By the time Arya and Fili reached the rest of the company it was almost dawn. Kili ran to meet his brother and smiled to find him with all his hair messed up, undone braids and swollen lips.
The older asked.
"We believe Azog's pack is close by, we sent Bilbo to check the situation."
Kili answered seriously.
"But something tells me that you too have some news to tell me!"
He then continued, slapping his brother on the shoulder and giving him a rogue smile.
"This is neither the time nor the place to talk about that, Kili!"
The blond argued, but without hiding a half smile.
"Okay okay, we'll talk about it another time, but don't think you can avoid this conversation!"
The dark-haired smiled back. Fili shook his head looking down.
"You are impossible."
He eventually murmured in resignation. The two brothers approached the rest of their companions, Fili looked for Arya and saw her besides Gandalf: they were arguing about something in elvish, which was impossible for him to understand.
The company didn't have to wait long for Bilbo to return with some bad news.
"How close is the pack?"
Thorin asked immediately.
"Too close, couple of leagues, no more. But that's not the worst of it."
The halfling replied almost breathless, putting his hands on his knees to recover.
"Have the Orcs picked up our scent?"
Dwalin asked in his usual grumpy tone.
"Not yet, but they will do. We have another problem."
"Did they see you? They saw you."
Gandalf asked, revealing a hint of concern in his voice.
"No, that's not it."
"Good, what did I tell you? Quite as a mouse."
The sorcerer continued relieved.
"Excellent burglar material."
"Will you listen!"
Bilbo spoke again, without being taken into consideration.
"Will you listen!"
He repeated in a higher and more authoritarian tone, as authoritarian as a hobbit tone might be.
"I'm trying to tell you there is something else out there."
"What form did it take? Like a bear?"
Gandalf then asked, drawing the attention of the whole company to himself.
"Ye...Yes, but bigger. Much bigger."
The halfling answered.
"You knew about this beast?"
Bofur spoke up in shock.
"I say we double back."
The dwarf continued.
"We'll be run down by a pack of Orcs, Bofur."
Thorin retorted bitterly.
"There is a house, it's not far from here, where we might take refuge"
The wizard asserted.
"That's a terrible idea."
Arya murmured, shaking her head: she knew to whom belonged the house Gandalf was referring to and she feared that her dwarf friends would not be welcome.
"Whose house? Are they friend or foe?"
Thorin asked him, now resigned to the idea of having no other options.
"Neither. He will help us or he will kill us. But we have no choice."
The company began to move quickly through the wilderness as the first rays of sunlight illuminated the mountains. Soon the sixteen fellows realized they were being followed, but there was no orc behind them, but a huge, angry brown bear. The dwarves, the sorcerer, the halfling and the girl ran relentlessly, as fast as they could, but the bear didn't seem to give ground. It was now late afternoon when they reached the dwelling mentioned by Gandalf. It was a large country house, surrounded by a vast and lush garden, which was bordered by a high wooden fence. The dwarves hurried through the gate, came to the door and began throwing themselves against it, hoping to open it. After a few unsuccessful attempts, they noticed a latch blocking it, right above their heads, so they pushed it up and dashed inside, immediately followed by the young woman, the hobbit and the sorcerer. Once in safety, they closed the door with lightning speed, leaving the beast out.
"What is that?"
Ori exclaimed, still visibly shocked, turning to Gandalf.
"That is our host!"
He replied calmly, with a hint of a smile. Now all the dwarves and the hobbit were looking at him with astonishment.
"His name is Beorn, he's a skin-changer. Sometimes he's a huge black bear, sometimes he's a great strong man. The bear is unpredictable, but the man can be reasoned with. However, he is not over fond of dwarves."
"But you can rest easy. You'll be safe here tonight."
He added finally, noting the worried expressions of his companions.
Inside, the house had a large rectangular room, provided with a big fireplace lit, on the wall opposite the entrance door, and a long wooden table in the center. On the right there was a modest pantry, which the dwarves used to prepare dinner. On the left, instead, there was another door that led to the stables.
Shortly after arriving in the house, the dwarves had already prepared all kinds of dishes. The sixteen travelers sat down at the table, indulging in jokes and laughter, and momentarily forgetting all the problems and dangers of the journey: that night, at least, they would be safe.
