There was a flurry of whispers going on behind him, occasionally punctuated with a rather outrageous cry or a disbelieving snort. Normally he would ignore such hissed gossip being flittered about, considering it as nothing more than annoying insect buzz. However, as the furious whispering behind him had been going on since the wee early hours of the morning…
"Don't you old maids have anything else to be yapping about?" he finally burst out, frowning at the figures behind him.
Two sets of wide, surprised eyes stared back at him before looking towards his brother for assistance.
Fíli just sighed and leaned over in order to whack his younger brother upside his head.
"What?" Kíli asked huffily. "They've been nattering at each other all day!"
"It's only been an hour whelp," Dwalin said pointedly.
"Well, it feels like it's been all day…" Kíli muttered.
"Aww, do you feel left out?" Fíli snickered. Kíli sent him a small frown to show just how much he wasn't pleased with his brother teasing him.
"But what was with uncle Thorin though?" Fíli asked as he brought his pony to a halt to wait for the older two dwarrows to catch up. "He didn't seem worried at all. He was almost… relaxed."
Kíli let out a huff. "Of course he's relaxed. We're going to trounce that dragon and show him that it was the biggest mistake of his life to mess with the dwarrows of Erebor! What's there to be worried about?"
Fíli looked like he very much wanted to whap Kíli again, but was now too far back to reach. Dwalin looked to be calculating his own arm's length verses the young prince's distance.
"Thorin did seem different this morning," Dwalin said instead, as he decided it wasn't worth the strain.
Balin let out a small chuckle at that and Dwalin looked over at his brother in askance. "Thorin from the past few decades? Yes. But not so different than Thorin had once been before."
"Exactly, before," Dwalin quickly exclaimed thoroughly vexed, startling Fíli beside him. "As in before. Before the dragon. Before the mass exodus to the west. Before Kazah-dûm and the pale orc and… I don't understand it. Yesterday he was so stretched tight he was nearly as taunt as Kíli's bow."
"And did you see that grin today?" Fíli added keenly around Dwalin. "He looked just like Kíli!"
The second young dwarf turned at the sound of his name being repeated, but seeing as none of the others were even looking at him he rolled his eyes and pulled on the reins to allow his brother to catch up. "What about me?"
"Uncle Thorin! He looked just like you when you're about to do something you're not suppose to!"
"Indeed, he did," Balin confirmed. "He always looked like that in his younger days. Just before he, Dwalin and your uncle Frerin usually did something that would ensure I would have a pounding headache - for days."
Balin's statement perked the two younger dwarflings up. They were always interested to learn more of the uncle they never knew. All they ever heard was how much they were just like Thorin and Frerin had been at their age. Thick as thieves, mischievous and prone to trouble. And just like Fíli and Kíli, Thorin and his brother had only been five years apart in age.
It was one of the main reasons why the two never brought up their other uncle within Thorin's hearing range. The thought of losing Kíli horrified Fíli enough, but he never wished to be the reason for that look of sadness and loss that always stole over Thorin's face when his brother was mentioned. Kíli was of the same mind on the issue so the only time they ever heard of Frerin was when one of the older dwarrows brought him up.
Dwalin let out a snort. "You mean when Frerin was up to something that would get him into trouble. Usually Thorin and I had to go after him to pull him out of it before their father learned of it."
"And more often then not ending up tangled into the mess right along with him," Balin chuckled.
"Oy! That fiasco with the goats and the silk dye was all Frerin!" Dwalin protested.
"Sure it was…" Balin sounded as if he was of a different opinion altogether on the subject and Dwalin grumbled a bit while the boys dissolved into snickers. Luckily, they knew better than to press for details - for the moment at least.
"However, in regards to this morning," Balin shifted the conversation back to the main issue. "I believe that Thorin is just rather impatient to get back to Erebor and deal with the fire-wyrm."
"You would think that would make him more grumpy than he usually is, not happier," Fíli mused. Dwalin just inclined his head towards the fair-haired dwarf and nodded in agreement.
