It was a very warm August day, hours counted to be an early afternoon. Although the very last days of summer were slowly passing into a chillier season, the sun was shining angrily on the backs of the curious company of Thorin Oakenshield.
A long march uphill under the seething heat without any sort of relief (as the wind was not blowing that day) had rendered everyone tired and uncomfortably sweaty – dwarf, wizard and hobbit alike. Even Fili and Kili didn’t make their usual jokes or taunts, both too busy recalling how to breathe with the immense heat surrounding them. The sunrays nastily stung them in the eyes if they turned around to as much as glance at their companions.
Especially Bilbo, though, did not appreciate the circumstances of their travels that day. Even the encouraging thoughts of making progress towards their goal – for they were – could not outdo the pestering feeling of sweat running down his brow, nor his soiled clothing grinding against his reddening skin or the locks of hair maliciously sticking to his face.
Thorin was driving them hard today. They had taken a short breather at the very top of the steep and stony pass going into the woodlands, given barely enough time to swallow a mouthful of water and to sate the thirst of their ponies before moving on. Now they were marching downhill, heading for the bottom of a small valley.
Bilbo would very much have preferred the slow uphill hike to the downhill stumbling they were going through at that moment. The terrain was forcing them to dismount the small animals in order to guide them down by the reins, and whenever he was forced to put more effort into steering his mare in a different direction the motions would set his sweaty curls bouncing straight into his eyes, further dampening his mood.
The further down they got the thicker and damper grew the air, and the musk scent of pine overpowered their sense of smell.
“We’re taking a break,” Gandalf eventually announced from the front after consulting with Thorin – to which he received quiet rejoicing in the form of relieved sighs from the company. They had finally reached the bottom of the trail and the soft earth of the forest floor made for comfortable seating while they gathered their strength.
Bilbo slid down leaning against a tree trunk. His hands blindly worked to fix the mess of his damp curls, but no matter what he tried they’d always fall back again, dangling teasingly in front of his glaring blue orbs. An exaggerated sigh left him. “Gosh, I cannot believe I signed up for this nonsense…”
Bofur, who had taken to lying on the ground next to him, sent a sympathetic smile his way. “On the bright side we don’t have any hordes of goblins or wargs chasing after us.”
“I’d run through the dark and cool goblin caves once again rather than continuing this dehydrating dessert hike, thank you,” Bilbo snorted grumpily, though instantly regretting his harsh choice of words as Bofur was solely trying to lighten his temper. He sighed. “I’m sorry Bofur. It’s just this—this unbearable heat and all this stickiness is going to be the death of me. I’m just not accommodated to it at all.”
To underline his statement the hobbit dragged his small hand through his curls once more, demonstrating their disloyalty to their owner as they once more slid over his face. Bofur chuckled as Bilbo grudgingly blew one away from his left eye, accepting their burglar’s excuse.
Sighing once more, Bilbo leant his head back against the trunk, eyes closed and muttering something about the pleasant cool of his hobbit hole back in the Shire as well as the wonderful breezes that faithfully passed over the hill on warm summer days.
A strange pricking feeling on his temple had him slowly cracking an eye open to search for the curious source. He was surprised to find the icy blue gaze of Thorin Oakenshield directed at him.
The intensity of the staring was making Bilbo uncomfortable. His mind was racing to figure out if he had done something wrong, or anything at all to anger their leader. Undoubtedly the dwarf king must have heard him complaining to Bofur about the current predicament of their journey. Perhaps he’d even heard him muttering about his home, once again. After all they’d gone through up until now – running from the goblins, the clash with Azog the Defiler – the last thing Bilbo wanted was to get back on an unfriendly foot with Thorin Oakenshield; not now that he had finally gained his respect.
Trying to shake off the tightness of the situation, Bilbo distracted himself by attempting in vain to arrange his curls again. For a split second he was sure the gaze’s intensity multiplied ten folds, but he was soon relieved to find the dwarf king busied with other matters. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted him in a deep discussion with Gandalf.
Not more than a minute later Thorin made an announcement. “We shall camp here tonight. It seems unnecessary to continue draining ourselves in this heat for another couple of miles before sundown.” The dwarves cheered at the decision. “Lead the ponies to the grass by the rocks. There’s a stream and a pond nearby, and boar and deer in the valley.”
Thorin continued barking orders and soon every dwarf and hobbit was out and about preparing for the night. Fili, Kili and Bifur had been set to try their luck at hunting for a more substantial supper while others were building a fire in a clearing they found, rolling out mats and placing logs (as substitutions for benches) around its center.
