I do not own anything written by J.R.R. Tolkien, and anything Araceil came up with belongs to her.

It's ironic, considering my penname, that I haven't written any fanfics set in Tolkien's masterpiece, but until now I didn't really feel the urge. I personally liked how everything turned out, and didn't feel the need to fill in any blanks or tell any side stories. I certainly didn't feel the need for a Tenth Walker story, as excellent as some of those could be (especially with Arwen, I've always been a little disappointed that in the third movie she wasn't the one to deliver the reforged Sword That Was Broken to Aragorn, and fight by his side through the rest of the movie). Then I read Fate be Changed, Araceil's magnificent take on The Hobbit (when will that story start up again!), and suddenly I found myself being assaulted by plot bunnies ... enough that I bought all the books for the current roleplaying game, set five years after the end of The Hobbit, usefully enough. Still, I didn't expect to actually write anything because the plot bunnies didn't deviate enough from Araceil's story. Only after awhile they did, at least I think so. This is the result.

The first two chapters were published as chapter 6 of my First Chapters, the rest is new.


2931, the Third Age:

Bilbo Baggins whistled contentedly, his thumbs hooked into his yellow waistcoat's pockets as he strolled along the cobblestone walkway through the middle of Hobbiton. It had been a wonderful summer day: a long country walk in the morning, an afternoon with some of his favorite books, and now a happy few hours at the Green Dragon — convivial company and the second finest beer in all the land of the Shire — to be finished off by a pipe of Old Toby leaf as he watched the stars come out from the seat by the front door of his own home, Bag End. Yes, it had been a magnificent day in a series of magnificent days.

He almost tripped when the scream rent the evening air, yanking him out of his reverie, then broke into a run down a side-path toward the sound along with every other male in sight, tween or adult. He couldn't imagine what might have filled the voice of whichever woman had shrieked with such terror.

He rounded the turn around one of the standing houses and stumbled to a stop, almost knocked off his feet by one of the men running behind him, at the sight of Mrs. Elanor Bracegirdle. The gasping blonde matron's hands were covering her mouth and the market goods from a dropped basket lay scattered about her feet ... and her eyes were fixed on a Man lying unconscious at her feet — a female, with pale skin and flame-red hair, dressed in pants and shirt covered with an oddly-mottled black, brown and gray pattern.

Then even as Bilbo stared, a feeling of Peace like he'd never known at his most contented seemed to cover the World, and the Man began to glow, shimmered, and seemed to shrink from view. Then the feeling slowly faded, leaving the gathering crowd staring at a clothes-covered lump.

Finally, Bilbo cautiously approached — though after ... whatever that feeling had been, he didn't think there was any danger — and knelt by the lump to undo buttons on the shirt until the oddly-shrunken Man's face was again revealed. Only now, it wasn't a Man's. She still had the flame-red hair and pale skin, but now her ears were as pointed as any Hobbit's. And those ears framed a very young face, was she even in her tweens?

"What's that?" One of the children that filled the village had wriggled through the growing crush, and now the boy pointed at a growing dark stain farther down the shirt ... a dark red stain.

The last of the Peace blew away with Bilbo's shock, and he scrabbled at more of the shirt's buttons, yanking it open. He ignored the clearly visible proof that she was very much a female, if much too thin — and that the breast band she'd been wearing no longer fit — his eyes widening at the sight of blood seeming to gush from several odd, round holes in her abdomen and soaking her clothes beneath her. He shouted, "Someone fetch Mistress Bunce!" as he yanked at his waistcoat. He ignored the buttons flying everywhere as he pulled it off and bundled it up for a bandage.

/\

Hours later:

Rubbing at tired eyes, Bilbo leaned back in his chair beside the bed in one of his many guest rooms, now occupied by the now-a-Hobbit maiden, and set aside the belt the ... was-a-Man had been wearing. He had to admit that it was a very handy belt, a series of pouches along each side filled with odds-and-ends — some recognizable, some not — and the special pouch for the ... was it a club? If so, with its odd shape and light weight, for all its fine craftsmanship it didn't seem as practical as the belt, so he suspected he was missing something. But it was hers, not his, and he set it aside. She could explain it to him when she woke up, if she chose.

