Chapter 3: The Company
The others join in my laughter, half of them dizzied already from the ale being sloshed around. The nearest to me, who I remember to be Fili, pushes his younger brother out of his chair with a laugh and balks, "make room for the lady, Kili, where are your manners? Were you raised in a troll cave?"
Kili pulls himself from the floor, at first looking slightly irate and ready to fight back, before glancing at me and throwing a hint of a smile. I melt for a second, before solidifying and watching as he perches on the corner of the wooden table, now cluttered with cutlery and half-eaten food, and gestures to the empty chair.
"Be my guest."
"Are you sure? Uh, thanks," I smile as I drift into his seat; one of the Dwarves on the opposing side of the table to me tosses a wedge of cheese my way with a slurred greeting which I don't quite catch, and I bite into it gratefully with a smile of thanks; I'm feeling awfully hungry all of a sudden.
"You'll pardon my asking, but are you sure you're a lady?" the timid young Dwarf who threw the soup over me asks, "I know it may seem rude, but..."
"You can't just go around asking ladies if they're sure they're ladies, Ori!" the Dwarf opposite me, a bizarre looking man with a fantastic hat, Pippy Longstocking-style plaits and bread crumbs all around his mouth calls, "I think the lady'll know what she is; I'm Bofur, at your service and your family's."
"Lavender," I tell him with a smile, remembering having told Gandalf the same. Bofur looks to me then, an apologetic expression on his face.
"Pleased to meet you. As for what Ori just said, take no mind of the young'uns, Miss. They have very little knowledge of what women actually look like; Dwarven society is peculiar to folks of your kind. Very few Dwarves are female, and it's often hard to distinguish between lass and fella in our community."
"Very true, brother," the Dwarf with the long red beard pronounces in a gruff voice, wiping his mouth of crumbs, "it takes many years of practice to know a Dwarven lady on sight."
"Because of the beards," Kili calls with a nonchalant grin, one muddy boot perched against the side of my chair as he bites into a haunch of meat; by the reaction of the ginger Dwarf, it appears that it was stolen from his plate.
"Save some for the rest of us, you galumphing git!" the red-head barks, snatching the meat back; Fili smacks his younger brother again with a tutting noise, and takes a handful of pecans from the young Dwarf's plate.
"No manners," Fili mutters, crunching the stolen nuts loudly, "mother would be mortified."
"How is Dís, lads?" the ginger Dwarf asks, "I haven't seen her in... ooh, it must be going on forty years now."
"She's well," Kili replies happily. "Her beard surpasses even yours now, Gloin."
"Oh, I don't doubt it for a second; wonderful woman, your mother."
"Indeed she is," Fili adds, stealing more of his brother's nuts. I turn back to Bofur with a smile after he gently kicks me under the table to get my attention.
"Our ladies mostly keep to the mountains," he continues to explain, quieter now, "most Dwarves never marry or have of us aren't bothered by it. Far too much hassle, would rather keep to our trades. Mining is far more fulfilling, I find, and Dwarvish women are notoriously hard to please."
The others around our end of the table murmur in boisterous agreement.
"Fetch us another drink, girly," Dwalin demands, cutting the conversation short; this sets off a sort of chain reaction, and suddenly I am bombarded with a list of orders from ale to liquor-infused ewe's milk.
"Give the girl a break, Dwalin!" another Dwarf with a starfish-shaped beard laughs, "she has only just sat herself down, for Durin's sake."
"'The Girl' does have a name," I correct the pair with a nervous laugh.
"And what might that be, young lady?" Kili asks, draining the last dregs of his beer and re-filling his tumbler from the keg.
"Lavender," I tell him; maybe the whole lying-about-my-name thing maybe wasn't the best idea afterall. This dream is going on far longer than I expected... I'm finding now that I don't want it to end.
"Lav-en-der," he repeats, enunciating each syllable, "that's ...unusual."
