Chapter 40: Barrels out of Bound
Apologies, I do believe this is a month or so late...
While the celebrations kicked off above them that night the few dungeon guards and the elves that worked in the store rooms drank plentifully.
Bella sat and watched as the keys to the cells were snatched away from their keeper by an elf called Galion and replaced with a bottle of the finest wine, and when she saw her chance she took it. She plucked the keys neatly from the hook they had been hung on and ran.
She went to Thorin first, running up to the bars and jamming keys into the lock until she came upon the right one.
By the time she had found it Thorin had gotten to his feet to investigate the noise, and the dwarf stood and stared as the door swung open to an empty corridor.
Bella slipped off the ring and appeared before him, and a grin slowly slid over the dwarf's face. He wasn't all that very surprised to see her there. He had not doubted she could get them out.
"Lovely place the Elvenking's got here, I have to admit." Bella grinned back.
The dwarf king set foot outside his cell for the first time in weeks.
"And I would have to disagree with you on that," He said with a smile in words. "But in any case I think we've seen all we need to see and stayed long enough."
"Well, I suppose..." She did not sound convinced, and stared longingly around the passage as if she did not truly want to leave, but looked up at Thorin as he stepped closer. "Perhaps we have time for a tour?"
He laughed and slapped her on the shoulder.
"Let's go, Master burglar, lead on."
And so Bella found herself hurrying through the empty passages that night with a dwarf in tow to where the other members of the company were being kept. It should have been harder getting there when they couldn't both just disappear, but there were no elves around to catch them and she navigated them through the tunnels without fault. They reached the others quickly.
The first cell they came to was Kili's, and when he set eyes on them he gave a gasp of shock. Bella had given him and his brother news of their uncle earlier that day of course, and had presented them with the beads, but it was a different thing altogether for him to be told and for him to see for himself. The young dwarf practically threw himself at his uncle the moment Bella had his door open, and Thorin made no move to push him away.
Bella felt like she was intruding, and though the sight was heart warming she was also anxious to keep moving and carry everything out with as little time lost as possible. Thankfully they did not linger too long, and were soon on the move again.
The next along was Bofur, and he was very happy indeed to be let out. He pulled Bella into a hug as soon as he was free and spun her around with a whoop. Then he set her down and tried to do the same to Kili, but found the young dwarf's feet only dragged on the floor when he did so, so settled for pulling him around in a spinning dance instead. He then turned to a stop in front of Thorin and paused. The two of them eyed each other for a few moments, Bofur probably wondering whether it would be feasible to spin their esteemed leader around and whether it would be worth the life he would no doubt pay for it, and Thorin thinking who knows what. The miner made a gesture with his arms daringly, and to Bella's light surprise the dwarf king chuckled, patting the hatted dwarf on the back as he passed him. Bofur grinned.
Within a few minutes later Bombur was also with them and Bofur had given another joyful greeting. The large dwarf acknowledged Bella, Thorin and Kili with a nod and a warm smile, and offered Bella his gracious thanks for freeing him. Bella locked his cell door behind him as she had all the others before and the five of them went on.
Oin was asleep when they got there, snoring away as most likely all the dwarves would be at this time. But unlike the others Bella had picked up so far he did not wake at the sound of the keys, and so got quite a shock when they shook him awake. He didn't quite believe them at first when they claimed they were all of them there and they were not just a dream, but they soon convinced him and had him on his feet and out of his cell. 'Wouldn't want to stay even if this was a dream...bloody elves.' And then they were six.
When they got to Fili it was difficult to get Kili away from the bars enough to open up the cell, and when they did so the brothers clung to each other so tightly Bella thought they might never let go. If they had been left to their own devices they might well have not, but Thorin pulled them apart. He held them both close with an arm around each and no one said a word. Bella smiled and turned away. Seven.
When they came to Dori the silver-haired dwarf's eyes searched their group wanting to see his brothers, but they had yet to free Ori or Nori, and his mouth would remain in a firm straight line until he saw them for himself. He thanked Bella as she locked his cell behind him and the group moved on. Eight.
Nori grinned that grin of his when they appeared outside his cell, and he walked out and congratulated Bella. There was a rather awkward moment when Nori met eyes with Dori in which both brother's faces remained carefully blank and neither of them made to move to greet the other like other brothers in the company had. It was dutifully interrupted by Bofur however, who took what could have been Dori's place if things were different and slung an arm around the dwarf's shoulders and started blabbering away about how truly awful the Elvenking's hospitality was. Bella caught Dori's eye as they headed off. Nine.
