A/N: Well, thanks to the unanimous vote over on Nightmares, I'll be starting to write shorter chapters for the two hobbit fics. As such, starting with chapter 26, chapters will be half the size they currently arm (sometimes a bit longer or shorter, depending), but hopefully this will lead to me getting my buffers built back up and chapters getting posted more frequently once more~ Thank you all for being so understanding ❤️❤️❤️

And also, thank you to those of you who are continuously leaving comments on my fics! Though I don't always reply to them, I do read each one and get the warm fuzzies from them ❤️

"Alright, I've got you down for four days an' five nights in a room with two beds." Baylee smiled up at the pair of traveling merchants. "I'll have one o' the lasses get your rooms ready for you an' she'll come get you when she's done, alright? In the meantime, would either o' you like somethin' to drink or eat?"

The pair nodded in understanding and thanked her before ordering two ales. Once given their drinks, they headed off to find a spot in the common room to sit.

Sighing, Baylee pushed some hair from her face before looking down at the guestbook. 'My handwriting is absolutely atrocious compared to papa's and Will's,' she thought with a small frown. Shaking her head, she crouched down and, after finding the key to room five, she stood back up. Just in time, too as Wenna was coming behind the bar with two empty tankards.

"Do you know whether any o' the other lasses are free?" Baylee asked, smoothing her apron back into place.

"Aye, Rosalyn is." She started to refill one of the tankards. "Would you like me t' fetch her for you?"

"Aye, please, that'd be lovely." She gave Wenna a thankful smile. "A caravan or somethin' must've come into town today, because I've already filled seven rooms an' it's barely lunchtime!"

Switching to the second mug, Wenna chuckled. "Well…your biggest competitor is out o' business now," she told her. "I know that's a wee bit o' a grim way o' lookin' at it, considering we still don't know what happened t' Mannus, but…" She shrugged. "It's true. An' with the Tankard bein' the largest inn in Dale, it's no wonder lots o' people are comin' here t' stay."

She let out a sigh, leaning back against the counter and crossing her arms over her chest. "Aye, that's true. I wonder if the Fish, Star, or Bear are seein' an uptake in customers, too?"

"More than likely. But let's just hope they stay away the Hog's Head, aye?" Closing the tap, Wenna turned around. "I'll have Rosalyn come t' you as soon as possible—Oh, looks like I may want t' get Rosamunde, too." She nodded towards the door.

Looking over, Baylee saw a trio of strangers walking into the inn. They looked travel-worn, more so than the pair who had come in before them. Putting on a smile, Baylee got ready to greet them. When they drew nearer, she found that they were all women—given that they had similar features, she wondered if they were sisters.

"Hello an' welcome t' the Full Tankard," she chirped for the umpteenth time that day. "What can I do for the three o' you?"

The tallest of the three stepped forward; Baylee noticed that her hair was also the longest, reaching almost down to her knees. "Do you have any rooms with three beds?" she questioned.

"Aye, we do," Baylee replied, "an' almost all o' them are available."

"Wonderful—we'll take one."

"And some baths, if possible," the shortest of the group said. Unlike the tallest, her hair was shoulder-length on one side while the other side of her head was shaved.

"There's no hurry on the baths, though," said the tallest. "And we'll be staying for two weeks."

Nodding in understanding, Baylee flipped the page in the guestbook. "Alright, and whose name will the room be under?"

"Taileena," the tallest said. She then started to spell it out for Baylee, glancing up as a dwarf took a seat at the counter.

By the time Baylee had finished signing the women in, Rosalyn and Rosamunde had appeared at her side. They each took a set of keys from her and hurried off to go ready the rooms before Baylee grabbed three tankards empty tankards, giving them a quick look over so she could remember which ones they were.

"You seem quite busy today."

She blinked, looking over to her right only to smile. "Hello, Ori," she said. "How long have you been sittin' there?"

"Not too long," he assured her. "I know this is your second day o' it, but it's strange, seeing you behind the counter an' not hurryin' about the room with a platter full o' drinks or food."

"It feels strange t' not be doing that, truthfully," she replied, tilting one of the tankards as she started to fill it. "I'm surprised you're back so early—I thought you an' Dwalin were goin' to be visitin' the southwestern portion o' the city today?" Her head tilted slightly as she glanced at him.

A small, disappointed sigh left Ori's mouth. "We were, but then we ran into Nori an' now the two o' them are at some place across the city, gettin' drinks. So I've been workin' on painting down at the shop." He couldn't help but notice that Baylee looked a bit weary, but after the previous day's events, he couldn't blame her.

Her brow rose somewhat. "Really? That's a shame. Do you know why they're across the city, though?" She found it strange that they would get drinks elsewhere when, not only were they staying at the Tankard, but it had plenty of drinks on tap.

"Ah, when they get talkin', they get drinkin'," he explained, "an' when they get drinkin', sometimes things end up a wee bit violent. So they prefer t' drink in places that aren't part o' polite society." He chuckled, hoping she believed his lie. He knew for a fact that they were actually discussing Nori's secret assignment and were, quite possibly, trying to get any information relating to the previous day's explosion.

She nodded in understanding; something told her he wasn't telling her the entire truth, but she wouldn't press it. "Well, hopefully the two o' you will be able t' visit that part o' the city soon enough," she said, switching out the full tankard for an empty one. Stealing another glance at him, she smiled. "After I get these delivered, can I get you anythin'?"

"A cider sounds good, actually. I can get it, though, so no need to trouble yourself."

"Actually…since it's gettin' t' be the busy season, it'd be best if you let us get them," she said. "During the off season, it's fine, since most o' the folk here live in Dale an' know the rules an' such. But with so many strangers stayin', we can't have them thinkin' the bar is self-serve."

He nodded in understanding. "That makes sense," he smiled. "I'll be sure t' tell the others when they get back."

"Thank you. An' I'm sorry about havin' t' revoke your permission, but like I said, we can't have everyone helpin' themselves." She switched over to the last empty tankard.

"No worries. We can't have you losin' profit because o' us." He chuckled, looking over his shoulder when he heard the door open. "Oh, Fili's back early."

