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The Book of Mazarbul
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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9
Return to Erebor

There is no canon information about the exact relation of Ori, Nori and Dori, nor about their actual ages. I decided to make them brothers, Dori the eldest and Nori the youngest, for the simple reason that his name means “little scrap” in Old Norse. Also, I gave Dori a family, just because I have always liked him and wanted him happy. *g*

To the same-gender bond among Dwarves: no matter what the Professor might have planned for his Dwarves, it is hard to imagine that in a society where the males outnumber the females three to one half the population would live in celibacy. In my interpretation, the fierce jealousy of Dwarves towards their life-mates does not need to be gender-specific.

Lóni, just like Náli and Flói, is an original character, mentioned in the Book of Mazarbul. His looks were inspired by Ro’s Dwarven Archer drawing, which can be viewed here.
And this is the picture that inspired Skafid.


~~~

CHAPTER 05 – RETURN TO EREBOR

What for mere Men would have been an arduous journey across Mirkwood, then around the marshes at the eastern end of the Old Dwarf Road, northwards along the Forest River (or, indeed, upon its very back), further up on the shore of the Long Lake and then against the stream of the River Running, the hardy Dwarves had managed in little more than a week. Nor had they followed any of the rivers, but took a shortcut to the Mountain; one known only to the experienced scouts of the Dwarf-kingdom. They rode swiftly and in silence, and Flói went with them, matching the speed of the trotting ponies without showing any sign of weariness, from sunrise to sunset and sometimes even beyond that.

And so, on one fine evening, just before nightfall, they finally reached the outskirts of the Mountain.

Having lived in Eriador all her life, Rei was accustomed to seeing the Misty Mountains looming on the horizon all the time – but this mountain was different. About three and a half thousand feet above them it towered, grim and commanding and dark. It was roughly star-shaped, its peak capped with snow, and six mighty ridges radiated from it. Within the two southern spurs lay a broad, south-facing valley, where a thriving town of Men by the name of Dale was built upon the western bank of the River Running. The river itself originated from a spring within the Mountain, descended over two falls, then swirled around the town in a wide loop that passed first near the eastern spur, then beyond the southwestern one, before turning east and south to the Long Lake.

But it was the Mountain itself that filled the hearts of the younger Dwarves with awe, not the river or the valley below, lovely though it looked with the terraced fields and gardens above, on the hillside. Those areas ended above the Mountain's knee, and beyond them, the rocky surface was bleak and shone a distant, icy blue in the fading light, its head wrapped in a torn cloud. Wisps of white mist swirled in the deep valleys between the spurs like some living thing – something powerful and threatening and yet awe-inspiring. Náli had never seen a mountain before that would appear so... alive, like a grim and forbidding guardian that refused to give away its secrets.

Avoiding the merry town that lay before them, the three travellers headed straight to the southwestern spur of the Mountain. At the very end of it stood the ancient watchpost of Ravenhill: a massive, squat tower of withered grey stone, capped with lead and equipped with many narrow openings in the thick walls for the archers to shoot at any approaching enemies.

This had been the Dwarves' place to look out for strangers, visitors and intruders alike, since the very founding of the Kingdom itself. Náli could feel watchful eyes following their every movement, but no-one appeared in plain sight. The short, stocky tower seemed abandoned.

Flói, though, seemed to know the place well, for he walked straight to the heavy door and knocked on it, using the thick bronze ring hanging from the wide jaw from some mythical beast. A moment later the door swung open noiselessly, and out stepped one of the Hill Guards, the sight of whom made Náli’s heart contract with envy, staring at them calmly, as if demanding to be told the reason of their presence – without actually saying a word.

The guard was young for a Dwarf, and fairly large as Dwarves go; a head taller than either Rei or Náli. He wore an elaborate set of armour, made of thick leather and some kind of iron mesh that the IronFist Dwarves were famous of, but no helm. His thick, coppery hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail and left unbraided, although held together by golden clasps at every hand’s breadth, and he wore golden rings in his ears, too. His powerful body was well-shaped and well-toned, and he literally radiated strength, making Náli feel woefully inadequate. His almond-shaped, hazel eyes watched the newcomers with interest.

“Dear me,” he said in a deep, amused voice. “The errant mate of Ori has returned, after all. If that is not surprising and miraculous!”

Then, bowing deeply and with flourish, he added, “Bledri son of Búri, at your service.”

“Rei Hreinnsdóttir, at yours,” replied the Rei, returning his bow. “This is my bondmate, Náli son of Máni.”

“A mated couple?” in the almond eyes of the Dwarf appeared something akin regret. “Well, as such you will certainly be welcome among your kin. How can I be of service?”

“We have come to find a place to live,” answered Rei. “To see if we might fit in here.”

Young Bledri gave them a curious glance but asked nothing more. Apparently, the Hill-Guards of Erebor considered good manners an important thing.

“Well,” he said instead, “that will be up to King Dáin, and you should go on without delay if you want to pay him your respects properly. I shall bring you to the Front Gate.”

“And leave your watchpost unguarded?” asked Rei with an arched eyebrow.

Bledri squinted down into the lovely face of feisty little Dwarf-dam with a smile.

“You think us such fools that we would have but one guard on Ravenhill?” he riposted.

They laughed, and the Hill Guard moved on already to show them the shortest way to the gates of their underground city. Not that Flói would have needed any guidance, but courtesy demanded that visitors new to the realm would be given a proper escort.

They crossed the stone bridge and came to the terraced entrance of the city right above the place where the river broke through the Mountain. The BlackLock warriors guarding the Front Gate were even larger than young Bledri; barely a head shorter than an average Man of Bree. Their ink-black, almost blue-shimmering hair was forced into a tight braid, which was doubled over to fit under their elaborate helms. They wore short mail shirts and polished vambrances, and not only were their halberds as big as themselves, they also had battle axes strapped to their broad back and broadswords big enough for Men hanging from their weapons’ belts..

One of them, whose name was apparently Dólgthrashir, clearly recognized Flói, and dismissing young Bledri after he had learned about their intentions, he personally led them down a wide corridor, to a large square, from where other, smaller corridors and numerous stairways led to different levels and directions. There a few beardless youths were dawdling around, waiting for orders from those outranking them.

