This chapter has been inserted after more than two years, because I felt from the beginning that the transition between Náli’s rescue and the meeting with Flói in Mirkwood was too abrupt. So, here you can follow the journey of Rei and Náli from Bree to that point. As it would be too long otherwise, I’m going to post it in two parts
CHAPTER 03A – THE ROAD GOES EVER ON, PART 1
As Farmer Maggot had warned them in advance, Hallavor and Rei found the village of Bree in quite the uproar. It was not so as if the patrons of the Pony had never been stolen from before – but having snatched the steed of a guest and pilfered the inn’s own storerooms, all this without anyone noticing a thing, was something new and worrisome in the eyes of the Bree-folk. Master Butterbur, who was not only the owner of the inn but also the provost of the village and the head of their Council, was beside himself with righteous anger.
“Never has such a thing happened in my time!” he complained, raising his hands in horror. “A good pony stolen from an esteemed guest, from under the very nose of my stable hand, and him a Hobbit and all, who hears the grass growing on a good day! What are we coming to? I marvel how that little thief has achieved that in the first place?”
Indeed, fooling the eyes and the ears of a Hobbit was no small feat, not even for a Dwarven thief, who would have been able to get by most other people. Small wonder that the good Master Butterbur was a tad upset.
“Well, it was a Dwarf pony,” Hallavor pointed out reasonably, “and it might have smelled its mistress on the thief. He had spent part of the evening in our company, after all.”
“True enough,” allowed Master Butterbur, his beady little eyes narrowing in suspicion. “And what business was a thief having with ya, Longshanks? You Rangers truly are a strange lot.”
“He looked like one who had not had a good meal for some time,” replied Hallavor with a shrug; the bad reputation of his kind among the very people they had been protecting, often at the cost of their very lives, for uncounted years, no longer bothered him. “We did not know he was a thief; and ‘tis a rare thing to see a Dwarf travelling alone.”
“True again,” said the innkeeper reluctantly. “You’ve paid the price for yer good-heartedness, it seems. But I warn ya: as you’ve invited the thief to yer own table, I cannot be made responsible for yer loss.”
“Nor have I expected it,” answered the Ranger. “However, as both thief and pony seem to have gone lost in the Barrows, my daughter here will need a new steed. Do you think you could help us with finding one?”
Master Butterbur eyed Rei and her heavy saddlebags doubtfully. “We ain’t have them Dwarf ponies here in Bree as a rule, and I don’t think a lesser one could carry her and her belongings,” he said. “But I shall see what I can do for ya.”
It took a few hours, but in the end the innkeeper did find them a Dwarf pony indeed: a small, dun-coloured, ill-fed creature for its kind. It had lamed and been left behind as useless by a Dwarven merchant group a couple of weeks before, but a Hobbit farmer named Appleseed had taken a liking to it and nursed it back to health again. It was not such a noble beast as Rei’s own Baraz, and it was still way too underfed, but it would do, Rei decided. At least if would be able to carry her weight without staggering – the usual Hobbit ponies would not.
After some long and delightful haggling, they agreed in the price, and Rei led over the pony – a gelding by the name of Toby – to the stables of the inn.
“So, what are you planning to do now?” asked Hallavor, when they could be certain that no-one else was listening.
“I shall take Toby to the Forsaken Inn,” answered Rei with a shrug. “That little fool gave me all the jewels he had got out of the Barrows, every single one of them. ‘Tis only fair that I give him at least a steed to ride in exchange. For I want my Baraz back.”
“And after you have made that exchange?” pressed Hallavor. “What then?”
“I am not sure,” admitted Rei. “What you have said about seeking out my own kind… I would like to do that. Mayhap I should pay Erebor a visit, as I have already seen the settlements in the Ered Luin and have no wish to live there. I might fit in with the people in Erebor better.”
“That is a long and arduous journey for someone on their own, even for a Dwarf,” warned Hallavor. “Thorin Oakenshield and his company needed eighty-four days between the Shire and Laketown; and while they were forced to make detours here and there, which you might be able to avoid, it would still take months. And even in these days, the Road is full of danger for a lonely traveller.”
Rei sighed. “I know that, Adar. But I feel this burning urge to see the Kingdom of legends under the Mountain; and mayhap I shan’t have to travel alone.”
Hallavor gave her a sharp look. “Are you planning to take your little thief with you on that journey?”
“He would come,” said Rei confidently. “He is a Wanderer without a family.”
“And he has fallen for you beyond help,” added Hallavor. “Would it be fair to him, though? To use the longing he cannot free himself from, just so that you would have a travelling companion?”
“It would give me the chance to know him better,” said Rei. “Besides, he cannot remain here if he values his neck, can he? The Bree-folk are decent people and friendly to all creatures, small or large, but they would have no qualm hanging him.”
Hallavor shook his head in tolerant amusement. Only a Dwarf could have such love for rare jewels, the heart’s blood of earth and stone, that a generous courting gift of precious stones, taken from a haunted barrow by risking one’s very life, would soften them towards a previously unwanted suitor so much. ‘Twas amazing how quickly Rei had come from wanting to tear Náli apart with her bare hands to considering travelling with him all the way to Erebor.
On the other hand, the moonstones were indeed rare and precious beyond imagination; almost as much as mithril in these days, or perchance even more so, as they could not be found in Middle-earth at all. And it was not so as if Rei would have anything to fear from the besotted little thief. Aside from the deeply ingrained respect of Dwarf males towards their women – towards any Dwarf-dam, not just the one commanding their hearts – she was a trained warrior. She could have beaten male Dwarves twice her size without breaking a sweat.
“Very well,” the Ranger said. “If ‘tis truly your wish to get in touch with your own kind again, I shall not stand in your way. We can even travel together, as far as the Last Bridge; it is on my way to the Angle, after all, and our paths will run together for quite a while yet.”
