Chapter one

My hood was thrown back and a breath of spring's evening slipped across my cheeks and swept my coiled black locks over my shoulders. A delicious shiver wove down my spine as I took a deep breath of sweet, grassy air and let my shoulders drop with a sigh.

I had tried slipping inconspicuously into a hobbit inn (The Green Dragon Inn, Bywater) on the edges of the Shire last night and was met with curious stares and suspicious glances. However, my happy hail of a typical hobbit, "Good evening!" rather than the flurry of foreign greetings I could have used endeared me to them quite quickly. I found hobbits so very wary of strangers, but when met with their own colloquial language, their famed hospitality cropped up like rabbits popping out of dens. I suppose that is the way with every race and culture. Gratefully, I spread golden honey onto the raisin studded bread still steaming from the oven and dug into a meat pie and a river-trout dripping oil and seasoned to perfection. Hobbits were the most wholesome cooks in all of Middle Earth. I bought a round a drinks –luckily my purse was filled from the last courier job I did–and the round, rosy cheeked people who only came up to my waist pulled me off my bench and into a round dance to the music of a recorder, fiddle and drums. It was not a difficult dance –closer to the dances of the Rohirrim, rather than the complex Gondorian dances weighed down with Numenorean tradition. Happy, tipsy laughter bounced about as I had to drop to my hands and feet to get under the archway of joined hands. Weaving through like a wayward sight-hound I found myself chuckling and playfully bumping into legs and arms amidst shouts and whoops.

The dance ended with a flourish from the fiddle and I straightened, wincing a little as my upper back complained. I stretched. I was a little tired, but the six days of easy riding from Lindon and the ship I had spent little over a month on to return to the Shire from Belfalas was a smooth sailing. I had been entrusted with a heavy little chest and a letter from a Belfalas merchant after I had overseen a train of wagons full of Shire pipe-weed to the docks at Lindon in early March, then accompanied the barrels to their destination and transaction in Belfalas in early April. The heavy chest was full of gold for the hobbit farmers whose famed pipe-weed had spread far beyond the borders of the Shire. My own purse was full from the gold the merchant had paid me for my services and the farmers had paid me a handsome fee once I gave them their payment from the merchant. I excused myself from dance floor and curled up in a corner with some lovely summer wine made from the fruits of Hobbiton. Smiling into the mug, I tipped it back. There had only been watered rum, hard biscuits and dried meat on the ship since there were no ports large enough for a cargo ship to stop and re-stock between southern Gondor and Lindon.

Finishing the wine, I stood and left a few coins on the table and headed towards my room. I had not taken a bath for a month and a half and my skin was tingling with the anticipation of clean hot water untainted by brine or dirt. Stepping aside to let a maid pass, I knocked on the door of the kitchen and asked for a tub and hot water. They sent a young lad to carry the tub to my room and set it before the fire and then gave him a jug to ferry hot water to it. Though the jug he carried was not much more than a milk pitcher for me, the appraising looks he got from the maids said otherwise for the hobbits. I filled another jug and had the grace not to carry another. Soon, the tub was filled and I locked the door, slipped out of my crusty, grimy clothes and stepped into the tiny tub. My knees were up by my chin and the water only went a little over my waist as I sat there a little disappointed. Grunting, I splashed about until I was kneeling and then proceeded to dip the jugs in and pour the water over my body as I scrubbed like mad with a bar of soap and a brush a maid had left. After a long while, half of the water was on the floor and what was left in the tub was black. I wrinkled my nose and stepped out carefully as not to slip. I dried myself with three fluffy little hobbit towels, mopped up the mess, and threw the bath water out the window. Flopping onto the bed, I burrowed into the starched, clean sheets. The bed was human sized since they had given me the only room with a bed meant for a human. Before I blew the candle out, I slid a worn letter from my pack and unfolded it carefully.

Come to the house on Bag End with the rune on the door on fifth day of May. Our old friend will need you on an unexpected sort of journey far, far East. Perhaps you can guess at the nature of this quest already. The stubborn fool has swallowed his pride and has asked for your help personally. There is a document for you to sign if you agree to come. There will be food, and old friends, and new ones, perhaps. The riches that await at the end of the adventure will be well worth the challenges.

I will be waiting for you there,

Gandalf

I had swallowed an overwhelming sense of anticipation and nervousness, blew out the candle and went to sleep with the letter in my hand, though it was on the floor when I woke up late afternoon.