He turned his attention back to his unconscious guest and reached out to hesitantly stroke the hair fanning out on her pillow, hair bleached of its vibrancy by the soft reddish light of an oil lamp, his instinctive Hobbitish wariness for the out-of-the-ordinary at war with his memory of the Peace he had felt. Mistress Bunce had tutted as she dealt with the stranger's wounds as best she could, wondering in a low mutter what could have cause such wounds as she worked on them. She wasn't sure if the stranger would ever wake up, and less sure that she'd last the night, but Bilbo disagreed. He didn't know which of the Powers had brought the stranger to Hobbiton, but he was certain it was a benevolent one — and that she'd been brought for a reason. He couldn't see how that reason, whatever it might be, could be satisfied by her dying.

A soft knock sounded through the burrow, and he hastily rose and snatched up the oil lamp to hurry to his front entrance. He pulled open the round door to reveal Marmadoc Smallburrow, the mayor of Hobbiton. "Come in, come in," he softly said. He ushered the mayor into his dining room and poured tea and laid out some biscuits for the exhausted Hobbit.

Marmadoc finished the midnight snack with a sigh of relief and leaned back in his chair. "How is she?"

"About the same," Bilbo replied. He hesitated for a moment, then asked, "Did you find any more bodies?"

Marmadoc grimaced. "Yes, another two. That makes seven, six males and a female. All dead." He hesitated for a moment, then reluctantly added, "Bilbo, I'm not sure what to do! This isn't like the usual squabble between families a mayor deals with. For once, I'm wishing Gandalf was here for more than his fireworks."

Bilbo smiled for a moment as he remembered a nighttime party of his early childhood, Gandalf in his gray robes and tall, pointed hat using the tip of his staff to light the fuses of his famous fireworks and fill the night sky with brilliant multi-colored bursts, streaks and shapes. Then he sobered as the evening's events returned. "Yes, he'd know what to do — this kind of thing is what wizards are supposed to deal with, after all. I just never thought it could happen here." After some thought, he said, "They were all dressed in the same odd clothing as she was, right?" When the mayor nodded, he continued, "That probably means they're friends of hers, and the one thing Mistress Bunce was sure of was that my guest won't be getting out of bed any time soon — not alive, anyway. So the best I can think of is to have Folco do a sketch of each body's face and then bury them. She can use the sketches to give us names for headstones when she wakes up."

"But what about her?" Marmadoc asked. He leaned forward, hands clasped and elbows resting on the table. "If she lives, what do we do with her? Considering their clothing and the way they arrived I doubt we're anywhere close to her home, and however much she looks like a Hobbit maid now she's one of the Big Folk."

Bilbo hesitated, considering the mayor's words. He did have a point ... she wasn't a Hobbit, whatever her present appearance. But ... he remembered, again, his first sight of the maid's bloodless too-thin face framed by fiery hair and Hobbit-pointed ears. Perhaps she's meant to be here. Why else would she have changed to one of us? He nodded firmly, decision made."I have plenty of rooms, she can stay with me."

Marmadoc stared doubtfully at Bilbo. "Are you sure? You have a good reputation here in Hobbiton, and you'll be responsible for her actions."

"I'm sure," Bilbo replied, face softening in wonder as he thought of the Peace he had felt. "I don't understand much about what happened today, but the one thing I'm sure of is that she is no threat. At least, not to us."

"I suppose we'll just have to hope you're right," Marmadoc said with a shrug, before wearily dragging himself to his feet. "And now it's time I find my own bed, morning will get here all too soon. Your suggestion about the sketches is a good one, I'll have to look up Folco to get that done first thing so we can bury them before they start to stink."

Bilbo saw the mayor out, then returned to the guest room to sit beside the maiden, musing over the conversation. The mayor was right, if she stayed at Bag End his reputation would be bound up in hers. Still, considering the Peace he had felt he simply could not believe she was a threat.

He leaned forward to lay a hand on her forehead, checking for the heat that signaled fever. I wonder what color her eyes are.

