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Inshêt zahrar (Searching for Home)

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“Wake up, little Hobbit. This is not a good place to be unconscious.”

Bilbo didn’t recognize the low voice and just groaned pitifully in response. He felt heavy, as if his bones had been replaced with metal and were weighing him down. The ground was hard beneath him and sharp rocks seemed to burrow into his spine. This was definitely not his soft featherbed in Bag End. Bilbo couldn’t seem to find it in himself to care overmuch about such trivial matters as unknown voices and uncomfortable surroundings.

“I’m quite serious, Master Hobbit; I need you to wake up now.” A palm gently tapping against his cheek was the next thing to register to Bilbo’s battered senses, trying to coax him back to wakefulness.

Bilbo struggled masterfully. Waking up was entirely too much hassle, why couldn’t the voice understand that?

“Come on, open those eyes, there we go.”

Bilbo finally managed to obey the commanding tone and looked dazedly at the speaker. His vision was blurry and the light coming off the lichen on the walls was very dim. He managed to make out the shape of braids framing the face in front of him and the silhouette of a bow poking over the figure’s shoulder. Did Kíli fall too? But that’s not his voice…

“Well done. Next, we’ll work on getting upright, aye?” Softly encouraging words made their way through the clouds in his mind. “You’re not gravely injured from the fall,” the near-invisible figure told him, “though I don’t know if you’re concussed.” That thought seemed to cause his new… friend, maybe?... some disquiet. “You haven’t got any obvious wounds, though,” they continued, which was reassuring, at least; Bilbo felt sore all over. “I think you’re merely dazed and probably confused. I need to get you up, so I can get you out of here and check properly.”

A blurry shape, slowly identifiable to Bilbo’s brain as a hand, was stretched towards him, ready to help him to his feet. A long moment passed until the hobbit realised that he ought to grab the proffered hand. The world spun, and the stranger wrapped an arm around Bilbo’s back, keeping him standing even though he couldn’t seem to stop listing sideways into the side of his apparent saviour.

“Good. Let’s try walking now.”

They managed a few wobbly steps, Bilbo’s head still spinning. The low voice of the stranger seemed to wrap around him like a caress, something that made him feel inherently safe. It took him a fair while to realise that there was a question being asked and that he should probably verbalize a response.

“Come on, Master Hobbit, it’s not a difficult question, where were you trying to go?” The stranger, whom he still couldn’t see clearly, but could feel was wearing soft leather, was looking at him expectantly.

Bilbo knew that he should have an answer to this but only managed a sort of incoherent mumble.

The voice tried again, “I can take you to Imladris, though it’s a few days of travel from here, or I can take you East towards Mirkwood… This level of tunnels is relatively safe and we should be able to avoid the Goblin filth either way. Which will it be?”

Bilbo gave another valiant attempt at speech, but the sentence that should have been ‘I want to go East with my dwarves’ came out as a garbled “-st it dwarfs.”

The little Hobbit had never missed his home more than in this moment when he was cold, tired and in more pain than he’d ever been before. The only saving grace was that he didn’t currently seem to be in any danger, which, after being chased by orcs, captured by Goblins and walking through mountains that moved, seemed a rather novel state of being. He tried to make out more of the features of his companion but had to give up in the low light. It was rather taller than him, which did not narrow down the races of Middle Earth terribly. Instead he simply decided to go with his gut feeling of safety which seemed to emanate from the presence beside him.

“You’re looking for dwarrow?” the saviour sounded surprised. Bilbo nodded. The strong grip on his shoulders kept him from falling onto his face. “I guess that means east towards the Iron Hills…” his companion mumbled to themselves, raising their voice slightly to ask, “did you have no companions?” Bilbo wanted to nod again, but remembered his last attempt and stopped himself. “That is a very long trip for a lone Hobbit,” the person beside him mused. “I suppose you could be looking for Erebor, but it’s been many a year since there were Dwarrow dwelling there… No matter, I will take you East.” The voice sounded a bit worried but also slightly amused. “It is not that far to the tunnel exit, less than a day’s walking.”

In a distant corner of his mind, Bilbo was rather proud of achieving some sort of forward motion, even if that mostly consisted of leaning on the stranger and letting him take most of his weight. The world really should stop spinning around like it seemed to be doing, he thought. Tunnels ought to stay level, not wobble around. It was hardly sporting to anyone trying to traverse them, let alone a gentle-hobbit who wasn’t used to rock tunnels in the first place.

After an indeterminable walk, including a few stubbed toes and near-falls, Bilbo realised that the spinning had stopped. He slowly gained more confidence in his own hairy feet and his ability to stay on them.

“You seem somewhat improved now, Master Hobbit,” his saviour remarked. “Might I ask your name? It seems only fair that travel companions should know each other.” A ghost of a laugh was hidden in the sentence, and Bilbo was inexplicably cheered. He might be stuck in damp, dark, Goblin-infested tunnels, separated from a Company of Dwarrow who weren’t all that fond of his presence to begin with, but at least he was not alone.

“Bilbo Baggins, of the Shire,” he replied, belatedly remembering that bowing was a bad plan. “Who are you?” he asked, when he had been stood upright once more, the stranger kindly ignoring his wobbly balance and the way he leaned on them. “You seem to know the way, but you could hardly live here,” Bilbo explained, “Goblin Town is not a safe place to spend time.”

“Live here?” the stranger snorted, chuckling to themselves as they repeated the phrase, nearly trembling with laughter. “Amad would come back from the dead and kill me if I decided to live with such filth,” they chuckled, seeming to sober at the thought. “No, Master Baggins,” they said quietly, “I was merely travelling. I know these tunnels quite well and there are safe passages which cut the travel time through the Misty Mountains down considerably if one knows how to find them.”

“How do you know?” Bilbo wondered, remembering himself, Ori, and Balin elbow-deep in maps in Lord Elrond’s Library, trying to study the route they would be taking. There had been no underground tunnels marked on any maps he had seen, Bilbo was certain.

“Once,” the stranger said, their voice soft with something Bilbo would almost have called grief, “these paths were filled with light; they were the Deep Roads of my people, linking our greatest city with places all along the range of the Misty Mountains.”

“You’re a Dwarf?” Bilbo asked, baffled. He couldn’t imagine anyone else tunnelling through a mountain range to make roads, even if the stranger was too tall to be a dwarf.

“I am,” they replied, though Bilbo had the feeling there was something in the confirmation he was missing; they sounded amused again. “I have had many names, but if you travel with Dwarrow, perhaps I should introduce myself in that fashion. Geira, daughter of Narví, at your service,” she – for she must be a she then, as a daughter, even though Bilbo did not think he’d ever meet a female dwarf who’d admit it on the road – bowed, “You can also call me Ilsamirë as the Elves of the Westerlands do, and I was journeying to Imladris when I saw you.” Her arm came back to steady him, gentle pressure getting them moving once more. Bilbo’s mind spun slowly. A Dwarf visiting Rivendell freely seemed incongruent with the way Thorin Oakenshield had described the relationship between the two peoples. “It has been a long time since I last spoke with a Hobbit, Master Baggins,” Geira said, interrupting his thoughts. “Tell me of your home; is the Shire still as lush and green as I remember?”

“You’ve been to the Shire?” Bilbo asked, the mystery of his saviour only growing with her answer.

“Indeed,” Bilbo could hear the smile in his companion’s voice. “I lived in the West Farthing for a few years once.”

 

The next hour was spent telling stories about the Shire, Bilbo’s prize-winning tomatoes, and his trusted gardener. Once that topic had been covered sufficiently, Bilbo began the tale of how he had joined the Company of Thorin Oakenshield though he carefully did not mention their purpose.

Eventually, he realised that he was walking under his own power and that his saviour merely had an arm near him in case he stumbled. In truth he felt quite alright now.

Bilbo had lost all sense of time, even though his stomach finally decided to wake up and crave some sustenance.

“If you are hungry, Master Baggins, I have some lembas breads,” Geira offered. “If I remember correctly Hobbits are always hungry, and you have had very little food today.” Bilbo nodded, blushing when his empty stomach growled, but Geira simply chuckled and told him to take a rest.

Pulling her pack from her shoulders – the light was still too dim to see clearly, but her bulk suddenly split in two – Geira handed him a leaf-wrapped parcel that opened to reveal a small flat tasty loaf of bread, shaped like a square. The hobbit bit into the strange food excitedly and easily devoured the Elvish waybread.

“You know they say one bite is enough to fill a grown Man’s stomach,” Geira laughed, but she let him eat a whole package anyway, so Bilbo didn’t know if she was serious about that.

After his meal, he got back on his feet, longing for a post food nap, but knowing that they had to move on.

“The tunnel narrows soon, you will have to walk behind me,” Geira said, when they had walked what Bilbo thought was another mile. “The lichen will also stop growing, so you had best hold on to my belt as you cannot see in the dark.” By now, he was reasonably certain he was indeed following a dwarf, even if the height was wrong – she was at least a head taller than even Kíli, who had been the tallest dwarf he’d ever met – a Man or an Elf would not have been able to see in the dark either. He was glad of the warning as they seemingly plunged into impenetrable darkness from one step to the next. Bilbo scrambled to do as he was told, securing his hand to the soft leather strap. “Keep quiet, this tunnel gets close to the ones the Goblins use.”

Those were the last words the Hobbit heard from his companion for hours thereafter. The trek became an interminable amount of time spent simply putting one foot ahead of the other and following Geira’s warm form. The darkness was a comfort even if Bilbo did not consciously realise that it meant Goblins were not close; his sword did not shine blue.

Eventually, just as Bilbo’s desire to yell or do something to break the surrounding silence and darkness reached critical levels, Geira spoke once more.

“Not far now, Master Baggins,” she whispered. “You’ll be outside in an hour or so.”

It seemed like forever.

 

Geira’s prediction proved true; turning a bend in the tunnel, Bilbo spotted the welcome light of the sun, lessening the darkness as they walked through a small cave, the tunnel concealed as no more than a narrow crack in the rock as soon as they left it.

Finally, he stepped outside, immediately enveloped in glorious sunshine. Bilbo closed his eyes and took a second simply to bask in the warmth. His toes curled into the soft grass that sloped downwards from the mountainside, happy to be away from the stone. Hobbit feet were tough and although the tunnel they had walked through was mostly smooth and his saviour had steered him away from the scattered rocks that littered it, they still felt the strain of the rough terrains he had traversed the last few days.

“I hope your Dwarrow companions have enough stone sense between them to get here too,” Geira said, making Bilbo’s eyes snap open. “I suggest we take cover in those trees, Master Baggins, and wait for them.” The dwarf still had her back towards Bilbo as she pointed to a collection of birch trees not far ahead. “It is not wise to linger where Goblins might see even if they shun the light of the Sun when they can.”

“Stone sense?” he repeated, feeling slightly discombobulated by the sudden return of his vision. “And please call me Bilbo. You saved me, and I would like to call us friends.

Geira strode ahead, calling back over her shoulder, “A Dwarf, Bilbo, is born with an innate sense of stone. Much like the Elves can listen to the trees around them, a Dwarf can sense the stone and the earth moving around him. It means that Dwarrow rarely get lost underground. In fact, you could go so far as to say that a dwarf who gets lost underground would be mocked quite severely. Of course, some dwarrow have stronger senses than others, but it’s incredibly rare for a dwarf to be born stone-blind. Mahal’s gift to his Children lies in a deep connection to the land around them. Some have the skill to sense seams of precious metal and gems running through the rock, while others might be able to spot fault lines and weaknesses by touch.”

Dropping her pack beneath a slender tree and pulling out a pipe, Geira stuffed it solemnly then handed it to Bilbo her pipe in offering. Passing the pipe back and forth languidly, blowing smoke rings, they enjoyed the warmth of the Sun shining through the leaves. Geira’s eyes were closed, and Bilbo relaxed next to her, silently smoking and observing his rescuer. The dwarf had silvery shining hair, intricately braided. Oddly enough she didn’t have a beard at all, not even the scruff Kíli called a beard. She was dressed in leather armour over a green tunic, ring-mail sleeves shining in the low sun. Her cloak was a green-brown-grey colour that seemed to change as the light hit it and she truly looked more like she belonged in a forest than a mountain.

Then Bilbo noticed the ears.

“You’re…an Elf? A girl Elf.” Bilbo was flabbergasted. None of the Elves he’d seen in Rivendell had been so short as to be taken for Dwarrow in the dark.

“The word is elleth, Master Bilbo, and the answer is both yes and no.” Geira’s voice was light with suppressed mirth. “I am a peredhel. Half-elven. It means I am both Elf and Dwarf. I live the life of an Elf, but my mother was a Dwarf,” she pointed at her head, “hence the braids and the smoking,” she winked mischievously at him. Bilbo laughed almost despite himself, trying to imagine Lord Elrond with a pipe – he had seen Gandalf smoking in Rivendell, but the Elves had not appeared to approve greatly.

“I didn’t think Elves and… Dwarrow?” Bilbo asked, the unfamiliar plural she had used sitting oddly on his tongue; he had always though it was dwarves, “liked each other enough for…” he made a slightly choked off sound and gesture at her in lieu of finishing his sentence, an image of the incompatibility of such a couple burning in his mind and colouring his cheeks crimson.

Geira laughed. “There is long-lasting enmity between the Dwarrow and the Eldar, you are correct,” she said, sobering suddenly. “I have met only two who have known of a pairing like my parents’, and in all my lifetime I have never met another who shares my heritage.” Mirth had fled, and Bilbo instinctively felt that the topic of her mixed blood was fraught with pitfalls. Humming noncommittally, he puffed once more on the pipe, passing it to his companion in silence. Leaning back against the tree, Bilbo was content to enjoy the sun and the sound of birds singing. His eyes closed and he was soon asleep.

Geira continued smoking, her gaze sweeping across the land as she observed her new friend. He was unlike Hobbits she had met – even the adventurous Belladonna Took, whom Elladan and Elrohir had told her of had not been this far east. No Hobbit had crossed the Misty Mountains since the Wandering Years.

After an hour, she woke Bilbo gently, offering him more food and drink. The two enjoyed another quiet meal in the bright sunshine before Bilbo lay down for another nap.  Geira remained awake and on watch, her attention fixed on the mountainside where she knew the Goblins had their ‘Back Door’.

 


 

 

Suddenly, a troop of Dwarrow burst from the mountain. At the head of the gathering, the tall shape and pointy grey hat of Gandalf was unmistakable. Bilbo startled awake

“…12, 13, WHERE’S BILBO?!” Gandalf finished his rapid head count just as Geira got to her feet. Bilbo blinked at them all, looking bruised and much worse for wear, but everyone was there – a sight he had not expected to see again.

“I saw him fall as the Goblins were rounding us up,” Nori croaked out, wheezing from the impact of a heavy beam and an even heavier Goblin King on his chest. Dwalin sheepishly set him back on his feet, and the Thief gave him a pat of gratitude. He had expected to be left under the beams, crushed to death, but the combined strength of Dori, Dwalin and Thorin had been enough to get him out. “He must still be in there,” Nori continued reluctantly, looking around the group of dwarrow.

“Uncle! We have to go back for him!” Kíli turned pleading puppy eyes on Thorin, already glistening with tears at the thought of what horrors could have befallen the little Hobbit burglar. Beside him, Fíli nodded. The two Princes had become quite fond of Master Boggins, especially after the Troll Incident. The rest of the Company started shouting

Thorin felt stricken, his mouth set in harsh lines. He looked back at the mountain entrance, from which they could hear Goblins hissing curses as they avoided the sunlight. Thorin sighed, taking a step back towards the dark maw they had just escaped. He knew going back for the small Hobbit was suicide – at best, they would lose several lives in the attempt.

Opening his mouth, he tried to say something comforting about the Hobbit making his way back to Rivendell, even if he knew it would placate neither his nephews’ hearts nor his own. Once, he had told the Wizard that he would not be responsible for the fate of the Hobbit, but Thorin felt responsible nonetheless for dragging the soft creature into such peril.

Instead, to his surprise, Thorin heard another voice answer Kíli’s plea.

 

Ikhli, u’zaghith[1]. The Hobbit was with me and I lead him out safely.”

Geira spoke softly, yet her voice penetrated the din of shouting dwarrow easily. Bilbo was impressed, both with his saviour and with the speed with which the Company whirled around to face her, leaning against a tree and watching the flustered dwarrow with soft amusement shining in her blue eyes.

Geira laughed, that odd Elvish laugh, which made the world seem a little brighter around her. “Ikhlî, shaktân[2],” she said, smiling.

The gaping Company simply stared. Bilbo felt a little self-conscious, wondering just how battered he really looked after his tumble down the chasm in Goblin Town. “I mean you no harm,” Geira continued, bringing her hand up, making a fist in front of her chest and bowed. “I am Geira, daughter of Narví.”

Bifur mumbled something no one paid attention to. Gandalf bowed to her, which seemed to floor the Company even more than the sudden appearance of their Burglar. They stared at the stranger in their midst. Shiny mithril hair tumbling down her back in intricate braids, beads winking in the sunlight, and dressed in leather and mail, she looked like one of their warrior queens of legend, even without a beard. At her sides were strapped a pair of twin swords and on her back she carried a fine bow and a quiver of arrows. Blue eyes twinkled back at them. The beads in her hair were decorated with Khuzdul runes and her braids proclaimed her a master jeweller as well as a Daughter of the House of Durin. The last bit seemed to be what puzzled Balin and Thorin the most as she spoke, soft Elvish lilt spilling from her lips.

“Mithrandir, mae g’ovannen, mellon-nîn,” Geira said gently. “Êl síla lû e-govaned ’wìn.[3]

“Dear Lady Ilsamirë,” Geandalf replied in Common Westron. “It has been many a year since last we met; this is indeed a pleasant surprise.”

“Mithrandir, you old flatterer, it has indeed been far too long,” Geira replied, giving the tall wizard a sunny smile and laughing brightly.  Bilbo’s dwarrow were still in the process of picking up their jaws, although a fair few lost them again at that point. Not many people would dare laugh at a wizard. Ori cautiously inched away from Gandalf’s staff, but the wizard just smiled serenely, looking for all the world like a benevolent grandfather.

“I thought you dwelt in Lothlórien these days, beautiful Silver Lady?” he asked, bushy brows frowning above brilliantly blue eyes. Geira nodded.

“I was on my way to Imladris,” she said, shrugging one shoulder, “when I met young Bilbo here... poor thing fell into the tunnels below Goblin Town and got a nasty knock on his head.”

Dori made a sound of concern at that, but Bilbo felt overall well, aside from the bruises that were blooming on his skin, and wave it away with a small gesture. Most of his bruises were hidden by his clothes, at least, and he looked a fair bit better than the tattered and battered Dwarrow standing before him.

“You ought to take better care of your pets, wizard,” Geira rebuked Gandalf softly, but her smile stayed fond and the wizard seemed to take no offense at her words.

“I thank you for your assistance, my Lady,” he replied gravely, “I do not wish to dwell on what might have happened if Bilbo had been alone.”

“Bilbo took a goblin with him in his tumble down the cliff side,” Geira revealed, startling Bilbo who hadn’t spared even a thought for the reason for his fall. “It had died from a bashed in skull by the time I found him, however,” Geira continued, “he was very lucky to survive the fall.”

“Who are you?” Thorin asked, suddenly remembering that he was supposed to be the leader of their Company.

Geira turned to face the Company once more, smiling at him in a way that seemed far too fond for a complete stranger. “E gêdul d’abdukh astni,[4]” she said, nodding at Thorin, who stiffened. Around him, jaws made contact with the ground, but Geira ignored the Company’s incredulous stares. “What are dwarrow doing coming through the Misty Mountains?” she continued. “You are obviously not a trade expedition.”

Bofur began saying something, possibly trying to spin a more successful tale than the one they had tried to feed the Goblin King, but a warg’s howl interrupted the cosy chatting.

“Run!” Thorin cried, grabbing his nephew by the scruff of his neck and pushing him ahead.

They ran.

Azog followed.

 

 

[1] Peace, young warrior.

[2] Peace, kinsmen.

[3] Well met, Gandalf, my friend. A star shines upon the hour of our meeting.

[4] I am happy to meet you.

Chapter Text

There was pain.

Thorin wondered if dying was really supposed to hurt this much.

In fact, seeing the blade-wielding orc coming to cut his head off had reassured him that he would feel little. He spared spare a thought for his nephews and lamented that they would watch him slain as he had watched Frerin – helpless to stop the coming death and screaming in denial.

Dwalin’s face swam in front of his eye and he smiled at his fierce scowl. Dwalin would never forgive him for his reckless sacrifice, but he would understand the need for vengeance for the fallen. Orcs had killed Thrór, sparking the war that killed so many of their already diminished kin, orcs had been responsible for his brother’s death. Bright happy Frerin, who resembled Fíli so closely that it hurt to look at the nephew at times, remembering the one who should have been with them.

A flash of red crossed his vision, but Thorin paid it no mind among the black spots that were already dancing there. He knew that his lungs were not working right, the lack of oxygen making him see things. That was the only explanation for the hallucination of their sweet little hobbit standing over him, snarling fit for an orc and waving his small shining blade in a way that made it obvious he had no training in its use. Thorin almost smiled.

Distantly he heard the roar that could only be Dwalin in the grip of battle-rage, and the smile deepened; became love rather than amusement. So often, that sound had been the sweetest music on the field, knowing that the one he called amrâlimê was near.

Dwalin’s wild eyes, his fierce snarl, his loving smile, followed him into the darkness.

Shosh, mahabbanûnith[5].” The words were soft as a whisper, and Thorin thought he could hear the voice of his amad.

“Kun, Amad,” he said, smiling at the thought that she would be there to welcome him to the Halls of Waiting. More words followed, gentle as ripples across a pond, but they meant nothing to Thorin. Warmth spread through his body, making the pain recede slightly. A hand was on his forehead, the other pressing softly against the side the warg had chewed. The darkness drew back, leaving brightness behind. A figure shone brightly before him, chasing away the shadows.

“…Amad?”

Thorin blinked.

Slowly, his eyes focussed past silvery hair – wasn’t it supposed to be gold? – to land on Gandalf’s wrinkled visage, silently asking for answers.

“Thorin,” the wizard smiled.

A gentle pressure disappeared from his chest, though Thorin barely noticed the disappearance of Bilbo’s elf rescuer, the pain of his injures making itself known. Halfway in his view, the shiny head of the elf who claimed to be a Dwarf moved across the flat plateau, murmuring something at an… eagle? Why were they surrounded by eagles? Her hands scratched into the neck-feathers of one of them, making the grand bird preen and nudge her happily.

Moving his head slightly, he found Dwalin, his teeth clenched and his eyes dark in a way that made Thorin wince. He had known the warg broke his ribs, had felt each sharp crack as the thin bones snapped, and he had felt the end of one bone stabbing into his lung, felt his mouth well with blood for a moment before unconsciousness claimed him. A thought surfaced, a flash of red cloth and a streak of blueish light appearing in his mind – the last glimpse he had caught through the rapidly encroaching blackness.

“The…the Hobbit?” Thorin spoke softly, half expecting his lungs to fail at pressing the words across his lips. Had the creature he had so disdained truly attempted to save him despite his ineptitude as a fighter? He winced slightly. No longer suffering broken ribs and his lungs were in working order, but Thorin ached. There were definitely still cracked ribs beneath the heavy bruising that made itself known with each move he made.

“He’s fine, Bilbo is just fine,” Gandalf smiled, waving towards the little creature in his stained red dinner jacket. Thorin got to his feet gingerly. Fíli slipped under his arm to steady his footing, but Thorin felt surprisingly capable of motion; whatever the wizard had wrought, the magic had healed him to an astonishing degree.

Zantulbasn mazannagûn,[6]” he growled, striding determinedly towards the small Hobbit who was watching the Elf sit next to the Eagle with a fascinated expression and did not hear him.

 


 

Making their way down from the Carrock, gingerly moving around various injuries, the Company were exhausted when they reached the small stream that ran along its base. Gandalf led them along the stream until it widened into a shallow river, a shallow bend forming a natural pool.

On the bank, they set up what bedrolls remained to them, taking care of injuries to the extent Óin’s pilfered supplies allowed, eating watercress and a few plants foraged by the least injured. As the only one who had managed to keep hold of all her supplies, Geira shared what lembas she had left with the dwarrow around her. Glóin and Ori looked suspiciously at the leaf-wrapped breads but were eventually convinced by their rumbling stomachs to at least try a bite. The young princes ventured to share a slice, and then darted back to the company of their Uncle, swarming around him like worried chicks. Thorin hid the winces his painful wounds produced, trying to deflate Dwalin’s righteous anger by playing down his injuries. Gandalf’s magic – plus whatever the strange peredhel had done – had helped some, but he felt a little woozy still; sheer stubbornness had allowed him to get down from the Carrock without fainting from lack of air. He might not have broken ribs, but a few were definitely cracked if he was any judge, and the bruises marking most of his torso did not make breathing any easier.

When the haze of unconsciousness had left him and he’d caught sight of the grey pallor to his beloved’s face, Thorin could feel only shame for his actions. He had not even considered what his death, which had been a certainty if not for a certain Hobbit, would do to the Company, let alone the Dwarf who loved him. The thought of his nephews’ worried faces and their present need for comfort only added to the shame.

Stalking along the riverbank, as swiftly as his battered body could manage, Thorin stopped beside Geira, who was washing her face and splashing cool water on her neck. He wanted answers.

The safety of the entire Company was his responsibility, and allowing a complete stranger to travel with them for an unknown length of time did not seem wise. He did not entirely manage to convince himself that his misgivings were quite so responsible; a deeply rooted part of him knew that his mistrust was based on his mistrust of her people in general – claiming his kinship by the beads in her hair and the plaits that marked her a Master Craftsman several times over in the ways of their people did not make him any less suspicious of her motives or sudden appearance.

“Who are you?” he asked harshly, reassured when he felt Dwalin’s solid bulk take up position at his back. The warrior had been keeping his distance since the Carrock, and Thorin knew he had scared him; Dwalin retreated into himself when he needed to think, but he’d still never let his King approach an unknown stranger without backup – injuries or no.

“A friend,” she replied softly, not looking up at him, a braid marked with an ancient-looking bead of Durin swinging over her shoulder. Thorin stared. “I have many names, Thorin Oakenshield, and perhaps I will tell you my story one day… for now, however, accept that I wish no harm to you or yours.”

Thorin found himself gaping at the sheer audacity of the girl, watching her walk away from him, mithril braids swaying with each step. He growled, but Dwalin’s hand on his arm stayed the harsh words he would have shouted after her.

“I want to know who she is, Dwalin, and how she came to be here!” Thorin ranted, something about her deeply unsettling to him. How dare an Elf of all people speak their sacred words and wear braids proclaiming her a member of his line? “Why is she following us?”

“I don’t know, Thorin, but she does not seem to want to hinder our purpose,” Dwalin replied slowly, staring after the Elf, too. “She fought the Orcs alongside us, and she saved Bilbo from Goblins. For now, I think she may be right to call herself our friend…” Dwalin trailed off. Thorin remained unconvinced. The Guard-Captain sighed. “I’ll get Nori to ferret out some answers for you, my King.” Thorin nodded, but he was not appeased, and mentally he cast about for another source of the answers he sought.

 

When Thorin finally managed to corner Gandalf by the riverbank, temper well and truly lit, all he could think about was demanding some answers about their newest travel companion.

“Tharkûn! Who is this Elf that knows our tongue?!” Keeping his voice low, the accompanying gesture was interrupted by a low moan of agony as a spike of red pain pierced his side.

“Her story is not mine to tell,” the wizard said calmly, stuffing his pipe and looking pensively at the spectacle that was Kíli trying to dunk his brother under the water.

Thorin grunted something unintelligible in response, too busy breathing through the pain. Black spots danced before his eyes.

“She is known to me as Lady Ilsamirë of Lothlórien, and I have long considered her a friend,” Gandalf offered delicately.

Thorin waved him on impatiently, trying not to wheeze.

“She would be your friend if you let her, Thorin,” Gandalf said, leaving Thorin with an unsettling feeling that those had not been the wizard’s intended words. “Belligerent as you may be, Ilsamirë is not one to let her kinsmen suffer needlessly.”

Thorin stared. He hadn’t believed that the Elf could be what she claimed: a dwarrowdam.

“How does a dwarrowdam become a Lady of an accursed Elf forest?!” he asked, slightly horrified as questions involving dark magic rose up in his mind. “For that matter, how did she end up looking like one?”  

Gandalf ignored his expression entirely, solemnly stuffing his pipe. “If you want to know more, you will have to ask her. I will promise you only that she bears you no ill will, and warn you that she could be of great aid to your quest,” Gandalf said, his countenance clearly stating that the topic would not be discussed further.

Thorin glared.

The wizard sighed, relenting slightly. “I had not thought to ask for her aid,” he admitted, staring south, “for Lothlórien is far out of our way.”

Thorin scowled at the wizard, whose face gave away nothing. He opened his mouth to protest, but Tharkûn held up his hand, a faraway look in his eyes as he blew a perfect ring of smoke.

“As I said, Master Oakenshield, you will have to ask her for her story.”

With that, Gandalf apparently felt the conversation had ended, for they grey-robed Wizard got to his feet and left Thorin by the water’s edge to gape incredulously after him, once more taken aback by the audacity of one of his travelling companions. Someone he didn’t know was moseying her way into his Quest, and the dratted wizard would not even tell him who she was? Grandfather had been more than right in his disdain for the foibles of wizards, Thorin was sure, glaring after the tall figure. His frown only grew darker when he caught sight of their newest member chatting lively with Bilbo.

 

 


 

 

The river provided an opportunity to wash and take care of their most pressing wounds, but the Company was on the move again by morning. The Eagles had taken them far from the cliffs by the Misty Mountains, but wargs were fast and the Company had no desire to tarry over-long.

Dwalin was never far from Thorin’s side, a mighty scowl pasted on his face as he walked along, his mighty shoulders drawn tight. Thorin wisely remained silent. When the Guard-Captain had that expression on his face, everyone – from the newest guard recruit to the oldest noble – left him alone.

 


 

Geira spent most of her time in the company of Bilbo, discussing the merits of different Hobbit pipe weed and ale, something that could easily take up hours. Bilbo almost felt like he was back at home in the Green Dragon. The rest of the Company seemed to take their cue from their leader and avoided her as much as possible. Bilbo was beginning to see how they had done the same to him, when the Quest had first started. She did not seem to care overmuch, however, unlike him, appearing quite content to walk in silence if no one spoke to her or sing softly to herself in words Bilbo did not understand. It was obviously some dialect of Elvish, he could tell, but nothing more than that. He thought his mother had managed to teach him passable Sindarin – and he had tried out a few phrases successfully in Rivendell – but this girl did not speak a recognisable form of Elvish as he knew it.

 


 

As the group walked ever onwards, Ori lost his natural shyness to the forces of overwhelming curiosity. Ignoring Dori’s wary suspicions, he began asking questions of their newest travel-mate. She freely told stories of her home in Lothlórien and even a few tales of Mirkwood and her friends in both places. Ori soaked up the tales like a sponge; a few of them might make for nice reading in the official Book of Erebor’s Reclamation – which would need a catchier title, Ori realised – even if she only travelled with them until they reached a crossway where she could return to an Elven Realm. His fingers itched for his quill-pen and ink-bottle, but unfortunately those had been in his pack and were probably broken by the Goblins. The thought made him sad; he had brought some of his best quills along, in a carrying case specially designed for master scribes to ensure his ink-bottles remained whole. He still had the sketches he had already made, as well as his notes, saved from wanton destruction only because he kept the pages tucked under his tunic, even while he slept.

 


 

The day warmed slowly. The Dwarrow had to admit that the silly Elf-bread did stave off their hunger; after the night of Stone-Giants and a full day inside the warren of Goblin Town, hunger had more than set in by the time Azog’s band of Orcs caught up with them. It did not mean that they trusted the one who provided the odd food, but it meant that Nori did not interfere while Ori was asking questions, simply remaining in the background gathering observations and bits of insight into this Geira’s character. So far, he liked the parts of her she allowed him to glean, though he was acutely aware that she knew he was listening – giving her opportunity to change her tales to suit the way she wanted to appear to them. Nori had learned never to take a stranger at face value and remained vigilant, even if he had to admit to himself that she seemed genuinely interested in them and their lives, asking very few questions about their purpose and seeming far more interested in life in Ered Luin. Somehow, Nori thought, some of the people Ori mentioned seemed familiar to her, a certain glint in her eyes perhaps, though nothing he could put his finger one. The unanswered questions in his mind made Nori even more wary than Dori, which was a rare feat, and the thought made him chuckle to himself though he did not share it with either of his siblings.

 

In return for Geira’s stories, Ori wove the tale of their Journey from the Shire and up to the point where they had killed the Goblin King. The elf was a good audience, gasping at the right places and chuckling at the parts he made seem far funnier than they had been to experience. The story of Bilbo’s role in the Troll Quarrel – definitely deserving of capitalisation in Ori’s mind, as a defining moment of the Quest – was taken over by the Hobbit himself, who proved to be a natural storyteller. Ori silently wondered if Master Baggins might like to help edit the rough drafts of their story some day, even though it would have to be the Westron version, as outsiders were not permitted to learn Khuzdul.

 


 

 

As they walked, Geira pointed out various plants to the attentive eyes of Ori and Bilbo, teaching them the uses of herbs that were unfamiliar, picking those she believed would be useful in treating the wounds sustained by the Company. Óin anticipated great need for pain- and fever-reducing teas once they finally got to a place safe enough to tend to their injuries properly. This led to a lively discussion with the old healer about healing arts in general and Elven healing skills in particular, as Geira was quite adamant that she was a fully trained healer in her own right. Nori silently added another thing to his mental character assessment.

Their debate was made more entertaining – in Nori’s watchful but unspoken opinion – by the lack of Óin’s ear trumpet.

Eventually, the healer resorted to a fairly rude sign in Iglishmêk, making Dori huff with disapproval. Nori snickered, preparing to interject a lewd comment to go with the sign, but the elleth just laughed and signed back an even ruder miner’s sign.

At that point, Bofur intervened with a lecture to the interested Bilbo about miner’s sign language and Geira disappeared into the trees and bushes, returning with a selection of early summer berries and a few plants which Óin had particularly lamented the loss of during their debate.  The treat was shared throughout the Company, even drawing a small twitch of a smile from Thorin when he was presented with a few plump blackberries, and the herbs were tied into bunches hung from her pack. Geira had rebuffed all offers of carrying the pack; dwarrow were quite valiant in their own way, and burdens ought to be shared, but as she had pointed out, she was by far the least injured of all of them.

 

When Ori’s questions finally reached a natural lull – more than a little aided by the handful of berries she had slipped him – Geira walked swiftly to the head of the group, next to the wizard and the Dwarf Prince.

“You’re bringing them to Beorn’s lands, Mithrandir?” she asked, eyeing the old wizard shrewdly.

“Yes. Radagast mentioned him to me once.” Gandalf replied lightly. Geira glanced at the dwarf beside him, who was – successfully with regards to Dwarven eyes, but not so to her Elven sight – trying to mask just how injured he truly was. She frowned lightly.

Thorin bristled at her scrutiny, taking it as disdain. He was used to being disrespected by Men and the few Elves he had met in person had not improved his view of that race either, but it galled him that someone who claimed his kinship would hardly even acknowledge his existence.

“And did Radagast tell you anything about the man?” Geira asked, turning her blue eyes back to Gandalf, who hummed hesitantly, eventually shaking his head. Geira chuckled. “You should know that Beorn has very little fondness for Dwarrow…perhaps it’s best if you let me talk to him,” she offered. “Although he dislikes the Children of Mahal, he is usually happy to see me when I come by on my journeys…”

Thorin grunted noncommittally, still more keen on getting rid of this interloper than accepting any help she might render.

“When he hears that you killed the Goblin King, he may be more sympathetic to your quest,” Geira added, ignoring Thorin’s scowl entirely. “Beorn has no love for orcs or goblins and hunts them ruthlessly when they trespass onto his lands.”

“A good point,” Gandalf agreed, nodding.

“Beorn will expect fair payment for his aid, however, if he chooses to give it,” Geira warned.

Thorin scowled again, thinking of their rapidly diminishing coin purses. Most had lost their purses along with their packs in Goblin Town, and he would be surprised if any of the Company had more gold than that which they had sewn into their clothes as insurance.

“I did know that he doesn’t like Dwarrow,” the wizard revealed, with a motion that Thorin would have called a negligent shrug on anyone else. “I was planning on only arriving with Bilbo at first. Lead up to the full Company, so to speak.”

“You have always been wily, my friend, but I doubt Beorn would appreciate that.” Geira laughed.

Once again Thorin felt the eyes of the Elf-girl roam across his battered body. He did not appreciate the sensation.

“He is not a man who accepts dishonesty in any form,” she said. “It’s part of the reason he secluded himself here rather than join a settlement of Men somewhere. Beorn prefers the company of his animals.”

“Perhaps you are right, dear one. I shall bow to your superior knowledge of the man.” Gandalf nodded, considering her advice.

“Thank you, Mithrandir,” Geira smiled. She shot Thorin a look past the wizard and continued, “I know your Company are hungry for meat, but you will find none here, and you should not hunt any beasts who roam these lands… unless you wish for a swift and painful end. Even the bees here are under Beorn’s protection.” She paused slightly, lost in a long-ago memory of the ferocious Skinwalker. “It is unwise to antagonise him.”

Thorin’s deepening scowl convinced her to re-join the hobbit at the back of the group, something in her eyes that he did not understand, almost looking like sorrow before it was masked by seeming indifference.

Reappearing at the back of the line sparked a whole new series of questions from Ori, who had had ample time to come up with new thoughts about the stories she’d told earlier as well as finding a few flowers that hadn’t been pointed out. The elf returned to her earlier lightness with apparent ease, not a care in the world visible on her face.

Thorin glowered all the way to this… Beorn’s house.

 


 

Mellon-nîn,” Geira said softly, leaning on the gate and watching the large man chopping firewood just outside his house. The giant turned slowly, grasping his axe firmly. “I am afraid I must trespass upon your hospitality.” She was aware of the Company’s stares – most were fixed on Beorn, but she felt Thorin’s barely disguised hostility keenly, his eyes boring into her back.

“Pethril,” Beorn said slowly, his deep voice soothing, “You have brought dwarrow to my lands… And a bunny, it seems,” he continued, gesturing at Bilbo. “That one is no Dwarf.”

“This is Master Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire,” Geira replied.

Beorn nodded, his eyes roaming across the Company, who were standing behind the elleth. “The rest of your party are Dwarrow,” he said, his bushy brows furrowing, “I don’t like Dwarrow.” Baring his teeth in a slight growl, he continued, “They’re greedy creatures, and blind. Blind to the lives of those they deem lesser than their own. They care nothing for those weaker than themselves.” The words were delivered evenly, calmly, but the Company still bristled at the insult. They tended towards insularity, as a race, as long history had taught them, but –

“These dwarrow are good people,” Geira rebuked with equal calm, smothering the embers of temper Beorn’s words had set alight in her companions’ breasts. “I give you my word they will cause no trouble in your lands, old friend.” Turning back towards the Company and gesturing broadly towards their exhausted and rather grimy appearances, she continued softly, “They slew the Goblin King – Orcs are hunting them.” Beorn’s eyes widened at her words, narrowing again as he studied the group of Dwarrow still standing silently behind her. “Will you grant them sanctuary, so they may rest and heal before the next step of their journey?” Geira asked, hoping beyond hope that her long-standing friendship with the Skinwalker would grant her kinsmen this easement; they needed a safe place to recover from the trials of Goblin Town and the skirmish with the Orcs.

Beorn growled and took three swift steps until he was looming over her. The dwarrow behind her gripped their weapons in readiness, shaking off their fatigue and more than one of them made to step towards the two of them. Geira did not shy away from the massive hand coming towards her, holding out her arm for him to catch, bringing her palm to his nose as he inhaled loudly. The giant man growled again, sniffing her skin carefully – she had washed in the stream, but his sensitive nose would catch the hints of Orcs left on her, the reek of pine trees burning that still clung to her skin. The Company gaped. Geira laughed, feeling a moment of regret that she had not warned them what to expect.

“You smell of fire and blood and Orcs,” Beorn growled menacingly, “you bring dwarrow to my land who are hunted by orcs, yet you claim they will bring me no trouble?” Amused, rather than angry, he smiled. “For you, Pethril,” he rumbled loudly, raising one bushy eyebrow, “I will not kill them, but you will owe me a tale or three.”

She nodded; having little use for coin, Beorn was usually happy to listen to stories of far-off places in return for hospitality, as well as her unspoken promise that she would continue to look for any survivors of his kind on her travels. Beorn let go of her hand and picked her up in an easy hug that brought her over the low gate, smelling the different scents mingling in her hair as he did.

“So be it,” he said, looking at the bedraggled Company, “You can stay. If you truly killed the Goblin King, I will even feed you.” He looked dubious as to the veracity of that claim, but he opened the gate, setting Geira back on her feet gently.

The dwarrow slowly traipsed past the foreboding giant. Even Mithrandir seemed nervous, a reaction that wasn’t helped when Beorn stopped him easily with a hand wrapped around the wizard’s arm. “Who is this.” The question was not directed at Mithrandir, though the wizard replied, slightly shakily. Beorn’s grip was not crushing, but it had potential to be so, which was clearly felt.

“Gandalf. Gandalf the Grey.” The wizard chuckled nervously. Geira hid a smile, trying not to imagine what would have happened if Mithrandir had followed his original plan.

“Never heard of him.” Beorn scowled.

“I’m a wizard. Perhaps you’ve heard of my colleague, Radagast the Brown? He lives in the south of what was once the Great Greenwood.” Gandalf tried, but the mention of Radagast did nothing more than let Beorn release his arm without reply.

The bear of a Man looked at the Company. “And who are you all?”

Each dwarf introduced himself, but Beorn showed no reaction until Thorin said his name. Recognition sparked in the man’s eyes.

“My story, Pethril,” he said, while herding the Company closer to his house, “how did you get involved with the one they call Oakenshield? Him I have heard of.”

Entering the house, where Beorn’s dogs had laid out a meal on the long table, Geira took a seat beside their large host, watching as the Company filed in, politely washing their hands before taking a seat along the table. She had to stop herself from giggling at the sight; they mostly resembled a row of heads. Her own height at least allowed her to see over the table properly – helped by the somewhat higher chair Beorn had given her.

Taking his own seat at the head of the table, Beorn waved his large hand towards the animals that quickly ladled out heaping portions for each guest. For a while, contented chewing was the only sound to fill the room, but then Geira opened her mouth, putting down her fork and began to spin the tale of meeting Bilbo under the Misty Mountains.

 


 

After the sumptuous meal, the least injured dwarrow found places to bed down in the barn, grateful for a bit of rest; Beorn left in his bear skin – most likely to ascertain the truth of their tale about the vile Goblin King. Óin, who lamented the loss of his hearing horn, demanded that the injured be tended, rewrapping Nori’s tender ribs and revealing Thorin’s bruised and battered torso.

“I have medicines in my pack that will help,” Geira said, unable to stop herself from worrying about the dark-haired dwarf, even if she knew he would not welcome her concern. Thorin glared at her, but Óin hummed thoughtfully, poking his King’s side and nodding to her at the resultant moan Thorin could not conceal. Flitting across the room and returning with a small earthenware pot, Geira handed the salve to the old healer before fleeing from the Thorin’s dark regard, telling herself off for cowardice even as she slipped out the door.

Óin carefully sniffed the salve, trying to ascertain the ingredients, before glancing at Thorin with a shrug and deciding to use it. After all, the girl had proven knowledgeable and he had lost his own kit in Goblin Town, so he didn’t have much choice. The old healer knew that his King would not complain of his pains, even if he should, but anything speeding up his recovery would be appreciated. He slathered a goodly amount across Thorin’s chest, making him hiss in pain. When he was done, he wrapped Thorin’s chest in a long length of linen bandage material, sending him off to bed down in the room that held the only proper bed in the house. Thorin attempted to protest, but Óin played up his deafness until he relented with a scowl.

Dwalin followed him, sharing a glance with Balin; their host might – begrudgingly – have granted them sanctuary, but he would still keep watch over Thorin.

He still did not know what to say to his Kurdel, anger swirling in his gut, mixing with heady relief and lingering fear in a noxious cocktail of emotion.

 

“What were you thinking!?” Dwalin began angrily, slamming the door behind him. The bald Dwarf paced in the large bedroom Thorin had been allotted.

Thorin could only shrug, knowing better than to interrupt the irate Dwarf, removing his boots and climbing onto the tall bed, enjoying the softness as exhaustion weighed him down.

“You would have been killed, Thorin! What did you think would happen to our family if you died?! Not to mention the Quest. Mahal’s beard, you know you’re needed for that if nothing else!” Dwalin’s mind was so frayed by anger and outright terror, he could hardly keep his thoughts organised, let alone the disjointed rant that came out of his mouth. “And the lads… Thorin, you have scared me that badly before, but think of what you would have done to Fíli and Kíli! And Dís! M’imnu Durin!” Dwalin cursed loudly. “She would have my beard, if not my head, sending me off to the Halls myself to scold you for such utter idiocy!”

Thorin grinned softly at the thought of his sister’s temper; Dís was not the kind of dwarrowdam one angered lightly. He licked his lips, sitting on the tall bed and watched as his Kurdel’s strained temper found release. He idly wondered if it was wrong to think a Dwalin angry beyond words was as sexy as Thorin was currently thinking. His foggy thoughts – no doubt influenced by Óin’s medicine if not by the Elf’s salve – could only sing with admiration for his fierce lover.

This explosion had been building since the Carrock, where Dwalin had been too consumed by worry to brood on his anger. Thorin winced as Dwalin’s voice reached hitherto unknown levels of volume.

Maralmizu, amrâlimê.” Thorin felt a little loopy. “Afsâlul,” Thorin mumbled, “Dwalinimê.” He nodded seriously to himself. Dwalin was very sexy when he was angry.

Dwalin’s rant came to a sudden halt when Thorin began speaking. His words were slurred and Dwalin could see a line of drool making its way down his chin. Thorin just grinned loopily at him.

“Óin!” Dwalin bellowed, panicking, proving that the Company had been listening at the door when Óin came stumbling through the door within seconds. Dwalin pointed at the lolling King, who was now talking to the ornately carved bedpost. The wooden bear did not answer.

Halwmugrê…” Thorin mumbled, patting the bear carving. Óin’s long years of experience was all that let him keep his composure. Thorin had never acted like this on poppymilk nor on any of the other common pain medicines he could dispense.

“What’s wrong with him!” Dwalin pleaded with his eyes for Óin to tell him that their King’s mind was not permanently addled.

“Dwalin… c’m’ere.” Thorin slurred, reaching for a point slightly to the left of Dwalin. “Two of yes and no kisses for me,” he mumbled. The King’s mien was turning decidedly pouty.

Dwalin gaped but made the tactical error of moving in range of Thorin’s grabby hand.

“My Dwalin,” Thorin smiled happily. “My bear. Not that bear. That bear doesn’t kiss me,” he informed the carved bedpost sadly, “You should kiss me.” He kept pulling on the speechless Dwalin, however, and the burly warrior followed.

Óin finally lost the battle with his laughter, but managed to make it outside the door before he let loose with a barrage of great guffaws that almost scared the rest of the Company. Óin was laughing so much he began wheezing before he could manage to explain his amusement.

 

Inside the room, Dwalin barely heard the door closing behind Óin, all his focus on Thorin, who was drooling a little on his bandages.

“Kisses, Dwalin,” he demanded, sounding like Kíli when he was being denied cookies until he had eaten his dinner…as a dwarfling. “Kisses, kisses, kisses,” Thorin babbled, smiling dopily at the flabbergasted warrior. The singsong repetition continued, increasingly insistent.

Dwalin felt overwhelmed; he’d been prepared for arguments, defences… but not this. Thorin’s pout was adorable in a way that made him want to give in – not that he didn’t want to kiss Thorin most of the time, pout or no – but he had been trying to scold his reckless beloved, finding release from his own violent fear.

Thorin pulled at his hand again.

Dwalin opened his mouth to say something – anything – but froze, when Thorin’s tongue swept quickly across his lips before it made contact with one of Dwalin’s thick fingers, dragging slowly along the length of it. Thorin wrapped his lips around the knuckle, sucking lightly. His blue eyes were hazy with a peculiar innocence Dwalin couldn’t remember seeing since before Smaug attacked Erebor.

He could hardly stop himself moving to follow when Thorin leaned back with a soft groan, relaxing on the pillows and sucking Dwalin’s entire index finger into his warm mouth. A low curse escaped him; Thorin’s tongue was definitely not innocent in the least, and Dwalin knew exactly how it would feel elsewhere.

‘Elsewhere’ was definitely interested in what was offered, too.

“Thorin,” Dwalin moaned low in his throat, “what are you doing?” Thorin did not reply, his tongue swirling around the tip of Dwalin’s finger.

If the Son of Durin had been less injured, Dwalin would have had no qualms giving in, but he sat carefully on the edge of the mattress, trying not to jostle Thorin’s battered torso.

“Kisses?” Thorin asked, releasing Dwalin’s finger with an obscenely loud pop. His eyes looked hopefully at the bulky dwarf sat next to him on the bed.

“Mahal wept!” Dwalin cursed, leaning down and pressing his lips gently against Thorin’s. “Happy now?” he asked, keeping a tight rein on his own desire, his earlier fear-fuelled energy turned into base lust with Thorin’s little display. Thorin is not well, kept running through his mind, and the dark bruises he had seen before Óin wrapped Thorin’s torso in bandages helped stave off his desire to give in to the thoughts Thorin inspired, affirming that they were both alive that way, like they had done so many times before.

The King shook his head.

“More,” he demanded, petulantly. Dwalin groaned. Thorin was not playing fair, licking his lips like that. “Beautiful Dwalin…my Dwalin?” he asked sweetly, pulling Dwalin’s thick digit back towards his shiny pink lips.

“Thorin, you’re injured… and whatever was in that elven medicine has addled your head. There’s no way you’re capable of ‘more’,” he growled, his voice deeper than usual by a few degrees of lust. Dwalin was startled to see the glistening sheen of tears appear in Thorin’s eyes.

“No kisses?” he asked, bearing resemblance to nothing so much as a kicked puppy. “You don’t want me!” Thorin wailed, looking so sad Dwalin had to give in and kiss that look out of his eyes. Pressing his lips firmly against Thorin’s, wrapping his fingers around those dark temple braids to keep him lying down when he tried to follow him, Dwalin pulled back with a sigh.

“Kisses!” Thorin exclaimed happily.

Dwalin hid his face in his palms, scrubbing it tightly in annoyance with himself, Thorin, and the situation in general. “A curse on Elvish medicine,” he grumbled, glaring towards the door.

It was obvious that it had worked – Thorin was not in any obvious pain – but Dwalin felt sorely put-upon. Thorin grabbed his beard, his fingers unerringly finding the bead hidden beneath the bristles and pulling him back down for more kisses. The soft moan he uttered in response only made Dwalin feel worse, and his mental state was not helped by the fact that Thorin’s free hand had disappeared under the lacing of his breeches, fondling himself as he moaned into Dwalin’s mouth.

“My Dwalin,” he mumbled. Dwalin’s forehead came to rest on Thorin’s with a soft thunk. His eyes closed, as he tried to focus on his breathing, calming down by inches. Listening to Thorin’s gentle moaning was doing his own trousers no favours, turning them tighter by the second. Dwalin tried to tell himself that he was better than this, better than taking advantage of peculiar medicine to wank to the sight of his lover playing with himself. He was not sure he was convincing enough to persuade himself of that fact, and when Thorin’s lips found his once more, Dwalin flowed into the kiss with a needy sound that surprised even himself. His eyes flew open when Thorin’s hand grasped his own once more, pushing it firmly into his breeches and wrapping it around Thorin’s rampant erection.

“Mahal…” Dwalin did not know what to do; this was not what he had expected from his evening. “Fine!” he growled roughly, in response to Thorin’s pout and his ‘helpful’ fingers trying to make Dwalin’s large hand move. “But you do not move!” he commanded, like Thorin was a green recruit before his Captain, his accent notably thickened. “I’ll no have Óin upset wi’ me for injurin’ ye waur.” Unlacing his own discomfort with a sigh of relief, Dwalin did the same to Thorin, pulling his erection out of his breeches.

“Dwaliiiiin,” Thorin whined, “kisses!” His hand kept trying to move Dwalin’s on his cock, standing firm and proud from its nest of dark curls, clear fluid beading at the tip.

“A told ye nae movin’,” Dwalin growled, placing Thorin’s hands firmly on the bedding. When they stayed there, he rewarded his lover with a soft kiss. Turning himself slightly, Dwalin dropped a kiss on the tip of Thorin’s erection, smirking when he heard the gasp of air from the dwarf below him.

“More kisses?” Thorin asked hopefully. His hip pressed up slightly, wetting Dwalin’s lips with his precome. Dwalin growled, wrapping his large hands around Thorin’s hips and pressing them into the mattress. Thorin pouted at him, when he looked up to catch the blue eyes, looking more alert now, but still dark with lust. Thorin’s hips pressed against Dwalin’s hands insistently. “Dwaliiin…” he moaned. “Please.”

“Only if’n ye dinnae move,” Dwalin threatened, punctuating his sentence by licking a broad stripe from root to tip. Looking up at Thorin, he was greeted by the sight of frantic nodding. Dwalin smirked. He had always enjoyed being a tease, after all. Rubbing his bristly cheek along Thorin’s weeping cock, he gave the King a cheeky smile. “Yer sure ye can stay still fer me, kurkaruk[7]?” he asked.

Taking Thorin’s groan – as well as the way his fists were stubbornly pressed against the mattress – as confirmation, Dwalin bent his head once more, wrapping his lips around the head and licking it gently. Bobbing slowly up and down, taking Thorin further into his mouth on each pass until he hit the back of his throat, Dwalin hummed softly. Swallowing around Thorin’s girth made the dark-haired dwarf cry out, but he did not move, so Dwalin continued.

Halwmugrê…” Thorin moaned, his head thrashing from side to side. “Please…”

Dwalin smirked. It had been weeks since they’d last had a chance to enjoy each other, and although this wasn’t what he’d imagined when he thought about sneaking away from the Company in camp, he wouldn’t waste the opportunity. Upping his speed slowly, he drew his tongue along the veins of Thorin’s cock, following the ridges in the way experience told him made his beloved see stars.

Leaning his weight one hand, he brought the other to bear, wrapping his strong but gentle fingers around Thorin’s balls, playing with the heavy weights and rubbing gently across the skin behind them. Thorin muttered a low curse, whining wordlessly in his throat. Dwalin knew he wanted to move, but Thorin stayed still, his fists clenching the bedding below him. Dwalin smiled around his thick mouthful, humming softly as he swallowed around the head, taking it deep into his throat. Pressing his fingers insistently against Thorin’s taint pushed the prone dwarf over the edge, his cry of completion sweet music to Dwalin’s ears as he swallowed rapidly. He chuckled against Thorin’s softening cock, releasing it from his mouth with a last lingering lick that made Thorin whimper his name.

“Yer a world o’ trouble, ma Thorin,” he murmured, resting his head on Thorin’s thigh and looking up at his lover’s sated eyes with a sigh. “Don’ ye ever do something so gyte again, love,” he whispered, pressing his lips against Thorin’s skin, “I cannae lose you.” Thorin did not reply, murmuring something that sounded like Dwalin’s name; almost asleep.

The warrior chuckled, shaking his head at the ridiculousness of the whole thing, before rising from his awkward position. His own lust had not been sated, but he suddenly felt too exhausted to bother. Pulling Thorin’s breeches off, Dwalin quickly discarded his own clothing before he climbed onto the tall bed, wrapping the heavy blanket around the both of them. When he curled himself against Thorin’s side, the dark-haired dwarf let out another content sigh, turning his head to face Dwalin’s.

“My Dwalin-love,” he whispered with a soft smile, adding something Dwalin didn’t catch. Pressing his forehead against Dwalin’s, Thorin finally fell asleep.

Dwalin lay awake for another five minutes, just watching him breathe, and letting the peace of night settle on him. He tried to banish all memories of the limp way Thorin had dangled in the Eagle’s claws; it was not the first time he had seen his love horrifically injured, nor was it likely to be the last, but it did not make the sight easier to bear.

His own injuries had been far less severe; a burned palm from holding on to one of Tharkûn’s flaming pinecones for the first infinite moment after the white warg had picked up Thorin, but it was already mostly healed. Dwarrow were quite resilient to burns, after all, made for the hot work of forges, and while Dwalin did not have the fabled Fire-Touch like Glóin, who could pick up burning coals unscathed, his skin was still capable of withstanding high temperatures without significant damage.

His arm loosely curled around Thorin’s middle, Dwalin drifted off to sleep to the soft sound of Thorin’s light snores.

 

From behind the door, the sound of Thorin’s increasingly childlike demands for kisses could be heard until Dwalin managed to shut him up. None of the other Dwarrow were brave enough to go find out how.

Instead they all turned to stare at the door where the elleth had disappeared into the gloaming. Exchanging a glance with Balin, Óin made his way through the door, looking for the elleth who had given him the medicine he believed to be to blame for Thorin’s behaviour.

“What was in that salve, Mistress Geira,” Óin asked when he found her outside, lying on her back and staring up at the stars coming out as night fell around them.

“Please, call me Geira or Ilsamirë, Master Óin,” she said, smiling as she turned her head to look at him. Óin involuntarily returned the smile. “The medicine is one of my own making,” she continued, “it is meant to render the patient unable to feel pain almost completely.” Giving him a concerned look, she asked, “Did it not work? I admit I have not tried it on many Dwarrow; it is far more effective than poppy-milk, but also harder to dose.”

Óin paled slightly underneath his beard. “And what happens if you… overdose the patient?” he asked in no more than a whisper, aware that more than one Dwarf was surreptitiously listening to them through the open door and windows.

“Ah…” Geira flushed slightly, thinking about it; a throaty moan that could only have come from Thorin seemed to sail past them on a gentle breeze. “In Elves it tends to produce a predilection for speaking in verse, as well as fixation on colours,” Geira admitted sheepishly. “In Dwarrow, however…” she shrugged lightly, mirth clearly visible in her blue eyes as another lust-filled groan sounded from the direction of Thorin’s bed. “I would hazard a guess at a spike in the amorous inclinations of the patient…” She kept a straight face, even when Thorin’s soft moan ended her sentence.

“I… see,” Óin said weakly. Silence reigned in the main room.

“So…Who is hungry?” Bombur asked, breaking the spell. Each Dwarf was instantly busy with some task or other, speaking loudly enough to drown out any possible sounds from the King’s sickroom.

