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The Stone Mother

Chapter Text

She was ancient and time had not been kind to her, no. Time has eroded Her very Name from the record books as surely as the whisper of wind and water carved the stones to new shapes again and again. She had never been promised recognition, never sought it and so, as softly and as swiftly as a long shadow in the coming night Her Name had been forgotten. But She did not forget. She did not forget Her children and She did not abandon Her chosen even now when Her power waned with the ebb of time. She whispered gently to the silent ones, the outcast and the orphan and the lost. Crooned sweetly to the forgotten and embraced the broken abandoned ones.

As gently and as sweetly as Her mountain stone and landslide gravel mouthpiece could, She spoke. Sometimes they heard Her. Hers was a secret worship, a silent patronage. Words were pale things when presented to an avalanche and She no longer had a tongued mouthpiece in service to Her, those that heard Her Name did so on the very barest edge between the sound rock and the broken stone; a breath from stepping into Her halls and Hearing Her call them home-lost ones no more. She had a Priest in Nori Stonedancer. He forgot Her not, denied Her not, dismissed Her not. Whenever She spoke to him, He listed and he always thanked Her, even now with a hall and a hearth in the mountain of Erebor he knew Her voice. He was Hers, and when the time was right She would welcome him to get hearth; champion of the Whispering Lady, child of the Stone Mother

Chapter Text

Nori was hiding out. Nori was hiding out in a small cave on the bad rock, one of the last sections of bad rock left in Erebor city proper where no other dwarf had yet to come. Nori was hiding. From Dwalin, from the young ones of New Belegost, from his duties, from his fear, from his past. Nori was TIRED, and he was hiding. 

 

Nori fell asleep. 

 

 

"Child." The word was soft, spoken with a croon, sweet and pure and high and deep. The word rushed through him like the clang of a gong, the gusting of the northern winds off the mountain, it felt like swimming in a melt swollen river. That word rang with the mighty roar of the whole mountain and sang like the rarest ore, and there was a hint of gentle  SOMETHING that Nori could not quite catch. A  humming in his bones, fizzing in his lungs, shaking through him from the tips of his fingers to the bottoms of his feet, a sensation so intense it overwhelmed him. And yet he felt safe. There was nothing but solid clean stone to be felt for as far as his senses ranged, and that should frighten him. That fact alone should have him screaming and jolting awake for he had gone to sleep with the distant murmurs and groanings and uneasy tremblings of  fitfully shifting stone whispering him to sleep like the tremulous lullabies of his youth in the dark days of hunger and pain and aching burning loneliness. Nori sat up. 

"OH, My Child." The voice came again and Nori blinked. He was in a vast hall, a wondrous cathedral carved and inlaid and decorated as if for the grandest of high feasts. There was a warm and cheery fire burning merrily away in the center of the room and in the massive hearths that bracketed the space. But the wonder of the hall before him paled to the beauty of the Dwarf before him. She stood but a few feet away from where he sat robed in velvet of purest white and softest gray and palest pearl with moonstones braided in her honey blonde beard and a diadem of mithril pinned atop her free-flowing hair. Her smile shone like the stars and the brightest forgelight smoldered in her eyes and she looked at him with fond affection and...dare he even think it? 

She laughed. She laughed and her laugh rumbled in the hall, it danced in the air, it shimmered in the fires and it bubbled through Nori's chest and left a warm glow like an ember over his heart. Nori found himself smiling though he knew not why, and he felt as though he knew this dwarf, though he knew not her name. 

"Fear not Nori Stonedancer, I have known thee and loved thee for a long while. In my hall there is no fear, no darkness, no loneliness, no pain, no outcast, no broken. Any who enter here do so only at my invitation, and only if they know me." Here her mouth quirked up into a wry little amused grin and she chuckled, a fond, bubbling, indulgent chuckle that felt like hearth-warmed stone and good ale. "Most of ours believe only in Mahal, and that is as it should be for it is His making that forged you into shape, though I warned him not to let you forget that it was Eru Illuvitar who gave you the breath of full life. Everyone forgets that Mahal had a sister, and there are more Valar besides... Brother was always stubborn, and I wanted no fame, I created no grand melodies in the Great Song, I shaped only small things. That is as it should have been. And it matters not now for it concerns the dawn of this world and not the present." 

Nori found himself incapable of making any sounds whatsoever, and he wondered if his body was dead under a mountain of rubble where no dwarf would find him, and still he was too shocked to make a sound. 

"Fear not Nori Stonedancer. You are not dead. You are yet asleep, safe in the last vestige of My voice in Erebor's city. You are in My halls because you do not forget Me; you have never neglected to thank Me; you do My work wherever you can; you remember Me; you respect Me; you repay Me; and though you could not hear My voice all that clearly in your waking hours you have never once closed your ears or shut your senses off from My guidance. My other Children call you the Stone's Favorite, yet you have never taken that title for yourself, you do not like that address and I would know why."  She looked at him with eyes as deep as the darkest cavern and as bright as dragon fire and as old as the feet of the mountain, She looked at him and She saw him, and She LOVED HIM....SHE LOVED HIM AND SHE WAS REAL!     

