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8
The Mercenary

Flói is – surprisingly, but truly – a canon character. He went to Khazad-dûm with Balin, but was slain in a battle outside the Great Gates in TA 2989. He was buried near Mirrormere. His personal background, though, is entirely my creation. His looks are based on the excellent Dwarf mercenary drawing of Ro aka Sabra R. Hart, which you can view in her Elfwood gallery.

The chant, of which is quoted here is, of course, the same one Gimli chanted to the Fellowship in Moria (FOTR, Book II, Ch. 4 – A Journey in the Dark). I assumed that it was an integral part of Dwarven culture.


~~~

CHAPTER 04 – THE MERCENARY

Flói had been on his way back from the Blue Mountains to Erebor for several weeks by now. He had been visiting some old friends and was now returning to the court of King Dáin Ironfoot, who had been, at least nominally, his Lord since the Battle of Five Armies. It had been a long and arduous journey, even for a Dwarf of many journeys like himself, and he had more than half of the way already beyond him, including the crossing of the Misty Mountains and the fording of the Great River, and was now facing the perilous journey across Mirkwood. Only a Dwarf would have taken upon himself to make such a long journey alone, and, truth be told, Flói had already had enough from the lonely travel. He was looking forward to be reunited with his mate, and the lack of company made the way still before him seem even longer.

If someone had asked any of the older Dwarves of Erebor who was the strangest Dwarf they had ever met in their long lives, their first choice certainly would have been Flói. The large, heavily muscled BlackLock had come with Dáin’s army to the aid of Thorin Oakenshield in 2941, but he had been no regular warrior of the King of the Iron Hills. He had been, and was still, a mercenary – something not entirely unheard of among Dwarves without close kin, but not a frequent thing, either.

In truth, Flói had no living kin at all. His entire family perished in the Battle of Azanulbizar, and he proudly wore the red, flame-shaped tattoos in their memory; tattoos that covered, his forehead, the upper halves of his cheeks and both his arms. Only the relatives of a Burned Dwarf were allowed to wear red tattoos, thus his pride was both well-founded and understandable. Even if some other Dwarves did find his custom to walk around with bare arms all the time to make his tattoos more visible a bit overdone.

Like BlackLocks in general, he was handsome, with wide indigo eyes and hair of such a deep, glossy black that it shimmered blue in both daylight and lamplight. He wore his hair in a single braid as thick as the average Dwarf’s arm; it began on top of his head and ended down at the small of his back, held together with broad golden clasps on both ends. Two short, thin braids hung above his ears – in which he wore golden rings – also tipped with gold. His beard, though, he wore in mercenary fashion: just a short, pointed goatee, while his tick moustache was adorned with golden rings, too. Such custom was heavily frowned upon among Dwarves, but mercenaries are practical people. One could always cut off a braid easily when packed by it, but a beard was a different business.

Flói had been roaming Eriador and the Wilderland all his life, seeking out employment and adventure and living well enough off it. He was a “lonely wolf”, as people liked to say, unlike other mercenaries – particularly from the race of Men – who preferred the safety in numbers. In that, too, Flói was different. He did not bear company for too long, not even that of his own kind.

After the re-claiming of Erebor – at which time he had barely been more than a stripling in Dwarven terms – he had soon grown restless in the comfort of the Kingdom under the Mountain. After a few years, he left, with the blessing of his mate who did not want to keep him trapped under the Mountain, taking up his wanderings again. He worked for other Dwarven colonies as well as for the Beornings and the Woodmen, always out in the wild, always on the road.

His wanderlust had brought him as far as the land of the Halflings in the West and the Sea of Rhûn in the East. He also tracked along the Misty Mountains, following the movements of Orc troops, carrying important messages between Erebor, Dale, Esgaroth and the some Iron Hills – sometimes as far as the Blue Mountains, where some from Thorin Oakenshield’s former colony still dwelt.

Among them was Regin, Thorin’s nephew (the son of his late brother, Frerin, who had also fallen in the Battle of Azanulbizar), who, despite his relative youth, counted as the greatest jewel-smith of the LongBeards. And he was the person when Flói wanted to see – to get some help with the betrothal collar he had finally decided to make for his mate.

Thinking of his mate, Flói could not quite suppress a grin when he imagined of the outrage that would most likely follow the announcement of them making their bond official at last. Although they both belonged to the BlackLock clans, his scholarly mate was related to Durin’s House by marriage – in a complicated way that aside from Dwarves only Hobbits would understand who were known to be big on genealogies – and thus the general opinion was that Flói, despite having descended from Burned Dwarves, was not quite a suitable match. Dwarves generally did not interfere with the love longing – one had to know in one’s heart who was the one for them – but high-born persons were expected to choose from their own circles. A mercenary of no particular breeding was not seen as a proper choice.

Also, there was the age difference. They had first met after the Battle of the Five Armies, when Flói, while barely old enough to be considered a warrior, was already a mercenary of some fame. Ori was almost old enough to be his father, and thus their immediate bonding was seen as something of a scandal among the more old-fashioned LongBeards.

