The 20th of June, 2940
The 30th of Forelithe, 1340
“…ll the way from Erebor—and that’s the richest of the Dwarven Kingdoms, Otho said so—”
Sounding strangely fatigued—they’d only been walking for a few minutes—Longo interrupted, “I know. I was there.”
Irritated, Camellia swatted him on the shoulder. “Then you weren’t listening, or you’d be just as excited!”
“Camellia, they’re Dwarves. What is there to be excited about?”
“They are not just Dwarves, Longo Baggins, they are royalty!” Camellia squealed, as giddy with the news as when she first heard it; out of the corner of her eye, she saw Longo wince at something—she wondered what—but she paid him little mind. “A real, Dwarven Prince and Princess!”
“And two generals.” Longo scowled. “What military people are doing in the Shire, I’d like to know.”
She swatted him again with a grin. “Who cares about the generals— Royalty!”
Longo sighed and shook his head, but he didn’t interrupt again as she continued chattering.
The announcement had come unexpectedly, a mere month earlier. Apparently, the Thain had been in contact with Erebor for some time, but even the Thain hadn’t received word that the royals were on their way until they’d already left the Blue Mountains and were heading for the Shire. A runner had come—Camellia shuddered at the memory of the dirty, filthy, hairy Dwarf—with a letter from the Prince and Princess themselves, carrying a list of people who were invited to greet them on their arrival.
Camellia didn’t know how two Dwarven royals would know anyone in the Shire’s name, but she supposed the Thain must have told them.
And they were invited! She and Longo, the Bagginses of Bag-End, they were invited to help greet the Prince and Princess on their arrival. She didn’t know why on Arda they’d stopped at the Green Dragon for the night, but that was where she and Longo had been told to go, so go they did.
Otho joined them as they walked—he’d been invited as well, but he’d wanted to drop off a pot of flowers at Lobelia Bracegirdle’s—and occasionally nodded in agreement with Camellia. The longer they walked, the more people they saw, until finally they reached the square outside the Green Dragon.
There were two Dwarves outside the doors—one on either side—and another off to the side, tending to the ponies they’d brought; Camellia shuddered again at the idea of riding ponies for so long. There were Shirriffs keeping the uninvited Hobbits back from the ring of those who had been singled out for the honor, and Camellia held her head high as they let her (and her husband and son) through. She saw a few other Bagginses in the inner circle, but not many, none of the more respectable ones: Rosa Baggins-Took and her husband Hildigrim and their son Adalgrim and his wife and children; Fosco Baggins and his wife Ruby and their three children, and their son Drogo was speaking quietly with Primula Brandybuck, shameful girl.
All the Brandybucks were shameful, and the Tooks. Shameful, unHobbitish, wild things. Most of them were predators, too; Camellia restrained a shudder. But there were quite a few of them present: Isembard, Isembold, and Isengar Took and their wives and children (Isembard’s son Flambard was holding his son, Adelard, who knew where his wife was); Sigismond Took and his daughter, Rosamunda, his wife also notably absent; Donnamira Took-Boffin and her husband, Hugo; Mirabella Took-Brandybuck and her husband, Gorbadoc, and all their children; Thain Fortinbras and his wife, Lalia Clayhanger-Took, and their son, Ferumbras, of course; and Gorbadoc’s sister, Celandine Brandybuck.
The Mayor of Michel Delving was there, as well, Herugar Bolger, and his wife, Jessamine Boffin-Bolger, holding their son, Odovacar.
Camellia was surprised so many predators would travel out of their own territory to greet the royals, but then, it was a very exclusive invitation. And in any case, they were outnumbered. There were still far, far more prey than predators present.
The letter had specifically called for them to be present at ten o’clock; Camellia elbowed Longo until he pulled out his pocket-watch. Nearly time.
Nearly bouncing with her excitement, Camellia craned her neck to try and see through one of the windows in the inn.
“They’re here to negotiate trade, Mistress Baggins, not to be ogled at.”
She startled slightly, not having seen the Thain move closer, but still managed a moderately-respectful nod. “Thain Fortinbras.”