"I did not say that he was not worried," Balin assured them, thinking back to the distracted Thorin who had nearly gone head first into the trough. "Just…"
A distracted Thorin was one thing… but that smile! Not the cheeky grin that he had given his sister and her sons, but a smile of pure delight to see him. Him! Balin.
Thorin looked so pleased, and Balin could almost swear relieved, to see him that Balin had nearly inhaled his tobacco ash along with the smoke. He had not seen Thorin wear a look like that since before Smaug and the bitterness had settled around the young dwarf like a cloak. 'Or a shield,' he amended to himself. 'More tightly fastened than any other made of steal… or oak for that matter.'
"Confident?" Dwalin supplied as Balin trailed off into his own thoughts. "He seemed almost… excited to be leaving. Eager. Not troubled and anxious as he had been."
"But what is the reason, that's what we're trying to figure out!" Kíli pressed. "It's like he went to bed one dwarf and woke up another!"
"Kíli," Fíli groaned exasperated.
"What? It could happen!"
"This is not a nighttime story Kíli!"
"Perhaps it is the fact that he has a purpose once again," Dwalin suggested quietly as the boys dissolved into a small squabble over whether or not Thorin was being possessed by a rather odd, albeit cheerful ghost. "I hate to admit it, but toiling away as he has been since the loss of Erebor, ensuring we all had roofs over our heads and food in our bellies, has been putting a strain on his shoulders that even I could barely recognize him there for a while."
"It could be," Balin granted. "He's been given a single focal point with the desire to reclaim our home and Thorin always did work best with a single-minded purpose."
"One reason I did not argue when Thorin first proposed returning to Erebor," Dwalin stated pointedly.
Balin stiffened in his saddle. "My fears are well founded. You were on the other side of the city with the garrison when the dragon first arrived."
"But you must admit that Thorin's fears of others looking towards the mountain and calculating Erebor's coffers are credible," Dwalin insisted. "Besides," he continued on in what was his optimistic voice, "the beast may very well be dead."
"We could only be so lucky," Balin mumbled. "As we are, our forces are no match for a dragon if we are not able to maintain the element of surprise. Including whatever forces Dáin may or may not grant us, we would still need more dwarrows than we will have to face the dragon head on."
"We're not bad fighters as we are," Dwalin disputed.
"No, but many of us are… unseasoned." Both of them glanced at the backs of the two younger dwarrows. "And have never seen battle. What we need are strong veterans who have been to war. Those who would not balk in the midst of the fighting."
"And unfortunately, brother, many of those died at the battle of Azanulbizar following King Thráin."
"Yes, yes. I'm well aware," Balin acknowledged, remembering their own father briefly before shaking himself back into the present. "I know very well that there is no one else… doesn't mean I have to like it though." He sighed. "Trying to reclaim Moria was a haste decision on Thrór's part. I only hope the attempt to reclaim Erebor does not follow suit."
Dwalin hummed in thought, but said nothing as he pointed towards the small dwelling ahead of them. "We seemed to have arrived."
"First stop of many," Balin agreed as he eyed the moderate hut that Glóin had attained.
The door opened at the sound of the approaching ponies and the elder son of Gróin poked his head out. He nodded at the sighted of them and said something over his shoulder, most likely to his younger brother, before coming out of the building proper. "Morning!"
The mounted dwarrows all called out a greeting as the door opened once more and a younger dwarf made his way next to Óin. "Ho there travelers!" he greeted exuberantly.
"Gimli," Óin prodded the young dwarf on the shoulder. "Go back inside."
"What? I am saying hello to our guests," Gimli responded hotly in the direction of Óin's ear trumpet. Balin had to wonder if Óin's lack of hearing was the sole reason why that particular half of the family was all so … boisterous. He almost felt bad for his cousin's neighbors who had their own doors and windows firmly shut despite the beautiful day.
"Gimli, if you insist on remaining outside, why don't you offer to take the ponies?" Glóin prodded as he appeared at the small gate. Fíli and Kíli started snickering again and Gimli shot them a rather annoyed look.
