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The Trouble with Soulmate Marks

Chapter Text

“Excuse me, but what did you just say?” demanded Billa Baggins, planting her hands on the natural shelves formed by her curvaceous hips. They were a bit less squishy after months of travel, but still good enough for this hobbit spinster.

“I asked if that strange brown circle on your upper arm is a soulmate mark,” repeated Fili slowly. “Really Billa, you need to work on paying attention more if you want to stay safe on our journey.”

“Not to mention that a better situational awareness would spare you some blushes and embarrassment, lass,” Nori added from behind her shoulder.

Billa jumped in surprise and huffed. “I manage to sneak up on you often enough that you have no room to talk!” she defended.

Nori laughed, licked his finger, and drew her a point in the air.  “The lass is better at sneaking than you are too, Fili,” Nori said. 

If Billa could distract them a little more, they’d turn their teasing to someone or something else. Bored dwarrows distract very easily. However, before she could come up with another topic, Kili hopped up from his perch on a log and jogged over to loudly cry, “Fili! You were supposed to wait for me to ask Billa about her mark.”

“What mark?” asked Gloin, joining the conversation. Everyone must have finished bathing at the same time. Lovely.  And as happened often and somehow unexpectedly, Billa found herself surrounded on all sides by Dwarrows. Even after months of it the situation still both startled and annoyed her, while simultaneously filling her with traitorous warmth. They were dear fellows, even if she wanted to pinch their ears and bop them over the head like some of her Took cousins occasionally.

“Does the lass have a soulmate mark too? Like mine?” Gloin’s hands went to his belt and began to unbuckle, but Billa did NOT need to see THAT again, or any of the surrounding territory. Gloin’s mark was centered behind his belt buckle and partially obscured by the generous hair covering his stomach. She found his flaunting of it disturbing.

“I am a respectable hobbit!” She shouted in exasperation, “As I’ve told you a thousand times!” Turning, she added, “And keep your pants on, Gloin, I remember well enough what your mark looks like,” she told him firmly.  Half the company was laughing at her reaction, which just goaded the rest of them on, drat them all.

“What does that have to do with anything?” asked Kili, tilting his dark head. “We’re asking about your soul mark, the one on the back of your upper arm. We caught a glimpse of it. So who’s the lucky hobbit? Did you turn him down flat? Are you still looking? Or is there a tragic story?

Billa ignored his questions and poked Kili hard in the chest, “Who is this ‘we’ catching glimpses of my upper arm, which is always covered unless I’m bathing or changing clothes? WELL?” She poked him again, her curls bouncing in indignation. You had to be firm with dwarves, she’d learned.

“Oh ho, you’re in trouble now lad,” guffawed Bombur.

Bofur put the back of his hand to his forehead in a pretend faint. “Oh dear, we’ve been living all this time with a peeping tom and just now discovered it!” Placing his hands on his cheeks he affected a high pitched voice, “Have you been ogling my very fine behind when I’m undressed, you shameless pup? Oh the indecency! And me a proper dwarf!” He pretended to swoon and lost his hat due to an overly dramatic gesture. 

A giggling Ori picked the hat up, dusted it off, and offered it back to Bofur.

“Thank you, lad,” Bofur said with great assumed dignity. “Be careful of that’a one,” he said out of the side of his mouth as he ushered the youngest member of their company away from Kili. “You don’t want his bad habits rubbing off on you now. Billa would stop trading stories with you if they did, and that would be a tragedy you’d never recover from.”

Ori opened his eyes wide and looked up at Bofur soulfully, “Oh dear, Master Bofur, I certainly never would. Please, defend my virtue until my big brother can protect me.”

Gloin snorted and then cackled when Bofur escorted Ori to Nori, only to be told sadly, “No, not that big brother. He’s a bad influence too.”

“Bofur! Ori! Stop it!” Kili cried through a red face.

“Yes, Ori,” Nori demanded with a laugh, “stop it at once or you’ll hurt my feelings even more. Then I might have to tell Dori about that thing with the jug after all.”

Ori immediately leapt away from Bofur with arms extended. “My favorite brother!” he cried, tackling Nori to the ground.

Billa couldn’t help but join the general laughter at their tomfoolery.

Kili laughed too, but then tried to explain. “It was an accident! I didn’t mean to look, but then I saw your mark and what a great body you hide underneath those clothes, I mean, who knew hobbit women with those smooth cheeks and hairy feet could actually be so, so…” he gestured with his hands as he struggled for words, one of those secret Dwarf signs that they refused to teach her. The rest of the men laughed earthily. She could guess well enough what that one meant though.

A mortified blush swept down her cheeks, over her chest, and probably all the way down to her very respectable hairy feet. Billa wanted to slap his cheek, and she would, once she managed to remove her hands from where they covered her face. Most of the time, she considered herself half-insane from travel because she actually liked and even loved most of the infuriating dwarrow males she travelled with. May the Shire save her, she even had come to laugh at their jokes and share her own.

When she hadn’t talked to one of them in a few days, she’d even seek the straggler out! Even Thorin was speaking to her nowadays, and had the most fascinating things to say, not to mention a dimple that she occasionally made peek out on his cheek that made her feel like she’d just drunk a mug of hot chocolate.

But right now, if a freak earthquake swallowed them all, she’d just smile, turn on her heel, and walk back to the shire. “I can’t believe you peeked at me when I was naked,” she said from behind her palms. “I’m not a dwarf or male. Hobbits don’t do that!”

“Oy, you did what to our burglar, boy?” Dwalin’s voice suddenly piped up with the start of an angry growl. Good. “Your mother taught you to treat females better than that, especially a friend.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Fili defended his brother. “We were taking a shortcut back after hunting and came in too far upstream. We accidentally saw her, and of course we immediately turned away, but the sun still shone quite brightly, so it’s not like we could miss her creamy curves and the mark on her arm.”

Kili stepped up. “Besides, she’s seen us bathing often enough, so we were just curious. Tit for tat and all, with us having the tat and her having the ti-,” Fili’s elbow to the side cut off the rest of his words.

Pulling her hands down from where they’d knotted in her curls, Billa saw the brothers smiling hopefully at her, looking almost innocent. Amazing. Taking a deep breath for focus, she took a quick double step, pivoted, pulled back her foot, and kicked out twice, once in the back of each brother’s knee, above the boot and right where they’d taught her just the week before. Happily, everything went perfectly. Her foot didn’t hurt, and Kili and Fili both went down like a load of sticks and smacked into the ground. Hard.

She lunged forward to kick them again, but was picked up by Bombur and dangled in the air before she could. Struggling to kick her captor and flailing like a scruffed kitten, she finally gave up and dangled in his grip. Patting her condescendingly on the head, Bombur put her down. “Those lads are more stone than flesh. You would have hurt yourself if you kept kicking at them.”

“That’s what you think,” Billa muttered.

“Ow,” Kili whined, getting up gingerly and limping a few steps away. “I was just being honest and nice! Don’t girls like being told they look attractive?”

“Not when you were peeking at them naked when they don’t expect it!” Billa shot back, riled.

Putting an arm over Kili’s and then Fili’s shoulder, Dwalin steered them over to stand in front of Billa. Both tried to edge back out of range of her feet, but the meaty arms behind their necks wouldn’t allow it. “Now lads, apologize for the mistake, for invading her privacy without an invitation, and for your discourteous words. If you do it now, this might blow over without any more groveling.” He gave them a firm shake. “Otherwise, you might have to explain your limps, and why Billa gave them to you, to Thorin when he returns from his own bath any minute now.”

“Gah!” Kili choked out. “I’m sorry we accidentally walked past you bathing and then told you how hot you looked. Please forgive me! Don’t let Uncle Thorin kill me! I’m too young to die,” Kili begged.

“And I’m too handsome to die!” Fili added. “I’m sorry too.” He looked up at her through dark blond lashes, soulfully like a lost puppy, despite being a foot taller and several decades older in age if not maturity.

Billa huffed out a big breath, then another. She paced back and forth, and then stopped with her hands on her hips again. “Oh all right, I suppose I will forgive you. But do NOT do it again. And don’t mention what I look like unclothed again.”

“Why not when you have nothing to be ashamed of- oomph,” Fili started before an elbow to the side from Nori shut him up. “Fine, fine, cultural differences etc., my lips are sealed,” he wheezed out.

“But are you blessed with a soulmate mark?” asked Gloin. “Or did you have to petition the gods to get it later? Is it one of those? You needn’t be ashamed if it is lass. There is one in this company who has such, and you know how much esteem I hold for him.” Billa opened her mouth to ask just who he was talking about, but Gloin kept talking without pause. “Just because some think it shameful, old-fashioned, arrogant, or stupid to bargain with the gods like that, especially when the consequences can be so horrible when it goes wrong. I won’t judge. I know the joy of finding your other half. After all, my-,” a hand snuck around his head and covered his mouth.

“Yes, yes, we all know your raptures of joy over your mate,” interrupted Nori, “but let’s not get off topic. What about our burglar’s mark? What’s the story?”

“There is no story,” Billa exclaimed with a huff and an eye roll. “It’s just a birthmark!”

Kili hummed doubtfully. “Maybe a soulmate birthmark? It looked a bit big for a mole. If you don’t want to say you don’t have to, but you can trust us you know.”

“It’s not a mole, it’s a birthmark! A large one, but it has no significance.” Billa explained with a hand wave. “Bagginses are respectable hobbits; we don’t have soulmates or anything overblown like that.”

Gloin broke Nori’s hold, shoved the other dwarf down, and sat on him. “Do you mean to tell me hobbits don’t have soulmates?” he asked incredulously as he blocked an elbow to the side.

Billa sighed. She tended to do a lot of that around her dwarrows.  “The rare hobbit might have a soulmate, but usually that type is found in the pureblooded Tooks or those who mate with outsiders, but even then only rarely. It’s not considered quite the thing, you see.”

“Why not?” Kili asked. “Doesn’t everyone want a soulmate?” He sounded lost.

“Oh heavens no,” Billa answered with a laugh. “Soulmates are too passionate, too possessive, have too many children and not enough prize-winning produce. No no no, soulmate marks are one of those unfortunate things that pop up in families like a hare-lip or near-sightedness or preference for only three meals a day. The community endures it because we must, because it’s too much effort to avoid them, and because such couples breed like rabbits and their children intermarry all over the place so they turn up at all of the parties, but nobody wishes for such a thing.”

The dwarrows all looked confused and slightly appalled.

Kili scratched his head, “but the mark on your arm really did look significant. Are you sure it isn’t a rune or pictograph or something significant? Maybe you just haven’t looked closely enough. That’s what happened with me. Mine isn’t a dwarven rune, it’s a bunch of little stars that make up a pattern. I’m unusually special for a dwarf. I haven’t found my soulmate yet, but I’m still young. Plus there’s always that thing with Uncle,” Kili stopped talking and coughed into his hand. “So, you know,” he trailed off and looked at her hopefully.

Perhaps he’d finally thought about what she’d just said instead of just ignoring her when he thought she was being silly?

But the ring of expectant dwarrow faces examining her told her this still wasn’t over. “Oh my goodness, this is ridiculous,” Billa muttered. It seemed like she didn’t have much choice. Unbuttoning the cuff of her blouse, she pulled the sleeve, quite loose now after months of minimal meals and constant walking, up to her shoulder and rolled her arm up to the sky. “See? It’s just a random reddish-brown blotch. It doesn’t have any meaning. Now will you all just leave me alone about it?”

“Yes, they all will,” a deep, commanding voice said from the edge of the trees behind her. It carried the faintest hint of violence, and a protective growl that made Billa confused because it caused her to think silly thoughts.

Turning around, Billa saw Thorin emerge from the shadows of the forest and sweep the dwarves with a stern look. They scattered like smoke under a stiff breeze. Yanking down her sleeve, Billa found herself blushing again. Thorin had always made her nervous, but at some point it had turned into a good nervous instead of a bad nervous. That didn’t keep her from trembling slightly like a complete ninny though, instead of the confirmed spinster who could chew up and spit out bachelors at will.

Focusing on her cuff, she tried to rebutton it, but her fingers kept slipping on the button.

“Were my nephews being inappropriate with you?” Thorin asked softly, stopping just a step away.

Billa took a deep breath and told herself to calm down. Her fingers steadied, but she let go of her button to answer Thorin. Glancing up at him from under her lashes, she saw him staring down at her forearm, usually covered, but now bared to his gaze. There was nothing indecent about it, but his intense focus made something in her belly clench.

“Your nephews were just being their usual selves. Teasing, poking, prodding, offending unintentionally, but good-natured at heart. They are perhaps too good at getting me riled up, but I am getting better at defending myself, so it evens out.” She sent him a conspiratorial grin, thinking about her perfectly executed kick.

Thorin didn’t smile back, but his face softened. “Good for you, Mistress Baggins.” He raised his hand towards her slightly, paused with a slightly open mouth, and then curled his fingers inward and lowered it again.

Confused, she raised an eyebrow. “Thorin, what is it? And I thought I told you, in fact I’m quite certain I did, to call me Billa. It’s in my contract if you need to see it written down. I’m sure Balin still has it on him somewhere.”

A small smile quirked his lips and the elusive dimple appeared.

Success!

“Very well. Billa.”

“And?” she prompted.

Thorin hesitated, but then reached out slowly and grabbed her around the wrist. Startled, Billa did nothing to stop him as he gently peeled her sleeve up to study her birthmark. Some strong emotion moved over his face, but she couldn’t decipher it. Just when she was about to say something to break the tension, a drop of water from his hair splashed onto her forearm.

Blinking rapidly, as if waking from a daze, he reached over with his other hand to wipe the water away. His fingers were surprisingly delicate for how large and calloused they were, and left a sizzle beneath her skin that lingered unsettlingly and elevated her pulse. Billa took a trembling breath and couldn’t help but smell something slightly spicy and exotic that had to be Thorin. She liked it a bit too much.

Pulling down her sleeve, Thorin gently buttoned it. “It is indeed just a normal birthmark.” The warmth of his large, strong hand holding her wrist so gently was not something she would soon forget. Unfortunately. She should know better by her age.

“Like I said,” Billa answered slow and soft.

Letting her wrist slip from his grasp, he stepped back.  “Forgive me, Mistress Baggins.”

She huffed at his formality.

“Billa,” he said, his mouth carefully shaping the syllables like someone savoring a bit of fudge. Then, nodding without making eye contact, he turned on his heel and disappeared back into the forest, leaving her alone, flustered, and craving something she shouldn’t.

Also, hungry.

Solving the simple things first, Billa went to her pack and fetched a snack. Bifur wandered over and she offered him some berries. They ate companionably until Billa felt at peace with the world and her stomach. Then they both got up and went to help the rest of the dwarrows with packing up for the next bit of travel.

Chapter Text

On her first day in Mirkwood, Billa followed her friends down twisting corridors and past large caverns until they were thrown into prison cells by the elven guards. Later, she followed Thorin to his meeting with Thranduil. Then she got lost.

It took Billa Baggins another four days of spying to find her friends again and figure out the guard schedule so she could visit them openly. The guard schedule operated on a system of chimes that rang through the entire cave system. Different chimes signaled meals and other things, but the guard system chimes were distinct. Once she connected the right chimes to the movement of the guards, avoiding their vigilant watching became much easier. She’d double-checked their comings and goings once against the chimes, and didn’t have the patience to wait again.

She would have twigged to it all sooner, but was operating on high stress and low food. A permanent bed needed to be found soon too. Catnapping in dusty closets and corners just wasn’t working for her. Hobbits were meant for more comfortable things.

Plus, the less said about her stench the better. She’d have to warn future travelers to wipe off spider viscera as soon as possible, because once it dried the smell was nigh impossible to remove without access to a soap and bath. Only this morning, two servers had paused in front of where she crouched under a table eating a bit of stolen bread and talked about the awful smell and how it seemed to come and go in the corridors lately. Luckily they blamed the dwarves and didn’t think to look down.

While she waited for the end of the current guard shift so she could visit her friends, she might as well continue listing her complaints. She had nothing better to do. Sighing silently, she looked down at her grubby hands.

A muted glint of gold caught her attention: the gold ring currently making her invisible. Billa frowned. Her little ring sometimes made her feel funny if she wore it too long. Maybe she was just imagining it, but a few times she’d felt her mood either dramatically elevate into overconfidence and manic euphoria, or drop down into abject hopelessness and despair. Such feelings were foreign to her hobbit character.

But her little ring was so pretty and useful. Maybe it was just being forced to sneak around all the time instead? It was hard to tell.

Whatever the case, it seemed to pass quickly. She wouldn’t remain uncaptured for long without her ring in this place. Billa could withstand a little discomfort. She wouldn’t give up such an advantage. She needed it to help rescue her friends. At the end of the day, the ring’s power to make her invisible was just too precious.

Crouched invisibly in a corner, she shifted her weight again to get more comfortable. The elf she called blond sourpuss for his perpetual frown walked by. He sniffed suspiciously and wrinkled his nose. Brown sourpuss and red sourpuss also patrolled the corridors near the dwarves sometimes. She’d figure out all their names eventually, but she had more important things to worry about.

Billa couldn’t wait to speak with Thorin again. She was worried about him after witnessing his disastrous meeting with Thranduil. Plus, she just missed him. It felt like a strange case of indigestion. After seeing him every day for months, she’d gotten used to it. She’d grown to like it.

The break in the guards should start any minute now. Billa hadn’t been down here in a couple of days. She’d been trying to find a way for them all to escape when she’d gotten lost. Finally she’d just fallen asleep in an abandoned storeroom. Luckily she’d caught sight of the red-haired Captain Tauriel and followed her back here.

Billa wanted to talk to Thorin, but she couldn’t figure out what cell he was in. The cells were shadowed. Most of the dwarves were asleep, snoring loudly. Thorin had to be in there somewhere, but it would be too disruptive to keep searching for him. She couldn’t risk the guards getting suspicious. Plus, even though she knew she was invisible, she couldn’t help feeling anxious when elves walked right by her or looked through her. It made her explorations more cautious than perhaps they needed to be. Frustrated with herself and the whole situation, she chewed on a hangnail, trying to even it out while waiting.

Since Kili’s prison cell sat lowest down in the cavern, the guards visited it last on their rounds. Billa decided to visit him first. It would give her more time to escape later. Plus, she could use a bit of cheering up and he was the perfect dwarf for that. He’d also know which cell housed Thorin.

Unlike the rest of the dwarves, Kili was awake and waiting for something. Sure enough, here came the final patrolman: Captain Tauriel. After her there should be a gap long enough to sneak in and take off the ring to chat. Billa’s belly filled with nervous excitement. She couldn’t wait to talk to a friendly face for the first time in days.

Unfortunately, Captain Tauriel stopped by Kili’s cell.

Why did she stop? Because the silly boy called her over to chat!

Billa gnawed at her lip in annoyance. Why was Kili flirting with his elven captor? Didn’t dwarves dislike elves? Didn’t he realize he had better people he could be talking to, like his very loyal yet lonely friend Billa Baggins? She wanted to talk to him now and he was wasting precious time. The next gap in the guards wasn’t for hours and hours.

Strangely enough, Captain Tauriel seemed to respond to Kili’s flirting. It was very coyly done, but Billa could tell that the elf seemed to like Kili almost despite herself. Little smiles kept twitching at the corner of her mouth, and a few times her eyes had even twinkled. Their fingertips even touched glancingly once. Both turned adorably pink.

If Billa wasn’t so desperate to talk to Kili, she’d find it all endearing. But she did want to talk to him. Chop chop, time was of the essence right now! Durin’s day was fast approaching. He needed to get his priorities straight. Kili had a duty to help Billa figure out their escape!

Finally, Tauriel seemed to remember that she was flirting with her prisoner and neglecting her other duties. Kili tried to delay her leaving, but she sent him a parting insult that came out indulgent instead of mean. Kili noticed too, the scamp, and smirked. Rolling her eyes to the sky, the Captain twirled around and stalked off.

The elf passed silently within a few feet of the hobbit. If Billa’s eyes had been closed, she wouldn’t have even known Tauriel was there. The only mark of her passing was a slight waft of air and the susurration of Tauriel’s long red hair gliding across the quiver nestled by her side.

But at least she wasn’t as bad as Prince Legolas. Luckily he didn’t come down to the dungeons often. All elves were naturally light on their feet, but Legolas made the rest of them seem like puppies trapped in a bramble bush. He could probably dance a drunken jig without flickering a single candle flame. It made avoiding detection very difficult and stressful. Billa had almost physically run into him a few times because she’d gotten distracted looking around and he was so darn quiet.

Billa waited a minute more to make sure Tauriel wasn’t coming back. Then she scampered forward to crouch in the piddling shadows next to Kili’s cell. Hopefully they’d be enough to conceal her from any unexpected eyes. Taking a deep breath for courage, she slipped off her ring.

The young dwarf prince stood leaning against the wall staring dreamily off into space. He didn’t even notice her appearance. Was he love-sick or something ridiculous like that?

“Psst! Kili,” Billa whispered with exasperation.

He startled and almost fell over sideways. “Billa, you’re safe!” he exclaimed loudly.

“Shh!” she scolded, looking over her shoulder anxiously. “Not so loud. The guards will only be on break for a little while longer now that Captain Tauriel is gone.”

Kili’s lips quirked into a fond smile, “You’ve seen her then? Isn’t she magnificent?”

“Tauriel?” Billa asked.

“Of course Tauriel, who else?” he answered with a besotted sigh.

“Well yes, she’s an elf so of course she’s gorgeous. She’d have to be both smart and courageous to be captain of the entire guard, too,” Billa replied. “Plus, she actually seems to appreciate your sense of humor, so that’s a huge testament to her character. I guess calling her magnificent is fitting.”

Then Billa pointed a finger in his face, “But that is completely irrelevant right now! We need to focus on the fact that you are locked up and I am sneaking around trying to get you all out in time to make the mountain by Durin’s Day! I can’t find Thorin with everyone asleep and I don’t have time to keep looking, so I am coming to you! I need plans, information, inspiration, something, anything!” Throwing out her hands, she waited. She knew she had crazy eyes, but she didn’t care.

Kili swallowed and looked at her seriously. “Do you really think she likes me? I mean my sense of humor? I thought so, but I was afraid it was just wishful thinking.”

“Kili, focus!” Billa scolded fiercely.

Then she added, “But as much as I can tell with another woman of a different race, then yes, I do.”

Kili joyfully opened his mouth, but Billa smothered his words with her hand. “Now focus! Escape plans! Status of our friends!” She waited for him to close his mouth and nod before removing her hand and wiping it dry on her trousers. “Okay, report.”

Saluting mockingly, he began. “The cells are too tough to break out of. Ancient dwarves probably had a hand in helping to construct these caverns. None of us have managed to break any bars or loosen any stones. Unfortunately, getting the keys seems the only way out of our cells so far. The food isn’t great, but at least it’s better than the almost nothing we had out in Mirkwood. That first day was the worst. I think they’re running out of nasty stuff to give us, because each meal tastes a little better than the last. Plus the water is plentiful and from what we can tell, not that nasty enchanted stuff from the forest,” he sent her a half smile as they both remembered the awful scare they’d had hauling a sleeping Bombur through Mirkwood.

“Speaking of which, Bombur has fully recovered from that mishap, at least according to his complaints when the food trays come around.” Taking her hand comfortingly, Kili continued, “Everyone else seems to be doing fine from what I can tell from our shouting back and forth. Oin’s been a bit quiet, but his ear trumpet got even more mangled, so he probably just doesn’t realize we’re speaking to him.”

Billa let out a sigh of relief and gripped his hand back tightly. She couldn’t bear it if one of her friends got sick or hurt. That was just one more problem to solve and she already had enough of those.

It felt so good to touch another person, especially a friend. Hobbits just weren’t meant to be alone for long. They were social creatures made for comfort, not for scampering around in caves hiding from elves, a good portion that seemed either discontent or perpetually drunk. Living in such a dark wood had certainly taken its toll on the people here. The elves in Rivendell were so much more pleasant.

“Unfortunately they put Fili in a cell pretty far away, so I can’t joke with him for long before I start going hoarse,” Kili added sadly as he looked up the row of cells. His spirits weren’t as high as Billa had initially thought. He’d just been concealing it with that talk of his crush on Tauriel. Drat.

“Sorry.” Kili bonked himself on the head to shake off his melancholy. “But thank goodness you’re safe. Bofur especially has been asking after you, you know how he worries, but we all refused to believe you’d been eaten by the spiders. No one’s seen you since you cut us loose from the webs. Everyone’ll be relieved you’re not only alive, but actually free to roam the hallways.” He gave her a conspiratorial, close-lipped smile.

“Thorin especially will be pleased,” he teased.

Billa leaned forward. “Which cell is he in? I want to talk to him next.”

Kili’s smile faded. “You’ll have to figure that out yourself. After his big argument with Thranduil a couple of days ago,” Kili paused and checked her face for understanding.

“Yes, I managed to sneak in and see that one,” Billa acknowledged dryly. “It went horribly. I couldn’t have imagined it going worse and I have quite a good imagination, being a storyteller. I had some hope of your release and the elves being reasonable, but that died when Thorin spit Khuzdul insults into the Elven King’s face and Thranduil hissed Sindarin insults back and then threatened to keep Thorin trapped down here for the next century.”

Kili snorted and then sighed. “Well, it is Thranduil. I’m sure he deserved it.”

Billa laughed sadly and leaned against the bars. “I’d like to disagree with you, but he was being rather awful. Still, I wish Thorin had kept his temper. I think flattery would have gotten us pretty far with that one.”

Kili shrugged philosophically. “Empty flattery isn’t Thorin’s style, especially not of an elf.”

“True,” Billa conceded with a sigh. “It’s hard enough to get him to say nice things when you actually do deserve it.”

Despite her cynical words, she couldn’t help remembering what had happened after she’d saved Thorin’s life during the clifftop battle with Azog. They’d always had tension, but after that it changed. After the eagles left, Thorin stood to face her. Then he unexpectedly scooped her up into a warm, exuberant embrace and declared his thanks and esteem to the entire company. Billa couldn’t help it when her initial swell of relief flipped over into happiness and adoration.

Just before letting her go, he’d dipped his mouth near the shell of her lightly pointed ear and breathed in deeply. She’d shivered and felt his lips turn up in a smile. Then he whispered, “I see it now. You are my treasure. I was blind. Thank Mahal for bringing you to me, Billa Baggins.”

She tingled every time she thought about it, though she still didn’t know what he’d meant by his words. It shouldn’t matter. She was a hobbit spinster with plans of growing prize-winning tomatoes and writing a book in Bag End, while he was a Dwarven King intent on killing a dragon and regaining his kingdom in Erebor. They would part after this quest. She had no business imagining anything different. She shouldn’t want anything different.

Kili’s voice broke her out of her depressed musings. “Well, after that meeting they brought Thorin back to his cell, but then a few hours later the guard came back and took him away again on orders of Thranduil. We haven’t seen him since.” His words wobbled a bit and he couldn’t quite hide the sheen of worry in his eyes.

Billa patted his hand comfortingly. “I’ll look for Thorin next and then come back and let you know how he’s doing. I’m sure he’s fine. Probably offending all his guards and snootily explaining ways they could improve on the inferior elven architecture with some solid dwarvish construction.”

Kili smiled through wet eyes. “Dearest Burglar, what would we do without you to lift our spirits and save us from calamity?”

Uncomfortable and slightly hysterical laughter tried to escape Billa’s throat, but she swallowed it down. That wouldn’t help the current situation, no matter how much she wanted to lie back and beg someone else to do the saving this time. Besides, it would worry Kili even more, and he didn’t deserve that. Being locked up was bad enough. Dwarves didn’t really like being alone that much either, and his separation from his brother Fili, not to mention the disappearance of his uncle, obviously troubled him.

Missing the thoughts flying across Billa’s face, Kili continued his narrative. “No one else has been taken out of the cells yet except Thorin. If they would open at least two of our cells at once, we might have a chance to overwhelm the guards just long enough to get the rest of us out. But after that no one has any clue how to get out of here without being recaptured or cornered and starved out. Plus we’d have to get Thorin out too and we don’t know where he’s being held. Perhaps once you find Thorin, he’ll have a plan.” Kili looked hopeful, but Billa feared that Thorin would be just as clueless about this place as the rest of them. Her optimism had once again flagged. “So that’s it,” he concluded. “But if there’s anything more you can think of for me to do, just ask and I’ll do it.”

Billa sighed. “You’re a gem, Kili. If I think of anything, I’ll let you know.” Billa was out of ideas on the escape front, but she was loath to end the conversation just yet. “We have a bit more time before the next guard patrol,” she said, and then trudged up the energy for a teasing smile, “so let’s go back to talking about the magnificent Captain Tauriel, shall we? Just what is going on there?”

A blush stained Kili’s cheeks and he dropped his head shyly. “She’s perfect, inside and out. Every time we speak, I can feel my heart pounding in my chest like a hammer shaping metal on the forge. But it isn’t metal being shaped by the blows, it is my soul. Everything makes sense now.”

He looked up into Billa’s eyes excitedly. “I see now that this is my moment of choice, that she is the person promised by my soulmate mark to be my other half. There are mysterious and magical stars on my body that don’t belong to me. They belong to my soulmate, to her. When Tauriel spoke of the light of the stars being warm, of being memory, I knew that my stars were placed there for her. They are to remind her that I am her home, just as she will be mine.”

Billa mouth dropped open in surprise. She hadn’t expected that revelation at all. Soulmates! What an unlikely pair. What awful timing! Or wonderful timing, depending on how things all worked out. She hoped they worked out. Kili deserved all the best things in the world. But could an elf of Mirkwood give him that? It just reminded her of why Hobbits avoided the messy soulmate business if possible.

“Well, congratulations,” Bill said to his happy countenance. “I know you’ve been looking for her. I’m surprised she has the will to leave you locked up down here though. What does she think of being your soulmate?”

Kili’s happiness dimmed. “She doesn’t know yet. I think she suspects, but she hasn’t accepted the bond with me like I’ve accepted the bond with her. I’ve tried sending her dreams, but she hasn’t mentioned them. She might not choose me in the end.”

“I don’t understand,” Billa said. “There aren’t many hobbit soulmates, but there isn’t much choice involved, from what I’ve heard. When someone is born with a soulmate mark, they either have to go to great lengths to avoid ever meeting their intended, like moving to live in Bree, or else they stick together from their moment of meeting like burrs on sheep. Trying to get them to separate for the first few years can be disgustingly difficult, even just to go to different sides of the market. Even those hobbits somehow ignorant of the fact that they possess a soulmate mark won’t willingly separate from their partner once they’ve touched. The scandalous gossip generated in such situations lasts for years.”

Bewilderment creasing his brow, he asked, “How can someone not know they have a soulmate mark?”

“Buttocks,” Billa replied concisely.

Kili barked out a surprised laugh before clapping a hand over his mouth and looking down the corridor worriedly. One of the snores stopped, but no guards came. “Sorry,” he apologized, “I just pictured it and couldn’t help myself.”

“Well, that and a traditional family determined to ignore the possibility of such scandal being born into their line. They never told him, and who really ever twists around to look at their own buttocks?” Billa added just to see him stifle another laugh.

Getting into a more comfortable position, Kili moved until he sat cross-legged facing the bars. Billa shifted to mirror his position. With a gentle smile he reached through the bars and clasped her hands. “Dwarven soulmate marks don’t work like that. We’re different from hobbits and men. Maybe from elves too, I don’t know.”

He became pensive for a moment before continuing. “With Dwarves, you can choose not to bond with your soulmate, though that’s rare. Not all marks are the same either. Dwarves have two types.” Kili folded out two of her fingers and held them up.

“Wait,” Billa stared at her fingers. “Two? Why would you even need more than one?”

“Yes, two. Or wait ,no, three. That one’s kinda shameful and weird. Old fashioned. Fili says that only really old people even talk about it, but I think he just says that because he likes to be annoying.” Kili wiggled her third finger as Billa scrunched her brown in confusion.

“I’m lost already,” she said.

“I guess it’s relevant so I’ll explain that one too.” Kili released her fingers and shifted a bit on the hard stone ground.

“Relevant? Why? Or wait, no, back up,” Billa said. “How you can choose not to bond with your soulmate? Even after you’ve met? Isn’t that the whole reason people want to have a soulmate? Not having to worry about making the wrong choice and getting stuck with someone awful that cares for you too little instead of too much? Just having it figured out for you? At least, that’s what I’ve heard.”

“Not for dwarves. What a strange thought,” he said with a slight laugh, “having no choice. Now hush and let me finish explaining!”

“Sorry, please continue,” she said, ducking her head in mock obedience.

“Some few dwarrow have a single, obvious soulmate mark that appears at puberty,” he went on. “There is only one other soul out there that is a perfect match for you. You know your soulmate when you meet them, but you don’t have to bond with them. There is a choice. Accepting a soulmate is a glorious and serious responsibility. However, it can lead to neglect of ones’ craft or kin. Dwarven soulmates are also extremely passionate, obsessive, and possessive. It can cause conflict. When you all live so close together underground, sometimes the risk isn’t worth the reward. There is honor is making your craft your primary and only purpose. Some of our greatest cultural treasures were made by such individuals.”

“How would that even work?” Billa shook her head softly.

Kili flicked her forehead. “The stubbornness of dwarrows is legendary. You should know that by now.”

Billa smacked away his hand. “Yes, I can certainly personally attest to that.”

“A dwarf will cut off his nose to spite his face if he thinks it necessary, or sometimes even just to prove he can do it.” Kili evaded her swiping fingers to tap her nose. “Rejecting a soulmate is the same sort of thing. The maker decided to give us a choice to reduce the chances of that.”

Kili’s lips quirked wryly. “In the past, I’ve sometimes teased myself with the thought of just going it alone. Deep down I’ve wondered if I’d ever find her in the halls of my people. Fili called it a silly fear, but I realize now it was a premonition. Another dwarf would be so much simpler; mating with an elf will make things much harder. There is still so much work to do to keep our people safe. It weighs heavily on Uncle Thorin and my mother. But I must believe that anyone chosen to fit my soul would also care about the fate of my kin.”

“Perhaps others will say that focusing all my passions on my craft is the only honorable choice when confronted with an elven soulmate, but having now met her, I am undone. Stars light my dreams. I cannot do aught but love her now, even if she never chooses me back,” he said huskily.

Closing his eyes, he spoke with quiet conviction, “In the pause between my heartbeats an elven voice now sings. Even when she’s far away, I can still perfectly recall her faint perfume of clean leather, stiff fletching, sharp steel, and the lilac soap she must use to wash her hair. My concerns shrink in importance. I have chosen and will accept the consequences as they come.”

“Then I wish you only good consequences from your choice,” Billa said firmly. Kili opened his eyes and smiled at her gratefully. “Whatever comes, you have my support and friendship, as does she.”

“Thank you,” he cleared his throat emotionally and continued. “Where was I? That’s right, explaining dwarrow soulmate marks. I don’t actually have the first type of marking. I was born with the second type.”

Billa raised her eyebrows in exasperation. “Then why didn’t you start with that one? I want to know about you here, not random other dwarrows!” Billa paused and rethought what she’d just said. “Okay, wait, I do want to know about other dwarrows, and this is fascinating, and you know I am curious about different cultures, but especially about you guys, so what I really mean is mmph-!” Kili covered her mouth and cut her off.

“I get it already, silly hobbit,” he said. “Take a breath.”

Billa wrinkled her nose at him in displeasure and crossed her eyes at him. He took away his hand. Then he made a silly face back at her. The two of them spent the next minute making silly faces at each other until finally they dissolved into laughter. She’d needed that, dearest boy.

Clearing his throat, Kili continued. “Right, the second type of soulmate mark, and the most important because I happen to have been born with it. When I was but a wee babe fresh from my mother’s womb, Uncle Thorin discovered a series of faint, interlocking symbols on both of my upper arms. They darkened as I got older. All of the symbols were different, with two symbols on each side. That gave me four possible soulmates.”

Billa had to bite her tongue to keep from interrupting with a spate of questions.

“Here, let me show you.” Kili kneeled up, reached behind his head, and unselfconsciously pulled off his shirt.

Billa sputtered. “Kili! I’ve told you a thousand times not to just take off your clothes in front of me, remember?”

“No, but then you say a lot of silly things about respectable this and proper hobbit behavior that. After a while I just tune that stuff out,” he said cheekily, winking and flexing his chest muscles alternatively until they bounced up and down ridiculously beneath the thick hair common to all the dwarves. Despite her best efforts, she’d managed to get a good look at everyone in various stages of undress. Well, everyone but Thorin. He made sure not to parade around naked like the rest of them on wash day.

“You brat,” she laughed. Billa never could stay irritated with him for long, even when he said and did the most annoying things.

“Now look,” he said, leaning forward to show her his upper arms and a set of very impressive biceps. He was obviously showing off again, but Billa wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of pointing it out.

“Hmm, a bit smaller than some of the other company members,” she teased.

“Hey,” he squawked quietly, “I’m showing you my mark right now. Focus on that.”

“There are only the stars you’ve shown me before,” Billa said, touching them gently. “I don’t see any other marks.”

Kili relaxed back onto his heels. “Even though I had four types of marks, I only possess one soul. I can only have one soulmate,” he explained. “That’s why a dwarf with this type of mark must choose one passion to follow and forsake the others. That’s the only way to ever mate fully with your match. Over time the other marks fade until only one remains, like my stars, a sign that you’ve made yourself worthy and perfect for your one, even though you may have initially been compatible with several. It requires sacrifice to make it work, but there is always the hope of that ultimate love.” He smiled softly.

“A dwarf born with this type of soulmate mark is special, which can come as no surprise to you after knowing me,” he said with a wink. “It signals that the dwarf owns a very agreeable soul, faceted like a precious gem cut by a master craftsman. Each facet is a different aptitude. Only the most talented of dwarrows have such a mark. It is very, very rare. The last one we know of was born right before the burning of Erebor. Unfortunately, she didn’t manage to escape.”

They shared a moment of silence before he continued. “Even when down to just one mark, a dwarf may still choose not to bond to his other half, though that almost never happens with this type of soulmate marking.”

How different dwarf culture seemed from that of hobbits! She suspected that there were more connotations she was missing due to cultural ignorance, but Billa found the explanation absolutely fascinating. The emphasis on choice seemed strange at first, but once she thought about it she realized that dwarves were so contrary and stubborn that forcing them to do anything, even good things, had an even chance of blowing up in your face. Give dwarves a choice to have a soulmate, and most would choose to bond. Give hobbits a choice, and most of them would politely decline.

Leaning back from another examination of his mark, Billa said, “You can put your shirt back on now.”

“You sure? I don’t mind keeping it off for you,” he winked.

Rolling her eyes, Billa replied, “I’m sure. Besides, I can see the goosebumps rising on your skin. It’s freezing down here.

“It’s not that bad,” he defended. “Most of us find it pretty comfortable. But your hands do feel like ice. Maybe you should steal yourself an extra coat or blanket.”

By the time he’d pulled his shirt back on and tucked it in, Billa had thought of several more questions. “So what did you choose to focus on that left you only with the stars as your soulmark?”

“I didn’t know I was choosing my stars then, but I decided to focus on archery.” Intensity sharpened his features. “I wanted to learn not only how to become the most accurate archer, but how to make the best arrows. They say that in the battle with Smaug, he could have been killed by a specially forged black arrow. However, the secret of their making was lost and only a few still existed when the dragon attacked. The black arrows were entrusted to men. Yet the Lord of Dale missed shot after shot, wasting the arrows and allowing the dragon to conquer the lonely mountain.”

An angry scowl marred his face. “One day I will rediscover the secret to making the black arrows. I will forge enough for an army of dwarves, and we will use them to bring Smaug down out of the sky and kill him once and for all. I will revenge my people’s suffering. Then I will become the best arrow-maker in the land. Elves from every kingdom will travel across the continent to buy arrows from me.” His face burned with conviction.

But then he looked at her and seemed to shrink in on himself. He smiled self-consciously. “You probably think I sound crazy. Most people do, a dwarf becoming a master fletcher even greater than the elves.”

“No, I believe you.” Billa looked him square in the eyes. “I know you Kili, son of Durin, and if that is your passion, if that is your dream, then I have every confidence that you will find a way to make it happen.”

Tears welled in his eyes. Kili looked away to wipe his face on his shoulder. “No one ever really says things like that to me. Usually I’m just silly Kili that no one trusts with anything.”

“Thorin obviously trusted you enough to take you on this mission,” Billa disagreed. “He’s trusted you to defend us on the road. We all have. Even if they haven’t said it out loud, our company knows your worth. You are valued.”

A few more tears welled over to slide down Kili’s cheeks. “Right, well,” he blew out a breath. “Thank you, Billa Baggins. You are a right true friend and,” he paused to wipe his face clean before continuing with a smile, “if I hadn’t just given my heart away to an elven lass I’d surely lose it to you.”

Surprised and pleased by the compliment, she took his hand and squeezed. “You are a dangerous flirt. I will have to keep guarding my heart carefully around you else you steal it from me accidentally.”

He laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m far too afraid of the consequences to even think about pursuing you seriously, even before I met Tauriel. Thorin would kill me.”

“Thorin?” she asked in confusion. “Why?”

Kili coughed into his hand and looked away. “Oh, uh, you know, as leader and my uncle and all. What were we talking about again?”

Billa shrugged her shoulders. “Soulmate marks. You said dwarrows had three types, but you’ve only mentioned two.”

Kili winced for some reason. “Oh, right, that. Okay, so finally there is the last and most rare type of soulmate mark.  I don’t really know how it’s done, but a dwarf can petition Mahal, the maker, to give them a soulmate mark to help them find a soulmate. Mahal somehow brands the petitioning dwarf with a riddle that can only be solved by their true soulmate. It also is supposed to change them so that they will fit perfectly with a soulmate where they didn’t before. To be so blessed is a double-edged sword. You’d have to be really desperate to do such a thing. In the past, such marks were considered a special sign of favor and were honored. But nowadays things are different. Times are harder. Lots of dwarves think it’s selfish and wrong, or that it brings bad luck and change, and will penalize a dwarf for even attempting it.”

Wide eyed, Billa kept listening. “Besides that, the right person isn’t obvious. Your soulmate won’t actually have a mark because only one of you has bargained with Mahal, so it’s notoriously difficult to find them. You can’t just go up to everyone you meet and beg them to solve your riddle, because if you are wrong, they might just tell everyone else and get you kicked out of town and banned from the local mine.  I guess you find someone you really like and pray to the maker that they can answer the riddle correctly. I’m just glad I don’t have to deal with that,” he finished soberly.

Billa felt sick just thinking about it. What a mess! “Can such a dwarf change his mind? Choose not to pursue the soulmate after all?”

An uncomfortable look slid over Kili’s face. “By petitioning the maker directly, a dwarf forfeits that choice. If they later refuse the sacrifice needed to change and find their one and give up or turn their back after discovering them, they will be cursed. Their other relationships, sometimes even their sanity, will suffer. It can spread like poison. That’s another reason why so many dwarves think it bad luck. Only the truly desperate or crazy ever attempt it. Why Mahal chooses to answer some pleas and not others is a mystery.”

A heavy silence fell. It took a moment for Billa to realize something was wrong. It was too quiet. The snores had stopped.

“Breakfast!” echoed Bombur’s voice down the corridor.

Billa and Kili looked at each other in panic.

Jumping up, Billa fumbled at her vest but she couldn’t find it. Where was her ring? Finally her scrabbling fingers found it wedged into the corner of the pocket. Frantically she tugged it out and slipped it on.

Kili gasped when she disappeared before his eyes. “I don’t know how you just did that, but get out of here quick before you’re discovered. I’ll make a distraction.”

Pressing his face up against the bars, Kili shouted up the hall, “Hey! I figured out why they make us eat this crap with wooden spoons.”

What was he doing, calling attention to their corner? Billa wondered frantically.

“Why’s that, lad?” called back Bofur from up the hall.

“A little bunny told me,” Kili yelled. Beorn had called her little bunny and the dwarves had all teased her mercilessly about it for days. They would know what it meant. They would know she was alive and free.

“Was it a dust bunny?” Gloin asked suspiciously, a bit slow on the uptake.

Kili laughed. “Aye, very dusty, and it’s afraid we’ll blunt the knives!”

Then he began loudly singing, “Blunt the knives, bend the forks, smash the bottles and burn the corks!” A rousing cheer drowned out his next phrase, but quickly all the dwarves joined in on the song they’d first sung to Billa in Bag End all those months ago. Gloin caught on and joined the singing heartily.

How she missed her soft nightgown and dressing coat, her full pantry and fresh garden. Dwarven boots stamped, hands clapped, and everything that could possibly make a racket was utilized. The returning elves stood frozen on the upper staircase with appalled expressions. Admittedly, the song had had a similar effect on her the first time she’d heard it too.

Taking advantage of the racket, Billa snuck away. As the song faded with distance, her fears for Thorin swelled. She refused to believe that Thranduil had killed Thorin in a rage. He had to be locked up here somewhere, alive and well, even if she hadn’t come across him in all of her wanderings. He had to be. Rubbing away the ache in her chest, Billa forced her spine to straighten. It had been interesting hearing about dwarven soulmates, but it didn’t really apply to her. She needed to focus on what did.

First she needed to find a bit of breakfast. She hadn’t eaten in who knows how long. Then she could start trying to find Thorin. At least that was a more manageable goal than getting them all out of this place without anyone noticing. Yes, she would find Thorin. Then everything would be better.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Chapter Text

Outside a large kitchen full of industrious elves chopping, mixing, cooking, and cleaning sat an alcove with a small decorative table. Cobwebs curtained the corners and covered ancient mathoms and knickknacks. For some reason it had a dusty cushion sitting underneath it. Perhaps something fragile and valuable had once sat there, but now it was perfect for a little hobbit bum.

Yesterday, Billa had claimed the spot as her dining room and eaten a slice of potato pie she’d filched. Then she’d come back and caught an apple falling off a platter. Although two snacks were still a full handful of meals short of her preferred seven a day, she couldn’t fault the taste. Everything had been delicious.

Billa was slowly making her way towards the alcove. She had to periodically flatten herself against the wall as parties of elves made their own way towards the dining hall near the kitchen. Each time she had to stop, her yearning to rest in her little alcove got stronger. A few more cobwebs in her tangled brown hair wouldn’t make a difference either. She still hadn’t managed to wash out the nasty ones from the forest.

Several elves had mentioned attending special cleansing ceremonies in bathing rooms with natural springs in them. Wide-eyed, Billa had spent over an hour searching for a bathing room off the beaten path, but she’d had no luck. What she wouldn’t do for a bath!

Some big weeklong elven festival was due to start soon. That meant the people in the kitchens were keeping a close eye on the food stores to make sure they had enough for the entire week of crazy celebrations. Her first couple of times filching food had been remarked upon very quickly. Too quickly. It had caused her no end of worry. Now she was much more careful.

Once the partying started, food should be more plentiful. Billa wondered what a crazy celebration meant to an elf. Probably not the same as a hobbit, but she looked forward to finding out. There was sure to be lots of food left unattended on tables and chairs for her to sample. She might even find the time to enjoy some good elvish music, if she was lucky.

After sitting for so long on the stone floor talking to Kili, her bum couldn’t wait for her cushion. However, after turning the corner she had to pull up short. Two elves were disassembling her alcove! Oh no, they took her cushion too!

One of the elves dipped a cloth into a bucket with a splash and then started scrubbing the walls and floor. “It’s just the dwarven stench drifting up through the ventilation shafts,” he complained to his companion as he scrubbed. “That’s where most of the complaints are coming from, down near the holding cells. I don’t know why we have to clean random stuff like this when there is so much to be done for the holiday.”

The other elf sighed as he bent over scrubbing at the table. “And I’ve told you that I agree with you, but multiple people have mentioned a bad smell drifting through the halls this week. Two different people complained to me of smelling something strange over here. We’re the cleaning staff.  It’s our responsibility to find and remove unpleasant messes, especially before the festival starts.” Putting down the bucket of dirty water on the tabletop, he stood up and stretched his back.

With dawning horror Billa realized that the stench troubling the immaculate elven city was probably her! Hunching her shoulders up to her ears, she felt a rush of scarlet heat her face. She’d have cleaned off if she could have. It wasn’t her fault! She just hoped no one back home ever found out about this. The disgrace would last for years. How mortifying!

A chime sounded, heralding the morning meal interval. An annoyed-looking elf with white-blond hair down to his knees and fancy white leggings came out of the kitchen holding a tray and paused by the duo. “Save some of that soap for me, will you Lifar?” he asked. “I have to take some food to the dwarf King-in-exile and I’m sure to come back smelling rotten.”

They snickered like schoolyard bullies. The sound covered up Billa’s gasp of outrage. Then the three them began throwing around racist jokes about dwarves. Fisting her hands, she had to resist the urge to give them all a good hard kick. Suddenly she had a Tookish idea. Sneaking forward, Billa reached out with her finger and slowly pushed the dirty bucket of water to the very edge of the table. It wobbled, but held.

A group of guards came walking around the corner. Billa flattened herself back against the wall and barely missed getting her toes stepped on. Legolas, the blond prince everyone deferred to, led the group. He stopped in front of the rude elf.

“Is that the tray for the dwarf King, Asindar? Good, I just need one more thing and then we’ll leave.” Legolas said.

As if summoned by his words, an elf maid with jewel-red hair and green eyes hurried out of the kitchen and scanned the corridor. Seeing them, she smile with relief and started forward. “Here you are, my lord,” she said to Legolas. Then her face became slightly awkward. Holding out a small sack, she asked hesitantly, “You don’t need me to come along, do you?

Placing his hand over his heart, he gave a small bow and flicked out his fingers. “That is not necessary, Mírdan. I am sure that Lady Golweneth would be most displeased with me if I stole you away during this busy time. Besides,” he added with dry humor, “I do not wish to get on her bad side and face old food, cold rooms, and conversations reminding me to correct my bad behaviors. I have barely recovered from the shame of our last such conversation.” Some of the younger elves chuckled at his words.

“Oh, but Golweneth is an amazing leader and a lovely person,” Mírdan leaned forward to defend ardently.

A fond smile appeared on Legolas’s face. Billa was amazed at how it softened his features. It made him so much more appealing as a person. “That is what made displeasing her so disagreeable and why her words filled me with such shame. I know her worth, do not doubt it.” She bowed her head sheepishly.

“Thank you for the supplies, Mírdan.” Then he turned and gestured to one of his elves. A female warrior stepped forward and took the sack. Then she strode back into line with her fellow guards.

The red haired elf nodded with a soft, “Good luck, my lord.” Then she turned and disappeared back into the bustle of the kitchen.

“Come Asindar, let us deliver your tray. The day is wasting.” But then Legolas paused and turned his head back and forth in the air, sniffing. “I can still smell something foul over here. Clean it again,” he ordered the two servants cleaning away.

Billa wrinkled her nose at him in displeasure, her soft thoughts of him dying away. She wasn’t foul, or at least not any more than she could help it! He may look pretty and move like a dream, but he acted insufferable.

“Yes, my prince,” answered Lifar, the elf cleaning the table, with a long-suffering sigh. But as he turned around, his elbow knocked into the bucket Billa had moved. Dirty water splattered onto all three gossiping elves. They shouted and jumped in shock. Legolas leapt back like a bird taking flight and avoided getting even a drop on his immaculate clothing.

Too bad, Billa thought. Then maybe he’d have some sympathy for those of us smelling foul.

Asindar was not so lucky. He managed not to drop the tray of food for Thorin, but his slippers and white leggings were now soaked and spattered with blobs of gray and brown gunk. Even the ends of his long blond locks had darkened with dirty water. His horrified expression made Billa feel positively gleeful. Her Took cousins would be so pleased. He looked helplessly at Prince Legolas, but the other elf seemed more amused than anything else.

“You’ve grown complacent down here in the caverns, Asindar. You should have dodged that. We don’t have time to wait for you. Come and deliver the tray, and then you can go and change.” Legolas turned and walked away. His guards all followed in unison, half of them openly smirking at the dirty server.

With no choice, the wet elf followed the guards. A squelch and squeak sounded each time he stepped. It was probably the most noise Billa had ever heard an elf make walking around this place. She fell into step behind them, delighted at the chance to find Thorin so quickly and easily.

As they walked, Billa wondered why Asindar needed so many guards to help him deliver food to Thorin. Besides the elves regularly patrolling around the prison cells, the other dwarrows received their meals from two servers who marched in and out by themselves. No one seemed that worried about meal times down there. 

What had Thorin done to warrant this level of caution? Oh dear, Billa winced to herself as her imagination supplied several very graphic and bloody scenarios. Maybe she would have to bring some bandages and medicines for her next visit.

They finally reached a barred opening at the back of a dusty, narrow corridor. From the decaying state of the surrounding rooms, it probably hadn’t been used much in decades at least. It looked like the door had recently been removed from the hinges and replaced with metal bars. Billa squeezed herself into another dirty alcove to wait, a common occurrence lately. She couldn’t fit by the crowd of elves to get closer. Plus, the hall was so narrow that she feared getting stepped on when they finally left. Pulling a bit of cobweb off her nose with a grimace, she strained to see what was going on in the cell.

“Here’s your breakfast, dwarf,” Asindar sneered, sliding the tray through a gap underneath the bars with his foot. Nothing moved. “You must be hungry. Your friends certainly seem to be. Aren’t you going to come and get it?”

All Billa could see from her distant position was shadows. Then an arm appeared out of the darkness. The hand made a very rude gesture. Seconds later, she heard a Khuzdul phrase questioning the ancestry of Asindar’s mother (at least that’s what it meant according to Bofur).

“Just leave the tray,” Legolas ordered. “You can pick it up when you deliver his next meal. If he tries to hit you with it, it’s too fragile to do much damage.” Asindar went pale.

“Besides,” Legolas added, turning to address Thorin in the cell, “if he does attack you unprovoked, he might just have to miss a few meals until hunger teaches him better manners.”

Thorin stepped up to the bars slowly and crossed his arms as if unconcerned. “It hasn’t yet,” he drawled arrogantly. The shadows and crowd made it difficult to see. It was very frustrating.

 “Anything else you’d like to add, Prince Legolas?” Thorin looked up into the taller elf’s eyes challengingly. A chime echoed down the hall that Billa hadn’t learned yet.

Instead of posturing back, Legolas became impatient. Though no less condescending, for all of that. “Yes, actually. I’ve brought you some water and a few bandages to tend your wounds,” he said unexpectedly. “Use it or not as you see fit, dwarven King.” The female guard stepped forward and thrust a skin of water and bundle of cloth through the bars into a surprised Thorin’s arms. The empty sack hung looped through her belt. Then she melted back.

After a moment of pause, Thorin inclined his head in begrudging thanks. Legolas nodded back sharply. Nothing more was said. The rest of the guards filed away quickly at some sort of signal Billa must have missed. Legolas followed with a surprised looking Asindar at his heels. He must not have known about the bandages either.

As they walked by Billa, Legolas paused right outside of her alcove and turned to Asindar.  “Do not waste my time or that of my guard forces again. You should have gone through Captain Tauriel if you needed an escort assigned. The door is solid and the lock unbreakable. I am trying to deal with orcs and spiders invading our wood and shadows growing that my father the King does not-,” he cut himself off abruptly and turned away. Looking back over at Asindar from the corner of his eye, he grimaced and blanked the worry from his face. “Next time, just make sure you have a better reason for taking me away from more important duties.” Then he quickened his pace and turned alone into a side passage, melting into the shadows like ice into hot tea.

After seeing and hearing that, Billa felt a little bit more sympathy for Prince Legolas. He still acted cold, but she could see now that it concealed a burdened and not ungenerous heart. It wasn’t his fault she smelled bad. She also wouldn’t want to be responsible for unruly prisoners or the troubles in this Kingdom. Besides which, having a father like Thranduil couldn’t be easy. She would try to think a little more kindly of him in the future.

To give the guards adequate time to get out of hearing distance, she waited a few more minutes before leaving her alcove. An industrious little brown spider had already started repairing the webs in the corners. She looked quite friendly and nothing like the giant monsters in the forest. Thank goodness.

Finally it was time to come out. Not wanting to just appear in front of Thorin in case he shouted out loud like Kili, she took off her ring a few paces away. An unexpected swell of emotion made her feel unaccountably shy. She padded forward to stand in front of his cell. “Thorin?” Billa’s eyes had dropped to her hairy feet nervously, but she forced them to rise.

Then she got a good look at him. A very good look. Shocked, Billa swallowed hard and choked on air.

Thorin was shirtless. Bare! From the waist up! He’d twisted sideways to dab at a shallow scrape running down his side, casting all the muscles in his torso into sharp relief.  The scrape looked like a recent wound, but minor. She checked that first before letting herself get distracted.

Luxurious chest hair tapered off into chiseled abs mostly concealed by the trailing bandage of undyed linen he used to clean his cut. He had fewer tattoos than what she’d seen on Dwalin, but enough to make her inappropriately curious. Old scars curled here and there around the bulging muscles on his arms, chest, and back, cuddling up and over his tattoos like contented cats.

During the time it took her mind to rattle about in her head from shock, Thorin looked up from tending his side and saw her staring. “Oh,” he said on a puff of air. The linen in his hand started to drop, but then his hand clenched and brought it in tight, hiding his exposed middle.

Once upon a time she would have been appalled at herself, but adventure had changed her quite a bit. Thorin had too many muscles and tattoos for a hobbit male, but the perfect amount for a dwarf, perhaps even the perfect amount for a hobbit female like Billa. She liked it. A lot.

Billa could even admit to herself privately that the teasing glimpses of something colorful inked onto his stomach especially intrigued her. It almost seemed to be winking from the shadows, calling to her to pull away the concealing linen and discover its secret image for herself. It took all of her willpower not to pant with her mouth open.

But some of his distracting flesh was now concealed. Part of her sighed in disappointment, but the rest reminded her to get ahold of herself. Maybe she could think more clearly now. Start acting respectable.

Thorin blinked rapidly, “Billa?” he finally said.

“Hi,” she squeaked, waving weakly.

One more blink and then Thorin’s mind caught up with the situation. He grinned fiercely and glanced up and down the guard-free corridor. Striding up to the bars he exclaimed softly but fervently, “By the Maker, Billa Baggins! I am glad to see you alive, well, and free.”

Billa couldn’t help but grin up into his blue eyes. They crinkled just slightly at the corners. It made her smile widen even further with happiness.

Thorin reached out with his free hand and clenched it tightly around a bar in front of her. “Tell me you have the keys to my cells, burglar,” he commanded.

Her smile fell sharply and she had to look away. “Ah… no, not yet. I’m sorry.” She grimaced. “I’ve tried, but the elf in charge of them hasn’t given me an opening yet. I’m just here to visit you.”

The awkward silence lasted a moment before Thorin rallied. Billa examined his cell door for weaknesses in lieu of seeing his disappointed face. She couldn’t bear that right now. The door looked quite sturdy, unfortunately.

“Well at least you are not behind bars like the rest of us,” he said finally. Then he reached out and gently touched the back of her hand. She looked up and over into his face searchingly. 

“That is something that I am personally grateful for,” he said, looking very intent. Her heart skipped a beat. Some strong emotion moved behind his eyes, but then he blinked and his fingers drifted away from her hand.  

“Have you seen the others?” he asked. It seemed like a deflection. She couldn’t say from what, but it didn’t matter. It was a good reminder of what she was here for.

“Oh, yes. They’re doing fine.” Billa explained what Kili had told her about their situation. As she spoke, she tried to keep her eyes respectfully on his face and away from his bare expanses of skin. No one else’s bare chest had ever affected her this way, and she’d seen quite a lot of them over the last few months (although never his, somehow, and she had surreptitiously looked for it). Although she couldn’t quite banish the blush on her cheeks, she could at least pretend it wasn’t there and hope he’d go along with the deception.

When she finished her tale, Thorin looked slightly cheered. She tried to think of something else to talk about. His cell consisted of a cot to sleep on and a food tray on the floor. Nothing else. Even the wall hangings had been removed as evidenced by the lighter-colored rectangles on the dingy walls. He must be so bored and lonely. “I’m sorry,” Billa unintentionally said out loud.

“What? Why?” he asked with creased brow.

It was hard to hold back her wince of embarrassment. “I was just thinking that it must be lonely down this corridor by yourself. They put you so far away from everyone, even the other elves.”

Thorin just shrugged and looked away moodily.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I’ll try to visit you more often now that I know where you are.”

“I’d appreciate that,” he said a bit stiffly. Then he added, “But only if it is safe to do so. You don’t need to pity me. If you can’t figure out how to free us and are in danger of getting caught, you should escape and save yourself. That’s more important.”

Billa put her hands on her hips. “Don’t be silly. After all I’ve gone through, I’m not about to abandon you now.”

Leaning forward, Thorin growled warningly with lowered brows, “Billa, you will save yourself!”

“What I’ll do is what I please, you-,” suddenly Billa felt lightheaded. “Oh… dear….” Spots swarmed her vision and she couldn’t stop herself from falling forward.

However, the pain she expected never came. Before she could hit the ground, Thorin reached through the bars and managed to grab her around the waist. Using his other hand, he swiftly blocked her forehead from hitting the hard metal bars. Then he shifted her limp body until her cheek came to rest on his bare chest. It was surprisingly comfortable, despite all of the hard muscles and curly chest hair. Thank goodness the bars were wide enough.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered weakly, trying to regain her equilibrium and not completely pass out. This feeling was a little frightening. She did not like it at all.

“When was the last time you ate?” Thorin asked with unconcealed worry.

“I ate two things yesterday,” she mumbled, “Or was it twice? No… yes, two and twice. The apple was good. Crunchy. But they stole my cushion.” She clenched her hands onto his hips and tried to push down the anxiety of vertigo. Billa felt herself begin to pant.

“Just relax and concentrate on your breathing,” Thorin advised, rubbing a calloused finger up and down her neck soothingly. Although everything else was spinning, Billa concentrated on the steady beat of his heart. It made her feel safe. She breathed in and out more slowly, using him as a guide.  Thorin’s body was hot against her cool skin. It felt good. Nice.

Spots receded from her vision and things became less fuzzy. Shifting her feet, she took a little bit more of her own weight. Her legs held steady.

A rumble vibrated through Thorin’s chest. “You’ll have to do better about taking care of yourself from now on. Despite it becoming a habit, I won’t always be there to catch you.”

“I know, I will,” Billa promised softly. A minute later she added, “I am sorry. I had some water from a fountain too, but food has been hard to come by.” Finally she felt a bit more like herself. “I’ve also been concentrating more of trying to find a way out for all of us than on meals and resting.”

Then she took stock of where she was, pressed up against Thorin’s bare chest through the bars, basically embracing the man. What had seemed fine before now began to seem scandalous. Embarrassed, Billa tensed and tried to lean back, but Thorin just adjusted his grip to slot his hand more firmly into the curve of her waist, not letting her go.

“Two meals is not enough for a hobbit to live on, especially small meals. Lean against me for a little longer until you’re more steady,” he ordered with a concerned grumble that she could feel vibrating from his chest to her face and down to warm her middle. That soothing rumble, combined with the feel of his fingers delicately carding through the strands of her hair, destroyed her half-hearted objections.

Sighing brokenly, Billa gave in and slotted back into the circle of his body like a puzzle piece returning to its place. “Thank you.”

After a while, Thorin began humming softly and slowly untangling her hair with his fingers. When he got stuck on a particularly stubborn knot, Billa spoke up again, “It’s getting too long and unruly. I need to cut it soon, maybe something short around my ears.”

Thorin’s fingers froze, then began picking at the knot again determinedly. “You had better not,” he said threateningly. “Half of this mess is vile spider silk and not hair anyways.”

Billa opened her mouth to argue, but didn’t know where to start. She felt words rising up out of her belly like a soufflé of indignation. But then he spoke, opening the oven of her anger prematurely and causing her soufflé to collapse.

“I like it long. It’s beautiful,” he said with stark honesty. “No dwarf would ever cut curly hair like yours; it is too rare among us.  A blessing like this should be properly cared for.” He stopped for a moment, then added, “I can teach you how to braid it out of the way, if that’s the problem.”

“Oh, um… really?” Billa asked lamely, trying to focus on the braiding part and not his thinking her beautiful and a blessing part.

She’d never picked up the knack for braiding. As a teen she’d left it loose in hopes of attracting a lad. Then as an adult she’d kept it short and no-nonsense to reflect her respectable spinster status. It had grown out on the journey.

“Of course,” Thorin confirmed. “Every dwarf has a favorite braid to share with family or friends.” Then he rolled her head so that her forehead rested on his chest instead of her cheek. “Stay like this for a moment.” He pulled the hair back from the sensitive tips of her ears and began what she assumed to be one of his favorite braids.

“When it falls out, just come back to me. I’ll fix it for you,” he told her with gravel in his voice. “All you have to do is ask.”

With her nose buried in his chest, Billa couldn’t help but close her eyes and smell the essence of Thorin’s skin. This was not respectable. She shouldn’t be letting him do this, but she couldn’t help herself. Breathing in deeply, she closed her eyes and felt for the first time in months like she was back home at Bag End. But not the Bag End visited by Gandalf and the company. No, this felt like the home she’d known when her mother and father had still been alive, filling every corner of the home with love and companionship.

Billa breathed in deeply again and the scent changed, became stronger and more spicy. Her feelings of home changed too into something less comfortable and more enticingly dangerous.  She was being ridiculous. Yet not only did she like it, but something visceral inside rolled over and purred at his scent in smug pleasure. She wanted to lick his skin with the tip of her tongue and see if it tasted as good as the smell hinted at, wanted to know what sound he’d make if she did.

These were not respectable thoughts at all. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to move away. Luckily Thorin couldn’t read her mind or see the flames scorching her cheeks.

“There, almost done,” he finally said, “I just need to secure it.” He reached down into his pocket. From the corner of her eye she could see him fish out a toggle of leather and wood. He tied off her braid, then tipped her cheek to rest against his chest again and looked down at his handiwork with approval. “Very nice.”

“Thank you,” Billa said, touching the weave of her hair gently. She leaned back to pull the end forward to look at the hair tie. The wood was smooth to the touch and had been masterfully carved to look just like the flower and vine pattern on her mother’s prized china. “Oh,” she gasped, tears springing to her eyes. “It’s perfect. Just like a little piece of home. Thank you, Thorin.”

Looking up into his deep blue eyes, she felt an almost uncontrollable urge to lean up and kiss him. Before she could act on it, a chime sounded through the corridor, breaking the moment. Billa looked away.

“I should stop inconveniencing you and go find somewhere to rest,” she said softly.

Thorin ran his fingers over her braid and down her spine. Both hands met in the small of her back before swooping out and down to light on the curve of her hips like two parentheses cupping a precious secret. Billa couldn’t help but shiver. Thorin’s lips quirked in male satisfaction.

“You aren’t inconveniencing me. You should stop talking nonsense, stay here, and,” he flashed her a mischievous grin she’d seen more than once on Kili, “eat some of this elvish dog food. You are starving so it shouldn’t taste too bad.”

“But you’re all wounded and locked up. I can’t take food from you,” Billa protested weakly. She didn’t really want to leave, which is precisely why she should. “And I’m sure it’s not really dog food,” she added. Billa felt the sigh move through his chest, swaying her body back and forth like a ship bobbing on a wave.

“I’m not the one who almost fainted,” he scolded quietly. “Besides, it’s only a little scratch, not a wound. I merely objected quite strongly to being put in here and the tree-shaggers objected to my breaking one of their noses and trying to choke the other one with his own hair. Or was it a her? Whatever the case, I got scratched when the rest of them tackled me and tripped me through the door. It happens.”

She leaned back against his hands to give him an incredulous eyebrow, which he ignored.  

“I get food delivered. You don’t.” He squeezed her waist once. “You are already too thin for a hobbit. So eat,” he commanded. “Please,” he softened his demand.

Billa looked up into his face. “You don’t even know any other hobbits,” she protested lightly. He just stared at her with an imperiously raised brow. She couldn’t help but capitulate. “Fine, I’ll eat, but only if you join me.”

“Deal,” he said, sliding his fingers off her waist and turning to grab the tray from the floor. Phantom warmth lingered beneath her skin, even though a foot of air now separated them. Billa shivered again and told herself to stop being foolish.

She sat down against the bars and tucked her skirts around her legs. Thorin sat down across from her with one leg bent up to support his arm. He broke off some seedcake and handed it to her before taking some for himself.

Billa bit into it and paused, looking down in disbelief. She chewed… and chewed and chewed some more. Finally she loudly swallowed with a grimace. “That is awful. It is dog food!”

Thorin looked at the betrayed expression on her face and burst into guffaws, spewing food out onto the floor.

“Yuck, now it looks even worse,” Billa said sadly before breaking into giggles of her own.

“Sorry,” Thorin apologized. “But I did warn you.”

“You did,” Billa conceded. “The stuff I stole tasted way better, just to let you know. Even if it was a very small quantity. I’ll try to steal you some too if I get better at thievery.” She put the rest of the seedcake down in her lap.

Thorin sobered. “You still need more if you aren’t to faint again. Please Billa, eat it. It could be worse.”

It was almost impossible to say no to him when he said ‘please.’ Squaring her shoulders, Billa gamely took another bite with a disgusted shiver. Forcing the rest of the bar down, she made grabby hands at the water skin. Thorin passed it over and she took a large drink to swish out her mouth.

