The Wager 21
Once again, apologies that it's been such a long time. I lost my muse, and had almost decided to abandon this, but Twisted Chaos pricked my conscience, and flattered my vanity, so here it is. More dwarves blathering instead of just getting on with it!
Bifur and Oin made an odd couple; one couldn't hear and the other couldn't speak much. It might be supposed that communication between two such challenged individuals would be a dead loss, but as a result of their impediments both of them had made it their business to hone their skill in the Iglishmek.
All dwarfs spoke it to some degree (except perhaps for those who made their living precariously on the edge of a human settlement, and for whom the sight of a fellow dwarrow was rare if not unheard of); but not all of them spoke it well. No one quite knew when or where this ancient and most secret language of the dwarfs had first arisen. Some said it had been the intention of the Maker that his children would not speak with clever and crafty words as the elves did, their meaning always turning on their sly tongues, and that it was only later, as dwarfs became corrupted by the ways of the world that Khuzdul had emerged, its rigid tones and stiff sounds a guard against the deceit of other folks' mealy mouths. Others, more prosaically, said the Iglishmek originated between miners and smiths, working the noisy forges and pits of Khazad-Dum and Gundabad. Whatever the origins, the deft movements of hands and fingers were more than just a way of communicating against the deafening clang of hammer against forge. Nor were they as immune to equivocation and nuance as the purists might desire; the almost constant stream of sarcastic comments and bawdy innuendo supplied by Bifur on this journey had made a mockery of that.
For two old dwarfs whose handicaps could often lead to loneliness, the Iglishmek was more than just an invaluable tool during communications, especially when trading with the mannish, or the elves, it was a lifeline that kept them part of their community. Whenever the two found themselves together they would sit companionably and, in almost total silence, quietly exchange the latest gossip and put the world to rights. Many times the good citizens of the Ered Luin would walk by the two and wish them a cheery 'good evening', blithely unaware of the cutting comments and withering criticisms which followed in their wake.
This particular morning whilst the company was still reeling from the loss of their ponies and supplies, they found themselves together by the fire, both having had enough of their kin-folk for the time being. Since they had now been travelling for some weeks, and since dwarfs when travelling or – well doing almost anything- did so surrounded by close family, and since close family in this case included two of the most stupid and irritating fellows ever born by dwarrowdam, the first topic of the morning was how, in Arda, had two of the most respected and wise dwarfs in all of the Blue Mountains come to be lumbered with such pompous brothers and blabber-mouth cousins. It was at times a heated debate, and Oin was much impressed by the inventiveness and at times sheer beauty of Bifur's expletives, but eventually they ran out of spleen and, having turned over every foible and folly of their families, were ready to love them again. The conversation turned, as so many had done on this journey, to the matter in hand – the woman Thorin had allowed to travel with the company.
'The maiden looks on the king with favour these days', signed the toymaker-cum-miner. ' I have watched her eyes when she looks at him. Like seeing a diamond's gleam in the vein, she looks for him to turn and shine at her'.
'I do not doubt it', signaled the physician. 'Her cheeks are rubies when he speaks to her'.
'It is my thought that she would follow him to the bottom of the darkest mine but that her heart is hardened against him for his hard words'. Bifur signalled this with a sideways flick of the thumb to indicate that 'hard', as in plain and unwavering, was a good and honourable thing.
'Aye', replied Oin. 'Like all the mannish she looks for sunbeams in the sky when there is mithril at her feet' '.
Bifur nodded solemnly in reply. 'The deepest mines hold the purest gems. We must get her to look down '.
'Aye', said Oin, 'But how to do that. She's mannish.' His whole hand jiggled at the signal for 'mannish' which resembled someone trying to shake something unpleasant from their fingers.
'It is not a question of how but when', was the reply.
Oin raised his eyebrow in inquiry.
'Your brother and the thief are spreading the bet. No one doubts that she looks on him with glad eyes. Now they bet on when she will show him.'
"Do they think it will be soon?" asked Oin.
"The halfing has wagered it will be today."
Oin's bushy brows shot up to his hairline. "He has her confidence…", he mused, furiously calculating
"They are laying bets as to the minute", said Bifur. Oin looked as if he was going to make his way over to where Gloin and Nori were, now surrounded by most of the others, clearly haggling over this bet or that. "Not so fast my friend" smiled the injured miner. "I have a plan".
"What do you mean, all I have to do is walk up to him and kiss him?" asked Anna, her tone half puzzled, half scandalised.
"Those are the conditions of the bet, apparently. You just have to kiss him and we collect," beamed Bilbo, "it's as simple as that".
"Simple?" said Anna, in a shrill tone. "What's simple about that? You seem to be forgetting that it's not so long ago that neither of us dared to even look at him, let alone speak."
"Hmm, I've noticed you don't seem to have much difficulty talking to him now," commented the hobbit. "Ooh Thorin, you're so brave", he mimicked with a laugh, which died on his lips when he saw the look on Anna's face.
"Well you're a fine one to talk Mr Baggins!" exclaimed the lady indignantly. "It was your life he saved. You should be ashamed of yourself, plotting against him like this. "
"Plotting against him? No, no I'm not plotting against him. It's Nori, remember. Nori who made out you were a thief? Nori who I'm almost certainly sure spooked my pony? Nori, who nearly drowned Fili and Kili?"