/oOo\

2932, T.A.:

From her hiding place behind one of the trees surrounding the small clearing, a crouching Sakura Piper observed the camp in the clearing's center, and especially the four figures wearing brown and green sitting around the small fire eating their evening meal. It was possible they were brigands, of course, but she doubted it; their clothes were too well cared for as were the bows she could see (odd bows — stubby and thick, not the longbows she'd have expected thanks to a Robin Hood movie she saw as a child). The camp was too neat, a camp of people that expected to clean up after themselves and wanted to do so with a minimum of fuss. She didn't have any actual experience with brigands, but she'd always thought they'd be more slovenly, like the street gangs that had infested parts of her lost home's cities — or at least, so she had heard of. Besides, here on the south border of the Shire there weren't any traders to speak of, beyond that occasional wandering tinker.

Maybe — just maybe — she'd found the people she was looking for. And if she hadn't, she could always run away and disappear in the wilderness.

/\

"Hello, that camp. Can I come in?"

At the high-pitched, oddly-accented voice behind him, Eradon whirled, whipping his knife from its sheath. Normally he wouldn't have been that startled, but the voice was right behind him and in spite of his decades of experience he'd had no warning at all!

Behind him stood a fiery-haired Hobbit maiden and he instantly relaxed, his abrupt fear and shame vanishing. She was no threat, and even with his decades of experience as a Ranger there was no shame in being snuck up on by a Hobbit. Though she was remarkably steady for one of that shy folk, she hadn't even flinched at the sight of his blade. And more to the point, what was she doing here?

"Certainly, come on in," he replied. He slipped his knife back in its sheath then waved a hand at a piece of log by the small fire next to where he had been sitting. "Would you like some stew? I know our meal isn't up to the standards of a Hobbit's dinner, but it's tasty."

"Sure, thanks." The maiden cheerfully smiled at him, then circled the group to an open space on the opposite side of the fire and squatted down next to the patrol's only female member. She accepted a bowl and spoon and dug in, ignoring his continued scrutiny as he resumed his seat.

She was definitely an odd one, and it wasn't just her presence and lack of fear or the way she was crouched, ready to spring away at a moment's notice. She certainly wasn't dressed like any Hobbit maiden he'd ever seen, wearing old, worn, shirt and pants and a shabby waistcoat that, being meant for a male Hobbit, accentuated her assets rather than hid them. Then there was how thin she was, both in body and face, and there was the odd almond-shape appearance of her eyes —

"You're Sakura, aren't you?" he blurted out without thinking, then blushed when she looked up with a grin.

"Figured it out, did you?" she responded. "How did you know? Quiet contacts with Shire folk?"

"Hi, I'm Ivorwen, and these are Eradon, Arahad and Ohtar," Ivorwen said from beside Sakura, flashing Eradon a grin as his blush deepened at the realization he'd completely failed at common courtesy. She continued, "And we have the occasional contact with the Took at secondhand, for news of Shire happenings that might be of interest and to pass along anything odd we come across, any suggestions for how to schedule his Bounders. Your appearance out of empty air certainly fits the first category. So what are you doing here? We don't get many visitors."

Sakura shrugged as she continued to eat. "I was curious. It should be obvious to anyone with half a brain — no, that's not fair, Hobbits aren't stupid, just self-satisfied ... anyone that knows anything about history. Anyway, it should be clear that someone is protecting the Shire, and I wondered who it might be. Besides, I was going stir-crazy, needed to get out for a little while. This is good stew! A lot better than the MREs I was used to in the field."

"Yes, Arahad's the best field cook around," Eradon boasted, reaching to refill Sakura's empty bowl. "What's an MRE?"

"Meals, Ready to Eat," Sakura answered with a laugh like tinkling chimes. "They're light, portable, don't need a fire and will keep you alive, but sometimes you wish they didn't."

"Ah, like cram," Ohtar said, then at Sakura's questioning look added, "Dwarvish waybread, it's as bad as these 'MREs' of yours sound like. The lembas the Elves make is much better."

"Sounds like we could have used that."

Eradon opened his mouth to ask who 'we' were, then remembered the Took's report of the other seven Big Folk that had appeared out of nowhere, all wearing the same oddly-patterned clothing (though the rangers had been instantly jealous when they saw one shirt, recognizing the camouflage pattern for what it was even if they'd never seen its like before) ... all dead. His mouth snapped shut.

Sakura finished off her second bowl of stew, rose to her feet and stretched as she glanced around at the shadows stretching east across the clearing, only the tops of the trees on the east side still bathed in sunlight. "Thanks again for the stew, but now that my curiosity is satisfied I have to get back." She grimaced. "I have a lunch with the ladies of Hobbiton tomorrow, and I don't want to be late."