“Be a good lad, Núr,” the Gate Guard said to one of them, “and take these three to the King’s audience chamber. Ask Thekk in my name to lead them before the King’s presence. I must return to the Gate, or I would go with them myself.”

The lad named Núr – presumably one of the pages serving at the royal court – gave the visitors a wary look, but obeyed without arguing. He led them along wide corridors and up broad stairways, several levels higher than the Front Gate, ’til they reached an antechamber, in which an elderly, richly-clad BroadBeam clerk was sitting behind a desk. There Núr bowed respectfully, saying:

“Master Thekk, these newcomers are asking to see the King.”

Náli watched his surroundings with great interest. The Kings antechamber was artfully made indeed. The walls and the paved floors were wondrously smooth, the ceilings arched and masterfully carved, the patterns of the paving pleased the eye with vivid colours. The runes depicted there told him nothing, as they were an older kind than the ones he had learned on his wanderings, but it was obvious that the Dwarves of the Kingdom under the Mountain were greatly skilled in all kinds of art.

Perhaps it would not be so bad to live here.

King Dáin’s seneschal gave the newcomers a sharp look. He recognized Flói, of course, and dismissed him succinctly. While the son of Flóki was well-respected for his parents’ sake, not to mention valued for his own achievements as a warrior, he was neither old, nor wealthy enough for his return to make any true impact. Neither did he have any rank worth mentioning at the court; in fact, he was not even considered a member of the court, as he had not yet been officially named as Ori’s mate. He was still but a scout and a messenger, fairly unimportant in the eyes of anyone of relevance.

His young charges, on the other hand, were definitely worth the seneschal’s attention. Especially the girl, who not only was a female warrior (something that had become increasingly rare in these years) but also a stunning beauty. Thus, after having dismissed Flói, Master Thekk brought the two young ones were brought before King Dáin’s presence swiftly.

There the King questioned them about heir families, their lives so far and their plans for the future. Rei and Náli, who had never before met truly powerful males of their own race, where thoroughly intimidated by the King, who was a striking figure indeed.

Dáin Ironfoot, the King under the Mountain, was also the chieftain of the IronFist Dwarves – and it showed. He was remarkably large for a Dwarf, as tall as five foot, with a powerful build and thick, corded muscles that revealed him to be a warrior born. His once coppery hair and beard were now iron grey, both intricately woven with mithril beads. He was clad according to his high rank, in deep burgundy red and gold, yet by no means overdoing appearances. His sleeveless tunic left free his mighty arms that were adorned with intricate tattoos: red runes and figures, outlined with black.

The Great Hall of Erebor also impressed them greatly. Built countless centuries earlier for feasting or for more serious gatherings, it was a cavernous room, covered with the most amazing artwork they had ever seen in their lives… not that they would have seen much, to tell the truth.. Huge statues of long gone Dwarven kings, heroes and great artisans lined the walls, only half freed from the living stone of which they had been carved, inlaid with precious metal and gemstones to emphasize their rich attire. The expanse of the walls in-between was covered with murals that depicted ancient Dwarven legends in expressive colours. Above them, the walls grew into great height, touching each other in wide arches so high above that even the eyes of a Dwarf, used to see where other people would not, could not make out the details easily.

The King listened to the two younglings, seemingly unmoved by their stories. When they were finished, he sighed and turned to Rei.

“Females of the child-bearing age are always welcome; more so those with warrior skills,” he said. “I have no doubt that your Ranger training will prove most useful among our scouts and messengers. If you want to learn a trade, though, that will be also possible. Many master artisans live under the Mountain who would gladly share the secrets of their art with a willing and eager pupil.”

Rei bowed deeply. “Please, accept my heartfelt gratitude, my Lord King, but I would choose to run with the scouts and the messengers if I am allowed. That is what I know best, and as I have lived on the surface all my life, it would be hard on me to spend my days under the Mountain. What about my bondmate, though? I can only stay here when he, too, is accepted.”

The King gave Náli a piercing look. “About him, I do have my doubts,” he admitted. “We do not welcome thieves in our midst, as a rule. Do you have any other skills that can be useful for us, young one?”

Náli was fighting his anger very hard. It was not his fault that StiffBeards were treated so badly that many of them had no other choice than become thieves by trade, after all. But he knew that he had to win the King’s goodwill. He might be used to live on the Road, with little to no protection against the weather or other footpads; Rei needed a home. Even with Ranger training, she needed a place where she could rest safely when the need arose. More so if they wanted children – which they both did, very much so.

Thus it was better to swallow his pride and gravel a little at the King’s feet – for his mate. For his future children.

“I can fight with the whip and the knife,” he said, “and I am passable with the sword or the axe, too. I can drive a team, and I can take care of ponies – I spent the greeter part of my life on a cart, after all. We had not permanent dwellings, my clan and me.”

“Excellent,” said the King. “I shall send you to my hostlers, then, ‘til you have proved yourself. We do not have many of the StiffBeards here, so they will be glad to have a kinsman to work with. You will also train with the weapons masters who will report back to me about how good you truly are with the blade. Have you proved yourself reliable, you might join the scouts and the messengers, eventually.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The King’s hostlers, Thórfi and Dralfi, were glad indeed to greet a young kinsman and all too willing to show them what had to be done around the royal stables. They were twin brothers – which was considered an extremely rare thing among Dwarves – a little beyond hundred, and they had already served Dáin in the Iron Hills, together with their father Ormr, with whom they followed the King to Erebor.

They had fought in the Battle of Five Armies, in which Ormr had been slain, Dralfi lost an eye, and Thórfi received a near-crippling injury, as a consequence of which his left leg (broken in several places by a mace) never healed completely. It remained a little stiff and became somewhat shorter due to the badly-fused bones, and it still pained him whenever the weather was about to change, especially in winter and before rain. But Thórfi borne it well enough, and both he and his twin brother seemed to genuinely like working with the ponies.

As the King had told Rei and Náli, StiffBeard presence was rather low-scale under the Mountain. Most of them were servants: cooks, hostlers, butlers, valets and so on. Thórfi and Dralfi lived in small home in a modest dwelling area on the second level of the Mountain, near a clear underground lake. This section of the Mountain was where most of the regular workers, miners and those of lesser trades lived, and many luminescent plants and mosses could be seen in the small gardens or here and there on the very walls, left to grow on their own.

