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Thrust and Parry

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The last to wake and the last to eat, Bilbo thoroughly cleans the plates upon Beorn’s veranda. He wonders if their host will return before lunch. If not lunch, then dinner. And if not by dinnertime, he hopes permission to the pantry may be taken as read.

In any case, lunch is still hours away, and travelling with Thorin’s company has taught Bilbo to never count upon second breakfast. He fills himself up quite well on the first instead. What’s more, he takes his time about it. The veranda is a pleasant place to sit. He shucks his coat in the warm air and bright sunlight. Through the doorway, he can hear the sounds of dwarvish amusement, loud and boisterous. The noise is exhausting to listen to.

Bilbo stays precisely where he is, dozing slightly beneath the summer sun, stomach full and muscles aching. He has fallen down tunnels, braved riddles in the dark, and was nearly stabbed to death only yesterday. In one twisting, endless day beneath the mountain which could perhaps encompass half a week. Bilbo hardly knows how long he was down there, but he does feel exceptionally justified toward having had a bit of a lie-in this morning.

“There you are, Master Baggins,” a deep voice rumbles behind him.

Bilbo turns in his seat without jumping, but that may be more an effect of his full stomach than his steady nerves. Perhaps heavily armed dwarves are simply a typical feature of Bilbo’s life now. Nothing at all surprising about a towering figure holding a sheathed sword. “Thorin! Good morning. Should you be up?”

“The wizard was of use after all,” Thorin replies. “I am bruised, but hardly beyond repair.” He separates a smaller sheath from his own and hands Bilbo his elven-dagger-turned-sword.

Blinking, Bilbo accepts his weapon. “There’s already a knife on the table, but thank you.”

Thorin doesn’t smile. He doesn’t even seem to recognise the statement as jest. He simply sits down next to Bilbo upon a low chair and says, “You cannot count on your luck to save you forever. It is past time for you to learn to fight.”

Bilbo sits straighter, taller, but the difference is negligible. “I just ate. Doesn’t, um. Doesn’t seem like a good activity on a full stomach. Could we, erm, start this later?”

“Now is the perfect time to begin. We have a day of rest before us and much to discuss.” Much to Bilbo’s relief, Thorin sets Orcrist upon the table. “Tell me what you know of fighting.”

“Don’t get stabbed,” Bilbo answers. “Or hit or bitten or bludgeoned.”

“Do you have any idea how to go about this?”

“Not a single one,” Bilbo admits. From any of the others, he would expect mockery at this confession. From Thorin, he expects only disappointment, some momentary glimpse of it before the dwarf king presses on with a practical lesson. Such is how Thorin would have responded only days ago. Today, he hides his disappointment and impatience well.

“We will begin with swords,” Thorin replies. With that, he draws Orcrist and rests the flat of the blade upon his palms. “How might such a weapon harm you?”

The memory of the orc upon the mountaintop flashes before Bilbo’s eyes, the flash of his driving blade. “Stabbing.”

“How else?”

“Er. Slashing?”

Thorin nods. He tilts the sword in his hands, showing Bilbo the long edge of the blade before lifting the sharp tip. “What does the shape tell you?”

“That... this sword is good at both.”

“Is yours?”

Bilbo draws his own short blade. He looks at the tip, much blunter than that of Orcrist. “Slashing more than stabbing, definitely. But...” He looks nervously up at Thorin’s patient eyes, uncertain when this new patience will give out. He wets his lips and continues, “But slashing with both sides. Orcrist favours one side over the other.”

Though this is a particularly clever bit of martial reasoning for a hobbit, it leaves Thorin obviously unimpressed. Dwarf children must learn such things from the cradle. “What does that tell you?”

Bilbo stares at the sword and the dwarf in turn. Thorin waits like a rock, like raised hammer preparing to fall.

“...look out for that side?”

Thorin lifts his eyebrows. “Is that a question?”

“Look out for that side,” Bilbo repeats, pulling his voice down as far as it will go. “So... attacks from the right hand, meaning... I should block left?”

Again, the raised eyebrows.

“I should block left.” Bilbo nods, punctuating his words with more confidence than he feels. This is ridiculous, and embarrassing, but it may save his life someday for all it may presently make him die of shame.