“It’s hard to imagine anything tasting worse than that, even if my body does appreciate the extra energy,” Billa finally said.

“Sadly enough, I don’t have to imagine,” Thorin said musingly as he took back the water skin and downed a sip. “I’ve eaten it… and been desperate enough to wish for a second helping. Few offered succor to the dwarves of Erebor in our wanderings and food was often scarce,” he finished in a low, dark voice. Seeing her frozen expression, Thorin looked away, breaking the dark spell of his words as he took another sip from the water bottle.

Desperate to change the subject, Billa searched around for a topic. Her eyes lit upon the now exposed tattoo on his stomach. Dwarven symbols in black ranged around a center tattoo colored in with greens, yellows, and reds. Billa tilted her head to study the picture, then couldn’t help but giggle.

Thorin looked at her in sharp question.

“Sorry,” Billa said, trying to stifle her smile. “I was just trying to figure out why you have an artichoke tattooed on your stomach. It doesn’t seem very dwarfish.”

Thorin’s eyes widened. “A what?”

“An artichoke,” she repeated with a gesture. “You know, the green vegetable with the thorns and overlapping leaves and inedible bits covering the delicious heart…”she trailed off at his horribly offended look.

Red stained the tips of his cheeks, something she’d never seen before. “It is not a vegetable,” he bit out with a strange combination of anger, embarrassment, and shock. “It is Erebor, the lonely mountain, lit from within by dragon fire.” He glared fiercely.

After their closeness, it stung. “Well sorry,” Billa said in defensive irritation, “but I’ve never seen Erebor except for that one far off glimpse. However, I have seen a lot of vegetables, and if it is the lonely mountain, then your lonely mountain looks a lot like an artichoke!” She glared back.

Thorin looked away with a face of stone. Billa realized very quickly that she was not going to out-stubborn a dwarf with the silent treatment.  She didn’t want silence anyways. She had lots of that. Billa wanted conversation. All too soon she’d be invisible and on her own again.

Blowing out a breath, Billa rolled her shoulders to throw off her agitation. “I didn’t mean to anger you,” she said. “As a hobbit, I am merely more familiar with vegetables than with mountains. Please pardon my offence.”

He turned to face her. “This is very important to me,” he said, waving his hand over the tattoo of the mountain and then tracing a finger over the dwarven text above it.

“What does it say,” Billa asked in conciliation.

His finger paused, and then went to the small words directly above the mountain. “This is a riddle in an ancient dwarven dialect. It does not translate well to common. You wouldn’t be able to understand it without the cultural context.”

“Oh,” she said with some disappointment. Billa considered herself to be quite good with riddles, especially after her encounter with Gollum underneath the goblin city. But if she couldn’t understand the imagery, the solution would certainly be beyond her cleverness.

“May I ask you a question?” He dropped his hand to his side tensely.

Billa tilted her head. “Okay,” she said slowly. “Though my answering or not will depend on the question.”

He acknowledged that with a tip of his head. Then he asked, “What will you choose as your fourteenth share of the treasure after the quest?”

Surprised at the change of topic, Billa blinked and looked down. “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it. I don’t even know what kind of treasures there will be besides lots of shiny mathoms.” She sighed. “Does it matter right now?”

Thorin looked down to trace his finger over the glyphs arching along beneath his ribs at regular intervals. “Each of these symbols represents a different dwarven treasure,” he said. “I earned them during my second century of life.” Starting with the glyph beneath his heart, he traced across his flesh and translated them into common for her: “Gold, silver, mithril, iron, emerald, diamond, sapphire, ruby, and opal.” He lifted up his hand and looked at her sideways. “There are many more types of gems and minerals than that, of course, but those are the most commonly worked with and valued.”

“Why is the symbol for gold so much larger than the others?” Billa asked curiously.

A look of shame crossed his face. “I don’t know for certain, but…” he paused to draw in a deep breath. “You’ve heard Balin speak of my grandfather, Thror?”

Furrowing her brow, Billa cast her mind back to the first time she heart Balin speak of the rulers of the lonely mountain. “He was a great ruler, but became ill in the mind,” she answered cautiously.

Thorin’s lips twisted bitterly. “You word it kindly. He became obsessed with gold above all else, hoarding it and loving it to the exclusion of the safety of his kingdom. That gold lust brought the calamity of the dragon down upon us.” His nostrils flared with the emotion restrained beneath his words. “That predilection for gold lurks in all of his line. I have never succumbed, but I suspect that is the message behind the size of the symbol.”

“Why didn’t you make the person tattooing you explain it then, if you are unsure?” Billa asked what felt like the obvious question.

A bark of laughter met her words. Meeting her eyes squarely, Thorin replied, “You do not make Mahal do anything, much less explain his blessings.”

“Wait, what?” Billa leaned back and thrust her hands into her pockets. “Now I am really confused. How did you get this tattoo then?”

Thorin smiled mysteriously. “Come Burglar, you answer my question and I’ll answer yours. Which treasure would you choose from amongst these tattoos?” He gestured at the symbols arching across his flesh.

Billa shook her head with uncertainty. Examining the symbols didn’t help. They were lovely tattoos, and represented pretty things, but none of them drew her. Raising her hand in the air, she let it drop helplessly. “I don’t know, Thorin. I’m tired and missing good food and cheer and song. If I had to choose a treasure to take from your tattoos then I’d probably take the heart of the artichoke, or, you know, the heart of the mountain.”

At her answer, Thorin’s face went completely dumbstruck. He opened and closed his mouth mutely. Billa feared if she didn’t do something to knock him out of it, he’d just sit there blinking until the next guard change.

“Forget what I just said,” she finally burst out. “It was obviously ridiculous.” His gaze started to sharpen at her words until he finally focused again on her face. Billa sighed, “Why don’t you tell me how you got the tattoo before I have to leave? Or you can tell me the stories about your scars if it will make you feel better. I know you dwarves all love to do that.”

Raising an eyebrow, Thorin noted, “And yet, I’ve never seen you enjoy any of those war stories.”

Billa blushed. “Well, they are usually very graphic and violent and bloody. Not really my cup of tea, or that of any hobbit, but if it will make you feel better I will listen to them.” She folded her hands together on her lap and assumed an attitude of attention.

Fondly smiling down at her, Thorin demurred. “I won’t make you suffer through just now. Instead I will answer your other question. However,” he became serious, “you must promise to keep what I tell you secret. It is not something I share openly.”

Utterly grave, Billa replied, “I promise not to share what you tell me, Thorin. You know you can trust me.”

“I do trust you,” he confirmed steadfastly. It gave her a little zip of happiness.

“When I started into my second century of life,” he began, “I still wandered the land as a travelling smith. By that point we had been exiled from our home in Erebor for over 75 years. We’d only barely begun to establish a more comfortable life for ourselves. I worked ceaselessly to gather more dwarrows to our settlements in Eriador and the Blue Mountains and to ensure that my people were not only treated well, but that they thrived.” His voice thrummed with passion.

At first meeting Thorin Oakenshield, Billa had thought him cold and lacking in feeling. Months of observing his behavior, gossiping about him with the others, and talking with him during their travels had thoroughly disabused her of that notion. Thorin’s problem wasn’t that he cared too little. He cared too much. He loved his family, his people, and his lost homeland with the utmost ferocity.

Perhaps his grandfather had once been the same. Maybe that passion got twisted into a love of gold. Billa hoped Thorin would be spared a similar temptation. Surely he was too good for that?

Thorin continued his story, unaware of her musings as he looked off into the fog of memory. “For a time, I felt very alone in the world. My grandfather had died and my father had disappeared. The Battle of Azanulbizar had not gone well, and many of the dwarves from other clans remained angry and resentful of those of us from Erebor. My sister, Dis, had married a good man and no longer had much time or need for her big brother.” His brief smile of self-deprecation flitted across his mouth before it faded back to sadness. 

“For years I had been forced to humble myself in every way possible, begging for work and scraps to feed, clothe, and shelter my people.” He paused to swallow a sip of water, checking Billa’s face to make sure she was attending to his story. Putting down the water skin, he leaned forward.  

“One morning I woke up alone in a cave high in the mountains. I looked out at the most gorgeous sunrise I had ever seen in all my years of living and I realized something. A King has no use for the beauty of a sunrise. That sunrise could not be used to help my people. But the dwarf inside the king burned with the desire to share its beauty with someone, someone who would value the eye of the dwarf over the arm of the king.” He paused and Billa waited with baited breath for him to continue.

“After the sunrise had faded to cerulean, I went back into the cave and fashioned an altar out of the loose stones I found there. I prostrated myself to Mahal, The Maker of all dwarves, He who others call Aulë.” Thorin looked away from her, his face a complex blend of emotions she couldn’t decipher. “I petitioned him for a soulmate, someone to keep close to my heart that did not need to be shared or given away. Someone and something just for me. It was a selfish wish, but for some reason The Maker granted my petition. He put me into a trance, and when I woke I bore the markings you now see: the mountain, the riddle, and the treasures. They are the clues to lead me to my one, to my soulmate.”

Billa’s mouth hung open in surprise, but she couldn’t find the energy to close it. Shock held her motionless. She had not expected a soulmate mark to be the explanation for his tattoo. Nor for it to be the third type Kili had described.

Thorin continued, “No one has ever been able to solve Mahal’s riddle correctly, although admittedly I very rarely give anyone a chance. Thus I still walk my path alone.” He sent her a warning look, “This type of soulmate mark can carry a stigma that would not serve my people or my cause well. That is why I conceal it and why I asked you to keep it secret.”

Almost as an afterthought he added, “Perhaps it was youthful folly to want such a thing. It is a temptation to think that the burden would be a very light one. For certain it would distract me from what I may have to do for our current quest now, perhaps dangerously dividing my focus. Nevertheless, Mahal answered my plea and so I must bear the consequences of my actions as they come.”

Silence fell when he finished. Billa’s hands were now cupped over her mouth and she couldn’t quite bring herself to remove them. Something inside mourned deeply after hearing his tale, as if she’d been gutted, but she didn’t want him to see it. That pain was hers, not his. Billa was not a dwarf. She could not be the one shaped by Aulë to become his other half. Forcing her almost crippling disappointment down deep with a shove of a mental foot, she forced her hands to drop to her sides.

Billa was a Baggins. She would carry on, no matter what. Hobbits don’t want or need soulmates, remember? she told herself sternly. Maybe saying it out loud would help. So Billa told Thorin what she’d told Kili about how hobbits viewed Soulmates.

Thorin seemed shocked and slightly disheartened. “You really mean to tell me that hobbits don’t want to be soulmates?” Thorin asked for clarification.

Billa forced herself to offer a carefree shrug. “It’s cultural. I remember hearing of one lad who’d been too ignorant to know what his soulmate mark was, and gotten tricked into bonding by the enterprising lass who’d finally tracked him down using her own soulmate mark and the extensive gossip network of Hobbiton. They didn’t break the news that they were soulmates to their families until she was in labor with their first babe so it would be too late to stage an intervention. People gossiped about that for years and it still gets brought up when a couple starts acting too besotted for polite society.”

Thorin got a strangely calculating look on his face after hearing her story. “So she tricked him into bonding and it worked?”

Nonplussed, Billa answered, “Well, yes, I suppose so, but that’s not the point of the story.”

Thorin’s eyes narrowed deviously.

“What are you thinking about,” Billa asked suspiciously.

His face smoothed out, “Oh nothing, just that Hobbits are such a strange and interesting race of people.”

“Really,” Billa asked suspiciously. But then another chime echoed through the halls.

Thorin tensed. “The next guard will be by soon. You should go.”

Dusting herself off by habit, Billa stood up and squared her shoulders. “I’ll be back,” she promised. “Be careful and don’t get into any more fights with the guards.”

Picking up an embroidered length of cloth, Thorin quickly wound it around his waist until the entire soulmate tattoo was concealed. Then he slid his shirt back on over his head. He looked up. “Why haven’t you left yet? You will be seen for sure.” He couldn’t hide the scolding worry in his voice.

“No I won’t,” Billa assured him confidently. Then she slipped on her ring and disappeared.

“What sorcery is this?” he whispered, reaching through the bars searchingly until his fingers found her arm.

She checked to make sure the corridor was still empty. Then she slipped the ring off and showed it to him. “I found a ring in the Goblin City. It’s how I escaped. I wouldn’t be able to avoid the elves here otherwise.”

His mouth parted in surprise.

“I have to go now though or I really will be caught. Stay safe, Thorin.” Billa stepped back out of his reach and slipped the ring back onto her finger. Then she turned and padded off down the hall. She had a lot of thinking to do and even more forgetting. And if she shed a few tears as she walked, her ring made it impossible for anyone to see them, even herself.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Chapter Text

After almost a week of sneaking around the elven kingdom of Thranduil, Billa had come to a few conclusions. These conclusions had made her feel very discouraged, an unusual state she didn’t like feeling, not one bit. The Elves of the Mirkwood did not seem anywhere near as friendly as those in Rivendell. In some ways, they looked and acted altogether more wild.

She hadn’t found a way to rescue her dwarves, her wonder at the elves had been tarnished, she smelled like a pigsty, and she still wasn’t eating seven meals a day. Oh, and Thorin held her against his half-naked body, braided her hair, and caressed her hips. Then he’d basically told her he was waiting for his soulmate and not to get her hopes up because only a dwarf could read or solve the riddle of his soulmark.

Life just wasn’t fair sometimes.

On the positive side, last night the week of harvest celebrations had kicked off with the elven Feast of Starlight. The beauty of the songs and dances had lifted Billa’s heart. It had also been so refreshing to sneak outside with the elves to breathe in the night air again and enjoy the wheeling stars. It had blown away some of the cobwebs from her heart, even if not from her hair and clothing.

After a good night’s sleep in an old nursery with perfectly sized beds, Billa went down to visit the company again. This time she paused by Gloin’s and Oin’s cell. Taking the ring off a few paces away, as had become her habit, Billa pocketed it before allowing herself to be seen by stepping up to the bars.

“Hello, Gloin. How are you doing today?” Billa asked. “Any changes with the company?

Gloin looked up from desultorily cleaning bits of gunk from his armor and gave her a gruff nod. “Good Day, Billa.” He shuffled over to the bars. “They did start feeding us better yesterday, with larger plates filled with fresh bread, vegetables, and even bits of meat. I don’t know why, but that was a welcome change. However, I’m sorry to say that otherwise I’m not doing as well as I’d like.”

His mouth drooped sadly. “Poor Oin has been feeling poorly ever since we were captured. It’s finally turned into a cough and fever. Last night, he actually thought I was my Da and tried to beg my forgiveness for some small offense from our childhood. I can only hope that sleep and better food will cure him quickly.” He tugged on his shaggy beard morosely. As if to punctuate his words, a deep cough rattled from the shadows at the back of the cell before transitioning into a snore.

Dismay filled Billa. “Oh no, I’m so sorry.”

Shrugging, he leaned heavily against the wall and sighed. “Then when I finally fell asleep, I dream-shared with my wife Tosi and she confronted me about the fact that I’ve been lying to her.” Gloin looked up at Billa and grimaced. “I hadn’t wanted her to know we were in prison, you see. I thought it would just worry her and make her feel even more powerless. But Tosi figured it out using her woman’s wit and raked me over the coals for concealing it. I will not repeat the things she said. Just know that I’d fear for my beard if she were here in person.”

Billa patted his arm consolingly. “I’m sorry, Gloin.”

He gave a sad laugh, “I should have known better than to try to deceive the woman living within my heart. Of course, once she stopped yelling, Tosi offered to gather up Gimli, Dis, and Dis’s husband Haeth and set off to break us out. Dis is supposed to be running things in the Blue Mountains, with Haeth acting as a roving enforcer, but Tosi didn’t care and said Dis wouldn’t either. I told her to wait at least until Durin’s Day had passed, since if we miss that, there won’t be any rush on the rescue attempt.”

Looking up at Billa again, he suddenly coughed into his hand sheepishly. “M’wife and Dis have been discussing you and have a particular request. She made me promise to deliver it, else I wouldn’t bother you with it. I’m sorry.”

“Oh,” Billa said with surprise. “I didn’t realize they knew about me.”

Gloin gave her a chastising look. “Of course they do. As my soulmate, I’ve told my treasured Tosi all about you and how you keep saving us. She keeps Dis up to date. They were very impressed that you’d managed to evade capture from the leaf eaters for so long. Dis in particular wanted to thank you for saving Thorin’s life from Azog.” Billa blushed, still too embarrassed to take much credit for doing something instinctual instead of thought out.

With a gentle smile he continued. “They want you to know that as the only female in our company, they have complete confidence,” his lips twisted sardonically beneath his mustache as he quoted, “’in your feminine wisdom and superiority,’ and that they know you will do your best to find a way to get us out. Dis in particular asked you to look after her boys and her brother, and to try to make sure they don’t do anything stupid, though she admits that it’s an unreasonable request.” He scratched his neck and added, “My wife said to tell you that when she has too many problems, she starts at the bottom of the list and works her way up. Tosi thought that might help.” Then he gave Billa a shrug. “I hope that’s alright. I don’t mean to overwhelm you.”

“Of course,” Billa assured him automatically. “It was, er, nice of them to think of me. I look forward to meeting them all one day.”

Gloin looked pleased. “They are wondrous ladies without equal, it is true. Especially my sublime Tosi. You will have solid female allies in them when we reunite in the mountain one day. Haeth can take a while to warm up, and he butts heads with Thorin a lot, which is why he stayed home, but he spoils Dis rotten and would carve out his own eye before plucking a single hair from the beard of someone he calls family. I suspect he’ll take you under his wing within a week. You’ll see.” Then he harrumphed, “You just need to get us out of here first.”

“Yes, well, I’m working quite hard on that,” Billa assured him grumpily, not appreciating the reminder.

They talked for a bit longer before Billa left to continue her explorations. She’d searched the upper levels quite thoroughly in the last few days without much success. All of the doors to the outside were large and heavily guarded. She couldn’t see any way to get her dwarves to them and out without being slaughtered.

Going to the staircase, she went down one level from what she’d mapped so far. It looked like living quarters. As before, she searched room by room. However, after almost waking up a napping elf, she had to run back out to the stairwell to hide.

It took her a minute to catch her breath and slow her galloping heart. For some reason, the words of Gloin’s wife popped into her head, “start at the bottom of the list and work your way up.” Perhaps she should give up on this level and search the basement instead. There would probably be fewer people down there. It couldn’t hurt.

Within the hour, Billa found herself praising Tosi as highly as Gloin did at his most besotted. The bottom level had a way to escape! There was a river dock in the basement with no guards, only a couple of servers moving around wine barrels. Eight empty barrels sat against the wall, and Billa overheard that as soon as the number reached fifteen, they were to be pushed into the river to float back down to Laketown. That was the exact direction they needed to go to get closer to the Lonely Mountain!

It was perfect! Billa just had to wait a couple of days for more empty wine barrels, which shouldn’t take long considering how the Mirkwood elves drank during their feasts. Then she could load the dwarves up in the barrels and escape downstream. Of course, she still had to steal the keys to their cells and get them down here, but that seemed such a small thing compared to getting them away from the elves without immediately getting shot full of arrows.

Quite pleased with herself, Billa made her way to the kitchen for a celebratory snack. Food had become plentiful now that the elves were having daily feasts for their harvest festival. No one noticed the platters getting lighter anymore. Billa snagged a vegetable pie and a sausage from two different trays and then sat down on an empty bench along the back wall.

As Billa ate, she listened idly to the gossip. When she heard the word dwarf, her ears perked up and she leaned forward. The elves Asindar and Mírdan were assembling a set of trays as they argued.

“I don’t see why we need to feed them so well. They are just dwarves,” Asindar whined.

Mírdan tossed her red hair back and sent him a scathing look. “Golweneth told us to make them standard trays. Don’t try to get out of it just because you don’t like dwarves.”

He placed a roll on each plate and then crossed his arms mulishly. “Why can’t we just give them a box of waybread? Then we wouldn’t have to visit their cells so often.”

“We need to keep the rest of our food storage for winter emergencies,” Mírdan scolded. “We already used up all of the old and expired waybread on the dwarves already. The worst bits left have been reserved for the dwarf King by order of my Lord Thranduil.” She looked vaguely uncomfortable at that. “Besides, it’s a waste of time to make inferior meals specifically for the prisoners when the kitchen is already overburdened with supplying all of the parties and increased guard patrols. This is easier and more logical.”  

Asindar looked away, tucked a lock of blond hair behind one pointed ear, and grumbled something under his breath. Billa had to restrain herself from smacking him between the eyes with the last bit of her vegetable pie.  Just in case, she removed temptation by plopping it into her mouth and chewing vigorously.

Seeing him grumble, the scarlet-haired Mírdan placed a hand on her hip and said, “If you don’t like following orders, then you can mítho orch,” Billa didn’t entirely understand what the female elf had said. However, she could tell it was an insult because Asindar turned bright red and all the nearest elves burst out in shocked giggles. Billa would have to remember to look it up later. Asindar then did something rude with his hand that made his audience snort and Mírdan wrinkle her nose at him. Suddenly everyone started gossiping like they were in the market square in Hobbiton.

Billa couldn’t help but lament how elves like Asindar could simultaneously be as beautiful and ethereal as the stars, while simultaneously as petty and self-important as that toad back home, Otho. He’d tried to court her once upon a time, despite their being close cousins. Such things happened occasionally. She’d been so lonely at the time that she’d briefly considered it.

But in the end, he’d hurt and disappointed her. It turned out that he only wanted her to ensure that he could take control of her money and estate. They’d been friends as tweens, so she’d trusted him at first. But he’d treated the Gamgees cruelly, flirted with Lobelia behind her back, and bragged about how he’d spend her money while getting drunk at the Green Dragon. Then he’d had the audacity to think her too stupid to see through his lies when she’d confronted him about it. Billa had publically rejected his suit and he’d resented and bad-mouthed her ever since. Some had turned against her because of it, but she had never regretted it.

The elves here had deeply disappointed her too. Hidden by her little magic ring, she’d watched them imprison her friends, feed them poor food, and cast racial slurs. Of course, the dwarves were always insulting the elves too, but for some reason she’d expected the elves to be better than that. Billa was disheartened.

Now it was up to her, again, to save her dwarves. Funny how that kept happening. Billa would have to add that to her resume when she got home: grower of prize-winning tomatoes, spinner of stories, and saver of dwarrows. Maybe her new friends Dis and Tosi could help her get it engraved on one of the mathoms she was taking back to the Shire when this was all over.

Half of the elves in the kitchen had stopped working to giggle, gossip, and take sides about how they should be treating the dwarves. A sly looking male leaned towards Mírdan and asked, “Is it true that one of the dwarves is in love with Tauriel? Which cell is he in so I can see what he looks like?”

Asindar, who already seemed to be over his spat with Mírdan, was now placing steamed asparagus on the trays and gossiping with the others. He was one of the few still working. Billa felt her mouth begin to water when she smelled the asparagus. Perhaps she wasn’t full quite yet. Asindar arched his eyebrow at Mírdan and prompted, “You did tell us you saw them flirting.”

Shrugging uncomfortably, Mírdan placed down a handful of wooden utensils on a tray. She opened her mouth to reply, but before she could a clarion voice rang through the kitchen, “What is the meaning of this racket?”

All sound and movement stopped, like a lid snuffing out a fire when placed on a flaming pot. “I smell something burning. Fix it. Now,” the woman snapped out. Several elves jumped as if pinched and scurried over to check the roasting pits and the food in the massive ovens.

The woman was short for an elf, but had a regal bearing. Her dark brown hair was kept out of her face by a circlet of carved bone. Everyone in the kitchen deferred to her. Billa couldn’t help but feel impressed. “Well?” she asked again sternly with an imperiously raised eyebrow.

“I am sorry, my Lady Golweneth.” A pale Mírdan stepped forward and bowed her head. “I lost my temper, descended into gossip, and thus lost control of the work here in the kitchen. I should have been a better deputy in your absence.”

To Billa’s surprise, Asindar stepped forward as well until he stood at Mírdan’s side. “Some of the fault is also mine. I let my distaste for the dwarves slow the work,” he admitted humbly. Mírdan sent him a gratified look and a slight smile.

Billa was impressed. Her cousin Otho would never have done something like that. Maybe she was too hasty in her judgement of Asindar, though he had been mean about her dwarves. She would have to watch and see.

Instead of more yelling, Golweneth looked at them both with disappointment. “I expect more of the two of you. I know you can do better.” They both seemed to shrink at her words. Billa suspected they’d have preferred the yelling.

Then Golweneth swept the entire kitchen with a chastising look. “We have much to do to prepare for the grand feast tonight. Everyone please return to their duties.” Noise slowly returned to the room, but it was all very purposeful and orderly now.

Walking over to inspect the trays, Golweneth beckoned Asindar and Mírdan to follow. “These are fine,” she said, “but you two have just volunteered to take over delivery for the rest of the day. Your other duties will not be removed, so make sure you organize your time accordingly. I will go along this once to supervise the delivery.”

Both elves looked dismayed. They sly elf who’d asked about Kili, however, suddenly looked immensely cheered. He patted Asindar consolingly on the back as he walked by and tried to disappear to the other side of the kitchen.

Before he could, however, he was stopped by Golweneth. “Penchanar, I’d still like you to help with the delivery. I may need an assistant to take notes if it takes longer than I expect or something down there needs changing. I haven’t had a chance to visit the prison cells yet when they actually hold prisoners.”

“Of course, Lady Golweneth,” he said after a slight hesitation. “My time is yours to command.” Asindar sent him a smirk from behind her back.

Gathering up the trays full of plates, the four elves left the kitchen. Billa hopped down from her bench and followed. For such lithe beings, each elf could carry a lot of weight. They floated down the corridor ahead of her, despite the heavy trays they carried. It impressed Billa, but also reminded her to be wary. Even the weakest of them would probably have no problem capturing a hobbit.

They passed the flame-haired Lifar and his friend cleaning another alcove as they walked. “Have you discovered the source of the smell yet?” Golweneth asked.

“Not yet, my lady, but I am doing my best. I have scrubbed through three cloths already in cleaning this old place. Hopefully the stench will stop lingering in the halls soon.” Lifar held up a threadbare cloth covered in soap. Golweneth gave him an approving nod and they moved on.

Billa stuck her tongue out at them all as she passed, just because she could. As they neared the prison cells holding most of the dwarrows, Billa heard a worrisome cough rattle out from Oin. It worried her heart. She hoped he started to improve soon.

Several guards stepped forward to assist in handing out the food. Billa was relieved to see that each cell received a generous portion. She’d feared they might make some of the dwarves share. Despite having just eaten, her stomach let out a loud betraying grumble.

One of the guards looked up suspiciously and began moving in her direction. Shrinking back against the wall, Billa held her breath in fright. After a moment of searching the shadows to her right, he sniffed and wrinkled his nose. Then he turned and went back to his duties. Very slowly she let out her breath in relief.

Oin coughed again.

“Is your companion sick?” Golweneth asked Gloin in the common tongue. It was the first hint of sympathy for a dwarf that Billa had heard from an elf since coming to this place. Usually their mutual dislike permeated every conversation.

It also felt strange to hear an elf speak common. She’d become so used to the elves speaking in Sindarin all of the time. This experience had made her extremely grateful that her mother had taught her the language and that the elves in Rivendell had helped her to practice and improve. The lady Arwen had even gifted her with a small book of poetry to stay in practice during her travels.  

Gloin stepped up to the bars, “Aye, m’brother’s come down with a chill of some sort,” he answered suspiciously. “He’s usually the one healing others, but you’ve cruelly taken all our supplies, so I’ve naught to give him.”

“As prisoners, it is only logical that the guards would remove your weapons and belongings,” Mirdan answered quickly with elvish hauteur. She did not seem to take any criticism of Golweneth well, imagined or otherwise. In reply, Gloin growled in frustration and what must be worry. Billa felt worried too.

Golweneth glanced at her companions with consideration and then at Tauriel and her guards. Then she said something quickly in either highly accented Sindarin or in Quenya. Billa couldn’t quite catch the meaning except for the word mercy. They seemed surprised. Asindar answered negatively in a dismissive tone of voice. Waving away his words, Golweneth turned to Tauriel with a look of great expectation. “Captain?”

What was going on? Billa wondered.

Gesturing to the side, Tauriel took Golweneth over to stand against the wall near Billa to talk. Luckily the conversation switched back to Sindarin, so she could understand.

Golweneth gestured to the dwarves, who’d all come to the front of their cells to warily watch the unfolding drama, even if they couldn’t understand the language. “I’ve bit my tongue long enough,” the short elf said with a slash of her hand. “This is not the elven way.  These dwarves are at our mercy,” her voice rose with emotion, “locked up with no way out, not even a window to bring the light of the stars to give them comfort.”

She pointed at the dwarves. “If they are at our mercy, then I must ask, are we not merciful?”

Touching the center of her chest, her voice resonated passionately. “I say that we the Eldar, made glorious by our maker Ilúvatar, and no matter who or what resides in those cells or in the forest beyond our walls, it behooves us to brighten like evening stars to become our best selves and bestow on them that mercy and light. We must remember that we are all star stuff. Mayhap they will see our light and find their hearts softened towards us and all elves, or mayhap they will misunderstand and choke on our kindness. But their response is not what’s important. That we are true to ourselves is.” A soft glow shone almost imperceptibly from her skin as she spoke, fading gently once she ended her appeal.

A ringing silence hung in the corridor after her words, like the pure tone of a trumpet echoing off the hillsides. The dwarves looked about in confusion. They hadn’t understood the liquid Sindarin syllables or what had just been said.

As for Billa, she felt inspired and renewed. The beauty of Golweneth’s words and the sentiment within nestled into Billa’s heart. She would not forget them.  No matter what happened next, her faith in the wonder of the elves was restored. As with all people, no matter the race, some were good, some bad, and some absolutely glorious.

As if rehearsed, the elves in the corridor all simultaneously placed their hands on their hearts and bowed their heads in respect. Tauriel stepped forward and performed a complicated gesture, touching her mouth, head, heart, and belly. Then she kissed her fingertips, performed a flowing bow, and touched her fingers to Golweneth’s feet. “Thy words are both wise and timely, Lady Golweneth, and do us well to hear them. Though these are dark times, we are not degraded nor defined by them. We are and ever will be Children of Ilúvatar. Let us all remember to temper our sometimes fearsome duty with justice and mercy.”

Visibly shaken, Asindar turned to Gloin and asked in common, “What are your brother’s symptoms? We will go to the healers and return speedily with medicine for him.”

Penchanar stepped forward. “No, I’ll go. You have too much to do already. I will take up this task.”

Surprise and hope suffused Gloin’s face as he looked back and forth between them. “M’ brother, Oin, he’s got fevers and chills by turns, and a deep cough. He’s been feeling poorly since getting bit by those big evil spiders in the forest.”

Understanding lit the elves’ faces. “They are truly evil creatures,” Golweneth  said. “Their venom is foul and occasionally causes further illness. Our healers will know what to do. Penchanar will return shortly with medicine for your brother.”

The elves from the kitchen packed up the now empty trays efficiently. Golweneth added, “We will also bring a special herb for you all to eat with your next few meals. It will help purge any remaining venom. Despite it being green, you must all eat it if you wish to avoid further complications.”

Turning, she skewered Ori with a look. “Do you understand? You must eat it if you wish to recover quickly down here in your cells. I noticed that you left most of your vegetables uneaten and that your movements seem more sluggish than your companions. Are you also ill? Or are you merely critical of the food prepared by me and my staff? It is the same that we eat, and I assure you that it both tastes good and keeps one healthy.”

Ori flushed, “I am well, Mistress. I will eat the herbs.”

“If you don’t, I’ll make sure you regret it,” Dori threatened his little brother with barely concealed worry.

The elves then dispersed except for the guards walking by on patrol. Billa desperately wanted to talk to her friends, but she’d have to wait. She couldn’t risk getting caught by Penchanar or any other elves returning with Oin’s medicine. At least she felt better knowing that someone like Golweneth was around to look after her friends.

Filled with hope, she pushed off the wall to go searching for the warden in charge of the keys. The sooner she figured out how to get his keys, the sooner they would be floating free down the river towards Laketown. Tugging on her braid with determination, she padded softly off in search.

TO BE CONTINUED

Chapter Text

The next evening, Billa found herself in the central feasting hall. She sat at the edge of the room underneath a table of deliciously smelling appetizers. They tasted just as good as they smelled, too. She’d eaten six.

As she sat, she watched an elf named Hiwon. He had the keys to her friends’ cells tied to his belt. She’d been shadowing him constantly, but hadn’t managed to get the keys yet. To make it more depressing, he wasn’t even that good of a guard. He didn’t really follow a set route and he kept sneaking off to have a drink with his friends or to steal a bite from the kitchen. Tauriel had even yelled at him once for being late to something. As usual he and his friends were sitting around getting drunk and laughing at their own scant wit.

Earlier she’d tried sneaking up behind him to cut the keys from his belt, but so many people were coming and going in the feasting hall that she’d gotten kicked. The crowd had only gotten worse since then. No matter how alluring those dangling keys seemed, she wouldn’t try that again. She had the bruises to remind her in case she got tempted. Not again, no thank you.

Observing the rest of the room, she noticed that King Thranduil was meeting semi-privately with two elves in a lavishly decorated alcove. Whatever they were saying looked to be bad news. Thranduil’s face became blanker and less emotional as they spoke, with random twitches of displeasure. His movements became overly controlled. He also drank from his wine glass like it was water and Elvish wine was strong. Billa had taken a sip and started coughing.

Finally Thranduil held up his hand and curtly dismissed them. They he stalked over to his throne and flung himself down broodingly, crossing his legs and calling for even more wine. A server tried to give him some food, but he refused it, drinking from his glass and staring out over the hall through heavy lidded eyes.

More crates of wine came up from the basement and were opened. The party quickly became raucous. Billa noticed an interesting and slightly worrisome shift. As the party got wilder, the older, more staidly dressed elves started to drift away and the seemingly younger, wilder ones crowded in from the hallways.

Someone said something to Thranduil that made him laugh. He threw back the dregs of his wine cup, stood up, and called for his guard to bring Thorin. Then he made them clear a space in the middle of the room.

Billa didn’t like the look of this. Nothing good could come of bringing Thorin into this pack of drunken elves. Especially not with both races spoiling for a fight.

The guards returned, shepherding Thorin inside a loose ring. Despite being surrounded by hostile faces, Thorin held his composure. He stood proudly with his feet wide apart and his hands resting on his belt, looking thoroughly unconcerned. The sound in the room rose higher at his appearance, turning slightly ugly. Billa hugged herself tight with worry.

Because of the noise, it took Billa several moments to notice the elven women now standing only a couple of feet away. Golweneth also had her arms crossed unhappily next to a grim-faced Tauriel. “This is not going to end well,” Tauriel said softly, echoing Billa’s thoughts. The hobbit wondered if she was picturing Kili in the middle of that mob instead of Thorin.

“Why is he in such a mood tonight? Did something happen?” Golweneth inquired beneath the noise of the crowd.

Tauriel’s mouth drooped for a moment in sadness before firming again. “We lost several guards out on patrol today. The monsters are getting bolder and more numerous. I don’t understand what, but something new is happening out there. King Thranduil ordered the patrol to investigate outside of our usual routes and we lost some people. He isn’t taking their loss well, I think. He’s forbidden any more investigations outside of our already established boundaries.” Tauriel then told her the names of the elves that had been lost. Golweneth turned her face to the wall for a moment to privately wipe away tears and regain her composure.

“Sometimes,” Golweneth said thinly, “I think the King has become so cold because the fire of his caring burned too hot. All of the loss through the millennia has emptied him out and he refuses to let anyone or anything in that close anymore, like a once blazing hearth full of only ashes and embers in the morning. We have all gotten so old. He cares, but it hurts too much so he hides from it. Yet he is our King. I worry for him… and for us.” She wiped away another tear.

Tauriel put an arm around Golweneth and hugged her gently. “You are too vibrant to journey to the Gray Havens, my friend. There is still hope in this world,” Tauriel comforted. The older woman leaned on the younger gratefully for a moment. No more messages were spoken except those not requiring voice. Taking a deep breath, Golweneth squeezed Tauriel’s hand and then gently stepped away to stand on her own two feet again.

A moment later, Thranduil finally deigned to notice Thorin’s presence. The Elf King held up a hand for silence, uncrossed his legs and leaned forward in his throne. The crowd quieted. Billa held her breath.

“So, dwarf, you’ve been my guest for some days now, though I’ve lost track of how many. Perhaps now you are ready to tell us the truth of your plans. How do you intended to sneak into the mountain without waking the dragon? What secrets are you hiding?” The elven King took a sip of his refilled wine glass while he waited confidently for a response. “Are you ready to explain yourself to me?”

“Not in the slightest,” Thorin answered with a bored tone of voice. Then his brows lowered and his expression darkened. “Also, if this is how you treat all of your guests, your manners, in the words of my young nephews, suck.”

His provocative words made Billa wince and slap her forehead in dismay.

Thranduil put down his goblet with a click, but otherwise barely reacted. “Then perhaps it would interest you to know how those nephews of yours are faring, along with the rest of your company?”

Thorin stilled, but stayed stubbornly silent.

“Hmm, no?” Thranduil arched an eyebrow. “Pity, as one of them has taken quite sick and the rest of them have complained about the food not being adequate, but if you don’t really care then I suppose we can simply put you back in your cell and not worry about it.”

Anger heated Thorin’s face as he stomped forward, but before he could go more than a few steps the guards drew steel and tightened the circle. Neck pricked by an elvish blade, Thorin was forced to stop his advance. “Your lack of hospitality towards me and my kin does not surprise me, elf, nor that you still feel no shame for it.” He took a heavy breath and a trickle of scarlet blood slid down his neck to disappear into his collar. The blade did not retreat, nor did Thorin.

Thorin’s face was stone. “I cannot give you the information you seek. There is no secret,” he lied. “But let us talk of the state of my people in your dungeons. Do not make them suffer. I beg you as King of your people to give the order to bring them the food and medicine they need.”

Billa had to hold her hands over her mouth to keep from shouting. What was Thranduil playing at? The company was fine, with more food than ever. An elven healer named Nestor had personally visited Oin and left him several doses of medicine, with a promise to deliver the rest tomorrow. Billa had checked to make sure. Everyone was fine!

But she hadn’t had a chance to tell Thorin that, hadn’t managed to visit him since before Golweneth’s speech. Now Thorin was reading into Thranduil’s words that their friends were almost dying down there. Even worse, the drunken elven King was letting him!

Against the wall, Golweneth folded her arms tightly and pursed her lips disapprovingly. Tauriel stared at the floor as if she couldn’t bear to watch. They both knew the truth too.

Only Thorin didn’t.

“What would you do to earn them what they need, oh dwarven King?” Thranduil drawled.

“A contest!” shouted out a drunken voice.

More elves took up the cry, “Yes, make him win it.”

“A contest! Skill against skill!”

“A contest!”

Taking a gulp from his goblet, Thranduil stood up and gestured impatiently for a refill. “Yes, if you will not trade with information, then we shall have a contest. Clear a table for his winnings,” he pointed and the elves sitting at his chosen table grabbed their plates and moved.

Thranduil paced back and forth for a moment before stopping just outside the ring of guards to face Thorin. “Let there be a series of tests,” he said. “If you win, a plate of food or a goblet, representing a dose of medicine, will be put on your table.” He flicked his fingers and ten goblets were emptied onto the floor and lined up on the edge of the next table to a spate of jeers.

“If you lose,” Thranduil looked down his nose at Thorin, “which is the much more likely option since you are only a dwarf, after all, what shall we do then?”

“Be merciful,” Golweneth said quietly beneath the shouts.

Thranduil’s eyes flicked her way, as if somehow he could hear her clear voice beneath the din. Or maybe he just knew her that well. “It would be a pity if your friend died of his illness, so perhaps you can still buy a prize even if you lose. But with what currency?”

People started shouting out suggestions, some of them rather mean.

Billa couldn’t see well enough with all of the jumping and shouting, but she was tempted to draw Sting and start pricking people with it. After a minute, Thranduil pointed at an elf, “That is a good suggestion. If he wishes to buy something after a loss, he may use whatever he has on his person to do so, but nothing else. Challengers line up over there,” he gestured to the opposite wall. Then he put down his empty goblet, picked up a full one out of the hand of a distracted elf, and went back to his throne.

Elves scrambled to line up on the opposite wall to challenge Thorin. Billa thought she might be sick. A flash of blond from the corner of her eye was the only warning she had of Legolas suddenly leaning on the table above her head. He picked up a bit of food and popped it into his mouth.

After swallowing, he asked, “What’s got everyone so worked up in here?”

For a second Billa thought he was talking to her. Angrily she opened her mouth to say something scathing. Luckily, Tauriel answered before Billa could completely give herself away.

“Thorin is being given the chance to compete for food and medicine to be delivered to his friends.” At his look of confusion, Tauriel quickly recapped the situation, including how Thorin was being completely misled and how the king was very likely drunk. “Though he is rather belligerent with King Thranduil, which isn’t helping things,” she added. “I am a bit surprised by how horribly he jumped from his dwarves complaining about the food to us elves starving them though,” she finished defensively.

“Ah,” Legolas said with a wince, “that may be my fault.” Guilt suffused his features. “I threatened to withhold his food if he didn’t learn better manners.” Golweneth sent him a dirty look, to which he defended, “I wasn’t really serious. I was just trying to keep him from attacking the guards again or your servers.”

Golweneth eased off on her disapproval, admitting, “We’ve also been feeding him the worst of the expired food stores. The king suggested it as a way to soften him up.” She then guiltily defended, “But the rest of the dwarves haven’t had it as bad.”

Legolas bowed his head. “Nevertheless, Thorin doesn’t know that. So after all of that, of course he would believe that we would be starving his friends. As a King, he would feel personally responsible to do something about it.”

“As a good King,” Tauriel interjected thoughtfully. “A bad King would care more about himself.” Their conversation died at that point, aided by the start of the tournament.

The contests began with martial tests. Drawn blood drew some sort of penalty, so at least no one was getting too injured. Thorin managed to win about six out of ten contests, but he had to be getting tired. Nevertheless, Billa felt cheered for his sake as the prize table started to fill. However, about half of it still came from grudgingly surrendered rings and necklaces after a loss. One by one he lost all his jewelry, until the time came when he lost a game of darts, reached up to his neck, and found nothing there.

The blond elf who’d won turned to him smugly. “What will you do now, dwarf? It seems there are still quite a few goblets missing from your table.” Billa counted with dismay, realizing that only 4 doses had made it to the table. That meant that Thorin would keep going until he had all ten. Dwarves were stubborn and he was their King. Of course he would keep going.

Gritting his teeth, Thorin ripped off his stained coat and tossed it in the box holding his jewelry with a snarled, “Here.”

The elf looked taken aback. “Does clothing count?” he turned to ask Thranduil.

“The rules,” Thorin claimed loudly, “said that I may use whatever I have on my person. The coat was on my person.”

A tipsy Penchanar stood up and declared, “You did say that, sire.”

Thranduil tilted his head and sighed. “Very well, use your mangy clothing if you must.”

“If your lack of shame forces me to, I will,” Thorin growled. “But I want more of the medicine.”

Billa couldn’t wait for this to end. A fresh platter of food was delivered to the table over her head, but she wasn’t in the least tempted. In fact, this whole farce was making her sick to her stomach. Thorin was humbling himself to save his people, just like he’d always done. Even though it made him furious, he still went through with it because he thought people needed him.

The elves in this room wanted to make sport of and humiliate Thorin. Yet peeling back his defenses only exposed his core of steel. Thorin was not weak. However, that strength didn’t mean that this didn’t hurt him. He just refused to show it.

But Billa was a hobbit. She had no reputation to uphold. Billa let herself hurt for him. Under the food table, cried silent tears for his ordeal.

Waving his hand stiffly, Thranduil had an elf move another goblet representing medicine to Thorin’s table. Then he returned to what looked like a serious conversation with another elf. A female in a violet tunic leaned over to Thranduil and whispered something in his ear. The Elf King looked up. “Go ahead,” he said impatiently. “At least someone should be enjoying this.” Then he went back to his conversation.

She stood up tipsily, placed a hand on her hip, and announced, “To make things more interesting, a dice will be rolled to decide on prizes from now on. Odds are food, evens are goblets of medicine. Six pips are a double prize,” she ignored the booing to finish loudly, “and one pip means he loses something from the table!” Mean-spirited cheers rang out and some fellow on the side started singing what had to be an elvish drinking song.

“This is outrageous,” Thorin seethed.

Thranduil looked up at his words, sipped his drink, and burped softly behind a raised hand. “You may forfeit any time you like, though I cannot vouch for the efficacy of a medicine at half dose,” he said mean-spiritedly. “Or you could tell me what secrets you are hiding about the mountain. Your choice, of course.”

Sounding like he was chewing gravel, Thorin replied, “I will continue.”

“Excellent,” Thranduil said. “Penchanar, you usually carry dice. You can be in charge of rolling.”

Suddenly the center of attention, Penchanar looked taken aback at being directly involved. Smiling weakly, he pulled out a dice and went to stand next to the prize table.

“Legolas,” Tauriel pleaded, “you have to stop this. It is cruel.”

“I do not like dwarves, but I agree that this has gone too far. They have let the wine cloud their judgement. However, what can I do to stop this now?” he asked, looking helplessly at his inebriated father and the room full of jeering elves. For a moment he seemed like a mere boy and not a man who’d lived for millennia.

Golweneth laid a hand on his arm. “We need to get Thranduil out of here. Go find or make a distraction that requires his presence, and then convince him that he must deal with it in person. Things will fall apart after he leaves.”

“Right,” he nodded sharply, regaining his composure with a plan to focus on. “I’ll need your help,” he said to Golweneth.

“Of course,” she said, following him out of the room.

Once by herself, Tauriel barely held onto a semblance of calm, standing against the wall as tautly as a drawn bowstring, just waiting for the chance to take action. She kept rubbing at a spot on her forearm with her thumb. It caused the edge of her sleeve to ride up, exposing a tattoo of an iron arrow riding above a smithy hammer. Although the hammer and arrow could have belonged to any race, Billa had her suspicions. It looked like a soulmate mark, perhaps a mark belonging to another dark-haired dwarf with the same strong nose as Thorin’s sitting innocently in the dungeons below.

To Billa, it felt like they held vigil together, just waiting for this travesty to end. Nevertheless, she couldn’t help but wipe away more tears of frustration and rage. Her eyes would be red and swollen by the end of this, along with her nose. Pretend companionship could only go so far to comfort her when Thorin still suffered alone in the middle of the room and she was powerless to stop it.

The hobbit wanted to run away and hide from it all, but she couldn’t. Someone had to be here as a witness. Someone had to stay by his side, even if he didn’t know she was there.

The contests turned from games of chance like dice and darts to unexpected things like song, dance, and feats of acrobatics. During a lull, an elf with rust-colored hair stood up with a drunken stagger and called, “Asindar! Come and join me in putting the dwarf in his place!” It took a moment, but Billa finally recognized him without his usual mop bucket. It was Lifar, the elf going around cleaning up the alcoves trying to remove Billa’s smell from lingering in the hallways.

Billa looked around and saw the blond Asindar leaning against a pillar with an uncomfortable look in his eye. He straightened slowly as if to move forward at the summons, but Mirdan showed up at his side and grabbed his hand tightly. Startled, Asindar looked into her face, and then down at their intertwined fingers. Meeting Lifar’s eyes again, he shook his head in negation, turned with Mirdan, and left the room in the opposite direction. Lifar shrugged angrily, threw his red hair behind his shoulder, and stalked over to stand at the back of the line.  

Thorin was tiring and the judging became more and more biased against him, though it hadn’t been very fair to begin with. Turn by turn, Thorin lost his shirt, both boots, both socks, and then even his belt, the last of which gained him nothing and actually lost him a plate, since Penchanar rolled a one on his dice. At this point, all Thorin had left were his trousers, his smallclothes, and the embroidered fabric around his waist concealing his soulmate mark.

Thorin only needed three more bottles of medicine. The next round was singing.  Billa was impressed by Thorin’s composure as he sang a solemn tune about an ancient battle while both barefoot and half naked. One of the elves chosen to judge teared up during the song like he was actually remembering the scene. The challenger sang a pretty song about a bird in the woods, but it was nothing to Thorin’s sweeping baritone. Thorin won handily.

The dice bounced and then twirled for a brief shining moment onto a six before falling back onto a three. The crowd held their breath and then let out a sigh. Another plate of food was moved to the prize table and for a moment Thorin let a hint of exhaustion stoop his shoulders. But only for a moment. Then he straightened and turned to the next challenger.

In a move Billa found blatantly unfair, the next elf returned to a weapons contest and challenged the exhausted Thorin to archery. Penchanar looked to Thranduil to see if he’d allow it, but the King was staring into his goblet, distracted by his own dark thoughts or falling into a drunken stupor. So the archery contest continued unchallenged.

Despite his weariness, Thorin sighted down the shaft and shot well. It hit the line circling the bullseye. A great shot in any other circumstance. But not, it proved, good enough to beat his elven challenger. Thranduil got up and walked out for a moment, giving Billa hope that this would end soon.

Jaw set, Thorin unbuttoned his trousers, let them drop, and kicked them violently into the box. Some of the crowd tittered, while others looked like they were starting to regret all of their drinking. Hopefully some of them were regretting what they were doing to Thorin as well. Billa wanted to think so. As the night had advanced, more and more elves were getting up and drifting out of the room with guilty, shame-filled faces. Several tables along the edges of the room got up and left together when Thorin was forced to remove his pants.

Without his trousers to shadow them, his bare, hairless feet looked so small and vulnerable, as did the knobs of his knees. Although Thorin was as handsome as ever, and his body as fit, Billa took no prurient delight from seeing his body so exposed. This was nothing like their interlude at his cell. This was a violation. It hurt Billa’s heart. All she could do was fervently pray for Legolas and Golweneth to move faster with their distraction.

Thorin turned to Penchanar and ordered threateningly, “Roll a six.”

Flinching back from Thorin’s glare, the dark-haired elf dropped the dice. It rolled to the edge of the table and stopped. “What number is it?” someone in the now much smaller crowd asked. A hush fell.

Penchanar swallowed, surreptitiously glanced at the guards surrounding Thorin, and tucked a strand of hair behind his pointed ear. “It’s a four. You get one more bottle of medicine, at least. You only need two more of them,” he said to Thorin in a conflicted tone of voice, part fear and part pity.

Nostrils flaring, Thorin took a fortifying breath and turned back to the line of challengers. “Right, what’s next,” he demanded stubbornly.

Lifar stomped forward and held out his bow challengingly.

“Archery again. Of course,” Thorin griped as he took a bow back from one of the guards. Nevertheless, he lined up in front of the target again. Pulling the arrow up and over his head, he pulled it down to his ear and aimed. His arms trembled.

Thorin suddenly lowered the bow without firing. He shook out first one arm and then the other, trying to loosen the muscles. Then he rolled his head on his neck until the vertebrae cracked.

A cruel, superior smirk curled onto Lifar’s face as he watched Thorin. Any regret she might have felt about dumping dirty water on him died at that moment. In fact, Billa decided to make the hallway alcoves as disgusting as possible from now. It was that or go over and kick Lifar in the shin.

Raising the bow again, a wave of muscles flexed up and down Thorin’s back, arms, and legs as he fired in one fluid motion. The arrow shot out with a faint whistle, embedding itself in the precise center of the target.

“Ha!” Thorin exclaimed with a toothy grin.

A few seconds later, Thranduil returned to his seat. Almost immediately he took back up his glass of wine. His eyes widened briefly at seeing all of the exposed skin on the dwarven prisoner before him. He blinked rapidly to regain his composure, but he didn’t remark on it or call a halt to the contest. Unfortunately.

Scowling, Lifar stepped up to the target.  Before he shot, he cleared his face of all emotion. Raising his bow neither fast nor slow, he calmly loosed his arrow as if merely releasing a leaf into the wind. The arrow sped fast and true, splintering through the center of Thorin’s arrow and embedding itself in the target. Silence and then surprised exclamations rang out through the remaining crowd.

“You sure cleaned him out, Lifar!” someone joked with a burst of drunken giggling.

Out of the corner of her eye Billa saw Golweneth slide up to stand beside Tauriel again. However she couldn’t take her attention off of Thorin’s gutted face. What was he going to do? All he had left were his smallclothes and the wrap around his waist.

The hall became silent with anticipation. A few more tables emptied as more elves became uncomfortable and left. However, enough elves remained to keep this disgrace moving forward.

Eyes burning with impotent rage, Thorin’s hands went to his waist. Looking straight into Thranduil’s eyes, he dropped his fingers and stripped off his smallclothes defiantly. Then he tossed them into the box without looking away from the elvenking once. Placing his hands at his sides, Thorin stood unashamedly naked except for the embroidered cloth wrapped around his waist.

Tauriel choked and began to cough, drowning out the sound of Billa’s squeak. Turning to Golweneth, Tauriel whispered irreverently out of the side of her mouth, “I wonder if tonight will now be called the feast of the full moon?” Her awful taste in jokes just showed that she really was meant for Kili.

Snorting, Golweneth elbowed her in the side. “Oh hush.”

A naked Thorin stood defiantly in the center of the elven feasting hall. “Roll me a six,” he commanded Penchanar again, still not looking away from Thranduil’s face.

The elven King looked uncomfortable beneath Thorin’s gaze, shifting in his seat, and then standing up to oversee the dice throw. The clatter of the dice on the table echoed loudly in the silent hall. Billa held her breath. Tauriel grabbed Golweneth’s hand anxiously and squeezed.

“It’s a,” Penchanar’s voice stumbled, “it’s a two.” A collective sigh swept through the hall. Another goblet was moved to Thorin’s table, but one dose still remained unwon.

Leaning a hand on a table, Thranduil turned to Thorin and looked his naked form up and down. He rubbed his temple in pain for a moment. The elvenking then picked up his goblet and drained it to the dregs. Almost immediately a hovering elf came forward to refill it again.

Gesturing at the cloth wrapping Thorin’s waist, Thranduil sardonically asked, “One last contest then?”

Thorin touched the fabric wrapping his middle with trembling fingers which quickly turned into a steely fist. He looked at his table of winnings, the nine goblets representing medicine, and finally at the thinned crowd. “No, I am done,” Thorin declared.

Thranduil’s hand slipped off the table as he straightened abruptly. His wine splattered onto the floor. “What’s this then? You only have one dose of medicine left to earn. Will you not try for it?”

“I said I am done,” Thorin repeated stonily.

Tilting his head curiously, Thranduil put down his ever-present wine glass. “Just what secret is it that you are hiding under that cloth?” he asked suspiciously

Thorin looked away dismissively. “It is not for you.”           

“What is the secret,” Thranduil demanded more forcefully, over-enunciating to compensate for the slight slur in his speech as he came forward and loomed above the dwarf.

Tossing his head back, Thorin looked furiously up into Thranduil’s eyes. Pounding his fist over his naked chest, Thorin declared, “It is not a secret, it is sacred.” 

Thranduil looked completely taken aback.

“I cover the mark of my soulmate. It is not meant for the eye of any elf here, especially you.” Thorin spat. “If your twisted desires lean in that direction, be so kind as to conceal it from me. I do not wish to vomit what little food I’ve managed to eat today.”

Tauriel choked again, but this time on a shocked snort. Golweneth elbowed her in the side again. A titter of shocked amusement ran through the crowd. Covering her mouth, Tauriel got herself under control.

Rage cracked Thranduil’s mask of calm disinterest.  However, before he could speak, an elf in stained leathers stepped into the hall and strode up to the King. He said something low and urgent. Legolas followed more sedately, stepping up behind the messenger in support. Legolas said something quietly to his father and pointed out into the corridor.

Running a hand through his golden hair, Thranduil looked thoroughly irritated and slightly disheveled. He snapped out several orders to Legolas and the messenger. Legolas bowed and the messenger left.

When Thranduil looked back at the naked Thorin, he seemed slightly lost. Shaking his head sharply, Thranduil strode for the exit door near Billa’s table. As he passed, he snapped out, “Golweneth, Tauriel, fix this mess.” Then he disappeared down the corridor with a barely listing stride.

As if one mind, Golweneth, Tauriel, and Legolas immediately spread out to different parts of the room and began snapping out orders. Within a few minutes all of the elves had either disappeared or started cleaning up the mess. Tauriel and the guards escorted the mostly naked Thorin out of the room and presumably back to his cell.

Meanwhile, Golweneth grabbed Penchanar and ordered him to gather up all of the prize food and deliver it to the dwarves as promised. Penchanar found Asindar cleaning up one of the food tables and forced him come along. Within a few minutes, the food was loaded onto trays and being carried down to the dungeons. When Mirdan went over to help with the delivery, Golweneth ordered her instead to make up a tray of the best of the leftovers and wait for Golweneth’s order to deliver it to Thorin’s room.

At least that was honestly and generously done, Billa thought with grudging approval.

When the last of Thorin’s winnings were finally disposed of, Golweneth picked up the box containing his clothes and jewelry. Picking up his trousers with two fingers, she frowned in distaste and dropped them abruptly. Then she rubbed her fingers clean on a spare napkin. Resolutely she placed the lid on top of the box, picked it up, and made her way alone down the hall.

Billa had been waiting for this. She desperately wanted to go check on Thorin, but she felt that following his things was more important.  He would want them back. He deserved them back, and Billa intended to burgle them for him. Afterwards, she could go and talk to him in his cell.

Luckily Golweneth only walked a short distance down to an unlocked store room. She placed the box on a low shelf full of other dusty, miscellaneous boxes. Opening a box on another shelf, she pulled out a clean pair of pants and a shirt that just might fit someone Thorin’s size with only a couple of popped stitches. Then without a second glance at his things, she left the room and glided away down the hall.

As soon as the elf disappeared around the corner, Billa slipped into the storeroom. Grabbing Thorin’s box, she set it on the floor. Then she rearranged the shelf so it didn’t have an open space. Once done, she picked up the box of his things and slipped back out into the hall. Making her way to the basement, she hid the box behind a stack of dusty crates in a shadowed corner near her planned escape route.

Billa would make sure to give it back. She would not let these elves keep Thorin’s things. Not if she could help it.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Chapter Text

When Billa reached Thorin’s cell, she received a shock. It was empty! However, the metal bars on his cell were open and still swaying gently.

Confused, she quickly made her way back down the corridor. Where could he be? Was he okay? Billa worried. How long was it going to take for her to find him again? They had to be close by.

Suddenly she heard the sound of something dropping and a voice exclaiming, “Oh! I do beg your pardon. Oh dear!”

Quickening her step, she followed the source of the voice babbling apologies until she came upon a strange scene. An elf was blocking the corridor up ahead as he crouched down trying to pick up a messy pile of spilled papers and books, but he kept dropping them again because he couldn’t keep from staring at the naked dwarf standing in the middle of the ring of guards. It was Thorin! Finally the red-faced elf managed to pick up most of his things and the guards were able to get moving again.

They went down a set of stairs, around a winding corridor, and then down more stairs. Finally they came to a stop at an unassuming wooden door bound with metal filigree. It didn’t look like a prison cell, though it did have a lock beneath the door latch.

As they waited, Mirdan from the kitchen came up to the group with a large tray of food.

Captain Tauriel opened the door and walked inside with a companion, leaving the rest of them in the hallway. A few moments later they returned with their arms full of things they presumably didn’t want Thorin to have access to. They dumped it against the side of the wall in the hallway. Then Tauriel gestured for everyone to enter the room. “This is where you’ll be staying tonight.”

Billa trailed the group as they walked into the room. Inside the door was a short corridor leading to a bedroom. The opposite side of the room was open with a half-partition concealing something around a corner. Billa snuck over to peak and had to clap her hands over her mouth to keep from squeaking happily. A private hot springs bath!

But then the group started moving her way so Billa retreated to a sit underneath a table next to the closet. She didn’t want to get bumped into or stepped on. The guards made one more search of the room while she watched, but didn’t seem to find anything this time.

Thorin ignored the searching of the guards. As soon as he noticed the hot spring, he turned his back to the elves and walked around the partition. He waded straight into the water as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

“You are supposed to wash off first before getting into the water,” Mirdan said as she put down her tray and hesitantly walked over to the partition. She gestured at a corner where a small diverted stream disappeared beneath a metal grating. A bucket and soap sat on a shelf next to the grate.

Thorin bared his teeth in a violent smile. “Come in and make me.”

Mirdan blanched and took a step back.

Despite being naked and waist deep in water, Thorin looked the last thing from helpless. One of the guards swallowed hard and placed his hand on his sheathed dagger. Thorin just widened his smile disturbingly, like he would enjoy it if someone started something.

Couldn’t they tell that Thorin was at the end of his rope? If they pushed him even a bit more, he would snap, and snap viciously! Billa didn’t want to see that happen. It could only end badly for everyone, herself included, because there was no way she’d leave him to fight on his own this time. Not again. Luckily the elves all seemed to sense the danger too.

“Is everything secure?” Tauriel asked. At their nods, she gestured Mirdan to leave the room. “Let us leave the dwarf to his peace.”

She turned to Thorin, who now reclined against a bench with his arms spread out in a pose of relaxation belied by the tense muscles straining along his arms and neck. “Enjoy this indulgence while you can, dwarf King, as it is unlikely to be repeated.” Thorin raised an eyebrow at her indifferently. With that parting shot, the red-haired elf gathered up the rest of the guards and left, locking the door behind them with a faint, musical jangle of keys.

Less than a second later, Thorin growled and surged to his feet, his pose of indifference completely shattered. Dropping his hands to his sides, he practically ripped off the sopping material wrapped around his waist and flung it onto dry ground with a savage curse. Thrusting hands into his silver-threaded hair, Thorin dropped his head to his chest and spewed forth a litany of foul words barely discernable through the clenching of his teeth.

Billa winced at his pain. However, the selfish part of her couldn’t quite help peeking at his soulmate mark again. She knew her curious obsession was inappropriate. Billa was good at riddles, but only when she knew the language in question. Some dwarf maid was going to figure out Thorin’s mark one day and bond with him soul to soul. It would break Billa’s heart. She cared about him too much, though it would be easier if she didn’t. The pain was inevitable, so she tried not to dwell on it.

As a hobbit, there was little to no chance that she’d ever be part of a soulmate bond, much less a dwarven king’s. Plus her soul hadn’t even been made by Aule. As near as hobbits could guess, their souls had been created by his wife, Yavanna. Although her body had birthmarks and freckles aplenty, none of them bore magic. None of them had meaning. She shouldn’t even want a thing like a soulmate. No respectable hobbit would.

Nevertheless, the picture of his marking appeared every time she closed her eyes, like an afterimage burned inside her eyelids after staring too long at the fire. It was ridiculous. She’d started dreaming about artichokes, for heaven’s sake.

Billa gingerly crawled out from under the table and slipped off her ring, securing it in her vest pocket. She jumped when Thorin suddenly slammed his fists into the water with a cry of rage. Then he turned and drew back his fist to punch the wall.

“Don’t,” Billa cried.                                  

Thorin jerked, swinging around to stare at her in shock.

“You’ll hurt yourself,” she said, trailing off as Thorin’s face went from shock to joy to some strange combination of rage and shame.

“Did you just sneak in, Burglar, or have you been shadowing me all day?” he asked lowly, almost accusingly.

She flinched and opened her mouth to answer, but before she could, Thorin read her face and looked away swiftly.

Smoothing the wet hair back from his face, Thorin finally asked, “How much did you see?”

Billa opened and closed her mouth. Blew out a breath. Threw out her hands. “I’m seeing quite a lot now. You are naked, after all, and despite all of the offers I never actually peeked at you dwarves bathing. Some of them have forced me to see things that I can never unsee, but you’ve always been different.  Before today, I’ve never even seen your bare, hairless foot! This is new and quite a lot to take in. Have pity on a poor spinster.” That, at least, earned her a skeptical huff of laughter and a slight softening of his shoulders.

But it didn’t deter Thorin. The brief crack in his serious façade closed all too quickly. “Did you witness that mockery? Tell me true, Burglar.” The intensity of his gaze could have bored a hole in the rock.

Billa gave him the courtesy of meeting his eyes, “Yes, I was at the party when the guards first brought you in. I saw what happened.” Thorin expelled a breath as if punched, making her flinch. “And I thought I told you to call me Billa, not burglar?” she added in a brittle voice.

What else could she say that would make this better for him?

Nothing.  But she still had to try something. “I visited the others earlier today and,” Billa began before abruptly getting cut off by Thorin’s upheld hand.

“Not right now,” he said heavily, looking away. “Tell me later, but not right now.”

Firming her lips, Billa sighed and looked around for a distraction. Grabbing a nearby basin, she filled it with water. Then she took off her filthy coat and began scrubbing it with some of the soap she found on a nearby shelf.

She washed in awkward silence for several minutes. Dumping the filthy water, she rinsed off her now slightly cleaner coat and hung it up to dry in the wardrobe. Hopefully it wouldn’t be seen there by a surprise visitor.

Suddenly Thorin’s deep voice interrupted the quiet, making her jump. “You might as well wash all of it, including yourself. You’re all over filth.”

“Thank you so much, you majesty,” she replied with dry sarcasm. “As an expert in being filthy, you would know.”

He snorted. “Clean your things and get in the bath, Hobbit. Now.”

Turning to face Thorin, Billa planted her hands on her hips and scowled. “I may be in your employ, but you are not my King. Don’t order me about. Furthermore, as I constantly remind you all, I am a respectable hobbit and hobbits don’t-.”

“One who tricks trolls, escapes goblins, charges orcs, attacks spiders, and sneaks around elven kingdoms,” he interrupted rudely. “One who hires herself out as a burglar, which by signing such contract does in fact put herself under the orders of one Thorin Oakenshield, who just happens to be me. And oh, look! I’m a King!”

“A naked one!” Billa retorted, but was soundly ignored by Thorin as he kept talking.

“I’m sure respectable hobbits in the Shire act just like this all the time.”

Billa flushed red. “Despite all that, and the things I do that may be unusual for a hobbit, I am still a respectable female, yes, respectable! And you are a male who is not my husband! I am not getting naked in front of you!”

Thorin’s eyes grew dark as night beneath his water spiked eyelashes. Heavy-lidded blue eyes caught and held her own with an intensity that felt like it should have burned. Through red lips he whispered something so softly the sounds disappeared into the gentle lap of the water before Billa could catch them. He spoke again, slightly louder, but frustratingly she still didn’t understand the language. The syllables falling from his lips, guttural and liquid by turns, seemed like both a threat and a promise.

 “What did you just say? I don’t understand.” Her voice wavered.

Quirking a brow, Thorin ignored her question and the moment and returned to his earlier comment. “You should clean up while you can. Who knows when either of us will get the chance to take a bath again?” he said persuasively. “I’ll turn my back to give you privacy. My word that I will not peek without your permission,” he added.

Then he turned his back and glided away. As she watched, Thorin began unbraiding his hair. The muscles in his back and arms glistened and flexed as he worked, highlighting old scars and untouched expanses.

“As if I would ever give my permission for such a thing.” Swallowing hard, Billa had to force herself to stop staring. “You’re going to lose your beads in the water.”

“Will you keep them safe for me then? I’ll come give them to you if you are still respectably clothed,” he teased.

“Oh hand them over. I’ll put them with my things,” she said with a fake, put-upon sigh. Then she added, “I forgot to tell you, I stole your box of stuff back from the elves and hid it in the basement. There’s actually a river down there with a barely guarded dock where I think we can escape! We just have to get out of the cells first.”

Thorin turned and slowly waded her way. “Thank you for that, and I’d like to hear more, but…” he hesitated, “I’m still not quite ready for that discussion yet. Here in this hot spring, right now, this is my moment out of time. My break. Let me share it with you.” His face looked soft, almost pleading. “Later, after the bath, let us talk of it then, if that is acceptable?”

“O-of course,” she stuttered, surprised that he wasn’t more excited about her good news. But then she reminded herself what he’d just gone through and how exhausted he must be. Sympathy swelled within her breast. She could give him a few moments to recover. Good news could always wait.

Coming to the edge of the hot spring, he reached out and dropped the warm, wet beads into her hand. She curled her fingers shut to keep them safe. It felt strange to be looking down instead of up at him, but he was shorter standing in the water with her on shore.

Unexpectedly she found herself caught by his gaze. Something about his hair being slicked back by the water and his eyelashes clumping together emphasized the deep azure of his eyes. He seemed different like this. More vulnerable. Billa kept falling into his eyes and not wanting to catch herself.

Thorin’s air of sadness faded as he stared back at her. His eyes began to crinkle at the corners. That elusive dimple appeared. Slowly he ran the tip of his finger up the tender inside of her arm from wrist to elbow. Billa gasped at the sensual tingle and looked down.

Thorin took a step back and held up his finger. It was almost black. “Filthy,” he said again with a teasing twinkle in his eye. “If you’re not in here in 5 minutes, I’m going to exercise my prerogative as your employer and your King to pick you up and throw you in.” Then he turned around and retreated back to his corner.

“Oh, you!” Billa fumed. Teasing a woman like that wasn’t fair! Did he have any idea what affect he had on her when he acted like that? She wanted to ignore him out of spite. But she also really desperately wanted to be clean.