Yet as it is with Dwarves when thy finally found their soul-mate, they both stubbornly insisted to keep their bond, and in the end Ori’s brothers accepted Flói as part of the family, for the simple reason that they could do naught else. There was no power in Middle-earth – or beyond – that could turn a Dwarf away from his or her Chosen One. And after Balin, the most respected leader of the BlackLock clans to date, also spoke the word of acceptance, no-one could stand between Ori and Flói any longer.

Well, in theory, their mothers could have, of course, as in a Dwarf family the oldest female was the one to lay down the law. But Flói’s mother was dead, having fallen honourably in the Battle of Azanulbizar, while Ori’s still dwelt in the Blue Mountains, still mourning her husband, also slain in that terrible battle, and no longer cared for the family. ‘Twas rare among Dwarves, as they had a very strong sense for familiar and clan duties, but it was known to happen sometimes if a Dwarf had suffered great loss and was in intense grief. They were a passionate people who grieved as savagely as they fought; and once that passion was broken, the Dwarf usually withered away, slowly like crumbling stone.

In any case, there was no obstacle left in Ori and Flói’s way, and the young mercenary was looking forward to be reunited with his mate. Too long had he missed the joy of burying his face in the silky, blue-black waves of Ori’s thick beard. Too long had he slept alone; on hard, cold bedrolls somewhere out in the wilderness, without Ori’s warm, solid body spooned up against his back. Too long since Ori’s strong, skilled hands had last roamed his body, touching all the hidden places that gave him the most pleasure, taking care of his need with a confident grip. Too much time had gone by without their lips locked in hungry, passionate kisses, without Ori holding him down with surprising strength, coming from a scholar, mastering his body like no-one else could – or lying down for Flói and accepting him inside his body with joyful submission.

In such moments Flói cursed his own wanderlust. He could have indulged himself in those delights each and every day for the last year and half, had his inner unrest not driven him out into the wilderness again. But now he was heading homewards anew, and this time he will be doing the right thing.

He wondered whom they should ask to perform their bonding ceremony.

Finding the right matron for the celebration was a task for later, though. Right now, he was on his way home, with joyous anticipation in his heart, more so as he already had the greater part of his journey beyond him. He had crossed the Great River at the Old Ford several days earlier and was now following the old Dwarf-road, which had been cleaned and repaired in the recent years, through Mirkwood, intending to turn northwards along the Enchanted River and then come out of the forest near the Elvenking’s caves.

Few Dwarves would dare to follow that path, let alone on their own, as even after the Battle of Five Armies, Mirkwood remained a dangerous place for the lonely traveller, and the Elvenking still not happy to see any Dwarves near his home. But Flói had been something of a loner all his life, could live in the great outdoors like any Woodman, and he was on friendly terms with the Elvenking’s Avari trackers – the mysterious Dark Elves who called themselves the Faithful, as they had never left the place of their birth. This was not the first time that the would dare the forest without company, and while it was true that the Wargs and the Giant Spiders had slowly begun to grow in numbers again, he was reasonably certain that he would reach his destination without too much trouble.

He reached the small, dry cave, where he had intended to stay for the night, about an hour before sunset… which was a relief. Mirkwood was so dark at nighttime that even the night eyes of a Dwarf would be of little use, although Dwarves could usually see better in almost-complete darkness than even most Elves, save perhaps the Avari who had strange skills. He hid his backpack in a small niche near the entrance – this was not the first time he rested in this particular cave for the night, either – and went to gather some firewood. As always, the Woodmen (or the Elves), who also used the cave frequently, had left a neat stack for the next visitor, but courtesy demanded that he did the same.

Not that it would be such a hard task. More than enough dead branches lay on the forest floor, perchance broken off the trees during some recent storm, so he had his stack together in a very short time. He fetched his axe and was about to begin splitting the wood when he heard the soft thud of hooves from far away. He froze and knelt down, pressing an ear to the ground. Aye, definitely a horse… or, based on the short distance of its steps, more likely a pony… a heavy hill pony as Dwarves bred and rode them, as the hooves hit the ground forcefully. Although, by the rhythm of its gait, the animal was trotting at best. Listening some more, Flói could hear the lighter steps of another beast, a smaller one most likely.

Dwarves in Mirkwood? At this time of the year? Intrigued, Flói picked up his axe and melded with the shadows under the trees with an ease grown from his many years spent in the wilderness, usually on his own, so that he could watch out for the new arrivals without being spotted himself. They seemed to be following the same path as he had, thus they could come out from under the trees any moment.

Indeed, he needed not to wait for long. Soon enough, he could see that he had guessed rightly: the thud of hooves did come from a strong hill pony – from a powerful, handsome beast, with a reddish-brown coat, its gear simple but well-made. And although it was carrying two large (and presumably heavy) saddlebags, and even additional baggage fastened to the bedroll behind the saddle, its gait revealed to the trained eye that it was primarily meant as a riding steed, not as a pack animal. The other pony following its steps was a smaller, much shaggier, dun-coloured one, its gear not half as fine, and it seemed of a more common bred itself.

