The rain was pouring hard that night.
The town of Bree was cloaked in shadows, broken occasionally by the light of lanterns. A few people glanced at the group of four horses trotting up the road, but no one gave them much thought. The travelers payed the bording fee at the nearest stable and continued on to their destination. They walked in a tight-knit group, so as not to lose one another in the crowds. The woman leading the way looked up, wiping the rain from her eyes to see the sign of the Prancing Pony dangling above the door.
She pushed open the door, and she and her companions were greeted by a blast of warm air and the sound of loud, drunken laughter from the men inside. No one paid any anttention to them as they made their way to the front counter. "We need four hot meals and a room for the night." The woman told the man behind the counter, handing him a small leather pouch filled with coins.
The man swiftly looked over the amount, and said. "Very well."
The group placed their orders for supper, then went to sit at a table close to the fireplace.
No one spoke. They were all perfectly aware of the business that brought them here, and what would lay ahead if they agreed to this. The woman looked around at her companions. They had been with her from the start. Through some of the toughest battles, they had stayed at her side without question. Of course, that was the way of their kind. Still, she was greatful that they were still here.
Her thoughts were interrupted when the person who had called them there made his way to the table. "Mind if I join you?"
No one gave a verbal answer, but the woman nodded, and the old man joined their group. "I should introduce myself-" He started.
"I know who you are Gandalf." The woman replied. "There is no need for formalities."
"As cheerful as ever, eh Ilona?" Gandalf chuckled. Ilona smirked and replied. "Why don't we get right to the explanation of why you called us here?"
Gandalf leaned forward and began to speak. "I am gathering allies for an adventure, Ilona, and I believe that you and your companions would be a valuable asset to this company."
Ilona leaned back, crossing her arms over her chest. "You have tried to peg me into such journeys before Gandalf. What makes this one any different?" There was a moment of silence before the wizard inquired. "I assume you are familiar with the stories of the Lonely Mountain?"
"Yes...I know of it." Ilona replied.
"Prince Thorin, the grandson of King Thror, is organizing his kin to retake the mountain." Gandalf finished.
"And how does he plan to do that?" Ilona sneered. "There were over then thousand dwarves inside the mountain the day it fell, and Smaug cut them down like a knife slicing through butter. From what i've heard about this dragon, it would take some incredible feet to bring it down."
"Which is where you come in my dear." Gandalf responded.
Ilona's eyes glowed like molten gold as she glared it him, and said. "You are well aware of what happened the last time I faced a dragon, Gandalf." She pointed to where the scar on her chest laid hidden beneath her clothes.
"I am aware of that, my lady-" He started.
"Don't call me that." She snapped.
"But, you are one of the Arisen, my dear." Gandalf continued. "Age does not wear at your body. Illness does not affect your strength. And on top of that, you have three members of the pawn legion at your side. With you as part of the company, I believe that Erebor can once again return to its former glory...and, with your help, I believe the Durin line may yet survive this."
Ilona frowned. "What do you mean?"
"There is an evil seeking to destroy the line of Durin, and take the Lonely Mountain. I know that the Arisen are chosen to fight against the forces of darkness. Will you let this one thrive?"
There was a long moment of silence before Ilona turned to her companions. "Philippa?" She asked.
"I have stayed with you this long. I'm not about to leave now." The blond woman responded.
"Jayce? Danton?" Ilona continued.
The two men glanced at each other. "We are with you." said Jayce.
"To the end." Danton added.
Ilona turned back to Gandalf, her eyes shining like emeralds in the low light. "You know what annoys me most about you Gandalf?" She asked. There was a moment of silence before she said. "Your silver tongue." This made the old wizard erupt into a fit of laughter.
The Shire echoed with cricketsong, fireflies dancing through the air, and the ocassional distant glimmer of a lantern. In the distance, they could hear the laughter and song of a few hobbits who had yet to turn in. Ilona couldn't help admitting how much she loved the Shire. Surrounded by its quiet, peaceful beauty, she couldn't keep from smiling.
