Spring, 2841 – Michel Delving, The Shire

The Willow Tree Inn deserved its good reputation among dwarven travelers, but after a week or so, even the best inn ran out of charm. Balin sat on a bench outside the inn, occupying himself with watching hobbits so that he would not be as tempted to dash around urging the rest of the party to hurry. The last two members of the group, Frer and Frór, had arrived the night before and refused to go to sleep before they had taken stock of the provisions and put together lists of what they thought was still lacking. The resulting discussion lasted long into the night, and their plan of setting out at daybreak had fallen by the wayside.

It was the first market day following a long spell of heavy rain, and the streets were crowded and bustling. A startling number of children, both boys and girls, played around the outskirts of the market. Even after spending most of his life among other races, he had to continually remind himself that they were not being as careless with their daughters as it appeared. He had heard that other races might fall in love several times instead of only once, and it seemed to be true from what he had seen. If a girl could lose her heart to a ne'er-do-well but come to her senses and fall in love with someone more worthy of her, then perhaps parents did not need to make sure that no wastrels ever crossed their daughter's path. They might only need to make sure that she did not marry one of them. It still unsettled him that other races were willing to risk their daughters that way, but they must know best about their own children.

Eventually, a small group of children collected in the lane in front of the inn and were interfering with the flow of traffic as they watched him watch them. They whispered and giggled among themselves until one of them built up the courage to creep closer. Balin waited for the child to show an interest in his beard, but she was riveted by his boots instead.

Dwarves' beards were what seemed to catch the eyes of most other races, but looking at the thick curly hair on the children's feet, Balin had to admit that the boots were probably just as strange as beards to the young hobbits. He stretched his legs out in front of him and made a great show of looking at the clouds. The little girl crouched just beyond arm's length to inspect them, which eased Balin's mind a bit. He had begun to think that hobbit children had no notion of self-preservation, which was worrisome because he was certain their parents were familiar with the concept, and might want to blame him for their children's lack of it. Fortunately, the little girl stayed at a prudent distance as she reported her discoveries about boots back to her friends, who seemed to find the whole idea hilarious. Balin smiled. If he could grow his own substitutes for boots and socks, he would probably feel the same.

"Balin!" his brother called from down the lane. "Time to go!"

He scrambled to his feet, startling the girl so badly that she tipped over backwards. The other children squealed and scattered. Feeling very roguish and daring (oh, the frenzy that would result if he tried such a thing with a dwarf girl!), he offered her a hand up. She regarded him doubtfully for an instant before accepting. The others squealed even louder. On a whim, he gave the child his courtliest bow, prompting still greater uproar among her friends.

"Thank you Mr. Dwarf," she said and returned him an awkward curtsey before she grinned and ran after the others.

Balin went to join the other dwarves. Frór and Frer came from the direction of the market carrying bundles of what Balin assumed were the supplies they thought the party lacked. The rest of the group was already assembled: Dwalin, Thráin, Heri, Móin, An and his sons Anar and Hanar, Nidri, Vestri, Nur, and Vili. Thráin looked around the group and said, "If everyone is ready, let us be on our way."

Balin shared a grin with Dwalin. Now the journey had really begun.

Of course, travelling through the Shire on a sunny spring morning was not exactly high adventure, but Balin still remembered what it was like to be flung straight from a comfortable home into danger and deprivation. He was happy enough to work up to it gradually this time. For now, the roads were good, the Shire was lush and peaceful, and if Frór and Frer were still whispering about things that they thought were lacking in the supplies (and it sounded like they were), then the Shire was known for its well-stocked markets.

The party made good time through the gentle countryside, and reached their intended stopping place in Waymoot despite their late start. That was just as well. Hobbits could be surprisingly unfriendly if they found travelers sleeping under a hedge on their lands, but every town of any size in the Shire had a decent inn. The one in Waymoot was exceptional even by hobbit standards.

Once they had cleaned up a bit, Anar and Hanar announced that they were ready to eat. Balin's stomach rumbled in agreement. The walking had given him quite an appetite, and he supposed that Anar and Hanar felt the same. They were the first of the group to arrive in the parlor where the supper was laid out. Because of the size of the group, the landlord had brought in an extra table, and the four of them sat down there as the rest of the party straggled in.

"I still think it will cause problems," Nur was saying as he walked in with Móin. "We cannot afford any youthful foolish…." He noticed who was already in the room and broke off his comment.

"They are young, but Balin and Dwalin come of good stock," said Móin a little coolly. "Their father fought in the vanguard along with Thráin and fell beside Kheled-zâram. I doubt a burned dwarf would have raised foolish sons."

Nur's eyebrows shot up, and he looked at them with new respect. "I beg your pardon," he said, nodding to Balin.

Balin nodded back, and could think of nothing sensible to say in return as they turned to go to Thráin's table. He was not as sure as Móin seemed to be that a hero's son would be as worthy as his father, but he had never made any headway arguing against that belief.

When he turned back to his own table, the sons of An were staring at him. One of them said, "Your father fell at Nanduhirion?"

The other elbowed him hard and the first quickly corrected himself, "Er, Dimrill Dale?"

