The Shire was threaded in golden light; it had been raining when they had reached Hobbiton, and now smaller and larger puddles glittered in the meadows. The earth under the hooves of their ponies had turned tender from the Spring rain; the dwarves’ heavy boots were lined with mud, and their cloaks as well. But Thorin, son of Thráin son of Thrór, heir to the Kingdom under the Mountain, paid no mind to the muck nor to the light. The Shire held no interest to him: he did not see the fields speckled with flowers nor the sweet shadows offered by the trees; nor did he wish to take notice of the round faces peering at them from windows, thresholds, and benches.
“How far yet?” Dwalin grunted, looking around as if he was expecting a bunch of stray orcs to appear at any moment on their path.
In truth the dwarves would have relished in the fight: their travel had been devoid of any diversion; while the long, difficult negotiations with the Thain and the Mayor from Michel Delving had left Thorin and his companions almost drowsy. Even more unfortunate was the fact that it had been impossible to find them an accommodation large enough to welcome their entire group.
Thus half a dozen warriors had been lodged in Hobbiton’s common hall, the same one where the negotiations had taken place and where Thorin and his followers had been introduced to a ridiculous number of melekûnh from all over the Shire. Another sort of accommodation had been designed for the prince, for Balin the king’s own councillor, and for Balin’s brother Dwalin, who also acted as Thorin’s personal guard.
An accommodation appropriate for a prince, the Thain had promised, choosing to ignore Thorin’s comment about the scarce attraction that hobbits’ comforts held for the sons of Durin. By then Thorin had already been exhausted by the long hours sacrificed to diplomacy, and he had guessed Balin’s disapproval for his manifest contempt, therefore he had grudgingly accepted the Thain’s offer, and they had been given instructions to reach the house of one Master Baggins.
“Not far,” Thorin replied, narrowing his eyes. “We should almost be there.”
Actually the Thain had also offered one of his sons as guide to Master Baggins’ house. Thorin had taken a look at the melekith, who was so chubby that it was a mystery how he could actually walk instead of rolling around like the leather ball Fíli used to play with. Thorin had refused any help, half from disdain of being offered such a poor escort and half from distrust. The young halfling might have spied on them on his father’s account on the way to Master Baggins’ house - that particular house they were failing to spot among the others.
“You said that before,” Dwalin smirked, “twice.”
“Hardly my fault if these sheds look all the same,” Thorin snapped back.
“I would advise you to not despise so openly our hosts,” Balin intervened, pushing his pony between the prince’s and Dwalin’s. “We are here to promote relations between Erebor and the West, not to kindle a war.”
“A war?” Thorin repeated, disdainfully. “These melekûnh could not discern a spoon from a lance and they would be able to use only the former without disgracing themselves. We could smash all their windows and burn their orchards, and still they would thank us for the honour rather than declaring war. They are frightened little things: it would take no more than a bunch of miners with pickaxes to conquer their hills and fields,” Thorin concluded, while Dwalin sniggered.
Balin seemed little amused though.
“You asked me why I refused to convince your father to ignore Tharkûn’s advice, and send prince Frerin here in your place. Your words are reason enough,” the old dwarf commented drily.
“Brother, our prince was hardly suggesting to wage war on the halflings,” Dwalin intervened. “You spoke of war first, and Thorin was just explaining why you should not worry about that eventuality.”
“Should we insult them then?” Balin asked, his eyes moving from Dwalin to Thorin.
“Is truth an insult?” Thorin asked in return, holding Balin’s gaze. The prince did not miss the look of disappointment on Balin’s face. In his heart he regretted having taken their quarrel so far, once again; but he was right, and in this case Balin was wrong: they did not need these halflings. “Have you seen them, Balin?” Thorin inquired, more gently this time. “You think me prejudiced against them, but you might be trying to see them for what they are not. This idea that we Khazâd should befriend them is ridiculous.”
“It was my idea as well as Tharkûn's,” Balin answered. Thorin tensed, but he hid his embarrassment behind his usual annoyed frown. “And I believe that Erebor might profit from our stay in the Shire. If you had cared to listen to the Thain’s words, you would have found them extremely wise and well-chosen. These hobbits are not so careless and dull as you believe.”
“I crave to be proven wrong,” Thorin declared, quite mockingly. “At least it would save me from being bored to death here.”
“Should you die, we’ll be comforted by the knowledge that there is an heir to Erebor in your nephew Fíli,” Balin commented matter-of-factly.
