Chapter One: Clueless Concussed Duck
Disclaimer: Own nothing. Also, in case my formatting doesn't make sense, the bolded name at the top of the text is the character who is narrating. And thank you for all the lovely reviews!
"Stop standing on my heels!" Sefi whines. Long, delicate fingers wrap around my wrist and yank me off my feet.
"I wasn't standing on your heels, I was climbing on your back," I protest. I wiggle out of Sefi's strong grasp and drop to the ground, landing lightly. Or at least, I would have, if it weren't for the prickle bush we were hiding behind.
"You should not be standing on my back," Sefi lectures, letting her spectacles slide down her long nose far enough to fix me with a glare.
I fight my way out of the prickle bush, rubbing my backside and plucking thorns from my heavy knitted tunic. Thank Durin's beard for Amma constantly expressing her love in wooly gifts.
"How else am I supposed to see?" I implore Sefi, "Not all of us are blessed with your freakish height."
"You don't need to see inside," Sefi hisses, "You need to keep an eye on the road." Exasperated, she fits her hand like a claw on top of my head and spins me around to face the opposite direction.
"No one is coming," I complain sourly, folding my arms and settling more comfortably into the dirt, "And no one will come. Until suppertime."
"And so we wait," Sefi says calmly, resting her chin on the windowsill and pressing her nose to the glass pane.
I growl a low 'hrmph' and cross my arms tighter into my body. Never have I ever seen a duller place than this hobbit village. The cluster of hovels can hardly be called a village. The individual homes are all underground, with only the silly wooden doors visible, which I suppose is quite sensible, and possibly quite comfortable. However I snuck a short glance inside the home through one of the windows built into the hill...and well...the hobbits ruined whatever comfort being underground might have offered by paneling everything in wood! Not that the dirt of these handmade caves would even begin to compare to the soaring rock faces of our mountains.
After only a few days of travel, I'm already missing the cool stone beneath my feet and caverns above my head. Staring down the hill into the valley below me only reminds me of my present insecurity. The sky stretches out too far for too long. A novelty for the first few days, to be sure, but one that wears off pretty quickly. And despite her airs, I can tell the open spaces bother Sefi. She gazes so longingly into that window.
"Can you see him?" I ask her, casting a sidelong glance at her profile.
"Who?" she asks vaguely, distracted.
"The beardless fluffy one!"
"Oh," she comes to her senses, "Yes. He's making dinner."
"Durin's beard, I'm hungry."
"Hmmm," she hums absently.
"What's he cooking?" I ask, swiveling around and attempting to run up the wall underneath the window with my boots. I nearly manage it, too, but Sefi shoves me down by my shoulder and roughly pushes me to face the proper direction.
"It hardly matters," she says, disdainful of my concern.
If I listen hard enough I can imagine the sizzle of good meat roasting over a fire. My mouth waters at the thought. Another part of journeying I didn't expect, the scarcity of cooked food.
"I wish we could join in," I comment.
Sefi stays silent. She considers food beneath her interest, to be utilized purely for fuel. She'd eat nothing but that disgusting elf-dung travel bread during our entire adventure if she had her druthers.
"I mean to say, I like this fellow," I continue, to fill the space, "He's just my height. We'd probably get on splendidly. I could teach him to fight and we could spar as a team like Fili and Kili do to show off all the time."
"I don't think this fellow is the fighting type," Sefi replies sardonically.
"Hence why I must teach him," I insist, "I can't stand those two nearly beardless princelings always besting me. How am I supposed to compete when they have practically one mind between them, and fight like it too."
"You don't have a beard either," Sefi reminds me, sounding bored.
"Yes I do!" I say sharply, tugging at the golden locks braided underneath my chin.
I can feel Sefi rolling her eyes behind me.
I nearly turn around to give her a piece of my mind but in the distance I spot a swinging lantern about the height of a dwarf.
"Shht!" I hiss to Sefi under my breath, "Someone's coming up from the bottom of the hill." I silently slide through the prickle bush, maneuvering towards the front to get a better view. The leaves rustle as Sefi ducks underneath the bush with me and I cringe in frustration. Dis should permit me to scout alone. I never rustle leaves.
The lantern light belongs to a rotund, drunk lad wandering back to his hole after a night at the tavern, making him the second Hobbit I have seen in my entire life. The creatures don't seem to come out at night very often.
"Another false alarm," I sigh, "And I wish we could have been put on watch during the day instead. There would be more to observe."
"And more to see us," Sefi points out, returning to her post at the window, "Also, good eye," she adds as an afterthought, patting me on the head.
I mimic her stoic manner of speaking and slide to the side so she ends up patting air. In return I get a light smack on the back of my neck. I pluck a needle from the bush and prick her in the butt with it. She nearly yelps, swallowing the cry and glaring viciously down at me instead. She opens her mouth to launch into one of her great tirades.
Before Sefi gets a word out, I catch sight of a bulky form lumbering up the hill. I yank Sefi down and cover her mouth with my hand. The bulky, bald person moves heavier and faster than the drunk hobbit. As he approaches his dwarven ancestry becomes increasingly obvious. Sefi's eyes widen with recognition. I give her a shake to keep her quiet and we sit in silence as the dwarf rings the doorbell of the home we were tasked to observe. The hobbit, appearing strangely more confused than he aught to be, answers the door and lets the dwarf in. I release my hold on Sefi with a sigh.