Finally, they found the round green door, and just as Gandalf said there would be, there was a glowing blue rune etched into the wood. They dismounted, and tied their horses to fenceposts. They walked up to the door, and Ilona knocked. Instantly, the hobbit hole fell silent. A few seconds passed before the door opened to reveal a hobbit man standing on the other side. "Bilbo Baggins?" Ilona inquired.
"Y-yes?" He stuttered.
Ilona smiled peacefully, then motioned with her hands as she asked. "May we...?"
"Oh, yes, come in." Bilbo exclaimed.
The group stepped inside the house, stooping a little beneath the low roof. The dwarves stared curiously at the new arrivals. The group shed their weapons, hanging them on hooks or tucking them away in corners where they would be out of the way. "Ah! There you are, my dear!" Ilona looked up as Gandalf came into the room. Ilona smiled and shook his hand. "Yes, you old sod, you managed to buy us into your little scheme." She teased, making Gandalf laugh. He then turned to the dwarves and said. "Gentlemen, these are the warriors I told you of. They will be joining us on this quest. Allow me to introduce the ladies Ilona and Philippa, and the knights Jayce and Danton."
The new arrivals watched as the dwarves all bowed and introduced themselves, each saying 'at your service'. Dori, Nori, Ori, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dwalin, Balin, Fili, and Kili. "Any food left Gandalf?" Ilona inquired. "It's been a long ride, and we're quite hungry."
"You are in luck." Gandalf replied. "Miraculously, some food still remains."
Ilona smiled, and everyone filed back in toward the dining room. Once they had gathered plates of their own, Ilona's companions took to wandering about the hobbit hole, curious to see more. Ilona quickly established that she could go toe to toe with any of them, and win. This was made evident when Kili tried to steal chicken from her plate. She then proceeded to twist his arm behind his back, take the meat, slap him in the face with it, and then eat it.
Kili's face turned as red as a tomato as the others laughed at him.
Swift and nimble as a cat, Ilona dissapeared from the room just as the food fight began. Poor Bilbo looked ready to have a nervous breakdown. He swiped a doily from Nori as he snapped. "Excuse me! That is a doily, not a dishcloth!"
"But it's full of holes." Bofur said.
"It's supposed to look like that." Bilbo replied. "It's crochet."
"Oh, and a wonderful game it is too, if you got the balls for it." Bofur commented, making several of his kin bark with laughter.
"Bebother and confusticate these dwarves!" Bilbo snapped, rubbing his forehead.
"My dear Bilbo, what on earth is the matter?" Gandalf inquired.
"What's the matter?" Exclaimed Bilbo, marching after the wizard. "I'm surrounded by dwarves! What are they doing here?"
"Oh, their quite a merry gathering." Gandalf said. Nori and Bofur began fighting over a long link of sausages, and Gandalf added. "Once you get used to them."
"I don't want to 'get used to them'!" Bilbo snarled, his voice rising to a shriek. "Look at the state of my kitchen! There's mud trod into the carpet, they-they've pillaged the pantry! I'm not even going to tell you what they've done in the bathroom! They've all but destroyed the plumbing! I don't understand what they're doing in my house!"
Just then, Ori came up with his plate in hand. "Excuse me," said the timid dwarf, "I'm sorry to interrupt, but what should I do with my plate?"
A dwarf with table manners. Thought Ilona. Now i've seen everything.
Bilbo opened his mouth to answer when Fili stepped up. "'ere you go, Ori, give it to me." Said the blond dwarf. He then proceeded to take the plate and throw it to his brother, who then threw it to some unseen dwarf in the kitchen. Gandalf and Ilona had to press themselves flat against the walls to avoid the flying plates and bowls.
"EXUSE ME!" Bilbo shouted. "THAT'S MY MOTHER'S WEST FARTHING CROCKERY! IT'S OVER A HUNDRED YEARS OLD!!" The dwarves only laughed and continued on with their game. All the dwarves sitting at the table started stomping their feet and scraping their silverware together to create a rhythm. The sound was like nails on glass for Bilbo.
