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.

"Really? Can you possibly be any louder?" Bella scoffed over at Gloin as night moths fluttered about his beard. Another roar escaped him as he rustled in his sleep. Bella cupped her hand to her ear. "No, no. That simply wasn't loud enough. I don't think they heard you back in the Shire."

Gloin's snoring is a cross between a thunderstorm and a hurricane, Bella thought. She considered borrowing Oin's ear trumpet and bashing in Gloin's head just so she wouldn't have to listen to the obnoxious rumbling. The night was chilly, the cool breeze easily cutting through her undergarments enough to make her skin prickle from the sensation. The blanket she had packed for the journey, she found, was neither thick enough to keep out the cool night air nor provided ample padding against the hard ground. She tossed and turned for almost an hour, trying to block out Gloin's nasal imitation of multiple cutting saws by watching embers from the fire flutter into the night air. She inhaled deeply of the hickory smoke, attempting to focus her mind on anything but his accursed snoring.

He let out a particularly long snort that finally broke Bella's resolve. She sighed in exasperation, quietly considering Gloin's execution by asphyxiation and muttering several choice expletives beneath her breath. She gave a good stretch to ease the stiffness from her muscles and decided a short walk about camp might be just what was needed to reduce annoyance and increase her drowsiness. She looked across camp, watching Myrtle bat flies with her tail in the moonlight. Bella then remember the little pact they made when she remembered the shiny red apple that she had brought from home that morning.

Tiptoeing over several sleeping Dwarves, she made her way to where the horses were tied. Myrtle gently bunted her nose affectionately into Bella's side upon her approach, easing some of Bella's fowl mood. Bella gently scratched the pony beneath her chin and petted her mane. "Hello,girl." She whispered softly to one of the few other females in the company. "Who's a good girl?"

Myrtle nickered softly, again bunting against Bella's blazer pocket. "Ah, you know what I have in my pocket, don't you, girl? It's our little secret, Myrtle." Bella took the apple and offered it to the hungry pony. "Enjoy. You must tell no one. Shh, shh! You're making almost as much noise as Gloin."

A long, high-pitched screeching in the distance through the moonlit countryside, cutting through the lazy stillness of the late summer night. When it ceased, it left an eerie stillness in its wake. She looked back toward camp, seeing Fili and Kili very much awake with tense looks on their faces. Bella looked out into the night, searching for any sign of what made the noise, but saw nothing. Turning back to Thorin's nephews, she fought the swell of uncertainty streaking up her spine."What was that?"

"Orcs," Kili said quietly.

"Orcs?" Bella asked, not quite believing she heard him correctly. She hastily made her way back to camp. "You are joking, right?"

"We never joke," Fili replied, grim and stoic as he puffed on his pipe, watching the smoke rings he blew rise into the air. "Throat-cutters. There'll be dozens of them out there."

Bella's lips hardened into a tense line and she cast a nervous glance toward Thorin. She felt the first tentacles of panic wrap around her heart and give a painful squeeze. She was terrified of dragons, frightened by heights and panicked by the thought of Orcs. She had heard about how the ugly sons-of-trolls brutally ravaged innocent creatures before slowly torturing them to death. She felt her chest seize to the point that it froze in place and the air in her lungs burst into proverbial flame. Bella fought the urge to faint by pinching her nose shut with her fingers and covering her mouth with her free hand. For several seconds, she took long, even breaths while counting them. She returned her gaze to the golden Dwarf who did nothing to assuage her fear. "The low-lands are crawling with them. They strike in the wee small hours when everyone's asleep."

"How comforting," she quipped. She glanced again at Thorin who abruptly sat upright at the word 'Orcs,' as if brought awake by the thought. He cast his gaze out to the night, scanning the horizon for any sign of danger.

"Quick and quiet," Fili piped up, giving a shrug. "No screams. Just lots of blood."

Bella covered her mouth to silence the large gulp she made when she swallowed the lump of fear bulging in her throat. She let out a particularly unpleasant epitaph that made Fili smirk and look at his brother with a large grin on his face. Bella felt the panic boil in her stomach, threatening to explode from her with only the soul, metallic taste in her mouth serving as warning of what was to happen next. When she saw them snicker, the metallic taste left her to be replaced by a slow burn the erupted into a burst of temper that about came out in the form of calling Kili and Fili fornicating orifices. With fists clenched at her side, she took a breath to let them know what she thought of their teasing, but a stern voice cut through the night with barely contained disdain.

"You think that's funny?" Thorin asked,rising to his feet and moving toward Bella. He gave her a glance and she swore she saw a flicker of worry in his eyes when he looked at her. "You think a night raid by Orcs is a joke?"

