Thorin sat down heavily on a chair at the back wall of the stall, rolling his head on his shoulders. He felt like he had been standing at attention the whole morning. He glanced up at Glóin who was still leaning eagerly over the counter of the stall, trying to catch the eye of any of the milling hobbits at Hobbiton's Summer Fair.
But they all seem to mill straight past us, Thorin thought as he rolled his head back to look up at the sky. At least the weather was mild with a cooling breeze. He couldn’t imagine having to stand idle and bored in the middle of a heat wave.
'We should have gone to Bree.'
Glóin shook his head without even glancing back at Thorin. 'Nonsense. Dwarven crafts are all over Bree and therefore cheap as dirt. This place,' he said, tapping his finger on the wooden counter, 'this Hobbiton - it's an untapped market. No other tradesmen of our kin have gone to Hobbiton.'
'I'm beginning to see why,' Thorin muttered.
'Patience,' Glóin said. 'They just need to know us first. Once they see the superior quality of our wares and that our prices are fair, they'll be flocking to us.'
'Where as now, they're flocking away from us.'
Glóin opened his mouth to answer but quickly shut it when he noticed a small girl, half the size of a dwarven child, approaching their stall. Her eyes widened at the sight of a basket full of multi-coloured pieces of quartz and even from where Thorin was sitting he could see her hands twitching to touch them.
'Well, young lass,' Glóin started in on his practised salesman charm. 'Anything you like the look of?'
The girl glanced between the dwarf with the huge red beard and the tempting basket. 'I...'
A firm hand closed around the girl's shoulder and pulled her back to her mother's skirts. 'I told you not to wander away.' The mother shot Glóin a short, sharp look before turning away. 'Come along, Marigold.'
They disappeared into the crowd before Glóin could even get another word out.
Thorin leaned back on his chair and closed his eyes. 'We should have gone to Bree.'
Bilbo shifted his basket from one arm to other as he made his way through the market place. The Summer Fair always made it heavier than his usual trip to market as there were twice as many stalls and far more interesting wares than usual. Tradesmen and craftsmen travelled from afar for the opportunity to sell to the prosperous hobbits. One leather merchant from Rohan had been making the trip for almost 30 years now and was a familiar and well-liked face to the inhabitants of Hobbiton. The Summer Fair was a favoured outing for the whole of the Shire but none more so than Bilbo who was ever thirsty for visits and items from the outside world.
His steps slowed as he caught sight of an out-of-place stall. It was covered with a shade of purple cloth with a multitude of gold stitching depicting some sort of intricate, geometric pattern. It was odd-looking thing among the simple browns and whites of the other stalls.
Bilbo walked closer to investigate, of course.
'Greetings, Master hobbit!' The voice boomed out from a huge, red beard before Bilbo was even five steps away from the stall.
'Hullo.' Bilbo stepped in under the shade and was now able to make out who he was talking to. A dwarf! How fascinating! There had never been any dwarf traders to Hobbiton's fair before - at least not in as many years as Bilbo could remember. 'Are you from the Blue Mountains?' he asked.
'We live in the Blue Mountains,' a deep voice answered from the back as another dwarf stepped forward to the counter, taller than the first but with a smaller beard.
'Oh, how marvellous.' Bilbo nodded as he looked up at the dwarf. 'I've never seen a dwarf befor- I mean, I have seen them on the East-West Road but you know, never met one.' Bilbo could hear himself talking a bit too quickly, stumbling over his words as he studied the dwarf with the very, very blue eyes. 'A-and now I have. Met one, that is. Hello.' He smiled quickly at both of them. 'I'm Bilbo. Bilbo Baggins.'
The red beard dipped deeply over the counter. 'Glóin, at your service.'
Bilbo nodded at Glóin before looking expectantly at the other dwarf.
'Thorin,' he said, sounding like it had to be squeezed out of him.
'Now, Master Baggins,' Glóin swept a heavy arm over his wares, 'is there anything you've got your eye on?'
'Oh, well, I hadn't really looked...' Bilbo trailed off as his gaze jumped from one basket to the next, then to the piles of various pieces of works of metal then finally to the larger implements crowding the back of the stall. 'Is that a plough?' he asked, blinking at the massive tool.
'Ah, are you a farmer, Master Baggins?' Glóin asked eagerly. 'Well, you won't find anything better than this plough. As sturdy as the Iron Hills but as light as feather. Your ponies will be able to do twice as much in a day when--,'
'Oh, I'm not a farmer,' Bilbo interrupted as soon as Glóin drew breath. 'But I'm sure it's a very nice plough.'
