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The Book of Mazarbul
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Chance Encounter in Bree

For disclaimer, rating, etc. see the Introduction

Náli is a canon character. He went with Balin to Khazad-dûm in TA 2989, but was slain in 2994, while defending Durin's Bridge and the Second Hall. That is all we know about him. My take on him was based on a wonderful drawing of a young Dwarven thief by Ro (aka Sabra R. Hart), which you can view in her Elfwood gallery.

Rei is an OFC, also based on one of Ro’s drawings. The innkeeper is Butterbur’s father, of course, as this part of the story takes place a few years before Balin’s expedition to Khazad-dûm, when Barliman was a young man still. Hallavor is Halbarad’s father, by the way. His name was not given, but Halbarad had to have a father, after all, and since he is the only Ranger named in The Books (aside from Aragorn, of course), I chose his family to have a tie-in with canon.



Náli entered Bree following the Great East Road westwards. By that time, he had had a very long journey behind him – one that had begun in Rhûn, years earlier, where his entire family had been killed by the enraged Easterlings when trying to pilfer the halls of a powerful chieftain. Náli himself only survived because he had already been sent out on a scouting mission to Dorwinion, where they intended to make their next move.

This had been a sad but not entirely unexpected fate, as Náli was a thief, from a family of thieves. They belonged to the StiffBeard clans and were thus smaller, more slender than the average Dwarf, and specialized in pickpocketing, petty theft, burglary, cheating in games and so on. Náli himself had been brought up to be a burglar and a thief, but as this was a dangerous occupation, he had also been taught to fight with the dagger and the whip… and to fight dirty. In time, he also learned to wield a Haradric-style scimitar, for it served him better than a longsword.

The fate of his family shocked Náli badly enough so that he did not dare to work in his trade for a while. Instead, he wandered from settlement to settlement along the River Running, eking out a meagre living on the fairs as a knife thrower, doing tricks with his whip or wrestling with Men twice his size – and winning.

After a while, however, he grew confident enough again to return to thieving, and he joined a small caravan of FireBeard Dwarves who were on their way home to the Ered Luin. FireBeards being nasty customers as a rule, he did not had to worry about them being overly curious about his affairs; they had hired him as a guard and paid him for his service – other than that, they ignored him, which was just fine with Náli.

They crossed Mirkwood, using the Old Forest Road that had been cleaned after the re-taking of Erebor, so that once again, it could be used for proper travelling. They passed the Anduin at the Old Ford and went up straight to the Misty Mountains, where they intended to get to the other side through the High Pass.

They came down to the Lone-lands, after crossing the Hoarwell via the Last Bridge, and followed their way on the Great East-Road, which was a relief. The FireBeards planned to push on with the best speed they were capable of, along the northern border of the land of the Halflings, for their dwellings were under the northern chain of the Blue Mountains, but Náli had plans of his own, and those were different from the one of the FireBeards. Plans that involved a visit to the infamous Barrow-downs, to take a look at the riches that were said to be entombed there with the northern Kings of old.

Before he could undertake such an ambitious adventure, though, he needed supplies. Thus he parted ways with the FireBeards after they had passed the Midgewater Marshes, and while the others took a night’s well-earned rest in the Forsaken Inn (mere ruins in these days, but still with a more or less water-tight roof), Náli continued his way to Bree-land.

This was a small, inhabited region, like an island in the empty lands round about. Besides Bree itself, which was the chief village, there was Staddle on the other side of the hill, Combe in a deep valley a little further eastward, and Archet on the edge of the Chetwood. All four settlements were clustered around the slopes of the Bree-hill, and beyond them was a small country of fields and tamed woodland only a few miles broad. Small it might be, yet this tiny country had bent with the ebb and flow of many hundred years, for it had been settled by Men of Dunland in the Elder Days – and they were proud of their heritage, regardless of the fact that in these days, Dunlendings were less than well-liked among other people, at least where Men were considered.

The Men of Bree still showed many traits of their origins, being brown-haired, broad, and rather short, cheerful and independent. They served no Lord, though in the days of the North-kingdom they had nominally accepted the Kings of Fornost. Nowadays, they belonged to nobody but themselves; yet they were more friendly and familiar with Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, and other inhabitants of the world about them than was usual with the often treacherous race of Men.

As Dwarves usually got along with Dunlendings well enough, Náli based his plans on the openness of the Bree-folk, trusting his skills to get into their purses in the inn, of which the FireBeards had been talking so fondly. At first, he had to wait for his former travelling companions to pass through the village and be safely gone, so that no-one would recognize him upon his arrival. That would have raised questions which he preferred to avoid, if possible.

Thus he went to Staddle first, the village on the gentler southern slopes of the Bree-hill, which was mostly inhabited by Halflings – even though these here lived in small houses rather than in the usual holes like in their own land. There he recalled his skills as a knife-thrower and showed tricks with his whip, which the Halflings found most intriguing, and they fed him graciously for his performance, even though they paid him little coin.