"That was Dwalin!" she breathes as soon as my hand leaves her lips. She spins towards the window and presses her nose to the glass once more. I clamber onto her back and, lean my head over her shoulder to see. My feet nearly slide down but she curls her arms around my ankles and hoists me up.
"Dis spoke true. The old warriors answer the call," Sefi says faintly, "I don't believe it."
"So much for the fishing expedition ruse," I whisper sardonically.
"Poor hobbit," Sefi comments.
Poor hobbit indeed. Inside the kitchen, Dwalin sits down without a thought and busies himself with eating the fluffy-footed creature's dinner.
"He reminds me of my father," Sefi continues. I tear my eyes from the scene in the window to watch her face carefully.
"The hobbit, I mean," Sefi adds as if it needed clarification. I squeeze her tightly in an awkward embrace and kiss the side of her head, still clinging to her back.
I'm never very good at offering comfort.
In the silence that follows, I hear the faint rumble of a dwarf whistling. I slide off Sefi's back and pull her down with me. We watch, wide-eyed, as another familiar dwarf strolls up to the front door. He likewise disappears into the hobbit hole. Sefi and I turn to each other, "Balin!" we say simultaneously.
Now the company begins to arrive. Even Sefi turns her gaze to the bottom of the hill rather than the window. Two dark figures in the distance slowly make their way along the road.
"Two guesses who," I mutter darkly.
"Drop it," Sefi scolds, "We aren't to be seen, remember?"
"Hrmph," I repeat, "Were I but born male..."
"You still wouldn't have been allowed on the journey," she reminds me, "Gimli is only ten years younger than you, and Gloin refused him."
"Yes, but Gimli is a soft, huffy, homebody with delusions of grandeur," I complain, "Let me get either of those two ax-biters down there alone, and I'll best them in a challenge easily."
Out of the corner of my eyes I catch Sefi rolling hers.
Frustrated, and feeling more than a little cheated, I quietly pop out from behind the bush and rush to the front gate of the hobbit hole. A muffled cry comes from the bush, but Sefi remains in place, knowing perfectly well that of the two of us, I'm the one most capable of moving unseen. I pick a spot on the mailbox by the gate at random and desperately try to rub out the name "Baggins". Unfortunately, in the span of time that it takes the two shadows to near the top of the hill, all I can do is change the sign to 'Boggins' by scraping off the end of the 'a'. Apparently hobbits are skilled crafts people with hardy wood carvings. I duck into the nearest bush and growl.
Unwittingly the two dwarves, whose existence I'm most opposed to, stop at the sign.
"Boggins," the youngest one reads in confusion.
The two exchange a weighted glance.
"Do you think we got the name wrong, Kili?" the older dwarf asks with a vague, unworried expression, "It must be the right place. There's the rune on the door."
Curse the rune. It had completely slipped my mind.
"Must be," Kili agrees with the flash of a grin, "Foreign names can be difficult to pronounce. Gandalf might have misspoke."
"I've never heard of wizards misspeaking," Fili counters.
"Hobbits are a relatively insignificant, lesser known race," Kili points out, "Perhaps the wizard was too focused on getting his spells right to bother with the names."
"Seems logical enough," Fili shrugs and lets his brother lead on. The doorbell rings and the hobbit answers.
"At your service," the dwarves say in unison.
I put a fist in my mouth to muffle my groan and roll my eyes. Knowing them, they're probably bowing.
"You must be Mr. Boggins!" Kili adds with glee.
The hobbit's miffed expression deepens, but he lets them in. I slink back to Sefi, smirking.
"Congratulations," she drawls, obviously unimpressed, "You lowered the youngest heir of Durin's reputation one notch stupider."
"I thought it was funny," I stick my tongue out at her.
She elbows me in the side and gestures silently to the road. An entire troop of dwarves makes their way closer.
"Bombur. Bifur. Bofur!...," I whisper their names as they pass by. The clomping of dwarf feet on cobblestone could drown out a mumak herd. A tall man with a grey hat shepherds them along, and gives off the impression of sorely needing a strong drink.
"That accounts for everyone," I say.
"All except one," Sefi says hesitantly.
"Who?" I ask, hastily counting on my fingers to figure out which dwarf I'm missing.
"Oh," I say, "Of course."
Dis did warn me.
The sheer number of dwarves packed into the hobbit's kitchen renders watching at the window impossible without the worry of being seen, forcing Sefi and I to sit quietly, anticipating our King's arrival. Eventually Sefi nods off on my shoulder, snoring lightly. A typical dwarf problem. Snoring sets my nerves on end. I stick my fingers in her nostrils to stop the noise and she coughs before continuing to breathe normally. I wonder how much time has passed. I longingly listen to the wild ruckus occurring inside the warm hobbit hole. By the Balrog, I'm better at singing than all of them, if only I could join in.
After tracking the moon's climb into the sky for another eon, I shake Sefi awake.
"Urm?" she rubs sleep from her eyes.
"Thorin still hasn't shown," I explain, "Stay here, keep watch, and don't sleep," I order her.
"Where are you going?" she demands.