She peeked over at the door just in time to see Fili closing it behind him. He surveyed the room in search of any of his friends and, finally spotting Ori, started to make his way over.

"What're you doing back so soon from your meetin'?" Ori questioned as the blonde took a seat beside him.

"The meeting was over nearly an hour ago," Fili chuckled, his brow rising. "It was just a tour of what Dale has in terms of a military."

"Which isn't very much at the moment," Baylee added. "Give me just a tick, lads, an' I'll get you both somethin' t' drink." Picking up all three tankards, she moved to carry them out to the trio of women.

Fili let out a soft sigh and rested his arms on the counter; it was somewhat uncomfortable, given how high the counter was in comparison to his height on the stool, but he didn't mind. "I thought you and Dwalin were supposed to be out exploring the city together?" he asked, his brow rising slightly.

At that, Ori plopped his chin in his palm. "We were…but then Nori happened. So, I've been at Bofur and Bifur's, working on the mural."

"Ooh…yes, I can see how that would interrupt your plans." He gave Ori a pitying look before patting him on the back. "We're here for a few more days yet, though—I'm sure you'll get to spend more time with him."

His cheeks turning pink, Ori sighed. "I can only hope, since I'll be goin' to Laketown and he won't." Just two days ago, Fili had stumbled across him and Dwalin stealing some kisses, leaving the pair with no choice but to tell him about their relationship. As such, he still found it quite odd to be talking about his love life so openly.

Luckily, Fili had promised not to tell anyone—least of all Nori and Dori.

"I could always ask him to come with us, you know," he offered. "I'll be the only other dwarf with you two. Even then, I'll probably mostly be attending more meetings." At that, he let out a heavy sigh. "And if not meetings, I'll be getting a tour of the city and its military as well as its fishing industry and so on and so forth…" He shook his head.

"Sometimes, I envy you for bein' royalty," Ori chuckled, "but at times like this? I couldn't be more glad I'm not royalty." He let out a sigh and brushed a braid behind his ear. "But, while I appreciate the offer, I'll have t' decline. I know how much you've been lookin' forward t' getting t' be on your own for a while, away from all the watchful eyes at the palace…If Dwalin were t' come with us, he'd just be fretting over you a good portion o' the time."

"That's true." He quietly snorted and shook his head. "I'm sure the two of you will be able to sneak in some more alone time before we head back to Erebor, though. If need be, I could always distract Nori by asking him to brief me on his mission."

At that, Ori somewhat frowned. "Wait, you get t' know what Nori's missions are?"

He shrugged. "Kind of. I don't get all of the details—just the stuff that isn't bothersome should it become public knowledge."

"So why is he here, then?"

Fili glanced around the room to make sure no one was within earshot of them. Then, quietly, he answered, "As far as I know, he's been looking to see if those raiders have had help from someone who lives in Dale."

"Why Dale and not Erebor or Laketown?"

"The attacks happen closer to Dale than Laketown. There's only been one attack on a dwarven caravan, which was too well defended for the raiders to steal very much, but there have been plenty against human caravans, despite being well guarded as well." He looked up as Baylee came back behind the bar, giving her a friendly smile as she brushed some hair out of her face.

"So, what can I get you t' drink, Fili?" she asked, pulling two tankards out from under the counter. She started to fill one of them with cider for Ori.

"An ale, please," Fili replied. "What's on the menu for lunch, by the way?"

"It's chicken an' dumplings today." She slowly closed off the tap as the cider got nearer and nearer to the top. "No sides, though, since the dumplings make it fairly hearty."

Ori grinned. "Miss Galiene's chicken an' dumplings are really good," he assured the prince. "Her dumplings are different than the ones Gerdi makes—instead o' being fluffy an' biscuit-like, they're like wide, dense pasta."

"That sounds intriguing. I'll have to give them a try, then." He grinned cheekily before seeing the confused look on Baylee's face. Before he could ask her what was wrong, however, Ori spoke.

"Have you not heard o' pasta before?"

She shook her head. "Nope. What is it?" She set the mug of cider down before rising up slightly on her tiptoes in order to fill Fili's tankard.

A thoughtful expression came to Ori's face as he fell silent. For some minutes, he sat there, trying to think of a good way to explain what pasta was to her. Finally, after nearly five minutes, he said, "Pasta is a sort o' unleavened dough made o' eggs, flour, water, an' salt. It's then rolled into really thin sheets before being cut into either long strands, made into funny little shapes, or extruded into tubes. A lot o' times, it's left to dry for a few days so it gets nice an' hard for storing. You cook it either by boilin' it in water or by par-boiling it before baking it in a sauce."

Fili stared at him in shock. "That is the first time I have ever heard someone explain what pasta is, aside from 'delicious'."

"Well, aye, it's delicious, too," he grinned.

"I'll have t' take your word for it, lads." Baylee smiled as she set the ale down in front of Fili. "It does sound intriguin', though. Like super thin dumplings almost."

"That's one way o' thinking about it. Maybe next time you visit Erebor, we can talk Galiene into makin' one o' her pasta dishes." His grin disappeared behind his mug as he took a drink.

At that, Baylee snorted. "You talk as if that'll be happenin' any time soon. Which, sadly, it won't."

"Perhaps when we return from Laketown," Fili chuckled, a knowing look in his eye.

"Aye, Bofur was sayin' there were a few places he wanted t' show you but couldn't due t' the rain," Ori teased. "That'd be a good excuse t' give you a break for a day or two after a particularly busy week. You did say the busy season is comin' up, after all. Surely, there'll be a lull at some point."

Her brow rose and her cheeks turned a touch red as she chuckled. "Oh, I wish there was a lull, but there won't be." She glanced over when she saw movement in her peripheral vision only find Primrose coming over.

"Hello, lads," she smiled as the pair nodded in greeting. Then, looking at Baylee, she blew a lock of hair from her face. "Adela's just gone t' market for Galiene. Apparently, we ran out o' chicken for tonight's dinner, so she's needin' t' get a couple more pounds."

Baylee nodded in understanding. "Alright. That's not too bad. Just remind her t' tell me how much it cost so I can take it out o' today's profits."