The twin brothers lived there with their mother, a small, wrinkled and apparently very ancient matron who took in Rei and Náli with open arms, being the wise-woman of the entire Clan here, and with various uncles and cousins who had followed them from the Iron Hills. Both were unwed, as they had managed to fall for the same Dwarf-dam quite a few years before, who – not being able to choose between them – refused to marry either of them and had never come to Erebor at all. Still, they seemed happy enough with their relatives – and, unlike most members of their Clan, they were actually respected. Simple servants they might be, yet they had exceeded in battle and were thus considered warriors – if not by proper training, then certainly by heart.

Their mother, the Lady Kaylee as she was called – she might not be of good breeding, yet she was their matriarch nonetheless – was soon busily looking for a proper home for the newcomers, and it took her but a mere few hours to find an empty dwelling in the neighbourhood. It was a small one, and it lacked just about everything, but it could be taken right away, and, after a moment of consideration, Rei decided to take it. They could always move into a larger home, on a higher level, should they outgrow these modest rooms.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Having entrusted his young charges to the King’s seneschal, Flói went to seek out his mate. The fact that Ori had not come to the Front Gate to greet him clearly showed how angry he was with Flói for having been away for so long. Never before had he acted suchly, and Flói knew he would have to do his best to placate his mate; more so as Ori was one who could hold grudges for quite some time.

He was anxious like a dwarfling awaiting his first growth pains as he approached the beautiful mansion in the more opulent area on the fourth level, favoured by the upper classes and those of noble blood, where the three BlackLock brothers had taken up residence right after the re-taking of Erebor. Just like their distant cousins, Balin and Dwalin, they lived near the massive mansion of King Dáin himself; in truth, this was mostly out of convenience, as all Thorin Oakenshield’s former companions had become advisors at Dáin’s court and members of his Council.

Their house was one of the larger ones, as Dori had sent for his wife and his two children to the Blue Mountains right after Erebor had been cleansed. Said children had not been found their life-mates yet, but one day they hopefully would, and Dori, having spent so much time away from his family, saw in advance that there would be enough room for all. Nori, the youngest of the three by many years, was not married yet, but busily courting a promising young artisan from his mother’s clan; he was somewhat beyond the usual wedding age, but not overly so, and planned to bring his mate home within the year.

‘Twas Nori whom Flói met first when he entered the anteroom of the mansion that was, in theory, his home, too. Ori’s brother was clearly just coming home from his workshop – he was a crystal-cutter and a gifted one at that – for he had the absent-minded air of a true artisan working on a particularly captivating piece about him. His hands, his simple working clothes, even his neatly braided, bluish-black hair and beard were covered with a thin layer of fine crystal dust; Flói involuntarily wondered how long it would take him to comb it all out. He must have been working all day to get covered so completely.

When he caught sight of Flói, that absent look vanished from Nori’s handsome face; he became alert and even a little hostile.

”So the rumours seem to be true, this time,” he said acerbically. “The prodigal mate has returned, after all. Ori will be so pleased. Did you know that there have been bets whether you will ever choose to return?”

Flói was shocked. That anyone – even Nori, who admittedly had always disliked him greatly – would think he did not intend to return to his mate… that he had not expected.

“Some Dwarves speak a lot of rubbish when the day is long,” he replied dismissively.

“And some Dwarves tend to forget what they owe their mate,” riposted Nori angrily. “We always knew you were not the right one for our brother, Dori and I. We have tried to open his eyes but did he listen to us? Nay, he did not – I wonder why?”

“For while he might not be the right one in your eyes, he still is the one for me,” answered an achingly familiar voice, and Ori came forth from the library of their house, where he usually spent his day, studying. Flói forgot about Nori’s presence at once; he only had eyes for his mate who offered a truly magnificent sight, even for the eyes of someone less besotted than the young mercenary.

It seemed that Ori had picked up the custom of wearing long, elegant robes in Flói’s absence; robes in the style the scholars of Elrond Half-Elven’s house preferred… and he looked nothing short smashing in the dark blue velvet, which mirrored the shining colour of his hair and beard. Said hair was pulled back from his striking, angular face – Flói had always thought that Ori was the most handsome one of the three – braided tightly and the braid doubled over on the nape of his neck, adorned with small golden beads. His forked beard, braided in similar fashion, was long enough to be tucked into his golden belt; after all, he was beyond two hundred already: not yet old for a Dwarf, not at all, but decidedly a mature one and venerable in appearance.

“Come with me,” he said to Flói with quiet authority and moved towards their private chambers, without looking back to see whether Flói followed him or not. There was no need. If Flói wanted to get back into his good graces, he had no other choice. Naturally, he did follow his mate obediently. He had been eager to be alone with Ori for a long time anyway.

Their chambers were fairly airy as underground dwellings go: a bedchamber and a living area, separated by a low wall that did not quite reach the arched ceiling, making the room look much larger than it actually was. A low stone bench, padded with thick, flat, canvas-covered pillows, ran around the walls of the living area, its curve broken only by the doorway and the solid stone hearth. In the middle, there was a long, oval table, its plate inlaid with a beautiful pattern of green, light grey and red marble – Dori’s excellent handiwork. Various items of value were stored on the shelves, carved into the wall as if they were large windows, even with inlaid marble pictures where the window planes should have been. All in all, ‘twas a simple yet elegant home that clearly mirrored Ori’s refined tastes. His books and writing utensils he kept in the shared study/library of the mansion, keeping just a few selected scrolls and leather-bound tomes for private reading.

“Sit,” Ori gestured towards the bench and did the same, somewhat heavily. “We need to talk, my own.”

Flói released a breath he had not been aware he was holding. That Ori used that possessive meant that he was still willing to mend their bond that had apparently become somewhat… brittle due to Flói’s frequent and lengthy absence. Perchance he had taken Ori’s patience and generosity for granted and had stretched the limits beyond endurance. That had been a dread mistake. They might have had the mutual longing for each other, but their bond had not been made official yet (mostly due to Flói’s own reluctance to get bound so irreverently) and – at least in theory – it could still be declared failed and thus no longer existent.

Flói did not want that to happen; not for all gold and silver of Middle-earth, not for all the mithril Khazad-dûm’s famed mines might still hide in their dark womb. Deep in his heart, he needed Ori like he needed air to breathe – beyond the pleasures of flesh. Ori was all he had, the only person who truly cared for him; the only person for whom he truly cared. He just needed to make Ori believe that.