“In close quarters, a stab is far more effective than a slash as it is far more difficult to block.”

Bilbo nods, suppressing a shudder. How well he knows.

With that, Thorin scrapes his chair backward upon the veranda floor. “Draw your weapon.”

“Uh,” says Bilbo.

“Draw your weapon.” Quiet, insistent, and hardly about to ask again.

Bilbo draws his weapon.

Thorin lifts Orcrist in one hand and points the tip at Bilbo’s breastbone.

Bilbo scrambles out of his chair only for a rough hand to catch him by the back of the waistcoat.

“Sit, Master Baggins. Escape will serve you poorly if you turn your back so soon.”

Cheeks flaming, Bilbo sits. “Shouldn’t we be standing for this?”

Perhaps it was nearly dying yesterday, but Thorin looks tired around the edges. “I will teach you how to stand after I teach you how to block.”

“I know how to stand,” Bilbo protests.

Thorin simply looks at him.

Bilbo does his utmost to sink through the veranda. The ring in his pocket tempts. Failing one feat and resisting the other, Bilbo replies, “All right, then.”

“I will move slowly,” Thorin promises. Then, with exaggerated care, Thorin guides the tip of Orcrist toward Bilbo’s chest.

With unsteady hands and fierce concentration, Bilbo pushes his blade against the side of Orcrist, pushes and pushes until Orcrist points out over the table instead.

Before he can so much as think of feeling proud of himself, Thorin asks, “How large do you think you are?”

Bilbo looks down at himself. “This large. Or small, really, compared to everyone else. I’m not sure what that has to do with anything.”

Without another word, Thorin stabs the air to Bilbo’s side, a jab that would have skewered Bilbo’s elbow were he but six inches to the left.

Bilbo nearly shrieks at the flash of live steel. If he remains silent, it is only because so large a shout stoppers up his throat. “Please don’t do that,” he begs in a small voice.

“Are you harmed?” Thorin asks, a question intended to bait a feeble answer.

“No, but I hardly see the point, er, purpose in nearly stabbing me.”

“Your size is your greatest advantage,” Thorin informs him. Only advantage, his eyes add as they flick down the extent of Bilbo’s body, such as it is. “Defended properly, you will make a difficult target. If you don’t know the limits of your body, you’ll waste your strength.” That Bilbo has little strength to waste goes unsaid. “If I come directly at you…” He begins the motion anew, a straight, slow thrust that Bilbo again presses away to the side. “Stop.”

Bilbo stops, hands tight about the hilt, and Orcrist continues its push forward, past him rather than into him.

“The space before you is all you need defend. Do you understand?”

Bilbo thinks of his wild swings from the mountaintop. “I think so, yes. But what about slashing?”

Perhaps Thorin’s lips move beneath his beard. He draws Orcrist back in clear preparation for a swing and brings the blade in slowly to tap against the side of Bilbo’s sword. “It still applies.”

“Oh. That makes sense.” He looks down at where the blades press. Distant amazement takes him at the simplicity of this. “Somehow, I thought this would be more complicated.”

“Swordplay doesn’t require complication to be difficult. Knowing the theory will hardly provide you with speed or strength.”

“Fair point.” Bilbo attempts a smile at his unintentional pun. Once again, Thorin ignores the joke.

“Sword down. Now, we stand.”

Unexpectedly eager, Bilbo complies. He puffs himself up as best he can only for Thorin to kick at the sides of his feet with his cold, hard boots. Bilbo gives a muffled squeak but moves his feet accordingly. His squeak isn’t muffled at all when Thorin seizes him by the hips and forcibly shifts Bilbo’s weight.

“Better,” Thorin acknowledges. He puts Bilbo’s sword back into his hands and adjusts Bilbo’s arms, angling forearm and bending elbow without so much as a by-your-leave. “Relax. You cannot be strong if you turn your arms brittle.”

“I’m holding a sword!”

“So?”

“Well, it’s...” Heavy. “Difficult. Not to be tense, I mean.”

Thorin tilts his head slightly, his long hair shifting upon his chest and shoulders. “It is that foreign to you.”