Bilbo was also busy doing his own chores, but the memory of the penetrating stare lingered with him for the rest of that afternoon.
The sun eventually descended behind the Misty Mountains casting an early evening over the valley and the company.
Kili, Fili and Bifur had returned earlier with a larger boar which Bombur prepared a cooking spear for. The dwarves were making an excellent job of seasoning and finding herbs and berries around the forest that made for exceptional side dishes. Everything stood for a promising feast of a supper, a comfort which they hadn’t enjoyed in a long time.
While the Boar roasted slowly over the embers the dwarves had decided to make use of the time available and take a bath in the pond which was just a stone throw away from the edge of the camp. Clothes and equipment were also cleaned of sweat and gore and were drying off leaning against stones or hanging off of branches around the clearing.
Bilbo had gone into the water a little later than the rest of them. In fact, he hadn’t gone in before the last of the dwarves had stepped out of the pond. His reasoning was quite understandable, he’d dare say, as he was still not quite comfortable with being so thoroughly exposed (in more than one way) to the very unpredictable dwarf culture. And after constantly being in the company of this merry group, a bit of privacy for a formerly very privately oriented hobbit was much appreciated by Bilbo, and washing off weeks’ worth of grime and sweat in the cool, comfortable water left his Baggins side very sated (for the time being).
When Bilbo walked into the camp, using a piece of cloth to gently dry his messy curls, the dwarves were all sitting around the campfire looking revitalized and freshly braided with complicated and astounding interweaving, or tending to the roasting boar and preparing for supper. Only Fili and Kili were still very much engorged in tending to each other’s hair. At the moment the younger brother was working on his elder’s blond locks, both laughing heartily and discussing new ideas for Fili’s growing mustache.
Bilbo studied the two as they interacted, certainly impressed by their commitment to the skill. He gave his own hair a last ruffle with the cloth before letting it fall down onto his shoulders. Only then, as he studied the red shimmer the flames gave his brown locks, he noticed that it had grown slightly longer.
The thought puzzled him for long moments, and he slowly came to realize just how long he had been on the road since he left the Shire more than two months ago. He remembered having the local hairdresser trim it for him just the week before they departed, leaving behind the various comforts of home.
“Has it really been this long…?” he wondered to himself, slowly walking towards the small log he had placed by his mat, about ten yards away from the roaring fire.
When he had seated himself Ori came over to him holding a jug filled with a warm wonderfully scented brew. The young dwarf held it out to him. “Here, Bilbo, have some camellia tea – Dori’s recipe – to warm you up. The water was quite cool.”
“Thank you, Ori,” Bilbo smiled, accepting the hot brew. He returned to studying Fili and Kili – who were sitting quite close to him – occasionally taking a sip of the comforting tea.
Rather suddenly he felt the same stare as he had earlier that day, and it didn’t take him long to locate Thorin sitting on the other side of the camp, intense icy orbs burning many times hotter than the fire separating them. Bilbo immediately fell into an uncomfortable sentiment, just like he had earlier, despite feeling very clean and very tidy in his fresh clothing. Just what had he done to be subjected to this unwanted sort of attention?
Bilbo quickly looked for means to have himself distracted from the piercing stare of their leader and decided to strike up a conversation with the others. He voiced the very first thing that came to mind.
“So—dwarves… you’re quite skilled in more, um, finer arts as well I reckon?”
The inquiry was directed at the two brothers who were still very much engaged in braiding. It caught their attention, and Fili raised an eyebrow at the peculiar wording. “Whatever do you mean, Bilbo?”
Bilbo, understanding that he would have to elaborate, continued speaking. “What I mean is—well, braiding. I haven’t seen any man ever taking it to such, um, exceptional levels. In fact, I’m certain I haven’t seen even the most skilled girls of the Shire making such distinctive patterns—like these.”
Fili and Kili looked at their braids, then at each other in confusion. Kili sent Bilbo a queer look. “Mister Baggins, are you calling this a woman’s expertise?”
Bilbo swallowed slightly. “Well, no—ah…um, yes, I suppose—by Shire reckoning, I’d say it is.”
A tremendous outburst, by a scale Bilbo would never have expected, occurred through the camp. Quite suddenly every dwarf was shouting out their complaints and protests, to which Bilbo had no means to defend with a dozen opinions against his own, until Balin managed to calm everyone down.
“Oh dear,” the older dwarf sighed at his kinsmen. “Would you at least act more like proper people when addressing a quite respected person who just so happens to be very little educated in our personal opinions? Master Baggins was obviously trying to politely inform himself through asking subtle questions. And this is how you reply?”