"Oh no, we do not mean to stay long," Balin insisted even as he dismounted. "We just stopped by to ensure you have everything you need."
"Everything you need you mean," Glóin declared in exasperation. "Don't worry. I have the coin all set up for you."
Balin nodded in thanks as Glóin snagged Gimli's collar and hauled the boy back inside. Gimli didn't look too pleased to be dragged away and Óin snickered. "He's very put out he will not be accompanying us," the other dwarf explained. "Thinks he's a grown dwarf he does."
"He's not the only one," Fíli chuckled. Kíli shoved him nearly off his pony, which prompted Fíli to retaliate, and soon Dwalin was doing his best to keep them from having a brawl right there in the road.
"I also came to give you this." Balin pulled out a stack of parchment from his pouch and handed one over to Óin even as he pitched his voice so the trumpet could pick it up. "Directions towards the Shire and our supposed fourteenth member the wizard found for us."
"A halfling," Óin let out a loud laugh. "I've seen them you know. Down by the human towns. Seemed a rather soft lot to me."
"I'm sure the wizard knows what he's doing," Glóin stated as he reappeared with a multitude of little pouches and his beloved abacus. Gimli was right on his heels with a few more bags, totaling nine in all. "This should be enough for eight ponies plus some to spare as I'm not sure about the wizard's horse and whether or not he will be providing his own or…" The dwarf went to work with the counting beads.
"I'm sure the wizard will provide for the wizard," Balin assured him as he took the purses. He nodded to the tiny grazing pasture where two ponies were whickering at their own mounts. "I see you have already acquired your own ponies."
"Fine mountain stock!" Glóin announced proudly. "Sure footed and able to travel even the furthest of distances."
"Very nice," Balin complimented automatically. Óin was already rolling his eyes while Gimli was relating how his father had haggled the human trader down the price of the ponies to near nothingness eagerly and vociferously to Dwalin and the boys. "The map shows you where the Hobbit lives, but Gandalf ensured us that the door will be marked as well incase the map is lost or someone gets turned around."
"My sense of direction is impeccable," Glóin bellowed indignantly. "How dare the wizard insult us like that!"
"We'll meet next Mersday and leave early on Highday," Balin continued to Óin as if Glóin hadn't spoken.
"We'll be there, no worries," Óin assured him.
"We will see you then in that case," Balin nodded again as he re-mounted.
They said their goodbyes, Glóin once more holding onto Gimli's collar so the young dwarf didn't follow them and soon they were on to their next destination. Needless to say, the group was rather… quiet for nearly an hour after they had departed.
"Well," Fíli began, "they were rather…"
"Loud," Kíli finished flatly.
"They were! My ears are still ringing!"
"And here you were worried we would encounter difficulties on the road brother," Dwalin chuckled. "I'm sure Glóin could scare away any trouble we may find ourselves in with his thunderous personalities."
Balin couldn't help himself, he burst out laughing. "And it seems young Gimli has developed the family habit. Remind me to make sure I have ear cotton packed."
It was very late in the morning when they reached their next destination.
The home of the once miners, now toy makers, was smaller and definitely more humble than the one Glóin had acquired. It was practically leaning against the mountain in order to stay upright, but the smells drifting from the window had the boys already shifting in the saddles, eager to pay a visit to the inhabiting dwarrows; or more specifically, their table.
One of the three who lived there was seated on a bench outside, whittling away at a small piece of wood in the warm sun. "Morning," the dwarf nodded at the group as they approached, placing his work down to the side so as to greet them. "Come with news then you have?"
"Good morning master Bifur," Balin replied while the other three looked rather puzzled at one another. Balin made a mental note to himself to have his charges, and brother apparently, brush up on their ancient Khuzdul. As far as Balin could tell, aside from Bifur's own cousins, only he could understand the dwarf completely.
