Bella Baggins, as the whole Shire knows, inherited a full share of her infamous mother’s personality, her wanderlust and Tookish love of adventure. But it is impossible for even the stuffiest matron to deny that Bella Baggins also inherited her father’s reliable steadiness and impeccable business sense; and so it is that when Bella Baggins is thirty-three and finally ready to make her very first solo trip out of the Shire, she returns from Rivendell having not only spent three months among the elves, but also having forged a remarkable trade agreement in order to sell the excess produce of the spice gardens which her father so foresightedly planted in the fields around Bag End. The agreement makes her very rich indeed inside of ten years, and her proud father goes to his grave swearing up and down that his daughter is a better businessman than he; her mother, equally proud, watches Bella set out each year with the caravans and wipes away happy tears to see her daughter blossom so.
Bella does not marry, which is something of a scandal; certainly there are many young hobbit men who would be very glad to take her as a wife, and when she turns them each and all down, politely and firmly, it is rumored for a while that she has found a lover among the Men or elves in the outside lands. But Bella only laughs at that, when Lobelia brings her the rumors. “Take up with one of the Tall Folk?” she says. “Why, I’d get a horrible crick in my neck looking up at him all the time, and he’d get an awful case of back-strain, always bending down to me.” Then, smiling at her friend, she adds, “No, ‘Belia, it’s only that I’d want someone who would come adventuring with me, and be at my side always; I couldn’t do as Mother did, and leave my man at home to wait for me. And there’s not a one of my suitors who’d dare do as I do, and you know it.”
Lobelia is forced to admit the fairness of this accusation, and she spreads the word that it is not that Bella is having an affair, but only that she is unreasonably picky; and since that is meaty enough for the old matrons to pick over for many years, the rumors die down, and by the time she is forty-two, Bella’s reputation is left quite alone. She is, simply, Belladonna Took’s odd daughter, sole mistress of Bag End, elf-friend and restless roamer, who wears breeches and smokes a pipe and bears a sword at her side, and brings in caravans of elf-made goods each autumn, to the delight of all her neighbors and friends.
Thus it is that Gandalf finds her, one pleasant spring morning, sitting on her front step smoking a pipe and looking out over the fields of pepper vines and ginger plants, and the priceless plot of saffron flowers, which have made her the richest woman in Hobbiton – and made her neighbors and employees very rich as well.
“Good morning!” he says, and she looks up at him and examines him closely, from his battered boots to his old grey hat and the long staff in his hand.
“Good morning,” she says at last. “Do I know you, sir?”
“To think I have lived so long, and should not be known by Belladonna Took’s daughter!” says the old man in his grey hat, and Bella blinks and stares and laughs.
“Why, Gandalf!” she says. “Or so I guess – Lord Elrond said you were in the area, but you did not come by this past winter, and I thought you had moved on.”
“Indeed, it is on Lord Elrond’s suggestion that I am here,” Gandalf agrees, pulling a pipe from his robes and lighting it, and leaning on his long staff to puff on it. “He said that there was a certain hobbit woman in the Shire who might be interested in an adventure.”
Bella blows a smoke-ring, contemplatively. “What sort of adventure?” she asks. “For I have caravans to manage, and crops to care for; I am a busy woman, after all.”
“A very fine adventure indeed,” Gandalf assures her. “One which would take you farther than you have ever journeyed, across the Misty Mountains and far beyond.”
“Traveling is all well and good, and indeed someday I should like to go over the mountains and far away, but you have not told me what I would be doing,” Bella points out. She has not created a trading empire, even a little one, by missing dodges like that.
Gandalf stares at her for a long time from under the brim of his hat, and at last he blows his own smoke-ring – it does flips – and sighs. “Have you ever heard of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain?” he inquires.
“A dwarven kingdom, very far away,” Bella says promptly. “Overrun with a dragon, long before I was born, if my mother’s tales are to be believed.”
“They are, indeed,” Gandalf says. “But now there has arisen one of the blood of Erebor’s kings who wants his mountain back.”
Bella blinks. “Well, I’m sure I’d want it back too, if it were my mountain,” she agrees. “But that is a dwarven matter, surely; what has it to do with me?”
“He will fail without you, Bella Baggins,” Gandalf says solemnly. “I do not know what service you will do, or how your presence will aid his quest, but nevertheless I know that he will fail without you, and Erebor become forevermore a haunt of dark and loathsome things.”
Bella’s pipe drops from her lips as she gapes in shock, and she scrabbles for it, dumping the coals out on the dirt path and stomping on them, before she looks back up to meet Gandalf’s eyes. “Me,” she says incredulously. “Or – would any hobbit do?”
“You,” Gandalf confirms, “and you alone.”
“Well,” Bella says after a long pause. “If I am all that stands between this quest and failure, I suppose I will have to go along. But there are things I will need to arrange before I leave – when will this king’s scion and his party be ready to leave?”
“They will be here to meet with you tomorrow evening,” Gandalf says, and turns in a swirl of robes and stalks away, leaving Bella Baggins gaping on her doorstep.
“Tomorrow!” she cries. “But – but – oh, bebother and confusticate all wizards! That is simply not sufficient warning!”
Bella is more than a little flustered, the following evening, as she puts the finishing touches on the dinner spread out on her largest table. She does not even know how many dwarves she is expecting – certainly not more than twenty, she hopes – and she has been running about for a day and a half arranging for everything to keep running smoothly while she is gone. The Old Took was glad enough to promise that some of his rowdier grandsons would take the yearly caravan to Rivendell in the autumn, and Hamfast and Lobelia pleased to agree to look after Bag End while she is off on a madcap quest, but simply getting packed, not to mention cooking a proper dinner, has left her entirely frazzled and more than a little irked at the high-handed wizard.
The knock at her door interrupts her dithering over napkins, and she drops the whole stack at the head of the table and hurries down the hall to let her visitors in.
When she opens the door, she is astonished for two reasons. The first is that there is only one dwarf at her door, where she had expected several. The second is the dwarf’s appearance.
He is tall, for a dwarf, with a bald head covered in tattoos and a great bushy black beard, and he bristles with weaponry. Bella is quite familiar with warriors – she has spent quite a bit of time training with Lord Elrond’s guards – but this is simply excessive. Two axes, at least half a dozen knives, knuckledusters on each broad hand…Bella cannot help staring for a moment in shock and dismay. The dwarf cannot be the ‘one of king’s blood’ that Gandalf promised. He looks much too…rough…for that.
“This is the place?” the enormous dwarf says, and his voice rumbles through her bones. Bella recollects her manners.
“It is,” she says, and steps aside to let him in. “Bella Baggins, at your service.”
“Dwalin son of Fundin, at yours,” he says, and steps in. Bella speaks without thinking.
“Wipe your boots on the mat, please, and leave the axes in the umbrella-stand, if you would,” she says, and meets Dwalin’s incredulous stare evenly. After a long moment, the huge dwarf drops his eyes, and wipes his boots, and slides his axes hilt-first into the basket, and Bella closes the door behind him and leads him down the hall to the dining room, wondering faintly if she need have even bothered with napkins – Dwalin certainly doesn’t seem the type to use them.
He eyes the spread with what can only be astonishment and delight. She has gone a bit all-out on this: there is a haunch of pork and another of venison, three kinds of meat pie, eight kinds of vegetable, and a simply enormous roasted squash which nearly squashed her while she was getting it out of the oven, not to mention bread and five kinds of cheese and several pots of jam and nut butter.
“Please, sit down and help yourself,” she says. “No point letting it get cold.”
Dwalin looks the table over one more time, then looks down at his own hands. To her surprise, he pulls the knuckledusters off, tucking them away in a pouch on his belt, and picks up one of the napkins from their untidy heap, before settling himself on one of the benches and spreading the white cloth over his lap. “My thanks,” he says gruffly, and looks to be about to say more when the hallway echoes with another knock.
“Help yourself,” Bella says again, and goes to let her next guest in.
There are twelve dwarves and a wizard feasting at her table – and Bella is glad that she had cooked for twenty, because the dwarves bid fair to clean the entire spread if she judges correctly – when the final knock comes. Gandalf has clearly been waiting for this, and Bella is not going to give him the satisfaction of beating her to her own door, thank you very much; and so she trots quickly down the hall and yanks the door open before the dwarf outside can knock again. Said dwarf steps smoothly into the hall as though he has every right to be there and gives her a considering once-over.
“So this is the hobbit?” he says, not to her but to Gandalf behind her. “She looks more like a greengrocer than a burglar.”
Bella’s Tookish temper, which has already been stretched quite thin by the events of the last two days, snaps. “And you look more a vagabond than a king,” she says, and has the satisfaction of seeing him reel back in astonished insult. “My father taught me to address my hostess with courtesy,” she adds, “but I suppose dwarves don’t understand hospitality quite the same way?”
The dwarf goes quite white under his tan, and stands in silent shock for several moments. Gandalf, thankfully, keeps his own meddling mouth shut; and down the hall, the sounds of merriment have ceased. At last the dwarf shakes himself a little, and bows to her. “I apologize, Mistress Hobbit,” he says. “I was undeniably rude. And if your blade be as sharp as your tongue, you are quite the warrior indeed.”
Bella bows back – she is wearing trousers, and curtseying without skirts looks foolish. “I accept your apology, Master Dwarf,” she replies. “Bella Baggins, at your service.”
He bows again, rather more deeply. “Thorin Oakenshield, at yours.”
Then Bella rounds on Gandalf. “Burglar,” she snaps. “You mentioned nothing at all about burglary when you talked me into this mad quest.”
“Now Bella,” Gandalf says, soothingly, “I may perhaps have neglected a few small details…”
Bella scowls. “How about you just tell me all those ‘small details’ right now, while Master Oakenshield gets himself some dinner.” When neither man moves, she gestures up the hallway. “Go on, Master Oakenshield; there may not be any left if you linger. And this wizard and I have some discussing to do.”
Thorin retreats up the hallway at a good clip, and politely closes the door to the dining room behind him. Gandalf, thus abandoned, winces a little at the look in Bella’s eyes.
When Bella and Gandalf rejoin the dwarves in the dining room, the table is quite clean – indeed, the plates and cutlery have been cleared away, and Bella can see them stacked neatly beside the kitchen sink – and the dwarves have settled themselves in with mugs of good brown ale or cups of hot tea. Bella is glad to see that her guests have not been left uncomfortable while she and the wizard straightened some things out.
Thorin looks up from his mug of ale and nods politely to her. “My compliments on the meal, Mistress Baggins; I cannot think when last I had a better.” The other dwarves chime in with similar comments, and Bella graces them all with a smile.
“Thank you,” she says, and settles into her chair, which has been left empty by virtue of being too small for any of the dwarves; the white-bearded dwarf who arrived second – Balin, she thinks his name is – passes a cup of tea across to her, and she accepts it gratefully. Dwalin slides a plate of bread and cheese which he has apparently been hoarding down the table, and she takes that too, and smiles at the enormous dwarf, who ducks his head as though embarrassed to be caught being polite.
“Now,” she says, meeting Thorin’s eyes again, “Gandalf has told me what he knows of your quest, but I should like to hear it all straight from the horse’s mouth, as they say here in the Shire; tell me of your plans, if you would, and of what you would expect from me.”
Thorin lays it all out simply and clearly: they are committed to journeying to Erebor and there attempting, by whatever means necessary, to slay the dragon and win the gold and the kingdom back from its scaly grip. Should she aid them, she will be entitled to a fourteenth of the gold of reconquered Erebor; should they fail, they are all likely to die horribly.
And then he produces the map, and Gandalf, with the air of one bestowing a great favor, matches it with the key. Bella can’t really blame Thorin for the sudden fury in his face: if Gandalf had been keeping an heirloom from her dead father a secret for no good reason but his own stupid plots, she’d be pretty well furious too. But at least now they have something resembling a plan, and sneaking in through a secret door is likely to go much better than walking in the front gates.
She signs the contract without hesitating when Balin puts it in front of her, and takes her copy with a grin. All other considerations aside, she is looking forward to going on an adventure. Her regular trips to Rivendell have become almost routine by now; she will enjoy doing something new.
She wakes with the first light of dawn, hearing the dwarves banging about in the bathing rooms and the kitchen, and takes a moment to enjoy the last night in a proper bed that she’s likely to have in a while. Then she rolls out of bed and ducks into her own private bathing room, emerging minutes later with her hair braided ruthlessly back from her face, and scoops up her pack as she leaves her rooms. The pack was a gift from her mother, and has seen her through ten years and more of adventuring; she straps on the sword which hangs on the wall while she is in the Shire, snatches her cloak from its accustomed peg, slings the bow and quiver from the peg beside it over her shoulder, and heads out to see what mess the dwarves have made of her kitchen.
It’s not actually a complete disaster scene, and the hobbit-shaped one with a red beard – Bombur, she thinks – hands her a bread-roll stuffed with venison and an apple, which will suffice for a travelling breakfast, she supposes. She is used to eating lightly while adventuring: it is quite impossible to carry enough food for the customary eating habits of hobbits.
The only person out early enough to see them leave is Hamfast, and he waves to her as she marches off in the company of thirteen dwarves and a wizard, and calls good wishes after her. She waves back, grinning broadly.
She grins less broadly when Thorin informs her that he expects her to ride a pony. She is accustomed to walking, and the only equines she is familiar with are the touchy pack-mules she hires to carry her spices to Rivendell. But the pony Thorin assigns her seems placid enough, and she pats its nose and slips it the core of her breakfast apple, and names it Myrtle, which it bears with good grace.
And then they are off into the wilds.
Their first night, Dwalin draws her aside after they have made camp. “That little knife of yours,” he says, nodding at the sword at her hip. “Man-make, I’d wager. Can you use it?”
“I wouldn’t carry it otherwise,” she says. “I can shoot, too.” She shrugs. “I’ve not got a strong enough draw to kill an orc outright unless I hit it in the eyes, but I can make it very unhappy, and I can provide rabbit dinners for us all without any trouble.”
Dwalin raises a bushy eyebrow. “It’s not that I’m doubting you,” he says slowly, “but your fellow hobbits did not strike me as a warlike people.”
Bella shrugs. “See that knothole, halfway up the birch there?” she asks. The tree in question is a good hundred paces away, and the knothole is not large. She unlimbers her bow, strings it, and has an arrow in the air within moments. Dwalin watches its flight with a blank face, but both his eyebrows climb his forehead as it smacks home in the center of the knothole.
“Hobbits have good aim,” she says when he turns back to eye her speculatively.
“Well enough,” Dwalin grunts after a moment. “You can use yon little bow. And the sword?”
Forty minutes later, it is beginning to grow dark and Bella is exhausted and sweaty and smells of horse, and has a number of bruises; but she has proven to Dwalin’s clear satisfaction that she can, in fact, use the little sword she wears to protect herself, and she goes to wash up with the smug certainty that if she is bruised and sweaty from their workout, well, so is he – and he is a lot more surprised to be so.
Bella knows that several of the dwarves are expecting her to complain about the pace Thorin sets, or the plain food, or the lack of amenities. Others expect her to ask for concessions because she is smaller and weaker than they are, and, they obviously assume, unaccustomed to the wilderness and to hard travel. She takes a certain smug pleasure in not doing so. Oh, Thorin pushes his company faster than she ever takes her caravans, but then, her caravans carry precious spices, and mules do not take well to being chivvied. Since she doesn’t have to worry about the mules or their valuable burdens, or indeed anything other than her own pack and gear, she actually finds the first leg of this trip oddly relaxing. For once, someone else is in charge of making sure they get where they’re going on time. All she has to do is keep Myrtle in line with all the other ponies, and spar with Dwalin in the evenings – he seems to enjoy it, and to be honest, so does she – and help Bombur with the cooking, because it doesn’t seem quite fair that he has to do all of it. She’s pretty sure that if she told any of the dwarves that this is practically a vacation for her, they would give her affronted looks like wet cats. Sometimes, when Nori or Bofur or Kili are being particularly…dwarvish…she thinks about doing it just to laugh at their expressions.
She begins to sort out their personalities over the first few weeks, while they all huddle under their hoods and wish the wizard would do something about the rain.
Thorin is painfully honor-bound, stern and grim and full of some great destiny. He’s rather uncomfortable company, but at least he’s polite to her, now that she’s proven that she has teeth.
Fili is sweet, and he so obviously wants Thorin to smile at him and tell him he’s doing well; if he were a hobbit, she’d think he was maybe thirty and trying desperately to win the approbation of his father. She thinks he and Thorin are related somehow, though their names don’t sound at all the same, and all the other related dwarves do seem to have rhyming names.
Kili is even younger than Fili, and hasn’t got any responsibility to weigh him down, so he cracks jokes and plays pranks like a fauntling. Bella rather thinks he would benefit from having a defined position, a job to do, but it’s not really her place to tell Thorin how to run his company. Certainly Kili is the one who tries to scare her with fireside stories about orcs and wargs – as if she doesn’t already know about the dangers of the trek. Though she does learn some useful facts about Thorin and the reason he is leading this band.
Bombur is a sweetheart, shy and a little hard to draw out, but he knows as much about cooking as any hobbit, and he has techniques she’s never seen before. Bella quite enjoys spending time with him in the evenings, making the best dinners they can out of dried meat and preserved vegetables and flatbread.
Bifur is…strange. Bella supposes that it’s the fault of the axe in his head, but he clearly can’t speak Westron, and she doesn’t know the sign language he uses with his kinsmen. Still, when they do need to communicate, which isn’t often, she gets by well enough with pantomime and smiles.
Bofur thinks he’s very charming, and Bella supposes he is, but she’s gotten used to having young men try to be charming at her. The owner of Bag End and a successful spice business is quite a catch, even if she is odd Bella. Bella is suspending judgment on Bofur until she can see if there’s more to him than charm.