Glóin didn't stop for long. 'We have other fine items, Master Baggins.' He started pulling out items of metal work. 'There's a hammer and tongs, then there's these scissors which will cut everything from leather to silk with the greatest precision and-'
'But I'm neither a smith nor a tailor,' Bilbo protested.
The other dwarf, Thorin, leaned forward. 'Perhaps,' he said, 'it would be easier if Master Baggins would tell us what he is in need of.'
'Oh, I have no need of anything,' Bilbo said, again shifting his basket from a tired arm to a well-rested one. 'Except perhaps for another mathom or two. I don't own any of dwarvish making, you see.'
'Mathom?' Thorin frowned.
'You know - small things with no real purpose other than to look nice in your home.'
'And you have a need for things without any purpose?' Thorin asked, his tone of voice dusted with sarcasm.
'They cheer me up and that's sufficient purpose for me,' Bilbo said, raising his chin defiantly.
'Ornaments!' Glóin exclaimed. 'Of course, Master Baggins, of course. We dwarves are famed for our ornaments, after all.' He hauled the basket with the cut quartz closer to Bilbo. 'Maybe you'll want a stone for some jewellery? We'll set it for you, of course.' He slapped Thorin between the shoulder blades. 'This one here can do the most delicate metal work in all of the Blue Mountains. Now, you take your time finding a stone in your favourite colour and shape, and I'll return with a selection of our finest ornaments. We keep them in the back for our most distinguished customers.' He smiled conspiratorially at Bilbo before pushing away a hanging piece of cloth and disappearing to the back of the stall.
'Or because the wares up front aren't moving to make place for the ones in the back.'
Bilbo let the one quartz he had idly picked up fall back into the basket. He wasn't really interested in shiny rocks. 'Not much luck with the trade, then?' he asked, looking up at Thorin.
'That is an understatement. We've been here two days now, from sunup to sundown, and we haven't sold a thing. Not one thing.' Thorin folded his arms in front of him.
'You have to let them get used to you. Just keep setting up your stall until the end of the fair, and when you return next year they will greet you as an old friend, I'm sure of it.'
Thorin blew a rough breath through his nose. 'I don't think we'll be returning next year.'
'Just give it another year, trust me,' Bilbo said calmly.
'I'm not a bloody elf! I don't have an excess of years to spend on making myself appear less repulsive to hobbits. And I don't have an excess of gold either. We need to sell something this year and not wait for some imaginary felicitous future.' He sighed, the tension leaving his body. 'I'm sorry, Master Baggins. I'm sorry for shouting at you.'
'Well, I was going to say that if that is how you approach your customers,' Bilbo said, 'then it's no wonder you haven't sold anything. I never yet heard of a trader able to shout someone into buying something.'
Thorin gave a short, dry chuckle, shaking his head. 'And that is why Glóin is the trader, and I am the craftsman.'
Bilbo pulled at a straw coming loose from the basket as he studied Thorin closely. The bottom hem of his tunic was worn and frayed, the blue colour almost white in some places while his leather belt was cracked from many uses and little oil to make it limber. Bilbo knew a little of dwarves and knew they liked to display their wealth on their person, bedecking their beard and hair with jewels and fine metals. All Thorin wore were two plain beads in his hair and a thick iron ring on one finger.
'I thought...' Bilbo started, pushing himself to ask before he thought better of it. 'I thought the Blue Mountains were a place of wealth?'
'I'm not from the Blue Mountains,' Thorin mumbled.
'Oh, but I thought...' Bilbo started, gesturing to where Glóin had disappeared to.
'We are exiled to the Blue Mountains, living on their mercy to their foreign kin,' Thorin said shortly, pressing his lips together tightly.
Bilbo looked again at the small stall with its pieces of simple quartz and its instruments made from reused iron. And he looked at the proud figure of Thorin, trying to hold himself together while ignoring the cracks beginning to show.
'Oh, I see,’ was all Bilbo was able to say.
'Here we are, Master Baggins!' Glóin pushed the cloth back with a flourish before depositing various items on the counter in front of Bilbo. 'Fine items for a fine hobbit.'
Bilbo could barely tear his gaze away from Thorin to look at what Glóin had found for him. Suddenly, the idea of his purchasing some decorative trinket seemed trivial to him, and he could feel his ears turning red as he remembered his earlier words about needing some dwarvish mathom.
But he would, of course, buy something anyway.
‘How about a belt buckle?’ Glóin asked, holding up a heavy-looking thing with a multitude of squares decreasing in size, one inside the other, carved into it. It was big enough to cover the entirety of Bilbo’s belly from hipbone to hipbone.