With that, she went back to her efforts. Behind her, she heard Longo ask, “Have you met these Dwarves, Thain?”
“No, I haven’t.” Shooting Camellia a stern glare, he returned to his family to wait with everyone else.
Longo poked Camellia’s arm. “You’re acting like a tween— stop it!”
She swatted him. “I feel younger than I have in years, I’m not about to apologize for that!”
Really, it was stunning; she felt sixty again! Now that she was eighty, the days when she felt spry were beginning to be less common, so she would take them as they came. Longo was the same age, but he seemed even older, after so many years hunched over a desk, trying to muddle through Bag-End’s affairs. As much as she hated to admit it, Drogo Baggins was a great help to Longo, far better with numbers than Otho had ever been.
One of the Dwarves tilted his head toward the doors, then nodded slightly; Camellia straightened, excitement building again.
The two door-guards opened the doors in unison, and a third Dwarf stepped out and announced clearly, “Their Royal Highnesses, Prince Kíli Dragonheart, Hersir of Erebor, and Princess Belda Sauronbane, General of the First Battalion of Erebor!”
He stepped aside with a bow for the two approaching figures, but Camellia could barely breathe. Did he just… say…
The two figures stepped out of the shadows and into the square, smiling broadly. The man was tall—even for a Dwarf—with a short, thick beard and hair falling down, past his shoulders, from a heavy-looking silver crown in brown-black waves, but that and that his clothes were ornately decorated with mathoms and such was all Camellia could see without taking her eyes off the other figure, and she couldn’t move.
It was Belda. Belladonna junior, the little filth, the selfish waste—the only good thing she’d ever done was run off—but now— Her hair fell in honey-metal curls down past her hips, or at least the hair that wasn’t caught up in an elaborate braided crown, with thin ribbons of metal—gold, silver, and copper, in the same colors as the beads that were dotted throughout, as well—twisted throughout to make it a crown in truth. Her clothes were as fine as the Prince’s, but nearly still Hobbitish, though the skirt was a bit long and the neckline was a bit square, and fit her snugly enough to make it obvious that she was being well taken care of in Erebor. Camellia wouldn’t have recognized her if they hadn’t announced her first; the last time she’d seen Belda, she’d been a scrawny, skinny, wild thing, far beyond redemption.
Now she was shining with health and happiness, though her smile still held a feral edge, and clearly in the Dwarves’ good favor.
Swallowing, Camellia tried to think of a way to sneak away without anyone seeing.
The Thain strode forward from the edge of the crowd, arms already open. “The Shire bids you both welcome, for now and for always, and any companions you bring, as well! We are glad to have you!”
The Prince bowed deeply to him, still grinning. “The pleasure is ours, Thain, Mayor Bolger, Master Brandybuck,” he bowed to each man as he named them, though the Mayor was visibly surprised—no one had told the Prince who he was, unless Belda— “Erebor looks forward to a long and happy partnership between our peoples.”
The Thain snorted. “That, I think, is already assured.” He ended with a pointed look at Belda’s crown, though his eyes were twinkling.
The filth— Belda— the Princess— rolled her eyes with a laugh. “Still so dramatic, Fortinbras.”
He grinned, but the expression was soft; Camellia’s stomach turned. “You would have been more than welcome to stay at the Great Smials, Belda, and you know there’s enough room.”
“I know,” she nodded; a quicksilver grin flashed over her face an instant later, “but I couldn’t pass up the joke. A green dragon staying in the Green Dragon?”
Camellia’s vision went somewhat grey, but she still heard (distantly) a frightened murmur spread through the proper Hobbits in the crowd, and the Prince add, “Besides, this is where we first met.” He stepped to the side and behind Belda, to wrap his arms loosely around her waist. “I couldn’t pass up the nostalgia.”
Even greyed out, Belda still clearly rolled her eyes at him, though she was smiling, and gripped his forearms lightly, keeping him from moving away.
But maybe it wasn’t true. Maybe Camellia had misunderstood. Maybe it was all a horrible nightmare. “A… d… d…”
Belda looked straight at her and grinned wolfishly, and Camellia’s eyes must have been going, because it almost looked as though the little filth had a cat’s pupils. “Dragon, yes. Hello, Camellia.”
