Chapter 29: The Skin-Changer

Sorry about the wait! I was planning to get quite a few updates done quickly now that exams are finally over, but I haven't really found the motivation to do anything but sleep and eat.

"...And here I thought Belladonna Took was the most strong-hearted hobbit I would ever meet. I believed that you had a lot more to give than anybody knew, but you might just prove more important on this quest than even I could have guessed."

They came upon the wooden gate and the old man held it open, still chuckling to himself.

"Hobbits...quite remarkable."

Past the gate were gardens with row upon row of buzzing hives and a spread of low wooden buildings: a wide track led to what must be the house, but there were also barns, stables and sheds.

Bella made her way with Gandalf along the trail, but before they had gotten very far their presence came under investigation. They had called the attentions of a number of sleek, beautiful horses with glistening coats and long manes and tails. The animals trotted up the grass to meet them, stopping for a while a distance away to watch their advance intently with intelligent stares and curious eyes before disappearing off again in the direction of the house.

"They have gone to tell their master of our arrival." Gandalf nodded after them.

As they drew nearer to the building Bella found herself edging ever closer to the wizard, and by the time they rounded the corner of the house and set eyes on the great giant of a man that was the skin-changer she was all but hiding behind his robes.

She had been right about Beorn's appearance in some respects: he did indeed have a thick black beard (and even thicker hair), and he was extremely strong looking, but he was even taller than she had imagined. He leant on a giant axe and studied them for a minute, the horses milling around behind his back, then he gave a laugh.

"They don't look dangerous." He spoke to the horses while making a shooing motion. "Be off with ye!"

The animals heeded his words, galloping off to the opposite end of the grounds.

"So, what do we have here? Who are you?" He raised a bushy eyebrow at them.

Gandalf gave a slight cough and stepped forward. "I am Gandalf..."

From the expression on the large man's face the name meant nothing to him.

"...and I am a wizard. Even if you have not heard of me, you will have heard of my good cousin Radagast who lives on the southern border of Mirkwood, I expect...?"

Beorn grunted in admission, knowing of the brown wizard and thinking well enough of him. He had a respect for those who cared for the forests and the things that lived in them. "And who is this?"

He looked straight at Bella.

"This is Mr Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of the Shire-" Gandalf was interrupted by a snort.

"Do you take me for a fool? I know a lass when I see one!" Beorn all but growled at the wizard.

"No, not at all, I assure you. Indeed, Mr Baggins is a woman, and Miss Bella Baggins is her given name, but we address her Mr Baggins nonetheless."

"We? There are more of you. And I don't see why you should."

It was then Bella gathered her courage and spoke up, if a little shakily. "Yes, in truth we are more than two. We travelled from the Blue Mountains and the Shire to get here, and we still have a way to go from here before our journey ends. We come to you in the hopes that you will lend us aid."

She looked to Gandalf and the smile she found on his face brought her new confidence. She raised her head ever so slightly.

"I would have you call me Mr Baggins if you will, for not all of our company are as insightful as you. Many still believe I am male, even after months of travel, and I'd rather you did not spoil my fun. Their ignorance is quite a source amusement at times."

To her relief Beorn gave a chuckle.

"Do not worry yourself little one, I can appreciate a good joke, of that you can be certain." His face then turned serious again. "So you come here for aid...tell me, why should I give it to you?"

"Our path led us over the mountains, and it was there that things went wrong for us-" Bella resisted the urge to make a noise at Gandalf's words. The trolls? Wargs and orcs chasing them across the planes? Gloin's two-hundredth retelling of the day his son spoke his first word? Oh no, things went wrong long before the mountains. "We were attacked by goblins in the dead of night in the pass. They took our food, our supplies, and very nearly our lives too. We escaped, but without help I fear our quest may end here."

It was then Bella could tell Beorn's interest was caught.

He had made a face upon hearing of goblins, for he hated them with a passion, his expression had come across less gruff at hearing of their plight, but it was the wizards last words that had him asking: "Quest? To where are you heading and with what purpose? What drove you to cross the mountains, and what of the rest of you?"

"The others are around...I did not like to bother you with all of us in case you were busy. As to our quest -oh, well, that is a long story, and quite a fascinating one if I do say so myself. To tell all the whys and the whats would take some time..."

"Well then! Do come and sit and tell me it!" He waved them towards the house. "I have the time and would not be adverse to hearing it. Who knows, if it is any good I well might let you stay! Oh, and let your friends come!"

And so it was that Bella found herself perched on a wooden bench on the veranda and looking at all the foreign flowers that grew in the gardens as Gandalf spun his tale.

He told Beorn of their travel through the mountains and their fight to get out of goblin town, which was a point of interest to Bella with her having not heard of exactly how the dwarves had escaped. The wizard also recounted to him their run in with Azog and how they had been chased up into the trees and suffered quite a beating until the eagles had come to bear them away. He included Bella's stand down with the pale orc too, though Bella believed he exaggerated what she had done, and did not enjoy the raised eyebrow and speculative stare that the bear man gave her upon hearing of it.