Primrose nodded. "Of course. How many new guests do we have today, by the way?"

"So far? Seven rooms have been booked."

"Seven!?" Her eyes were wide in shock.


Primrose let out a heavy sigh and shook her head. "I do believe the busy season has started early…" She then looked back at the dwarves, a smile on her lips. "Can I get either o' you something to eat? I see Baylee's already got your drinks covered."

"Two bowls of the chicken and dumplings, please," Fili said. Then, jokingly, he looked at Ori. "What do you want, Ori?"

As the girls giggled, Ori gave the prince a dry look. "You're not funny."

"I'll have them out for you right quick," Primrose laughed. She glanced back at Baylee. "Have you eaten yet, lass?"

"I haven't had much time with all the customers who've come in," she admitted, an apologetic smile on her lips.

A pout appeared on Primrose's lips. "Three bowls coming right up," she said, her tone lacking humor. Before Baylee had time to argue, she hurried off towards the kitchen.

Barely ten seconds had passed after Primrose left before Wenna came over with a tray of empty drinking vessels. After telling Baylee which mug had what in it, she hurried off for a few minutes, wanting to tend to other customers while Baylee refilled the drinks.

"If your da' is still bedridden when we come back from Laketown, will you still be the one runnin' the inn, then?" Ori asked after a moment.

She nodded. "He'll still be bedridden for sure," she sighed. "I'll be runnin' this place for quite a while, methinks. Which, I suppose, is good practice, since I'll more than likely be the one t' inherit the job anyway."

"Why's that?" Fili questioned, genuinely curious. "I thought with humans, it's the male children that inherited businesses if the daughters were unwed?"

"In Dale an' Laketown, it's not like that. We lasses can inherit, even when unmarried," she explained. "Which is good, considerin' Will doesn't want t' run the inn. He wants t' keep workin' with wood in some form. An' he wants t' have his future family in a quieter environment."

The two nodded in understanding. "I can only imagine how chaotic it must've been for your parents t' raise the two o' you while also runnin' an inn," said Ori. "Especially if you were as mischievous as you an' Will keep claimin' you were."

She laughed, her brow rising. "Thankfully, the original Tankard wasn't nearly as busy as this one. Trade wasn't quite as good back then, so the inn rarely got over half full. As such, mum an' papa had more time t' chase after me an' Will. Mostly me, though."

"You were the troublemaker out of the two of you?" Fili asked, his eyes widening slightly.

"Aye, me an' Bard were wee hellraisers when we were younger," she laughed. "Will an' Prim would also be apart o' the mischief makin', but it was mostly me an' Bard."

He stared at her in disbelief. "I…I just can't picture Bard as anything but the serious man he is today."

"Oh, he wasn't always so stern." Primrose returned, a platter with three bowls in hand. "He and Baylee here were well known for tying fishin' boats together and setting a hog or two loose in the market on the busiest o' days." She set one bowl down in front of Baylee before moving around the corner to give Fili and Ori their bowls.

Ori gawked at her. "You've got t' be jokin'." He looked over at Baylee; he had heard that she used to be a bit of a troublemaker, but he hadn't expected her to have gotten into the kind of mischief he was being told about.

She shook her head. "Not in the slightest. Hard t' believe, I know, since she's got such an innocent face, but she was the little mastermind behind her an' Bard's pranks."

"Now don't you go actin' like I was the only guilty party. You had a penchant for trickin' Hilda Bianca's pugs by tyin' those treat-laden leads to their collars."

Primrose's cheeks grew red when her friend divulged this information. Clearing her throat, she then said, "To be fair, they would nip at the heels o' anyone who walked by. I…merely distracted them for a little while so they wouldn't nip at people's heels."

Baylee snorted. "Those pugs ended up takin' a swim more than once because they were so distracted by those leads." She set the final refilled tankard down on the platter just as Wenna arrived to retrieve it.

Ori and Fili tried to stifle laughs as they pictured a pair of small dogs running right off a dock and plopping into the Long Lake. "How did you get them to chase a lead?" Fili questioned, his brow rising.

"Oh, it's easy," Primrose chuckled. "You just need a slightly bendy stick, a string, an' somethin' a dog likes to eat. Tie the treat t' one end of the stick, then you push the other end o' the stick under the dog's collar so that the treat is danglin' in front of their face. They focus on the treat an' nothing else. Some dogs grow too smart and will either find a different way t' get the treat or let another dog eat it, but if they're wee dumb things like those pugs were, they'll fall for it every time."

Baylee giggled. "If there was one good thing that ever came about you doin' that to the pugs, though, is that they finally got baths."

"Ugh, but then they would have just smelled like wet dog," Ori said, his nose scrunching up ever so slightly. Then, as he looked down into his bowl, he grinned. "Unlike this food, which smells quite delightful."

Primrose and Baylee chuckled at his words. "Well, some days, the smell o' wet dog was much preferable t' the smell o' those dogs when dry," Baylee explained. "They loved gettin' into the scrap heaps down in the fish an' meat district." She shook her head. "They often smelled quite rancid—an' that's puttin' it mildly." She scooped up a bite of the stew before blowing on it to help cool it down faster.

"Almost sounds like Kili after a long day of training," Fili joked. Beside him, Ori snorted into his first spoonful of stew. "Oops, sorry, Ori." He gave his friend a smile that was only somewhat apologetic.

Ori cocked his brow as he used his hand to wipe a bit of stew off of his chin. As Fili went in to take his first bite of food, he reached his foot over and gave his leg a kick, making the spoon rise up and bump against his nose. "Oops, sorry, Fili," he said, his smile not the least bit apologetic.

"You know, lad, you don't have t' be here. It's perfectly alright if you need t' take some time t' go help your sister with the inn."

"No, no, Baylee can handle things. Truthfully, she can probably handle things better than I could." Will glanced over at Bofur and Bifur as they helped him smooth out the surfaces of a few different planks of wood. "She's better with people than me—or, rather, strangers aren't scared of her at first sight." He blew a stray lock of hair out of his face.

