AN: Not my best chapter, but I wanted to get this up ASAP. Sorry for the delay! I was computer-less for the past two weeks.
Flora fell from the bed with a soft 'thump!' at the sound of the knock, the stone floor striking bare flesh stinging but she ignored it to madly scramble for her discarded clothes.
"Bilbo?" whispered Thorin to the wooden door.
"Yes," came the familiar voice of her cousin. "I've come to rescue you all – let me just open the door –"
"No!" gasped Flora, only for a crack of light to appear and a dishevelled looking Bilbo Baggins to slide through the small opening. Both Hobbits froze, taking in each other's appearance.
Flora flushed bright red as she clutched her clothes to her, the bedsheet wrapped around her body for modesty while Bilbo gaped, turning nearly as red as she. Several expressions crossed his features – surprise, embarrassment, joy – to settle finally with fury.
"Flora Brandybuck!" he cried in a hoarse whisper. "What – you – he – how – why?!"
She looked to Thorin, who had the audacity to look amused before seeing her glare. To her surprise his eyes fell to the floor.
"Bilbo, now is really not the time!" Flora said. "I swear I – we will explain everything once we're out of here."
"But you – and he –"
"Please, Bilbo," she begged.
The furious Hobbit glared at the sheepish pair, the enraged look on his face unlike anything Flora had ever seen in her typically gentle cousin. He seemed to finally calm down and nodded, spinning on his heel to walk out.
Flora shyly met Thorin's eyes as she slipped back into her clothes while he dressed as well, a smirk gracing his beard as he caught her momentarily distracted with watching him. Both were in much better spirits with the prospect of escape though grim expressions soon overtook their features – the determination to survive steeling Flora's nerves.
They exited to find Bilbo pacing silently, no signs of any Elves.
"Where are the guards?" asked Thorin.
"They got into the wine barrels, and are passed out in the cellar," said the Hobbit. "There's a banquet tonight. Come, the others are waiting."
Bilbo led them very carefully through a series of side passages, deeper and deeper into Thranduil's palace until Flora was sure they were going to reach the other side. However, it appeared they only were close to the center where it was coolest, and they soon found themselves outside large oak doors beyond which she could hear gentle snores.
Rather than going inside, Bilbo turned sharply left, directly into what appeared to be nothing but a particularly rough patch of wall in the corner of the corridor but Flora was surprised to see it was, in fact, a small, secret side passage.
There was a gentle chorus of cheers and greetings as they emerged from the shadow into a small, torchlit chamber. All of the company was there and Flora was pulled into strangely exuberant, firm embraces by nearly everyone, or had her hair mussed affectionately that made her grin as hope and joy filled her heart at seeing her friends again.
"What's the plan, Bilbo?" asked Bofur once their greetings were out of the way.
"We are going to use the barrels to escape out the stream," explained the male Hobbit. "The Elves leave these emptied barrels here and send them down river to Lake Town for the people to re-fill and send back. They're big enough that we'll each fit in one."
Flora felt a trickle of fear down her spine – it was a brilliant plan and she was rather impressed with Bilbo for coming up with it, though she was terrified at the thought of having to be trapped in one, surrounded by nothing but water. She had once explained to Bombur that while she was afraid of it she would tolerate it when necessary, though what her cousin was proposing now seemed well past any reasonable line of acceptance.
Thankfully, she wasn't the only one that seemed to think so.
"We shall be bruised and battered to pieces, and drowned, too, for certain!" said Dori.
"We thought you had got some sensible notion, when you got a hold of the keys," said Nori. "This is a mad idea!"
"Very well!" said Bilbo, clearly very downcast and annoyed. "Come along back to your nice cells, and I will lock you all in again, and you can sit there comfortably and think of a better plan – but I don't suppose I shall ever get a hold of the keys again and they will go ahead with their plans to murder Flora."
Flora frowned, and she felt herself relent to the idea. The Dwarves did as well as they grumbled their own agreements before following Bilbo downwards, deeper until they reached the room with the stream, gates, and empty barrels. He explained to them that a small group of servants were under orders to come and release the empties after their fall harvest festivities the night before (all shocked to hear it was officially autumn).