After a few days, he left Staddle for Combe, an even smaller village in a valley on the eastern flanks of the hill, and from there to Archet in the Chetwood, which lay north from Combe. Only when he could no longer hope live out of his tricks did he continue his way to his actual goal: to the village of Bree, perched under the frowning hill-brow on the west side.

Coming from the Chetwood, he followed the old North Road – the great ancient road that had once been most important, as in the times of the North-kingdom of Men, many people had passed between Fornost in the North down to Tharbad, and beyond to the realm of Gondor. After the fall of the northern realm, though, the Road was seldom used and came in disrepair, grass-grown and untended, for which reason it became known as the Greenway.

It crossed the Great East Road just west of the Bree-hill, and as with many old settlements, the Bree-men had done their best to protect their village from possible perils coming along the Road. Thy built no walls, but dug a deep trench – known as the Dike – with a thick hedge on the inner side. The Great East Road passed through the village, thus a causeway was built across the Dike at the Road’s entry in the West and at its exit in the South. At the hedge the Road was blocked with heavy oak-wood gates that were tended all the time. These gates were closed at nightfall; but just inside them were small lodgings for the gatekeepers.

Inside the village, the Road took a great sweep southwards, around the hill, then it turned east again. A small lane curved away from it to the North, forking so that one branch of it climbed the crest of the hill, while another one led through a small opening in the hedge for a shorter route to Combe and Archet, and joined the Greenway, further north.

This was the place where Náli intended to enter the village. Dwarves who travelled on the East Road, to and from the Misty Mountains, used the South-gate or the West-gate, like the band of FireBeards with whom he had journeyed lately. He did not want to be noticed by any possible kinfolk who might have recognized him for who – or what – he was.

Contrary to what other races might believe about them, Dwarves acknowledged theft as a means of living, and were not even all too much bothered by its existence – as long as other people were the victims. In fact, thieves had their own guild, just like other craftsmen, and outsmarting a well-known and particularly skilled thief was a popular sport among them. Of course, if the thief proved less skilled and was clumsy enough to let himself be caught with his hands in the pockets or bags of another Dwarf, he could not count on mercy. Dwarves were as fiercely jealous of their wealth as their fame said, and thieves knew what they were risking for a living.

So did Náli, and this was the reason why he did not intend to cross the hedge by any of the gates, not even through the small northern opening. A Dwarf could always recognize a thief by the mark of the Thieves’ Guild tattooed on his shoulder, and while they did not warn other people as a rule, stating that everyone has to take care of his or her own belongings, there always were a few who would buy favours by the life of a fellow Dwarf. Usually those who had been stolen from by a skilled thief before.

Thus Náli found it safer to climb the hedge, which was well within his skills. He intended to make for that famous inn he had heard so much about in the other villages: the “Prancing Pony”. ‘Twas said to be a meeting place for the idle, gossipy, and curious among the inhabitants, large and small, of the four villages; and a resort of all sorts of wanderers, and for any travellers that journeyed on the East Road. This included Dwarves, in various numbers, but Náli trusted that he could remain undetected in the crowd. He did not intend to search the baggage of his own kin anyway. Not when stone drunk Men – or Halflings – made so much easier prey.

He sat down in the cover of the hedge to remove his heavy travelling boots and put on the light footwear he used when climbing or running around on someone’s roof: thick woollen stocks that were parted at the big toe, with thick leather shin-guards, fastened with leather straps. These, and his light leather armour, enabled him to be fast and noiseless like a cat, while the hard leather hauberk still protected him from knives thrown at his direction… which happened sometimes.

He stuffed his boots into his backpack and was just about to climb the hedge, when the clattering of hooves reached his keen ears. It came from the South, along the Greenway, rapidly nearing the way-crossing. Náli decided to take a look at the travellers before entering the village. ‘Twas always good to know new players in advance. Thus he hurried along the hedge towards the West-gate, all the time careful to stay well-covered.

Soon enough, the riders came into sight. There were two of them, one riding a big, raw-boned grey stallion, the other one a pony. ‘Twas not one of the small, round-bellied, stubby-ledged animals, so perfect for Halflings or the children of Men, though, but a thick-necked, strong and sturdy beast, powerfully built, with long, shaggy mane and tail and feathering at its hooves. This was a hill pony, also known as a Dwarf pony: a breed not much smaller than the thick-legged, sturdy horses bred in Lossarnach, capable of carrying or pulling heavy loads while still keeping up with the steeds of Men.

Dwarves might be short compared with Men (even with the short and rotund ones of Bree), but they usually weighed just as much as any men, if not more, due to their powerfully built, heavily muscled bodies. Adding the fact that most Dwarves preferred to wear armour when on a journey and that they all carried heavy weapons, those hill ponies truly had to be strong and fast, to carry their masters without falling over dead in the middle of the way.