Bifur frowned, looking over at him in return. "Now don't you go talkin' like that, lad. Aye, you've got scars, but they're far less intimidatin' than the one I've got on my head."

"Aye, except yours was far more intimidatin' when you had the axe still in it," Bofur chirped, dragging the planer towards him. It made a long, paper=thin curl of wood as the blade sliced through the topmost layer; he plucked it up and added it to the pile forming at his feet. He couldn't help but wonder if they could put the wooden curls to use in one of their toys somehow.

Will chuckled and lightly shook his head. "Regardless, Baylee's far better suited t' handlin' the inn. She's the one set t' inherit the job when da' finally retires, anyway. This will be good practice for her."

"She's going t' be the one t' inherit the inn?" Bofur questioned. "That doesn't surprise me much, really. She's already quite good with keepin' things orderly whenever your da' isn't around."

"Exactly. Though, she won't have t' worry about takin' the inn on permanently for some years yet. Da's in the prime o' life an' once he's healed up, he'll be back t' refillin' drinks and talkin' customers' ears off." He stood upright, wincing when he felt an ache in both his lower back and his shoulder. Setting the planer down, he put his hands on the back of his hips and leaned backward until he both felt and heard his spine pop back into realignment. A sigh of relief left his mouth as the pain in his back disappeared.

The two dwarves nodded in understanding. "If she's goin' t' take over the inn, then, what do you plan on doin'?" Bifur asked. "I would imagine somethin' with wood, since that's where your passion lays."

"Aye, though I'm not quite sure yet which project I want t' start first. I've a few in mind, but most o' them are going t' take awhile." He rubbed the side of his neck, looking down at the work he had done so far that day; he couldn't tell if it was the stress from his personal life making him extra critical or if it was the truth, but while the work was good, it didn't look as good as usual. But as he stole a look over at Bofur and Bifur's work, things looked fine. 'It's not finished yet,' he reminded himself. 'Once it's done, it'll look good. Just be patient.'

"Hmm? What sorts of projects would those be?" Bifur glanced over at him, curiosity on his features.

Grabbing his planer again, he went back to work. "Well, there's a house across town I'd like t' buy it an' fix it up, for starters—that's going t' take the longest, given how big it is—an' there's also the furniture I'd like t' make for the house…"

Bofur quietly laughed, his brow rising. "From the sounds o' it, you've got your mind stuck on gettin' things ready t' have a family."

Will's cheeks turned red and a bit of an embarrassed smile came to his lips. "Somewhat. Now that I know dad's alright with me an' Adela courtin', I've been doin' a lot o' thinking about our future together an' I know she has, too."

"You're already thinking about buyin' an' fixing up a house for the two o' you when you're only courtin', though? Isn't that a bit soon?" Bifur questioned.

"Well, we've been courtin' in secret for a number o' years now," he admitted, his cheeks still red. "An' I promised her I'd make her my wife. I have no intentions o' breaking that promise."

"The two o' you do seem quite in love." Bofur then grinned and asked, quite cheekily, "How soon should we expect the weddin' to be takin' place?"

His brow rising, Will looked up at the dwarf. "I don't know—how soon should we expect before yours an' Baylee's t' be takin' place?"

Bofur's face turned as red as a tomato and Bifur burst out laughing. Clearing his throat, he tried his best to sound unaffected by Will's retort. "I haven't the slightest idea o' what you're talkin' about, lad. Baylee an' me aren't gettin' married." He so badly wanted to tell them how he would, in fact, be marrying Baylee someday as she had chosen him, but he managed to keep quiet.

"But you want to," Will snickered.

"As true as that is, that doesn't mean I'm goin' t' end up bein' the one she chooses," Bofur retorted.

Bifur gave him an odd look, but said nothing; unlike Will, he knew his cousin well enough to know when he was hiding something. For now, however, he was going to keep quiet, unsure if whatever Bofur was hiding was something Will should know or not.

Bofur crouched down slightly, checking to see if he was keeping the plank's surface even. He also ran his hand along the wood, feeling for any dips and rises that his eye couldn't see. Feeling a few towards the end nearest Will, he moved to plane those flat.

"In all seriousness, though, lad, do you plan on marryin' that lass o' yours?" Bifur asked after a moment.

"Aye, I do," Will sighed. "We've actually been talkin' about marriage for a few years now, but it wasn't exactly possible until recently. But before any sort of wedding happens, I need t' get her a proper wedding ring. One that's as beautiful as she is."

The dwarven pair quietly chuckled at his words; it was becoming very clear to them he was wholly and unabashedly smitten with Adela. "Go over t' Erebor, lad," Bofur told him. "There's a far bigger selection o' jewelers over there than there are here in Dale."

"An' they'll also help you custom-make a ring if you can't find exactly what you're lookin' for," Bifur added. "Bofur can go with you, too, t' make sure you don't get cheated."

Will couldn't help but snort at the offer. "Can you promise we won't get stuck overnight like him and Baylee?" he asked, joking. "Because if we did, I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to fit in the Ur mansion like Baylee could."

Bofur let out a laugh, his brow rising. "Aye, you'd have t' be leaning over mighty uncomfortably unless you were sittin'. But then, you'd still be uncomfortable, given that you'd be a wee bit scrunched up."

"Even more so since Sanna would be crawlin' all over him," Bifur added.

"That's true. The wee badger loves tryin' t' be the tallest one in the room."

Will cocked his brow. "'Wee badger'?" he repeated in confusion.

"It's what we call my nieces an' nephews," Bofur explained. "I'm not quite sure how they ended up bein' badgers—you'd have t' ask Bifur that."

Bifur shrugged. "I came up with a lot of strange nicknames for people when I still had that axe in my head," he said. "Wee badgers was one o' the better ones." Like Bofur had a few minutes before, he ran his hand along the surface of the plank, seeking out any imperfections in the planing. Feeling none, however, he grinned and set the planer aside. "All done with my plank. Are there any others you'd like me t' work on, lad?"

Shaking his head, Will gave him a thankful smile. "No, that should do it," he answered. "Thank you, though. Havin' the two o' you help me with these helped me get twice as many boards smoothed out in two hours than I could have done in four." As he spoke, he dragged the planer towards him, creating one, long curl.

