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1
Chapter One

Thrís sighed, kicking the tree-root with her right foot. Trees and grasses and birds and squirrels and such were dull. Her father had said she could explore the out-lands so long as she was back by sunset, but if this was all they had to offer, perhaps she should go back now. What adventure could she find amongst all this nature?

None, it seemed. These woods were no different from the forests near the Iron Hills that she had played in as a child, before the dragon was killed and they came back to Erebor.

Even going back to Dale and watching her father haggle over their goods would be more interesting than this.

Crack.

She stopped mid-step at the sound of a dried twig snapping underfoot. Under someone else's foot: Dwarves can pass as quietly as they please when they desire stealth.

Peering through the trees she saw the intruder. He wore leather boots and breeches and a dyed-wool tunic, plain but sturdy. Its ragged tears -- badges of honour from other afternoons' adventures -- were mended neatly. His skin was ruddy, coloured as much by the dirt of the woods as from exertion and cold. His straight, dark hair was pulled back from his face in a simple plait and fastened by a bronze clip.

And he had no beard. That alone proved Thrís right in her guess that this was no son of Durin. As if the boy's blundering footsteps were not proof enough!

She stepped out from behind the tree and looked at the boy. His shoulders tensed as he saw her.

"Who are you, and why do you stalk around here with all the grace of a warg?" she demanded, laying her hand to the handle of the dagger she always kept by her side. She did not expect to have to use it, but she remembered her father's words: You will have less cause to use your weapon if your foe fears you really are ready to do so. She could not believe her father had a bare-chinned weakling such as this in mind, but the Dwarves of the Mountains had learned not to let their guard slip for even a moment. Smaug had taught them that much.

The stranger stared at her, and she saw that he too had slightly loosened his blade in its sheath . "Borin son of Breglin, merchant of Dale," he said warily. He had the daring look in his eyes that her brothers reserved for the other boys of the Mountain. "Who asks?"

Does he think I am a boy? Thrís suppressed a chuckle. She had seen the ladies of Dale from a distance when they travelled with their husbands to offer gifts to King Dáin. And she knew she looked nothing like the tall, thin women and their giggly daughters. But I am a Dwarf.

"Thrís daughter of Gláin at your service," she said, bowing low until her beard -- thinner and silkier than her brothers', true -- brushed the ground. Raising her head, she caught a surprised look on Borin's face. Ah, I was right!

Thrís stepped toward Borin to inspect him more carefully. So this is what a manling looks like, up close. A bit scrawny, really. Hard to believe they grow into the great warriors Father told me about. To say nothing of manners! A simple "And at yours and your family's" would not go amiss. She pushed her dagger securely against her belt, deciding she would not need it for the present; Borin did likewise with his long knife.

"What is your business here?" Borin asked, an edge of suspicion still in his voice.

"My father is in Dale as we speak," Thrís replied, "trading all of the ironworks we made this winter. Barrel-hoops, you know, locks and keys, lanterns, the strongest hoes and shovels you could ever hope to see. All kinds of things. I came with him because I wanted to explore these lands." She hesitated for a second, not sure how much of their private lore she should share, before deciding such tidbits as this were of no importance. "I have heard Balin's tales, of how he and Thorin the Great spent many afternoons in these lands before Smaug came, and how they escaped Smaug's wrath because they were here when the dragon descended so many years ago. I wished to see what they found so intriguing.

Borin nodded, apparently accepting her explanation. Yet it seemed old legends from the ancient past held no fascination for him. "Then they may have met," he answered, "your father and mine, or will soon enough. He is a trader in Dale, buying from Dwarves, and other people who pass through and selling their wares to the Men who live in town. We need good barrel-rings, and Father says Dwarves make the only metal-works worth having."

Thrís smiled. She liked him, though she was not sure why. "Would you like to study with my folk, someday? The grandfathers tell stories of the days before Smaug -- may his bones ever rot and his name be forgotten! -- descended on our mountain. How the men of your town thought it a great honour to study under us."

"Aye, that is true," Borin replied earnestly. He turned to continue his walk through the woods, nodding for Thrís to follow him. "But no, I have no desire to become a smith like some, or even a merchant like your father. My grandfather's grandfather worked the land, before Smaug descended on your home, and my only wish is to farm that same plot some day."

"Farm?" Thrís asked. Of course. Someone must grow the food. But why would anyone want such a future...? "There are better ways to earn a living," she answered scornfully. "We dwarves have long traded our crafts for food with little trouble."

"Perhaps," Borin answered, "while your neighbours are friendly. But what happens when you go to war and cannot journey abroad to buy your bread? How long would Thorin and his dwarves have survived, with King Bard camped outside his door?"

