“The Book of Mazarbul” begins as a collection of different storylines, all of which will eventually converge to bring together Balin’s company – that which set off to re-tale Moria. This particular storyline describes Óin’s adventures, previously to that ill-fated expedition, to explain why he chose to join Balin, while his brother Glóin did not. According to canon, he was born in 2774 and considered a mature and respected member of Dáin Ironfoot’s court.
Once again, the looks of Eikinskialdi and Miödvitnir are based on the excellent Dwarf pictures of Ro aka Sabra R. Hart, which you can view in her Elfwood gallery.
Once again, the looks of Eikinskialdi and Miödvitnir are based on the excellent Dwarf pictures of Ro aka Sabra R. Hart, which you can view in her Elfwood gallery.
CHAPTER 06 – DRAGON-LORE
"I don't see that this will help us much," said Thorin disappointedly after a glance. "I remember the Mountain well enough and the lands about it. And I know where Mirkwood is, and the Withered Heath where the great dragons bred."
( The Hobbit, Chapter 1 – An Unexpected Party, p. 29)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Of the twelve Dwarves accompanying Thorin Oakenshield on his quest to re-take the Lonely Mountain from the Dragon in the year 2961 of the Third Age, Óin son of Gróin was without doubt the most adventurous one. Unlike his brother Glóin, who was happy enough to settle down in a nice mansion under the Mountain with his family, Óin was not one to sit around in the same place for long if he could help it.
Thus when the rebuilding of the great Dwarven city had been finished and all the Dragon’s filth cleaned away, and there was no more intense labour to be done, Óin began to grow restless again. As an excellent smith of weapons and jewellery, just like his brother, he had risen quickly to a most respected status in King Dáin’s court, but it was no longer enough for him. He was “a Dwarf of many journeys”, as they said, and it began to itch in his boots to go off into the wilderness again – to see new things and meet new people and hear all the tidings that were there to be heard.
At first, he began to visit the scattered settlements of the StoneFoot Dwarves along the lower range of the Ered Mithrin, making a great number of friends among them, due to his skills and the wonderful tales he had collected in his many journeys and which he told most excellently. They even guided him to the abandoned Dwarf-kingdom under the Grey Mountains during one of his visits; the one that had been bothered by Scatha the Worm, the greatest Cold-drake of the North. Although Scatha had been slain by Fram son of Frumgar of the Éothéod, others of its kind had followed its path, ‘til the Dwarves finally gave up the city and never returned. For the terrible memory of King Dáin I, killed by a Cold-drake, still lingered over the ruins, and despite its still existing riches, no Dwarf wished to move to such a desolate place.
Mayhap that visit was what got Óin interested in dragons so much. Or mayhap the visits to the FireBeard dwellings that were even further in the North, under the upper range of the Grey Mountains, beyond which only the frosty tundra of Forodwaith stretched towards the Sea. Family history, too, could have played a certain role, as well as his own experiences with Smaug the Golden. In any case, his curiosity was piqued, and from that time on, he repeatedly accompanied Balin, Dwalin and Ori, when the BlackLock scholars travelled to Rivendell to discuss lore with Elrond himself and his chief scholar and advisor, Erestor.
As Erestor’s parents had once belonged to the great smith Celebrimbor’s people, who – alone among Elves save Finrod Felagund to date – was called Dwarf-friends, and he himself had spent his early childhood in Ost-in-Edhil and had known Master Narvi himself, the scholarly Elf was much friendlier to Dwarves than Elves generally were, and he shared with them his rich knowledge most willingly.
There had been discussions among the LongBeard Dwarves whether or not Master Erestor, too, should be declared a Dwarf-friend. After all, he had been one of the handful of Elves to come to the Dwarves’ aid in the Battle of Azanulbizar. And while no such declaration had been made so far, King Dáin and many other Dwarves considered him a Dwarf-friend anyway. Balin, Dwalin and Ori were among those, and Óin, too, had come to agree with them.
But even the vast libraries of Rivendell could not satisfy his hunger for knowledge completely, and thus he made several journeys to the Blue Mountains, where the elders of his own people dwelled, and even visited the Grey Havens to speak with Círdan the Shipwright, who was arguably the oldest Elf still in Middle-earth… or, at the very least, the one who had spent the longest time there without an interruption. There was always the Lord Glorfindel of Rivendell, of course, but Óin had a certain… reluctance to talk to people who had apparently come back from the dead.