If she never again saw an elf sniff disgustedly at the air over her head, it would be too soon. Decaying spiders’ blood and sticky dust from thousand-year-old storerooms coated her skin, along with older things. The desire to feel clean again was too strong. “Fine, but I’m holding you to the no looking!”

Thorin didn’t deign to answer, but the cocky shift of his bare shoulders betrayed his smug satisfaction. It galled her to give in, but Billa was a sensible hobbit. No use cutting off her nose to spite her face. She wasn’t the dwarf here.

Besides which, she trusted him. Thorin had time and again risked himself to keep her safe. By the same token, she knew was safe with Thorin and that he would keep his promises.

First, she placed his hair beads and her gold ring safely in a bowl on a side table. She mustn’t lose those. There was a cleaning station behind a half-wall, so at least she’d be partially covered just in case. Quickly she disrobed and scrubbed her clothes roughly with soap. “I’m cleaning my clothes, so don’t you dare come up here after me! I’ll be in eventually,” she told him.

After rinsing and wringing them dry, she placed the ring back in her vest pocket along with the hair tie Thorin had made her. Then she hung the clothes all up in the closet she’d used earlier. They would dry better out in the open, but she couldn’t chance a guard seeing them from the doorway and coming in to investigate.

Before starting to clean herself, she saw the wet cloth that Thorin had thrown across the room. Glancing at him, Billa made sure he was still facing the other way. Then she scampered across the room bare-bottomed to pick it up.

Billa took the cold and clammy thing over to her improvised sink and washed it. She took more care with it than she had with any of her own clothes, for it was Thorin’s. She didn’t want to rip any hems or damage the simple dwarven embroidery. When it was as clean as she could make it, Billa draped it carefully over a chair to dry around the corner in the main room, where the draft from the door could reach it.

Sitting on a stool cleverly situated over a drain, Billa slathered herself with soap and scrubbed herself raw. Then she rinsed with a bucket of water from the clever little stream. Her curly brown hair resisted being cleaned, but she forced it into submission with only a little bit of swearing underneath her breath. Travelling with dwarves had really degraded her language. Lastly she made sure to clean between her toes and to lather the hair on her feet. As a hobbit, it galled her to have her feet looking so disgraceful.

Only when the fourth application of rinse water ran clear instead of gray and her skin glowed red from washing did Billa finally feel clean again. It had been too long. Smugly she thought about how she’d just fixed Lifar’s cleaning problem too. No more smell in the halls! Though a petty part of her hoped he was forced to keep cleaning things for months more trying to find the source of the odor, since he’d been so mean to Thorin.

Shivering in the cool air, Billa minced quickly to the edge of the hot spring and lowered herself into the gently steaming water. “Aahhh,” she sighed rapturously, clean hot water! Sinking down to her chin, she waded carefully over to a nice bench along the wall about ten feet away from Thorin. It was just the right height for the water to reach her neck. Humming happily, she allowed herself to relax.

The muscles all down Thorin’s back had tensed when she’d entered the water, as if he desperately wanted to turn, but he kept his promise and stayed facing the other direction. “Aren’t you glad you listened to me?” Thorin provoked without turning.

“Yes, yes, obviously you’re a genius because you appreciate cleanliness and got locked up with a hot bath,” she grumped back. “Speaking of which, maybe you should get out and actually use some soap yourself. I can still see decaying spider silk in your hair.”

Thorin’s hand went up to his hair at her words and hovered for a moment. Then he swam to the edge of the spring opposite from where she sat. Without any warning he placed his hands on the edge and surged up out of the water onto the shore. As he walked over to the washing area behind the partition, water streamed down from his hair and over all those leagues of exposed golden skin, dripping all the way to his bare little ankles.

Billa clapped her hands over her eyes and spun around with a squeak.

“You’ve already seen everything I’ve got,” he said in amusement. “You can look.”

“But that was against your will,” she said defensively.

He paused for a moment before she could hear the splash of the bucket filling with water. In a bitter tone he finally spoke, “For the thrice-cursed elves, stripping me bare was meant to manipulate and humiliate me, to provide them with drunken entertainment. I mind that very much. But they can only take what I choose to give them and I will give them nothing. I can bear much for my people. This is not the first time I’ve done such, though usually I was stripped more of pride than of clothes. I will remember this insult and be avenged one day, but I will move on.”

It made her sad, but did not surprise her that he’d endured such humiliation before for his kin. Or that he planned vengeance for later. Thorin was fiercely passionate in the defense of those people and things he counted as his. No sacrifice was too great in his mind.

Softly he added, “But this is you, Billa. I don’t mind you seeing me bare. You have earned my ultimate trust and esteem. I have nothing to hide from you, not anymore. You can look.”

Warmth that had nothing to do with the water suffused her chest and drifted up into her throat. Thorin had stopped speaking, but Billa could hear the sound of his bucket of rinse water upending. Despite herself, she could imagine it cascading down his body and washing away the delicate white lace formed by the soap’s foam. What a stark contrast that must be, the soft foam gliding down his sturdy dwarven body. The heat inside her body became a burning, and Billa desperately tried to think of something else.

“You can look,” Thorin repeated again huskily, trying to tempt her, the wretch. And what did he even mean by that?

It didn’t matter, she reminded herself, because she was not going to be his diversion until he found a true soulmate to toss her over for. Facing the stone wall to avoid temptation, she crossed a leg over her knee and began untangling the hair on top of her feet. It had been sorely neglected of late. She would focus on that.

A small splash and gentle wave heralded Thorin’s return to the water.

“Billa, I want to talk to you,” he began with serious intent in his voice, but she would never know what he was going to say. A sudden ‘bang bang bang’ broke the moment. Someone was knocking on the door. Then came the sound of the door creaking open.

Panicked, Billa and Thorin spun to look at each other in the water.

“Thorin Oakenshield, I wish to speak with you,” echoed Tauriel’s voice from the outer chamber.

Billa lunged for the shore and the closet with her magic ring. She had to hide! But the water was too deep to move quickly and she’d never learned how to swim fast.

Without warning, Thorin grabbed her arm and dragged her flailing body back over to the wall. He thrust her down into the spring with a splash until her mouth barely cleared the water and spun to stand in front of her, almost painfully forcing her hands to grab onto his thighs under the water. The position hid her between Thorin’s body and the wall.  Billa knelt with the side of her face pressed flat against the small of his back and her breasts flattened to the backs of his thighs. The shocking intimacy was mortifying, but before she could flinch back, Thorin’s words reminded her of the necessity.

“I am in the bath!” he shouted in a commanding voice that was slightly higher pitched than usual. The breath he took to speak wavered and trembled. “Can you not leave me to my privacy?!”

However, Tauriel’s voice only got clearer and closer. “I am sorry to disturb you, dwarven king. I will only be here for a moment. Besides which, I’ve already seen everything you’ve got,” she finished with a bit of sass.

Thorin’s hand dipped beneath the water to slide down Billa’s bare arm, lightly squeezing the fingers braced on his thigh. “Make it quick and then leave,” he demanded of the elf. He wrapped his free arm around his middle to conceal the tattoo from Tauriel’s sight as she presumably came around the corner. From her position, Billa couldn’t see anything.

“Very well,” Tauriel replied with a hint of annoyance at being thus spoken to. “I just came from visiting Kili and-,”

Thorin jerked at her words and interrupted, “How are you on such familiar terms with my nephew, elf?”

Tauriel hesitated. “We speak together, from time to time,” she said cautiously, before adding snippily, “and my name is not elf, my name is Tauriel. Your nephew, Kili,” she provocatively emphasized his name, “wanted you to know that they are doing well. We delivered all of the food to them, but told them only that it came from leftovers of the holiday feast and that you had procured it for them through a deal with the elvenking. Kili, however, worries about you. He said to tell you that his mother, the Lady Dis, would be happy to know you are making sure he and his brother are fed, but that she’d remind you to make sure you feed yourself as well. There is a tray in the front room full of food for you. For his sake, I ask you to eat it.”

Thorin shifted but then froze as the motion caused Billa’s breasts to rub against the back of his knees. He swallowed hard. Billa squeezed her eyes shut and bit her tongue, trying to ignore both the external and internal dangers of her current situation.

“What of my sick dwarf?” Thorin then asked in a voice that wobbled with strain.

“Ah,” Tauriel breathed out. “There has been an unfortunate miscommunication. For the last several days your dwarves have been eating the same meals as the kitchen staff, not the ration bars you yourself have been receiving. Kili himself said that although the meat is sparing and the salads too green, the portions have been reasonably generous.”

“A miscommunication?” Thorin asked hollowly.

Billa winced against his back and rubbed her thumb up and down his leg soothingly. She wished she could see Tauriel’s face as the elf spoke, but from her hiding spot she’d have to content herself with the sound of her voice. At least by focusing on that she could try to ignore the other inappropriate signals being sent by her body from where it pressed against Thorin’s bare skin.

“Yes,” Tauriel confirmed. “Additionally, elven healers have already begun treating your sick friend as of yesterday. He has already started to recover and is expected to be in full health by tomorrow evening.”

“Yesterday,” Thorin repeated slowly, his voice conveying dawning understanding and horror at the seemingly pointlessness of his recent sacrifice. Humiliation turned into swelling rage as his muscles clenched and began to strain forward as if he wanted to lunge at this bearer of bad news.

Billa tightened her arms and clenched her fingernails into Thorin’s thighs in warning. He had to keep his temper. If he moved, he would give her away! Besides which, Tauriel wasn’t to blame, she was just the messenger.

Staying strictly professional, which must be difficult considering how Thorin was probably glaring, Tauriel continued, “We regret that misunderstandings have occurred at every level and want you to know that steps are being taken to make sure such things don’t happen again. In the morning, King Thranduil has ordered you returned to a cell next to those of your companions. Your food from now on will also be the same as everyone else receives. We will endeavor to treat you all more like guests with very limited privileges instead of as criminals or something of that ilk.”

Thorin laughed hollowly and clutched convulsively at Billa’s hand beneath the water. “Are you a guard or a politician? Did Thranduil actually say any of that, or are you putting pretty words into his mouth, Guard Captain Tauriel?”

“The message was relayed by Prince Legolas, but I am confident that they are genuine and convey the wishes of our King.” Billa could hear the strain in Tauriel’s voice, but the woman didn’t shrink from delivering them. “Although what has happened is regrettable, you acquitted yourself with honor during the entire situation. We have all seen that. You may think worse of us elves for it, but we now think better of you dwarves because of it. Please believe me.”

Thorin didn’t respond to her words. He just stood still as stone, trying to regulate his labored breathing.

A sad sigh wafted from the elf. “I will leave you now and no one else will disturb you for the rest of the night. The door will be locked against you leaving, but you may bathe, eat, and sleep in privacy. An escort will take you to your new quarters in the morning. I know your nephews and friends will be overjoyed to see you. Let us all try to make the best of our current circumstances.” A few seconds later the sound of the door closing and the jangle of keys echoed softly through the chamber.

Billa immediately let go of Thorin’s legs and leaned away back against the wall so she was no longer plastered against his naked body. The current of the water bobbed her softly to the side. Crossing her arms over her chest, she tried to calm her thudding heart. However, calming herself was only step one. She also had to worry about calming the overwrought dwarf in front of her.

“Thorin?” she asked cautiously.

Still facing away from her, he’d clenched his fists into his hair and was breathing rapidly. The curve of his spine as he hunched in the water spoke of vulnerability and pain. Billa couldn’t bear it. She had to do something. But what?

“I need,” he began, voice throbbing with suppressed emotion before he cut himself off. Turning, he searched her face with desperation. “Billa, I need,” he repeated as his voice broke, unable to complete the sentence, too overwhelmed to continue.

Abruptly he pulled his hands from his hair and surged forward, grabbing her behind the neck and dragging her hard into the desperate embrace of his body, pressing her flush against his flesh until even a strand of hair could not slide between their two bodies. Dipping his head, he invaded her lips with a deep kiss of dark possession. Overcome by his passionate need, she clenched her fingers around his neck and moaned in surrender and giving. Whatever he needed, she wanted to give it to him. She would help him to lose himself in her embrace. Thorin lifted her up effortlessly against the cool stone of the wall and pulled her legs around his waist. His mouth devoured hers, licking and sucking at her tongue and lips like a conquering army sweeping through a fertile valley.  

One hand thrust into the curly hair at the base of her neck while the other cupped her bottom and thigh, holding her tightly against his tattooed middle. Their water slicked skin slid sensuously together. Billa gasped and moaned into his mouth, completely overcome by sensation. His teeth nipped at her mouth before travelling slowly up her jaw with a drag of his velvety lips.  He nibbled up the ridge of her ear, pausing to suck the sensitive, pointed tip. Billa whimpered and shivered. Thorin growled deep in his throat in response and raced back to her lips for another deep, soul-devouring kiss.

Fire surged up from Billa’s core and she couldn’t help but bury her hands in his hair tightly and pull his mouth more firmly into her own, twisting his head to get him just where she wanted him. Breathing became an optional hindrance. They kissed wildly against the wall, breaking only to gasp a quick breath before delving back into each other.

It felt foreign, the way his beard rubbed against her cheeks and neck, but Billa liked it. In fact, the contrast of his fuzzy beard with his soft, wet lips made her arch harder against his body and chase his tongue with her own back into the cavern of his mouth. She loved the feeling. She loved Thorin, and she told him so with every passionate kiss and stroke of her body against his.

But when his lightly calloused fingers moved from clutching at her thigh to sliding towards her throbbing center, a place no one else had ever touched, the alarm bell faintly ringing in the back of her head finally became a dissonant clang, reminiscent of nothing so much as when her mother would loudly bang her metal pot with a wooden spoon to wake Billa up in the mornings. Something firm slid along the bottom of her thigh. Billa forcefully tore her mouth from Thorin’s, despite the screams of protest coming from every inch of her skin.

“Wait! Thorin, stop!” she panted. “Please.”

Breathing heavily, Thorin leaned back a scant few inches. His lips were red and swollen from their kisses and his eyes dilated large and black, with only a thin ring of fierce blue around the outside, the color of fire’s hottest embers. “Why?” he panted, his fingers kneading into her flesh, his eyes devouring the curves of her face while his lips were denied their preferred placement.

“Thorin, we have to stop,” Billa dredged up the strength of character to demand. “We aren’t married.” Pulling in a deep breath she forced herself to explain. “I promised myself and my mother a long time ago that I wouldn’t share myself with anyone but my husband. I took that vow to respect myself, and although you feel amazing and are tempting me unbearably, it is a vow to myself I intend to keep. You have to let me go.”

“But… Billa,” he pleaded in a voice stripped raw.

“This is my choice. My honor. Let me go,” she repeated. “Help me to keep my vow, Thorin,” she begged, “Help me to keep my honor. Please.”

If he said no and continued kissing and touching her so intimately, she didn’t think she’d be able to resist her physical yearning. She would give in. This was her only chance.

Shuddering with the effort, Thorin slid her down his hard body and back into the water with a pained grimace. “You have nothing to fear from me,” he growled. Then he wrenched himself away, turned, and planted his fists harshly against the wall. Leaning forward, he thudded his forehead into the stone and closed his eyes, panting painfully.

“I would keep you like an oath, Billa Baggins,” he said starkly.

Billa swallowed hard.  

“Get out and get dressed. They left me a shirt. You can have it. I’ll be out in a few minutes,” he directed shakily. Billa wanted to say something else to make things better, but she didn’t know what. When she didn’t move fast enough, Thorin sent her a glare from the side of his eyes and growled, “Out!”

Jumping, Billa turned and splashed for the shore. As she climbed up out of the water she felt like a foal trying to walk on shaky legs. They didn’t seem to want to work right. The pale skin of her upper chest was completely red from beard-burn and considering the tenderness of her face, it likely looked the same. She tried not to think about it too hard; otherwise she’d turn around and get back into the water.

A towel had been folded and left over the room partition, most likely Tauriel’s work since it hadn’t been there earlier. Billa dried herself off, wrung out her hair, and then slipped on the clean shirt left on the bed. The fabric was old and soft from many washings. Billa drew its comforting folds close about her body. The hem went almost to her knees and the neckline was wide and hung loosely about the edges of her shoulders, exposing the dark mole on the right side of her chest. It looked more like a nightdress than a shirt. She worried that it might fall off, but it stayed even when she rolled her shoulders and shimmied to check, so she decided not to worry about it. Picking up the towel and the remaining pants, she laid them over the partition for Thorin, keeping her eyes down so as to give him privacy and avoid awkwardness for as long as possible.

At loose ends, she wandered over to investigate the large tray of food. Her stomach grumbled at the sight. It had been a while since she’d been clean and had such a wide variety of food choices freely available. No stealing necessary! No guilt!

Rubbing her hands gleefully, she picked up a cracker spread with what smelled like goat cheese, basil, and a small slice of tomato and popped it into her mouth. A second later she released a happy little moan. After swallowing, she plucked up a tart filled with cranberry relish and took a bite. It was also delicious. She did a happy little shimmy as she chewed and swallowed.

Still celebrating mid-bite into a cheesy breadstick, she heard masculine laughter right behind her head. Startled, she spun around with the breadstick still hanging half out of her mouth. Thorin’s teeth flashed brightly as his chuckles turned louder. “Ah Billa, you always do well at reminding me of the simple joys in life.”

Billa blushed and pulled the breadstick out of her mouth. “Thank you, I think,” she said. Then, shrugging philosophically, she stuffed another bite of the breadstick into her mouth. Thorin was still shirtless, but at least he had some pants on now. Chewing was a good distraction, or at least consolation, from the other things her mouth wanted to be doing at seeing Thorin’s body displayed before her with that not-an-artichoke tattoo centered on his stomach.

Speaking of which… Billa turned back to the tray and picked up a slice of bread spread with a chunky, pale green paste. “Here, eat this,” she ordered, plopping the morsel into Thorin’s mouth.

He raised his eyebrow at her, but chewed obediently. “It’s good,” he acknowledged, “succulent and tangy. What’s the spread made of?” He grabbed another slice, folded it in half, and shoved it into his mouth.

Smirking, Billa looked at him up through her eyelashes. “Artichoke hearts,” she answered gleefully.

Thorin froze mid-chew, sent her a glare, and then quickly swallowed the bite in his mouth. “You,” he said threateningly, “are a very naughty hobbit.”

Dancing back a few steps, Billa laughed at him. “You liked it! You said so yourself! I knew you’d love them as much as I do.”

“Perhaps,” he admitted. Wiping a smear of paste from his lip with his thumb, he looked at it for a moment in consideration before licking it off with a quick swipe of his tongue. Then he looked at her sideways and asked cryptically, “So you do love the heart of the artichoke?”

Billa’s heart raced. Was Thorin asking what she thought he was asking? Because if so, her answer was a very definitive yes. But was it worth it to expose her soul by answering when he himself had offered her no explicit reassurances or words of devotion? Was she missing something cultural here? She didn’t know. Hobbits didn’t do things this way. It made her nervous and slightly scared. She wasn’t sure she wanted to risk it.

At her hesitation, Thorin shuttered his face and looked away. Coming around to her side, he picked up a slice of fruit and began eating. She cautiously took another bite for herself, and the sounds of chewing were the only thing heard for the next several minutes until the silence became merely companionable again.

Finally full, Billa hopped up onto the bed to sit with a contented sigh. Thorin looked up at her. “This is much better than dog food,” she joked lightly.

“Definitely,” he agreed solemnly but with a twinkle in his eyes.

Taking a last bite, Thorin moved the demolished tray off to the other side of the room and wiped off his hands. Then he began going through all of the cabinets and closets in the room. “What are you looking for?” Billa asked curiously.

Thorin’s head disappeared beneath a chair as he crouched down, “I am hoping that the guards missed a comb or brush. I want to fix our hair. In a room like this, there has to be grooming supplies somewhere.”

“Oh,” Billa said brightly, “I think I saw something in the closet.” Jumping off the high bed onto the floor with a thud, she trotted over to the closet. Going up onto her tiptoes, she reached up as high as she could. Her fingertips nudged gently until she had moved the comb out enough to pull it down from the edge of the upper shelf. “Got it,” she said, turning to Thorin with a triumphant grin.

But instead of smiling back, Thorin was staring at her and smoldering. His eyes burned with passionate longing. Blinking, he banked the fire and turned away.

Both of them took a moment to get their breath back. Billa had to forcefully restrain herself from going over to lay her hand on his bare back. Instead she pulled out the hair tie he’d made her, along with the beads he’d handed to her earlier.

“Here we go,” she said, holding out the beads and the wooden toggle. “I can try to do yours first, if you want.”

Gifting her with a soft look, Thorin went over to the bed and sat down cross-legged. “I would be honored, agyâdê,” he said.

Billa didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded nice. She felt a bit self-conscious scrambling up onto the soft mattress behind him, but all of that was forgotten as she buried her hands into his thick dark hair. “I’m not very good at braiding,” she admitted. Starting at the ends, she carefully worked out the tangles with the little comb. All too soon she was running her fingers through his hair from the crown of his head to the middle of his back. A contented grumble escaped him.

Grinning, Billa gently scratched her fingernails from the top of his head to the base of his spine. For a few minutes she let herself get lost gently scratching and carding her fingers through his hair and over his skin. Thorin’s back and shoulders gently rounded into relaxation as she worked. His breathing slowed and evened out.

Finally, she decided that she’d better actually braid his hair before he fell asleep. Biting her lip in concentration, Billa carefully pulled back the hair at his temples and fashioned a few very simple braids. They were nowhere near as elaborate as his usual work, but they were her best efforts. She secured them with his beads.

At the last braid, however, Thorin reached up and tangled his fingers with hers, stopping her work. “That’s enough,” he said with a gentle rumble. “I’d like to use that last bead in your hair, if I may?”

Billa could feel herself flush. “Of course,” she said, gently pulling her hands free from his silver frosted hair and sitting back on her heels. She wasn’t sure if this had a meaning or not and she still felt too emotionally fragile to ask. They both shifted places. Thorin held out his hand for the comb and she passed it over. Then she turned around and settled back against his knees.

First, Thorin gently untangled her hair by running his fingers carefully through her curls. Then he applied the comb to remove the last of the tangles. By the end of just the combing Billa was a puddle of relaxation. She could feel herself blinking heavily and struggling to keep her eyes open. Then he started pulling out strands to make some sort of elaborately braided creation and her spine turned to jelly.

Having Thorin work on her hair was simultaneously sensuous and soothing at once. Billa could have stayed like this forever. Some indeterminate time later she jerked up after almost falling over asleep. Thorin chuckled indulgently. “Hold your snores for just a little longer, laslelê. I’m almost done,” he said. She thought again about asking what his endearments meant, but she was too comfortable to even talk. A minute later he tightened something at the nape of her neck and then pulled his hands away, “There.”

Forcing herself to wake up a little, Billa ran her hands gently over the weave of her hair. He’d somehow made multiple braids which seemed to be woven together into a series of loops that secured into a knot at the base of her neck. His bead nestled above the tip of her left ear and the carved wooden toggle secured it all at the nape of her neck. Her wild bramble of curls had been completely tamed. Although not a vain person by nature, Billa desperately wished for a mirror to examine what he’d done. She could tell just by touching that it must be beautiful. It also seemed very secure and functional.

Well pleased, she looked over her shoulder and gifted him with a grateful smile. Then she broke into a wide, kittenish yawn. “Oh, I do beg your pardon,” she said.

“Don’t bother,” he said. “I think we are both ready for sleep.” Standing up, Thorin quickly combed the neat strands of his beard as he walked over to the closet. Once there, he tucked the comb into one of Billa’s pockets. “You should keep this for us,” he said.

Billa got up and stood next to the bed awkwardly. “How should we do this?” she asked sheepishly, gesturing at the bed with one hand while the other twisted in the hem of her shirt nervously.

Smiling at her indulgently, Thorin banked the lanterns in the main room and pulled back the covers. “Ghivashel, I have proven to you that I can respect your boundaries, but the bed is large enough not to touch if you insist,” he said. “However, my treasure, I’d prefer to sleep with you wrapped up inside my arms if you will allow it.” He climbed in, held out his hand expectantly, and stared up at her with hopeful eyes.

She could no more resist that face than she could a second helping of Gaffer’s apple pudding. Blushing, Billa took his hand and slid up next to him into bed. Tucking her head into the warm hollow of his shoulder, Thorin pulled up the covers and wrapped his arms around her firmly. His contented sigh ruffled her hair right before his mouth nuzzled her forehead gently.

Smiling secretly to herself, Billa snuggled deeper into his embrace and closed her eyes. Although it was her first time sleeping with a male, she felt no awkwardness because it was Thorin. She trusted him. Between one moment and the next, she drifted into sleep.

Hours later, Billa found herself awake. Thorin’s warm embrace and the gentle rise and fall of his bare chest still felt sinfully comfortable, but Billa had a problem. She desperately needed to use the chamber pot. Ignoring her body proved ultimately futile. Frustrated, she slipped quietly out of bed and snuck around the partition to do her business. Then she carefully snuck back into bed.

Thorin’s breath still appeared slow and deep, so he must not have noticed her absence. In the faint light of the room, she allowed her eyes to slowly trace the cherished planes of his face. Her gaze drifted along the lines of his neck, over the rise of his chest, and down to his soulmate mark.

Reaching out, she traced her fingertips lightly over the lines of the dwarven characters and down to what she’d still swear was an artichoke, no matter what he said otherwise about a mountain. Lips trembling, Billa stopped and cupped her hand tenderly over the base of his soul mark. “If I really could choose any treasure in your mountain to take for myself, I would choose the heart of the artichoke,” she whispered with a wry, self-deprecating smile. “I would choose you.”

Glancing back up at his beloved face, she caught her breath in a gasp. Thorin’s eyes were open, burning like a bonfire with triumph. Something like a spark jumped into her hand. She could feel his heart suddenly pounding beneath her fingertips and his accelerated breathing.

Surprised, Billa started to draw away. But before she could he cupped her smaller hand with his much larger one and stopped her. Inexorably he pushed her palm back against his skin, pressing it flush against his soul mark.

“Then take it, marlelê,” Thorin said with quiet joy, “for my heart has long been yours for the asking.”

A delighted smile grew on Billa’s face. For a moment it almost felt like a warm rain began pouring over her skin, stronger and stronger until her very flesh began to vibrate to an unknown song. The strange feeling quickly subsided, leaving her feeling open and capable of growing in whatever direction required to fit the changing circumstances of her life. It was a strange fancy to have at such a moment.

However, Thorin completely distracted her from worrying about it. Turning his head, he lovingly kissed her bare shoulder. His lips lingered softly right next to her little mole, where the gape of her nightgown exposed it to his attentions. Tears pricked her eyes at the intense swell of emotions caused by his loving words and actions.

A faint chime sounded, heralding the early morning watch change before breakfast. They reluctantly drew apart. Thorin looked towards the door and sighed. “Come, atmêlê, come back to bed with me. There is little time left to us before you must go. You are my treasure and I would keep you if I could. However, for now the quest for Erebor must come first. Then we will speak of our future.”

Slightly disappointed, Billa nonetheless leaned forward and gave Thorin a soft, close-mouthed kiss. “I do love you, Thorin Oakenshield of Durin and Erebor,” she whispered, not wanting to leave him with any doubt about her affections. Then she lay down and snuggled her head into his neck.

Kissing the side of her forehead, Thorin whispered, “After the mountain.” He ran his hand down the curve of her back and around to her thigh. Pulling at the hollow behind her knee, he drew her leg up and over his middle. Then he tightened his embrace, melding them as close as physically possible with their nightclothes separating them, and breathed into her skin. His fingers randomly stroked up her arm and down her leg. Feeling cherished, she allowed her fingers to wander along his chest, arm, and side.

As they touched, she started to imagine Thorin’s contentment and adoration, like a gentle whisper in the back of her mind. She even felt flashes of possessiveness and suppressed lust. It was strange, but not worth worrying about when she felt this comfortable and precious.

They lay like that for the next hour, neither sleeping, just holding and caressing each other gently. In the dark of the room it almost seemed like the dwarven  runes above Thorin’s central tattoo were fading, all but the largest one beneath his heart representing the treasure of gold, but Billa’s eyes were tired from lack of sleep. She decided that it must just be a trick of the low light.

It felt like she could stay wrapped up with Thorin forever, but it was not to be. Finally the breakfast chime sounded. They reluctantly drew apart. Billa got up and moved to the other side of the partition for privacy. She pulled on her clammy clothing. Returning, she handed her sleep shirt back to Thorin. “I’ll be over to visit you as soon as I have a moment,” she told him.

While she’d been gone, Thorin had wrapped his middle with the embroidered cloth again, hiding his mark. “Take the time to do what you need to do, my treasure,” he told her. “I’ll still be waiting for you when you’re done.” He took the shirt and pulled it on over his head. It looked a little silly, being both too long at the waist and too tight at the shoulders and arms, but Thorin didn’t seem to care.

Pulling the neckline up to his nose, he sniffed it. At Billa’s look, he turned bashful. “It smells like you,” he confessed softly, “almost like you’re still lying next to my heart.”

“Thorin,” she said adoringly, but a knock sounded on the door.

Startled, Billa jumped back against the wall, put her hand into her pocked, and pulled on her ring, disappearing just in time. Tauriel and Legolas came into the room a few seconds later. After Thorin was escorted out the door, Billa gave the room one last fond look. She wished she could have kissed him goodbye, but no matter what happened next, she would never forget this night. Turning, she silently disappeared into the hallway.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Chapter Text

After the night spent with Thorin, Billa felt a renewed sense of optimism. She only needed one more thing to rescue her friends: the keys to their cells. Therefore she decided to stick to Hiwon, the elf in charge of the keys, like a burr on a wool coat. He was pretty sloppy in the execution of his duties, so she felt like she would get lucky soon.

That day Hiwon didn’t do anything interesting except visit someone on the far side of the elven fortress. It took so long to walk through the winding corridors, and then to finish their bottle of wine, that after the meeting ended Hiwon just slept in a nearby room. Billa didn’t trust that she could make her way back to familiar corridors by herself, so perforce she slept nearby as well.

That night, she had the most vivid dream. Thorin called her, “Amrâlimê,” and then reached out and took her hand. When she looked up, they stood in a great green forest. The trail they followed was occasionally steep and made her think of the mountains. As they walked, they passed through sunbathed clearings frothing with spring wildflowers and buzzing bees. The sun drifted slowly lower in the sky, gilding Thorin’s hair, but there was still more than enough light for their walk. They held hands and talked idly of random things, content just to be together.

A soft breeze lifted their hair to and fro, mingling and separating the strands. The wind danced through the branches in musical rustles. Thorin took off his cloak and snuggled it around her shoulders to make sure she didn’t catch a chill, despite her protests of being warm enough. Secretly though, she liked feeling the residual warmth from his body and smelling his scent on the cloth.

As they walked, ravens and thrushes watched them curiously from the tree branches, occasionally calling hello. Billa saw something velvety brown out of the corner of her eye. Pulling Thorin to a stop, she crouched down and brushed away some fallen leaves to uncover a patch of mushrooms. Seeing her excitement, Thorin crouched down and confirmed that they were edible. Chortling happily, Billa picked several to munch on as they walked.

Smiling boyishly, Thorin took her to a hollow at the base of a tree. He explained how he used to hide his treasures there to keep them from his siblings. Billa smiled as she pictured Thorin as a small child. He must have been absolutely adorable!

She liked the feeling of Thorin’s sturdy hand intertwined with her own. As they strolled through the forest, Billa swung their arms back and forth, pleased when the clasp of his palm never slipped. Turning her face up into a shaft of honeyed sunlight, she smiled and rubbed her thumb along his hand in thankfulness.

The trees thinned as they climbed higher. Finally the forest ended and they moved out onto a rocky outcropping. The wind became stronger and whipped about their hair and clothes. Billa shivered. She appreciated the warmth of his cloak. Although this side of the mountain had many trees, it looked like the slope curving away on the other side was almost bare. She asked why, but Thorin didn’t know. Admitting he’d never thought about it, he suggested wind and weather were responsible.

Then Thorin took her shoulders somewhat impatiently and turned her to face the opposite direction. Billa grabbed his hand hard and gaped. Two ginormous stone dwarves crouched on either side of a road leading straight into an elaborate gate in the side of the mountain. Brightly dressed dwarves streamed in and out of the gate in orderly groups.  Green pine trees stood in rows as if waiting their turn to march into the gate as well. Their small size gave the statues scale.

And that was only the beginning! The mountainside above the gate had been carved and sculpted into geometric patterns filled with lit windows and balconies that must belong to the kingdom inside. The builders had somehow brought out the green sheen to the stone compared to the natural rough gray of the surrounding mountainside. In the setting sun, the façade shimmered with reflected sunlight so it looked like the entire edifice was carved from solid gold.

Billa looked at Thorin in disbelief and then back at the gate. It must have taken years and years and years to create such a thing! She tried to close her mouth, but it was difficult when it felt like she could barely blink either. Thorin slapped his thigh and laughed at her reaction. Shaking herself, she looked at him and tried to scowl. But it was too difficult, so she just gave up and let herself grin.

“That’s the biggest thing I’ve ever seen in my life! It’s amazing! Beautiful!” she finally said with delight.

Thorin smiled down at her fondly. Leaning forward, he kissed her on the lips and then tucked her underneath his arm in a sideways embrace. Then he turned them so they both could watch the sun set behind the mountain.

“Yes, it was,” he said softly. They stood that way as the sky swirled from gold and pink to red, purple, and finally gray. In the last bit of light, Billa stretched up and kissed Thorin on the jaw. Then she woke up.

Billa followed Hiwon around again as he spent the morning doing official looking things. After lunch, he snuck down to visit his friends in the wine cellar by the underground river. Of course they couldn’t resist opening a few bottles as they talked. As she watched them drink more and more, her hopes rose higher and higher. They started reminiscing about the good old days before the forest was called Mirkwood. Pretty soon they all ended up passed out on the table.

Bouncing in excitement, Billa stole the keys from Hiwon’s belt and ran as fast as she could for the cells upstairs. Unfortunately, she forgot to account for the guard schedule. She had to wait for ten more minutes for a gap in the patrols. It was torture. Finally, however, all the elves had left the area.

Elated, Billa plucked off her magic ring, pocketed it, and danced up to Thorin’s cell. Brandishing the key wildly in triumph, she grabbed him by his ill-fitting elven shirt, pulled him flush against the bars, and gave him a quick, sloppy kiss. He blinked in startled pleasure before focusing on the key in her hand and grinning wolfishly. Billa unlocked his cell.

“We can escape through the basement,” she explained. “Let me get the rest of the company and then I’ll show you.” Quickly she opened up the rest of the cells while simultaneously reminding the dwarves to all be quiet!

They snuck down to the basement dock. Billa shoved the box full of Thorin’s things his way casually. Then she moved to the other side of the room and quietly ordered the rest of the dwarves to get into the barrels. Thorin silently changed from the ill-fitting elvish garments into his own clothes while the rest of the dwarves were distracted by disagreeing with her.

A short but quiet argument ensued. The dwarves didn’t want to get in. They didn’t like her plan. Billa stamped her foot in frustration and planted her fists on her hips.

“This plan will work, but only if we get away before the alarm sounds. You’ve been asking me for days to rescue you. Well I’ve done it. This is it. So get in the barrels!” Billa growled quietly, trying not to wake the elves.

Thorin came up and stood next to Billa. He was dressed in his own clothes and boots once again, with his necklaces and rings restored to their rightful places. “Those of you who don’t trust Billa can stay here with the tree-shaggers, but I’m leaving for the lonely mountain.” Then he strode forward majestically and climbed into a barrel.

Kili was hot on his heels. “Of course we trust Billa,” he proclaimed, diving into a barrel of his own, soon followed by Kili. Most of the dwarves trailed along with only a few more grumbles.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” Gloin apologized as he shuffled in place, “it’s just that I don’t like the idea of being cooped up by a cooper.” Billa blinked at him in confusion. “You know, a barrel maker? I got cheated at dice once by a cooper. It earned me a horrible scolding from Tosi, soured me ever since. I don’t like ‘em.”

“Gloin,” Thorin said impatiently.

Tugging at his beard uncomfortably, Gloin swallowed. “Right, right, quest and company come first. Very well.” Sighing gustily, he reluctantly climbed into the last barrel.

“Thank you,” Billa said impatiently. She went to the wall to pull the lever to finally drop the barrels into the water when she realized something. There was no way for her to pull the lever to open the door and yet be safely in a barrel at the same time.

Thorin looked up at her pause of consternation. Eyes widening, he glanced down the row of barrels and then back at where she stood by herself on the dock. Placing his hands on the rim of his barrel, he rose up as if to get out and trade places with her.

However, at that moment the sound of alarmed shouting echoed out faintly from the stairwell. Several of the sleeping elves started to twitch. Firming her lips, Billa reached up and put both hands on the wooden lever.

“Billa,” Thorin said warningly, “don’t.” He threw his elbows up over the rim and started to heave himself out.

But Billa would not allow it. She was going to rescue all of them, no matter what it took. Her dwarves had to be inside the barrels, especially Thorin, because they had to be as safe as she could make them. She’d sacrificed and suffered to get them all to this point. She wasn’t backing down now. With a mighty heave, Billa pulled down on the lever and dropped the ramp. Thorin fell back into his barrel with an angry yet worried oath as the barrels dropped into the water with a splash.

Taking several deep breaths for courage, Billa ran down the ramp as fast as she could and leapt after her friends, trying to land near a barrel of her own. She plunged into the shockingly cold water. As she surfaced, she thought she heard something that might be shouts above her head, but she was too busy trying not to drown to pay much attention. She quickly found an empty barrel to hang onto, but only a few moments after they reached open air an orc dagger embedded itself into the side of her ride. She let go in shock and splashed back into the icy river.

Flailing her arms, she concentrated on keeping her nose and mouth in the air and just let the current of the river sweep her along. She was concentrating so hard on staying afloat that she shrieked and got a lung-full of water when someone grabbed at her sleeve. Her arm was dragged to the rim of a barrel and secured. When she finished coughing and could concentrate on something besides breathing, she saw that Nori had her forearm braced over the rim in a firm grip.

“Just hold on tight, Billa! I’ve got you!” he shouted above the roar of the river with a flinty-eyed determination usually found more on the face of his older brother, Dori.  Then they swept out of the caverns.

However her momentary elation was soon destroyed. Just a bit farther down their barrels got trapped by an elf-made gate across the river. Billa feared for all of them, with both elves and orcs on the attack. Kili jumped out of his barrel to help and got shot by an orc. Only the timely arrows of Tauriel saved him from getting killed!

Biting her lip bloody, Billa couldn’t breathe until Kili limped to the side, pulled the lever to open the gate, and rolled over the wall and back into his empty barrel. But even that valiant effort wasn’t enough. The orcs kept up their steady assault and the elves kept pursuing. In the chaos, Nori had to grab an axe from an attacking orc’s hand to defend them both. An elven arrow missed the orc and skidded across their barrel, nicking her arm shallowly and causing her to lose her grip. Nori shouted and reached for her hand, but it was too late to catch her.

Billa flailed back into the water again, once again too busy focusing on keeping her head up and breathing to watch out for attacking orcs. If she ever made it back to the shire, she would spend more time practicing how to swim. That or she’d avoid any body of water larger than a puddle forever after.

Terrified, she finally caught a glimpse from the corner of her eyes of another barrel nearby. Calling on almost empty reserves, she swam for it frantically. Grabbing onto the edge of the barrel, she heaved her arm over the side to get a better grip and was almost punched in the face by Ori. “It’s me!” she shouted before coughing hard to remove some of the water from her lungs.

Ori pulled back in shock and then surged forward to grab onto her hands. “I’m sorry! I thought you were attacking me!” he apologized. Then he ducked his head quickly to avoid the falling body of a dead orc. Elven and orcish arrows flew across the river. Dwarves grabbed everything they could get their hands on to fight back. Thankfully Ori made sure to keep at least one hand on her at all times.

At one point during the chaos, Billa accidentally locked eyes with Tauriel. The female elf looked confused to see a hobbit floating along with the dwarves. Then her eyes narrowed in suspicion. She glanced over the fleeing dwarrows. Then she looked back. Annoyed comprehension on her face, she glared at Billa, raised her bow, knocked an arrow, and fired.

Billa yelped and would have let go of the barrel if Ori hadn’t had such a vice-like grip on her arm. However the arrow never hit. Billa glanced behind them and saw a dead orc dangling from the tree they’d just floated beneath. Tauriel had saved them. Billa tried to find Tauriel’s eyes again to thank her, but the elven woman was too busy stabbing an orc with her daggers.

The fighting continued for a few more minutes before a tributary joined their branch of the river, finally speeding the water up enough to get them away from their attackers.  The water became even more icy cold, probably snowmelt from the upper elevations. Constant shivers racked Billa’s body as the water dragged down on her skirts like a needy child.

Without Ori’s unwavering support, she likely would have fallen into the water to drown. “Just a little longer, Mistress Baggins,” Ori said encouragingly. “You can do it. You’re strong enough.” It was sweet of him to say, but it was a lie. Billa wasn’t strong at all. She was miserable. She wished that it was Thorin holding her up instead of young Ori, and then felt even more awful for being so selfish and ungrateful.

Luckily they only floated for a few more minutes before the river widened and slowed. Their barrels bobbed into an inlet. With a splash, the dwarves all began pouring out of their confinement and splashing onto shore. Ori let go of her hands, but she actually found that her fingers had frozen into a clenched position onto the side of the barrel and didn’t want to release.

“We’re at the shore, Billa,” Ori said softly, “you can let go now.” The poor dwarf couldn’t get out without tipping her back into the water and he was too polite to do such a thing.

“Sweet Ori,” she gasped. “Just give my body a minute to catch up to my mind.” In the background she heard Fili shouting Kili’s name. Using her worry for her friend as a catalyst, she slowly forced her fingers to unclench. Then she dropped back into the water. It swallowed her down for a frightful moment, but then her feet touched the bottom and she bobbed back up.  Sputtering, she dragged herself to shallower water. Ori grabbed her arm and helped to pull her the last few feet up onto the shore.

Before she could get her bearings, Thorin swept up and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Atmêlê, are you alright?” he demanded, looking her over anxiously. He ran his hands over her arms and down her sides. “I’m fine,” she said, then let out a mighty sneeze. At his concerned look, she waved him off. “No really, I’m fine. Just wet and cold. I just need to sit a moment on dry ground. Maybe kiss it a little in gratitude.”

Thorin’s teeth flashed in a quick smile. “Not too much kissing or I might get jealous.”

Billa rolled her eyes at him.

“Unfortunately you only have a brief moment to rest. Then we have to keep moving to stay ahead of our pursuit,” Thorin said with a bracing pat on her shoulder that left her staggered before taking off to rally the other dwarves.

Wobbling over to a nice rock, Billa sat down. Letting herself sigh in relief at being stationary, she turned her face up into the sun to catch a little warmth. That, of course, is when she saw the human standing above them all with an arrow knocked in his bow.

After mutual threats, some flattery, and a bit of bribery, Bard agreed to take them into Laketown on his barge. Most of the dwarves gathered near the front of the boat with Thorin, planning their next move. Not having anything to add except for a spate of sneezes, Billa sat in the back down against the side where there was the most protection from the wind.

After a few minutes, Kili limped over and slid down to sit beside her. Fili hovered behind him with arms slightly raised, as if to catch his brother in case he slipped. “Hello,” Billa said before sneezing again. “I do beg your pardon,” she added.

Fili went to sit down on his brother’s other side, but Kili sent him an annoyed frown. “Stop hovering. I’m fine,” Kili snapped in annoyance.

“Of course you are. How silly of me. It’s not like you just got shot in the leg by an orc.” Fili snapped his fingers and looked up, “Oh wait, you did!”

“Oh shut it,” Kili grumped, shoving at his brother’s leg.

Fili kicked back at his foot, but when Kili gasped and winced he stopped with an apologetic frown. “Here,” Fili said, “I’ll just go sit on the other side of our favorite hobbit. We can make a dwarf sandwich with hobbit filling!” Then he plopped down on Billa’s other side.

“I feel like I should object to that for some reason,” Billa said, stopping for a moment to release a petite sneeze before continuing. “It doesn’t sound respectable. But you are somehow both warmer than me and block the wind beautifully, so I won’t. However, you are making me hungry, so if you could refrain from mentioning food again I’d appreciate it.”

“Very well,” said Kili, “what should we talk about instead, brother?”

“Yes, what should we talk about?” answered Fili. “I know, let’s talk about Billa’s fetching new hair style.”

Billa flushed and felt her shoulders creeping up around her ears.

Kili grinned. “Now that you mention it, her braids do look delightful,” he said. “And is that one of our family patterns? It certainly looks familiar.”

“I do believe you’re right, Kili,” said Fili. “The bead above her ear is rather blatant, after all.”

“Quite hard to miss,” added Kili.

“Which can only mean one thing,” laughed Fili.

Then they both chorused, “Uncle Thorin likes you!” Kili elbowed her in the side knowingly.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Billa deflected weakly.

Fili didn’t even blink. “C’mon, Billa, give! What’s going on with you and Uncle?”

“Yeah,” Kili broke in, “are you soulmates and in love and gonna get married?” 

Twin expressions of glee stared at her from either side. Billa sighed, “It’s complicated.”

“How?” asked Fili.

“Why?” asked Kili.

“Well,” she said slowly, glancing up front to make sure Thorin was too busy to be listening. “We haven’t really discussed any of that yet.”

“But you totally kissed him,” Kili interjected. “I saw it when you broke us out.”

“There may have even been tongue,” Fili teased.

“I don’t think it lasted long enough for tongue,” argued Kili over her head.

“I’m not telling you anything unless you stop talking about tongues,” she hissed threateningly. They both assumed mock serious faces as they waited.

It wasn’t in Billa’s nature to dissemble. This was private, but on the other hand, these two were practically, and hopefully one day would be in fact, her family. They kept staring at her expectantly.

“Okay,” she caved, “we did kiss,” the brothers high-fived, “and I did tell Thorin that I loved him. He didn’t use the word love back, but his words and actions did lead me to believe that he holds me in high regard.” She pulled her coat more tightly around her middle and tucked her hands in her armpits. “We haven’t had the time to work out all of the details. It seems like he wants to wait until after we reach the mountain before making any promises.”

A frown grew on Kili’s face. “But what about his soulmate mark. Have you seen it?”

“Yes,” Billa said cautiously, trying to keep the flush off her face from picturing Thorin shirtless or wearing even less than a shirt, “I have.”

“And did anything happen? Did you solve it?” Kili asked with mounting excitement.

Billa thought back to that night. “I don’t know. I don’t think so, but then again, with the way he acted… maybe? I’m not sure. Probably not.”

Fili looked worried. “Billa, there is nothing I’d like more than to have you as an auntie, but with Uncle Thorin, nothing is simple. If you aren’t his soulmate, then you are setting yourself up for a world of hurt here that, plainly speaking, I don’t think you deserve. You should stop before you get pulled in any deeper.”

“But if she is his soulmate,” Kili interjected, “that would be wonderful!” His manic grin turned to apprehension. “Unless he doesn’t seal it. That would be bad. If he knows and deliberately puts off completing the bond to finish the quest for the mountain, then he could be cursed by the Maker for rejecting His blessing.”

Turning to Billa, Kili said worriedly, “You have to make him tell you whether or not you really are his soulmate. This is serious.”

“When have you ever known anyone who was able to make Thorin do anything?” she asked heavily.

Fili turned thoughtful. “Do you have a soulmate mark? That would make it easier to find out.”

Billa sent him a scathing look. “I thought I already answered that question ages ago. I only have regular birthmarks and moles!”

Fili shrugged and scratched his head. “Well, how far did stuff go? If you went all the way, even if it isn’t verbally acknowledged, that would definitely seal a bond. But then again if he completed his bond with you I would think that you’d know it.”

Red flooded her features as she hissed, “Just what do you mean, ‘stuff’?”

“You know, stuff,” he said in a sing-song tone of voice while making an obscene hand gesture.

Billa gasped and thwacked him on the arm with her hand. “Don’t make that gesture at me! It’s crude!”

“That’s the point,” Kili laughed.

Scowling, Billa hit him too for good measure. “For your information, hobbits save intimacy for marriage. I did not do that sort of stuff with Thorin, and if I had it would be none of your business!”

“Sounds boring,” said Kili provocatively, raising an arm defensively when she gave him another glare.

“Not that you’d know,” Fili said from her other side. His younger brother tried to gag his mouth from around Billa, but Kili only succeeded in jostling her shoulder and pulling at Fili’s golden mustache braid.

“Ow!” Fili yelped, rapping his brother’s knuckles to make him let go. Leaning back, Fili stuck out his tongue and confided to Billa, “Kili’s a virgin, too.”

Glaring resentfully, Kili stopped straining around Billa’s body and plopped back down onto his bum. “So what?” he muttered. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I’d rather save all my firsts for my other half than ruin them in failed attempts and end up having to be trained out of bad habits. Isn’t that why your last relationship failed? You treated your current girlfriend like your ex-girlfriend accidentally?”

“We said we weren’t going to talk about that anymore,” Fili snapped. Then he turned to Billa and took up teasing his brother again. “You should have seen him. He was an adorable child. When little Kili was only 26 he declared that he was going to save himself for his soulmate. It was all very romantic. Girls from all over the settlement swooned. Mother couldn’t resist pinching his cheeks."

“You’re just jealous that you don’t have a soulmate,” Kili shot back.

“Bah, that’s too much drama for me,” he defended. “Or are you trying to tell me that you have no worries about telling Uncle Thorin about finding your soulmate… or mom and dad? I’m sure they’ll all be thrilled.”

Kili glared defensively and leaned forward on one hand, “They will be once they get to know her. I love her, Fili. She’s my other half. That should be enough for all of you.”

Making a placating gesture, Fili held up his hands. “I’m not putting her down, I’m just saying that there might be difficulties and, you know, drama. But people will eventually accept it.”

Kili relaxed back, to which Fili then added, “They’ll have to. It’ll be just like Billa said that one time, we’ll treat it like a hare-lip or near-sightedness or a hobbit that prefers only three meals a day. The family will endure it because we must and because it’s too much effort to avoid you.” Kili sent him a scowl, but Fili just smirked. “But if we’re really lucky, you just might breed like rabbits.”

“Oh, ha ha,” Kili grumbled.

“I did not say that,” Billa defended self-righteously, but then she thought back. “Or did I? Okay, sorry, never mind.”

“Anyways,” Fili said, “I thought we were supposed to be talking about Billa and Uncle Thorin. Not you, Kili.”

“That’s true,” Kili said with a mercurial shift in mood, turning to Billa and giving her a small smile. “I still think you should ask Uncle Thorin if he’s your soulmate or not.”

“I agree,” Fili said, raising his hand. Kili glanced over and then raised his hand up too.

Billa looked back and forth at them. “This isn’t a vote.”

Fili poked her in the arm. “Do it!”

“Do it,” repeated Kili, poking her other side.

“Do it, do it, do it,” they chanted, attacking her with tickling fingers from both sides.

Billa squirmed and gasped and giggled, swatting at air and failing to escape their hands. “Fine, fine, I’ll ask! Just leave me be!” she conceded on a wheeze. Satisfied, the brothers sat back.

“Is everything alright over here, Billa?” Bofur asked as he settled down nearby. She sent him a look of confusion, to which he replied sheepishly, “Thorin sent me to make sure the lads aren’t giving you too hard of a time.”

“Oi!” said Fili defensively.

“We’re fine,” Billa said firmly, elbowing him in the side and speaking over his protests. “Just talking.”

A lock of hair fell over her eyes suddenly. Billa tried to blow it up and out of her face, but to no avail. Flicking her head just caused a few more curly strands to slide down over her ear.

“Whoops,” Kili said. “I think our tickling was the final blow for your hair. Sorry.”

Reaching up to feel around her head, Billa discovered with a pang that sure enough, the braids had started to come unbound from whatever Thorin had done to secure them. Dredging up a polite smile, she said, “That’s alright. I’ll just take them out.”

“Of course it makes sense to take them out now,” Bofur interjected, “but that doesn’t mean your hair has to stay undone. None of us realized that you might like a bit of help with your hair or I’m sure we’d have offered to help you with it long before now. The braids look very fetching, like a proper dwarf female but curlier. They let everyone know you’re with us. I bet the three of us could put you to rights in two blows of a smithy’s hammer.”

She scratched her head. “Um, is that like two shakes of a lamb’s tail?”

Fili reached over and pulled out the tie on the back of her hair without asking. “I don’t know what a lamb’s tail has to do with anything, but I thought we agreed not to talk about food.” He abruptly dropped the hair tied in her lap. She barely caught it in one hand.

Before Billa knew it, the three dwarves had surrounded her on all sides and unbraided her hair into a poof of curls. It was strange and slightly claustrophobic to be at the center of six arms, all messing with your head at the same time. However, she decided that it was too much trouble to protest now. Bofur’s finger caught on a snarl. She tried not to wince.

“Sorry, lass,” he said. “I should have gotten out a comb first.”

Fishing in her pocket, she found the elven comb and pulled it out. “I have one,” she said shyly.

Bofur plucked it up, “Hmm, bit shoddy workmanship and decoration, being elvish and all, but I suppose it’ll do.”

“When we have a chance, we’ll have to pick you up something better,” Fili said.

Billa just shrugged noncommittally. She liked her elvish comb. It seemed perfectly pretty to her. Plus it had sentimental value, reminding her of Thorin’s endearments as he played with her hair.

A small argument ensued above her head over what kind of braids to use. Billa found it all rather silly. Did it really matter what the braids looked like as long as they kept her hair neat and out of her face? Of course she wanted to look nice, but it didn’t need to be anything elaborate. They were floating on a boat on a lake to confront a dragon in a mountain, for goodness sake. But with the way her friends talked, braid pattern and position was of vital importance. Finally they settled it by letting Bofur decide the weave of the three braids arching away from her face, while Kili and Fili got to control the patterns on the sides and back.

After a bit, Kili reached over her shoulder and held out his hand expectantly in front of her face. Looking at his hand cross-eyed, she finally figured out what he wanted. Billa passed over her hair toggle. With a few strange-feeling tugs her braids were secured into place.

Bofur then made sure to let Fili, as the older brother, reposition Thorin’s bead, which may or may not have some sort of significance that she still didn’t understand. Billa was about to ask about it, but then the dwarves up front suddenly got really loud and excited. The four of them stood up and wandered forward just in time to witness the mists clearing to reveal the grand peak of the lonely mountain.

Thorin turned from the mountain to sweep them all with a thrilled, triumphant look. “That’s our home,” he said, unable to conceal the longing in his tone.

Billa couldn’t help but give him a besotted smile. 

Seeing her face, Bofur leaned over and teasingly whispered, “You have it so bad, lass.” Unfazed, Billa elbowed him in the ribs.

Unfortunately the haze closed in once again, veiling the mountain from sight. Billa didn’t want to ruin the gravitas of the moment (any more than Bofur’s teasing already had), but she could no longer hold in a series of vigorous sneezes. Tension broken, the dwarves broke into smaller groups.

Fili grabbed her arm and steered her back to her former seat. “Sit back down here where there’s some shelter from the wind,” he directed protectively. “We don’t want that sneeze turning into something worse.” The two brothers took up their stations sitting on either side of her again.

“You’re a natural big brother, Fili,” Billa said fondly.

“That’s an idea,” Kili said. “When you feel the urge to get all protective, just focus on Billa instead and leave me alone.”

Sending him a disapproving frown, Billa said, “Even though I’m younger in years, I’m much older in maturity, so watch yourself. Besides, you should appreciate what you’ve got. I always wanted siblings but never had any. When my parents died I was alone. That’s worse than being annoyed by the siblings you’ve got. You should be nicer about it.”

From the front of the boat, Thorin looked over to check in on Kili, who waved back with longsuffering. Then he moved his attention to Billa, giving her a slight smile. Billa wiped her nose and smiled back to let him know everything was fine. Nodding his head, he relaxed and turned back around to return to his conversation with Balin and Dwalin.

Kili leaned against her side with warm comfort and looked towards Thorin. “You are a good person, Billa Baggins. It can’t be easy, loving Uncle, but you are strong enough and cunning enough for it. You’ve proven that. When he gets an idea in his head, he focuses on it, becomes obsessed until he makes the world bend to his vision. It is both a great strength and a great weakness. It might be hard, but in the end you should follow your instincts when it comes to him. That seems to be your strength, focusing on the simple things and listening to your heart. If you do, I’m sure things will come out right.”

Fili leaned in from the other side. “And if it doesn’t, we’ll be there to help you with the fallout, right brother? Because she’s ours now. She wanted siblings, so now she’s got some.”

“That’s right,” Kili confirmed, throwing his arm over her shoulder to tuck her more protectively against his side. “We’re family now, Billa. In the end, it doesn’t matter if we get to call you sister or aunt, you are ours. We claim you.”

Tears pricked Billa’s eyes. “I am honored,” she said with a sniffle. “Next time I cook, I’ll have to set by an extra portion for both of you. Feeding family is very important to us hobbits.” The brothers high-fived again around her body. Billa wanted to say something more to let them know just how much it meant to her, but then a large sneeze snapped her head hard back into Kili’s arm. “Excuse me,” she said with embarrassment.

“You are freezing,” Fili said with worry, snuggling against her side and bracing his leg up to further shelter her from the wind. “As soon as we get to town we’ll have to find you some dry clothes.”

Bofur came over and plopped himself down at their feet. “Well you may be cold now, but take comfort, lass,” he said. “The closer we get to the dragon, the closer we are to a fiery death, which at least will be warm.”

Billa sent him a half-hearted glare. “Somehow, that doesn’t fill me with much comfort.”      

TO BE CONTINUED

 

 

 

Chapter Text

After a lot of sneaking around in Laketown, the attempted stealing of some weaponry for the dwarves, and being caught by the human guards, things had actually gone right for once. Thorin had persuaded the Master of Laketown and his people to support their cause. Billa had also stepped up to vouch for Thorin’s character and word, but her contribution had been small.

They had one more night in Laketown before leaving for the mountain in the morning. Most of the dwarves were still celebrating at a feast hosted by The Master, but Billa had grown weary and snuck away. Fili had exercised his big brother duty by nagging a servant to bring her some spare clothes to wear and a bucket of warm water to wash with as soon as they had a spare moment.

While she waited, Billa stood at a window with her arms wrapped around herself and stared longingly west. She wanted Bag End. She missed the Shire. Comfort and ease were such distant emotions that she hardly remembered what it felt like to wake up with no more worry than the annoyance of her relatives and whether she felt like pork or taters for breakfast, or if she should simply prepare both.

Now her days were filled with larger worries and stressors. Even the pale slice of the waning moon reminded her of how little time they had left to reach the mountain before Durin’s Day. The tall, narrow buildings of men were nothing like the round and cozy hobbit holes of the Shire.

Tucking her cold hands under her arms, Billa told herself to stop being so negative. Although the people here were taller, there were similarities between hobbits and men. The houses may be different, but they were still filled with cushioned chairs and hot food.

Even more importantly, both races treasured their families. It had done her heart good to see how Bard loved his children so fiercely and patiently, crouching to speak with his daughters about their worries, tousling the hair of his son when he said something clever, and treating Billa and the other dwarves more kindly when they made his children smile.

The stars blanketing the night sky also showed several familiar constellations. She used to enjoy them while sitting idly on her back porch in Bag End. The twinkling lights peeking out from between the wispy clouds reminded her of the lantern lights on the doors of the homes and smials in Hobbiton, when she’d walk home after dark from visiting with friends at the Green Dragon. The longing didn’t fade with her imaginings, but it did lessen the ache to something bearable.

If she closed her eyes, the crisp air might be a reminder of the joy about to arrive with the upcoming apple harvest. In the fall, all of hobbiton got excited about apples. Apple-based goods would flood the market and the dinner table: apple salad, apple cider, apple pie, apple bread, and apple pudding, just to name a few.

Master Gamgee used to leave a basket of apples from all over the shire on the porch for her, remnants of his family’s midmorning strolls and harvest efforts. Their skins ranged from gold, green, yellow, and pink to a deep, luscious red. They were so pretty it almost seemed a shame to eat them, but of course as a hobbit, Billa never let that stop her. Especially because the apples tasted even better than they looked. A few days after the basket, Master Gamgee would also drop off a bowl of his famous apple pudding, the undisputed blue ribbon dessert of the harvest festival for ten years running. Billa loved that pudding.

“What’s put that smile on your face,” a deep voice asked curiously.

Opening her eyes, Billa looked up into Thorin’s dear face. The moonlight glossed the silver strands in his hair and made them shine. After the hot spring when she’d gotten to braid his hair, she had made sure to thread the shiniest locks down the center of his front braids. Thorin had braided them again at some point since, but enough silver still shone through. The starlight understood her fascination and bestowed their glow on him in appreciation.

When the dwarves waxed on about veins of precious metal in their mountains, Billa couldn’t help but picture the colors twining through Thorin’s hair. She hadn’t mentioned it though. He’d probably just think her silly.

Thorin reached over and took her hand, threading their fingers together. As always, his body ran hotter than hers. His warm fingers and the unselfconscious gesture of affection made her squeeze back appreciatively.

“I’m just imagining the apple harvest back home and all of the delicious foods about to go on sale in the market,” she explained. But putting it out into words made her homesickness swell up from her belly again. She couldn’t help but feel sad.

Thorin’s face fell, as if he was feeling those pangs of sadness with her. He stepped closer in comfort, resting his body against hers and turning to face the window. “I grew to love apples once we settled in the Blue Mountains,” he shared. “Dis, my sister, used to make me pick them for her every autumn on my travels back from distant settlements. When I returned, my first stop was always her house. Then the next day she’d bake me a cobbler. It became a tradition, going to her house to eat cobber the day after my return. Even her husband became pleasant when we ate that cobbler.”

He huffed a soft laugh, “Haeth and I would embrace as brothers, one of the few times of the year we could actually stand each other, and then we’d spend the night talking and laughing with Dis and the boys. Of course, in the morning over breakfast Haeth and I would always end up disagreeing on something and go back to disliking each other. But for that night we’d bond over apple cobbler and our love of family.”

Billa smiled, picturing them all sitting down at a meal. “Your nephews have mentioned that, actually. I think Kili said that if he could request one last meal before dying, he’d have apple cobbler, a block of cheddar, and a rasher of bacon.” She paused to crinkle her brow as she recalled the conversation. “However, he always said that his da made it, not his mother. Maybe I’m misremembering?”

Thorin’s jaw dropped open in surprise. “Wait… Haeth makes it?” Shaking his head, he started to laugh. “All these years, it finally makes sense! I should have known better, that son of a dog!”

“I don’t understand,” Billa said.

Squeezing her shoulder, Thorin explained. “Dis is a wonderful woman, but she’s not very talented in the kitchen with anything but meat. I’d tease her about it when we were younger because it would always make her bristle up. However I just assumed that first time that she was the one making the cobbler. No one ever said anything to dissuade me.”

He chuckled again. “I just realized, every year Dis would always look so amused and goad me to go on and on about how good the cobbler tasted. The boys would sit and giggle while Haeth would just get red in the face and keep trying to change the subject. No wonder he was so nice to me on those nights.” Giving Billa a wink, he confided, “Fili and Kili get their mischievousness from their mother, if you were wondering. Their father indulges her shamelessly.”

But then Thorin’s face fell as his mirth faded. “The cold does make me miss seeing Dis, though, and even Haeth,” he gave Billa a mock stern look, “but if you tell anyone I said that I’ll deny it.”

She bumped her hip against his. “Your secret is safe with me,” she said. “Seeing Bard with his family probably made both of us think of home.”

Shrugging equivocally at the mention of Bard, Thorin turned to look out the window at the scattering of stars. “Although I’ve lived in the Blue Mountains the last few decades, my home and my heart will always lie in Erebor. Being prisoners the last couple of weeks has just reinforced that for me, along with our interactions with The Master here.” He scratched hard at his left side.  “I need to reclaim a home for all my kin, a place of power where there is no expectation or pressure that what we do is by their leave.” The skin of his face stretched tightly over his harsh expression, and the once affectionate moonlight now seemed cold and menacing, like the glint of light along the edge of a drawn blade.

“Dwarves do not live by their leave!” Thorin spat. “Elves and Men would do well to remember that. I will reclaim my mountain and my gold and then the tables will turn. Then… I will not let them forget it.”

Billa shifted uncomfortably, “That doesn’t sound very nice.”

Turning, Thorin looked down at her with eyebrows raised in stern disbelief.

“Well it doesn’t,” she defended stubbornly. “I mean, yes you’ve been treated badly by a lot of people, but some people have been nice. Bard’s family is lovely, even if he’s a little worried about how things will turn out, and some of the other people here have been very friendly. Also, while I was sneaking around in the elven kingdom I noticed that some people there were nice and did good things for us too, even if you only had the chance to see the bad ones. Like our hot springs room, that was nice, wasn’t it?”

Thorin looked conflicted, not wanting to acknowledge nice elves but at the same time unable to disparage that room or their time in it.

Billa pressed on before he could derail her thoughts, “I in no way mean to diminish your struggles and frustrations, but I just think that you should treat people the way you want to be treated instead of the way you think they deserve to be treated. You know, live up to your own expectations instead of down to theirs. I think it’s the only way you’ll ever find happiness or peace.”

He pursed his lips. “Well, that’s a very hobbit way of looking at it.”

“Makes sense since I’m a hobbit,” she replied smartly. “But don’t you want happiness and peace, Thorin? Don’t you and your people deserve them after all of these years?” she asked earnestly, looking up into his face so close to her own.

He hesitated, but didn’t immediately dispute her, so she squeezed his waist and added one last thing. “You don’t have to declare your love for elvish music and the ales of men, maybe just try to take things on their own merit instead of based on everything that’s come before. Like if Haeth, who shares a mutual dislike with you, could secretly bake you apple cobbler for years just because you love it, couldn’t you secretly be nice to the elves and men sometimes? Because it’s the right thing to do?”

Rolling his shoulders, Thorin sighed. “You do not understand the full scope of what you ask,” he lifted his free hand and traced her bottom lip slowly with his thumb, “but because it is you, Laslelê, I will think on it.” Thorin’s eyes became heavy lidded as he stared down into her face.

The mood shifted. Billa felt a tingle zip down from her lips to her stomach. A wave of wanting, almost an external feeling, washed over her like a warm rain. Tilting her head back farther in invitation, she turned into Thorin’s body and placed her hand on his chest. She could feel the rapid beat of his heart.

Starting to go up on tiptoe, she was interrupted by the sound of a throat clearing. “Excuse me, Mistress Baggins?”

They froze, and then Billa reluctantly drew back out of the circle of his embrace. “Yes?” she asked, turning.

A red-faced man stood behind them staring at the wall instead of their intertwined figures by the window. “Those clothes and that bucket of hot water you requested are finally ready in your room,” he said awkwardly. “But if you want the water to stay warm, you’ll have to use it quickly,” he apologized, still not looking their way.

“Of course,” Billa said. “Thank you.” She turned to look at Thorin, but now he appeared remote instead of approachable. That wouldn’t do.

“I should go check on the rest of my dwarves and then seek my own bed,” he said, stepping back farther from her.

“You could,” Billa blushed and glanced over to make sure the server was far enough away before whispering, “or you could sleep with me again tonight, if you want.”

As she examined his face hopefully, Thorin’s mask fell away. He looked into her eyes and allowed her to see the deep, gnawing hunger swimming up from their blue depths. “I want it too much,” he said with a bass growl. “Ah Marlelê, I would not be able to confine myself to just sleep, and you have already made your stance on that clear.”

Her mouth rounded in an ‘o’ of understanding as more heat flooded into her face. Nervousness and need wrestled through her body. His want felt like a wave of pressure, pressing against her skin.

“I will keep your honor and my oath, although I have never been so tempted by anything as you in all my years of life,” he said with quiet savagery. Grabbing her behind the neck, he pulled her forward into a hard, open-mouthed kiss. Before she could reciprocate, he released her, spun around, and strode off quickly to disappear down the stairs.

Releasing a shuddering breath, Billa wiped her sweaty palms down her skirts and tried to regain her composure. The serving man had disappeared, so at least she had a moment of privacy to regain the strength in her legs. Licking her lips, she could taste that he’d been there. That was definitely not helping her to calm down.

Finally she used the goad of cold wash water to get her feet moving towards her room. It was furnished simply. A steaming bucket rested next to the small fire in the hearth. A pile of folded clothes sat on the bed, and a basin, pitcher, towel and set of rags sat on a side table. Next to the table was a small wooden chair.

Closing the door, she put her hand on the lock and paused, tempted to leave it open in case a certain dwarf king came wandering by. A pocket of sap popped in the log on the fire, snapping Billa out of her reverie. You are a respectable hobbit, she reminded herself in a voice uncannily like her mother’s, act like it. Billa firmly turned the lock and then forced her hand to move away.

With the door shut, the room felt warm and cozy, perfect for a quick wash. Of course that meant undoing the nice braids created by her friends. With a twinge of regret Billa removed the wooden toggle from her hair. Next she took off the metal bead from Thorin threaded above her ear. She placed both in the pocket of her vest to keep them safe.