“That’s not obvious?”

For the first time that day, Thorin smiles.

Bilbo’s face burns, and not from the bright summer sun. “Right, yes, thank you. It’s obvious, good to know.”

“Would a fork be more to your liking?”

Rather than retreat, Bilbo faces the mockery head-on. “It would, thank you.”

Without another word, Thorin plucks the sword from Bilbo’s hands, sets it upon the table, and takes up a wooden fork. He holds it out to Bilbo in offering. His expression is one of complete seriousness. A dwarven king in his armour and furs, offering to teach a hobbit to swordfight with a fork: the image strikes Bilbo in his heart with a giddy, giggling blow.

He can’t prevent his laughter, truly can’t, and it is a long, hiccupping moment before the giggles subside. He covers his mouth as best he can, but the laughter must be ridden out.

At last, Thorin drops the fork back to its proper place and takes up Bilbo’s sword. Bilbo forces himself back to seriousness with an abrupt clearing of the throat. He stands up tall as Thorin hands him the blade, but another giggle beats against the roof of his mouth.

“Much better,” Thorin murmurs.

“Better?” Bilbo asks, startled out of his amusement.

Thorin hums, once again adjusting Bilbo’s grip. “You’re no longer quite so brittle.”

“Oh!” The exclamation comes out much louder than intended, though this would be true at any volume at all. How strange to think of Thorin with a sense of humour, let alone knowing how to use that humour well.

Thorin takes Orcrist in hand. “Mirror me.” He demonstrates one block and another, his sword forming a hard wall and a slanting roof in turn. The pattern is simple enough, and Bilbo follows as best he’s able. His arms rapidly grow tired. His legs do as well, the unending shifting from position to position more tiring than hiking up hills. Though Thorin is the one recovering from long hours on the brink of death, Bilbo is hardly unaffected by their recent battle. Yes, this is certainly a good excuse. His arms grow heavy. The tip of his sword fights to fall.

When Thorin says, “Block me,” Bilbo nearly whimpers. Thorin strikes with exaggerated slowness, but he does strike. A strike to the side, then from above, and Bilbo learns the use of turning his sword into a wall or a roof. Though Thorin’s movements change from defence to attack, Bilbo’s blocks remain the same.

Perhaps repetition teaches comfort or perhaps exhaustion dulls his nerves, but the cycle of blocking grows regular and relaxed. The knocking of their blades still sets Bilbo’s hands and arms vibrating, but it’s less jarring, more familiar. Unable to break the rhythm without doing himself harm, Bilbo falls into the motions again and again, until muscles strain and sweat drips beneath the ever-rising sun.

When Thorin breaks the pattern, he does so obviously, pulling back Orcrist for a thrust forward. Bilbo smacks Thorin’s sword only to have his blade bounce away. Orcrist’s tip continues forward and pauses before Bilbo’s throat.

Pulse racing, hands numb, Bilbo lets his arms drop. He becomes abruptly aware of the sweat binding his clothing against his skin. Yet more threatens to drip into his eyes.

“Lift your weapon,” Thorin instructs.

Without enough air to speak, Bilbo shakes his head. A droplet falls from his nose.

“Lift your weapon.” His tone does not change. His stance does not alter. His eyes remain constant on Bilbo’s face.

Muscles straining, Bilbo lifts his weapon.

Thorin nods. “Guide me away.”

Again, he thrusts forward. Again, Bilbo’s efforts bounce away.

Guide,” Thorin repeats. A third thrust, condescendingly slow.

Bilbo rolls his eyes. Exhausted, he moves his sword only the slightest amount necessary, a tap of metal before sustained contact. If it is possible for swordsmanship to be sarcastic, Bilbo’s certainly is. Deterred only as far as it absolutely must be, Orcrist slides past him.

Thorin nods.

“I’m stopping now,” Bilbo tells him in a faint voice, desperately needing water and a nap. The bones of his arms seem to have been replaced by rubber.

“For now,” Thorin corrects. “You will not always be able to rely on luck and hope to save you.”

“I’m very good at hiding.” He very nearly pats his pocket as he says so. Instead, he simply fumbles about with his sword until his hand slips.

