Chapter 10: Home Behind, World Ahead
"We can't just leave him."
Merida's voice was almost engulfed in the dull clatter of the scuffling about her. Although she had repeatedly chided them to be quiet lest they awaken Bilbo in the adjacent room, a band of dwarves can only muffle their movements to a certain extent. A few members of the company weren't packing at all, but we shuffling sleepily about like grumpy children. Bofur and Kili had yet to stir, still splayed out and snoring on the hobbit-sized sofas.
Next to Thorin, Merida was the most proactive of the group, and had already gotten packed and dressed when she entreated Gandalf.
"We can't leave him." She repeated to the wizard, crossing her arms over her leather corset. It must have been comical to the wizard, this hobbit, whose height barely reached his hips, adorned in leather and chainmail, a thick crimson braid and bow at her back.
"Kili, Bofur, unless you prefer the accommodations of hobbits over the reclamation of your homeland, I suggest you join your company." Gandalf muttered and continued his march across the threshold, Merida close at his heels.
"Gandalf, did you hear me?" her query was practically shouted, both in an attempt to rise above the clamor and to show her indignation. "We can't leave him."
"Bombur, we are travelling to Erebor, not to this world's end. An entire cheese wheel would not qualify as a necessity."
By this time the pair had made their way to the foyer. Merida's voice had reached a pitch she didn't think she could hit, and the screech startled the elder to such an extent that he smashed his forehead into the iron chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
Slowly, patiently, he turned to gaze down at the girl, his only response a raise of his eyebrows and a silent invitation for her to continue.
"We can't leave him, Gandalf." She repeated, her voice softer and under slightly more control. "Yes, he is peculiar, and cowardly, and soft, but he's my friend, and a good friend at that."
She paused for a moment, waiting to see if the elder would raise some sort of retort or comment. Understanding his continued silence as encouragement to continue, she explained further.
"He may not seem like much – actually, us hobbits as a whole don't seem like much – but I can assure you, given the chance, he will prove a loyal, true, and whole hearted companion any dwarf or wizard could ask for."
She now noticed that the clamor of the dwarves had subsided, and felt the uncomfortable sensation of eyes on her and a soft blush creeping up her neck. She cleared her throat before repeating, for the umpteenth time,
"We can't leave him."
"We?" Gandalf mused aloud, his voice both gruff and gentle. Merida clamped her mouth shut and frowned slightly, agitated at the wizard's wisdom. The two were silent for a moment, the hobbit glaring in protest at the wizard and the wizard holding back a sly grin.
"I can't leave him." She corrected, the admission muttered in a short puff of air.
Gandalf gave a soft "Hmmm" as a response, which tempted Merida to snatch his walking stick and bash him in the shin with it. She didn't appreciate his insight, and the heat that was climbing over her jawbone was no longer a blush of embarrassment. Before she could utter a retort, however, Thorin had entered the room, his strides long and pounding as if he was aggravated himself.
"We're leaving." He informed Gandalf, barely giving the wizard a glance and failing to acknowledge Merida at all. Without slowing his battle march, he disappeared through the front door. The remainder of the company swiftly followed suit, filing into a rough line and mumbling amongst themselves.
"We have all made our choices, young Merida." Gandalf's words held no harshness in them, yet somehow he refrained from patronizing her. He spoke to her with the same balance of authority and respect that a father has for his child. "You have made yours, along with every other member of this company, and Bilbo has made his."
Merida looked away from him, her gaze travelling across the den the closed door of Bilbo's bedroom at the opposite end. Gandalf's next words reclaimed her attention.
"My only wish and warning is that you do not give up your quest for the sake of someone else's comfort."
With that, he turned and took his place at the end of the dwarven line, ducking low to exit through the large round doorway. Merida simply stood in the entry hall, twiddling the end of her braid in thought, her gaze lowered and studying the wooden floor below her boots. It wasn't until she heard Angus' impatient whinny outside that she snapped out of her reverie.
We have all made our choices…
She practically skipped across the den, stopping only to fling a pillow at the still sleeping Kili. He growled loudly in protest, but was ignored. Her crimson braid bouncing against her bow and her arms swinging proudly in time with her strides, she strutted into Bilbo's bedroom.
There he lay, sleeping contentedly on his side, his hand snuggled beneath his cheek and his knees tucked up to his chest. Merida tip toed silently to his bedside, brushed a few strands of hair from his face, and planted a soft motherly kiss on his forehead.