The two young Dwarves riding them were both about the age of Glóin’s firstborn, pr perchance a decade or two younger. Which meant adults, but of an age where they were still not considered fully matured. Their small size revealed them as StiffBeards, although the lad had golden hair and the young female sported the thick copper mane and bright almond eyes of the IronFists. Also, she did not wear a fake beard, which was unusual – just as unusual as it was for a young female to travel through the wilderness with only a youth as her company – and her hooded cloak was made in Mannish fashion, rather than in that of Dwarves.

Flói could feel strongly the element of earth in both, though, so very typical for their kindred, thus the intermarriage with other clans must have been an isolated episode in their family history. Nonetheless, their mixed heritage seemed to serve to their advantage: they were both surprisingly good-looking for members of such a lesser tribe. Especially the girl; she was positively beautiful. Flói suspected that even Men would find her more than comely; for the Dwarven eye, she was absolutely stunning. Had he not given his heart a long time ago, he would have been sorely tempted. By Mahal’s hammer, how he would have been tempted!

Not that he would stand a chance, though, despite being a much more impressive (and desirable) male specimen than the near-beardless youth. These two were utterly devoted to each other; their body language clearly spoke not only of a mutual love-longing but also of a bond already consummated. The lad might have been the more enchanted of the two – in truth, he clearly was – but the exchange of brief glances, the intimate little gestures between them unmistakably revealed that they had indeed found the one in each other.

Flói was glad for them. Finding one’s true mate was a rare gift for Dwarves; even more so if a male and a female found together in that way, for it meant a fertile bond that would ensure the continuation of their race. Due to the low numbers of Dwarf-dams, it had been an eternal struggle during their entire history to keep up their numbers… or to repopulate the race after all those vicious battles they had been forced to fight in order to survive. And these two would doubtlessly bring forth healthy and handsome children to strengthen their people.

It seemed, however, that the two young ones were – or, at the very least, had been – in some sort of trouble, as they kept peering backwards, as if expecting to be followed… and not necessarily by friends. Could the girl – for she was barely above the age of being a girl-child by Dwarven measures indeed – could she have had other suitors, stubborn and jealous ones, who had not taken kindly being pushed aside from such an almost beardless youth? She was certainly desirable enough for wealthy and powerful males to battle each other for her attentions. And while no-one could willingly steer the love-longing, some males had a hard time to accept that they were not a certain female’s Chose One.

Or… Flói gave the lucky fellow a good, hard look. For someone who spent so much time on the Road, there were subtle signs that told a different story. The girl was cautious the way those who lived in the great outdoors tended to be cautious: the Rangers and scouts and messengers. The same way Flói himself was cautious. But the youth had a different sort of wariness about him: that of a hunted animal. Unlike the girl, he also seemed to have very few possessions – not even saddlebags did he have, just a backpack on his back and a waterskin hanging from his shoulder. Add the loosely knotted cloth around his neck to hide his face if necessary, and every Dwarf would recognize him as a thief. Not a very skilled or lucky one, at least not lately, Flói thought, if his meagre belongings were any indication.

But what was he doing out here, in the wilderness, where the only things to steal were a few eggs from some bird’s nest? That the girl would follow him was no surprise; if they were, indeed, bound for life, she had no other choice. But why would they leave whatever place she had lived in to begin with? Her fine pony, her well-made horse gear, her full saddlebags and copious supplies, her excellent weapons – among them a crossbow, the like of which Flói had not seen since his visit in Near-Harad – all spoke of a well-to-do, if not necessarily wealthy person. Her clothes, too, were finely made and of good cloth, if in a somewhat Mannish style.

Whey would such a young Dwarf-dam leave the convenience of a well-founded home to go out into the wilderness with her mate? It made no sense. ‘Twas not something a Dwarf woman would usually do.

Unless… Flói glanced at the nervous youth again. Unless the lad had stolen from the wrong people and was now in serious trouble. Men tended to hang thieves, and hanging was a particularly slow and painful death for a Dwarf, whose thick, muscular neck was not so easily broken. If the youth had tried to pilfer the wrong people’s bags and had to run for his life, then aye, it was understandable what these two were doing out here. They were trying to get as far away from the enraged crowd as possible.

As they were practically following his own footsteps, Flói calculated that they would come across his chosen resting place in a short time. The girl looked like someone who knew her way around the woods; even if she had not known of the cave already, she would recognize it at once as a passable refuge where to spend the night.

And indeed, just a little later the two reached the entrance of the cave. The girl, clearly used to giving orders (and being obeyed), gestured to her mate to fall back. Then she slid from the saddle and approached the mouth of the cave from the side, the crossbow readied in her hand. The youth, keeping a steadying hand on her pony’s neck, looked after her anxiously. ‘Twas apparent that he hated to let her scout out the cave alone but would not dare to protest.

Flói could not help but admire the scouting skills of the girl who had already vanished in the cave. She must have a very good teacher. A few moments later she emerged again, frowning.

“’Tis strange,” she said, her voice low-pitched and pleasant. “The cave is empty now, but there was someone, not so long ago. The footprints speak of a lonely Dwarf, wearing light travelling boots. But who in their right mind would travel alone in such wild places?”