Having finished their meal and done the dishes, one by one, some before, some later, the dwarves went to bed in the barn of the stables. In the large dining room, only Thorin, Balin, Fili and Kili, Arya, Bilbo and Gandalf were still sitting at the table.
"It would be better for us to rest, tomorrow we must resume our journey."
Said the white-bearded dwarf, who, having finished smoking his pipe, was now heading for the door.
"Balin is right, don't stay too late."
Thorin added, in a calm and authoritative voice, following his friend towards the stables.
"I believe it is time for me to go too."
Grumbled the sorcerer.
"Are you coming, Bilbo?"
The hobbit nodded and, having said good night to the three youngsters, they both headed for the barn.
Fili went to the fireplace, took a chair, sat on it and began to fix his blond hair, which was still all messed up from the night before.
"When we were little he used to spend hours and hours like that, you know, doing his hair...and you must've seen how angry he was when he couldn't have it the way he wanted."
Kili explained to Arya, who smiled seeing the young dwarf near the fire huff because he had just lost a lock of hair. Then she got up and went over to him.
"Someone need a hand?"
She asked Fili softly.
"No, no, don't worry, I can do it."
He replied smiling, but disproving that just a moment later by puffing for having lost another lock. The young woman laughed and positioned herself behind the dwarf.
"Leave it to me. It's my fault that your braids are undone after all."
Fili smiled again, casting his mind back to the evening of the previous day and leaving his hair in the skillful hands of the young woman, who immediately began to braid it with absolute ease.
"Wow, my big brother must be really in love if he lets you do his hair! Every time I try I risk losing my hands!"
Kili exclaimed, watching his brother get nervous.
"That's because you have the subtlety of a troll with rabies!"
The blond argued. Arya burst out laughing, while Kili looked somewhat shocked.
"Hey! That's not true!"
The youngest hastened to retort.
"Oh yes, that's very true, my dear little brother!"
"All right, whatever you say."
Kili gave up, acknowledging his defeat and smiling at them.
"I'm going to bed, it's been a long day and I'm starting to feel fatigue, so please don't make too much noise, you two lovebirds, that there are people over there who want to sleep!"
The dark-haired dwarf concluded, before running away to the stables.
"Come back here, you little bugger! If I catch you..."
Fili started to get up from his chair but was stopped by Arya's categorical "No". The girl, in fact, amidst laughter and a hint of embarrassment, was carefully continuing to braid his blonde hair.
"That's it, I'm done."
She declared shortly after, moving in front of him to check her work. The blond smiled at her.
"Let me thank you."
He said, taking her by the hips and making her sit on his legs. Arya let him do it and his lips touched hers, starting a tender and sensual kiss at the same time. The girl then tied her arms around his neck and the dwarf began to gently caress her back, causing a succession of small shivers.
After a while the two lovers stopped to catch their breath, but it was just a moment, as Fili leaned forward once again capturing the lips of the young woman, who certainly didn't pull back. Continuing to slowly slide his hands on her back, the dwarf pulled her in close and Arya had to appeal to all her concentration and willpower not to mess up again the blond hair she had just finished fixing. The two lovers poured into that kiss all the passion and love they felt for each other, and when they parted again they smiled happily. In that moment there was nothing but them: no danger, no fear, no anxiety or worry. Only them and their love.
Fili rested his forehead against Arya's.
"I love you."
He said, almost whispering.
"I love you more than anything in the world, Arya. I love you from the first time I saw you, when you saved us from the trolls, and I will love you until the end of my days."
He continued, moving slightly away to look the girl in the eye, those immense gray eyes that would have enchanted anyone and that now were staring at him full of joy. The young woman stroked his face.
"I know, and I love you too Fili, you can't even imagine how much."
She answered him. And it was so, because with him she felt happy, she felt safe, she felt free to be herself, forgetting all her fears and ghosts of the past, forgetting the responsibilities and duties that her name entailed.
Arya rested her head on the dwarf's shoulder and, shortly thereafter, fell asleep in his arms, confident that her nightmares wouldn't come to see her that night.
Fili picked her up and headed for the barn. Once there, he gently placed her on an improvised bed and laid down beside her, putting his arm around her waist, and then falling himself into a deep sleep.