the risk of leaving a loophole to be exploited, and her Mum had made the teaching of it another game, like hide-and-seek, or as they’d called it, hide-and-track. Foxes were many things; they were stealthy, they were fierce, they were independent, and they were very, very clever. And a dragon she may be, but a fox-dragon she was, and she had learned her Mum’s lessons well.

Ignoring the both the Trolls’ stench and their conversation as best she could, she moved silently around the edge of their camp to the makeshift paddock. The ponies, as usual, clacked their teeth at her, but the sound was low and short enough to be easily missed by the raucous Trolls, and then they stood peacefully, not a sound to betray her. Huge, rough knots of rope formed the borders of the pen, knotted inexpertly by one who didn’t expect to untie them, and pulled too tightly for small Hobbit hands to tug loose. She stayed out of sight as one of the Trolls turned toward the ponies, gripping the fencepost lightly as she waited for him to turn away again; she could just hear the difference between which way he was facing.

“…ope you’re going to gut these nags. I don’t li…” Blood roared in her ears; the ponies shifted their weight nervously, she thought, and she tried to click her fingers to quiet them before she realized that she was gripping the fencepost with both hands, white-knuckled. Her jaw was clenched so tightly that she wasn’t sure she’d be able to speak if she tried, and again, she felt a phantom tail lashing behind her, phantom wings extended above her, fur and feathers alike bristling. She hadn’t taken the time earlier to wonder why she’d felt so possessive of a few ponies, but she understood now. 

The Dwarves were her pack, or she wanted them to be. They were her equals, her pack-mates, her Company. The ponies weren’t her pack. They were her herd. They were her responsibility. Mostly, they were hers. She couldn’t stop herself, this time, from baring her teeth as she let out a low growl, forgetting for a moment that she didn’t have fangs yet, and the ponies shuffled their feet again. A flash of irritated compassion drew her eyes to them, and she glared at them before guilt struck her like a thunderclap: they were afraid of her. They’d never been afraid of her before, but now they were, because… because she was angry. They’d always known what she was, but only now did they fear her, because only now was she letting her instincts lead her by the nose.

Closing her eyes, she regrounded herself with an exercise she’d seen her cousins do on occasion: breathing deeply, she clenched and stretched her fingers, rolling her shoulders, pushing away the phantom limbs and reminding herself that she was, in fact, a Hobbit, not a dragon. Slowly, the feral edges of her mind eased back to the distance she normally kept them at, and she opened her eyes to see that the ponies were calm again. Smiling, she nearly forgot why she was there. Too late, she realized that she couldn’t hear the Trolls anymore.

A flicker of movement was all the warning she had before a huge, craggy hand grabbed her, compressing the crouched position she’d been in so that her knees were forced against her chest, her feet nearly crushed, and her left elbow, caught between two fingers, felt as though it would snap off altogether, and take her arm with it. The pain took her breath away, and by the time she caught it again, she was flat on her back, the fire on one side, the Trolls on her other three.

“What is it?” One of them poked at her with a spoon, dripping something that smelled almost as foul as them onto her trousers. 

“It don’t smell like food,” a slightly smaller one quavered, “I don’t like it.”

“Shut it, Tom. It’s hardly big enough to be a mouthful, let alone a threat.” The third leaned toward her, sneering, and the glint of malevolent intelligence in his eyes chased her voice away. “It don’t half smell tasty, though.”

The first shook his head slowly. “I dunno, William. ‘Member those wargs we caught? They’s all stringy-sour.”

Tom nodded jerkily. “It smells like them, all sour and bitey. I’m not eatin’ it, not by no means.”

William leaned closer, close enough that she could either hold her breath or pass out from the stench, and took a deep sniff. “Smells like something else, too. Something ‘ee two’ll eat, p’haps.” Leaning back slightly, he jabbed her in the ribs hard enough to make her release her breath with a gasp, then jabbed her again, chuckling. “There’s more of ‘ee out there, ain’t there?”

Still catching her breath from the pain, she just glared venomously at him, then at Bert when he sniffed her, as well. “You’re right, William. It’s not alone.”

A sick churning in her gut at the idea of leading them to the Company gave her the strength to growl, “Yes, I am.”

Tom picked her up, none too gently, but she was being squashed all over, rather than into a ball, so she was able to keep her focus on him as he glared fearfully at her. “He’s lying.”

“No, I’m not, I’m alone!” The last word was half a scream as Tom tossed her to William, who caught her even more roughly than she’d been thrown. 

She couldn’t see Tom from her new position, but she recognized his voice. “Hold ‘is toes over the fire.” Terror swept away what breath she’d gathered; she was no fire-drake, and even in dragon-form she’d have no fondness for flames. “Make ‘im squeal!”

A screeching squeal came, then, and William loosened his grip on her just enough that she could twist to see that Tom was on the ground, holding his leg, and Kíli was glaring at the Trolls, sword in hand. “Drop her!” 

Her heart raced as she looked at him, but she couldn’t say whether it was more from fear for him or her own pain. She’d have shouted at him to run, but her voice had again abandoned her. William squeezed her in response to Kíli’s demand, though she wasn’t sure it hadn’t been a reflex. “You what?”

“I said,” Kíli’s eyes held hers for a moment, far darker than when he’d recognized the Trolls, before lifting to William’s again as he spun his sword. “Drop her.”

Muddled mind catching up to his words an instant too late, she tried to shake her head at him, but was interrupted by William doing exactly what she should’ve realized he would: he ‘dropped’ her on Kíli. Well, threw, but either way, she was airborne for a too-brief moment, then crashed painfully onto him, somehow not getting impaled in the process. She thought she might have shrieked a bit, but the sound of a dozen Dwarves bellowing war-cries filled her ears an instant later, so she wasn’t sure. 

She barely had time to register that she was, in fact, lying on top of Kíli before he moved her off of him, and then she was too busy keeping from crying out as her ribs screamed at her to answer Kíli honestly when he asked if she was alright; she just nodded and waved him toward the other Dwarves. She couldn’t, and wouldn’t, keep him from his family.

Watching the fight helplessly, she scooted backwards to a tree before she even attempted to stand: her feet ached fiercely, but not enough to keep her off of them; her ribs protested enough that she kept as straight as she could as she stood, and tried to breath shallowly; she couldn’t bring herself to use the arm that had been half-crushed at all. But the churning in her gut eased slightly as she saw that the Dwarves were holding their own; they didn’t seem to be winning, to her eyes, but they certainly weren’t losing. 

Frightened whinnies yanked her eyes past the fight, and she barely kept from snarling at the sight of her ponies in danger. Reining in her instincts, she nevertheless started to edge carefully around the clearing, avoiding the fight as much as she could. A glint of light caught her eye, and she scanned the ground for a moment until she found a huge dagger lying just where it could reflect the firelight. It was large and rough-made enough that it could only belong to the Trolls, but it would suit her purposes perfectly. Retrieving it was a tricky business, but within a minute or so, she was cutting through the ropes of the pen, the ponies waiting anxiously, but quietly nonetheless.

They rushed out as soon as she finished, away from the battle, and she watched them go with no small measure of relief. 

It was then, of course, that she was snatched up again, pressure on her injured arm tearing a scream from her throat. It was thankfully short, but was met by a sudden silence as William and Bert took hold of one arm and leg each. The continual pain in her arm and feet left her breathless and light-headed, but she could still see the Company’s faces as they stared up at her, wide-eyed. Time seemed to be moving a bit more slowly than usual, though her eyes didn’t want to move at the right speed; she heard Kíli yell her name as though through water, but by the time she met his eyes, Thorin was already holding him back.

“Lay down your arms…” William’s voice and breath were close enough to leave her slightly stunned, and she wasn’t sure if he said anything directly after that. The Company had recovered from their shock quickly, and to a one, they held their weapons high, ready to attack, and she met Thorin’s eyes desperately, trying to wordlessly plead with him not to do what William said. He didn’t seem to understand, though, so she looked to Kíli, who looked even more angry than when he’d tried to rescue her before, but his only reaction was to narrow his eyes even further. “…or we’ll rip his off!”

Panic shot through her, and she shook her head frantically, struggling against their hold as best she could. “NO! No, Thorin, don’t d—” The two Trolls tightened their grips on all four of her limbs, and pain whited out her vision for an eternity; a piercing scream rang in her ears, and it wasn’t until she could see again and registered that her throat felt raw that she realized it had been her screaming.

Clanking metal called her attention back to the Company, and her heart plummeted as the last few, Kíli included, threw down their weapons. As Tom began the process of stuffing the Dwarves, one by one, into sacks, William and Bert kept their hold on her, though for whatever reason, they did slacken their grips a fraction. But even if she’d been able to slip free, which her arm guaranteed she wasn’t, she still would have hung limply in their grip. 

The Company was in danger, would be killed, because of her. She’d been an impulsive idiot, a fool of a Took, and a selfish waste of a Baggins, like her family always said. 

She’d put herself above the pack, and now the pack would pay the price.

Chapter Text

The Trolls dropped Belda into her sack, tying it tightly enough that she had to be careful how she held her head to avoid cutting her air off. There was a brief discussion, after that, over whether to put her with the others or not, which she didn’t bother paying attention to, but evidently they decided it would be too much of a risk, and she was tossed to the ground a ways away from the Company; the collision with the stone knocked her breath away, but it was a small mercy in that she had no breath to scream again. She was on her back, so she could at least let her head fall back against the ground without suffocating, and she closed her eyes rather than face the Company’s accusing glares. 

It also had the slim benefit that then she didn’t have to look at the half-naked half of the Company as one by one, Dori, Nori, Ori, Bofur, Bifur, and Dwalin were pulled out of their sacks, stripped of everything but their long underwear, and tied to a log that William set to turn over a fire. She’d tried not to listen to any of the proceedings until then, but at that point, a surge of self-disgust rolled over her, and she focused on the conversation again. If she was to be the last to die—as seemed likely, since two out of three Trolls had no interest in eating her—she deserved nothing less than to listen to each and every one of her pack’s last moments. 

And every sound would serve as a reminder that it was her fault, that she was to blame. That she got them killed.

“…ould be sautéed and grilled, with a sprinkle of sage.”

Tom replied to Bert, sounding much closer to her than the cook was, “Ooh, that does sound quite nice.”

“Never mind the seasoning.” William, on the other hand, sounded about as far away as the other two. “We ain’t got all night. Dawn ain’t far away, let’s get a move on!” More quietly, he muttered, “I don’t fancy being turned to stone.”

Belda’s eyes shot open; that was right! Her Mum had told her a story or two of Trolls, and that was right, direct sunlight petrified them! Whether it was permanent or temporary depended on the story, but if she could delay them, just until sunrise, a day would be more than enough time, plenty of time, to save her pack! 

Thinking furiously, she gritted her teeth and wrestled up to sit with her back to the stone, breathing harshly with the effort it took not to cry out and draw attention to herself. Bracing her right shoulder against the stone, she pushed up to her feet, and spoke as soon as she was able to do so with enough breath to mimic the Trolls’ accent; her Mum had always said it was a surefire way to swindle a measure of trust from complete strangers, and if there was ever a time to test it…

“Oi! What ‘ee think you’re doin’?” 

All motion in the camp either slowed or stilled, though Tom scurried away from her laughably quickly. William, being the most intelligent Troll by leagues, was the first to speak. “You what?”

Almost as soon as he spoke, the Dwarves found their voices again, shouting various insults and criticisms, but she did her best to ignore the barbs; she’d had plenty of practice in Bag-End, but even so, each and every one felt like a well-deserved knife in her heart. “‘Ee can’ cook dwarves like ‘at, no’ and keep th’ flavor.”

William eyed her suspiciously. “What do you know about cooking Dwarf?”

Ignoring the way her ribs shrieked as the motion pulled on them, she straightened to her full height, glaring as fiercely as she’d been wanting to since she first saw him with her ponies. “I know ‘at sage’ll on’y make ‘em bi’er, and ‘at roasting ‘em ‘ike ‘at’ll make ‘em taste ‘ike smoke, no’ Dwarf.”

Bert eyed her nervously. “Mayhaps we should listen, William. ‘Ee sounds ‘ike ‘ee knows.”

She heard a muttered, “‘Ee would know”, from Tom, but focused on the other two; they’d be the ones to fool.

“‘At’s righ’, I do know, know ‘at ‘ee should get ‘em down fro’ there afore all the flavor’s covered up.”

“An’ ‘ow would ‘ee cook ‘em?”

Giving in to the urge to bare her teeth at William, a feral sort of satisfaction rose in her as he flinched slightly. “Skin ‘em, o’ course!” The Company redoubled their abuses, but she spoke over them. “Gets rid o’ all ‘at nasty hair an’ all, an’ then you put the skins into a pot, boil it up into a broth, save it for th’ next meal!”
Dwalin’s voice just broke through the other’s, more accusing than she’d ever heard him, and she couldn’t quite say why it hurt more from him. Bert looked ready to follow her advice, but William spoke before he could do anything. “Wha’ a load of rubbish! I’ve et plen’y wi’ their skins on. Scarf ‘em, I say, boots an’ all!” 

Despite his words, he didn’t look quite as sure as he sounded, and a spark of hope flared up, fanned by a faint, silvery scent that she would have recognized in the middle of a dungheap, though she wasn’t sure Trolls were preferable; Gandalf was back, and near enough for the wind, weak as it was, to carry a trace of him to her. For an instant, she was terrified that the Trolls had caught the scent, as well, but Tom’s next words disproved that in possibly the least relieving way possible. 

“‘Ee’s right! Nothin’ wrong wi’ a bit o’ raw Dwarf.” He was on the other side of Bert, otherwise she would have seen what he was doing before then, but he helpfully lifted Bombur high enough for her to see him over the spit, and high enough that there was only one thing he could be planning. “Nice an’ crunchy.”

Panic flaring through her, she shouted out desperately, “No, ‘ee can’ ea’ ‘im, ‘ee’s… ‘Ee’s got…” For a horrible instant, her mind was completely blank, and she blurted the first thing that came to mind. “Worms! In ‘is tubes!”

Tom didn’t look convinced yet, but he did turn towards her and lower Bombur a fraction. “You what?”

“Oh, aye!” She nodded confidently as she scrambled for an explanation. “Can’ ‘ee smell it? ‘Ee’s infected, ‘ee an’ ‘is.” As she nodded to the Dwarves as a whole, Tom dropped Bombur with a yelp, and Bert was looking at the Dwarves on the spit uneasily. As such, she directed most of her next toward William, though she tried to look toward Bert and Tom often enough not to seem as though she were staring at any one of them. “I ‘ad a friend once, et a dwarf ‘ad worms i’ his tubes, and she swoled up ’til she burst!” As Tom scurried toward William, Bert backed toward Belda and away from the spit. “‘Er guts went everywhere, an’ ‘undreds an’ ‘undreds of ‘ittle worms came crawlin’ ou’ of ‘er, crawlin’ righ’ towards us, ‘twere a righ’ proper stampede! Like all the pasta ‘ee ever et, comin’ back t’ get ‘ee!”

The protests from the Company had gradually faded as her explanation got more sensational, and she thought they might have been starting to catch on that she was making it all up; the ones of the spit that she could see certainly looked less angry than they had. But unfortunately, William still looked suspicious as he stalked towards her. 

“An’ what would ‘ee ‘ave us do? Let ‘em all go?” A shiver crept up her spine; she tried to scoff at the accusation, but he still scowled at her, towering over her. “Do ‘ee think I don’t know wha’ you’re up to?” Turning away from her again to face the other two, he raised his voice. “This li’le ferret is takin’ us for fools!”

“The dawn will take you all!” Gandalf’s voice rang though the clearing, coming from somewhere above Belda, and she nearly collapsed with relief. Then the rock behind her moved and she did fall, landing painfully on her side as sunlight streamed into the cleared and struck all three Trolls full-on; they screamed and writhed as their skin hardened, but within moments it was done. Three hulking statues were all that was left of them.

She was facing them, and therefore the Company, and she could see them clearly as they cheered Gandalf, grinning, other than Dwalin, who was justifiably impatient. Closing her eyes as relief made her boneless, she let her head fall to the ground and flopped onto her back to take the pressure off her injured arm. Gandalf’s scent, silvery and unlike any other, drifted over to her as she listened to him climb down to the clearing; he’d always smelled like rain, to her. Not like the actual scent of rain, but like the look of rain through a window, or like moonlight on a cloudy night as it streamed down in thick, intangible bands.

To contrast, what she thought she had pinned down as ‘Dwarf-scent’ was something like the feeling of raw stone under her hands, while Thorin, Kíli, and the rest’s family-scent was something like the chill of cold metal mixed with the thrill of standing just a tad too close to a bonfire. Bofur, Bombur, and Bifur’s family-scent, though, was like her Da’s carvings and the slightly-rough iron of the old cookware. Fíli’s personal scent was like paper and metal. Dwalin’s was like curling up in front of the fireplace and stargazing with her Da. Kíli’s personal scent, though she tried not to think of it often, was like sneaking sips of her Da’s Midsummer ale when he wasn’t looking and running through the woods with her Mum.

But reality edged out her musings, and her mood drifted down as she thought over the events of the night. She was still in pain, though she’d either found the one position that didn’t hurt too much or she was too exhausted to notice overmuch, but that was secondary. All of what had happened had been her fault. Her fault that she’d been caught, her fault that she’d been used as a bargaining chip, her fault that the Company had nearly died any number of times, her fault that they’d come within a hair’s-breadth of being eaten. Her fault. Her pack, and it had been her fault.

Involuntarily, her thoughts went to the Company: Kíli’s anger when the Trolls had had her; Thorin’s when he’d surrendered, and Kíli’s then, too; the entire Company’s vitriol for getting them caught. They must hate her. How could they not? Their insults and criticisms repeated again and again inside her mind, and each refrain was more convicting than the last.

The fabric at the sides of her neck tightened slightly, and she opened her eyes to see that Gandalf was untying the sack, expression as dark as the Company’s; as soon as he had it loose enough, she pulled it down herself with her good hand, nodding to the Dwarves. “Help them.” 

“My dear—” Guilt-ridden as she was, the idea of listening to any false sympathy or condemnations couched in sugary words seemed worse than reliving everything with the Trolls again.

Heat sparking at the backs of her eyes, she met his gaze with a glare. “They need help, I don’t. Help. them.”

The look he gave her as he stood was was more disappointed than any words could convey, and she had to rest her head on her knees for several minutes before she thought she could do anything without breaking down entirely. It might not have taken as long, but every time she heard the Company’s voices, she remembered their anger— Thorin’s, Kíli’s, and Dwalin’s most of all.


 

Dwalin

 

Dwalin could barely slow his movements enough not to rip his tunic in twain as he dressed. The Halfling was sitting where she had been since Gandalf saved all their lives, not a finger lifted for the Company, not even an attempt to ask if they were well. It was sickening, and he could hardly stand to look at her. 

He had more than a few articles to collect before he could decently approach her, not as many as some, but it took him longer to find them, and the Company in general was occupied with other matters by the time he moved to stand in front of the chit. Her hair had entirely escaped the clumsy tie, and covered her ears enough that he couldn’t see whether or not she’d heard him, and for a moment, he just examined her, as he might have any stranger. She was filthy, as all of them were, and her feet were near black with grime. Her left arm, nearest him, laid limply on the dirt. Slowly, she raised her head to meet his eyes, a stubborn defiance in the green even now.

He shook his head, and didn’t bother to try and stop his disgust from showing. “I ought to shear ye for what you’ve done. You don’t even know why, do ye?” Her eyes widened a hair at the question, then narrowed again as she pushed herself languidly to her feet. “Do you even know how many times you nearly killed us all?”

“Eight.”

The word was nearly inaudible, and if he hadn’t seen her mouth move, he might not have heard it at all. Accustomed, after decades of training spineless youths, to hearing nonstop excuses, the straightforward answer was unexpected enough that he could only growl, “What?”

As before, she held her ground against him, though he noticed that she didn’t even have the dignity to straighten fully. But her eyes and voice were sure, though the latter was still quiet. “I should’ve insisted we tell Thorin when we heard the Trolls, I should’ve just scouted like I said I would, I shouldn’t have let myself get caught, I should’ve told Kíli to run,” her voice cracked on the Prince’s name, but she didn’t slow, “I shouldn’t have been stupid enough to get caught again, I should’ve kept yelling for you all to leave me, no matter how they—” Her breath hitched and light began to gather along her lower lid, but she continued after a moment, “I should’ve done something sooner, and most of all, I should’ve told Thorin at the start.” He didn’t know how to react. After a moment of silence, she inhaled sharply, her expression tightening faintly. “Did I miss anything?”

The question was more what he would expect from someone her age, but the tone wasn’t; rather than sarcastic or hostile, it was almost interrogatory, as though she actually wanted to know if she’d left any mistakes out. And while he might, perhaps, expect that from a Dwarrow whose pride had been dented, her tone wasn’t right for that, either; not angry or bitter, or at least not at him. More than anything else, she sounded and looked as though she were angry at herself. One point niggled at him, and he glowered at her. “If we’d have left you, you’d have died.”

He’d expected shock, perhaps delayed fear, but not the harsh sincerity as she glowered up at him in turn. “Exactly.”

Brow furrowing as he stared at her, she finally seemed to lose her courage, and lowered her head. Sniffling almost too quietly to hear, she slunk away, but he couldn’t follow her. He was frozen, still trying to believe that he’d actually heard what he had. She’d just said, with more honesty than he thought she’d shown since they’d come across her in that farm-town, that they should have let her be torn apart by Trolls rather than save her. She was Kíli’s age, and female, and completely inexperienced when it came to fighting and such, and she wished she’d told them all not to rescue her. 

No, he thought over her words again, she wished that she’d kept telling them not to rescue her. The thought didn’t seem to fit, until he went over her words before she screamed again. ‘No, Thorin, don’t d—‘. The scream, bloodcurdlingly young, had interrupted her, but he’d just assumed that she’d been begging them not to leave her. But…‘Don’t desert me’? Try as he might, that was the only wording that would fit that explanation. But ‘don’t do what they say’? ‘Don’t die for me’? Those made much more sense. And when Fíli had come running to tell them that the Burglar was in trouble, she’d stammered out something about losing the ponies before the Halfling had brought their food, but in her explanation, Belda hadn’t said anything about the pups’ culpability, only her own. She hadn’t taken any credit for delaying the Trolls until Gandalf got there, either, only said that she should have done it sooner.

She hadn’t tried to excuse her actions, she hadn’t tried to lessen her mistakes, she hadn’t tried to mitigate his anger. She hadn’t acted anything like he’d expected.


 

Gandalf

 

Olórin meandered through the campsite while the Dwarves busied themselves; it had all turned out well, all things considered. When he’d realized the trouble they were in, he’d been sure that he would be too late, but instead found Belda winding the creatures around her fingers, much as her mother had used to do with less lethal prey. He glanced at her, frowning. He’d had over a month to confirm that, as he would expect from the child of Bungo and Belladonna Baggins, Belda was clever, hardworking, dedicated, and often took the initiative when she saw something to be done, even if her efforts were rarely noticed.

The girl he’d grown to know would have found a way out of that bag, and would have jumped to untie the Company. She wouldn’t wait passively to be saved, and she wouldn’t sit back and doze while people—people she’d spent a month growing fond enough of for even him to notice—needed her help. Not unless something was wrong. He’d nearly made up his mind to go and get a straight answer from her, in fact, when he saw Dwalin walking over. Dwalin was a good man; tough, but fair and honest, and, like all Dwarves, almost excessively protective of women and children. He’d see she was taken care of.

As he turned back to his wandering, he nearly hit his arm on one Troll’s nose, and regarded it thoughtfully for a moment before tapping it on the head with his staff, smiling at the satisfyingly solid sound of the impact. “Where did you go to, if I may ask?”

Thorin’s voice broke him out of his reverie, and he answered simply, “To look ahead.”

“What brought you back?”

There was something almost satisfied in the King’s stance, and Olórin let his expression darken just slightly, lest the Dwarf forget why he’d left the Company in the first. “Looking behind.” Catching the faint reprimand in his tone, Thorin inclined his head, half-smiling, but the Trolls caught Olórin’s attention again. “Nasty business.” And not often as bloodless as it had been this time; Olórin had to force a small measure of cheer into his voice. “Still, all in one piece.”

Thorin’s expression darkened with his voice. “No thanks to the girl.”

Stilling, Olórin narrowed his eyes at the Dwarf, and his voice was a bit sharper than he’d intended. “She had the nous to play for time.”

Thorin snapped, “She nearly got herself killed.”

“Perhaps, and yet she is still the reason your Company is alive. Or did any of you think to keep the Trolls talking?” For a few seconds, Thorin held his gaze. Then, slowly, the righteous fury faded and his eyes dropped.

When he spoke, his voice was pitched to reach Olórin’s ears, but not the Company’s. “No. But even so, she might have died as easily as snap a twig.”

Thinking back to a thousand memories of coming across Belladonna in the midst of one or another of her adventures, whether at the top of a tree, standing on a precipice, or dining with Elves, Olórin murmured, “I find that difficult to believe.”

“You didn’t hear her scream.” At that, his eyes jumped to Thorin, and to say that he was surprised by how haunted the King’s eyes looked would have been a vast understatement. “I will not be responsible for the death of a child, Gandalf, and especially not a girl.”

Seeing the honesty in his face, Olórin nodded. “I understand. But,” Thorin looked at him dubiously, “I doubt you understand the differences between Hobbits and Dwarves.”

“I understand that she is more fragile by far, Tharkûn.”

Olórin just raised an eyebrow at him. “Physically, yes, but where a Dwarrowdam would have fought to the last breath, no matter how futile the effort, Hobbits, and especially anyone related to Belladonna Took, will slip and hide and scurry away, just far enough to gain an advantage, any advantage, before striking with at least the precision of a Dwarf, if not the strength. Besides which,” Olórin leaned down slightly to make sure he was heard, and heard well, “If Belda does, in fact, lose her life on this Quest, you may be assured of two things. Firstly, that I know of no force under Eru that can keep a Hobbit from doing anything he or she wishes to, and second…” Grief settling over him again at the thought of Belda’s death, he lowered his voice further. “Second, if she does lose her life, you may be assured that the blame will lie entirely with me, not with you.”

Thorin didn’t look convinced, but he accepted the statement with a nod, before looking over the statues again. “These are mountain Trolls. Since when do they venture south of the Ettenmoors?”

“Not for an Age.” He met Thorin’s eyes for a moment, before remembering those awful years. “Not since a darker power ruled these lands.” Pulling himself just far enough out of the memories to look around him again, he scowled at the Trolls. “They could not have moved in daylight.”

“There must be a cave nearby.”

Olórin nodded. “We ought to ask Belda.”

Thorin stilled in the middle of moving toward the Company. “Unless Hobbits are routinely in league with creatures such as these, I fail to see the point of that.”

Moving far enough up to catch his eye, Olórin gave him a scathing glance. “If there is one thing that I am sure of in this world, she will be able to find it far more easily than any of you.” And just maybe the requisite explanation about Hobbit senses would be the first step before she would tell the Company about other Hobbit traits. He raised his voice slightly. “Belda!”

There was no answer, and a sense of foreboding edged in. 

“Belladonna!” Apprehension intensifying, he moved back toward the campsite and where he’d seen her last, Thorin hot on his heels, but he saw only Dwarves looking back at him with no small measure of confusion. A twinge of panic prompted him to bellow, “KIT!”

“Here.” The single, quiet word came from the far side of the camp, or, more accurately, from the trees that bordered the clearing, where Belda stood, half-hidden behind Myrtle, with the rest of the ponies milling about behind her. As he watched, she flushed darkly and ducked her head; her mutter was barely audible, and from that distance, incomprehensible.


 

Fíli

 

Fíli scanned the camp again, frowning as a certain curly head of hair was still nowhere to be seen. She and Kíli had been too busy helping to take down the spit to check on Belda, and then Balin and Glóin had drafted them into helping collect the weapons and such that had been scattered around the campsite, so by the time either of them had been able to go and talk to her, she’d been gone. Kíli had been frantic since they’d first realized they couldn’t see her, but she’d had a lifetime of experience dealing with her excitable little brother and had managed to keep him from tearing apart the camp looking for her. She’d been sure that Belda had just slipped off to help Gandalf or someone on the other side of the Trolls, but now she was starting to think that maybe he’d been right to worry.

She liked Belda. She’d never had much opportunity to socialize with other Dwarrowdams, especially ones as close to her age as Belda was. Her Amad and Thorin had wanted her to have the best education possible, to be the best Queen she could be, assuming that she didn’t take one of the multiple opportunities they were careful to give her to relinquish her claim on the throne. No Dwarf would ever force a Dwarrowdam into doing something she didn’t wish to do, and doubly so as huge a responsibility as ruling. 

She never took any of their openings, though. Being Thorin’s Heir was part of who she was; she couldn’t imagine herself doing anything else, at least not happily. She didn’t begrudge her family anything, and she wouldn’t change Kíli for anything, but even so, it was different to talk to women than to men.

It was annoying, having to pretend she was male, but even so, Belda never seemed to care that she was surrounded by men. And now Belda was… Fíli hesitated to even think ‘missing’, but the longer she searched with no sign of the Halfling, the more alarmed she felt. Hearing Tharkûn call for the Burglar only made her worry worse, and even more so when he called her full name. Fíli had only heard him call her that four times: when he’d first recognized her; when he’d tried to talk her out of coming; when he’d been angry at how she’d referred to the little stone-throwing menace; and when he’d pulled her away for a private word.

All four had been the first day she’d traveled with them. She’d been ‘Belda’ since. That, as much as the raw fear in his voice, was chilling. 

“KIT!”

“Here.” Fíli’s eyes snapped to the voice automatically, her relief morphing into confusion after a heartbeat; why would Belda have responded to ‘kit’? She looked well, at least, though she seemed to be slouching a bit more than usual, and she’d found all of the ponies, somehow or other. She did seem to be strangely good with the creatures, and for no particular reason, as far as Fíli could tell. But regardless, Belda was standing just inside the treeline, and as Fíli watched, she flushed and ducked her head far enough down that Fíli didn’t think anyone but Gandalf, who was tall enough to see over the ponies, and Fíli and Kíli, the only members on the Company standing on the same side of Myrtle as Belda, could see the girl. Fíli thought they were also the only members of the Company close enough to hear her mutter, “The ponies were wandering.”

Tharkûn looked as though he would say something, but Thorin spoke first. “The Trolls had a cave. Where?” Fíli frowned at him, confused. How was Belda supposed to know? But Belda just pointed, hand unwavering. Thorin didn’t look pleased, but he jerked his head in the direction she indicated. “Dwalin, Nori.”

The two of them left the group in relative silence; Thorin was speaking with Tharkûn too quietly for Fíli to hear, the other families were doing much the same, Balin was watching Belda, and Kíli moved to stand beside Fíli. He started to move toward the Hobbit, but Fíli held him gently back with a hand on his arm. The air in the clearing was tense, strangely so. Balin’s expression was forbidding as he stared at the girl, the others, including Thorin, all glanced at her every few seconds, and Belda herself still hadn’t moved other than to lower her hand. 

A delighted whoop came from the direction she’d indicated, and the Company moved toward it without any further reservations; it could only be Nori, and it could only be because he’d found something worth stealing.

But Fíli kept her hand on Kíli’s arm, and the two of them waited until Thorin was out of earshot before moving toward Belda. A few seconds before they’d started to move, so had she, away from them, and somehow managed to keep fifteen ponies nearly silent as they trailed behind her. Still, Fíli and Kíli weren’t half as skilled as she, and they crashed after her for a minute or two before she stopped. She kept her head down as she waited, and a glimpse of stone through the trees made Fíli realize that she’d circled around the camp to be on the opposite side of it from the Company. 

Kíli moved ahead of Fíli, and reached toward Belda, but she moved back just far enough to avoid his hands. “Are you alright? Has Óin seen to you? How did you know where the cave was? How did you collect the ponies so quickly?”

She met his gaze with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes and a tired tone that still tried to reassure. “I’m fine, Kíli. And the ponies like me, you know that.”

She gave Fíli a small smile when she stopped beside her brother, but Fíli’s concern only grew. “But how did you find the cave?” It wasn’t the most important issue at hand, she knew, but even so, she wanted to know. Besides which, with how oddly Belda was acting, Fíli wasn’t sure that she would give them a straight answer about anything.

As she’d half expected, Belda just deflected the question with a half-shrug, “It stinks worse than they did.”

“But how could you smell it from so far away? And how did you smell the Trolls in the first place? They weren’t even in earshot.” Fíli had made her inquiries as gently as she could, not wanting Belda to think that she was interrogating her, but the girl’s expression shuttered as Fíli spoke, and she lowered her head just a fraction, but enough that her curls bounced forward to hide her face.

Fíli exchanged a worried glance with Kíli, but Belda answered quietly enough that they had to focus entirely on her for fear of mishearing anything. “Because I could. Hobbits have excellent senses of smell, and Troll-stench is acrid enough to scent from a mile away, if the wind’s right. Everything that they touched smells like them now, including all of us, which is why the ponies tried to run away, and why I wanted to take them upwind of the cave; like I said, it reeks worse than the Trolls did.”

“But why couldn’t you tell us that before?” Eyeing her little brother, Fíli thought it would be a miracle if he hadn’t actually turned into a puppy by the end of the Quest; it really was ridiculous how infatuated he was, even if he was hiding it. But looking at him now, all pleading puppy-eyes, she just couldn’t believe that the Hobbit couldn’t see it.

But Belda actually looked up at him, if only just enough to meet his eyes, just as pleadingly as he was looking at her. “Because it’s a secret, Kíli. Hobbits hide. It’s how we survive, how we’ve survived for Ages. The less outsiders know about us, the better.”

Her voice had lowered as she went, so that she was almost inaudible at the end, and the three of them stood in silence for a few moments as her words sunk in. The mood was abruptly broken by the sound of Thorin bellowing for his Heirs, and Kíli met Fíli’s eyes almost desperately for an instant before turning to Belda again, speaking rapidly. “You won’t leave, you can’t, promise you won’t!”

She’d flinched, just perceptibly, at the word ‘leave’, clearly hurt by the implication, but nodded with a smile a tiny bit more genuinely reassuring than before. “I might move if the wind shifts, but I’ll stay in earshot. I promise.”

Thorin bellowed again, and Fíli, regretfully, tugged Kíli into turning to go. She met Belda’s eyes for a split second as she did, offering the girl all she could: a smile, a nod, and wordless thanks. As they moved through the camp, Kíli’s expression was hurt, his eyes distant, and Fíli elbowed him, guessing at his thoughts. “We haven’t told her about Khuzdûl, or that I’m a woman. She’s allowed to have her own secrets.”

Smiling ruefully, he shook his head. “I hate it when you do that.”

Mock-pompously, she stuck her chin in the air. “Too bad; it’s my job to know what you’re thinking.” He raised one impish eyebrow; she tugged on a few strands of his hair like she’d used to when they were younger. “Including when you’re plotting to put nettles in my bedroll, Kee.”

His mouth dropped, but they’d reached the cave by then, so he couldn’t reply. He and Fíli were both too busy holding their noses.

The cave was, overall, disgusting. The piles of gold and weapons were enticing, that much was true, but even so, the stench nearly made Fíli wish she’d stayed back with Belda, who’d clearly made the right decision in getting as far away as she could. There was nothing she needed there, but as she turned to leave, she felt something metal under her foot. A quick, curious inspection yielded a small blade, barely more than a dagger, and of a finer make than anything else in the cave but the swords that Thorin was inspecting. It was almost too small for her, and she nearly dropped it, but then she remembered watching Belda from the forest, how she might have gotten away with the ponies if she’d had a blade to cut the ropes, how she’d been the only person in the ensuing mêlée to be unarmed. Coming to a decision swiftly, as she’d been taught, Fíli climbed out of the cave again and strode toward where she’d left Belda.

Belda wasn’t there, but it only took Fíli a moment or two longer to realize that the wind had shifted, and a moment or two after that to locate where Belda and the ponies had wandered to. As soon as she was close enough, she offered the blade to her, hilt-first. “Here.” Belda just looked at it, wide-eyed, then up at Fíli again; looking at the blade, Fíli realized it was filthy, and hurriedly wiped it on her jacket as best she could. “Sorry, is that better?”

Hesitantly, Belda took the dagger, large enough in her hand to be a short sword, and looked blankly between it and Fíli for a moment. Seeming to understand at last, her eyes widened, and she held it out to Fíli. “No, I can’t take this.”

Fíli pushed the blade gently back toward Belda, frowning. “You need a weapon of your own, Belda, and I know you didn’t do well with the swords we gave you to try, but this is just your size, and light enough for you to use, too.” A thought occurred to her. “Unless this is a Hobbit thing? You can’t use it because it’s offensive or something?”

Immediately, Belda shook her head, and Fíli let out a small, relieved breath. “No, it’s not that, it’s just— This looks valuable, Fíli. Too valuable, and after what happened…” Belda’s shoulders slumped as she trailed off, and Fíli bent down enough to see a blank expression on the Hobbit’s face, too much like when she’d thought she’d offended her and Kíli that first day for comfort. “Well, Thorin’s not going to want me around anymore, is he.” Shaking her head again, she offered the weapon to Fíli, eyes a tiny bit watery. “I can’t accept something like this if I’m not going to be able to keep it.”

Fíli’s blood was cold; she’d forgotten that Belda’s presence on the Quest was only probationary, that with how close they were to Rivendell, Thorin could easily send her away. She shook her head sharply at the thought, regretting it when Belda flinched back slightly. “No, Belda, keep it. If nothing else, take it as a gift from me to you. If Thorin doesn’t like the fact that I claimed a trophy from the hoard and chose to do with it as I will, he’ll have to take it up with me, not you. But Belda,” she crouched down to be level with her, placing her hands comfortingly on her shoulders, “I’m going to tell you something my mother told me when she gave me my first sword: ‘true courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one’. Do you understand?”

Belda’s eyes were shining more now, but she gave Fíli a genuine, if wry, smile. “I think I do. Thank you, Fíli.”

“Something’s coming!” Sharing a glance with Belda, Fíli rushed toward Thorin’s voice, hearing a parade of ponies behind her.

Chapter Text

Fíli was only half-listening to Belda and Kíli talk; she could hear in Belda’s voice that she was still upset, but Kíli was doing his level best to cheer her up, and every now and then, he actually managed to coax a laugh from the Hobbit. Gandalf and the other Man, Radagast, had been talking for several minutes, but Fíli and the other two were far enough from them that she couldn’t hear any of their conversation. If she’d been alone, she would’ve preferred to be a bit closer, but the ponies couldn’t go any further down the hill, Belda refused to leave the ponies, Kíli refused to leave Belda, and Fíli didn’t trust her brother not to get himself killed if she wasn’t watching him.

But no, neither the conversation she could hear or the one she couldn’t were the focus of her thoughts. She was trying to think of how to convince Thorin to let Belda come along. She couldn’t argue the fact that what had happened with the Trolls had been partially because of Belda’s actions, but Belda had been trying to help her and Kíli, and besides, the Trolls might have stormed the camp anyway, if they’d had the time to realize that there were Dwarves to be eaten. Belda was probably the reason they were all alive, and absolutely the reason they still had all their ponies.

Besides which, she was almost eerily silent when she wanted to be, and when she’d been sneaking toward the Trolls, Fíli had been watching the entire time, and it had almost seemed that between one blink and the next, Belda had completely disappeared, and Fíli hadn’t caught sight of her again until she emerged by the ponies. Kíli had been tracking her the entire time, running commentary to Fíli, but even he’d lost sight of her several times, and the only reason he’d been able to find her again was that, as an archer, he was so skilled at tracking his target that he had a knack for guessing where Belda would next appear when she disappeared. Fíli had gone to get the Company when the Trolls first noticed Belda, so she hadn’t seen how, exactly, she’d been captured, but she did know that if it hadn’t been for Belda’s quick thinking, they might have all been lost. 

They needed her. She’d be invaluable on the Quest, and she was a quick learner, even if she was half the weight and strength of a Dwarrowdam. She was young, true, but so was Kíli, and so was Fíli, when it came down to it. With how stealthy she was, she’d likely be able to get in and out of Erebor with Smaug none the wiser; with how clever she was, she’d likely be able to deal with any weed-eaters or Men the Company had to face; with how good she was with the ponies, they’d likely be able to bring the mounts much farther than they might have on their own. They needed her. And after what had happened in the Shire, Fíli thought that Belda probably needed them, too.

Now she just had to convince Thorin.

A pang of guilt stabbed at her, and she had to look away from Belda; she should’ve been trying to convince Thorin for weeks now, as Belda must have been. She never really tried to get Thorin’s attention, but Fíli had seen her glance at him the first time she dismounted by herself, and when she’d settled on daggers, and half a dozen other times that Fíli hadn’t been able to find a pattern in. 

To be honest, she hadn’t really seen it before, but in her defense, Belda didn’t act like a Dwarrowdam. She stayed at the edges of everything unless Fíli or Kíli drew her in, and even then rarely offered any information about herself, only asked about the others. She did the work of two Dwarrow with the ponies, but Fíli wouldn’t have known that if Kíli hadn’t pointed it out to her a week after Belda’s lessons with Dwalin had begun, and she doubted anyone else had even noticed how much better tended the beasts were now. It had gotten to the point that Fíli was sure that Belda’s absence would be felt as soon as she was gone, but while she was here, it was almost too subtle to believe. 

If she’d been a Dwarrowdam, how unobtrusive she was being would have been a sure sign that she didn’t want to be there, but the deadened, desolate expression she’d had when she’d tried to turn down the blade left Fíli in no doubt whatsoever that Belda did want to be part of the Company, and at least as badly as she and Kíli had, at that. It just wasn’t easy to see. But then again, Belda had said that Hobbits’ survival was literally built on secrecy and hiding. With that in mind, her behavior made much more sense. But what neither she nor the rest of the Company seemed to realize was that there was a gap, no, a chasm between their ways of thinking: Hobbits survived by hiding; Dwarves survived by being very, very visible. Ori was probably the most Hobbit-y Dwarf in the Company by that logic, and even he couldn’t help being more than a little obvious at times.

Such as now. He was sitting with his older brothers, writing something— no, he was drawing, with as focused an expression as Fíli had ever seen from any Dwarf working at his or her craft. Well, with the exception of the fact that he also had his tongue sticking out, just barely, between his lips. It was almost unbearably sweet, especially combined with his truly unfortunate hairstyle. Really, it was atrocious; more suited to a Dwarfling a quarter of his age, but then again, Dori seemed intent to treat Ori as a Dwarfling a quarter of his age, so it sort of made sense. 

But still, it was unfortunate. She remembered how long his beard had been before he’d cut it, declaring that he would only let it grow again when his King did so himself, unlike his brothers. That had been the first time she’d noticed him, really. But his beard, though not as full as his brothers’, had been a lovely color, and had a bit of a wave in it, and she was sure that his hair would, too, if he would just grow it out. He drew back from the page he was working on with a satisfied smile, and, realizing that she was smiling, too, Fíli spun back around to face Kíli and Belda, who thankfully hadn’t noticed; if Belda were inclined to tease her, Fíli was at least sure that she’d be subtle. Kíli had never been one for subtlety, in any form.

His crush on a Hobbit-Burglar was rather funny, in retrospect.

Fíli’s crush on a shy scribe, by contrast, was pathetic. Nothing could happen. She was the future Queen of Erebor, and she had to think of her people first, to marry for the benefit of the King(Queen)dom. So if she could just stop staring at Ori, that would be helpful.

And thinking about him.

Gandalf and Radagast caught her eye as Tharkûn offered the shorter Man a smoke. There was something very odd about that man, and it wasn’t the fact that he had birds in his hat and insects on his tongue. When he’d shown up, shouting about ‘murder’ and ‘fire’ and such, he’d been practically vibrating, but then he’d seen Belda and gone completely still; Belda, when Fíli’d looked at her, had been much the same, but where Belda was clearly trying to figure out who or what the Man was, just like the rest of them, Radagast had looked as though he’d known exactly what he was seeing. Fíli just hadn’t been able to tell whether that was good or bad. Their… well, Fíli couldn’t think of any way to say it but mamihlapinatapai, had lasted a second, if that, then Tharkûn had greeted the Man like an old friend.

The two men were talking over a long package of some sort, possibly a blade, when Fíli looked again, but her attention was taken a moment later by the howl that sounded from somewhere to the left of them. A heartbeat later, Fíli’s attention was drawn by Kíli’s quiet, worried, “Belda?”

The Hobbit in question was nearly as grey as Gandalf’s hat, and the ponies shifted uneasily behind her as she looked toward the sound. “Was that a wolf— are there wolves out there?”

She stood, as did Kíli; Fíli was already standing, but she looked to Bofur as he spoke from a clear spot just below them, “Wolves? No, that is not a wolf.”

A snarl to the right of everyone sounded just before a huge, slavering beast of a creature pounced on Dori, swiftly cut down by Thorin; Fíli just had time to see Kíli move in front of Belda before another warg ran towards Thorin. Before it could reach him, an arrow planted itself in the beast’s shoulder and it fell; Dwalin finished it off as Fíli saw Kíli lower his bow out of the corner of her eye. The three of them moved to the edge of the level, but there was no easy way down to where the rest of the Company stood.

“Warg scouts!” Thorin scanned over the Company as he’d taught Fíli to do when there was danger, then focused on Gandalf as the Man moved to stand near Bofur and Glóin and the rest. “Which means an Orc pack is not far behind.”

“Who did you tell about your Quest? Beyond your kin?” Fíli wanted to berate Tharkûn for a mad moment; her Uncle wouldn’t blabber about something so important as this.

“No one.”

Tharkûn only looked angrier. “Who did you tell?!”

More civilly than Fíli would have responded to someone who demanded answers as Tharkûn was, Thorin reiterated, “No one, I swear.” This time, Tharkûn did seem to believe him, and Thorin lowered his voice somewhat. “What in Durin’s name is going on?”
“You are being hunted.” A small huff sounded from next to Fíli, and she looked down to see that Belda was scowling; her expression was off, though: from someone so small and reliant on stealth, Fíli would have expected her to be terrified. 

Instead, she looked downright offended, as much or more so as Dwalin. 

“We have to get out of here.”

Immediately, Belda spun around and began leading the ponies down the hill, each one of them picking their steps as carefully as she did, and altogether almost ludicrously well-behaved, what with two warg corpses lying a stone’s throw away. Kíli took up the rear of the line, bow at the ready, eyes sharp, and as Dwalin clambered up to protect him, Fíli clambered down to join Thorin’s discussion. “…alf, even mounted, we can’t outrun wargs.”

The other Dwarrow were hurrying to their ponies, and Fíli almost missed Radagast’s oddly-confident offer. “I’ll draw them off.”

With more exasperation than she’d ever seen him have for anyone but Thorin, Gandalf rounded on the other Man. “These are Gundabad wargs. They will outrun you.”

Pointing behind him, Radagast was almost smiling as he moved toward Gandalf. “These are Rhosgobel rabbits.” For a split second, almost too quickly to see, Gandalf stilled; Radagast grinned. “I’d like to see them try.”

Glancing between the Man and the rabbits for a moment, Gandalf finally heaved an irritated sigh and nodded once before turning on his heel. “Belda, stay close to me!”

Belda, already leading Gandalf, Thorin, and Fíli’s ponies toward them, nodded and gave a short, low whistle; her pony immediately picked its way through the herd to her side. Thorin and Gandalf mounted easily, but Belda had always had more trouble, simply due to how petite she was, and so Fíli sped things up a tad by simply lifting the Hobbit onto her pony as she had the day they all met. But this time, almost as soon as Fíli lifted her, Belda let out a strangled whimper, and a jolt of panic spiked through Fíli as she remembered how delicate Hobbits were compared to Dwarves. As soon as Belda was safely on the pony, Fíli let go of her, moving around to see her face. “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t thinkin—“

“Fine!” The word was more a gasp than anything else, but Belda met her eyes lucidly enough, though her expression was still pained. “It’s fine, just go!”

As Tharkûn spurred his pony forward, in the opposite direction as Radagast and his rabbits, Fíli hurried to mount and join the line; she ended up just next to Kíli, in the middle of the group.

The chase seemed to last hours, though Fíli knew it couldn’t have been more than one, altogether. But it was long enough for Fíli to notice two things: that while Radagast was certainly skilled at evading capture, he’d evidently forgotten that he was meant to draw the Orcs away from the Company; and whatever Belda’s pony did, the rest followed. But after too long and not long enough, they were cornered. Open plains surrounded them, Radagast nowhere in sight, warg-riders all around, and the long-distance fighters were running out of ammunition. Kíli had already killed half a dozen of the scum, but the others were only getting closer.

A flicker of movement caught her eye, and Fíli spurred her horse toward her brother with a desperate warning, “KÍLI!” 

He looked to her first, then behind him at the warg charging toward him; it was riderless, as Kíli had already killed its Orc, but the malevolence in its eyes was no lesser for it. He grabbed for an arrow, but it was too close; Fíli could tell that he couldn’t shoot in time, that she couldn’t reach him in time. The warg snarled, prepared to leap— 

 

A glowing blue blade struck the warg’s eye, hilt-first, and the beast missed Kíli by a hair’s-breadth, giving him just enough time to put an arrow in its heart. Twisting around, Fíli just had time to see Belda, white-faced, wide-eyed, and empty-handed, before a horn sounded and arrows far longer than Kíli’s began to sprout from the wargs and their riders. The Orcs tried to scatter, but one by one, they were cut down. Seeing who, exactly, was slaying them, Fíli directed her pony to flank Belda’s, and Kíli did the same on her other side. Thorin shouted for the Company to close ranks, and with the exception of Gandalf, they did; Fíli glimpsed Ori on the far side of Kíli, but wasn’t quite sure whether to wish he was closer or wish he was farther away.

Once all the Orcs were dead, which took a grand total of another thirty seconds, the Elves circled the Company, one or two of them dispatched to deal with the ones who’d been too far away for the initial attack to take them out. One of the riders rode toward Gandalf, who bowed as much as he could without dismounting. 

“Lord Elrond.” Tharkûn switched to Sindarin effortlessly, and Fíli, for the first time in her life, mentally thanked her Uncle and Balin for forcing her and Kíli to sit through countless hours of lessons in the language. “My friend!”

“Mithrandir!” The weed-eater looked as pleased to see Gandalf as Tharkûn was to see the Elf. “When I received news of Orcs so close to our borders, I should have known you were involved.”

“Yes, I do apologize for the inconvenience.” If Tharkûn looked apologetic, Fíli was an Elf.

Thorin maneuvered his pony to the front of the Company, though one of the beasts’ ears was pointed toward Fíli and the others; she couldn’t see her Uncle’s face, but she had no doubt that he was scowling at the weed-eaters. Elrond’s gaze fell to him, and he moved a bit closer. “Hail, Thorin, son of Thrain.”

“I do not believe we have met.” Fíli had to hold back a smirk, imagining Thorin’s expression; the fact that Gandalf and Elrond had stopped on the opposite side of the circle from her meant that she could see Belda and Kíli out of the corner of her eye, which meant that she could see that Kíli was trying and failing to hold back a smirk of his own.

Elrond’s eyes flicked over the King. “You have your grandfather’s bearing.” Fíli’s almost-smirk twitched into a frown; knowing what Thror became at the end, did the Elf mean that to be an insult? “I knew Thror when he ruled under the Mountain."

“Indeed. He made no mention of you.” It was times like these that Fíli understood why Balin was so insistent that she go through so many lessons on diplomacy.

The Elf-lord’s expression was unreadable, and Fíli honestly wasn’t sure how he would react, but then Thorin’s pony shifted to the side just slightly (and without Thorin’s consent, based on how his hands twitched on the reins) and the weed-eater’s gaze flicked past him, to Belda. Abruptly, his entire bearing softened, and he actually smiled. “Belladonna Took. I had not thought to see you again, my friend.”

Looking like nothing so much as a trapped rabbit as the Company muttered around her, Belda replied slowly and hesitantly, “I offer apologies, Lord Elrond, but I have lost much of my mother’s teachings.” If she hadn’t had a lesson in eleven years, Fíli was impressed; she’d used the wrong form of ‘apologies’ and mispronounced ‘teachings’ just slightly, but otherwise it had been perfect Sindarin.

Elrond’s eyes widened fractionally, and now some of the weed-eaters muttered. “Has it been so long? No matter. The daughter of Belladonna Took-Baggins is as welcome as her mother was, as are your companions.” There was more muttering at that, from both the Company and the weed-eaters, but then the Elf’s eyes lowered, and he exclaimed, “You are injured!” Fíli couldn’t follow his gaze, but he seemed to be looking at Belda’s foot; Fíli glanced at the foot she could see, but it didn’t look injured, just dirty. “Now you must come to Rivendell; my best healers will be at your disposal.”

Before he’d finished speaking, Belda shook her head, her pony shuffling slightly backward to be even more sandwiched between Fíli and Kíli. “I thank you, but I would rather be tended by the Company healer. But any supplies you could offer us would be gratefully received.”

Fíli tensed, watching the Elf, and barely kept herself from reaching for one of her weapons; such a statement from a Dwarf would be taken as a grave insult, and surrounded as they were, anything might get the Company captured, or worse. But Elrond just chuckled. “As particular as your mother, if more polite.” He nodded, and looked between Belda and Thorin as he spoke. “Whatever supplies you wish, whether food or medicine, shall be made available to you, and all of you are welcome to stay in Imladris for as long as you wish to.”

 

Later, Fíli wouldn’t quite remember how (by Mahal) Tharkûn had convinced Thorin to take the Elf-Lord up on the offer; nearly as soon as he had, Elrond asked Belda to ride beside him as they went, and as before, the other ponies had fallen in line behind hers, Fíli’s and Kíli’s among them. The two of them had ended up side by side directly behind the Elf and Hobbit, and as such had been in the perfect spot to listen to their conversation. She and Kíli had both been uncomfortable with it, but at the same time, the Elf’s familiarity with her mother meant that he was in a position to draw her into conversation as no one else but perhaps Gandalf could. 

Belda was evasive about her time since the Winter, but she spoke of her childhood freely, and Fíli was somewhat stunned by the stories she told. From the sound of it, she’d had a perfect life until the Winter; her mother had encouraged her independence and mischief, her father had encouraged her quiet side, and altogether, (what she called) her ‘fauntling’ years had shaped her into an intelligent, independent, capable young woman. 

And to be perfectly honest, the child she described didn’t really sound like her, or at least the Belda that Fíli had spent the last month with. But she could see flashes of that child as Belda chatted with the Elf, and thinking about the discrepancy only made Fíli wish that she could ride back to the Shire and thrash all the Hobbits who’d called themselves Belda’s family. 

They’d hurt her, more than she let on, more than Fíli thought she meant to let on now.

Fíli had a sudden urge to grab Belda and not let go until she agreed to stay in Erebor with them after everything was over, leagues away from those wretches.

There was really only one thing that really stood out: what turned out to be a few minutes before they reached the gates of Rivendell, Belda suddenly stiffened, straightening in her saddle and looking around as though she’d heard (or smelt) something strange. “What is that?”

“You can feel it?” Elrond sounded awed, and far more surprised than Fíli would have expected for someone who had to be centuries old, if not millennia. Fíli exchanged a confused shrug with Kíli; there was nothing strange so far as she could tell.

“Yes,” Belda looked up at Elrond wide-eyed, and stammered slightly as she spoke with an enthusiasm that she rarely displayed. “Yes, it feels— feels like— well, like magic.” 

A faint blush crept over her cheeks as she finished self-consciously, but Elrond, if anything, looked more impressed. “That’s exactly what it is, child. Very few are capable of perceiving my protection.”

Belda flushed a few shades darker and looked ahead again, and Fíli glanced at Kíli, not sure what to make of the information. Rivendell itself came into view a minute or two later, and even Fíli had to admit that it was beautiful, if spindly. A small turn in the trail meant that Fíli was able to see Belda’s expression for a few seconds, and Fíli’s blood chilled to see how awestruck the Hobbit looked. She couldn’t prefer the Elves, she had to stay with the Company, she had to come to Erebor with them!

Within several minutes, they reached the city itself, Belda and Óin were shown to a private chamber so that he could tend to her feet, and the rest of the Company was taken to a wing of the same building that seemed to be largely deserted; a few veiled questions were enough for the weed-eaters escorting them to inform her that they were being housed in a guest wing of the city, that anything they needed would be provided for them, and that Elrond had made arrangements for them to be treated as honored guests. Fíli wasn’t sure how much of that was lying and how much was the weed-eaters trying to feel good about themselves, but with how Elrond had reacted to Belda, there was actually a chance, if only a slim one, that they were telling the truth. And Fíli really didn’t know what to make of that.

“Is there a Fíli, son of Dís present?”

Fíli turned to see another weed-eater standing at the threshold of the room, expression delicately distasteful, as though it was horribly demeaning to be doing… whatever it was he was doing there. Thorin, unsurprisingly, glowered at the Elf. “Who wants to know?”

The great, towering ponce looked down his nose at Thorin, but answered stiffly, “His presence is requested by the Halfling.”

Belda? Fíli glanced at Kíli, seeing her confusion reflected in his eyes, and they both moved forward. “I’m here.”

Turning to them, the ponce’s eyes flicked over them both, then fixed on Kíli. “Fíli, son of Dís is requested, and only he.”

The Company grumbled, but Fíli moved to Thorin’s side, shooting a quick, quelling glare at Kíli. “I can protect myself, Uncle, and Óin is there if anything happens.”

She’d spoken quietly, but she caught a minute change in the ponce’s expression that seemed to indicate that he’d heard her anyway. Thorin looked at her for a long moment, then glared up at the weed-eater again. “Dwalin will accompany him to the door.”

The Elf looked as though he would argue for a moment, then stepped to the side and gestured with a tiny, dismissive flick of his fingers for Fíli and Dwalin to follow him. If Fíli had to guess, she would say that he’d simply tired of the argument. Yet another area in which Dwarves were the superior.

He led them through more than enough twisting corridors to be dizzying until finally taking his leave of them when Óin came into view, leaning against the wall beside the door of the room they’d left him and Belda in less than an hour prior. Dwalin grunted and settled in beside the healer to wait while Fíli opened the door just enough to slip in.

Belda was seated on a ludicrously huge patient bed, which, thankfully, had been lowered to Dwarven height somehow or other. But even so, Belda’s feet hung a solid six inches above the floor, and she just looked all the more childlike sitting there. Fíli stopped in front of her, not sure what to say. “…You called for me?”

Belda’s head was hanging, her eyes on either her feet or her knees, and she didn’t look up as she quietly responded, “I can’t get my jacket off.”

A shiver of alarm went down Fíli’s spine; was Belda trying to proposition her or something? There really wasn’t any way to turn her down without hurting her feelings, not without telling her that she was, in fact, female, but she couldn’t tell her. “I… uh… What about Óin?” 

Fíli’s voice was a bit more of a squeak than she’d intended, but Belda just scoffed weakly. “I’m not exactly comfortable with a member of the opposite sex helping me undress, Fíli, even if he is a healer. And the Elves are completely out of the question.”

Fíli barely heard the latter sentence, mind a roaring blank after ‘opposite sex’. “A m… what?”

Sighing, Belda raised her head just enough to meet Fíli’s eyes through her curls. “I know you’re a woman, Fíli.” Fíli just gaped at her, and Belda lowered her head again as she continued, “I have since the first night, really, or nearly, but since everyone kept calling you a ‘he’ and a ‘son’ of Dís, I figured it was a secret for some reason.”

“The… the first…” Shaking her head, Fíli had to gather her wits just to manage “How?”

“You don’t smell like the others.” 

Still somewhat stunned, Fíli just shook her head, before a thought occurred to her. “Wait, why do you need to take off your jacket if Óin’s treating your feet?”

Belda flinched slightly, and her shoulders crept up nearly to her ears. “Óin caught me wincing.”

It still wasn’t an answer, but Fíli had listened to more than enough of the younger girl’s evasive moods to know that she’d skirt around any further questions. Silently, she offered her hands, not sure what, exactly, Belda needed of her. In response, Belda extended her right hand, and Fíli helped her tug off the sleeve easily. But she didn’t move once it was off, neither to offer her left arm nor to dismiss Fíli, and Fíli felt a twinge of foreboding as she started to tug at the left shoulder. Belda tensed, but didn’t fight her, and it wasn’t until Fíli tried to pull at the hem of the sleeve that she realized what was wrong. “Belda, what happened to your arm?”

The fabric was taut around the girl’s elbow, despite the fact that it was loose everywhere else, including her right elbow. Now that she was paying attention, Fíli realized that Belda winced every time Fíli jostled her arm, and as she thought back, she realized that she hadn’t seen Belda use that arm since before she ran to get the Company. 

Belda still hadn’t answered, and Fíli crouched down to try and meet her eyes. “Belda, did this happen during everything with the Trolls?” The Hobbit still avoided her gaze, and Fíli stood again with a frustrated sigh, suddenly understanding her Uncle far more than she ever had before. “I don’t know that I can get the jacket off without cutting through the sleeve.”

Instantly, Belda’s head snapped up, eyes nearly as terrified as when the two Trolls had held her. “You can’t! Please, you mustn’t!” Fíli just blinked at her, stunned by the sheer emotion in her eyes, and Belda’s filled as she calmed marginally, lowering her voice to a near whisper. “It was my father’s, Fíli. I can’t—” A few stray tears spilled as she tried to blink them away, and she shook her head. “That’s why I asked for you; Óin wanted to just cut it off, and I—”

Her voice cracked until it broke apart entirely, and she turned her face away from Fíli, shoulders shaking just enough to be noticeable. Without her entirely meaning to, Fíli’s hand crept to the beads in her mustache. They’d been her father, Sídri’s, and she’d tried to grow out her beard enough to wear them there, but for the moment, her mustache had to be enough. Once Kíli had a proper beard of his own, she’d give him one of them. The alternative was to just leave them in a drawer somewhere, or her Amad’s jewelry box, and while she knew that they’d be safe there, she couldn’t bear the thought of any part of her Adad being shut away.

Sighing, she squeezed Belda’s shoulders lightly, just enough to bring the Hobbit’s attention back to her. “You do know that this will be excruciating?”

Eyes resolute above tear-stained cheeks, Belda nodded, and fisted her free hand in the fabric on the bed. “Do it.”

Steeling herself, Fíli took hold of the end of the sleeve and pulled, gently at first, then with more pressure as needed. Impressively, Belda didn’t scream, but going by her expression, it was as agonizing as Fíli imagined it to be. Remembering times in the past where distraction had helped hugely, she asked, “So, the mustache didn’t give you any doubts, really?”

Between groans, Belda managed to speak, though her voice was strained. “Scent— doe— doesn’t lie— still w— weird-looking, though—”

The shoulder of the jacket slipped off suddenly enough to throw Fíli off-balance, and she fell back, still holding the jacket. Slightly stunned, she just blinked at Belda for a moment, seeing how pained her friend’s expression still was even as she smiled weakly, still quietly panting. Fíli chuckled as she got to her feet. “‘Weird-looking’. You’re the weird one, you don’t have any beard whatsoever.”

She looked over Belda’s shirt as she spoke; the sleeves were loose, for the most part, but they were gathered at the wrists and shoulders. When she met Belda’s eyes, she shook her head tiredly. “Just cut it off, I don’t care.” Nodding, Fíli moved forward to start undoing the buttons on the Hobbit’s waistcoat. “Besides, you do know that Dwarves are the only race who all have beards, don’t you? Elves never do, Hobbit men only do when they’re ancient, and human men do, but not human women.”

“Really?” Carefully, Fíli started to ease the vest over Belda’s shoulders, then thought better of it and slit the thin top of the left shoulder apart at the seam. “Only when they’re old?”

“Well, the Stoors have beards sometimes, but they also swim and wear boots, so they’re already strange.” The last word was a gasp as Fíli gently raised Belda’s injured arm in order to better cut through the wrist of the shirt.

“Why would swimming be strange?” After a moment’s thought, Fíli extended the split halfway up Belda’s forearm. As Belda answered, Fíli barely heard her, paralyzed by the sight of the injury. 

“Most Hobbits can’t swim a stroke. Da could, but Mum always hated the water and I take after her, so I never learned. I don’t even like to go over Bucklebury Ferry.” Her elbow was hugely swollen and nearly black with bruises, and Fíli cut through the shoulder and collar of her shirt without another word, stomach churning at the very idea of asking Belda to move her arm again.

Realizing that Belda had been silent for a few seconds, Fíli searched for something to say. “So, the… if Hobbits almost never have beards, all of us must look strange to you.”

Belda chuckled slightly as Fíli worked her way down the line of buttons on her shirt. “I have to admit, it took some getting used to.”

“Unpleasant surprise, then?” Her voice was weak, but in her defense, she hadn’t expected for everywhere on Belda's torso not hidden under an odd sort of wrap-around brassiere to be nearly as bruised as her arm, or for the girl’s ribs to be starkly visible under her skin.

Or to see faded, silvery scars that looked suspiciously like the result of something at least the size of a warg sinking its teeth into her abdomen and injured arm, and claw marks that looked just as old above her mangled elbow.

“No, not unpleasant, just—” She broke off with a blush, but Fíli couldn’t focus enough to follow the topic.

“Mahal, Belda, why didn’t you say anything?” She nearly brushed her fingertips over one tooth mark that laid on top of one of the too-prominent ribs, but Belda flinched away from her hand and she let it drop.

For a long moment, Belda didn’t answer, only hung her head the same way she had when she’d told them about how she’d smelled the Troll-cave. “We h— …You have few enough medical supplies as it is; I didn’t want t—”

“No,” Fíli shook her head; yes, Belda’s injuries were worrisome, but she couldn’t get past “Why didn’t you tell us we weren’t feeding you enough?”

Belda looked up sharply, eyes wide with what looked to be pure shock before it melted away as a blush faded in, replaced with something between stubbornness and resigned chagrin. “I didn’t want to be a burden.”

Fíli nearly choked, incredulity warring with anger that she would starve herself rather than let on she needed help. “Belda, you wouldn’t have been a burden, asking for more food! We would’ve given you more— We would have made sure you had as much as you wanted!”

There was still some emotion that Fíli didn’t understand in Belda’s eyes, but she still shook her head. “I don’t want that! I don’t want you all— all doing that— going to that much trouble— and not giving up any of your own food!”

“Belda—” Fíli cut herself off when the door cracked open and Dwalin’s voice eased through it.

“Óin wants to know if his patient is ready for him yet.” The warrior sounded more bored than anything else, but Belda wilted at his voice nonetheless.

Taking a deep breath to try and let go of the perturbed ire that still simmered under her skin, Fíli glanced at Belda’s trousers. “Do you have any injuries on your legs other than your feet?” Head hanging low enough that Fíli couldn’t see any of her face, Belda just shook her head slowly, and Fíli let out a low sigh before calling over her shoulder, “He can come in now.”

Chapter Text

Kíli was still worried as Fíli rejoined the group, Óin in tow and Dwalin nowhere to be seen. As soon as she was close enough, he hissed, “Where’s Belda?”

Rolling her eyes, Fíli tugged him off to the side of the group, and only answered once she was sure none of the others were listening. “One of the weed-eaters brought a box for her just after Óin finished his examination.”

“A box?” Kíli frowned; what could the weed-eaters possibly have ready for her?

Answering his unspoken question, Fíli frowned, too. “Of her mother’s things. Apparently she left them behind the last time she visited, fifteen years ago, and they’d been keeping them safe for whenever she came to claim them.”

Her expression was enough for him to know that she shared his misgivings about the weed-eaters’ motives in being so generous to Belda, and so he turned back to the more important topic. “And Belda? How is she?”

Fíli smirked faintly. “Awfully concerned with her, aren’t you?” He glared, but he could feel his cheeks heating; her smirk fell away as she answered. “Not good. Honestly, I can’t be entirely irritated with the Mabintargân; if the box hadn’t had some of her mother’s clothes, she wouldn’t have anything to wear.” 

“What does that have to do with how she is?”

As usual when he was baffled, Fíli shot him a look that seemed to imply he’d missed something painfully obvious, or interrupted before she could explain. “Because she’s in bad enough condition that I had to cut off her shirt to get it off without putting her in any more pain than she’s already in.” He’d nearly asked why, by Mahal, she’d been the one undressing her, but her last words stole all of his. “She figured out I’m a woman ages ago, by the way. But did you see her get hurt after I ran to get the Company? That’s the only time I can think that anything would have happened.”

Thinking back to those minutes, Kíli nodded numbly. “Just after you left, one of them moved to pick her up. It blocked my view until it was already holding her, but she didn’t really react at the time…” Still numb, he shook his head. “I thought she was alright; she didn’t say anything.”

Surprisingly, Fíli’s expression darkened considerably. “Yes, and I’ll be having words with her about that once she’s recovered. But…” She sighed, eyes distant and forlorn. “According to Óin, she has three cracked ribs, her feet are only bruised, but badly enough that he wouldn’t want her to put any weight on them if that were an option, and her left arm was nearly flattened.”

Kíli inhaled sharply, all the times she’d been picked up or tossed around the previous night flooding back to him. “But she’ll recover?” Fíli gave him a flat look, and his stomach flipped over.

Glancing at Óin, she spoke quietly. “He said her arm was bad enough that he wouldn’t have been able to treat it properly on the road, and that she’s tremendously lucky that the weed-eaters are such good healers.”

Kíli could only sputter for a long moment, hardly daring to even think what his sister was implying. “You— You don’t mean that he’s going to let the Mebelkhagâsactually—”

She cut him off with a glare. “According to him, our hosts are possibly the only people in Middle-Earth who could hope to heal her arm in such a way that she wouldn’t lose any function.” 

Blood turning to ice, he could only stare at Fíli. Óin was one of the best healers in Ered Luin; not in that there were few superior to him, but in that he had only equals and underlings, no superiors whatsoever. If he was admitting defeat, it was a truly lost cause, and if he was actually admitting that the weed-eaters could treat her better than he could, then he truly wanted her to recover, no matter how it damaged his pride. He might have chuckled at the last, but for the most part, his mind currently consisted of nothing more than a persistent loop of images of Belda being hurt, Belda walking around like nothing was wrong with three cracked ribs, Belda screaming as Trolls put too much pressure on an arm that she might have never used properly again if they hadn’t come to Rivendell.

Fíli sighed quietly, the sound breaking him out of his thoughts, if only barely. “Óin and I tracked down Elrond and asked him to see to her, or to send his best healer. Dwalin is still with her, he’ll bring her back here once she’s taken care of. I’d’ve stayed with her, too, but I think she felt guilty about all the fuss everyone was going to.”

“‘Fuss’?!” ‘Fuss’ to be looking after an injured woman? ‘Fuss’ to be worried about a friend?

“I know.” Fíli looked impressively grim. “Like I said, words.”


 

Dwalin

 

Dwalin couldn’t find anything to say. Gandalf and the leaf-lord were walking together, Dwalin and Belda behind them, both silent. She’d only torn herself from the box of her mother’s things on the Elf’s promise that it would be taken to their quarters, but even so, he could see her out of the corner of his eye, every so often, fiddling with the fabric of her dress. He’d guessed that it had been her mother’s, as well, and she and Fíli had found a ribbon somewhere or other to use as a belt, as Belda was the right height to wear it, but half as big around as her mother had evidently been. Even if it had fit, though, old, faded scars on her arms would’ve still been visible. That was why she was silent, he guessed. He was silent because of her condition. 

He’d heard Óin’s diagnoses through the door, and every addition had felt like a knife in his heart. Undernourishment to the point of near-starvation. Three cracked ribs. Bruising over her entire torso. Severe bruising on her feet and legs, and minor bruising nearly everywhere else. Her left arm crushed enough to be completely unusable, and if it hadn’t been for the weed-eater’s intervention, to never be used again.

And he’d all but accused her of being selfish, of only looking out for herself.

She couldn’t have gotten those injuries after he and the rest of the Company arrived at the campsite, which meant that she’d been squeezed and stretched, she’d been stuffed into a sack and tossed to the ground like so much refuse, she’d bargained for all their lives and won  time for Gandalf to arrive, she’d fetched the ponies and ridden for miles, all with those injuries.

And he’d thought she was lazy.

She’d been in pain through all of it and never let it show but when the Trolls were holding her. Not when she’d somehow gotten to her feet while in a sack. Not when she fell after Gandalf’s theatrics. Not when she’d been walking around the camp while everyone muttered about how shiftless she’d been. Not when she’d managed to get an Elf to give them all the food, medicine, traveling supplies, and aid that the Company could wish. Not when Dwalin had stood in front of her and said things more harsh than he could believe, now.

And he’d been so, so wrong.

As they passed an alcove, he slowed, eyes flicking between the open door and the Hobbit walking beside him. “Dwalin?”

Looking back at Gandalf, Dwalin made his decision; nodding respectfully to both Tall Folk (he owed the leaf-lord at least one nod for healing Belda, after all), he put a hand on her back and gently directed her toward the room as he explained, “Miss Baggins and I need to have a private word.”

She stiffened, but he barely noticed as he closed the door behind them, only turning to face her once he was satisfied that the two men had walked on, out of earshot. But his breath caught, taken aback by the look on her face when he did; she looked as though she were about to face a rampaging Balrog, not to talk with him. She’d never been wary of him before, but, he reminded himself, he’d never treated her as he had, before.

Remorse sinking into his bones, he knelt before her, head bowed. “Miss Baggins, I apologize for my words after the Trolls. I was wrong to speak as I did.” Seconds passed with no response, and eventually he looked up to see pure bewilderment in her eyes. “Miss Baggins?”

She startled slightly, blinking, and her mouth opened and closed soundlessly for several seconds more, head shaking minutely the entire time, before she actually spoke. “You— You aren’t angry with me?”

Flinching at the reminder of his previous words, he hung his head again. “I’m angry with myself. I shouldn’t have spoken to you that way. I didn’t know what you’d gone through, but that’s no excuse. I was wrong.” She still didn’t respond, and he looked up a little more quickly that time to see that her confusion hadn’t faded in the least. If anything, it’d strengthened. Thinking over how she’d been acting, he frowned; some of the confusion faded from her eyes, but he couldn’t figure out why. (But that was a lie; he just didn’t want to consider it.) “Why did you think I wanted to speak to you?”

Her confusion returned, full-force, and he saw at the edge of his vision that she was fisting her hands in her skirts. “I— I thought—” 

He started to reach out before he thought, vaguely intending to take her hands in his, but froze when she flinched away. Pieces he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge noticing fell into place, and he pulled his hands slowly back, keeping his voice low and as gentle as he could manage. “Lass, did you think I was going to hurt you?” She flinched again, which was answer enough, and he fought not to let any of his anger show on his face, despite her lowering her eyes enough that he doubted she could see his expression. “Lass, I give you my word, none of us would ever lay a finger on you.”

At that, her eyes jumped to his. “You— But—” Flushing, she ducked her head, but as he was kneeling, he was just low enough to see her face anyway, see the bewilderment still on it. “You— all of you were so angry.” As gnawing horror twisted his guts into knots, he couldn’t speak, voice entirely gone. “Especially Thorin, and even K—” She winced, pain in the expression, but kept speaking before he could find any words. “You were angry with me, an—”

“No!” She flinched again, and he spared a split second to curse himself for a Orc-fodder fool before lowering his voice and trying again. “No, lass, we were angry at the Trolls, not with you.” ‘Never with you.’ He blinked. Where had that come from?

Even so, her eyes snapped to his again, and he was really starting to hate how confused and afraid and so, so painfully young she looked. “But I got caught.” 

Her tone of voice sent chills down his spine; she didn’t sound as though she were afraid what she was saying was true, she sounded as though it was undeniably true and she was surprised that he didn’t know. 

“I put the Company in danger, I nearly got everyone killed, why wouldn’t you be angry?” Barely managing to hold back a visceral response that absolutely would have scared her even more than she already was, he didn’t manage to speak before she continued, eyes lowering again, and light gathering on her lower lids. “My family was right. I’m a selfish waste of a Baggins, and all of you nearly died because of me. Why wouldn’t you ha— be angry.”

At her slip, he nearly exploded, but with a truly massive effort, tamped it down to a forceful exhale. Wishing desperately that his brother was there to advise him on the right words to use, he met her eyes again, nearly losing his composure to see that he’d scared her again, enough to set her trembling, though she seemed to be rooted to where she stood. Deliberately, he leaned back on his heels, hunching to make himselfeven a tiny bit shorter. “Miss Baggins, please allow me to explain.” He waited for her to respond before continuing, using the extra few seconds before she realized why he was waiting to choose his words.

Finally, she nodded, and he began. “For Dwarves, there is nothing more important than the health and safety of women and children. Not gold, not pride, nothing. We have few women and fewer children since Erebor fell, and we guard them fiercely. While you’ve traveled with us, you’ve been our responsibility, and so we reacted to seeing you in danger as we would if you were a Dwarf. We were somewhat angry with you for putting yourself in danger, but there isn’t a Dwarf worthy to be called a child of Mahal who wouldn’t face any danger to save any woman or child under his protection. For the most part, we were angry at the Trolls for threatening you, and we didn’t mean to make you think that it was you we were angry with. After Gandalf arrived, I was wrong to be angry with you. Even if I hadn’t been wrong about your condition, I still shouldn’t have spoken to you as I did. As for your family—”

A flood of expletives rushed to his tongue, and he bit them back sharply. A moment or two was enough to regain enough composure to at least get through the conversation before he needed to go behead something, and he exhaled slowly. “As for your family, they were wrong. They were completely, utterly wrong. ‘Selfish’ would have been to run away rather than to put yourself in harm’s way to recover our ponies, a ‘waste’ of anyone or anything would have curled up and stayed silent rather than tricking the Trolls into staying out until sunrise, you didn’t put us in danger, we chose to go into danger in order to save you, and as for the last…” After a speechless moment, he just shook his head. “Lass, the only reason any of us would ever be angry with you would be that we’re worried for you, and none of us hate you. I doubt any of us ever could.”

Now she looked speechless, and he said what he should have that morning. “You did well, lass.” As she let loose a sharp, shocked breath, she gaped at him as though he’d said that he was going to marry an Elf. With difficulty, he didn’t let his expression change, though inside he was horrified, furious, and more that he couldn’t untangle at the fact that she treated anger and condemnation as a given fact, and was so shocked to be praised. “You did make mistakes, I won’t deny that, but you also saved all our lives, and did more than we ever would have asked of you. You did well.”

As she stared at him, mouth hanging just slightly open, eyes shining, her breath hitched, and again, and again. She seemed frozen, even her hands now still, half hidden in her skirts, but visible enough for Dwalin to tell they’d relaxed into uncurling partially; as he watched her, dreading an unexpected shift in her mood, one hand twitched vaguely, and again, moving fractionally toward him before stopping almost as soon as the movement had begun. Still cautious, but faint hope warming his chest, he opened his arms just slightly. As a sob caught in her throat, she fairly lunged forward, but her arms wrapped around him so lightly that he could barely feel them. As gently as he could manage, he returned her hold, the difference in their builds enough that she may as well have been a Dwarfling half her age, or younger.

As he held her, she tightened her hold on him fractionally, now crying in earnest, and when his knees began to protest, he shifted position just enough to sit on the floor rather than kneeling; she stiffened when he moved as though she were about to pull back, but when he only adjusted his grip on her to embrace her more securely, she fairly melted against him, still crying. 

The warm, if negligible, weight of her brought back a thousand memories, of comforting Fíli one night after her father’s death when Thorin was busy with Dís and Kíli, of meeting Ori when the tiny boy had literally thrown himself into Dwalin’s arms, begging him not to take away his ‘big brover’, and especially of holding Dís in the first months after Smaug attacked, when her nightmares left her shaking and silent and desperate not to let her brothers find out. She’d been ten years old to his twenty-six and barely lighter than the girl he held now.

He ended up sitting there with her—unable to find any words, but not sure he needed them anyway—for close to an hour before her tears subsided and she pulled back slightly. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—”

Voice cracking, she cut herself off, wiping at her tears. Heart aching, he swiped his thumb gently over her cheek, and she met his gaze wide-eyed, fear lurking behind the green, along with hope, if he wasn’t just seeing what he wanted to see. 

He spoke quietly, but made sure to hold her eyes all the while. “Lass, the only thing you shouldn’t have done was hide that you were injured and half-starved. We don’t know enough about Hobbits to guess when you need more than we expect.” At ‘need’, her face crumpled, and she ducked her head. Barely putting any pressure into the gesture, he chucked her under the chin. “What’s wrong, lass?”

She did lift her head, but barely enough for him to see any of her broken expression. “I didn’t want to be a burden.”

He couldn’t respond for a long moment, a black fire burning in his gut to go back to the Shire and flay everyone who’d put that thought into her head, and she buried her face in his chest while he fought to stay still. The feeling of her breath hitching, though, abruptly doused every instinct but those telling him to comfort the tiny girl who’d suffered so much purely because she didn’t want to cause someone else’s suffering. Letting out a long, slow breath, he wrapped his arms around her again—and slightly more tightly this time—one hand rising, of its own volition, to cradle the back of her head as though he could will her to never think so little of herself ever again.

“You wouldn’t have been a burden, kit.” She jolted at the nickname, and he stiffened unconsciously as he realized he’d used it, but she only nuzzled into his chest, breath hitching again. She cried silently for several minutes, and he held her for several minutes after that, until finally, his stomach growled and reminded them both of the time. She started to draw back, sniffling, but he tapped her chin gently, smiling softly at her when she met his eyes. “What do you say we track down wherever the kitchens are in this place and skip all the formal crap?”

He regretted using the (quasi-)expletive immediately, as they’d been trying to watch their language around the little lady, but she just giggled softly and wiped her eyes. “That sounds like a bloody good idea. I’m grateful to Elrond for all this, of course, but a formal dinner with everyone sounds…”

“Exhausting?” Giggling again, she nodded, and he helped her to her feet.

“Although, if you don’t mind…” He looked down at her curiously, and saw a cautiously-teasing look in her eyes. “Maybe I should do the talking?”

In another day or so, or a few weeks or months, maybe he would pretend to be offended by the idea, but with tears still drying on her cheeks and her words still hanging heavy in the air, he just grinned at her and put an arm around her shoulders in a gentle side-hug. “Aye, kit, I think that sounds good.”

Chapter Text

To say that Kíli had been worried when the Company arrived at the dining area with no Dwalin or Belda in sight would be an understatement, and he could barely focus on any of the conversation around him. He barely tasted any of the food set before him, though he heard Fíli and Ori commenting on the high quality of the meat. He did notice when Bofur jumped up and started singing, but he couldn’t bring himself to join in; Fíli didn’t either, and he could tell that she was nearly as concerned as he was. 

When he brought it up, though, she reminded him that Dwalin was with Belda, so it stood to reason that they were safe, and if they weren’t, there was no one better suited to protect her. (Part of him wanted to disagree, to say that he was the best person to protect his friend, but he knew it wasn’t true. He wasn’t entirely sure where the thought had come from, actually.)

He could see the sense in that, but it didn’t make the knot of dread in his gut any smaller. His unease only grew as they returned to their quarters to find an empty room, and when the sun set without any sign of them. So it took him somewhat by surprise, then, when just seconds after Fíli had agreed that they should go and look for them, they stepped outside to see the two in question walking towards them, Belda holding her little sword and wearing a dress that sent all intelligent thought straight out of Kíli’s head.