“I am listening, my owner,” he replied, humbly, expressing the highest form of devotion a Dwarf could declare.

Due to their fiercely jealous nature, in a true bond between two Dwarves there always was a clear difference of ranks. One of the partners always dominated. In the case of a mixed couple, that was the female, without any doubt, without any exception – after all, they were a matriarchal society, and females were rare and highly valued. Between two males, age, breeding, personal honour and social status played the deciding role – or which one of them was hit by the longing stronger.

In Ori and Flói’s case, that one was definitely Ori. Yet he came from an important clan, had a high rank at court, was greatly respected, both as a hero from Thorin’s company and as a scholar… and he had Durin’s blood in his veins, from his father’s side. Therefore the dynamics of their bond were more complex than usual.

Ori accepted Flói’s declaration of submission with a simple nod. It was his due, after all, as the older, higher-ranking partner.

“I must admit that I am most disappointed,” he said, cutting right to the core; he was a plain-speaking one, even as Dwarves go. “You have made a promise. One year, no longer, you have promised me – and yet you have been gone for nearly twice that time. That will not do, my own. I shall not be denied again suchly. You must finally decide what you truly want. If you wish to break this bond, it can be done. There would be scandal and outrage, but that is nothing new when it comes to the two of us, is it?”

The mere thought of that frightened Flói worse than any self-respecting Dwarf, even less so a hardened mercenary should ever have been frightened.

“Please, beloved,” he whispered, “send me not away! I love you!”

“I know that, my own,” replied Ori tiredly, his beautiful eyes full of sorrow. “You just love your freedom more. I have tried not to cage you in all these years, for I knew it would be the shortest way to lose you. But I know not if I can take this any longer.”

“You shall not have to,” promised Flói. “I shall never leave you alone for this long again.”

But Ori just shook his head defeatedly. “Make no promises you cannot keep, my own,” he said. “We both know how it is with you.”

“I regret to have caused you so much grief, beloved,” replied Flói with downcast eyes. “Please, allow me to show you what has kept me in the Blue Mountains so long.”

Ori sighed. “Very well; show me. I should allow you to explain yourself, at the very least, ere I make any lasting decisions.”

With renewed hope, Flói hurriedly opened his backpack and took off a rounded package wrapped in several layers of protective velour and canvas. He carefully unwrapped it, and before Ori’s stunned eyes there was the most beautiful betrothal collar he had ever seen – and that after having seen all the wonders of the Dragon’s hoard. It was made of the purest gold and set with selected amethysts of almost the same colour as Ori’s eyes. The tiny gems were cut in the shape of little stars, and the collar was wrought in the form of interwoven golden ranks like the finest gossamer.

Ori stared at it with wide-eyed amazement. “I never knew you were such an outstanding goldsmith,” he finally said.

“I am not,” admitted Flói ruefully. “That is why I went to the Blue Mountains; to ask for the help of Regin son of Frerin. I wanted to give you this, and I wanted it to be perfect… if you would still have me, that is.”

Ori was very obviously deeply touched, both by the gift and by its deeper meaning.

“Oh, my own,” he said a little gruffly. “How could I ever refuse you… even less so now that you have finally chosen to commit yourself to me? I have nearly given up hope that this day would come.”

His joy was so obvious, so pure and so unashamed that Flói began to hope again. “Am I forgiven, then?” he asked.

Ori smiled at him fondly. “Have I not always forgiven you?” he replied with a question of his own. “But I was telling you the truth, love; I cannot go on like this any longer. I have reached my middle years – ‘tis time for me to settle down, to have my mate on my side, to… to share life as we have rarely shared so far. Can you accept a more settled life? Can you bear it to stay here for longer than just a few months a time? I know ‘tis not truly in your nature…”

“I shall try,” said Flói honestly. “I hope I can… I want to do this, for you. I want to stay with you, forever.”

“And that is all I ask,” replied Ori, kissing him slowly, devouring his long-missed taste. “Come to our bed now, my own. Let me thank you properly for the wondrous gift that you have made for me.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the next morning Rei was called to the leader of King Dáin’s scouts, a LongBeard Dwarf by the name of Lóni Tjórvisson, to introduce herself properly and to get assigned to one of the scout patrols. The Lady Kaylee explained her that Lóni was the oldest Dwarf in Erebor – over three hundred years old, and thus considered ancient, even by their long-lived race. The two of them had known each other for a very long time, and thus the tiny StiffBeard matron could tell Rei a great deal about her new commander. Which was always a good thing, as this way she would know what to expect from the old warrior.

“Lóni’s family hails from Erebor,” said the Lady Kaylee. “He was born here, himself, as well as his much younger brother, Lofar. They were both still beardless lads – well, at least Lofar was – when we had to flee from the Dragon. They went to exile in Dunland with Thorin Oakenshield’s family, and later followed him to the Blue Mountains.”

“Dunland?” Rei pulled a face. “It must have been terrible, living among those swarthy barbarians. Men are not the cleanliest race as a whole, but the Dunlendings are among the worst; or so I am told. I never met one myself.”

“That might be so,” allowed the elderly matron. “Yet Lóni actually liked the life in Dunland – unlike most of our people. They say he got along surprisingly well with that swarthy race and made many friends among them. His best friend is said to have been a famous bow-maker; just take a look at his bow when you get the chance. It is one of its kind, made specifically for Lóni.”

“An archer!” Rei cried out in delight. Archery was not a common skill among Dwarves although those who learned it were not half bad at it. Thus she was glad to have a kindred spirit among her new comrades. One who might know to value her finely made crossbow and what she could do with it.

“And an excellent one at that,” said the Lady Kaylee. “Some even say he is the best one our people have ever had. So good, in fact, that Thorin wanted him to take part in the Quest of Erebor. But he refused to go, as his daughter had just come down with her fourth child, and he did not want to leave his family alone at such a time. Less so as his wife had just deceased a year or so before. ‘Twas bad enough they had no matron; losing the family Elder, too, would have been too much for the young ones.”

“Four children!” said Rei in amazement. “I always thought the LongBeards did not breed large families, unlike our own people.”

