The Green Dragon Inn
Early the next morning, the dwarves packed their things and made a hurried breakfast with what little was left over in the pantry. Gandalf had already gone ahead, leaving a note with a meeting place and his expected time to arrive there. After double checking they had everything, the dwarves departed the hobbit's hole just before nine.
And all the while, Bilbo slept, never even having stirred at the quiet shuffle and bustle outside his bedroom.
The company of dwarves followed the main path through Hobbiton, ignoring the stares their group earned from the local halflings already out and about for the day. A few of the more curious children trailed behind at first but eventually grew uninterested with the travelers and scampered off to find new entertainment.
Most of the dwarves were still tired from their late night and early start and continued to yawn and rub their eyes even after crossing the bridge into Bywater. Only Fili and Kili were wide awake and in good humor. Their anticipation for the upcoming journey had them brimming with excitement. A few times, they tried to get the others to join in a travelling tune but a warning glared form their uncle kept them quiet after the third attempt.
Soon the group reached the Green Dragon Inn; a decent establishment already busy with travelers and tradesmen. Since it was right off the main road, men, hobbits, dwarves, and even elves were mixed in the market that lined the street. The dwarves stayed close to their own group and kept their distance, especially from the elven variety.
"Alright," Thorin turned to address his company. "Dori, Ori, Nori, Oin and Gloin will come with me to get some ponies. Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Balin, and Dwalin, you get us some food and supplies. And try not to spend all our money, we may need some to spare on the road."
"What about us?" Fili asked excitedly, gesturing between himself and his younger brother.
Thorin glanced at them sternly. "You two will wait for Gandalf. He'll be meeting us here at eleven so keep watch for him and stay out of trouble."
"Yes uncle," the two replied dejectedly.
With their assignments, everyone else split up and began their shopping while the youngest were left to sulk in front of the Inn.
Soon Kili, too excited for his spirit to stay low, nudged his brother's shoulder. "Let's go in and get a drink. Gandalf won't be here for a while yet."
"I don't know," the other pondered uncertainly. "You heard what Thorin said."
"Oh come on! Just one drink!" The brunette laughed and leapt to his feet. "What could happen?"
"What indeed?" Fili muttered, following his brother through the large, rounded doors. It was a safer option than letting him wander off alone.
Inside, dozens of people were seated at the tables set up about the room; mostly men but a few elves and hobbits here and there. Most were nursing pints of ale and swapping tales of their adventures with other travelers. In the corner, a betting game was drawing a small audience of curious gamblers.
Fili and Kili carefully weaved their way through the taller crowd and ordered drinks of their own.
"There, we got our drinks. Now can we go back out and wait for Gandalf?" the blonde dwarf fretted. His brother snickered.
"Oh come on, Gandalf is usually late anyways. Besides, we're allowed to have a little fun. Let's see what's going on over there," Kili suggested, nodding over to the game corner. Before Fili could argue, the other dwarf was already up and half way across the room. Once again, the older had no choice but to trail along.
A round was already in progress when the dwarves joined the circle of spectators. The challenger was a large man, tall even by human standards and built like an ox, with a deep scowl etched into his weathered face and dark, threadbare clothes that had seen better days. He was glaring angrily at three identical cups all placed face down on the table. By his hand was a small coin purse that Fili and Kili could guess used to be much heavier in the beginning.
Across from him sat a young woman with kind eyes and a mischievous smile. She was tall as well, not as tall as her opponent but the young dwarves would have only stood to her shoulder, and as slender as a willow branch. Her clothes were worn from travel and smelled of horse. Dust and dirt clung to her green tunic and tanned breeches, the dried mud on her boots only a few shades lighter than the leather underneath. She was fiddling with a braid woven from the top half of her wild, blonde hair as she waited for the game's end. "Well come on, then. Which is it? I don't have all day."
"Hold your tongue and let me think," the man snapped, shifting his eyes across each cup carefully. The girl smirked but kept quietly, leaving him to make his decision in peace. Finally, he gestured to the cup on the left. "That one, I'd bet my horse on it."
"A horse would be nice," the lady traveler mused. She raised the cup to reveal…nothing. "But your gold will do instead."
For a moment, the man just stared at the empty table, unable to understand his loss. Finally, his temper broke. "You cheated! There's nothing under any of the cups!"
He jumped to his feet, reaching for a long dagger hanging from his belt but the blonde saw it coming. Before the losing man had fully drawn his blade, the tip of his opponent's ready sword was resting against his neck.
"Your draw is slow," she observed icily. Then, without taking her blue eyes off the man, she tipped the middle cup over to reveal the pebble's hiding place. "As are your eyes. Do not contradict my honor when the fault of your loss is yours alone."