It was short, he noticed first, barely covering her knees, and flared out with every step she took. The next thing he noticed was that it was sleeveless, her arms completely bare but for the bandaging around her injured elbow. Combined, it was more bare skin than he’d ever seen on a grown woman, his mother and sister included, so perhaps that was why the plunging neckline of the dress was the third thing he noticed. It wasn’t as wide as some of the dresses he’d seen in the Shire, and therefore there wasn’t as much skin visible, but it went further down than the others he’d seen, far enough that he could see the top edge of some sort of underclothes just below a staggering amount of cleavage.

A warm dot of pressure under his chin lifted his jaw enough to close his mouth, and a hand waved in front of his eyes, breaking whatever spell had so trapped him. “You’re drooling, little brother.”

Flushing darkly, he looked at Fíli, still unable to find any words, but she just smirked at him. Heart thudding hard enough that he was sure Belda would be able to hear it, he looked back at the approaching pair, trying valiantly to keep his eyes on their heads. They were talking about something, evidently so engrossed by the conversation that they hadn’t noticed he and Fíli were there yet, and Dwalin gestured to the sword in her hand every few moments. Noticing that, of course, drew his attention to the sword, which, unfortunately for him, was at the same level as her waist as she tried whatever Dwalin had told her. She was too skinny, he could see, by Dwarven standards or Hobbits’, he guessed, but he couldn’t really bring himself to care as his eyes drifted up again. 

As they drew closer, their voices grew just loud enough to catch his attention and (thankfully) snap his eyes up to their faces again, and this time, it was Belda’s expression that transfixed him. She looked completely focused on Dwalin, eyes sharp and alert and alive as he hadn’t seen since before the Trolls, and he couldn’t look away. Her eyes flicked suddenly between him and Fíli, and he felt his cheeks practically burst into flame.

Fíli must have asked something he didn’t hear, because Belda looked at her, almost glowing as she smiled broadly. “Yeah, one of the Elves found it on the way back from finishing off the Orcs, and mentioned it in passing to one of the cooks.”

Realizing he was staring again, he wrenched his eyes away from her, freezing when they met Dwalin’s. The warrior had an unreadable expression as he looked back at him, but smiled softly down at Belda a moment later. “Aye, and we’ll be finding you a set of throwing daggers in the morning.”

“Oh, good, I was meaning to bring that up when we had time.” Fíli said something after that, too, but he didn’t hear her; moonlight suddenly flooded the area, and he’d seen that the dress was green, before, but Belda glowed in the starlight, the color of the dress doing something to make her eyes that much more hypnotizing, and he didn’t come back to himself until those eyes turned on him and Fíli elbowed him sharply.

Face heating as he realized someone must have asked him something, he cleared his throat self-consciously, only daring to glance at Belda for fear of getting lost again. “Can— can you repeat that?”

Fíli snickered, but Belda just shot her a quick glare before meeting his eyes again; there was a bit of color in her cheeks, and he didn’t know whether it would be foolish or not to think that she was blushing for the same (or at least similar) reason he was. “I said, were you trying to say something?”

Was he— because he’d been staring! Not sure whether to thank Mahal for the opening or to curse him for making him have to actually form a coherent sentence, Kíli blurted out the first thing he thought of. “I thought Fíli said the weed-eater was going to fix your arm.”

Flushing even darker at letting the insult slip out, he couldn’t let himself look down at her arm as she answered; in fact, he couldn’t let himself look anywhere but at her eyes. “He did; all the actual damage has been healed, but the bruising and such will have to go down naturally, which will take a day or two, at least, and I’m supposed to keep it wrapped the entire time and avoid using it as much as possible. Same goes for my ribs, actually.”

She touched her waist with a slight wince, and he had to wrest his eyes back up to hers. Surprisingly, it was Fíli who came to his rescue. “I suppose that makes me your nursemaid, now you know.”

Belda looked timidly up at Fíli, and Kíli just wanted to make her laugh, make her smile, anything to wipe away that fear, but he didn’t dare speak; he nearly missed her words, quiet as they were. “If you don’t mind.”

Fíli grinned, looping her arm through Belda’s uninjured one. “Not in the slightest!” The two of them were slipping through the door before Kíli even realized that they were moving, and Fíli tossed back a “Goodnight, Kee!”

That left him alone with Dwalin, but the warrior just glared at him for a moment and pushed past, following the girls into the room. Kíli slumped against the wall of the corridor, staring blankly out at the city as a cool breeze swept past him. That… He’d known that she was beautiful, he’d been growing used to her beardlessness and general unDwarfish qualities for over a month, but that… He’d seen other women, more beautiful by Dwarven standards, but none of them had hit him like that. 

Even the Elves, beautiful though they were, paled in comparison. Where Elven women were distant and reserved, Belda smiled often, and laughed well, when she really laughed, head thrown back, shoulders shaking, everything about her in the display. Those were the moments he loved most, when she shed whatever it was that kept her quiet and just shone, unafraid and ungainly and messy and completely, entirely herself. 

And she was too skinny, worryingly so, and fragile-looking despite her scars, though he thought that perhaps the stay here, for however long it would be, might hopefully be long enough to go towards fixing that, if not fix it entirely, but even so, he wasn’t sure he’d ever known someone who pulled at him like Belda. 

He didn’t think he’d ever known anyone like Belda.

He knew he’d never had a friend like Belda. She never gave him pitying looks like other Dwarves sometimes did when they didn’t think he would see; she was quiet, sometimes, but she seemed to loosen up around him; she was easy to talk to, even if he was talking nonsense, like wanting to be a hunter instead of a smith. Some of it, he thought, was probably because she wasn’t a Dwarf, that she just had a different perspective than he was used to, but as for the rest… that was just Belda. 

He really wasn’t sure there was anything more he could say to describe her. She was Belda, just… just herself. 

And he didn’t think he’d change her for anything.


 

Fíli

 

It was hard for Fíli to hold her laughter back until she and Belda reached the private room that had been set aside for the Hobbit, but she managed somehow. Of course, then it wasn’t until several minutes later, after she’d already helped Belda into a nightdress from the box of her mother’s things, that she stopped laughing. “Care to explain the joke?”

Belda’s bemused voice sent her laughing again, but she pulled herself together more quickly than she had before, and answer as she began to undress; she didn’t have any nightclothes, but she could at least shed more layers than usual in a private room. “Just my brother being a lovestruck fool.” A slightly choked noise drew her eyes to the Hobbit, and she laughed again to see the vivid flush on her cheeks. “Don’t tell me you didn’t notice,” she teased. “He couldn’t take his eyes off you, and I mean that literally.”

“That— That doesn’t mean— He’s never seen me in a dress before!”

Fíli just laughed again. “If that had been the only thing at play, he’d have been cracking jokes about how you actually looked like a girl for once, or assuring you that you’d be the most fearsome warrior in Arda once Dwalin trained you. Instead, what did he do?” Faux-thinking, she toyed with her mustache, then pretended to remember. “That’s right, he gaped like an idiot and blushed brightly enough to illuminate the corridor by himself.” Belda shook her head again, but Fíli just poked her gently on the shoulder as she sat next to her on the bed. “And don’t think I didn’t notice you blushing, too.” Said blush returned full-force, and Belda tilted her head away from Fíli; Fíli rolled her eyes, but she was smiling at the inanity of it all. “You like him, don’t you? Even if you don’t like our beards.”

“…never said that.”

It was barely a mutter, which gave Fíli the perfect opening to frown in exaggerated confusion and raise a hand to her ear. “Sorry, what was that? I couldn’t hear you.”

Belda’s first response was a withering glare, but Fíli didn’t let her expression change a whit, and the Hobbit’s scowl faded into an even more vivid blush after a moment or so. “I said,” she elongated the syllables; Fíli fought the urge to snicker at the unusual display of childishness, “That I never said I didn’t like your beards. Yours is especially strange since I’m even less used to women having facial hair than I am men having it, but I never said I didn’t like them.”

Fíli’s brows had crept up as Belda spoke; she had not expected that. True, she never stared or said anything about their beards, but Fíli had simply assumed that she found their beards as off-putting as they found her lack of one. It did open an interesting possibility, though; a slow grin crept over Fíli. “So, what do you think of Kíli’s beard, then?” The immediate deepening of the girl’s blush was answer enough, and Fíli laughed again. “Really? I mean, I love my brother, but he’s hardly handsome.”

Belda’s eyes snapped to hers in a strangely incredulous look, and she raised an eyebrow as she asked, “Who would you say is attractive in the Company, then?”

Instantly, the image of Ori, drawing with his tongue stuck out, rushed to the front of Fíli’s mind with the force of a battering ram, and she had to shove it away before she could answer. “Most handsome would be Glóin or Dori, although a case could be made for Dwalin, even now he’s lost so much of his hair.”

She’d turned a little away from Belda as she thought, and looked back as she realized how silent the younger girl was. If anything, Belda’s expression was more disbelieving now, and as Fíli watched, her eye began to twitch. With a snort, she shook her head like a dog shaking off water, her expression changing to something like she’d just eaten an entire lemon, or smelled Kíli’s socks. Snorts fading into laughter, she eventually just laughed, more sincerely than Fíli had seen from her in several days. “That explains so, so much.” Wiping her eyes, she glanced at Fíli sidelong, grinning. “Although, can I just say…?” Fíli lifted her brows in a silent question, not bothering to hide any of her confusion; Belda’s grin widened. “You must be so far gone for Ori!”

Later, Fíli would deny making any sort of noise, especially one so like that of a dying cat, but for the moment, she was preoccupied with how it felt as though her face had actually caught fire and the fact that Belda was laughing so hard that she nearly fell off the bed. It wasn’t until Belda’s guffaws became groans that Fíli was able to calm down enough to help her lay back on the bed. “Are you alright? Should I get Óin?”

Belda shook her head. “No, I’m fine, just— forgot about my ribs, that’s all.”

Despite her words, her breathing was still slightly ragged, and Fíli debated fetching Óin anyway. But slowly, Belda’s breathing evened out, and Fíli laid next to her, both of them staring at the ceiling. Once her friend was breathing easily again, Fíli spoke casually. “You know, you never did answer my question.”

“…What question?” Oh, she knew exactly what question, Fíli could hear it. 

But the topic was too important to Fíli to waste either her breath or Belda’s on semantics. “Kíli’s not handsome.”

For a moment, there was only silence. Then, slowly, Belda exhaled. “Not to Dwarves, no.”

“To Hobbits?”

Silence again. After nearly a minute, Fíli looked over to see that Belda was bright red again, and if her expression could be trusted, she was searching for the right words. Slowly, she began. “To Hobbits… I told you that Hobbits have good senses of smell. You wouldn’t believe how much information is in a person’s scent. I can tell that you’re female just by your scent, but also that you’re fairly young, that you’re closely related to Kíli, almost as close to Thorin, and distantly related to the rest of the Company except the ‘Urs, that you have a ton of metal on you, that you’ve been riding, that you’ve been in contact with Trolls, and that you have a good heart.”

Fíli shot her a dubious glare, and she chuckled. “No, I can’t actually smell your heart, but I can smell emotions. The more often you feel one emotion, the more it’s incorporated into your natural scent, so a coward always smells afraid, a thug always smells angry, and someone who’s habitually determined, cheerful, compassionate…”

Fíli marveled at that for a moment. “You can really smell all that?”

“No.” Reflexively, Fíli smacked her arm, regretting it as soon as she realized what she’d done, but Belda just laughed. “Well, I can smell some of it, but it’s hard to explain. I’ve never had to explain it before, and it’s doubly hard since you don’t have any frame of reference for what I’m talking about. It wouldn’t make any sense if I explained it literally. But what I said is close, it’s just a bit metaphorical, that’s all. I don’t know how to explain it literally to a non-Hobbit, but…” She shrugged, wincing faintly at the motion. “Everyone in the Company has a good heart, although Thorin, Dwalin, and Dori get angry and worried more often than the rest of you.

“So, well…” Her blush had faded as she spoke about the mechanics of it, but now returned. “Even if Kíli looked different, I’d probably still be at least somewhat attracted to him, but he, um…” Impressively, she flushed darker. “He’s— um, g— good— he’s…”

After a few more seconds of incoherent stammering, Fíli teased, “Not unattractive?”

Belda snorted, some of her fluster easing away. “Not by any means.”

Stifling a snicker at her friend’s shyness, Fíli ventured, “So, if the entire Company walked through the Shire…”

Belda didn’t even try to fight her snickers. “In Hobbiton? There’d be a gaggle of giggling tweens following him everywhere. Tuckborough? He’d have three courting offers by the end of the first week. Buckland? He’d be beating them off with a stick.”

On the last, her expression faded into something almost disconsolate, and Fíli nudged her. “If it makes you feel better, by Dwarven standards, you’re weird-looking, but you’re not ugly.”

She snorted again. “Very flattering.”

Fíli poked her in retaliation before she thought, and after Belda poked her back, there was really nothing to do but to escalate into a full-fledged play-war. Fíli held back, mostly due to Belda’s injuries, but even so, it was a relief to act her age for a few minutes, without the threat of Orcs and Trolls and who-knew-what-else lurking around every corner. By the way Belda was grinning once they’d wound down, Belda now kneeling on the bed while Fíli was half-covered with pillows where she lay on the floor, Fíli guessed that she’d needed to relax as much as Fíli had, at least.

Pillows falling off of her as she sat up, Fíli grinned up at Belda. “You really do have fantastic aim, you know.”

Rolling her eyes, Belda flopped to lie on her back, and Fíli stood to start putting the pillows back on the bed. “Not anymore. I used to be able to hit a vixen at fifty paces, but I’m horribly out of practice. My mother would be appalled.”

Her tone faded again, and Fíli thought for a moment for sitting beside her. “I think your mother would be proud of you.”

Belda was silent for a moment. “…you never met her.”

“No, but I heard you and Elrond talking about her. And I think that the woman you described would be proud of you for doing all this, helping us, going on an adventure of your own.”

A quiet sniffle drew her eyes over to the Hobbit, and her heart lurched to see the tears in her eyes and the half-heartbroken, half-dead expression on her face. “But the adventure’s over.” Her voice was high and shaking, and Fíli gathered her into her arms without a second thought; despite how Belda’s tears began to spill, she didn’t sob, and her voice steadied even as her expression crumpled. “I can’t come with you after this, not unless Thorin changes his mind about me, and he won’t, not now, and I promised I wouldn’t follow you, that you’d never see me again if he didn’t let me sign the contract.”

As she hid her face in Fíli’s arm, Fíli rubbed her back gently. “We still have time. We’ll need to stay at least a day or two, maybe longer, and even if I can’t convince Uncle alone, Dwalin looked like he’d changed his mind about you, and he’s so stubborn that if he changed his mind, Balin probably will, too, after he hears Dwalin’s reasons, and the three of us are sure to convince him.” Sniffling, Belda started to say something, but cut herself off, flushing; guessing what she’d been about to say, Fíli smiled sympathetically. “Kíli would speak up for you, if he could. But he’s in the same position you are; until he comes of age in a fortnight, Thorin could easily forbid him to come to Erebor with us.”

“But what if everyone else talks him into ignoring you?”

Fíli shook her head. “No, Thorin trusts Dwalin and Balin more than anyone. If they endorse you, he’ll listen. We’ll convince him.” ‘We have to’, she finished mentally, but she saw no need to give Belda any reason to doubt. They would convince him. They would.

They would.


 

Nori

 

“Hobbit.” Nori’s voice clearly caught Belda off-guard, but she spoke quietly to Kíli and moved to the master-thief anyway. Fíli had already left to talk with Thorin about something or other, but not before explaining to the Company why, exactly, she’d spent the night with their (potential) Burglar.

“Yes, Nori?” Nori just indicated a nearby alcove, where it would be slightly more difficult, at least, for them to be overheard; it was about the best they’d find in a city built by poncy, useless weed-eaters.

“Fíli told us that you pegged her in your first few days with the Company.”

“Yes, I did.” They’d both spoken quietly enough that it would be hard for someone to eavesdrop from even a foot away, but the look in the Hobbit’s eyes fairly screamed that she knew exactly what Nori was talking about.

But she didn’t say anything further, which, of course, made it necessary for Nori to get a bit more specific. “You didn’t tell her.” The little minx just raised a brow, and Nori fought the urge to shake her. “You didn’t tell her about me. Why?”

Sighing inaudibly, the girl glanced at Kíli, then around the area to be certain no one else was in earshot. “For the same reason I didn’t tell you I knew you’re a woman. It’s not my secret to tell.”

Nori narrowed her eyes; there was no way it could be that simple. “That’s all there is to it.”

At the suspicious tone, some of the morning’s cheer drained away from the girl, leaving only the bone-deep weary melancholy that had been fairly pouring from her the entire day before. “I sincerely doubt there’s anyone who could understand the importance of secrets better than a Hobbit. I have secrets of my own. I wouldn’t want mine spilled, so I’ll keep yours, as I’d intended to keep Fíli’s until circumstances forced my hand.”

Nori clenched her jaw. “And when ‘circumstances force your hand’ into betraying my secret, as well?”

A flicker of genuine hurt moved through Belda’s eyes, followed swiftly by an anger as intense as any of Thorin’s rages; something about it raised the hair on the back of Nori’s neck, not least because it was so unexpected from someone so small and (otherwise) helpless-looking. “I could have called for you as easily as Fíli, yesterday. I called her because I know her better, yes, but also because the way all of you acted around her made it clear that the pretense was for my benefit, not the Company’s. The only people who might have discovered her if I called her were the Elves, and I can just tell them that ‘he’ and I are courting, if they suspect anything. You, however… Does anyone know besides your brothers?” She tilted her head, apparently sincerely curious. “They’re the only people I can tell know, but there might be others I haven’t noticed, I suppose. In any case, now that everyone knows I know about Fíli, I can just call for her if I need a woman’s help. There’s no risk to you.”

“You’re saying you actually thought about it that much before sending for her?” Nori couldn’t help be a little suspicious; that would be an impressive amount of forethought for an adult, let alone a girl less than half her age.

Belda just raised an eyebrow. “I snuck out of Bag-End literally under my family’s noses. I’ve raided pantries while people were in them. I’ve navigated the whole of Hobbiton without being spotted by a soul, thanks, in a large part, to the fact that I had the schedules and habits of half the town memorized. This was hardly impressive, in comparison.” 

When Nori didn’t respond, the Hobbit just inclined her head to her and rejoined the Prince. Nori watched them go thoughtfully. She hadn’t thought much of Tharkûn’s proposal to find another thief, though she’d acknowledged that his logic made sense. When they’d gotten to the Shire, though, she’d been stunned at how quiet it was. Not in that there was no sound, there was actually a huge amount of conversation, laughter, sounds of life in general, but no footsteps. The Hobbits did walk, they left tracks in the dirt roads, but just naturally, they were silent in comparison to the Company. 

Then they’d brought along a girl who looked only partway through her adolescence, and Nori had thought that she’d be useless compared to a grown Hobbit, but she’d proved to be as silent as the rest of her race, if not more so. She wasn’t strong, she had no experience thieving, but Nori noticed her a few times, picking herbs as they made camp and slipping them into Óin or Bombur’s bags, sneaking up behind Fíli or Kíli to help the other in one prank or another, and especially sneaking around the Troll’s campsite. Granted, Nori hadn’t seen much of that, as she’d been as busy with the fight as the rest of the Company, but the girl had moved from one side of camp to the other without making a sound, and had filched a knife from one of the Trolls as she did so. Her delaying tactics had been clumsy, but they’d worked, and she’d had the presence of mind to think of it even in that situation.

Nori had been a thief for most of her life, hiding her gender first as an extra layer of protection against discovery, then just habitually. Her family knew, a few of her associates knew, but not the general public, and certainly not Dwalin. He’d always been sharper than she outwardly gave him credit for, but he hadn’t made the connection yet, and she planned to keep it that way. As a thief, she’d learned, over decades, to think as a thief; to stick to the shadows, to be quiet when she wanted to be loud, to go over all the possibilities before she took any action. Possibly the most reckless thing she’d done in over a century was joining the Quest in the first place, but she didn’t regret it. She had no particular loyalty to Durin’s line, but her brothers did, and she was going to make ablâkul sure that they came home in one piece.

But regardless, thinking like a thief didn’t come naturally to her; it had taken decades before she could truly say that she was a thief, and not just working as one. But this not-yet-an-adult beardless slip of a girl was already displaying more natural aptitude for the craft than Nori had ever possessed. A slow smile crept over her as she stared at the empty doorway where the two younglings had disappeared a minute or two before. She hadn’t signed onto the Quest expecting to find an apprentice, but, well…

This might just work out.

Chapter Text

Balin rubbed his temples. As if the meeting with Elrond and subsequent news that they would have to stay in the Elf-city for another three weeks before they could read the moon-runes hadn’t given him enough of a headache, now he had Dwalin and Fíli talking over each other at him and Thorin. He couldn’t even understand them anymore, and hadn’t been able to grasp any of their meaning but that they were talking about Belda.

The thought of the Hobbit sent a shiver down his spine. He could still see her, screaming, if he so much as closed his eyes for longer than a blink. He’d nearly forgotten how young she was, until then. Clearly, they’d made a mistake in bringing her. The wild was no place for gentlefolk such as her, who could neither fight nor fend for themselves. 

“ENOUGH!” Thorin’s roar jolted Balin out of his musings, and the two plaintiffs into silence. “One at a time. Dwalin.”

Dwalin returned Thorin’s nod soberly, and looked between the two of them as he bluntly spoke. “I think Belda should come with us to Erebor.” Both Thorin and Balin exclaimed, though Balin noticed that Fíli looked thrilled, but Dwalin held up his hands. “Let me explain.” The calm, mature, almost patient approach shocked Balin enough that he fell silent easily; his brother was many things, but calm wasn’t typically one of them, unless the subject was something that he cared deeply about. Balin wanted to hear what had changed Dwalin’s mind in a single day.

Thorin blustered for another few moments, but he, too, quieted. Dwalin nodded to them again, then cleared his throat quietly. “She blames herself for the Trolls. Just after Gandalf untied us, I spoke to her, and she listed all the things she’d done wrong, she took responsibility for the whole mess, gave herself none of the credit, and never once let on that she was injured. Óin gave you his report, I assume?” At their nods, he met their eyes grimly. “That girl was under no obligation to help anyone but herself. She was in no danger until she chose to go into it, to help us. She nearly got killed, yes, but she was also able to recognize her mistakes and own up to them. I’ve been training her for weeks, and I can tell you definitively that she’s a fast learner, and bright. Give her the contract and I guarantee you that she’ll be more than capable of taking care of herself by the time we reach the Mountain.”

“She’s a child!” Dwalin’s eyes snapped to Balin’s, and he had to fight not to step back from the pure, black venom in his younger brother’s eyes.

“That didn’t stop her so-called family from telling her for years that she’s a ‘selfish waste’, from teaching her to flinch away from anyone she even thinks is angry with her, and messing with her head until I might as well have told her that I was Smaug in disguise rather than that she did well to save our lives like she did.” His words hung in the air for several seconds, Balin’s stomach churning nauseatingly, the expressions on Thorin and Fíli’s faces indicating that they felt similarly. Dwalin sighed, the edge of a growl in the sound. “I could never live with myself if I let her go anywhere near that place again, or stay with people who would treat her anything close to the same way.”

“The Elves seem to like her.” Thorin’s expression was mulish, but Balin couldn’t rightly say he disagreed.

Dwalin, though… “So you would leave a young, frightened, defenseless girl with the weed-eaters? And even if they do like her, she’s not one of them. They’d treat her like a child until she was too old and gray to function, or treat her like an adult when they should’ve let her be young. They might like her, they might mean well, who knows, but they’d hurt her.”

“And she’d hate it here.” Balin’s eyes leapt to Fíli. She looked serious more often than her brother, she’d always been more solemn than him, but her expression now was as grim as Dwalin’s, at least. “She wants to stay with the Company. She’s as desperate to come along as Kíli and I were, except that she doesn’t know how to prove to you that she’d be a valuable part of the Company. I think she’s been trying to show you for weeks, actually, trying to prove that she’d be a perfect Burglar, but none of us noticed. But you didn’t see her last night. She wants to be with us, to be part of the Company, and I think she’d be a good fit.”

Thorin burst out, “She’d get herself killed!”

Balin nodded. “Aye, lass. I know you’ve grown close to the lassie, but—”

“That’s not what this is about!” Deliberately, Fíli lowered her voice, looking between each of them in turn. “She is my friend, but if I didn’t think she could handle herself, I would beg you to send her somewhere safe with Gandalf. She’s untrained and inexperienced, but she rode for bloody miles with cracked ribs, she single-handedly got the ponies down to us in time without ever letting on that she was in agony because of her arm— for Mahal’s sake, she saved Kíli’s life!” 

Thorin inhaled sharply at that, but Balin thought back, to when he’d caught a blur of motion out of the corner of his eye and seen the Hobbit’s blade buy Kíli just enough time to survive. 

“If you’re worried that she’s defenseless, then train her to defend herself. If you’re worried that she’ll get into trouble, assign a watch. If you’re just worried because she’s young, then you’re a hypocrite, Uncle, because she’s barely younger than Kíli and I.” Pausing just long enough to catch her breath, Fíli lowered her voice a fraction, eyes intense. “We need a Burglar, and Gandalf’s right, we can’t send Nori in, he’ll get eaten before he can blink. You weren’t there when she sneaked up to the Trolls; I was watching the entire time, and I couldn’t hear anything, I couldn’t even see her until she reached the ponies, and Kíli was there, too, and even he could barely track her!”

Now that did impress Balin. Kíli was one of the most naturally talented hunters in Ered Luin, and one of the reasons he’d earned a place in the Company was his proficiency in the area. If the girl could actually slip past his watch, Balin doubted anyone but an Elf would notice her, and if they weren’t expecting her to be there, perhaps not even an Elf. Again, the image of her being held by the Trolls returned, but this time, it was quickly followed by memories of her apparently-effortlessly tricking the Trolls into actually believing that the Company was completely inedible, of her saving Kíli, of her insisting on being treated by Óin when she must have known that the weed-eaters would be more capable.

Dwalin’s voice interrupted Balin’s thoughts, and he looked up to see his brother nodding rapidly. “And she doesn’t have the strength to be a fighter like us, but she’s quick and clever, and she has aim like you wouldn’t believe.”

“She still got caught.” Thorin fired off the words as though they were inarguable, but Balin could hear the faint note of uncertainty; evidently, Balin wasn’t the only one having second thoughts.

Fíli didn’t even hesitate before firing back, “The wind shifted. Ask Nori; I’m sure he’ll tell you that even the best thief does, occasionally, have bad luck.”

Thorin opened his mouth again, but closed it after only a moment or so, brows drawing together in a fresh scowl. Dwalin started to speak, but stopped when Thorin held up a hand. As he lowered it again, he turned away from the others, walking a few paces before he called over his shoulder, “Leave me.”

The two younger Dwarves looked to Balin and he nodded for them to obey their King, but he stayed behind when they left. He needed to think as much as Thorin did. Several minutes passed in silence as the two men thought.

Balin was torn. On one hand, the girl was barely more than a child, she’d already been grievously injured in the course of the Quest, and she’d be far safer with the Elves. But on the other hand, Dwalin was right, the Elves wouldn’t understand how to take care of a mortal, she could be trained to defend herself, and she’d publicly shown that she preferred the Company to the Elves; Fíli was right, they needed a Burglar, she’d shown more courage and resilience than Balin would have expected from any but Dwarves, and she had the makings of a capable Burglar. Gandalf insisted that Belda would be invaluable on the Quest, and she was quick and clever, as Dwalin had said, and in more than just her fighting. She had, he couldn’t deny, gotten them all caught by the Trolls, though unintentionally, but she’d been the one to save them, and more so than Gandalf. 

The more Balin thought over the entire incident, the more convinced he was that if she’d stayed silent or saved her own skin rather than theirs, perhaps she might have survived, but the rest of them wouldn’t’ve. 

She was young, but so was Kíli.

She was inexperienced, but so was Ori.

She was o-Khazâd, but so was Gandalf.

She was clever, more so than most of the Company.

She was quick, more so than any of them, Balin thought.

She was loyal, more so than most of Ered Luin.

Dwalin could teach her to fight, Nori could teach her to thieve, and loyalty such as she’d displayed couldn’t be taught or bought.

Part of Balin’s mind called him a heartless, feckless coward for even considering putting a girl in danger. 

Part of Balin’s mind called him a soft-hearted fool for even considering not making use of the resources at his disposal.

Part of Balin’s mind was still lingering on Dwalin’s words, on the abuse he’d implied, and called for Balin to protect the girl from her family above everything else.

Part of Balin’s mind was still lingering on the sound of her screams, and called for Balin to protect the girl from any further pain, above everything, even the Quest.

Altogether, the only thing he could really say with any conviction was that the only way he’d be satisfied with either course of action would be if his King endorsed it.

“Balin. The contract.” Balin blinked at Thorin’s back for a moment before he remembered what he’d said. Thorin didn’t turn as Balin approached him, just put out a hand and waited for Balin to put the paper into his grip. Balin did so and took a seat near where he’d been thinking, and then he just watched. 

He watched Thorin read the contract all the way through, and again, and again. 

He watched Thorin glower at the setting sun as though it was meant to answer him. 

He watched Thorin finally, slowly nod, and walk away, contract in hand.


 

Belda

 

“Better?”

Belda smiled up at Kíli. “Better.” He smiled back at her, and a shiver of warmth ran through her. Welcome warmth, really; it may have been the middle of summer, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. Or, at least, it didn’t as they ambled around the outskirts of the city where the wind could cut through her jacket all-too-easily, and the chill in the dusk air was enough that she had to huddle against his side as they walked. 

Truth be told, it wasn’t quite as cold as she was making it out to be, but if she admitted that, she’d have to stay a respectable distance from him, and she liked the comforting, looming nearness of him too much to move away now. And especially since having his scent so near was unexpectedly comforting, in the middle of a city that didn’t smell like anything in particular but starlight and water. The gardens were a different story, but there weren’t nearly enough of them for Belda’s Hobbit-y tastes.

There also wasn’t enough noise, for reasons that had nothing to do with her race. It was too quiet, too reminiscent of being locked in her room for days on end while the Sackville-Bagginses swanned off to do who-knew-what. Normally, the constant, if low, chatter of the Company was reassuring, but they were evidently committed to being as annoying as possible whenever the Elves were around, and so their current cacophony was a little overwhelming. 

This, though, with Kíli, was ideal. For the moment, at least. She normally enjoyed the rest of the Company’s company, and she was determined to spend as much time as possible with them before they left. But for now, she was content to walk with her crush friend.

“The others didn’t mean to offend you, you know. They just aren’t used t—”

“Offend?” Brow furrowed, she looked up at him, and the two of them drew to a stop.

Looking as confused as she felt, he frowned down at her. “I thought—”

“I wasn’t offended, I was just a bit—” As her brain caught up, she blinked while her confusion began to clear away. “Wait, do you mean that you’ve all thought I didn’t like loud noise this entire time?”

A hint of color rising above his beard, Kíli cleared his throat. “Y— We were trying to be polite. You mean…”

A knot of hurt she’d forgotten she had loosened with a wave of relief, and she laughed, shaking her head. “I thought you all didn’t like me! You’re all so loud when you’re alone, but then as soon as any of you see me, you clam up!”

He’d sputtered at her first words, but abruptly fell silent as she continued, eyes widening. He spoke a tiny bit faster and higher than usual as he frantically shook his head. “No, being quiet around women is a sign of respect when we don’t know them very well, and then you’re also not a Dwarf, so we thought that you’d prefer the quiet like all the Hobbits in the Shire did, and of course I— we like you, I swear!”

Unfortunately for Belda, she didn’t catch the slight slip, too preoccupied with his prior words. “The Hobbits in the Shire like a good party as much as any Dwarf, they were just nervous around all you and your weapons.”

Gradually, he joined her in her laughter, and the two of them resumed wandering. “We should’ve just asked, shouldn’t we have.”

At the self-deprecating note in his voice, she squeezed his arm lightly and pressed a little more solidly against his side. “We all should have.” 

He looked down at her with a smile that was somewhere between fond and grateful, and chuckled quietly before looking ahead of them again. A moment later, he slowed to a stop. “…Where are we?”

Looking around them at the completely unfamiliar buildings, Belda had to laugh again. “I have absolutely no idea.”

After scanning the area again, Kíli nodded decisively. “This way.”

A half-hour later, Belda trotted merrily beside the glowering Dwarf. “You Durins and your senses of direction.” 

She shook her head playfully; scowl melting away as he looked at her smile, Kíli teasingly nudged her. “You’re as lost as I am.”

“Want to bet?” He raised a skeptical brow, and she stared up at him with a smirk. The fading sunlight brought hints of green and brown to his normally-black eyes, like seedlings in rich soil, and her breath caught. For a moment, she didn’t think, she simply stared into his eyes and inhaled his scent, his warmth soaked into her arm and side, and some instinct, deep-buried and primally new, swept through her as lightly as a sigh. She smiled.

Laughing, she pulled him over to a nearby garden just to the side of them, sighing contentedly as she felt the earth under her feet. Reluctantly releasing his hand, she circled the few trees in the area, then the plants, taking in the angle of the leaves, the direction they’d grown in, the faint bleaching on one side of them. 

If Kíli looked confused when she turned to him, he looked doubly so as she pushed him hard enough to make him either sit or fall down, and she sat next to him, tucked neatly into his side. After a moment’s hesitation, he put his arm around her, and she felt another shiver of warmth to realize that she fit perfectly under his shoulder. Trying (and failing) to calm her racing heart, she flexed her toes to dig them into the topsoil a bit. At first, she tried to look at Kíli, but the combination of his closeness, his scent surrounding her, the warmth that poured off of him, and how enticingly scratchy his beard looked made it nearly impossible for her to look at him for longer than a blink without something feral and temptingly dark slinking all through her veins, pulling her hands and fingers toward his beard and his lips and his really, truly impressive arms.

Shoving aside the (frankly speaking) inappropriate thoughts, she refocused on the earth beneath her, twisting her hands into the grass at her sides to help ground her. “So, we’re on the northern edge of the city—”

“How do you know that?” How his voice rumbled through her didn’t make it any easier to keep her hands off of him, but she held still somehow.

“The sunset, for one.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his cheeks color; smiling, she leaned her head against his chest, trying to keep from looking at him. “For another, the plants are all angled south-west—they’ll turn east in the morning, but the southern tilt is because that’s where the sun is. If I’m right, we should go…” Looking up at the sky and the stars just beginning to reveal themselves, she pointed south-south-east. “That way.”

After a moment, he started shaking, mirth filling his scent, laughing audibly a few seconds later. “I should’ve just let you lead the way from the beginning, shouldn’t I?”

Laughing herself, she grinned up at him, finding the flecks of green in his eyes even in the shadow, now that she knew they were there. “It would’ve been faster, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining.”

Slowly, their laughter faded, though neither of them looked away from the other. His expression changed slightly, but she couldn’t look at him any longer without doing something she was semi-sure she’d regret, so she laid her head on his chest again and scooted a little closer to him. Her dress was going to be more stains than skirt at this rate, but she really couldn’t bring herself to care. He adjusted his arm to wrap gently around her waist, and the two of them sat in silence for a moment before he let out a soft chuckle. 

“Well, with you helping, at least we’ll probably get to Erebor in time.” He meant it to be encouraging, she knew, but his words carried a reminder that she wouldn’t be going with them to Erebor, and it washed over her with all the gentle warmth of a blizzard. His voice was slightly muffled as he spoke again, sounding somewhat panicked. “I’m sorry— I didn’t mean to—”

“No, it’s fine.” Even she could hear the lie in the words, but she just shook her head numbly and stood. “I’m… I’m just going to walk around.”

He stood, too, and half reached out to her. “Belda—”

“Really, Kíli, I’m fine.” But she couldn’t quite meet his eyes. “Our quarters are that way, I think,” she thought she could remember the courtyard just behind the building, and pointed towards it, lowering her hand quickly when she realized it was shaking. “You should be able to find your way.”

She started walking the other way before he could respond, but despite half-expecting to hear his voice, she still slowed involuntarily at the sound. “I’m sorry.”

Closing her eyes, she fought the numbness far enough back to make her words sound as sincere as they were. “It’s not your fault. I’m not angry with you.” At the moment, anger was the furthest thing from what she was feeling, but even so, nothing she felt was directed toward Kíli, save for her guilt at worrying him. “Goodnight, Kíli.”

This time, if he spoke, she didn’t hear him, and when she looked back a few minutes later, he was gone. Within a few minutes (that felt more like seconds), she’d found an alcove tucked away with a Hobbit-sized seat. 

Distantly, she thought that it was probably meant to be a footstool, but it was just the right size for her to sit comfortably on it with her feet drawn up and her arms around her knees, so she didn’t really care. One side was devoted to a balcony that overlooked the main waterfalls as they cascaded down, down, out of sight. She could tell just from the sound that she was on the edge of a huge cliff, though she couldn’t see the water below, and the wind carried the familiar scents of water and starlight, but also of grass and earth and stone; the combination was at once achingly comforting and a stark reminder that for all intents and purposes, she was alone. 

Kíli and Fíli were her friends, but she’d known them a month, and would probably never see them again once they left. Gandalf was her Godfather, but the last month of travel had been the longest she’d ever seen him at a time, and she had a feeling that if she added up all the time she’d spent with him before her parents’ death, it wouldn’t even equal the month. Dwalin was… she didn’t know what he was. But he was probably the member of the Company she respected most, which was saying quite a bit. More than once, she’d thought that if he’d been born a Hobbit, his soul-form would be some sort of bear.

Kíli’d be a wolf. Fíli’d be some kind of big cat, maybe a mountain lion. Ori’d probably be a rabbit, or maybe a raccoon. Nori, though, would definitely be a… a fox…

But that just made it all the worse. If they’d been Hobbits, either she’d already be part of their pack, they’d have left her by the side of the road as soon as Gandalf dealt with the Trolls, or they’d never have agreed to take her this far. Either everything would be right or she would at least know for a fact that it would never be. If they’d been Hobbits, she would know there was nothing she could do. If they’d been Hobbits, she wouldn’t be caught in a Hellish limbo, where she’d already done everything she could think of and it still wasn’t enough.

She wasn’t sure how long she sat there, lost in thought as silent tears dampened her skirts, but it was more than long enough for the last of the sunset to fade away, until the stars were the only illumination. With how many turns she’d taken to find her spot, she couldn’t be sure whether the moon was behind her, to her side, or in front of her, hidden by the towering cliffs, but whichever way, she couldn’t see it. 

Looking up at the stars and the clouds that skidded over them, with the cliffs looming over her and the waterfalls drowning out all other sound, she felt small. She felt small and weak and helpless, and she hated it. She loathed it with every fiber of her draconic being, part of her mind screaming that she was huge, she was strong, she was fearsome—

But she was still only a Hobbit. Until her Coming of Age, she was exactly—only—how she felt. And that made it so much worse.

Guilt mixed with misery mixed with helpless rage as she sat there, and it wasn’t until Thorin’s scent drifted to her that she even realized he was there. She turned away from him as soon as she noticed, though, to try and wipe away her tears before he saw them, but gave up after a moment. She had no way to know how long he’d been standing there, so there was every chance that he already knew. And she was tired of hiding. Tired of pretending. Tired of playing along when she knew how it would end.

“If you’re going to shout at me, just get it over with.” She huffed lightly, though for the most part, she only felt numb. “I’m surprised you haven’t already, actually.”

He didn’t respond, and she stared at the waterfall again, as it crashed inevitably to the waiting drop. Her Mum had told her once that from high up, falling into water wasn’t any better than jumping onto solid ground. She hadn’t asked how she knew, but she didn’t doubt that she’d been right. It was just safer to stay low, so falling wouldn’t hurt as much.

The silence wasn’t any easier when her commander was drilling holes into the side of her head with his glare, though. She may not have been a Dwarf, and he certainly wasn’t her King, but he was the leader of the pack, and that meant that he was her commander. Didn’t mean she wouldn’t question him, not when she could pick him up with two claws— No, not yet. Not yet. For now, he was twice her size. She still wasn’t going to obey something she knew was stupid, though. But that didn’t matter, because his casting her out of the pack made perfect sense. She couldn’t argue with that. But she could say what she needed to say first.

“Hobbits don’t believe in apologies, you know.” Her Mum’s words came back to her easily, and she felt a twisted parody of a smile quirk her mouth. “‘Words are easily given and easily abandoned’. Actions, though…” Trailing off, she tugged her skirts more snugly around her knees, and sniffled. “I’ve been trying to think of how to make reparations. For—” Eyes dropping to her skirts, she forced the words out miserably. “For the Trolls. And for speaking for you when the Elves found us.” Remembering brought a guilty stab, and she winced. “I shouldn’t have accepted for the Company. It wasn’t my place.”

It wouldn’t have been her place even if she’d still had a place in the Company.

(Stubbornly, she ignored the way her instincts insisted that she was Thorin’s equal, and therefore his second-in-command.)

“The only way I can think to make reparations for the Trolls is to train with Dwalin twice as hard as before,” ‘to make up for how useless I was’, “which I haven’t had the opportunity to do, but the only way I can think to make reparations for overstepping as I did would be to listen to you and Dwalin and everyone twice as much. But, obviously,” her voice cracked, and she hoped desperately that he hadn’t heard. “I won’t be able to do that when you all leave Rivendell, so…” She still couldn’t bring herself to actually look at him, but she turned slightly toward him, enough that she could just make him out in the corner of her eye. “I’m sorry. I truly am.”

He still didn’t move, and she couldn’t decipher his expression without turning to face him more fully, and that was out of the question. Even with the waterfall roaring away, there was a sort of peaceful, serene, deathly quiet to Rivendell, the stillness reminding Belda of the dusty old Mathom-House, where anything unHobbitish was consigned to be slowly forgotten, gathering dust in a dim room with a visitor once a century, perhaps. 

Sniffling as she pulled herself out of her thoughts once more, she wiped her eyes as unobtrusively as she could. “It’s always quiet here, have you noticed? Well, not here, obviously.” Flushing, she trailed off, the stars catching her attention again; eyes watering, she propped her chin on her knees. “Everywhere else, but even here, a little bit. Quiet enough that you can’t hear anything but your own thoughts. Quiet enough that it feels like nothing exists but your memories, like the present is only a daydre—” 

Wrenching her eyes away from the sky, she bit her tongue sharply enough that a stab of pain ran through her, though it might have been from her train of thought. She’d said more than she meant to, but Dwarven hearing wasn’t as good as Hobbits’, and she’d gotten more quiet as she went on, so there was still a chance that he hadn’t heard the last bits. She hoped. It would hurt enough when they left her behind; she didn’t need to add ‘complete humiliation’ to the list.

He was still just standing there, and a pulse of (irrational, she knew) anger gave her the courage to turn to face him, though she could still barely hold his eyes. “If you aren’t here to shout at me, why are you here?”

For a few moments, he just stared at her, expression unreadable. Then he tossed something at her; taken off guard as she was, she barely snatched the packet out of the air before it fell to the ground. By the time she looked up, Thorin was gone, and she stared at the empty space for several seconds before she remembered the paper in her hands.


 

Thorin

 

It had taken Thorin the better part of an hour to find the Halfling, during which time he nearly changed his mind no less than four times. When he finally found her, he’d intended to tell her to take her time deciding, and, for a brief moment, to persuade her not to sign it, and to stay behind, where she was safe. Then he saw that she’d been crying and all his words left him. She didn’t notice him at first, though, and he’d nearly been ready to speak when she did. Then she spoke.

She’d sounded half-afraid, half-resigned, and completely miserable the entire time, and she’d sounded close to tears as she detailed how quiet she found the city. That’d given him chills. He’d felt like that more than once after Smaug’s attack, when the screams of his family and people were still ringing in his ears. Time after time, he’d woken from a nightmare, or found himself staring into the campfire, or even simply smelled smoke or burning hair, and it had been as though the present burned away to reveal that no time had passed at all, that he was still in Erebor. It had been decades since he last had to fear his memories the way he could hear that she did. 

In that instant of realization, one thought had filled his mind, that he would allow her to stay with the Elves over his dead body, and had only strengthened as she turned to him, until he couldn’t bear it any longer and tossed her the contract before turning on his heel and walking away.

But as soon as she was out of sight, doubt began to creep in once again. Could he actually allow a young girl to join the Quest? Could he live with himself if something happened to her? Did he have the slightest bit of right to decide her fate, when her Godfather was within shouting distance? Could he leave her in a place that she clearly loathed?

He wrestled with the thoughts long after he found his sleeping chambers, and sleep eluded him entirely.


 

Dwalin

 

Dwalin scowled as he stalked through the over-large halls. It was well past sundown, and Belda still hadn’t returned to the guest chambers. Kíli hadn’t been much help, as he’d had no idea where she wandered off to after pointing him in the right direction, and the fact that Thorin was gone, too, didn’t bode well, to Dwalin’s mind. Thorin was Dwalin’s King, had been since Azanulbizar and would always be, and his friend since Erebor, but he was a right royal git at times. With how easily Belda assumed the worst of their opinions of her, Dwalin didn’t trust Thorin not to give her the wrong impression, whichever way he’d decided.

He’d better have given her the contract, though, or he and Dwalin would be having words.

Turning a corner, he almost didn’t see Belda; she was perched on a low chair, completely motionless, save for how the wind ruffled her curls, and while her hair obscured her face, she seemed to be looking toward the (large, in her small hands) packet of paper. Distantly aware that several imagessuddenly evaporated—images that he’d barely been aware of conjuring, of her falling off a cliff or wandering out of the city to be attacked—he couldn’t stop a relieved exhale.

“There you are, kit. I…” Trailing off, he frowned. Even with the waterfall abloody stone’s throw away, he hadn’t exactly spoken quietly, and she ought to have heard him from that distance. But she hadn’t reacted at all. “Kit?”

She still didn’t move, and he knelt carefully in front of her, hunching slightly in order to see her downturned face, and as he’d thought, her glistening eyes were fixed on the packet, which he could see, now, was the contract. A swell of relief, nearly as big as when he’d found her, swept through him, but it was a bit sour. She should’ve been just as relieved. So why did she look like she had after he told her that she did well?

Slowly, and as delicately as he could (which wasn’t saying much, if he was honest with himself), he brushed the curls on one side of her face back to gently tuck them behind her ear. They came loose again immediately, but she took a shuddering breath and seemed to realize that he was there, though she still didn’t look away from the contract.

She shook her head, just barely, and spoke quietly enough that he almost couldn’t hear her. “I don’t understand. He…” Dwalin’s heart clenched. What had the git done this time? “…He wants me to come?”

Involuntarily, he frowned, unease trickling through him. “Don’t you want to come?”

She shook her head again, and pure panic shot through him for an instant before she spoke. “Well, yes, of course, but I never actually thought…” Still shaking her head, she raised her eyes to his, the same confused, afraid, and so, so young expression on her face. “I don’t understand. I nearly got everyone killed. Why would he want me along?”

He was twice her size, three times her age, and had a brother who was so bloody clever it even managed to rub off on him, and somehow he still felt like a cornered rabbit. Swallowing nervously, he said the only thing he could think to. “Are Hobbits so fickle?”

She shook her head, “No—” She hesitated. “Well, yes—” With something pained in her expression, she shook her head again. “It’s more complicated than that.”

He just raised a brow at her, unwilling to give any of the wretches who’d so hurt her the benefit of the doubt.

Shivering, she sighed; he moved to sit beside her, blocking the wind as she began to speak. “We didn’t always live in the Shire. There was a time, for…” She laughed once, mirthlessly. “For a very long time, for generations, when we didn’t live anywhere. We call them the Wandering Days. And—” She cut herself off abruptly, and it was a minute or so before she spoke again. “The records say that when we left— um, where w— where we were before,” she was obviously hiding something, but he could hardly fault her for keeping her race’s secrets, “there were thousands of us, thousands upon thousands.” For a moment, she was silent, then turned and deliberately met his eyes. “When we settled in the Shire, there were a few hundred of us.”

He let out a low breath; the exodus from Erebor had been horrific, but it had lasted no more than half a century before they began to settle in Ered Luin. Of the great Kingdom of Erebor, less than a tenth of the population had survived Smaug. Another third died on the roadside. He could imagine the scene she described all too well, especially when she looked away again and softly resumed her story, eyes distant.

“Some were lost to illness, some to wolves and Orcs and things, but most… most to hunger.” Shaking her head, her tone was half-pleading, half-apologetic. “Hobbits need food. We enjoy seven meals a day, when we can get them, but even so, we need more food than the other Races. And back then…” Sadly, she shrugged. “There just wasn’t enough.”

“How long?” The words hadn’t been planned, but he regretted them all the same.

“Five hundred and fifty years.” 

All his breath left him at once; she didn’t react. Their exodus still haunted many Dwarves, he knew, which was part of why so few had agreed to follow another King Under the Mountain on a Quest, but fifty years was a fraction of a lifetime. A large one, admittedly, but still. When she’d said ‘generations’, he’d expected perhaps a century, but… With a journey that long, none but Elves would live long enough to see both ends. What she was describing was an entire race with no memory of anything but the road. Children born and raised in constant danger, countless graves at the roadside, and bearing in mind that they were Hobbits, it was all the more astounding. Dwarves could survive something such as that, Men, perhaps, Elves, unfortunately, but he never would have guessed, in all his years, that Hobbits could ever prove hardy enough to persevere in such a situation. The only rational explanation was that it was a lie, and yet…

And yet the pain in her eyes was one he recognized. It was the same pain that Fíli, Kíli, and Ori shared, the pain of suffering not personally experienced, but no less real for that. “How long ago?”

“Thirteen hundred and twenty-three years.” He couldn’t keep his surprise from his expression, and she looked sidelong at him, half-smiling hollowly. “Our calendar started when we entered the Shire. By Shire-Reckoning, it’s the year 1323 now, not 2923.” Her smile faded as she looked forward again, but her expression stayed hollow. “…Hobbits have large families.” 

He frowned; she’d said that the night she joined them. Why was she bringing it up now? 

“Typically, at least. But…” Pain flashed across her face, and she continued only hesitantly. “During the Wandering Days… the number of children born wasn’t the same as the number of children raised.” The pain in her voice spoke of personal, or at least secondhand, experience, and he looped an arm around her before he thought. Her breath hitched, but she didn’t react otherwise. “Families were small, then, too small to survive on their own. So we formed packs.

“Like-minded Hobbits, generally, but the more varied groups were able to defend themselves in ways that the smaller couldn’t. But the only reason so many Hobbits survived to reach the Shire at all was that the pack came first.” Toward the end of the sentence, iron entered her voice, and remained. “Whether it was food, or danger, or medicine, or anything, the pack came first, no matter the cost. And anyone who endangered the pack, maliciously or stupidly, it didn’t matter, was cast out. It was the only way to survive.”

Her steely expression held for a silent moment, two, then cracked as her breath hitched and she slid sideways, off the cushion, to sit beside Dwalin. “And I endangered the pack.” Almost immediately, she closed her eyes and shook her head, her tone as though she were responding to a thought rather than anything he’d said or done. “And I know, I know, the Company isn’t a pack, it’s a Company, but—”

She shook her head again and looked up at him, half-helpless, half-pleading. “That was how we survived for generations and it’s still part of us. Deeper than—” Her mouth worked soundlessly for a moment; Dwalin couldn’t help but think of Frerin at her age. “Deeper than anything. Deeper than seven meals a day, deeper than living in Hobbit-holes, deeper than the Shire.” She was still looking at him pleadingly, but there was something in her eyes that caught his attention, something reminiscent of Thorin when he was being Kingly and not at all gittish; Dwalin couldn’t fairly say it happened often, but enough for him to recognize a look of pure conviction when he saw one. “It’s part of what makes us Hobbits.” 

The starlight made her eyes shine hiddenite-green and ghostly, and for a moment, Dwalin didn’t see the girl who’d clung to him only days before as though her life depended on it. He didn’t see the girl who’d flinched away from him, or the girl who’d stalked up to him and demanded he teach her to fight. He didn’t see the girl who’d nearly died to keep them safe, or the girl who’d walked away from her so-called family and never once looked back. He saw a stranger, an alien, otherworldly being who looked at him as though she were seeing something far beyond any other Races’ understanding.

“The pack comes first.”

She held his eyes steadily, and he returned the gaze with all the sobriety the moment demanded. Slowly, the stranger faded and Belda blinked at him tiredly. Leaning her head against his arm, she rubbed her eyes; his mind was a complete blank, and it took him nearly a minute to gather even a single question. “We’re your pack?”

Her breath hitched, and she made a… well, he hesitated to call it a squeak, but he really couldn’t think of anything else to call it. She straightened up, moving just far enough away that the cold rushed in to fill the space she’d left, and shrugged helplessly, tears spilling over her cheeks. “I keep telling myself you can’t be, but everything I am keeps telling me you are.” Her voice cracked enough that her words were barely comprehensible, but warmth filled Dwalin’s chest nonetheless, albeit mixed heavily with concern. Growling, she rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands. “It’s ridiculous: you aren’t even Hobbits, I’ve only known you all a month, you can’t be my pa—”

Her voice gave out in the middle of the word and she curled into herself slightly; tiny tremors wracked her form, and Dwalin didn’t stop to think, didn’t let himself second-guess the impulse, he just reached out and pulled her close enough for him to wrap her in his arms. She really was tiny. By Hobbit standards, perhaps she wasn’t, but again, he thought of Dís. The last time he’d held her, she’d been thirty-three, and he, Balin, Thorin, Frerin, and most of the other surviving Erebor warriors had been heading off to begin what would eventually be six long years of war against the Orcs. She’d said goodbye to the rest of her family, then, privately, she’d grabbed him, made him swear on his hair that he would bring her family home, and then just sobbed in his arms. 

The next time they’d seen each other, he’d brought her the ashes of her brother, grandfather, grandmother, and his own father, her cousin. 

He’d always thought of her as a sister before the war. It wasn’t until afterwards, ’til the absence of anything besides distant, sisterly affection made it clear that she’d been slowly beginning to treat him not as a brother, but more as… as something more. If he’d known then, perhaps he would have stayed behind, or made more practical promises. But as it happened, he was only left with empty arms, a knife in his heart that his sister (because she would always be his sister now) twisted with every cold rebuff, and the hollow, desolate remains of a dreamlike possibility.

But he remembered holding her for the last time. And he couldn’t help but think of those days, of his little sister, and couldn’t stop the part of his heart that murmured ‘my family, my kin’ and tightened his arms around Belda with every beat. She wasn’t his sister, there was absolutely not ‘something more’ between them, but even so… She was young, and she needed help, and she seemed to want his. He couldn’t deny her that.

That same part of his heart whispered that he couldn’t deny her anything, but he quashed it quickly, not sure why he’d thought that.

“You can’t be my pack,” she repeated brokenly, “But then you do things like this.” With how he was holding her, not to mention how she was clutching at him, he could feel her breath hitching as her sobs returned; he’d thought that she was hard to understand before, but her renewed tears obscured her words almost entirely. “Why? Why would you— any of you— w—”

She broke down again, and this time he pulled her entirely onto his lap, cradling her as he had Dís, long ago, and Fíli and Kíli, and even Ori, once. She only held onto him more tightly, and tucked her head into his neck of her own volition; remembering how Dís had used to complain, he tried to tilt his head so that his beard wasn’t against her forehead, but she only made a wordless, mewling sort of protest, and so he just held her and didn’t think about it. “We aren’t Hobbits, kit.” 

He wasn’t sure when the nickname had become so natural to say, but now he couldn’t imagine a different name for her. 

“You’ve made mistakes, but you’ll learn. You’re still young.” 

Still incredibly young, and for a moment, he felt as though he’d drown in the knowledge that he was at least partially responsible for her inevitable, and painful, death at the hands of Orcs or Elves or any of the thousand other dangers on their journey, not the least of which was Smaug himself. But between keeping her with him, where he could protect her with his dying breath, and abandoning her to the Elves, he knew his choice. Really, he’d long since made his choice. 

Admitting it to himself at last, even if he never told a soul, he closed his eyes and slid his hand into her hair, cradling the back of her head as he started to rock, gently, from side to side. Bit by bit, her sobs eased away, and he waited until he was sure she would hear him before he spoke. 

 

“You’re young, and you’re still learning. We’re not going to hold that against you, and we’re not going to condemn you for a single day’s mistakes. We’re not Hobbits, and none of us are in the Wandering Days. I’ll believe that severe punishments were needed then, but they aren’t now.” The contract had fallen out of her hands when he pulled her over, and he picked it up now to illustrate his point. “Thorin gave you this. Once you sign it, you’re part of the Company. Part of the pack.” Deliberately, he drew a fraction back and used his free hand to nudge her chin up far enough for her to meet his eyes; hers were red, her face blotchy, but he didn’t doubt she was listening carefully. “We won’t turn our backs on you. And I swear to you on my beard, you’ll never be alone again.”

For a moment, she just stared at him. Then she burst into tears.

She didn’t cry as long that time, but she was yawning once she was calm again, and Dwalin successfully convinced her to leave reading and signing the contract until the morning before walking back to the guest quarters together. At that point, though, she was stumbling more often than she was walking, and after the third time she nearly fell off a bridge, he just gave up and carried her on his back. It was surprisingly comfortable, despite the fact that her hips and ribs were sharp enough to be lethal weapons. Or, he corrected himself, not ‘comfortable’, exactly, but restful, secure. He could feel every breath she took, her arms swung against his chest with every step he took, and with her head on his shoulder, all he had to do was tilt his head a bit to lay it on hers. Every breath, every heartbeat, every step reminded him that she was safe, and that she trusted him enough to let herself be defenseless. 

That might have had more to do with the fact that she didn’t see the weed-eaters as a threat, but even so, he had to blink hard to keep his composure. It had been years since anyone but his own kin trusted him so implicitly, and he couldn’t remember the last time a child (no matter how close she was to her adulthood, she was still heartbreakingly young to be so forlorn) hadn’t feared him. He’d forgotten that, forgotten how dearly he loved holding someone tiny and knowing he had his or her trust, forgotten how much the smallest measure of affection from someone so young could affect him, forgotten how he’d used to dream of having children of his own.

It had always been a fool’s dream, and far more so after Azanulbizar, but it hadn’t been until after his hundredth year that he’d truly left that hope behind. Fíli had been born a decade and a half later, but Dís had never truly trusted him since that horrible day, and he’d barely even seen her children until Kíli was old enough to have no patience for being held. So he’d kept himself busy, and he’d pushed fool’s dreams out of his mind, and he’d forgotten. And now, a confusing, alien, lonely, irrepressible girl was bringing those dreams back. She wasn’t his, not his daughter, not his blood, not even his race… but he would claim her as his own, if he could.

He wasn’t truly sure why he’d grown so fond, so quickly, but he had, and he didn’t think he’d change his mind. But no, he couldn’t. He couldn’t offer his bead to a girl he’d known a single month, and especially not to a girl who would have no idea what it would mean. No. He would wait. It would be months until they reached Erebor, which gave him plenty of time to think and rethink, and to explain to her.

He’d never had a daughter. But he would adopt her in a heartbeat.

Chapter Text

Fíli woke slowly, still not used to the utterly ridiculous number of blankets and pillows that she was using as an airy mattress; she’d dreamed, several times, of floating along with the clouds. It was more than slightly nauseating. But no matter how strange her dreams were, she was sleeping more deeply than she ever did on the road.

Maybe that was why she’d slept through Belda’s return, and maybe that was why she didn’t notice the paper on the table until after she’d gotten dressed.

Delighted surprise stole her voice entirely away, and after glancing several times between the contract and the sleeping Hobbit, she tiptoed out of the room to leave Belda to what she was sure was much-needed sleep. It was harder than usual, though, since she felt as though she’d burst from happiness at any moment. Most of the Company was awake, though Ori and Bombur were stubbornly asleep, the former holding a pillow over his head. Thorin and Kíli were talking quietly at the other end of the room, and she picked her way across as quickly as she could. Kíli saw her coming, as he was already facing her direction, and smiled. “What’s got into you?”

Thorin turned in her direction and she broke into a run, ignoring Kíli’s question in favor of tackling their uncle in a rare hug. Even more unusually, Thorin returned the embrace, if hesitantly. 

“Thank you.” Thorin just grunted in response, and Fíli had to stifle a laugh, remembering a few times he’d done the same when Dís thanked him for making sure they had enough food, or new clothes when Fíli and Kíli outgrew theirs. As she drew back, she had to smile at Kíli’s obvious confusion, and simply said, “He gave Belda the contract.”

For a moment, Kíli’s expression stayed blank; then the words seemed to sink in and he let out a shocked laugh, grinning like an idiot a moment later. If they hadn’t been in the middle of an Elven city, and if the walls hadn’t been thin enough for Belda to get woken up if they were too loud, Fíli was fairly sure he would have been bouncing off the walls. As it was, he sunk his hands into his hair as though he didn’t know what else to do with them, still with that open-mouthed grin that usually meant he was about to start laughing, and loudly.

Quickly, Fíli slammed her hands over his mouth. “She’s still asleep! If you’re going to be loud, go hunt or something!”

He pulled her hands away, mischief in his eyes, but Thorin cut him off. “She’s right. Go make a fool of yourself in private, and bring back some game.”

Sloppily, Kíli saluted him, still beaming, and barely slowed to grab his bow and quiver as he ran out of the room. A few seconds after he left, the sound of distant whooping reached them, along with a few distinctly Elven exclamations and the sound of something breaking. Fíli just shook her head, grinning; maybe Belda was right, maybe Fíli was ‘gone’ for Ori, but Kíli was, without a doubt, doubly so for Belda.

Thorin groaned, though the corner of his mouth was ever-so-slightly quirked up. “That boy is going to be the death of me.” As he turned to walk away, he muttered, “I shudder to think how he’ll act when he finds a girl, if he’ll act like this over a friend.”

With that, he walked off to talk to Bifur; Fíli’s head snapped toward his retreating back as his words sunk in. He couldn’t actually… although, this was Uncle Thorin, not Balin. But still, he couldn’t really think Kíli only saw Belda as a friend… could he? Fíli opened her mouth to correct him…

…and closed it again. He’d only just agreed to let Belda come the rest of the way, and if he thought she was seducing his nephew, would he send her away? Fíli seriously doubted he would approve of a match between his nephew, the Prince, and a homeless, orphaned Hobbit, no matter how much they suited each other. And Fíli didn’t have any doubt that Belda wasn’t trying to seduce Kíli; half the time, it seemed more likely that he was trying to seduce her, though Fíli knew it was only because he’d never really had feelings for a girl before. 

Crushes, yes, infatuations no less fleeting than they were superficial, but this was different. For one, this time it was mutual. For another, Fíli knew her brother better than anyone, and this was not superficial. On either side, she thought. 

They cared for each other, and maybe it would work out, maybe it wouldn’t, but she wasn’t about to nip it in the bud by cluing Thorin in that they needed a chaperone. And if it did work out for them… Her gaze drifted to Ori, finally admitting defeat and getting up while Dori scolded him.

She could never have the easy relationship with Ori that Kíli had with Belda. But if it worked out for Kíli, then at least one of them could marry for love. 

As they had the previous morning, a few Elves brought in breakfast for the full Company. The general attitude in Rivendell, from what Fíli could tell, was to ignore the Dwarves they were obligated to host as much as possible, which included limiting the reasons for them to leave their guest quarters. Fíli really couldn’t complain, not when she had as much desire to interact with the weed-eaters as they did with her, but she was starting to feel cramped. It was odd; Rivendell was all windows and balconies and open air, and Ered Luin was… well, it was a load of caves built into a mountain, but somehow it felt far freer than the Elven city. More alive. Less oppressive.

She was probably biased.

Even so, she didn’t much care for the idea that they’d have to stay for another two and a half weeks.

By the time she finished her breakfast, Belda still hadn’t emerged, and so Fíli loaded a tray and carried it quietly in. Even with her caution, she couldn’t be completely silent, and Belda bolted upright as soon as Fíli closed the door behind her. 

The pure panic on her friend’s face, for the few seconds before she hid it, shook Fíli badly. She knew that Belda’s ‘family’ had been horrible, but sometimes it was easy to forget. Sometimes Belda smiled and laughed as though she were like any young woman. And then sometimes she would flinch at nothing so far as Fíli could tell. And then sometimes she would let something about ‘getting by on less food than this’ slip. And then sometimes she would look at Fíli or one of the others like a wild creature she hadn’t decided was hostile or not, as she was now.

But the dread was swiftly wiped away, though recognition took another heartbeat or two. Fíli smiled gently, trying her best to keep it cheerful, and moved slowly as she set the tray on the bedside table. Belda’d never reacted to her like this before, but she’d also never been woken suddenly before. All Fíli could do, really, was hope that it was something that Belda could start to leave in the past, now that she was away from the Shire. 

“Morning, early-bird. I’m surprised you slept this long, although I suppose you did have a late night, and good news.” With the last, a genuine grin eased through Fíli’s heartache, and she teasingly waved the contract in Belda’s face. 

Belda snatched it out of her hand, then just stared at it for a moment. Despite how tempting it was, Fíli did not crouch to meet her eyes, or lift her head, or shake her shoulder, or anything of the sort. She simply waited for Belda to respond, and in the end, it was only a few seconds before she did. 

Letting loose a shuddering breath, Belda laughed softly and looked up at Fíli with a teary grin. Fíli smirked. “Forget about that?”

Still teary, Belda chuckled softly. “Wasn’t sure it really happened. Although that means—” Glancing at the blankets she’d thrown off, then at the wrinkled dress she was still wearing from the day before, her eyes went distant for a moment; when she came back to herself, her expression was somewhere between astounded, wondering, and beatific, and she huffed out a shocked laugh.

Fíli tilted her head curiously. “Anything interesting?”

At her voice, Belda looked sharply up as though she’d forgotten anyone else was in the room, then shook her head, grinning despite the tears that fell. “Nothing. Just… something I haven’t had in a long while.”

Fíli waited another moment, but when Belda declined to volunteer anything further in favor of opening the contract, Fíli just mentally shrugged and nodded to the tray. “Well, food. Anything else you’d like?”

Belda ignored her, eyes flicking over the page quickly enough that Fíli almost couldn’t believe she was actually reading it, and she had to repeat her question twice before Belda seemed to hear her. “Oh, er…” Frowning, she glanced over the room, shoulders relaxing slightly as she spotted a writing desk. “Yes, actually, you can fetch Balin.”

Fíli blinked as Belda moved to the desk, nose buried in the document again. “Now?”

After a moment’s thought, she picked up the tray and set it down on the desk, within reach while not being close enough to interfere; Belda exclaimed near-inaudibly as she pulled a quill, inkwell, and sheet of paper out of a drawer. “What? Oh, no, not now. After I’ve finished eating.”

Feeling somewhat blindsided, Fíli just stood there for a few moments; Belda weighed down the contract with a bowl of fruit and a plate of bacon and sausages, then arranged the other items to be in reach on her right. Her eyes once again fixed on the contract, she fished a piece of toast off of the tray blindly, and wrote something on the blank page as she munched away. Quietly, Fíli left her to it, and made a mental note to check if she was ready for Balin in a half-hour or so.


 

Balin

 

Balin hid a frown with the ease of two centuries of practice. Thorin was being more obtuse than he had been in a long while, Dwalin refused to say anything about the previous night other than he’d brought the Halfling back when he realized that she was half-asleep and that Thorin had given her the contract, and now the Burglar herself was summoning him to discuss the contract.

What on Arda she could find wrong with his work was anyone’s guess, to his mind, but he was confident that she would sign it, in the end.

She probably wanted more than a fourteenth. All of them had, save himself, Dwalin, and the Heirs, of course. And Nori, for some reason.

He was probably just planning to steal everything not chained down, though.

Balin paused for a scant instant, his hand on the doorknob; he’d opened the door for Dwalin, the previous night, and watched as his brother tucked the girl into bed more tenderly than he’d seen in well over a century. They’d been kind, the both of them, before Erebor fell. Then came the dragon, and then the war, and then a century of toil with little to show for it. Balin had learned to hide behind a mask of neutrality. Dwalin had hidden behind a scowl as dark as Thorin’s and a growl for anyone who dared try to see through it.

There were times, now, when Balin almost forgot the boys they’d been, forgot that there’d been a time when Dwalin’s smile was rare, but his affection was never in doubt, and for him to go a full day without giving some small display of open fondness was unheard of.

And somehow this slip of a girl had brought that side of him out again. Balin didn’t know whether to thank her for resurrecting a side of Dwalin Balin had thought dead and buried, or to pull her away from him before she inevitably broke his heart.

Dís had broken his heart a hundred and eighteen years before, and sometimes Balin thought Dwalin still wasn’t recovered. If this girl did the same…

Well. She’d learn that Dwalin wasn’t the only dangerous son of Fundin.

Steeling himself, he stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. The Halfling looked over her shoulder at him immediately, and waved him over with a smile. There was a chair beside hers at the desk, and he moved to it leisurely; she had the contract open before her, several Elf-sized sheets of paper filled with comparatively minuscule handwriting, and empty plates and bowls were piled on a tray by her feet. But as he sat, he was surprised to see that there were no blots on the pages, and to recognize several places in her notes in which she quoted the contract directly.

“You wanted something?”

He sat down calmly, watching her carefully, but she only nodded genially and rearranged her papers. “Yes, a few questions about things I didn’t quite understand, andI had a few changes I wanted to suggest.”

The former mollified him slightly, but even so, he had a bit of difficulty keeping his anger out of his voice. “You found issue with the contract, then?”

She blinked at him for a moment, and he could hear nothing but genuine surprise in her voice. “No, it’s excellently written; clear, concise, clever. I’m not sure my own parents could have done better.”

He raised a brow at her. “They wrote many contracts, then?”

A frown flickered over her features for a moment, hidden almost as quickly, but there wasn’t a trace of it in her voice; he couldn’t help but be grudgingly impressed, even as he raised his guard that much more. “Da was head of the family for a few years, which meant that he oversaw any number of agreements and marriage contracts; Mum helped from time to time, but not often. And Mum could talk nearly anyone into nearly anything, without ever needing to write down a word.” She shrugged nonchalantly, but there was an edge to the motion that piqued Balin’s interest, against his will and, he suspected, despite her efforts. “I didn’t have long to learn, but I did my best to remember.”

She held his eyes steadily for a few seconds, the hint of a challenge in the green, and for a moment, Balin only thought that a true argument between her and Thorin, or her and Dwalin, would be quite the sight, and he couldn’t say who would win with any degree of certainty. But now wasn’t the time to contemplate it, and he gestured to the paper. “Then why would you need to change anything?”

She quirked an eyebrow at him, though otherwise her expression was carefully innocent. “Because this contract was written for a Dwarf, not a Hobbit.”

A flicker of embarrassment was quickly smothered; he hadn’t even thought of that when he’d been wondering at her motives. But she’d ask for more money. It was only natural. “I believe you had questions?”

They discussed her notes for close to an hour, and again, he’d been surprised by how efficiently she’d ordered her thoughts. Most of her changes were things to do with being a different race: the minimum amount of food that would keep her from starving was a hair over double what a Dwarf would need; she wasn’t nearly strong enough to handle a few things listed in the general duties, but she volunteered to take sole responsibility for the ponies, to help whoever was hunting and cooking, and to be the go-to scout, if one were needed; she also tried to argue away the clause guaranteeing her a plaque if she were to be killed by Smaug (she was insistent, but Balin, despite his astonishment, was able to stand his ground in, at the very least, an official mention in any and all documentation of the Quest).

But, to Balin’s bewilderment, she didn’t say a word about the fact that she was implicitly required to do her utmost to eliminate Smaug, though she did dispute the ‘weaponry not provided’ clause, and she absolutely refused to remove the clause absolving the Company of any harm she might come to on the journey.

Finally, they’d exhausted all but one of her pages, this one nearly empty. “Would those be your questions, then?”

“Yeah, I really only had two.” She pulled the page in question toward her, and he just had time to see that the top entry was among the segments she’d quoted directly from the contract; brow furrowed, she read it off. “‘…and all pleas shall be pleaded…’, et cetera, ‘…in the Dwarvish Tongue’.” Even as his blood ran cold, she met his eyes curiously. “What’s the ‘Dwarvish Tongue’?”

Cursing himself for a Mahal-forsaken fool, he scrambled for an explanation; he’d changed one or two elements of the contract when Tharkûn finally told them that he didn’t have a Dwarf in mind for the job, but some sections were so basic that he’d barely even skimmed through them. Clearly, he should have read through it more carefully; no matter how fond Dwalin and the Heirs were of the girl, she wasn’t a Dwarf, and Khuzdûl was a secret as sacred as it was dear. Bifur’s inability to speak Westron was inconvenient, but easily explained away; this was nearly incontrovertible. “A dialect of Rohirric. It’s used in Dwarven colonies and such when private discussion is needed; I’m sure we can waive that, seeing as how you’re not a Dwarf.”

Her brows had shot up at the mention of Rohirric, and the light in her eyes unnerved him. “I’ve heard a few words of Rohirric before, from Mum when she was telling me where she’d wandered. Maybe you can teach me a bit!”

Hurriedly, he shook his head. “No, lass, it’s not much like Rohirric, anymore. And the pronunciations are very different. I’m afraid it wouldn’t be any help to you.”

Lowering her eyes, her shoulders dropped a fraction, but she rallied quickly. “Well, then the only question I have left is this: can I store my share of the treasure in Erebor?”

Balin blinked at her. “…Excuse me?”

He must have heard her wrong.

“Well, it’s just that the way all of you talk about the ‘treasures of Erebor’, it sounds as though there’s literally mountains of it. And a fourteenth is a huge percentage, unless I get less than a fourteenth, of course,” she amended, “which I wouldn’t mind, really, but even so, anything more than a chest of gold is going to be a misery to transport, so could I just withdraw what I need and leave the rest in Erebor for safekeeping?”

She blinked innocently at him, head tilted. It was a trick, it had to be. ‘Wouldn’t mind less than a fourteenth’, really. She couldn’t even lie competently.

When he didn’t answer, she frowned slightly, a faint blush rising on her cheeks. “Or would that be a problem? I won’t need that much money, that’s all.”

“You’re asking for less money?” He was mishearing her, that had to be it.

But she bobbed her head indecisively. “Well, not necessarily; I wouldn’t mind knowing I had enough money to get by set aside, but it seems as though I’d be tempting fate to carry it all with me.”

“Carrying it back to the Shire?” 

He only meant to clarify, but she recoiled as though he’d offered to cut off her hand for her. “NO! I’m never going back there again, if I can help it! I’m not even sure I’ll be coming back over the Misty Mountains after everything!” 

Seeming to realize how her voice had risen, she looked away, blushing; he had to struggle not to let any incredulity into his expression or voice. “Do you plan to stay in Erebor, then?”

Abruptly, the tiny fidgeting he hadn’t consciously been aware of stopped, and for a few heartbeats, she looked no more alive than a statue; she didn’t breathe, she didn’t blink. Eyes shining, her words drifted out on a quiet exhalation, but the fearful hope was easy enough to recognize, after a lifetime of feeling it. 

“Maybe. I ho— I don’t know.” Blinking rapidly, she turned her head further to the side, hiding her expression, and he had to strain to hear her near-inaudibly repeat, “I don’t know.” Sniffling, she turned to face him again, expression neutral, but anyone could have seen that her cheery tone was a sham. “I’ve never even left the Shire before, let alone gone to the other side of the world, so I’ve no idea where I’ll want to live. But I’ll need money for a house in any case, whether to build or buy, and then for a garden, and food until the garden’s big enough to support me…” Her considering expression eased into something far more childish, and far more genuinely happy, he thought. “And a library. The biggest library in Arda,” she laughed.

For a moment, he could only stare at her. In over a month of traveling with her, he’d never seen such a carefree look in her eyes. Granted, he didn’t spend a quarter of the time with her as the Heirs did, but even so. It made her look even younger, and threw her usual ‘relaxed’ expression into stark, illuminating relief. Just how often was she only foxing happiness? Had he ever before even seen half as much—

The answer came swiftly, and yet seemed to creep over him with the subtlety of a winter chill. He had seen her genuinely happy before, though not often, not to this extent, and never out of the company of Fíli and Kíli.

Of course, that was assuming that her present happiness was genuine, which he had no way of verifying. She’d have to be a consummate liar, but it was possible.

Shaking her head, she calmed, though there was still an ease in her expression that he wasn’t used to seeing. “Anyway, like I said, I wouldn’t mind having money set by, but I’d hate to think it was gathering dust when Thorin, or Fíli, or you, or whoever’ll be in charge of the Treasury once everything’s settled, could put it to use. Actually, could it be an emergency fund or something?”

He blinked at her. “A what?”

“You don’t have those?” She tilted her head, but the surprise in her expression faded quickly. “Well, I suppose it was only put into effect after the Winter. Anyway, in the Shire, the Thain has an emergency fund set aside to buy food and such in case of another hard winter—or a famine, though we’ve never had one in thirteen-hundred years—and most of the wealthier families contributed a share or two, as well. So could my share be put aside that way? So if there were a famine, or a plague, or if refugees came streaming in from somewhere or other, whoever was in charge could use it to procure food, or medicine, or shelter? And then it would still technically be my money, so I could still withdraw what I needed, if I needed anything.”

For a moment or two, she just looked at him expectantly; Balin realized that his mouth was hanging open and shut it with a snap, but couldn’t keep his skepticism out of his voice. “You’d trek across Arda, face Trolls, Orcs, and who-knows-what-else, including a dragon, and ask for nothing more than the means for a modest living?”

It was a trick. It had to be.

As though she’d heard his thoughts, she shook her head, brow furrowed. “No, I— I did mention the library, didn’t I?”

It took another few seconds of silence before Balin was satisfied that she would say nothing further, though he still couldn’t believe it. Slowly, he shook his head. “…You are not a Dwarf.”

Raising a single brow, she looked at him rather as though he’d said he intended to take up standing on his head. “You’re just noticing now?”

Despite himself, he chuckled a bit at that; still, though, he regarded her thoughtfully. “Just beginning to see the differences between us, I think.”

Could she be telling the truth? It didn’t make the slightest bit of sense, and yet… no Dwarf would even pretend not to want whatever he could lay his hands on. 

Brow already raised, her expression couldn’t change much, but it did twitch. “Is gold so important to Dwarves?”

The question seemed genuine, but he answered thoughtfully, choosing his words with care. “You could say that. You could also say that the vast majority of people of any race would consider it so.”

A flicker of confusion raced over her face, followed swiftly by hurt, before being replaced by cautious amusement. “Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but in this, at least, I’m a very ordinary Hobbit.”

Now Balin raised his brow. “You mean to say that none of your people have any love of gold?”

She nodded decisively. “Yes. Well,” she flushed slightly as she backtracked, “no, there are greedy Hobbits, of course, but in my experience, the covetous of us tend to want power and influence and adoration far more than money, and wealth is hardly an indication of such. My mother’s family is far more wealthy than my father’s, but I doubt there’s a Hobbit in Hobbiton who’d aspire to be like them in any way, shape, or form. Gold is…” Hesitating, she shook her head, then shrugged helplessly at him. “It’s gold. You can’t eat it, smell it, wear it, you can’t talk to it, you certainly can’t read it— It’s not half as pleasant to look at as a good garden, it’s not half as comfortable as a good couch or bed or armchair, it’s not good for anything in and of itself, really, but for acquiring more useful things.”

Balin was gaping at her again, he could tell, but he could barely move enough to close his mouth. She couldn’t be telling the truth, she had to be lying, because if she wasn’t, then that was the most unselfish, altruistic statement he’d ever heard in nearly two and a half centuries of life. She had to be lying, because if she wasn’t, that meant that there was an entire race of people who would have been far freer with their generosity than Erebor’s closest so-called allies. She had to be lying, because if she wasn’t… if she wasn’t, that meant that he was completely and utterly wrong about her.

“Then what do Hobbits value, if not gold?” It was his voice, but he heard the words as if from a distance; he watched her intently anyway.

Thoughtfully, her eyes lowered, and her voice was musing. “It depends on who you ask, to a certain degree, but… I’d say that very few would argue against safety, after the Winter. Food would certainly be a contender, as would comfort and cheer. But personally, and I think universally, deep down, family.” Sorrow crept into her eyes, but there was warmth, as well. “We can get by without as much food as we’d like, comfort and safety are never really assured, though they’re all the more precious for that, and cheer can be found even in the worst of times. But without family, whether by blood or choice, we’re nothing. Mum was the most solitary Hobbit I’ve ever known, and half her adventures were for the sole purpose of visiting dear friends.” She smiled suddenly, crinkled eyes shining, voice thick. “With a good bit of mischief on the way, and bringingback a book or two for Da.”

Sniffling, she wiped her cheeks, and he had to avert his gaze when his heart gave a strident pang. More roughly than he might have normally, he pushed the contract toward her, followed by the quill. “Sign. I’ll have Thorin do the same after he approves the necessary changes.”

And he would, even if Balin had to argue with him until it was time to leave Rivendell. Soft-heartedness aside, her idea for the emergency fund had merit, and if she wanted to volunteer her share for the use, he wasn’t about to stop her.

Once she’d done as he bid her, he opened the door to leave, only to stop as the familiar sight of Elves carrying in trays presented itself. “Lass, the w— Elves have brought your meal.”

The day before, he’d been puzzled by the extra food, but after debating just how much food a Hobbit needed for nearly ten minutes, he had a new appreciation for her appetite. But he didn’t expect her response. “Could you ask them to just leave it out there? I’ll be out as soon as I’ve changed.”

Dwalin stepped into view from beside the door and offered Balin a quick nod before addressing the girl warmly. “Make sure it’s something you can fight in; it’s past time I trained you properly.”

A delighted squeak was all Balin heard before the closing door pushed him forwards, nearly pushing him over; Dwalin caught him with one hand, pulling the door securely shut with the other.

Conversationally, Dwalin nodded to the contract, still in Balin’s hand. “She sign it?”

“Aye.” To someone else, perhaps Dwalin’s expression wouldn’t seem to change beyond a slight smile. To Balin, who knew his brother better than anyone else in the world, the flood of relief that poured from Dwalin was nearly tangible.

He went to Thorin without another word, recounting the discussion while keeping one eye on the closed door; a minute later, the Halfling emerged, dressed sensibly aside from her haphazardly-tied hair, and he watched as she and Dwalin argued fiercely in low tones he couldn’t hear. Bearing making her defeat clear, she glared at Dwalin even as she took a few bites of the food; she stood again, but he shook his head, and this time, she relented quickly, sitting down to eat around half the meal or so before standing and bounding out of the room while a softly smiling Dwalin trailed behind. 

Part of Balin was curious to see what sort of training his brother would devise: as harsh as usual, or softened for her lesser stature, strength, and capabilities in general? But Thorin didn’t understand the ‘emergency fund’ any more than he had, at first, and so Balin stayed. He had a job to do, after all.

Chapter Text

Ori laughed quietly, lifting his pencil to avoid ruining his drawing. Belda attacking Dwalin was the perfect opportunity for him to practice doing quick sketches, but given that she was half Dwalin’s size and didn’t pull her punches, it was more than a bit funny to see the famed and feared Guard-Captain of Ered Luin on the defensive. He could remember more than one day when Dwalin had stormed into their house, demanding to know where Nori was and where ‘he’d’ been at a certain time on a certain day; more than one of his childhood nightmares had begun with just that, before Dwalin somehow caught Nori and dragged her off to be executed or worse. 

