This was the day. Dwalin was ready.
The training had been hard. On the worst days, Dwalin had wondered if the instructors were taking out some frustration on him; there was always some unrest among the common dwarves of Erebor and Dwalin was a cousin to the royal family. A few hard days that he had signed up for weren’t that high a price for being able to make a difference in the lives of the citizens of Erebor.
And Dwalin was ready to do just that. Today, he would become a fully fledged guard.
It wasn’t a ceremony. And there was no ritual beyond what any dwarf might choose to do for themselves. Every senior guard was there; most with amused grins hidden in their beards as they watched the trainee guards fidget in their newly issued kit. Roll call and patrol assignments would make everything official.
Dwalin was in his place among the other new guards. Sticking out, as always, with his size which was only exaggerated by the tall crest of his hair. The jerkin felt tight across his shoulders; he couldn’t say if the feeling was his own nerves or the stiffness of the new material. Clasping his hands behind his back once more to keep them from fidgeting, Dwalin waited.
Surely it didn’t take that long for the commander to reach his name but it certainly felt like it.
“Tusal! Dwalin! Second round of Square Market!”
Dwalin jolted at his name, stepping forward on instinct.
“You always give me the big ones, Boss! Why can’t I ever get one of wee little bunny?” The other dwarf stepping forward was nearly as big as Dwalin; more filled out than his own lanky frame but only a bit more than expected form a senior guard.
The commander looked away from their papers and pinned the senior guard with a look over the rim of their spectacles before replying, “I do want to see these trainees again. If I assigned you one of the ‘wee little bunnies’, Tusal, you’d lose them the first day.”
Laughter rumbled around the room, Tusal laughing as well. Still laughing as they swung an arm around Dwalin’s shoulders and led him out of the station.
Square Market was a deceptive name. There were no open squares to be seen.
The area had once held agricultural space when Erebor had been a smaller and less rich city. With new technologies, the fields it once held were even becoming obsolete. So, the big cavern with its bright walls had been converted to dwellings. Blocks were built up in the fields and irrigation canals were widened to create a market space.
While the area was perhaps becoming a bit run down, it was still lively. And crowded.
Dwalin had never been to Square Market before his patrol with Tusal. The laughter from the morning made much more sense now. A smaller dwarf could certainly be easily lost in bustle of sunken markets. He and Tusal had helped no fewer than three lost dwarflings find their parents just that first day.
To be a guard in Square Market also required the ability to get through the crowds. Tusal had sent him after one thief and she had still been the one to catch them. His partner understood when to use her voice, when to use her head and when to use her bulk in the pursuit of criminals. Despite feeling incredibly out of his element, Dwalin was eager to learn from his his mentor.
When Tusal released him at the end of their patrol, Dwalin was ready to fall into bed until he needed to get up and do it all again the next day. His walk home was a blur.
His focus only sharpened again when he was in his room, wrestling his jerkin off, and his daze was interrupted by two noises. The first was the metallic clinking of a small shower of coins as the hit the ground. The second was a knock on his door.
“Dwalin! You walked right by everyone one. We’re having your favourite for dinner tonight.” Balin’s voice came through the door.
Yanking his head free, Dwalin gaped at the coins around his feet. Where had they come from? What were they doing in his clothes? The door starting to creep open had him throwing down his jerkin to cover most of the coins and nearly tripping over it as he reached for the door while running a hand through his crest of hair to straighten it out.
“Sorry-” he started as he open the door the rest of the way.
“Really, brother? You can’t just leave your uniform on the floor, it’ll get wrinkled.”
Dwalin sighed. “I’ll pick it up and be right out, alright?”
“Don’t take too long, everyone is waiting.” With that, Balin was leaving and Dwalin closed his door again. Dwalin collected the coins in the corner of a small drawer, laid out his guard uniform for the next day and grabbed a casual tunic on his way out of his room for dinner.
This mystery would have to wait.
His next few patrols with Tusal were equally exhausting as the first and he continued to find coins in his clothes each night. Dwalin was concerned. His little drawer now held a healthy collection of coins and Dwalin still didn’t know where they were coming from. Or, maybe he did but he didn’t understand how.