Fili rolled his eyes, embarrassed by his uncle's disapproval. Staring at the ground, he muttered in half-apology, "We didn't mean anything by it."

"No, you didn't." Thorin growled. "You know nothing of the world."

Bella's eyes widened slightly with surprise with Thorin's response, taken aback by the contempt heavy in his voice as he answered. For a moment, she was touched by his unexpected thoughts of her welfare and nodded begrudgingly at the the thought that he wasn't the arrogant sod he appeared to be. That was, until he walked past her without giving her a second glance. He strode away from the rest of the company to the edge of a ledge near where the encampment.

"What crawled up his arse and died?" Fili turned to Kili. Kili said nothing and shrugged.

"Don't mind them, laddie." Balin's voice soothed Bella's fears when he addressed the younger Dwarf. "Thorin has more cause than most to hate Orcs."

"Why?" Bella asked, wanting to focus on anything but the chaotic whiplash of emotions she was experiencing within a span of five minutes: annoyance, terror and embarrassment at thinking Thorin might actually give two whits about her condition.

"Sit by the fire for a spell, Bella, and have a some camomile tea," Balin patted the ground next to him. "It will steady your nerves and calm that feisty temper of yours. I think it will do you and the laddies well to understand what stirs within Thorin."

"I think I agree with Fili," she scoffed. She looked at the contrite Dwarf.

"Bella, I'm sorry," he began. "I was only teasing. I didn't realize how frightened you were until I saw-"

"Leave it, Fili." Bella said, holding her hand in midair to stop him in mid-sentence. "Just remember that if you make a Hobbit hopping mad, you'll have a Hobbit's foot up your arse as a consequence. Quite painful, I'm told, given how large a Hobbit's feet can be."

"I see," Fili nodded once. He extended his hand to her. "Are we good?"

"Very," Bella took his hand and shook it firmly. "It's good to know that your Uncle is an equally-oportuned idiot and that it isn't personal against me."

"Now, Lass," Balin addressed her. "I'll not be having you speak badly of Thorin. You might think differently once you understand what made him the Dwarf he is today."

"Lack of a good shag?" Kili chimed in for good measure and was met by a swift elbow to his ribs. No one saw were it came from, but he clasped his side closest to Balin.

"Show some respect, boy!" Balin exclaimed. "Thorin is your king and your kin."

"Sorry, Balin."

Balin reminded Stella of someone's favorite grandfather with his twinkling blue eyes and cheerful manner. His kindness was the soothing balm that eased Bella's stung pride and calmed her growing fears. Out of all the party, she was glad that he was there that night. She spread out her skirts a bit before sitting beside him by the warm, crackling fire. Pulling out a stone mug from his rucksack, Balin reached for an iron kettle sitting atop the grill on the fire. Pouring her some chamomile tea into stone mug, he offered it to her. "Sorry, Lass, no milk."

"Quite fine, Master Balin, quite fine. Thank you," she said with gratitude. His simple compassion and fatherly ways warmed Bella to the tips of her toes, warming her heart and calming her to a point of near-contentment within seconds. She eyed him for a second, thinking he had been quite the charmer back in his day when he was a younger Dwarf. She gingerly sipped the strong tea, thankful for it as it washed down her throat. "Go on, please."

"All right," he gave her a patient smile. "After the dragon took the Lonely Mountain, King Thror tried to reclaim the ancient Dwarf Kingdom of Moria, but our enemy had got there first. The enemy was so upon us that we were back to back with our brethren with no room to even break a sweat. The smoke from where they laid waste filled the air so thick that it was difficult to discern who was friend or foe."

Bella listened intently to the wise elder Dwarf whose lilting voice drew her into a battlefield with her standing in the middle while the carnage occurred around her. She imagined how it must have looked: bearded warriors garbed in armor with swords clashing and beards and braid flying. The scent of smoke and ash filled her nostrils while the rending of metal against flesh captured her mind. She cringed with revulsion as the imagined death closed in upon her, so close she could have reached out and touched an Orc had she tried.

Moria had been taken by legions of Orcs led by the most vile of all their race: Azog the Defiler."

"What did he look like?" she dared ask, trying to imagine the likes of an Orc. Given that she had never seen one, her mind conjured up something between a troll and a wraith.

"Tall and sloped-shouldered," Balin replied. Pale as death with small beady eyes and a stubbed nose with teeth filed down to points to tear at the flesh of his victims. Scars carved into his body as a sign of beauty."

"Eww," Bella shivered in revulsion.

"The giant Gundabad Orc had sworn to wipe out the line of Durin. He began by beheading the king. He held it up for all of his minions to see and bellowed his triumph as a battle cry to arms. Thorin and his grandfather, Thror, were very close and to see his grandfather that way changed him that day. Azog threw Thror's head at the prince until it came to a stop at his feet."