Although, Belda was surprisingly terrifying when she was fighting. She must have been holding back on the road, or perhaps she had more energy now that she had Elves shoving food at her at every turn. Every motion was lightning-quick, every strike aimed to kill or cripple; she had a rather unnerving instinct for that, actually. If Dwalin hadn’t been as skilled as he was, she probably would have landed half her blows. Chuckling, Ori resolved to listen to his brother for once and stay near Belda the next time they were attacked; no matter what Dori thought, though, Ori doubted he’d be the one protecting her. Rather the other way ‘round.

Motion caught his eye and he looked hurriedly down again when he saw that Fíli had entered the courtyard. His ambition may have been to be a scribe, but he loved to draw, and more than most things, getting to be more than anything, he wanted to draw Fíli. Really, he wanted to paint her, dark lines and bold colors that might, perhaps, do her justice, though he doubted anything could. 

She was truly beautiful. Stunning, of course, especially with her mustache; Nori was the only other Dwarrowdam he’d ever met who could grow one, and she hadn’t been able to until she was twice Fíli’s age. 

But she was kind, too. She wasn’t fierce like Kíli, but she was twice as shrewd, and she was as intelligent as Balin, despite how much younger she was. She’d be a magnificent Queen. 

And she needed a King who would be just as skillful. Rather seemed to rule him out.

So it really didn’t matter that his chest grew tight every time he reminded himself of that fact. It didn’t matter that the thought of someone else wearing her beads twisted his stomach into knots. She was a Princess, soon (though, for Thorin’s sake, hopefully not-so-soon) to be Queen, and he was only the son of an exiled weaver, the brother of a criminal. It didn’t matter that if it hadn’t been for Thrór’s madness, Ori and Fíli would have grown up together. So clearly, it didn’t matter that he finally gave in and drew her carefully, doing his best to capture the nuances of her tiny smile as she watched Belda and Dwalin.

It wouldn’t be the first time, or even the tenth, that he’d tried and failed to portray her with the vitality she deserved, but he couldn’t help but sketch her, and yet he couldn’t bear to see a mockery of her face looking at him from the page, lifeless and stiff as she never was in reality.

Muffled voices reached him from outside the courtyard, and he flipped hastily to a blank page just as Kíli collided with his sister. An instant later, the Prince saw Belda and his eyes lit up with an elated grin; running forward, he caught her up in his arms, narrowly avoiding being skewered by one of the blades she held. Lifting her off her feet, he spun them both around, laughing heartily while she shrieked, laughing herself.

Quickly, before the moment passed, Ori sketched them, rough, rapid drawings to catch their motion and energy, and most of all, their happiness. As Kíli slowed to a stop, he didn’t release her, though he set her on her feet again, and she adjusted her arms to wrap loosely around him; they spoke quietly, but Ori only used the opportunity to capture a few details he’d need to finish the scene. He was meant to be recording the Quest, after all. If that included the Prince of Erebor falling in love with a certain Burglar, well…

His eyes drifted to Fíli as she smiled softly at her brother, and a matching smile played on his lips.

…who was he to rewrite history?

 

Two weeks later, he wished fervently, cheeks burning, that he could rewrite this particular moment in history. Kíli’s birthday celebrations were due to begin after dinner, and likely go on into the morning, and Ori might have had a peaceful day. Then Belda let it slip that she didn’t know how to dance, which prompted Dori to remember that Ori’d never learned either, and now, three hours later, Dori was still clapping out the beat, humming loudly and entirely off-key. 

Ori winced again, and used the proximity of the current stage of the formal dance to murmur, “He’s not so bad when there’s a tune to follow, but—”

“Left to his own devices, he can’t carry a tune in a bucket?” Belda grinned up at him, a laugh dancing in her eyes. “My Mum was like that, too.”

The steps drew them apart again, too far to keep talking, and she made faces at him every time her back was to Dori; that was the only reason Ori’d been able to go on this long, if he was honest with himself. Used as he was to Dori’s mothering, he could have borne it or distracted his brother if he was on his own, but Belda being dragged into it as well was too mortifying to bear. But she’d taken it with far better humor than he’d expected, and was doing her best to keep him in good humor, too.

Her best was rather impressive. As she made a particularly absurd face, Ori had to smile, and thought to himself, ‘this is why she and Kíli are so good together’.

The ‘music’ abruptly stopped, and Ori turned to see that Dori was arguing with Nori over something or other, fiercely enough to have turned his back on his students entirely. Quickly, Belda muttered, “I say we make a break for it.”

Ori glanced at her reflexively, then back at Dori. As his brother’s voice began to edge into a tone usually reserved for his most intense, and most distracting lectures, Ori hissed back, “No time like the present.”

Grinning at him, Belda kept hold of his hand and backed not slowly, but steadily out of the courtyard, and Ori watched the doorway, trusting her to watch Dori. As they crossed the threshold, he squeezed her hand, and she darted down the corridor, tossing a grin back at him. Letting himself be towed, he did his best to keep pace with her, and didn’t hesitate before following her up a flight of stairs into a small room. A large mural covered one wall, and the opposite was largely devoted to a statue with a broken sword on a plinth before it, and the entire space was impressively private, given the weed-eaters’ clear preference for windows and arches and such.

Sighing contentedly, Belda released his hand and sat on the floor with her back to the wall. “I don’t think he’ll be able to find us, at least not for a few minutes.”

Chuckling, he sat beside her, closing his eyes as he leaned his head back. “I really am sorry about all this.”

“Don’t be!’ Surprised, his eyes snapped to hers, but he couldn’t see anything more than good humor in the green. “I don’t think I’ve had so much fun in days, and I certainly haven’t been able to relax properly for a fortnight.” He furrowed his brows at her, thinking over long hours of idle sketching, and she grinned at him, but the expression was just a tad small for the topic, he thought. “Between Dwalin and Fíli teaching me to fight, one Elf or another dropping in to give tips, Elrond teaching me the Sindarin Mum didn’t get a chance to, your,” (there was a tiny hesitation before she continued, but Ori didn’t notice), “brother doing his level best to make me into his unofficial apprentice, and finding time to spend with Fíli and Kíli, if I’m not moving, I’m being drowned in information.” 

She delivered the last few words with a melodramatic groan, but the small smile that softened her expression as her eyes fluttered shut was genuine enough. “I’m still not fond of the quiet, but peace is nice.” She chuckled. “Still, I’m starting to look forward to getting back on the road; at least then, I’ll only have sore legs instead of sore everything.”

“Including a sore brain?” The tease had slipped out unbidden, almost as though he were speaking to Nori, but Belda just leaned over to bump her shoulder against his arm without opening her eyes.

Especially my brain.”

Slowly, he shook his head. “Still, though. Learning another language must be fascinating.”

The movement was gradual, no more noticeable than an approaching storm cloud from underneath trees, but much like a summer storm, the next thing Ori knew, Belda was facing him with a diabolical grin and a doubly devilish glint in her eyes. “Funny you should say that.” A twinge of foreboding struck Ori, and he watched mutely, uneasily, as she ‘casually’spoke. “I’ve noticed that Thorin, Fíli, Kíli, and Balin, and maybe Dwalin, seem to be fluent in Sindarin, but it doesn’t seem as though any of the rest of you are.”

The more time he spent with her, the more he saw his sister, and so he responded against his better judgement. “We aren’t. I don’t think anyone but Fíli and Kíli have learned since Erebor fell.” Dori and Nori had refused to learn, and now there was no one to teach Ori, no matter how much he wished he could.

Belda hummed thoughtfully. “I suppose that does make sense.” For a moment or two, she was silent, but it was the tense, waiting sort of silence Ori knew all-too-well from his sister’s schemes. “So it’s funny, then, that Bifur doesn’t seem able to speak Westron, and all of you seem perfectly able of understanding him.”

Shock stole his voice entirely away, and he could only watch as Belda artfully mused aloud, her tone one of practiced nonchalance.

“The contract referred to it as ‘the Dwarven Tongue’. Balin tried to tell me it was a dialect of Rohirric,” Ori opened his mouth to confirm that, but she didn’t give him the chance to speak, “which is absolute nonsense, seeing as how I know a bit of Rohirric and it’s completely different—”

“I can’t teach you!” It was obvious what she wanted, and just as fervently out of the question. “Khuzdûl’s only for Dwarves; it’s a secret!”

He held her eyes, panting slightly, but she only gave him a slow grin. “‘Khuzdûl’?” Somehow, she mimicked his pronunciation perfectly, and her next words were half-drawled, half-purred. “Is that what it’s called?” Groaning, he covered his eyes, but she kept talking. “And as for the secrecy— you know, funnily enough, there’s a clause in the contract, what did it say? ‘Confidentiality is of utmost importance and must be strictly maintained at all times. During the course of her employment with the Company, Burglar will hear, learn, and gain knowledge of particular facts, ideas, et cetera’, I’m paraphrasing, by the way, ‘and Burglar agrees to neither divulge nor make known this knowledge by any means, including but not limited to speech, writing’, duh-dah-duh, ‘or means currently known, unknown, or as yet unthought-of’.”

She hummed again. “You know, I do have to be impressed with Balin’s detail; he was very thorough. But a Baggins always keeps her word, you know, even a Took-Baggins. Which means that since I signed that contract and gave my word to ‘neither divulge nor make known’ anything I learn from all of you, that means that it’s a secret I’ll take to my grave.”

He could hear the solemnity in her voice, and he trusted that she meant it, but still, “I— I can’t!”

He met her eyes as he spoke, but regretted it as soon as he did; her pleading face was leagues better than Nori’s, Dori’s, or Kíli’s. “I’m only offering a trade, Ori. Sindarin lessons for Khuzdûl lessons.” 

She leaned forward slightly, and Ori leaned back until he was afraid he’d lose his balance; she stopped, though, and somehow made her expression even more imploring, adding a slight pout and a head-tilt, scrunching her shoulders slightly to make herself look smaller. If Ori hadn’t had lessons on doing much the same from Nori when he was a dwarfling, he might have fallen for it.

“And I’d appreciate it hugely, you know. I’m sure there’s some way I could pay you back…” She blinked up at him, eyes liquid and innocent; with a slight pout, she furrowed her brow faintly. “I can’t think of anything at the moment. Perhaps Fíli could help.”

Even with Nori’s lessons at the back of his mind, Ori was starting to find it a little hard to focus, and his voice was a little hoarse. “F— Fíli?”

Belda smiled at him guilelessly. “Well, obviously, I wouldn’t tell her just why I’m indebted to you. I’d just tell her that you’d helped me hugely, that you were so kind, and thoughtful, and generous…” The thought of Belda telling Fíli all that about him, of Fíli thinking all that about him, of Fíli smiling at him like Belda was as she drew the silence out for just a beat or two longer, was almost more than he could bear. As was the simultaneously matter-of-fact and cajoling tone with her words. “I’m sure she’d be glad to know what a good man you are.”

Reason finally broke through the fantasy, and Ori scooted away as best he could, ignoring the sting in his chest as he snapped, “She’s a Princess!”

Belda raised a brow at him as she settled back against the wall again. “And?” He gave her an incredulous look, and she laughed. “I’m sorry if there’s something I’m missing, but the Shire doesn’t have a monarchy. It barely has a hierarchy.” Shrugging, she laughed again. “Unless her side of the family’s feuding with yours, I’m afraid I really don’t understand what the problem is.”

Ori’s words caught in his throat, and Belda’s expression cleared into fascination as she picked up on his hesitance. “Wait, really? A feud?”

Grimacing, Ori toyed with one of the braids in his beard; he hated having it so short. “Sort of.”

As the silence dragged on, Belda raised her brows expectantly, but didn’t say anything for another few seconds. “Well, go on then. You can’t just leave it there.”

Yes, he certainly could, Ori thought. It was his family, which made it his business. And technically, it was treason to tell it.

…But he liked Belda. She was a good friend, and similar enough to his sister that he trusted she was intelligent enough not to tell anyone she knew.

Dori would be furious if he told. But was that such a bad thing?

“…You heard Thorin’s lineage?”

Belda raised a disbelieving brow at him. “Um, maybe?”

No, it was the sort of thing she would remember. “When Elrond recognized him.”

That had been a chaotic day, but Ori could remember it perfectly; he had a feeling she could, too, even if she needed a prompt. Belda thought for a moment, brow furrowed, before her eyes lit up with the memory. “Right, ‘Thorin, son of Thrain’, and… ‘his grandfather, Thrór’s bearing’?”

The latter half was far more hesitant, but accurate, and Ori smiled broadly at her. “That’s it.” She gave a pleased, radiant smile back, and he tried to ignore the warmth in his chest. “That’s it. Thrór was King under the Mountain when Smaug came. He ruled Erebor for a hundred and eighty years before then, and…” He hesitated; she was friends with Fíli, and clearly had feelings for Kíli. Should he tell her? It might make her think less of them. But then, she might need to know once they reclaimed the mountain. “…have you heard of gold-sickness?”

Eyes wide and enthralled, she shook her head; he decided to ease the truth a bit. “It’s something that can affect any Dwarf, but especially Durin’s line.” Her expression didn’t change, and, regretting how much it might hurt her, he continued softly, “And especially Durin’s Heirs.” He put a slight emphasis on the last word, and with her attention so focused on him, he could see the instant she made the connection. (Internally, he was a little impressed by the speed; she was quicker than he’d thought, and clearly brighter.) “It makes them greedy, paranoid, blind to anything but gold and jewels.”

The hint of pain in her eyes didn’t stop her from prompting, “And Thrór had it.”

Ori nodded, lowering his eyes as he remembered Dori’s lessons. “He turned against his allies first: the Elves of Mirkwood and the Men of Dale, but…” He shook his head. “He grew convinced that his youngest sister was plotting against him, along with her line, and exiled them all: Nrór; her daughter, Dór; Dór’s husband, Krovi; and their son… Dori.”

He swallowed nervously, but didn’t even have time to clear his throat before she leaned forward slightly, brow furrowed. “So you and Thorin are third cousins?”

Blinking at how quickly she’d done the math, he shook off his surprise, reminding himself of how big she’d said Hobbit families could be. “Not that you could tell from a history book.” Bitterness inherited from his brother seeped into his tone; he tried to banish it, but wasn’t entirely successful. “Thrór had Nrór erased from all the records, and her descendants with her.”

Abruptly, Belda’s expression shuttered. “So they were alone.”

His heart gave a funny little twist to see her so lifeless, and he spoke hastily. “No, they did fairly well, all things considered. Nrór could out-haggle anyone, and Mother was a weaver, so she earned some coin, as well.” From Dori’s accounts, it sounded as though their father hadn’t handled the unearned disgrace nearly as well as his wife and in-laws, but there was no need to tell Belda that part. “Nrór was already old, but she didn’t die until after Nori was born, and Mother and Father were able to support themselves and Dori and Nori for decades, and we came to Ered Luin around a century after the banishment, I think. Anyw—”

“Wait, n— Wait.” Leaning forward again, eyes intense, Belda didn’t speak for a moment, but Ori just waited, still tongue-tied from her interruption. “A century.”

This time, she did seem to expect a response, and he spoke slowly, unsure if she’d simply misheard him. “Yeah, around there.”

“A century.”

Maybe he’d been wrong about how intelligent she was. “…Yeah…”

“And this was after Dori was born?” Her expression was beginning to be a bit manic, but he answered as calmly as he could. 

“Yeah, and Nori; she’s a little over forty years younger than Dori.”

“Forty—” Now she was starting to look panicked, and blurted, “How old are you?!?”

“A hundred and twenty-three.”

He wasn’t sure how he’d expected her to react, but what sounded like rapid, shocked, foreign swearing hadn’t been on the list. “Eyru Yavanna, Fætur Eldfreyja, og Tennur Tauron, how long do Dwarves live!?!

She had no idea how complicated that question truly was, so he simplified a bit. “It depends, but usually at least two and a half centuries.”

Was she hyperventilating? He was fairly sure she was hyperventilating. “S—so, Kíli’s coming of age tonight, he’s…” 

Her voice seemed to give out, and he finished her sentence, unease growing. “Turning sixty.” To that, she could only gape at him, mouth opening and closing as squeaks that might have been attempts at words left her. “Why?” His blood chilled as a possible answer occurred to him. “…When do Hobbits come of age?”

Her eyes were distant now, and her hoarse voice even more so. “Thirty-three.”

For a moment or two, the number was nothing. Just a number, an odd bit of trivia about another race, to be tucked away with the price of begonias and the acreage of the Iron Hills. Then he realized.

‘Thirty-three, but she said she’d be of age later this year, said she’s Kíli’s age, said she’s an adult, she’s thirty-two, she’s twelve years younger than Gimli, she’s half Fíli’s age, a quarter of mine, thirty-two, a child, twice as young as we thought, thirty-two, half sixty-four, thirty-two, thirty-twothirty-twothirty-twothirTY-TWOTHIRTY-TWO—’

He wasn’t aware of moving until he was already on his feet and racing for the door, but he felt every instant as a tiny foot hooked one of his and he fell; as soon as he was down, he flipped onto his back, intending to scramble back and away, but before he could move an inch, Belda was sitting on his chest, knees pinning his arms while she covered his mouth with both hands, putting all her weight into gagging him. Eyes wild and terrified, she shook her head as she blurted, “You can’t tell anyone, you can’t— I mean it, Ori!”

Nearly all her weight was on his chest and his mouth, but she barely weighed anything, especially to him, but he couldn’t really do anything without hurting her, which was completely impossible with his mind still screaming, ‘child, she’s a child, thirty-two’. Even so, he struggled; her legs, though, were surprisingly strong, and try as he might, he couldn’t dislodge her.

“Stop it! I mea— Stop! Or— or—” Some of the desperation faded from her eyes as she gaped, leaving raw fear on display, but resolve hid her fear again within a heartbeat. “Or I’ll tell Dori you told me about being Thorin’s cousin!”

At that, he did stop. He didn’t fear his brother, exactly, but there was nothing in the world he hated so much as seeing Dori’s disappointment. Rising and falling slightly with his chest, she panted quietly for several seconds before cautiously lifting her hands from his mouth. Immediately, he strained up to meet her eyes. “Belda, you have to tell them—”

“No!” The word was half a shriek, but she didn’t muzzle him again; with a small growl, he sat up easily, scooting back so that she wasn’t sitting in his lap.

“Everyone thinks you’re Kíli’s age—”

“I am Kíli’s age—”

“You’re a child!”

“To Dwarves, not to Hobbits!”

Involuntarily, he paused; there had been a guttural growl underlying her last few words, though it’d been quiet, and her eyes had flashed with something almost feral. On one hand, he was a little scared. On the other hand, he had no idea what had just happened, and he was dying to know. But now wasn’t the time. Deliberately, he held her eyes. “If you don’t tell them, I will.”

Her eyes flew wide, panic again clear. “You can’t!”

“I will!” No matter how curious he was, there were some things more important than knowledge, and the safety of a girl-child was paramount.

But she shook her head frantically. “No, they’ll send me away!” 

He opened his mouth to respond, but no words came. Her desperation was almost tangible, and far too familiar after decades of listening to Dori beg their sister to ‘stop this nonsense and come home’; she sounded as though being sent away was a fate worse than death. Actually, she hadn’t even been this afraid when the Trolls had had her, when she had been about to die.

Her breathing slowed somewhat, but the fear in her eyes didn’t fade. “They will, Ori, you know they will. They’ll react like you, they’ll say I’m too young to come along, and they’ll leave me here or send me back—” Breath catching in her throat, she shook her head as her eyes filled. “I can’t go back! I can’t! Please—” Blinking rapidly, she visibly forced herself to calm, and held his eyes. “Please, Ori. I’m not too young to come along. If I was, Gandalf would never have agreed to let me come in the first place; he knows how old I am.”

Try as he might, he couldn’t think of a way to argue that, and she calmed a little further; she spoke carefully and quietly, holding his gaze all the while. “Hobbits come of age at thirty-three, Ori. My Grandfather was a hundred and thirty when he died, and he’s the oldest Hobbit to ever live in recorded memory. Most live to see a hundred, if that. If I were a Dwarf, I would be a child, but if I were human, I’d have been an adult for nearly fifteen years. I am not a Dwarf. I’m a Hobbit. I have little growth left before I’m a full adult, and I haven’t really been a child for eleven years, not since the Fell Winter, not since my parents died—!”

Again, her breath caught, and this time she ducked her head to try and hide the tears that spilled over her cheeks; hesitantly, Ori reached toward her, intending to pat her arm or some such, but she leaned away from his hand and rubbed the tears away. She still didn’t speak. He didn’t know what to do, and not just about her crying.

She was right; if she’d been human, there’d be no doubt about her maturity, and none of the Company would reject her help. But she was no more human than a Dwarrowdam; she wasn’t as young as a Dwarf of thirty-two would be, but she was young. Thorin may have given her the contract, but he never would have if he’d known her true age. But Gandalf did know her true age, and he’d been nudging Thorin toward giving her the contract for at least a week or so before they reached Rivendell.

She’d already saved them, proved that she was as capable as any of them, and only growing more so, what with all the instruction Dwalin and Nori were insisting on. But that didn’t mean he was willing to lie for her. Not indefinitely.

Taking a deep breath, he pointed a finger at her, imitating Thorin’s glower as best he could. “If I do this, and that’s if, you will tell them the truth at some point.”

Slowly, she looked up at him, hope creeping into her expression. “That’s your condition?” He nodded; for an instant, her eyes lit up, but her expression fell into a scowl a moment later. “You Dwarves. If you can’t craft a binding promise, you could at least not make me feel terrible for even thinking of taking advantage of you.”

He frowned. “Wha—”

“‘At some point’? Shoddy wording, Ori, I’m ashamed of you. I could promise that in a blink and not follow through until years after the Quest is over and done with.” Mulishly, she sighed. “Do better. Try again.”

“Er…” Blinking, he thought for several seconds, trying to stop feeling as though he were a Dwarfling at his lessons again. “You have to tell them before you come back to the Shire?” She only raised a brow at him, and he winced as he remembered that she had no intention of ever returning to her homeland, and that Fíli and Kíli, at least, intended to persuade her to live permanently in Erebor. “Right, um… You have to tell them before the end of the Quest?”

Sighing again, she clenched her jaw. “Always define terms, Ori, unless you want someone else to define them for you.”

Terms? Right. “You have to tell them before we reach Erebor.”

“Who’s them and what am I telling them?”

Half-smiling, he shook his head; now he really felt like he was taking a test. “You have to tell the rest of the Company of Thorin Oakenshield how old you truly are before we reach Erebor.”

“Or…?”

“Or I’ll tell them.”

Sighing again, she narrowed her eyes at him as though she were debating something with herself; sitting up again, she took a deep breath. “So. These are your terms: I must tell the Company of Thorin Oakenshield that I am thirty-two years of age at some point in the months before we reach the Lonely Mountain, or you will inform them regardless of my wishes or intentions.”

Unsure why she was restating what he’d only just finished saying, he blinked at her. “…Yes?”

She shook her head at him a bit pityingly. “Dear Lord, you have a lot to learn. I accept your terms and your oath, and will fulfill my side of the pledge to the best of my ability, and as it inconveniences me least.” He started to protest, but she just held up a hand. “Meaning that I’ll tell them at the first opportunity past the point of no return, whenever that may be.”

They sat in silence for a few moments before he spoke. “So is this when you hold the promise over my head for Khuzdûl lessons?”

The words came out a tad more bitterly than he’d intended, but by the way she flinched back, eyes wide and hurt, he’d almost have thought that she was physically wounded. “No!” Looking a bit betrayed, she shook her head emphatically. “No, I never meant— It’s just an offer, Ori. If you want to learn Sindarin, I’ll teach you in exchange for you teaching me Khuzdûl. That’s it. If you agree, I’ll be happy to chat you up to Fíli, but I’d do that anyway, if you asked. I didn’t…” Trailing off, she turned her head, hunching slightly in on herself. “I’m sorry for blackmailing you a few minutes ago. I was desperate, but it was still wrong. I’m sorry.”

A remote part of his mind couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t ask for forgiveness, and even the slight excuse was brushed away almost as quickly as she’d mentioned it. A much more biased part of his mind was glad that she didn’t ask him to forgive her, as he wasn’t quite sure he could. Something as base as extortion was almost unheard of from any but the most morally bankrupt of Dwarrow. He hadn’t thought Belda would be capable of it, even if she did regret it. But from the sound of it, her ‘family’ hadn’t exactly been stellar examples of morality, so… 

He cleared his throat. “Just don’t do that again.”

She nodded immediately, but didn’t meet his eyes; holding back a sigh as he pushed to his feet, he extended a hand to her, clearing his throat when she didn’t look up right away. Her head snapped up, and she flushed as she laid her hand in his. She barely put any weight into the hold, even bearing in mind that he could probably pick her up one-handed, and instead stood on her own. He wasn’t sure what that meant in Hobbits’ thinking, but he couldn’t help but think a tiny bit better of her for it; only Dwarflings, weaklings, and con artists would degrade themselves by accepting help for something as basic as standing.

Once she was on her feet, he stepped back and let his hand fall away from hers, and cleared his throat again. “We should get going. We’ll be late.” Remembering the reason for the celebration, he grinned at her. “Kíli’ll be missing you.”

Honestly, he’d say the Prince was acting like a lovestruck Dwarfling, but, well… he was a lovestruck Dwarfling. But Belda’s eyes darkened, the pain from before returning. Not quite sure why, he offered, “It’s not as bad as it seems. Thrór was gold-sick, but Thraín and Thorin never were; there’s every chance Kíli’ll never give in to the dragon-sickness.”

Her expression had been lightening, but on the last words, her eyes widened, the emotion there indiscernible. “‘Dragon-sickness’? Y— You said ‘gold-sickness’, before.”

Abruptly, he realized how it might sound to someone who’d never heard of it before. “No, it doesn’t mean he’ll turn into a dragon, or anything. It’s just called that sometimes, since there’s no creature on Arda more greedy and heartless than dragons.”

She still looked troubled, but mustered a weak smile. “That’s disappointing. My mother used to tell me bedtime stories about dragons, where they weren’t evil… even if they weren’t good, either.” 

The last part of the sentence was murmured quietly enough that Ori elected to simply pretend he hadn’t heard it, and smiled weakly back at her. “I wish Dwarves had that luxury, but I don’t think there’s a Dwarf alive who could ever imagine dragons as anything less than monstrous.” 

Her smile faltered, no doubt as she thought of fond memories and fairy tales, but she shook it off after a moment or two and led the way out of the room.

Chapter Text

Belda did her best to keep her thoughts off her face as she trailed after Elrond, Gandalf, Thorin, and Balin, but she wasn’t sure how successful she’d been. Ori’s confirmation that nothing good would come of her telling the Company her soul-form had been a blow, and it still ached when she let herself think on it too long. Kíli had been concerned at his party, as it turned out, but she tried to keep it from showing. A coming of age was no small matter, even if it was more arbitrary for Dwarves than anything else. She wasn’t about to ruin his night just because she’d been reminded of things she’d almost let herself forget.

As if the rest of it hadn’t been bad enough. That they’d hate her if they knew was a given; that the man she had an utterly foolish, utterly Tookish crush on was nearly twice her age was completely unexpected. Not to mention the fact that he’d outlive her by a century, at least. She’d gotten a headache just thinking about it, and now, a week later, it still hadn’t left. Faded, yes, to a dull ache (with the occasional stinging) behind her eyes, but not left. It had made her a bit light-sensitive, but it was easy enough to deflect the others’ concern.

Except at times such as this. She couldn’t hold back a wince as Elrond pushed open a set of double doors to reveal a balcony overlooking a waterfall, awash in stunningly (and painfully) bright moonlight. Fortunately, no one was looking, and she schooled her expression before Elrond even began to speak.

“These runes were written on a Midsummer’s Eve by the light of a crescent moon nearly two hundred years ago.” 

He said something after that, but Belda didn’t hear him. She hadn’t realized that it was Midsummer’s Eve. Grief washed over her, remembering her Grandfather’s Midsummer’s Eve celebrations; he’d called Gandalf to supply fireworks once or twice when she was a fauntling, but by and large, she didn’t remember light-shows. She remembered her Grandfather’s broad smile, and the thrill that always accompanied his stories, and the warmth of his arms around her when he insisted on goodbye hugs from his ‘favorite grandchild’. She still doubted that she’d ever been his favorite, though she knew her Mum had been his favorite daughter, but she’d never cared about how much he loved her. She’d only known that she loved him, and dearly. And now, she only knew that she missed him.

As the clouds parted to reveal the moon, and the crystal stand in front of Elrond shone even more brightly, Belda tried to sniffle quietly, and was only glad that she could blame her tears on the radiance if she needed. Elrond, Gandalf, and Thorin stood huddled around the crystal, but she just waited near Balin; even if the light hadn’t hurt her eyes, there still wouldn’t have been any point in getting closer, seeing as how she could barely see over the edge of the stand.

“Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the keyhole.” Elrond spoke haltingly, enough so that Belda surmised he was reading it from the map and translating as he went.

She glanced sidelong at Balin; turning to face him meant looking at the moon, which wasn’t going to happen until her headache faded. “Durin’s Day?”

Surprisingly, Gandalf answered. “It’s the start of the Dwarves’ New Year, when the last moon of autumn and the first sun of winter appear in the sky together.” She tucked the information away, but didn’t get a chance to respond before Thorin spoke.

“This is ill news.” She frowned; ‘Why?’ “Summer is passing. Durin’s Day will soon be upon us.”

Balin stepped forward; Belda winced at the moonlight. “We still have time.”

Her headache made her tone a bit sharper than she intended, but at the moment, she didn’t care. “For what?”

One hand raised, Balin met her eyes distractedly. “To find the entrance.” She tried not to look incredulous. They didn’t know where it was? Balin turned back to Thorin, and Belda moved to stand behind Gandalf, where he’d block the light, as the elder Dwarf spoke. “We have to be standing in exactly the right spot, at exactly the right time. Then, and only then, can the door be opened.”

“So this is your purpose? To enter the mountain?” Elrond’s tone made it clear what he thought of that, but by the way the Dwarves startled (only barely, but enough to see), Belda wondered if they’d actually forgotten the Elf was there.

Thorin glared up at him. “What of it?”

Elrond put on what Belda had started, over the last weeks of tutoring, to recognize as his ‘I’m older than the Shire, obey me’ tone, even as he handed the map back to Thorin. “There are some who would not deem it wise.”

Rolling her eyes, Belda raised her voice just slightly. “There are also some who would ‘not deem it wise’ to leave a bloody fire-drake free to raze Middle-Earth at his leisure, and some who would ‘not deem it wise’ to put yourselves at odds with the only bloody race who even comes near living as long as you do.” All the men looked at her sharply, and she smothered a growl. “Honestly, for Races with such bloody long memories, you’d think some of you would be willing to forgive and forget, just occasionally, and especially when you have a common enemy! Or have you all forgotten that Smaug is a danger to the whole of Arda, not just Dwarves, and not excluding Elves?!”

She looked between all of them but Gandalf as she spoke, and kept doing so after she finished. But none of them reacted other than to cough quietly (Balin) and shift their weight defensively (Thorin). Pressing the heels of her hands to the bridge of her nose, Belda groaned and gave up. “I have a headache; I’m going to bed.” As she left, she called over her shoulder, “Let me know if any of you decide to be rational adults!”

Petty? Yes. Did she care? No. But she hadn’t even reached the guest quarters before Thorin caught up with her. She met his eyes evenly, though she refused to be cowed by his scowl, and simply waited. After a moment, he growled, “Pack your bags; we leave at first light.”

With that, he walked away, and she gaped after him for a moment. Did he actually think it would be that easy? That the Elves, who, she guessed, would be rather opposed to his ‘provoke a dragon’ plan, would just twiddle their thumbs and let them leave?

Again, she rolled her eyes. Was she going to be responsible for keeping the Quest afloat all the way to Erebor?


 

Balin

 

As the Halfling stormed out of sight, Balin stifled another laugh; Elrond had appeared slightly discomfited during her tirade, which was more of a reaction than he’d ever seen from an Elf. And here he’d thought the lass had grown fond of the weed-eater.

More loudly than usual, Gandalf cleared his throat. “Who did you mean?”

The Elf-Lord stared at him for a beat longer than seemed natural before he spoke, affecting the same tone as before. “You are not the only guardian to stand watch over Middle-Earth.” 

After holding Gandalf’s gaze for another moment or so, he glanced at Balin and Thorin; stepping closer to the Wizard, Elrond spoke too quietly for Balin to hear, and took his leave as soon as he was finished. “What did he say?”

Balin was curious, as well, but he wasn’t sure he would’ve been as blunt as Thorin. But Gandalf answered, grimly. “I’ve been summoned. And I suspect those who’ve called me are some of those Elrond referred to.”

“They’d object to our course?” Balin had only asked for clarity’s sake, but was somewhat gratified when Gandalf nodded.

“And likely try to stop you. Unless they were too late, of course.” The Wizard gave Thorin a meaningful look, then followed the Elf.

Balin glanced at his King, but asked nothing; he knew what Thorin’s decision would be.

 

The next morning, by the time the sun rose over the (not-so-)distant mountains, the Company was a full hour’s travel out of Rivendell, though the twisting paths meant that they’d not covered as much ground as would be preferable, and the city was still visible behind them.

Thorin, just ahead of him, called back to the others, “Be on your guard. We’re about to step over the edge of the wild.” Slowing to a stop, he turned to Balin and opened his mouth, but a mutter interrupted him.

“…bt the weed-eaters will let us go so ea…” Balin hadn’t been able to make out the speaker, but Thorin obviously had, as he scowled at someone further back.

“Nori, do you have something to say?” 

Coughing quietly with the effort not to laugh, Balin didn’t turn to look at the thief. He’d never been his and Thorin’s top choice for the Company, or even in the top fifty. Dwalin had protested his inclusion vehemently, but at that point, the thief had already signed the contract, so there hadn’t been much anyone could do about him.

But Nori spoke again, voice as insolent as ever. “Aye. I said, I doubt the weed-eaters will let us go so easily. We have their little darling, don’t we? They’ll have prob’ly sent scouts after us already.” 

Now, strictly speaking, Balin couldn’t argue the point; the Elves did seem oddly fond of the Halfling, and would likely do as Nori had surmised, or would soon, but even so, that level of disrespect was completely untenable.

But as Balin turned to scowl at the thief himself, the Burglar cut him off blithely from the back of the line. “Of course not.”

The entire Company looked toward her, and as though to abet their curiosity, she stepped slightly to the side of the line of Dwarves. Unsurprisingly, Bofur was the one to break the silence. “…uh, why?”

She shrugged. “Because I left a note.”

Eyes widening a fraction, Balin glanced back at Thorin unconsciously; the King’s expression darkened into a fresh glower, black as pitch, and Balin looked back toward the Hobbit as Thorin rumbled, “A note?”

Nodding easily, she began moving as she spoke, ambling past the Company; despite her apparent nonchalance, Balin saw that she chose her steps carefully, though she seemed to have no fear of the drop. “Yes, a note detailing how you’d finally seen the error of your ways and persuaded me that the wild is no place for a young Hobbit, and that we’d had to leave immediately since none of you wanted to risk my changing my mind, and therefore, all thirteen of you are currently escorting me back to the Shire to reunite me with my family.”

She slowed to a stop and looked back at the Company, one by one. Balin couldn’t look away from her long enough to see their faces, but he guessed they felt as flabbergasted as he did.

After another moment or so, she shrugged and kept moving past Thorin. “Well, you all might wait, but the sun won’t.”

She gave an odd sort of shiver as she moved ahead of the King, as though she were shaking water out of her ears, or trying not to; the peculiarity of it broke Balin out of his stupor and he closed his mouth with a quiet snap. Thorin seemed similarly affected, and he nodded to Balin with a somewhat-softened scowl. “You know these paths. Lead on.”

Nodding to Thorin, Balin moved ahead, and after a moment’s hesitation, drew level with the Burglar. The path was narrow, but she was small enough that there was just enough room for them to walk side-by-side. She gave him a sidelong look, but said nothing, and a few minutes passed in silence; all the while, he was thinking of Dwalin’s words. It was obvious that he had a soft spot for the lass, but all he would say, no matter how often Balin asked, was ‘she’s alone’, which made no sense; she was surrounded by people.

“My brother seems fond of you.” He kept his tone light, his voice quiet, but she still glanced at him sharply.

Eyes narrowing the barest fraction, she looked ahead again. “You’d know, I suppose.”

Her voice was as quiet as his, but she couldn’t quite keep her tone as bland; remembering how well she’d hidden her emotions when they’d gone over the contract, he had to wonder: was she foxing the edge in her words, or did it run too deeply for her to hide? “And you of him.”

This time, the look she directed toward him was anything but quick, though it was even more cutting than the previous. And far too astute for her to have missed his insinuation. Good; he hadn’t meant her to. She looked at the path again, but kept her head angled just slightly toward him, and the slow, deliberate way she spoke left him in no doubt of her opinion of him at the moment. “I respect him, yes.”

Balin hummed thoughtfully. “I suppose he reminds you of someone.”

Her bearing didn’t change, but her voice was frigid. “Not in the slightest.”

Balin didn’t respond. He didn’t know how to respond, truthfully; he hadn’t expected that answer.

She glanced at him again, eyes as cold as her faux-casual tone. “Dwarves and Hobbits have very different natures. Out of the entire Company, I think you, Ori, Dori, Bombur, and perhaps Bofur would do well in the Shire. The rest of you…” The eye he could see skated dismissively over him before she faced forward again. “All of Hobbiton would run screaming.”

Frowning, a single question escaped before he could stop it. “Then why?”

Once again, she looked toward him, but this time her eyes stilled, her expression softened, and the venom left her voice when she finally did speak, leaving a quiet, contemplative sincerity. “…He’s a good man. Brusque, and a bit harsh, but he’s kinder than I expected. I think that’s about the only thing he has in common with my father.”

Balin's eyebrow leapt up; he hadn’t so much as implied any connection between Dwalin and her father, and that she’d let it slip was either a calculated misdirection (which he doubted) or a genuine hint of how she saw his brother. But then, he scowled, the daughter of Dwalin, son of Fundin, would still be put in a place of honor once Erebor was restored. “So it has nothing to do with his connections to the royal family of Erebor?”

Her head snapped toward him, her eyes blazing with affronted outrage worthy of Thorin, before banking, just slightly, to reveal something far more feral than any Dwarf could comprehend. He didn’t lean away from her, his self-control was too refined for that, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to. When she spoke, her voice held that same feral edge. “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you’re only trying to protect him. This time. But if you actually think I’m capable of that level of heartless avarice—”

“Are you?” He held her eyes as his words sunk in, and saw as the snarl faded from her expression, saw the hint of uncertainty before she faced forward again.

“…I don’t know.”

His brows leapt up. “Excuse me?”

Jaw clenched, she gave a small huff. “As your brother, my Godfather, and what seems like half of Middle-Earth seems intent on reminding me, I’m young.” Despondence replaced the irritation in her bearing, and her voice quieted. “I’ve never been out of the Shire before, let alone trekked hundreds of miles to a bloody dragon-occupied mountain. I can guess what I’ll do, how I’ll react, but I don’t know if it’ll be the case or not.” She shrugged. “I’ve never been greedy before, but I’ve never known anything but the Shire, and for all my family’s numerous faults, I never wanted for material things.”

Balin couldn’t help the shocked exclamation, “They starved you!”

“Yes, but I had a bed, a roof over my head, paper and ink, albeit on allowance, books when I could get into into the library, and they never laid a finger on me. I had more than some do.” Her voice had grown almost hushed as she went on, and didn’t louden when she began speaking again. “So I don’t know what I would do if I were on my own. Guess, yes, but know, no. But I do know that I haven’t had anyone who cared for me in—” Abruptly, she cut herself off, and her voice was thick when she continued a few moments later. “In a long while. I told you that I don’t know if I’ll stay in Erebor. That wasn’t quite true, although it wasn’t a lie. I know that I want to stay. But,” she shrugged helplessly; Balin didn’t know what to do, and so he did nothing, only listened. “I don’t know what I’ll do when the time comes for me to go into the mountain. I don’t know what you’ll all think of me afterwards. And I know that I can’t, I won’t, stay where I’m not wanted.”

Her eyes were shining in the dawn-light by the time she finished, and Balin waited to respond until she looked a little calmer. “You seemed to be wanted in Rivendell.”

Dismissively, she snorted. “You know, there’s a hall in the Shire called the Mathom-House. It’s larger than it needs to be, it’s not often visited, and it’s full of weapons, useless trinkets, anything unwanted and never thought of. A dusty, stagnant, mausoleum of a museum.”

She left it there, but the connection was obvious. Balin regarded her thoughtfully for a moment; she’d seemed happy with the weed-eaters, but then again, she’d initially turned down their aid, and just the night before, she’d been as irritated with Elrond as she was with Thorin and himself. Maybe she was telling the truth. Humming thoughtfully, he kept his tone casually curious. “I didn’t realize Hobbits had any weapons.”

“Almost none that we use anymore.” He glanced at her involuntarily; her tone had been almost petulant, and her moue was even more sullen. “It hasn’t been long since we needed them, but I think all of them would rather pretend it never happened.” 

‘We’ needed, but ‘they’ would pretend, he noted. “Not you?”

She fixed him with a sidelong, pointed look. “I’m on a quest to eliminate a dragon because of the risk he poses.”

‘A danger to the whole of Arda’, he remembered she’d called Smaug; he was careful to keep it from showing, but, yet again, he reevaluated his view of her accordingly. “Point taken.” They were silent for a moment or two as the path curved; she relaxed marginally when they weren’t directly facing East, he noticed, and she stopped squinting. He hadn’t noticed that she was in the first place. “You speak as though Hobbits routinely need to defend themselves.”

“Not routinely. Just occasionally.”

She was silent for a moment; interest piqued, he prompted, “Such as?”

She didn’t respond, but when he glanced over, her expression was thoughtful. “…Orcs attacked Eriador.” Balin stumbled; she kept talking. “A bit under two hundred years ago, I think. The Rangers stopped most of them, but one party made it to the Shire. My Great-something-Grandfather on my mother’s side rode out against them.” A grin broke through her nonchalance. “He was massive; nearly four and a half feet tall, big enough to ride a horse!” She laughed, the same laugh and same expression as when she’d spoken of her future library. “He decapitated Golfimbul Orc-King with a single blow, and the rest fled.”

It wasn’t much of a story, but with how pacifistic Hobbits seemed to be, it was likely one of their greatest martial achievements. “He sounds quite the warrior.”

“As close as a Hobbit can get.” Startled, he looked toward her; she met his eyes soberly before continuing in the same half-resigned tone as before. “We aren’t made for war. Battle, some of us, but not war. Our first instinct is to hide, always. Then…” She shrugged. “Some fight and some flee. Most flee, really. We aren’t warriors.” Her eyes hardened. “But a fair number of us will fight to protect what’s ours; some so their kin can escape, some to eliminate the threat. The latter group…” The steel left her eyes, and he realized where she’d be. “We aren’t trusted, generally. It’s different when we’re all together, like Mum was with her family in Tuckborough. There, it’s safe, but even then, the more… hawkish of us are viewed with some suspicion.”

“That’s barbaric.”

Even the most intolerant Dwarves wouldn’t reject their clansmen without cause; but she only shook her head, wearily. “I keep telling you, Hobbits aren’t made for war. The vast majority of us would rather run until their feet wear down to nubs than take up arms. We’re small, weak, largely defenseless; any threat, even a possible threat, even an imaginary threat, is taken as seriously as a blade to our throats, because they have hardly any way to know the difference!” The bitterness in her voice had given way to frustration toward the end of the sentence, but as soon as she seemed to realize how much her voice had risen, her shoulders slumped. When she spoke, it was with none of the animation she’d had before.

“…You’re right.” He startled, but she didn’t seem to notice. “It’s not fair. It’s paranoid, and fearful, and the only reason we haven’t gone extinct. It’s in the nature of every race, I think, to veer away from danger, to close ranks against those who don’t belong. My mother was among the minority of Hobbits who’d eliminate a threat rather than run from it. So am I.” She shrugged sadly. “It’s as much in my nature to fight what threatens me as it was in my father’s to hold his ground until he had no other choice but to fight or flee. But that I would choose violence so easily means that I am a danger. Most Hobbits hardly ever lift anything but farming tools; they’re about as dangerous as toddlers. They have nothing but their feet to protect them. They rely on those with more capability, but at the same time, they can’t help but fear us.”

For a few seconds, he just watched her thoughtfully. “You sound as though you pity them.”

“I do. Fear is…” She shook her head. “Fear is horrible. I know what it is to be afraid, to live in fear, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But I can at least defend myself if I need to. They can’t.”

He had no response to that, and after a few moments, she dropped back to walk beside someone else; he heard Dwalin’s low rumble, but couldn’t make out his words or hers, and the Heirs greeted her a moment later. He didn’t know what to make of her. He’d thought, he’d hoped, that she’d been lying about how little she wanted money, but every interaction seemed to only prove him more wrong. And what she’d said of how Hobbits viewed her—

She had to be lying, but he’d thought that before. But she had to be; no race could be so merciless. But fear could do such things to good people. How many people had rejected the refugees from Erebor because they were afraid they were cursed? He’d always loathed those sorts, thought them no more than scum, but she pitied them? Was it even possible to pity people who shunned you? Never in his life would he have thought the answer could ever be ‘yes’, but this girl turned everything on its head. If it were anyone else, he would have said ‘no’ without a second’s doubt. But it was her, and he couldn’t be sure either way.

She was clearly bitter over her treatment, but she defended their reasons. She was clearly wounded by the rejection, but she claimed to pity her abusers. She seemed more likely to walk straight into Smaug’s jaws than to return to her ‘family’, but she minimized their abuse of her.

She made no sense.

But he couldn’t help but believe that she honestly did care for Dwalin. 

He didn't like it, didn’t like watching his little brother put his heart in jeopardy again…

But he wouldn’t put a stop to it. He’d watch for any signs of something being wrong, but if this was what Dwalin wanted, so be it.

He only prayed it wouldn’t end in yet another heartbreak.

Chapter Text

“So if ‘hunter’ is ‘utas’, ‘hunter of’ would be ‘utasu’?”

Ori nodded; he made Belda think of a stork-Hobbit she’d seen once, head bobbing up and down as he walked. “And the word for fresh game is ‘tasith’, so—”

“So ‘utasu tasith’ would be the title?”

Ori’s face lit up in a broad grin; they’d been on the road for five days now, and there’d only been a handful of opportunities for her to get the promised lessons. But he’d only had to correct her pronunciation once or twice so far, and he said she was doing well. She wasn’t sure she actually believed him; Sindarin was proving difficult for him, and she’d been trying to spare his feelings. 

But at the moment, the Company was winding through a narrow section, and they were taking advantage of the opportunity to have their longest lesson yet; every time he told her a word in Khuzdûl, she translated it into Sindarin for him, and vice versa. It wasn’t until several minutes later that anything disrupted their system.

“Wait, those are the only words for family? ‘Gwanur’ and ‘herth’?”

“Yeah, pretty much.” Curious, she tilted her head. “Are there more words in Khuzdûl?”

He nodded, still looking a little indignant; she couldn’t help but guiltily empathize. Elves didn’t see the need for more words than just ‘relative’ and ‘household’, respectively; as Hobbitish had no less than fifteen synonyms for family before more specific terms (such as father, daughter, cousin, etc.) came into play, Belda found the Sindarin offerings stifling. ‘Herth’, which could mean ‘troop’ as well as ‘household’, was the closest word she’d found in the language to ‘pack’, but even so, it had the implication of a group held together by employment rather than necessity or any particular loyalty, and was thus a paltry substitute.

“Khuzdûl has ‘nudd’, that’s ‘relative’; we don’t really have a word for ‘household’, but there’s ‘baraf’ and ‘sankhalf’ for ‘family’.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Well,” he took a moment to choose his words, but she didn’t have to wait long. “‘Sankhalf’ is slang, really, but it means something like ‘family I wouldn’t prefer’, and then ‘baraf’ is the proper word, it means ‘blood-kin’. Or ‘clan’, I suppose, or ‘line’. It depends on the context.”

“So—” Thorin interrupted her, calling for them to hurry up, and the discussion was lost as they came within earshot again of the others. But she kept thinking over what he’d told her, even while she talked with Fíli and Kíli; he’d told her other words, as well, and she smiled as she put a few together. ‘Barafu id-Amrâb. Clan of the soul.

 

Several nights later, she hid behind a boulder, just out of earshot of the Company as she choked back tears. She’d thought Nori cared, she’d thought the thief was at least somewhat accepting of her, at the very least, but obviously she’d been wrong. The moonless night was a blessed relief to her still-aching eyes and head, but she hid her face nonetheless, wanting nothing more than to hide so completely she’d never be found until she wanted to be. Until she didn’t feel quite so much as though she’d never be warm again.

“Belda?” Dwalin’s voice made her breath hitch as she looked up involuntarily; he wasn’t in sight, and she hunched in on herself, torn between internally screaming for him to leave and desperately hoping he’d find her. The dichotomy made her already-unsteady emotions even more overwhelming, and her sobs drowned out the sound of his approach until he was pulling her into his arms. “What happened, kit?”

Confused, her tears slowed; he’d been well within earshot, and he’d even been walking towards her, so he must have heard. “W— What?” She clung to him even as she drew away just enough to meet his equally-confused eyes; physically, he was far warmer than a Hobbit, but there was also an addictive warmth just in knowing that he was there, he was holding her, he’d come after her.

“What happened?”

His face blurred as her eyes filled. “Didn’t you hear what—” ‘He, not she’, “What he said?”

“Of course, kit. If I hadn’t, I’d be asking how many different colors you wanted him to be in the morning. But he didn’t say anything any of us wouldn’t’ve said.”

Dwalin’s words cut her to the quick, a sharp, throbbing heartache driving out all the warmth she’d recovered in his arms, and she pushed away from him as her sobs returned tenfold. Tears obscured her sight, but she felt him catch her wrists as she struggled, and despite how much she fought, she couldn’t compete with Dwarven strength; within a minute or two, he was holding her to his chest, restraining her much the same way she might restrain a small child. His hold was gentle, but unyielding, and she exhausted herself within another few moments; the entire time, he was saying something, she could feel the vibrations in his chest, but she couldn’t hear him over the roaring in her ears until she finally gave up and slumped against his chest, still sobbing.

For a few seconds, she hated him. She hated the way he wrapped his arms around her, more securely than she’d felt since she was a fauntling; she hated the way she could smell the salt of his tears as he shushed her, rocking gently back and forth; she hated that even after he’d so hurt her, he still smelled like pack, like home and safety and comfort. Most of all, she hated that despite how deeply his words had hurt her, she didn’t feel the slightest twinge of a phantom instinct. No urge to claw at him, no intangible tail lashing behind her, nothing but the flood of too many emotions to name that she remembered from her fauntling years, before she was old enough to understand why her Mum was never home.

Her Da had held her while she fought him more than once, though then she’d been trying to run after her Mum, not running from a man she was beginning to care for more than she should.

Eventually, her sobs quieted, and he spoke again, shaking voice thick as it rumbled through her. “I don’t understand, kit. What did I say?”

A spark of that same childish rage rekindled, and she pushed at him again, but only weakly; thinking of her father, and realizing the connections both between his behavior and Dwalin’s, and the fond respect she had for both of them, had stolen away most of her anger, and left her with an old pain. “You—”

A number of words more colorful than accurate rushed forth at once, and left her speechless while Dwalin pleaded with her, desperate and brokenly. “No, please, kit, tell me what I said?”

She hadn’t succeeded in getting away from him, by any means, but she’d gained enough distance that she could, and now did, meet his eyes. “You—”

But there was no condemnation in his face, only heartbreak, mixed liberally with confusion. He didn’t look like someone who’d called her worthless, and yet he had. And yet he looked as though she were speaking a different… language. Her lessons with Ori had taught her that there were some words that meant slightly different things to Dwarves. Could this…

Breath hitching, she swallowed back some of her tears. “W— what does—” She froze for a moment, unable to force the word past her lips. Swallowing thickly, she started over, fingers curling in his fur jacket; the familiar texture made it no easier to keep her composure, but did remind her of a time when the feeling of her parents’ fur had been as grounding as Dwalin’s scent was now. “To Dwarves, what does— does,” angry at her own cowardice, she spat the word, “Halfling mean?”

If anything, Dwalin’s bewildered frown deepened. “Hobbit. What else would it mean?”

Relief flooded through her quickly enough to leave her feeling like nothing more than a marionette who’d just had her strings cut; she pitched forward, burying her face in his chest as she tightened her grip on him, and he enfolded her into his arms without an instant’s hesitation. Guilt followed the relief swiftly, though, guilt that she’d fought him, guilt that she’d taken his words at face value, guilt that she’d hated him, even for a few seconds. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I was stupid.”

She was barely aware of speaking, but even if she had been, she wouldn’t have expected him to immediately jerk as though she’d stabbed him, and to cup her face in both hands, drawing back just enough to meet her eyes, his own intense and pained. “No, not stupid, never stupid, kit.”

Gently, he touched his forehead to hers, and she leaned into it as her eyes fell shut. She didn’t know what it meant to Dwarves, though she suspected it meant more than it did to Hobbits, as she’d only seen immediate family use the gesture, and even then only rarely. Coming from Dwalin, it felt as tender as one of his hugs, and all the more dear for its rarity. 

They sat like that, unmoving, for nearly a minute, she thought, before he quietly spoke, in a tone as gently unyielding as his arms had been before. “But what does it mean to Hobbits?”

She couldn’t help but flinch, badly enough that he tightened his arms around her, but she shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”

Feeling tears beginning to build, she tried to escape his hold again, turning away from him to try and hide the pain she knew would be all over her face; gently, he cupped her cheek in one huge hand, and she fell still, apart from tiny tremors she couldn’t quite stop. She didn’t fight as he turned her head back toward him, but she didn’t open her eyes until he swiped his thumb over her cheek, his other hand trying to tuck her hair behind her ear. It sprung back as soon as his hand moved, of course, but his eyes didn’t leave hers. 

Pain in his voice, he murmured, “It matters to you.” Her breath hitched, but she only bit her lip; one word and she’d be sobbing, she could tell. His eyes shone in the starlight, and he held her eyes. “Please, Belda.”

The raw anguish in his tone did break her, and she shut her eyes rather than see his reaction. “It means someone who’s half a person— a— someone who’s infertile, ora cripple, or s— something.” Or someone without a soul-form.

Shock was clear in his tone, as was hurt, when he finally spoke. “And you thought I could say that of you? That any of us could?”

“Nori did,” she sobbed, “And then you said any of the Company would say the same, and— I’m sorry!”

Again, she pitched forward to cry into his chest, and salt suffused the air as he tightened his arms around her, one hand rising to the nape of her neck; instantly, her tremors stilled, and she felt her sobs weaken, just slightly. He didn’t seem to notice, but then, he hadn’t the other times, either. “No, kit, how could you think we would mean it?”

It was a fair question, she knew it was, and by all rights, she should’ve discarded the idea as soon as Nori had used that word, but… “They did.” He gave a quiet, questioning grunt, and she shifted position to better hide her face and let her tears seep into his chest. “Camellia an— and Longo. They used to— used to say it would be better if I’d been a Halfling than—” Than a predator. “—than half a Took.” He inhaled sharply, rage entering his scent for a moment, and she hurried to reassure him, “I didn’t believe them, don’t believe them, but—” But even she could hear the half-lie in her words; the next rushed out on a flood of tears. “But they said it over and over, and if I argued, they locked me in my room and they wouldn’t let me out for days and—” 

And that had been what was truly unbearable: the isolation. Going for days on end without ever seeing another face, sometimes without even hearing a soul.

His arms tightened around her, his hand on her neck, but even so she sobbed. It was long minutes before she was able to calm herself, and all the while, Dwalin just held her, his head laid on hers, his scent surrounding her and sinking into her hair along with tears of his own. Even once she got ahold of her emotions once again, she couldn’t find it in herself to stop clutching his jacket; she’d grown out of such childish behavior long before the Winter, but he didn’t seem to mind. There was always the possibility that Dwarves viewed such things differently, but for the moment, she didn’t really care about anything but that she was safe and warm and a man (possibly the person she respected most in the Company, and certainly the one she most looked up to) she really needed to stop thinking of as fatherly showed no signs of forgetting his promise to never abandon her.

Finally, once she was completely calm again, he chucked her chin lightly and raised his brows in a wordless question. She nodded, rubbing her eyes. He sighed. “You need to tell the others when we go back, kit.”

Her heart thudded at the thought, and she shied away from the very idea; it was bad enough that she’d embarrassed herself overreacting like she did. “Couldn’t you tell them?”

He answered her pleading look with a matter-of-fact nod. “I could. But you’re going to.”

“But—”

He cut her off firmly. “No, kit. This is too important. Do you want me to explain and muddle it all up?”

She frowned; the way he stressed ‘me’, as though there were no one worse suited, irked some instinct she hadn’t previously been aware of. (She could tell: if she’d been in drake-form, her hackles would’ve raised.) “You wouldn’t muddle it.”

“Yes, I would.”

She shook her head decisively, thinking of his apology just after their arrival in Rivendell. “No, you wouldn’t.”

As she held his eyes, she could just see the hints of an old pain; slowly, he shook his head. “…You think too much of me, kit.”

Her frown deepened. “You don’t think enough of yourself.” He huffed out a mirthless laugh, shaking his head, but didn’t argue further.

As he stood, he just lifted her with him rather than push her away, and set her on her feet once he was on his; he took her hand in his, hers so tiny in comparison that she may as well have been a fauntling, and led the way back to the camp. The stars lit the night enough that she could just make out where she was placing her feet, but the campfire still stuck out like… well, a Hobbit among Dwarves. She stopped dead in her tracks, entirely involuntarily, and Dwalin only took a single step before he turned to her with a concerned frown. “Kit?”

Slowly, she dragged her eyes up to his, away from the fire and the silhouettes around it, and her voice was so small that she barely even recognized it. “Do I have to do this?”

It was humiliating, and her face was probably all blotchy and swollen, and Kíli was there, and (a large) part of her just wanted to pretend it had never happened— But Dwalin’s expression softened, and he ran his free hand over her curls before he knelt down to press a gentle kiss to her forehead, his eyes almost exactly level with hers when he drew back. “Yes, kit. But I’ll stay beside you all the while.” His face blurred slightly, but she could still make out his soft smile. “I told you: I’m never letting you be alone again.” 

Closing her eyes against the ever-increasing blur, she leaned forward until her forehead thunked (slightly painfully) against his; he chuckled quietly at her wince, but pressed his hand against the nape of her neck again. He didn’t move, but as soon as she did, he drew back.

“I won’t help you,” he warned, “but I’ll be right beside you. All right?”

Sniffling, she nodded, resolve filling her; it didn’t drive out the fear, but it made it a little more manageable, at least. “All right.”

 

Belda held her collar tightly shut with one hand, the other trailing over the slick rock wall to her left; her jacket couldn’t get much more soaked, but even so, the wind and chill carried with the rain were pervasive, and she wanted to keep as warm as she could. At the moment, the only part of her that was warm was her shoulder under Dwalin’s hand; with how slippery the ledge was, and the fact that it was narrow enough at times that even she had to walk heel-to-toe, he hadn’t let go of her once since they’d set out that morning.

If he hadn’t been so worried, she was fairly sure she would have fallen at least four times by then; the wind was fierce and she was light, and while she’d been able to keep her footing well enough dry, a rain-soaked cliff face had no grass to dig her feet into, no branches or bushes to catch hold of if she slipped. She’d been fine on similar paths the day before, but, “This bloody rain.”

Her grumble had barely been audible, even to her, but her nose was nearly touching Bofur’s back, and he called jauntily back, “Cheer up, lass, could be worse!”

She resisted the urge to punch him. Barely. “Yeah? How?”

The challenge had barely left her lips when her foot hit an unexpected slant and she overbalanced; Dwalin hauled her upright as she squeaked, but her heart still raced. It was a very long way to fall. Drily, Bofur suggested, “You could be afraid of heights.”

It was a shame he couldn’t see her glare. It was truly impressive, even in a group that included Thorin Glare-y-shield. “I am not afraid of heights.” In fact, she loved heights, normally; a dip in the path made it all too easy to see just how far it was to the bottom of the valley, and she swallowed thickly. “Falling, on the other hand…” Specifically, falling without wings to catch her.

Bofur shook his head, the motion sending droplets of icy water directly onto her face. “If you would just wear boots—” It was an old argument, and she had no patience for it at the moment.

Sharply, she cut him off. “I’d be even clumsier and wouldn’t be able to find my footing at all, compared to occasionally as is. Drop it, Bofur.”

A low chuckle rumbled behind her, and Dwalin squeezed her shoulder lightly. Out of habit, she turned to smile up at him, forgetting the unstable ground; her foot slipped, her momentum spun her until she was facing the valley, and then she was leaning too far over the edge to correct herself. Terror froze her tongue in the instant before Dwalin hauled her back, Bofur helping him by grabbing her other arm, and even once her back was flat against the rock face behind her, Dwalin’s arm over her collarbone to keep her from slipping again, she still couldn’t force out any words. 

She would’ve liked nothing more than to stay there until she caught her breath, but then Dwalin roared a warning, “Look out!” 

Following his eyes, she was just in time to see a boulder as big as Bag-End flying through the air toward the cliff above them. The impact shook the mountain, and Dwalin pulled her toward him, stepping partially in front of her and bending his head over hers even as Thorin bellowed distantly, “Take cover!”

Rocks as big as her head or bigger rained down around and past them; she was fairly sure that she felt Dwalin wince as though he’d been struck, but nothing hit her. No sooner had the rockfall ceased than she saw a part of a distant peak break off and stand. Balin yelled from somewhere to her left, but she couldn’t look away from the giant. It broke a piece as big as the first boulder, as big as its head, off of the stone it had been lying on, and hurled it past the Company.

Belda’s heart was racing, and she felt smaller than she ever had, even than when the Trolls had had her; whatever these giants were (Stone Giants, according to a very excited Bofur), they were truly massive. Even in drake-form, she might, might come up to their waists, and perhaps not even that high. She hadn’t lied to Balin, she did pity her prey-relatives, but there’d been more than one occasion when the difference in their natures had led her to sneer at their timidity. Now, faced with creatures almost as large to her as her drake-form was to ordinary Hobbits, for the first time, she understood why they’d acted as they had. Now she understood how they must have felt to even catch a hint of her scent. Now, now she truly did pity them.

“Hold on!” Dwalin’s bellow nearly deafened her, but she didn’t fight as he hauled her to his side. She just saw him grab hold of Ori on his other side, and quickly, she turned to wrap her arms around his waist; the more secure, the better, and just in time, as a rain of debris broke off most of the ledge they were standing on.


 

Kíli

 

As though the Mahal-cursed Giants weren’t enough (and really, why couldn’t they have stayed in fables and bedtime stories, where such things were supposed to), a split in the rock appeared under his feet, and grew too quickly for him to do anything but move away from it, toward Óin, behind him. “What’s happening?!”

At the same moment, Fíli shouted, “Kíli, grab my hand!”

Automatically, with habit born of decades, he made to obey his sister, but he was too slow, and ice filled his veins as she was carried all-too-quickly away. All he could do was watch as his Nen’ar grew smaller, farther from him than she’d ever been but at home. Rocks crashed down in the space between them, but he barely noticed, still holding her eyes, seeing the same agony there that pounded in his chest. An odd, animal sort of call nearly deafened him from above, and he looked up involuntarily. What he saw made no sense, and it wasn’t until nearly the last second that he realized that they were all standing on the kneecaps of a third Giant. 

To be precise, he realized a split second before the second Giant head butted theirs with enough force to send it pitching to the side, and them nearly off the ledge. 

He nearly lost his balance, felt himself start to slip for a single, horrible instant, but Óin grabbed hold of his cloak and steadied him; a second later, the both of them were knocked off their feet by a massive impact, and they only just scrambled after the others in time to avoid being swept away with the Giant again. Their Giant pushed again to its feet and swung at the second, which ducked surprisingly quickly; a shout from his left was just in time for him to duck as the first Giant broke off a piece of the mountain only a stone’s throw away from him. 

But he barely noticed for long enough even to duck; as soon as he did, he looked back toward the other two, desperately straining for a glimpse of his sister. Their Giant landed a tremendous blow on the second, but the third hurled its boulder at their Giant; its head plunged down toward them in a terrifying arc, and impacted the cliff just above them. Stones rained down, but Kíli could only watch for Fíli.

The decapitated cadaver twisted oddly, sending Fíli’s half of the Company sailing past Kíli’s eyes, nearly close enough to touch—

His heart stopped—

Belda was in the other group, huddled against Dwalin even as her feet dangled over the drop— he hadn’t thought, hadn’t remembered—

The thought of losing Fíli had sent a blade through his gut, but the sight of Belda sent a knife through his heart; the agony was enough to make him cry out, and he only realized as he heard it that he’d screamed her name.

Belda and Fíli’s group sailed even further past, until they were barely more than blurs in the rain, then stopped; his heart gave a single, frantic beat before their movement resumed, this time straight toward the mountain face.


 

Dwalin

 

Being batted to and fro like a child’s plaything was terrifying enough to put the fear of Mahal into any Dwarf, but having Belda with him through it, feeling her lose her footing, barely grabbing her before the cliff rushed toward them, that put the fear of Eru himself into Dwalin. There was no time for rational thought or contemplation, only a wordless, instinctive prayer as he wrapped his free arm around her tightly enough to bruise: ‘Eru, not her’.

The briefest glimpse of an outcropping of rock just to the side of them was all he had time to see before the impact.

His head pounded, spots of light flickering over his vision as he pushed upright; something was wrong, something was gone, more important than anything—

He bolted upright just as Thorin came into view, and scanned the felled group in a  quick sweep, but the pit in his gut only strengthened. “Where’s Belda?!”

He’d spoken at the same moment as Bofur, but the miner was the first to spot her.


 

Belda

 

She heard Dwalin, of course, and Bofur and Thorin, but response was impossible: with her heart and stomach both in her throat, she had no breath for words.

The impact had jolted Dwalin’s arm loose, her own grip failing, and she’d slipped before she could catch herself. She nearly hadn’t caught herself at all, and the ledge was too slick for her to do anything but try, hope, and pray to keep her grip. There was no footing she could find; hot tears building in her eyes, she looked down to find something, anything, she could grip, but all she saw was a fall long enough to kill even a Dwarf, even a dragon, and unequivocally a Hobbit. Ori’s stricken face darted into view above her just as a petrified sob caught in her throat and loosened her grip just enough for her to lose it; she caught herself again, barely, and couldn’t help but cry out as her arm protested, painfully, bearing her entire weight.

Ori and Bofur both reached down to her, shouting for her to grab their hands, but she couldn’t reach them; she couldn’t see them, but she could hear Kíli and Dwalin both shouting for her as well, and for one hopeless, despairing instant, she only thought, ‘I wish I could have seen them once more’.

A sob tore from her throat—

Her grip weakened—

Her vision blurred until she couldn’t tell Bofur from Bombur—

A dark blur moved beside her; a huge hand encircled her forearm and wrenched her up far enough for Ori and Bofur to grab hold of her and yank her into their arms; a distressed shout had her lurching toward it, toward the ledge again, as her entire being screamed for an instant, ‘PACKDANGERLEADERSAVEHIM!’

The hands on her held firm and kept her from doing anything but leaning forward; her mind caught up an instant later and realized that Dwalin had already grabbed hold of Thorin and was heaving him up with no small amount of difficulty; part of her acknowledged that trying to save him herself would’ve only gotten them both killed, but most of her didn’t care, and she strained forward to try and see what was happening.

A moment later, Dwalin and Thorin were both on solid ground again, and the tension dissolved quickly enough to leave her feeling almost empty, and completely exhausted as she slumped heavily back against her pack-mates. Eyes half-lidded, she barely had any warning before Dwalin yanked her into his arms, but she only returned his hold as tightly as she could, and closed her eyes to better relish the feeling of his voice rumbling brokenly through her. “I thought I lost you.”

For a heartbeat, she couldn’t want for anything more. Except maybe for Kíli to be holding her, too.

Then Thorin spoke. “She’s been lost ever since she left home.” She jerked away from Dwalin to meet Thorin’s eyes, and felt a part of her soul scream in wordless agony at the hate she saw there. “She should never have come. She has no place amongst us.”

She couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t even close her mouth or steady her ragged breathing. She could only watch as Thorin walked deliberately away, and took any hope she’d had of ever being part of his pack with him.

Chapter Text

The pure anguish on Belda’s face was enough to make Dwalin’s eyes spark with tears he refused to let fall, and he cupped her face in both hands, desperate to make that pain fade away. “No, kit, he doesn’t mean it, he just—”

“Dwalin!” Involuntarily, he looked to his King, but he couldn’t move, but he couldn’t stay—

How could he choose between his King and his Nâthu-ib-Banth?

Light pressure on his chest drew his eyes back down, and he had to force himself to let go of Belda as she pushed him away; her head was down, but her voice was chillingly toneless. “Go.” He hesitated for an instant, but she just pushed him again. “He needs help. Go!”

‘The pack comes first.’ He’d remembered that, remembered everything she’d said that night, but he’d never really understood, not like this. He was a soldier. He understood sacrificing one’s life to save another, he understood obeying a commander no matter what, but this, this had been what she’d meant. Not a noble self-sacrifice, like Thorin’s risking his life to save her, but doing whatever was necessary, no matter how it killed her inside. No matter how it killed him. Ori stepped forward and gave him a reassuring, if worried, nod, and Dwalin forced himself to move away from her, to turn away. He followed Thorin heavily, but did shove the hugging Heirs toward her on his way.

Thorin had gained a fair amount of ground during Dwalin’s hesitation, enough that when Dwalin finally caught up, the King was inspecting the far end of a long cave. Every step Dwalin had taken away from his daughter (formal adoption be blasted, she was his daughter and she was in pain because of the Dwarf before him) had only heated his blood further, and now it was only with conscious effort that he kept himself from slamming his King into a wall until he’d learned his lesson.

Thorin was his King, and his friend. For Thorin, Dwalin would suffer anything. For Thorin, he would walk into Smaug’s jaws— Mahal, for Thorin, he would walk into the jaws of Morgoth him-bloody-self.

But Belda’s suffering was something else entirely. She was a traumatized child, more so than some soldiers he knew, and she was alone. Her parents were dead, half her family had abandoned her, the other half had treated her like a rabid animal. The only friend she’d had outside the Shire hadn’t even known that her parents were gone until she told him herself, and even now, Dwalin knew that she didn’t feel as though she was truly a part of the Company. 

She’d thrown herself into her training, and at first he’d only chalked it up to her excitement over having signed the contract. Then he’d realized that her enthusiasm never abated. No matter how long she worked, how hard she worked, how sore she was in the morning, she never gave so much as a hint of a complaint, except once. She hadn’t meant him to hear it, he barely had heard it, but just before she’d exited her room one morning, she’d tossed a too-cheery chirp to Fíli: ‘Anything to be useful!’

Add that to how easily she’d thought the Company thought as little of her as her ‘family’ had, and the fact that she’d thought the Company despised her for nothing more than glares during the Troll debacle, and Dwalin’s rage reached a new peak as he imagined what she would think after being told flat out that she wasn’t part of the pack.

Thorin barely glanced at him, intent on securing the cave, but he looked back after a moment, shock just visible through his naturally gittish looks. Normally, when Dwalin was angry on Belda’s behalf, he reined the emotion in, aware that she would misconstrue it. But Belda wasn’t here. No, the only person here was the reason for Dwalin’s anger in the first place.

Thorin was his oldest and dearest friend. Thorin was his King. But Thorin had hurt an innocent girl, Dwalin’s daughter, beads or no. Thorin was going to get worse than a shock if Dwalin wasn’t careful.

“What,” he growled delicately, doing his best to keep from thrashing his friend, “did the Burglar do to deserve that?”

Thorin’s brows lowered into a dark glower, but Dwalin didn’t react; he could see the fear and worry under the anger, and he knew that Thorin likely hadn’t meant what he said, or if he did, he’d regret it in another day or so. But at the moment, Dwalin really didn’t care what Thorin had meant. He. hurt. his. daughter. “She could’ve died—”

“So could any of us.” Thorin gaped at Dwalin’s interruption; Dwalin icily pointed out, “Fall like that would kill anything, Man, Elf, Dwarf, or Hobbit.”

Thorin’s glare redoubled, and Dwalin’s patience snapped before the King had gotten more than a syllable out. “She—“

“—Had the bad luck to be the lightest one of us, which I’d think’d be good for a Burglar; or are you angry with her for not being able to hold onto rain-slicked stone with a single hand?”

“She’s a liability!” Automatically, at the back of his mind, Dwalin translated the unspoken statement: ‘we can’t protect her from everything.

“She’s already saved all our skins once.”

“She’s a burden!” ‘We can’t provide what she needs on the road.

“She’s the only reason we got that map translated, or do you think the weed-eaters would’ve helped us if she hadn’t asked it?”

“She’s not one of us!” At that, rational thought fled, almost entirely, from Dwalin’s mind, replaced with a primal need to defend his Chosen daughter. 

But just enough sense remained for him to restrain himself, and he lowered his hands from where they’d begun to reach for Grasper and Keeper. For a moment, he only stared at Thorin, gathering his thoughts as best he could. Thorin waited, eyes just slightly widened. Finally, Dwalin nodded, and spoke quietly, though not gently. (As far from ‘gently’ as possible, actually.) “She signed the contract, which you gave her, same as us. She swore to fulfill ‘the Burglar’s’ duties, whether or not she knew it, the day she met us. She risked her neck to protect us, and nearly died in the process. She could have stayed with the Elves, where she would’ve been safe as houses, or even gone off on her own, and instead she chose to walk, with us, through the most dangerous territory in Middle-Earth, with a Mahal-cursed dragon waiting for her at the end of it.”

Thorin’s expression had closed off somewhere in the middle of Dwalin’s speech, but Dwalin had no patience to wait and see whether he felt guilty, was in denial, or was just being stubborn. “She—”

“Is there a problem here?” Dwalin’s next words died on his lips, and he turned to face Glóin with no small amount of vexation, but Thorin pushed past him before he could say a word.

“None. The cave will do for a night.”

Dwalin clenched his fists and focused on breathing for a moment. Glóin eyed him suspiciously, but waved someone in from out of sight. The Company tromped in, one by one, and Dwalin shoved his anger to the back of his mind. He’d have another chance for a ‘private word’ with Thorin sooner or later.

Belda’s entrance, looking somehow more bedraggled and drenched (and looking like a wet kitten between the mostly-unaffected Heirs) than he’d remembered, only strengthened his resolve. But before anything else, he needed to make sure his daughter didn’t freeze to death.


 

Belda

 

The second time she pushed Dwalin, he left; she was glad, truly, but the part of her that was still howling in agony grew a fraction. Mentally, she knew that Dwalin would have stayed if she hadn’t pushed him. Emotionally, she still felt as though she’d been wrung out and tossed to the wayside. Instinctually, she knew that that was it. Her commander had spoken. She had ‘no place’ in the pack. But she’d given her word. No one else had a hope of killing Smaug without heavy casualties, so she would stay. She would stop thinking she could ever be one of them. She would stop hoping for a place in Erebor after everything. She would keep herself apart from the pack, as was right.

‘Always separate, never pack. Bound without chain, chained without bond. So the shunned protector must be.’ They may not have known it, but she was their rándýr-verndari, their predator-protector, or would be in a few months. And she was bound to them. She couldn’t leave them, not now, not until she knew they’d be safe. Even if it killed her.

A motion at the side of her vision startled her into jumping slightly, and Ori caught her arms; warmth bled through her soaked sleeves even as her stomach sank into a frozen pit at the concern in his eyes. “Are you all right? How do you feel?”

’Bin-Baraf.’ The Khuzdûl leapt to her mind as though she’d been born to speak it, and she didn’t realize until his eyes widened that she’d spoken aloud. Shame flooded through her in the next instant as she remembered that he was the one who’d be punished if she let it be known that she knew ‘the Dwarven Tongue’, and she ducked her head as her gut twisted; hot tears sprang forward, erased swiftly in the cold rain, and her gut twisted into knots.

Fíli and Kíli rushed to her a moment later, and she tried her best not to lean into their hands as they spoke over each other.

“Mahal, Belda, you’re freezi—!”

“—on’t listen to Uncle—

“—eed to get you out of the r—”

“—e’s just worried, and when he gets worri—”

“—ed, he gets angry, and when he gets an—”

“—gry, he says things he doesn’t mean, s—”

“—o don’t listen to Uncle, not now—”

“—not when he’s worked up—”

The two of them continued speaking over each other as they herded her towards the path Thorin and Dwalin had taken, but their words blurred into a baffling jumble.

She was shivering hard enough that she could barely think, though not entirely with cold, and she didn’t understand.

They were worried about her? And they were trying to protect her? But she wasn’t pack, Thorin had made that very clear, so why were they acting like nothing had changed?

The three of them were the last to enter the cave, in the end, and the sudden cessation of wind was almost as much of a shock as the smell that assaulted her. Kíli’s arm tightened around her waist, and he shifted his weight closer to her. “What’s wrong?”

Quietly, she answered, fighting the same phantom sensations as when she’d first seen the Trolls with her ponies. “This place reeks of Orc.”

Both of them stiffened, and Fíli hissed, “Tell Thorin!”

Hurt sparking through her, Belda snapped, “And he’ll believe me?”

They both flinched at that, but didn’t argue. If she’d told Thorin about Hobbit senses before then, then maybe he would listen now, but without context, and with the mood he was in, he was more likely to send her straight back to Rivendell if she said a word.

But she couldn’t just act like nothing was wrong. As Dwalin began to make his way toward them, expression dark, Belda muttered, “Don’t go to sleep, don’t let your guard down, and be ready to run; stone wouldn’t hold the scent this well if they weren’t frequent visitors.”

There was more she could’ve said, but then Dwalin moved past Bombur, fully into view, and the only thing she cared about was that she was miserable and his hugs were both amazing and warm. She barely took two steps before he caught her up into his arms, and all the misery the scent of Orc had driven out of her mind rushed back.


 

Dwalin

 

A silent sob wracked Belda, mixed in with trembling that might have been chills, might have been delayed fear, or might have been the anguish from before; Dwalin couldn’t tell, and just adjusted his arms more securely around her. The memory of realizing she’d nearly fallen surged back, and he had to keep himself from holding her tightly enough to hurt; with how fragile Hobbits were, that meant he couldn’t hold her a quarter as securely as he wanted, so he bent his head over hers to try and assuage the part of his heart that was demanding he never let go of her.

Her breath hitched again, and he guessed what she might be thinking. Softly, he murmured into her waterlogged hair, “We’re not Hobbits, kit.”

Immediately, her breath hitched again, and she tightened her arms around him as she nodded fractionally. He doubted that she believed him. It went against everything she knew, and every instinct she had. Between that, what he’d heard and pieced together of her family, and how young she was, he doubted she’d be able to easily believe that they truly wouldn’t abandon her, not for years. So he’d just have to keep telling her until she did believe him.

Fíli and Kíli moved past him to Thorin, and Dwalin pivoted to give them a bit more room as they did. Then he kept pivoting, realizing there was a draft from the entrance and Belda was still shivering. He wound up facing the rest of the cavern, and so saw the incredulous looks from most of the Company, the disquieted looks from Balin and Dori, and the openly relieved looks from Nori, Ori, and Glóin. Thorin caught his eye for an instant, over Fíli’s head, and the ice there sent Dwalin’s blood boiling again. Belda squirmed for a moment, picking up on his emotion somehow, but stilled when he gently shushed her; his eyes never left Thorin’s, and so he saw the flicker of a sneer that crossed his friend’s face.

The solution, as it occurred to him a moment later, was obvious. But he couldn’t do it alone, not with Belda in the state she was in. Nori, Ori, and the Heirs would likely agree to help, if he asked, but he only needed one of them. Not Nori, Belda was still a bit tense around him after the misunderstanding a few days previous; not Ori: they were friends, but Dori seemed intent on matching them up, and Dwalin doubted either of them would thank him for inadvertently encouraging the overbearing Dwarf; that left Fíli or Kíli. Fíli was the obvious choice, but he seriously doubted that Thorin would be willing to let her out of arm’s reach for the rest of the night, after she’d almost been lost to them all.

Kíli. Well, he was big enough, and he certainly cared for Belda enough; anyone with eyes could see that they were smitten, unless that anyone also happened to be a rock-stubborn git of a King. Trouble was, they were young. After Erebor, Dwalin, like most of the survivors, had had other things on his mind, but he’d trained more Striplings than just the Heirs. Children in love were foolish. Boys in love were stupid. But was Kíli enough of a child, enough of a boy, to misbehave when she was in a state such as this?

…Dwalin wasn’t sure. But at least he’d be close at hand the entire time, if Kíli did prove to be a fool.

As Dwalin had thought, Thorin kept a close eye on Fíli when he released her, but Kíli moved toward him and Belda almost immediately. Neither he nor his sister opened their packs, though Fíli set hers down beside her; an arrested movement from ahead caught Dwalin’s eye, and he watched as Nori’s eyes flicked between Fíli, her pack, and the way Kíli’s hand kept twitching toward his sword. The thief’s indecision lasted a heartbeat, perhaps two, then he fastened his pack shut again and settled against the wall, one hand resting within reach of a hidden dagger. Ori pulled his journal out of his jacket, where it had miraculously stayed completely dry, but only glanced at it before stowing it away again, one eye on his older brother.

Kíli stopped a few paces away, eyes on Belda, but clearly at a loss for what to do next. Silently, Dwalin caught his eye and nodded to an empty spot just behind the Prince; catching his meaning, Kíli sat with his back to the wall, a large enough space beside him for someone to join him. As Thorin shot down the idea of a fire, Dwalin had to clench his jaw: on one hand, he agreed that it was a risk, especially as members of the Company not normally known for their paranoia were clearly on edge; on the other hand, Belda had progressed past shivers into full-body trembling, and Hobbits weren’t half as resistant to the cold as Dwarrow.

Carefully, Dwalin adjusted his hold on Belda so that he could scoop up her knees; the position must have been uncomfortable for her, but she didn’t so much as squirm. Satisfied he wouldn’t trod on her feet, Dwalin knelt at Kíli’s side, his back to the entrance. Then he set Belda down on Kíli’s lap.

Kíli shot him a panicked glance even as his arms rose to embrace her, and Belda barely needed any prompting to transfer her hold to the younger Dwarf. Part of it might have been the warmth: Kíli had removed his sodden jacket while Dwalin was repositioning Belda, so there wasn’t as thick of a barrier between them; younger Dwarrow also just tended to run warmer than older, so there was likely a marked difference between he and Dwalin. 

Dwalin didn’t think that was the entire reason, though.

Settling close behind Belda, he gently coaxed all her hair to fall down her back, over Kíli’s arm; he was surprised by the length, though. When her hair was dry, the curls barely covered her shoulder blades. Now that it had been soaked (and thoroughly), and now that there was no immediate danger to distract him, Dwalin was stunned to see that even with a few stray curls keeping it from hanging completely straight, it nearly touched the floor.

