Bilbo stepped onto the little barge, arms spread out for balance as the dwarves knocked about on board. He glanced around for somewhere to sit. Thorin sat in the front, his back to Bilbo, and the little hobbit could just imagine his piercing eyes scanning the water up ahead for threats of danger. Balin and Dwalin sat behind him talking quietly; Kili sat hunched a corner with Fili hovering worriedly over him; the other dwarves mingled among the barrels and fishing nets, grumbling, muttering and conversing amongst themselves, occasionally casting brief, suspicious looks back at the man at the back of the boat. The man in question calmly raised his pole and dipped it into the water. He cleared his throat as Bilbo still remained standing with his arms out.
"You might want to sit down now," he said.
"Oh!" Bilbo plunked onto pile of netting as the man thrust the pole against the dock and set the barge lurching forward. Bilbo pressed his hands into the soft, moldy wood to keep himself from leaning too far and possibly falling. As they went further into the lake, the ride became smoother, and Bilbo was able to relax. He glanced over at where the dwarves were sitting and saw them huddled together now, talking in low voices.
"Dwarves are a suspicious lot," the man said. Bilbo glanced up at him to see him watching the dwarves with a wry grin on his face. He relaxed when he saw there was more humor than anger on the man's face.
"That they are," Bilbo replied with a chuckle. "They're decent folk, though, once you get to know them."
"And how well do you know them?" The man's eyes fixed on Bilbo now, causing the hobbit's mouth to go dry when he remembered what they were keeping from this man.
"Oh, well enough," he said, trying to keep the care and calculation out of his voice. "My name's Bilbo, by the way," he added in a brilliant change of subject. "Bilbo Baggins."
The man grunted and steered the barge a little to the left.
"What's your name?" Bilbo asked tentatively.
The man looked at him askance. "You're one for small talk," he said almost critically.
"Well, we have nothing else to do," Bilbo said somewhat defensively, then stopped, embarrassed, and turned his head to face the water. Of course he had nothing to do; the man had plenty to think about just steering the barge. "Though, of course, if you would prefer to concentrate on steering, that's perfectly understandable; small talk can wait."
The pole sloshed through the water three more times. The man said, "Bard."
Bilbo jumped. "Excuse me?"
"My name is Bard," the man said.
Bilbo caught himself smiling. "It's nice to meet you, Bard," he said, turning to extend his hand to the man.
Bard smiled again, in disbelief this time; again Bilbo caught himself and turned away in embarrassment. "My apologies," he mumbled. "Of course you can't shake hands when you're steering a boat."
"No harm done," Bard said.
Bilbo considered that phrase. No harm done. He wished that phrase was in the dwarf's vocabulary. It would have saved a lot of antagonism down the line.
No harm done, Master Baggins. Everyone makes mistakes.
He sighed wistfully. Ah well, he'd been getting along better with the dwarves lately, even if Thorin did seem unusually grumpy. They certainly appreciated the fact that he'd sprung them out of the dungeon back in Mirkwood. And despite his moodiness, Thorin had been the one to praise Bilbo for his plan.
Bilbo cast a fond look over at the group of dwarves, still huddling and murmuring to each other. He blinked when Bofur raised his head and motioned for him to come over.
"Oh, I should go now," Bilbo said apologetically to Bard. The bargeman gave him a skeptical glance, and Bilbo winced inwardly at his awkwardness once again. Why would Bard care that Bilbo was stepping over to the other side of the boat?
He was surprised when Bard merely nodded. "It was a pleasure talking to you, Bilbo Baggins," he said with the tiniest hint of a smile on his stoic features.
Bilbo rose slowly, steadying himself with outspread hands as he flashed a friendly smile back at the man. "And you, Bard."
Bard smiled to himself as he watched Bilbo walk away, amused by his good manners. The dwarves could benefit from learning a thing or two from the hobbit.
Bilbo made his way over to the dwarves, only a little off-balanced by the rocking of the barge. The dwarves were muttering their concerns and suspicions about this next leg of their journey. Bilbo listened, half annoyed and half amused by their grumbling. His ears pricked up when Dwalin said something derogatory about "That man."
"Bard," Bilbo supplied, almost chidingly. "His name is Bard."
"And how would you know that?" Dwalin shot back.
Bilbo smiled. "I asked him."