The sturdy animal trotting alongside the raw-boned grey horse was obviously such a pony, therefore its reader had to be a Dwarf. No other race used hill ponies (not that Dwarves would sell them to other people anyway), finding them hard to keep, Some said they were just as stubborn as Dwarves, and they usually shared their masters’ general dislike for Elves and Men.

And yet the rider looked nothing like the average travelling Dwarf. Just like his travelling companion, he wore a travel-stained cloak of some heavy dark material (perhaps green; not even the night eyes of a Dwarf could made out the colour in this darkness), with a wide hood pulled deeply into his face, and high boots of supple leather, although caked with mud. They must have been on the road for quite some time.

As Náli watched, the two riders reached the West-gate. It was shut, of course, but the gatekeeper –a grubby-looking Man with a pipe in his mouth – opened the small door cut into one of the heavy wooden gate-wings and stepped out, holding up a lantern.

“What do ya want and where do ya come from?” he asked gruffly.

The taller rider tossed back his hood, and Náli could see in the light of the lantern that he was not one of the stocky, swarthy Bree-men but tall and pale and black-haired, with clear grey eyes and a noble, though somewhat dour face. Guessing the age of a Man was not an easy thing, but Náli judged him to be about forty or so.

“Come on, Huw,” he said, with amusement in his deep, rich voice. “I have been here often enough, so that even you would remember me.”

The gatekeeper took a closer look at him.

“Oh, ‘tis you,” he replied with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. “Y’always poppin’ up, y’and yer restless kind.”

“For which you should be eternally grateful, you and your fat and lazy kind,” the other rider interrupted. “Who would keep evil away from your very doors, would the Rangers not roam the wild lands?”

The gatekeeper answered something, but Náli no longer listened to him, for the voice of the smaller rider was a female one, albeit deeper than that of most women – at least where the daughters of Men were considered. Dwarf women on the other hand… But what was a female Dwarf doing in Men’s clothes, travelling with a Man – and a Ranger, at that?

Náli had heard of the Rangers, of course. Everyone who had ever set foot in Eriador had. Those were a rare breed of Men: tall, dark, short of words, who lived in the wild lands beyond Bree, where no other Men had settled dwellings, within a hundred leagues. They were believed to have strange powers of sight, and to understand the speeches of beasts and birds – not that the latter would have been unheard of. Many Dwarves still understand the tongue of ravens, due to their long friendship with the wise birds. Although, Náli had to admit, it was unusual for men. As a rule, they lumbered through woods and meadows like some big oafs, as if no other creature aside from them would exist.

But even if those Rangers were different, what was this one travelling with a Dwarf female? Dwarf women rarely left their dwellings, even less with strangers, nor did they wear Men’s clothes. Náli decided to investigate. Pockets were always there to be picked, but this was a true mystery; one he was determined to solve.

The two mysterious riders had come to an agreement with Huw the gatekeeper in the meantime, and were allowed to enter the village, albeit grudgingly. With the noiseless, limber grace of a cat (which no Man would have expected from a person as short and sturdy as a Dwarf), Náli climbed the hedge while the gatekeeper was distracted by the newcomers, ran atop of it to the gatekeeper’s lodge, and hopped down from the lodge’s roof, landing noiselessly on his feet on the other side, thus sparing himself the pain of crossing the Dike. Then he followed the two as they were slowly making their way up the hill.

He pulled a face while doing so. Dwarves had very sensitive noses, and the stench of the place was every bit as horrible as Staddle or Combe or Archet had been. Actually, Staddle had been a lot less offensive, being populated by Halflings mostly, and the Little Folk was usually a lot cleaner. Why Men liked to run around unwashed so much was beyond Náli’s understanding. Filth was the breeding place of diseases and plagues, and yet Men did not seem to care.

Náli stared at the open sewer running down on one side of the road of hardened earth with a disgusted scow. He had never been to any of the great cities of his people – like Erebor or the Iron Hills – but he was sure that even the relatively small dwellings in the Blue Mountains were kept in better order. No Dwarf would ever live in the neighbourhood of their own waste. ‘Twas disgusting!

Like the other villages of Bree-land, Bree itself failed to impress him in any way. Above the Road, there were some hundred stone houses (surprisingly good stonework for Men, but far below Dwarven standard), nestling on the hillside with their windows looking west. East and above them (and thus in safe distance from the stench of the sewer) were the holes of the Halflings, delved into the hillside.

Down on the Road, where it curved to the right to go round the foot of the hill, the famous inn of Bree stood: a three-storey building of blackened old oak-beams and whitewash, with two of its wings running back into the hill itself, with a courtyard between them. There was an archway in the front centre, permitting entrance to the courtyard, and at the same time supporting the upper rooms. Náli nodded in mute appreciation; ‘twas a clever design.