"Dis said, if her brother's late, make signs!" I whisper behind me before disappearing into the brush. I dash up the hill, grabbing fistfuls of grass to prevent myself from sliding in the slick mud. From my vantage above the Shire, I spot a cloaked figure walking swiftly in the opposite direction. I curse under my breath. Thorin; lost, as Dis predicted. I survey the roads surrounding the hill. A half full wooden cart of vegetables rests next to me, the back wheel wedged with a rock to keep it still. I kick at the rock until it dislodges. The wheels start to creak and turn. I press the flat of my boot to the end of the cart, wiggle the iron into the groove of the wood, and shove. The cart hitches forward, the front wheels spinning in air for a second before thumping onto the ground and jiggling down the hill. I dive under a bush. The crash, and equally loud dwarven curse echoes back to me. I peek out from behind a leaf. Thorin stands in the grass, slightly disheveled after jumping clear of a careening vegetable cart, and glances around in surprise.
"Please turn around," I implore him quietly, "Please, please, please turn around."
He does. His face is suspicious and scowling, but that's not exactly a new expression for Thorin Oakenshield. He starts to walk in the right direction, casting accusatory looks back at the cart and up the hill, eyes searching for the culprit.
His current path should take him around the hill to the proper side, but there are still three forks in the road on the hill itself. Any directional signs I create must be subtle enough to be an accident of fate, and obvious enough that even our unobservant king takes notice. I creep away from my bush and shuffle down the slick grass to the first fork. A few feet away from the bottom of the hill, I hit a particularly muddy patch and my boots fly out from underneath me. I land hard on my hip, sliding the rest of the way down.
My slide ends abruptly when I slam into a wooden pole. I groan, hobbling to my feet. At least now there will be no footprints to give me away. I lean against the pole to regain my balance. My hands trail brown muck across everything I touch, including the clothes line attached to the pole.
A clothes line hanging three crisp white, starchy shirts, the sleeves and collars held up by pins. The blouses float in the breeze eerily, like scarecrows bereft of their stuffing. I hastily unpin one right sleeve each. Brown lumps from my hands drip down the stiff shirt fronts. I've destroyed an entire day's washing. But one angry hobbit is worth the trouble. The ghostly scarecrows now point up the hill towards the hobbit hole.
I crouch close to the ground again and search for the next fork in the road.
Dashing between bushes, I eye the distant black shape of Thorin coming round the bend. I reach the fork with no time to spare. Surveying my supplies at hand, I delicately take the ends of grass reeds at the edge of the road and weave them into the nearest fence. The matted long grass forms a crude arrow pointing in the proper direction. I dive back into the bush to wait.
After a minute or two, Thorin arrives and stands in front of the arrow.
He snorts, half in disgust, half in amusement, and casts his eyes to the sky. "Wizards," he mutters. He turns to walk up the hill, thankfully in the proper direction.
I sigh in relief. He blames Gandalf for the signs, not an unseen dwarf child illicitly running around outside. I relax against a tree trunk. Unfortunately, my thoughtless slight movement disturbs a hidden squirrel. The creature scampers across Thorin's path. I freeze.
Thorin stops as well, appearing unusually interested in such a small creature. He glances back at the grass arrow, and then at the bush I'm hiding in. He steps closer, peering into the thick foliage.
I daren't move. Even if I wanted to run, a single twitch and I'd jostle enough branches to give me away. Curse squirrels!
His hand reaches towards the bush, then stops, hesitates. He squats closer to the ground, eyes level with mine although he can't see me. His eyes are curious, and surprised, and something else I don't recognize. I squeeze my eyes shut, begging him silently to go away. If he finds me, the game is up. I'll be sent home for sure.
"Marmot?" he asks gently.
My eyes snap open. If I didn't know any better, I might mistake that muscle spasm in Thorin's face for a smile.
When he receives no answer, he leans in closer to brush a few leaves out of the way. I bite my lip in desperation.
"Harrrumph," a gruff voice coughs.
Thorin stops moving. I slide my gaze slightly to the right and discover a middle aged hobbit standing on the left side of the path. The hobbit scowls down at the dwarf in disapproval. I suppose conversing with plants isn't considered proper in Hobbiton.
"Humph," the hobbit repeats.
Thorin straightens, adjusts his cloak, and returns the Hobbit's scowl.
"Good evening," Thorin says, though his tone suggests otherwise.
"Hum, humm, Harrum," the hobbit croaks in between a few puffs of his pipe.
Thorin blinks at the halfling.
The hobbit nods at the path in front of him, and jerks his head to the side while staring at Thorin pointedly.
Thorin lifts his head in indignation.
Neither dwarf nor hobbit moves.
"I'm..." Thorin takes a long breath, "lost." The word pains him.
"Bush," the hobbit says gruffly, gesturing to my hiding spot, "Not map."
Thorin glowers silently at the halfling. The hobbit shifts his weight onto his back foot and inhales his pipe-weed casually. The wind blows the smoke in the dwarf's face.
Thorin coughs, sighs in annoyance, and steps to the side.
The hobbit strolls past, keeping one suspicious eye on Thorin.
"Hobbits," Thorin growls under his breath once the halfling disappears from sight. He glances back at my bush, shakes his head in disappointment, and turns away. His cloak swings outward elegantly as he storms off.
I sigh and slump into the tree roots. I'm safe. Thorin will arrive at the hobbit's home, albeit a little late, but none the wiser about Dis's plan. I intend to wait under my tree until Thorin is inside, but a shrill voice disturbs my peace.
"Excuse you," the voice calls out.