She was waiting for his answer, She laughed and shook Her hair out so that it flared behind Her.

"Come, before you answer, stand and be welcome Child of mine, sit at My table and eat. Let free these heavy thoughts I see like boulders in your mind and tell Me why you reject the title your siblings whisper in such reference when they speak of you." He went With her, her hands were warm and dry and soft and firm and rough with callouses from forging, heavy and familiar. He was still not sure this was real. But if it was a dream it was the best dream. He sat at the table, and She served him with her own two hands laughing and warm and kind like any number of meals he had shared with the Company after the return to Erebor.  She sat across from him, not at the head of the table, and She spoke softly with him while he ate. He could hear the distant sound of happy industry, of crafting and of cooking and of forging and sparring and singing but there were no other dwarves in sight, but he was not concerned. It felt right, like he was welcome, like he belonged, like this was home and hearth. After he had finished and was full and warm and relaxed back in his seat with a fresh tankard of very fine ale at his elbow, She turned her gaze intent upon him and he knew he would have to speak. It did not occur for him to lie, and the nervous icy jitters he usually felt on such occasions were absent. He leaned forward toward her before he spoke, quiet and earnest. 

"I am not worthy of that name." She smiled at him. 

"That may be true, or it may not. In any case it does not matter, the titles chosen for us based on deed and deepened in legend often cannot be altered so easily at our own efforts. I do not care about worth Stonedancer, for I have none left outside the halls of the Valar. Those judged most worthy and held in highest respect and authority by Dwarvenkind often know nothing of Me at all, those that do at best call Me a fanciful children's tale or a myth and at worse call Me blasphemy, or heresy or other names besides. What do I care of worth? What do I care of those who already have home and hearthfire? My Children are the lost, the lonely, the abandoned, the broken, the grieving, the outcast...what are all My children if not worthless? I call and carry those that live in shadows and in secrets, those shrouded in mystery and sometimes steeped in shame. I have no temple, no rites, no regalia, no renown, and those that know Me worship me in secret and in silence without even a Name to whisper with their offerings. I do not want high praises. I want hope and home and hearth and family." She grinned at him and it was like pulling a large draft of air with the bellows through a forge fire. 

"I want family, Nori Stonedancer. You are My child, and humble and hushed as the office is, YOU ARE MY PRIEST." 

He woke shaking braid to boot tips with the strength of those last words echoing all through him, and gasped. The stones he was sitting on in the cave he'd curled up in were unchanged and yet changed. There was no ominous groaning of unstable stone, no murmuring of shifting gravel, no whisper of sand or hiss of cracking shale. The floor of the cave beneath him was solid, sound stone. Before him was a stack of three smooth round stones, one gray, one pearl, one palest white standing as tall as She had been in his not-a-dream. 

He smiled. 

"You forgot to tell me Your Name, Mother." He whispered as he stretched and crawled to the entrance of the little cave. Outside the LOOK of the outcropping he had inched his way over was unchanged, but it FELT much different. As he turned his back on that secret cave, he could have sworn he heard Her chuckle.

He felt lighter than he had in years.    

Chapter Text

The silent stack of three smooth stones, one palest pearl, one purest white, one softest gray in the tiny cave of the last bad (Not So Bad) rock of Erebor did not stand still or alone for long. In ones and twos small stacks of three smooth pebbles began to form a crowd around the base of the dwarf-high Mother.

 

There was no song, no fire, no incense, no sacred herbs, no torches, no spoken prayers, no robed high priests to bar the way to this most simple of alters. There were no eyes to note the passing of the many small and nimble feet that found their way into Her hall in dribbles and drabbles at odd times of day and night for there were no formal services or crashing gongs to call meeting. Hers was and had ever been a secret worship known to those who would not dream of setting one toe over the threshold of a temple of Mahal. She had no recognition on this side of the mighty seas, no grand ones to chant Her Name, no high days, no holy feasts, no sacred texts. She had hands of smooth gravel and arms of sun-warmed stone and a voice as big as the mountain and as gentle as the shifting of sand over the wide stone walkways.

 

She had the love and adoration of the lost and brokenhearted, the abandoned and abused. She had the whispers and the smiles and the tears of the voiceless, and day by day She had proof of Her family gathered close around Her feet in these small stacks of three smooth pebbles in this silent secret cave where none but those who knew Her dared to think to tread. She had the voice of her Priest, Her Paladin, Her Stonedancer in Nori nimble handed quick witted sharp eyed smooth tongued tender hearted. She had one who saw Her children as She did, who had lived as Her children lived and fought as Her children fought and knew what Her children knew. Life under any mountain could be cruel, even for one born to wealth and status for the world was not ever without pain, even in the Undying Lands there was pain in plenty though there was also joy abundant. Life was wicked to Her children, Nori knew. Nori was the breathing link to Her halls, the outstretched living hands and feet where She could not reach nor walk; he had not abandoned Her in his growing and shifting and changing and She did not abandon him, She abandoned none of Her own. 

