Thorin sat disconsolately at the table of Beorn the Skinchanger. He wasn’t happy with stopping here, even though the comfort offered was impeccable in a woodlands way. Every sunrise brought them closer to Durin’s Day, but would not bring them closer to Erebor while they tarried in the man-bear’s halls.
Thorin reminded himself not to fret; the company was benefitting from the respite, as were Thorin’s own wounds courtesy of the Defiler. It would do them no good to land on the doorstop of the Lonely Mountain starved and sickening. At least, that is what Balin had gently reminded him.
The older dwarf was sitting across from Thorin calmly contemplating around his pipe, while most of the company finished their long breakfast. Gandalf was off somewhere with their enigmatic host. A few of them were out of doors, including their rather surprising burglar, no doubt enjoying the sunshine.
No doubt, that is, until Kili came in with eyes overflowing with mirth to collect his brother. “Come on, come! Dwalin’s teaching the Halfling to use his sword!”
The promise of entertainment lured the rest of them outside. Dwarfs like watching fights almost as much as participating in them. Thorin fell into step beside Balin, who was bringing up the rear. “I suppose you put the word in Dwalin’s ear?” He asked quietly.
Balin acknowledged the guess with a tilt of his head. “Aye. The only thing worse than not having a weapon is carrying one y’dinnae know how to use. The little man’s luck should not be his only skill.”
Thorin nodded in agreement, pleased with the initiative the old warrior had taken. The Halfling’s lack of experience with his gifted weapon had been weighing on him. Thorin may have been slow to acknowledge Bilbo’s place in their Company but once done Thorin did not shy from his duty as their leader. No matter what he had said to the wizard, he was responsible for all their fates and therefore must take all possible steps to ensure their survival. Dwarves the world over were trained to at least a basic degree in warcraft, a necessary skill in a hostile world; one that Hobbits rarely ran afoul of.
By the time they reached the clearing where Dwalin was giving instruction to the creature that barely came up to his chest, the rest of the Company had ranged themselves on the ground to watch the show.
Yes, Thorin grimaced, it was somewhat painful to watch because the Halfling was clearly a rank amateur with a sword. He made the kind of errors timid fighters usually make as well; flinching and aiming to hit the opponents sword rather than his body.
But...you’d never know it to look at him but Dwalin was actually a very good teacher. He handled much of the youngling instruction in the Blue Mountains whenever he was there and was remarkably patient for such a fierce fighter. He calmly corrected stances and grips, didn’t belittle or humiliate his student and crisply put a stop to any unnecessary swagger or flourishing. And, credit where it’s due, the Halfling was paying serious attention and didn’t need to have things repeated to him overmuch either.
Of course, the art of violence wasn’t gentle. The dwarves were wagering on when Bilbo would next drop his sword or trip; but only quietly, not so as to hurt feelings.
Fili and Kili were both sniggering a little, which eventually drove Thorin to pointedly remark. “At least he hasn’t come close to lopping of his own toes. Or his ear, as some I could name.” The sniggers stopped and were replaced by grimaces as the pair remembered their own first times on the training fields.
Thorin was steadfastly fixing the mistakes he’d made; he cursed himself privately for not remembering that leadership was a mirror – his followers had reflected him, including his disdain of their burglar. Well, the Company was learning in no uncertain terms that Bilbo Baggins was a member and would be treated as such.
He ignored Balin’s sideways grin, either because the older dwarf was amused at Thorin’s sudden turnabout regarding their burglar or because he was remembering Thorin’s own rather spectacular debut into armscraft – a memory which Thorin always did his level best to bury.
Bilbo was sweaty and breathing hard – the long journey had so far done wonders for his fitness but a different kind of stamina was demanded for fighting. Dwalin was not so much as damp.
The tattooed dwarf held out his hand. “Sword.”
Confused, Bilbo handed his weapon hilt first to the dwarf and became even more confused when it was thrown behind the warrior to land with a thud on the grass. Dwalin’s own weapon followed it.
“Oooh, unarmed combat,” Fili murmured, eyes dancing. “This is gonna hurt.”