That day, Dwalin had been bumped by a passerby and was startled to find his fingers in another dwarf’s pocket when he reached out to steady himself. Later in the day, he noticed himself slipping a small handful of coins into his shirt.
It almost seemed like he was pickpocketing the dwarves of Square Market while on his guard patrol.
But Dwalin couldn’t pickpockets.
All recruits were taught how to recognize and how to stop pickpockets. Part of the lesson had even been to try it. Dwalin hadn’t done very well at that. He remembered his ears burning in embarrassment as he bit back the retort that he wasn’t clumsy and uncoordinated, he just wasn’t good at this.
How could he be lifting so many coins without even noticing?
“What’s wrong, Dwalin? You weren’t even this stiff on your first day.” Tusal was looking over her shoulder at him, voice raised to be heard over the clamour of the crowd.
Dwalin only stumbled over a few words before Tusal waved him towards one of the stairs that led up and out of the canal. The pair found a place to sit along one of the many bridges that crossed over the market.
Tusal’s freckled face wasn’t smiling as she said, “I know we’re dwarves, and dwarves are meant to be solid, but you need to be willing to flow if you want to do any good here. Do what the community needs you to do even if that isn’t exactly what the law says. I thought you were understanding that.”
There had been a few instances that had startled Dwalin, they had definitely blurred some of the letters of the law, but Tusal had answered his questions about them and explained why. Those weren’t his problem; he could understand that sometimes the people could serve themselves better than the law. Being a guard was about safety and order, not bureaucracy.
“I do understand that,” Dwalin assured the other dwarf and then swallowed. He wasn’t sure how to tell his mentor that he suddenly seemed to be a master pickpocket.
“Then what’s wrong? You really had been doing well.” She gave him a small encouraging smile.
Dwalin swallowed again, steeled himself and did his best not to stumble over the words, “I’m a pickpocket!”
Tusal blinked at him.
“Every night I’ve found coins stashed all over my clothing. I don’t even know how I’m doing it. I don’t even notice. Yesterday, I watched myself pull gold out of a merchant’s wallet. Today, I’ve been trying to watch my hands,” Dwalin pulled a few silvers out of his sleeve, “but it hasn’t helped.”
Here Tusal laughed. “The gang’ll love this! We had such a laugh about your pickpocketing lesson.”
Confused and with his ears starting to prickle with heat, Dwalin tried to put together something to say.
“Do you think we don’t share stories about the new recruits and trainees?” Tusal’s hand smacked his back a few times as she fought her laughter back under control. “Your instructor could barely tell the story they were laughing so hard.”
“But I’m still stealing.” If they were going to talk about this, Dwalin could suffer through the embarrassment to understand.
“Have you still got the money?” Dwalin nodded. “Then we’ll make sure spread it around in the market. We’ll also figure something out to keep your hands occupied; you can’t be picking pockets if your hands are full.”
Something unwound in Dwaliln’s shoulders under his jerkin that still felt too tight. This wasn’t a problem, it would be okay.
“But I still don’t know what’s happening.” He hoped his voice wasn’t as whiny as he felt.
“Don’t you nobs talk about this?”
“About pickpocketing? Just to watch your purse.”
“No! About how Mahal shows us where to find help. Though it’s probably not proper for nobs to admit they need help.” Tusal gave one glance at his blank stare before sighing and continuing. “Mahal crafted us to be resilient, right? But even he didn’t expect us to endure everything by ourselves all the time. So, if one of his children can help another, he grants them a skill to do so. There is a dwarf somewhere out there that Mahal knows you can help.”
Tusal leaned over a bit to get a better look at Dwalin, “That’s not so bad, is it? Though I’ve never heard a story of someone getting sticky fingers!”
Finally, a day off.
Being a guard was hard but it was also rewarding. After all the warnings from his relations during his training, Dwalin was especially glad guardswork was working out. But, being rewarding doesn’t take the stress out of the job.
Dwalin was eager to spend the day at his craft hall and lose himself for a while in the tap tap and scrape scrape of engraving. His nerves needed the soothing even if he just sat by the fountain outside and scribbled with the scraps the hall left in the square for passing dwarves.
