Chapter One: Laketown
Bard was not fond of dwarves. Living in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain, it was impossible not to know the tale of the destruction of Dale and Erebor by heart, and as a descendant of Lord Girion, Bard had more reason than most to reflect on the past. While some in Esgaroth preferred to dwell on the skill and wealth of the former dwarves of Erebor, Bard saw that former great people for what they were. Self-seeking, insatiable, reckless. Bard knew enough about their history to know that Erebor was not the only dwarven realm to be destroyed by their greed. The difference was, Erebor wasn't the only city destroyed by dragon-fire. The people of Dale had lost their home too.
Perhaps Bard was prejudiced against dwarves, but when coming across a group of strange, bedraggled dwarves on the edge of Mirkwood, it was better to be cautious than stabbed in the back. Bard kept his bow drawn. A bald, rough-looking dwarf brandished a wooden staff at Bard as quickly as he spotted him. Bard fired a warning shot, hitting the makeshift weapon in the center and quickly did the same to a younger dwarf who grabbed a rock, knocking it out of the dwarf's hands. It wouldn't hurt to scare them a bit.
"Do it again," Bard said calmly as he aimed his bow towards the group, "and you're dead."
He kept a careful eye on the dwarves, though as they appeared unarmed they were not much of a threat.
The oldest of the dwarves, judging by his white hair and beard at least, stepped cautiously forward. "Excuse me but, you're from Laketown if I'm not mistaken, the dwarf said rather more diplomatically than Bard would have expected from a dwarf. "That barge over there, it wouldn't be available for hire by any chance?"
Bard was not unkind, but he wasn't reckless either. It was one thing to help out a neighbor in need of food. It was another entirely to help a group of strange dwarves who appeared to have washed ashore with naught but the clothes on their back. So Bard did what any sensible bargeman would do. He set about his job while the white-haired dwarf tried to soften Bard up. The dwarf would be a fine merchant. Which is what he claimed to be, though the arrow marks on the barrels that drifted in with them, gave Bard doubts that they were telling the whole truth.
He looked around at the group of dwarves. Sure, some of them looked fierce and proud, but others looked exhausted and worn, like a wind would blow them over. A feminine sounding sneeze came from the back of the group, and Bard felt his heart soften a bit when he saw a shivering female doing a rather impressive job of hiding behind a couple of the dwarves. She was swamped by them in height and girth, appearing like a child apart from her figure and the maturity of her face. She had neither the beard nor bearing of a dwarf, yet she was obviously not of the race of men. While he disliked dwarves in general, it was not in him to leave a woman out in the elements wearing wet clothing.
Bard bit his tongue through his annoyance at having one of the other dwarves, one with a very arrogant bearing make further demands of him. However, he didn't make it easy for the dwarves to 'convince' him to smuggle them into Esgaroth. A bit of extra money would help winter be a bit more bearable after all.
Bard watched with some amusement as the dwarves grumbled and complained at the emptying of their pockets, or boots in some cases. They certainly weren't proving the rumors wrong. He glanced again at the young lady who accompanied them. She was shivering badly, lacking the body mass that kept the dwarves better insulated. While the dwarves scrounged for money, Bard approached her.
"Here, you look like you need it more than I do." She looked at him in surprise as he held out his coat to her. It wasn't very warm, but it was better than the wet, worn coat she had on already.
"Thank you," she said softly, her voice soft and melodic in contrast to the rough, grating tones of the dwarves. She slipped off her wet coat, and shrugged his onto her shoulders. It was as long as a dress on her and about as baggy as a flour sack. Smiling, she wrapped it around herself to further enjoy the warmth. "I'm afraid I've lost my manners. I forgot to introduce myself. Bluebell Baggins of the Shire. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance." She curtsied gracefully as she spoke, though she looked rather humorous wearing her trousers and his baggy coat.
"No harm done, Miss Baggins. We didn't exactly have a proper meeting. I'm called Bard."
"Are you a singer?" Bluebell asked, her soft brown eyes mischievous.
Bard chuckled lightly. "Afraid not. I'm just a simple bargeman. Nothing more, nothing less."
"I'm sure that's not true. After all, not many people would risk smuggling a group of strangers in need. And very few indeed, would loan the coat off their back to one of those strangers." Bard should have felt warm at her praise, but somehow he felt condemned. He hadn't intended to treat the dwarves with kindness, and indeed he still hadn't. He had only felt the need to be kind to her, first as a woman in need, and now as a gentle, soft-spoken beauty he could honestly enjoy conversing with.
"Baggins!" Both of them jumped at the harsh tone of the arrogant dwarf's voice. She smiled apologetically at him before responding to the rather rude summons. Bard couldn't help but wonder what their relationship was as he saw the dwarf position himself rather possessively between her and Bard. Putting the unnecessary question from his head, Bard focused on the task at hand. Getting Bluebell and her company safely to Esgaroth.
If Bluebell never saw another fish again it would be alright by her. As much as she appreciated Bard smuggling them into Laketown, Bluebell was more than a little upset that his methods had ruined her favorite dinner for her. Never again would she be able to enjoy a perfectly broiled fish fillet with lemon juice without remembering being smuggled into Laketown in barrel with fish covering her face and half-suffocating her. In all likelihood she would have nightmares of the experience for the rest of her life.
Unfortunately for Bluebell, and the rest of the dwarves, the fish debacle was not the only traumatizing experience they had to suffer through. The next was by Bluebell's standard's far worse. Hobbits did not swim (not the respectable hobbits in any rate). So to expect a gentle, well-bred hobbitess to swim in a lake through a toilet in order to enter a house was mad. Maybe, though, it was Bluebell who was mad because she agreed without a protest.