Dwalin laughed at that, but Thorin decided to not argue further. During their whole journey he had been already lectured on the opportunity of being more well-disposed toward these hobbits of the Shire, in order to profit from their visit to their lands and learn something about diplomacy. This had hardly made the whole business less insufferable - negotiating with the Thain and the Mayor only to find himself scrutinised by dozens and dozens of plump creatures with hairy feet.
By the end of his first day in the Shire, Thorin had definitely not grown to distrust melekûnh as much as he distrusted khuthûzh; but he already felt inclined to despise them as feeble creatures, soft of body and mind. Hobbits spoke too much, fussed about details, and they had no concept of grandeur, let alone bravery or audacity; instead they were full of quirks and hollow words, their voices so delicate that Khuzdul would have broken them. In conclusion they annoyed Thorin to no end with their fastidiousness and their ill-concealed tendency to meddle.
He was still musing about it when Dwalin called out.
“There, it matches the Thain’s description!” he said, pointing at the summit of the nearest hill.
“It might very well be,” Balin admitted.
Thorin said nothing, since the Thain’s instructions had been quite murky to him. It was not - mind you - that the dwarf prince had a poor sense of orientation: he was perfectly able to move through Erebor’s maze of corridors and stairs and halls, and he seldom lost his way in Dale or through the Greenwood. But the Thain had spoken about a certain tree with a trunk half burnt from a thunderbolt; of a shrine dedicated to Yavanna made from river stones and adorned with peach flowers; of a smial with a round door freshly painted in green. Little of that made sense to Thorin: he was not used to looking at trees or flowers to find his way, least of all at the colour or shape of halflings’ doors.
They made their way up to the hill, the road bending to climb the sweet slope almost to its top. There was a house under the hill, in the fashion of the Shire - built under the earth, but not too deep into it, with round windows opening on the hillside. Thorin noticed little else about the house, but he did not miss the small figure working in the garden annexed to the house. They had all dismounted from their ponies by then, but the halfling kneeling in the garden did not give any sign of having noticed their arrival.
Thorin would have not been able to explain why he decided to go first, when he could have let Balin speak in his place. He might have wanted to prove his old friend wrong - to demonstrate that he did not need any advice about how to deal with melekûnh or any other race. Maybe he was simply bored and yearned to do something - anything, even speak to an halfling.
The garden was a small thing, but crammed with plants - the air was thick from their smells. Thorin wrinkled his nose, casting a swift glance at the profusion of leaves, flowers and other things sprouting from the ground; then he approached the creature in the garden, gesturing to Balin and Dwalin to wait for him.
The halfling was humming, but he stopped as soon as Thorin’s shadow fell upon him. He seemed startled and immediately turned his head to look at Thorin. He must have been informed of the dwarves’ arrival, for he seemed to recover quickly from his surprise and he rose to his feet.
“Good evening,” the halfling bade Thorin, rubbing his hands together to wipe away some dirt from his fingers. “I am sorry, I didn’t hear you,” he confessed, despite the fact that he did not seem really troubled by having been surprised at work in the garden.
For his part, Thorin could hardly think of anything more improper and humiliating than being welcomed by the gardener. Master Baggins’ manners would have to answer for that.
The dwarf prince took a look at the melekûn. He had light brown curls, as was common among the Shire’s people; they were tousled and damp from his endeavours with the plants. He was a head shorter than Thorin and certainly weaker than any khuzdinh; the halfling’s shirt was stretched over a soft belly and he had round, rosy cheeks - now smeared with dirt. He was dressed in plain clothes, with his shirt’s sleeves rolled at the elbows, and naked calves and feet showing.
“Where’s your master?” Thorin asked the halfling, without bothering to keep the contempt out of his voice.
The halfling tilted his head, looking at Thorin strangely, as if he had not understood the question. Thorin wondered if the gardener might be deaf or a lackwit - it would account for the soft stupor on the halfling’s face.
“Take us to your master,” Thorin repeated, reciting each syllable clearly and gesturing toward the house.
“I have no master other than myself,” the halfling replied then. Now even Thorin could recognise the look on the halfling’s face as annoyance. “And you would have discovered it soon enough, if you had bothered to introduce yourself and ask my name first, rather than taking me for a servant.”
Thorin blinked and suddenly realised how much he had been deceived by the halfling’s look.
“You are Master Baggins,” he said, unable to sound less irritated than he felt.
“At your service,” the halfling replied with a curt nod.
The prince suspected that the small creature did not mean it in the least.
“I would have not been misled had you looked less like a gardener,” he pointed out, feeling obliged to keep his ground against Master Baggins.
“If I had not been tending to my garden, I would have had to send you dwarves to bed without dinner,” the halfling answered, smoothly enough.
