The long trudge back to camp was silent and tense. Kili, ever light-footed, tore away ahead of the other three; thank goodness for small mercies. Dwalin looked just as angry as he always did, and he was perhaps paler than usual. Balin too looked angry, though Bofur was pretty sure he was not the object of the old dwarf’s wrath. Balin kept darting glances at his brother, and there would no doubt be hard words between the two as soon as they could be private.
Bofur was at a loss. It was secret he hadn’t wanted and still didn’t want, and he wished there were a way to un-know it.
His mind picked at it, though. He couldn’t help it. There were legends of warrior-maidens, back in the First and even the Second Ages, but dwarf women were rare enough that no one had risked them in battle for thousands of years. How on earth had Dwalin convinced someone as tradition-bound as Thorin…
Oh. “Thorin doesn’t know, does he?”
Balin went white, and stopped dead. Bofur stopped automatically, and looked up at the older dwarf. There was fear in Balin’s eyes.
Bofur had seen Balin face down the Goblin King. There had been no fear then.
“I won’t tell him.” The words spilled out of him before he’d thought them through. It wasn’t quite a crime, what he was party to, but Thorin’s wrath should he find out would not be the less for that. This was taboo of the deepest sort. Dwalin would only be sent home in disgrace, but those who had been party to his perversion…
Dwalin’s face stayed just as stony as it ever was, but Balin drew a relieved breath for both of them. “Thank you, lad,” the old dwarf said quietly. They started walking toward camp again, the air no longer quite so thick with unspoken words.
As they approached the fire and the others’ hearty cries, Bofur bit his lip, realizing that the danger was not passed. “What about Oin?” he asked Dwalin.
Dwalin flicked him a glance, and Bofur realized that it was only Balin’s anger that had subsided, not his brother’s. Misery was writ large in every bone of Dwalin’s body.
Bofur thought of what it must be like, knowing every day that his secret could be discovered and he could lose everything. A lesser dwarf would never dare such a foolhardy plan, but Dwalin was the bravest dwarf Bofur knew, except maybe Bifur. Dwalin had been a warrior for more than a century, carrying this secret.
It moved something in him, deep and unexplainable. It wasn’t pity, and it wasn’t friendship. Dwalin moved toward the fire steadily, as if going to his doom.
“Does the wound need stitching?” Bofur asked suddenly.
Dwalin shook his head and kept marching, eyes forward, soldier to the last.
“Say nothing, then.” Bofur was pleased that his voice didn’t shake. “I’ll borrow some of Oin’s ointments after he sees to my neck. No one need know.”
Dwalin stopped. Bofur stopped. Balin glanced at the two of them and hurried on.
“Why?” Dwalin rumbled. Bofur had never noticed before how impassively Dwalin held his face. Years of practice, no doubt. It was like trying to read the emotions of a wall.
Bofur tried to think of the right words, but they didn’t come. Instead, he shrugged and went for the easy answer: just as true, but not the real reason.
“You’ve saved each and every one of our hides on this journey. We’d most likely be dead without you.” He chewed his lip. “I for one would like my fourteenth share of the gold at the end. A thirteenth share might sound better to some, but I don’t think we’d survive the dragon without you, if we even managed to get there.”
He couldn’t tell if the scowl he got was for his words or if it was just Dwalin’s normal expression. But the burly dwarf nodded, finally.
“Have Oin see to your neck before you lose more blood,” he said gruffly, and stumped off to join Gloin by the fire.