What he learned on these journeys he told no-one, not even his brother, but his newly-won knowledge had apparently given him a great deal to think about. Often could he be found in the archives of the Kingdom, pondering over great, dusky leather-bound tomes that had been brought from the Blue Mountains after the re-taking of Erebor, and often did he question Balin, Dwalin, Ori and the other scholars about the nature and the history of the dragons. Those tried to answer his questions as well as they could, but soon it became obvious that their answers were far from being satisfying for him.
When, on a bright spring day in the year 2980 of the Third Age, he announced that he wanted to make a journey to the Withered Heath and search the abode of old where once the Great Dragons had bred, everyone thought that he had lost his mind. He was well over two hundred years old by then – too mature for such juvenile follies, at least in theory, and no-one could understand what gain might he hope from such a perilous journey.
“Are you tired of your life?” his brother Glóin cried in dismay. “Who knows what kind of vile creatures might still linger there? You could meet any sorts of monsters in those caves – no Dwarf has ever dared to enter them.”
“Which is the very reason why I wish to do so,” replied Óin. “No-one had known that Smaug was dwelling there, unnoticed, for who knows how many hundreds of years. What if he was not the only one? That place has been the nest of the Great Worms from the dawn of time, and we know that dragons do not die, unless they are slain. If there are any more Worms, we need to know. We must not be surprised again like we were at the coming of Smaug.”
“Your words do have some merit,” admitted Balin, who was the chief of Erebor’s scholars, reluctantly, for he did not want to lose another one of his friends of old. Taking their kingdom back had cost them enough as it was. “’Tis said, however, that one should better let sleeping dragons lie; for they would leave one alone as long as they are not bothered.”
“Unless they hear of our wealth and greed overcomes them again,” pointed out Óin mercilessly. “Nay, we need to know. I have already travelled to the Grey Mountains several times… and I have friends among the StoneFoot and FireBeard clans that dwell there. I can do this. I want to do this.”
Glóin, who was loath to let his brother go but had no authority to forbid him doing so, looked helplessly at Balin, who was the eldest male of their family. As Balin’s wife was no longer alive, they had no matriarch, thus laying down the law was Balin’s duty and privilege. At least according to custom – in truth, however, no-one could truly hinder a grown Dwarf in going wherever he wanted to go.
Balin, however, shook his head at Glóin’s silent plea.
“Your brother is right, Glóin,” he said. “We cannot be certain that there are no other Worms in the Withered Heath; and if there are any, we need to know about that indeed.”
“But he cannot make such a long and perilous journey all on his own!” argued Glóin, who was concerned about the safety of his brother.
“On the contrary,” said Balin calmly. “Would we to send a strong army of warrior Dwarves to the North, it would raise unwanted attention – and those of our kind who dwell there still would believe that we wanted to subjugate them. No-one will suspect a lonely Wanderer, though; and Óin is resilient enough to take care of himself.”
“Besides,” added Óin, “they already know me. They would not easily trust any other Dwarf from the outside, though. ‘Tis better if I go alone.”
Glóin was still against the whole idea, but as Óin had received King Dáin’s permission for his intended journey as well, he could do naught to prevent it. Although it was not for the lack of trying, to tell the truth.
“Always have you been the most restless of our entire family,” he said in sorrow, “And I fear that I shall lose you before your time one day.”
“That might be so,” answered Óin. “but not on this journey; of that I am fairly certain. And whatever my fate might be in the end, at least I shall be able to say that I have led a life of my own liking… just as you have done. We are very different in this, brother mine – let me go my way and be glad for me, for I enjoy my life very much.”
To that Glóin had no answer, and thus he agreed to let his brother go, although his heart was heavy with concern and sorrow. His entire family came forth to speak their farewells to Óin on the day of his departure, and young Gimli, Glóin’s firstborn – a grown Dwarf himself albeit still a fairly young one – looked after him enviously as he rode away on a strong hill pony, his saddlebags full of supplies for the long journey.
“One day,” said Gimli with longing in his voice, “I, too, shall go on a great adventure of my own. I wish to become a Dwarf of many journeys like my uncle, and to see places no Dwarf has seen before.”
But his father just shook his head and looked at him with saddened eyes.
“Be careful what you wish for, my son,” he said. “Mahal might choose to fulfil your wish, and you might find that you got more than you have bargained for.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And thus Óin son of Gróin began his long, lonely journey to the North once again. He travelled slowly, visiting the scattered StoneFoot and FireBeard settlements along the southern outskirts of the lower range of the Grey Mountains, speaking to their elders and seeking out other, even smaller and better hidden dwellings of which he had no even heard before. Sometimes he would spend a longer time on one settlement, helping the clan he was visiting with their chores and writing down during the night what he had learned during the day. When there were no more to learn, he would thank them and take his leave to continue his journey.