Everyone studiously ignored the fact that Dwalin did not return from Thorin’s bedside, finding their bedrolls and collapsing into exhausted sleep one by one.

 

[5] Hush, little avenger.

[6] Courageous Hobbit. (Zantulbasn is the common for hobbit(not rude) and mazannagûn means he who continues to show courage)

[7] Tiny-raven, nickname.

Chapter Text

Thorin was silently brooding over his breakfast of bread and honey the next morning, wondering how he would pay for Beorn’s hospitality.

“Good morning, Thorin,” Geira’s soft lilt called; no hint of the animosity she had shown him by the river in her tone now. Thorin stiffened nonetheless. “Son of Thráin, son of Thrór, he who is called Oakenshield, Prince of the lost Kingdom of Erebor and King-in-exile of its people.”

Thorin turned around stiffly and inclined his head. He was still not inclined to trust her, her apparent claim on the Durin Line notwithstanding. Knowing who he was did not change his opinion – had Gandalf not shown him the proof that there were Orcs out for his head? Who could say the Elves did not also feel a need for vengeance against his kin… or simply wished for their destruction, as the Elvenking so obviously had desired? The elf simply smiled, taking a seat next to him.

“I thank you for your aid yesterday,” Thorin managed, even though it galled him to owe an elf gratitude. The wide smile she gave him in return was far too fond for his liking, but he kept his mouth shut; he had thanked her, and the small voice in his head that he knew was his Amad would now stop scolding him for his ungratefulness, which was his main goal.

“You are most welcome,” she replied softly, still smiling at him like she was fond of him – like she knew him. It was unsettling. Thorin turned his attention back to his breakfast, feeling Balin’s eyes prick the back of his neck. “We have met before, you and I,” the elf-girl continued lightly, serving herself a thick slice of bread drizzled with honey, “though I do not expect you to remember. You were little more than a Dwarfling the last time I visited your… Erebor.”

“You visited Erebor?” Thorin asked, almost despite himself; the only Elves he remembered visiting had been the haughty Elvenking, Thranduil, accompanied by some guards he had paid no great attention to at the time.

“It was the home of my… kinsmen,” Geira said pointedly, the slight pause before the designation of them as such making him think she had meant to use a different word. “I used to visit often, before Thrór’s animosity against my Adad’s people became so pronounced as to make my visits… unwise.”

Thorin turned to face her and found himself suddenly struck by the odd combination of familiar Dwarven features and Elf characteristics that mingled in her face. She had the sharp cheekbones of the Eldar, but her nose was clearly Dwarven in origin; she might not match his ideals of beauty – too slender, even if she had some strength to her, and missing anything resembling a beard – but she was pretty and Thorin thought she would be pleasing to the eye of an elf or man. Then he realized that she had his eyes, even if her brows were too fine and their slant seemed too Elvish. Those were still Durin-eyes, he knew, one of the markers of his Line; though the gaze held within hers was ages older than he had ever seen them.

“Say that I believe you when you claim our kinship,” he began hesitantly, feeling caught by that soft gaze; still far more fond than he had earned, and disconcerting with it, “how did one such as you…” he gestured at her obviously Elven ears; perhaps an ancestor of his had loved an Elf – there must be more than one kind of Elf, as there were many kinds of Dwarrow; perhaps one of them was worthy of love… but to beget a child from such a union? It seemed too fantastical a tale; certainly, one that ought to have been part of his education if not in Exile then at least in Erebor. “…come to be?”

Geira laughed, but her eyes remained fond, sparkling with brilliant amusement. “My story, Thorin?” she asked, almost teasing, “is that your desire?”

Thorin nodded, silent in the face of the mystery before him.

“Very well,” Geira said quietly. “Then I shall tell you of my life.” Pausing, she took a bite of her breakfast. Shaking her head lightly, she cleared her throat, turning back to look at him, her smile tinged with melancholy. “In the Second Age of this world, there was yet friendship between the Eldar and the Children of Mahal. My mother,” she continued, that same melancholy smile crossing her face, “was named Narví; you will perhaps know her as Narví Stonecarver, younger sister to Durin the Second and Guild-Master of the Brotherhood of Stone.”

A fingernail tapped her Durin bead with a soft ping and Thorin was startled to realise that her beads were all made of mithril; an extravagance even for the Royal House of Erebor before the dragon came and certainly not a treasure one would wear while travelling. Thorin’s assessment of her skill with the weapons she carried made a considerable leap upwards. He might have made a sound giving away his thoughts, for she smiled wryly at him before continuing her tale.

“My father was Lord of Eregion, which bordered Khazad-dûm before it fell… he was Celebrimbor, son of Curufin the Crafty, son of Fëanor, High-King of the Noldor… but that is a different story.” She smiled to herself, twirling a lock of hair around her fingers, seemingly seeing something far away in time and place before her eyes. “Together, they created the Doors of Durin, the great Zelemekhem[8] Khazad-dûm – the Gates of Moria as it is now known – the first true Dwarf Door made since the Fall of Belegost.”

Ori had silently taken a seat across from them, never able to resist the lure of history, but Thorin ignored his presence easily.

“Amad realised it first,” Geira said, smiling softly, “while my father tried to deny his heart for fear of the grief it should cause him to love a mortal… but Amad would not give up on her One, and she was the more stubborn by far, though the House of Fëanor is known for that trait among others too. Their love was not… widely accepted,” she admitted, looking sad, “though it did not make it any less real.”

Thorin felt an odd sympathy for her in that moment, the ghost of anger crossing her face making him wonder how many times she had had to defend her parents’ love to either side.

“They married in 1328, just after the Doors were finished; I was born in Eregion, in the year 1330 of the Second Age.” Taking a drink from her cup, she fell silent.

“It… but we are not like the Eldar folk,” Thorin replied, mind reeling. A Dwarrowdam and an Elf… suddenly, he remembered the times other dwarflings had disparaged Kíli for his uncommon height and even more uncommon skill with a bow by calling him an elf-son… he had always believed it a physical impossibility that such a child could exist – and he was well aware of Kíli’s fully Dwarven parentage – and yet the proof that such an insult could be rooted in truth…. Was sat right next to him. For a moment, he wondered if she had had dwarflings of her own – the Line of Durin shared an uncommon height among their most notable traits compared to other Dwarrow. Could that be the reason for her inexplicable fondness? Was the Elf an ancestress of his? Thorin felt slightly ill.

Geira shrugged, her eyes turned back to her plate. “It was said of my father’s Line that they had been given gifts far stronger than those of other Elves,” she said, “I think it not unlikely that I was born of his wish to have me – even if he had not realised it at the time. The Elven fëa is much more connected to its house – the body – than that of a Dwarf.”

Thorin nodded, though he did not really understand her meaning; he had known many couples who wished for pebbles and never received the Life-Giver’s blessing. Wishing did not create Dwarflings, to his mind.

“After the making of the Rings of Power,” Geira continued, and Thorin thought of the Ring of Durin, lost with Thráin so many years ago, “When my father was taken by Sauron the Deceiver and tortured to his death, Eregion fell and friendship between Elves and Dwarrow started to wane. The Dwarrow of Durin’s Folk remained allies with the Elves who based themselves in Imladris and Lothlórien, fighting against the forces of the Shadow together, harrying the Enemy as they could.”

Thorin opened his mouth but thought better of asking when he caught the dark look in her eyes.

“I…  Khazad-dûm was no longer my home, then.” A shadow crossed her face at that, but she did not elaborate and Thorin once more felt that questions would not be welcome. “I visit my Dwarven kin often, still, forming friendships among my mother’s kin, and I…” she hesitated, glancing at him and Thorin had the same odd feeling that her next words were not the ones she had originally planned to say, “fought with Durin IV at Dagorlad, in the Last Alliance of Middle-Earth… but my home is with my father’s kin.” Looking East through the open windows, she smiled softly, her face wearing an oddly longing expression. Swallowing her last bite of bread, she added, “Currently, I live south of here, in Lothlórien, the Realm ruled by my cousin, Lady Galadriel.”

“And what name do you go by there?” Thorin asked; he had noted the way the name she had given herself – Geira; obviously the name her amad had given her – brought her some pain, and he idly wondered why she had introduced herself with it when they met, rather than an Elvish name

“In Khazad-dûm,” she said, “they called me Geira the Immortal Ember; the Elves named my mother Fiery Heart, so the deed-name fit. To the Children of Mahal,” she continued, “I am generally known as Usakh makartûna Mahal[9], or simply Usakh.”

“Do you prefer another name?” Thorin asked, interested despite himself; he had travelled under several assumed names himself, though most of them were based on either his own name or his deed-name, but he had always preferred Thorin to any other. Geira laughed.

Behind her, Balin and Ori had both stiffened at the title she gave herself. Ori’s ever-present journal quickly made an appearance, his pen not far behind. Thorin frowned. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a memory stirred, but it was lost as Geira continued speaking.

 “Geira…” she smiled, that same air of melancholy casting shadows in her blue eyes, “I have not been Geira for many centuries. Your amad calls me Rhonith; I should not object if you use that name, too.” Smiling softly, she looked around the Company who had gathered during the course of her tale. Ori had a small list of notes written in an indecipherable shorthand beside him.

“Then you will be Rhonith, to us,” Thorin announced – “Wait…” Rhonith nodded, giving him another too-fond smile. “You knew my mother?” The question escaped his mouth almost without permission, and Thorin scowled at himself for the sheer inanity of it. Here was someone who had followed his race since the middle of the Second Age, more than 5000 years ago, and all he could come up with was ‘you knew my mother?’.

“Yes, I know Frís,” Geir-Rhonith replied, frowning lightly. “We were close friends before she married Thráin, and I spent a fair while in her company before Erebor fell – my visits to your Ered Luin settlement have been few,” she smiled sadly and Thorin felt an odd pang of guilt at the thought that his unconcealed loathing of Elves would have been a reason for her absence, “and I have not seen her for some years now, though she writes me letters.”

Thorin studied the elleth before him. He did not know what to make of her story; he had detected no lie in her words, and still he could not shake the feeling of secrets kept silent underneath the veneer of truth she gave him. “It would grieve you then, to learn of her passing?” he asked, regretting his tone immediately. The expression that fleetingly showed on her face answered his question. With a pang for his amad, Thorin wished that he had not been so rude in his questioning.

Mukhuh Mahal tadimi astî ra mukhuh nâlazi du Itdendûm zadkhul, Bâhayê[10],” Rhonith said quietly, blinking away a sheen of tears. Thorin felt the lump of guilt from before thicken in his throat. The Company around them were staring in silence.

“Thank you.” Thorin masterfully swallowed his guilt, well aware that if Frís had heard him, she would have clouted him round the ear for his rudeness.

“The last time I saw Frís was… almost forty years ago,” she murmured. He could see lingering traces of sadness in her eyes, but she masked it quickly. “I stopped by on my way to the Grey Havens; you, Dwalin, and your nephews were all gone hunting, and Dís was visiting her husband’s ailing amad, so no one saw me sneak into the house.” She swallowed. “It had been nearly sixty years since I had spoken to her in person, by then, but I am… was… most fond of Frís, yes.”

Thorin counted back in his head, realising that he knew when she had visited: At that time, Frís had been suddenly certain that Thráin was dead – had this elf delivered her that news?

Mead was served to the Company by the sheep, while the dogs began setting the table for lunch. No one spoke much, though the food was delicious. The earlier conversation seemed to have laid a spell of grief upon those who had known the Dowager Queen of Durin’s Folk, and as Frís had been beloved by most everyone in Ered Luin, everyone around the table had at least met her, even if they were no direct relations.

 

After lunch, Lady Rhonith obviously decided it was her turn to ask questions, startling Thorin out of his contemplations and bringing the responsibilities of the Quest back to the forefront of his mind.

“What is your purpose on this journey, Thorin Oakenshield?” she asked bluntly, looking at him with his own sapphire eyes narrowed in thought; unsettlingly similar to the expression Dís, too, wore when she was trying – and succeeding – to see right through him.

Thorin frowned, trying to decide how much information he would trust her with; the earlier revelations notwithstanding, she was still an elf, and he could not be sure of her loyalties.

Kíli grinned impishly. “We’re going to kill the dragon of course!” he exclaimed.  

Thorin winced slightly. He would have preferred that his exuberant nephew had not blurted it out quite like that. He glared at Kíli. The younger Dwarf sat back down, abashed, but slightly defiant. Fíli was hiding a smile in his tankard.

Rhonith choked on her mead.

“WHAT?!” she exclaimed, staring aghast at Kíli for a moment before she turned, hissing angrily at Gandalf in an Elven tongue Thorin did not have the skill to follow. “Mithrandir! Ci ben-ind[11]?”  Glaring darkly, she gestured angrily at the Company around them, her voice dropping even lower in her fury. Thorin suddenly had no problem believing that her mother had been a dwarrowdam. “They cannot simply kill a dragon!

The wizard scowled at her, even as the dwarrow began arguing, but she simply glared back at him. He was not accustomed to people haranguing him or pointing out flaws in his plans. Elrond would do it, but the Elf Lord at least attempted to be diplomatic. Mentally he shook his head and chuckled, he’d missed the little spitfire.

“Dragons are terribly difficult to kill, Mithrandir, you should know that,” she said, her lips still tight with anger but her voice a little more even. “It’s a fool’s errand you’ve set my kinsmen on, wizard!”

“We’re not helpless!” Dwalin growled darkly, obviously offended by her words – Thorin nodded; he, too, had caught the sound of absolute conviction when she told the wizard they could not kill Smaug. He ignored that killing the Dragon that had conquered their home had never been part of their pans in the first place, scowling at Rhonith.

Rhonith continued to glare at Mithrandir, her heart galloping with fear in her breast. “Look at Thranduil, Mithrandir,” she said, a note of pleading in her voice now as she looked at him, which did not help Thorin’s temper any.

“Thranduil?!” Thorin boomed, feeling familiar rage fill him, undimmed by the intervening 170 years since the last time he had laid eyes on the Elvenking of Mirkwood, interrupting the elf without care. “If I ever see him again, it’ll be too soon! Inbul-hibir fundhamâd-ublag! Hufura mâ![12]” Thorin roared, to general applause and agreement from the surrounding Dwarrow. Rhonith, however, paled, her eyes hard as sapphire chips when she turned the full force of her glare from the wizard to Thorin, who suddenly felt as if he was a little boy being scolded. He scowled back, but the earlier fondness was gone.

“I will forgive this insult to my good friend,” Rhonith replied, shaking her head angrily, “for you clearly speak from ignorance.”

“He is a treacherous snake!” Thorin bellowed back, his fist hitting the table. Ori squeaked.

“King Thranduil is one of the most honourable and tenacious elves you could ever meet!” she hissed back angrily. “You know not what you say.”

Thorin felt an impulse to ring her neck and jumped to his feet, his angry fist slamming down onto the table. “Did he not betray our alliance when the dragon came?!” he roared, glaring at her. “I saw the elves on the ridge above the Front Gate as we fled,” he spat. “Your ‘honourable’ Thranduil turned away.” Pressing his lips together to avoid making a sound at the sudden agony of his cracked ribs, Thorin forced himself to sit back down. “The elves abandoned us to starvation and homelessness. They forsook our old alliance!”

“Alliance?” Rhonith scoffed harshly, eyes flashing with her anger. “You speak of an alliance, but that alliance was broken years before by Thrór’s ignorance and arrogance! Did you never wonder why you saw no elves in your court for years before Smaug came?” She cursed harshly under her breath, leaving Ori’s reddening ears to be covered by Dori, and Bilbo for once felt somewhat pleased that he didn’t understand Khuzdul.

Thorin scowled at her, breathing through the pain. Balin shot him a worried glance but did not speak.

“Grandfather saw the heart of the elf,” Thorin claimed stubbornly, “he knew Thranduil would betray us, even if he couldn’t know how.” He had thought she was angry before, but it was nothing to the fury now burning in those eyes, and for a moment, Thorin felt apprehensive at the thought that she – was she a subject of Thranduil’s? – might challenge him to a duel for his words; a challenge he surely could not fight in his current condition.

Me dubul ma samnirmî kasab du zantulbasn bintablagi![13]” Rhonith exclaimed, looking at him with something Thorin could only call disappointment swirling in her eyes; as though she had expected better of him, and he had let her down.

Nori looked torn between an impressed smirk and outright laughter. It was rare that anyone dared speak openly against Thrór – especially in the presence of his heirs. Fíli and Kíli appeared to be expecting their amad to pop up and scold the girl for her language.

Adding a few more curses in Elvish that Thorin felt somewhat pleased he did not understand – he had never bothered much with the study of Sindarin, but he knew it wasn’t the Mirkwood tongue she spoke – Rhonith glared at him, visibly struggling to keep her temper. One hand remained clenched into a fist in her lap, but her voice returned to her earlier mellifluous calm.

 “You speak of an alliance of neighbours, and I tell you there was no way we could have remained Thrór’s allies in those days.” Looking at him, her lips thinned in anger, her gaze akin to a spear of ice through his soul.

Thorin suddenly felt quite certain that he would not like the story she was about to tell him, and still he could see no lie in her face, even if her posture was stiff with anger. Glancing at Balin brought him no help; the Uzugbad was staring raptly at the elf.

“Thrór wanted Thranduil to pledge allegiance to him as the holder of the Arkenstone,” Rhonith scoffed, looking as though simply saying the name of the King’s Jewel made her feel ill. “Thranduil refused, of course; the Eldar long-since learned the danger of gems that put lust in the hearts of the beholders… owning such gems does not make one a true ruler.”

Thorin bared his teeth at her – was the entirety of this Quest not begun for the sake of ownership of the Arkenstone and what that would buy him? – but Rhonith ignored him; did not even look at him.

Speaking slowly, she looked into her cup as though the tea she had just been served held the answers she sought. “Your parents – Frís had married Thráin by then – worked hard just to ensure peace, to mitigate the harshness of the King… all to no avail. Thrór’s animosity had long strained our relationship with the Dwarrow of Erebor, but the final insult occurred not long before the Dragon came…” she trembled lightly, but continued, “when the white gems of Lasgalen – an heirloom of Thranduil’s line from the First Age – were sent to Erebor to be set in mithril. Once, they had belonged to Queen Nenglessel, gifted to her upon her wedding by King Thingol of Doriath; when Thranduil – her only surviving child – married, Nenglessel gifted the gems to his wife, Nínimeth.” Pausing for a sip of water, that same fleeting grief crossed her face. “Thrór stole them. It was among the least of his crimes, to some, but it was an insult Thranduil could not let pass unchallenged.”

“My grandfather was no thief!” Thorin seethed. Rhonith laughed.

“No thief?” she smiled mockingly for a moment, continuing undaunted by his dark glare, “Even now, the casket of gems rests somewhere in the treasury, guarded by Smaug.” Gesturing east towards Erebor she smiled grimly. “I met your grandfather when he was young,” she said quietly, “before the fall of Ered Mithrim, before Sigvór and Thora died… and that Thrór was a good dwarf, a noble ruler.” Pausing, she waved her hand as though to wave away the image in her head, and Thorin silently wondered who Thora had been – Sigvór was his sigin’amad, who had died when Thráin was still a dwarfling, but he did not recognise the second name. “The King he became, however,” Rhonith continued sadly, “was a tyrant, mad with lust for gold that could not be assuaged, no matter how much he collected.” For a moment, she seemed sad, but the expression was gone in an instant. Turning back to stare into her mug of tea, she sighed. “Of course,” she muttered, “the Arkenstone did not help, but Thrór was warned by Lady Galadriel – the greatest Seer of our people – as well as several Stone-Seers among his own court years before Smaug’s attack. He did not listen. He did nothing.” Her morose contemplation of the by now empty cup she held was interrupted by a dog nosing her leg to draw attention to the fresh flagon of mead he’d brought. Balin poured for the group.

“That’s the second time you’ve blamed the Arkenstone,” Thorin commanded, making a supreme effort at keeping his temper, helped by the steady weight of Dwalin’s foot on top of his own and Balin’s frequent glares across the table. “Explain yourself.”

“Ahh, the Arkenstone,” Rhonith replied, the frown back on her face. She took a sip of the mead, letting the cool sweetness wet her throat as she thought. “Thrór’s problems began long before it was found, of course, but I believe the Arkenstone sped up his descent into madness…” She sighed, glancing at Thorin who did his best to look calm, though he feared the façade didn’t fool her. “You know what happens to a dwarf who loses his One, certainly,” she said.

Thorin nodded; remembering Dís’ long period of ‘grey-ness’ as he’d called it; more than a year spent being so unlike his previously vivacious sister that he had feared some part of her had died with Víli. She had had the lads to keep her going, force her to live, but he had worried, in the darkest days, if she would ever truly find her way out of that grief.

“Grandfather did not fall into his Craft,” he pointed out, not entirely sure what Thrór’s Craft had even been. Rhonith shook her head sadly.

“No, he did not,” she said, sighing, “though much might have been different if he had…” Smacking her lips in annoyance, she took another sip of the mead. “Thrór… he was one of a rare few who found a second love in his gold. When your grandmother died - of course, you never knew her, but she was a formidable dwarrowdam indeed - she left… a hole, you could say, in his heart. Instead of filling that hole with his son and future grandchildren, Thrór filled it with gold, to the exclusion of all else.”

Thorin opened his mouth to offer another rebuttal, but Rhonith did not seem to see him, staring into the past as though it was as vivid to her as the present.

 “There’s nothing wrong with wanting gold!” Glóin interrupted belligerently. There was a smattering of agreement from the rest of the assembled dwarrow. Glóin’s outburst earned him a gentle smile, however, not the quiet rage of Thorin’s accusations. He scowled at his loud cousin.

“Indeed, Master Glóin,” Rhonith replied softly. “Working gold is a proper tribute to the Maker and Naddun Mahal[14] have listened to the song of gold since their awakening.” She smiled, fingering the long chain around her neck, disappearing under her clothes, made from interwoven strands of gold and mithril finer than any Thorin had seen. “It is one of the deepest songs of the race, one of the most precious gifts bestowed upon our people, that we may hear the memory of the Maker’s joy in our creation when we handle it.”

Bilbo felt a little lost at the last statement, but the Company were nodding agreement around him, so the hobbit kept silent. He decided to ask Bofur for clarification later. The miner had – since the night in the Misty Mountains – been friendlier towards him and would probably answer his questions.

“The problem with gold is not so much the amassing of it,” Rhonith said, “but the mental attachment that follows. You could collect as much gold as Thrór had and be healthy… Or you could start to see the gold, not for what you could do with it, be that crafting or currency, but for the gold itself.” Furrowing her brows, she continued slowly, “Gold that is turned into items, valued for their beauty or use are safe; their songs are filled with the joy of crafting.”

Glóin’s belligerence appeased for the moment, the fiery redhead ran his thumb over the locket that held the pictures of his family. The silver casing was chased with a pattern of gold, forming runes of protection and love. Nodding at Glóin’s locket, Rhonith smiled. The merchant grinned broadly. Thorin did not feel appeased after her earlier insult to his grandfather, scowling into his cup.

“Gold that is made into coins or bars and kept solely for the sake of being gold…that is what attracts dragons,” she continued, looking east out of the window as though she could see the circling red dragon over Dale, tearing through the Gates of Erebor in her mind. She shuddered. “It’s like a scent on the wind to them, the lust for treasure,” she murmured almost silently.

When he remembered the grandfather Thrór had been, Thorin’s memories were usually fond; his grandfather had enjoyed telling him stories, letting little Thorin play with the Raven Crown and given him many splendid gifts… but he also remembered the last few years before Smaug, as her words brought back times of uncertainty, times of almost-fear when he was stood in the Throne Room, Dwalin solid beside him, and heard Nár or Thrór proclaim another increase in taxes or a new law that even Thorin’s young mind considered unjust. He remembered the quiet despair of his amad, remembered Fundin’s tight grimaces in Council, and he could not claim that Thrór had not been all the things she said he was.

“It began with taxation; Thrór’s lust for gold grew slowly, but steadily, until trade between the Kingdoms nearly ground to a halt. The lure of gold has ever been a downfall of the Children of Mahal,” Rhonith said, echoing his thoughts, “and as the hoard in the Treasury grew, so Thrór’s tyranny grew with it, turning him dark and cruel. I know Thráin tried to fight it, at first, but he was never a strong character, and he could not depose his father, nor defy him openly.” She sighed again, lost in the fog of years past. “By the time you were born, Thorin, it was already a matter of time… We had hoped that Thrór would die or be forced to abdicate as his demands and decisions became ever more erratic and he spent more and more time staring at his gold, rather than actually ruling his kingdom.” Sighing heavily, she set down her cup, her lips once more tight with old anger. “Unfortunately, members of Thrór’s council were perfectly alright with an absent ruler,” she said, eyes sparking, “and used his preoccupation to enhance their own positions and gather riches.”

Thorin nodded slowly, as did Balin on the other side of the wide table. They both remembered such ‘councillors’ and their many intrigues, as well as Thrór’s ignorance of the plots around him – and his odd paranoia, distrusting those most interested in helping their people.

“The Arkenstone exacerbated the problem,” Rhonith said gently, “simply because of the weight Thrór put on it as the King’s Jewel.” She scoffed, “Accursed thing. Divine right to rule, indeed. If it had remained where it was or had simply been praised for its beauty…” she paused, fingering her Durin-braid sadly. “Thrór’s hoard already smelled sweet, to the senses of a Dragon, and the powers of divinity he attributed to the Arkenstone made it all the sweeter. And then the dragon came.”

“You still haven’t explained why you think the Elvenking didn’t betray us,” Thorin said, refusing to let go of this matter; he had spent far too long blaming Thranduil for abandoning his people – he wanted to hear whatever reason the Elves claimed lay behind such a dastardly deed. Balin nodded thoughtfully; he too had seen the Elvenking turn his host away from the mountain.

“Thranduil Elvenking…how much do you know of his history?” Rhonith’s quiet question was met with fairly blank stares all around.

“He’s King in the forest, always has been and he’s a cold-hearted bastard,” Dwalin summed up their collective knowledge succinctly. Thorin hid an involuntary chuckle, though he knew that his One was very aware of his amusement. Seemingly, so was Rhonith, shaking her head at the both of them, a small fond smile playing around her lips for a moment.

“You don’t know him at all, I fear,” she said softly, giving Thorin a shrewd glance. “It is a shame, for I think you could be good friends.”

When Thorin spluttered at her audacity, her smile widened. Thorin felt the small vibrations against his back that meant Dwalin was laughing silently – a skill they had both gained over many years of meetings with nobles and councillors – his face giving away no hint of amusement.

“Very well,” Rhonith said, “I shall tell you the story of the Elvenking Thranduil, he whose name means vigorous river[15], which really tells you everything about his personality…” Taking a sip of her mead, she began slowly, “Thranduil is one of the oldest elves alive in Middle-Earth today, born in the First Age as the youngest son of Oropher and Nenglessel; his father was a noble lord in Doriath, one of the Sindarin kingdoms of Beleriand, on the other side of the Blue Mountains.”

The Drowned Land, they called it in their annals; the sinking of Beleriand had broken the Blue Mountains and forced the most of the Dwarven inhabitants to flee eastwards, joining their kin in Khazad-dûm. The Blue Mountains had not been entirely abandoned after the Breaking – the Exiles had joined existing Broadbeam and Firebeard settlements in some parts of the mountains – but the mountains were riddled with cavern systems and flooded with seawater and could not support a true underground Dwarven city.

“After King Thingol was killed by the Dwarrow of Nogrod, and Doriath was sacked by the Sons of Fëanor, Oropher took his house to the Isle of Balar, seeking refuge with Círdan, a kinsman of his wife. Once the War of Wrath was over, however, they journeyed east, following a vision beyond the Misty Mountains… and built a new Kingdom in the Great Forest, uniting the Silvan tribes there under one King.”

Thorin had to admit that she had a way of drawing in her audience; he had learned some elven history in Erebor, but no one had much cared about elven history afterwards, so the rest of the Company had not.

“Are you related to Thranduil?” Thorin asked, startling her out of her thoughts.

Rhonith laughed for a moment. “Not by blood,” she said, “my connection to Thranduil was born of my bond with his wife, who was the daughter of my father’s sworn sister; she has been my kin-by-oath since I was born – a sister.”

Several members of the Company nodded; such sworn kin was not uncommon in their own culture – as valid as blood-kin under their laws.

“There is no Queen in the Forest,” Balin interjected softly, recoiling at the grief that crossed her face at the words. Rhonith shook her head.

“No, Nínimeth dwells beyond the sea; she sailed west… 2868 years ago. I put her on the ship myself,” she swallowed hard, “she was lost in grief, and would have faded entirely if Thranduil had not sent her west.”

“Lost in grief?” Thorin asked, frowning; he once more thought of Dís and felt a frisson of resentment that Rhonith’s story was making him feel sympathy towards Thranduil.

“She was a Silvan Elf and theirs was a scandalous romance,” she laughed, “but they let no one stand in the way of their happiness.”

The dwarrow were reeling at this revelation. None of them had believed that Thranduil was even capable of love.

Rhonith’s laughter died, her thoughts once again grim as she continued softly, “Thranduil and Nínimeth had three sons, fully grown, when the War of the Last Alliance began,” she revealed, and Thorin remembered her talking about Durin IV fighting in that war. “They all followed Oropher’s call to arms, marching upon Mordor and Sauron’s dark forces. In the Battle of Dagorlad in the year 3434 of the Second Age, Oropher – no one knows why, now, but he was reckless betimes – charged the enemy without proper orders or aid and was slain, along with two thirds of his army… Dagorlad claimed many lives dear to Thranduil, chief among them his father Oropher, and his eldest son, Thalion. Thalion died in the arms of Nínimeth, who… grief broke her spirit.”

Rhonith fell silent, grief-stricken once more. Dori reached across the table, squeezing her tight fist gently. The elf shuddered once, her eyes losing the far-way look as she focussed on the mithril-haired tailor with a small smile.

“Nínimeth was strong,” she said, a smile playing around her lips, “and slowly fought her way back to the world of the living, sharing the burden of ruling with Thranduil. For a while, there was peace, and though Thalion shall never be forgotten, we found a semblance of happiness, making peace with his loss. Then Nínimeth got with child…” her smile turned soft, her thoughts once more far away from the Skinwalker’s cabin. “The pregnancy was seen as a good omen, but the birth of their youngest son was not as happy an occasion as it should have been.” A sad sigh escaped her. “Nínimeth was… I cannot explain it, for she was so far from herself that…” Cutting off her words with an impatient gesture, Rhonith emptied her mug. “Thranduil never wanted to rule, and Nínimeth was the light of his heart; the pain of their separation and the ever-encroaching darkness of Mirkwood, especially during the last few centuries, has left him a pale shadow of his former self.” Getting to her feet, she slipped out before anyone could stop her, leaving behind a sombre Company digesting her story.

Thorin felt reluctantly sympathetic with the Elvenking, something that vexed him greatly.

“Elves feel things differently to mortals,” Gandalf interjected quietly, “the loss of her sister is to Ilsamirë only a little less painful today than when she watched the ship leave the Grey Havens; she will return shortly. You ought to ask her for the story of Thranduil and the dragons… you may understand why the Elves turned away from Smaug, then.” Puffing quietly on his pipe, the wizard fell silent; Thorin wondered for a moment why the wizard did not simply tell the story himself, but – mindful of Thrór’s sage advice regarding wizards and their incomprehensible whims – turned his attention to the excellent lunch spread being served by Beorn’s animals. Of the giant Man there was still no sign, which did not worry Thorin overly; the large bear Dwalin had seen him transform into seemed nigh indestructible.

 

Bright sunlight brought some solace from grief, Rhonith thought, listening to the chirps of the birds in the leafy tree she leaned against, though her mind continued to spin around in useless circles; Frís was dead, and she had not even known to grieve for her. Abruptly, she changed her mind; she would head to Mirkwood instead of continuing on to Imladris – there was no reason to travel there, after all, now that she had learned why there had been no word from Frís at the end of spring as usual.

For a moment, she felt angry at Thorin for throwing Frís’ death in her face in such a manner, but he could not have known how sharply the words would cut; she had seen surprise in his blue eyes and known that Frís had never shared that story with her oldest son. A momentary smile flashed across her face, remembering Legolas holding the small golden-haired pebble so carefully, marvelling at the strength of her grip on his fingers.

Sighing, she got to her feet, wondering what the dwarrowdam would have thought about the Quest her son had undertaken and feeling absolute certainty fill her. Rhonith sighed.

“Very well, little sister,” she murmured, imagining the smile her words would have brought to Frís’ face, “I shall do my best to aid them.”

 

Returning to the oversized kitchen, once again feeling a distinct sense of amusement at the sight of the Company sitting like rows of heads along the table, Rhonith felt at peace with her decision – now it only remained to convince Thorin that she would be a valuable addition to his small band; but if that failed, she was skilled enough to follow them through the forest they would have to traverse without being seen.

“Gandalf wanted you to tell us a story about Thranduil and dragons,” Thorin said, still looking like he’d tasted something sour. Rhonith sighed, sending the smoking wizard a tired glare. She didn’t want to think about dragons… Frowning, she fiddled absentmindedly with her braids, her mind filled with the distant memory of roaring and a hated name. Sweet Ori patted her hand comfortingly, breaking her out of the spell of memory.

“Dragons and Thranduil,” she sighed, suddenly too exhausted to be angry at Mithrandir’s scheming. Returning to the window, she looked out at the vibrant gardens, but the bright flowers and the verdant grass failed to give her comfort. “Thranduil met his first dragons in the War of Wrath, the great war of the First Age against Morgoth. He was a young elf then, only a few centuries old, but he watched them slaughter many of his kin and friends…” Pausing slightly, she took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the scent of flowers, not smoke. “I told you Oropher brought his people East after Beleriand was sunk,” she began, “but I did not say that on their journey they came across one of the last dragons yet living in Middle-Earth. Filled with grief, still, and anger at their slain kin, they killed it… but their losses were heavy. Thranduil’s two older brothers were slain, and Thranduil himself might not have survived, if not for his later Queen, Nínimeth, who found him and tended his wounds – she is a gifted healer.” For a moment, her mind was filled with crimson hair and laughing green eyes, but then she shook her head, turning back to Thorin and willing him to believe her. “That’s why Thranduil might be the best to ask for advice about fighting dragons… There are few things on Arda he holds in greater hatred, and there are not many of us left on these shores that have fought them and won.” Almost none, in fact, she knew, stilling her urge to shudder through sheer willpower.

Thorin glowered at this unsolicited advice but Rhonith ignored him easily – they had made her talk about this topic she avoided even thinking about and part of her felt like a dam had burst, words spilling from her lips with little control from her mind.

“The day of the dragon,” she began haltingly, seeing again the terrifying red scales against the blue morning sky, heard the roar of flames and the screams of those it devoured. “Yes, I was there, too, Thorin,” Rhonith revealed. “I was the one who sounded the alarm when we first spotted the dragon flying towards Dale –” She swallowed hard, her voice quiet but no less fervent than his bellows. “The dragon we had warned your grandfather his hoard and his mentality would attract…” she paused, staring blindly out the window, completely unaware of the giant bumblebee that landed on her hair for a moment before it flew off again. “I was in Mirkwood, then, and… the host of the Forest – every Elf able to bear a weapon – was on the move less than an hour later, trying to get to Erebor as fast as possible. You know how far it is from Mirkwood to Erebor... We were too late; the beast had gained the mountain. If the dragon had been outside the mountain, we could have shot it down, but going in after it was suicide.” Swallowing hard, she turned around, looking at all of them but still with an air of not even registering their presence. “You cannot fight a dragon in a place like Erebor with an army,” she whispered, closing her eyes for a moment. “Dragons are clever. Fiendishly clever. Attacking a dragon in his lair, especially inside a Dwarf mountain, which is full of corners and corridors, is to ask to die in a fiery ambush.” Opening her eyes, she looked directly at Thorin, who felt his chest tighten at the grief in her eyes. “Thranduil chose not to be Oropher. We stood on that ridge, and yes, we turned away … for we could have done nothing but die,” she finished quietly, sighing sadly.

A dog licked her cheek before it scampered off to join Beorn at the hearth. The giant Man had entered unnoticed in the middle of her tale and was listening just as intently as the Company.

“You could have helped the survivors! We were starving and homeless!” Thorin was still livid. The fact that no aid had come from the Elves lay as heavy on his heart as it ever had. A people who would turn away starving orphans could never be redeemed in his eyes.

Rhonith’s hand smacked the table, causing plates and cutlery to jump. A frightened sheep bleated in the corner of the room. “We tried!” she exclaimed. “Supplies and aid were offered to you!” Cursing under her breath, she made a visible effort at speaking calmly. “We sent messengers to Thrór and to Dale, offering shelter, food that could be spared, even guides through our forest once we realised you’d turn west. The Men accepted, Girion’s widow and his young son… He was too young to rule, but he became a good leader for his people nonetheless.” Swallowing hard, Rhonith looked at Thorin, once more hating his grandfather for all that had been lost to Thrór’s animosity when he frowned darkly in return. “Thrór, on the other hand,” she said softly, “sent our messengers back with demands for an army to retake the mountain and reclaim his gold. He said… he said that if the elves would not aid in reclaiming the realm of the king to whom they should swear fealty, he would not see them. If any elf came to him, he’d send them back headless. That day…was the first time I was ever ashamed to call the Line of Durin my kin…” Grief, strong enough to take his breath away, shone in her sapphire eyes. “I am over 5000 years old, Master Oakenshield, and Thrór was the first of my Uncle’s descendants that I was ashamed to call kin.”

No one spoke, more than a few of them glancing askance at Thorin who felt like he’d been punched hard, all the air driven from his lungs.

“I never heard that,” Balin replied after a long silence. “Our Adad was part of Thrór’s council,” he added.

Rhonith gave him a sad smile. “You were young then, I remember your blue hair… you were a scribe, yes? For the Council.”  

Balin nodded. “I never heard talk of messengers from the Elvenking.”

“Because the messengers would speak only to Frís,” Rhonith replied, frowning lightly, “she was the envoy between our peoples… Elves have long memories, and we do not forgive insults lightly; no elf who called Thranduil King would have wanted to interact with Thrór.” Shaking her head lightly, she smiled to herself. “One of the ways my two peoples are very similar,” she muttered, “stubborn and proud.”

“I remember that…” Thorin whispered, suddenly hearing the way his grandfather had bellowed at his Amad, though he had not known the cause at the time. “He was…”

Her temper cooled, Rhonith simply sounded tired and worn by the conversation. She looked at a stone-faced Thorin and reached out to squeeze his hand gently, “As much as you might have loved your grandfather and as much as he cared for you… his gold was more important to him than the starvation of his people’s children. I’m sorry.”

Thorin felt numb, his mind whirling as pieces that had once been disparate suddenly made a horrifyingly clear picture in his mind. Sick guilt flooded him, a deep sense of shame that the grandfather he had idolised for so long had behaved so… monstrously. How many lives had his greed cost them? How many dwarflings might have lived through those first few years of Exile if they had been better supplied, had been sheltered – kept safe?

Dwalin’s heavy hand on his shoulder, warm and alive, grounded Thorin in the present, bringing him back to the Skinchanger’s kitchen in time to hear the answer to a question he’d missed.

“I personally went to Lady Galadriel on your behalf,” Rhonith said sadly. “And I believe Lord Elrond offered refuge for your young and those who were pregnant, so they might be born in safety, but that too was rebuffed.”

Thorin’s heart hurt, reaching up to squeeze Dwalin’s fingers, needing the silent support of his lover more than he needed his next breath of air.

“Thranduil took in the men of Dale,” the elleth continued softly, “but we could not overtly help the Dwarrow.”

Balin, whose face had been drawn in lines of sorrow, his thoughts following the lines of Thorin’s, perked up. “What do you mean ‘overtly’?” The old diplomat was a wily soul, and he recognised cunning when he heard it. She wanted him to ask, and Balin was inclined to oblige. He did not know what to believe – could not yet determine whether the story she told was true or not, no matter how much horrific sense it made – but only by keeping her talking would he be able to help his King decide whether their new companion was trustworthy.

Rhonith grinned; her bared teeth made even Nori draw away warily, which made Dwalin worried for a moment. Nori was used to moving among the worst of the seedy underbellies of the world; if he was uneasy, thee was usually good reason to be afraid.

“Well…” she began slowly, “Thrór’s verdict pertained only to Elves… If I stoop, and keep my ears disguised, I can pass for a full-blooded Dwarf; Frís helped me sneak into your camp. I called myself magallabûna[16] and Frís helped me create a story circle for the dwarflings.”

When she paused for a sip of mead, Thorin interrupted with a sudden epiphany, his earlier suspicions all but verified – the name magallabûna was one he had heard before, the name a visitor of Frís’ had given the Guard.

“You’re the one who sent Amad the packages with spices and jams every year for her birthday!” he exclaimed, which made Fíli, Kíli, Dwalin, and Balin gape. Each Dwarf had his favourite of the goods Frís would receive, but she had never revealed their benefactor.

“Yes, I am. What of it?” the elleth glared and Thorin subsided, feeling a little sheepish at his almost-accusatory outburst. Balin elbowed his arm.

“Thank you?” Thorin tried, though he feared it came out as a question rather than a statement. From his spot down the table, Nori sniggered and Thorin scowled at him. “We have all enjoyed the spoils of those shipments.”

“Blackberry jam for you, cinnamon for your sister, tea and orange spice marmalade for Frís, cardamom for Thráin, apples for Fíli, and orange fruits for Kíli,” she listed the contents of the last gift easily. “As well as a jug of my personal honey for Dwalin.” She smiled at him, and Thorin knew Dwalin was blushing slightly – he had an acknowledged sweet tooth and the honey had been used to make his favourite cakes and cookies.

“Aye. It arrived a few weeks before her birthday,” Thorin replied. “We didn’t know how to send word back that she was gone,” he added, feeling a resurgence of the guilt he had suffered for months after the crate of goods arrived, even if Dís’ practical words had convinced him to enjoy the treats as usual, finishing the last of his jam the morning he set off for the Lord’s Council. The only thing they hadn’t touched was Frís’ orange marmalade, each feeling that it was wrong to crack the wax seal on the jar without Frís there to take the first sniff. “But there was no letter included.” Even to his own ears, it sounded like a paltry defence – Frís definitely would have given him an earful for how he had treated her old friend – but the elleth just smiled at him.

“Sure there was,” Rhonith replied, waving away his guilty conscience easily, “my letters are always hidden beneath a false bottom in the crate of oranges.” Giving him another smile that still felt more fond than he had earned, she continued softly, “And the things were meant for you, whether Frís was alive to accept them or not…” For a moment, she faltered, sorrow shadowing the brightness of her smile. “I had wondered whether her reply had been lost,” Rhonith added softly, “but it was simple enough to fashion another for this year’s shipment. Cevenil will be sending it off soon, though I suppose the Rangers will simply deliver it into the hands of your sister…”

Thorin felt, if anything, worse at the easy way she forgave him, hearing again the mellifluous voice of his Amad and knowing exactly how she’d scold him. The voice that told him not to trust any Elf was growing fainter in his mind, unsettling him further.

“So what happened in Mirkwood with the story circle,” Kíli asked, trying to take his mind off his beloved oranges languishing in Imladris. Dís had warned her family that without talking to their secret gift-giver, they couldn’t expect more packages of treats, so they had all stretched the supplies all winter, and Kíli had mourned on the day he had shared his last orange with his Amad, who had always loved oranges too.

“Well, even in those days,” Rhonith began, “travel through Mirkwood was not without its dangers… even for a large group. Thranduil gave orders to guard the caravan and the Guard patrols that circled you would sneak sacks of food to me every day.” She smiled her scary smile again, and Thorin suddenly felt quite glad that he was not Thrór. “King Thrór only said he would not see any elves… but if an Elf does not want to be found, it is almost impossible to do so – even more so in our own forests.”

Kíli chuckled, though he was the only one who found the thought of Mirkwood amusing; Ori was serious by nature, and the rest of them either remembered or knew enough to be wary of the dark trees. Thorin squeezed Dwalin’s hand, knowing that they were both thinking about Thráin’s doomed expedition.

“I can pass for a tall dwarf if I keep my ears hidden and stick to speaking Khuzdul,” Rhonith shrugged, “and that’s how it worked. Every day, someone would sneak a sack of lembas breads to me, and I’d share out small bites to the dwarflings, telling them stories while their parents set up camp.” She sighed heavily, sorrow permeating the air around her in an almost tangible way. Thorin shivered. “There were so many hungry children,” Rhonith said quietly. The feeling of grief hanging in the air spread to the rest of them – everyone had lost kin to the Dragon, but many had been lost in the days and weeks following the Sack of Erebor. “Several of my friends spent days chasing deer towards you that you might hunt for food, treating it like a game almost…” she chuckled softly, though it held little joy, “‘who can get closest to dwarf-camp without being spotted’.” Shaking her head with fond amusement, she added, “I believe Prince Legolas’ group won.”

Privately, Thorin wondered if he was destined to learn that everything he had thought he knew was a fallacy, and even though it still grated to owe gratitude to elves he felt the sensation fill his soul nonetheless, thinking about the lives that had indubitably been saved by what she called a ‘game’. Surviving in Exile had not been a game, not to him, though trying to keep his people reasonably safe and fed sometimes seemed an insurmountable task.

The Company stared, those who remembered the trip through Mirkwood shuddering. If that had been with the aid of Elves, how much worse could it have been? Balin shared a glance with Thorin and a quick Iglishmêk conversation confirmed his thought. They owed Thranduil a heavy debt of gratitude, no matter how much the fact annoyed him.

“There were so many orphans and lost children,” Rhonith mused, “I grew fond of many, although there was one little lad in particular who was special to me,” she smiled wistfully. “He never gave me his name, but he called me his zarsthuhrunana,” she paused slightly, looking at Bilbo, “it means forest sister. We had the same colour hair,” she chuckled, stroking the braid that framed her left cheek, “and I was the first he’d seen with that colour apart from his mother, so I had to be his sister.” She laughed softly, lost in her memories.

Dori stiffened, while Ori’s eyes widened almost comically, staring silently at the elleth who did not notice. Nori, as always, remained inscrutable, but his left hand twitched slightly, as though he, too, wanted to reach out to grip Dori’s hand.

“He was less than ten years of age at the time, but so very brave,” Rhonith continued, a softly wistful smile playing around her lips. “Even though he could find neither his father or his mother. I don’t think he had much in the way of family or wealth; his clothes were not very fine, even though he seemed well cared for and well-mannered.”

“What happened to him?” Fíli asked gently.

Rhonith smiled brightly at him. “His mother finally found him, on the last night before you all left the forest,” she said. “I’d wrapped him in my cloak for the night and he was almost asleep when this frantic dwarrowdam came running, hardly daring to hope; she’d been on the other end of the caravan and thought her child perished in the mountain with his father, who had been a guard and brought the lad with him to work.” She smiled again, and Thorin had the odd thought that she had been a parent – maybe still was? – herself, the way her smile curved reminding him of his sister at her most maternal. “I have rarely seen a happier face than in that one shining moment when she realised that the worst had not happened at all… You all left next day, and we melted back into the trees. I bade goodbye to my little friend on the forest’s edge, but I have often wondered what happened to my karkîth sanzigil [17] – if he even remembers spending those nights in my arms.”

“He does,” Dori interrupted, silent tears coursing down his cheeks. “And he told his brothers about his zarsthuhrunana with the mithril hair. That cloak was well used over many years. Ori was swaddled in the last of the fabric when he was born.”

Pandemonium erupted. Nori and Ori were both gaping at this childhood bedtime story come to life, and Rhonith herself seemed slightly bowled over by his revelation, though she smiled brilliantly when Dori shook her hand, introducing himself properly.

Óin, who had fallen asleep shortly after he finished his breakfast, was still snoring in the corner. Glóin, who had brought out the locket containing pictures of his family, kept silent, for once, sitting next to Bifur who had been whittling with his cousin – creating small Dwarven chess-pieces to match the bears that Beorn had made for himself.

Bilbo, who was the least knowledgeable about Mirkwood and its dangers, even though the story had given him chills in places, was busy scarfing down a thick slice of bead and honey, intermittently lecturing Bombur on the merits of seven meals a day. The cook, who couldn’t help but compare the small Hobbit to his son Blákur – still growing, even though he was of a height with Bilbo – felt quietly horrified by the thought that they had unintentionally been starving their smallest member. He had realised, of course, that Master Baggins was not so plump as he had been upon first meeting, but they had all bulked up before they left, knowing that supplies on such a long journey were bound to be scarce and adding more holes to their belts as they went along.

Gandalf, quite satisfied with the outcome of his request, simply sat in a corner with his pipe; he’d heard the story of ‘dwarf-tag’ before, of course.

Thorin stayed in his seat, the twinge in his ribs forgotten in favour of brooding over the revelations about his grandfather – and his mother. Balin slid out of his seat, joining his brother in offering silent support to his King. Eventually, Glóin joined them in a low conversation; the four of them would have to decide whether what the strange dwarf-elf – dwelf? – had said could be believed. Unfortunately for Thorin’s peace of mind, her story made only too much sense. The question remained, however, how this information could affect the quest.

Slowly, the late afternoon passed into night, and although Thorin’s mind was still filled with whirling thoughts, only Dwalin and Balin remained up with him.

“Was she right?” Thorin asked, watching the fire flicker in Beorn’s hearth, the flames throwing pictures of shadows on the wall behind him. “About Thrór, I mean? I believe her about knowing Amad, one of her beads bears the same mark that used to decorate Amad’s marmalade pots… the ones she never would tell us who sent – which makes sense.” Again, he felt a flicker of guilt at the thought that it was his animosity that had kept Frís’ friend from visiting.

Dwalin silently puffed on the pipe he had borrowed from Beorn. The Man himself did not smoke, but he grew tobacco plants and spent long winter nights carving beautiful animal decorated objects; pipes, game pieces, furniture, and whatever else struck his fancy.

“Lad… Thrór was...” Balin began slowly, also staring into the flickering flames, “I wish I could say she was wrong, but though I didn’t serve him in Erebor, Fundin would have agreed with her – and I think we both know that the loss of Erebor only increased the madness. Mahal’s beard, laddie, you had to pull him out of the treasury yourself when Smaug attacked!” Balin frowned and puffed on his brother’s pipe before continuing thoughtfully, “if she really is Usakh, and I believe she is, she has little reason to lie to you. I recon we can trust her. She can’t help who her father was after all.” Thorin nodded slowly.

“I’ve never heard of Usakh, but you and Ori looked like you could be knocked down by a feather when she said it. What does it mean?” the King asked. The brothers passed the pipe between them once more before Balin replied, as calmly as when he had been instructing Thorin on the history of their race.

“It was an old legend, that Durin the 4th had a prophetic dream of his own death and his people’s flight from Khazad-dûm. His heir would be too young to rule, and Durin went into seclusion, to beg the Maker’s guidance in his hour of need. Mahal told his child that the dream would not become reality in that lifetime, but when the hour was closer, He would send him the Watcher, Usakh, who would be trusted by all Dwarrow and who would guide his son until he was grown. At first, Durin VI’s advisors were outraged by the idea that they were unfit to guide their Prince, but the King persevered. And Usakh came, and carried the little Prince out of Khazad-dûm like Mahal had promised, raising him to be King of Erebor – later on Ered Mithrim. Little is known of the actual person, and only a few lines in id-‘Ukmathu Durin[18] describe the coming of Usakh. None of the versions I’ve seen has mentioned her elven blood, but it does explain why the title Usakh is mentioned in several histories of times of great peril for our race… and not just among Longbeards.”

“I don’t remember the title,” Thorin said. Balin gave him a sad smile. “I don’t think you would have known to look for it – in the stories of Thorin I that you read growing up, Usakh was referred to by the name the King gave them, not the title that became the embodiment of the person after his death.”

“Sharul…” Thorin whispered, a snippet of long-forgotten memory stirring in the back of his mind.

“It is generally believed that Usakh is either a complimentary title in honour of the first Usakh,” Balin added, his voice taking on the excitement of an academic discussing an interesting topic. Dwalin hid a smile in his bushy beard, passing his pipe to Thorin. “Or that the person is one of the Khuzd Haga Zudur[19] like yourself,” Balin continued solemnly, “being born with memories of previous Usâkh would have explained the presence of such a person too.”

 

 

 

 

 

[8] West-Gate of Moria

[9] The Watcher, She who is trusted by Mahal

[10] May Mahal welcome you and may your path to the Halls of Waiting be straight, my friend.

[11] Are you insane?

[12] Pointy-eared lembas-muncher. He betrayed us!

[13] You are so simple you couldn’t sell pie to a starving Hobbit.

[14] Children of Mahal – the Dwarven name for their own race.

[15] Thranduil’s name most like means this, though it is debated. It refers to the habit of naming rulers for their lands, specifically the fast river that runs through his forest, as well as their personalities. He has other names, but consider Thranduil his most public name, usable by anyone, rather than more personal names used only by close friends and family. The verb Athra- meaning across(Athrad is a (river-)crossing). Duin means large river with strong current.

[16] She who continues to speak

[17] Kakîth Sanzigil = young mithril shard

[18] The Greatest Song of Durin – ie. The Long Lay, which Gimli quotes in Moria.

[19] Very Important Dwarf – those who have memories of previous lives, although they are not reborn, like Durin, simply carrying echoes of Dwarrow who have gone to the Halls of Waiting, but who still have lessons or guidance to offer the Dwarven race. Such dwarrow are usually named after the one whose memories they bear. Thorin carries echoes of Thorin I, who resettled the dwarrow in the Grey Mountains after the fall of Khazad-dûm.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Thorin sought out Rhonith again. She was sitting outside, braiding flowers into a crown and singing softly. Her voice was a pleasant alto, weaving the soft melody as deftly as her fingers wove the flowers she held.

The wheels of life keep turning.
Spinning without control;
The wheels of the heart keep yearning
For the sound of the singing soul.

And nights are full with weeping
For sins of the past we've sown;
But, tomorrow is ours for the keeping,
Tomorrow the future's shown.

 

For a moment, Thorin stood silent, listening to the song and the chirps of the birds in the tree above her, feeling an odd sort of peace sneak up on him – less foreign than what he had attributed to the powers of Elrond in Rivendell and not nearly so strong, but somehow the song was as soothing to him as an old lullaby.

“Good morning, Uzbad dulgu Sigintarâgu[20],” Rhonith greeted softly. Thorin started lightly; she still had her back turned, how could she know it was him? “I trust you are well?”

“I will be fine, Lady Rhonith,” Thorin replied, slightly curt. “However, I wished to ask you more questions about Mirkwood, if you would not mind,” he continued, making an effort to speak politely as he opened with the topic he and Balin had decided to question her on the night before; Dwalin had cautioned him to keep a lid on his temper, and Thorin was happy that the Fundinson brothers had not decided to follow him into the peaceful garden to ensure he remained civil.

“Ask what you wish to know,” Rhonith replied lightly, her eyes returning to the plants in her lap. What Thorin really wanted to know in that moment was whether that type of annoying serenity that seemed common to all those of Elven blood was something bred into the race, or whether it was learned from birth. It was probably rude to ask, he thought, something only youth would excuse, like some of Kíli’s or Fíli’s outbursts, and he squashed the urge ruthlessly, sticking to Balin’s plan. The conditions they might face among the trees of that dark place weighed heavily on both Thorin’s and Balin’s minds, and even though Dwalin had remained stoically silent on the topic, Thorin knew him well enough to see the deep unease he hid from the rest of the Company.

“How do we get through the forest quickly?” Thorin asked, cutting swiftly to the heart of things. Rhonith tilted her head, considering him evenly, her unsettlingly familiar eyes narrowing in thought. “We haven’t got that much time left and it is a treacherous place. You hear about travellers going missing and insane in there,” Thorin added, belatedly realising that the tone of his voice gave away the anxiety he had not even realised ran so deeply. Dark memories filled his mind in an instant; Dwalin had made it back, more than half-dead, but the rest of the guards who had gone along with Thráin – as well as the King himself – had not. Until meeting Gandalf the year before, Thorin had stubbornly believed that his father was alive, and the loss of that belief still hurt. The wizard claimed to have buried Thráin’s corpse, but that was not the same as watching his father’s bones be returned to the stone properly, with all the accompanying Song and ritual required to farewell a King.

“There are paths…” Rhonith replied softly, giving him a feeling that she saw right through him, even though her eyes had returned to her plants when he focused back on the sunlit garden. “As long as you stay on the path, you should be fine…” Looking up, her eyes narrowed in warning. “Do not drink any water you might find in there,” she continued, “nor light fires at night or attempt to hunt game.”

Thorin felt his heart sink – equipping fifteen people with provisions for an extended trek seemed far to much to ask of their new acquaintance; even asking would be a violation of courtesy, he knew, hearing Frís’ gentle voice echo through time and memory.

Rhonith sighed, weaving another stem into her creation, “The best way to get through Mirkwood is to get an elf to guide you,” she said, “but for that you’d have to approach either a border patrol – or make your way to the Elvenking’s Halls.”

“Would you guide us?” Thorin asked, knowing it was a long shot, but Balin had been adamant that they should ask, and Dwalin’s haunting stories of his last experience in the accursed forest had made up his mind.

“I could, Master Oakenshield,” Rhonith frowned softly, “but it would be very impolite of me to sneak you through without notifying Thranduil; he has ever been a good friend to me, and I should not like to have him wroth with me.”

Thorin did understand her point, but he still felt a black cloud descending on his mood. Nonetheless, he nodded, a defeated sigh escaping before he could stop it.

“Given the erratic patterns of the patrols, it would also be nigh impossible to sneak through, even with my aid,” Rhonith continued, giving him a gentle smile, her next words giving him a glimmer of hope. “It has been a few years since I was last in Mirkwood, and I suppose it is time for a visit… If I were to be your guide, however,” she added sharply, “I would lead you to Thranduil’s Halls and obtain you guest rights – if you attempted to walk the paths unaided, I doubt you would last long without getting confused and disoriented by the spells that have been laid over the land…” Thorin opened his mouth to protest – his Company was made of hardy Dwarrow, not so susceptible to Elf-Magic, Rhonith continued unperturbed by his dark scowl: “Walking through Mirkwood as my guests would offer you some protection – and might make Thranduil more amenable to your presence… and your Quest.”

She still looked disturbed by the thought of that, but Thorin did not comment, wondering just how close she was to the Elvenking I she could be so certain her presence would grant them such easements.

“I would… be amenable to reforming the alliance that once existed between our peoples,” Thorin said, surprised that the words were not harder to get past the guard of his teeth. Rhonith’s answering smile made the day even lighter, as though she spun her happiness into her hair. Shaking his head to rid himself of such silly notions, Thorin continued, “Erebor is in the middle of dead land… if it is reclaimed, it will not sustain my people.”