"It's the least we can do," said Bofur. "You've got enough work on your shoulders as it is an', even though we don't exactly know how t' go about makin' furniture, we do know how t' go about makin' wood smooth." He blew a wood curl off of the board before once more running his hand along its surface. There was just one little spot near a corner that needed a bit more taken off.

"Regardless, you've been a big help. Planin' wood is one o' the more tedious tasks, easy as it is. Thanks to the two o' you, I'll be able t' get a good start on the shelf before we leave tonight." He blew a stray lock of hair from his face only for it to get stuck on a rivulet of sweat running down his cheek.

"Well, that's good t' hear," Bifur grinned. "I'm goin' t' go see if Ori's come back from his lunch yet an' go fetch us some lunch o' our own from the market."

The two nodded, bidding him farewell as he headed back inside. Upon finding out that Ori was, in fact, not back from his lunch just yet, he lightly shrugged before grabbing a basket and taking his leave of the shop. He made his way towards the baking district, which took him by the remains of what had, just two days ago, been the Flying Hen.

'Strange how this place just exploded out of the blue,' he thought, pausing to look the rubble over. By this point, only about half the building remained standing and as much of it as safely possible had been combed through in search of any remaining casualties.

None had been found, though. However, near the kitchen, some charred bones had been found, leaving the people of Dale to believe that Mannus had, essentially, been cremated.

But Bifur didn't believe that. 'If the fire had been that hot, then there wouldn't be as many survivors as there are,' he thought to himself. As he glanced up, he could see scorch marks and a few broken windows on the side of the building directly to the right of the inn; across the alley behind the inn, there were just a few scorch marks. 'Not to mention, even with the quick action taken by the people, the fire would have spread to the neighboring buildings. And it wasn't a full body's worth of bones that had been found, either—at least, from what I hear, it wasn't. Something about this whole mess is fishy.'

Shaking his head, he resumed his walk to one of the bakeries down the street. 'I know I shouldn't be thinking such things, since I didn't know the man, but from what I've heard about this Mannus fellow from Will, he definitely seems like a slimeball. I wouldn't put it past him to have arranged this whole thing because of his falling out with Miss Adela.' He let out a sigh and combed his fingers through his beard. 'I'm glad Miss Adela got out of there when she did—for both her sake and Will's. The lad's utterly in love with her…'

He quietly chuckled to himself as he pushed open the door to his favorite bakery. While the bread couldn't compare to anything Baylee could make, the products they produced were still mighty tasty—especially the savory hand pies. His favorite filling the bakery had was a rather surprising choice for a dwarf, as it had absolutely no meat in it: It was vegetables in a thick, creamy sauce. Bofur had poked fun at him for enjoying the lack of meat, but after Bifur had forced him to take a bite of it, his cousin quickly recanted his teasing and agreed that it was good.

Waiting in line, he slowly inhaled the delicious scents of the bakery: Bread, sugar, yeast, roasting meats…They all made his stomach growl in hunger. Thankfully, the sound wasn't too loud, sparing him from embarrassment.

When it came to be his turn, he ordered a dozen hand pies of various flavors, along with three small cakes, each one also a different flavor. His basket now full, he left the bakery with a stomach grumbling in demand of food.

He was about halfway through the market when he saw a familiar pair across the street: Dwalin and Nori. They were walking close together, their hands gesturing about as they used Iglishmêk to converse. He couldn't quite make out what they were signing, but he could see the words 'mission', 'raiders', and 'scum' get used multiple times.

'So, Nori's supposed to be gathering intelligence on the raiders, hmm?' he thought, watching as they disappeared into the crowd. 'That makes sense. With Thorin sending Fili down to Laketown while these raider attacks are taking place, I'd want to know as much about them as possible, too.'

A small frown then came to his lips when he noticed a dull ache beginning to form at the front of his skull. 'Oh, Mahal, please don't let this be a bad one,' he silently prayed. 'The last thing I need right now is one of my bad headaches…' When he still had the axe embedded in his skull, he would get headaches quite frequently; now that he was axe-free, however, they were fairly rare. But when he did get them, they tended to be debilitating enough that he was often rendered bedridden for a day or two.

Continuing on his way, he did his best to not think about the ache. Instead, he thought about how close he and Bofur were to being able to open the shop. Ori was almost done painting the main room—a good thing, considering he would be leaving for Laketown with Fili. He also made a mental note to talk with Bofur about Will and how they had been planning on offering him a toymaking apprenticeship.

'If he's got long-term plans already in the works, I'm not sure if he'd want to become an apprentice.' He rubbed his forehead only to bite his tongue slightly when, as his fingers pressed against the large scar, the ache turned into throbbing for a few seconds. 'Won't be doing that again,' he thought, pulling his hand away.

By the time he got back to the toy shop, the dull ache had gotten a touch worse, but that was it. He breathed a sigh of relief and carried the basket to the back of the shop, where Will and Bofur were sitting at the table. They were joined by Ori, who was in the middle of mixing up some powdered pigments that he would soon be turning into paint.

"Ah, there you are, Bifur," Bofur grinned. "We were wonderin' where you got off to."

"I told you two before I left that I was goin' t' get us somethin' to eat," he replied, his brow raised in amusement. "Hello, Ori. How was your lunch?" He set the basket down between Bofur and Will.

"It was quite nice, actually. I ate with Fili and Baylee," he replied. "I was just about to tell Will an' Bofur that she's been quite busy. She had seven rooms booked before lunch and another three came in while we were eating. Apparently, this caravan had gotten attacked by raiders about fifty miles t' the southeast o' here."

"Yeesh," Will said, his nose scrunching up slightly. "Thankfully for us an' unthankfully for the caravan, that's quite a distance. I hope no one got hurt…" He motioned for the dwarves to have the first picks as the pies, but both of them gave him a rather stern look, making him pick first. "Did 'Lee seem overwhelmed at all?"