Shame was on a majority of the faces and mutters of apologies went through the group. Bilbo was very much relieved, deciding he’d have to thank Balin suitably later on.
The white haired dwarf cleared his throat. “I propose we do this more properly. Let our burglar explain his point of view and then we shall present our own arguments. Does this sound fair?”
The dwarves agreed, and all eyes now rested on the hobbit who sat fidgeting on his log. Bilbo honestly did not in any way mean to offend his companions and friends (for they were) and wished to avoid doing it any further. However, he also saw this as a unique opportunity that had presented itself to allow him to get to know them all much better. In return, the dwarves might even understand his way of thinking a little better. As a total, it seemed, the rest of the very journey could end up being a much more comfortable one.
With this all in mind, Bilbo drew his breath. “Well…they do seem important to you and—um, your culture. Yet I can’t find anything that seems particularly useful about them. I mean, um, in spite of the fact that they through a hobbit’s eyes would seem rather girly…it takes a lot of time, for one, that could be spent doing something more profitable. They are also rather hard work loosening and even attempting I believe tears tremendously on your roots – and they’re just, well, altogether quite useless.”
None of the dwarves made an outburst like they had earlier and went for mumbling between themselves. Balin seemed mightily please by this, and even Bilbo smiled at the small growth of manners they seemed to attain at the moment.
“Very well,” Balin stated, turning to the halfling with a soft smile. “You are quite right concerning their importance, laddie. For both our men and women skills in braiding are seen equal to the fortune of growing a strong beard. Their sheer complexity is a sign of status. What might be even more important is how they’re used for making an impression, rather vital when looking for a spouse.”
“Aye, we may choose to use beads from the finest material to swipe them off their feet!” Glóin added proudly to much agreement. Bilbo smiled, briefly remembering him telling them one night around the fire of his wife and son waiting for him back in the Blue Mountains.
“And bestowing the service of braiding their hair upon someone is considered a mighty gift, coming from the right person,” Bofur added, earning agreements of his own.
Balin nodded contently. Then he turned back to Bilbo. “I doubt importance in dwarf culture shall be enough to state our argument though, so you shall be well off knowing that they have their practical use as well.”
This time, Ori stepped up. “Indeed! The fineness of it trains the fingers and practices hand-eye coordination. That is quite useful when decorating our crafts.”
“As well as for cleaning tables,” Fili supplied with a bark of laughter, obviously referring to the scene they had made at Bag End before starting their journey.
“For throwing rocks and firing arrows!” his brother continued.
“And not to mention: for playing music!” Nori added, receiving cheers from his companions who immediately began boasting about their skills with various instruments. Bilbo was sure he even heard someone say that Thorin was apparently quite excellent with the harp, but didn’t have the time to question that before Dori claimed their attention. He was shouting “Hear, hear!” until he was sure everyone were listening.
“What I would dare say is the most important aspect of it is the building of companionship,” he chuckled, receiving warm agreements to his insight.
“Yes, of course! It’s about building trust and loyalty,” said Dwalin. “In letting someone braid you, you are basically telling them that you trust them not to pull your beard right off!”
Bifur then went ahead and shouted something in dwarf tongue, which Bilbo didn’t quite follow, but the others were quite contented with the addition and laughed heartily.
“Oh and of course!” Kili started, once again looking at Bilbo. “It keeps the hair out of your eyes when walking.”
“Which you could probably make use of, Mister Baggins!” Fili supplied, to which Kili nodded.
“I don’t quite see where you’re going with this,” Bilbo carefully admitted. The dwarf brothers were grinning cunningly at him, obviously planning to enjoy some laughs on the cost of his dignity.
“We’ve seen you blowing your hair out of your eyes—” Kili started.
“—or pulling it back from your face,” Fili continued.
“The latest being just now when you walked into the camp.”
“But you also did it earlier today when we got to the bottom of the valley.”
“And also this morning when you were cooking breakfast!”
“Last week, while you were bandaging blisters…!”
“Not to mention: in his sleep.”
“No, I’m pretty sure he was just rubbing his eyes back then.”
“Oh…well, perhaps he was dreaming about doing it?”
“Well…that is quite possible…”
“But our point is,” Kili finally said, knowing their teasing had already resulted in a quite annoyed hobbit, “now while we’re out traveling, it grows longer quickly and is not easy to tend to very often.”
“So I say it shall be very beneficial if we shall include Bilbo in this…fine skill,” Fili concluded.
Bilbo blinked a couple of times before he finally worked out a comprehension of what the brothers were saying. “Wait—what… no!! No, absolutely not. I absolutely refuse…!”