Rei would never show the relief that filled her heart, realising that her foster father was right. Adventurous and brave though she might have been, ‘tis was good to have Hallavor’s guidance for a good portion of the way.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Náli reached the Forsaken Inn almost a day before Rei’s arrival, but that was not surprising. Rei had to return to Bree first, to brig back Master Butterbur’s pony and to pick up her and her foster father’s belongings, while Náli himself could take the direct way. Moreover, as he was still riding Rei’s sturdy and resilient hill pony, he could cover some twenty to twenty-five miles a day easily.
He crossed the Greenway right above the defile of Andrath – a broad ridge of downlands, an eastern outlier of the Barrow-downs, south from the Bree-land – and rode in a more or less straight line eastwards, until he hit the Great East Road again. From there, he simply had to follow the Road itself, until he caught sight of the Inn. That was familiar territory already, as he was basically backtracking the same way he had come with the FireBeard merchant caravan only a few weeks earlier.
The Forsaken Inn – in truth barely more than an ale-house with only a handful of chambers for guests passing by who wanted to spend the night under a solid roof – was a relic from the old days of Eriador, when the roads of the North-kingdom had been much travelled and well watched, and trade had been flourishing. One look at the building revealed that its better days were long gone, but at least it still had a roof, even though a damaged one, and it still could be used as a resting place.
Built on a small, flat hillock overlooking the Road, it was a moderate, two-storey building, made of whitewash and sturdy oak beams, with a few trees on one side, weatherworn to the point of slowly falling apart, and clearly in desperate need of a new roof. But one could still sleep in what once had been the common room without getting drenched, should a quick shower of rain sweep over the Road.
Entering said common room, leading Rei’s pony on the reins, Náli looked around with interest. He had parted ways with the FireBeard merchants right before reaching the Inn, so this was his first chance to see it from the inside – and he found that he liked what he saw.
The common room must have been a welcoming place, back when it had still served guests. It was a large hall, once probably filled with sturdy tables; large enough for several dozen customers. It was empty and had fallen in disrepair long ago, save from the huge stone fireplace dominating the end of it; one large enough to crouch in and to spend warmth for the whole building, if properly heated. Náli walked over to it, admiring the excellent stonework and wondering if a Dwarven stone-mason had been involved. He could not find the usual signature symbol of any known artisan, but that did not mean a thing. It could have been a young, skilled apprentice who had not yet earned the right to have a symbol of his own. The recurring motives of sun and stars could have meant a StoneFoot mason; they loved to decorate their handiwork with such celestial symbols.
The counter on the left, behind which a now unhinged door led to what had probably been the kitchen, must have been a wonderful piece of woodwork once, too… before more than the half of it had been hacked up for firewood. Its basic design could still be seen by the experienced eye: a half-circle of stout, dark-tanned oak, once perhaps polished and shiny, decorated with the carven images of grapevines and forest animals. The artisan in Náli – and there was one, however deeply hidden, in every single Dwarf’s heart, no matter which trade they ultimately chose to follow – mourned for the state of the once beautiful handiwork, but the counter was well and truly beyond repair by now.
Half a dozen rooms upstairs, meant for the owner’s family and for the odd customer, were in similarly desolate shape. The roof was leaking, the furniture long gone (probably to feed the great hearth below), and even the windows were missing. These must have been pleasant chambers once, though, with the great chimney running up in the middle, warming them nicely, without the need for a fire in the rooms themselves. Whoever had built the Inn all those years ago, they had designed it cleverly.
Náli returned to the common room that could serve him both as a stable for the pony and as a place where to sleep, and decided to make himself comfortable. Perhaps the Lady Rei would look at him with more acceptance if he prepared for her a suitable place to rest. Fortunately, her meagre belongings had been fastened to the pony’s saddlebags upon his departure for the Barrows, so he had all the things he needed.
The FireBeards who had passed through last had left a neat stock of firewood, but common courtesy demanded that he did the same for the next traveller coming this way. So he went out to the nearby woods to collect some. Fortunately, there was enough dead wood lying around on the forest ground; all he had to do was to drag the thick boughs back to the Inn and split them to right-sized pieces – not a true challenge for a Dwarf. He fetched a work-axe from his bundle and went to work.
He finished within a short hour. Then he kindled a small fire in the hearth, let out the pony to graze near the building and laid out his bedroll to rest. He was tired and more than a little shaken still from his recent adventure in the Barrows; yet sleep seemed to avoid him for quite some time, worried about his future as he was.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Rei and Hallavor reached the Forsaken Inn on the next day, around the third hour. They saw no need to hurry, and so they camped outdoors for the night, setting off for the last leg of their short journey just a little after sunrise. Hallavor set a moderate pace, secretly wishing to delay the parting from his beloved foster daughter as much as he could. For he knew already what Reid did not, not yet: that she would stay with her own kind; most likely with her little thief, too.
‘Twas hard to for a Dwarf to remain untouched by the smouldering heat of the love-longing aimed at one – or so the Wizard Gandalf, who knew more about Dwarves than anyone else who was not a Dwarf himself, had once said. The Rangers of the North were on friendly terms with the bearded race, but Dwarves guarded their secrets as jealously as they guarded their treasure, and Hallavor was quite certain that not even Rei had revealed him anything of true importance, in all the years that she had spent in his home, as part of his family.
After all those years, there still were many things Dwarven he did not know or could not fully understand. The true extent of the love-longing being one of those.
“You truly expect him to wait here for you, despite the danger of being found by the enraged Bree-folk?” he asked doubtfully. In love or not, every Man with half a sense of self-preservation would have ridden on, putting as much distance between himself and those who wanted to hang him as possible.
Rei smiled confidently. “Worry not. He will be here,” she said with utter certainly, knowing of her spell over the young male, even though not willingly cast. Then she raised a hand and pointed before them. “And there he is”
Following the direction in which she was pointing, Hallavor spotted the young Dwarf indeed. Náli was standing by the low stone troug next to the well in the courtyard, performing the cleansing ritual Dwarves meticulously observed each morning – assuming there was enough water available. They were a fastidious race, in spite of what other people (mostly prejudiced Men) would think about them.