Oin is a healer, irascible and knowledgeable as those tend to be, and Bella offers him the run of her own stash of useful herbs, which seems to win him over. It’s hard to tell, because having a conversation with him is an exercise in frustration. Bella really wonders why no one has made him a better ear trumpet yet.
Gloin is a family man, like so many hobbit men; indeed, he reminds Bella a little of her own father, with his clear devotion to his wife and child, and his preoccupation with their family unit to the exclusion of nearly all else. Bella, who has never found the man who made her want to be a wife, finds this vaguely uncomfortable, but it is a discomfort she knows how to deal with.
Dori is a tea connoisseur and a complete fussbudget, and Bella finds him strangely soothing: he will always be trying to serve tea and preserve propriety, and therefore he is predictable in the extreme. He clearly cares for his kinsmen, and thinks they are all going to die on this mad venture.
Nori is…Nori is bad news. Bella has met men like him before. They act charming, and then they steal your silverware and possibly your reputation and you never see them again. She keeps her distance from Nori.
Ori is a sweetheart, a scribe and a scholar, and Bella likes his company. He’s more talkative than Bombur, once she’s drawn him out, and he’s willing to tell her a great deal about dwarven mores and about Erebor as it used to be. They often ride side-by-side, chatting through the rain, and she thinks he is planning on writing a book on hobbits as soon as it is dry enough to put pen to paper.
Balin is the quintessential king’s advisor; he reminds her a great deal of Lindir, Lord Elrond’s right hand – though doubtless both of them would be very insulted by the comparison. He knows everything there is to know about dwarven law, and he is deeply devoted to Thorin, calls him a true king. Bella has no particular opinion on kings; she supposes Thorin might well be one, if he is as brave and selfless as Balin claims.
And then there is Dwalin. He is still huge and intimidatingly well-armed, but he seems genuinely delighted every time she gets a touch on him, and he never fails to compliment her cooking. After that first day, he does not seem to doubt her ability to defend herself, but he does clearly want to help her improve her fighting skills, which Bella is in no way opposed to. He is gruff and not eloquent, but he seems to genuinely enjoy her company, and Bella finds herself looking forward to the time she spends getting bruised by his ungentle tutelage.
None of them seem to know that she knows anything about traveling, though, and apparently one of the ‘small details’ Gandalf didn’t mention to the dwarves about her is that she is a successful caravan-leader and has been to Rivendell many times ere now. It’s mildly amusing to watch them try to explain things to her that she knew before she even left home the first time, though, and if any of them bothered to actually observe they might notice that she knows what she’s doing, so she lets them assume she’s as sheltered as they think she is, and waits with some anticipation for their eventual arrival in Rivendell. It will be fun to see their surprise.
Of course, the trolls intervene. They cannot have been in the area long: Bella’s caravan stopped last autumn at the farmhouse which now lies burnt in its overgrown fields. Bella cannot help but shed a few tears over the cheerful farmer and his sweet-tempered wife, and hopes that they died swiftly if they did not escape. She thinks that Thorin gives her a scornful look for crying, but she doesn’t care: she can cry for a stupid loss of life, for friendly acquaintances she will never see again, if she damned well wants to.
And of course Thorin gets into a stupid argument with Gandalf over going to Rivendell – and why shouldn’t they go to Rivendell? It will be a good chance to resupply, Lord Elrond might know something about the roads ahead, and perhaps the library will have some useful information on killing dragons – and Gandalf goes off by himself like a fauntling having a sulk, so Thorin goes off and has a sulk too. Really, sometimes Bella wonders how Thorin got to be as old as he is, with the hot temper he has. Admittedly, Bella has a temper too, but she learned to control it before she was a tweener. Thorin is several times that old.
And then the ponies vanish, and Fili and Kili – and they are much more of a menace together – decide that she should go and steal them back from the trolls. Trolls. Bella is a fine shot, but she knows full well that her little hunting arrows will not kill trolls; and her little sword, though of fine make, will hardly cut their stone-hard skin. That said…she has not been leading caravans through the wilderness for more than ten years without learning a few tricks.
She does not go sneaking after the ponies. She sends Fili off to the right, and Kili off to the left, and tells them to rustle the bushes and then hide. The ruse works: two trolls go lumbering off towards Fili, and the third towards Kili, and she darts into the campsite and drops an enormous handful of nightshade leaves and berries into the stew, and goes scampering back out again. Fili and Kili rejoin her after the trolls return to their fire, giving her odd looks.
“I don’t understand,” Kili mutters in her ear. “How are some silly plants going to get our ponies back?”
“Be quiet,” Bella hisses back, and watches as each troll slurps down several enormous ladlefuls of the soup. They don’t seem to notice the nightshade, and she wonders if perhaps trolls, despite being shaped like normal people, have truly different digestive systems; but then the one on the left clutches at his stomach.
“Whut you put in that stew, Bert?” he demands, and the much-maligned Bert scowls.
“Mutton,” he grumbles. “Must’a been bad.”
“Was fresh,” says the third troll. “Kilt yesterday.”
“Sick sheep?” Bert suggests. The third troll growls.
“I din’t kill no sick sheep,” he objects, and they all begin to argue. Bella lies still, holding her breath. Their movements, already clumsy, grow clumsier; their words begin to slur.
Then the first one slumps over and collapses, just as Bofur comes up behind the watchers.
“What’s going on?” Bofur asks, out loud, and Bella hisses in fury and fear as the remaining two trolls turn towards them. One – Bert, she thinks – takes a step in their direction, totters, and slumps atop the first; the third lumbers into the woods. Bella draws her little sword.
“You are an idiot,” she hisses at Bofur. “Go get the ponies.” Bofur, white with fear or possibly insult, does as he is told, and Bella pulls the boys off to the side, waits for her moment.
The troll lumbers past them, and Bella strikes at its ankle. Her sword glances off its skin, and the troll roars its anger, turns and flails at her with an open hand; when she blocks the blow with the flat of her sword, to her surprise and dismay the blade snaps, leaving her with nothing but the hilt and a jagged remainder in her hand.
She swears aloud, and there is a whizz and a horrid meaty thump, and the troll collapses into an ungainly heap, a knife hilt standing out of its eye. She turns to see Dwalin standing behind her.
“Thanks for getting it to stand still,” he says, and she sighs.
“You’re welcome, I suppose,” she says, and goes to collect the blade of her sword. She doesn’t think it can be mended, but no point wasting good metal; she slides it into its scabbard and straps the hilt down.
Fili and Kili are collecting the ponies when she gets to the troll encampment, and she leaves them to it, poking around the troll bodies to see if anything interesting has been dropped. She finds a key, heavy and ungainly in her hand, and sticks it in a pocket to consider later.
And then, of course, as dawn breaks, Gandalf shows up. Drat the man.
It is Gandalf, of course, who finds the troll cave, and Bella hands over the key without hesitation, and backs away to a safe distance from the awful smell which emerges from the opened door. The dwarves plunge in eagerly – except poor Ori, who looks a little green, and takes refuge with Bella – and Bella can hear occasional shouts of excitement and the clinks of metal on metal.
Eventually, Thorin and Dwalin and Gandalf emerge, each holding a sword. Or rather, Thorin and Gandalf have swords, and Dwalin has a short blade which is dwarfed by his burly hands. He strides over and hands it hilt-first to Bella, who takes it with some surprise.
“Men’s work is always flawed,” he says gruffly. “Elves are a bunch of tree-shagging ugarad,* but they make good swords. Even if this one is more like a letter-opener.”
Bella examines the blade. It’s light in her hands, leaf-shaped and razor-edged, far better than her broken sword. “Thank you,” she says quietly, as Thorin and Gandalf examine their own new weapons. “I appreciate it.”
“A good warrior should have a weapon to suit her hand,” Dwalin says, and whatever else he might say is interrupted by a crashing in the trees.
Radagast is…really quite crazy, Bella decides, listening to him ramble on. But he is a wizard, and so she is willing to lay money that he is, in fact, crazy like a fox. There has to be more going on behind that mangy beard and those wild eyes. It’s actually quite difficult to try so hard to be underestimated. Hobbits are very good at it, as it happens.
She is distracted from her examination of the wizard by the unpleasant sound of wargs finding their trail. Dwalin says something that Bella is pretty sure is a swear-word in the secret tongue of the dwarves and grabs her wrist and Ori’s, pulling them into a stumbling run. Bella jerks her wrist free and settles into a longer stride, sword loose in her grip, eyes scanning the ground in front of her for tripping hazards. She does not allow herself to be distracted by the fact that the sword is glowing blue; somewhere in the back of her head she remembers that elven swords react to the presence of orcs, but she cannot think about that right now. Dwalin and Ori fall in behind her; she can hear Ori’s panting breaths and Dwalin’s even breathing, and thinks to herself that if they survive this, Ori should really join her evening practices with Dwalin. Much as she will hate to add someone else to that strangely companionable time, Ori needs to improve his general condition and stamina. She likes the lad, and he needs to be in far better shape to continue surviving this mad quest.
They burst out onto the plain, thirteen dwarves, one hobbit, and a wizard, with another wizard in his absolutely insane rabbit-pulled sled riding around in great distracting loops. Thorin leads them to a great outcropping, something they can put their backs against, and Bella thrusts the sword through her belt and draws her bow. She can’t kill an orc unless she gets a lucky hit in on an eye or throat, but she can make them very unhappy, and something tells her that a distracted orc within axe range of Dwalin is an orc who will shortly be missing his head.
Kili has a bow too, more powerful than hers – well, he’s quite a lot larger than she is, with the sort of muscles that all the dwarves seem to have and most hobbits really don’t – and when the orcs arrive, he takes the first one down with a really nice throat-shot. Bella hits the warg twice, foreleg and muzzle, and then it’s within range of the melee fighters and Bofur hits it very hard with a mattock, and it is down for good.
Gandalf calls to them from off to one side, and Bella grabs Ori and Bombur – they’re closest – and hauls them along with her towards whatever Gandalf has found. It’s a tunnel, as it turns out, and then a path, and above them as the other dwarves come hurtling down the steep slope she hears Sindarin war-cries and the sudden harsh yelping of the orcs and their wargs.
The sword thrust through her belt stops glowing, fading slowly until it is only a sword again, and she sighs relief. “I think they’re all gone,” she says aloud, and Dwalin glances down at her and grunts.
“Yeah, the orcs are gone,” he says. “The tree-shaggers are still out there.”
Bella shakes her head. “That is a very silly insult,” she says, and Dwalin raises a bushy eyebrow at her. “You’d get splinters in awful places,” she adds, and watches in some amusement as every dwarf winces suddenly.
Gandalf calls to them from along the narrow path, and Bella gives the dwarves a bright grin and follows him. She is pretty sure she knows where they’re going, and given how the dwarves have been reacting to the mere thought of elves – and how the elves of Rivendell have always spoken of dwarves – she thinks it might be a good idea to get there first in line. Perhaps she can head off some of the inevitable conflicts.
The elven warriors are showing off, riding in swirling circles around the weary dwarves, and while Bella is mildly pleased that Thorin thought enough of her to pull her into the dubious safety of the inner circle, she’s also more than a bit annoyed at the elves. As one particular pair sweep by, she steps forward between Dwalin and Balin and snaps, “Elladan! Elrohir! Where are your manners?”
The elven warriors rein their horses in, and the two nearest sweep off their helmets and swing down, handing their reins to their companions, and bow deeply to Bella. “Mistress Baggins!” says the left-hand elf. “We did not expect the pleasure of your company for two seasons!”
“Yes, well, I decided to drop by early,” Bella says tartly. “Are you going to welcome my friends properly, or do I need to tell Lindir you’ve forgotten your etiquette lessons again?”
The right-hand elf winces. “Please, be merciful, Mistress Baggins,” he says, and turns to bow gracefully to Thorin, who has come up behind Bella and is looking on in baffled irritation. “Master Dwarf, be welcome in Rivendell, you and all your company,” he continues. “I am Elrohir, son of Elrond Peredhel, and in his name I offer you hearth and hospitality, bed and board and the warmth of our fires.”
“I thank you,” Thorin says, and bows back. Bella relaxes a little. At least Thorin can remember his manners, and she knows that Elladan and Elrohir are more mischievous than truly cruel. Perhaps this will all go well enough.
…And here comes Lord Elrond down the stairs, with Lindir behind him. Bella steps forward so she is clearly visible, and is rewarded by the sight of Elrond hesitating slightly, and Lindir’s blank expression twitching a little.
“Lord Elrond,” she says as he reaches the foot of the stairs. “May I introduce to you my current employer, Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror, and his company.”
Thorin bows. Elrond bows. Bella can feel the stares of all the assembled dwarves and elves on her back, and refuses to turn around and give them the satisfaction of knowing she’s made uncomfortable by it. Instead, she concentrates on the careful courtesies being traded between the two royals, and hopes desperately that Gandalf is not planning to meddle any more than he already has. Really, you’d think that a group of grown men, the youngest of whom is more than a hundred years Bella’s senior, would be able to navigate a perfectly ordinary bit of courtesy without being practically kicked into it.
Elrond draws her gently aside as the dwarves are led to their temporary quarters. She sees Dwalin glance back to make sure she’s alright, and waves him on with a smile. Elrond has never been anything but a friend to her.
“Dwarves, Bella?” he inquires as they walk together to his study. Bella sighs.
“Gandalf informed me they would fail utterly without me. I could not deliberately doom someone, you know that.”
“Indeed,” Elrond says, and his dark brows draw together as he sits down and pours tea for them – the ubiquitous Lindir has, of course, made quite sure that there was a tea set waiting. “Yet are you sure they should not fail? It is a dangerous course they are set upon.”
Bella gives him a long look over her teacup. At last she sighs. “M’lord, I know you and the dwarven folk do not get on; that’s clear enough in every history. But tell me – if a drake were to come and lair here in Rivendell, driving you and your folk out to wander, would you not give anything to reclaim your home?”
Elrond winces. “I…I cannot deny that I would fight until my last breath, though I know that the dragon would likely triumph in the end.”
“Then do the dwarves the courtesy, at least, of assuming they love their home as you do yours, though theirs is a mountain and yours a vale. You will not be able to talk them out of this, m’lord, and if you try, I shall lose a great deal of respect for you.”
Elrond blinks. “Yet it is a dangerous course, and if they wake the dragon, the havoc he will wreak will be terrible indeed.”
“He won’t sleep forever any road,” Bella retorts. “Better to know it’s coming, and have some time to prepare. M’lord, all this doom and gloom isn’t going to do anything but confirm every dark suspicion those dwarves have about elves. Why not do something useful?”
“Such as?” Elrond raises an elegant eyebrow.
“You have the finest library I have ever seen. Surely among so many books there is some record of the best way to kill a dragon.”
Elrond stares at her, then shakes his head and gets a faraway look on his face. “That…that is a very good idea indeed, Bella.” He stands. “I will bring you to your companions now, and you may assure them that I have done you no harm; and then I will go and speak with our librarians. Perhaps by the time you rise tomorrow, I will have fair news for you.”
“Thank you, m’lord,” Bella says, and means it.
“Bella!” Ori greets her joyfully as she enters the large suite which has been set aside for the company. “Are you alright? Where were you? Why didn’t you say you knew the elf-lord? How do you know the elf-lord?”
Bella laughs and reaches up to pat Ori on the shoulder. “Peace, lad!” she says. “Come and let me sit down, and figure out where my poor pack is, and I will answer all of your questions.”
“Good,” says Thorin grimly. “For I would fain hear the answers too. You never mentioned an acquaintance with the elves.”
Bella sighs and sits down on an unoccupied armchair. “You never asked,” she points out. “For that matter, you haven’t ever asked what my skills actually are, beside Dwalin making sure I could use my weapons.”
Thorin blinks at her. “Then tell me now,” he says finally. “What are your skills?”
“I’m a spice merchant,” Bella says, and watches all the dwarves gape. “I travel to Rivendell from the Shire once a year, to trade pepper and ginger and saffron and so on for gold and elf-made goods. I know Lord Elrond because I have been his guest two months each year for ten years and more.” She shrugs. “And because I know him, and because he trusts my judgment, he is even now ransacking his library for any information it might have on killing dragons. He will also, I suspect, be resupplying us and perhaps even providing maps of the roads to come, or letters of introduction to anyone he knows across the Misty Mountains.”
She cannot help looking a little smug, especially because not one of the dwarves looks like he expected any of this.
“A spice merchant,” Thorin says after a few long moments. “An elf-friend. An archer, and a skilled swordswoman, and a quick thinker in battle.” Bella preens a moment. “And a fine cook,” Thorin adds almost as an afterthought. “I had not thought Gandalf had found us such a treasure.”
Bella raises an eyebrow. “Well, I don’t blame you for not trusting Gandalf, slippery old wizard that he is, with his ‘small details’ and his liking to see us all confounded, but really, you might have asked. Especially after I made it clear that I am not a burglar.”
Thorin meets her eyes squarely, and he bows so deeply that his hair brushes the floor. “So I might have,” he says when he rises again. “And that I did not is my shame and dishonor. As I did not before, let me now welcome you, whole-heartedly and with gratitude, to my company. My axe to guard you; my roof to shield you.”
Bella does not know the correct reply, but hobbits have a similar welcoming formula. “My table laid for you, my hearth warm for you,” she says. “It is my honor to be among you.”
And that, for the moment, is that.
She is really just as grateful that she reminded Elladan and Elrohir of their manners, though, because dinner is quite the trial. At least Lord Elrond provides meat alongside the vegetables, and none of the dwarves become too disgracefully drunk. Small blessings, Bella thinks, and watches Thorin and Lord Elrond sitting beside each other with equal discomfort, and sighs over the absolute idiocy of men.