“Someone who has no other choice,” slowly, as not to startle her (which would have earned him a crossbow bolt through the chest), Flói came forth from under the trees. “I could ask you the same thing, though. What are two young people, barely beyond their final growth spurt, doing out here?”

The girl whirled around like the striking cobra Flói had seen on his journey across the South of Gondor, crossbow at the ready. Flói raised both his empty hands to show his friendly intentions.

“Slowly, slowly,” he said. “I mean no harm. If I had any ill will towards you, I could have killed you already.”

“You could have tried,” she replied primly.

“And I would have succeeded,” said Flói, though with all the respect any male Dwarf owed a female. “I am older, stronger and more experienced than the two of you together.” He bowed deeply. “Flói son of Flóki and Heidhr, of the BlackLock Clans, at your service. I am one of Kind Dáin’s messengers.”

The girl gave him a suspicious look but returned the proper greeting graciously enough. “Rei daughter of Hreinn and Audhr, at yours and your family’s,” she said in that low, pleasant voice of hers. “And this is Náli, son of Máni and Becra,” she added, gesturing towards her companion. “We are both of the StiffBeard Clans, as you might already have guessed.”

Flói nodded. “Aye, that would be hard to overlook,” he said, which was the truth. The girl was almost a head shorter than he – admittedly, he was fairly large for a Dwarf – and he judged that the youngling would be of about the same height. “What are you doing here, on your own? These woods are still dangerous for young people without an experienced guide.”

“I need no guide,” said the girl, Rei. “I was raised by the Rangers of Eriador: Men who know the woods nearly as well as any Wood-Elf. Few people could best me when it comes to woodcraft, and certainly no Dwarf, no matter how experienced he might be. As for Náli, he has spent his entire life in the great outdoors. We manage well enough. But I thank you for your concern.”

That was not something a Dwarf-dam would say to a male who had dared to meddle with her affairs and to give unasked-for advice. Having grown up among the Men of Eriador – who, as Flói knew from personal experience, were an honourable and well-mannered race – had apparently rubbed off on her own manners, though.

“But why are you out here in the first place?” he asked. “This is not a usual neighbourhood where Dwarves would travel, not even after the Road was cleaned… unless they are on the shortest way home to the Lonely Mountain.”

“Which is exactly where we are going,” she answered. “Since I chose to bond with this one in an unexpected moment of sheer madness,” she glanced at her companion, and – despite her harsh words – there was genuine warmth and fondness in her amber eyes, “and since he had managed to raise the entire village of Bree in rage against himself, we decided to leave the western lands and to join our own people again. I am a very good scout, and Náli, too, is used to live on the surface. We might prove useful for King Dáin.”

“You might,” said Flói in agreement. “But your mate here will have to choose a different trade. Thieves are not welcome in Erebor, as much as we all might esteem Bilbo Baggins and his unforgettable service.”

“Oh, worry not,” she said grimly. “He will find himself a different trade all right. I shall see that he goes after some honest work, as soon as we have settled down. I do not intend to spend the rest of my life on the run.”

“In that case,” said Flói, “you can join me for the rest of our journey. I have been as far as the Blue Mountains on King Dáin’s behalf, and I am eager to return to home on the shortest possible way. I would welcome the company, if you do not mind me slowing you down a little, as I have no steed on which to ride. There is always safety in numbers, and you both seem more than able to defend yourselves.”

Rei accepted his offer, without bothering to consult her mate first. Men, or any other race for that matter, would have found such behaviour strange, but for Dwarves, it was the natural way to do things. Not only was Rei female, which already put her above the average male Dwarf, but she also came from a respected home and seemed to do well enough. Without the love-longing, she would probably never have given a penniless and clanless male like Náli a second thought… or a first one, to begin with.

Thus they all returned to the cave – including the ponies, which Náli relieved from their saddles and burdens – and while Flói began to chop firewood to replace the stack they were about to use, the two young ones built the fire, downwind the cave entrance so that the smoke would not get in, on which to cook a warm supper. As hardy a race Dwarves were when needs must be, they valued their creature comforts when they could.

The practiced ease with which the two worked together revealed that they must have done this many times during their journey. Náli went down to his knees, holding a ball of dry moss and grass in his cupped hands and blew into it after Rei had struck a flint over it so that the spark could flow into it. As it began to smoke, Rei hurriedly built a small nest of twigs. Only moment later, a small flame appeared in the middle of Náli’s hands. Grinning contentedly, he pressed the whole thing under the mound of twigs, while Rei added more dry grass and moss to the heap. Finally, they built up a small pyramid of dry firewood over the blaze, and all that was needed to do for the rest of the evening was feeding the fire.

Flói brought in the split firewood and stapled it neatly in the driest corner of the cave, for the next visitors to use. What have been left by the previous ones would serve them for this one night. He then fetched his backpack – a moderate-sized one for a Dwarf, although a grown Man would probably stagger under its weight – and pulled out a small iron cooking pot and a wooden ladle.

“I have snared a few coneys on my way,” he said, producing the already gutted rabbits, “and I have a little salt and some herbs with me. ‘Twould make a somewhat thin rabbit stew, but it will have to do, I fear.”