"By, Valar! No. . ." Bella gasped. To see one's family attacked horrifically without mercy tore at her heart. The vision that captured her mind's eye caused her eyes to sting and hot scalding droplets trace twin paths down her cheeks.

Thrain, Thorin's father," Balin continued. "Was driven mad by grief. He went missing. Taken prisoner or killed, we did not know. We were leaderless. Defeat and death were upon us."

Bella couldn't help but return her gaze to the stoic, brooding warrior standing with his back to the company, staring out into the night, scanning the landscape for any sign of an unseen enemy. She saw his hands ball into fists and knew that he heard every word Balin had told her, Fili and Kili.

"The Orcs overran us, trampling our warriors beneath our feet and throwing the bodies of our dead out of their way as they charged upon the rest of us."

Bella stared wide-eyed at Balin in disbelief. "You were there? You saw it as well, didn't you?"

"Aye, Lass, that I was and I did," he gave her a brief nod and she noticed that his eyes had an unusual brightness in the firelight. He gave her a waxen smile followed by a large sniff. He turned away for a moment and coughed.

"What I wouldn't give for a handkerchief," Bella muttered before remembering the scrap of cloth Bofur had given her earlier in the day. She drew it out, saying nothing as she laid a hand on Balin's shoulder. He remained very still with his back to her for a few moments, saying nothing, before turning around. "Thank you, Bella, you have a kind heart. You bring comfort to an old Dwarf's soul."

"I am sorry that you had to experience such horrible things," she said. "Honestly, I don't know what to say."

"I would say that is when I saw him," a hushed awe bordering on reverence came over Balin as he looked at Thorin standing on the ledge several yards away. "He was truly of the line of Durin: proud and majestic. A young Dwarf prince facing down the pale Orc. He stood along against this terrible foe. His armor rent, wielding nothing but an oaken branch as a shield."

"What happened next?" Fili asked, fascinated by the turn of the story.

"Well, lad, that is the amazing thing," Balin said as he refilled Bella's half-empty mug with more tea and then his own. "His shield gone and Azor's last blow sent the young prince reeling head over feet. I thought that he had surely seen his last day in this life. But, one must never underestimate the tenacity that flows through the line of Duran. With newfound fury, Thorin picked up a nearby sword and in a wide arc, his swing arced true. The Dwarvin steel sliced through the thick limb of the Orc, severing his left hand from the rest of the beast's body. His scream was loud enough to turn heads around him even through the din of the battle."

"What a lovely way to tell the sod to have a nice trip to hell," Bella said quietly.

Balin gave an agreeing nod. "You have a way with words, Bella. You're right, you know. Azog the Defiler learned that day that the line of Durin would not so easily be broken. I still remember the battle cry our Prince yelled, 'Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu'!"

"Balin," Kili exclaimed. "There's an outsider present."

"And this outsider is also a member of our company," Balin replied. "A little Khuzdul won't give away the fortress. To keep the letter of the law is to be strangled by it and it it is far better to live the spirit of it. She will keep our secrets, won't you, Bella?"

"I can't keep a secret if I don't know what it means," she shrugged. "What does 'Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu' mean?"

"Ah," Balin nodded in appreciation. "You've also an ear for languages. It means, 'Axes of the Dwarves! The Dwarves are upon you!'"

"Our forces rallied and drove the Orcs back. Our enemy had been defeated, but there was no feast nor song that night. For our dead were beyond the count of grief. Our tears and our blood flowed freely that day. We few had survived. And I thought to myself then, "There is one that I could fall. There is one I could call king."

Bella looked over to see Thorin turn around, a look of sadness in his eyes matching that of Balin. She watched the two Dwarves look at one another for a long moment as camaraderie, sorrow and understanding passed between them unspoken. She saw the other Dwarves, now on their feet, staring in awe of the the Dwarf Prince, respect abound. Thorin looked back at them, each in term, with that same gaze, a bond that was deeper than race or creed, but one of brotherhood and clan.

"And the pale Orc? What happened to him?" Bella asked, wanting to know the end of the tale.

"He slunk back into the hole whence he came," Thorin's answered, his eyes gleamed like tempered steel, his words cold with hatred as he strode through the company without a backward glance to Bella. "That filth died of his wounds long ago."

Bella thanked Balin and bid him goodnight. As she tossed and turned in her bedroll, sleep finally came to her, but it wasn't an easy dreaming she experienced. Her thoughts drifted between clanging swords, mounds of bodies and throngs of Orcs charging Dwarvin warriors, and the hollow look of loss that she remembered in the eyes of Dwarvin Prince. She awoke the next morning with a new understanding of Thorin Oakenshield and how he came to be the Dwarf he was. No one should experience that kind of loss.

To be continued...