‘I think I would fall over if I tried to attach that to me,’ Bilbo said softly, not wanting to insult their craft. ‘Perhaps something for the home?’
‘Ah, yes,’ Glóin said, making room on the counter before lifting up something from his feet. ‘This is something for a hobbit’s taste, I think.’
It was a large container, made up of windows of glass held together by strips of metal. The glass at the curved bottom was coloured brown, but the rest of it was clear all the way up to a narrow opening at the top.
‘It almost looks like… like an acorn!’ Bilbo exclaimed, delighting in how the natural shape of the nut had been captured by the straight planes of glass and metal.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Thorin lift his head from his own thoughts and turn his attention back to Bilbo. ‘Yes,’ he said, a note of surprise in his voice, ‘yes, it’s an acorn.’
Glóin nodded towards Thorin as he said, ‘It’s his work so he should know.’
‘You made this?’ Bilbo said, reaching out to turn the thing on the counter for a better look. ‘It’s lovely!’
Thorin inclined his head. ‘Thank you.’
‘Only…’ Bilbo was still inspecting the glass acorn. ‘What is it?’
Thorin reached out to manoeuvre the thing closer. ‘It’s a terrarium. You open it like this,’ he separated the brown bottom from the top, ‘and you fill it with dirt and you can keep a plant inside your house.’
‘Just the thing for a nature-loving hobbit,’ Glóin chimed in, smiling encouragingly at Bilbo.
‘Um…’ Bilbo pushed his basket further up his arm as he pondered the terrarium. He didn’t think he had a need for a plant inside his house since he could just look out of any window or open the door and he could see all the plants he desired. In fact, Bilbo thought, this terrarium looked more and more like an isolating plant prison the longer he looked at it.
He looked up at the two dwarves, at Glóin’s openly eager face and how even the withdrawn Thorin was obviously expecting some sort reaction.
‘I’ll take it,’ Bilbo said decisively. ‘How much?’
They reached a prize that left both parties satisfied (the dwarves more so than Bilbo) and he hefted the large thing in front of him as he made his way home, thinking to himself that he could always use it to hold the pebbles he picks up on his many walking tours of the Shire.
‘It seems like yesterday was a fluke,’ Thorin mumbled, leaning back in his chair and looking up as another cloud passed over the sun.
‘It still shows a promising tendency,’ Glóin countered. ‘This Master Baggins will tell all his neighbours and friends about the first-class quality of dwarven wares and they will come.’
‘It’s almost lunchtime.’
‘They will come,’ Glóin repeated, straightening the items on the counter for the third time that morning.
The crowd going past their stall parted slightly and before they knew it, Bilbo was standing in front of them, the same basket from yesterday still on his arm.
Thorin immediately stood up from his chair and came to the counter.
‘Hullo!’ Bilbo greeted with a cheery wave. ‘Any better today?’
‘Well, it’s certainly not worse,’ Thorin replied.
‘You mean you haven’t been robbed by a gang of hobbits yet?’
Thorin laughed shortly, surprising even himself. And his laughter was obviously pleasing to Bilbo, his smile growing wider as he looked up at Thorin.
Glóin’s large beard came between them. ‘Are you enjoying your dwarven-made terrarium, Master Baggins?’
‘Oh, yes, I’ve put in my front parlour where the light hits it very fetchingly.’ He looked back at Thorin. ‘I’m quite fond of it.’
‘I’m glad,’ Thorin murmured softly.
Bilbo smiled again before digging something out from his basket. ‘Since the two of you can’t enjoy the Summer Fair to its full extent, I thought I would bring you something to enjoy while you’re stuck in your stall.’ He handed over two packets wrapped in paper to Glóin and Thorin, his hand lingering slightly over the latter. ‘I made them myself.’
Glóin wasted no time in opening his. ‘A meat pie! Thank you, Master Baggins!’
‘Thank you,’ Thorin repeated, feeling the warmth from the freshly made pie seep into the palm of his hand as he stared at the hobbit.
‘You’re welcome,’ Bilbo said with another easy smile, lifting his hand in a wave before heading back into market place, Thorin’s eyes following the red of his coat until it disappeared into the crowd.
The day after that, Thorin was not looking for Bilbo.
He wasn’t looking for Bilbo just as they had finished setting up their stall and the first groups of customers and browsers walked into the market place.
He wasn’t looking for Bilbo when lunchtime arrived and the smells drifted temptingly from the food stalls, reminding him of the delicious pie from the day before.
He wasn’t looking for Bilbo when a hobbit child with familiar golden curls came up to their stall, handing over a piece of copper with great ceremony in exchange for a small chunk of light green quartz.