I pop my head out of the bush enough to see the road on the hill. A green satin blob topped with bouncing brown ringlets stands indignantly a few paces away from the dwarf king, who is so close to reaching the hobbit's home he could touch the gate. I creep closer, dashing from bush to bush to gain a better vantage point. Loud music emanates from the hobbit hole and nearly drowns out the lady hobbit's shout. Thorin and I are the only ones who hear.
Well, us and Sefi still hidden under the window, probably.
"Pardon?" Thorin half turns around, fixing the demanding hobbit woman with a weary stare over his fur covered shoulder.
"That is no way to greet a woman!" the hobbit states haughtily.
"I said nothing," Thorin rumbles, irritated at being treated with such derision. He takes a few steps towards the woman, towering over her by at least a foot.
"Exactly," the hobbit insists, continuing to look down her nose at the dwarf despite having to raise her head quite high to do so.
Thorin takes a deep breath, judges the woman as not worth his time, and turns away.
"In Hobbiton," the woman continues, her tone of voice making it clear she considers him an unwelcome outsider, "It is customary to at least wish a good evening or comment on the pleasant weather in passing."
"If I were to do so," Thorin says, his cloak swirling as he confronts her once more, "I might also ask what a lady such as yourself is doing outside so late in the evening..."
"That..." she bristles, "Is none of your business."
"Then my business is likewise my own," Thorin concludes, "And I am late. Good evening."
"Well, I never!" the hobbit exclaims, "To think a Baggins could be treated such. By a stranger in our Shire, no less!"
"Baggins?" Thorin's eyebrows raise dangerously.
"Lobelia Sacksville-Baggins!" says Lobelia Sacksville-Baggins proudly, "A name that in normal circumstances would command respect on this hill." The feather in her hat quivers.
Thorin, looking confused, inclines his head ever so slightly in acknowledgment.
I begin to panic, frustrated at needing to hide when I want to yell that this uppity lady is the wrong Baggins. In desperation I grab the nearest projectile - a gnome, one of those nasty insulting lawn decorations - and chuck it towards the front gate of the hobbit hole. Finally my spear training exercises back home pay off.
My strength is good, but my aim is as horrible as expected.
The lawn gnome bangs against a fence post, drops to the ground, and splits in two like an egg. Thorin spins around, hitching his ax into his hands and taking a defensive stance in front of Lobelia, who, in the manner of delicate folk unused to sudden noises, clutches her chest and gives a great 'Oh!' of surprise. All trepidations over the mysterious dwarf forgotten, the lady hobbit jumps forward to cling to the back of Thorin's cloak.
"What is it," she squeaks, "What horrors have you brought into the Shire with you."
Thankfully, Thorin sees the broken lawn gnome and puts the pieces of the puzzle together with ease, "It's nothing," he says, shrugging off Lobelia's grabby hands. His eyes travel from the front gate, to the round door, and rest on the glowing blue rune carved in the green paint, visible only to those who know what they are looking for. "Do not concern yourself. Good evening," he grumbles curtly to Lobelia, and strides through the hobbit's gate.
"Yes, you said that..." Lobelia trails off faintly.
Lobelia remains in the center of the road looking unnerved, disheveled, and more than a little guilty. Whatever her business was at this time of night, I imagine it was not altogether ladylike. She turns on her satin high heel and marches off.
I heave a sigh of relief.
Thorin turns his head and watches her go, probably not trusting her to actually leave. He raises his hand to the hobbit's door, but pauses. The music inside rises to a crescendo. Thorin listens silently, eyes still following Lobelia's trek down the hill. The music behind the door explodes into laughter. Thorin raps on the wood three times. The house goes silent. He winces and closes his eyes, well aware the dwarves' merriment died because of his knock.
The bushes to the left of him rustle.
I curse myself for leaving Sefi alone.
Thorin's eyes snap open, and he nearly leaves the doorstep to investigate, but at that moment the door opens and the hobbit welcomes the dwarf King into his home.
I wait in the bush until Thorin is safely inside, just to be sure, and then follow his footsteps in a rush, sliding deftly into the prickles beside Sefi.
"Can you be more obvious?" I hiss at her.
"Where were you?" Sefi snaps at me, grabbing my arm and pulling me in the rest of the way.
"Aiding our directionally challenged King," I reply, shaking her off.
"You missed the crazy hobbit lady spying on the meeting," Sefi whispers, her eyes narrowing at me in blame, "She nearly trod on me in her haste to snoop through the window!"
"So judgmental," I say calmly, "Isn't snooping exactly what we've been doing for the past three hours?"
"Yes but our purposes are," she stutters at a loss for words, "honorable."
"Indeed," I drawl, "and that's why Dis refuses to tell her own brother and we are forced to stay hidden like thieves in the night."
"At the very least, our intentions are good," Sefi insists proudly.
"Either way, the hobbit, Lobelia Sacksville-Baggins" I mimic the lady's drawn out way of speaking, "as she is called, is gone now, so we don't have a thing to worry about."
"No," Sefi implores, "You don't understand, she knows everything."
"She can't know everything," I scoff.
"Enough to cause trouble," Sefi warns, "She overheard Thorin's speech about needing burglars, and she knows they want to take Bilbo somewhere, and she said something about finally being able to get her hands on the end of a bag, and I don't know what she was talking about, but I'm pretty sure she means to tell others."
"The end of a bag?"
"I don't know..."
"Does she think they're going after some kind of treasure?"
