Disclaimer: All the characters appearing in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are copyrighted by Warner Brothers and the J.R.R. Tolkien estate. No infringement of these copyrights intended, and is not authorized by the copyright holder. I write this fanfiction only for love of the The Hobbit and not for profit.
"What news from the meeting in Erid Luin?" Balin asked. "Did they all come?"
"Aye," Thorin confirmed. "Envoys from all seven kingdoms."
A quick smile of satisfaction crossed his features, his head bobbing briefly with satisfaction of sharing the good news with his companions. I peaked around the corner and watched the lot of them as they ate the last stores in my pantry. They were loud, rowdy and an unmanageable lot. What in Mordor was Gandalf thinking bringing that herd of ruffians into my home? When I had a chance to be alone with the old wizard, I intended to dowse him in good, strong dose of good sense.
Still, I was curious. I was rather grumpy after having to clean up the chaos those Dwarven hooligans left in my pantry and in my kitchen. It would take me months to restock my pantry and I doubted that those Dwarves had even thought of reimbursing me for all the fool they devoured. I hadn't heard even so much as a thank you for my hospitality.
A fluttering warmth spread across my bosom as I watched Thorin take another sip of my brother that I had made for for Supper. He gave one curt approving nod before scooping another spoon of broth and shoveling it into his mouth. A little smile and a bit of blush colored my cheeks at that moment because I could feel the heat of my flushed joy heat them.
Now, it was well past eight o'clock and my stomach growled in protest. As I put the cleaning rag into the basket for the next day's washing, I couldn't help but be fascinated of the Dwarves' talk of strange folk and faraway lands. A part of me stirred in envy, replacing that flush of feminine pride. In it's stead, I felt a long-dormant curiosity demand that I pay more attention to the conversation.
A wide smile crossed Balin's weathered features and several let out laughs and cheers of approval. "All of them!"
"And what did the Dwarves of the Iron Hills say?" The one who had introduced himself as Dwalin inquired. I didn't particularly care for that Dwarf. I found him gruff and lacking any kind of civility. Besides, with all the tattoos on that shiny, bald head made his brow look like one of my shopping lists for Saturday at the Farmer's Market. At his question, the cheering Dwarves abruptly quieted. I peaked my head around the corner and saw several pairs of eyes fixed on the striking presence sitting at the end of my great-grandmother's dining table. "Is Dain with us?"
Every Dwarf in my dining room listened silently, hanging on that moment for Thorin's answer. The pause lingered for only a few seconds, but seemed an eternity. I found myself also wanting to know the response of the Iron Hill Dwarves thought I had no reason for it.
"They will not come," Thorin's grim reply brought a quiet rumble if disapproval from the company. I heard their murmurs of disappointment and I felt a bit contrite. Whatever this gathering was that Thorin had attended was obviously important and the solemnity of his party made me contrite. Perhaps, I had judged them too quickly. They certainly looked liked they had lost their best friends when Thorin uttered that one sentence and he waited for the grumbles to die away before he continued. "They say that this quest is ours. . .and ours alone."
Quest? Did he say quest? I felt the Took side of me leap with inner excitement. My intuition suddenly burst forth screaming at the rational corners of my mind, "You wanted an adventure and now you have these foreign travelers in your home?" My inner Took decided she needed to know more and I'll be swaggered if I allowed the Bashful Baggins side of me tie my tongue.
"Quest?" I asked, hoping Master Thorin would be so kind as to enlighten me. After having his group eat me out of house and hobbit-hole, the least he could do is entertain me with a good tale. It would remove some of the sting of his earlier rudeness. One with any sense of propriety and good sense does not dismiss this hobbit in her own home. My feet were large enough to kick his backside all the way from Hobbiton to Mordor if wanted to continue acting like an ass. "Did you say you're going on a quest?"
Of course, Master Thorin didn't answer me. Ass.
Gandolf's frown suddenly turned upward as he motioned me toward the gathering. "Bella, my dear lady, let us have a little more light. Bring a candle over, if you'd be so kind."
"Of course," I said more eagerly than I anticipated. In that moment, I realized that I had been bored for the last few months and this was going to be less drudgery than I thought. When the motley crew left on the morrow, at least I'd have a good tale to think of in the times ahead to entertain me. A bored Hobbit is not a good thing. I contained myself enough to walk rather than scamper over to the fireplace mantle to get the candle that would shed light, if you pardon the pun, on the matter.
I brought over the half-burnt candle as Gandalf unfolded something onto the table, coming to peer behind him to get a better view. Dwarves hardly make good windows. Gandalf tapped on the map and the Dwarves appeared eager as I to hear what the old wizard was about to share.