So it was, that after half-suffocating, half-drowning, and half-freezing to death from getting drenched in cold water for the second time that day, Bluebell arrived in the water closet of Bard's home, where she was further embarrassed when she saw that she and the dwarves had a captive audience—Bard's children. As a child, she had had the proper etiquette for every situation drilled into her head by countless female relatives—then had it drilled into her head again by her Baggins in-laws after she had married Bilbo. However, never once did any aunt or in-law explain what to do if you arrived at a host's home through their toilet.
Sigrid, Bard's oldest daughter, however took the situation in stride, scrounging up warm, dry blankets and sheets for some of the bulkier members of the party to wrap themselves in while their clothes dried, and some old children's clothes for Bluebell and those they would fit. Bluebell, herself, was lent a warm loose nightgown that was short enough for her without being too tight around her curves and spare shawl that Bluebell assumed was Sigrid's. The warm, clean clothes did a lot to improve Bluebell's mental state. They were safe for the moment and for the most part warm (though it seemed impossible to ever be completely dry in Laketown).
"Could I help you at all with your work, Miss Sigrid?" Bluebell asked, eager for something to do to keep busy, especially if that something was a mundane activity similar to something she might have done at Bag End.
Sigrid's eyes lit up at Bluebell's question, but promptly clouded. "I couldn't possibly ask for help from a guest."
Bluebell chuckled lightly before replying. "It's a good thing you didn't have to ask then. Please, I really would like to help. It's been months since I've had a chance to do any sort of housekeeping."
"Alright, then. I suppose I shouldn't deny a guest a request if it's in my ability to grant it." Sigrid's eyes twinkled as she responded. It was becoming clear that the young girl was had a cheerful spirit even if it had been somewhat crushed by her gloomy surroundings. That the master of Laketown seemed to have it out for her father probably didn't much either.
The two women worked well together. Bluebell was a skilled enough housekeeper that she was quick at discerning what needed to be done without Sigrid instructing her. Bard's other daughter, Tilda, helped with some of the less arduous tasks, chattering all the while. Sigrid and Bluebell were both amused by the little anecdotes and tidbits of information that Tilda had collected and chose to share with them. There were still moments when Sigrid's eyes were glazed over and filled with worry, but Bluebell figured there wasn't anything even Tilda could do about that.
Tilda, such a sweet girl. Bluebell enjoyed talking with the little girl and watching her expressions change like light through a prism, but it was still a bittersweet experience. She couldn't help but remember her own little girl as she looked at Tilda. It had been months since she had seen such an obvious reminder of her loss, and it stung.
"All you alright, Miss Baggins?" Sigrid asked worriedly, looking up from the soup she was stirring. They had finished the rest of the housework and Tilda had left them to bother the other guests with questions. Bluebell had elected to stay with Sigrid rather than join the increasingly gloomy company.
Bluebell smiled weakly. "Just remembering. I'll be alright. You needn't call me Miss Baggins, though. I've never been a Miss Baggins in my life. Call me Bluebell. It's the only name that fits me now."
"I'd be honored to, but why doesn't it fit you? Isn't it your last name?" Sigrid asked somewhat cautiously.
"It was my husband's last name," Bluebell said simply, knowing it was enough of an explanation.
"Oh, I'm sorry for your loss." Sigrid's words were familiar, but they rung true. Bluebell remembered Bard mentioning the death of his wife when Balin had been bargaining with him. No doubt Sigrid was remembering the loss of her mother.
"It's not like I've cornered the market on pain, though it was an uncommon thing in my neighborhood to be left widowed while still relatively young."
"It's not so uncommon here, sickness seems to thrive in the damp," Sigrid said somewhat darkly.
"It is my understanding that no matter how common it is, death still stings," Blue responded, her voice thick with compassion.
"Do you know… Does it ever get easier to bear?" Sigrid asked, her voice quiet.
"Not exactly, but after a while you learn how to laugh again without guilt, to smile without sorrow."
"Sometimes I feel like I'm not allowed to be happy, not when my Da is still so sad. Ma died when Tilda was born, I was only seven. I remember so little of her but what I remember best is how my Da glowed when she was around. He was happy all the time then, now it's becoming harder and harder to get a smile out of him." Sigrid sobbed as she finished speaking and Bluebell's heart went out to the little girl who had lost her mother too soon, just as Bluebell had lost her daughter far too soon.
"If your mother was any portion of the woman your father thought she was, she would want you and your family to be happy. And from what I've seen of your father, he feels the same way. Don't mourn harder than your heart can handle. If I had died and my little girl had lived, I would have wanted her to smile and laugh and be happy even if it was without me."
"Your little girl?" Sigrid responded in shock, her voice laced with pity.
"Rosabella was a delicate thing, but a Took (that's a hobbit clan known for adventurers) to the marrow of her bones, absolutely obsessed with rivers and boating, a most unhobbitlike interest. She and her father had gone on a trip to visit some of our relatives who lived beside a river while I had stayed behind to help a pregnant friend. She fell in the water while peeking around where she wasn't supposed to and Bilbo tried to save her. He succeeded but soon after first Rosabella then Bilbo both caught a terrible coughing sickness. For a while it seemed like Bilbo might recover, but when Rosabella didn't make it the grief sent him into a relapse."
Bluebell had been staring at the fire as she spoke, so it surprised her when she looked up to see Sigrid's face and saw Bard behind them, watching her face intently, a sympathetic look on his face. Bluebell blushed self-consciously. She hadn't meant to parade all her grief out in the open, it was just that she had felt a kinship with Sigrid and had wanted to help the girl better understand her advice. Embarrassed, Bluebell excused herself, giving Sigrid one last kind smile before escaping to join the dwarves, giving the somewhat valid excuse to check on Kili.