A/N: I am starting to fear that I'm dragging out the events in the Shire, but I guess I'm still world- and character-building.

The song Bilbo plays in the Bywater Market is Beltaine: An Astrailhad


The Shire – 4: The Royals That Weren't

"-. .-"

Gloin grumbled under his moustache as he trudged down the road to Bywater. The mud was so thick and fresh that his iron boots sunk half-way to the ankles with every step he took. That alone wasn't the cause for his annoyance though. After all, he wasn't any worse off than his fellow dwarves, and they all were accustomed to nasty terrain. No, it was how the feet of the Halfling walking right next to him didn't sink more than half an inch. And the lad didn't seem likely to slip on the mire any time soon either. The only consolation was that his brown clothes were earthy and scuffed with green from the grass he'd been crawling through the past few days.

"How on earth do you not sink in this slush?" Ah, good old Dori, giving words to his thoughts from where he was walking, on his other side.

"Eh?" the blond hobbit – Rorimac "Rory" Brandybuck – snapped out of his single-minded contemplation of a leaf he was twisting by the stem ever other second. The white goose feather on his green hat gleamed in the morning sun as he turned to look at them. "Well, Mister…"

"Dori, Son of Bori," the dwarf said stiffly. "Brother of Ori and Nori, who you left to, what was it? Ah yes, frolick with the pigs on his night out."

Gloin winced. Dori was still angry with that. It probably didn't help that they'd had to leave Nori behind in Bag End to 'sleep off the make-believe alcoholic coma' as their burglar (well, soon-to-be burglar) had put it.

Seeing Dori now, so incensed on the thief/spy's behalf, you wouldn't think that he and Nori never actually got along.

Dori and Ori almost stayed behind as well, but the latter's craving to know more about Hobbits (and write it all down, even though he wouldn't be allowed to share his findings with many people) ultimately won out, and Dori chose to leave Nori to his sleep instead of leaving Ori alone on the road with the Hobbits that did that to their brother. Whatever it was.

When Oin mentioned that he wouldn't be alone, since, you know, every other Dwarf in the company would be going along to Bywater, he was completely ignored.

"Mister Dori then," the Hobbit acknowledged, totally dismissing the implied annoyance of the other dwarf. Gloin didn't know whether or not to admire his brazenness. "'m sure you can guess why I don't sink," he gestured down. "Our feet, see? Good weight distribution. 'Sides, 's'not like us Hobbits're all that heavy t' begin with." He ran his eyes over Dori, then Gloin. "And we ain't wearin' our weight in armor 'n weapons either."

Gloin's eyes traveled forward, past the ranks of dwarves and all the way to the front, where Bilbo Baggins and Fortimbras Took were walking abreast and exchanging friendly barbs. Bending forward, he looked to the left, past Dori, to Drogo Baggins, the third Hobbit that had chosen to accompany them (openly anyhow), and who was ultimately responsible for the large procession traveling down the road ("'Our shift's over, see, so we can do whatever we want. Y'all might's well come along and see cousin Bilbo in action.")

Sure enough, none of them were sinking or slipping in the mud.

Dori still needed to vent his annoyance. "I see. What about Master Baggins then?"

"You called?" Drogo asked cheekily.

"Not you!" The elder Ri snapped.

Gloin rolled his eyes and looked at Bilbo again. "Well, Dori does have a point, Master hobbit. Bilbo Baggins does appear to have normal-sized feet, but he still doesn't sink."

Rory seemed affronted. "Well, I never! Normal-sized feet indeed!" He flicked his fingers and somehow sent the leaf he'd been playing with shooting like a spinning dart. It hit Gloin's nose with a faint sting that was enough to make his head jolt. "I'll have you know that mine are of the perfect size for a hobbit!"

"'Course, if you'd been paying attention…" Drogo drawled from the other side. "You'd've noticed that Bilbo's the odd one out. His feet're damn right tiny."

"Oy! That's as bad an insult as you could find!" Rory tossed a pebble at Drogo's head, and the latter glared and responded with a tiny rock to the forehead.

"If he'd minded, he'd have said something the other dozen times I mentioned it! Besides, it's true!"

Gloin disagreed – their Burglar's hairy feet were the perfect size, just like a dwarf's – but he was still rubbing the sting out of his nose so he didn't say anything.

Dori did though. "Why doesn't he have trouble walking in this sludge then?"

Both Hobbits shrugged and said in unison. "It's Bilbo."

In a totally unrelated event, a few steps ahead Bombur slipped. He managed to regain his balance with Bifur's help, but he flailed on the path hard enough to send mud flying everywhere. And as fortune would have it, much of it splattered over Gloin. The Dwarf shut his eyes with a grimace, reaching up to rub a hand over his suddenly dirty face (and he'd had such a lovely bath the previous night too, blast it!). When he could see again, he looked down mournfully at his beard, more slimy brown than fiery red at this point. His wife would flip if she saw him.

Grunting, he quickened his pace, passing in front of the three Ur bothers (was Bofur discussing hats with Bilbo's Baggins cousin?), then past his brother Oin and drew level with the Princes, who were just behind the so-called vanguard, composed of two hobbits in the middle and Ori and Balin on either side.

"-till won't go and get some rest, cousin?" Bilbo was asking.

"I'm fine. Besides, you're crazy if you think I'm going to miss whatever you're about to do."

"Well at least put away your hat. Otherwise everyone will think you're, ahem, escorting us."

Fortimbras obliged, and the other two hobbits with them hid their own headwear in their vest pockets. Somehow, the damn hats could collapse into really thin strips. Gloin saw that the Halflings slipped the feathers behind a set of bands lining their outer forearms (to identify them as Bounders to their kin while also showing they were not on duty?). Bands he hadn't noticed previously. Seemed that weaving and tailoring were well cultivated trades in the Shire as well.

Gloin paid attention to the chatter, and half an ear to Fili and Kili, who were looking around and frowning, trying to spot their watchers now that they knew about them. They weren't being very successful. The rare times they did see something, Gloin suspected it was just because the Bounders were deliberately being less sneaky than usual. It was like a game of hide and seek with higher stakes.

Gloin wondered how stealthy Hobbits could be if they were removed from the Shire and did not know every nook and cranny anymore. The dwarf was also fairly sure there were some out-of-sight paths and spots that Bounders had set up all over the Shire to make their jobs easier.

Balin seemed to be scouring the distance and the fields as well. No doubt the old dwarf, their best lookout (and how rare it was for one so old to retain his sharp eyesight), had felt the hit to his pride. Days without spotting his tails. Days! At last he seemed to be doing better than the two princes, now that he knew there were watchers.

Gloin was a banker by trade, or used to be before Smaug sacked Erebor. He had a good mind for numbers and pretty much all other facts, but he didn't deliberately join a conversation without being asked to, unless it was about money and valuables. He listened really well though, so he didn't say much but paid heed to what queries Ori and Balin placed, and what the Hobbits answered with. Fortimbras Took hesitated often, but Bilbo Baggins proved to be surprisingly forthcoming, and his cousin deferred to him every time without any hint of resentment.

