Gandalf sat in a corner of the Prancing Pony, nursing his drink and examining the three parties of Dwarves who sat about the room, each stubbornly ignoring the others, wondering which might lead him to his goal. For ninety-one years he’d carried the parchment map and key he’d received from a dying Dwarf he’d found in the dungeons of Dol Guldur, having promised the poor creature solemnly that he would deliver these to his son. But how was he to determine who that son might be, when he had no idea as to who the Dwarf had been?
“Ought to have paid more attention to the lineages of Dwarves and less to those of Men, Elves, and Hobbits,” he muttered to himself as he took another sip of his beer. It was sour, and he grimaced. One would think that with as many Hobbits as lived in the Breelands the ale would be better here. Perhaps he should whisper a suggestion to the innkeeper that he look to purchase his barley from that Thistlewhite farm near Staddle, and that he look to employ a Hobbit as brewmaster rather than trying to brew it himself. Friend Ferny had no talent at turning grain, hops, and water into a drinkable draught. Perhaps Ferny’s son-in-law, that Butterbur lad, would do better? Ferny was a suspicious sort, but he did dote on his daughter and so tolerated her young husband’s assistance in running the inn. Certainly the quality of the food had improved markedly now that his daughter and young Butterbur ran the kitchen, and the rooms were more comfortable and the linens at least clean. As long as he didn’t bequeath the place to that awful brother of his! The Wizard shuddered at the thought of Bob Ferny as the proprietor of the Pony, self-serving sot that he was. Nor was his expected bride likely to civilize the wretch. Gandalf pitied the woman and any children the two of them might produce.
He returned his attention to the three parties of Dwarves. Those near the fireplace were from the Iron Hills, that he’d already established. Those near the door were from the Blue Mountains northwest of the Shire, and the third party two tables from him he wasn’t certain of. They’d been traveling with those from the Blue Mountains, and had been familiar enough with them on arrival. They also seemed to know those from the Iron Hills, and had greeted them as if they were kinsmen. But there were marked differences between the three parties that indicated that this third group of Dwarves was the odd party out somehow.
Gandalf directed his attention to each group in turn. All were of Dúrin’s blood, that was plain. But even among the descendants of Dúrin the Deathless, those who’d taken up residence in different quarters of Middle Earth tended to be clannish to the extreme. Those in the party by the fireplace were mostly mature Dwarves, craftsmen, miners, and merchants if Gandalf was a proper judge. Those by the door were much the same, although they were accompanied by a group of younger warriors, armed with maces, battleaxes, and short swords. But the thirteen at the near table….
What were they, exactly? The leader was venerable enough and richly dressed, with symbols indicating he was possibly descended fairly directly from the line of Dúrin. He was too well dressed to be a mere smith or miner, although he undoubtedly did some craftwork, and probably quite fine work at that. The others in his party all deferred to him, and Gandalf suspected that all were fairly closely related—there was just something about all of them that spoke of family ties.
The leader and a few of those of a similar age had the bearing of warriors to them, although the Wizard doubted any of them had actually had to raise an axe or sword for many decades. Certainly the fat one couldn’t have faced an enemy greater than a cruller or a stein of ale for the last century at the very least! And the two young ones who sat close to the leader might have blooded an axe once or twice, but he doubted they were much seasoned in war. There was something decidedly young and excited about them that spoke of relative innocence. His curiosity piqued, Gandalf decided he would do well to eavesdrop on the crew of them.
Another Dwarf entered the room—a carter, from the looks of him, and approached the table where the thirteen sat apart. “I’ve had the innkeeper’s son-in-law carry your instruments up to your rooms,” he advised them, although his attention was mostly on the white-bearded leader of the group. “Now, I’ll not be trying to tell you your business, but carrying such things as viols and drums and that great harp of yours, Thorin, will be folly if you follow through on your goal. How you think you’ll get them through the mountains and across the Great River I have no idea. If you’re wise you’ll find someplace to store them and leave them here in the Breelands or someplace similar. Otherwise, they’re likely to be little more than cord wood once you reach the Lonely Mountain—if you live to get there, that is.”
The Lonely Mountain? Could these be----?
“Thank you, Borgin,” the leader answered. “We will take your words under advisement.”