The two Rangers – for, strange as it sounded, the Dwarf-woman had to be some sort of Ranger, too – dismounted and led their steeds through the central arch and into the courtyard. A Halfling came running up to them, offering stabling for their horses, and the Man accepted. The two then passed a door on the left to the Common Room, and, after some hesitation, Náli followed them. Under different circumstances, he would have spied out his surroundings first, but right now, he did not want to lose sight of his primary targets. Besides, judging by the noise within, the room was full already. Even a lonely Dwarf could hope to blend in with the crowd.

And indeed, the Common Room was large and crowded enough for him to remain largely unnoticed. Náli blinked a few times, allowing his eyes to get used to the brightness within after the darkness without – if one could, indeed, call the blazing log-fire in the wide hearth a true light source. There were lamps hanging from the beams, too, but so clouded with smoke that their dim rays very nearly got lost in it.

There were heavy tables of dark, polished oak, rubbed smooth by the countless customers that had sat at them during the long years of the inn’s existence. Some of them were long, with low benches on both side, some round, surrounded by chairs – but there seemed not a single seat to be free. On the benches were various folk: Men of Bree, of course, as well as some from Combe, whom Náli recognized and thus tried to avoid their attention; a merry crowd of local Halflings, occupying most of the long tables and chattering over enormous mugs of beer; a couple of Dwarves at one of the round tables, apparently of the BroadBeam Clans, if their rich clothes and beetle-black eyes were any indication; and other figures, sitting in shadowy corners, whom Náli could not quite make out in the smoke and shadow,

The Ranger and his short companion chose a small table in one of the corners, and Náli chose his own place carefully: one from where he could see them well, but they would not spot him immediately. A fat, elderly man, who must have been the innkeeper, hurried to their table. He obviously knew the Ranger and even paid him some grudging respect. Náli could not hear what they were talking about – there was just too much noise in the inn – but shortly thereafter, a young, rotund man, looking so much like the innkeeper that could only be his son, arrived with tall tankards of beer and large bowls of soup, as well as with some cold meats and fresh loaves, all this arranged on an enormous wooden tablet.

Náli felt his stomach clench painfully. His modest earnings in the other three villages had barely been enough to keep him alive, and seeing all that food was almost more than he could bear. He needed to get some coin, and soon, or he would starve. Yet at the moment he was too busy watching to care for his nagging hunger. For the two Rangers were removing their heavy cloaks, and for the first time, he finally had undisturbed view at the strange Dwarf-woman – well, aside from the thick smoke, that is. And what a sight it was!

She would have been considered pretty, even with the measure of other races. For Dwarven eyes, she was a stunning beauty, with her smooth, heart-shaped, doll-like face, perfectly arched, thick copper eyebrows and full, bow-shaped mouth. She had the small, lean, compact body of a StiffBeard, with a narrow waist and firm breasts, but powerful arms and muscular legs as all Dwarves had. There had to be some IronFist ancestors somewhere up her family tree, though, for her thick, shiny hair, which she wore in a single braid and adorned with colourful glass beads, had the colour of dark copper, and her large, almond eyes were a deep amber, also an IronFist trait, and a rare one at that. Under her Ranger cloak she wore a light hauberk of hard leather and a short battle hammer on her weapons belt. Instead of the longbow of her companion, she carried a weapon largely unknown in these lands: a crossbow, as they used it in some Haradric realms, obviously made with her size in mind, and inlaid with intricate silver patterns.

Náli was lost. Completely smitten. He felt his body twitch uncontrollably, like from some sudden sting of a bee or a wasp. His face, he could feel it, was glowing like a furnace; he could only hope that no-one could see it in all the smoke and the dim light. His heart was racing, as if he had been chased over a long distance by murderous, horsed Easterlings, and every single muscle in his body thrummed like a plucked bow-string. Or would that be the string of a harp?

For a moment, he felt panic rising from the pit of his stomach. He was still way too young for the love-longing, usually he would still have decades to go, but the elders said that with some Dwarves, it could happen ahead of time. And what else cold this be, this sudden, heavy feeling in his stomach, the heat that threatened to consume his every single limb?

The elders had never explained what it would feel like or how it would come. He would recognize once his time has come, they had said. And they had been right. There was no need for words, as words could never have described… this. Now he knew what it felt like, to find the person who was the one for him – and that he would never be able to open his heart for anyone else.

His plan to raid the barrows had just become even more important. This particular female might be living with Men and tossing time-honoured custom out of the window – was he not travelling without wearing a fake beard to hide herself from the eyes of strangers? – but she was a Dwarf. And custom demanded that a Dwarrow-dam be wooed with rich gifts. No self-respecting male Dwarf would act otherwise. And where else could a starving young thief get anything to impress his chosen one with than from the treasure chambers of other people – even if those other people had been dead and their graves haunted?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Rei and her foster father, Hallavor of the Northern Dúnedain, had ridden up the Greenway with barely any rest. The Rangers of the North were hardier than any other Man, and Dwarves were notoriously resilient against the hardships of travelling, thus they preferred to get the long way behind them as quickly as possible. Hallavor and the Men under his command had spent near twenty years, keeping watch at the old Dúnadan outpost, hidden among the ruins of Tharbad, together with their families, but their time was up and could finally return to the ancestral home of their kin in the Angle, near the Vale of Rivendell. Hallavor had been the last to leave, having sent his family aforehead, to get settled, ‘til he could also follow them, leaving everything ordered for his successor.