Which was somewhat mindboggling because not only was Fortimbras Took the equivalent to a high-ranked military officer, but he was next in line for Thain, the Shire's damn King. And no matter what the Hobbits said, the person who acted as high judge and led the Shire military was a King and that was that. Especially since the title was hereditary. He didn't care what the Hobbits said that it was mostly an honorary position, it was a big deal.

And yet the damn Hobbit prince was playing second fiddle to Bilbo Baggins.

Then it hit Gloin and the banker felt really stupid for a second. Bilbo Baggins and Fortimbras Took were cousins. Which meant that Bilbo had to have been the son of a first-generation son or daughter of the Thain that preceded Isumbras Took.

Gloin was hard-pressed not to bury his face in his hands. Thorin, all of them, had been acting like ruffians in the home of a prince. Why oh why did the whole Living Home thing not clue them in? Especially with how large and well-stocked it was? Forget the food, it had enough rooms to house 13 unexpected guests individually (both normal-sized and bigger, and with rooms to spare), and the Hobbit had provided towels, and he had running hot water!

Even without that, Mahal, the hobbit wore embroidered velvet for crying out loud! And he had a dozen hidden guards! Well, okay maybe the Bounders weren't actually Bilbo's royal guard, since they were supposed to tail everyone remotely suspicious, but still! He enlisted them to play a song with him just like that! The sodding military police!

It was a wonder Balin hadn't begun to openly despair over this embarrassment. Dwarves had called blood feuds and wars for less.

As it was, the old, white-haired dwarf was showing every sign of preparing to mimic a boiling cauldron. It was steady and silent, unnoticeable until it spilled over into the fire. Gloin wasn't sure he wanted to be there when Balin finally vented on someone, but he was rather sure it would happen before the day was out, so he had to keep an eye on him and make sure he was there when it happened. Too much entertainment value to miss the fallout.

The red-haired dwarf did his best not to show any of his thoughts on his face, just listening, trying to remember the core of what Ori was writing down in detail (although in shorthand). Learning more about Hobbit culture was mandatory now, not just a flight of fancy.

The exact number of Bounders was never stated (Bilbo bluntly said it was one thing that would stay a secret). But it was sure to be decent if they could spare two watchers per stranger. Also, Bounders seemed to have the right to request free lodgings from any other Hobbits when they needed to sleep after their shift (although, Bilbo said, Hobbits in general never turned down a request for shelter – from other Hobbits at least – so that right was more of a formality really).

When Balin asked what they had meant by "mind blankers" the dwarves were treated to a lecture on mushrooms and the various concoctions that could be made from them, particularly the toxic ones. It seemed that some Hobbits, like the Maggots, specialized in growing all sorts of different kinds, and even had deep tunnels in their smials, where they reproduced cave-like conditions for the rarer ones. The shrooms, and/or their spores, could be used in lots of things, from instant knockout gas and poisons to hallucinogens. The 'mind blankers' were small darts (shot with blowpipes) which were coated with a memory-altering knockout compound that had been discovered by Gerontius "The Old" Took (who'd been Bilbo and Fortimbras' grandfather and, thus, the Shire King equivalent, though it was a wonder that the implications of that still didn't seem to set in with anyone other than Balin).

Bifur and Bofur had drawn close by then, and the former asked (grunted really, with the latter translating from Khuzdul to Westron) why Hobbits bothered with such things, unless they weren't as peaceful and gentle as they painted themselves.

Bilbo had laughed at the insinuation that Hobbits engaged in court-like "politics" and patiently explained that it was impossible for their folk to use the substances against each other, because their race had a special tolerance for Mushrooms and even the most poisonous ones never did more than cause a bit of gas (only when they were eaten raw, and they could be the tastiest when made with the right seasoning). Direct injection of their secretions didn't do much either.

The most commonly used solution was a mild sleeping draught they used in taverns. It was kept in reserve, apparently, in case strangers proved to be mean drunks. If they got surly and violence-prone the tipsier they became, the bartender (and you apparently couldn't become a bartender without serving a few years in the Bounders first) would steadily lace the ale with the draught until the patrons in question fell over unconscious. The stigma gained in the process, of not being able to hold their drink against "mere halflings," was considered punishment for being crass.

A minor one too, Fortimbras Took had said, because Hobbits generally did hold their liquor better than other races, something Gloin had trouble believing.

Actually, Gloin had trouble believing most of that. Sure, there was evidence that all races had some sort of talent. Dwarves themselves were broader and stronger than others, and could light a smokeless fire from anything even remotely flammable, even sopping wet wood. And they could maintain a forge flame at whatever temperature they wanted just by willing hard enough. It was why they were such good craftsmen. The best of spellsmiths could even tap into an inner fire that allowed them to sow their will into their creations when they burned hottest.

So it was, somewhat, feasible that Hobbits had some sort of fae affinity and tolerance to certain things. What he was hearing still seemed too farfetched though, not that he said it. Fili and Kili did, though, to which Fortimbras smiled knowingly and Bilbo said that it was okay. That it was the main reason they were even sharing that information, NDA or no. After all, who would believe a bunch of dwarves if they tried to share all that with outsiders? What were the odds of it not being dismissed as a poor attempt at a prank?

And considering that, Bilbo had asked, were they ever going to try to tell anyone and risk ridicule?

Gloin had almost said that they could if Thorin backed them up… but then he realized that Thorin and Dwalin had not been present for any of the happenings of that morning, and they also had not signed the NDA, so they could do nothing. And the rest of the Company could not just tell them anything because they had signed the non-disclosure agreement, and dwarves took their vows seriously. And even if they did break their word, there was the issue of credibility.

The princes were known for causing mayhem and pranks, so they were out. The others were tinkers, toymakers or mind-addled former fighters. None of very high standing.

That left Balin as the only one whose report might be trusted, and he was unlikely to break the terms of the contract unless the Dwarves decided to go to war with the Shire for whatever mad reason.

No doubt Bilbo Baggins had taken this into account when he offered the NDA, Gloin realized with grudging admiration. Now he had the perfect way to get back at their King for the lack of decorum of the previous night: forcing the company into a situation when they would have to dance around the subject of Hobbit capabilities whenever it came up. And Thorin would have to know better than demanding they ignore the terms of the contract and answer his questions. Because if he did demand that, he would blatantly send out the message that he did not hold himself to the same standard of dwarven honor as his followers.

It was no small thing for a dwarf to give his vow, especially via contract, but it was another matter entirely to respect the vow given by someone else, especially when the one the oath had been made to was a person you disliked. That realization made the red-haired dwarf gaze at the Hobbit's back for a long while. Maybe that was exactly why Bilbo Baggins had done it, to get a measure of Thorin's character.