Camellia collapsed, suddenly, as limp as a rag-doll. He didn’t catch her. He couldn’t move. Belda raised a brow, grin evaporating, but somehow she didn’t look any less pleased than before.
“Oh dear. How dreadful.” All of the Dwarves—and more than a few Hobbits—snickered at the patently unsympathetic delivery. She glanced around the crowd. “If anyone has smelling salts, I think she oughtn’t miss the rest of the day.”
Otho had moved to his mother—he was such a good boy—to prop her up, and Longo dimly heard him exchange a few quiet words with Lobelia Bracegirdle before Camellia sucked in a great, gasping breath.
“There you are, Camellia. Sorry about the shock,” the flat, sarcastic edge to her words gave way to genuine amusement as she continued, glancing toward the Brandybuck side of the crowd, “but I am surprised no little birds told you.”
Mirabella let out a bark of a laugh, Celandine grinning beside her. “What, and spoil the surprise? No, I knew you’d want to see the looks on their faces.”
The Prince and Princess—Eyru Yavanna, how was she a Princess?? Something in his chest shook and grew—laughed out loud at that, as did Fosco Baggins and Adalgrim Took. “Well, you aren’t wrong.”
The thing in his chest shook itself out into sheer disbelief—this wasn’t happening, it couldn’t be happening—and he sputtered, “What— How— Wearing— What happened?!”
She looked at him with a grin as wicked—and shameful, the wicked, wild, selfish waste of his brother’s blood—as the one she’d given Camellia, who was just getting to her feet again, with Otho and Lobelia’s help. “Well, to cut a long story very short, I escaped from Bag-End and the three of you,” Camellia yelped as Otho abruptly dropped her, grey-faced in the corner of Longo’s eye, “joined a pack of Dwarves, got adopted by two and found my Mate in one,” she smiled up at the Prince, who smiled back; Longo was beginning to feel light-headed, “fought and killed a dragon, fought and killed an army of Orcs… and got married!” She looked up at the Prince again, grinning widely. “That sums it up fairly well, don’t you think?”
He pursed his lips doubtfully. “Well, you did leave out everything with the ring.”
“Yeah, but that’s a long story in and of itself and I was trying to keep the summary brief.”
He bobbed his head at that. “Then… yeah, nice summary.”
“Thank you.” They grinned at each other for a moment
Otho was chalk-faced beside his mother, who wasn’t much better. “Wh— what do you mean, you fought an entire army?!”
Wrinkling her nose, Belda waved off the question. “Oh, that’s an even longer story than how I got in that situation in the first place, I’ll tell it later.”
Mirabella asked with a grin, “How are your parents?”
Longo frowned—Bungo and that Took vermin were dead and had been for nearly thirty years—but both Belda and her Mate snickered. “Panicking, or Uhdad is, anyway.”
The Prince elaborated, “Nori’s pregnant; she wanted to come anyway, but Dwalin nearly had a heart attack, so she took pity on him.”
Belda winced slightly, apparently in defense of this ‘Dwalin’, and explained to Mirabella, “He’s not being completely irrational; Dwarves don’t typically have children after a hundred and fifty, and they’re both nearly two hundred.”
The Prince bobbed his head in acknowledgement of the impossible numbers, but added, “Still, he is panicking.”
“Yeah, he is.”
Both of them laughed; just then the wind shifted, and that was the scent— he remembered that— but now there were two— a thousand instincts took hold, to flee, to hide, to—
Longo fell to the ground in a dead faint. The impact snapped Otho out of his blind terror, and he propped his father up as Lobelia waved her smelling salts under his nose, hand shaking.
He looked up as Belda stepped away from— her husband, apparently. “Sigismond? Is that actually you?”
The Took in question huffed lightly. “I should be asking you that— you barely look thirty!”
Otho glanced at her automatically as she snorted dismissively. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
But it wasn’t ridiculous. Now that Sigismond had pointed it out, Otho couldn’t stop seeing it: she was twenty years older than Otho, but she looked his age. Like Sigismond had said, she didn’t look much more than thirty, especially compared to her Took cousin.