Rei was watching her suitor with the eyes of a woman who, no matter what race, usually looked at something they liked a lot. Hallavor could not blame her. In the eyes of an unbiased beholder, the young thief was a handsome lad, even by the measure of Men. Perhaps about five feet even, which was not very tall for a Dwarf, he was still an inch or two taller than Rei, stocky and broad-shouldered, with large, flexible hands, his arms and legs corded with thick muscle. His broad back and wide chest tapered down to a trim waist and narrow hips. He was all muscle and sinew, with not an ounce of fat on him, but also lithe and cat-like fast at the same time.
“He does not look half-bad, for a scrawny little thief,” Rei judged, eyeing the handsome face, only partially obscured by the short, neat golden beard, with appreciation. It was a different emotion from Náli’s complete devotion to her – but it was a beginning, Hallavor found.
To give him credit as a woodsman, Náli spotted their approach earlier than most other people would have, and given that they were both Rangers, that was no small feat. Not the least bothered by his own partial nudity which, once again, showed that he was accustomed to living among Men, as most Dwarves were self-conscious when revealing their bodies to outsiders – he bowed politely, while water was still dripping from his hair and beard.
“Lady Rei, Master Longshanks… welcome. I have already kindled a fire in the common room, if you would care to rest and eat a bite,” he said.
“He has good manners for a Wanderer and a thief, I have to give him that,” whispered Rei to her foster father. “No doubt, though, that the food he offers has been… liberated from Master Butterbur’s pantries. I know not if we should accept.”
“We have compensated him for his losses, so we might have something out of it, I deem,” replied Hallavor philosophically, giving the old, faded leash-marks criss-crossing Náli’s back a meaningful look. It seemed the young thief had not always been successful in his undertakings; and Hallavor knew how harsh the Easterlings punished thievery, even in fairly minor cases.
Thus they all sat down in the common room of the Inn, as soon as Náli put his shirt on again, and had a modest breakfast of bread, cheese and dried meat. The only thing Rei contributed to the meal was tea, which Náli eyed with great interest.
“I heard of this but never tried it,” he said. “’Tis the herbal drink of the Halflings, is it not? They are said to be obsessed with it.”
Hallavor nodded. “It is called tea, and is quite different from the brews other people make of healing herbs. It requires a particular leaf, which Hobbits grow in the warm and wet southern part of their small country, and I find it has an invigorating effect. My people get it from the Shire, just like the pipeweed.”
Náli’s eyes brightened considerably at the mentioning of pipeweed. Like most Dwarves, he was clearly fond of it, but the longing on his face also revealed that it must have been quite a while since he had last had any.
“Oh, pipeweed,” he murmured. “I haven’t had a smoke since… well, since I had to flee Rhûn,” his face darkened with the memory of his slaughtered family. “There were times I thought I would go crazy without it; but food was a more pressing issue.”
The Ranger, quite devoted to the pipeweed of the Hobbits himself, had mercy with the young Dwarf and offered him his ersatz pipe – a simple wooden one – and a relaxing smoke. Náli accepted thankfully, and for a while they just sat there, blowing smoke rings in blissful silence, while Rei, who had not picked up the custom herself, wrinkled her nose and made wry faces when the smoke went her way.
“All right then,” said Hallavor, after they had emptied their pipes. “Let us make plans. I know what my daughter here has in mind, but where do you intend to go, Master Náli?”
The young Dwarf shrugged uncertainly.
“I truly cannot tell,” he replied. “Originally, I planned to raid the Barrows, and then go to the Blue Mountains with my booty. Try to find a place to live there; mayhap even learn a different trade. I have done the odd bit of leatherwork, nothing fancy, just horse gear, and I am good with ponies. There are small settlements of our Clan in the Blue Mountains; I hoped that I might fit in. But I cannot show my face so close to Bree any time soon, so that is no longer an option.”
“Not very likely,” Hallavor agreed.
“The same is true for this place,” added Náli, looking around in the half-ruined inn with regret. “I would not mind living here for a while, hunting for food, mayhap even doing some repairs. ‘Tis a good, solid building still; with a lot of work, the Inn could even be opened again. But it is too well-known and too close to Bree. I do not wish to wake up dangling from the end of a rope one day.”
“So you have no plans for the immediate future?” asked the Ranger.
Náli shook his head. “None.”
“Then I shall make you an offer,” said Hallavor. “My daughter found in her heart the wish to visit her kind in Erebor: to see the Kingdom under the Mountain with her own eyes. However, I cannot go with her any further than the Last Bridge; I have obligations towards my own people that I cannot ignore. Would you be willing to go with her?”
‘Twas a rhetorical question, of course. They both knew that Náli would follow Rei anywhere, as long as she tolerated his company. But courtship and matchmaking had their unwritten rules that had to be followed. Also, the request signalled Rei’s willingness to accept Náli’s suit, at the very least, if nought else; thus Náli agreed to go with her readily and happily.
“Excellent,” said Hallavor. “Now, ponies like yours can get from here to the Weathertop, which is halfway from Bree to the Last Bridge, in six days; in five, if you ride in a great hurry, but I see no reason for that.”
“The merchants who hired me as a guard took seven days from the Water Hills to here,” said Náli, “but their heavily loaded carts slowed them down considerably.”
Hallavor nodded in agreement, “We shan’t have the same burden; yet it would be better to go at a slower pace, for your steeds will have a long way before them yet. We can get from the Weathertop to the Last Bridge in less than a week, though; there I shall turn to the South, for my way leads me to the Angle, and you can go on to the North, towards the High Pass, after crossing the River Hoarwell.”