“In battle, you will at some point lose your weapon. Ye’ve got to be ready to go after it,” Dwalin told the hobbit.
Bilbo’s eyebrows rose. “Er...alright? So what am I to do, then?”
“Get past me,” Dwalin replied stolidly, setting his feet. “Unarmed. Using only your feet, and body.”
“Uh, I don’t think...” Bilbo began uneasily. “I mean, I know...”
“Get past me, Halfling,” Dwalin growled. “Any way you think you can. You must be prepared to face the worst.”
Ori, who was rather kind hearted, piped up worriedly. “Dwalin’s not going to hurt him, is he?”
“Ah, don’t worry,” Kili waved a hand. “He might put him on the ground nice and hard. He usually does that the first time,” he added, voice gloomy with memory.
It was true, Thorin considered grimly. Your first lesson in unarmed combat usually started with a sharp, hard throw to the ground – a reminder that your enemy was just as strong and dangerous unarmed as he was armed. The quicker that lesson was driven home, the more likely you would survive.
Still, Ori - and Bofur and Bombur and a few others – were looking worried and it was easy to see why. Bilbo looked very fragile next to Dwalin.
“He’ll be fine, laddie,” Balin reassured Thorin quietly. “Dwalin knows his limits.”
Thorin relaxed slightly. It was true. The hobbit would not be harmed beyond the odd bruise; Dwalin was an expert.
The Halfling lunged at Dwalin, sensibly using his agility rather than his strength.
Thorin was never quite clear on what happened next.
There was a complicated moment, where Bilbo pivoted right at the very moment where Dwalin’s hand came around to swipe him, struck a heel into the side of Dwalin’s knee, did something unusual with his hand that gripped Dwalin’s swinging arm, brought his spare arm elbow up along Dwalin’s shoulder joint as Dwalin overbalanced forward, swivelled, bent, pulled and heaved...
The next instant, Dwalin was flipping head over heels over the hobbit’s shoulder to land in a full body slam on the grass, his arm wrenched over head.
There was a silence broken only by the sound of eleven dwarvish jaws dropping to the ground and Balin’s pipe following with a clunk of scattered embers.
It would have counted, hands down, as the single most astonishing thing Thorin had ever seen had it not been for the words that next came out of Bilbo’s mouth.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry! Are you alright, Mr Dwalin? Can you all help me? I think I misjudged it! His arm might be dislocated!”
“I’m sorry!” Bilbo repeated miserably from where he sat on the ground.
It was ten (very surreal) minutes later. The Company had all gathered round the pale faced hobbit and his astounded instructor, who was now sitting up and braced on one side by Balin and on the other by Oin who was matter-of-factly relocating Dwalin’s shoulder joint.
“Dinnae fret, Mr Baggins,” Balin reassured. He had refilled his pipe and was smoking it somewhat furiously. Thorin almost asked for a puff. “He’s been pulling his joints since he was a wee dwarfling of seven. I’m surprised he even notices when that happens anymore.”
“Never mind that!” Bofur’s mouth was still open. “Mahal’s beard, where did you learn that?”
Even Thorin leaned forward slightly to hear the answer.
“Er...the same place every hobbit does?” Bilbo looked uncomfortable under their scrutiny. “From my parents?” The words came out slightly uncertain in the face of their diamond tipped stares.
“Your parents were warriors?” Dori asked, puzzled.
“What? No!” Bilbo replied, looking surprised. “Certainly not! They were respectable folk, my mum and da.”
“But...you just said...”
“Every hobbit, you said?” Thorin broke in, searching the Halfling’s face. “All hobbits learn this from their parents?”
There was a pause while the dwarfs parsed this in amazement.
“Uh....well not that exactly,” Bilbo stammered.
Thorin listened, open mouthed, as Bilbo haltingly explained. It was like breaking through a rock wall and finding a whole new country on the other side.
Hobbits started young – very, very young. As soon as they could toddle, hobbit parents teach the Walks and the Breathing. Every day, as part of their schooling, hobbit children spent at least an hour learning balance and precision, walking on fence lines and hopscotching on thin tree stumps. At some point, usually around ten years, they started to learn the family style.