 

This silent, sacred, secret place proved to Her children that they were not alone. If they listened, listened hard, listened long in the stillness of this secret place, they could hear Her. Hear Her humming a soft and quiet tune in Her contentment, hear Her whisper gentle words to them, hear Her laugh with delight. They had only to listen.      

Chapter Text

Nori Stonedancer Nimblehanded Lightfooted heard the soft aborted sounds of quieted weeping long before he entered into the halls of the Mother, his years as a Thief had sharpened his eyes and heightened his awareness and trained his hearing too well. He would not be alone in the Chapel today. 

 

The small dwarfling crouched behind the Mother's likeness stiffened and stilled at his approach long before he was in sight, the tense waiting weight of the air belied their presence. Nori danced his way carefully fully into the small cave and crouched as far away from the entrance and the dwarfling as it was possible to get. He knew the steps to this dance as well as he knew the bad rock and the gentle hands of a hardened killer. He knew the small one in the back of the cave would react as well to being cornered as a rabid warg in breeding season. In stiff stilted silence they waited each other out. 

 

and waited

 

 

and waited

 

 

and waited. 

 

Nori relaxed back against the wall in a languid sprawl, eyes at half mast as he waited for the little one to make up their mind. It would take as long as it took for the child to speak or to flee or to finish their conversation with the Mother and leave, he knew better than to force one of Hers. 

 

He waited. 

 

Finally the child moved around Her statue and out into the dim light of the cave. There were bruises and blood on the round beardless chin. There was a cracked tooth, there were scraped knuckles, there was dirt and gravel in the braids and on the clothing. Nori sighed silently through his nose as he looked the child over. Another of Her children beaten and belittled for existing. He could not take the child into his arms and tend the wounds without the wariness and wild-eyed fear fading from their face first. He knew better than to force one of Hers, Her Children had been forced far too often. Forced and shamed and shunned. Nori knew better. 

 

He waited.  

 

"Stonedancer." the soft voice whispered in the small space, light with reverent awe that still made Nori cringe on the inside, that awe was not something he felt he had earned or deserved. But She had called him Hers, and Hers he would be, and Her other children knew him like they knew Her voice. He had tried to stop them, he did not succeed. He resigned himself to the fact that at this point, he just sort of had to go with it, much as he wished he did not have to do so. 

 

"Yes child, I am Stonedancer, She speaks to me here as She speaks to all of Her children." 

 

"SharpTongue said you helped Her children if we asked nicely." Nori nodded. The child sniffled.

 

"Help me." 

 

"Of course, tell me what you can, and I will do what I can to help you." 

Chapter Text

The child and Nori made their way carefully down the face of the Last Bad (Not So Bad) Rock of Erebor, two swift and silent shadows cloaked in colors which easily concealed their progress. Whatever injuries the child may be harboring, they did not slow the decent down the smooth shale and gravel face to the tiny meandering foot path that gentledwarves and guardsmen had yet to realize was there. It was not so much a path, as a broken hopway of granite and hard packed clay at the foot of the ramble, the truly solid foot at the base of a potential slipway. No good dwarf would dream of setting foot down this side of the pile, even the most daring rock dancer of Erebor would quail. Nori still found it sort of amusing, the respectable folk and their wide eyed terror whenever he lived up to his most famous childhood name in this city. Mostly the truly Bad Rock had been carted away and sorted through for useful materials. It was child's play to navigate the hidden pathways of the rock of Erebor compared to living in the bad rock of New Belegost, literally child's play. But good dwarves never ventured into the bad rock of New Belegost, half the Belegost Thieves did not dare to go where Her Children often went- you needed to be small and light, quick and nimble footed and desperate to go where Her Children disappeared. 

At the foot of the shale slip, Nori looked the child over subtly, their posture betrayed some hidden hurts, but their eyes dared him to speak of them, even here alone. They would be one for Slashpurse- no, Ljomi...Ljomi now. She would help, her sisters had ended up in the Lantern District of New Belegost, and she knew the herb craft unique to that place, herb craft a respectable healer did not often perform and never performed without at least some judgement no matter how willing or unwilling their patient had been. Ljomi would know how to gentle this one into letting her treat them, Nori just had to get them there. Respectable dwarf Ljomi may be now, using her name with a restoration crew, but she still had her history, her other name. She made side money weaving the different colored Lanterns and Speak-knots and offering her herb-craft for those dwarves who had been like her sisters in New Belegost and those Thieves wary of traditional healers. Nori had also spied her taking some not so honest strolls through the marketplaces from time to time. He did not alert the guardsmen on her, it was not his job to yell at them for being unobservant, he was the Spymaster not the Captain of the Guard. She might be known mostly as Ljomi now, but she was still Slashpurse on occasion, and Nori did not begrudge her or anyone else in this city. It might be different here in Erebor, but every city still had its underworld, and being on friendly terms with key players and nameless shadows alike allowed Nori to weave an ever widening web of information that aided him in keeping the respectable population safe and blindly naive of the goings on around them. 

Nori looked at the young one before him, shaking subtly with fear and pain and exhaustion but boldly defiant, still slightly wary of him, too wary to even give their call name and young enough to be delectable to a certain population of the shadow districts. Nori sighed. 