And he wasn’t looking for Bilbo at the end of the day after they had shut down their stall as he stood alone in the deserted market place, his eyes searching the multitude of hobbit homes dotting the horizon.
The next day, Glóin left Thorin standing alone in the stall, leaving him with promises to return quickly after sniffing out ribbons for his wife's beard in just the right shade of red.
Thorin stood squarely with an even weight on both of his feet as he let his eyes come to rest just above the heads of the hobbits, his mind far away.
Thorin wasn't even aware that he had memorised the cheery greeting but before he even looked down to see Bilbo in front of him, he could feel warmth spreading from under his tunic.
'Master Baggins,' he said, nodding his head with what he hoped was a regal calmness.
'Oh, don’t bother with Master Baggins!' Bilbo said, laughter colouring his voice, 'I already call you Thorin so you should call me Bilbo.'
The corners of Thorin's mouth twitched. 'Bilbo it is, then.'
Bilbo ducked his head, reddening slightly. 'Yes...'
They stood in a silence for a breath or two, Thorin's mind whirring away to find something to say that didn’t concern the changing weather or the price of quartz.
'I've been wanting to ask...' Bilbo said slowly as if picking out the words one by one.
'Has Hamfast been by your stall? Master Gamgee, that is. He's a short fellow with wheat-coloured hair and a nose like a prize potato. Only, I told him about you yesterday and maybe-'
'Bilbo,' Thorin interrupted, relishing the sound of the name, 'nobody's been by but a few children to buy pieces of quartz.'
'Oh.' Bilbo deflated. 'He needs a new shovel. For the garden.'
'Nobody's been to buy a shovel.' Thorin looked at the Bilbo's small, dissatisfied mouth and hurried to add, 'but the day is not over yet. We may see your Master Gamgee, yet.'
'I hope so.' Bilbo shifted before blurting out, 'do you really think you won't be back for the fair next year?'
Thorin sighed. 'The way things are looking now, it's likely we'll pack up and leave before the end of the month and head back towards the Blue Mountains. There are some fisher villages on either side of them. Maybe they will take some of our stock for a reduced price.'
Bilbo pressed his lips together. 'I'm sorry Hobbiton has been such disappointment to you.' He looked away from Thorin.
'Not all of it,' Thorin murmured. 'It has shown me kindness, as well. And friendship.'
Bilbo gave a small smile in recognition before adding, 'but you can't live off kindness and friendship. Not for long, anyway.'
'Unfortunately not,' Thorin said.
During the next week Bilbo came by the stall once a day, often carrying offerings of food.
Sometimes he would stay for just a bit, sharing a smile with Thorin before heading off to whatever task he had planned for that day.
Other times, he would stay longer, leaning against the corner of the counter, chatting quietly with Thorin while Glóin, ever hopeful, kept rearranging their stock to its best advantage.
Thorin came to look forward to these small visits, feeling himself grow more relaxed and easy every time Bilbo came into view. They talked about their childhoods; and about what made them happy and what made them sad, about what they wanted to do tomorrow and the next year and the year after that. Thorin even allowed himself to talk of his memories of Erebor, but made no mention of his being a part of its royal family. What did it matter now anyway?
The day before Glóin and Thorin had planned to start packing their cart in anticipation of their return to the Blue Mountains, something strange happened. A murmuring rose from the back of the market place and headed towards their stall. Heads turned, hobbits bunched together to get a closer look and above it all was a steady, rhythmic noise of what sounded to Thorin like something heavy being pushed over an uneven ground.
The crowd finally parted and there was Bilbo, pushing a wheelbarrow in front of him with Thorin's terrarium safely placed inside the deep bottom.
As he came to a stop, Bilbo blew out a deep breath before heaving the large terrarium up on the counter of their stall.
'There,' he said, wiping his hands against each other as he stood back to view his accomplishment.
'You're not asking for a refund, are you?' Thorin raised a teasing brow.
'No, I wanted to commend you for this fine piece of work,' Bilbo said, talking at a good deal louder volume than their usual chats. 'Because it has completely saved my tomato plant,' he finished, turning his face to the crowd behind him who was still oddly amassed in this part of the market place.
The murmur rose up again and Thorin could see some of the hobbits in the back stretching their necks to get a better look.
Bilbo removed the top of the terrarium and only now did Thorin notice that a good-sized tomato plant was standing proudly inside it, its stalks and leaves a deep green while the bulging tomatoes hanging from it were a bold red.