“Most of the Shire folk are farmers and workers, so they learn the styles of the Tools,” Bilbo explained.
“Tools? You mean weapons?” Kili interjected. “When I was in the Shire the most offensive thing I saw was a pocket knife! What weapons?”
“You, lad,” Dori growled unexpectedly at the dwarf aristocrat. “Are a rank amateur who doesn’t know the damage a pitchfork can do at high speeds. All farmers are armed.”
In the Shire, Bilbo explained, they valued their tools. The crop farmers had the Spade style, the Hoe Style and the Rake style. The livestock farmers had their gelding and flensing knives, of course, and everyone had a sickle somewhere. The millers had some terrifying tools at their disposal, the woodmen all have axes, the lawyers can do horrific things with a ledger and a ruler and every home has a tool box full of hammers and spanners; you can get a terrific heft with a toolbox too. Sometimes it was down to family lines – the Maggot’s Scythe style was almost unbeatable. The Tooks all loved their weapons, especially the wicked billhooks used to cut pipeweed. Even if you’re unsuited to your lineage’s style, there are plenty of others.
“There’s a style for everyone, every kind of hobbit.” Bilbo shrugged into their looks.
“And yours?” Balin asked slowly.
“Me?” Bilbo pointed to himself ruefully. “Gentlehobbit, remember? My da was a gentlehobbit through and through so he only wanted me to learn the traditional ways of gentlehobbits.”
Gentlehobbits don’t usually go in for labour, so no tools; which meant the aristocrats use hands and feet – and brains.
There was more to being a gentlehobbit than land and wealth. As a gentlehobbit, Bilbo was legally obliged to maintain a cellar capable of holding all the children in his area plus ten percent. If there was an increase in population he had to expand it at his own expense. It was every gentlehobbit’s duty to keep and maintain a Hide, just in case. They were peppered, hidden, throughout the Shire. A gentlehobbit also had to know various tactics and routes for escape and evasion, so they could direct others. Gentlehobbit children didn’t get their comfortable lives for free; education was usually longer than their peers, and more detailed.
Hobbits came of age at thirty three. This was because by this time you had completed the five stages of training necessary to hold your own.
“First, you have to maintain balance all the way across the stump forest,” Bilbo ticked off the points on his hands. “That’s a long hop across very thin stanchions, like fence posts. We do that at about age ten, at the summer fares. You do it until you can do it without a wobble. Then you have to successfully escape and evade the elders; we play that on Elders Night when we’re about fifteen. Teams of younglings have to successfully navigate an entire Farthing without being spotted, using only their stealth and teamwork. The adults – gammers and such, all stalk the Shire. If you get caught, you get a bloody nose and you have to do it again next year. Then, you have to hold your own at three different tournaments – not win the whole thing, but be successful for at least three fights with another hobbits your own age. That can go on until you are about twenty to twenty five. Then you have to win a fight against one of the masters; usually the head of your own family and that can take a good long while because they trained you and know all your weak spots. And finally,” Bilbo took a breath and the Company all leaned forward. “You have to win a match against two peers and a human – at the same time. The Battle Royale, as it were. The village of Bree sends its best. That starts at thirty, and you have three tries.”
An astonished silence followed this long explanation.
“All Hobbit men do this?” Bombur asked weakly.
“Oh, no. All hobbits do it. All of ‘em,” Bilbo replied cheerfully.
“What, even girls?” Kili asked – which Thorin thought was a bit strange of his nephew. His sister Dis was terrifying when in a fight.
“Of course,” Bilbo seemed taken aback by the question. “My mum was a Took, and Tooks love their weapons. They used to call her the Mistress of the Feathers.” He reached over and plucked Ori’s battered quill from behind his ear, absently smoothing and twining it through his fingers. “Hobbit womenfolk are much more dangerous than the men; they’re quieter and quicker and have got heaps more to protect.” Bilbo scanned the quill tip and then – thoughtless and effortless – sent the bedraggled thing whipping through the air where is spiralled into a log ... a thumbs length in. And while the shock hadn’t faded, Bilbo added. “Of course she used to coat them in poison – a paralytic. Made you stiff all over then you drop like a tree.”