        "I am the Priest of The Stone Mother, child, I am Stonedancer and Quickfingers and Brighteyes. I am the Spymaster to the King of Erebor. I dance the edge of shadow and light. You have asked me for aid. On my word as a Thief, on my word as one who has seen Her halls and still lives, I swear it. No harm will come to you while you are with me. I swear it." The child relaxed if only slightly, a quick darting nod showed they had heard him. They did not reply. He had not expected them to, they would not truly believe him until he proved it. 

        "Follow close child, we must enter the edge of the Lantern District. Head down, hood up, and step softly. I swear it, no harm shall come to you. We are heading to a house of the White Lantern." The child stiffened at hearing their destination, but relaxed slightly at the mention of a White Lantern. They paused, head tilting slightly in thought and body poised for action should Nori attempt anything, but he knew better than to force one of Her Children and waited quiet and relaxed and patient for the child to make up their mind. Another nod after a long and tense pause and then Nori began picking his way across the foot of the shale slip, small feet lightly whispering behind, a firm if feather light grip in the back of his cloak letting him know that the child still followed. 

Nori took the small one through the very outer edges of the Lantern District, he avoided the bright and heavily trafficked thoroughfares of the main streets, their lanterns and candles and silks and ribbons and incense and gently swaying brightly colored Speak-knots enticing customers and advertising the wares of the dwarves who worked and dwelt in these streets. He took the child through the dim-lit alleys and quiet side streets not meant to attract business. The knives openly flashing at his hips in the dim and otherworldly light from the different colored lanterns kept many who would proposition him or the child far at bay. The only one bold enough on this night to approach the child, ignoring the adult they were clinging to was not drunk, nor did he sport the signs of other intoxication. He growled about a pretty jewel to add to his necklace as the bright edge of a blade flashed in his palm. But Nori was quicker and more deadly with knives and he was silent as he whirled to face the dwarf about to plunge a dagger into his back. The fool flesh-trader quickly learned the error of his ways, was dispatched, and was hefted off the edge of the narrow ravine to their backs before he could even scream for help. The child watched the whole encounter with anger bright eyes and a steely silence that screamed of a street child familiar with flesh-traders, the streets stole innocence faster than anything else. 

Nori cleaned his knives on a wet clump of moss in an out of the way spot and then dried them well on the edge of his cloak before moving on, the child still clinging to him. He ghosted through back lots and garbage drops and wash lines until he reached the back door of Ljomi's home, a White Lantern hanging front and center on the lintel of the door and a Kingsfoil plant carved into the wood of the door itself and colored with inks so that it looked almost living. 

Nori knocked smartly on her back door, the child at his side once again tense and shaking, but they had not fled. Ljomi answered swiftly, the door opening only as far as the double latch would allow as she peered out into the gloom. When she saw it was Nori, she nodded, the door shutting, then opening again, swinging wide as she released the catch. He had clearly caught her about to retire to bed for the evening, her hair and beard loose of the majority of their braids and a dressing gown over a soft and flowing shift of undyed linen. Her eyes caught the smaller shape half concealed behind Nori to his right side and her mouth pursed in a sour expression for one fleeting moment before her face returned to it's original open expression.    

        "Come in, come in!" Soft golden light spilled out onto the threshold of the back landing bringing with it the scents of baking bread and fish and herbs and spices, the fainter musk of perfumes, and under it all a harsher scent of cleansing soaps and tinctures. Nori stepped inside, ushering his charge in behind him as Ljomi shut and latched the door once more. She turned with a soft smile as she saw the child with him, taking in what little they could of her home with their hood still up and hiding mostly behind Nori. 

        "I have fish stew and herb bread on the hearth, or cold boar and hard cheese in the larder if you are hungry." Nori nodded. He began to move to the larder Ljomi gestured toward, but the child gave a soft cry and gripped his cloak hard. Nori froze for a moment before relaxing and standing still looking over his shoulder at the small one trembling behind him. Ljomi's face softened even more. 

 

        "Easy young one, you are safe. Here in the House of the White Lantern no one will harm you. Some call me Slashpurse, and some call me Ljomi. I am an Herb-crafter. My sisters hung the red and purple lanterns above their doors in New Belegost, I know injuries another Healer may not, I can tend hurts another would shy away from, and I can promise you that Stonedancer would not have brought you to me if he did not trust me to tend you and keep you safe. Be at ease, if nothing else a good meal will go a long way to making you feel better. Stay here with Him, I will fetch the food, there are soft cushions in that corner under the green cloth if you wish to sit. I will be back in a moment." She moved swiftly and silently from the room and returned with a loaded wooden tray filled with bowls of steaming fish stew and hearty bread and tankards of cider. She set her burden down in the middle of the table, then very conspicuously and deliberately took bites and sips of everything on the tray. Nori did the same a moment after she had finished, nodding and humming a little at the rich creamy broth and tender pieces of fish in the stew. He sat and snagged a bowl and a hunk of bread for himself, the tastes of food reminding him how long it had been since his last proper meal. Ljomi smiled and nodded, pleased to see him eating. 