Rei was part of that family – had, in fact, been part of it since the age of barely beyond twenty. Her family – her Dwarven family – hailed from the StiffBeard clans, and her parents had been wandering traders. Her father had also offered his skills as a cutler to the scattered farmsteads along the Road. They had led a rather frugal life, until ambushed by an Orc band and murdered to the last Dwarf, who happened to be Rei’s baby brother. Rei herself only escaped due to the arrival of a small group of Rangers, led by Hallavor, but there had been no help for the rest of the family. At least the Rangers gave them a decent burial, even though it was just a mound of smaller stones raised above their bodies.

Hallavor then took the young Dwarf-girl into his home and raised her together with his own children. Rei received the same thorough weapons training as Hallavor’s boys, and she was taught woodcraft, herbal lore and writing as well – everything a Ranger needed to know. She was considered one of the troops, and she went on patrolling the woods and roads with them. She proved herself countless times, earning the respect of these proud and brave Men – although her customary Dwarven cleanliness served as a source of amusement sometimes. Not that the Rangers were as filthy as many other Men, but when out in the wilderness, they considered such things as soap or a comb rather unimportant. Rei did not share their opinion.

Sometimes Hallavor worried that she would miss her own people. But Rei had already so gotten used to the life in the great outdoors that she could not imagine living in an underground Dwarf city, in some cave, no matter how rich and beautiful it might be. The StiffBeards were a breed of Dwarves who spent their lives mostly on the surface anyway; the only Dwarves bothered with growing food, and they were the ones who bred the strong hill ponies for all other Dwarven kindreds. So nay, this was not such a big change for Rei – and she was quite content with her life as a Ranger.

Though she still considered Tharbad as her home – the only one she had ever known as the Wanderers had no place to return to – she had little doubt that she would get used to the life in the Angle soon enough. The people living there were the same ones she had lived with all these years, and she would get out into the wilderness with the Rangers just like before. Mayhap she would even be assigned to the troops that watched the borders of the Halflings’ land. She hoped so. She liked the Little Folk, for they were a simple and cheerful people, and yet surprisingly resilient when they had to. And the Halflings themselves were less wary towards a Dwarf than they would be towards any Man.

This was not her first visit in Bree, either. Hallavor had ridden up to the Bree-land at least once a year, to exchange news with the innkeeper (who was a shrewd and wise old man, despite his looks and his sometimes distracted manners), and he often took Rei with him. That gave her the chance to keep in touch with her own people, although many Dwarves shook their heads in discontent when they realized that she lived with the folk of Men.

‘Twas unbecoming of a Dwarrow-dam, they said, even for one of low ranks. StiffBeard traders and their progeny did not exactly have a high standing among their own kind, but even so, Rei could have many suitors of good breeding, for she possessed skills that were rare among Dwarves, and she was a trained warrior. She was simply not interested. And while she had nought against a quick tumble in the hay with the one or other handsome Dwarf male, she was not going to bond with any of them. She was young and more than willing to wait ‘til she would meet him who would be the one for her… if ever. If not, she was happy enough with the life she had. Not everyone had to breed.

The innkeeper’s young son, whom the other Men just called Barley (though it could impossibly be his true name) had brought their supper, and Rei suddenly realized how very hungry she was. Hallavor and the other Rangers often teased her about having the appetite of a Halfling, and how such a short person could eat so much. They also liked to wonder (just within her earshot) whether she might burst one day, if she kept eating like that.

She just shrugged it off, reminding them that while she might be short, she had the weight of a grown Man, and she needed to eat – a lot – to keep up her strength… another trait that seemed to amaze them to no end, although she was fairly average as Dwarves go. Though while she would have no chance against a trained BlackLock or IronFist warrior, the giants of the Dwarven race, she might well be able to beat an average male of any of the other kindreds.

With luck and speed, she added modestly in thought. Female Dwarves were usually larger and stronger than their males, yet it would have been a grave mistake to underestimate any potential adversary. And Rei Hreinnsdóttir made no such foolish mistakes.

Finishing her bowl of excellent broth, she draw her long Dwarven knife to divide the mouth-watering roast meat into two equal portions (Hallavor needed to keep up his strength, too), when the feeling of being watched – the feeling that had hunted her ever since entering Bree – returned. Her cheeks were burning: a sure sign that a Dwarf male with definite interest was staring at her. Dwarrow-dams always knew; ’twas an instinct.

She had experienced this before, many times, in fact, yet right now, the feeling was much stronger. Her cheeks were in flame. That could only mean someone hit by the love-longing. Rei groaned. That was truly the last thing she needed right now. Males hit by the longing, especially young ones, could be very bothersome, not to mention stubborn and mulish and dim-witted… and hard to get rid of.