Borgin shrugged, bowed low and wished them a fruitful journey, and went to join those who hailed from the Blue Mountains. As he sat down near the door one of those from near the fireplace rose and made his way over to speak with Thorin. “Well, Oakenshield, we need your decision tonight, for we’re leaving first thing in the morning to head eastward over the High Pass. If you want our company, the thirteen of you need to be ready at first light. Dáin will not thank us if we allow you to travel unaccompanied over the Misty Mountains, not with such an unlucky and unpropitious number to your party.”
“But you will be wanting to head northward toward your home,” answered one of the others in Thorin’s group, “while we will be looking at traveling down the River Running to the Lonely Mountain. We’ll still be a party of thirteen at that point, and so no better off than we would be if we went the whole way on our own.”
“Perhaps, Balin, but none of those from the Blue Mountains or from my company wish to go with you rather than home. Erebor was nothing to us, after all.”
“Well, it was—and is—something to us!” rejoined Thorin Oakenshield in a tight voice. “My grandfather was King there, there Under the Mountain, and my father would have been so after him, had he not disappeared when he tried to find his way back a century past.”
“And no one knows what became of your father Thráin. Is it to be the same with you?” the Dwarf from the Iron Hills demanded. “Did the Dragon eat him, do you suppose? Or perhaps the Necromancer got him!”
“If he didn’t fall afoul a spell set by those accursed Elves in Mirkwood,” muttered one of the other in Thorin’s group.
There was a general mutter of agreement from most of those at the table.
One of the young Dwarves commented, “You really should have allowed Gimli to come, too, after all, Glóin. He wanted so to come with us!”
“And risk his mother’s ire? I think not!” grunted one of the other older Dwarves. “He’s barely into his seventh decade, after all. If your uncle and your mother have granted you leave to go along, that’s one thing. But without his mother’s blessing Gimli isn’t setting foot outside the Blue Mountains.”
Balin gave the two youngest in the party a sideways glance and snorted. “Although with his training as a warrior, Gimli would probably prove a better choice of traveling companions than Fili and Kili here. At least he knows which end of the haft to hold when he’s using his battleaxe!”
The older Dwarves except for Thorin laughed, and the two youngsters were furious.
“We’ll wait here for four more days. We did ask some of Glóin’s wife’s kinsmen to join us, and that will give them the chance to arrive if they’ve decided to join our enterprise. But if they choose not to come after all, I suppose it must be the thirteen of us in the end,” Thorin told their guest.
The Dwarf from the Iron Hills shrugged. “So be it, then. I will so advise Dáin. But how a mere thirteen of you think to take on Smaug….” He gave them a wry look and bowed, turning to return to his own party.
Gandalf thought once more about that map he carried in his satchel. At the mad old Dwarf’s insistence he’d removed from the secret compartment hidden inside the shards of the stout walking stick that his jailers had allowed him to keep by him, certain that they were useless as a weapon to the poor prisoner, considering the wreck they’d made of his hands. “The Lonely Mountain,” he whispered to himself. “And so that was Thráin I found there in the Necromancer’s dungeons, Thráin who gave me the map and the key! Thráin was the keeper of the last Ring of Power forged for the use of the Dwarves, and so it is that Sauron has it back!”
A ghost of a plan was forming in the Wizard’s mind. They call me an instigator of mad careers, he thought. Well, I do believe I shall do just that. We of the White Council will need a diversion if we are to force the Necromancer out of Dol Guldur and to show his true colors—I shall use these Dwarves to provide just that diversion. And something tells me that this is the one time when Smaug might be removed as a threat on our northeastern flanks once the final battles are joined. Now, to think of the perfect one to make a fourteenth to their party.
With that he rose to his feet. He made certain his tall blue hat was firmly fixed on his head, and with his staff in one hand and the mug of sour beer in the other, he stepped forward to join Thorin’s company. “I must admit,” he said, as he loomed over the thirteen Dwarves, “that I could not help overhearing your conversations, and sympathize with your dilemma. Let me introduce myself to you: I am Gandalf the Grey, at your service.” His reputation, he noted, was definitely known by the Dwarves, as they all straightened most respectfully, even Thorin himself. Good, he thought. He continued aloud, “Certainly I appreciate that for Dwarves a party of thirteen would be seen as most unpropitious. If you could give me an idea of just what kind of adventure you have in mind, I am certain that I can help find the perfect individual to serve as the proper fourteenth participant in your quest. Now, did I indeed hear you say something about a dragon?”
And just why, he thought, do I find myself feeling that the best place to find that fourteenth individual is somewhere within the Shire?