“I know,” said Náli. “I came the same way with my FireBeard employers. I can backtrack our path across Mirkwood on the Old Forest Road; ’tis quite safe in these days, as the Wood-Elves have driven the Great Spiders back south from the Road. If we are watchful, we ought to reach the River Running without difficulties. From then on, all we need to do is to follow the river northwards. It will lead us directly to the Mountain.”
“That it will,” Hallavor agreed. “Young as you may be, Master Náli, you already are a Dwarf of many journeys, it seems.”
The young thief shrugged. “I am a Wanderer, from a long line of Wanderers. My kin has known nought else for unnumbered generations.”
Hallavor kept his expression carefully neutral. He had learned enough about Dwarves on his long journeys across Eriador, not to mention through his rare encounters with the Grey and Brown Wizards, to know that StiffBeards in general and Wanderers in particular were looked down at by wealthier, more powerful clans. Which was foolish, considering their vitally important role in Dwarven economics. After all, they provided everyone else with the sturdy Dwarf ponies and saw to it that the wares were brought from one settlement to the other, wherever they were needed. They were the backbone of Dwarven society, counting the highest numbers due to their large families, and performing the most menial tasks others found below their dignity. Yet without the StiffBeards to do all that hard and dirty work, every Dwarven settlement would long have drowned in chaos.
Náli, for his part, did not seem the least ashamed about the twin stigmata he had to wear: being a lowly StiffBeard and a Wanderer – not to mention a professional thief. That, at least, was promising. Standing up for oneself was the beginning of commanding respect from others… something he would need if he wanted to win Rei’s heart and to find his place in Erebor. He was versatile and quick-witted, though; Hallavor doubted not that he would adapt.
“All right,” said the Ranger. “Let us rest here tonight. In the morn, we can set off for the Last Bridge with renewed strength again.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They spent the rest of the day and the following night in the Forsaken Inn: Hallavor and Rei went a-hunting in the afternoon and returned with several coneys, which they skinned and gutted to roast over the fire in the hearth, to have something to eat during next day’s journey.
In what once must have been the inn’s kitchen, Náli found several pots and cauldrons, most of them twisted and leaking, but he managed to hammer out the dents from a smaller one. In that, he made an excellent stew from the ears and legs and innards of the coneys, seasoning it with some herbs he found in the nearby woods and just a pinch of salt from his meagre provisions. Even Rei admitted that he was a very good cook, and after a dinner that filled even the bottomless Dwarven stomachs, they all went to bed contentedly.
In the next morning, they rose with the sun, as they wanted to get away from the neighbourhood of Bree quickly, for Náli’s sake. They ate the rest from the previous evening’s rabbit stew for breakfast, quickly re-packed their supplies and left the inn behind. Náli was greatly moved by the fact that Rei would have thought to bring a stead for him. Toby the pony might not look much, but it was surprisingly strong, like all Dwarf-ponies, and had a smooth gait, which a less experienced rider like Náli appreciated very much.
They rode for several days, in a slow but steady manner, with short breaks during the day and sleeping on their bedrolls under the stars at night, just a bit away from the roadside, in the woods. Both Hallavor and Rei knew these woods like the back of their hand, and so it was no hardship for them to find something edible on the way to save the supplies for the journey across the Wilderland: berries and mushrooms, eggs from birds’ nest, even honey at one occasion. They also hunted every other day, building up a supply of salted, roast meat for the less comfortable part of the young Dwarves’ journey.
‘Twas on the fifth day when the land before them began to rise steadily. Far away, in considerable distance in the east, the line of the Weather Hills appeared on the horizon. The highest of them – the one called the Weathertop – was at the right of the line and a little separated from the others. It looked like a turned-over tankard, slightly flattened on the summit.
“We’ve done well,” judged Hallavor. “The Road runs directly at the feet of the hills. If we go on as we have so far, we can reach the Weathertop by nightfall and rest on the summit, in the protection of its ancient stone ring.”
“I remember seeing it from afar,” said Náli. “It looked like a rough crown on the old hill’s head; a tad ominous, if you ask me. I wonder what it used to be in its heyday: a castle of some sort, where your people lived, Master Longshanks?”
“Not a castle; a great watch-tower, back before the North-kingdom would be divided,” replied the Ranger; he did not seem to mind Náli adopting the Bree-folk’s nickname for him. “My people never actually lived here; but they did defend these hills against the Witch-king of Angmar and his dark creatures. We shall follow the screened path that once served the forts along the walls; walls that have long been gone.”
“Screened paths?” asked Náli with interest. How can that be?”
“You’ll see ere night falls,” answered Hallavor, urging his horse to a faster pace.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As they pressed forth, only slightly faster than before, the hills drew closer like the jagged edge of a broken blade. In some places they rose to a thousand feet, in other places they fell to low clefts or passes again, which led to the eastern land beyond. As they came closer to the ridge, the young Dwarves could see along its crest the remains of what once must have been crumbled walls and dikes, now overgrown with green grass.
“There are still ruins of the old stonework in the cleft!” cried out Náli in surprise. “Your people clearly knew how to build sturdy walls.”
“What you see there is the last great effort of Númenórean craftsmanship,” said Hallavor solemnly. “The Men of the West brought knowledge with them, most of which has been forgotten in the meantime.”
“A shame,” commented Náli; like all Dwarves, even those not maser artisans themselves, he had great appreciation of all things made by skill, knowledge or magic. “But at least their work has endured to give weary travellers shelter, even in its ruins.”
Hallavor nodded in agreement, and they continued their journey. Right before nightfall they had reached the feet of the westward slopes. There they kindled a small fire and waited for the night.
“Tomorrow we will rest on Weathertop,” said Hallavor. “This is our sixth day out from Bree, for Rei and me, and I have not met any of my own kin yet, which is not how it should be. We are riding towards our home; we ought to have crossed paths with one of the patrols by now.”
“So, what are we doing then?” asked Rei with a frown. Hallavor sighed.
“The only thing we can: we go on and look out for any sign from our people. Let us hope this means no reappearance of Orcs or Wargs in these lands.”