Thorin asks for her specifically to accompany him when Lord Elrond offers to examine the map for moon-runes. She thinks perhaps it is to provide a buffer, someone that both men can trust a little bit, and indeed Thorin quite deliberately keeps her between himself and Lord Elrond for the entire conversation. Bella decides to be amused by this instead of being annoyed; annoyance wouldn’t get her anything, but at least if she’s being amused she can giggle at them both in the privacy of her own head.
At least Lord Elrond does confirm that there is a secret door, and gives them a time limit: Durin’s Day, whenever that is. Late autumn, it appears, about the time when Bella would normally be leading a caravan back from Rivendell to the welcome of her own smial. Well, so she’ll be spending the winter away from the Shire. It will be an adventure!
And then, to her astonishment, as they are parting, Lord Elrond says quietly, “I visited Erebor once, many years ago. It was a place of immense beauty and dignity, and the craftsmanship I saw then I have rarely seen matched in the years since. I hope that your quest succeeds, Thorin son of Thrain; it would give me great pleasure to someday visit Erebor again.”
Then he is gone, leaving Thorin gaping down the corridor after him. Bella tsks and takes his sleeve, towing him along towards the company’s quarters. “Yes, yes, elves have hearts,” she says briskly, and hears Balin choke on a laugh behind her. “It is late, and I, at least, could use some sleep. Come along; if you start wandering the corridors, you’ll get horribly lost and end up falling in a fishpond.”
Balin loses the fight against his laughter, and Bella successfully manages to steer Thorin into the company’s suite and shove him into a surprised Dwalin. “Here, you put the future king of Erebor to bed,” she says. “And if anyone disturbs me before luncheon tomorrow, I will personally dunk that one into a vat of honey and leave him for the bees.”
The ringing silence behind her as she closes the door into her borrowed bedroom is really quite entertaining.
She is not woken before luncheon. In point of fact, she is woken by luncheon: there is a very tentative knock on her door, and when she opens it, ready to glare at whoever dared disturb her first night in a proper bed in far too long, Ori holds out a tray in slightly shaky hands and says, “Luncheon! Please don’t leave me for the bees!”
Bella laughs. “You’re forgiven,” she says, and takes the tray. “I’ll be out once I’ve eaten and put myself together. Good lad; thank you.” She closes the door on his relieved expression, puts the tray down on her bedside table, and allows herself a small fit of the giggles. Really, you wouldn’t think one small hobbit lass would be able to intimidate thirteen huge burly dwarves. It’s immensely amusing – well, to her at least. She’s reasonably sure none of the dwarves in question would find it amusing at all.
When she emerges, clean and dressed and with the tray full of empty dishes, the company is all gathered around Ori, who is leaning over a book on the table with an expression of fierce concentration. Bella leaves the tray on the sideboard and joins the group. Dwalin steps aside to let her have a better look, and she cranes over Ori’s shoulder to see that the book in question is written in Sindarin, which Ori is laboriously translating into Westron. Across the table, Balin is writing down Ori’s halting words in neat copperplate script on a much-scraped scroll.
“…each wyrm,” Ori says slowly, tracing the line of writing with his finger, “has…one, but with the connotation of only one…one weak spot. No two wyrms bear the same…the same, um, injury? Disfigurement?”
“Target?” Bella suggests, and Balin nods. Ori gives her a grateful smile.
“Right, target. Wyrms are…invulnerable, I think…to any harm except where the target is. Um. There’s a note in another hand? It says, ‘Or the…eyes or mouth…or’…um. I don’t know that word.”
Bella leans over to look where he is pointing, and laughs. “Genitals,” she suggests. “Most things are tender there.”
Ori goes bright, horrified red, but Balin nods again.
“Genitals it is, lass. Go on, lad.” Bella pats Ori on the shoulder as he bends again to his translation.
“Um. A black arrow…or that word could be iron, I’m not sure…can penetrate the target. Or the wyrm may be…poisoned? I think that’s poisoned…by…um, I’m sorry, I’m bad at plant words.”
Bella laughs a little. “Well, if the poisons were stones, I know you’d get it right,” she consoles him, and leans in again. “Oh! Well, I know these. Hemlock, and belladonna.”
Balin writes that down carefully. “And would you know those plants, lass?”
“I would,” she replies. “Any hobbit would. We have to know what not to eat, or half of us would die as fauntlings. We can gather them here and see if Lord Elrond will let us distill them, and bring the essences along.”
“Ask him, them, Mistress Baggins,” Thorin says. “For any chance we may have is one we did not have before.” He pauses, and his face tightens a little, as though he’s just bitten a lemon. “And bring him my thanks, if you would, for the loan of this book,” he continues. “Already we know far more than we did this morning. His courtesy is greatly appreciated.” He looks as if the words give him a sour taste in his mouth, but he says them, and Bella gives him a bright smile.
“I will tell him so,” she promises. “I’ll go and find him now, and ask permission to use his gardens and his alchemical equipment. Don’t go picking any flowers without me, now.”
“Assuredly not,” Thorin says, still looking like he’s bitten something sour, and Bella takes herself off to find their host, not letting her grin show until she is well away from the guest quarters. Slowly but surely, her dwarves are learning courtesy. Why, by the time this mad quest is done, they might even be able to meet new people without completely alienating them. Well, maybe. Bella isn’t holding her breath.
Dwalin accompanies her when she goes to find Lord Elrond; she gives him a curious look, and he shrugs. “Thorin doesn’t want any of us wandering off alone,” he says. “You may know your way around, but you’re still one of the company.”
“Well, thank you,” Bella says, mildly pleased by being counted truly among their number. “Though it’s quite true that I know my way around Rivendell well enough that I would hardly get lost.”
“Think of it as showing me around,” Dwalin suggests. “Mahal knows this place is a maze. You’d think they’d at least keep the trees outdoors.”
Bella laughs. “But then how would they shag them?” she asks, and has the immense pleasure of seeing Dwalin go bright red and then bellow with laughter. He actually has to stop and lean against the wall, he’s laughing so hard. Finally he manages to get himself under control again, and falls into place beside her, shaking his head.
“We should just have you try your tongue on the orcs; it’s sharper than that elf-blade by far,” he says, and Bella does not think she is imagining the note of admiration in his voice.
They leave three days later, with little bricks of refined hemlock and belladonna essence in their packs, in the middle of a meeting of the White Council. Gandalf and Lord Elrond both think that Saruman and Lady Galadriel might try to stop the company from finishing their quest, so it is unfortunately necessary for the company to sneak away like thieves in the night – or, well, in the midafternoon, but Bella isn’t terribly happy about it anyhow. Really, you’d think that the White Council would be glad to get rid of a dragon, and to have warning about a possible crisis, too. Well, Tall Folk; what can you expect from people with their heads that far off the ground.
They get up into the mountains without incident, but it takes them rather longer than it ought – shorter legs cover less ground, after all, and what is an easy afternoon’s walk to Elladan and Elrohir is more like six hours’ hard climb to thirteen dwarves and a cranky hobbit. So it is quite nearly dark when the thunder battle begins, and Bella, staring up into the sky, watches the mountains come to life and decides that, while she’s quite fond of adventures, she’d be a lot fonder of this one if it were a little further off.
That, of course, is when the mountain beneath them begins to move, and Bella says some words which, had her mother been alive and present, would have gotten her mouth washed out with soap, and then Bella follows the dwarves on their mad leaps from ledge to ledge, trying desperately to get away from the fight or play or whatever the stone giants are doing.
Bella misses her grip on the last leap, and has just barely enough time to think, Well, shit, when a huge hand grabs her by the scruff of her cloak and hauls her onto the path. Dwalin gives her a brief nod of acknowledgement and turns to catch Ori as he comes hurtling onto the ledge, and Bella presses herself against the mountain and wonders if it is acceptable to just never go above ground again, once she’s gotten back under it.
The cave they find, by some miracle or other, is a glorious refuge in the horrid night, and Bella tucks herself into the back of it, rolled up in her cloak and shivering, and thanks Yavanna for stone and earth and being underground again. The dwarves look just as miserable as she is, and when Ori comes back to huddle up against her and Dori plops down on his other side and Bella suddenly finds herself at the center of a pile of miserable, damp, height-sick dwarves, she doesn’t quite have it in her to complain. This has been an awful night; if sharing heat and company can make the rest of it a little better, well, count her in. She slings an arm across Ori’s shoulders and tucks her head against Dwalin’s beard and finds herself drifting off despite the discomfort of being cold and wet and surrounded by armored dwarves.
She wakes because there’s a strange blue light, nothing like sunlight, and for long moments she simply can’t figure out what it might be, and then she glances down at the little sword in its new scabbard at her waist and sees the blue shining from it, and tries to scramble to her feet in a panic. “Orcs,” she says, and again, louder, “Orcs!” and the dwarves wake up around her, scrabbling for weapons and discarded packs, and then the floor gives way.
Falling through nothingness, screaming until she thinks her lungs will give way, is not how Bella wants to die. The fact that she does not die is made somewhat less joyful by the fact that she is not-dead because she landed on an orc, and there are other orcs gleefully rounding up the battered dwarves, and some of them have whips and others have manacles and really she is just not able to deal with this right now. Which means it’s almost a relief when she tries to stand up, and the orc she landed on grabs her ankle, and she overbalances off the platform again with the orc still clinging to her leg. She thinks she hears Dwalin cry out as she falls, but her own screams drown out most other sounds, so that might have been wishful thinking.
She and the orc scrabble with each other as they fall, each trying desperately to disarm the other, and Bella is on top when they hit the bottom. The orc’s head makes a truly sickening sound as it hits the stone, and Bella rolls away from the impact zone, feeling bruised and battered over every inch of her body, and tries desperately not to retch. She has seen death before – she has killed orcs before – but a clean death at a sword’s edge is a different matter than this messy horror. As she gathers herself to her hands and knees, preparing to try and stand – and she’s not sure she can, but she will be damned if she stays beside this corpse any longer than she has to – her hand encounters a small ring of cold metal, and without really thinking about it, she stuffs the whatever-it-is into a pocket and forgets about it in favor of drawing her sword.
And then she collapses back against the tunnel wall, sitting with her back to the stone, and watches the blue ebb from the sword-blade. As the light goes, she begins to hear a scrabbling sound down the tunnel to her left, and she braces herself against the tunnel wall and takes a deep breath. Whatever it is, it isn’t an orc, or the sword would be glowing; but just because it isn’t an orc doesn’t mean it’s friendly. It might not even be a person. A warg wouldn’t light the sword, or some other dark thing which haunts the roots of mountains. Whatever approaches, though, it will find her more of a handful than it expects. Bella Baggins of Bag End refuses to be easy prey.
Whatever it is finds the orc first, and makes a horrible gobbling cry of joy at its discovery. “Fresh meat, gollum, gollum,” it says into the blackness, and Bella begins to be able to make out two eyes, glowing slightly in the all-encompassing gloom. “Still warm, precious,” the creature gloats. “Still juicy, gollum, gollum.”
And then it raises its head and sees her.
Afterwards she does not remember the fight, and she is glad of it. Between the fall and the horrid death of the orc, she is not entirely in her right mind, and all she remembers is fear and anger warring for control, and the creature springing for her, and her sword-hand rising before she really knows what she is doing. But when she comes to herself again, somewhat to her own surprise the creature is not dead, but pinned unconscious beneath her, with a lump rising on its hairless head where the hilt of her sword has bludgeoned it.
After a moment’s thought, she reaches around to root in the top of her pack and produces a length of rope. You never know when you might need rope, after all, and so she always takes care to have some while traveling. She ties the creature up, tightly and securely, and then sits back against the wall and waits for it to wake up.
When it does, she is ready for it. “You have two choices,” she informs the creature as it writhes and gobbles at her feet. “You can lead me out of here, and I will give you the loaves of bread I have in my pack if you do. Or you can try to kill me again, and then I will slit your throat. Don’t even think about betraying me to the goblins. I can kill you a lot faster than you can summon them.”
The creature glares up at her, eyes glowing uncannily, but Bella meets it stare for stare. “So, bread or death?” she asks, and the creature, face twisting hideously in fury, says,
“Bread, precious. We chooses bread.”
The horrid creature leads her up through the tunnels, and Bella keeps her sword in one hand and the end of the rope in the other, and tries not to worry as the sword begins to glow again, steadily brighter as they venture ever upward. The creature hisses and gobbles and glares back at her with its awful glowing eyes, but it is also muttering to itself what sound like directions, counting the tunnels and flinching away from the sound of goblin merriment when it comes echoing through the stone.
At last it pauses before a certain tunnel mouth, and refuses to go any further. “The back door, precious,” it mutters angrily. “Goblins everywhere; even shiny sword won’t help, gollum, gollum.”
Bella sighs and unslings her pack and takes the two loaves of bread that she’s been carrying out of it, and unties the creature, keeping her sword against its throat until she’s done. Untying knots with one hand isn’t the easiest trick, but she’s not letting this flesh-eating monster get the drop on her. “Take the bread and go,” she murmurs. “I keep my promises.”
The creature glares at her, but it scoops up the loaves of bread and tears a bite out of one. For just a moment, a strange expression passes over its face: sorrow, then a strange bitter joy. “My birthday present,” it says, as if to itself, and scurries off back down the corridor. Bella watches until it is out of sight, and then turns back to the tunnel which might lead her out of the mountain.
She sneaks up the tunnel until it turns – hobbits are good at sneaking – and hunkers down to peer around the corner. There are five goblins in the room at the end of the corridor, and past them, a door standing ajar, and sunlight, and the faint impression of trees. Well, that is the way out, then, but she is not going to be capable of killing or even incapacitating five goblins.
As she stands there dithering, her hand slips into her pocket, and the ring she picked up hours ago slides onto her finger. She doesn’t really notice, fiddling with it a little and watching the goblins and trying to figure out odds.
Then three of the goblins turn their heads, alerted by something she can’t see, and go off together out of her line of sight; and the other two are seated at a table, playing some sort of game with knucklebones or dice. Sneaking by two goblins is much easier than sneaking by five, she thinks, and sheathes the sword – better not to be glowing for this venture – and, silent as only a hobbit can be, ghosts out from her hiding place and down the tunnel towards the door to freedom.
She is almost there – in fact, she has a foot in the doorway – when one of the goblins looks up from the table and looks right at her. She freezes, like a rabbit before a wolf, and waits for the hue and cry to rise…and the goblin looks away again, back to its knucklebones, as though she were not there at all.
Bella slips out the door and is running down the hill before her luck can change again.
“We cannot leave the hobbit behind,” Dwalin is insisting as she reaches the little circle of dwarves and wizard. “She is part of the company!”
“We cannot go back in there – we barely got out this time!” Balin argues. “I like her too, but she can hardly have survived that fall! She is dead, brother! It would be foolish to go and die with her!”
Bella steps into the clearing, right into easy view of Ori and Fili, who are huddled together looking miserable, and though both look straight at her, neither moves or speaks; there are no cries of “Bella!” or even “a ghost!”
She looks down at the ring on her finger, the only thing which has changed since she went under the mountains, and frowns a little. Then she sticks her hand into a pocket and slides the ring off.
“Bella!” shouts Ori, and barrels across the clearing to seize her and whirl her around. “Bella, you’re alive!”
“Of course I’m alive,” Bella says, and hugs Ori warmly. “Hobbits are very hard to kill.”
“I should say,” Balin agrees, coming over to clap her on the shoulder. “That looked a nasty fall, and I am glad to see you took no hurt of it.”
“It wasn’t fun,” she says, “but at least the orc took the brunt of the landing. And speaking of orcs and goblins, shall we get a little further from them? Though I do appreciate your waiting for me, and you will have to tell me how you all got out, and when precisely Gandalf arrived.”
Thorin nods approvingly, and leads off down the slope; Bella finds herself between Ori and Bombur, both of whom seem determined to keep her within arm’s length.
They have not gone far when the unmistakable howl of a warg rings out behind them.
“Oh really now!” Bella says exasperatedly. “Escaping goblins to be chased by wargs! How immensely inconvenient!” She seizes Ori’s sleeve and pulls him into a trot. “Come along then, Ori; we’d best find someplace defensible.”
Ori, panting as they pick up speed, gasps, “Doesn’t anything scare you, Bella?”
She glances back at him and grins mirthlessly. “Oh, I’m terrified,” she assures him. “But later is soon enough to deal with that – if we survive.”
“Sensible lass,” Dwalin grunts, dropping back to run beside them. “Listen to her – she knows what she’s about.”
Bella can feel her cheeks pinking at the unexpected compliment, but she can easily blame that on the exertion of the run. Still, it is nice to know that the big gruff warrior respects her judgment.
“Into the trees!” Thorin calls from the front of the company. “Climb – we cannot outrun them!”
Bella spots a nearby sturdy-looking pine and sprints towards it, leaping for the lowest branch and scrambling higher with a frantic lack of grace. When she is high enough that the branches can only barely hold her weight, she stops and finds a mostly comfortable perch and looks down.
Dwalin, Ori, and Fili are in the branches of her chosen tree. Dori, Nori, and Bombur have claimed another. Craning her neck, Bella spots Bofur and Bifur near the top of a third; Oin, Gloin, and Balin in a fourth; and Kili, Thorin, and Gandalf in yet another. She heaves a sigh of relief to see them all safely off the ground, and then bites her lip as the wargs come spilling into the little clearing that their trees ring.
Bella does not know the language of wargs, but they are clearly communicating as they bark and snarl at each other. Five or six come to guard each of the occupied trees, and the rest – nearly twenty – gather in the clearing and settle back on their haunches to wait for something. That cannot be good.
Then Bella has an idea. She scrambles down the tree to Dwalin’s perch. “Hold me steady while I get my pack,” she murmurs to him, and Dwalin, with a slightly dubious look, locks his legs firmly around his branch and grabs her gently and securely by the hips.