If it was, Gloin thought, there was no reason to be concerned. Despite the faux pas of the previous night, Thorin's character was far from a strife-sower or simpleton. Maybe there was hope for peace and understanding in their miss-matched company after all.

Bywater could be seen clearly in the distance, now that the fog had lifted completely, and there was more bustle than Gloin expected. "Is today a market day?" He wondered aloud.

Drogo Baggins had swapped places with Rory at some point during their walk and was next to him now. "Nope. Those're Saturdays here in Bywater. Not that the markets're ever empty, heavens no." The hobbit shrugged. "O'course, It's true that today's a lot more active than usual. Makes sense though."

"What does?"

The short and plump man blinked in surprise. "What do you mean? You were there when Bilbo played."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"What'd'you mean what…" Drogo tilted his head. "Oh… Wait, of course you won't know just from witnessing it once. You were probably too mesmerized to notice."

"Notice?" Fili and Kili piped up in unison. "Notice what?"

"You mean you can't remember anything unusual about the song?" Drogo asked, amused.

"I was a bit too preoccupied with how Hobbits seemed to spring from the ground," Dori grumbled from behind them. Gloin realized that all other conversations had paused. "And stop smirking, lad! It's a wonder you could even play with the others with how the song seemed as if it was coming from everywhere!"

Drogo grinned back at the annoyed dwarf triumphantly. "And that was what I meant. The tune came from everywhere at once, you said. Now tell me, who else d'you think heard the same as you?"

There was a pause, then Bofur's eyes widened. "Ye're sayin' it was heard all the way out here?"

"Oh, not just here," Rory told them from the other side of the group. "The whole Shire heard it. An' I'm pretty sure it made it all the way to Buckland too."

"What's that now?" Bofur asked, sounding unsure if he should believe it. "That's days away!"

"Don't ask me how," Drogo told them. "I got no clue how it works."

"But," Ori's voice almost didn't make it over the noise of their trek. "But you were there! Playing along…"

"On instruments that cousin Bilbo handed out before and after he climbed the hilltop," Rory revealed. "Well, technically he tossed and kicked them straight where he knew we were. What, did you think we carry around violins and lutes all the time? We're Bounders, not musicians."

"But… but you were good," Kili floundered.

"Actually, I'm terrible!" Drogo said blithely. "Well, I'm pretty decent with a tin whistle I suppose…"

"But… but you were playing the lute this morning!" Ori squeaked.

"Aye I was," Drogo confirmed dreamily. "It was great."

"You're not making sense," Fili huffed. "How can you be terrible but still play so well? Unless hobbits hold themselves to different standards than anyone else…"

"We don't," Drogo said quickly. There went that idea. "It's just… it doesn't matter how bad you are when you play as backup to my cousin."

Bifur growled something in the Dwarven Tongue and Dori rubbed his with a groan. "Mahal save me. Will I ever understand hobbits?

"It's not a Hobbit thing," Rory said casually. "It's just Bilbo."

"You two!" Bilbo called from the front. With some envy, Gloin noted that his green shin-length trousers, white shirt and blue vest were spotless despite the damp and muddy morning. And his unbuttoned forest green coat (again, velvet, with golden seams and laces) was just as clean despite it reaching all the way to below the middle of his calves, and instead of being stiff it flowed like water. "Stop annoying my guests."

"Sorry cousin!" Rory seemed to mean it, Drogo clearly didn't.

Which Bilbo noticed. "I can see you're not sorry enough. Just for that, you won't be my backup this time."

"No!" The younger Baggins gasped in horror. "You can't! It was my turn!"

"Ha!" Fortimbras gloated as he accepted the lute. So that was why Bilbo Baggins had carried it along with the fiddle all the way from Bag End.

"No fair!" Drogo whined. He resembled Kili astonishingly much when he did it, even though they looked nothing alike. "He's just as bad at the lute as I am!"

"And you just said it doesn't matter," Rory said not at all helpfully, ignoring the baleful glare he got for that comment

Good old Balin took that chance to ask what Gloin himself and the others, were all wondering about. "Yes, and I'm sure we are all wondering exactly what that even means."

"Thoughts and feelings aren't fully ensconced in your heads, Master Dwarf," Bilbo explained, slowing his pace until he was between the old noble and Gloin. "They are like strands and eddies, swirling about you, or like the sun, a star of blazing fire. Always brushing against those of everyone else in a certain vicinity. The contact between such thoughts is where instinct and odd feelings come from, like, say, when you somehow know you are being watched, or that this or that group of people could be trouble." Well, wasn't that an interesting theory. "With the right tune, I can sync with those thoughts and feelings, and enable them to, in turn, sync with those of everyone else, so long as the people they belong to are of a similar enough mind."

Gloin felt uneasy at what he was hearing… could the hobbit do more than he was saying?

Drogo snorted. "You're being all scholarly again, cousin. We here're simple folk, remember? I bet half o' these louts didn't understand a word you said in the second part."

"Hey!" Kili and Fili yelled.

"I didn't say which half!" Drogo shot back.

Balin shook his head. "He's got you there lads."

"Anyway!" Rory cut in. "What dear cousin means is that he can make people work really well together. Like, say, turn any group of people into an expert band of musicians whenever he plays something."

"Actually, only people I've played at least a few hours' worth of music in the presence of. Granted, music tends to help crowds gain some semblance of orderliness all on its own, but what Drogo described depends on people fully trusting me to lead them well. That they at least want to be of like mind with myself," Bilbo clarified without missing a beat. "So far, that includes only those I have a deep personal bond with."

"Awww," Drogo glomped Bilbo, bringing the whole group to a halt. "I love you too cousin!"

Gloin stared at the surreal scene, exchanged a look with his brother Oin, then proceeded to stare some more. Did that mean that Bilbo Baggins had a deep personal bond with all the Bounders that were watching his house?

The Master of Bag end looked down at the newly acquired armful of hobbit, fondness and wry amusement fighting on his face. "I know you do." He ruffled his honey-colored locks. All the while, Drogo just kept rubbing his cheek into his older cousin's bosom. "But you still can't be my backup."

"Aw bollocks!"

"Language!" Bilbo swatted him on the head, though it didn't make the other hobbit pull away in the least. "Some people here are still underage!"

"Hey!" Kili shouted.

There was an awkward pause.

"Umm…" Fili stared at his brother. "He didn't say who…"

Kili blinked, then said some rather startling things in Khuzdul about pigs, horses and buttered toast, prompting Balin to swat him over the back of the head too. "Language!"

"But… but Baliiinnn, it's not like they understand any of it!"

Gloin wondered when Dwarves had stopped caring that their sacred language should be guarded from outsiders.

"It's enough that I did," Balin lectured. "Now get back in line before I decide to tell your uncle what your imagination just cooked up."

"No!" Kili yelled in overbearing mock-horror. "You can't! Mister Baggins, you'll protect me won't you?" And he jumped to duck behind the hobbit.