“As a rule, they do not,” agreed the little matron. “But there are notable exceptions. Why, the Lord Glóin, one of Thorin’s companions, has five; and one of them a girl-child, at that. Although,” she added thoughtfully, “his wife, the Lady Nais, is of the FireBeards, and those are a fertile lot,” she gave Rei a shrewd look. “Just like our people. You should start planning that handfasting ceremony, soon – we need more of our kind here.”

Dwarves rarely blush, but Rei became beet red at that not-too-subtle hint.

“’Tis not so urgent,” she replied evasively. “We need to settle down first, find our place in Erebor… have our betrothal collars made… We are both still very young.”

“True; yet if you live under the same roof without being properly bound, people will start talking,” warned the matron. “’Tis not the same as with two males. Your bond bears the hope of children, thus it must be forged according to tradition.”

“I know,” sighed Rei. “’Tis just…. It all happened so suddenly, you see? I have spent most of my life among Men, was never bothered by Dwarven expectations. Did not even plan courting for at least ten more years. It just… it just happened, and I was unprepared… I still am! I have faced Orcs and Wargs and outlaw Men in my time with the Rangers of Eriador, and was never afraid. But this… this frightens me, for I do not know what I ought to do.”

“But I do,” said the little matron gently. “Fear not, my child, for I shall guide you on your way. For a long time, I had grieved as Mahal had not blessed me with a girl-child, even though I love my lads, I always have. But now he sent me you, and I shall see that you never lack the support of a mother for the rest of your life.”

Rei was touched to tears and could barely thank her. She waved dismissively.

“’Tis nothing, little one; ‘tis all my pleasure, truly. You have to hurry up now, though. It would not do to make Lóni wait.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The gathering room of the King’s scouts was on the west side of the Mountain, between two ranges, right above the secret side door of the Kingdom, though which they could easily slip in and out. A hidden path led from there along the southwestern mountain range – the very same that Thorin Oakenshield and his Company had followed, approaching Erebor all those years ago, to fulfil their curses on the Dragon. It was the shortest path to the guard post upon Ravenhill, thus both guards and scouts used it when going after their daily business. In these days, the Hidden Door was not magically sealed (although it could have been, if the need arose), just locked from the inside with its large, intricate key, and armed warriors guarded it all the time.

The scouts’ chamber on the level above was large and airy, lit by cleverly cut shafts under the ceiling that allowed the sunlight in but remained invisible from the outside. It had a long, low stone table in the middle and a stone bench running along all four walls; room enough for three dozen or so Dwarves to gather here at the same time.

When Rei entered, though, only two persons were present: a young, almost beardless warrior of the IronFist Clans, wearing the mail of the King’s Guards, and a venerable-looking, thick-set LongBeard, who, by the looks of him, could only be Lóni. He wore the leather breeches of a woodman, with a light mail shirt, and the wrist-guards of an archer. His thick mane of snow-white hair was tightly braided, the braid – as thick as Rei’s arm – doubled up twice and fastened with plain bronze clasps, so that it would fit under his green hood, it necessary. His snowy beard, too, was immensely long, forked and braided, with bronze rings at the end of each braid, and tucked into his weapons belt. Next to his wide-bladed dagger that had a beautifully-crafted sheet, made of black leather and bronze wire. He wore no other weapons – not that he needed any in the safety of the Mountain.

Upon seeing Rei enter, the old Dwarf released the young warrior – who left in a great hurry and obvious relief – and tuned his whole attention to her. It was a bit… unnerving, to tell the truth, to bear the look of those dark, ancient eyes, full of sadness and wisdom, but Rei did not back off. She was here to serve with him – under his command – after all.

“Rei Hreinnsdóttir, at your service,” she said politely, bowing very low, as it was the due of such a venerable Elder.

“Lóni Tjórvisson, at yours,” replied the old Dwarf in a voice that was deep and just a little hollow through high age. “Tis a rare honour for us mere scouts that a Dwarrow-dam would choose to walk the forest with us. Most female warriors prefer to join better-respected troops.”

“I have been raised by Rangers from a tender age on,” said Rei, “and have been a scout for most of my life. I am used to live outdoors, and know my way around wood and stone. I may not come from a respected bloodline, but I hope my woodman’s skills will prove useful. For I was taught by the best Eriador can offer.”

“I feel certain that you shall be able to teach us a few tricks; just as we shall teach you a few of our own,” said Lóni with a fond smile; he liked young people, even though he sometimes pushed them hard, for their own good. “Now, let me see your weapons and how you can wield them.”

Rei handed him her battle-hammer and crossbow, and the old warrior examined them with great interest.

“The hammer bears the marks of the weaponsmiths from the Blue Mountains,” he said. “’Tis excellent handiwork… and ancient, too. Where did you get it from?”

“My foster father tells me it has lain in their weapons chamber for many generations,” Rei explained. “It was useless for them, as no-one could wield it properly, but too well-made and valuable to throw it away.”

“The hammer is no Mannish weapon,” agreed Lóni. “Too small for a grown Man yet way too heavy for a still-growing youth.”

“Aye, it is,” Rei smiled. “Father said it has been waiting for the right Dwarf to come along all the time – and that was apparently me.”

“The Men of Westernesse are known to have brief glimpses into the future from time to time,” said Lóni. “And they are said to be skilled with the blade; nonetheless, we shall have to train you properly with the hammer – there are tricks only a Dwarf can show you, and we have a few warriors here who know a lot about those. Now, tell me about your crossbow. ‘Tis something we rarely see here, in the far North.”

“Nor has it been made in the North,” laughed Rei. “It was made somewhere in Harad, I suppose, where weapons like this are called an arbalest.”

“How did it find its way to your hand, then?” asked Lóni, his deep eyes twinkling with interest. He liked weapons, and even more the stories that came with them; and he still was not too old for appreciating new things and new tales.

“Dúnedain of the North sometimes go to Gondor and serve among their southern brethren for years,” explained Rei. “So did my father in his youth, serving with the Rangers of a province they call South-Ithilien. ‘Tis an abandoned land now, often raided by troops from Near-Harad. Father found this crossbow, left behind from by fleeing Haradrim, after one of the frequent skirmishes, and brought it home. He hoped his sons would like it, but they did not. So the crossbow has waited for me in the weapons chamber, just like the hammer.”