So did he move slowly, steadily to the North and the East, and thus Durin’s Day found him in one of the small FireBeard dwellings, under the farthest north-eastern outskirts of the Grey Mountains. ‘Twas a small and rather poor clan that he visited there, consisting mostly of older Dwarves, under the leadership of a venerable matriarch well beyond three hundred years. All the younger ones had moved on, to the Iron Hills or to Erebor itself, where there was more challenging work for them to do, and where they had better hopes to find a suitable mate. This ancient dwelling place, once that had housed the FireBeard clans since the fall of their great city Tumunzahar, would likely to be abandoned and empty within a generation.
Somehow Óin found that thought a sad one. The place, like all places where Dwarves had dwelt for a long time, had deep roots and long memories. It was a piece of history for Mahal’s Children; a small and insignificant piece perhaps, but without it the world of Dwarves would be bereft of some of its richness. The LongBeard Kings, to whom Óin himself was related from the side, might have been the most powerful and respected Dwarf-Lords now; but there had been a time, in the days of Tumunzahar’s might, when the FireBeards had been almost their equals. And with every piece of their lost history, they sank just a little deeper into insignificance.
It was a shame, really, and a great loss for all Dwarves.
The clan took Óin in with the customary hospitality shown to any clansmen. His long, forked beard might be of a much darker shade of red than theirs, and his eyes might be beetle-black instead of the bright brown or green that was most common among them, but he still clearly showed the typical FireBeard traits, even after generations of intermarriage with the LongBeards. Thus he was considered kin. Not close kin, for sure, but kin nonetheless; and as distant kin, he was offered a place at the bonfire and a mug of the home-brewed ale that they had saved to celebrate Durin’s Day in the proper manner.
The clan members all being well beyond their middle years, there was little dancing at the bonfire in the night of Durin’s day. Most of them could no longer take that kind of exertion upon themselves, as either the beating of the great drums all night or the dancing itself would have exhausted them completely. There was much singing, however, of songs so old that Óin barely recognized a couple of them; and there was a great deal of storytelling going on.
Óin, being in his best years himself, danced as long as the drummers could keep on beating their instruments. Afterwards, he wrapped himself into a bearskin blanket against the chill of the night and sat down at the bonfire to listen to the storytellers. One in particular intrigued him very much; one that seemed to know strange, ancient tales, the likes of which he had never heard before. They were mostly about dragons, which was the very thing that had caught Óin’s interest in the first place.
While listening to the tale, Óin was watching the storyteller with almost as much interest, for he, too, was every bit as intriguing as the tales he readily told. Small for a Dwarf, albeit not overly so, he was almost as board as he was tall, and he appeared incredibly strong. He was wearing a sleeveless mail shirt under his thick leather hauberk that left bare his great, tattooed arms, almost as big as tree trunks; only his forearms were protected by scaled steel vambrances. His cloak was tattered and his short, heavily booted legs wrapped, a clear sign that he was one of the Wanderers: those of unknown origins, without a family, a home or any close kin.
He had to be a skilled and seasoned warrior, though, for the short pole-axe he carried and the broadsword on his back – almost big enough for a grown Man – showed the workmanship of an excellent weaponsmith, even though his jewellery, mostly decorative buttons and rings worn on his leather hauberk, on his hood or on the bracelets emphasizing his huge upper arm muscles, were made of brass, as if he did not want to tempt thieves and robbers on the lonely roads. Even though there could be no doubt that he was more than capable of defending himself and his meagre belongings, should the need arise.
His fiery read beard was surprisingly short for a Dwarf of his apparent age, but again, Wanderers had different customs. It was held together by a simple brass clasp, while his long moustache hung down to his chest, unbraided. His eyes were small, round and beetle-black, like those of the BroadBeams; perhaps he had a few ancestors from those clans in his line, too.
But what drew Óin’s attention most strongly were his tattoos. They covered the right side on his face and his entire upper body… patterns of a strange design Óin had not seen on living flesh before, and yet they seemed eerily familiar to him. Somewhere, perchance in some arcane book of ancient lore, he had seen such patterns already. He just could not remember when and where.
The stranger’s voice, too, had a mysterious quality to it: it was a deep, rumbling voice, and he spoke in that special, singsong tone only the greatest storytellers could use to full effect – or those well-versed in the using of spells and magic. Such had not been seen among Dwarves for many generations; not that Óin had heard of it in any case, and he had spent his recent years with collecting the strangest stories and the most outrageous gossip one could imagine.