"Hmm…" The hobbit in question tapped his chin with the hand of the arm that was not still wrapped around his clingy younger cousin. "Well, you got my name right so I suppose you do deserve a reward."

"Yes!" Kili then hugged the hobbit from behind, which seemed to sprout a competition with Drogo over who got to hug more of the poor man. Mahal, Gloin thought, Kili may not have been of age by Dwarven standards, but wasn't the hobbit, at least, supposed to be an adult?

The banker looked between Bilbo and Fortimbras Took and saw the exact same expression of long suffering on them both.

So it wasn't just him.

What a relief.

But of course that look of mirth and deviousness would creep on their burglar's face as he looked down at his clingy cousin. "Drogo."

"Mmm?"

"You do realize that one of the Bounders keeping an eye on our grand company is Primula, don't you."

It took just a second for the words to sink in, then Drogo sprung away so fast that he smashed into Fili, almost making them both crash into the muddy path. Fili caught his balance with some choice curses, but the Hobbit was too busy straightening his clothes to notice or care. Once he was done, he checked his cuffs one last time then cast a roaming gaze upon their surroundings, peering into the distance to spot signs of their watchers that none of them could perceive. Gloin was fascinated by how gradually those big eyes that all hobbits seemed to have could narrow in focus.

Which was when Fortimbras Took loudly commented from ahead. "Not such a respectable Baggins, are you now?"

"Lay off!" Gloin would have mistaken the way the Drogo's fingers flicked out for a random twitch.

But Fortimbras's hand flew up like a blur and halted with the index and middle fingers extended, a round, shiny white marble caught between them. The older hobbit smirked. "Ten years too young, kid."

Drogo puffed and rolled his eyes. "Oh, go suck air through a reed!"

"-. .-"

Thorin Oakenshield could freely admit that the past 24 hours had not at all proceeded the way he'd expected. And he wasn't just referring to the way he got lost twice on the road. No, it was everything that happened after he knocked on the door, though now he wasn't sure whether to be more affronted at the events in Bilbo Baggin's home or at how Dwalin dragged him out and away only to spend the rest of the night arguing with and relieving hours' worth of stress on him. By relaying, in that ever so blunt manner of his, precisely what had occurred between Dwalin's arrival into the Shire (and eventually Bag End) and Thorin's own.

Gandalf had absconded almost as soon as they got him to sit at their table in the inn, the sly old coot. If the morning actions of the hobbit bartender and other patrons hadn't been what they'd been, Thorin would have given the wizard a piece of his mind. Did he think his quest, his people's plight, was a small joke? Why else would he set up his entire company for such a distasteful prank? He sent them into the lair of such a fickle creature under false information, and he made sure the tensions would be highest by not informing the Halfling (if it even was a Halfling) of anything, even their arrival.

Gandalf had told them that everything had been arranged weeks ago!

And what had gotten into Dwalin? He had been literally drowning his sorrows in ale. What had that Halfling put him through? The warrior had relayed the bare facts, but it was as if Dwalin was hiding some dark secret about what took place within those round walls. And every time Thorin tried to demand an explanation, he would just down another half a mug and sulk, occasionally grunting something at him.

Mahal, he'd trudged over half of Middle Earth seeking to muster his dwarven kin and been turned down, not even with the appropriate amount of deference shown to him. He'd been spitting mad for days on the way back from the Council of Gabilgathol – Belegost to the Elves and Mickleburg to the Men – feeling betrayed and disappointed. The worst was his cousin's refusal, even though he understood Dain's stance. On the one hand, he of all dwarves had the manpower to spare, being the lord of the greatest Dwarven realm that remained. On the other, he was the holder of the chokehold between Rhovanion and Rhun to the east, and those men had ever been servants of the Shadow.

It had been an uneasy trek back from the meeting place, to say the least.

And when he arrived in the Shire he spent four days through peaceful and joyful villages. It felt like a slap in the face that these small creatures had such an easy lifestyle, so safe (not even through any effort of their own, but owed solely to rangers) while his own people had had to spend two hundred years scraping for even the barest necessities until they finally established a relatively decent life in Southern Ered Luin, where Menegroth had once stood.

The four hours spent trudging through pouring rain didn't help any, and when he saw the small, soft creature it was like all his lowest expectations were confirmed on the spot. It felt like that entire situation had been orchestrated to stomp on the last vestiges of his hope that his quest was not completely doomed. Clearly, the Halfling would be a dead weight they would have to drag after them just to break the bad luck of number 13 and have someone lacking in dwarf scent to send into Smaug's lair at the end.

What had he been thinking listening to Gandalf in the first place? They were better off without the Halfling. Better that he didn't feel the urge to come at all. Admittedly, Thorin was (surprised though he was to admit it) regretful that he'd sought to amuse himself at Bilbo Baggins' expense, but if the creature was so thin-skinned that he would crumble at the barest implied insult then he was not fit for the journey.

Call him insensitive but after everything he'd been through in life, he didn't bother sparing the feelings of outsiders. He had trouble enough doing it with his own kin, even before they turned their backs on him and his call for aid.

Well, no matter, he would get them back their home even if they didn't lift a finger to help bring about that dream.

Then the evening happened and Thorin, even after a night's reprieve, still felt like he'd fallen down a rabbit hole. And the feeling didn't get any better after what happened in the morning. Stone, that song and the way the hobbits so reverently listened to it. Even Gandalf had…

Thorin had actually forgotten about having been rendered mute until after the bell stopped tolling and he finally could speak again. And only when it did finally happen did he realize that he'd gravitated towards the window closest to the one the innkeeper had sat in front of. The view was stunning, even to him. Sunlight streamed through the clouds, breaking into myriads of colors as it refracted through the mist, and the colors glimmered on the dew of the morning. And with the window facing west-northwest, he was almost behind the sunbeams and could see exactly how they settled over the hills, like parallel seams holding the landscape together.

Then the entire inn cleared out as if by magic. The only people left, other than the two of them, were the two halflings that had shushed him earlier (the nerve, he'd have words with them) and the innkeeper himself (who moved to sit at the window facing south, which gave him a full view of the market square down the hill). Gandalf had exited along with everyone else at some point, when Thorin wasn't paying attention. Not long after, the handful of hobbits that had taken rooms in the floor above thundered down the stairs and ran out the door.

Thorin and Dwalin shared a confused look, and the former was glad when his friend went to ask the Hobbit what had just happened, and what was going on. As far as the King Under the Mountain was concerned, if he had to deal with another hobbit that day it would be too soon.

Dwalin's brief talk with the Innkeeper resulted in their eviction from the establishment. The dwarf King in exile had been so nonplussed that he didn't get around to protesting the rudeness of it all. To just close down the inn, and so abruptly! He was, admittedly, somewhat mollified by the fact that the two hobbits that had lingered inside had been ushered out as well. Only for a short time, though, because he never got around to having words with them about how they dared to tell him to shush earlier.