Just then, Fili snatches his tankard from him and sticks his rosy nose against the lip of the cup. "You oughtn't be drinking this at your age!" the older brother scalds him, cascading the beer down his own neck until he is slurping loudly at it's dregs.
"I'm only five years younger than you," Kili scalds his brother, "I think I can handle a beer or two. Besides, I hold my drink better than you ever will."
"Ha! Oh, I do love how you jest, little brother. Nori, pass me another flagon, we shall see how long it takes to drink the boy under the table!"
"Please, get off the table!" Bilbo calls to Kili over the cheers of the other Dwarves, shooing him out of his makeshift seat, "the table-top is for eating from, not sitting on, do get down from there, master Dwarf, please!"
With hands raised in surrender the young Dwarf clips his heels and slips from the table top before disappearing to find a new chair.
"Not that one, that's Grandpa Mungo's chair, it's an antique, not for sitting on; And where is that smell coming from?! Is that my bathroom?!"
"The meat doesn't sit well with Gloin," Bofur jests, "I would stay clear of the bathroom as if your little life depends on it, Mr. Hobbit."
The table erupts with laughter. Bilbo, horrified, shakes his head and scurries back into the doorway desperately. "Gandalf, can you please tell that one in the kitchen not to use my books as coasters!? And for Gods sake, please, you with the beard- no not you, you- please stop using the curtains as handkerchiefs! I had them washed not two weeks past!"
"You won't get a word out of him, Mr. Hobbit," Bofur calls, "my cousin only speaks ancient Dwarvish, I'm afraid. This is the first time old Bifur has left the mountains since his... accident." I notice that the Dwarf Bofur is speaking of has an axe head embedded into his forid. I furrow my brow, confused.
"Would you be able to grab us another ale now, girly?" Nori interrupts, rolling his tumbler glass across the table to me; it misses and smashes onto the floor, relieving a burst of hearty laughter from the band of Dwarves, half of whom are already well on their way to becoming drunk.
"I think Bombur might be in need of another ale, too," Bofur adds, handing over two more empty chalices.
"...I'm not actually the barmaid, you know that, right?" I say to the surrounding company, and Bofur lets out another laugh. "You're all aware that I don't actually work here? I don't mind grabbing a few drinks all the same, it's just... uh... yeah."
Dwalin looks confused, wiping his hands on the table cloth. "Thought you said you lived here, Lassie."
Oh... right. "I... uh... might have lied on that front. Sorry."
"Wait," Bilbo says, looking very flustered once more, "so you're not with the others? Forgive me for asking, but then what are you doing in my house?"
"Umm..." The table goes quiet, the laughter dying. I look to Gandalf for help.
"Lady Lavender is a visitor here, like the rest of you," Gandalf explains. Thank you, Wing-Man Wizard. "A Halfling from afar."
"Halfling?" Bilbo questions, "I assumed she was a Dwarf."
"Nah, her ears are too small," Nori balks, sloshing wine as he raises his cup, "and her hands."
"And no beard, besides," Gloin adds.
"Not even a wisp," Ori offers lightly.
Balin nods. "I suspected the lady had a little Dwarf in her somewhere... she is taller than any Hobbit I have ever come across. I doubt my own height would exceed hers."
"I'd have said a little Elven," Kili intrudes with a raised eyebrow, seeking involvement,, and those around the table mutter condescendingly. I get the feeling that this sort of this is a habit of his.
Oh, so now there are elves too, I think, mutely aware of the Dwarves murmuring phrases along the lines of 'sit down, boy', 'Your uncle would have a heart attack,' 'bloody Elves', 'filthy, useless traitors' and a whole bunch of other insults murmured in some angry-sounding foreign language which I can't understand.
"And what would you know of it, little brother?" Fili teases, "have you ever even seen an Elf?"
"Have you?" Kili rebukes him, and his older brother turns surprisingly quiet. Kili smirks to himself and his brother stands, beckoning his sibling through to collect more alcohol; the two carry through a new keg of liquid which is met with much cheer, and any interest in my heritage is swiftly forgotten.