“We have not left completely unprepared,” answered Rei. “We have some dried mushrooms and a few of those roots the Halflings call taters. We would gladly supply them to the evening meal if you think they would do.”

“Oh, most certainly so!” Flói grinned in delight. His encounters with the Halflings had been rare and few in-between – in truth, he never got any closer to their lands than Bree – but even so, he knew that they were the best cooks in the whole of Middle-earth. He had tasted some of their mushroom-based dishes during a fair in the Breelands, and still had the fondest possible memories of them.

And thus the rabbits were expertly skinned, rubbed with salt and cut to pieces, the taters were peeled and sliced up, together with a couple of onions Rei had found in one of her bags, the herbs were crushed between two flat stones and water was fetched from a nearly stream. Soon enough, an excellent rabbit stew was blubbering merrily over the small fire before the cave entrance, the ponies were grazing in a short distance, where the smoke would not bother them, and the three Dwarves, waiting eagerly for the evening meal, were sitting around the fire and sharing the tales of their most recent adventures.

Flói was properly impressed by young Náli’s desperate effort to go dowry-hunting in a haunted barrow, although he found it a fool’s attempt, and he told so in no uncertain terms. Náli shrugged.

“How else was I supposed to woo my lady?” he said. “I only regret that it was all for nothing. In the end, I had to leave the whole sack of treasure behind and run for my life – again! All I could take with me was the sword I am wearing now, a double-axe and the few jewels I had stuffed into my pockets right at the beginning.”

Flói glanced at the girl. “And you accepted his courtship nonetheless? That was not a very rich booty, after all.”

She, too, shrugged and grinned. “Mayhap not, but the little fool risked everything for them,” she replied, looking at her embarrassed mate with the same fondness as before. “Even though Father – my Mannish father, mind you – had to cast a strong, ancient spell to keep the headless Barrow-wight from slaying him. And the jewels are pretty. They will look great on our engagement collars, once we get around to actually making them.”

They laughed. Then Rei gave Flói’s tattoos an intrigued look.

“Those are intricately made,” she said with approval; the IronFist in her could not help but admire beautiful body art. “And red, too… are you descended from a Burned Dwarf?”

Flói nodded. “From more than one, in fact. Both my parents hailed from warrior clans and were among the bodyguards of King Náin; not exactly Forge Guards, but seasoned and highly respected warriors nonetheless. I was barely more than a babe on arms when they left to follow the King to Azanulbizar, thus they left me in the care of an elderly female relative who lived in the Iron Hills.”

He remained silent for a moment then flashed them as rueful grin. “’Twas quite the scandal when I chose to become a mercenary, let me tell you. After all, I was barely considered an adult. The Clan Elders said I would besmirch the memory of my parents with such an occupation that is not much more honourable than that of the thieves,” he added, winking at Náli. “But, to tell the truth, I never regretted it, not for a moment. My journeys have taken me to places no other Dwarf has ever seen, and I would not miss that for the world. Also, I have made friends – well, admittedly, I have made enemies as well – among many strange and amazing races. Besides, I have earned good coin in the process.”

“How came it that you entered King Dáin’s service, then?” asked Rei.

“That was after the fall of the Dragon,” replied Flói. “When word came that the Dragon was dead and the Mountain besieged by Elves and Men who wanted their share from the treasure, and that a large army of Goblins and Wargs were on their way there, King Dáin decided to hurry to the aid of our kin. I happened to be in the Iron Hills at that time, visiting my distant kinfolk… and I just could not let such an adventure pass.”

“Adventure?” asked Rei with a frown. “I am told it was a bloody and terrible battle, and many of our people died alongside Thorin Oakenshield and his young nephews.”

“And a great many Elves and Men, too, who also fought the Goblins on our side,” said Flói. “Aye, it was bloody and terrible… all battles are. But at least we have re-gained that which had once been ours, and the Kingdom under the Mountain is shining in its old glamour once again… the last truly great Dwarven city in Middle-earth.”

“What about the Iron Hills?” asked Náli. “Is that not a kingdom of its own?”

“It is,” said Flói in agreement, “and King Vestri, who has taken over kingship from Dáin Ironfoot, leads those who live there well. But the Iron Hills could never reach the greatness – or the riches – of Erebor. Never.”

“Why not?” asked Rei.

“They never had the means,” explained Flói. “What they have there, as the name already reveals, is mostly iron. Which is useful and necessary and profitable, especially for the blacksmiths and the ironsmiths, and it gives them a decent living. But it cannot make a realm truly wealthy. Not alone. And while ‘tis true that King Dáin sent rich wergild to the families of those who had fallen in the Battle of Five Armies, the riches of Erebor are still unparalleled by any other Dwarven settlement. With the exception of Khazad-dûm, of course, but that place has long fallen into darkness.”

“Can you tell us more about Khazad-dûm?” asked Rei. “We know so little about the history of our own people. We were taught the basics, of course, but I was orphaned at a young age and came to Men who could only tell me about the main events, little else.”