Thorin gaped, but he could not think of any adequate reply. The mere thought that a simple creature like this Master Baggins could dare speak to Erebor’s heir in such a way enraged him. He was bound by the laws of hospitality, but he would be damned before he would permit a melekûn to abuse him with his sharp-tongued remarks.
Master Baggins had spoken to them, fiery Khazâd from one of the mightiest zudûn in Middle-Earth, as if they were riotous children. And the brashness of talking about beds to a complete stranger! Thorin was so befuddled that he did not know how to react, apart from frowning and glaring. Fortunately Balin appeared at his side and the halfling’s bold gaze turned to him.
“My name is Balin,” he said. Thorin noticed with some displeasure that Balin had left out his titles. “And I accompany...”
“Prince Thorin of Erebor, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, of Durin’s lineage,” Thorin preceded Balin, pointedly reciting his formal title. But when Master Baggins’ eyes lit up with amusement, the prince felt ridiculous and averted his eyes from the halfling’s gaze, feigning a sudden interest in the nearest strawberry bush.
“And this is my brother Dwalin,” Balin continued, when the third dwarf joined them. “We are here...”
“Sent by the Thain,” Master Baggins concluded in Balin’s place. “I recognised you.”
“You did know us?” Thorin asked, surprised: the melekûn had just scolded him for the lack of a proper introduction, hadn’t he?
“I was in the hall as was any other hobbit from here to Michel Delving, though I left early to prepare my house for your arrival.”
Thorin tried to recall Master Baggins’ face among the many he had seen. It was impossible, obviously: melekûnh looked all the same to him. There was nothing remarkable to distinguish Master Baggins from any other halfling - except his disconcerting manners.
Was the Thain trying to humiliate them with such a host?
“You were there,” Thorin said bluntly, for want of something to say.
“Yes, but we were not properly introduced,” the halfling answered, with a half-smile. Before Thorin could decide how to react, Master Baggins leant to grab a wicker basket filled with vegetables. “Bilbo Baggins at your service,” he said, holding the basket with both his hands. “Please, follow me. I should not have made you wait out here, but in Bag End you will find everything you need to recover from the fatigues of your journey and the meeting with the Thain,” Master Baggins promised, beaming at them.
As soon as the halfling had turned his back to lead them to the green door, Balin shot a hard glance at the prince. Thorin snorted, but said nothing: later he would have time to defend his opinion on their host and his frankly appalling manner. And he knew what Balin would answer to that - he would remind him of his duty and try to convince him that he had misjudged Master Baggins. Biased was a recurring word in Balin’s reproaches, but Thorin did not feel so; he simply observed these melekûnh and their life-style, and found it clearly inferior to his standards as Khuzd.
“Most of your baggage has already been carried to your rooms,” Master Baggins said as soon as the three dwarves entered his house and he had closed the door behind them. “And you will find towels, soap, and warm water to wash away the dust from your journey. I’ll be in the kitchen preparing dinner should you need anything.”
Thorin barely kept himself from a bitter retort. Did the melekûn think that they would run to him like children to their mother to be soothed and comforted from their rough journey across Middle-Earth? Did he believe his hospitality could equal Erebor’s? If he did, he was the greatest fool in the Shire.
The halfling showed Dwalin and Balin to the room they would share, and then led Thorin to the nearest room. Thorin suddenly realised that the halfling had never looked at him while he was offering them a brief tour of his house. Kitchen, pantry, drawing room, bathroom, door-to-the-backyard-garden - well, in truth Thorin had not listened nor observed, impatient to be relieved from the petulant voice of their host. But now that he was showing Thorin his room, Master Baggins’ eyes flew again to the prince’s face.
“If Your Highness had been disappointed in our first encounter, on the morrow I could arrange for Your Highness to meet Master Holman, who is an actual gardener and helps me with my plants,” the halfling said. “I am sure he would be thrilled at the idea of meeting a real prince.”
He was not laughing, but his tone was so polite and deferential that it sounded mocking to Thorin’s ears. The dwarf felt his temper rise, as well as the colour in his cheeks.
“I realise I have been mistaken, Master Baggins,” Thorin replied, smoothing his voice from the hard edges of his wounded pride. “In fact, you look more like a grocer,” he added, letting his eyes roam over their host’s plump figure, from his naked feet to his beardless face.
He found Master Baggins’ eyes large with surprise; from the blush that appeared on the halfling’s cheeks Thorin knew he had repaid Master Baggins for the offence.