He did have to wonder though, as to why Bifur had learned the old archaic version in the first place. The other dwarf had to have studied it at one point in order for the orc axe embedded in his forehead to cause him to speak nothing but. Normally only those who worked in the library would even have cause to learn it in the first place and that was to read the old scrolls. Very few could actually speak the language and certainly not as fluently as Bifur could.
Ori could understand him to a point, but he was still learning the antiquated version of their mother tongue and it was quite difficult sometimes to understand Bifur's accent. Even Balin could not get the inflection on some of the phrases that Bifur could achieve.
Ori was at least better than the completely lost look Fíli and Kíli were currently sharing. Bifur looked annoyed briefly before he repeated his greeting, this time accompanied with signing in Iglishmêk. The boys looked abashed as they quickly repeated the greeting while Dwalin just gave the dwarf a nod. Balin also made a note to remind everyone that they would have to speak in Westron once they met up with the wizard and his hobbit. It wouldn't do for everyone to be speaking in Khuzdul all the time. Especially when they stopped in the human towns.
The door opened and another figure appeared in the yard. "Oh! Visitors! Going to stay for lunch are you?"
"Good morning mister Bofur. Thank you for the offer, but unfortunately we do not have the time," Balin explained swiftly. Everyone couldn't help but grin at the exaggerated groans from the two young dwarrows. "I'm sure Bombur will be disappointed."
"News they came with," Bifur announced, this time with the signing so everyone could follow, before sitting back down with his work.
"Not news so much as just information," Balin returned as he dug out the stack of parchment again. Map and money purses were handed to Bofur along with giving him the days they were to meet at the hobbit's home.
"Mark on the door?" Bofur asked disbelievingly. "Does he think we will get lost in that little town?"
"You've been there?" Balin was surprised. Not many dwarrows had purpose that far from the mountain range.
Bifur let out a snort even as Bofur shrugged. "Well, no. Not the hobbit towns themselves, but I've passed them on the way to sell our wares at Bree. Seem rather small to me. And straight forward. Just follow the road, don't ye?"
"They're hills. If you get lost, just climb one," Dwalin drawled.
Bofur smiled in agreement. "Not like scaling down the wall of the inner mines. We'll find our way after we buy some ponies for ourselves."
"Apparently the human merchant can be easily intimidated into lowering his prices if Gimli's story is anything to go by," Fíli told him.
Bofur laughed even as Bifur grinned rather maniacally. "Are you sure you can't stay for lunch?" Bofur tried one last time. "Bombur never minds adding more to the pot." He let out a bark of laughter. "It's all we can do to keep him from dumping everything in the pot."
Feeling the pair of pleading eyes staring into his back and smelling the heavenly scent wafting from the still open door, Balin regretfully shook his head. "We have a ways to go before meeting with the last of our group and then Dwalin is going to acquire a pack pony for us along with one for the hobbit."
"We're going to have every pony west of the Lune River, aren't we?" Bofur chortled.
"We just might," Balin admitted.
"Hang on a tick," Bofur bid them and disappeared into the house. Bifur ignored the four on ponyback and Balin could tell the boys were getting slightly antsy on their mounts as they waited. However, the awkwardness faded into elation as Bofur reappeared with a few loafs of bread.
"Oy," Bifur frowned.
"Bomber said he'll make more," Bofur replied as he handed a loaf to Dwalin and one to Fíli who eagerly broke it in half and passed a piece over to Kíli.
Thanking Bofur for the fresh bread and ensuring the thanks would be passed on to Bombur, the group took their leave once again and was soon on their way towards their next destination. The boys were slightly calmer with warm food in their bellies once again and Balin saw no better time to start quizzing them on their knowledge of ancient Khuzdul and how it differed from the current version.
The younger pair rather suddenly spotted a small rabbit and soon the two were chasing it down to add to their supplies. Dwalin looked as if he would have given anything to go with them as Balin did not stop his questions with the boy's departure and was looking at his younger brother quite expectantly for the answers. Balin always did have the reputation of being quite the stern taskmaster.