“The elves could help revive the soil of the Desolation,” Rhonith nodded, “though I should expect Thranduil to demand some tokens of good faith from you – the return of the long-lost white gems of Lasgalen would be a good start.” She shot him a shrewd look.

Thorin scowled. He still did not care for the haughty King of Mirkwood, no matter what she said. On the other hand, he had dealt with more unsavoury characters for the betterment of his people – meeting with the Elvenking would be no different than a trade negotiation.

Rhonith continued blithely, “Have you given more thought to the problem of slaying the dragon? I will admit that if you do not have a plan, Thranduil is likely to keep you until you come up with a satisfactory one. He will not risk the dragon burning his forest.” She shuddered.

“We are not experienced in dragon slaying,” Thorin admitted, accepting the lead into his next topic of questioning easily. “The whole Ereborian army could not kill him last time. How does one kill a dragon within a mountain?” Dwalin had argued for that question, which Thorin had not objected to; he too had noticed that Gandalf had not actually proclaimed any experience in dragon-slaying back in Bag End, and expected no real help from that quarter.

Rhonith grumbled something insulting in Khuzdul under her breath before continuing in regular Westron. “Hrmph! I knew Mithrandir didn’t have a plan… Bloody meddlesome wizard!”

Thorin had to stifle his smirk.

“There are ways,” Rhonith said, her eyes once more dark with that sorrow he had noticed the day before. “You will need stealth and the element of surprise,” she added. “Arrows could do it, I suppose, but you’d need more than the one archer you have now. The problem is that a dragon is so large that any arrow shorter than 3 feet is unlikely to penetrate deep enough to do any significant damage. You could go the route of poisoned arrows, but again, dragons are so large that even if you managed to poison Smaug, he could take days or weeks to die, and be quite free to avenge himself meanwhile.” Again, she seemed far away, rubbing her arms as though she was cold. “If the dragon leaves the mountain, you need archers with armour piercing strength or ballistae. Then you’d shoot for the heart or the wings, to bring him to ground to finish him off. That would be more feasible with an army, however.”

“Does Smaug have no true weaknesses?” Thorin wondered.

“If the stories from Dale are true, Lord Girion managed to knock a breast scale loose with a black arrow… That would be a weak spot,” Rhonith sighed heavily, shrugging off the shadows and turning her face towards the sun, her eyes closed. “If that is unfeasible, a spear through the eye and into the brain would work, but you’d need to get close enough for that, which would only be possible when the dragon slept – and he would wake ere long when he smelled you, I shouldn’t doubt.”

“That’s why Gandalf wanted us to bring a Hobbit,” Thorin admitted, the idea still not at all sensible to him – regardless of Bilbo’s recent heroics. “Bilbo was meant to go in first, make an attempt to steal the Arkenstone – and then I would use it to call the armies of the Seven Fathers.”

Rhonith snorted in disbelief. “That is the most insane plan I have ever heard,” she scoffed. “Dragons know their hoards to the smallest golden coin! Stealing as much as a goblet would be suicide – taking the Arkenstone…” She chuckled mirthlessly, “Smaug would destroy all of you, Esgaroth, and Mirkwood along with it, and then his rage would turn to the rest of the world! How many lives would be lost before your messengers to the rest of the Lords’ Council would even reach them, let alone the time it takes to outfit an army and march upon Erebor!” Jumping to her feet, she paced agitatedly. “If you are determined to reclaim Erebor, Thorin, you must kill the dragon – before he leaves the mountain!”

“So, truly, our best bet is to hope that someone in Laketown has a black arrow they’ve saved for 160 years?” Thorin asked, incredulous. The task, which had appeared so doable back in the Hobbit’s cosy home, even with the disappointing answer from the Lords’ Council, now seemed beyond insurmountable in Thorin’s mind.

She nodded slowly. “Not much is tough enough to pierce dragon hide,” she replied. “Although your Gondolin sword should be,” she added, gesturing towards the large cabin where Dwalin had taken Thorin’s sword out onto the porch, cleaning the blade meticulously. “It is from Gondolin, is it not?”

“So Lord Elrond said.” Thorin nodded, feeling a surge of love fill him at the small private smile Dwalin flashed him.

“Well, Elrond would know,” Rhonith shrugged, folding her legs beneath her once more, her temper released for now. “His Great-grandfather founded Gondolin, you see.” Rhonith returned her attention to the plants she had dropped, weaving the stems gently between each other. “Why did you decide to attempt to regain Erebor, Master Oakenshield?” she asked softly, looking at him with his own eyes, her hand stilling at their work as she waited for his answer, something unreadable lurking in the mind behind her eyes.

“Well,” Thorin began, almost surprising himself when the truth fell from his lips, “I could tell you that it came down to Óin reading the portents and saying that it was time according to prophecy.” He shrugged lightly. “Or I could tell you that the dragon hasn’t been seen for 60 years, so it might be dead.”

Rhonith scoffed at that, shaking her head silently.

Thorin smiled wryly, he did not believe that theory either; he rather thought the Beast would soon wake from hunger. “I could claim it was for the gold,” he added honestly, feeling a frisson of fear as he remembered the conversation he had overheard in Rivendell – Thrór’s madness had run much deeper than he had ever imagined, even in his darkest dreams, “but deep down… it is for my people.”

Rhonith nodded, her smile softening at the edges – Thorin once more had that strange feeling of kinship, though her relationship with his mother might make sense of her otherwise inexplicably deep fondness for him. “We yet survive in Ered Luin, but what we do there is barely living,” he admitted softly, feeling his heart squeeze with the old pain of inadequacy. “The land around the Blue Mountains is mostly barren and the mines are almost empty. Each year, we die a little more: Fewer children are conceived and those who are carried to term do not always live to see their first birthday… If I can reclaim Erebor, my people will have a future. One in which they don’t have to slave for Men or turn every coin, just to get by.” Sighing, he gazed east, imagining that he could see that solitary peak he had spotted from the Carrock. “Mostly…” he whispered softly, “it’s because Erebor is home. I was born there, and I’d like to return to the stone there.” Swallowing hard, he suddenly decided that he did believe her version of the Sack of Erebor. “If the coming of Smaug was brought upon us by my grandfather,” he admitted slowly, “it is my duty to regain our family honour by slaying the fiend… The world is not safe while the dragon yet lives.”

“You remind me of Durin the 4th a little,” Rhonith said softly, making Thorin stiffen as he suddenly remembered her presence.

“I don’t think I’m Durin Reborn,” he replied, more sharply than intended, but the elleth did not take offense.

“No, you are not my uncle reborn, Master Oakenshield,” she chuckled wryly, “but that was not what I meant.” Pausing, her brows furrowed lightly as she sorted out her words. “He was the kind of king who would walk the marketplaces in the Lower Commons and sing with the minstrels; he knew the small cares of his people as well as their greatest needs. Durin… he always saw the world, and not just for his own people; he cared about the world outside his own Realm. In his fourth life, he fought side by side with Elrond in the War of the Last Alliance, sparking a close friendship that had its tentative beginning in his third life… I believe they still have some of his clothes in his room in Imladris.” She smiled softly, lost in visions of ages past, “He was your ancestor several times over, is it odd that you should have inherited characteristics from him?” she mused, weaving the final stems together. Setting the crown in her lap, she continued softly, “There are all types of kings Thorin… Some begin well and end badly, like Thrór – some begin as weak characters and manage to find hidden strength – and some kings overcome both their own weaknesses and the perils of the world, all for the sake of their people.” Smiling at him, she got to her feet, “I have known many rulers over the years, Master Oakenshield, but not many who have suffered tragedies such as yours. I will be interested to see what your end will be.”

“Hopefully not fiery,” Thorin quipped, startling a laugh from her.

“I should hope not,” she smiled though it held an edge of sharpness. “I told you my title, Master Oakenshield,” she added, “though I did not speak much of my oath… I swore to watch over our people for as long as I’d wander Middle-Earth, to help them and especially help their kings, when they needed guidance,” her sapphire gaze fixed on the stern lines of Thorin’s face and softened noticeably, “I think you fall in that category. As much as you have been a leader of your people since Azanulbizar, you will need advisors when you ascend the throne properly. If you wish it, I will offer my aid to you.”

“I will consider all that you have said,” Thorin replied, though the small voice in his head that usually spoke with his sister’s no-nonsense practicality urged him to accept her offer.

Rhonith smirked at him. “The offer stands, Uzbad Thorin,” she said, moving swifter than he had believed possible, placing the flower crown on his head at just the right moment to be spotted by his rascally nephews. “Think about it. Durin’s folk need a wiser ruler this time around.” Her sunny laugh floated back to him as she disappeared, leaving Fíli and Kíli busy falling over with laughter.

Thorin angrily tore off the flowery adornment and tossed it onto Kíli’s head, creating a mock skirmish between the three of them and Dwalin who’d walked by and got caught in the action.

 

The skirmish on the lawn ended shortly, leaving Fíli crowned with flowers and scowling at his younger brother. Dwalin shook his head at the three of them, eyeing Thorin’s torso with some worry, but his love seemed much improved already, his laughter making Dwalin feel light.

“Lovely crown Fíli,” Bilbo remarked as he strolled out for a smoke on the porch, “it’s a good omen for the future. Did you make it?”

“It is? Rhonith gave it to me,” Thorin scowled, grabbing the crown off Fíli’s head and carrying it to Bilbo, whose cheeks seemed a bit flush, his eyes darting between Thorin and Dwalin. Dwalin chuckled; he hadn’t realised that Bilbo didn’t know – the relationship between himself and Thorin was an open secret after all these years among their own people, after all. “What does it mean?”

“Pine, that’s Hope in adversity,” Bilbo began, pointing at one of the bits of greenery, “and then monkshood for chivalry, blue hyacinth for constancy and hazels for peace…” Turning the crown over in his hands, he smiled to himself, brushing his fingers over some of the plants with gentle care. “She’s very good. Then again, she claimed she had lived in the Shire, I’d have been surprised if she didn’t know.”

“But what does it mean?” Thorin pressed, frowning lightly at the genuine admiration on the Hobbit’s face.

“Carry on with honour,” Bilbo replied thoughtfully. “This weave adds an element of future strife, but also speaks of the path to peace. In one way it means ‘Do not give up’, and in another it says ‘you are stronger than you think’…”

“Flowers can do all that?” Kíli boggled. Dwalin shrugged, equally baffled.

Bilbo sniffed, squaring his shoulders in the amusing way he always did whenever he felt his people’s ways being disparaged. “Of course, they can!” he exclaimed, segueing into a long-winded tale about a distant cousin’s feud with a different branch of his family that Kíli seemed to find surprisingly interesting – personally, Dwalin thought it might have been improved by axes used for weaponry instead of posies, but it was undeniably less painful to receive a bunch of greenery than an axe blow. Dwalin snuck the crown from Thorin’s hands and plopped it back on his head with a smirk.

“It seems our bonnie lass has some unexpected talents,” Balin laughed.

Thorin’s answering glare mellowed slightly when he caught sight of Dwalin’s expression; it seemed he had been fully forgiven for his insane stunt with Azog. Thorin could only guess at what he had done, on his first drug-riddled night in Beorn’s home, though with his extensive injuries it could not have been anything too strenuous. He smiled cautiously at his One, relieved when he got another kiss for his trouble. Dwalin’s temper burned hotly like all their kin, but its flames died quickly too. Tugging Dwalin by the hand, he planted a gentle kiss on his lips, feeling that his world was at peace once more.

 


 

 

Nori found the Elf on the roof, singing to herself in that gibberish Elvish language he’d never bothered to learn more than curses in. Her hands were occupied with carving a piece of applewood, but as he gracefully folded his legs underneath him and sat down next to her, they stilled and she looked at him expectantly, song tapering off into anticipatory silence.

“I wondered…would you tell us more about Khazad-dûm tonight?”

Rhonith cocked her head and studied the star haired dwarf beside her. “You wish for tales of life there? Or just stories of mithril crafting and jewels galore?”

“Anything, really. Ori wanted to ask you, but he is rather shy, even if you are now our adopted sister,” Nori grinned cheekily and Rhonith couldn’t help but grin back, “Ori’s always been keen on history…and not many books made it out of Erebor, so the selection has been slim. We barely know anything about Khazad-dûm apart from the Lay of Durin the Deathless. If you let him, he’ll pick apart your memory and write down your entire history,” Nori finished, giving her his best ingratiating smile.

Rhonith laughed, “Have those eyes ever worked on anyone?” Nori smirked. “If young Master Ori wishes it, I can certainly tell a tale or two… Don’t you think he might prefer a tale from Erebor instead, though?” she mused. “I could tell the story of Sigvór the Beautiful perhaps.”

“Who’s Sigvór?” Nori was drawing a blank, “I’ve never heard of her.”

“I will tell her tale then,” Rhonith nodded. She was quite fond of little Ori “I think young Thorin might enjoy it even if he is less than pleased with me at the moment.”

Nori spluttered, “Thorin? Young? He’s 195!”

A ringing peal of laughter sounded over Beorn’s garden. Several dogs twitched their ears towards the Elf and the Dwarf on the roof and a bird replied with a short thrill.

“Indeed, Master Nori,” Rhonith chuckled, “but compared to any of you I am very old and you all seem incredibly young to me. This is my five-thousand-one-hundred-and-sixth year upon Arda.”

Nori sucked in a breath and whistled softly, “I never thought of it that way… I mean, I knew you had been around for a long time, but that many years of life is… hard to fathom.”

“Such is the lot of mortals; you feel the years differently than we do,” Rhonith said gently. “I will see you at dinner.” With those words and a quick smile, she jumped off the roof, flipped in mid-air and landed lightly on her feet. Resuming the soft song, Rhonith walked out of sight.

Nori stared after her for a long time, lost in thought.

 


 

 

“She offered to help me when I am King – as an advisor of sorts,” Thorin said, relaying his talks with their elf. He and Balin had appropriated a garden bench for a smoke and a quiet discussion. “Perhaps liaison to the Elves?”

Balin nodded, contemplatively puffing on his pipe. “Not a bad idea, Thorin,” he remarked sagely, aiming a wry smirk at his king. “Diplomacy with Elves is not your strong suit.”

“True enough,” Thorin chuckled, nodding in agreement with his old friend’s assessment. “I will ask her for aid and input on our dealings with the pointy-ears, then.”

“First lesson, Master Oakenshield,” a bemused voice intoned behind them, “don’t call us pointy-ears.”

Balin groaned and Thorin’s head whipped around to scowl at the Elf in the trees behind them.

Rhonith jumped lithely to the ground and sketched an amused bow at the two dwarrow. “Second lesson. Elves blend in with nature very well and have very keen senses, hearing, sight, smell…” she shot him a wink, “insulting one within their hearing is bad form.”

“A fair point, Lady Rhonith,” Thorin replied. He did not need Balin’s elbow in his gut – though he was thankful the advisor was on his uninjured side – to tell him that he ought to be more polite than he had just exhibited being capable of. “Though my advisors do not call me Master Oakenshield… please call me Thorin.”

Rhonith bowed her head in what could really only be called a regal manner and replied softly, “Then I am at your service for as long as I am needed. ‘Ala abnathi[21].”

The King held out his hand, clasping the elleth’s firmly to seal the agreement, startled by the light shock that seemed to pass through him.

 

…Young Thorin could only stare at the girl who had appeared in the study like smoke. He wanted to call for the guards, but his grandfather’s hand on his shoulder stilled him. Looking up, he frowned at the sight of grandfather Durin’s wide smile. The hood was lowered, revealing pale skin and mithril-bright hair. Her blue eyes were those of the Durin line and her smile was radiant.

“Sister-child,” grandfather greeted, getting up from his chair and clasping the tall girl – she was an elf – in a kin-blessing. Thorin’s confusion grew. How did grandfather have an elf for his sister’s child? This incarnation hadn’t even had a sister! “Many years have passed since these eyes last saw you, but your face ever shines in my memory,” Durin rumbled.

“Uncle. It is good to see you once more,” she replied softly, smiling at grandfather. “I bring you greetings from the Lady of the Golden Wood.”

The Dwarf-King of Khazad-dûm smiled graciously and Thorin had to believe that she was a relation of his.

“She has been a firm ally for many years, indeed, wee Geira – but allow me to properly introduce my grandson and youngest heir, Thorin,” Durin replied. Grandfather’s hand on his back pushed him half a step forwards, but the girl knelt so they were the same height.

“Hello Uzbadith,” she said softly. Thorin took her hand dumbly, shaking it only because that was how he had been taught to greet strangers. “I am Usakh.”

 

Thorin froze, his hand falling down to hang loosely at his side, staring after the bright hair of Rhonith as she skipped back towards the house. One whispered word left his lips, but the elleth was long gone and did not hear him.

Sharul[22].”

Balin shot him a look, clearly stating that he did not understand what his King meant, but he didn’t pry.

The Memories of his long-dead namesake had always come to him in dreams… and had never been triggered by the simple touch of another. They had also mostly concerned themselves with the practicalities of resettling a people and how to go about ensuring that food and shelter were in adequate supply.

Thorin knew that his work – with the added guidance of the ancestor whose trails had most matched his own – was the reason their settlement was now referred to as Thorinuldûm[23] by his people, even if it was not his claimed hall.

When they had finally reached Ered Luin, Thrór’s mind had been circling Moria’s lost wealth for a long time, and he viewed the ruins of Gabilgathol[24] as a simple stepping-stone towards a glorious future. Thráin had by-and-large shared his father’s views, but Thorin had been more cautious. Encouraged by Princess Frís, he had gone to work on making more permanent settlements in the ruined mountains possible.

 


 

 

After dinner, the Company gathered by Beorn’s massive hearth. The promise of a tale of yore proved an exceptionally powerful lure on all the Dwarrow – even Dwalin, who’d never had much time for scholarly pursuits and tended to leave such things to his brother.

“I’ve been asked to tell a story – I promise that this one will have no Elves,” Rhonith winked at Thorin, who flushed and turned to glare into the fire, still unsettled by his earlier Memory. “Instead I will tell you the story of Sigvór Benmar[25] of Zeleg'ubraz in Thafar’abbad.” She looked kindly at Bilbo, “That means Golden Stair, which was the capital of the Longbeards in the Grey Mountains, Ered Mithrim.”

Ori interrupted, “Is she allowed to tell him what Khuzdul words mean?”

A stern look was levelled at the young dwarf who flushed and ducked his head shyly. “If Bilbo Baggins is not a Dwarf-Friend yet – and to my mind his actions have already earned him the distinction – he will have earned the title twice over by the time you reach Erebor for certain.”

Thorin nodded regally, his heavy mass of curls tumbling about his shoulders, “Peace, Ori. I trust the Lady Rhonith will not abuse the trust placed in her.”

He was rewarded with a beaming smile and a happy “Thank you.”.

Thorin returned her words with a small nod.

“So, Sigvór,” Rhonith began, “The first thing anyone would tell you about young Sigvór is that she was beautiful. And that would be sheer truth. Sigvór was beautiful, one of the most famed beauties of her race. Her auburn beard was like silk and her eyes were golden. Like all dams, Sigvór had fire in her heart, but her beauty made her cold and aloof to others.”

Kíli elbowed his brother at those words, exchanging a cheeky grin.

“You see, Sigvór was the daughter and only child of a noble lord of Ered Mithrim. Not a very important dwarf, mind, but he and his wife had aspirations of power and Sigvór’s beauty seemed to them the perfect tool to further that goal. It was said of her that she embodied the best of Dwarrow-kind; the fire of a forge and the golden glow of our greatest treasures.

Sigvór wanted none of their machinations, however; she was as stubborn as a true daughter of Mahal and though she had many suitors vying for her hand, she had decided early in life that her one love would be her craft.

Instead of playing games of courtly intrigue, Sigvór passed her days with crafting or sparring. She was an engraver of great skill and could make the finest filigree inlays. Although you might have thought she’d work with gold, she favoured silver for crafting. Her inlays quickly caught the attentions of the well-to-do in Ered Mithrim, and soon her work was seen adorning many members of the Royal Court. She made acquaintances with the Royal Princes one day when Grór had dragged his brothers to the marketplace to search for gifts for their Amad’s Nameday celebration.

Now, no one had ever called the Crown Prince timid or shy, but Sigvór made him speechless. And yet Thrór kept returning, purchasing more and more elaborate work as an excuse to stare at the beautiful dam, never asking her to a dance or pursuing any other avenues of courting.

Sigvór tended to allow it, for she was a little intrigued by this bumbling dwarf who bore no resemblance to the suave and sophisticated Crown Prince from the tales she’d heard. He never managed to speak to her of anything but her Craft and yet his eyes would blaze at her every time she caught them.

Years went by like this. The King despaired of his son ever managing to get anywhere with Sigvór. If he could never manage to speak to her, surely he would never win her heart.

At the same time, suitors kept coming to Sigvór’s door, even though she had made it quite clear that she wished to remain Craft-Wed.” Taking a sip of her drink, Rhonith added thoughtfully, “I suspect her parents were behind that, personally, but I never met them.”

Thorin’s fingers were wrapped around Dwalin’s beneath the table, the story different from the version he had been told as a dwarfling, but not as biased against Thrór as he would have expected based on Lady Rhonith’s earlier vehemence.

“One day, Sigvór was walking in the marketplace, when she was approached by one of her former suitors. She had refused him even more vehemently than most, as his possessive and jealous nature had scared her. He attacked Sigvór, attempting to stab his dagger into her eye. She managed to twist away from his grip, and the knife that might have killed her only carved her face open, leaving a scar from her hair line to her chin. She did not lose her eye, but her face was stuck in a perpetual half snarl when it healed.

In the eyes of her parents, she was ruined and as she was no longer beautiful, the suitors who had been chasing her so diligently soon dispersed. Sigvór buried herself in her workshop, attempting to lose herself in her Craft.

Bleak weeks passed. Then Thrór came once again, to gaze on the love of his soul and order a gift for his brother’s coming of age. At first, Sigvór wanted to refuse him entry, for she could not bear to see those blue eyes clouded with pity or disgust when he looked at her disfigured face.

She knew, however, that she would miss the quiet dwarf and his arduous gaze – what if he never came back? All that day, as she worked on the gift, they talked, and she did not look up once. Thrór was heartbroken, thinking he’d taken too long and she was now truly Craft-Wed. As he was leaving, he turned back for one last look and called her beautiful. She slapped him.”

Dwalin guffawed and the young princes snickered; this tale was different to any other story they’d ever been told about their great-grandfather. It was difficult to believe that the imposing dwarf of Thorin’s tales had ever been so hopelessly bumbling.

“In her rage, Sigvór was glorious. The row that followed was so loud that people in the area called for the guards, thinking that a murder would happen soon,” Rhonith chuckled merrily, winking at Kíli, who grinned back. “The guards arrived in the middle of their first kiss, when Sigvór had shouted herself tired and realised that Thrór saw her beauty of spirit, not just flesh. Thrór later admitted that he had those four guardsmen reassigned to the coldest, harshest posts in the mountain as revenge.”

A round of raucous laughter followed as the dwarrow poked at each other.

“Of course, rumours that the Crown Prince had finally won over his Kurdel[26] were all over the mountain by morning, and the wedding took place soon after. Sigvór always claimed that she never felt more beautiful than under the eyes of her husband, and they ruled wisely together until she died.”

“I see my Adad made grandfather seem rather more capable in his version,” Thorin chuckled, “I didn’t know how she got the scar, but it was in all the paintings of her Thráin kept… Adad claimed she wouldn’t let them paint her without it.”

“Sigvór was a fiery dam, more than capable of holding her own against her yásûn[27],” Rhonith chuckled. “Your father was not yet 40 when she died,” she added quietly, “trying to make him an older brother. The child – your aunt – survived only three days and Thrór was a broken dwarf ever since.”

The rest of the Company hadn’t grasped the significance of the tale, but Thorin was gaping incredulusly at her. “My father had a sister?!” he cried, aghast. “I never knew that!” Scrubbing his hands across his face, trying to push away the image of the last pebble funeral he had presided over shortly before they left, substituting the cheap swaddling cloth for the silks and furs that would have clad a Princess of Erebor, Thorin tangled his hands in his braids.

Balin’s comforting hand fell on his shoulder, squeezing gently.

Dwalin was scowling at the elf over Thorin’s shoulder. His hands squeezed tightly around Thorin’s thigh.

Rhonith bit her lip, “I’m sorry, Thorin… I only ever seem to hurt you with my tales. I promise it was not my intention to upset. I thought...” she trailed off, leaving her thought unfinished and getting up from the bench.

 

A few hours later, once Balin and Dwalin had managed to restore Thorin to a level of composure he could live with and gone to bed, Thorin was joined again by the solemn Elf, her eyes veiled by a sorrow too deep for the pain she had caused him – in truth it was less the story than the memories it had brought up that haunted him.

“I wish to apologise again for the upset I caused you earlier,” Rhonith said softly. “Nori told me very few histories made it out of Erebor, and I only wished to entertain young Ori with a tale from days gone by. Although it has less bloodshed or grudges than most great Dwarven romances, the tale of Thrór and Sigvór was legend even before her death.” She reached out and grasped Thorin’s closed fist, squeezing softly. “I have made you a gift, if you will accept it, though it is not my usual craft…” Handing over a folded piece of parchment, she left the three of them to stare into the flickering flames of Beorn’s hearth.

Thorin slowly unfolded the paper, gasping at the sight of the picture drawn on the parchment. From the page, four people stared up at him. His father, with a soft smile on his face and an arm wrapped around a Frís decades younger than he had last seen her and much more content than she had ever been in his memory, even before Erebor fell. He traced his mother’s face slowly, missing her with a grief that had hardly diminished in the year since her passing. Next to his parents stood a dwarf in the prime of his life, beard carefully plaited and wrapped with clasps of silver to offset his dark hair. Thrór had been very handsome as a young dwarf, he realised, holding hands with Sigvór, who had indeed been a true beauty; her eyes seemed to blaze with the fire of her happiness even in the simple sketch. Thorin simply stared, noticing details he had never thought of – they had had no images of Queen Sigvór after the Fall – such as how the shape of her nose matched Fíli’s or how her beard had the same curls as Dís’. 

 


 

 

The next morning, Bilbo found the elleth outside, surrounded by the flowers of Beorn’s meadow once more and playing fetch with a small puppy.

“What does it mean, Dwarf-friend?” he asked.

“Ah, Bilbo. I wondered if you would be overcome by your natural curiosity.” Rhonith smiled, “To be a Dwarf-Friend is quite special. It is a title usually granted by a ruler of the Dwarven race and it is an honorific bestowed upon those who have performed great services to the race as a whole. The title also entitles you to learn Khuzdul, in the understanding that you do not teach it to others, of course.” She gave him a small smile.

Bilbo nodded – if he had noticed nothing else about Dwarven culture, it was the protective secrecy that surrounded their own language.

“You have left your home on a quest to reclaim the lost Dwarven Kingdom of Erebor, a quest many dwarrow feared to be a part of and indeed it may yet cost your life,” Rhonith explained, continuing when Bilbo did not seem to grasp the enormity of what he should be offered. “Furthermore, you have single-handedly saved the future King from certain death, at no thought to your own life. That is a debt Thorin may never be able to repay, something he is well aware of. That act alone would ensure you goodwill and welcome at the hearth of any dwarf who owes him allegiance. Saving his life as you did is no small matter to Dwarrow, Master Baggins. In bygone ages, there would have been an official ceremony naming you a Dwarf-Friend of Durin’s Line, but such ceremonies can only be done in Thorin’s true court.”

“But… I don’t understand,” Bilbo fidgeted with the buttons Bofur had carved for him to replace the two that had been lost in his cliffside tumble.

Tilting her head, the elleth studied the hobbit. “Understand what, Bilbo?” she smiled kindly, patting the ground beside her.

The hobbit sat, gathering his thoughts. “Why is it special that I saved him?” he asked, frowning thoughtfully as he considered what he remembered of the Troll Fight. “Dwalin has done so and several of the others have put themselves between Thorin and harm.”

“But you are not a Dwarf, Bilbo,” Rhonith replied gently. “Dwalin could never let his Kurdel come to harm if he could prevent it, but Thorin is the King, even if he was never properly crowned, and it is the solemn duty of any Dwarf who has sworn him fealty to protect him.”

Bilbo nodded, even if the concepts seemed terribly foreign to him – and not a little peculiar. “What’s a Kurdel, then? You mentioned it in last night’s story, but you did not explain it.”

“Kurdel is Khuzdul for Heart of all Hearts. It is one of the ways we refer to our Ones, our,” she paused, “our soulmate, if you will. The dwarf who was crafted from the same stone as you, whose Soul sings with yours, is your Heart of Hearts. Not… necessarily your spouse, but a very important and beloved person nonetheless.”

“Spouse?” Bilbo squeaked. “They’re married?!” He suddenly understood the strength of Dwalin’s glare after Thorin had pulled him up to the ledge on the terrible night in the Misty Mountains and why the bald dwarf had grasped their leader’s arm so tightly.

Rhonith chuckled. “Dwalin Fundinul and Thorin Thráinul are not married, Bilbo, but when Erebor is reclaimed, I’m sure they will be as soon as possible. They have waited many years for that day.”

“Why?” Bilbo wondered for a moment if it was because they were both males, but he dismissed that though almost immediately; he’d noticed Nori and Bofur together in Rivendell and no one had remarked on that coupling… then again, Bofur and Nori were not Kings.

“Ahh, my dear hobbit,” Rhonith smiled, scratching the puppy’s soft ear and laughing brightly when it licked her hand in return. “Here we enter the realm of traditions, Dwarrow politics, and culture – I’ll try to keep it simple: Thorin is the King of the Longbeards, Uzbad Sigintarâgu, Fíli is the Ze’rayad, the First Heir, and Kíli is Rayad-dehar, the Anvil-Heir. The Longbeards, the Firebeards, and the Broadbeams live together under his rule as High-King and have done so since the abandonment of Belegost and Nogrod, but he is in truth King-in-Exile, Uzbadu dulgu, which means that he does not have a True Hall – a Court, if you will.”

Bilbo nodded, committing the terms to memory.

“Thorin could claim the settlement in Ered Luin his Court – and indeed the largest town is indeed called Thorin’s Halls – but it would mean giving up the dream of Erebor’s throne… forever.”

“As for his marriage to Dwalin,” Rhonith continued softly, stroking the brown fur of the puppy who had fallen asleep in her lap, “a Dwarf of Royal blood – that is, a member of the direct Line of Durin, in this case – cannot be married anywhere but in his own Halls… which means that marrying Dwalin would require Thorin forfeiting Erebor to whomever might claim it.”

“But they are a couple?” Bilbo asked, his scholar’s heart beating a little faster at the thought of learning more about the enigmatic Dwarven culture he kept catching inexplicable glances of now that someone seemed willing to teach him.

“Yes. Thorin and Dwalin live together as a couple, but until Erebor is reclaimed, Dwalin is simply considered Thorin’s lover, not his Consort. When Thorin takes the Raven Crown as Uzbadu ‘Urd’êk, Dwalin will be Zadanâlu ‘Urd’êk, his Prince-Consort. On that day, I would expect him to name you ‘Ubahu Khazâd[28], for your deeds on this quest.”

Bilbo nodded again, head spinning with the new information.

 

 

 

[20] King-in-exile of the Longbeards

[21] This I swear

[22] Smoke-like

[23] Thorin’s Halls

[24] Belegost

[25] The Beautiful (literally, supreme beauty)

[26] Heart of hearts

[27] Husband

[28] Greatest friend of dwarrow.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 – Mirkwood Looming

 

A few days later, the Company set off on ponies laden with food, for though the Eagles of Manwë had borne them far from the mountains, there was still a ways to go before they reached the gloomy edge of Mirkwood. The journey from Beorn’s lands would take another four days. The Dwarrow had accepted their newest travelling companion but were still somewhat leery of what they had termed her ‘Elvish nonsense’, like the constant singing. Not that her voice was bad or overly loud, nor that Dwarrow as a people did not enjoy singing, it was more that they would have enjoyed it more if they had either understood it or it had been less about trees and flowers. The only one who seemed entirely comfortable was Bilbo Baggins, who even joined in with a few Shire compositions.

Their annoyance came to a head about a day from Mirkwood, when Dwalin finally lost his patience.

Targ Mahalul, lass!” he exclaimed, glowering over his shoulder at Rhonith who was riding between Nori and Ori. Nori smirked at him, smug that for once the guardsman’s glare wasn’t directed at him. “At least sing a good Dwarven song if you must sing!”  

Rhonith giggled and called back, “A Dwarven song, Master Dwalin? Very well. How about this one?

Oh ro soon shall I see them;
Oh he ro see them oh see them.
Oh ro soon shall I see them the
mist covered mountains of home.

There shall I visit the place of my birth
And they'll give me a welcome the warmest on earth
All so loving and kind, full of music and mirth,
In the sweet sounding language of home.
Oh ro soon shall I see them;
Oh he ro see them oh see them.
Oh ro soon shall I see them the
mist covered mountains of home.

There shall I gaze on the mountains again,
On the fields and the woods and the burns and the glens,
Away 'mong the corries beyond human ken
In the haunts of the deer I will roam
Oh ro soon shall I see them;
Oh he ro see them oh see them.
Oh ro soon shall I see them the
mist covered mountains of home.”

Her voice flowed easily through the verses, but each Dwarf could tell that the song meant something to her.

Thorin had stiffened, as soon as the first notes sounded. One of his dreams at Beorn’s had involved her singing that song… as a lullaby for him, after the loss of Khazad-dûm.

“Is that Dwarven enough for you, Master Dwalin?” Rhonith teased.

Dwalin blushed and Nori sent him a cheeky smile.

“It is a song written by a traveller from Khazad-dûm, whose name was forgotten long before my birth. It was sung when marching home from war or travels. The Dwarrow taught it to the Elves, and the Elves of Lothlórien sing it still although they have added verses for the forest.” She paused. “Some sang it to remember, after Khazad-dûm was lost.”

They rode on.

“Why do you sing all the time?” Ori shyly looked at Rhonith. The young scribe was still a little awed at meeting his childhood bedtime story, but Dori’s obvious approval made him less hesitant when it came to asking questions. Their zarsthuhrunana always answered him easily, even when Ori thought his questions might be considered slightly rude; he had always enjoyed learning new things and in the excitement he did not always consider how he phrased his questions.

At least he wasn’t as indelicate as Kíli, who had made an unfortunate comparison to mules and the sterility of most hybrid species when his brother asked whether Rhonith had children.

The elleth had not been angered, had not even been offended, but Dori had been livid and Thorin had glared at his nephew until Kíli stammered out an apology.

Afterwards, however, Rhonith had vanished for the rest of the night and Kíli had been rather subdued for the rest of their stay at Beorn’s house.

Ori, lost in thought, was almost startled by the answer to his question.

“Elves sing to remember, Ori,” Rhonith explained. “Many of my people do not read or write, especially the Sindarin and Silvan Elves, who dwell in Mirkwood, and, even though much is written down and stored in the Library of Imladris among other places, our oral histories are valued greatly.”

Ori nodded thoughtfully, considering how much history and knowledge had been lost to the Dragon. That was part of why he had come, after all, a chance to reclaim what had been taken from them in a far more ephemeral way than the Halls of Erebor themselves.

“Elves sing to the world, and Arda sings to us in return,” Rhonith said. “The stars sung for the very first Elves and Elves have been returning the songs ever since. If you listen, the mountains and the stone will sing for you as they sung for my Amad.” She paused, smiling fondly with just a touch of bittersweet melancholy. “That song reminds me of her, she taught it to me. She has been dead for more than 4000 years, yet I still miss her smile and the warmth of her arms as she sung me to sleep.”

Kíli piped up, “Our amad is back in Ered Luin. I miss her.” He was still slightly apprehensive about speaking up in the presence of their elleth. Uncle Thorin had chewed him out harshly the night he had inadvertently insulted her, and he had yet to gather up the courage to formally apologise.

Rhonith nodded solemnly, “Of course you do, u’zaghith[29]. I’m sure she misses you too. Dís did not wish to join the Company?” She did not hold a grudge against Kíli, who had simply been thoughtless rather than intentionally cruel. Not all dwarrowdams had children – by choice or by nature – of course, but it was not a topic of casual conversation between new acquaintances whether someone was among those who were denied the gift of the Life-Bringer.

“Amad is Uzbadnâtha Sigintarâgu.” Fíli replied, riding up beside his brother and Ori. He kicked Kíli’s leg lightly, out of sight of the two others.

Kíli scowled, but nodded. He would apologise. “She is Regent while Uncle Thorin is gone. Someone has to be, and Amadel isn’t there anymore.”

“I will miss her greatly,” Rhonith replied, “but it is a comfort to see her spirit live on in you and your brother. I have often wondered what you all looked like as adults; a skilled artist, Frís was not, sadly, though she sent me a few setches from your younger years that I believe your amad had made.”

“Amad likes drawing; we have a lot of pictures she made at home,” Kíli said. The sketches and drawings Dís filled the walls with, alongside the tapestries Amadel had made, were how he had learned of his own history – including the adad he’d never met.

“The similarity between you and Frerin is remarkable, Fíli,” Rhonith offered, “though I see Hanar in you more.”

“Amadel liked to say so, too,” Fíli nodded. “Kíli is the proper Durin-heir, though, with the dark hair. Like Uncle.”

“Which Durin, I wonder?” Rhonith laughed. “As I have met the last five, and of them only the 4th looked like your Uncle. Durin the 6th had reddish-gold hair, and the 5th was a dark red like Gloín’s… the only thing that is considered consistent in the Line of Durin is the blue eye colour, and possibly the shape of the nose. Your eyes are greener than most, of course, a very striking tourmaline hue… but it is not uncommon in the line.”

“You knew Durin?!” Kíli blurted, just as Ori said the same thing.

Rhonith chuckled. “Of course, I did,” she muttered, “he was my Uncle. And my Aunt, of course, when Durin was a lady.” Shrugging lightly, she rode on.

Neither Dwarf had a ready reply to that.

Of course, she had told them her age… but it was a different matter somehow to consider the implications of being alive for such a long span of years.

Fíli was the first to regain his composure.

“That’s got to be weird…” he said, “recognising people because you knew long-dead ancestors of them.”

“It is… startling, at times,” Rhonith admitted, “but you are different from your forebears Fíli, as your children will differ from you. You might resemble your late Uncle, as Kíli does Thorin, but you are your own person, with your own dreams, hopes, and skills…”

“It’s like my archery,” Kíli nodded sagely, “Uncle Thorin can shoot with a bow… but not as well as I can.”

“The bow was Frerin’s preferred weapon, too,” Rhonith smiled. “Frís taught him; we taught her as a child, of course.”

“Really?” Kíli said, “She gave me my first bow. Amadel always said she learned from the best.”

“She did,” Rhonith laughed, “but that was never me. I can hunt with a bow well enough to feed myself, but for fighting I prefer a blade in my hand. Or two.”

“Not axes?” Fíli wondered, even if the idea of Rhonith’s slender frame being silhouetted by a pair of axes like Dwalin’s was enough to make him smile a little.

“No, I never really got the hang of fighting with axes,” she shrugged. “A fact that my Amad lamented. The great-axe was her favourite weapon.” She smiled softly at a memory of a long-ago afternoon spent watching Narví practising her axe forms.

“Amad uses two swords like Fíli, though she also carries a battle-axe when she travels,” Kíli informed her. Pride filled his voice as he launched into a longer monologue about his mother’s prowess in the rings; Dís had won the dual-wielding sword tournaments for the last 60 years. Fíli had been the runner-up for the past twenty, but Dís would always have some sort of move he did not expect that let her snatch victory. It was something Kíli found endlessly amusing, and Fíli equally frustrating.

The younger Prince only competed in the two-handed sword bouts, and usually only to the point that he wouldn’t get laughed at for bowing out, his true joy lying in the archery competitions. Kíli was also shrewd enough to know that going up against Uncle Thorin in a real tournament fight would only end with Fíli having ammunition to pay him back the last two decades worth of jokes at his brother’s expense for losing to their Amad. It was another weapon with which to torment Fíli that Kíli had never officially lost to Uncle Thorin – sparring did not count – and Kíli used it with great glee.

“I’m sure your Amad is proud of you for coming on this quest,” Rhonith said quietly.

Fíli snorted, “She didn’t want us to come.”

Beside him, Kíli nodded fervently. Dís had definitely made her feelings on the subject clear, though she had not tried to stop them.

A smile fleetingly curved Rhonith’s mouth, her clear sapphire eyes sparkling with mirth. She had studied the young sons of Dís during the days she had walked among the Company, and they were good lads, if a bit hot-headed and mischievous at times.

In truth, she felt like she knew them quite well already, even if Frís had never attempted to draw her their faces. Her letters, however, had been filled with tales of dwarfling escapades, but also stories of the dwarrow her grandsons were becoming, possibly more insightful than either Prince would have wished.

“Perhaps not; no mother would wish her child in danger,” she said, a ghost of old pain making her fingers clench around the reins of the pony she rode. “Furthermore, your grandmother was Lady Frís, and I am certain that any daughter of hers would have harangued you to be safe and return to her, right up until you left her sight.”

Kíli nodded; there had been more than a few of those talks before they’d left Ered Luin. A thought and a pang of longing for his Amad hit him, but he told himself that Dís was safe in Ered Luin. Gimmers would look after her, as promised, though Kíli still wished that he could have received a reply to the letter he and Fíli had written in Rivendell. The Elf Erestor, Lord Elrond’s Steward, had been kind enough to offer to pass on letters to a Ranger who would bring them to the Blue Mountains.

“That makes her no less proud of you for doing what they feel is right, for your king and your people,” Rhonith continued. “She has raised honourable sons,” she cast a shrewd eye on the two princes who sat up straighter at her praise, “and there is comfort to the heart in that.”

Ori half-opened his mouth but fell silent when Rhonith continued, her face turned up to the sun and her eyes closed.

“Believe me, Prince Fíli, your mother is very proud of you and your brother,” she said, sounding so confident neither Prince could disagree. “She is also terrified for all of you; she misses you like a lost limb.” Turning her head, she smiled at Kíli, who grinned broadly. “And her first words to you when you are reunited will most likely be a scolding for any new scars you have acquired on the journey.”  

Fíli seemed surprised to hear himself laughing at that, but Kíli nodded fervently. That sounded like something Lady Dís would do, both brothers thought, sharing a small smile between themselves.

Riding beside Dwalin, Thorin had to hide a smile at the reactions of his nephews. He and Balin had attempted to allay those fears in the youths, but perhaps a new voice would be better believed.

“Thank you, Lady Rhonith,” Fíli bowed from atop his pony. He nudged his mount forward, flashing a subtle sign to make Ori follow him, leaving Kíli to ride beside the elleth.

“I wish to apologise, my Lady,” Kíli began hesitantly. “My words the other night were unkind and rude.”

“Do not fret, Kíli,” Rhonith held up her hand to stop him. “I did not mean to make you feel as though you had done me wrong. The truth is that I am alone.”

Kíli nodded.

“I am the only one of my kind we know lived beyond the mother’s womb,” Rhonith continued, “and it is very unlikely that another Elf will father a child like me. Your comparison – while not particularly polite – is likely to be accurate, though I doubt I will put it to the test. I bear you no ill will. Ins Mahal taglibi luknu[30].

Kíli drew a small sigh of relief at the formal phrasing of absolution. Perhaps Uncle Thorin would stop giving him the ‘I am disappointed in you’-stare now.

With a smile, he pulled his promise stone out of his pocket, rubbing the engraving for luck.

We will return to you, Amad.

“What’s that?”

The quiet voice of Master Baggins almost made Kíli drop his stone. He had been so quiet that those riding in front had all but forgotten he was present, but he had been soaking up the small titbits of knowledge eagerly.

Heart pounding in his chest for a moment, Kili turned the dark stone over in his palm to display it to the Hobbit, who seemed keenly interested in learning more about the secretive Dwarrow and their rich culture.

Ori had taught him words for family relations, but Bilbo noticed that the princes referred to their grandmother as Amadel, rather than sigin’amad, which puzzled him. His query was forgotten, however, when Kíli began explaining what his stone represented, however.

“It’s a Promise Stone,” Kíli began, uncharacteristically solemn as he traced each rune on his stone. “This is labradorite, my Soul-Stone. It’s a sacred promise. They’re said to help you keep whatever is carved into them coming true, like a talisman. My mother gave me this one, after the Singer had blessed it with all the usual spells.” He explained.

“Spells? Like Gandalf does?” Bilbo wondered. He had not thought the Races of Middle-Earth could do magic. In the little he had considered such a phenomenon – the existence of which was widely considered impossible – he had thought it the providence of Wizards, not ordinary folk. Even if a Dwarf-Princess might not be considered entirely ordinary, she was still a Dwarf, not a Wizard.

“This is Deep Lore, Bilbo. Sacred to our people,” Rhonith said quietly beside him. Kíli nodded seriously.

“The Singers are those whose senses are attuned to the Voice. Some say it’s magic, some say it’s just something we believe, but Dwarrow know that our Maker speaks to us. The Singers hear the Voice and bring the Word to the Children of Mahal,” he recited, “Mahal is the Voice and the Way. Mahal’s are the Halls and the Mountains.” He smiled kindly at Bilbo, who felt a little lost. Hobbits did not pray to any particular Vala, aside from thanking Yavannah for the bountiful harvests in the autumn, but that was more of an old tradition than actual worship like Kíli’s words implied.

“The Singers are called Singers because they can sing to the Stone, make it resonate in special ways, preparing it for different purposes, be they ritual or mundane.” Fíli added, having fallen back once more to ride beside his brother when Ori took up position near Bifur, enjoying the quiet that tended to surround him, and started drawing random sketches of Beorn’s lands. Bifur had calmly taken over the reins of his pony, even if the animal seemed content to follow their line without input from its rider.

“Kíli’s stone is a labradorite, the stone that resonated with his soul on his First Name-Day,” Fíli explained. “It is connected to him on a deep level. Mine is lapis lazuli. Carving his promise into such a stone and then having a Singer make the stone resonate with its message is a powerful token.”

“What does it say?” Bilbo asked. He recognised the characters from Rhonith’s and Ori’s lessons, but he did not know the word.

Innikhdê.” Kíli said. “It means ‘Return to Me’. Mum gave one to Fíli too, with the same message, but Thorin won’t show us his,” he grumbled, returning the smooth stone to the pouch he carried around his neck.

Behind him, Rhonith smiled softly.

 

 


 

 

Mirkwood loomed ahead, gloomy and silent, leeching the warmth from the afternoon sun when they finally came close enough for the shadow on the horizon to turn into trees.

The trees seemed to Bilbo as if they exuded a low level of pure menace, but the dwarrow appeared unaffected so he decided not to mention the way his stomach was churning.

Gandalf caused another argument with Thorin by announcing his imminent departure, but the ponies were unloaded quickly amidst all the grumbling.

Considering the importance of their current quest and the danger they were likely to face before the end, Rhonith’s gaze clouded with worry as her eyes followed his horse heading south. He had told her of the Morgul blade Radagast had discovered, and she knew where he was heading; only the most pressing concerns would have made Mithrandir abandon them. If it had not been paramount to see her kin through Thranduil’s Woodland Realm, she would have joined the wizard on his quest.

When Mithrandir was worried, the wise became wary in general.

Shaking off her darkened thoughts and squaring her shoulders, Rhonith turned to face the Company.

“Mirkwood will be dangerous to you,” she said.

Only a few of the Dwarrow scoffed, which made her hopeful.

“The forest is covered in magicks designed to disorient unwelcome travellers… be wary,” Rhonith continued. “You must always stay on the path.”

“Are you going to leave too?” Ori piped up, standing beside Dori.

“No,” Rhonith promised, “I have said that I would take you through the Forest, but it is paramount that no one wander off… if you are lost in Mirkwood, we may not even find your bones.”

Thorin and Dwalin shared a look and Rhonith knew they were remembering Thráin’s doomed expedition.

Only one survivor had stumbled out from under the dark trees.

Dwalin shuddered, revulsion making every nerve stand on end when he looked at the trees. Thorin’s fingers were warm around his, the sudden squeeze grounding him in the present.

“You will find neither suitable firewood nor drinkable water in the forest,” Rhonith added, graciously drawing attention away from the King and his Consort. Behind her, Bilbo shuddered. He was not looking forward to entering the forest.

“We should rest the night and enter in the morning,” Thorin decreed, waving them all to set up camp while he studied the Forest’s edge with Dwalin and Bifur.

 

Most of the Company sat silently around the fire, already influenced by the oppressive gloom exuding from the unfriendly trees. Bofur tried to whistle as he and Bifur whittled, but the tune petered out quickly.

“You are all feeling the effects settle in your minds,” Rhonith said quietly. She did not feel it herself, but she was a welcome guest to these lands. “The border spellwork is stronger than I remember… Bofur, sing a happy tune for us? Chase away this gloom.”

“What song would ya like, lass?” Bofur did not really want to sing, but he figured it was a sign of the spells affecting him, and gamely got to his feet.

“Sing me something from your favourite tavern at home. I haven’t been to a true Dwarven inn in many years, you must have new tunes to share.” Rhonith winked at the usually cheerful dwarf, who seemed startled to have been put in the centre of attention but rallied quickly.

Bofur looked askance at Nori, whom he assumed would be the most knowledgeable of tavern songs and able to sing with him. He would not be repeating the song he had performed on their last night at the Woolly Bear, thinking that it might be tempting fate, but he knew plenty others.

“Well, there is ‘Pour your brother’ if you want a new song, although ‘Man in the Moon’ is an old favourite. I sung that in Rivendell, you know,” Bofur admitted, feeling slightly sheepish when he thought of the expression on Lord Elron’s minstrel’s face.

“As much as I would have enjoyed that experience,” she laughed, lifting the spirits of the group slightly with the sound of her mirth. “I’ve never heard ‘Pour your brother’; you must teach me!”

“Well, it goes something like this…”

Bifur pulled out a flute and began playing a few quick notes as Bofur started singing and stamping the rhythm, joined swiftly by Nori clapping and a few others joining in on the chorus:

Pour your brother one more round
Pick each other off the ground
Let another chorus sound
Pour your brother another round

Draw another draught for me
Drink 'til I'm too blind to see
This one's done, pray, get me three!
Draw another draught for me

Pour your brother one more round
Pick each other off the ground
Let another chorus sound
Pour your brother another round

Cheers to the brewer, for his brew
Without this ale we cannot do
Drink until the cask is through
Cheers to the brewer, for his brew

Pour your brother one more round
Pick each other off the ground
Let another chorus sound
Pour your brother another round

Cheers to the barmaid, she’s a saint
It’s wondrous how she stands the strain
Catch me lass, I’m gonna faint
Cheers to the barmaid, she’s a saint

Pour your brother one more round
Pick each other off the ground
Let another chorus sound
Pour your brother another round

Dance unto the drummer’s beat
Drink with everyone you meet
Your head’ll dance without your feet
Dance unto the drummer’s beat

Pour your brother one more round
Pick each other off the ground
Let another chorus sound
Pour your brother another round

Cheers unto my faithful friend
For on this ale his gold I'll spend
The friendship and the song must end
Cheers unto my faithful friend[31]

The rest of the Company eventually lost their glum expressions, and a few openly chuckled at the sight of Nori pulling Rhonith to her feet and twirling her around the fire.

Bofur finished with a flourishing bow. He then began a classic drinking song, entirely in Khuzdul, making everyone join in.

Ishlik! Ishlik! Ishlik!
D'azâg lakhad ins sanzigil, tân tanlikhîn!
Ishlik! Ishlik! Ishlik!
Buhâ 'uglakh zai id-o'gil , tân tagkikhîn! [32]

Spirits suitably lifted, the dwarrow slowly drifted off to sleep, protected by laughter and mirth.

 


 

When dawn’s light broke over the horizon, the dwarrow were already up and repacking. Water skins were filled, and the most perishable food eaten amid light bickering, though no one seemed willing to admit the source of their unease.

Eventually, all packs had been shared out evenly, and the Company were as prepared as they could reasonably be for the journey ahead of them.

 

They set off down the path in solemn silence, almost immediately enveloped by the green light and quietude found only beneath dense foliage. The stillness of the trees around them was unnerving, but they persevered, feet set firmly on the ancient stone path.

After a while, quiet conversations broke out here and there, though no voice was raised particularly high. None of them felt like being discovered by anything that would call this grim place home.

After the first day’s walking, things did not improve.

Their campfire (the dwarrow had decided that the warning about burning the wood was simply Elvish nonsense) that night had to be put out, for fear of the giant moths it attracted, and the one squirrel that Nori had managed to kill tasted so terrible it was unanimously declared poisonous.

 

Spirits continued to fall as they walked beneath the boughs; the slivers of daylight that reached them and the absolute darkness of nighttime made each day feel like the ones before it.

A few days down the path, Rhonith began singing again, causing the nervous dwarrow to grumble at her. Undaunted by the grim mood of the Company, she kept singing softly, walking slightly ahead of the group. Ori was the one who finally gathered enough courage to ask her why she insisted on singing. The Elf paused her song and looked back at the dwarrow, who were watching her with differing levels of annoyance and anger. She smiled softly.

“The guards are always listening, Ori,” she said. “It has been custom of Mirkwood for more than 3000 years that you pay for passage with a song, if you are indeed friendly with the people who dwell here. The songs change, but there are several which convey one’s intent and nature.”

“I have never heard of such things,” Thorin called back, crossing his arms over his chest and grumbling to himself. “Annoying Elvish nonsense.”

“I told you the magic of Mirkwood is insidious, King Thorin,” Rhonith rebuked gently.

Thrin’s scowl darkened.

“Unfriendly visitors are made to see visions,” she continued, “leave the paths and walk in circles until they are weakened by hunger and thirst… Only then will the Elves make themselves known to those they wish to take for interrogation or simply leave the unlucky person to the mercy of the wildlife.”

Ori swallowed nervously, looking around at the trees that were as gloomy as ever, and looked little different to where they had entered the forest. Getting lost in Mirkwood would be all to easy, he realised, glancing down at his feet for the comforting sight of the stones marking the path. More than a few along the way had been missing or too overgrown to be visible, but Rhonith always seemed to know the way, and Ori felt comforted by that thought.

“Thranduil will know by my choice of song that it is me, that I am in the company of Dwarrow, and that I am not here by force,” Rhonith said, and continued singing, knowing they had wandered far enough that a patrol would most likely be close enough to hear her.

When in the springtime of the year
When the trees are crowned with leaves
When the ash and oak and the birch and yew
Are dressed in ribbons fair

When owls call the breathless moon
In the blue veil of the night
The shadows of the trees appear
Amidst the lantern light

We've been rambling all the night
And some time of this day
Now returning back again
We bring a garland gay

Who will go down to those shady groves
And summon the shadows there
And tie a ribbon on those sheltering arms
In the springtime of the year

The songs of birds seem to fill the wood
That when the fiddler plays
All their voices can be heard
Long past their woodland days

We've been rambling all the night
And some time of this day
Now returning back again
We bring a garland gay[33]

“What would happen if you weren’t singing?” Ori wondered. Saying that the song meant she was not there ‘by force’ was both a worry and a comfort, he thought, wondering what the aforementioned guards would consider ‘by force’… and what they would do to release her. Was her friendship with their King enough to make them kill the Company?

“We would shoot you long before you knew we were here, young dwarf, for you would have captured one of our most beloved elleths.” A menacing voice answered.

Suddenly they were surrounded by Elven warriors, bows drawn and arrows ready to fire. Ori squeaked once and went very pale very quickly. Dori pulled him back behind Glóin as the Company closed ranks and drew their weapons, ready to sell their lives dearly.

“Long has it been since your voice sounded under our leaves, Rhonith. N'uir thiad gîn 'ell[34].”

Glasseg! Mae g’ovannen, mellon-nîn[35].” Chiding laughter spilled from the elleth among them as she looked up at the canopy overhead. “Do stop this silly game, you are unnerving my companions.”

A pale-haired Elf jumped lithely down from a branch above their heads, appearing almost as though by some forest magicks, and landed agilely in front of her.

He bowed.

Rhonith laughed brightly.

Several of the dwarrow jumped slightly at the sudden appearance of the elf who was obviously in charge of the rest, though none of them would ever admit it if asked.

The new arrival smirked and gave them a dismissive once-over before issuing a command in his lilting Elvish.

The guards lowered their weapons.

Still smiling, Rhonith took a step forwards, reaching up to touch and stroke the ears of the leader. “Glasseg-nîn… I have missed you in my absence.

It is indeed good to see you, mellon-nîn. Adar will be glad of your visit. You have been missed in years passed.” His hands followed the same path, smiling happily at her. The blue eyes of the new Elf were bright with laughter as he bent slightly to rest his forehead against Rhonith’s, speaking softly in Sindarin.

The guards looked on with indulgent expressions, though they kept the Company surrounded.

Finally, Thorin cleared his throat pointedly, which made the guards half-raise their weapons again, before a gesture from their leader had the bows sinking once more.

The elf lifted his head and couldn’t stop a slight expression of annoyance from crossing his face as he gazed at the circle of dwarrow, who were glaring at him threateningly. “I see you have brought Naugrim with you,” – Rhonith scowled – “fine, Dwarrow,” he cheeked, “who are they?”

“Incorrigible princeling,” she scolded, but her voice was fond, and her fingers kept stroking the points of his ears. “You are lucky you are my favourite.” Turning around, she gestured broadly towards the group. “I present to you Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, and his Company.”

They bowed politely, even if Thorin settled for a regal nod.

“Everyone,” Rhonith continued, “this is Prince Legolas go-Thranduil of the Woodland Realm.”

Legolas fairly gaped at her, something the younger dwarrow had not thought elves could even do; the Rivendell lot had been stoic to the point of indifference. Even their adventure in the fountain had not caused as much as a single raised eyebrow.

You brought anfangrim[36] to Greenwood AND he’s the heir of Thrór?” he hissed, staring at the Company. “I hope you know what you do… Father will not be pleased.”

Thorin scowled, sure that he’d been insulted, even if he did not understand all of the fast-flowing syllables.

Balin’s hand on his arm stayed his response. The old dwarf nodded subtly at their companion who was frowning at the newcomer.

You know as well as I do that a child is not his father. Even less his grandfather.” Rhonith’s hands fell to her sides, sapphire eyes flashing.

Legolas had the grace to look a little sheepish.

We do not inherit the sins of our forebears, dear one,” Rhonith continued softly. “If so, you and I would be last among those who could judge him.

Legolas bowed slightly and took her hand, “Goheno nin[37], Rhonith.” Continuing in Common Westron, he added: “Your words are just and true, my Lady.” Glancing at the guard surrounding the Company, he nodded once. “We will escort you to my father’s Halls and there you may state your business.” He directed a glance at the guard surrounding them and muttered, “Aphado ven[38].”

At his signal, the rest of the elves seemingly vanished into the trees, but Legolas stayed beside Rhonith, chatting happily in Sindarin and blithely ignoring the scowling dwarrow.

