The journey is tiresome, stretching seemingly to no end, rain drenching the small company of Dwarves, soaked cloaks heavy, hoods low, covering bearded faces. The cold is bone-shattering. Ponies tread with difficulty through the sludge of the Great East Road, slipping on puddles and mud, their heads dropped to the ground. The dreary landscape of the Lone-lands makes the Dwarves even more sullen, only the promise of warm fire and fine mead of Bree keeping their spirits. It is late evening but the King decides to push forward, camping in the treacherous weather out of question. With your small build and lack of Dwarven endurance you are tormented more than others, clenching your teeth and silently suffering through clanking teeth, despite of additional layers of furs covering your shoulders. The cold is defeating you, and you nod off without noticing. You are sliding of your pony, and the strong hand of your King secures you in a saddle. "Just a few more hours, zundush," his voice shakes you out of your lethargy, and you shiver. "I hope your Hobbit is worth all this," the King chuckles. "Hey Dwalin," he is addressing the menacing looking warrior, "Is visiting Master Baggins worth this accursed calamity of a journey?" The terrifying warrior who struck awe in you from the start but who surprisingly developed a soft spot for you grumbles from under his hood. "He better be," he is shaking his tattooed head, "He will feed you fairly, Barazninh, that is for sure," he is chuckling from fond memories, "and his pipeweed is dandy". Baraznihn, The Red Lady, the tribute to your red hair, is his respectful appellation for you that you are very fond of. Your not being a Dwarf, with the claim on the King's heart did not set a good beginning to your relationships with Thorin's closest lieutenant, but the events of your first winter in Erebor turned him in your most loyal supporter. Your shared willingness to fight and die for the King as well as ferocity in battle bonded you two. Thorin is often laughing that in a situation when Dwalin's allegiance would have to be divided between you two, he himself stands no chance. "Do you wish me to walk on your side?" the fearsome Dwarf offers in a soft tone. You graciously thank him but decline. The landscape finally seems familiar, memories from two years ago coming back to you. Given it was in summertime, you stayed in Bree for three months, exploring the surrounding plains. Thorin and other members of the company are also lost in memories, reminiscing of the beginning of their Quest for Erebor. You have heard the stories but you still have not had the privilege to meet the fourteenth member of the company. After your stay in Bree, you were in a hurry to return to Erebor, your visit to the Shire postponed. The hobbit intrigues you to no end. Those few hobbits you have met in your life haven't stricken you as adventure seeking. The Honourable Thief and Barrel Rider whom your King holds so dear is awaiting your visit, but the weather does not seem to approbate.
You arrive to Bree just before dawn, your King after all carrying your sleeping form in one of the rooms in the inn. You do not remember being undressed and put under the covers on a bed too long for you. That is where you wake up around lunch time, well rested, though slightly disoriented. The room is spacious and sunny, clean large windows filling it with light. You cloak is stretched on one of the chairs, together with Thorin's, you bags stacked in the corner. You stretch and bury your nose in the pillow. It smells of rain and Thorin, him probably already in the common room gorging copious amounts of food and ale with the rest of the company. Your own stomach expressing its distress, you change and attempt to braid your hair. Yesterday's rain and sleeping unbraided turned you carrot coloured curls into an unruly halo. You manage to tame most of the tresses, give up and still slightly disheveled you set out for a quest in search of breakfast. The Dwarves are not hard to find, the noise of their feasting easily leading you to the common room. You enter and see a large table, breaking under the weight of cold chickens, mince-pies, eggs, cheeses and bowls of salad. Mugs of ale crowd the table and the air is full of merriment and loud chatter. Upon seeing you all Dwarves rise and cordially greet you. Smiling you wave your hand, encouraging them to go back to the meal. An empty chair is left for you between Thorin and Dwalin. You softly greet the King who smiles to you tenderly and seat down. Without interrupting his conversation with Bofur, who out of all the company seems to be in most anticipation to see the hobbit, the King places a plate with your favourite seed-cake in front of you, while with a courteous nod Balin hands you a cup of tea. Thanking the ceremonial Dwarf you pinch a piece of cake, absent-mindedly listening to the overlapping conversations of Dwarves. Not all who were in Thorin's initial company have joined him today, Fili and Kili staying in Erebor, Dori and Ori visiting family in Ered Luin. The hobbit is to come back with you to Erebor as a guest at the upcoming celebrations.