“Dragons,” the stranger was saying, “hail from the First Age of the Sun. The Dark Enemy, whom the Fading Ones call Morgoth, was hiding himself in the Pits of Angband, his great fortress in the North, and wrought them as his masterpieces of evil, from flame and sorcery. They were the dark jewels of his mastery – the Great Worms, the ones we call dragons...”
“Forgive me,” said Óin interrupting the storyteller with a properly apologetic gesture, “but I have been told that Morgoth was not capable of creating anything new. That is why he had to capture Elves to turn them into Orcs, through torture and dark sorcery, and why he made the Trolls to the mockery of the tree-shepherds… should those truly exist.”
The storyteller stared at him from under thick russet eyebrows. “Oh, but they do exist, my curious friends,” he said. “I have seen them with my very eyes, on my journeys across the lands of the Horse-lords. We cannot tell what kind of creature did The Dark Enemy twist and corrupt ‘til he came to the creation of the Worms. We only know that he made three kinds: great serpents that slithered on their bellies over the ground; those that walked on legs, and those that flew with wings like a bat.”
“I have heard tales of Glaurung, the Father of Dragons, and of Ancalagon the Black,” said Óin, “but never about the first two kinds. Can you tell me more?”
The storyteller shook his massive head. “I, too, know no more about them than that they had once existed. All the tales I have heard are about the winged dragons: the Cold-drakes, who fought with fang and claw, and the famed Urulóki, the Fire-drakes, who destroyed with breath of flame. But whatever kind they might have belonged to, in one thing they were all alike: all of them were the embodiment of the chief evils of Men, Elves and Dwarves, and thus were great in their destruction of all three races.”
“I have seen what they could do,” muttered Óin, his heart filling with painful memories.
“You have not seen half of it,” replied the storyteller. “Terrible though Smaug the Golden might have been and great the desolation that he had wrought, yet he was but a hatchling compared with the dragons of the Elder Days, which were in themselves vast armouries, working towards the Dark Enemy’s aim. Reptiles of massive size they were, protected by scales of impenetrable iron.”
“But the scales of Smaug were of gold,” pointed out Óin, “and yet neither sword nor arrow could penetrate his coat, save that one naked patch on his left breast. We have always been wondering how mere gold could have become so impenetrable to almost every weapon.”
“That comes from the heat of dragonfire, which could melt even the Rings of Power,” said the storyteller. “It can melt both gold and iron and fuse hem to an alloy that unites the best qualities of both metals. If a dragon lies down on a heap of gold, right after a vicious fight in which it had spent a lot of fire, its heated body melts the gold and fuses it with its iron scales.”
“That is something I never heard of before,” said Óin in surprise… even a little doubtfully.
The storyteller shrugged. “’Tis not widely known. Few of us have ever studied dragon lore – I am well pleased to meet someone like you with a true interest.”
“Well,” said Óin, “I have been there when we faced Smaug the last time. Even if it is true that he cannot be compared with the Great Worms of the First Age, he was still a mighty beast. His teeth and talons were like javelins and rapiers, and his tail could crush the shield-wall of any army. He swept the land below him like the storm of wind, and he breathed scarlet flames that scorched the earth and destroyed all in their path.”
The storyteller nodded. “That is the way of all Fire-drakes. But pure strength was not their only weapon. They possessed more subtle powers, too. Their eyesight was keener than that of the falcon or the hawk; and whatever they sighted, it could not escape them. Their hearing was most acute, too; they would catch the sound of the slightest breath of the most silent enemy; and their unique sense of smell allowed them to name any creature by the least odour of its flesh.”
“Oh, aye,” Óin laughed. “That was why our esteemed burglar, the Halfling, did confuse Smaug so much. The old Worm could not see him; and his smell was one that no dragon had encountered before.”
“Halflings are elusive creatures,” agreed the storyteller, “but your burglar did take a great risk to get involved in a riddle game with a dragon, as I was told. They say that dragons had once been ancient serpents, and thus kept their intense cleverness and knowledge, even after their transformation into Morgoth’s creatures.”
“Cleverness and knowledge… yet not wisdom,” said Óin thoughtfully.
“Nay,” said the storyteller in agreement, “for their intelligence had the flaws of vanity, gluttony, greed, deceit and wrath – all the poisons of the soul that do the other races the most harm.”
“And those are exactly the flaws one could detect by Elves and Men… and even Dwarves, should they happen to catch the Dragon Sickness,” added Óin grimly.
