Flora Brandybuck sighed heavily as she marched down the road towards Bag End, the moonlight bathing the idyllic landscape of Hobbiton in silver light. The occasional lightning bug flickered gold in the bushes or overhead to add even more jewels to the glittering velvet black of the night sky.
Her untamed, voluminous mass of red curls bounced with each step, the hem of her simple brown gown shimmering around her ankles. Her pale skin was still slightly flushed with the exertion of the day, the spoils – three large hares – of her hunt slung over her back with her bow and quiver.
She was odd for a Hobbit lass of the Shire, but many of the Hobbits of Buckland – in particular the Master's family – were exceptionally so. Rather than bake, garden, or weave Flora spent most of her time in the woods hunting or in her cousin's library poring over the maps and books of his collection. She dreamed of leaving the Shire, but most importantly, she dreamed of having an adventure.
In fact, in that very moment her mind was in a far off land with Elves and magic. However, when she noticed a ruckus coming from the direction of her destination she was quickly brought back. As she drew closer to Bag End, Flora recognized the very distressed cries of her dear cousin Bilbo Baggins and several other voices decidedly un-Hobbit. A gentle whicker alerted her to the presence no less than twelve shaggy looking horses tied up in poor Bilbo's garden – rather, what used to be his garden.
Fearing for her cousin's safety Flora dropped her kills to leave them in a bush next to the road. As her whole body quivered with fright she slowly crept up to a window to peer inside, gasping at the sight.
Dwarves, twelve of them, all sitting around the dining room table smoking pipes or sharpening blades. A few of them seemed to be laughing and watching something on the floor. When Flora peered closer, she released another soft gasp at the realization that it was Bilbo's unmoving body.
Terror and anger seized Flora as she collapsed to sit below the window, hidden in the shadows. From inside she could hear the Dwarves talking about 'riches' and 'plunder', and she quickly realized they'd come to the Shire with the intention of taking it's hard-earned riches. She couldn't let that happen, but neither could she leave poor Bilbo to a fate at the hands of Dwarven bandits
She sat there, listening to them laugh and joke for what felt like a day when she finally summoned the courage to move once more. Staying in the shadows and below the windows, she crept around to the back of the garden of Bag End where the door to the cellar lay. Pulling her small skinning dagger free from its small sheath at her hip she waited until the noise inside rose before using the hilt to smash the lock. After a few tries it opened and she slipped silently inside
The door creaked as she lay it to close and Flora froze, terrified she'd alerted the bandits to her presence. When the laughter upstairs continued and she heard no footsteps coming in her direction she tiptoed with the stealth only a Hobbit had towards the light of the corridor. There was a gentle moan of wood as someone stood from their seat, announcing their intention to seek out more food. Realizing just where she was standing, Flora panicked. As the bandit slowly walked towards the cellar Flora shrank back into the shadows to squeeze as close to the wall as she could.
He was much younger than the others she'd seen through the window with a round, innocent face and a large nose. She didn't have long to examine the stranger, however, as in a moment of pure bad luck he turned to look directly at Flora.
Both froze, staring at each other for a moment before the Hobbit jumped into frantic action. Grabbing the Dwarf by his blonde beard and thrust her skinning knife forward to rest at his neck, hands shaking, Flora pushed her captive forward out of the cellar towards the dining room. His wide, frightened blue eyes – as large as she was sure hers were – watched her carefully.
"Ori, why don't you – hey!"
All eleven of the other Dwarves leapt to their feet at the sight of their companion at the mercy of the terrified redhead. Her hands were shaking violently, the sharp skinning knife quivering to kiss her captive's throat.
"Alright, lass, easy now," said one of the Dwarves slowly moving forward.
"S-stay back!" she cried, her clammy grip on her weapon become more steady. "I said stay back, or your f-friend gets it!"
"Easy, what is it that you want?"
"Bilbo! I want you to release Bilbo Baggins and leave Hobbiton," said Flora more boldly now, staring down the small crowd of Dwarves. "Bandits have no place in Shire."