That was an unsettling thought, and so they continued their journey in the morning in a much more sombre mood than before. After an hour they found the path of which the Ranger had spoken on the previous evening: the path leading directly to the foot of the Weathertop, and turning to the right, they followed it southwards. It was cunningly made, winding itself in a line that would keep them as much hidden as possible from the view, in all directions. It used the natural formations of dells and steep banks, and where it passed over more open ground on either side of it there were lines of large boulders and hewn stones screening them almost like a hedge.
“I am not sure I like this path,” muttered Náli, as they rode along a stretch where the stones were unusually large and closely set. It made him uncomfortable; he felt like a trapped animal. “We might be well-hidden behind these walls, but we cannot look outside, either – so what have we gained?”
Even Rei, who had been there before, nodded in agreement. Hallavor, the only one tall enough to peek over the stones from the saddle with a little effort, hid his smile and rode forth.
Around noon they finally drew near the southern end of the path. There they saw right before them a steep green bank, leading up onto the northward slope of the Weathertop like a bridge across a dry dike.
“Let us make for the top at once, while the daylight is still broad,” suggested the Ranger. “There we can have the best-protected place for the night. And we will have a good look at the Road and what might be travelling on it between here and the Last Bridge.”
Rei gave him a worried look. “Do you expect danger, or even an attack tonight?” she asked.
Hallavor shrugged. “I know not what to expect, Daughter. But if our people have recently passed by, they will have left messages, and those I intend to find.”
They dismounted to lessen the burden of their beasts and began the long climb a-foot. About halfway to the hillock, they came across a sheltered hollow, with a grassy, a bowl-shaped dell at the bottom. It seemed a good resting place for their beasts, and so they left ponies and horse behind to look after themselves, taking packs and luggage with them. There was no need to worry about their animals. Neither the Ranger’s horse nor Rei’s pony would abandon their master and mistress; and between them, they would keep Toby in his place.
It was not easy to climb the hill while carrying all their supplies, but Rangers were used to such things, and as for Dwarves, Mahal had made them from the very bones of Arda; they could endure just about everything. Therefore, the three of them only needed half an hour of plodding and climbing to reach the crown of the hill, even though the last slope had been steep and rocky. That might have been difficult for any other people, but Dwarves could draw strength from the stone, in a manner, so the two overcame the last hindrance easily.
There they stood then, upon the flattened hillock, surrounded by a wide ring of ancient stonework, now crumbling and partially covered with grass, as if the turf had tried to reclaim what used to be its realm. Even in its ruins, the watch-tower upon Weathertop was impressive, and having a thick, protective stone wall around him, even if it had gaping holes here and there and barely reached above his head, made Náli feel much better.
He tried to imagine the guards that had once stood upon the walls: tall, dark-haired Men with keen grey eyes and long, shining swords. Men like Hallavor.
“Burned and broken it may be now, yet the great watch-tower of Amon Sûl was once tall and fair,” murmured Hallavor, as if reading the young Dwarf’s thoughts. “It used to house the Great Palantír, the chief of all Seeing Stones of the North-kingdom; and it is told that Elendil, High King of both Mannish realms, stood there in its upper chamber, watching for the coming of Gil-galad out of the West, in the days of the Last Alliance.”
“Gil-galad?” Náli, who was not learned in old lore at all, repeated blankly.
“The last High King of the Elves in Lindon,” explained Rei absent-mindedly; having grown up in the house of a Dúnadan lord of royal ancestry did have its advantages. “He and Elendil led the armies of Elves of Men against the Dark Lord of Nargûn in the Battle of Dagorlad, where they emerged from the battle victorious; for the spear of Gil-galad and the sword of Elendil no-one could withstand. And though both were slain in that battle, the Lord of Nargûn was overthrown, too, and for a long time, there was peace in Middle-earth,” she gave Náli an exasperated glare. “Have you learned nothing about the past?”
“Wanderers have no songs about Elven Kings and Mannish heroes,” answered Náli flatly. “We are fortunate if our parents live long enough to teach us what we need to know about our own kind; and what we need to survive on the road, should they not be with us any longer. Being a lore-master or a scholar is a luxury we cannot afford. Not even the wise-women of our caravans remember much of what was before the coming of the Dragon to the Mountain; or the Battle of Azanulbizar. My great-grandfather died in that battle,” he added, almost as an afterthought.
“He was a warrior?” Rei knew her surprise was not flattering (or polite, for that matter), but she could not help herself. It was hard to imagine Náli as progeny of some great war hero. In fact, she had never heard about any StiffBeard war hero before.
“No,” replied Náli in a dry voice. “He was a stable hand and a groom, entrusted with the care of the messengers’ ponies. He tried to protect them when an Orc patrol wanted to eat them; ended up being eaten by them instead. But by the time he became dinner, there were five less of them, family legend says,” he shrugged. “Wanderer Clans do not breed heroes, but he did his best. I was named after him.”
“Not all heroes were originally raised to be warriors,” said Hallavor, “and yet there are times when one has no other choice than become a hero. Let us take a look around and have an early dinner. I may have to leave the two of you alone tonight to do some scouting, but I would rather not do so on an empty stomach.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They climbed onto the rim of the ruined circle to give their surrounding a good, hard look. Most of what they could see was empty land, without any distinctive features, save for random patches of woodland and here and there the glint of distant water. Beneath them the Old Road came out of the West and ran winding up and down like a ribbon, until it vanished behind a ridge of dark land to the east. Nothing was moving on it.
“There,” said Hallavor, pointing eastwards along the line of the Road. “The Misty Mountains. That is where out path will ultimately lead us.”
Náli nodded. He knew that already. But seeing the majestic shapes from this position was impressive nonetheless. The nearer foothills were green and brown and full of life, even if hidden at the moment; behind them stood taller shapes of grey, getting a tint of blue the farther away they were, and behind those again were the high peaks, capped in white, almost translucent, as if made of blue mist themselves. Milky white wisps of clouds or mist were swirling around the peaks, well below the white caps, like some living thing.