"Azanulbizar, Hanar!" hissed his brother, glaring. Hanar flushed and sank down in his seat.

"Yes, he did," said Balin, torn between wondering why Hanar had called the battle by an elvish name, and wishing that everyone would just let the topic go. Balin had still been a child when Fundin died, and as time passed, he could remember less and less about his father. He thought he could remember the sound of his father's voice, but was afraid he had muddled it together with Dwalin's because Thráin sometimes remarked on how much Dwalin sounded like Fundin. A son owed it to his father to keep his memory fresher than that.

Dwalin looked back and forth between the others at the table and set to his meal with even more enthusiasm than the food warranted. Balin cast about for some inoffensive topic for conversation, but nothing came to mind except things that were clearly going to be uncomfortable. It was traditional to begin by asking after the other person's family, but they were probably as unhappy as Balin was about leaving their mother on her own, and only a dolt would ask about the rest of the family when they were known to be at odds.

"Have you ever been east of the Mountains before?" he asked finally.

"No," said Anar, "Have you?"

"Not I," said Dwalin. "Balin was born in the Lonely Mountain, though, so he has."

"Really? What is it like there?" asked Hanar, leaning forward a little.

Balin shrugged. "I was not much more than a baby at the time. I remember very little." He was not about to tell two near strangers that most of what he remembered after they fled from Smaug was being various combinations of cold, wet, hungry, tired and frightened.

"Oh," said Hanar, and went back to prodding at his meat and looking uncomfortable. After a few minutes, he began, "I was wondering about…." Balin heard a muffled thump and Hanar flinched and closed his mouth. Had Anar kicked him under the table?

Another long silence fell. Finally, it was too much for Balin and he fell back on the same question every dwarf used when he had trouble making conversation, "Which crafts have you apprenticed in?"

To his surprise, both of the sons of An flushed and scowled. Anar snapped, "If you will excuse us, my brother and I were up too late last night and we should get some rest while we can." He rose, bowed curtly, and towed Hanar along with him as he stalked off towards the sleeping rooms.

Dwalin watched them go. "What was that about?"

Balin could only shrug and wonder.

They had only one more day of fair weather before the rains began again.

"Oh bother!," said Nidri, stopping to unpin the plain metal ironmaster's brooch from his hood and stow it in a small oilcloth pouch under his jacket. Balin raised an eyebrow.

"It rusts," said Nidri with a rueful grin. "Iron, you know."

Balin nodded. He knew that few craftmasters displayed their insignia when they traveled, but he had never considered that it was for any reason other than tradition.

Nidri's grin broadened. "It could be worse." He gestured discreetly towards Frór and Nur, who were quickly packing away their much more elaborate brooches. "The silk in the steelmasters' brooches is not colorfast. If theirs get wet, they end up with red stripes on their cloaks."

The steelsmiths' guild had the reputation of being a bit haughty, and picturing them with their brooches weeping dye over their best cloaks made Balin want to grin too. Frór seemed pleasant enough, but he had met more than one steelsmith who was utterly insufferable because his craft was so much in demand by outsiders.

Nidri pulled out an ordinary brooch and pinned his hood with that instead. "I had hoped the good weather would last at least until we left the Shire, but no such luck!"

"I think that I would rather have the bad weather while we still have good inns each evening, and save the clear weather for the Wilderlands," commented Dwalin.

"True, true. But I still hate to see a perfect bit of road without some perfect weather to go with it. So do the two of you have any family waiting for you at home?

"Yes, our mother," said Balin. "She keeps a smithy in the foothills of the Blue Mountains."

"Ah, another ironsmith. I like her already! My wife is clockmaker. She is in the Blue Mountains as well, with our son and daughter. My son is apprenticed in a foundry there, and my daughter is a clockmaker like her mother."

Balin was taken a little aback by the mention of Nidri's daughter. Families were always trying to engineer a way to introduce Thorin to their daughters, but it would be years before Balin was old enough to be an eligible match. "You have a skillful family," he said, falling back on the blandly inoffensive. It had the benefit of being true in this case; clock making was a demanding craft, and blacksmiths had to be particularly talented to make a living since every race had smiths of their own who could forge simple items.

"Thank you," said Nidri, as if the compliment had been well thought out.

After the incident with the sons of An, Balin had started to wonder if his conversational skills were really poor enough to account for the strange reactions he kept getting to mere commonplaces. But before he could worry too much, Nidri had already launched into a very complicated tale about transporting a load of his wife's clocks to the Shire. When that tale was done, he jumped straight into one about a hobbit he had once met in Bree, and then to a third involving the foul-tempered pony from the first tale. Balin wanted to laugh at his earlier anxiety; apparently Nidri spoke about everything enthusiastically and at great length.

By the time they reached Bree a few days later, Balin had still been unable to coax more than a word or two out of the sons of An and had given up trying. If Thráin wanted his young cousins to have companions of their own age, he might have at least found ones that were less standoffish. The two of them were nearly identical, but after some study, Balin decided Hanar's hair was a shade darker than his brother's. It was still close enough that he could only tell them apart when they stood next to each other.