Pushing aside his observations, he began to try and comb through it. Kíli hastily smothered a gasp; Belda hissed as Dwalin’s fingers caught on a tangle. Murmuring apologies, Dwalin eased his fingers free and worked more carefully; Hobbit hair was far more difficult than Dwarven hair. With Dwarven hair, the biggest problem was that it was as stubborn as its owner, and at worst, it might be too thick or too thin to hold a proper braid.

Hobbit hair, if Belda’s was an indication, was twice as difficult, confusing, and infuriating as any Dwarves’. It took him three times as long as it would have with a Dwarrowdam to sort out enough of her hair to even begin the braid, and he had to be far more gentle than he was used to. But after longer than he would’ve liked, he sat back and reviewed his work thoughtfully. 

The braid started at her the center of her hairline, then moved straight back to the nape of her neck, before folding back in on itself to make up the majority of the volume. It was messier than he’d wanted, clumsier than one of the others could have done, but it would stay in place and out of her eyes. The style meant that nearly the entire mass was on the top or back of her head, but she tended to sleep on her side anyway, and it would at least be out of the way in a fight, which was largely what he was concerned about. Well, no, that wasn’t true. 

It was what he was largely concerned about after his main objective: proving a point to Thorin. Deliberately, he met his King’s eyes over his daughter’s hair, and saw that Thorin understood exactly what Dwalin was declaring with his display.

Just as deliberately, Dwalin caught Kíli’s eye, gestured to Belda, and put a finger to his lips. It was obvious that Hobbits didn’t place the emphasis on hair that Dwarves did, and Dwalin suspected that she’d see as a friendly gesture, much like Kíli helping to warm her. But Kíli knew, as did Thorin and the rest, that while it was friendly, it meant more than that. That Dwalin had touched her hair at all had meant that he was staking a claim on her. That he’d chosen what had been his favored style as a Stripling had made it clear the sort of claim he was making.

She was his daughter, or as good as, and anyone who wronged her would have him to deal with.

But Belda wouldn’t understand that yet, and he didn’t want to try and explain until they were past the mess Thorin had made. She was dealing with enough as it was; there was no need to pile information on her all at once. It would take months to reach Erebor, and he had no intention of letting anything happen to her. They had time.

Nori smirked at him, then tilted his head slightly to meet Belda’s eyes. “Well, kitten?”

Dwalin opened his mouth, not sure whether he was going to ask what the thief meant or snap at him not to be so familiar with her, but was distracted before he could speak; something flashed through the air from Belda’s other side towards Nori. With a grin, Nori held the object up to the light and made a show of inspecting it; recognizing the shape of his battered whetstone, Dwalin couldn’t help slapping a hand to his pocket and verifying that it was empty.

Nori laughed and tossed it to him. “We’ll make a cat burglar of you yet, lass!”

As Belda’s shaking proved to be previously-silent giggling, Dwalin had to join her and Kíli in their laughter; in the morning, he’d probably have words with Nori about what he was teaching his daughter, but for now, Belda was happy. That was all that mattered.


 

Kíli

 

Kíli couldn’t bring himself to let go of his hilt. Between he and Dwalin, they’d just barely managed to convince Belda to rest, which had turned to dozing almost as soon as she laid down. She was curled up between them, her head pillowed on Dwalin’s leg, her feet pressed against Kíli’s thigh, and the only reason she’d agreed to rest at all was that Kíli had remembered that her sword, like Thorin’s, would glow if Orcs or Goblins came near. Her sword was lying on the ground between his and Dwalin’s knees, within reach of all three of their hands, if the need for it arose.

But she was still tense. He’d seen her asleep sev— er, once or twice, just by accident, he hadn’t been watching her sleep or anything weird like that, but he knew what she looked like when she was actually asleep. And here, now, she was on edge. Not that he could blame her; if the cave stunk as much as she said it did, it probably smelled as though they could be attacked at any moment. But still. He wished she could sleep properly.

Though, if he was wishing, then he also wished that they weren’t in an Orc-cave, that Thorin hadn’t been so harsh earlier, that Gandalf had caught up as quickly as he’d said he would, that they didn’t have months of travel ahead of them, that they didn’t have a dragon ahead of them, and, most of all, that they were all already safe and settled in Erebor. 

Thorin would be ruling, Fíli and Balin beside him; Óin would be Royal Physician, and Glóin would be in the Guard, perhaps, or the army; Bombur would be Head Chef, Bifur and Bofur would be the most in-demand toymakers of the Kingdom; Ori would be a scribe, or perhaps Balin’s apprentice, where he’d be working with Fíli more often than not, while Dori would be… a weaver? Or maybe he enjoyed being a merchant. Either way, he’d be busy enough to give Ori room to be an adult, but he’d have time for his family, all of them would; Nori would be Spymaster, probably, which would drive Dwalin up the wall, since he would obviously be Captain of the Guard.

Kíli smiled, picturing it; Dwalin, in charge of half the Mountain’s fighting-force, recognized as a member of the nobility, and no one would dare insult him. Kíli hated it when he heard people sneering at Dwalin. What did it matter how he spoke or how he acted? He was one of the smartest Dwarves Kíli knew, even if he wasn’t one of the more intelligent, which was still debatable. Fíli and Kíli had learned early: if the problem involves fighting, go to Thorin; if the problem involves the law or protocol or manners, go to Balin; if the problem involves people, go to Dwalin. He had twice the empathy as Thorin and three times the sense as Balin, when it came to dealing with people who weren’t scribes, at least.

But once they reclaimed Erebor, no one would call Dwalin stupid again. Anyone who did would have the Company to deal with, and especially Belda. Kíli’s smile widened; he could picture her clearly, bouncing around the Mountain in Durin beads, bare feet, and dresses like she wore in Rivendell, and with throwing daggers on her. Not gaudy, oversized ones like the Elves had, not ones like Fíli’s, just barely too big for her to use with any real degree of accuracy, but ones sized just for her, with threads of gold in the hilt and an emerald topping each one, to match her eyes, although nothing could match her, not really, uvarovite might come close but it couldn’t have the same depths, and it couldn’t change colors like Belda’s did when she was in the sunlight, and sometimes it seemed like Belda’s eyes changed color with her moods, but they didn’t, really, he’d watched enough to know, and sometimes he just wanted to never look aw—

His breath caught as his thoughts jerked to a halt. If Belda stayed in the Mountain (and if Dwalin had his way, she would), and if she took Dwalin’s bead, became his daughter in law, not just in spirit… 

She’d be as much nobility as he was. She’d be the daughter of one of the most respected Dwarves in Erebor, not to mention a hero in her own right, and wealthy, to boot. She’d be an eligible match for even nobility, even royalty. Even a Prince.

He had to stop himself from looking at her, reminding himself that her father was right there, even if he had seemed to endorse some attachment, at least, having Kíli hold her like that. But if everything went well reclaiming Erebor, if Belda stayed…

He cared for her. He liked her. He’d never really expected anything to come of it, no matter how much he’d hoped something would, because he knew that even for the second Heir of a King, some concessions to politics had to be made. His Amad had gotten a formal promise, in writing, from Thorin that neither of her children would be expected or encouraged to marry for political reasons, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a possibility. They were a Prince and Princess, and Erebor would need allies and trading partners to get back on its feet.

But a hero, scratch that, two heroes of Erebor, who’d gone against the odds and played integral parts in the Quest to reclaim their homeland…

That could work. That could, possibly, actually work. If they were Ones, of course, there wouldn’t be any argument, but that was unlikely. Or it was for him, at least. Dwarrowdams had Ones more often than not, while male Dwarrow, not so much. And they barely knew Ori, so there was a chance.

Maybe there was a chance that Belda was Kíli’s One. He could hope, at least. And even if she wasn’t, ‘the Burglar’ would have more acclaim than ‘one of the Company’. Maybe…

Maybe.

A surprised grunt from Dwalin broke him out of his thoughts, and a glance was all that was needed for him to recognize the dim blue glint in Dwalin’s eye. Biting back swears, he looked to the sword itself for confirmation, and heard Dwalin begin audibly swearing when the light strengthened. Belda’s feet poked into his leg for an instant before she bolted upright, and she grabbed her sword before Kíli’d even thought to call out. In the same instant, Dwalin bellowed a warning in Khuzdûl, deafening in the confined space, and chaos reigned for a few precious seconds as the entire Company, with the exceptions of Thorin, Fíli and Nori, flailed about, trying to figure out what was happening.

More than a few of them demanded answers, in Khuzdûl, for the alarm; wordlessly, Belda held out her brightly-glowing blade, and a couple of the Company drew their own weapons. Kíli began to follow suit, but Belda touched his arm lightly and he stilled, looking to her; her eyes were fixed on the floor, and suddenly widened. “Put your weapons away!”

She sheathed her sword as she shouted; something in her voice, something as commanding as even Thorin could be, made Kíli release his hilt immediately, even as he looked down and saw a crack forming in the sand; the only sound for a moment was that of weapons being replaced in their proper places; Thorin got out a single syllable of a snarl.

Then the floor dropped out from under them, literally.

Kíli was standing close enough to Belda that he managed to grab hold of her in the few seconds they were in free-fall, and so he took most of the impact when they collided with stone. It jarred him nearly enough to make him let go, but he held on, and felt her grab onto him, as well. But it wasn’t just the one fall. The next, a few seconds later, did dislodge them, and he quickly lost all sense of where she was, or even of which way was up as they were tossed about. By the time they fell into a rough-made half-cage, he was completely disoriented, and barely had an instant to see that he’d landed near Fíli before the rest of the Company plummeted down, culminating with Belda tumbling atop Bombur.

Fighting to stand, Kíli just had time to thank Mahal she’d had a relatively soft landing (unlike he and Fíli, on hard stone) before the Company on the other side of the pile began to shout warnings. 

Goblins swarmed over them, as foul as he’d ever imagined them, but their grasping, clawing motions halted after only a moment, replaced by screeching as they backed away for an instant. Only an instant.

Their attack redoubled while Kíli tried to get room to draw his sword, but they didn’t attack the Dwarves nearer the front, only scrambled over them, still screeching, to instead fall upon Bombur—

No, Belda—

‘But why—

She shrieked as they dragged her away from the Dwarves—

‘No, not her—

Some of the Goblins, about as many as were holding Belda, resumed their assault of the Company—

‘She’s only a Hobbit, they’ll tear her apart—

Howls came from ahead as Belda fought against the creatures; she drew her sword—

‘Have to get to her—

More Goblins surged into the fight, successfully overpowering the Company—

‘Have to save—

Kíli could barely see anything, with all the Goblins holding him, but he saw Belda strike down three Goblins in a single blow—

‘Too many—

More Goblins replaced them, and tackled her, driving her back toward the edge of the platform—

‘NO—

She fell.

Chapter Text

Nori had thought that Kíli’s howl as the giant swept past had been the most agonized thing she’d ever heard from someone who wasn’t actually dying. Maybe that’d been true.

Dwalin’s wail, now, put it to shame. Kíli’d sounded as though someone had ripped his heart out. Dwalin sounded as though someone had ripped him in half. Just listening to it made Nori feel as though her heart were being ripped out, and it didn’t even have anything to do with the fact that Dwalin was her One. It was a sound of pure agony, such that even the Goblins faltered for an instant.

But they rallied quickly, and progress resumed, despite Kíli. He was silent, not so much as a pained grunt leaving him, but Nori had never seen him fight so viciously. Even with what seemed to be half the army of Goblins restraining him, he still slowed their progress single-handedly. But once or twice, Nori caught sight of his face. All the agony in Dwalin’s voice was on Kíli’s face, coupled with a rage as fearsome as his Uncle’s.

It was funny. Kíli was silent, but fighting. Dwalin was keening, but not struggling in the slightest. Most of the Company was somewhere in between, though Ori’s struggles were half-hearted at best. And Nori…

She couldn’t. She couldn’t let herself think, couldn’t let herself feel. Emotion was a hazard in her line of work, and she’d long since learned to shove it away until she was in a position to process without getting herself killed. Even so, grief threatened to overwhelm her if she so much as remembered Belda’s smile from a few hours earlier, let alone how fond she’d grown of the kitten-burg—

She couldn’t. If she went down that path, she’d be useless. She couldn’t think of Belda, couldn’t think of anything but keeping her head.

In a way, she was glad she’d recognized Dwalin days earlier. If there had been anyone she would’ve expected least to be her One, it was the Guard-Captain who’d made her life so difficult. But then again, half the fun of thieving, anymore, was finding new ways to drive him up the wall. But in nearly a century of… acquaintance, he’d always just been Dwalin: the Guard, then Dwalin: the Captain, then Dwalin: the bane of her existence. She never in a lifetime would’ve expected him to be capable of the sort of gentle affection she’d seen him show Belda. But he had, and she’d seen, and the realization had settled over her like a shadow: he was her One.

She’d had to hide it immediately, using the days afterward to come to terms with it, and with her decision not to tell him. At least, not yet. Maybe after everything, but not yet. They had more pressing problems. But if she hadn’t realized then, if it had been him braiding Belda’s hair that nudged her into seeing it, she would have been still reeling when the floor dropped out, still useless now.

But progress gradually sped as Kíli slowly began to run out of steam— or she hoped that was why; the thought that wounds were impairing him rather than fatigue was almost too much to bear. But all too soon, the pathway opened up into a huge cavern, nearly big enough to be the hollow innards of the mountain, and every bit of visible space was crammed with Goblins. Horrible, discordant music began pouring from a platform above them, and the Goblins surrounding them began to sing as tunelessly as their fellows played. Nori blocked them out as best she could, doing her best to scan the space for exits, hiding places, anything they could use. She was aware that it was almost impossibly futile to try and escape, assuming they could even get away from their guards, but scheming helped her push away flashes of blood-flecked brassy hair, sightless green eyes, too-still hands that would never move again.

The Company was herded onto a relatively-small platform, dominated by a grotesquely obese Goblin, and one far taller and broader than most of their kind, at that. Dwalin and Kíli, now both still and silent, were restrained at the front of the group, but the rest of them were simply shoved together and left unbound, ringed by Goblins. Nori was off to the side, but she could see Kíli, Dwalin, and their guards from where she stood, which meant that she could see the way the Goblins holding them were visibly trembling.

Once the song was finished, the lead Goblin (who, Nori now realized, was wearing a makeshift crown) scowled down at the two Dwarves being presented to him. “What’s this, then?”

One of the Goblins holding Dwalin, a pointy-faced imp that stood a little under Nori’s height, spoke up, voice thin and shaking. “Dwarves, Your Malevolence; they had something with them, something—” It broke off with a wracking shudder. “Something horrible, deadly-deathly and cold. It killed three of us and fell out of sight, but these two were near it latterly, the pair of them.”

Nori exchanged glances with Balin and Dori; what was ‘it’? Maybe Belda’s letter opener? It was made by Elves, after all; maybe the Goblins knew it.

Grunting suspiciously, the king-Goblin stepped heavily forward and bent over Dwalin and Kíli, sniffing obnoxiously. Thorin and Fíli shouted, but barely a moment later, the king-Goblin stumbled back, face bloodless. “The Eater!” The Goblins shook; a few, too close to him for some reason, were sent flying off the side of the platform as he flailed his way back to the throne behind him. “Send scouts! Send guards! Get it out of the mountain and kill anything with it!”

A horde of Goblins rushed to obey, screeching in terror until long after they were out of sight. King-Goblin glared darkly at the Company, but his breath was quick and his hands trembled. “Who would dare come so armed into my kingdom?! Spies? Thieves?! Assassins?!”

His voice had climbed higher as he exclaimed, and the same Goblin as before, the pointy one, was quick to speak. “Dwarves, Your Malevolence. We found them on the front porch!”

Paling further, king-Goblin gestured wildly to the Company. “Well, don’t just stand there! Search them! Who knows what else they’ve brought!”

The Goblins set on them with a mania born of desperate terror, and after far longer than Nori would have tolerated if her brothers hadn’t been at risk, as well, they began going through the packs, including—

Picking up a particularly nice candelabra from the scattered contents of Nori’s pack, pointy-Goblin shrieked, “Elves! They’re working with Elves!”

King-Goblin growled something, but all Nori could focus on was the scathing glare Dori was sending her. Defensively, she feigned nonchalance; the candelabra, admittedly, had been a purely mercenary acquisition, but the cutlery and such had been so she could use it to teach Belda to pick pockets (both lifting and planting objects). Resisting the urge to cower, she shrugged faintly. “Just a couple of keepsakes.”

“What are you doing here?!” 

Óin pushed ahead of Thorin, which led to one of the most ludicrous exchanges Nori had ever heard, and she distracted herself again by looking for exits. There was a narrow bridge off to the side of the platform, but if it connected, she couldn’t see how. Otherwise, there was only the path behind them. Without a miracle, Nori couldn’t see any way for them to escape unscathed. 

“SHUT UP!” As far as Nori could see, only the Goblins still holding Kíli and Dwalin were unaffected by the bellow; the others all cringed back, and Bofur finally fell silent. “If they will not talk, we’ll make them squawk.” King-Goblin glowered at them; it wouldn’t have been half as intimidating as one of Thorin’s, except for the fact that Nori had no doubt that Thorin would never harm a single member of the Company. She also had no doubt that this foul excuse for a ruler would gleefully gut any of them. He raised his voice suddenly, and the surrounding Goblins cheered. “Bring up the Mangler! Bring up the Bonebreaker! Start with the youngest!”

Nori stiffened, her eyes flicking to Kíli against her will, but an instant later, she caught something out of the corner of her eye: Ori. He’d gasped silently, but exaggeratedly all the same, and king-Goblin pointed at him with unholy relish. “That one.”

“Wait!” Silence fell over the cavern, and Dwarves and Goblins alike edged out of the way so Thorin could move to the front of the group. The Company’s reaction, Nori had expected, but that the Goblins would also respond to the authority in his voice was surprising, and put Nori in mind of Belda’s shout just before they fell. She’d never spoken to any of them like that before, but somehow Nori had found herself sheathing her dagger before she’d even known what she was doing. She still didn’t understand why, but there was a good chance Belda had saved their lives, however she’d done it; if any of them had had their blades out, there was no telling what could have happened in the fall, who could’ve been hurt.

Nori had to tear her mind away from thoughts of her— of Belda, (just Belda, now), before her emotions got the better of her.

King-Goblin stilled, staring at Thorin as he came to a stop between Dwalin and Kíli. “Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thrór, would-be-king under the dragon-claimed-mountain. Is that why you would stoop to this? You must be desperate to use The Eater. Of course, without a crown or a mountain, you’re nobody, aren’t you? Of course you’re desperate. Nobody and nothing, except a bounty.” Sneering, he turned to a minuscule Goblin atop some sort of basket, and it wrote rapidly as he spoke. “Send word to the Pale Orc. Tell him I have found his prize, I expect payment in full, and I have little patience to spare for prisoners.”

The Goblin sped off on a zip line (Nori tucked the idea away; Goblins were beyond foul, but she couldn’t deny they were clever) while Thorin growled out, “Azog the Defiler is dead. He was slain in battle long ago!”

King-Goblin leveled a twisted smirk at Thorin. “So you think his defiling days are done?” He chuckled, quietly at first, building to a hearty cackle, to which the Goblins were only too happy to join. “Music! I feel a song coming on!”

Ignoring the ensuing cacophony as best she could, Nori edged close enough to Ori to speak without anyone hearing her but him. “Good job, Naddith. Very clever.” He started, then flushed; she continued without giving him a chance to respond. “Do anything that risky again and Dori won’t be the only one thinking of sending you home. Understand?”

Turning just enough to meet her eyes soberly, he gave a tiny nod; she searched his face carefully for any hurt or resentment, but was glad to find none. Dori treated him like a child, even now, and she knew how stifling it was, but she was the last person Dori would ever listen to, especially when it concerned Ori. Because of that, she tried to do her best to give him some freedom when she could, hence why she’d distracted Dori when he’d been teaching him and Belda to dance; where in Mahal’s name Dori had gotten the idea that Belda and Ori would suit, or that either of them was remotely interested in the other, she truly had no idea.

But no matter how much she sympathized with Ori, she wasn’t about to let him get himself killed. Taking risks was her job. Raising Ori was Dori’s. Making something more of himself than a disowned Durin or a thief’s brother, that was Ori’s job.

He was the only one of them who even had a chance at it.

While king-Goblin sang and pranced about, pointy-Goblin was inspecting the weapons and such that’d been scattered about the platform; partially unsheathing Thorin’s sword, it tossed it away with a grating screech, and all the other Goblins on the platform, including king-Goblin, cringed back from the blade.

“I know that sword!” King-Goblin pointed a shaking finger at the weapon.“It is the Goblin-Cleaver! The Biter!” The Goblins surrounding the Company fell on them with whips and claws alike, but the king-Goblin’s voice, high and thin and shrill, still broke through the pain. “The blade that sliced a thousand necks! Slash them! Beat them! Kill them! Kill them all!”

They were certainly doing their level best, and Nori, focused more on keeping them away from Ori than defending herself, already knew that she’d have to hide more than her fair share of bruises, if they got out alive.

The Goblins drove her back, and back, until she and Dori were shoulder to shoulder, Ori behind them. They weren’t in sync, both of them used to fighting alone, she with her knives and he with his sword, and they threw each other off more often than not as the Goblins swarmed forward. She was just about to tell him to take Ori and go, in fact, when something like an explosion of silence burst over them and she knew no more.


 

Dwalin

 

Dwalin roused himself as quickly as he could, which wasn’t saying much; whatever had happened, it’d knocked him off his feet and the sense out of his head.

Still, he almost preferred it; for a few blissful seconds, he’d been too dazed to remember watching his daughter die.

The memory rushed back with all the serenity of a typhoon, and he didn’t need Tharkûn’s prompt to push up and fight. His axes were across the platform, so he just launched Goblins off the edge until he was able to reach his weapons. Grasper and Keeper in hand, he threw himself into battle. His mind was roaring all the while, howling and screaming until he couldn’t hear anything but Belda’s scream, vision tunneling until all that mattered were the Goblins ahead of him, each one virtually identical to the ones that had dragged Belda away from the Company, attacked her, forced her back until she fell.

He barely registered the Company filing back, barely heard the wizard’s yell, only followed the Company because Nori (of all people) yanked on his arm until he was facing the right direction and then shoved him forward.

He followed unthinking at first, then sped to the front of the line, where all the Goblins would be. Nori was at his back all the while (the part of Dwalin’s mind that wondered why the thief was helping him was quickly silenced, as it really didn’t matter), and Dwalin focused on finding as many ways as possible to send as many Goblins as possible off the platforms, to plummet just as Belda had. 

How long they fought and how long they ran, Dwalin didn’t know. He measured the time in number of Goblins killed, and the answer never changed: not enough, never enough, not enough. At one point, the largest Goblin appeared, only to be slain by Gandalf, and the Company plummeted. Somehow, they survived, and Dwalin found himself beside Kíli again. The sight of him sent a shard of ice through Dwalin’s heart, remembering that only a few hours before—

He shoved away from the Prince and to his feet, and pulled Nori out of the wrecked bridge to distract himself from the memories; half-dazed as the thief was, and with his hair coming loose, there was something off about his face, but Dwalin shoved that aside too, to be thought of later, if there was a later.

They ran on, and on and on, until Dwalin’s legs felt as though they’d fall apart, and then they kept running. Finally, a glint of daylight beckoned, on the far side of what almost seemed to be a guardroom, based on the racks of weapons on the walls. And also in the room were the guards. Five Goblins lay dead on the ground: one at the entrance of the room with his throat cut open; another just past that’d been hobbled before the artery in his arm had been slashed; two of them, tangled together as though they’d been fighting, had their throats cut twice as deeply as the first; and one laying on his back with a single stab through his heart, though he was covered with scratches of the sort that adorned the fighting pair. All five were undoubtedly dead, yet the wounds closest to the floor were still seeping black blood; they’d been dead hours at most, potentially as little as minutes.

They didn’t have time to check, of course; with Goblins close behind them, they barely had time to pick their way around the corpses before bursting into the red-tinged daylight. Gravity, more than anything else, kept Dwalin moving downhill with the Company, only really coming to a stop when the land leveled out into a small clearing; as he stopped, sound began to creep back into his awareness, and he realized that the wizard was counting them, as though they were children to be minded, as young as—

“Where’s Belda?” For once, the wizard sounded as old as he looked, but that didn’t stop a wave of fire beginning to grow in Dwalin’s chest (and behind his eyes). “Where’s our Hobbit?”

“‘Our Hobbit’?” Dwalin barely knew he was moving, but found himself standing before Gandalf somehow, breath harsh and rattling in his chest. “‘Our’? You’ve no more claim to her than her kalfâ family—”

“Dwalin.” Dwalin ignored Balin’s voice easily, all his focus on the wizard.

“—you ran off and left her, and then you call her yours?!”

Dwalin.”

Gandalf sighed sorrowfully, “Master Dwalin—”

“She was not YOURS!” Gandalf’s flinch back was the only reason Dwalin knew he was shouting; everything was getting strangely muffled. “She wasn’t yours, she was ours, she was— she was mine, she—” Pressure built in Dwalin’s chest and forced a sob out; he fought not to collapse there and then as his throat closed up. ‘She was mine to protect, mine to guard, and I— I fai—’

“DWALIN!”

This time, Balin’s shout was accompanied by a hand on his arm, yanking him around to look down the slope; vision blurred, it took Dwalin a long moment to realize there was movement in the shadows, something red and brown and green and gold and flecked and streaked with black and running—

Chapter Text

Belda stirred slowly; she ached all over, but especially her hip and back. As she tried to move, pain stung at her from her arms and shoulders, and her heart sped as she recognized the feeling of claw-scratches; but the cave was as different from the snow-covered Shire as could be: small, damp, dark, and for some reason, she was covered in mushrooms. The dark wasn’t as dark as she thought it should’ve been, though; at nearly the same moment she realized that, she noticed that her headache was completely gone for the first time in weeks.

‘Oh, bloody—’ She barely kept from slapping herself for being a fool of a Took. Night vision! Hobbits, as a general rule, could see no better than Men in the dark, though far better in daylight, but that was in Hobbit-form. It wasn’t unheard of (though far more common during the Wandering Days) for some aspects of a Hobbit’s soul-form to carry over to the Hobbit-form. It only happened in times of stress, famine, or danger, and it only happened if those times occurred just before and/or during a Hobbit’s First Shift, but it could happen. Her Mum had been adventurous enough that she’d developed night vision, as well; with that in mind, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising that Belda would, but the possibility hadn’t even occurred to her.

An icy knot formed in her gut. What if she developed something more than night vision? Nowadays, a Hobbit only had one extra-Hobbit trait, if that, but during the Wandering Days, it hadn’t been unusual to have two, and three or four weren’t unheard of, either. Night vision, she could explain away, but what if she developed claws, or fangs, or wings?! She’d never be able to explain it without giving away all her race’s secrets, not to mention losing all the trust she’d earned from the Company.

Her heart stopped for a moment as she remembered. She’d already lost the Company’s trust. Thorin had completely rejected her.

Granted, Dwalin, Kíli, and (to a lesser degree) Ori, Fíli, and Nori had all treated her as though nothing had changed, and Dwalin had specifically reminded her that they weren’t Hobbits, but what if he’d been talking about something else? What if he was wrong?

Now that she remembered the Giants and the cave, she remembered falling. It was only flashes (maybe she’d remember more later, but flashes were enough for now, and so she didn’t try and remember), but she remembered Kíli grabbing her, losing her grip on him, they’d fallen, she’d landed on someone, but hadn’t had time to see who before the Goblins pulled her away, she’d fought, she’d killed three, then they’d swarmed forward until she’d tipped over the edge. A couple had nearly followed her, but their fellows had grabbed hold of them before they could.

Wincing through the pain, she shook off the mushrooms covering her and scanned her surroundings more carefully; there were a few more mushrooms on the walls, there was no ceiling that she could see, and her sword was nowhere in sight. 

It felt as though a hand clenched around her heart at the last realization, and for a moment, all she could think of was Goblins and Giants and Trolls and the fact that she. didn’t. have. a weapon. 

Breath quick and shallow and making her a little dizzy, she scanned the room again, and again, and felt a weight slip off her chest to see her little sword lying on the other side of the room, out of reach, but at least in sight.

She was about to stand and grab it, in fact, when a low, familiar sound pulled the breath from her lungs and all thoughts of motion from her head. Growling, animal growling, wolfish grow— Clenching her jaw, she blinked away the slight blur that’d begun to form. ‘It’s a cave in a Goblin mountain, it can’t be a wolf.’ But imagining what it could be kept her frozen as the noise grew louder, even as the draconic part of her mind screamed more and more loudly that she should be hiding, attacking, running, anything that would keep her from being a sitting duck.

A hand came into view first, grey-pale and nearly skeletal, and the discrepancy between her imagination and the reality was enough to keep her still, though she caught her breath at last. A head came into view next, Hobbit-sized, but with almost Goblin-y proportions, but the too-large eyes glowed silver in the dark as only Hobbit night-eyes could. It, or perhaps he, was nearly bald, and she saw as he came further into view that all of him was as skeletal and sun-starved as his hand. The sound she’d heard proved to be his breathing, confirmed when his eyes met hers and he completely froze.

For a rapid heartbeat, two, three, they only stared at each other; too late, she realized there was a slight draft from the opening above her, that would inevitably lead straight… toward…

The Hob-Goblin gave a raspy, piercing battle-cry and galloped forward on all fours until he was close enough to pounce. His hands were aimed for her throat, but she gave as little thought to that as she had to his gait, waiting until just the right instant before she kicked out with both legs, a powerful enough blow that he was sent flying back against the wall to the side of the entrance he’d used. She didn’t wait to see if he got up; heart pounding, she scrambled for her sword, half-crawling, half-dragging herself in that direction, but—

Weight suddenly slammed on her back; cold, clammy hands wrapped around her throat even as teeth clamped down onto her ear. A shriek ripped from her throat at the last, but the sound was strangled, as she was; desperate, she took her hands off of his and instead dragged herself forward, feeling for her sword. His hands were like vices, and stronger than she’d thought; she couldn’t breathe in the slightest. Vision tunneling, pulse pounding in her ears, she couldn’t find the sword, she couldn’t fight him off, she was going to d—

Pain in her left hand jolted her out of her thoughts, and she groped blindly in the same direction for an interminable second before she found the hilt; blindly, she slashed backwards.

Her hip and thigh blazed as she sliced herself unintentionally, but the Hob-Goblin screeched and released her, so she didn’t care. She still couldn’t see properly, but she could hear, and she could smell, and she tracked him that way, slashing her sword around whenever he tried to move to the side, and so backed him into a wall; by then, her vision was clear enough, though not yet normal, and she held her blade carefully to his throat. He stilled, and she pinned him down before he could slither away again, her knees on his legs, her free hand holding down his, and when he struggled, she put just a bit more pressure into the sword, just enough to break his skin.

He froze, apart from hyperventilating, and glared hatefully at her. Still catching her breath, she glared right back. But after a moment of silence, his eyes changed, pupils dilating enormously, and naked fear entered his scent. “What is it, precious? What is it? Doesn’t smell little, doesn’t look deadly!”

Frowning, she nearly answered him, but before she could, his eyes changed again, back to the pin-pupils they’d been before, and hatred replaced the fear in his scent. “Don’t know, precious, but it’s more than it looks.”

The fear-scent took over again, but she didn’t listen, too focused on his scent. The way it kept changing was strange, as was the way he seemed to be arguing with himself, but mostly, she was preoccupied with the fact that he didn’t smell like anything in particular. To look at him, she’d have thought he was something similar to a Hobbit, or a Goblin, but he didn’t smell anything like a Goblin (not to mention that her sword wasn’t glowing in the slightest), but though his scent was overall something like a Hobbit’s, he had no prey- or predator-scent. She didn’t think he had a soul-form at all, if he was some sort of Hobbit.

But beyond that, he smelled like fish, like stone and water and faintly of Goblins. By and large, like the cave… but there was nothing of outdoors in his scent, no grass, no birds, not even rain. She narrowed her eyes at him. “You live down here—” She meant to make it a question, but speaking hurt more than she’d expected, and she’d had to cut her rasp short. But he didn’t respond. “Answer!”

The fear-scent was in control, and cringed back. “Yes, yesyes, it hurts, precious, it hurts!”

For a moment, she thought the latter was part of his answer, before she realized that she was putting more weight into the blade at his throat than she’d meant to. Hurriedly, she drew it back a scant fraction— not enough to remove the threat, but enough that she wasn’t actually deepening the cut. It took an instant, perhaps two, but the hate-scent returned while she was looking down, and she had to hold his eyes for a moment to be sure he wasn’t going to try and get away. Satisfied, she rasped, “You know the way out.”

His brow furrowed as the fear-scent took hold again. “Out?”

He shaped the word as though it was foreign, but there was no deceit in his scent, only confusion. “Out of the mount—” A harsh, excruciating cough interrupted her, and it was a few moments before she could try again; he squirmed, but a bit of pressure with the sword and he fell still. “The sunlight, where’s the sunlight?”

Immediately, he squirmed again, but he wasn’t trying to buck her off; if anything, he seemed to be trying to get away through solid stone. “We hates the sun—”

Growling lowly, she leaned into his hands against the stone for a moment to punctuate her words. “I don’t care if you like it, do you know where it is?”

He cried out at the pain, but then fell into whimpers and sniffles, that then faded away as the hate-scent strengthened. “…Why?”

She’d heard that tone a thousand times from Otho when he was trying to be clever, but she could safely say that it had never brought a smile to her face before. “You do. Good. You’re going to take me there.”

The fear-scent snapped back into place, and he squirmed futilely back again. “No, precious, mustn’t go there! Goblinses there!”

She’d already lost her smile, and now put pressure on his hands again. “I. don’t. care.”

Whimpering, he kept squirming; she rolled her eyes. “No, no, can’t g—” A tiny bit of weight behind the blade was all she needed to pierce his skin, a thin, small cut above the one she’d made before, and he fell abruptly still, apart from ragged breathing.

Coldly, she held his eyes. “Take me there, or I’ll kill you.”

The hate-scent returned, and he sneered at her. “If it kills us, it won’t know where to go. It’ll be lost.”

He thought he’d won, she could hear it, but she didn’t let it faze her. “Which is no different than if you refuse to help me, so I lose nothing by killing you.” Imagining being jumped again, this time with no chance to fight back before he killed her, she mused aloud, “And I gain enough to make it worth my while.” Safety was an excellent motivator, after all. Cocking her head slightly, she wondered when the last time was that he’d encountered anything more dangerous than a lone Goblin, which was to say, not dangerous at all. That in mind, she promised, “Lead me to the exit, and I won’t kill you.”

Hate-scent still overpowering, he looked at her through slitted eyes, a cold smile playing on his lips; it was a look she knew well, and a thousand memories of her Mum didn’t improve her mood in the slightest. “We can do that, can’t we, prec—“

Cutting him a little deeper to shut him up, she tightened her grip on his hands. “Try and escape, I kill you. Fight me at all, I kill you. Betray me by giving away where we are, I kill you. Understand?”

He deflated, but the hate-scent didn’t fade; sullenly, he glared at her. “Yes, precious, we understands.”

Keeping a careful eye (and nose) for any sign of deceit, she waited until she was sure he appreciated the threat before nodding. “Good. Walk in front of me, stay within five paces of me. Any further, I’ll assume you’re trying to escape. And what happens then?”

Still sullen, he sneered. “You’ll kill us.”

Tail lashing at the skeptic tone, she bared her teeth as she cut just a little deeper. “Yes, I will.” He swallowed thickly, fear underlying the hate-scent without taking control. Satisfied, she eased back a fraction. “I’m going to let you go slowly. Make any sudden moves, I’ll kill you.”

Raising her brows, she only needed to wait for a moment before he growled. “We understands.”

Moving at a snail’s pace, she drew back from him, keeping her sword at his throat until the last moment, then only moving it far enough away to level the point at his chest. He watched her all the while, fear- and hate- scents swapping back and forth, never losing the wary look in his fluctuating eyes. She nodded for him to stand once she was a bit away, then for him to move ahead of her once he was on his feet. 

He muttered under his breath all the while, a litany of complaints and accusations about her (and sometimes himself), whining excuses and ‘woe-is-me’s as often as he vowed vengeance on her. She didn’t bother to stop him. At first her throat was too sore, burning as though he’d clawed it open rather than only restricting her air. The pain didn’t fade, exactly, but it dulled as the hours went by, and by the time she felt like she could speak without too much difficulty, she was used to his ramblings and didn’t pay them much heed.

He never tried to escape, surprisingly, though he often thought out loud about it. The closest he came was ducking around a corner faster than she could follow, but giving him a pointed look and a new cut was all she needed to remind him of the consequences. Time only made her injuries ache more, though she bound the cuts on her leg as best she could without moving her sword away from him; she’d still had her pack when she fell, and the Elves had supplied a change of clothes in her size, which proved to make decent bandages. She felt a little bad about ripping the shirt up, but while the cuts were shallow, they were wide, too wide to stop bleeding on their own while she was on the move. 

She took note of her injuries as best she could to while the hours away. The two cuts, on her left outside hip and thigh; aches in her back and on the other hip that she couldn’t see, but suspected would bruise magnificently; claw-scratches on her shoulders and upper arms, some shallow, some deeper, but none deep enough to hinder her; she’d cut the outside edge of her left hand on her sword when he was choking her, from the base of her pinky nearly to her wrist; her throat was on fire, of course, and she could barely touch it without having to bite back a whimper; and he’d bitten her ear.

She couldn’t tell how badly he’d bitten it, couldn’t tell how badly she was wounded, only that she was bleeding. Anything else would mean feeling the wound, and she couldn’t bear to do that. Hobbits’ reliance on hiding as their main form of defense meant that more often than not, their survival hinged on being able to hear potential threats coming long before they were in sight. Their ears were as important as their feet and eyes, more important than their hands, more important than nearly anything. Which meant that it was that much more important that they be able to feel if something was wrong with them, which meant that aside from their eyes and fingertips, their ears were the most sensitive parts of their bodies, as far as pain went.

She’d read through Bag-End’s entire library over the years, including a few medical texts that hadn’t, strictly speaking, been appropriate for a tween, which was how she knew that ears were only almost the most sensitive area with things other than pain, though they were close, but her ear hurt too much to even think of anything like that.

She didn’t know if she’d ever think of anything like that again. If she’d live long enough.

If she’d see Kíli again. 

She’d never thought about marriage, not seriously. She’d still been young enough to have no interest in boys when the Fell Winter came, and afterwards… well, she hadn’t thought of her future at all for nearly three years, and by then she’d been ‘Mad Baggins’ and no one in Hobbiton would’ve touched her even if she would have them. And she wouldn’t. All the men in Hobbiton were as beastly as prey could be.

But Kíli was her friend, as much as Fíli and Ori were. He was kind, funny, more intelligent than he let on… She cared for him, she truly did. Even if he’d looked like Glóin, she’d have been drawn to him, but, well. She wasn’t about to complain about his looks. 

He was a good friend, and she would want to have him in her life in any case, but she’d be lying to herself to think she wasn’t attracted to him. Maybe after everything was over…

Of course, maybe they’d go their separate ways after everything. Maybe he would find a nice Dwarf woman and she would find a good predator-Hobbit. Maybe she wouldn’t find anyone. But maybe…

Maybe.

And that wasn’t even taking Dwalin into account. She felt as safe with him as she did with Kíli, and as safe with the pair of them as she had with her Da. (She felt as safe with Fíli and Ori as she had with her Mum; safe, but with a quiet awareness that it likely wouldn’t last long that she tried to ignore.)

But Dwalin… she didn’t feel about him like she did about Kíli, or about the rest of the Company. She’d told Balin the truth, when he’d interrogated her as they left Rivendell. She respected Dwalin, liked him, but that conversation had been before everything with Nori. Now… 

Now she didn’t know if she could bear never to see him again. It had been so long since anyone had cared for her like he did, held her as she cried, smiled proudly at her after training sessions, listened to her. She hadn’t had a real family in over a decade. She was a little scared to admit (even to herself) how much she wanted him to be her family, how much she wished he’d been the one she’d found after she was injured, instead of the Sackville-Bagginses.

She was scared to lose him, as she knew she would, if he ever found out what she was. She would lose all the Company if they found out, of course, and she was almost as scared to lose Kíli, but… she’d never had a… a crush, or a sweetheart, or whatever he was to her, which she still hadn’t quite figured out. She’d gotten by without one for thirty-two years. It would hurt to lose him, but she’d survive.

But she’d watched her family die. She’d lost them. And it had almost killed her. Losing Dwalin, now that she knew what it was like to be without a family, a real family, was too horrible to think about. The smart thing to do would be to distance herself now, before she could get hurt even more, but she was too selfish. She couldn’t bear to push him away, to be alone again. If he found out, if he left her, then at least she’d be able to run. At least she wouldn’t have to see the fear and disgust and hatred in his eyes that she’d grown used to from her ‘family’. To push him away now, when she had no choice but to see him every day until she killed Smaug, would take more strength than she had.

Unless she left anyway. The thought took her off-guard, sounding far more like her Mum than her Da, but she had to consider it. All that bound her to the Company was a piece of paper. She could go back to Rivendell and no one would be the wiser.

She could save herself. What did it matter what happened to them?

Her eyes burned as a memory returned: she’d been fifteen, perhaps sixteen, and her Mum had taken her out for an afternoon. After playing for a few hours, she’d asked her Mum how she could bear to leave so often, only home for a few weeks at a time before leaving for months, and her Mum had met her eyes steadily, smiling. And she’d told her that Bungo was her pack, but that she loved the wild too much to stay in the Shire. And she’d told her that a fox’s first priority, no matter what, always had to be herself.

Her Mum had only broken that rule once, when the wolves had caught Bungo. She’d died trying to save him.

But she wasn’t her mother. She was a fox, but she was a dragon. One thing she could say with any degree of certainty about herself was that she needed pack. She wasn’t her Mum, she couldn’t go weeks or months without seeing them. She’d gone years without a pack, and she couldn’t do that again. She couldn’t bear it.

She couldn’t live with herself if she abandoned them.

Resolve eased the tears away. She would keep her word. She’d stay with the Company, even if Thorin still didn’t want her there, even if Dwalin and Kíli decided they didn’t either. She’d travel with them to Erebor, and she’d kill Smaug, and then, if she still wasn’t wanted, then she’d leave. But only then.

By the time the Hob-Goblin slowed, her feet ached nearly as much as her throat; she could see more clearly in the dim light than she thought she ever had before, but even so, she often failed to see an obstacle until she’d already walked into it. It was only to be expected, of course; her eyes must have begun changing not long after Kíli’s birthday, and they wouldn’t be completely changed until her own. Two weeks wasn’t long at all, compared with eleven. But how much would they change, she wondered. The Hob-Goblin, whatever he was, whatever he’d used to be, moved as surely as though they were in broad daylight. Would she be able to see so well? She didn’t think her Mum could have, but then, her mother had never been (or at least never told Belda of being) in a situation as dangerous as the Quest was proving to be; she’d also been a full fox, not a fox-dragon. 

But by the time her feet felt liable to drop off at any moment, he slowed, and turned to her with a finger to his lips. Cautiously, she crept up beside him, keeping her blade angled toward him all the while. Following his pointing finger, she saw several Goblins moving about a room, daylight glinting from the far end. “Told it, didn’t we, precious, we told it there was Goblinses, but it wouldn’t listen to us.”

Ignoring his mutters, she watched carefully; she counted four Goblins, but the way they moved around the room seemed to suggest more out of sight. One, perhaps two; she couldn’t hear them clearly, but she certainly couldn’t hear more than six of them.

“Please, precious, it must let us go back, back away from the Goblinses!”

Six. She’d killed three, on the bridge, before she’d fallen, and that had been with dozens more clawing at her, distracting her.

“Or it must let us fight. We loves to kill Goblinses, doesn’t we, precious?”

Without distractions, if she could control the fight, keep them from swarming her, three would be easy, and another three would be no more difficult.

“Yes, precious, loves to eats them up, if they’ve flesh on them ‘stead of just bones!”

Without distractions. But he would distract her, assuming he didn’t sabotage her. The only trust she had from him was trust that she would keep her word, after all. He had no reason not to kill her. He had several reasons to do just that.

“Too long since we had flesh, precious. Soft, juicy, crunchable flesh. We’re hungry, aren’t we, precious?”

He was a distraction at best, a threat at worst. She couldn’t trust him to leave without trying some mischief. She had to get rid of him.

“Hungry, yes, so long since we had anything but f—”

“We’re going back.” She spoke as quietly as he had, but he turned immediately, nearly bouncing; the fear-scent was still strong, but she knew how quickly that could change. She let him lead the way for a minute or so, then called out as they passed a small, craggy cavern. “Stop. In here.”

Hate-scent taking hold again, he narrowed his eyes at her, but complied. Once they were in, she tightened her grip on the hilt; he was quick and strong, and any hesitation would give him the chance to finish what he’d started earlier. “What’s this?”

The low growl in his voice was what pushed her; a heartbeat later, she was pushing him against the wall, blade to his throat once more. Icy eyes met icy eyes for a scant instant, then she moved her sword into a better position and—

The fear-scent took hold, and he blinked at her. “What’s it doing, precious?”

—she froze. He sounded, smelled, and looked as though… as though he genuinely hadn’t expected this, as though he was genuinely hurt by it. And the fear-scent was stronger than ever, like… he was terrified. He was shocked. He was prey.

And she was a predator. She—

‘…true courage…’  

Fíli’s voice in her mind stilled her. She’d killed those Goblins, she intended to kill even more, but… but he wasn’t a Goblin. Maybe he was some sort of Hobbit, maybe he was something completely different, but he wasn’t a Goblin. And he was afraid of her. Like everything was, like the Bagginses were, like one of the Trolls had been, like the ponies had been, for a few seconds, when she’d let her instincts… take… over…

She was being led by her instincts now. She was treating him as prey, not as an enemy. She couldn’t afford to push away the feral edges of her mind back, not now, not when there were Goblins everywhere; her draconic instincts were the only reason she’d been able to fight off the Goblins earlier, the only reason she’d fought off the Hob-Goblin in front of her. She had more Goblins to get through before she could afford to be just a Hobbit again. But dragons were—

‘No.’ She was a dragon, and she was not a monster. In either form.

“What’s it doing?” The question was carried on the same breath as its predecessor, and she realized all her thoughts had taken barely a heartbeat. But now she had an answer.

Pulling her sword away from his neck, she leaned closer for an instant and hissed, “Having courage.”

Before he even had the chance to be confused, she slammed the hilt of her sword against his temple, with all the strength she could muster. He collapsed, unmoving, and she knelt beside him, heart racing as her fingers fluttered over his chest and his mouth. ‘No, I didn’t— I didn’t want—

A faint puff of air skated over her fingers, and she allowed herself a few moments to catch her breath, relief making her eyes water. Blinking away the blur, she sheathed her sword and moved behind his head to hook her arms under his, around his chest. He was almost shockingly light, but all the same, she didn’t have the strength to pick him up, only to drag him. It took a minute or two, but she managed to get him tucked away behind an outcropping of rock, where he’d only be noticed if the searcher was specifically looking for him. 

But as she finished, something fell out of his pocket, metal brushing her fingertips for the instant before it thunked against the stone. It caught her attention immediately, but she made sure that he was safe and as comfortable as was possible before she inspected the object. 

It was a ring, gold, cold, and surprisingly light for falling as heavily as it had. There was something odd about it, something she couldn’t name, just a quiet (or perhaps disquiet was a better word) instinct that she couldn’t quite interpret. Shaking her head, she slipped the ring into her pocket, to be better inspected later.

Travel back to the guardroom was swift and uneventful, and in a blink, she found herself crouched in the same vantage point as before. Idly, she noted that her sword had a faint glow now, barely enough to notice, and filed away the distance for future reference. The same Goblins were there as before, so far as she could tell, and the same number, as well. It would be a fight, and not an easy one. All the ones she could see were armed, and she knew how strong Goblins were.

But the room was small, as far as she could tell, and the doorway was narrow. If she could stay just outside of it, they’d have to come at her one at a time. If. 

For the first time in her life, she closed her eyes, focused, and pushed back the Hobbit side of her mind, sinking fully into her draconic instincts. The change was slight, as the Hobbit and dragon sides of her weren’t at war, not like the Hob-Goblin’s halves, and she couldn’t even really call them different sides. She was a Hobbit, and she was a dragon. One form called for one sort of behavior, the other had no need of it. One form survived by going unnoticed, the other was large enough to be seen from miles away. Mostly, the change was in whether her first instinct was to hide or to kill. But her mind was the same. 

She was a Hobbit, and she was a dragon, but overall, she was herself. She was Belda Took-Baggins, she was the rándýr-verndari of the Company of Thorin Oakenshield, she was the… something of Dwalin, the unofficial apprentice of Nori, the… the friend of Kíli, and of Fíli and Ori.

She was a Hobbit-dragon with a sword and a mind to get outside, no matter what was in her way. Or who.

Her bearing was different when she opened her eyes, more predatory, and she grinned toothily. She’d spent so much of her life pushing back her ferocity. It would be a relief to let loose. And there wouldn’t even be any witnesses.

Happy day.

For her.

Last day, for them. 

Her grin widened. She was a fox, after all. Time to pounce.

Silently, she ran toward the guardroom; the one nearest the door didn’t see her until a heartbeat (his last) before she slashed his throat open; unfortunately, she underestimated Goblin stubbornness, and had to duck out of the way as he lunged at her. Something sliced her arm from behind, and she swung her sword in a wide arc as she spun; she nicked the offending Goblin’s cheek, but did no more damage than that. Snarling, he charged; she ducked his arm and sliced through the tendons at his ankles; he fell; darting back, she stabbed, a quick, efficient cut up his inner arm, a couple inches from just above his elbow almost to his armpit, and black blood gushed out in waves.

But a hand caught her ankle in the same moment, yanking back, and she fell. The moment seemed to stretch: she twisted in midair, just enough to see the Goblin still holding her leg; she landed atop something warm and moving, and realized she was lying on the dying Goblin; light flashed off of metal; the ring thudded to the ground.

The Goblin holding her let go so quickly that he left cuts ringing her ankle, and he and the other two all dove for the ring at the same instant. For a moment, she could only watch, bewildered into stillness as they fought each other viciously. Catching her breath again, she pushed herself up (putting one hand into the still-expanding pool of blood before she realized), and watched for the right time to attack.

One of the Goblins was kicked out of the fight, and curled into a ball as he groaned; the other two were wrestling single-mindedly, faces nearly touching in their bloodlust; quickly, she darted forward and stabbed, a single thrust opening both Goblins’ throats, though she used her withdrawal to deepen the gashes until they both choked on their own blood.

A satisfied grunt reminded her of the last of them; a snarl had her spinning around before she’d recognized the sound; she saw nothing, but a weight slammed into her hard enough to knock her over; the scent of Goblin (strangely muffled) assaulted her and she rolled them both, yanking her sword back. A weak cry sounded, unseen claws grabbed at her arms, but she just shoved away, out of reach. 

A heartbeat later, she realized the stupidity of that: it was invisible; if it lunged again, she’d never see it. But the cry died away, and the raspy breathing she could hear slowed, then stopped. Warily, she listened for anything, anything at all, but there was no sound left in the room apart from what she herself made. Cautiously, she edged forward, watching as a pool of black blood spread from nothing, a blank space in the middle staying constant with oddly blurred edges. It wasn’t hard to guess at what had happened, and she gingerly felt around the corpse until she felt cold metal; she pulled the ring off, and watched as the fifth Goblin swept into view, a single wound in his chest, through his heart.

The light changed as a cloud moved past the sun, and she raced outside before she could think. The sunlight was a blessing from Eru himself, though it was painful; her eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, and emerging so suddenly had brought her headache back, full-force. The wind on her face was just as good, and she ran until she couldn’t stand to any longer, until the hill had begun to level out; knees weak, she fell more than sat, propping herself up on a tree, her back to the mountain, where another tree’s shadow was in just the right spot to shade her eyes. There was a clearing behind her, a natural stopping point for any searchers, so she’d have some warning if more Goblins came after her.

As her heart slowed, she didn’t need to make any effort to reground herself. Her wounds demanded her attention now that she was still and had nothing to distract herself; all together, she could barely think past the pain, and it made forgetting she was a Hobbit impossible. But…

The ring was still in her hand. The gold contrasted brightly against the black blood that coated her skin. Sunlight glinted off the metal and sent spikes of pain through her eyes, but she didn’t look away from it. Her hands hadn’t been anywhere near the Hob-Goblin’s pocket, and she hadn’t shaken him or jolted him, but the ring had fallen out of his pocket, or had it jumped?

She’d put it in her pocket, remembered shoving it down, but when she’d fallen, it’d jumped out then, too, when… when the Goblins had gotten the upper hand.

As soon as the Goblins had begun to win, it’d jumped out, and they’d all dived for it. They’d been so desperate to get it that they’d completely ignored her, and the two who’d been wrestling hadn’t even noticed her until she killed them. And the ring had turned the last one invisible. How? Why? It was magic, obviously, but she’d never seen anything magic have that sort of effect on people. Gandalf had given her Grandfather a pair of magic cufflinks, but all they’d done was fasten themselves and stay fastened until he gave the word. 

Was invisibility more difficult? She had no idea, but either it was or there was more to the ring, something powerful enough to merit that sort of fixation. And what she’d noticed earlier was still there, something about it that made her fingertips buzz and a growl build in her chest. 

It wasn’t right. She didn’t know why, she didn’t know how she knew it, but if her injuries hadn’t been anchoring her to her Hobbit-form, she would’ve almost been able to feel her hackles raising, her wings spreading. There was something subtly, quietly, viscerally wrong about it.

For an instant, she just wanted it away, and didn’t particularly care where it ended up or who found it. She drew her arm back to fling it off the cliff—

And stopped, the Goblins’ frenzy still fresh.

The mountain was full of Goblins, and who knew how often they left it? The Orcs had chased them in broad daylight, after all, so it was more likely than not that at some point, the Goblins would come outside, and if they happened on the ring…

She hated it. It was wrong, it was bad, but what if it could do more than just turn the wearer invisible? What if it could hurt people, or make the wearer stronger or faster or something? In the hands of Goblins…

She couldn’t throw it. There was no telling who would find it, what would happen. But what—

Gandalf. If anyone would know what it was, what it could do, he would, and he might know how to destroy it. She’d tell him as soon as he joined th—

But what about the Company?!? What if it affected them like it’d affected the Goblins? She couldn’t risk that, couldn’t bear to see that. She’d tell Gandalf in private, and he would know if it would affect Dwarves.

But why didn’t it affect her? Were Hobbits just immune? Were dragons immune? Were Hobbit-dragons immune? She didn’t think there’d ever been a Hobbit-dragon before—although the Green Dragon’s name was a staggering coincidence if she were the first—but even if there’d been others, they were incredibly rare, or else her parents would’ve told her stories about them. 

But what if it already was affecting her and she just didn’t realize it? What would happen at her First Shift? Though, clothes and things didn’t transfer between forms, they just sort of vanished until the Hobbit shifted back, so maybe as long as she kept it on her when she shifted, it wouldn’t have the chance to affect her dragon-form?

In any case, it didn’t really change the fact that she needed to tell Gandalf about it, and to tell him, she had to hold onto it at least until he rejoined the Com—

The Company! Dwalin, and Kíli, and Thorin, and everyone, they were probably still in the mountain! Breath quickening just thinking about it, her throat protested, and all she could do for long, painful minutes was cough. While she did, she shoved the ring back into her pocket, all the way to the bottom, and resolved to sew the thing in if she had to keep holding on to it.

Once her coughing fit was over, she tightened her grip on her sword and braced herself against the tree with her free hand, preparing to stand; thundering footsteps sped toward her and she curled into herself before she thought, hiding behind the tree as her heart raced. Was it the Goblins? Orcs? Had the Hob-Goblin woken up and tracked her? Her thoughts whirled as she listened intently for any sign they’d spotted her.

Slowly, she realized that the footsteps sounded much heavier than the Goblins or the Hob-Goblin, but she still flinched when a deep voice sounded; the words made no sense, and for a panicked second, she knew it was Orcs. But another voice responded, and the shock of recognition stopped her heart for an interminable moment.

It couldn’t be Dwalin. It couldn’t, he was still in the mountain, but…

But that was his voice. It couldn’t be, but she wasn’t wrong. She was standing before she knew what she was doing, and realized her sword was still in her hand when she tried to brace herself against the tree. Sheathing it, the light glinted into her eyes and she closed them just as someone interrupted Dwalin; she knew the voice, but couldn’t place it, not with her pulse roaring in her ears.

Stubbornly, she opened her eyes against the light; the Company was there, a bit blurry, but there, but she couldn’t count them, couldn’t take her eyes off of Dwalin. She hurt and she was cold and she’d been scared for so long that now she was just tired, and she just wanted him to hold her and tell her everything would be all right. She just wanted to believe everything would be all right.

She started to lose her balance as soon as she lifted her foot, and leaned heavily against the tree as the world shivered. But she gritted her teeth against the vertigo and moved forward anyway, building to a run as the Dwalin-blur turned.

Chapter Text

Dwalin ran a few steps to meet the Hal— the Burglar at the edge of the clearing, and she collided with him as though she hadn’t seen, though her eyes hadn’t left him since Balin saw her turn to face the Company. He caught her up with another sob, and fell to his knees still holding her. 

The last hours, since she’d fallen, had been exactly what Balin had feared would happen. He hadn’t seen Dwalin so broken since Azanulbizar. That grief, that all-consuming agony, was something neither of them had felt since that day, since their father had fallen. But the look on her face when she turned…

It had been the light off her sword that caught his attention, but it had been her expression that held it. She’d looked as though she couldn’t believe her eyes; the look had been familiar, since it’d been how Balin had felt to see their lost Burglar standing there, safe and well, if filthy.

A ragged inhale reminded him of the Company’s presence, and he saw that Fíli, Kíli, and Nori looked as though they’d blow away with the breeze, eyes shining. Though, for that matter, Glóin, Dori, Ori, and Bombur’s eyes were all suspiciously bright, as well, and he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen Bofur smile as widely.

Thorin, though, looked almost irritated, and Gandalf seemed dismayed.

The latter made no sense at first. Then Dwalin drew back from the girl.

“Mahal, kit,” Dwalin’s voice cracked. “What’s happened to you?”

She was covered in blood, most of it not her own (must have come through the guardroom after the Goblins were killed, tripped into one of the pools); there was a shallow cut on the back of her left arm that was seeping blood, and another on the side of her hand (cut herself somehow, no doubt); but her throat, he couldn’t explain away. Someone had strangled her. Black bruises in the shapes of long, spindly fingers wrapped around her throat from behind, and the swelling was obvious as she shook her head, wincing.

“Doesn’t matter,” her voice was a rasp, and it obviously pained her, but she croaked one more word, “everyone?” She looked past Dwalin, eyes finding each of the Company, and when his eyes met hers, he realized she almost looked desperate. But that didn’t make any sense; she’d been the one to fall, after all.

Tharkûn was the one to answer her, gently. “They’re safe, kit. Everyone’s safe.”

She held his eyes for a long moment, expression conflicted, before meeting Dwalin’s gaze once again, brows raised in a wordless plea. He nodded distractedly. “Aye, kit. We’re safe. Bumps and bruises.”

Balin could tell that the words were on the tip of Dwalin’s tongue, but the Prince, surprisingly, was the one to actually blurt them out. “We thought you were dead!” A shocked breath left her, and she looked between Kíli and Dwalin several times before her eyes stayed on the Prince’s. “You fell.” His voice was raw, and Balin couldn’t help but remember how he’d fought; he’d been the spitting image of his uncle then, at that age. “I— We watched you fall.”

Despite himself, Balin glanced to Thorin, but the King gave no sign of having noticed the slip, or the way the Prince and the Burglar were gazing at each other. Balin held back a frown; if Thorin wasn’t going to say anything, he ought to. For Erebor’s sake.

Dwalin raised the hand nearest Balin to her cheek, and gingerly cupped it, bringing her eyes back to him. When he spoke, his voice was just as raw and half as loud as the Prince’s quiet words. “You died.”

Balin’s eyes burned as he watched her expression break, her eyes tightly close, and as she leaned her forehead against Dwalin’s. He hadn’t seen her fall, he’d been buried under the Company, but he’d heard Dwalin, and he’d known what had happened. At least, he’d known that she’d been lost. And he’d mourned her, as much as he could when so much else demanded his attention, but it had been Dwalin’s mourning that tore him apart. That sound. The way the fight had completely left him, as Balin had never seen before, even at Azanulbizar.

Dwalin loved her. Balin had never seen him so devoted to anyone but himself and Thorin, but with them, he was still brusque, still as rough as with anyone else, just with a hint of affection to soften it. With Belda, he was gentle. Balin supposed it made sense; he and Thorin didn’t need much protection anymore, but Belda needed far more, and the last few weeks had made Balin begin to suspect it wasn’t just physical protection she needed. The way she looked now should’ve made her seem more vulnerable, by all rights, but the smaller spatters of blood didn’t look like splashes so much as like she’d been directly in front of the victims when they were killed. 

Like she’d been the one to kill them.

It was ridiculous to even wonder if a slip of a girl like her could kill even a single Goblin, but the evidence seemed to point toward it. There could be another explanation, of course, a more likely explanation. Something.

But whatever had happened, she seemed to care for Dwalin. 

“Why did you come back?” Balin and what seemed to be the entire Company turned to look at Thorin automatically, taken aback by the dangerously-quiet question.

Balin glanced back at Dwalin an instant later, and wasn’t surprised to see that he and Belda were both tense, though he looked angry while she wore an unreadably-considering expression. “What does it matter? She’s back.”

Dwalin’s question was a challenge, not an inquiry, but that didn’t stop the Ha— Burglar from speaking over his final growl. “It matters.” 

Dwalin immediately fell silent, but he looked at her as though to ask if she was sure; their eyes were level, Balin noticed, though the difference in their proportions meant that she was still a bit shorter. But her eyes never left Thorin, and never softened in the slightest, but Balin noticed, as well, that her hands fell to wind her fingers in the fur of Dwalin’s jacket. She took another breath or two before she spoke, and Balin held back a wince at how painfully hoarse she sounded.

“I came back because I gave my word. Maybe the word of a runaway Hobbit doesn’t mean anything to you, but I gave. my. word. I swore to go to Erebor with you, and to do whatever I had to in the meantime, and to do my part in getting the Mountain back for you. I don’t care if you don’t want me here, I don’t care what you think of me, but I gave my word, and I intend to keep it. Whether I’m wanted here or not.”

Silence rang in the clearing as her words hung in the air. Her speech had been half-rasp, half-snarl, and the feral fire in her eyes in the middle had forced Balin to reconsider just how likely it was that she’d killed those Goblins.

She was panting, slightly, when she finished, and both Dwalin and Gandalf seemed about to speak when her expression suddenly changed, going distant as she closed her mouth. Balin nearly asked for an explanation, but the look on Tharkûn’s face silenced him; the wizard looked as though he knew exactly what was happening, and it filled him with dread. Her eyes darted around for a moment before settling on the mountain behind them, or perhaps just past it, as the wind blew her hair back.

“What is it?” The note of tension in Fíli’s voice was telling, but Balin only had an instant to wonder how she’d learned whatever it was that Tharkûn knew.

Voice dropping into a snarl, she pushed away from Dwalin slightly, just enough to grip the hilt of her sword, though she didn’t draw it. “Orcs.” 


 

Thorin

 

Fíli and Kíli both let out quiet curses, and Tharkûn drew his sword immediately; Thorin stiffened, but couldn’t understand why they were taking it so seriously when she couldn’t have seen or heard anything. Gandalf barked, “How many?”

Backing away from the mountain, she bared her teeth and growled (honest to Mahal, literally growled), and Thorin had to wonder just what had changed in the caves. The Company was beginning to share her tension, shifting in their places, and Thorin bit back a curse to realize that his own hand had fallen to the hilt of Orcrist. She (yapped, growled, snarled) barked back, “Who cares, just RUN!”

As before they’d fallen into the cage, the Company obeyed her order (and followed her example) as though they couldn’t help themselves; Thorin felt an urge to follow suit, but it was weak enough for him to ignore. The baying behind him, though, was a bit more compelling. Swearing under his breath, he ran after the Company, sword in hand, and found himself level with the wizard. “Out of the frying pan.”

Tharkûn replied dryly, somehow not out of breath, “And into the fire.”

The snarls behind them were getting closer, and Thorin stayed at the rear of the group, slaying any wargs that came too close for comfort. The beasts were huge, and Thorin couldn’t help but be glad when Dwalin dropped back to assist him.

The brief contentment fell, though, when he realized that Dwalin kept glancing forward, at the H— Hobbit. Granted, she was limping, but still, she was solidly in the middle of the group (not pack, why did he start to think that?), even ahead of Kíli and Ori. The fading sunlight didn’t obscure their path in the slightest, but still the wargs caught up. As Thorin and Dwalin slowed near an outcropping of rock, one warg leapt over it, sliding to a stop some dozen yards ahead, facing them, facing “Kíli!”

Thorin didn’t even notice the Burglar racing back until she shoved the warg’s head away from Kíli just in time to deflect it towards Thorin, and she grabbed his nephew’s hand and dragged him after the rest of the Company before Thorin even killed the beast. It didn’t even fight, for some reason, and he and Dwalin were standing at the edge of the cliff in another handful of heartbeats.

Neither of them needed Tharkûn’s advice to climb, but a part of Thorin couldn’t help but distantly note that for all the wizard’s power, there was no compulsion in his order. Thorin also couldn’t help but note that the Burglar scurried up the branches like a squirrel, even more quickly than Kíli, just below her. (Though, she didn’t waste movement by flipping into the tree as Kíli did.) But Kíli helped Fíli up in another moment, and once Thorin saw that all the Company was at least beginning to climb, he clambered up himself. 

But once he was in the branches of the foremost tree, he noticed that though there were over two dozen wargs swarming below them, there was a noticeable line that none of them crossed, from the warg Thorin killed straight to the tree that Fíli, Kíli, and the Hobbit were in. None of the wargs approached that tree, either, though they eagerly jumped on the others, teeth glinting in the moonlight.

The wargs turned as one, suddenly, hunching in deference, and Thorin pushed a branch out of his line of sight. It couldn’t be, it was impossible, and yet, there was “Azog.”

The white warg snarled as though it had heard its master’s name, and the filth himself leaned forward, sniffing theatrically. “Do you smell it?” Straightening as he addressed the warg-riders behind and around him, he took another long sniff; Thorin barely noticed the Orc’s forces, his eyes tethered to the Pale Orc as though he were chained. “The scent of fear?

He met Thorin’s eyes, and vengeful rage rose in Thorin’s gut, enough to smother what words he might have said. This filth killed his kin. He’d see him dead before the night was out.

I remember your father reeked of it,” he drew out the syllables in a hiss, eyes almost gleeful, “Thorin, son of Thrain.

Thorin shook his head numbly. “It cannot be.” Mahal, it couldn’t be true; his father had always been strong, even in the wake of Thrór’s gold-madness. 

It wasn’t true. Azog would pay for such a falsehood, for besmirching a King Under the Mountain.

Deliberately, Azog pointed his mace at Thorin, and raised his voice. “That one is mine, and the odd one. Kill the others!

The wargs rushed forward, still avoiding Fíli and Kíli’s tree, but jumped on the others, snapping at the Company’s heels.

Drink their blood!

At nearly the same moment as Azog’s command, the Burglar shouted, “Jump!”

Thorin looked over just in time to see her leap from her tree to the one behind it, and when the wargs began to claw at the bark beneath their feet, Fíli and Kíli followed her, yelling.

The sound only seemed to rile the wargs up, and Thorin and Dwalin had to follow his Heirs’ example, as did the rest of the Company, all the way to Gandalf’s tree on the very edge of the cliff. Thorin had ended up on the same level as Kíli, on the opposite side of the tree, while Dwalin was a branch above Kíli, Fíli was above Dwalin, Nori and the Burglar were across from Fíli, and just above them were Ori and Dori, Gandalf topping the group. The rest were scattered below Thorin, Bombur nearly low enough for the wargs’ leaps to reach him, though his brother and cousin were helping him higher.

A fiery arc caught Thorin’s attention, and his eyes followed the flaming pinecone down for a moment before he looked up at Fíli’s name; Tharkûn tossed a similar projectile to her, then one to the Hobbit, and both girls chucked them at the beasts below them, though the Burglar took a moment to light another first. The Hobbit’s expression held Thorin’s eye. She was looking at a single point in the distance, and handed the extra pinecone to Nori before bracing herself, standing partially, and she took a single breath before she threw the thing with all her pitiful might.

He couldn’t help but follow its progress, and watched as it arced down, down, to strike Azog full in the face as he roared. His outraged sputtering was nearly drowned out by the girl’s raspy laughter, and Dwalin and Nori’s hearty guffaws. Fíli, Kíli, Ori, and Bifur cheered, but fell silent a moment later when the tree gave a violent shudder.

Startled yells filled the air, and Thorin nearly lost his grip on the bark as the tree tipped over; Kíli grabbed his arm to steady him, though Thorin wasn’t sure which of them needed the assistance more. The tree was nearly horizontal when it stilled, and though none of the Company fell, he could see that a few, including Kíli, looked liable to at any moment. Yells from further up proved him right, and he looked over just in time to see Gandalf catch Dori with his staff, Ori clinging to Dori’s leg. From there, it only took him a blink to spot Fíli, safe in her perch.

Satisfied with his niece’s safety, he focused on Kíli, and hauled him a little higher; his sister-son released his hand as soon as he was able to support himself, but Thorin watched him for a moment longer, until he was sure Kíli really was safe. A growl from Dwalin drew his attention, but Thorin was too far from his friend to help him up; Dwalin would have to handle himself.

But he shouldn’t have needed to. None of them should have, and if it hadn’t been for Azog, none of them would’ve needed to. Slowly, Thorin’s eyes tracked to the Defiler, and as their eyes met, Thorin’s blood burned to spill Azog’s, his hand found Orcrist’s hilt of its own accord, and he wanted nothing more in the world than to see the filth rot.

Standing easily on the wide trunk, he drew Orcrist in an easy motion, and the downhill slope of the tree made walking toward the Orc as easy as falling. The fire blazed between them, the moon- and firelight playing on the filth until he looked as ethereal as a weed-eater, and a stony resolution dug into Thorin’s bones, to prove that image wrong and show just how mortal the Defiler was. Orcrist and Oakenshield at hand, he sped into a run, and met the filth’s roar with one of his own.

Motion blurred, pain blazed across him, and Thorin found himself on his back. Ignoring the pain, he pushed up. He would not be laid out by the filth who slew his grandfather.

Azog’s mace ripped across his chest, and even through his armor, it was agony. He fell. Huge jaws closed around him, and the world erupted into red-gold fire. Opening his eyes at Dwalin’s distant yell, he swung Orcrist at the beast’s muzzle, and the brief rush of air over his wounds was paltry compared to the burst of white fire through him when he hit the ground.

A distant voice ordered, “Bring me the Dwarf’s head,” and though part of him knew it was suicide, he wanted to correct whoever was speaking that he was a King, not ‘a Dwarf’.

But he couldn’t move, in any case. The dim light of the sky was soothing compared to the fire around him, but vibrations below him took his attention away from it. Metal appeared just under his chin, and he followed the blade up to a particularly unsightly Orc. Alarm pulsed through him, breaking through the fog, and he grasped vainly for the sword he knew (he knew) was just beside him, by his hand. 

But he couldn’t reach it. 

His mind screamed, ‘I am a King, I will not die like this, I will not be my grandfather!’

His heart screamed, ‘I will not leave my sister, I will not leave my Heirs, I will not leave my Company!’

He wanted to scream, ‘I will not die today!’

But he was too weak, and he could only watch as the blade began to drop.

A blur, gold, black, and green, sped behind the Orc, and its blade fell behind it, out of sight as it roared; a blink later, cold light flashed over the Orc’s arm, then into its eye, and the last thing Thorin saw was the Hobbit girl standing between him and Azog as the unnamed Orc collapsed.


 

Belda

 

Belda tore her eyes away from Dori and Ori when Thorin stood, but she could see that Nori was still watching them out of the corner of her eye. The thief had held onto her when the tree tipped, and probably kept her from falling out entirely; the Orcs’ arrival had cleared her head somewhat, but she still felt a little muzzy, and she hadn’t realized the tree was moving until she’d begun to slip off. 

But Thorin’s sword held her attention, and half-whined words slipped out before she could stop them. “No, nonono, what is he doing?!”

She didn’t realize she was moving again until Nori tightened her grip on her. “Mahal, kitten, stop! You’ll kill yourself!”

Belda barely heard her, too focused on her commander running into danger. “But Thorin—”

“—Is a warrior, he can handle himself!”

Belda had to admit to herself that Nori had a point, but she tasted bile at the thought, and if Nori hadn’t been holding her still, she likely would’ve raced after Thorin.

With a roar that made her bare her teeth, the white warg sprang over Thorin, knocking him down, and this time Nori gave her a shake. “Stop!”

The Orc charged Thorin, and Belda tensed further (which hadn’t seemed possible, but evidently…) as she tried (and failed) to shake off Nori’s hands. “He’ll die!”

“Let him!” 

Shock stole any words Belda might had spat at the thief, and she could only stare at her for a long moment, seeing the panic and the terror in her eyes. A familiar cry pulled her eyes back to Thorin, and a sob escaped Belda to see her commander in the same grip, the same pain that she remembered from the Winter. Her scars throbbed as though they were new, and she redoubled her efforts to get away as Dwalin nearly fell from the tree trying to reach their leader. 

“Belda!” Implacably, Nori turned Belda’s head to face her, and the novelty of Nori actually using her name was just enough that Belda was still for a moment, watching the thief’s eyes shine in the firelight. “You can’t save him, Belda. There’s nothing you can do, so save yourself. Stay here, stay safe, don’t—” Nori broke off with a strangled sob; Belda just felt numb. Quietly, desperately, brokenly, Nori begged, “Don’t make me lose you again.”

For an instant, time stopped. The thief’s sharp features were replaced with the vulpine, pine-green eyes of Belladonna Took-Baggins, her knife-edge smile and mischievous laugh-lines. Except that those were words Belladonna had never said, not to Belda. Except that Belda had only seen her mother so nakedly distraught once in her life, when Belladonna had screamed for Bungo, when she’d run to save him, seconds after she’d done nothing for Belda. A thousand memories of lessons saying almost exactly what Nori was telling her now rushed back, the underlying refrain never changing: save yourself at all costs, no matter who pays the price.

For an instant, Belladonna looked at Belda through Nori’s eyes.

Eyes burning, Belda leaned close and snarled through the pain, “I. am. not. my mother.”

Confusion flooded tangibly out of the thief, and Belda darted out of her grip while she could, running down the tree as another Orc approached Thorin where the white warg had thrown him. Dwalin was pulling himself onto the trunk, and she leapt over him as she drew her sword, ignoring his and Kíli’s shouts, ignoring the pain everywhere as she landed, ignoring everything except that her commander was in danger.

For the second time that day, she pulled the dragon forward.

For the second time that day, she grinned.


 

Dwalin

 

The terror Dwalin felt at seeing Thorin thrown was nothing compared to watching Belda run headlong into danger. He pulled himself fully onto the trunk with a strength born of sheer adrenaline, yelling for her to come back all the while, Kíli echoing him.

So to say he was surprised when she hamstrung the Orc about to kill Thorin, before immediately darting back to efficiently slice open his upper arm and eye, would be an understatement. Shock froze him where he stood for a long moment, even as he connected the injuries she’d just inflicted on the still-twitching Orc with those he’d seen on the corpse in the guardroom. The Orc bled out in a matter of seconds, and Belda didn’t even glance at him, only turned to glare coldly up at Azog as though to say ‘take one step and I’ll do the same to you’.

Three warg-riders moved into position behind Azog, but the wargs’ ears were flat against their heads, their tails between their legs, their heads tilted oddly, exposing their necks. As Dwalin watched, one of the riders ordered his warg forward, but all four wargs stayed still, whining. The sight was baffling, but it reminded Dwalin: when Belda had run back for Kíli, she’d shoved a warg aside. He knew for a fact that she wasn’t half as strong as a Dwarf her age would be, nowhere near strong enough to budge a fully-grown warg, and yet she had. Or it had let her.

Glowering, Azog jerked his head toward Belda. “Forget what I said; that one dies now. Kill her.”

The words blazed through Dwalin, and a rage fiercer than he’d felt in years had him moving before he even thought to. Grasper and Keeper were in his hands, though he didn’t remember drawing them, and some part of him was dimly aware that Kíli and Fíli were behind him, the same part that filed away the feral grin on Belda’s blood-stained face.


 

Belda

 

Dwalin, Fíli, and Kíli charged into the Orcs before they could get closer than ten paces away from her; intellectually, Belda was glad: they had far more experience than she did. But instinctively, she nearly growled at the sight of her pack defending her from pathetic rodents such as the Orcs, depriving her of her right to cut down any threat to her commander.

But they made excellent distractions.

Dwalin was clearly a more experienced fighter than Fíli or Kíli, but all three of them handled themselves admirably, despite the fact that Dwarves, as she knew from Dwalin’s tutoring, were quite a bit slower than Hobbits. So really, it only made sense for her to duck under and around them as the battle carried her, slicing and stabbing the Orcs’ weak points. Their physiology was at least marginally similar to Hobbits’, and those medical texts had been very detailed when it came to unfortunate farming accidents. A broken hoe, a runaway goat, a misplaced carving knife; there were certain spots on Hobbits where it took hardly an effort to draw blood, and hardly further effort to draw enough blood for the victim— that is, the patient— to be severely weakened, perhaps even to the point of death.

And Orcs were very similar to Hobbits, as it happened.

Losing herself in the fight, she barely noticed the blood that spurted over her except to blink it away, irritated; she only realized she was baring her teeth at her quarry when she tasted blood; she only remembered she was still injured when an Orc happened to strike her wounded ear.

The world whited out in a roaring blaze of agony, and though her vision cleared quickly, she didn’t hear a thing over the ringing in her ears as Azog rode toward her, his warg only just bringing him close enough to strike her, a powerful blow with his mace, much like he’d dealt to Thorin, sending her flying back—

Belda blinked. She was lying next to a boulder. The orange-grey was interrupted by a splotch of red, and the drips flickered oddly, light appearing and disappearing. It was funny, though she couldn’t say why. She wanted to laugh, but her stomach hurt. She wanted to look at something else, but her head protested fiercely when she tried to turn it. She couldn’t think why. Slowly, she did turn her head, ignoring the pain, and saw that there was lots of fire on her other side. It made everything all wavy, even the big pale man when he moved in front of the fire.

He got closer and closer, but somehow never clearer; his face melted and dripped like candle wax, and if she could have, Belda would have reached up to see if he was squishy like wax, too.

Then someone behind him flew away. More and more someones flew away, and it took Belda quite a while (from her point of view) to realize that they were being thrown. Blurred somethings swooped overhead, back and forth, back and forth, but she couldn’t be afraid of them. Even when one swooped toward her.

One moment she was watching it, the next she was in the air. Something rough was holding her, and every time she blinked she could feel bristly hair brushing her forehead and big arms around her, but then she always opened her eyes again and saw that there was nothing there.

The rough things let go, and she fell slowly, not far, to land on something soft. It hurt, of course, hurt everywhere, but the soft, warm thing was so wonderful that she just wanted to fall asleep on it.

But almost as soon as she’d had that thought, she glanced up, and she saw the sky. In front of her, around her, everywhere, the sky was there, stretching out as far as she could see, and farther. She was above the clouds, the wind in her face and brushing over her fur. Her wings carried her effortlessly, and she flew. She flew, and flew and flew, and flew over mountains and down into valleys and through the night and under the stars and past sunrise, and she never wanted it to end.

But it did. Something under her pulled her up, and she couldn’t help but slide down, the softness too soft for her to grab hold of, but then the something in front of her moved away, and she could see the sky again. She felt something behind her pulse, something almost familiar (something almost like Rivendell), but she kept looking at the sky. She wanted to keep flying. Why wasn’t she flying?

A familiar voice caught her attention, and she looked over her shoulder automatically. A dark blur was moving, two other, familiar dark blurs beside it, but she couldn’t figure out what they were. The first one made more noises, and got close enough that she couldn’t see past it. She turned to look at it better, and realized that it had a face, though it was as melty as the pale one’s had been. After making a few more noises, the blur moved forward, and she felt arms around her. There was fur and metal and hair, too, but none of it was right, there was something missing that she was sure should’ve been there, but she was nice and warm, even though she hurt, so she leaned against the blur, ignored the pain, and closed her eyes.

Warm air skated over her hair, and she opened her eyes as the arms dropped away. The blur didn’t seem to be facing her anymore, and she turned to see what it was looking at, and there was the sky. There was the sky, and the sun and clouds and on and on and on and forever, and the wind pulled her forward, the horizon calling her.

The wind spiraled up from below the ledge, and she moved toward it.

Chapter Text

The spike of fear faded away as Thorin’s eyes fluttered open, and Olórin let himself relax a fraction, smiling faintly.

Sounding weak, but not dying, Thorin breathed, “The— Hobbit?”

Olórin leaned in, smiling soothingly. “It’s all right. Belda is here.” He’d waited until one of the Eagles had grabbed her before jumping onto one himself, and they would’ve made certain that she arrived safely. He’d needed to tend to Thorin too urgently to check that she was unharmed, but he could promise one thing. “She’s quite safe.”

Thorin, unsurprisingly, immediately began fighting to his feet; though they looked torn, Dwalin and Kíli both helped him up, and Olórin watched carefully. He’d healed what he could, but he was not a healer by trade. If he’d missed something, now was the time to watch for it, before it could worsen.

But he saw nothing problematic, or at least that time wouldn’t solve on its own, and so moved slightly away from the Company; he wouldn’t be with them long, and so now was the time for him to begin drawing back. But…

He glanced at Belda, then looked back. She was facing the opposite direction, posture relaxed, but it wasn’t like her to be unconcerned with her Company, her pack.

“You!” Olórin glanced at Thorin against his better judgement; the Dwarf sounded almost accusatory. Dwalin and Kíli gave Thorin uneasy glances, the former actually opening his mouth before Thorin cut him off. “What were you doing? You nearly got yourself killed!” 

Belda looked over her shoulder, her eyes wide and confused under the liberal amounts of drying blood that covered her, but there was something off about her expression, something Olórin couldn’t quite place.

“Did I not say that you would be a burden? That you had no place amongst us?” At that, Dwalin actually took a step toward Thorin, hand on one of his axes, but Balin and Fíli held him back; Belda’s expression didn’t change, but she did turn to face Thorin fully as he moved close enough in front of her to block Olórin’s view. Voice cracking, he moved even further forward. “I have never been so wrong in all my life.”

In another moment, he was embracing her. She didn’t exactly return the hold, but she didn’t fight him, which was more than Olórin would’ve hoped for, after seeing them interact earlier that day. Or was it the day before? The Eagles took their leave, and Olórin gave a solemn nod to each of those that met his eye.

They’d saved their lives, all of them.

A soft exhalation drew his eyes back to Thorin and Belda, just as the King Under the Mountain stepped forward. Belda moved with him, both of them as slowly as if they’d been half-asleep. 

“Is that…” Kíli sounded almost as dazed as Thorin looked, and Balin’s voice was thick as he answered.

“Erebor. Aye, lad.”