"Can you not do that?" He shouted. "You'll blunt them!"
"Ooooh, do ya hear that lads?" exclaimed Bofur, an evil grin on his face. "He says we'll blunt the knives!" The dwarves all laughed, and Kili broke out into a song.
Blunt the knives, bend the forks!
He was quickly followed by his brother, and soon everyone joined in.
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!
Chip the glasses and crack the plates,
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!
Cut the cloth, tread on the fat!
Leave the bones on the bedroom mat!
Pour the milk on the pantry floor!
Smash the wine on every door!
Dump the crocks in a boiling bowl,
Pound 'em up with a thumping pole,
And when you're finished, if any are whole,
Send them down the hall to roll!
All the dwarves were playing instruments as they continued tossing things about. Poor Bilbo looked ready to have a heart attack, especially when Ori trotted by, carrying a stack of bowls so high, it reach up double his height. The dwarves ended their song by shouting "THAT'S WHAT BILBO BAGGINS HATES!" Bilbo rushed into the dining room to find all his plates and bowls cleaned and neatly stacked, not a crack or chip to be found. The dwarves howled with laughter at Bilbo's concerned face.
Suddenly, three loud knocks sounded on the door, plunging the smial into silence for the second time that night.
In only a moment, the mood turned from merry to serious.
In an instant, everyone was up and heading for the door.
Philippa, Jayce, and Danton must have heard, for they came to see who had arrived as well. Gandalf opened the door to reveal one final dwarf standing on the other side. His several layers of wool, leather, and fur clothing made him almost as wide as the doorway. His midnight black hair was streaked with silver and a coarse black beard covered his chin and jaw. He looked up at the wizard with two piercing blue eyes.
"Gandalf." He said, in a deep, baritone voice that was just shy of a growl.
He smirked at the wizard, then sauntered in like he had every right to be there. "I thought you said this place would be easy to find." He complained, nodding to his kin as he came in. "I lost my way, twice. Wouldn't have found it at all, had it not been for that mark on the door." As he swept off his cloak, Ilona caught sight of a wooden branch hanging from his belt.
"Mark?" Exclaimed Bilbo. "There's no mark on that door! It was painted a week ago!"
"There is a mark; I put it there myself." Gandalf countered. "Bilbo Baggins, allow me to introduce the leader of our company, Thorin Oakenshield."
That explains the branch at his belt. Thought Ilona.
"So, this is the hobbit." Said Thorin, sounding thoroughly inimpressed. He circled the hobbit, looking over the smaller man as he asked. "Tell me Master Baggins, have you done much fighting?"
"Pardon me?" Bilbo inquired. Thorin stopped and crossed his arms over his chest as he continued. "Axe or sword? What's your weapon of choice?"
"Well, I do have some skill at Conkers, if you must know," Bilbo answered, doing a very poor imitation of Thorin's confidence, "but I fail to see...why that's relevant."
"Thought as much." Thorin sighed. "He looks more like a grocer than a burglar."
Thorin's kin laughed.
Ilona chose that moment to step forward, her companions on either side of her. Thorin did a double-take when he saw them. Taking his cue, Gandalf spoke up. "Thorin, allow me to introduce the ladies Ilona and Philippa, and the knights Jayce and Danton. They are the warriors I told you about earlier, who will be joining us on our quest."
There was a long moment of silence, in which Thorin and Ilona stared each other down.
"The men would be suitable, Gandalf," Thorin said, giving a contemptuous flick of the wrist at Ilona and Philippa as he added. "They will be of no use."
"No." Ilona snapped. "You take all four of us, or none of us."
"What makes you think you can speak to me in such a way?" Thorin growled.
"What makes you think you can speak to me in such a way?" Ilona countered.