Then she returned her fingers to her hair. It took her a while to figure out how to unwind all of the intertwined plaits, but eventually her curly hair puffed out from her head completely unconstrained. It made her scalp tingle almost painfully for the first few minutes, as if complaining about the imprisonment of her curls.

First she poured some of the hot water into the basin. Then she quickly removed her clothes. Flipping her hair over into the basin, she soaped and scrubbed it quickly and then rinsed it off. A single wash took care of most of the filth, unlike her last bath with Thorin. Her mind wanted to linger in those memories, but if she did she’d never finish her bath before the water went cold.

Nevertheless, she kept sliding into daydreams and finding herself staring off into space. Wringing her hair dry, she twisted it up on top of her head with a rag so it would stay out of the way. Then she lathered another rag with soap and scrubbed herself absentmindedly. Dipping her extra rag into the clean water, she wiped off the soapy remnants from her skin.

But that’s when she looked down, focused for the first time in several minutes, and discovered something both astonishing and horrifying. She had a tattoo! On her chest! Where no tattoo should be!

Groping blindly with her hand, Billa collapsed into the chair and tried not to either hyperventilate or faint. Closing her eyes, she put her head between her knees and fought to stay conscious. It took several minutes to calm down, but finally she worked up the courage to sit up and peek down at her chest again like a rational, calm adult.

But no, no, no, NO! Too soon! Nope! The room swayed alarmingly. Head down once more, she focused on breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth. The rag fell off her hair and plopped onto the floor, but she didn’t care. Better the wet rag on the floor than her naked body. She had to focus on not passing out or screaming like crazy.

An indeterminable time later Billa finally sat up. First she squinted one eye opened. When nothing bad happened, she slowly opened the other. The room stood firmly in place. Then she slowly dropped her gaze down to her chest. Her eyes bounced down off her skin, up to the ceiling, and over to the fire before she finally forced them to slowly look down and stay focused on her formerly pristine skin.

She had a tattoo. Billa Baggins had a tattoo. No, not just A tattoo. She had TattooS. Several.

Dwarven runes cozied up to the innocent little brown mole by her armpit on the right side of her chest. The mole was fine. It had always been there. But the runes were new.

Not only that, but curled around and under the runes was a picture. A fanciful little sunrise illuminated a lifelike little butterfly resting on a sturdy little cherry tomato vine. When she’d first seen the tattoo she could have sworn that there had been a chrysalis instead of a butterfly, but the trauma of the situation had likely confused her.  

In an attempt to be positive, she noted that the marking was very cunningly drawn. The butterfly looked like it could fly right off her chest after taking a sip of dew from a tomato. It looked beautiful, intricate, and… utterly foreign

It was on her body, yet she had never seen it before in her life.

Billa had no idea what the dwarven runes meant or where the tattoo had come from. Could dwarven tattoos be passed around like the flu? Had all her sneezes been a symptom of some dwarven tattoodisease and not merely a cold? Did it pass through kissing or was mere proximity enough? Was she contagious? Should she warn the humans?

Gulping, Billa stood up and carefully examined the rest of her body for more marks. She even twisted around to check her buttocks, just in case. However she didn’t find anything else, just the palm-sized marking on her upper chest. Dresses were going to be a problem. No way the neckline of a traditional dress was going to cover this. Thank goodness she wore buttoned shirts.

A harsh shiver jerked through her body, capped off by a sneeze, finally breaking Billa from her reverie and reminded her that she was standing wet and naked in the middle of the room. Picking up the towel, she quickly dried off and got dressed. Once the mark was covered by her borrowed clothes, Billa felt a lot better.

That peace allowed her to calm down and reminded her of the much more obvious connection. Her new tattoo probably had something to do with her new relationship with Thorin. Could her tattoo be a soulmate mark? Did soulmate marks just randomly appear on people? Could she be Thorin’s soulmate?

But that was ridiculous, wasn’t it? She was only Billa Baggins, a simple hobbit from the Shire. Hobbits disapproved of the bother involved with soulmates. A respectable hobbit would never even want to be someone’s soulmate. What if that much intensity of emotion left you burned out, too gutted to find pleasure in anything or anyone else in life? Who would want that?

Yet Billa loved Thorin. Thorin had a soulmate mark. Billa now had a tattoo that could be a soulmate mark.

She didn’t know what to feel.

If it was a soulmate mark, what did it mean? Gloin loved to talk about his soulmate Tosi and their markings and courtship and marriage and their son Gimli and pretty much everything about his family ever. On their journey his monologues had quickly gotten old and boring. However, Billa had to admit that when the nights were cold and she missed the people and places back in the Shire, his stories  centering on his love of family brought her comfort.

Gloin had mentioned that soulmate marks could represent three different things with dwarves (and what was it with dwarves and being so greedy about needing multiple types of everything? Couldn’t they be satisfied with just one?). Soulmarks could represent the other person meant to bond with you (like Kili’s stars representing Tauriel), they could represent what you meant to that other person, or they could represent an intrinsic part of your own personality (like Gloin’s sturdy little mountain pony signifying devotion). If Billa’s new markings were a soulmark, what type was it? Would knowing help?

Although part of her wanted to get up and go ask Thorin about it right this second, another part of her was scared. If this was normal, shouldn’t Thorin have warned her about it? Thorin had said and done lovely things, but he had not actually said he loved her. Thinking back about it, he’d also neatly side-stepped talking about their future or the status of their relationship by putting it off until after they reached the mountain. Her self-confidence flagged even more.

What if her feelings for him were stronger than his feelings for her? What if the marking wasn’t a soulmate mark at all? What if it merely declared her a burglar for dwarves or something equally stupid? What if it was a prank?

Opening her shirt, she examined the tattoo again. Just in case, she scrubbed at it with a washcloth one more time, but none of it would come off. Discouraged, she dried off again and closed her shirt.

She didn’t want to humiliate herself by asking Thorin. Not if she didn’t have to. But who else could she talk to about this?

Kili! He would know! He had a soulmate and knew all about soulmate bonds. Plus he knew his uncle and Billa both, so he had good context for her question. And despite his teasing nature, he would treat her fears seriously and earnestly cheer her up no matter what the explanation for her new markings, even if it was somehow all a strange joke.

Besides, going to him with her question would help him too. Having something to focus on beside his aching leg might be useful. She could tell that Kili was in more pain than he let on. Hopefully it would start healing soon.

And if Kili didn’t know, she could always ask Fili. He’d said they were family now. If that didn’t work, Bofur would also listen to her fears without judging. She felt safe telling him too. He was a true friend who always helped her out when he could.

Steadied by having a plan and several people to talk to, Billa blew out her candle and climbed into bed. It was nice not to be alone anymore. Since all of her clothing covered the new marks anyways, she’d just pretend they didn’t exist. Tomorrow she’d talk to Kili and he’d make her feel better about it. Then she’d know what to say to Thorin. But for now, she had to concentrate on clearing her mind and trying to fall asleep.

Despite her efforts, she tossed and turned for most of the night. At some point she finally drifted off. In a dream she walked with Thorin through majestic, green-tinged stone hallways and through carved caverns illuminated by distant sunlight reflecting off of gigantic sheets of polished metal. Thorin held her hand as they walked and enthusiastically explained how they lighted the rooms and heated the hallways. He also waxed on about all of the treasures in the mountain and the piles of gold, but that part wasn’t quite as interesting. She tried to get him to talk more about the kitchens, but he wanted to discuss statues and gem work instead.

At several points Billa almost interrupted dream-Thorin to ask him a question about her tattoo, but she couldn’t quite work up the courage, even with this imaginary version. Nevertheless, just being with him made her feel better about everything. She wanted to steal another kiss, but dream-Thorin seemed too distracted by his talk of treasure and didn’t give her an opening. Finally she just let herself drift into the sound of his voice until she woke up the next morning.

Of course, all her plans fell to ruin when Thorin forbid Kili from coming with them to the mountain. Oin decided to stay with him since he was sick. Then Fili argued with his Uncle and ended up staying with his brother too. Lastly, Bofur didn’t wake up in time and missed their boat, which Thorin refused to hold back. So everyone she’d intended to talk to was missing and probably equally miserable.

Their absence soured the mood of everyone, but at least no one questioned her lack of cheer. However, part of Billa felt that Thorin should have noticed. She wished he would talk to her, but he was too focused on getting to his mountain. They were so close, she knew that, but it still hurt her feelings. It also made his short-tempered outbursts and impatience more difficult to bear as they travelled.

But just because it was difficult didn’t mean she couldn’t do it. She tried to remind herself that being back here was probably bringing up a lot of old trauma. Pushing down her personal desires, she instead tried to focus on the needs of the company.

After a few hours of travel, they paused to eat at a hillock covered in trees and rocky outcrops. Although the shadow of the mountain loomed closer than ever, they still hadn’t reached it yet. A few bushes and scraggly trees grew here and there, but the closer they got to the mountain, the fewer things grew. Whatever the dragon hadn’t burned down initially must have become poisoned over the years and stunted by his evil presence. If the dragon was gone, though, the rich ash should act as a wonderful fertilizer.

Something random sparked Thorin’s temper as soon as they sat down. He unexpectedly got into a fight with Balin. It made her horribly uncomfortable. Thoin almost seemed a stranger, gesturing harshly and yelling, while Balin ground his teeth and over-enunciated his words. They finally separated to opposite sides of the camp. Balin sat on a log facing the lake, while Thorin faced the mountain and brooded, scratching his left side as he frowned.

An uneasy silence fell over the rest of them. A few minutes later, the largest raven Billa had ever seen in her life flew up to Thorin. He offered it some bread. Then the two of them sat and conversed together civilly.

Seeing her confusion, Dwalin wandered over and explained that many of the birds around the mountain were more intelligent than the usual species found elsewhere. Some could even hold a conversation, though usually only in their own complex form of bird tongue. Once upon a time the men around here had known the native bird tongues, but most likely they’d all been forgotten by now. However, a few of the bird clans had taken it upon themselves to learn other languages. The dwarves of Erebor had once had a good relationship with the ravens in this area.

As Billa ate her cold sandwich, she noticed a little brown thrush peeking out at her from inside a nearby bush. His white belly speckled with brown spots camouflaged him nicely. “Hello,” Billa said, ripping off a bit of bread and throwing it on the ground in front of the bush as an enticement. “My name is Billa Baggins of Bag End in the Shire. That’s pretty far west of here,” she explained politely. “Please feel free to try some of my bread. It’s quite good.”

Although she half-expected it, it still made her blink rapidly in surprise when the bird responded in  a high-pitched voice, “Why thank you. My name is Jasper and I quite enjoy the bread from Laketown. I also like that you are so small compared to other people. It’s nice.”

Jasper hopped forward out of the bush. The feathers on his head were more ruddy than most of the thrushes she was used to, almost like the ginger hair found on the Cotton family, the owners of The Green Dragon back in Hobbiton. The comparison made her smile.

Breaking off some more bread, Billa quickly tossed it over. “Well thank you. All hobbits are near my size, which seems like the most sensible height to be, if you ask me. Most races are just too big.” She took a quick bite of her sandwich. “Do you visit with the men over in Laketown often?” she asked with idle curiosity.

“When I get the time,” the bird said before pausing to peck at the bread, pointing his head up at the sky as he swallowed. “Most of them aren’t worth bothering with, but my friend Bard likes to carry treats for us in his pockets, so I try to visit him regularly.”

A smile of delight broke over her face. “I know Bard too! He helped us in Laketown when we visited there. He has a lovely family.” But then her face fell as she remembered that he hadn’t wanted to help them by the end of it because of his fear for his family.

“Oh yes,” tweeted Jasper as he hopped over to another piece of bread, “his son used to have the loveliest singing voice until he got older and his voice dropped. It’s such a pity that human males don’t stay small and high-pitched forever.” Billa laughed and rewarded him for cheering her up by pulling off a large chunk from her sandwich and placing it on the ground.

About to keep talking, Billa was interrupted by the call to pack up and resume their march. “I’ve got to go,” she said regretfully, “but it was nice meeting you, Jasper. Hopefully we’ll get another chance to talk when I return from the mountain.”

Don’t you mean if? jeered the voice of her fears, but she did her best to ignore it. Tearing the last of her sandwich in two, she gave half to the bird and stuffed the rest into her mouth. Then she got up and joined the rest of the dwarves in their march.

They camped that night on a bare plain leading up to the Lonely Mountain. Tomorrow was Durin’s Day. Despite all of their setbacks, it looked like they were going to make it in time. All they had to do was find the secret door by sunset. Well, that and not wake the dragon if he was still hanging around, but Billa liked to focus on one goal at a time if at all possible.

As they all sat around the campfire, the stress was palpable in the air. Everyone was worried about tomorrow. Normally Bofur or Kili would make a joke at a time like this to lighten the mood, but of course they were missing.

On the edge of the light sat Thorin. His face looked calm and composed, but Billa could tell that it was a mask. He’d been braiding and unbraiding his hair for almost an hour, most likely brooding.

Billa went over and sat down at his side. “I can see you’re having a little bit of trouble with that,” she said in light teasing. “Can I help?”

Giving her a sideways glance, Thorin inclined his head quietly and dropped his hands. Billa pulled out their elven comb and showed it to him with a smile before kneeling up behind his back. She brushed through his locks, though there were no tangles. She just found the action soothing and hoped he felt the same. Then she gathered up his hair and carefully braided it back, doing a slightly better job than before because of the practice.

“I hope they understand one day,” Thorin murmured.

“What?” Billa asked as she secured a bead into his final braid. “Who do you mean? Oh, Fili and Kili?”

“Yes,” Thorin sighed. “Being back here is more difficult than I expected. I should have handled my sister-sons differently, but I couldn’t figure out how to tell Kili until it was too late and then I was out of time. Our parting did not go well.”

Billa agreed with him, but didn’t think saying so would help. Instead of talking, she leaned against his back, hugged him from behind, and put her chin on his shoulder. She wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone. Thorin was silent for a bit, gathering his thoughts again.

When he spoke, it was a soft tone of confession. “It was for the best. Kili could not have travelled at our pace with his wound and he may need treatments that we do not have the skill to provide. Although they are both angry,” he reached up and clasped her hand as he stared out towards the shadowy silhouette of the mountain blotting out the stars, “there is a part of me that is glad to have an excuse to send them away. I would have had them there for our triumph, but if all our struggles are to come to naught.... Well, now if we fail and end up rousing the dragon to our ruin, their deaths will not be before my eyes, perhaps will not happen at all. It is perhaps cruel and unfair… but I am glad. For both their parents’ sake and my own, I am glad.”

Blinking away the wetness in her eyes, Billa hugged Thorin tighter and rested her cheek on his shoulder. It did give her a bit of comfort, to think of Fili, Kili, Bofur, and Oin going on to live full lives no matter what happened to the rest of them tomorrow. Yet as much as she didn’t want to have to face a dragon, Billa would have felt worse sending the people she loved into danger without her. Just thinking of separating herself from Thorin sent a shard of painful anxiety through her chest. No matter what calamity befell them tomorrow, she was glad too: glad to be here with the rest of her companions, glad to have shared this adventure with them, and glad to have met and loved Thorin.

Soon the fire burned low. The other dwarves pulled out their bedrolls and laid down to sleep. Billa drew back from Thorin regretfully with a yawn. “We should sleep,” she suggested.

Blinking back at her, Thorin got up and unpacked his own bedroll. “You’re right. I’ll be useless tomorrow without some rest, no matter how my mind is running tonight.” Thorin laid down his bedroll and then grabbed hers and laid it down next to his. “With our company so close, we are safe enough to lie together out here,” he said at her look of hesitation.

“Alright,” she said softly.

Really looking at her for the first time all day, Thorin’s attention was caught by her hair. She’d pulled it back into a simple ponytail. “Let me fix that first,” he said. Hesitantly he asked, “Do you still have the bead I gave you, Atmêlê?”

Billa pulled them out and presented them on her palm. “Of course,” she said.

He gifted her with a pleased smile. “Unfortunately it will have to be simple, since we’re tired and it is dark.” Thorin braided her hair in an arch over her forehead and then began winding the braid into a bun at the nape of her neck.

“Thorin?” she said hesitantly as he worked. Not having to see his face made it easier to find the courage to ask. “Is there a chance that I might be your soulmate?”

His hands spasmed, pulling the hair on her scalp painfully for a moment before letting go. Her heart pounded in her ears as the silence lengthened. Finally he spoke.

“Now is not the time. You have made it clear what hobbits think about soulmates,” he said tightly. “Such a conversation is sure to be a heavy one and we are on the eve of facing down the greatest calamity of our age. This is a topic better visited later, when we are both well-rested and not under such pressure.”

“But Thorin,” said Billa in protest before he cut her off implacably.

“Peace, Billa! We’ll talk about it later, I promise. For now, let me just hold you in my arms. Tomorrow is certain to be a difficult day. Let us share a moment of affection together while we can. Marlelê… please.”

Frustrated but not able to argue that he was completely wrong, Billa bit her tongue and concentrated on the simple feeling of her breath moving in and out of her lungs in the crisp night air. She’d tell Kili and Fili that she tried. If there was some danger to Thorin from not talking about it, surely he would know about it and take steps to protect himself. Pressing more now would just start an argument, and she didn’t want to fight with him, especially if things went badly tomorrow.

The explanation of her strange markings would have to wait. They were private. She wasn’t going to tell Thorin about them unless he showed that he was willing to be equally vulnerable. Until then, she’d keep her own council and try to concentrate on their quest.

Thorin had left a few strands of hair free at her temple. He reached over and pulled them out gently. Then he placed his bead in a small braid that curled behind her ear. When he finally tied it off, there was only starlight and a bit of moonlight to guide his hands, but he didn’t seem to mind. He acted like she should understand and be soothed by the placing of his bead. Obviously he didn’t realize that she didn’t know exactly what it meant, and she was annoyed enough not to bother mentioning her continued ignorance.

Finally done with her hair, they lay down together with Thorin curled up around her back like two spoons nestled in a drawer. Her head rested on his arm, and with each exhale his warm breath ruffled the hair on her forehead. Surrounded by the heat of his body, she slowly calmed down and became drowsy. Billa drew the blanket up more tightly over the both of them and snuggled herself more closely into his body. His belt dug into her side, so she wiggled around until nothing poked into her too uncomfortably. Then she subsided with a contented sigh.

Thorin tightened the arm around her waist threateningly. “Please try not to wiggle too much, Amrâlimê, or I might have to revise my statement about your safety. You are my treasure, Ghivashel,” he growled in her ear, nipping at the tip, “and I want nothing more than to take and keep you.”

Billa reached back and pinched his thigh hard, making him jump. “No shenanigans,” she ordered. “I’m tired. Sleep!”

He huffed a laugh. “Yes, my Queen,” he said much more lightly. “You sound very natural giving orders, by the way. I shall have to find you a crown to wear from the treasury. Something delicate, with emeralds the color of summer leaves and rubies the ripe red of those prize-winning tomatoes you love to brag about,” he teased.

Billa huffed. “That’s ridiculous. I don’t brag, I merely inform you all of my talents. Furthermore, I certainly don’t need a crown! Preposterous.”

Ignoring her, Thorin continued musing, “Yes, definitely a crown… and perhaps some bracelets and anklets too, plus rings for your cute little toes. The treasury of Erebor is full of the most precious and beautiful jewelry in all of Middle Earth. Our jewel and metalwork has no equal. I shall design a special set just for you, Ghivashel, though we’ll have to find you several sets from the treasury to start with. My sister-sons will receive so many jewels and weapons that they will have to keep multiple rooms just to hold all of their treasures. All of the company will become wealthy and reap the blessings of Erebor restored.  It will be glorious when the gold once more flows….” With that final pronouncement, Thorin let his voice trail off. He shifted to scratch his left side and then subsided. An owl hooted in the darkness and something small scuttled into the bushes. Wrapped warmly around each other, they drifted off into sleep.

TO BE CONTINUED

Chapter Text

When they first came upon the broken gates of Erebor, Billa got the strangest case of déjà vu. She’d been here before in a dream, but the gates had been whole and unbroken and the land green with trees and grass instead of scorched and brown. Could it really be only a coincidence that her dreams of Thorin held images that proved to be true in real life? Or were they sharing true dreams like dwarves did with their soulmates. Hobbits were so much more straightforward.

She wanted to ask Thorin, but he’d already made it clear that now was not the time. When she looked over to try and catch his eye, he was too absorbed in memory. Breaking out of his painful reverie, he gestured impatiently for them to start searching for the hidden stair. Biting her tongue against the temptation to talk, she stored her questions up to ask later.

They almost didn’t figure out how to get into the secret dwarven door before the last light of Durin’s Day. If it hadn’t been for those hungry Thrushes, Billa may not have figured the riddle out. Thank goodness she was good at riddles. At last they opened the door. Thorin’s and Balin’s joy at recognizing the halls of their home again warmed her heart.

Yet of course, after that moment of triumph came the terror of actually sneaking into the mountain alone to fulfill her contract. Thorin looked horribly conflicted about it. In front of everyone, he lifted her hand and kissed her on the palm, curling her fingers closed on his kiss. It felt like an ember in her hand, warming her and sending her strength.

Billa sent him a wobbly smile and patted her pocket to remind him of her magic ring. She’d promised to do this, signed a contract. This is why she’d come this far. She had to do it. Yet if she didn’t go quickly, she was going to throw up. Billa gave them all a reassuring nod and marched off into the mountain.

Venturing down, Billa almost fainted when she realized that the largest mountain of treasure was actually the body of the sleeping dragon. Moonlight reflected off of mirrors and piles of jewels and gold, casting the room in a glow that allowed her to see where she stepped. However, this comfort was balanced by the ominous steam drifting up from the dragon’s nostrils with each exhale, casting strange, wraithlike shadows that followed her menacingly as she walked.

Holding herself together by a thread, she fingered the bead in her hair for courage. As if sensing her presence, the dragon stirred and turned over onto his side. His entire belly, larger than the greatest smial in Hobbiton, was encrusted with gold and jewels. However there was one area on his left breast that did not glitter. It looked like a small patch was missing a scale and that no treasure had managed to replace it. Then he shifted again and it disappeared.

Billa held her breath as she waited for him to move again, but nothing stirred but the steam from his nostrils. Grabbing at the nearest piece of treasure, a large gold cup, she carefully snuck back up to the surface where her friends waited. Emerging from the tunnel, she came out into the friendly starlight, handed the cup to Thorin, and then collapsed onto the ground in a quivering mess of nerves. It didn’t help her to calm down when she saw Thorin caressing the curve of the golden cup with the same expression he’d once used to caress her lower lip.

“But what did you see, Billa?” Balin pushed. “Is the dragon still there?”

The thrush Jasper flew over with a few of his kin and landed near her head. “Yes, what did you see? Is he gone for good?” the little bird asked hopefully. A rustle in the shadows made her aware that ravens were crouched on the rocks above them, also listening.

“Did you see the Arkenstone?” asked Thorin abruptly, clutching the golden cup to his chest.

Forcing herself to get it together, Billa sat up, smoothed out her skirts and the woolen hose beneath, and then explained quickly. “I don’t know about the Arkenstone. The dragon was there. Smaug sleeps, but lightly. I saw him shift and stir. My heart almost stopped. He’s terrifying.” Billa stopped for a moment to gulp and get her breath back.

The thrushes stopped hopping around excitedly, instead huddling together in disappointment and dropping feathers.

“He’s huge, larger than I ever pictured, even in my nightmares. Every inch of him shines with either internal fire or the glint of light off the embedded treasures.” She hugged herself.

“How do you mean?” asked Bombur with a quizzical tilt of his head.

Billa elaborated. “His chest and belly are covered by the jewels and gold he’s been sleeping on for so many years. Only a small patch on his left breast is open and unornamented,” Billa added. “It might even be missing a scale. I couldn’t really tell for sure.”

“Could it be a weakness used to kill him?” Dwalin asked keenly.

Billa gave him a blank look. “I don’t know. It’s certainly the only place not completely covered, so maybe? I’m just a hobbit,” she reminded him with exhausted exasperation.

The thrushes all flew off except for Jasper. “We’ll let all our friends know about the dragon’s weakness, just in case. Maybe one of us can use it to get rid of Smaug and bring the trees back to the mountain again.” Hopping over, he rubbed his fuzzy head against Billa’s hand. “Thanks for giving us some hope, Billa Baggins of Bag End in the Shire.” Then he fluttered up into the air and flew off. The night sky quickly swallowed him from sight.

Distracted by looking after Jasper, Billa felt startled when Thorin crouched down at her side. Looking her in the eyes feverishly, he demanded, “You’ve got to go back down.” He held the gold cup in one hand and scratched his side with the other.

“What?” Billa said blankly as the rest of the dwarves stirred and muttered.

“You’ve got to retrieve the Arkenstone,” Thorin said. The Company stilled at his words.

Balin helped her to stand and brushed her off as he explained what the opalescent jewel looked like. “It is the crowning symbol of our people,” he finished. “You can’t miss it.”

“We have to have it,” Thorin said. “The other dwarf clans would have to rally to our side if we showed them the Arkenstone. It symbolizes ancient oaths they took to Erebor and will remind them that this place must belong to our people. It should not be Smaug’s. It will not be Smaug’s. It is ours.”

“But,” Billa said weakly, looking back and forth between their expectant faces.

Thorin passed the golden cup back to the other dwarves, then turned and gripped both of Billa’s hands in his own. For some reason they felt colder than usual. “You have proven your courage and resourcefulness. I know you can do this. You can find the Arkenstone and bring it back to me. Go down into the dragon’s den just once more, Billa.”

After that plea, what choice did she have? Clutching back at his hands desperately, she tried to absorb some of his confidence, but it didn’t seem to work as well this time. Nevertheless, Billa took several deep breaths for courage. Then she let go, turned, and walked back into the mountain. Now that she knew what waited her below, she actually felt worse, not better. Knowledge did not bring comfort in this instance.

And her second excursion did not go well, to say the least.

Although she found the Arkenstone, which was admittedly mesmerizingly beautiful like a rainbow trapped in a drop of dew the size of an apple, its importance paled when compared to the fact that Smaug was awake and had been sneakily waiting for her return. Billa slipped the stone into her pocket and somehow kept her wits. She bantered with the immensely cunning and overwhelmingly large dragon, but how could she prevail when creatures and armies so much greater and grander than her had repeatedly failed? She was just a small hobbit, after all.

Eventually, impatient and irritated, Smaug tried to kill her. Due more to luck than to any skill of her own, he didn’t succeed. Singed but alive, Billa ran for her life back to the stairs and safety. She momentarily lost the dragon on a turn of the staircase.

Then Thorin appeared. Her heart lifted, a gut-reaction to seeing his face. Thorin always made things better.

But instead of saving her or comforting her fears, Thorin went mad. Thrusting an arm across her chest, he stopped her flight roughly and snapped, “Where is the Arkenstone?”

“Wh-what?” she stuttered, shocked by his behavior. “The dragon is awake! We have to run!” 

Thorin took a step back and she was prepared to let the moment go. But then he drew his sword and pointed it at her, cracking both her trust and heart. “You must have found the Arkenstone. Give it to me now!” he threatened.

A gout of flame surged into the air on the other side of a treasure mound, reflecting gold and red in his eyes. The Arkenstone sat heavily in her pocket, but this was insane. Thorin, who had kissed her palm so tenderly just hours before was now threatening her. She loved him and he was pointing a sword at her for a jewel he wasn’t even sure she actually had!

“Thorin, I don’t know what has gotten into you, but we have to get out of here and escape,” she demanded with as much composure as she could muster at a time like this. “Help me, Thorin. Help me!”

He blinked. Sanity returned to his eyes. Thorin lowered and sheathed his sword shamefully. Looking away from her face, he pulled his arm across his body and pressed it against his left side, as if pained.

“Billa,” he said heavily in apology, but there was no time to explain.

At that moment their companions came careening around the corner, with the dragon swooping in from the other side, following the scent of dwarves. They ran until they became trapped down by the mines. The pitiful skeletons huddled against the walls predicted their likely fate. Billa didn’t want to join them, but what hope did they have of any other fate now?

But then Thorin rallied. “If this is to end if fire,” he declared passionately, “then let us all burn together!”

Reenergized, they came together in a daring plan to destroy Smaug. There followed next a harrowing race through the halls of Erebor. Several times Billa thought they were dead for sure. At one point she dared hope that they had actually slain the dragon using molten gold.

But it was not to be.

The gilded dragon burst wrathfully out of the mountain and flew towards Laketown, determined to fill it with fire and death. Billa discovered that despite the emotional plunges she’d already taken that day, her heart could still fall further into the depths of desolation. “What have we done,” she moaned guiltily.

From a distance, she could only huddle on the mountaintop with her friends and bear witness to the burning of Laketown. It was too far to hear the screams of the dying and the cracks of collapsing buildings, but she could imagine them. The fiery destruction was almost more horrifying because it was silent. The dark town grew brighter and brighter as more building caught flame. Billa wanted to look away, but she wouldn’t let herself. Part of this was her fault. If witnessing their end was all she could do for those poor people, then she would do it.

A sob escaped her as she inadvertently pictured Bard and his children, followed by the much more soul destroying realization that Kili, Fili, Bofur, and Oin were down there too. Tears dripped slowly off her face and disappeared into the wind. The horror and sorrow were almost overwhelming after the stacked trials of the day.

Then Nori shouted, “Look! Something’s happening!”

Smaug reared back in the sky as if staggered, spreading his wings so wide they blotted out the moon and the stars. Fire geysered out from his body. Strangely, it came from his chest instead of his throat. The dragon shrieked in disbelieving rage as he rose higher in the air, his wrath echoing for miles as it reached them on the mountaintop.  

But then everything stopped. His scream died out to silence. The fire flickered away to nothing and the smoldering light shining from inside his body grew dim. Smaug fell. His great wings twisted limply and awkwardly in the wake of his body’s acceleration. The dragon slammed into the lake with a great splash of water. The wave was so high it extinguished half the fires burning in Laketown. When the frothy water subsided, the dragon’s body was gone.

Somehow, the humans had killed the dragon! Jumping up and down, Billa hugged Bifur in joy. Balin cried tears of relief. Thorin, however, barely seemed moved. A grim satisfaction passed across his face, but then he disappeared back into the treasury.

Days passed.

The company knew nothing of the fate of their still missing companions. Each day they hoped that they would somehow receive some word. Billa kept an eye out for Jasper the thrush, hoping for some news from Laketown, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Inside Erebor, the Dwarves explored their reclaimed home. Most of their days were spent fortifying the walls or searching the treasury. However, for Billa the beauty of those riches quickly paled.

Thorin was obsessed with finding the Arkenstone. He didn’t sleep. He didn’t eat. Nothing she said or did made a dent in behavior.  Everything pricked his temper and almost nothing could induce him to leave the treasury. His mood jumped back and forth from fondly gifting her with a mithril shirt to casting conspiracies and doubts on the trustworthiness of their companions. He’d accuse her of foul thievery with one breath and then smile at her softly while speaking of her good character the next.

One morning, she forced him to take her on a walk to his old rooms to get him out of the treasury. On the way she forced him to eat something. Before she could congratulate herself too much though, he saw a golden bowl in the corner of the hallway. Mesmerized by the sheen, he scrubbed it on his shirt and then lifted it up to the light. Broodingly, he insisted on taking it back to the treasury at once. Billa forced herself to smile at him, trying to convince him that seeing his old room was more important and tugging him gently onward.

But Thorin just smiled indulgently and patted her on the head. “Treasures belong in the treasury,” he said condescendingly. “Just like you, Ghivashel. You are my treasure and I will not part with you. Come.” Then he strode off into the mountain without a backward glance.

For some reason, his endearments no longer seemed romantic. Now, they seemed like a threat. Scrubbing hard at her eyes, Billa followed him back down towards the treasury.

Ever since coming to the mountain, Billa felt herself fighting off a constant, gnawing hunger. Being near Thorin made it worse. Their supplies were limited, so that just made the feeling more difficult to bear.

This place had made Thorin mad and if she didn’t get out of here soon, she feared that she might become crazy as well. But she didn’t think she could actually leave Thorin. Yet what could she do to fix him? Giving him the Arkenstone would probably just make his greed and paranoia worse. Billa didn’t know what to do.

If only Gandalf was here. He’d know what to do. He’d be able to fix Thorin. But Gandalf was still missing.

Several days later, Fili, Kili, Bofur, and Oin arrived at the mountain, alive and hale from Laketown. Billa put off celebrating their return to try and warn them of the dangers. She warned them of Thorin’s madness! She warned them that they all had to leave! But they didn’t listen. They didn’t believe her until it was too late.

A few days later, Billa saw Thorin put his hand on his sword suspiciously when Fili walked by juggling several opals and diamonds. It terrified her that Thorin might start attacking his nephew or one of their other friends. Billa decided that she had to try to talk to Thorin one more time, despite the seeming futility, before something unforgivable happened. But this time, she had to lay it all on the line. Maybe if she forced him to remember the things more important than gold and jewels, it would snap him out of his greed and gold sickness.

The next day, she found him in an alcove of the treasury, trying on different suits of armor in between sorting through piles of jewels. “Hello, Billa,” he said absently. “This one has a nice gold sheen to it, don’t you think?” He asked, holding up a suit of armor in front of his face, rotating it back and forth in the torchlight to admire the sheen.

“It’s nice enough, I suppose,” she said impatiently. “Thorin, we’ve reclaimed the mountain. You are once more King here.”

Thorin smiled, unlacing the sides of the breastplate he wore. “Yes, I am the King,” he affirmed arrogantly. He pulled off the breastplate and set it aside.

Billa took a deep breath and gathered her courage. “Then I think it is time to talk about us, about our relationship,” she said boldly. “I’ve said that I love you. Before, I asked about our future, about if I might be your soulmate. You said we’d talk about it later. Well, it is later. We are at the mountain and we have won it. I think it is time for us to talk.”

“Hmmm,” Thorin ran a finger down the golden armor without looking at her. “We did win the mountain, but we have not yet found the Arkenstone or been joined by the rest of my people. We still need to secure our treasure and borders from those who would take it from us. Now is not the time. Later.”

Billa flinched. Feeling as if she’d just been punched in the gut, she nevertheless pulled herself together and pushed again. “I think it is the time. I need an answer from you, Thorin. This is more important than treasure. We are more important.”

“And I said we’d talk about it later!” He snapped back. “I am a King, not a simple hobbit like you. I have more important concerns right now.”

Tears pricked her eyes and stung the inside of her nose. It heralded the start of agonizing, ugly tears. It hurt, oh how it hurt. What had happened to the dwarf who would strip himself naked but for a wrap to conceal his soulmate mark? What had happened to the dwarf who would braid her hair in the dark just to make sure she still wore his bead?

What of the dreams she’d had of him holding her in his arms and showing her his home from before the dragon came, were those really all just figments of her imagination? She’d recognized the hallways here, she’d recognized the front gate – all from her dreams. That couldn’t just be a coincidence. Could it? Of course, since coming to the mountain she’d had no more sweet dreams, only vague nightmares that left her sweaty and gasping in the dark. Since coming here, she always slept alone.

Although her braids were matted and half fallen out, Billa had not redone her hair since Thorin had braided them in the dark. Everyone looked as immaculate as possible here in the mountain except for her. The only treasure she wore was the mithril shirt Thorin had given her. He seemed to have forgotten about his other promises to shower her with jewels, although she didn’t regret that. She was too busy regretting other things.

She kept hoping Thorin would say something about her hair, would offer to help fix it. He hadn’t. Thorin seemed blind to everything wrong right now.

Fili had opened his mouth once to say something, reaching up to touch her braids, but she’d slapped his hand away first. Instead of acting angry, he’d gotten the saddest look on his face. Without a word, Fili had gathered her up into his arms and pulled her into a warm, encompassing hug. Kili had come up on her other side and put his arms around the both of them. Although her tears had soaked Fili’s shoulder, Kili’s and Fili’s had sprinkled her hair. None of them had talked about it though. Their silent embrace was acknowledgement enough that things were wrong.

Billa hadn’t wanted to remove the last, physical proof of Thorin’s affection for her, the proof that he had once cared enough to braid her hair even though it was almost too dark to see. It was stupid, but she couldn’t help herself. Still, her hair’s deteriorating state mimicked the state of her hopes.

Yes, she was a hobbit. Thorin was right about that. Billa was a simple, loyal hobbit who loved him with her entire being. It didn’t matter if she was his soulmate or not. She would be faithful to her last breath. He was sick. She had to believe he could come back from this and be healed. Billa would not leave him, could not leave him. She refused to give up on Thorin, no matter how cruel he acted in his insanity. If only he wouldn’t give up on her.

Unaware or uncaring of her devastation, Thorin pulled his chainmail off over his head so he could try on the golden suit of armor. The action caused his shirt to bunch up under his arms. Billa inhaled sharply at what was revealed.

Thorin had stopped wearing his waist wrap, as if hiding his soulmark no longer mattered. The central picture of the mountain had turned a sickly green. Even stranger, most of the writing had disappeared. The only mark remaining on his skin was the large rune on his left side, the one he’d said meant ‘gold’ in the common tongue. The skin around the rune was red and inflamed, with bloody scrapes and rusty scabs that must have come from scratching at it for weeks.

“Thorin!” she gasped, distracted and horrified. “What have you done to your side?”

Scowling, Thorin quickly pulled his shirt down. “It is nothing important.”

“That’s not nothing,” Billa said. “It’s got to hurt, not to mention that it’s going to get infected if it isn’t already! You need to talk to Oin or Balin, to someone, and get that treated.”

“I said it’s nothing,” he snarled. “Leave me be, burglar, and stop your pestering!” With that, Thorin snatched up his coat and stalked off into the treasure hall.

“Thorin,” Billa called, trying to follow him, but his longer legs and familiarity with the place quickly outpaced her.

Finally, Billa gave up in defeat. Alone in the midst of towers of sparkling treasure, Billa had never found herself in a more ugly state. Stopping, she dropped down onto her haunches before hopelessly falling over onto her side. Despair and pain swelled out to every fiber of her being. Hugging her arms around her head, she curled up into a ball and let herself grieve. Sobs wracked her small frame as tears flowed unchecked from her eyes and snot dripped from her nose. She felt like each painful convulsion would finally be the one to rip her savaged heart out of her chest and smash it onto the floor like a piece of rotting fruit. It hurt so much that she couldn’t stop crying to even breathe. The intensity of her emotions scared her. It was too dark, too much. Rocking back and forth, she keened softly and tried to get ahold of the pain. Luckily, her body could only sustain that level of emotion for so long. At last, overwhelmed, she passed out into an exhausted slumber.  

The next morning, Billa woke up with swollen eyes and a sore body. Sleeping on top of hard coins and treasures hadn’t helped either. Standing up creakily, she slowly stretched her limbs until she could walk without limping. Then she left the treasury in search of breakfast.

The constant ache in her chest wasn’t going to go away anytime soon, but she could choose to focus on something else for a while. At least nothing else was left to go wrong. Things would either stay just as bad or get better.

Of course, after breakfast Dwalin called everyone up to the wall to see something. A great mass of people were now moving across the plain. The survivors of Laketown were moving into Dale. On their heels came an army of elves. Everyone became grim after that. Billa realized that her imagination for bad things was severely limited on this adventure. When things got worse, it always caught her by surprise.

Kili hung around the walls for hours with his heart in his eyes. He never said it, but she knew he was searching for a glimpse of his soulmate in the armies of elves. Fili managed to drag him away a few times, but he always made his way back. From Kili’s downcast features each time Billa saw him that day, he was ultimately unsuccessful.

Later that day, Thorin and the rest of the company met with Bard at the reinforced front gate. Bard asked Thorin to keep his word, to give the humans some of the treasure to help them rebuild Dale after the destruction of Laketown. Billa had vouched for Thorin when he’d made that promise. Besides which, there was so much treasure that keeping his word should be a little thing.                                                                             

But Thorin refused. His greed splashed out in ugly splatters as he spoke. Ignoring the threat of war, he turned his back on Bard and walked away. Anger, frustration, and sadness wrestled across Bard’s face, followed by resolution before he too turned and went back to Laketown.

Some of the other dwarves didn’t want to see what was happening with Thorin. They excused his obsession. They even agreed that the humans didn’t deserve dwarven gold, and should be ashamed themselves for trying to extort it from the company. Greed for gold had poisoned them too. Billa couldn’t understand it.

Balin tried to sway Thorin towards reconciliation and peace, but his voice went unheeded. Kili and Fili also tried, but their words were given even less attention than Balin’s. In the end, it seemed Thorin’s gold sickness was only getting worse, not better. He was not himself. If he could truly see himself right now, he would be appalled.

Something had to change right now or else the company was going to go to war tomorrow. Despite the strong stone walls and the stout hearts of her companions, they didn’t stand a chance of surviving a war with both an army of men and an army of elves. They were only thirteen dwarves and one hobbit, and she would not kill someone over mere mathoms, no matter how pretty or steeped in history. Billa absolutely refused (even assuming she could kill someone and not just get slaughtered in the first five seconds).

That night, Billa slipped silently out to the wall like a thief in the night. Bofur caught her trying to sneak out, but instead of scolding, he wished her well and gave her his blessing. She promised to see him in the morning, but he didn’t believe her. He wanted her safe and gone.

Yet Billa would save her friends. She would save Thorin. Ultimately he had to understand why she was doing this. He had to. Maybe it would be the shock he needed to wake him up from his madness.

When Billa reached the Elven King’s command tent, she was delighted to see Gandalf. He was trying to broker peace for the dwarves with Bard and Thranduil. Eager to help, Billa slipped off her ring and came forward. Although initially met with suspicion, everyone’s attitudes changed when she brought forth the Arkenstone and placed it on the table as surety against her fourteenth of the treasure. Hopefully it would be enough to avert war and save her friends. Hopefully, it would broker peace.

Thranduil didn’t seem to want to risk his people in a fight, yet at the same time he kept looking towards the mountain and getting a gleam of greed in his eyes. Billa had seen it too often lately not to recognize it. He’d mentioned having a claim on white gems twice.  It worried her.

During a lull, Bard leaned over and thanked Billa for her warning. “What warning?” she asked with confusion.

“Yes,” Gandalf said, poking his head into their conversation. “What warning would that be?”

Bard looked at him askance for intruding before replying. “Billa sent Jasper, one of the talking Thrushes, to tell me about a weakness in the dragon’s hide on his left breast,” Bard explained. “Without that, I never would have been able to kill him, even with a black arrow. His armor was too thick. Her warning saved us.” He gave her a short bow.

“Oh no,” Billa waved humbly, “I’m sure you would have seen it too and been just fine.”

“Perhaps,” Bard said. “But more people would have been killed before I did and more of the town burned. Fewer people died in the fires than I initially feared. Plus, I managed to shoot him before he burned down the hall containing our backup winter stores. It gives us all a better chance to survive through the winter. We had to come to Dale to survive for now, but we won’t have to abandon the town entirely. Though you are small, I won’t forget your part in that.”

After the end of their difficult meeting, Billa told Gandalf that she had to get back to the mountain. “What madness is this?” he exclaimed. “It is too dangerous for you to go back now. I forbid it.” Ordering her to stay put and rest, he had a servant find her food and a place to sleep.

Billa snatched a quick bite to eat of fresh food brought by the elves. It was the best meal she’d had in weeks. But then, sneaking invisibly so as to avoid the disappointed gaze of Gandalf or danger from any other sentries, she climbed her rope back up into Erebor and tried not to fret herself into a panic attack. Thorin was sure to be angry, but if she was there by his side to prove her intentions and to explain, he’d have to understand. He’d have to see reason and accept peace, wouldn’t he?

The next morning, the hosts of elves and men advanced on the walls of Erebor with Thranduil and Bard at the helm. She didn’t see Gandalf, but he had to be there somewhere. Billa had hoped that Gandalf would be the spokesman, but instead Bard stepped forward to speak to Thorin. At least it wasn’t Thranduil, whom Thorin hated. She tried to feel positive about that.

But Thorin still refused to keep his word and share some treasure with the men of Laketown. When Bard uncovered the Arkenstone to try and force Thorin to see reason and bargain for peace, Thorin still refused. He called it a trick, a filthy lie. He would not parlay because he did not believe.

Firming up her courage, Billa stepped forward. “It isn’t a lie,” she called out with barely a tremor in her voice. “The stone is real.”

Shock and rage battled on Thorin’s face. “You-,” he asked in disbelief, his voice failing before he could finish the sentence. Shaking his head as if reeling from a blow, he asked, “You would steal from me?

Billa swallowed. “No, I didn’t steal. I gave it to him as surety against my fourteenth of the treasure.”

Thorin’s eyes glistened with betrayal as he looked at her in silence, waiting for her to retract her statement. It hurt her heart, but this is what it had come to. They would get through this moment and then he would see reason. He had to.

“I gave it to him to keep our word and save us all from fighting,” Billa explained.

Thorin’s features hardened and twisted as he angrily threw down his sword with a harsh clang. “And what do you know of fighting, you filthy rat? Thief! Betrayer!”

Billa stood her ground. “No, I am no betrayer or thief! I may be an occasional burglar, but you know that I’m a respectable one.” She tipped her head to the side, begging him to share in her humor. However, his face remained unmoved. “It is only surety against my contracted share. Then the stone will be returned to you. I have not betrayed you. I am only trying to save you, save all of you,” she explained forcefully.

Stomping towards her, Thorin ignored her pleas. “You cannot promise the return of such a treasure, with the Arkenstone in the hands of our enemies.”

It took all her courage to hold her ground. “Thorin, there is no need for bloodshed or fighting. You gave your oath. Can you not keep it?”

“What do you know of keeping oaths?” he spat. “How long have you kept this from me? Why?”

“Thorin, you are not yourself,” Billa cried. “I wanted to tell you but I couldn’t. Look at yourself, at your actions! You are changed! You are not the dwarf I met those months ago in Bag End, or even the dwarf I pledged my heart to in a Mirkwood prison cell. Something here has changed you. You are obsessed with this treasure to the exclusion of your own health and even the welfare of your own kin. You even doubt the loyalty of our company when they have done nothing but follow you into dragon fire itself.”

Grimacing, Thorin advanced towards her menacingly. “Do not speak to me of loyalty, you vile temptress, traitor!”

Stopping several feet away, he clenched his fists and then turned his head away, as if unable to even look at her face. His gaze bounced across the assembled armies before returning to skewer her with a look so cold it burned. Breathing heavily, he gestured towards her sharply and commanded, “Throw her from the ramparts!”

Everything froze. Distantly Billa registered the shocked and appalled expressions on her friends’ faces as no one moved. But at that moment all she could focus on were Thorin’s ice-blue eyes glaring at her hatefully, glistening with murderous rage.

She didn’t want to accept what he’d just said. It must be a mistake. It must be.

Glancing around at the unmoving company, Thorin’s face twisted with madness. Grabbing at Fili, he pushed him forward. “Did you not hear me?” Thorin yelled. Fili ripped himself away with a horrified expression and jerked back against the wall.                                                               

“Fine, I will do it myself,” he snarled, charging forward and seizing Billa, one hand twisting into her jacket and the other fisting into her hair at the nape of her neck. Ignoring her pained cry as he lifted her up onto her toes, Thorin jerked her over to the wall. “Curse you,” he cried, slamming her into the wall and pushing her into an opening in the crenellation. She felt something crack. Her toes dangled in mid-air and a fierce breeze ripped at her curls.

“Curse you and all that brought you to me,” he whispered in anguish, not lifting her higher over the wall, but not releasing her either, despite Fili and Bombur pulling frantically on his arms. Thorin’s grip only tightened as the others tried to pull her away from him.

“Release my burglar!” demanded a fell voice. “Please,” it added in a more normal tone that Billa recognized through her hysteria as belonging to Gandalf, “I am fond of her and want her back unharmed.”

Suddenly, a circular blade flew in from out of nowhere and struck the wall not two feet from Billa’s head, bouncing off with a spray of sparks. Thorin looked up and blinked. Shock and disorientation flew onto his face for a split second before his features turned to stone. His hands loosened.

“A chakram?” someone muttered in disbelief.

“Mother!” shouted Kili desperately.

Bofur took advantage of Thorin’s distraction to rip Billa from his arms. Fili stepped forward to block the walkway in case Thorin tried to follow. Quickly Bofur hustled Billa over to her coiled escape line from the night before and threw it over the side of the wall.

Hyperventilating, Billa flung herself over and climbed down the rope as quickly as possible. Skin ripped from her hands. On her way down, she distantly heard Thorin order, “Let no one in, no one!” For a moment she thought she saw a small party of strange dwarves standing on a rocky outcropping, but they disappeared from sight as she continued her frantic descent. Finally she was on the ground.  

A moment later Gandalf swept up and gathered her into his arms. “Dearest Billa, that was a very stupid and very brave thing you just did. Are you alright?” he demanded anxiously. Touching her tender scalp carefully, Billa discovered that her wooden toggle must have shattered in the commotion. It was completely gone. Thorin’s shaking had also ripped apart her fragile braids. Her curls fell down limply around her shoulders and face.

Strained muscles protested as she reached up haltingly to check behind her ear. Questing fingers found the edge of her metal bead just as it slipped off and started to fall. Clenching her hand tightly, she brought the bead to her vest and numbly slipped it into her pocket.

“I’m not alright,” she told Gandalf, looking up with watery eyes. She sniffed wetly and blinked hard, trying to contain her tears, “But I don’t think I’m injured.” Pulling her beneath the protection of his gray cloak, Gandalf walked her slowly away from the dwarven city.

Billa held it together reasonably well until an image of Thorin swam up from her memory. He stood waist-deep in water, gorgeous and strong and for that one moment completely hers. Looking at her sideways, barely restraining his passion, he vowed, “I would keep you like an oath.”

Thorin kept none of his oaths now.

Nose stinging, she tried to keep it bottled up inside, but in the end, she was a hobbit. Her people weren’t made for emotional restraint. She felt what she felt, and right now she felt like her heart was dying. A tear dripped down her cheek and off her chin, and then another and another until she could no longer count each one because there were too many. When her heavy sobbing finally forced her to stop walking, Gandalf didn’t protest. He quietly pulled her over to a rock and sat down comfortingly against her side. Not saying anything, he pulled out his pipe and began to smoke. As she purged her grief, the elven army slowly dispersed past them to return to their position on the plains around Dale.

A handsome, brown-haired elf stopped nearby, crouching down in front of them patiently for several minutes until she finally calmed down enough to look up and acknowledge him. He solemnly offered her a handkerchief. Billa vaguely recognized him as a healer from Mirkwood, though he looked quite fierce with his buckskins and bow. Too distraught to even say thank you, Billa took the handkerchief and wiped at her swollen eyes and dripping nose. She’d missed handkerchiefs.

Unstrapping the bow from his back, he put it down on the ground and pulled out his waterskin. “My name is Nestor, a healer from the once-called Greenwood,” he said softly. “I make a tea from herbs and a distilled berry juice that I gather in the forest. It can soothe the troubled soul and bring peace.” He pulled out a pouch and selected a small purple vial, which he tipped into the waterskin. “It also tastes quite nice, which I pride myself on.”

Holding out the waterskin, he looked at Billa with an encouraging smile. Although her breath still quivered, Billa’s tears had slowed. Wiping at her face again with the damp kerchief, she accepted the waterskin and took a sip. It tasted earthy and warm, like a cozy little hobbit hole filled with food and cheer. Looking at the skin in appreciation, Billa lifted it up again and took a bigger gulp.

“Might I try a sip?” Gandalf asked with a strained smile. “I could use a little peace myself today.”

Sending him a tremulous smile, Billa passed over the tea to Gandalf. When he handed it back, she took another sip, and then offered it to Nestor. Giving her a pleased smile, he too took a sip. Then he began to sing a gentle song about trees growing in the spring, pushing patiently through the soil to spread their leaves to the sun. The three of them sat and passed around the flask of tea until it was empty. Then Billa stood up, tucked her curls behind her ears, and walked on steady legs over into the city of Dale.

TO BE CONTINUED

Chapter Text

 

Once in Dale, Billa found herself at loose ends. Gandalf set her up with a room and a snack and then bustled off to meddle in the affairs of greater beings than a small hobbit like herself. She didn’t mind. It was nice to be alone for a bit.

Billa ate her snack. Just as she finished, a friendly woman knocked on her door and offered her a basin and pitcher along with a blanket in exchange for the empty snack tray. “Things have gotten a lot more civilized since the elves showed up with extra supplies,” she shared with a smile before taking a second look at Billa and frowning. “You look all worn out though, my dear. Maybe you should take a nap and then join us for lunch.” Patting Billa on the head, she left.

Sighing at being relegated to child status once again by the humans, Billa nevertheless decided to take the woman’s good advice. Before her nap though, she poured some water into the basin to wash her face. This adventure had taught her to seize at the trappings of civilization and comfort when she could, as there was no guarantee when she’d have them next. Gently she dabbed the dried tear tracks off her sensitive skin. Then she gingerly patted her skin dry.

Dropping her hand to her vest, she slowly emptied her pocket onto the table to take inventory of what she had left. Besides her clothing, Sting at her waist, and the mithril armor worn under her coat, she had one magic ring, one acorn, one metal bead, and one elven comb. So little… and yet the meaning of each item was almost too big for such a small pocket.

Her fingers hovered over the comb for a moment. She needed to untangle her hair. But in the end she couldn’t quite bring herself to use it. Not right now. Not just yet. Maybe tomorrow.

Instead, she finger-combed her loose curls with damp fingers until they were mostly tamed. Then she returned the items to her pocket, rolled herself up in the blanket, and settled down on the dusty cot for a nap. Sleep would help. It wouldn’t fix all her woes, but it would help her to focus on the bright parts of life instead of the bad.

In her dreams, she wandered the green paths and gently rolling hills of her childhood. Running her hand over the soft heads of summer grass, she tilted her face up to the hot sun and relaxed. She could distantly hear her mother’s voice singing an off-tune song about tomatoes and basil on the other side of the hill where she weeded her garden. Winding back towards the creek, Billa checked on her favorite mushroom patch, but the small heads had barely broken the soil.

Sweat gathered at her temples as she walked through the countryside. Feeling young and carefree, instead of old and constrained by responsibilities, she let herself do something she’d not done in decades. Loosening the laces of her brown corset, she pulled out the white lawn shirt beneath it with a lot of wriggling and tugging until it came off over her head, leaving her only in the sleeveless top and a patterned red skirt. The faint breeze tickled her bare arms and dried her sweat. Distantly she noted the clean, unpainted skin on her chest next to her mole, but that only made sense for the innocent young hobbit she dreamed herself to be. Smiling mischievously, she tucked her shirt in the hollow of a tree and skipped off.

Being so young again was marvelous! She’d forgotten how much energy she’d had back when she’d roam around the shire with her hair down and a saucy wink for any lad who caught her eye. Of course, she’d learned better when those lads all settled down with more placid lasses. She’d eventually become placid herself, but by then she wasn’t interested in any of the men left.

She’d never had good luck with men.

As she reached the top of a small hillock, she let herself lean back against a tree and look out over the beauty of the Shire. Orderly farms and gardens were dotted here and there by small houses and large smials with brightly painted doors, decorating the countryside like the ornaments on a Winterfair tree. At the nearest house a group of children held hands and spun in circles until someone came to the door and called them in for lessons. Life in the Shire was beautifully simple and familiar. It was the rest of the world that was complicated and confusing.

“Billa,” said a low, gravelly voice.

Looking over, she saw Thorin standing a few feet away, garbed in layers of blue embroidered with indigo and gold thread. He looked young too. His beard was long and gathered together in a single neat braid clasped at the bottom by a gold bead decorated with blue paint. Not a single strand of silver glimmered in his dark hair. The lines of stress and strain carved onto his face by so many decades of struggle had disappeared. Yet he still looked serious and sad.  Very sad.

“We aren’t young and innocent anymore,” she told him forlornly.

Thorin blinked hard and sucked in a breath. “You look innocent. Are you going to help her now, Master Burglar?”

Billa tilted her head to the side in confusion. “Help who?”

Giving her a mildly irritated look, he answered, “Don’t play coy with me. I speak of Dis, of course. She wants the treasure for herself. She wants to be Queen Under the Mountain. Are you going to help her take it away from me?”

“Thorin, I’ve never even met your sister. I have no idea where this is even coming from. This is ridiculous,” Billa said with an exasperated toss of her hands. “If you aren’t going to be agreeable, please leave.  I’m trying to have a nice dream here to calm down from the last few horrible weeks and the awfulness of this morning.”

“It is an awfulness of your own making. Your actions and absence have broken my mind,” he accused with raw emotion. “I am going mad.”

“You broke my heart,” she replied sharply. Straightening up from the tree, she faced him directly and met his eyes. “And your mind was already broken. This madness is of your own making. Maybe you succumbed to a greed for gold, just like your grandfather. Or maybe you ignored your promise to Mahal to find your soulmate and were cursed for it. I don’t know. I tried to talk to you about it for weeks and you ignored me. You are sick and your actions are wrong. Treasure has become more important to you than honor or family and that is through no fault or choice of mine. You need to change yourself before something even worse happens. Only you have the power to do that. No one else can fix this, Thorin. Only you.”

Thorin lifted his hand sharply and Billa couldn’t help but flinch back. Thorin froze at her response, and then slowly finished bringing his hand up to his forehead to rub at his temple as he looked away uncomfortably. “You confuse me. You don’t make sense.” He took a quick breath and then sent her a sideways glare. “You make me angry.”

“You tried to kill me, Thorin!” Billa gut-wrenchingly cried.

“No! I- no. It was a mistake. Even as I grabbed you in the midst of my rage, I knew I could not do it.” He wrapped his arms around his middle tightly and hunched his shoulders. “It was a mistake.”

“That doesn’t make it okay,” she said forcefully, suddenly feeling exposed in only her corset. Clouds moved in and the wind turned cold, raising goosebumps on the bare skin of her arms and shoulders. The sunshine disappeared. Thunder rumbled in the distance. “That doesn’t make it right.”

He dropped his arms and straightened. “But you-! And I was only-,” grinding his teeth, he lowered his head and growled.

Fat raindrops began spattering Billa’s arms as she took several steps back from his anger.

Tugging on his beard braid, Thorin grimaced. “This was a mistake.” Thunder cracked loudly above their heads. Billa jumped and looked up fearfully.

When she looked back, Thorin once again sported his shorn beard and silvered hair. The cold rain began pouring down. Billa hunched her shoulders and crossed her arms miserably in futile defense against the freezing downpour.

Meeting her gaze though the deluge, a hint of concern softened the corners of Thorin’s mouth and creased the edges of his deep blue eyes. “I am full of mistakes lately. Things that are clear in dreams become cloudy upon waking. It has been a very long time since I was young and innocent, unencumbered by regrets.”

Reaching forward slowly enough that she felt no fear, he gently plucked a strand of wet hair off her cheek and moved it back behind her shoulder. “Wake up, Billa. Wake up!”

A second later, she turned and fell out of the cot she’d been napping in. “Ow,” she complained softly. Rubbing her bruised hip, she tried to figure out if that had been a real shared dream or merely her own imagining. Unfortunately, there was no way to tell. The only person she might ask was Gandalf, but he had more important concerns right now. Her concerns never seemed to be important to other people lately, though that was probably her doldrums talking.

Dusting herself off, she decided that she’d had enough ‘rest’ for now. She’d passed a large kitchen earlier. Perhaps she’d go and volunteer her services until work took her mind off her problems.

Several hours later, Gandalf found her swinging her legs on the edge of a dead planter outside the makeshift kitchens. “Feeling better?” he greeted her as he settled down by her side with a long sigh.

“Yes, actually. I helped out for a while and it reminded me that even when horrible things happen, life still goes on. The humans here had their town burn down, lost possessions as well as friends and family to the dragon. Yet many of them are still noble and kind, and others are still rude and selfish, and all of them are just normal people reacting as best they can. Life goes on, so I’ll keep going on too.”

At Gandalf’s soft look she sent him a smile and added, “I’ll also try to be pleasant about it if possible, since there is no need to make other people more miserable. I’m determined to focus on the good things and try to stay positive. There’s too much good in this world to waste my time focusing on the bad. And if I falter and fall into sadness,” she put her hand into her pocket and pulled out a piece of pale green cloth with a flourish, “Healer Nestor stopped by and gifted me with a real handkerchief!” She gave him a wide grin.

The Gray Wizard started chuckling. “You and your handkerchiefs!” Billa joined in with her own giggles.

Finally they both subsided. “Your words may be simple, but for all that they are still very wise,” Gandalf said as he stood up and slapped his thighs. “Come! Let us go for a walk to clear our heads before dinner.”

As Billa hopped down from the planter and dusted off her skirts and leggings, he added, “Though there are other leaders here who could use such a walk to clear their heads more than us, but enough of my grumbles. I will say no more. Let us speak of more pleasant things.”

Their talk stayed light as they drifted from a discussion on different types of pipeweed to the prevalence of tree and ocean imagery in elven poetry. The wispy clouds became tinted with pinks and oranges as the sun began its descent.  They’d walked farther than Billa had expected when she spied a small fire in the distance.

“I wonder who that is?” Billa squinted, but couldn’t make anything out. The fire was directly below their path between two rocky outcrops, otherwise they probably would have missed it. Both the landscape and the fading sunlight concealed it well.

“I have no idea,” Gandalf answered, “but I’d dearly love to know. Let’s go and see.” He increased his pace.

Billa followed. “Are you sure it’s safe?”

“Of course not,” he replied over his shoulder. “But most likely we’ll be fine.”

“Most likely,” Billa grumbled underneath her breath. “Lovely.”

They had to wind around a bit to find a way down from their higher pathway. The fire disappeared from Billa’s sight, but she assumed Gandalf knew what he was doing as she followed him down. The sky darkened to soft reds streaked with purples and grays.

Then they came down a slope, walked around a jut of gray stone streaked with black and dark green, and came out into a small clearing. Two tents leaned up against the cliff face with a fire flickering cheerfully between them. A small animal roasted above the fire on a spit. An axe was buried in the ground next to a pile of logs.

“That’s far enough, I think,” said a commanding female voice with a hint of menace.

Billa jumped and dropped one hand to the ring in her coat pocket while the other fumbled to her sword, but Gandalf seemed unconcerned.  “Hello the camp!” he called congenially. “I saw your fire and thought I’d stop by to say hello. I am called Gandalf the Gray.”

“I have heard that name,” the same voice said as four stocky figures materialized from the shadows of the rocks. It was almost uncanny. One minute there were only rocks and a few scraggly bushes and trees, and the next there were people. Not just any people, but dwarves!

“Come into the firelight and be greeted.” As their spokeswoman stepped forward, the last rays of the setting sun burnished the dwarf woman’s rich chestnut hair and highlighted the deep blue of her eyes, the exact same shape and shade as Thorin’s. Billa stumbled at the shock of it and fell behind as Gandalf strode forward.

Blinking hard, she forced herself to look away and over at the others in the group. The woman in charge had facial hair down the sides of her jaw and a muscular build. Her armor was a mixture of leather and metal, with all sorts of strange weapons hanging about her person. The only thing Billa recognized was the sword. A strange metal circle hung from a hook at her waist. Based on the voice, the slightly finer features, and the swelling of breasts beneath her armor, Billa was pretty sure she was a female, but having only met dwarf males, she was afraid to presume. There was nothing soft about her, but she had a fierce beauty that Billa couldn’t help but appreciate.

Another dwarf near the back had light brown hair with streaks of sun-bleached honey gold. This one had a similar beard pattern, so Billa suspected that she was a female too. Near the woman in the back stood a male with a short, scruffy beard that looked even younger than Kili and Ori. He stood by the other woman protectively and hefted a large axe.

The last dwarf stood half in shadows and just behind the shoulder of the woman in front. He was definitely a warrior. The sides of his head were shaved, with the hair along the top braided back into a que. He’d also braided the sides of his mustache and the center of his beard, adorning each with several beads. The unfriendly scowl on his face made Billa gulp. He looked even fiercer than Dwalin! He leaned on a massive war hammer resting between his boots. Everything about his stance telegraphed that he could spring into deadly action at a moment’s notice. He glared distrustfully at Gandalf as the wizard stepped forward.

“As I said, I am Gandalf the Gray. I have guesses as to who you are, Durin’s Folk, but please introduce yourselves if you please.” He stopped a few feet in front of the woman in front and smiled genially.

The Dwarf woman tossed her hair back with annoyance. “You may call me Dis. I am the daughter of Thrain. This is my husband, Haeth. Behind me are Tosi, wife of Gloin, and her son Gimli.”

An excited smile grew on Billa’s face as she examined their features. She’d heard so much about these people over the last few months. It was wonderful to finally meet them and see them in the flesh! Tosi and Gimli looked different than the portraits Gloin carried around with him, but now that she knew their identities she could see the similarities.

Before Dis could say anything else, Gimli jumped forward and bowed. “Gimli, son of Gloin, and of Tosi of course, at your service.”

Dis closed her mouth at his interruption and gave a longsuffering sigh. “Yes, well, you may enter our camp and be welcome, but I’ll reserve judgement about whether I’m at your service or not, wizard. I’ve heard enough stories about you to be wary.” She looked him up and down with her hands on her hips.

“Oh come now, let us be friends. I am quite harmless,” Gandalf said as he hobbled over to the fire and held his hands up to its warmth, playing up his aspect of weak old man. However, his act was ignored by his audience because his walking forward finally exposed Billa to everyone’s gaze. She had been concealed by twilight’s shadows and Gandalf’s cloak.

“Hello,” Billa said with a wave and she walked hesitantly forward. “I’m-,” she began in an attempt to introduce herself, but before she could Dis jumped forward and abruptly dragged her forward into the firelight.

“It’s a Halfling!” Dis exclaimed. “Tosi, come and see, a female Halfling! Do you think it could be the company’s burglar?”

Tosi came forward and walked around Billa. “Well, she does look like what Gloin described, but then again I’ve heard that most of their kind look pretty similar: all curly hair and big feet.” They both examined her head and then peered down at her hairy feet.

It made Billa quite uncomfortable. They kept arguing back and forth about it, neither pausing long enough for Billa to speak. Finally she couldn’t take it anymore.

“AHEM,” she cleared her throat loudly and sent them both an indignant glare. The dwarrowdams broke off in surprise. “Excuse me, but I haven’t had a chance to introduce myself. I am Billa Baggins from Bag End in the Shire, most recently of the company of Thorin Oakenshield. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” She curtsied with polite formality. “How do you do?”

“Oh she’s adorable,” exclaimed Dis before engulfing her in a hug that was almost too tight. She patted Dis’s back in a gesture that could be read as merely friendly but was really an urgent request to be released. Billa could barely breathe. “Thank you for looking after all my boys for me,” Dis whispered into Billa’s ear with a voice clogged with emotion. Then she finally released the hobbit and stepped back.

As soon as Dis let her go, Billa took a deep breath. But before she could completely regain her equilibrium, Tosi grabbed her up in another hug and swung her up and around in the air for a brief spin. Billa squeaked in surprise. “Thank you, Billa Baggins!” Tosi said fervently. “Come over here, Gimli,” she ordered. “Come and meet the woman who’s kept your beloved father alive these last few months, Mahal be praised.” She put Billa down and gestured at her son commandingly.

Billa blushed and scampered back out of touching distance, just in case. She scratched the back of her head in embarrassment while trying to catch her breath. “I haven’t done that much,” she demurred faintly. “Nothing the company wouldn’t have done for me if they’d had the chance, I’m sure.”

Jumping over, Gimli went down to one knee and thudded a fist to his chest. Looking into her eyes, he declared, “Thank you so much, Mistress Baggins! Ma says that Da says that you are a true hero, a little bit silly, but generous and kind and true.”

“Oh, well, thank you,” Billa said. “I do try, but the silly part is probably more often true when it comes to adventuring. I do my best, but I am not a warrior like you dwarves.”

She cast her eyes about for a distraction from their effusive greetings, “Oh no, your dinner looks like it’s about to burn.” This luckily was enough to redirect the group to go over to the fire and start going about dinner preparations.

“You’ll have to stay and eat with us,” said a deep voice from right behind her shoulder. Billa jumped and turned to see Haeth. At least he’d put the warhammer away.

“Of course she’ll stay for dinner,” said Tosi. “Won’t you, sister?”

A deep warmth spread up from Billa’s core and through to the tips of her ears. She’d imagined scenarios about how she’d be great friends with Tosi and Dis when they finally met, but part of her had expected them to be standoffish without the shared adventures she’d had with their kin. “I’d love to,” Billa said with a delighted smile.

Gandalf puffed on his pipe from the side of the fire and gave them all an approving look.  The meat was pulled from the fire and distributed to plates along with some hard travel biscuits. “Here you are, Mistress Baggins,” said Gimli, “I gave you a nice, tender piece. I saved some more if you want seconds. Da said you eat a lot for your size.”

“Hobbits appreciate food, it’s true,” she confirmed happily. “Thank you.” The meat was surprisingly tasty, considering how stringy the animal had looked. “This is very good,” she said after swallowing her mouthful.

Haeth dropped down to sit on her other side. Billa tried to conceal her startled jump. “Dis has a special way with meat,” he boasted proudly, sending his wife a fond look as he enthusiastically took a large bite off his plate. A few bits fell off into his beard, but Billa had taught herself over the months to ignore dwarven eating habits as much as possible. She’d learned that dwarves considered messy eating a compliment to the chef. The neatest eating manners she’d ever seen from the company had been around the elves.