“Thanks,” she says absently, and shrugs out of her pack to rummage about. “Aha! Got it!” she adds after a moment, and puts her prize on the branch between them while she shrugs her pack back on. Dwalin blinks at her in confusion.
“Pepper,” she explains, picking the packet back up. “Wargs hunt by scent, right? And a nose-full of pepper is awful for us two-legged folk. Imagine what it will be like for them!”
Slowly Dwalin grins. “Clever,” he says. “Better use it fast, though, before the goblins get here or the wizard comes up with some insane plan of his own.”
Bella grins back at him. “Don’t let me fall,” she says, and leans out, trusting in Dwalin’s strong hands to keep her safe. There – she has a clear shot at the lead warg, a huge white beast with long yellow fangs. She flings her pepper-packet with vicious accuracy.
It hits the ground in front of the head warg and explodes with very satisfying vigor, spraying black powder all over everything. The wargs, who have all leaned in to see what she threw, very like the dogs they resemble, let out a collective howl of agony, clawing at their noses and sneezing. Then the head warg barks something between its sneezes, and the whole enormous pack goes barreling off downslope, howling and sneezing as they go.
“To the cliff, hurry!” cries Gandalf, and the company half-falls from their trees and follows him at a dead run to the bare land beside the cliff’s edge. There they cluster, baffled, hearing the howling of the wargs joined by distant orcish war-cries – and then the first eagle swoops down and plucks Gandalf up as though he weighs nothing at all.
That is all the warning Bella and the dwarves get before more eagles come soaring down to snatch them into the sky. Bella clings to Ori as their – captor? savior? – bears them off, and buries her screams against his cardiganed shoulder. It isn’t right for a hobbit to be this far off the ground!
“Peace,” the eagle calls down to them in clear if oddly-accented Westron. “The wizard summoned us to bear you all to safety; even if you do look a bit like a rabbit, I won’t eat you.”
Bella shares an incredulous look with Ori, then shrugs. “Thank you!” she yells up towards the eagle’s head, and thinks she hears it laugh in reply.
The eagles carry them all through the afternoon, finally swooping down as the sun nears the horizon to deposit their shivering burdens on a huge stone outcropping beside a river. Bella’s legs won’t hold her up, cramping horridly with cold and inactivity, but she yells her thanks to the circling birds from her undignified collapse on the sun-warmed stone.
The dwarves congregate around her while Ori helps her stretch out her poor sore legs. Dwalin claps her on the shoulder and grins down at her. “Your clever plan worked a treat.”
Thorin, beside him, nods. “I would never have thought of such a ploy,” he says, “but I thank you for doing so. We could never have bested so many in battle.”
Bella grins up at him. “You’re quite welcome, though I must point out that I saved my own skin, too, so don’t get too dramatic about it. I’m just as glad the eagles showed up when they did, though I could have used a little warning!”
Gandalf gives her an inscrutable look. “There was hardly time to explain.”
“There was plenty of time to say something like, oh, ‘There will be eagles here to rescue us in a minute,’” Bella snaps. “Or was this another ‘small detail’ that we didn’t need to know?”
“You are not old enough to question me,” Gandalf says sternly.
Bella hauls herself to her feet, bracing herself on Ori’s shoulder. “I am old enough to know when I’m being fed a pack of lies and half-truths, Gandalf Greyhame. You may be a wizard, and you may well know more than I could ever hope to learn though I lived to be older than the Old Took, but you do not know everything, and telling your companions important things like how they’re going to be rescued is a surprisingly good idea now and again!”
She and Gandalf match glares for several minutes, while the dwarves mutter among themselves. Finally Gandalf looks away.
“I have an…acquaintance near here,” he says, as though the last few minutes have not happened. “He might be willing to put us up for a few nights, and help us refill our packs.”
Bella sags against Ori and shakes her head a little. Thorin glances between her and Gandalf, and clearly thinks better of trying to interfere.
“Let us get down off of this rock, then,” Thorin says, “and go and see this acquaintance of yours. You will tell us if he is an eagle, I trust?”
“Of course he is not an eagle, my dear Thorin,” Gandalf says chidingly. He waits until they are nearly down from the outcropping to add, “He is a shapeshifter.”
Bella spends the rest of the trek to Beorn’s house steadfastly ignoring the wizard. Infuriating man! Bella is perfectly able to deal with Thorin’s absurd honor and Nori’s ridiculous flirting and Bofur’s attempts at charm, but the sort of insufferable arrogance that Gandalf has been displaying for this entire trip is enough to make her want to kick him very hard in the shins. Which is probably not a very good idea, so instead of marching to the front of the company and leaving Gandalf with some bruises to remember her by, she gets Ori to tell her how the dwarves got out of the goblin kingdom. Dwalin, walking on her other side, occasionally interjects a comment.
“So there we were, all tied up, and most of us had lost our weapons,” Ori begins. Bella raises an eyebrow at him.
“Only most of you?”
“Well, Nori’s got more knives than I can count, and of course Mister Dwalin has his knuckledusters and all,” Ori explains.
Dwalin grunts agreement. “They didn’t search us, just grabbed the obvious stuff and piled it off to one side,” he says. “I still had most of my knives, and I suspect Thorin and Balin had a few, too. Always good to have a holdout.”
“In any case, there were too many goblins for us to fight, and the big ugly one was gloating at us, but I thought maybe we’d be able to talk our way out – certainly Thorin was doing his best,” Ori continues his story. “But then they found Thorin’s sword, and apparently they remember it from back when the elves used to come hunting them. So they got very upset and were going to start torturing Kili.”
“What the lad won’t say is that he stood up and claimed he was the youngest, so they’d take him instead,” Dwalin rumbles.
“That was very brave and very foolish of you, Ori,” Bella says, and hugs the lad around the shoulders. “Well done, and don’t do it again.”
“I hope I never have the opportunity,” Ori sighs. “It was…not a moment I care to repeat. Anyway, before they could do anything, there was this huge flash of light, like all the lightning you’ve ever seen all at once, and then Gandalf was there. He cut off the big goblin’s head with his sword, and then we all grabbed our packs and our weapons and he led us off into the tunnels.”
“Nasty mess of a place,” Dwalin puts in. “Too narrow, floors not smoothed, ceilings all heights, no thought for the lintels. A half-grown dwarf with no training could do better.”
“Of course you noticed the stonework while running for your life,” Bella sighs. “Dwarves.”
Ori shrugs. “Well, it was hard not to notice, when we kept tripping over the uneven bits in the floor. Anyhow, the wizard knew where the back door was, though we had a bad time of it with every goblin in the mountains trying to hunt us down; somehow we gave them the slip, and Gandalf led us out. And then we stopped to wait for you.”
“A very diplomatic way of putting it,” Bella praises him. “You’ll go far with a clever turn of phrase like that.”
“We would have gone back,” Dwalin says gruffly. “My brother’s job is being cautious and pointing out problems. You’re one of us; we would have gone back for you.”
“Well, thank you,” Bella says. “But as you can see, I did just fine, and I’m glad you didn’t go charging back in and get yourself killed, like as not.”
Dwalin shakes his head at her. “Your tongue never does get dull, does it, sword-tongued Bella?”
“Well, I’ve all these stone-headed dwarves to whet it on,” Bella retorts, grinning widely. “And elves, and wizards, and I suppose soon we shall learn if my tongue can cut even a shapeshifter’s pride.”
“I have absolutely no doubt that you will prevail,” Dwalin assures her, and Bella’s laugh rings out over the fields, bright and glorious as summer dawn.
She is less cheerful when Gandalf informs the company that this mysterious skin-changer will react better to their arrival if Gandalf and Bella go in alone, leaving the dwarves behind to follow at intervals. None of the dwarves look particularly amused by this either, but Bella supposes that Gandalf knows his acquaintance best, and shrugs, and follows him through the lush fields towards the long low house where their best hope of a decent meal awaits.
It is at least a pleasant walk, and Bella admires the huge bees and the great nodding flowers and the healthy, cheerful sheep and dogs in their pastures, and wonders at the size of the house: all that for one man? Though perhaps he has servants, and certainly it is better for anyone living in the wilderness to have as defensible a property as possible.
Beorn is intimidatingly large, larger than any of the Men Bella has ever met, taller than any of the elves of Rivendell, and he seems near as broad as a mountain as he looms over them with raised eyebrows and deep skepticism in his voice.
“I do not know you, wizard, nor your small companion,” he says, when Gandalf greets him.
“Indeed you do not,” Gandalf agrees, “but I think you know my brother Radagast, who has spoken very highly of your hospitality.”
Beorn rumbles, “I do know Radagast,” but that is simply the last straw as far as Bella is concerned.
“If you will pardon me a moment,” she says to the enormous skin-changer, who gives her an indulgent smile, “I must have a brief word with the wizard.”
Then she turns to Gandalf and kicks him, as hard as she can, in both shins. Gandalf staggers backwards with a cry of surprise and pain, and Bella stalks after him, shaking with fury.
“What have I said about your petty little ‘small details,’ Gandalf? Which bit of the fact that you don’t even know the person you said would shelter us was too unimportant for you to mention? What else are you concealing from us, you infuriatingly slippery ass? Do you know something ominous about the king of the Greenwood which you have somehow neglected to tell us? Are the goblins of the mountains going to sweep down on us at some inopportune moment? Is the dragon awake and aware we are coming? Or perhaps you merely amuse yourself by watching us petty little mortals try desperately not to die because you have concealed some minor detail from us? Is this whole mad quest a game to you, wizard? Are we only chess-pieces, o master player?” She feints another kick at his shins, and has the immense satisfaction of seeing him flinch.
Then an enormous hand plucks her up and away from the wizard, and deposits her in the middle of a cluster of dwarves. Beorn, looming over her, grins down.
“Well, little wildcat, I would not care to anger you by denying you hearth-space,” he says merrily. “Be welcome in my home, you and your dwarven companions.”
Bella blinks up at him in shock for a moment, then gathers her manners and manages quite a creditable bow. “My thanks, Master Beorn. May I present Master Thorin Oakenshield and his company, of which I am a proud member?”
“Be welcome, Master Oakenshield and company,” Beorn says, and offers an enormous hand to Thorin, who shakes it with some trepidation. “Come in, and tell me of your travels! For surely they must have been very interesting indeed, to brings such fire from yon little wildcat who protects you.”
Bella is not sure she likes being called ‘little wildcat,’ but she’s also not sure how to make the skin-changer stop calling her that, so she shrugs and goes into the hall with the company, and settles herself on a bench between Dwalin and Ori, glad to be sitting down at a table at last, and gladder that Gandalf is some ways up the table on her left, where she doesn’t have to look at them.
The sheep and dogs which act as servants to the skin-changer come as a remarkable surprise, and Bella cannot help but volubly admire their size, their glossy coats, and their clear intelligence. Her praise seems to please both the animals and Beorn, who clearly dotes on his strange servants, and the food is delicious.
After dinner, Beorn demands that she tell the tale of their adventures, and Bella, blushing, does so as best she can. The dwarves chime in with corrections and elaborations, and all seem to delight in emphasizing Bella’s own contributions – there is much chortling over the pepper-packet’s successful employment – but the tale is told over very good mead, and Beorn is a good audience, laughing and clapping and seemingly delighted by every detail.
And Gandalf, smoking his pipe in a corner, is suspiciously silent through the whole tale.
Beorn tells them what he knows of the Greenwood – now the Mirkwood, apparently, and isn’t that a charming name – and Bella, surveying their packs and listening to Beorn’s estimates of transit time, requests time in his kitchens and access to flour, and honey, and assorted other things. Dwalin and Ori and Bombur – and, to Bella’s surprise, Fili – come with her to help, or at least to get in the way, and Bella sets herself to baking.
Elves make lembas bread, which is supposed to keep a strong man going for a day per piece. Hobbits, who are a little different in outlook, make honey waybread, which fills a hobbit belly when there is nothing else to eat. Bella spends all day in the kitchen, making enough waybread to last fourteen hobbits for nearly a month (the wizard can fend for his own damned self), and is vastly amused by the expression on Dwalin’s face when he tastes a piece.
“It’s sweet,” he says incredulously.
“It’s filling,” Bella retorts, “and you’ll thank me for it if we get lost in Mirkwood. Keeps you on your feet.”
“I’m sure I will,” Dwalin assures her. “I’ll thank you now for thinking of it, in fact.”
Beorn lends them ponies for their trip to the edge of Mirkwood, though he makes it quite clear that he expects the ponies to be returned as soon as the company reaches the forest. Thorin is inclined to sulk at this, until Bella points out that ponies need to be fed, and if Mirkwood is as vile as it sounds, there will hardly be fodder available. Thorin concedes with good grace, all things considered.
Before they leave, she takes from the depths of her pack a large knob of ginger root and presents it to Beorn, with her thanks for his generous hospitality. He booms with laughter and ruffles her hair.
“It was my pleasure, little wildcat!” he chortles. “Be welcome anytime, you and your goblin-slaying friends! And good luck – mind you stay on the path, and be wary of the black river. Shoot at no animals; pick no fruits. It is an unwholesome place you venture towards.”
“We will be very careful,” Bella promises, and they are off.
Bella does her best to enjoy the sight of Beorn’s gardens, the broad green fields they ride through and the far-off trees, the buzzing of Beorn’s enormous bees. She is reasonably sure that she will not see anything half so pleasant once they reach Mirkwood, and she wants to store up good memories for that time.
Ori, riding beside her, seems lost in thought. At last he says, “Bella, why did you have ginger in your pack?”
“For cooking, and trading,” Bella says. “You all keep forgetting that my business is in spices. I may have used up all my pepper and ginger, but I am not quite out of surprises yet!”
Bella looks up at the black bulk of Mirkwood and says, “Well, this is going to be ever so much fun, isn’t it!”
Ori, beside her, gulps. “I suppose there’s no way around…”
Balin sighs. “Sadly, no. Swamp.”
“Ick,” is Bella’s considered opinion. She glances at the pony she has just dismounted. “Be glad you’re not going in, my friend.” She slings its reins over its neck and pats it on the shoulder. “Off you go home, now, and eat something tasty for me.”
The dwarves pull on their packs and send their own ponies back along the trail, and Thorin turns to look up at Gandalf, who is still seated on his tall white horse. “Well?” Thorin demands. “There’s no fodder for a horse in that cursed forest either.”
“So there is not,” Gandalf agrees, “so it is just as well that I am not going into Mirkwood. I have certain errands which I must run. If all goes well, I shall meet you at the Lonely Mountain. Stay on the path, and fare you well!”
Dwalin picks Bella up and holds her off the ground as Gandalf turns his horse and rides away. Bella writhes in Dwalin’s grip, yelling imprecations after the departing wizard. “You ass! You swine! Come back here so I can kick you black-and-blue, you secretive, slippery eel of a wizard! Was this a ‘small detail’ too, you son of a mule?”
Dwalin says brightly, “Well, Thorin, shall I point our little wildcat at Mirkwood and see if it has the good sense to get out of her way?”
Bella wriggles around to face him and pokes him in the nose with a stiff finger. “Now see here – I may have had to put up with that sort of nonsense from Beorn, but by Yavanna’s earth-stained fingernails I do not have to take it from y- oh!”
Dwalin interrupts her rant with a kiss. It is quick and light, but it silences Bella completely, and she stares at Dwalin in astonished delight as he pulls away and gently sets her back on her feet. After a long moment she glances around to see that all the other dwarves are quite ostentatiously not looking at her or Dwalin.
Dwalin gives her a tentative smile, and Bella stands up on her tiptoes, pulls him down by his beard, and kisses those curving lips. “Well,” she says softly, “you can do that anytime you please.”
“Good,” Dwalin replies, just as quietly, and they smile at each other for a moment before he puts his shoulders back and proclaims, “On to Mirkwood!”
“Khazad ai-menu!” cries Kili, and on that surprisingly cheerful note, the company strides into the dark beneath the trees.
Mirkwood is, frankly, murky. Bella is fond of forests, usually – she travels through them on her yearly trips to Rivendell without a qualm – but this one seems to exude unfriendly miasmas, and the horrid chittering squirrels and oversized moths – all black, because this forest certainly has a theme – are simply unpleasant company. The dwarves are, if possible, even less happy than Bella is, and once the light from the entrance has faded, leaving them in a sort of pallid gloom, they all fall silent and walk close together, eying the dark spaces between the trees with deep distrust.
They make a cold camp that night – no one wants to venture far enough off the path to gather firewood – and Bella tucks herself under Dwalin’s arm for warmth and comfort, with Ori huddled against her other side.
“This is nothing like Rivendell,” Ori mutters, and Bella chuckles a little.
“No, it isn’t. If I didn’t know this was an elven forest, I’d assume it was run by orcs. Lord Elrond would never let his lands fall into such disarray.”
“The Elvenking cares little for aught but his own comfort,” Thorin says grimly. “We had a treaty with him once, we of Erebor, for mutual defense and aid; but when the dragon came, he turned his back on us. Many died as we fled, who might have lived with elvish aid. But he went back to his hidden halls and let my people starve.”
“Suddenly I understand why you don’t like elves,” Bella says softly. “What a horrid, petty thing to do! I wish we’d known, we of the Shire: it would have been our honor and privilege to give your people aid.” She thinks a moment, then adds, “Once you’ve got your mountain back, you’ll need supplies; if there’s no place nearer to buy them, I can arrange for very good terms with the Old Took.”
“I thank you,” Thorin says gravely. “I will remember, and I appreciate your offer – but first there is a dragon to deal with.”
“A small detail,” says Dwalin, straight-faced, and then oofs as Bella elbows him in the side. Still, the jest seems to lighten the atmosphere a little, enough for Bella to doze off with her head on Dwalin’s shoulder and Ori snoring in her ear.