They found fourteen barrels with enough room for a Dwarf in each, and as they climbed in Flora couldn't help feel worry at the thought of just how much she had and the extent to which she would be jostled and bumped around inside. Bilbo found some straw and stuffed some of the barrels with it to provide some cushioning until, at last, twelve Dwarves were stowed.
"What about you?" asked Flora as Bilbo tucked more straw into her barrel.
"Don't you worry about me," he said just as voices could be heard echoing in the corridor outside. "I have a plan to get out – now, tuck in!"
Flora did as her cousin asked and nestled inside, feeling quite warm though frightened as the horrifying thought of there being a hole in her barrel somewhere popped into her head. With soothing whispers Bilbo assured her all was well and not seconds after he'd finished his voice disappeared, only to be replaced with the rambunctious chatter of whining Wood Elves who had left the feast but were planning on returning as soon as they were able. To the Hobbit's surprise she could hear them speaking in Westron rather than Elvish and supposed that as they interacted so much with Men that they simply found it easier to use than their complicated native language.
"Where's old Galion, the butler?" said one. "I haven't seen him at the tables tonight. He ought to be here now to show us what is to be done."
"I shall be angry if the old slowcoach is late," said another. "I have no wish to waste time down here while the song is up!"
"Ha, ha!" came a cry. "Here's the old villain with his head on a jug! He's been having a little feast all to himself – but where's captain Tauriel?"
"Here," said a familiar female voice. Though it was speaking Westron, Flora recognized it as the redheaded Elleth that had helped her.
"Shake him, wake him up!" came the voice of the kind blonde Elf man that had orchestrated Flora and Thorin's night.
"Yes, prince Legolas."
Galion was not at all pleased at being shaken or wakened and still less at being laughed at. He grumbled and complained all through the teasing of Tauriel and the prince (Flora incredibly surprised to discover their identities). The captain and Legolas barked at the servants again when they complained about the butler having piled full barrels and she couldn't help but wonder if they had helped Bilbo plan their escape, knowing full well they were the ones with the Dwarves inside.
Finally, after what felt like ages, Flora felt her barrel tipped and rolled as the Elven servants sang a lively tune and with a 'splash!' she knew she was in the water, bobbing down the river towards their freedom.
Flora didn't know how long they were in the barrels for, though to the terrified Hobbit it felt like an eternity. Despite the straw cushioning she was still bumped and jostled around in the rough current of the Forest River.
Suddenly, roaring filled her ears and she knew they had to have reached a rougher patch of water. To her horror there was a large splash and crunching sound as her stomach rose suddenly to drop when they must have gone over what had been a waterfall. Flora couldn't contain her scream as water started to fill her barrel and quickly the cries of the Dwarves could be heard over the roaring of the river. The water seemed to rise faster every second that passed while the Hobbit frantically clawed and pounded at the top of the barrel in effort to free herself, memories of her dead brother's screams echoing as her own penetrated the wood increasing in volume and frequency as the water rose until it engulfed her completely.
Flora did not halt her pounding, kicking and striking as hard as she could under the water but no matter how hard she tried she could not break free until her lungs were burning and darkness slowly overcame her.
Flora coughed as air entered her lungs once more, halting the violent pounding on her chest. Filthy water spluttered from her lips as her body expelled it and she sat up suddenly to peer around her frantically searching the crowd of relieved faces for just one specific one.
She released a cry as she was crushed by Thorin's embrace, the Dwarf prince holding her tight to him before kissing her with the desperation that she had tasted just that previous night. She melted as his hands tangled in her sopping curls, not hearing her cousin's strangled gasp or the cheering of the rest until they regained their senses and stopped.
"Well then," said Balin, grinning widely.
"It's about time!" shouted Fili as he nudged his laughing brother.
They were all silenced with a glare from Thorin, who stood, pulling Flora to her feet with him.
"There are no objections," he stated rather than asked. Everyone shook their heads or smiled – everyone, that was, except Bilbo and (to Flora's surprise) Bofur.