       "I take it this batch is good?" she teased him gently he nodded and continued eating. Slowly the young one adjusted to the soft, quiet interior of Ljomi's back hall and succumbed to the fragrant call of the food on the table and stalked close to examine it carefully before a small hand darted lightning quick into the basket and a hunk of bread vanished. Neither Nori or Ljomi made comment, eating steadily and leaving food in the reach of the child too nervous to eat openly in their company. When the tray had been depleted but for the tankards of cider and the last of the bread, Ljomi moved them from the tray to the counter against the wall by the fireplace and moved the dirty dishes out of the room to the washroom down the hall. The small one sighed and dug under the green cloth in the corner for cushions, making a nest in an out of the way corner and settling there. Bright eyes peering out of the relative gloom and taking in their surroundings with more curiosity than apprehension now. 

When Ljomi returned, her hair and beard had been re-worked into a simple and practical style which would keep them out of the way, dressed not in shift and dressing gown but soft shirt and trousers. She was barefoot, and both Nori and the child could see at a glance that she was unarmed but for the slim outline of a knife at her left hip. She moved slowly and carefully toward the child, her posture open and gentle. She stopped in the middle of the room, giving the child space to move or flee should they feel the need. She crouched down, graceful and smooth, and her body settled as though she could stay in that spot all night, Nori knew she could, Just as he could, and had, just as he had. 

 

        "I have a washroom with a door that latches from the inside, soft towels and hot water and gentle soaps. I have new clothing. You will owe me nothing." She gestured to Nori still seated in the chair as she continued, "I have an arrangement with him, you need not worry about repaying me in coin or in deed. The house of the White Lantern is honor bound through tradition and profession to uphold the safety and the secrecy of all those within its walls for as long as they are here and to maintain their privacy once they leave its sanctuary. You are safe here child." She waved a hand towards Nori again and the child's eyes darted to him, noting that he was still relaxed and quiet at the table, though highly alert. 

      "I know where her washroom is, I promised you, and I uphold my promise, no harm will come to you while I am with you. You are safe here in Ljomi's house. Be easy." For a long time there was no response of any kind from the child, for a long time the wary eyes scanned between him and Ljomi and their surroundings. For a long time the three of them sat in silence waiting and watching, two relaxed and one coiled tight like a spring. For a long time Nori was convinced that the small one would only allow a hot meal and a soft cushion and a quiet corner. He knew better and Ljomi knew better than to force one of Hers, neither one would not force this child. It was very clear that someone else had already done so, and Nori and Ljomi would not betray the barest hint of trust that the small one showed by forcing them into something they did not want. The fact that they continued to sit and ponder what was being offered rather than fleeing into the night made it clear that they wanted to trust what was being said, but one did not live in the shadows and keep the ability to trust others easily. 

 

Finally, after a small eternity of waiting, the small one rose from their nest of cushions in the corner and walked to where Nori lounged at Ljomi's table. Nori rose and showed the child to the washroom, ushered them inside with a gentle push to the shoulder and then shut the door. He did not enter after, but posted himself as guard. It took a moment, but he heard the latch click into place and the sounds of running water, quiet cursing, and splashing. It was a long while before the door unlatched, and when it did Nori had to bite his tongue hard. The braids had been undone, none too gently it seemed, for their hair was a tangled snarl on the top of their head, clean from their ministrations the severity of the bruising and cuts and scrapes was even more apparent and it took everything in Nori not to react. A reaction of anger or a fit of cuddling and coddling would likely not be appreciated at all. They were bleeding from wounds in their scalp and on their face, and blood dotted their torso and arms and various places on the loose trousers they now wore. Nori said nothing and led them back into Ljomi's back room. 

 

Ljomi had taken the time they had been away from her in the washroom to fetch her medicines and powders and to drape the nest in the corner in several thick blankets and towels. There was a foldable curtain screen leaning against the wall by the hearth and several bright worker's lanterns on the workbench nearby. Ljomi was crouched in her original position in the center of the room, waiting patiently for the child and Nori to return. When the child saw the herb-crafter's tools, they stopped short in the doorway and sucked in a sharp breath. 

        "Child, I will not harm you. You may choose my help or not. If you wish me to pack up my supplies and head to my bed I will do so, but I see your injuries and have the ability to tend them if you choose to let me. Harm has not befallen you yet, harm will not come to you in the House of the White Lantern. Be easy." It was in that moment that the hint of trust snapped into place, it was as though someone had cut the strings of a player's dancing puppet, the child slumped in the doorway with silent tears carving mithril-bright veins down their cheeks. Ljomi murmured soft words to the child as Nori carefully scooped them up and carried them to the nest, laying them gently down and crouching nearby in sight of the small one.

        "It hurts" came a quiet whisper. Ljomi nodded and moved closer, slowly, deliberately, pausing between each advance, waiting for a word of protest from the child in the nest. She stopped a pace away from the edge of the nest and sank into a comfortable tailor's seat. 