Thorin didn't even remember when they'd disappeared, or where. Then again, with the crowd outside it was easy to slip out of sight.

And to get shoved and bumped around it seemed. Why he'd gone with Gandalf's suggestion to visit the market, he didn't know. Especially after the wizard had steered them so horribly wrong in regards to that volatile Hobbit that was supposed to be their burglar. But he did go to the market, instead of following his initial plan of going with Dwalin back to Bag End to retrieve his errant company and go on their way. He was determined that it would be the last concession he made with the wizard: to look around the market until noon or so, and if his company didn't show up by that time then he could go do whatever he wanted.

Four hours of browsing trinkets, produce and foodstuffs later (Mahal, there were so many types of food too), Thorin had actually finished wrinkling his nose and silently scoffing at the total lack of weapon merchants. Or even a tool stand. Instead, he was actually thinking of buying a couple kegs of ale, the sort that he'd had at the inn during the night. And was a third of the market dedicated solely to mushrooms? And by the Arkenstone, that apothecary was half-stocked with things he'd never even heard of before but which were supposedly meant to be remedies for various things.

Jostling through the crowd (which was growing as more and more halflings came in with various products in wheelbarrows or carts), Thorin was seriously thinking he should buy himself something to eat when it happened.

A ripple of mutters and excited chatter went through the crowd. The crowd which abruptly stopped. Automatically turning in the direction of the disturbance, Thorin could only think Finally!

There, at the edge of town, high on the hilltop leading to Hobbiton, were his followers. Squinting, the dwarf king also noticed two… no, four hobbits accompanying them. And right in front was the Halfling he still wasn't sure he wanted to see. Good thing his dwarves were there at least. And Thorin had to admit that the reaction of the crowd was gratifying. As impolite as it was to stop and stare, his dwarves really were a sight to see, armed and armored, dwarven steel glinting in the sun. And unlike the humble mien they were forced to wear in the towns of men, now they strode tall and proud-

"It's Mister Bilbo!"

-and imposing- Wait, what? He must've misheard, it had been barely a whisper-

"Ho Mister Bilbo!" A hobbit man shouted, waving excitedly.

And then the crowd erupted in movement again, twice as active. Frantic even. Thorin was jostled once, then twice, then he had to beat a hasty retreat as the Halflings moved about like a whirlwind, shouting things like "Hurry up!" "Set up that Stall already!" and "Mister Bilbo's coming, you wanna be the only one without your products on display when he give his speech?"

Speech? What speech? Who was he to even give a speech?

For the second time that day, Thorin could only wonder what in blazes was going on. When Dwalin finally managed to rejoin him (he'd wandered off earlier), he had no answer. Then the two had to move aside again because "Oy! Sorry but this here's hitching rail, see? How're we supposed to tie our oxen to it with you standing there? Or d'ya wanna get horned? Move move move!"

They were able to get out of the way but Thorin was sure he'd have had to start putting effort into not drawing his sword Deathless if that went on much longer. Fortunately for the annoying Halflings, that was when Gandalf came out from an alley not far from them. The dwarf king would forever deny that the sight of the wizard came as a relief.

With some effort and much pushing, Thorin and Dwalin made their way to the wizard's side. "So these are the creatures you're so enamored with!" He drawled as soon as he was close enough. He waved a hand as grandly as he ever did, encompassing the chaos that had grown ten times worse in the few minutes since Bilbo Baggins had been spotted. "Look at them. They're worse than headless chicke-"

A sharp whistle speared through the air so suddenly that Thorin cringed and shut his eyes. It had been so loud and shrill that his ears were left ringing.

Far off and high up, Bilbo Baggins pulled his two fingers out of his mouth (maybe forbidding that whistle should be included in the contract?) and raised an eyebrow at the multitude of his kinsmen, who'd stopped and were al staring at him like deers in the torchlight. Thorin watched in bewilderment as all who'd been trying to step over one another or push their carts ahead of the line (if the word even applied anymore) ducked their heads in embarrassment.

"Now…" Bilbo Baggins' voice carried over them all, even though he barely raised it. "Let's try this again, yes?" That said, he reached out, to his right, and plucked the strings of the lute held aloft by the Halfling accompanying him.

It was like a repeat of the scene in the morning, only with a different instrument. The cadence, fast and rhythmic, washed over and through everyone like the warmth of a furnace after a long trek through the howling blizzard. Then the section completed and picked up again, without breaking stride, five seconds in. Bilbo Baggins stepped away, leaving the lute to be played by his kinsman, and crouched.

A leap carried him several feet upwards, and his jump ended with him standing perfectly upright on the fence bordering the road. Sunlight settled on his form, aged wood gleamed as it moved. The hobbit stepped forward to walk as if he wasn't precariously balanced on something as thin as a fifth of his foot sole. He strode almost on air, brought up a bow to the fiddle strings and music literally began to fly.

Thorin shivered when the notes crashed into him, and he wanted to rebel against the feeling, but he couldn't muster the effort. It was fast but centered, wild and tame at the same time, and so utterly alive that the entirety of Bywater fled his awareness. He was mesmerized by how quickly the bow slid, like a blur in the sunlight, each note perfect.

The hundreds of hobbits stared at the one closest to them, paused, then moved again. In unison. Order without stiffness. Haste without chaos. It was like they were all suddenly part of the same mind, cogs in the same, grand, well-oiled machine. Carts were heaved, beast of burden quartered, stalls were erected as easily and smoothly as water flowed down a creek. Those that had been trying to get past one another now helped each other in their endeavors. Yet they no longer seemed to walk. They almost bounced on their bare, hairy feet, as if they were too giddy to stand still because no one was dancing and there should have been some dancing.

All the while, a path was opened for the ones that had just arrived, the hobbit playing the lute, his two kinsmen and the dwarves in their wake.

All the while, Bilbo Baggins glided forward on the fence, his backup and the dwarves following several meters behind. His eyes stayed closed the entire time. It would have arrested Thorin's attention up to the end of the song if a new instrument, too low for a lute but still using strings, didn't come from right above.

With a jolt, he whirled around and looked up. One of the hobbits that had stayed in the inn with them up till the closedown was sitting on the edge of the roof. His fingers plucked at the odd object in perfect sync with the others, his grin was wide and brilliant, and his mirth-filled eyes were trained perfectly on the lead singer.

Dwalin grabbed his arm and pointed elsewhere, so he looked, around Gandalf. There, opposite of the first, on the other building, was the second of those hobbits, fiddle poised to start.

What on Middle Earth was going on?

That was when the song lulled, and the beats of a hand drum slipped into place. He didn't bother looking for it. He couldn't hear the direction anyway.

Thorin turned back to the source, in spite of himself. Bilbo Baggins was standing on the nearest fence pole, and the music had changed, though it stayed familiar. Like the hiss of a properly heated blade dunked in cold water, the rhythm slowed, then began to drift up again. Slowly. It was building up to something, even Thorin could tell that much.