Remembering his visits to the Kingdom before its fall, Olórin smiled softly. “The last of the great Dwarf Kingdoms of Middle-Earth.”

“Our home.” The pride in Thorin’s voice was nearly tangible, and Olórin’s smile grew a fraction.

A bird flew eastwards overhead, and Óin exclaimed, “A raven! The birds are returning to the mountain!”

As lovely a thought as it was, Olórin had to disappoint him. “That, my dear Óin, is a thrush.”

“But we’ll take it as a sign.” Thorin nodded to himself, and Olórin could hear the smile in his voice. “A good omen.”

Silence reigned for a long, weighted moment, then abruptly broke, as could be expected, with Bofur declaring (in a loud, slightly obnoxious joke) how hungry he was. It was fair enough, as it had been at least a full day since any of them had had the chance to eat, and that was assuming they’d eaten before Olórin had rejoined them. Even Thorin gave a half-chuckle, wincing as he did, and the Company turned temporarily away from Erebor to discuss the lack of supplies and the fact that they were standing atop a ludicrously-tall rock. Belda’s pack had survived along with her, as it happened, but she didn’t join the discussion. She didn’t even turn around.

Dread stole away Olórin’s good mood, and for a moment, he was looking at her from the other side of the Troll-camp. He moved slowly forward, at almost exactly the same moment she moved, as well, toward the ledge. Longer legs gave him the advantage, and he called her name quietly once he was within arm’s reach. She didn’t respond, and his dread intensified. Another step, two, and he was beside her, just as she reached the edge of the Carrock.

He caught her arm quickly, and she swayed forward though her feet stopped, toes curling over the brink. Noticing that meant that Olórin also noticed the drop, and his heart pounded. By the grace of Eru, perhaps he could survive such a fall, but a Hobbit would have no hope of it. “Kit, what are you doing? You’ll fall.”

Motion drew his eyes to the Company as he looked up from the precipice, and he held up his free hand, stilling Kíli and Nori, slowing Dwalin. “…Fall?” He looked to Belda as the small, slurred word registered, and the dazed, sleepy expression on her face only made him more alarmed. She gave a tiny shake of her head. “No, Gandalf. Want to fly.” 

The pure, simple longing in her face and voice broke his heart even as he understood the cause. As Hobbits drew near their First Shift, the instincts and desires of their soul-form became nearly indistinguishable from their Hobbit-form, and more than a few Hobbits had come to a tragic end just days or weeks before their First Shift; fish-Hobbits drowning because they forgot they couldn’t yet breathe underwater, squirrel-Hobbits falling out of trees because they couldn’t tell when the branches were too thin to support their weight, bird-Hobbits plummeting because they’d jumped off or out of something.

He’d thought that Belda was some sort of fox, but he’d obviously been wrong; she was staring at the horizon as though she couldn’t survive without it, as though she were dying of thirst and it was an oasis.

But the Hobbits who succumbed as she was tended to be daydreamers, young men and women who lived with their heads in the clouds and a single toe, if that, on the ground. By and large, Belda seemed far more pragmatic than that. He never would have guessed that she’d be in danger of this…

Unless he’d been right. Gently, he tried to turn her head toward him, but though she didn’t fight him, her eyes stayed fixed on the clouds. Starting to feel desperate, he took hold of her forearm and lifted her hand into her line of sight. She blinked slowly, a faint furrow forming in her brow, and slowly (slowly) moved her fingers, looking at them as though she’d never seen them before. Just as painfully slowly, her eyes panned down to his hand, then followed his arm up to his shoulder, then finally met his eyes. Her eyes had seemed to skip, at times, not as though she were jumping from detail to detail as she might have normally, but as though she had to fight just to keep her eyes roughly on target. After that, he wasn’t especially surprised to see that one of her pupils was an ovate dot, while the other was as huge as though they’d been in complete darkness.

“Gandalf?”

His heart broke over again; she sounded as young as the first time they’d met. On impulse more than anything else, he released a quick pulse of magic, and she fell limply into his arms. The Company cried out, a few (five) voices louder than the rest, but he only cradled her to his chest and strode past the Dwarves to the stairs he’d seen before.


 

Fíli

 

Fíli half-tripped down the last of the stairs alongside Kíli, heart in her throat. Dwalin was yelling hoarsely at Gandalf, as he had been all the way down, but between him, Thorin, and occasionally Bofur, it was almost impossible to make out the words. She and Kíli were at the tail of the group; he’d completely frozen when Gandalf turned around, Belda no more than a rag doll in his arms, and Fíli had needed his hand in hers as much as she thought he had.

The only person they’d ever lost, or at least the only one they’d known, was their Adad. Fíli’d been twenty, Kíli fifteen. He’d been a jeweler, but he’d often hunted when the weather was good, and one day, he simply hadn’t come home. It had taken Thorin and Dwalin four days to find him, and by then, he’d been long gone. The last time they’d spoken to their Adad, he’d covered them with kisses and promised to bring home something special. The last time they’d seen their Adad, he’d been still and grey, and neither of them had been able to look at him during the burial ceremony. They’d only held each others’ hands as though there were nothing else in the world but them, nothing they could rely on but one another.

They held each others’ hands now.

Fíli tried to remember what the last thing she’d said to Belda was. They hadn’t had a chance to speak in the tree, so it must have been before the cav— no, just after Belda was reunited with them, Fíli had asked what she’d smelled. ‘What is it’. Were those going to be the last words she ever said to her? Belda had spoken after that, at least twice, nothing personal, nothing non-urgent, just battlefield orders, but Fíli hadn’t responded. 

Neither had Kíli. As Gandalf called Óin loudly enough for even him to hear, Fíli tore her eyes from Belda and looked to her brother. His expression was as dark as his bloodless face was pale, and Fíli remembered how he’d fought when Belda had fallen. He was as mute now, as intense, but now there was nothing to fight. There was nothing threatening them, threatening Belda. There was nothing he could do.

There was nothing any of them could do, except, it seemed, Óin. Dwalin swore, quite creatively, at Gandalf, as he set down Belda, and the wizard finally seemed to snap. Drawing up to his full height with a glare black enough to fell a Troll, his voice thundered. “I will thank you to stop badgering me, Dwalin son of Fundin!”

Dwalin swore again, and matched Tharkûn’s glare. “Who are you to—”

“I am her Godfather!”

“AND I AM HER FATHER!” Fíli gaped at Dwalin; the braid he’d given her had made it clear enough, but seeing and hearing it were two very different things. The entire Company seemed to agree with her, as even Óin fell silent, watching Dwalin, wide-eyed. Voice thick, eyes shining, Dwalin continued more quietly, “If she’ll have me. Now what is wrong with my Nâthu-ib-Bujbu?”

For a few moments, Gandalf just stared at Dwalin, seeing what, Fíli couldn’t tell, but with a solemnity in his expression that she suspected meant he was considering more than the obvious. Slowly, he nodded, and knelt beside Belda, eyes never leaving Dwalin. Fíli and Kíli moved a bit closer to hear him. “She has a concussion, severe enough that she wasn’t aware of anything but that she wasn’t flying anymore and wanted to be again. I don’t think she was aware that she couldn’t fly under her own power.”

Dwalin staggered back as though he’d taken a blow to the chest. “She— If—”

Gandalf nodded grimly. “I thought it best to place her in a deep sleep for the time being.”

Nori, surprisingly, was the one to speak up, sharply. “What good’s that? Just heal her!”

Tharkûn’s glare was just as sharp. “I am not a healer by trade, Nori. It took much of my ability to heal Thorin, and I cannot be sure that I could heal Belda sufficiently at the moment.” Shaking his head, he sighed. “If I were to try now and her condition is more severe than I’d anticipated, I could very well fail to realize she was not yet well, and she would suffer the consequences.”

“So what you did…?”

Gandalf met Dwalin’s eyes evenly. “As I said, she is in a deep sleep. It will not heal her, but neither will she worsen. Once I’ve gathered enough strength to be sure I can restore her completely, I will wake her and do so. Until then, she will not dream, nor feel pain from any of her wounds, and there is at least one which must be tended before she wakes.”

The mithril in his voice was odd, but Óin spoke before anyone could ask. “These wounds need cleaning, and I’ll need medicines.”

After a moment or two of silence, Bombur lifted a hand. “If you tell me what you need, I could look around.”

Nodding briskly, Óin began going over a list, but Fíli was distracted by Kíli’s hand turning to stone in hers. She looked to him automatically, only to see that his lowered eyes were as flinty as his grip; after another moment, his head snapped up. “I’ll go with Bombur.”

“Kíli.”

He gave Thorin a brief nod, but his eyes returned to Gandalf and Óin almost at once. “If there’s game to be found, I’ll bring it back. If there isn’t, my eyes are sharper than Bombur’s.”

Bombur looked relieved; Óin looked satisfied, as did Gandalf; Dwalin and Thorin both looked as though they didn’t know whether to laud Kíli for his initiative or forbid him to venture out of sight, and Fíli wasn’t sure which she’d prefer they do. Finally, Thorin gave a single nod. “Fíli—”

“Lass, you’ll help me.” Fíli wasn’t sure Óin had actually heard Thorin begin to address her, but he certainly saw Thorin’s glower. “I need a lass to help tend the Burglar, and I don’t think any of the rest of ye qualify.”

Thorin opened his mouth again, but Dwalin cut him off. “The lad’s as capable as any of us, Thorin.”

Gandalf chimed quietly in, “The Eagles carried us some miles. The Orcs will not catch up to us in a single night.”

Thorin’s expression darkened as he thought, and Kíli squeezed Fíli’s hand gently. He gave her an apologetic look when she turned to him, but she knew him too well to think that he’d do any differently if he had no hope of being forgiven. Besides, there was nothing to forgive; if he hadn’t volunteered, Fíli probably would have done it for him. With a half-smile, she squeezed his hand, too, before letting go as he did and going to Óin as he went to Bombur. As Kíli passed their uncle, Thorin grabbed his arm, drawing him to a stop just long enough for him to rumble, “Stay alert.”

Recognizing the concern for what it was, Kíli couldn’t quite hide the affection in his eyes as he nodded soberly at Thorin’s words. Fíli might not have, either, if she hadn’t been close enough now to Belda to see the state she was in.

Swallowing hard, Fíli couldn’t respond when Óin directed her to carry Belda to the stream, she couldn’t point out Nori slipping after Kíli and Bombur, and she couldn’t argue when Dwalin lifted Belda first, as gently as though she were a newborn. She and Óin followed behind him until he reached the river. Remembering Belda’s insistence on not being undressed by a man in Rivendell, Fíli moved beside Dwalin and laid a hand on his arm.

He met her eyes slowly, and the unshed tears in his made her eyes burn in sympathy. But she held his gaze until he dropped his eyes to Belda again. He watched her for a long moment, pain clear in every line of his face, before touching his forehead gently to hers. He let loose a shuddering breath, drew back, and lowered her carefully to the shore. Once she was settled, he still seemed reluctant to move (or even look) away from her, and Fíli again touched his arm. “Óin and I will need to focus on her, so if you could stand guard…”

She wasn’t sure how to finish without it being obvious that she was reaching, but Dwalin just nodded rapidly, blinking just as quickly, and drew his axes as he stood. Fíli might have only been looking for a reason for him to keep his dignity, but she couldn’t help but feel a little safer nonetheless; her excuse had the benefit of being true.

Dwalin stood with his back to them at the edge of the trees, but Fíli didn’t move until Óin sat a few feet away, just enough ahead that he’d have to turn to see Belda. Then Fíli began undressing Belda.

With every piece of clothing she removed, at least two injuries were brought to light, but thankfully, she didn’t need to remove any of Belda’s underthings. Even so, it was more skin than she’d seen in Rivendell, and she could barely even be glad that there weren’t any scars on her legs; as the breeze picked up, Belda’s skin pebbled, though her expression didn’t change in the slightest. Her injuries meant that Fíli couldn’t replace any of the articles she’d removed, at least not until she was tended to, but she could and did lay her jacket over as much of her as she could without touching an open wound. It left her left leg, shoulders, and arms uncovered, but most of her was hidden, at least.

She only needed to step into Óin’s view to get his attention, and the two of them set to work. Dwalin intercepted someone a half-hour or so in, though she couldn’t hear if it was Bombur or Kíli, and she collected the bundle or herbs and roots from him once whoever it was was gone. The work went no faster once they had the supplies, but by midday, all of Belda’s wounds were tended to as thoroughly as was possible, all the blood had been washed off, and they were carrying her back on a rough-made stretcher. Close inspection had shown that Belda had two broken ribs, at the edge of a purple-black bruise that stretched horizontally across her abdomen. Fíli could only hope that Gandalf’s magic would be able to heal them, at least partially.

Though, she wasn’t sure as much would be needed as if she were a Dwarrowdam. Fíli and Kíli had gotten more than their share of scrapes when they were Dwarflings, and she didn’t remember any of hers scabbing over as quickly as Belda’s cuts were. Óin hadn’t said anything, but he’d had an odd expression when he saw them.

But still, the swelling at the back of Belda’s head made Fíli’s blood go cold, and the suspiciously Goblin-bite-sized chunk taken out of her right ear, just under the point, had made her sick to her stomach. Though, to be precise, it hadn’t been the bite itself. It had been that some of Belda’s ear was still dangling by a thread’s width of flesh, and Óin had had to cut it off before they could bandage it. He’d grumbled something about it already healing past being able to stitch it back together, but Fíli hadn’t paid too much attention to anything but keeping her stomach from rebelling entirely.

On the way back to the camp, Óin led the way, finding the easiest path, and Fíli held the front end of the stretcher so that Dwalin could watch Belda as they went; he’d been completely silent since sending off whoever had brought the supplies, but it was obvious how much it wore at him, not being able to hold Belda. Fíli’d redressed her once they were done, but it was easy to see, even so, that she was half-covered in makeshift bandages.

Perhaps that was why the camp was so silent when they reached it. Fíli knew it was why Kíli’s eyes were suspiciously bright as he watched them, and she suspected (though she felt a pang to even think such) that it was why Ori looked as though he were about to cry. It was completely possible that he was just worried for Belda like Fíli was, as a friend, but… they had been spending an awful lot of time together. And Belda did seem head over heels for Kíli, but that didn’t mean Ori knew that.

Disgusted with herself, Fíli reminded herself that she was a Princess. Nothing could happen between her and Ori, and no matter how it hurt, Belda was a better match for him. But it still hurt.

As Fíli and Dwalin set Belda carefully down, Óin began his report; Dwalin sat next to Belda, holding her uninjured hand, while Fíli made her way over to Kíli to take his hand, in turn. “Two cuts on her leg, healing nicely, but she’ll limp for a few days, at least; scratches on her arms, shoulders, and foot, already scabbing over, should be gone day after tomorrow, I’d guess; she’s got a cut on the side of her hand, another on the back of her arm, that’ll hurt like the dickens, might scar; she got hit by something, I’d guess during the battle, that broke two of her ribs, might have cracked a few more, but I can’t tell, and I hope to Mahal that you’ll be able to fix that, wizard, because I’ve no way to bind them and no way to ensure they heal properly; she’s covered in bruises, but some should be gone by this time tomorrow, most by the day after, the rest by the end of the week, I’d say.”

“That’s not possible.” 

Kíli’s expression fairly screamed that he was just as incredulous as Ori, but all he could do was look at his sister, wide-eyed. Fíli squeezed his hand reassuringly as Gandalf huffed. “I assure you, it is, Ori. Hobbits may be more fragile than Dwarves, but they have a capacity to heal naturally that is quite beyond any of the other Races. And yes, I believe I’ll be able to take care of both her head and ribs, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to repair everything. The two areas alone will require me to wait until this evening or early next morning to heal her, and staying put longer than that would be inadvisable, I should think.”

Thorin’s expression twitched into a glower, but Fíli saw his eyes flick to Dwalin, brushing his thumb over Belda’s comparatively-tiny hand, then to Belda herself, still as death and not looking much better. His jaw clenched, but he nodded. “Then we break camp in the morning.”


 

Dwalin

 

The wait until Gandalf could heal Belda was as bad as waiting for Thorin to give her the bloody contract had ever been. Dwalin trusted that Tharkûn could heal her, he’d healed Thorin, after all, but that didn’t change the fact that for the time being, his nathith may as well have been at death’s door. 

But mostly, he was angry at himself. When she’d found them again (and he was under no illusions about that; she had found them, not the other way around), he’d seen her throat and he’d seen the Orc-blood, but he hadn’t even noticed her ear, let alone any of the other injuries. It was possible that she’d acquired them in the fight with the Orcs, of course, but he didn’t think she had. 

But then again, he’d lost track of her long enough for her to get a concussion. Who knew what else he’d missed?

And then, he’d seen her while they’d been flying, and just because she’d been on an Eagle’s back, like the rest of them, rather than being held like Thorin, he’d assumed that she was unhurt. He’d thought Thorin was the more pressing patient, he’d thought it wouldn’t matter if he looked away from her for a few minutes. She might have wandered off the edge of the cliff while he was distracted. 

That was hardest of all, while he waited. The constant, kaleidoscopic barrage of scenarios where she walked off while Gandalf was healing Thorin, where the wizard didn’t catch her before she walked off after Thorin’s apology, where she simply succumbed to her wounds before anyone could do anything. Where Dwalin failed to protect her, in a million different ways.

He’d called himself her father, he’d claimed her as his Nâthu-ib-Banth, and at the first opportunity, he’d turned his back on her. Thorin was his best friend, it was true, and Thorin was his King, but Thorin had twelve Dwarves and a wizard to protect him. Most of them, Dwalin wouldn’t trust with their own safety, let alone their King’s, but Glóin was an experienced warrior, as was Bifur, and Fíli and Kíli were extraordinarily skilled for their ages. He wouldn’t trust Thorin to any single one of them, but the four of them combined, especially with the rest of the Company as an extra line of defense, he would trust with nearly anyone. Not if the Company were divided, of course, or if there were more wounded than only Thorin, but as it had happened, he should have trusted them to watch Thorin. He should have gone to Belda as soon as he set foot on that bloody oversized boulder.

He’d sworn never to leave her alone. He’d broken his word twice over.

By all rights, he should have shorn his beard the second Gandalf gave his diagnosis. But that would mean leaving Belda. She was too still, too pale. She looked dead. The only reason he could keep his composure in the slightest was that he could feel the (albeit negligible) warmth of her hand, the pulse in her thumb. When she was safe, when she was well, then he would keep his word. 

When the wizard knelt beside Belda sometime around midnight, Dwalin steeled himself to be told to move, but instead Gandalf looked at him, with such profound pity that Dwalin could barely breathe, and told him (quietly, but in no uncertain terms) to stay just where he was.

The healing itself was unimpressive; Gandalf held a hand over her, closed his eyes, said something in no language Dwalin had ever heard, and it was done. But the flash of pain that crossed her face faded quickly into a contented half-smile, and her fingers twitched in Dwalin’s. It was more than she’d moved in hours, and Dwalin couldn’t stop himself from grabbing hold of Gandalf’s sleeve as he began to stand. No words broke through the deluge of relief and gratitude that was flooding all through him, but the wizard seemed to understand Dwalin’s look anyway, and just smiled back, kindly, and quietly accepted his thanks.

Dwalin’s eyes fell to Belda again, and he had to blink hard when he realized she was breathing more easily than she had been. He laughed once, wetly, but tried to restrain himself to just a grin when she twitched at the noise. He couldn’t stop smiling, though, and couldn’t stop thinking, ‘she’ll live, she’ll heal, she’ll be fine’.

He wasn’t sure how long he just sat there, running his thumb over her hand just so he could feel her fingers squeeze his in response, but a little while after it started to be an effort just to keep his eyes open, feet moved into view on Belda’s other side. Reluctantly, he looked away from her, up to Fíli and Kíli. Kíli’s eyes were fixed to Belda’s face, shining with the same relief Dwalin felt, but Fíli was watching him sympathetically. “Gandalf says someone needs to keep an eye on her while she sleeps.”

Dwalin’s response was automatic. “I can.”

Fíli just quirked an eyebrow at him. “You’re half asleep yourself. It’s been a long day. Kíli and I can take shifts, and we’ll wake you at dawn.”

Dwalin opened his mouth to argue, but a jaw-splitting yawn interrupted him. Scowling at Fíli, he laid down beside Belda, keeping hold of her hand, and had barely closed his eyes before sleep claimed him.

 

“Fíli, it’s not funny!” Kíli’s half-hiss, half-whine was quiet, but still just loud enough to reach Dwalin. He stirred slowly, weighing whether or not he could go back to sleep for a long moment before he realized he couldn’t feel Belda’s hand. His eyes snapped open, heart pounding, but the sight of Fíli with her fist stuffed in her mouth, desperately stifling laughter, was enough to give him pause. “He’s going to kill me— do you want to be an only child?”

Fíli snorted, and choked out through snickers, “We’ll just find out, then, won’t we?”

“Fíli!” Sluggishly, Dwalin focused on Kíli. It was a little difficult, since it wasn’t quite yet dawn and his shape was strangely bulky, but slowly Dwalin was able to make out Kíli’s blushing, pleading face, his arms stretching behind him as he propped himself on his hands, nearly vertical, and the shape of Belda, curled up in his lap—

A flood of rage swept over him, and he wasn’t sure what he might have done if Belda hadn’t given a sleepy sigh and snaked her arm around Kíli’s neck, nosing the underside of his jaw. Kíli’s eyes screwed shut, his jaw and hands clenching, before he looked up at his sister again. “Fíli. Help me.”

She just laughed, and though Dwalin was in no mood to do the same, his anger began to drain away. He’d woken more than once to find Belda curled up beside him when he knew for a fact she’d been a full pace away when they’d settled down for the night, so it wasn’t impossible that she might do similarly to someone else, especially when she was as fond of Kíli as she was. That didn’t mean he was just going to let this go on.

He stood; Kíli paled considerably; Fíli laughed harder. Deliberately, he stepped over to Kíli, gently untangled Belda’s arm from him, and lifted her into his arms. She squirmed at first, but clutched at his jacket once he was holding her, a contented smile just visible with her hair finally beginning to spring free of the braid. Kíli fell back, looking relieved, though Fíli gave a mock-disappointed pout.

Mindful of Belda’s wounds, Dwalin settled back down carefully, tucking her against his side as he laid down again. She squirmed into a more comfortable position, but never woke, and was still after only a few moments. 

“I didn’t touch her.” Dwalin turned his head to look at Kíli, sitting up, now, his shoulders hunched slightly. Holding Dwalin’s eyes, his own wide and intense, he repeated just as quietly, “I didn’t touch her. I swear.”

Fíli spoke up, slightly more composed now. “She just sort of slithered on top of him, really. Like a cat. You should’ve seen his face!” She collapsed into cackles, and Dwalin’s eyes returned to Kíli.

Remembering how stiff the Prince had been, and how panicked, and knowing how Belda could be when she was asleep, Dwalin nodded slowly. “I believe you.”

After a frozen moment, Kíli obviously relaxed; Dwalin had to wonder what sort of retribution the boy had been expecting. The thought amused him, and he fell asleep again with a smile.

Chapter Text

Belda ached. Everything hurt except her right elbow, and for some reason, she was lying on her left side. She tried to roll over, but she felt oddly sluggish, and even opening her eyes was a trial. Sunlight hit her eyes, and even through her eyelids, it was painful. She groaned, and someone beside her gasped; another instant and she recognized Dwalin’s scent.

That explained why she felt so safe, she supposed, and why she leaned into his hand when he cupped her cheek. But even the belonging she felt with Dwalin couldn’t block the pain that shot through her when he tried to lift her. Some thread of stubbornness that persisted through the fog refused to let on how much pain she was in, but she couldn’t help a whimper. Dwalin snatched his hand away as though she’d burnt him, guilt and fear souring his scent; she shushed him weakly, and found his hand blindly, holding on as tightly as she could, though she doubted that was much to say at the moment. He (gently) returned her hold, but his scent didn’t change.

As she caught her breath, she forced her eyes open a crack, and frowned at the unfamiliar woods past Dwalin’s arm. “Where’re we?”

Her throat burned as she spoke, but a flash of memory came back to her, looking around the Company frantically with Dwalin’s arms around her, and how speaking had felt like breathing fire. She still couldn’t understand how fire-drakes like Smaug could do it; it sounded horrible. But her throat didn’t hurt as much now, though she still wouldn’t give any speeches for a few days, at least.

Dwalin answered quietly as she used her grip on him to pull herself up a little. “Under the Carrock, that was where the Eagles set us down.”

Frowning, she met his eyes. “Eagles?”

He matched her expression. “You don’t remember?”

He didn’t seem to be joking, and she thought carefully before shaking her head as much as she could without her neck protesting. “I had a strange dream about flying,” not like her usual flying dreams at all, “but no Eagles.”

“That wasn’t a dream, dear girl.” Automatically, she tried to look toward Gandalf, but between her general soreness and the light hurting her eyes, she barely moved before subsiding with a wince and a hiss. The fear in Dwalin’s scent strengthened, but his hand was steady, and she used her grip on him to pull herself slowly but surely upright; he wanted to help, she could tell, but, well. Everything hurt, so there really wasn’t anything he could do without hurting her more.

It took a minute or two, but she was sitting up soon enough, leaning heavily on Dwalin’s chest, and determinedly ignoring the dull ache in all the bruises on her back. Óin bustled over almost before she was sitting, and insisted on looking over her bandages to make certain she hadn’t opened her wounds again, and there were quite a lot of bandages. Kíli brought her a bowl of food once Óin was satisfied, but his face was a little redder than usual, and he only weakly returned her smile.

She did have more questions about where they were, how they’d gotten there, and so forth, but she was also spectacularly hungry, and Gandalf refused to answer her until she’d eaten at least one serving. Everyone else followed his lead, so in the end, it wasn’t until she set aside her half-finished third bowl that anyone spoke. “Belda, don’t you think—”

Cutting off Gandalf’s not-so-subtle nod to the unfinished serving, she crossed her arms dismissively. “I’ll finish it in a few minutes; I’ll burst if I don’t wait.”

He nodded soberly; she had to give up her semi-assured pose when her left arm protested, and glared at Fíli when she snickered. “I believe it’ll be easiest to fill in the gaps if you tell us what you remember first, my dear.”

Óin, watching as Bifur signed something, presumably what Gandalf was saying, since Óin’s ear trumpet was nowhere in sight, nodded emphatically. “And how you were injured, lass.” She raised an eyebrow at him, and he glared back. “If there’s a risk of infection, I need to know now.”

She wanted to argue, but unfortunately, he made sense. Shaking her head, she caught Ori’s eye. “Is there any water?”

He nodded, smiling broadly, and pulled her cup out of her pack before walking off into the trees; she blinked after him for a moment, but decided there was probably some sort of water source that way. Fíli’s expression caught her eye, though; she looked almost… well, almost heartbroken, though it was replaced after an instant with anger, then stubbornness. Filing it away to be considered later, Belda thought back to the last clear moment she remembered: holding her sword to the Hob-Goblin’s throat. That was after they were all separated, though.

She cleared her throat, holding back a wince. “So, um. The Goblins rushed us and I fell.” Gandalf’s eyebrow leapt up, but she tried to ignore him. “I think I hit my head in the fall, or maybe the landing, because I woke up in a cave, or a pit, of some sort. It didn’t have a ceiling, so I’ve no idea how far I fell.” Thoughtfully, she tilted her head to the sky, half-seeing the cave again. “There were mushrooms everywhere. Then… I don’t know what he was, really. I thought of him as a ‘Hob-Goblin’, but he wasn’t a Goblin, I know that.”

“How d’ye know that?” 

Idly, she noted that Balin’s accent was thicker than usual, but she just blinked at him. “My sword. Elven blade, but it didn’t so much as flicker when it was just me and him. Therefore…” She shrugged slightly; thoughts returning to the memory, an echo of her panic in the moment returned. “He’s the one who…” Wincing, she touched her throat lightly, before reaching up to her ear; she’d forgotten about that, somehow, and only stopped herself from touching the injury through force of will. 

“Why didn’t you fight him?”

Her eyes snapped to Thorin, and the memory of his casting her out of the pack returned with a vengeance. Deliberately, she looked away from him as she answered; Ori was just visible through the trees, carefully making his way back to the camp. “I did. I kicked him away at first, then tried to get my sword; I must have dropped it in the fall, because it was on the other side of the cave. While I was doing that, he jumped on me.” Her hip throbbed, and she traced the cuts through the bandage, brow furrowed. “That was when…” 

“He had a sword?” Nori sounded off, somehow, and as she met her eyes, a ghost of something drifted through Belda, some half-remembered hurt that she didn’t have context for.

Putting aside the mystery for a few minutes, she shook her head. “No, I did. I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t breathe, and—” The cut on her hand stung as she clenched her fist, and she stretched her hand out experimentally; it hurt, but there was no real damage to her hand. “I cut my hand on the blade, that’s how I found it. And then I wasn’t thinking, I just wanted to stop him, so I slashed back, and…” She touched the wounds on her leg lightly, letting the gesture speak for itself.

“And then?” Dwalin’s voice rumbled through her, and she smiled, despite the subject.

“I made him show me the way out.”

“‘Made him’?” Bofur sounded mildly incredulous, but Ori just snorted as he set the cup of water beside her.

“You think she can’t be intimidating if she wants to?” A flicker of guilt ran through her, but Ori met her eyes as he finished, his expression reassuring, and her guilt subsided to the background again.

As Ori sat beside an again-stiff Fíli, Belda half-smiled at Bofur. “I had a sword to his throat. It seemed to motivate him.” 

Bofur’s brows shot up as Dwalin chuckled, and warmth spread through her as the warrior dropped a kiss to the top of her head. Despite how her headache sharpened at the motion, she tilted her head up to smile at him, and warmth spread through her again when he smiled softly back.

Settling back, she returned to the story. “He led me to the exit, or at least an exit, albeit reluctantly. Took hours. There were Goblins there, of course, and he wanted to go back; he’d been trying to convince me not to make him go there all the while, so I agreed. And then…” The look on his face came back to her as vividly as if she were still looking at him, the fear in his eyes heartbreaking now that she wasn’t almost as scared. “I was going to kill him. But I couldn’t do it. He was scared of me, and—”

Explaining why, exactly, she’d changed her mind was out of the question, so she settled for, simply, “I was scared, too. I couldn’t kill him. So I knocked him out.” She hesitated for a beat; she needed to tell Gandalf about the ring, but could she risk it affecting the Company like it had the Goblins? Trying to seem as though she were just trying to get comfortable, she adjusted her waistcoat and jacket, brushing her fingers over the circle of gold. It would keep. “I hid him so he wouldn’t be found before he came to, and I went back to the exit.”

“You saw what killed the Goblins?” Thorin’s expression was oddly intense, but Belda could only blink at him, perplexed. Looking down, she confirmed that she was still wearing the blood-soaked clothes, and tugged at a particularly drenched patch, raising an eyebrow at Thorin pointedly. It took him a moment, eyes flicking between hers and her clothes, but he gave her an incredulous look once he realized. “You?”

If she hadn’t still been warm through from Dwalin’s implied praise, she might have gotten snippy, but as it was, she just shrugged. “They were in the way.”

Thorin gaped at her, and the rest of the Company, even Gandalf, seemed just as shocked. Reminding herself that they hadn’t seen her in a proper fight, she took the opportunity to take a few sips of water. “You killed five Goblins?”

She started to nod at Balin, but had to stop with an embarrassed grimace as she remembered the fight in its entirety. “Well, I killed two, really. Two of them were too busy fighting each other to realize I was close enough to kill them, and one sort of impaled himself on my sword.”

Bifur said something, nodding sagely, and Bofur translated, watching her thoughtfully, “Still counts.”

For some reason, the guarded approval in Bifur’s expression made her blush, and she took another sip to hide it; she hadn’t really interacted with Bifur, after the first night with the Company, but she’d seen him fight, and she knew full well that he was one of the better fighters in the Company. His approval still didn’t mean as much to her as Dwalin’s, but maybe somewhere around Thorin’s.

“Anyway,” she cleared her throat, “one of them sliced my arm, and another grabbed my ankle, tripped me.” She moved both limbs slightly as she spoke, testing her range of motion as much as she could while sitting, and felt a bit relieved to find that her foot was sore, but otherwise fine, and her arm hurt, but was a nuisance, not a hindrance. “And then I ran outside, and you all saw the rest.”

Balin held up a hand, expression conciliatory. “Humor us. What do you remember of the battle?”

Confused, she tilted her head as she frowned; they were there for that part, weren’t they? Nevertheless, she thought back. “The Orcs came, we ran, we climbed trees, Gandalf started lighting things on fire—”

Gandalf scoffed, but she saw the edge of a smile before Kíli distracted her, grinning. “You nailed Azog in the face.”

For a moment, she just stared at him. Then she remembered, and a laugh burst out of her. “I did! Oh, his face!” Shoulders shaking as she laughed, she leaned back against Dwalin. But there hadn’t been much humor after that, and her mirth drained away quickly. Her eyes met Thorin’s. “You tried to fight Azog.”

It came out more accusing than she’d intended, and Thorin stiffened, eyes flashing. “I ‘tried’ to do nothing. I foug—”

“Oh, so you meant to get knocked down and knocked out, then? You meant to leave yourself and your Company at Azog’s mercy?” Another flash of memory returned, the reason she hadn’t helped Thorin immediately, and the hangdog look in Nori’s eyes was all the confirmation Belda needed to be left with a bad taste in her mouth.

Thorin opened his mouth to shout again, but Gandalf’s voice rang through the clearing. “Enough!” 

He glared at both her and Thorin in turn, and Belda couldn’t help but lower her head. Her eyes met Thorin’s, and he gave her a look that promised the conversation wasn’t over; she was fine with that, seeing as how she wasn’t done with her side, either. Still, she felt a bit like when she’d gotten into a brawl with her cousin Sigismond when they were ten or eleven. They’d been caught in the middle of it and forcibly pulled apart, and she’d felt much the same then as she did now.

After that, they’d wound up fighting nearly every time they saw each other until she realized how much her fighting worried her Da and she had to be the better person and walk away if she saw Sigismond; for the Company’s sake, at least, she hoped there was a better way to resolve things with Thorin.

Part of her, though, couldn’t help but find it a little funny that a nearly-two-hundred-year-old, battle-hardened Dwarf was behaving so much like a cranky fauntling.

Of course, dropping the argument didn’t mean she couldn’t make a point. “So, after Thorin was needlessly and stupidly wounded defending his pride,” Thorin growled; Gandalf glared at both of them again, “I… that’s right, I ran down, too.”

Thorin shot her a smirk, and she glared at him, phantom claws extending and retracting with her annoyance. “Oh, shut up, that's completely different.” Gandalf glowered at them, and she (reluctantly) refocused on her memory. “I killed the Orc that was about to kill you, Dwalin, Kíli, and Fíli helped me kill the next few,” Dwalin snorted; she elbowed him, “then—”

Remembering the agony, she let out a hiss, reaching up to her ear again, and this time she let herself brush the bandages, feather-light. Even that sent a paroxysm of pain through her, and she snatched her hand away, blinking hard. It was a long moment before she was able to unclench her jaw, and her ear throbbed insistently for some time after that; ignoring it as best she could, she looked at Gandalf rather than face any of the Company’s confusion. “Azog charged me while I was incapacitated, and… that’s right, I jumped toward his swing.”

Dwalin let out a shocked hiss, his scent flooding with horror, and she looked up at him as the Company exclaimed. “Why would you do something as foolish as that, kit?”

He was only concerned, she knew, but the question rankled. She wasn’t a child. “He was trying to hit me like he did Thorin. Seeing as how I don’t wear armor, it would have killed me. If I’d ducked, he’d have hit me in the head, there was no way I could jump out of range in time, so I jumped toward him. I got hit with the shaft instead of the mace itself, which is probably the only reason I’m still alive.”

She glared up at him for a long moment; his expression didn’t soften in the slightest, still almost condemning, but his scent was still horrified, and worried. She knew better than to trust her eyes alone. After a few unchanging seconds, she turned back to face the Company. “Everything’s a bit of a blur after that. I remember waking up beside a boulder with a headache, I think I remember Azog walking toward me, but he was just a blur, so I can’t be sure, but I could have sworn I dreamt the next bit.”

“What happened?” Balin’s expression was calm, no trace of the shock from a minute before; Belda met his eyes hesitantly.

“Well, the Orcs started flying away. And then I was flying—” Simple, pure, yearning swept through her, far stronger than the way she usually felt after a flying dream, and she had to blink away a blur, swallowing hard, before she could continue. “I was flying, and then I wasn’t, and then I woke up just now.”

The clearing was silent. Guilt crept into Dwalin’s scent again, but the discomfited look on Thorin’s face held her attention. “There were words spoken after the Eagles delivered us. Do you remember none of them?”

Frowning, Belda tilted her head. Thorin looked almost… contrite. Watching him, she shook her head. “Noises, blurs. No words, or even voices, really. No faces. I only know I saw Azog because he’s practically albino.”

There! There was a flash of… something, something pained, strained, in Thorin’s eyes, but he hid it quickly. The silence seemed tense, now, and she picked up her food again when the Company didn’t ask anything further. It was cold, of course, but she was hungry again, so she wolfed it down anyway.

Gandalf cleared his throat. “Well, then.”

 

Another two bowls of food later, Gandalf was nearing the end of his explanation; it might not have taken as long if the rest of the Company hadn’t interjected comments through it all, but she was too touched (and more than a little embarrassed) by their concern for her to be irritated. Besides, it gave her time to finish eating. “…was obvious that you were concussed. I’m only thankful I was able to stop you.”

“So am I.” Belda was barely able to gather enough volume to be audible; her time in the caves had been frightening, of course, but she’d only actually been afraid for her life when the Hob-Goblin was choking her. The idea that she’d come within a hair’s-breadth of actually dying was sobering, especially after the wargs, and especially Azog’s warg, had made it much more difficult not to remember the Fell Winter. For all that she loved heights, and that she ached to fly under her own power, death was a chilling thought.

Dwalin was stone behind her, and most of the Company looked nearly as solemn. Nori looked guilt-ridden (though Belda doubted anyone who didn’t have a fox for a mother would be able to tell), which a newly-raw part of Belda felt was only fair; Fíli and Ori looked ashamed, as well, but Belda suspected they only felt guilty for not realizing how dazed she was; Kíli felt somewhat the same as his sister and future brother-in-law (or at least she hoped Ori would be his brother-in-law someday), but far more so (if she hadn’t had quite so many injuries, she might have gone to him at one point, but perhaps it was for the best; he was still being odd); but Thorin still held most of her attention. There was something she was missing, probably something to do with what he’d asked, about if she’d heard the ‘words spoken’, especially since Gandalf’s account had skimmed over everything after he’d healed Thorin.

She looked between the two elders now, waiting for one of them to broach the subject. When neither did, she huffed. “Honestly. What aren’t you saying, Gandalf?”

Gandalf hesitated. “Perhaps it would be best to wait, my dear, until you feel up to it.”

“No.” Belda’d been half-expecting Thorin to speak, but evidently Gandalf hadn’t, as he startled noticeably. Ignoring him, Thorin stepped forward, and raised his voice to address the Company as a whole. “Miss Baggins and I need to have a private word.”

At the last words, and the all-too-familiar tone, Belda stiffened, suddenly cold, and suddenly in Bag-End again. Dwalin swore quietly in Khuzdûl (she recognized a word here and there, but not nearly enough to have any idea what he was saying) before murmuring urgently, “He doesn’t mean anything, kit, any more than I did.”

Turning to look up at him, she grabbed his sleeve, needing the anchor; she almost didn’t recognize her voice, it was so small, and so quiet that she wasn’t even sure Dwalin heard her for a moment. “You promise?”

Eyes soft and scent sorrowful, he covered her hand with his and squeezed gently. “I promise.” Slowly, her heart began to slow from the gallop it had been at, and she turned to lean against Dwalin’s chest again; as she pulled on Dwalin’s hands so his arms were close enough that she could feel the heat without touching any of her wounds, she met Thorin’s eyes, and her breath caught. He looked… genuinely concerned. Startled, yes, faintly disapproving, yes, though she couldn’t tell why, but concerned.

She didn’t understand. He’d cast her out. Why did he care?

Thorin shot a look at Dwalin, but a hint of anger crept into Dwalin’s scent as the panic faded. “You said it in front of the entire Company last time, Thorin. I’m not going anywhere.” He squeezed her hand again on the last sentence, and she relaxed a little further. Despite her automatic misgivings, though, she was intrigued. ‘Last time’?

Thorin glared at Dwalin for a long moment, presumably because they were having a staring contest, and she was surprised to see hints of hurt in their leader’s expression. Though, she’d noticed over the two and a half months since leaving the Shire that they were close friends, so perhaps that explained it. The two of them backed down almost simultaneously, and part of Belda couldn’t help but find the dynamic between them curious: Thorin was the leader of the pack, or King, if that’s what Dwarves called it, and Dwalin was his subordinate, but at times they behaved as equals. Dwalin almost always obeyed Thorin’s orders without question, but even so, Thorin respected him. Hobbits packs were more democratic than monarchies sounded, but still, a Hobbit commander wouldn’t give ground as Thorin was, except to his Rándýr-Verndari.

She wasn’t sure what she thought of it in general, but she easily relaxed further against Dwalin, and pulled his arms closer around her. Worse comes to worst, he would stand his ground against Thorin if he tried to cast her out entirely. She trusted that.

(She really wasn’t sure what she thought of being able to trust him so completely, but she couldn’t fight it, and wouldn’t if she could.)

Sighing quietly, but heavily, Thorin sat a few paces in front of her and Dwalin, and met her eyes steadily. “I owe you an apology, Miss Baggins.”

Stunned, she barely heard her automatic reply. “It’s fine, no apology necessary.”

Thorin’s eyes flicked to Dwalin for a moment, then returned to Belda, jaw clenched. “Yes, I’m told, it is. What I said on the cliff was largely untrue.” An inaudible growl rumbled through Dwalin, and therefore Belda, and she looked up, eyes wide, to see a glare as dark as any of Thorin’s on Dwalin’s face. Thorin huffed faintly, and she looked to him again. “Completely untrue.”

The cliff… She blinked. ‘No place amongst us’? ‘Should never have come’? That was what he was referring to? Brow furrowed, she shook her head. “But…”

Try as she might, she couldn’t find any further words, and Dwalin squeezed her hands lightly, his words just as soft. “We aren’t Hobbits, kit.”

“Even if they had been true, I now owe you my life. I would gr—”

“For what?” Thorin gaped at her for a moment, looking nearly as confused as she felt.

“You saved my life.”

She frowned at him. “Well, obviously, but why would you owe me anything?”

Thorin glowered at her; Dwalin was starting to shake, for some reason. “Do you put so little value on—”

Value?!”

“—fe of a Ki—”

“What do you mean ‘value’?!?” She almost couldn’t believe what she was hearing— well, not ‘hearing’, exactly, since she was barely listening to Thorin, but still, “What sort of person do you think I am?”

It was lucky for her that she’d leaned forward as she argued with her leader, as Dwalin’s shaking turned to full-blown belly laughter, and he fell back, still roaring out guffaws. She and Thorin exchanged an incredulous (what in Eru’s name is he doing) glance before focusing fully on the insensible third. He only continued laughing, though, and after a minute or so, Belda faced Thorin again, raising a brow at him. “Well?”

He scowled. “Well, what?”

She scoffed. “You’ve known him decades longer than I have; say something!”

“The two of you have been inseparable for weeks!”

“The two of you were practically inseparable when I met you, so you must know him better than I do!”

“Obviously not, or else I’d have seen what was happening long before the Giants!”

Bewilderment abruptly cooled Belda’s ire, and though Thorin’s eyes didn’t soften in the slightest, hers did as she furrowed her brow. “What are you talking ab—”

A vicious (and undoubtably dark) cuss in Khuzdûl cut her off, and as Thorin’s volume lowered, his venom grew until it dripped off his words almost tangibly. “In over a century and a half, Dwalin has never defied me, and yet he would for a complete stranger?” He shook his head; Belda felt numb, desperately screaming that his implication wasn’t true, but she couldn’t even move enough to blink away the blur at the edge of her vision, let alone to actually speak. “No. You’ve—”

Thorin.” Faintly, Belda realized there was pressure at her back again, but she only connected it to the voice when Thorin’s eyes flicked up, then back to her, then abruptly widened and he looked away. “Belda.” 

Dwalin’s voice was soft, but a bit too much pressure on her left hand made her wince; his scent changed, but it took her a long moment to recognize the guilt, and even longer to realize her wince had been audible. Once she did, she tore her eyes away from Thorin, staring at the ground to try and hide the heat building there, but Thorin had already been staring back at her for a few seconds by that point. Warm air ruffled the hair on top of her head, the feeling familiar somehow she couldn’t place, and he used a finger under her chin to turn her head gently, far enough that she could see one of the straps of his axe-holsters, but not far enough to hurt. 

The Khuzdûl resumed, quiet, but not soft, and this time it seemed to be a conversation between the two men. As they spoke, Dwalin delicately undid Belda’s braid, careful not to let her hair brush against her ear. She only felt his fingers in her hair at first, which was still enough to lull her half to sleep, despite how her hair caught on his callouses, but then she felt a wide-tooth comb against her scalp. An exhausted haze bled into memories of sitting in her Da’s lap while he combed leaves and sticks from her misadventures turned to waking dreams of Dwalin taking her father’s place in Bag-End’s living room. She felt Dwalin’s callouses, but heard her Da singing; Dwalin’s scent surrounded her, but she felt the heat from the fireplace; she recognized Thorin’s voice, but couldn’t disabuse herself of the overpowering sense of home and pack and family.

She hadn’t felt it so strongly in eleven years.

She couldn’t remember quite why at the moment, but she didn’t really care. She was warm and safe and comfortable, and she slept.


 

Dwalin

 

Careful not to disturb the sleeping Hobbit, Dwalin finished off the new braid, this one curling from the top of her head down to her left shoulder, away from her injured ear. She was curled up in his lap like a cat, her head resting on his knee in such a way that kept her bandaged ear over the edge and painless. The position meant that Dwalin could just see her contented expression in profile, but Thorin could see her full face, and at this point, he wasn’t able to pretend he couldn’t.

“Now do you see?” Dwalin kept his voice soft, having noticed once or twice already that Belda tended to grow distressed if he sounded angry. Thorin’s expression betrayed nothing, but Dwalin knew him too well to think he wasn’t listening. Just as he knew him too well to have read anything but frustration at the sudden stranger coming between them in his earlier words to Belda. But Belda didn't. “She’s a child, Thorin, or she may as well be. She’s not manipulating me, she’s not trying to take over the Company, and she’s risked her life as often or more so as anyone in the Company since she began traveling with us. From what she told me in Rivendell, I’d think she reacted like she did because she couldn’t believe anyone could even think of putting their own well-being above anyone else’s.”

Thorin scoffed hollowly. “No one could be so selfless. No Dwarf—”

“She’s not a Dwarf.” Thorin scowled; Dwalin huffed lightly. “I’ve been reminding her for weeks that we aren’t Hobbits, that we don’t think as she does. It never occurred to me that I might need to make the opposite reminder.”

Thorin didn’t respond. Dwalin couldn’t hold it against him, really. The two of them had seen too much greed and too little generosity in their lives, in the Men and Elves and even fellow Dwarrow who had neither reason to help nor hinder them. The idea that anyone would help without expectation of reward or even recognition was nearly laughable. It had taken Dwalin weeks of observing Belda for him to actually believe what he was telling Thorin now, but he did. 

“When she wakes up, try and do your best not to be a complete ‘utnrukhs.”

A bark of a laugh burst out of Thorin at the insult, and he grinned crookedly at Dwalin. “That’s rich, coming from you.”

Dwalin didn’t smile back. “This is my daughter, Thorin.” His friend’s grin faded slowly. “I haven’t had the chance to explain to her yet, but she’s my daughter whether or not I’m her father. You were out of line on the cliff and you were out of line a few minutes ago. She’s not a Dwarf. Her skin’s as thin as she is, because she’s had the stone dug out from under her so often that she hardly knows what she’s standing on anymore. Give her time to find her footing before you poke at her, binjabl.”

Thorin looked as though he might have responded, but a cacophonous crash came from the other side of camp, immediately chased by Bofur’s yelled “Sorry!”

Before he’d even gotten the first syllable out, Belda bolted upright, hand scrabbling at her hip. Dwalin only realized she was trying to draw the sword Dori still hadn’t gotten a chance to return to her when she smacked away the hand he offered and spun to face him, eyes wild and unseeing. An instant later she was scrambling back, hitting the ground with a cry that called Dwalin back to the moment she’d lost her grip on the cliffs, and a jolt of dread struck him. Thorin pushed to his feet, eyes wide, but she clambered away with a strangled gasp, favoring her injuries hugely, and Dwalin saw that Thorin understood at the same moment he did himself.

“Belda.” She startled at his voice, quiet though it was, and he tried to keep his tone level. “Belda, you’re safe, we’re all safe.” Slowly, he reached out, moving smoothly even as she flinched back, breathing ragged. “Belda. Please, kit, wake up.”

Her breath hitched; her brow furrowed above tear-filled eyes. “D— Dwalin?”

Heart in his throat, he couldn’t reply, just edged forward, eyes burning, until he could cup her cheek. Tears spilling over her cheeks, she lunged forward, into his arms, and he held her as gently as he could. Distantly, he heard Thorin and Gandalf calming the others down and sending them away, but he was too focused on the girl crying into his chest to listen. Careful not to touch her bandaged ear, he cradled the back of her head, pressing his lips to her crown. He was an idiot. She’d come out of the Goblins caves looking like death warmed over, how could she not have battle-dreams after that?

Her tremors faded slowly, lasting for several minutes after she calmed, but neither of them made any move to draw back until she was completely still. Then he only pulled back just far enough to touch his forehead to hers, and she didn’t open her eyes for a few moments more. “Kit?”

It was barely a whisper, but her mouth twitched into a hollow parody of a smile in response. “Lucid again, I think.” 

He couldn’t hold back a relieved sigh, or a breathed, “Thank Mahal.”

He’d been trapped in battle-dreams more than once after Erebor, and again after Azanulbizar, and it was a fate he wouldn’t wish on anyone, least of all his Nâthu-ib-Banth. Thorin sat nearby again, but Dwalin barely noticed. Belda closed her eyes, expression broken. “I’m sorry.”

Dwalin jolted back to see her face better, and cupped her cheek with his free hand. “Kit, what the bloody uslukh do you have to be sorry for?”

She blinked up at him, gaping slightly, for a long moment, and he realized it was like her confusion from Rivendell. “I— I…”

Her breath hitched, and the familiarity of it was enough for him to know that it wasn’t just ‘like’ Rivendell, it was the same confusion, the same hint of fear, the same look as though he were missing something so obvious that she’d never doubted it. He really hated that look.

Gently, he asked, “Because of your dream?” Immediately, she flinched, an embarrassed flush rising in her cheeks, and he wanted nothing more than to just reassure her and have done with it, but they had an audience. “Kit, what happened when you had dreams like that in Bag-End?”

Her flush darkened, and she looked away, lowering her head until he could barely see her closed-off expression. “It doesn’t matter.”

Dwalin huffed. “It does.”

“It doesn’t.”

“It’s hurting you!” She flinched again; he sighed, heart aching. Gently, he swept his thumb over her cheek, and her eyes closed as she leaned into his hand. “Kit, what happened?”

She was silent for a long moment, but he could feel her shaking, the tremors from before running invisibly through her. “…Nothing.” Dwalin opened his mouth to press her to elaborate, but she continued, “If I was quiet. If I wasn’t… or if I fought, they—” Her voice broke; tears spilled over his hand and into his beard. “They locked me in, wouldn’t open the door until I was quiet for more than a few hours. Took two y— years before I stopped waking up screa—ming—”

She broke down again, quiet sobs wracking through her, and Dwalin wrapped his arms around her, resting his head on hers. As she clutched at him, he turned his head to the side, and fixed Thorin with a cold stare. The King returned his look, but there was pain in his eyes, the same pain Dwalin felt every time he learned more about Belda’s life since her parents died.

Her tears stopped more quickly that time, and Óin brought a cup of water before Dwalin even thought of it himself. She didn’t take it immediately, though, not even budging until after Óin had settled back down and the rest of the Company was occupied. The wizard, irritatingly, cleared his throat. “I think perhaps an exchange of definitions is in order.” 

Dwalin and Thorin both shot him bewildered glances, and Dwalin guessed that Belda was as well, though he couldn’t see her face as she turned around to sit with her back to him again. “A what?”

Gandalf didn’t even spare the king a glance. “I will not repeat myself, Thorin.” Smoothly, he cut off Thorin’s sputter. “Now, Belda, why did you save Thorin?”

Chapter Text

Thorin still wasn’t exactly happy about the wizard’s interruption, but he wanted to hear the girl’s answer, and so subsided. She stared back at Tharkûn, brow furrowed and cheeks oddly pink. “You know why.”

Gandalf held up a hand. “Be that as it may, tell us anyway. Why did you risk your life for Thorin?”

The Dwarf in question fixed his eyes on the Hobbit, loath to miss a single detail, a single clue that she might have ulterior motives; strangely, he realized that he didn’t want there to be anything sinister behind her actions. It still seemed impossible that anyone could genuinely be as selfless as she seemed, but after her actions on the cliff and the revelations since, he wanted to trust her. He wanted to believe that there could be someone outside his race who could be trusted as much as he trusted his kin. 

It seemed impossible. But there wasn’t much about her thus far that seemed altogether possible, anyway.

He still wasn’t pleased with how she was stealing his right-hand-man’s aff— attention.

Thorin was Dwalin’s king, after all. It was only right that he spend the most time with him. Not with a little Sharbrugn girl he’d barely known two months.

He’d known Thorin nearly two centuries. He’d always been there when Thorin needed him. Now, every time Thorin looked to talk to him, he was with her.

Thorin couldn’t blame him for that at the moment, with her so injured, but still.

Her face scrunched into a baffled frown. “Well, what else was I meant to do? He’s my commander; I wasn’t about to just let him die!” 

She’d spoken quickly enough that Thorin nearly missed one key word; he opened his mouth to ask what she meant by ‘commander’, but the wizard cut him off. “And he owes you nothing.”

It was a statement, not a question, but Tharkûn suffused it with enough cynicism that she seemed almost offended, and she straightened as indignantly as she spoke. “Of course not— why would he owe me anything?!”

Neutrally, the wizard spread his hands. “Some would want a reward.”

If anything, she seemed more offended at that; the fire in her response was nearly Dwarvish. “Rewa— what kind of bloody horrible person would put a price on someone’s life?! That’s horrible! That kind of— of greedy, lousy, selfish— How can someone want to be paid for saving a life— That’s sick! That’s for bloody Tall Folk, not Hobbits!”

All Thorin could do was stare at her, blankly uncomprehending. The rest of the clearing was just as silent, and little surprise. The idea of someone just giving their life away at the drop of a hat was foreign enough, but that someone could equate a reward with payment…

A cynical part of his mind pointed out, though, that she had a bit of a point. Honor demanded that undue risk and unearned loyalty be rewarded somehow, but those without honor, even Dwarves, might well see it as a mere opportunity.

The clearing was still silent. Belatedly, she seemed to realize what she’d said. “Oh, no offense.”

Gandalf chuckled. “None taken, my dear. Now,” he turned to Thorin, “why did you take such offense that she would put…” He trailed off thoughtfully. “How did you put it? ‘So little value on the life of a king’?”

A scant few minutes earlier, he would have reacted much as she had; now, with her words still ringing in his ears, he realized that she probably understood his words as little as he had hers. With that in mind, he turned to her and took a moment to gather his thoughts in order to explain rationally and clearly, as he might have to Fíli and Kíli when they were younger. “Any labour should be rewarded: the greater the outcome, the greater the reward. You risked yourself to save me. You’ve earned…” Exhaling lowly, he shook his head. “…more than I can repay until we take back Erebor.”

‘Until’, he realized. He’d spent so long refusing to let doubt dissuade him, but even so, there never passed a day when he didn’t wonder, at some point: would this quest claim his life? His nephews? His cousins?

This girl-child?

He could never, would never be able to live with himself if she lost her life because of him, but after hearing her account, now…

He’d thought he had hope before. He’d been too accustomed to the absence to notice it. But now… now he hoped. Now he had hope that the Quest would succeed.

But while he’d been lost in thought, her expression had morphed to confusion as intense (if not more so) as when Gandalf had questioned her. “But all I did was kill one Orc. It took more work to save myself in the caves.”

He blinked at her. “…Yes, but I’m a king.”

She looked more confused. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Thorin gaped at her incredulously; distantly, he heard Gandalf clear his throat delicately. “There are some, my dear, who believe that the life of a king is worth more than the life of a layman.”

For an uncomprehending moment, she just stared at the wizard. “They—” As quickly as black powder sparking, outrage flared in her eyes. “That’s horrible! What kind of horrible people would think that!?”

Dori began carefully, “Wel—”

Impatiently, she cut him off. “And why would I want a reward anyway?!” She gestured to Thorin with a whip-crack of a motion, meeting his eyes defiantly. “You’re alive: I got what I was after!”

Silence reigned again as she fell back against Dwalin with a petulant thump; after a moment, Thorin broke it slowly. “…You would risk your life without the slightest expectation of recompense?”

She blinked at him for a handful of moments, apparently genuinely confused by his confusion. “Well… yes. Of course.”

‘Of course’, as though it was nothing, as though one sane Dwarf in a hundred would do the same, as though any Man or Elf would do so at all. Somewhat awed, he shook his head distantly. “You are not a Dwarf.”

With a soft snort, she rolled her eyes lightly, but there was humor in her expression, not brattishness. “Now you sound like Balin; he says that practically every time I talk to him.”

Restraining a stunned laugh, Thorin met Balin’s eyes past his brother; the scholar shrugged lightly and gestured to her as if to say ‘could you expect otherwise’. All Thorin could say in response was: “…I can see why.” 

She subsided, watching him, and he watched her, as well. When she’d first maneuvered her way into his Company, he’d thought her nothing more than a liability, a burden, a nuisance, and a defenseless child. In some ways he’d been proven right; bandages still covered most of her visible skin, and her throat, though no longer swollen, was still visibly bruised, if barely. But he was only alive because of her. His Company was only alive, or at least alive and well, because of her. She’d more than proved she could carry her own weight, given the chance, and she was surprisingly un-intrusive. And while she was undoubtably a child, she was no more so than his nephew and niece, and she was as capable as either of them.

He was glad she’d joined the Company.

A thought occurred to him, and he looked to Tharkûn. “Now, wizard, while we’re speaking of such things, perhaps you can explain why my Company obeys Miss Baggins witho—“

“Belda.” Thorin stopped mid word and stared at the girl. She wasn’t looking at him, in fact she had her eyes peacefully closed, and she was tugging Dwalin’s arms around her again, but she didn’t seem aware that everyone in the clearing, including her father, was just as dumbfounded as Thorin. To give her peers permission to use her name was one thing, her compatriots another, but the man who’d treated her abominably just a few hours before…

Thorin had to clear his throat before speaking, and even then his voice was a bit thick; he wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t stop to wonder. “…Belda, without a thought.”

There was quiet for a moment; the wizard seemed to be thinking over the question. motion caught Thorin’s eye as the gi— as Belda opened her eyes with a frown and sat up straight again. “Wait… what?”

Kíli spoke quietly, something odd in his tone. “You don’t remember?” Thorin frowned at him as the Burg— as Belda did; Thorin couldn’t place the oddity in his voice, but his expression was just as strange, something soft in it that Thorin didn’t recognize.

Clearing his throat was enough to get both of the youngest members of his Company to look toward him again, and Thorin addressed Belda directly. “You ordered the Company to sheathe their weapons just before we fell into the Goblin Caves, then to run at the clearing. Both times, I was the only one who seemed able to resist the compulsion, or even aware of it.”

More than a few of the Company looked gobsmacked, and Thorin guessed that they hadn’t noticed anything strange, but his attention was on the Hobbit. All the confusion had fled from Belda’s expression, leaving pure, numb shock in its place. “…What.”

Gently, Dwalin nudged her. “It’s true, kit. I didn’t notice at the time, but he’s right.”

She’d twisted around to look up at him, and now seemed to unwind, turning back around not as if by design, but as though she couldn’t muster the concentration to stay coiled; she shook her head loosely, eyes distant as they turned toward the wizard. “That… that’s not p… possib…”

Her voice gave out, though she continued to mouth words for a moment or two; when he spoke, Gandalf’s voice was gentler than Thorin expected. “Pack is pack, my dear.” Thorin’s mind stopped. ‘Pack’? “It’s as possible as a pack of Dwarves.”

‘Pack’, no, that— Thorin had caught himself, running out of the clearing, beginning to think of the Company as a pack, though he hadn’t known why. That couldn’t be a coincidence.

She still looked to be in shock, and Tharkûn moved to kneel beside her and Dwalin, putting a hand on her shoulder reassuringly. She met his gaze, eyes wide; he spoke quietly, but Thorin heard him anyway. “It’s a rare gift, kit, and a great responsibility. Use it wisely.”

With a look as though he’d handed her a crown rather than whatever he’d given her, she nodded. “I will.”

Nodding soberly, the wizard released her and returned to his seat; she lowered her head, still evidently dumbfounded. Neither seemed to notice that the entire clearing was completely baffled.

“What the uslukh are you talking about, wizard?” Dwalin tightened his arms around Belda as he spoke, glancing at her as though he were afraid she’d vanish if he looked away too long; the motion seemed familiar somehow, but Thorin couldn’t place it.

“I think that’s for Belda to tell you.” Tharkûn looked at her pointedly, and most of the Company followed suit. For a few moments, she didn’t even seem aware that she was the center of attention. 

Slowly, dazedly, she met Gandalf’s eyes. “…What?” Dimly, she looked at Thorin and Kíli, and then seemed to realize. “Gandalf, I can barely put two words together; please, jus— tell them.”

Her head lowered again as she made her request, and she tugged Dwalin’s arms more securely around her. Gandalf frowned dubiously. “If you’re sure.” He clearly wanted her to change her mind, but Thorin wasn’t sure she was even hearing them anymore.

Whatever she’d done, whatever Tharkûn had confirmed for her, whatever he was trying to avoid telling them, it was evidently life-altering for Hobbits, or at least utterly unexpected, to stun her so thoroughly. Granted, she was probably still weary from her injuries, but even so…

“Well, wizard?” Gandalf glared at him irritably, but Thorin returned the look evenly.

This concerned his Company, and it greatly affected a member of his Company. He needed to know. And if he were to be told, he couldn’t deny Dwalin the knowledge either, and since it did affect the entire Company, he couldn’t keep it from them, either.

With a slight huff, the wizard began. “Hobbits have… a provision, shall we say. Put into place by the Maker of us all. Hobbits tend to be led by their instincts far more than the other Races, which for some Hobbits means that their first reaction to anything unexpected is to flee. In some cases, this can be what saves them, but in others, it can kill them as surely as an Orc. So, when Hobbits were made, they were granted a way to ensure that cooler heads prevailed in a crisis.” He stilled, watching her. “Very rarely, one Hobbit in a thousand is graced with the authority to protect his or her pack by taking charge in instants when indecision could leave them vulnerable.”

That only brought up more questions, not least of which was “What do you mean ‘pack’?”

Gandalf opened his mouth to answer, but Dwalin did so first. “Like a Company, or a family.”

Thorin gaped.

Gandalf gaped.

Kíli furrowed his brow at the warrior. “How do you know?”

Dwalin shrugged as much as he could without jostling Belda. “She told me in Rivendell. The way she described it…” He trailed off and seemed to be choosing his words more carefully than he usually did. “As she described it, packs are the end-all, be-all of Hobbit society. Nothing matters more than the pack, and I mean that literally, Thorin.” A tinge of warning steel entered his tone, and he held Thorin’s eyes fiercely. “Nothing. Not safety, not comfort, not even personal wellbeing. Hobbits are expected to throw themselves into fire if the pack needs it, and they do so willingly.”

He wanted to argue against it, wanted to deny it, but it fit. An entire race of Beldas. How had they not gone extinct?Thorin’s mouth was dry, the single word he managed no more than a croak.“That…”

Smoothly, Gandalf finished his sentence. “…is a remarkably concise definition.” His eyes found Belda; his tone turned approving. “You explained it well, kit.”

She looked up at the last word, eyes largely still distant, but with a vivid blush that suggested she’d at least heard a few sentences.

She ducked her head again; Ori asked incredulously, “That was concise?”

The wizard just chuckled. “My dear Ori, I’ve spent centuries studying Hobbits and their customs, and even I don’t fully understand packs.” Abruptly, he sobered and gave Thorin a look as intense as Dwalin’s had been, though the wizard was only solemn. “But if I have learned anything, it is that there is no greater honor than to be counted among a Hobbit’s pack.”

Thorin couldn’t speak. He felt as though he were being flooded with information, nearly all of it earth-shaking. What Gandalf was describing (and Dwalin, to a lesser extent), was that she’d essentially sworn fealty to him— or adopted his entire Company, depending on how he thought of it. Or possibly put him and his Company under her protection.

He was starting to see why Gandalf’s centuries weren’t enough to understand.

The rest of the Company was just as gobsmacked. Or so he thought.

“It’s not as though she had a pack in the Shire, though, is it?” The muttered comment was more callous than he’d expected from one of his oldest friends, but Belda just snorted.

“I’m not going to bind myself to just anyone, Balin; if you’d’ve all been as bad as the Sackville-Bagginses, I wouldn’t have given you anything but common courtesy.”

Ori leaned toward her with a frown. “What do you mean, ‘bind’?”

With a startled squeak, she ducked her head again, a vivid blush spreading over her cheeks from ear to ear; Gandalf took it upon himself to answer, but Kíli caught Thorin’s eye as he looked to the wizard. Why was his sister-son blushing? “Pack, Ori, is a complicated concept. It’s a combination of shield-brothers, community, hunting party, family, and coalition. In times of hardship or danger, the survival of the pack as a whole is considered to be more important than even blood-kin, unless, of course, said kin is within the same pack, which is possible, if unlikely.” 

Thankfully cutting off his somewhat-rambling explanation, the wizard looked around the Company grimly. “Let me be clear: Belda has a tremendous responsibility toward all of you, but that burden must be reciprocated. She will gladly sacrifice herself for any or all of you. Pay her back in kind.”

Still blushing, Belda’s head snapped up to glare at him. “Gandalf!”

Despite himself, Thorin had to bite back a laugh; her half-hiss, half-whining tone was reminiscent of any number of occasions before Erebor fell, when Dís, Frerin, and/or himself had been trying to get out of something, or protesting something one of their parents were saying about them. Surprisingly, it was Nori who chided her lightly. “Oi, who was it ran into certain death for Thorin?”

The Burglar gaped at the thief for a long moment, before her blush darkened and she again fell petulantly back against Dwalin’s chest. “Any of you would’ve done the same.”

She put a slight emphasis on ‘you’ that Thorin didn’t understand, but Nori’s slight wince seemed to suggest that he did. Dwalin spoke before Thorin could ask for clarification. “Exactly.”

She frowned, but she only looked up at Dwalin, rather than scoffing or elbowing him as he’d seen her do before. 

Bofur cleared his throat. “This is all very interesting, but maybe we should resume this someplace a little safer?”

Thorin blinked at him for a moment, then realized that it was edging into mid-afternoon already. Scowling, he pushed to his feet and barked for the Company to prepare to head out; they’d already packed up camp while Belda was asleep, but it would still take a minute or two to gather their things. Belda likewise began to stand, only to hiss and fall back again; Dwalin immediately began to say something to her too quietly for Thorin to hear, to which she responded with a scowl and an equally-quiet hiss, and the two of them argued for several seconds.

Shaking his head at the similarity between them (and wondering how he never saw it before), Thorin moved to stand in front of them; she glanced at him, but didn’t stop talking. With a faint scowl, Dwalin poked her on the leg and gestured to Thorin; scowling to match her father, she fell silent and met Thorin’s eyes.

“Dwalin will be carrying you as we travel.” Predictably, she opened her mouth with an affronted scowl, presumably to protest Thorin’s decision, but he cut her off. “According to Óin, he’d have you bedridden for a week if it was possible. The faster you heal, the better for the Company as a whole.”

As he’d hoped, the phrasing pulled her up short, and her ire slowly faded. As it did, she visibly searched for a way to keep arguing, but finally, her shoulders slumped and she glared tiredly up at him. “Today. Tomorrow, I’m walking.”

At that, Thorin just met Dwalin’s eyes for a moment and walked away with a noncommittal grunt. He had no objection to her walking for a little while. But he seriously doubted her injuries would allow her to walk for long, and then Dwalin would carry her again.

But now, he finally had to admit what he’d been refusing to since Rivendell: she made him think of Dís. Not as she was now, but when she’d been a child, before Azanulbizar. He chuckled softly. If Belda grew up to be half the woman his sister was, she’d be fearsome, indeed.


 

Belda

 

Belda tilted her head slightly to lean it against Dwalin’s. They’d been walking for half an hour or so, and she had to admit, albeit grudgingly, that Thorin had probably been right to insist she be carried. She was already falling asleep, despite sleeping for twice as long as usual earlier, and her nap, and the fact that she hadn’t done anything more strenuous than hold onto Dwalin.

But even if he hadn’t been right, she wasn’t sure she would’ve complained. Being carried on Dwalin’s back as she was, apart from Rivendell, was something she only vaguely remembered from when she was young enough not to be able to open doors by herself. By all rights, it should’ve been mortifying, but instead it was comforting. Dwalin couldn’t carry his axes on his back or in his hands, since he was holding her knees in place at his sides, but he’d strapped her little sword and one of Fíli’s to his belt, easily drawn in case of emergency. They weren’t his usual weapons, but he was easily as proficient with them as Fíli was, or more so.

She should’ve felt uneasy, since he didn’t have Grasper and Keeper, but instead she felt as safe as if they were in Rivendell again. Now, she dimly remembered her waking dream just a few hours before, and she fell back into it easily, with one difference.

There was no trace of her father. Or, at least, of Bungo. For some reason, her heart was convinced that her father with there with her, despite the fact that it was only her and Dwalin. She could hear wolves howling, distantly, but they seemed to be miles away, and she knew Dwalin would keep her safe.

She smiled, and slept.

Chapter Text

Dwalin’s scowl made Fíli smile, despite herself. Belda had insisted on walking for at least some of the morning, and the argument had nearly delayed the Company before Dwalin finally agreed. Then, of course, he’d threatened quite creative retribution on Fíli and Kíli if either of them let her be injured, but Fíli didn’t mind that.

Belda did, but then, Fíli had a feeling that it was the idea of them getting hurt that she truly minded. 

Fíli had fallen slightly behind the other two as they walked, and she watched them as they talked; she was too far behind to hear them, quiet as they were being, but she didn’t really need to. She could see how they were together, how Belda’s hand brushed against Kíli’s every so often, how Kíli grinned at her in such a way that it seemed as though the sun itself should have been shining through his eyes. How easily Belda took his arm when he offered it, when Fíli was fairly sure the Burglar would’ve refused anyone else and insisted that she wasn’t limping. How Kíli looked at her as though she were the only thing that mattered in the world.

Fíli couldn’t believe that Thorin didn’t see it. They looked… they looked like Fíli remembered her mother and father had. They absolutely looked like Glóin and Lemli did.

Following that train of thought, Fíli shuddered; if Kíli ended up talking about Belda as much as Glóin did about Lemli and Gimli, she might have to stab him.

But only maybe.

Ori was walking ahead of the youngest two, and just far enough to the side that Fíli could look at him without doing so obviously. As was becoming normal after some sort of peril or other, his brothers flanked him: Dori was fussing over him, asking him questions only to answer them himself before Ori had the chance to; Nori didn’t say a word, but he touched Ori’s arm every so often as though he needed to reassure himself that he was safe. Oddly enough, Nori glanced back nearly as often as he reached out to Ori, looking at Belda with something that might have been concern; Fíli had always been terrible at reading him.

But Ori only took his brothers’ concern in stride, occasionally sighing at something Dori said, but nothing more; he glanced at Belda now and then, though. He didn’t do so as often as his older brother, but it still made Fíli’s heart plummet. She thought it was about as likely that Belda would return Ori’s feelings as it was that Thorin would abdicate to become Thranduil’s Court Jester, but that wouldn’t change how he felt. If Ori was inclined to try and court Belda, Fíli would warn him away for Kíli’s sake. If Ori chose to pursue someone else, she wouldn’t stop him. It wasn’t as though she’d have any right to, anyway.

She’d learned more about Ori over the course of the journey than she’d ever hoped to, enough that she didn’t think there was much about him she didn’t know. Certainly nothing big enough to stop her from recognizing him as her One. So he wasn’t. He couldn’t be.

They couldn’t be anything. Companions, of course, friends, perhaps, but nothing more.

She was a Princess of Erebor, the Heir to the throne. The only hope she could ever have of marrying—Mahal, even courting a low-born scribe—was if he was her One. Then nothing and no one could or would stand in the way, but as it was, as he wasn’t, it was impossible.

She was a fool to hope.

She couldn’t quite bring herself to stop.

The only thing she really knew was that if she let herself get close to him, she wouldn’t be able to keep from falling completely. So she kept her distance. Of course, that meant that she was walking near Óin and Bombur; the cook was the quiet sort, but Óin…

Looking over her shoulder at them as the physician let out a particularly loud exclamation, she had to hold back a laugh at the long-suffering look on Bombur’s face.

So, of course, that was when they were attacked.

She didn’t see the Orcs charge, only the glare of a blade aimed at her neck once she turned forward; she ducked automatically as the shouts and clangs of battle erupted around her. Her sword was in her hand in a flash, and the Orc who’d attacked her was dead just as quickly. A quick glance around her was all she had time for before another Orc charged, but she had time to see that Kíli and Dwalin were both flanking Belda as the three of them fought, and that Thorin was holding his own near the ‘Ri’s. After she dispatched her combatant, she looked around again, and realized it must have only been a scouting party; there were half a dozen other Orcs in the fight, and a warg for each of them, dead or otherwise. 

Some frisson of an instinct pulled her eyes back to Óin and Bombur: the latter was holding off two Orcs at once, the former apparently unaware that a warg was charging up behind him— Fíli wrenched the healer out of the way just in time to sink her blade into the beast’s heart as it ran past; even in its death-throes, it had the momentum to pull her hilt out of her hand and spin her around to see another warg leap toward her—

Time slowed for an instant; the warg’s feet left the ground, its mouth open as it snarled; a scream rent the air, and she knew it was Ori; knowing what was to come for her, she could only pray, ‘Mahal, please, if I have to die, save him’. And then there was no time for prayer, and no room in her mind for anything but sheer terror.

Not even the realization that she’d heard a war-cry, not a scream.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the warg’s trajectory changed— the beast sailed sideways, over Óin where he still laid on the ground, and the sickening crunch of bone shattering hung in the air for a long moment as she stared at Ori. Her mind didn’t seem to be working as it should; the last few seconds repeated in her mind: his cry as the warg leapt, his fist impacting the warg’s skull and breaking through it completely, the battle-rage in his expression as he watched the warg land, the fact that he stayed where he was in front of her even while the battle still raged around them.

Her mind was moving so oddly, in fact, that the battle seemed to fade away as she stared at him. She’d known how passionate he could be, but— Her eyes fell to his hand, expecting to see that it was as pulverized as the warg, but even with blood coating it, she could tell that none of it was his, but that was impossible for anyone who wasn’t—

Dori. Dori was impossibly strong, always had been, but it was only Dori, it— it…

Ori turned to her, naked worry in his eyes as he looked her up and down, asking in words she only half-heard if she was all right, if she was injured, did she need Óin…

She only stared at him, and her breath caught as she realized: he was her One.

Her breath left her in a shocked gasp of a laugh, and Ori moved closer, looking even more concerned, and he had to be worried if he was going to bend propriety and get that close, close enough to touch, close enough, in fact…

No sooner had the thought occurred to her than she acted on it; yanking on his sweater, she slammed her lips over his possessively, but she wasn’t quite brave enough to run her hands through his hair. Not yet.

He was stone under her lips, and she pulled back after a moment or two, worried that she’d made a mistake. But the shock in his eyes quickly faded into awe, which faded into a soft tenderness that called a smile to her lips to match his. Gently, he slid his unstained hand over the junction of her jaw and pulled her in for another kiss; she ran one hand over his chest before sinking it into his hair; her other hand, she ran down to his free hand, still a bit sticky, but she didn’t care. Her eyes were closed at that point, as were his, but she still wove her fingers through his.

His kiss was gentler than hers, but even so, it made her knees weak as he deepened it; she matched his motions clumsily, and all she could think was to wonder where he’d learned to kiss so expertly. An instant after she thought that, though, he tilted his head a bit too far to the side and their noses bumped together; he tried to correct it, but only succeeded in bumping his forehead against hers. They broke apart, he blushing, she laughing, but she just smiled at him for a moment before pulling him back to her for another kiss. The hand at her jaw moved down to her waist, squeezing gently; heat spread from the spot and filled her veins, her blood roaring in her ears.

She wasn’t really sure what she might have done next if she hadn’t been abruptly yanked backward.

It took her a moment to realize that the roaring hadn’t been her pulse, after all, and that it had been Thorin who’d pulled her back. He released her suddenly enough that she would have fallen if Kíli hadn’t caught her; Thorin charged forward to roar at Dori, who was still holding the back of Ori’s sweater, and Ori met her eyes, looking as dazed as she felt. Dori roared something back at Thorin, but she couldn’t really focus on anything but her (looking rather thoroughly kissed) One. His eyes flicked down to her lips for a moment before he grinned crookedly at her, more proudly than she might have expected if she didn’t feel just as satisfied by his dishevelment.

Slowly, she realized that the entire Company was watching and whispering among themselves; she couldn’t bring herself to care in the slightest about the attention, but she did wonder what Ori thought of it. The others were varied: Kíli still looked dumbfounded, but happy; Belda looked as though she’d burst from excitement, and gave Fíli a beaming grin and two thumbs up when their eyes met; Dwalin, beside his daughter, seemed surprised, but satisfied; Nori was unreadable, as usual; most of the Company seemed pleased; and Thorin and Dori, of course, were still shouting at each other.

“…oody brother must have seduced h—”

“—y brother would never do such a thing— your niece must have taken advanta—“

“—u dare insult the Line of Durin—”

“I wouldn’t say it’s an insult if it’s true, Uncle.” Both elders turned to her as though they’d forgotten she was there at all; Ori snickered; she smiled. “I kissed him, not the other way around,” Dori started to say something; Fíli raised her voice over his, “AND I BELIEVE it’s a Dam’s prerogative to take advantage of her One.”

At that, the entire Company fell utterly silent, all of them staring at her; in the background, movement caught her eye as Belda’s brow furrowed and she looked to Dwalin. Fíli kept her eyes on her Uncle’s, though. After the initial shock, everyone looked at Ori, but he just grinned blindingly. 

With a growl, Thorin grabbed her shoulder and pushed her to the front of the line. “Everyone, move out. We’ll deal with this later.”


 

Belda

 

“Don’t—” Óin shushed her without even looking; Belda was grudgingly impressed with his instincts.

A sharp sting stabbed up from her leg, and she hissed; Dwalin steadied her as she tried to flinch away from the healer. “Almost done, lass.”

Movement at the head of the procession caught her eye as Thorin and Fíli argued over something; Kíli caught her eye and gave her an apologetic half-smile, but didn’t move away from his family. Belda just shook her head and mustered up the most genuine-looking smile she could; it was evidently convincing enough, because Kíli’s smile eased and he turned back to contribute something to the discussion. But even as he argued, Thorin glanced toward the way they’d been heading every few seconds, and at Belda nearly as often. Guilt twisted her stomach into knots; Dwalin squeezed her shoulders gently. “Don’t squirm, kit. It’ll only take longer.”

She sighed, but subsided. She knew she ought to be grateful to Óin for spotting that the cuts on her leg had reopened, but all she could focus on was that she was slowing down the pack. If it had been any of the wounds she’d gained in a fight, she might not have minded so much, but it was the wounds she gave herself, the ones she had because she’d been sloppy. It was her own fault that the pack was lingering in dangerous territory, her fault that they were at risk, her fault—

“Peace, kit. We’re not Hobbits.” Dwalin laid his head on hers for a moment, then kissed her temple; she closed her eyes and clung to his words as much as his wrist. She wasn’t sure whether he could actually read her that well or if he’d simply come to the conclusion that her thoughts always ran along that line when she was upset. If it was the former, her mother would be appalled; foxes didn’t show weakness, didn’t get tied down by packs, didn’t get attached—

Clenching her jaw, she shoved her mother’s voice away. She’d decided in the caves that she wouldn’t be her mother, had decided it again when she saved Thorin, but it seemed she’d have to make the decision again, and probably again, and again, and again. The thought seemed impossibly daunting at the moment, and she leaned more heavily against Dwalin’s side, breath hitching. 

Óin tied off the new bandages a moment later and moved away. They’d already discussed what to do, so Dwalin didn’t hesitate to crouch in front of her and she didn’t bother to argue before she gingerly climbed onto his back. Her eyes watered as he hitched her up, but she bit her cheek against the pain and just held on more tightly.

Finally, the Company moved out; Fíli was still at the front with Thorin and Kíli, all of them still arguing; Ori was at the rear of the group with his siblings; Dwalin, and therefore Belda, were almost exactly in the middle of the group. 

But she couldn’t enjoy her vantage point. Pain radiated from her leg, more intense than it had been since before the Eagles came; Óin had come to the conclusion that the cut would need to be stitched, but they’d lost the sewing kit along with all the other supplies, so bandaging would have to be enough for the time being. But it hurt. After everything, she should’ve been able to brush off the pain, but she couldn’t.

“Wha… what happened with Fíli and Ori, earlier?”

Dwalin’s hands tightened on her legs for a moment. “Are you sure you don’t want to slee—”

“I can’t. I just—” A dip in the ground jolted her; she bit back a whimper. “D— Just— Something. Just— Fíli said something about ‘Ones’?”

Dwalin turned his head just enough for her to see his confused expression. “Hobbits don’t have Ones?”

“The number, yes, but I’ve no idea what else it could mean.” A shocked breath left him, his eyes wide, and he turned thoughtfully forward again. It was nearly a minute before he started, slowly and quietly.

“This isn’t for others to know. I know Hobbits have secrets, and I know you’ve been keeping them from all of us.” She winced; he tilted his head just enough to rest it against hers for a moment. “So please, treat our secrets with the same respect.” The flash of guilt faded slowly, but it was clear enough that he wasn’t angry or hurt that she’d lied; doing her best to smother a flicker of hope that he’d be as forgiving if he knew the truth, she nodded.

He nodded as well, and began. “Dwarves were made by Aulë, our maker, our Mahal. He wanted to be like his Father, wanted children of his own to guide and teach, to love and to show the beauty of Eru’s lands, so when he learned of Eru’s plan to create Men and Elves, he made us. But he hadn’t had permission to, and Eru berated him for his presumption. Remorse filled Mahal, and he readied himself to destroy his beloved creations. 

“But they pleaded with him to spare them. It should’ve been impossible; Mahal could shape them, but only Eru had the power to fill them with His Fire of Life. And so Eru had. Mahal had acted shamefully, but Eru saw fit to forgive him, and to grant Mahal’s children the same privilege of life after life as His natural children bore. In those days, Arda was filled with monsters and evil the likes of which have never since been seen. To ensure his children’s survival, Mahal had made them strong, hardy, built to overcome any foe, any hardship. He’d created them to be warriors, thinking that they would need that strength to survive such a harsh world. But Eru had a plan beyond Mahal’s understanding.