The next few days aren’t pleasant, but they are thankfully uneventful. Slowly, Bella and the dwarves grow used to, if not comfortable with, the endless gloom and the huge insects. They make decent time, too, fortified by hobbit honey-bread. There is no sign of the black river which Beorn warned them about, and no elves emerge from the forest to berate them for trespassing. The huge insects are annoying, but not actually harmful, and even quite pretty once the viewer gets over the initial shock. Bella is actually beginning to hope that they will get through this dreadful forest without incident. Really, she should have known better.
Bella wakes when something touches her foot, and blinks in the pre-dawn gloom, briefly confused at being woken so early. Then she glances down at her feet and lets out a scream of pure primal terror. The giant spider which has been binding her legs starts back in alarm, and all around her the dwarves come awake with shouts of anger and fear.
Bella draws her little sword and cuts herself free, then rolls to her feet and swings at the nearest spider, which leaps backwards. Dwalin goes past her at a run, bellowing a dwarven battle-cry, and Ori comes up beside her with a makeshift club in his hands, and the whole camp dissolves into screaming confusion. Bella hacks the legs off of one spider and stabs another, and swears viciously as more emerge from the trees.
Then, suddenly, arrows begin to rain down around her, skewering the spiders to the filthy ground. Bella blinks at the scene in astonishment, then turns to see a whole troop of elves fade out of the forest, bows at the ready.
“What brings dwarves uninvited to the Greenwood?” asks the lead elf, a tall blond fellow with an inscrutable look on his face. Bella sees Thorin start to puff up with indignation, realizes that anything he says will be the wrong thing, and steps forward, drawing all eyes.
“They are my bodyguards,” she declares. The elves stare at her; she does not dare turn to see what expressions the dwarves are wearing. “I am a spice merchant from the Shire, seeking new markets. My current customers include Lord Elrond of Rivendell, and so I thought to come and see if the elves of the Greenwood would be pleased with my wares likewise,” she continues. “As my people are not warlike, I hired these dwarves as my escort and protection.”
Dwalin, bless him, steps up beside her and crosses his arms over his broad chest, doing his (very good) best to look loyal and intimidating. The blond elf eyes them, then shrugs.
“Very well, mistress spice merchant; would it please you to come and meet our king? He will be glad to hear your tale, and perhaps will be pleased to purchase something from you.”
“It would please me immensely to meet the Elvenking,” Bella says, lying through her teeth. “Lead the way, master elf; we will follow.”
“I am Legolas Thranduilion,” the elf says as his troop closes in around the dwarves and they all set off into the forest. “Might I know your name, mistress spice merchant?”
“Bella Baggins of Bag End,” Bella replies. “I have with me a letter of recommendation from Lord Elrond, and another from the Old Took of Tuckborough; I would be happy to present them to your king, should my credentials be in question.”
“From Lord Elrond!” says Legolas. “Well, the king will be very interested to see that, I assure you. You did say Lord Elrond was one of your customers.”
“He buys pepper and saffron from me,” Bella confirms. “And other things, now and again. Ginger, or cinnamon, or nutmeg. I have quite a varied set of crops, you see.”
Legolas is now giving her quite a speculative look. “So I see, indeed; we shall be very interested to hear what you might be able to bring across the mountains, Mistress Baggins.” He waves a hand at the dark trees surrounding them. “As you can see, this is not precisely the correct climate for growing such things ourselves.”
“Indeed,” Bella agrees. “It is…slightly inhospitable. Not quite the right sort of place for a cinnamon grove.”
Thranduil looks down at them from his throne and sneers a little. “Your bodyguards, you say,” he says to Bella. “And you are a spice merchant.” His tone says, clear as day, that he thinks she is lying.
Well, she is, but Bella has never taken well to insult. She swings her pack down off her back and roots through it for the packet of saffron she brought along on a whim. “Finest Shire crop,” she says, spreading the packet out on her palms and letting the Elvenking see the fine stamens, delicate and nearly priceless.
Thranduil leans forward and loses the sneer. “How much?” he demands, clearly having nearly forgotten the dwarves. Bella thinks fast.
“Three times the weight in gold, plus shipping and handling charges – and those won’t be cheap, as much trouble as I’ve had getting here.”
“Twice the weight in gold, plus shipping,” Thranduil retorts.
“You will bankrupt me!” Bella cries. This dance is familiar, she has done it before: she is a merchant, after all, and a good one. “Twice the weight in gold, plus shipping, plus you guarantee the trade roads through your forest.”
Thranduil scowls. “You insult my forest?”
“I mean no insult,” Bella says, “but I and my bodyguard were nearly devoured by spiders. If I am to ask any of my kinsfolk to venture so far from home, we will need some guarantee of safety. Or we could keep hiring dwarven bodyguards – but that will push the price of my wares up a great deal. Four times the saffron’s weight in gold at least.”
Thranduil looks properly affronted now. “You need bring no more dwarven guards into my kingdom,” he snaps. “Twice the weight in gold, and I will guarantee the safety of your caravans. My own son will guard and guide you.”
“And shipping and handling,” Bella says. “Though I’ll knock off a bit in thanks for your guards killing the spiders.”
“Done!” cries Thranduil.
“Did you just convince the Elvenking to pay us quite a lot of money and give us an escort to Laketown? And also to start actually looking after his forest and keeping travelers safe?” Ori says quietly as they settle down for the night in the rooms which have been loaned to them.
“I did indeed,” says Bella, and grins at the expression of utter disgruntlement on Thorin’s face – and even more at the pride and admiration on Dwalin’s.
Bella actively enjoys the trip down the river to Laketown. It is quick and effortless – for her, if not for the barge-elves – she does not get water-sick the way Gloin does, which means she does not have to drink one of Oin’s nasty concoctions, and there are no orcs or wargs or giant spiders to be seen. Also, she gets to spend some time chatting with Legolas, who is eager to hear stories about the lands outside Mirkwood. He listens raptly to her descriptions of the Shire and Rivendell, oohs over the battle with the trolls, and shivers gratifyingly at the tale of the stone giants battling among the mountain peaks.
Most of the dwarves do their best to ignore the elves entirely, but Ori’s curiosity gets the better of him, and he spends several hours grilling Legolas on the history and habits of elven folk, taking diligent notes the whole time. Bella notices with some amusement that Fili spends the whole time hovering a few feet behind Ori’s back, looking like he wants to snatch the smaller dwarf away from the possible contamination of the elf’s presence. Legolas, however, is fascinated by anything Ori is willing to tell him about dwarves, and Bella observes proudly as the two hereditary enemies begin, to the clear dismay of all the elves and dwarves around them, to make friends.
They reach Laketown at the end of the second day on the river, as the setting sun turns the clouds to gold. Bella takes the beautiful sunset as a good omen, and is further cheered when Legolas sends the barge-elves back up the river as soon as the dwarves have disembarked. The fewer of Thranduil’s people around, the better chance that Bella’s slight untruths will go unnoticed.
Legolas introduces the company to a man named Bard, called the Bowman, who greets them courteously and leads them through Laketown to the steps of the main hall, where the Master of the city is awaiting them. And there Thorin’s love of drama rather gets the better of him. When the Master asks who his distinguished visitors might be, Thorin draws himself up to his full height, puffs out his chest, and proclaims stentoriously, “I am Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror, King under the Mountain! I have returned at last to claim my kingdom and my throne!”
The gathered Men break into excited cheers and song. Legolas looks down at Bella and raises an eyebrow. “Spice merchant, eh?” he says.
Bella shrugs. “I am a spice merchant, and that’s a completely legitimate contract your father has. If I live through this, I’ll honor it, and if not, my heirs will see to it. I simply…neglected to mention the names of my companions. Or our other errands.”
“You called them bodyguards, if I recall,” Legolas says, but he is grinning. “A wealthy spice merchant indeed, with a king to guard her!”
“And three princes, counting your goodself,” Bella replies merrily. Legolas bursts into delighted laughter.
“Oh, do please include me!” he implores her. “For this will be a tale worth the telling, that is plain to see, and I will count it a signal honor to play a part – however small – in the magnificent tale of Bella Baggins!”
Bella laughs, and then the crowd sweeps them both into the banquet hall. Bella is given a place of honor near Thorin, and listens in vast amusement as the crownless king recounts their adventures thus far. When he has finished his recitation – and Bella must admit he tells it well, and has the voice for public speaking – the Master of Laketown leans forward.
“Clearly you are all great heroes, and I know I speak for all my people when I say that we are looking forward to your long and glorious reign, o Thorin Thrain’s son Thror’s son,” he says. “But I must ask: how precisely do you intend to get rid of the dragon?”
An anxious hush falls over the whole crowd. Thorin gives them all his most majestic scowl. “I am not now prepared to say,” he rumbles. “A secret known by many is no secret at all.”
“But we will need two sheep,” says Bella, and grins at the incredulous looks which are turned her way. “Can’t kill a dragon without sheep.”
There is a short and baffled pause, and then Thorin declares, “Even as my trusted advisor says, we will need two sheep.” The next minute half the townsfolk are clamoring to be heard, each claiming to have the best sheep around, sheep fit for a king.
The next day, it is Bella who goes out to the farms to choose their sheep, with Dwalin as her looming escort. She selects two sheep, old ewes well past bearing, and a whole string of ponies, and pays fair market prices for them, amused despite herself at using Thranduil’s money for such a purpose. The townsfolk mutter among themselves that the King and his people are very fair and just, and do not take advantage of anyone. Bella is mildly amused at being called one of Thorin’s people. One of his company, yes; a dwarf – perish the thought!
They stay in Laketown for four days, acquiring supplies and making plans, and then they take their leave. Legolas remains in Laketown – the dwarves would hardly let an elf come along on a quest like this. Bella asks him to be sure, if she should not return, to send word to the Shire, to Lobelia and the Old Took, and to Elrond in Rivendell. Legolas promises solemnly.
The mountain is a week’s travel from Laketown, and Bella watches it loom ever higher on the horizon, and observes with dismay the ruined lands they ride across. The dragon’s fire has destroyed fields and orchards, leaving only ash and stumps behind, and the soot-stained towers of fallen Dale are both a convenient navigational aid and a horrid reminder of ancient tragedy. And there are bones, here and there, white against the dark ash, of dwarves and humans both. The dwarves of the company collect them when they find them, and each night they dig a grave and bury the poor sad remains, and Thorin recites something in the dwarven tongue which Bella thinks must be a prayer. She prays herself, for Yavanna’s mercy on the fallen, her grace upon the barren fields. Someday, perhaps, this land will once again be green, the relatives of those who died will again dwell upon these rolling hills.
They are still a day’s travel from the mountain when the raven appears. It swoops down to land on the back of one of the sheep – a remarkably stupid animal, which does not so much as startle – and looks Thorin and the company over with sharp black eyes.
“Hail, raven of Erebor,” says Thorin solemnly, and bows from his saddle. “I am Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror, come to reclaim my mountain and my throne.”
“Hail, Thorin Thrain’s son,” croaks the raven, and Bella starts a little. She supposes that given everything else she’s seen so far, a talking raven shouldn’t faze her, but it’s disconcerting nonetheless. “I am Roac son of Carc,” the raven continues, “and I and my kin remember well our long alliance with the dwarves of Erebor.”
“And I and mine remember well the great loyalty and wisdom of the ravens,” Thorin replies. “Will you give us your aid again, Roac son of Carc?”
“I will,” Roac confirms, “I and those of my kin remaining. In token of which aid I must inform you that the dragon yet lives, and sleeps within the mountain’s halls.”
“So we had assumed,” Thorin assures him. “But if you could direct us towards the grey stone where the thrush knocks, we would be much obliged.”
“I know the place,” Roac confirms. “Follow me, and I will lead you there.”
They reach the doorstep, as they take to calling it, three days before Durin’s Day, and then there is little enough to do but sit and wait. Thorin and Roac spend hours in consultation. Ori and Fili huddle together and talk in low voices, about what Bella does not know, though she has her suspicions. Kili and Nori and Bombur, an odd trio, discuss the various meals they have had on the trip, with much maligning of elven cuisine. Most of the other dwarves speculate about the treasure they hope to win, its magnitude and what they will spend it on – Gloin on his family, Dori on a tea-shop, Bofur on drinking in every alehouse in the land.
And Bella and Dwalin retreat together to a secluded corner. They have not really had any time in private to discuss their relationship, and Bella wants to know, before she goes down into a dragon-infested mountain, what precisely is waiting for her if she comes back out alive.
“I will marry you, if you’ll have me,” Dwalin says when she asks. “You are exactly what I have always wanted, and I will gladly spend the rest of my life proving that to you, in any way you please.”
Bella kisses him for that, and then leers a little. “I can think of a few things that would please me,” she murmurs, “but most of them require a bed – or at least more privacy than we have here.”
“You are a very dangerous woman, Bella Baggins,” Dwalin replies, just as quietly. “I suddenly regret not demanding that we spend another day in Laketown. There were quite nice beds there.”
Bella chokes on a laugh. “Oh, can you imagine Thorin’s face? He might have exploded with sheer indignation. No, better that we have something to look forward to. At least this way you know I won’t be eaten by a dragon: I am hardly going to let a little thing like a fire-breathing lizard get in the way of finally getting you alone.”
“See that you don’t,” Dwalin says, and draws her gently down into his lap. She tucks herself comfortably against him, smoothing his beard out of the way. “I have only just found you; do not grieve me before my time.”
“Don’t you fret,” Bella says. “I’ve got a secret weapon. Or, well, a secret anyway.” She grins. “You never did get around to asking me how I got out of the goblin kingdom.”
“I thought you snuck, light-foot that you are.”
“Oh, I did,” Bella says, and her grin widens. “But sneaking is a great deal easier when you have a ring of invisibility, wouldn’t you say?”
“You clever, reckless woman,” Dwalin said admiringly. “Just…don’t do anything stupid in there, ring of invisibility or no. It’s not a ring of immunity to fire, after all.”
“No stupid tricks,” Bella agrees. “Get in, poison the dragon – or convince him to poison himself – and get out again. I am not quite fool enough to think that I can fight a dragon on my own.”
“Oh, I don’t know, little wildcat,” Dwalin grins. “You might do better than you think.”
“I thought I told you not to call me that,” Bella grumbles, and stops whatever retort Dwalin is thinking of with a long, sweet kiss.
They all gather on the doorstep as the sun of Durin’s Day sets, and stare fixedly at the unmarked stone which ought, with any luck, to become a door. The sun sets, and the moon rises, and Bella is beginning to feel slightly ill with anticipation, and then, quite suddenly, a little thrush comes winging up with a snail in its beak, and begins to beat the little thing against a rock to crack the shell.
And it is not the shell that cracks, but the rock, and where it flakes there is a keyhole, and Thorin has the key in his hand. Bella cannot help holding her breath as he inserts it, turns it, pushes against the stone – and with a ponderous creak which sounds as loud as thunder, the secret door into the mountain slides open, and the cold air gusts out, smelling of dust and dragon and decay.
Bella takes a deep breath. “Alright,” she says. “Have the sheep at the entrance to the mountain by dawn. Ori, Bombur, you remember what I told you about the herbs. Don’t anyone do anything foolish like stay out where he can see you, for goodness’ sake, and – oh dear. Wish me luck, my friends.”
Thorin takes her by the shoulders and rests his forehead against hers. “Good luck, bravest of hobbits, best of companions,” he says quietly, and Bella reaches up and hugs him, then turns and kisses Dwalin, pats Ori on the shoulder, and before her nerves can get the better of her, strides down into the deserted halls of Erebor.
Bella slips the ring on as soon as she is far enough away from the entrance that none of the dwarves can see her vanish. Dwalin may know about her secret, but she rather likes keeping it from the rest of them. It feels…mischievous and a little wicked, and Bella has always liked having the upper hand in negotiations. A secret like this is definitely a good holdout.
The halls are broad and cold and empty, and Bella feels very small indeed as she creeps along, always downward. She does not like the feeling; she is Bella Baggins of Bag End, elf-friend and dwarf-friend and beloved of Dwalin Fundinul, and she may be small in stature but she refuses to let this great hulk of cold stone intimidate her. She has always reacted to fear or uncertainty with anger, and today is no different: she walks downward, silent as a shadow, simmering lightly with rage. No dragon is going to outwit her today.
As she ventures further downward, hand trailing along the wall, Bella realizes that the darkness is slowly being alleviated by a faint but brightening glow. She slows her steps and concentrates on being silent as a cloud across the sun; and finally, when she thinks she may go quite mad from the tension, she rounds a corner and there it is: the hoard.
It is enormous. Bella does not have the words to describe it. It gleams and glitters and glistens, tons of gold and gems heaped atop each other so high she cannot even see where the heap ends: it stretches into the dim arched heights of the great hall, an avalanche of wealth waiting to happen.
And Bella cannot see the dragon. She glances around, and spots a set of stairs off to her left, which lead to a narrow balcony halfway up the wall which seems to girdle the room. A better vantage point, and well out of the way of the treacherous footing created by what must be millions of golden trinkets. She scampers up the stairs, gripping the railing tightly – like all hobbits, she is not fond of heights – and starts a circuit of the room.
She is almost halfway around, and her eyes are growing weary from the endless gleam of gold, when she finally spots the dragon. He is half-buried in his hoard, his scales shining like rubies, and he is larger than Bella ever dreamed he could be. She is suddenly unsure whether two sheep, even stuffed with entire bricks of nightshade essence, will suffice to even dismay the massive beast. But it is the only plan they have, and the dwarves are depending on her to set it in motion.
So Bella takes a deep breath, slips behind the nearest pillar, and shouts, “O Smaug the glorious!”
The yell echoes through the treasure hall, and the great dragon’s eyes snap open. “Who dares disturb my slumber?”
Bella swallows hard. “O mighty Smaug!” she cries. “O Smaug the magnificent, the overwhelming, the astounding!”