“An interesting weapon,” Lóni turned the crossbow back and forth in his large hands. “More so if it was truly made for a youth among Men. I wonder how a Mannish youth could manage to pull the string back properly – or are the Haradrim so much stronger than other Men?”

Rei shook her head. “Nay, for they pulled the string back by winding a crank on a ratchet. That is why the Haradrim prefer this to a proper longbow. It takes much less upper body strength, and yet has a range of three hundred and fifty years; the larger arbalests even carry as far as four hundred yards.”

“I see nought akin a drawing mechanism here, though,” said Lóni with a frown.

“I do not use one,” answered Rei, “for it would slow down the firing rate considerably. Unlike Men, I have enough strength to pull the string back by hand.”

“It must have quite a pull,” meant Lóni, still examining the crossbow.

Rei nodded. “Aye, it has. But it can kill a knight in full armour and it can be carried ready loaded with a bolt. I have slain trolls with it, while patrolling the Trollshaws with my brothers… my Mannish brothers.”

“So there are still some trolls in Eriador?” asked Lóni in surprise. “I thought the three Thorin Oakenshield and his company met were the last ones.”

“Fortunately, they have become rare,” said Rei, ”but from time to time, they still reappear like some hidden stream in an underground cave. How about here?”

“We have not seen any for a very long time, and good riddance,” replied Lóni. “Not even among the Iron Hills, where they once had been numerous. All right then, let us go to the shooting range. I want to see what this fancy bow of yours can do against mine.”

Lóni’s own weapon, the one Lady Kaylee had sung such high praise of, turned out to be a longbow, longer than he was tall, with blades on both ends of it, enabling him to defend himself, should any enemy manage to get close enough to him. It was as thick as a Man’s arm and required the strength of the Dwarf – a particularly strong one – to pull the string; thus it would have been useless for anyone else, even for most Dwarves. The arrows coming with it were specifically made, too: short, thick ones, with heavy, razor-sharp steel points. They could fly considerable distances and easily punched through bone, shield or thickened armour. Rei was impressed by the handiwork of the supposedly barbarian Dunlending weaponsmith who had created this marvellous weapon out of friendship to a Dwarf. ‘Twas a rare thing in these times.

The shooting range was outside the Mountain itself, down between the two western ranges. There was only one other Dwarf practicing when they arrived: a large, copper-haired and amber-eyed IronFist warrior, strong even by the measures of his powerful Clan. He was also very handsome, his great arms, left free by his sleeveless leather vest, adorned by elaborate tattoos, depicting the Sun and the stars. He was fairly young in Dwarven terms, mayhap a decade or two older than Rei herself. His bow was less special than Lóni’s, but he used it well, his very movement revealing long-time experience with the weapon.

“Greetings, Skafid,” said Lóni in a friendly manner. “I hope you do not mind our intrusion. I wanted to see what young Rei here is capable of with this outlandish weapon of hers.”

Skafid came closer to take a look at Rei’s crossbow. “’Tis one of those Southron bows, I see,” he commented in his deep, surprisingly mellow voice. “I am curious myself what it can do, compared with a proper longbow.”

They set up new targets and all three of them shot several series of arrows, comparing the results. Said results showed hat while a longbow still had a longer range (at least when pulled by a Dwarf, that is) and could launch arrows ten times faster (even though Rei’s strength enabled her to span her weapon half the time than a Man would have been able to do it with the help of a hook and a hand crank), the crossbow had almost the same impact and precision at hitting a target. Of course, the steady hand and the sharp eyes of a Dwarf were undeniable advantages there. All in all, Lóni was satisfied with Rei’s shooting skills and called a halt to the practice.

“Tomorrow, you shall try your skills with the battle hammer against one who is good with that weapon,” he decided. Then he looked at Skafid shrewdly. “What say you, Skafid? Would you like to test her? As a stone-mason, you have sufficient practice with hammers of every kind.”

Skafid shrugged his huge shoulders. “Sure, why not? ‘Twould be an interesting duel: speed and dexterity against greater strength. I am willing to give it a try.”

“Good,” said Lóni, “then it is settled. For today, I have seen enough. I shall put Rei on the scouts’ duty roster in two days’ time.”

“Without having seen how I wield my hammer?” asked Rei with a smile.

The old Dwarf smiled back at her in a grandfatherly manner.

“We shall test you tomorrow thoroughly, never fear. But even if you hit your own feet with the hammer, which I doubt, your crossbow and your woodman’s skills will be mightily welcome.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
With that promise Rei was released to return home. She found her small house empty; Náli as at the stables with Thórfi and Dralfi and she could not even guess when he would come home. Thus Rei decided to pay a visit to the Lady Kaylee again, more so as she had things to discuss with the tiny Clan matriarch.

The ancient Dwarf-dam invited her in happily, showing her a few things heir Clan brethren had brought as welcome gifts for the young couple. Small things those were: a few well-prepared furs that could be used both as blankets or rugs; some household items; a few pieces of clothing. Even here, the Clan was far from wealthy, but they all knew that building a new household was not an easy thing.

“You can eat with us if you want to,” offered the Lady Kaylee. “I cook for my two lads as well as for my brother and his lad already, so adding two more would be no great hardship. And as you will go out on patrol with the other scouts all the time, you will have very little left for household duties. Unless your bondmate is a good cook, that is.”

“He is good enough, at least when cooking on an open fire in the wilderness,” laughed Rei. “Nonetheless, I will gladly accept your generous offer, Elder. I have always lived in a large family; having just the two of us would be strange indeed.”

For a while, they discussed how the young couple could be installed into the network of Clan business and shared duties – that they would pay for their food and for the matron’s work properly needed no mentioning. It was the way how things worked in a Dwarven Clan; and besides, both would be paid by the King himself for their work, so they had no reason to worry about their future any longer. Dáin Ironfoot was well-known for his wisdom and generosity.

“Have you thought about your handfasting ritual as I told you?” asked the tiny matron, offering Rei good, dark bread, made of rye with ground nuts and honey, and a thick slice of cheese with it.

As they were sitting in Lady Kaylee’s spacious kitchen anyway, she decided to have an early lunch with the younger woman. The main meal in a proper Dwarven family was supper, for the males – and many of the females, too – often worked long hours, thus the family could not meet in the full numbers before evening. Therefore the other meals were usually taken individually, whenever one had the time and the chance to eat.