That was when the apex came. Bilbo Baggins, instead of digging his heels into his nonexistent platform, instead of standing still to focus on his fiddle, instead of doing anything that made even the slightest nick of sense, stepped forward. Stepped on nothing…

Stepped on a bench that half a dozen hobbits had grabbed and held aloft length-wise for him to walk on. He cleared it in four steady strides, then there was again nothing, almost, but a rake, of all things, came out of nowhere, and a second one, then the same bench showed up and he was half-way to the center of the market, pacing along with the song he wove. On and on he went, makeshift path never failing to emerge before him, as if the song he played held him above everyone, as if it pulled him ever higher.

Numbly, the dwarf king noticed that the song did not falter or hit even the slightest false note. Not even once. The only other sounds were those of laughter from the assembled hobbits, especially the ones that kept building the bridge, yet even those seemed to add instead of detract from the spry tune.

Thorin would have understood if the Hobbit stopped in the center of the square. Even if there was a well there, it would have made more sense than him ending up on the opposite edge of the market. But that was where he ultimately headed, where he bent at the knees and leapt for the second time, off the proffered stool under his feet. He made it neatly to the top of the slightly sloped roof of the largest stall there, the one selling bread and pastries.

There he spun on his heel, carrying the uninterrupted song of the violin all the way to the end, joined by two other fiddles and instruments of who knew how many kinds. Thorin couldn't even tell where the sound was coming from anymore. It was like it made itself heard right in his ears, always faster, always grander but ever so perfectly fit for the small folk surrounding him on all sides.

When the end came, it was surprisingly fast, like a bonfire that burned all its fuel in one great eruption, with the way the final glide of the fiddle bow drifted into stillness.

The world seemed to hold its breath. The echoes of the last section still hovered in the air.

Then Bilbo Baggins finally opened his eyes and the entirety of Bywater erupted into cheers and applause.

The realm-less royal did not immediately realize he was gaping. He likely would not have noticed for quite a while, as arrested as he was by the mass of round-bellied halflings that were waving and shouting "Bilbo! Bilbo! Bilbo!" But when Bilbo Baggins's cloak flapped like a cape in the wind and he bowed before his audience, Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King Under the Mountain, breathed out without even meaning to: "Definitely not a burglar."

Dwalin coughed on Gandalf's other side, but it sounded suspiciously like a laugh. Thorin clamped his mouth shut and only managed a half-hearted glare in his direction, even after he saw his smug, vindicated smirk. Mahal, why did he have to let that awe seep into his tone? He may as well have added something inane like "too much style" and his slip of the tongue would have been complete.

Between them, the wizard was shaking with restrained laughter, pipe giving off smoke with each muffled snicker. "What is this, Wizard? What do you know!?"

Gandalf was visibly restraining his impending guffaws. "Oh, I assure you I am as lost as you are." It rung true, but the old man seemed to find the situation of being totally caught by surprise utterly pleasing. Exhilarating even. Fortunately, the Valar took pity on Thorin and the old wizard didn't get a chance to say whatever witty (to him) follow-up was on the tip of his tongue because the hobbit crowd settled, only for a different cheer to start.

"Speech! Speech! Speech!"

Naturally, the lean hobbit acquiesced. Standing tall, he twirled his bow between his fingertips. "My dear Bagginses and Boffins!" He carelessly but unerringly tossed the bow across the crowd, to the bonnet-wearing woman manning the cheese stand. "Tooks and Brandybucks!" He sent the violin flying in a similar manner, and Thorin's heart skipped a beat at the blatant abuse. But it was caught by clever fingers belonging to an unknown hobbit man, and the crowd cheered again. "Grubbs!" More cheers and laughs, each time he spoke the name of another family. There were dozens of them and he knew them all, until he finally finished with "Chubbs, Hornblowers, Bolgers, Bracegirdles aaand Proudfoots!"

The cheers were loudest, almost raucous to Thorin's ears, but even so the old hobbit manning the produce wagon, with the largest feet Thorin had ever seen – feet propped horizontally on the same stool that had been used to make a walkway for Bilbo Baggins earlier – shouted over the clamor. "It's Proudfeet!"

"Actually, it's not!" Blbo shot back from his high perch, throwing the older man a cheeky grin. "And I put together a complete etymologic and lexical treatise to prove it." He reached into his coat and pulled out a small notebook, bound with a strap. "Behold! The marvels of Westron grammar!" He tossed it like a disk. The object landed with a plop on top of the open corn sack right next to the old Proudfot hobbit. The latter glared up at Bilbo Baggins and bit on the mouthpiece of his pipe, but even from his poor, far off vantage point Thorin could see there was no real ire there. "Hmph!"

Bilbo only grinned wider, then looked back down at his enraptured audience and threw his arms wide. "My dear gentle and not-necessarily-quite-as-gentle hobbits!" With a flourish, he stuck a pose, one hand on his hip and the other forward, index finger pointing to the horizon. "I'm going on an adventure!"

There was no sensible reason why the crowd would react as it did. There was no reason the Halfling could even command their attention, let alone the reverence he was being shown. But it happened. Right there, the crowd erupted in cheers yet again, and Thorin was no longer wondering if he'd fallen down a rabbit hole.

There was no need to wonder. He knew it with utter certainty now.

Bilbo Baggins looked startled, though Thorin could tell he was faking it. He brought his hands up to ward off the noise, and when it settled down he dared speak again. "Whoa! The way you keep going on it's like you can't wait to see me gone!"

This time, everyone sputtered denials and tripped over each other trying to reassure the speech-giver. Though at least half of the repliers seemed only to be humoring Bilbo Baggins because they realized he was making jest.

"Ah!" Bilbo relaxed. "So it is that you're just excited about the party you think I'm about to throw. I'm sorry if I insulted anyone with my doubts but 50 years is far too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable hobbits!" Cheers abounded. "After all, I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve."

The crowd made an aborted movement to cheer but stopped. Hobbits stared blankly at each other, unable to figure out if they'd just been insulted or not. After a while, it became apparent that most wouldn't figure it out, and those that did were going to keep the secret under their foothair. So they focused on the part of the speech that they could make sense of.

Until one particularly courageous lad asked. "Party we think you're going to throw?"

For his part, Thorin was stumped. Did that mean that Bilbo Baggins always threw a feast in his own honor before traveling? How… vain.

One of the children (Mahal, there was so many of them too) hesitantly spoke up when no one else would. "…Aren't you throwing one, Mister Bilbo?"

"Of course I am!" The Halfling assure with a careless wave. "Unfortunately, many of you probably won't want to come so I'm not sure I should even-" He couldn't say anything more because no small number of people burst into declarations that more or less went along the lines if Of COURSE we'll all come if YOU throw a party!

