Bilbo could hear the whispers running through the crowd behind him as he made his way across the busy market square.
“Look! What an odd-looking fellow!” “He’s no Dwarf, certainly.” “Do you suppose it’s one of those, what d’you call them, Hobbits? Wasn’t there one here at the war?” “But is this the same fellow?” “It could be, could be.” “But he hardly looks old enough.” “King Bain would know.” “No, he wasn’t born yet then.” “We could ask him.” “Wouldn’t that be rude?”
He ignored them for the moment, intent on reaching his goal. He wanted to commission a new scabbard for Sting; the Dwarves were excellent craftsmen, but their talents lay more in the direction of swords themselves than in the scabbards and belts to hold them. King Dáin had insisted on giving him another bagful of the dragon-gold, despite Bilbo’s protests, so he had plenty of funds for something fine.
This man, Balan, was a cordwainer by trade, but Dwalin had told the Hobbit that he made war gear as a sideline, and was the best in Dale for such work. Bilbo could see several half-finished pieces waiting on hooks, and was impressed.
“What can I do for you, sir?” Balan inquired.
“I have a sword here,” Bilbo laid Sting on the table, “that deserves a better housing than it now has. You were recommended to me as the one to see for this.”
Balan lifted the blade respectfully and squinted at it. “This doesn’t look like Dwarf-work to me. Where did you come by it?”
“It is Elvish; I have been told that it was crafted in the First Age, in Beleriand or perhaps Gondolin. I found it in a Troll’s cave, many years ago, and it has served me well,” Bilbo replied. “I hope I shall not have to use it again, but in any case it should have a scabbard to match its dignity.”
“Certainly, certainly,” Balan murmured abstractedly, turning the sword over and examining the hilt, then testing the blade. “Did you want the leather tooled, inlaid? Design – had you anything in mind?” He looked up at the Hobbit. “A dragon, perhaps?”
Bilbo chuckled. “That would be a bit presumptuous. No, it is an Elvish blade, so I think an Elvish design. Perhaps an arrangement of stars, in silver?”
Balan shook his head. “Gold would be better. Silver will tarnish, you know. If we had the secret of the Dwarves’ mithril, that would be perfect, but we have not.”
“All right, I suppose gold will do. Stars, and perhaps a tree. I rather like the idea of a tree, for some reason.”
“It will have to be a very narrow tree,” Balan pointed out. “I could have a vine, twining around, and use stars as flowers.” He pulled a piece of scrap parchment towards him and used a charcoal-stick to sketch quickly. “Like this, you see?”
The design seemed to leap off the page. Bilbo caught his breath and nodded. “That would be perfect. How much?”
Balan tapped his fingers against the table, counting. “Two silver crowns, and twenty coppers.”
“Two silvers,” returned Bilbo.
“Two and fifteen.”
“Two and ten.”
“Done,” and they shook hands.
Balan carefully measured the dimensions of the sword and jotted them on the same parchment. “It will take two weeks before I can have it ready, though,” he warned, gesturing around the shop. “I am a bit backlogged at the moment.”
“No matter,” said Bilbo. “I am visiting the King Under the Mountain for a month or more; and the old scabbard has served well enough till now. So I shall return in a fortnight. Good day to you, sir.”
“And a very good day to you, as well. You are Mister Bilbo Baggins, are you not?”
“I am indeed; but how do you know my name? Outside they were whispering and trying to decide. How is it that you seem to know me?”
Balan grinned broadly. “I was a lad in Laketown when you were there with the Dwarves. I remember the feasts the Master gave you, and you complaining that with your cold you couldn’t do justice to them. But you were still polite and thanked everyone at the end of each.”
“I see. Well, I’m amazed at your memory, Balan. Luckily it will not be so long till you see me again,” Bilbo bowed politely and left.
When he returned a fortnight later, word had clearly spread of his identity, for this time instead of whispers and rumors, he was greeted by name by several passers-by as he hurried to Balan’s shop.
“Here it is, Mister Baggins,” Balan unwrapped the scabbard from a piece of cloth.
“Beautiful,” said Bilbo sincerely. The tendrils of the vine seemed almost to be growing, and the stars peeped through as if he were lying beneath a bower and looking up at the sky. Sting slipped into the sheath perfectly. Bilbo handed Balan three silver crowns.
“I’ll get your change,” the man said, moving toward the back of the shop.
“No need,” Bilbo dismissed the matter. “For this, it’s worth every copper. Don’t undervalue yourself, man.”
Balan looked at him and nodded. “Fair-spoken, you are. I’m pleased to do business with you, Mister Baggins. You wouldn’t be wanting a pair of shoes, would you?”
Bilbo laughed and lifted one foot. “I fear not. Hobbits are not much of a shoe-wearing folk, you see. But if I wish to give a gift to one of my Dwarf friends ere I go – well, I will certainly bear it in mind.” He buckled the belt around his waist and adjusted its position. “Success to you.”
“And to you,” Balan held the door as the Hobbit left the shop.