Thorin looked ready to break one of her limbs. As if sensing this, Ilona hissed. "Go on. Try me."
"I am the leader of this company!" Thorin shouted. "You will show me some respect!"
"Really?" Ilona growled. "You come in here, showing hardly any respect to the master of the house, emptying out his pantry without so much as a word of thanks. Then, you attempt to tell me what I can and cannot do, and you attempt to order my companions around, giving absolutely no regard to their commander. Tell me, at what point was this supposed to inspire respect in me?" Before Thorin could answer, she slouched down until she was almost nose to nose with him, and said. "Respect has to be earned, Thorin Oakenshield, and right now, you're doing a very poor job."
Thorin was breathing heavily, his fists clenched so hard that his knuckles were white with the strain. Everyone stood in a tense silence to see what would happen. Finally, after what seemed like ages, Thorin whispered. "You watch yourself." Then he turned and stomped away toward the dining room.
After a moment's hesitation, his kin followed.
As they began to follow as well, Jayce stepped up and whispered in Ilona's ear. "That may not have been the wisest decision." Ilona merely shrugged as she and her companions made their way into the dining room. As they all settled in around the table, Balin asked. "What news from the meeting in Ered Luin? Did they all come?"
"Aye. Envoys from all seven kingdoms." Thorin replied. The dwarves had a small round of cheers to that.
"And what do the dwarves of the Iron Hills say?" Dwalin questioned. "Is Dain with us?" At this, Thorin sighed and responded. "They will not come. They say this quest is ours, and ours alone."
"You're going on a quest?" Bilbo asked curiously.
All eyes turned to him, and Gandalf said. "Bilbo, my dear fellow, let us have a little more light." While Bilbo went to get another candle, Gandalf stood, pulled a folded piece of parchment out of his robes, and unfolded it to reveal it to be a map. "Far to the East," he said as he set it on the table, "over ranges and rivers, beyond woodlands and waistlands, lies a single, solitary peak." Bilbo, returning with a freshly lit candle, leaned in close. "The Lon-ely Mountain." He read slowly.
"Aye." Gloin stated. "Oin has read the portence, and the protence say it is time." Several of the dwarves groaned and rolled their eyes, suggesting that this had been said numerous times. Right on cue, Oin said. "Ravens have been seen flying back to the mountain, as it was foretold. 'When the birds of yore return to Erebor, the reign of the beast will end.'" This caught Bilbo's attention, and he turned around to ask. "Um...what beast?"
"Oh, that would be a reference to Smaug the Terrible." Bofur replied. "Chiefest and greatest calamity of our age. Airborn firebreather, teeth like razors, claws like meathooks, extremely fond of precious metals-"
"Yes I know what a dragon is." Bilbo responded tersely.
Then Ori lept to his feet and proclaimed. "I'm not afraid! I'm up for it! I'll give 'im a taste of dwarvish iron right up his jacksie!" He got several cheers from his kin when he said this, except for Dori, who yanked his younger brother back into his seat and growled. "Sit down!"
"This task would be difficult enough with an army behind us." Balin said. "But we number just thirteen-and not thirteen of the best, nor brightest." Several of the dwarves started arguing over this. The arguments were interrupted when Fili slapped the table and proclaimed. "We may be few in numbers, but we're fighters, all of us, to the last dwarf!"
"And you forget, we have a wizard in our company!" Kili added. "Gandalf will have killed hundreds of dragons in his time!"
"Oh, w-well, no, I wouldn't say-" the old wizard started.
"How many then?" Dori asked. "How many dragons have you killed?"
Everyone glanced at the old wizard as they waited for him to respond. Ilona had to disguise her laughter as a cough when the wizard proceeded to choke on the smoke of his pipe. Then, as if he had pulled a trigger, all the dwarves lept to their feet and started shouting in arguments. Bilbo gave a very poor attempt at quieting them, and it did no good. Finally, Thorin lept to his feet and roared. "ENOUGH!!!!" The noise stopped abruptly, and all the dwarves sat back in their seats.