"Goodbye, Bilbo Baggins." She whispered with an air of both gleeful abandon and solemn farewell. Without sparing another moment, she withdrew from the room and closed the door softly behind her.
"Did you hit me… with a pillow?" Kili demanded, looking not at Merida but at the embroidered object of question. He glared at it as if it was a criminal, as if it had tackled his face of its own accord.
"Nope, it was Fili." She replied as she strode across the den, head held high and a mischievous grin on her face.
Her entire demeanor oozed the excitement of a girl about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
"I'm just sayin'." Ori called over his shoulder, "It's odd, living' in holes in the ground. It sounds so stuffy to me, so… restricted. I'd get claustrophobic in those conditions."
"But you're a dwarf." Merida replied, raising her voice so that Ori, who was two ponies ahead of her, could hear. "Isn't your entire life spent beneath the earth? Should be something relatable, us hobbits sleeping in the hills."
"No, it isn't the same." Dwalin, who had been quiet during the casual conversation, suddenly decided to join in. "Dwarves construct entire cities deep below the surface, with vast and complex caverns filled with open spaces carved from stone. No dirt, no closed spaces, no stale air."
"It's true," chimed Nori, whose pony trotted next to Ori's, "Some chambers are so large, you could stand in the middle of 'em and not be able to see the ceiling or walls."
"You'll love it lass," murmured Balin, who rode just in front of Merida, his white beard curling against his shoulder as he turned his head to speak. "Erebor's beauty matches no other."
Merida smiled warmly.
"I can't wait."
"Well, there will be a lot of waiting before we reach it." Came Gandalf's call from the front of the procession. "Our journey is long and arduous, and is not bereft of perils."
"Thank you, for brightening our spirits." Muttered Kili from Merida's side, which caused them both to snicker and Balin to cast a disapproving glare at the youths.
The company continued to chatter on in this manner as they meandered their way out of Hobbitton. It was odd enough that a hobbit was riding a pony, but the fact that she was with fourteen other men attracted the curious and mostly disapproving gazes of the entire town. One man, shoving a wheelbarrow burdened with a monstrous pumpkin, shook his head and clucked his tongue at her, making his disappointment clear.
Merida was used to disappointing elders, and ignored the gesture. Fili, however, took notice.
"I guess they don't approve of horseback riding." He murmured, seemingly engaged in a staring battle with the pumpkin man.
"Hobbits aren't adventurous folk." Merida offered in explanation, keeping her gaze forward. "But they especially discourage women to take part."
She noticed the two Durin brothers frown with concern, but gave them a reassuring shrug and added,
"I've never been like most hobbits."
"Thank Mahal." Kili replied, grinning like an elated puppy and causing his brother to huff an annoyed sigh.
"Yeah, if Bilbo had half the gall as you, he might just be riding with us." Called Ori from the middle of the group. From his desperate attempt to be a part of the banter, Merida could tell he'd much rather be at the rear of the group with the younger members.
"He's much braver than he lets on." Merida offered in Bilbo's defense, but Dwalin only guffawed in response.
"That little mouse? A doe has more courage. I bet you five gold pieces he's sitting in his little armchair now, sipping from his little tea cup, in his little robe, with his little feet propped up on his little—"
"I bet you ten gold pieces he'll show up any minute now, ready to join in on our quest." She countered, straitening in her saddle in a futile attempt to match the dwarf's size. Dwalin turned in his saddle to give Merida a smug glance and a rough chuckle.
"I'll take that wager."
"Same here, on the side of Bilbo."
"Have you gone daft? My bet's against him."
Soon every dwarf had placed their bet, and fell into a heated debate over the matter. Every dwarf, that is, except Thorin. He had yet to utter a word since their departure, and Merida began to wonder if he were in a constant state of anger. It was as if his very bones were seeped in it, his frame constantly rigid and unmoving like a boulder. His back never slumped, his head never sank, and his shoulders never slacked. He sat upright in his saddle like a stone column, unaffected by the jostle of horseback or the chatter behind him. The sight of this was mesmerizing to her, and her curiosity wasn't broken until shouting was heard behind her.
The voice was shrill, cracked, and constantly interrupted by exhausted pants, but Merida still recognized it instantly.
All slowed to a stop and turned to see the source of the noise, but Merida, whose face was practically split by a joyous grin, turned to affirm what she already knew. It was Bilbo, scrambling across the forest floor, the long paper of the contract flapping behind him like the tail of a comet. A smile much like Merida's creased his face as he scurried to the front of the line.
