He splits off from the caravan once they reach Bree, bidding goodbye to the one man amongst the lot he’s taken something of a liking to and trading a cut of his pay for a pouch of fresh pipeweed and a hale, spotted pony.
“This is still too much,” Dwalin says after the exchange, weighing a leather purse in the palm of his hand, listening to the metallic shuffle of the coppers resting within.
“You haven’t counted it.”
The man laughs, crossing his arms, his white teeth flashing as he tips up his chin. He’s bearded, this one, with rust coloured scruff lining his jaw and cheeks. Dwain has thought of bedding him on occasion, entertaining idle fantasies behind closed lids in the dead of night, lying alone in his tent with the cold, hard ground pressing up against his spine through the thin padding of his bedroll. The man cuts a striking figure, with his tanned forearms and weathered face, but in the ten months Dwalin has known him he’s never once made a proposition.
It’s not his hands that Dwalin truly desires, not his eyes or smile or lurking, sharp wit.
So Dwalin clasps the man’s arm and leaves without looking back, and it’s not regret that accompanies him, that awakens deep in his chest and unfurls beneath the cage of his ribs, but anticipation.
He’d been hired as a sell-sword, traveling alongside the convoy from point to point for nearly a year, standing guard whenever they stopped to set up their makeshift markets. Four times Dwalin has fought off small packs of bandits, and there’s been an incident or two when he’s taken care of some lowly passerby with sticky fingers. He wrote to his brother and Thorin of these things whenever he was given access to a raven, and it was through those letters that Dwalin learned of a quest beginning to take shape, one that made Balin anxious in the face of Thorin’s bullheaded resolve.
Will you join me? Thorin wrote, the strokes of his quill steady and solid but followed by a line of uncertain, meandering dots, that made Dwalin smile to see.
Obviously, had been Dwalin’s short reply.
It takes him less than three days to reach Hobbiton, his pony clopping along flagstone roads that eventually taper off into flat, dirt trails that have been worn down into the earth. A few locals cross his path, small folk that cast worried glances in his direction and look down at their feet when Dwalin glares back. One brave lass pauses after catching sight of him, shifting the babe at her breast so she can wave to Dwalin as he passes, honey-coloured curls bracketing her round face.
The evening cools as he trods on, the air turning damp with the promise of rain to come. Dwalin shivers as the sweat beneath his collar begins to dry, leaving only cool skin and gooseflesh behind. He pulls his cloak in tighter, scrutinizing each cozy little smial he passes with a growing impatience, telling himself it’s sure be the next one, the next.
It’s the tree that catches Dwalin’s eye, a weathered oak planted atop a small hill, its branches stretching out to hang over a green door with the Wizard’s mark shimmering from where it’s been scratched into the paint. Dwalin circles around back to tether off his pony before pushing through the front grate, acorns crunching beneath his boots as walks up the short pathway.
He knocks, three solid thumps with his fist, the sharp steel strapped to his knuckles clacking against the wood, and turns away to look back over the land as he waits to be answered.
Quaint is a word better suited to his brother’s vocabulary than his own, yet it springs to Dwalin’s mind all the same as he scans the rolling landscape. He takes in the lush colour of the grass, the shimmering gleam of the moonlight as it glances across the surface of the lake in the distance. Somewhere close a cricket chirps, and further down the hill there are fireflies blinking in and out of sight. A group of small hobbit children are chasing after them, squealing with delight whenever they manage to catch one, cracking open the soft cage of their hands to peer down at their glowing prize.
When Dwalin was a young stripling he used to slip outside the mountain at night with Thorin, sometimes carrying a flask of stolen mead beneath his shirt or an old pipe tucked away into his pocket. They would travel downwards until they reached a point where there was enough soil for tress to grow and sit together in the dirt, drinking or smoking or talking. Sometimes, they would spot fireflies moving against the horizon, and one summer night Thorin told Dwalin of a silly little story he learned from his grandmother about stars drifting too close to the earth and becoming stuck there. He jabbed his fist into Dwalin’s side when he laughed, and Dwalin hooked his arm around Thorin’s neck, and soon enough they were both bruised and breathing hard, lying together quietly atop a bed of dead leaves and pine needles, the scent of which lingered on Thorin’s clothes for days to come.
The door swings open, and the small figure behind it blinks owlishly when Dwalin turns to him. Dwalin tips forward into a shallow bow, introducing himself, and is courteous enough to allow the hobbit to tie his robe shut before pushing by him into the house.
“I—I’m sorry, but do I know you?” The hobbit blusters behind him.
Dwalin looks at him again, really looks, taking in the soft curve of his belly, his round clean nails, his pink hands unmarked by callouses, and already knows that Thorin is not going to be impressed, not by this gentle little creature that’s already bundled up and ready for bed.
“No,” he says.
Thorin is late to arrive. His cheeks are ruddy from the crisp night air and the warm light of the candles catch against the gleaming strands of silver in his hair. He passes his off his heavy traveling cloak and smiles at his nephews, his eyes scanning over each dwarf that’s managed to cram themselves into the entryway. They linger on Dwalin longer than the rest, holding his gaze in a silent greeting before turning on their host.
Thorin stares, his eyes widening as his lips part. He steps forward, crowding in, and Bilbo doesn’t move away.
“So,” he says at last. “This is the hobbit.”
Bilbo bristles, turning to follow Thorin as he circles around him, his shoulders rolling forward and hunching, annoyance tugging at his lips in a waspy smile.
“Axe or sword?” Thorin asks. There’s a strange tone underlining his voice that Dwalin can’t pin down, all at once sounding eager and wary and warm.
“I have some skill in conkers, if you must know,” Bilbo says, ducking his chin but keeping his eyes up.
Thorin smirks, crossing his arms, and Dwalin knows that look, knows it better on the face of a young, cocky prince than a wandering king, but knows it all the same. Thorin grinned at Dwalin like that the first time they faced off against each other on the yard, an invitation curving alongside his smug smile. Come now, impress me. Show me what you can do.
And later, when Gandalf fails to convince the hobbit to join them, when Bilbo pushes up from his armchair and pads off to bed, Thorin turns away from his conversation with Balin to watch him go, and whatever spark Dwalin had glimpsed within him before gutters back out.
“You don’t have to do this,” Balin says. “You have a choice.”
“There is no choice,” Thorin tells him. “Not for me.”
Balin pats Thorin’s arm and wanders away, moving off towards where Dwalin stands at the doorway to the sitting room. Dwalin cants his head in open inquiry when Thorin turns to meet his eyes, his hip set against the sturdy frame.
“It’s nothing,” Thorin tells him after the songs have faded and the hearth has begun to cool, his voice soft and nearly drowned out by the snores of their sleeping companions.
Dwalin steals the pipe from Thorin’s mouth, takes the damp stem between his teeth, and doesn’t believe him.