“But...but...why?” Kili exclaimed, flabbergasted. The rest of the dwarves all nodded to this.
“Why?” Bilbo had no right to look that shocked, not after dropping surprises on them like winter rain. “Surely as a dwarf you would... because we’re small, Fili. That’s why,” Bilbo shrugged again. “We’re little folk in a big world with big people and everyone carries a sword or a battleaxe or something and they fight so much that they don’t think of doing anything else. Um...especially when their opponents are, well...”
“Small?” Thorin finished for him.
It did make a sort of sense, Thorin thought grimly. He’d known more than enough of the race of Men and Elves who looked down on dwarfs for their stature, thinking they would be an easy target.
He always made sure they never thought that for long.
“And, you know, our land is good land, plentiful. It’s not exactly a pile of gold but it does keep us well fed and there are stupid, arrogant people out there from wastelands that think we’ll be easy to rule, or control or scare off.”
“Aye, ‘tis true,” Balin nodded. “But for all that trouble, why not learn a sword?”
Bilbo shrugged. “Metal is expensive and hard to replace when broken. We don’t forge much, as a rule. We don’t use much coin either. What we do have goes toward equipment. Anyway, it’s like old Gaffer Gamgee would say – a spade can be an axe or a club, used right, and you can also dig your potatoes with it. Um...yes.”
Thorin was feeling discomfited by all of this. “Why did you not tell us of this before? We should know the fighting skills of all who travel with us.”
Bilbo suddenly looked so sad. “Oh Thorin, it wouldn’t have mattered. We don’t use it to kill. Ever. Um...even my mum’s darts were only used to knock people out.”
“Why not, for Mahal’s sake?” Nori snorted.
“Because...if you kill someone with a sword, eventually someone will come along who is a better killer than you,” Bilbo fidgeted miserably. “And he might bring his friends, and their swords. I mean, if you spoil for a fight, you kind of get one, see? We’re peaceful folk. We like to keep the peace rather than spill blood for it. We defend. That way, we only need to survive. And mum always used to say that if you sorted Men out and then sent them on their way, most Men would be loathe to admit they’d been beaten by a farmer."
Not to mention a farmer who is smaller, lighter and carries no clear weapon, Thorin thought to himself. No, he couldn’t see even an honest man admitting to that shame.
“I’m not ... we’re not warriors, Thorin,” Bilbo mumbled. “If a real army, with swords and everything, surrounded the Shire they would sort us out good and proper. The best we could do is land a few good hits and then run. There hasn’t even been a murder in the Shire for as long as any history books go back. We only learn these things so we don’t have to be violent, see?”
There was a silence where an uncomfortable realization dawned on the dwarves listening and especially hard on Thorin – violence and death wasn’t in a Halflings nature, but one Halfling had dug down and found some, nevertheless; in defence of a comrade who had not been especially kind, no less.
Thorin wondered if there was any way he could ever repay that.
It was Dwalin who broke the silence, clapping Bilbo on the shoulder. “Well, we’ll make do with what we’ve got, laddie. Up you get – the rest of you too.”
“Us?” Kili asked, surprised.
Dwalin grinned, all teeth. “Master Baggins here is going to give us a lesson or two in Halfling fighting. We’ll fight; he’ll show us what he can do.”
Dwarf eyes gleamed in anticipation.
Hobbit’s eyes didn’t. “Wait, what?”
Thorin glared around his pipe to the training field, disgruntled. The cursed Halfling has flatly refused to let him join in (“You’re still healing!”) and the even more cursed other members had all sided with him, the traitors.
Still, they were all getting an education.
Thorin absently reached down and patted Gloin on the shoulder while the rust haired dwarf occasionally let out a pained whimper. “Look at it like this; you have a strong son, so you don’t have to worry about succession.”
Another whimper answered him.