“I have a dinner to prepare,” the halfling said and turned on his heels, leaving Thorin alone at last.
The prince frowned. With no little surprise he realised that he was disappointed in Master Baggins’ retreat. He had anticipated another rude answer; instead he had won the battle without further damage to his pride. Thorin shook his head and entered his room, still musing about the fact that the halfling had failed to ask his permission to leave.
When he finally dedicated some attention to his room, Thorin found it exceptionally poor. It was not so different from the rooms they had taken in Bree - cleaner, though. It was small, the ceiling not high enough to relieve Thorin from the sensation of being trapped in Balin’s fool idea that melekûnh may ever become valuable allies for Khazâd. The room was mostly made from wood, and the furniture was sparse and mediocre; there was no sign of gold or other precious metals, let alone gemstones. There were some carvings - on the headrest of the large bed and over the mantelpiece of the small fireplace; but they were childish decorations with vines and fruits, far removed from the sophisticated geometric patterns Khazâd favoured.
There was a wooden tub in the room, a large pot of water hanging over the fire, and a piece of white soap placed on top of a pile of towels. Thorin began undressing. He recalled that their host had vaguely hinted at the fact that he did not like heavy dwarf boots on his floors and rugs - when he took off his boots, Thorin found some pleasure in the idea that they had probably soiled the melekûn’s carpets with mud. The little creature was probably worried out of his mind about the state of his furniture in Khazâd hands. In truth, most of the things in the room looked frail enough to be easily crushed by Thorin’s hold.
Stark naked, Thorin filled the wooden tub with the water from the pot, mixing the boiling water with the cold water already in the wooden tub. Unfortunately the tub was too small to accommodate Thorin, but the dwarf stood on his feet unbothered by the amount of water spilling on the floor. For the first time since they had reached the Shire, Thorin stopped thinking about hobbits and simply enjoyed the pleasure of scrubbing away sweat and mud.
The soap had a strange, sweetish smell; Thorin tried to ignore it and rubbed his soapy hand between his legs, where the long weeks of riding on a pony’s back had roughened his skin. He examined a minor wound his last sparring with Dwalin had left on his left arm and he was glad to see that it was healing perfectly well.
Thorin devoted particular attention to washing his long, dark hair. He kept his beard cut short as warning and remembrance of the circumstances in which he had lost his braids. Therefore, the prince usually dedicated great care to his hair, braiding it with the beads symbolising his status and affections. While loosening his braids, Thorin hoped that the smell of the soap their host had provided would soon vanish from them. In Erebor he would have had scented oils at his disposal, and his hair would acquire the warm, musky smell Khazâd preferred. Some of the oils were so precious that only royalty would use them: one of Thorin’s first memories was of his grandmother choosing a precious scent among the many metal and glass vessels she hoarded in her rooms to braid her husband’s glorious hair.
But Thorin was in the Shire now, where most of the melekûnh he had seen kept their hair short. Some of their females indulged in braiding and wore flowers or beads, but he understood it was nothing more than vanity; there was no meaning to it, as to any other aspect of the halflings’ behaviour.
Thorin redid his braids carefully and secured them with his traditional beads. His sister had braided his hair before his departure from Erebor, while they were still discussing his travel to the Shire. Thorin had hoped to convince Dís to back his refusal to leave the Mountain, but his sister had only taken care of his hair and then thrown him out of her quarters. Not even the idea that Thorin would not be back in Erebor in time for the birth of her and Víli’s second son had moved Dis. In truth, only young Fíli had seemed truly concerned with his uncle’s departure, but he had soon forgotten his displeasure when Dís had promised him that uncle Thorin would come back with some gifts for him from the exotic Shire.
Thorin snorted at the thought - he had to remember to find some present for Fíli, but he doubted that the melekûnh could sell him anything worth his gold. The sole value of the belt Thorin chose to wear over his blue velvet tunic could probably buy Master Baggins’ house, furniture included. The belt - dark leather and a mithril buckle decorated with sapphires and moonstones - was a fine thing, one of the few Thorin had indulged in for his otherwise quite sparse luggage..
“I smell of flowers,” Dwalin grunted, just outside Thorin’s door.
The prince laughed and opened the door, only to find his friend sniffing at his own hands.
“I truly hope it’s you smelling of flowers, or it would mean that we will be served flowers for dinner,” Thorin commented, making some pretence of smelling the air around him.
“In good damn time, Thorin,” Dwalin grunted. “Balin has already reached our host in the dining room: my brother seems impatient to question him about the local customs.”
“Or rather to warn him about the two of us,” Thorin insinuated. “Something along the lines of how the melekûn should not worry about being so evidently unworthy of our company.”