“That is, sadly, true,” answered the storyteller slowly.
“Is it true that they feared water and sunlight?” asked someone from the other Dwarves who had listened to the discussion with rapt interest.
“Nay,” said Óin promptly. “At least Smaug had no fear to show himself at daytime… or to attack Laketown directly, which, after all, did lie within the Long Lake.”
“That may be so,” said the storyteller. “’Tis true nonetheless that dragons shunned water, if they could, and preferred darkness to the light of the day. That comes from their nature, as they were created chiefly of fire and sorcery. ‘Tis the same with Orcs – they can bear the water, even cross it on rafts if they have to, but they avoid it whenever they can.”
“Can bathing in dragon-blood truly make you invulnerable to all weapons?” asked someone else.
The storyteller shook his head. “Nay, it cannot. Dragon-blood was not only black, it was also deadly poison, and the vapours of the worm-stench were of burning sulphur and slime.”
“Oh, aye,” said Óin with feeling. “I can remember. It took us years to get that stench out of the halls under the Mountain, with constant scrubbing and airing and burning incense, sometimes even removing entire layers of the stone walls. Our Halfling friend also said, though, that Smaug’s body glowed with a hard, gem-like light all the time.”
“All Fire-drakes did, from what I have heard,” replied the storyteller. “Also, all dragons had cruel, harsh, whisper-like reptilian voices, unless they were laughing; for their laugher was deeper than well-shafts and made the very mountains shake.”
Óin nodded. “I remember that our poor little burglar was nearly deafened by it. He also said that the eye of the Worm emitted rays of ruby light. or flashed red lightning when it was enraged.”
“The serpent-eyes of the dragons could do more than just that,” said the storyteller grimly. “Contained with their voices, they invoked the dragon-spell that bound unwary foes and made them wish to surrender to the Worm’s awesome will.”
“Not even the greatest heroes of the Elder could withstand the dragon-spell, or so the laments of the Elves say,” said Óin in agreement. The more were we surprised that Bilbo came away unscathed. But Halflings are a hardy little folk that can withstand forces of evil that many greater races would be defeated by… if the Grey Wizard is not mistaken.”
“Tharkûn?” asked the storyteller in surprise. “So he was the one behind your daring enterprise? I should have known.”
“You know Gandalf the Grey?” asked Óin, equally surprised.
“We never met in person,” replied the storyteller. “But I have been hearing strange tales about him for a great many years. I have made it my agenda to learn as much about him as I might. His strength is fire; and so is mine.”
Óin frowned; he found that statement more than a little confusing. “Are you some sort of Dwarven wizard, then?”
“Nay,” said the storyteller, “although I do know one. But where are my manners?” he rose from the blanket he had been sitting on and bowed deeply. “Miödvitnir the Rune-smith, at your service,” he said.
Óin was thunderstruck by that declaration. A Rune-smith! Only those with a special interest for ancient lore – people like himself – had heard about this mysterious kind of magic users that had only ever emerged from the FireBeard clans. Now he knew why the storyteller’s tattoos seemed so familiar to him. They were no mere patterns – they were enchanted runes, from which the Rune-smith drew power to work his magic; and through the tattooed runes, he could draw power from the earth itself. Few Dwarves had ever been able to use earth magic the way Elves did, but the few that had learned how to do it were powerful and dangerous.
So Óin rose, too, and bowed so deeply that his red-brown braid, thicker than his own arm, swept the ground.
“Óin son of Gróin, at yours and your family’s,” he replied. “Forgive my bafflement; I have never met a Rune-smith before. Quite frankly, I thought your kind had vanished from Middle-earth with the fall of Tumunzahar. We all know how very few of that great city could escape.”
“Few indeed, and even those and their progeny have ever been shunned for that unfortunate… event with the King of Doriath and his cursed jewel,” said the Rune-smith grimly. Then he gave Óin a closer look. “The son of Gróin, eh? Of the blood of Dáin, last King under the Grey Mountains, right? The one who was killed by a Cold-drake, with his second son, Frór, was it not?”
Óin nodded and grinned. “That is true, although the danger that kingship might fall to our family is, fortunately, diminutive.”
The Rune-smith remained grave… and, for some reason, vaguely suspicious. “And you are the son of the Lady Frey, too?” he asked. “Her name has ever been a most respected one among the FireBeard clans.”
Óin nodded again. “I am indeed, and proud to carry her heritage. Sadly, she did not live to see the fall of the Dragon.”
“To carry her… heritage,” the Rune-smith repeated slowly. “Does this mean that you have inherited the fire-touch?”