When they made camp for the evening, Legolas introduced his companions by name.

Curulhénes was a slender redhead with brown eyes, who smiled gently at the Company.

Erfaron scowled forbiddingly at the collective dwarrow and wandered off with a quick hand signal, which didn’t seem to alarm any of his fellows; Curulhénes even smiled reassuringly at Ori.

Dínelloth looked up when his name was mentioned, but then returned to the task of repairing the arrows in his hands.

Beside him sat an elleth with mirthful eyes and a single massive blade. Legolas named her Thalawen.

The two elves beside her were so similar that none of the dwarrow could tell which was which and were introduced as Tuilinthel and Arastor.

A few of the dwarrow shot amused glances in Kíli’s direction, thinking fondly of their time in Rivendell and Kíli’s trouble identifying which Elves were females. The young Prince scowled at Nori’s unrepentant smirk.

The last elf had a mischievous smile playing around his lips and stood, carefully pressing a kiss to Rhonith’s hand with a soft word – much to the grumbling of the dwarrow, who did not like the way the Elves seemed to take over their elleth – and introduced himself as Faindirn. With a cheeky grin at Legolas, whose back was to the Company and whose face more than conveyed his annoyance with the younger elf, Faindirn took a running jump and scampered into one of the tall trees, disappearing from view in moments. The Company heard a bird-call sound from above, but Faindirn did not return to the ground till morning. Thalawen chuckled, calling something to her commander that had his shoulders stiffening and Rhonith laughing.

“Faindirn means cloud watcher,” she explained amid chuckles at Ori’s puzzled expression. “Thalawen simply wondered if he thought my hair was spun from clouds.”

 


 

The Elvish escort meant that their route was far more direct than one they could have ever found themselves, despite the lack of visible pathways beneath their feet. Without their knowledge – Thorin grumbled some at the lack of information but did not protest too loudly, wary of their guides’ keen ears – the Silvan patrol saw them through the safest parts of the forest.

They even built fires at night, which oddly did not attract moths. This didn’t do much for the mood of the dwarrow; the eldest were reminded of their terrible flight from the mountain so long ago and the youngest were sobered by the silent presence of the tall elves.

The Elves in Rivendell had been far less unsettling, although none of them could have quantified exactly how. They seemed fond of Rhonith, however, often laughing with her.

At night, the elves would group on one side of the fire, singing softly to each other and running combs through each other’s hair, before they fell into reverie, never truly sleeping, and always one keeping watch. The songs were never loud and most seemed rather solemn, but they soothed the Company to sleep quickly. Most nights, Rhonith could be found on the dwarrow side of the fire, although she sang along with the elves; Thorin did not admit – even to himself – that her presence was a comfort.

Kíli attempted to engage some of the elves in conversation, as they wandered through the forest, but with little success. If they spoke Westron at all, they did not deign to converse with the dwarrow. Rhonith tried to keep her conversations in Westron, but she did not ignore the Elves when they spoke to her in Silvan.

They trudged ever onwards. The oppressive silence of the trees still grated on their minds. It was simply unnatural not to hear even the slightest hint of birdsong or the rustling of mice in the undergrowth.

Thorin’s scowl seemed affixed to his face, but for some reason Bilbo felt the unease that had settled in the pit of his stomach lift slightly in their company.

 


 

One day, about a week after they had met the Dwarven group, Legolas called a halt, in the early afternoon for seemingly no reason. He looked at the axes of the dwarrow and smirked.

Thorin was growing tired of the Prince’s smirks; they rivalled Kíli’s for mischief at times, though he found them far less endearing.

Tawar-en-naur[39] grows here, Rhonith,” he called, laughing. “We shall make camp and harvest new supplies.”

She nodded, setting down her pack with a smile.

“Come, Masters Dwarf, we will see that your axes are not just for decoration; you may keep what you carry,” Legolas laughed and bounded off into the trees, followed by the rest of the elves.

“I have to say, ‘nana, for a prince, his manners leave much to be desired,” Dori huffed.

Around them, the Company agreed, grumbling with annoyance.

Rhonith gave them a sparkling smile, “Legolas can be a little… brash. Mirkwood does not have many visitors – and no Dwarrow since the Dragon, of course. Once he gets to know you, I’m certain you will find him a stalwart friend.”

Dori just huffed again.

“How are they getting to know us?” Fíli scoffed, glaring at her. “None of them speak to us. Not even to Kíli and he can usually talk to anyone,” the Crown Prince groused, earning him several nods around the Company, but Rhonith did not agree.

“Young Ori, at least, has been speaking with Dínelloth,” Rhonith protested, “and I promise you the rest of them are listening to everything you say, even if they do not take part in your conversations. Elves are not Dwarrow, Master Fíli,” she continued, “a fact you’d do well to remember. Elves prefer to observe before committing to any action.”

“There’s still such a thing as common courtesy!” Dori groused.

“The fact that Legolas has allowed you to cut tawar-en-naur is a sign of his high regard” Rhonith soothed. “These trees are well guarded; most outsiders only ever see the trader’s wood pieces.”

“But what is it?” Bilbo piped up from the back of the group. As much as his people enjoyed trees, it was mostly for the fruit, or for heat in winter, and the trees around him did not look like they’d make good firewood; why name them so?

“It translates as wood-of-fire, but Dwarrow call it balatursêl[40].” Rhonith said.

Balin gasped.

Dwalin lost his scowl for a surprised mien and Thorin looked as if his Nameday had come early.

The rest were simply confused.

“But what is it, Uncle?” Kíli asked, studying his uncle’s pleased expression. “You look like it’s a great thing.”

“The balatursêl is the greatest aid for anyone working a fire, Kíli,” Thorin explained. “With a small piece of this wood, you can begin a fire that will burn steady and true for a very long time.”

“It’s as if those splinters change the property of the rest of the wood or coal in your fire,” Dwalin added, grinning.

“We had it in the forges of Erebor, but I have not seen any since the dragon,” Thorin said, looking thoughtful. “I never realised it grew in Mirkwood, but my grandfather Hanar always had plenty in his forge.” A rare smile transformed his face, for once without any care whether the Elves knew of his joy. “Lead on, my Lady, I would like to see what this tree looks like.”

Rhonith smiled.

 

The tree she led them to didn’t really look at all different from the rest of them, Kíli observed. It was fairly tall, had greying bark and patches of lichen grew on the trunk; he would have sworn that they’d passed trees just like it ever since entering the forest. He turned to Ori to ask, only to find the scribe busy sketching.

“These trees will, to you, look like any other tree around you,” Rhonith began, “but they are not.”

Kíli looked sceptical; he wasn’t the only one.

Rhonith could not help but smile at the memory of the first time she had brought Hanar out to see the living tree that would become his balatursêl, but he had been just as unimpressed with the look of the tree as Kíli seemed to be.

“These trees sing of fire, to the ear of an Elf,” she continued, letting a finger run down one the deep grooves in the ancient bark. “In a way, they want to be burned,” she said, “and that’s the reason for their effects on your forge or hearth fires.”

“A valuable commodity,” Thorin nodded.

“Once, they were a source of much trade with the Dwarrow of Erebor and the Grey Mountains before them,” Rhonith agreed. “I believe Thranduil still sends a few wains to the Iron Hills every year in return for iron and other metalwares.”

Thranduil’s Realm boasted minable mountains to the north, but the mountains mainly produced silver and cobber, and the Wood-Elves were not miners by nature anyway; before Smaug, there had been a profitable Dwarven mining company operating in the mountains of Eryn Lasgalen.

After the Sacking, however, but those who had worked there had followed their families into exile, and the mines all but closed down.

“Cousin Dain ha never mentioned doing trade with the Elves,” Thorin grumbled, subsiding at Balin’s knowing look; Dain was well aware of the most likely outcome of even mentioning Thranduil’s name in Thorin’s presence – mentioning a reasonably amicable trade relationship with his people would have been unthinkable.

“It just looks like a tree though,” Kíli mumbled to himself, studying the tree intently before moving to its neighbour and continuing his examination with a puzzled frown.

Rhonith did not tell him that most of the trees in this valley were a kind with potential for becoming tawar-en-naur, though not all of them were as tired as the one she had picked. To some trees, giving up was inconceivable, while these ones knew that removing a few of their number would allow new saplings room to grow and renew the land.

 

The single tree was quickly felled, and the Dwarrow had started to cut it into smaller pieces by the time the Elves returned, seemingly melting out of the surroundings in a way guaranteed to startle any dwarf.

“Good,” Legolas remarked. “You felled the tired one.” His even voice did not give away his mirth, at least not to the Company, who didn’t know him as well as Rhonith and the members of his patrol-group.

Thorin startled and whipped around to glare at the elf looming over his shoulder. His temple braid, marking him as a Son of Durin, smacked into the Elf’s arm with a twack sound and all the Elves stilled, tense.

Then Legolas laughed, eyes dancing with mirth. His lithe shape shook with chuckles as he walked back to Rhonith’s side. “You may keep what you carry, guests of Mirkwood.”

The guards relaxed.

Thorin was puzzled, but a glance at Rhonith’s fond smile convinced him to hold his tongue. He turned back to the tree Dwalin and Bifur were chopping to pieces.

Meanwhile, Legolas explained to a captivated Ori that the tawar-en-naur was the reason they could build fires in Mirkwood and not be swarmed by moths. The wood gave off a smell while burning that was imperceptible to their noses but repelled the moths.  

Once the tree had been turned into pieces of wood, no longer than a hand, the pieces were shared out between the dwarrow and the elves, whose packs had been filled with storm-broken branches.

 

They continued on a few more miles before Legolas ordered camp to be made, making Thorin grimace as he did every night at the way the Elves had taken control of their venture, but he waved the Company to set up camp, regardless.

To his surprise a few of the Elves came up to him during the evening and reintroduced themselves by name and role in the Guard.

Balin was unable to explain the sudden shift in their attitudes, so that night Thorin cornered Rhonith by the fire.

“Legolas stood in your personal space, and you touched him, meaning he let you into his,” Rhonith explained softly, staring at the leaping flames and listening to the soft night song of Tuilinthel. It was such a homely sound, she thought, making her realise how much she had missed life in Mirkwood in the years since her last stay. “He considers you a benign acquaintance at least.” Possibly a future friend… but you might not be ready to hear the full tale of Frís’ first Greenwoods adventure. “You might not have noticed, Thorin,” she added, smiling at him, “but he indicated that he trusts your friendly intentions and believes that you would not harm him unprovoked.”

Thorin had to admit that the overall attitude of the elves had improved by Legolas’s gesture. They were still not particularly friendly, and their reluctance to interact with the dwarrow remained, but he no longer felt as if their guards considered them a particularly unpleasant thing they’d stepped in and wished to scrape off their boots.

 


 

The trip was less arduous than Thorin had feared, listening to Beorn’s warnings and Gandalf’s final admonishments, and he was clever enough to see that a large part of that was due to the welcome they’d earned with Rhonith’s presence and the Prince’s patrol.

Erfaron, the one who had scowled when Legolas introduced him, never spoke, and was often absent for long hours at a time, scouting ahead and behind the group. Faindirn would usually go along, his sharp eyes keeping watch.

Tuilinthel, named for her skill in dancing, Dínelloth had told Ori, and Arastor, her twin brother, made up the other team of trackers, and switched off scouting duties with Erfaron and Faindirn.

The rest of the Elves seemed content to leave the Company alone and be left alone in return.

They were not – even Thorin had to admit that – being deliberately malicious, and he trusted that Rhonith would have told them if they were being led away from their goal. His own sense of direction, which had never been terribly good, told him they were heading steadily north-east, but the lack of any visible path among the spooky trees creeped him out.

No beam of sunlight penetrated the heavy gloom beneath the boughs, and the very air itself seemed to weigh him down, both mentally and physically.

Nori was the only one of them who seemed unaffected, though that might have been an act; the Black Owl rarely gave anything away if he didn’t want to.

Ori liked Dínelloth, the most soft-spoken member of the Elven patrol, best. The archer had a passion for drawing, using plant dyes for painting, and the two whiled away many hours of their trek discussing colours. Ori’s interest was mainly the use of paints to decorate his Fahani-nashat; he had an idea of creating the scrollwork borders on the illuminated pages with paints native to the area the pages concerned.

Dínelloth’s constant shadow, Thalawen, was mostly a silent spectator to their chats, having little artistic talent, though she consented amiably when Ori asked to draw her. Thalawen’s quiet acceptance meant Ori received permission from the other Elves to portray them in his sketches.

Kíli was slightly jealous at the acceptance Ori seemed to earn so easily, though he had managed to have conversations with Legolas, mainly about archery, when he could drag the Prince away from Rhonith.

The seemingly interminable walk beneath the dark trees continued onwards through seemingly identical groves and glades, and Thorin did not have to remind himself to feel gratitude for the sure steps of their guides – no matter that he’d never admit as much, even to Dwalin who spent his days walking beside him in silence, his eyes ever-watchful.

 


 

“What is that?” Dori asked, one morning, pointing at something white, floating in the hazy air off to the side.

Tuilinthel, walking nearest, followed his eyes, spitting out a low curse.

“Webs,” Arastor said, one of the first times he spoke to any of the Dwarrow. “Webs made by the giant spiders that have invaded our lands.”

Legolas held up a hand, and the whole group came to a halt. The Prince pulled out his twin blades, while behind him, the other Elves drew their weapons.

You should stay here, Rhonith,” Legolas said quietly, but the peredhel had already pulled out her own swords.

“Not a chance,” she replied, in Westron. “I want to avenge Alphel as much as you do. If there is a nest here, we will put it to the torch.”

Legolas looked pained for a fleeting moment, but did not argue.

“Spiders…?” Dori continued, confused. “Why are you worried about a spider infestation?”

“Because these spiders, Master Dori,” Legolas replied, angry fire burning in his eyes, “are as tall as you, spawned of Ungolianth’s darkness.”

“They came from the South, Dori,” Rhonith continued, “from the dark power in Dol Guldur, and they have killed many we held dear.”

With a couple of hand signals, Legolas sent Erfaron and Curulhénes into the trees in one direction, while Arastor and Tuilinthel went the other way. Faindirn, Dínelloth, and Thalawen remained with the Company, though Faindirn nimbly climbed a tree to pose as a lookout.

“They killed my best friend and her husband,” Legolas growled, “during our first attempt to raze Dol Guldur over two centuries ago…”

Rhonith’s shoulders tensed for a moment, but then her expression blanked. She knew it was not comfort he desired, but vengeance.

“We lost all those who went to war against the creatures,” Legolas continued. “Since then, we have patrolled the Forest, killing them and burning their nests, whenever we find them, but they are slowly moving closer to our home. Killing them is our first priority as Guard-Patrol of the Woodland Realm.”

A little while later, Faindirn’s signal sounded from above, having spotted Curulhénes’ flag which meant they had spotted their quarry. At the slight sound, a bird-call of some type, the remaining Elves sprung into action. Faindirn made a different call, which brought Arastor and Tuilinthel back from their scouting mission. Legolas set off in the direction Erfaron and Curulhénes had gone, Rhonith hot on his heels.

Aphado ven!” she cried, weaving through the trees. Dínelloth and Thalawen followed.

“Let’s go,” Dwalin bellowed, running after the Elves, his axes flashing in his hands.

Thorin did not even think about it before he went barrelling after Dwalin’s bulk. Orcrist’s edge shone with a deadly glint, almost like it was catching flashes of the sunlight that should have been piercing the foliage far above his head.

The Company followed, each pulling out their own weapons.

Soon, they got their first glimpse of the spiders, which were indeed almost as tall as Dori and skittering around on their hairy legs. The bulbous bodies were a brownish black and covered in some sort of exoskeleton plates that made stabbing them difficult.

The Elves, armed with long-bladed knives and swords, went for their eyes and legs, shouting a warning about the venom-coated mandibles to the Dwarrow.

Bofur sent a stray thought to his nephews who had called his bongy-knocker a silly weapon, and calmly smashed the skull of his fourth spider.

Bilbo found that he had a gift for stabbing the foul creatures in the spots where their leg joints met, and gleefully set to bringing down spiders far bigger than himself.

The spiders were beyond ugly, Nori thought, watching the Elves fight wildly. Their moves, graceful and swift like a falcon soaring through the air, seemed almost uncoordinated until you noticed how they interacted with each other, seamlessly incorporating the surrounding Dwarrow as they dispatched the creatures ruthlessly.

Slender Tuilinthel was absolutely deadly, throwing daggers with a speed and accuracy that evidenced long experience; almost appearing as though she was dancing with her enemies. Dínelloth’s arrows found their targets easily, though Legolas seemed to prefer using the long-handled knives, his bow remaining strapped to his back. Erfaron seemed to be the constant shadow of the red-haired Curulhénes, even though she was more than capable of holding her own against the Giant Spiders.

As he stabbed one of the spiders attacking Dwalin’s back, Thorin had to admit that his first assessment of his newest kinswoman was accurate. Her blades whirled, flashed, and bit, with a speed and grace he had never seen in Dwarrow, looking perfectly at home next to the taller Elven Prince.

The spiders, attacking with a viciousness comparable to Wargs, even if their offensive moves focused mostly on trying to inject their adversaries with the venom that dripped from their massive mandibles, were almost a quick as the Elves, and the Dwarrow had to stay on their toes to keep themselves safe.

Thalawen’s sword was similar to Orcrist, though Thorin considered it far less elegant than his own blade, but she was definitely skilled with her choice of weapon, standing as the steadfast protector of her group-mates.  

Bombur’s Battle-Spoon proved surprisingly effective, crashing through the hard exoskeletons with apparent ease and breaking joints and limbs wherever it hit. Bofur, along with Nori, both armed with blunt weapons, left the vile creatures easy pickings for the rest of them, and Thorin found himself nearly frightened by the incongruent savagery of their Hobbit Burglar.

When Thorin realised that the beasts were actually speaking he missed his swing, leaving Dwalin to pull off a move that ought to have been impossible in Thorin’s mind, but the spider ended up dead at his feet, headless, with a glaring Dwalin staring at him over its shuddering corpse. His Kurdel did not have time to deliver the rebuff Thorin knew he deserved, because his move had left his own back unprotected, and only luck kept him from being stabbed by one of the spiders’ stingers.

Thorin’s heart beat rapidly with excess adrenaline, pushing Dwalin out of the way even before he realised that the spider was attacking. He saw the stinger moving towards him, almost in slow-motion, but the beast dropped dead before he could swing Orcrist at it, one of Rhonith’s twin swords in its brain.

The peredhel gave him an exhilarated grin, before she whirled away once more, swords flashing.

The skirmish ended soon after, though Erfaron claimed – as the Elves explained, based on a few hand signals – that they had been a hunting group, and their nest was not close. The news obviously did not please his Commander, but Legolas simply gave orders to burn the corpses and set up camp for the night.

 


 

The days continued to move ever onwards, and the princeling elf (as Thorin had come to think of him) often dragged their elf off to Mahal knew where. They’d come back with pouches filled with berries, however, and Thorin had – begrudgingly – admitted that the fresh food was a welcome addition to the supplies they had received from Beorn and the lembas that Rhonith had made in his house. It didn’t mean he trusted the blond elf, but it did make him slightly less confrontational.

On the day the bounty turned out to be blackberries, Thorin even managed something that might be mistaken for a smile towards the elf.

 

 

 

 


 

[29] Young warrior

[30] As Mahal would speak (it is the truth/it is so).

[31] Pour your brother – Heather Alexander ©1994 Wanderlust

[32] To Drink! To Drink! To Drink!
To eyes as bright as Mithril when they are shining!
To Drink! To Drink! To Drink!
Friends are better at speaking, when they're ordering!

[33] The Mummer’s Dance – Loreena McKennit

[34] Ever is your presence a joy.

[35] Legolas! Well met, my friend.

[36] Longbeards, the clan of the Line of Durin.

[37] Forgive me.

[38] Follow us.

[39] Wood of fire

[40] Splinters of the wood of the greatest fire.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 – Enter the Elvenking

 

“We’ll be there soon enough,” Rhonith told Bilbo, giving his hand an encouraging squeeze as they crossed a rickety-looking moss-covered bridge, “the magicks should be lifting for you already.”

Bilbo gave her a smile in response, though he felt no different to the day before or the day before that. He was a little grateful for the distraction from staring down at the swiftly running water of the Dreamy River, as the Elves had named it in Westron, warning them not to touch the waters.

Visions of drawning Hobbits – he had lost more than one relative to much calmer courses than this – floated through Bilbo’s mind. Determinedly, he looked away from the fast current, keeping his eyes on Rhonith’s gently encouraging smile and set one foot before the other, feeling the damp moss beneath his toes.

“Legolas has sent Erfaron ahead,” Rhonith continued, “and I am confident Master Galion – he runs the King’s household – will have organised rooms and sustenance for you by the time we arrive.”

Even the promise of food that wasn’t travel rations did not have a notable effect on Bilbo’s mood, but he nodded anyway, trying to muster the will to keep walking. Nothing much but walking among trees indistinguishably from the myriads they had already passed had happened in the full fortnight’s journey after their skirmish with the spiders.

Bilbo had tried to keep up his spirits, but the gloomy air beneath the trees – even in the company of the Elves – seemed to weigh ever heavier in his heart. Despite the ease of the Elves around them, the power of the dark trees affected the company, and the general mood of the Dwarrow had dropped steadily.

They arrived in the last moments before sunset, the Guard at the door hailing their home-coming Prince with glad shouts of welcome.

The first sight of the large carved doors to the underground caverns of Thranduil’s Halls did not fail to impress the Company, though each was too weary to remark upon the craftmanship, and too wary of the well-armed Guards flanking the entryway.

Just beyond the door, they were greeted by the King’s steward, Galion, whose face was perhaps the most stoic any of them had ever seen on any Elf. He greeted the Prince cordially, and Rhonith, too, by name, though he roundly ignored the Company, waving impatiently at an underling.

“If you would,” Galion said, “Hêr will show you to your guest rooms. Baths and a light meal have been provided for the guests.” The enchanted river that ran through the Forest could not be used for drinking or bathing, too bespelled with ancient protections, so travellers were usually thankful for the opportunity to soak off the grime.

“We will take our leave of you for now, Thorin-King,” Legolas said, nodding regally, somehow transformed from one among the guard to their Prince with the ease of pulling on a cloak. “And reconvene in the Throne Room. Someone will come for you after evening meal.”

Thorin found himself nodding back, reluctantly respectful of the Elf’s authority.

I will meet you later, Rhonith signed, her quick fingers making both Bifur and Balin nod, though the old diplomat was sure that most of the others had not noticed the swift motions of her Iglishmêk, too busy with the prospect of food and cleanliness; the journey through the forest had not left any of them smelling like roses, and Dori wondered loudly if they might be able to impose on their hosts for laundry.

Balin was proven right only too soon, he thought listening to the collective grumbling of his fellows as they followed a young Elf to their rooms. Not only had the proud princeling done his best to monopolize their Elf on the journey here, now she had been separated from them and taken Mahal knew where in this fortress of adversaries, as Thorin had once named it.

Bombur, whose skill as an architect only rarely saw proper use, was the most interested, studying the caverns with interest; they might appear natural – the vast caverns and towering rough pillars conveyed an innate grace of stone very different from the angular Dwarven masonry – but he thought he saw the work of tools here and there; Dwarven tools.

Walking into the large rooms they were shown to, each Dwarf felt his spirits lift in a way that even being surrounded by good honest stone had not managed: the Forest Elves believed in eating meat!

 

“You will wish to bathe before you must explain to Ada the presence of Thrór’s grandson in his Halls,” Legolas murmured as they walked along, nudging her shoulder playfully.

Rhonith sighed. The prospect was not entirely pleasant: Thranduil had long been of the opinion that the nobility of Durin’s Line had waned since The Fall and Thrór’s madness had only confirmed this dim view of her mother’s people. “I have some hope he shall be less angry than the time Thalion and I challenged the twins to a climbing game and Thonnon fell out of his tree and broke his arm.”

Legolas laughed. “He is Hanar’s grandson, also… Adar might be mollified by that.”

“He is the son of Lothig, Legolas,” she replied, “though I fear Thorin’s temper is more Thrór than Frís.” Knowing the stubbornness of Dwarrow in general – and Durin’s Line in particular – however, made her worry about the upcoming meeting. “I just hope that everyone will behave themselves,” she sighed. It would be up to Thorin to keep them all under control and on their best behaviour – especially in front of Thranduil, who had little enough reason to be amenable to their cause.

“They were not intolerable on our journey,” Legolas soothed, “and we have missed you… even trailing a gaggle of Dwarrow you are welcome and wanted here, my Lady.”

“How charming,” Rhonith teased, but she couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you.”

Sketching a bow at her, Legolas grinned. “Whereas I have to go stand before Captain Bronwe,” he continued ruefully, “and explain to him why my quadrant has been left unguarded and unchecked.”

They both winced.

“If you are gone too long, I shall come save you from his wrath,” Rhonith teased, opening the door to her room with a smile. “I am glad to be here, Legolas… I have missed you too.” More than you know…

Closing the door before her face could give away more than she meant, Rhonith breathed a sigh of relief that they had arrived safely; even since her last visit, little more than a few years back, the trees had darkened measurably.

Alone among the Elven Realms, Thranduil’s Halls boasted natural hot springs and mineral pools; some of which had been fed into the Royal Quarters through clever engineering, and Rhonith sank slowly into her bath, enjoying the feel of the warm water on her skin.

There was little time for a truly relaxing soak, but Rhonith felt clean and refreshed when she got out of the small pool, rinsing her hair with a bucket of clean water. In her wardrobe, she found her underthings, pulling on a thin shift and a deep green kirtle. The loose overdress was made from dark blue silk that matched her eyes, and the small moonstones sewn along the neckline made her hair shine even brighter. She pulled the long locks into a flowing style, with slightly different braids than her travelling look, but still elaborately framing her face. A mithril circlet made with a pattern of leaves and vines rested lightly on her forehead to finish off her appearance; it was a look born of long experience, neither too Elven nor too Dwarven; neither part of her heritage could claim to be favoured unduly.

Giving herself a satisfied nod in the mirror, she set off quickly for the Guest Wing where Legolas had ordered the Company brought while he went to speak to the Captain of the Guard.

 

You are back early, Legolas,” Bronwe said, looking up from his rosters to see the Prince in the doorway of his study. “Trouble?”

We found and torched two nests, south of the Old Forest Road, and a few hunting packs within our borders. No injuries.” Legolas replied.

So why are you back a full moon turning before you were meant to?” Bronwe asked sternly. “That is unlike your usual sense of responsibility and duty.”

Legolas had command of his own personal elite group, as well as a couple of other groups, which hunted closer to home, but Captain Bronwe was the over-all head of the Guard of the Woodland Realm, and Legolas had to report to him directly.

Hiril Rhonith has returned.” Legolas began dutifully. “We found her with a group of Anfangrim when we turned west. I decided it was better to lead them here than let them roam unescorted.” He respected his superior, even if he outranked Bronwe in everyday life.

The old elf – one of the few remaining in Arda who had been born in the First Age – was his Ada’s best friend, and Bronwe was one of the few who treated Legolas with little deference. The Captain – married to the Head Baker Maeassel – ran a tight ship in the Guard, and two units returning – one unit comprised of four Elves and each group was made up of two units – early would throw off the schedules for all the rest, leaving a gaping hole in their mobile defences.

It was not a favourable situation, considering the intelligence of their foe, but Legolas had not wanted to split his group either, knowing that four Elves were too few to ensure victory against a full hunting pack.

Very well,” Bronwe sighed. “Find Alfirin and tell her to report here tomorrow. Her group will have to cover your quadrants.”

I’m sorry, Captain,” Legolas said. “Erdhon and Erecthel deserved a longer time off duty. Do you want me to send Arastor and Tuilinthel in their stead?

Legolas didn’t really want to, and the twins rarely deigned to take orders from anyone but himself, which would make putting them under Alfirin’s command troublesome, but Erfaron and Faindirn – his own unit’s trackers – would be an even worse choice. Mute Erfaron – adopted as a child by Curulhénes’ family – considered protecting his gwador’s blood-sister his sacred duty. When Curulhénes had decided to join the guard, Erfaron had been the only reason her older brother did not demand her exclusion. Magoldir, Bronwe’s Second-in-Command – the same rank Legolas held in the Guard – had asked that the prince let his little sister be part of his own group, a set-up that had worked surprisingly well for more than two hundred years.

Can the twins be spared? If we take you and Curulhénes off duty, Faindirn and Erfaron will want the same time off, to keep the unit intact.” With another exasperated sigh, Bronwe looked at the board he used for creating the Guard rotas. “Dínelloth and Thalawen wouldn’t want their unit split up either, I’m guessing.

The twins won’t care that they have to fight with another pair in a new unit for one rota, I think,” Legolas offered, “and they’ll follow Alfirin if I command it.” It wasn’t that they did not like any of the other commanders, but the twins had never hidden their preferences. “Dínelloth and Thalawen won’t mind, in fact they might see it as a sort of Golden Time of their own…” Legolas mused “Thalawen told me that they are thinking of starting a family soon.” He’d prefer to keep his current group intact, but Erdhon and Erecthel had only just gotten married four months earlier. Usually that meant at least three seasons off duty or with lightened duties in celebration for the new couple.

No,” Bronwe said, shaking his head looking at his board. “I think we’re better off keeping you all here, and you can explain to Erdhon why their Golden Time is cut short.

Legolas thought his grin positively Orcish.

I’d recommend you bring a gift of apology, Legolas,” Bronwe, chuckled. “And bring my regards to Lady Rhonith. Dismissed.”

The younger commander nodded, frowning thoughtfully as ideas began whirling in his head. Rhonith had not told him why she was leading the Company to Adar, but Legolas had a few guesses as to Thorin Oakenshield’s purpose.

There was really only one reason for the Heir of Durin’s Throne to come this far North-east, after all.

Erebor.

Feeling guilty for shirking his duties so blatantly, Legolas left Bronwe’s office and made his way to Alfirin’s home to make his report on the state of the quadrants they had finished. He had asked Galion to give him as much time as possible between their arrival and the Company’s audience with Ada, but when one of the Steward’s runners found him coming out of Alfirin’s door, Legolas only just had time to return to his own quarters for a quick wash before he was expected in the Throne Room.

 

Thorin was livid, pacing back and forth across the floor. The Elvenking should have met them straightaway instead of trapping them here, he felt, and growled as much to Balin, who was trying to keep his increasingly belligerent king from exploding in a fit of temper.

The dwarrow of the Company were growing steadily angrier. Their meal had contained far too many greens, even if they had to admit that the Silvan Elves had at least provided well-seasoned venison to go with the vegetables. The only one who was genuinely pleased was Bilbo, and possibly Bifur, who seemed to prefer a green diet, but he was considered simply peculiar in that way and didn’t really count in the grand scheme of things. Most of them did not trust the elves and so they had only used the pitchers of warm water to wash perfunctorily, getting rid of the grime on their faces.

Dori was trying his hardest to persuade Ori to try the vegetables that accompanied the roast venison while Nori smirked at the stubborn set of his younger brother’s jaw. They had not been locked in the rooms, Nori had checked, but the corridor was travelled often by tall lithe Elves twittering in their bird language. He once again regretted never having learnt anything other than curses in Sindarin; it could have been helpful to be able to gauge the mood of their hosts. He silently swore to remedy that oversight – provided he survived the end of their journey.

                                                                                            

Eventually, a quiet knock on the door announced the return of their elleth, wearing a beautiful gown and with her hair still slightly damp from washing.

Balin had a quizzical frown on his face as he studied her braids. She was still sporting the braid and beads that marked her as Durin’s Line, but she was also wearing one proclaiming her a daughter of a sigil he did not recognise. He assumed it to be her father’s until he spotted the second such braid with a differently marked bead.

Rhonith masked her reaction to their less-than-pristine appearances, giving Thorin a sunny smile and gesturing the Company out the door. “I will take you to see Thranduil now,” she smiled at their disgruntled expressions.

After a round of greetings, Rhonith proceeded to lead the dwarrow to the throne room where an exquisitely robed Thranduil was sprawled on the throne, looking down at them.

The Elvenking’s carefully blank expression told them nothing, but Thorin felt slightly startled by the thought that he could see no difference between this Elf and the one he had seen last leaving Thrór’s Throne Room in anger. The blonde hair fell in the same sleek curtain down the Thranduil’s back, held by a crown that looked to be made from branches and some reddish plant material. Somehow, it suited a king of a forest – even one so dark and grim as Mirkwood – to wear a crown reminiscent of his Realm. For a moment, Thorin pictured himself standing before Thranduil, wearing the Raven Crown of Erebor, and smiled. One day, he would put on his grandfather’s crown and meet with Thranduil on his turf… for now, he had to play nice with the Elf, if only to repay Rhonith’s kindness. Thranduil’s son had taken position behind his father, but Rhonith strode to stand in front of the stairs beside Thorin.

 

When the Company entered, following behind Rhonith – who clearly had had time for a proper bath – Legolas wondered why the dwarrow looked so travel-worn still. Galion had given orders for washbasins to be brought to them, and they had had ample time to spend on making themselves more presentable. Ada’s frown at the sight was gone in the blink of an eye, but Legolas caught it, nonetheless. He could see, by the way her face remained carefully blank that Rhonith had seen it too, though it confused him slightly when she stopped to the side of the platform, rather than joining them on the dais as was her right. Twisting his fingers in the guard-sign for come here, he was surprised to see her shake her head and give him back a quiet sign.

 

Thranduil gazed at the Company, his face showing no reaction to the presence of Dwarrow in his Throne Room.

Aran vuin Thranduil. Caun vuin Legolas.” The steward stepped forward, bowing to each and then turned to the gathered dwarrow. “I present to you the Anfang[41] Prince of Erebor, Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, and his Company. Guests of Hiril Rhonith.”

Thorin thought he should be grateful the elf called them Longbeards, rather than naugrim – the stunted ones – though it still annoyed him to think them more valued guests for Rhonith’s presence than if they had come to this place alone. Of course, his intentions – it felt so long ago, but it was only a few months since they had begun talking about the best route to Erebor – had never been to stand before Thranduil until he was a King in his own right, meeting on an equal footing.

Suddenly, the Company’s still-grimy appearances made him feel like a pauper rather than the proud defiance he had half intended to portray.

The words of the Goblin King resounded in his head, steeling his spine and making him meet Thranduil’s clear blue eyes with his own, unafraid.

I am Thorin, son of Thráin, and I am the rightful King of Erebor.

You have brought Anfangrim to my lands, Rhonith?” Thranduil called. The King’s voice was deadly quiet, and the Company clustered a little closer together as they watched their elleth nervously. Most of them did not understand the words, but the King did not seem like he was pleased with their elleth. Thorin managed to understand him, playing the liquid syllables back in his mind and remembering half-forgotten lessons of structure. Real Elvish did not sound like the kind of Sindarin spoken in Gondor, after all.

Rhonith would not have brought us here if it would put us in danger.

A few of the others glared at Legolas, thinking the princeling should have stepped in to help his friend, but Thorin knew better; Legolas advocating for them would only lower the King’s esteem – and Thranduil had little reason to think highly of any of them, Thorin knew.

The Elvenking rose fluidly from his throne and took a step down onto the dais. His silvery robe whispered across the stone.

I have, Atheg,” Rhonith replied, using a form of address that Thorin could not parse. She spoke the same Sindarin, holding her head high and continuing in Westron, “I joined their group quite by accident, but I have found these Anfangrim to be honourable Dwarrow worthy of your time and consideration.”

The Company seemed to stand straighter around him, and Thorin felt buoyed by the quiet confidence she exuded.

“The quest undertaken by Thorin Oakenshield and his Company is a noble one,” Rhonith continued. They wish to reclaim their homeland.”

Sellig[42],” Thranduil chided gently, “I will decide that for myself.

Thorin thought he had misheard; surely Rhonith was not Thranduil’s daughter? He was still trying to work out if he had heard him correctly when the Elvenking stopped in front of him. Whoever Rhonith was to Thranduil, her presence had kept them from being imprisoned or worse, which was what he and Balin had been expecting, should they encounter the King of Mirkwood.

Thorin offered Thranduil a slight bow, enough to acknowledge the other as a fellow ruler, but also to mark him as an equal. The elves milling around the edges of the room twittered, but Thranduil’s expression remained inscrutable.

“Many years it has been since we have hosted your kin, Prince Thorin,” Thranduil offered, voice clipped. He inclined his head in greeting, but neither Thorin nor Balin were fooled into thinking that the gesture was anything but an observation of niceties and manners.

Regardless, Thorin returned the head tilt. Amad would be proud of my self-control, he thought, wanting to snarl and rant at the stoic Elf; Rhonith’s story made horrifying sense but it was difficult to let go of the grudge he had carried for more than a century, even though he tried to tell himself to be open to her interpretations of events. Thorin cast a glance at Rhonith, who shook her head discretely. She could do no more for him in this meeting; Thorin had to rely on his own skills of diplomacy.

“Lady Rhonith seems to believe in you,” Thranduil continued quietly, “but I remain unconvinced your purpose is not simply one of common greed. Will you tell us… what is your errand here?”

Of course, asking the question was little more than an act; a pretense of ignorance. If Thranduil had not been informed of their purpose directly, he would have guessed easily.

There was little reason for any Dwarf to pass this way that did not involve Erebor, and none for her Heir.

“King Thranduil.” Thorin greeted, speaking loudly and with enough force to carry his voice easily throughout the room. “I thank you for the gracious accommodations of your Halls.”

It galled him to say so but compared to what welcome they had expected in Mirkwood, the Elvenking had been gracious. Thorin knew his Amad would have wanted him to express his gratitude as a sign of good faith, if nothing else, feeling her calm diplomatic presence keenly in the back of his mind and wondering what she would have said to see him here, of all places.

“Our journey has been long and fraught with peril, but our greatest challenge yet lies before us.” In a way, this was no different than giving a speech in front of a crowd of his people – particularly if he was accepting the hospitality of Lord Jarrin in the northern Ered Luin range. “We seek the destruction of Smaug and the restoration of the kingdom of Erebor. We seek to go home.”

Thorin and Balin had discussed how much or how little to tell the King, but Rhonith’s argument for honesty had eventually won through; even if Thranduil could not help with the dragon, his people would be instrumental in feeding a reclaimed Erebor. Furthermore, once the dwarrow of Ered Luin started arriving they would need safe passage through his forests too, something much more likely to be granted if they were on friendly terms with the Elf.

“An admirable goal,” Thranduil replied, those blue eyes piercing Thorin as though the Elf tried to read his very soul. “If one most difficult to achieve… These are your companions?” Gesturing at the gathered Company, Thranduil’s face remained stoically blank, but Thorin fancied he spotted a hint of incredulity.

His temper flared, but the memory of Rhonith’s warnings kept him from losing himself to his anger at Thranduil’s callous disregard.

“My Company have been carefully chosen to meet any conditions we might face on the journey,” he said clearly, seeking refuge in cool diplomacy – Amad would have been proud. “And I would choose each and every one of them above an army of soldiers.”

Thranduil tilted his head, blue eyes running over the gathered Company who all made an effort to stand up straighter and look worthy of their King’s praise.

“I also wish to present to you my sister-sons and heirs, Crown Prince Fíli and Prince Kíli, sons of Dís, daughter of Thráin, son of Thrór,” Thorin continued, gesturing grandly at the two young dwarrow, who stepped forward and bowed uncertainly. Their mother and Balin had given them lessons in courtly etiquette but they had never truly been part of foreign diplomacy before.

The Elves stared in silence, until Fíli felt they had unwittingly committed a grievous insult. Just before he was about to open his mouth to apologise, however, Thranduil returned their bow with a regal nod.

“Your heirs do you proud, Prince Thorin,” Thranduil replied, “and it is clear they inherited much of your grandmother’s famed beauty.”

That comment resulted in several swiftly hushed whispers among the rest of the Company and a furious blush ran over Kíli’s face.

Thorin smiled and straightened with pride.

The Elvenking’s gaze moved from one dwarf to the next, studying them all intently.

Bofur twisted his hat nervously and Glóin’s infamous temper lit a small ember in the merchant, his fist clenching.

Thranduil took a sudden step forward, a surprised expression fleetingly appearing on his face. “Little one…” Tilting his head, Thranduil focused on Bilbo, who fidgeted under the curious stare. “You are no dwarf. What do you call yourself?”

Bilbo really wished he’d gone with his first idea and washed properly, even if he didn’t possess any clean clothes to change into aside from his old and tattered once-best shirt he had managed to wash at Beorn’s.

“A Hobbit, King Thranduil.” Bilbo’s voice was almost lost to his nerves, but he did not cower under the scrutiny of the Elvencourt.

Dwalin stepped up close beside him, lending the hobbit a sense of security in the face of the elf’s age-old eyes. It was the first time Bilbo could remember standing next to Dwalin and feeling safer for it. The big warrior had looked at him differently since the cliffside fight with Azog, which had puzzled Bilbo until Rhonith explained the relationship between Thorin Oakenshield and his most loyal companion.

“Long has it been since one of the children of Yavannah has graced our forest with a visit…” The king glanced back at Rhonith, who nodded with a smile. “But surely you are one of the Yavannahchîn[43].”

“I have told you of the Shire, Atheg[44]-nîn, and how our small friends settled there after their wandering years. Bilbo is a descendant of the three tribes.”

A negligent motion of Thranduil’s hand summoned a page. The King whispered a low order and the elf scurried out of the room. Behind Thorin, Balin gasped. The Dwarven King could not turn around to see what had upset his old friend, but he was certain it was serious enough to warrant investigation when they were away from the Throne Room; Balin was not one to show emotion needlessly. His early losses had left him one of the most stoic Dwarrow Thorin knew, and he often found himself relying on Balin’s unshakable calm to keep his own temper in check.

The Elvenking’s eyes seemed to stare right through his soul, Bilbo felt. “Well.” He cleared his throat nervously. “We have no stories of our origin before the Wandering Years.” He fidgeted slightly with the remaining buttons on his much-abused weskit, which was no longer the fine yellow-and-green silk it had been when he put it on back in Bag End on that fateful morning. He had lost one of the buttons without noticing, he suddenly realised, mourning the loss of the small thing his father had once carved with sudden despondency.

 “Your people lived in three tribes,” Thranduil said quietly, “when my Realm yet had the name Greenwood… The Anduín tribe, who were so fond of their boats and fishing, the forest tribe, who made their home in our lands and hunted with my kin, and the open landers, who loved the growing of crops.”

Bilbo felt almost weepy. The words conjured up images of home that had never seemed so far away – or so beautiful – his heart aching for things lost.

Thranduil reached out to touch Bilbo’s curly hair, though he pulled back his pale hand before he reached Bilbo’s sandy curls, pressing a single finger against the Hobbit’s forehead. His ring glittered brightly, reflecting the light of the wall-mounted lamps.

Bilbo sighed, feeling a curious sense of relief suffuse him; like the removal of something that had been weighting him down without his knowledge.

“I am very old, perianig[45],” Thranduil smiled, nodding to himself, “but I remember the little people with the hairy feet who so loved my forest. Be welcome among us once more, Young Bilbo.” The Elvenking’s softened gaze left the Hobbit and he turned back to the elleth, who was beaming at his reaction, and bowed, “Ant gîn vîr mi 'ûr nîn, Rhonith sellig.[46]

Around the room, excited chatter broke out among the assembled elves, but Thranduil turned his attention back to Thorin, piercing him with his clear eyes.

Bilbo let out a slight sigh of relief when the attention shifted away from him, still trying to understand what had just happened, feeling like he had been given a benediction of some kind, as Thranduil’s touch had lifted the fog of despair that had wrapped ever-tighter around him as they walked through the forest.

“You wish to slay the dragon?” Thranduil asked, watching Thorin’s face intently. “How do you plan to accomplish such a feat?”

Thorin did not falter, his voice ringing out clear and strong against the stone columns of the Throne Room.

“We hope to obtain a Black Arrow from Laketown and use it to slay the dragon,” he proposed. “I the Dragon cannot be shot from a distance, we would have to resort to swords, but it is my hope that our quest can be completed without rousing the wyrm from the mountain.” Thranduil’s silent regard was unnerving, Thorin thought. “The Dwarrow of Erebor remember dragon fire,” he said, seeing the smoke-filled halls and the orange glow of the Dragon’s fire before his inner eye. Swallowing a sudden surge of emotion, he continued, “and we would wish it upon neither the Men of Laketown nor the Forest of Mirkwood.”

Thranduil’s face twisted in hatred for a split second before he smoothed his features into careful blankness.

Balin felt a ball of lead settle in his stomach at the sight.

“Prince Thorin.” Thranduil paused, weighing his words. “I will consider your words and your purpose tonight and will give you my answer in the morning. You and your Company may return to the guest chambers appointed to you. My steward will fetch you and your advisors for council after the morning meal.” With a wave of Thranduil’s hand, a servant stepped forth to lead the Company back through the twisting corridors.

Thorin nodded grandly and bid the Elven royals farewell.

Rhonith!” Thranduil spoke loudly, whirling to face Rhonith.

The dwarrow stiffened, ready to defend her in case of an attack, but the elleth merely smiled, eyes twinkling at the older elf.

Ve cheniar?[47]” Thranduil spat.

She bowed, “Ú-bedir edhellen Doriathren, Thranduil Aran.”

The king, with his back to the dwarrow, gestured for her to exit the Throne Room and return to the Royal Dining Hall. “Tolo a nin! Legolas, aphado ven.”

The barked order was the last thing the dwarrow heard before the doors fell shut behind them and they once again had to follow an elf as she traipsed back to their rooms.

Kíli glanced back worriedly, surreptitiously trying to linger, but the guard following the group saw it and looked at him kindly. He tried to explain, though his mastery of the Common Tongue was halting at best.

“Avo gosto…Do not…fear? Lady Rhonith beloved. All and king more,” he spoke in broken Westron but gave a reassuring smile to the young prince, “she will no harm for bringing you here.” The guard nodded solemnly at his own words. A passing elleth chuckled brightly. The guard frowned and pulled her hand to make her follow them. He switched back to his native Silvan, explaining what he had been trying to tell the Dwarrow. The elleth nodded, giving him a short answer before turning to the Dwarrow and speaking in perfect Westron.

“Maeglor wants to reassure you that Rhonith will not be harmed by the King. Our King loves her like a daughter and she will not be punished for bringing dwarrow to the Halls. Not even the heirs of Mad Thrór,” she smiled reassuringly at the young archer. Ahead of Kíli, Thorin scowled to hear his grandfather named so. Even if he privately agreed with the moniker, the casual insult still rankled.

Kíli turned to walk backwards and smiled brightly at the tall elleth. “What is that word? Sellig. The king called her that, but she told us her name was Rhonith.”

The guard cocked his head and looked at the young dwarf.

The elleth explained calmly, “Rhonith is the name our Beloved Queen Nínimeth, who dwells beyond the Sea, gave her when she named her gwathel – sworn-sister. We use the name to honour our Beloved Queen.”

Kíli wondered at that, “So the king thinks of her as a sister?”

The elleth shook her head. “Thranduil King thinks of the Beloved Lady Rhonith as his daughter-by-heart,” she explained quietly. “She has her own rooms here, if she does not spend the night with Prince Legolas and their friends.”

Fíli nodded and Kíli continued, “We wondered if Rhonith was joining us – it is hard for the Company to be separated… if she is not staying with us, could you give her a message?”

The guard inclined his head and Kíli turned back to look at Thorin, who had caught only the last part of Kíli’s quiet conversation. After the show in the Throne Room he felt a need to be close to his nephews, still basking in the pride he had felt at their conduct.

“I would like to let the Lady Rhonith know that she is welcome in our rooms and that we wish to see her for breakfast tomorrow morning if it pleases her.” The King was inordinately pleased that his tongue still remembered the way to speak in courtly tones, something he had only rarely needed in their long exile. Even the nobles in their Blue Mountain settlement only expected him to be Royal with capital R on feast days and the like. The guard nodded once more and turned back at the door to the guest chambers.

 

They had barely made it inside the room when Balin – usually the most even-tempered Dwarf for miles – lost it.

“She is his daughter!” he seethed, turning to Thorin. “The snake!

The rest of the Company simply stared, confused.

“Who is whose daughter, Balin?” Dwalin rumbled, halting his brother’s agitated pacing.

“The girl. Usakh is the daughter of Thranduil.” Balin spat, glaring at the door that had closed behind them.”

“But her adad is Rathukhbatshûn,” Thorin interrupted, though his mind, too, was spinning, wondering at Rhonith’s motive in concealing her connection to the Elvenking. “King, yes, but of Eregion.”

Most of the dwarrow frowned.

“I saw her beads,” Balin said, gesturing angrily. “She wears three braids for first daughter, both with different beads.”

“And one was Thranduil’s sigil?” Ori asked, wide-eyed.

“I didn’t recognise either sigil,” Balin admitted. “But Thranduil’s ring, which looks to be Dwarven-made, had the same pattern.”

“But if she has three of the braids…” Ori began, “that’s the mark for an adopted pebble claimed by a new family.”

“He did call her sellig. It means daughter-mine.” Bilbo interjected.

Thorin sighed. It had been clear to them all that Rhonith’s vehement defence of Thranduil was based in deep fondness, but most of them hadn’t realised earlier that the fondness was reciprocated fully by the stoic elf.

Somehow this fact actually endeared the King to them, even though Thorin still did not like the haughty and cold elf.

“The guard who took us here called her Thranduil’s daughter-by-heart.” Kíli added. Around them, the Company were nodding in varying degrees of uproar.

“She was adopted, I believe; many centuries ago.” Thorin’s voice was calm, but went unheard by most. “ITIKKITI[48]!” he shouted.

They obeyed.

Thorin glared once around the room. “Rhonith may be adopted by Thranduil, but it makes her no less Dwarf – and no less Usakh.” He continued to glare until each of the Company had nodded. “I trust her… and so should all of you.”

“Have… have you Seen something, Thorin?” Balin’s voice was hesitant; he believed in the Khuzd Haga Zudur, but he always felt a mix of awe and apprehension whenever the topic of Thorin being among that select number arose.

Thorin nodded. “I remember meeting her in my previous life,” he began. “I named her Sharul; she entered Durin’s study in Khazad-dûm without any guard detecting her – a feat I would have considered impossible – and Durin greeted her happily, calling her sister-daughter.”

“Her Amad was Narví Stoneshaper,” Ori piped up, “who was the sister of Durin II.”

Nori looked impressed at that, though Thorin thought it was probably more due to the knowledge of his younger brother; Kíli shared the look, though his face was further towards astonished as he stared at Ori, who blushed at the attention.

“How do you remember that?” Kíli blurted. “We’re direct descendants and I can’t even remember the names of King Daín’s siblings, let alone Durin’s…”

Balin sighed goodnaturedly. “And that, Kíli, is why Ori is going to be an archivist, and you are not,” he said.

Kíli’s cheeks heated, accepting the small rebuke with a nod; he had never been as studious as Balin would have liked, preferring to practise with his bow or cause mischief in one way or another.

“Great-grandfather Daín had a brother, Borin,” Thorin said, giving Dwalin a msug glance, “who wed Mjadveig and fathered Farin, whose wife was Geira Orcslayer, and his sons were Fundin and Gróin.”

Kíli scowled at him, but his grin broke through the frown almost immediately. “And Fundin was the father of Balin and Dwalin, and Gróin the father of Glóin,” he said, grinning cheekily, “and we all know why you remember that lineage.”

Dwalin matter-of-factly cuffed him round the back of the head, making Kíli laugh. “That’s enough out ye, lad,” Dwalin rumbled, ruffling his hair, and turning to Thorin. “So… we trust Rhonith, or not?”

“Durin’s approval is good enough for me to trust her now,” Thorin replied, nodding, “Usakh is one of us, no matter how much we dislike the Elvenking.” He sighed. “We may not know most of her story, but I assure you I will look into this matter of her relationship with the Elvenking.” Sharing a look with Balin, he continued sternly, making sure to look at each member of the Company as he spoke. “Until then, you will all treat her with the respect she is due as both our kin and a foreign Princess. Understood?” The nods that answered him this time were much more enthusiastic and Thorin smiled. “We should all get some sleep. For tonight, we are safe.” Setting off for the room that had been assigned to him, he left the Company to find their own beds.

The silent shadow of Dwalin followed him.

 

“I can’t blame her for not telling us, Thorin.” Dwalin remarked, closing the door behind them.

“Aye, I know. If I had been in her place, I would have kept my tongue too. She would have no way of knowing whether we would attack her in retaliation for Thranduil’s slights.” Thorin sighed. “I still need to talk to her though.”

Dwalin nodded, slowly removing his axes and their harness before moving to his equipment. In the main room, they could hear the low voices of the dwarrow as they slowly got ready for the night.

Someone knocked on the door.

Balin stuck his head through the doorway when told to enter, unsurprised at the half-dressed state of both of them. The old dwarf smiled kindly at his King and younger brother.

“There’s an elf out here collecting laundry. She says our clothes will be clean and dry by morning if we wish it.”

“Very well, Balin,” Thorin sighed wearily, stripping off his tunic and breeches.

Dwalin followed suit and they both handed their clothes to Balin to take to the laundry maid before falling into the soft bed and grinning at each other.

“I’ve missed lying in bed with you,” Thorin whispered, burrowing into Dwalin’s side with a sleepy hum.

“C’m’ere, then,” Dwalin rumbled, tugging him closer and tracing the edge of the raven tattoo on his shoulder. “Let’s enjoy it while it lasts – sure beats a prison cell.”

Chuckling ruefully, Thorin relaxed. “Aye. She saved us from that, at least.”

“Goodnight, amrâlimê,” Dwalin murmured.

“Maralmizu Dwalin,” Thorin replied, tilting his head up to press his lips to Dwalin’s. “Sleep well.”

 

 

 

Once back in the less formal surroundings of his private study, Thranduil fell heavily into his chair and immediately grasped his wine goblet, drinking quickly before waving for a refill from the maids carrying in their dinner on trays. He closed his eyes and sighed heavily. The servants left with a quick bow for each royal.

Medol! Gwannas lû and. Trevaded and?[49]” Thranduil smiled kindly at Rhonith, who bowed her head softly and let the King run a single finger across her ear in his customary greeting. “Tolo, govano ven, mado, a hogo e-mereth.”

Rhonith smiled happily and took her usual place next to Legolas. “Atheg, le suilon. Idhron halph, mass adh ês.[50]

The Prince laughed and the King smiled gently at her, “And food we shall have. I admit I had not expected to see you this year, but you are, as ever, a welcome surprise, dearest girl.

The meal was passed in pleasant conversation; news from Lothlórien and Mirkwood was shared freely, but the topic of the dwarrow did not come up. Rhonith basked in the company of two of her favourite elves. Thranduil’s court was a lot less solemn than her Lothlórien home, and she had always enjoyed her stays here immensely. The venison was delicious and the Dorwinion wine heady. By the time dinner finished, she was feeling nicely mellow and content.

Sellig. Pinig. Athog trenaro ammen?[51]Thranduil asked. “I am sure it will be a grand adventure. How do you always get yourself involved in the trials of Dwarrow?”

And so Rhonith spent the next few hours regaling the two royals with her story of meeting Bilbo under the Misty Mountains and leading him out, their run from Orcs and flight on Eagles. When she reached the part of the story that took place at Beorn’s, she included her conversation with Thorin and her promise of becoming his advisor.

“At least this time we did not have to spend weeks chasing up prey for dwarrow,” Legolas chuckled when she reached the story of their meeting in the forest.

The king looked at the two younger elves fondly, “Indeed. I have to wonder why Thorin is here, however; why set out for the Dragon now?”

“I believe that – with confirmation of Thráin’s death from Mithrandir – Thorin has been starkly reminded of his own mortality,” Rhonith began. “He has lost much, and he is not young himself, either… Lothig… Lothig is dead.”

Legolas put his arm around her shoulders, squeezing gently.

Govano i nothrim în adh i mellyn în mi Mannos, Lothig.” Thranduil said quietly, raising his goblet in a toast. Rhonith and Legolas both followed. “I had forgotten that she would be old, now,” he continued, staring into the red wine lapping at the golden edge of the cup.

“We should host a Feast in her memory,” Legolas replied. “It is her right to be remembered here, among her friends and kin.”

Rhonith smiled at him, catching the hand resting on her shoulder and giving it a gentle squeeze.

“I think the death of his Naneth,” she continued quietly, “combined with Mithrandir’s urgings and the state of their settlement in Ered Luin forced Thorin to do something to ensure the survival of my kin.” She swallowed, lookin down at her empty plate before glancing at Thranduil’s face for a moment. “The Dragon is dangerous, yes,” she said, “but so is a slow death brought on by the hard life they live there.”

“Smaug has not been seen for sixty years,” Thranduil offered, “though I hope Thorin is not fool enough to believe it has died.”

“A fool he has not proven,” Legolas replied.

“And he is clever enough to know that the odds of it waking soon and once more devastating the land around the Lonely Mountain are high,” Rhonith continued.

Thranduil nodded.

“Thorin is 195 years of age, which probably has something to do with the timing too,” Rhonith shrugged, “if he waited another thirty years, he would be too old to call any but the foolhardiest of warriors to his cause…”

“And even now, his Company is not made up of solely warriors,” Legolas said. “Dwalin, yes, and his nephews besides, but the rest did not strike me as people to whom weaponry is their chosen way of life.”

“A fact that may yet prove in his favour,” Thranduil mused, turning his goblet between long finers as he thought. “But not the most auspicious startin point for a group of Dragonslayers, I admit.”

Rhonith shook her head slowly. “That, I fear, is my fault,” she sighed. “When they set off, their goal was simply to recapture the Arkenstone and use it to call the armies of the rest of the clans to the task of killing Smaug…” she paused, taking a sip of her wine, “but when I told him what we know of Thrór’s final years as King, however, Thorin began to believe it his duty to kill the dragon his grandfather brought to their doorstep.” She stared pensively into the ruby depths of her goblet.

“I am not convinced that Thorin will succeed, Sellig, even if his heart is in it,” Thranduil said gently. Has he planned for what will happen if they fail and rouse Smaug from his lair?”

“Is it possible to plan for that, Adar?” Legolas interrupted, setting his goblet down with a firm thunk. “When Smaug wakes, a year from now, a hundred, will he not turn his eye to us rather than the Men of Laketown? Would not our Forest burn as easily as Erebor fell?!”

Too well, do I remember the wrath of dragons…” Thranduil trailed off, reminded of his brother’s gentle voice, so cruelly ripped from his life before his time. The skin on his face seemed to ripple, revealing scarring that would never truly leave his fëa, no matter that his physical face had long-since healed. “Do not presume to lecture me on the dangers we all face, Legolas.”