"Far to the east," he began. "Over ranges and rivers, beyond woodlands and wastelands, lies a single, solitary peak." Gandalf tapped in the center of the map. I careened around his towering form as best I could until I had a satisfactory view to what he was pointing.
With candle in hand, I looked down at the intricately drawn map. It was difficult to read in the light as I struggled to make out the words written on it. "The Lonely Mountain."
I gave Gandalf a questioning look, hoping he might supply more information. One of the Dwarves, if I recall properly it was Gloin who piped up before Gandalf could address my unspoken questions. "Aye, Oin has read the the runes and they say it is time."
I looked to Gandalf, hoping he might give more information, but he merely shrugged as he lit up his pipe with some Old Toby pipe-weed that he had surreptitiously grabbed from my pantry when he thought I hadn't noticed. When the flame flickered on the end of his finger, my attention fell away from the map, fascinated by the old man's conjuring. The heavy sweet scent of Old Toby laced with clove filled the dining room and I inhaled of it's thick scent.
"Ravens have been seen flying back to the mountain, as it was foretold," one of the Dwarves chanted. "When the birds of yore return to Erebor, the reign of the beast will end."
"Beast?" I asked, again brought away from my notices chips in some of my mother's china. This was a better tale than I had heard in many moons. "What beast?"
"Oh, that would be a reference to Smaug the Terrible," Bofur said with casual dismissal as he puffed on his pipe. Again, in a quintessential Hobbit moment, I thought that the flaps on his hat reminded me of wings. "Chiefest and greatest calamity of our age."
"Now, why is that?" I asked, peering up to the map and across the table.
"Oh, nothing out of the ordinary," he said deadpan with a twinkle in his eye. "Teeth like razors and claws like meat hooks. Extremely fond of precious metals-"
I held up my hand to stop him because I hated thinking about dragons. When I was a wee hobbit, my father often told me that an evil dragon would sweep me away one night if I didn't behave. I had nightmares for years and Bofur's graphic description of one of my childhood monsters caused my stomach to churn. "Stop. I understand. I know what a dragon is."
While I became an undone hobbit with nausea, one of the Dwarves rose to his feet. Oin had an odd look about him, as though someone had set a bowl upside down on his head and decided to cut off whatever hair wasn't covered by it. "I'm not afraid. I'll give him a taste of Dwarven blade right up his jacksie."
Several loud cheers followed his comment. Shaking his head in what appeared as embarrassment, the older Dwarf, Nori, sitting next to him abruptly yank at Ori's arm and made him sit down. I came up behind Thorin at the dining table. When the eldest dwarf began to speak, everyone turned in his direction and I admit, there was something about Master Balin that made me take pause.
"The task would be difficult enough with an army behind us, but we number just thirteen and not thirteen of the best. . .nor brightest."
The portly one at the opposite the end of the table gave his comrade a harsh look. "Here, now! Who are you calling dim?"
Several of the Dwarves grumble at Balin's frank words, mostly amongst themselves thinking that he underestimated their abilities. I stood behind the Dwarf King whom I noticed said nothing. Then I had a very hobbit moment where I stared at his dark hair, black and lush, and how I wanted to run my fingers through it. I silently cursed under my breath, thinking the tale was exciting enough for me. To pull me out of my tangent, one of the youngest dwarfs challenged that the elder one's statement.
"We may be few in number, but we're fighters, all of us," he pounded his fists soundly on the table so much it quaked beneath the blow that I thought it might split in two. "Down to the last Dwarf."
I studied the young one, with twin braids plaited from each temple of his brow. His honey-gold hair was pulled back loosely and held in place with a finely-wrought clasp that was obviously Dwarvin make. He was a handsome young man who had the same high brow and bone structure as Thorin at the head of the table. I wondered for a moment if they were related to one another.
"And you forget, we have a Wizard in our company," the other young Dwarf said next to him. His hair was darker, the color of fresh spring earth in my garden. His beard was little more than stubble, so I guessed that he was just coming into adulthood. He couldn't have been more than fifty or sixty years old as Dwarves go. If I remember right, the one to his left was Fili, his brother, and the handsome young dwarf was Kili. "Gandalf has surely killed hundreds of dragons in his time. Haven't you, Gandalf?"
I admit, I had always thought more of the old wizard as a family friend and one-time sweetheart of my mother, may the Valor rest her soul. At gatherings and holidays, he entertained in the Shire with his sleight of hand and his penchant for wondrous fireworks displays, but I was quickly learning there was far more to Gandalf than I had previously thought. All eyes turned immediately to him then and we all looked at him expectantly. I truly wanted to know more about the mysterious Wizard that was more mystery than man.
"How many dragons have you killed?" Dori asked, the one whose pewter braid looked more like rope than hair. Gandalf choked on his pipe smoke as if put on the spoke. "Don't be modest. Give us the number."