“You’ve really taken a dislike to him, haven’t you?” Dwalin wondered, looking at Thorin strangely.
“Haven’t you?” Thorin asked back, frowning.
“He’s a melekûn,” Dwalin shrugged. “I am not sure I understand anything of their customs, let alone the way they speak here in the West. But, concerning our host, I suppose it’s too early to decide if he will try to kill us in our sleep.”
Thorin laughed again at that, but he let the matter rest. He was quite put off by Dwalin’s mild impression of Master Baggins; Thorin, on the contrary, already felt ill-disposed toward their host. But after all, he had been the only one to exchange some words with Master Baggins. Soon even Balin and Dwalin would realise how unpleasant their host was.
Despite some doubt about which direction they should take in the quite large house, the two dwarves entered the dining room to find Balin comfortably seated at the table, and Master Baggins still fretting with pots and plates.
“Oh, you’re here,” the halfling commented upon their appearance. “Please, take a seat.”
Thorin was surprised by the long table which had been fitted into the dining room. He had already gathered the impression that Master Baggins lived alone - in truth he remembered the Thain saying something about how in Bag End there would not be an entire hobbit family intruding upon them. Yet the house was quite a spacious one: there were more than a couple of bedrooms, for instance, and the table was definitely too large for a halfling alone. Maybe, Thorin thought, the melekûn was used to entertaining many guests.
At any rate, Thorin had to concede that the halfling’s efforts to serve them a proper dinner were quite impressive. Almost half of the expanse of the table, which could have accommodated up to a dozen dwarves, was covered in a myriad of dishes. Thorin recognised only some of the courses, but what he saw was enough to make his mouth water. He had not realised he was so hungry, and the halfling prayed them to begin their dinner while he was taking care of the last batch of cookies in the oven.
Thorin opened his mouth, trying to come up with something sharp to say; but the richness and variety of the food laid out on the table distracted him. He saw Balin looking quite smug, while Dwalin started filling his plate with everything he could reach.
Thorin was still frowning when Master Baggins looked at them over his shoulder.
“Is anything to your taste, Your Highness?” the halfling asked Thorin. “I do not know your preferences so I decided to cook some of everything. But I’d be glad to learn something about the sort of food you favour, therefore do not hesitate to make your requests.”
Thorin tried again to speak, but Balin preceded him.
“It’s very kind on your part, Master Baggins,” he said. “And at least my brother does not seem to find any complaint with your cooking skills.”
Dwalin looked up from the roasted chicken leg he was wolfing down. Master Baggins shot him a broad smile and presented Dwalin with the tray of cookies he had just taken out of the oven.
“Cookie?” the halfling offered. “Beware, they are still very hot.”
Dwalin mumbled something about being used to the temperature of Erebor’s forges and took a cookie. From the sound he made while chewing it, Thorin guessed that Dwalin had been just won over by their host’s cookies. Bribed with food, indeed!, Thorin thought, growing even more annoyed with their host.
He observed Master Baggins while he moved the cookies from the tray to a glass jar, and then placed it within Dwalin’s reach. The halfling wore an apron over his clothes, like a common innkeeper. When he took it off, Thorin guessed that Master Baggins had made some endeavour to look elegant. The notion was obviously absurd: the melekûn was dressed in a clean white shirt and still too-short brownish trousers; but he had chosen a bright coloured waistcoat, yellow with some embroideries in white. It made him look like a fool, clad in flamboyant attire which seemed to underline his vulgarity. And that piece of cloth he carried in his breast-pocket!
It was then that the halfling took notice of Thorin’s smirk and his expression immediately darkened.
“Is Your Highness unwell?” Master Baggins asked.
When he saw the halfling fidgeting with a button of his waistcoat Thorin wondered if he had guessed his train of thought.
“I prefer not to touch food before the host is seated,” Thorin answered.
He did not know why he had said that, but it seemed to please Master Baggins, and the halfling soon took his place at the table. He had reserved for Thorin the main seat at the head, with Dwalin and Balin at his side; while he sat at Balin’s other side.
“Thank you,” the halfling said to Thorin, with a brief smile.
“We’re very grateful for the large dinner you have prepared for us,” Balin chimed in. “You must have spent many hours in order to prepare all this,” he commented.
Thorin was under the impression that his old friend was urging his attention to the opulence of the dinner they were being served; he decided to ignore Balin’s implied suggestion.