The dragon is peering around to find her, but between the ring and the pillar acting as a sound-baffle, he cannot seem to do so. “Pretty words,” he rumbles, “from a thief.”
Bella grins. “O Smaug the terrible, I have not come to steal from you, but to bring you a gift, a token of my awe and wonder at your immense glory!”
The dragon preens a little. “A gift?” he says. “And what do you desire in return, flatterer?”
“Only to marvel at your strength and beauty, o Smaug the splendid!” Bella replies. And the great dragon is beautiful, in a terrible way, glorious and deadly and shining with gems. Bella dodges across to another pillar as the dragon’s head swings towards her hiding place.
“And who is it who brings me gifts and speaks so fair?” Smaug inquires.
“I am the bear’s wildcat, o Smaug the perspicacious!” Bella replies. She knows better than to give her name to a dragon. “I am the lucky number; I am the deadly flower. I am guarded by royalty, and my sting guards them in turn. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me.”
“Fine riddles,” the dragon rumbles. “And what gift did you bring me, riddler?”
“It lies outside your gates, o Smaug the majestic!” Bella says. “I have brought you a meal – or at least a tidbit – to show my respect and adoration.”
“And while I am eating, you will steal from my hoard, is that it?” the dragon says, voice dangerously soft.
“On the grave of my mother I swear to you, o Smaug the insightful, I will not touch your hoard,” Bella says. “For if I did, my death would be both swift and sure – and the mere sight of Smaug the monumental is worth far more to me than any gold or gems!”
Smaug laughs. “Well, we shall see,” he says, and to Bella’s delight, he slides his immense body out of the pile of gold and stalks out of the room. Bella moves to hide behind another pillar, where she can see the exit he used, and true to her word she makes no move to touch the hoard. One cannot eat gold, after all, nor wear it or plant it; Bella therefore thinks of gold as a useful means of getting other useful things, and in any case she has plenty of it already.
There is a great roar, as loud as thunder, and Bella bites her fist to keep from squeaking with fright. Yavanna have mercy: surely he has not found the dwarves? But the sound is coming closer, and Bella huddles behind her pillar in sudden terrified knowledge of imminent death. There is no way she can get off the balcony in time to make her escape, and being invisible will not help her if he simply smashes the whole structure.
The dragon is raging as he re-enters the room, wisps of smoke rising from his enormous nostrils. “Poison!” he roars. “You would poison me and steal my gold, thief! But now I know your scent, riddler, not elf nor dwarf nor Man but thief – now you will die!”
He turns towards her hiding place unerringly, mouth opening wide, and Bella can see the flames starting to grow, knows that she is looking at her death. She throws herself backwards instinctively, uselessly, and as her back hits the wall, the ring flies off of her outflung hand and arcs, gleaming, over the balcony railing and down the dragon’s gullet.
The ring hits the fire as the dragon begins to exhale, and then there is a noise, the loudest sound that Bella has ever heard. A shockwave flings her hard against the stone wall, and her vision goes fuzzy and doubled, but she sees – and cannot quite believe her eyes – the whole vast bulk of the dragon disintegrate, blood and bits of meat and bone spattering over walls and hoard and all.
Bella does not know how long she sits slumped against the wall, head ringing, covered in unnamable substances. She does not think she faints, but time definitely passes strangely, and she does not know if minutes or hours have passed before Dwalin is leaning over her with an anxious expression on his face. “Bella!” he says, and her ears ring more fiercely. “Are you hurt?”
Bella musters a grin from somewhere, and lets Oin tilt her forward and examine a sore spot on the back of her head. Really her entire back is sore, come to think of it. “Dragon went boom,” she says, and giggles, which hurts. “Killed dragon. Hail Thorin, king under mountain. Yay!”
“Yep, she’s got a nasty concussion,” Oin says. “Let’s get our little dragon-slayer somewhere we can clean her up and let her lie down and drink some willow-bark tea, shall we?”
Dwalin picks her up, and the jostling makes her dizzy, so she closes her eyes, and the world goes away for a while.
When she wakes, she is lying on her bedroll on the floor of a small cavern, wrapped in Dwalin’s coat and wearing only her smallclothes under it. Dwalin and Ori and Fili are sitting around her, and Bombur is a little ways away, tending a bubbling stewpot and a teakettle over a small fire. The other dwarves are nowhere in sight. Her head feels like it has been banged into a stone wall – oh right, it was – and her mouth tastes of bile and willow-bark tea, which is not the most pleasant combination she’s ever experienced.
“Water?” she says, and Ori jumps. Dwalin helps her sit up – the bruises on her back scream in protest, and she makes a little croaking sound – and Ori holds a skin of water to her lips. Bella drinks, then scowls up at Dwalin. “I am not helpless,” she says, with as much dignity as she can muster.
“No, you’re wounded, dragon-slayer,” Dwalin replies calmly. “It is no shame for a warrior to be injured in battle, nor to need care afterwards.”
“Not much of a battle,” Bella says. “Mostly I screamed.”
“The dragon is very thoroughly dead, though,” Fili points out. “Uncle is in your debt. He sent me in with this, as the first token of the gratitude of the line of Durin.” He lifts a gleaming mail-shirt from the floor behind him, and places it gently in her lap. It is far lighter than Bella expects, and she makes a soft sound of surprise.
“It’s mithril,” Ori explains. “Stronger than steel, and more precious than gold. Thorin – er, the king – has given you a princely gift.”
Fili nods. “He’d be here to give it to you himself, but they haven’t found the Arkenstone yet.” He grins. “The bits of dragon all over everything aren’t helping.”
Bella giggles and regrets it. “Arkenstone?”
“The great treasure of our house,” Fili explains. “It shines with its own light, and will help cement Uncle’s position as King Under the Mountain.”
Bella nods, and winces. “Well, I hope he finds it soon, then; I didn’t see it, but I was a little distracted, and there’s such a lot of treasure.” She relaxes against Dwalin’s broad chest and closes her eyes. “It might be good to let people know we won,” she suggests. “Your kin in the Blue Mountains, perhaps. The ravens might be willing to carry a message.”
She hears clothing rustle as Fili stands up. “I will go and do that right now,” he says. “Amad would be annoyed if we didn’t let her know what happened as soon as possible.”
“By all means, do not annoy Lady Dis!” Dwalin says. “She is nearly as fearsome as Bella Dragon-Slayer.”
“Send word to Laketown, too,” Bella mumbles. “They should know that Dale is safe again.”
“I will,” Fili promises. “And to Lord Dain of the Iron Hills, who is closer than my mother and has more warriors besides. You get some rest.”
Bella lets the world drift away again.
She wakes to the sound of rejoicing. When she opens her eyes – the pain in her head has subsided a little – it is to see Bofur and Nori and Gloin dancing beside the fire, while the other dwarves sing and laugh. Bella lies still and smiles to herself for a while, glad to see them all so happy. They have won: the dragon is dead, the mountain safe for dwarves again. And Bella has hopes that there will be room, somewhere in this vast peak, for a hobbit as well.
She sits up slowly, and Kili cries, “Look! The hero wakes!” In an instant, Bella is surrounded by dwarves. Dwalin slides into place behind her, helping her stay upright; Bombur presses a bowl of stew into her hands. Thorin, beaming, claps her gently on both shoulders and rests his forehead briefly against hers.
“I and my kin are in your debt, Bella Baggins,” he says formally. “Name your desire, and if it is within my power to grant, it will be yours.”
Bella smiles. “Well,” she says, “I would quite like permission to stay in Erebor. I have some thoughts on cultivating the outer slopes, if you will give me leave to do so. And,” her grin widens, “a dragon-slayer is supposed to win their own true love’s hand. So – if he’ll have me – I’d be obliged to have your blessing when I marry Dwalin.”
Thorin beams even more broadly. “You will always be welcome in Erebor,” he promises. “And you have my blessing upon your marriage, which I give with a very glad heart indeed. Gold and long life to you both!”
“Thank you,” Dwalin says, and the other dwarves draw away to give him and Bella a bit of privacy. Bella cranes around, hissing a little at her bruises, to see his face.
“Will you marry me, and stay in Erebor beside me, my dragon-slaying hobbit?” Dwalin asks quietly.
“Of course I will,” Bella replies. “Someone has to make sure you lot don’t do anything stupid. And since I doubt you’d be happy in the Shire – or the Shire happy with you – well, I shall simply have to make this mountain home. Not that I think that will be too much of a hardship.” She grins up at him. “It has you in it, after all.”
Fili, who has apparently been eavesdropping, says, “Awwwww.” Bella sighs and thunks her forehead against Dwalin’s shoulder.
“Private rooms,” she mutters. “I am going to require private rooms at some point in the near future, with no nosy princes in them.”
“I think that can be arranged,” Dwalin chuckles. “And I promise to gag the nosy princes if necessary. Or knock them out.”
Fili wisely decides to retreat over to the fire, half-hiding behind Ori, and Bella eats her stew and listens to the singing and leans back against Dwalin’s comforting bulk, and smiles in complete contentment.
She is not smiling a week later. Though the dwarves have made quite a remarkable dent in the enormous hoard, sorting it into side halls as they go, there is still no sign of the Arkenstone, and Thorin is…changing. Bella rarely sees him: he comes to the sleeping hall very late, and leaves early, and spends all day by himself, frantically pawing through the hoard.
Bella, in deference to her injuries, has been given a simple job: she sits on a small (and heavily jeweled) stool and sorts gems by color, dropping them into boxes and baskets which Fili and Kili whisk away as they are filled. And she helps Bombur with the cooking, and sends her helpers off with tea to Ori and Balin, who are trying desperately to keep accurate records of the sorted treasure.
All of the dwarves are excited about the treasure, of course, but Thorin is a man obsessed. He is beginning to remind Bella of the dreadful creeping creature she met beneath the Misty Mountain. To see dignified, majestic Thorin reduced to such depths is…distressing. And yet Bella can think of no way to counteract it.
She brings her concerns to Dwalin that evening, and Dwalin grimaces. “It’s the gold-sickness,” he tells her quietly, voice pitched for her ears alone. “His grandfather Thror had it, before the dragon came. All dwarves can be taken by it, but the line of Durin is particularly vulnerable.” He sighs. “And yet – he is my king. Perhaps he will yet overcome it.”
“You are of the line of Durin,” Bella points out. “Why has this sickness not overtaken you, as well?”
Dwalin smiles crookedly. “As to that – the gold-sickness cannot take one whose heart is already given away. You protect me, my dragon-slayer; it is as simple as that.”
“But Thorin has no lover,” Bella says softly. “Unless…was there someone in the Blue Mountains?”
Dwalin shakes his head. “Thorin’s heart has always been given to his people, and to the reclaiming of Erebor. Really, the only person I can think of who might be able to get through to him is his sister, Lady Dis.”
“Then I hope her journey here is swift,” Bella says. The dwarves of the Blue Mountains are on their way, so say the ravens, but travel in winter, especially with wagons, is always slow, and they have farther to come than the company did.
“As do I, ghivashel,” Dwalin replies quietly. “As do I.”
Unfortunately, well before either Lady Dis or Lord Dain can show up, the one with a hopeful infusion of sanity and the other with several hundred warrior dwarves, the men of Laketown arrive at the gates, with – to Bella’s surprise and dismay – a small army of elves beside them.
Thorin might have been willing to listen to the men of Laketown asking for the treasures of fallen Dale to be returned to them; that is only fair, after all, and since the treasures of Dale are not, technically, part of the treasure of Erebor, it wouldn’t even be really taking money from the company. Balin and Ori have been separating out anything they can identify as belonging to the Dale-men as they go, and it’s all been put aside in its own room. If it were just Bard the Bowman come to ask for his ancestors’ wealth returned, all might have yet been well.
But Thranduil Elvenking is standing beside the Master of Laketown, smirking down his aristocratic elven nose, and Bella, looking down from Erebor’s battlements, has a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. It is followed, shortly afterwards, by fury, because how dare he. If it had been Legolas alone, sweet funny Legolas who wants to learn everything about the world, she might have given him something from her share of the treasure in token of their friendship, and sent him away with pleasant words and easy joy. But Thranduil’s presence just about guarantees that everything is about to go quite thoroughly pear-shaped.
And yep, it certainly does. Bella takes a few minutes to admire the sheer level of hatred Thorin can put into his voice, and the way he manages to tear verbal strips off of everyone below him without ever actually using any invective, and then she says to Dwalin, “I think you and Fili should take His Pissed-Off Majesty somewhere he’s not actually going to start a war. Let me handle this, please.”
Dwalin gives her a dubious look. She looks back. “It’s his mountain and his treasure,” she says, and doesn’t realize that Thorin has stopped ranting and all the dwarves are staring at her. “I don’t want him to lose his home now that he’s finally got it back, but if he does manage to make those tree-shagging, lake-drunk assholes down there angry enough to attack us, there are only fourteen of us and I used up my explosive tricks on the dragon. I am a merchant. I am good at negotiating. Take Thorin out of here and let me handle this.”
The dwarves stare at her for a while longer, and then Fili says, “Uncle, we should go talk to the ravens. They will let us know how near Lord Dain and his army are.”
And Thorin shakes himself, like a dog shaking off water, and says thickly, “Yes, ravens,” and lets himself be led away.
Bella takes a deep breath and steps to the parapet, Balin at her left shoulder, Ori at her right, and prepares to do battle the best way she knows how.
“I speak for King Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror,” she calls down to the elves and men gathered below. “Who speaks for those who come like jackals to a feast?”
Balin murmurs, “That’s not terribly diplomatic,” and Bella gives him a sharp look.
“Neither is bringing the Elvenking to the doors of Erebor,” she mutters back, and Balin shrugs agreement.
The Master of Laketown looks for a moment like he is going to say something, and Thranduil definitely looks like he wants to spit, but it is Bard the Bowman who steps forward, in front of both the Master and the Elvenking, and says, “I speak for the descendants of the folk of Dale, which was destroyed when Erebor fell, and by the same cause.”
Bella nods to him. “The folk of Dale and those of Erebor have suffered alike,” she says. “Speak your piece, and I will hear you.”
“My ancestors were lords in Dale,” Bard says. “I would return to their fair city, and make it fair again. But all its wealth has gone into the dragon’s hoard, and I cannot rebuild the fallen towers without their coffers.”
“You speak fair truths,” Bella says, and watches Bard’s shoulders relax for a moment before she continues, “yet you stand here before me in company with an oathbreaker, who is the enemy of the King Under the Mountain. I cannot treat with you while Thranduil Elvenking and his warriors stand ready, hoping to slay us all and take the treasure for themselves.”
Thranduil’s face goes red with fury, but Legolas, beside him, puts a hand on his father’s arm and speaks in a swift undertone. Bella can’t tell what he’s saying, but Thranduil doesn’t explode, so that’s something.
“Go, and speak with your…allies,” Bella says. “Return tomorrow, son of the lords of Dale, without the Elvenking beside you, and perhaps your words will find more friendly ears.”
The men and elves glare at her, but Bella has been glared at by a dragon, who could breathe fire. She glares right back until they finally, slowly, trickle away down the valley to their camp, leaving her in sole possession of the field.
Then she sits down with her back against the battlement and takes a few deep breaths.
Balin offers her a hand up and a clap on the shoulder when she is calmer. “That was well done, lass,” he says. “At the very least you’ve won us a night to discuss this.”
“Let’s…go see how long Lord Dain is going to take to get here,” Bella suggests. “I’d feel happier if there were more than fourteen of us under this mountain.”
“As would I,” Balin agrees, and they leave Bifur on guard and go off to find the ravens and the king.
Bifur reports that there is shouting from the camp of elves and Men for many hours that night, and that their fires burn brightly until midnight or later. Bella is not sure whether that is a good sign or not.
The next morning, Bella and Balin and Ori are back on the battlements, waiting to see what response the Men and elves will give to her ultimatum. Dwalin and Fili are chaperoning Thorin, who is at least easily distracted these days – they brought him into the treasure room and are just making sure he doesn’t get covered with a gold-avalanche. Kili is in charge of everyone else, and seems both surprised and pleased with his new responsibility. Bella is proud of him: he is growing up, now, it seems.
To her surprise and pleasure, the representatives of the Men and elves are Bard and Legolas, and Legolas gives her a little bow and then gestures for Bard to take the lead.
“I speak for the Men of fallen Dale,” Bard says, and Bella nods to him.
“I speak for the King Under the Mountain,” she replies. “Be welcome, you and your companion.” And she goes down the stairs to let them in.
She doesn’t let them in far – she doesn’t need Balin to tell her that would be a bad idea – but she brings them in the gate to an anteroom bare yards from the entrance, and gives them seats, and Ori nips out and brings in a tea set. (Bella is rather grateful that Erebor has springs beneath it, which have not been stopped up during the dragon’s residence. A reliable source of fresh water is a very good thing.)
“Laketown has never been rich,” Bard says, wrapping his big hands around a teacup. “We took nothing from Dale when we fled, and though the elves have been kind to us, we’ve never been able to forget that there’s a dragon in the mountain. We never dared really…settle in, the way we wanted to.”
Bella nods and says nothing. Better to let Bard finish, so she has some idea of what she is working with.
“We know there was great wealth in Dale,” Bard says, after a moment. “It was a fine city, and its people traded with the dwarves of Erebor and the elves of the Greenwood and the caravans from all the world. And we know the wealth is not there now, for there were brave men and women who came to see, in spite of the dragon’s threat, and found only tumbled stone and ash and bones.”
Bella nods again, and refills Bard’s teacup when he drains it.
“We want to rebuild. We want to be again the great city beside the mountain, where the caravans come. We want our old alliances to be reborn. And to do that, we need the wealth which was our fathers’.” Bard falls silent, staring into his teacup, and Bella takes a sip of her own tea and thinks.