A non-committal grunt was all he got as a reply.
"Forgive me my dear" began the hobbit, he's cheeks begin to redden ever so slightly, "but could it be that you are not as indifferent to Thorin as I first thought?"
The girl looked up in alarm at that. "Whatever do you mean by that?" she spluttered.
"Oh, you know," said Bilbo coyly, "I've noticed lately that when you look at him it's not with the same …contempt…yes, I think that's the word…and fear, yes, let's not forget fear, that you used to have."
"I'll admit that Thorin has…grown on me…in the last few days. I think that we might have been…you know, wrong about him."
"So that's it then. All you have to do is walk up to him and kiss him, my dear girl."
"And just how, my dear hobbit, do you suggest that I do that? Just stand in front of him and say 'Give us a kiss?'"
"Yes. No. What I mean to say…I'm sure you'll think of something" said Bilbo, sounding a lot less certain than he wanted to.
"Can't I just wait until he kisses me?"
"Apparently not. Dwarfs don't make the first move. It's got something to do with them having so few ladies…or such fierce ladies" Bilbo shook his head. "I'm not sure which. Sometimes I can't follow their brogue at all, and Gloin spoke so quickly." Here Bilbo, paused, as if measuring his next words. "I've put all of our money on today Anna. It has to be today."
"All of it?"
Bilbo nodded, solemnly.
"And Nori stands to lose if I do?"
"I do believe he is very worried about it"
"Very well", said Anna. "There's no time like the present."
At the same time two old friends were having words.
"All I'm saying Thorin is she gave you a 'look'. I've seen that look on a female's face before, and I'm telling you, she definitely would." Dwalin grumbled. He had been trying to encourage Thorin that the girl was not so inured to his charms as the King seemed to think for the past twenty minutes.
"Oh yes, and when have you seen that 'look' on a woman's face,' retorted Thorin, who was feeling thoroughly sick of people forever interfering in his private business.
"Not a woman, a dam's" said Dwalin sarcastically and then before he could help himself adding "That first night your s… " , suddenly stopping as he realised what he had almost said.
"The first night what, Dwalin?" said Thorn softly, and if Dwalin hadn't known better he would have said that his friend and liege Lord was baiting him. There was no reply and instead of changing the subject as he always did when forced to talk about something that made him uncomfortable Thorin continued.
"Pray tell me Dwalin. I was unaware that you were so popular with the dams that you were beating them away with a stick. I cannot wait to find out what light the greatest 'lady-killer' of the Blue mountains has to shed on the matter of my love life. Do pray tell me, with your vast experience, about that look and that first night"
"Och, if ye're going to be sarcastic about it, you can forget it", snarled Dwalin, glad to be able to hide his confusion in some mock anger. That was a close thing. Dis would have his jewels for ear-bobs if he let slip about their cosy arrangement to Thorin. The very thought made the bald warrior shiver. The first lady of the house of Durin had a sharp tongue and even sharper pair of boots. It was not the done thing to hit a female, and Dwalin would never have dreamed of doing so, but he'd had several corking bruises and one small fracture in his shin that could be laid firmly at the door of Dis Thrainsdottir. He's often thought that with her bulk and her right hook she would have made a much better prize-fighter than a princess. Still, her ability to hold her own in a tavern brawl was one of the things he loved best about her; the thought made him feel warm and soft inside, until he realised that her brother was still waiting for an explanation.
Knowing that nothing more than complete honesty would suffice for Thorin, should he start to explain just exactly what he'd meant by 'that first night', Dwalin decided to abandon that tactic altogether.
"I'd hoped it wouldn't come to this" Dwalin began, with the air of one about to bring bad tidings, "me not being one to repeat gossip and such."
Thorn raised a brow at this, but offered no comment.
"I didn't want to be the one to tell you, but it's the talk of Ered Luin" his friend continued with a gusty sigh and his eyes downcast.
"My, my, Dwalin. If by Mahal's grace we ever get to Erebor and if by all the Valar we can defeat the drake and drive him from the hoard, I suggest you forget being King's Guard and try to make a living on the stage", said Thorin cuttingly.
Only slightly deterred by this unpromising start Dwalin persisted. "He's your cousin and ye're not going to like it, but…"
"He's your cousin too, if you're talking about Gloin. And if you're going to tell me about Gloin's wife and Nori , I already know", the King interrupted . "Now please don't tell me that you were there 'the first night' because if you were, for one thing, you should have put a stop to it, and for another…"
"You know about Nori and the Lady Nes?" spluttered Dwalin in surprise.
"Yes, and…" but the King was interrupted this time.
"But you never know about anything – not that sort of thing anyway- people always say when something's glaringly obvious, 'even the …"
"… 'Oakenshield can see it'. Yes I'm aware of that too. Indeed my friend- my very good friend- I am aware of many more things than I am given credit for." Thorin paused to let that sink in as a horrible suspicion passed over Dwalin's face. The sight of it was so funny that Thorin broke into a rare grin.
Just as he did the lady herself, halfing in tow, appeared before him, catching the full beam of his smile.