The company ventured up the shore of the River Running, turning to the west before reaching the ruins of Dale. The ponies struggled with the uneven footing, and progress was slow, but the breath of ice sweeping down off the high slopes of Erebor filled Thorin's lungs, surging through his veins. His steps felt purposeful and powerful. He was coming home.
By late afternoon, however, as the company neared the crest of the ridge and the overlook of Dale, the eager conversation and speculation that had flowed among them earlier in the day grew quiet. The looming awareness of the dragon, soon to be separated from them by nothing more than the walls of the mountain, hung over them like a shroud. Even Bilbo seemed to feel it. His fingers strayed time and again to his vest pocket, only to realize what he was doing and pull his hand away.
Thorin stepped around a promontory and out onto the flat portion of the ridgeline overlooking the city. Broken towers and shattered homes lay below like the skeleton of some massive dead creature in a swirling pile of ash and debris. He froze, aware of the rest joining him to stare silently over the ruins. Sixty years had passed since fire and death had rained from the sky. He had thought more would have changed. New growth-seeds taken root in the soil left behind. Some speck of green. Some breath of life. There was nothing. Nothing but the wisps of screams trapped in the wind, empty windows staring up like accusing spirits. Your family brought this on us. This is your fault.
No. He wouldn't accept the blame for this. Thror's dragon-sickness had provided the lure, but it was Smaug that had chosen to take it. It was Thorin's place to right that wrong, but for honor and justice, not in payment for imagined debt.
"I remember the toy-market," Balin said quietly, "the kites dancing and the children's laughter."
No one else spoke.
Thorin swallowed past a sudden constriction in his throat. "The sun is westering," he said. Long shadows stretched toward the Lonely Mountain. "Keep moving. Night will be upon us."
Still, it wasn't until Dori cleared his throat and spat on the dry stone, then started up the trail that the rest turned to follow. Thorin waited until the last and gave Dale one last long look, taking in the stark reminder of Smaug's power. Erebor must be retaken, but if the dragon still lived, he could not allow the beast back into the world. Not with the woman he loved only on the far side of the long lake. Looking down at the destruction of Dale, Thorin wished he'd gone farther than leaving Bell behind, and had sent her back to her father in the Shire. If only there had been a way to do so without further risking her safety.
With a worried heart, Thorin turned his back on the city and followed after the rest.
When darkness forced the company to halt for the night, they set up camp in the lee of a tall crag with a bit of an overhang to cover them should the weather turn foul, and Bombur began to fry up sausages. It felt strange to see him back in his old place. No golden-haired hobbit lass, always quick with a reassuring smile-a soft, gentle presence to temper the rambunctious men.
How was Bell faring? Would it be lonely in that vast, solitary house?
Bilbo's voice broke into Thorin's thoughts. "How long now until Durin's Day?"
"Ten days," Thorin replied.
"Oh, plenty of time then." Bilbo stuck his thumbs in his trouser pockets and rose up on his toes.
Thorin grunted. "Not so much as it seems. Even with the map as a guide, that's a lot of ground to cover. It looks smooth enough from here, but the slopes are littered with loose stones and trails that lead to nowhere."
Bilbo chewed on the inside of his lip. "Well, I'm sure it will all turn out in the end," he said, then went to join Nori, Ori, and Gloin who were helping Oin re-wrap rolls of bandages that had come undone when the bag they were in had toppled off a pony earlier in the day.
Thorin glanced at the sky, which had darkened to a shade of worn indigo. Pale glints of starlight blinked down. He accepted a plate from Bofur and settled himself onto his bedroll. This would be his first night without Bell nearby since she had appeared unheralded and unwanted in the woods outside of Bree. Gnawing on a burnt sausage, Thorin wondered whether he would sleep at all. Everything felt wrong. It would be a long night.
Bell slipped out a door along the back wall of the large room in the center of the orphanage-the great room, they called it-onto a narrow deck suspended over the water, looking northward. A chill breeze lifted up off the lake, slapping little waves against the pilings and making her shiver, despite the woolen shawl she wore draped around her shoulders. The moon was just past half-full, its pale face staring down at the world. She must look nothing more than a speck to its eye, but she found she envied it, because it would be able to see Thorin as well.
