16 The world of men

"Head down and follow me! Hurry up!"

Bard called the fifteen travelers, who followed him in single file, moving quickly between the stalls and the shops of the market.

"Halt! "

A voice in the crowd ordered. The dwarves, the young woman and the halfling, taken aback, began to sneak among the tables, carts and baskets of the sellers.

"Hey! In the name of the Master I told you halt! Halt! Stop!"

The guard kept shouting, chasing after them. But the fugitives were small, nimble, and swift: definitely hard to catch.

"You! Come here!"

Another man in uniform tried to block Nori's way, receiving a frying pan in the face in response. A third soldier tried to catch Thorin, but was soon knocked down with a black eye. Even Balin and Dwalin did not sit idle: the two brothers recovered some oars from the back of a shack, and used them to stun anyone with a helmet on his head who tried to get close to them. Fili, Kili and Arya, instead, hid behind wicker baskets, on two opposite sides of a street (the two brothers on one side, the young woman on the other) and, having found a fairly strong rope between the market stalls, they stretched it when a guard passes by, knocking him out.

"What's going on here? Stay where you are, nobody leaves."

Another voice rang authoritarian in the middle of the square, attracting the attention of both the merchants, who were watching curiously at the scene, and the dwarves, hidden among the shacks in silence.

"Braga! Sauri..."

Bard came out from behind a counter and nodded to the captain of the guards, who had just arrived with a new patrol to keep the situation under control.

"You. What are you up to, Bard?!"

Braga then asked him in an inquisitive tone. One could perceive a certain resentment between the two: it was evident that the bargeman didn't get along with any of Laketown authorities.

"Me? Nothing. I'm looking for nothing."

He answered innocently.

"Yeah..."

The captain continued, looking around for some clue that would have allowed him to understand what could possibly have caused so much fuss to require his presence.

"Hey, Braga! Your wife would look lovely in this!"

Bard caught his attention again and handed him a white nightgown that he had retrieved from a near bench.

"What do you know of my wife?"

The commander then asked him, partly furious and partly confused by his words.

"I know her as well as any man in this town."

The bargeman explained with bravado. Braga snatched the robe out of his hands, threw it to the ground and stormed off the market square, immediately followed by the patrol. Bard heaved a sigh of relief: they had a nice escape. The fifteen wayfarers, having come out of their hiding places, joined the man again, who began to head towards his home.

"Da! Our house, it's being watched!"

A boy suddenly exclaimed, running right towards the bargeman. Bard looked at his alarmed son and immediately began to think about a plan for letting the dwarves into the building unseen. A brilliant, crazy and, again, perhaps a little smelly idea flashed into his mind: the loo! Thorin and his companions could have passed through the water, under the house, and entered through the drain of the bathroom, the only room located on the lower level of the stilts and at the same level as the lake. That way no one would see them. Obviously Bard's drawing was not taken willingly by the company members, who began to protest animatedly. Thorin, however, after a brief thinking, ordered them to be silent: there was no other way. As the dwarves then prepared to dive into the cold waters of the lake, Bard, his son and Arya headed for the main door instead. The girl didn't need to sneak in, since she had already introduced herself as the barge's apprentice, and the latter could therefore have simply invited her home for dinner. The three went up the wooden stairs that led to the entrance of the house, from which Bard noticed two "fishermen" who, from a boat in front of the building, were watching the place.

"You can tell the Master I'm done for the day."

The bargeman asserted addressing the two men, before closing the door behind him.

"Da! Where have you been?"

Asked a little girl, running immediately to hug him.

"Father, there you are. I was worried!"

A young lady then exclaimed, imitating the action of the child. The man hugged them and placed a sweet kiss on the foreheads of both. When they separated, the two sisters began to stare with interest at a point behind their father. Immediately after Bard, in fact, was a woman they had never seen in the town before. She had long dark hair, in contrast with her light skin and beautiful gray eyes, which moved fast, inspecting every corner of the room, then settling on them. Arya smiled, but before she could do or say anything to introduce herself, the bargeman's voice called her attention, reminding her that thirteen dwarves and a halfling, immersed in the lake, were still waiting for their signal to enter the house. .

"Bain, get them in."

The man said to his son. The boy ran downstairs and shortly thereafter Dwalin, soaking wet, was entering the living room, followed by Bilbo and his other companions. Arya smiled at the expression of disgust painted on the dwarf's face who, in return, gave her an intimidating look.

"Da, why are there dwarves coming out of our toilet?"

Asked the eldest daughter, with a faint note of fear in her voice.

"Will they bring us luck?"

Then asked the younger, who, on the contrary, seemed very excited.

"I'm afraid not sweetheart. Come now, our guests need new clothes and blankets."

The little girl was slightly disappointed by her father's words, but her eyes soon returned to shine bright when she realized that she could have been useful. In fact, together with the elder and the man, she ran to another room and, shortly after, returned loaded with towels.

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"They may not be the best fit, but they'll keep you warm."

Bard said, starting to distribute clothes to the dwarves, who took them unceremoniously, sometimes bowing their heads in thanks. The eldest daughter then approached Arya and called her attention, placing a hand on her arm.

"If you need to change, you can use my room."

She said softly. The woman smiled and nodded.

"It wouldn't be a bad idea, thanks."

She answered her, and then followed her to another room. Once inside, the youngest took a shirt from a chest near the bed and handed it to her.

"Here, this is mine, it should fit."

"Thank you..."

Arya started answering, but had to stop as she ignored her name.

"Sigrid."

