Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters from The Hobbit. The late JRR Tolkien, New Line Cinema, and a bunch of other people with a LOT more money than I have do, and I'm just borrowing them to have a little fun and I'll put them back when I'm finished. I'm making no money from this, it's for entertainment purposes only, so please don't sue me. Annabelle is my creation, as are a few of the other original characters in this series. Please consult me before you use them in your own fics; I'll probably say yes, I just like to know where my babies are.

Archive permission: If you want it, take it. Just tell me where you're putting it so I can stop by and visit. Thanks.

Special thanks to: SerenLyall for all her research into the timeline. Ithil-Valon for characterization. Lindarielwen from Council of Elrond for a sounding board. And ALL OF YOU ladies for brainstorming, tweaking, brainstorming more, and helping me to finally get it right! You guys ROCK!

Dedications: To Evendim, who has given me such great pleasure with her own AU series and graciously given me permission to play in hers any time I wish. She has the same permission from me. Without her, I would never have gotten started; she gave me the courage I needed to post that first story, and for that I am forever grateful. To Ithil-valon, who has provided tireless beta-services and been the best friend anyone could ever ask for… I love you for it, hon, don't ever change. And finally, to my beloved AJ, without whom my life is poorer and less bright. Rest in peace, my darling. We'll see each other again.

Part One

Dwalin pushed his pony a little harder. He wanted to be in Bree before nightfall.

The sooner he finished this errand, the better he would feel. It wasn't a joyful one; but he had promised Kili that it would be done. And a promise sworn to a friend on his deathbed could not be broken.

That Kili had been lost with Thorin and Fili at the Battle of the Five Armies was a bitter blow. Thorin had fought so hard and for so long to take back their home, and for him to die as it was won was unthinkably tragic. That his heirs would fall as well was unacceptable.

But Kili, Kili had lived for a time after the battle. Not long – his wounds were too severe. But it had been long enough for him to tell Dwalin of his friend, of the girl he had meant to bring back to the mountain once it was theirs again. He had spoken of her with deep affection, describing her in detail to Dwalin so he might be certain to find the right woman. She lived in Bree, Kili explained tiredly. She could be found at an inn there, the Prancing Pony.

Dwalin shook his head. He'd been sleeping rough, traveling for what seemed like months, and for what? A promise given to his dying Prince, a promise to take word to a common tavern wench of her friend's death in battle. But it was a promise. An oath taken that must be fulfilled.

He was at the gates, finally. It was a simple matter to be passed through and he was directed to the inn as being the best accommodations. He'd withhold judgment until he had seen the place. Food first, he decided. And he could see if this Annabelle was worth what Kili had demanded of him.

He kept a careful watch around him. He was probably safe enough here, but old habits died hard and he hadn't lived so long by being careless.

Most of the gathered guests were giving him a wide berth, as well. Good. He wasn't exactly in the mood to mingle with Men this night. The Hobbits present reminded him of Bilbo as he had been when the Quest started, and it put his temper a bit further into the black. And where was this Annabelle that Kili had thought so highly of?

The serving girl was putting pints in front of a group of rowdy Men and he scowled at their treatment of her. She was silent, either unheeding of their cruel words or simply uncaring. Still, she didn't deserve their scorn.

She was pretty, he supposed, in an understated sort of way. Chestnut hair, worn to her waist, a heart-shaped face with big dark eyes – and then something unusual caught his eye and he startled badly.

In her hair, on the left side next to her face, she wore a braid. That in itself wasn't noteworthy, he supposed, but the clasp, the clasp he recognized and the reason for their scorn for her was suddenly apparent to him in a way only a Dwarf would understand.

The silver bead that held her braid had a twin. And that twin rested in his pack, to be given to her as a final gift from Kili.

The final piece clicked into place and he rose, knowing he wasn't as imposing as these Men who were so scornful to her, but still he was a force to be reckoned with and they would know it as well. "Ya might want to treat the lass with a bit more respect," he said evenly as he drew near.

"And what business is it of yours, Dwarf?" the biggest Man growled as he flicked his gaze up and down over Dwalin dismissively. "You the one put a claim on a human woman?" His hand went to the knife he wore at his belt without a thought to the possible consequences.

Dwalin had him disarmed and face down on the table in mere seconds. "No, that would have been my Prince," he snarled furiously. The Man's dagger was plunged into the tabletop and left quivering next to his face. "Now apologize to the lass, or I might take offense." His words were a hiss of rage.

The Man snarled something unintelligible and Dwalin merely tightened his hold. The others had backed away, clearly deferring to their companion's judgment or lack thereof. "Fine!" he squealed suddenly. "I'm sorry!"

Dwalin released him and stepped back, keeping a watchful eye toward the others. He wouldn't put it past this band of bullies to attempt a bit of payback. Finally he thought them cowed enough he could turn away and he bowed to Annabelle. "Dwalin, at your service," he said evenly. "Is there someplace quiet we could talk, lass?"