His blunt, fairly straightforward refusal was responded to with hearty laughter from the older dwarves as well as a fair amount of teasing, but also complaints and attempts at convincing him to do otherwise.
“Come on, Bilbo! You’ve gotta try it, at least once!”
“I already said no! I know now that these things are tremendously important to you, but never have I ever – and never shall I ever have my hair all tied up and prettied like some young lass of Hobbiton!”
“But, Mister Baggins…”
“No, you stay away! Fili, Kili, you’d better stay where you are or I swear—”
Bilbo stopped his threat at the feel of big, strong hands resting on his shoulders pushing him to slide down onto the ground. Even before he spoke, Bilbo knew it was Thorin who was standing behind him. The intensity of his royal presence – very much worthy of a dwarf king – was a dead giveaway, but he also knew the moment all word and action stilled among the dwarves.
The hobbit swallowed slightly, not quite knowing what to expect when two booted legs came to rest on either side of him as Thorin sat down in his previous seat.
“In battle…” Thorin suddenly spoke, so softly yet with such an amount of authority that no one dared to even breathe in fear of interrupting.
One strong calloused hand came to slide through the shimmering brown curled locks in a slow fashion. Bilbo’s breath hitched at the touch. Thorin continued.
“In battle the one second it takes you to remove a stray lock from your eyes…” A calloused middle and index finger came to playing around with a stray lock. Thorin lowered his head, his lips mere inches away from the already alarmed hobbit’s leaf shaped ear as he finished his sentence. “…might be the difference between your head staying on your shoulders—or not.”
Not knowing quite what to reply, Bilbo was left speechless.
Without as much as asking for permission, as if their silent exchange had already granted it, Thorin’s fingers started grooming and arranging the hobbit’s now dry curls in what Bilbo would estimate to be quite an impressive interweaving. He was, however, quite grumpy about his new predicament.
Fili and Kili’s taunting gests and hardly contained bursts of laughter threatening to erupt from the very bottoms of their stomachs didn’t make it any better. He glared at the two, as well as every other dwarf watching. Gandalf, he noticed, had kept out of it all but was looking quite amused where he stood, chuckling deeply to himself and blowing his colorful smoke rings.
Grumpily, Bilbo gritted out through his teeth. “By the gods, I swear—how do I always end myself up in these situations!”
Undisturbed, Thorin continued his work, ignoring their burglar’s muttered outburst as he leaned in to whisper, once again, into the hobbit’s ear. “You shall have to return this favor to me someday, Master Baggins.”
The only indication the dwarf king could’ve had of his flushed face would be the reddening of the tip of his hears. Bilbo could practically feel the satisfied smirk painting the king’s face, and he probably flushed ten shades darker as Thorin’s chest – which was anything but leaning against his back – rumbled with amused laughter.
The moment Thorin moved away and announced that he had completed his task, Bilbo stormed away from the camp in the direction of the pond.
The dwarves yelled after him, taunting him with phrases like “looking good, Bilbo!” and various whistles. His reply was something concerning how he had “…never felt so outrageously dainty in my entire life!”
But, in his head, Bilbo was actually quite content with the result. Once he got to the edge of the pond he let the light of the moonlight illuminate him to the point where his mirage was clear on the water’s surface. He had to stop himself from gasping at the sight of himself sporting such a magnificent handiwork.
The curls that had formed his bangs were neatly arranged in a complex intertwining running from one side to another and ending at the nook of his right ear – the one Thorin had whispered into. He lifted his hand, soft fingers slowly tracing the braid which seemed like a collection of a hundred small rivers running over and under one another in intricate patterns. It was quite beautiful.
And – he noticed – his hair really did keep out of his face.
A faint smile touched Bilbo’s lips while he sat there, studying the finished work of the dwarf king. The truth was, being included like this made him truly feel like a part of the company, almost as much as when Thorin accepted him as one of them.
Even if he was a bit reluctant to – or in some cases entirely against – joining in on some of the ridiculous aspects of the dwarves and their culture…his companions were very, very dear to him. If put in the predicament he would probably offer anything to each and every one of them in order to keep them happy – and keep them safe.
Not that he’d ever admit that to any of the dwarves, though.
And, if it was to be known, Bilbo really hoped they weren’t going to find ways to introduce him to their bathing customs.
After another few, long minutes – self-esteem recharged and possible smart replies to Fili and Kili’s taunts readied – he finally decided to head back to the camp.
“But if I’m really going to have to braid Thorin’s hair for him,” Bilbo wondered to himself, unconsciously tracing his own masterpiece again, “perhaps it would be wise to ask someone else for some practice lessons first…”