“And my family was too busy to survive to be bothered with history lessons,” Náli added bitterly. “Besides, we were travelling across Rhûn all my life and had little to no contact with our own kind.”

“Across Rhûn, you say?” asked Flói with interest. “Thus you had dealings with the Easterlings? What could they have possibly wanted from Dwarves?”

Náli shrugged. “Most of them wish nothing to do with us. But a few Dwarf families still live in the deepest tunnels under the Mountains of Nimvarkinh, which is the main dwelling of the Tribe of the Bear, the strongest, most feared Khimmer tribe, and the seat of their chieftain, Beloberch the One-Handed. This powerful jarl chose to tolerate Dwarven smiths living under his deep halls, to teach their art to his people, for well-made weapons give them an advantage on other tribes.”

Flói, who knew a little about the lands east from Rhovanion, was surprised.

“Dwarves living under the Mountains of Nimvarkinh?” he asked. “Never in all my journeys – and they have been far and frequent, let me tell you – have I heard of such thing, Which Clans are they from?”

“’Tis hard to tell, for they speak not of their origins,” answered Náli. “I only met two of their stone-masons once, and all I can tell you is that they’re quite short, even for StiffBeards; and their bodies seem stunted, with large heads. I’ve come to believe that they must be the last of the Petty-dwarves, who somehow survived under the protection of the eastern barbarians, hiding from the sight of the rest of us.”

Flói tilted his head to the side in surprise. “Petty-dwarves? But they have diminished back in the First Age, have they not?”

“Not all of them, it seems,” replied Náli. “’Tis for certain that at least one of their wise-women has survived and lives somewhere at the western border of these very woods. We met her in the Brown Wizard’s house. And she says there are others. Very few of them, in truth, but there are some.”

If she was telling the truth,” emphasized Rei. “She told us a few very queer tales that made me suspect that she was either lying through her teeth or was completely mad.”

“What tales?” asked Flói with interest. He might be a vagabond and a mercenary, but his association with the scholarly Ori had made him better-versed in ancient lore than most Dwarves.

“Well, to begin with, she wanted to make us believe that she slept for many hundred years at some point of her life!” Rei’s derisive snort revealed that she did not believe that for a moment.

Flói, however, just nodded, not the least surprised by it.

“If she is indeed a wise-woman of the Petty-dwarves, then she might have told you the truth,” he said. “There are strange old tales ranking around our stunted cousins. One of them states that they used to wield eerily strong earth magic… at least their females did. If surrounded by earth and stone, they supposedly could enter what was called the Long Sleep; they lay there like dead, unchanged for centuries, drawing strength from the very bones of the earth surrounding them.”

Rei shook her head. “Those are but stories that feeble old Dwarves tell at the campfire to entertain gullible dwarflings.”

“How can you be sure of that?” argued Náli. “This might explain how the ones I met in Rhûn survived under the Mountains of Nimvarkinh!”

“Or they, too, were lying to you,” returned Rei. “Just like that old hag.”

Flói gave her a disapproving glare. Dwarf-dams could afford a lot when dealing with heir own people – especially when dealing with the males – but being disrespectful towards one’s elders was heavily frowned upon.

“Child, you should be careful how you speak of your betters,” the mercenary warned. “If the Brown Wizard accepted the ancient one’s words and treated her as a friend, she must be trustworthy. ‘Tis not easy to fool a wizard; they are shrewd and long-living and have an uncanny ability to find out the truth, even through countless layers of deceit.”

“Does this mean that the ones dwelling under the Mountains of Nimvarkinh are hundreds of years old, too?” asked Náli doubtfully. Flói shook his head.

“Nay; only their wise-women – females with very strong magic – were capable of enter the Long Sleep. And even they risked not waking up again. ‘Twas a dangerous thing, only practiced as a last resort. Nay, I believe the others have simply descended from Petty-dwarves who, unlike the rest of them, never migrated to the West and thus survived under the eastern mountains, where our kind awakened in the Elder Days. After all, the mountains were our realm – before the coming of Men.”

“Well, they did say that there had once been a great Dwarven city under the Mountains of Nimvarkinh, an Age or so ago, and that they were the last of the people who used to live there,” said Náli thoughtfully.

“I never heard of any Dwarf settlements under the Mountains of Nimvarkinh, leave alone of a great city,” said Flói with a frown. “Unless…” he trailed off, as a strange thought occurred to him.

“Unless?” prompted Rei, a little impatiently.

“Unless Tylwyth Teg is more than just a myth,” answered the mercenary slowly.

The younger Dwarves gave him identical blank looks, clearly not having any idea what he was talking about. He sighed and tried to explain, knowing that it would not be easy to believe.

“You must understand that I’m not a scholar myself,” he began. “All I know are odd little hints I heard from my mate now and then. But there is an ancient tale about some of the stunted ones not going with the rest to Beleriand, after our longfathers had driven them out of the ancient Dwarf cities in the East. An old saga says that some of them founded a city of their own, somewhere under a great mountain range, in the middle of the wilderness, where no other people dwelt. Their chieftain, or King, or whatever his title might have been, was called Eiddilegg.”