Ori shook his head, watching the human pluck three hand pies from the basket. "There were no life-threatening injuries; a few had broken bones or deep lacerations, but they had good healers with them. An', no, Baylee didn't seem overwhelmed at all. She did seem to have some trouble with the guestbook, though I'm not quite sure why."

"Probably havin' to do so much math in such a short amount o' time," Will said, though it wasn't the truth. He knew full well that it was because Baylee had difficulties reading, but after accidentally blurting that out to Bofur the previous day, he wasn't about to let the other two know. "Because it's no longer just the price o' meals an' drink she has to keep track of, it's the price o' rooms, baths, meals—everything. On top of that, she has t' make sure t' deduct the right amounts t' pay the staff an' buy things like food an' hay." He nibbled the top edge off one of the pies before starting to blow into it in hopes of cooling it down faster.

"That is quite a bit o' math to keep track of," Bifur agreed with a small nod. "It's hard enough keepin' track o' the expenses brought in from a small shop like the one we had back in Ered Luin, but a keepin' track o' the expenses o' an inn sounds thrice as hard." He took a large bite of his hand pie, though he almost instantly regretted it, as it was still piping hot.

As Bofur got up to get Bifur a cup of water, Will chuckled. "Aye. She's got a lot more t' keep track o' now that she's runnin' the place. I can't say that I envy her."

Bofur glanced over his shoulder at them as he filled the cup from a pitcher. "Says the one who'll be runnin' the place while she's down in Laketown." Setting the pitcher down, he returned to the table and handed the cup to his cousin.

"Why can't your aunt run things?" Ori questioned, his brows furrowed slightly as he ground some pigments together. "I know she's injured, but if she's mostly stayin' behind the bar, she won't have t' do much moving."

Will shook his head. "If she runs things, then we'll go into debt real fast," he sighed. Running a hand over his hair, he leaned back in his seat. "Aunt Demelza thinks that, since the Tankard is so popular, we should invest more into fineries so that higher class folk will visit more often. She thinks we should be uses silk sheets, imported soaps an' bath oils, exotic ingredients, crystal chandeliers…that sort o' stuff." He shook his head before finally taking a bite of his pie.

The three dwarves exchanged glances with one another. "But…The Tankard doesn't really suit that sort o' stuff," Bofur said after a moment.

"Nor does it need that sort o' stuff t' be a popular place," Bifur added. "The food an' friendly staff are reason enough t' stay there, but there's also comfortable beds, nicely sized rooms—Mahal's beard, you even do laundry for the guests if they wish it! I've stayed in a fancy inn where they didn't even turn down the beds for you!"

Ori nodded in agreement. "Not t' mention, Bard seems to enjoy it as it is—what can be better than havin' a king coming t' visit?"

Will snorted, more than a little amused by their reactions. "Don't worry: Most everyone else knows that," he assured them. "But Aunt Demelza…well, she's always been about appearances. And since we're not exactly lower class, she thinks we shouldn't look like a low-class establishment."

"If the Tankard's what she thinks a low-class establishment looks like, then I suggest she not visit an actual fourth-rate inn so she doesn't die o' shock," Bofur said dryly before he could stop himself. Realizing that he sounded rather rude, he cleared his throat. "Er, sorry lad. Didn't mean t' get snippy there."

Dismissively waving his hand, he swallowed the bite of pie he had taken just seconds prior. "It's fine and you're right—she needs t' realize that the Tankard is already one o' the better inns in Dale, especially now that the Flying Hen's gone." He sighed, shaking his head. "I know that sounds a wee bit arrogant o' me t' say, but my aunt sometimes makes it sound like the Tankard isn't as good as it really is."

"Given how much time, effort, an' love you an' your family put into rebuildin' that place, you have every right t' sound a wee bit arrogant," Bofur told him. "You'd think she'd be a little less critical o' the place, too, since she no doubt had a hand in rebuildin' it."

"You'd think she'd be less critical o' it because o' how well it's doin', even without the fineries she wants t' add," Ori added. He scooped a bit of yellow powder from one of his little boxes, adding it into the small pile of green powder he had been mixing together. "She's a bit like Dori in that sense: Even though the Tankard doesn't need fine things t' make it a welcomin' place, she wants the fine things to make herself and the Tankard feel a bit more important." He lightly shook his head and began to grind the powders together.

"Well, she needs to stop an' realize the Tankard's perfect just the way it is," Will sighed. "If anythin', it's the best it's been since we first opened—the Hen's ruin notwithstanding, it's the busiest it's ever been. We've got more staff than we've ever had an' might even need t' hire more…how can she not be happy with these achievements?" Shaking his head, he took a large bite of his pie only to wince when he realized it was too big. As such, he burnt his mouth on the hot filling.

"Speakin' o' the Hen," Bifur spoke up, "I walked by there on my way t' the bakery." He paused for a couple of moments, a contemplative expression on his face as he tried to think over how to best phrase his next words. Thankful when the others didn't press him to speak, he finally said, "Somethin' isn't quite adding up about that explosion. Folk said they found only a few charred bones in the ruins an' they're claimin' it was that Mannus fellow."

Nodding, Will swallowed his bite. "I don't believe it for a minute, though. The fire was nowhere near hot enough t' cremate a body, let alone cremate a body an' destroy most o' the bones."

"That's exactly my thinkin'," Bifur agreed. "If the fire had been that hot, then no one would have been able t' get close t' it, let alone run in an' save folk. On top o' that, if the fire had been that hot, it would have surely caught the buildings around it on fire."

"The other buildings are made o' stone, though," Ori argued.

"Stone or not, they've still got wooden parts, like window frames, doors, signs—Mahal's beard, some even have wooden figureheads on their roofs," Bofur countered.

"The worst damage I saw were a few broken windows, which were probably shattered when the explosion happened," Bifur continued.

"Something's definitely not right about the whole thing," Will sighed, rubbing the side of his neck. "I haven't brought it up with 'Dela since, well, asshole or not, Mannus was her da'—but I spoke with Bard about it last night. Turns out, Mannus hadn't been payin' the entirety o' his taxes for the last year o' so. He'd been claiming that between havin' t' pay his staff and buy the necessities t' keep the Hen operating, he didn't have enough money for taxes. He promised Bard he'd make it up come summer, when the busy season hit an' when he would surely make an excess o' profit."