Flora frowned when she noticed, though she said nothing as Thorin hadn't and was already barking commands to head in the direction of the boreal woods that lined the southern side of the banks they landed on.
Her cousin was clearly furious with her, and she understood why. Hobbit women were generally discouraged from engaging in sexual activities with men if they were not married in order to prevent pregnancy outside of wedlock. This was rarely followed, though Bilbo was a very conservative Hobbit – even with his Tookish side more apparent now – and was celibate himself despite the many females chasing after him back in the Shire. He obviously disapproved of her relationship with Thorin, however she couldn't help but wonder if it was because they'd broken Shire tradition or because he was a Dwarf.
Bofur was a mystery. Of all the Dwarves, with the exception of Fili and Kili, he was closest to her. They were good friends and Flora had often confided in or sought out his company on their journey. The cold way he regarded her now surprised and hurt her.
She had little time to approach either of them until later that night around the fire as clothes were laid out and wounds tended to. Bombur, Balin, and Dwalin received the worst of it – after Flora – and rested near the warm flames as they all attempted to recover enough to make it to Lake Town the day after tomorrow.
Flora was ordered out of her clothes as well, though Thorin offered her his cloak in order to preserve her modesty. It was large, soft, and mostly dry due to the fine, wax treated material and water resistant fur so it kept her very warm and appropriately concealed.
"Have you spoken with your cousin yet?" asked Thorin as they sat together in privacy a little further away from the rest, Flora in his lap as he pleated the appropriate braid into her hair with the clasp that had still remained in her hair despite their encounter with the Silvan Elves. It matched the ones he had on either side of his face and was now completely visible to anyone who looked at her.
"No," said Flora. "There's only two reasons he could be unhappy – the first is that it is because you are a Dwarf – which I doubt," she added quickly at his frown. "The other is that we've broken courting customs."
At that, the prince raised a curious brow, a thoughtful expression on his face as they fell into silence.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see the others casting glances their way, usually accompanied by smiles or a lascivious wink if she made eye contact. After the night she'd shared with Thorin and the feel of the love bites and bruises still fresh she blushed furiously and tried not to picture it too much, not when there was the matter of her cousin to deal with.
The only thing to properly earn Bilbo's approval, as he was such a pragmatic Hobbit, was for Thorin to prove his seriousness about her – if he was.
Even in the midst of their frantic escape Flora hadn't forgotten what he'd said the night before. Her body tensed at remembering his lament and how he'd said he would have made her his wife. The Hobbit was as terrified as she was elated because, while she realized she would very much enjoy spending the rest of her life with him he was also a prince, and she had no idea if his words had been true or if they'd simply been the product of a passionate moment.
She wasn't brave enough to find out – at least, not yet – but it seemed the Valar had other plans as she spotted Bilbo with a terrifyingly determined look on his face marching towards he pair.
"Flora," he said, his voice so low and firm she immediately was reminded of her father. He even resembled Gorbadoc Brandybuck with his stormy expression and wild curls in the dim light.
"I need to speak to Thorin. Alone."
The female Hobbit nodded and rose, discreetly removing Thorin's hand from her leg as she moved to leave. Flora knew very well the conversation that was about to occur – much to her great embarrassment – but would rather not be present for it. Not to mention she'd just seen Bofur volunteer to go in search of firewood and she quickly went to follow.
He seemed to not notice her as she approached, or was ignoring her, as he didn't so much as look at Flora until she was directly next to him. He was clearly using the task to be alone though
"Would you like some help?"
Bofur nodded, still not meeting her eyes.
"Shouldn't you be with Thorin?" he asked, the tinge of unfamiliar bitterness tainting his voice.
"He and Bilbo are having a private conversation," she said. "Is something wrong, Bofur? You seemed angry earlier."
He didn't say anything, just kept walking through the moonlight forest, not even bothering to pick up pieces of wood.
"Bofur, please –"
Bofur stopped, turning to face the confused Hobbit. His normally warm brown eyes were filled with unfamiliar sorrow and it seemed as though even his moustache was sad as it uncharacteristically drooped from its horizontal position on his face.
"Why him? Is it because he's a prince?"
"What in Middle Earth are you talking about, Bofur?" asked Flora as her temper began to rise.