“But the old one said the Petty-dwarves used to be a masterless people and low in numbers,” said Rei.

“That they were – in Beleriand,” agreed Flói, “and there are grim tales of the Elves from the hidden kingdom of King Greymantle mistaking them for mindless beasts and hunting them for sport, ere they would recognize them as sentient beings. But who can tell what those who remained in the East might have become?” he looked at Náli. “Are you certain they were not StiffBeards, after all? Your clansmen are fairly short as Dwarves go.”

Náli shook his head. “I never heard of our Clan having any large settlements at all; not in Eriador, and even less so in Rhûn,” he replied. “StiffBeards usually live in small hamlets surrounding their caves or on the Road, on wains, as we did. We are a people of pony-breeders and small traders… as the other Clans never fail to remind us.”

There was a clear hint of bitterness in his voice, and Flói briefly wondered what his family must have suffered from other Dwarves that it had driven them all into professional thievery. For while it was true that master artisans and craftsmen were the most respected people among Dwarves, and warriors came second, one should not forget the importance of the lesser tribes and their work.

StiffBeards, while generally looked down at for their smaller sizes and more mundane skills, nonetheless kept the trade network between Dwarven settlements alive and working (admittedly, a bit driven back by the BroadBeams in these days). And they provided the other tribes with the best-bred hill ponies. Some of them had even gone as far as to tilling the earth and growing crop, which was a decidedly un-Dwarflike thing to do, and other Dwarves shook their heads in mild dismay over them. But it kept them alive and fed their children, so the StiffBeards did not really care about the dismay of their cousins. As a rule – unlike the nobler Clans – they were not wealthy enough to buy their food all the time, thus they had either to grow it themselves… or to steal it.

For a moment, Flói son of Flóki – born and bred a BlackLock warrior and the scion of legendary heroes – felt a little ashamed for the way his brethren usually treated their less fortunate cousins… then he shrugged it off. Even if he had the calling of a great renewer of Dwarven ways, which he had not, he would not be able to change any time-honoured customs within his lifetime… or that of those young StiffBeards with him. Things were what they were, and Mahal’s Children were a stubborn lot, very settled in their ways.

“Well, I doubt that we can find any answers considering their origins without further questioning,” he said, meaning the ones who apparently lived under the protection of the most dangerous Khimmer jarl in the entire Rhûn. “And I doubt that the Easterlings would welcome a bunch of nosy Dwarven scholars in their deep halls. But you wanted to learn more about Khazad-dûm, right?”

The two younglings nodded eagerly, their eyes bright with curiosity and as big as the iron pot in which the meal was cooking. By Mahal’s hammer, they were barely more than children! Flói look his head to keep his attention on the task at hand.

“All right, then,” he said. “I shall share with you an ancient chant about Durin’s Awakening and the founding of Khazad-dûm. ‘Tis a chant all Dwarf-children are supposed to learn by heart; alas that few of them truly do so in these lesser days. Now, listen carefully, for ‘tis a sacred chant, and I expect you to learn it while we are travelling together. Do we have an agreement?”

The two youths nodded again, trembling with anticipation. Custom and traditions were eminently important for Dwarves, even for those of a lesser tribe. Teaching them to others was considered a sacred duty as well as a privilege. And thus, while their supper was still cooking, Flói began to chant for them the chant of Durin’s Awakening, in a deep voice that seemed to fill the small cave with its echoes.

The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone
When Durin woke and walked alone.
He named the nameless hills and dells;
He drank from yet untasted wells;
He stooped and looked in Mirrormere,
And saw a crown of stars appear,
As gems upon a silver thread,
Above the shadow of his head.
The world was fair, the mountains tall.

And as the impenetrable darkness of Mirkwood fell all around them, the two young Dwarves were listening to deep-throated singing of Flói, to the chant about the deep places of their ancient homes, and a strange longing was awakened in their young hearts, a longing they could not yet give a name.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the next morning, they set off to continue their way across Mirkwood together, and even though Náli had already mastered the Road once, he was greatly relieved to have a travelling companion who clearly knew the dark forest almost as well as an Elf. Without Flói, their food would have given out in the middle of the journey, as they would not find aught in the wood to eat to eke out what they carried. Nothing wholesome seemed to grow here, only funguses, or herbs with pale leaves and unpleasant smell.

Even an experienced Ranger like Rei was fairly helpless, for the herbs and bushes here were different from the ones she knew from Eriador, and she did not dare to eat any of the unknown mushrooms or berries.

Fortunately for them, Flói had travelled across Mirkwood many times before. HE knew therefore which mushrooms were edible – although not very pleasant-tasting – how to roast beechnuts on the dying embers of their campfire, so that they lost their bitter taste and became easier to knack. He even knew where to find some edible roots and how to dig them up without damaging their sensitive peel, which would ruin them within a short time.

On the second day of their shared journey, Rei and Náli realized that Flói had been exaggerating when he told them he would slow them down. Like most hardened Dwarves, the mercenary could keep up easily with a trotting pony, while carrying his heavy backpack as if it were but a small leather pouch. His well-made, knee-height boots had apparently known many roads; his well-worn, soft leather leggings and sleeveless leather shirt were eminently suitable for long journeys. That he only wore a short, high-collared hauberk made of hard leather was unusual for a Dwarven warrior, but he had most likely given up the better protection of steel armour for speed.