Balin was welcomed, chuckling and shaking his head in disbelief, into their midst.
"Didn't tell me anything!" He waggled his finger at Bella and tutted. "Kept this all quiet!"
He smiled widely. "Well done, Mr Baggins! Well done!"
Bella had a bit of trouble unlocking Dwalin's cell - she fumbled with the keys, and things were only made worse when Thorin tried to help. She had to smack his hands away, but finally she got the door open and Dwalin could be greeted by his brother and the company leader. Dwalin slung an arm around Fili and Kili and laughed and they moved on. Nine, ten...
Ori -precious little Ori- came out of his cell with a sweet excited smile on his face.
"Thank you Mr Baggins!" He hurried to embrace Dori, then to both of his brother's surprise did the same to Nori.
Bifur was overjoyed to see them, his cousins especially so. He chattered away animatedly to them, and they all nodded and agreed with whatever he was saying. His mind seemed to become clearer than it had been in days, and he looked much more well for having Bombur and Bofur by his sides.
Gloin greeted them with a cry of triumph (getting twelve hisses of 'shush!' in return), and met his brother with a fierce hug.
Eleven, twelve, thirteen.
Bella regarded the group of dwarves she had gathered. They were all together again.
She led them all to the store room where the elves thankfully still slept in an alcohol induced slumber, and on the way they asked innumerable questions.
'Where are we going, Mr Baggins?'
'How are we going to get out, Master Baggins?'
'What's the plan again?'
They continued to bother Bella until they reached their destination and she began to get irritable. The night was not young by far. The celebrations above had not started until late at night when the stars were well risen, and while it had not taken long from their beginning for the elves in the store room to start drinking it had taken some time before they were drunk enough that Bella had felt it safe to take the keys. Freeing all the dwarves had not been a short task either.
Bella estimated dawn was not all that very long away, if it hadn't already come. The elves' party would be over by now, and soon someone would come looking.
'What we doing here?'
'Shouldn't we be somewhere else?'
She was hard pressed to keep them quiet so as not to wake the elves.
Bella held her breath as one of the fair beings shifted in their slumber only to settle again.
"Get inside the barrels." She turned and hissed, pointing to the pile lined up and waiting to go. As expected she was met with a lot of blank faces.
"Get inside them, do as I say!" She resisted the urge to stamp her foot.
They all stared at her, probably thinking either her to be jesting or to have gone slightly mad. Bella would admit it probably did sound a rather strange thing to do, but she really didn't have time for them to have their doubts about it. They didn't move an inch until Thorin barked out 'what are you standing around for?' and pushed past them to the barrels.
After that they were all quick to follow and climb inside. All they had really needed was a little push. If their leader was going with it...
It was easy enough for most, but a struggle for some - Bombur had to be given a hand.
"What now?" Bofur asked once everyone was in position.
Bella, who had backed away to the lever which released the barrels, opened her mouth unsure as to what to say. She didn't particularly want to confess to them what she was about to do.
"Hold your breath." Thorin thankfully supplied, holding her eye for a few moments before giving her a nod.
Bella gulped slightly and gave a nod back.
"Hold me breath!?"
She pulled down the lever with a great heave, and in the back of her mind she noted the sounds of a commotion occurring somewhere back in the passages. The elves had discovered the dwarves were missing.
The barrels started to roll and the dwarves gave exclamations of surprise, but there was nothing they could do now. Bella watched them go tumbling down the wooden ramp and heard each of them hit the water below. Splash! Splash! Splash! She glanced over her shoulder at the door of the store room, the noise in the passages grew near, and summoning all her courage Bella went running down the wooden slope after them.
For once her footfalls fell heavily, the wood creaked as she ran, and then suddenly there was nothing beneath her feet but air. There was a few split seconds of falling, then she plunged into the freezing cold water.
It was ice cold and dark and all the breath was knocked out of her. She fought for the surface and wished she was a stronger swimmer. A hand found the back of her coat and began helping her up, and as she neared the surface more hands joined it, heaving her out of the water and dumping her into a waiting empty barrel.
There she righted herself, coughing and spluttering and gasping for air. The barrel bobbed about as she got to her knees to peer over the rim.