“But unfortunately she can’t cook much else,” Tosi teased from the other side of the fire. “Everything else tastes awful.” A split second later Tosi yelped as a bone came out of nowhere to thwack her in the cheek.

“Keep your complaints to yourself,” Dis ordered, brandishing another bone in her fingers, “or no more meat for you,” she looked around the fire and then smirked evilly, “or for your son.”

Gimli straightened up, “Hey! I’m a growing boy, have some mercy!” Looking over at his mother pleadingly he added, “Ma and I love your food, it’s great!  Right, Ma?”

Rolling her eyes, Tosi flung her hand up, “For the sake of my only child, I will say your food is good,” under her breath she added, “as long as it’s only meat.”

Dis stuck out her tongue in reply and everyone laughed.

The interactions among the group were genial and the conversation easily flowed. After a while, Haeth got up and went to his pack. He brought back a handful of apples. It gave Billa a pang, remembering her conversation with Thorin in Laketown back before things had gone all wrong. The first apple he offered to Billa with a friendly sort of seriousness before passing the rest around. He went to Gandalf last. As he passed over the apple he demanded, “So wizard, tell me about my sons. What is the status of the company?”

Gandalf took a bite of his apple first before answering. “It is a long tale, some of which you already know because of the Lady Tosi’s dreamsharing, a particularly useful gift of soulmated dwarves. Soulmates in other races don’t have that ability, you know,” he added.

“We don’t care about that,” said Dis impatiently. “Tell me of my boys, Fili and Kili. Tell me of my brother, Thorin. It has been many moons since I’ve beheld their faces. Tosi’s ridiculous husband conceals things to spare our tender female feelings. And the cursed elvish army blocks our approach to the mountain and keeps us away when we are so close. Tell me how they fare! Please, Gandalf!”

Gandalf settled back and let his apple drop to his lap. “I will tell you what I know of the company’s journey and Billa will fill in the gaps. We’ll start at the beginning.” The two of them then proceeded to relate the adventures they’d had over the last few months of travel. It was interesting to see what these dwarves already knew from Gloin and what surprised them.

The last part of the tale belonged to Billa. She glossed over the events in the dungeons in Mirkwood, though she made sure to emphasize the helpfulness of some of the elves. She didn’t reveal Kili’s secret elven soulmate, but she did make sure to tell them that when Kili was shot, only the intervention of Tauriel saved him. At the news of his injury and being left behind ill in Laketown with his brother, Dis and Haeth leaned together worriedly and grasped hands. Haeth’s eyes became wet as he blinked rapidly, but Dis’s face became more blank and stony, a look Billa had seen on Thorin’s face before.

When Billa got to her account of the Mountain, her voice faltered. Coughing to clear her throat, she did her best to fairly relate their waking of the dragon, claiming of Erebor, and Thorin’s subsequent madness. She did not tell of her doomed love for Thorin or his rejection, but most likely it bled through despite her best efforts. Staring out into the darkness, she quickly forced out the mad events from that morning at the wall. Then she dried the few stray tears that had escaped with Nestor’s green handkerchief and forced herself to take several calming breaths.

After a few minutes where everyone stared at the fire and watched the embers drift up to join the stars in the sky, Dis’s voice finally broke the solemn silence. “We were close enough to see the wall this morning. We were trying to get inside but the armies of elves and men moved too quickly and cut us off. I wouldn’t believe what you say of Thorin otherwise, but I too saw the madness in his face as he ordered your death. I saw him grab my Fili and try to force him to violence. My son looked horrified. He’s always been very loyal to his uncle. I could tell something wasn’t right. It was my chakram, along with Gandalf’s power, that shocked Thorin into loosening his grip on you so you could escape.”

Dis’s lip trembled a moment as she stared hard into the fire. “I’ve never raised my hand against my brother. Everything he’s ever done has been noble and kind and selfless, with the best of intentions until now. I worry for our family, I worry for my sons. He truly is sick in the mind, just like our grandfather near the end.”

Looking away, she sniffed and wiped her nose. “Poor Thorin, deep down he must hate what he has become,” she whispered achingly. Standing up abruptly, she strode away from the fire and disappeared into the darkness. Haeth clenched his hands and stared after his wife unhappily, but he didn’t follow.

A log popped in the fire.

“I’m going to go try to dream with my soulmate,” Tosi said. “I want to make sure he’s okay. I’ll let him know we’ve seen you, sister.”  She got up and came around the fire. Pausing by Billa, she stooped to give her a tight hug. Then she turned, ran a hand through her son’s hair tenderly, and disappeared into her tent.

“I’ll walk you back,” Haeth said suddenly  from right next to her in his deep, gravelly voice. “Gimli can clean up and bank the fire.”

“Yes, sir,” said the subdued youth.

Gandalf stood up and shook out his robes. “You don’t have to escort us back to Dale,” he said. “We can find the way well enough.”

Shrugging, Haeth held out a hand to Billa to help her stand. Surprised, she grasped it and got to her feet. Haeth turned and picked up his warhammer. “You don’t seem to be very good at keeping hobbits safe. Mistress Baggins is important to our family. I’ll come along, just in case.”

Billa’s mouth rounded in a silent ‘o’ of surprise. Pride might say she had proven that she could protect herself, but her rational side was grateful to have such a large and intimidating warrior determined to keep her safe. She should have learned better by now than to judge a dwarf by his scary appearance. He’d been nothing but kind to her all evening. Not that she had any worries when travelling with Gandalf, but it was still nice to have someone care.

As the three of them walked towards Dale in the moonlight, the silence began to get awkward. Billa turned to Haeth, “So how was it raising two rapscallions like Fili and Kili?”

Haeth threw back his head and laughed. “You don’t think I lost all of this hair naturally then?” he asked teasingly, smoothing his hands down the bare sides of his head. At Billa’s giggle, he winked. Then he spent the rest of the walk telling stories of the boys’ antics as youths. His taciturn mien fell away as he spoke of his family in rich tones dripping with devotion and pride.

Chuckling at the pictures he painted with his words, Billa reciprocated with a story about the summer she spent with her Took cousins. It filled her up with warmth to remember all the crazy things they got up to and still managed to survive. She was enjoying herself so much that she was taken completely by surprise when they reached the outskirts of Dale.

“Goodnight, Master Dwarf,” Gandalf said warmly, “and thank you for both the escort and the stories. We’ll reach the outer sentries in a just a few moments, so you should leave before being seen. That way we can avoid any unfortunate misunderstandings in the dark.”

Haeth inclined his head, “Wizard.” Then he turned to Billa and just stared at her intently without saying a word. She shifted uncomfortably under his gaze, unsure of what he meant by it.

“You don’t turn your back on family,” he intoned seriously. “Do you still have it?”

Billa scrunched her brows. “Have what?” She hoped he wasn’t talking about the ring. Although she liked Haeth, the ring belonged to her. She wouldn’t part with it just for the asking. Well, not unless she really trusted the person asking for it and there was a really good reason.

“The bead Thorin braided into your hair.” Haeth didn’t react to her flinch or the water suddenly beading in her eyes.

“Um, how did you know about that?” she asked shakily.

Haeth replied succinctly, “Tosi.”

Hesitantly she raised her hand to her coat and paused. Then, with a deep breath, she unbuttoned it quickly and pulled the bead out of her vest pocket. “I still have it,” she showed it to him in the cup of her palm.

Haeth looked at it, but didn’t touch. “Thorin is an idiot,” he said bluntly, “and crazy now too, it seems. He’s never been as perfect as Dis and the boys like to think, even before this mess. Nevertheless, I left my kin, married into the family, and took oath to Thorin knowing that because Dis is my everything. She always has been and always will be. But be that as it may, you were given our family bead and you chose to wear it openly. It declares you part of our family and under our protection and that of our allies.”

He looked down at her with dark eyes. “You deserve much better than to be thrown out and left alone so far from your home, especially now. Your actions with Thorin’s company and my sons in particular have proven that you deserve better. Putting Thorin aside for now, the main branch of our family also includes Dis, Fili, Kili, and me. Most of the company is a cousin of some sort as well. You seem very close to the boys. Is that true?”

Confused as to where this was going, Billa nevertheless answered honestly. “They are some of my best friends. I think of them like brothers. They took me under their wing during our travels and I did my best to look out for them along the way.” Turning pink, she confessed in a rush, “I love them dearly.”

Keeping his eyes locked with hers, he picked up the bead from her hand and held it up. “Then it is only right that I follow Tosi’s prompting. I, Haeth of the Blue Mountains, name you sister, Billa Baggins of Bag End in the Shire. I confirm you a member of our family, if you will have us.”

Reaching up, he tugged sharply at one of his braids and removed one of his own beads. He added it to the first in his hand and held them out with his brow furrowed with seriousness. “My blood is yours, no matter what happens in the future between you and Thorin. You are our family and we are yours, if you accept?”

Dashing away the tear that escaped to roll down her cheek, she looked down for a moment to swallow and get her emotions under control. She pulled out her green handkerchief, but kept it wadded up in her hand.

She didn’t know why this family kept trying to put claims on her, but she wanted it. For years she’d lived by herself in a smial meant for multiple generations of families to inhabit. For years, she’d been lonely and peripheral, accepted but not really needed. Each morning she’d build up the fire and made her breakfast for one, and each evening she’d bank the coals and turn in to the same small, one-person bed she’d slept in since childhood. Sometimes she’d wander the marketplace or visit cousins searching for a way to make herself useful, but life had been very hollow, echoing and empty of real purpose.

This adventure with the dwarves had changed that. She hadn’t felt so alive in years, nor could she remember the last time she’d been so sought after. This family, these people, kept trying to claim her. Ever so greatly, she wanted it.

“I don’t know why you’d want to claim a hobbit you barely know into your dwarven family, but I would be honored,” looking up at Heath with a watery smile, she finished, “my brother.” Then she bowed her head and gave him the most graceful and humble curtsy she’d given since her great-grandmother Baggins had instructed her in the art. Then she rose up onto her tiptoes and kissed him gently on the cheek just as she’d do for any of her cousins.

Haeth blushed red and smiled back with gentle joy. “Let me fix this for you,” he said, reached forward to make a small plait next to her ear, which he threaded the two beads onto and then tied off. “You don’t turn your back on family,” he said again. “Not ever. If you need anything, you just ask, little sister.” He placed his hands on her shoulders and squeezed gently, leaning down to bump his forehead gently against hers.

Stepping back he cleared his throat. “Stay safe.” Then he turned and left, fading into the dark countryside like just one more dream of belonging except for the cool beads resting against her skin, declaring that she was both wanted and needed.

Billa stared off after him thoughtfully until Gandalf placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Come along, Billa, time for us to find our beds.”

At his words she turned from her contemplation of the night. With Gandalf by her side, they made their way back into the city with a minimum of fuss. The gentle swish and thump behind her ear made Billa smile each time she turned her head too quickly. Crawling into her cot, she drifted off to sleep with pleasant warmth in her chest, determined to only dream good things tonight.

TO BE CONTINUED

Chapter Text

 

Billa found her slumber rudely interrupted the next morning by a strangely accented voice snapping, “Wake up, runt.” Her eyes popped open.

She looked around, missing Thorin with a bone-deep ache, prodding at the bruise of her emotions with images of his face both sweet and terrifying until she had to suppress them or risk breaking down in front of this rude stranger. Even then, her new tattoo felt tight and sore when she moved. The room was dark except for the light coming in from the hallway. She placed her fingers on Sting where it sat next to her body and glared over at the disagreeable man now standing in the doorway, ready to defend herself if necessary.

A tall man with greasy black hair glared at her from the doorway. She recognized him as the man ordered to find her a room the night she’d handed over the Arkenstone. Billa hadn’t liked him then. She really didn’t like him now. Wiping the sleep from her face, Billa sat up cautiously.

At this point, she realized that her fingers rested on the end of Sting’s scabbard instead of the handle. If she’d tried to brandish it, her sword would have probably fallen out of the scabbard and clattered onto the floor at the man’s feet. Thank goodness that hadn’t happened! Discreetly she moved her hand to the handle and tried not to blush with embarrassment. Her dwarrow friends would never let her live something like that down.

Of course, they weren’t here to see it. They’d never know unless she told them, but who knew if she’d ever even see them again? What a depressing thought. Billa sternly suppressed the quivering of her lower lip.

Looking down his nose at her, the greasy-haired man curled his lip, revealing brown-stained teeth. “The wizard wants you at an early morning parlay called by the elven lords, so get up already.”

“I do beg your pardon,” she said coldly. “It’s Alfred, isn’t it?” Billa searched her memory of human gossip from the day before.

Stepping forward, he puffed out his chest, preening at being recognized.

Billa deliberately moved slowly as she stood up and folded the blanket she’d used the night before, refusing to jump at this horrible man’s bidding. “I thought I’d heard that you once held a position of importance in Laketown, but obviously I must be mistaken. No one as rude and ignorant of proper behavior as you could possibly be in power over the people here… or is that why you are delegated to the role of a servant now? Kicked you out, did they?”

She would normally not be so openly rude, but she was feeling out of sorts and couldn’t quite muster the energy for good manners in the face of his insulting behavior. Instead of calling on the lessons of Grandmother Baggins, she was channeling Great-Aunt Henrietta Took. Her family would be appalled (well, her younger cousins would laugh themselves silly and send her winks, but the rest of the family would be appalled).

Alfred’s face twisted into an angry scowl. Beady eyes glared down at her with hateful calculation. “What would you know, a useless-looking child like you? But you aint a child, are ya? You’re a stumpy, pig-faced old spinster.”

Flinching at his verbal slap, Billa stared up at him in shock.

Smirking, he took a step forward to look down his nose and loom over her with his human height. “Didn’t think we’d realize you’s a spinster, eh?” he drawled cruelly. “Like anyone would want you, what with that rats-nest topping such an ugly face.” He wrinkled his nose and circled to the side. “Likely no one’s ever needed a useless bint like you, certainly no one’s ever wanted you. Obviously your own people can’t stand you, otherwise you’d be back home instead of travelling with dwarrow riff-raff. Even they would rather throw you off a wall than keep looking at your foul face or hearing your hideous little voice for one second longer. And who could blame them? I’d probably throw you off a wall too. You should be grateful that the people here found you so pitiful that they took you in. We’re wasting good supplies on you, we are. But at least we don’t have to worry about that for long. We’ll probably trade you back to that mad dwarf for gold soon and let him strangle you for good this time.”

Tears stung Billa’s eyes as Alfred’s barbed words raked bloody furrows across her still open emotional wounds. It hurt, echoing the voice of her deepest fears and heartaches. All of her insecurities and traumas surged up like acidic bile, choking and stinging.

She’d underestimated this vile man. But she would not let him see the depths of her pain. He would get no more from her. She would not give him the satisfaction.

Although her failures currently loomed large, she tried to remember that she’d also faced down wargs, goblins, orcs, and even a dragon. She’d made good friends along the way and even been claimed as a sister last night by Haeth. What was this stupid little man compared to that? Cruel, yes, but ultimately weak and empty.

Billa Baggins was not weak, Billa was strong. She was also a storyteller and a survivor. It was time to spin a good lie and then get far away from this man.

“Oh, really?” Raising a somehow steady hand, she flicked her curls behind her shoulder and raised her chin disdainfully, channeling the popular and gorgeous Briony Bracegirdle when Lobelia tried to usurp her social position by spreading unflattering lies and innuendo at the apple harvest dance five years ago. Lobelia still ducked her head and crossed to walk on the other side of the street when she saw Briony coming. Billa would squash this man’s ego just as thoroughly.

The slight plop of the two beads in her hair steadied her breathing and gave her strength. “I’ll have to see what my dear friend Bard has to say about your opinions, or should I call him King Bard now? He was just telling me yesterday about how he owes me for saving the life of his people, and that I should come to visit him and his family as soon as they renovate the palace. That was during an important meeting with all of the leaders and advisors in the area. I don’t remember seeing you there,” she looked him up and down dismissively, “probably not a coincidence. Maybe if you’re lucky they’ll let you clean the palace stables, though probably not the rooms.”

Sweeping past him and out the door into the corridor, she called back, “You must be anxious to return to your menial duties. Feel free to clean my room and empty the chamber pot while I’m gone. I’ll probably be at important meetings with important people for the rest of the day, so it’s unlikely you’ll see me.”

Billa turned and walked away quickly, only slowing down once she reached the torch-lit dining room. The other people here made her feel safer. By the end of her parting speech, she’d feared that Alfred was going to try and hit her. If he’d tried, she would have swiped at him with Sting. This adventure had made her abnormally violent for a hobbit.

It hadn’t managed to armor her feelings very well though. One quivering breath escaped her, followed by another as she kept her head down in the line for food. Sniffling, she rubbed a knuckle across her nose.

At the breakfast table, she grabbing a piece of bread smeared with berry preserves. Each bite made her feel a little bit better. Thank goodness for food, even when the portions were small. It refocused her mind on the good things in the world. If she could just get a large enough portion, she’d be the cheeriest person for miles. But unfortunately there wasn’t time to go through the line again for more before her meeting.

Alas.

Telling her gurgling stomach to keep quiet until lunch, Billa went outside in the pale pre-dawn. Her breath fogged in the air. A passing human helped direct her to Gandalf. Scrunching her cold hands into her pockets, she walked out the gates of Dale and saw the wizard standing off in the distance by himself on the hillside overlooking the armies below.

Billa quickened her pace. No one had told her exactly when the parlay was supposed to start. Billa wondered how Thorin was doing.

She missed him. She loved him. She wanted to kick him in the head.

After passing several squadrons of elves and humans, Billa came up next to her tall friend. Pushing thoughts of Thorin away, she mustered up a small smile in greeting. Gandalf smiled back absently. “King Thranduil is about to advance on the gates. For one so old, he is rather impatient,” the wizard said as he peered across at the elven leader on his stag.

A haze of soft pink light drifted along the horizon, softly illuminating the menacing armies of elves and men assembling on the plain before the cobbled-together gates of Erebor. Billa wrapped her arms around herself and shifted from foot-to-foot in an attempt to generate some warmth. “I don’t understand why this parlay has to take place before the sun is even up. It’s still freezing and we could all be warm inside eating more breakfast.” Even the small thump of her braid against her ear could only bring her so much comfort in the face of the potential violence. “Why can’t King Thranduil just wait until later, or even better yet just go home and leave the dwarves alone?”

Bard marched by and joined Thranduil near the front of the gathering. Billa also noticed healer Nestor near the back in his tanned leathers. He must have somehow felt the weight of her gaze, because he looked up, met her eyes, and gave her a gentle smile and nod before turning back around. Everyone looked so fierce and stern. She didn’t like it. At least that awful Alfred wasn’t around.

Gandalf smiled crookedly and leaned wearily against his staff. “King Thranduil is a complicated person with conflicting wants,” the wizard glanced around beneath his brows to make sure no elves were close by as he lowered his voice and continued. “On the one hand, he doesn’t want any of his people to die in battle and is thus willing to parlay and lay siege for weeks, months, or even years.”

At Billa’s wide eyes Gandalf added, “He’s been in battles that lasted for centuries back in the First Age, you know.”

“That’s crazy! Didn’t people just get tired of fighting or run out of food and want to go home? I can’t even image fighting for days, much less centuries….” Billa hugged herself tighter.

Face dark and sad, Gandalf said, “When everyone lives a long time and the stakes are very high, people forget or are forced to put aside such things. But those dark times are long in the past and no one wants them to return. The wizards in my order all work hard to keep such a thing from happening.”

Looking down at her face, he continued softly, “But we were speaking of current events, not the distant past. Although Thranduil doesn’t wish to needlessly risk battle, he can also be very proud and greedy, a failing common to those in power. Because he thinks that he has been slighted, he allows the darker emotions to swell within his heart. Instead of checking himself, he acts upon them. Time and tragedy have worn him down from the great leader he once was, but the sturdy roots are still there. I have hope that he will blossom once more into a leader both longsuffering and wise.” He paused as a troop of men marched past with loud jangles and thumps, their makeshift armor and weapons ill-fitting and foreign in the hands of men who at heart were fishermen, not warriors.

Once they moved on and it quieted down, Gandalf continued. “In the past, the elvenking had a difficult relationship with the dwarves in Erebor. In addition to the traditional disdain both races carry for the other, the dwarves of Erebor somehow came into possession of a necklace of white gems that once belonged to his deceased wife. Thranduil insisted on their return. When King Thror learned of its provenance, he became greedy. He would only agree if Thranduil gave up several huge concessions that had been in contention between the two races for centuries. Offended at their demands, the elvenking refused and negotiations broke down, but he’s been bitter about it ever since.”

“Oh,” Billa said contemplatively. “I suppose I feel a little bit sorrier for him now. That must be difficult, to lose someone you love and then not be able to get back a memento to remember them by. But all the same, I don’t think I’d go to war over something like that. In the end, people are always more important than mathoms, no matter how pretty or storied.”

Gandalf blinked at her in surprise for a moment. “The worldview of hobbits keeps catching me by surprise. Most of the other races do not share your priorities, mores the pity. The white jewels from that necklace are one of the main reasons he’s demanding a share of the treasure now. He’s willing to go to war over it, focusing so much on the memento of his dead wife that he loses sight of what she stood for and the child she left behind, a child more clear-sighted than his father, if what I hear is true,” Gandalf finished softly and musingly.

“Are you talking of Prince Legolas?” Billa hesitantly asked.

Clearing his throat, Gandalf resettled his robes and looked around. “Perhaps I’ve said too much, so don’t go repeating any of that,” he ordered sternly and waited for her nod of agreement. “Things are tense enough around here as is. Hopefully Thranduil will start listening to me soon. There is a fell army marching this way as we speak that he refuses to hear about. He’ll see the truth one way or the other soon enough.”

“What?!” Billa practically shouted in fear and surprise. “What are we to do, Gandalf?”

“Survive as best we can,” he replied. “The confluence of these armies may prove to be a catastrophe. On the other hand, if what I truly fear comes to pass and if we are very, very lucky, it may prove to be a blessing.”

“A blessing!” Billa muttered disbelievingly as she cast her gaze over the lines of armed elves and men. “I don’t see how.” However, Gandalf stayed silent, not explaining his thoughts any further.

Only a few minutes after Bard and Thranduil arrived at the gate, Thorin and the rest of her dwarven friends appeared at the top of the wall. Billa couldn’t help but trace Thorin’s features longingly with her eyes. As he spoke, a sharp pain stabbed through her heart, a strange mixture of love and anger.

For a brief moment his eyes cut over to where Billa stood, connecting with her gaze. She could have sworn that he lifted his hand to press two fingers against the center of his mark. Perhaps she felt an echo of his tortured mind. But then he ripped away his eyes and dropped his hand, fisting his shaking fingers against his thigh until the trembling stopped.

Although he wore the magnificent armor and fancy helmet denoting his status as King Under the Mountain, Thorin’s face looked haggard and rough. She’d had no dreams of him last night, but perhaps he hadn’t slept. He spoke more slowly today, though with no more courtesy or give than before, but with an almost tortured deliberation.

For a few moments she dared let herself hope that this presaged a new change of heart as the sun crested the horizon with golden rays. But her hopes shrank as the light cast deep, unsettling shadows over Thorin’s eyes and highlighted the starkness of his face. Thorin squinted away from the light and stopped speaking mid-sentence. Then he began laughing: a loud, triumphant, mad laughter that made Billa’s belly twist is discomfort.

“Your demands are done. Any chance you had of wresting some morsel from me has passed. Behold dwarven might and let despair fill your greedy, maggot-ridden hearts!” Thorin yelled as he gestured exultantly at the horizon.

Billa looked over in confusion only to catch her breath in shock a moment later. Cresting the hillside to the west marched a group of fierce, hairy warriors bristling with metal: an army of dwarves! They came closer until stopping at the top of the hill in ordered rows.

A red-haired dwarf on a scary-looking armored boar rode halfway down the hillside before stopping. He carried a large red axe and a matching red warhammer. Two dwarves rode beside him in a small chariot pulled by large horned goats. It took Billa a minute to recognize the other figures as Haeth and Dis. Both were wearing heavy armor. The glares they sent the elves were full of anger and aggression.

The tension made Billa’s stomach lurch and acid rise up her throat. She swallowed hard. Things seemed to be accelerating towards a fight. It scared her. She didn’t want any of her friends to fight, old or new, dwarf, elf, or human.

Gandalf rubbed his forehead as if pained. “That’s Dain Ironfoot, lord of the dwarves of the Iron Hills and Thorin’s cousin.”

“Maybe he can help Thorin see reason?” Billa asked weakly.

Gandalf grimaced. “I’ve always found Thorin to be the more reasonable one between the two.”

Billa looked up at him in disbelief, but before she could ask, Dain started shouting. “Excuse me! In case you blighters failed to notice, an army of dwarves has just arrived! This land and this mountain belong to the dwarves! We’re ready to have a rowdy reunion with our kin, so all of you lily-livered, tree-shagging, poncy-princesses can just shove off before we chop your heads off and use ‘em for mead cups!”

“Oh, dear,” Billa swallowed before saying faintly, “I see what you mean.”

The elven army turned as one to face the dwarves. A tense standoff ensued. Insults spewed back and forth. Levels of aggression rose quickly. Warriors unsheathed weapons and placed arrows to bowstrings. The air fairly vibrated with tension.

Afraid, Billa stepped closer to Gandalf’s side. He placed a hand on her shoulder comfortingly. However, a few seconds later he yanked it off and snatched something out of the air. Billa looked up in confusion. Gandalf held his hand up to his ear for a moment. Then he went pale.

As he opened his fingers, Billa saw something small fly off into the sky. It looked like an insect. Before she could ask about it, Gandalf strode forward and down the hillside at a rapid pace. Billa scrambled to keep up.

Coming out into the open between the bickering leaders and their armies, Gandalf raised his staff to the sky and shouted, “Cease this fighting at once! As you bicker an army of orcs, goblins, and wargs are marching from Dol Guldur. They are now but a few miles away and will be here within the hour, if not sooner! If you value your lives, you will put aside your petty bickering and unite to defeat this common foe.”

Dain spit off to the side in disgust, but turned to Dis and Haeth to confer.

Gandalf locked eyes with Thranduil in a silent battle of will. A muscle ticked in the elvenking’s jaw, but finally he nodded his head and looked away. “Prepare for engagement!” Thranduil called. “Send out scouts and warn the humans in Dale. Make sure the borders of the Mirkwood remain unviolated.”

Looking over his shoulder at Dain, he added, “We’ll defend this side of the Valley for now. You dwarves may array yourselves however you like as long as you stay out of our way. However, I might suggest that you mass on the other side, thus trapping the dark ones between the vice of our armies.” He flicked his eyes up at Thorin, but turned away dismissively without saying anything. The elves quickly moved in some complicated pattern that hopelessly confused Billa, but somehow ended up with them arrayed in new lines along one side of the valley.

Dain, Dis, and Haeth didn’t look happy about it, but after a brief conversation together they took Thranduil’s advice. The dwarven armies gathered a bit farther down the crest of the hill. In the chaos, Billa lost sight of her new brother.

Because of the repositioning of the two armies, the dwarves were now closer to the ruin of Dale than the elves. Although he looked unhappy about it, Bard firmed his lips stubbornly and rode a horse over to where Dain sat directing his forces. A few minutes later her rode away and ordered his humans to mass up on the hilltop with the dwarves.

A small part of Billa felt relief that the elves, humans, and dwarves weren’t going to fight each other. But a larger part of her mind boiled with fear and apprehension that a battle was about to happen anyway and that she was the smallest person on the battlefield. She kept the handle of her sword near to hand as she scrambled after Gandalf.

He spoke briefly with an elf, stopped a human for a quick word, and then looked around impatiently. “Billa, where have you gotten to?”

“Right here, Gandalf. I’ve been right behind you the whole time,” she said, tripping forward to stand by his side.

He looked displeased. “Foolish girl! What are you still doing here, instead of somewhere safe and sensible?” the wizard demanded. “You’re just a hobbit, not a warrior.”

Billa felt her shoulders tighten. “And just where should I go? I don’t want to be a burden. Show me somewhere safe and I’ll go there, but everywhere seems dangerous right now.” Placing a hand over her heart, she said, “I know I’m not a warrior. However,” and suddenly words poured out of her mouth without her thinking them through, “I am your friend. Until we find somewhere safe, I’ll watch your back.” She was simultaneously terrified and proud of what she’d just offered.

Gandalf tousled her curls, “Dearest Billa… very well. I would be honored to have your protection and help. Stay close to me for now,” he drew his sword Glamdring as a horn sounded. “Although as soon as we find a better place you are staying put where you will be safe and can’t get into any trouble.” He sent her a warning look.

“Yes, Gandalf,” she said placatingly.

Sending her a quicksilver smile, he faced north and let his face fall to seriousness. Billa soon heard a menacing thrumming, the sound of a thousand marching feet approaching. Warg howls filled the air. She told the quivering of her stomach to stop. A minute later, the black ranks of the enemy appeared. Her knees momentarily lost their strength. They looked terrifying.

Flights of arrows darkened the sky like flocks of migrating birds. The front ranks of goblins fell in great swaths, but more kept coming, along with packs of wargs. The armies of elves, dwarves, and men advanced, forcing the enemy to fight on two fronts. For several long minutes the battle seemed like a stalemate, with neither side advancing or retreating.

Billa clutched her sword in sweaty hands and waited behind the lines with Gandalf, guiltily glad not to be close enough to actively fight. She kept glancing towards Erebor, looking for Thorin and her friends to come out to fight, but for some reason the gates stayed closed. No one came out. It worried her, but she only had so much attention to spare with the imminent threat of being attacked.

Despite their large numbers, the goblins and wargs were slowly being pressed back. Everything seemed to be going well. They were going to win!

Then another pack of wargs crested the hillside with hideous cries. It made Billa realize that she’d naively assumed that she’d already seen all the fighters that the enemy had to offer. Gandalf’s lack of surprise at their appearance told her that he’d known better than to be so optimistic.

The cries of the wargs almost hid a strange grumble and squeal of tortured rock coming from underground. Gandalf had seemed relatively stoic up to this point. But at hearing the new sound he whirled around to stare at the hillside with a pale face. He reached out and grabbed Billa by the shoulder. The sounds became louder and more dissonant with every passing second, until finally with a great explosion of rock several giant holes appeared in the walls nearest to Dale. The heads of giant were-worms hovered in the openings for a moment before disappearing with a clatter and hiss.

The dark holes gaped black in the hillside like punctures from a poisonous snake bite. Before she could find the breath to ask Gandalf what was going on, hordes of orcs, ogres, and even armored trolls came lumbering out like pus leaking from a septic wound. Billa cried out in horror as the monsters broke through the ranks of dwarves and men, slaughtering everyone in their path.

“Come,” Gandalf called urgently. “We have to get to Dale.” Swallowing hard, Billa unsheathed Sting and followed him.

Months of training, soul-deep stubbornness, and a bucketful of luck got her into Dale with only a few new bruises and nicks to show for her trouble. She didn’t want to think about the goblins she’d just killed and wounded. She’d deal with that later. At least she’d managed to protect Gandalf from getting a goblin’s blade in the back. Between Gandalf and Bard, the humans managed to rally their defenses long enough for elven reinforcements to arrive.

Out of the blue, Billa suddenly felt an amazing rush. It felt as if a great weight had lifted from her shoulders so she could stand up straight for the first time in weeks. As if the sun came out from behind a cloud and made everything clear and bright. As if all the dust had settled so the air rushed clean and fresh into her lungs.  She didn’t understand it. But it felt wonderful.

Curious, Billa climbed to the top of the wall to look out over the valley. But nothing out there could explain it. Things were not going well outside the city. People were still being slaughtered. The hordes of goblins and orcs seemed endless. As she watched, a group of tired dwarves and humans were slowly pressed back until they became trapped up against Erebor’s walls. It seemed like her side was losing.

Suddenly, the repaired gates of Erebor exploded outward in a shower of rocks! Out of the clouds of dust charged Thorin and his company! Billa screamed with delight as their charge broke the lines of orcs and turned the tide of battle in the valley.

As she watched with her heart in her throat, Billa noticed that Thorin had taken off the ostentatious golden armor. In fact, there wasn’t a stitch of gold anywhere on his body. He wore a simple suit of armor. His movements seemed fierce and sharp and present in a way she hadn’t seen since before they’d reached the mountain. She wanted to hope that his madness had broken, but she couldn’t be sure. How could she know without speaking to him? Without seeing his face? 

After routing the enemy in front of the gate, Thorin and Dain conferred together. They gestured up the mountainside to Ravenhill, where a series of strange flags had appeared during the battle. Gandalf joined her just in time to see Thorin, Dwalin, Balin, Kili, and Fili get into a wagon pulled by mountain goats and charge up the mountainside.

“Azog is probably up there, coordinating the troops,” Gandalf said darkly. “If they can destroy those flags, it will be much easier to route the enemy.” A sudden shower of debris heralded the approach of a rock-throwing troll accompanying a squadron of orcs. The weary humans down in the courtyard scattered. “Stay out of the way,” Gandalf ordered before running down the steps.

Seconds later, several elves appeared out of nowhere to surround her on the wall, making her jump several inches into the air. They began firing down at the orcs. Bard led a squad of humans into the courtyard to back up Gandalf. Feeling useless, Billa pressed back against the wall.

However, Billa had to do something when she saw an elf hit by a thrown dagger. The female elf reeled back and hit her head on the wall going down, dislodging the dagger. Billa ran over to pull her out of the way of the other archers. The elf’s head wound bled fiercely, matting her lovely blond hair. “You are going to be fine,” Billa comforted as she grimly bound the female’s wounds.

“Thank you, little one,” the elf whispered faintly through pain-tightened lips. Several orcs gained the walls and the elven archers turned to engage. Patting the female elf’s leg soothingly, Billa stood up and brandished her sword in defense, just in case. She probably wouldn’t last long against an orcs and trolls who could defeat Gandalf and the rest of these elves, but she would surely try, even if her hands were trembling. Luckily, the enemy was defeated without the need for her help.

It took a few minutes more for the elves to gather back together. One came up to Billa with a nod of thanks and lifted the injured elf into his arms. “I saw healer Nestor over there about ten minutes ago,” Billa said, gesturing west. The elf thanked her and strode off with his injured friend.

Billa looked down at the blood underneath her fingernails and released a shaky breath. Hobbits were not meant for battle. She didn’t want to be here, she wanted to be home.

Wetly she laughed when she realized that she could disappear if she just put on her ring. It was very tempting. Perhaps she’d take Gandalf up on his offer of finding a safe place and then she’d literally disappear for a while. She didn’t want to die.

But what if everyone got slaughtered but her because she was invisible and she ended up alone in the middle of a mass grave? Would she even be able to escape by herself? Unable to bear such imaginings any longer, she looked around for Gandalf.

She saw him down below talking gravely to several elves and humans. Warily Billa made her way down, stepping gingerly around the dismembered arm of an orc at the base of the staircase. Two dead humans lay against the wall with their bellies and faces chopped open. She recognized one of them from breakfast. Billa almost threw up. Holding a hand over her mouth she swallowed hard.

Breathing in and out of her nose in an attempt to control her uneven breathing and roiling stomach, Billa reached into her pocket and desperately clutched at her acorn. It focused her, helped her to calm down. Life will go on, she reassured herself. Even in the midst of these horrible things, there is always hope. This evil is but a momentary, horrible shadow, but the clouds will pass, sunlight will return, and green things will grow. Life will go on. It will.

Thranduil rode by on his elk, but stopped when hailed by Gandalf. He didn’t look happy. Billa missed the start of their conversation, but it looked like an argument. She quickened her pace.

“You can’t leave. The dwarves are about to be overrun. Thorin is up on Ravenhill where the second army is about to arrive. Send your forces to halt their advance. Warn Thorin,” Gandalf demanded.

“If you want him warned, go ahead,” Thranduil said curtly, his elk taking dancing footsteps from too tight a grip on the reins, “but too much elvish blood has already been lost to this place. I will give it no more.” Turning away sharply, he left.

“Thranduil!?” Gandalf cried desperately, but the elven king did not heed him.

The wizard clenched his fists for a moment and then turned to focus grimly on Bard. “You have to make sure your men don’t break when they see the second army appear. The chance of victory is already slim against such odds, but if they turn and run they will most certainly be slaughtered and what remains of this town razed to the ground! I have more allies coming to help, but we need to buy them more time.”

“What is going on?” Billa demanded, looking back and forth between Bard, Gandalf, and the disappearing Thranduil.

Bard rubbed his forehead, overwhelmed, and flicked a hand to Gandalf to answer. The gray wizard’s shoulders stooped as he turned to Billa. “Another army of orcs and goblins is coming from behind that peak,” he gestured to the high point holding the enemies’ flags. “It is led by Bolg, son of Azog, and will be here any minute.”

“But that’s where- that’s where Thorin’s going. He and the others, I saw them going up there to try and take down the flags. Thorin’s up there,” Billa repeated anxiously, starting to understand what Gandalf and Thranduil had been arguing about.

“They are riding into a trap,” Bard said bleakly. “I am sorry, but I cannot spare anyone to go and warn them either. It seems death will find us all today, some merely sooner rather than later. There is no hope.”

“No,” Billa said on a huff, “no I refuse to believe that. I- I won’t.” Falling to her knees, she scrambled over to a raised patch of earth surrounded by a rough, cracked circle of bricks. Using her bloody fingernails, she clawed at the cold ground until she’d scraped out a hole a few inches deep. If some of her own blood mingled with the dirt, well, it seemed only fitting, a spilling of her choice rather than the theft of her lifeblood soon to occur.

“What are you doing?” questioned Gandalf as he and Bard gave her looks of concern that she’d cracked and gone mad.

They might be right. She felt a little mad. Billa’s breathing was too fast, but she couldn’t seem to care. She pulled out her acorn.

“What is that?” Bard asked.

Billa held the acorn up between her thumb and forefinger. “This is a promise. This is memory. This is life. Long after we are gone and this day of evil is forgotten, this tree will grow and sprout leaves in the sun. It will provide shade for the weary and house generations of birds in its branches to sing and love and eat and grow. There is not only death. Life goes on. There is hope. This is my hope.”

Wiping away her tears with dirt-stained fingers, she placed the acorn in the ground and tenderly patted the soil back over it protectively. Life would endure. She would hold to that. Sniffing wetly, she stood up and wiped her face again.

Just then, she heard a twitter. Jasper, her little thrush friend, flew up. Blood spattered his beak and claws. She’d seen birds attacking the eyes of goblins and wargs. Jasper must have been one of them. He hovered over her newly planted acorn and with a dainty lift of his tail, pooped right on top of it.

“Fertilizer,” he trilled. “I have hope for life and new trees too.” Then he flew off.

There was a hush of silence. Then Gandalf let loose a large guffaw. All three of them began laughing, though if it was touched with a hint of hysteria, no one mentioned it. It only lasted a moment, but Billa felt much better.

Gandalf sighed and slapped his thighs in resolution. “We all needed that, my dear hobbit. But come! Let me get you to the great hall before the next big battle starts. It is the best I can offer for now. You can wait out the rest of it with the other women and children.”

Blowing out a steady breath, Billa looked up at Gandalf straight in the eyes. “I’m going to go and warn Thorin about the other army.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Gandalf shook his head firmly, “you’ll be slaughtered.”

“I’m not asking for permission, Gandalf,” Billa said with a faint smile.

He looked down at her, face creased unhappily. “I am needed here.”

“I know,” she nodded. “But I won’t be seen, don’t worry. Luck to us both, and to you Bard.” Turning, she jogged away down the lane and around the corner. The enemy’s base of operations was closer to Dale than to Erebor, so she still had a chance of catching her friends before it was too late. Nevertheless, she’d have to hurry. Looking up at the looming Ravenhill, Billa took out her ring, put it on her finger, and disappeared from view.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The menacing flags of the enemy seemed almost alive, looming like vultures eyeing a dying animal. Her instincts screamed at her to run away. Yet she had to go there. She had to warn Thorin and her friends.

Skirting a group of fighters, Billa blessed the ring again for making her invisible. Gandalf had been right. She’d be dead by now without it.

However, even as she ran up the hillside, she feared that her simple warning wouldn’t be enough to save her friends. Sometimes the evil felt too big and she felt too small. But she had to try. She had to.

Suddenly, a circular blade spun through the air right in front of her face. Wide-eyed, Billa leapt back and watched as it bounced off the rock wall, sliced through the throats of two goblins, and slapped back into the palm of Thorin’s sister, Dis! The dwarf female fought right down the hillside, accompanied by Haeth, Tosi, and Gimli. The four of them faced off against a group of goblins and looked to be fighting them off easily.

Billa had an idea.

Slipping off her ring, she called out, “Dis! Up here!”

Dis looked up, startled, just as Haeth smashed in the head of a goblin about to stab her in the back. Wincing in apology, Billa waved. Holding a finger up in a request for time, Dis placed her chakrum back on her belt and drew her dagger and sword.

Letting loose a hair-raising, undulating cry, Dis charged back into the fray. She moved like a whirlwind of death, never still, always slashing. While Tosi and Gimli each took out one goblin, and Haeth three, Dis managed to slaughter the other five. Billa gulped hard, reminding herself to never make the dwarrow female mad.

The four dwarves climbed up the hillside to the narrow ledge Billa waited on. Haeth stepped forward with an angry frown, “What are you doing out here all alone?”

Billa brushed away his concern. “I need you. Your kin are up at the flag tower about to get ambushed. They went to take out Azog and the flags, but they don’t realize that another army is coming in from the other side. We have to warn them to get out!”

“Right,” Dis snarled, turning and gesturing for everyone to follow her charge.

The four dwarves and Billa ran up the mountainside, but despite her best efforts and lack of heavy armor, Billa found herself falling behind. Hobbits weren’t really made for sprinting. Haeth looked back at her in concern. She sent him an apologetic look and tried to run faster. The thinner air in the mountains was making it hard for her to breathe.

Suddenly, Haeth slowed down until he jogged next to Billa. She looked over in confusion, only to squeak in shock a moment later when he swept out his arm and flung her up onto his back without a by-your-leave next to one of his warhammers. Then he put his head down and surged forward again, rejoining the rest of the group. Billa wanted to protest, but she also didn’t want to be left behind. So she kept herself as still as possible on Haeth’s back and tried to think small thoughts.

Finally they reached the top of the peak. A menacing series of broken, decrepit towers loomed above them. Dark windows watched them from all sides. It made her skin crawl. Overgrown paths twisted around the mountaintop, bordered by crumbling switchbacks and steep drop-offs. There must be an underground spring up here too, because several slushy streams fed into an iced over pond that ran right off the cliff into a frozen waterfall.

Billa looked around but couldn’t see her friends anywhere. Then from above they heard an unearthly scream. They all tensed and looked up. A small goblin flew through the air with arms flailing. The sound cut off with a crunch when he hit the ground. Gimli prodded it with a boot, but the goblin didn’t twitch. Probably dead, she thought with a queasy gulp.

They jogged around the corner and up the path towards where the goblin had come from. A clearing opened up with Dwalin and Thorin in the middle, just finishing off the last few goblins. One darted around Thorin in a bid to escape. The goblin was so busy watching Thorin and Dwalin that he didn’t notice the rest of them until it was too late. Tosi met him with a blade in the gut, then pushed him off and to the side with her boot.

Thorin blinked and stared at them in shock. “Sister?” he said softly. Dwalin strode forward and headbutted Dis with glee. She laughed. Thorin grinned.

Then he saw Haeth slide Billa down off his back. Billa grabbed Haeth’s offered hand for a moment to steady her balance before letting go. Thorin scowled at Haeth and then transferred his glare to Billa. “What are you doing up here? With him?”

“Watch your tone,” Haeth snarled, moving his hand to Billa’s shoulder and pulling her back protectively.

Billa patted Haeth’s hand soothingly and told her heart to suck it up. “We came to warn you, Thorin. This is an ambush! A second army is marching from Gundabad . They’ll be here any minute now!”

Thorin’s eyes widened in horrified understanding. “You have to get out of here, we all do.”

Before he could say more, Dis snapped out, “Where are my sons?”

“I sent them into the tower to scout it out,” he said, gesturing to the crumbling building looming above, “but-”

Before he could say more, Dis turned and ran into the building, followed by Haeth.

Thorin swore in khuzdul.

“We can’t wait out in this courtyard,” Dwalin said. “It’s too exposed.”

“Where should we go then?” Gimli asked.

“Perhaps you should look up instead of going anywhere,” a deep, cruel voice called.

Raising her eyes, Billa was horrified to see Azog standing on a ledge up above. A group of orcs grinned down at them as Azog brandished a bleeding Fili in his fist. Blood matted Fili’s blond locks. His limbs hung limp. However, his eyes held a mix of terror, apology, and trembling bravery.

Billa couldn’t breathe. Then she realized that someone else was missing. Frantically she searched the crumbling balcony for sign of Kili, but didn’t see him. Of course, that meant he might already be dead, but she refused to believe that. She couldn’t.

“I will kill you,” Thorin growled.

The pale orc licked his lips and smiled. “Today will be a good day. Today, I will end the line of Durin. I will start with this one, savoring the terror and helplessness in your eyes as you watch. Then I will come down and bathe in your blood. My men will have a feast this night.” Azog smiled sadistically and drew back the blade strapped to his mutilated arm, preparing to impale Fili.

Billa screamed silently, afraid to make a sound lest she somehow make it worse.

Then a voice broke forth. “And just who might you be, who dares to threaten the line of Durin?” Gimli strode forward cockily and jammed his thumbs behind his belt buckle. Looking back, he whispered, “This is just like with the trolls. I got this.”

Azog paused in surprise. “How can you not know my name?” Then he looked Gimli over with calculation, followed by contempt. “You’re not a Durin, nor even long from your mother’s teat.”

Sucking in a deep breath, Gimli scowled. Then he blustered, “I am a great dwarven champion and you don’t know my name, so obviously you aren’t that knowledgeable either. I will give my name so that you may give yours to the dwarf about to kill you!”

Dwalin twitched but didn’t interrupt him. Billa realized that Gimli was buying time. That’s what he meant about the trolls. But there was no Gandalf coming to break a rock and bring the sunrise this time.

Azog and his orcs laughed in disbelief at Gimli’s words, but it didn’t put a dent in the young dwarf’s confidence. “I am Gimli, son of Gloin,” he shot a look to the side and added, “and of Tosi.” Her stoic mien cracked for just a moment with a faint smile. “And now I ask again,” Gimli said, “just who might you be?”

Azog’s amusement turned abruptly into anger. “This grows tiresome,” the orc spat. Then he bellowed, “I am Azog the Defiler!” His voice echoed in the silence, hurting Billa’s ears. “I will enjoy slitting your throat, upstart. But first, I will kill this dwarf and then annihilate the rest of the line of Durin. Enjoy this moment, Thorin Durin’ s son, for it will be one of your last.”

Then Azog lifted Fili again and brought his bladed arm up to impale his back with no more theatrics. But as his arm stabbed forward, the air whistled. Suddenly a chakrum embedded itself into the bicep of Azog’s bladed arm! He shrieked and dropped Fili. Staggering back, Azog ripped out the chakrum with a great geyser of blood. Swallowing gorge, Billa could see a great flap of muscle and skin hanging down. The embedded sword blade in Azog’s arm squelched out and fell to the ground.

Fili teetered on the edge of the precipice for a moment before tipping forward and falling off the edge. Thorin cried out in agonized denial as he fell, echoed by another voice off to the side. But out of nowhere a tattooed arm reached out from a broken window and grabbed Fili’s falling body. Billa recognized Haeth. He almost got pulled out of the window by the momentum, but with red face and bulging arms he managed to jerk Fili to a stop. Clasping Fili to his chest, Haeth pulled them both inside and disappeared from view.

Finally able to breathe again, Billa looked over where the other voice had come from and saw Kili racing across a walkway up above with vengeance burning in his face. He was alive! However, her celebration cut short when a huge orc jumped out and attacked him.

“Bolg,” Thorin cursed, looking back and forth between the despised father and son. Flights of war bats began flying overhead. Before he could decide who to attack, the choice was taken from him. A squad of orcs burst from the building.

“Use your ring and hide!” Thorin ordered Billa. “Keep yourself safe!” Then he lifted his sword and charged into the fray. The rest of the dwarves followed him.

Billa tried to pull out her ring, but for some reason her fingers couldn’t seem to get it out of her pocket. The ring had somehow become wedged in a corner. “Curses!” she gasped, dancing back out of the way of a falling orc body. She tripped backwards and fell around the corner.

When she managed to scramble to her feet, she found herself face to face with two equally startled orcs. Going purely by instinct, she hopped forward, pivoted, and kicked them both right behind the knees. Just like in her practices with Fili and Kili, they fell down onto their backs with shocked cries, even dropping their weapons. But unlike her roughhousing with the boys, this time it was life or death.

Billa unsheathed Sting as quickly as possible and stabbed at them. Her glowing blade easily pierced the first orc’s chest, killing him quickly. However, the second orc rolled so her blade only scraped down his shoulder. Then he scrambled away and lunged for his sword. Jumping forward, Billa knocked him back to the ground and clambered astride his back. He screamed, twisted, and stabbed back into her thigh with a dagger. Crying out in pain, she lifted her blade and stabbed him in the back once, twice, thrice, just to make sure he stayed dead.

Then she dragged herself off his back and sat against the wall panting. Closing her eyes for just a second, she gathered her courage. Then she opened her eyes and with shaky hands pulled out a bandage from her coat, grateful she’d thought to carry so many today.

Gingerly she bunched up her skirt and ripped the hole in her leggings from the dagger even wider. Gritting her teeth, she quickly pulled out the dagger from her thigh, unable to stifle her cry of agony. Sobbing, she pushed down on the wound with her bandage to try and stop the bleeding. Then she took a second length of cloth and wound it around the first to hold it in place.

Luckily the dagger had been small and only pierced her outer thigh. It had missed the bone and any major blood vessels. Despite those pieces of good fortune, it still hurt horribly!

The sounds of battle from around the corner had faded. Putting her fingers back into her pocket, she managed to get her ring out this time. She slipped it on with a sigh of relief. Then she pushed herself to her feet and limped back around the corner.

But the courtyard was empty.

Great, now what? she wondered.

In the distance she heard a female voice scream, “Kili, watch out!”

Although something wanted her to go right when she pictured Thorin, she didn’t quite trust it. She would follow the female voice and try to help Kili instead. Maybe Thorin would be there too.

Billa went left, going up several paths and climbing a staircase until she came to a small overlook. Down below and to the side she could see Kili. Tauriel the elf captain fought fiercely by his side as they tried to take down Bolg. But the huge orc had metal plating embedded in his skin which acted as armor. Several times Billa saw Tauriel’s daggers strike, only to skitter away across the metal. Kili looked injured too. He seemed to be moving slower than usual. His blade also had trouble penetrating the orc’s defenses.

Then Bolg struck hard at Tauriel with his sword. Crossing her daggers in front of her chest desperately, she barely held the parry. Bolg pushed back, flinging Tauriel several feet away before swinging back around to counter Kili’s attack.

Batting Kili’s sword to the side, Bolg flipped his blade around faster than someone that large should be capable of. Bolg’s sword sliced through the air and Billa watched in horror as the blade slashed across Kili’s body. The dark-haired dwarf looked down in shock before crumpling to the ground.

Billa cried out in concert with Tauriel. The elven warrior raised her bow and loosed a shaft, but Bolg managed to deflect it into the air with his sword. Billa scrambled forward and began climbing down over the edge of the cliff face because she had to try and do something to help Kili out. However, before she could get very far something heavy knocked into her and tumbled her down the cliff wall. She landed hard at the bottom and lay there stunned.

It took her several minutes to come to her senses and catch her breath. Finally able to breathe, Billa realized that she’d been knocked down by a dead war bat. Tauriel’s arrow must have hit it. However, the bat’s body lay wrapped around her legs and thighs and Billa wasn’t strong enough to get it off, no matter how hard she pushed and pulled.

Looking up, Billa saw that Dis had shown up while Billa had been stunned. Dis and Tauriel fought Bolg side-by-side. Tauriel had a bloody scratch down the side of her face but otherwise seemed fine.

Billa wanted to take off her ring and call for help. However she realized that not only was she invisible, but the only people who’d help her were currently fighting for their lives. Frustrated, Billa sat back and resigned herself to being a bystander until she could get a bit more strength back. Then she’d try pushing the bat off again.

As she watched the battle, Billa couldn’t help but catch her breath when Dis dropped down, rolled through Bolg’s spread legs, and chopped him in the back with a long-handled axe. Despite Bolg’s metal protections, her blade sliced through and gouged a bloody furrow in his flesh, his first major wound. Screaming, Bolg twisted around, grabbed Dis by the hair, and bashed her head back against the wall.

Grabbing the stunned Dis’s chin in his other hand, Bolg went to snap her neck. However before he could, Tauriel jumped up onto his back, reached over, and stabbed him in the chest! Unfortunately her blade only penetrated half-way before screeching to a halt on another piece of metal. She didn’t have the weight or leverage to push it in farther.

Bolg roared, reached back and grabbed Tauriel, flipping her over his shoulder and slamming her into the ground. Then he staggered back a few paces. Panting, Bolg touched his bleeding chest and then his back. He grimaced.

Then he lifted his fingers to his lips and licked off the blood. He looked down at Tauriel and bared his teeth. “I’m going to make sure the Durin boy is dead, decapitate the other dwarf, and then I’m going to spend all night carving you up until you can’t even scream anymore, she-elf.”

Tauriel tried to stagger to her feet, but she must have been injured in her fall. She dropped heavily back to the earth. Red hair cascaded across her face, hiding her expression. But she didn’t give up. Slowly she pushed herself off the ground with one, white-knuckled hand. She raised her bloody face and glared with gritted teeth. Grunting, she levered herself up to one knee and then back to her feet until she stood hunched over in front of Kili’s prone form, one arm wrapped around her middle and the other clutching a dagger defiantly.

It was a heart-breaking sight. Billa pushed frantically at the heavy bat carcass on her legs, ignoring the bolts of pain shooting from her wound, but the bat still wouldn’t budge.  She couldn’t even find a nearby rock to throw. She felt powerless.

Bolg grinned evilly and advanced. Only his stiff gait reflected the open wound in his back. Raising his sword, he sliced down at the wounded Tauriel.

Suddenly, another blade superimposed itself between them, wielded by none other than Legolas! The elven prince swirled Bolg’s sword to the side, forcing the orc to stagger sideways. Then Legolas kicked Bolg right where Dis had chopped open his back.

Screaming, Bolg fell forward and began sliding off the edge of the cliff. Lashing out with one long arm, the orc grabbed Legolas’s leg to halt his momentum, but the elf was too light. Both of them slid over the side and down onto a lower elevation. After a few moments, Billa began hearing the renewed clash of their blades, but then the sound faded and disappeared as the fight moved away.

Tauriel looked relieved as she lowered her blade. The elf glanced over at Dis. Billa followed her gaze. The dwarrowdam sat against the wall with legs splayed out, dazed, blood dripping down her face, blinking slowly as she stared over at Kili in worry. Thank goodness she lived.

“Do you need immediate treatment?” Tauriel asked with a controlled voice.

Dis reached up and smeared away some of the blood coating her face with a grimace. “Don’t worry about me. Help Kili,” she ordered weakly but firmly.

Needing no further prompting, Tauriel sheathed her dagger and limped over to Kili. Slowly she lowered herself to his side. He lay very still and pale. She reached out to touch him, but then froze, biting her lip.

Tauriel’s serene façade cracked. “Oh my love, my other half, my soul, please do not leave me,” she begged with raw emotion. Dropping her hand to his chest.

Hearing her voice, Kili blinked open his eyes and raised a weak hand to her face, tracing his fingers down her cheek. Tauriel grabbed his drooping hand, kissed it, and then placed it back against her face.

“Amrâlimê,” Kili whispered with blood on his lips. “My soulmate,” he sighed.

“Yes,” she confirmed shakily. A tear trailed down Tauriel’s cheek. “I never knew the feeling of death until I met you, because I’ve felt it keenly each day we’ve been apart. I’d rather die for true than live one more day without you. I have defied my people, even threatened my king to come find you. Don’t say I’m too late. I love you. You are the heart of me, dearer than purest starlight. Please do not leave me. Please,” Tauriel begged as more tears dripped off her nose and chin.

“Shh,” he comforted. “Please don’t cry. Beautiful, strong women should never have to cry. I have too much to live for if I have you. I just need to rest a bit and then I’ll be fine. I plan to live in love with you from now on. We’ll be so happy we’ll drive everyone around us crazy. You’ll see,” Kili said with a weak laugh that turned into a cough.

“You’re still bleeding and can hardly move, you idiot,” she said with a wet laugh. “But I’ll fix that. I will,” she reached into her beltpouch and pulled out bandages. With quick, efficient movements, she cut the straps on his armor and removed the large pieces. Then she sat him up and rolled his chain mail up to his shoulders. Next she spit on a handful of herbs, which she slapped on the slice across his chest despite his whining, and began winding the bandages around him while chanting softly and fervently beneath her breath. Each time she bent over she gasped slightly.

“You are hurt too,” Kili accused unhappily when she finished and tied off the cloth, letting the chainmail fall back down and lowering him to lie back.

“Just a cracked rib,” she dismissed, tying off another field dressing on his thigh.

“But-,” he fussed.

Tauriel cut him off with a hard look. “Hush. I’ve dealt with this sort of injury before. I’ll bind it and move carefully. I’ll be fine.”

Suddenly she cocked her head to the side. Then she looked up in alarm. Flowing to her feet, she cocked an arrow to her bow.

A few seconds later Haeth came hustling around the corner with an unconscious Fili slung over his shoulder. He skidded to a stop, grimaced, and brandished his warhammer at Tauriel. The elf sighed, lowered her bow and sheathed her arrow. However, she kept one hand discreetly hovering near the handle of her long dagger.

“I’ve bandaged Kili’s wounds, but I haven’t had a chance to check on the other dwarf,” Tauriel said carefully.

“I’m fine, don’t fuss,” Dis grumbled unhappily a moment before leaning to the side and throwing up. Forced by necessity, Haeth gave Tauriel a nod, tightened his lips and rushed over to his wife’s side. He lowered Fili to the ground carefully and then began checking over his concussed wife. Tauriel stayed standing guard, bringing her bow back up and placing an arrow loosely in the strings.

At this point, Billa felt justified in taking off the ring and finally interrupting. “Help! Please help!” she called out. “I’m stuck. Over here!”

Tauriel came over but then stopped and just stared down at her for a moment. “So,” the elf said, “my eyes didn’t deceive me that day. There was a halfling helping the dwarves escape our halls.”

“A hobbit, actually, but yes, yes I broke them out. I admit it,” Billa said from flat on her back beneath a dead bat. “Sorry for the inconvenience, except for not really because they’re my friends and you imprisoned them. Can you please get this great big bloody bat off my legs!? Please?”

Lips twitching, Tauriel carefully crouched down. Grasping the bat’s leg, she pulled it off of Billa. The hobbit found herself dragged slightly before rolling over to untangle her legs completely.

“Are you alright?” the elf asked.

“Yes, thank you,” Billa said primly, standing up stiffly and dusting herself off. “Billa Baggins, at your service. Thank you for saving Kili and helping me up.”

The elf grinned, making her much more approachable and friendly looking. “My pleasure. You may call me Tauriel.” Then the elf pulled her arrow out of the bat’s body with a disturbing squelch, wiped it clean on her thigh, and put it back in her quiver.

“You okay over there, Billa?” Haeth called out over his shoulder in concern, looking mistrustfully at Tauriel.

“I’m fine. How’s Dis and Fili?” she asked, trying to ignore the angry pain in her thigh as she walked over.

Haeth finished winding a cloth around Dis’s head and sat back. He shushed Dis when she would have responded for herself. “Dis has a concussion and is probably still unsteady, but she can walk and fight if she has to. Fili is alive but,” he stumbled as his voice thickened, “pretty cut up. We need to get him some treatment as soon as possible.”

Tauriel went back to Kili and went down next to him on one knee. She cut a length of cloth from the inside of her jacket and then wound it around her ribs, tying it tightly in front with a neat little bow. “Kili passed out,” she said curtly, probably to conceal her worry. “I can try to patch up Fili a bit, but we need to get everyone somewhere safer than this as soon as I’m done.”

Haeth grunted in consent and pointed out the worst of Fili’s wounds to the elf maiden. Frowning, she came over and scraped the last of the herbs from her little pouch. “Are you related?” she asked Haeth with a tilt of her head.

“He’s my son, Fili and Kili are both my sons, with Dis their mum,” Haeth said emotionally, the fierce dwarf wiping a tear from his eye.

Tauriel paused for a moment in surprise, then held out the hand holding the herbs. “You spit then, both of you. That’ll work even better. Think about how much you love him and want him to live as you do it. Get the herbs wet.” They both obeyed without a word of argument. Billa’s fastidious nature couldn’t help but grimace, though she would have let someone spit in her hand too to save Fili’s life.

After bandaging what she could with Haeth’s and Dis’s help, Tauriel sat back. “That’s all I can do. We need to either hole up somewhere or else make a break down the mountainside, though I’m not confident that we can make Dale with so many of us wounded.”

“There are more of us,” Billa said. Tauriel looked up and tilted her head in invitation to continue. “We don’t have everyone, but Thorin, Dwalin, Tosi, and Gimli are up here too. They could help us get down.”

“Legolas will be along soon too,” Tauriel added confidently. “That should be enough.”

“As long as any of them are still alive,” Haeth said grimly.

Billa flinched. “I have to believe they are.” She cast her gaze around until she saw a broken door. “You can hide out in there until Dis is a bit steadier. I’ll go and try to find someone. If I don’t come back,” her voice wobbled, “then you can try to make it down the mountain without me.”

“Absolutely not!” Haeth snapped out. “You need to stay here with the family.”

Warmth filled Billa’s chest. “I think I love you already too, my brother,” she said boldly, “but I have to find Thorin. I can’t help it. I have to.” She stepped back a few paces and pulled out her ring.

“You’ll be seen within five steps and cut down,” he said harshly, half-raising his hand as if to grab her.

“They can’t see me when I wear my ring,” she comforted waving it in the air for just a second before slipping it on. They all exclaimed in shock when she disappeared.

“I’ll bring help if I can. Stay safe!” she said. Then she hurried down the path and around the corner.

Placing her palm over her new tattoo, she thought of Thorin, of how it felt to feel his heat against her back as his fingers twisted through her curls. Of the look in his eyes when he smiled down at her but didn’t say a word. Her chest felt warm. It seemed colder when she looked up the path, so she started walking down.  

By following her intuition, she only had to clamber down the broken, crumbling pathways for a couple of minutes. Then she came out above the shore of the frozen waterfall and saw her friends down below. Dwalin was taking on two gruesomely scarred orcs by himself. Across the clearing, Thorin confronted the pale orc, Azog, with Tosi and Gimli at his side. Azog’s arm had a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around it and no weapons attached, but it didn’t seem to be slowing him down otherwise.

The three dwarves harried the huge orc, but he kept pivoting and swinging the huge mace in his hand to keep them scrambling. No matter what they did, they couldn’t seem to kill Azog. Thorin slashed him across his good arm, and then again along his leg, but Azog just shrugged it off. He barely seemed fazed.

Then Gimli tripped.

Fast as lightning, Azog dropped his mace and drew his sword, slashing straight for Gimli’s exposed throat. Thorin threw himself in front of the boy with a cry, sword swinging, but Azog dodged Thorin’s sword, twisted like a striking snake, and plunged his own blade into Thorin’s side. Billa cried out in shock and horror.

Thorin’s face convulsed with pain. Gritting his teeth, he raised his sword and rammed the hilt into the bloody stump of Azog’s arm. The pale orc yelped and jumped back, taking his blood-stained sword with him.

Gimli scrambled forward and swung his axe at Azog’s back, but the pale orc jumped out of the way. Thorin sat up, clutching a hand over his stab wound, but he didn’t stand up. He didn’t stand up.

Billa couldn’t see a way to get down the cliff unless she followed the path around the corner. But then she wouldn’t be able to see Thorin or her friends anymore. What if they died while she was gone? Because she wasn’t looking? It sounded ridiculous but she couldn’t bring herself to take her eyes off of them, just in case. If they died here, they deserved at least one friendly face besides the horror of Azog. She was being irrational and probably stupid, but she took off her ring and pocketed it, hoping Thorin would look up just once and see her standing there in support.

If only she could help! She had no bow and didn’t know how to use one even if she did. And despite the desperation fueling her body, she’d never be able to throw Sting with any sort of accuracy. The only things she’d ever thrown with confidence were horse chestnuts when playing the throwing version of conkers. She didn’t have conkers, but this was a mountain. Surely there were rocks!

Scouring the area around her feet, Billa picked up the first stone she saw with the right symmetry and size. Then she took a deep breath from her core and focused on her target, just like her da had coached her during all those games as a tween. Winding back her arm, she threw the stone as fast and far and hard as she could.

Azog turned his head at the last second, so the stone missed his nose. Instead it whacked right above his eye. He grimaced and turned a quick, malevolent glare in her direction. Although above him, she still took an involuntarily step back. At first she thought that her rock had done nothing, but then a dark, reddish-black line welled up on his brow and began dripping blood into his eye. He swiped at his face impatiently, but the blood kept flowing, seeping across his brow and into his eye.

Billa’s brief moment of triumph faded when she saw Dwalin stagger and go down beneath the body of a warg. She couldn’t help but catch her breath. His hand appeared wielding a dagger. It flashed once, then twice. A minute later the warg was heaved up and off to the side. Dwalin tried to stand up, but immediately fell back down coughing when his abused body refused to support him.

Meanwhile, Azog fought back and forth with Tosi and Gimli as the duo tried to keep the prone Thorin from further injury. Mother and son attacked the pale orc seamlessly, coordinating with almost no speech in patterns that kept the enemy frustrated in his goal of finishing off their king. Although Azog’s bloody stump now dripped blood across the battlefield, it wasn’t dripping fast enough to sap his strength. He’d swiped at the blood running into his eye several times, so at least that seemed to be bothering him, but once again not enough to help Tosi and Gimli defeat him. Billa began looking for another rock to throw, but everything nearby was either too small or too big.

A furious spate of chopping from Tosi momentarily broke through Azog’s defenses. The dwarrowdam’s axe broke through his armor and scored his side. Billa wanted to cheer! But then she realized that the blade had left only a shallow cut.

Fuming, Azog swung his sword in an arc from low to high. Tosi tried to dodge, but Azog still caught the edge of her arm with the flat of his blade. The blow spun her back and dropped her to the ground. Releasing a distressed scream, Gimli charged with his axe raised high above his head in a double-handed grip.

Azog pivoted to the side and lashed out with one massive, booted foot. It caught Gimli square in the chest, sending the boy soaring through the air until he crashed into the ice over the frozen river with a crack and rolled over the edge. White lines radiated out from where he’d hit the ice and water began to seep up through the cracks. However nothing else moved. Gimli did not climb back up over the side. Billa pressed one hand over her mouth to suppress a sob.

Finally her scrambling fingers found a rock the right size. Billa stood up and lifted her arm to throw, but had to jerk stop at the last moment. Tosi had heaved herself to her feet right between Billa and Azog, blocking Billa’s shot.

Tosi’s left arm hung limply by her side, as limp as Gimli’s body before it had fallen over the edge. But her right hand still worked. Reaching back, she pulled out her last axe. The dwarf ran forward, quiet as a mother’s patience, swift as a mother’s vengeance. She swerved to the side where blood still ran into Azog’s eye, clouding his vision. With a last burst of speed, Tosi skidded down beneath Azog’s frantically raised sword and embedding her axe into his braced thigh. She left it there and rolled to her feet.

Although Azog bellowed and staggered, he did not retreat. Instead, the pale orc dropped his sword and reached out, snatching Tosi by the throat and lifting her up high into the air. She reared back and jammed her boot down on the axe handle, sinking it in deeper. Azog screamed as his leg folded, but not before he threw her violently to the side. She tried to push herself stubbornly back to her feet, but her body had given all it had. Tosi folded to the earth, coughing and spitting blood.

When Billa looked back, Azog had managed to grab his sword and somehow stand back up. All of his weight rested on his good leg, but he just wouldn’t stay down. It wasn’t fair.

Then Thorin staggered up onto his feet.

He turned and looked straight up at Billa. Their eyes met for a brief, searing moment full of love and apology. Then Thorin faced forward again.

“Azog!” he shouted, pointing his sword at Azog. “This time, I’ll make sure you’re really dead,” Thorin growled, backing up slowly onto the frozen ice. A smear of red drops shadowed his steps.

Azog had been about the grab the axe handle sticking from his thigh, but at Thorin’s words his eyes flashed and refocused on his wounded enemy. He raised his sword and limped forward. Thorin saw his slow pace and smirked at him mockingly.

In response, Azog’s halting steps somehow turned into a charge. Azog slashed. Thorin parried, but the orc’s blade pressed down on his own, sliding him back on the ice. Unable to hold the block, the dwarf was forced down onto one knee. Thorin’s frantic eyes met Billa’s for a searing moment.

