Later, he will admit no wrong-doing in assuming the Halfing to be male –although he will feel it sometimes, as one does.
To tell the truth, all the Shirefolk look like beardless girl-children to his kind. The only hints they give to the wary traveler who braves their circling and labyrinthine roads is the length of their hair and the fact that some wear pants while others wear skirts, but not exclusively depending on the time of day or their task at hand.
It’s easier among Dwarves and yes, even Men. Dwarfish women wear their identities in their jewelry and the charms dangling from the delicate chains decorating their ears, noses, and lips that map out their status for anyone who cares to read. Human women grow no facial hair and tend to be slighter in stature, whereas he has heard Hobbits will grow whiskers only in the last gasp of their sunset days.
Briar Baggins, their would-be treasure thief, is of middling height for his kind so that is no help and wears a pair of loose trousers under a dinner jacket when they meet. Later he will wear plain linen shirts and a blue waistcoat with shiny brass buttons that were probably expensive when he bought them in the craft-starved markets that the Halflings have twice a year. They look to be decent work, but Kili was doing better before his father even let him consider touching anything other than plaster.
He’s dark for the Shire with skin the color of walnuts and soft round cheeks that would probably bruise in a stiff breeze. He’s all together soft; soft of body, soft of mind, and soft of spirit.
Thorin does not like the idea of taking a gentle soul from the gentle hills that spawned him only to face certain death. He has too much weighing on him already and his people at least are of hardy Dwarfish stock.
All dwarves are born to be craftsmen and warriors, to wield both hammer and axe in service of their homes. They may be tinkers, toymakers, and untested youths now but that will change. The seeds of something greater lurks in each of them and is only waiting for the right chance to grow.
It doesn’t occur to him until many months and miles will have gone by that the same could be said of their Halfling, but for now all he can see is the damnable softness.
What Gandalf sees in the little man is beyond Thorin’s ken, but he’s learned something about truth and trust in his years of exile. He’s willing (for now) to sign the contract that the Halfling abandons on his polished floor.
They sing that night of the day when Erebor fell. It is a ballad his people sing often and is perhaps half-propaganda and half-hope. It’s a reminder of better days and prayer for strength to Gods that have long since left these shores.
He and his men strike out before dawn. It’s rising mid-morning when a voice catches up to them on the road and the Halfling finds them with a signed contract in hand and what turns out to be deep skepticism regarding ponies.
“I expected you’d be further along than this.” The Halfling’s voice carries from where he rides next to the Wizard. “How long did they wait?”
“We didn’t wait at all!” Bofur teases and it is truth. They’ve been riding since dawn, but the green growth around the Shire is thick and they haven’t cleared it yet. It seemed a shorter distance on the map, but the Halflings are fond of their privacy as a race and make their settlements difficult to find. Even so, he’s beginning to think there’s something to Gandalf’s claims about a Hobbit’s natural magic.
“That’s odd.” The Halfling comments, but does not explain in favor of listening to Bifur noodle about on the reed pipes he carved the night before.
The woods do not thin out and they reach no more settlements. By the time they call a halt for the noon meal, even Balin has begun to grow concerned and they confer out of earshot of the rest of the company.
“We should have reached the river by now.” Balin is gnawing on a thumbnail as he stares at the map and checks their position against the sun. “Even if we’re south of the ferry, there’s creeks we would have crossed or farmland. I’m worried about our maps now.”
“We’ll consult with the Wizard.” Thorin decides, but it’s for nothing. The Wizard is gone and has left the Halfling in his place doling out soup and travel bread.
“He went back to buy some tobacco at that last farm.” He tilts his head in a seemingly arbitrary direction. “We just passed the Boffin plot and theirs is the best pipe weed in the Shire.”
“What farm?” Thorin keeps the snarl out of his voice only by sheer force of will and judging by the look on the burglar’s face, he doesn’t manage it very well.
“It’ll be on your map as Merryfair Farm.” Baggins takes the paper and points to a location barely outside of Hobbiton and still within West Farthing. He pauses. “Master Oakenshield, is it possible that…” He quails under the look Thorin gives him and says, “Nevermind. It’s clearly nothing.”
That’s the end of it for a while, but they’re no closer to escaping the Shire’s confining woods.
The Wizard rejoins them at some point when Thorin isn’t watching, but he has their location now thanks to the Halfling’s unwitting aid and it’s several hours before Thorin realizes that it hasn’t done him a lick of good.
“Are these woods cursed?” He mutters under his breath and this time Balin doesn’t laugh at him. “We’ll miss the Ferry at this rate and be forced to head towards the bridge.”
“Ah, excuse me, Master Oakenshield?” It’s the Halfling.
He huffs at Thorin with a hand on one hip and the other scratching his head. “I just meant to ask… is there a reason we’re riding in circles?” He nods towards nothing Thorin can see at all. “Only, we’ve passed the turn-off for Bagshot Row again and if we’re going to do another loop then I’d like to pick up the handkerchief I left behind.”
The company who had up until this point been a rather merry bunch with travel songs, jokes, and wagers flying about like birdsong goes silent.
“Show me.” Thorin snarls. All his patience with this damnable Shire is gone now and he’s half tempted to leave Baggins back on his doorstep if they are indeed so close, but most of him is now afraid they’ll never escape this place without help.