During it all the dwarves found their way to them. They came and bowed and offered greeting, and though Bella got the impression that Beorn was not much fond of dwarves he waved them down to sit every time, and with each interruption of Gandalf's story she noted he only got more eager to hear more of their journey. This, Bella supposed, was just another part of the wizard's plan.

Thorin came first with Balin and they had taken their seats next to her, and then Oin and Gloin had arrived, and Fili and Kili. By the time Bombur had come puffing down the track behind Bofur and Bifur Gandalf had near finished telling the man of how they had been dropped off at the carrock (for that was what Beorn called the great rock that the eagles had set them down on), and how they had then found their way to his house.

The wizard had told Beorn of their heading to the Lonely Mountain, and about Smaug the dragon, he even asked Thorin to show the man the map and key too, for it would increase the credibility of their tale. There was no need to worry over secrecy. Beorn had no reason to tell anyone, and he would not. Thorin gave them up rather easily - it only took one subtle kick from Bella before he stood and dug into his pockets with almost unnoticeable hesitation.

Overall, the whole thing took near an hour, but that was all quickly forgotten when Beorn rose after a final look at them all and offered them food.

"As is deserved for such a good story, at least. I may need to check some facts for myself before I fully believe it, but I like it, and should like it all the more if it is true."

They ate in the hall around a table much too big for Bella and the dwarves, they could barely see over its top and the log seats were so high that their feet did not touch the floor. The dwarves bore it with a silent annoyance (their faces were pictures, that was for sure), and if their host had been anyone else they would have well made a fuss.

It was to their great amazement then that Beorn clapped his hands and animals came to his call: ponies, sheep and large dogs. The man spoke words to them in a strange language, and they disappeared into other parts of the house only to return minutes later carrying trays of food on their backs. The company could only stare.

Still, despite the oddities of the whole situation, they ate better than they had since leaving the Last Homely House without so much as a goodbye to Lord Elrond.

Beorn told them tales of Mirkwood in his deep rolling voice, and Gandalf also told some of his own. They went on for some time. None of the rest of the company was much in the mood for stories and they quickly bored. After Bella had eaten her fill she found herself watching the way the smoke from the fire burning in the middle of the room curled as it rose up to the rafters to find the way out through the opening in the roof, every so often drawing her gaze away to throw looks at Fili and Kili when they began to fidget a little too much, and once to grapple a butter knife out of Nori's hand when he began to stab at the side of the table with it. Ori had his book on his lap, Dori a look of polite interest on his face as he gazed over at Gandalf, not having realised that the wizard had stopped talking and Beorn was now taking his turn. Dwalin held signed conversations with Thorin, Bofur made faces at her from across the table.

Eventually Gandalf got around to telling Beorn of his need to be off. The skin-changer readily offered a horse for the wizard to ride, properly won over by this point. Given how much he seemed to love his animals Bella concluded that he would give few such a privilege.

Gandalf rode away not an hour later, seen off by Beorn and the company. He bid them goodbye and gave them word to keep to the path when they reached Mirkwood and to heed Beorn's words wisely. Bella had not wanted the wizard to go...what if Beorn turned on them? What if they ran into trouble on the road like they had in the mountains? But the old man had simply told her not fret, Beorn would do no such thing, he had said they could stay, and anyway, he seemed to have taken a slight shine to her from what the wizard could tell. And he was quite certain that they would run into trouble at some point, though he trusted her to get them all out of it somehow.

It was not long after Gandalf left that Beorn headed out too. "Eat what you want, I'm sure you'll learn your ways around. Only, stay within the grounds - for your own safety, especially at night."

Bella spent what was left of the afternoon exploring the house and the gardens. She and Bombur quickly discovered the location of the kitchen.

She wandered the flower beds with Bifur for rather a long while, wondering what many of the blooms could be called, for she did not recognise half of them. They were joined there by Ori at some point, though soon after the light of day began to fade and they headed back inside.

The dwarves gathered around the fire, sang a little and smoked the pipe weed that Beorn had let them have.

The night grew dark but the fire kept the whole hall warm. Mattresses and woolen blankets had been laid out at the side of the hall on a sort of raised platform between the pillars and the outer wall, and after a while Bella left the circle to claim a spot. She buried herself in the blankets, and soon began to nod off to the low dwarvish singing and the thick calming smell of the smoke.

About an hour later she awoke when one of the dwarves fell over her. It was Bofur, and he was grumbling about it. He made no attempt to move from where he had fallen face first, and she put little effort into pushing his feet off her stomach. She guessed it was payback for the time she had sat on him. They both quickly fell asleep.

The next morning one word drew Bella out of her slumber. She was up like a shot.