Not sure it would help, but unable to keep from doing something, Billa threw her rock. It struck Azog on the cheek, snapping his head to the side. The distraction was enough for Thorin to regain his balance. He pushed Azog’s weapon to the side and slid out, scrambling to his feet.

Suddenly an elven arrow whistled through the air and embedded itself into the gap between Azog’s neck and shoulder armor. The orc stumbled sideways on the ice, swaying, but still didn’t fall down. He looked over and bared his bloody teeth angrily, his breathing heavy. Billa saw Legolas standing on the other side of the waterfall, drawing another arrow into his bow aimed at Azog. At the elf’s feet lay Gimli, on his back but alive and clutching at the frozen ground with one hand and his axe handle with the other.

Then two orcs ran out around the corner, heading for Thorin and their leader. Azog sighed with what looked like relief, but it proved to be short lived. A bare second later Legolas killed the orcs with his arrows. Coldly focused, Legolas turned his scrutiny to Azog and reached for another arrow. However his fingers found only air. His quiver was empty.

Shouting a desperate battle cry, Thorin tossed his sword up into the air, catching the hilt as if it was a spear, and then threw it through the air! Azog desperately dodged the sword. It missed, falling to the ice at his feet, embedding with a quiver. Water began sloshing up around the pale orc’s feet, with large cracks radiating out from the sword.

Azog looked down, distracted just long enough for Thorin to lunge forward and rip Tosi’s axe out of Azog’s thigh with a hard yank. Screaming, the orc fell down onto his back with a mighty crash, breaking completely through the already cracking ice and disappearing beneath the water.

However, they were close to the shore where the river was yet shallow. Azog came to his feet, surging back up out of the water with a bubbling scream of rage. Yet the battle had finally taken its toll. Azog staggered, swiped clumsily at Thorin, missed, and stumbled back, falling to his knees in the icy water.

Thorin sprang forward, swinging his axe through the air. With a mighty shout he lodged the axe blade right into the side of Azog’s neck! The pale orc’s body jerked, ripping the axe handle from Thorin’s hands. For a moment, Billa feared that the fell creature might survive even this, but then the evil light dimmed from his eyes and his body sank slowly down into the water. The axe handle caught on the edge of the ice and canted his head sideways until finally stopping at a gruesome angle. Azog’s head and body only stayed attached by a bit of spine and a flap of skin.

Thorin took several staggering steps to the shore and then sank down onto solid ground. He rolled onto his back. Then he stopped moving. All of their enemies were dead, but Billa feared that her friends might be too. Legolas was bending down over Gimli. Dwalin and Tosi weren’t moving. She sent Thorin an anguished glance, but she couldn’t do anything else from up here. Billa turned and ran around the corner, following the trail down.

When she came running into the clearing a few moments later, she distantly noted that Gimli was sitting up and Legolas had his dagger raised in her direction, but her true focus lay with Thorin. Skidding to her knees by his side, she ignored the pain in her thigh and shook his shoulder roughly. “You better not be dead,” Billa threatened with no small amount of terror.

“Or you’ll do what, hobbit?” Thorin asked roughly, opening his eyes.

“Thank the maker!” Billa unconsciously praised the dwarrow way, collapsing across his chest, only to rear back when he gave a choked cry of pain. “I’m sorry!” she said, looking down in dismay at his blood-soaked side. He’d balled up the tail of his shirt and wedged it between the wound and his armor, but it was soaked through. Billa was all out of bandages. Grabbing his dagger, she cut off a piece of her undershirt, balled it up, and pressed it hard against his wound.

Thorin grunted, then gently placed his hand over her pressing fingers. “I’ve lost a lot of blood,” he said with gravel in his voice. “I might not make it, and-”

“Don’t talk like that,” Billa interrupted fiercely, pressing harder on the wound and refusing to meet his eyes.

He gasped, but didn’t relent. “I will talk. I need to… apologize. I have to. Billa, look at me,” he demanded.

Sniffling, Billa dragged her gaze up to his face and saw his blue eyes shining sincerely and openly for the first time since Laketown. He was cured of his gold madness, at least. She was glad of it, even if she could find nothing else good in this moment.

Thorin’s hand lifted, dragging a thumb along her wet cheek, then drifting over to her braid, stopping to finger her beads. “Let Haeth take care of you,” he said earnestly, letting his hand fall back to his side. “He and Dis will love you if you let them. The boys do already. I’m sorry that I brought you into such danger, that I failed you in so many ways,” he gasped wetly and paused to breathe a moment before continuing. Billa didn’t bother trying to wipe away the tears trailing down her cheeks. “I am sorry that I treated you so ill in Erebor, especially at the wall. You are a true friend and a good woman, better than I deserve. Your actions were right. I was… wrong. Please… forgive me.” He coughed harshly for a moment, closing his eyes to gather his strength again for breathing.

Tears dripped off Billa’s chin and spattered against his face. “Hush Thorin. Save your strength. We’re fine, don’t worry. Just focus on breathing and live. Just live.”

Visibly gathering his strength, Thorin opened his eyes, rolling them around until they found and focused tightly on Billa’s face, latching on as if her gaze could keep him living. She tried not to blink, just in case. He licked his lips, wet and salty from her tears. “Atmêlê,” he whispered tenderly. “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”*

Sobs shook Billa’s frame.

“I wanted to wait, play you harp music, but I should have given you more words,” Thorin whispered threadily. “From now until the end of time, my ghivashel, my marlel. I hope you knew, I should have said… marlelê.” Thorin’s voice trailed off into silence. His eyes hazed, drifted shut, and did not reopen.

“But I don’t  understand, I don’t know! I don’t speak Khuzudul! You have to wake up and keep talking, keep explaining!” Billa cried. “Please,” she begged brokenly through her tears.

The sound of flapping overhead made her look up. “Look! The eagles are coming, the eagles!” She looked back down, but his features remained slack.

“I love you. Please don’t leave me alone. Please Thorin. Please,” she sobbed through swollen eyes, leaning down to kiss his mouth and cheeks through her tears.

His chest rose and fell but shallowly. Billa took one quivering breath, then another. Nothing changed. She squeezed Thorin’s hand.

Then she sat up. Billa wiped her dripping nose and the tears from her puffy face. She didn’t have time to sit around weeping. There was work to do. Looking around, she suppressed more tears and desperately searched for a way to keep Thorin alive.

Across the courtyard, Gimli and Legolas were huddled around Tosi. She saw Dwalin stumble grimly to his feet and begin limping towards them. Tosi sat up with a little help, accepted a careful hug from her son, and allowed him to start treating her injuries. Legolas handed Gimli something and stepped back.

“Legolas,” Billa called hoarsely.

The elf turned and cocked his head, blond hair still not tangled despite the fighting.

“Please, if you have any healing skills, I need your help with Thorin,” she begged.

The lithe elf immediately strode over and crouched down, taking in Thorin’s injuries with a quick glance. He pulled out a small tin of yellow paste. This he smeared on Thorin’s wounds. Then he began binding them with fresh bandages, requesting her help occasionally to hold things in place.

As she helped, Billa kept one hand on Thorin’s chest to feel the reassuring beat of his heart and the up and down movement of his chest. Dwalin finally made his way over to them. He dropped down heavily at Thorin’s feet. Looking at his friend and King, he whispered something mournful in Khuzdul. Then he looked out over the battlefield with a grim, heavily lined face. At least their side seemed to be winning now, but his mind, like Billa’s, was probably more focused on the injured dwarf lying so still next to them.

A few moments later, Tosi and Gimli came over, leaning heavily on each other for support. They stood there swaying. “I’m afraid if we sit down, we won’t be getting back up again,” Tosi said huskily.

Finally Legolas sat back on his heels and looked up. “If he hasn’t lost too much blood already, that might hold him,” Legolas said.

“Thank you, Legolas.” Then she gestured, “Tauriel is with some of my friends just up the path. She’ll be looking for you.”

Nodding his head, Legolas stood. “Thank you, but before I leave, may I ask your name? You seem to have me at an advantage.”

“Oh, I do beg your pardon,” Billa said, blushing and bowing her head apologetically. She realized that too much spying had made her treat him rather familiarly considering they’d never formally met. “Billa Baggins of the Shire, pleased to meet you.”

“And I you, even in such trying circumstances.” He bowed gracefully and then turned to leave, but just then Tauriel herself came around the bend, followed by Haeth and Dis dragging a sled made of a large shield and several lengths of rope holding Fili and Kili.

“Legolas,” Tauriel called out joyfully, rushing forward with a spate of elvish blessing his continued good health.

Striding forward quickly, Legolas’s face lit up as he replied in kind. Then he paused and looked her over. Reaching down, he gently touched the gash on her face in quiet concern.

“I’ll be fine,” she reassured him. “Just a few cuts and some cracked ribs. We’ve both had worse from clearing out spider nests back in the early days.” She clapped him on the shoulder and winked.

Legolas turned, so Billa couldn’t see what he did next, but whatever it was made Tauriel laugh. But then from one moment to the next her face crumpled from laughter into tears. Stepping forward, Tauriel embraced Legolas tightly, whispering something against his chest that made him look down at her with aching sadness for a moment before he hid the expression behind a serene façade.

“I’m sure he’ll be fine with you looking out for him. And you won’t miss me too much,” Legolas murmured, “because I will make sure to see you often, no matter what my father says. Haven’t I proven that? Now come,” he said with a small smile as she stepped back and wiped off her face, “if we are going to save these dwarves from themselves, especially that hopeless soulmate of yours, we had better get started.” Tauriel laughed again and ignored the scowls of all the dwarves who were still conscious.

The group began discussing various plans to get all of the wounded down safely, but before they could implement any of them, Balin appeared. “I see I’m too late to join in on the fight,” Balin panted, out of breath. “But I managed to acquire a second chariot just down the way that should fit all of you if you are interested in a speedy exit.” He looked at Thorin, Fili, and Kili with unhappy concern, then at the bandages and blood on the rest of them. “I’m sure Oin’s over at Dain’s healing tents by now. We should get the rest of you there posthaste.”

“An excellent idea,” Billa said heartily. “Let us all leave this foul place!”

Legolas had reacquired several arrows form dead orcs around the courtyard and so acted as the guard for their stumbling party of wounded. Luckily the goat-pulled chariot only took a few minutes to reach. They encountered no orcs or goblins along the way. Most of them were in retreat.

Getting everyone into the chariot was difficult. They barely all fit. Billa ended up crouched over the too-pale Thorin. She tried not to put pressure on either his wounds or hers. Balin drove the chariot through steep, harrowing turns, barely avoiding tipping them over too many times for Billa’s poor constitution.

Legolas ended up squished between Tosi and Gimli. When asked, Legolas explained that the wounded Bolg was swiftly dispatched, allowing him to rescue Gimli from where he dangled on the wall clutching a spur of rock. Gimli seemed half infuriated to be saved from falling to death by an elf and half admiring of his savior. Legolas seemed equally conflicted, bouncing from annoyed and arrogant to unwillingly amused and charmed by Gimli’s chatter. Poor Tosi spent most of the ride with her head down and eyes closed, trying to ignore the jostling ride and strange banter.

But finally they reached the valley. They found a series of tents set up by the dwarves to deal with the wounded. Balin drove them straight to the door of the outermost tent. As soon as the chariot stopped, Dwalin began shouting for healers. “The King is wounded, I need help now!” he roared.

Oin came running out, Billa was relieved to see, followed by a squad of very efficient dwarrows to help get everyone out of the chariot. Gloin came running around the corner a second later, shouting for his wife and son. They had a touching reunion and then the family bustled into the tent together, Tosi categorically refusing to be carried by her husband.

Billa found herself shunted to the side as dwarves she didn’t know made off with her wounded friends. Slowly she climbed out of the chariot and to the ground by herself. Exhaustion dragged at her limbs. She felt disoriented and lonely. Arms folded around herself, she tried to find the energy to figure out what to do with herself next.

The two elves stood talking off to the side. In a camp of dwarves with dwarf-sized tents, they stood out. “I need to go see how my father and our people fare,” Legolas said to Tauriel, already half-turned to leave.

Tauriel nodded, but made no move to go with him. “I have to stay with Kili. He’s my home for now, wherever life takes us. Please let me know how everyone fares when you have a chance. I don’t know if your father will forgive me or let me come back, but tell him I …” she struggled for a moment before sighed heavily.  “Never mind. If I get the chance, I will tell him myself.” She looked up at Legolas and quirked her lips, “Or you could make up something really good for me. That works too.”

“I still have to get back into his good graces myself,” Legolas reminded her. Billa wondered what he meant, but didn’t think it appropriate to bring attention to her eavesdropping to ask. “Be happy and,” he touched her on the shoulder and looked into her eyes very seriously, “if you can’t stomach staying with all of these dwarves, just say the word. I’ll find you somewhere safe, even if you have to bring your dwarf along with you.” He flashed a grin. “I’ve been thinking of visiting the rangers in the north. It would probably do my relationship with my father some good to get some distance between us. Plus, even though those rangers sound kind of crazy, the stories my kin tell also sound very amusing. You could come with me…,” he trailed off hopefully.

Tauriel raised a red eyebrow sardonically. “I worry about their definition of amusement, but for now my place is here. However, I think that Kili likes to see new places. I’m sure I could convince him to let us go on an adventure up north. After all, someone has to look out for you.”

He matched her raised eyebrow with one of his own. “I think you are mistaking who does the saving in this relationship.”

“I think you are forgetting who makes your life fun and interesting,” she bantered back.

Legolas smiled softly, “No, I'm not.”

Tauriel reached up and placed a hand behind his neck, gently drawing his brow down to touch her own. She whispered something too softly for Billa to hear. Then she added, “Be true to yourself,” before letting him go and stepping back.

“Between you and Golweneth, I’d be too ashamed not to. You’ve trained me too well.” He looked down abruptly, hiding his expression as he readjusted his daggers. When he looked back up, his face was cool and composed. “I hope your Kili recovers swiftly. May the stars guide your feet.” Then he turned and walked away, disappearing quickly into the chaos of the valley.

Tauriel looked very remote as she watched Legolas leave, standing head and shoulders above everyone in the camp. She’d have to duck to get through any of the tent doors. For the first time she seemed sad. It gave Billa a pang to see it.

For some reason the sight made Billa think of the lone, red-leaved aspen tree near her smial last autumn. It had stuck out in Billa’s mind, surrounded by short fir shrubs and with half its branches lightning-blasted. She’d expected the tree to not last the winter. Yet despite the damage, the aspen had refused to give up, putting out new leaves that next spring on its remaining limbs. Billa had enjoyed sitting beneath the aspen with her books that summer. The breezes crossing the Shire had made the leaves above her head dance and sing.

Unexpectedly, Haeth interrupted her musings by popping his head out of the tent. He looked around grumpily until he focused on the hobbit. “Billa, stop dawdling around outside and get in here with the rest of the family. Thorin will want to see you when he wakes up.”

He looked Tauriel up and down gruffly. “Elf, I’m not happy about you, but you saved my boy and my wife. You can come in too, get someone to look at your ribs.” Having said his piece, he lifted the tent flap higher and shook it impatiently.

“Yes, brother,” Billa said, happy to be wanted, happy to be given a place by Thorin’s side. Because Thorin had to live, they all did. Billa refused to accept anything else.

At least she had people to sit with her in vigil over her loved ones. She had help. She was wanted, and she wasn’t alone.

With those thoughts in mind, Billa stepped forward, reached up, and took Tauriel’s hand. The elf looked down at her stiffly in surprise. “Come, sister. Kili will want to see you when he wakes up.”

Tauriel’s face softened. She blinked hard. “Yes, when he wakes up,” the elf said. Turning, the two women walked hand-in-hand past Haeth and into the tent.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Chapter Text

One of the things they never tell you about sitting vigil is that you get bored. Of course you also experience anxiety, fear, exhaustion, and heartache. But interwoven with all of that is the monotony of one second ticking into the next with no changes… or else changes so incremental that you question whether they are purely imagined. The boredom of waiting, of feeling powerless to do anything to make your loved one better… it just made the situation so much worse.

Billa had barely moved from Thorin’s side for two days… or was it really only one? Or four? She had trouble keeping track of time in the small, private tent the King and his heirs recovered in. She would have liked to take a few walks to clear her head at least, but Haeth had discouraged her from wandering around until things were a bit more settled.

“There are still a few orcs and goblins lurking about and,” Haeth had admitted shamefaced, “not all of the dwarves who came to fight could be trusted with a well-bred lady, especially one from another race.” Guards had been posted at the entrance. The one time she’d tried to leave, she’d been gently but firmly discouraged and had slunk back into the tent.

At first, Kili and Fili had been doing slightly better than Thorin, but when the fevers started they’d both gotten harder and harder to wake. They’d moved the three Durins into a private tent. She and Tauriel had followed, glaring at any dwarf who dared to question their presence.

Billa didn’t know if her presence did Thorin any good. He hadn’t woken up once. Sometimes she’d thread her fingers between his and squeeze gently, but his hand remained slack. The healers had washed and tended his wounds. Medicine had been applied hourly for most of that first day and then regularly after that. Although he didn’t seem to be getting worse, he wasn’t getting better either.

A stoop-shouldered Oin had finally admitted that he’d done all he could. If Thorin’s status changed, he could try something else, but it gotten to the point where they simply had to trust to the gods to do the rest. The dwarves didn’t have the supplies or skill to do more in these battlefield conditions. During the fighting, Ogres had torn through a group of healers, damaging both the dwarrows and their healing supplies. It had made things more difficult and tense in the tents housing the wounded. Although Oin wanted to stay by his King’s side, too many other wounded dwarves needed his help.

Billa wanted to yell at someone to do something, to fix her friends, her family of choice! But that wouldn’t do any good. There were just too many who had been hurt during the battle. The healing tents were a constant source of chaos and noise as new people were brought in for treatment.

The commotion made her feel uncomfortable, and probably wasn’t helping the wounded rest, but she felt powerless to do anything about it. She hadn’t even bothered mentioning her own small stab wound. At first she had tried to tell Oin. But both times, before she could even finish her sentence, people called him away to help someone else. Tauriel also seemed so tortured over Kili and had mentioned several times that she didn’t have any more medicine or supplies. Billa almost told her, but she didn’t want to add to her burden. Her little wound hadn’t seemed that important in the face of everyone else being so much more gravely injured. Besides, it didn’t hurt that much. So she’d decided to just ignore it.

During the first day in the tent, Kili had woken up enough to talk to his parents and confirm Tauriel as his soulmate. Although disgruntled, his parents had accepted Tauriel’s right to stay by his side. Of course, Dis had later let slip that they didn’t have a lot of choice. With Thorin and her sons wounded, people were talking about giving the kingship to Dain or one of the other nobles. Every Dwarf that Dis trusted was scrambling about at her orders to secure the mountain and the throne. It seemed monumentally unfair. Billa could only hope Dis was exaggerating how bad things were.

Finally, even Dis & Haeth had been forced to disappear to tend to the political problems at the mountain. They’d only managed to come back a few times to briefly check up on the family.  They looked grimmer each time they visited and stayed for shorter and shorter periods of time. Nevertheless, Haeth made sure to let them know that the guards outside the tent could summon them at any time should someone wake up or if they got worse.

In the deep dark spaces of night, Billa and Tauriel, both exhausted but unable to sleep, had bonded over their irrational, cross-racial love for a pair of stubborn, foolish, dark-haired dwarven males. Billa had waxed lyrical about the beauties of the Shire and the luxury of a well-stocked pantry.  She’d described Bag End and her life before Gandalf came.

Tauriel had revealed a little about her life as a captain in Thranduil’s kingdom. With a bit of prodding, she’d talked of her youth. The elf had described herself as a lonely and emotional orphan. Over time, she’d become best friends with Legolas.

“Having a purpose in the guard, having Legolas as a friend… it saved me,” Tauriel admitted. “He’s the best person I’ve ever known. I probably would have run off and gotten myself killed trying to avenge my family otherwise. For hundreds of years he’s been my best friend.”

They’d paused in their talking for a while when a soldier had dropped off some breakfast. At that point, they’d been too busy feeding themselves and then trying to spoon broth into the mouths of their friends. More broth had soaked into Thorin’s beard than had gone down his throat, despite her best efforts. His slack lips made her heart ache.

It made Billa equal parts terrified, frustrated, and angry. Without nourishment he’d become too weak. Tauriel had managed to feed both Kili and Fili by the time Billa had finished feeding and then cleaning up Thorin. She couldn’t bear to leave his beard so matted and sticky, even if dwarves didn’t seem to mind food spilled on their beards. Ever so gently she washed and dried his face. Then she pulled out her elven comb and made sure his beard, which he’d allowed start growing once they reached the mountain, looked immaculate.

Blinking back tears, she leaned forward with one hand against the side of his face and whispered into his ear, “Wake up Thorin. Please wake up. I still love you, I’ll always love you. I need you.”

Thorin sighed and shifted slightly, rolling his face against hers in a subtle caress. Freezing, Billa waited hopefully for another sign, breathing in the scent of his body, but he after a minute of no further movement she forced herself to sit back. Thorin just needed time, she told herself. Time and rest.

Taking the trays, Billa stacked them and set them outside the tent for someone to retrieve later. The dwarven guard gave her a nod of acknowledgement and ushered her gently but firmly back into the tent. Irritated, she nevertheless turned and went back inside.

Looking over, she saw Tauriel pull up her sleeve, gently kiss her soulmate mark, and then smooth her sleeve back into place. The elf smiled self-consciously when she saw Billa looking. “Sometimes I think he can feel me through it. I want him to know that I’m here, waiting for him to wake up.” Billa pressed a palm over her own tattoo, just in case it was true and her mark really did link her to Thorin.

Tauriel tossed her red hair over her shoulder and settled back down onto the ground at Kili’s side. “My soulmark only appeared about fifty years ago,” she confided. “Before that I didn’t think I’d have a soulmate. I wasn’t sure I wanted one. My parents were soulmates. I was angry at them for a long time because when my mother was killed, it hurt my father so much that he didn’t fight back against the orc who stabbed him. I blamed him for that.”

Eyes wide, Billa couldn’t help but lay a supportive hand on Tauriel’s forearm. “I’m so sorry.”

Patting her hand, Tauriel gave her a gentle smile. “Luckily, I have a good friend named Golweneth who’s very, very wise. She helped me forgive them. She made me want a love like theirs someday.”

A wry smile flitted across her face. “I’m going to remind her of that if she asks what made me choose a dwarf, of all people! Of course, Kili had already charmed me before I fully recognized that he was my soulmate.” Tauriel winked at Billa, “I couldn’t help but find him cute. At first I fooled myself, thinking I was just imagining things despite the whispers in my heart, despite the dreams. But I’m done with deception. My mark can be no one else. I know it is him.”

She laughed. “May the Valar help me, my soulmate is a dwarf.” Tauriel looked down and smoothed the hair out of his face tenderly, “And I love him.”

“He loves you too, you know,” Billa said softly.

Tauriel looked up with a quick smile. “I do.”

Billa couldn’t help but ask, “Have you seen his stars? His mark?”

Tauriel became quiet and sad. “No,” she said. “We didn’t have the chance to show each other our marks. Not yet.”

Billa cast her mind back to her conversation with Fili all those weeks ago. “His mark is a field of stars. I’m sure he will enjoy showing it to you when he wakes up. In fact, you’ll probably have more trouble getting him to keep it covered. Dwarves with soulmates can be a bit exhibitionist, from what I’ve observed,” she teased, thinking of Gloin. “Kili told me about his mark once and that his stars were placed there just for you. That they are to remind you that he will always be your home, just as you will be his.”

“He really said that?” Tauriel asked, looking very young and vulnerable .

“Yes really. Although mischievous, you’ll find out that Kili can be quite a sap when you get him going,” Billa confided.

Tauriel collected herself. “I look forward to learning all of his ins and outs. Then I will tease him about them mercilessly.” She winked.

Done with talking about herself, Tauriel had demanded the story of just how Billa had managed to sneak in beneath her nose and break out the company. Unable to help herself, she had given Tauriel a full accounting (minus only a few details about her time with Thorin, though she’d still ended up saying much more about him than she’d intended). At first, she had feared that Tauriel might get mad about her actions in breaking the dwarves out.

However, the red-haired elf surprised her by breaking into giggles several times. “I can’t believe that you were sneaking around the entire time! And that the smell everyone kept complaining about by the kitchens was you,” she laughed. “Golweneth was going crazy, thinking that a bit of spoiled food was hiding somewhere in her pantry.”

“That wasn’t my fault!” Billa whined. “I bathed as soon as I had a chance.”

“Or you were just waiting for the right kind of company to bathe with,” Tauriel teased, having wormed that tidbit out of Billa too, though not the full details of her encounter with Thorin. “I’m sure he had fun making sure you were thoroughly clean…,” she insinuated.

Bright red, the hobbit placed hands over her face. “I told you that I didn’t have sex with him! Respectable hobbits don’t do that! I’m not giving you more details, so stop teasing me!”

Tauriel chuckled, “Very well, but I will say this: I’m looking forward to seeing if Kili is built anything like his uncle.”

“Tauriel!” Billa wailed. “You are horrible! Besides, the reason you got to see Thorin naked is not one to boast about. You elves were awful to him.”

“I wouldn’t boast to anyone else. I promise. That situation was regrettable, but the dwarves in general were pretty awful to us too,” Tauriel defended quickly. “Several of my guards ended up in the infirmary because of Thorin. Plus by the end of it you caused us no small amount of grief yourself!”

Billa scowled and opened her mouth to retort, but Tauriel held up her hand and sighed.

“Billa, peace, please,” Tauriel said. “I did not mean to argue with you. I was just teasing. I forgive you fully for your part in my frustrations, my friend, and I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me. It was a wretched situation from start to finish, but it brought me Kili and so I cannot regret it. Part of my prickling you stems from irritation and wounded pride. It makes me feel better to know that you had a magic ring to help you circumvent my guard patrols and that it wasn’t just a fault in my people or my leadership, well, except for that drunk Hiwon. I’m going to have words with him,” she scowled, but then remembered herself and looked back up with a look of contrition. “Please forgive me and say we are still friends.” 

Blowing out her breath, Billa let go of her annoyance. “Of course I forgive you. My friendship is not lost so easily. I’m sorry we quarreled.” She gave Tauriel a apologetic smile, which the elf returned.

Conversation suddenly became impossible as a party of dwarves walked by loudly taking and clanking. An argument broke out. Something smacked into the side of their tent, followed closely by a yelp of pain. “Try that again and I’ll rip your mustache out and use it to floss my teeth!” shouted the guard in front of their tent. “We’ve wounded inside, so shove off!”

Tauriel grabbed her bow and replenished quiver and stalked to the front of the tent. She ducked out and had a quiet word with the guard. Billa grabbed Sting and stood up defensively in the middle of her unconscious friends.

A minute later, Tauriel ducked back inside, giving Sting an approving nod. “Some idiot dwarf decided that we must be hiding treasure in here and decided to try and force his way in with some friends. The guards dissuaded them, but we may need to stay on our guard. Things are pretty disorganized out there. Now that the battle’s over, some of these dwarves seem to have lost their sense of purpose and cohesion. Whether it is sloppiness, greed, or politics I can’t tell. But Kili’s parents were right. Some of them seem to want the treasure for themselves and prefer to get it before the king and his heirs wake up.”

Billa scowled. “I’m sure Dis will have something to say to that.”

“It’s probably why she’s not been back much,” Tauriel replied.

Swallowing, Billa had a horrible thought. “Do you think someone might try to break in and kill Thorin? Or Fili and Kili?”

Tauriel gave her a considering sort of look. “Considering what Dis explained of the situation, assassination was certainly implied.” Billa’s stomach turned over with queasiness.

“However,” Tauriel added, “the guards out there do look quite serious and dedicated to their jobs. Plus Thorin, Kili, and Fili have us to defend them. I don’t think it likely that they’ll come to harm on our watch. We’ll make sure of that. Right, sister?” She gestured at Sting, still clenched in Billa’s hand, and winked.

“Oh, I’m not a warrior,” Billa disclaimed with a wave of her hand, sheathing her sword. She didn’t like war or fighting. Nothing would make her happier than to never have to use her sword again. A huge swell of longing for her garden and the bench in front of her round green door washed over her. “I’m just a little hobbit, far from home,” she quietly explained.

“From what I’ve seen, you aren’t just a little anything, but I doubt you have to worry,” Tauriel replied bracingly. “It’s unlikely we’ll have any more problems. They just need to get some organization out there. I think their leadership is so busy focusing on the newly reclaimed Erebor, and the understaffed healers here so focused on treating individual patients, that no one has taken charge of the logistics of setting up and maintaining this camp and their army in an orderly fashion. The dwarves don’t seem to see the overarching problem, though whether it’s a cultural difference or from a lack of resources I can’t say. They’ll probably get it together in a couple of days,” she sighed heavily.

Billa plopped down. “That is both annoying and highly inefficient.”

The elf hummed in agreement. Then she mused, “I wish my friend Golweneth were here to organize things. Elven healing tents are certainly a good sight more orderly and soothing.” She returned to Kili’s side but kept her bow near to hand. “Of course, while I’m wishing for things, I might as well wish for elven medicine and elven healers too. Not to forget the elven musicians. Their background music really is lovely.”

Tauriel sighed, “If I wasn’t exiled I’d go and beg for help from my people, but right now I have no authority. It would be a hard sell to start with to get elven healers over here to help the dwarves. I don’t think King Thranduil would even listen to me now, not after I lost my temper at our last meeting and stupidly threatened him.” She looked away and rubbed at her forehead. “The king would probably just order me punished or locked away, keeping me from Kili’s side. I’m not sure I should risk it…” she trailed off unhappily.

“I’ll go,” Billa offered.

“But they won’t listen to you either,” Tauriel said.

“I’ll make them listen,” Billa said firmly, reenergized by the thought of doing something besides just waiting. Tauriel still looked doubtful, so Billa added, “The least I can do is try. If it doesn’t work, or they try to lock me up, I’ll just use my ring and slip away.”

Nodding decisively, Tauriel accepted her assurances, despite their flimsiness. The thought of having more elves around to fix things had proven too tempting. “Alright, find Golweneth. She’ll help you.”

Making sure her ring sat in her pocket and Sting rested loosely in its sheath, Billa turned to go. However, at the tent flap she paused, opening and closing her mouth, trying to put into words a feeling. She rubbed at the mark on her chest. “If Thorin wakes up while I’m gone,” Billa finally said thickly, “tell him I was here waiting for him… and that I’ll be back soon.”

“I will,” Tauriel said, striding over to kneel down and give her a quick embrace. “May your footsteps be light and your tongue quick,” she whispered in elvish.

“Take good care of them while I’m gone,” Billa replied. She squeezed Tauriel’s shoulder. Then she turned and pushed past the flap.

Outside the tent, the dwarven guards immediately stopped her. Billa cursed herself for not putting on her ring before exiting so she could have snuck away in peace. They wanted to know where she was going. When Billa tried prevaricating, they demanded she return to the tent. When she refused, they insisted on sending along a dwarven guard as escort.

Finally Billa had had enough. She turned to the dwarf in charge. “I need to go and deal with female business! By myself, if you know what I mean.” The guards, all male, turned red, jumping back and tripping over themselves to open a pathway for her once she mentioned the word ‘female.’ Sometimes, the skewed gender ratio in dwarves proved useful.

Besides, it wasn’t a lie exactly. Taking care of people, gathering them together, and making sure that things got done properly definitely was female business. Never let it be said that Billa Baggins was not all that a proper hobbit lady should be.

Once around the corner and out of sight, Billa ducked behind a cart and put on her ring. Invisible, she made her way over to the elven camp without any more trouble. However, it was more walking than she’d done since getting stabbed in the thigh up on Ravenhill. Her wound began to throb painfully, but she tried to ignore it.

At the elven camp, there were a lot of identical-seeming tents lined up in even rows. Everything looked quiet and peaceful. Billa didn’t know quite where to start. Then she saw the familiar form of Golweneth in the distance. She still wore her circlet of bone. The elven woman ducked into a tent.

Taking a deep breath, Billa removed her ring. Straightening her hair and clothing, she dusted off the dirt as best she could. Then she marched forward with head held high and turned to enter the same tent as Golweneth.

As soon as she walked through the door, a male elf stopped her. The nice red hair and lovely embroidery on his jacket distracted her for a moment, but as soon as she focused on his face she remembered him: Lifar. In addition to being forced to chase around with his mop to clean up after her mysterious stench, he’d spoken cruelly about her dwarves and had challenged Thorin to archery, forcing him to strip for a dose of medicine. Billa did not like him at all. She hoped they had him cleaning things still, the more disgusting the better.

“Who are you and where do you think you’re going?” Lifar demanded, looking down his nose at her.

“I’m here to talk to Golweneth,” Billa said with as much confidence as she could muster, hoping he was too tall to see the shaking of her knees.

“She’s too busy helping other elves. You should leave,” Lifar said flatly, pursing his lips in displeasure. “We have no time for halflings right now.”

“I beg your pardon,” Billa said, raising her voice stridently, “but I am here to talk to the Lady Golweneth, not you, sir! And I am not leaving until I talk to Lady Golweneth. So you can take me to her or you can get out of my way, but Golweneth I will see today!”

“Or I can pick you up and throw you out of our tent like a bucket of dirty water,” Lifar threatened unpleasantly.

“The only one being thrown out of this tent is you, Lifar,” a voice said coldly. Billa jumped and looked to the side, where Golweneth stood staring disapprovingly, flanked by Asindar and Mírdan. “You shame our people with your rudeness. Leave now. We will discuss your behavior at a later date.”

Red flared on Lifar’s cheekbones. He gritted his teeth. “But-,” he started to argue, before being cut off by Golweneth’s impatiently raised hand.

“Do not compound your error with more words.” She raised a stern eyebrow at him and pursed her lips. Mírdan glared at Lifar for even daring to talk back to Golweneth. Even Asindar looked disapproving.

Huffing, Lifar spun around on his heel and stalked out of the tent. Billa had to abruptly stumble sideways to avoid getting thwacked in the face by his hair. When she regained her balance and turned back, she found herself being examined by three sets of inquisitive eyes.

“I am Golweneth. I heard you demanding to see me,” the elven woman said with controlled calm, “though I do not remember meeting you before. Nevertheless, I am intrigued to know why a hobbit finds herself in the tents of the elves. How may I help you?”

Billa took a calming breath and began. “Thank you. I do need your help. My name is Billa Baggins and I’m a companion to the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain. I am here to ask for assistance and alliance. The dwarves are in great need of the healing arts of the elves. I also think that both they and the men here could use your help in organizing the recovery from this battle. In return, I think the dwarves and men have a lot to offer the elves. At a minimum, the dwarves could easily and quickly build sturdier shelters and extra carts to carry your wounded on their journey home. If all three races could combine resources to treat and minister to the survivors of this awful battle, I think everyone would be much better off because of it.”

A moment of silence followed her speech. The lady Golweneth’s face looked interested, but then it became suffused with shame. “I hear your plea, but I do not think that I can help. As soon as the last of our people has been stabilized, we have orders to leave.”

Although it had always been an option, Billa hadn’t seriously thought that Golweneth would say no. Tauriel had been so certain of her too. “But the people here need you,” Billa pled.

“I am sorry. What you ask is not in my power,” Golweneth said. The corners of her mouth turned down as she looked away.

Billa clenched her fists against her sides. Then she forced herself to relax her hands and thought back on the speech Golweneth had given in the prison cells all those weeks ago. There had to be something in there that would reach her.

“Are you not the Eldar, made glorious by your maker Ilúvatar?” Billa asked, ignoring Golweneth’s sharp look at her words. “We need your help. An exchange of healing knowledge and resources could not only reduce death among the injured, it could soften hearts, ushering in a new era of peace and friendship between the elves, dwarves, and men living here. This is your people’s chance to brighten like evening stars, to become your best selves and bestow mercy and light on the people suffering here. Be true to yourselves and your maker. Help us.”

Mouth open, eyes wide, Golweneth stared at the hobbit in astonishment. Billa almost had her. The elf just needed one more nudge. But what?

Then Billa had an idea. “It isn’t just dwarves and men that need help outside of your camp,” Billa added persuasively. “My friend Tauriel, an elven captain from your Kingdom, is wounded too.”

Golweneth gasped softly and took a step closer. However, at that same moment Billa saw an elf headed their way from across the tent. He could ruin everything.

She had to speak quickly before he interrupted and ruined her chance. “Tauriel lies in the tents of the dwarves, but no elves will help her because she’s been exiled for helping us, for doing what is right. Haven’t you been friends with her for hundreds of years? Are you going to let her die without ever again seeing an elven face or hearing an elven song?”

Golweneth resolutely wiped away the lone tear streaking down her face and took a deep breath. “No, I will not,” she vowed. Decision made, she became peaceful and decisive. Turning to her assistants, she ordered, “Mírdan, Asindar, take over things here. I will take this hobbit, Billa, to go and see the King.”

“Wait, why do we need to see the King?” Billa backtracked. “Can’t you just organize things by yourself?”

Golweneth sent her a chiding look. “Of course not. I could help a few people, and I could certainly make organize a few things, but only King Thranduil has the power and authority to do all that you are asking. We must speak to him first.”

Billa wasn’t ashamed to admit that King Thranduil intimidated her. He had all the power and majesty of Elrond without the compassion and goodwill. Although she’d spoken to Thranduil once when she’d delivered the Arkenstone, she’d had Gandalf as a buffer then. But Gandalf had disappeared (as usual) after checking in on them briefly the day before.

All too soon, though, they had travelled through the camp and over to an ornate tent that Billa recognized from her previous visit. Golweneth spoke quietly to one of the guards outside. He ducked into the tent to announce them. Giving her a firm nod of encouragement, Golweneth ushered Billa inside.

Although still opulent, the tent was not as untouched by reality as Billa had expected. A suit of bloody and dented armor stood on a stand in the corner, not yet cleaned. Several groups of elves stood in the large tent talking and making plans around two tables. Billa recognized the healer, Nestor, amongst them.

The elves here looked tired. Still beautiful, because elves, but tired with a hint of dishevelment. Papers were strewn across the elvenKing’s desk instead of stacked in ordered piles. An unopened wine bottle and tipped over glass sat on top of the papers.

Only the elvenKing looked completely immaculate. Although wearing a sword belted discretely by his side, he otherwise eschewed armor or evidence of the recent battle fought. His crown arched above his head majestically and his clothing looked sumptuous in tones of burgundy, ivory, peach, and gold.

Billa missed having nice clothing. Sometimes she dreamed of her closet full of waistcoats and corsets, of leggings and skirts that she could change out daily instead of wearing the same outfit for weeks and months on end. Maybe when this was all over, she’d see if she could buy some fabric from the elves to make herself a nice little dress. She’d probably burn her current clothing the first chance she got.

Impatient with her musings, Thranduil leaned back against his desk and arched an eyebrow inquisitively. “I am surprised to see you again, Mistress Baggins. What brings you here?”

Wiping sweaty hands against her skirt, Billa stepped forward. “I have come to ask for your help and to present you with an opportunity.” Thranduil didn’t so much as arch one elegant eyebrow to show interest, but he didn’t cut her off immediately either. At least there was that.

Billa repeated what she’d told Golweneth, asking for healers. She explained again her idea of mutual assistance. Finally she finished with the enticement of, “ushering in a new era of peace and friendship between the elves, dwarves, and men living here.”

Thranduil stirred. Folding his fingers in front of his mouth, he looked down on her for a moment. Then he dropped his hands dismissively. “I applaud your intentions, but I am sure that the dwarves and men can take care of themselves,” he drawled. “Once things have settled down, we can worry about establishing better diplomatic relations.”

“Does- does that mean you aren’t going to help?” Billa asked hesitantly, hoping she’d misheard.

Thranduil looked down at her haughtily. “No.”

Heart dropping to her knees, Billa forced back tears of frustration. “Then I ask you to consider this,” Billa added desperately. “Your decision affects not just men and dwarves, but elves too. Captain Tauriel, an elf of your Kingdom, lies wounded in our tents. Do you deny her healing too? Will you let one of your people die alone and untreated with no other elves, with only dwarves by her side?” She hoped Tauriel would forgive her the continued exaggeration.

For the first time, Thranduil’s face darkened. Turning to an elf at the back of the tent, he snapped, “I ordered her exiled, not executed. Obviously.”

“Sire, this is the first I’ve heard of her need for a healer. Perhaps someone forgot to report it because of her status or because she threatened you during the battle,” the female elf stuttered.

Thranduil scowled. “Tauriel would never hurt me. She was angry and making a point inappropriately. She lost control and forgot her place. I responded.” He raised his voice, “But I choose how she is to be punished, not someone else, not you.”

He cut his hand through the air, “Fine, I rescind her exile. Make sure everyone is made well aware of that,” he glared at the female elf, who bowed her head in acknowledgement. “But I do not reinstate any of Tauriel’s titles or duties.” He looked around the tent, “Healer Nestor, find someone to go and help her, then have them report back to me.”

Before Nestor could move, Billa interrupted, “Tauriel is in the same tent as Thorin, the King of Erebor, and his heirs. They are all severely hurt and need healers too. Helping them would also greatly improve the future relationship between your kingdom and the dwarves here,” Billa pressed.

“No,” Thranduil refused again, cold and implacable. “They brought their injuries upon themselves with their greedy actions.”

Speechless at his hypocrisy, Billa’s mind went blank. There had to be something more she could say to convince him, but she was exhausted and aching. Her leg had started sending shooting pains up and down her thigh. She suspected that the scab had broken open, because she could feel something oozing out her leggings and down her calf.

“Very well,” Billa finally said, calling upon her manners. “Thank you for your time, King Thranduil.” She started to turn away, but then stopped suddenly as an idea popped into her head. “Do you by chance know where I can find either Gandalf or the leader of the Eagles?”

Thranduil blinked and tilted his head. “Why do you ask?”

She didn’t really have anything to lose, so Billa answered tiredly, “I want to see if they can help me send for Lord Elrond from Rivendell. I’ve heard that he’s the best healer in the world.”

Thranduil physically jerked at her words and crossed his arms. He scowled. A muscle ticked in his cheek.

Looking up at him from beneath her lashes, Billa had an idea. “Lord Elrond seemed extremely wise and compassionate when I met him. His Kingdom, Rivendell, was so beautiful it took my breath away. I’ve never met anyone so majestic and powerful in my life.” Thranduil twitched again. Billa buried her grin and continued, “Lord Elrond can probably figure out how to organize things here and help everyone recover from the battle quickly.”

“In fact,” she looked up earnestly into Thranduil’s face, “I must apologize for wasting your time. I should have sent for Lord Elrond first instead of bothering you. I will leave you here to focus on your Kingdom’s business and call for Lord Elrond to help solve the bigger problems facing the rest of us, like caring for the injured and feeding everyone through the winter. I’m sure with all of his years of experience ruling, Elrond will have a lot of good ideas to share with us. Elrond helped us a lot the last time we saw him. Elrond even invited me to come back and visit him. Elrond-”

“Enough!” Thranduil cut his hand through the air. “Stop your nattering. Obviously Elrond doesn’t need to be sent for. My vast experience is more than sufficient for your little problems.” He stood up straight, swept his long blond hair behind his back, and gestured impatiently to an elf standing next to Nestor. “Get me a healer’s satchel and a few assistants. I will go and look in on both Tauriel and the dwarves as a special favor to Mistress Baggins, since she helped to minimize the conflict between our people and saved elven lives in the process.”

Billa grinned exultantly.

The elvenKing looked down on her repressively. “They might still die, but if I can’t heal their wounds, it will only be because their deaths were inevitable.”

Beckoning with his finger, Thranduil then turned and strode from the tent. “Come Golweneth, attend me. I will give you my specific wishes and then leave you to organize the rest of the relief effort as you see fit. Everyone else adjust our plans to make room for these new changes.”

Behind the King’s back, Golweneth sent Billa a wink. Then she turned and serenely glided out at his heels. Most of the elves scrambled off after the elvenking’s exit, leaving only a few individuals in the tent with Billa.

Triumphant yet exhausted, Billa stood swaying, blinking after the exiting elves. She felt so relieved that she wanted to cry, but this was neither the time nor the place. Someone stepped up to her side. Billa forced her eyes to focus and rise until she recognized Healer Nestor.

“I’m impressed,” the dark-haired elf said with a quick smile. “I haven’t seen my king manipulated like that, or change his mind so quickly, in centuries.”

Billa found she still had the energy to blush. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she mumbled. “I should probably get going.” She took a few limping steps to the door before being stopped by Nestor.

“Mistress Baggins, please wait,” he said. “I can see blood dripping down your calf. I’m a healer. Please let me help.”

For a moment she teetered on the verge of saying no just to be contrary, but then the thought of being taken care of for once instead of having to take care of others seeped into her mind. It proved too seductive. “I would appreciate that, thank you,” she said with quiet dignity.

“There is a tent with fresh bandages just across the way, if you’ll follow me,” Nestor said, ushering her out of the tent and down the path.

The spacious tent they entered had cots set up in ordered rows. Injured elves slept, read, or listened to the musicians playing softly in the corner. As Tauriel had mentioned, their music sounded lovely. Healers wearing crisp white aprons over their clothing walked up and down the aisles, pausing here and there to bend down and minister to a patient.

Nestor picked up a bag from a table and walked them over to a cot in the middle of the room. “Why don’t you sit down on the cot and show me your wound. After I clean and bandage it, you can take a short rest before going back to your friends.” He looked at her expectantly.

Standing next to the bed, Billa reached down and grabbed the material of her skirt to lift it up to show him her stab wound. But her trembling fingers froze. Horrified at herself, Billa nevertheless couldn’t stop the large tears welling up in her eyes and pouring over her cheeks.

Lifting her hands to wipe at her face, Billa hiccupped. “I’m so sorry. Exhaustion is just making me silly and stupid. It’s just that I’m a respectable hobbit and my wound is quite high on my thigh and I don’t want to expose myself in front of so many strangers even though no one here probably cares and you’ve all seen zillions of naked people and I’m just tired and in pain and being a ninny.” Leaning back against the edge of the cot, she covered her face with her hands and tried to get ahold of herself.

When she finally looked up, Nestor gave her a compassionate smile. “There is nothing wrong with being modest or feeling overwhelmed,” he said gently. Turning, he beckoned to a female elf.

Giving Nestor a happy smile, she came over and touched him affectionately on the arm. They spoke together for a moment, but Billa’s mind moved too slow to translate. They bustled off. Billa just sat there staring at her hands and let her mind drift.

When they came back, they guided her up and to the corner of the tent, where a sheet had been hung to create a private nook. “This is Lhénith,” Nestor introduced. “She’s going to help get you comfortable and ready for my exam, if that is acceptable?”

“Of course, thank you,” Billa said, still embarrassed but also relieved. Nestor stepped out while Lhénith helped Billa to remove her skirt and leggings and to lie down. Picking up a small knife, Lhénith cut off the bloody bandage and then cleaned Billa’s entire leg with soap and a wet cloth. Billa had to bite down on the edge of the sheet to keep from crying out in pain, despite Lhénith’s best attempts to be gentle. After carefully drying her off, the dark-haired elf grabbed a blanket and modestly covered up everything but the swollen wound on Billa’s leg.

“I’m going to call in Healer Nestor now, unless there’s something else you’d like me to help you with?” Lhénith asked sympathetically.

“No, that’s fine. Thank you for the help and for humoring my modesty,” Billa said before releasing a kittenish yawn. Lhénith laughed softly and called Nestor back in.

After examining Billa’s wound, Nestor gave Lhénith instructions. Then he pulled out a small tin with a large needle inside. Seeing Billa’s wary curiosity, he explained. “The wound needs to be stitched up so it doesn’t tear open again. I make sure to sterilize my needle before using it and then keep it in this tin. I’ll clean it and your wound again right before I stitch you up to minimize infection. You already have a bit of a problem starting, but I think we caught it early enough.” Billa gulped unhappily.

At that moment, Lhénith finished with her mixing and handed Nestor two bowls. “One of these is medicine for your leg and the other is a painkiller for you to drink before I begin the stitching. I’ve never treated a hobbit before, but I think I have the dosage right for someone your size. Do you have any allergies that we should be aware of?” Nestor asked.

“Not that I know of,” Billa said, eyeing the needle warily.

Nestor handed her the first bowl and told her to drink it down. Grimacing, Billa complied. Unlike Nestor’s berry tea, this did not taste very good. A bitter flavor lingered on her tongue. “Bleargh,” she said.

“I know, it tastes awful, but it really does help numb the pain,” Lhénith commiserated. “Now just lie back and try to hold still. You can hold my hand if it will help.”

“Thank yooou,” Billa slurred. She slumped flat onto the mattress. Everything looked wavy. Lhénith’s arms reached for her as if in slow motion.

Distantly she heard Nestor curse. “I think that dosage was still too much,” he said worriedly, as if through a tunnel. Then everything went black.

0-0-0

When next Billa blinked opened her gummy eyes, she saw Ori sitting next to her bed. Lhénith watched him with fascination as he deftly worked his knitting needles.  “But how do you get it to make a wider fabric instead of just one long string?” the healer asked.

Ori looked up at her with pink cheeks. He held up his knitting and pointed, “You just have to thread this extra loop over the needle when you get to the end and then make sure you pick up the trailing loops as you go, like this.” He proficiently knitted down the next row. “Different numbers of loops will get you different patterns.”

“That’s marvelous. I sometimes embroider or sew during my spare time, but I haven’t come across knitting before. Do you know where I could purchase knitting needles like yours?” Lhénith asked.

Ori puffed up proudly. “Once the forges are up and running, I’m sure we could trade you some. I made these myself before I left for our quest to the mountain. I’d be willing to trade you a set of needles and some yarn for two skeins of your embroidery floss,” the dwarf haggled.

“You have yourself a deal,” Lhénith said with a crooked smile.

“Get some fabric too,” Billa croaked. “I need a new dress.”

“Billa!” Ori exclaimed, dropping his knitting and turning to grab at her hand. “How are you feeling?”

“Like something died in my mouth,” she said rawly, sitting up slowly and making sure that her sheet didn’t fall off her bare legs. Her thigh felt sore, but much better than she’d expected. Ori tucked an extra blanket behind her back to prop her up.

Lhénith disappeared for a second, returning with a mug and some crackers. “Try drinking a little bit of juice and then eat a few crackers, see if it helps.”

After slowly draining her mild fruit juice and munching on crackers, Billa began to feel a little bit better about waking up. Clarity of thought led to the realization that she hadn’t seen Ori for days, not since that morning at the wall when she’d had to flee. Wasn’t he supposed to be up at the mountain still?  

“How did you end up over here, Ori? I’d heard that you were busy acting as a scribe for the meetings between Dis and Dain.” Billa’s lips twitched for a moment after saying that. Their names sounded so silly together. Thank goodness they weren’t a couple.

“Yes I was, but that was almost a week ago,” Ori said with an unhappy frown and sudden glare at the elf standing next to them.

Billa wrinkled her brow. “But the battle only ended a couple of days ago.”

“Actually, it ended almost five days ago,” Lhénith said apologetically, tucking an extra blanket over Billa. “But not quite a week yet,” she aimed at Ori. “We got your dosage wrong. That, combined with the infection and your own exhaustion, knocked you out for almost 48 hours.”

“But that’s- that’s two days,” Billa stuttered. “I was asleep for two days?”

Suddenly Gandalf ducked around the curtain with a nod and smile of greeting. “Not just asleep, but also missing,” he said, ruffling her curly hair affectionately and then popping one of her crackers into his mouth.

“Mmm,” he said approvingly, reaching for another. Billa smacked at his fingers and stuffed the last two crackers into her mouth with a glare. The gray wizard just shrugged and smiled.

“You had us very worried, Billa,” Ori scolded. “You disappeared and no one knew where you were.”

“I was going to be right back.” Billa defended. “Tauriel knew where I was going so I didn’t think anyone would worry too much.”

“Not worry?” Ori said, looking at her as if she was stupid. “Haeth screamed at everyone, Thranduil didn’t know where you’d gone after he left his tent, but tried to blame your disappearance on a dwarf, Bard had people searching the valley for your body, and Thorin finally woke up and had to be physically restrained from climbing out of bed and ripping down elvish tents one by one until he found you. He kept insisting that you were over here. Only Gandalf kept it from devolving into another war. Then Tauriel almost stabbed some elf named Lifar with one of her daggers, trying to get him to confess to doing something to you. Luckily Legolas showed up just in time with some chap named Nestor and cleared up what had happened. But then the hubbub started all over again because no one had realized that you’d been injured since you refused to tell anyone about it. Oin in particular has a few choice words for you about that, just so you know.”

Mouth open, Billa just blinked at him in shock. She felt distantly excited to hear that Thorin was awake enough to argue with people, but too overwhelmed by the rest of it to react just yet. It was hard to believe that her absence had caused so much trouble.

Leaning forward, Ori met her eyes earnestly, “I just don’t think you realize how important you are to all of us.” She shifted uncomfortably and dropped her eyes. Ori sighed and leaned back. “We almost had a fistfight over who got to sit with you until you woke up. The elves would only let one of us come.”

For a second Ori hesitated. Then he added, “We weren’t sure you’d want to see Thorin after what had happened. He and Haeth got into an argument. Finally Dis shouted that you deserved better than to have your hard work undone because of his stupidity and stubbornness and just threatened to sit on him if he tried to leave the tent. It made Thorin stop and think. Then he said that you did deserve better and lay back in his bed with no more argument.  Oin finally declared that everyone with moderate to severe injuries was excluded. The rest of us drew lots. Nori tried to cheat, but he got caught by Dwalin, so I won,” he finished smugly.

Seeing the look on Billa’s face, Lhénith patted her hand soothingly. The elf passed her and Gandalf some more crackers. Billa stuffed one into her mouth so she wouldn’t have to say anything just yet.

“Now come, young Ori,” Gandalf soothed, managing to talk with a full mouth without it seeming uncouth. “It all turned out right in the end and it’s hardly Billa’s fault that she reacted badly to elvish medicine.”

“She didn’t react badly, Mithrandir, she simply slept for longer than expected and we chose not to force her to wake up,” Lhénith broke in defensively, adjusting the blankets over Billa’s legs. “Because of that, her infection is gone and her wound is healing cleanly. The sleep has done her body much good.”

Gandalf tipped his head in acknowledgement. “And we are all glad of that. My dear hobbit, you shouldn’t have to worry about anything more for quite a while. Well, except for people perhaps being a little overprotective. But thanks to you, I think everything is going to work out just fine. The dwarves, elves, and men are cooperating unexpectedly well now that you’ve been found.”

“Fighting about you and then finding you managed to get everyone talking together in one place. By the time Thranduil realized that none of the other leaders actually knew about your suggestion of sharing healers and resources, it was too late for him to back out. Bard jumped at the suggestion and Dis insisted on honoring the wishes of her adopted sister.” He sat back and unselfconsciously wiped cracker crumbs off of his beard and robe. “I am pleasantly astonished that a temporary alliance actually got hammered out. Well done, Billa Baggins.”

Swallowing a cracker, Billa brushed a few crumbs off of her lips, but then she felt compelled to explain. “I’m so glad it actually worked out, but I just wanted to help Thorin and the boys. How are they really? Did the elven medicine heal them? You said Thorin woke up?”

“They are doing much better,” Gandalf confirmed happily. “All three have woken up and are now expected to recover, well, as long as they don’t do anything stupid with themselves to cause another infection. They will be on bed rest for a few more weeks recovering, and Thorin is not allowed to make any decisions until next week at the earliest as per the Lady Dis’s orders, but they will all be fine.” The gray wizard gave her a warm look, “You saved them.”

A sweeping feeling of relief soared through Billa’s body. She sagged back into her pillow and pressed a hand over her heart, letting the tip of her middle finger linger on the center of her tattoo. It warmed at her touch. “Thank goodness,” she whispered to herself. “Oh thank goodness.”

“However, everyone is very anxious to see you again,” Ori leaned forward to say. “As soon as you feel well enough, I’m to transfer you back to our tents to finish your recovery.”

“Are you sure Thorin really wants me there?” Billa asked softly, suddenly stung by doubt. “I mean, he did apologize when he thought he was dying, but now that he’s feeling better he might not want me around.”

Gandalf rolled his eyes. “Considering the way he bellowed and shook when no one could find you, I think it’s pretty clear that he wants to see you again. However, if by some strange twist of fate that changes, or if your feelings change, the elves have invited you to stay with them until you recover. You are not without allies,” he reassured her.

“We would be happy to have you,” Lhénith confirmed.

“Don’t be silly,” Ori said with a frown at Gandalf and Lhénith. “She doesn’t need help from the elves. She has us dwarves. If she doesn’t want to stay with Thorin, Haeth as her brother will provide for. Any member of the company would.” He moved forward and grasped Billa’s hand sincerely. “Just say the word and you can even come and stay with Dori, Nori, and me until you feel better.”

Billa smiled softly, “Thank you, everyone.” She wanted to see Thorin desperately, but feared now what he may or may not say. She also still felt very tired, despite having just slept for two days. Yawning, she decided, “I think I’m going to take another nap and eat a little bit more of those crackers. Then I’ll probably come back with you, Ori, if that’s alright?” Any more decisions could wait until later. They would have to.

Reaching forward to give her hand a soft squeeze, the dwarf smiled gently and then sat back. “Of course that’s alright. I’ll be here knitting or reading when you wake up.”

“Fare thee well, Billa, and enjoy your sleep,” Gandalf said as he stood up.

Lhénith came forward and settled Billa back down onto her back. Giving her a smile of thanks, Billa closed her eyes and drifted off into sleep.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Finally Billa woke up. Her stomach gurgled. Happily she realized that she’d timed things perfectly. Serving elves were drifting around with trays of breakfast, several of whom she recognized. Ori gave her a sideways smile and beckoned Asindar and his tray over. First things first, she devoured a bowl of fruit and porridge in barely a minute flat. Then she daintily wiped the corners of her mouth.

Asindar walked by again, blinked, and offered her a new bowl. She accepted it with alacrity. After eating that, he returned and perfunctorily offered her a small meat pie. Billa ignored his surprise when she said yes and asked for three more (when she said small, she meant miniature meat pies that would make her hobbit friends stare in dismay). However, the drizzle of golden honey on top did make for a delicious mouthful.

While happily licking the side of one sticky finger, Billa set her tray to the side and reclined back to digest a bit. On the other side of the room she saw Asindar talking to Mírdan. The two stood close together. Billa pulled her blanket up to half-cover her face and overt interest. The red-haired elf looked up at Asindar with a soft smile and subtly stroked her fingertips along the back of his hand. He blushed and looked down more adorably than Billa expected from an elf. His hand turned, hesitated for only a moment, and then reached out to brush his fingers up through Mírdan’s fingers until they loosely clasped hands. Then he looked up into her eyes. They both seemed to stop breathing. It made Billa crinkle her nose and smile behind her blanket.

The slight clatter of another elf stacking dirty dishes onto a tray broke them from their reverie. The two elves stepped back and became professional once more. Billa sighed and lowered her blanket.

They began talking and gesturing to different parts of the tent. Then Asindar gestured in Billa’s direction with a wry smile. They both looked at her for a minute before turning back to each other. Mírdan’s eyebrows rose and he shrugged. It made the hobbit very curious.

A few minutes later, Mírdan came around with a platter stacked high with gleaming apple pastries. Delicate white frosting hugged the golden flaky crust. Billa’s mouth watered and she sat up quickly. “You may have as many as you’d like,” Mírdan said with a friendly smile that held just the slightest edge of challenge and fascination.

Although Billa had already eaten more in one sitting than she’d lately had to eat in an entire day, her stomach, while tight, nevertheless insisted that it could still find more room. Normally she ate seven small to medium sized meals, but travel and cultural ignorance had ruined her eating schedule. She’d become shamefully thin. The Hobbiton gossip mill would never let her live something like this down if they could see her.

Given the opportunity, she’d rather just eat. On this trip she’d learned to ignore the judgmental looks. Or at least she tried. People outside the Shire had strange eating habits. Why make herself miserable by eating only a few small meals if she didn’t have to? Billa tried to stay true to her hobbit culture when possible.

“Thank you, but I couldn’t possibly eat more than two, maybe three,” Billa answered with a polite smile and expectant gaze. Ori just shook his head and continued knitting.

Mírdan gave a laugh of tinkling bells and placed three pastries on Billa’s plate. “If you need more, please let me know. I would be happy to give you extra. We aren’t used to dealing with Hobbits, but you must eat as much as you need to properly heal.”

Smiling without an ounce of shame, Billa easily promised to eat their delicious food until she felt truly sated. The first two pastries went down delightfully easy. However, the third finally made her feel on the verge of overfull.

She considered leaving the last bite of it on her plate, but the thought of throwing away even a little bit of that soft apple bundled in flaky crust and silken sauce proved too horrifying. She couldn’t be the cause of such waste. Besides, finishing it off wasn’t truly a hardship.  She’d had much worse difficulties in the last few months.

Releasing a dainty burp, Billa sat back and relaxed. Elves really did do lovely things with dough, she thought happily. For the first time in ages, Billa’s belly felt full. No ache of hunger lingered, even on the periphery.  How absolutely wonderful.

Ori, the crazy boy, had refused the elves’ offers of food. During her meal he’d instead focused on furiously knitting something on his lap. She’d been too distracted to pay much attention.

Now that she’d finished eating, it was time to get dressed and go. Billa found herself faced with a very serious dilemma: put back on her grime-stiffened skirt or beg to take one of these nice clean sheets as makeshift clothing? Her blood-stained, torn leggings had disappeared, not that she’d miss them. If Billa wrapped a sheet around her waist and started walking out, would anyone really call her on her thievery? She’d stolen from a dragon, so a blanket from the elves shouldn’t be too difficult, right? At the same time, she felt a little bit too old to be walking around wearing only a sheet about her naked legs, even if it was a very nice, clean, and soft sheet.

Just then, Ori tied off his last stitch with a happy sigh and lowered his newest masterpiece to his lap. He carefully tucked away his needles and yarn. “Ready to go home, Billa?”

For a moment Billa just stared at him in confusion. Her face paled. Was Thorin going to send her straight back to the Shire without even letting her say goodbye? But Gandalf had made it seem like he wanted to see her, like everyone wanted to see her. Before she could start hyperventilating, she realized that Ori meant the mountain. She flushed.

Ori must have read some of her thoughts. “Erebor is your home now, too,” the young dwarf said, leaning forward and staring earnestly into her face. “You helped us to get it back from the dragon, Billa. You helped us to keep it. From now until the end of time, you will always have a place in its history and its halls. You have family there now. Erebor is not just our home, it is your home,” he repeated fervently. Realizing that he’d raised his voice and caused the surrounding elves to turn and stare, Ori blushed bright red and sank back into his chair.

Unexpected tears sprang to Billa’s eyes. She felt touched. Reaching out, she laid her hand on Ori’s hot cheek. “You are a very good dwarf, Ori. I am honored to know you and count you among my friends.”

Ori cleared his throat, lowered his eyes, and stood up with a shuffle of feet. Then he shook out his green knitting. The bundle unfolded into a small, intricately patterned skirt. “This is for you, to keep you warm inside the mountain this winter,” Ori said timidly, holding it out to her.

Billa’s automatic thank you died in her throat. It wasn’t rudeness. She just got too distracted looking at the perfection of his work and knowing that it now belonged to her. She couldn’t find her breath for anything but, “Ooohhhhhh.”

Ori shuffled, “I know the quality isn’t great. Unfortunately someone sold me unevenly dyed yarn, but I tried to work it into a pleasing pattern. Luckily you’re so short or else I wouldn’t have gotten it done in time. Once we get more established here and the trade routes open up I’ll make you something better.”

The variegated green knit skirt cascading down from his fingers looked amazing. Geometric patterns of lines and crisscrossing diamonds flowed along the skirt in a pattern both dwarven-bold and yet somehow organic. The unevenness of the dyed wool enhanced the beauty, somehow reminding Billa of both the hues of the green-veined stone inside Erebor and the sprawl of vines in her garden back home. In addition to being beautiful, the skirt also looked cozy, warm, and perfect for a mountain winter.

Billa loved it.

“Oh, Ori” she breathed, reaching out to touch the soft knit. Finally she found her tongue, “It’s absolutely lovely.” He pressed it into her hands with a pleased smile. Hugging it to her chest, she ran her fingers up and down the pattern and beamed up at him. “You are so talented and thoughtful. This is gorgeous, thank you so much!”

Lhénith came over just then and stooped down to run her fingers over the weave of the skirt. “How marvelous!” the elf exclaimed. “So this is what you’ve been making, young dwarf. Well done! I am even more excited to learn how to knit now.” Placing a bag down next to Billa on the bed, she continued, “I need to do once last exam and then you are free to go, my friend. But lest you forget us elves once you arrive at the dwarven city, I have a gift for you as well.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Billa protested. “I could never forget you and your help the last few days.”

A close-lipped, pleased smile stretched across Lhénith’s face. “Nevertheless, I still have a gift for you.” Reaching into her bag, Lhénith pulled out a small, perfectly hobbit-sized shirt embroidered at the neck and cuffs with subtle vines and flower buds. “It’s beautiful,” Billa said in surprised delight. “Thank you.” The ivory linen felt soft against her skin. Lhénith had used pale green embroidery floss that almost melted into the color of the fabric.

“This will perfectly match my new skirt,” Billa said, placing the two next to each other. “Did you plan this together?”

Lhénith laughed softly. “No planning, though I will admit to being inspired by Ori’s choice of yarn. I did not know he meant it as a gift to you though. Perhaps I should pretend I knew all along, and thus make myself seem all-knowing and wise instead of just lucky. Oh well, too late,” she winked at Ori.

Blushing, Ori stumbled back and grabbed the curtain by Billa’s bed. “I’ll give you some privacy to get dressed and then I’ll escort you back.” He closed the curtain in a quick retreat.

“Even though he’s a dwarf, he reminds me of my youngest nephew,” Lhénith confessed to Billa. “I should probably give other dwarves a chance too.” She paused for a moment, twisting a lock of dark hair and staring unfocused at the closed curtain still swaying from Ori’s passing. “They can’t all be bad. I’d thought them very rude and xenophobic, but you are proof that they can care for people of other races. He seems very sweet….”

Shaking off her musings, the elven healer pulled back Billa’s sheet enough to expose her leg. “This is healing very well,” the elf said. “As long as you don’t try to run up a hill or climb a tree for a few weeks, you should be just fine. I don’t even think the scarring will be that bad.” She changed the bandage. Then she helped Billa get dressed in her new skirt and blouse, though the hobbit still had to wear her old vest and borrowed coat on top of them. But at least Billa had something soft and new to wear up against her skin.

Once done, Lhénith pulled back the curtain and beckoned Ori over, giving them both instructions for keeping the wound clean and taking out the stitches. “Now, Master Ori,” she said with a mock-stern glare down at the dwarf, “I will expect to see you in the spring with my knitting needles and yarn. Otherwise, I will be most disappointed.”

The dwarf smiled at her shyly, “I won’t disappoint you, Mistress Lhénith.” Then he looked up with a crooked smile that briefly reminded Billa of Nori, “Just remember not to short me on my embroidery floss.”

Nodding her head solemnly, Lhénith promised, “I wouldn’t dream of it.” Then she winked.

Turning to Billa, she added, “Take care of yourself, my dear. Please make sure you let me know if you need anything. Nestor told me that Tauriel will stay with you and the dwarves for now.” The elf touched the side of her neck with a delicate finger, bringing attention to the soulmark heretofore hidden by the shadowy fall of her hair.

“Although her bonding to a dwarf took everyone by surprise, her friends are still faithful. We are happy to hear that she’s found the ultimate love of a soulmate. I know just how valuable that is,” she gave a secret smile and lowered her hand. “Tauriel knows how to get a message out. Let us know how you fare when you have the time.”  

Lhénith gave Billa a sideways, twinkling look through her lashes, “Gossip about Tauriel will also be very well received. If she isn’t taking good care of herself, or isn’t happy, please tell us. Maybe we can help. And if she is happy… please tell us about that too.” Then she leaned down and gave Billa a firm, sweet-smelling hug.

“Thank you for everything,” Billa whispered against her pointed ear. “I’ll keep in touch.” Then she stepped back and smiled, “I’ll also look for you in the spring. Don’t forget to visit me, or else I won’t let Ori trade you those knitting needles!”

“Indeed.” Ori put his nose in the air, stuck his thumbs in his belt, and nodded firmly.

Lhénith laughed. “Never fear, I won’t forget. May joy find you, my friend.” Then she escorted them to the tent door. Nestor joined her, placing his hand around the curve of her waist as the two waved goodbye.

Billa kept waving back with her head craned over her shoulder until they reached the edges of the elven camp and had to turn the corner. She really had liked those two. She followed Ori as he walked towards a patch of spindly bushes. “Isn’t Erebor faster the other way?” Billa asked, crinkling her brow.

“Yes and no,” Ori said unhelpfully.

“Then why are we going this way?” she complained, nettled by his short answer. “Our walk will be twice as long.”

Suddenly, a group of rams pulling a wagon trotted around the bush and into view. “Because we aren’t walking,” Ori smiled.

Nori pulled the wagon to a stop perfectly in front of Billa’s furry bare feet. “Hello, lass, you’re looking well this morning. Good!”