Before the tip can pierce Bilbo’s foot, Thorin’s hand darts forward and catches Bilbo’s sword about the blade.

“Careful, it’s sharp!” Bilbo squeaks.

Half-crouched and leaning forward, Thorin looks up at him slowly. Perhaps it’s the angle, or perhaps his mouth truly can twist like that. And then the sound, the impossible, rumbling sound that only worsens as Thorin straightens.

Laughter. Thorin is laughing.

Bilbo gapes at him, an act apparently more amusing to Thorin than even forkfighting. With a thick, rolling chuckle, Thorin sits down and sets Bilbo’s sword upon the table. He flashes Bilbo the unbroken skin of his palm, ruddy but not reddened. He must have pinched the flat of the blade, not wrapped his hand about the edge as Bilbo would have.

“And what dare I ask is so funny?” Bilbo demands.

“You,” Thorin answers. “To be warning me.”

Bilbo considers that for all of a second before he too is laughing. He has to sit down. He does, quivering with mirth and fatigue in equal measure. A napkin from the table serves readily as a handkerchief and he wipes the sweat from his forehead before it can drip into his eyes.

“A fair point,” Bilbo says, sighing with laughter. “A very fair point.”

Thorin lifts his knee and sets his booted heel gently atop Bilbo’s foot, miming impalement.

Bilbo laughs until he’s gasping. Breathless, he leans back against the table, his elbows upon it, his hands hanging.

Facing the table, Thorin looks at him from the side, an amused expression settling onto his features. Rather than strange and useless, Bilbo is now new and absurd. This must be some sort of progress.

“You were saying,” Bilbo prompts as Thorin sheathes their weapons. “About hope and luck.”

“They will save you infrequently at best.”

Bilbo grins a little. “But they will save me?”

“Am I not living proof of that?” Thorin counters.

Bilbo’s grin melts into a smile. He turns in his seat to face across the veranda, out from Beorn’s house. Their elbows bump, Bilbo’s shirtsleeves drenched with sweat and Thorin’s impossibly dry.

“Axes tomorrow,” Thorin adds. Bilbo fights down a whimper. “Defending from, not using. I wouldn’t risk arming you with even a hatchet.”

“Thank you,” Bilbo says. “Your confidence in me is overwhelming. It means so much.”

The way Thorin looks at him in reply makes Bilbo doubt that dwarves know of sarcasm. Thorin’s steady gaze turns Bilbo’s complaint frighteningly truthful. “There’s no point fetching a burglar so far from the west if he doesn’t survive the journey east.”

Bilbo looks away immediately, focusing his gaze far into the distance. “Right. Of course. Obviously.”

They sit in silence, Bilbo sweating and shifting, Thorin stone-like once more.

“If we are attacked again—and we likely shall be—what is your best method of defence?” Thorin asks him.

“Is this a question or a test?”

“Both.” As if nothing else could be more natural. Perhaps it is natural to Thorin. Is this some dwarven trait, the unending urge to test and test an unknown metal? If Bilbo shatters, does Thorin think a hobbit can simply be melted down and formed anew? Perhaps he does.

Bilbo thinks for an answer long and hard beneath the sunlight. “Run and hide if I can... but don’t turn my back if the enemy is close. If I can’t run, then... block and yell for help?”

“That would be the second best method.”

Of course it is. Still, that’s higher than he’d expected. He twiddles his thumbs on the table. He risks looking up at Thorin. “What’s the first?”

“Stand behind me,” Thorin answers simply.

“Oh,” Bilbo says.

Thorin looks down at him, lifting an eyebrow at Bilbo’s abrupt silence.

“You say that as if it’s obvious,” Bilbo says, attempting to explain his confusion.

“It is,” Thorin replies. “It is no light thing, Master Baggins, to save the life of a king.”

His mouth dry of words, his head empty of thoughts, Bilbo struggles to answer with only his eyes. He must accomplish it, if only in some small form, for Thorin nods and looks out into the distance once more. Bilbo sits at his side, too exhausted to leave it. As sweat traces its trails beneath his shirt, the urge to speak lessens. There is more to come, training and talking both. For now, they rest.