Thrís thought about that for a moment and nodded slowly before adding, "But there are other ways to bind another nation to you. Think how eager your father is to buy my father's ironworks." She smiled proudly at that. If all these Men want is to work the land, they are less worthy than I thought. It is right that they scrabble in the dirt while we work gold and gems.

Borin shrugged. "We Men count wealth and power in other ways than how many jewels we own. And there are other joys to be found in farming than simply feeding ourselves."

Thrís arched her eyebrows at that. What could he want beyond jewels? I have only ever wanted a stone hall, richly laid out, and my own apprentices learning my craft from me. What could be better than that? She looked at her new friend sceptically. "What do you -- ?" she began to ask but, not wishing to be rude, stopped mid-sentence. After a moment she decided to try a different approach. "Where is your grandfather's grandfather's farm? Is it near?"

"Aye," Borin answered, "'tis beyond that hill." He pointed to a rise a hundred or so yards off, and began walking toward it more briskly. "You may come, if you wish to see," he called over his shoulder. Almost to her own surprise, Thrís followed him.

Borin set off toward the north at a pace Thrís found herself hard-pressed to match. They passed one hill, and another, and yet another, and still Borin showed no sign of slowing. She had always thought that Men were a frail race compared to those crafted by Mahal, and indeed Borin's people succumbed to old age before her own kind. But while their strength lasted, it seemed Men, with such long legs, could hike far further than Dwarves before they tired.

"I thought you said it was just beyond that first hill." Thrís tried to hide her slightly laboured breathing from her companion.

"Nay," Borin replied. He smiled mischievously at her discomfort. "I said it was beyond that first one -- in that direction. But 'tis not far now; we should be able to see it from the next ridge."

Thrís followed him until at last they reached the crest of the hill. Borin looked out in awe, as if he saw the most glorious sight, but Thrís saw nothing but the Dragon's Desolation and the results of long years of neglect. Maybe in a generation Men could resettle these outer lands, but now... Many of the trees were charred, some reduced to stumps, and the weeds and grasses masked any paths that had once crossed the countryside. Thrís could see the ruins here and there, the buildings caved in and half the walls fallen down. Is this wasteland the farm Borin is so proud of? The ways of Men are strange indeed!

But Borin did not seem to see the destruction; he ran down the hill toward his ancestor's ruined holding.

"Is this it?" Thrís asked disbelievingly as she hurried after him.

"Aye," Borin replied. "I know it does not look like much today, but Smaug is gone, may the fish feast on his flesh. And now we can rebuild. You Dwarves have recovered your puny treasure: the jewels and gold he hoarded. Now we Men will reclaim what we value." He grabbed her shoulder and pulled her down to kneel beside him. Drawing his knife, he used it to break through the hard-packed earth. He re-sheathed it and picked up a fist-full of soil, releasing it into Thrís's hand.

The dirt, as black as a torchless cavern under Erebor, felt damp and soft in her fingers. I have touched the things we Dwarves value. Gold and silver. Iron, copper, and steel. Jewels from the earth and pearls from the sea. Once, even mithril. I know their worth. But this... perhaps it does have value. Though it had not been cultivated for nigh on two centuries, she sensed the life that lay dormant, waiting for some seed to work its way into its richness and spring to life.

She placed her hand on Borin's shoulder and looked into his eyes. "I think I understand," she said, massaging the soil in her hand before she let it fall to the ground. "It is... different, but..." She paused, grappling for the right thing to say. Then she shrugged. I am no Elf. I shape stone and metal, not words

Her gaze drifted past Borin to the valley beyond. The buildings that still stood formed a wide horseshoe, with a grove of trees at their centre. Smaug had either avoided the place or been powerless to destroy it; for whatever reason it had fared better than the surrounding land. Between the trees she saw giant slabs of grey stone, standing on end like knives jabbed into a leg of mutton. High above, an eagle spread its wings, circled three times, and cried out before it flew westward into the late-afternoon sun.

Thrís started down the hill but Borin remained on his knees. She stopped. "Wait," he said, a far-off sound in his voice. The eagle made its way toward the horizon, finally becoming impossible to make out against the barred stripes of pink cloud. Borin rose and carried on towards the circle of buildings. Thrís followed.

"What was that?" she asked.

"An eagle," Borin replied matter-of-factly.

"I know that," Thrís said, looking at him pointedly. Do all Men waste so many words on the obvious? "But why did you stop like that, and talk in that voice? You sounded so... serious."