Rei accepted the simple yet tasty fare with a nod of gratitude, as well as the ale that came with it. Shooting was not only a thirsty business; it awakened one’s appetite, too. Then she considered her answer.

“I believe we can afford the regular year of betrothal,” she said, “We are both young… and we are not wealthy enough to raise a family just yet. Besides, we need to have those betrothal collars made first – and I know not how. The work of a true artisan is not cheap, and we are short on coin.”

“Do you have anything in materials for the collars?” asked the matron.

“We have the stones,” answered Rei, “but naught else. And to have something made of brass would do the stones no justice.”

“I see,” the Lady Kaylee considered their opinions for a while, for ‘twas true that every Dwarf would see it as an insult for a precious stone to be set in a collar of inferior metal. That was simply not done among the children of Mahal who respected both gemstones and their own art highly.

Rei waited patiently. Due respect towards her elder forbade her to speak ere the matron would do so.

“I believe I know someone who can help you,” said Lady Kaylee finally. “You ought to visit Ingunn Thorkellsdóttir in her workshop. She is a skilled silversmith, but a young one who does not get many commissions yet. She might find the challenge worth her time; and she would make you a fair price.”

“Which Clan is she from?” asked Rei. One of the renowned LongBeard of FireBeard artisans would likely not even let her into their workshop; on the other side, she did not want to give her moonstones in the hand of just anyone.

“She’s a StoneFoot,” replied Lady Kaylee. “She might be an artisan, and the daughter of an artisan, yet she will not look down at you for being from one of the lesser Clans.”

“I should wait for Náli, then,” said Rei. “He, too, has some StoneFoot blood in his veins; he might be better able to deal with his own people.”

“That may be so,” agreed the matron, “yet I do not believe that he would come back any time soon. King Dáin’s horse-master, the old Heri, likes his stable hands to work long and hard. More so when they are new and still learning the ropes.”

“I thought your lads were the horse-masters,” said Rei in surprise.

The matron smiled. “Nah, they are but the hostlers. They take care of the King’s ponies and those ridden by the messengers and scouts, if they do not have steeds of their own. But Master Heri is the one who breeds the good beasts. He, too, is of our Clan, but he makes the lads under his hand work hard. ‘Tis better if you visit Ingunn now, as long as she is still in her workshop. Tell her I have sent you.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As their clan consisted mostly of artisans, the StoneFoots were well-respected among their fellow Dwarves, even though they, too, belonged to the lesser Clans. Thus the golden-haired smiths and sculptors and their families dwelt in the quarter of the artisans – a level higher than the StiffBeards, yet not quite as high as the respected warriors of the BlackLock and IronFist Clans, not to mention the members of the court. Dwarven society was an intricate network of kinship and alliances and rank based on both birth and personal deeds; a system that would give any other race a headache.

Due to their low numbers, females were highly valued and generally outranked males of their own standing; but that was only the basics of divisions. There were the Clan divisions next. The three ranking Clans had originally been the LongBeards, the FireBeards and the BroadBeams – the ones that had once had their own realms, back in the First Age.

Yet after the fall of Tumunzahar and Gabilgathol, the FireBeards and BroadBeams had lost much of their previous rank, while the BlackLocks and IronFists, due to the bravery and skills of their warriors, had been steadily rising in esteem and had taken over the leading positions next to the still prominent LongBeards. With very few exceptions – for they could still raise great warriors – the LongBeards had become artisans and merchants in these days, while the BroadBeams were mostly merchants.

Aside from Clan divisions, occupation also played an important role when defining one’s rank and place in society. Master artisans outranked everyone else, save the King himself, his family and the Forge Guards. Scholars were small in number but also much respected. Warriors came right after them; then came the merchants, and on the lowest place stood the miners, the servants and those who did other menial tasks, like growing crop or breeding livestock.

Therefore, while Rei came from the lowest-ranking Clan, as a scout she would count as a warrior and thus be consequently more respected than Náli, who not only was a mere StiffBeard – and a male one at that, not to mention an almost beardless youth – but also worked in the stables. So it was perchance a good idea for her to pay a visit to the StoneFoot silversmiths alone.

After having asked a few people for directions, Rei finally arrived to a two-storey house in the quarter of the whitesmiths, which consisted of two separate workshops on the ground level and the personal quarters of the family upstairs. Both workshops had large, open front windows, so that people could admire the smiths’ work through them as they walked by. Rei went to the workshop on the left side and rapped her knuckles on the heavy oak door. It stood open, too, but she did not want to blunder in unannounced. That would have been rude.

“Enter!” called out a cheerful voice, and she followed the invitation, looking around in the small workshop with interest. She had never seen Dwarf-smiths at work before.

Two Dwarf-dams were sitting at their workbenches, their plain working clothes covered by long leather aprons. One of them was just about to fasten a gossamer-fine golden grid, netted with small, fiery gems (mayhap rubies) over the leather covering of a large book – or, to be more accurate, over the leather-covered wooden plates that would eventually become the front and back covers of a book. Her flaming red hair, bright greenish-brown eyes and round, freckled face revealed her as a FireBeard, and Rei wondered what she was doing here. Was it custom in Erebor to share business, even beyond Clan boundaries?

The other female smith could only be the owner of the workshop. Slender for a Dwarf, she had eyes so deep blue as the summer sky, and a great sheaf of blonde hair that gleamed like molten gold. She was a rare beauty indeed; that and the fact that she had learned a respected trade of her own would make her much sought-after among young males… or even among not-so-young but wealthy and respected ones. She was probably a little older than Rei herself, but few Dwarves Rei had met so far were younger than her.

The golden-haired one looked up from her work – she was making a silver chain out of delicately-twisted, oval links – and smiled.

“Welcome,” she said. “Can I help you?”

“I am looking for Ingunn Thorkellsdóttir,” answered Rei. “The Lady Kaylee sent me.”

The female silversmith rose from her workbench and set her delicate tools aside to greet her with the proper bow.

“The Lady Kaylee has my trust and my utmost respect,” she said, wiping her hands on the cloth tucked into the waistband of her apron. “If she sent you, then you are twice welcome. I am Ingunn the silversmith, at your service, and I ask you again: how can I help you?”