“I hope you didn’t steal this,” Billa quipped as he helped her climb in.

Nori smirked. “I was going to, just for fun, but then Haeth had one of his people walk me down to pick it up with an executive order, the spoilsport.”

Unlike her jostling drive with the wounded down from Ravenhill, Nori made sure to give her a comfortable ride. He even avoided the direct path to take smoother trails without all the drop-offs. Although Billa really was feeling fine now, with her leg barely sore, she still appreciated it. Just because the wagon could go travelling along almost vertical walls didn’t mean it had to.

Of course, the closer they came to Erebor the more her anxiety over talking with Thorin rose. Sure, they said he wanted to see her, but he wasn’t dying anymore. What if he got angry about the Arkenstone again? What if he wished her well but wanted her gone post-haste?

Then again, he had seemed rather loving as he gave his dying apologies up on Ravenhill. Maybe he’d take her hand and say, ‘let’s just forget what happened while I was crazy and get married tomorrow. You can trust me now, right?’ Unfortunately, that scenario made her stomach clench with nausea too. The closer they got, the more she felt like an emotional mess.

Finally they pulled up to the pathway leading towards the restored gates of Erebor. The dwarves had been hard at work. Nori gestured expansively. “Thanks to the extra hands, we’ve managed to fix a lot of things since you’ve last been here. A few lads have even managed to make a new gate and fill in most of the unsightly cracks up on the battlements,” he pointed up to the now flawless edifice.

Politeness demanded she acknowledge and admire the work, but Billa could only give it a fleeting glance. Like a monster just waiting behind a tree to pounce, the horrific memory of her last moments up on the wall assaulted her. Unable to speak, she concentrated on breathing evenly. Focusing on those memories didn’t do her any good. She wished she could cut them out altogether and stitch her time back together into a seamless ribbon of before and after reaching the mountain.

Nori looked at her white face, winced, and cut himself off.  Unfortunately, Ori had leaned out to focus on the workman and wasn’t paying attention. He missed the verbal minefield and took up the narrative detailing how dwarves had repaired the battlements, gate, walls, and the road leading up to it. They’d cleared the rubble, so at least the wagon ride felt smooth. Billa let him prattle on, but didn’t pay much attention. Ori didn’t seem to mind.

As they finally drove through the gate, Billa very firmly kept her eyes down. She had no need to see again the place on the wall where Thorin had almost thrown her to her death. He had apologized, she reminded her churning anxiety and sorrow. Did it count that he’d said in a dream that he wouldn’t have really done it?

Billa would be speaking to him any moment now and she wanted it to be a happy reunion. Thanks to the elven healers, he’d woken up and would actually live.  The man she loved most in this world was going to live! Right now she wanted to focus on the good things, not the bad. Blowing out her breath, she shoved her tangled mass of feelings back into her emotional cupboard and slammed the door. She’d deal with those later.

Driving directly into the courtyard, Nori slowed to a stop and deposited Billa and Ori at a side door she’d not noticed before. Taking both reigns in one hand, Nori reached out and patted her on the shoulder. “You’ll be fine, just don’t forget to look really pitiful when they start yelling at you.”

Billa turned stricken eyes on him. He laughed. She scowled in response.

“Don’t tease,” Ori scolded. “She just rose from her sickbed.”

“Sorry, I couldn’t help myself,” Nori replied with a wink and shrug. Then his sly mask slid off for a moment to reveal genuine affection. “You worried me too, you know. You worried all of us. Be more careful with yourself.”

Turning, Billa looked earnestly up into his face. “I am sorry. I really didn’t think my little wound was going to be a problem. It probably would have healed on its own if I hadn’t gone walking over to negotiate with the elven camp. I don’t regret going over there, but I do regret making you all worry.” Billa glanced over at Ori and then back into Nori’s solemn features, “I am sorry for that.”

Nori tilted his head to the side in acknowledgement. “It’ll be fine, go on up. Everyone will be glad to have you back,” he said with a smile. Ori helped her climb out of the chariot. Then Nori flicked the reigns hard and sped off with a whoop and a cloud of dust. Coughing, Billa waved her hand in front of her face. As Nori took the corner too fast, the wagon tilted up onto two wheels. Then it disappeared from sight.

For a moment, Billa wondered if she could convince Ori to go exploring around that corner and into the courtyard and streets beyond. Maybe she could put off meeting with Thorin for a little longer? But Ori foiled that plan by holding the door open for her with an expectant look on his face.

Billa sighed. Nerves jangled through her full stomach. Brushing hair back behind the pointed tip of her ear, she fingered her beads for reassurance. Then she forced her feet to step forward through the doorway.

Strange dwarves with bristling beards, exotic hairstyles, and large workbelts full of weapons and tools walked briskly to and fro in the brightly lit hallways. A slight breeze stirred the air and brought a strange but not unpleasant scent with it. She felt disoriented and out of place.

The Erebor she’d lived in had echoed emptily and reeked of dragon. Corridors had seemed dim with strangely stale air. Over time she’d taken to using rubble, scorch marks, and the darkest hallways as landmarks. Now if she stayed, she’d have to learn her way around all over again.

Billa reminded herself that this is the way it should be, not hushed halls echoing only with the distant tread of feet and the foreboding clink of coins. Not the slow, crushing fear becoming heavier and heavier day by day. Flashing back to that dreary time actually made her feel better. Life had returned to the mountain. People had started making it a home again. Everyone’s hopes for this quest had borne fruit.

“This way,” Ori beckoned.

As she followed him, Billa noticed curious looks both surreptitious and bold cast her way from the dwarves in the hallways. She couldn’t tell if the looks were friendly or not, but she decided to be optimistic and not borrow trouble.

They climbed up a staircase which seemed unnecessarily long and walked down an even longer corridor. The dwarves up here had clothes and belts made of finer materials and more elaborate decoration than the dwarves they’d passed below. She suspected that these were the noblemen and the dwarves below the laborers, though everyone seemed to be a craftsman in dwarrow culture.

“Is your leg doing alright?” Ori suddenly asked with a chagrined look. “Those were a lot of stairs. I’m sorry. I probably should have carried you.” Pausing, he held out his arms and started to crouch, “I can put you on my back or if you don’t like that, maybe in my arms in front?”  

A group of dwarves walked by, staring curiously at Billa and the crouching Ori until they’d turned the corner and disappeared. Billa tried not to squirm at their scrutiny. What kind of first impression would that make on these dwarves, to see the strange hobbit being carried around instead of walking on her own two hairy feet? Once they disappeared, she sent Ori a scathing look.

“I beg your pardon? Really, I’ll not be carried around like some sack of potatoes! I am a respectable spinster, not some wilting maiden uncaring of her own strength or reputation.” The indignity of the thought was enough to make her increase her pace, even though she had been about to ask for a rest. Her leg wasn’t hurting, but it did have a slight ache that was increasingly uncomfortable the farther they travelled. If it got much worse, she’d be sensible and stop, but for now she felt able to push on a bit more. Her reputation was at stake.

Although he turned his head away, Billa still noticed Ori sigh and roll his eyes heavenward at her words.

“I saw that,” she snapped, perhaps more sharply than she would have otherwise if she’d been less stressed. Luckily he had two older brothers. He’d survived worse.

Blushing, Ori cleared his throat and looked around. He focused on a smoke-darkened portrait of a dwarf hammering on an anvil and sighed in relief. “The room we want is just around the next corner. We’re almost there.” He increased his pace.

Before Billa could take a breath to apologize to Ori, or settle on just what she really wanted to say to Thorin when she next saw him, they’d stopped in front of a pair of dark-skinned dwarves guarding an elaborately carved doorway. The soot on the door had been polished away so that the grain of the wood once more gleamed. The two guards bristled with both weapons and foreboding scowls. Their faced looked somehow familiar, although she’d not met them before and they had skin the color of freshly turned earth after a rain, darker than any skin she’d ever seen before. Both sported very little hair on the top of their heads and full and wiry-looking beards and mustaches.

“State your business,” the one on the left stepped forward and demanded with a forbidding frown. Steel-gray frosted his dark beard and the sides of his hair. The dwarf had eyes that seemed more suited to wisdom and compassion than scowls, but unfortunately he didn’t seem to be in a soft mood.

Ori raised his chin and threw back his shoulders. “We’re expected. I’m the Royal Historian, Ori, escorting Mistress Baggins to an audience with the King. As you can see by her hair beads, she’s been adopted by the royal family and has the right to come and go in the family chambers as she pleases.”

The guard furrowed his brow, examining the beads in Billa’s hair, her pointed ears, and her bare, hairy feet. If anything, his brown-complexioned face became even more suspicious. Then his younger-looking companion rudely nudged him in the side with an elbow, “She’s cousin Dwalin’s hobbit friend and part of the company, remember Borin?”

The dwarf’s mouth rounded as his memory jogged. Borin nodded slowly. “Oh, that’s right, Forin. Balin mentioned that she’d be coming by soon,” he sheepishly scratched his head. “I forgot again.”

Elbowing Borin out of the way, the other dwarf opened the door with a smile that crinkled his eyes and emphasized the freckles scattered across his cheeks and nose. “Be welcome, Mistress Baggins. We’re Forin and Borin, second cousins of Balin and Dwalin on their mother’s side.” At her curious look, he elaborated, “Our Mum loved to travel with the caravans. She travelled to the far East and the distant South. Dwarves out there aren’t so pale as the ones up here. Female dwarves are also more accepted by the other races. But when the King’s call went out to the family, she immediately packed us all up and had us return.”

“We barely made it in time,” Borin added. “We only caught up to the army a few weeks ago.” He stopped and turned to his brother, “or was it a few days ago?”

“No, it was a few weeks. You got it right the first time,” Forin affirmed. Turning to Billa and Ori he explained, “Borin’s still recovering from a concussion. He can fight, but his memory’s not all there yet. Just let me know if you need anything. It was a pleasure to meet you.”

“You as well, thank you,” Billa replied politely, forcing herself to smile despite her jangling nerves. The time had come to move forward, but  her feet didn’t want to go. Billa hovered in the looming doorway.  If she’d been a less stalwart sort of person, she would have thrown her reputation to the wind and run the other way. Now that Thorin could talk back to her, she suddenly didn’t know what to say or if she even wanted to say anything. She felt like such a ninny.

Yet whether she wanted to run away from the upcoming conversation or not was a moot point. With Ori at her back and Borin and Forin crowding her sides, she had nowhere to move except forward.  They’d blocked her escape routes.

A bead of sweat rolled down her face. The dwarves began looking at her strangely. Borin started to frown at her suspiciously again.

Abruptly sick of her own prevaricating, Billa tossed her hair back from her sweaty face. She wiped her hands on her skirt. Then she walked forward through the doorway.

A short hallway led to an open archway. It had no door, only an embroidered tapestry made up of geometric shapes of green, blue, and pale gold. The tapestry had been tied off to the side, allowing a warm flicker of firelight to beckon travelers inside. Not giving herself time to think, Billa strode through and looked around.

Inside the room sat a familiar form bent over writing at a desk covered in boxes and stacks of paper. The dwarf looked up. “Billa Baggins! I am delighted to see you,” Balin exclaimed, standing up and coming around the desk with his arms outstretched in greeting.

Billa braced herself for an exuberant squeeze, but Balin’s embrace felt careful and warm. He eased back with a gentle smile, leaving his hands on her shoulders to look her up and down. “You look hale and hearty. Good. It eases my old heart to have our whole company now accounted for. Welcome back and,” his face became intent as he caught and held her gaze, “thank you. If no one else says it later, I want you to know that I see your heart. People might grumble over how things happened later, but I want you to ignore them. I see how you have always worked to save our King, to save us. I see how you have tried your best, even through the mistakes and disasters. I will always be grateful that Gandalf chose you for our fourteenth company member. Thank you, Billa.” He stepped back and dropped his hands. “Thank you, my friend.”

Redder than a tomato, Billa looked away and blinked back tears, grateful to escape his knowing gaze. She had made so many mistakes and held so many regrets… she wasn’t sure she deserved his thanks. Nevertheless, she treasured his acknowledgement. Balin saw her good intentions and appreciated her efforts. That meant a lot. It meant almost everything.

Balin cleared his throat and spared her having to reply by changing the subject. “You just missed the rest of the company. They lingered over a breakfast planning meeting, hoping to see you, but finally had to give up and go back to work.” He gestured to a large table set up in a side room. Several other closed doors on each wall presumable led to different parts of the family rooms. She’d have to ask later. Besides the desk and the table though, the room seemed rather empty, like it had once held much more. Then again, it probably had looked much worse from Smaug’s depredations before it had been so thoroughly cleaned.

Looking up apologetically, Billa replied, “Sorry I missed everyone. I lingered over breakfast.”

“She needed the extra food,” Ori defended, stepping up next to her.

“Don’t we all,” Balin said without contention, looking down and patting his middle sadly. Then he glanced back up with a twinkle in his eye. “With the new treaty hammered out with the elves, and with next week’s caravan from our kin, we should eat well this winter and be able to regain our plumpness by spring. I urge you to take that as a personal challenge, Billa,” he said with a wink.

Unable to suppress her giggle, Billa gave him a curtsy. “I accept, but I expect your belt to be loosened a few notches by that time as well or else I will be most displeased.”

Balin bowed his head in agreement. “We can both start on that tonight at dinner. The rest of the company will be here as well as your brother. It is sure to be a cheerful meal, even with Kili’s elf in attendance,” he finished with a longsuffering sigh. “I’m sure she’ll be happy to have you back with us. She spoke quite vociferously to Thorin when he questioned your intention to return.”

Billa flinched. “He didn’t think I’d come back? What exactly did he say?” she asked levelly.

Waving her question away with obviously fake nonchalance, Balin replied, “Nothing of importance. It reflected more on his mental state than as a slight to your own character. Forget I said anything. You must have more important things to worry about right now. Speaking of which,” he clapped his hands together, “you must be anxious to see Thorin now that he’s awake. His rooms are just through here.”

Not waiting for her answer, Balin put his arm on her back and shepherded her around his desk and to the back of the room. When Billa looked back over her shoulder, she saw Ori pulling up a chair and reaching for a stack of parchments. Gulping, she also saw that the desk had concealed a cocked crossbow pointed at the door to the outer hallway and a stand holding an axe and sword. The boxes on the desk had been placed in such a way so as to conceal the weapons.

When Balin saw what she stared at, he shrugged his shoulders. “No reason to post an extra guard when I can serve as both bodyguard and bureaucrat from my desk. Thinks have mostly settled down now that Thorin is awake, though, so I wouldn’t worry too much. I haven’t had to use the crossbow since yesterday.”

Ignoring her look of horror, Balin patted her on the shoulder. Then he added, “Keep wearing your mithril shirt though, just in case.” They stopped in front a doorway.

Opening her mouth to say something scathing, Billa instead found herself tongue-tied as Balin abruptly opened the door and pushed her inside. It was an empty, narrow room with a solitary door at the back. She hesitated.

“Thorin’s just in the back room resting,” Balin prompted.

Her feet didn’t move.

“Go on in, lass. It will be fine. He wants to see you, very much.” Giving her an encouraging smile, he turned and went back to his desk. The door swung closed behind him with a gentle click instead of the booming thud that seemed much more appropriate to her situation.

Not letting herself think any further because she was behaving like a ninny and she abhorred that in others, much less in herself (a respectable spinster!) she walked forward and rapped firmly on the door. Thorin may have twisted her up about everything else, but at least she still had her basic hobbit sensibility and pride. He couldn’t take that away unless she let him. After waiting a minute impatiently, she raised her hand to knock once more, suddenly anxious to just get this all over with. However before her knuckles could hit the wood, a quiet but commanding voice called out, “Enter.”

Lungs suddenly paralyzed, she forced herself to open the door. Absently she noticed that the latch in her hand felt like metal instead of wood like back home. Then again, metal and stone made more sense for dwarves than wood. Probably most of the wood in Erebor hadn’t fared too well under Smaug’s occupation anyways. Maybe she should ask someone about it?

Then she stepped into the room and her ability to focus on distracting inanities failed. Everything disappeared except for Thorin. Propped upright by pillows, Thorin reclined back on a bed reading through a pile of papers and hadn’t looked up yet. “I’m almost done,” he said distractedly, yet with a tone that conveyed that if you didn’t like having to wait, you could just leave.

Billa’s heart skipped a beat at his voice. For a while she’d feared she’d never hear it again. A trembling smile came and went on her face.

Since he’d practically given her permission and wasn’t paying attention anyways, Billa allowed her eyes to drink him in, memorizing every facet of his mobile face. An actual window, rare in the mountain, cast sunlit highlights over his face and form. The light illuminated Thorin’s eyes into an arrestingly liquid-looking blue, even with the dark circles of exhaustion ringing them. A finely-spun purple shirt with shiny black buttons draped across his broad shoulders and revealed only the barest edge of white bandages near his collar and one wrist. Despite the dishabille, he looked every inch a king. Then again, he’d had to project his authority without the trappings for so many years now that a crown would probably be completely unnecessary.

After a few more seconds, Thorin finally finished his reading. “Thank you for waiting,” he said as he lowered his papers and looked up. Billa could tell the second that he realized the identity of his visitor, the second that he realized it was her. His eyes widened and his expression of coolly polite interest disappeared into dismay and embarrassment. He flushed. The papers he’d been reading fluttered down into his lap.

Straightening up abruptly from the supporting pillows, Thorin winced but didn’t sit back. His mouth opened but no sound came out. Then his lips slowly closed as he tilted his head to the side and examined her. Billa shifted and blushed at his scrutiny, but didn’t break the silence. After all, she’d done the same to him, but just a lot more surreptitiously.

Thorin’s eyes traced along the curves and edges of her face. Then his gaze carefully catalogued down the lines of her body. It didn’t feel salacious, though hunger certainly lurked in his eyes, but mostly it felt like he wanted to make sure she didn’t have any other injuries. She also got the strange feeling that he was trying to memorize her, just in case. But in case of what? He lingered for a moment on her wounded thigh, tilting his head to the side as if to see through the knit to the healing wound beneath, before then returned his gaze to her face. She expected him to blush or start squirming beneath her inquiring gaze, but instead he seemed completely unapologetic.

The silence suddenly became heavy, expectant. Was he waiting for her to speak first? Where should she start? What should she say? Her mind blanked.

Neither spoke. The silence began to feel like a snake winding around her chest, squeezing tighter and tighter. The whirling debris of emotions smacking back and forth in her mind kept her tongue too disoriented. Did she start with his kisses, his threats, or his apologies? She had so many feelings but so few words.

She desperately wanted the connection of communication, but felt incapable of speech. Billa shifted, struggling to produce some sort of sound. Even breathing became difficult. She started feeling lightheaded.

Then Thorin took a painful-sounding breath and wiped at his mouth with a hand that trembled. It broke her paralysis, banished the metaphorical snake. She echoed his deep breath and blew it out. Then she took another. Her mind steadied.

Abruptly Thorin spoke. “You look well. They said you wounded your leg. Are you well?”

“Yes, thank you. And you?” Billa replied on automatic, hating the stiffness but still foundering for some solid ground.

“Good, that’s… good,” Thorin trailed off. He shifted on the bed and badly-concealed another flinch before his face became a mask. “I am doing better now as well. Thank you,” he said rigidly. Then he turned his head to look out the window.

Suddenly, Billa couldn’t help but notice the deepening wrinkles on his face, the bulky bandages beneath his clothes, and the tired stoop to his shoulders that even his best efforts couldn’t quite hide. More silver had creeped into his hair, crowding out the brown. Although she felt a supreme relief at seeing him up and talking, and a happy ache at his renewed sanity, she worried that his health wasn’t up to a long conversation, especially the emotionally charged one they needed to have. Perhaps this was better done later. He could rest and she could regain her sanity and ability to speak her mind. Billa opened her mouth to suggest he lay back down into the support of the pillows, but before she could he resumed talking.

“I am not sure if what I remember of our conversation on Ravenhill actually happened or if I merely dreamt it.” Thorin said to the window with that same stiff tone. He paused and began breathing heavily, as if gathering his courage. Teeth clenched and a muscle in his jaw began ticking up and down.

Then as if a dam had burst, he confessed with a raw grate, “You deserve much better. Nevertheless I must beg your indulgence to listen once more, or perhaps for the first time. Please allow me to bare my soul now that I’ve shed that madness, to speak my apologies as I ask for your forgiveness,” he broke off and grimaced, looking down to where his hands clenched ghost white on the straining fabric of the bedcovers . “No, I am done with greediness,” he whispered to himself sharply.

Billa stepped forward, confused, hoping, drawn towards him as always, even from the very beginning.

Thorin looked up, caught her eyes fast with his own fervent gaze, and continued, “I can’t expect your forgiveness. Instead I humbly ask you to consider accepting, if possible, my most heartfelt regret over how I treated you. I am sorry,” he rasped, “so, so sorry for the things I said and did. You honored me above all others and I dishonored both you and the gods with my hubris. I fell to darkness and refused your light. You are the sun in a clear mountain sky and I treated you like a flame on a scrap of kindling, to be used and discarded. I fell to madness and refused to listen. I apologize for your hurts, for your injuries both physical and emotional. If I could, I especially would take back every shameful word and betrayal at the wall that awful morning.”

As he paused for breath after his rush of words, Billa couldn’t help the twist of emotion in her gut. Somehow things were simpler when she sat by his unconscious bedside brushing his hair and praying for a miracle. His apology and obvious affection soothed so many of her hurts. She appreciated how hard it must be to admit his wrongs and weaknesses. But words heard even twice were somehow still not enough to completely close the bleeding wounds caused by weeks of disdain and the shock of his attack. Billa wished they were. She wanted them to be, but her heart didn’t work that way.

In her mind, she knew that he’d been sick, been crazy. But her gut had a harder time accepting that she no longer needed to be wary, that he once more would protect instead of threaten their friends, and that she could now relax. Could she once more believe in his oaths? Billa just needed more time. She wanted to trust Thorin and his words, but he’d shattered her trust in the most brutal of ways. Words alone would not mend it.

Thorin must have read some of the painful thoughts racing through her eyes. He frowned unhappily and dropped his gaze, but almost immediately dragged it back up to her face stoically, as if not allowing himself to look away from her pain was part of his penance. Firming his lips, he straightened his shoulders.

Then he unexpectedly leaned forward and declared, “Billa Baggins, I love you.”

Gasping wetly, her hand jumped up to cover her mouth. He’d finally said it! After all this time and all of her doubts, he’d finally said it. She pressed hard against her lips, trying to keep her tears at bay, still trying to find the right thing to say. The words stayed elusive.

Tilting his head to the side, Thorin said it again. “I love you. I do. Before, I always said it through endearments and gestures. Lying here, revisiting every moment we had together and listening to the scathing commentary of my sister, I realized that I instinctively courted you as a dwarf, even though your very hobbit-ness is one of the things I adore about you. I didn’t think about how, as a hobbit, you might not understand my gestures. I also,” he flushed and looked away, “feared driving you away with my intensity, and so I sometimes deliberately sought to trick you into doing what I wanted instead of letting you freely choose. I was a fool.”

Swallowing hard, he clenched his jaw and turned back. The sun highlighted the silver in his hair and emphasized the lean pallor of his face. “I am a fool, but please, don’t hate me,” he whispered. “I don’t deserve your love or forgiveness, but despite my best efforts I cannot help but still selfishly want them. Please speak to me. Tell me I haven’t forever lost your good regard.”

“Oh, Thorin,” Billa sighed finally, hugging her arms around her chest. “Of course I don’t hate you.” Tears still hovered right behind her eyes, waiting for their chance to break the dam and rush out. But she didn’t want to cry. She wanted to be clear, rational, and calm. It was a struggle. She stepped closer, wet her lips, and looked into his eyes, finally ready to tell him just how much he still meant to her.

Thorin’s full lips quirked self-deprecatingly. He tilted his head to the side and spoke before she could finally start, “At the very least, you still seem to care about whether I live or die. I’ve drawn much comfort from that fact the last few days, especially since I first awoke to the horror of Thranduil’s face, full of conflicted disappointment at his own success. He quickly informed me that the only reason he was there was as a personal favor for you. I think he’d hoped my wounds would be beyond his skill, but his pride demanded that he do his best to heal me. Once I woke up fully, I had to consent to a second healing treatment. It had a slightly higher chance of killing me than of curing me. Before starting, Thranduil told me he’d do his best because he was the best, but not to fool myself about his preference on the outcome. Then he challenged me to try and disappoint him.” A vicious little smile danced across his face. “He claims I only survived it out of pure spite. He’s probably not wrong. To be honest, I’m rather disappointed that you’ve made it almost impossible for me to kill him now without dishonoring myself. Couldn’t you have found someone else?”

The sharp stab of fear, followed quickly by annoyance, caused by his words succeeded in beating back Billa’s tears and finally breaking her paralysis of thought. However, it also caused the tender words on the tip of her tongue to completely disappear. “You have no idea what it took to get the elves over here to help in the first place,” she retorted. “I’m not going to apologize for getting you healing, even if it was Thranduil. At least it worked! Thanks to him, we’re able to talk right now. Thanks to him, I finally got to hear you say, ‘I love you.’ We needed that help.”

“But did it have to be Thranduil? Not only an elf but the one I hate the most?” Thorin wrinkled his nose in distaste and grimaced. “I might have recovered without him. That or else lasted long enough for the next caravan of dwarves to arrive with more healers.”

“Or you and Fili and Kili may have died! Leaving me and Dis inconsolable and Dain as King, with the rest of the dwarves and humans here barely surviving through the coming winter,” Billa snapped, one hand on her hip and the other poking him angrily in the chest.

Thorin flinched.

“Wounded or not, I’ve half a mind to hit you upside the head,” she snapped, the words surging up from her gut unimpeded. “Now sit back into your pillows and, if at all possible, stop being so stupid.” Thorin obediently dropped back against the supporting pillows, though his face looked alternatively mulish and rueful.

“I wanted you to start talking,” he mumbled under his breath, “though perhaps I should have chosen a different goad.”

Billa felt her eyebrow arch. “Or maybe you should have had a little bit more patience with me as I gathered my thoughts. I’ve certainly been patient with you! As for Thranduil, of course I know you hate him, but I had bigger worries than that. You were not recovering, despite everyone’s best efforts.”

Thorin shifted as if to speak, but now that Billa had started she didn’t want to stop. “Don’t fool yourself, Thorin! You hadn’t woken up in days and you’d barely eaten. I was the one taking care of you. I was the one trying to get you to drink and reporting to Oin on whether your bedding had wetness or not, and usually it was not! You got to slay your mortal enemy, say your apologies, and peacefully slip into unconsciousness. Meanwhile I got to wait in agonizing vigil. How dare you complain to me when I was the one whose life darkened hour by hour as you came closer and closer to drawing your final breath? How dare you?” In the ringing silence, Billa realized that her hands were trembling and that she’d been practically shouting her words. A respectable hobbit lady, especially a Baggins, didn’t shout at anyone, except perhaps in the privacy of her own home, and despite her hopes for Thorin they weren’t even engaged. She should be appalled at herself, but instead the yelling felt rather cathartic.

Thorin looked stunned.

Billa decided to let her anger and desperation continue their eruption. She’d be ashamed about it later. Hopefully by the end of it she’d be done with the negative emotions and able to circle back round to some sort of peace. “The dwarven wounded needed more healers. The elves had them, so I went over there and struck a bargain for everyone. But I’ll be honest with you, I went over there mostly because of you. You needed a healer, Thorin. Everyone’s efforts to wake you up did nothing. You kept fading away. So no, I couldn’t have found someone else more to your liking. No, I couldn’t have waited. You wouldn’t have survived until the next caravan!” she shouted, hands gesticulating starkly. “You. Would. Not. Have. Survived,” she emphasized again in a level yet harsh tone, surprised at herself, at the things she’d subconsciously noticed but refused to admit to, but now that she’d started speaking she felt those horrible, terrifying truths bubbling to the surface, refusing to stay submerged in her subconscious now that things had gotten stirred up.

“Thranduil saved your life. I would have done anything for that. Anything! Because I do still love you, Thorin. I will always love you,” Billa paused to pant for breath, feeling drained yet strangely free. Slightly appalled at herself for shouting at a man so recently on the cusp of death, but still strangely free.

Tucking a chocolate curl behind her ear, she looked out the window and counted the wispy clouds in the sky to help calm down. Once she regained her equilibrium, she turned back to face the tensely waiting Thorin. “I’d conveniently forgotten just how frustrating you can be when awake,” she admitted dryly.  

Thorin relaxed and shrugged. “I never forget that about you,” he replied with a hopeful look that begged her to smile at him.

Billa huffed a laugh and looked into his dear face. She made a quick decision. “I do love you, Thorin, and I accept your apology.”

His smile grew wider, revealing that dimple she adored to distraction. She wished she could keep it there forever, but a lack of honesty now would doom their relationship later. Billa forced herself to finish, “I want to forgive you for everything. I want to say let’s both just forget it even happened, but… you really hurt me, and not just at the wall, though that was the worst. I’m not quite there yet. I need more time. Plus, I’m afraid that it might happen again. What if you go crazy for gold the next time you see it? Will that always be hanging over our heads? What if I say or do the wrong thing and you try to murder me again? You’ve threatened to kill me twice. What if you succeed the third time? I love you, but that terrifies me.”

Thorin’s face froze at her words and his face grew sickly and pale.

A dark fear suddenly seized Billa’s tongue. Her skin pricked. What had she just done? Just said? Would he give up on her now and send her away?

She panicked and began babbling, “Yet I still love you. Despite all that, I’m a foolish and lonely old spinster. I’m stubborn and don’t change my mind easily. I love you more than food or song and probably will forgive you for everything if you just wait a few weeks for the sting to fade. Right now, seeing you alive and awake when I so clearly could picture your funeral, when I’d lived with your hatred and now have your declaration of love, my pride suddenly crumbles to ashes. I want more, but I’ll accept even a little. Right now, I’d take crumbs.” Two tears dripped silently down her cheeks.  Clenching her jaw shut on further words, Billa roughly wiped the wetness from her cheeks, frustrated with herself.  

Face both solemn and sad, Thorin reached his hand out into the shaft of sunlight and softly asked, “Will you come and sit next to me? Please?”

Sniffling quietly, Billa wiped her nose, nodded with as much composure as she could muster, and moved forward. She gingerly settled next to him on the bed, facing him. She folded and unfolded her arms, and then placed them on her green knit skirt with a strict order to hold still.

Thorin placed his hand palm up on his lap in easy invitation, but made no further overtures. Banked desperation flickered in his eyes, but he kept his words measured and soft. “You deserve more than crumbs, Billa Baggins. You deserve a feast. I cherish your words of love and promise that my madness is no more. Thanks to your words and that of my kin, I finally defeated the gold sickness poisoning my thoughts. When Azog pierced my side, his blade carved the symbol for gold from my flesh, completing my emancipation.”

“Billa,” he swallowed nervously before declaring, “You are my soulmate. I choose you. I love you beyond all description. You are my breath, my treasure, my sun. You are everything wonderful and good in the world. I wish I had your talent for words so that I might accurately describe it. Perhaps my soulmark is both a mountain and an artichoke after all, for my soulmate is you.”

A warm glow suffused her chest and spread throughout her body. Lifting her hand, she placed it in his open palm with a smile. He quickly closed his fingers and squeezed gratefully. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “I had wondered. Soulmates are different for hobbits and dwarves, I’ve discovered.”

“I guessed as much and that thought has tortured me,” Thorin confessed. “Soulmate bonds are deeper and stronger than a bond made out of just love. I know you love me. I’ve reveled in that fact, but I don’t know if you even want a soulmate.” He lifted his free hand to gesture helplessly, “Your culture doesn’t seem to celebrate them like ours. I don’t know if you can choose to accept or reject a permanent soul bond with me like a dwarf, or if your biology will force a bond that you might not want. I want that closeness with you. I want that permanence. I want my dream world and your dream world to become a refuge and playland where we both dwell each night in harmony and love. I want you to know to the depths of your soul, from your curly crown to your furry feet, just how much you are valued and loved because you can feel me thinking it inside of you,” he let his hand drop limply back to the bedcovers. “But it is meaningless unless you want all of that too.”

Radiating earnestness, he looked into her eyes. “Above everything else right now, I want your happiness. You don’t have to give me an answer until you’re ready. I’m patient, I can wait. If you stay here in Erebor, I will work to earn your trust again. I will prove myself to you. I will give you feasts. Please just give me the opportunity?” He looked hopeful, though his enfolding fingers unconsciously tightened.

Billa smiled softly. “Yes, I will stay.” She laughed lightly to herself. “We seem to be speaking in circles around each other. I love you and you love me. We need time to heal our wounds and water the seedlings, or perhaps I should say in a more dwarven fashion, see if we can work on forging our relationship into something that will endure bad weather -ahem- I mean the hammer blows of life.”

Thorin returned her smile and shifted their hands until he’d threaded their fingers together. “Thank you. I’ll say it again, I do love you and you may have as much time as you need. If I ever treat you so poorly again, Mahal forbid, I hope you kick me in the back of the knees, so that I may be humbled on the ground and reminded of my errors. Feel free to enlist help from your new brother, sisters, nephews, and many cousins, whom I know from experience will leap to your defense.”

Dropping his humorous tone, he added seriously, “I know my word isn’t worth much right now.” Closing his eyes, he grimaced. “All my oaths lie shattered beneath my feet. They cut as I walk barefoot through the memory of my transgressions, lacerating my bare soles, each sting but a small similitude of the pain I inflicted on others, the ache in my soul a reminder to never let it happen again.”

Billa hated to see him tormented so. She squeezed his fingers gently and then tugged lightly on his hand. “You have said that it won’t, that the madness is gone and will never return. Your friends and family are here to help if you’ll but let them in.” Tilting her head sideways, she waited for him to open his eyes again.

Face softening, Thorin opened his eyes, looked down at their clasped fingers, and then back up into her face. “I will trust to my friends next time. I won’t let pride hold me back. When I first started to fall into madness, I could have reached out for help, I knew something was wrong, but I ignored it. Next time I struggle, I will be better. I am determined to be a better King, a better friend, and a better lover.”

Thorin enveloped her hand gently in both of his, like a warm cocoon of affection. “Billa, I promise to do better by you. I want to banish the clouds from your eyes when you look at me. I want to see your smile once more burst forth like the sun at everything that delights and astounds you. Things will be busy, and at times rough, but please be patient with me if you can. From now on I will do my best to make sure that the good outweighs the bad. You will trust me again. You will be happy, and I hope I can make you once more love me without any reservation until you want to be my soulmate too.”

Unable to stop her smile, Billa lifted their clasped hands to her mouth and placed a kiss on his knuckles. “I look forward to it,” she said.

 

[To be continued]

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It seemed like Billa had spent the winter in constant movement. Nothing ever slowed down. She kept finding herself taken by surprise as both the people and the infrastructure changed on almost a weekly basis. In fact, everything was so busy that Billa could almost ignore the fact that her dreams were plagued with nightmares and most of the dwarves in the mountain didn’t seem to like her.

She blinked once and the bulk of the elven army had packed up the last of their tents and trundled home to Mirkwood on dwarrow-built carts. Only the King and a few trusted advisors stayed to finalize treaties with the dwarves and humans. Tauriel had stayed for Kili, and become one of Billa’s best friends in the meantime, but Billa secretly missed having all of the other elves around. Perhaps it was her mother’s influence, but Billa would always have a soft spot for elves.

She’d even come to appreciate the dry humor and sartorial elegance of Thranduil. Although she couldn’t see herself ever completely trusting him, she did grow to like him despite herself. When Thranduil unexpectedly invited her to come and visit his Kingdom (openly instead of as an invisible wraith), she found herself actually smiling in pleasure at the thought instead of cringing in memory of her previous trauma. She had friends there now in Legolas, Nestor, Lhénith, and Golweneth, not to mention the King himself in his own strange way. Billa accepted Thranduil’s invitation, but with the caveat that she couldn’t say just when she’d be able to come. He left it open as a standing invitation.

Fortuitously, Thorin had not been there for that conversation. He probably would have pitched a fit and undone all of their hard won diplomacy. However, both Gloin and Tosi, attending to hammer out last minute trade details, had not left their opinions in doubt. Between Gloin’s sputtering and Tosi’s scowls, Billa had barely managed to keep Thranduil from taking offence. Luckily his trade minister also wanted to avoid problems and had helped to run interference and rush him from the room. 

Just before Thranduil and his retinue finally left, Tauriel announced that she had decided that Kili was finally healthy enough to get married. Both Thorin and Thranduil had blinked in shock at that one. Perhaps they’d secretly hoped that the soulbond might somehow prove a mistake and the lovers would change their minds. However, once Thranduil found out that the couple planned to live in Erebor part-time and spend the rest of their time travelling, instead of trying to make Kili a resident of his kingdom, he relaxed enough to offer polite congratulations. Thorin needed a bit of prodding, but he gave grudging congratulations too.

The very next evening, Tauriel and Kili married outside in the winter starlight. Right after they said their vows and exchanged a tender kiss, a luscious full moon peaked over the crest of the mountain and blessed the couple with its glow. All of the elves let out a cheer and burst into song. The dwarves, not to be outdone by the elves, began stomping and singing their own tunes. It started out cacophonous, but after a minute or two somehow blending into a wondrous frolicking swell of celebration that had everyone dancing and smiling and getting along for the few hours the party lasted.

The next morning, everyone seemed to remember that they disliked each other again, but the glares seemed weaker and less biting. At least Billa chose to think so. Thranduil and the rest of the elves returned home, but he promised to send another group back for more negotiations in the spring.

Another blink and suddenly Dain’s army marched out the next time a spurt of warmth melted the snowpack enough to clear the pass back West. Caravans of dwarven settlers almost immediately replaced them before the next big snowfall, opening the mines of Erebor and rebuilding the surrounding countryside. The halls of Erebor, despite going on for miles, received an enthusiastic cleaning that managed to completely eradicate the scent of dragon.

Billa blinked again and the ruins of Dale quickly became a rising metropolis. Bard, who’d become the new King of Dale, exchanged part of the treasure Billa had given him to pay for dwarves to help rebuild the city. He seemed quite gratified at how quickly the craftsmen came over to construct new streets, buildings, sewers, and aqueducts. Every time another group of dwarrows marched over to work on Dale, Bard got friendlier.

Billa didn’t have the heart to tell him that the dwarves had sent only their most inexperienced or rusty craftsmen to practice their skills on the human city, where they could mess up and it didn’t matter. Once the craftsmen felt confident in their skills, that dwarf abandoned his work for the humans and dedicated himself to improving Erebor instead. Billa suspected that Bard would be insulted if he found out. However, Dale still got rebuilt, and no one but a dwarf could really tell the difference in quality anyways, so Billa just shrugged her shoulders and decided not to worry about it. She had too many other things to worry about.

Billa loved Thorin quite fiercely. She reminded herself of that when the nightmares left her a sweaty mess in the middle of the night with fingers that shook so badly they could barely light the lamp wick. She still hadn’t been able to go up onto the wall above the gate. Maybe she never would. Ignoring the nightmares didn’t seem help decrease their frequency, but she felt too busy to try anything else.

As the weeks passed, Thorin always made time to see her at least once a day. She appreciated that. It helped to ease her fears as she saw him in the mundane moments once again. It also reminded her why she stayed here when so many of the dwarves treated her with distrust and dismay.

One day Dori finally took her aside after a particularly disagreeable lunch meeting that had left her despondent. “Don’t let them get you so down,” he told her with a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Things will get better. People just need more time to see your talents and strengths. Dwarves are slow to change, but once they take to you, you’ll never find anyone more loyal. You saw that with the company, aye?” Dori prompted.

“I suppose,” she grumbled, “but that took forever! Why can’t they just trust in your judgement and like me from the start?”

Dori just shrugged. “All the important things in life take time. The quicker the rush, the weaker the work. Don’t despair, just focus on your friends and, if you get the chance, show them something impressive.”

“Like what?” Billa asked incredulously. Travelling with the company had quite firmly educated her that a hobbit’s notion of impressive differed quite a lot from that of dwarves.

“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” he soothed vaguely. “I’ve got to take off, but don’t forget to wear your warmest coat when you go out to talk to the woodcutters and your little bird friend Jasper this afternoon. I’ve heard it’s nippy outside.”

Billa didn’t like having to wait for people to like her, but she made do, and sure enough, as time passed, things got better. As the company included her in the various councils and decisions in The Mountain, the dwarrow nobles got used to her and started respecting her. Her friends valued most of her opinions, although they occasionally called her fussy and annoying, but they always asked and they always listened. The nobles noticed, especially when she used inside knowledge from gossiping with the thrushes to successfully procure several crates of potatoes. Soon, they started asking and listening to Billa too. When the miners and craftsmen found out that she had a knack for negotiating and a knowledge of food and plants that directly benefitted their supplies and larders, they also softened towards her.

However, she didn’t have much luck getting the guardsmen to stop either frowning at her or treating her like a child. Dwalin tried to explain. “Well lass, every adult dwarf, no matter their profession, not only can but also likes to fight. Because you look like you don’t, they’re having trouble deciding if you’re a liability or an infant.”

“But I’m neither!” Billa protested.

Holding out his hands, Dwalin shrugged. “We know that. They’ll figure it out too. They just need time, like everyone else.” Billa was getting sick of that excuse, even when she used it for herself, perhaps especially then.

About to give up on the guards altogether, Fili inadvertently helped her win them over. He was sick of still being so weak, especially compared to his uncle and brother, who’d recovered more quickly, so in his irritation he’d taken to making himself a nuisance. If he didn’t stop being so annoying, Billa was going to put itching powder in his sheets, just see if she didn’t.

In response to her threat, Fili greeted his father’s entrance by pointing out, “Hey Da, did you know that Billa’s stopped keeping up with her training? She probably can’t even defend herself from a goblin anymore.” When Haeth turned to her for confirmation, Fili stuck out his tongue at her from behind his father’s back, the wretch.

Billa didn’t really like training. They were safe in the mountain now. What was the point of her keeping it up? Isn’t that why they had professional guards everywhere?

Unfortunately, like most dwarves when it came to fighting, Haeth didn’t care about her reasons. “We’ll restart your training tomorrow,” he commanded.

“But I just barely started getting my figure back,” she complained as she patted at her thickening middle. “As long as I can go on long rambles still, I don’t see the need. I’m fit enough and no one’s likely to attack me in the middle of all of you dwarves.”

“Don’t try to hide. I’ll just find you and make you practice twice as long,” Haeth threatened

Despite his warning, Billa still tried to hide behind Ori’s tall stacks of papers and books. Unfortunately, it did her no good. Haeth caught up to her before second breakfast. Ignoring her pout, he dragged her outside into a courtyard she’d never visited before.

“Borin,” he called to a dark-skinned guard she recognized, “my sister needs some practice staying in defensive shape.” He pushed her forward firmly, but gave her an affectionate pat before letting go. “Keep her plump, but make sure she can take someone down if she needs to.” Then he turned around and disappeared, the traitor. She scowled at his back.

Most of the dwarves practicing in the courtyard looked her up and down incredulously. Borin, who still treated her with suspicion when he saw her in the hallways, walked around her in a circle and then sighed with despair. “Do you even know how to use an axe?” he asked.

“Well, I’ve chopped wood with one, but that’s about it. Dwalin and Gloin tried to teach me attacks a few times, but I don’t really have an aptitude for it. Your axes are a bit too big and heavy for me,” she answered honestly, determined to cooperate and just get this over as quickly as possible. “I do have a very nice elven sword I’ve used when I had to, though most folk like to call it a dagger,” Billa trailed off at the dismay on his face.

Borin’s younger brother, Forin, stepped up and snorted. “Look at her, of course she’s not a fighter. She’s not got the build. And she’s supposed to stay plump, that’s what Haeth said.” He elbowed his brother in the side, “You can’t expect every female to be made like the Lady Dis.”

Billa blinked in surprise as Borin sighed and looked off into space worshipfully, “What a dwarf she is. I’d love to train with her.”

“Respectable and healthy hobbits are supposed to be soft and a bit plump.” Billa frowned disapprovingly at them both, “And Dis is happily married with two grown sons.”

Confusion crossed Borin’s face. “What’s that got to do with her fighting skills?”

Forin snorted and turned to his brother, grinning. “She thought you were getting romantic, as if you aren’t certain Dis would stomp your face into the ground if you so much as looked at her wrong and then let Haeth shave your head for good measure.” He turned to Billa and fake whispered, “He’s afraid to talk to her. Instead, he just worships from afar.”

A blush rose on Borin’s cheeks and he slapped the back of his brother’s head. “Don’t talk stupid. She’s just a really amazing fighter. I would never disrespect her like that. A few decades back she came through our town with a caravan and bested both Ma and Pa in a contest. She didn’t even break a sweat, just grinned through the whole competition. That night she came over and taught Ma how to block some of the attacks she used so no one else could try to use them on Ma again. I just want to train with her too,” he mumbled. “She’s the best.”

Then he refocused on Billa and scowled. “But we’re here to train you,” he transferred his scowl to his brother, “and not just sit around talking.” He turned back to Billa, “Do you know how to do anything?”

“Besides talking,” Forin teased cheekily.

“Of course I know things,” Billa put a hand on her hip and replied with annoyance, “which includes being quite good at talking, thank you very much. I bartered for the taters you ate for breakfast this morning and mediated the dispute between the thrush nation and the woodcutters guild last week. The ravens are now considering a similar deal with the shepherds guild. I also grow prize-winning tomatoes and tell wonderful stories, but you need to be more specific. What kind of skills are you asking me about?”

Borin looked to the sky as if begging for patience and sighed again. “Taters and thrushes, really? Why don’t you just show me something that doesn’t involve food, birds, or talking.” He folded his arms and shifted to lean back on one leg. “You can try to hit me. That might help me figure out just how much remedial training you need.”

“I’ve trained with the company a little,” Billa said defensively, though honesty then forced her to add, “but I am a respectable hobbit. I don’t really like weapons or hitting people.” At his look of disgust, she gave in and asked, “Alright, where should I hit you? I don’t want to hurt you.”

Placing his hands behind his neck, Forin laughed. “We’re dwarves and you’re just a hobbit. I doubt you could hurt him even if you wanted to. Just attack him. Go on, give it your best shot,” he said condescendingly as he stared down his freckled nose at her. “He probably won’t even feel it.” The two brothers then shared an amused look.

Being quite freckled herself, Billa had initially thought she liked Forin best of the brothers since they shared that feature, but now she wasn’t quite so sure. She didn’t like the way he looked down on her and height had nothing to do with it.  Neither of them expected much from her and didn’t seem to care if she could see their obviously low opinion of her. It was very disrespectful.

Huffing with annoyance, Billa decided to just get it over with and maybe teach them a lesson in the process. Taking a deep breath for focus, she took a quick double step, pivoted, pulled back her furry foot, and kicked out twice hard, once in the back of each brother’s knee, above the boot and right where she’d been taught. She’d become quite fond of this attack. Really, they shouldn’t have left themselves so open. That had just been sloppy and arrogant.

Borin and Forin both went down like a load of sticks and smacked into the ground. Hard. A little flurry of dust rose up into the air. Billa danced back out of reach, just in case, and kept her arms relaxed but on guard in case of counterattack. Her eyes quickly darted around, mapping out an escape route. Then she looked back at the two dwarves she’d knocked down.

The two brothers sat up slowly with gobsmacked expressions. They looked up at Billa from their position on ground.  The courtyard became silent as everyone noticed what had happened and turned to stare. Bill began to get worried. The brother’s looked at each other, back at Billa, and then Borin’s face broke into a smile as he started to laugh. Forin joined in with a loud bray, immediately followed by the rest of the dwarves practicing in the courtyard. Half of Borin’s face and hair looked white from the powdery dust on the ground. Forin tried to push himself to his feet, saw the dust-coated side of his brother’s face, and broke out laughing so hard that he slipped fell back down onto his side. With so many people laughing, Billa couldn’t help but join in with her own chuckles.

Eventually the laughter subsided. Dusting his beard off briskly, Borin stood up and rolled his head from side to side, cracking his neck. Then he then leaned over and hauled his brother to his feet.

Turning to Billa, Forin said, “You’ve made me eat my words, little hobbit. I think my brother and I both felt that.”

“That’s my best attack,” Billa confessed, “but usually I try not to fight if I don’t have to. I’ve been told to get in fast, strike hard, and then run away. I will and have fought to protect my friends. Don’t forget that I travelled side-by-side for months with the company to take back the mountain. I don’t like fighting, I’d prefer not to shed someone’s blood ever again, but if I have to fight, I can.”

“I won’t forget,” Borin said respectfully.

“That was a very good trick,” Forin added with a grin. “You’ll have to tell us more about your adventures some time.”

Nodding in agreement, Borin said, “For now, Mistress Baggins, we’ll just work on keeping up your basic attacks. You aren’t a dwarf, so I won’t expect you to fight like one.” Borin winked. “After all, as a respectable hobbit, we have to be careful not to lose your healthy plumpness. I’ll do my part if you do yours. Deal?” He held out his hand expectantly. Billa placed her small pale hand in his large dark one and shook on it.

After that, Borin and Forin became her staunch defenders. The rest of the guard couldn’t stay skeptical in the face of fighters like Dwalin, Haeth, Borin, and Forin all accepting her, and soon fell into line. They didn’t all like her, but they treated her with either friendliness or indifference instead of distrust and disdain. She’d take it.

The only people in the mountain that still treated her disapprovingly seemed rather disagreeable themselves and not worth her time anyways. She decided to just avoid them when possible and if not, treat them like her unpleasant relatives. Though to be honest, she just avoided her unpleasant relatives too.

One day, returned from her morning practice, Billa came upon a pair of dwarves gossiping as they hung up a restored tapestry in the hallway. They hadn’t noticed her quiet approach, which she appreciated when she heard them mention Thorin’s name. She wanted to know what they had to say.

“I’m just glad that’s over. I think that’s the first time I’ve heard King Thorin yell since we got here,” the red-haired dwarf said as he hoisted the roll of fabric up on his shoulder. “I mean, he’s always been a bit stern, but I don’t remember him yelling much. At least he’s healthy enough to yell now. That’s got to be good, right?”

Billa felt her eyes widening. Anxiety coiled through her belly. What was going on? Reaching into her pocket, she slipped on her ring and, now invisible, padded closer so as to better hear.

The dwarf’s blond companion groaned miserably. “I just wish it hadn’t been at me,” he said. “I mean, I’m glad he’s healthy now, but I was just trying to clean up his majesty’s room. How was I to know that some ugly old elven shirt with the seams half popped was so important? Anyone would have thrown it away!”

The breath caught in Billa’s throat. Were they talking about what she thought they were? Had Thorin sentimentally kept the shirt from their time together? Warmth and pleasure bubbled up into her chest, dispelling her unease.

Suddenly, she had a flashback.

“Take the time to do what you need to do, my treasure,” Thorin told her. “I’ll still be waiting for you when you’re done.” He took the shirt and pulled it on over his head. It looked a little silly, being both too long at the waist and too tight at the shoulders and arms, but Thorin didn’t seem to care.

Pulling the neckline up to his nose, he sniffed it. At Billa’s look, he turned bashful. “It smells like you,” he confessed softly, “almost like you’re still lying next to my heart.”

Coming back to herself, she dashed the tears out of her eyes. Thorin was still waiting for her, waiting for her to be done with her fears. He’d worked hard to earn back her trust and she felt so close to trusting him again. So close. While she could never forget what he’d done, she could accept, forgive, and move forward.

Sometimes she felt like Tosi and Dis didn’t understand her hesitance in the face of her open love for their brother and King. Billa had not yet shown anyone her tattoo because she didn’t want the added pressure. It either was or was not a soulmate mark, but it didn’t matter until she felt ready to open herself up and give herself over completely to Thorin. She deserved a marriage and bonding devoid of shadows. They both deserved to live in the sun.

Although he’d never admit it, their slow courtship had been good for Thorin too. He’d needed time to work on his own shadows. During those first weeks, his emotions had wildly seesawed. Even though he’d tried to hide it, she could tell that he carried a lot of guilt and shame over his actions. Thorin didn’t just have to prove his trustworthiness to his friends and family, he had to prove it to himself. She had seen him struggling to trust some of his own judgements, subtly double-checking with his closest advisors to see if his reactions were reasonable.

After the first couple of weeks, Thorin unexpectedly started drawing back from her touches and anything that smacked of a romantic overture. It had stung. If he still wanted to be with her, why would he act like that? Tauriel had caught her crying one day. Centuries of life really did give you good perspective. Their conversation had helped Billa to see his actions differently. Thorin withdrew not because he didn’t want her loving, but because he didn’t think he deserved it. She had forced herself to ignore the rejection and keep trying until he stopped withdrawing and started accepting and reciprocating again. Things were getting better now, but they had both needed the time to recover.

“You’re just lucky that elvish shirt didn’t get thrown away before you could find it again,” the redhead said, interrupting Billa’s revere as he reached up to hook his side of the tapestry on a hook.

“Don’t I know it,” his blond friend replied, hooking up the other side. “I had half the staff scrambling through the rubbish bins until we found it again. I’ve rarely seen him so upset, nor so relieved as when we found and handed it back over. He ordered us out in a voice that practically shook. Needless to say, we ran out as fast as we could and I’ve been barred by the rest of the staff from cleaning his room ever again. I would have refused anyways. I’m too scared to clean even the young princes’ rooms now.”

Tapestry hung, they stepped back and packed up their ladders. “Well,” his friend said with a commiserating smile as they walked off, “luckily for you we have so much mountain to clean that you could work for the rest of your life and never step foot in the royal wing again.”

“I’m counting on it,” his reply floated back as they disappeared.

Drifting back to her room thoughtfully, Billa slipped off her ring, ate her second breakfast, and then curled up to read a book. 

00

That night, Billa woke up from another nightmare of falling off the wall above the front gate. As had become her habit, she lit the lamp and then paced around the room until her breathing calmed. Unable to get back to sleep, she took off her sopping gown and used it to dry the cold sweat from her face and body. Then she picked up the second nightgown placed at the foot of her bed for just this purpose and put it on. Now freezing, she layered her dressing gown on top and went to lean against her windowsill to watch the sky brighten in preparation for sunrise.

In the dawn light, she realized that she couldn’t avoid it any longer. She couldn’t have an honest relationship with Thorin and stay in this mountain if she refused to go certain places. Avoiding them no longer helped. Billa didn’t want to live in dread of these dreams any more. She shouldn’t have to.

Going to her dresser, she pushed aside the piles of new skirts, pants, shirts, and waistcoats commissioned for her wardrobe and pulled out the green skirt knitted by Ori and the matching shirt from Lhénith. They’d been made with love and she needed that positive reminder right now. On top she layered her favorite green vest that she’d adorned with little tomato vines to remind her of her garden in Bag End. Then she pulled on her heaviest coat, a brown and cream color, to keep her warm. She hoped the physical warmth would transfer into emotional warmth. Billa would need it. Buckling on Sting, she slipped her ring into her pocket. She pulled her hair back into a simple braid and made sure that her beads hung against the tip of her ear as a reminder of why she needed to do this. One last quick brush of the hair on her feet to remove any tangles and she was ready to go.

The nearest dining room held only hard biscuits and a platter of jerky this early in the morning, but Billa couldn’t stomach anything heavy right now anyways. She was supposed to have an early breakfast with Ori in an hour, but she wasn’t going to make it today. Hopefully he wouldn’t mind too much. She gulped down a glass of water and forced herself to eat a biscuit because she knew she needed the strength.

Then she turned and walked towards the treasury. That felt like the lesser of the two evils she needed to visit today. Billa had worried that the guards would give her trouble, but they recognized her immediately. Without a word, they opened the doors at her approach and let her through, though she saw one of them eyeing Sting and her heavy coat with curiosity.

Inside the treasury, she paused for a moment to look around and remind herself that treasures could be pretty. They weren’t intrinsically bad. She didn’t feel the obsession other races, especially dwarves, seemed to feel, but she could acknowledge their beauty. A field bursting with colorful blooms, buzzing bees, and the sweet scent of pollen still seemed superior to her hobbit sensibilities, but the obvious artistry that had gone into many of these objects did impress her.

Proud of herself for being so positive, Billa made her way to the collapsed stairway at the back of the treasury. Smaug had destroyed it chasing them, but right before that, Thorin had pointed his sword at her and demanded the Arkenstone. Her feet slowed and became heavier, but they didn’t stop moving until she came to the base of the rubble. It had been tidied, but not repaired yet. Other areas of construction were much more pressing. It actually made her feel relieved, to have this bit of messiness in the treasury as another piece of evidence that Thorin’s obsession had ended.

Revisiting the memory, she saw the madness in his eyes so clearly now. Thorin had not been himself. Another Thorin had threatened her then, one having only the veneer of Thorin to cover a heart addicted to gold and corrupted by the shadow of the dragon.  That other Thorin was gone. Defeated.

Her Thorin, the real one, a dwarf who acted with honor and compassion, would never do that again. He’d done his best to apologize and make amends. Billa brought up a memory of his calm demeanor at a meeting yesterday and contrasted it to his insanity. Then she told herself to let the pain of the memory fade. She would forgive and let it go.

Next she walked down the aisles of treasure, trying to find the room where Thorin had found his suit of golden armor and dismissed their relationship. Did he even remember that moment among the many? Did he know how much it had hurt her? Perhaps not, but then again he had so many moments of regret that she’d realized that bringing up the specifics wouldn’t help either of them. He’d apologized over and over for all that he’d done. She needed to confront this one herself and move on.

Billa turned left, then right, and then marched straight ahead, looking for a familiar landmark, but everything just looked sparkly and confusing. Finally she admitted to being lost.  It seemed fitting, so she just paused at a random pile and forced herself to remember the night she’d tried to chase after Thorin. A few tears escaped her eyes, and then a few more, but she’d brought not one but two handkerchiefs with her. Tears were expected. After the weeping, her heart felt lighter.

Patting her face dry and wiping at her dripping nose, she tucked her handkerchief back into her pocket. Just as well she’d done this by herself. Crying always made her nose drip and then she ended up with a red nose that made her look ridiculous. She wished she could cry more delicately, but then again, even the most respectable of hobbit matrons occasionally got red noses.

As not just the only hobbit, but the only hobbit female surrounded by dwarven males for months on end, Billa had perhaps become a bit obsessed with notions of respectable behavior. As a Baggins in charge of Bag End, respectability had always been important. It reflected on her family and upon herself. The community demanded it of her. But surrounded by dwarves, she’d come to demand it of herself. It gave her comfort and strength. She would change herself to fit in only up to a point.

Certain restrictions, she could privately acknowledge, were stupid or unwanted in her present circumstances. Gradually she let those go. Other behaviors and standards, however, helped her keep her sense of self in the flood of change and confusion that had become her life. She would never be a dwarf and honestly didn’t want to become like one. Billa would always be a hobbit. She liked being a hobbit. But to stay true, she had to hold herself to certain standards of behavior. That meant respecting herself. It meant staying respectable.

Done with the treasury, Billa chose a direction and kept walking straight until she found the edge of the room. Then she walked along the wall until she found a door. Unfortunately, it was locked. Billa knocked and hoped for the best. She wanted to leave, not keep walking around the massive room. She really needed some fresh air and the reminder of life outside this treasury.

After a moment of tension, she knocked again louder. A few seconds later she finally heard the click of a lock turning. Then a tense and bewildered guard opened the door. She recognized him from her morning practices.

“Mistress Baggins,” he said, stepping aside to let her out and looking her up and down in confusion. “What are you doing in the treasury? Are you alright?” He gestured to what must be her red nose and puffy eyes and then looked down at her sword, which she usually never carried in the mountain. Billa had belted on Sting this morning instinctively because she knew she’d be fighting today. Her rational side had just forgotten to point out that she was fighting memories, not monsters.

“I’m fine, thank you,” she said, choosing to ignore his first question. “Could you tell me how to get to the front gate from here? The one that leads out of the mountain?” She just wanted to finish what she’d started. Then she’d lay a cold cloth over her eyes and let herself just lie in a patch of sunshine for a while until her skin felt warm and her muscles relaxed.

“Of course, but are you sure I can’t help you with anything else?” he asked. “I could come with you or perhaps find someone else to help?” He took a step away from the door.

Billa waved away his offer. “No, thank you. I don’t need an escort, just directions.” Although he seemed unhappy with her answer, he nevertheless gave her instructions and let her go.

Billa walked slowly through the hallways, dreading this last confrontation with her worst memory. She took a wrong turn, perhaps on accident, perhaps on subconscious purpose, but instead of giving herself a reprieve, she found herself in a dark and dusty corridor that had not yet been cleaned. The musty smell brought back the feeling of suffocating dread and drowning hope that had kept her so miserable when she’d first lived here.

Regretting her wandering thoughts and feet, Billa quickly retreated back the way she came. She forced herself to pay attention until she reached a more well-used hallway. Speeding up, she finally managed to exit into the brisk but fresh air outside. The bright sunlight felt welcoming. Spring would be here soon. Just being outside steadied her nerves.

As Billa looked around, she recognized her surroundings. She could see the courtyard where she regularly met up with Borin and Forin just across the way. The two brothers were training with guards she didn’t know. They hadn’t seen her and Billa wasn’t in the mood to talk, so she walked in the opposite direction until they were out of sight.

Second breakfast had come and gone. Elevensies approached, but she found her stomach too upset to even consider food. She had to finish this. Then she could curl up in her patch of sunlight inside, maybe even find a good book of tales to read and wait for her stomach to wake up and demand a snack.

Rounding another corner, Billa saw the front wall looming above her. She’d finally reached it. A staircase near the gate would take her to the top, to the place where Thorin had almost thrown her off. Her breath seized at the memory. She looked down at her furry feet, forced her lungs to breath, and kept putting one foot in front of the other. The cobblestones beneath her toes felt gritty. She tried to concentrate on that instead of the growing chill caused by the wall’s shadow as it dimmed the light the closer she came.

Billa no longer wanted to be haunted by bad memories. She wanted to trust Thorin again instead of flinching back when he appeared unexpectedly. Hadn’t she walked into a dragon’s den? Twice? She’d proven her courage. She could do this. She would do this.

Finally she reached the staircase leading up to the top of the front gate. Billa swallowed. Determined to be brave, she forced herself to look up, determined to step forward and up onto the steps without any more pauses. But when she saw who waited for her, she couldn’t help but jerk to a stop.

Thorin sat at the bottom of the staircase with his head crowned by shadows, brooding silently. Abruptly he leaned forward into the light and captured her gaze. His eyes looked unhappy, with the surrounding wrinkles pronounced, and he’d forgotten to braid his beard or put on his coat. He held something clenched inside one white-fisted hand.

“If you’re going to sneak out, Burglar, you should at least take a pack with you,” Thorin said into the charged silence.

“What?” Billa asked, still scrambling to find her equilibrium.

“A pack,” he over-emphasized, “with provisions for your long journey. It’s both dangerous and foolish to rely solely on the charity of men and elves. They are fickle in their kindnesses. I’ve warned you about that.”

Abruptly he stood up from the steps and glared down at her. “You could have told me. If you didn’t want my help, or feared my reaction, you still could have turned to our friends or to Haeth. He is your brother now and, despite the shortness of your acquaintance, bears much affection for you. He would have outfitted you for your journey and made sure you had an escort home. He would have kept you safe.”

“But,” Billa tried to say, but Thorin cut her off.

Gesturing sharply, Thorin added, “It is the height of foolishness to set off for the Shire without supplies, companions, or even a map! A little gold from the treasury isn’t going to help you much after the first time you get robbed. Don’t be so stupid, Billa!” he roared.

“Are you done calling me stupid yet?” Billa snapped. “Because you seem to be yelling at me for trying to leave when I’m not even trying to leave!”

“You’re not?” he shouted.

“No!” she yelled back, barely refraining from tearing out her hair.

A pair of dwarves rushed by with their heads down, pointedly not looking at the two of them as they disappeared through the gate and down the road.

Thorin collapsed back down onto the stairs. “But,” he said in almost a normal tone of voice, “you didn’t show up for any of the morning meals. No one could find you. Then we heard that you’d left the treasury asking for the quickest route to the front gate. You had your sword and heavy coat and had been crying. We thought you’d decided to take your money and leave.”

He stared down at the hand on his lap, still clenched around something so hard it looked like it hurt. “I thought that you’d given up on me, on us.”

Sighing gustily, Billa stepped forward, turned, and plopped down next to him on the steps. “I don’t have any money left in the treasury. I gave my entire share away to keep the peace, remember?” She felt his shoulders shrug equivocally.

“I may have been crazy then, but I’m sane now, and I still think you gave them too much,” he muttered after a moment.

Billa cleared her throat in warning, “We agreed not to argue about that again after the Elven delegation finally left, remember?”

“I remember you and Gloin agreeing to that,” he sulked. Billa not so gently elbowed him in the side. “Fine, I’ll try to stop bringing it up… as long as you’re still staying?”

Glancing over at his unhappy face, Billa said, “I wouldn’t leave without telling you first. You don’t need to worry about that.” She leaned against his warm bulk and looked out into the courtyard. “I’m not leaving you. I love you too much. I’m just walking around trying to exorcise some bad dreams.”

Thorin’s stiff posture relaxed. Dropping his head, he blew out a breath and then leaned into her side. For a few minutes they just sat next to each other in silence. A cart rumbled through the gate, into the courtyard, and around the corner towards the kitchens.

Finally, Thorin turned his head and kissed her gently on the temple. “You leaving is one of my bad dreams,” he said quietly. “When I heard about your unusual behavior this morning, I feared the worst. Once again, I am so sorry, atmêlê.”

Looking over, Billa asked quietly, “What does that word mean? You’ve used it before.”

“Ah,” he breathed softly, pausing to think. “In Westron you would perhaps say, my breath of all breaths.” He looked at her from the corner of his eye. “Sometimes I think I never felt truly alive until I met you. When you are gone, I feel like I cannot breathe with the emptiness. When you are by my side, I feel like I could fly. You are the air in my lungs, the one breath that is sweeter and more sustaining than any other. You are my life, my soul’s perfect fit, my atmêlê.”

“Oh,” she said softly, looking down at her lap with a pleased blush. From the corner of her eye she saw the side of his mouth lift in the barest of smiles at her reaction.

Billa turned to look at his face more closely, only to be confronted with the top of the wall looming above their heads. “Does it bother you?” she blurted out the question.

At his confused look, she clarified, “I mean going up to the wall above the gate. I find myself avoiding it completely because of the bad memories. Have you been back up there?”

Thorin flinched as if struck and dragged in a deep breath. “The memory finds me whether I avoid the wall or not,” he answered, “but perhaps I do shun this place, for I’ve only been up there once since, the moment before we joined the battle. Part of the wall was destroyed when we blew out the gate in our charge. It gives me some small comfort to think that the stones which bore witness to the height of my cruel insanity have been reduced to rubble.”

Tilting his head to the side, he added, “I’ve often wished that both of our bad memories might be so easily destroyed.”

She nodded in agreement, then asked, “Why did you go up there again right before the battle?”

“Because I had to,” he said. “I hated myself at that moment. In succumbing to madness, I betrayed my people, my love, and myself. My only remaining hope was to die a glorious death in battle that might in some part atone for my sins. I fully believed that you hated me too, and rightly so.” Thorin took a ragged breath. “The last time I had touched you, even if it had been in violence, was on top of this wall, so I went up there and knelt down in that place and asked forgiveness of the gods for what I’d done in my madness. I begged them to protect your life during the battle and gladly promised my life and all my treasure in exchange.”

“Then I looked down and saw a piece of the hair clasp I’d carved for you. It lay broken on the ground. I picked it up and put it in my pocket, a reminder of my need to atone and a reminder that before I’d ruined everything, I had both loved and been loved. It felt like a talisman for the battle to come and it must have worked, for I survived when by all rights I should have died.” He sent her a sideways glance, “Though I have you to directly thank for that, I hear.”

Billa shook her head. “I didn’t do much except get a few people to where they could do the most good.”

“You did much more than that,” Thorin said. “I find it strange that you have no trouble boasting about your story telling and vegetable growing, but then turn around and sell yourself short when we try to compliment your actions.”

She shrugged uncomfortably. “That’s different.”

“I’m sure I don’t help,” he admitted. “I know I have been sparse with praise, but I will do better.” He turned and held out his clenched hand expectantly, “I will try to be better about giving you all that you are owed.”

Confused, Billa held out her hand beneath his fist. Thorin opened his hand, dragging his blunt fingertips across her skin in the process. Something smooth and round dropped into her palm. It felt familiar, but… it couldn’t be, could it?

Then Thorin’s hand dropped away, revealing the opalescent shimmer of the Arkenstone. Even in the shadowed sunlight on the stairway, it shone like a sky full of rainbows captured inside of a seashell. She’d always found it beautiful, but it had also been the source of so much pain.

“Wha-? Why?” Billa asked, not understanding the gesture.

“I’m returning it. It’s yours,” Thorin said.

Billa shook her head in negation and kept her hand outstretched. “No, it’s not. I found it, hid it, used it, but only to keep you all safe and with the surety that it would be given back to you. I know it’s not mine. I’m not truly a thief.”