At that moment the innkeeper enters the room to inquire after his guests. He chokes on his polite words and halts in front of the table, mugs in his hands, his eyes fixed on you. Only then you notice that the other two tables in the room that are occupied by Men in travel clothes have been strangely quiet since you came in the room. The Dwarves continue their talking, pulling the mugs out of the innkeepers hands. "My dear sir, another cup of tea would be most timely," calm voice of Balin shakes the man out of his stupor. He bows and scatters to the kitchen. "My lady?" Balin offers you a plate with cheese as an excuse to look into your face. You smile to him to show your appreciation for his concern. "Master Barliman seem to have recognised me from my short stay in Bree two years ago," you carefully look aside and notice other patrons quietly whispering between themselves. Two women in the corner look positively scandalised. "Though I probably look much different from those times," you chuckle remembering the simple dress you wore while residing in Bree, and the face of your King when he first saw you in those clothes. You are currently clad in Dwarven clothes, regal dark blue in stark contrast with your copper hair, Nyrnala, the Jewel of Khazad-dum glistening on your neck, the engagement gift from the King. The clothes have a manly cut as that is how Dwarven maidens traditionally travel. But since you have no beard, you are not to be mistaken for a Dwarven youngling, but recognized for exactly what you are, a female of Men, dressed in trousers, traveling in the company of eight Dwarves. All appetite suddenly lost, you drink your tea and twiddle you rings, adorned with Dwarven ruins, bearing the name of the King Under the Mountain.
Soon after, you excuse yourself and go up to the room. You change into a dress and leave the inn. You know you have several hours before the Dwarves are full and return to their rooms for rest. It was decided that you are setting on the road the next dawn. It has been two years but you are sure you will find a few familiar faces. You easily find the house of Appledore family you delivered two babes into and had countless dinners at. You are greeted with surprise and merriment, hundreds of questions thrown at you. You are seated at the table, fed and soon enough you find yourself playing on the floor with the children, the youngest toddling around you, a chubby boy, you have last seen as an infant, red-faced and screaming with his first colic. More people appear, children slightly taller, men slightly rounder. You discuss ailments and remedies, weddings and heartbreaks, you laugh at gossip, rejoice at news and hide tears from fond memories. You do not notice that the sun is almost touching the horizon.
You are sitting at the table, finishing your third mead, bobbing a happily gurgling babe on you knee, when one of the woman you saw at the inn approaches you. You vaguely recognize her as a sister of your former patron, and an unpleasant feeling creeps into your heart. She is mannered and demure, but you do not like the coldness in her eyes. Before that moment you cleverly disclosed very little about your present life, mentioning living at the West and practicing your magic and midwifery. The woman compliments your dress and you can see her eyes jumping to your covered clavicles where, as she saw in the morning, the glowing gems of Nyrnala weigh on your skin. She lifts her eyes and recoils from the stern stare you are giving her.