        "Where does it hurt most that you will let me see and tend?" They gestured to their face after a moment and Ljomi hummed and used gentle fingers to trace their face questing for broken bones. Finding none Ljomi opened a jar of salve and held it out for the child to inspect before dabbing her fingers into it and applying a thin layer to the scrapes and oozing cuts on the face. Another jar of ointment came out for the bruises, and a sharp smelling liquid that Ljomi dabbed carefully on the inside of the dwarfling's lip and gums to help cleanse them and numb the pain of the chipped tooth. Slowly, asking permission the whole time Ljomi moved to the cuts on the arms and hands, the bruised knuckles, then the wounds on their torso and legs. She enlisted Nori's help a time or two, and they had needed to wrap the ribs after a careful sweep of Ljomi's hand had the small one gasping and choking for breath. Nori was amazed at their ability to hide the extent of their injuries and keep going at their age, it had taken him longer to learn the tricks to doing so. The dwarfling was strong and very brave. Once all of the obvious and easily reachable wounds had been tended, Ljomi looked at the child. There was a heavy moment before they realized what she was going to ask, and panic when they did. 

        "No child, no, none of that now. If this is as much as you will let me tend, this is all we will tend. Be easy." Ljomi shushed them and moved to begin putting her supplies away but a small hand darted out to grab her wrist. She stilled. A swift conversation in hand signs quickly settled something and the folding screen was maneuvered to completely shield the nest from any who might enter from the hallway, though Ljomi was alone and nobody had yet ventured into this room. Nori moved where Ljomi directed him, up into the corner where he sat and cradled the child's upper body in against him. They sobbed once and then clung tightly to his shirt and buried their face into the fold of his cloak. Nori wrapped his arms securely around them, taking care to avoid their freshly dressed wounds and very deliberately not looking toward Ljomi and what she was doing. 

 

Ljomi was gentle and patient, she did not stop talking to the child, explaining what she was doing and where and when she was going to touch, reminding them again and again that if they needed her to stop she would. It was quickly taken care of, whatever wound Ljomi tended, and soon enough the child was wrapped in a warm blanket and curled fully in Nori's lap refusing to look at either one of them as they sobbed. 

 

        "This was not your doing, be easy brave one, you have no need of shame. You are safe here, for as long as you need. No harm will come to you, be easy dear one, be easy and rest. You are safe." Ljomi murmured continual reassurances and soothing words as she put away all of her supplies and washed up. Eventually the storm of tears passed and the tear swollen face reappeared, Ljomi smoothed the hair away from their face and offered them a tumbler of cool water to drink, smiling softly as she did so. 

 

      "There little one, there. Be easy, drink some water now, slow, slow sips. I have a cool cloth for your face. There. You're safe." Nori knew it was true, Ljomi was as kind and gentle as any dwarf he had met, the child was safe with her, and he would check in to be certain that they remained that way, and to see if he could get names, get names and cross them off a list. This would not be allowed to start in Erebor. Not on his watch, he allowed a certain amount of crime to flourish, but flesh trading was not one he would stand for. Never. For now he simply held the child close and let Ljomi gentle them down into sleep so he could move them into a bed. He was patient, he could wait. 

 

Stonedancer wasn't his only name after all.             

Chapter Text

"Three bodies now, throat cut and out in the open..." 

"All in the pleasure district, there's always going to be work for the priests of Digger's Row with the way those lot go at it." 

"But the bodies weren't wearing lanterns! No Speak-knots! They weren't marked with any wares from Amethyst Lane or Sapphire Street, not even a bauble from Moonstone March!" 

"Let it go Klormur, they'll sort themselves out."

The guards arguing and gossiping in the corner in hushed tones caught Dwalin's ear as he entered the post to check in with the watch captain on his rounds through the Lower Market and Crafter's Districts. He frowned slightly at the casual dismissal the second guard displayed, the lazy posture, the scoffing eye rolls. That attitude was likely to get a Guardsman in trouble, and wasn't exactly helpful for the reputation of the Guard as a whole, especially around these posts. These poorer rougher areas tended to house a lot of former residents from New Belegost's slums, dwarves who did not like or respect Guardsmen on principle and for sadly valid reasons, dwarves who were afraid of the Guard and much more apt to keep quiet about trouble than report it...for exactly this reason. He finished up his conversation with the watch captain and stalked towards the still arguing pair. They quieted at his approach, coming to attention  as they realized who he was. 

"Captain Dwalin! What can we do for you sir?" The first guard, Klormur asked. 

"You can tell me more about these bodies in the pleasure district guard Klormur, in as much detail as you remember." The second guard colored with either anger or embarrassment and opened his mouth. 

"You will be silent." Dwalin rumbled, the guard paled and his mouth snapped shut. 

The more Dwalin heard about the bodies, the more suspicious he became, and the more suspicious he became, the angrier he got. At the end of the guards report, he growled and marched back up to the watch captain, gesturing sharply for her to leave her post and follow him into a back office. 

The loud dressing down she received could be heard through the entire post, it was the source of the guardsman's gossip mill for weeks afterward.     