Upon arriving, Dwalin was surprised to see another dwarf in his spot. For most dwarves, it was a bit too high to reach comfortably but wasn’t too difficult with his height. But the redhead perched on one of the higher ledges of the fountain was definitely smaller than Dwalin.
There was enough room on the ledge, and Dwalin wasn’t opposed to such pretty company, that he collected himself and tapped on the stranger’s leg that trailed down from the ledge. He made sure to smile gently as he asked, “Can I join you?”
The dwarf startled, dropping the scrap they had been working on, and blinked at their surroundings. Dwalin offered the piece back to them and they took it with a sheepish grin.
With little trouble, Dwalin hoisted himself up beside the redhead. Once settled, he gestured to the other’s work, “It’s very good.”
Thin fingers brushed over the work and the other replied wryly, “I don’t really know what I’m doing but thanks.”
The day spent at the craft hall with Nori ended up being exactly what Dwalin needed. He felt ready to face whatever Square Market had to throw at him. And, perhaps, encouraged to finish his patrol with a bit more energy with hope of running into Nori again.
He was just arriving at the station when Tusal slung an arm around his shoulders.
“Have you heard? There’s been a rash of pickpocketings reported.”
Dwalin froze. He thought he had been doing better.
“Don’t worry so much bunny!” Tusal was laughing at him again. “These reports mostly came from Quarry Market.”
Meeting with Nori quickly became a regular thing.
They laughed with each other, talked about crafting - both the bit of engraving Nori had recently taken up to sooth his nerves and his actual craft which was needlework - and shared little stories from their lives. Dwalin would’ve been happy to share a bit more but Nori always seemed at least a little distressed by something.
When Dwalin had asked the other day why Nori didn’t go into the craft hall to make something a little more permanent, he learned part of what was distressing him so much. Nori had admitted that his feet carried him here while he was lost in thought, mostly worrying about his family. This wasn’t his craft hall and he didn’t have the money to buy the materials from the hall.
One day, Dwalin had offered to buy materials for the smaller dwarf. Just so he could try.
A broken tool and aching sides later, the pair had been escorted from the hall by an unamused attendant. Later, after they had their laughing under control, Nori apologized, hoping Dwalin wouldn’t have trouble at his craft hall in the future.
Dwalin did his best to reassure his friend. And he kept Nori’s rather sadly mangled attempt at a medallion.
Nori startled much like he had the day they met and Dwalin frowned. Nori rarely startled so bad. When the smaller dwarf looked up, his eyes were red.
“Are you okay?!”
Quickly hauling himself onto their ledge, Dwalin tried to look for any signs that would show a reason for the other’s distress. But, as he looked, he saw Nori close up. He paused; that wasn’t what he wanted to do.
He took a breath and moved so Nori had his space again. “You’re important to me and I don’t want to see you like this. I’d like to help.”
Dwalin offered a hand to Nori.
Nori looked at him. Dwalin didn’t know what to read in his lovely hazel eyes. Then Nori looked down at his hand. Dwalin kept looking at Nori. More red strands were escaping his braids today than Dwalin had ever seen. If the situation was different, it would look quite fetching.
The moment stretched and Dwalin’s eyes fell to his hand as well. His knuckles were facing the ground so the new tattoos there from a night out with the other new guards couldn’t be seen - he was just glad they had finally stopped itching. His palm was big and callused, not like Nori's at all.
He started to relax his arm, just so that he could rest it on his knee, and Nori’s hand shot out to grab his. Dwalin snapped his eyes back up to Nori but he was still looking down at their hands.
“I don’t know what to do.”
Nori’s voice was quite. Dwalin didn’t interrupt, just shifted their grip so he could hold Nori’s hand in both of his.
“I’ve been able to keep them more or less away from my family but now they’re demanding more. And coming around to threaten us at home.”
With his voice as soft as he could make it, Dwalin asked, “who?”
Nori was quiet for a moment.
“A money lender just outside Quarry Market.” He paused again, sounding defeated, “This mess never should’ve even happened.”
Dwalin stroked Nori’s hand with a thumb as he thought.
His voice was still gentle. Dwalin waited for Nori to look up at him.
“I think I can help you.”