Fiercer Than Fire: A Reimagining of the Quest of Erebor
By Aranel Carnilino and Eleanor Damaschke
Billa Baggins watched, trying not to look too distressed as her grandmother's dishes were thrown hither and yon, flying recklessly down the hallway like very heavy, very expensive pie tins. The dwarves finished their ridiculous song and she edged into the kitchen to see her dishes stacked neatly on the table. Her knees went weak with relief.
"You lot are lucky none of these broke," she muttered, touching one of the dishes gently. A thunderous knock boomed through the house, and every eye turned toward the front door. Gandalf grasped his staff, and Billa could have sworn there was a smile in his old eyes.
The dwarves suddenly became very serious, and Billa shifted, taking a step toward the door and shooting a nervous glance at the wizard.
The two of them moved toward the door and Gandalf opened it with a grand air.
Billa stared at the newcomer. If the others had been outlandish, this one was perfectly wild. He was wearing braids and beads in his shaggy dark hair, and his eyes were the color she imagined a wolf's eyes might be, at night in the firelight. The fur around his collar only added to the 'wild beast' impression she was getting from him.
"Miss Baggins, may I present the leader of our Company, Thorin Oakenshield." There was a certain note of grandeur (and was that pride?) in Gandalf's voice as he spoke. Billa wasn't sure what to think at all, so she tugged her housecoat a little more tightly around her body.
"I thought you said this place would be easy to find," growled the dwarf, eyes narrowed as he glanced up at the Wizard. "I lost my way. Twice. If it weren't for the symbol on the door, I wouldn't have found it at all."
"Symbol? What symbol? There's no symbol on that door. I just painted it last week!" Billa lurched forward, catching the door before Thorin could push it shut. "There had better not be a... oh, bebother and confusticate this whole stupid thing! Gandalf!" She gave the Wizard an appalled look. Scratching on her lovely green door like that. Terribly unfriendly. Not good for guests at all.
"So... this is the hobbit." A deep voice very near at hand drew her attention back to the leader. Thorn, was it? Or something like it. Billa was startled when she had to tip her head up quite a bit to look into his face. She had known, from very recent and overwhelming experience, that dwarves were taller than hobbits by a good measure. This, however... this was quite another matter. She felt like she was looking up at one of the Big Folk. He loomed over her, his broad shoulders and sharp eyes making her feel rather small and vulnerable. "She looks more like a dormouse than a burglar."
"Yes, I'm a hobbit. Billa Baggins, at your service. Now, kindly wipe your shoes, though I doubt it'll do any good." She frowned at him. "Your Company have already ruined my carpets. It'll take me a week of scrubbing to get them clean again."
He conveniently ignored her demands concerning his boots, staring her up and down evaluatively. "Tell me, Miss Baggins, have you done any fighting?" He smirked lightly.
Oh, you'll see some fighting alright. "I assure you, Master Dwarf," she replied somewhat waspishly, "that I only ever fight when absolutely necessary." This gathering was getting to be maddening. Gandalf laughed deep in his throat.
"And I think I can safely assume it hasn't been necessary for you yet." Thorin glanced at Gandalf. If appearances were anything to go by, the Wizard was going to have a good deal of explaining to do. Miss Baggins was short and slight, quite literally dwarfed by the dwarves. The halfling (or "hobbit," as the locals evidently called themselves) was hiding inside an outlandish coat that seemed to be made of brightly colored cloth squares all sewn together. She had light brown, curly hair and dark eyes set in a child-like face. No, she was not at all what Thorin had expected.
The dwarf swept his fur-lined cloak back over his shoulders. The hobbit was still squeaking indignantly about her carpets when Thorin caught her gaze. He held it a moment, looking for weakness, looking to see if she'd quail at the intensity of his eyes. She endured longer than most, and he nodded, mildly impressed.
"You see?" said Gandalf. "Plenty of spirit, and she's light on her feet. Quick-fingered and clever, in the way of her folk." The Wizard's praise fell on deaf ears as Billa looked around at the dwarves now crowding into her entryway, watching their young leader with silent respect.
Thorin greeted the others with a nod, reserving a rare smile for Fili and Kili, his nephews. The dark-haired dwarf pressed through the others and hung his cloak on a hook in the hallway, then turned to Gandalf. "Everyone has already eaten, I expect?"
Bombur looked tremendously guilty.
"Yes, but I saved some stew for you," Balin called. "Heating over the fire as we speak."
A collective sigh of relief filled the room, though Bombur still looked guilty.
At the table, Thorin related the news of his meeting in Ered Luin between spoonfuls of stew. It was a good stew, he thought in passing. If nothing else, Miss Baggins seemed to be a decent cook.
"So they won't come," said Dwalin, disappointedly. "We're on our own, then."
Thorin made a dismissive sound. "I expected it from the first. They'll not come unless I am in possession of the Arkenstone, which would demonstrate that my purpose is divinely mandated. If we can find the King's Jewel, they will join us. And if they join us, we will have a chance against Smaug."