"I imagine something along those lines. It's only logical, with a need for a burglar."
"Well, what else have they said?" I ask, "Anything about, you know..."
'No but Uncle Thorin only just sat down to dinner..."
I climb on top of Sefi's shoulders and slowly raise my head high enough to see a sliver of the scene in the kitchen. The window softens and blurs the low-pitched dwarven voices, making it difficult to discern words. I poke at the diamond glass panes until I discover a wobbly one.
"What are you doing now?" Sefi groans through clenched teeth. She shifts her sitting position, jostling my shoulder and I almost tumble down.
"Stay still," I hiss back, "And keep quiet, I'm trying to hear."
I continue to poke at the base of the wobbly pane. Eventually the bottom half pops into the room and I deftly catch the glass before it can shatter.
"There's another way in!" I recognize Kili's proud voice. He thinks he's so clever.
I listen carefully. Between the two of us, Sefi and I might have a chance at remembering everything for our report to Dis. I pay extra attention when Bofur speaks of the dragon. I've forced him to recount every story he knows of that day so many times, I believe he is sick of telling them. It's nice to hear the tale told to someone afresh. Although the hobbit doesn't appreciate Bofur's consideration at all. He faints dead away. His body hits the ground with a large thump that startles Sefi, which causes me to lose my balance and tip over sideways. Thankfully no one hears us since the prickles cushion my fall again.
Still, we daren't take another chance and peek through the window again.
I slump against the earthen wall of the hobbit hole and pluck prickles from the front of my tunic one by one. Sefi slides down next to me and leans her head on my shoulder. We sit silently, listening to the soft murmur of conversation drifting out the window. After a few hours the dwarves disband for the evening. Dwalin, Ori, and Oin stay at the table. The rest wander the hobbit's hallways. They all wait for Mr. Baggins' decision.
With no intriguing conversation to distract me, I suddenly become aware of my heavy eyelids. I haven't slept since a full two turns of a sundial. I finish de-needling myself, but keep one. The minute my head starts to droop, I prick myself in the crook of my elbow. A brief pinpoint of pain snaps me alert. Makes me twitch too, but that can't be helped. No one is outside to hear the rustling leaves. However the effect of each poke gradually lessens. If this is how the entire journey goes, sleepless nights and physically taxing days, I might collapse by tomorrow.
I sit, twitching, for a few more hours.
Finally, I give in and rest my eyes for a bit. A strange humming drifts outside through the broken window. I vaguely consider attempting to discover the source, but my body doesn't seem to want to stand up. Thorin's clear, deep singing voice carries well,
"Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold"
I soak in the voices of the dwarves. Home might be far from my current muddy, prickly seat under a window, yet I've never felt closer.
I'm in the presence of the greatest warriors of Erabor. Well, warriors, and toymakers, and two spoiled princelings. I wonder if Kili's fallen asleep yet. Dis always sang the Misty Mountain song before bed when we were children. If I ever had a nightmare, I would run to Sefi's room, who would get scared herself, and drag me to her brother's room, and we'd hide between Kili and Fili, who would loudly proclaim us under their protection and then listen to my nightmare, get scared too, and poor Fili would be sent off to fetch Dis, who would come, and rub our backs, and sing "Misty Mountains" until we slept peacefully.
Of course, I haven't had a nightmare since I was a dwarfling.
But the song still works.
I'm so tired.
A gentle, lumbering motion, rocks me from side to side. A metallic 'clickity-clackity-clickity-clackity' rings in my head. When I breathe in, something wispy clings to my nostrils and tickles me. I open my mouth, inhale deeply, and cough on a wad of hair. My eyes squint open, crusted in sleeping dust. I see the familiar reddish glint of Erna's braids seconds before a particularly sudden jolt snaps me into awareness.
I make the grave mistake of trying to sit up and look around. Instead of getting a better view, I end up on my backside, wallowing in dirt and gravel. I manage to stifle my cry of surprise, but Erna, who had been carrying me, groans loudly.
"Kid!" Sefi exclaims, running over and lifting me out of the dirt by my armpits.
"By the ax, Kid!" Erna says, rubbing the muscles I accidentally kicked while falling off her back, "What'd you go and do that for?"
"I assure you, it was not intentional," I say sourly.
She shakes her head at me.
"Is that sunrise or sunset?" I ask, noticing the dim twilight with a heavy heart.
"Sunset," Dis answers, coming from the lead of our little group to check on me.
"I've been carrying you all day," Erna remarks with a grin, "And this, my thanks!"
"Carrying me?" I repeat.
"You slept through everything," Dis explains, handing me a water bottle, "You should have told me you were tired before I sent you out last night."
"I'm sorry," I kick the mud off my boots, "I thought I could handle it."
"Clearly not. Don't let it happen again," Dis warns, "As it is, everything worked out for the best. We're getting ready to camp for the night, and I need a scout again. Since you've had the most sleep out of all of us now, you get the job. We think we've pinpointed the location of Thorin's camp, but I'd like to be certain."
She glances at Erna, who nodes in agreement.
"Understood," I say.
"Good," Dis confirms, "Move on, we still have some part of a mile to go."
I fall into step with Sefi, while the rest walk single file.
"And how do we know where the camp is?" I ask her in a whisper, "Or even when they started the journey since I fell asleep."
"We know when they left because the lazy hobbit slept in, giving us time to catch up to the main group after collecting you," Sefi replies.