Eventually, though, someone managed to shout louder than everyone else. "Why do you think people won't come? Everyone wants to come when you're entertaining!" That settled everyone down, but then the follow-up came. "Unless you won't be entertaining?"

Even having listened to two instances of Bilbo Baggins playing music, Thorin couldn't understand why the Hobbitry would turn so crestfallen. It only got even more stupefying when the crowd erupted in distress of all things over what could prevent "Master Baggins" from playing. Was he okay? Had something happened? Had he come down with something and only barely managed to play those two tunes earlier? Because they could whip up a mean tea and fix him right up if that was it-

"It's not that I won't be there to entertain. I will." It caused a visible ripple of relief. It was mindboggling. "Thing is… This time I don't intend for the party to take place in The Shire."

There was silence. "What?" Old Proudfoot yelled. "Why not?"

Bilbo Baggins raised an eyebrow, reached out and pointed. "That's why."

As one, everyone twisted or craned their necks to look at the newest-looking building in Bywater, which also happened to be the tallest. Thorin found himself doing the same and recognized it as the "Big Folk Wing" of The Green Dragon Inn. It stood by the main road, just outside the entrance to the market square, and was perfectly visible from there.

"Mister Cotton!" Bilbo's voice drew them back to the matter at hand.

The Innkeeper was leaning against the fence close enough to the "stage" to hear fine but far enough to also see Bilbo without having to twist his neck upwards. "Aye?"

"How many patrons does that building currently have?"

"One," the plump Hobbit bit from his apple and chewed for a bit. "Although since Master Gandalf's more your guest than mine, I s'pose 'none' is just as right."

"Exactly!"

Beside him, Dwalin shook his head in amazement and muttered. "Oh, here we go again."

The Master of Bag End began to pace on the roof of the stall he was on. "Six years it has been since that building was erected. Six years and we only ever had a handful of our brave protectors dropping by to take advantage of the complimentary hospitality we ever so hospitably offered!" He sounded positively peeved as he paced back and forth. Thorin was shocked by one word. Complimentary? Did that mean Hobbits provided the Rangers with free lodgings and service? "Six years and we only ever had a dozen of them passing through the Shire instead of going around it, through fog and rain. Even though taking the direct path between the Ruins of Annúminas and the Far Downs would shave three days off the trip. Three days!"

A wave of assenting murmurs and mutters washed through the assembled populace.

"It would not have been so odd if, say, the Rangers shifted their patrols to focus more around the northern border and the Brandywine river to the east. But if that was the case, the fine Hobbit establishments of Nobottle and Buckland would have been put to good use instead, and they have not! I checked! And wouldn't you know it, Harcot and Springdell in South Farthing informed me of the same! Now what does that tell us?"

Instead of piping up with answers, everyone just waited for Bilbo Baggins to get to the heart of the matter.

"It means…" Bilbo narrowed his eyes and sternly gazed down at the crowd. "It means that the Dúnedain Rangers still aren't comfortable passing through The Shire." Thorin could almost hear the weight dropping in the stomachs of everyone present with a figurative plop. "Now why would that be the case, I wonder…"

Hobbits shifted uncomfortably.

"I bet it's them Sackville-Bagginses," someone muttered. "'S'just our luck that they live in The Far Downs, right where the southern path turns around. I'll bet them big folk made the mistake of taking the Sackville-Hardbottle path once when finishing their patrol and knew better than to make the same mistake again, with how rude and gossipy the folk is down those parts." The quiet had become all the deeper the more he spoke. The grey-haired Halfling realized he was the center of attention and ducked his head in embarrassment, but managed to peer up at Bilbo. "'Sorry. No offense, Mister Bilbo, I know they're your family an' all but it's true."

"None taken," Bilbo waved the issue. "And I may as well lay your fears to rest. That's not the reason. I had the possibility investigated a couple of months back. Besides, Sackville is a small town to the southwest, hardly capable of influencing the appeal of all other paths."

Thorin narrowed his eyes at the choice of words. Had the possibility investigated. That implied he had human resources he could call on to do it for him. Or, well, Halfling resources.

"Beats us, then," The innkeeper said then. "Earth knows we've all been itching to see more of'em ever since you were kind enough to clear up the whole misunderstanding about'em defending our borders an'all." He scratched his cheek. "My daughter Petunia used to have all these nasty suspicions from when she spotted them during her patrols up North, but now she's mooning over'em whenever they come by, as rare as it is. I'm half-scared she'll try to elope with one someday."

Thorin had to tighten his jaw to avoid scoffing. That'll be the day. Imagine, a Halfling wed to a descendant of Númenor. He'd never heard something more ridiculous.

Most of the crowd did laugh though.

"And that is where the problem lies," Bilbo's voice rung again as his pacing resumed. "We've made it clear that they are welcome here. We've made it clear that we would like to have them over as often as possible. And we made it abundantly clear that we're straightforward folk who speak our mind, which means we meant every word when we said all that. So, by all accounts, there is no reason they would still avoid coming into The Shire. That leaves two possible explanations."

Thorin had no idea what Bilbo was getting to, but unfortunately he didn't see any way to cross the Halfling sea to where his Dwarves were, all the way on the other side. Most seemed just as enraptured by the spectacle, though some were multitasking and… was Bofur carving a wooden toy for that tiny creature? Oh wait, even he stopped to pay more attention.

"One!" Bilbo stopped pacing and held up one finger. "They don't think we're worth their time." Frowns and head tilts, but no ire. "Which is impossible." Ah, so that was why. "After all, if we were not worth their time they would not dedicate pretty much their entire lives to protecting us from the creatures of the dark. They would not do it now and would not have done it during all the centuries since the fall of the kingdom of Arthedain. So that leaves one other option, which, unfortunately, is worse."

Everyone seemed to hold their breath, and even old Proudfoot was sitting on the edge of his seat. And though he didn't realize it, Thorin was anticipating the answer too.

And then it came. "It means… that our dear Dúnedain defenders think they can have a merrier time without us." It was completely against logic, but that conclusion really did seem to cause a storm cloud of annoyance and depression to fall over the ones assembled. Thorin didn't get it. How in Mahal's forge fire was that worse? "And we all know that that notion is completely, patently absurd!"

"Damn straight!"

"Them big folk must be too close to the sky, they're getting addled by all the wind and sun in their hair."

"The nerve!"

And so went the grumblings of the Halfling population. Thorin found he could do naught but blink dumbly at the bizarre spectacle.

"And so I say that this cannot stand!" Bilbo shouted over the din, sweeping his arm in a flourish. "To think more merriment can be had in our absence! Ridiculous! Everyone knows that there are none who know how to have a better time that The Good Folk of The Shire! And so, tomorrow I will depart, by myself if I have to, and show them the error of their ways! Show them the Truth that none but Hobbits know the meaning of a true party!"

The crowd went insane, as if their Maker himself had descended from the sky on a diamond chariot studded with stars. Thorin blinked, then did it again, several times, so stupefied by how surreal the scene was that he was wondering if he'd actually passed out at some point in the night. Maybe everything from before the first tune onwards was actually an elaborate nightmare.