Bilbo stepped back, unveiling the plant to the crowd. The murmur grew louder still and one or two hobbits came forward to inspect it more closely.
'I say, Master Baggins,' one of them said, 'however did you manage that? This cool summer has been so unkind to my prized tomatoes - all green and hard, they are - and I thought nobody else would have any tomatoes to show at this year's Summer Festival either.'
'Well, you see,' Bilbo said, still talking loud enough for the benefit of the crowd, 'it's this ingenious dwarven design. Put it in a beam of sunlight and its insides get hot enough like bright summer's day. Feel for yourself,' he said, gesturing to the terrarium.
The other hobbit carefully put out his hand and felt the inside of the top of the terrarium. 'Truly, you are right, Master Baggins' he said, blinking in astonishment. He then turned immediately to Glóin and Thorin. 'Master Dwarves, do you have another one the same size as this - no, make it three since I have so many tomato plants in need of warmth and care.'
Glóin's eyes almost bulged out of his head. 'Three terrariums?'
'Oh, have you already sold them all?'
'No, no, let me just...' Glóin pushed through the flap of cloth to the back, almost struck dumb with surprise.
A female hobbit pushed her way up to the counter between Bilbo and the other hobbit. 'I'll take three, as well,' she said, 'and two of those boxes with the carvings on the lid.' She pointed at a shelf behind Thorin.
Thorin turned around to get them down but as soon as he had turned back, four more hobbits had come up to the counter and started studying the wares, holding metal instruments to test their size and weight or picking through baskets of jewelled ornaments.
Glóin was back as well, carefully depositing the terrariums before getting started on the business of price negotiation. The crowd thinned again but half a dozen hobbits still remained, waiting patiently for their turn at the counter.
Bilbo had by now stepped to the side, pulling his wheelbarrow and his terrarium with him. Thorin glanced over at him from time to time and could see him smiling contently as he observed the busy trading going on in the stall.
Only a couple of hobbits remained now, one looking and one buying, and Thorin left Glóin to it while he slumped down on his chair, his mind still buzzing with numbers, pieces of gold and terrarium specifications.
A shadow fell over his face, and he looked up to see Bilbo smiling down at him.
'All 20 terrariums sold, and I already have orders for 23 more.'
'Better make it 30,' Bilbo said. 'Once rumour spreads of this dwarven wonder, you'll be inundated by frantic hobbits with disappointing tomatoes.'
Thorin laughed breathily. 'If you say so.' He leaned his head back to look up at Bilbo. 'Is it really true? That the glass traps heat? I do hope so and that you didn't slather your tomatoes with red paint just to help our failing business.'
'I would never do that! Wasting a nice tomato like that...' Bilbo shook his head with a grin.
Thorin leaned his head back and studied Bilbo's face. 'I really can't thank you enough,' he said quietly.
'Oh, I didn't do anything. It's like I said earlier, they just needed to get to know you.'
'Still...' Thorin murmured, 'thank you.'
Bilbo flushed. 'You're welcome.'
A new customer replaced the earlier two and Glóin went back to his practised salesman's patter, his honest, joyful smile visible even behind his huge beard.
Thorin rolled his head from side to side. 'I'll need to go back to the Blue Mountains.'
Next to him, he could hear Bilbo's sharp intake of breath. 'Oh.'
'To get my tools and some more materials for the terrariums. It won't take more than a fortnight before I’m back in the Shire,' he finished, looking up at Bilbo for a reaction.
Bilbo could scarcely conceal his smile. 'Do you think Glóin can manage without you?'
'I think he can manage better without my grumpy face in the background.'
Bilbo giggled. 'That's probably true. Though I like your grumpy face.'
Thorin ducked his head and smiled to himself before continuing, 'I might bring my sister back with me when I return from the Blue Mountains, to help me with the terrariums. She's better at soldering than me. More patient.'
'And I'd like her to meet you,' Thorin added, carefully reaching out to take Bilbo's hand, cradling the smaller fingers gently.
Bilbo looked down at the unexpected touch before returning to Thorin's earnest face. 'I'd like that,' he murmured, 'I'd like that very much.' He slid their hands closer, pressing their palms together. 'Maybe you could come over for supper at my home? You, your sister and Glóin, of course.'
Thorin squeezed Bilbo's hand. 'Yes.'
Bilbo shuffled closer. 'Are you still sure you won't be returning to the fair next year?' he asked with a teasing glint in his eyes.
'At the rate things are going,' Thorin said, smiling, 'I'm not even sure I'll be able to leave Hobbiton until next year.'
'Good.' Bilbo caught Thorin's hand between his own two and pressed it close to his chest. 'Good.'