"If we have read these signs, do you not think others will have read them too?" Thorin exclaimed. "Rumors have begun to spread. The dragon Smaug has not been seen for sixty years. Eyes look east to the mountain, assessing, wondering, weighing the risk. Perhaps the vast wealth of our people now lies unprotected. Do we sit back, while others claim what is rightfully ours, or do we seize this chance to take back Erebor!?" The dwarves all cheered, and Thorin thrust his fist into the air, shouting something in Khuzdul.
"You forget, the front gate is sealed!" Balin shouted above the noise, making everyone go quiet again. "There is no way into the mountain." He stated glumly.
"That, my dear Balin, is not entirely true." Gandalf said, and produced a large, ornate key from somewhere inside his robes. Everyone stared with increasing curiosity at the key, none more so than Thorin. "How came you by this?" He asked in a hushed voice.
"It was given to me by your father," the old wizard replied, "by Thrain, for safe-keeping. It is your's now." Everyone watched with wrapped attention as Gandalf handed Thorin the key. "If there is a key..." said Fili, "there must be a door." Ilona rolled her eyes at the obvious statement. Gandalf pointed to a particular spot on the map with the tip of his pipe and said. "These runes speak of a hidden passage to the lower halls."
"There's another way in." said Kili, looking extremely pleased with himself.
"Well, if we can find it," Gandalf told him, "but dwarf doors are invisible when closed. The answer lies hidden somewhere in this map, and I do not have the skill to find it, but there are others in Middle Earth who can. The task I have in mind will require a great deal of stealth, and no small amount of courage. But, if we are careful, and lucky, I believe that it can be done."
"That's why we need a burglar." Ori piped up.
"Hm, a good one too." Bilbo replied. "An expert, i'd imagine."
"And are you?" Gloin asked.
There was a moment of silence before Bilbo asked. "Am I what?" Oin, as deaf as a fencepost, misheard the hobbit and exclaimed with glee. "He said he's an expert!"
"Me?" exclaimed Bilbo. "No! No, no, no, i'm not a burglar! i've never stolen a thing in my life!"
"I'm afraid I have to agree with Master Baggins." Balin sighed. "He's hardly burglar material."
"Aye, the Wild is no place for gentlefolk who can neither fight nor fend for themselves." Dwalin added. This caused more arguments to break out, with the room devided in half on the topic of wether Bilbo could last out in the Wild. After a few moments, Gandalf rose to his feet, and the shadows expanded to fill the whole room. "ENOUGH!" He bellowed. "IF I SAY BILBO BAGGINS IS A BURGLAR, then a Burglar he is." The shadows receded once again, leaving a very startled company. "Hobbits are remarkably light on their feet." Gandalf continued. "In fact, they can pass unseen by most if they choose. And while the dragon is acustomed to the smell of dwarf, the scent of a hobbit is all but unknown to him, which gives us a distinct advantage." He sat back down as he continued. "You asked me to find the fourteenth member of this company, and I have chosen Mister Baggins. There's alot more to him than appearences suggest, and he's got a great deal more to offer than any of you know...including himself." The old wizard leaned in close to the dwarf prince as he added. "You must trust me on this."
Thorin sighed before he turned to face Ilona. "And what of you?"
"What of me?" Ilona retorted.
"We have our burglar." Thorin continued. "What use would you be of to this company?"
"All four of us are very quick and light on our feet. I dare say an enemy would have quite a bit of trouble catching us." Ilona said. "We have faced more than our fare share of battles. We are well able to defend ourselves, and others if need be. Philippa and I are skilled climbers and archers, and wicked with knives. Danton is a fine swordsman, and Jayce posesses medical and magickal knowledge, so he may assist at any time."
"He's a socerer?" exclaimed Nori.