“Don’t speak of it,” Master Baggins said, with the air of someone who would have appreciated more praises. Little hypocrite, Thorin accused him in his mind. “We hobbits greatly enjoy eating: I do not know of any other folks eating up to seven meals a day, as we hobbits do.”
“Seven?” Thorin exclaimed, despite himself.
Master Baggins nodded and smiled.
“Exactly. So we do a lot of cooking for ourselves; plus, we truly appreciate guests as long as they are not unexpected,” he explained, waving his index finger while speaking. “Besides, I love cooking,” he added, as a second thought.
“So this dinner could be hardly considered an effort on your part,” Thorin commented dryly.
“What do you call these?” Balin asked fretfully, probably grabbing the first thing in his sight. It was a plate filled with tiny, whitish pieces of bread.
“Scones,” Master Baggins said, still looking at Thorin. “They are usually served with tea in the afternoon, but I thought you would like to try them. If you like them, there will be more for breakfast tomorrow. And no, it would not be an effort on my part.”
Thorin was bounded to hold the melekûn’s gaze. He could not lower his eyes first, but he was grateful when Dwalin reached out for a jar of pickles, and hid Master Baggins from Thorin’s sight. When Thorin could look at the halfling again, Master Baggins was engaged in conversation with Balin about the seven meals in a hobbit day. Thorin decided it would be unwise to starve just to scorn their host.
There were three different types of soup: turnip, pea, and one made with sweet potatoes and carrots. For the main course there were meat pies whose crust was golden and brown, and still scalding to the touch; simple, round seed and honey cakes; salt meat filled with a layer of tender goat cheese, then wrapped in odorous leaves; pork with fried apples; small pickled fishes to eat with a yellow sauce made from eggs and parsley. There were vegetables: slices of aubergines roasted with herbs and served with dark gravy; fresh small tomatoes, and potatoes cooked in butter and cheese. Thorin counted five types of bread; two kinds of honey - dark and golden; six diverse types of cheese - some white and sweetish, others yellow and savoury. And there were desserts too: several fruit cakes, a glorious rhubarb tart, raspberry pudding, cookies with currants and cookies with almonds, a cake which had the taste of the cider Master Baggins served them. They also drank a light brew of ale and dark tea. Some of the dishes Thorin already knew; others Master Baggins spoke of with Balin, teaching the dwarves the names for this and that.
“You are truly a remarkable cook, Master Baggins,” Balin declared, well before they had finished their dinner.
“And you have a remarkable appetite,” Dwalin pointed out. “I would have never guessed that a melekûn could eat that much, not even when you talked about your seven meals per day.”
Balin scowled at his brother for his blunt comment, but the halfling did not seem offended. In fact, he took a sip of cider and proudly patted his round belly.
“I would not say that I enjoy a warm meal more than my books, but surely I do not enjoy it less,” he confessed, smiling. “In spring, when I sit on the bench just outside the door of Bag End, reading some book and smoking my pipe, listening to the buzz of bees and knowing my pantry is filled with food...oh, I’m convinced there is no one happier than me in Middle-Earth.”
Thorin swallowed down a morsel of rhubarb tart and frowned at Master Baggins’ words. They were possibly the most naive perspective on life he had ever heard; there was no space for heroism or ambition in the melekûn’s vision, neither for responsibilities.
It offended Thorin.
He could not accept that someone could live his life in such a foolish way: Master Baggins was parading his inexperience of the world as if he took pride in it. It was a surprise that the melekûn, with his pathetic delusions, could have survived so many winters.
“What does...melekan mean?” Master Baggins asked Dwalin, interrupting Thorin’s reflections.
“Halfling,” Thorin replied in Dwalin’s place.
The word seemed to hit a weak spot, and Master Baggins’ eyes immediately turned to Thorin.
“I am not half of anything, Your Highness,” he said, his voice surprisingly cold considering he had been so cheerful just a moment before.
“Isn’t it the most common word used in Westron to refer to your kin?” Thorin asked, feigning innocence.
“Yes, I suppose it is,” the melekûn admitted, “but I thought Your Highness would not want to side with anything common,” he insinuated, and Thorin would have sworn that Balin was sniggering at that.
“Anyway, it’s melekûn,” Dwalin mumbled, before filling his mouth with cookies.
Thorin glared at Dwalin. Khuzdul was a language created by Khazâd for Khazâd, with Aulë Mahal’s blessing: it was not to be wasted on a melekûn who could hardly grasp the sound of the syllables Khazâd pronounced when speaking their antique, sacred language. In the past Khazâd went so far as to avoid speaking Khuzdul in the presence of other races, in order to conserve its sound and meaning for their sole kin. Times had changed, and Thorin might have already indulged in Khuzdul while in Master Baggins’ house, but he did not intend to let the halfling pollute their language with his tongue.