Once more, Óin nodded. “Aye; and so have my brother and his firstborn. None of their other sons, though, albeit he, too, married a dam of our mother’s people, the Lady Nais.”
“Three in a single family are more than any Dwarf can hope for,” answered the Rune-smith solemnly. “You should value and nurture this ability of yours, as it has become increasingly rare among Mahal’s Children. So very few are nowadays with fire being their element, as it is yours and mine.”
“Not truly,” laughed Óin. “I could never dream of the kind of powers you most likely wield on a daily basis.”
“It matters little,” said the Rune-smith. “What truly matters is the gift you were born with: the affinity for fire, the skill to capture and master it. Aught else can be learned; ‘tis only a matter of time and determination.”
“I have no wish to become a magic user,” said Óin with a shrug. “My skills at the forge satisfy me.”
One thick, russet eyebrow calmed so high that it vanished under Miödvitnir’s tattered black hood. “Oh?” he said with obvious doubt. “Why are you here, then?”
“To learn more about the dragons,” replied Óin. “My ultimate goal is to enter the Withered Heat and see whether any of them are still hiding there.”
“An ambitious task,” said the Rune-smith. “You have not planned to go there on your own, though, I hope?”
“Why should I not?” retorted Óin. “I have a much better chance to slip in and out again unnoticed when I am alone than leading whole armies.”
“Mayhap so,” replied the Rune-smith. “But without a guide to show you the safe paths, you would get lost and die in that barren wasteland in no time. You cannot begin to imagine what the abode of the Worms is like.”
“I would not say so,” riposted Óin, a little insulted. “I have seen the desolation of the Dragon around the Mountain close enough.”
“You have seen the desolation of one dragon, and not even one of the mightiest, had caused,” pointed out the Rune-smith. “The Withered Heath used to be their abode; they had spent hundreds, mayhap thousands of years there. Nay; only one who has seen it with his own eyes can imagine what the lands that had to endure the constant presence of the Worms so long are like.”
“Have you seen them?” asked Óin. The Rune-smith shrugged.
“I have but skimmed the outskirts a few times; never dared to go in too deeply, though. Those lands there are deader than dead….l who knows what creatures might sleep there, under the thick blanket of centuries-old ash and soot. ‘Tis better not to disturb them.”
Óin thought about that for a while. There was wisdom in the words of the Rune-smith, wisdom won by experiences of a long life. Miödvitnir seemed in his middle years, too; but his deep eyes, cold and unfathomably dark, spoke of more; either of a higher age or of most… profound experiences.
“I still believe I ought to go there,” Óin finally said. “Could you guide me at least as far as you have gone in? Mayhap I shall find another guide for the rest of the way.”
‘Twas Miödvitnir’s turn to think about it now, and he took his time to weigh the pros and contras in his mind carefully.
“I shall take you to Eikinskialdi who dwells just within the borders of that place,” he said at last. “If he will be willing to guide you any further, I cannot tell. He is a Dwarf of strange opinions… but he is the only one who ever goes there.”
“Eikinskialdi,” repeated Óin thoughtfully. Although he heard the name for the first time in his life, it left a peculiar, resounding echo, more in his heart than in his ears. As if someone had called out to him from the shadowy depths of Time itself, from an Age long gone when magic and strange powers were more common than in these lesser days. “Who is he that he chose to live in such a dreary place?”
The Rune-smith shrugged, and for the first time Óin said uncertainty shadowing his broad, weather-beaten face.
“I cannot tell you who he is,” he answered, “as he never speaks of himself, not even in vague hints. But I can tell you what he is.”
“And that would be…?” Óin trailed off expectantly.
“A Fire-mage,” replied the Rune-smith. At Óin’s blank look, he sighed and launched into a more detailed explanation. “A creature with the inherited power to wield fire as a weapon… or as a tool of magic. The ancient sagas tell us that in the Elder Days, the Fire-mages of the FireBeard clans used to be the last, strongest line of defence in the great city of Tumunzahar. They had been much feared and respected among our ancestors, long before our people encountered the Fading Ones for the first time. They could ignite anything, save water or stone, through a simple spell or by sheer willpower. And if endangered, they could call up fireballs and hurl them at their attackers.”
“Sounds way too much like dragons to me,” commented Óin, his discomfort plainly obvious. He was no longer sure he truly wanted such a person to guide him across dragon territory – not even in the hopefully fortunate case that there were no dragons left there.
The Rune-smith chuckled; it was a surprisingly pleasant sound, the first such as Óin had heard of him so far.