"It is an eagle," Borin answered her, as if that explained it. She stared at him blankly, and after a second he added, "Mother told me the Dwarves believe they were made by one you call Mahal. She says there are others like your Mahal, and the eagles are the servants of one of them. They tell him, the Lord of the Air, about goblins and wargs and all other sorts of foul things, and the wind sometimes brings help from him. So we pay respect to his heralds."

Thrís nodded. She knew of Mahal, of course, and she had heard a little about his brothers, the other Lords of the West. Ever since she was knee-high to a thrush, she had pestered Thorin's companions for stories. Most were too busy to bother with children -- Though they seem to find time enough to remember the old days with each other over a mug of ale -- but Balin always found time to share a story or two.

And not just of the Quest: escaping trolls and goblins and the Wood-elves' prison. Tales, too, of older and prouder and darker times. Tales passed down from father to son: of Doriath, and jewels the elves claimed for themselves that were the Dwarves by right. Of Telchar and Eöl, and Narvi and Celebrimbor. And tales from even before that, never witnessed by any dwarf: legends out of the furthest West, of Mahal the Maker and his brothers. Súlimo the Elves of Eregion named him, Balin had said, and so we recorded the name in Khazad-dûm when we had cause to write of him. But Mahal is our protector, and he will help any of Durin's children who needs aid.

But Borin did not dwell under the Mountain. Nor did he want to work in a merchant's store or a craftsman's workshop. He wanted to be a farmer, spending his days in the open air. "We Dwarves depend on Mahal for protection," she said at last, "but perhaps this wind-lord is a better guardian for you."

"That he is," Borin said, nodding, and the two fell into a companionable silence. They walked on for a while, kicking through the weeds as they went. After a few minutes they reached the grove of trees. Thrís apprehensively stepped under the eaves. There was a staleness to the air, an ancient feeling that she had never felt in the other woods she had explored. But it was not as stifling as Mirkwood in Balin's tales. It seemed more wholesome, somehow. While she doubted she would ever grow to love it, she did not really fear it either. She turned her eyes toward the skies above, and thought of the treeless wildlands between there and the Mountain, where no branches would obstruct her view.

At last they stood before the grey stones she had seen from the hill. Even then Thrís had known they were some sort of marker; now she looked upon what the trees had kept her from seeing clearly before. At the base of each stone, rows of smaller rocks outlined rectangles -- some small enough only for a child of Men, others marking a bed long enough for a man or his wife.

"So this is how you honour your dead?" Thrís asked quietly. There was no answer. She looked around, searching for Borin, and found him two rows away, examining each of the headstones in turn. Looking back at the one before her, Thrís saw red markings, half worn away by time: letters in some language she could not decipher.

"Aye." Borin's belated answer broke into her thoughts. She lifted her gaze and saw he had paused before one of the stones. He bent over, peering more closely at the wring. "Here lies Thoron son of Kemen," he said, reading the words aloud. He looked up at Thrís, a sad expression in his eyes. "Here lies my grandfather's grandfather, may he find peace."

Thrís lowered her head out of respect. She had visited similar tombs in the chambers of Erebor, rooms where her own forebears slept. They had died before the Dragon had descended on the Mountain -- dwarves she had never known or even known much about. Their tombs had still affected her, though, if only because they reminded her of her own eventual fate. Perhaps she would merit another life after this one, another few breaths of air in her chest, but eventually she would lie lifelessly under stone until the end of time. If aught else awaited her, she knew nothing of it. But why bury him under the earth? she wondered.

"Does it not bother you to think of his body rotting under the soil?" she asked Borin. "How well preserved can his bones be?"

Borin furrowed his brow, apparently trying to understand Thrís's questions. "Not well, I suppose, but what concern is that of ours? I cannot see why the condition of his bones would matter; he is dead."

"That is so," Thrís admitted. "But how do you expect for him to find peace if you bury him in the ground where the worms will eat his flesh and the dogs will dig up his bones? What kind of burial is that?"

"What does it matter?" Borin asked. After a second, his eyes widened slightly and he sucked in his breath softly, as if he finally understood what Thrís was thinking. "Do you Dwarves believe you come back to life after you die? Like the Elves do?"

Thrís scowled at that. Like the Elves, indeed! "I do not know what the Elves believe, but I am sure it has very little to do with what happens to Dwarves! We believe some Dwarves live again as their descendants. I have never heard of a dwarf-woman being given another body, though I suppose it is possible. Dwarf-men certainly return, at least the most important of them. If we are chosen for such an honour, though, we believe our second body will only be as strong as our first was after we died. If we let our children just toss dirt over our corpses, Mahal would think we did not appreciate his work and would give us a weak new body."