Eradon winced. "Boring, you said?"

"Yeah, small-town gossip about people I haven't known all my life," Sakura agreed with a sigh. "But they're such goodhearted people, if they're willing to put up with me, what can I do but try to put up with them?" With a wave, she turned toward the edge of the clearing.

"Sounds like you could use the occasional break," Ivorwen said sympathetically. "Why don't you visit occasionally?"

Sakura froze between the first trees, then turned back around. "Do you really mean it?" she asked, eyes hopeful.

"Sure," Ivorwen responded. She glared down Arahad when he was about to speak, then continued, "We'll be happy to have you."

Sakura warily eyed Arahad, looked around to see if anyone else objected, then put on a thoughtful pose. "Let's see, between housecleaning, trying to learn how to cook on a woodburning stove;" — the rangers exchanged confused glances, all with the same thought: What other kind of stove is there? — "weeding the vegetable and flower gardens when Master Gamgee or Hamfast is there to keep an eye on just what I'm pulling; pushing my way through dusty, old books written in a language I'm still learning and an alphabet I'm not comfortable with yet; the weekly luncheons with the ladies, practicing katas to stay in shape ... I ought to be able to squeeze you into my schedule somewhere, thank you. Around this time next week?" At their affirmatives — even Arahad — her smile seemed to light up the clearing for a moment, and then she was gone.

/\

As soon as she was out of sight of the camp Sakura dodged behind a tree, closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and focused, spreading her influence through the woods around her. I am the wind through the trees, the flicker of shadows. Satisfied that she wouldn't be noticed, she crept back to the edge of the camp.

"— did you invite her back?" Arahad was asking.

Ivorwen shrugged. "She's a mystery — apparently a benign mystery, but one nonetheless. We'll be able to learn more about her if she's actually around — what she says, what she can do, how she acts. Besides, she seems like a sweet girl, and I think she's lonely. From the clothes she and the others were wearing when they arrived, I suspect we'll understand her better than the Hobbits she's living among ever can ... farmers and crafters the lot of them, whatever their ability to rise to the occasion when needs must, and while those lives can sometimes be dangerous, they aren't violent. I think her life before coming here was anything but peaceful, and she could use some friends that get it."

Sakura silently snuck away until she was well away from the clearing, then rose to her feet, let her cloak of Invisibility relax, and headed north toward Hobbiton and the next day's luncheon. In spite of the nighttime walk ahead of her, she found herself softly singing a cheery tune as she strode along.

/oOo\

2936, T.A.:

"— don't know what we are going to do about Marigold," Mentha Hornblower said sorrowfully. "This is the third engagement broken off, and there won't be another. This time it was Hugo that broke it, not her — and the rumor is it's because he caught her naked with Isembard. We don't need another Myrtle, having a girl that bounces from man to man or even rents herself out is bad for the community. And that's not to think of her children — and there will almost certainly be children, a girl that's no better than she has to be is usually careless with the herbs."

Camellia Twofoot glanced sideways at Sakura where she sat sipping her tea, dressed in her brilliantly blue best dress, with green ribbons her hair. As nonchalantly as the matron could manage, she asked, "How would your people have dealt with this, Sakura dear? Would this be normal enough to ... have a typical way to fix it?"

Sakura sighed softly, only barely stopping from rolling her eyes. While she was ostensibly accepted by all of the seven matrons present, that tolerance enforced by Mistress Daisy Greenhand, Camellia had been pushing the limits from the time she had joined Hobbiton's matrons in their regular meetings (ostensibly for training in how Hobbit society worked, but she'd had her doubts from the start). "No," she patiently said, "I've already told you we were less ... united, socially, each family managing its own affairs. So even though proper people would have much the same view of Marigold's behavior as Hobbits, there would have been nothing we could do about it."

" 'The same views', really? Even for the warriors?" Camellia asked primly, her faint smirk vanishing behind her tea cup.