 

~~~~~~~~~~

"NORI! Tell me what Balrog blasted, ash infested, harebrained scheme you've cooked up now!" Dwalin thundered as Nori entered the kitchen through the window. Nori smirked as he swung himself up and over the sill and landed lightly on the balls of his feet, the impact of his landing so light there was hardly a whisper of sound. 

 

"Hello to you to Dwalin, I'm afraid I have no idea what you are referring to, something smells good, is that roast pheasant?" Dwalin roared and charged at Nori, Nori spun away laughing harshly, his face morphing into the hard, cast edge that told the world just how dangerous he was as he tapped Dwalin on the nose with the flat of one of his knives, a small, cold, bright slap. 

 

That slap stunned Dwalin enough that he straightened and glared at Nori who was across the room crouched in the doorway, twirling the knife on the tip of his finger. 

"Now. What are you yelling at me for?" Nori said calmly, his voice like ice and gravel, a tone Dwalin hated to hear. 

 

"There have been nine separate murders in the pleasure district near Lower Market, Crafter's, and East Garnet. All throat cut, all unmarked, all publicly displayed." Dwalin growled watching Nori closely, the irritating smirk on his face did not change, he nodded at Dwalin to continue. 

 "It's too many and too consistent to just be some sort of random event, now, what are you doing!" Nori's face went even colder as he looked at Dwalin. 

 

"Let me see if I've heard you correctly, you are accusing me of nine murders in three districts without any evidence whatsoever and threatening me with bodily harm in my home?" 

 

"What! NO!" Dwalin stammered, paling dangerously and then flushing bright red to the roots of his hair, hands out and waving in front of him as though to clear that accusation out from the air like smoke. 

 

"Then what are you trying to do Dwalin? Because that's exactly what it sounds like. That's what it looked like." Nori snapped, eyes flashing darkly with anger, body coiled at the ready for defense. 

 

"I want your help to catch the Dwarf that did it!" Dwalin yelled, putting his head in his hands as he groaned and then pulled on his beard. 

 

"Well, until you can ask nicely, and speak to me with respect without accusing me of the crime you want me to help solve, I won't be sleeping here. Come find me when you've cooled off." Nori said, low, calm, voice hard and implacable. In the moment it took for Dwalin to look back up to the doorway, Nori was gone. 

 

Dwalin groaned, and then punched the wall.  

Chapter Text

Nori Stonedancer was a Paladin of the Stone Mother, slightly unorthodox, but a Paladin nonetheless.

An office so secretive that even he, himself did not yet understand the truth. In practice he might never come to realize it, and why would he? There were no rites or initiations to grant him his title, for Nori Stonedancer was Her only living Priest and She had no temple. There would be no recognition or respect afforded to him with its gain save that of Her Children in hushed whispered reverence in the crags and crevasses at the edge of society where only She could hear them. Only the gratitude and watchful eye of Her presence, the burn in his heart for justice like a live coal in his chest, the fight to free Her Children from their suffering and anguish where he could and however he could. 

Nori Stonedancer was a Paladin of the Stone Mother, unorthodox, yes, illogical? No, any Paladin of the Stone Mother required the wit and whimsy and wisdom that a life in the shadows afforded them, any Paladin of Hers would be quick fingered and bright eyed and silver tongued with the weight of the whole mountain behind their gaze. Any Paladin of hers was hard tested and battle run even of they had never been formally recognized as a soldier, they thought on their feet and danced on razor edges. Any Paladin of Hers could take on the mountain and laugh, knew the delicate balance between success and starting a rock slide, could stare death in the face with a grin and a wink.   

That was why, on this night, Nori Stonedancer, Paladin and Priest of the Stone Mother could be found crouched in the shadows on the peak of a bawdy inn in a rough and tumble area of a rough and tumble district with his eyes pinned to his intended target and the flash of bright steel in his fingers. Nori Stonedancer was a Paladin, unorthodox, yes, Necessary? Absolutely. He stared through the dim light that spilled red and patchy through the doorway of the inn and waited, patient and silent as the night itself for the second in command of the slowly forming flesh trading ring to show himself. He waited and he watched, and in the dark around the square several more of Her Children waited with him. There were crimes that the Spymaster of Erebor allowed, even some he still occasionally had a hand in orchestrating-to keep his skills sharp and his network current and to influence those things in the underground which affected and drove and changed the glossy veneer of more polite society. To keep several of his names on the lips of those who mattered, there were many things he would allow in Erebor. Flesh trading would never be one of them. And so on this night he was crouched in the shadows with others of Her Children, others of the underground who had Gray Lanterns braided subtly into their hair and beards, Children with sharp eyes and quick hands and deadly airs about them who heard Her voice about this matter just as clearly as he did and were stirred to Her call to end it. Dwarf should not buy or sell Dwarf, or any living being who could think and talk for itself for that matter, not Dwarf or Elf, or Man. It happened, but it should not, and that it was starting here in Erebor with children who would be given over to live their lives cruelly was even worse an injustice. 