“Nay,” he said, “Eikinskialdi might have the tempers of a cornered dragon – well, to be perfectly honest, he is probably worse – but rest assured that he is very different from the Worms. To begin with, dragons have a natural armour of very hard iron scales, as you all know. Fire-mages on the other hand cannot even bear the touch of iron.”
“Why not?” asked Óin, momentarily bewildered.
“’Tis their nature,” answered the Rune-smith with a shrug, “the price they pay for their powers. Iron burns them, even if melted into an alloy with some other metal; which is the reason why they generally avoid keeping any things made of metal, save of gold, which seems to fuel their natural powers somehow.”
“That makes sense,” said Óin. “Gold is the metal of the Sun, and the Sun is the source of every clean fire. Only the dark flames of Udûn come from below.”
“Perhaps,” allowed Miödvitnir. “In any case, ‘tis true, strange as it might sound. I have had to dress Eikinskialdi’s fearsome burns quite a few times when he happened to touch things of iron by accident.”
“It must be complicated, for a Dwarf, not being able to even touch any decent tools or weapons,” said Óin.
“Oh, he manages well enough, as long as he is left alone,” replied the Rune-smith. “’Tis the visitors who get him in trouble from time to time. Few among us think of the danger our scattered items would mean for a Fire-mage… and how many of our tools and weapons are made of iron, at least partially.”
“Even so, is it truly necessary for this mage to live in such an evil place?” Óin shook his head, failing to understand the reasons for doing so.
“’Tis said that their kind has always been solitary,” answered the Rune-smith thoughtfully, “but nay, they are not forbidden to live among ordinary people. In fact, they were supposed to do so, to teach and protect the others – that is what their powers had been meant for, and many of them performed that task admirably as long as Tumunzahar stood. In Eikinskialdi’s case, though, there is a sound reason for him to live within the Withered Heath.”
“Why?” demanded Óin. “What is he doing there, on his own?”
“I am not truly certain what he is doing now,” admitted the Rune-smith. “But up “til the coming of Sauron to Erebor, he used to study Dragons.”
“Are you telling me that he has been out there since Smaug’s heyday?” asked Óin, completely flabbergasted.
“And long before,” said Miödvitnir. “I know not how old he truly is; I only know that several hundred years ago, when I first came across him, he looked exactly the same as he looks now – and he was already a very old Dwarf back then. Ancient even.”
Óin stared at him in disbelief. “Nay,” he said. You cannot be that old. Several hundred years, you say? I would have thought you to be of roughly my own age.”
“And you would have been mistaken,” replied the Rune-smith. “I am older than I look… much older. I have been already roaming these mountains when your ancestor, Dáin I, was King of the Dwarf city under the Ered Mithrin… and I was no longer young in those days, either.”
“But how is that possible?” whispered Óin. The oldest Dwarf he knew of had lived to see four hundred and some years; and in the middle of his fourth century, poor Bombur had begun to fatten up enormously, which was a sure sign, especially for BroadBeams, that they had entered the last phase of their lives. “Is it the magic that you wield?” he asked. “Or the runes you bear?”
“They do help a little,” admitted the Rune-smith. “But that which has slowed down my aging process is this.”
And raising his left hand, he showed Óin the ring he wore on his middle finger. It was a beautifully crafted one, despite of its simplicity: a thick, smooth band of some strange blue metal, set with a flat, square black stone and etched with powerful runes all around.
“Nay, ‘tis not one of the Seven, similar though it might look,” he said, seeing Óin’s shocked visage. “Those have all been destroyed, and ‘tis good so. Never had they brought our chieftains aught but trouble and sorrow. This one, however… this is one of the lesser Rings, made by Khelebrimbur himself, and untouched by the Dark Lord’s evil.”
“And yet it gives you eternal youth?” asked Óin.
The Rune-smith shook his head. “Nay, it does not. I am still aging – only at a much slower speed. Should I get tired of my life, all I shall have to do is to take the Ring off. Age would catch up with me again, and I would grow old and die and be gone in no time.”
“What else does the Ring do for you?” Óin was still suspicious. Tales about the Seven and how they had increased the greed and mistrust in the hearts of the Kings of old were well-known among his clan; he would think twice ere he would trust someone who was wearing one of the Rings, even a lesser one.
Miödvitnir shrugged. “Not much, to tell the truth. It merely enhances my natural abilities. I was a Rune-smith already, and a seasoned warrior, when I received it. As for my affinity for the fire… I was born with that, just like your.”