“Apologies, Ada,” Legolas replied, “I did not mean…”

“I know, ionneg,” Thranduil said, giving him a soft smile, “you have your naneth’s temper, betimes. Do not apologise for your heart.”

“He is right, though,” Rhonith added, “there is more gold and silver here than could ever be found in Laketown.”

“The Men of Laketown barely have enough to feed themselves as it is,” Legolas agreed. “The Master there is a greedy and corrupt man, but if their town burned, they would lose everything, even their lives.”

“Would you grant them sanctuary? There is yet time to move the Men here, where they would be safe.” Rhonith wondered. “Smaug would not believe that Dwarrow would seek the aid of the Eldar; his vengeance would focus on the Lake.”

“We do not have the food to get an entire settlement of Men through winter as well as ourselves, and my duty is to my people first, you know this.” Thranduil’s tone was firm as he stared into the flickering flames spreading their warmth through his study. The nights were beginning to cool and although much of his keep maintained a constant temperature because it was built underground, small fires were lit to heat the inhabited parts.

“I know,” Rhonith sighed. “Nevertheless, they could bring food with them. And the treasury of Erebor is vast, I am sure you would be well paid. Thorin is not Thrór. I believe he will honour an agreement.”

The King observed her shrewdly and continued blithely, “So you say, but can we be sure that Thorin will not fall to the sickness that claimed his grandfather?”

“We can but hope,” she admitted. “We were supposed to wait for Mithrandir before we entered the mountain, and I hope his magicks might help.”

“Mithrandir?” Thranduil wondered. “And where is the grey wanderer now?”

“He left us before we entered your Realm, turning south. The White Council convened in Imladris and he decided to investigate the rumours of the Necromancer in Dol Guldur.”

Thranduil looked pensive. “A necromancer? That is ill news indeed. Very well, if Erebor will recompense the Woodland Realm, we will harbour the Men of Laketown until the dragon is either dead or sleeping again. Legolas, organise extra groups for hunting, and have a messenger sent to Lothlórien. The White Lady is close enough to render what aid she might spare.”

“Yes, Ada,” Legolas nodded. “I will take my own group out, also.” Erfaron could easily have made a name for himself as a hunter of game if he hadn’t been called to join the Guard with Curulhénes, he knew, and the muter hunter would relish the challenge before them.

“I trust you will convince your dwarf lord of the merits in this plan,” Thranduil said, and Rhonith knew it was as much a command as anything, “but I still want him to conceive better strategies. I will also want the return of the White Gems of Lasgalen, for they are rightfully mine, and it is a small fee for my aid.”

Rhonith nodded calmly, “I already told him that you would want them. Of course, they might be hard to find, but we can afford to be patient. After all,” she shrugged, “what is a year to those whose ages are measured in millennia?”

Legolas quirked a smile and even Thranduil’s lips twitched.

 

“I will go find Horthonion,” Legolas said, “and a bath, perhaps.” Getting to his feet, he drained what was left of his wine.

Rhonith chuckled. “Bronwë’s revenge is ever subtle,” she teased, wrinkling her nose a little.

Legolas scowled at her for a moment, before her face cracked in a smile that made his own lips turn up until they were both laughing.

Children,” Thranduil sighed, aiming for chastisement but ending at fond amusement at their antics. “Behave yourselves.”

“I should check on my charges,” Rhonith chuckled, draining her own goblet. “Good night, Atheg.”

“Pleasant reverie to you both,” Thranduil nodded, waving them out the door.

“Will you comb with my group tonight, Rhonith?” Legolas asked, stopping halfway down the corridor to look back at her. “You did not join us on our journey here,” he added, her earlier rebuff still on his mind.

“With pleasure,” Rhonith smiled, catching up with him. “I have not combed with anyone since I left home.”

Offering her his arm, Legolas was pleased when she took it, the wine leaving a small flush in her cheeks that made her even lovelier than usual in his mind. “Then I shall return for you after I have seen to my ablutions,” he promised.

As the pair meandered through the winding halls, they were unaware of the casual observers loitering in the long corridors. The Silvans were fiercely protective of their young Prince, but the general consensus stated that Rhonith was one of the few non-Woodland Elves in whose company the Prince might be found without someone informing his father. They made their way to the Guest Quarters in quiet conversation.

Knocking on the door brought no response, but Rhonith could easily hear the familiar snores of her kinsmen in concert.

“It is late,” Legolas shrugged, “and they have journeyed far to reach the safety of our halls. Let them rest.”

“You are right, Glasseg,” Rhonith said, managing to stifle a small yawn of her own. “Let us find the others, instead.”

Turning back the way they had come and continuing to the guard’s rooms, they soon joined the other seven elves who formed Legolas’s patrol. The night was spent combing each other, singing and stroking ears, easing into reverie together. If their Prince’s fingers perhaps strayed towards mithril locks more than they should, no one had to know. The other Silvans simply smiled smugly when his back turned and looked on in indulgence.

 

 

 

[41] Longbeard

[42] Daughter mine

[43] Children of Yavannah.

[44] Little father of mine – here used as a term for adoptive father.

[45] Little hobbit.

[46] I will treasure your gift in my heart, Rhonith my daughter.

[47] Do they understand us? – They do not speak Elvish, King Thranduil. – Come with me! Legolas, follow us.

[48] Silence! – continuing order. Itkiti is the word for Silence! When you’re trying to silence a room of people just now, but the energetic form means you want them to be silent until you say otherwise/finish talking.

[49] Finally! It has been too long. Hard journey? Come, join us, eat and drink at the feast.

[50] Hello, Dad*. I am hungry and thirsty(I want soup, bread and meat) *Little father of mine – here used as a term for adoptive father

[51] Daughter. Little One. Would you tell us the tale?

Chapter Text

In the morning, the guardsman Maeglor knocked on the door to Rhonith’s rooms, only to be informed by a passing servant that the Lady was with the Prince and ought not to be disturbed. The guard decided that his message was not urgent enough to warrant an interruption and left quickly.

Rhonith woke up happy and well-rested, tangled in the long limbs of the elves around her. Blinking her eyes open, she stretched languidly. Thalawen, wrapped in the arms of her hervenn, was smiling mischievously at her.

“Well met on this morning, Lady Rhonith,” Thalawen winked, her brown eyes alight with mirthful joy. “I trust you shared a pleasant reverie.” Her eyes darting to something above Rhonith’s head made her realise that she had drifted off with her head in Legolas’ lap, his fingers tangled in her loose locks.

Man lû?[52]” Rhonith asked, wanting to get up before Legolas woke to find her there.

“Early, yet,” Thalawen soothed, shrugging. “Morning meal is just about to be served, I reckon.”

“I should find the dwarrow before the council,” Rhonith muttered to herself, knowing it was a paltry excuse as she shifted to get up. Legolas’s fingers caught in her hair, pulling hard enough to make her wince.

Thalawen giggled.

Rhonith groaned softly, trying to extract herself again, but failing abysmally.

Legolas stumbled out of his own reverie to find his hands wrapped in mithril silk and caressed by soft fingers. He blushed fiercely, and Thalawen tried to hide her smile as he stuttered out apologies. Apparently, the Prince’s attraction to the Noldorin elf had only grown in her absence.

Rhonith huffed and gently guided Legolas’s hands out of her hair, hoping that the warmth she could feel wasn’t showing in her cheeks. She got to her feet and reached down to pull him up, warm fingers closing around hers as Legolas followed her out the door with a small wave to the other slowly waking elves in the room.

 

The kindly guard had been alone when he came to fetch them that morning, and there had been no sign of Rhonith since, which did not ease Thorin’s mind. They had been benched in what appeared to be a communal dining hall, and the presence of everyday elves soothed him some.

At the head of the room, Thranduil Elvenking sat alone, overseeing them all as he waved away most of the platters offered. Thorin had been offered a seat by Thranduil, for politeness sake, but he had declined with as much graciousness as he could muster, preferring to sit with his kin in their rowdiness than with Thranduil in his silence.

Tearing hunks off the fluffy bread and dipping them into the mushroom gravy left on his plate – it was tasty fare, if not all of it recognisable – Thorin kept half an eye on the door, silently grateful that Nori’s attention was on the room at large, his sharp eyes missing little.

When the door opened to admit Rhonith – holding hands with the Princeling! – Thorin breathed a small sigh of relief. He had quietly feared that the Elvenking’s anger at her meddling had resulted in something unpleasant happening to their kinsman. Across from him, Nori’s eyebrow rose, though he did not say anything so Thorin was content to return to his food, wondering exactly how close ‘his’ Rhonith really was with Prince Legolas. They were not siblings, at least, despite her adopted status, he was sure, though he couldn’t say what that made them. Elves!

“Oi, Lass!” Bofur called jovially, swallowing a mouthful of eggs. “There you are!”

“We were starting to worry you had been lost!” Kíli added, as though she had been missing for days.

Rhonith laughed, letting go of Legolas’ hand to squeeze Kíli’s shoulder. “Not lost, merely sleeping,” she promised. “How fared your night, kinsmen?”

A chorus of positive responses met her, answered by that same silver laugh – restored, somehow, Thorin thought, as though Rhonith, too, had been affected by the dank dark trip through Mirkwood – as Rhonith took a place beside Dori and they all returned to the serious business of eating food that wasn’t travel rations.

 

 

Thranduil smothered a smirk when Legolas joined him at the head table, watching Rhonith’s mithril head bend to listen to one of the Dwarrow along the table.

Mê g’ovannen, ionneg,” he murmured, “is she yours?” The words might have been quiet, but he knew that his son had heard by the colouring of his ears.

Legolas fled, stammering something incomprehensible involving the archery range as he snatched a currant bun from the tray of a passing server.

Thranduil smothered a chuckle and watched after his youngest child with a fond smile. He had some idea of the thoughts that occupied his son’s mind and it was about time the prince did something about his feelings towards Rhonith. His eyes roamed the large cavern until they found the unmistakable mithril locks. Wondering how Nínimeth would have smiled to see her ‘Little Leaf’ like this, Thranduil felt another pang of longing for her sweet laughter. Perhaps it was time for him to intervene in the matter. The King rose and strode rapidly from the hall, sparing another covert glance towards his ward and the boisterous Dwarven Company.

“What’s with the Princeling?” Glóin exclaimed rather loudly. “He ran out of here as if he had Orcs on his tail.” The burly merchant laughed.

Balin gave Glóin a long-suffering look. This was not a good display of manners in foreign court.

Smiling to herself, she shook her head; not for the first time, she felt amused by the differences between her two races. Elves could be just as jovial as dwarrow, but usually only in smaller groups or families, and they’d never be as raucous as her dear dwarrow cousins. Balin tried in vain to calm down his cousin. Rhonith hid her smile by turning her attention to her own plate. Maeassel had performed her usual pastry magic and the soft buns stuffed with honey and currants were delicious.

“I’m certain Legolas is alright, Glóin,” she said quietly, though she silently wondered, nodding a greeting to Thranduil when he rose, walking out of the family’s private doorway. “He probably had duties to attend to before the council meeting.”

“If you say so, lassie.” Glóin shrugged, turning back to his breakfast with relish.

 

Eventually, the meal was over and Rhonith led Thorin and Balin towards the council room.

Dwalin followed the young princes to the elves’ sparring rings, led by Kíli’s newfound friendly guard, who was feeling slightly guilty at not having delivered his message.

Ori was dragged off by Dori, and Nori was just walking around exploring the Palace.

The ‘Urs and Glóin had retired for another nap in their rooms, and Óin had decided to find Thranduil’s healers for a rousing discussion of technique. He was welcomed tersely by Nestor who remained unfriendly and borderline rude until he had ascertained that the dwarf who interrupted him was actually worth speaking to, after which he was graciousness and poise itself. The two spent the rest of the day together, expounding on the differences between their training and cultures. The discussion was lively, the two old healers evenly matched in wit, and both of them enjoyed themselves immensely as they bickered away.

 

Thranduil had decided to host the meeting in his own study, away from any distractions.

Legolas perched by the window, quietly wishing to be anywhere but within his father’s gaze, tried to calm himself. No one had ever spoken of this… love he felt for Rhonith – and now Thranduil acted as though such a thing could be, was almost expected, even! Legolas’ thoughts danced rings around each other, and he wished he had had time to run the obstacle course a few times to clear his head.

The door opened, Rhonith’s soft voice filling his ears as she showed in the Dwarf-king and his advisor, making them warm once again. Legolas determinedly stared out the window until he was certain he had mastered himself enough that his yearning would not show on his face.

“Good morning, King Thranduil,” Thorin greeted formally.

“Greetings, Prince Thorin, -” Thranduil began, swiftly silenced by Rhonith’s soft Sindarin.

He is King-in-exile, my Lord, even without the throne of Erebor, not a Prince, Atheg,” she said.

Legolas turned, as always amused by the words Rhonith could say so fearlessly, when others would have quailed before the thought of waking the King’s ire. Never her, though – nor he, himself, truly, though he still had times when dark doubt rose from the deepest recesses of his heart, questioning Thranduil’s love for him.

The title is linked to the ruler of the Longbeard people, not just a location,” Rhonith continued.

A King is a King in deed and name,” Thranduil replied gently.

If we are to use titles, Atheg,” she sighed, slightly exasperated, “let it be the correct ones.”

Legolas felt his own lips stretch into a grin when Thranduil smirked and shot her a teasing look. “Indeed, my Lady,” he nodded sagely. “Shall we use yours as well?

Rhonith crossed her arms over her chest, scowling. Thorin and Balin stared at their kinswoman. A soft glow had appeared on Rhonith’s cheeks. Neither of them had any idea what was going on, Balin had learned some Sindarin in his youth but it was very rusty and he had no chance of keeping up with their rapid tongues.

“Be joyous as the Lady of Spring on this morning, Lady Celebriel Geira Ilsamírë Rhonith,” Thranduil began, blue eyes showing his mirth. “Noble Lady of the Line of Durin, Princess of Khazad-dûm, Beloved Lady of Lothlórien and Greenwood, Master Jeweller of Erebor, Imladris and Gondor, Watcher of Aulë…did I forget any?”

The glare she sent him would have made weaker souls flee in terror, but Thranduil simply chuckled.

“One, Ada-nîn[53],” Legolas replied, grinning. “For in fair Imladris they named her Pethril[54], this I know.”

Rhonith’s scowl crumbled quickly and her laughter joined his, breaking the tension in the rom. Legolas smirked at his father, blue eyes dancing with amusement. Rhonith sketched a mock bow at them.

In private, Thranduil would have laughed with them, but it wouldn’t do to appear so undignified in the presence of strangers. “Very well, dear Rhonith,” he said, turning back to his Dwarven guests. “Greetings King Thorin.”

The dwarf-king nodded and Balin bowed politely.

“This is Balin Fundinul, cousin-kin and my First Advisor,” Thorin introduced. Balin bowed again.

“Of course, you are familiar with my son Legolas,” Thranduil gestured gracefully, “and my daughter-by-heart, Rhonith.”

Legolas nodded, leaving his window perch to pour himself and Rhonith a glass of water, silently offering the others refreshments.

Thorin shook his head, but Balin accepted a glass, both of them studying Thranduil though they could not hope to match his intensity.

Thranduil turned the weight of his complete attention back to the dark-haired Dwarf who reminded him strongly of the one who had come before; he carefully stopped himself transferring the animosity he felt for Thrór to his grandson, keeping his voice evenly modulated.

“What is your plan for the dragon, King Thorin?” he asked. “It has not been seen for 60 years, and the Men believe Smaug to be dead in the Mountain.” Tilting his head, he considered his next words, but it had to be said: “I believe otherwise. Dragons hibernate for many years between meals, and although Smaug is overdue a feed, it is highly unlikely he has simply perished.”

“It is my wish to kill him; we do not believe him dead already, either.” Thorin’s eyes were hard, probably lost in memories of the dragon attack. Somehow, it felt encouraging to the three immortal watchers; Thorin was at least somewhat realistic – it meant there was some hope for his success.

“And how will you kill him? It is very difficult to kill a dragon.” Thranduil spoke softly, but his tone held a core of steel.

Thorin suddenly realised how this elf could have commanded armies.

Rhonith’s smile was encouraging, reminding him of his Amad in a way, and Thorin nodded to her, choosing to believe in her faith in them.

“We realise that the task we have set ourselves will not be easy, Your Majesty,” Thorin agreed, somehow feeling that the honorific was deserved, even if he once would have denied ever referring to Thranduil in such a way.

Looking at him today, he did not see just the superior, condescending smile or the haughty stares he remembered from meeting the Elvenking in Erebor as a young dwarf.

Today he saw a true ruler.

“No Dragon would easily vacate their hoard, it is true,” Thranduil mused, “though I am pleased that you seem more aware of this than did your forebears.”

Thorin ignored the insult to his grandfather, choosing to hear the implied compliment to himself – he thought Amad would have been proud of his self-control – instead of focusing on the many times he had heard Thrór curse this Elf for a feckless coward, back from the days when the smoke of the Mountain was still visible behind them.

“It is my belief,” Thorin continued, blocking the images that threatened to fill his mind with fire and smoke, “that the dragon was weakened during his attack on Dale, that, in fact, Lord Girion managed to wound the dragon, leaving an exploitable weakness.” He wanted to believe it, but he still kept a sharp eye on their faces. As inscrutable as Elves seemed, sometimes flashes would give away a glimpse of thought.

Thranduil steepled his fingers and cast a shrewd glance at the dwarf. “So his descendants have claimed, yes,” he replied. “This is, however, merely supposition at this point.”

Thorin nodded. Uncertainty filled him. They had little by way of a sure means to end the life of Smaug if his armour was as impenetrable as the old songs claimed, and he would be loath to give up the hope that the stories of Dale’s greatest defender were true.

Thranduil’s eyes narrowed slightly. “If there is a weakening in the dragon’s armour,” he supposed, “how will you exploit it?” Rising from his chair, he paced across the study, seeming to speak more to himself than anyone present in the room. “If his hide is intact, do you know how to kill a dragon in close quarters?”

In anyone else, Thorin would have called the motion that followed those words a shudder of pain, but the Elvenking’s face was the same blank mask of calm that most Elves seemed to wear.

“How will you get close enough to kill him without waking the beast and rousing it from its lair?” Piercing Thorin with steely blue eyes, Thranduil continued softly, deadly, “And if you DO release Smaug from the mountain, how will you ensure that his wrath does not fall upon those innocent of angering him?” The Elvenking sat back in his chair, letting the quiet stretch as Thorin collected his thoughts.

Balin put a hand on his king’s shoulder.

“If there is a weakness, we can either shoot him with a Black Arrow, which would be strong enough to pierce his skin, or we can stab him with my sword,” Thorin began slowly, forcing himself to remain calm and ignoring Balin’s involuntary squeeze when he continued: “We know of a way into the mountain aside from the front Gate, a secret passed down the Royal Line of Durin.”

Rhonith’s soft smile offered him encouragement once more, though her thought seemed far away.

“So, your plan hinges on the existence of these Black Arrows. Do any still exist or is that merely a best-case scenario?” Thranduil’s face gave nothing away.

“We don’t know,” Thorin admitted grudgingly.

“I had hoped to speak to Girion’s descendant,” Balin added cautiously, “for the Arrows were given into his keeping and may have been passed down through his son.”

“Otherwise, we could search Dale,” Thorin added, “though that seems unlikely to be fruitful.”

“She was most determined, the Lady of Dale,” Legolas mused. “And Járnsaxa was her name.”

She was the Lady of Dale, hard was her tale, and Járnsaxa was her name,” Rhonith continued, singing the line softly. “The song is an old one, a ballad of the shieldmaiden Járnsaxa and her love, Girion of Dale, and the deeds of valour she accomplished to prove herself to Lord Fernel who was not set on his son marrying a roaming warrior.”

“Lady Járnsaxa fled down the River Running with her youngest son, yes, though I cannot recall if they carried a Black Arrow with them,” Legolas continued. “I should think it likely, even if it had been left in Dale.”

“The survivors returned there,” Rhonith added, “taking what they were able to carry. Some left for the southern reaches, for Rohan and Gondor, but many remained, building the town of Esgaroth upon the water as a safeguard against dragon-fire.”

“And what will happen to Esgaroth?” Thranduil asked. “If the Dragon’s ire is woken, he will not stop with only your corpses for vengeance.”

“It is our hope that we can contain Smaug in Erebor,” Thorin replied, “but if he is freed, I would have the Men of Laketown as far from their flammable dwelling as possible.” He sighed. “I had hopes that we might persuade you to house them while we enter the mountain, for a suitable offer of repayment once the mountain is ours, of course.”

“Yes, Rhonith came to me with that request as well,” Thranduil nodded, “and we have started to prepare our Halls for guests.” Giving Thorin another inscrutable look, a small wry smile crossed his face. “I will welcome them here, but only if they come of their own volition.”

“Our people are fierce hunters,” Legolas interjected, obviously proud of that fact, “but there is very little time before snow will make the hunting unsuitable to feed so many.”

“Esgaroth is much smaller than Dale once was,” Rhonith agreed, “but they still number a fair amount of hungry mouths.”

“I will expect due payment for services rendered,” Thranduil finished calmly.

“Can it be done?” Thorin asked. “We hoped to purchase winter provisions for ourselves in Esgaroth – and my cousin has promised to send any aid we require once the Mountain has been retaken.”

“Yes,” Legolas admitted, though he looked slightly doubtful. Rhonith placed her hand on his forearm but said nothing. He glanced at her, placing his own hand over hers for a moment and tapping three fingers in a quick rhythm. Rhonith nodded.

“I would not wish destruction on anyone due to my own actions, if I could spare them.” Thorin tried his best not to stare at the two elves, but he caught the slight smile on his new advisor’s face, and knew that he was doing well holding his own.

“I have already sent messages to Lady Galadriel and Lord Elrond,” Thranduil revealed, “in hopes that they might be able to send aid in case we are to house the people of Esgaroth for the whole winter. Our hunters are the most skilled in Middle-Earth, but time is of the essence.”  

Balin kicked his king’s ankle and Thorin managed to stutter out his polite reply, “I will accept your proposal with utmost gratitude. My Company will set off for Laketown at once and begin evacuation,” he promised. “We will ensure that they bring as much food as they are able, so as not to tax your stores overmuch.” Thorin bowed graciously and Thranduil nodded.

“It is settled.” Thranduil gestured to the weapon Thorin had brought, expecting that the Elvenking would not just take his word for it that Orcrist could slay a dragon. “Now for killing the dragon… Will you show me this sword you believe can pierce dragon hide?” Thranduil gestured to the table in front of him, upon which a servant had just placed a jug of wine and a tray of goblets. Rhonith poured a gobletful for the Elvenking and herself as well as Legolas, then a half measure for each dwarf. Thorin glared at this obvious slight, but Rhonith smiled softly and winked.

“This is Dorwinion wine, Thorin,” she raised her goblet; breathing in the heady aroma before letting a taste wet her lips. “It is very strong for those unused to it. More like shâlak akyâlul[55] than the wines you are familiar with.” A sigh of pleasure escaped her and she toasted Thranduil, who raised his own goblet and mirrored her actions with a slight smirk.

Thorin drew Orcrist and placed it reluctantly on the long table before he picked up his goblet, handing the last to Balin. Each dwarf took a cautious sip and were suddenly glad of their elf’s foresight.

Thranduil leaned forward, inspecting the sword with the air of a true swordsman, running a single finger down the fuller, reading the words carved into the blade. “How did you come across such a blade?”

“In a troll-hoard, beyond Rivendell,” Thorin said, swallowing his mouthful. He thought he might come to enjoy it, the taste of berries strong on his tongue. “Lord Elrond told us the name and that it was made in Gondolin.”

“Indeed,” Thranduil agreed wryly. “The Gondolindrim were great craftsmen – the Noldor swordsmiths who settled there have yet to be surpassed – a sword such as this would have been used by one of their high lords, if not Turgon himself.” Picking it up, he ran a finger along the curved edge, nodding to himself. “You did not meet Glorfindel?” Thranduil asked, raising a questioning eyebrow. “He could have told you whose blade this was… I never went to Gondolin, myself, but I would have hazarded a guess at Ecthelion, Warden of the Great Gate.”

At this, Rhonith laughed brightly. The two Elves turned, identical questioning looks on their faces. Thorin smothered a chuckle, curious himself. He felt slightly lightheaded, staring at the goblet in his hand.

“It is doubly suited for Thorin, then, Atheg,” Rhonith winked.

Thranduil gave her a crooked smirk, “Ah yes. Indeed. Most amusing, in fact.”

“What do you mean, King Thranduil,” asked Balin, confused by their obvious mirth. Thorin thought he also looked like a Dwarf who had suddenly realised the potency of Elven wine.

“You know, Master Dwarf, that one of the titles of the King of Erebor is Lord of the Silver Fountains,” Thranduil explained.

“Ecthelion was a Lord of Gondolin, specifically the Lord of the House of Fountains,” Rhonith added quietly, something Thorin couldn’t decipher darkening her eyes – sadness, perhaps. “Their crest was silver, with a fountain of diamonds and when they marched to war they played their silver flutes.”

“Ecthelion’s voice in command was so great that his name has become a war cry for the Eldar,” Thranduil continued. “He died in the King’s Fountain, battling the Balrog Lord Gothmog…”

“He is counted among the greatest heroes of the First Age,” Rhonith said, getting to her feet to look out of the windows, “I grew up among some of those who once called him Lord.”

Both dwarrow now looked at the sword with newfound respect.

When they left the meeting, their immediate future was much clearer. The Company would stay in the Halls for a fortnight, leaving on August 31st with an escort for Laketown. Barring unforeseen delays, they should reach the town Men by September 6th, leaving them over a month to persuade the inhabitants to seek refuge in the Forest and get themselves to the Mountain before Durin’s Day.

 

 

That evening, the Company were led to a new hall, with tall pillars of carved stone supporting the arched roof. In the centre of the large room, a low, stone-lined pit had been filled with logs; a lively bonfire greeted them, chasing the slight chill from the air and leaving the Company soon removing layers of clothing.

Bombur, whose Heart-Craft was that of an architect, immediately went to explore the fine detail of the stonework. “This is not the work of Elves,” he mumbled.

Around the Company, many Elves milled, carrying goblets of wine or small snacks. There were more Elves here than they had seen in Rivendell, dressed in finely tooled leather or flowing robes and dresses.

Bilbo stared. A few were bringing in instruments, some he recognised; harps, fiddles and lyres, and a few he did not. Beside him, Kíli’s eyes were roaming across the large room, but Bilbo kindly forbore making the joke he knew Glóin would have offered; asking Kíli how many of the robe wearing Elves were women. Instead, he asked the younger Prince to help him find refreshments, steering him way from the red-haired merchant, who was listening intently as Bombur began explaining something about the columns that went over Bilbo’s head entirely.

To Bilbo, both Fíli, Kíli, and Ori seemed quite young. He had been quite shocked to learn that Kíli – the youngest – was almost 30 years his senior, and he felt quite protective of them, especially Kíli. Ori was considered fairly young, though an adult already, at 100. In fact, Kíli had explained when he asked, Ori was probably old enough to begin courting and thinking about making a family if he wanted. For a moment, Bilbo had believed that Kíli was playing a prank on him; with the way Dori treated his younger brother, he would have assumed Ori to be much younger, perhaps only barely adult. On the other hand, Dori had to counteract whatever influence a brother like Nori exerted, he admitted, which was probably enough to give anyone conniptions.

“Look at this fluting!” Bombur exclaimed, breaking through Bilbo’s thoughts as he gestured towards the column he was studying. “Such grace of stone!”

“This Hall, the Hall of Fire, Master Dwarf,” Thranduil interrupted Bombur’s musings as he rose from a low, throne-like chair and spread his arms wide, “was made by your kin.”

Bombur flushed bright read as every head in the room turned in their directions. Bilbo wanted to hide behind Thorin.

Na Tham-en-Naur nathlo i nathail!” Thranduil exclaimed, giving them all a welcoming smile.

Behind him stood Legolas, dressed in silver finery and Rhonith in another beautiful silk gown. The green of her dress and the mithril colour of her hair combined to give her the look of a white flower. Privately, Legolas compared her to a simbelmynë. A maiden served a platter of treats and a pitcher of wine to the King and his family

“Tonight, we are here to tell stories, play music, and share songs,” Thranduil said, his voice softened but easily heard in every corner of the cavern, “as we honour our beloved Lothig who has passed from this life to the next. Join us, my guests, and be merry in her memory.” Thranduil nodded, as if to convey his acceptance of their presence and sank back down onto the throne.

Rhonith smiled at the Company, a small Iglishmêk signal inviting Thorin, accompanied by Dwalin and Balin, to join the King at his raised dais.

Eventually, once most of the elves in the room had found a seat, one stood, carrying a lute to stand by the great bonfire. Facing his king, the minstrel took up his lute and launched into the old song of Eärendil the Mariner though the Company did not as a whole understand more than a word or two of the fluid Sindarin.

After him came a young elleth with a harp that had Thorin sit up and take notice. His fingers itched to touch the beautiful instrument and coax soft notes from the strings. Not many knew that he was a skilled harpist, and he had had to leave his own in Ered Luin, so he had not played since leaving home. Unlike flutes, which could easily be stuffed in a travel pack and carried, even his smallest lap harp would have perished on the Quest.

Legolas studied the dwarf shrewdly. At first, he thought Thorin’s attention occupied by the elleth, who was quite lovely, even if he had not thought Dwarrow capable of appreciating the beauty of the Eldar, but then he realised that the covetous look in the dwarf’s eyes was directed at the instrument and felt slightly awkward at the thought. Even to him, an Elf who had had more contact with their people than most, a Dwarf playing a harp seemed incongruous. Rhonith did not count, being mostly an Elf, after all, he thought.

“Do you play, King Thorin?” Legolas surprised himself by asking, and both kings turned to look at him. He did not look to see what expression fleetingly found its home on his Ada’s face, though he caught the flash of approval from Rhonith in the corner of his eye. Thorin’s face, directly in front of Legolas’ eyes, looked quite wistful. He nodded.

“Thorin was one of the best harpists in Erebor,” Dwalin rumbled, always happy to brag about his beloved’s skills. Balin nodded his agreement solemnly. “Most of us play one instrument or another.”

“Oh, but then you must play us something, King Thorin,” Thranduil said. “Long has it been since my people have heard a story from a dwarf. Give us something representative of your people.”

For once, Thorin could not claim that his words held any malice or derision, simply the anticipatory joy of hearing a good story, something he recognised from his nephews growing up. The thought made him feel oddly compelled to awe the Woodland Elves. He smirked slightly when Dwalin’s hand around his wrist added his Kurdel’s plea to that of the Elvenking.

“If I might borrow a harp, perhaps?” he asked, almost expecting an instant rebuff. Thranduil smiled, however, while beside Legolas, Rhonith was smiling encouragingly. The Elvenking rose, waving at the elleth who had finished her song. She approached the dais nervously but was reassured by the smiles on those present that she had not shamed her lord in front of his guests.

Cellingwen.” Thranduil greeted. A flush ran across the elleth’s face. “As always, you give us great pleasure with your harp.” She curtsied politely at the praise. Thranduil continued softly, gesturing at Thorin, “Our guest King Thorin wishes to play us a song of his people. Might he borrow your harp for a while?

The elleth gaped at the dwarf, who scowled at the perceived insult. Cellingwen took a step back, answering nervously in Sindarin, “Thranduil Aran. It would be my pleasure to offer my harp to your honoured guest.” She bowed deeply. Thranduil nodded.

Overcoming her trepidation, the elleth held out her hand to the Dwarf-King, biting her lip nervously. Thorin looked unsure, he had not understood her words. Behind him, Rhonith nudged him with a whispered ‘go!’

Getting up, Thorin took the hand of Cellingwen and let her lead him to the harp by the fire. When he ran his fingers gently across the strings, a hush of anticipation ran through the Hall. He could see his Company nudging each other, his nephews’ excited faces watching him intently.

Abruptly deciding exactly which song he would play, he took his place and brought his hands to the strings. Clearing his throat as he played the first few notes, Thorin began to sing. It was Westron, but he did not care if many of his audience did not understand the tale, he just revelled in the creation of music.

The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone
When Durin woke and walked alone.
He named the nameless hills and dells;
He drank from yet untasted wells;
He stooped and looked in Mirrormere,
And saw a crown of stars appear,
As gems upon a silver thread,
Above the shadows of his head.

The world was fair, the mountains tall,
In Elder Days before the fall
Of mighty kings in Nargothrond
And Gondolin, who now beyond
The Western Seas have passed away:
The world was fair in Durin's Day.
A king he was on carven throne
In many-pillared halls of stone
With golden roof and silver floor,
And runes of power upon the door.

Unwearied then were Durin's folk;
Beneath the mountains music woke:
The harpers harped, the minstrels sang,
And at the gates the trumpets rang.
There hammer on the anvil smote,
There chisel clove, and graver wrote;
There forged was blade, and bound was hilt;
The delver mined, the mason built.
There beryl, pearl, and opal pale,
And metal wrought like fishes' mail,
Buckler and corslet, axe and sword,
And shining spears were laid in hoard.

A King there was on throne engraved;
In great halls of colonnades;
With roof of gold and argent floor,
And mighty runes along the door.
The brightest light of moon and star,
In crystal lamp shines through the dark;
Unshadowed by the veil of night,
They burned eternal shimmering white.
The darkness hangs over his tomb
Beneath the mountain in the gloom

The skies are bleak, the hills are aged,
The forge's flames have died away;
No songs are sung, no blade is cast;
In Durin's halls the evil lasts.
The world is grey, the mountains old,
The forge's fire is ashen-cold;
The shadow lies upon his tomb
In Moria, in Khazad-dûm.

No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:
The darkness dwells in Durin's halls;
But still the sunken stars appear
In dark and windless Mirrormere;
There lies his crown in water deep,
Till Durin returns once more from sleep.

 

When the last note died, silence fell across the Hall. There was a susurration of noise and then the elves were applauding wildly. Cellingwen was smiling so happily at him that Thorin could not help but return it with a bow before he made his way back to the dais.

Thranduil nodded to him, pouring a goblet of wine and handing it over to his guest. The look on Dwalin’s face convinced the Dwarf-King that if they had had privacy, he would very soon be naked.

Around them, the Elves chattered excitedly. Those who had understood the words were busy translating for those who did not and the Company were beaming proudly at him.

Thorin felt smug at the thought that he had played in an elven hall without shaming his kin.

Sa’kishi izdun, irak-dashat. Amadzu zabiratahai argânul[56].” Rhonith whispered in his ear while Cellingwen removed her harp, giving the stage to a couple of fiddlers who played a competitive dance. A thought struck Thorin at her words.

“Are we intruding on your grief for this Lothig, Lady Rhonith?” Thorin thought he whispered, but it was Legolas who answered, glancing at Rhonith with an expression as inscrutable as any they had seen on his father’s face.

“Did Rhonith not tell you the story of Lothig?” Legolas asked, Rhonith’s soft laughter filling the air around them. The Elvenprince’s amusement was as evident as his companion’s, though Thranduil did not seem to be paying attention to his children, instead tapping his foot to the fiddlers’ tune.

“I’m sorry, Thorin, I thought I had explained,” Rhonith chuckled, “Lothig is the name the Woodland Elves used for Frís. This celebration is in honour of her life, and the performances are some of her favourite songs and stories.” The three Dwarrow could do nothing but gape.

“For Amad?” Thorin eventually found his tongue. Somehow he managed to speak coherently past the lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat.

“Of Course, King Thorin,” Thranduil replied. “Your Naneth was a Beloved Lady of my Realm.” Thorin did not know what to say. “It is right that she be honoured with songs even if our voices may not reach her in the Halls of Waiting,” Thranduil said calmly, clapping for the two fiddlers.

“I apologise that you were unaware,” Rhonith continued gently, “but her name has been Lothig to us for three centuries.”

“Your Naneth was named an Elvellon, Elf-Friend,” Thranduil said gently, “and her death grieves all those here who knew her, even if we have not seen her since the year of the dragon.”

Thorin had no response; in his mind there was a vast difference between ‘I was friends with your Amad’ and ‘The entire Woodland Realm will grieve your Amad’s death’. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, slightly gratified that even silver-tongued Balin had nothing to say. When words finally leapt from his lips, they were not an expression of the sea of emotion that embroiled him, however: “If you have more fiddles, I’m sure my nephews would love to compare their skills with your fiddlers,” escaped his mouth. Thorin winced at his own ineptitude, but the two elves on the floor heard him and their eyes snapped from their King, whose expression conveyed his pleasure at their skill, to the two Dwarrow princes.

A liquid Sindarin phrase summoned two more fiddles, which were handed to the two young dwarrow by one of the fiddlers while the other played his challenge.

Fíli and Kíli looked to their uncle, and at Thorin’s nod, they rose, fluidly accepting the instruments and bringing them to their chins. With raised bow, Fíli tapped a beat on the floor and then the two brothers launched into a whirling piece of music, dancing around the two elven fiddlers.

Their style was distinctly Dwarven, and Thorin was pleased to hear Rhonith’s sweet laugh in response, clapping the rhythm of the melody in joy.

When the contest was over, at a fair draw, the two princes were encouraged to play another piece by the Elven audience.

After that, Rhonith rose, making her way to Fíli and whispering in his ear. The Crown Prince nodded. The peredhel then made her way to Nori, bending low to speak in the ear of the dwarf seated on the floor. With a smirk, the thief jumped to his feet, pulling two daggers from their hidden sheaths.

Around him, elves gasped fearfully, but Rhonith just laughed and picked the blades from his hands. With a wink at the elf nearest to the Company, she took three steps back, raising the two blades high and crossing them. Her eyes did not leave Nori’s and when Fíli’s fiddle sounded behind her, she began to dance. The daggers winked in the firelight as they flashed down, while her feet, even in soft Elvish boots, tapped the beat. Moving fluidly across the floor away from the thief, her every move was still made in his direction. Even the Elves realised that this was as much the beginning of a challenge as the fiddler’s initial piece of before. Rhonith smirked, tossing her head and making her mithril beads catch the light playfully.

“She knows the Usran Zegrârul[57]?” Dwalin asked, seeming surprised. “We’re in for a treat, now,” he grinned. “I saw Nori do it once with an Orocarni dam. It takes great skill.”

Thorin nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on the slender Dwarf and the taller Elf. Neither dwarf noticed the tenseness of the shoulders of their Elven companions, whose hands had strayed to their weapons when Nori had pulled out the daggers.

On the floor, Nori had pulled another two wicked-looking blades from somewhere and jumped into the dance. The four blades met in great clashes of sound as the dancers spun and whirled.

At intervals, determined by the music, weapons would swap hands, sailing through the air only to be caught by a hand that had not been there the previous second.

Dwalin had been right; the Usran Zegrârul required agility, coordination, and trust between the dancers. Half the moves looked like blatant attacks against the opponent, while the other half seemed aimed at bringing the partner closer, but that was part of the dance, and a testament to the skill of the dancers was to make their moves as fluid as possible.

The Usran Zegrârul was rarely seen outside the Orocarni Mountains where it had originated; traditionally, dancers would be wearing bangles on one ankle and the opposite wrist decorated with tiny bells and part of the skill required was to make the bells chime in time with the melody.

As Fíli’s song increased in tempo, so did the hands and feet of Nori and Rhonith, until the two were a blur of motion that could hardly be followed by the naked eye.

At the final crescendo of sound, the two dancers came together in the middle, blades flashing high above their heads as each returned to the first position, crossing each of their daggers with one of the opponents.

The two dancers breathed heavily, smiling as they stared at each other.

A full minute passed in stunned silence.

The elves were staring, amazed by the display they had just witnessed – a few were already eyeing the daggers and assorted knives attached to belts here and there with consideration. Thorin smirked to himself. Elves did not have the monopoly on grace and agility.

Nori took a step back, re-sheathing his daggers with a flourish. Rhonith threw hers high into the air, but the thief easily plucked them out on their way down and returned them to their homes around his body.

“My Lady,” Nori bowed deeply, rising from the bow with a cheeky wink. “It was a pleasure.”

Rhonith returned the bow, smiling happily and turned back to the dais. Her smile faltered slightly when she caught sight of the two Elves occupying it, but she ignored them, sitting down next to Dwalin. The burly guardsman clapped her on the back, congratulating her loudly for the finest display he had ever seen.

“Indeed, Lady Rhonith,” Balin agreed politely, though he too was grinning.

“I applaud you,” Thorin added. “Only masters of the blade will even attempt the Isran Zegrârul[58], but that was the best Usran Zegrârul I have ever seen.” He did not care to mask the smugness in his voice. He had noticed the princeling’s apprehension and considering they had told the elves it was a dance, he felt entitled to gloat a little. “You are truly gifted, my lady. It seems our Nori has finally met his match.” He chuckled, giving his Thief a nod of approval.

Nori smirked.

“I asked Master Nori for the Isran only,” Rhonith replied softly. “He asked me if I could do an Usran, for he had not danced with a true master for ten years…” Turning her head, she smiled at him. The thief sent a grin across the room, leaving Rhonith to beam at him. “Truly, we shall have to dance again, for we are very well-matched in this,” she continued.

Neither Elf added a vocal reaction, but Legolas’ scowl darkened when his eyes flicked across Nori.

“I must thank you, Thorin,” Rhonith said. “With a fiddler less skilled than Fíli, we could not have done so well. Is it the first time he has played for a blade dance?”

“He was taught the melody as part of his training, but I don’t know if he ever played it for actual dancers,” the King shrugged. Pride filled him head to toe, and he would certainly praise his beloved nephew later. For now, he satisfied himself with a fond smile in the blond’s direction. Nori was clapping him on the back, praising him effusively as the elves watched, still reeling from the show.

Thorin glanced at the Elvenprince out of the corer of his eye, smirking to himself at the sight of Legolas’s dark scowl. He hid his smile in his beard, making a mental note to inform Glóin of the princeling’s interest in their elleth. The loud Firebeard ran most of the Company’s betting pools, and Thorin was sure he already had one going on Legolas and Rhonith.

Nori smirked towards the dais, moving his fingers in quick Iglishmêk signs. Rhonith flashed back a few twists of her fingers, making the thief shrug. She grinned and though she did not turn around to look, Thorin recognised her smug air as that of a woman who knows she is being desired. For a moment, he might have been looking at his sister nearly a century before, even though Rhonith bore little physical resemblance to Dís.

After the fiddlers’ contest, there was a short break where a swarm of servants replenished the platters of treats.

Now that he knew why, Thorin realised that many things set out for the crowd to nibble were indeed his Amad’s favourites. He recognised cakes Frís had made, and several pots that he might have received himself, filled with jams and other preserves.

When he declined another goblet of the strong Dorwinion that Thranduil favoured, he was immediately offered a cup of spicy tea, just like the kind Frís had always favoured. The scent of it, as the steam hit his face, almost made him teary. For some reason, the tea only came out perfect when Frís brewed it, and they had given up trying to recreate it when they had wasted more than half the bag that Rhonith had sent.

 

When Thorin next looked up, Rhonith had taken the floor once more, and expectant silence soon fell.

“Tonight, we honour gwathel-nîn,” she said, speaking clearly and letting her voice reach every corner of the large Hall. “Therefore, it seems only fitting that I tell her favourite story. In honour of our guests, I shall do so in Westron.”

She bowed briefly in Thorin’s direction, before taking up her story.

“When the Sun and Moon were yet young in the sky, and Morgoth’s Darkness spread across the land, unimaginable sorrow and grief diminished all peoples of Arda. When the dark fortress Thangorodrim was finally thrown down and Morgoth was banished to the Void, there was peace, and all races began to flourish once more, populating the lands of Arda quickly.

The Seven Fathers of the Dwarrow rebuilt their clans in their mountain homes, and their Maker was happy with their work, for they created great beauty from the bones of the land.

Yavannah, the Giver of Life, and Aulë’s precious Wife, however, was worried.

In their haste to prove themselves to their Maker and the All-Father who had allowed them life the Dwarrow forgot the lessons she had sung into their hearts while they slept, and Yavannah despaired to see the large swathes of destruction her husband’s Children made in her beloved forests.

At first, she tried to reach them once more, hoping that those she had adopted as her children by heart even if she had had little to do with their creation would listen to her.

Some Dwarrow did hear her pleas, but they were few and far between, and, meanwhile, the trees kept being cut down for fuel for the forges. Aulë was little help, for he did not understand the work his wife put into every seed and the time it took for them to grow seemed to him insignificant, years being a fluid concept in the mind of a Vala.

In her plight, Yavannah beseeched the All-Father, Eru Illuvatar, for aid.

The All-Father thought for many turnings of the sun, and Yavannah watched as the creatures she loved like a mother continued to cut down the creatures she had brought to life with her own hands. Her husband tried everything he could to cheer her up, but flowers made of precious stones and metal do not bloom with the sweet scents she adored, nor did his carvings of trees made of stone let the breeze flow through their branches and provide homes for the birds of the sky.

Finally, Eru Illuvatar returned, and he had a plan. Yavannah would be given her own creatures, creatures whose job it would be to safeguard the plants she held dear.

The All-Father bade the Life-Giver bring him seeds and nuts and acorns, and from the very plants they were meant to protect, he made walking and thinking creatures, large enough and strong enough to herd Yavannah’s precious trees.

These walking trees are known as Ents, and they set to their task with great determination. Where the Dwarrow had cut and burned, the Tree-Herders would plant anew, and tend to sprouts and saplings, for Yavannah knew that renewal was more her way than the strict maintenance her husband had attempted with his replacement gifts.

Many years passed.

The Ents and the Dwarrow lived peacefully, but the slow speed of their charges began to affect the Ents, who became more and more like the trees they herded.

Something happened then, that Yavanna had not foreseen:

The Ents, who were made from nuts and acorns and looked much like moving trees, and the Ent-wives, who loved all Yavannah’s flowers and the smaller plants, had a falling out.

The Ents began to care only for trees, disdaining the small plants as being unworthy of the attention of Ents and Ent-wives alike. In their fury at this slight, the Ent-wives beseeched their Mother. Yavannah despaired once more, for she loved all her creations equally.

Years passed, in which the Ents slowly stopped visiting the Gardens of their Wives, which meant there were no new Entlings born. The Ent-wives despaired and, furious, they called upon Yavannah once more.

With the Life-Giver came her husband, who came up with the solution. He would take the Ent-wives and their remaining children, and fashion them into different bodies, both male and female, so they could continue their important work.

Aulë brought the Ent-wives to his Great Workshop, and there, he remade them.

As her husband worked, Yavannah sang, instilling her purpose in the new creations.

The Ent-wives and their children burned, and as they burned they were reshaped, and shrunk, for Aulë wanted to make them true brothers and sisters of his Children. The leaves and flowers that had been their hair disappeared, and their bark was replaced by soft skin, but their love of green and growing things remained.

When Aulë’s work was done, Yavannah woke her Children, and sent them into the world.

They did not remember their previous lives, except for one detail that set them apart from the rest of Eru’s Children. Their feet, which had once been covered in grass, were now covered with fur, and the soles of their feet far thicker and stronger than the rest of the races of Arda, to let them wander far and spread the love of growing things everywhere they went.

When the Eldar first met the new creatures, they called them Perian – the half-men, but this is not their true name.

If you ask them, this people would call themselves the Hobbits – for they are not half of a man, they are exactly as their Mother and adopted Father made them to be.”

She smiled at Bilbo, who was surrounded by a silently gaping Company. None of them had ever heard this story before, and quite a few of them saw their Burglar in a new light with the revelation of his long-ago origins.

“The Hobbits began life between the Misty Mountains and the Great Forest,” Rhonith continued, “and there they were happy for many years, growing Yavannah’s gifts and caring for the land.

From their Dwarrow kin, the Hobbits learned the art of crafting tools, though they preferred to let Aulë’s Children create their metal-wares in exchange for food, a system that worked well for many years, until the shadow of Sauron the Deceiver began to darken their peaceful lands.

When the darkness took hold in the North and the Dwarrow retreated to the southern end of the Misty Mountain, the Hobbits went West, looking for a new land where their peace would last.

As they walked, they sang, and such was their grief for their beautiful home that Yavannah heard them in her dreams, and, crying for her Children’s struggles, she sent them further West than they thought they could ever walk, wandering for many years until they reached a new land.

This was a land of hills, which reminded them of their old mountains, though they held no precious stones nor could they be mined for metal.

Instead, they were covered with green grass, and the Hobbits rejoiced, for the very earth was welcoming here.

The King, who held ownership of the land, gave it over to their keeping, and when his Kingdom fell, the Hobbits remained.

In the Shire, they have prospered, guarded still by the last few of the King’s men, who protect the lands from the dangers of the Wilds, and their peaceful lives continue, sprawled over the Four Farthings that make up their home, no longer wandering and lost, but finally home.”

With a final bow, Rhonith finished her tale, smiling at Bilbo and returning to her seat.

 “Thank you, Sellig,” Thranduil said, lifting his wine goblet and toasting her when she bowed. Bilbo was still staring mutely at her. Thranduil smiled kindly at him. “Always a pleasure to hear one of your tales,” he smiled, and Thorin would have sworn he saw mischief dancing in the Elvenking’s eyes, if it hadn’t been such a preposterous idea. “And one so many have not heard before, I wager.”

Thranduil was definitely laughing at them, Thorin swore, but he could not figure out how he knew that, the Elf looking as blankly stoic as a statue.

Thranduil stood, once more facing the fire, which had almost died down, nothing but embers and a few flickering flames left. He raised his goblet.

“This night, we farewell our friend, Frís Elvellon, named Lothig. May she never be forgotten by the hearts of those who knew her!” with that, Thranduil drained his goblet, the Elves in the crowd following his example.

Dwalin elbowed Thorin, making him turn his mind from contemplating the puzzle of Thranduil’s mood to his own full cup. His tea was gone, replaced with another goblet of Dorwinion and Thorin drained it slowly, savouring the burn and thinking about his Amad, trying to see her in this Hall, listening to stories as a young dam. The image made him smile; Frís had always loved a good tale, and something told him that love had been born here.   

 


 

The next fortnight passed quietly. The Silvans gradually lost their stern distance and a few younger elves even befriended the Dwarven princes.

Days were spent with preparations and friendly competitions, while the evenings were spent telling stories.

Balin spent more than one moment of their stay praising Mahal for sending them Lady Rhonith. He had been certain that their best chance was to avoid the Elvenking entirely for fear of capture and delay. Instead, the presence of the half-elven Lady had granted them positions of honoured guests and a place to regroup before the trip to the mountain.

Thorin felt slightly apprehensive as the days wore on; he had been speaking to the elven merchants who traded with Laketown and they had not painted a flattering picture of its Master. To the dwarf it was peculiar that he should dread journeying to the place he had assumed at the start he would be welcomed… yet feel almost home in the realm of the Elf he would have considered his greatest adversary.

 

 

 

[52] What time?

[53] Dad(technically my father, informally). Nîn denotes mine or my, whereas nin means me.

[54] Storyteller/narrator

[55] Water of life aka whisky ;)

[56] You surprise them. Your mother will smile proudly.

[57] Greatest dance of Supreme Blades

[58] Lesser dance of Supreme Blades

Chapter Text

The day before the dwarrow were to depart, Rhonith spent the morning in Thranduil’s study, playing a game of boars and hounds with Legolas. Leaving Mirkwood so soon after arriving felt wrong, somehow, but she could not bear staying behind and leaving her sister’s blood to traverse the desolate lands around Erebor alone. Instead, she did her best to calm herself, staying in the company of her two favourite elves and letting the Company’s last preparations for the journey to Laketown unfold without her.

Stealing one of her pieces, Legolas grinned, reminding her of the first time he’d beat her at the game – that same boyish glee stretching his lips and making his eyes sparkle as they had more than two millennia before when she had first seen it.

Returning the grin with a soft smile, she huffed a wayward strand out of her face. “I see you have not entirely lost your skill at this game,” she teased, “though I should not revel in victory if I were you – I have a feeling the next game will be mine.”

“As you say, my lady,” Legolas shot back, smirking, “I shall endeavour to be gracious in defeat, if so.”

“A son of your parents gracious in defeat?” Rhonith laughed. “I shall believe that possible when I see it with my own eyes!”

Legolas scowled at her for a moment before his own mirth broke free of its shackles to spread across his face. “Alas!” he exclaimed dramatically, falling back into his seat as she reset the board. “I fear -”

“I wish for you to remain with us when the dwarrow leave, Rhonith,” Thranduil interrupted calmly, long fingers turning his fine goblet between them as he spoke.

“But…” she began, turning her head to face him. “But I should stay with the Company.”

“You may help us prepare for the refugees from Laketown,” Thranduil countered.

Rhonith looked torn. “I would be of more use there,” she objected, one hand rubbing gently at her hip until she realised Thranduil was looking at the motion, too much knowledge – and compassion – in his eyes. She knew what he was not-saying so loudly he might as well have spoken the words aloud. Glancing back at the game board, she put her hand on the armrest of her chain instead, fingers curling around the carved wood.

“Legolas and his Guard-group are more than capable of seeing your kinsmen to Esgaroth,” Thranduil continued, undaunted by her evasive mien.

“They will come to no harm with us,” Legolas chimed in, eyes solemn.

“And yet the danger lies beyond Esgaroth,” Rhonith said, “and I…”

“You cannot face the dragon, my dearest one,” Thranduil replied softly. “You know this.” Covering her hand with his own, he squeezed gently. “Davo annin le meriad[59].”

Rhonith slumped in her seat, nodding, her face pale. “I wish…”

“We know,” Thranduil said, not unkindly.

Legolas reached across the board, taking her other hand in his and rubbing his calloused thumb gently across her knuckles. “Stay,” he asked. “Athog? Ammen.[60]

Ben iest gîn[61],” she sighed, closing her eyes for a moment before pulling her hands away and rising to her feet. “I had best…” Turning to the door, she did not finish the sentence. The door shut quietly behind her.

“That was cruel, Adar-nîn[62],” Legolas murmured, eyes trained on the door where Rhonith had disappeared.

“I know, ionneg,” Thranduil sighed, running his fingertip across Legolas’ ear before pouring himself a goblet of fresh cider, enjoying the tartness of early apples. “But I would have her safe. When I named her my ward, I swore to give her whatever protection I could.”

“I know, Adar, but…”

“Sometimes,” Thranduil said, giving his son a gimlet look over the rim of his goblet, “being cruel is the only way to keep our loved ones safe, Legolas. I take no joy in it.

“I…” Legolas sighed, rubbing at his knee, and looking slightly chastised, “I know. Still, I wish there had been a different way… I wish that she had never heard of this Quest of Oakenshield’s.” Getting to his feet, he bowed once to Thranduil. “I will attempt to keep her from dwelling on your words,” he said, striding through the door as Thranduil had known he would, giving his son a small smile as he went.

When the door closed behind him, the Elvenking turned to the deepset window, gazing wistfully into the glade beyond, trees not yet fully turned to the brief splendour of firien. Nínimeth loved watching the seasons change. The though, coming unbidden into his mind, made his heart long for the comfort of his beloved wife. Two millennia and more had passed, the glade outside his window filled with trees that did not recall her touch, since he had last held her in his arms and they yet ached with the loss. A, meleth-nîn, aníron angin pent. Ci sael. Lasta angin.[63]

 


 

Rhonith paced her quarters. In her heart, she knew Thranduil had been correct, but the way he had pointed out her shortcomings still rankled. He did it out of love for her, she knew, but it did not mitigate the ache in her heart. She turned and paced the other way, trying to dispel the memories the Elvenking had stirred. In her mind, a voice was whispering, words of defeat and capture, of pain and sorrow, of hurt and helplessness.

Lost in dark thoughts, she finally escaped the underground portion of the Halls, barely acknowledging the Door Warden as she fled to the river, the burble and rush of moving water drowning out the insidious voice she would never forget. The water was chilly on her bare feet, but the shock of it helped clear her mind, the sound of a woodpecker somewhere above her an anchor to cling to, sunlight on her face warm like a mother’s caress. Thinking of Narví – she had done so every now and again as they walked, hearing an echo of her voice in those of her kinsmen – brought her to life, fragments of memory that Rhonith clung to with all her might. There had been a particular smell to her, a mix of dry stone and the sharp green scent of her soap, woodsmoke from the hearthfire that burned in their rooms, and warm arms that had been the best shelter a small girl could ask for, rumbling laughter in a deep voice and calloused fingers braiding her hair.

“Och, my wee carving, what ails ye?” The words came back to her in the gruff caring voice that could make all things better – except one.

I miss you, Amad.

 


 

Meanwhile, Legolas was searching the Halls, frustrated by his lack of results – there were only a few places she’d go for comfort, really, and he knew all of them. At first, he headed to the sparring rings, but he only found dwarrow there, grappling with each other or training with their weapons of choice. Kíli tried to get him roped into an archery contest, but the distracted prince barely noticed, only staying long enough to ascertain that Rhonith had not been there all day.

Turning sharply, Legolas stalked towards the kitchens, thinking she might have gone to beg some sweets from Maeassel the baker – if she had gone outside, she might be at the river… or she might have found one of many tall trees to climb to see the sky.

The dwarrow stared at his retreating form, slight worry kindled in their hearts. If their companion was missing, they would be the ones to find her, not some poncy elf. With the mutual decision and some rapid Iglishmêk signing, the group split up and spread quickly through the Halls, looking for their missing elf.

 


 

Thorin managed to get back to Thranduil’s study, thanking the maker that these wood-elves had decided to build mainly underground where he would not be a victim of his poor sense of direction. He knocked and entered at Thranduil’s call. The King was staring through one of the few windows in the Halls, his study being on one of the higher levels. Outside, a calm breeze was rustling the trees, throwing sun-dappled shadows on the forest floor. Thorin could hear the sweet notes of a bird’s song coming in from the outside. The Elf was so still he appeared carved from marble, an unsettling view, in Thorin’s mind.

“Yes?” Thranduil said, when it appeared the Dwarf had lost the momentum his angry knocking presaged at actually entering the study. He turned, gazing mildly at the Dwarf-King who dared to disturb the time of day Thranduil usually reserved for private contemplation and what correspondence he still received despite the dangerous roads of the time.

“Rhonith is missing!” Thorin cleared his throat awkwardly and clarified, “Well, we think she is. Your son seemed mightily worried when she was not with us and left in a hurry.”

A grimace passed so swiftly over the elf’s face that if Thorin had not been staring accusingly at the elf, he might have thought he’d been mistaken, but it had been quite clear. Regret and guilt.

“She will have sought escape,” he replied. “I brought up… unpleasant memories for her.” After fourteen days of observation, Thranduil was prepared to admit that his daughter-by-heart had been right in claiming that he would like Thorin. He still rather thought he preferred her newly claimed siblings, however, especially Nori, who reminded him more than a little of his own brother Glaerdor, sneaky and underhanded when it suited him, but fiercely loyal to his core.

