Chapter 1

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They had ridden nine leagues to the edge of the shire and beyond when Gandalf guided his horse off the road and into the dense forest. Thorin protested, saying that they must reach the distant hills before nightfall, lest any trolls be patrolling the planes, but Gandalf continued on his way without so much as a glance in the dwarf's direction. The ponies slowly picked their way through the undergrowth, their ears pricked with unease as they listened to the sounds of the forest. The atmosphere was tense and so at one point Bilbo suggested the dwarves sing another song to lighten the mood, but Dwalin grunted back at him to keep quiet.  

As the sun began to dip below the horizon, and the sky darkened to a hazy blue, Gandalf led them into a clearing. In the centre, beside a slowly moving stream, sat a small house, not unlike Bilbo's, as it too had been built into the side of a low hill. It even had the same symbol on the door except this one glowed an eerie blue.  

"This will be the place," said Gandalf, sounding far more cheerful than the dwarves and Bilbo thought he should.  

"What do you mean by that, Gandalf?" asked Kili, sliding off his pony and peering through one of the windows.  

"What I mean, Master Kili, is that this is the place." Gandalf dismounted and strode to the door, knocking on the wood three times. There was no answer. "Hmm...how odd," he muttered quietly. 

Fili joined him at the door, leaving his pony to graze. "Odd?" He knocked a lot harder than Gandalf had but there was still no sound from inside. "I don't think anyone's in."  

Gandalf stroked his beard and scanned the clearing. "Yes, very odd. She is never usually out this late." He muttered, more to himself than anyone else.  

"We will not linger here. We must continue on to the hills," said Thorin, who began to turn his pony around. Just then, there came the cry of a bird on the hunt. They saw its huge shadow as it swooped over them and into the trees.  

The dwarves responded by raising their weapons above their heads. Kili let loose an arrow and it sailed away into the darkness. They heard twigs snapping as someone headed towards them. The footsteps grew louder and Thorin called to his dwarves to ready themselves for whoever or whatever the beast was. "You've led us into a trap Gandalf!" He yelled at the wizard, who was leaning against the door, seeming completely at ease.  

A figure appeared out of the gloom and stood before the dwarves. It definitely wasn't what they had expected and they slowly lowered their weapons.  

The newcomer was around the same height as Balin, if a little taller, but in the fading light neither the dwarves nor Bilbo could discern any more features. They moved silently through the cluster of ponies and dwarves, nodding slightly to the wizard as they passed. The stranger opened the door and beckoned the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf through.  

Candles lit up the hall and they heard the sound of a roaring fire in the next room.  

"Food is down there," the stranger pointed down the hall, "I'll be back in just a moment," then they vanished. 

Gandalf strode purposefully off in the direction the stranger had pointed, with the band of dwarves following reluctantly behind. The room they entered was barely wide enough for all the dwarves to fit around the long table but somehow they managed. Bilbo was reminded of the dwarves visit to his own house though this time they did not appear to be in the mood for singing, which to him was a shame.  

Bombur licked his lips at the sight of the feast upon the table. There were seedcakes, freshly buttered and steaming crumpets, several plates of small meat pies, three loaves of hardbread, along with an array of meats both cooked and cold, and several sweet cakes. He reached towards a plate of cooked meats but Thorin barked at him not to touch anything.  

Gandalf chuckled and took a seedcake from the table. Thorin glared at him. Bombur pulled the meat towards him, avoiding Thorin's gaze. One by one the dwarves began to eat and as the food settled in their bellies the mood became considerably lighter.  

They talked and even sang a little together, their bellies full and their hearts light. Thorin ate nothing. He stood staring into the fire, smoking his pipe.  

Gandalf approached him and opened his mouth to speak but Thorin beat him to it. "Save your breath. I know how this conversation is going to go. You're going to tell me that the stranger is to accompany us. I will tell you that I, and I alone, choose my companions. You will say that it is necessary. I will be angry because you did not consult me but in the end you will make me agree to bring the stranger with us. So let us skip all that and you can go straight to telling me more about this man." Thorin said, keeping his voice low so as to keep the conversation between them and not the rest of his company.  

Gandalf looked taken aback. He had misjudged the dwarf. "Well, there is not much to tell. However, it is not a man." 

"A woman? You can't be serious. I will not have a female on this quest! We already have a hobbit - we don't need another burden." Thorin jerked his thumb over at the other dwarves.  

"Oh, I assure you, I have no intention of being a burden." The stranger had returned. The dwarves turned in their seats, the feast all but forgotten.  

The stranger moved further into the room, into the light. She was a small thing, and had long, mahogany hair which fell in an intricate braid down her back. Fili stared at it, green with envy. 

"You want to know more about me?" She faced Thorin. "My name is Nemaiza but I am known to my friends as Nema. I belong to no race. The sky is my father and the earth is my mother. Anything else?" 

The dwarves stared, all thinking the same thing, but it was Balin who voiced their question. "How can you not have a race? You must do. What is it? Dwarf? Hobbit? You are too small to be a human."  

Nema smiled at Balin, "I have no race. I am one."  

"Everyone has a race. Tell us yours," growled Thorin. He had noticed that the tips of Nema's ears were pointed. "If ye be of the Elves..." 

"I am not an elf. Nor am I dwarf, hobbit, orc, goblin, human or any other creature. I am one." Nema seemed to be very angry with Thorin, which did not bode well for the other dwarves. "I have fed and watered your ponies. There are rooms further down the hall where you can sleep for the night. Gandalf knows where to find them." She turned away and lifted her hood. "If I am needed, you will find me outside," and with those words she stormed out, leaving the dwarves and Bilbo quite perplexed.  

They muttered between themselves, their initial unease returning to them. Fili turned to his brother and whispered "how can you not have a race? It's not right."  

Bofur, Dwalin and Gloin were also discussing the mysterious woman but they were more concerned about how the sky and the earth could possibly be her father and her mother.  

Thorin glowered at Gandalf. "I've changed my mind. I don't care what part you expected her to play on this quest but I say she will not accompany us!" He left the room, needing to get away from his grumbling band of dwarves for a moment. 

Once outside, Thorin looked about him but he could not see the strange woman. "Already lied!" He muttered to himself. "Said she would be outside. So where is she?" He began to pace the clearing, walking back and forth in front of the ponies who watched him with sleepy eyes. "What is that Gandalf playing at? No, she will not come." He paused in his pacing, having come to what he considered to be a reasonable decision. "We will leave at first light. Hopefully she will not wake until after we have left." He nodded to himself and threw one last glance around the clearing before re-entering the house. 

Hidden high in the branches of a shady tree, Nema sighed inwardly. "You would not be saying that if you knew why I am to go with you," she whispered into the night.

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