Óin shook his head vigorously. “Oh, not like me, nay. My modest little gift is nowhere near to that of a Rune-smith.”
“That might be true, yet you were born with it already, just like I was born with mine; or do you believe FireBeards are named just for their red beards?” said Miödvitnir. “We all have begun on a modest scale – I simply had more time to hone my skills, that is all.”
“Where did you get the Ring?” asked Óin. “Can you be truly certain that Sauron never touched it?”
The Rune-smith nodded. “That I can indeed. For the lesser Rings, the ones wrought before the Rings of Power, were gifted upon a few Dwarves of Khazad-dûm by Khelebrimbur himself. Since the days of Felakkundu, he was the first Elf who considered our people as friends and equals, seeing the fellow artisans in us rather than some ugly, stunned creatures like the rest of his race did. As they still do.”
“Not all of them are like that,” protested Óin. “Master Elrond, the Lord of Rivendell, has ever been friendly and generous to our people… which is not surprising, as Erestor of Ost-in-Edhil is his chief advisor.”
“Perhaps,” said Miödvitnir reluctantly. “But no-one can be compared with Khelebrimbur and his great friendship to Master Narvi. Never before was such closeness known before an Elf and a Dwarf… and never again, after they were both gone. Narvi himself was the first to accept one of the lesser Rings from Khelebrimbur’s hand, for he was old already, and his Elven friend, not being able to bear the loss of him just yet, begged him to do so. There were others who followed his lead; not many, but there were, and their Rings, after they had chosen to lay them down and go to their fathers in the Halls of Waiting, were handed down to their progeny. A distant ancestor of mine was one of those, and thus the Ring came to me by birthright, passing over two generations, for I was the only one born with the fire-touch.”
“Does Narvi’s Ring still exist, too?” asked Óin. “As far as we know, he had not sons; but, of course, I have never heard of him wearing such a Ring, either.”
“The Dragon Ring of Khazad-dûm went to Narvi’s best student after his parting,” replied the Rune-smith, “and remained in the possession of the best artisans of Khazad-dûm afterwards, ‘til Durin’s Bane was awakened and our people had to flee the great city. Refugees brought it to the Ered Mithrin, and it has been in Eikinskialdi’s keeping ever since.”
“But… but that was a very long time ago,” said Óin in awe. “Even with the help of a lesser Ring, even with Narvi’s own Ring, how could the Fire-mage have lived so long?”
“He does not need a magic Ring to lengthen his life,” answered Miödvitnir. “As you have noticed already, Fire-mages do have a few common traits with dragons, despite the profound differences. They age very, very slowly, and – unless they are slain – they do not die of natural causes. ‘Tis either the Fire that dwells in their very bones, or the magic they are born with.”
“Why are then no more of them among us?” asked one of their hosts.
“A very long life can be as much a curse as it is a blessing sometimes,” said Miödvitnir slowly, no stranger to that particular burden himself. “I am told that the others had gradually become weary of life; of the horrors they had seen and the losses they had suffered. In the end, they laid down their lives willingly; for like some Men, they, too had been granted the gift to do so, should the longing to go to their fathers and rest become overwhelming.”
The other Dwarves around the bonfire nodded in understanding. Being a long-lived race, it happened sometimes that one of them grew weary of life, and as they were not granted the gift of simply laying it down, such Dwarves usually fell in a deep melancholy and slowly withered away ‘til death had mercy with them. That could take years upon years in some cases, and it was a cruel thing for the family to watch. Having the ability to part at will must have been a great gift indeed, they found.
“Now I understand how the Fire-mage could hold out on his dwelling place so long,” said the Matriarch. She, too, seemed starting to grow weary of her high age; her thick hair was iron grey, and her face like withered stone. “In my youth, he happened to visit our caves sometimes; but he has not come for a very long time. I wonder, though, why would he wish to study the way of the Worms; and why does he keep doing it now that they are gone.”
“To understand the power of dragons might help him to hone his own skills,” said Óin thoughtfully, “or to understand the origins of the Fire which lives within him.”
The Rune-smith shrugged. “That I cannot tell, for he is not very forthcoming when it is about his own person or his own agendas,” he repeated his former statement. “But he is willing to tolerate those who are born with the fire-touch, and even share some of his vast knowledge with them. I have learned much from him in the long years of our acquaintance, and I am certain that you, too, will greatly benefit from an encounter with him.”
That was certainly very true. And so it happened that – despite his suspicions and misgivings – Óin son of Gróin decided to accept the offer of Miödvitnir the Rune-smith to take him to the Fire-mage’s cave.