The rowdy group began arguing loudly amongst themselves, nearly climbing over my great-grandmother's oak table as they debated the greatness of Gandalf. At that point, I could no longer remain silent. I wouldn't have a bunch of ruffians destroying a century-old antique just because they couldn't act civilized. I stepped forward, hoping to bring some semblance of civility back to the group. "Excuse me, please! Be careful."
Of course, they didn't hear me. They were drunk on ale and rearing for a good fight and the Valor help those who got in their way.
Thorin rose to his feet, bellowing something in Dwarvish that made all of his company quickly sit down and become quiet. I breath a large sigh of relief knowing that my grandmother's table might make it through to morning after all. "If we have read these signs, do you not think others will have read them, too? Rumors have begun to spread. The dragon Smaug has not been seen for sixty years. Eyes look east to the mountain, assessing and wondering, weighing the risk. Perhaps the vast wealth of our people lies unprotected. Do we sit back while others claim what is rightfully ours?"
Thorin's commanding presence, the passion and anger barely restrained beneath that facade made me tremble with the power of it, caused all distractions around me to cease as I listened to him speak to his companions. My heart fluttered and my breath hitched as I knew that I stood in the presence of a king.
"Or doe we seize this chance to take back Erebor?" Thorin roared and the Company yelled their approval, rallying to their king's battle cry.
"You forget," Balin's voice cut through the raucous of enthusiastic shouts, "the front gate is sealed. There is no way into the mountain."
"Respectfully, my dear Balin," Gandalf gently amended his old friend. "is not entirely true."
Somewhere from my childhood, memories flooded back to me when Gandalf had sat at that same table with my mother and me, when he had made flourishing hand motions to produce a bouquet of flowers for her a pull a coin or a confection from my ear. Now, he did it again, but this time he produced something I never expected: a key. It was angular and geometric in it's appearance, perhaps made of cold iron or pewter. It glimmered in the candlelight and carried in it a powerful that drew all Dwarvin eyes to it. I glanced at Thorin, seeing his passion melt away and awe replace it. His eyes widened and his jaw slacked a little as he stared at the key in Gandalf's hand.
"How came you by this?" He said in quiet awe. I couldn't help but stare in wonder at the beautiful key that caught the light.
"It was given to me by your father," Gandalf explained. "by Thrain. For safekeeping."
Thorin mutely stared at it as did we all. I watched his face and how it captured the light and shadows of the golden candlelight. Several expressions came alight in those blue eyes that I cold only interpret as shock, joy, amazement and delight. His eyes grew unusually bright at the mention Thrain's name, as if he might weep if his heart grew any heavier with the love he had for his father. In that moment, I knew that Thorin carried his father in his heart and memory even though he hadn't seen him in nearly sixty years. Grudgingly, I felt a new respect for this sour, taciturn Dwarf who truly loved his family more than himself.
Gandalf offered the key to Thorin and he took it, staring at with all the reverence one has for a holy artifact or priceless treasure. Time stopped and all was quiet in the world at that moment.
"If there is a key, there must be a door," the golden Dwarf, Kili, murmured.
Gandalf nodded in agreement, using the mouthpiece of his pipe to point to some strange markings on the parchment map laying on the table. "These runs speak of a hidden passage to the lower halls."
Fili heartily patted his brother on the back. "There's another way in!"
"Well," Gandalf shrugged. "if we can find it. However, young master Dwarf, Dwarf doors are invisible when closed. "The answer lies somewhere within this map and I do not have the skill to find it, but there are others in Middle-earth who can. The task I have in mind will require a great deal of stealth and no small amount of courage. Though if we are careful and clever, I believe that it can be done."
"That's why we need a burglar," Ori piped. Thank you, Ori, for stating the obvious.
"And a good one, too. An expert, I'd imagine." I couldn't resist quipping. My mind began running through all of the Hobbits in the Shire that would be well-suited for a quest such as this. My cousin Dilben Took or perhaps one of the Gamshees who had a taste for danger and adventure. To reclaim a lost homeland from a dragon was no small thing.
"And are you?" Gloin asked.
"Am I what?"
"She said she's an expert!" he said to the others.
"Me? No. No, no, no!" I corrected him quickly. "I am not a burglar I've never stolen anything in my life and I am a respectable Hobbit, thank you very much."
"Then," Balin sighed, "I find myself agreeing with Mistress Baggins. She is hardly burglar material."
"No, not at all." I agreed quickly.
"Aye," Dwalin eyed me with more than a small amount of disdain. "the Wild is no place for a woman who can neither fight nor fend for herself."
"Excuse me?" I demanded. "Are you saying because I am a lady of good reputation that I can not take care of myself? At least my head doesn't look like the morning paper!"