“What do you mean?!” Thorin exclaimed, his anger spiked, spurred by worry and fear. “What did you do?!”

“I wish for her to stay here when you go to the mountain,” Thranduil began. “But I was… unkind in my request.”

What did you say to her?!” Thorin hissed, fingers clenching into a fist.

“How much do you truly know about Rhonith?” Thranduil asked, gesturing the dwarf to one of the comfortable seats, the remnants of the boardgame still on the small table. “Her personal history, I mean.”

“Just that she is our kin,” Thorin frowned, “which I do not doubt – that she was born in Khazad-dûm in the Second Age.” Holding up a hand, he added up facts. “Only daughter of Narví and Celebrimbor, at some point adopted by you, which I still do not understand given the animosity your people – your father’s people, I mean – have held for my kind…”

Thranduil felt his lips stretch into an echo of Legolas’ most mischievous smile. “No, my Adar did not rightly approve of that decision, either… until he met Rhonith, that is,” he added. “Continue.”

“We know – because it can be traced through our histories – that she watches over our race and tries to help in times of great need,” Thorin said, wondering what Thranduil was getting at. “I focused more on her relationship with my mother than her own history.”

“Understandable,” Thranduil nodded, “though there are things you… ought to know.” He sighed. “If it was not related to your Quest for Erebor, mind, I should prefer to let her tell her own tale.”

Thorin nodded.

“As to her inclusion into my household,” Thranduil began, “her father was a vey close friend of my wife’s mother – and so Rhonith became like a sister to my Nínimeth; they were more innocent times, then, and Elves travelled across the land on this side of the Hithaeglir more frequently.”

“There was friendship between our people, then, as I think there has not been since,” Thorin agreed.

“Eregion, ruled by headstrong and stubborn Celebrimbor – I see much of him in her – with his beloved Dwarf Consort, yes, created a bond between Dwarrow and Eldar that surpassed what had been seen in the First Age…” Thranduil paused, smiling at the memory in his head, “and proved that the races could procreate, which was both outrageous and awesome at the time – it still is, to many.”

“We did not believe he, at first,” Thorin admitted, “but she has a way of… convincing… even the most stubborn Dwarf.”

“She is stubborn as rock, you mean,” Thranduil said, hiding the smile on his face. “But what I must tell you is a darker tale by far.” Sighing, he poured them both a full goblet of wine, swallowing half of his own in one go. “For Eregion fell to deceit and treachery, and Rhonith was merely the first victim of many in those days. She was taken, you see,” he added, wondering if the Dwarf would truly understand what had been done to her. “The Dark Lord wanted the Elven Three, the Rings that Celebrimbor made, and – for he knew him well – sought to ‘trade’ his daughter for them.”

Thorin shuddered, taking a fortifying sip.

“Celebrimbor was inconsolable – only scant centuries since he had lost his wife, now he stood to doom his only child to untold horrors… or doom the Free Peoples of Middle Earth to Sauron’s yoke entirely.” Thranduil paused, running a finger around the rim of his goblet. “Much is said of the stoic visage the Eldar present – especially the Noldor – but although it may not show on our faces, we love very deeply, and our children are few and precious.” Taking a smaller sip, he gestured towards the door and the Halls beyond at large. “In my whole Realm, there are currently only two Elflings. Another will be born before year’s end, but that makes only three in this century.”

Thorin boggled at the Elvenking against his will. He had thought children rare among his own people, especially after the dragon had driven them to a life in exile, though life in Ered Luin had brought a little more peace from starvation, and more healthy pebbles born – but still they were rare… but not this rare. “And many Elves leave these shores,” he added, “never to return.” He had seen them passing through the mountains for the Grey Havens.

Thranduil inclined his head but did not continue the topic. “Rhonith was captive for years,” he began, “alone in a tower at first, though when the Deceiver finally got his hands on Celebrimbor himself, he released her as ‘promised’ … into the ‘care’ of one of his dragon lieutenants.” Anger welled in his breast – betrayal could only be expected and still the dishonour rankled. “We rescued her,” he added, “myself, my wife, and some others – neither Rhonith nor Celebrimbor was without friends, after all – though it took us years to find her.” Too long, he thought, though he had learned to ignore the guilt that stung at the thought.

“A Dragon?” Thorin asked, honestly baffled. How could anyone survive captivity by a dragon?

“Some magic of the Deceiver’s,” Thranduil answered the unvoiced question. “A scale from the dragon was put into her skin as though it grew there… all attempts to remove it have been…unsuccessful.”

Thorin swallowed hard, trying not to imagine the wealth of agony hidden in that phrase.

“The dragon broke her mind and tormented her spirit.” Thranduil swallowed the rest of his wine, pouring himself another, and stared into the ruby liquid for a long moment. When we got her free of its clutches, she was barely alive.” He still remembered the emaciated body, the constant terrified screaming, the drawn look in Nínimeth’s face… “Her fëa[64] had separated so far from her hröa[65] that she might easily have perished. We feared we would have to send her to Valinor to gain a measure of peace. It took many, many moons before we were certain she would come through… but she was not the same as she had been.”

“I can’t imagine anyone would be,” Thorin scowled, slinging back his own wine and pouring more into the cup. His stomach roiled.

“No,” Thranduil acquiesced, “and yet… she had lost much of who she once was, and many memories of her early life still lie buried beneath the person she became.” Some days, he still could not tell if Rhonith remembered her parents – or simply the stories she had been told, adding fragments of memory to patch her reality. Some days, he did not think she could, either. Narví was old, for a dwarf, when Rhonith was born and with Celebrimbor gone, Nínimeth and I were the closest thing to a family she had… for it was felt that she should be kept from where the Rings were hid, and so she could not stay with the Noldor.”

“And you would not let her remain in Khazad-dûm,” Thorin guessed.

“Durin had the Ring of Sapphire,” Thranduil said, “but even so she might have stayed… if not for those who felt that her very existence was an ill omen.” He gave the dwarf a hard stare. Thorin had the grace to look sheepish. “Durin could not promise her safety…” Thranduil continued, “and so I claimed her as my daughter by heart and brought her to Greenwood.” She had been like a child herself, relearning the Sindarin tongue, and other skills besides. “She grew up alongside our eldest sons.”

“You wish her to stay for her sake,” Thorin nodded, “to avoid ripping up old wounds… but she was on her way to the Mountain that day – she must have seen…”

Thranduil nodded. “The day Smaug flew towards Erebor, Rhonith was on the edge of the forest. She ran here, to me, wild with terror. Smaug was the same colour as the one who had held her captive, you see, and she feared it was Aparuiwë returned. She barely managed to gasp out the word dragon before collapsing in the front hall.” He fixed a stern stare at Thorin. “She may not be my child, but she is my daughter and I would not see her in such grief if it was within my power to prevent it. I have sought to protect her to the best of my abilities, without stifling her adventurous spirit, which is no simple task.”

Thorin had to smile at that, thinking that Thranduil sounded exactly like him or Dís whenever Kíli had got himself or Fíli into another scrape and needed rescuing. Looking into his goblet and sipping thoughtfully, he opened his mouth to reply, only to recoil at the vision sat before him.

Thranduil had dropped the glamour that covered the scarring on his face.

Thorin recoiled in shock. The Elvenking truly had only half a face. The rest was a mess of scar tissue and one of his eyes was obviously dead, milky white and blinded.

The Elvenking took a fortifying sip of Dorwinion. “I show you this, not for pity, but to show you what I suffered at the talons of a dragon. Dragonfire is as unkind to the Eldar as it is to the Dwarrow,” he sighed and took another sip of Dorwinion. She believes she has a duty to you and your people, but I will not let her face another dragon, ever again.” He finished firmly, before his face once more returned to its unmarred appearance with a shudder.

Thorin nodded, rage subdued, and more than a little awed by the strength of will in Thranduil’s words and demeanour. “She should stay,” he agreed hoarsely. “If she had told me, I would have done the same thing you did.”

The two kings lapsed into silence, each contemplating the personality of the other. A servant entered quietly with a midday meal of bread and cold meat, and the two shared the meal in companionable silence.

 


 

When Legolas finally located Rhonith, she was staring contemplatively across the river, dropping bits of sticks and leaves into the rushing water. He joined her quietly, taking off his soft leather boots to dangle his feet in the river beside her. Neither spoke for a long time.

Rhonith finally broke the quiet. “Atheg is right,” she murmured. “I will stay here.”

Legolas did not reply, wrapping an arm around her and bringing her head to rest on his shoulder, more relieved than he could say. They sat together in silence for the rest of the afternoon, enjoying the sounds of the forest around them.

 


 

After the delicious meal, Thorin cast about for a new topic of conversation and finally remembered his earlier apprehensions. He had not thought to broach this topic with Thranduil before, but perhaps the Elvenking had some insights to offer. The merchant he had spoken to at meal-times had been effusively eloquent on the topic… to the point Thorin thought he had to be exaggerating. “Will the Master attempt to stop us from reaching the Mountain?” he asked.

“The Master of Laketown…” Thranduil considered his answer quietly. “He is by all accounts an odious man.” He had not personally dealt with the man, but he had heard few flattering things about his character from those who did. “Manipulative and cruel to his people, he is greedy and his table is always full, even when his people go hungry.” He frowned. The first thing he had learned about being a Lord had been that it was his task to see to the welfare of all who called him their lord – no matter his personal feelings for them. Oropher had been a strict teacher, and life since they fled Beleriand even more so. “However,” he added, “he likes to seem benevolent, which may be to your advantage.”

Thorin nodded. “Curulhénes introduced me to a merchant who deals in cloth through Laketown… but I had hoped his tales were embellished.”

Thranduil’s face remained grim when he nodded. “I fear not,” he replied, “though I would counsel you to seek out the man called Bard. He works as a bargeman on my river. The Elves who accept his goods at the River-Gate speak well of his character – I think you will find him a worthy friend.”

“A bargeman? Why would a bargeman have more power over the people than their Master?” Thorin frowned, wondering if Thranduil was playing a joke on him. In the weeks he had known the Elvenking, however, Thranduil had not struck him as a joke-making person. He would sometimes smile at one of Rhonith’s quips or the antics of his subjects, but Elves never seemed to joke in the sense that Dwarrow understood joking.

“You knew Girion of old, did you not, Thorin-King?” Thranduil asked, studying the dwarf over the rim of his goblet.

“Aye, he was a good man. I only met him twice, but he seemed to have been a fair ruler in the seven years he held the lordship.” Thorin frowned, searching his memory, but all that came to mind was a grim-faced man in a meeting with his grandfather. Girion had been seething, though Thorin no longer remembered what the topic had been, but he had been wise enough not to antagonise his fellow ruler, a trait Thorin himself often found difficult to possess.

“Girion, Lord of Dale, perished in Smaug’s attack on the glorious city. His wife and young son, however,” Thranduil smirked, “did not. That son is Bard’s ancestor.”

Thorin almost choked on his wine. “Why is he not the leader of Laketown?” he asked, rather incredulously. The Lordship of Dale had been passed from father to son for as long as the title had existed.

“The Men of Laketown would have him, I would think,” Thranduil shrugged, “but Bard himself does not truly wish to rule – he simply wishes to make a good life for his children.”

“No small task,” Thorin frowned. The loss of Erebor had led to a decrease in prosperity across the North, he knew – Laketown could not be much more than a shadow of Dale, as it had once been.

Thranduil nodded. “I believe that his people would welcome him if he were to take up the mantle of his forebears and lead them to a prosperous future, but he was too young to lead when the Master came to power,” he said, “and the Master has only grown harsher and greedier over the past thirty years.”

“And there is no way to oust such a man?” Thorin wondered. Dale had been a city-state more than an actual kingdom, so the rule was not exactly tied to blood though it had passed from old Fengel to his son Girion with no objections.

“They are cowed by his ruthlessness and lack a strong enough opposition… but revolt is brewing, I am told.” Thranduil’s eyes were shrewd when he looked at Thorin, who suddenly realised just how long time the elf before him had had to learn the art of reading the hearts of Men. “I have always believed that a well-informed ruler is a key necessity for a kingdom,” Thranduil continued. “My people prefer our isolated existence and most care little for the lands outside our borders, but I receive regular reports of the state of our neighbouring realms. There are those among my people who foster closer ties with Men and get involved in their goings-on. I have been reliably informed that Laketown would gain a new leader within the next five years simply due to human nature.”

Thorin nodded, committing the information to memory though he did not know what use it might be to their cause – but when it came time to repopulate the Mountain, being on good standing with the people of Laketown would be one of the key necessities, he knew. “Dwarrow, too, tend to keep themselves separate from the realms beyond our mountains, but our life since Erebor was lost has taught us much about co-existence with Men,” he said. “I wish to see our great kingdom restored to its former splendour, but to do so we will need trade with the outside realms. I will attempt a tentative alliance with this Master of Laketown, but keep Bard as a possible ally and friend if I can. I hope we can make the North as prosperous as it was before Smaug came.”

“For that, you will definitely need the Men of Dale.” Thranduil replied wryly. “I wish you the best of luck in your endeavour.”

“I thank you for your insights today, Thranduil-King.” Thorin bowed and turned to leave the study.

“If you keep on as you have shown your nature here in my halls,” Thranduil said quietly, making Thorin stop with a hand on the doorknob. “I think you shall be a fair king, Thorin. Your mother would be proud. Perhaps we may yet see true friendship between Elves and Dwarrow in this third age of the world.” He smiled softly.

“I thank you, King Thranduil.” Thorin bowed again, graciously accepting the inherent praise of his words. He left, grinning to himself. Today had been a good step on a very long journey home.

 


 

 

That evening, as the official send-off, the Company had been invited to dine with the royal family in the royal dining hall. The Dwarrow had all spent the afternoon searching for the lost elleth, and were quite pleased at the prospect of a good meal – more than one of them comparing the fare of Mirkwood favourably to that of Rivendell. Fíli and Kíli had been the ones to spot the two elves by the riverbank, although they had been charmed into retreating without being noticed by Ori, and had spread the gossip quickly, driving Glóin’s odds in a new direction.

When the doors opened to admit Rhonith alone, they stared, Kíli ducking his head to avoid a glare from Glóin.

Rhonith paid them no mind, heading straight for the King, whose face was impassive as ever watching her approach. She stopped by his seat, noting the tension in him, she felt herself soften further, knowing that he felt as guilty for her upset as she felt for abandoning her kinsmen.

“Atheg,” she murmured, reaching out to draw her fingertips slowly across his ear. “Le suilon.”

“Sellig,” Thranduil’s appearance did not seem to change, but a hush went through the room nonetheless as he spoke. “Tolo, govano ven, mado, a hogo e-mereth.” He returned the gesture and waved Rhonith to take the open seat beside the prince who had snuck in through a different doorway shortly before.

Slowly, the guests returned to their dinner, none of the dwarrow truly understanding the significance of the little interaction, though Thorin could guess.

 


 

After the meal, Rhonith sought out Thorin and the Company in their quarters, carrying a tray of sweet nibbles she had begged off the cook, figuring that her news might be better received if softened by sweet berry tarts. “Good evening, gentlemen.”

A round of hearty welcomes greeted her, and she allowed herself to bask in the warmth of her mother’s people for a moment. The Dwarrow set upon the tray with a voraciousness that would not have been unexpected in people who’d been starved for a fortnight and Rhonith laughed happily – they had all been too thin for her liking when she first met then on the slopes of the Misty Mountains, and seeing the leanness disappear a little over the past weeks felt good.

Thorin sat in the corner and observed her through strands of his dark hair, wondering how he would say what needed to be said. Deciding that he might as well get it over with – he wasn’t looking forward to a repeat of what he had heard earlier, even if Thranduil’s terse story had left much unsaid – he nodded to himself and stood.

“My Lady, I would speak with you, please,” he called, waving at her.

Rhonith looked up and smiled, but Thorin saw a flicker of apprehension in her eyes. A rowdy song had broken out among the others, and their departure went unnoticed by all but Balin.

Thorin strode into the next room, assured that she would follow, turning to face her when the door shut quietly behind him and gesturing at one of the seats by the lit brazier.

“I believe we have things to discuss, my Lady,” he said, trying to set Rhonith at ease.

She breathed a heavy sigh and leaned back in the chair, watching him shrewdly. “You already know,” she said. “Atheg told you.”

“Yes, I do, but I would still like to hear it from you,” Thorin replied.

“As I’m sure Thranduil told you,” she chuckled ruefully. “I have promised him that I will stay here. I will not be going with you to the Mountain.”

Thorin nodded. “You need not tell me the why of it,” he said gently, “but I agreed with Thranduil.” He had expected that she would see the reason in Thranduil’s demand and comply with it, though he had been prepared to ban her from following them if necessary. “You should stay here.”

“I… should be stronger than I am,” she mumbled, staring into the flames as though hypnotised, “but I… I do not know how to stop the voice in my head.”

“No oath beyond friendship binds you to our cause,” Thorin replied, “and that has already been more of a boon than we perhaps deserved.”

Rhonith seemed a little startled at that, her blue eyes glancing up from the flames to meet his.

Thorin smiled gently. “I hope we have a chance to meet again, Auntie Sharul,” he said, not even noticing that he’d slipped in the first Thorin’s name for her, “Until then… Mahal keep your axe sharp and your Hall filled with music.”

Akhminruki astû, Uzbadu dulgu Thorin Mutkê.[66]” Rhonith nodded solemnly.

Smiling to himself, Thorin turned to his pack, going over his own gear one last time. His clothes had been washed and mended and the elves had packed loaves of their leaf-wrapped lembas where they would not get wet. His smile widened, for the first time thinking truly fondly of Thranduil and thanking his foresight. They would still need to pack food for the journey to Laketown and resupply there, but the lembas would last for months and easily keep them from starving before they reached the mountain.

 


 

When Rhonith left Thorin’s room, she tried to leave the Guest Quarters of the Dwarrow unobtrusively, but was spotted by Balin, who followed her out the door.

The old dwarf rested a calm hand on her tense shoulder. “You alright, lass?” he asked, worried by the look he had caught in her eyes as she passed. He had seen something similar in Dwalin’s when his younger brother’s ghosts haunted him particularly harshly.

Rhonith sighed deeply, turning around slowly and offering him a watery smile. “Not really, Master Balin. Bad memories, you know.”

Balin nodded. He did know. His own memories of Azanulbizar would never be as bad as the one when he realised that Skaro had not made it out of Erebor, but they still returned every now and again to haunt his dreams. Dwalin suffered far worse, simply because his chosen path often caused him to relive the deaths he could not prevent, whereas the work of a Scribe and advisor to the King rarely involved active combat. The Quest was the first time Balin had left the range of Ered Luin in more than fifteen years, and it had already given him fodder for several new nightmares; the Goblins, the Orcs and falling from the cliff-top trees, not to mention the giant spiders they had encountered in Mirkwood’s gloom.

“Let’s go find a cup of tea,” he said, patting her shoulder. “The warmth will balm your heart.” Putting her hand through his elbow, he walked slowly down the corridor. Tea would help calm her down, distance herself from whatever Thorin’s conversation had stirred, Balin knew.

Rhonith’s steps were hesitant, but she did not pull away.

When they reached the kitchen, the white-haired dwarf easily charmed a pot of chamomile from the cook who also rustled up a few sweet buns. “Now, I will walk you back to your chambers,” he said, picking up the tray of tea things, “and then you’ll tell old Balin what’s troubling you, lass.”

Rhonith’s smile was tremulous, but she led the way nonetheless. Neither spoke, letting a comfortable silence settle.

Once the tea was poured, Balin raised a querying eyebrow.

“Just memories stirred, Balin,” she began, wrapping her hands around the warm ceramic. “All this talk of dragons… I was… the memories are… unpleasant.” Her gaze was haunted by more than those who had seen Smaug up close, and Balin did not pry further. The look of gratitude that flashed over her face made him smile.

“Was that what the ear touching at dinner was about?” he asked instead. The custom had puzzled him since their first encounter with Legolas, but the forest floor surrounded by poorly disguised Elvish hostility had not been a good time to ask and he had forgotten until the scene at the dinner table.

“Touching ears to elves is a gesture of comfort and familiarity,” Rhonith explained. She reached across the small table, clasped his neck, and rested her forehead gently against his. “Like the kin-blessing for Dwarrow.” They both breathed slowly for a few heartbeats then parted. “Touching the ears of an elf is more intimate though,” she added, “as it is often a part of the combing ritual as well as more intimate endeavours.”

“Combing ritual?” Balin repeated, both because he was genuinely curious – reminding himself to explain it to Ori later – and to keep her thinking about something else, a tactic that usually worked on his brother too.

Rhonith ducked her head lightly, a soft blush staining her cheeks. “The combing ritual is a way to ease into reverie with another, a meeting of fëa,” she said. “You know we don’t usually sleep like mortals do. We can, but it is rare that we are exhausted enough to need it.”

Balin nodded, sipping his tea. He was hit with a powerful memory of finishing many evenings like this, with a cup of Frís’ special tea that she never would reveal where had come from. Admittedly, with good reason, he thought, to be fair, but still the scent of it made him miss his old friend.

“Instead we enter reverie,” Rhonith continued, “a way to walk among memories and dreams. When combing with someone, their fëa joins yours. It is… difficult to explain, but sharing of reverie is a very… intimate thing.” She paused, swallowing a measure of her own tea. “Parents do it with their children, but comrades and friends may comb together. Unwed Elves only comb in groups after they reach majority. Combing privately with someone else is almost as good as a declaration of intent,” she added, blushing lightly, “except under extenuating circumstances.”

“Like travelling alone?” Balin wondered. He had not seen her do anything but sleep like any of them while they were at Beorns and he had not thought to look while they travelled to Mirkwood.

“Well, you can comb alone,” Rhonith chuckled, “but it is not as relaxing. When I am here, I usually join Legolas’s group for combing. It’s only something to be shared with someone you trust,” she smiled, “and once an elf has found their hervenn or herbess[67], combing is usually a prelude for deeper pleasures.”

“So you comb with the king and the prince?” Balin felt intrigued by this insight into Elven everyday life. Hair – and the caring for it – was an intimate thing to Dwarrow, too, after all, though that had more to do with the social and cultural signifiers attached to it.

“No. Thranduil does not comb with anyone,” Rhonith said, shaking her head with a melancholy look that Balin did not quite understand. “Not since Nínimeth was lost to him.”

“But you touched his ears!” he exclaimed instead, confused.

“Yes, but that is mostly a friendly, familiar greeting among elves,” she shrugged. “I named him Atheg, and he considers me a daughter. It is only a part of the combing ritual, not necessarily a prelude, although the rules of who is allowed such intimacy are the same as for combing. If Thranduil would accept my comb, I would join him, but he has never expressed any such desire.” Fiddling with her cup, she added, “I think it would hurt him too much; he still feels it as if she had only just sailed. Combing with another would be a stain on his memory of her, I think. He doesn’t even comb with his children.”

“Thranduil has children?” Balin frowned. “I thought he only had Legolas? We’ve only seen one princeling.” Even if they were out on patrols like Legolas had been when they met him, it was odd that these older children of Thranduil had never even been mentioned.

“No, Thranduil and Nínimeth had four sons. Thalion was the eldest, I told you he died at Dagorlad. Thandir and Thonnon are the elves you haven’t met, and Legolas is the youngest,” Rhonith said, forcing herself to remain calm when she spoke their names. Even so many years later, she still felt great fury at those who had dared hurt her Leaf.

“So the Prince is not the heir?” Balin wondered, having never – even when he was simply apprenticing under Fundin in Erebor – heard that there was more than one Prince of the Woodland Realm.

“If Thranduil had an heir, he would have sailed to the West long ago,” Rhonith replied, sipping her tea slowly. “He would have followed Nínimeth, but his duty has always been to his people first, his heart second.”

“But surely his children could take the throne if he abdicated.” Balin looked confused.

“Legolas is not a ruler.” Rhonith simply looked sad. “Nor does he want to be. He is beloved by his people, but he is… untested, in a way. There have been no major wars in his lifetime where he might have shown his mettle as a commander, even though he is a more than capable group commander. The Silvans, also, are too used to Thranduil to desire a different ruler.” She took another sip of tea. “Thranduil is stuck here, I fear. Thalion would have been a good king, but if he were still around, it wouldn’t be an issue after all.”

“Why couldn’t the brothers be accepted as rulers?” Her disdain for them had been obvious in the way her lip curled and she avoided speaking their names more than necessary.

“What do you see when you look at the Elves here, Balin?” Rhonith studied the old dwarf shrewdly. Although she was older than him by millennia, the white-haired dwarf gave off an almost avuncular feel.

“What do you mean?” Balin asked, beginning to feel that what he was about to learn would be truly horrendous.

“Compare these Elves to the ones you met in Imladris.”

“Well, Lord Elrond was very refined, and his elves were unfailingly polite, but I gathered they didn’t like us much at all. These elves seem livelier, although I still don’t think they like us much.” Balin smiled wryly.

“Partially correct,” Rhonith chuckled. “The Silvans and Sindar here are very different from the Eldar elsewhere. Silvans are by nature wilder and more outwardly emotional than other kinds of elves, and have very clear notions of hierarchy, which means that they actually require a chief – a king – to rule.” She grinned mischievously, “Bofur’s stunt with dancing on tables and singing lewd tavern songs would be far more accepted in this court than it was in Imladris,” she winked, “although they would probably not let you know.”

Balin smiled, shaking his head a little at the memory of that memorable evening.

“My point is that the Silvan royalty have to have earned the loyalty of their subjects as well as the right to rule,” Rhonith said. “Thranduil’s two eldest sons would never gain the loyalty of his subjects, if either tried to find support for a crown.” The sadness was back in her eyes. “I told you that Nínimeth sailed shortly after the birth of Legolas, but I don’t think I mentioned the effect it had on Thranduil.”

Balin nodded; he had listened to the tale at Beorn’s, still trying to make up his mind about Rhonith herself. “I’d expect he was sad – people who lose their One, whatever the reason, are…  never truly themselves again.” Thinking of Skaro, his lips twisted into a wry smile. “I know I wasn’t.”

Rhonith nodded, compassion clear in his eyes. “You were young for such a loss,” she murmured, “my sympathies.”

“The pain is less, now,” Balin replied, “but never quite gone.”

“An Elven marriage is far more intimate than that of Men or Dwarrow,” Rhonith explained, turning her empty teacup over in her hands. “It is a… very deep connection of spirit; a binding of souls as well as bodies that cannot be undone – not entirely, at any rate, I think.” She shrugged. “I’ve never been married, so I wouldn’t know the intimate details of it, but when one dies, or, as in this case, crosses the border to Valinor, the bond is severed, snapping back on the one left behind. The effect is said to be akin to a whip lashing at your mind.”

They both shuddered at that thought.

“The soul keeps searching for the departed,” Rhonith continued, “ranging farther and farther away unless stopped, either by the Elf in question or by someone with the power to pull the soul back into the body… The process is called fading.” She sighed, reminded once more of those dark years. “When the soul has fully abandoned the body, the Elf in question will disappear entirely.”

Balin needed a fortifying sip of tea at that thought – but he realised that it wasn’t so terribly different to what had happened to Fundin after the death of his Amad – dying by inches, slowly losing the will to live.

“Depending on the length of the union, this search and rebound can take decades,” Rhonith added sadly, “and Thranduil and Nínimeth were together for millennia. He sank into a sort of mental fog, and stayed in that space for several years, leaving the raising of Nínimeth’s ‘Little Leaf’ to his two elder sons, who had wives and children of their own by then.” She shrugged. “This is a fairly common practise among Elves, and it is considered an honour by most.”

“Not so by Thandir and Thonnon, I gather?” Balin replied, beginning to see where the story was going.

“They were always petty as children,” Rhonith said, crossing her arms over her chest, “and the responsibility for their younger brother did not sit well with them; they blamed Legolas for their mother’s passing and made certain the child knew it.” She paused, swallowing hard. “I blame myself, for I should have returned to the Greenwood after I put her on the ship, but I… could not face the heartache of walking these Halls without her for some time after I left the Grey Havens. I knew Thandir and Thonnon, but I did not imagine the depth of their animosity.” She sighed. “ No Silvan will mention their names if possible, and if one were to attempt to take the throne it would end in violence. Silvans do not easily forget cruelty, and telling a small child that his naneth was so disappointed in him that she sailed was cruel indeed. Thranduil knows this, and thus he cannot leave. He banished his sons from his Halls and raised Legolas himself.”

Balin nodded, his old dwarf heart twinging at the thought of such senseless pain being inflicted on an innocent child. He had always been fond of children and considered it the height of cruelty to mistreat them.

They finished their tea in silence and then the dwarf bid Rhonith goodnight.

She smiled at him, grateful for the attempt to alleviate her troubled mind, even if the topic they had ended on was only a little less painful than her incarceration. “Balin,” she said, “I will see you off tomorrow, but…” Gripping the old dwarf’s hand firmly, Rhonith squeezed it once. “Mukhuh bekhazu Mahal tamrakhi astû[68].”

The old dwarf nodded, smiling at the familiar words. How many times had he not spoken them himself when Dwalin would set off as a caravan guard? “Akhminruki astî.[69]” He replied, standing on tiptoes to kiss her forehead, before making his way back to the guest rooms in silent contemplation of the night’s revelations.

 

 

 


 

Glossary:

[59] Let me protect you

[60] Would you please? For us.

[61] As you wish.

[62] Father of mine(formal).

[63] Oh, my love, I wish to speak to you. You are wise. She listens to you

[64] Spirit/soul

[65] Physical body

[66] Thank you, King-in-exile Thorin Mutkê. - Mutkê is an acronym for "Mukhuh takayyili" meaning “May he continue to live”. It is an honorific title.

[67] Hervenn = husband, herbess= wife

[68] May Mahal's hammer shield you (Safe travels)

[69] Thank you wholeheartedly (directed at a female)

Chapter Text

Their packs had been filled near to bursting with supplies, something Thorin had never even dreamed could happen if they should run into the Elves of Mirkwood.

Nodding cordially to Thranduil, standing next to Rhonith who still looked like she wished to join them, he hoisted his own pack a little higher.

“May the Sun shine upon your path, Thorin Oakenshield…” King Thranduil said, “until we meet again as friends.”

“Mahal keep you and mithril find you, King Thranduil,” Thorin replied, finding that he actually meant the traditional farewell. Around him, the Company bowed to their host, filing out of the great doors and into the bright sunshine of early morning.

“A good day for travelling,” Legolas offered, standing at the head of his group of warriors.

Cuio vae, ionneg,” Thranduil said, reaching out to run his fingers across Legolas’ ear once in farewell.

“Farewell, Ada,” Legolas replied, “and Rhonith.” For a moment, he hesitated, stroking her ear gently, but then they were off, followed by the calls of the Doorwardens announcing the departure of their Prince.

No gelin idh raid dhîn, a no adel dîn i chwest.[70]Rhonith called, and when they turned around to look at her, she added a farewell blessing in Iglishmêk for the Company.

Thorin bowed to her.

 


Walking along the swift river, the Company and their guides were in good spirits; the day was comfortably warm, and the birds sang overhead. The forest, which had seemed devoid of animal life on their way to Thranduil’s Halls was not, in fact, as dead as it had seemed. Aside from the giant moths and the rangy squirrels they had seen, there were birds here, something Ori realised after a flash of blue feathers resulted in his lembas going missing.

“Ada lifted the spells our defences layered on you when you entered our lands,” Legolas explained when Ori’s surprise turned into avid questioning. “Today you see Mirkwood as it truly is. He was worried about Master Baggins, in particular,” he added, gesturing at Bilbo, whose cheeks were a healthy pink rather than the pallid grey he had been when they first met the elves, “as he would be affected differently than the rest of you because he is a Hobbit.”

Ori looked directly at Bilbo, peering searchingly at his face to spot any discomfort. “You felt sick when you first entered the forest, didn’t you, Master Baggins?” he asked. “More than the rest of us.”

Bilbo nodded, shuddering at the memory of the almost slimy feeling of nausea that had plagued him all through their first journey. The sensation had diminished with the presence of the Elven patrol, but it had not completely dissipated until Thranduil had touched his forehead during their audience on their first night in the Halls.

“The southern part of the forest is as sick as it appeared when you entered,” Legolas continued while Bilbo protested his companions’ sudden concern with vehement reassurances that he felt perfectly fine. “But north of the Old Forest Road we manage to keep it relatively clean, and the land north of the Forest River is yet untainted.”

“Untainted?” Balin wondered, staring at the branches arching overhead.

“When Rhonith was young, my people lived in the southern parts of Greenwood the Great,” Legolas explained. “When King Oropher’s fortress fell, during the War of the Last Alliance, Ada moved our people north and built the Halls; I was born there.”

“I like this part of the Forest,” Bilbo agreed; he felt much better about this part of the forest than the ones they had previously walked through. “It’s a shame it can’t all be like this.” Hobbits have an instinctual affinity for growing things after all, and the tainted ground he had walked had seemed to whisper dark things in his mind. Even the dwarrow seemed to breathe easier.

“One day, I hope to see my Realm restored to its former name, master Baggins,” Legolas replied, wistful longing in his voice. “No matter how long it shall take.”

Everyone seemed to be in brighter spirits than their first trip through the trees, Thorin had to agree. They had camped the night before at the River Gate, enjoying a well-cooked meal of fish with the Elves stationed there, and Bofur soon took up a catchy marching song that most of them knew, the verses getting bawdier as the song went on. At first, Thorin had looked at the Elves to see how this was received, but Legolas’ face gave away no reprobation and Faindirn even joined in on the chorus a few times, so he did not put a stop to the merriment.

In truth, he was tempted to join in himself, feeling glad to be on the way once more even though they had all enjoyed the rest of their stay in the Halls of Thranduil.

Laketown – and its Master – lay before him still, but then… Erebor.

He would see home again.

Dwalin’s hand closed around his for a moment, squeezing gently. Thorin turned his head to smile at him, squeezing back for a moment.

“A better journey than last I visited by far,” Dwalin muttered, “yet I shall not be sad to leave these trees.”

“I know what you mean,” Thorin replied, squeezing Dwalin’s hand again. “We’ll be out of here soon.”

“I didn’t doubt we’d make it this far…” Dwalin added, looking at the trees around them that now seemed so much less sinister than when they had first entered Mirkwood, “but I’m glad we’ve not suffered the losses to get here I’d feared.”

It had been the unspoken fear ever since Thorin had first proposed the idea of reclaiming the Arkenstone – and with it, Erebor itself – that they could not guarantee the Company would even make it to the Lonely Mountain without deaths or injuries. And it was still almost luck that no one had suffered worse than contusions and sprained joints, really.

“Me, too, love,” Thorin sighed, “me too.”

But they both knew what lay ahead, still.

 


“You make your bows differently to ours, I’ve noticed,” Kíli began.

“The Silvan woodcrafters are the best in the world – they sing the tree into shape as it grows, creating branches perfect for our purposes,” Legolas replied, grateful for the chance to escape the sotto voce remarks of his friends for the topic of archery. He had already endured gentle teasing from them for days now, wondering when they would tire of describing to him the way his face either lit up or turned to fire whenever Rhonith smiled at him. At least they had kept their teasing to Silvan; Legolas was not quite sure he wanted the Dwarrow to know how he felt for their newly claimed aunt.

Particularly Thorin Oakenshield.

“We use a composite for ours,” Kíli replied, “with a thin steel core for both balance and strength.”

“It looks like ash-”

“Yrc!” Faindirn cried, interrupting the cosy chat.

Legolas, whose bow was in his hands, had an arrow already fired by the time Kíli noticed the snarling face of a warg among the trees and reached for his own arrow.

“Orcs!” Thorin bellowed. “Du bekar! DU BEKAR!”

The call to arms was echoed in Dwalin’s roar, his axes whirling death to the hated enemy.

Kíli’s bow sang in his hands, feathered death blooming in chests and faces.

The orcs had chosen a perfect spot for an ambush, with thick undergrowth to hide them, and suddenly the travellers were embroiled in bitter combat for their lives.

Legolas scaled a convenient tree, his bow twanging as he slew yet another foe, jumping from one sturdy branch to the next as he chased an opening.

In his chest, his heart beat a swift tattoo, singing at the sound of the Dwarven war-cries.

“Elbereth Gilthoniel!” he shouted gleefully, loosing yet another arrow and landing beside the bald Dwarf – Dwalin – with an impish grin.

Dwalin just growled, raising his axes to meet the next foe, Thorin at his back with a snarl on his face.

Next, Legolas found himself next to Thalawen, who plunged her sword into the guts of a huge Orc. He nearly gagged at the smell, but a shout from behind distracted him and he turned, only to see the blade aimed at his back fall, the wielder struck down by a thrown axe. He looked up and saw the smirking dwarf-king. Legolas grinned back, before his expression hardened and he aimed swiftly.

Thorin’s face only just registered shock when the bow twanged, but the dwarf-king was not the one struck by the feathered shaft. Thorin whirled, seeing it quiver in the eye of a felled Orc.

The king and the prince exchanged another smirk and threw themselves into the fray with renewed vigour.

A scream rang out through the threes.

The dwarf Crown Prince stabbed the largest orc in the back, and, leaderless, the orcs scattered. Legolas’s archers hurriedly picked off the last stragglers, but a few escaped pursued by Erfaron with Faindirn on his heels.

A terrible wail rent the air, shocked grief made sound, and Legolas ran, feet pounding the leaf mulch beneath him.

Death has found us.

The dwarrow split to let him pass, and Legolas’ heart dropped.

Thalawen was kneeling on the leaf-strewn mulch of the forest floor, her hervenn, Dínelloth, lying next to her. His eyes stared at the blue sky, unseeing. His tunic had changed from its normal forest green to a vivid crimson. There was only a gaping hole were his throat had been, carved open by a serrated Orc blade. Thalawen’s wailing continued, wordless agony echoing among the trees.

Curulhénes tried to catch her hand, to put her hand on Thalawen’s shoulder, but the warrior shook off all attempts to comfort her.

“He is gone, Thalawen,” Legolas said softly, kneeling beside her.

“No!” The scream contained a word, resolving into repeated denial, and Legolas’ heart broke for her. 

Govano i nothrim în adh i mellyn în mi Mannos. Nínion an gwannad lîn.[71]

Legolas closed Dínelloth’s eyes and bowed his head. The others echoed his words, tears slipping slowly down Arastor’s face, his hand wrapped tightly around Tuilinthel’s.

Thalawen slumped over the body, tears coursing down her face. She shook desolately, but managed to croak the final sentence of the ritual:

Hiro hîdh nen gurth Dínelloth, Iorthonion, hervenn-nîn.[72]

With that, she collapsed once more, one hand twisted into Dínelloth’s tunic and the other pressed against her own chest like she needed to hold herself together.

As one, they bowed their heads to their fallen comrade.

“Arastor, Tuilinthel, see about making a litter,” Legolas ordered, feeling hoarse, and dashed away a few tears of his own. “Are there other injuries?”

“No, Captain,” Tuilinthel replied softly, going with her brother. “We are all well.”

“We camp here, then.” Resting his hand on Thalawen’s back for a moment, Legolas got to his feet, nodding at Curulhénes. She returned the nod, taking his place beside Thalawen in silence, leaving her hand on Thalawen’s back.

Thalawen did not move from her position, sprawled across Dínelloth’s still chest. His blood had seeped into her clothing, but the elleth did not seem to notice, her eyes staring at something only she could see.

“Will you bury him here?” Thorin asked quietly beside Legolas who splashed another handful of river water over his face.

“Tonight, we will all rest here, at the site of his death,” Legolas said. “After sun-down we will hold a silent vigil… please do not interrupt that. Tomorrow I will send Arastor and Tuilinthel back to the halls with Dínelloth’s body on the litter.”

Thorin nodded. He felt guilty that he felt relieved the death had not been one of his people, that he would not yet need to prepare himself for the task that surely faced Legolas whenever he returned. Telling people that their loved ones were not coming home was the worst part of being a leader, he had found, glancing back at the prostrate elf with no little pity. Dínelloth had clearly been very important to Thalawen.

Dwalin had set to the task of making a litter with alacrity, and the Elves didn’t even seem to notice that he was cutting branches, simply accepting the aid in silence.

Bombur had already got a fire started, water bubbling in his big kettle for stew, shoulders slumped with sadness as he stirred. Thorin spotted Ori sitting on a large boulder near the edge of the clearing – Nori and Dori both hovering protectively nearby – writing in his book. A stray tear glinted on his cheek and Thorin wondered if this was the first time the lad saw the battle-death of a comrade.

Fíli and Kíli were clustered together, looking far younger than they had even that morning, and Thorin felt a surge of relief strong enough his knees nearly buckled that it was not them lying dead under the green canopy.

“As you wish,” he replied, giving Legolas a firm nod before turning towards his nephews, making his way through the rest of them, touching a shoulder here, giving a gentle word there – Glóin had a small cut above his eye where he’d been glanced by a blow; Óin was tutting at him as he cleaned it – until he had spoken to each member of the Company. Bilbo Baggins looked dazed, sitting by the fire curled up under Thorin’s borrowed cloak, and he did not have the heart to deny him the comfort of hiding beneath the furs. Thorin nodded at Bofur – those two had struck up a friendship closer than the rest of them – to join him and try to draw him out of his own mind.

“You are well, Uncle?” Fíli asked. He did not tremble, but his fingers where white around Kíli’s and Thorin simply wrapped his arms around both sets of shoulders, pressing his forehead against theirs in a kin-blessing.

“Not a scratch on me,” he assured them, though he knew he was sporting a least one large bruise from being bowled over by a dying warg.

When Fíli shuddered and relaxed into his hold like he’d suddenly gone boneless, Thorin just hummed gently, a soothing lullaby of a melody he’d created when they were small.

The night passed in solemn silence.

The elves surrounded the litter with Dínelloth’s body, sitting perfectly still and silent, starlight glinting in their open eyes. Each had a hand on their fallen comrade. Thalawen had joined her husband on the litter, still clinging to his still form. Her wailing had stopped, but tears still dripped from her eyes.

Bifur was busily carving a piece of birch wood, but mostly the dwarrow were simply smoking, sleeping or staring into the dancing flames of the fire. Even Fíli and Kíli respected the vigil of the elves and kept still, holding on to each other and Thorin for comfort.

It wasn’t chilly enough to be worth the bother of extracting his cloak, and once Dwalin’s solid bulk joined him, the shared heat from his Kurdel kept Thorin quite happy. Dwalin took his hand and squeezed it once before falling easily into the warrior’s restful watch-stance. The small contact was all the two needed to communicate their happiness that the other was unharmed.

 


Morning dawned grey and overcast – fittingly sombre, as Bilbo remarked to Bofur before scurrying towards Thorin to return his heavy fur cloak with a blushing apology.

“Do not trouble yourself, master Baggins,” Thorin replied. “You had the greater need of it.” Glancing at Dwalin’s broad back, he smiled. “I felt no chill in the night.” Drawing the heavy warmth around his shoulders – still a little warm from Bilbo’s body – he strode across the camp, ending up once more beside Legolas.

“When they return to my father’s Halls, there will be a feast in his memory,” Legolas offered, nodding at Dínelloth’s still form on the litter. The body had begun to smell a little, but no one remarked on that indelicacy, absentmindedly swatting away inquisitive flies.

“Do you bury your dead as Men do?” Thorin asked.

“Dínelloth’s body will be given to rest under his favourite tree,” Legolas nodded. “The Forest will reclaim his empty shell and the circle of his life here is complete.”

“Poetic,” Thorin remarked, “but you do not build to keep the memories of a person alive?” There had been a grand tomb for his grandmother in Erebor, he recalled, and Thrór would visit there on Days of Remembrance. Even in the Blue Mountains there was the Mauoleum, filled with stone boxes of Dwarven ashes, carved with symbolic imagery or set as the base of small statues of their living forms. He, himself, had crafted a statue for Thráin, though there had been no body to bury for him. Dís’s husband had been put in a small box, but she had carved new symbols into its side as the boys grew, as though to communicate with their Adad how they were doing.

“Thalawen might build a cairn at the tree,” Legolas said, “and she will write a conath rîn[73]. In a year, she will sing it for us in I Tham-en-Naur[74]. This is how we remember those who have gone before us.”

“They were family?” Thorin asked. Not that it hadn’t been obvious that Thalawen was the most affected by the death, but he wasn’t sure of the precise relationship.  but Balin replied instead of Legolas:

“No,” Balin replied, making Thorin turn his head and raise an eyebrow at him. “Thalawen was his wife.”

“She was. Theirs was a short union,” Legolas sighed sadly. “It will be difficult for her. They had only just begun discussing elflings and now she will never be a mother.”

“How did you know, Balin?” Thorin was stumped. He should have been used to Balin knowing something about everything by now, but the interpersonal relationship of their guards was not something he’d expected to find on that list, Thorin thought, slightly amused. His advisor had barely spoken to either of the elves on their journey so far.

“I saw them at night,” Balin hesitated, glancing at Legolas’s pallid visage, “during the-the combing… Rhonith explained that it was something spouses did and I never saw them with anyone but each other. The rest of the elves swap partners several times in an evening, but Dínelloth and Thalawen were always together.”

Legolas chuckled, melancholy. “You are observant, Master Balin, and you are indeed correct, we all comb freely with each other.”

Walking towards Thalawen, who swayed gently on her feet as though she was still lost in some dream, he put a hand on her shoulder, saying something Thorin could not hear.

Bifur poked him in the arm, Ori standing beside him looking like he’d rather be most anywhere else, fidgeting nervously with his knit scarf.

Ori cleared his throat a few times, glancing between Thalawen and Legolas, shooting a look back at Thorin, too, which seemed to hearten him slightly. “Bifur made something for your husband,” Ori began, seeming to decide to address Thalawen despite her blank expression. “It’s a tradition among our people that a friend be given tokens for burial.”

Bifur held out his hand to Thalawen. On his palm was a perfectly carved flower, which Legolas recognised as an uilos[75]; each petal carefully shaped and looking as if it had just been plucked from the stem. Bifur put the flower in Thalawen’s hand and bowed, then strode back to his cousins.

Thalawen’s hand closed around the small piece of wood, looking slightly more alert suddenly, her thumb caressing a smooth petal.

Ori blushed hard and stammered an explanation. “Bi-Bifur s-said that his name was a flower. We didn’t know him well, but it was fitting. I m-made this.” He held out a shaking hand, clutching a piece of paper from his sketchbook. “I drew all of you when you came with us, but I thought you might like to have this.”

Thalawen looked the flustered young dwarf, then looked down at the paper in her hand like she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. She unfolded it slowly, tears sliding down her cheeks as she saw the drawing Ori had made. She held the paper carefully and the elves all craned their heads to see. There, captured in ink was the softly smiling face of Dínelloth as he looked down at Thalawen who was reclining in his arms.

“A kindly gift,” Legolas pronounced, feeling slightly hoarse.

Thalawen clutched the gift to her chest, teetering indecisively for a moment, before she took a step, bending to press her lips to Ori’s bright red cheek. “Gûr nîn glassui![76]

she told him, nodding once before striding to Bifur’s side and kissing his cheek too.

Bifur stuttered something incomprehensible and patted her arm gently.

Thalawen lifted her face to the dwarrow who were watching her keenly. As one they bowed to her, a farewell from one warrior to another. She returned the bow before returning to Arastor’s side.

After the four elves had left, the dwarrow and their diminished guide team soldiered on towards Laketown.

 


The road to Laketown felt longer than it had seemed when they set off from the Elvenking’s Halls. The remaining Elves were quieter than usual and the dwarrow seemed equally lost in sombre contemplation.

Four nights away from the battle with the Orcs, the spell of silent grieving that had surrounded the group lifted enough for a few verses of song around their nightly campfire.

 


When Laketown finally appeared before them on the morning of September 8, Bilbo gasped. No one had mentioned that it was not – as he and any sensible person would have thought – a town by the Long Lake, but a town on the Long Lake. He whimpered. Like most Hobbits (aside from the Stoors, but he didn’t have any Stoor-blood) Bilbo was quite unsettled by water. Bridges were fine, if they had sturdy railings – one thing he had not appreciated about Elven architecture was their utter lack of proper railings – but he would rather not be any closer to a body of water larger than his own bathtub than he had to be. And now the dwarrow and the elves expected him to enter – voluntarily! – a town built on poles on the surface of a large lake! The small hobbit almost asked Thorin if he could possibly set up camp away from the shore and just wait for the rest of the Company there.

Looking at the town, which seemed to be swaying gently with the current (and Bilbo felt a certain amount of pride that he did not faint upon making that discovery) he was absolutely convinced that the columns would rot through and give way as soon as the stocky dwarrow set foot on the planks.

Dwalin, who had kept company with Bilbo throughout the day, noticed his shivering.

“What’s wrong, Master Baggins?” Most of the company had relented and called their hobbit Bilbo, but Dwalin thought the formality might settle the hobbit’s nerves. It did not work as well as he might have hoped, but Bilbo did stop whimpering. His hand clamped tightly around Dwalin’s wrist. Dwalin didn’t wince, but only due to his great self-control; the hobbit’s grip was far stronger than his size would have led one to believe. Dwalin was almost impressed.

“It’s… lake! It’s on the lake!” Bilbo babbled; a litany of water-related words interspersed with exclamations of horror and distrust if not outright fear. “Bridge!” The two had fallen behind the rest of their companions, while the bald dwarf listened to Bilbo’s fears spilling from his lips.

In the privacy of his own mind, Dwalin felt faint amusement, but he was a seasoned warrior who knew that fear was not always rational. A fond thought to Dís’s absolute terror of seagulls had him smiling wryly for a second before his face smoothed into lines of concern for their smallest member. “Can ye not swim, lad?” In a different situation, Bilbo’s expression would have brought him to tears with laughter; such loathing just did not belong on the cheerful face of a Hobbit.

Bilbo was lost in a vision of himself falling off the rickety bridge he could see in front of him, which was hardly more than pairs of planks tied together with rope, and heard little of what occurred around him.

Dwalin mastered his own face quickly, calling out to Dori. Explaining the problem, he handed off his weapons and backpack to Dori, who could easily carry the extra load. Not many people realised, but Dori, the fussiest of mother hens, was also the strongest dwarf in Ered Luin. Dwalin preferred not to think on the one time he had tried to arm wrestle with Dori. Of course, it was Nori’s fault in the first place, but he still remembered the calm way the mithril-haired dwarf had pushed his arm down, as if it took no more effort than lifting one of his teacups. When he was unburdened as far as he was willing to get in front of the watching eyes of elves and men, Dwalin’s heavy hands landed on the Hobbit’s shoulders, startling him out of his fearful visions.

Bilbo looked up at the bald dwarf, frightened eyes searching Dwalin’s face until he realised who was in front of him, mercifully blocking the sight of the bridge and the town.

“Now, Master Baggins,” he said, trying to exude calm competency even though he was quite sure Bilbo wouldn’t notice either so long as he blocked out the sight of the water. “I am going to pick you up, and you are going to look at me and not at the-” Dwalin corrected himself when he saw Bilbo’s eyes start to glaze over, “where we’re going. I will keep you safe, and I won’t put you down until we are away from the- what we’re crossing. Do ye understand me, lad?”

The hobbit nodded. Dwalin took a step forward, and next thing Bilbo knew, he was being held securely against the warrior’s broad chest. Dwalin’s voice rumbled against his ear, muttering reassurances and encouragement. Bilbo simply closed his eyes and hid his face against Dwalin’s soft shirt. His nose filled with the scent of warm skin, sweat, and metal, and blocked out any hint of water.

Dwalin slowly walked across the bridge behind Dori. Both dwarrow gave the humans a hard glare, stalling any comment that might have sprung to their lips. Finally, they were in the town of Esgaroth as the elves had called it. Dwalin kept a tight hold on Bilbo, who fancied himself able to feel the slight swaying of the boardwalks and began to feel queasy.

 


While Bilbo was having a water-based crisis, Thorin had bigger problems to contend with. The guards that the elves had spotted as soon as the town came into view were proving to be an issue.

“We have orders not to let any foreigners into the town. Master’s decree.” One pockmarked guardsman said snidely, looking as though the Company were riffraff begging at the door. His eyes roamed over the dwarrow, widening slightly at their impressive collection of weapons and scowls. The presence of the four elves made a puzzled look appear in his eyes.

Thorin grumbled. The men were being annoyingly stubborn and uncooperative. They would not let them in, but they would not permit them to camp on shore while waiting for a representative of the Master to be summoned, either. Nor would they send a runner to said Master (Thorin was beginning to suspect that Thranduil’s traders had downplayed the annoyance this man presented) so that he might grant the Company leave to enter the city. The elves had stayed in the background, but the rising tension in their Dwarven companions had not gone unnoticed.

“I believe I may be able to clear up this minor misunderstanding, guardsman.” Just as Thorin was about to lose his temper and chuck both guards into the water, Legolas spoke in his haughtiest tone, copied straight from his father’s when dealing with recalcitrant nobles. The voice made it clear in no uncertain terms that its owner expected full obedience with his wishes and would tolerate no argument. “I am Prince Legolas go-Thranduil[77] of Mirkwood

,” he said, and even if he hadn’t been, Thorin would have dared anyone to disbelieve the authority of the elf before him. The joking captain of guards had disappeared, leaving only regal contempt behind. “My dear companion here is King Thorin Oakenshield,” Legolas continued, “whose friendship is crucial to both our peoples.”

The guard nodded, looking at once stunned and apprehensive.

Thorin had to admire Legolas’ act – until he realised that it was no act, and the elf they had become used to was simply a facet of this one, who carried the mantle of his title with as much respect as Thorin carried his own.

“King Thorin of Durin’s Folk remembers these lands,” Legolas added, and Thorin straightened, trying to look as kingly himself as he possibly could, and wishing that there had been a proper bathhouse an hour’s journey from the lake; they had washed perfunctorily during the walk, but none of them were exactly ‘fresh’ anymore.

The guard tried not to cower under their combined gazes. He didn’t quite manage.

“In honour of our ancient friendship-” Thorin did his best not to snort at that, missing a few words. “- You see that Mirkwood has a vested interest here, I trust?”

The guardsman nodded – there wasn’t really any other response to make, at this point.

“Therefore it is imperative that I speak with your Master immediately,” Legolas said, “and as I cannot leave my guests and honourable friends to languish in inhospitality out here, I will have to bring them with me to the Master so that we can clear up this little misunderstanding.”

The guardsman nodded harder.

Legolas smiled, but Thorin had seen him smile genuinely before and this smile sent a cold shiver down his back. It seemed to have the same effect on the guardsman, he thought, with a savage pleasure.

“P-Please a-a-and welcome t-to La-Laketown, your Majesties.” The unfortunate guardsman stumbled back, dragging his hapless friend with him and away from the elf who had given him the willies.

Legolas gestured grandly for Thorin to precede him, and the Dwarf-King permitted himself a single hard glare at the guards and an internal smug smirk. Who knew it could be so useful to have an elf on your side?

When they reached the town proper, Legolas bent slightly, speaking in a low tone so he would not be overheard, “I apologise if you did not want your name known just yet. Those guards will certainly send tongues wagging.”

“I doubt it will make much difference.” Thorin rumbled, equally quietly as he watched the passing Men with the slight suspicion his long life as a travelling blacksmith had instilled in him. “Our purpose here will not be aided by subterfuge or stealth.”

 


The Master turned out to be precisely as horrible as Thranduil had warned – if not worse.

Thorin was livid. The Master had refused to see them until the day after, so they had to scrounge up their own sustenance at least for the night. They had been shunted off to a ‘Guest-House’ which could easily have doubled as a pigsty.

By the state of the kitchen, that occupation might have been its official title, Dori groused, trying to find a pot to boil water for tea. The building seemed to have been put up with no eye for details or even a rudimentary grasp of measuring or planning. The poor hobbit was still trembling, even though the sight of the water was at least blocked by what the Men deigned to call walls. Dori would not necessarily have agreed with the designation. She sighed, finally locating a large metal kettle. She instantly decided to use the first boiled water to clean the kettle. Master Bilbo would simply have to wait for his tea until Dori felt that the brew she could serve was worthy of the name and not something that tasted as if it had been used to wash dishes. Dori huffed.

From the doorway Nori snorted, as ever amused by her grumbling to herself.

“Make yourself useful, nadad,” Dori snapped, “and find me some cups and plates.”

Nori disappeared, calling for Glóin and Óin to help set up a simple table.

Shaking her head, Dori scrubbed the kettle, glaring at the squalid room. She could only make herself call it a kitchen if she didn’t actually have to cook in it. Bombur had sensibly declined the use of the Men’s kettle for their stew and instead hung the one he had been given by Thranduil’s cook over the hearth fire. At least the Elves had been generous with their supplies, so no one would be starving tonight. One of the elves, whose name Dori had been told meant Lone Hunter, had shot a pair of large bucks the day before and they still had enough meat and vegetables for a hearty stew. She didn’t really understand the elven predilection with naming people after what they did, but she chalked it up to one of the peculiarities of the species. The elf never spoke and often went off by himself, but he always brought back some form of edible kill, so Dori thought well of him.

 


Nori had quickly rummaged through the building in search of anything useful, but he had come up with very little. Dori’s task discharged, if not to anyone’s satisfaction, then at least to a degree that it wouldn’t be Nori’s fault that they’d be eating from their bowls as usual, he decided to go see the town.

A dwarf felt the need for air, after all, Nori decided, and shimmied open the shutters on a window on the second floor. He easily slipped out, skipped across a few rooftops and scampered down a conveniently located stack of crates. He reasoned that while they’d been asked to remain in the house they had been shown to by armed guards, they had not been specifically told not to leave it.

With the unerring instincts of those often found under the auspices of a slightly looser definition of legality, Nori quickly found the place where he could win a bit of copper playing at dice and get his throat wetted by surprisingly well-brewed ale. It was hardly the worst place he had found himself, so Nori shrugged and settled in to obtain some quality local gossip through the help of his new best friends. Nori smirked. It was amazing what buying someone an ale and pretending to be bad at games could earn you. Of course, Nori was actually skilled enough at dice to ensure that he lost steadily. When the Men had told him what he wanted to know, he would begin winning again, leaving the evening with at least as much gold as he’d had when he left the Company.

 


Dwalin finally managed to extricate himself from the clinging limbs of Bilbo Baggins when they had entered the house. He kindly forbore remarking on the rumpled state of his clothes and gratefully left Bilbo in the fussy hands of Dori while he re-dressed and tried to avoid the smirking face of Thorin. Sometimes his Kurdel had far too much fun at his expense, Dwalin felt, and promised himself that he would wipe the grin off Thorin’s face with a round of sparring at the next possible opportunity. The King had spent the entirety of their walk through Laketown chuckling under his breath and Dwalin wanted very much to steal the smile off his lips somehow – with a fist or a kiss?