"I signed it." He declared proudly, raising the parchment to display to the whole of the company before handing it to Balin. His smile never faded, although it became a bit strained while Balin examined the document.
"Everything appears to be in order," Balin finally announced, folding the contract. "Welcome, master Baggins, to the company of Thorin Oakenshield."
The group seemed mildly pleased to see him (Merida resisted the urge to cheer), but Thorin was obviously disgruntled.
"Give him a pony," was all he muttered before he edged his own forward to continue his trek.
"No, no, no. That won't be necessary." Bilbo stammered, nervously glancing at the beasts that surrounded him yet straining to keep a casual demeanor." "I'm sure I can keep up on foot. I've done my fair share of walking holidays, you know. I've even been as far as Frogmorton once—"
His voice was cut off as Kili and Fili flanked each side, scooped him up, and hoisted him onto a spare pony. After rearranging their line a bit to accommodate the new member, they started on their journey, with the procession line as follows from rear to front: Fili and Ori at the back, Kili and Merida next, then Gandalf and Bilbo, Nori and Dwalin, Gloin and Oin, Dori and Bombur, Bifur and Bofur, and finally Thorin and Balin at the head.
"Alright, pay up." Merida quipped suddenly, glaring at Dwalin with a smug grin. He gave a gruff growl, but tossed a pouch of coins over his shoulder. Soon bags of coins were flying in every direction, much to Bilbo's bewilderment.
"They took wagers on whether or not you'd turn up." Gandalf explained just as a coin pouch smacked Ori in the face. "Most of them bet you wouldn't."
"Well, what did you think?" Bilbo inquired, slightly offended but nonetheless amused over their bets.
As soon as he asked it, Gandalf caught a coin purse that narrowly missed his face.
"My dear fellow," he chuckled, "I never doubted you for a second."
"Nor did I." added Merida from behind as she tossed her earnings from one hand to another, "And I turned a profit from it."
Her childish grinned softened into a warmer smile, however, before she added with sincerity,
"I'm glad you changed your mind, Bilbo."
"Yes, me too –" Bilbo began, but his voice was cut off with a violent sneeze.
"Good grief, Bilbo." Merida remarked with a laugh, "Bless you."
"Thank you, it's all this horse hair." He muttered as he reached into his pockets. "It's giving me a reaction – wait… wait."
His pocket searching then became a bit frantic.
"Stop. Stop!" he bellowed in announcement. "We have to turn around."
"What's wrong?" asked Merida.
"I forgot my handkerchief." Replied Bilbo in distress. He obviously expected this to be a valid excuse, and was surprised when the rest of the group groaned in annoyance and continued on. Bofur attempted to offer some assistance, but the ripped corner of his tunic was not heartily accepted.
Gandalf, who was now near the front of the company, offered this admonishment over his shoulder.
"You'll have to manage without pocket handkerchiefs and a good many other things, Bilbo Baggins, before we reach our journey's end. You were born to the rolling hills and little rivers of the Shire. But home is now behind you. The world is ahead."
His last words sent a shiver down Merida's spine, and it took all her will to convince herself that it was a shudder of excitement, not fear.
AN: First of all, let me personally apologize for torturing you guys with my ridiculously long hiatus. Your patience astounds me. Seriously. You're awesome, and deserve all the awards.
Secondly, I'm back! Yay! *throws confetti and dances a jig*
I'm so excited to be picking this story back up again. I'm sorry if this chapter sounded a little rough, but I'm still getting into the swing of things after being gone for so long. Besides, this is my first fan fiction, so it's bound to have a few speed bumps. Please feel free to point out any typos or if I happen to miss a dwarf (*gasp!*).
Anyways, I look forward to the adventure ahead! I have great plans for the relationships between Merida and her fellow companions, and, as you've probably noticed, have hinted at each ship in the last few chapters. Honestly, though, I think I most excited for Merida fighting and displaying her mastery with the bow.
Finally, I want to thank all the lovely reviews and follows. Every review is a good one, in my opinion: tell me your OTP, your NOTP, your BROTP, what you dislike, what you love, what part made you squeal like a little chipmunk and sink into a puddle of emotions, what part made you want to throw your laptop at the wall. Trust me, the quest has only just begun. Your feels are only going to get worse, so buckle up. This is spring, sweetheart, and the winter is just around the corner.
Yeah, ok, that was a bit dramatic. That's what happens when you write at 2 A.M. Anyways, expect the next chapter in a week. THANK YOU AND GOODNIGHT! :D