“What’s wrong?” asked Hallavor quietly, seeing her hand freeze with the knife.

“Lovesick Dwarf,” she replied.

Hallavor asked no stupid questions. During the long years she had spent with his family, he had learned a lot about Dwarves, More than any Man ever had… or ever would, most likely.

“One of them?” was all he asked, nodding discretely in the direction of the bunch of loud – and already very drunk – BroadBeam Dwarves, sitting at a nearby table.

Rei shook her head, looking around for the source of the strange feeling. At first she could only see Bree-folk: Men and Halflings in a colourful mix that seemed to fill every corner of the inn. There was no other group of Dwarves anywhere within eyesight. It took her several moments to discover the lonely figure, half-hidden near the hearth.

“Him,” she said softly, guiding Hallavor’s look with her eyes only. The Ranger gave a barely visible nod, signalling that he had spotted the Dwarf, too.

“Do you know him?” he asked. Rei shook her head again.

“Never seen him before. Must be new here… mayhap the young tumbler who is said to have visited the other villages in the recent weeks.”

They both watched the young Dwarf inobtrusively over their supper. He was a handsome one, for sure, with his short, compact body – he could not have been taller than Rei herself, who was small for a Dwarf – wide, light grey eyes and golden hair, which he wore down, with only a thin braid hanging over his left temple, its end fastened with a brass ring. His beard was short, reflecting his young age, as yellow as his hair, and it seemed soft, almost silky. He wore a light leather hauberk, without a shirt underneath, dark grey britches, leather wrist-guards, and one of those very broad leather belts, specially made of several connected leather stripes, so that one could attach and carry heavy weapons and pouches to it. Quite a few of those pouches were indeed attached to his belt, aside from a wicked-looking whip and a scimitar strapped to his back.

Curiously, he also had a high leather collar of a similar design as his belt, adorned with brass buttons. The collar seemed to have no true purpose (unless one knew what it was for), and he had a cloth wound loosely around it. However, it was his footwear that caught Rei’s attention at once.

“Oh, no!” she groaned. Hallavor raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

“No what?” he asked.

“He is a thief,” explained Rei with a scow. “One of those Wanderers who travel all over Middle-earth, looking for easy prey. Although this one does not seem to be very successful.”

Hallavor stared at the young Dwarf with renewed interest. Sure, the lad seemed worse for the wear, his clothes tattered and patched on numerous places, and he also looked as if he had not had a decent meal for quite some time, but that did not mean that he would live off other people’s pockets. On the other hand, only a Dwarf could ever judge another Dwarf rightly, so Hallavor was willing to take Rei’s word for it.

“How do you know?” he asked.

“Look at his shoes,” answered Rei. “They are light and soft, made to climb walls and run on roofs. And he only wears leather armour, to be light and flexible and able to move around fast. And see the cloth worn loosely around his neck? He covers his face with it when going after his business, so that people would not easily recognize him. ‘Tis strange, though,” she added thoughtfully. “Dwarf thieves work in teams, as a rule. It makes things much easier and safer. Why would this one be here on his own?”

“Mayhap he is scouting for the others,” said Hallavor. “Or he has lost his team.”

“That would explain his half-starved looks,” Rei agreed.

“What Clan might he hail from, you think? asked Hallavor.

“StiffBeard,” answered Rei without hesitation. “Small, with grey eyes, and that single braid above his temple… yea, definitely StiffBeard.”

“With that hair?” Hallavor shook his head. “I think not. And his beard is not the least bristling, either. Nay, you must be mistaken.”

“Nay, I am not,” said Rei. “I am well capable of recognizing my own clansmen when I see them. As for the hair – mine is different, too, and it still makes me no less a StiffBeard. He must have had a StoneFoot ancestor somewhere up his bloodline. A grandparent, most likely, as such traits usually reappear in the second or third generation.”

“We should invite him to our table,” said Hallavor. Rei stared at him in surprise.

“What for?” she asked. Hallavor shrugged.

“Well, to begin with, he seems hungry, and we have more than enough, even taking your appetite into consideration,” he replied with one of his rare smiles. “Secondly, we might find out what he is planning, had his tongue loosened a bit by Master Butterbur’s excellent ale.”

“’Tis not hard to guess what he is up to,” answered Rei with a derisive snort. “To pick our pockets, to cut our purse-string or to get away with our supplies, what else? If you are not careful, you might even end up without your sword… or, at the very least, without your pipe.”

“Do you truly believe he would try anything like that while you are watching him?” asked Hallavor mildly.

“Not if he values that head of his, he would not,” Rei snapped, not truly understanding what had made her this annoyed. While thieving was not one of the truly valued trades, thieves were accepted in Dwarven society – ‘til they got caught. Mayhap she had lived with Men too long, taking over their values, without realizing it.

“Just what I have been thinking,” Hallavor nodded sagely. “Now, call him over.”