Yet Dwalin did not seem to give too much thought to Thorin’s hard glance:
“And we call ourselves Khazâd,” Dwalin continued, unruffled.
Master Baggins’ eyes brightened at that, as if the topic had caught his full attention. He was so evidently impatient to question them over Khuzdul that Thorin saw no other alternative - really, he could not allow their dinner to turn into a lesson in Khuzdul for the halfling.
“This is quite good,” he stated, holding the plate with the remnants of the rhubarb tart.
The effect was immediate. It might have been related to the fact that Balin and Dwalin had been quite vocal about their appreciation for the dinner - the former in words, the latter in grunts and humming, but Thorin had stubbornly kept himself from complimenting Master Baggins on the quality of the dinner. Thus Thorin’s unexpected comment actually managed to steal not only their host’s attention, but even Dwalin’s and Balin’s. They all regarded Thorin suspiciously, as if they could barely believe they had heard him formulating a compliment - very sparse, and impersonal, but nonetheless a compliment.
“I’m pleased to hear that,” the halfling replied at last, cautiously. “And I hope you have found your rooms as satisfying as this dinner,” he continued, growing a little more confident - boasting again, Thorin thought. “I had Master Holman help me with the water for your ablutions. And with the fireplaces. They had not been used in a while and the chimneys needed some maintenance. It’s Spring and the rooms hardly need to be overheated, but I supposed you would appreciate warm water at your disposal.”
“In Erebor most of the living quarters are provided with running hot water from the pipe system,” Thorin said, looking at Master Baggins. He felt quite satisfied by the sight of the halfling growing flustered at the interruption. “As you may guess,” Thorin continued, almost smiling, “our knowledge in all engineering matters, hydraulic included, is exceedingly sophisticated.”
At the corner of his eye, Thorin saw Balin on the verge of opening his mouth, but their host raised his hand as if to reassure Balin about his ability to entertain a conversation with Thorin without any help.
“It sounds...prodigious,” the melekûn admitted. He tilted his head. “I have never heard of anything similar before. I know that in their greatest cities men have built conduits to dispose of any foul waste, but this...this is truly remarkable. I suppose you use great fires to keep the water warm, but how do you carry it around your Erebor?” the halfling asked. “Please, tell me more about it.”
Thorin vaguely noticed that Master Baggins had put his elbows on the table and folded his hands under his chin - it was a bizarre and coquettish pose that Thorin should have openly despised, had he not been more impatient to give evidence of the superiority of Khazâd engineering.
The sewers of the men’s cities were primitive devices compared to the achievements in Erebor, and even the melekûn deserved to know that. Despite the obvious fact that Master Baggins understood nothing of hydraulics, Thorin felt compelled to indulge their host’s desire to know more about Erebor. He could not possibly approve of the halfling’s interest in Khuzdul, but it was Thorin’s duty as prince to instruct the halfling on the accomplishments of the Khazâd.
Thus Thorin found himself talking about Erebor and the splendid devices which were in use in the Mountain. He did not linger on technicalities, but he strived to give Master Baggins the gist of how some of the machines worked, beginning with the hot water system and ending with the apparatus they used in the mines to lift even the heaviest loads from the pits.
Meanwhile their host began cleaning the table, firmly refusing any help from Balin. Although Master Baggins kept moving between the table and the kitchen sink carrying empty plates and bowls, Thorin had no reason to question the halfling’s attention. In fact, Master Baggins answered any explanation with new questions, and they were all poignant enough to force Thorin to talk some more.
The dwarf prince was not unaware of Balin’s increasingly pleased expression; he also knew that he was probably talking too much and already betraying his resolve of expressing his disdain for halflings at any occasion. Yet he could not stop. Yes, his voice was rough and he did not answer Master Baggins’ frequent smiles, nor did Thorin miss the chance to mock the Shire’s ways from time to time; nevertheless Thorin was talking and he could barely conceal his eagerness in that regard.
Cold and reserved, generally described as taciturn if not downright reticent, Thorin revealed his eloquence when speaking about Erebor. Talking about his home, Thorin’s speech gained a passionate quality which was never manifested otherwise. And now that Thorin was so far from Erebor, his longing sharpened his fervour: it took him some time to realise that the table was perfectly clean of the remnants of the dinner. Master Baggins had served them another round of tea. Leaning lazily onto the cupboard and with his hands curled around his own cup of tea, the melekûn was observing Thorin with the utmost concentration.