The decision was made when Fíli and Kíli decided their Uncle needed a good ribbing for his stint as a Hobbit tree. Dwalin roared a challenge at the impudent youngsters and soon had them crying for mercy in the midst of their laughing. Another booming laugh joined the spectacle and Dwalin looked up to catch the sparkling blue eyes of his King smiling at him. Kissing won, and he quickly freed himself from his conquered foes and stalked towards the King.

Thorin backed away quickly up the stairs, wary of the look in Dwalin’s eyes, but not so quickly that Dwalin wouldn’t catch him. The two tumbled into a spare bedroom and were not seen for the rest of the evening. Downstairs, the two young princes smirked at each other and went off to harass their next victim.

 


Balin had wanted to discuss how they would handle the Master, but he knew better than to get between his brother and his King when they had that look in their eyes. Instead, he joined Dori for a lovely cup of tea, uncaring about the grumbling of the mithril-haired dwarf. Balin rather enjoyed listening to the running commentary Dori was prone to slipping into. In a way, it was a very homey thing, Balin considered. Their mother, who had died with the dragon, had been the same when she puttered around their kitchen. The old dwarf lost himself in memories of bygone days, while Dori plied him with several cups of tea and eventually a bowl of stew. Balin consumed both tea and stew absentmindedly, only surfacing from the depth of his recollections once to thank Dori for the meal. The mithril-haired dwarf nodded before returning to his own task, recognizing the look of introspection, and getting busy with making more tea. The two spent most of the evening in companionable silence.

 


Ori joined poor Mr Baggins in the living room and spent his night telling the Hobbit stories he had read as part of his apprenticeship and teasing the princes with stories of some of their more spectacular pranks – or rather, failed pranks – in Ered Luin. The stories had the desired effect of taking Bilbo’s mind off the water sloshing quietly below their feet, and the hobbit even joined in with a few stories of his own youth in the Shire. Ori used the evening to draw; one sketch of the two princes lying intertwined on the floor and listening raptly to the hobbit, one sketch of Bilbo himself and a few of the Laketown houses and the Master’s large dwelling. He also drew the view from one of the upstairs windows, which framed the solitary peak of the Lonely Mountain. Ori felt an odd feeling of homesickness at the sight. He had been born and raised in the Blue Mountains, but his mother – and later on, Dori – had told him stories of life there. He also worked on redoing his drawing of Erfaron, which had not come out exactly as he would have liked; the tall silent hunter had a very distinct facial expression when he was proud of a kill that Ori wanted to capture on paper. Ori found all the elves’ expressions fascinating. Most only lasted a fleeting moment before being replaced by a calm mask, so it was a challenge to remember them well enough to draw them later. When Bombur finally called everyone to table, the Company was a rather reduced lot, Ori realised. Nori had gone off Mahal knew where, all the elves were missing, Thorin and Dwalin had never come back down and Dori was keeping Balin company in the kitchen.

The meal was as hearty as a dwarf could desire, and the Company went to bed with full bellies. This building represented their last chance of sleeping in proper beds before reaching the mountain and so they all turned in fairly early.

The elves did not take one of the rooms, returning to their small camp at the forest’s edge. The guards had changed, but the newcomers eyed the tall, lithe beings warily. Their unfortunate predecessors had embellished the threatening nature of both royals fiercely in an attempt to reduce their own culpability in disobeying the Master’s orders. The elves simply passed in silence, even if Faindirn twitched a sardonic smile in their direction.

 

 

 

notes:

[70] May your paths be green and the breeze behind you.
[71] May you join your family and friends in the afterlife. I mourn your passing.
[72] May Dínelloth, son of Iorthon, my husband, find peace in death.
[73] Lamentation – literally “many voices” – of remembrance
[74] The Hall of Fire – ie the hall in which you gather around the fire to tell stories and sing lays.
[75] Evermind, aka simbelmynë
[76] I thank you from my heart.
[77] Child of Thranduil. Among the Sindar, -ion(Son of) would be used, but Legolas uses the Silvan way here.

Chapter Text

In the morning, the Elves returned to the town on the lake from their shoreside camp – silently agreed that spending the night beneath the stars was vastly superior to anything the Men could offer – carefully watching their steps on the slippery planks. Heavy fog lay over the water, obscuring some of the lower pathways, and no one fancied a chill dip in the unwelcoming waters.

The smell was the sort that would linger beyond a proper bath, Legolas thought, avoiding the view of someone’s floating trash with a slight shudder.

Inside the Guest house, the mood was not much warmer than the morning mist licking at the threshold. The Company were huddled in the kitchen; the merry fire in the hearth was doing its best to combat the morning chill, but none of the dwarrow looked entirely pleased with their surroundings; it had rained in the night and the whole place smelled even more of damp.

Thorin nodded a greeting from his seat by Dwalin and a few of the others also grumbled a good morning in the direction of the elves.

“A cup of tea, my lord?” Dori asked, pouring small cups of the fragrant brew when Legolas nodded. He had resigned himself to Dori’s formality, even though it was odd to hear ‘my lord’ from a Dwarf in that way – Dori, at least, did not use the honorific snidely, which he well recalled from visits to Erebor in the past. He found a small smile for Dori in return though the chill did not bother him much.

“There has been no word from the Master’s house this morning.”

Thorin’s voice rumbled through the air, startling the half-asleep Ori who squeaked and fell off his chair. The dwarf with the peaks in his hair – Nori? – pulled him back onto the bench with a sigh.

“Do we go see him regardless?” Thorin added, kindly ignoring the minor mishap.

“If he will see us,” Balin grumbled before Legolas could respond. “Considering our welcome last night, I shouldn’t think he’d be very keen.”

“Waiting for an invitation will garner us nothing, however,” Thorin replied.

“The Master does not trouble himself with the running of Laketown,” Curulhénes said quietly. The dwarrow studied her; this was the first time she had spoken to them without prompting.

Legolas nodded for her to continue; Curulhénes’ family of weavers did trade with the Men of Laketown.

“Most things are left in the purview of Alfrid – the man who sent you away yesterday,” Curulhénes continued.

“So getting past Alfrid is our first task,” Thorin decided, brows drawn with concentration. “Any insights to share, Mistress Curulhénes?”

“My father usually lets Magoldir get his traders past the steward,” Curulhénes nodded. “Alfrid is not a brave man and my brother is… aptly named.”

“You mean your brother spends most of his time practising with a sword, and his body reflects his pastime,” Legolas offered drily. Magoldir was famous in the Halls for his prowess with a blade – some claimed the weapon, which he had named Spider’s Bane, was his only love – and Legolas could easily imagine just how intimidating his friend could seem to a man like Alfrid. The thought made him chuckle.

Curulhénes grinned mischievously. “Alfrid is easily intimidated by anyone appearing bigger or stronger than himself.” She paused, letting her green eyes roam over the display of bulging muscles and raw strength that was Dwalin. The dwarf tightened his fists, making his knuckledusters rattle ominously. “And has a tendency to hide behind his barbed tongue.” She smiled at the collective dwarrow – none of them could be described as scrawny, exactly, even the slender Nori had a wiry strength to him – as well as a truly terrifying grin and a large assortment of knives.

“A coward hiding behind bureaucracy, then,” Thorin sighed. “I hate few officials more.”

 “That is no secret, Thorin,” Balin replied, hiding a smile in his beard. “But in this case perhaps not so very useful; we will need the good will of this Master if our task is to meet with success.”

“If he is allowed to get between you and the Master, Alfrid will spin your words until you will seem to him either beggars or thieves,” Curulhénes warned. “The Master is a greedy man, and that might be to your advantage,” she continued, “if you can broach the topic of the riches he stands to gain at the completion of your Quest.”

“I thank you for your insights, Curulhénes go-Nathril,” Legolas said, nodding at her in formal acknowledgement.

Curulhénes bowed, returning to her place by Erfaron, who was leaning against the wall. “Le vilui, caun vuin, i 'ell nîn.[78]” she said, before subsiding into watchful silence. Erfaron reached out to catch her fingers in one of his mute signals, making her smile at him.

That is new, Legolas thought. But not wholly unexpected.

“I’d rather pay him nothing at all,” Thorin growled, looking around the room. He had not seemed surprised by their ‘accommodations’ when the Master’s guard had led them here last night, but Legolas knew that the house was another slight against the Company – and the people of Durin’s Folk, in general. He might not leave his forest, but he had heard Rhonith’s stories of the plight of her people and the treatment their proud craftspeople faced among Men; he was by no means ignorant of the world at large. “From all I have heard of the man, he is an example of the least noble of Men… and he knows the difference as well as we do.”

“The thought is odious,” Legolas agreed, “but may prove necessary…”

“We should spread word of our arrival and intent among the people, too,” Nori opined. “In the tavern last night, I got the impression that the Master cares little for the plight of his people, but he wants to be seen as though he does… not that many are fooled.”

“I’ll leave that to you and Bofur,” Thorin decided, nodding at them and getting to his feet. “Let’s go then princeling,” he rumbled, “before our beards grow so long that we trip on them.”

Chuckling, Legolas followed him.

 

 


 

Walking through the Laketown market after their first futile meeting with the Master, Thorin felt unsettled. He shook his head angrily, dark locks tumbling down his back. They had managed to converse with the man, but he had proved as horrid as they had been warned, and although Curulhénes’ advice had been helpful, they had made little headway with their plans.

Behind him, he could feel Dwalin’s steady presence, but apart from Balin and the ‘Oins, the Company had dispersed after the meeting. Balin’s voice brought him out of his annoyed thoughts as the white-haired dwarf came to a sudden halt in front of him.

“Girion?”

They looked up as one. Balin was staring at a tall stranger, who seemed oblivious to the calling of his name. The man did look at lot like the Girion Thorin remembered, and he stepped forward, hand landing heavily on Balin’s shoulder. The man looked up, finally noticing the stares of the dwarrow and the elven prince.

“He is not Girion, Balin.” Thorin’s voice carried to the man, who stood up straight, staring at them with suspicion brimming in his brown eyes. “I believe he is the descendant, Bard, whom King Thranduil mentioned, old friend. Uncanny resemblance.” Deciding that they had drawn enough curious stares from the stallholders and other people, Thorin took a few steps towards the dark-haired man, dragging Balin along beside him.

“Good day.” The man’s tone was clipped, his hands busy with the netting he was sorting through.

“Good day to you. You are Bard, descendant of Girion, Lord of Dale, are you not?” Thorin rumbled, keeping his voice polite while his eyes roamed this figure who – apart from eye colour – could have been Girion’s twin brother.

“I am Bard the bargeman.” The Man nodded.

“I am Balin, son of Fundin, and with me is Thorin, son of Thraín, son of Thrór.”

Thorin sketched a bow at the man. So this was the one Thranduil had pegged for leadership… he didn’t much look like a man in charge, but still, there was something in the eyes and the set of Bard’s jaw that spoke of his heritage. Thorin was glad to see it; men’s lives were short, he knew, but there was comfort in the thought that Girion’s tenacity had not died with him.

“And what do such illustrious people want with a simple bargeman?” Bard wondered, looking past Balin to Thorin to Dwalin, face in a dark scowl and hands not far from his axes, lingering on Ori with his knitted mittens and ink-stained fingertips for a moment.

“Ahh, you see, we knew your ancestor of old,” Balin replied, sounding quite jovial. “And for a moment I thought you were Girion himself!”

Thorin took half a step back, pressing his boot gently down onto Dwalin’s toes until his beloved pinched his backside to make him let up.

But Dwalin’s face would have resolved into the mask that hid his emotions during official events, Thorin knew, which was better than menacing their new potential ally from the get-go. His own face was carefully shaped into slight interest as he listened to Balin’s easy conversation lulling the man’s misgivings. The dwarf was a diplomat born, Thorin had always known, and envied the ease of his flair. His own temper was far less given to the type of smooth talking that Balin could perform, and he had not needed Dís to tell him that his dream of reclaiming the Arkenstone would hinge on Balin’s manners and genial approach whenever they met with strangers.

 


 

While Thorin had taken Ori along for the meeting with the Master, and Nori had been off spreading the kind of information he was best suited to deliver, the rest of the Company had spread through the town. Bilbo had made himself useful indoors, scrubbing years’ worth of grime from the house in an effort to avoid thinking about the water lapping at its foundation poles. It didn’t quite work; being alone meant he had few distractions from the sound and so he had taken to singing to himself, tiny made-up bits of melodies and lyrics as they popped into his head. It reminded him of the Elves singing in the woods near Rivendell – though he did not remember all of theirs, the tra-la-lally had stuck with him. Sadly, however, it did not rhyme with either Laketown or Erebor, and so he had turned his mind – and his heart – to the old songs of the Shire, remembering the one his mother always sang when washing.

 


 

Inviting Bard and his family for dinner had been Balin’s idea. At first the man had been reluctant, distrustful of the strangers, but the old dwarf’s persuasiveness won out in the end, and that evening, four humans joined 13 dwarrow, one hobbit and three elves under the sagging roof of the ‘Guest House’.

The three children were a little cowed by the strange company at first, but Bofur’s mischievous nature and Nori’s juggling tricks broke the ice.

Aside from the leaf-wrapped parcels of lembas which were intended for the journey to Erebor and however long they’d need to stay after their arrival there, they had not brought much food from Thranduil’s Halls; although Laketown mostly boasted barrels of fish and salted pork, Glóin and Dori had managed to obtain enough meat for dinner without exhausting their supply of gold, severely diminished by the Goblins in the Misty Mountains. Glóin had had a field day haggling for supplies and other necessities; Thorin had to smile at the light in his cousin’s eyes – a good bargain always made the merchant happy.

 


 

Bard spent the meal in quiet contemplation of the thirteen Dwarrow and one Hobbit who milled around the house. They were a close-knit bunch, he thought, family in all but blood.

The leader was a stern dwarf, but Bard could see the love in him when he looked at his nephews, and the respect and care he received from every single member of his Company. The old one, who had first spoken to him in the marketplace, was obviously an advisor of sorts, and could rarely be found far from Thorin’s side.

The young princes, who scampered around like they did not have a care in the world, would occasionally glance towards their uncle, not for permission, but rather reassurance, Bard mused, that he was within range. It spoke well of his character that his heirs looked to him for both protection and comfort.

His own youngest, Tilda, seemed entirely smitten with the hatted dwarf who was telling stories to his rapt audience. The small hobbit perched next to him, listening just as intently, and smiling indulgently at the scene.

Sigrid, on the other hand, was watching the strangers with barely concealed scepticism. She laughed at their jokes and answered their questions readily, but Bard sensed the wariness in his daughter. Sigrid would – like her father – form her own opinion, unswayed by promises of riches.

After the meal, which had been filling, if a bit bland, in Bard’s opinion, pipes were brought out and the dwarrow crowded around the fire. Bofur had found his flute; teaching Tilda and Sigrid a popular children’s song from the Blue Mountains. Bard smiled to see it – their mother’s death had forced Sigrid to grow up too soon, he knew, and it was nice to see her relax a little – tapping his foot on the floor to the tune.

“A sweet song,” Thorin rumbled beside him, lighting his pipe for a few puffs before passing it off to Dwalin – their stores of tobacco were thin, and Glóin’s market expedition had turned up only a few pouches worth of fragrant leaves of subpar quality – and nodding at the girls. “I remember teaching it to the lads,” he added, smiling at the memory.

“Your… nephews, you said?” Bard replied, gesturing at the wheat-haired dwarf lounging by his brother, idly sharpening what looked like a small axe.

“My sister’s sons,” Thorin nodded, “Fíli and Kíli.”

“There are sweet songs here, still, though life is hard,” Bard offered, accepting the proffered pipe though he smoked only rarely. “Passed down from Dale.”

“Sometimes a good song may do more to ease a hard life than the moment of distraction,” Thorin agreed.

“You may know the one of which I speak,” Bard told him cautiously, “though there are two versions to my knowledge… for it is a song about you.”

“About me?” Thorin asked, raising an eyebrow and accepting the pipe back for a drag.

“About the return of the King under the Mountain, at least,” Bard said, beckoning to Sigrid. He wanted all the promises of it to come true, but he was also apprehensive. Even if the dwarrow succeeded, there was no guarantee that their king would bring fortune and plenty to his neighbours. Life now was hard, yes, but it was familiar, and he could feed his children.

“Let’s hear it then,” Dwalin rumbled behind them, reaching past Thorin to snag the pipe, one hand resting easily on his shoulder.

“Yes, Da?” Sigrid asked, though Bard thought she had heard his request already.

“Sing them the song of the King under the mountain, my girl,” he asked; his own voice for singing was limited to the tuneless rhythm of poling a barge, roughened by chilly nights on the water and winter coughing.

Nodding, Sigrid opened her mouth, a little hesitant at first, though she gained confidence as the words flowed and the Company settled to listen.

The King beneath the mountains,
The King of carven stone
The Lord of silver fountains
Shall come into his own!

His crown shall be upholden,
His harp shall be restrung,
His halls shall echo golden
To songs of yore re-sung.

The woods shall wave on mountains
And grass beneath the sun;
His wealth shall flow in fountains
And the rivers golden run.

The streams shall run in gladness,
The lakes shall shine and burn,
All sorrow fail and sadness
At the Mountain-king’s return![79]

As the girl’s clear voice echoed through the rooms, the dwarrow fell silent. The song had been set to the tune of a much older dwarven song, yet another reminder of what had been lost… but not just to them.

“A sweet hope indeed, young Mistress Sigrid,” Thorin said at last, clearing his throat. “And one I had not heard before – thank you.”

They had known, of course, that the wealth of Laketown was as a pebble to a mountain compared to that of Dale before the dragon, but Thorin had never truly realised that the Men had suffered as much as the dwarrow that fateful day. Those who had been born in the Mountain, and who had seen the famous markets of Dale, could not help but feel slightly overwhelmed at the thought that the hopes and dreams of two peoples – three if the Elves counted – rested on their small Company’s success. Thorin felt both humbled and proud at the thought.

In the corner, Elven voices rose – Thorin was reminded of their descent into Rivendell, but Legolas and his guardsmen did not sing tra-la-lally; their voices were solemn, and the song melancholy:

The wind was on the withered heath,
but in the forest stirred no leaf:
there shadows lay by night and day,
and dark things silent crept beneath.

The wind came down from mountains cold,
and like a tide it roared and rolled;
the branches groaned, the forest moaned,
and leaves were laid upon the mould.

The wind went on from West to East;
all movement in the forest ceased,
but shrill and harsh across the marsh
its whistling voices were released.

The grasses hissed, their tassels bent,
the reeds were rattling—on it went
o'er shaken pool under heavens cool
where racing clouds were torn and rent.

It passed the lonely Mountain bare
and swept above the dragon's lair:
there black and dark lay boulders stark
and flying smoke was in the air.

It left the world and took its flight
over the wide seas of the night.
The moon set sail upon the gale,
and stars were fanned to leaping light.[80]

“One of Dínelloth’s favourites,” Legolas murmured when the last note died. “He would sing for us of an evening on patrol if there was no danger.” He offered them a wan smile. “It seemed apt, considering the company.”

Thorin felt a pang of compassion for the Elves then – they had shown so little outward grief since the morning they had farewelled their slain member that he had believed them distant to it, but he suddenly realised that what he had read as uncaring aloofness was more akin to a shielding mask hiding the bleeding hearts in their midst.

“He was not the first to lose his life for this Quest,” Thorin replied, “and I shall not insult anyone here by claiming he will be the last… but he will not be forgotten in our annals of it; Ori will see to it.” Giving the small scribe a regal nod – Ori’s pen was already scratching across the page of his notebook, writing down the song of the wind, most likely – he exchanged another with Legolas; his word given on that.

As the evening continued, stories and snippets of songs flew back and forth, some lively and some sad, most of them strange to Bard and his small family. And then the one who looked most like Thorin – Kíli, Bard suddenly recalled; the rhyming names did not make them easier to remember – spoke. He and his blond brother had been talking with Sigrid, but Bard had not followed the topic.

“Uncle, can we sing them the song of the Lonely Mountain?” he asked, turning large puppy eyes on his uncle.

Every head in the room turned to the young archer, who blushed under scrutiny, but kept his eyes fixed on Thorin’s stern features. Even the elves seemed interested in the reaction of the Dwarf-king, Bard mused, wondering why this song was held in such reverence.

“Kíli.” The large bald dwarf with all the tattoos spoke slowly, rising from his seat by the hobbit and moving to stand behind his king. Somehow the name was a heavy weight in the sudden silence that had followed the younger Dwarf’s request. A single massive hand landed on the blue-clad shoulder of the King and squeezed.

Thorin reached up, returning the squeeze with one of his own, but did not reply, eyes locked on Kíli’s.

Thorin rose from his seat and walked slowly to the fire, staring into the flames. He nodded once.

Kíli beamed, but did not speak.

Dwalin reached into his tunic and retrieved a simple flute. Around him, the dwarrow followed suit, bringing out various instruments in perfect silence.

Bard was puzzled by the silence, but just as he opened his mouth to ask, the deep voices of the dwarrow behind him sounded, a deep resonant humming forming the baseline of melody.

One by one, they all joined in, rumbling low in their throats. Those who had instruments were playing a solemn tune, almost a dirge.

Then Thorin opened his mouth and Bard felt the world shift a little.

Far over, the Misty Mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To find our long-forgotten home.

Far over the Misty Mountains rise
Leave us standing upon the height
What was before we see once more
Is our kingdom a distant light.

The pines were roaring upon the heights
The winds were moaning in the nights
The fire was red it flaming spread
The trees like torches, blazed with light.

Fiery mountain beneath the moon
The words unspoken, we'll be there soon
For home a song that echoes on
And all who find us will know the tune.

We lay under the Misty Mountains cold
In slumbers deep, and dreams of gold
We must awake, our lives to make
And in the darkness a torch we hold.

From long ago when lanterns burned
Until this day our hearts have yearned
Her fate unknown, the Arkenstone
What was stolen must be returned.

We must awake and make the day
To find a song for heart and soul
[81]

 

The final lines were sung by every single dwarf. During the song, they had gathered in smaller clusters. Thorin’s arms were around his nephews and the scary bald one and the white-haired one were standing behind him. The little one with the journal was flanked by the creepy redhead – who was, Bard was sure, morally ambiguous at best – and the silver-haired one who had made him tea. The rotund cook had joined Bofur and the quiet one with the axe in his head and the last two were holding onto each other firmly.

Next to Bofur, Bilbo’s cheeks glistened with tear tracks. Bard couldn’t help but feel a certain kinship with the Company in that moment. The loss of a true home was less biting for him, but the wound that merely twinged in his soul was barely scabbed over for these beings who had seen the dragon first-hand.

Along the walls, the elves were silent, glittering eyes taking in the scene.

Oh, misty eye of the mountain below
Keep careful watch of my brothers' souls
And should the sky be filled with fire and smoke
Keep watching over Durin's sons

As Thorin sang the first verse, the instruments began sounding again, breaking the solemn silence. Dwalin sung the next verse, deep voice almost growling the words as his free hand grasped Thorin’s tightly.

If this is to end in fire
Then we should all burn together
Watch the flames climb higher into the night
Calling out father, stand by and we will
Watch the flames burn auburn on the mountainside

For the third verse, they were joined by the old one with the hearing trumpet, who had a surprisingly pleasant singing voice despite his deafness, and his boisterous brother.

And if we should die tonight
Then we should all die together
Raise a glass of wine for the last time
Calling out father, prepare as we will
Watch the flames burn auburn on the mountainside
Desolation comes upon the sky

All the dwarrow joined in the chorus,

Now I see fire, inside the mountain
I see fire, burning the trees
And I see fire, hollowing souls
I see fire, blood in the breeze
And I hope that you'll remember me

But the three Durins sang the next verse alone.

Oh, should my people fall
Then surely I'll do the same
Confined in mountain halls
We got too close to the flame
Calling out father hold fast and we will
Watch the flames burn auburn on the mountainside
Desolation comes upon the sky

For the second chorus, the hobbit joined in, haltingly, though his voice was almost lost among the elves’ lighter tones, which harmonised beautifully with the deep Dwarven voices.

Now I see fire, inside the mountain
I see fire, burning the trees
I see fire, hollowing souls
I see fire, blood in the breeze
And I hope that you'll remember me

The last verse was Thorin’s alone, once more, the others providing a humming counterpoint for his strong voice.

And if the night is burning
I will cover my eyes
For if the dark returns then
My brothers will die
And as the sky's falling down
It crashed into this lonely town
And with that shadow upon the ground
I hear my people screaming out [82]

 

 

“Rhonith…” Legolas said softly, interrupting the solemn silence of the room a few minutes later. He paused for a moment, catching Thorin’s blue eyes, so like those of his mother. “…Rhonith told Adar and I of that song, but she would not sing it.”

“It is no easy day to remember for any who felt the loss,” Balin murmured.

“I Thank you, friend Thorin,” Legolas bowed. “I am glad to have heard it as the Dwarrow sing it.”

“You’re welcome,” Thorin said, giving him a regal nod. Then he turned towards Bofur, sat on the floor with little Tilda on his lap, fast asleep. “Bofur,” he called quietly.

“Thorin King?” Bofur replied, looking up expectantly at the calling of his name. Bofur’s family did not hail from Erebor, being of old Broadbeam stock, but he and the rest of those who called the Blue Mountains home had also had their lives changed by the Exile; without the wealth of Erebor, the precious few workable cobber mines in Ered Luin had to feed more mouths than they could rightly support, trading further off than before to make a profit, with all the dangers therein.

“We have had enough sorrow for the night,” Thorin decided, feeling tired. “Why don’t you give us another rendition of the ‘Man in the Moon’?”

“Perhaps our new Silvan friends,” Kíli shot Legolas a playful grin, lifting the sombre mood of the room slightly, “will like it more than their Rivendell cousins.”

Legolas returned the smile; of all Rhonith’s new cousins, this grandson of Frís’ was his favourite, reminding him no little of old Hanar. The same reckless courage and joyous spirit.

Thorin smiled, eyeing the four elves as he nodded.

The toymaker eagerly jumped onto the cleared table, and Dwalin began playing a jaunty tune. The rest of the dwarrow joined in quickly, dispelling the gloom of the previous songs.

Oh, there is an inn, there’s a merry old inn
Beneath an old grey hill!
And there they brew a beer so brown,
The man in the moon himself came down,
One night to drink his fill!

The song continued, growing more ridiculous with each verse, but it worked, and smiles could soon be seen on all faces. Their earlier solemnity remained present in the corners of their eyes, but the mood lifted.

Kíli watched the elves. Erfaron remained stoic and silent as always, but Legolas was smiling and Curulhénes’ eyes were laughing as she clapped along with the rhythm.

“Did you truly dance like that in Rivendell, Master Bofur?” Legolas chuckled, his eyes filled with bright mischief. “I imagine they did not enjoy your style.”

“One day,” Curulhénes added, “you must come to one of our feasts and sing.”

Bofur bowed.

 


“I’m willing to believe you are who you say you are – the name’s right, and that symbol on your clothes matches one found on a goblet salvaged from Dale,” the Master of Laketown said, eyeing them all with enough suspicion to belie his words.

Thorin grit his teeth; he had thought wrangling disposed Dwarven nobles was difficult, but he’d almost rather have to contend with Lady Beurla at this point than spend another moment in the company of Laketown’s fool of a leader. Beurla, at least, had a pretty face to look at – her incredibly cowed daughter – while she ranted.

The Master only had Alfrid and the grease dripping down his chin from whatever he was currently eating.

“We desire only to reclaim our former home,” Balin offered placidly – Thorin envied his calm – “which is surely in your interest, also; the Mountain needs trading partners and the river Running was always a good way to ship good southwards, I recall.”

“Yes, the flow of goods, you’ve said,” the Master replied loftily, but Thorin could see the greed in his beady eyes.

“The return of our home,” Fíli pointed out, with that exact tone Frís had always had, too, when she had to point out the frankly obvious. Thorin had to stifle a chuckle.

“It remains to win the Mountain from the Dragon… a feat that carries no little danger – not only to us,” Thorin said, managing to keep his voice from betraying his frustrations with the wilful blindness of the man before him, “but to Laketown, as well.”

“But the Dragon hasn’t been seen in living memory!” The Master replied swiftly. “For all we know it’s died or gone somewhere…”

“Very true, Master,” Alfrid piped in. Thorin glared at him, fingers curling into a fist he would gladly have planted in Alfrid’s face. Alfrid shrank back against the wall, but the Master continued as though Alfrid hadn’t spoken at all: “and it that is the case, why should I let you send away all the Men and take the riches in the mountain for yourselves?”

“Dragon’s don’t simply die,” Balin said. “Not unless someone kill them – and you’d have noticed that, I’d hope.” Strain was beginning to appear in the set of Balin’s shoulders, and Thorin knew that his councillor was at least as frustrated with this waste of time as he was.

“The memories of Men are short indeed,” Legolas muttered. “And even if they have not seen the dragon, our scouts report that his foul breath rises from the Gates of Erebor, still.”

“Just because Smaug has not appeared on your doorstep demanding food does not mean he is slain,” Thorin tried, grasping for the last straws of his patience.

“Frivolous nonsense, I say,” the Master replied, chewing contentedly. “This is all a ruse to rob us blind, I’m sure – there probably never even was a dragon in the first place.”

“We have seen it!” Thorin seethed. “We – we lost everything… Dragons live for thousands of years!” He took a deep breath, striving for calm. “To them, sixty is but a night’s rest; in my mind it simply means that when he awakes once more, his appetites will be the greater.” Looking at the Master, who was still eating something dripping with gravy, he nodded. “The Dragon will be eager to break his fast… and what better than a small town so close by to sate his appetite?”

 

 


 

Thorin had eventually had to call their fruitless meeting to a close, simply to avoid falling victim to the temptation to run the man through with Orcrist. Only Balin’s steady presence and deceptively calm exterior let him keep a hold on his infamous temper. The last thing they needed was for the men to think them murderous lunatics.

The Master would never fully believe them, Thorin knew, but if he could convince Bard, whose standing in the town was nothing to scoff at, to help him, perhaps the bowman would be able to convince his neighbours to take up the Elvenking’s offer.

Walking through the dilapidated town he remembered as a vibrant harbour and tradepost, he had seen the hollow cheeks of underfed children, a sight that reminded him painfully of the way his people had looked when they finally made it to the Blue Mountains – the way some still looked in the deep of winter when food ran scarce. People here managed to scrape a living, but barely, much like his own people in Exile, and Thorin’s heart was not made of stone.

The closer they got to the mountain the more vivid his memories of that day became; Thorin already felt partially responsible for the plight of his people – Thrór had been his grandfather, after all – and he did not relish the thought of bringing that same doom upon these Men. In the end, they resolved to have a final meeting with the Master the next day, but the two dwarrow left the Master’s house with disappointed miens, followed by the silent presence of the elven princeling.

 

Outside the Master’s house, they were joined by Kíli, who had been spending the morning exploring the town; most of the Company had been sent out surreptitiously to gauge the mood of the townspeople. The Master might be swayed by pressure from his own people, Thorin hoped.

Kíli’s vivacious spirit and amusing reports of his day – involving an incident with a cart of apples and a net floating down the lake – lifted their glum moods slightly, and Thorin felt grateful for the presence of his nephews on this Quest.

As the group made their way back to the guest house, they bumped into young Lady Sigrid, as Balin called her with a courtly bow – Balin had always known how to charm ladies with his manners. The young woman smiled, greeting them politely, and introduced her companion, a plump woman with greying locks, as Anna, the town’s healer and midwife. The old woman was obviously charmed by Balin’s polite kiss to her work-roughened hand, tittering like a much younger maid.

Thorin smiled to himself.

A brief gesture had Kíli scrambling to offer himself as their willing servant for the day, to the pleased laughter of the matron. Sigrid simply smiled and handed over the two wicker baskets she carried.

Continuing through the market with the two women, Kíli fallen slightly behind with the baskets, Thorin found the time to ask a question that had played on his mind. It had not been right to broach the topic with Bard the night before, but they needed to know if the plan they had made with Thranduil had a chance of success.

“Mistress Sigrid,” Thorin rumbled quietly. “We have been told of a weapon by the name of a Black Arrow. Do you know what it is?”

The young woman studied him calmly for a few moments, before replying in the affirmative.

“Da told us stories about Lord Girion,” she nodded, “and how he shot the dragon with a Black Arrow and knocked off a scale. He used one of the ballistic crossbows mounted on the watchtowers of Dale.”

“Yes, I remember those,” Thorin nodded. “They were made by the dwarrow of Erebor. I created some of the parts myself, as a young apprentice.”

“You…you created?” the old woman spluttered, incredulous at the thought. “How old are you?” she gaped.

“I am 195 years old,” Thorin chuckled, and pointed to Kíli, “My nephew there is 77.” Kíli grinned – even for a Man, he looked no more than a young man, the scruffiness of a first beard on his chin; and yet, if he had been a Man, Kíli would have been well into his dotage, if not dead already. For a moment, the Master’s words ‘In living memory’ played through his mind. “Dwarrow… do not age as Men do, madam,” he added, giving Anna a small smile and wondering how old she was – he put her at somewhere past four tens, but judging the age of a Man had never been his forte, “and I was indeed present when the wind-lances were made.” Thorin did not mention that his contribution to the famous weapons was limited to rivets and nails; being only fifteen at the time of their crafting, he had only just started his apprenticeship.

Sigrid’s eyes flashed quickly across the elf, who gave her an inscrutable look in return.

“I was born in the seventy-second year of this age,” Legolas remarked placidly, “which makes me 2869 years of the sun.”

The midwife spluttered. The dwarrow tried to hide their grins, while Legolas simply looked on, the stoic mask of the Elves not quite hiding his amusement. His blue eyes twinkled as he bowed to the two women and went on his way, showing off by bounding from building to building rather than take the walkways.

The women followed his lithe moves with their eyes.

Elves. Thorin shook his head, amused as he looked after the princeling – far older than his demeanour had let them believe, but suddenly more worthy of the love that Rhonith held for him.

“If you want to know about Black Arrows, you’re probably better off asking Da,” Sigrid said, when the elf had disappeared behind the rooftops. “He is hunting today, but he should be back by nightfall.”

“Do convey my invitation for you and your family to join us for dinner, then, Lady Sigrid,” Thorin replied. “Mistress Anna, a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Giving in to his melodramatic streak – although he’d deny its existence vehemently if asked – Thorin swept the two women a courtly bow, before leaving the marketplace with Balin, who did him the favour of not giggling until they were out of range of the two women.

Kíli looked slightly forlorn, but rallied quickly, turning his considerable charm on the two women as he escorted them around the market, easily carrying their increasingly heavy baskets.

 


 

“How’d it go today?” Dwalin asked, when his Kurdel and his brother reappeared at the dubiously named ‘Guest-House’. “What did the Master say?” Dwalin had decided – for his own peace of mind – to leave wrangling the Master to Thorin and Balin, only taking part in intimidating Alfrid to let them pass.

“That… Kakhuf inbarathrag!” Thorin growled, the light-hearted mood of strolling through the marketplace disappearing like smoke at the memory of the Master’s words. “Maznûn ‘ukhlatul zêsh kekhfar durh karur. Sigin'adadhu kasat gairurukhs![83]

Behind him, Balin simply shrugged, which told his younger brother that Thorin’s assessment was probably accurate, and compounded his own low opinion of the Man in question.

“And that Alfrid!” Thorin continued angrily, “Kakhafu rukhs 'umalul sakh mi hu!

As Thorin continued ranting in Khuzdul, Balin wisely retreated to the kitchen. The King had not even noticed that the Elven Prince was present, and finally Dwalin resorted to pulling Thorin by the arm into the room they had claimed for themselves and putting his mouth to more productive and pleasurable purposes. Sometimes it was better to let Thorin’s temper burn out, but at other times what the King really craved was a distraction from his dark thoughts, which Dwalin was happy to provide.

 

 


 

That night, the bargeman’s family once more joined the Company in their ‘Guest-House’.

Dori had managed – by wrangling the considerable talents of one Bilbo Baggins, who vastly preferred to stay inside where he could pretend the house was on solid ground – to clean the kitchen and most of the ground floor of the house. The bedrooms had all been aired, but the smell of damp still hung in the rooms; Bofur laconically remarked that that was probably the price for living on a lake.

That night they enjoyed a supper of fried fish, which was probably the only foodstuff that could be called abundant in Laketown, and the conversation mostly concerned the Master and his unapologetic rudeness.

“What are you trying to gain from the Master?” Bard asked quietly after the meal. “You do not seem to lack for supplies or weaponry.”

The Company, who had pulled out pipes and tobacco as well as Dori’s tea set, turned to him as one, but it was Balin who answered.

“We have arranged for King Thranduil to open his Halls to the people of Laketown. We want the Master to evacuate the town while we go to the Mountain,” he paused, considering his words, but continuing after the brief hesitation, “We seek to kill the dragon, but if he is roused, he will most likely attack Laketown. If that is the case, better you and your people are safe in Mirkwood than facing dragon-fire. We remember the firestorm that enveloped Dale, laddie. We do not wish to see it happen here too.”

“So many died that day,” Thorin said solemnly. “Men and Dwarrow both.” He paused, considering his words, blowing a ring of smoke across the table. “We Dwarrow are not blind to your suffering; our friends in Dale lost their homes same as we,” Thorin continued. “We believe we can slay the Beast Under the Mountain, but against suitable payment once Erebor is reclaimed, Thranduil has agreed to house the Men of Laketown till spring if needed.”

“Ada’s hunters are already out in great numbers stocking up on meat for our guests,” interjected Legolas quietly, “but it will be for naught if we cannot convince the Men of Laketown to leave their homes, and the Master is proving even more stubborn and disinclined to listen to reason than we had feared.”

Bard took a sip of tea. “Have you spoken to the people of the town? The Master could not go against all of us, if a majority wants to leave.” He looked at Legolas, “Is the Elvenking’s offer open only if we all come, or will he house any who decide to go?”

“We will see any Man to safety in our Halls who wish it. Even if that numbers only one.” Legolas’s voice was solemn and Bard nodded.

“You should speak to Anna.” Sigrid said quietly. “She is well-known and well-liked in Laketown. She is responsible for bringing most of its inhabitants into this world and the womenfolk would all listen to her. If you get the women on your side, their husbands will follow. They will not want to leave their women to travel through Mirkwood unescorted.” She held up a hand to stop Legolas’ indignant reply to the perceived slight against his people. “Elves do not count. When we marry, the men wow to protect their wife and any children she bears. You can trust that they will not want their honour in question by leaving their wife unprotected.” Her father nodded.

“Might we be able to prevail upon your kindness in securing us an appointment with this redoubtable woman,” Balin asked. Sigrid smiled at the old Dwarf and patted his hand.

“Of course. I am her apprentice. We met King Thorin in the marketplace earlier, and Kíli helped carry her baskets so she is disposed to like Dwarrow already. I told her Thorin was the King of Dwarrow and she told everyone we spoke to at the market that the Dwarf-King had bowed to her.”

“I could probably convince those who are not overly fond of the Master.” Bard mused, “But many would not listen to me for fear of what he would do.” The Bargeman and occasional smuggler was under no illusions as to the Master’s opinion of him, their mutual enmity nurtured for more than twenty years.

“Are there no other figures of authority in Laketown?” Balin asked. “Ones who might be persuaded to listen to us? It would be in their own best interest. We are going to the Mountain regardless, but…” he paused delicately.

Bard sighed. “Your best bet is probably Hereward,” he said. “He is a merchant and holds sway with many. I will take you to his house tomorrow and introduce you.”

Thorin nodded regally. He was grateful that Thranduil had thought to tell him about this man, who had seemed dour and unfriendly at their first meeting, but who might turn out to be their best chance for success with the people of Laketown.

“How are you going to kill the dragon?”

At this question, Thorin brought out Orcrist, explaining that the sword would be capable of cleaving dragonhide, even if they could not obtain a Black Arrow. His most desired tactic was still the usage of such an Arrow, but, as he told the assorted audience, the skill of creating them had been lost with Erebor, even for a Master Blacksmith like himself. He might be able to re-forge the steel used into other weapons, but creating a new Arrow would be impossible until they had taken the Mountain.

 


 

The next morning, September 11th, Thorin and Balin met first with the Laketown midwife. With them came Legolas, prepared to answer all questions about the accommodations his father offered.

Anna was unsure at first, but when their plans had all been laid out, she had to agree that the sensible thing would be to take the Elves’ offer of hospitality. Balin quietly lamented the stubbornness of the men of the town, and Anna, with a glint in her eye that said she saw straight through their little scheme, promised to speak to those women whose husbands would take most persuasion.

All in all, the three felt it was a productive meeting, and as they left munching on a freshly baked cookie each, it had been profitable too.

 

Bard’s merchant suggestion was more difficult.

Firstly, they had to persuade him that no, they were not thieves waiting for Laketown to empty before pillaging its stores.

Secondly, yes, Thorin was in fact King, with a legitimate claim to the Carven Throne Under the Mountain.

Thorin had to exert all his leftover patience from the meetings with the Master to keep a lid on his temper and still indulged in more than one daydream of bashing Hereward’s skull against the Master’s to see which cracked first. His people were mostly honest, like any other, and simply demanded fair wages for their skills. That was not thievery.

In the end they had to resort to implied bribery – a skill Balin was as much a Master of as scrivening – by painting glorious pictures of life after the Mountain was retaken. Legolas even threw Thorin a wickedly amused look and hummed a few bars of the song Tilda had taught them. As Balin’s word-pictures flooded the merchant’s brain, his resistance began to crumble.

When they left – with a fervent promise of aid – the man still saw rivers of gold flowing from the mountain and into his pockets.

Afterwards, he went home and ordered his wife to start packing what they needed to take on an extended trip to Mirkwood.

 


 

That evening, the full Company walked through the town towards the Master’s house.

The Dwarrow were dressed in armour polished to gleaming, looking like the fierce warriors they were. Dori had claimed – and Thorin had agreed – that they should all look as little like travel-stained wanderers as possible. The theatrics would quiet those who might have otherwise called them brigands and vagabonds, and add to their authority.

With that in mind, each dwarf, and Bilbo, had bathed and washed his clothes. Their hair gleamed in the torchlight and their braids had been redone with great skill. The simple braids they each favoured for trekking across Arda – aside from Nori, whose hair was an integral part of his image, and Dori, whose sense of propriety and class would never permit his mithril locks to be less than immaculately braided – had vanished, replaced with intricate styles that were fit for Court.

They had spent hours working on each other, and even Kíli, who never liked sitting still long enough to have his locks properly braided, had the appropriate braids woven into his dark hair. Dwalin had been busy with Thorin’s hair, his own beard simply brushed and oiled, and Dori had been given the task of wrangling the young Prince into submission, something Fíli had observed with great glee while Thorin’s hands redid his own braids. Kíli had – to everyone’s great surprise – submitted meekly to Dori’s machinations, and the result was obvious. Dori had managed to turn the archer’s hair into something that had probably not been seen since the last great Court Feast in Erebor, but the fine style seemed to lend the Prince a touch of solemnity and made him look far more grown-up than he ever had before.

Thorin almost wished that Dís was with them, if only to ensure that she would believe him when he told her how Kíli refrained from shaking the plaits loose like he usually did when Dís or Dwalin had managed to tie him down long enough to work the proper braids into his long mane.

The Men of Laketown did not know the meanings of the types and placements of braids and beads, but it did not matter.

As the Company walked, the Men stared.

A Dwarf who could command fierce warriors like Dwalin and Bifur demanded respect, and Thorin being a King only added to his general air of authority. With the unerring talent for picking up mischief afoot both children and mothers they passed on their way through the marketplace followed, pulling along neighbours and friends.

Eventually, most of the town was gathered outside the Master’s house.

“One of them is the King!” whispered an excited matron to her neighbour.

Thorin stepped up, knocking hard on the door. This time, they would not let the Master keep them in a dark and private meeting room, no, this time, Thorin meant to force the Master into a choice. By Balin and Nori’s estimation, at least seven tenths of the adult inhabitants were willing to go to Mirkwood with Legolas.

Behind Thorin stood Dwalin, easily intimidating Alfrid when the loathsome man opened the door. Seeing the crowd, Alfrid whimpered lowly. He would not be able to turn away the dwarrow with an excuse, as he wanted, in front of the whole town.

Instead, he scurried into the building, calling for the Master, who had been eating his lavish supper, and was not happy to be interrupted. At his signal, the doors were thrown open, revealing the balding Master in his hermine-lined cloak.

“What is happening here?” The Master asked, fat still glistening on his chin, though he had remembered to abandon the food on his plate rather than carry it with him like he had done the last time he had met with the Dwarrow. Fíli had been unable to keep his eyes from the half-gnawed chicken thigh, and the numerous stains on the Master’s clothing had spoken clearly of his priorities.

Tonight, he had managed not to spill his overabundance down his front, though Dwalin quietly wondered if that was not simply due to being interrupted too early by the arrival of the full Company.

“Dwarrow, Master. The Dwarf Thorin has come before you.” Alfrid simpered.

“Yes… the one who thinks we should abandon our town…”

“Not abandon. Evacuate temporarily.” Thorin ground out. They had explained this several times already.

“And leave our town free to pillage for any who come?” the Master scoffed.

“Take away what you wish,” Thorin replied, repeating himself once more. “The Elvenking has granted you all sanctuary for as long as needed and the Elves will see you all safely to his Halls.” He paused for effect, hearing a thrum of excited voices in the crowd behind him; most of them had never seen an Elf, of course, and Legolas had received his share of scrutiny as they walked through the town. Thorin turned slightly, looking over the crowd. “If you wish it, you may burn the Bridge behind you to ensure the safety of whatever you leave behind.” He looked back at the Master. “Your evacuation is simply a measure of precaution… but we would be remiss not to take it.”

The arguments were nothing new, on either side. Many people were nodding, trading glances with their husbands or wives. The Dwarf seemed in earnest, and he did not look like he needed their money. He might not look quite as golden as a King ought, they felt, but he certainly had a kingly bearing and attitude in spades. A fair few were sniggering in the background when Alfrid shied away from Dwalin’s glare.

“You have no right, no right to enter that mountain and wake the dragon.” Alfrid wheedled, sticking his pointy face out from behind the Master’s bulk. Dwalin’s knuckledusters creaked when he clenched his fists.

“You know to whom you speak. He is Thorin, Son of Thráin, Son of Thrór!” Dwalin began angrily, but Thorin’s hand on his arm stopped the warrior before his vehemence became belligerence.

“I have the only right.” Thorin replied, with absolute certainty as he glared at the fat Master. “All that remains for you to decide,” Thorin turned, gazing upon the massive crowd, “is whether you take this chance to visit the elves and stay safe until you can share in the wealth of our people!” Thorin had been taught from childhood how to get a crowd behind his words and the skills his father and grandfather had begun teaching, and Balin had expounded upon continuously, did not fail him now. “I will light the great forges of Erebor and gold will once more flow from the Mountain!” he called. “This will once again be the centre of all trade in the North!”

The people of Laketown roared as one, visions of brighter futures in all their minds.

Behind the Returning King Under the Mountain, the Master had only one option.

“I say unto you, Lakemen!” he cried. “Let us prepare ourselves and our families for the journey to Mirkwood. These dwarrow will free us from the shadow of the great Fire-Beast and we will share in the wealth of the Mountain!”

The crowd cheered.

The Master flounced back into his house, leaving Alfrid to close the door with a sneer towards the Company. When it became clear that no more spectacles would be offered that night, most of the Men dispersed towards their homes, chatter lively in the air.

“It seems we have accomplished one of the tasks for which we came here,” Thorin said softly, turning back to the Company and the four Elves of their guard, once more their friend and leader first, King second. “Make sure you rest and stock up on anything we’ll need. We leave in three days.”

“The Men will need more time to pack, Thorin.” Dori said.

“Yes, I expect they will take at least a week,” Thorin nodded. “But I want us to be gone beforehand. I would not have them accuse us once more of staying behind to steal from them.” The words left a sour taste in his mouth, but experience with the world of Men had taught him the value of caution.

The members of the Company who had had the most dealings with Men nodded; it was simply a fact of their existence that Big Folk believed Dwarrow to be dishonest thieves to a man.

As one, they set off towards their temporary abode.

 

 

 

 

 

[78] Thank you, beloved prince, it was my pleasure.

[79] Song of the King under the Mountain from the Hobbit book. This song was changed to be ominous and prophetic in the film, but the original was quite hopeful.

[80] Poem found within the chapter "Queer Lodgings" of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien.

[81] David Donaldson/Steve Roche/David Long/Neil Finn/Janet Roddick 2012 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

[82] Ed Sheeran 2013 The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

[83] …goat turd! Tight-fisted bag of troll shite. His grandfather was a goblin! ... The back side of an orc is a more pleasing sight than him.

Chapter Text

The morning after their standoff with the Master, Bard showed up at the ‘Guest House’ a few hours after dawn. The dark-haired man carried an odd-looking arrow with a flared, twisted head. It was made of dark iron of a kind neither Fíli or Kíli, who opened the door, had seen. The young dwarrow stared at the peculiar metal, forgetting the man carrying it entirely in their puzzlement.

“Is Thorin here?” Bard cleared his throat and repeated himself twice. Fíli and Kíli finally seemed to realise that he was asking them a question. They shook their heads.

“Uncle went to the forge to tend to our equipment and offer his skills to those in need of them.” Fíli explained. At that, the bargeman left.

“Was that a Black Arrow, Fee?” Kíli wondered, excited and poised to run after Bard to the forge to see what Thorin would say. His brother nodded.

“I think so, Kee,” the Crown Prince answered. “Perhaps we will be able to help land the final blow against Smaug after all.”

Behind them, Legolas smiled. He liked the young dwarrow – not that they’d know that for some time – and it would be good for them to be able to be of aid. They were young, and even more untested than he, the elf reckoned. He had idly toyed with the idea of accompanying the Company to the Mountain, but his sense of duty to his own people and responsibility for the task set him would not let him go against his King’s direct orders – no matter how much he might want to see Smaug die in person.


 

The Laketown smith – more obsequious than Thorin had ever experienced in a smith of Men – was more than happy to allow Thorin a space and an anvil to repair the minor wounds in their armour that the skirmish with the Orcs had rent.

He hadn’t thought so, whenever he’d had to bite his tongue and remind himself to be polite to Men to ensure that his sister would have supper, but being addressed as ‘Master King Oakenshield, Sir’ annoyed him more that ‘Oy, Dwarf!’, somehow.

Keeping his face blandly polite, he offered to assist the smith in the sudden influx of work – beyond the shoeing of a few horses, Thorin wagered most of the repairs were due to some Lakeman being able to say that he’d met the King – that kept pouring in as the morning passed.

At least the Men were packing, though he wouldn’t call it an efficient evacuation by far; for a moment or two he almost felt bad for Thranduil – and for Legolas, who’d have to get these people and their various parcels and packages transported to the Halls. It was plainly obvious that none of them were much used to travelling far on foot, carrying only what each needed for survival, but that was not Thorin’s problem.

He might ask Bard if there were more barges capable of getting up the river to the place where the Raft-Elves would accept goods.

Removing most of his heavy armour, leaving the warm surcoat and his mail – a few of the scales needed mending or replacing – on a convenient shelf in deference to the heat, Thorin tied his hair back, accepting a tong from Dwalin’s pocket to keep the long locks from tumbling into his face.

Dwalin hadn’t liked the thought of him appearing among Men so unprotected, but he had surrendered to Thorin’s argument that he was the only he trusted to work on the magnificent piece of scalemail that Dáin had given him before the Quest.

Dwalin had been intermittently scowling at him all morning, staring down – which took some skill at intimidation when the subject was more than a foot taller – every man who came to the forge.

Of course, Thorin knew, looking up from his work to smile at his most beloved, Dwalin spent at least as long looking at him, enjoying the way the work made him flex and move; at home he’d have worn nothing but his breeches and boots, and expected to be at least a little distracted by offers of ladlefuls of water.

And kisses.

There were reasons Dwalin was banned from entering Katla’s forge at home, after all.

Among men, though, kisses would have to wait for the privacy of their sparse accommodations, Thorin knew, huffing out a wistful sigh at the thought as he hammered another scale into its proper shape.

“May I interrupt?”

The hammer landed twice more. Once the link was finished and secured, Thorin put the tool down and turned around. His eyes widened when he saw what Bard carried.

“A Black Arrow, Master Bard,” he breathed, reaching out to run a finger along the head of the dark thing.” “I have not seen such a weapon since I was a mere dwarfling…” Looking from the twisted strands of metal – it was beautiful, to him, beyond its deadly purpose and the sudden wild hope springing to life in his chest – to Bard, he nodded in welcome. “We did not think any had made it out of Dale.”

“Only one.” The bargeman shrugged. “It has been an heirloom in my family.”

He truly cared little for the illustrious titles of his past kin, Thorin had realised, so long as he had the means to put food on the table for his family. It was admirable – how many years had Thorin himself not toiled for that very same purpose? – if foreign to him, but perhaps it would have been different to be simply Thorin Thráinsson, if the generational gap between himself and the last King of Erebor had been as wide as that between Bard and Girion?

“I want you to take it,” Bard said brusque but not unfriendly, thrusting the Arrow at Thorin and interrupting his musings. “If you can, you may study how it was made, but turn it into weapons for your kin.”

Bard did not need to say it for Thorin to understand the value of what he was being given – possibly better than Bard himself, in some ways. These Arrows were commissioned by the Lord of Dale directly, after word of Galadriel’s warning had trickled down from the mountain, though Thorin did not know that, having been barely old enough to learn his letters at the time of her visit. It represented not only Bard’s lineage but also any hope Laketown might have of killing the dragon if it ever left its mountain lair.

He gripped the haft almost reverently. Bringing it closer, he noticed straight away that the iron had been of a type that made the metal much harder to melt.

In the glory-days of Erebor, it was considered little more than a curiosity, for it was neither useful for armour- or weapons-making. It was too heavy compared to other types of steel and not as strong.

Cold Iron, my wee lad. The dry voice murmured in his ear, words puffed out around the stem of a walnut pipe with a silver bowl, coming back to him from a time long ago when he’d visited his grandfather’s – not Thrór, but amad’s adad – forge. Beautiful, isn’t it – see the different colours?

It was beautiful, still; a Masterwork. The technique was only used for the finest of weapons – but apparently also for this, and Thorin wondered how the old dwarf had thought of it, though he instantly knew why Master Hanar had made the Black Arrows this way. This iron, because of its resistance to heating at normal forge temperatures, would not melt when exposed to the heat of dragon-fire, something he had witnessed happening at the Gate. The innumerable folds strengthened the iron, making it capable of withstanding the force of impact without splintering.

Thorin ran a finger along the shaft. To his eyes, the folds in the dark metal caught the light in little flashes of blue and silver-green changing into purple. “Oh, you’re a beauty, aren’t you,” he murmured, turning it over in his hands, rubbing his thumb over the stylised H that was Hanar’s mark. For a moment, he could almost see his grandfather’s proud smile, transported back to the workshop where he’d spent years of happiness learning his Craft from a true Master. “Hello, friend.”


“I do wonder,” Dori remarked to Bilbo, who was shelling peas for their dinner, “if I could prevail upon Master Glóin to procure a bag of sugar for our supplies… Oh, no, but Nori’s Nameday is coming up in a few weeks, and I always make him a cake,” she added in response to Bilbo’s confused look.

“Nameday?” he asked.

“The day you’re given your name, of course!” Dori exclaimed. “When a pebble has survived three months of life, they’re presented to the extended family and given an outer name, as we call it – in this case ‘Nori’ – to be used among the kith and kin.”

“Do many ba- err pebbles not survive?” Bilbo wondered.

“It’s less common these days – we’re all better fed, rather – but pebbles have always been risky business,” Dori replied. “Dams often die during the birth – or the pebble does; it’s not uncommon to lose either or both from complications even months after the birth.” She gave him a softer look, stirring the stew with vigour. “Many believe that the spirits of the rock – and these can be for good and ill, and no telling which you’ve found till later – take interest in any major events within the clan. This being births, deaths, weddings, and so on,” she nodded, “and so it’s best to not draw their attention to those too young – or old, admittedly – to defend themselves.”

“So no one knows about them before this Nameday?” Bilbo asked.

“The first three months of life,” Dori said, adding beans to her stew, “are usually spent only with the closest family; parents and siblings, possibly very close cousins. Anyone else is a potential bringer of ‘bad spirits’ and should be deterred from entering the house.”

“That would never work in the Shire,” Bilbo said, shaking his head at the idea. “If a new mother hasn’t received at least ten well-wishers in the first three hours after the birth, well… there would be talk.”

“Hobbits do seem to have an easier time of it,” Dori nodded. “At least Nori tells me your families are often rather large.”

“My mother had eleven siblings,” Bilbo nodded. “Though that is the current record.”

Dori had to sit down.

Eleven?” she cried, staring at him. “Your sigin-amad had twelve living pebbles?” It was almost unbelievable. Bombur’s large family was a blessing from Mahal, everyone agreed, though she had not truly credited Athalrún’s hobbit blood for it before; Bombur, after all, was a decent-looking Dwarf, and Athalrún was very pretty, too, there was no wonder in them enjoying each other’s company.

Bilbo nodded sheepishly. “My grandfather had nine sons and three daughters,” he said. “Gerontius Took – we called him the Old Took; he was a friend of Gandalf’s, you know – who was the 26th Thain of the Shire.”

“Thain… like a King?” Dori said, wondering how many shocks she could handle in one conversation. “But that’d make you a prince!”

“Well, no,” Bilbo replied, “or, technically, yes, but Hobbits don’t really have Kings or Princes.” He flushed a little. “Please don’t tell Thorin!”

“Give me one good reason why not?” Dori asked sternly – having a Burglar was one thing, being responsible for foreign royalty something rather different altogether, she felt.

“It…” Bilbo paused, thinking. “Wait, today is September 22nd! It’s my birthday!” He paused for a few moments, surprised himself. “I’d clear forgotten… how strange.”

“Your – oh, so you wish for my silence as a name day gift?” Dori chuckled, catching on. Hobbits celebrating the day of birth was no surprise; it was abundantly clear that the rock spirits did not dwell in their cosy Shire.

Bilbo nodded.

“Very well, my friend,” Dori allowed, “Though I shall bake you a cake – and the Company will want to make merry celebrations for your day, too, I’m sure – in fact,” she added, gesturing to Nori who’d just slunk in through the door, looking like a Dwarf who wished for little more than a warm fire and a good pipe to heat his bones, “Nori, go ask Mistress Sigrid if she has an oven I might avail myself of for a while.”

“Must I, Dori?” he sighed, though he was already halfway out the door.

Dori grinned. “I’ll make sugar cookies, nadad,” she called after him. “If you can get me eggs and sugar!”

“Save me a dozen!” Nori hollered back, letting the door slam behind him.


 

When Nori returned, Dori set to work immediately.

