Chapter 15:

Hand in hand the pair walked through the town of Dale. Nala discovered the Willow was a very curious, yet extremely shy human child. Her blonde curly hair was let loose, the only remanent of a style being a small blue bow still tied to a few loose strands. She wasn't dirty by any means – letting her know that the child was well cared for. Willow's thin, strangely fingers were tightly gripping two of Nala's.

"You tell me if you see your mother," Nala instructed. Willow nodded feverishly, constantly looking around and the fingers not holding Nala's was in between her front teeth again. Nala kept an eye out as well for anybody who showed any signs of recognition of the little girl.

Nala really didn't have any idea where she was going but aimed to stay at least near the centre of town where the markets were. She doubted Willow had come all the way from the outer edge of the city.

"Are you a Dwarf?"

Nala's head turned down to Willow who was no longer looking around but up at her. Nala smiled and nodded. "I am. How could you tell?" she teased, expecting an answer about her height.

"No, you have big hair," Willow corrected in a matter-of-factly manner. It surprised Nala a little to hear her with such confidence. "There's so much!"

Nala chuckled, her cheeks pushing her eyes into a squint. "I have a lot of it, don't I?"

Willow nodded, skipping slightly in her step. Nala was thankful that she was growing more comfortable, but it also meant distraction, so Nala kept her vigilance up. "What are those?" Nala glanced down again, finding Willow pointing towards her hair.

Not understanding what she was referring to, Nala crouched down to the girl's height. "What is what?"

"These!" Willow laughed, tapping lightly on one of her metal beads. Nala's mouth rounded slightly as the bead with the Durin sigil lying exposed over her shoulder. "Why do you have metal in your hair?"

Nala picked up the braided hair. "These are Dwarven beads. All Dwarves wear them."

"Why?"

"All sorts of reasons," Nala shrugged. "Some wear them when they get married. Some beads show people if you're important. Some Dwarves wear their family's."

Willow nodded slowly as if she was taking in some incredibly important information. Nala mused mentally that it probably was important news to her mind. Slowly, Willow reached out towards the bead again. Nala's instincts drove her to want to pull away. This child was a stranger, someone who she has no connection to. In Dwarven culture, you only handled the beads of kin and lovers.

But Willow was a child – and a curious one at that. A human child who had no idea of that culture. So, Nala allowed her to pick up the bead. Willow smiled, bringing it so close to her eye that Nala was afraid she would poke herself with it.

"Willow!"

Willow's hand dropped from Nala's hair, and a good thing too since Nala's head snapped in the direction of the desperate cry and it would have yanked painfully on the strands. "Ma!" Willow sprinted off in the direction of the voice as Nala pushed to her feet to follow after.

A woman was pushing through the crowd towards them, her eyes already on her child. Like her daughter, the woman had extremely light curly blonde hair pulled into a simple bun. She was donned in a dark cream coloured dress and forest green apron that had white marks on it. As Willow came to her feet, she crumpled to her knees and the woman's face seemed to crumple as her child ran into her arms.

Nala exhaled in relief at the reunion, smiling at the mother and daughter's love for one another. The mother's hands were tightly holding Willow's head and shoulders to her chest and didn't seem to be letting go anytime soon so Nala continued slowly towards them.

"You must be Willow's mother," she greeted once she was close enough to be heard over the loud chatter of the market. The mother opened her clenched eyes, staring at Nala with wonder.

Hastily she nodded, pushing to her feet and keeping Willow tucked in her arms as she did so. "Yes," she breathes. "Oh, you must think I'm a terrible mother."

"Not at all," Nala countered softly. "Children have a mind of their own. I'm Nala by the way."

Though the child was taking up most of her arms, the woman partially extended one hand slightly down to Nala who took it graciously. "Evana," she smiled tiredly through slightly watering eyes. "I can't thank you enough. I was supposed to head home before Willow ran off. I have some fresh bread and can boil a nice tea. It's the least I could do for you."

Nala almost immediately responded a decline, but it caught in her throat. She had been thinking about trying to make friends and maybe this was her chance to get to know somebody, even if they only talked in passing in the future. "I would love a cup of tea," she replied instead.