Now the letter was folded in my hand as I ran my finger over and over the folds and creases. Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath as I neared the hobbit hole at the top of the hill. I could hear the unmistakeable sounds deep dwarvish laughter and the sounds of a hearty, rowdy dinner party happening inside. I had meandered slowly on the paths that wound round fields and hobbit holes. Perhaps I was afraid to arrive. My stomach was certainly turning itself inside out as I slowly pushed open the thigh-high gate and nudged it closed. What would we say to one another? Would he still look at me the same way? Could we still be so very honest to one another? I bit my lip as I stood before the little round green door with a glowing blue rune above the centered door knob. Knocking suddenly lest I stood there asking myself stupid questions any longer, I braced myself. The door was flung open.

"I do NOT need any more dwarves in my house, thank you very much!"

I was taken aback by the words of the small figure of a hobbit standing hopelessly in the doorway. We stared at one another. He had a head of brown caramel curls, an open, honest, wonderfully quaint hobbit face, and a striped shirt and a pair of brown trousers and suspenders on. His big furry feet twitched.

"You're not a dwarf."

"No I am not." I smiled. "Good evening, sir."

He looked at me with his mouth agape and then shook his head a little. "Good evening to you," A smile tugged shyly at the corners of his mouth. Flustered, he remembered himself and invited me in.

I wiped my boots on the mat outside the door and leaned down to get through the door. Shedding my cloak, I hung it on a hook by the door and unbuckled my sword and slipped it into the umbrella stand. The hobbit stood in shock at my neatness. I heard crashes, sounds of plates and forks and spoons and roars of laughter farther into the house. My head brushed the ceiling.

"Dwarves are not very considerate house guests, I'm afraid." I grinned.

"They –they are not... Wait, who are you?"

"Tallismae, otherwise known as the Wanderer –I've been to the Shire a few times for business matters, but never into the heart of Hobbiton. You have a lovely home."

"Th –Thank you," he cheered considerably at the last comment.

"And, I do not think I caught your name,"

"Oh!" he blushed, "I –I'm Bilbo Baggins," he recovered, "Here, here, follow me –supper is over here." He led me towards the ruckus I was hearing. A sudden wave of anxiousness hit my chest as we turned the corner and came into the view of the stuffed dining room. I swept my eyes over every face –there were about a dozen or so dwarves. My breath caught in my throat as I searched for the face I was dreading and so longing to see. I recognized almost all the faces from my stay in Ered Luin but not one of them was the stubborn fool Gandalf had referred to in the letter. A sense of relief and disappointment washed through me. Finally, my eyes rested on the grey wizard squashed in a corner eating and chuckling away. His eyes widened and twinkled as he caught sight of me.

"Tallis!" He almost tried standing, but after nearly over turning the table, he settled down again.

The dwarves all turned to look at me, food hanging out of their mouths, mugs full of beer in their hands.

"TAAAAAAALLIS!" one of them shouted. His oddly shaped grey felt hat was as tipsy as he was.

"Hello Bofur," I cracked a grin.

"Aha! She remembers my name!" He roared.

"I remember all the people I've met," I raised my brow at them and they shouted in challenge. They then shushed each other and threw some more food around until they quieted. I put my hands on my hips and got started. "We'll start with Bifur there, you sly weasel." He grunted his approval in dwarvish –he could not speak Westron anymore because of the orc ax buried in his forehead, but his speech impediment was by no means an indicator of dimness or weakness in a fight. "Then Dwalin. I must say, the forearms look just as sinewy as before." He flexed and snorted causally. "Then Oin. I'll have fun whispering in your ear again," The greying old bugger shook his hearing aid in his fist and winked back at me, rousing a chorus of whistles and hoots. Chuckling, I turned to the next two. They looked expectantly up at me. "Oh, I don't seem to know these two strapping young dwarves. I have not yet had the honor of meeting either of you. Tallismae the Wanderer at your service," I swept them a low bow.

Looking about fifty year or less, they were very young dwarves –perhaps about twenty to thirty or so for a human. They both pushed their stools back and replied with "Fili" and "Kili" and an "At your service!" in unison complete with handsome bows.

"Fili and Kili!" I wracked my brain. "Are you not the youngest of Durin's line?" They both nodded cockily. Realizing this, I worked out that they probably were more along the lines of seventy or eighty years old. Still young for dwarves, really, but having the ancestry of Durin the Deathless does preserve youth for quite a while longer when they lived to about 300 years old rather than the usual 200 or so. They were off to a stint in the south when I was in Ered Luin, if I remembered correctly.