The Prince drawled playfully, “Come on, Belda, I’ve barely gone a month since we got married without saying you look exactly like you did when we met.”
Rolling her eyes, she tried to restrain a smirk. “I was nearly thirty-three when we met; that’s four years older than he’s saying I look.”
He snorted lightly. “What, and four years makes that much difference?”
A good third of all the Hobbits present (mostly the Tooks and Brandybucks), including Belda, answered in near unison, “Yes.” A moment later, all those who’d spoken (and most of everyone else, including the Prince) burst into merry laughter.
Otho was a bit tempted to join in, but he still didn’t know what to think. He’d been a child when Belda ran away, and he remembered how terrified his parents had been of her, but he also remembered how he’d felt less safe, not more, after she left. The more her scent faded from the smial, the more uneasy he felt. Even now, despite the initial terror he’d felt to catch her scent when the wind changed, he was more at ease than he had been first seeing the armed, armored Dwarves. Whatever else she was—and she obviously wasn’t a Baggins in the slightest, running off and having an adventure and marrying a Dwarf—she was a Hobbit. There were some things that just weren’t done, that no Hobbit would do. Turning against their race was one of them. Even his parents had never laid a finger on her.
Now that he was an adult (or nearly; he wouldn’t come of age for another three years), he was uncomfortably aware that his parents had been unequivocally in the wrong, where Belda was concerned. He still did agree with them that she was dangerous, and that she was no Baggins, but soul-forms couldn’t be changed. And even if they could have, the Fell Winter—from what he’d heard of it—would have changed her far more than his parents ever could have managed. They never should have tried at all.
His father woke with a start, snapping Otho from his thoughts. Once he was sure that Longo could hold his own weight, he stepped forward, out of the circle of onlookers. “Your Highness?” Both royals looked sharply at him, and he swallowed nervously. “G— General Sauronbane, I mean. May I speak to you in private?”
She looked at him coldly for a long moment. It wasn’t even a stare; to call it a ‘stare’ would imply there was force behind it, and her expression gave him the distinct impression that he was nothing more than an insect, to her. The longer she looked, the more memories rushed back, of him throwing rocks at her, tossing herbs onto the stove so that they would catch fire and she would be punished, complaining to his parents when she woke him up in the middle of the night with bloodcurdling, terrified screams.
But she spoke as coolly as she looked. “No, I don’t think so. If you have anything to say to me, Otho, you can say it here, in front of our family, my family, my husband, and my men.”
One of the Dwarven guards by the door smiled slightly, though the way he was looking at Otho was definitely a cold glare. “Just say the word, Abzâgu’azn. He can’t say anything without a tongue.”
At the same moment, Otho blanched and Belda snapped, “Lofar!”
The sheer rage that crashed through her scent was petrifying, but the Dwarf who’d spoken—Lofar, apparently—only bowed deeply and didn’t straighten. “I apologize for disobeying your orders, Salkhûna. I accept your sentencing.”
The rage faded, but she was still tangibly—if invisibly—angry. Calmly, she ordered, “Trade duties with Hannar; you’re on pony-guarding duty until further notice.”
Lofar straightened only to bow again, as deeply as before. “My Lady.”
As he passed in front of the royals, the Prince said quietly, “Watch out for Trolls.”
Without looking at him, Belda smacked him on the arm, but she, the Prince, Lofar, and the Dwarf who replaced him a moment later, Hannar, all emanated amusement. As Lofar moved far enough away that Otho thought the Dwarf probably couldn’t hear her, Belda muttered, “If I’d known he was going to be so much trouble…”
The Prince murmured just as quietly, “You’d still have saved his life. It’s your own fault he’s so loyal.”
“Loyal,” she snorted.
Lowering his voice a fraction further, he confirmed, “Loyal to the point that he’ll ignore what you say in order to better serve you.” She shifted her weight slightly, clenching one hand loosely; the Prince took a tiny step closer, just far enough to kiss her temple, and leaned his forehead on the top of her head after he drew away. “You’re royalty now, Amralimê. Or didn’t you hear the part where the people of Erebor—especially the First Battalion—pledged to serve you as faithfully as you serve them?”