One thing they had learned (oh, how Gloin had learned), was that there was more to hobbit feet than met the eye. Those ever shoeless clodhoppers had developed calluses like boiled leather and foot bones that were as dense as stone. A direct hit from one of those was like getting kicked by a horse – a steel shod one.
Another thing they learned was that hobbits really did take on multiple opponents with ease.
Bilbo currently had Bifur in a headlock by his axe, while neatly elbowing Nori in the chest and swivelling his foot back towards Oin, who was attempting to grab from behind....
Thorin grimaced as Oin folded up.
Other members of the Company were variously strewn across the ground or crawling out of the melee. Dwalin, having the time of his life, was getting up to have another go.
Balin, a tactician of old, was sitting next to Thorin.
Thorin shook his head. The hobbit had all the grace and accuracy that he would have killed for in his youth. And if that wasn’t enough, the little one seemed to think of these honourable skills as some kind of vulgar necessity. Dwarf logic simply could not add those facts together.
But it was mesmerizing to watch.
“Uncle,” Fili panted as he crawled up; he’d had the wind knocked out of him by a sharp kick before being cartwheeled to the ground by a well placed leg sweep. Oddly enough it was the common miners who were having the best luck, not the more classically trained dwarfs. “Permission to return to the Shire and recruit a dozen more Halflings?”
“Two dozen,” Gloin grunted.
“I’d round it to an even four,” Balin added placidly. In the clearing, Bifur was down, Bofur was being forced to kneel in an arm lock and Bombur was staggering away from another kick.
Dwalin took the advantage, scruffed the Hobbit like a kitten, flipped and pinned him while Bilbo laughed. He held up a hand in supplication.
“Denied. Take too long,” Thorin muttered. Too long, damn it. Bilbo was now wrapping one leg across Dwalin’s shoulders, yanking him by one ear and neatly flipping him so they reversed position. Dwalin started to laugh as well.
But Bilbo the mighty was then outmatched because the remaining dwarfs all mobbed the little Halfling in a quintessential dwarvish manoeuvre that never failed – technically known as a scrum. Their mirth echoed the woods.
A shadow fell across the watchers. “Unfortunately it would do you no good, Master Fili,” Gandalf’s amused voice floated down. “Hobbit folk are not at ease leaving their homes. They’d scarcely travel ten miles in their lifetimes.”
“I suppose you knew all about this,” Thorin muttered while Gandalf took a seat to watch the scrum untangle.
“Well, yes. I am a wizard, and therefore I observe the details. But what I said is correct; Shire folk do not venture beyond their borders if they can avoid it. It’s a very rare Hobbit indeed that cares enough about the world outside to go into it and you already have him.”
The Hobbit in question was trotting up, sweaty but grinning. “Are you sure you’re alright, Gloin?”
Gloin had started to uncurl. “Aye, aye. Fine,” he muttered. “I think I’ll sit out the rest, though.”
Bilbo gave Fili a hand up, and the young dwarf slapped him on the back. “Ready for another bout?”
Bilbo rolled his eyes. “Dwarfs. Don’t even think about it,” he shook a finger at Thorin, much to Fili’s cackling amusement.
Thorin glowered and ignored Balin who was silently laughing beside him. “You’ll only have a few days grace, you impertinent Halfling. Then we’ll see.”
“We will.” Bilbo grinned. The sunlight caught the honey tint in his hair and glinted of his face like a diamond, his eyes bright and cheeks flushed warmly.
Thorin felt his mouth go dry. Looking at Bilbo – unexpected and foolhardy and unbearably brave Bilbo – he experienced what could only be called a golden moment.
And all dwarves loved their gold.
“I should like to see one of these Shire tournaments of yours one day,” Thorin said gruffly, wrestling with the unexpected surge of affection. And he would, too – anything to watch that small, barefooted frame move like a dancer with perfect intent towards his enemies.
Bilbo beamed like the sun and was called back by Dwalin’s demand to ‘teach how in Arda you did that!’ “I’d like that,” he smiled as he went back towards the fight, his sword still forlorn on the ground.
Thorin smiled. Yes, they had the rarest one indeed.