Two meads later while men step outside for a pipe, women's rising voices ring in the house and the eternal question arises. "So, Filegethiel," one of the younger women draws out your Elven name, "what are men of the West like?" Everyone giggles, awaiting a witty reply from you, many hours two years ago spent in your declaiming the faulty nature of men. You open your mouth but the woman from the inn beats you to it, "She wouldn't know. Her interests lie elsewhere." She is looking at our with a challenge, taunting you to contradict it. You take a leveling breath and smile. "It is true, Men are an uninspiring subject matter," you pin her down with your gaze, wondering if she dare elaborate. "Dwarves though..." she suggestively sways her hips, and you think the last two meads should have stayed in the pantry. Women murmur among themselves and exchange confused glances. "Tell them what it is like, to live among the Stunted Ones. Which one of them was yours by the way, Filegethiel? I bet not the old one with forked beard, I would go for the tall one with fierce brows," she gives out a salacious laugh. Women turn to you, confusion mixing with suspicion on their faces. You smile an unpleasant smile to your unexpected accuser and turn to the suddenly silent room, "The tall one she mentioned is Thorin Oakenshield, the King under the Mountain, King of Durin's Folk, the sovereign of the Dwarves of Erebor, and I am indeed travelling in his company." Some of the women gasp but remain quiet under your poised glance. You have nothing to be ashamed of, and you have no need for defending your actions. "Is it the same Thorin Oakenshield who two years ago swept in here and took you away?" the woman who used to come to you for herbs against warts speaks from the corner of the room. "So it was true, you did see her dallying with a Dwarf in the bushes by the road!" "And I told you so two years ago and you accused me of spreading lies." Women start squabbling, while you feel your cheeks beginning to burn, not from the sudden accusations, but from the remembering what transpired in those bushes by the road. "She is not even denying it!" Voices are getting louder and you get up on your feet. "I am not going to deny something that is true," indeed there was quite some dallying in those bushes, probably not worth mentioning to the women though, "and explaining myself I do not wish either." The woman nearest to you takes a sleeping infant from your hands, who immediately starts crying. All women start talking at the same time, animosity towards the Durin's Folk and curiosity mixed in equal measure in their voices. "What are they like?" "Is it true that there are no Dwarf women?" One younger one is courageous enough to ask, "Are they covered in hair all over their bodies?" Older women gasp in indignation, but you feel that daring ones should rewarded. "No, they are not, just their arms and chest," the girl squeals and others maidens starts murmuring among themselves. Judging by shushed giggles, they do not share the antagonism of the grown-ups. You suddenly start enjoying the disorder you are causing. "And the legs, of course," the girls roar with laughter. "Not that different from men then," someone comments. "Any more questions?" you circle the room with authoritative stare. The woman from the inn steps forward and you ask yourself what did you do two years ago to get on her nerves so. "So do they actually take wives or you are just travelling with them?" The implications of her question are too slandering even for most judgemental of the women, and someone is pulling her sleeve to make her step away. And then you remember. "Yes, they do. Dwarves marry for life and never remarry if widowed. They also never cheat on their loved ones and do not bring love itch into their spousal bed," you finally place her face on the memory of brewing a wash to ease the irritation in the nether regions. And brewing a bottle for her neighbor as well as his wife. She slams the door behind herself unnecessarily loudly. Someone laughs but most just feel relieved. Conversation return to the local news but you feel tired and start goodbying. Men are coming back from outside, you exchange words with them, everyone suddenly standing awkwardly, wishing luck and prosperity, promising to write, warning against the poor state of the road. At that very moment decisive knock at the front door stops everyone in their tracks. The host goes to open the door, but you have already recognized the knock and brace yourself. The low rumble of your King's voice is rolling into the sitting room and soon enough he is entering, regal, breath-taking, resplendent. One of the young women who were giggling before breathes out, "Maiar help me, no wonder!" The King politely bows to the assembly and turns to you, "My Queen, you had me worried," the decadent velour of his voice bears around the room. "You have disappeared for the whole day. Had I known you are among friends," he bestows a charitable smile to the silent townsfolk, "I would have been tranquil. I was hoping for the honour of sharing dinner with you, azyungal." You hastily bid farewell to the party, while he is waiting patiently by the door, with a slight exasperation on his face, seemingly without noticing the children staring at him and women whispering in awe. Before giving his last dignified nod to the hosts, he helps you into your cloak and kisses the knuckles of your hand while you are struggling with the clasp on your neck. You step out into brisk twilight and when a few steps separate you from the house you start laughing. Thorin shakes off the composed mask and cocks a brow. You are laughing, wrapping your arms around his neck and he picks you up for a few giddy swirls. "What brought this frolicing?" he saks after putting you down and kissing you thoroughly. You loop your arm through his and start, "Remember, when two years ago you barged into my house and burglarized me?" He scoffs, "I am afraid I remember it quite differently." "But you do remember the bushes under the bridge, my Lord?" He smirks, "Quite well." "I guess we were not that well concealed as we thought then."