As Evana led Nala back to her home, Willow's confidence unravelled even further, and Nala got a taste as to why her mother was probably so frazzled. Willow squirmed around in her mother's arms, though not to escape, but simply as a natural movement as she vividly explained to her mother what had happened for the past hour she had been missing.

"My husband died not more than a year ago you see," Evana explained after Willow finished her story. "Now it's just me and Willow. It's hard sometimes but we make do. I work down at the bakery and usually, Willow comes with me and stays out the back but today she couldn't still for some reason." Willow smiled guiltily.

"I'm sorry to hear that happened to you," Nala offered. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No, no," Evana gushed. "Don't worry yourself. There are a lot more people worse off than us. We have enough money to get through."

"It isn't always money that people need," Nala pointed out softly. They appeared to have arrived at a stone cottage. They were still around the middle of the town, people still wandering around them. Evana only gave her a small smile in response.

Willow dropped from her arms and ran off somewhere past the front door which Evana caught before it closed again. "I must have put sugar in her breakfast or something," she chortles.

"Well whatever she has had, I think I need it sometimes."

The women laughed, brushing their shoes off on the grated mat.

"I'll make us that tea."

The tea was different than what Nala had had before, but in saying that, she barely remembered the last time she had such a drink. She noted fondly that it must have been with Wikor all those years ago. The pair of women could not have been any different in lifestyle and history. Evana had always been working since she was a child - even after she had Willow. Her husband used to be an apothecary that traded with the Woodland realm, but he was killed when their house fell on him during Smaug's desolation of Lake-Town.

There was obvious mourning still in Evana's tone and Nala listened for any hint of resentment to the events with the Dwarves, but it seemed that she, like most, had forgiven the company. Thorin had done more than he needed to, to help Dale rebuild itself. The thought of Thorin in her mind drifted to Fili...Fili!

She nearly fell from her seat. Thankfully her teacup was now empty, or it would have spilt over her legs. "I'm so sorry," she cried as Evana tensed from the shock of the Dwarven woman's movements. "I came with Prince's Fili guard. I am supposed to be at the council meeting with Bard!"

"Prince Fili?" Evana repeated, also rising to her feet. "Oh, I'm so sorry for keeping you. I didn't realise you had anywhere to be."

Nala halted her hurried movements to smile reassuringly at the timid human mother. "It's not your fault in the slightest. I honestly completely forgotten. But I really do need to go before my brother begins digging my grave."

Evana frowned deeply, marching forward and gripped Nala's shoulder so tightly that it paused her movements again. "Does your brother hurt you? Will he be mad that you have been gone?"

Nala's brows furrowed slightly. "No, he doesn't hurt me. I just meant that he'll probably think I'm dead." At her words, Evana's hand slowly let go of her shoulder before she took a step back. "He'll probably kill me when he finds out I'm not though. He can be a worrywart sometimes," she joked in an attempt to lighten up the room. Evana bared a small smile, nodding in agreement. Nala tried to figure out how long she has been gone, coming to the mortifying realisation that it had probably been around two hours since she had told Bola she would be getting some fresh air.

Outside the window, both woman's head turned towards the sound of heavy footsteps marching past. Evana frowned, slipping past Nala to peer out the glass. "It's the Dwarves," she announced. "It looks like their searching for something."

"Odd," Nala commented, coming to join at the window. Sure enough, a small legion of guards was splitting off and marching down the streets. Their heads were turning, on guard but no weapons drawn. Behind them, was a very familiar Dwarf. "Fili?"

Nala trotted to the front door, pushing it open and almost jumping down each step to the road as Fili marched down the lane less than twenty feet away.

"Fili!? What's going on?"

The prince spins on his feet. He didn't move for a moment as they caught eyes and Nala's mind started reeling with all the terrible things that could have happened. Did something happen to Bola? Then he was sprinting towards her with an unmatchable speed. "Durin's beard!" he cried as he reached her. Nala let out a grunt as his arms encircled her, lifting her off the ground. "Where have you been?!"

Nala's mouthed moved like a fish. "I was with Evana and Willow," she answered. "Fili? What's going on? Has something happened to Bola?"

Her feet touched the ground once again, his hands gripping her shoulders instead. He searched her eyes with ragged breaths. "You think we're out here because of your brother? Nala! You've been missing for two hours. We thought…" He trailed off, exhaling deeply as he shook his head.