I nod, feeling slightly better. Kili claims the hobbit's presence changes the entire probability of the expedition's success. If the dwarves excuse Mr. Baggins for accidentally sleeping, surely no one blames me either.
"Dis calculated their speed based on the slowest pony," Sefi adds, smirking.
"They would need ponies," I say with a grin. I jokingly elbow Sefi in the side. The arm strength of dwarven men is renowned, allowing them to work stone and metal. But forgotten are the dwarf women blessed with the leg strength necessary to walk great distances without tiring, to work the peddles of the sewing contraptions and looms, to bear the children, and to do whatever else needs done. Sefi and I exchange knowing glances, giggling. Male dwarves were not meant for long distance trekking.
"Why was Erna carrying me?" I ask, "Instead of Pru." I survey our line of companions. Dis walks in front, with Amma second, and Alfruna third. The clickity-clackity of Amma's metal knitting needles marches to the beat of the company's footsteps. She never stops knitting. Alfruna gingerly holds up a wool skein, rolling out new yarn whenever Amma runs low. Pru walks behind Sefi and I carrying a green sack of potatoes and leading a donkey.
"What does Pru have?" I whisper to Sefi after hastily turning around and averting my eyes. Pru, ever the strong, silent, warrior dwarf, dislikes people intruding on her privacy.
"Remember when I said Lobelia Sacksville-Baggins trod on me?" Sefi whispers back.
"Well, she nearly ran off to inform the entire town about the dwarves' quest to the Lonely Mountain. Wanted to cast Mr. Baggins as unstable and unfit to own his home, I believe," Sefi confides, "She was going to ruin the plans, so we took her along."
"You kidnapped a hobbit?"
"Considering she was doing the snooping in the first place, it hardly counts as kidnapping."
"I don't think she'd see it that way."
"And, you'd be right," Sefi sighs begrudgingly, "She hasn't stopped trying to run away since we first dragged her out of the village. Hence the need for Pru to carry her."
"Won't she be a burden?"
"Dis says we'll let her go once we're far enough out that an army of angry hobbits will no longer be a threat."
"Is an army of angry hobbits ever an actual threat?"
"Unnecessary annoyance, then," Sefi shrugs.
"I see," I say, unconvinced.
"In the meantime," Dis interrupts our conversation, looking back at us in amusement, "we'll assign an extra watch each night," Dis eyes me, her expression suggesting it'll be me doing the extra watching.
"I'm going to spend every daylight hour of this journey being carried asleep on Erna's back, aren't I?" I grumble to Sefi.
Sefi snorts and drags me in front of her. She pokes me as we walk, keeping my body in the line of sight between her and Dis. I sneak a glance behind me and see Sefi furiously scribbling in her notebook. She looks up and prods my shoulder forward with her pen. I resign myself to my fate of being her cover. Amma indulges in her knitting habit while walking, Sefi should be allowed to do the same. I amuse myself by recalling Kili's face at the hobbit's door and giggling over 'Mr. Boggins'. It works for five minutes. And then nothing. Nothing but walking.
This is going to be a longer journey than anticipated.
By nightfall we reach a clearing tucked in the edge of a forest. Dis signals the company to stop. We gather round her in a malformed circle, heaving our supply bags to the ground. I roll my shoulder, trying to regain feeling in my upper arm. During the last quarter mile the pinching gradually numbed my arm. I'll have to adjust the straps to properly distribute the weight. Stupid of me to neglect doing it before we left.
Pru dumps Lobelia on the hard ground next to Dis's bag. The hobbit rolls into a sitting position and screeches muffled insults underneath the gag around her mouth. Pru yanks a blanket off the donkey and throws it over the hobbit's head, exactly as Pru does for her pet canary back home when it's bedtime. Lobelia kicks at the cloth until she tires, gives up, curls into a ball, and falls asleep. Exactly like the canary. Though I strongly suspect bringing the canary along would have been of more use to our company.
"How long are we going to keep her?" I ask.
"As long as necessary," Dis snaps, "Erna, firewood."
Erna warily eyes Dis and the bundle of flannel that covers the hobbit, and walks off.
I help Sefi lay out sleeping pads for Amma and Alfruna, the two in the group who require special treatment. Amma perches on a wooden log, Alfruna sitting at her feet, the familiar clack-click-clack breaking the quiet of the woods. I rearrange Amma's pack so she can easily access new yarn from the top, and discover an extra sleeping pad.
"There's another pad," I announce, holding it up and waving it for all to see.
Dis starts to walk over and claim it, but Pru reaches me first. She snatches it out of my hands, deftly flicks the string untied, and rolls it out next to the hobbit. I hastily turn to Dis, preparing for trouble, but Dis merely raises her eyebrows and shrugs. Normally, our leader would not permit any slight breach in her command. But, similar to Amma, Pru tends to get away with things. And none of us know quite what to do with the hobbit, having never seen one before.
The warrior dwarf carefully lifts the blanket off Lobelia. Snoring fills the clearing, drowning out even Amma's knitting.
"Durin's beard, that's as bad as Gloin and Gimli combined!" Erna complains, stepping into the clearing, her arms heavily laden with wood.
We all stare as Pru gently rolls Lobelia onto the pad. Pru takes her spiked knife and cuts through the bonds on the hobbit's wrists and mouth. A slight hiccup among the snores is the only sign of awareness Lobelia makes.