The ring was getting antsy, one by one their traders and enforcers and collectors had begun to disappear suddenly and reappear prominently displayed very very dead. They were antsy, and they were shifty, and they were of the underworld, but they did not know enough to learn caution on these streets. One by one they were turning up unable to begin the trade they so desperately desired, displayed prominently as a warning, as a promise to the others. They did not know enough to take the warning seriously, to go to ground and be silent and still, the warnings made them nervous, and when they were nervous they drank, and when they drank, they talked a little too loudly and a little to frankly about their plans and desires, they made it very easy for their talk to tickle the right ears, little flies buzzing madly in the web that the Spymaster had woven so carefully. He heard their words and grinned a sharp grin and called upon those in the network who would gladly do what needed to be done, say what needed to be said to the right individuals at the right time, to make it very well known in the underworld of Erebor that there were certain crimes any dwarf with sense should not entertain if they wished to continue their existence in the game of shadows. 

The second in command stumbled a bit heavily out the front door of the inn, weaving and mumbling and blurry-eyed trailed by a round faced, full figured, soft eyed, sweetly smiling lass with a wicked gleam in her face as she subtly tripped him so he sprawled into the uneven cobbles of the road before the inn. Stooping down as if to help him, Nori watched as she brushed a fold of her shawl over his face and shook a small measure of powder out on to it. He was too drunk to notice that he was not only drunk but drugged with nightpowder. The soft-eyed lass looked sharply up to the roof of the inn and nodded once to Nori as she appeared to give up helping, laughed softly at the groaning figure on the ground, dusted her hands off playfully and rounded the side of the building to enter the kitchen door of the inn. She would shed her provocative shawls and tie back her braids, wipe her face of the Kohl and Mica powders and don an apron and a harried expression as she helped the overworked cook and barmaids handle the evening rush while they all complained she took too long at her break, by Hammer and Tongs! Nori grinned a sharp, sharp grin and whistled. In a well timed flurry of dark cloaks and soft booted feet, the stumbling, moaning figure vanished from the front walkway of the inn as though he had never been there.

One more player down, only four more to go, four more who were inside the inn, sitting boldly at a table in the middle of the room as if to dare anyone to try to harm them. Four more flies in a vast web unaware they were caught and the spider was stalking ever closer waiting for his meal. Four who would become very nervous when their friend and the mysterious enchantress who had enticed him away did not return satisfied and mussed. All he had to do was wait. The rest of the Gray Lanterns melted down from their perches up high to blend into the shadows of the street surrounding the inn, melting into doorways and crouching in the alleyways, watching and waiting for their prey to wander into the final chamber of the trap so artfully laid for them, just for them. Nori smiled. Around him the jackals waited, poised to strike the final killing blows to the vipers being smoked out of the pit. 

He had not laid a finger on any one of them, he had not so much as breathed their air, but he had witnessed each and every kill, had made it known that one of his old names was there. He personally confirmed each and every death, and if he so happened to suggest to this dwarf or that dwarf where a particular body might best be displayed to its full advantage, well that was another matter entirely. He could be kind, he could be sweet, he could let his guard down and be gentle. But Nori had been trained and molded and risen up to be a Thief, and he was every inch as deadly and ruthless and wily as he had to be to survive. The ringleader was his. Every dwarf around him knew it, the ringleader was his and he would enjoy ensuring that the ringleader never ever was able to trade in flesh again. Nori waited, and Nori smiled. 

The four angry arguing disgruntled figures tumbled out into the street shouting for their vanished friend, three marching partway down the road in opposite directions to look for him and drag him back so they could continue planning. The fourth stood at the door of the inn scowling with arms folded glaring and barking orders to the other three. One by one the three henchmen stumbled into alleyways and around corners, one by one they failed to return to their scowling leader. When two minutes went by with none of them returning to his enraged shouts (two minutes in which Nori blessed their leader's obvious existing brain damage along with the slick work of the enchantress who had dosed their ale with nightpowder, If it had been him, he would have been out and away at the ten second mark) He began to get suspicious and attempted to re-enter the inn. Only to find the door barred against him. It was then that he began to finally, finally panic, it was then that he realized his error. He turned to race down the street only to be confronted by a ring of figures cloaked and masked in dark gray with soft leather boots and wicked eyes. The trap was sprung, his quarry caught, Nori leapt from the peak of the roof and landed light as a cat directly in front of the ringleader.

"You have greatly displeased me fool." Nori hissed in a cold, flat voice unlike the one he used for every day, he smiled a razor thin smile and the figure before him paled and began to sweat and babble. Nori held up a hand and the babbling ceased, a knife flicked into existence in his hand as he crowded against the sniveling ringleader and let him feel the bite of the blade against his soft belly. He wrinkled his nose at the smell of piss as the pathetic creature wet himself in terror. 

"You did not heed my warning, I own these streets you dog, I own them. There will be no flesh trade here. I will not have it. You disobeyed, and now you will pay. Oh yes. You will pay." The man began to weep as he looked into the steely gaze of the Shadowwalker. Nori smiled.

 

Nori Stonedancer was a Paladin of the Stone Mother, unorthodox, surely. Paladin nonetheless

 

The Stone Mother smiled.