Those peaks loomed on the horizon of every Dwarf’s dream: Barazinbar, Zirak-zigil and Bundushathûr, the legendary Mountains of Moria. Náli felt a sharp tug in his heart, even though this was not the first time he saw them; and he could tell that Rei was feeling the same. This was the most sacred place a Dwarf could imagine: the place of Durin’s awakening, the cradle of their very race.
While the two young Dwarves were gazing in the direction of the lost realm of their kind longingly, Hallavor explored the ruins. Behind some fallen rocks he found a neatly piled stock of firewood and a flat stone that had the usual symbols scratched into its surface: the ones Ranger patrols used to leave messages for each other. They were based on the Elven Tengwar, but instead of full words, the Rangers used a series of abbreviations no-one else would understand. Except Rei, of course, who had been taught them, together with her foster brothers.
“A patrol passed through here two days ago,” she said, examining the stone Hallavor handed to her. “They came from the Angle and were on their way to… Fornost? That is odd. Why would they go to Fornost? It has its own garrison; there is no need for men from the Angle to go there.”
“Unless they are escorting the chieftain or one of his officers,” said Hallavor thoughtfully. “That would explain why we have not met anyone on the Road. The pattern of the patrols must have been changed accordingly. Nonetheless, I shall go out after nightfall and see whatever else I can find along the usual routes.”
“You need to rest,” said Rei sternly. The Man gave her a fond smile.
“Dwarves are not the only people who can give up on a night’s rest without suffering greatly. Besides, I do not intend to stay out all night.”
Rei rolled her eyes but gave no answer to that. She knew her foster father well enough to know that any further argument would be pointless.
In the meantime, the shades of evening began to fall, and it grew cold. They lit a small fire in the protection of the stone wall and ate some of the roast meat they had brought with them, for they could not hope to find many edible things on the hilltop. Then they sat at the fire for a while, the two males smoking their pipes contentedly, and talked about the way that lay before them still. Náli, who had spent most of his life in Rhûn and had only travelled across the Lone Lands once, was particularly interested in learning more.
“It will be an arduous journey for so few, if not very dangerous,” explained the Ranger. “The lands ahead us are empty of all save birds and beasts; unfriendly places deserted by all people of Middle-earth. Rangers pass beyond these hills, of course, while on patrol, but we are few and do not tarry here long.”
“What about other travellers?” asked Náli.
“They are rare and often of evil sort,” replied Hallavor. “Trolls are known to stray down at times out of the northern valleys of the Misty Mountains. Of marauding Orcs I have not heard for quite some time; but that, too, can change quickly.”
“Most travellers would use the Road anyway,” added Rei, “and those are most often Dwarven merchant caravans, like the one that hired you on their way to Bree,” she grinned. “And they go after their own business, and have no time – or interest – for being bothered by strangers.”
“Mahal’s Children are a strange lot,” the Ranger agreed, smiling. “Well ‘tis time for me to explore the paths around the foot of the hill; if you two could see after the horses?”
Náli nodded. “Leave ‘em to me, Master Longshanks.”
“Gladly,” Hallavor emptied his pipe and rose. “Get some rest, you two. I shan’t be back for quite a few hours, but there is no need for you to keep watch, as I shall be on patrol anyway.”
With that, he picked up his sword and his long knife – taking his bow would have been pointless as only a Wood-Elf or a Dwarf could have used it in the darkness – and merged with the shadows, leaving the young Dwarves to their own devices.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Rei and Náli allowed the fire to fall to ashes ere they would go down the north side of the hill, back to the dell where they had left their steeds. Rei knew where a clear spring of water could be found in the hillside, and they looked after the good beasts, brushing them down and giving them some water to drink. As a Wanderer, born from a long line of Wanderers, Náli proved especially skilled around them; even Hallavor’s big, raw-boned horse, usually not very friendly to strangers, accepted his services graciously.
Rei watched him with a speculative eye. The young thief had already shown that he had more talents than just the one needed to pick other people’s pockets; his woodman’s skills were not far beyond those of a Ranger. But that was not truly surprising by one who had spent his entire life on the road. And he hand mentioned having done some basic leatherwork, too. Rei wondered what other skills he might have picked up on his wanderings.
“Tell me, Master Thief,” she said, “what will you do, once we have arrived at Erebor?”
Náli shrugged. “I know not. I might try to lead a settled life for a while, should you choose to stay there. Stable hands are always needed. I could learn to make saddles, too; or harnesses. Or join the scouts or messengers if they accept me. Whatever allows me to stay close to you.”
“You are too young to bind yourself for life,” said Rei, “least to me, as I have still not made up my mind about you. You should find someone who feels the same way for you.”
“That would not help, as I shan’t feel the same way for them,” replied Náli simply. “I did not choose to fall in love with you, Rei Hreinnsdóttir; the longing hit me unexpectedly, way before the usual age, and I cannot do a thing against it, even if I wanted to. Which I do not. Why would I want to love someone else when I can love you?”
He said this with such heartbreaking simplicity that Rei could not help being touched by his honesty.
“Have you never had any lovers before then?” she asked in surprise. He was a handsome lad, after all.
Náli grinned at her. “I did not say that; it would be a lie. The daughters of Men are not all obsessed with their lovers being tall. Some of them can appreciate the good things that come in small packages. The women of the Easterlings more so than the others. They are treated badly by their males; like broad mares or pack animals, at best. Thus they show great gratitude if treated gently and with respect.”
“You slept with the women of those barbarians?” exclaimed Rei in astonishment.
Náli shrugged. “They are not that bad, really. They have a harsh life, led in a harsh, unforgiving land, and that makes them harsh, too; but it also makes them strong and proud. And if I understand rightly what honour means to men, I would say that in their own way the Easterlings have honour, too – and quite jealous of it.”