Then the girl introduced herself smiling.

"Sigrid. You are very kind to host us. "

The woman concluded.

"Oh, it's nothing really. Take your time, I'll wait for you in there with the others. If you need anything else, feel free to snoop into my closet."

Arya thanked her again and waited for her to leave the room to close the door and change. Sigrid was right, the shirt was the right size, and it was nice to finally have a warm, dry garment on. Her thoughts were soon interrupted by a knock on the door.

"Come in."

She said, seeing her favorite dwarf enter shortly after.

"Hey, I just wanted to ask you if everything was all right...?"

Fili asked her, advancing in her direction.

"I should be asking you this question."

Replied the girl quietly, going to sit at the foot of the bed. Fili looked at her a little surprised.

"You are afraid for your brother, I see that, but Kili is strong, he'll make it."

The dwarf smiled at her, a sincere smile this time, not like the one he had given her on the banks of the river.

"Yes, he's always been strong, ever since we were kids. He's always managed to overcome everything, even the worst fevers."

He then asserted, stopping in front of the young woman.

"Well, he got it from you."

Arya continued, moving a lock of blond hair from the dwarf's forehead.

"Is that so?"

Fili joked then, leaning forward.

"Oh yes, I'm sure of it!"

She replied, laughing, then resting her lips on his. The kiss started out sweet and delicate, but soon they both longed for a deeper, more passionate contact. Arya hooked her legs to Fili's abdomen, who immediately began to slide his hands along her back, causing her usual shivers of bliss, while slowly and avidly savoring her soft lips. The bodies of both shuddered, one against the other, prey to emotions. When they parted to catch their breath, Fili shifted his attention from the girl's lips, starting to leave a trail of kisses along her neck, all the way to the base. Here he paused on a point, which he began to savor with greater greed. Arya tilted her head and let out a moan of pleasure as her fingers intertwined with the dwarf's blond hair. Fili smiled knowing he was the cause of that pleasure, so he put his hand behind her neck and returned to kiss her lips fervently. When they were both out of breath again they parted; Arya opened her eyes and lost herself in the blue of those of her beloved, which, in turn, were staring at her full of love and passion.

"I love you."

Fili whispered with infinite sweetness as he rested his forehead on hers. The girl smiled.

"I love you."

She then murmured, in a trembling voice, as she stroked his cheek with her hand. Fili took it and squeezed it lovingly between his, then brought it to his lips and left a sweet kiss on her knuckles. With a sigh, he pushed his forehead away from Arya's to face the door.

"We should go back."

The young woman asserted, sensing the thoughts of her beloved. Fili looked at her with regret and nodded.

"When all this is over..."

"We'll have much more time for ourselves."

The girl interrupted him, smiling, and then left him a last sweet kiss on the lips.

"I was going to say that you would never get rid of me anymore, but I suppose that, deep down, you already know that!"

The dwarf then joked. Arya laughed, got up from the bed, and together they headed for the door.

When the two lovers re-entered the living room, Bard had just closed the door of the house behind him with a long and heavy black wrapper in his hands. The man went to the table and opened the straps, showing a series of metal objects.

"What is this?"

Thorin asked sternly, taking one of them between his hands.

"Pike hook. Made from an old harpoon."

The man answered immediately.

"And this?"

He then asked Kili, who was holding an object similar to an hammer. Fili joined his brother and he too began to observe the weapon skeptically.

"A crow bill, we call it. Fashioned from a smithy's hammer. It's heavy in a hand, I grant. But in defense of your life, these will serve you better than none."

Bard explained, a note of regret was audible in his voice. Arya, who until then had remained on the sidelines with Bilbo, decided to move closer to the table in order to be able to give a better look to the objects. She approached Dwalin and carefully studied every single piece: they weren't exactly what she expected and didn't seem easy to handle, at all, especially for those who, like her, had always been used to fighting with elven blades.

"We paid for weapons. Iron forged, swords and axes!"

Gloin said in a reproachful tone.

"It's a joke!"

Bofur then exclaimed, tossing the gaff he was holding onto the table. Like him, all the dwarves threw their weapons back into the heap, giving Bard angry looks.

"You won't find better outside the city armory. All iron forged weapons are held there under lock and key."

The bargeman then asserted, not letting himself be intimidated by those looks.

"Thorin, why not take what's on offer and go. I've made do with less, so have you."

Balin proposed. That name immediately attracted Bard's attention. Thorin...he knew he had heard it before, but where? What were those dwarves doing there? What was their real purpose?

"How do you think she can wield one of these?! Did you feel their weight?"

The young King replied firmly, nodding in Arya's direction. There was a slight note of apprehension in those words: Thorin had become more friendly and protective of the girl from the beginning of the journey, he had begun to trust her and had realized that, after all, he liked her. He also had to admit that, had it not been for the young woman, he and his companions would have risked losing their lives more than once, and had noticed how close she had come to her grandchildren, especially Fili: Thorin didn't remembered ever having seen the eldest of his sister's children so happy!

"I say we leave now."

Balin shot back wisely.

"You're not going anywhere."

Bard stated firmly.

"What did you say?"

Dwalin then growled. Arya put a hand on his shoulder in an attempt to calm him down: she was sure there was an explanation to those words, which, in fact, was not long in coming.

"There are spies watching this house and probably every dock and wharf in the town. We must wait till nightfall."

The bargeman concluded with an authoritarian tone, before leaving the house. Bard needed to think. Thorin...that name definitely meant something, and he had to understand what.

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