The dwarves nodded, each wearing a look of understanding.

"An' given that your lass had caught him stealin' from the register an' he barely had enough staff t' run the place," Bofur said, "he did have plenty o' money t' pay his taxes."

Reaching into the basket for another pie, Bifur nodded. "Aye, he definitely arranged this whole thing, then. He's probably somewhere out there, as much coin on him as he could carry with him, too."

Ori scratched his temple, unknowingly smearing green pigment on his skin. "But…how could he arrange something like this without getting himself killed?" he questioned. "People saw him there at the inn right before the explosion happened. Unless he's a wizard, like Gandalf or Radagast…"

"That's a good question, lad," Bifur sighed, "an' it's one I don't quite have an answer for, either."

Rán let out a soft sigh as he sat upon Galal, his hand shading his eyes as he gazed out over the lands surrounding Dale. Normally, he, Girish, Kreine, and Aizik would be out with the others, doing their usual patrols, but something in his gut told Rán that the four of them needed to stay close to the city that day.

'I wish I knew why I feel this way,' he thought, his eyes squinting slightly as he tried to ignore the dancing glares from the river below. 'It doesn't feel like something bad is going to happen, but something is definitely going to happen…' Feeling an elbow against his bicep, his brow rose and he looked to his left to see Girish beside him on his gelding, Floren.

"Is everything alright?" he questioned, some concern on his features. "You look perplexed."

Sighing, Rán nodded. "Yes, everything is alright—at least, I think it is."

The concern on Girish's face was replaced by understanding. "You've got one of your gut-feelings again, don't you?" When his captain nodded, he looked out over the land as well. "Judging by the mixture of confusion and irritation on your face, you can't tell if it's good or bad, either."

"You're too good at reading people."

"Just the people who wear their emotions on their sleeve." There was a bit of a smirk on his lips as, from the corner of his eye, he saw Rán give him a dry look. "In all seriousness, though, you can't tell if it's good or bad, can you?"

"…Well, I know for certain that, if it is bad, it's not too bad," Rán admitted. "I don't feel any dread or fear."

"Hm." Leaning forward, he padded the side of his steed's neck. "That is a touch reassuring, at least."

Turning Galal around to head back down the hill, Rán nodded in agreement. "There's nothing out of the ordinary to the west of the city…We should go find Kreine and Aizik to see if they found anything to the south."

Girish nodded and turned his gelding around, letting the horse fall into pace with Galal. "Have you decided which us you'll be taking with you to Laketown?"

"Other than Seth, not yet. I know for certain that Nakara and Ashailyn will be staying, however." He ran his hand through his hair, letting his eyes close for a few seconds. "I was thinking, perhaps, of taking Aizik, however. With their elvish sight and hearing, they would be the first to notice any raiders coming for us."

"You hope, at least. After the incident a few weeks ago, there's a chance they might've exchanged their wargs for horses to be a little more inconspicuous." He glanced over at Rán, his brow raised somewhat. "They may not be as fast or fierce as wargs, but you must admit that horses would let them approach caravans and other traveling groups with much more ease than wargs would."

Keeping his eyes shut, Rán made a sound of agreement. "I don't believe they would have given up their wargs, however," he said. "As you said, wargs are fast and fierce—but they can also carry more loot. Couple that with it being easier to create panic and confusion with the creatures and you have the perfect mounts for the raiders. The only downsides are that you have to make sure they stay fed with plenty of meat and that you may become that meat if you annoy one enough."

"True…Is that Kreine riding towards us?"

His eyes flicking open, Rán squinted against the midafternoon sun before having the sense to shield them with his hand again. Nearly half mile away, someone was riding towards them; the only way they knew it was Kreine from that distance was by the silvery-white coat of her mare. "Yes, and judging by how fast she's riding, she's found something urgent." His brows furrowing, he clicked his tongue, urging Galal to pick up his pace.

The two rangers were soon riding at a canter, which helped to close the gap between them and Kreine even faster. As they drew nearer, they could see that she wore an urgent expression.

"Kreine, what's wrong?" Rán called when they were within earshot.

"Aizik found something!" she answered. "Something we're not sure the Dale-Dwellers know about."

Rán and Girish exchanged frowns before nodding. Without saying a word, they urged their horses to go at a gallop, following after Kreine as she led them towards the city's southern gate. Instead of going straight for the gate, however, she suddenly diverted from the path, heading for one of the many cliff-faces. Rán's brows furrowed in slight confusion, but he didn't question anything—not yet, at least.

Kreine soon slowed her horse down to a trot, letting Rán and Girish catch up with her. "It's not much further now," she told them. "Just up here, behind those boulders." She gestured at a pile of boulders that looked to be stacked right up against the cliff.

"How can anything fit behind those?" Girish questioned, his brow rising. "They're right up against the wall. Nothing can fit back there."

"Looks can often times be deceiving, Girish," Rán reminded him.

When they were about ten yards away from the rock wall, Kreine brought her horse to a halt and dismounted, the two males following suit. Guiding her gelding and the others forward, she brought them around the rock wall only to reveal both a lone mare and an opening large enough for four horses to stand comfortingly alongside one another.

"Nothing can fit back here, hmm?" Kreine chuckled, glancing over at Girish.

Girish rolled his eyes, but said nothing.

"How far back does it go?" Rán questioned, going over to the wall. Pulling off his glove, he set his hand against the cool stone and felt along its surface. 'It's partially worked,' he thought to himself. 'So, at some point, it was used by the people of this city…more than likely, in the years prior to Smaug's desolation.' Tucking his glove into his belt, he ran his hand along the stone for a few feet.

"We're not sure," a voice called from deeper in the tunnel—Aizik. The half-elf soon emerged from the darkness, blinking against the daylight. "Kreine and I wanted to wait for you before we investigated further. At some point fairly recently, a horse or two had sought shelter here." They used their foot to point at a pile of horse dung just outside and to the left of the cave. "It's still relatively fresh—I'd say three days at the most."