Ilona and Jayce locked gazes, and Ilona nodded. Jayce snapped his fingers, and at once, all the candles guttered out, and the smial was plunged into darkness. There were startled shouts from many of the dwarves. Jayce snapped his fingers again, and all the candles were relit in an instant. A thick silence settled over the group, broken only when Ilona said. "My companions will follow me anywhere, without fear or question."
"And you forget, Thorin, the voice of reason that a woman may provide on this quest." Gandalf added.
There was a long moment of silence before Thorin said. "Very well." He turned to Balin and said. "Give them the contract." The old dwarf stood and pulled out a large, folded piece of parchment. "One moment." He said. He took out a quill, scribbled something down on the parchment, and said. "It's just the usual, summary of our of pocket expenses, time required, remuneration...funeral arrangements, so forth."
"Funeral arrangements?" Squeaked Bilbo.
No one answered him.
Since Danton was the closest, Balin passed the contract to him first. One by one, each of the four warriors signed it. Ilona then passed it to Thorin, who in turn thrust it at Bilbo. As he stepped back and began to read it over, Thorin stood up and leaned in close to Gandalf to whisper in his ear. "I cannot garuntee their safety."
"Of course." Gandalf replied.
"Nor will I be responsible for their fate." He added.
There was a moment's pause before Gandalf stated. "Agreed."
Everyone looked at the hobbit as he began reading the contract out loud. "'Terms, cash on delivery, up to but not exceeding one-eighteenth of total profit, if any.' Seems fair...'present company shall not be liable for injuries sustained by or as a consequence thereof, including but not limited to...lacerations...eviceration?...incineration!?"
"Oh, aye, he'll melt the flesh off your bones in the blink of an eye." Bofur replied merrily, unaware that Bilbo had become deathly pale.
"You alright laddie?" Balin asked.
"Huh?" exclaimed Bilbo. "Yeah, yeah, I just...feel a bit feint."
"Think furnace with wings." Bofur said, standing up.
"Air. I-I-I need air." exclaimed Bilbo, his face no a sickly green color.
"Flash of light, searing pain, then poof! you're nothing more than a pile of ash!" Bofur continued. There was a moment of silence as Bilbo tried to regain himself. "Nope." He said, and promptly fainted. Ilona was instantly up and out of her seat, and caught the hobbit in her arms. She took him up in her arms, and Gandalf showed her where to take him.
Once she was sure Bilbo was safe and secure, Ilona went away down the hall. When she found a quiet, secluded corner, she sat down, staring at the floor. She touched a hand to her scar. She had heard nothing from Grigori since that strange magick had brought her and her Myrmidons to Middle Earth a decade ago. Perhaps there was an interference? Perhaps the connection was stretched thin between Gransys and Middle Earth? She sighed and leaned back against the wall.
She looked up as Philippa walked over and sat beside her.
"Something troubles you, Arisen." the blond woman stated. "What is it?" Ilona sighed and ran a hand through her scarlet hair. "Pre-battle nerves, Philippa, that's all." The look her friend gave her told Ilona that she didn't believe it for a minute. Ilona sighed again, and said. "What if someone were to slay Grigori before I could reclaim my heart? With the amount of time that I have lived, I would surely perish as well."
"That's not all that troubles you." Philippa stated matter-of-factly. "These dwarves have affected you."
"One dwarf." Ilona corrected. Their shared look said it all.
"Tell me Philippa...is it possible for someone without a heart to fall in love?" the red-head asked.
There was a moment of silence before Philippa said. "I honestly cannot say. That is something you must learn for yourself."
As Myrmidons and Arisen listened in, the dwarves began humming a deep melody. It seemed to fill every crack and crevice of the hobbit hole, until everything seemed to echo with their voice. Then Thorin began to sing.
Far over, the misty mountain's cold,
To dungeons deep, and caverns old.
We must away, e're break of day,
To find our long forgotten gold.
Soon, he was joined in by Balin, and gradually, the rest of the dwarves joined in as well.
The pines were roaring, on the height.
The winds were moaning, in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread.
The trees like torches blazed with light.