"Red wine for the lady?" Dori offers, "it has a rather floral bouquet. Most enticing."
"Go on, then," I smile, accepting the red liquid gratefully. I'm not a big drinker, but what the heck; might as well treat myself. The wine tastes like purple fire. I wonder when I'll be waking up... this is starting to feel strangely real for a dream.
Bilbo disappears into the foyer with the old Wizard, ranting and raving over the state of his house; not that I can blame him.
"Look at the state of my kitchen!" he yells, "there's mud trod into the carpet, they've practically pillaged the pantry... I won't even begin to tell you what they've done in the bathroom, they've all but destroyed the plumbing-!"
"Excuse me," the gentle young Dwarf, Ori, asks him politely, "I'm sorry to interrupt, but what should I do with my plate?"
Fili, who is now crossing through the corridor, swings his head around the alcove and yanks the plate from the skittish Dwarf's grip.
"Here you go, Ori, give it to me- Kili, up on your feet!"
"Aye aye," Kili calls, heading to the doorway with his pipe between his lips in an overly excited manner and catching the disc as it is flung his way. The two start a chain gang, tossing the delicate china left and right; I practically duck under the table to avoid the flying cutlery. Meanwhile, Bilbo is in hysterics, and not the good kind.
"Put it back, be careful! Excuse me, but that is my mother's West Farthing pottery, it's over 100 years old-!"
"Miss Lavender," Bofur calls in his thick accent from across the counter to me, "what are you doing, Lass? Bring yourself up from underneath the table and join in the festivities!"
Cautiously I do so to find the gregarious Dwarf grinning at me, a knife and fork primed in his hands; he gestures for me to grab my own, and leads the table in a cutlery dance; stamp stamp, cross cross, stamp stamp, cross cross. Who ever knew there was so much fun to be had with a knife and fork?
"Can you not do that, please?!" calls Bilbo's tetchy voice from the hall; reluctantly I go to stop, but Bofur kicks me under the table and encourages me to go on. Bilbo appears in the doorway then, ducking away from a flying bowl and yells, "you'll blunt them!"
"Ooh! Did you hear that, Lads?!" Bofur calls merrily, throwing me a grinning wink. "He says we'll blunt the knives."
And that's when the singing begins.
"Blunt the knives and bend the forks!"
"Smash the bottles and burn the corks!"
And suddenly, it's like being on Dwarf Broadway; Bofur produces a flute from the inside of his leather coat, and each and every member of the company begin to sing or hum along, all of them helping to stack the used plates and bowls. Forks fly, flagons fall, and all the while the band of Dwarves jive along merrily. I hum along as best I can, grinning.
"Chip the glasses and crack the plates,
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!
Cut the cloth and tread the fat,
Leave the bones on the bedroom mat,
Pour the milk on the pantry floor,
Splash the wine on every door!
Dump the crocks in a boiling bowl,
Pound them up with a thumping pole,
And when you've finished, if they any are whole,
Send them down the hall to roll!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates,
So, carefully! Carefully with the plates!"
When they are finished, the entire assembly erupt with raucous laughter. I found myself humming along and laughing as the Dwarves performed their elaborate tune, stacking the used cutlery in an outstanding fashion as they went. I grin, astounded by the speed with which they were able to clean up.
"I'm not even going to question how you managed that," I smile across the table, and Bofur hollers another manic laugh; Bilbo stands the opposite side of the expanse, a look between horror and relief transferred onto his gentle face. I look to the others to see Kili bent double, tears in his eyes through laughter, his pipe directed whimsically at the Hobbit.
"Aww, look at him-!"
As his comment deteriorates amongst the mirth of the others, there is another sharp knock at the door; it sounds somehow unfriendly. The happy atmosphere evaporates like morning dew on a waxy leaf, and the Dwarves lower their heads. The old Wizard looks around the company, sucking softly on his pipe.
"He is here."