I moved on. "Bombur –still eating all your own delicious cooking?" He slapped his belly happily and bit into another full block of cheese. The hobbit shuddered violently beside me.

"Not even a cheese-knife," he muttered aghast.

"Ah, I remember you. Ori. I suppose you are still a great shot with that sling of yours." The youngest one puffed up considerably. When I had first met him, he had fallen over in surprise, having never left the mountain before and seen a human. His soft young face was framed by plaits in his hair –I bit back a giggle –plaits that had the tell-tale sign of a mother's tearful goodbye and a good long pre-quest fussing: purple ribbons. "Gloin! You still haven't forged me that axe you promised." He grunted. "Nori," I nodded at him and nodded subtly back, a hint of a mysterious little smile on his lips. Quiet and unpredictable, he was. "You again, Bofur. And Dori our wine taster and –," I paused as he groaned, "the best brewer of tea in all of the western lands of Middle Earth!" The dwarves gave him the hardest time with his love of herbal teas. He was strong as an ox but gentle as a rabbit inside.

"Hello Tallismae," the lovely old voice curled about my ear like a grandfather's tale.

"Hello Balin," I gave the old white haired dwarf in red a soft smile. Suddenly, I wondered how much he had to do with me being here.

His eyes met mine with a sort of knowing look and he smiled and nodded and turned back to his food. The dwarves all thumped the table and laughed and clapped and I bowed again. I turned to Bilbo Baggins. His eyes were screwed shut and he winced every time someone clashed their fists onto his lovely dining table. I put a kind hand on his shoulder.

"May I have a stool, if it is not too much trouble?"

His eyes flew open and he shook his little noggin, clearing his tortured thoughts about his crockery and table and pattered off gladly away from the room.

Soon, I was seated between Balin and Gandalf trying to grab at food without being hit by the flying bits going across the table towards Bombur's mouth. I had a draught of the hobbit's sweet summer wine and set upon a slice of ham, some seed-cake, and other bits of this and that were left in the dishes. Slowly, most of the food was in our stomachs and many of us were on our feet stretching or burping loudly.

"Excuse me, but where do I put my plate," came the voice of little Ori as he trundled over to Bilbo standing stiffly in the hall.

"I'll just take that –hey!" Bilbo gasped as Kili snatched the plate from his fingers and whipped it through the air.

Bilbo emitted a high pitched squeal, just as Fili caught it and flung it off again. A strangled sound bubbled out of the poor little hobbit as watched the plate fly towards Bifur who was at the sink with a bucket of water, ready to wash. He caught it easily. Bilbo let go of a breath. Suddenly, I ducked. Not a moment too soon, it seemed as another plate whizzed by.

"That's my mother's best dish!" Bilbo screamed.

Dishes were up in the air and soon a thumping of boots and the clashing of cutlery made a sort of beat.

"You'll dull them!" Bilbo tried snatching at Bofur's knife and fork, but had to jump back as a bowl nearly clipped him the face.

A deep young voice cropped up: "Chip the glasses and crack the plates! Blunt the knives and bend the forks!"

Fili's voice answered Kili's: "That's what Bilbo Baggins hates –Smash the bottles and burn the corks!"

A resounding chorus of dwarves started a merry sound as Bofur sent his knife spinning in the air towards Bifur and pulled out a little recorder and began to play. Laughing, and singing along to the refrain of: "That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!" I joined into the merry cleaning crew. Gloin played a tea pot, Oin clanked his hearing aid about, and Bombur cleaned up all the scraps left on the plate.

Finishing with a, "So carefully! Carefully with the plates!" we admired the plates and bowls and cutlery all shining clean and stacked up nice on the wiped dining table. Bilbo stood with his mouth agape.

There was a knock at the door.

"He's here." Gandalf suddenly became quite serious.

I bit my lip as everyone blundered to the door. Bilbo opened it. Hanging back in the shadows, I watched as clear blue eyes swept upon the gathering. I swallowed dryly as I studied the serious, hard, noble, handsome face. Still the oddly un-dwarvish close-cropped beard and the long raven hair, though now there were some strands shot through with a little grey. The intimidating brow line and long, straight nose could not hide the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, nor the subtle rounding of his sharp cheekbones that echoed gentleness at his lips and deep in his eyes.

"You're late," Gandalf stated.

"Your sign did little good –I was lost and wandered these paths for some time before I found this place," He stepped in.

"What sign?" Bilbo jumped it, "I just got my door painted –,"

Gandalf cut him off. "Bilbo, meet the leader of our company, Thorin Oakenshield."