Suddenly, Sakura had had enough. She carefully set down her tea cup and saucer. "Let's pretend you asked what you really want to know — what I was like — and I'll tell you," she said coldly, her normally laughing eyes hard. "I made Marigold look like a perfect maiden. From the age of fifteen until my arrival here, I can't tell you how many men I went to bed with." Then her eyes dropped, voice softening as she added, "Things look very different ... when you're fifteen and convinced that you won't live to see your eighteenth birthday."

She kept her eyes fixed on the table in the sudden ringing silence that filled the room, until she felt a soft touch on one hand from the chubby blonde matron sitting next to her, and looked up into Rose Sackville's sympathetic eyes.

Mistress Greenhand cleared her throat. "We are getting away from the issue," she said firmly. "I've checked my mother's diaries for the last time this happened before Myrtle. We need talk to Isembard's parents. Since he has ruined any chance that another family will consider Marigold for their sons, he should take on the engagement..."

/\

Sakura stay seated as the luncheon broke up, gazing into her teacup, waiting as quietly as she had been through the remainder of the discussion.

Finally, Mistress Greenhand returned from seeing off the rest of the group and dropped into the seat across from her, picking up one of the few cookies left behind to nibble on. "So what's significant about turning eighteen?"

"What?" Sakura looked up. "Oh, among my people that's the age a child becomes an adult."

"Really." Mistress Greenhand's eyebrows rose. "That young? No period as a tween?"

"No," Sakura said with a smile, shaking her head. "By the time we turn thirty-three most are married with a one or two children, at least."

"Oh my, tweens raising children. And you weren't even a tween, with an adult's life forced on you. I can't imagine how desperate your people must have been, to do what they did to you." She shifted her gaze to stare at the wall behind Sakura for a long moment, eyes haunted as she undoubtedly tried to think of anything that could push the Shire to such need, then pushed aside the half-formed nightmare she was contemplating. Refocusing on Sakura, she dryly asked, "I hope you are regularly taking the herbs I gave you, at least?"

Sakura grinned. "Yes, but only for holding off my time of month. Bilbo wouldn't dream of 'forcing' his attentions on a guest, and the few that have ... inquired have simply been too immature to interest me. Besides, I have my reputation to think of. And Bilbo's, since I'm his guest." Something I should have thought of before I mouthed off, she thought with a wince. "Maybe ... maybe I should skip the next luncheon?"

Mistress Greenhand suppressed a smile as she remembered the gold ring she'd seen Bilbo playing with once, and glared sternly at her guest. "No! No, you will be here next week, as normal, Sakura Piper!"

"But after what I said —"

Mistress Greenhand sighed. "Yes, Camellia and Asphodel will take it poorly, but Rose, Pervinca and Elanor understand and Mentha is willing to follow my lead. And more important, as odd as you are they like you. They will be able to counter the stories Camellia, at least, is sure to spread. But only if you are still meeting with us."

"Oh ... so I've been meeting with you for five years now to ..." Her voice trailed off, and Mistress Greenhand finished for her.

"To try to convince everyone that you're one of us ... well, somewhat. Not an Outsider, at least." The old matron sighed. "It has been ... a bit of a success. At least the mothers trust you with their children, long enough to tell a few stories."

"Long enough to get their shopping at the market done, at least. I'd imagine that explains a big part of it." Sakura smiled at the thought of the horde of eager children that would corner her when she visited the market, begging for another story, then rose to her feet. "I'd better be on my way. We ran a little long today, by now Bilbo will be wondering where I am."

"Yes, he will." Mistress Greenhand rose stiffly to her feet to show Sakura out, and gazed speculatively after her, following the fiery blaze of afternoon sun on the girl's hair up the Hill to the luxurious burrow that was Bag End. I wonder how long until you are the mistress of Bag End in name as well as in truth? True, Bilbo was almost twice her age and it would be over a decade before they could marry, but none of the other eligible maids in Hobbiton — or any of the other villages around — had caught his eye. Yes, they would be a good match ... if she stayed long enough.

The oldest matron in Hobbiton laughed softly to herself as she closed her door and called out for her great-granddaughter and her friends to come down and help clean up. Walking back to supervise the thundering herd, she muttered, "You are getting to be as nosy an old biddy as Asphodel, they'll do as they wish and it's no business of yours. Still, trust the son of Belladonna Took to fall for a girl just like his mother, however respectable he may seem." There was some hope in that, now that she thought about it. Belladonna had settled down, after all. Eventually.