They all burst into laughter.
"Don't think I won't do it!" she cried, pulling hard on her captive's beard and earning a small cry.
"Oh, I have no doubt you wouldn't, Flora Brandybuck," said a familiar voice. Looking to her left, she saw none other than Gandalf the wizard looking on the scene with an expression of great amusement. His large, imposing figure was almost comical in the cramped space. Familiar blue eyes, kind and wise, sparkled with laughter above his long, grey beard.
"Gandalf!" gasped Flora, so startled she yanked yet again on the Dwarf's beard. "You're just in time these bandits captured Bilbo, they're going to raid the Shire!"
Now the wizard joined in the laughter, though not quite as enthusiastic as the Dwarves.
"It's quite alright, my dear, these are friends of mine and your cousins. They mean no harm," he explained. "Come, come, dear, release the poor lad before you hurt him."
"Oh! I'm so sorry," said Flora, dropping her knife and bowing low. "I'm so very sorry."
"N-no harm done," sqeaked the Dwarf.
Flora ran to Gandalf, falling into his kind embrace before turning to face the very amused Dwarves.
"My apologies, sirs, for the misunderstanding," she said, curtseying low. "If there is anything the Master of Buckland can do for you, please inform me and it will be done. I am very, very sorry."
"May I present Flora Brandybuck, eldest daughter of Gorbadoc, Master of Buckland," said Gandalf, his eyes still twinkling.
"It is quite alright, lass," said Dwarf with a snowy white beard that curled gently at his chest. "I imagine this must all have looked quite odd from the outside."
"What is a young lass such as yourself doing out so late in the evening?" asked another one of the Dwarves. This one was quite fearsome looking with a bald head decorated with what Flora knew must have been tattoos and long, dark hair that started below the crown.
"I was returning from hunting and was passing by to visit my cousin, sir," she replied curtly. "It is my favourite way to pass time in the Shire."
"My cousin here is quite the shot," said Bilbo, emerging from the drawing room. She blushed at seeing that he was perfectly unharmed and appeared to be in a somewhat cheerful mood after the awkward and rather embarrassing introduction of his relative. "Though, I do not think her mother would approve of her hunting, or being out so late even if it was to visit me."
Flora rolled her eyes.
"Who do you think asked me to stop by?"
"Oh, where are my manners," said Bilbo, clapping his hands together excitedly. Then, Dwarf by Dwarf, he introduced the strange guests around the table.
Flora was quite taken with all of them – especially their beards. They were completely unlike anyone she had encountered before, each of them unique and exotic in their own way. Ori, the young Dwarf whom she'd taken hostage, was evidently the youngest and most gentle, bearing nothing but a slingshot at his waist. Next, were Balin and Dwalin, the white haired and tattooed Dwarves who bore an air of experience and had eyes that told of wisdom much like Gandalf's. Bifur's dark mass of hair nearly rivalled Flora's, though his was straight and untidy, blending with his equally long, dark beard. Bombur was as rotund as a barrel and was munching on what appeared to be scones he'd stuffed in his pockets, the crumbs catching in in his fiery red beard that was braided in a large loop that rested on his massive chest. Bofur wore a hat that Flora knew her cousins would be jealous of and had a unique accent unlike any of the other Dwarves, sweet much like his demeanor despite the warhammer resting on the wall behind him.
Fili and Kili, the next youngest Dwarves after Ori, leaped to their feet to bow and gently kiss Flora's hand. They were quite handsome, their features reminding her almost of Hobbits in their open, expressive manner though their facial hair gave them a ruggedness that made Flora blush pink. Dori, another silver haired Dwarf, gave nothing but a gruff grunt as his greeting while the uniquely styled Nori grinned from beneath a neatly braided (but no less bushy) chestnut beard.
Finally, was Thorin Oakenshield; uncle to Fili and Kili and the leader of the group. He was handsome, much like his nephews, but in a very regal way. He carried himself with pride bred into him and intensely blue eyes contrasting with a neatly trimmed, black beard and hair were trained on Flora, assessing her as though she were a crop for inspection.
