"Excuse me?" a voice asked softly, tapping lightly on the thin door. "Are you awake?"
"Yes, Gwilwileth, I'm up," a woman replied, pausing in the middle of pulling her cream-coloured shoes on. "Is something wrong?"
"Nothing urgent, only that a letter has arrived for you," Gwilwileth answered easily as she entered the room, her auburn curls swaying prettily with each step. Her friend took the sheaf of parchment, scanning the writing before a smile lit her face. "Who is is from?" she asked, teasing, "A secret lover? Oh dear! What will your husband say to that!"
"Oh hush!" she giggled, tugging her friend's curls playfully, "It's from the Pheriain! You remember him, don't you?"
"Oh certainly," Gwilwileth quipped, "Bossing us all around left, right and centre, demanding to know where you had gotten to when you should have stayed at home, and insisting on calling you Aiyna!"
"He still does!" her companion replied laughing, opening the letter easily before glancing up at her friend, "Would you mind if I read this quickly?"
"Of course," Gwilwileth said cheerfully, "I'll be in my chambers if you need me."
Her friend nodded, then lowered her dark eyes to the roll of parchment in her hands.
"Ainya," the letter began as she ran her fingers lightly over the surface of the crisp yellow parchment that bore the bold yet graceful characters, "As I write this to you, I'm sitting near the Brandywine river, fishing for my supper. The sun is glorious, as usual, and the birds are singing..."
A soft smile spread itself upon pink lips at the image the words conjured.
"Of course, I'm terribly sorry for not writing sooner - I've been wrapped up in writing that book of mine - you know the one. Well, I simply lost track of time, my girl, and I am sorry for having neglected you.
She grinned at the sincere words as she dipped a hand into a nearby fruit bowl, and biting into the crisp green flesh of the apple she plucked from it.
"It's nearly time for the Midsummer Festival again, and everyone is very excited, as usual. Everything stays the same here, my dear girl, and sometimes I almost believe that your gallivanting was nothing but a dream. I can still see your face as clearly as if you were in front of me, and I miss turning around, about to call out for one of your scones, and knowing that you'll be there with one still warm from the oven for me. It has been nearly two years since you last came here. Frodo has been asking after you, wondering when you'll give him those 'lessons' he's always harping on about."
"When Dwalin wears a gown, Bilbo," she muttered to herself.
"But I'm rambling again - it's the old age. Bah. I did have one question for you, my dear - I heard Frodo telling the children one of your stories a few days ago, and while I can say I recognized most of it, there were some parts I didn't know. Did you really tell me everything? Or am I losing my marbles at long last? Oh help! Anyway my dear, I hope that you come visiting soon, though if circumstances prevent you from coming later than you'd like, of course we will understand. Bilbo."
Her brow furrowed at the letter, thoughts whirling within the halls of her mind. She weighed her options, not particularly liking either of them, but there really wasn't anything else she could do. The time had finally come. Taking another bite from her apple, she sat at the little desk provided for her, withdrew a sheet of creamy parchment, an ink bottle, and a quill from its drawers and laying them before her. Dipping the quill into the ink, she took a deep breath and began.
My dear Bilbo.
Crunch. The moist, juicy flesh of the apple tasted pleasantly tart.
You asked me if I had told you everything there was to know about my adventures. And while I can honestly say I have told you the truth, I may not have told you all of it.
A secret smile, as the juice of the apple stained her lips.
I have grown, Bilbo. I'm not the same girl I once was.
Dip. The scratching sound of the quill against the parchment.
I think it is time for you to know what really happened. It began long ago, in a land far away to the east, the like of which you will not find in the world today.
She glanced out the window. Underneath the same sky, Bilbo was sitting somewhere, his nose buried in a book or smoking his beloved Old Toby. Smiling briefly, she turned back to her letter.
There was the city of Dale. Its markets known far and wide, full of the bounties of vine and vale. Peaceful, and prosperous. For this city lay before the doors of the greatest kingdom in Middle-earth: Erebor. Stronghold of Thrór, King under the Mountain, mightiest of the dwarf lords.
Thrór ruled with utter surety, never doubting his house would endure, for his line lay secure in the lives of his son and grandson. Oh Bilbo. Erebor. Built deep within the mountain itself, the beauty of this fortress city was legend. Its wealth lay in the earth, in precious gems hewed from rock, and in great seams of gold, running like rivers through stone. The skill of the dwarves was unequalled fashioning objects of great beauty out of diamond, emerald, ruby, and sapphire. Ever they delved deeper, down into the dark. And that is where they found it. The heart of the mountain. The Arkenstone. Thrór named it 'The King's Jewel'. He took it as a sign, a sign that his his right to rule was divine. All would pay homage to him, even the great Elvenking, Thranduil.
She bit her lip.
As the great wealth of the dwarves grew, their store of goodwill ran thin. No-one knows exactly what began the rift. The elves say the dwarves stole their treasure. The dwarves tell another tale. They say the Elf-King refused to give them their rightful pay. It is sad, Bilbo, how old alliances can be broken, how friendships between peoples can be lost.
"And for what?" she asked herself quietly, huffing inwardly at the stubbornness of elves and dwarves alike.
But the years of peace and plenty were not to last. Slowly, the days turned sour, and the watchful nights closed in. Thrór's love of gold had grown too fierce. A sickness had begun to grow within him; it was a sickness of the mind. And where sickness thrives, bad things will follow.
Her eyes shut slowly, as she felt a headache coming on. Marvellous. Opening her eyes, she continued.
The first they heard was a noise like a hurricane coming down from the north. The pines on the mountain creaked and cracked in a hot, dry wind. The second was a bone-rattling, skin-crawling sound that struck fear into even the bravest man's heart.
It was a fire drake from the north. Smaug had come.
Such wanton death was dealt that day, for this city of men was nothing to Smaug; his eye was set on another prize. For dragons covet gold, with a dark and fierce desire. And Thrór, with his love of gold, had all but invited the dragon to the heart of his homeland.
Erebor was lost, for a dragon will guard his plunder as long as he lives.
Why did no-one help, you will ask? Men from Dale were either dead or dying, and other Dwarven cities were too far to assist. The closest was the king of Mirkwood. But Thranduil would not risk the lives of his kin against the wrath of the dragon. No help came from the elves that day, or any day since.
Robbed of their homeland, the dwarves of Erebor wandered the wilderness, a once mighty people brought low.The young dwarf prince took work where he could find it, labouring in the villages of men, but always he remembered the mountain smoke beneath the moon, the trees like torches blazing bright, for he had seen dragon fire in the sky, and his city turned to ash, and never forgave, and he never forgot.
A soft smile spread slowly over her pink lips as she began to remember.
That, my dear Bilbo, is where I come in. For quite by chance (and the will of a Wizard!), fate decided I would become part of this tale. It began...well, it began as you might expect. In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, full of worms and smells; this was a Hobbit-hole, and that means good food, a warm hearth, and all the comforts of home...