“Me?” Rei was livid with outrage.

“You are the one who knows Iglishmek,” pointed out Hallavor, “as your people adamantly refuse to teach it to anyone. It would draw a great deal of unwanted attention if I started to shout at him across the entire inn, would it not?”

That was undoubtedly very true, and while Rangers were generally accepted in Bree, even though the Bree-folk made no attempts to befriend them, they preferred to remain in the background, watch and learn. Thus Rei had no other choice than to catch the eyes of the young thief and signal him to come over to their table.

At first, the young Dwarf seemed shocked, almost frightened, like someone not used to people being friendly to him; considering his trade, that was probably understandable. Rei had to repeat the gesture, a little impatiently now, ere he finally awoke from his near-frozen state and slowly began to make his way through the crowd.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Being caught watching shocked Náli a bit. That had never happened before, yet at the moment he did not really had all his wits about him. Being hit by the love-longing was a powerful and somewhat disturbing experience for a Dwarf, especially for such a young one; which was the very reason why it usually happened at a much more mature age. He was confused, frightened and unsure about what to do. He would have preferred to quietly retreat somewhere where he could think before starting to look for the necessary supplies – but then the copper-haired beauty caught his eye and signalled him in Iglishmek that he should go over to their table.

He was not ready to face her yet… or that big Man in her company. She must have recognized him as a thief by his footwear, he realized, it had been stupid of him not to change back into his boots before entering the inn. But he had been too carried away with curiosity to take simple precaution. Now he was going to pay for his mistake. Men had no acceptance whatsoever for his trade, and for a thick-necked Dwarf, being hung was a slow and extremely painful death.

Trying to run would do him no good, though. She could raise all the customers with a single outcry, and against so many not even a Dwarf would stand a chance. Nay, the best thing he could do was to obey… and to hope that she was still Dwarf enough to be more accepting than her companion.

Slowly, hesitantly, avoiding the collision with dunk customers with a limberness no-one would have expected from a Dwarf, he made his way to their table. To his surprise, the tall Man was watching him with mild curiosity, but not unkindly. ‘Twas the Dwarf-woman who seemed to seethe with anger, for some reason. Náli thought it better to be very polite and submissive.

“My Lady,” he said with the deepest, most formal bow he could produce. “You have asked for me. How can I be of service?”

“By telling me your name, to begin with,” she replied, her amber eyes glittering. “I already know what you are, so you need not to bother with that part.”

“Náli, son of Máni, at your service,” he replied with another bow, this one half-directed at the Man, who nodded. The Dwarf-woman did not bother to return his bow, just nodded tartly.

“Rei Hreinnsdóttir, at yours,” she said. “And this is my foster father, Hallavor, a Ranger of the North… just like myself.”

The Man nodded again. He seemed faintly amused by the whole situation; something Náli failed to understand.

“Well, Náli son of Máni,” said the Ranger, “you seem to have taken quite an interest in my daughter here, so I thought we would better get knowing each other. Have a seat and share supper with us. You look as if you could use a decent meal right now, and we can talk better with a full stomach.”

Which was very true, as the embarrassingly loud rumbling of Náli’s stomach promptly proved. The poor Dwarf’s cheeks burned with shame, but the Ranger just smiled and called the innkeeper to bring them more food. A “Dwarven ration” he called it, and Náli needed all his willpower to keep up his manners when a large bowl of delicious, hot rabbit stew was placed before him, with a loaf of freshly baked bread, and a generous portion of roast mutton, heaped onto his plate by the Lady Rei’s very own hands.

For quite some time, they were silent, each one paying his or her supper full attention and eating with healthy appetites. Náli was in complete bliss, finally being able to fill his belly, after a long time of frugal meals, while sitting across the table of the most breath-takingly beautiful female he had ever seen in his young life. Rei, too, mollified considerably as her hunger was stilled, although she kept giving the young thief sharp looks full of mistrust. Well, at least she was not ignoring him completely.

After they had all eaten their fill and were now nurturing their respective tankards of beer, Hallavor turned to the young Dwarf. His mannerism had subtly changed, signalling that the pleasantries were now over, and the investigation had begun.

“Well, Master Náli,” he said. “My daughter tells me that you are a thief; is that right?”

That was not a pleasant question, considering that Men usually saw thieves as filth, not acknowledging the skills this particular trade demanded. But Náli was not backing off.

“It is,” he replied simply.

“‘Tis a strange trade for a lonely Dwarf,” the Man commented. “I was told that thieves work in teams, as a rule.”

“We do,” answered Náli bitterly. “Unless we are clumsy enough to get caught and beaten to death.”

“Is that what happened to your team?” asked Rei. “We heard of no Dwarves being lynched anywhere near.”

“It happened in Rhûn, years ago,” Náli suppressed the urge to scream out his grief and sorrow ‘til he could scream no longer. “My family rarely visited these lands. I was born near the Sea of Rhûn myself.”