Rei bowed politely. “Rei Hreinnsdóttir of the StiffBeard Clans, at yours,” she introduced herself. “I am in the need of a whitesmith who would be willing to make our betrothal collars.”

“StiffBeard?” a deep, amused voice said, and Skafid, whom she had just met at the shooting range, came forth from the back of the workshop. “I thought you were one of us; small though you are. I believed you were just very young.”

“I am quite young,” answered Rei, “and I do have some IronFist blood in me indeed.”

“I wonder if that will make you as good with the hammer as you are with the bow,” said Skafid. “Well, we shall see tomorrow. But do you truly intend to be bound to that little thief of yours? That would be a waste, if there has ever been one.”

Rei lifted her chin defiantly, the fact that Skafid was a head taller than her not intimidating her the least. She had lived among Men; she was used to be smaller than everyone else – and to make that an advantage.

“Náli is no longer a thief,” she replied. “And if you object my choice, we can deal with that tomorrow on the practice ground. I so love to put insolent males to their proper places. We shall see whether your grater size is truly such an advantage against my greater speed.”

Ingunn and the flame-haired goldsmith exchanged broad grins.

“Are you trying to woo her off her choice, Skafid?” asked Ingunn, only half-teasingly. “For if you are, I cannot fathom what you are doing in my workshop.”

Skafid managed to look properly contrite, despite the smouldering fire in his amber eyes; there could be no doubt that he, too, had a serious case of the love-longing. “My lady, there is only one Dwarf-dam that I wish to woo, and that is you. There is and will never be any-one else.”

“I hope so, for the sake of your family jewels,” returned Ingunn snidely, but she allowed him to kiss her. “Be not all too certain of your place on my side, for we are not properly bound yet, I can always change my mind if you misbehave.”

“You can – but will you?” teased Skafid. They looked at each other for a long moment, and Rei was fairly sure that she would not. These two longed for each other as much as Náli and herself did. They would make a stunningly beautiful couple one day.

“I might,” replied Ingunn, now a little more playfully. “Now, get out of here, you great loot. Eydís and I have work to do. How am I supposed to make a living if you annoy away my potential customers? Go and hew some more stone – this here is delicate work, not for your huge paws. Go!”

Skafid laughed, not the least insulted, and left obediently. Ingunn slapped his broad back on his way out, in the manner of petting a big, good-natured dog. Then she turned back to Rei.

“All right,” she said. “Show me what you have fort he collars, and then we can discuss the design and haggle about the price.”

“Just the gemstones, naught else,” Rei poured out the handful of stones onto the silversmith’s workbench.

There were a few sapphires and rubies among them, even a diamond; also a couple of opals, and emeralds and some topazes. But it was the moonstones that caught Ingunn’s eyes at once, as it could be expected.

“Where do you have these from?” she asked in awe. “Even King Dáin has only one such gem in his treasure chamber.”

Rei smiled thinly. “That little thief of mine has raided a haunted Barrow in Eriador for them, to give me them as tokens of his love.”

“He went into the Barrow-downs?” Ingunn’s eyes widened in shock. “And he came back alive? How had he done that?”

“He is resilient,” answered Rei simply, “although he did have some help.”

“You?” Ingunn whistled. “Your bond was truly forged among unique circumstances.”

“My foster father, mostly,” corrected Rei. “He is one of the Northern Rangers, and he knows his ways along strange paths no-one else would dare to tread. Well, what do you say? Would you like to try your hand on true moonstones?”

“’Tis tempting,” admitted Ingunn. “More so as I shall not likely get another chance like this. But can you pay for my work?”

“I can, if you accept payment in gemstones,” said Rei.

Ingunn grinned. “That depends on the gemstones.”

With that, a long and delightful haggling began. The fiery-haired Eydís joined in too, and they spent almost an hour to forge the bargain that would satisfy both sides. Rei was not willing to give away any of the moonstones, and she wanted to keep the diamond, too. So they haggled and argued and bantered, enjoying every moment of it, and finally, they came to an agreement. Ingunn accepted the opals and emeralds as payment, and she and Eydís – who would take one topaz – agreed to make the collars of stargold – a special alloy of silver and gold, originally created by the whitesmiths of Khazad-dûm, one of which had been an ancestor of Eydís. The moonstones would be set in the collars. As for the proper design, the whitesmiths asked for a few more days, and that was that.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
When Rei got home for the second time, Náli had already been there. He was tired and filthy from the work in the stables, but content.

“’Tis tiring work, and a bit dull,” he admitted, “yet one I can do, at least for a while. I think I can learn to like a more settled life, even though I will miss the outdoors.”

“Mayhap when they see that you are reliable, they will allow you to join the scouts, too,” said Rei.

“Does this mean they have accepted you?” asked Náli in pleasant surprise.

Rei nodded. “Just this morning, aye. We both have honest, paid work now; which means we can start thinking about our handfasting ceremony.”

“Whenever you want it; whoever you want it,” replied Náli, blushing like a beardless lad.

“’Twould take some time yet,” said Rei. “I have just ordered the collars.”

“You have?” Náli’s eyes widened in delight. “But can we afford them to be made? We shall not see any payment for a while yet.”

“I have traded some of the gemstones for the work of the whitesmiths who know the secret of forging stargold,” explained Rei. “They promised to show us the drawings within the week. I asked that they set the moonstones and the sapphires into the collars… the two sets of blue would match nicely. I gave away the opals, the emeralds and one topaz.”

“That still leaves us the rubies, the rest of the topazes and that diamond,” said Náli. “You must have hammered out a hard bargain.”

“’Twas a fair challenge,” admitted Rei. “But now I am well content. Go and have a bath, mine; we shall have supper with the lady Kaylee’s family. She offered us to cook for us for the time being.”

“Has she?” Náli grinned in delight. “Well, that was ever so nice of her; they say she is a wondrous cook. I have not sat at the table with a large family for years!”

“Neither have I… not with a Dwarven one, that is,” Rei kissed him. “Go bathe. You stink of horseshit. Then we shall go to Lady Kaylee; and then we can try to do something for a large family of our own.”

“As my lady orders,” Náli laughed and left in the direction of the common baths.

~TBC~

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