As a mercenary, he probably often had to relay on speed and dexterity, thought Rei, who had met enough warriors among Dwarves and Men – or even Elves, for that matter, having visited Rivendell in her foster father’s company – to recognize the differences between Flói and the regular soldiers.

Flói was clearly used to travel alone, at his own leisure. To hunt as he was going on his way; to cook his own meals on the open campfire, using the absolute minimum of cooking utensils – namely a small iron cauldron that would fit into his backpack, a knife and a wooden ladle – and to generally face whatever he was about to encounter without help. Rei and Náli could certainly do the same; they were both used to live outdoors, unlike the majority of Dwarves. But Flói was considerably older and more experienced, and besides, he had made this particular journey several times and knew these woods fairly well, while the two young Dwarves had never crossed Mirkwood before.

Whenever they stopped for the night, he would sit with them at the campfire and tell them tales about the Wilderland, and especially about the forest and about the Dwarven settlements around it.

“Mirkwood is now the largest forest in Middle-earth, since all the other great woods had been burned during the War of the Elves and Sauron in the Second Age,” he explained them. “At that time, ere the shadow of the Necromancer would fall upon it, the forest was called Greenwood the Great… and with right. For green and fair it was in those happier times; but great it still is. I have never took its measures myself, but the Elves say it covers some four hundred and twenty-five miles from north to south, and some two hundred miles from east to west at its widest. Further south, where the East Bight curves into the woods, ‘tis only seventy-five miles, but no-one in their right minds would try to cross it there.”

“Why not?” asked Náli, looking up at the thick tangle of branches that closed above their heads into a canopy, letting in very little light. While Dwarves generally were not bothered by darkness very much – they had better night vision than any other good creature, save perhaps the Wood-Elves – he found the tall, dark, ancient trees threatening and unsettling. “I would be happy to get out of these woods as soon as I can.”

“Aye, but you would be very unhappy to have to cross them down south, where the hearts of the dark fire-trees has become so black that even the Wood-Elves hesitate to go there, strange lot though they are. The Narrows of the Forest are perilously close to the Necromancer’s Tower, and no-one who got within eyesight of that evil place has ever returned. Thráin, Thorin Oakenshield’s father was the last Dwarf mad enough to go there. We never saw him again.”

“Have you ever got word of what happened to him?” asked Rei.

Flói nodded. “Aye, we have. Tharkûn, whom Men know as Gandalf the Grey, entered the Necromancer’s Tower on some wizardly business and found old Thráin there, in one of the deepest dungeons. He was maddened already, not even remembering his own name; the last of the Seven Rings taken from him. But somehow he still managed to give Tharkûn the map of Erebor and the key to its secret door; and with the help of those have Thorin and his company found a way to take back our ancient Kingdom from the Dragon.”

Rei nodded. “’Tis a tale often told among the Rangers of Eriador,” she said. “They held Tharkûn in the highest esteem; and they found the involvement of Bilbo Baggins, the esteemed burglar, an amusing tale.”

“I can imagine that they do,” grinned Flói, who had his own run-ins with the Rangers and quite liked them; they were kindred spirits, after all, at least where travelling along in the wilderness was considered. “In any case, after the Battle of Five Armies, King Dáin Ironfoot had the Kingdom under the Mountain rebuilt. We also helped the Men of Dale and the Lakemen of Esgaroth to rebuild their towns, which, too, had been destroyed by the Dragon. We even trade with the Wood-Elves of King Thranduil’s realm now, although friendships between Dwarves and Elves are not as common as they used to be in the glorious days of Khazad-dûm. The Wood-Elves are a strange lot, unlike the people of Khelebrimbur Dwarf-friend, who shared our love for things made by skill and artistry. Still, some of them are friendly enough; and life in Erebor is good. We live in place with our neighbours, and neither Orcs, nor Wargs have bothered us in the recent years.”

“Why is the forest still called Mirkwood, then?” asked Rei.

“For ‘tis still dark and dangerous, above all the southern half of it,” explained Flói. “Tharkûn and his allies – whoever they may be – have managed to chase the Necromancer away from Dol Guldur, his dark tower upon the Naked Hill, and the forest has cleared up a little since then, at least in the North. But the southern woods are still thick and shadowy, and no-one can tell what evil things might still hide there. That has always been the region where the Wargs and Great Spiders came from; they might have retreated there for the time being, but we cannot be certain that they shall not return one day. That is why the Elvenking still sends out patrols to keep an eye on the southern border of his realm; for he, too, fears that we have not seen the last of those evil beasts yet.”

“But what about Erebor?” Náli asked. “Erebor is safe for raising a family, is it not?”

“Why, certainly!” answered Flói proudly. “The Kingdom under the Mountain shines in its old glory once again. Its fortifications could break whole armies like the waves of the sea. I am proud to call myself a warrior of that great realm, and with joy and relief do I look forward to my return.”

~TBC~

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