Going over to the pile, Rán crouched down beside it and, drawing a dagger from inside his vambrace, he poked at the clumps of excrement. Given how hard they were compared to the fresh piles left by Aizik's steed, he knew that their estimate was correct. Sheathing the dagger once more, he stood up and turned to face the other three. "Do we have anything available to make a torch or to use as a lantern? I want to investigate this cave as far as possible. See if there isn't anyone or anything aside from bats living in its depths."

"We're not far from the gate into the city," Girish stated. "I can ride over and ask the guards stationed there if they have a torch or lantern. I wouldn't be gone more than fifteen minutes."

"Yes, please do that," Rán told him. He watched as Girish mounted his horse and trotted off before looking over at Kreine and Aizik. "While he's gone, I'm going to get a bit of a head start," he said. "When he gets back, you three can come with the lights."

Aizik furrowed their brows. "Rán, it's very dark in there—you won't be able to see anything after fifty feet."

A quiet laugh left Kreine's mouth as her brow rose. "Aizik, my sweet, why must you always forget that Rán is a half dwarf?" she asked her spouse. "He will be able to see much better in the darkness than even you."

An embarrassed flush colored Aizik's cheeks pink. "I suppose I always forget that detail since he shaves," they admitted with a small chuckle. "Other dwarves and half-dwarves keep their beards full and long."

"Other dwarves and half-dwarves don't find their beards as itchy and warm as I do," he chuckled, starting to walk deeper into the cave. "I'll see you in a little bit," he said, his voice echoing around them.

"Be careful!" Kreine called after him.

"I will be!"

As he walked deeper into cave and his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, Rán started to notice that the cave floor was strangely smooth. Crouching down, he ran his hand across the floor. 'This is partially worked, too,' he thought, 'though, not nearly as much as the walls at the entrance. Which means, at some point, this cave held some purpose for the people of Dale. Perhaps as cold storage for the summer months?'

He reached out and put his hand on the wall again, dragging it along as he walked. This far from the entrance, the stone wasn't worked at all, leaving its surface uneven and jagged in places. The floor, however, was still completely smooth.

It soon grew too dark for him to see more than a few feet in front of him. As such, he kept both his arms held out; one rested against the wall while he kept the other in front of him. His steps got a bit slower as well, though, by this point, he was positive he wasn't going to trip over anything.

After nearly ten more minutes of walking, the wall suddenly disappeared out from under his palm, making him come to a halt. It only took a few seconds for him to debate whether or not he should continue forward; backing up a few paces, he felt his fingertips brush against a rounded stone edge. He had come to a fork in the road—at least, he thought it was a fork, as he hadn't gone far enough forward to know otherwise.

Rán carefully felt in front of him with his foot to make sure that there were no drop-offs or unexpected ledges. Finding none, he rounded the corner and, continuing to walk slowly while feeling around with his foot, he soon came to realize he was going uphill.

'If I'm going uphill, then that means there's a chance there's an entrance somewhere in the city,' he told himself. 'I know the Full Tankard's cellar is in a natural cave—maybe this leads to there?' The thought of randomly popping out of the inn's cellar and taking the staff by surprise both amused him and worried him. 'If this does connect to the Tankard, though, then this could prove to be a serious safety hazard—not only to them, but possibly to the entire city.'

Another ten more minutes of walking brought him around a second corner; five minutes later he went around a third. From there, he went straight on for another fifteen minutes, the path growing a touch steeper.

"Where is this taking me?" he mumbled. His lungs and legs were beginning to burn a bit with all the climbing he was doing. "I surely have to be near the surface by now…Nowhere near the Tankard, though…"

Just when he was about to stop and take a rest, the path suddenly leveled out; ahead of him, he could see two, thin beams of light slicing through the darkness. His brows furrowed as he inhaled deeply, trying to catch his breath; the scent of the air had changed.

"Is that…cheese I'm smelling?"

Walking towards the lights, he discovered that the path narrowed in width and in height until the tunnel came to an abrupt end. There was a solid wall in front of him with only a thin crack in it, allowing him to peer into a wide, open room. It was then he realized that, while he hadn't made it to the cellar of the Full Tankard, he was in someone else's cellar. The shapes of shelves upon shelves of food were visible to him from where he stood, but what sorts of food—aside from cheese—they contained, he couldn't tell.

"This is interesting," he murmured. "Very interesting…"

Leaning forward in an attempt to try and see more of the cellar, Rán swore and nearly toppled over when, as he rested his weight against the wall, it started to slide forward. As it slid, it made a loud, annoying sound that reverberated around the area. His brows furrowing, he looked over at the wall that had moved only to see that it hadn't been a wall at all, but a set of shelves with a solid back.

"Someone wanted to keep this tunnel a secret," he murmured.

Walking fully into the room, he looked around for a moment before making his way over to a short set of stairs. Climbing a couple of them, he pushed up on the cellar door only to hiss in pain as his still-aching arm protested the sudden use of force. While the door did move slightly, something had shifted atop it, telling him that it was weighed down. What felt like dirt rained down from between the small cracks in the door; he was thankful his eyes were shut as the dirt fell into his hair and face.

Changing his position so that his good arm would do most of the work, Rán gave another quick shove; once again, the door moved a bit, but did not open. This time, however, it sounded like a few timbers had been disturbed enough to topple away.

"One last try without Aizik and Girish," he muttered to himself. Going up two steps, he scrunched himself down so that his good shoulder as well as his hand pressed against the door. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and launched himself upwards.

The sound of timber tumbling away filled his ears as the door was finally flung open. His nose scrunched up and he squinted—not against daylight, but against a cloud of ash, which also made him soon start coughing; he was most definitely inside Dale now, as he could hear a few gasps coming from the nearby street. After his eyes adjusted, he climbed out of the cellar only to find himself standing in what had been, four days ago, the kitchen of the Flying Hen.

He turned when he saw a bit of movement in the corner of his eye only to find four middle-aged women poking their heads in through the charred doorframe leading into the alley. An apologetic smile came to his lips as he used his hand to try and clear away some of the dust while still coughing a bit.

"Would one of you be so kind as to fetch Lord Bard for me?"