The fifteen travelers didn't need to be told twice and, one by one, they began to set up on the barge. Arya was the last to get aboard.
The young woman turned to the man, before sitting down in a corner at bow, between Fili and Kili. The stranger looked at her and smiled, then let go of the last rope and got on, heading towards the stern rudder. The ship began to sail the black waters of the lake covered by a thick blanket of fog, which made the contours of the surrounding landscape almost indistinguishable.
Arya was curled up against Fili's chest, while the dwarf was holding an arm over her shoulders and playing with her long dark hair, weaving it between his fingers.
Bofur suddenly shouted, breaking the silence. Everyone's eyes followed the dwarf's worried gaze and saw a tall column appear from the midst of the fog, not far from the bow of the boat; the man, masterfully steering the rudder, went around it.
"What are you trying to do? Drown us?"
Thorin growled as he turned to the bargeman with his arms crossed over his chest.
"I was born and bred on these waters, Master Dwarf. If I wanted to drown you, I would not do it here."
He replied seriously.
"Oh, I've had enough of this lippy lake-man. I say we throw him over the side and be done with him!"
Dwalin proposed wryly.
"Oh, Bard. He's name's Bard!"
Bilbo then intervened, bored by the constant complaints of the dwarf.
"How do you know?"
Bofur asked curiously.
"Uh...I asked him."
The hobbit answered in an obvious way.
"I don't care what he calls himself, I don't like him."
Dwalin continued, adamant on his initial idea.
"We do not have to like him, we simply have to pay him."
Balin then specified, in an attempt to put an end to his brother's protests, while collecting the money to pay their smuggler.
"Come on, now, lads. Turn out your pockets."
Asserted the old white-haired dwarf, after having counted the money. The fellows exchanged annoyed glances, but still began to give each his own share.
"How do we know he won't betray us?"
Dwalin began to complain in a low voice.
Thorin replied apprehensively.
"There's um...just a wee problem. We're ten coins short."
Balin declared, recounting the pieces for the second time. Thorin leaned back against the edge of the barge and, still with his arms crossed over his chest, gave Gloin an inquisitive look.
"Gloin, come on. Give us what you have."
He told him firmly. The dwarf stared at him in shock.
"Don't look to me. I have been bled dry by this venture! What have I seen for my investment? Naught but misery and grief and..."
Gloin suddenly stop talking seeing the summit of the lonely mountain rise out of the fog. Each member of the company sprang up and stared at Erebor in wonder. They were almost home.
"Bless my beard!"
The dwarf then exclaimed in a voice full of emotion.
"Take it! Take all of it!"
He soon added, handing Balin his share of the payment. Shortly after, everyone's attention was drawn to a fake cough from Bilbo, who hastened to nod his head in Bard's direction: the man was approaching them at a brisk pace.
"The money, quick. Give it to me."
The bargeman asserted eagerly.
"We will pay you when we get our provisions, but not before."
Thorin replied resolutely.
"If you value your freedom, you'll do as I say. There are guards ahead."
The man then continued with determination. The Dwarf King took a moment to think: they had no choice but to trust him. Nodding in his direction, he made it clear to Balin that he could give the money to Bard and the friend obeyed.
"All of you get back into the barrels, hurry!"
The man ordered, after taking the coins, and the dwarves, strangely, listened to him. Bilbo slipped into the same cask as Nori and Arya was about to follow Fili inside his when Bard caught her attention.
"No, not you, you wouldn't fit."
The man told her.
"Excuse me? I've been in there before, I don't see why I shouldn't now."
The girl retorted slightly offended. The man gave her an apologetic look.
"I beg your pardon, you misunderstood me. Trust me, please, a woman won't attract too much attention anyway. "
The bargeman seemed sincere and Arya decided to listen, remaining out of the barrel. Fili looked at her with apprehension: he did not trust the him too much.
"What's he doing?"
Dwalin asked, from inside the barrel, referring to the Bard, who had got off the boat on one of the piers.
"He's talking to someone."
Bilbo replied, watching the man's actions from a hole in the wood.
"And what's happening?"
Kili then asked.
"He's pointing right at us."
Bilbo replied with a hint of concern in his voice.
"Now they're shaking hands."
The hobbit continued. Arya watched the scene carefully, leaning against the edge of the barge with her arms crossed over her chest. Her instincts told her she could trust Bard, but she still didn't understand what he was doing.
Thorin exclaimed hearing the halfling's words.
"He's selling us out!"
Dwalin continued furiously.
"Sh! Enough! Quiet Dwalin! He's coming back."
The girl scolded him resolutely. As the bargeman got back into the boat, a large number of fish were spilled into the barrels with the dwarves inside.
"This way, they'll remain hidden."
The man explained to the young woman, who nodded, only then understanding why he had asked her to stay out of the barrel. The fourteen travelers, submerged by the fish, immediately began to complain about the stench with rather colorful expressions.
"Quiet! We're approaching the toll gate."
Bard soon silenced them, now back at the helm.
"Halt! Goods inspection. Papers please!"