Thorin’s attention wavered and he lost the trail of what he was saying. He suddenly felt embarrassed, looked away and closed his mouth tightly.
“I think we should retire for the night,” Balin intervened, as if he had divined Thorin’s change of mood.
“Oh, I am very sorry!” the halfling exclaimed, shaking his head and putting down his cup. “It was very inopportune of me to keep you all from your rest: we hobbits love to stay up til late and rest in our beds longer in the morning, but you should pay no mind to my habits.”
“With pleasure,” Thorin grunted under his breath, but his voice was drowned by Balin’s.
“Please, do not worry about it, Master Baggins,” the old dwarf reassured their host. “It has been a very interesting conversation,” he added, casting a glance in Thorin’s direction.
But the dwarf prince decided to take no notice of it and he rose from the table, followed by Dwalin: Balin was forced to do the same. Soon enough the dwarves were bidding their host a good night - at least Balin was, Dwalin patted Master Baggins’ back so forcefully that the halfling seemed on the verge of losing his balance; Thorin nodded curtly.
“The melekûn was quite taken with your fancy speech there,” Dwalin remarked, as soon as Balin left them alone in the corridor.
The comment was enough to make Thorin feel unpleasantly exposed, as if he had been caught in some humiliating circumstance. Not only was he displeased with Dwalin’s observation, but he feared he had spoken too openly of his love for Erebor: the sole thought that the halfling might have gained some insight into his emotions, and that he might have appeared ingenuous and sentimental, tormented him.
Hence the harshness of Thorin’s reply to Dwalin:
“Don’t be so disgustingly naive,” Thorin said, gritting his teeth. “Are you so easily deceived?”
“What are you bloody talking about?” Dwalin asked, frowning.
“As if these halflings might have any real interest apart from gardening and gossiping,” Thorin snorted.
“Baggins seemed sincere,” the other dwarf pointed out, but Thorin thought it a feeble defence.
“He was acting,” he declared, shrugging. “His kin know nothing of the world outside the Shire. He said so himself, didn’t he? He would be quite content with rotting on a bench just outside his door. He lacks ambition, and he’s more inexperienced than the youngest khuzdûn in Erebor.”
“Why was he asking so many questions then?” Dwalin asked, caressing his beard.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Thorin answered with contempt. “He was parading his politeness before his guests. He wants to convince us of his interest in Erebor; however it was but an exercise of conversation for him. Have you noticed how particular he is? His sole concern is proving himself the perfect host,” Thorin continued, his voice thick with irritation. “If you had paid more attention to the manners of the Shire, you would have already understood that these hobbits are conceited. They like to think themselves well-mannered and high-bred, but they are only flaunting and preening - behind their fussy behaviour, their knick-knacks and their please and thank you, there’s nothing else.”
“So you think Baggins was fishing for your approval?” Dwalin inquired, frowning deeply.
Thorin would have answered if said Master Baggins had not appeared from nowhere. The dwarf prince could not really hide his surprise: the halfling had sneaked upon them unheard. Ambushed by a grocer indeed, Thorin thought with annoyance.
“I wonder if you may need more towels or blankets,” Master Baggins said, but his gaze was slightly unfocused and he seemed much more interested in a point over Dwalin’s shoulder than in their faces.
“No,” Thorin said, his voice coming out a little huskily.
“Then I bid you good night,” the halfling replied.
For a moment he seemed on the verge of saying more, but he closed his mouth tightly and turned on his heel. His eyes met Thorin’s, but it was a fleeting instant and the dwarf could not fathom Master Baggins’ feelings.
“Do you think he heard us?” Dwalin asked, after a while, giving voice to Thorin’s own doubts.
“I don’t care,” the prince spat. “He should not have spied on us,” he added grimly.
In truth, when Thorin found himself alone in his room, he felt nervous. If the halfling had eavesdropped on his conversation with Dwalin, he had deserved what he had got from it; besides Thorin was unwilling to take back his words - he was right, and the halfling had just listened to the truth. It was better this way, without any misunderstanding about Thorin’s true feelings for their host. Moreover, as if to confirm the prince’s opinion, Master Baggins had not confronted him: a brave, honest creature would have challenged Thorin’s judgement and tried to defend his honour; but the melekûn was craven, and guilty.
Still Thorin was nervous. To his discomfort he registered this feelings as humiliation: yes, he had felt quite humiliated by the halfling’s sudden appearance - a prince of Erebor should not be spied upon, he repeated to himself. In this troubled state of mind Thorin drifted into sleep at last, accompanied by the image of their host.