“I cannot promise, as the voice of the King Under the Mountain, that all the wealth of Dale will be returned to you,” she says carefully, and Bard flinches a little.
Legolas moves as if to speak, and Bella raises a hand to stop him. She knows that Thorin, in his current state of mind, is unlikely to agree to giving up any of his treasure, even if it isn’t technically his. And she’s not going to say that to anyone outside of the company, because even if Thorin is not her king, he is the King Under the Mountain, and she killed a dragon for him, and she will help him keep his mountain any way she has to.
“That said,” she says. “I am entitled, by my contract, to the fourteenth part of the treasures of Erebor. I will, if you are pleased to accept such an offer, request as part of my payment all those items which we can identify as being originally from the sack of Dale, and it will be my honor to gift those items to you, as Lord of Dale, to do with as you will.”
Bard looks up, and the naked hope on his face is actually embarrassing to see. “You would…do that for us?” he says, and Bella smiles.
“Balin, tell me, if I give all the wealth of Dale to Lord Bard here, out of my portion, how much gold will still be due me?”
Balin clears his throat importantly. “Well, as you know, we have not finished assessing the extent of the dragon’s hoard,” he says. “But my considered estimation is that you will still be…how shall I put it. Richer than the Elvenking.”
Bella smiles. “Well, that ought to put a bone in his craw, I suppose. So please stop looking at me like I’m giving up something I’d need, Bard. Even if I gave you my entire portion, I could still get by just fine. Say, ‘Thank you, Bella,’ and have done.”
“Thank you, Bella,” Bard says hoarsely. “I will bear your words to my people, and we will praise your name so long as Dale stands.”
“I’m sure that’s entirely unnecessary,” Bella says, but she smiles when she says it. And then she turns to Legolas.
“Prince Legolas,” she says quietly, “why is your father here?”
Legolas grimaces. “The Master of Laketown requested his presence,” he says, “but he would have come regardless. There are many treasures in the dragon’s hoard which have…disputed ownership, between the dwarves of Erebor and my father. He thought, I think, that killing the dragon would have…weakened the dwarves of your company, and that in return for his absence, they would have given him all he desired.”
“Even had half our number died before the dragon, we would not have bowed to your father’s will,” Balin says steadily. “We do not forget his actions when the dragon came upon us.”
“I can bear that answer to him, and I will,” Legolas says, and meets Balin’s eyes without flinching. “But I cannot say that it will change his mind. He wishes to possess what he thinks is his to own – I do not say that he is right or wrong about the true ownership of the items, but he will never give them up. Even convincing him to send me in his place was…not simple. And he will not hear refusal.”
“Yet he must,” Bella says. “My contract with him, as Bella Baggins of Bag End, yet stands, and I will sell him saffron at a fair price so long as he desires to buy from me. But as the voice of the King Under the Mountain – for his broken treaties and his lack of hospitality, the dwarves of Erebor will give him nothing, now or in the future. By his own choices was that friendship broken, and it will not be mended by armed warriors at the mountain’s gates.”
Legolas sighs. “I will tell him. But I do not expect him to listen. He is as like as not to sit out on the mountain’s doorstep until the world ends.”
“We will cross that bridge when we come to it,” Bella says, and leads her guests out of the mountain again. Bard turns to her as they stand in the doorway, and bends to take her hand and press a kiss to the back of it.
“Thank you, Bella,” he says. “The elves may sit on your doorstep until doomsday, but the Men of Dale will praise your name for as many years again. All the blessings of the Valar upon you and your generosity.”
Bella blushes. “Stop that,” she says. “Go on with you; I’m hardly being generous to give you back what is your own. Go and start drawing up plans for your city, Lord of Dale; it’ll be a few days yet before I can get any of your treasures to you, but never fear, they’ll come.”
“I shall not fear, with the Lady Bella’s word to rely on,” Bard says, and heads back to his camp with a spring in his step. Bella shakes her head.
“Lady, if you please! Pah, I’m no lady.” She turns to see Balin and Ori smiling at her.
“You are going to be marrying my brother,” Balin points out as they pull the gates shut and bar them again. “And he is of the line of Durin. That makes you one of the nobility, you know. You may have to get used to being called ‘Lady Bella.’ Though I suspect most of the folk of Erebor will be calling you ‘Bella Dragon-Slayer’ instead!”
“Phooey on all of you,” Bella says maturely, and goes off to find her fiancé.
Dwalin is watching Thorin root through the treasure pile. Thorin doesn’t even notice Bella come in, and Bella chooses to take that as a compliment, as a sign of his trust in her ability to negotiate, rather than as what it probably is: the gold-sickness preventing him from even remembering that she has spent the morning attempting to placate two separate armies.
“How’d it go?” Dwalin asks as Bella slumps against the wall beside him. Bella shrugs.
“They just sent Bard and Legolas, which was good. I told Bard I’d give him Dale’s treasures out of my share – Yavanna knows I hardly need any more money, anyhow. Legolas said his father’s not likely to leave without what he considers his due, but I’ll be damned if I’ll give that supercilious tree-shagger anything he wants.”
“Thought you said that was a stupid insult,” Dwalin observes quietly.
“It is. Thranduil’s stupid enough to do it,” Bella says, and Dwalin chuckles.
“Sharp-tongued Bella,” he says, affection clear in his voice. “Hold him off another seven days. Lord Dain is making good time.”
“I can do that,” Bella promises. “I can do that.”
Legolas comes back every morning, and every morning Bella lets him in and serves him tea and tells him that his father is getting precisely none of the treasures of Erebor. Every morning Legolas looks a little more beaten down, and Bella is quite sure that he is getting so much shit from his father when he returns to their camp, but there’s honestly little enough she can do about that, so she gives him tea and honey waybread and the opportunity to sit just quietly in a little room and not be yelled at.
The sixth day, she says quietly, “Why is your father so…set on what he cannot have?”
Legolas shrugs. “I do not know,” he says. “Perhaps because he cannot have it. No one usually tells him he cannot have what he desires.”
“That’s not good for a person, always having whatever they want,” Bella observes. “Best way to spoil a child something awful, giving them everything they desire. Learning how to wait, how to work for something – that’s important.”
Legolas shrugs. “He is my father and my king,” he says, and Bella drops the topic, starts talking about the harvest festival in the Shire, with its drinking and dancing and laughter. Legolas listens eagerly, and when he goes away down the mountain to his father’s camp, he walks a little lighter. Bella can’t do anything more than that, but she’s glad she’s done what she can.
There’s little enough she can do in the mountain, either. Thorin barely sleeps these days; he eats only when one of his nephews holds food to his lips and begs. He seems to sleepwalk, paying no attention to the people around him, and his search for the Arkenstone consumes him steadily. Bella is honestly starting to wonder whether she is, in truth, negotiating on behalf of King Fili, for Thorin cannot live much longer like this.
It is a bitter thought, that they have won him back his mountain only to lose him to it, but she is not a dwarf, not Thorin’s lover – ugh, what a thought – or his kin, and she cannot snap him out of this fugue state with a sharp word or three. She has tried, of course – everyone has tried something, from Bofur’s jokes to Bombur’s good food to Balin’s hovering to Dwalin’s attempts to draw Thorin into sparring – but Thorin barely seemed to hear her, certainly did not react when she called him lack-witted and gold-obsessed and no longer worthy to be a king. Bella is honestly unused to being ignored, and found the sensation both strange and unpleasant. Usually, her tongue is enough to get people to look at her, to notice her. Thorin…does not notice anything but gold.
She goes to find Dwalin when her negotiating – such as it is – is done, and finds him as usual in the treasure room, watching Thorin.
“Two questions,” she says, then, “No, wait, three,” and Dwalin hums an invitation to continue.
“First question: What in Aule’s name is he going to do when he finds this particularly shiny stone of yours?”
Dwalin shrugs. “Not sure. Might be it’ll bring him out of it. Might be he’ll just sit down and stare at it. Might be something else again.”
Bella sighs. “You know, I was afraid that was the answer. Second question: Is this Lord Dain going to have trouble acknowledging a gold-mad dwarf as his rightful king? Because Thorin’s not…really up to being regal right now.”
Dwalin grimaces. “I hope not,” he says, which was not really the answer Bella wanted. “If nothing else, Fili has a better claim to the regency than Dain does. We’d back him, and we’re the ones with the mountain and the gold, and who had the balls to come take them – or whatever the female equivalent is.”
Bella snorts a laugh. “If all else fails, I will harangue Lord Dain into letting Fili take over,” she promises. “But that does bring me to question three.”
“Oh? One and two were such easy ones, I’m a little worried by three,” Dwalin teases gently.
“There’s a big camp of irritated elves right on the way into the mountain,” Bella says. “How, precisely, is Lord Dain supposed to get in?”
“Ah,” says Dwalin, and blinks. “You know, I rather think we may all have overlooked that…small detail.”
“I wondered,” Bella says. “There were so many other remarkably urgent things to worry about. Like the fact that Thorin appears to be getting worse. Do you think tying him up and force-feeding him would help?”
“Not particularly,” Dwalin replies. “Honestly, either we need Lady Dis or we need something really distracting. A battle would probably do.”
“I am not pissing off the elves just so that Thorin can have a nice reinvigorating battle,” Bella says, though really watching Thorin and Thranduil whack at each other for a while would probably be quite therapeutic for everyone.
“No, probably inadvisable,” Dwalin agrees. “You’ve been doing so well stalling them.”
“I feel sorry for Legolas,” Bella admits. “He seems like a really decent fellow, and he’s trying to do right by us, but his father is…well, in the Shire we’d say he couldn’t tell his ass from a hole in the ground. And some other things, probably; we don’t really like greedy people in the Shire. Share and share alike, and we all get by.”
“Dwarves don’t really share, except with kin,” Dwalin says. “But those who want what isn’t theirs, and oathbreakers…we aren’t fond of them.”
“General consensus: Thranduil is just not a good person,” Bella says.
Then Roac comes swooping into the room, cawing in alarm. Dwalin puts up an arm for him, and Roac lands on it and croaks, “Orcs! An army of orcs! The orcs are coming!”
Then it gets a little chaotic.
Thorin actually wakes up from his fugue at the news that his mountain – his treasure – is going to be under attack, so it is the entire company which gathers in their sleeping hall to discuss plans of defense.
“How many, and how quickly will they arrive?” Dwalin asks Roac, who flips his wings.
“Thousands,” he says, “led by a great white orc with one arm. I think they will be here tomorrow at the earliest.”
“A great white orc?” Thorin asks, going pale. “It cannot be – I slew him at Azanulbizar!”
All of the dwarves start shouting then, and Bella has to pull Ori off to one side and demand to know what is going on. Ori shrugs helplessly.
“At the Battle of Azanulbizar, the white orc Azog slew Thror and would have slain Thrain as well, but Thorin defended his father, and cut off the white orc’s arm. Everyone assumed the white orc would die of his wounds. It’s the battle that earned Thorin the name Oakenshield – Balin told the tale before we met the trolls, remember?”
Bella does remember, though she hadn’t paid much attention at the time. She nods her thanks to Ori, then stands up and bellows wordlessly, much louder than any of the dwarves expect her to be able to shout. They fall silent all of a moment, blinking at her in confusion.
“Whether this orc is Thorin’s old foe or not doesn’t matter,” she snaps. “We need a battle plan, and we need it soon. The fourteen of us can’t hold off an orc army for very long; and in any case it would be extremely cruel to leave the elves and Men sitting out there without any warning. If we tell them what’s coming, they can help us defend the mountain. And we need to send a raven to Lord Dain: if he knows we’re going to be under attack, he might be able to get here a little faster.”
“Tell the elves?” Thorin asks incredulously. Bella glares at him.
“Thranduil is less useful than a sack of manure,” she says, “but the rest of his people don’t deserve to die just because their king has the brains of fertilizer. Also, there are only fourteen of us. Any help we can get will be valuable.”
“Er,” says Thorin, looking slightly baffled. Balin nods vigorously.
“Bella is quite correct,” he says. “We should definitely tell the elves and Men, my king. I volunteer to go myself.”
“I’ll go,” Bella says. “With an escort, if that makes you happy. They know me by now, I suppose.”
“Very well,” Balin agrees, and Thorin looks between them for a moment and then sighs.
“Go, then,” he says. “Come back as you may. We will take our places upon the battlements; send the elves up upon the heights, where their bows may do the most good, and arrange the Men before the gates. If they will heed you.”
“They’ll heed me,” says Bella grimly. “Oh, yes, they’ll heed me.”
Bard is dismayed at her news, but he brings his men up into the valley before the gate, arranges them to defend it, without argument. The dwarves look down from the battlements and call greetings to their new allies, and Bofur comes scampering down the stairs and out to join the Men in their new camp.
“Dwalin said it’d be good to have representatives of the company with our allies,” he tells Bella, who claps him on the back and leaves him to teach Bard’s forces bawdy drinking songs from the Blue Mountains. That was the easy group, after all. Bard likes her, and thinks he owes her; and he and his men will get nothing if the orcs take Erebor.
The elves are going to be a bit harder to convince.
Legolas hears her out, and nods, and says, “If it were my choice, I would send my warriors to the heights this very moment. But I do not command here.”
Bella grimaces. “Then take me to your father,” she says. “We do not have much time.”
Bella is far too stressed to be properly diplomatic. She is scared, and angry, and worried, and she has not slept well, and she still aches sometimes from being slammed into a stone wall by an exploding dragon. So she does not bother to try to be polite when she is finally allowed into Thranduil’s august presence.
“The little liar,” Thranduil drawls, and that just makes it easier, that he is not bothering with even the bare minimum of courtesy.
“Liar I may be,” Bella snaps, “but oathbreaker I am not, unlike some in this room. I honor my sworn word.”
Thranduil’s glare is quite a remarkable thing. Bella doesn’t care. He’s not a dragon, after all.
“The orcs are coming,” she says before Thranduil can really work up a good rant. “They are already between us and your kingdom, and I’m not going to ask how they got through your kingdom without you noticing. You can fight beside us or you can stay down here, but if you don’t join us, I suspect you and all your people will die. It’s all the same to me, really.”
And Thranduil, glaring and snarling and looking like he wants nothing more than to lock her in a dungeon for the rest of her natural life, orders his warriors up onto the heights of the mountain, and dismisses her from his presence. Bella is very glad to go.
“That…didn’t really encourage my father to like you,” Legolas points out.
“He was never going to like me,” Bella replies. “Not after he learned how I tricked him, and not after I’ve been refusing to give him what he wants for a week now. Trying to negotiate with him would have just taken time, and not gotten me anywhere. This way…well, he hates me, but he’s also doing what I need him to do.” She shrugs. “I’ll deal with the rest of it if we survive the orcs.”
Legolas gives her a long look, then bows a little. “Until then, farewell,” he says, and goes off to join his people. Bella shrugs again and links arms with Balin, heading up towards the gate again. There are still many things to do before the morrow.
Bella and Kili station themselves with the elven archers the next morning. It seems a diplomatic gesture, and Kili is better with his bow than with a sword or an axe. And Bella would likely get stepped on in the melee, honestly. She is good with her little sword, but she is not large.
Dain is still several hours march away, but they have hope that he will either arrive before the orcs – and thus reinforce the slightly thin line before the gates – or shortly after them and provide a sudden blow to the orcs’ rearguard, distracting them and dividing their forces.
And Bella is secretly hoping that the ravens have miscounted the orcs. Surely ‘thousands’ cannot be quite correct? Maybe it is more like ‘hundreds’ or even ‘one thousand’ – a nice smallish number, for their smallish army to successfully oppose. That must be right…
It is not.
The orcs fill the valley. Some of them are riding on wargs, but most are on foot, and Bella supposes she should be grateful for small favors. But there are still plenty of wargs, and Bella does not have a handy packet of black pepper. Nor does she have a ring of invisibility, and she suspects the enormous one-armed white orc will not be distracted by the offer of a saffron trade route.
She has a bow, and she has her little sword, and she has the combined armies of elves and Men and dwarves, and if she is going to die, well, she’s going to take some orcs with her. She won this mountain once already. If the dragon didn’t set her running, she will be damned if she lets some mangy orcs scare her away.
The orcs pause a little when they get close enough to see the elves and Men drawn up in their neat lines, but then the white orc raises his iron claw and bellows, and the orcs surge forward in a great, roaring, terrible wave.
Bella shoots, and shoots, and shoots again, and though she knows she is hitting things – she can hardly fail to do so, as numerous as the orcs are – it does not seem to make a difference. The orcs break against the lines of Men, and Bella sees Men and orcs alike falling, bleeding, dying. She has fought before, but never like this, and she does not have time to be ill as she would like, but she knows that if she survives this, she will dream of it, and those dreams will be very bad indeed.
Around her, the elves’ bowstrings sing, and Kili grunts quietly with each arrow he releases. Bella runs out of arrows after a while – she does not know how long. She doesn’t have spares, and the elven arrows in their waiting barrels are far too long for her little bow. She draws her sword – it shines like a blue star, and she mutters, “Yes, I know there are orcs around” – and moves towards the edge of her ridge, looking down and wondering where she will be of the most use.
There is a sound behind her, a clatter of rock on rock, and she turns, and gapes, and screams. The orcs have sent parties around the mountain – they have come up behind the elves, behind Thranduil where he watches the battle with an elegant sneer, and Bella may think Thranduil needs to be hit with a half-brick, but she does not want to watch him cut down by these foul creatures.
She thinks she screams again; she knows she launches herself across the rocks, little sword clutched tightly in her hand, and takes the lead orc utterly by surprise. She does not bother with trying to hit its head – it is far taller than she. She cuts its hamstrings and moves on before it can fall, striking low and swiftly, relying on speed and agility to keep her whole. She is wearing the mithril shirt – it is light and she is not a fool – but an orcish club could break her ribs easily enough, and she doesn’t want to chance it. And her head is utterly unprotected. In retrospect, that was perhaps foolish.