Her toes curled against the wood, feeling the ridges of the grain against her skin. Her innate hobbit gift for moving silently had served her well. The children were settled into their dormitories and Mistress Auda and her helpers had gone to bed for the night, but although Bell had dutifully laid down on her cot, her mind would not keep silent, and eventually she'd surrendered the idea of sleep as a lost cause. On her bare feet, she slipped out of her room and down the stairs, until she could go to the one place where she could breathe the open air, maybe even the same air the company had touched, as the wind blew down from the north.
A single bench stood against the wall and Bell settled herself on it, leaning her head back against the planks. It had been less than a day since the company departed, and already she was lonely, despite being surrounded by seventeen energetic and willful children. There were eight girls and nine boys, the eldest just about to turn fourteen and be sent to apprentice with an oar-wright, the youngest barely six months old. Despite having spent so long in the company of thirteen Dwarves-and a Hobbit, and Gandalf, when he chose to join them-the children felt much more numerous. It was a different sort of feeling being among them. She was taller than nearly half of them. After so long away from the Shire, it had come to feel almost normal to be dwarfed by everyone save Bilbo, and even he was taller by a good half a head.
What would it be like to be back in Hobbiton, surrounded by folk who worried about nothing more than whether the frost would stunt the cabbage growth or if the paint on the window ledges were beginning to crack? Would Hamfast still be keeping up the grounds at Bag End, or would even he have started to believe that Mister Baggins was well and truly gone, and stupid, headstrong Miss Goodchild too? And her father . . .
Tears began to slide down her cheeks without warning and she shoved her knuckles between her teeth to quiet the soft sound of her sobs. She was well and truly alone now. A stranger in a land she hardly understood, without the support of her family, without the man she loved.
A strange scraping sound just overhead broke through Bell's melancholy and as she glanced up a small body dropped down, landing with bent knees on the deck beside her. Her eyes, which had adjusted to the dim starlight, quickly took in the thin frame, ragged brown curls, and crooked nose of one of the orphan boys she'd begun to tutor in reading that afternoon.
"Samford?" she whispered, pulling his name from the swirl of new faces she'd met that day. "How did you . . . ?"
He tilted his head. "Easy to climb down from the boys' room. It's that window just above. Used to come here a lot when I was new."
Bell ran the back of one hand over her eyes, wiping away her tears. "You shouldn't be down here. Mistress Auda will be upset."
"Only if you tell her." Samford shrugged. "Heard crying. Thought you might like some company."
"I . . . That's kind of you, Samford."
"Sam," he said. "My friends call me Sam."
"Sam," she amended, then gestured to the bench. "Would you like to sit?"
The boy settled himself beside her. He pulled his feet up onto the seat, wrapped his arms around his shins, and leaned his chin on his knees. Silence stretched out between them, filled with occasional night noises. Bell drew circles in the air with one foot that didn't quite reach the ground. "You said you used to come here when you were new," she said, unsure if it were impolite to talk about such a subject, but since he had brought it up, she thought she would brave the question. "How long have you been with Mistress Auda?"
"Three years, four months and eight days," he said. "Dad passed on before I was born, so I don't remember him, but I was five when my mum died. Thought that maybe out here under the sky she'd be better able to see me. I used to cry, too, back when I was small."
"I suppose it's childish of me to cry," Bell said. "My mother has been gone a long time, but my father is still alive, though he may believe I'm dead now. And the rest have only just gone on a journey."
Samford stared out over the water toward the Lonely Mountain. "Miss Goodchild, I know as well as you that it's no easy journey, and no saying for sure if they'll come back. I'd be scared, too."
Bell smiled. "You're a very wise young man."
He doffed an invisible hat. "At your service."
The moonlight shone off his face, highlighting the smattering of freckles dusting his nose and cheeks. His expression was sincerity itself, but his eyes twinkled with a mischievous glint, and Bell stifled a giggle. "Bell Goodchild at yours," she said, suddenly aware that, while worry and a longing for Thorin's presence still hovered in the back of her mind, the sharp edge of her sorrow had been blunted. "Thank you," she said. "You were right. I could use the company. But now it's late and we should both be back in our beds." She cast a doubtful glance at the wall. "Can you get back in the way you came?"
"Easy!" he said, rising and scrambling upward before pausing to look back at her. "Most Lake-men are part fish, but me, I'm part squirrel."
"Goodnight, then, Sam," Bell said. "And don't worry about Mistress Auda. My lips are sealed."
In a flash, Samford had scaled the wall and slipped silently back through the dormitory window. Bell shook her head, gave one last look to the north, then went to seek her own bed.