“Well, all right then.” Baggins guides his pony well enough with knees and soft words rather than too much rein and Myrtle responds well to him, which is a surprise for someone who had to be picked up and put into the saddle. Thorin almost loses sight of him in the brush, but is able to keep Myrtle’s wide back-end in view long enough for Baggins to lead them out of the trees and back up the same lane they’d come down in the beginning.
Sure enough, there is the Halfling’s home sitting proud on top of its little hill and he vanishes into it to return with a fat pouch of tobacco and a rather fine-looking pipe that has an ivory bit and an intricately carved bowl.
“There now.” Baggins sighs, patting down his pockets. “Here now, what are you scowling at me for? This was your idea.”
“How long would you have let us wander in the woods, Halfling, for your amusement?” Thorin demands. They’ve lost nearly an entire day to this madness!
“So you were lost!” The Halfing bites his pipe and frowns. “I did try to ask, but you frowned at me so whenever I spoke to you. I thought you were up to plans of your own.” The frown does not last long, but rather melts into a look of sympathy that galls Thorin to his core. “Bless me, I didn’t think Dwarves would have the same problems that Men do getting around. You’re so much closer to being sensibly sized that I thought for sure you’d be able to see where you were going. Forgive me. I should have spoken sooner when I saw you were going over land. Even Gandalf sticks to the main roads around here.”
Thorin turns to glare at the Wizard, but Gandalf is looking elsewhere (at a bird perhaps) and seemingly disinterested in the conversation as he puffs on his long plain wood pipe.
The Hobbit clumsily mounts his pony and reaches out to take Thorin’s reins as if to lead him like a child!
“Now be reasonable.” He sighs when Thorin refuses to give them up. “I can guide us to the Ferry in time for the last crossing, but you Big Folk have trouble following a Hobbit’s lead even on horseback. It’s best if the others can follow you so they don’t get lost.”
It takes an effort of will, but Thorin releases his reins and allows Baggins to loop them over the horn of Myrtle’s saddle. Minty falls easily into her friend’s wake and the others follow. This time they’re in the woods for perhaps half an hour before coming out the other side to a small collection of fisherman’s dwellings populated by squinty-eyed Halflings who close their windows, doors, and front gates as his company passes.
“Pay them no mind.” Baggins advises him. “They do that to everyone, even other Hobbits. They’re descended from Stoor stock around here and it makes them a bit odd; insular even. The Ferry’s free for all to use though. See?” He points to a little crossing flocked about with Hobbits on their day to day business. “Here we are.”
“Briar Baggins!” One old fellow cries out at the sight of them. “What are you doing way up there on that creature? To think I’d see the day a Baggins went about on horseback!” He snorts and chuffs like the very idea is sacrilege.
“Just guiding some Big Folk caught in the Green, Master Hamfast.” Baggins replies. “May I ask you a favor? I’ll be away for a bit. May I leave my key with you and ask that you check on Bag End once in a while?”
“My Tomwise will see to it.” The elderly Halfling says as he accepts the key. “Aye, and keep the Sackville contingent off too. Won’t you, lad?”
“I will, Da” replies younger Hobbit, who has sidled closer to Baggins’ mount says and speaks with their hired Halfling in voices too soft to be overheard in this general clamor. He frowns and squeezes Baggin’s ankle with one hand. “Are you sure you don’t need an escort?” He turns a dubious expression on Thorin, like he’s looking at a night prowler rather than a perfectly respectable Dwarf.
“No, Tomwise. I’ve been hired for the journey.” Baggins replies more kindly than Thorin would have given the circumstances and gently extricates his boot. “Just keep Lobelia and Otho out of my things, please, and I’ll bring your family back a mathom from abroad.”
“Neighbors of mine.” Baggins explains when they are across the water and finally on their way to Bree, where Thorin originally planned to overnight. “Hamfast Gamgee oversaw rents for my father and now his son, Tomwise does the same for me. The Gamgees have worked for the Bagginses for many generations and get a little territorial.” He shrugs a shoulder. “Please forgive them their behavior. They were only looking out for me.”
“Hmmm.” Is Thorin’s only reply. His mood has improved and gets even better now that they are out of the Shire land. The Halfling made good time and they will only be a little late to their next destination.
Perhaps this won’t go so poorly after all.
“Forgive me, Thorin.” Gandalf says over supper that evening. “I should have realized. There’s an effect Hobbits have when so many live together in a single place. Outsiders have a hard time getting in and once you’re there it’s hard to leave. The trade caravans must be met at the Shire’s borders and guided from settlement to settlement before being brought back to the Outside. You see now, why a Hobbit would make such an excellent burglar? They have magic that keeps them hidden and safe although none will ever admit to it for fear the neighbors will find out.”
“Perhaps the lad has some value to the expedition after all.” Balin allows as he watches Kili and Fili sneak around behind their unsuspecting burglar to pour an ale down the back of his collar. The Hobbit moves at the last second to spear another bit of toast off the communal platter and the ale ends up on Dwalin’s boots, much to the dismay of Thorin’s nephews as they try (in vain) to escape his wrath.
“Perhaps.” Thorin allows. “…but I’ll believe it when I see it.”
‘Truth and trust.’ He reminds himself as the Hobbit accidently slips in the puddle Kili left behind and lands hard on his backside. ‘Truth and trust.’
It will have to do for now.