“Your family?” if Rei’s stricken face was any indication, that particular piece of news had hit a nerve. “How many of them…?”

“All of them,” replied Náli. “My parents, my uncles, my aunt, my four older brothers. I was not with them at the time. Found only their heads on poles when I returned from my scouting mission.”

“’Tis not good to make an enemy of the Easterlings,” said the Ranger softly. “They are not the most forgiving people.”

Náli shrugged, feigning indifference.

“Thieves make enemies everywhere,” he replied simply. “My own people would not have shown any mercy, either. Ours is a perilous trade. One has to be good to survive.”

“Apparently, you are fairly good, if you managed to make all the way from Rhûn to here on your own,” said Rei, impressed.

“I was not on my own the whole time,” admitted Náli. “A good stretch of the way I made with a bunch of FireBeards. They hired me to protect their caravan.”

“Aye, I do remember having mentioned that they crossed the village a few days ago,” said Rei. “You must be the tumbler, then, who has entertained Combe and Staddle and Archet lately.”

“One has to eat,” replied Náli with a shrug, “and they had naught worth stealing.”

“Honest work does not seem to have earned you a lot of food,” commented the Ranger dryly. “And the towns of Lindon are a long way from here.”

“I am not heading for Lindon,” said Náli. “The last thing I need is to become the errand boy of some fat trader.”

“But there is nothing out there, further in the West, other than Lindon,” pointed out the Ranger. “Unless you want to go to the land of the Halflings, that is.”

“Nay,” said Náli, hesitating whether he should tell them the truth, and finally opting for it, in the hope that it would impress the Lady Rei. “’Tis the Barrows I am heading for. They say there is a lot of treasure in there, ripe for the taking. I intend to take it. I am fed up with being poor and starving half the time.”

“Aside from the fact that those are the bones of my own people you seem so ready to disturb, you would be making the worst mistake of your life if you truly entered the Barrows,” said the Ranger seriously. “The only thing you would find there is your own death… or worse.”

“I am not afraid of dead people,” replied Náli. “They are dead. What could they possibly do to me?”

“I sincerely hope you will never find out,” replied Hallavor, and some disturbing knowledge seemed to cloud his noble face for a moment. “But the dead are not the only things to beware there. Evil creatures have settled in the Barrows, a long time ago; and if you are truly mad enough to go there, you will never return. Many have tried to enrich themselves on the treasure of a people long gone. Not one of them has ever returned. Neither will you.”

“We shall see,” said Náli confidently.

“You are a fool,” said Rei, her beautiful amber eyes darkening with anger. “You have no supplies, no knowledge of the place, and you heed no warnings. Fine. Be a fool. You deserve your fate.”

No-one deserves the fate that awaits them in the Barrows,” corrected the Ranger. “More so as they say death is not even the worse you can find there. I would spare you that fate, young one, if you would but listen.”

“Men are frightened by their own shadows,” answered Náli, carried away with his desire to impress the Lady Rei and already full of excitement about the new adventure waiting for him. “Dwarves are not so easily scared off.”

“For the skulls of male Dwarves are made of dumb stone,” grumbled Rei. “Let the fool go to meet his doom, Hallavor. We cannot save him against his own will.”

“Nay, but we can at least try,” replied Hallavor good-naturedly. “Should you change your mind, Master Náli, and chose to go to Lindon after all, you can join us part of the way. We shall stay in the inn for the next couple of days.”

“We shall?” asked Rei in surprise, after Náli had expressed his sincerest thanks for the super and taken his leave from them. That had not been their original intention. They had planned to leave Bree, first thing in the morning.

The Ranger nodded. “I fear that our young friend will try to get some supplies in the usual way,” he said. “And that could become… ugly.”

Rei shrugged. “He is a thief. He knows what the risks are. If he wants to be hung so badly, who are we to hold him back?”

Hallavor gave her a searching look. “Would it truly mean naught to you if the young fool got himself lynched? The Bree-folk are good people, but they do not bear with thieves the same way Dwarves do.”

“Dwarves deal with thieves like any other folk, once they are caught” answered Rei. “And while I do not wish to see the little fool hanging from a tree-branch, I cannot change what he is planning to do and how the Bree-folk are going to react. We should leave as we have planned. We are needed at home; and he is not our responsibility.”

Hallavor remained silent for a moment. Rei was right, of course; they were needed at home, to replace those who had gone to Tharbad. And yet he could not help but feel bad by the thought of leaving the young thief to his fate.

“Is this what you truly wish to do?” he finally asked. Rei nodded without hesitation, and Hallavor sighed. “Very well, but let us make a deal: we shall wait one day. No longer.”

“’Tis a waste of time,” Rei shrugged. “He will not make his move, as long as we are here. But let us stay one day, if it makes you sleep more peacefully.”



Iglishmek is the sign language of Dwarves. They are no more willing to teach it to other people than they would teach Khuzdul, their spoken language.


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