She shifted her weight again, this time closer to her husband, and Otho felt uncomfortable just watching. They were barely even touching, but it still seemed intimate, somehow.
Fortunately, Adalgrim’s son, Paladin, was seven and had no sense of decorum. “You aren’t wearing shoes!”
Belda and the Prince drew apart, laughing again. The Prince stuck out one bare foot, grinning at the fauntling; Otho couldn’t help staring at it. He’d stopped himself from staring when he first noticed it, but it— it was just so— so bare. “Nope! I got used to it at home, now I have to take my shoes off at the door.”
He tossed a playful grin at Belda, who smirked up at him, shaking her head. Paladin tipped his head to the side, frowning. “But why are you barefoot now? They aren’t.” He pointed at the other Dwarves; his mother hissed at him not to be rude.
But the Prince held up a finger, smiling impishly. “Ah, but if I’m barefoot, I can do this!” Swiftly, he stepped behind Belda and looped his arms around her waist, crouching down an inch or so until his chin settled on the top of her head. “See?”
She rolled her eyes, but she was smiling, and again, her hands rose to hold his arms in place. “You’re completely ridiculous.”
He widened his eyes, mock-innocent; the expression drew Otho's attention to a long, silvered scar, stretching from the Prince's eyebrow halfway down his cheek. “Isn’t that why you married me?”
She snorted lightly, a wolfish smirk pulling at her lips. “That’s one of the reasons.”
Both the other Dwarves turned bright red, catching the innuendo, but Otho didn’t see why they were embarrassed; he’d heard worse at tea with his parents and their siblings.
The Prince huffed lightly. “And you told me to behave.”
Her cheeks darkened a shade, but she addressed Sigismond. “What’s her name?”
He grinned. “Rosamunda.”
She smiled at the bundle in his arms, her entire face softening with the tenderness in the expression. “Hello, Rosamunda.”
Sigismond smiled at his daughter, as well, for a moment. Then he smirked up at Belda. “So where are my little Dwobbit cousins?”
The Prince pinked; Belda narrowed her eyes at the Took. “We’ve only been married a year— give me a little time.”
Otho frowned. “But it’s been nearly twenty years. It took you that long to get married?”
All three Dwarves in earshot froze into perfect, deadly stillness, glaring at him. It was more than a little unsettling, but Belda only looked at him with the same cool impassiveness as before. “That’s none of your business, Otho. Now what was so important?”
He really, really didn’t want to do this with an audience. But he remembered enough of Belda to know that she wouldn’t negotiate. So he took a deep breath, apologized silently to his parents behind him (and Lobelia; she wouldn’t want anything to do with him after this), and said clearly, “By law, by right, and by blood, Bag-End is your property. If you want to claim it, I’ll step aside.”
Genuine shock flooded the scents of virtually everyone in the clearing; Belda’s head reared back slightly, bumping into the Prince’s chest hard enough to make him lean back, as well, both of them blinking rapidly, though the Prince’s eyes narrowed at Otho after a moment.
Belda narrowed her eyes as well, but her scent and expression—once the shock cleared—were thoughtful. She didn’t respond straightaway; Otho fought not to squirm under her scrutiny. After a long, tense moment, she stated, “You hate me.”
He grimaced. “I… dislike you. And I think you’re a poor excuse for a Baggins. But I’ve seen your father’s will. He left Bag-End to you, and now that we know you’re alive, it’s yours by right.”
His mother snapped, “Otho!”
Twisting around to glare at her, he snapped back, “I don’t want Bag-End if it’s not mine fair and square!”
“Wait, no— w—” He looked at Belda again, to see that her brows were drawn together and her eyes were wide as she stared at him. “What do you mean, ‘now we know you’re alive’?”
Fighting the urge to back away, he cleared his throat. “Uh, well, after you were gone a year and a day, you… um.” Her eyes narrowed, and he finished weakly, “You were legally declared dead?”
There was a long moment of silence.
“I WAS WHAT?!?”