“They are the vassals of the Dark Lord!” spat Rei, and Náli nodded.
“That they are. But do you think they serve the Lord of Nargûn voluntarily? What other choice do they have, with the northern wasteness on one side, the Ash Mountains at their back and the Brown Lands on their left? Do you believe the Dark Lord would spare them?”
“They keep slaves,” said Rei darkly.
“That they do,” agreed Náli, “and they often treat them cruelly. But life in Rhûn is cruel enough on its own, and many of the free-born Easterlings live as harshly as their slaves. They go to war often, with each other as much as with their neighbours, and sometimes they do unspeakable things. They certainly slew my family without mercy. But the Bree-folk, too, would hang me for stealing a pony, no matter how friendly and easy-going they are. Men are not that different, really, regardless where they live or what language they speak.”
“That is not true!” protested Rei. “The Dúnedain are different! My father’s people are a noble folk! They work diligently to keep Eriador free from the creatures of Nargûn – not only for themselves but for other people, too. They watch over the settlements scattered between the Misty Mountain and the Sea; they even keep the land of the Halflings safe.”
“I know,” answered Náli tiredly. “Yet even your father looked at me as if I was vermin, as soon as he learned that I was a thief. Do you believe any of us would choose a life on the road, without safety, with a wagon as the only home we had ever known, had we any other choice? It was not our fault that our own people shunned us for being smaller, weaker and less wealthy than the warrior Clans – and yet we have been the ones to pay the price, ever since the great cities of our people had fallen. We are the ones made homeless and cast out.”
He turned away, too weary to look Rein in the eyes. In the end, it always came down to this: Wanderer were treated as the lowest class; as something one used to one’s own advantage but never accepted as one’s equal.
Rei, who had escaped the fate of most StiffBeard families by having grown up among Men, felt a little ashamed. She realized for the first time that she had been too quick to judge Náli for the life he had led; for having lived out of the pocket of other people. And even though she had long since realized that he was an honest lad in his own way, she had never asked why he would choose to become a thief – until now. She had never known poverty. The Rangers of the North led a simple life, but they never lacked the basic necessities of life, and neither did those they had taken in foster care.
She went after Náli and laid a hand upon his shoulder.
“Forgive me,” she said quietly. “I have judged you harshly and in ignorance, and for that I am truly sorry.”
Náli turned back to her with a sad little smile. “I love you more than life itself, Rei Hreinnsdóttir. There is nothing I would not forgive you.”
He leaned in with agonizing slowness, giving her ample chance to back off if she wanted. She did not, and their lips met for the first time, barely touching. Then Náli became bolder, the tentative gentleness of their kiss turned into passion, and Rei answered in kind.
They never returned to the hilltop in that night.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
If Hallavor noticed the change in their behaviour towards each other when he returned in the morning – and Rei was sure that he had, he was a most observant man, even as Rangers go – he gave no sign of it. They broke their fast together in the shadow of the ancient stone ring of Amon Sûl and continued their journey as soon as their saddlebags were packed.
“I have found further messages on my patrol, and even spoken to an Elf who was on his way from Mirkwood to Rivendell,” explained Hallavor. “The Road before us seems to be empty and safe; nonetheless, we should not waste any more time here. The Last Bridge is still roughly a weeks from here.”
Thus they made their way down the Weathertop and came in a while to the edge of the Road. East beyond the hill it changed its course and took a wide berth northwards, but that was of little concern of theirs. All they had to do was to follow the Road; cutting across its loop would have shortened their journey considerably, but it would also have meant to travel through wild, pathless land and perchance even get lost in the wilderness.
Hallavor would have found the right way, of course, but he saw no reason to do so. The Road was the safest and easiest way to get to the Last Bridge, albeit not the shortest; but they had time and were in no particular hurry.
As they rode on, they saw empty lands on both sides of the Road, for no-one had lived there for a very long time; not since the fall of the North-kingdom of Men. The forest had grown closer to the Road in all those years but had not quite reached it yet. Only bushes and stunted trees scattered the roadside in dense patches, with wide, barren spaces in-between. Even the grass was scanty and coarse, but the Dwarf-ponies and Hallavor’s horse were not choosy – they would eat whatever they could find and be content to fill their bellies.
The three travellers were much the same. Over the days, they rode in a slow yet steady pace, content in their silence. At the evenings, two of them went to find something edible in the woods to save their supplies for later, while the third one built a fire and took care of their beasts. On the first day Náli was the one to be left behind, but from the second evening on Rei insisted on taking him with her, allegedly to show him how scouting and food gathering was done properly.
Hallavor just shook his head with a tolerant smile, and when they returned, out of breath and with preciously little food to justify their long absence, he pretended that he had not noticed it.
Had Rei been his true daughter, a daughter of the Dúnedain, he would never tolerate her sneaking away in the woods with a love. But Dwarven customs were different, older and harsher than those of Men, and if he wanted Rei to be able to live among her kin again, he had to make allowances. Besides, he was glad that the two had apparently overcome their differences. Rei needed a life-mate from her own people, and Náli, despite his questionable profession, was not a bad sort. They would make a good match, the Ranger decided – not for the first time since they had met the young thief.
Five days passed on the Road, without their surroundings changing much and without seeing any other soul save a few birds. In their backs the Weathertop was sinking behind the horizon, little by little with each passing day, while before them the Misty Mountains loomed a little larger. They were still far enough to seem blue in the distance but became more present with every new turn of the Road.
On the sixth day, they reached a huddle of wooded hills; the Road swept around the foot of those hills, and to their right a pale grey river gleamed in the sunlight like pure, molten silver. Where the Road crossed it, an ancient stone bridge reached over the water at the bottom of a short, steep slope, resting on three mighty arches. It was wide enough for two carts – or four horsemen – to go side by side, and seemed in good condition, in spite of its apparent age.