When Bilbo introduced him, Flora met his gaze square on and curtseyed low.
"Bilbo is our burglar, but your skill is quite evident, lady Flora," said Kili, causing Flora to break her stare. "Sneaking in without being detected and taking one of our own hostage when outnumbered showed great courage. Are you a warrior in your family's house?"
This time Gandalf, Bilbo, and Flora laughed.
"Oh, no, master Kili," she said. "There are no warriors among Hobbits."
"And yet you were able to capture a young, trained warrior," said Fili.
"As I have been telling you all, Hobbits are a particularly intrepid bunch," said Gandalf proudly, patting Bilbo and Flora on the shoulder. As the conversation turned towards an upcoming venture they were planning – hence their reason for their presence at Bag End – Bilbo led Flora to the kitchen to sit her down and pour her a small mug of ale, which she greedily gulped down. She hadn't realized how thirsty she was until just then, and her cousin was quick to pour her a second.
"That was very brave of you, Flora," said Bilbo softly as the Dwarves in the other room had begun to sing. The low tones and sombre words echoed in her, making her whole body hum.
"I was so scared for you, Bilbo, I couldn't just leave you when you were in danger," said Flora after taking another sip of cool ale.
"But I wasn't in danger."
"It sure looked like it. Are you sure you know what you're getting into?"
Bilbo didn't answer, the song growing in volume and overtaking the whole home. Flora stood, moving to the doorway into the dining room where the Dwarves sat singing. Thorin was leading, his smooth baritone weaving the story that took form in the smoke and the orange firelight that illuminated the Dwarves sombre figures.
Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away 'ere break of day,
To seek the pale enchanted gold.
The Dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.
Flora found herself fighting back tears as Bilbo looked as though he were about to faint again. Choking back the sorrow she felt at hearing the sad, mournful song she went to retrieve a damp cloth for him to press to his head. He clearly did not wish to be any part of the dangerous journey Thorin and his company had ahead of them, but something deeper had awakened in Flora and she desired nothing more than to go with them.
"Oh, Bilbo, we have to go with them," she whispered, clutching her cousin's clammy hand.
"We are g-going nowhere, Flora," said Bilbo. "Neither of us are going."
"But why?" cried Flora. Her anger at her cousin rose swiftly, his ignorance and lack of passion frustrating her. Though they were close it had always been something she despised about the young Baggins.
"Why?!" cried Bilbo, his voice raising now as well. The contract the Dwarves had given him earlier was pulled out of his pocket and thrust in her face. Carefully she accepted it, glancing over the contents.
"Evisceration! Lasceration! Incineration!" he shouted. "I am certainly not going on any adventure involving any danger of this sort, and certainly neither is my beloved cousin!"
"But Bilbo," sighed Flora. "Didn't you hear what's happened to them? Can't you imagine losing the Shire in such a way? Having Bag End burnt down, your home destroyed only to be turned on by everyone you trusted? I can't begin to imagine the devastation, the grief, but does that mean we should further alienate them and refuse them even just the tiniest bit of aid so they can have a place to belong again?"
Bilbo was taken aback by his cousin's passion, though Flora saw the light of understanding in his eyes flicker. Flora had never felt as though she belonged in the Shire, being considered strange even by the most unique of their kin. As a child she'd been harassed until her father discovered the bullying and swiftly put an end to it, though it left her with few friends. Consequently she'd grown to become fiercely independent, loyal, and with a desire to see what lay beyond the suffocating boundaries of the Shire.
Her cousin was acutely aware of all of this.
"Please, Bilbo?" she begged, green eyes pleading.
For a moment, she thought she'd worn his resolve but her hope failed when his expression turned stony.
"No, we are not going, and that is that," he said, grabbing the damp cloth from Flora's hands to storm off to his bedroom. The young female Hobbit, distressed and hurt by her relative's decision, stormed the opposite way down the hall to one of the guest rooms to slamming the door behind her. Both completely oblivious to the audience that had just witnessed their fight.