There was an uproar amongst the Dwarves at my saucy remark. How dare that undersized troll say that I couldn't take care of myself. I hadn't needed anyone in all my days and he dared insult me in the home that I maintained without anyone's help at all. I took great offense at his foolish words.
"Enough!" Gandalf said above the roar of the Dwarves. He rose to his feet, pounding his staff to get their attention. What I found more than a little unnerving was how his face took on a sublime glow akin to twenty candles burning. "If I say Bella Baggins is a burglar, then a burglar she is, indeed."
The group of heathens suddenly quieted their boisterous arguing and I stared at Gandalf slack-jawed. Never before had anyone come to my defense as he did in that moment and I found that my tongue had lost its barbed spires.
"Hobbits are remarkably light on their feet. Truly, they can pass unnoticed by most, if they choose. While the dragon is accustomed to the scent of Dwarf, the smell of a hobbit is all but unknown to the beast and that gives us a distinct advantage."
Thorin obviously wasn't convinced by Gandalf's words and truly, neither was I. We Hobbits are simple, straightforward creatures that know our place in the world and Gandalf made us sound as if were were master thieves who could steal a king's jewels before he even had time to breathe. He idealized our humble ways and made them sound quite preternatural.
"Thorin," Gandalf sat down, taking another puff from his pie. "you asked me to find the fourteenth member of this company and I find that person is Mistress Baggins. There is much more to here than appearances suggest. She has much more to offer than any of you know, including herself. You must trust me on this."
There, I knew it! Gandalf had finally went around the bend and had smoked too much pipe-weed over the course of his long life. What was he thinking, telling this group of vagabonds that I was some kind of burglar extraordinaire? I was a Baggins of Bag End, not some common criminal. I must admit, my inner Took took great pride in his kind words, giving me a feeling of worth that I had not known from another in a very long time.
Thorin simply stared at Gandalf for several seconds, blinking as though he had been blindsided by a warg. "Very well. We will do it your way."
"No, no! Please!" I pleaded with Gandalf as good sense cleared my mind of any rebellious Tookish thoughts. "This is insane."
"A little insanity is good for the mind," Gandalf winked, pointed his pipe at me. "It will do you good to have some."
"Give her the contract." Thorin growled.
"It's just the usual," Balin pulled a scroll from inside his breast pocket. "Summary of out-of-pocket expenses, time required, remuneration, funeral arrangements and so forth?"
"Funeral arrangements?" I squeaked. Balin handed it to me and I took it into the other room to read it under better light. I expected it to be a few pages, but instead it unfurled into a banner that nearly matched me in height with folded addendums at the sides. "Terms: Cash on delivery, up to, but not exceeding one-fourteenth of total profit if any."
I read the rest of the terms aloud. Hmm," I mused. "Sounds fair."
I read the rest of the terms which were technical and I was quite curious until I came across, "lacerations, evisceration, INCINERATION!?"
"Aye, Lass!" Bofur chimed. "The dragon will melt the flesh off your bones in the blink of an eye."
"Oh, " I drolled. "How reassuring."
"No problem, Mistress Baggins," his cheerful demeanor did not match the gravity of content of our conversation.
Burning to death and the thought of the pain that accompanied it did nothing to settle my nerves. The nightmares that I had experienced as a young Halfling came rushing back into my mind and my stomach churned at the recollection. I felt a sheen of perspiration on my brow as my tongue became dry as kindling and a sour taste filled my mouth. This wasn't an adventure; it was a suicide mission and these mad Dwarves were wanting me to accompany them. I whimpered at the thought of dying such an insidious death.
"Lassie, are you well?" Balin asked. I knew that he was the wisest of their lot and had been the only one thus far to show me consideration.
"Well, not really." I admitted. "I feel a tad faint."
"Think furnace with wings," Bofur offered.
Nausea brought bile to my throat. "Air, I need air. Oh, dear!" All of the worst memories of my nightmares flashed through my mind's eye at that moment as absolute dread and terror possessed my being.
"Think flash of light, searing pain and poof!" Bofur was not helping. For all the kindness and cheerfulness he embodied, he seemed completely unaware of my growing agitation. "You're nothing more than a pile of ash."
"Bofur," I heard Balin say. "Hush now. You're not helping."
"Hmm," I tried to calm my inner fears, but nothing abated the fright coursing through my veins like lava in one instant and ice water the next. The sour taste in my mouth was foul and unsavory as my stomach bounced around my ribcage and my balance eluded me. I knew that I wanted to wretch. Dragons, oh by the Valor, why did their adventure have to include mention of a dragon? "Nope."
My feet buckled from beneath me as my balance fled the hobbit-hole. I felt the smoothness of my great-great aunt's handwoven carpet cushion my fall as everything went black. However, I didn't think of any more dragons.
To be continued. . .