"That's why you need a burglar," said Gandalf, puffing determinedly at his pipe. "Someone who can sneak into Smaug's lair and find the jewel without being seen."
Thorin cocked an eye at the halfling, who was standing awkwardly in the corner off to his left, observing the conversation. "So you've chosen her to be this burglar?" He snorted lightly. "Miss Baggins, do you even know what a dragon is?" He honestly couldn't imagine that she had actually agreed to this; had Gandalf told her anything?
Something about the way this dwarf simply dismissed whatever skills she might or might not have had rubbed the halfling the wrong way. She bristled, but listened in silence. They were a strange bunch, to be sure. When their attention returned to her, Billa had to close her mouth quickly to avoid looking the village idiot. Dragon? She opened her mouth and closed it again several times, hoping the words would come to her, but that failed, leaving her making a mockery of a dying fish instead of intelligent conversation.
"You know, big, scaly, bat-wings... breathes fire?" One of the dwarves offered helpfully, smirking at the flabbergasted hobbit.
"I know what a dragon is," she snapped impatiently. Taking a moment to regain her composure, she took a deep breath. "With the greatest possible respect... have you all lost your minds?" Billa turned a disbelieving look on Gandalf, whose eyebrows were raised as though he were somehow innocent.
"Gandalf, do you sincerely expect me to go on some obscure quest with thirteen men, ruin my good prospects as they are, travel who-knows-how-far and steal from a dragon's hoard? You have clearly lost what little sense you had!" She paused. "No offense meant, of course. I'm sure it's a very noble quest, and I'm happy to offer what services I can. I believe I have some cakes in the pantry you didn't raid yet, and there are plenty of beds here. You are all free to spend the night and I'll send you on your way in the morning with a good breakfast under your belts. But that's as far as my hospitality goes, thank you very much. I'm a respectable hobbit, and have no need for journeys, quests, or dragons." She finished with an air of finality, nodding firmly as though that quite closed the topic.
"Billa Baggins," said Gandalf in a tone that allowed no form of argument, "you will not be leaving your guests in a time of need."
"Leaving—?" Billa frowned. "I'm not leaving anyone. Look, this isn't my problem. Obviously, they need to find a real burglar, because I'm not."
"These dwarves fight for their homeland and you say that you can do nothing." Gandalf stood up, moving closer to the hobbit and towering over her as only one of the Big Folk could. "I happen to know there is more in you than even you know. Where is the hobbit I knew as a child, who begged her mother for tales of grand adventures and ran away from home at every opportunity? Miss Baggins, these are your guests and they need your help, whether they know it or not."
There was a pause, and Billa gestured, as though trying to find words that simply wouldn't come. At last, she sighed, looking defeated.
"Hear me, Wizard. I will get back at you for this. Someday, somehow, I will have my good and just reward, and you will regret this."
With a huff, she turned to Thorin and offered a slight bow. "As your hostess, I offer you my services as they are—whether as cook or... burglar. If you would kindly give me the details of your quest, I shall take those into consideration." Her words were formal, but there was a resigned sort of excitement in her brown eyes.
Balin stood up with a smile. "Excellent! Here's your contract."
Billa took the paper with a curious look that quickly turned to alarm as she unfolded it and saw its length and numerous clauses. She mumbled as she read, frowning at the paper. Words like "funeral," "lacerations," and "incineration" were louder than the others.
"Oh, yeah," offered Bofur with a grin. "Dragonfire'll melt the flesh off your bones right enough." Billa stared at him for a moment, then shook her head. She tried to regain some form of composure, but ultimately had to sit down, looking very green.
Thorin turned to the old wizard, shaking his shaggy head. "Gandalf, I will be plain in saying I do not see the wisdom of this. But since you are so determined to have your way, I'll give it to you. However, understand now: I cannot be held responsible for her fate."
Gandalf nodded slowly. "Agreed."
Thorin absently tapped his spoon against his mostly empty wooden bowl. "That said, I reserve the right to designate someone else to the task of seeking the Arkenstone. If her reaction at the mere mention of a dragon's wrath has this effect on her, how will she react in the presence of a real one?"
Gandalf cleared his throat. "That remains to be seen. I expect you will be very surprised. Hobbits seem docile and homely, but are fierce as a dragon in a pinch."
"For all our sakes, I hope you're right," said Thorin, heaving a sigh.
He was imagining all sorts of awkward and inconvenient scenarios. The hobbit fainting at the sight of an owl. The hobbit wailing and begging to go home halfway through the journey. The hobbit screaming in terror at the first sign of danger, complicating and muddling their quest.
Perhaps these were far-fetched. The most realistic and potentially deadly inconvenience, he thought, would be if the other members of the company neglected their duties through a need to dote on her, protect her, or cater to her every whim. Even he could admit she was, well, rather attractive. As far as halflings go, that is, he amended to himself.