On the other hand, she just flung herself between Thranduil and certain death, and the astonished look on his face, when she turns from the orcs to see if he is well, is almost worthy the danger. She cannot help grinning briefly at him. This is how a hobbit keeps her oaths.
There is a deep grinding noise which rumbles through the rock at her feet, and she whirls from where the elves have finally begun to help her with the orcs and sees the gates swing open, and eleven dwarves, Thorin and Dwalin at their head, come charging out, sprinting through the lines of Men and crashing into the orcish army with a bellowed Khuzdul battle-cry.
They are clearly aiming for the white orc on his massive warg, cutting their way through the orcish army with astonishing skill and speed, and Bella finds herself perched on the edge of the ridge, clinging to a rock with one hand and staring down in fear and hope as her dwarves – her foolish boys – her company goes to war.
For a moment, for a few scant minutes, she thinks they will succeed. They stay together; they watch each other’s backs. The Men pour through the gap in the orcish line which the dwarves have made, widen it further, roll the orcs back and back again, and for those few shining moments she thinks that victory is in their grasp.
And then the orcs close in around them, and she sees the dwarves form up, back-to-back in a circle, just as they did in Rivendell so long ago – and Thorin, with Fili beside him, not in the circle at all, still striving towards the white orc. Fili is clearly doing his best to watch his uncle’s back, but they are alone in the midst of their enemies, and the other dwarves are trapped and cannot move to aid them.
Bella screams, and screams again, and Legolas is suddenly beside her. He looks down the slope at the mess of battle below them, and then he looks at her and says, “The Greenwood does not forget its oaths,” and launches himself down towards the battlefield.
Half a dozen elves follow him immediately, and Bella, without thinking, falls in behind them, sprinting in their wake and praying to Yavanna and Aule and anyone else who might be listening that they will be in time. The elves cut their way into the flank of the orcish army, swift and deadly and somehow still graceful in their dance of death, and Bella slits orcish throats and cuts orcish hamstrings and stabs orcish kidneys and does not give a single good goddamn for the rules of civilized warfare. That is her stupid honorbound goldmad dwarvish idiot king out there, and her loyal beloved, and she will fight beside them or she will die beside them, but by any god you care to name she will be beside them, come what may.
She and the elves top a small rise, and Bella has just enough vantage to see the white orc bellow, and his army parts, leaving him a clear path to where Fili and Thorin stand beleaguered. The white orc nudges his warg forwards, and Bella’s throat is hoarse from screaming, and there is no way she can get there in time.
The white orc bats Fili to one side, and the young dwarf goes down with a horrid crunching sound – and Bella is close enough to hear, now, close enough to see far too much – and then the white orc closes with Thorin. Thorin is battle-mad, gold-mad, nowhere near in his right mind, and he goes for the white orc without thought or plan. Bella, scrambling towards Fili’s fallen form, hears the panting of their breaths, the curses each combatant spits; but she is busy taking up position straddling Fili’s body, little sword glowing like the morning star, and snarling defiance into the faces of the orcs around them. To her surprise, they step back a little, and then there are two tall elves beside her, each with a long sword in her hand, and Bella turns to see the white orc catch Thorin a blow with its club which lifts him entirely off his feet and drops him, limp and bloody, in a heap upon the muddied ground.
And Legolas, not bothering with battle-cries or challenges, makes a truly incredible leap and takes the white orc’s head off with a single blow from behind.
Bella cannot tear her eyes away from the sight of the prince of elves lifting the dwarven king from a muddy battlefield, but behind her, at the head of the valley, she hears bass voices lifted in a dwarven battle-cry, hears the orcs scream in sudden shock and terror, and knows that Dain is here at last.
And then two more sounds join the unholy din, and Bella turns to see that the great thunderous roar comes from a bear as tall as a tree, that the high terrible screeching is the sound of the eagles of the mountains as they come swooping down to pluck the orcs screaming from the ground and launch them howling to their deaths. Beorn, she realizes, Beorn and the eagles together, and – yes – there is Gandalf, tall among the dwarves of Dain’s army.
“About damn time,” she says, and the elf to her left bites out a laugh.
“Better late than never, I suppose,” the elf says.
Bella cuts down an orc who has ventured too close to her injured friend and says, “Better soon than late, if you ask me. I’m going to kick that wizard black-and-blue, see if I don’t.”
“I have no doubt of it,” says the elf, and bends to pluck Fili from the ground as though he weighs nothing at all. “Let us get him to the healers.”
“Just leave me with the other dwarves, there in their circle,” Bella says. “And I thank you.”
“It was a pleasure to fight beside you,” the elf says, and leads the way across the battlefield, stepping as easily as though across a field of summer flowers.
Bella falls into place beside Dwalin, noting that he is bloodstained but appears mostly unharmed. Dwalin looks down at her and grunts, “Thanks for that,” and she gives him half a grin.
“Thank Legolas,” she suggests. “I know I’m going to.”
“I will,” Dwalin promises, and turns again to the horrid work of slaughter.
Bella meets Lord Dain when the battle is over. He and Thranduil and Legolas, Bard and the entire company (less Thorin, Fili, and Oin, who are all in the healers’ tents, though Oin is at least there to work) gather around the corpse of the white orc, and Gandalf and Beorn join them there.
Bella takes this golden opportunity to stomp over to Gandalf and kick him, very hard, in both shins. Gandalf flinches but doesn’t try to stop her, and when she glares up at him, he gives her what she thinks might actually be an apologetic look.
“Thank you for bringing Beorn and the eagles,” she says. “Now go make sure Thorin and Fili survive their grand victory.”
Gandalf bows to her. “Even as you say, Bella Dragon-Slayer,” he replies, and heads for the healers’ tents; and Bella turns to see that everyone besides the company is staring at her.
“How does he know that?” she asks of no one in particular. Balin shrugs.
“Wizards,” he says, as if that explains everything, and Bella supposes it does.
“Dragon-Slayer?” says Lord Dain, curiously. “The raven was not quite clear on how, precisely, the dragon came to be dead, only that it had happened quite…decisively.”
Dwalin barks a laugh. “Decisively,” he says. “That’s one way to put it, I suppose. Mahal-damned thing exploded. We all suspect she just yelled it into submission.”
Bella can’t quite manage to glare at him, not when he’s got that tiny crooked smile almost hidden by his beard. She does thwack his arm gently as she takes her place beside him, careful not to hit any of the nicks which he has accumulated during the battle.
“I did not yell the dragon into submission,” she says. “But it did explode. Perhaps it ate something which didn’t agree with it.” Which is true, for a given value of truth. Somehow she doesn’t really want to tell all these tall, intimidating people that she killed the dragon by accidentally dropping a magic ring down its gullet.
Lord Dain gives her a long, evaluating look, and then he bows. “I am honored to meet you, Bella Dragon-Slayer,” he says, and Bella bows back, and smiles as best she can through a sudden wave of exhaustion and nausea.
“Likewise, Lord Dain,” she says, and lets the rest of the conversation, which is mostly about sending out parties to exterminate the last of the orcs, wash over her like waves.
Thorin is not going to die, and neither is Fili, though both will be many days in the hands of the healers. While they are incapacitated, Bella finds herself acting as a sort of vaguely neutral party, neither elf nor dwarf nor Man and therefore assumed to have no prejudices against any of them, and therefore called in for all the negotiations. It helps, she thinks, that she is the dragon-slayer, and therefore everyone there does owe her a sort of debt, in an odd way. She can yell at anyone she wants, and mostly they just look sort of honored to have been yelled at by the dragon-slayer herself.
By dint of quite a lot of yelling, and of directing anyone who looks vaguely competent towards Balin and Ori and Kili, Bella does manage to help get all of Lord Dain’s people settled in the mountain and helping with the seemingly endless chore of sorting the enormous pile of treasure. She does notice that some of the new dwarves pick up bits of dragon skin, dried now, from atop the pile and slip them into their pockets, and Ori informs her that there is a decent market, among the elves and Men, for pieces of the dragon which terrified them all for so long. She does not begrudge the dwarves whatever profit they may make on dragon-bits; she would frankly be just as pleased to never see anything vaguely dragon-related again.
She has a load of Dale’s treasures brought out and gives them to Bard, three days after the battle, telling Balin and Ori loudly to take them all from her share of the dragon’s hoard, and Bard makes a very pretty speech promising eternal gratitude, and Bella makes a very short and probably not nearly as pretty speech back disclaiming any need for such praise. Then Bard and his army head back to Laketown with the first installment of their treasure, and Bella watches them go with something like envy: they get to leave this whole mess behind and start over.
She gets to stay here and listen to Thranduil and the dwarves snipe at each other, day in and day out. Thranduil insists that since he and his elves helped win the battle, they should get something to repay them for their troubles. The dwarves, in turn, insist that Thranduil a) should have noticed an army of orcs coming through his forest, b) shouldn’t have been at the mountain in the first place, and c) only fought because the alternative was dying or running away.
Bella listens to this lovely circular argument, and worries about Thorin and Fili, both of whom are in what Gandalf calls ‘healing comas,’ for the better part of a week and a half. Then, finally, she has had quite enough of this nonsense, and if Gandalf, who has the authority to do something about it but seems amused enough to let it go on indefinitely, won’t do something, well, Bella will.
She stands up in the middle of iteration four-hundred-and-something of the same idiotic rambling, and the whole tent falls silent. There’s that for being Bella Dragon-Slayer, she supposes, who is assumed to have yelled a dragon to death. She does get listened to, these days.
She points at Thranduil. “I saved your life in the battle,” she says, and sees him bow his head in acknowledgement. “If you owe me anything for that, here is the payment I desire: stop trying to take from the dwarves what they have only just won back. If you go back to your forest and mind your own business and get back on my good side, maybe someday I’ll be able to talk Thorin into having proper diplomatic negotiations with you. But the longer you keep insisting that you’ve been wronged, in the face of an entire people who lost their homes, their kin, and everything but the clothes on their backs, the more likely it is that the next time I see you it will be across a battlefield. This is my price for your life, Elvenking: shut up, sit down, and stop pushing.”
Thranduil glares at her, and she can read in his eyes that she has made an enemy, one who will doubtless outlive her for millennia, but he shuts his mouth, and he sits back in his chair, and that will have to be enough.
She turns to the dwarves. “That said,” she says, and sees them brace themselves, “it was Prince Legolas who saved King Thorin and Prince Fili, and he did it at my desire and as a favor to me. I owe him a debt for that. And Erebor does need a diplomatic relationship with the Greenwood.” She does not call it Mirkwood, out of courtesy more to Legolas than his father. “So, tell me, Prince Legolas, what reward may I give you, who saved my friends?”
Legolas looks at his father, and he looks at the bearded, angry faces of the dwarves, and he clearly realizes that asking for her to claim the jewels the elves want and gift them to him, the way she did with the treasures of Dale for the Men, is not going to work at all. Bella watches him think – she gave him no warning, which was perhaps cruel, but he’s a clever lad, he’ll figure something out. And she watches him come to a conclusion.
“As you say, Bella Dragon-Slayer, Erebor and the Greenwood require some diplomatic ties. And I am young, and know little of the world. It seems to me that the relationship between elves and dwarves has suffered much from ignorance, on each side, and so I ask you for a favor which is perhaps not yours to grant: ask for me house-room, from the Men who rebuild Dale, and let me come to visit Erebor, and learn its people’s ways, so that when the day comes when our peoples sit again about a table, we may be less inclined to war.”
Bella blinks at him. So do the dwarves. Thranduil looks like someone put acid in his tea. But – it’s a good idea, Bella realizes. Having an elf around, a friendly cheerful elf who wants to be friends, might encourage the dwarves to learn something of their hereditary enemies. And having the son of the Elvenking learning about how dwarves think can only benefit future negotiations.
“I will write to Bard this very afternoon,” she says. “And wherever I shall make my home, in years to come, you will be welcome, Legolas Thranduilion.”
The next day, the elves go home, all but Legolas.
And the day after that, Thorin finally wakes up.
Bella and the company are the first people called to his side, and Bella braces herself to see his eyes still hazed with gold-madness, but instead he looks up at them all gathered around his beside, and says, “Oh, my friends – my friends, will you forgive me?”
“Of course,” Bella says, her voice joining the chorus, and she feels her face creasing into a grin wider than she has worn for what seems like years.
Lady Dis arrives with the spring, with the caravans from the Blue Mountains. She resembles her brother very closely, the same blue eyes and black hair and strong, handsome face, and she looks Bella up and down, and smiles at what she sees, and says, “I think I am going to like you, Bella Dragon-Slayer. Will you escort me to my idiot brother?”
Bella blank expression cracks into a smile. “Yes, I think we will be great friends,” she agrees. “Your idiot brother is right this way.”
As the two women move off, Bella hears Dwalin say to his brother, “Mahal help us, we’re all doomed.” She and Dis look at each other, and Dis smothers a chuckle.
Thorin looks up from his paperwork when they come in, and Bella sees him wince, just a little, before he rises and smiles at his sister.
“Dis,” he says, and Bella is honestly charmed by the clear love he holds for her. “I am very glad to see you.”
Dis clasps his hands and bumps her forehead against his. “I hear you’ve had some adventures, brother mine,” she says. “And some misadventures, too.”
Thorin sighs. “Yes, well. Being nearly killed is apparently a sovereign cure for gold-sickness. And – well. If no one has said so yet: Welcome home, sister. Welcome home.”
Dis smiles. “Thank you,” she says. “I will yell at you properly later. For now, I will let you finish your paperwork, and ask charming young Bella to bring me to my sons.”
“Charming,” Thorin chokes. “Oh Mahal, you two get along.”
Dis just grins at him. Bella notes with interest how much Dis’ grin resembles that of her younger son. Well. This will be fun.
They terrify everyone. Dwalin, who has the good sense to stay out of their way most of the time, is vastly amused by the reactions of the other dwarves who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ori, who is still Bella’s favorite, is exempt from being tormented; so too is Bombur, who brings both women tasty baked treats and doesn’t say stupid things. Everyone else learns very quickly what sorts of things not to say.
The seasons turn, and Erebor prospers. Bella goes back to the Shire the year after Dis arrives, to give Bag End to her young cousin Drogo and bring seeds and seedlings, and several hobbit farming experts, back to the mountain. She is a nine-days wonder in her homeland, given that she comes back from her adventure having married a dwarf and killed a dragon, and she and Lobelia have a good long gossip over tea which leads to Lobelia striking up a healthy and very enthusiastic correspondence with Dis.
And Bella returns to Erebor with everything she needs to grow her spices on the mountainside, sends the farmers off to help the Dale-men relearn their trade, and settles in quite happily in the rooms which Dwalin chose for them.
The years pass.
She has children, five of them, to the blank astonishment of every dwarf in Erebor. They are tiny and bearded and hairy-footed, and every one of them has Dwalin wrapped around his or her little fingers.
She rebuilds her trading empire, far larger now: she ships spices to Rivendell and to the Greenwood, and down the long river to Gondor and Rohan, and even to secretive Lothlorien. But she does not go herself with the trading-boats; she has had sufficient wandering even for Belladonna’s daughter, and has come home, even as her mother did, to the house her husband made for her.
The dwarves make songs of the Dragon-Slayer and her sword-edged tongue, and indeed Bella’s tongue gets no duller as the years pass; but it becomes something of a mark of honor to have been verbally flayed by the Lady Bella, and even more of one to have been praised by such a quick-tempered hero. The artisans whose work finds favor in Bella’s eyes prosper, and those she insults do very well; it is only those she ignores completely who are considered to have failed to pass her test. She is one of Thorin’s advisors, chief negotiator when he needs someone to talk to elves and Men, and though she gives a large part of her share of the dragon’s hoard away, she is never less than ridiculously wealthy.
Bella sits on the battlements overlooking Dale, and breathes in the sharp morning air, and watches the city begin to bustle as the sun rises. There is Bard, with his children like ducklings behind him, heading to the market to oversee the business of the city; there is Bofur opening his toy shop, and Bifur already surrounded by little ones clamoring for his attention; there are Fili and Ori waiting for Bard, to represent Erebor in any disputes which may arise. And there are Legolas and Gimli, the strangest pair of friends in all the land, off on another of their adventures; Gloin will be getting drunk tonight, and maudlin for the days when his son didn’t think an elf was pleasant company. Bella probably shouldn’t needle him, but frankly she thinks that Legolas and Gimli are good for each other, even if they do get into the damnedest scrapes.
There is a scrape of boot on stone behind her, and strong arms loop about her. Dwalin rests his chin on her head, and Bella reaches up with a snort of amusement to brush his beard out of her eyes. “Good morning, love,” she says quietly, with all the affection that most of the dwarves of Erebor suspect she cannot feel.
“Good morning, Bella sword-tongued,” Dwalin says, and she tilts her head up for his kiss. It is long and sweet, and Bella smiles against her husband’s lips.
“The children?” she inquires without worry.
“At their lessons with my brother. He ought to be able to keep them under control for at least another hour.”
“You are optimistic,” Bella says, and leans back against his chest, reveling in his warm strength and his deep chuckle.
“Dis is helping,” Dwalin says smugly. Bella laughs. Dis is one of the few people besides Bella who can make the tiny terrors behave themselves.
“Well then,” she says. “Have we somewhere we need to be?”
“No,” says Dwalin, and settles himself more comfortably, tucking her firmly against him and bracing his weight on the battlements. “I think we’re fine right here.”
“So we are,” says Bella, and smiles.
And that's everything, folks! Thanks, as ever, to all of you for reading and commenting and kudosing; thanks to my wonderful Best Beloved for his beta job; and very sincere thanks to the AO3 team for keeping the archive up and running!