“It is yours,” Thorin interrupted, “but not because you are a thief or any of the other horrible things I called you that day.” Cupping her trembling hand in his large one, he took his other hand and closed her fingers around the stone. Then he moved her hand down to her lap and gently let go. “It is yours because you asked for it once and I gave it to you.”

Brow crinkled, Billa looked at him in confusion.

“You once, believing me to be asleep, touched my soulmark and asked for the heart of the mountain. I heard you, don’t you remember?” Thorin asked.

“Yes,” she breathed, remembering lying next to him in bed in their hot springs room, remembered tracing his soulmark in the middle of the night and saying those words. “But-”

Thorin cut her off, “You asked for the heart of the mountain and I told you to take it, that it was already yours. It has always been yours even before I knew it myself.”

“But I was just doing a play on words using artichoke, asking for the artichoke’s heart or mountain’s heart because what I really wanted was your heart. I wanted you to love me,” Billa said.

“And I do love you,” Thorin said fervently. “But at the moment I gave you my heart, I also gave you the Arkenstone. It has ever been known as the Heart of the Mountain. If I had remembered giving it to you, if I had just listened to your words of caution, I might have been protected from my madness. Looking back, I see all of the ways Mahal and my ancestors tried to save me from what happened, but I refused to look past my own pride until the very end. Only with you gone and my family and friends estranged, only at that final moment did I humble myself enough to look at myself truly and break free from my madness.”

The sun crested the edge of the wall, brightening their spot on the stairs. Thorin continued, “The Arkenstone is yours to do with as you will. I gave you my heart and I gave you the heart of my mountain. One day, I hope we can once more share the gift of trust. I mistakenly took my gifts away, but now I return what I can. It would please me greatly to have you keep both my hearts.”

Billa swallowed and nodded. Then she unbuttoned her coat with unsteady hands and slipped the stone into her vest pocket. “Thank you for returning them. I will take good care of such treasures.”

Buttoning her coat back up, she stood and looked up the now sunlit staircase. Billa took a deep breath of the cool air and felt a sense of rightness. Going up the stairs didn’t seem quite so daunting now. “I need to go up there and put that memory to rest. Then I want to go and eat lunch.” She looked down into Thorin’s face.

“Would you like me to wait for you here or would you prefer me to leave?” he asked steadily.

Instead of answering, she held out her hand. Thorin looked at her face searchingly. Then he took her hand, stood up, and turned to stand next to her. She squeezed his fingers and he squeezed back. Shared comfort and sorrow flowed back and forth through their bond, which had been mostly quiet lately. The two of them climbed the staircase and stood at the top of the wall with the wind whisking their hair and clothing back and forth. Without saying a word, Billa passed over her extra handkerchief to Thorin so he could dry his eyes. Together they confronted their demons and then together they climbed back down the wall.

Billa let Thorin stop by his rooms to comb and braid his hair. She put her coat away. Then they ate lunch together. Afterwards, they attended a meeting to discuss the upcoming Festival of Spring.

As Billa thought about how spring represented new beginnings and new growth, she felt something in her heart hatch open. A certainty grew. She would be ready by then. Her faith in Thorin was almost completely restored. At the festival, she would show Thorin her mark and, if it really was a soulmark, agree to bond with and marry him.

TBC

Chapter Text

“If you don’t stop playing in the dirt soon, Ghivashel, your nose is going to turn red again and you’ll miss the meeting,” Thorin said unexpectedly from right behind her shoulder.

“Oh!” Billa jumped in surprise and looked back. “Where did you come from?”

Teeth flashing white, Thorin laughed, “Right behind you. I’ve been standing here for almost five minutes admiring your backside.”

“Thorin!” she exclaimed, a blush rising to her cheeks. “Don’t be vulgar and don’t lurk. It’s unbecoming in a King.” Sitting back on her heels, she sent him a scowl and then stretched out her stiff muscles. Tucking her little notebook back into her pocket, she looked down at what she’d accomplished.

While puttering away in her little garden she must have lost track of time. The little seedlings had just started breaking the earth. Because of soil and weather differences with the Shire, she wanted to carefully document each stage of growth. That way she could improve each year until the plants met her high standards. Billa was particularly determined to provide Erebor with the tastiest and most succulent tomatoes the dwarves had ever seen. She missed eating good tomatoes.

Gardening would go faster, though, if Thorin wouldn’t keep popping in unexpectedly. She never knew when or if to expect him when she visited her little garden patch. He didn’t come every day, and when he did visit it didn’t occur at a consistent time. However she couldn’t help but keep an eye out hopefully. Just this morning she’d almost drowned a seedling because she thought she’d heard his footsteps. Annoyed with her carelessness, she’d made herself get serious and focus. Of course he would sneak in once she stopped looking for him.

Thorin shrugged unrepentantly. “If you don’t want me to talk about your backside, I can say that I was admiring the nape of your neck instead. That’s also true.” His eyes became heavy lidded. “I want to nibble on your soft skin and breathe in that spot right behind your ear that always smells good, Laslelê.”

“You are trouble,” Billa scolded with her bright red face. “If you start something now I definitely won’t make the meeting.”

“They’re just elves,” Thorin said, stalking forward slowly. “We could both skip the meeting,” he tempted.

Billa sprang to her feet and jumped back a few steps just in case. “Thorin,” she said warningly. “They’re the official delegation for Thranduil’s Kingdom, here to continue negotiations to keep the peace and promote trade. We have to make them feel welcome and appreciated. Showing up late will offend them and make the talks more difficult. Remember? You were the one to suggest I be on the welcoming committee to help smooth over the tension. You also got everyone to gang up on me and make me promise not to let my friends talk me into a visit this spring. After that, I’m not missing the meeting. It’s important.”

“Very well,” Thorin grumbled and stopped his advance. Then he looked at her through his eyelashes, “But you’ll have to hurry up to make it on time. I could help you change out of your dirty clothes.”

Hands on her hips, Billa sent him a speaking look.

“Or I could walk you very respectably back to your rooms and wait outside,” he said, shifting tracks smoothly. Holding out his arm chivalrously, he gave her a look of stately innocence. “Shall we go?”

Unable to suppress a laugh, Billa dusted her dirty hands off on her gardening pants and stepped up to take his arm. He placed his other hand over hers with pleased possessiveness.

“Although tempting, I’ll take the escort through the halls only, thank you,” Billa said.

“It will still be my pleasure, Agyâdê,” Thorin said as he turned them to walk through the door leading off the terrace and back into the mountain.

Thorin had already dressed for the formal meeting. He wore a dark green jacket over a plum shirt embellished with small purple gems. The pattern of the jewel chips looked similar to that decorating the arms of his throne.

Just this morning, Billa had learned that those purple jewels were called amethysts. Dis had mentioned it while helping her pick an outfit for the meeting. Suddenly she felt suspicious. Was it really coincidence that Dis had delivered an amethyst encrusted headband and a high-necked gown in the dwarven style with embroidered plum ribbons for Billa to wear? An outfit that matched Thorin’s inner shirt so well?

Unlikely. Dis probably wanted to send a message to the elven delegation to not get any ideas about taking the hobbit back with them, that Billa belonged to the dwarves in general and to Thorin in particular. Dwarves could be so ridiculous.

For a moment she considered wearing a different dress just to be difficult, but she didn’t have any clothing nicer than the new dress. Sighing, Billa decided to let it go, but to make sure to be extra friendly to the elves just in case. Maybe she’d disappear into their rooms once or twice for a bit of tea too. The dwarves had hated that last time. Billa smirked to herself.

Then she had another delightfully evil thought. She could wear the wooden bracelets Tauriel had carved for her. Billa almost never wore them because she didn’t want to break them while gardening or training. Wearing those would show honor to the elven delegation and send the message that she didn’t belong to the dwarves, she was her own person.

“What has you so amused?” Thorin asked, rubbing the side of her hand with his thumb.

Billa scrambled for something to say besides the truth. She didn’t want him to spoil her plans, which he totally would. “Oh, I was just thinking about how sweet Dori’s courtship of Lumi is. You’ve met her, right? The master silversmith that came on the last big caravan with the bright smile and loud laugh?”

“Yes, I knew her from before,” Thorin said. “I didn’t realize they’d gotten serious again so quickly. I remember that they’d courted, but it hadn’t worked out.”

“Lumi’s older brother passed away in another settlement, so she had to leave to raise her nephew until he reached his majority and completed his apprenticeship with the local guild. Dori had to stay to look after Nori and Ori, so they reluctantly parted ways,” Billa explained quietly. “They’re both just lucky to get a second chance now.”

Thorin tucked her arm closer to his side. “We’re all lucky to get second chances, Atmêlê.”

Looking over at Thorin, Billa smiled. She certainly felt blessed to get a second chance with him. “Can I ask you a question?”

He raised an eyebrow in inquiry.

Billa licked her lips nervously. “I overheard Dori saying sweet things to Lumi a few times. The words sounded similar to things you’ve said to me, but the end of the words sounded different. Your words always have an ê sound at the end and Dori’s don’t, like atmêl vs atmêlê. I wondered what the difference means, if you’re allowed to tell me?” she asked.

A light blush stained Thorin’s cheeks as they came to rest in front of Billa’s door. He turned without relinquishing her arm and looked down at their clasped hands. Tension built as he hesitated.

Then, as if annoyed with himself, he shook his head sharply and looked up into her face. “It means mine,” he said bluntly. “My breath, my happiness, my treasure. You are the only person I’ve ever wanted to make mine. Only you are my love of all loves. You have my heart and you own the open place in my soul, even if you can’t read ancient runes and so never get the mark, even if my punishment is a lack of proof. I know better. You own me, Billa” he declared, breathing heavily as he gazed into her wide eyes.

Thorin released her hand gently and stepped back.

“I want to own you, but I don’t,” he whispered, “not yet. No matter what happens though, a part of you will always be mine. I won’t give it away. It can’t be taken from me.  But I wait in hope for more. I wait for you to give all of yourself to me. That is what I mean, marlelê. Mine.”

Knees weak, heart pounding, she stared at the barely leashed passion in his face. The tension felt thick enough to slice with a carving knife. Billa opened and closed her mouth, so many thoughts jostling for precedence. She scrambled to decide whether to ask about the ‘even if you never get the mark / lack of proof’ part, to discuss his possessiveness, or to throw herself at his lips and try to kiss him senseless without knocking their teeth together painfully in the process.

As a respectable spinster she’d always resisted the idea of being owned by a man, but owning each other sounded nice. Very nice. Especially when that man was Thorin.

Before she could untangle her tongue, Thorin took another step back and gave her a short bow. “It’s alright Billa, I’ll wait. You don’t need to worry about it now.”

He looked away and swallowed his intensity, putting back on the stoic face that he often used to hide his thoughts. “We’re going to be late for the meeting with the elves. I’ll stall anything serious until you’re there to smooth things over.”

Billa nodded in agreement and took a deep breath. As a talented storyteller and quick-witted spinster, she’d never had a problem speaking her thoughts until she’d met Thorin. No one else in the world could tie her up in knots like he could. However, no one else could make her feel so fizzy and floaty either. 

“I’ll be there soon,” she said seriously, “very soon,” answering both of his questions with a solemn promise.

Thorin stopped breathing as he caught her meaning. It seemed like a bonfire had burst into flame behind his eyes as he gazed intently into her face, incinerating his stoic mask. Holding her eyes, he nodded acknowledgement.

“Sire?” An obnoxious voice interrupted. “Sire, I’ve been looking for you everywhere. The delegation has arrived and is waiting for your arrival. You’re going to be late.”

Still looking at Billa, he swallowed hard and closed his eyes to gain control. When he opened them, the fire was once more banked. “I’ll be waiting for you,” he vowed softly. Then he turned and strode down the hallway, quickly disappearing with the pushy messenger.

Slipping inside her room, Billa closed the door and leaned against it heavily, lifting hands to her burning cheeks, feeling scorched by Thorin’s intensity. In the privacy of her room, she allowed herself to curse the timing of the upcoming meeting and the messenger. She’d just decided to launch herself at Thorin’s face and hang the consequences before they’d been interrupted. She’d wanted that kiss. After that speech and the look on his face, Thorin deserved a kiss. She deserved a kiss!

Life just wasn’t fair sometimes.

00000000000

The next day, Billa received a formal invitation to go on a picnic with several ladies from the elven delegation. She immediately sent back her agreement before any of her friends could try to stick their big noses in it. When the dwarves found out they were not happy about it. When she refused to give in to their silliness and stay behind, Dis and Thorin got the same annoyed, constipated look on their faces. She told them so too.

Billa felt very annoyed with yesterday’s meeting. She’d been invited to meet with the elven delegation to keep things cordial. However, after the head of the delegation specifically complimented the elven styling on her wooden bracelets, the dwarves had gone stiff and conspired to barely let her speak to anyone! It had gotten quite rude.  She’d barely managed a proper greeting for their trade minister or Lhénith. At one point, Gloin had almost bumped into Golweneth when the woman tried to take Billa’s hand. Luckily the elf hadn’t noticed Billa swiveling to block his path. It was mortifying. It was like they didn’t trust her to not go running off to live with the elves the first time one of them smiled at her or something, despite her promise not to.

When Billa left to go outside to meet up with the elven party, she found an amused Tauriel and a grumpy Dis waiting in the corridor. “It was decided that all the ladies in the family are going to go on the picnic to show honor to the delegation,” Tauriel said with obviously fake solemnity. She looked around with exaggerated suspicion before adding, “And to make sure you stay safe from their seductive elven wiles.” Then she looked back at Billa and smiled wickedly, “Won’t this be fun?” Dis’s scowl deepened as she crossed her arms and sent Tauriel a glare.

Nonplussed, Billa turned to Dis. “I’m sure I’ll be fine. You don’t have to come along, not unless you want to, that is.”

Dis gritted her teeth. “Of course I want to come and… picnic with the elves,” she choked out.

Clapping her hands, Tauriel said, “Wonderful! I’m sure you’ll enjoy exploring the woods and examining the trees and flowers with us. Let’s go then, shall we ladies? We want to make sure we have enough time to really explore in depth the different types of plants along the way. I heard that there’s a bet going on about if they’ll find more than twenty different kinds of moss. You can help keep score, Dis.”

The elf really did have a mischievous sense of humor. It usually helped her to fit in unexpectedly well with her new family, except at times like this, when racial prejudice reared its ugly head and she decided to poke at the hornets’ nest.

“I’m happy to have you join me, Dis,” Billa said hastily, “but this picnic is supposed to be fun. If you’re just going to be angry and miserable the whole time, I’d rather you stay here and beat up guardsmen for pleasure instead.”

Shaking off the cloud over her head, Dis stopped frowning and made an effort to look genial. “As sister to the King and mother through marriage to Tauriel, I need to get more used to elven ways anyways. I’m coming along and that’s final.”

After a minute of walking, Dis looked over at Billa and added, “Though as you’ve rightly guessed, I do find pleasure in beating up guardsmen, especially the handsome ones. It’s fun to make them sweat and, if you’re lucky, they get hot and start stripping off their shirts. Then you get to fight them half-naked and all worked up. Haven’t you noticed that in your morning workouts?”

“What? No!” Billa squawked, blushing hard.

“She even says things like that in front of her husband,” Tauriel said, turning to Billa with a mock whisper. “Can you believe it?”

“Of course I do,” Dis said unashamedly. “He’s the most handsome and fun of all to get to strip down when fighting. It’s how he finally got me to court him, you know. He ripped off his shirt, threw it at my feet, and challenged me to wrestling. I got so distracted by all that hard muscle and luscious skin that I actually lost. I immediately challenged him to a rematch. Needless to say, we’ve loved wrestling ever since. In fact, we especially love to wrestle when-,” she made to continue, but Billa and Tauriel both shouted, “stop!” and thrust out their hands in a bid for mercy.

“That’s enough, mother of my husband,” Tauriel said through horrified laughter. “I do not need any more details about you, Haeth, and wrestling.”

“No, thank you,” Billa seconded.

“Besides,” Tauriel added, “if you’re going to traumatize me, at least wait until Kili’s here so I can benefit from his horrified embarrassment.”

Laughing wickedly, Dis strode forward and past the red-faced guard holding the door open for the three ladies to exit. Dis sent him a wink that made him fumble his spear and turn even redder. Despite the impropriety, Billa couldn’t help but see the humor in the situation. These people had infected her. She might as well admit defeat.

“You should probably include Fili too,” Billa said with mock-concern. “I wouldn’t want him to feel left out.” After all, she still had a score to settle with him for making her train with the guard three times a week, even if she mostly liked the guards now. She’d still rather be sitting in a chair reading a book and snacking at that time of day.

Looping her arm through Billa’s, Dis turned and said, “You really are a sister to me.” Then the three of them dissolved into laughter. Each time they almost stopped laughing, someone would say something like “wrestling” or “their faces” and set them all off again.

When Billa finally caught her breath after giggling so hard, she realized that they’d been joined by the other elves. The ladies looked bemused by the trio’s high spirits. Each elf carried a light pack on her back.

“Shall we go, then?” Golweneth asked them all with a smile.

“I only brought a water skin,” Billa said. “Is there anything I can help you carry?”

Shaking her head, Golweneth said, “Our burdens are light and you are a guest. Do not worry, Mistress Baggins.”

“Billa, please. My friends call me Billa.” She looked around at all the elves as she said this, wanting them to know she included them all as her friends.

Golweneth smiled in pleasure. “Very well, Billa. I am honored to so address you, my friend. Now, let us start our exploration, shall we?”

After a few minutes of walking, Tauriel took the lead and turned the group so they travelled down and away from the mountain slopes. At Dis’s look, she explained, “I discovered a natural hot springs a few miles from here by a river and a lovely meadow full of spring flowers. We can have our meal and a nice dip before heading back. You’ll have to let me know if you’ve been there before, Dis.”

The dwarf looked around at the rocks and trees with a far off look in her eyes. “It’s been a long time and I was very young when I last lived here. I’m not sure I remember much of the surrounding countryside,” she said sadly. “I’ve been too busy in the mountain to go out exploring.”

“Then we’ll get the excitement of discovering it together,” Billa said, bumping Dis lightly with her hip.

Running her thumb lightly down the side of her short beard, Dis looked over fondly. “I’d like that.”

A few hours later, they broke through the woods and into a clearing bordered on one side by a small river. The day had started off cool but warmed up as they’d walked. “The promised hot springs,” Tauriel gestured grandly. About twenty steps in from the shore of the river sat several small pools shimmering with small bubbles. The group let out a cheer and began unpacking the lunch supplies.

“I’m starving!” Billa exclaimed.

“We’ll have to make sure to test the water temperature before getting in to avoid scalds,” Dis said, examining the springs and the rocky shore. “I don’t remember hearing about this before, but it looks pleasant enough. I wonder if the werewyrms digging such large tunnels disrupted the underlying strata enough to reroute some of the geothermal currents. There’s a lot of interesting minerals around here that don’t have the proper patina for years of topside exposure. I’d have to explore more to know for sure. I don’t think we have to worry about erupting magma though. The geothermal activity warms the springs, but luckily for us I don’t see much fresh basalt or rhyolite.”

Everyone turned and looked at the dwarf in confusion. Dis raised her own eyebrows and looked around for an ally. Not finding one, she sighed loudly and rolled her eyes. “Fine, let me rephrase for the ignorant. The springs look newly formed but not dangerous, though the water could be hot enough to burn. Check before getting in.”

“Thank you for the warning,” Golweneth said coolly.

Dis opened her mouth, then seemed to think better of it and closed it with another, ‘why am I the only dwarf here?’ sigh.

Tauriel stepped forward and pointed to the nearest springs. “I wouldn’t have brought you here without making sure things were safe. I checked for boiling water already. The one closest to the clearing and the next two down the shore have safe temperatures. The fourth one down though, the one with extra steam, is too hot and will cause injury if entered. We should be fine as long as you avoid that one.”

Billa smiled at her sisters, happy Dis’s disgruntlement hadn’t turned into arguing. “Hey look,” she exclaimed in an attempt to distract from the subtle tension still lingering between the two women, “the clearing is full of flowers! We can look them over after eating.”

“Oh joy,” Dis mumbled under her breath.

After having a nice lunch, the elves, hobbit, and dwarf explored the clearing and debated which flower looked and smelled the best. Despite some initial hesitation over looking at flowers instead of rocks, Dis eventually joined in on the fun, although only for a few minutes. At least she smiled through those short minutes. After quickly picking a gorgeous delphinium that she declared had the perfect sapphire jewel tone, Dis abandoned them to their enthusiasm to lie down in the shade of a tree for a nap.

To Billa, it felt just like an afternoon ramble out with her cousins before they’d all gotten married and too busy for long rambles through the countryside. The nostalgia made her a little sad, yet having female time with her family of choice and friends made her feel happy at the same time. She’d missed other women during those long months travelling with the company. It was nice to have that now, even if she didn’t have any hobbits here. Maybe she could entice an adventurous cousin or two to come and visit, or have Gandalf push someone her way? Billa turned her head and wiped away a tear while simultaneously smothering a giggle.

Then she bounded forward to properly put forth her measured opinion on the best flower of them all. The party never reached a consensus, and Dis’s loud snoring conveyed her opinion of their debate, but that wasn’t the point anyways. Everyone had a wonderful time and Billa learned several delightful new songs in the process. She even taught the elven ladies a few of her mother’s favorite flower picking songs.

During a Lull, Lhénith  proudly announced that she’d gotten closest to guessing the correct number of moss species to be found during their hike. It turned out that Tauriel had been serious about that and not just saying it to poke fun at Dis. The other elven ladies groaned but handed over their stakes for the bet: what looked like beads and shiny bits of shell.

“I think I’m properly digested and done debating the flora,” Golweneth stated. “Let’s retire to the spring, shall we?”

After a reminder to avoid the fourth pool, the party split into two groups. One group sat in the near scalding water of the third pool while the rest of them settled down in the first pool. To Billa, who’d poked in a toe already, the temperature felt just about perfect.

Billa went to wake up Dis while the elves got settled. But then Dis surprised her by quickly toeing off her boots, rolling down her pants, and jerking her shirt over her head. In less than a minute she’d completely stripped.

Then she jumped into the first pool with a whoop, causing the elves to shriek as water splashed up and over everyone’s hair and faces. Billa caught a quick glimpse of a black tattoo on Dis’s upper arm, similar to one of Dwalin’s, before the dwarf disappeared beneath the water. She surfaced with a boisterous laugh and ignored both the dirty looks and the water streaming off of her bangs and beard.  She bobbed over to sit against the wall next to Tauriel.

Seeing Dis’s tattoo made Billa suddenly freeze in indecision. What about her own tattoo, the mark that had mysteriously appeared in Laketown all of those months ago? Was she ready for people to see it? For the questions?

“Hurry up and get in, Billa. No need to feel shy,” Tauriel called out.

Maybe she was ready or maybe she wasn’t, but Billa was sick of thinking about it. She wanted her hot bath. Turning to the side, she slid out of her clothes and pulled her thick braid of hair over her shoulder to hide her mark. It covered it nicely. As long as she was careful, no one would probably even notice it. Billa walked down to the pool and carefully slid into the hot water. She couldn’t help but release a little hum of satisfaction at the sensation.

Conversation stayed light and languorous at first, but then Tauriel, who’d taken a bit of a break to cool off by sitting on the rim of the spring, got a mischievous look on her face and kicked out. The resultant splash caught Dis full in the face, drenching her from beard to eyebrows. Still dripping, Dis let loose a toothy grin and reached out faster than a striking snake, pulling Tauriel off her perch and dunking her completely under the water. Surfacing with a sputtering flail, Tauriel tried to splash back at Dis, but in her disorientation hit Golweneth and Lhénith instead.

“Now you’ve done it,” Golweneth said, still regal and commanding even naked and without her usual bone crown. Her standing up caused both Tauriel and Dis to freeze and look over guiltily. “This means war,” Golweneth pronounced seriously, and then spoiled the gravitas by grinning and splashing them both full in the face.

The pool dissolved into an all-out water fight. Billa dunked Lhénith from behind, but then Tauriel’s splashing forced her into almost an immediate retreat. Golweneth managed to catch Tauriel with a wave of water that left the redhead sputtering. Alliances formed and disappeared without any rhyme or reason. The other pool of elves cheered their favorites on like a sports match. After emptying probably half the pool with their splashing, they finally cried peace and fell back against the sides of the pool panting.

Billa felt buoyed by happy exhaustion until Dis abruptly jumped up and pointed. “What is that?” she practically screeched. “How long have you been hiding it? I thought hobbits didn’t do tattoos, found them not respectable or whatever?”

Billa’s mind raced. “What, you mean my birthmark?” she asked, turning her shoulder away from Dis to point at the large brown splotch on the back of her arm that had so confused Fili and Kili.

“Nooooo,” Tauriel said, ganging up with Dis. “I think she means that colorful thing on your shoulder that you’ve been hiding beneath your hair. I just noticed it too.”

Looking around at the ring of curious and expectant faces, Billa sighed and gave in. Reaching up with slightly trembling fingers, she pulled her hair back behind her shoulder. “I don’t know what it is.”

Dis tilted her head to the side skeptically, “What do you mean you don’t know? That’s a lot of ink, though only a hobbit would get a tattoo with plants and insects. It must have taken hours, if not days, to get. That level of artistry doesn’t happen quickly. Stop stalling and spill. When did you get it and what does it mean?” Then she squinted. “Hey, I think those little runes are dwarven!”

“Well Billa?” Tauriel said. “We’ve seen it. You have to tell us about it now. Does this have something to do with the company or with Thorin? Not even Kili’s said anything to me about it.”

Feeling cornered and on the verge of either saying something grumpy or passing out, Billa couldn’t help but feel grateful when Golweneth stepped in. “If it is something private or sacred to Billa, she is not obligated to share it with us, no matter your curiosity.”

The support helped her to take a few deep breaths to calm down. “This is private, so please don’t discuss it with others. I was being honest when I said I don’t know.  The mark, well, it just appeared on my shoulder when the company reached Laketown. Before that, my skin was clear except for my mole. I almost fainted several times from the shock,” she explained, looking down at her little tomato vine and the lifelike butterfly bathed by a rising sun. “There are also the symbols I can’t read.  I have no idea where the mark came from or what it means. I even considered that tattoos might somehow be infectious among dwarves like some strange form of the flu, or perhaps that elves might have some magical way to mark escaped prisoners.” She looked over at Dis and Tauriel, only to receive simultaneous derisive snorts.

Billa sighed heavily and scratched at the pointed tip of her ear. “Well, I didn’t have it in Mirkwood, but I did after our escape. I haven’t told anyone about it. I tried to at first, but then the company split up and things got too crazy. After that, I had so much else to deal with that I didn’t want to think about it yet, so I just ignored it.” She shrugged grumpily. To be honest, she would have been quite happy to go on ignoring it for quite a bit longer.

“You say it just appeared out of nowhere?” Lhénith asked with fascination. “I saw it when examining you for further wounds in the healing tent, but didn’t feel it appropriate to mention without your consent. I’ve never heard of a mark just appearing out of nowhere unless it was a soulmark, but that looks nothing like any soulmark I’ve ever seen. Are you sure this isn’t a soulmark that’s found only in hobbits?”

“Of course I’m sure,” Billa snapped before she could get a hold of her temper. “Sorry, but hobbits don’t do tattoos and soulmates are rare. In hobbits, once you meet your soulmate, there is no confusion or doubt. You know it. You are drawn to bond with them as soon as possible and start making hobbit babies. You feel uneasy if separated for too long. You ignore propriety and act passionate in public. No hobbit wants a soulmate! Besides, if a hobbit has a soulmate, they are born with a very simple soulmark that is a single color shared between the two. The mark can be anywhere, but is always either a plant or animal, not both. We aren’t like humans, who are born with matching marks. We also don’t have multiple types like dwarves and soulmarks can’t just appear unexpectedly as an adult like in elves. This is elaborate and colorful and has writing! Writing that I can’t read! If it is a soulmark, it is not a hobbit one. I have had no confirmation of anything!” Billa found herself panting once she finished talking. She may be confused, but she wasn’t an idiot and she didn’t appreciate being talked to like one.

“Do you recognize anything, Dis?” Tauriel asked the female dwarf, breaking through the awkward silence after Billa’s rant. “The art style and symbols do look more dwarven than anything else to me.”

Biting her lip and looking slightly uncomfortable, Dis said, “Not exactly. We have tales of colorful soulmarks that can appear on the rare dwarf blessed by our maker, but you have to petition for them and Billa’s a hobbit and not under the hand of Mahal. I’ve never heard of a tattoo just appearing out of nowhere without someone at least asking for it. However, most people don’t talk about such things as it’s considered private and in many places now, taboo. There could be things I don’t know about or that were lost in our wanderings. However, I’ve never heard of anyone having a mark exactly like Billa’s. Dwarves don’t do plants or insects, only larger animals, tools, and environmental features like mountains and rivers. The writing is definitely ancient dwarven though.”

Billa felt crushed by her lack of help. “Can you at least tell me what the runes mean?”

For a brief moment Dis looked ashamed. Looking away, she tugged hard on her short beard. “Sorry, I don’t read ancient dwarven runes and those are extremely ancient. As a youth, I skipped out on as many lessons as I could get away with, and those were few and far between as is during our wanderings. I took to numbers quite well and to management and fighting, but I’ve never been much of a reader except for adventure and war stories. Our written language has changed a lot over the last few millennia. I see something that could be plant, sun, and mountain, but I’m not confident in even that. I don’t recognize anything else. There are scholars who’d know, and Thorin always enjoyed reading the oldest of our histories, so he might be able to read it. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more.”

Pinching her nose, Billa pushed the tears of frustration back. “Not your fault,” she said. “I should just ask Thorin, I know, but I’ve been afraid of what he’ll say. He has his own colorful soulmark, so he probably knows something about mine. It’s probably related. I just wanted to get the information from someone else so he wouldn’t have the upper hand in that conversation or, vice versa, so I wouldn’t have to hear horrible news directly from his lips.”

“You’ve seen it, then?” Tauriel asked with interest. “Considering how he hides it, that’s important I bet.”

“Wait,” Dis said, looking back and forth between them, “what are you talking about? Thorin doesn’t have a soulmark.”

“There’s one on his stomach that he keeps hidden,” Golweneth chimed in before cutting herself off and wincing, “but obviously he keeps it very private, even from family.”

Dis blinked several times in shock and began mumbling under her breath, “There’s only one way he could have a soulmark, but he’s too selfless for that, isn’t he? Though he must have petitioned for it, that’s the only explanation. Good for him! But if people had found out, it could have been bad, very bad. Would it still be bad? He’s King now though. He deserves to be happy.”

She looked up then with sharp focus and turned to Billa, “You’ve seen it. What does it look like?”

Uncomfortable, Billa said, “You’ll have to ask Thorin. I don’t want to betray his privacy. All I can say is that it had a single image made out of several colors and…,” she hesitated, but their knowing might help her out, “a riddle written in ancient dwarven runes that he told me would lose all contextual meaning if translated to common.”

Cocking her head to the side, Dis asked, “But you solved it somehow, didn’t you? The way Thorin pursues you, that’s the only thing that makes sense. Are you his soulmate?”

“Or he could just be madly in love with her and not care about finding his soulmate anymore, or the soulmate could have passed. That happens in both elves and dwarves sometimes,” Lhénith said loyally.

Everyone looked at Billa for answers. “I don’t know,” she said helplessly. “After we talked about his soulmark during our time in Mirkwood, I said something that changed things between us, that started our official courtship, but I could never get him to explain anymore about it. When he first woke from his wounds, he told me that I’m his soulmate. I feel something when I think hard about it, but not what I’ve been lead to believe a hobbit should. I’ve been thinking about just accepting his word on it and trying to see if we can achieve a soulbond, but then yesterday he said that he doesn’t care if I never get a mark or if he never has proof, which makes me wonder if calling me his soulmate is his own form of bullheaded wishful thinking. I don’t know.  I think we’re both confused.” She dropped her head into her hands and sniffled.

“I certainly have no words of wisdom when it comes to male dwarfs,” Golweneth said carefully, “but I might know someone who can help read the runes.” Billa’s breath caught as she raised her head from her hands.

“However,” Golweneth continued, “the Lady Dis must promise not to reveal this to her people, as it could cause friction between us.”

Dis scowled and swung her arms back and forth a few times. Then she rolled her shoulders. “I’m not comfortable with this. But I do want to help Billa. She’s my sister through my husband, separate from my relationship with my brother,” she said. “If we ask one of the scribes, Thorin is sure to hear about it. I realize that this could make dealing with Thorin more difficult depending on the answer. He will use every advantage he can get when he wants something. I love him, but I want you to be happy too. However, the thought of an elf or some other outsider reading our private language makes me angry. I’ll have to think about it.”

Dis took Billa’s hand and squeezed, then she looked over at Golweneth. “You can ask if your friend is willing or even able to help Billa first. I’ll let you know my decision when I can.” Inclining her head, Golweneth lithely exited the spring.

“I think I’m done soaking too,” Billa said, suddenly feeling nervous, grumpy, and overheated all at once.

Tauriel stood up. “Why don’t we all get out and dry off in the sun?” She glanced around to check for consensus, and then exited the pool. Reaching down, she took Billa’s hand and hoisted her out of the pool so she wouldn’t have to roll herself up and over onto dry land like a beached fish.

“Aren’t you going to help me out too?” asked Dis, turning to humor to break the tension that had fallen over the pool. She batted her eyelashes coquettishly, but utterly failed to look fragile.

Tilting her head to the side, Tauriel said, “Only if you promise not to drag me back down.”

“Do you think you’re strong enough to stay on dry land?” Dis asked teasingly.

“No tricks,” Tauriel warned as she reached down. Dis laughed, but kept her end of the deal. Despite bracing herself, Tauriel still grunted and rocked forward, but Dis scrambled up quickly and kept them both from tumbling back into the water. Finding a sunny patch, everyone spread out to dry as quickly as possible in the spring air and then got dressed again.

However, Billa couldn’t relax. Unable to get comfortable, she finally stood up and marched over to where Dis was finger combing her hair. “I want to ask,” she said impatiently. “I’m tired of not knowing. It’s my mark on my body. The decision is mine, not yours. If you aren’t comfortable with this, I can exclude you from the rest of it, but you are my adopted sister and a close friend. I’d like to have your support and wisdom. Please.”

“I haven’t even had time to think about it,” Dis said uncomfortably, squirming beneath Billa’s demanding look.

“Please, Dis,” Billa begged, widening her eyes to let the dwarf see her desperation.

“Don’t look at me like that. That’s just unfair,” Dis complained.

“Please,” Billa said a third time, leaning forward and looking up into Dis’s face imploringly.

Dis looked away, turned back, wiped away a bead of sweat, looked away again, and then back into Billa’s face. “Fine,” she caved, throwing her hands up in the air. “You are a menace with those big, pitiful hobbit eyes, but fine. Ask the elf for help and see what she says. I will keep my own counsel on it. If it doesn’t work out though, I hope you will let me find one of my scribes or historians to help you.”

“I’ll tell Golweneth,” Tauriel said with a smile as she got up.

A few minutes later, Tauriel returned with Golweneth and another elf in tow. “You remember Parvel?” Golweneth asked, gesturing to the woman by her side. “I have told her your dilemma. She has agreed to help you if she can.” Parvel, who’d introduced herself earlier as a scholar and historian, had bright, curious brown eyes and russet hair that shone with blond highlights in the sun. Although sour looking, Dis kept her promise and refrained from glaring directly at the woman.

Smiling kindly, Parvel asked to see the mark. Billa unbuttoned her shirt and pulled it off her shoulder to expose her tattoo. Parvel hummed and tilted her head to the side. “A long, long time ago, before the relationship between dwarves and elves turned so sour, I used to visit a wonderful library run by a family of dwarves. I had several friends there who, although they felt culturally bound not to teach me their language, allowed me to study any of the books in the collection, even the ones with dwarven pictographs and glyphs. I have always loved reading. I managed to secretly pick up quite a bit of the meaning and grammar, even though I never learned the pronunciation.”

Glancing over at Dis’s grim face, she added, “Please believe that I’ve used this skill only for the preservation, enhancement, and enjoyment of knowledge, never for anything nefarious or disrespectful. Nevertheless, it has been a very long time since I have tried a translation.”

“I don’t need to know how to say them, I just want to know what they mean,” Billa said, looking down at her mark.

Eyes narrowed, Parvel continued to examine Billa’s soulmark. “One of the female scholars I knew, a dwarf named Dina, had a colorful soulmark similar to this. I remember because it was so unique. Her soulmark was a picture of an inkwell surrounded by cherry blossoms, but if you turned your head the inkwell also looked like a purple beet. In the twilight of her years, she’d looked up from her books and found herself old and very lonely. She told me that she’d asked Aulë for someone to love and he answered with the mark. Many of us felt surprise when we discovered that her soulmate was the young human craftsman who made the red and purple colored inks so prized by us scholars. Despite their differences, they lived together very happily until they both passed of old age. They shared a precious bond.”

Leaning back, Parvel tucked a strand of hair behind her delicately pointed ear. “As often happens with different languages, there is not an exact translation into common, but I can give you the gist. It loosely means the prized food plant, or perhaps vegetable is a better word here, rooted in the heart of the mountain but requiring the sun to flourish or bloom.”

Billa blinked at her blankly, feeling no more enlightened now that she knew the meaning of the symbols. “Is that it?” she asked. Obviously the ‘heart of the mountain’ made her think of Thorin, but did that really answer her most pressing question?

“Well, if you added in the mole right next to the glyphs, it becomes possessive, so ‘my prized vegetable, rooted in the heart of the mountain and blooming out in the sunlight.” Parvel shrugged and sat back. “I don’t know what that means to you, but I am quite confident in approximate meaning of the translation.”

A blush warmed her cheeks as Billa thought of what Thorin would say when he saw the runes. He’d read something serious into it for sure. “Thank you. I will have to think on it,” she told Parvel.

The rest of the walk back to Erebor passed in a blur. Billa couldn’t concentrate enough to keep up a conversation. Instead, she kept thinking about her mark and if what she now knew changed anything. If it did, what should she do about it? By the time they passed back through the gates, she had a raging headache. Bidding farewell to her friends, she retreated to her room.

TBC

 

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, Billa found herself acting a lot grumpier than usual as she struggled over taking the next step in her relationship with Thorin. Poor Ori had taken to disappearing from the library when he saw her. Billa overheard him admitting to Nori that he used impromptu knitting and embroidery lessons with Lhénith to flee Billa’s stomping and slamming (though she never slammed the books, even in a temper she’d never be so disrespectful).  Luckily everyone was so busy getting ready for the Festival of Second Spring that no one had the time or patience to interrogate her about what had her in such a snit.

Finally the day of the Festival of Second Spring arrived. After spending all day celebrating the renewal of life for both the land and the people here in Erebor, Billa’s bad mood finally disappeared. She couldn’t stay grumpy in the face of a good party and dwarves really knew how to throw a party.  The Festival of First Spring last month had been enjoyable but rather solemn. The Festival of Second Spring looked much more like an elaborate excuse to party all day, especially with all of the extra people from the most recent caravan throwing in their time and talents.

That evening the dwarves held a giant ball with an orchestra, dance floor, and aromatic food dishes inspired by all of the far flung countries visited during the long diaspora from the mountain. Both the elven delegation and King Bard, along with several of his human advisors, had come to celebrate with them. The tables groaned with food and the pillars practically shook from all of the dancing. Billa couldn’t remember the last time she’d had so much fun.

For the party, Haeth and Dis had given Billa a gorgeous green ball gown with fur edged sleeves. Every dress they gave her looked fancier than the last. She might have to put her foot down soon or else find herself wearing something so ornate she’d topple over the first time she tried to wear it. For now though, she couldn’t help but express her delight. She’d just have to hope that it didn’t come back to bite her. Admittedly, she’d always taken a lot of pride and joy in dressing her best, but if she didn’t watch out she’d become vainer than a peacock. Too much vanity was not respectable in a hobbit.

Nevertheless, Billa couldn’t help but spin a few times in front of the mirror and giggle to herself. Her new gown had a high collar that firmly but comfortably hugged her shoulders and up the sides of her neck. It opened up in the front to a wide square neckline. Embroidery marched down the bodice to a fitted waist, which flared out into a split skirt. The top layer of the skirt had more of the intricate, pale brown embroidery along the trim. The skirt flowed down to the middle of her calves in front and the top of her ankles in back. The sleeves of the dress turned into a lush brown fur just above her elbows that encircled her forearms and draped halfway down to her knees.

Everything about the dress was perfect except for one thing: the neckline. It had a wide-open square neckline edged with delicate cream lace. The square cut completely exposed her tattoo all the way over to her little brown mole. That just wouldn’t do! She still hadn’t talked to Thorin about it. She didn’t plan on talking to him until she was done being grumpy.

Rummaging through her clothes chest, she finally found the ivory scarf she’d been looking for. Threading it beneath her intricate braid, she pulled it over her shoulders and tucked it into the edges of her bodice until everything felt securely covered. Just to make sure it wouldn’t slip out during the party, she put her hands on her hips and danced a little jig. Happily, the scarf stayed firmly in place. Finished with her preparations, she left her room and made her way down to the festival hall.

During the party, she got the chance to dance with almost all of her close friends. Although she wanted to dance with Thorin first, Haeth claimed her hand and handed Dis off to Thorin instead. After that, she danced with pretty much every other member of the company.

Even Gimli claimed her hand for a spirited reel, after which he joined her at the tables for a drink and snack. He barely blinked when Legolas and Tauriel stepped over the bench to sit down and join them, though his sense of humor got snarkier. Although the three then started trading insults back and forth, especially the two males, they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves instead of getting mad at each other. Shaking her head at their strange relationship, Billa went back to enjoying her food.

However, Billa couldn’t help but look around with excitement when a female dance was announced. She’d been looking forward to those. Tosi and Dis appeared out of nowhere and pulled Tauriel and her off their bench. The rollicking group dance managed to eventually net Golweneth, Lhénith, and Parvel too.

Halfway through the dance though, the late delegation of men and elves from the Dunedain rangers arrived. A swell of noise started over by the doors as they were greeted and introduced around. Golweneth glanced over, went white, choked out a name, and stumbled to a stop. The next dancer in line failed to notice her distress and accidentally knocked her to the ground.

Only the quick actions of one of the new elves saved her from getting stomped. He darted in faster than a swooping falcon and swept her up in his arms. Then he disappeared off the dancefloor. Concerned, Billa craned her head around as she began making her way out of the dancing to check up on her friend. Before she could get more than a few feet, though, Tauriel grabbed her arm and yanked her back into the whirl of the dance.

“Don’t interrupt her,” Tauriel said in Billa’s ear. “Not now!”

“Why not?” Billa demanded loudly to be heard over the music as the dancing swept them to opposite sides of the circle.

“She has a history with Leitner,” Tauriel finally replied when the steps of the dance brought them back together. “He left years ago to go and fight with the Dunedain, but before leaving he asked Golweneth to come with him as his wife. She said no because at the time she felt bound to stay and help King Thranduil. They separated, but I think she’s regretted letting him go ever since.”

The dance parted them again, but they soon came back together to clasp opposing hands and turn in a circle. “Leitner’s never come back to visit and she’s never left to see him either. However, every year for decades he’s sent her a gift. She almost never speaks about it. This is the first time they’ve seen each other since he left.” Billa felt her mouth rounding into an ‘o’ of understanding.

“He’ll make sure she’s alright. Give her space to get over her shock and decide what to do with him. If she needs help, she’ll let us know. Otherwise, we should give him a chance to capitalize on his dashing rescue, apologize for not visiting sooner, and convince her to follow her heart and finally marry him.” Tauriel grinned.

Billa still had some reservations over what was best for her friend, but when the dance ended, she saw Golweneth and Leitner standing out on one of the balconies intently talking. Under the cover of fetching a goblet and taking a sip, she spied on the couple. Golweneth looked none the worse for wear after her spill. Although the two elves weren’t touching, they were leaning into each other’s personal space quite tellingly. Golweneth’s face, looking up into Leitner’s earnestly, looked younger and more open than Billa had ever seen it. Smiling to herself, Billa decided to take Tauriel’s advice and leave them to it. After all, she wouldn’t want to interrupt them making some new history.

Just then, she felt a warm pulse spread through her middle right before a hand settled on the small of her back. She knew who it was before he even spoke. “What has you smiling so secretively to yourself?” Thorin asked as moved up next to her and looked down into her face.

“Just enjoying the party,” she replied breezily, feeling her heart jump in delight at having him by her side at last. Looking up through her lashes, she boldly asked, “Are you going to dance with me now?”

Thorin’s teeth gleamed briefly as he swept her a bow. “I would be delighted to accept your invitation,” he said, rising with a challenging look as he took her goblet and blindly set it down on a nearby table. Then he turned and sharply signaled the orchestra. They abruptly changed tune with a discordant squeal that turned into the staccato prelude to a challenge dance. Luckily Tosi had taught it to her just last week.  

The dwarves called it the Shadow Dance. It was a partner dance, not a group one. It started out slow but ended fast, so fast that either the dancer’s feet or the musician’s fingers gave out at the end. During the dance, you had to copy or shadow everything your partner did as the music increased in tempo. The dance had a few stereotyped movements that repeated, but everything else on top of that was fair game. If either partner missed a move or stumbled, you both had to bow out of the dance and move off the floor. The dwarves all treated it as a very serious competition. Tosi had confided with a giggle that Dis had once given her partner a black eye because he got distracted and made them lose, and that another time Dwalin had done worse.

Billa may not be a dwarf, but she did count herself as a very accomplished dancer among her own people. Of course she’d prefer to win, but if they had to leave the floor, she wanted it to be Thorin’s fault, not hers. She gave him a toothy grin and pushed up her fur sleeves.

At first, she mirrored Thorin’s steps and turns, making sure she felt comfortable with the movements. However, as the pace of the music increased, Billa decided to stop hesitating. Winking up at Thorin, she warned, “You better start paying attention.” Then she threw in her own flourishes on the next turn.

Instead of stumbling, Thorin grinned fiercely and followed her movements with precision. They kept their eyes locked on each other, moving faster and faster to the music. Step turn shuffle shuffle turn, Billa’s skirt twirled tight around her legs, but Thorin wrapped his arm around her waist and stabilized her until the fabric loosened enough for the next step, keeping her from tripping. His eyes burned fiercely and the hair at his temples became damp and spiky with sweat. Billa knew her own cheeks must be flushed bright red as she kept her every sense focused on shadowing Thorin.

Each increase in drums felt echoed by the beat of her heart. A tingling river seemed to flow back and forth between her fingertips and Thorin’s, connecting them, guiding them, growing stronger until it almost felt like they were one being who just happened to have four legs, four arms, and two heads. She anticipated his moves before he made them, sensing the sway of his arms, the turn of his feet, even the toss of his head as if his body was her own. It felt intense and intimate. She never wanted it to end.

Suddenly the music stopped. Thorin twirled her once, twice, thrice before bringing her to a stop in the center of the empty dance floor. The fabric of her dress swirled around her calves with a soft susurration and then swayed to a stop. Everything became quiet. All she could see were Thorin’s intense blue eyes, all she could feel were Thorin’s calloused fingers clasping her hand.

Then people were clapping her on the back, jolting her. Sound rushed back in. People were talking and congratulating them on winning the dance contest. Their bubble of intimacy popped. Her chest heaved as her body struggled to catch its breath. Once again she was just Billa, not Thorin and Billa merged in one body like she’d fancied. Billa felt the loss keenly, but drew some comfort from the firm clasp of Thorin’s hand.

“I can’t believe that the musicians faltered before you did,” Dori exclaimed, hand in hand with Lumi, who wore a dress covered in shimmering silver scales as an advertisement of her own craftsmanship. “I haven’t seen something like that in years, maybe decades!”

Thorin murmured an acknowledgement, but Billa didn’t pay attention. She was too busy having an epiphany. Another song started. By mutual accord they moved to the edge of the room and drifted out onto one of the inner balconies. It overlooked a deep cavern glittering with gems and seams of precious metals. Vents up above had been opened to let in fresh air and the light from the moon and stars. The walls gleamed from the lit oil lamps, which looked more like fantastic works of art than the simple lamps made by hobbits and men.

“I didn’t know you were such an accomplished dancer,” Thorin said, directing their steps away from the doors and the crowds lingering inside. The cool air felt good on her flushed cheeks. A little breeze swirled down from above and caught the sweat-soaked curls at her temples.

“Nor I you, though you’ve always been light on your feet,” Billa replied, looking at how the silver in his hair caught and amplified the moonlight. She felt affection swell until her heart overflowed with love for the man by her side.  Who knew that an epiphany would feel like this? Billa realized that she no longer just wanted to trust him, she did trust him. More than that, she wanted this forever: walking by his side, dancing in his arms, living with and loving him, being one with him.

Billa loved Thorin. She trusted him. She wanted to make a life with him and she didn’t want to wait for one more minute.

“Thorin, I love you,” Billa declared.

Thorin smiled at her with pleasure and contentment. “I love you, too,” he said.

“No, that’s not what I meant,” she blurted out.

“Then, you don’t love me?” he said slowly, brow crinkling in confusion and the faint beginnings of emotional withdrawal.

Billa blew out a breath, “I mean, yes I do love you, of course I mean that when I say that, but I’m actually trying to tell you something different.”

Letting go of her hand, he turned to face her. “I’m listening,” he said with patient focus.

“Well, it’s like this,” Billa said, starting to pace back and forth in front of him, “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and then I went for a picnic with the elves and we looked at flowers near a hot spring and then I had a serious talk with one of their scholars that really got me thinking and answered some questions, and my dreams have gotten better and I’m sleeping better, which doesn’t have anything to do with the flowers, of course.”

“Of course,” Thorin said slowly with bemusement.

“And so after all of that I think it really is what I’ve always suspected it is, which I’ve decided is a good thing and not a bad thing despite what I’ve always believed a respectable hobbit would want, but if it’s not, I think I’ll be a little disappointed but still okay with it. Either way, I’m willing to move on to the next stage and stop dillydallying. I hope you are too,” Billa finished up breathlessly, looking anxiously up into his face. “Well?”

“I want to agree with you just to make you happy,” Thorin said, “but I have to be honest. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You don’t…” Billa stumbled to a halt and blew out a heavy breath in frustration. She didn’t think she could say all of that again, and didn’t know how to word it any clearer when her stomach felt like it was jumping about in her middle like a jackrabbit fleeing a farmer’s rake. “I’m trying to say, I mean, what I’m asking you is,” closing her eyes, she tried to gather her wits to make some sort of sense.

Opening her eyes, she sent Thorin a glare. “I can’t believe I’m having this much trouble,” she groused. His lips quirked, but otherwise he kept his mouth shut, waiting patiently for her to gather her thoughts.

It looked like he’d finally learned to give her time to speak her mind. Of course, she guiltily realized that she almost wanted him to interrupt her just to give her something else to focus on because she didn’t know how to say it right and would rather he ruin the moment so she wouldn’t have to keep flailing. She couldn’t believe how immature she was being.  Why did he always tie her tongue in knots?!

“Oh here,” she finally snapped, “this!” Reaching up to her shoulder, she grabbed her scarf and ripped it out of her dress’s square neckline before she could have any second thoughts. Then she turned until the moonlight illuminated the mark on her chest.

A strangled sound burst out of Thorin’s throat. He lunged forward and grabbed her shoulders, pulling her into the pool of lantern light and stooping down until his face was mere inches from her tattoo. His lips moved soundlessly as he read the runes. Then he stopped breathing and looked up into her eyes. “Is this what I think it is?” he breathed. “Did you choose me too?” Billa felt the words puff across her skin, raising goosebumps.

“I’m not certain what it is,” she said carefully. “But one thing I am certain of is you. I love you, I trust you, and I want to bond with you as closely as I possibly can for the rest of my existence. I do choose you, Thorin.” She laid her hands against his bearded cheeks and pulled his face up. “My soul chooses you,” she breathed against his lips before sealing her words with a kiss.

Their lips touched sweetly, reverently, and oh so lovingly. Thorin’s arms slipped around her back. He straightened slowly, causing her head to tip back. Billa rose up onto her tiptoes. Their kiss deepened. A feeling of joy swelled through her body until she felt like she must be glowing brighter than the sun.

Suddenly it seemed like an outside force enfolded her and Thorin in an embrace. The pressure built higher and higher until Billa thought that she should be feeling some sort of pain. Instead though, she felt a sweeping rapture. The pressure became so strong that the hobbit called Billa and the dwarf called Thorin fused into one entity. Abruptly the pressure ended and the entity came apart once more into two beings, separate but forever linked. Billa swayed, feeling wobbly.

An intimate and intense awareness of Thorin swelled in her mind. She could literally feel him taking up permanent residence in his own little hobbit hole deep inside her soul. A twining of physical sensations began trickling through until she felt everything settle, peaking exquisitely for a brief second and then fading gently  into the background.

They were soulbonded!

She could both feel her fingers sinking into his thick hair while simultaneously feeling the sensation of having her fingers sliding sensuously along his scalp. Billa could feel his absolute devotion and elation at their bond along with his physical pleasure and hunger at clasping her so close. She sent a pulse of love and celebration back along the bond. Their mouths merged again and again as they explored the explosive sensation of feeling both sides of a kiss. After a few minutes of deliciously devouring kisses mixed with teasing touches, they slowed down to soft grazes, until finally they pulled back just enough to stare besottedly into each other’s eyes as they caught their breath.

“Thank Mahal and Gandalf for bringing you to me, Billa Baggins,” Thorin finally said. “And thank you for choosing me, and not just the King or diplomat.”

Leaning down, he placed a reverent kiss on her soulmark. Billa gasped. Her mark felt extremely sensitive. At the touch of his lips, a ripple of extreme pleasure had rolled through her body. Thorin could sense it too, because she felt his surprise right before a wicked smirk took over his face. “I’ll have fun exploring that later,” he threatened softly. “You’ve caused me no end of grief, marlelê, as I waited to see if you’d really choose me. I’m due quite a bit of comforting.”

Leaning back, Billa raised an eyebrow at him, “And that right there is why I’d never choose the King or the diplomat. I don’t take orders well and I’m not even sure you know the meaning of diplomatic.” Thorin smirked and shrugged his shoulders.

Reaching up, Billa tugged teasingly on one of his braids. “If you’d just explained how soulmates actually work in dwarves in general, and in you in particular, instead of being so secretive, I could’ve put both of us out of our misery ages ago. The only one due a lot of comforting here is me,” she asserted.

Thorin reached up to pull her hand off his braid, threading their fingers together. “Calling upon my diplomatic wisdom, I suggest we compromise and focus on comforting each other. Do you accept my proposal?”

Turning her nose up in the air, Billa tried to look stern, but couldn’t hold it for more than a few seconds with all of the happy feelings bubbling up inside of her. She burst into giggles. “Very well, I accept.”

“Excellent,” Thorin said, flashing that dimple in his cheek that she so adored, “and since I’ve got you so agreeable I may as well ask, Billa Baggins of Bag End in the Shire, the woman I love more than my treasure or my very breath, my soulmate, will you marry me?”

Ecstatic, she gave him a wide smile. “Nothing would give me more pleasure than to be your wife, Thorin. Yes, I will marry you.” They both smiled through another kiss.

It threatened to turn serious again, but before too many tongues could get involved, Billa pulled back to say just one more thing. “I am a hobbit, Thorin,” she warned. “Just because we get married and have a soulbond doesn’t mean I’m going to start acting like a dwarf. I’ll always be a hobbit.”

“I know,” he said earnestly. “I won’t forget that I love Billa the hobbit. I don’t want Billa the pretend-dwarf. I want you.”

Billa blew out a breath. “Alright, well, with that settled, I’d just like to propose that we have the wedding soon, because this soulbond makes me want to start having babies with you as soon as possible and I am determined to stay a respectable hobbit if at all possible.”

“Babies?” Thorin breathed with a far off look in his eye.

“Not until after a wedding, soulbond or no,” Billa demanded, stiffening her spine.

“Your wish is my command,” Thorin said, bowing his head regally. “We’ll have a quick but splendid wedding within the week and then live deliriously happy lives together with our kingdom, our treasure, our friends, and our twenty offspring.”

“Twenty?!” Billa squawked, feeling a moment of lightheadedness. “No, absolutely not, not at my age. I am not a Chubb, for goodness sakes!” Breathing through her nose until she regained her equilibrium, she said, “I’ll consider five or six, but we can discuss this later.”

Throwing his shoulders back with a smug little smile, Thorin tucked her arm through his hand. “I’ll take six. Most dwarves never have more than two or three.” He laughed at the look on her face and tugged her back towards the doorway.

“Wait, Thorin, my scarf,” Billa protested, reaching out for the ivory cloth lying abandoned on the ground. Thorin turned and scooped it up before she could get to it. Then he stuffed it into the pocket of his coat.

“I need that,” she said with narrowed eyes.

“No, you don’t,” Thorin said authoritatively as he swept her back into the party.

“Thorin!” she protested.

Moments later Haeth came stomping up to them, followed closely by his wife. “Thorin, you’ve disappeared alone with my sister for quite long enough. Give her back,” he said, holding out a hand for Billa demandingly.

“Never,” Thorin said.

Before Haeth could respond, Dis gasped and hit Haeth in the stomach. He grunted at the blow. “Look,” she commanded as she stared at Billa’s exposed neckline. A smile began growing on her face.

“Billa has agreed to marry me,” Thorin announced with great satisfaction.

After only a split-second of hesitation, Haeth strode forward and gave them both a big bear hug. “Congratulations,” he said. “Treat her well or I’ll twist your head off.”

“Haeth,” Billa protested, but Thorin just laughed.

As soon as he let go, Dis swooped in to give them both a hug. She lifted Billa off the floor with her enthusiasm and twirled them around before depositing her back at Thorin’s side. “I’m so happy for you both,” she said with a huge grin.

“Here, watch her for a moment for me,” Thorin said to his sister as he turned and jumped up onto the nearest table.

Raising his hands in the air, he roared for attention. The musicians screeched to a stop. Everyone turned and looked their way. The crowd became silent.

Billa felt a flush sweep across her face. Was he really doing this now? She hoped she didn’t faint in front of all of these people.

“I have a grand announcement to make,” Thorin declared triumphantly, “Mistress Billa Baggins has just consented to marry me.” A grand cheer swept through the hall, loudest amongst the nearby table housing most of the company. Billa worried that she might go deaf.

As soon as the cheering started to die down, Thorin reached out his hand for her. She looked up at him in disbelief and shook her head adamantly in refusal, but then the choice was taken out of her hands.  Gloin and Tosi appeared out of nowhere to lift her up beneath the arms on each side and deposit her on the table next to Thorin. Beet red, she sent them a death glare and concentrated on not fainting.

Thorin grabbed her around the waist and pulled her to his side. “Not only are we getting married,” he announced, “but we are also soulmates!” Beaming with pride, he turned and kissed the top of her head. This time the stomping and clapping of the crowd shook things so much that dust began drifting down from the ceiling and the table they stood on bounced like a trotting horse.  

Looking up into Thorin’s face, Billa felt the excitement and joy of the crowd catch them up and start cycling back and forth through the bond between them. She couldn’t help but laugh through her embarrassment. At least living here would never be boring. She had a feeling that this would make a perfect ending to the book she planned to write about their adventures.

As Thorin drew her up for a kiss, she felt her own adoration pulse out through their link and return back to her. Yes, she’d end her first book with, “and they all lived happily ever after.”

By the time she got around to writing that ending, she’d be ready to start the second book in her series. After all, there’s no way they’d have five or six children without creating a whole new set of stories to write down. What a delightful thought! Smiling to herself, she twined her arms around Thorin’s neck, tweaked one of his large round ears, and kissed her soulmate with joy and love flowing from the bottom of her furry feet to the top of her curly head and every place in between.

THE END

 

Chapter Text

Once Billa and Thorin stopped kissing and finally got down off of the table, all of their friends came up to congratulate them. Neither of them could stop smiling. Even when the humans and elves came over to give their best wishes, Thorin still kept smiling. Billa wasn’t sure she’d ever seen his teeth exposed for so long. He’d probably have sore cheeks by the end of this. She knew she would.

Then Lumi and Dori came up to Thorin. “Felicitations, my King,” Lumi said. She and Dori both exchanged friendly headbutts with Thorin. Billa surreptitiously slid back a step just in case they thought it proper to headbutt little hobbits too.

“Yes, congratulations on your bonding,” said Golweneth where she stood hand in hand with Leitner. It looked like they’d decided to give things another try. Good for them. Billa wanted all of her friends to feel just as happy as she did at that moment.

Lumi looked curiously at Billa’s soulmark and then over at Thorin. “I didn’t know you had been blessed with a soulmark, my King. Congratulations on finding your One.”

Thorin nodded. “I petitioned Mahal and he blessed me with a soulmark to find my Billa.”

Several people looked at him in surprise at his open admission of having the third type of mark. However, no one immediately jumped to their feet shouting about bad luck, so Billa decided to just follow Thorin’s lead and not worry about it. As ruler in his own mountain, he had the right to set the tone for how such soulmarks would be treated. No one could kick him out anymore. He was King. He was home.

“Well, brother, are you going to show it to us or not?” Dis interjected loudly with her hands on her hips. Laughing heartily, Thorin immediately shed his jacket, undid his collar, and pulled his shirt off over his head. The elves gaped in surprise as he easily stripped down to his low-slung pants and boots.

Golweneth and Tauriel in particular seemed completely nonplussed. “I thought it was sacred and secret and extremely private?” Tauriel said to her friend.

“Maybe it is different once one is bonded?” Golweneth replied hesitantly, looking over at Leitner, who shrugged and scratched his head.

Their confusion only got worse as Thorin climbed up onto a bench to more clearly display his mountain soulmark to the interested. As Thorin put his hands on his hips and turned back and forth to show off his mark, Billa felt simultaneously mortified and amused. Dwarves really did have no modesty.

All of the runes surrounding the mountain had disappeared. Billa supposed it didn’t really matter that she never knew the riddle since she’d solved it somehow anyways, but it would always annoy her a little bit. How was she to write the story right if she couldn’t explain the riddle to show just how clever she really was to solve it?

Just then, Kili and Fili finally made their way through the crowd to congratulate them. When Kili saw Billa, his gaze zeroed in on her exposed mark. “I knew it!” Kili crowed. “I knew Billa had a soulmark, I just didn’t get a good look at her naked chest that day Fili and I saw her bathing in the river.”

Thorin stopped preening and immediately skewered his nephews with an angry look. “What?”

“You did what?” Haeth seconded with a growl.

“How dare you peep on my wife!” Thorin said with outrage.

“It was an accidental peeping and we both apologized for it ages ago,” Fili defended, surreptitiously trying to back up into the crowd.

“She forgave us! Besides, she’s not really your wife yet,” Kili said on autopilot. Tauriel slapped her forehead and took two giant steps backward, away from her husband.

Leaping off the bench with a roar, Thorin tackled Kili to the ground. Fili leapt to his brother’s defense, but then Haeth walloped him on the ear for disrespecting a woman, and then Dis walloped Kili for disrespecting a friend. Rolling wildly, Kili almost escaped, but then Thorin grabbed his ankle at the last minute and pulled him back. Kili’s out-flung arm tripped up Fili, who flailed and knocked over a tankard of beer onto Lumi’s fancy silver dress.

Scowling, she jumped up and punched, but Fili ducked too quickly. Instead, her fist hit Dis in the eye. Dis’ head snapped back, but a split second later she turned and kicked Lumi in the chest, sending the woman crashing onto the table and scattering plates and cups everywhere. Dori jumped up to defend his love, the people at the table jumped up yelling at being covered in food, and suddenly the entire hall descended into a brawl.

“If you aren’t going to join in on the fun, you might want to take cover under one of the tables,” Tosi called over her shoulder to Billa. Then she leapt into the fight with a whoop, kicking a dwarf in the face who was about to slam a plate over the head of her husband. Billa quickly took her advice and scampered back to a table against the nearest wall.

Suddenly Balin appeared by her side and gave her a sideways smile. “This is what brings the most shine to a dwarf’s life,” he said with satisfaction as they both turned to look at Thorin, “fighting, food, friendship, music, and love.”

Looking up, Thorin met Billa’s eyes across the hall and smiled dopily. She blew him a kiss that had his eyes crinkling with happiness. A split second later, he disappeared as Bofur leapt at him with a flying tackle, taking him to the floor. Thorin threw him off to the side, but before he could get up Dwalin wrestled him back down and grabbed his elbow in an arm bar.

Then Prince Legolas unexpectedly came flying through the air. He twisted midair to land on a nearby table in a crouch. Jumping to the floor, he grinned fiercely. “Forget diplomacy. I’m done being gentle,” he called as he bounced off a keg of ale, the shoulders of two different dwarves, and King Bard’s head before dropping onto Gimli’s back like a load of bricks.

From beneath the table at Billa’s side, Tauriel unexpectedly rolled out and popped to her feet, startling the hobbit. “I didn’t know we could join in the fight too,” she said with a toothy grin. “I see several dwarves that I’ve been dying for the excuse to hit. Excuse me,” then she leapt into the fray. Despite her tall height versus the majority of the brawlers, Tauriel quickly disappeared in the chaos.

Shaking her head, Billa crunched into a carrot stick and tried to find Thorin again. A gap in the fighting finally showed him still grappling on the floor with Dwalin. Refusing to submit, Thorin twisted to the side and grabbed Dwalin’s head between his legs, flipping the dwarf head over heels onto his back. 

Picking up a scone from the fresh tray at her side, Billa dropped down and crawled underneath the table. She found Golweneth and Leitner sitting there sharing a plate of food and critiquing the fighting. The new elf introduced himself before adding, “I’m trying to convince Legolas, Tauriel, and her dwarf to come and play with me and the Rangers for a while. I’ve heard that you hold a lot of sway around here, if you could put in a good word for me to help things along.”

“Ridiculous flattery with get you nowhere with me,” she rolled her eyes, “but I have to ask, why only those three?” Billa cast a look over at Golweneth, who also looked curious about his answer.

“I have hopes that Golweneth will choose me on my own merit, but honesty compels me to admit that I probably could use all the help I can get when it comes to my Lady.” Lifting their clasped hands, Leitner placed a soft kiss at the base of her thumb and then looked up into Golweneth’s amused face. “I’ll also admit that I’m hoping to use Tauriel and Legolas as bargaining chips to convince her to come with me. We desperately need someone like Golweneth to help manage things over there.”

The female elf raised one eyebrow, “Oh, is that why you want me to come? To help manage things?”

“I want you to come because I love you and feel empty without you by my side,” he stated with stark honesty, then he cleared his throat and added with forced levity, “and you’d get to manage me along with the rest of them. That could be fun.” Heart in his eyes, he stared into her face. Billa kept still, feeling uncomfortably like she was intruding on a private moment.

“There are people I need to speak to before I can give you a full answer,” Golweneth said softly, “but the answer isn’t no.” Then she gave him a shy smile.

Suddenly a full plate came skittering across the floor, fetching up against Leitner’s leg and breaking the moment. Picking it up, he cleared his throat and turned to Billa with a smile. “See, I knew your influence would help me out. As a reward, would you like some cookies?” He offered her the plate. She couldn’t help but laugh.

A dwarf crashed back into the table, sending carrot sticks and scones flinging around the table edges like hail around an umbrella. The dwarf quickly righted himself and rejoined the fray. “Thank you,” Billa said once it got quiet enough to talk again, taking two cookies as she settled back against the wall, grateful for the shelter of the table.

Two tables over, a few members of the orchestra had barricaded themselves inside three overturned tables and started playing music again. Across the hall, groups of dwarves stopped their brawling, threw arms around each other’s shoulders, and began singing and swaying along to the songs. After happily consuming her first apple pecan cookie, she couldn’t help but look around and agree with Balin. “I’m not really a fan of fighting,” Billa said to her fellow spectators, “but food, friendship, music, and love really do bring the most shine to a person’s life.”

Seconds later, a still shirtless Thorin dived under their table with four sloshing mugs clutched in his hands. “That was fun,” he said, “but I missed you, agyâdê. Let’s celebrate our impending nuptials and six children, shall we?” He ignored her look as he passed out the mugs, seemingly too cheery to even mind drinking with elves.

Clinking their mugs together in a toast, the four drank deeply and then settled back to enjoy the rest of the party. After a few minutes the fighting died down to a few small, isolated pockets. Most of the dwarves had all returned to eating or joined in on the singing. Soon Tauriel and Kili crawled in under their table, followed by Dis and Haeth. They sported a variety of new bruises, but also seemed very pleased with themselves.

“This is silly. Why don’t we all just sit out on a bench together?” Haeth grumbled.

“Oh, hush,” Dis scolded, pushing him against the wall so she could sit between his legs and wrap his hands around her waist.

Sending her friends a happy smile, Billa leaned her head against Thorin’s shoulder and opened their mark just a bit so they could both bask in the glow of shared contentment. Life was good. Despite the trouble with soulmate marks, it had all turned out for the best in the end. Tomorrow Billa had an urgent wedding to plan and a life to start living with her new soulmate. She also wanted to check on her tomato plants again. She had a feeling that this year’s crop was going to be special. Until then though, she’d eat another cookie, wrap her arm around her soulmate, and bask in the happiness of a full belly, a full heart, and a full soul.

THE END!!