He bit his cheek enough to draw blood, but nothing happened. Nothing that made any more sense. So it was real. It almost made him despair. It proved once again that Hobbits definitely had a different view of life than dwarves, and that it was the kindest thing he could find to say or even think about them. Not that Thorin spared enough thought to that realization. He was too busy wondering who the hell the "everyone" was that knew that only Hobbits knew how to throw a party.

Dwarves were the ones that threw unrivalled feasts, thank you very much!

Eventually, the uproar calmed and Bilbo Baggins could speak again. "So that's why I said I wasn't sure about the attendance-"

"As if!" One shouted. "Ye're nuts if you think we'll miss it! Why, imagine, when we show up there… the look on their faces alone! It's bound to be priceless!"

About a dozen agreements came before another hobbit had this to say. "Besides, you can't think you can drag all the party supplies on yer own, lad! The trip'll take days! Why, you'll need things to carry them in! Ponies even!" It somehow made a hush fall over the assembled multitude.

"Excellent!" Bilbo grinned. "Then if we go, we go in force! Ready the carts and load up the clay ovens! And make sure to bring the strongest and tamest animals you've got. Bring sacks of corn and rye while you're at it. The Rangers' horses deserve a treat too. Don't they?"

"Aye!"

"Aye indeed!" Bilbo echoed his kinsman, and the enthusiasm rippled, echoed on itself and only grew from that further and higher. "If they go out of their way to refuse our hospitality then we'll drag our hospitality to them! Especially if we find out they did it out of some misguided sense of propriety. For we are Hobbits, and Hobbits don't stand for such nonsense!" The outcry was massive, as if their maker had enacted the Second Coming. "So let us waste no time!" Bilbo did not yell, but his voice carried over the uproar anyway. "The day is half-way done! Load up the ovens and ready the carts, for tomorrow!" Instantly one hand was on his hip and the other had a finger pointing at the sun above. "We leave for Sarn Ford!"

Thorin forgot to blink for a good five minutes. He only stopped when the revived chaos of the market somehow caused a speck of dirt to fly unerringly into his left eyeball and made him swear hard enough to leave even the crassest miners stunned. It had been bad enough that his eye started tearing. The only mercy he got for that was that only Gandalf and Dwalin saw it. His gruff but oddly vindicated old friend moved closer to hand over a patch of cloth.

All the while, the wizard laughed.

Everything that had happened would have been enough to leave a lesser dwarf shell-shocked, but Thorin was not a lesser dwarf. It was close, but his self-defined, majestic flair withstood the siege he was subjected to by the forces of Halfling unconventionalism.

So of course there would be more to come. There always was. "Umm…. Mister Bilbo, sir!" A Hobbit lad asked shyly from where he'd walked right at the foot of the stall roof where the not-burglar now sat, one leg swung over the edge. "How many carts will there be exactly? My brother's the one that minds the cattle this week." He rushed to explain. "I wanted to know how many oxen I should tell him to herd back from the pastures."

"All of them."

Somehow, that made the entire marketplace freeze.

"All of them, mister Bilbo?"

"Aye," the Hobbit grinned. "And the rams too… After all…" With surprising grace, he stood to his feet again and leaned on one foot, gaze roaming over the entire market, not even stopping to acknowledge the two errant dwarves staring at him. He stopped, instead, when he locked eyes with the middle-aged meat vendor. After a few seconds, he turned his attention to the fingernails he was polishing against his waistcoat. "We'll need them because I am hereby buying everything you have."

There was silence.

It was like everything had gone still, like in a painting. A swallow flew by, then made a U-turn and circled the scene from above, several times, as if trying to figure out if it was real. Finding inconclusive results, it went on its way before it had to think about it too much.

Thorin couldn't believe it. Couldn't believe how envious he was on behalf of his own people, for not having had something like this ever happen to them after Smaug the Terrible. It was the sort of miracle that only happened once in a century to those that depended on selling what they produced to survive. So one could excuse the effects that what happened next inflicted upon the dwarf king.

The meat vendor gasped and stood, horrified. "You can't! We won't have it!"

Thorin's jaw dropped so far that Dwalin recoiled in surprise.

Bilbo looked and sounded so crestfallen. "You… you refuse to sell to me?"

"Yes! No!" The man sounded so pained. "Bilbo… Lad, you can't…" He was so flustered but also so pale. Then he breathed in and his look became determined. "We won't have it! Not after what happened last time!"

"But…" Bilbo either felt like someone had kicked his puppy or really was that good an actor. "But I paid what I owed-"

"And most of the food ended up in our bellies!" The meat vendor stuck a finger at him. "And the leftovers only went back to our larders because you left on your adventure the same day so there was nothing else we could do with them but take them back! And you only bought a fifth of the market then. Well I for one won't have it happen again! It was shameful that we allowed it last time! It's basically the same as paying us to attend!"

Bilbo's dejected façade turned into a mulishly stubborn one. "Well, I've made my claim! I'm buying everything and you can't stop me!"

"Yes we can!" Various other hobbits nodded and crossed their arms. "Even if we have to outbid you to do it!"

Thorin was… he didn't know… What was this he didn't even…

Bilbo frowned, then a smile slowly, slowly overtook his face, even as his head dipped forward, casting a faint shadow over his eyes. "Alright then." Without warning, he hopped off the roof and landed lightly on the ground, facing the older but just as determined meat vendor. "Challenge accepted!"

The tension was thick in the air. The standoff was strained, and the meat vendor's fingers twitched at his side, unnerved by Bilbo's easy countenance but unwilling to give in. For one whole minute they stayed that way, ramrod straight and refusing to blink.

Then the apothecary, who had the most valuable merchandise and who'd been turning his head from one star Hobbit to the other, sighed and sat back in his seat behind the stall. "Well, count me out of your competition because I've just decided to donate everything on my stall to the cause."

Thorin tripped on an empty bucket he did not know was behind him and fell on his backside.

Across the market square, Bilbo Baggins slumped and palmed his face, then rolled his eyes and turned his exasperation on the totally unruffled concoction and salve maker that had just ruined everything. "Now that was just unfair!"

Thorin would have seen the odd glint in the eyes of the sure-fingered man, even from that distance, if he wasn't too busy being sprawled on the ground and groaning away the pain in his back.

As it was, he only heard the response. "All's fair in love and war, my lad."

The dwarf king was about ready to let Dwalin help him up when, on their side of the square, Old Proudfoot the cereal and flour stall holder puffed his pipe. "That's actually not a bad idea. Methinks I'll be doing the same. Doubt I'd have enough time to hammer out the books by tomorrow anyhow."

Several "Count me in"s or equivalents came afterwards, and all the fight left Thorin's body. He sagged on himself with a sigh. "That's it. I'm done."

Halflings were just so backwards.