"But who decides who returns and who stays dead?" Borin asked.

Thrís felt her frown soften. What an absurd question! "Who knows what happens to any of us after we die?" She laughed. "Not you, and certainly not I. Mahal thinks it fit to send some of us back for a second life, and it is Mahal who decides who shall return."

Borin scratched his chin. "So how do you know whose body to preserve, and whose not to?"

Men! Can they really know so little? Thrís shook her head with a half-amused smile. "We do not just preserve our bodies in the hope Mahal will gift us with a strong body if he gives us a second life. Only Mahal, who created us, knows what death holds for us. But we are also, all of us, Mahal's masterpiece! We honour him by preserving all of his work."

Borin nodded, understanding clear on his face. "We Men, we believe that the body is only for this world. Our bodies are part of Arda. When we die we bury them so that Arda can reclaim them."

"But what is there beside the body?" Thrís asked. "After it has rotted, and your children's children's children are dead and gone, and your name is forgotten -- what then?"

Borin was silent for a moment, turning a blade of grass between his fingers. "Do you remember the soil I had you feel?" he asked at last. "What is soil, but stones broken down over the years by wind and water? And yet, even you admitted that there was a beauty in it unlike any jewels."

Perhaps... Thrís mused. She reached down and took the leaf from Borin and held it to her nose, sniffing its fresh scent. Perhaps Borin is right. Perhaps there is more than meets the eye in many things. "That is correct. But soil is one thing. What is there to Men, or Dwarves, or anyone else for that matter, besides their bodies?"

"What does Mahal send back for those who take on a new body?" Borin asked.

I never thought of that, Thrís thought. "True enough," she said.

"Whatever he sends back," Borin said, "we Men hold that more valuable than the body itself. When we breathe our last, that other part leaves the Circles of the World. Those who remain wish to remember the body and that... other part, and their time here, so we build monuments to it -- like these graves."

"But why the red script?" Thrís asked. "What does that mean?"

Borin rose and walked over to one of the trees. "Red for blood," he said.

Thrís backed away from the stone. "Blood?" she repeated, knowing full well that her disgust showed in her voice. "By Durin's beard, why?"

Rising up on the balls of his feet, Borin grabbed one of the lowest branches and pulled it down, plucking off a flower and releasing the branch. He returned to the grave. "Not just any blood," he said. "The oldest son cuts his finger and mixes his blood with red pigment. Just blood would wash away, but the memory of the bloodletting remains, and the red paint bears witness that it was done. It is how sons pay a last respect to their father."

Thrís nodded, slowly approaching the gravestone again. Respect for the father, that I can understand. It is just how they show respect that is so different.

Borin walked back toward her and laid the flower at the base of the marker. "We of later generations show we have visited by leaving a flower. It wilts within a few days, so if the blossom is still fresh, it shows someone has visited recently.

Thrís looked down at the flower. It is not as we would do. But for Men, whose strength waxes and wanes so much more quickly than ours, it is fitting.

Thrís hesitated. She knew her people did not share their language or customs lightly. But times were changing. Elves, Men, and Dwarves had died together at the Battle for Erebor. Did it require so much more trust to share what happened after they had died?

After a moment she said, "We Dwarves do the same kind of thing." She searched the ground for a suitably soft stone. Would that I had my chisel! But she had not expected to do stonework this afternoon, and so she had left it in Erebor. Slowly, she made several clean slices across the sandstone pebble, careful not to notch her knife, until at last she could show Borin the T-rune. It was not as deep as she would like, but it would have to do.

Borin looked at her in surprise, and she tried to explain. "Your custom shows that someone has visited recently. But we recognize that our impact on another is not a passing thing. So we etch the stone near where we lay our ancestors' bodies, leave our mark on it just as they have left their mark on us.

Borin nodded. "Thank you," he said. "For the honour, and for sharing the custom." He looked up at the sky, and Thrís followed her gaze to where the sun was sinking close to the horizon. If she wanted her father to let her come with him next time he needed to travel to the Mannish town, she must hurry to reach Dale before the sun set. And she would need to come again if she wanted to get to know Borin better.

She decided she did.

*****
Notes
Most of the background from this story is taken from hints in The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, with a few references from The Silmarillion thrown in for good measure. Súlimo is a name for Manwë used by the Elves; I theorise that the dwarves of Khazad-dûm picked up its usage from the Elves of Eregion.

The Battle for Erebor is an alternate name for the Battle of the Five Armies The Hobbit is essentially a hobbit's historical memoir, and so it makes sense that a hobbit might use less dwarf-centric names than a dwarf would.

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