A voice commanded, when the ship reached the grates that marked the entrance to the city.
"Oh, it's you, Bard!"
Then the man on the pier exclaimed, recognizing the bargeman.
Bard replied cordially.
"Anything to declare?"
"Nothing. But I am cold and tired, and ready for home."
The bargeman quickly answered, getting off the boat and handing him the paper.
"You and me both."
The friend declared, taking the piece of paper to stamp it.
"There we are, all in order!"
He continued, handing the paper to Bard. Before he could deliver it though, a man, with a scruffy appearance and a sneaky and arrogant manner, appeared behind him and snatched it from his hand.
"Not so fast!"
Asserted the newcomer.
"Consignment of empty barrels from the Woodland realm. Only they're not empty. Are they Bard?"
He then continued, approaching the boat with swaggering air.
"If I recall correctly, you're licensed as a bargeman. Not a fisherman."
He said, taking a fish from Bombur's barrel and pointing it at the man in a threatening manner.
"That's none of your business."
Bard replied resolutely.
"Wrong. It's the Master's business, which makes it my business."
The first explained, throwing the fish into the lake.
"Oh, come on, Alfrid. Have a heart, people need to eat!"
The bargeman then exclaimed.
"These fish are illegal. Empty the barrels over the side."
The Master's lackey ordered to the guards behind him, who hastened to obey.
"You heard him, in the canal! Come on. Get a move on! "
The captain intimidated, as the men in uniforms began to tilt the barrels towards the edge of the barge.
"Folk in this town are struggling. Times are hard. Food is scarce."
Bard went on, trying to save the situation.
"That's not my problem."
Alfrid said impassively.
"And when the people hear the Master is dumping fish back in the lake? When they decide to rebel?"
Arya then intervened, worried about the fate of her companions, as she walked confidently towards the two men.
"Will it be your problem then?"
The bargeman concluded, turning to the lackey.
At Alfrid's order, the guards immediately stopped their work, putting the barrels back in place.
"Ever the people's champion, hey, Bard? Protector of the common folk. You might have their favor now, bargeman, but it won't last."
The Master's lackey snarled at Bard.
"Besides, who the hell would you be?"
He then asked, still in an aggressive tone, turning to the girl.
Bard hastened to reply in her place.
"And since when can a woman become an apprentice to a bargeman?"
Alfrid continued arrogantly.
"Since when a woman has to feed two younger sisters and a sick father!"
Arya lied, but her firm and clear voice, her arms crossed over her chest and her serious gaze convinced the lackey, who turned his attention back to the bargeman.
"Raise the gate!"
Percy, in the meantime, ordered the guard at the gate, who obeyed immediately.
"The Master has his eye on you. You'll do well to remember, we know where you live!"
Alfrid exclaimed, his eyes focused on Bard who, back at the helm, steered the ship towards the interior of Laketown.
"It's a small town, Alfrid. Everyone knows where everyone lives!"
The bargeman replied confidently, looking straight ahead.
"Well done for the play."
He then added softly, turning to Arya.
She replied smiling.
Bard soon landed at a dock and stared at the ropes of the barge. He then headed for the barrels and began to knock them over, thus freeing the dwarves. He started with Nori's barrel, who slipped out, immediately followed by Bilbo, then moved on to Dori's and, later, Dwalin's.
"Don't you dare touch me!"
The dwarf stopped him right away, coming out of the barrel autonomously.
Arya instantly ran to Fili, who was pulling himself out of the cask with his arms. Once outside, the blond swiftly approached the young woman to hug her. The girl returned the gesture, twisting her nose a little at the smell.
"Yes, I know, it's not a pleasant fragrance."
Commented the dwarf, seeing her, and pretended to be slightly offended.
"I have no idea of what you mean."
Arya lied indifferently, only to let out a chuckle.
Fili asked, laughing too. They both moved in the direction of Kili's barrel to help him get out. The young dwarf, however, didn't want to be helped and stubbornly pushed back the arms of his brother and the girl, who tried to pull him out, only to continue to fall back into the barrel.
"Quit your whining and let us help!"
Arya therefore ordered him in an authoritative tone. Kili immediately fell silent and looked at the girl in surprise. He then nodded and laughed, closely followed by his brother and Arya herself, from whom he finally let himself be helped to get out of the barrel.
Once all the dwarves were out again, Bard approached an old fisherman who, from the dock, had been watching the scene in shock.
"You didn't see them, they were never here."
The bargeman intimated to him, leaving a bag of coins in his hand.
"The fish you can have for nothing."
He concluded, before returning to the fifteen companions. The fisherman nodded in thanks and turned away.
"Stay close to me."
He ordered them, drawing their attention.
He then said, getting off the barge and taking one of the streets of the city, while all the members of the company followed him in single file.
"What is this place?"
Bilbo asked curiously, looking around. The confusion caused by the continuous coming and going of people began to increase as they moved into the town. They must have reached the market area, Arya thought, given the number of food, spice, and cloth stalls surrounding them.
"This, Master Baggins, is the world of men."
Thorin replied seriously, keeping up.