I watch Lobelia curiously. I've never seen a hobbit up close before. Her hair is curly, springy. I imagine if I pulled a lock it would stretch out and bounce back. She's delicate too. Hands tiny as an elf child and fine boned wrists and ankles. I rub my own wrist, easily twice the size.
Erna builds the fire while Dis draws a map in the dirt. The dwarf princess's hand expertly etches lines to represent woods, rivers, mountains and towns. She knows every inch of the land, but only in two-dimensional form. I've seen her sit for hours in the great hall of scrolls under the Blue Mountains, memorizing, tracing, examining the maps. I asked her why once. She glared at me, told me 'just in case', and went on ignoring me. But she let me watch her work. Which is something, I guess.
"Rivendell is the one place Thorin will never set foot in," Dis explains, marking a scull and crossbones in the dirt, "And judging from our current landmarks, we're here." She places a rock at the base of a small foothill drawn into the dirt. A dark line going between the two foothills represents a small valley, or maybe a canyon.
"We think Thorin's party should be around here," she places another rock on the other side of the canyon, "But where they decided to stop for the night, I don't know," she looks up at me, "That's your job."
I nod, and glance beyond Dis's shoulder to Sefi. Sefi hunches her shoulders and scribbles in her notebook, flicking her eyes back and forth between the dirt map and her page. Sefi must work quickly. If Dis discovers the drawing, she will take it as an insult to her talent for memory.
"What did you learn at the Hobbit's window?" Dis asks me.
"They aim to retake Erabor," I say bluntly.
Dis grimaces, "Curse Thorin Oakenshield for dragging my sons into a conflict that is not their own," she sighs, "Who else journeys with him?"
I name all twelve of the dwarves.
"Well, that list doesn't surprise me," Erna comments, laughing.
"At least we know who we're dealing with now," Dis concedes. She waves her hand in the direction of the forest, "Go. Find their camp. Report back in the morning. Try not to fall asleep this time."
I nod eagerly, trying to contain my excitement. Dis does not approve of overly expressing oneself. Probably explains why her youngest son acts like a concussed duck half the time.
Amma begins to hum in my general direction and I turn to her. She pantomimes knitting, sticks a bowl on her head, and runs her hands up and down her forearms.
"Don't worry Amma," I sigh with eternal patience, "Ori has not yet worn a hole through his wool gloves."
She motions to her eyes.
"Yes, I will keep a special eye on him while scouting," I promise.
Happily content, she returns to her knitting.
Before setting off, I pull my dark grey hood over my head, tucking my beard down the front of my shirt. My infernally yellow hair glows neon in the night. Blending into the shadows, I swiftly hop through the line of trees separating our camp from the edge of the cliff.
Discovering Thorin's camp takes no time at all. The fools built a glowing fire without even a scattering of trees to hide the telltale flames. Clearly not anticipating unwelcome company or spies. Typical dwarves, oblivious to anything except themselves. I slide down next to a pine tree, nestle myself between the trunk and a large root, and watch.
At first nothing seems to happen. Fili and Kili stand out brightly behind the fire, sharing a pipe between them. I grin, imagining the surprise on Kili's face if he knew where I was.
Without warning, the seemingly asleep Thorin stands and walks towards the edge of the cliff, resting his foot on a rock and peering across the ravine. At first, I worry he noticed me. I duck behind the root of the tree, my heart quickening. After a long minute, though, when there is no shout, I peek back over the knotted bark.
They're all standing now, as if in deference to the King. I burn with jealousy. I may be here, spying, which is exciting, and secret, and definitely adventure tale worthy. But Kili is there, among the good company of heroes and dwarves of legend, with the chance of earning valor and glory.
I would ride a smelly, pooping pony to have that chance.
Thorin says something to Kili and the young prince's regal bearing deflates a little. Looking like a puppy denied a treat, Kili moves to sit on the rock where Thorin stood. The rest settle on the ground and fall back asleep. Kili must have landed first watch as punishment for whatever he did to disturb his uncle. He pulls out a pack and starts crafting arrows while keeping one eye on his surroundings. I watch him intently.
This time, I promise myself, I won't sleep.
Ten minutes go by, and a faint rustling of leaves signals movement behind me. Instinctually, I roll over the root, crouching low on the other side to remain hidden. Although my back now faces the camp, I trust my cloak to conceal my position. I barely trust myself to breathe.
Two orcs plod through the clearing, riding wargs. My heartbeat picks up pace again. I can hear them muttering in their own language. They seem suspiciously interested in the dwarf camp. Logically, if I fail to neutralize them, the orcs will take news of the entire company's journey back to whatever hole they crawled out of. I know my duty.
I quietly unsheathe my twin blades. The swords are no bigger than knives, but this requires close work. Taking deep, calming breaths, I wait. No chance for rash decisions here.
One of the wargs turns slightly away from me. I wrinkle my nose in disgust. Any closer and I'd be breathing down the warg's butt. Ignoring the stench, I launch myself out of my hiding place and drop into a roll. My fists dig into the dirt, my legs flip over my body tightly. The stones grind against my back. As soon as my feet hit the ground, I throw my weight forward, slicing the back of the warg's bow-legged knees open. The warg screams in pain and starts to collapse.
I roll again, slicing the warg's front two legs. I catch myself before I go further, turning my head to see the warg and it's rider crash to the ground. Energized by my success, I dash behind the nearest tree. I catch my breath and spare a quick glance towards the camp. Kili remains on the rock. He can't hear a thing.