Nala blushed uncomfortably. They sent out the guards to look for her? That is rather humiliating. "Did you really have to send guards out to search for me?" she questioned under her breath.

"You didn't tell anybody where you went," Fili countered with gritted teeth. "You can't do this anymore. You understand me?" Nala nodded, feeling her eyes sting. Fili sighed again, dropping his hands from her shoulders to her arms. "I just want you safe alright?" Nala nodded again, this time, forcing a smile to try and pretend she wasn't shaken by the scolding.

"I'm sorry," she offered. "Willow was lost, and I helped her find her mother. I just got distracted." They look back up the stairs to the house where Evan was standing on the threshold, Willow peeking out by her knee.

"It's okay," Fili whispered. He reached up to her face, brushing away a few strands of hair before pulling her shawl back up and over her head. "Are you ready to go home?"

"Can I just say goodbye?"

"Of course you can."

Nala nodded in thanks and walked back up the stairs towards Evana and a once again, shy Willow. Fili was right behind her like a shadow. Evana shifted on her feet, eyes constantly flickering over Nala's shoulder. "My sincere apologies, your Highness. I did not realise that her presence was greatly needed."

Nala could tell that she was genuinely concerned about the repercussions, but she knew Fili well enough to know there was nothing to be worried about. True to her prediction, Fili shook his head with a gentle smile. "There's no reason to apologise Miss Evana. I would like that thank you for keeping Nala company since she appeared to be nearly falling asleep during the meeting." Nala barely held her guilty smile, nudging him with her fist. Evana graced a small raise of her lips, ducking her head slightly.

Willow tugged on her mother's leg until Evana picked her up and rested the child on her hip. "Well, she was a lovely company to have," Evana added. "If she is ever down in Dale once more, I would love to talk more if Nala would be happy to that is. And with your permission of course."

"I would quite like to come to see you both again," Nala replied, smiling cheekily at Willow.

Willow leant forward and for a moment Nala believed she was trying to crawl into her own arms. but Willow's hand was directed towards her hair. "Are you going to wear more next time?" Nala's mouth opened slightly as Willow picked up her braid once more that poked over the fabric of her shawl wrapped around her shoulders and chest.

A different hand also rose from her right, one that belonged to Fili. His hand was moving towards Willow's so Nala quickly moved her own. She gripped his forearm, pushing it back down. "Maybe one day," Nala answered Willow.

"I want one!" she chirped to her mother, leaning back into her arms. Evana smiled at her daughter.

As they said their goodbyes, Fili had waved off a guard to call the search off but stayed by her side until she was ready to go. Nala waved at Willow through the window as she and Fili walked down the street back towards the entourage.

"Are you alright?" Fili asked once the house was out of sight. Nala nodded.

"Of course I am," she replied. She had already assured him she was alright – and terribly sorry for causing a fuss. "They were lovely."

"I just meant about you braid," he added with slight hesitance, glancing down at her hair. Nala mouthed a small 'o', reaching up to fiddle with the strand.

"She was a child. A child of Men," Nala shrugged. "Innocent and naïve. She does not know of our culture and I doubt her mother would have any idea either. They have not lived with Dwarves before this past year."

Fili nodded but she could sense the unease it caused. It wasn't a surprise to her since braids and beading were extremely personal topics to Dwarves. Nala had only a few times seen Fili even touch his own and even that was in a very private setting. To let a stranger handle them was unthought of, almost akin cutting them off. For Fili to not only watch but allow it to happen to a friend would have been extremely uncomfortable.

"Now to face you brother," he taunted after a long minute of silence. Nala tipped her head back with a loud groan. Fili laughed as the day's stress seeped out of him. "He nearly screamed at a guard that asked what you looked like."

"Oh, this is humiliating," she cried. All that she could envision was the walk of shame that was soon to happen as they reach their ponies and the assortment of guards that had been looking for her the past hour. "Can we just pretend I was actually lost and not forgetful and stupid?"

Fili pushed his lips out in contemplation. Then shook his head. "Nah, I think you deserve this one."

Her head fell backwards again with another loud groan to the sky. She could hear the sound of a Dwarven burial ritual already in her ears as the came closer.