“Eru laid the Dwarves to rest, and bade them sleep until after He woke his Firstborn. When they woke, it was to see a world far kinder than Mahal had expected. Mahal had laid them separate from one another: two slept in Ered Luin with their wives; two slept in the Iron Hills with their wives; two more and their wives slept in mountains further to the east, the names lost to the Ages; last and first and eldest was Durin, and he lay alone in the mountain of Gundabad. 

“Who Durin’s wife was, where she came from, all that has been lost, but we know that he found her some years after the other Lines, the Broadbeams and Firebeards, the Ironfists and Stiffbeards, the Blacklocks and Stonefoots, had begun to grow. Mahal had seen fit to challenge his eldest child, challenge him to grow and learn and become more than his fellows, and in that, he was successful.”

Belda frowned. Something about the story, the patterns, almost seemed familiar.

“Durin traveled all through the Misty Mountains, and he settled in Moria, in Khazad-Dûm. There, he created a city worthy of the eldest of the Dwarves, and he used his time alone to hone his skills beyond any of the other Lines. But as the years passed, he felt his solitude more and more keenly. He spent more and more of his time searching for his One, his equal.”

This was starting to be very familiar.

“While he searched, he visited his fellows where they’d been laid. Their Lines prospered, but though they loved their Crafts, they didn’t have his expertise. Four of the Lines determined to outdo him on their own, but two, the founders of the Broadbeams and the founders of the Firebeards, saw that he was willing to teach. Their firstborns, both sons, were grown, and they asked Durin to teach them his arts, and he accepted, glad that even if he never found his One, his legacy would remain. He brought them back to Khazad-Dûm, ready to begin their apprenticeships, but they were surprised to find Mahal’s wife, the Queen of the Earth waiting for them.”

Belda stiffened; her leg screamed, but her mind’s roaring drowned it out.

“She explained that she’d seen his desolation, and she hadn’t wished him to remain alone forever. He pointed out that her husband had been the one to isolate him in the first, but she only laughed and told him that she thought Mahal had been too harsh on him. She also told him that she’d been the one to approach Mahal, not the other way around, so Mahal ought to have expected his favorite child to follow in his example in that as well as in so many other ways. As they spoke, motion caught his eye, something moving in the shadows, in his mountain, his home. He looked, and he saw three figures in the gloom, three women.”

Numbly, Belda thought, ‘three Hobbits. One predator, one fighting-prey, one fleeing-prey, a rabbit.

“The Queen of the Earth explained that she’d sought out women who were willing to claim his friendship, if not his heart, and stepped aside. The women stood in a line, still in the shadow, so he could only see the first of them. She stood in front of her sisters,”

‘Not sisters, just charges, she was the rándýr-verndari of the pack.’

“And she challenged him. In her, he saw someone he could trust, someone he could respect, but not someone he could truly love. She seemed much the same, and once he’d assured her that he meant neither her nor her sisters any harm, she claimed the attention of the younger apprentice, the more mischievous of the two.”

Belda nearly lost her grip. ’Oh. That explains some things.’

“The next woman was just as protective of the third, but less open in her wariness. Try as he did, he couldn’t gain her trust, and his other apprentice stepped forward. The boy was less implacable than Durin, more of a silver-tongue, and eventually the woman seemed convinced of their intentions. But she still didn’t move.”

‘The rabbit-Hobbit could tell that the bolder woman only remained where she was out of reluctance to abandon her charge, and quietly urged her to go with the one who called her heart.’

“The third woman said something too quietly for Durin to hear, and finally, the middle woman moved away from the last, and went off with the apprentice. And Durin was left with the third of them, and he was struck with the full force of her. She was as strong as he, but more wise, as brave, but less reckless, and she loved his mountain as dearly as he did, but she saw how it could be improved. On that day, the last moon of Autumn and the first sun of Winter joined together, and Durin ever after remembered it as the day on which the shape of his world was forever altered.

“The seven women, as there were three others who’d been too timid to come forward right away and the Queen of the Earth stayed to watch over the proceedings, wintered in the mountain, and the three Dwarves grew to dearly love the three they’d met that first day. All three of them, but especially Durin, crafted gift after gift for them, told them of their love in every fashion they could think of, but spring came without the women reciprocating.”

‘Oh, dear Eru. ‘But the Stone-Born made no such indications to them. … For the Hobbits had made a mistake. They’d assumed that the Stone-Born knew of their gifts.’ It was a miscommunication on both ends?!’

“The first day of spring, the women all ran out of the mountain as though they’d starved for air inside, and the men hung back, sure that their loves would leave them, that it was too late. But seeing their glee, the missing piece of the puzzle fell into place, and they recognized their Ones.”

Putting aside the fact that the entire world had just turned upside-down, Belda poked Dwalin. “I still haven’t heard an explanation for that.”

He humphed, but she could see the edge of a smile on his cheek. “I’m trying to tell you, kit. Mahal made the six Fathers and their wives for each other. They weren’t complete by themselves. He made Durin to be alone, but Eru had other plans.”

Dwarven sensibilities took a bit of puzzling out, and Belda thought aloud to be sure she wasn’t misunderstanding him. “So… ‘Ones’ are like your missing halves? Dwarves aren’t complete without them?”

Dwalin grunted noncommittally. “Not all Dwarves have Ones. In Durin’s day, we all did, but times have changed. Now, around half of us do, I’d say, but not everyone finds their One, or is their One’s One in return, or cares to look for them.”

At that, she actually lost her grip; Dwalin let out a string of shocked curses as he hauled her back up, but she barely heard him. “Fætur Eldfreyja og Tennur Tauron! What do you mean, you don’t care?!?”

He huffed, but his scent was worried. “Thought you said you didn’t know what Ones were, kit. And we aren’t Hobbits. Not every Dwarf wants to marry, and not every Dwarf has the chance; we’ve twice as many men as women, and a fair number of women wouldn’t leave their forges to eat or sleep if it wasn’t necessary, let alone split their attention for a husband.”

She didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand. In fact, she was getting a headache just trying to understand. After a few moments, Dwalin’s scent changed, fear creeping in, and she realized he was saying something. “Sorry, I… wh… what were you saying?”

“Are you all right, kit? Do you need to stop?”

The words didn’t connect for a moment, but she shook her head when they did. “No, that’s… I’m fine. I just—” Words failed her, and after several moments of trying and failing to find a way to say it, she just shook her head. “You are not Hobbits.”

Several minutes passed in silence. Belda’s mind spun enough to leave her dizzy, and when Dwalin broke her out of her brooding with a gentle squeeze to her good leg, she found she couldn’t remember any of her thoughts, only a distressed, distressing blur. “Tell me what’s wrong, kit.”

Despite the wording, his tone was pleading, not commanding; it was how her Da would’ve spoken, had spoken, in such a situation, and she answered as quickly as she was able, though it took her a moment to find the right words. “Hobbits don’t have Ones, we have Mates.”

“Mates?” She could almost hear the incredulity on his face.

Realizing she may have given away a bit too much (though, strangely, she couldn’t bring herself to care like she should’ve, not when it was her D— when it was Dwalin), she huffed. “Pairs, couples, twosomes, ‘other halves’, whatever you want to call them. We all have a Mate, somewhere, and nearly all of us find them before our coming of age. Pack is—” Her heart lodged in her throat, the conversation between the two of them and Thorin still fresh enough that she couldn’t stop the flood of emotions from rushing back: joyful disbelief that Thorin did want her in his pack; the lingering, nauseating fear of what would happen when they found out the truth; an overwhelming sense of possessiveness, paired with a weight greater than any she’d known before, to know of her responsibility toward them.

After a long moment, she took a shaky breath and resumed. “The pack comes first, always, but not all Hobbits are suited to large packs. My mother—” Her throat closed again, but this time it was against bile as she remembered Nori’s words and the memories they’d brought back. Dwalin glanced at her, concerned, but she just swallowed hard and forced her emotion to the back of her mind for the time being. (Bile nearly crept up her throat again as she realized she was using her mother’s lessons to help her, but she rallied.)

“My mother’s family typically only have small packs, even when they could have larger. My mother was no exception. But our packs… Nowadays, now that packs are a luxury, instead of a necessity, like attracts like. If both of them had been inclined, my Da would’ve been in a pack with some of his cousins, my mother would’ve been in a pack with her siblings, but their packs would’ve been completely separate. But in the Wandering Days, when packs were for survival, pack always, always began with Mates. If both Mates wanted to join a larger pack, they did, and if their children wanted to join a separate pack from their parents, they did, but Mates were pack. It didn’t, doesn’t matter who else was pack, they were pack.”

Her hold on her emotions faltered, and sorrow crept up from her heart, up her throat and behind her eyes. Stubbornly, she blinked away the burning, and kept her voice steady. “My mother was too solitary to join a pack, but she and Da were pack. They were always pack. She used to say that f—” She bit her tongue sharply against the admission, shocked by how easily it came to her lips. “That Tooks weren’t made to love more than once.”

And she’d always taken it as a given, always blindly accepted it. How blind had she truly been?

Sniffling, she leaned her head against Dwalin’s; in a voice almost too low for even her to hear, she murmured, “She used to say that Da was all the pack she needed, and Da would add that he didn’t need a pack bigger than mother and I, either.”

“Kit…” Even if she hadn’t been able to spot the pity and the dread in his scent, it would’ve been easy enough for her to hear it.

“Not—” Her voice cracked, and she took a moment to swallow back the heartache before she tried again. “Not now, Dwalin. Please.”

She could tell from his scent that he wasn’t satisfied, but he didn’t press. It took her long minutes to regain her composure; she felt as though she’d been carrying a jigsaw in her pocket all her life, but only now saw that the pieces fit together. It was too much for a roadside discussion, and she needed to sort through her own feelings first, in any case. All in all, returning to the topic at hand seemed the best option.

“But we all have Mates. It’s rare that we don’t, and the thought of not wanting to find yours—” She gaped soundlessly for several seconds.

“Like thinking a king’s life is worth more than any other’s?” His voice was gentle, but there was a chuckle in it, and it made it a bit easier for her to push aside her turmoil for a few minutes.

Worse! It’s—” Deflating slightly, she sighed and shook her head. “Hobbits weren’t made to be alone. We need family like we need food and sunlight.” (The stories her Da had taught her still in the back of her mind, she couldn’t help but silently finish, and rain and soil, and a safe haven.) “To be— to not even care if you find them, to not care about family or pack or love—“ Her breath caught in a half-sob. “How can anyone be so heartless?”

Softly, Dwalin shushed her, and she turned her head to hide her face in his hair. Really, she didn’t know why she felt so strongly about it, but then again, that was a lie.

She just didn’t want to face it.

Dwalin cursed quietly, then squeezed her good leg again; it was meant to be a comfort, she knew, but she couldn’t stop crying. After another few seconds, a low rumbling rumbled through her, and she realized he was humming. He kept his voice low, but she could hear it easily enough. The melody was gently mournful, not unlike the songs Hobbit had of the Wandering Days, but there was something about the style of it that reminded her of the lullabies her Da had sung to her when she was a fauntling. The thought kept her tears spilling into his hair when she’d almost thought she’d stop, but he only finished the song and began another, this one lighter and softer, and far more tender than she thought any words could convey.

In the light of day, when she wasn’t tired in the slightest, she didn’t fall into a dream, wasn’t so tired she couldn’t understand. Dwalin was acting like her father.

Not like her Da, exactly, not like Bungo. Her Da wouldn’t’ve been strong enough to carry her, for one thing, and he might’ve had the courage to stand up to Thorin on her behalf, but she still would’ve been the one protecting him. 

With Dwalin, there was no doubt in her, not in her mind, not in her heart, not in her soul, that Dwalin would and could protect her. From Giants, from Thorin, from her nightmares. He would.

Her Da had been a beaver: quiet, industrious, and always, always putting his family, his daughter, first. Always making sure she knew how much he loved her.

Dwalin, if he were a Hobbit, would undoubtably be a bear. Huge, intimidating, gentler than he seemed, and fiercely protective of her. How he saw her, she had no idea, but with how he treated her, how loved she felt, she could only see him as her father.

Part of her heart desperately wanted him to actually be her father. Part of her heart felt as though she’d be replacing her Da if he was, and recoiled from the idea. But another part of her couldn’t help but think that her Da would approve of him. 

He’d be afraid at first, of course, and horrified at the sight of all Dwalin’s weapons and scars. He would’ve been angry with how Dwalin had treated her at first, and maybe would’ve even stood up to him about it. But if he’d seen how Dwalin was with her in Rivendell, he would’ve laughed at how out of his depth the warrior was, but he would’ve forgiven him immediately. He would’ve approved of him then, and he probably would’ve thanked him for taking her under his wing when he couldn’t.

He would’ve wanted her to be happy. He’d understood how important pack and family were in a way that his wife never had. He wouldn’t have wanted Belda to be alone. He’d always put her wellbeing first, even given her his food during the Winter, even—

A sob broke through Belda’s mostly-silent tears, and Dwalin repeated the soft song, then moved on to another, and then another, and during the last, his stride changed slightly, matching the tempo of the song until she thought he might have danced if they hadn’t been walking. The song, though…

Curiosity helping her stem her tears, she tentatively joined him on the second verse; the melody she knew was just slightly different from the one he was using, but even so, the song was one her Da had sung to her since she was in her cradle, that he’d told her was from the Giver herself, taught to the first Hobbits as their firstborn were in their cradles. The original words, if there ever were any, had been long since forgotten, but the melody was one every Baggins knew, though she didn’t know how many other families remembered it.

Dwalin faltered for an instant, but didn’t stop humming. If he was changing his melody to fit hers, she couldn’t tell, but they did fit, not matching, but both complementing the other as though they’d been written together.

Then again, she reflected, if Dwalin’s story was true, if the implications were true, then Durin’s wife would have sung to their children as her parents had to her, and as Yavanna had sung to theirs. After so long, it was only really surprising that the song had survived the Ages as recognizably as it had.

But if it was true…

So many packs during the Wandering Days had forgotten their history in favor of survival. She couldn’t fault them that; sitting around and telling stories was as likely as anything else to draw deadly attention in the wilds. But the larger packs, the ones with multiple rándýr-verndarar, had had the relative security that they could risk it. There hadn’t been many packs so large, and by the time they found the Shire, most Hobbits knew little and cared less for their histories. The Bagginses (and possibly more, but she didn’t know for sure one way or the other) had preserved the teachings, the stories and songs and secrets, but their time in the Tall World had taught them to be guarded, and so her Da hadn’t known what the other families knew of their past, if anything.

He’d been a scholar, her Da. He’d soaked up every history he was ever taught as a fauntling, and when he’d been made head of the family a few years before the Winter, he’d immediately claimed ownership of every book of annals the family had, and he’d shared all of them with her. He’d impressed the importance of not telling a soul of them on her, of course, but even then, she’d understood. 

He hadn’t even told her mother until the Fell Winter, until they’d run out of everything else to distract them from the howling.

She doubted she would’ve remembered them well if that had been the last time she’d read the accounts, but after she’d come home one day to find him reading them without her, he’d promised not to leave her out ever again, and to prove it, he’d built a hiding place for them into her room. They’d still been there when Longo and Camellia took Bag-End, and whatever else the two of them had done, they’d never found the books. 

And eleven years had left her more than enough time to memorize her histories.

She’d memorized half the library by the time Gandalf came knocking.

One of the things even the Bagginses hadn’t remembered, though, were the names of the first Hobbits. They did, though, remember that the third generation of Hobbits on Arda had included a rabbit-Hobbit. They remembered that she and five of her kin had been taken to a faraway land by the Giver.

They remembered that the rabbit-Hobbit and two others had found their Mates in Stone-Born men.

And apparently, Dwarves remembered that Durin and two of his kin and found their Ones in unnamed but very much not Dwarven women.

They didn’t remember that the women had been shape-changers, though. She almost had to smile at that; evidently, not all of the Hobbit need for secrecy was learnt.

But if Dwalin was telling the truth, and it seemed incredibly likely that he was, since he couldn’t possibly know anything of the Hobbit history his tale slotted into so neatly, then that meant that Hobbits and Dwarves had once been close. Hadn’t just been close, been pack. It meant that they’d once been family. It meant that she wasn’t out of her mind to feel kinship with the Company, to see them as pack, to see Dwalin as another father.

Kíli as…

She still didn’t know what she saw Kíli as. Or at least she wasn’t ready to think of it. 

And given Thorin’s reaction to Fíli and Ori, even if she had been ready, it probably would’ve still been wise to wait until he was calmer.

As she thought of the new couple (again, she resisted the urge to applaud them), she realized Dwalin still hadn’t properly answered her question. “So what, exactly, are Ones? And why did it take Fíli and Ori so long to realize that they were each other’s?”

He’d startled, slightly, when she spoke, but gave a noncommittal grunt once she was finished. “They might not be. Ori is definitely Fíli’s— the lass is too intelligent to do something like that, in full view of her uncle, unless she knew that it wouldn’t only be reciprocated, it would be accepted by the Company. Eventually.” Belda snickered; Dwalin’s voice warmed. “To answer the first…”

He was silent for a few moments; Belda realized that the light was beginning to change with the encroaching sunset, though the trees were too thick to actually see the sun through them. “Bear in mind, I’ve no real idea what it feels like. You’d have to ask Glóin or Bombur for that, or Fíli, now. But I’m told it feels like working in a mine…” He trailed off, then spoke again, hesitantly, after a short pause. “Like… like watching… clouds. And they change, but slow enough that you can’t… it’s not obvious. And then all of a sudden, you realize that you can recognize something in it. A picture or… something.”

Stifling a snort, Belda tightened her arms around him affectionately. “You don’t spend much time cloud-watching, do you?”

He did snort, and shook his head. “Never saw the use in it, no.”

Chuckling, she teased, “Not much use in naming your weapons, either.” He made an offended noise, but he chuckled, too.

After they’d sobered again, he resumed his explanation. “When Mahal crafted us, he gave six of his sons wives, their perfect equals. It’s said that when they woke, they didn’t need any explanations or introductions. He’d put everything they needed to know about each other into their hearts, woven it into their souls with mithril.”

“Mithril?”

His gait faltered slightly. “Right. It’s, ah. Picture a metal made from… dawnlight. And as strong as… hmm.” He was silent for a moment or so, then just shrugged slightly and shook his head. “Strong enough to withstand a troll at full strength.”

Her eyes widened; the trolls had been unbelievably strong, to her, and she wasn’t foolish enough to think they’d used anywhere near their full strength on her. Her stunned silence must have convinced Dwalin she appreciated the analogy.

“But he gave Durin a bit of a harder time. The knowledge of his One was still woven into his soul, but he couldn’t access it. He didn’t know what to look for, who to look for, even where to look for her. Most stories say that he was drawn to her as soon as he saw her, when they finally came face to face, but not all, so it’s not clear whether it’s true or not. He and all the children of the other fathers, even now, we can be standing a foot away from our Ones and never know it. But as he got to know her, as he fell more and more in love with her, he saw more and more sides of her that his soul knew. When he saw her glee, then the picture came into view, and he knew that she was his One as surely as if Mahal had personally pointed her out to him. That’s still how it works.”

Again, she thought aloud. “So, during the fight, Fíli saw some side of Ori she hadn’t known was there, and her soul recognized his?”

“Basically.”

She huffed, smiling. “That’s absurdly fanciful for a race as pragmatic as yours.”

He laughed. “What, because it’s not as practical as Hobbits are?”

Her smile turned wry. “No, because it’s almost exactly what Hobbits say.” His head turned sharply, wide eyes meeting hers, brows at what would’ve been his hairline. She tilted her head to match his, still smiling. “We say that we have Mates because our hearts were Mated by E… well, actually, I suppose Dwarves would say our hearts were alloyed or something like that, by Eru Himself, before any of us were made. The analogy my Da always used was that Mates are like fabric, woven from two types of thread. But when we’re born, we’re separated again, because we have to grow and be harvested and sp… well, it’s something of an involved illustration, but basically, we have to grow into who we’re meant to be before we find our Mates, or at least before we’re ready to marry them. He compared trying to be together when it wasn’t time yet to trying to weave with one handful of thread and one handful of raw cotton, or cotton and a seedling.”

He snorted. “Now that is as practical as I expected.”

Chuckling, she hit him lightly on the chest. “As I was saying, he said that fabric made with one thread is easily made and more easily forgotten, but fabric made from two threads is more beautiful by half, and twice as strong.”

She could hear the smile in his voice. “I see why you thought of alloys.” The pride in his tone sent warmth all through her; if it hadn’t been for her leg, she would’ve been utterly content. 

Several minutes passed in companionable silence before he spoke again. “Would you tell me what had you thinking so intently?”

She was tempted to tell him, not everything, but the story of the Hobbits who were brought to their Mates by the Giver, but despite how badly she wanted to, he wasn’t family. Not technically. Even if he did adopt her, unlikely as that was, half the Shire would still probably want her officially cast out. But she couldn’t not answer at all. He’d accept that, she didn’t doubt that, but she hated lying to him at the best of times. She couldn’t bear to lie to him now.

“My Da would’ve liked you.”

Now he nearly lost his grip on her; she squeaked and clung to his neck more tightly, then hissed as he jostled her leg. He squeezed her good leg in a silent apology, but didn’t speak for a moment. When he did, his voice was rough. “Really?”

Catching her breath again, she nodded and rested her chin on his shoulder. “He was never adventurous. He would’ve been glad I have someone I can trust.”

He huffed. “Here I would’ve thought he’d have been as frightened of me as every Hobbit but you has been.”

“Oh, he would’ve been terrified. Probably would’ve fainted dead away if you showed up on the doorstep.” He snorted lightly, but she could tell he was touched. “But he always worried about me when I ran off. Once he got over the shock, he probably would’ve asked you to look after me himself.” Her breath shook in her chest and spiraled up her throat, winding around her voice until it was almost too small to hear. “I miss him.”

A shaking, sharp exhale left him, and in a handful of instants, he crouched down to set her on her feet, spun around, and embraced her tightly, bending his head over hers. She returned the hold, fighting back tears, but quavered anyway, “Thorin will be mad we st—”

“Thorin can go kiss an Orc; he’d do no different if his Heirs needed it.” The matter-of-fact, unyielding certitude in his voice only made it harder for her to keep from crying, but she already felt better, just being in his arms. Closing her eyes, she nuzzled into his chest as her breath hitched, wishing she could scent-mark him properly. He let loose another shuddering exhale, and his hand covered the back of her neck as he kissed the top of her head. “I’d bear all your pains for you if I could, Sanzigilê.”

For a moment, part of her wondered why he felt so strongly about her missing her father. Then she remembered Balin’s story, remembered Azanulbizar. Dwalin and Balin’s father had been killed there, and knowing what she did of Dwarven aging, he would’ve been about the age she was now, if not a bit younger. He knew how it felt.

That in mind, she nuzzled him again. “But then who would bear yours?”

He chuckled faintly, a bit mournfully. “I’ve borne my own this long. I can carry them awhile longer.”

Chapter Text

Belda clenched her jaw against a yawn; they’d only made camp the night before an hour after sunset, and it had still been dark when Bifur had heard wargs nearby and they’d set out again. Still, the sleep she’d gotten had done wonders for her leg; she didn’t think she could run, if Dwalin let her down for that long, but it didn’t hurt half as much as the day before, and her lingering headache from Azog throwing her was completely gone.

The argument reached a new crescendo, and she rolled her eyes with a scowl. Someone needed to scout ahead. Gandalf wanted her to go. Dwalin and Óin couldn’t be any more opposed. Kíli wasn’t saying anything either way; she knew him well enough to see that he was torn between keeping her safe and defending her right to make the decision herself. (Given that Thorin was nearly as opposed to her going as Dwalin, she couldn’t hold Kíli’s silence against him.)

For all that the dispute was supposed to be about her, she wasn’t actually sure any of them remembered that she was there. A nudge to her arm drew her eyes to Nori as she moved to stand beside her; the thief’s words still smarted, but it had been impossible for Belda not to notice how repentant Nori’d been acting since then. She wouldn’t forget what she’d said, but despite how much she was reminded of her mother, she was beginning to forgive Nori.

Nori met her eyes deliberately, then flicked hers behind them for an instant. Looking ahead again, she shuffled incrementally in front of Belda; holding back a smirk, Belda eased backwards, shooting Kíli a wink and a finger to her lips when he met her eyes.

His frown darkened, but he only mouthed ‘be careful’ at her before facing forward again and shifting closer to Nori to give her more cover.

She felt nearly weightless at the show of trust, and had to consciously keep from giving him a hug or a kiss on the cheek in gratitude. Instead, she backed away from the Company in perfect silence, and crept around them, slow and low to the ground, and was over the rocks and out of sight before any of them even realized she was gone.

As soon as the path opened before her, she stayed even more low, crawling more than she walked, and inching from cover to cover. The Wargs were easily seen and more easily smelt; her wounds throbbed as she saw Azog among the Orcs, and she bared her teeth, growling low in her throat.

But her throat still wasn’t entirely recovered, and the twinge of pain reminded her that she had weeks yet before she could stand alone against a dozen of Azog’s kind. She’d barely held her own against five. Really, she’d barely held her own against three. Still growling, she rolled her shoulders against the feeling of phantom wings, regrounding herself in her Hobbit-form. A noise caught her attention to her left, and she flattened herself against the rocks without a thought. But when she saw what stood some half-dozen yards away, all her breath left her.

A great, impossibly-huge bear stood on the rocks, watching the Orcs, its hackles raised. It looked like no bear she’d ever seen before, its legs too long, its fur rucked up in a sort of mane. She grinned.

She knew a shape-changer when she saw one.

Stealthily, she crept closer to the bear, staying out of view and downwind of Orc, Warg, and bear alike. As she drew near, she picked up the bear’s scent; he was definitely male, and definitely not a Hobbit, or at least not a full Hobbit. Once she was close enough, she hissed quietly, just loud enough to get his attention, and he looked ‘round with a snarl that fell away as soon as he saw her. 

Glancing back at the Orcs, he moved closer to her, crouching to hide her from the Orcs’ view if they looked over. One of few things all Hobbits remembered from Anduin was the language of shifters, and clearly the shape-changers on this side of the Misty Mountains had preserved the art as carefully: a combination of vocalizations, gestures, and scent, it was too complex to be understood by any but fellow-kind, or to be used by anyone unshifted. “What are you, little cousin? I know the scent of every natural-born animal, but yours is one I don’t recognize.”

As an experiment more than anything else, she answered in Hobbitish. “As you don’t smell like a child of the earth, great-cousin.”

He snorted quietly. “Not a child of earth, no, but of rain and light, and of starlight.”

Her brows shot up; children between Men and Elves were rare, but common knowledge. But children between Elves and Hobbits—!

Well, that explained why he didn’t look like a true bear, and why he was so much larger than a Hobbit-bear would be.

He nosed at her gently; at the once-familiar gesture, her eyes fell closed and she fought not to cry. “You smell of Dwarves, little cousin.”

Glaring darkly at him, she blinked away the slight blur. “My pack.” He growled quietly, but subsided in recognition of her claim. Relaxing as she saw that he wouldn’t challenge her authority on them, she nodded past him. “The Orcs are after them, one in particular.”

“One Orc or one Dwarf?” She still didn’t like the way he was saying ‘Dwarf’ like it was a curse, but now he was curious, she could tell.

“Both. You saw the pale Orc, the leader?” He nodded; she grinned. “My commander’s the reason he has a metal arm.”

He gave a surprised, huffing snort and looked back at the Orcs again. Scent turning thoughtful, he met her eyes again. “You’re their rándýr-verndari?” She nodded. “You still haven’t told me your form, little cousin. Or why you’re bound to Dwarves instead of your own kind.”

Sobering, she had to fight the urge to curl in on herself. “We’ve been settled in safety for so long that none of the prey remembers there are predators not of our race. Predators are feared, and I’m feared more than any. No matter what you think of the Stone-Born, they’ve accepted me more than my blood-kin did. But they don’t know. They don’t know about soul-forms, and they cannot know of mine.”

Her vision was blurred again, but she didn’t need to see his expression to tell he was concerned. “Why not yours?”

She’d always thought Dwalin would be a bear if he were a Hobbit. The way this bear spoke and smelled and behaved, all of it reminded her of him, and that was probably what loosened her tongue more than anything else. Trembling to match her voice, she held his eyes as best she could through the blur. “Because a dragon took their home from them.”

He stared at her for a long moment, long enough that she began to think he’d treat her as her ‘family’ had, then stretched his head forward to lay it on hers. Biting back a relieved sob, she moved forward, wrapping her arms around his neck as best she could when he was so much larger. A moment later, he drew back and deliberately chinned her hair, scent-marking her the same way Kíli unintentionally had all those weeks before. “You smell of blood, little dragon. You’re injured?”

Grimacing, she rested her hand on her leg. “Unfortunately. It was my own fault. I wasn’t strong enough.”

“My home is near, to the east. Lead your pack there. I’ll keep the Orcs off your tail and off my territory.” A pang of guilt struck her, and he nosed her again. “I need no reason to rid Arda of Orc-scum, little dragon. I would do this even if I knew nothing of your pack.”

Nodding, she inclined her head slightly to him, leaving her shoulders squared, and held out her right hand, closed into a relaxed fist. “Thank you, great-cousin.”

He stood and bent his head down, resting his paw on hers, then moving it under her hand before they both drew back and straightened. “Warm fur, sharp teeth, little cousin.”

“Warm fur, sharp teeth.” With that, she crept back to the cover of the tree-line while he stood between her and the Orcs; when she reached the rocks she’d used for cover before, he gave a bellowing roar, successfully drawing the Orcs’ attention to him and away from the too-exposed rocky area.

The path through the rocks was narrow and winding, so it took her a few moments to see the Company; she really shouldn’t have been surprised to see Thorin and Dori both holding Dwalin back from going after her. As soon as they saw her, though, they released him, and she ran into his arms gladly. “What were you thinking, kit?!”

She raised a brow at him. “That we needed to know how close they were and I’m the only one who had a hope of not being seen?”

“How close is the pack?” She pulled away from Dwalin to face Thorin, but held his arms in place around her.

“Too close. A couple of leagues, no more.”

“Have the wargs picked up our scent?”

She twisted slightly to meet Dwalin’s eyes as she answered. “Not yet, they’re still upwind of us. But they will do.”

“Did they see you?”

Her hands tightened on Dwalin’s sleeves as she glared at Gandalf. “Of course not!”

Gandalf relaxed, obviously pleased with himself. “What did I tell you? Quiet as a mouse.”

A growl tickled her throat, though she didn’t let it actually be audible. ‘Quiet as a fox, thank you.’

Nori nodded. “Excellent burglar material.” Belda met her eyes for a moment, seeing the wordless question there; after a moment, she returned the nod slightly, and Nori relaxed imperceptibly.

Ori shook his head. “That doesn’t change the fact that they will find our trail eventually.” Belda wasn’t the only one who glanced at him sharply, surprised by the confidence in his voice. He blushed self-consciously a moment later, but Fíli just smiled proudly at him.

Just as Belda was about to suggest heading east, Gandalf mused aloud, “There is a house… it’s not far from here. Where we might, ah…” Something hesitant flashed through his eyes, and she narrowed hers. Did he actually know the bear, or did he have about as much of a plan as he had when he went to Bag-End? “…Take refuge.”

“Whose house? Are they friend or foe?” She was tempted to reassure Thorin herself, but the panic in Gandalf’s eyes was too entertaining for her to rescue him.

Gandalf hesitated. “Neither.” ‘To you, maybe.’ “He will help us, or… he will kill us.”

The Company grumbled, but Thorin looked them all over, pain in his eyes, then shook his head disgustedly. “What choice do we have?”

A thunderous roar echoed over the rocks, and the Company flinched; Belda tried to react with them, but she was trying not to laugh, so she wasn’t sure how successful she was. No one seemed to notice, though, so she just bit her lip and tried to act scared.

Expression tense, Gandalf answered, “None.”


 

Dwalin

 

“To the house!” Dwalin cursed under his breath as they followed Tharkûn. It was obvious now that the wizard had little more idea of where they were going than they did; they’d been fools to trust him, but Thorin had been right. They’d had no other choice.

Howls and roars filled the forest behind them: the familiar sound of wargs in their death-throes; the terrifyingly unfamiliar sound of something huge, vicious, and bloodthirsty only just behind the Company.

A dip in the ground made him stumble; Belda jolted with it, nearly sliding off his back entirely, and his heart stopped for a horrible second. Even once she was secure again, he felt frozen, even the thought of losing her more than he could bear. 

With Belda on his back, he couldn’t run as quickly as he wanted, and so he was at the back of the line. He saw Bombur overtake everyone, he saw the wizard’s panicked glances toward the roaring, and while he was still some distance from the huge gate, he saw Bombur bounce off the doors to an equally-huge house, Fíli and Bofur impacting an instant later.

A deafening bellow shook the ground he stood on, and he looked ‘round instinctively, and so saw the great, black beast charging toward them. Belda looked back at the same moment that he did; the combination of their motions spun him off-balance and he crashed to the ground, losing his grip of Belda entirely as they rolled. In a flash, he was on his feet and racing for her, but just as quickly, the beast was on her; he howled her name with all the agony of losing her in the Goblin caves as he drew his sword on the beast, but a flash of light blinded him for a crucial instant as Belda screamed. He forced his eyes open, ready to avenge his daughter, but his eyes cleared and he saw—

Belda, alive and laughing as a man twice the size of any Elf placed her gently on his shoulder, the bear nowhere to be seen. The man’s laughter boomed through the air, and Belda grinned at Dwalin. “It’s all right, he’s going to help us!”

Dwalin gaped at her, and would’ve done for some time more if Tharkûn hadn’t broken the silence, obviously as shocked as Dwalin. “So… you know Beorn.”

Belda’s brows lifted as she looked to the man. “Oh, is that your name? I only realized I’d forgotten to ask after I rejoined the Company.”

He smiled fondly at her; Dwalin bit back a snarl. “It is, little bunny.”

Scoffing, she gave him a pointed look; he gave her one back and she rolled her eyes resignedly. “Well, mine’s Belda.” 

She steadied herself by grabbing hold of his beard; Dwalin felt as though he’d been stabbed in the chest. Tharkûn chided her, “You might have told us you met him.”

She nodded genially. “I might have.” Expression darkening, she narrowed her eyes at the wizard. “But then again, you were the one who called me a mouse.”

Tharkûn sputtered as Beorn joined her in her glare, apparently offended on her behalf; Dwalin closed his eyes against the sight as he realized: she’d unbalanced them intentionally for the sake of her prank, and evidently not cared a whit that she’d sent him halfway to the Halls of Waiting in the process.

As he opened his eyes again, Thorin moved to stand beside him, looking up at Beorn and Belda. “You spoke with our Burglar, then?”

The man raised a brow. “I did, but I didn’t hear of her title.” She flushed and shrugged when he glanced at her; Thorin began to say something else, but he cut him off. “What help I offer is for the sake of the little bunny and of luring in a few Orcs to hunt. I don’t much care for Dwarves.”

He began to move forward, already visibly dismissing Thorin from his mind, but Belda smacked him, glaring. He glared back, but then (to Dwalin’s conflicted surprise) subsided somewhat and met Thorin’s eyes again. “The Orcs are gone for now, but if they return, you’ll be safer behind barred doors. We should speak inside.”

Despite how much he was telegraphing his distaste of them, he waited for Thorin’s response. After several seconds (during which Belda mouthed several sentences at Thorin that Dwalin didn’t catch, accompanied by nonverbal threats to stab him, presumably if he didn’t do as she advised), Thorin nodded, jaw clenched, and stepped aside to let Beorn lead the way. The man’s freakishly long legs allowed him to reach the door in a handful of steps, while Thorin and Tharkûn followed at a quicker clip, Dwalin numbly keeping pace with them. Most of the Company was assembled by the door, and Dori physically pulled Ori farther away from the man as he drew near; Kíli and Fíli were both a bit closer to the gate than the rest, and fell in step with Thorin as he passed them, shooting him worried looks that only seemed to drive a blade into Dwalin’s heart.

Beorn unlatched the door easily and stepped in without even ducking his head; Belda said something and he laughed again. (The blade in Dwalin’s chest twisted.) The Company followed Dwalin in as Beorn carefully set Belda on the ground again; behind him, he just heard Ori say something about getting closer, and Dori snapped quietly, “Don’t think of it! It’s not natural, none of it!” Beorn stilled, but Dori clearly didn’t notice, as he continued, “It’s obvious: he’s under some dark spell!”

A growl rumbled through the room; all of them fell silent as Beorn straightened to his full height, eyes fixed on Dori and expression savage. Cutting off his growl, he spat something in a language Dwalin had never heard before.

Belda cut him off sharply in the same language, sounding almost affronted.

He responded semi-calmly, then pointed accusingly at Dori without looking away from her.

Her expression faltered, tears building in her eyes as she shook her head. It sounded as though she might have been defending Dori, but then why would she have been so distraught?

Skeptically, he asked something, then gestured to her again.

She cut him off even more sharply than before, voice raw. Dwalin felt as though his world was crumbling. He’d thought he’d known her, but he clearly didn’t; if he had, he would’ve had some idea what they were talking about.

Beorn stilled, and looked and sounded almost pitying.

She scoffed something, nearer to tears than ever.

Whatever he said, it sounded like a statement of fact.

But by the way she reacted, Dwalin thought he must have insulted her mother or something. (He could swear he heard Yavanna’s name, but with how accented it had been, it was impossible to tell if it was or not.) Though, he was starting to think insulting her mother wouldn’t have quite that effect. Insulting her father, on the other hand… (Another blade joined the one in his heart.)

Ori’s expression caught Dwalin’s eye; he almost looked as though he’d recognized something Belda had said, but that didn’t make any sense. (Unless it had been Yavanna’s name he heard.)

Beorn tried to contradict whatever it was she’d said, and she cut him off fiercely with a “Nei, Beorn!”

She continued, voice rising with her emotions, until she was shouting at the giant, voice hoarse with the fury fueling her and the tears she wasn’t allowing to fall.

But strangely, the man almost seemed to deflate. The way he was acting didn’t make sense. He wasn’t behaving as though he were humoring a child, he was behaving as though he were treating with an equal, or even a superior. Even now, with the difference in their bearings, it almost seemed that he was the one who barely came up to her knee, not the other way around. He spoke quietly after she was silent for a few seconds, as contritely as he looked.

She nodded. “Ég veit.”

He spoke again, this time as though he were trying to explain himself.

“Ég veit.”

The third time he spoke, it was with a gentle warning in his tone.

She grinned broadly in a way that spoke of nothing but mischief, and drawled, “Ég veit.”

He laughed and she relaxed; a moment later, he knelt before her and held his hand toward her, closed into a loose fist, palm down, and asked something. Dwalin frowned; the gesture seemed almost formal, and odd in the same way that his obvious respect for her was.

She narrowed her eyes at him thoughtfully and countered with a question of her own.

He clenched his jaw, expression as though he’d bitten into something sour, and responded with another question as though he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.

She thought for a moment before speaking; he hummed skeptically.

Sighing, he turned to Thorin. “Bunny says you’ll be my guests for a week at most. Is that accurate?”

Thorin was just close enough for Dwalin to be able to watch him and Beorn at the same time, and so he saw the momentary pause before he answered. “Yes.” Dwalin’s brow rose; Thorin must have been as thrown as Dwalin was if that was all he could think to say.

Beorn sighed again, then glanced at Belda. “Seems I’ll have to learn to live with the smell of Dwarf, then.”

Grinning ecstatically, she laughed and put her hand on one of Beorn’s knuckles, then pressed the back of her hand to his fingers. Again, Dwalin felt as though he were seeing something deeply formal, but how would she know any of his customs, or he hers? Belda’s voice broke him out of his thoughts. “You get used to it.”

Used t— Ah. Dwalin wasn’t sure whether to laugh or be offended. Of course, if he tried to laugh, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep from falling apart. Beorn, though, had no such compunctions, and laughed heartily. “But you have the advantage, bunny.” ‘What?’ To Dwalin’s satisfaction, Belda seemed as confused as he was, and Beorn’s laughter trailed off after a moment. “You don’t…”

He frowned thoughtfully, but the silence was broken after a moment; Bofur yelped and knocked into Dwalin from his other side, then grabbed onto him. Dwalin glared at him, ready to use whatever means necessary to get the miner off, but movement distracted him: there was a mouse on Bofur’s foot. Or at least it looked like a mouse. It was quite a bit larger than any mouse Dwalin had seen before, but it definitely wasn’t a rat. Bofur tried to shake the rodent off, still holding onto Dwalin for balance, but didn’t succeed before a huge hand gripped his jacket and pulled him into the air; a ripple of motion spread through the Company, but an almost-inaudible hiss from Belda stilled them all.

“I don’t like Dwarves.” Surprisingly, Beorn only kept Bofur a foot or so off the ground, but he did pull him closer. “I think you’re greedy, and proud,” the man’s eyes fell to the mouse and he held his other hand under Bofur’s foot, “and blind to the lives of those you deem lesser than your own.” The mouse sniffed at Beorn’s hand, then hopped into it; Beorn set Bofur down, not gently, but not particularly roughly, either. In his hand, the rodent looked no bigger than any mouse; smoothly, he turned and held it out to Belda, who had to use both hands to hold it, smiling. “But little bunny claims you as her pack, and I don’t think she would take it kindly if I denied you assistance.”

At that, Belda smirked up at him, and a wave of deja vu swept over Dwalin; for an instant, he was in the Shire again, watching an almost-feral girl use a wizard to corroborate her argument, though he clearly didn’t wish to. He hadn’t known her then, but now he could see the same oddity in the interaction: she was timid at times, withdrawn at others, but now and during that first meeting in the Shire, she’d carried herself as though she were the equal of any Hobbit, Dwarf, or wizard there. It was something she only did when she was challenging someone, or being challenged, or when she gave the Company ord…

Beorn interrupted Dwalin’s thoughts as he strode to the door, the Company jumping out of his way before they could be trampled. “I must keep my borders secure, but I will return the day after tomorrow. Tell the animals what you need, and mistreat them only if you wish to see the Halls of Mandos sooner rather than later. And do not stray outside between sundown and sunup, on your peril.”

With that, he left. After a moment, the Company began cautiously exploring; Dwalin hung back, watching Belda as his thoughts returned to the line Beorn had broken.

In retrospect, she’d been half-feral as well as half-starved when they met her in the Shire; Hobbits had ‘packs’, not ‘clans’ or ‘tribes’ or any number of more common terms; the ponies had trusted her from that first night, and even wargs seemed hesitant to attack her; the Trolls had been almost eager to believe that she ate Dwarves on a regular basis—

The thought reminded him of the Goblins, when they’d smelled something they called ‘the Eater’ on he and Kíli, the two of the Company who’d been in the most contact with her in the hours just before; they’d also gone straight for her when the Company landed. When Radagast had appeared, there had been something odd between them, and then she’d somehow sensed Elrond’s magic when none of the Company could, when he’d said that almost no one could. After Thorin had given her the contract, when she’d explained Hobbit thinking, he’d thought for a moment that she was something alien and otherworldly.

She was as lethal as a wildcat, and as feral when she was truly fighting. When she was asleep, especially when she’d been asleep with Kíli, she was catlike, and calling her ‘kit’ was as natural or more so as calling the Heirs ‘pups’. She’d called Hobbits’ Ones ‘Mates’, she’d somehow persuaded Beorn, the shape-changer Gandalf had said was as likely to kill them as not, to help them, and Beorn seemed to respect her authority with the Company as Thorin would a fellow King.

She may have bonded quickly with the Heirs, but it had taken her until Rivendell, at least, to be truly comfortable with them or Dwalin, and she hadn’t really been comfortable with the rest of them until after that. Over a month. 

And then she met Beorn at dawn and not even six hours later, was at ease around him in a way that she only displayed around Dwalin. The two of them shared a language, shared enough customs to seem to barely need words. 

Did they share anything else?

She turned to Thorin, and Dwalin realized he’d said something. “…y mother taught it to me. She traveled all over.”

Thorin scowled. “That wasn’t the sort of fluency you just pick up.”

Amiably, she nodded, idly petting the mouse. “Yes, but I never said she wasn’t fluent. She learned it well, and she taught me well.” By virtue of knowing to look for it, Dwalin was able to see the tension in her expression, but she hid it masterfully. A month earlier, he would’ve been impressed, but now he couldn’t help but wonder what else she was hiding.

“You still haven’t told us how you persuaded him to help, my dear.”

Before she could respond to Gandalf, a huge grey-black dog came into the room. It blinked at them for a few moments, tilting its head, then barked. Belda glanced back at the Company, apparently as bewildered as they were, then faced the dog again. “Um, is there a table we could use? Or chairs?”

The dog chuffed, then left the room. Bofur scoffed. “What was that, lass?”

She shrugged defensively. “Well, he said to tell the animals what we need; I thought it was worth a t—”

The dog returned with half a dozen others and as many ponies. While the dogs got out boards and trestles from the side walls, two of the ponies pushed two wide, low-seated benches toward the fire while the others rolled in polished, drum-shaped logs. The boards and trestles were quickly assembled into tables low enough even for Belda, with the benches at the head, or perhaps the foot, as they left one end conspicuously empty. Two sheep entered with a tablecloth, which they spread out, while a large, coal-black ram carried a large bag. The bag was set down on one of the benches, and the ram then went to Belda and baaed insistently. She nodded and held out a hand, which it butted gently, but it kept its head low as it backed away from her. 

The scene, to Dwalin, was reminiscent of a Queen dismissing a servant; try as he might, he couldn’t banish the image, and after it occurred to him, he couldn’t ignore the way all the animals inclined their heads or bared their necks slightly to Belda as they passed her on the way out. He glanced at the others in the Company, but they seemed too bewildered by the scene as a whole to notice anything about Belda in particular.

Part of Dwalin was glad about that; he wasn’t sure what he was seeing, but he wasn’t sure he wanted anyone else to know until he was sure.

After the animals left, Belda sat at the table gingerly. “So, that happened.” She looked down at the mouse in her hands as though just remembering it was there, then placed it gently on the floor; rather than immediately fleeing, it nosed at her fingers for a moment, then squeaked and scurried away. 

She watched it go with a smile, but pain flashed over her face as soon as she straightened again; hissing, she rested her hand on her leg for an instant. When she drew her hand back, red stained her fingers, and panic drove Dwalin’s previous thoughts entirely out of his head. 

“Kit, why didn’t you say something?” He reached her side at the same time as Óin, but could only sit on her other side, feeling useless.

She frowned at him through her winces as Óin cut through her bandages. “It just needs rewrapping, Dwalin.”

Intellectually, he knew she was probably right, but he couldn’t help but worry anyway. Óin gave a satisfied grunt as he uncovered her wound; Dwalin’s panic faded slightly as he saw that she was right, after all. Two finger-widths of the center of the wound was bleeding sluggishly, but the rest was knitting together well. A slow exhale leaving him in his relief, he pulled her gently against his side; she began to lean against him, but jolted away with a whimper, one hand rising to her bandaged ear.

Óin grimaced. “That’ll need to be redressed, too.”

Belda blanched, her hand cupping protectively over her ear; remembering how extreme her reactions were when the injury was aggravated in any way, Dwalin held Óin’s eyes, enunciating carefully. “Could somewhere more private be found?”

He had to repeat himself, but Óin (eventually) nodded. “Aye, and having a bit more light wouldn’t be amiss, either.”

A few minutes later, Dwalin lowered Belda to the ground, solidly in a patch of sunlight. The pear orchard wasn’t the largest grove Dwalin had seen, but it was large enough to give Belda some privacy. She’d only grown more anxious in the minutes since Óin’s first pronouncement, and by now, she looked more likely to faint than anything else. As such, he sat beside her and pulled her onto his lap; Óin pulled a scrap of leather out of the medical bag the animals had given them.

She paled further as she took it, if that was possible, but bit down on it regardless and gripped Dwalin’s forearm tightly. With how she was sitting, her leg had to be paining her, but she didn’t seem to care, and he wrapped his free arm around her back, holding her in place. Beginning to hyperventilate, she screwed her eyes shut and pressed her forehead against his jaw with enough force to bruise her, if not him. Sorrow in his eyes, Óin began to pull off the bandages.

Her strangled scream cut Dwalin to the core; her hands clenched on his arm until he was sure he’d bruise, but he only held her more securely; she arched up as she screamed, straining away from Óin, but Dwalin, eyes burning, held himself still, not giving an inch. Every time Óin so much as nudged her ear, she screamed again, bloodcurdling even through the makeshift gag, and before long, she was sobbing as often as she shrieked. 

Through it all, Dwalin held her, gritting his teeth against the tears that burned his eyes and throat, hating himself for not alleviating her pain, but knowing it was necessary. But knowing didn’t make it any easier.

It felt an eternity, but it couldn’t have been more than a handful of minutes before Óin drew back, shaking his head. Murmuring nothings to her, Dwalin managed to transfer her grip from his arm to his jacket; that done, he wrapped both arms around her, cradling the back of her head with care not to bump her newly-bandaged ear. She still sobbed into his chest, but she was able to throw aside the piece of leather, at least.

Óin retrieved the leather and tucked away in the bag, before holding Dwalin’s eyes. “It’s not healing as fast as the rest. There’s no obvious infection, but knowing how she got it, it wouldn’t be a surprise if that was what’s slowing it down.” He paused, eyes falling to her sorrowfully. “It’ll need to be redressed once a day while we’re here.”

Dwalin tightened his hold on her reflexively, quailing at the thought of going through that, feeling and listening to her go through that, even once more, let alone at least half a dozen times. At the same moment, her breath caught, then her sobs redoubled, her grip tightening on his jacket. Heart breaking for her, he could only shush her softly and begin to rock gently from side to side.

Óin huffed, eyes soft. “As bad as Glóin, you are.” Dwalin glared at him; he still hadn’t had that conversation with her. Óin held up his hands in mock-defeat and packed up, but as he left, he glanced at her ear again and huffed again, this time with morbid amusement. “Like father, like daughter.”

By Óin’s standards, it was an unobtrusive mutter, but for anyone with two working ears, it was more than loud enough to hear from where Dwalin and Belda sat. Dwalin glared at him again, but the old physician was already leaving and so didn’t see it. Once he was gone, Dwalin focused again on Belda, and hummed the songs he had the day before. It had seemed to help her then, it was worth another try. Her sobs eased more when he hummed Little Jewel and Long Ago, so he repeated those several times, until finally her sobs eased away entirely. 

By then, they were at the very edge of the patch of sunlight, and Dwalin kissed her temple tenderly. “All right now?” Silently, she nodded, and he thought that was the end of it.

He thought wrong.

Chapter Text

“Dwalin, what did he mean, ‘like father, like daughter’?” Her voice was almost inaudible, but he still heard her well enough to freeze. “None of you ever met my father. And he compared you to Glóin…” She trailed off; an irrational fear clawed at Dwalin’s chest, the conviction that she’d push him away. Almost as soon as he thought that, she did push him away, just enough to meet his eyes, hers still red-rimmed and swollen. “Dwalin?”  

Heart hammering in his chest, he tried to speak several times before he could force any sound past his lips. “K—kit, did Balin or— or one of the others tell you anything of Dwarven braids?” Brow furrowed, she shook her head. “Well, hair— hair is important to Dwarves. The only time it’s ever permissible to intentionally touch another’s hair is if—” She blinked up at him ingenuously; his chest ached as he realized that this could be the last time he could hold his daughter. But he had to tell her. Heavily, he finished, “If they’re family.”

For an instant, her curious expression didn’t change. Then, like a bolt of lightning, her eyes widened and she inhaled in a shocked, trembling gasp. Tears gathered in her eyes as she stared up at him; he forced himself to finish what he’d started. “When I braided your hair just before the Goblin caves, that was a— a declaration of sorts, telling the Company that I think of you as a daughter and that I’ll protect you as such whether you consider me a father or not,” she was just staring up at him, open-mouthed, breath hitching softly as tears spilled over her cheeks, “which you’re under no obligation to— if you want me to stop, I will, I’ll still keep you safe, but I won’t bother you, I—”

She lunged up, winding her arms around his neck, her face buried in his hair as she trembled. He couldn’t move, terrified to think she didn’t mean what he thought, equally afraid to hope she did. Thickly, she whispered, “I’ve wanted you to be my father for days, but I never hoped—” She cut herself off as her breath hitched, tightening her grip on him.

As her words sunk in, he wrapped his arms gingerly around her, and slowly, he let himself believe he hadn’t imagined it. His breath caught, and again, and then he found himself laughing, or was he crying? He couldn’t tell, but with her in his arms and the knowledge that she claimed him in return shining in his soul like mithril, he didn’t care. Nothing mattered but his daughter, and Thorin could take all of Erebor’s treasures and choke on them if he had a problem with it.

His daughter was his, and she called him father. All the gold in all of Arda may as well have been a pile of leaves in comparison, the Arkenstone may as well have been a grain of sand, every accolade and achievement he’d collected in a hundred and seventy-nine years of life may as well have been chaff. Nothing could ever equal this, equal her.

He pressed a kiss to her head and she drew back just enough to meet his eyes; she was blurred, but he could see her teary laugh as she clumsily wiped at his cheeks. Gently, he cradled her head in both of his hands, wiping her cheeks in return, before pressing a kiss to her forehead. She giggled, and in a rare display of mischief, he peppered kisses all over her face, just to hear her laugh. Finally, laughing and crying in equal measure, they leaned their foreheads together and just held each other. 

For a few minutes, they stayed like that, but eventually, he drew back, holding her eyes. “Kit— You’re sure? Truly?”

She grinned up at him. “If you are.”

Impulsively, he kissed her temple again, then ran his hand over her braid. “I should redo this.”

“Why?” Despite the question, she turned obediently to sit with her back to him, and he began carefully working her hair free.

“I claimed you as my Nâthu-ib-Banth in Rivendell, my sworn daughter, but all that did was put you under my protection. By braiding your hair in front of witnesses, especially the King, I claimed you as my Nâthu-ib-Bujbu, my chosen daughter, but that’s only an informal claim. By braiding in a bead of the Line of Borin of the House of Durin, I claim you as my Nâthu-id-Zadkh, my Daughter of the Line.” Letting the last of her braids unravel themselves, he leaned forward to hold her eyes, chucking her chin gently. “Any Dwarf who sees your braid and bead will know that you are my daughter and heir as surely as if you were my Nâthu-id-Damâm, daughter of blood.”

Her eyes widened slightly and she shook her head. “Heir— Dwalin, I don’t need to be your heir, I don’t need anything! Just being your daughter is enough.”

Smiling tenderly, he kissed her temple, then leaned his head on hers; her eyes fell shut as he did, and she leaned into his touch the way she did when she was especially worked up. “I’m not likely to have any other children, kit.” ‘No matter how much I may want them.’ 

He swallowed hard against the grief the thought brought; he loved Belda dearly, and if she was the only child he ever had, he would be blessed beyond any of his hopes. But part of him still longed for children of his own, to hold an infant and see his eyes looking up at him, to watch his child grow into a Dwarf as strong as his or her big sister. 

And to sit next to his One and watch their children play. It was as much or more of a fool’s dream than wanting more children, he knew, but he couldn’t quite banish the image. Not after seeing the joy on Ori and Fíli’s faces.

A cool hand on his cheek interrupted his thoughts, and he met Belda’s eyes to see a profound sympathy there, as if she knew what he was thinking. Vision blurring, he leaned his forehead against hers again, and remained there for nearly a minute before he pulled back again. “You’ll want to cover your ear, kit.”

Once she had her hand cupped over the bandage, he began. Above her wounded ear, he wove three small braids leading down to the nape of her neck, successfully gathering all the hair that could brush against her ear into one or another of the braids. After she’d pinched off those braids, he turned his attention to the rest of her hair. How curly it was made it difficult, but several minutes later, he’d pulled it into a moderately thick plait, running from her temple down around her uninjured ear to merge with the smaller braids, then continue over her shoulder. His bead, he worked in a few inches from the end of the braid.

But the silence and familiar routine of braiding left him too much space for thought.

She’d looked at him as though she’d known what he was thinking. How?

And once he wondered that, his earlier thoughts came back to him, until his mind was a chaotic whirl of observations and questions that only left him glad that the braid was as simple as it was, for fear he wouldn’t have had the concentration for anything more complex.

“..lin? Dwalin!” Abruptly, he snapped out of his daze; Belda’s eyes were wide and frightened, and strangely worried.

“I’m almost done, kit.” In the aftermath of the Carrock, before she’d woken, one of the few breaks in the monotony of waiting had been when Ori had silently handed him a half dozen thin yarn braids, and he pulled one out of his pocket now to use as a ribbon to tie off her plait. 

But even as he did, she shook her head, still worried. “No, what’s wrong? You weren’t hearing anything.”

For a moment, he only looked at her. To ask her or not?

The moment was as peaceful as could be, or had been until his brooding had spoiled it, and should be happy. Did he want to ruin it by bringing up things she clearly didn’t want anyone to notice?

But it was weighing on him, and if he let it fester, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to bring it up calmly again. And if he brought it up now, then they could clear the air, start fresh.

She still looked concerned; letting go of her braid, he tugged her against his chest again, though he left his hold loose enough that he could hold her eyes as he slowly spoke. “Kit… The animals are strange around you. And not just these, the ponies acted the same, from the day you joined us. And Gandalf was uneasy about asking Beorn for help, but you spoke to him for a handful of minutes and you persuaded him, and that’s not to mention the fact that you’re fluent in his language, and the way you are around him… you’re barely that comfortable with me.”

The entire time he’d been speaking, she’d been getting paler and paler; he hesitated for a moment, but it was better that they discuss it now, no matter how uncomfortable it was. “None of us could sense anything heading into Rivendell, but you did, and when Radagast appeared, it was almost like the two of you recognized each other, or at least he recognized you. And when you and Beorn were arguing, he was treating you like you were the more dangerous one, like you’re strong enough to threaten him even with how huge he is, and when Dori said what he did, Beorn reacted as though Dori had insulted you as well as him. Kit…” He searched her expression for a moment, seeing the resignation seep in. “You are not a Dwarf. But are you…” 

He didn’t know how to say it. It seemed ludicrous to even think it, but she smiled timorously. “I should’ve known not to underestimate you.” Trembling, she swallowed, one hand drifting up to her braid, to his bead, her bead, now. “You said the story about Durin wasn’t for others. You asked me to keep the secret.” Breath catching, she shivered, still holding his eyes. “Will you keep mine?”

With how pleading her expression was, how afraid, there was only one answer he could give. “Aye, kit. I swear on my beard.”

Her eyes seemed to search his for several seconds; evidently, she found what she was looking for, as her expression eased a fraction. But he couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t relax, that her grip on her bead turned white-knuckled, that even as the plea left her eyes, the fear stayed. It wasn’t hard to put it together.

With the way her ‘family’ treated her, maybe it wasn’t a surprise she was afraid Dwalin would reject her, but it stung nonetheless. She truly thought he would abandon her so easily?

“Hobbits were made by Yavanna.” He blinked at her. The words had rushed forward in a jumbled blurt, and she just watched him for a moment. But even after he’d processed what she’d said, he couldn’t really say he was shocked; surprised, yes, but between the love of plants and peace and the emphasis on family, it made sense.

When he didn’t really react other than to nod, she continued. “But Yavanna— she didn’t understand. Plants, fields, yes, but not pain or grief. Our stories say ‘her understanding of these things was as the land’s: that pain was caused by alien others, that pain must be endured, and that escape was impossible.’ She didn’t understand that people couldn’t live like plants. But she made us anyway, ‘out of the soil and the rain and the light’, and she went to Eru to plead for us. She didn’t realize that He’d already decided to adopt us like He did you.” Dwalin huffed out a laugh; she gave him a shaky smile.

“So she went, and the Hobbits played, and Vána got curious.” His brows jumped up; her smile, such as it was, evaporated. “She and Oromë both went and looked and found the Hobbits, and they were horrified. Hobbits don’t call Vána ‘Ever-Young’ like Elves and Men do, you know.” The abrupt change of subject was bewildering, but she kept speaking without waiting for a reaction. “Elrond told me some stories of the Valar while we were in Rivendell, and according to him, the most important thing Vána ever did was make a wedding dress for Nessa.”

Despite himself, Dwalin laughed; her irate scowl was as petulant as when she’d brought up her ‘little pest’ of a cousin the night she joined the Company. She startled at the sound, a bit of color returning to her face in a pink blush, but she continued quickly. “She wasn’t only beautiful, and she wasn’t only the ‘Queen of Flowers’. In our oldest histories, we remember her as her husband’s equal, and fiercer than him in a pinch. We call her Eldfreyja, the ‘fire-fae’, because she was as fierce as fire when she fought to protect her own.

“And Oromë, we don’t call him ‘horn-blower’ like the Elves do, we call him Húsbóndi Veiðimaður, the Master Hunter, greater than any predator. Though, more often than not, we call him Tauron, just ‘cause it’s shorter.” A gleam of a grin flashed over her face almost too quickly to see. “The two of them, they knew how hard the world was, and so they—” Faltering, she blanched a shade paler, and lowered her voice until he had to strain to hear it, holding his eyes all the while. “So they made us a gift. They gave us soul-forms.”

“Soul-forms?” He took the unfamiliar term slowly; she nodded, eyes huge and scared.

“We have Hobbit-forms and soul-forms, ever since then. Hobbits who want to run can become fleeing-prey, Hobbits who want to stand their ground but not fight if they don’t have to can become fighting-prey, and Hobbits who want to fight can become predators.” A ghost of a smile trembled on her lips. “Da was a beaver. Big as one of Beorn’s sheep, or nearly. He always stood his ground, always had to be doing something, always put his pack before anything and anyone else.”

“So—” She immediately shrank in on herself, but Dwalin only noticed enough to adjust his arms more securely around her. “So, your parents, they could change like Beorn did? Just a flash and they were animals?”

Hesitantly, she shook her head. “Not exactly. I don’t know why there’s the light when Beorn shifts, but otherwise, yes. It only takes a blink, and everything we’re wearing or holding in our Hobbit-forms is gone with them, and vice-versa, if we pick something up in our soul-forms, it’ll disappear when we shift back.”

Exhaling slowly, he shook his head. He’d seen it, with Beorn, but there was something different about hearing her detail it as though it were as common as tattoos. Frowning as a thought occurred to him, his arms tightened around her of their own volition. “What if Beorn had you on his shoulder when he changed?”

To his relief, she shook her head. “It’s different with living things. And there’s enough different about Beorn that I don’t know it would work exactly as it would if he were a full Hobbit. But probably, if he shifted while he was carrying me, I’d either fall a few feet since he’s taller in Ho… um, his usual form, or I’d fall off, since his soul-form’s wider.” Speaking of the giant drew his thoughts back to the way she’d acted with him, and a sour feeling settled into his gut. She didn’t seem to notice, though, only stared off into space. “He reminds me of you.”

He jolted. “What?”

She blinked up at him, some of her normal color returning as she smiled, warm and bright and young in a way he’d never seen when she was happy. “I’ve thought you’d be a bear if you were a Hobbit since Rivendell. Big and scary and protective, and gentler than you look. Beorn makes me think of you.” The awful heartache and matching knot of jealous anguish in his gut melted away quickly enough to leave him off-balance in his relief; she just closed her eyes and nuzzled against his chest, still smiling. “We have a story about a great-great-Eru-knows-how-many-greats-grandfather of mine, Bullroarer Took. As tall as a Dwarf and fierce enough to ride out against a horde of Goblins, and he was a bear.” 

She was silent for a long moment, and her voice was musing when she finally spoke. “I used to try and picture my parents doing what Bullroarer did. I never could. Da might’ve thought of it, but he would’ve said it was the place for someone who could truly fight, not a beaver who’d be better put to use building barricades.” She was silent again, as long as before, and he glanced down as she spoke to see that she was holding onto her bead again. “My mother would’ve thought of it, but she never would’ve done it. She would’ve taken Da and run and left the Shire to fend for itself.”

Her voice shook with her breath, and he kissed her crown before he even thought, lingering there until he could feel that her tears were gone. “But you, you would’ve done it. And if I know you at all, you would’ve done it to protect your home and your family, an—” She cut herself off with a vivid blush.

For a moment, he didn’t understand. Then he saw that her grip on her bead was white-knuckled again. As he understood, he didn’t need to think. He just leaned down and kissed her again. “Aye, kit. I’d ride out to protect you, too.” 

He already had. On the cliffs, when she’d stood alone against Azog, he hadn’t realized Fíli and Kíli were running behind him until he was nearly to the bottom of the tree. He’d been ready to again, when Beorn grabbed her.

For an instant, a cynical voice wormed at the back of his mind, but he quashed it ruthlessly. If anything, the fact that she was telling him all this made her more trustworthy, not less.

But she tensed. Confused, he drew back; her blush had fled, but she’d paled again, eyes distant as she held onto her bead. ‘She’s still afraid.’

Brow furrowed, he thought over what she’d said, and considered what she hadn’t. He was starting to suspect that she had ample reason not to want to talk about her mother, so he didn’t begrudge her the omission. But… “What are you, kit?”

She startled, but for the first time in he wasn’t sure how long, she flinched away from him, not towards; in the same instant, she paled further and her eyes shot to his, huge and even more afraid than when the conversation began. When she spoke, her eyes darted between the grey streaks in his beard, never back to his eyes; her voice was higher than usual, and she trembled, invisibly but perceptibly all the same. “We come of age at our First Shift, that’s the first time we can actually shift into our soul-form, although by then, we’ve known what we are for years, it builds up all through our tweens, and we don’t really change, I mean, we do physically, but our minds are still the same, we don’t get overrun by our instincts or anything, we don’t do anything we wouldn’t do in our Hobbit-forms if we could—”

Gently, he interrupted, “Kit,” but she only paled further, spoke faster and higher.

“—and we don’t tell anyone but family, I guess we could, but it’s like a Dwarf telling someone his secret name, it’s just not done, not until the First Shift, and in the Wandering Days, sometimes rival packs didn’t tell each other their shifts even after they came of age, not until they were sure they wouldn’t use the knowledge against them somehow—”

The entire time she’d been speaking, dread had been building in his gut; he hadn’t seen her so terrified since their first talk in Rivendell, when she’d thought he’d hurt her—

...But... no, she knew he wouldn’t. She knew, she trusted him, she’d taken his bead, how could she think—

But what she was talking about, how she was avoiding his question, it was like she was desperate to assure him that she wasn’t truly like whatever her... her soul-form was. But what could she be that was so horrible? 

“Kit.” She didn’t stop, and with a worried growl, he took hold of her shoulders and shook her once, faintly. “Kit!” Now she did stop, but he couldn’t be sure whether it was because he’d gotten her attention or because she was too petrified for speech. Regardless, he cupped her face in his hands, eyes burning as she flinched again. “Kit, tell me what you are.” Eyes watering, she shook harder, but she didn’t refuse or pull away. “A warg? A balrog? What cou—”

“I’m a dragon!” Shock froze him even while she trembled; bewilderment drew his brows together while she shrank in on herself; all in all, his mind was roaring such that he barely even noticed as she leaned further and further away from his motionless hands.

How could she be a dragon— how could she be like Smaug— a monster?!? Against his will, he remembered her bloodthirsty grin as she fought the Orcs. How casually she’d spoken of getting rid of the Goblins, because ‘they were in the way’. How well she lied.

A thud snapped him out of his daze; now on the ground, Belda scrabbled back, away from him, sobs wracking her as she clutched at her bead. “Pl— please, don’t— I won’t sh— show anyone, I sw— swear! Just— please, don’t take it back, please!”

For a moment, he couldn’t hear her at all. His mind filled with memories: her grin when they sparred, just as wild and feral as when she fought; how incensed she’d been at the thought of valuing one life over another, and how even before they reached Rivendell, she preferred the Company to any others; how she’d lied to protect them from the Trolls, and how vehement she’d been that Beorn protect them, as well.

How shocked she’d been to be praised in Rivendell. How quickly she’d assumed that Nori had used a cruel slur against her with full knowledge of its meaning. How horrified she’d been at the idea of not wanting a One.

How anguished she’d been at the thought of anyone not caring about love, though he suspected she had someone specific in mind.

How desperately she’d embraced him less than an hour before.

How she’d begged them to leave her to the Trolls, how she’d rushed into his arms once he assured her that he wasn’t angry, how devastated she’d been after Thorin’s outburst on the cliffs.

The last thought rekindled his anger from that day, and the heartbroken way she flinched back from him only steeled his resolve. Pushing to his feet, he caught up with her in two swift strides, ignoring her fresh sobs, and yanked her into his arms as he knelt the same way he had in Rivendell.

For a moment, she was still and silent; weakly, her sobs returned and she tried, vainly, to push him away. “Wh— What are y—ou doing? I’m a drag— I’m a dragon. I’m a dragon.” As he held her, she repeated the last sentence again and again, brokenly, as though it was the only thing that mattered, or the only thought she could muster.

Cutting her off, he drew back far enough to meet her eyes, no farther. “You’re my daughter.” Her eyes were still afraid, but there was hope there, too; as she blurred, he closed the distance between them to press his forehead against hers. “Whatever else you are, you. are. my. daughter, and not even Melkor himself can change that, not if I had to fight every Orc in Arda to keep you safe.”

Streaks of light were all he could see of the tears that spilled over her cheeks. “But—”

She cut herself off, eyes falling shut, as he cradled the back of her head. Closing his eyes, he kissed where his forehead had been, then wrapped her in his arms again, resting his chin on top of her head. “Dwarves love fiercely, kit. It’ll take more than finding out you’re a shape-changer to make me regret giving you my bead.”

Her voice broke his heart, tiny as it was. “But I’m a dragon.”

He took a deep breath, unable to deny that he wasn’t quite at ease with that fact yet. But even so… “Are you like Smaug?”

“No!” The horrified speed of her denial could only be genuine, and something loosened in his chest. “I’m not a fire-drake, I don’t even have scales! And—” 

He glanced down as she bit her tongue; his lips twitched with a shadow of amusement to see she could find something in the situation to be embarrassed about. “What?”

Her blush darkened in the instant before she hid her face in his chest. “I don’t think it’s treasure I hoard.”

Even muffled, her mortification was clear enough. “What do you hoard, then?” A twinge of fear wormed at the back of his mind, but her words dispelled it easily.

“I found myself getting very possessive of the ponies before we left them in Rivendell.” He lasted a beat, perhaps two, before a laugh burst out of him with all the subtlety of a cave-troll. She poked him, scowl clear in her voice. “Not funny. That’s why I got caught by the Trolls; I was so preoccupied with gettingback what was mine that I wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings.”

That caught his attention; he couldn’t stop laughing entirely, not with how utterly fitting it was that a Hobbit would hoard things as ordinary as ponies, but he sobered enough to ask, “Truly?”

She hummed noncommittally, then half-shrugged. “Sort of.” When she didn’t continue immediately, he poked her in the side; she smacked his hand, but settled back in his arms so she wasn’t hiding anymore, at least. “The months before our First Shifts are… disorienting. To say the least. I’ve been dreaming of being a dragon for nearly a decade, every night for about two years, I think, but the last few months…” She shook her head uneasily. “I forget, sometimes, that I’m only a Hobbit. Especially on the Carrock.” Remembering that terror, he shuddered and curled around her; she returned his hold tightly. “The entire time on the Eagles, I thought I was the one flying, like in my dreams.” 

The longing in her voice broke his heart; he couldn’t understand it, not for the sky, but she sounded like Thorin did when he spoke of Erebor. In his quieter moments, anyway. When he spoke of it to others who remembered it, he usually spoke in terms of vengeance and grief. But when he spoke of it to Dís, or to Fíli and Kíli, this was how he sounded: as though the hope of reaching it was all that kept him moving, and that every heartbeat felt the absence.

Letting loose a shuddering breath, he pressed a kiss to her crown. “It’s dangerous?”

Sniffling, she shook her head. “Not usually, not by itself. But in the next few weeks…” After a moment of silence, she held his eyes grimly. “The closer we get to my coming of age, the harder it’ll be for me to remember I’m a Hobbit. I’ll hesitate more, or I might go too far, and I’ll start acting more like a fox: growling, snarling, pu—” She froze abruptly, horrorstruck. “Oh, Tennur Tauron, I hope I don’t purr!”

Frowning, he chucked her under the chin, drawing her eyes back to his. “What do you mean, like a fox? You said you’re a dragon.”

Her expression tightened somewhat, but she still smiled faintly. “I am. Fox-dragon, really. I don’t know enough about dragons to know if that’s what they’re meant to be like or if I’m some sort of amalgamation, but I’m definitely not a reptile, or a fire-drake.”

He still couldn’t quite wrap his head around it, but he focused enough to ask, “If you aren’t a fire-drake, what are you?”

Her expression fell again, this time to something lost he’d never seen on her before. “I don’t know. It’s like there’s something… missing from the dreams. Something I can’t see. Whatever it is, it’s something to do with plants, I think.”

He huffed lightly. “There’s a surprise.” Leaning down with a playful growl, he peppered kisses over her face again, and for a few minutes, they just laughed.

When they finally settled down, it was because her stomach growled loudly enough to scare birds out of the nearby trees; still laughing, they headed back toward the house. “But you are sure it’s safe?”

Smiling, she leaned her head against his side. “I’m sure. Having another pair of eyes will help.”

He hummed. “More the merrier.” He didn’t really think she’d agree, but the terror in her eyes still surprised him.

“No, D— You can’t!”

Sighing, he knelt down to her level. “This is something the Company should know, kit.”

Frantically, she shook her head. “No, please—”

“They’ll understand—”

“Will they?” He started to answer, but she cut him off. “It took you a few minutes to come to terms with it— How long do you think it would take Thorin or the others?!” His words died in his throat. “Thorin would hear ‘dragon’ and cast me out, you know he would!”

“Kit…” He searched for a rebuttal, but none came; if there was one thing the King was, it was stubborn, especially when he’d set his mind on something. Otherwise, he would’ve given up on his distaste for Belda weeks before the Carrock.

As she saw that he understood her reasoning, she calmed slightly, though her voice still shook. “My First Shift isn’t ’til nearly October, anyway; until then, I’m just as I am now, so there’s no point in telling them. After that…” Swallowing, she blanched, but continued. “After that, maybe.” Grimacing, he began to shake his head, but she cut him off with a desperate, “Uhdad, please!”

He stilled, warmth filling his chest at the endearment, and pulled her into his arms as his eyes burned. For several moments, he couldn’t speak. He could barely even think. The only thoughts that weren’t crowded out by his heart were those of her. When he could think again, he sighed and drew back. “All right, Bunnelê. We’ll discuss it again when you come of age, but for now—”

With a delighted squeak, she cut him off as she embraced him again, and he just chuckled as he returned her hold. 

The peaceful moment only lasted a few minutes, though. “Wait, when did you learn any Khuzdûl?”

He drew back as he spoke, so he saw her sheepish expression clearly enough to have to fight a groan. “Um…”

“Who taught you?” The real question was whether it was Fíli or Kíli.

“I don’t want to get him in trouble!” Kíli, then.

“Kit, the worst that’ll happen to the pup is that Thorin’ll keep him away from you more than he already does.”

Her brow furrowed. “Even after he kissed Fíli?”

“What?” It took him a moment to process her words. “Wait, Ori taught you?”

Blinking at him, she cocked her head to the side. “Who did you think I was talking about?”

He scoffed. “Kíli, of course.” A part of his mind had still thought she’d been shifting the blame to protect him, but the fact that she blushed scarlet as soon as he said his name eradicated that suspicion. 

It also answered the question of whether she returned the pup’s feelings.

She sputtered for a moment. “No! No, O— You all speak Sindarin, and I do, and Ori doesn’t, so—”

“A trade.” Sighing, he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Lessons for lessons.”

“How did you…”

She trailed off as he laughed, and he cupped her cheek with one hand, pulling her close enough to bump their heads lightly together. “He might be quieter than a son of Fundin, but the Princeling-to-be is exactly like my brother as far as their bizarre need to know everything about everything.”

She snorted lightly. “Bit like cloud watching, is it?”

He grinned. “Just ‘cause I’m not a genius like all of you…” He poked her temple pointedly.

She batted his hand away, blushing. “I’m not a genius.” He snorted; she glared. “Da raised me to love reading, that’s all, and my mother,” she faltered, but continued, if a bit more dully than before, “she always taught me that knowledge was a tool like any other.” For an instant, he saw the grief she always hid, and the pain she’d begun letting slip over the last few days; before he could react, she shook off the malaise and smirked at him. “I had plenty of time to read in the last few years, though; there are a few of the books in Bag-End I could recite verbatim, I read them so many times. I even taught myself to read Sindarin.”

Putting aside his worries for another time, he smiled at her as he stood. “So when you saw an opportunity to learn another language, you jumped at it.”

“Exactly.” Her matter-of-fact tone left him chuckling, and he didn’t notice the shift in her mood until she stopped walking; he turned to see her biting her lip, eyes narrowed as she thought. “I need to talk to Gandalf.”

“Is something wrong?” And what could it be that she couldn’t talk to him about?

But she shook her head. “I made a promise, that’s all. It’s time I followed through, and I think I’ll need Gandalf’s help.”

“Not mine?” The question slipped out before he could stop it, and he regretted it as soon as she looked up at him, eyes wide.

“No, it— It’s something— I don’t know how to explain it. Gandalf will. And…” She bit her lip again, but nodded after a moment, sorrowfully. “I think it’s something you should hear with the rest of the Company.”

A twinge of heartache struck him, but he nodded as well. “If you’re sure.”

He turned to go, but hands on his arm pulled him partway ‘round again, and down far enough for her to kiss him on the cheek. Lowering down from her tiptoes, she smiled warmly. “I am, Uhdad. I’ll explain tonight, I promise.”

Chapter Text

Belda toyed with her bead, nerves twisting her guts into knots. She’d split off from Dwalin as soon as the house came into view, and found Gandalf in a handful of minutes (during which she gave Ori a quick heads-up), and he’d agreed to help her. Everything was planned. Everything would be fine. It would be. 

It had to be.

Part of her was still raw from her conversation with Dwalin; she’d been so convinced, for so long, that all it would take was that one sentence and she’d be reviled by her pack as much as she was by her kin, that how quickly he’d forgiven her was disorienting. And she was sure she’d never had a conversation that went in as many directions: one moment she was in agony, the next he was telling her that he wanted to adopt her, the next she was baring her soul to him along with her race’s secrets, then, instead of condemnation, he treated her exactly as he had before she told him.

She didn’t know whether to be relieved, wary, or ecstatic. She settled for exhausted.

But this was something else entirely. Ori’d practically had a heart attack when she told him, and that was before the Goblins, before the Carrock, before…

Her fingers twisted the bead around and around, the surprisingly-delicate ridges of it not yet familiar enough for her to picture. Would this change anything with Dwalin? In a sensible corner of her mind, she recognized that being a child by Dwarven standards wasn’t much compared with being the same sort of beast that slaughtered their people, but she couldn’t banish the worry. He was her father as much as her Da had been, though she couldn’t even think of calling him ‘Da’ without heartache stabbing through her; she loved him as dearly as she’d loved Bungo, but she couldn’t call him ‘Da’ without feeling as though she were erasing her Da, forgetting the man who’d raised her, loved her more than anyone else until Dwalin came along. If he were a Hobbit, she’d have called him ‘Stórfaðir’, but he wasn’t, and nothing in Westron sounded right, so she’d decided on the Khuzdûl equivalent, ‘Uhdad’. 

‘Great-father’, to follow Beorn’s ‘great-cousin’. 

She wasn’t quite sure what ‘Bunnelê’ meant, though. Well, she recognized the suffix, but she and Ori hadn’t had a chance to trade lessons in over a week, and they’d been sparse even before that. Maybe now that she was officially Dwalin’s daughter, she could get lessons more often?

Of course, that was assuming the Company didn’t barricade her inside Beorn’s house as soon as she told them.

Now, Beorn’s animals were just finishing the rather laborious task of setting out dinner, and the Company was all in the main room, and she and Gandalf were the only ones lurking at the edges. As if he’d heard her thoughts, the wizard pushed her lightly, giving her the option of falling flat on her face or stumbling into the main room; recognizing the manipulation for what it was, she glared darkly at him as soon as she had her footing, but the Company’s collective exclamation distracted her. 

As quickly as they rushed towards her, Dwalin planted himself solidly in front of her, forestalling their questions. During the brief lull, her stomach growled again; the Company laughed as she hid her blush in Dwalin’s back, but they left her to eat in peace while Dwalin talked with them. She only paid cursory attention to the conversation; most of her focus was on the plates of food the animals brought her.

It was odd, though; every so often, she felt as though they expected something from her, but she had no idea what it could be, and no way to ask without the Company overhearing, especially as it was full dark by then. Fighting-prey or predator, shape-changers guarded their territory aggressively; she doubted anything could get anywhere near Beorn’s house without his permission, but that didn’t mean it would be safe. If he was going to go to the trouble of warning them, he had a reason.

But once she gave her plate to a helpful dog to be carried away once and for all, a thud snapped her attention to Thorin, across from her. For a few seconds, he only held her eyes challengingly; then he smiled and lifted his mug to her. “I never would’ve thought it possible for anyone, let alone a member of another race, to be as stubborn as Dwalin, but well done, Belda, you’ve proven me wrong.” The Company roared at that, Dwalin included, but she still heard Thorin as he leaned forward. “There’s a reason I keep people who keep me humble around. You’re truly your father’s equal.”

Considering the speaker, it was the most effusive praise she could imagine; what felt like pure sunshine filled her veins, and she ducked her head to try and hide the beaming grin she couldn’t banish. 

One by one, the Company added their congratulations: Fíli had to be flicked on the arm after a paragraph’s worth of gushing; Kíli just grinned at her, eyes shining and cheeks pink; Glóin went on for longer than Fíli, and had to be clonked over the head before he stopped; Bofur spoke for his brothers, simple congratulations but heartfelt all the same; Óin just nodded and drank to her; Dori said a few words about the importance of family, during which Nori made faces and any number of gestures, but she found a clearly formerly-Elf-made locket in her pocket at one point; she gave Nori an exasperated look, but the thief only winked at her; Ori wished her every happiness; Balin eyed her coolly for a moment, but smiled and welcomed her to the family all the same.

Finally, Gandalf smiled at her. “Your mother and father would be overjoyed, kit.” It was a struggle not to visibly react, but she succeeded well enough that the wizard continued, “Now, I believe our new daughter of Fundin has something she’d like to tell you all.”

The table looked to her expectantly; her heart stuttered in her chest. “Right, um…” How to say it? “Well, it’s just…” She’d had it all worked out, where did it go? Best to start simple. “It’s my birthday in a couple months, my coming of age.”

Kíli laughed. “Is that all? We already knew that!” Most of the Company nodded with him; one of her hands clenched in her jacket, the other twisted her bead. 

“Well, you see… um…” Her words lodged in her throat; how would they react? After a moment, Gandalf tapped her on the head with his staff; she glared at him, but couldn’t deny that the interruption made it easier to think through a sentence or so. “It’s, um, it’s not my sixtieth birthday, Hobbits don’t come of age at sixty, I didn’t even know Dwarves do until Kíli’s birthday.” 