The rain had continued the whole way, and Dwalin was grinning and jostling him as if they were ten years old again when the walls of Bree came in sight. "Dry clothes! Good beer!"

"Calm down, Dwalin. You'll frighten the gatekeeper, hopping about that way," said Balin sternly, but he couldn't help grinning a little himself, and there might have been the slightest bounce in his own step when they entered The Prancing Pony.

After they had made themselves presentable and eaten a good meal, the dwarves gradually made their way to the common room. Balin and Dwalin had lingered over their dinner and were among the last to arrive. An and his sons, along with Nidri, Nur, Vili and Frer had joined the noisy group surrounding a pair of local storytellers, while the rest were seated in a quieter corner talking to a travel-worn man who was dressed like one of the Wood-men who lived between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood. Balin thought the stories might be more to his taste this evening, but was not ready for another failed conversation with Anar and Hanar, so he turned towards Thráin's group. Dwalin shrugged and went in the other direction.

"How close was the water to the road by the marshes?" asked Vili as Balin walked up.

"When I passed the Midgewater Marshes, there was standing water no further from the road than this room is across. Another heavy rain will put the road underwater where it passes closest to the marshes."

"I've only seen it that close once before. You say it's as wet as that clear to the Bruinen?"

"So I've heard from those I trust, and what I've seen myself bears it out. The ford will not be passable until the rains stop," the man was saying. "I spoke to one of the Rangers and he said the river was out of its banks and still rising when he last saw it. It will not fall again soon. No matter which direction they came from, everyone has had rain and more rain."

"The weather has not favored us, but it is out of our hands," said Thráin. "I had not heard that there was any place other than the fords to cross the Bruinen. You mentioned another trail; what of it?"

Brunn said, "There is a path on the west side of the river that you can follow far enough into the headwaters to cross there. I have gone that way before. It's not fit for carts or wagons, but going afoot as you are, it will get you to the pass sooner than the East Road itself if the river is still in flood. If the weather stays wet into the autumn, it will mean plenty of snow in the pass, so the earlier you reach the pass, the better."

Heri eyed the man skeptically. "I haven't heard of any trail to the west of the river. You say a cart could not go that way—what about a laden pony? Could it manage that path?"

Brunn thought it over for a while, then said, "Yes, it could. There are a couple of places where it would be hard to ride a horse, but I think a pack pony could manage." He noticed Balin standing behind Heri and said, "And now I think your friend here would like a seat. I'm off to get another beer before I turn in, but if you want to talk more about the trail, the landlord will know where to find me. Have a good evening, gentlemen."

Thráin watched the man as he walked away. "Heri, what do you make of that?"

"I don't trust any road on just one person's recommendation, and I don't know of anyone else who has ever gone that way. With traveler's tales, things are rarely even half as good as the story makes them. It just doesn't sound right-if he wouldn't ride a horse on it, I can't imagine how he thinks a loaded pack pony could manage."

"Luckily for us, we have no pack ponies. We should still keep this western trail in mind," said Thráin, signaling for another round of beer. "I mistrust this weather."

They did not stay much longer in the common room. After the good meal and drinks, Balin fell asleep quickly, but woke in the middle of the night to the roar of another downpour. He sighed and bunched the blanket around his ears to drown out the sound. If he could not make it go away, then at least he would not listen to it.

As they approached and skirted the Midgewater Marshes over the next few days, Brunn's gloomy predictions were fulfilled. The midges appeared first, and then broad sheets of water dotted with half-drowned weeds covered the land north of the road. Finally the water overtopped the small rise that the road stood on and the dwarves splashed along through a shallow puddle. They pushed on until the road was above water again, and ended up making camp that night in the middle of the road for lack of anywhere else.

Over the next few days, the land gradually rose and the standing water disappeared. It continued to rain more days than not as they passed through the bleak, open lands leading to Weathertop and beyond. Balin began to think his feet would never be dry again. When the company reached the Last Bridge, the water was nearly up to the bridge deck. Frer insisted that no one should cross until he had inspected the structure, and it took quite some time before he waved them all across.

As they passed along the south edge of the Trollshaws, the older members of group grew nervous and insisted on doubling the watch at night.

"I thought the road was supposed to be far enough south to avoid the trolls," said Balin to Móin.

"It was supposed to be," said Móin grimly. "Some of the refugees from the Lonely Mountain were attacked by trolls right on the road not far from here. The first few parties never saw any trolls, but it seems the creatures took notice of them. One of the parties they set upon was wiped out completely; the others that followed all had losses. The Rangers came out in force and drove the trolls far back to the north. I have not heard that the trolls have ventured onto the road since, but what they have done before, they can do again."

Balin passed the story along to Dwalin later. "I think it's too wet even for trolls to go out," Dwalin said as he laid his wet socks onto a slab of rock near the campfire. Most of the boulders that were close enough to the heat were already topped with socks, and the camp smelled of wet wool and feet.

Balin glanced around to see if any of the older dwarves were in earshot before he replied, "You are probably right, but all the same, please don't mention that theory in front of Móin."