Dwalin and Ori both had a hand on the side of her barrel, keeping it steady. The dwarves seemed torn between looking slightly mutinous and oh so very happy to be out. Above them the trap door had already closed.
"Nice of you to join us." Thorin said before motioning them on, and off they went down the river, heading away from the Elvenking's halls.
They navigated their way through the tunnel that lead them out into the outside air and open river. It was cold, and there was not much to be heard but the sound of the rushing water. The sky was grey with a dim light and the horizon shone: dawn had begun.
The water swirled and raced, and their little fleet of barrels were carried by it further and further.
A little later they reached a place in the river where the water rushed and seemed to disappear and a call of warning went through the company as what must be a fall approached, but they were helpless to do anything to prevent themselves going over.
One by one the barrels approached and then disappeared. Bella let out a squeal as her barrel went over, and her stomach dropped with it. But it only went down a meter or two before splashing back into the water and continuing on, the fall only being a small drop in the rocky river bed.
Bella gave a great sigh of relief.
"Well that could have been worse!" She heard Bofur comment as he floated by.
Bella had to agree – she'd expected a rougher ride.
Bella's eyes widened. Oh no!
She gazed in horror at the river ahead - a much faster, rougher, more dangerous looking river than was behind, full of rapids and so many chances of being thrown out and drowned. Her mouth, despite the wetness of her face, went dry.
Dwalin pointed a shaking finger at the hatted dwarf as his barrel was carried past by the growing current. "Oh, just you wait. Just you wait! I'm gonna kill you!"
Before the river really picked up though it seemed there was a last gate they must pass through. A stone look out was built over the river, though luckily the water passed under it low enough to allow them through with it. Bella cursed, and she heard similar from others nearby. Not so luckily, on it stood what were, even at this distance, unmistakably elves.
From back at the palace there came the sound of horns being blown. The alarm of their escape had been raised.
Was it worth trying to duck down and hide, hoping that they would not be noticed? Bella doubted elves would be so unobservant. In any rate the two guards were already shouting and rushing from their stationary posts.
The barrels swept ever closer, and Bella realised with a sinking feeling what the guards were doing. A lever not unlike the one that had set the barrels free into the river lowered thick metal bars into the water beneath the bridge, creating a barrier through which the barrels could not pass.
No! Bella groaned in dread and dismay. This couldn't happen now, she couldn't have failed! No no no! She was jostled around and splashed by the speeding river, but over the noise she heard the shouts of the dwarves.
Closer and closer. The first of the barrels were carried under the bridge and bashed into the bars. There they stayed, trapped for others to smash into them from behind. Bella's barrel went crashing into Kili's. One by one their company was regrouped.
The elves could see them clear as day, and though they were surprised to see the dwarves in the barrels they were quick to recover. They were armed with spears and other weapons and held the high ground.
This was it, Bella thought as she stared up at the white-blond elves in their shining silver armour, bedraggled and upset. This was where they were dragged back to the palace. This was the end of it-
Bella could not hold back a scream. Her hand flew to cover her mouth in horror as the guards fell down dead.
Her gaze was transfixed at where they had a second before stood, tall and firm, before they were both pierced by arrows through gaps in their armour and hit the ground. Before that moment she had not witnessed the killing of any but orcs, and the suddenness and harshness of their end shocked her to the very core.
She only half heard the noise made by the dwarves around her, she did not have chance to register any reaction but her own. Someone near to her was speaking loudly. Someone's barrel was jostling against hers. Someone was shouting: Orcs! Orcs!
Bella turned her head away to look back along the river, her blood already beginning to run cold.
And there they were. An ugly addition to forest to say the least.
She had seen them kill now – before she had not thought she could hate them more, but oh, she did. They came along the riverside, appearing from between the trees roaring and baring weapons. The blood of the dwarves was their goal.
And the company... Well, they were pretty much defenceless, weren't they? They had no weapons on them, everything had been taken away by the elves, and Bella had given no thought to locating them arms, too focused was she on getting the dwarves out.
She had Sting. Nori still had a small knife that wouldn't be much use against a pack of orcs. The others had nothing.
There was understandable panic.
"Open the gate! Someone-! Quick!" Bella heard Ori cry, and as one of the closest to the bank she began struggling to climb out of her barrel to land.
No sooner than she had put a hand on the bank however, a monstrous great orc came leaping onto the lookout with a tremendous roar and she froze dead still, eyes wide with terror.