"Why not me?" he nearly shouted, causing her to flinch as realization washed over her. "Flora, I – Ugh!" Bofur paused and groaned, running his hand down his face.
"How do you do this? How do you manage to steal my words away just by standing there? From the moment I laid eyes on you, you captured my heart and you've chosen him! You hate each other!"
"I – I had no idea, Bofur," said Flora as she wrapped her arms around herself, tears beginning to well up in her eyes. "I'm so sorry. We – I never meant for it to happen, but it just did. He…"
She looked back in the direction of the camp, it's warm glow calling to her as she wished she could just run back and forget the conversation she was having. Bofur was dear to her, but she had honestly no idea of his affections for her. He was friendly and the most gentleman-like out of the company, but the Hobbit had never thought anything of his manners, assuming it was just politeness and friendship.
Flora did wonder for just a moment that if she and Thorin had never fallen for each other so hopelessly that maybe there could have been something with the cheery, rogueish Dwarf. However, she quickly realized he was far too sweetly tempered for her. She needed someone with the same fire she had, to not have hers doused with the cool temperament of another but to have it stoked and focussed by the reverent skill of a smith, otherwise she'd simply burn anyone that drew too close. It had happened before, once, when the boy she'd dallied with in the barn had tried to court her but in the end they'd walked away with broken, burned hearts.
"It's not because he's a prince, Bofur. You are a good man, a great man but not the man for me. Thorin and I –"
Flora was not at a loss for words. She couldn't describe why she and Thorin worked, not in a way that Bofur might understand in his current state. It wasn't the first time she had turned down someone but she had never cared so much before.
"I love him, and he loves me. I don't know if it will work – Aule, I don't even know what is going to happen," said Flora finally. "But when we're together it's as though I've found my home, I've found the place where I belong after being so alone all my life. When I'm with him, I'm home, and if he'll allow it I plan on staying with him until the end of my days."
The tears poured freely from her eyes now, and she fought a sob as Bofur looked at her with tears in his own eyes.
"I never wanted to hurt you, Bofur, and I truly did not know," she continued. "I've come to care for everyone more than I could have ever imagined, including you. You've all become the family I felt as though I've never truly had and I don't want to do anything to destroy that. Can you forgive me?"
"Forgive you?" he echoed, eyes still watery. "For what? For finding the love that I can only find in my stories? No, Flora, I don't forgive you because I can't possibly hate what you've found. As much as I may wish it was me that your heart belonged to I can't be angry when you're so happy."
Forgetting propriety and the fact she was very underdressed, Flora threw herself at the Dwarf in a friendly embrace. Bofur didn't move at first, but then he relented and returned it before pulling away and averting his eyes as the Hobbit re-adjusted Thorin's cloak to make sure it was still covering her.
"You one said that you wished me all the luck in the world," said Flora as she wiped her eyes. "Well, I want to say the same. I know you'll find someone someday and I hope that you'll get to live out your stories."
"Thank you, Flora," said Bofur as he sniffed and used his sleeve to wipe his nose. "Now, I think we should return before Thorin comes searching for us. I'd rather not be found alone in the woods with his woman at night."
He turned, straightening his clothes and, to Flora's amusement, his moustache before beginning to march back towards the camp.
"Wait!" she cried, picking up a stick. When he didn't hear her she hurled it towards his head. It struck, though did little damage due to his ever furry hat, and he turned with a look of mock anger on his face.
"We need firewood!"
The Dwarf grinned and stomped back towards her and quickly they gathered enough to last the entire camp through the rest of the night.
"You know," said Bofur as they made their way back. "I do believe once this is all over, I might start telling stories about you."
"As long as they're not as exaggerated as Fili and Kili's," she said.
"Oh, no. They'd be honest tales about your courage, your passion, and the epic romance between a fiery maiden and an exiled prince."
She rolled her eyes, pushing Bofur playfully.
"Why not tell stories about your own adventures?"
"Because I think the Ballad of Flora Brandybuck has a nice ring to it, don't you?"
"Ugh," Flora groaned, wrinkling her nose in distaste.