Try as she might, she couldn’t force out the words; the Company exchanged worried glances. In the end, of course, Thorin was the one to ask, suspiciously. “…How old are you turning?”

Her hand fisted in her jacket; Dwalin pulled her a little closer; she took a deep breath and met Thorin’s eyes. “I’ll be thirty three.”

As with Ori, there was utter silence for a moment; Ori, she noticed, was doing an admirable job of pretending he had no idea what she was talking about. 

Then the penny dropped.

 

Belda soaked in the sunlight, feeling as though it was the first time she’d breathed in months; for a moment, a stray thought, ‘years’, drifted through her mind, but she didn’t know why. She forgot quickly.

She looked to the side, somehow unsurprised to see three white wolves standing on top of Bag-End. They looked big enough to swallow Hobbiton in one gulp, but she knew they were warg-sized. She remembered that.

They leapt down in a blink, but not on her. ‘This isn’t right.’

They leapt over her to land among the Company. She screamed, but all she could hear were their screams; the lead wolf bit Thorin; the world flickered, going between snow and fire, hills and a cliff, wolves and wargs, but she still screamed with her commander. Pain ignited in her torso, blood gushing out of the same wounds that Thorin bore; the wolf threw him and she felt the impact; Dwalin rushed toward her, his form flickering between a mountain of a Dwarf and a beaver of a Hobbit, but no matter how she screamed, he didn’t stop, he didn’t slow, and he didn’t see the wolf until it tore him apart.

Her vision blurred, and then she was at the window in her room. Kíli was on the other side, almost close enough to touch, and she pounded on the glass, but he only walked away. She turned just as Thorin closed the door, and she reached it just as the bolt slid home. She tried to beat at the door, but something was holding her; she couldn’t see it, couldn’t understand what it was, why it was warm, why it was moving—

A voice finally cut through the screaming in her ears, and once she noticed it, every blink made the familiar lines of Bag-End fade into shadow, replaced by a great-hall, huge and dark and empty, but with her father’s face over hers, as worried and afraid as his scent.

“D—Dwalin?” Even the one word burned her throat as much as speaking in the Goblin caves had; she’d spent too many years screaming herself hoarse not to recognize the feeling.

As soon as she spoke, Dwalin heaved out a shuddering breath and let go of her wrists to pull her into his arms; realizing that most of the Company was awake and watching, she burrowed her face into her Uhdad’s chest and focused on the reality around her, wishing desperately that she could wake up again and find out none of them had actually seen.

Soft, worried Khuzdûl surrounded her no matter how she tried to ignore it, none of it familiar; out in the open, or even in Rivendell, it might have helped her keep herself in the present, but the smell of wood surrounded her as much as the Khuzdûl, and every breath drew her mind back to Bag-End. Gradually, her heart slowed to match Dwalin’s, but her mind refused to do the same. It wasn’t until Dwalin’s hand covered hers that she realized she was fiddling with his jacket. “Kit, you’re safe.”

Unable to move her hands, her nervous energy moved to the rest of her, making it impossible for her to keep from fidgeting. A light tap on her arm nearly made her jump out of Dwalin’s lap; seeing the hurt on Kíli’s face, she wished she could take the reflex back, but he only pulled his hand back and cleared his throat. “Is there anything you need? Anything I can do?”

Her immediate, reflexive thought was to ask for a clock, a metronome, an adding machine, anything complicated enough to demand her full attention as she disassembled it and put it back together, anything delicate enough that she would have no choice but to still her hands and her mind alike. But she’d seen earlier, Beorn had nothing like that, and the Company didn’t, either, not with them. But she needed something, something finicky and familiar—

Her eyes darted to Ori where he was rubbing his eyes; pleadingly, she leaned closer to Kíli. “Can you ask Ori if I can borrow his journal? And a pencil?”

Kíli nodded; for an instant, he looked as though he’d hug her, or at least touch her arm again, but the instant passed and he stood. Unthinking, her eyes stayed on him as he moved to Ori, but the weight of ten sets of eyes pressed into her as soon as she remembered the Company’s presence; heat flooding her cheeks, she hid her face in Dwalin’s chest. Cradling her head, he growled something in Khuzdûl; the feeling of being watched didn’t leave, but when she glanced back, it was to see that none of them were looking at her.

Closing her eyes, she clenched her jaw against the realization that it was only in her head. But then, she shouldn’t have been surprised; she’d felt as though she were being watched when she was locked, alone, into a room with no windows. Why wouldn’t she feel the same when there were actually people to see her?

The journal moved into view beside her; as soon as she took it, Kíli began to move away, but froze when she snatched hold of his sleeve. She couldn’t meet his eyes, couldn’t think of a way to explain, but the only thing her mind could never conjure up was his scent. Having him beside her would help her keep herself in the present more than anything else could. That in mind, she moved off of Dwalin’s lap and tucked herself under Kíli’s arm, keeping hold of Dwalin’s arm, as well. Surprise and discomfort coursed through their scents, but she just focused on the paper.

One of the few luxuries Camellia and Longo had allowed her was a battered pocket watch, and she’d gotten into the habit early on of using it as a distraction the only way she could. She’d snuck other things in over the years, little household utilities that could plausibly just be lost, but she was most familiar with the clock. So, it was as easy as breathing to sketch it. As she drew, the last dregs of her nightmare fell away, and she forgot the Company, she forgot the quest, she forgot everything. All that mattered were the plans taking shape under her fingers, her father on one side, and her best friend on the other. 


 

Kíli

 

Kíli glanced down and broke off mid-sentence to bite back a laugh when he saw that Belda was asleep. Gently, he pulled the journal out of her hands and set it on the floor; she started to move closer to him the same way she had a few nights before, but Dwalin gently tugged her toward him instead, and she latched onto him with a contented sigh. 

Even as she did, though, she kept hold of Kíli’s free hand; he couldn’t quite bring himself to let go. With a start, he remembered who, exactly, she was leaning on. Stomach clenching, he could only think for a moment, ‘notcan’tdon’tmakeme let go’. But Dwalin only glanced at him, chuckled quietly, and looked down at Belda again when she grumbled incoherently. Smiling, he ran his thumb over her cheek; she leaned into his hand, and Kíli chuckled with Dwalin. 

It wasn’t long before she was deep asleep, more than deep enough for Kíli to move away without waking her, but despite knowing he had to, he couldn’t think of anything he wanted to do less. As he tried to gather enough resolve, he was surprised by Dwalin’s quiet voice. “Don’t hurt her.”

Startled, Kíli could only manage, “W— what?”

Dwalin met his eyes levelly; for a few moments, he only looked at him. “It’s obvious how you feel about her, pup.” Kíli flushed, but Dwalin didn’t give him a chance to speak. “It’s almost as obvious that she cares for you, as well.”

What felt like pure sunshine suffused him; he couldn’t help a hopeful grin. “You think so?”

Dwalin smothered a laugh and flicked Kíli’s arm. “Settle down, pup.” The familiar reproach cut through the giddy cloud enough that Kíli did subside, but he couldn’t have stopped smiling if he tried. “But take care.” Dwalin’s gaze pinned him in place; his smile weakened slowly. “Don’t get her hopes up, pup. If she’s your One, I won’t stand in your way, but unless you’re absolutely sure you want a future with her, don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep. You both might have fun now, but she’ll be twice as hurt later, and I won’t have that. Don’t lead her on.”

Soberly, Kíli nodded. “I swear, Dwalin.” His eyes fell to Belda again, and he smiled softly at how content she looked. A thought struck him, and he smiled. “You’re a good father.” Dwalin jolted just enough that Belda groaned near-inaudibly; Kíli bit his lip and nodded to her. “She thinks the world of you.” 

Dwalin’s eyes looked a bit misty, but Kíli didn’t call attention to it. 

Gently, he pulled his hand out of hers, mourning the loss of heat even as he did. “For what it’s worth, I would never hurt her. Not intentionally. I’d rather face Smaug alone and unarmed.”

An odd expression crossed Dwalin’s face, but he nodded. “I know. Good night.”

“Night.”

Settling into his bedroll by Fíli, Kíli couldn’t forget Dwalin’s words. Could he truly say that he wanted a future with her? No, that wasn’t the right question. He did want a future with her, but could it really happen? Assuming the quest went according to plan, assuming she got in and out of Erebor with the Arkenstone and without waking Smaug, if he wasn’t already dead, it would be months before they could mount any assault on the wyrm. It could be another year before everything settled down, or more. Would they feel the same in that long? He wanted to say yes, at least on his side, but unless she was his One, he couldn’t guarantee that. 

But around her… He felt as though he were being pulled by a current, a riptide inexorably drawing him to her side, as natural as a Dwarf to stone, as effortless as gravity. Was that what it felt like to have a One? He’d have to ask Fíli in the morning.

He couldn’t imagine ever forgetting her. He could imagine falling in love with her. He half-scoffed. He was fairly sure he already was falling in love with her. Hearing her scream when they’d been running from Beorn had been more terrifying than being in danger himself, especially when Dwalin screamed, too. Every time he saw her unhappy, he just wanted to fix whatever was troubling her, and every time he saw her smile, the sight became his new favorite memory.

But she wasn’t a Dwarf. He didn’t care, but others would, other Dwarves who would be needed if they were to retake Erebor. She was officially Dwalin’s daughter now, but still. And she was only thirty-two. He felt queasy at the mere thought. Half Fíli’s age, and he was seriously thinking about a future with her. But she wasn’t a Dwarf. After the uproar had died down after dinner, she and Gandalf had both explained that Hobbits came formally of age at thirty-three; not just battle-ready, but legally adults. For all intents and purposes, she truly was his age. But she was young nonetheless. 

Intellectually, he knew she wasn’t a child, knew she was nearly the fighter he was and would likely surpass him in another year or less, knew she was more than old enough to make such decisions for herself, just as he was. But every time he thought about just how young she was, he felt like a lecher for ever having looked at her mouth or her curves, or anything, really. For the remainder of the night, he swung from one view to the other.

 

The light danced and bloomed in the torches, sparks like fireflies going up, and up, and up, up, up—

A laugh came from beside him; Kíli blinked at the petite fig— figo— person for a long moment before recognizing Belda. “Bel’a!”

She laughed again, holding onto his arm as the world swayed around them. “You really need to stop talking about how much you like this place.”

She tugged him forward again; he felt near tears. “Bu’ it’s so beau’ful!”

“It’s Elven, Kíli!” Laughing, she pushed open a blurry door and pulled him into a blurrier room. “You’re a Dwarf; you’re meant to hate it!”

Frowning, he shook his head; the world wobbled enough to send him to the floor. “Can’ ha’e it, it’s b’utiful.” Giggling, she sat with her back to a couch to his right, perpen— perpa— at a right angle to him. He loved her laugh. “So’re you.”

A startled blush cut off her laugh, her smile fading, too. “Kíli?”

Distress pulsing with his blood, he tried to gently cup her cheek, but she wouldn’t stay still, and it took a few tries. “No, why’d y’stop smilin’? Lov’ y’r smile, it’s beau’ful like you.”

Gentle hands caught his as he tried to touch her hair, and even through the fog in his mind, he understood not to fight her as she pulled his hand away. “Kíli…”

“‘M sorry.” His heart ached, but he didn’t let himself rub his chest or wipe his eyes; he’d gone too far. Even if he didn’t quite understand what, exactly, he’d done.

But she shook her head, eyes shining sadly. “No, you— I—” Blinking rapidly, she took a deep breath. “I’m not angry with you, Kíli. It’s… it’s not the right time.”

Whatever part of Kíli’s mind knew he was dreaming remembered that on that night, he’d stared at her mutely until he understood her words, then gotten distracted with asking why she wasn’t as drunk as he was, when she’d matched him drink for drink. The topic had changed and they’d laughed at nothing until the Company returned and she went to bed; he’d endured more than his fair share of ribbing the next morning for being the first to retire from his own coming of age party, but Belda had seemed to assume that he didn’t remember their conversation, and so he hadn’t said anything about it, either.

But whatever part of Kíli’s mind that knew he was dreaming wasn’t nearly large enough to stop the dream there.

“It’s not the right time,” Belda repeated, looking down at her hands. 

‘This isn’t what happened, this isn’t right.’ But Kíli couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t use his abruptly-clear head for anything but to watch, horrified.

“Not the right time, and it never will be.” Against his will, Kíli’s eyes fell to her hands, sheer panic stabbing through him as he realized they were the hands of an old woman; she raised her head to look him in the eye, silver-white hair setting her clouded eyes to greater relief.

He wanted to yell, wanted to sob, wanted to cradle her face in his hands and wipe away her wrinkles as though time were no more implacable than rumbled fabric, but he couldn’t move. He didn’t need to to know that if he could see himself, he’d look no different than ever. That he wasn’t yet in his middle years while she was ancient.

That she’d grow old, and leave him behind.

That she could spend the rest of her life with him, but he couldn’t spend the rest of his with her.

That to think otherwise, to hope, would be foolish.

He was a fool.


 

Fíli 

 

Fíli scanned the drawing again. It was at least the fifth time she’d looked at it since Glóin had handed it to her over breakfast, but she was still no closer to properly understanding it than the first.

She’d never seen such a complicated diagram, such a complicated device, and had so little idea of what it was for. Belda had apparently disappeared before most of the Company woke, though she’d evidently convinced Dwalin not to worry too much.

Kíli was no more concerned.

As she thought of him, Fíli stared suspiciously at her brother. He was being strange. The day before, he’d been practically vibrating with his worry over Belda, despite knowing she was with Dwalin. Now, there was no knowing where she was, she was almost certainly alone and unarmed, and he was hunched over his arrows like they were all that mattered in the world.

Thorin stood and stalked out, but she paid him little mind. A few dark glares cleared the room of everyone but the children of Dís, and she sat across from Kíli, glaring at him as well.

After a few moments, she saw his eyes flick up, toward her, but he kept his head down and focused again on the new arrows he was fletching. She huffed. “Really, you’re ignoring me?”

He shifted self-consciously in his seat, but didn’t react otherwise.

She waited until he finished the arrow in his hands before kicking him. “Stop being an idiot and talk to me.”

He glared mutely at her. She was a little impressed; he looked very much like Thorin.

“It’s obviously something to do with Belda, so talk. Is it something to do with her age?”

He blanched; Fíli softened somewhat. The revelation of just how young she was had been a shock to everyone, but given her and Kíli’s relationship, it wasn’t a surprise that he would take it harder.

For Fíli’s part, she only had to remember that Belda could probably kill half of them before the other half even noticed anything was wrong, if she wanted.

But there really wasn’t anything she could say, or at least think to say. There was no fixing this, only adjusting and moving on.

That in mind, she lowered her voice sympathetically. “I know how hard this must be, but you really should talk to her. You saw her last night— she was terrified to tell us, and she’s probably still afraid we’ll treat her differently because of it.”

A low, harsh breath left him. “How can we not? She’s a child—”

“You heard her and Gandalf, same as me,” Fíli hissed. “She might have half the number of years I do, but she’s the same age as you. She’s not a Dwarf, she’s an adult for a Hobbit—”

She stopped mid-sentence, realizing his expression had darkened further.

Slowly, she understood. “…She’s an adult for a Hobbit, because they barely live longer than Men.” He flinched violently, half the arrows on his lap clattering to the ground. Remorse filling her, Fíli helped him pick them up again. “I'm sorry, Kee, I didn’t think—”

Glowering, he pulled the arrows from her hands. “No, you didn’t.”

He sat again, facing away from her. She only watched him for a handful of minutes, leaving him to his brooding. Finally, his motions slowed to a stop, and she murmured, “Would you really rather spend decades regretting staying away from her?”

He tensed, but said nothing, and she continued. “I know it isn’t the same… but until a few days ago, I was convinced I would have to say goodbye to Ori after the Quest and I would never see him again. When I realized how deeply I was beginning to care for him, I thought about staying away. I decided I’d rather have memories of what-could-have-been than regret not spending what time I could with him. You and I… we probably have a full two centuries in front of us. I knew months ago that I’d probably outlive Ori. You don’t have the benefit of ‘probably’, but still. Our lives are so long compared with Men, and even compared with other Dwarves. But we have the luxury of choice, compared with other Dwarves. We can choose safety, or we can risk our hearts for the sake of happiness. In the end, I suppose, all we have to decide is what to do with the time given to us.”

As she was about to turn and go, he let loose a shuddering breath. Silently, she sat beside him; when he spoke, it was quietly enough that she never would have heard him from anywhere else. “But when misery is inevitable—”

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” Kíli inhaled sharply; Fíli blinked away the blur as she looked at him. “You remember how many times Amad’s said that was Adad’s favorite saying? You’re jumping at shadows, Kee. Talk to her. She has to know what the difference between you means. So talk to her. Figure out what it changes, if it changes anything. Figure out if you can go forward anyway.”

“What’s forward except—“

“Years of happiness, for all you know. Or maybe you’ll have a decade and then you’ll get killed in some stupid accident and she’ll be the one burying you. Or you’ll have a full century, until she’s as old as her grandfather, and you’ll have a century’s worth of happiness to help you make it through the rest. You don’t know. No one does. No one can.

“But you know that you’d be happy with her. I know you too well to think that you’d be half this conflicted if you didn’t at least care for her, even if you don’t love her yet. You could be happy together. Do you really care for her so little that you could turn away from her now?”

For long minutes, they only sat beside each other and listened to the movements outside.

“…When… Before you knew Ori was your One… were you drawn to him?”

Blinking, Fíli considered the question for a few moments. “I’m not sure ‘drawn’ is the right word. Attracted, though. I could barely keep my eyes off him, and I haven’t gone a day without thinking about him since the first time I saw him. You remember— he chopped off his beard right out in the open and announced he wouldn’t grow it back until the Quest was complete and Erebor was ours again.”

Kíli snorted lightly. “Well, he certainly has the Durin melodrama.”

She grinned, but looked at him curiously after a moment. “So are you ‘drawn’ to Belda?”

Sighing, he nodded once. “Like Thorin is to Erebor. Even if I was determined to stay away, I’m not sure I could, not seeing her every day.”

Inwardly cheering at the tacit admission that he’d changed his mind, Fíli prompted gently, “So be friends with her. Maybe more is impossible, but you can at least be her friend.”

A tired smile pulling at his lips, he sighed and nodded again. His glance to her held all the love in the world, and Fíli leaned over to touch her forehead to his. After a moment, they both drew back, and he asked, ‘casually’, “Where is Belda, anyway?”

Struggling not to laugh at his transparency, Fíli shrugged. “I think Thorin went to talk to her. You can ask him when he gets back, if she isn’t back by then.”

Chapter Text

Thorin scowled. Nori had been able to give him the rough direction Belda had gone, but she’d apparently gone into a rukhsul field of tall grass. He could barely see over it; she was small enough to be completely invisible.

Shaking his head, he turned to go; this was impossible. As he did, the wind shifted, and he stilled as a voice drifted to him. Cautiously, he moved toward it, the words becoming discernible after a few moments:

…e stars I’ll greet you

There beneath the stars I'll leave you

Before you go of your own free will

 

Go gently

 

Underneath the stars you met me

Underneath the stars you left me

I wonder if the stars regret me

At least you'll go of your own free will

 

Go gently

 

Here beneath the stars I'm landing

And here beneath the stars not ending

Why on earth am I pretending?

I'm here again, the stars befriending

They come and go of their own free will

 

Go gently

Go gently

 

Underneath the stars you met me

And Underneath the stars you left me

I wonder if the stars regret me

I'm sure they'd like me if they only met me

They come and go of their own free will

 

Go gently

Go gently

Go gently.

 

Her voice was contralto, which he hadn’t expected, and slightly hoarse; he guessed this wasn’t the first song she’d sung. The middle of the third verse had sounded almost bitter, but the last verse had been thoroughly miserable. He’d found her at the beginning of the last verse, but had felt as though it would be cruel to interrupt, so he’d just watched her.

She was lying flat on her back in the grass, red-rimmed eyes fixed on the sky—though he’d thought she glanced at him at one point—and limbs splayed out in a way that reminded him of Kíli. He could just see her through the grass, and there was still a thin layer between them—not enough to hide her, but enough to preserve the illusion that he wasn’t intruding on her privacy. 

A few moments of silence passed; he had no idea what to say. 

“My father wrote that.” He startled slightly; she didn’t seem to notice. “Well, most of it.” A few tears spilled over her cheeks, though her expression didn’t change in the slightest. “I added a verse. I was just committing it to memory.”

He still didn’t know what to say.

After a few moments, she sniffled. “I had a dream last night,” she winced, “after I got back to sleep.” A bitter, teary laugh escaped her, and she screwed her face up. “It wasn’t even a nightmare, just a dream. Just a memory.”

She sounded as though she were about to cry. Should he go get Dwalin? There was a reason he and Fíli didn’t speak of such things. But as she continued, he realized she didn’t—as far as he could tell—want him to say a word. She only wanted him to listen.

“But I just—how didn’t I see it then?”

Slowly, he sat, keeping the grass between them as the illusion of a barrier, the illusion of privacy. He could leave. He could leave her to her tears and send Dwalin her way, but he had badly misjudged her before. He still didn’t understand her. So if she wanted to confide in him, did he have the right to refuse?

When she didn’t continue at first, he prompted quietly, “See what?”

Sniffling, she took a shuddering breath. “She’s the stars.” He didn’t have the nerve or the time to ask who ‘she’ was. “My father never minded—he loved her no matter what she did—but I—no, I didn’t mind either, then, but—” 

A half-sob cut her words short, and she was silent for a few seconds. For lack of any other ideas, Thorin laid down, still with the grass between them, but close enough that he could hear her struggling to steady her breath.

“She used to say that my father was the only pack she needed. She told him she loved him after every sentence. ‘Pass the potatoes, love’. ‘The book I was looking for, I love you’. ‘It’s been a whole hour since I said I love you’.”

There was birdsong in the field, not quite loud enough to drown out her eventual next words.

“How do you come to terms with the fact that the person who was supposed to love you more than anything never did?”

He almost said something at that, but she cut him off, voice thick.

“It’s not a point of debate. You didn’t know her.” He heard a faint rustling, and guessed that she was shaking her head. “She loved my father so much she shone with it. When she was home, which wasn’t often, it was easy to see that every moment she spent with him was a treasure. I just didn’t realize until recently that every moment with me was an obligation.” She scoffed wetly. “You know, I can’t remember a year she spent more than four months in the Shire, altogether? And that was only the one time, and I can’t remember why—it was when I was tiny. The rest of the time, it was just Da and me ten months out of a year, or more.

“And he loved me. I’ve never doubted that, never will doubt it. He made sure I knew I was loved… and I guess now I know why. You know, I think the only times I was truly, properly alone before the Fell Winter were when she was home and she and Da holed up together for a few days or a week? And then there’d be a couple weeks where Da made sure to include me at meals and in the library, so it was the three of us. And then there’d be a couple days, four at most, when she would spend time with just me. And most of that was playing games like Hide-and-Track or learning to throw or something else that let her stay at least ten yards away from me for most of it.”

What she was describing went against everything Thorin knew. He didn’t want to believe it, but if she was telling the truth—and her tears certainly gave her words credence—then she was right. Dwarves didn’t believe in coddling their children, of course, but what she was describing went past ‘strict’ and well into ‘neglectful’. But surely she would have prioritized her daughter if there’d ever been an emergency?

He said as much, and received a harsh, barking laugh in answer. She was starting to sound more and more like Dwalin.

“Fíli never told you we match, then? Our scars, that is.” Furrowing his brow, Thorin searched his memory for any of Fíli’s scars that Belda could possibly have in common with her. “I haven’t asked Dwalin yet, did the Fell Winter reach Ered Luin? It was twelve years ago. Almost twelve.” On the last sentence, her voice fell until it was nearly inaudible, and barely loudened again as she went quaveringly on. “It was my fault. We’d heard the howling, but—but with the blizzards—I couldn’t remember the last time I saw the sun—breathed fresh air—and I couldn’t—” Her voice gave out. It was nearly a minute before she continued, every other word cracking.

Long enough for dread to begin twisting Thorin’s guts into a knot.

“I begged to go outside, just for a minute— and they must have been as desperate as I was or they never would’ve agreed. They never should’ve agreed. But we went out, and I could breathe for the first time in weeks—or it could’ve been months, for all I know—and then I turned around and there were wolves on the roof, and one jumped— jumped at me, and I— I tried to get out of the way but it still caught my arm— and I could— couldn’t get away before it grabbed me—bit me—”

Slowly, Thorin realized she’d never meant that she shared scars with Fíli. His still-healing wounds ached, and any words he might have said died in his throat, choked by horror.

“And Da— Da screamed,” she sounded a hair’s breadth away from sobbing, voice a reedy, shaking thing, “and the wolf—it must have thrown me—I don’t remember, but it was holding me and then I was yards away, in the snow— and I saw— I saw—” A gulping hiccough interrupted her; somehow, she didn’t break down entirely, but it took long minutes before she continued.

Thorin still couldn’t speak.

“He ran. Hobbits run away, not ones like me and my mother, but ones like Da, they run away, but he didn’t, he was running— he was running to me. He didn’t care about the wolf, he didn’t— but it caught him, and he screamed, and my mother screamed.” She hissed the word the same way she had before; Thorin tried not to think of how Dís had screamed when he told her they’d found Sídri. “And she ran to him—ran to save him—but another wolf grabbed her, and— and she screamed after Da stopped. I could still hear her when I ran.”

There was another rustle as she sniffled.

“I could still hear them for months. I don’t remember being found, I just remember— one second I was running, the next I was waking up in a room I’d never seen, covered in bandages, and there was sunlight outside. The Fell Winter only lasted a few weeks after my parents died, but I was stuck in it for months. But my Da— he ran to save me. My mother didn’t. She ran to save him. And—” She gave another harsh, half-sobbing laugh. “And the worst of it is, I can’t hold that against her. There was nothing she could have done against those wolves—they were as big to us as wargs are to you—and staying back was the smart thing to do, the thing she would have told me to do—that she did teach me to do—but I still—”

She broke off with what sounded suspiciously like a true sob, and before Thorin knew what he was saying, he’d blurted, “My grandfather never saw more in me than the beads in my hair.”

Immediately after he’d said it, he clamped his lips shut. He didn’t know why he’d said it at all, let alone to her.

Well, that wasn’t quite true. Of anyone in the Company who didn’t already know, she was the first he’d tell willingly. She was the only one who would understand. But even so, he hadn’t known that until just now, and for all he knew, she was making it all up, and—

“Did…” She sniffled. “Did he ever teach you things, and when you did it right, look at you like you were the best thing in the world to him?”

Only a handful of times that he could remember, but… “Yes. Before the gold-sickness worsened.”

He half-expected her to ask what on Arda he was talking about, but instead she murmured, “And then when you did it wrong—because you were a child—look at you like you were nothing?”

He sighed, but felt a tiny weight lift off of him with his answer. “Yes.” He hoped that was a less angry expression on a Hobbit than it was on a Dwarf, but even so. Looking sidelong at the grass that separated them, he turned his head just slightly toward her. “I was twenty-four when Smaug came. I was outside the mountain, with Dwalin and a few others, and all I could do was watch my home burn.”

A tiny rustle. “Most of the Fell Winter was unending blizzards. We had to dog-pile in the pantry just to keep from freezing to death.”

“I was forty-seven when my grandfather led us to war against the Orcs. Fifty-three when I saw my grandfather, grandmother, and brother die in the final battle.”

“My mother was in shreds the last time I saw her. I only saw my Da’s arm, lying on the snow a little ways from the wolves.”

“My father went mad after the battle that took most of my family. He disappeared when I was a little over a hundred, and I was made King.”

“According to my relatives, I was rabid-slash-feral-slash-insane for the better part of six months after the Winter. That’s why they got custody, because I couldn’t recognize that the Winter had ended, let alone that one of my cousins was trying to talk to me.”

“I’ve never spent more than eight months out of a year with my family, and mostly closer to half a year. I had to travel, to find work to support them, but it was also hard to stay penned in anywhere, after wandering was the only reason I survived Smaug.”

“My cousins once locked me into my room for three weeks while they visited with friends. I hadn’t figured out how to pick locks then, so by the time they got back, I’d nearly starved to death.”

“When we fled Erebor, even my grandfather’s madness wasn’t enough to make him think going to the Elves wasn’t the right decision. But they denied us any aid. We lost the most people then, to hunger and sickness.”

“The last time my mother went to Rivendell was fifteen years ago, when I was eighteen, but she never even told Elrond she had any children.”

“On our way to Ered Luin, we didn’t even consider going to Rivendell for aid. Now I’m afraid our pride cost more of my people their lives.”

“My Da told me horror stories about when an army of terrifying, vicious Dwarves passed through the Shire generations ago. No one was brave enough to ask them what they wanted or needed.”

“I’d heard of land available in what used to be Arnor, but I was too proud to consider settling my people anywhere but in a Dwarven mountain.”

“I could have run from my family ages ago. I was too scared to go off on my own.”

“I should’ve begun this Quest years ago, but if Gandalf hadn’t brought the key and the map to me, I probably would’ve died with it still unfulfilled.”

They went on, for how long Thorin wasn’t sure. They laid in the grass and looked at the sky and spoke with hardly enough volume to be heard over the birdsong and rustling of plants in the breeze. On and on, until Thorin simultaneously felt as though he’d float away with how much he’d unburdened himself, and that he’d crumple under the weight of her burdens.

There were no tears, after all those near-misses, and no rages. Only an unspoken agreement to neither offer sympathy nor ask questions, only to listen. And the more Thorin listened, the more he realized what a fool he’d been to treat her as he had. He’d thought her a defenseless child at first, then a naïve, sheltered child, and instead—

Instead, he thought that if they’d met just after Azanulbizar, it would have been like looking into a mirror, for all that she was female, and a Hobbit. He’d had over a century to shut away his pain, to hide it, to deny it. She’d had no time at all. He’d thought there was such a chasm between them, that she could never understand the suffering he, and his people, had endured.

On the Carrock, he’d told her that he’d never been so wrong in all his life. Now, he knew that he could repeat himself without the slightest insincerity.

Some time later, when the sky above them was just beginning to darken, they stood and made their way out of the field. Emerging into the open air again was strange, as though he’d lost his armor, but he still called her to a stop. 

“Belda. I owe you an apology.” She started to shake her head, but he held up a hand. “No, I do. The way I’ve treated you has been unforgivable, and if you want—”

“The only thing I want,” she interrupted quickly, “is to be treated like any other member of the Company, like anyone else who signed that contract.”

Looking at her, he didn’t doubt she meant it. Slowly, he nodded. “Then I can grant you that.”

 


 

Kíli

 

Kíli could barely stay still as he scanned the horizon for the tenth time in as many minutes. Thorin had been gone most of the day, Belda the entire day, and it was nearly dusk.

He needed to see her. He needed to talk to her. Fíli was right, it was stupid to do anything drastic without talking to her, and maybe she knew something he didn’t. Maybe there was something she hadn’t said the day before.

Two dark shapes came into view on the horizon, and Kíli’s heart gave a lurch. He took a half-step forward—

—and stopped. Thorin would assume he was there to speak to him, and explaining would be more of a delay, and awkward to boot. Thinking quickly, he ducked back, flattening himself against the wall to the side of the door. Fíli caught his eye from across the room; discreetly, he flashed their Iglishmêk sign for Thorin at her, then the sign for time.

Her brows raised; she flashed a ‘B’ at him.

He nodded.

She smirked and raised her brows at him; he flushed, and she grinned.

But as soon as Kíli heard booted footsteps on the wood outside the door, Fíli called Thorin over, pointing out some new detail in Belda’s diagram.

Thorin went with a small, amused huff, and Kíli caught Belda’s arm as she came in behind Thorin. For a long moment, he only looked into her eyes. She glanced at Thorin, then outside, then raised her brows at Kíli.

Smiling as he realized it was no harder to understand her than it was Fíli, he nodded, and they slipped out the door and a ways to the side. Dusk was beginning to fall, but it wasn’t long past midsummer. They had close to an hour before full dark, he guessed.

Hopefully, that would be enough time.

…Or it would be if he could think of a thing to say.

After a few moments, she scratched the back of her head, looking to the side. “I assume you didn’t want to discuss the watch plans?”

His brow furrowed; frowning, she pulled a few blades of grass out of her hair and lifted her other hand to the search. “Watch?” Out of the corner of his eye, Kíli saw lightning bugs the size of his thumb fly toward them, but all they did was orbit him and Belda, giving them a bit more light.

“Pocket watch.” That didn’t help in the slightest, but she quirked a brow at him with a teasing half-smile. “I think we’re getting off topic.”

Drawing in a deep breath, he nodded. “We are.” 

But he couldn’t bring himself to continue. A touch to his hand startled him into jumping; Belda shifted closer to him, looking sympathetically up at him while she took his other hand, as well. They touched each other fairly often, but skin to skin contact was something else entirely; he might have expected it to lessen the pull he felt toward her, but if anything, it strengthened it.

And loosened his tongue. “I don’t know what to do.”

She released a quiet, unsurprised breath. “Because I’m half your age.”

Pain lanced through him again at the words. Dropping his eyes to her hands, he murmured, “Because I’ll outlive you. I’m not—I’m not strong enough.” A broken laugh escaped before he could stop it. “How can you even look at me? At any of us? Knowing—”

He couldn’t finish the thought. But she squeezed his hands, the coolness of her skin soothing some of his agitation. “Knowing you’ll all go on without me. Because… I know what it means to lose everyone I love.” She smiled, but her eyes were welling up; for the first time, he realized they were already red-rimmed. “Maybe that makes me selfish, but I can’t live for however many years I have left without letting myself love anyone else. I can’t go back to being alone.”

“You’ll never be alone.” He’d spoken before he thought, but he couldn’t do anything but repeat himself, fighting the urge to lift a hand to her face. If he allowed himself that, he wasn’t sure what else he’d do. “You will never be alone, not as long as it’s in my power to change that.”

Her smile widened, though a few tears fell as she ducked her head. She was standing close enough to him that the position meant that she nearly had her head leaning against his chest, and his heart gave a wistful jump. “But I can’t ask that of you. I know how much of a shock this is—believe me, I know—so I won’t hold you to that. Not yet.”

As she raised her head again, he had to remind himself moving closer would be a bad idea. “If things were different—”

“We wouldn’t be in this mess?”

He had to laugh at that, and she nearly did, as well, grinning widely. His laughter faded slowly, and as he looked at her, the more sensible parts of his mind fell silent. Even grass-stained and teary, she was perfect. The only thing he would change if he could was her lifespan. And as the less-sensible parts of his mind loudened, it grew harder to remember why he shouldn’t—

Before he could change his mind, he cupped her cheek and kissed her. For an instant, she was stiff against him, before her free hand slipped around his neck and she kissed him back.

He’d seen people kissing, he knew there was more to it than this, but for the moment, the simple, quiet contact was almost more than he could bear. After an eternity, he broke it and leaned his forehead against hers. He was still holding her other hand, and he squeezed it gently.

“After the Quest,” he promised. “After all of this is over—”

“We’ll talk.” She nodded without breaking their contact. “I won’t ask more of you yet. I can’t. If you still want this after the Quest, we’ll talk.”

He closed his eyes against the pain of that ‘if’. 

Could he? Should he? In that order, yes and no. But he made his decision, and took his hand away from her cheek in order to reach into his pocket; with his other hand, he turned hers over and opened it. Opening his eyes, he laid the rune stone resolutely in her palm. In his hands, it was barely three finger widths wide, and less than two across. In hers, it spanned her palm, and easily covered it from the base of fingers to the level of her thumb. The yellow-green blinks of light brought out the green in the polished surface of the stone, the combination almost managing to be the same shade as her eyes.

“This is a rune stone. The inscription reads ‘return to me’. We used to think stones like this were good luck, but now we know that’s only superstition.” Gently, he closed her fingers over it as he spoke, covering her hand with both of his. “Now we know they aren’t luck, they’re promises. Reminders.” 

He’d drawn away a fraction as he gave her the stone, and now leaned in again, still holding her wide eyes. “My mother gave me that when Fee and I left Ered Luin, to remind me of the promise I made to come back to her.” Belda’s eyes widened further, and he cupped her cheek again. “Which is the same promise I make to you now. The same promise I know I don’t need to ask of you, because if you aren’t going to do everything in your power to be able to give that stone back to me after the Quest is over, I don’t know you at all. After the Quest, I will come and talk to you, and we’ll figure out where to go from here. I don’t—”

He stopped, frustrated with how difficult it was to find the words. “I don’t mean for this to be a bit of fun. I can see us—” A flood of images overwhelmed him, of the two of them in Erebor, exchanging vows, raising children together, making a life together. He couldn’t find the words for a single one.

She stretched up, probably standing on her toes, to press her forehead against his for a weighty moment. Dropping down again, she set her hand on his, the cool, small weight of it more comforting than anything he could think of. “After the Quest.”

Sighing, he wished he could kiss her again. “After the Quest.”

Slowly, she drew back, seeming as reluctant to move away from him as he was from her, and tucked the stone deep into one of her pockets. “You should go in first. Thorin will be looking for you.”

He nodded, but it took a few moments for him to actually do as she suggested. The pull towards her was stronger than ever; if he could have, he would’ve caught her up in his arms and never left her side until she was wearing his bead, but she was right. Thorin would be looking for him, and besides, they’d only agreed to discuss courting, not anything more. The time would come to speak of such things, he felt it in his bones, but now now. Not yet.


 

Nori

 

Nori glanced at the door as movement caught her eye and hid a smirk as Kíli crept in. To his credit, his efforts at going unnoticed lasted until he was halfway to the other side of the room and were easily passed off by Fíli as his coming back from there, not going there. As Thorin pulled Kíli into an ongoing argument between him and Glóin, the siblings exchanged a few glances.

Nori interpreted what she saw as:

An expectant look from Fíli: So…? What happened?

A sudden blush from Kíli: It— uh, it w— went well.

A sudden coughing fit from Fíli, which Nori almost joined: HA! YES!

Before Nori could see Kíli's response—if there was one—motion caught her eye from the door again. To Belda's credit, she was actually somewhat skilled at hiding in plain sight, and if Nori hadn’t had over a century of experience on the girl, she might have lost track of her.  Just as unobtrusively, Nori made her way over to the kitten-burglar, pulling a couple coins from a pocket.

“So as I was saying,” she answered Belda’s surprised confusion with a quick wink, “when you lift a single coin, you roll it into your palm, like I showed you earlier.” Not that she had showed her earlier. She rolled the coin over her knuckles once, then back, then demonstrated how to combine it with a lift. “Now let’s see how much you’ve been practicing.”

She flipped a coin to the kitten, who caught it with the deftness of a born thief. Giving Nori an unamused glare, she rolled the coin slowly over her knuckles; she lost it at the end of the first roll, but it was better than Nori would have expected for a first try. 

As she heard a few of the Company notice Belda was there, Nori quietly praised, “Good, you’re doing well. Just keep at it slowly, you’ll get there.”

Belda blinked at her, something odd in her expression, but Bofur, Bifur, and Ori swarmed them before she could say a word.

Smirking as they pulled the bantith into an interrogation, Nori retreated to the edge of the room again, where she could see the full room. After a few moments, Dwalin began moving towards her; her stomach gave a half-hopeful, half-dreading flip. In the days since the cliffs, she’d only seen more and more of the gentleness that had led her to recognize him before everything in Goblin-Town, and—despite how she fought it—she was beginning to care for him. It didn’t help that he’d been more civil to her, either.

It was obvious that he meant to speak to her, so she didn’t question it when he leaned against the wall beside her, only nodded slightly to him in greeting.

In his typical fashion, he cut straight to the point. “You and Belda have been on the outs since the Carrock. Why?”

Glancing at the kitten in question, Nori mused, “Shouldn’t you be asking her that?”

Looking pointedly at the crowd around her, he answered dryly, “I’m going to, but generally it’s easier to get her alone than you.”

“Without being obvious, you mean.”

“Aye.” He turned back to look at Nori. “So what did you do?”

Nori didn’t bother to protest the accusation; the bantith was too good to start a fight for no reason and they all knew it. Still, it took her a long moment to gather the courage to answer truthfully. It might have been easier if she could have lied, but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to. Not when she’d seen how much he loved Belda. “You know how selfless she is.”

He grunted an affirmation.

“On the cliff…” Nori lowered her voice a bit more, fighting a swell of something she refused to call guilt; she hadn’t done anything wrong, after all. “I told her to save herself instead of Thorin.”

Despite the feeling absolutely not being guilt, the words were ash on her tongue; she had to bite back bile. Contemplative, Dwalin mused, “She wouldn’t have taken that well, but I can’t see her being this upset if it were only that.”

Stomach churning, Nori lowered her eyes.

“…What?”

She flinched; he sounded as suspicious as he ever did in Ered Luin. She hadn’t heard that tone in weeks; it hurt more than she might have expected. But more than that, she thought of Belda’s look just before the others had swarmed a minute earlier. The odd look in her eyes… as though she’d never imagined Nori praising her, though she’d said something similar just days earlier, just before they’d fallen into the Goblins’ hands. That, as much as anything else, gave Nori the courage to speak her worry aloud. “…When… when I said it, her first response was ‘I am not my mother’.”

Part of why Nori had remembered the exact wording was the abruptness of it; they hadn’t been speaking of anything close to her mother, so why had that been her first thought? But Dwalin let loose a long, slow exhale as though he understood perfectly. “…Now that… that I can see her still being upset about.”

Nori squinted at him. “What’s so terrible about being like her mother?”

The rage that pooled in his eyes made Nori’s blood chill; she was only glad it wasn’t directed at her. “From what I’ve gathered,” he growled, “Azog has more humanity than that woman ever did.” 

Nori couldn’t help but gape at that; if she knew anything about Dwalin, it was that he would never say such a thing lightly.

He pushed off from the wall, heading toward Belda, but stopped after only a couple paces. For a moment, he seemed to dither, then half-turned back toward Nori. “For what it’s worth, I’d never trust that woman with Belda, but… if I had to choose someone to protect her… you wouldn’t be my last choice.”

From anyone else, about anything else, the statement would be virtually meaningless. From Dwalin, about the daughter he loved so much, it was enough to make Nori feel as though she were filled with molten gold. He turned and walked away a moment later, but it took several seconds more for Nori to banish her smile.


 

Dwalin 

 

Dwalin forced himself to turn away from Nori again, but even once he was standing beside Belda, listening to her explain the diagram she’d drawn up so long ago, half his mind was still on Nori and the way he’d looked in that last moment.

In the Goblin Caves, just before they’d made it out, he’d noticed something odd about his face—not in that it had changed, not that there was something wrong with it, but as though he were seeing a different side than he was used to. When the thief’s face was unguarded—when he was half-unconscious from falling to the bottom of a shaft or when he’d smiled just now—there was something almost…

No, that was ridiculous. Completely and utterly ridiculous. Dwalin immediately resolved to put the matter out of his mind.

But he found himself tossing and turning that night, anyway.

Chapter Text

“Fountain pens.”

“What, the pen has a fountain in it?”

“Never mind. Adding machines.”

“Adding what?”

“Adding machin—oh, you must be joking! Printing presses.”

“What?”

“Printing presses! Rows of stamps with letters on them, for mass-printing!”

“Printing what?”

Belda’s eye twitched as she stared at Glóin. “BOOKS!” Fortunately for Glóin, Gandalf walked in before she could strangle any of the oblivious Company. “Gandalf, they don’t even know what printing presses are— tell me the rest of Middle-Earth isn’t like this!”

She looked at him pleadingly, hoping beyond hope that he would assure her that the wider world wasn’t stuck in the Wandering Days.

He did not. 

“On the contrary, my dear, I’ve never seen such advanced technology outside of the Shire.”

Her eye was twitching again.

He was laughing at her internally, she could smell it. “I’ve been rather impressed by how well you’ve gotten by without it, to be honest.”

“THAT’S NOT THE POINT!” Flailing somewhat, she waved at the Dwarves in general. “They’re meant to be the smiths of Arda! How did we invent things first?! How didn’t they invent things as simple as knitting machines?!”

Ori puffed up somewhat. “Knitting and crafting should be something to take pride in, not sloughed off like dross!”

She waved him off distractedly. “Hand-knit things are leagues better than machine-knit, obviously, but not everyone has the time or energy to make everything by hand.”

Just as she opened her mouth to repeat her question to Gandalf, he gestured magnanimously to her. “And there you have your answer. Dwarves place too high a value on hard work and expertise to undermine it by creating shortcuts; Elves, on tradition; Men have the ingenuity, but war among themselves too frequently to have sufficient prosperity; leaving Hobbits as the only race with the time, motivation, plenty, and creativity needed for invention.”

Thorin grumbled, “What motivation could they have for putting their weavers out of work?”

Belda rolled her eyes; their conversation the previous day had been something like lancing an infected wound, draining both the burden of her memories and her lingering fear of her commander. For the first time, he’d actually treated her like an equal, and now…

Now she was realizing he was a right pain in the neck at times.

More civilly than she would have at the moment, Gandalf answered, “More than anything else in the world, Hobbits value food and cheer and song. The more quickly their work can be done—and the less they need worry about such things as protecting and clothing their children—the more time they have to relax and laugh.”

“It’s not a matter of laughing,” she snapped. “It’s a matter of security! It’s a matter of knowing that if we have glasses, we don’t have to be afraid of getting old— If we have windows and barometers, we don’t have to be afraid of storms— If we have cotton gins and spinning frames and carding machines, and yes, knitting machines, we don’t need to hole up in winter like we used to! And most of all, it’s a matter of knowing that we don’t need the wider world, we’re fine on our own, and for the most part, we are!”

Even a day earlier, speaking as loudly and for as long would have left her hoarse, but she was recovering quickly; the last aches were gone from her back, as well.

Dori spread his hands placatingly; condescendingly, Belda would have said. “We don’t mean any offense, lass. But you have to see that things like this, all cold and clever and… and cunning, they’re a bit like Goblin things, aren’t they?”

Between the (unintentional) reference to her mother and the (blatantly intentional) implication that Hobbits were in any way like those monsters, Belda’s pride flared up. “So what? Only Dwarves can be clever? Only Men can be cunning? Only Elves can be cold? What can Hobbits be, then? Weak, silly, fragile, gentle? Besides, those Goblins felt as strong as Dwarves to me, and the Orcs were as tall as any Tall Folk. Why shouldn’t Hobbits be as capable as anyone else, if we put our minds to it?”

Dori began to speak again; Nori hissed something in Khuzdûl too accented and low for her to make out. Before anyone else could speak, a booming laugh filled the hall; Belda spun around, grinning broadly.

“Just so, little bunny!" Grin shrinking, he switched to Hobbitish. "But do you know why Goblins are nearly as clever as Hobbits?”

Belda’s smile faded. “What do you mean?”

He nodded slowly, eyes soft, and returned to Westron. “I think it’s time you and I talked, bunny.”

“What do you have to say that you can’t say here?” Even while Nori’s sharp suspicion sent a spike of territorial anger through Belda, part of her was almost touched at the concern she knew was behind it.

As Belda turned to look at her, Dwalin caught her eye; his brow was furrowed, expression as concerned as Nori’s, but he held her gaze pointedly. Silently, she nodded once; he took a deep breath, but nodded back and deliberately relaxed. Turning her eyes to Nori, she stood from the table as she reassured her, “He’s no threat, Nori. I’ll be back later.”

Nori still didn’t look satisfied, but said nothing more. She did, however, glare at Beorn as he passed her; he chuckled. “You’re hardly the most threatening woman I’ve faced, Dwarf.”

Before he’d even finished, Belda half-shrieked, “Beorn!” He turned to look at her, brow furrowed, but she could only gape at him. Shaking her head, she looked to Nori, trying to find something—anything—to say. But nothing—no apologies, no excuses, not the slightest word—came forward.

As shocked murmurs began to ripple through the Company, Nori shook her head, a bit pale. “Go on, kitten. You’ve got your business, I’ve got mine.”

As much as she wanted to stay and try to help fix the situation, she knew that there wasn’t much she could do except get shouted at for keeping the secret. And, too, Beorn’s implications and comments drew her; he knew something about Hobbits she didn’t, and probably knew more about shape changers than half the Hobbits in the Shire.

Glancing apologetically one last time at Nori, she slipped outside with Beorn, leaving her pack to sort themselves out.


 

Dwalin 

 

Dwalin couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. He could barely even think. All he could do was stare at the thief—the woman—at Nori as he— as she turned to face the Company again.

In the Goblin Caves, just the night before, he’d thought that there was something off about the thief’s looks, something not-quite-right, something… well, something non-masculine.

The night before, he’d barely slept, trying to avoid the thought that now turned out to be true, that the thief he was beginning to respect wasn’t a ‘he’ at all. It was almost as though he’d known, as though…

As the Company broke out of their collective stupor and began yelling questions, no one noticed him staring, awe-struck, at his One. For more than a century, he’d been chasing her, and somehow he’d never realized, never noticed—

But as he looked at her, saw more and more of ‘her’ rather than ‘him’, he realized, he had noticed. Not all at once, not even enough to really remember, but over the years, he’d noticed enough to put it together, if he’d actually ever thought about it, which he hadn’t. If anything, he’d avoided thinking about it, unwilling to humor the idea that he could be wrong about something so basic. 

Against his will, his eyes fell to her lips, but he wrenched them quickly away again. Fíli and Ori had been each other’s Ones, but there was no guarantee that Nori was his. Even if she were, they had so much history that there was no guarantee that they would work, together.

But they had been working well together so far on the Quest—

But were a few months of not being at each other’s throats enough to make up for how long they had been?

He avoided her for the rest of the day, busying himself with running drills or trying to come up with a plan for when they left with Thorin. As the sun lowered to the horizon, a figure came into view, a much, much smaller figure growing visible beside Beorn as they neared the house.

Slowing his drills to a stop, Dwalin watched them approach, the accented syllables of their language reaching him for a few moments before they came to an agreement of some sort or other. 

Beorn nodded to him in passing, but continued to the house; Belda, however, shook her head when Dwalin started to walk her way. Once she was close enough, she tugged him down to the ground and curled up in his lap, staring at the stars as they came into view; he was only too happy to go along with it, and did his best to find a position that would be comfortable for them both. 

“Something wrong, kit?”

“I feel like an entire library was just crammed into my head.”

His worry evaporated with a huff and a grin; he remembered Balin saying much the same more than once in his apprentice days. “You two talked about shape-shifter things, then?”

“Some.” After a few moments, she added lightly, “He’s hundreds of years old, you know. Half-Elven. Well, part-Elven; he said it was his great-great-grandmother who was the last full Elf in his family. But his grandfather remembered Hobbits.”

Dwalin frowned. “Did he live near the Shire?”

For several long moments, she didn’t say a word. Then, after nodding once, absently, she answered, “We lived near here.”

His brows shot up. “Before the Wandering Days?” She hummed. Exhaling slowly, he stared out at the horizon, trying to wrap his mind around it. “This isn’t far from Moria. That we could have lived so near each other and never met—”

“We did.” He looked sharply at her; she didn’t look away from the stars. “The story you told me, about Durin and the woman Yavanna brought to his city, I already knew it. I didn’t know any of the Stone-Borns’ names, and I didn’t know why they weren’t there when the Giver brought the Hobbits to his city, and I never even considered that the Stone-Born could have been making overtures the entire time that the Hobbits just didn’t understand, but—”

“Stop, s—” Dwalin’s head was reeling. “You’re telling me that Hobbits have a story about Durin’s wife?”

She blinked at him. “Not just his. There were six Hobbits, remember? The Rabbit-Hobbit married Durin, the fighting-prey Hobbit married the older of the apprentices, and the predator-Hobbit married the younger.” Her cheeks reddened abruptly, and she looked away from him again. “Your version doesn’t say anything about their being shape-shifters, of course, but I suppose if the Stone-Born really loved their wives, they’d keep it out of written record.”

“The…”

After furrowing her brow at him for a moment, she patted him sympathetically on the shoulder. “It was a shock to me, too. But it does confirm what Beorn told me today: Hobbits lived all through the Valley of Anduin, and kept their existence secret from everyone but Dwarves for Ages.”

Slowly, he worked through his shock enough to frown. “But why would we have forgotten so completely about you?”

Her expression crumpled; as mournfully as any descendant of Erebor, she recited, ”Remember the tale/ of the one who chose wrong/ who trusted and loved/ a wicked Stone-Born/ the Stone-Born lied/ and the Stone-Born betrayed/ and the Hobbit went weeping/ all the way to the grave.” Grimacing apologetically, she elaborated, “It’s part of a longer song, about a Stone-Born who seduced a Hobbit and then sold the knowledge of us to Orcs. One of the last verses says that the Thain of the Stone-Born—although that was probably the King—swore to make it right. In the song, it’s presented as just a last ploy to get our trust back so we could be used again, but now I’m wondering if the way he made it right was to make sure that none of his people would be able to betray us again.”

“By removing all trace of you from our history,” he finished; she nodded. “When did this happen?”

“Either at the very end of the First Age or the beginning of the Second Age; Thranduil and his father came to the Greenwood around the year 750 of the Second Age, and I know they never knew about us.” He gave her a look, to which she shrugged. “My mother brought history books back from Rivendell. I figured out a rough timeline for how our histories fit into everyone else’s a while ago. But my best guess is that it was in the first few centuries of the Second Age, when people still remembered Sauron’s power, but after they’d forgotten to fear him.”

Thinking over their own histories, Dwalin nodded slowly. “A good number of Dwarves emigrated to Khazad-dûm in the first century. There would have been children born within a few decades who only had stories of Melkor and Sauron.”

“Who might have thought his power was something they could take advantage of.”

For a few moments, they sat in comfortable silence.

“Everything could have been completely different if we hadn’t forgotten you.”

Rubbing her eyes, she smiled. “If we’d been a bit less paranoid.”

“If one of us hadn’t gotten greedy.”

“If we’d believed the King when he swore to make it right.”

He chuckled mirthlessly, and watched the sun slip past the horizon. “So was that what you two talked about? History?”

“Yes and no.”

He raised a brow at her, but her eyes were closed, brow creased with thought. “I understand if you can’t tell me, kit.”

Immediately, she shook her head. “No, it’s not that. It’s just… I don’t know where to start.”

He glanced at the horizon again. “Well, I’d say ‘take your time’, but I think we’ll have to go in in a few minutes, or face Beorn’s wrath.” On the last few words, he chased his fingers up her stomach, pleased to find out she was at least somewhat ticklish.

She pushed his hand away, but her smile lasted longer than her laughter. “I’ll just have to make it quick, then. Beorn’s family knew where the written histories we left behind were, and they’ve been keeping them safe for us since we left. That’s what he was showing me today, where he keeps the books. But they included records of dragons, the first dragons.” Starry-eyed in more ways than one, she finished, “Ones like me.”

His brows rose. “Hobbit-dragons?”

But she shook her head. “No, full dragons, good dragons. They were Vána and Oromë’s, made to be guardians of the fauna of Arda like Ents were for trees. They helped protect Arda during the Years of the Trees, before everyone woke up.”

But that left more questions than answers. “But then why doesn’t anyone remember them? Why wouldn’t someone have seen them? Dwarves, I could maybe understand leaving them out of our histories, but Elves?”

Face falling, she dropped her eyes to the trees. “No, by the time the Elves woke up, there weren’t many dragons left. They’d been fighting Melkor the entire time, holding him back, but they were only flesh and blood. Once he figured out how to corrupt them like he did Orcs and Goblins, the drakes and wyrms fought the dragons and killed them off.”

He couldn’t help a slight, disbelieving noise; if the first dragons had had the same instinct for fighting that she did, he wasn’t sure he could believe that they would all be killed off, just like that.

She smiled wanly up at him. “He gave them fire, and armor to resist it. Dragons like me weren’t built to fight, they were built to guide and guard. Fire and fur, not a good combination.”

The last sentence almost seemed to be an afterthought, and her brow furrowed as her eyes fell. Dwalin chucked her lightly under the chin. “What’s really the matter, kit?”

She leaned into him, but it was a long few moments before she spoke. “They were guardians.” Trembling faintly, she shook her head. “Beorn says that’s why animals just trust me, even wargs and things, because dragons were made to be the protectors of animals, and that’s why Hobbits and Goblins are scared of me, because Hobbits were some of the people who animals needed protecting from.” Her trembling worsened, and he didn’t hesitate to hold her more tightly. “I thought the Vald was enough of a burden, but this… I don’t… I’m not strong enough. I can’t…”

Cradling her to him, he cupped the back of her head and shushed her softly. “It’s all right, kit. You aren’t alone.”

Mutely, she burrowed into his chest, clutching at his jacket. There were no tears, no sobs, just those hopeless tremors.

And she still hadn’t really answered his question. Though he wondered… “What does ‘soul-form’ mean? Do you choose it, or is it chosen for you? And is your soul-form a reflection of who you are, or an expectation?”

She was silent long enough that he was beginning to get a gnawing feeling he’d misstepped badly. Just as he was about to change the subject, she mumbled something into his furs. 

He frowned. “Couldn’t understand a word of that, kit.”

She squirmed for another few seconds, but did raise her voice just enough to be intelligible. “We don’t know for sure, but probably a reflection.”

Gently, he squeezed her. “Then there’s nothing to worry about.”

“But if it’s true, that means I’m not just responsible for the Company, I’m responsible for practically everyone!” Her eyes were wide and shining, cheeks flushed as she practically hyperventilated, and Dwalin deliberately cupped her face between his hands; following an instinct he hadn’t previously been aware of, he pressed gently, but firmly, at the nape of her neck with the pads of his fingers. Almost immediately, her breathing calmed and her trembling eased.

Tucking that away for a later conversation, he looked her in the eye as he spoke. “Eru is responsible for everyone. Everyone else only has to worry about a handful, in comparison. Do you truly think that Eru would ask more of you than you were capable of?”

He waited for an answer. After a few moments, she gave a single, shy shake of her head.

“No matter the weight on your shoulders, it’s not so dire as you think. Eru will answer your prayers, and it’s not as though you have to face it alone, kit. You might be responsible for us, but we aren’t exactly helpless. And I can’t speak for the entire Company, but I can tell you absolutely that you’ll always have me to help you bear it, and probably your Prince, too.”

Her cheeks colored hotly enough that he could feel the heat, and he laughed as she lowered her eyes.

“Just tell me, kit, please, he’s doing this properly? He’s not said anything untoward or asked anything more than is right?”

If anything, her blush intensified, but the corners of her mouth twitched as she mumbled, “We’re going to talk about it again after the Quest is over; he gave me a token for now.”

The way her voice softened into what he could only call ‘bashful sugar’ on the last half-sentence was completely adorable; even knowing she wasn’t looking at him, he had to turn away from her for a long moment before he could compose himself. Somehow, he didn’t think she’d appreciate being cooed over.

Of course, he’d forgotten how she could guess what everyone was thinking; when he looked at her again, it was to see her glaring sullenly at him through an even-more-vivid blush. Seeing that, he almost lost the battle against his mirth, but managed to keep some semblance of self-control. “Good, should— inside?”

Her glare sharpened, but she only pitched forward into his chest and nodded.

Chapter Text

As he had the previous day, Beorn lowered her most of the way down to the floor; once she was as low as he could reach, she squeezed his thumb and released her grip at the same moment he did, landing on the wooden floor with barely a wince. A week earlier, the same landing would have been agony, but she’d healed enough that her leg only gave a half-hearted twinge.

As she moved out of the way for Beorn, she stroked her thumb over the side of her left hand; the cut there was still painful, and hadn’t yet healed to the point that she could go without bandages. But another week would be enough for her to comfortably hold a blade if she needed to, and she doubted she’d need to, anyway, with her non-dominant hand.

Her ear was another matter entirely. Just thinking about it was enough to make it throb painfully; she waved off Beorn’s concern as he frowned at her wince. They’d decided on the plan for the day the previous afternoon, and he lit a torch and handed it to her without a word. Smiling up at him, she made her way to the small archway at one end of the room and ducked quickly through. 

She’d looked over every inch of the library the previous day, but Beorn and all his family had always been too large to fit through the archway, so he could only guess at what was inside. That they could fit into the library at all was surprising, but his great-grandfather’s journal dated back more than two thousand years, so it wasn’t entirely unreasonable that the ancient Hobbits could have been on good enough terms with Beorn’s family to make certain that the entrance was large enough.

But beyond it was a mystery to him. 

Raising the torch above her head, Belda crept forward, listening intently. Her eyes had already changed past what they’d been in the Goblin caves, but she still did need a bit of light to see at all, and more than a bit to see clearly. More frustrating was how the bandage on her ear muffled her hearing.

It hadn’t gotten any less painful to change the bandage. Óin thought that the infection was gone now, but it was still healing more slowly than she wanted it to. She wanted the bandage off, obviously, and she wanted to be able to hear with both ears again, but mostly…

Mostly, she just wanted to be able to feel the damage. Beorn didn’t have any mirrors, and there was no still water around his house, and his plates and things were all ceramic, not metal, and none of the Company had weapons large and polished enough to reflect as well as she wanted them to, and even if she found mirrors in here, she probably wouldn’t even be able to take off the bandages without passing out, let alone put them back on.

She knew that it was bad, and she’d guessed—based on Óin’s ‘father, daughter’ comment, mostly—that there was a bite taken out of it, but was it a sliver? A chunk? A big chunk? Or had she misunderstood, and there was no real damage at all?

As much as she hated to admit it, even to herself, she was afraid to ask, afraid of what the answer would be. She wanted to see it for herself, or if she couldn’t see it, feel it— to be able to so much as tap her ear without feeling as though she’d been stabbed.

Shaking her head clear of the pointless musings, she stopped at the edge of what sounded like a much, much larger space than the corridor she’d been creeping through, and listened. Long minutes later, once she was satisfied nothing was lurking in the darkness, she stood and moved forward, only to nearly jump out of her skin as a shape revealed itself in the darkness.

But it didn’t move. Frowning, she moved closer, huffing out a laugh to see that it was only a statue. Except…

It was a Dwarf. Curious, she circled it several times, inspecting every detail. The style of tunic he wore wasn’t familiar, but he had dual axes like Dwalin, and a beard like Glóin’s. His eyes, though… They reminded her of Kíli’s. She was far from unbiased, but she thought the Dwarf looked like the kind to be as passionate in his happiness as he was in everything else, and the delicate laugh lines at the corner of his eyes seemed to confirm that much, at least. He was tall, Thorin’s height, at least, and he had no beads, but he did have a hammer in one hand and a pickaxe in the other.

With a final, cursory glance, she made to move on, but stopped when she realized there were engravings under his feet. She’d felt the difference in the floor, but had assumed that the gentle rises and falls around his sides and back had just been accumulated dust and litter, but as she crouched down, she saw that there were the careful lines of a mountain range on his left and a forest on his right, and that the range extended behind him. Just before him was a small hollow, with tiny ridges on its flat base that she thought indicated it was meant to be a pool or a lake of some sort. The smooth, flat stone she stood on was a distinct path, now that she looked, and gently curved to the right as it extended into the darkness. Another statue was just visible from where she stood, and she moved closer once she was satisfied she’d seen everything there was to see about the first.

The second statue was the same Dwarf as the first, but with his clothing carefully carved to be more travel worn than his other representation; his eyes had a few more lines, from frowns, she thought. He stood in the midst of the forest, the mountains several inches away from him, and his tools had been switched: the hammer and pickaxe were in holsters on his back, the axes in his hands. A quick trip back to the first statue confirmed that the second’s hair was slightly longer, as well.

The third statue wasn’t alone. He stood with his hammer and chisel tucked under one arm and a beautifully intricate carving in his hands, while eight other Dwarves—it took her a few minutes to realize that four of them were women—faced away from him in a semi-circle. The eight statues formed a flip-book sort of movement, with the first figure positioning a hammer on a chunk of raw stone in his hand, the next beginning to raise her hammer, and so on, until the last woman struck the stone, the moment of impact depicted so that Belda could almost see the cracks spreading from the hammer.

All nine stood along another mountain range, a solitary peak a foot or so behind them, with a river leading down from it, and forests going back farther than she was willing to venture from the path just now. The eight Dwarves all had deep, determined frowns as they worked—though none of them were as intricately detailed as the lone Dwarf—but the lone Dwarf almost looked sad. The way he was posed almost made Belda think he was trying to show them what he’d made and they weren’t interested. But what was truly interesting was that while none of them—not one—wore beads, now even the lone Dwarf wore a heavy-looking chest plate with a large crest on it. The eight Dwarves were paired off, one man and one woman to each crest, and the lone Dwarf was, well, alone.

A suspicion was beginning to nag at her, but she didn’t give it any credence until the fourth set of statues. The lone Dwarf was in the center of a semi-circle again, but this time, the six Dwarves surrounding him—a young Dwarf, an adult man, an adult woman, another man, another woman, and another young Dwarf—were facing him, expressions clearly showing that they were impressed with his work. All seven figures wore large smiles, but if she wasn’t just seeing what she wanted to see, the lone Dwarf almost had tears in his eyes.

But she couldn’t deny it any longer. One, lone Dwarf, wandering Arda, when all the other Dwarves were shown in pairs, and now there were two younger Dwarves oohing and ahhing at what he’d accomplished? 

He was Durin. 

The Lone Stone-Born, and here were his apprentices, as they were being apprenticed to him. That in mind, she inspected the young Dwarves more carefully than she did their parents. The one on Durin’s right—as detailed as Durin—was broad, with his hair tied practically back; his face reminded her of Ori, somehow. Looking at him, she realized female Dwarves truly did look different from their brothers and fathers; if the figure had been a woman, he’d have looked a bit like Fíli, but as it was, he was far too masculine.

How women with beards and enough muscles to break bones with their bare hands could look feminine was still beyond Belda, but evidently her eyes had figured it out, even if her conscious mind hadn’t quite caught up yet.

The young one on Durin’s left, though, looked like Kíli. He had more of a beard than Kíli, and he wasn’t as broad-shouldered, and his arms weren’t half as big and strong, but he had Kíli’s smile, and Kíli’s eyes, and Kíli’s excitement. He was as detailed as Durin and the other apprentice, and she had to shake her head to rid herself of a stupid grin.

All seven figures stood along another mountain range, with the sea behind them and the forest ahead, for the inch or so before the pathway interrupted the carvings. None of the other Dwarves had weapons on them, but they did have tools, and the trios (father, mother, son) shared a crest each.

Based on the first four sets of statues, she really should have guessed what the fifth would be, but somehow she was still surprised to find a ten-foot-tall woman standing in a crowd of Hobbits. The statue was tall enough that Belda had to raise the torch as high as she could reach to make out her face beyond a shadowy blur. Belda had never seen Yavanna, and she doubted whoever had carved this had seen her, either, but still, she looked like Belda had imagined her. Soft, kind, with a hint of naïveté that reminded Belda of some of her Baggins cousins.

The nice ones, anyway.

The crowd of Hobbits, overall, was indistinct, but six figures, the six women sitting closest to Yavanna’s skirts, were at least as detailed as Durin and the apprentices. It wasn’t hard to tell which were which: one had the same sharp glint in her eyes that Belda had always seen in her mother and now saw in Nori; two had the same determined, stubborn set of their jaws as her Da had always had; three of them were wide-eyed and afraid, but with the same optimistic naïveté as the Giver. All of the Hobbits wore clothes that barely resembled what Hobbits wore now, as ancient as what the Dwarves were wearing, but with the same general style that Hobbits still preferred.

The next set had two of the fleeing-prey and one fighting-prey sitting together, the two frailer women with their heads on the other’s shoulders, and the other three figures standing in a semi-circle in front of them, with the predator on the right and facing out, the fighting-prey on the left and looking back at the other three, and the rabbit-Hobbit in the center, looking up. 

Belda looked over the three in the front one at a time.

The fighting-prey woman was a tad shorter than Belda, more stocky, and wore practical, if loose clothing. She wore a concerned frown as she looked at the other three, but her expression didn’t seem to indicate that she was uneasy in the mountain—as the carvings under their feet clearly showed that they were in Durin’s city—only that she was watching for any sign that they needed her help.

The rabbit-Hobbit was even shorter, more delicate. The angle that her face was at meant that Belda could meet her eyes if she stood directly in front of her. Belda looked at her for a few minutes longer than the others. So this was the woman who was the Mate of—according to Dwalin—the first and oldest and wisest of the Dwarves. Belda had grown up hearing that story, grown up wondering how someone as meek as a rabbit-Hobbit could be the Mate of a man who’d roam Arda for decades—or, now she knew, possibly centuries—in search of her, who would carve a home and a city and a haven out of solid rock simply because he needed to to accomplish what he was after.

Distantly, Belda wondered: if she were a fleeing- or even fighting-prey instead of a predator, would she have been drawn to Thorin instead of Kíli?

A full-body grimace shuddered through her almost as soon as she’d thought it; that was too disturbing to even consider.

Belda moved on to the predator before she could think anything as horrible as that again. This third figure was the only one as tall as her, though if she wasn’t mistaken, she was a bit taller than Belda. All of the Hobbit-statues had far curlier hair than modern Hobbits, but the predator was the only one Belda’d seen who had it cropped almost to her skull. It looked wonderfully light and practical, and for a moment, Belda considered the idea.

She discarded it almost as quickly. Leaving aside how much her pack would weep and wail and be generally overbearing, she enjoyed how it felt when Dwalin braided her hair too much to chop it off. Maybe in a few years. Although the braids were as good for keeping her hair out of the way as cutting it would be. She’d think about it.

But Belda had expected to see her mother in the predator’s face. She’d expected to see cunning and callousness and coldness. Instead, she saw life. The rabbit-Hobbit looked awed, and pleased, but mostly awed, but the predator looked gleeful. She looked like Belda felt to imagine a life in Erebor where she didn’t have to hide. She was grinning as though life was a game, but Belda knew the story, knew that the predator had taken her duty as rándýr-verndari as seriously as Belda took hers. Belda didn’t see her mother in the predator’s face.

Belda saw herself.

The next set of statues depicted the moments of each pair of Mate’s meeting: the predator and her Dwarf grinned flirtatiously at each other, hands brushing as he gave her something (Kíli’s token seemed to pulse in Belda’s pocket; she moved on to the next pair quickly, cheeks burning); the fighting-prey had her brows raised challengingly as she and her Dwarf talked, but she was leaning toward him just as much as he was leaning toward her, and she was holding back a smile as he gesticulated; the rabbit-Hobbit’s eyes were wide, lips slightly parted as she looked up at Durin, but if anything, he looked more awestruck than she did.

The next few sets of statues—the curve of the path bent further in, and Belda realized she was nearing the center of a spiral when she saw the first statue of Durin a dozen paces past one of the sets—showed the progression over the months, as the predator grew more and more disappointed as the grinning Dwarf presented various trinkets for her (his grin grew more and more strained as she didn’t acknowledge what Belda now realized were probably courting gifts); the fighting-prey and her Dwarf didn’t get closer, but they didn’t drift apart, either (both of them seemed slightly more despairing with each set); the rabbit-Hobbit and Durin, however, drifted closer and closer together, until one set had her sitting under his arm like Belda had with Kíli in Rivendell, both holding one side of a map of the mountain as they pointed to one room in particular.

Finally, the next showed the moment they’d all realized: the Kíli-Dwarf chased a coyotl, laughing; the Ori-Dwarf had a wolverine curled up in his lap; Durin was crouching on the balls of his feet, watching a small rabbit with a soft smile on his face. A few steps further down the path took Belda to the events of a few moments later: the Kíli-Dwarf tripped over the predator as she laughed; the fighting-prey woman looped her arms contentedly around the Ori-Dwarf’s neck as he pressed his forehead against hers; Durin laid flat on his back, laughing with the rabbit-Hobbit as she braced herself on his chest.

She would have expected that to be the end of the history lesson, but to her surprise, the statues continued. She didn’t examine them as thoroughly as the first, aware that she’d been wandering in the dark for at least an hour already. But before her eyes, the three pairs of Mates grew closer (then the Hobbits grew), then fauntlings joined the adults, then grew into tweens. It was strange, though: the fauntlings were all distinctly individual, it wasn’t hard to tell them apart, but as they entered their tweens, some of them grew into adult Hobbits, but others grew into Dwarves. The histories she’d learned had said that the children of the Hobbits and the Stone-Born were one or the other, not a mix, but they’d never said anything about the children starting as Hobbits and ending up Stone-Born.

When she retraced her steps and followed the Dwarven children backwards, she realized that even as fauntlings, there were small signs—rounder ears, lankier builds—to indicate that they weren’t quite like their siblings, but so subtle that it was impossible to guess without already knowing to look.

Almost as strange was when the Dwarven ‘children’ began having children of their own, and all the female Dwarves bore larger, Dwarven babies, some of which—if they had Hobbit fathers—grew more slowly than their siblings and eventually proved to be fauntlings, not whatever Dwarven children were called.

She made a mental note to ask Dwalin about that when she saw him.

It made sense, though, in a way. Dwarven babies were big enough that they’d probably kill a Hobbit woman who tried to birth them, and Hobbit babies were so delicate that there was no telling what might happen to them while they grew. 

Also, she didn’t know if there were differences in what Hobbit and Dwarf babies drank when they nursed, but that wasn’t something she was in a hurry to ask anyone.

All things considered, it was probably for the best that the babies matched their mother until they grew up a bit. 

But just as fascinating was watching the styles of marking change. The Dwarves constantly made and wore heavy, gem-ridden pieces of jewelry, but Belda could tell just by looking at them that they were too heavy for Hobbits; the Hobbits seemed to agree, as none of them ever wore them. The crests that had taken up entire chest-plates moved to arm-guards, then necklaces, then earrings, then finally beads, and only then did the Hobbits begin wearing their spouses’ and families’ crests.

If the Hobbits had still had hair like the first predator, curly like no one Belda had ever seen, even the beads might not have worked, as more of the Hobbits might have cropped their hair like her, but the successive generations took both parents’ features, whether they were Hobbit or Dwarf. The Dwarves’ hair got (slightly) curlier and much more wild, and the Hobbits’ got wavier and thicker, until finally it looked much like Belda’s own. Still far curlier than any of the Dwarves, but more like what Belda knew, and at least as well-suited to beads as Dwarven hair.

(The older generations, including the first three, grew their hair to their shoulders; there were a few rare braids, but mostly, they kept their hair in odd, ropy strands that Belda had never seen before. She thought she preferred braids, but the locks held beads as well as braids did.)

The curving pathway finally spiraled to an end with a single statue, of Durin, holding his wife’s bead and crown in his hands as he knelt. When Belda bent down, she lost her balance to see the sheer grief in his expression. 

For long moments, she couldn’t look away. It wasn’t the grief that held her, or not completely. It was that even in his sorrow, he still looked like Kíli. Looking at him, it was so, so easy to imagine Kíli in his place, holding her beads after she died and left him alone.

Not for the first time, she felt guilt twist her stomach into knots; how could she ever have the right to do that to him? How could she live with herself knowing that he would have to lose her?

Closing her eyes, she reminded herself: she trusted Kíli, he was intelligent enough to make that choice for himself, he would make that choice for himself, and neither of them had actually done or decided anything permanent yet. Besides which, everyone knew that Hobbit lifespans were affected by what their soul-form was: her grandfather had been a tortoise, and look at him. More than a century and a quarter before he died. And tortoises could live for a few centuries, sometimes. 

According to Beorn, dragons could live for millennia. Even if she only had a fraction of that longevity in her Hobbit form, she could still very well grow old with him.

Maybe.

She hoped.

Steeling herself against the sight of Durin as she opened her eyes, she pushed to her feet and ducked through the statues to the way she’d come in; the walk was only half a minute’s worth that way, but just as she reached the archway, she realized there was something on the wall beside it.

Walking along the wall with her torch held high, she grinned to see another of the stories she’d been raised with on display: the creation of Hobbits. From Yavanna shaping them from rain and soil and sunlight, to Vána and Oromë finding them, to the first Hobbits beginning to build a life for themselves in the same Valley she stood in now, she could almost narrate the murals as she walked along them, despite barely recognizing a word she saw. They led her to the opposite end of the room, to a doorway almost exactly like the one she’d come through to begin with, and when she whistled, she could hear the echoes of far, far larger and longer tunnels and rooms to explore.

Almost involuntarily, she swayed toward them, thinking of how much history there had to be, how much knowledge…

But she caught herself, and strode back to the library. Her pack would be missing her soon, and Beorn had mentioned knowing songs that had been passed down his family from before the Wandering Days.

But she’d come back.

Someday.

Chapter Text

Belda hugged Beorn around the neck as tightly as she could; in comparison, he was being almost insultingly gentle, but she couldn’t actually complain about that. In quiet Hobbitish, she promised, not for the first time, “I’ll be back.”

As he lowered her to the ground again, he smiled sadly. “And I will count the days, litla frænka.” If the entire Company hadn’t been a handful of yards away, she was sure he would have shifted and wished her a proper goodbye. As it was, he only knelt and extended a hand; she reached out, hand in a loose fist, but he brushed a knuckle under her fingers, gently pulling them straight.

A sob caught in her throat and she moved her hand under his before throwing her arms around one of his legs. A large hand covered her back for several seconds, before she had to push away again. “Heitt skinn, skarpar tennur, skór frændi.”

“Heitt skinn, skarpar tennur.” Eyes shining, he pushed to his feet and took a half-dozen steps back.

With how badly she wanted to latch onto his leg and refuse to let go until either he agreed to come along or Thorin agreed to delay the quest, she understood why he was keeping his distance. It wouldn’t be fair to him or Thorin, or anyone else in the Company, for that matter. Beorn had already given them a half-dozen bows (she wasn’t sure she wanted to know where he’d gotten them, or the quivers of arrows); she couldn’t ask more of him than that. Vision blurring, she forced herself to turn her back on him and walk toward the ponies, toward the Company, toward her Uhdad.

Dwalin pulled her into his arms as soon as she was close enough, and she let herself clutch at him for a few precious seconds. She hadn’t had family she actually cared about for more than eleven years, and now she had Dwalin, and she had Kíli, and Fíli, and Ori, and Nori, and she had Beorn, and now she had to leave him, leave part of her family behind, and even though he wasn’t quite pack, it hurt.

But there was no time to dwell on it. As soon as she was sure that she wouldn’t fall apart without her father holding her, she drew away and mounted her pony.

As the Company followed suit, she listened idly to the ponies’ murmurs. Beorn’s herds were more intelligent than most animals, but they were still animals. After relearning how to understand full animals like her Da had taught her, she really hadn’t been surprised by their ‘conversation’; they spoke of food, safety, possible dangers, and her. To them, she was on a level with Beorn, despite how short a time they’d been around her. Given their regard for her—and the fact that they were undeniably Beorn’s—she felt a bit awkward around them, but she consoled herself with the knowledge that they’d be returning to Beorn soon enough.

Finally, Thorin mounted his pony, and Belda’s pony shifted under her, alert and ready for direction. Thorin flicked the reins expertly.

His pony didn’t move.

Gandalf flicked his reins.

His pony didn’t move, either.

Belda’s pony nickered a soft query, which was echoed by most of the ponies.

Oh.

Oh, no.


 

Ori

 

All things considered, it was a bit funny how the ponies refused to follow anyone but Belda. It took nearly ten minutes before she rolled her eyes at Thorin and Gandalf’s efforts and just rode ahead; half the Company nearly lost their seats as their ponies jolted into motion. No one was keen to talk for the first dozen miles or so, but once they were well past the boundaries of Beorn’s land, conversations began to break out.

Snickering as Fíli inadvertently got Glóin started about Gimli again, Ori left her to extricate herself and spurred his pony to ride beside Belda. “What was that, back there? With the hands? You did it when we arrived, too, but I forgot to ask.”

Belda looked at him sidelong for a moment, thoughtfully, then smiled. “It’s a Hobbit custom, that’s all. The person who holds out a closed hand is the… supplicant, I suppose you could say. It’s a request for acknowledgement, or for agreement or protection. The other person is the giver, and whether or not they complete the gesture is completely the giver’s decision. The supplicant’s adoption of that gesture is a sign of humility, or at least a way of acknowledging the giver’s superiority in social, economic, or familial areas. If the giver finishes the gesture, that signifies either their agreement or their acceptance of the supplicant as a peer.”

Ori took in the information carefully. After a moment, he tilted his head to the side. “So what did he do that made you cry?”

He wasn’t actually sure she’d been crying—her face had been turned away from him the entire time—but the tears that welled up in her eyes as she smiled at the question seemed to confirm it. “I told you, taking the supplicant’s pose—it’s a sign of respect to the giver. Doing what he did— um, for Dwarves, I think the equivalent would be… offering a braid. Something like that.”

Distantly, Ori realized his mouth was hanging open, and shut it with a snap. But… “I don’t understand. What did you do to deserve such an honor?”

After the question was already out, he realized how it sounded; he tried to stammer out an apology, but she waved off his half-syllables, laughing. “It’s nothing so formal, Ori. It was his way of wishing me luck, more likely than not, since I’m the one who has to keep all of you alive now we’ve left his house.”

Her laughter was infectious, especially on the last few words, and he couldn’t help but laugh with her for a few moments. After they’d both settled down, he glanced back at where Kíli was unsuccessfully trying to help Fíli escape Glóin’s monologuing, then maneuvered his pony as near to Belda’s as he could without colliding with her. She raised a questioning brow, face open and curious, and how easily he could imagine Kíli making that face only made his smile that much wider. “You and Kíli are a good match, you know.”

She turned bright red and faced ahead again, squinting against the sun, but she was fighting a smile, he could tell. After her blush had faded a bit, she muttered, “You’re a good match for Fíli, you know.” Now it was his turn to blush; he widened the distance between their ponies, but she spoke again before he could rein in his mount. “If Eru Himself intended you to be a Queen’s One, does it really matter what anyone else thinks?” Deliberately, she turned her head just enough to hold his gaze, eyes almost feline in the glare of the sunlight. “Including yourself.”

He didn’t actually have an answer to that, and did drop back, far enough that further conversation was impossible. She didn’t chase.

It wasn’t as though he thought Eru had made a mistake, it was just…

Well, just him.  He wasn’t the sort of man who could ever be King, not a good King, anyway. Consort, maybe, but even that was…

But wasn’t she right? Fíli was his One and he was hers, which meant they were Ones for a reason, which meant that either Fíli wasn’t destined to be a Queen—which was poppycock, anyone with half a brain could see she’d be a brilliant monarch—or he was destined to be a Queen’s husband.

Terrifying? Yes.

Unbelievable?

…as much as he wanted to say yes, as much as his first thought was yes, Belda was right. If nothing else, he knew how to keep books, and Balin said he was doing well, learning the laws. He wouldn’t be completely useless, as a Queen’s husband. And maybe…

…maybe he could learn to be on her level.

Balin’s voice broke him out of his thoughts. “…ow you said your mother taught you his language, lass, but how did he know Hobbit customs?”

While Ori had been thinking, Balin had ridden up on Belda’s other side; Ori couldn’t see her face as she paused, as she was mostly facing forward. “Beorn’s family has kept journals for years. His… grandfather? Maybe it was his great-grandfather. Whichever way, Hobbits are mentioned in some of his family’s journals.”

Balin’s brow furrowed. “How is that possible?”

She shrugged lightly, voice equally light. “He did mention that his family traveled more, before it was just him.”

Some of the confusion cleared from Balin’s face, but Ori had to work to keep his own expression from betraying him. The way she was answering the questions, her wording, her tone, even her body language, it reminded him of when she’d maneuvered him into telling her about his family history. He couldn’t imagine her lying outright, especially not to Balin’s face, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t misleading him somewhat.