The orcs argue, twisting in all directions, trying to find the source of the disturbance. The orc rider I unseated ends the injured creature's misery with a final blow to the head. Both riders remain alert. I no longer have surprise on my side.
Unless I'm clever.
I wait until the lone rider searches closer to my bush. They know I disappeared somewhere in this direction. However, they're unaware of my skill at moving unheard and unseen. I slip through the foliage, around to the opposite end of the clearing. Neither are paying attention to their backs.
I run at the lone orc, aiming two slices to his legs. He goes down. The orc riding the remaining warg turns in his seat. He swings his leg and dismounts. I back away.
The one who had fallen staggers to his feet. I'm trapped.
I pick the weakest and swing at him wildly. He deflects my attack easily and thrusts his spear at my head. I duck. He swings. I catch his blade with my own. His spear slides down, nearly to my arm. I try to stab him using my free knife, but fail. With brute strength he shoves me backward, sending my sword flying. I shove myself off the ground and hop forward again. I run underneath his legs, putting the tree at my back instead of the second orc. I swivel and hold my remaining sword in front of me, hands shaking. I stare at the orc laughing in front of me.
Twice as tall, twice as strong.
I hadn't accounted for his extra strength.
I lunge. He overpowers me easily. The second rider watches, cackling, as the first blocks my strike, nearly snapping my arm, and grabs my throat. He lifts me with a single hand until my face is at his height. My cloak snags against the tree bark, revealing my hair and beard. He snarls words in a language I can't understand. I curse myself for never paying attention to lessons. If Sefi were here...
"Where are you dwarves headed?" the orc repeats in my own language.
"I..." I stammer broken sounds and shake my head.
"Tell me, or I will cut off your head," the orc adds, grinning.
My heart pounds and my eyes start to water. I can't breathe. I'm going to die, in shame, while Kili sits a hundred feet away, clueless.
"Rivendell," I blurt the first name that comes to mind. The one place Thorin would never set foot.
"Dwarves don't visit elves," the orc scoffs.
"Precisely," I cough, "No one would suspect..."
Suddenly an arrow sprouts in the side of the orc's neck. He drops me and falls dead at my feet. I collapse to the ground, my chest heaving in shock. I look across the ravine. Kili stands tall. His feet firmly perch on the rock, oddly graceful for a dwarf. He strings a second arrow on his bow.
Perhaps not so clueless after all.
I drop behind the tree to give Kili a clear sight on the second orc. Two more arrows soar past, one sinking into the warg's thick hide, and the other embedding itself into a tree. The orc escapes. I jump into the clearing, still breathing heavily. Kili and I stare at each other for a minute, neither certain what to do.
Curiously, he hasn't woken up any of the other dwarves yet. He turns away and walks toward a sleeping lump covered in a knitted afghan. I recognize Amma's handiwork, a travel blanket made for Ori. I prepare myself for the inevitability of being discovered.
However, instead of sounding the alarm, Kili digs through a supply pack and retrieves a pencil and a sheet of paper. It takes him longer than it probably should to scribble a few sentences. I can see him chewing on the end of the pencil in thought. He fixes the note to the end of a rope, ties the rope to an arrow, and shoots.
The arrow hits the tree right above my head. I glare at him; what if he had missed by an inch? And yank the arrow out of the bark, perhaps using more force than necessary.
'What are you doing here, you addlepated goat?' the note reads. His handwriting is clumsy, nearly as bad as mine. And the word addlepated appears to have been smudged several times as if the writer was uncertain of the spelling.
I search the ground for a piece of loose rock covered in dirt. The writing utensil is crude but I manage to scrawl a response:
"7 dwarves, orcs track u, no tell thorin or will tell Dis truth"
That should satisfy him. I drop the arrow off the ledge. Kili drags the rope back across the ravine, carrying the note with it. He reads, looks up at me, rips the paper to shreds, and tosses the scraps over the cliff. I take a step back, unable to read his expression. He holds eye contact for another minute before returning to his seat on the rock, his back facing me.
I heave a sigh of relief, pulling my hood back over my head. I fade into the woods. Finding my original hiding spot behind a root, I wait patiently for daylight. The dying orc and warg lying near me give off a tremendous stench, but I pay no attention.
The next morning I watch Thorin's company pack their bags and move on. Kili lingers, bringing up the rear. Before he disappears around a rock he pokes his head out from behind it and gives me a cheery wave. At this distance I can barely discern his expression. But I can imagine it. That stupid, self-satisfied smile that lights up his entire face. I've seen it often enough. I grin despite myself. It's nice to have a co-conspirator again.
When I return to our camp, Dis smiles approvingly at me, "Didn't fall asleep this time, I see."
"No," I reply, "They're on the move."
She assesses me, judges the slight change in my demeanor, and accepts it. "Then we should be too," she announces and moves from sleeping bundle to sleeping bundle nudging them with her foot, "everybody up!"
As everyone packs to leave, Dis turns to me again.
"Did anything else happen last night, Auga?" she asks, using my real name. She hasn't called me Auga since the time Kili and I dipped her black hair in wood ash mixed with vinegar while she was sleeping. Her bleached hair made her so angry she nearly skinned us alive, screaming our full names in anger.
"No," I say, looking her straight in the eye calmly, "Nothing."