“I remember this river,” said Náli, giving the Last Bridge appreciating looks. “’Tis the Hoarwell that flows down out of the Ettenmoors, is it not?”
“From the Troll-fells north of Rivendell, yes,” replied Hallavor with a nod. “The Elves call it Mitheithel; it joins the Loudwater in the South, after which it is known as the Greyflood. It swells to a great water ere it would reach the Sea. The only way over it below its sources in the Ettenmoors is where we are standing right now: the Last Bridge on which the Road crosses.”
Náli shielded his eyes against the bright sunlight and looked beyond the river. In a stony valley he thought to see the glimmer of even more water.
“Is that another river, far away there?” he asked.
“The Loudwater, yes,” answered the Ranger. “The Road runs along the edge at the hills for many miles from the Bridge to the Ford of Bruinen, as you might remember from your travels with the merchant caravan. We shan’t cross that river together, though, as your path will turn northwards, towards the High Pass, while I shall take the path leading to the South: to the Angle, where my people dwell. Let us rest here tonight; it is getting dark. We shall cross the bridge after daybreak.”
The young Dwarves were a little surprised that he would not want to cross the river at once – it was not that dark yet – but trusted him to know what he was doing and why. Thus they dismounted and prepared their camp and their beasts for the rapidly falling night.
Náli went down to the Bridge to admire its ancient stonework – something he had not had the time when travelling with the Fire Beard merchants – and had to admit that the Men who had once lived here had been almost as skilled in shaping stone as any Dwarf. The mere fact that the Bridge was still standing, after all those hundreds of years and despite dozens of wars that swept over these lands, spoke clearly of the skills of its builders clearly.
Like all Dwarves, Náli knew a lot about stone and how to shape it, even though his skills did not reach the level of an artisan. So he could appreciate the handiwork of those long-gone Men. Perhaps more than their own descendants would.
“Seen enough?” asked Rei when he returned to the fire.
Náli nodded. “There were true masters at work. Even a Dwarf could have learned from them.”
The Ranger laughed. “That is the greatest praise any craftsman can hope for. Now, go to bed; I shall take first watch.”
“Do we need to keep watch?” asked Rei in surprise.
“Mayhap not,” said the Ranger with a shrug, “but so close to the Trollshaws I would rather not take any risks. Go and rest. I shall wake you when your turn comes.”
He chose not to mention that he knew: Rei would not keep watch alone.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the early morning they crossed the Bridge, and the young Dwarves were surprised to find a Man waiting for them on the eastern side. He was tall, dark-haired, grey-eyed and fairly young, clad in the usual Ranger garb and armed with a sword and with a great bow. He also had a marked resemblance to Hallavor which, as Náli found out soon enough, was not a coincidence.
He watched with a jealous scowl as Rei let out a happy shriek and gave the young Man a big hug that must have bruised his ribs. Hallavor grinned, both at Rei’s antics and Náli’s jealousy, and hurriedly introduced them to each other.
“My eldest, Halbarad,” he said. “And this is young Master Náli, son of Máni and Beva, of the StiffBeard Clans.”
“And a thief, too, I see,” said Halbarad, giving the young Dwarf a critical look, ere Náli could have recovered from his surprise that Hallavor would remember the name of his parents. Men rarely bothered taking notice of such details; however, they were important for Dwarves, particularly the name of the mother. Then the young Man looked at Rei. “You keep strange company, little sister.”
“The company I choose is not your concern, brother,” countered Rei, her beautiful eyes glittering with anger. “Thief or not, he is my chosen one, and we shall have the hand-binding ceremony in Erebor, as soon as we find there a place to live.”
Halbarad’s jaw hit the floor but his father seemed not the least surprised.
“I knew it would come to this,” he said with twinkling eyes, “and I am happy for you, daughter. That is why I sent word to Halbarad with that Elf from Mirkwood and asked him to bring all your belongings.”
“You knew I would not return home?” Rei asked in awe. “But how? I did not know it myself, until a few days ago, when the longing finally caught up with me.”
“’Tis hard to resist one who loves you with all his heart and is ready to give up everything for you,” Hallavor smiled. “You have my blessing; and I hope you will find in each other what you need most. Like I found it in my wife and she in me.”
“You are not angry with me?” Rei seemed close to faint in relief. Hallavor shook his head.
“Not at all; rather the other way around. You are a Dwarf; and though we always loved you as one of our own, you cannot lead a Mannish life forever. ‘Tis only proper that our ways would part right here, at the crossing of the roads. Your life with us belongs to the past. I hope you will take fond memories with you, but your future lies before you, in the North – with him,” he nodded in the awestruck Náli’s direction.
And that was it. They did not need the carefully phrased speeches they had prepared to tell Hallavor the truth, as he clearly had known before them that they belonged together. So they spent another hour or two in the company of the two Rangers, exchanged news and words of farewell, shared breakfast and listened to Hallavor’s instructions concerning the other half of the way that still lay before them.
Rei became a little teary-eyed, now that she was about to take her leave from the Man who was like a father to her; and from the other one with whom she had grown up as with a brother. But she had made her choice, and she was not looking back. As Hallavor had said, the future lay before her, not behind her.
Finally their saddlebags were repacked – they were so full that they threatened to burst, as not only had they to find room for Rei’s belongings, but also for the food supplies the two Rangers generously let them take – and the parting of ways was imminent. Hallavor gave them his blessing and Halbarad shook hands with Náli and hugged Rei tightly, extracting from them the promise that they would send messages and even visit from time to time, and then all four of them mounted their steeds.
At the eastern beachhead their ways parted at last. Hallavor and his son turned to the South, taking the path that would lead them to the Angle, where the greater part of their people lived. Rei and Náli followed the Road northwards, for their way led to the High Pass, then over the Misty Mountains to the Vale of Anduin, and from there further to the North, where the Lonely Mountain, the last of the great Dwarf cities still in existence, was waiting for them.
Nargûn is the Khuzdul name for Mordor.