The once enthusiastic viewers were suddenly tense, watching the two stare at each other dangerously. Eventually the confrontation ended when the man tossed the coin purse over the table. The girl caught the winnings with one hand, the other still wielding the sword warily. With an angry huff, the sore loser snatched his tattered cloak from the bench and wrapped it over his shoulders.
"Be warned, sly wench," he growled, towering at his full height. "You'll get yours soon enough. My men and I will see to that." His dark threat still in the air, the man turned and took his leave, the other patrons easily clearing his path to the door.
As soon as he was gone, the atmosphere lightened considerably. "Well that was entertaining," the young woman sighed, sheathing her sword again. "Anyone else care to have a go? Preferably someone with a better temper than our departed friend?"
There was a collective chuckle from the crowd but none stepped forward for a turn. Fili, glancing nervously towards the door, leaned over to whisper to his brother, "Maybe we should go. We don't need to be involved if that fellow comes back."
Kili wasn't listening, though. He was eyeing the gaming table with a confident grin. Downing the last of his mead, he shoved the empty pint into Fili's free hand. "Here, hold this."
"What? Why? Kili, no!" It was too late, though. The young dwarf was already by the table, beaming as he bowed to the lady across from him.
"Kili at your service," he introduced politely.
"And what a service it must be, Master Dwarf," the woman chuckled. "Care to try a game? I could use some more gold."
"I'll play a round, yes," he set his purse on the table with a clang, "but I do intend to win."
The woman laughed again as the two took their seats. "You're confidence is as refreshing as your manners, good sir."
Adding two extra cups to the identical line of three, dropping Kili's confidence down a few notches, she then held up the shining pebble for the dwarf to see. "The game is simple; don't lose the stone. Since it's you're first time, we'll start easy. Two coins for the first round."
Kili tipped the needed amount from his purse and set them aside. The lady set her own money on the table. In front of the middle one, she set the stone on the polished wood.
"Here we go," she enthused, lifting the middle cup up and covering the pebble with it. She shuffled the five cups around slowly in simple figure eight motions. Kili kept his eyes glued to the target cup as it traveled. First left then far left then back the way it had come till it reached the far right and looped back towards the middle. After a few cycles, the woman stopped and leaned back.
"So, Master Dwarf, which cup hides the prize?"
It was too simple. Kili glanced at the cups then her then the cups again trying to figure out the trick. He lifted the middle cup up and sure enough, there was the pebble sitting underneath.
"You win the first round," she announced pleasantly, sliding the winnings over to him.
"That's it?" he asked, surprised at the simplicity of it. Fili, who had appeared by his side to watch the game, was just as confused.
"That's it. Care to go again?"
Kili nodded eagerly and set his stakes on the table.
"Alright, round two. I'll go a bit faster this time." She hid the pebble once more and shuffled the cups again. This time her pattern was more frantic and complicated but not impossible to follow. When she stopped, Kili found the rock to the far right.
"Seems you're very good at this game. Your confidence was well placed," she praised, handing her gold over once more. "Perhaps something more challenging for the next round?"
"If you think it will help you," Kili chuckled arrogantly. "This is almost too easy."
The woman's blue eyes narrowed a bit. "Five coins for the next round." She put her gold on the table and removed two cups from the row. Kili put in his wager and watched her hide the stone. The shuffle started slow but grew faster and the movements were random and erratic. Both the dwarves struggled to keep up with the proper cup. Finally, the girl stopped and crossed her arms triumphantly.
"So which is it then?"
"This one," Kili gloated, lifting the cup on the left. But there was nothing underneath. He stared at the blank table, trying to calculate his mistake. Behind him, his brother was doing the same.
"I was sure it was under that one," Fili muttered, stroking his braided beard thoughtfully.
Kili shook his head numbly. "As did I."
"I'm afraid not, my friends." The lady lifted the middle cup where the stone sat tauntingly. "Guess that means I win this round."
"Wait, do it again," Kili objected, tossing more coins on the table to pay for another go.
"If you say so," the woman shrugged. She mixed the cups again, this time Fili and Kili keeping a very close eye on the hidden pebble. When she stopped, they both pointed to the middle.
She lifted it up but it was empty again. This time, the rock was to the right instead. Both brothers were thoroughly confused by this point. Fewer cups should have made it easier, right? How were they getting it wrong?
"Ready to give up or do you still think it too easy?" the blonde traveler teased. Kili shifted his dark eyes back and forth between the cups. Finally, he glanced up, desperate to know the answer to his failure.
"Do it again!"