There was the sound of horrified intakes of breath behind her- Thud! The orc fell down on the stone bridge as the two elvish guards had done not a minute before, an arrow embedded in its forehead.
A loud murmur from the company followed its death, and as Bella turned once again to look back along the river she realised that they were not alone with the orcs.
Not far along the bank elven warriors twisted and turned and leapt with silver blades, taking down the orcs that still headed towards the stationary company.
Arrows flew, and though the pack drew closer they were picked off quickly with the upmost efficiency. They dropped like flies.
Bella might have rejoiced then, putting faith in the fighting skills of the elves and that the company would be saved. But orcs were not just coming from the direction of the palace: some, like the one that had been shot down on the lookout, came from down-river, and they were now beginning to arrive in numbers.
The second of the creatures to reach them had Nori's throwing knife in its stomach before anyone else had even really begun to react. It toppled over the edge of the bridge and fell down at them, splashing into the water through a gap between their barrels. Bifur lunged to retrieve its weapon before it sank.
Then a third was up there, and a fourth and a fifth, sixth and seventh and so on, and it was really beginning to look hopeless when suddenly an elf leapt on to the bridge, their foot colliding with an unwitting orc. The attentions of the foul creatures were turned away from the company, and Bella blinked and stared up in surprise at their apparent saviour.
The elf had broken away from those further down the river, and immediately engaged the orcs on the look-out in battle. The orcs themselves were caught a little off guard by the sudden change in situation, though they did not hesitate long to begin attacking the elf once the fair being began cutting them down.
With the focus taken off them the company stood more of a chance: most of the orcs arriving went straight for the elf instead of them. They posed a slightly difficult target for the orcs – the banks of the river made it hard to get any of the members of the company within arms swing, and it thankfully did not seem to occur to the filthy creatures to throw their weapons.
Any orcs that got close the company dealt with however they could, (at the start what got them through was luck and orcish misjudgement), but from those orcs they did take down they managed to snatch orcish weapons to use, which greatly eased their fight.
From then the fight was a lot more comfortable: between the elf and the dwarves chucking orcish weapons around they held their own. For every orc that arrived one was taken down.
At some point an orcish arrow hit one of their barrels, but it caused no injury and no more followed it, so it was quickly forgotten.
Bella clutched Sting, though apart from taking the odd swipe she did not use it. She held it before her mostly for the comfort of knowing she was not defenceless. Though she perhaps should have concentrated on other things, Bella found her eyes following the elf that had come to their aid.
The elf slipped in and out between the orcs, agile and light on her feet as elves were, and though she faced unfavourable odds she never faltered, and Bella watched in awe.
It seemed she was unbeatable: an invincible maiden of battle that could never be brought down by an enemy's blade. She danced a deadly dance, swift and sure with her movements, taking down orc after orc with her knives. She was, to Bella, incredible to behold. Her skill was clear by the way she fought and the number of opponents she took on.
She was not reckless, nor did Bella believe her fearless, but she was confident in herself that she would not misjudge, and it was almost as if she had another sense to guide her through her opponents blades-
Bella's barrel was sent rocking violently as the body of a dead orc hit its side.
"Whoa!" Fili did his best to steady his barrel while ducking down as Gloin hurled an orcish blade over his head.
The wave of attackers was slowing, they were winning. Looking back Bella could see the elves along the river side too were close to victory.
Bella felt the relief begin to set in. The venture had not gone well, but it could have ended so much worse. She took it upon herself to be grateful, for it certainly seemed no more death would come at the hands of the orcs than had already been dealt, that they would live to see another day, even if that day was spent in King Thranduil's dungeons. Only half a dozen or so orcs remained unslain on the look-out.
It seemed it was so close to being over, that there were no more orcs left to come – she couldn't see any making their way along the riverside.
Yes. It did seem that way.
And then the elf that fought for them on the bridge, strong and fair and graceful with a head of flaming orange hair, fell.
Bella saw it happen. She saw the arrow fly. It came from nowhere, and the elf was just not quick enough, was just a fraction too slow. There was too much going on for her to see it coming. It stuck her in the leg, just above her knee, and Bella saw her shock - the look of surprise that swept across her fair face.
Bella saw her pain and heard her cry out, and as if in slow motion stumble.
I didn't expect that when I began this chapter...oh well