But how? And did Ori even have the right to puzzle it out? If he was right and she was hiding something—which he could very well be wrong about—she probably had her reasons. He trusted her. 

But he couldn’t help but be curious.


 

Dwalin 

 

“Tired, kit?”

Belda grumbled incoherently and burrowed further into his side.

“Oi, none o’ that.” Dwalin looked sharply at Óin; what was he doing? The physician ignored his look and poked Belda’s leg. “I saw you rubbing your eyes earlier. You’ve got the best eyes out of all of us; if there’s a problem with them, we need to fix it now.”

Belda kept her face against Dwalin’s chest, muffling her response. “I’m fine, just tired.”

Dwalin’s brow rose; if she was volunteering that, there probably was something to what Óin was saying. “Kit, do I need to be worried?”

He’d spoken quietly enough that he doubted anyone but Belda could hear him; she barely answered more loudly. “No, it’s nothing.”

His other brow joined the first. “Then there is something?”

“No, it—” Cutting herself off, she growled inaudibly, the vibration shivering from her into his chest almost as though she were purring.

Unfortunately, Thorin noticed the commotion and made his way over. “What’s going on here?”

“The lass’ eyes are bothering her.”

“No, they aren’t!”

Gandalf looked over, expression concerned. “If there is something to attend to, it’s best if it’s taken care of before we reach Mirkwood, kit.”

Her hand fisted in his jacket, but she didn’t respond for long seconds. Finally, she sat up and faced Óin with a scowl. “Fine.”

Nodding briskly, Óin sat directly in front of her, flapping a hand at Dwalin. Dwalin wasn’t about to leave her completely, but he did move aside far enough to give Óin space to work, and to see both their faces—Óin’s shadowed as he had his beck to the fire, Belda’s equally dark with Óin’s shadow covering her from head to toe. Belda had stopped shying away from Óin’s hands somewhere between the Carrock and now—Dwalin felt a twinge of guilt that he hadn’t even noticed—and only clenched her jaw when Óin tilted her head this way and that.

After a few exercises that Dwalin didn’t see any point in, Óin shifted position slightly and gestured at the fire behind him. “Keep your eyes on that, now, I need to see how they react to light.”

She tensed, but there was a resigned note in her features as she lowered her eyes obediently to the fire’s level. For an instant, Dwalin was caught by how huge her pupils were; that wasn’t normal, was it?

Then Óin moved, and Dwalin’s jaw dropped.

So did the rest of the Company’s.

Belda’s cheeks colored, her jaw jumping into even sharper relief, but she didn’t move her distinctly elliptic-pupiled eyes from the fire. “I told you, it’s nothing.”

Óin spluttered incoherently; Gandalf cleared his throat. “Regretfully, I must agree with Belda. If I had known what you were concerned about, I would have informed you that this is not uncommon for Hobbits nearing their majority.”

Thorin broke into Khuzdûl, cursing everything from the wizard to ‘secret-keeping children’ to ‘Eru-forsaken Hobbit guardians’. Ignoring him, Dwalin looked straight at Belda, raising his voice enough for the entire Company to hear. 

“Kit, is this a problem?” She shook her head mutely, still not looking away from the fire. Biting his cheek, he cupped her opposite cheek, nudging her into looking at him; the pupil on the near side of her face, when she turned far enough for it to be shadowed again, expanded from a long oval to a huge circle that left half as much green around it as normal, and Dwalin wondered how he hadn’t noticed before. Putting aside his wonderings for the moment, he held her eyes resolutely. “Kit, we can’t help you if you don’t tell us what you need.”

As she exhaled, leaning slightly into his hand, her shoulders dropped a fraction. “I don’t need anything.”

“But what is it?” Kíli moved closer as he spoke, reaching toward her face before he seemed to think better of it. Eyes flicking toward Thorin for a split-second, he pulled back and sat beside Dwalin. “Is it hurting you?”

Dwalin doubted she’d have done anything but clam up if anyone else in the Company had asked, but her expression softened as she looked at Kíli. “My eyes are getting more sensitive to light, that’s all.”

“But why?”

On Belda’s other side, Dwalin saw Ori open his journal, pencil poised to take down what Belda told them. But Dwalin had a feeling that this was related to Hobbits’ being shape-shifters; he wasn’t surprised at the vagueness of her answer. “It’s just something that happens to Hobbits sometimes around our coming of age.”

Light sensitivity… why did he have the feeling he ought to understand? Dwalin wracked his brain, trying to think of any reason he might find it familiar. It wasn’t something that could happen to Dwarves, so it must have been something she told him about herself or Hobbits in general—but she’d said ‘sometimes’, just now—so was it something to do with fox-dr—

“Enough!” Thorin scowled at them all, but his glare didn’t hold much heat. “She said there’s nothing she needs. We ride at dawn; Kíli, take first watch.”

Tipping his head back, Kíli groaned melodramatically; Belda bit her lip to keep from laughing, but the fondness in her expression as she watched Kíli was obvious. The half-pleased, half-tender way he looked back at her was just as obvious.

Raising a brow, Thorin didn’t look away from his nephew as he amended, “If you feel so strongly about it, you can take second watch. Balin, you have first; Bifur, third.”

Kíli’s jaw dropped; he looked as though he’d protest for a moment, then seemed to realize that it would only make things worse and shut his mouth with a click. He and Belda exchanged a commiserating glance, but he only shrugged and wished them both a good night before going over to the bedroll he’d already set up.

Thoughts returning to their previous course as he and Belda set their bedrolls beside each other a little ways from anyone else in the Company, Dwalin waited until he was sure no one was close enough to hear a quiet conversation. Then, opening his mouth, he turned to Belda, only to see that she was already asleep.

He considered whether or not to wake her for a few moments, but she was curled against his side, injured ear turned to the stars, expression clear of the faint strain he hadn’t realized had been present for the majority of the day. Her eyes had been bothering her more than she’d let on, he guessed, and she’d obviously been more tired than she’d let on, as well. Even if she hadn’t fallen dead asleep in all of a minute, the starlight made the shadows under her eyes all the more evident.

Thinking back, he realized she’d been falling asleep earlier and earlier in the time they stayed at Beorn’s, though she always woke at her usual time, save for that first morning. Neither she or Gandalf had commented on it, which made him think it was probably usual for Hobbits nearing their coming of age. 

Or at least for Hobbits who were physically changing. Her changes might not have been obvious, but they were still happening, and there could be more than just her eyes, for all he knew. Growth spurts did tend to be accompanied by needing more food and sleep than before, in his (admittedly inexpert) experience. 

With difficulty, he held in a sigh. He wasn’t sure he could think of a worse time for this. Beorn had been exceptionally clear that they would have to ration their supplies in Mirkwood, and to be on near-constant alert if they wanted to make it to the other side unscathed. It wasn’t Belda’s fault, of course—he had no doubt that she would have delayed it if she had the slightest bit of control over it—but the next weeks were going to be brutal for her.

Laying his head down and watching the half-moon creep across the sky, he fell asleep making plans.


 

Belda

 

Belda plopped down beside Kíli without so much as a greeting, and slumped against his side before he could react.

“Uhhh…”

Frowning, she poked his leg. “Stop moving, you’re comfy.”

Letting her eyes fall closed, she couldn’t see his expression, but his scent was a mixture of uncertainty, amusement, and… relief? She wasn’t sure she understood the last, but he stayed still, so she didn’t really care about anything else. Dwalin and Thorin’s argument at the edge of her earshot grew just loud enough for her to hear, and she rolled her eyes behind closed lids. That morning, Dwalin had asked if (though she guessed he’d already guessed by then that) her ‘light-sensitivity’ was really vulpine night-vision; he’d nodded as though it wasn’t a surprise and dropped the issue.

So she’d been taken a bit off-guard after they made camp when he asked Thorin not to put her on watch for the foreseeable future. She appreciated his thoughtfulness, though. She wouldn’t have considered how that would go until she was in the middle of watch and couldn’t keep her eyes open, much like now.

Thorin, of course, was being stubborn about it.

She should probably put her two cents in.

…Nah.

Without opening her eyes, she began eating her serving of dinner; with the rationing Thorin had already put into place, all she’d be getting was a single (large) bowl at meals. It was still twice as much as what the others were eating.

Her food was gone all-too-soon, though Kíli had finished his a few minutes before. He’d had his arm around her since he finished eating. It was barely anything—it wasn’t hard to imagine Fíli or Bofur or Nori doing much the same—so there was no reason for her to be blushing. None whatsoever.

But she couldn’t stop.

“I didn’t get the chance to say, last night.” Confused, she blinked blearily up at him; she couldn’t muster the energy to say anything, but he continued after a moment, quirking his eyebrows. “Your eyes?” 

Feeling her cheeks heat further, she made to lower her head, but he squeezed her waist lightly, drawing her eyes back to his. His smile wasn’t large, but it was genuine, and there was no discomfort or fear in his scent, despite how she knew eyes like hers must look to non-Hobbits. 

“I think they’re amazing.” Even through the fatigue clouding her thoughts, she could sense the sincerity in his voice and his scent; hiding her face against his side was only natural, but it made it all the more difficult to ignore the swirl of affection, amusement, and concern that entered his scent as he laughed quietly. “Never known you to be shy.”

If nothing else, the tinge of concern alerted her to the question implicit in his words; heat spread from her cheeks down to her collarbone, but she did her best to keep her voice casual. “It’s different when it’s something I can’t control.”

Strictly speaking, that was true; as of late, with her fighting, her knowledge, and all other such skills, she could allay her discomfort with the knowledge that she’d earned it fairly. Such things as her looks or birth, which she only had by the grace of Eru, seemed to her as though they oughtn’t be praised, only acknowledged, and rarely. Adding to that the fact that it was an explicitly draconic feature, and she hadn’t the faintest idea how to react.

He let out a slight huff, but his scent carried understanding, not scorn. “I can understand that, I s’pose.”

Just as she registered the slur, a jaw-cracking yawn overtook Kíli, then her; his arm tightened around her as he yawned; she moved closer to him without thinking, then realized what she was doing and moved a bit closer still. By the time they’d both settled, she was nestled comfortably under his arm, her head resting on his chest, her fingers entwined in the laces of his shirt.

His voice rumbled through her, low and sleep-thick. “Missed this.”

“‘M sorry ‘bout that.” Hearing herself mumble, she did her best to wake herself up a bit, but couldn’t keep her eyes open. “Beorn had a lot t’ tell me.”

“No, ’s fine. You seemed ‘appier ev’ry time y’came from talkin’ to ‘im. Glad about tha’.”

His last words trailed off into a mumble; abruptly, he fell back against the dirt. The impact jolted through Belda with enough force to wake her up more fully, and she had just enough time to see that Thorin and Dwalin were still arguing before fatigue overtook her again. After a moment, Kíli chuckled sleepily. She didn’t have the energy to do the same, but warmth bloomed in her chest and drove her to nuzzle her head against his chest. His other arm came around her waist as well, and after a moment of shifting, she couldn’t imagine anything more comfortable.

The last things she was aware of that night were Kíli’s scent and warmth surrounding her, an overwhelming sense of home, and right, and belonging, and her own voice, barely audible over the crackling of the fire and the distant sound of unintelligible Khuzdûl. “I missed you, too.”

Chapter Text

Ori set down his empty bowl, holding back a sigh. He understood why Thorin was beginning the rationing already, but he couldn’t help but wish they could have another day or two of having enough to eat. Drumming his fingers on his leg, he glanced around the camp: Dori was already setting up his bedroll, despite how early it was; Fíli was standing near Thorin and Dwalin as they argued, and rolled her eyes at him when she noticed him looking; smiling, he looked toward Belda, only to feel his jaw drop as he took in her position.

Her and Kíli’s position.

As in, the two of them, curled up together like cats in a basket, and very peacefully, very obviously, asleep.

Furtively, he glanced toward Thorin to see if he’d noticed, but neither of the Durin men seemed to have. A sharp, light whap on the back of his head startled him into sitting up straight again. Nori clucked her tongue as she sat beside him. “I know I taught you to be more subtle than that, love.”

He flushed; she had. “Sorry, Nori. I forgot.”

Her expression softened marginally, but she still looked sidelong at him for a moment, shaking her head. “You’ll have to remember from now on, Ori. You’re in bed with royalty now.”

“Nori!” Mortified, he shot a look toward Fíli, but Nori had spoken quietly; no one else had heard. “I am not!”

Nori’s lips twitched. “Metaphorically, love. You’re both too conscientious for it to be anything but.” Slowly, his cheeks cooled; so did Nori’s expression. “But my point still stands. High and mighty folk can be more vicious than low-borns when the mood strikes them. Not her and hers,” she said over his protest, “but the nobles you’ll have to deal with after the Quest. There’ll be plenty of those who’ll look at you and see nothing but the penniless son of disgraced traitors.”

A hurt scowl pulled at his mouth. “But they didn’t do anything, it was just—”

“Thrór’s gold-sickness?” Smiling sadly, Nori shook her head at him and nodded to Thorin. “So long as Thrór’s blood is on the throne, none of his supporters will hear a word against him. That’s just how nobles think. It’s nothing to do with Fíli, nothing to do with Thorin, not even to do with you, really. But they’ll look down their noses at you while they bow. Let a single sneer or frown or smirk slip, and they’ll do everything they can to bring you down.” As she looked at him, she trailed off; he wondered what she saw in his face. Sighing, she tugged him close enough to tap their foreheads together before sitting back again. “You’ll need to be strong then, so start training now. Sooner you start…”

“The better prepared I’ll be.” Ori finished Nori’s favorite watchwords with a rueful smile; he didn’t heed them as often as he ought, hence why he’d joined a quest at the age of a hundred and twenty-three with only a sling for a weapon. She’d been nudging him toward learning other types of fighting for decades, but he’d let Dori’s insistence on his present well-being distract him from the long-term advantages. Yes, he could break his arm learning to swing a hammer, but it might have been useful to know when they were fighting Goblins and Orcs.

“But anyway,” she snickered, “you obviously noticed the bantith ra kanbith.”

Ori had to stifle a snort; ‘kitten and puppy’ were the perfect terms for Belda and Kíli.

“Leave them be. Fíli noticed a few minutes ago, she’s been keeping Thorin busy since.”

“And if Dwalin notices?”

Nori’s eyes fixed on the Dwarf in question. To the rest of the Company, she wouldn’t have looked any different than usual, but Ori could see the hints of contemplativeness in her eyes, and unless he was mistaken, affection. “I’ll handle him.” Her eyes cut to Ori, crinkling at the corners. “He’d hear your knees shaking and laugh the lovebirds awake.”

Ori scoffed in mock offense, but couldn’t help but laugh at the image anyway. A few moments later, Dori called him over; with an apologetic smile for Nori, he obeyed, but did put his foot down about staying up a bit longer. He had a new scene to sketch.


 

Nori

 

As Thorin and Dwalin came to a reluctant agreement, Fíli led her uncle away from where the kit and pup were sleeping; Nori moved quickly to intercept Dwalin for the same reason.

“Nori,” he greeted gruffly, nodding to her.

She quirked a brow at him. “Dwalin. Are we finished saying each others’ names for no reason?”

He snorted; she hid a smile. “You had a reason for coming over here, if I know you.”

“That’s a bit of an ask. But you are right.”

Now he raised a brow. Wordlessly, she cocked her head toward the sleeping sweethearts. His eyes stayed on hers for a long moment, unreadable and dark, then followed her motion. Then widened. Then narrowed. Then his jaw clenched.

“Let them sleep.”

His eyes flicked down to hers again. “Why?”

His tone was harsh, but she knew him well enough to know that he’d listen. “Because we’re in for six weeks of misery, at least. This might be the last little indulgence either of them are going to get until after the Quest is over and done with. They aren’t doing any harm, neither of them. They’re just asleep. So let them sleep.”

His expression hardened a fraction. “I don’t trust either of them not to ‘overindulge’.”

“Not even your own daughter?”

He snorted. “They’re young. Do you remember how easy it was to get carried away at that age?”

A light huff left her, out of amusement or bitterness, she wasn’t sure. “I remember seeing how easy it was.” She’d never had the luxury of getting carried away.

By the way his eyes softened, she guessed he realized that. Too late, she remembered he’d been much the same, going from Erebor’s fall to the War of Dwarves and Orcs to forging a life in Ered Luin before he’d even been Kíli’s age. “Aye.”

For a few moments, they stood in peaceful silence. The mingled firelight and shadows turned his eyes to green and grey, though she knew very well they were blue. More grey than Thorin’s or Dori’s, not as green as hers or Ori’s, but Durin blue all the same. Usually when she was close enough to see his eyes, he was either arresting or ‘interrogating’ her—not that he had the stomach for a real interrogation, not like the ones she’d grit her teeth through in half a dozen less honorable towns—and she was too busy thinking up cover stories to relax. 

But now she could appreciate the moment, and appreciate the sight. He had nice eyes.

Quietly, he sighed. “If something happens—”

“You’ll hold me responsible?” He didn’t quite look amused at the interruption, but he didn’t look irritated, either. “I’ve got first watch. I can keep an eye on them as well as everything else.”

The crease between his brows returned, and deepened. “The other watches?”

“Bifur’s after me, Balin on third. I’ll ask Bifur to wake you if he notices anything… not as it should be.”

His frown eased. For a moment, he eyed her thoughtfully. “I would’ve thought…”

She raised a brow. “What? That I’d be encouraging them to run off together while you weren’t looking?”

Chuckling, he shook his head at her. “You going to tell me that’s so different from what you did?”

Even knowing he (probably) didn’t mean anything by it, the words stung. “I did what I had to. For the record, Dori and I might be on opposite sides most of the time, but I do know there’s a happy medium parents are meant to strive for. Just because I think Dori’s too overbearing doesn’t mean I think anarchy’s the answer.” Frowning now in earnest, he opened his mouth, but she had no patience for whatever new way of moralizing he’d thought of. “I’ll wake you if she needs you. Goodnight, Dwalin.”

If he tried to say anything else, Nori didn’t hear as she walked away. By the time she reached her post, he was moving back to his bedroll, head hanging. 


 

Dwalin

 

Nori’s words were still ringing in his ears the next morning. The look on her face…

He hadn’t meant it like that. He hadn’t meant that she was a poor influence on Belda, or on Ori. He hadn’t meant that she was a rebel or an anarchist. He hadn’t meant to insult the way she made her living.

Granted, he wasn’t sure how he’d react if she chose to be a thief after the Quest’s end. As he understood the situation, she’d become—and remained—a criminal out of desperation to provide for her family. He didn’t agree with the profession she’d chosen, but he understood why she’d done so. When Dori and Ori had their shares of the treasure, she’d have no reason to continue thieving unless…

He could understand desperate measures. He couldn’t understand the sort of person that would choose to be a criminal for the joy of it.

He hadn’t meant to say what he had. This was why he’d insisted that Belda explain about ‘halfling’ weeks before; he always muddled things. Words and meanings and intonations— he was completely hopeless with writing, but he was hardly better speaking. Balin was the wordsmith, not him, always had been.

But he knew how to talk to Belda, at least. His misgivings about the arrangement had rushed back in full force when he saw her still sleeping with the pup at dawn, though he was satisfied that neither of them had overstepped, now.

It was hard to suspect anything untoward when he’d seen for himself how shocked they were to wake up together. Doubly so when they’d both flushed to their toes and scrambled apart, stammering incoherently. Trebly so when they’d been in such a state (and so tangled together) that he’d head-butted her and she’d kicked him in the ribs in their efforts to separate.

He was going to savor that image for years to come.

But just untangling themselves evidently hadn’t been enough, as they’d fled to opposite sides of the camp, still red-faced and flustered. Thorin had taken Kíli even further aside, though he was managing to keep his voice down for now.

Belda had sequestered herself by the ponies, ostensibly to get them ready to ride out, but Dwalin didn’t think she was doing much besides using them to hide. Sure enough, when he made his way into the pack (with minimal fussing by the beasts themselves; Dwalin supposed he smelled a bit like Belda with how often they hugged), he found his daughter sitting against an obliging pony, with her head in her hands and her back to the Company.

Holding in a laugh, he sat beside her and waited. It was only a few moments before she leaned against his side, though she didn’t move otherwise.

“Not that I don’t sympathize, but I don’t think this is the end of the world.”

She groaned quietly. It might have been a whine.

“You’ve cuddled with him before and never been this embarrassed.”

Definitely a whine. “But this time we were asleep!”

He raised a brow as she burrowed her face into his jacket. “Did you have strange dreams or something?”

She jolted back, face reddening so quickly that he wondered if her feet would go numb. “No!” Just as he was about to ask another question, she ducked her head and finished shyly, “I didn’t have any dreams, actually.”

“So you slept well?” She nodded, still blushing. “Good.” Her eyes snapped to him, widening a fraction. “I can be glad you got a good night’s sleep and not like where and with who you slept at the same time, you know.”

Her blush deepened. “Nothing happened! It wasn’t— wasn’t like that,” a worry he’d been trying to ignore evaporated, “it— it was just—”

“You were tired and you fell asleep.”

Mutely, she nodded.

Watching her, he shook his head and extracted his arm out from between them in order to wrap it around her instead. “I’m sorry for pressing. For the record, I do trust you. But you have to admit, you were a bit more flustered than nothing happening would explain.”

Her blush deepened; ducking her head, she mumbled something he couldn’t make out.

“What?”

If anything, her blush spread further. She only just raised her voice enough to be audible. “He smells really good.”

He… didn’t know what to do with that. “…Good?”

She twisted, pressing her face against his chest. After a moment, she spoke, and he realized she’d taken his half-statement as a request for elaboration rather than the escape he’d meant it to be. “You remember what I told you about Hobbit Mates?”

Like Ones, except weaving instead of alloying. “I think so.”

One of her hands crept up to his bead in her braid, twisting it around. “Well, the thing is just— when two Hobbits— when Mates— but it’s only after— sometimes it takes a while— but then— scent tells everything for Hobbits— age and temperament and soul-form and— and Mates— but I didn’t think— I never— but it can’t be wrong— I don’t think— but I never believed th— well, I did, but—” 

She paused for breath; Dwalin took the opportunity to break through the babbling while he could. “Kit, slow down. This has something to do with scent? Kíli’s scent?” For a moment, she didn’t respond. Then, faintly, she nodded. “There’s something unexpected about Kíli’s scent?” Another nod. “Something you didn’t notice before?” A much more hesitant nod. “Something new?” A certain nod. “His scent changed recently?”

She nodded again, not uncertainly, but a bit nervously, he thought. Why would she be nervous? And why would his scent have changed? She said just a moment before that scent tells age, temperament, soul-form, and Mates: Kíli’s age couldn’t have changed substantially enough to be noticeable; his temperament certainly hadn’t changed, though he had matured a bit over the last few months; he wasn’t a Hobbit, so he couldn’t have a soul-form; and he couldn’t be her M—

But he could, couldn’t he.

Carefully, Dwalin cleared his throat and made sure his voice was low enough to be inaudible to everyone but his daughter. “Kit, are you two Mates?”

A tremor shook her lightly. She nodded.

Letting loose a slow, quiet breath, he let his head fall against the pony’s side. Now at least he understood why she was hiding; it seemed to always be her first thought when she didn’t know how to handle a situation, and even he barely knew what to do in this. 

He didn’t doubt her. Not that she was telling the truth, not that she could tell without a doubt. If she said Kíli was her Mate, then he was.

But if Kíli was her Mate, then it followed that she had to be his One; she’d said that Mates were never unreciprocated, and since Dwarves had Ones rather than Mates, then that would be how Kíli would recognize it.

But until Kíli did recognize her as his One, Thorin would never believe it. He was doing better with her, ever since their conversation at Beorn’s, or whatever it was that had happened that day, but there was a difference between Thorin’s personal respect and Thorin’s acceptance as a suitor for his only sister-son. Fíli and Ori had barely been able to convince Thorin and Dori to let them court, and they were each other’s Ones.

Until Kíli recognized Belda as his One, Thorin would never accept her suit.

Belda stirred, breaking Dwalin out of his thoughts; he looked down to see her shift around so that her face was visible, though she didn’t meet his eyes yet. “Beorn noticed first, actually. He pointed it out the day before we left, not that I believed him. But he was right. I’ve been trying to think of when I marked him, but I know I didn’t right before we fell into the Goblin caves, but it would’ve had to have been around then for his scent to have already changed so much, and I know I didn’t after then, either.”

Thinking back to the night after the Carrock, Dwalin had to stifle a snicker. “I think I might know when.” She looked up at him inquisitively, and he called on all his decades of training to help him keep from laughing aloud at the memory. “Fíli really didn’t tell you?”

Her eyes narrowed. “…No…”

Grinning, he tightened his arm around her a fraction. “A few hours after we climbed down from the Carrock, you were unconscious and I’d been so dead tired that I let the pups talk me into letting them keep an eye on you while I slept. I woke up, and you were snuggled up in the pup’s lap, content as can be.” Her entire face, her ears, and what he could see of her neck flushed scarlet. “Don’t know if this helps, but I saw you—still asleep—sort of nose along his jaw. Like this.” Tugging her properly onto his lap, he copied what she’d done that night with one hand, while tickling her with the other.

In between giggles, she managed to push him away, though she didn’t move away from him once he did. Curling against his chest, she nodded, still giggling faintly. “Yeah, that would explain it, although it’s still a bit fast. He and Fíli both scent-marked me accidentally the day we met, so once I marked him in return, our scents starting changing.”

Dwalin tilted his head. “How so?”

“Well, everyone’s scent is unique. Well, I mean, there are elements that are shared, between families and kinds, but everyone has something to set them apart from similarly-scented people. All you Durins smell like danger and adventure.” She smiled, genuine and sweet. “Your personal scent is like home and peace. Kíli’s used to be like misbehaving and playing, but now he smells like a misbehaving predator.”

At the last, her smile turned to something no less genuine, but quite a bit more wolfish, and Dwalin changed the subject before he thought too much about what she must have been thinking about. “How can someone smell like danger and peace at the same time?”

Her smile fell away as she blinked up at him. “How can someone be a scribe and a warrior at the same time? Besides, it’s not literal. It’s more…”

After a moment, he offered, “Metaphorical?”

Her mouth twisted in clear dissatisfaction, but she nodded. “Close enough. Some smells can’t be described, really, not in Westron or Khuzdûl or anything but Hobbitish, and even then, a description is useless if you can’t smell it, too. It would be like pointing to two identical shades of green and saying that one of them looks like a completely different color to me. You wouldn’t be able to see the difference, so what would be the point of telling you the name of the color?”

“Hobbitish?” His brows lifted. “The language you were speaking with Beorn.”

She nodded. “Sorry, I meant to tell you about that before. But you’re changing the subject. Have you ever heard music that made you think of something completely different? You couldn’t say why, exactly, but the music sounded like starlight, or like summer, or anger?”

Slowly, he nodded. “Not often, but yes.”

“That’s what I mean with scent. Your scent makes me remember my childhood, falling asleep in front of the fireplace with a book, or stargazing with my Da. Home and peace. But your family scent, yours and Thorin’s and Kíli’s and Óin’s and Dori’s and all your siblings’, that’s like a cold metal against your throat and standing a bit too close to a bonfire when all you want to do is move closer. Danger and adventure.”

He thought over her words for a few long moments. He still didn’t truly understand, but he thought he understood as much as a non-Hobbit could. “So has your scent changed to be more like Kíli’s?”

Her blush returned, but she nodded, trying and failing to banish her smile. “We’re starting to smell the same. After last night, it’ll be more than ever.”

“And every time you cuddle, it’ll go a little faster.”

She elbowed him at ‘cuddle’, but didn’t deny it. But a moment later, she stilled, expression falling. “If it goes much further, it’ll be irreversible.”

His brows shot up. “Reversible? I thought you said Mates were joined by Eru Himself.”

“They were, but tradition says that everyone has more than one potential Mate. It’s who they meet first and love best that becomes their true Mate, through their choosing each other.”

“…But they can choose not to be Mates?”

She was silent for several moments. “They can choose to leave each other.” Ah. So it was more serious than he’d thought. As though she’d read his mind, she elaborated, “If I wanted to stop this between Kíli and I, I’d have to avoid even talking to him for the rest of the Quest, and longer if I hadn’t met another potential Mate by then. If they exist.”

Her tone was unmistakable. “But you don’t want to stop this.”

Slowly, she shook her head.

“And you’re sure you won’t change your mind?”

She was still for even longer, then slowly, slowly, shook her head again.

Well. After wrestling with himself for a moment, Dwalin wrapped his free arm around her and hugged her close; she returned it tightly. “It’s your choice, kit. Choose to leave him and I’ll help keep him away. Choose to keep him and— well, I can’t support you if you want to elope with him before the week’s end, but he’s a good lad. I want you to take your time, take things slow, and make sure you’re sure of your own mind before you do anything lasting, but I can think of any hundred worse Dwarves for son-in-laws.”

She huffed lightly, but tightened her arms around him as she nuzzled into his chest.

Thorin began calling for the Company to move out a handful of minutes later, but their conversation stayed with Dwalin for some time.

It was a strange thought, having more than one One. Though, really, it sounded more like choosing a One, but that was just as strange. He couldn’t deny, though, that it would have its advantages. Many a Dwarf had rejected his or her One after learning of a criminal past, or debts, or politics; Dwalin shied away from any thoughts of Nori. But with how complicated Hobbit politics sounded, how many disasters had been avoided by virtue of their ability to turn away in favor of a more suitable Mate? And whichever Mate they chose, they had the surety in each that Eru had guaranteed the match.

Of course, she’d qualified that by saying it was according to tradition, which she hadn’t bothered to do with much more outlandish things. So there was a decent chance that it wasn’t true after all.

But Dwalin knew, even the illusion of choice could keep people from falling into despair. 

Perhaps it was true, perhaps it wasn’t. Either way, he thought it was more than likely she’d choose Kíli.

Though as Ori fell back, scowling after (presumably) losing his argument with Belda, Dwalin supposed he could be wrong. 

“They still aren’t talking?”

Ori leveled an exhausted glare at him. “I have never felt so much like an adult in my life.”

Dwalin had to say this for Ori: he was good for a laugh now and then.

Chapter Text

Olorin held back a grimace as they neared the forest’s edge. It had been visible since the sun’s rising, though they’d already been riding for some time by then, but the closer they drew to their destination, the more he disliked the thought of sending the Company inside without him. But between Radagast’s description of the forest’s decay, his report of the happenings in Dol Guldur, and Beorn’s report of the dead walking near the High Fells of Rhudaur, he couldn’t stay with the Dwarves. He couldn’t ignore the signs any longer and risk worse because of his inattention.

At mid-afternoon, they reached the Elven gate. Uneasily, he dismounted and ventured into the forest’s edge. The trees were grey and twisting, vines strangling branches and stonework alike, including a statue of Queen Aerlinn. Olorin’s stomach twisted at the sight of that, remembering her kindness. She deserved better than this. But there was something more, something… something he couldn’t see.

Something under the surface.

In one smooth motion, he pulled off the weeds covering her chest, and bile burned his throat to see her image defaced with the mark of Sauron.

At the same instant that he uncovered it, a flash of fire and death scorched through his mind, and a strangled gasp came from behind him. Sharply, he looked back, somehow unsurprised to see Belda, pale and wide-eyed, snatch her hand away from a tree near the entrance. Her eyes snapped to his an instant later, and he struggled to understand the emotions he saw there. Revulsion, shock, fear, those were clear, but if he was interpreting what he saw correctly, she felt much the same as he did, understood nearly as much as he did.

Nodding to himself, he strode toward her, not surprised when she didn’t take a single step further into the woods. Falling back a step as he neared, she inclined her head to the side. “A word?”

“Just what I was about to suggest, my dear.” She led the way out of the trees, aiming well to the side of where the Company was setting camp; Dwalin half-stepped toward them, but fell still at a discreet shake of Belda’s head. Nori, Ori, and Kíli all looked liable to follow anyway, but Thorin set them to work quickly. Fíli was tending to the ponies in Belda’s absence, but only seemed to be unpacking them for the night, not for good. “Now would be the time to send these excellent ponies back to Beorn, Fíli.”

A chorus of groans and grumbles met his pronouncement, but Belda growled low in her throat and pointed to Beorn where he waited, half-hidden in the trees some distance away. “You gave your word, we all did.” A few more grumbles—albeit far quieter than in response to Olorin—answered her, and she lowered her voice to a threatening purr. “And I’d see any of those beasts set one hoof inside the forest as soon as I’d see any of you dead.”

Olorin quirked a brow; she would never follow through on the implied threat, he knew, but that she would even bluff such spoke to her aversion to the forest’s blight. The grumbles abruptly fell silent. After a moment, Fíli cleared her throat and began stripping the ponies of all their gear; Ori and Dori quickly moved to assist her.

Olorin smothered a laugh at the admiring way Kíli looked at Belda before moving to help his sister.

As they moved to the lone horse, though, he admonished them sharply. “Not my horse, Dori, I have need of it yet.”

Quietly, Belda corrected, “Her.”

Dori looked at him despairingly. “You don’t mean to leave us, Gandalf.”

More than a few in the Company shared Dori’s expression, but he had no reassurances for them. “In the morning, yes. I have pressing business down south, and I am already late through bothering with you people.” Thorin and Belda gave him near-identical offended glares. “But I am at least sending Belda with you. There is no help I could offer that could equal her.”

Thorin looked a bit appeased, at least, but Belda, if anything, seemed more troubled than ever. The immediate business taken care of, Olorin continued the way he and Belda had been traveling, only coming to a halt when they were well out of earshot, and far enough from the forest’s edge to see any would-be eavesdroppers coming. As he came to a halt, the Company released the ponies; they came to Belda, as he might have guessed.

One by one, she sent them off toward Beorn’s, and the bear himself followed the last after bowing his head solemnly to Belda. “He respects you greatly.”

She bobbed her head noncommittally. “I have a greater burden than he does. He respects that.”

There was a melancholy edge to her voice; lightly, he asked, “Trying to keep thirteen Dwarves alive, you mean?”

A smile flitted over her lips, but it didn’t last as long as he’d hoped. Sighing, she looked toward the Elven gate again. “Is there no way around?”

He sighed, as well, more heavily than she. “Not unless you go two hundred miles north, or twice that distance south.” He fully expected that to be the end of it; to his surprise, she looked as though she were seriously weighing the merits of the delay. “Is it so repellant?”

Her expression darkened in a flash, and she nodded grimly. His brows leapt up, but he had no chance to speak before she did. “This place… it’s wrong, it—” Her words had been little more than a hiss, and as she stopped, evidently wordless, she bared her teeth in a silent snarl and shook her head snappishly.

There was something strange about her reaction, how potent it was, but then, it was only to be expected that she would be more feral than usual, this close to her First Shift. He had no way to know unless he asked. “‘Wrong’ how?”

As she sobered, her snarl faded, though there was still something distinctly animalistic about her tiny, twitching movements. “It feels…” ‘Sick’, he supplied. But she surprised him. “Dark. Corrupted. Or corrupting.” She shook her head again, the motion reminiscent of her mother  when she was angry. “I don’t know, but it makes my skin crawl.”

On the last few words, she rolled her shoulders one at a time, shifting her weight as though to compensate for a thrashing tail. The motions reminded him of the scene atop the Carrock, his revelation that whatever her soul-form was, she’d have wings, and he frowned anew; no bird had eyes like hers. What was she? “You can sense all that?”

She stilled, but for her twitching ears. After a long moment, she nodded, eyes rising to his. The grave intensity there held him inexorably. “Not just with the forest.”

His brow furrowed more deeply; what could she be referring to? Slowly, she reached into a pocket, digging deeper than he might have expected, and drew out her hand in a loose fist. For a few moments, she only looked at her own hand. Taking a deep breath, she opened her fingers to reveal a small, golden ring, clean and shining in the sunlight, and brightly contrasted against her skin.

He couldn’t recall ever seeing her with it, or her parents, for that matter. “Where did you get that?” Perhaps the Troll hoard?

“The Goblin tunnels. The Hob-Goblin I mentioned, he had it in his pocket. It fell out after I knocked him out.”

That made less sense than it being an heirloom. “Why didn’t you tell anyone before?”

Again, she met his eyes grimly. “Because of what it did to the Goblins. I told you all that I killed two Goblins fairly, two while they were distracted, and one threw himself on my sword. What I didn’t say was that this ring was what distracted the last three.” A twinge of foreboding struck Olorin, and his eyes fell to the ring as she continued. “After I killed the second Goblin, this fell—or jumped—” He hoped she was only anthropomorphizing, but he had a nasty feeling that she wasn’t, “out of my pocket, and all three Goblins immediately lunged for it. I can’t say whether or not I would have been able to kill all five of them on my own, but they were so desperate for this— this thing,” her voice sharpened to a disgusted hiss, “that they completely forgot about me. That’s when I killed the second pair of Goblins, but the last got ahold of the ring while I was busy.”

She paused until he met her eyes. “It turned him invisible, Gandalf. It was only luck that I had my sword at just the right position, just the right angle, to go through his heart when he pounced.”

Absently, he admonished, “There’s no such thing as luck.” This was ill news.

“Providence, then. But you didn’t see the look on those Goblins’ faces,” her eyes were haunted with the memory, “you didn’t smell the lust in their scents. They didn’t just want this ring, they needed it, and they killed for it. And it feels the same as Mirkwood.” She gave a full-body shudder, rolling her shoulders again. “It makes my skin crawl just holding it.”

Ill news indeed. But if it affected the Goblins so… His eyes flicked to hers, dreading what he might see— but she was looking down at the ring. “Then why did you take it? For Eru’s sake, kit, why did you tell no one? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Her eyes snapped to his, and his chest loosened to see only a hint of exasperation in her face, nothing darker. “Magic rings aren’t so unusual, Gandalf, you know that as well as I do, but have you ever heard of something that enthralled people like that? The only explanation I can think of is that it’s more powerful than anything I’ve ever heard of before, and I could not leave it for Eru-knows-who to find!” Her voice had risen to a near-shout, and she lowered it deliberately. “And I couldn’t risk it affecting the Company, either. So I didn’t tell them, and I didn’t tell you while they were in earshot. It doesn’t seem to affect anyone unless they know of it, so I will not tell them.” The desperation in her voice finally spilled over, and she looked pleadingly at Olorin. “I can’t watch that happen to my pack, Gandalf. Not them. Not my family.”

He still wasn’t sure there wasn’t more to it than simple fear for her pack, but he also couldn’t argue with her impulse to protect them from it. “Very well.” Her shoulders dropped a fraction. “When you say that it feels like the forest—”

“It’s exactly the same.” She paused, mouth pulling into a frown. “Except more concentrated in the ring.”

His stomach plummeted, twisting into knots. There was only one ring he knew of that would share Sauron's signature. No. No, that ring had been lost long ago. She was wrong, she had to be. But he couldn’t be sure of that. He would have to find that answer while he investigated the others. But there was one thing he could try yet.

Gingerly, he reached toward the ring, only for Belda to flinch her hand away, looking at him fearfully. For a long moment, he could only pray, ‘Please, Eru, not her.’

Swallowing, she whispered thickly, “Are you sure it won’t affect you, too?”

So— Oh. That was… not ideal, but he preferred her fearing what he might do than fearing for the ring. Gently, he reasoned, “If it were going to, it would have when I first saw it, don’t you agree?” Though he wouldn’t be taking it, if he had a choice. He had no desire to possess it, only to verify what it was and was not.

The fear didn’t leave her features entirely, but her ears stopped twisting back so strongly. Nodding, she held her hand out again, and lifted it up to the level of his chest. Carefully, he extended a hand, and let his fingers come into contact with the cold metal.

Fire and death and blinding greed scorched again through his mind, and he recoiled instinctively. Her eyes were wide as she watched him, and he met them soberly. “You’re right, kit. It is powerful,” more powerful than he’d expected, “and it is dark.” And undoubtably Sauron’s. A fresh nightmare occurred to him. “Have you worn it?”

A revolted grimace assuaged his dread somewhat. “After seeing what it did to the Goblins, it’s bad enough having it in my pocket— I’m not having it on my finger!”

“Good. Don’t.”

Obviously catching some of the steel in his voice, she blinked apprehensively at him. “What is it?”

He hesitated; she had enough to deal with already without knowing what she carried. “…I’m not sure.” Not without a single doubt, anyway. “I suspect…” Should he tell her, after all? Not everything, but… “But if my suspicions are correct, you must not wear it, under any circumstances. You must not let it out of your possession, no matter how tempted you are. And above all, you must not allow the Dwarves or anyone else to know of it.”

She straightened slightly, squaring her shoulders as she held his gaze resolutely, and his foreboding eased further. “I won’t.” Her expression faltered. “Will you be gone long?”

After a moment’s hesitation, he closed her fingers over the ring and knelt down to embrace her properly. He couldn’t remember the last time he held his goddaughter, but she returned the hold after only a moment of fumbling to hide the ring away again. “I don’t know. If it is at all in my power, I will join you by Durin’s day. If not, as soon as is possible.”

She nodded, sniffling quietly, and drew back. “Hurry.”

He agreed, and they rejoined the others. But for the remainder of the day, and much of the next, as he departed from them, his thoughts were nearly as occupied with the matter of Belda as they were with the ring.

She’d said that she was like her mother, weeks ago. She had a predator’s instincts, certainly. On the Carrock, she’d certainly indicated that she was something with wings; he’d never seen any but bird-Hobbits long for the sky as she did. But her eyes were that of a fox. And he’d never seen or heard tale of any beast that could sense magic like she did. It took no special skill to feel the darkness in Mirkwood, but the ring was far more cleverly disguised, and she’d felt Elrond’s protections around Rivendell, as well.

What was she?

And what would happen if the ring ensnared her as it had Isildur?


 

Nori

 

Nori watched Belda carefully as she and the wizard came back from their little tête-à-tête—she’d seen them both flinching as they spoke—but saw no evidence of tears or anger, just a bit of melancholy. And it wasn’t hard to guess at why.

They’d have been dead without Tharkûn in the Misty Mountains, and with the Trolls, and on the cliff. Now, they were about to go into a place as cursed as any Nori had ever seen, and he was abandoning them. Not that Nori could truly fault him for it, it was only common sense, but still, she couldn’t help but be afraid.

She had no idea what to expect from the Mirkwood, despite all Beorn and Gandalf’s warnings.

She couldn’t prepare for something she didn’t understand.

Dwalin met Belda a few paces before she reached the Company—no surprise there—while Gandalf continued on into the camp proper. Nori was about to follow, to give father and daughter a bit of privacy, when she caught a snatch of their conversation.

“…orest? Is it a dragon thing?”

Nori very carefully did not turn, or look at Dwalin, or give any indication that she’d heard him. But she heard Belda’s reply as well.

“…nd it must be why we left Anduin. Hobbits don’t do anything like that without good reason, and this? This is good reason. I on…”

Bombur beginning to serve the meal gave Nori the escape she needed, and she melted into the bustle of the Company without Dwalin or Belda realizing she’d been close enough to hear.

But she had.

She could understand why Dwalin might think Smaug had caused the Greenwood’s decay—it was as good an explanation as any—but why would he think Belda would know? The phrasing stuck with her, as well. ‘A dragon thing’. Why not say ‘desolation’ if that was what he meant? Or ‘because of Smaug’? Or ‘because of the dragon’, if he was so averse to the beast’s name. Why say it like that?

And what did she mean, Hobbits had left Anduin because of the Mirkwood? When had Hobbits been in Anduin in the first? And if Hobbits ‘don’t do anything like that without good reason’, then why had they gone to Anduin at all? Though, from what Nori’d seen of Mirkwood, she couldn’t understand why it would be ‘good reason’, either. It wasn’t as though it would chase them. It was a forest.

Bofur sat beside her with a thump, nearly startling her into visibly reacting. He smiled through bulging cheeks. She resisted the momentary urge to scold him for wolfing down his food when they had so little of it and began slowly eating her own serving.

She didn’t have friends, really. She had colleagues, a few, and a few people like Dwalin she liked to annoy, but people in her line of work couldn’t afford to have friends. Bofur, though, had met her when he happened on her while she was hiding in a closed mineshaft. The entire reason she’d hidden there in the first place was that no one was meant to be working there and she knew it. So did Bofur. It didn’t stop him.

With an older cousin and a younger brother to support, he couldn’t quite make ends meet legally, so he didn’t see anything wrong with her hiding from the guards. There was a bit more risk, working in closed shafts, but for someone with stone-sense as strong as Bofur’s, there was a bit more money to be made that way. Legal mines had all those fiddly little rules and regulations and chains of command, keeping individual miners from doing anything that could bring the tunnel down around them.

Probably smart, that, but if you were desperate enough, the risk wasn’t so bad. 

She’d never actually helped Bofur with anything but finding a fence, and he’d never helped her with anything but places to hide, but it worked. Whatever it was they had.

And somehow or other, she’d learned about his cousin—and how hard it was to take care of him, and how hard it was for Bifur to be taken care of when his memory wasn’t touched in the slightest—and his brother—and how torn Bofur was between pride for the sheer number of niblings and despair for how impossible it was for Bombur to support them alone—and how much Bofur dearly, deeply hated mining.

And somehow or other, Bofur had learned about Dori—and how badly it hurt when he shoved Nori away, no matter how many times he did—and Ori—and how proud she was of her little brother, of his mind, of the fact that he actually had a chance to pull himself out of the pit she and Dori were stuck in—and how tired she was of running. Of fighting. Of being sneered at by her brother and leered at by men who thought they could own the famous thief, being reviled and revered alike for her reputation. Of living a lie.

Nori couldn’t even remember ever having a conversation with Bofur that he didn’t monopolize, or that lasted more than a handful of minutes. More than once, they’d gone years without so much as seeing one another, though that never seemed to matter.

But as he finished chewing and launched into a tale about a bar fight he’d been in (that she’d been in, too, actually, and she didn’t remember it being half as funny), keeping one eye on her in the near-unnoticeable way he watched his kin, she thought maybe they were friends after all.

Dwalin and Belda were in easy sight of her, the latter sandwiched between her father and Fíli as they listened to and laughed at Bofur’s story. Kíli was on Fíli’s other side, and every so often, he and Belda stole glances at each other—never when the other was looking, of course—then looked away, blushing. Fíli looked as exasperated with the two of them as Nori felt; Nori made a mental note to have Fíli help her maneuver them together at some point.

But Nori knew, a few days earlier, it would have been Kíli sitting beside Belda, not Fíli, and they would have been sweet together as usual. Those two were going to end up properly in love if they weren’t careful. But Nori thought that would be a good thing; Belda steadied Kíli even as she made him bolder, and he softened her even as he supported her. They were a good fit, as good as Fíli and Ori were together.

Against her will, Nori’s eyes flicked to Dwalin as he smiled tenderly down at Belda, and for an instant, she imagined herself tucked under his arm, sharing his heat, being the recipient of his smiles. Just as quickly, she wrenched her eyes away and banished the image. It was a fool’s dream.

But she couldn’t help dreaming it that night, and the next, and the next.

Chapter Text

Belda watched Gandalf’s form shrink into the distance until it was too small to see, despite how the rising sun assaulted her eyes. Once he was gone, and only then, she turned to face the forest again. 

Even the thought of going inside made her tail lash and her claws flex—catching herself, she deliberately regrounded herself in her Hobbit-form—and they were about to spend weeks in its depths. If she were a bit more afraid of the wood and less afraid of the Company, she’d tell them that she could fly them all over it in eight weeks, or carry them around it far more quickly than their tiny legs could manage. If she were just a bit…

But she could imagine their reactions too well. She’d never been more afraid of Dwalin than the moments after she told him the truth, before he decided it didn’t matter. For a heartbeat, not that she would ever tell him, she’d been genuinely afraid that he would strike her down. Fortunately, he loved her too much—and she’d only grown to love him more in the days since then—but the rest of the Company had no such limitation.

She trusted Dwalin more than anyone else in the Company, and his expression—his scent—had been hateful—and fearful—enough to make her doubt him. The others had no reason, no ties to her that would change their minds. If she told them…

She’d had several nightmares over the last week of exactly that.

So she couldn’t tell them, which meant that either they could lose the only opportunity they had this year, or she could grit her teeth and follow them into the Mirkwood. The name suited it perfectly, although as far as she was concerned, there was no name in Westron that could possible convey just how abhorrent it truly was.

The next few weeks were going to be like walking—living—inside the ring. She wanted to vomit just at the thought. If she didn’t have something to occupy her while they were inside, she’d be hard-pressed not to lose what little sustenance she had on a daily basis. But what could…

Thorin caught her eye as he stood in conference with Dwalin and Balin, standing on the edge of the wood. All three of them Durins.

Fætur Eldfreyja. Yavanna save them all.

But it did give her an idea. Quickly, she made her way through the tangle of Dwarves in between her and her commander, pausing to grab her pack—

And then coming to an abrupt stop as it proved to be significantly heavier than she’d expected. Shaking her head, she left it for the moment and continued on toward the three elder Dwarves.

Thorin was saying something about ‘weed-eaters’ as she approached; she didn’t feel the slightest shame in interrupting him. “Thorin.”

He gave her a look that was half-chiding, half-offended, and turned back to the others. “If we—”

“Thorin.” Dwalin bit his lip against a smile; she didn’t let herself look at him, too focused on keeping her serious expression.

With no small amount of annoyance, he turned to her. “What?”

“Can we talk?” She sent an apologetic glance at Dwalin—he waved it off—but she had a feeling Thorin would rather not have his authority questioned in earshot of his men.

He had other ideas, evidently. “Whatever you have to say, you can say here. And quickly, I hope.”

If that was how he wanted to play it, then. “I think I should take the lead in the forest.”

He blinked at her for a moment, as did Balin; Dwalin shared their surprise for a blink, then began visibly considering it. “You?”

“Yes.” She kept her back straight and her shoulders squared as she spoke, and made sure she did so evenly and clearly; anything that would add to his impression of her competence would help. “I have the best eyesight in the Company, my night-vision is improving daily, I have better ears than most of the Company, and a better sense of direction than you or yours.”

Thorin straightened, expression hard; she was close enough, though, to pick up the notes of embarrassment in his scent. “None of which is enough to make me put a child in the most dangerous position.”

She raised a brow. “Not alone, but together, I should think it is. And in any case, how can any position be more or less dangerous than any other when we could be attacked from literally any side?”

His jaw clenched under his beard, but his glare did nothing to hide the fact that he couldn’t disagree. Dwalin nodded in the corner of her eye. “I agree with her.” Thorin looked incredulously at him, but he didn’t falter. “I’ll be right behind her in any case, but this is different terrain than we’re used to. I’d rather she led the way than anyone else in the Company.”

Slowly, Balin nodded as well. “She makes a good case, Thorin. And she’s hardly defenseless.”

If anything, Thorin’s glare darkened as he looked between his cousins, but Belda kept her head high as he turned it on her; his scent spoke of hurt, concern, and fear, all of it creating turmoil he didn’t allow to show. His turmoil strengthened for a few moments as she held his eyes, then abruptly faded as he came to a decision. “Get your pack. We move out in five minutes.”

His words alone didn’t indicate what he’d decided either way, but the fact that fear moved to the forefront of his scent—in a manner of speaking—did. Even as she was touched that he was so concerned about her safety, she grinned and obeyed gladly.

Until she actually had to put on the pack, that is. She had to sit in front of it to actually pull it on, then promptly toppled over when she tried to stand. Growling under her breath, she rolled to the side and pushed herself upright again, only to see a hand extended to her before she could even try to stand on her own.

Brows jumping up, she followed it up to Thorin’s face, sober despite the amusement in his scent. A smile pulling at her lips, she took hold of the offered hand with both of hers; to her irritation, he pulled her up without any visible effort on his part. “It’ll get lighter soon enough.”

Grabbing hold of his arm again as she nearly lost her balance, she growled, “Whoever gave me an equal share of the weight—”

“They didn’t.” Alarmed, she looked up at Thorin, who wasn’t even trying to hide his amusement now. “I told them to distribute it fairly, not equally. You have half the load as the rest of us.”

Her jaw dropped at that, but a quick glance around them proved him right; everyone else’s packs bulged with their burdens, and since she had the smallest pack in any case, it made quite the difference. That didn’t mean she enjoyed being reminded that she was so much weaker than her pack. “Fætur Eldfreyja og Tennur Tauron,” she muttered, “how strong are you all, anyway?”

Thorin raised a brow. “We make our livings as miners, smiths, and archers, in Kíli’s case.”

All of which were professions that required a good deal of strength, while she’d only begun building her own strength since she met the Company. She bobbed her head to the side. “Good point.” His brow quirked higher. “You’re right this time; don’t let it go to your head.”

He didn’t make a sound, but she was still holding onto his arm; she felt him shake with a silent laugh. “In any case, you’ll have to keep a good pace. If you can’t, I’ll have Nori head the line.”

Nori had good eyes, and better instincts. Belda nodded. “That’s fair.”

“That easy?”

“Of course.” She grinned at him. “I won’t go slowly.”

Huffing, he shook his head. “Just do your best.”

“Always.”

He huffed again at that, but sobered quickly, looking at the forest. “It’s hard to believe it could be as dangerous as Beorn insists.”

“What?” She squinted up at him incredulously. “If anything, he underestimated it.”

Thorin’s brows drew together in confusion as he looked down at her. “It’s only a forest.”

That is an abomination, and I swear it’s watching me.” Shivering, she hitched her pack up.

Thorin glanced between her and the wood, then repeated, “It’s a forest.”

For a moment, she could hardly believe that he could be so blind. Then she remembered that he was a Dwarf. “Not to a Hobbit.”

“Then what is it to a Hobbit?”

She paused, giving the question the consideration it demanded. She couldn’t use the ring as an example, obviously, or allude to anything draconic. Slowly, she shook her head. “It’s something… ancient, and evil, and hungry.” She shivered again, and said with the utmost sincerity, “I’d rather face a dragon here and now than go in there.”

“You’ve never seen a dragon.”

“You can’t feel that place like I can.”

They held each other’s eyes for a few moments, neither willing to concede the point, but dropped it in a silent agreement to agree to disagree. She’d already filled her water-skins (Beorn had given them all an extra each in addition to the bows and arrows; she hadn’t asked where he’d gotten them, but hers did have a faint scent and taste of Orc-blood about it) at the spring, so she spent the few minutes before they headed out listening to Thorin, Dwalin, and Balin rehash all Beorn’s warnings and instructions. She remembered most of them, but a few were new to her; there were also a few warnings he evidently hadn’t given the Dwarves, such as not to trust the squirrels, but she didn’t see the need to bring those up.

But soon—any time at all was too soon for Belda—they assembled at the gate. Belda couldn’t help but watch the trees suspiciously, but she saw Thorin nod to her out of the corner of her eye. “Lead the way.”

Nodding, she took a deep breath, hitched her pack up again, and moved forward. She heard Dwalin fall in step just behind her, and Thorin behind him, but her pulse in her ears drowned out the rest of the Company’s footfalls. The entrance that she and Gandalf had ventured into the day before was left quickly behind, and the forest proper proved to be a mass of twisting, grasping trees, cloaked with strangling vines and dark dense cobwebs, each strand as thick as her little finger.

The sunlight was choked out long before it reached the path, though for the first few hours that they walked, a brave ray of light stabbed down through the branches every so often. That ended quickly. Her eyes adjusted to the dimness more swiftly than the Company’s did, if the sound of half-trips and stubbed toes behind her were any indication, and her headache faded completely for the first time in weeks within a few hours of the sunlight completely disappearing.

The squirrels Beorn had spoken of were everywhere, little black fur-balls that darted to and fro above and around them, though none crossed her path. There was noise, as well, grunting and snuffling from some unseen animals in the distance, but none ventured close enough for her to see. It wasn’t hard for her to guess why. 

What was more puzzling was why the cobwebs never crossed the path. They stretched alongside it, sometimes as far as the eye could see, but never crossed it, not under her feet, not overhead, so far as she could see. Maybe that would change further in, but for the time being, it was a puzzle. Was there some sort of Elvish magic keeping the path clear? She couldn’t feel anything, but that was no guarantee.

There was no wind—which made the creaking branches in the distance distinctly ominous—and the air was stagnant and stale. It clung to Belda’s lungs like a poison; it wasn’t long before she felt as though she were suffocating. But she wasn’t, obviously, so she gritted her teeth and forged on.

Night fell sooner than she expected, but long after she was ready to collapse. But she’d kept up the pace, Thorin couldn’t say she hadn’t. They made camp directly on the path, of course. They couldn’t risk losing it in the night. It was just wide enough for them to cluster together in a loose knot of dim shapes in the gloom, and Belda let her pack slip from her shoulders with a groan.

“Tired?” She could hear the smile in Dwalin’s voice, but she had no energy to answer him. Instead, she just slumped against him and let that be her response. He chuckled, but he sounded almost as tired as she felt. Regardless, he wrapped his arms around her and lowered them both to the ground where they stood, only taking off his own pack when he was sitting and she was in his lap.

Not for the first time, she thanked Eru Dwarves were so much larger than Hobbits, and Dwalin especially. She still felt a bit foolish curling up in her father’s lap like a fauntling, but she also felt safer there than anywhere else, and in a place such as this, she’d take what comfort she could. Even the Goblin tunnels were preferable to this. But if she were a Dwarf, or he a Hobbit, she would never have fit. She barely did anyway. If he were even a few inches smaller, she wouldn’t have fit, she’d have to sit beside him, under his arm, like she did with Kíli—

A dull flush rose under her skin at the thought of him. She wasn’t ashamed of falling asleep with him, or of the fact that he was her Mate, or even the fact that they’d been in the middle of the Company and everyone could see them. Strictly speaking, she wasn’t ashamed of anything to do with him.

She was, however, more than a bit mortified of her own thoughts when they’d woken up together. In the Goblin tunnels, she’d thought that she wasn’t sure if she’d ever even think about marriage again, though that had mostly been because she hadn’t been sure she’d survive the escape. But—

Well. She was definitely thinking about it. Waking up tangled in Kíli, his scent—their scent—surrounding her, and barely a inch from his beard, his jaw, his lips—and feeling something she was still too flustered to put a name to, even in the privacy of her thoughts, pressing against her leg—there’d been an instant when she hadn’t seen any reason not to claim him then and there.

Fortunately, she’d woken up completely an instant later and realized where they were and who was watching, and how bad an idea it was to do something like that yet in any case: she hadn’t even had her First Shift yet; she was not old enough to marry him.

Not to mention, it sounded like Dwarves had ceremonies like Men did. Hobbits had celebrations, of course, with flowers and nice clothes and all their friends and family there to witness their pledge to marry, but that wasn’t the wedding proper. That was just the public recognition of intent, and they hadn’t even begun doing that until a few hundred years previous, when Bree-Hobbits and Men began mingling more and the difference in customs became apparent.

No, the wedding— Well, her mother’s way of putting it was that there wasn’t a difference between the wedding and bedding. And a bed wasn’t really necessary. Hence the near-miss.

Honestly, they’d barely even kissed and she was already thinking of marrying him. Granted, they were Mates, so it was only natural, but still.

Although, maybe it had something to do with how close she was to her First Shift. It was an instinct, after all, even if it was more of a Hobbit instinct than draconic. In any case, that was not going to happen until after they’d gotten out of this Yavanna-forsaken forest, if not until they’d courted properly.

A quiet crack caught her attention, and she lifted her head to squint in its general direction. Glóin was fanning a small flame higher, and it caught quickly, growing to a good-sized campfire within a few moments. Foreboding twisted at her gut, and she looked up at the sound of wings fluttering. 

In another moment, dark grey and black moths—as big as her hand—swooped down toward the fire, nearly choking them with sheer numbers. They gave Belda a wide berth, but the rest of the Company wasn’t so fortunate; panicked cries spurred Belda into action almost before she knew what she was doing, and she darted away from the fire, then bolted toward it, using her momentum to send a thick spray of dirt over the logs. Thorin did much the same from the other side, cursing darkly in Khuzdûl, and in a handful of seconds, the fire was out again.

Holding herself still as she caught her breath, Belda watched the branches overhead, looking for any trace of the moths’ return. As it became clear that they wouldn’t come back unless the fire was lit again, she calmed, somewhat. The eyes watching her back, yellow and red and green and pale silver, kept her from relaxing entirely. Whatever creatures were above them, they were too high up for her to see them properly. All she could see was the glow of their eyes.

The pale ones were the worst. Bulbous and glistening, at once insectoid and reminiscent of the Hob-Goblin as he prepared to attack. Watching them, she felt cold, frozen where she crouched; her ear throbbed, sharp teeth digging into the tender flesh, cold hands around her throat, heavy as iron, cutting off her air, pressing, pressing, squeezing, and something touched her neck

She scrambled away from the touch, unthinking, until she felt bark against her back, the rough realness of it jarring after, she realized, what had only been waking dreams. All at once, she realized that she was shaking, breath coming short and quick and shuddering. A half-sob escaped before she could stop it, and a dim shape rushed toward her and proved to be Dwalin. As he pulled her into his arms, he was shaking, as well, faintly, and she realized that it must have been him that touched her neck, trying to break her out of the dream.

She inhaled too quickly, the breath catching in her throat as tears sprang to her eyes and she clutched at his jacket. “I’m— s—sorry—y, Uh—Uhdad—”

His breath hitched, sorrow and grief and pain warring in his scent and making her tears all the more impossible to stop. “No, don’t you apologize, don’t you dare. You did nothing wrong, do you hear me, kit? Lakhad-naithê, you have nothing to be sorry for.”

He spent several minutes murmuring variations on the same, cradling her to his chest, one hand at the back of her head, the heel of his hand on the nape of her neck. She felt wrung out by the time she was able to stem her tears, and wretched for wasting so much water when she knew it would be scarce. After a few moments of silence, Dwalin and someone—she could tell it was one of the men, but was too tired to place the voice—had a quiet exchange in Khuzdûl.

Brows furrowed, she blinked open her eyes, surprised when it made no difference. With some difficulty, she extracted her hand from where it was sandwiched between her and Dwalin and waved it before her face, then brought it close enough to feel her breath on her palm. It was completely invisible in the pitch-darkness. But when she glanced up, the eyes were still there, glowing over their heads.

She frowned at them and ducked her head again; she didn’t like to look at them. But it was frustrating, to still be able to see them. Enough Hobbits had had nocturnal soul-forms, over the centuries, that the science of it was common knowledge, taught to fauntlings along with maths and poisons. If the creatures, whatever they were, could see—could find enough light in this blackness for their eyes to reflect it menacingly—then there was light here that she couldn’t see, that was too faint for her yet.

The last word stilled her thoughts. ‘Yet’, when she had no guarantee that her eyes would ever progress to such a point. Somewhere at the back of her mind—the same place where her need to protect her pack, to feel Kíli’s scruff on her lips, to stand as Thorin’s equal, all her most deeply-rooted instincts were founded—she felt herself teeter on the edge of a precipice, a choice, a threshold. She thought about how helpless she was in this night, how helpless her pack was, and leaned forward. 

The sound of fumbling in the dark jolted her back to the present, Nori’s scent preceding her and joined by traces of Belda’s own. Belda wasn’t surprised, then, when Nori proved to be carrying the pack she’d dropped on the other side of camp. The smell of food abruptly reminded her of the hunger she’d been ignoring all day; she had to hold herself carefully still to keep from ripping it out of Nori’s hands.

Realizing she was slipping into her instincts again, she regrounded herself as Dwalin took the pack from Nori, using the familiar motions to give herself the patience to wait for Dwalin to portion the food out for them both; if she let herself choose how much food to take, she’d eat through all their supplies in a week. 

As she and Dwalin ate, though, she realized what had been missing since they came to Mirkwood the previous day. She hadn’t caught the scent of any matur-dýr since the second day of riding. Other animals, types of animals that she’d never scented before, but matur-dýr smelled different than other animals, no matter whether they were birds or fish or mammals or even reptiles. Tauron’s influence, probably. She doubted anyone but a hunter would think to give them the ability to tell by scent whether an animal would be good to eat or not. And nothing in this forest was good to eat. It was in their scent, something… eitrað. She didn’t know a word for it in Westron, didn’t know if any other race even had a word for something that was like food, but not, that would make them ill if they tried to eat it— or worse, would fill their stomachs without nourishing them.

She hadn’t expected to find anything to hunt in a place that Gandalf and Beorn both spoke so fearfully of, but having it proven so conclusively was still sobering. Now there wasn’t even the possibility.

After they were both finished eating, Dwalin nudged her fully awake and murmured, “Do you feel able to lead again tomorrow?”

She considered it for a moment, but didn’t need longer than that. “Yes. I… I was surprised, earlier. I didn’t expect…” Remembering how real the memory of the Hob-Goblin had felt, she shivered, abruptly cold. “Now I know. I’ll be fine in the morning.”

He grunted, unconvinced. “At least you aren’t saying you’re fine now.”

“You know me too well.”

“Exactly.” She tried to laugh at that, but it stuck in her throat. Dwalin’s hold on her tightened reassuringly as he shushed her gently. A few fresh tears slid coolly down her cheeks as she squeezed her eyes shut, and she scrubbed a hand over her face, muttering curses in cracking Hobbitish. Softly, Dwalin began to sing one of the songs he’d sung on the way to Beorn’s, the one that fit so well into the old lullaby. This time, he sang it aloud, the words in rumbling Khuzdûl, but clear enough that she was able to recognize a handful of words, among them what she thought might have been the name: Long Ago.

The song was utterly unlike anything Hobbitish, and entirely different from anything that might remind her of darker memories. Sometime during the second repetition of the song, she slipped into peaceful sleep, secure in the instinctive knowledge that her presence would dissuade any dýralíf that might threaten her pack.

Chapter Text

Despite Belda’s brief battle-dream, she slept deeply enough to need to be shaken awake in the morning. Thorin had taken the last watch of the night, and spent a quiet minute watching his Company as the light returned. 

Fíli and Kíli slept beside one another as usual, but Kíli had one arm splayed out to the empty ground on his other side, his frowning face turned to the same spot, and Fíli was holding Ori’s hand across the space that separated the two of them.

Ori was beside his brother, who had a protective arm slung over his charge. Nori was a small distance away from the both of them, but was positioned in such a way that she would easily be able to spring to their defense if need be.

Bifur was sitting up, propped up against a tree; Thorin knew that the axe bothered him at times, the old wound throbbing painfully unless it was sufficiently elevated. Bofur was on the ground beside his cousin, his brother on his other side. Bombur was a naturally early riser, and as usual, was the first to wake; he met Thorin’s eyes, but only gave him a small nod and watched his relatives for a few moments.

Óin talked in his sleep, far more quietly than when he was awake, but the Company knew by now to sleep a ways from him. Glóin, on the other hand, often couldn’t sleep unless he was within earshot of his brother. Thorin had seen Lemli fall asleep once not long after Gimli’s birth, and had heard her start to mumble in her sleep as well; Glóin denied it, but Thorin had his suspicions.

Balin was near Thorin, one hand on his sword and brow furrowed. He never slept well away from his brother, at least while they were traveling together. And Dwalin…

Dwalin was still where Belda had scrambled the night before, on the other side of the path from Balin, nearer the -ris than anyone else. He was lying on his side, curled around Belda as she slept in his arms. Thorin didn’t understand how she could sleep like that; her head was tucked under Dwalin’s chin, tilted to the sky, her body twisting around so that most of her was facing her father, her legs drawn up to her chest, and both of her arms were extended toward her back, one forearm lying in the curve of her waist, the other arm fully stretched out behind her. It looked immensely uncomfortable, but somehow she was asleep regardless, and deeply, at that.

She woke reluctantly, but was alert enough by the time she finished eating that he had no compunctions about letting her lead the way again.

To his surprise—and Fíli’s—Ori approached Thorin as they prepared to move out. “As Belda has been officially recognized as Nâthu-id-Zadkhu-Fundin, does she have the King’s permission to learn the language of her father’s forefathers?”

It wasn’t quite the formal phrasing that Balin would have used, but it was well done for Ori’s level of apprenticeship. Balin, beside Thorin, seemed torn between approval and constructive criticism. Belda, waiting on the path at the edge of the Company, was looking between Thorin and Ori, wide-eyed.

Thorin considered her for a long moment. She wasn’t a Dwarf by any means, but Thorin didn’t doubt her loyalty to Dwalin, nor her loyalty to the pack. He’d believe that she would willingly leave the Company when Hobbits flew. He also trusted her ability to keep the knowledge secret; if anything, she kept secrets too well. And most of all, he trusted Dwalin. He didn’t always agree with Dwalin, but he trusted him.

He nodded. “She does. Those who would teach, teach her well.” Murmurs of acknowledgement rippled through the Company; as Ori moved to walk directly behind her, Thorin caught his arm. “Speak quietly. Anyone could be listening.”

He inclined his head and Thorin released him. As he had the previous day, Thorin fell in step behind Dwalin, Balin behind him. As the next-youngest in the Company, he would have placed Kíli (and Fíli) in the center of the group if he could have, where they would be safest, but as the two with the keenest senses besides Belda’s, they were better suited to the rear-guard. He could hear them speaking quietly among themselves as they walked, but he knew that Kíli walked with his bow in hand, and Fíli kept her hand on her hilt. They were as safe as he could keep them.

For nearly a fortnight, the days passed similarly. With every day that passed, the Company grew more tense, more irritable, more heartily sick of the endless trees and constant, unseen eyes watching them. A handful of days in, Bombur and Bifur had the idea to try their hand at hunting the black squirrels that skittered at the edge of sight, and Thorin saw Belda’s struggle for the first time. 

She had grown more uneasy with the rest of them, but had abstained from any complaint or other expression of discontent, falling markedly silent whenever the conversation turned to griping. The only outward sign of irritation she showed was to rub at her eyes more often as the days dragged on. That is, until Bifur had the bright idea to throw his spear at a squirrel in the distance. Belda spun on him with a snarl that had Thorin’s hand falling to his sword before he knew what he was doing; he’d seen her fight, but he’d never once thought before then that she might pose a threat to his Company. 

She stopped just short of lifting a hand to Bifur and wrenched her eyes away from him, then screwed them shut and rolled her shoulders in a tic that Thorin realized he’d seen her perform once or twice before. When she opened her eyes again, she was only marginally more wild-eyed than usual, and spoke calmly, if scathingly, to the cousins. 

The Company had to wait while she retrieved the spear, which took several minutes. The sounds of wildlife that lurked constantly on the edge of perception grew louder as she walked away from them, and for several seconds, Thorin readied himself for an imminent attack. 

But the sounds faded again, retreating to their usual distance as Belda rejoined the Company, spear in hand. It didn’t take any great intelligence to infer that somehow, through some Hobbity magic or other means, she was repelling the creatures. As she returned the spear to Bifur, she reminded them all that Beorn had specifically warned them that nothing in the forest was good for food or drink, and that trying to hunt regardless would only be wasting their efforts. It wasn’t until Bombur grumbled something about not knowing until they tried that Thorin understood Belda had been reminding herself as much as the Company.

It was only to be expected, with how much Hobbits ate. But somehow, he’d forgotten. As she ripped Bombur’s argument to metaphorical shreds, Thorin realized that her face was thinner than when they’d entered the wood. Not drastically, but enough to sharpen her features, which also had the effect of making her expressions all the fiercer. Her lecture was cut short after a minute, rather than through any outside interference, by Belda herself cutting herself off with the same tic as before, rolling her shoulders and clenching and unclenching her hands. They continued on, and no one suggested hunting again.

But as the days went on, Thorin noticed that tic more and more often, soon eclipsing the Company’s audible complaints. A part of him was relieved that she had such control over herself, unnerved as he had been by her sudden, deadly rage. A much larger part was ashamed of himself for distrusting a member of his Company, especially one that had risked her life to save his. But the smaller would not be banished.

Just shy of a fortnight into their journey through the wood, they came across a broad stream, the broken edge of a stone bridge on the shore. Kíli tossed a twig in, which was swept away with enough strength and speed to banish any thought of swimming across, even if Beorn hadn’t warned them of the water’s enchantment. Vines tangled from the shore into the murk on one side of the bridge; Thorin eyed them dubiously, unsure of their strength.

Grimacing, he opened his mouth to order Belda to climb across if she could, but paused as he realized he didn’t know where she was. A few moments’ searching was all that was necessary to find her, though, crouched on the water’s edge beside the bridge, frowning at the murk. Thorin followed her gaze; he could just make out the other shore if he squinted, but it was thirty yards, at least. He thought what she was looking at specifically was a dim blob of some sort, but between the distance and the murk, he had no idea what it was.

“Do we have enough rope?”

He started at her voice. Processing the question, he frowned at her. “For what?”

She raised a brow. “The boat.”

“What boat?”

At that, she squinted incredulously at him. “You were looking at it, too— what do you mean, ‘what boat’? It’s right there!”

She gestured to the blob; Thorin’s frown deepened. “That’s too far.”

“Twelve yards is too far?”

“Twelve?” His brows shot up. “I thought it was closer to thirty.”

She just stared at him for a long moment, one eye twitching. “How have you never walked off a cliff?” Huffing, he waved Fíli closer. “No, I’m serious, how blind are you?”

He was a tad glad that she’d rediscovered her sense of humor, but he’d have greatly preferred not to be the butt of the joke. “Fíli, collect rope from everyone. We need fifteen yards worth, at least.”

Fíli nodded and moved off; Kíli moved closer, coming to a halt directly behind Belda, and squinted toward the boat. “I think I can see it, drawn up on the bank?”

Belda nodded and stood; in the doing, she took a half-step back, so that her back was against Kíli’s chest. Thorin had been about to turn away, but looked at them disbelievingly as he noticed. When had this started? And it clearly wasn’t a new development; one of Kíli’s arms wrapped around her waist as he watched, pulling her more fully against him as he bent his knees, and she squirmed for a scant moment, straightening slightly so that the top of her head slotted neatly under Kíli’s chin, which he rested on her hair as their free hands intertwined.

Her expression relaxed—eyes falling half-lidded—only fractionally, but more than he’d seen with anyone but Dwalin since they entered the forest. He almost couldn’t believe what he was seeing. In the Misty Mountains had been one thing—she’d been soaked to the skin and without a fire, sharing heat with one of the Company was the only option—and they’d fallen asleep together on the way to Mirkwood, but that had been a fluke, an innocent mistake!

Hadn’t it?

It seemed it hadn’t. He’d noticed the flustered distance between them fading as they journeyed over the last few days, but he would have noticed something like this, no matter how distracting the forest’s dangers were. But while there was nothing unchaste about their pose, it wasn’t quite innocent, either. That was not how platonic friends behaved.

One of the Company coughed—he couldn’t be sure who—and the two dear-Eru-let-them-not-be-lovers startled apart, Kíli pulling her further back from the water before releasing her in a clearly-instinctive move to protect her. If there’d been any doubt as to how long they’d been hiding this, the half-guilty, half-bashful expressions on their faces dispelled it. Slowly, he turned his head to see Fíli, Dwalin, Ori, Nori, Bifur, and Bofur watching him warily, while the others goggled at the scene. It was anyone’s guess who had been the one to warn the two, but obviously more than a few had been helping them keep it from him.

Kíli’s expression firmed slightly, giving Thorin just enough warning to raise a hand as he opened his mouth. The gesture forestalled his words as Thorin had hoped it would, but the words Thorin needed wouldn’t come. Sighing, he shook his head and looked to Fíli. “You have the rope?”

She relaxed a fraction, clearly understanding that he wasn’t going to press the matter yet, and held it up. “Thirty yards, altogether, and a hook from my pack.”

He nodded. “Well thought of. Kíli.” He straightened, swallowing nervously; Belda’s slight change in stance—to a position more suited to defend Kíli—was subtle, but Thorin noticed it anyway, and she met his eyes unflinchingly. After a moment, he looked away, toward Kíli again, and jerked his head toward the boat.

Catching his meaning, Kíli took the rope and moved to stand beside Belda again. 

Thorin cleared his throat pointedly. 

Stilling, Kíli glanced at him, then took a few steps toward him, away from Belda, before facing the other shore again. He squinted into the murk for a moment, then flung the hook forward.

It splashed audibly—though not loudly, thank Eru—and Belda shook her head, looking over the water. “A couple feet further and you would have dropped it onto the boat.” She glanced at the water, crouched, tilted her head, then looked up at Kíli. “I doubt the enchantment is strong enough to pass through wet rope.”

Kíli huffed, half-smiling, and shook his head as he coiled the rope again. “I hope you’re right.”

The smirk she shot up at him was playful, and communicated ‘of course I am’ as clearly as if she’d said it aloud. Thorin couldn’t see the look Kíli sent her in return, but Belda’s smirk evened out into a full smile, though it was still small. But without any prompting, they both turned back to the task at hand, and Kíli threw the hook again, this time with quite a bit more force. “You overshot the boat by a fair bit, but the rope’s crossing it; see if you can pull the hook onto it.”

As Kíli drew the rope gently back, Thorin’s eyes followed the drips down to the ground, and he frowned at the impacts they made on the dirt. There was something wrong with how they fell, not like water, though he wasn’t sure what else it could be. But still, the liquid seemed denser than it should be, more viscous.

After a minute, Belda half-stood. “Careful, it’s on the boat!”

Kíli grinned, though Thorin could see the tenseness of it. “Let’s pray it catches, then.”

After another few seconds, it did. Kíli blew out a relieved breath as Belda straightened up fully, smiling proudly at him. It only took her a second to remember Thorin’s presence and sober again, though. Holding his eyes, she inclined her head and moved away, back toward the Company. Fíli and Ori stepped forward as Kíli began fruitlessly pulling, but between the three of them, they pulled it free before Thorin could offer his help as well. The suddenness of its release sent all three of them toppling over backwards, and Thorin was only just quick enough to catch the boat as it hurtled toward them.

A thin rope was dangling from the opposite end as they’d hooked, and Thorin raised a brow at it. “So it was tethered.”

Balin hummed from where he was helping the youths to their feet. “It’s a good job our rope was the stronger.”

Thorin looked the boat over more carefully; it was smallish for an Elven vessel, but large enough for four Dwarves, or Hobbits. “Who’ll cross first?”

Thorin glanced at Belda where she was standing with her father, his arms crossed in front of her in a manner somewhat similar to how Kíli had been holding her, except with much less caressing. “You and I, and Dwalin and Nori. Fíli, Kíli, Óin, and Balin next, then Ori, Dori, Bifur, and Bofur, and Glóin and Bombur last.” Each group would have at least one capable warrior in it, to counterbalance the weaker of the Company.

And there would be no canoodling couples, either.

Bombur grumbled under his breath, but subsided when Thorin glared at him. He obviously had to be in the smallest (and therefore lightest) group, and if he couldn’t see that, he was a fool. And if he didn’t like it, he could go on rationing his food after they were out of the forest. No one was forcing him to eat so much.

Belda was eying the boat with visible trepidation. “We don’t have oars. How are you going to send it back and forth?”

Before Thorin could answer, Kíli grinned at her. “I can fix that. Fíli, where’s the rest of the rope?”

Fíli rolled her eyes at Kíli’s grandstanding at the same moment that Thorin did, but the Company handed over the rope quickly; there was only one option, and it was one that they’d all used (or seen used) at some point or another and thus, required no explanation. He threw the hook far and high, and pulled firmly on it; when it didn’t come crashing down, he smiled, clearly pleased with himself.

He turned to Belda, but she spoke before he could. “A tow line. And then we’ll leave the rope hooked into the boat so whoever’s on this side can pull the boat back.” 

Thorin blinked at her; he’d forgotten about her experience with such things, but clearly, the ‘physics’ she’d mentioned at Beorn’s lent itself to the situation. A moment later, he glanced at Kíli, half-expecting him to be disappointed at the loss of a chance to impress her, but he was smiling at her as proudly as she had at him when he first hooked the boat.

Thorin looked between them for a moment. This was more serious than he’d thought. He’d known they were friends, but it hadn’t occurred to him until that moment that their friendship would make any romantic inclinations they had all the deeper. 

At least he knew Dís had already given both children the talk. They’d been thirty and thirty-five and had come running to him for confirmation that the ridiculous things their Amad had told them had actually been true. They hadn’t been especially pleased at the time to learn that it was.

He cleared his throat at almost the same moment that Dwalin cleared his; for a moment, he held his old friend’s eyes, sharing a look of commiseration. Glancing between him and Belda, Thorin nodded to the boat, gratified when Nori came forward without prompting. Nori took the boat with a somewhat-sarcastic little bow and gripped the edge of it to hold it still as the others stepped in; Thorin took the seat at the bow, of course, and called for Kíli to toss him the tow rope. The Elven rope had been tied to a small loop set into the prow, and Thorin tied the end of their line in the same spot, to ensure it wouldn’t fall away as they pulled the boat back after he and the others debarked.

Dwalin and Belda had a quick, quiet exchange—Dwalin seemed dismayed about something—then Dwalin lifted her into the boat. The hints of anxiety Thorin saw in her face as she was airborne grew into full-blown panic as the boat rocked under her feet, and she gripped Dwalin’s arms with enough force to lift herself into the air again. Sympathetic agony in his face, Dwalin stepped into the boat himself, cradling her to his chest as he did, and murmured softly to her as he sat. Nori set the boat rocking slightly as she stepped in, and Belda clutched desperately at Dwalin as though he were all that stood between her and certain death.

Through it all, she didn’t make a sound, only grew more pale and distraught, and Thorin had to deliberately put her out of his mind as he began towing them to the other side. As soon as there was enough slack in the line, he tossed it back to Nori so she could do her part; he’d meant for Dwalin to help, as well, but by the way Belda was visibly shaking, that wasn’t about to happen. Nori looked concerned, as well, or at least more concerned than she usually was for anyone but her brothers. 

It only took a minute to reach the other side, and Thorin drew his bow as soon as he set foot on solid ground, arrow at the ready in case anything took advantage of their momentary vulnerability. Dwalin set Belda on the ground beside and nearly behind Thorin, and this time he was close enough to hear the exchange.

“All right?”

“No, I’m fine, I just…”

Dwalin half-growled, the sound nearly obscured under Nori beginning to shove the boat into the water again. “Why didn’t y—”

Nori interrupted with a drawl that didn’t quite mask the worry in her voice, “What are you two talking about?”

Dwalin began to answer, but was shushed by Belda as a pure white stag moved into view further down the path, a rare patch of sunlight giving its fur an ethereal glow. It looked toward them with quietly-inquisitive dignity. Thorin looked at it and his stomach growled. Slowly, trying not to spook it, he drew the arrow back to full draw.

Behind him, Belda murmured, “What are you…”

In an instant, he lifted the bow up to take aim at the stag; before he could loose it, the bow was shoved up and a vicious, snarled, “No!” rang through the trees.

The sound sent nearby wildlife into a minor cacophony of flight, and close as it was to Thorin, nearly stopped his heart with pure, instinctive fear. It wasn’t until his eyes fell to the enraged Hobbit holding his bow that he realized it had been her voice.

For a single, maddening, ludicrous instant, he was terrified of this tiny girl, who had saved his life and sworn herself to his service, and who was, in that moment, utterly and hauntingly inhuman.

A splash jolted him out of his stupor an instant later, and he and Belda both whirled to look toward it, toward where Dwalin was falling to his knees at the water’s edge to vainly try to reach a partially-submerged Nori. Heart thudding into motion again, Thorin raced to his friend’s side, trying to think of something—anything—they could use to reach the thief. The curren