Wisdom, born of long experience with Dori in his life, made Nori pull the hapless Burglar out of the kitchen, hushing his feeble protests that he ‘hadn’t meant to make Master Dori go to all this trouble, only to understand their cultural differences better’ with a slight grin.

“How old are you, anyway, Master Burglar?” he asked curiously.

“Fifty,” the Hobbit replied, confused when his admission made the Thief pale.

“I suggest you don’t tell Dori that…” Nori whispered, glancing at the open door to the kitchen and dragging Bilbo a little further away.

“Why not?” Bilbo looked at him, not understanding the problem.

“Well, Master Baggins, let’s just say that wee Ori is twice your age, and my brother thought he was too young to go on the Quest,” Nori replied with a conspiratorial wink. “I’m only looking out for your best interest.”

Bilbo nodded. He had no desire to be fussed over like he was a young stripling, rather than a Hobbit in his best middle age.

Nori’s grin widened for a moment and then he was gone.


Dwalin had rarely seen such a soft smile on Thorin’s face, lost in memories that he could guess whence had came but for once they weren’t centered on what was lost but what had been good in their lives back then.

“Hanar?” he guessed, not surprised when Thorin did not respond, entirely absorbed in studying the Black Arrow.

“It’s a strange metal I’ve never seen,” Fíli said, but the lads, coming to a halt beside him, seemed to realise that interrupting Thorin would be nearly sacrilege at this moment. Instead they watched their uncle in silence; Thorin was entirely oblivious to the presence of any of them in favour of studying the old weapon.

Beside him, Bard cleared his throat with slight impatience, a bemused expression on his face, but Dwalin quelled his questions with a hard look.

 

“I know how this was done.” Thorin looked up, surprised to see that Bard had been joined by the Laketown smith as well as his two nephews. All four were staring at him. “What?”

Dwalin held up five spread fingers, curling them into a fist before spreading them again, giving Thorin a pointed look. Thorin just grinned at him, an almost boyish smile that made Dwalin want to kiss him.

“You… I have never seen you study a metal like that,” Fíli explained. “What is it? I didn’t recognise the iron.”

“Master Hanar, your great grandfather, called it Cold Iron,” Thorin began. “There were a few seams found in Erebor, but the material was mostly useless; it is a stubborn, unworkable metal for most.”

“You mean to tell me that old Hanar made a weapon what can kill a dragon…. From a lump of petty-dwarf’s revenge?” Dwalin nearly spluttered.

Thorin grinned at them. “Indeed, he did!”

“Always said your grandfather was a little bit mad,” Dwalin rumbled, awed and impressed. He’d thought Hanar’s mad inventions – who could forget the scroll roller that nearly burned down four scribes’ offices in testing? – had been limited to mechanics and engineering, not blacksmithing; as the Guild Master, Hanar had to take his own Craft a little more serious than his many branching inventions.

Thorin’s grin widened.

“Petty-dwarf’s revenge?” Kíli asked.

“The miners called it that,” Thorin shrugged. “It’s difficult to heat, and once crafted into weapons had a tendency to bend or splinter.”

“Only Hanar would have thought of it, I’m sure,” Dwalin muttered, shaking his head with a small smile. “Ahh, I do miss that old grump.” Thorin smiled at him, and Dwalin knew they were both seeing Hanar bent over some plans or other in his workshop – a new wheeled chair for Lady Vrís perhaps – muttering to himself as he sketched with a bit of charcoal and sucked on a piece of hard candy.

“What Hanar has made here…” Thorin murmured, “oh, it is beautiful, Fíli, come look.” He waved over the younger dwarrow, holding out the arrow proudly.

The two men looked at each other, puzzled by the King’s almost giddy excitement; so very different from the stern King they had met before.

“Oh. He used it to make butterfly metal?” Fíli said, a little of his Uncle’s excitement bleeding into his features. The two younger dwarrow each took the arrow, holding it up to the light of the sun and turning it this way and that, exclaiming over the beauty of it.

The Men watched, perplex. To them, it simply looked like dark grey iron, hardly anything to get excited about.

“Yes,” Thorin replied, happy that his lessons about metals had stuck in the head of his heir.

Fíli was a decent blacksmith, like most Dwarrow, but his Heart-Craft was silver-smithing, like his grandmother, so the rougher trade of his Uncle did not hold his interest for long. Kíli had always been a leatherworker, and had even less interest in iron forging than his brother, but even he recognised the term; the thousands of seams within the metal winked in the light like a butterfly’s wings.

Thorin looked up, catching sight of the two Men who looked utterly clueless. “Master Bard, I do not have the materials to make more of these, here,” he said, “but you have my solemn oath that I shall do so when the Mountain is taken.”

“So long as you kill the dragon with it,” Bard replied, nodding; an accord struck.

“I will see a supply delivered to you, just in case Smaug is not the last of his kin.” Thorin bowed. The fact that Bard did not realise the significance of a promise of craft made by the King’s own hand did not faze him. The only question now was whether he would be able to heat that Man’s forge to the temperature required to reshape the metal without ruining Hanar’s careful tempering.

“It should make a good many arrowheads, I imagine; if we believe in the legend of the missing scale, Kíli would be the best bet for piercing such a target,” Fíli mused, weighing the arrow in his hand.

“Best share it for a few of our blades, too,” Thorin replied, frowning thoughtfully. “In case we need to hack scales off ourselves.”

Dwalin’s hands curled into fists. He wasn’t looking forward to the fight, fearing it would be their hardest battle yet, but his heart wanted vengeance for the slain as much as any Exile. Amad… and Skaro… and Siginamad Geira. He had lost only three close kin that day, thanking Mahal it was no worse – some had lost all their family; mainly those whose work kept them in the depths of Erebor and near to the Treasury – those had been the ones unable to escape the fire. His grandmother, visiting from the Iron Hills, had joined the defenders, falling with her greataxe in hand and a warcry on her lips; a warrior’s death as she’d wanted. Balin’s beloved Skaro had been in the Great Forges, however, and those Dwalin had spoken to since believed the goldsmiths there were most likely to have been burnt to cinders or outright eaten.

He still wasn’t sure which he hoped had been Skaro’s fate.

Amad, on the other hand, had almost been out of the Mountain when she was torn away from Fundin, slain by a piece of falling masonry.

Sometimes, he thought it might have been kinder if Fundin had perished, too.

He always knew he’d die for Thorin… because he had seen what living without your One did to a Dwarf, and Dwalin had never been a coward – but the thought of going on if Thorin wasn’t there with him… it was too much to bear.

“But if this is what you say, Uncle, how are we going to re-forge it?” Kíli wondered, bringing Dwalin out of his dark thoughts. Thorin glanced at him, concern quickly hidden, but Dwalin saw it, giving him a small shake of his head as he carefully returned his face to a more neutral mien. Thorin’s minute nod was reassuring, though his words were less so, in Dwalin’s opinion.

“We will need a properly hot forge,” Thorin sighed, eyes narrowing at the forge beside him. It wasn’t as poor as some he’d seen among Men, but he wouldn’t praise the quality either. “In Erebor, I would simply take it to the Great Forges, but…”

“How hot does it need to be?” the Laketown smith asked. “I have a supply of black coal stashed away…”

“Coal would do for normal steel,” Thorin nodded, “but the temperature that will melt steel does very little to the Cold Iron.”

“What burns hotter than coal?” the man asked, almost incredulous.

“There are different types of coal, too, brown, black, white – each burns a different heat.” Thorin shrugged. The Laketown forge was good enough for ordinary steel and even capable of heating proper dwarven steel, but the Cold Iron simply just required more heat than the local coal could offer. “In Erebor – and in the Iron Hills, I imagine – we burned black coal mixed with a powder I do not have men’s name for.”

“Firestone, maybe? I’ve heard of that – my Da’s old stories, but-”

“Could you use the Elf-wood?” Kíli interrupted. “Rhonith said it made good fire in a forge…”

The two smiths fell quiet. Thorin frowned thoughtfully, considering his nephew’s words.

Chapter Text

His daughter-by-heart might have forgiven him for forcing her to face the truth of her fears, the Elvenking mused, but he could see her struggle with being left behind. He knew she was too honourable to sneak off when she had given her word to stay, but she was chafing against the invisible prison walls she felt had closed around her.

Thranduil did not know how to make her feel better, how to release her from the prison of her own mind. He worried, watching her walk through his Halls, disinterested in the preparations going on around her.

When Galadriel called him through the power of her mind in a dream, the Lady of Light’s message almost made him smile at her in relief. Not willing to give her the satisfaction of knowing that his heart had not entirely petrified, however, he maintained his stoic visage and simply answered her query with blankness. The Istar Mithrandir had not entered his Realm with the Company, as far as he knew, instead heading to the High Fells of Rhudaur to seek out the tomb of the Witch-King of Angmar.

When he woke, he had a fully formed plan in mind already. Rhonith could not go to the Mountain, and he was loath to send her where he was thinking, but she would be in the company of her cousin’s redoubtable Marshwardens, who would keep her safe.

Mind made up, he turned his considerable cunning to the task of making her think it was her own idea to go. It wouldn’t do to let his daughter realise that he was manipulating her; even if it was for her own good. He never had liked to be at odds with her; Nínimeth would have been disappointed. Thranduil smiled to himself, before smoothing his face once more, as he opened the door to the Dining Hall where Rhonith awaited him for breaking their fast.

“Mê g’ovannen, Sellig,” he smiled, taking his seat across from her and pouring a glass of the sweet blackberry cordial he preferred for breakfast. His morning oats were sweetened with maple syrup, and one of Maeassel’s summer berry tarts finished off the meal nicely.

“A fair day to you, Atheg,” Rhonith nodded, giving him a sweet smile even though he could see worry straining her eyes.

“I bring you news this morning from your cousin Lady Galadriel,” he continued, blithely ignoring her poorly disguised surprise. “It appears that she has lost touch with Mithrandir after his parting from Thorin’s Company, and she wondered if he had entered my Realm.”

“I take it he has not?” Rhonith asked, and Thranduil noted the worry bleeding into her voice. He smiled mentally; she was inexplicably fond of the troublemaking wizard[84].

Mithrandir, in his opinion, was most often an annoyance, always showing up with ulterior motives of some kind, though his manipulations often had better long-term consequences than could be expected. The fact that it was Mithrandir who had set the Company on their Quest – and aided them so far as to his borders– was not lost on him. Handing them off to Rhonith, who was always disposed to help her kin, had been another stroke of genius; if the Company had appeared before him as captives, he suspected that Thorin would have been a far different acquaintance. Thranduil did not like to be manipulated, but he had to admit that Mithrandir’s subtle ways of influencing people were effective.

Saruman, their venerable leader, was the worst wizard of the lot; far too self-important and smug in his pursuit of knowledge. The few times Thranduil had had the displeasure of Saruman’s company – the White Council meetings he thankfully usually managed to avoid attending – he had left their conversations with an indefinable bad flavour in his mouth. He had spent a good millennium trying to discover why the wizard gave off such ill feelings, but he had nothing but his own suspicions to settle on; Galadriel and Elrond both seemed to think the White Wizard their greatest ally in the fight against Darkness.

Thranduil knew better, for no aid had come from Saruman, in fact the White wizard had counselled them against mounting a full-scale assault on the Dol Guldur fortress when Mithrandir returned with the news of the Necromancer who lived there almost a century ago. In return, Thranduil had watched his Realm grow ever Darker over the last century, and his people’s joy diminished. He had considered attacking the old fortress again, with his full army behind him, but he feared what power they would find in there would be too strong to be defeated with mere swords and bows. Certainly, the first attack, more than two centuries ago, now, which had cost Legolas his best friend, and twenty of the Guard’s finest their lives, had proven futile. That defeat was the reason he had asked for the Istari’s aid in investigating the Darkness that had taken hold there in the first place, though nothing had come of it on Saruman’s urging.

Though Elrond had called it a fit of spite, Thranduil had made it very clear that Istari as a whole were not welcome within his borders after that. If he was to rely on the protective powers of the land – Nínimeth had known them better, but his long rule had given him an affinity for the magic of the Forest – alone, he did not wish for interference from other beings of power. As it were, the spells he had woven were subtle gossamer things, much like the spiderwebs that plagued a deal of his beloved home, disturbed by anyone with ill intent passing beneath the boughs. He never knew precisely where an enemy might strike, but general areas were good enough to send out patrols – and the Guard were mercilessly efficient in their tasks.

The exception to his dislike of wizards was the odd fellow called Radagast, who lived in the southwest of his lands. He was a quiet fellow, and though Radagast was not always the most coherent of conversationalists, he knew many things about the forest and those living in it which were worth knowing, Thranduil felt. He also provided quality entertainment when he visited; his little hedgehog companion had done a dancing routine for Legolas’ last birthday. He also kept himself to himself, no bad trait in a neighbour, in Thranduil’s view, and tried to keep the corruption of Dol Guldur from spreading further westwards; going against his superior wizard’s command in a quiet act of rebellion that Thranduil rather admired.

“No, there have been no whispers of his presence among my trees,” he replied, shaking off his musings, “though Galadriel said that his last message indicated he would go to Dol Guldur.”

“What madness would drive him there?” Rhonith wondered, cutting into her tart. “The White Wizard refused to investigate further.”

Thranduil offered her a bitter smile. “An insult to our people,” he said, recalling the cold way Saruman had looked at him when he chided them as though they were overly fanciful children making up stories. Bronwë had stopped him from shouting at the wizard, but the words still stung. The Fortress that had once been his home, had been Oropher’s pride and joy, had been first destroyed during the War of the Last Alliance, torn apart and burnt during a nightmarish siege, and had not been rebuilt since; the screams of too many dead lingered among its walls, haunting the place they had perished.

It had become an evil place, even before the Necromancer had made it his lair, an unnameable horror in the heart of the Forest.

No Silvan would go near it now unless great need drove him.

“Perhaps she mistook his meaning,” Rhonith offered sagely. “Cutting across the southern reaches past Dol Guldur is the swifter route through the Forest… and Mithrandir did promise to rejoin the Company afore they reached Erebor.”

“Nevertheless, the wizard did not set foot within my realm,” Thranduil replied thoughtfully. “And I should not think the land would have hidden his presence from me willingly.”

“Mithrandir would not hide with such power,” Rhonith said, wrinkling her nose in distaste. “It would take true darkness to hide the brightness of a wizard’s footstep from the land he trod.”

“Which is why Galadriel desires answers,” Thranduil nodded, “though I have none to offer – and I would not ask any of my Guard to go there presently. We have much that needs done before winter if the Lakemen are to be sheltered here.”

“She will go herself?” Rhonith asked, brow furrowed. “Whatever Mithrandir found must have convinced Saruman, then… and be darker than expected.”

“She is going there to find answers, yes,” Thranduil nodded, biting into his tart with relish.

The hook was baited. Thranduil finished his meal in silence, watching his daughter think.

 

“I wish to join my cousin on her journey to Dol Guldur,” Rhonith said softly, sitting down to dinner that evening.

Thranduil looked up sharply, carefully portraying alarm rather than glee.

“You believe Mithrandir may be in trouble?” he asked, cutting a piece of venison and spearing it on his knife.

“I have an ill feeling about this venture of Mithrandir’s,” she replied, drawing a morsel of meat through the sauce on her plate. “And I feel…” she paused, shaking her head slightly, changing her mind. “The Galadhrim do not know this forest well, and I would… I would bear witness for you, Atheg.”

“A kind offer, sellig,” Thranduil nodded. “But I would not wish you in danger… Dol Guldur has been a dreadful place since the return of the Necromancer.”

“Mithrandir once told me he feared it was the Deceiver reborn,” she said, feeling a little shaken as the wrds left her lips. “And I… Atheg, I must know.”

“If it is, then I should be doubly determined to keep you here,” Thranduil said, heart beating a quick tattoo in his chest; he was regretting his plan now, fearing what it might cost. “You are of great aid to us, too, sellig, never doubt that.”

“I am never unwelcome here, Atheg,” she murmured, “but you do not truly need me here.” She smiled at him, seeing through his pretences with apparent ease.

Thranduil scowled. “I swore to give you my protection, Rhonith, and not lightly.”

“And you have kept it,” she said, reaching out to put her hand on his, “but I am… uneasy, Atheg.” She sighed, looking down at her plate. “As I cannot be of aid to my kinsmen in the Mountain,” she added, “I may as well seek out the wizard.”

Thranduil chewed thoughtfully, studying his steadfast companion. In that moment he missed his beloved queen so fiercely his heart ached. She had had that exact expression on her face so many times when she told him what she would do, and he knew there would be no swaying Rhonith either, even if he wanted to.

He sighed. “I’m not sure if that stubbornness is your naneth’s doing or your adar,” he said, petting her hand gently. “But I know that I cannot sway you from this task, sellig, though I wish you would stay.”

“Both, I should imagine,” Rhonith smiled, raising her goblet to him in a wry toast.

“If you are set on your path, however,” Thranduil added, raising his own goblet for a sip of the sweetly spicy wine, “I will loan you Aithiel for the journey south.” Swallowing, he sighed again. “If you leave in the morning, you should get to the old fortress in time to meet the White Lady.”

The brilliant smile he received in return for this offer made his scheming entirely worth it.

“Get Ivanneth to pack your saddlebags,” he paused, “and, Rhonith…be careful. Those lands are ruled by a darker power than my own.” It hurt to admit it, but he knew that it was the truth; the Necromancer’s dark powers could not be held at bay by the strength of the green things that he ruled, the ever-encroaching darkness leeching his forest of its very life-blood. “The very air there is tainted and foul.”

“I promise you that I will be careful,” she said. “And return as swiftly as I am able.”

“I mean it, Rhonith!” Thranduil replied. “You will find no love of the Eldar in those parts of my Realm. Much has changed, even since your last visit.”

She nodded, those blue eyes sombre.

“Do not act recklessly, sellig, and be back by the changing of the seasons,” Thranduil asked. “Mereth Nuin Giliath[85] is in less than three weeks. I expect to see you dance in starlight this time. You were absent from the last Feast and you were sorely missed.”

“I look forward to it,” she smiled. “I believe I owe Legolas a dance.”

“Then I will see you in three weeks,” Thranduil said, nodding his dismissal and watching her skip out the door, a new spring in her step.

Hopefully, she would be back before Legolas returned and found out where she had gone; since Alphel’s death, Legolas had had a fear and loathing for the site of her demise. Thranduil would rather avoid him worrying that he would lose another he loved – even if it was very different kinds of love he felt for the two – on the dark stones of Dol Guldur.

 

 

The next morning, Rhonith had Aithiel saddled and with a great leap the elk set off to the south, picking her way easily among the trees. The Elk of Mirkwood needed no paths, although Rhonith kept her mount heading south.

 

Two days after her departure, Thranduil regretted his decision to let her go alone. The arrival of one of the units of Legolas’ group, with news of an Orc band roaming his Realm unsettled him deeply, but he could do little but hope that she had not come across them. Dispatching several units to scout for those stragglers that had escaped his son’s archers, Thranduil resigned himself to waiting for news.

 

 

It took Rhonith little more than a week to reach the dark stone fortress commanding its lone hill bare of vegetation; the darkness emanating from the very stones themselves seemed to poison the once-vibrant land around it. Eerie silence ruled the gnarled trees surrounding the hill, twisted into tortured shapes that reached their branches away from the ruins. No bird sang here, the wind rustling what few shrivelled leaves remained; further away, the trees yet struggled for survival, but Rhonith knew that Thranduil had been right.

Ever since the return of the Necromancer, the shadow had claimed the land surrounding Dol Guldur and turned it into a twisted mockery of what had been.

She remembered being young here, playing in the river and chasing around the castle with friends, but those days seemed almost impossibly far removed as she looked up at the forbidding ruins.

Withdrawing to the shelter of the trees that still bore leaves, Rhonith skirted the cursed hill, keeping an eye out for a camp spot on the southwestern edge where she would be more likely to see the arrival of the Lothlórien contingent.

 

A few days later, she spotted light glinting off silvery mail and the pure white cloak that could only belong to Galadriel; swan feathers collected over many years falling in a gentle wave from armoured shoulder pads.

“And here I thought only Aredhel hunted in white, cousin,” she called out, jumping lithely from her perch in a convenient tree. Rhonith exchanged a wink with Rúmil, who grinned, ducking out of sight of his elder brother and stern commander, Haldir. “It is good to see you.”

Galadriel laughed. “Dear cousin,” she greeted, “yours is not a face I should have expected to find here… were you not spending the winter in Imladris?” Around her, the Marshwardens relaxed slightly.

“A longer story,” Rhonith shrugged, “I heard of your quest from Thranduil, and here I am.”

“And well met,” Galadriel smiled. “I had not expected Thranduil to stir himself… but you have not seen Mithrandir?”

“No, my lady,” Rhonith replied. “And that is a worry. These lands are overrun with the spiders and other fell beasts spreading from the malevolence of the fortress; I fear what lurks within.”

You are wise to fear this place, cousin, Galadriel offered softly, the caress of her mind familiar to Rhonith.

The Wood Elves avoid it, she replied. The grief for those lost at the return of the Necromancer lingers in the very air.

“Spiders?” Haldir scoffed.

“They are formidable, Commander,” Rhonith rebuked. “Radagast says they are a spawn of Ungolianth, and they are large and cunning enough to make me believe it – when you have fought off a spider the size of a wolf, you will know why the creatures are loathed in these lands.” She had met with a small hunting group on her journey from the halls and though Aithel had helped her fight them, the battle had not been easy.

“Dread… in webs…” Galadriel murmured, staring at something only she could see for a moment before shaking it off and smiling at Rhonith. “Then we shall go together,” she said, “Haldir, tolo[86].

With that, the Lady strode forward boldly, guarded by the ever-faithful Marshwarden. Galadriel’s white garments billowed gently with each silent footfall, her bare feet touching the earth with perfect grace.

Rhonith took a deep breath to steal herself and followed.

 

Crossing the threshold of the fortress felt exactly as bad as Rhonith had imagined it would when she looked at it from a distance. In her memory, it was a light and airy place of high arches and soaring columns, but now the stone was tumbled down and crumbled into broken misshapen pieces that only barely remembered their former splendour. To her senses – Dwarven ones, mainly – they lamented their loss of purpose, giving the air a tortured feel as though the screams of the dying were just outside of hearing.

No life stirred here.

Although the structure was old and marred by the ravages of time, the forest had yet to reclaim the old stone. No ivy climbed the cold grey stone, and no animals scurried across the ground towards hidden nests.

The fortress was lifeless and cold. The sun remained hidden behind a cover of darkness even though the day had been clear when they set out from the forest and began to climb the ancient roadworks up the hill.

Rhonith shuddered, hugging herself with one arm, never letting go of her short swords as she moved with the rest of the Lady’s warriors, gliding across the uneven flagstones of what had been Oropher’s Great Hall once.

There was no sign of the lost wizard, only dread-filled shadows and a few strange insects scurrying through the cracks and crevices; and yet Rhonith knew that they were neither alone nor unnoticed.

An eerie wailing filled the chilly air, striking fear in the hearts of the Elves around her.

It didn’t make Rhonith feel particularly brave, either, she had to admit.

Galadriel raised her hand, Nenya[87] gleaming despite the low light of Dol Guldur.

Thalos![88]” She cried, her voice echoing off the stone walls. It helped, still, the word firming resolves and steadying heartbeats as they followed her.

A shriek pierced the air. A few old rocks tumbled to the ground. The wailing ceased, leaving an almost more eerie silence behind. In the gloom, invisible eyes opened, studying the warriors intently. A statue appeared to move, following the White Lady with its empty eyes. A bow twanged. The arrow clattered on the stone. Haldir glared at the shooter, who ducked his head, embarrassed by his own nerves.

Galadriel caught the unfortunate elf’s eyes, leaving an encouraging thought in his mind.

I have come for Mithrandir.” Galadriel’s voice rang with indefinable power. “You will not keep me from him.”

Suddenly the air rippled in front of them. As if drawing back a curtain, a grey-cloaked form was revealed, bowed under an attack, which was simultaneously unseen and made of the darkest of shadows.

Rhonith gasped, gripping the handle of her weapon so tightly she almost thought it would crack.

It was Mithrandir, trying to hold off the shade of the Necromancer with Glamdring and a strange staff, the jewel on top shining brightly, throwing spears of light into the shade. On his finger, Narya[89] glittered brilliantly, refracting the light from his staff as well as burning with its own immense inner power. As it pierced the Necromancer’s almost-there body, Glamdring appeared aflame.

The bows of the Galadhrim sung out once more, piercing the dark figure with their strong arrows, but leaving no visible wounds. The fiery shade looked up at the invading Elves and redoubled his attack on the lone Istar.

Elbereth Gilthoniel![90]” With another war cry, Galadriel and her guard threw themselves into the fight.

“Celebrimbor!” Rhonith cried out, hoping for a little courage in the face of this ancient foe. The Deceiver was here, though not as he had been when she was a child, nor as he was when she’d last seen him on the fields of Morannon. Her father’s name was not the war cry of many Elves, but she had always felt it was more likely he would hear her plea than the Queen of Stars – Celebrimbor had reason to listen to her, after all – and Rhonith threw herself into the fight, filled with a burning anger that the passing of millennia had never truly doused.

The elves sprang forward, silver blades whirling, creating their own shimmers of light and sparks of fire as they clashed against the fel blades of suddenly appearing Nazgûl spirits.

Galadriel went to the aid of the beleaguered wizard, who had barely noticed their arrival, locked in a glorious contest of will and power with the Necromancer. The dark shade seemed limned in fire but he was still advancing. Mithrandir was battered relentlessly and appeared to be bleeding from several smaller cuts. The wizard was growing slower in his parries and the Necromancer had managed to hurt his leg, leaving the wizard precariously balanced. The wraiths kept the elven warriors busy, swords clashing against swords as they moved silently across the scarred rocks of the fortress.

Brilliant white light shone forth from Nenya, engulfing the darkness of the Necromancer. He turned to face the White Lady and spoke in the dark language of Mordor, mocking and cruel. His voice brought despair on the wind, but Galadriel’s power burst from her with the surging forces of a raging sea and dissipated the dark mists of terror. Her radiance was both beautiful and terrible to behold, as though a raging tempest had taken Elven form to do battle with the darkness. The eldritch shade glared, concentrating his power on combating the light. His eyes opened, where there had been no eyes before, and they were malevolently flickering flames. The burning gaze of hatred centred on the brilliant Ring of Power and scorched the hand holding it.

Mithrandir finally recovered his wits and threw himself into the fight, staff and sword blazing. His fire met the form of the Shade and set it alight once more. The burning eyes turned to the wizard whose sword swung true towards its face. The Necromancer swung a shadowy blade, hitting the wizard hard in the side. Gandalf crumbled to the ground, but the Shade’s next swing was blocked by his sword. Galadriel’s light enveloped the fallen wizard, replenishing and augmenting his own power. Again and again she thrust her hand towards the nebulously shifting shadows, blasting brilliant white light against it. The shade shrieked in pain, and once again uttered words in the foul tongue of Barad Dûr. Mithrandir thrust his sword and staff forwards, glowing with the fiery light of pure magic, into the ghastly form.

He spoke.

Sauron i eneth lîn!” he cried out, powerful voice ringing through the Hall.

The shade seemed to grow darker, terrifying visage shifting as though he couldn’t settle on proper features.

No edledhio!” Galadriel bellowed with another burst of power from the two Rings.

A terrifying scream rent the air as the shade writhed in front of the mage, boring into the minds of those around them.

Rhonith stared back at it, seeing half-remembered faces appear in the shifting shadows.

The shade seemed to grin, malevolence thickening the air around it.

Ego, gwarth![91]” Mithrandir thundered and there was a loud burst of hateful power, the beat of mighty wings that knocked everyone off their feet, tumbling Elves and spirits alike to the ground, senseless.

 

Rhonith slowly got to her feet.

The shade was gone, leaving behind only the shimmering imprint of its shape lingering as she blinked. Its dark servants were gone, too, no trace of those once-proud Kings to be found among the grey stones.

Around her, other uninjured elves found their feet, turning to aid their wounded fellows. Of the thirty warriors who had entered the fortress, only five were not standing.

Mithrandir lay still on the stones. Galadriel pushed herself up, staggering the small distance to kneel at his side, stretching a hand towards the prone form and running it through the air over his body. She was murmuring quiet Quenya words of healing and her ring was still glowing with soft brilliance.

Rhonith approached slowly. A quick look showed Mithrandir beginning to move, filling her soul with relief; the foe that had been banished from this place was mighty indeed, and even the Grey Pilgrim would have had no guarantee of victory, despite Galadriel’s aid. He looked older than she had ever seen him, and the glory of the White Lady could not conceal the weary lines on his face or the grey pallor of his skin.

Galadriel’s voice petered off into silence, leaving her staring into the air as she sat by the fallen Istar.

“My Lady, you can do no more for him,” Rhonith said gently, placing her hand on Galadriel’s shoulder. The way her cousin started at the touch surprised her, but she did not let it show. “He will need healing and time, but not here,” she added, glancing behind her at the Marshwardens who were staring at them. “Your Wardens need you, now.”

“Yes…” Galadriel mumbled, blinking until awareness seeped back into her blue eyes. “Cousin of mine,” she greeted, making Rhonith breathe a sigh of relief. “Sit with Mithrandir while I speak to Lord Haldir.”

Rhonith nodded, sinking to her knees and grasping Mithrandir’s limp hand in her own, squeezing it softly.

“I wish to be gone from this place as soon as possible,” Galadriel said, leaning on Rhonith’s shoulder until she had found her feet once more, striding towards her faithful commander.

The wizard blinked slowly.

Iston i nîf gîn…” he whispered hoarsely, “…mírdan dithen[92].”

“Hello, Mithrandir,” Rhonith smiled, squeezing his hand. “We found you at last.”

His eyes closed once more, but his mouth curled in a small smile behind the grey beard, and he squeezed her hand lightly.

“Lady Rhonith, we will be leaving soon,” Haldir said. “Can Mithrandir walk?”

“We’ll see, Commander,” Rhonith replied, glancing over her shoulder at the Marshwarden.

Haldir offered her a small smile. “I am pleased to see you unharmed, my lady,” he nodded.

“As I am pleased by your wholeness,” Rhonith shot back, giving him an impudent grin as she sheathed her two long-bladed knives. She bent, picking up Glamdring, sheathing it at Mithrandir’s side. “But I think Mithrandir will need aid.”

Haldir shook his head at her, but he’d always had a soft spot for the Princess of lost Eregion and didn’t mind her teasing – it was part of being her friend, after all.

Rhonith picked up Mithrandir’s staff gingerly, though she didn’t truly expect the gnarled wood to object to her touch, coaxing Mithrandir to his feet.

With one arm draped over Haldir’s shoulders and one over her own, they began carrying the exhausted wizard away from the scene of battle, the blasted stones beneath their feet making it a slow shuffling endeavour as they tried to trip up unsuspecting steps.

 

“Dawn…” Rhonith breathed, stepping out of the shadows of the fortress and blinking against the pale sun just coming up over the trees.

“Time has passed queerly this day,” Haldir remarked beside her, renewing his grip on Mithrandir’s almost boneless figure.

“Yet we have come through mostly unscathed,” Galadriel said behind them. “Elbereth be praised.”

Making their way down the hill was slow going – most of the Marshwardens were capable of moving under their own power, but both Mithrandir and Galadriel had exhausted almost all reserves – and the sun had risen high above the trees by the time they returned to their small camp.

Aithiel greeted her rider happily, licking Rhonith’s cheek and accepting a bit of petting before settling down to rest next to Gandalf, who had slipped into a deep healing sleep, leaning against a wide trunk.

You will bring him to Thranduil, cousin? Galadriel’s voice asked in her mind, making Rhonith look up from the lembas she was chewing contentedly.

I will, she nodded. He will want to head for Erebor as soon as he is well, and the Halls are closer to that goal than letting him go with you, my Lady.

And where does your path lead? The lady wondered, smiling fondly at her young cousin.

I will not return for a while, if Erebor is reclaimed, Rhonith replied. I gave my word to Thorin Oakenshield.

Valar protect you on your journey, Galadriel’s soft voice slipped through her thoughts like a caress before she turned her attention back to her warriors, giving the light of Nenya to those cut by the wicked Morgul blades before joining Mithrandir in true sleep, guarded by the ever-vigilant Haldir.

 

 

 

In the morning, once Galadriel and Mithrandir had awoken, the group split. The Galadhrim turned towards Lothlórien, promising to bring word of her whereabouts to Rhonith’s friends there, and Rhonith and Mithrandir went north, slowly making their way through the forest towards the Halls of Thranduil.

The journey that had seemed so swift on the back of a fast elk now seemed eternal; although they could put their supplies on Aithiel, the elk could not carry them both and Gandalf needed frequent rests. He still slept more than he was awake, and Rhonith was grateful that Galadriel had insisted on her taking as much lembas as she could cram into her saddlebag; she dared not leave Mithrandir to hunt the scarce game in these parts of the Forest.

 

Four days after they had departed Dol Guldur, Rhonith spent the night awake, looking up at the distant stars; it wasn’t a proper Feast of Starlight, but she sang a few of the most popular dancing tunes softly to herself. Mithrandir made no comment, curled up asleep beneath his cloak, and although Rhonith had hoped to be back in time for the festival she was not surprised to realise that their journey would take days if not weeks yet.

She only hoped that Thranduil was not disappointed… and that Legolas was, though she pushed that notion aside as soon as it occurred to her, forcing her mind to focus on the Company and their Quest as she lay on the leaf mulch and watched the stars twinkle far above.

 

 


[84] The 5 Maia sent to Middle-Earth to protect it from evil are collectively known as the Order of Wizards – Heren Istarion, later shortened to the Istari, a plural of Istar, the noun form of the verb for to have knowledge, ista-. Thus it means something like the knowledgeable or alternatively the wise. Their names are Saruman(Curumo, chosen by Aulë), Radagast(Aiwendil, chosen by Yavanna), Morinehtar(Alator, chosen by Oromë), Rómestámo(Pallando, chosen as a friend by Alator) and Gandalf/Mithrandir(Olórin, chosen by Manwë). Gandalf did not want to go, because he was afraid, but Manwë said that was the reason he should go.

[85] Feast under Stars, 22 September, the day after the autumn equinox

[86] Come.

[87] The Ring of Water; imbued with powers of protection, preservation and concealment from evil. Galadriel used this ring to guard the realm of Lothlórien.

[88] Valour/courage (Noldorin; elvish as spoken by the Noldor)

[89] The Ring of Fire; given to Cirdan the Shipwright by Celebrimbor and passed to Mithrandir.

[90] Elbereth(Queen of Stars) Gilthoniel(Star-Kindler): Sindarin names for Varda(Quenyan name meaning Sublime), the Star-queen, most beloved of the Vala. She is the highest Queen of the Vala, and wife of Manwë. Her name is invoked as a prayer in times of need.

[91] I name you Sauron! You are exiled! Begone, betrayer!

[92] I know your face, Little Jewel-smith (affectionate nickname)

Chapter Text

While Thorin spent the five days after they had cowed the Master and incited the Lakemen labouring in the forge – making their weapons had taken longer than he had wanted to stay in Laketown, but that could not be helped – the rest of the Company spent their days obtaining supplies from the Men. Most of their gold went towards non-perishable food, adding to the lembas they had received from Thranduil’s head baker, Maeassel, but Glóin, who was the most experienced in outfitting expeditions to far-off places and had been instrumental in financing the entire Quest, had authorised the purchase of five ponies for their supplies. Durin’s Day was still more than a month away, and the land around the Mountain did not offer anything in the way of edibles. Bombur and Bilbo were up to their elbows in flour, turning out batch after batch of cram, Dwarven travel rations. Although the elves had dispersed through the town, lending hands where needed, they also found time to help the Company. Curulhénes, who was a skilled weaver and seamstress before she took up a post in the guard, managed to re-stitch Bilbo’s trousers, which the Hobbit managed to rip on a nail sticking out of his bedroom doorjamb. The dwarrow were in and out most of the day, carrying back crates of dried sausages and bags of barley and oats they had either traded for or been paid for services rendered. Dwarrow were far stronger than the average Man, something the people of Laketown made good use of when it came to filling up their own carts. Few horses were kept in Laketown, so most families made do with hand-pulled carts – which Bifur, along with the town carpenter, had made many of during the days Thorin spent in the smithy – or only brought what they could carry, but some of the wealthier Men felt a need to bring more precious items along. That had led to several spats between Bard, who felt the space would be better used for the sick, elderly, or pregnant, and the Master. Although he had spoken of friendship to the Dwarrow, the Master was still mostly concerned with himself and his own comfort. He did not truly believe that the Company would accomplish what they set off to do, and he wanted to have options when the time came to run. Bringing valuables with them would allow him to resettle elsewhere, perhaps in Rohan or even Gondor.

 


 

 

In the end, Thorin managed to create a new blade for Nori, which the thief immediately poisoned with his most potent brew; several arrowheads for Kíli, which were also poisoned, just in case, a short blade for Fíli and a new edge for one of Dwalin’s axes. The big warrior had grumbled about it, but Thorin had silenced him with a look and an oath that he would return Keeper to its original state as soon as possible. Knowing that his protests would not matter in the end, especially when Thorin gave him that look, Dwalin surrendered the weapon with a growl. He could see the point of arming as many as possible of their crew with weapons that could harm a dragon more easily than their current ones, but Grasper and Keeper had been with him since before Azanulbizar. They had been part of Thorin’s courting gifts for him, even if they hadn’t officially been courting at the time, and he knew Thorin recognised their value and significance. The soft kiss he received when he relinquished the weapon that had rarely left his side for the past 140 years told him that Thorin was very aware of what he was asking. His love would not needlessly change such an important gift. Those axes had cut off the head of the orc who killed Frerin, when Thorin had been unable to do more than hold the younger prince while his life-blood stained the Dimrill Dale. Dwalin had stood there, steady as the mountain and fighting with a savage single-mindedness. In his hands, Grasper and Keeper lived up to their names, grasping his enemies closer and allowing him to keep his loved ones safe. His only desire was protecting his Kurdel, while he mourned the dwarf who had been a younger brother to Dwalin too. When Frerin’s blue eyes finally lost the spark of life, something in Thorin had snapped, and he had thrown himself into the worst of the fighting with nary a care for his own life. Dwalin had followed him, hacking at anyone who got close to Thorin’s back. When it was all over, Dwalin’s arms were the ones who held the shaking Prince as he wept for his losses. Somehow the axes had become a symbol to both of them; a reminder that as long as they stood back to back, they could conquer all that the world threw at them, together.


 

Although they were busy, the two Dwarven princes managed to spend a fair time in the company of the Prince of Mirkwood. The young dwarrow were curious, both about the Elf who would be their neighbour, but also the elleth who claimed to be their cousin. The journey from the Misty Mountains to Beorn’s and into Mirkwood had left them with questions. None of the Company had quite known what to feel about the revelation that the elleth they had grown to like was the daughter of the Elvenking they had despised for so long. Her words had turned their memories of events on their heads, and Thranduil’s calm reception of them – if not a particular warm welcome, then at least they had been treated civilly, and by some even more friendly – had only confused them further. Given that the two princes seemed to get along best with the Elf, they had been given several subtle – and a fair few unsubtle – hints that they should build ties with the Elven Princeling, to ensure that he could be trusted. Thorin trusted Thranduil far enough to believe the elf when he claimed that they could be allies and perhaps even friends, but he also knew that the Elvenking was nothing if not cunning, and the long life of the Eldar allowed him to think far further ahead than Thorin’s more mortal concerns. If they could get the support of both the Elvenking’s children, their position when it came to negotiations after the mountain was reclaimed would be much stronger. Balin had applauded his attempt at fostering diplomatic ties of friendship between his heirs and Thranduil’s, which was reason enough to go through with it in Thorin’s eyes. He trusted Balin to steer him right, and when he had ruminated on the issue he made sure that his nephews knew they had his full support in striking up a friendship with the elf. A few of the older dwarrow grumbled a little when they saw the three princes ambling around Laketown together, but none openly complained. Even if they did not see the reasons behind his decisions, they were loyal to Thorin and trusted his word.

 


 

When he was finished making the weapons, Thorin had enough metal left to craft a new tip for Bifur’s boar spear, leaving seven members of the Company with weapons fit to kill Smaug. Orcrist had already been deemed up to the task by the Elves, and although Bilbo’s little sword was small – and none of the dwarrow actually expected him to be able to do much, or any, damage against a dragon – it was made by the same hand as Orcrist. If Gandalf made it back from wherever he had gone, Glamdring would be a great help as well, but the Company would not rely on the presence of the wizard’s magic or his sword, so their planning had not included him.


 

The journey from Laketown to the Halls of Thranduil would be slow, 46 miles as the crow flies translated into quite a bit more when you had to walk on foot, but it would be impossible to send the Men of Laketown up the river. They would need wagons for their weakest members as well as most of their supplies, and although several hunter groups had volunteered to meet them at the forest’s edge to help carry provisions, they would take at least a week to reach the Halls. After that it would be a waiting game. The preparations had already been well under-way when the Company left Mirkwood; hunting groups had been dispatched as soon as the offer of housing the Lakemen was made, and all available hands were used to aid the cooks in curing and smoking the meat. Other Elves were foraging all the bounties their beloved forest could offer. In truth, it was not unlike preparing for a siege. Winter was fast approaching, and even in the best-case scenario they would be keeping a whole town fed for at least a fortnight, though it would be more likely to be a month or more.

 

Faindirn was a fun-loving elf, but he prided himself that he could be trusted to fulfil the duties given to him. The flighty Elf, who flirted with everyone he met, might annoy his commander on a daily basis – and never more than when he prodded fun at Legolas by flirting with an oblivious Rhonith – but Faindirn’s eyes were among the sharpest in the realm, and that was why he had been put in charge of the first group of refugees. Faindirn and Erfaron, who had elected to return to the forest as quickly as possible to help with the hunting, had left early in the morning of September 16th, with the largest group of Lakemen. Their party mostly consisted of elderly folk, though there were a fair few able-bodied men and women among them. These were the people who had both had the least to pack and the most enthusiasm for leaving. Those left behind were packing frantically, trying to ensure they brought all they would need in Mirkwood. Once Faindirn’s group made it to the forest, they sent back more elves to help with carrying provisions. Thranduil had not been joking when he told Legolas to ensure the Men brought as much food as they could carry. Every single person was loaded with bags. The few wagons they had managed to make during the three previous days had been stuffed full of heavy grain.

 

A mule pulled the cart belonging to the midwife, who had ensured that the most pregnant women of Laketown were in this first group along with their families. She might not have the knowledge of the Elves, Anna mused, but if something happened, at least she would be a familiar face. She looked worriedly at the furrier’s wife. Willa was round as a ball, and looked ready to give birth at any moment. Ceadda had paid good coin for a wagon for his wife, who was carrying their first child – or rather, children, Anna had told them – but he had not obtained a beast to pull it, so the task fell to his grown son from a previous marriage. The furrier’s first wife had died giving birth to his son, Beorn, and Anna was determined to get Willa safely through the birth of her twins. Around Willa they had stacked as many pelts and furs as they had left from the previous winter as well as the summer hunting. Ceadda, who hailed from Rohan originally, was nothing if not practical, and had decided that, once they had reached the Elvenking, he would attempt to sell most of the pelts, but meanwhile they would serve to protect his wife and their unborn children. Willa looked quite comfortable with the morning chill, smiling and waving at her neighbours. A few of the smallest children were offered rides on other people’s carts and wagons, saving their overburdened parents from having to carry the babes. Around the group of refugees, children were running. They treated the walk as a grand adventure, but their parents knew that the boisterous joy would not last, and they were not looking forward to trying to keep track of the small ones between the dark trees of Mirkwood.

 

When they reached the forest’s edge, Elves melted out of the trees. One dark-haired ellon called a greeting to Erfaron, who waved back. The Men took a short break, while the Elves conferred with Faindirn, figuring out who needed the most help. Eventually they spread out around the refugees and began herding them along the river. The small children, who had run around so carefree since they left Laketown, were at first subdued by awe at these tall, graceful creatures. They had only caught glimpses of Elves before, the four who had come with the Dwarf King had stayed mostly out of sight, flitting from place to place and ensuring that all inhabitants of Laketown were as prepared as they could make them. These Elves, however, while seemingly friendly, were even less approachable and it took ours before a brave little boy dared to ask the Elf next to his family what his name was. The child’s innocent voice seemed to break the barrier and soon the Elves were inundated with curious children. Their parents tried in vain to corral their offspring, but in truth the effort was mostly for show. Even those who had lived in Laketown for generations had rarely seen Elves and were just as curious as their children. The Men were slightly surprised at the willingness of their guides when it came to answering childish enquiries, but as the days went on, they stopped being quite so afraid of their elusive forest neighbours and some even began asking questions of their own. It quickly became clear that Elves were extremely fond of children – even if they stayed aloof in conversations with adults – and the children loved them in return with an astonishing ease.

 


 

The evening of the departure of the first group of refugees saw a small party in the ‘Guest-House’. Thorin’s elated report of his progress with their Black Arrow weapons had led to a high-spirited feeling of fervent hope running through the Company. The two remaining Elves were swept up in the tide of joy. The dwarrow were so close to their goal now, and their giddiness was infectious. Fíli, Kíli, and Ori were trying to teach Curulhénes how to quaff ale properly when Legolas made his escape from the merriment. The lithe ellon easily climbed through the house, ducking out of Nori’s always-open window and swinging himself onto the roof. Leaning back on his elbows, the Elven Prince stared wistfully up at the stars. A throat being harshly cleared interrupted him before he could sink into reverie, startling the Elf slightly.

“Good night for stargazing, elf.” The low rumble of the one he still privately called Scary Dwarf rumbled. “Something on your mind?” Dwalin continued, huffing quietly on his pipe.

“Longing, perhaps.” The darkness and the peace of the silent night made Legolas bold enough to speak his mind to the Dwarf. Dwalin nodded.

“For the stars?” Dwalin, whose eyes were as keen in semi-darkness as those of all his race, noticed the way the ellon’s mouth twisted up wryly in the corners. “Or for something a little more…”he paused, taking a small bit of satisfaction in the sight of the princeling’s stiffening shoulders, “…earthy?” he gave a quiet chuckle.

“A bit of both, Master Dwarf. Memories, perhaps.” Legolas sighed. His eyes swept across the wide expanse of the shimmering waves that made up the surface of the Long Lake and his head turned in the direction of Mirkwood. "I want to thank you…” he began, haltingly. Dwalin simply continued smoking quietly as he waited for the prince to gather his thoughts. “You have been kind to Rhonith. I am- We are grateful.” He amended, shooting a quick glance at the impassive Dwarf who seemed content to ignore his slip. Legolas continued, emboldened by the warrior’s tacit permission of conversation. “You have not been in the forges with Thorin Oakenshield?”

“Thorin’s the blacksmith. I am a capable hand in a forge, most dwarrow are, but to try to modify something as fine as the craft of Master Hanar? No, that is beyond me. My Heart-Craft is engraving, like my Amad. I am also quite good at carving runes in stone.”

“Master Hanar?” Legolas repeated the name with a sense of wonder. No one had told him that it was Master Hanar who had made the Black Arrows. “Master Hanar, who was the husband of Lady Vrís and father of Lothig?” Legolas asked quietly, wondering if it was the same Hanar. If so, it meant that his friend had been the one to take steps to defend against the destruction Galadriel had foretold and Thrór had ignored. Somehow it made Legolas happy to think that Hanar might yet have his revenge on the beast who claimed his wife’s and his own life. As soon as Rhonith had told them that a dragon was attacking Erebor, Legolas had known that the chances of Vrís and Hanar making it out of the Lonely Mountain alive were small enough to be insignificant. Even if they were together at home, Hanar would have had to carry Vrís all the way to the Front Gates.

“The Dwarf who made the Black Arrows. Master of the Blacksmith’s Guild in Erebor and one of our finest smiths. He taught Thorin most of his skills in a forge.” Dwalin clarified, blowing a smoke ring. He hummed thoughtfully, “Yes. I forgot you knew him. And Frís, of course.”

“I was the one who namedher Lothig. My little flower,” Legolas sighed, before surprising Dwalin once more, Sindarin words spilling from his lips, “Ai, Aulë, de meriathol. Govano i nothrim în adh i mellyn în mi Mannos, Lothig.”It seemed a wholly more private grief than Dwalin thought he should have been present for, and he once more wondered what exactly Frís had done to endear herself so thoroughly to the Elvenking and his son, who – by all accounts – cared little for Dwarrow. The look on the princeling’s face now, however, was definitely fond remembrance.

“What are you saying?” Dwalin asked quietly, confused by the sudden openness of the Elf beside him.

“Aulë – your Maker – protect her. May you join your family and friends in the afterlife, my Flower. I don’t know the words your kin use to speed a soul on its journey to the Halls of Mandos, Master Dwalin, but these are ours.” Legolas translated. “It is custom to say it each time you speak of the dead for the first year since their passing. We did not get word of her death until now, but I’m sure Lothig would not begrudge us our delay in wishing her a speedy journey to the Halls of Waiting.” Dwalin still looked a little lost, and Legolas suddenly realised that Rhonith had never told them how she came to know Frís. He chuckled lightly, “When she was a very small dwarfling, Lothig was lost in Mirkwood. Her parents were part of a caravan, which was ambushed by the first kin of the spiders which still plague my beautiful home, turning it dark and sick with their filth,” Legolas’ eyes burned with anger, once more turned towards the boughs of Mirkwood. “They believed their pebble had perished in the forest when they could not find her. One of my father’s patrols found her, lost and crying, and brought her back to our Halls. She would not stop wailing, she would not accept food, and the elleth who had found her was at her wits end when Rhonith arrived for a visit. She was injured from a fight with a different spider, but she demanded the child be given to her, though she had the use of only one arm at the time.She... she told me that dwarrow are born mostly blind, and the pebble was too young to trust feeding by anyone who did not sound or smell like a Dwarf. I spent hours dribbling milk down Rhonith’s… chest for Lothig to suckle while she was murmuring Khuzdul lullabies.” Dwalin was sure he would never see such a sight again: the aloof princeling was actually blushing. If not for the look on his face, the absolute sincerity, the longing, Dwalin would have called it a fib. “Ada received a raven from King Thrór, asking us to keep an eye out for her bones… we had not known where she came from, her clothing all but gone when she was found and no distinctive marks on her but bruises from falling.” The memory made his eyes harden, though they softened in fond remembrance once more when he continued, “I sent our fastest messenger to Erebor to fetch Lothig’s parents, but for a little more than a week, Lothig was my responsibility. Rhonith was weakened by the spider’s toxin…” he chuckled ruefully, “I am afraid my first meeting with your Master Hanar was not that pleasant. He burst into my rooms in the middle of feeding the pebble… I drew my sword at him, thinking we were under attack.” He admitted sheepishly. Dwalin chuckled. Pulling the twin blades from their scabbards at his sides, Legolas flipped them in mid-air before handing the hilt towards Dwalin. “Hanar wanted to repay us for our kindness, and Rhonith made us demand a favour, though it is against Elven customs to demand repayment for saving a child’s life. Ada, as the Head of our family, demanded that Hanar and his wife follow one of our traditions and accept Rhonith as a sister to their child for her deed. Hanar made me these, to replace the sword I had drawn on Rhonith’s kinsmen. Even if I drew it in defence of an innocent, I did not feel right using the blade after that day. They have served me well.” He finished. Dwalin turned over the light swords. He had seen the prince fight with them, and Hanar had certainly been a master of his craft. He handed the swords back silently.

“I’d never heard that Frís knew Elves before this journey, though we knew she got her parcels from someone who marked them with a leaf,” he rumbled, an idle thought of Thorin’s possible reaction making him grimace slightly. They owed the Elves a debt of gratitude if nothing else, he knew.

“If it was the blackberry preserves, it was from myself and Ada. Those pots were marked with our maple leaf sigil. Rhonith’s Lothlórien orchards are made up of orange and apple trees, though I know she traded some of her fruit for the spices she sent to Lothig. The tea was also from the Woodland Realm, as I am afraid we got her addicted to the taste of it during her frequent visits.”

“Yes, we have all missed her tea. Somehow, none of us could figure out how to brew it right. I think we should be glad to learn,” Dwalin said drily. Legolas laughed softly.

“I shall see that a supply is set aside for you, Master Dwalin, and I’ll be happy to teach you the proper way to brew it too. I had no idea it was so popular to drink tea among your kind.”

“It isn’t, really, small beer is more widespread, but Frís would always serve a cup after dinner, to round out the day, and I suppose we got so used to it that the lack of it has been felt keenly. We’ve still got a half bag of it left in the kitchen. After the twentieth failed pot, we gave up on brewing it.” He guffawed suddenly, “Heh! Thrór’s heir drinking elf-tea with great pleasure… the old dwarf would have conniptions if he knew.” Dwalin continued chuckling at the thought of Thrór’s outrage, and the clear laugh of Legolas joined him a few moments after.

“Hanar claimed the visits were the debt he had to pay for her life, so the King could not argue. Rhonith can pass for a Dwarf, and she would visit once or twice a year, but every three years, the three dwarrow would spend a few weeks in our forest. King Thrór’s approval of Lothig’s visits steadily declined over the years, but I had not realised how much he despised my kind, if what you say is true. I will enjoy teaching you how to brew our tea even more for the thought that it would annoy Thrór so. Hanar would approve too, he was always up for a good prank.” He grinned gleefully. Dwalin reeled slightly, trying to match the Dwarf he had known, though he mostly remembered some of his more mad inventions like the Scroll-Roller, which he had made for the Library and which almost caused a fire, to Legolas’ Master Hanar. “Frís, as well as Master Hanar and Lady Vrís were named Elvellon by Ada. For their sake – and their sake alone – did we not turn our backs on Thrór’s people. Hanar and Vrís may not have made it out of Erebor,” he sighed, “But they are remembered in the hearts of our people. I grieved to learn of their passing, as I now grieve for their daughter.” He nodded to Dwalin, making to leave, but was pulled back by the warrior’s strong hand on his wrist.

“Thank you.” When the elf did not seem to understand, Dwalin explained. “If you had not saved her, I would not now have my Thorin. I will remember your kindness.” He tilted his head, studying the elf. “I am grateful. If you hold our debt repaid, I will not mention it again, but know that we will honour the bargain struck.”

“Your Thorin?” Legolas was puzzled. “Bargain?”

“Your Ada made a bargain that Rhonith would be Frís’ sister, no?” Dwalin sighed, “That makes her as good as a blood relative in the eyes of our laws. Which means she is Thorin’s aunt by tradition. In truth, this makes her an aunt or cousin to most of the Company,” he mumbled, “I’d have to ask Balin, but I’m sure there is a ceremony to go with claiming the kinship. She was already our cousin through the blood of Durin, but being adopted into Hanar’s line would grant her status of a Noble Lady of Erebor…it’s possible she could claim some inheritance from his estate too, though I’d have to check the laws as well as his will to find out.” he mused. “Yes, my Thorin will have to be told the story. As King, and Head of Durin’s Folk, he will be the one claiming her part of the family when we reach Erebor…”

Legolas could only stare. This was a torrent of words compared to his previous interactions with Dwalin, which had consisted of the big warrior grunting or growling incomprehensible words at the other dwarrow and being obeyed with alacrity. In truth, he had thought the brawny Dwarf among the less clever of the Company, but the night’s conversation had put those thoughts firmly to rest. Dwalin was clearly far smarter than he first appeared. “She always loved visiting Erebor. I’m sure she’d be glad to feel so welcomed. She had her own rooms in Hanar’s house; I remember visiting it once, before Thrór banned my people from entering his Mountain. Wait, your Thorin?” he repeated. Beside him, Dwalin fidgeted slightly, trying to decide how to explain the concept to someone not a Dwarf.

“Aye, my Thorin. My Heart of Hearts. My Heart-Song, my One.”

“Thorin is your husband?” the elf wondered as he made himself comfortable once more on the cool wooden shingles. Dwalin couldn’t help a slight chuckle; that expression on the elf’s face was reminiscent of the look on any dwarfling’s face when they wanted to be told a good story. “But he is the King. Kings must have sons…” Legolas blushed fiercely, gaping at Dwalin as he exclaimed, “You’re a Lady Dwarf!?” His expression was so incredulous that Dwalin could not help exploding in laughter.

“Ahh, no, lad. I’m male through and through. So is Thorin, before you ask. Fíli is heir to the throne, the son of Thorin’s sister as he will not have children of his own.” Did Elves not have those who loved their own sex? Legolas didn’t seem to stumble on that part of the topic, however, seemingly accepting Thorin’s Oneness with Dwalin as a valid reason for Fíli being the heir. “Dwarrow have few females born, only one in three pebbles is a girl. To us, couples can be any combination of sexes and gender. After all, Mahal made us to be perfect for our One, who are we to argue if that person is also of our sex?”

The elf nodded, “Yes, Rhonith explained that you have few females when she tried to make Ada understand why it was so important that he demand a high price from Hanar for his daughter’s life. That it was a question of honour, somehow, but I’m afraid we simply humoured them both without truly understanding the underlying reasons. So you are married to Thorin? Are there other married dwarrow with you? The shouty red-haired one who has a tendency to become purple,” here Dwalin guffawed at the rather apt description of Glóin in a fine temper, “has a wife and child,” Legolas paused, sharing a conspiratorial glance with Dwalin, “of whom we have heard more than enough during our journeys with you,” he continued dryly, smiling at Dwalin’s bemused chuckle.

“Ahh, lad, Glóin is a proud father indeed. His wife near enough did not make it through the birth and Gimli is a fine young Dwarf who will be a great warrior in time, true. No, Thorin is not married to me… not yet.” He sighed, staring towards Erebor, shrouded in misty gloom and darkness.

“He does not love you?” Legolas looked stricken with sorrow, and Dwalin hastened to reassure him.

“No, no. Mahal wept, lad, what would give you that idea? Thorin is mine, and I am just as much his. We’re only unmarried because Thorin is too stubborn to give up on Erebor. A king must marry in his own Halls, and though our settlement is known as Thorin’s Halls, it is not our true Halls. Thorin is a stubborn old romantic. We will wed in Erebor or not at all. We have been One for more than a century now, dinnae fash yerself.”

“You are very patient.” Legolas mused, “I thought dwarrow were not in general willing to wait that long to fuse their passions.” The redness in his ears deepened. “I suppose it is romantic to wait until he has regained his throne, but it must be difficult. Or do you not feel physical desire as the other races do?”

Dwalin was flabbergasted, trying to wrap his brain around exactly what he was being asked. A long-forgotten lesson on the customs of elves surfaced. His inner Balin cheered at the knowledge that he had managed to retain such a useless – especially to younger Dwalin, but not much more useful to current Dwalin – concept. “No, we feel physical desire. But indulging in the pleasure of the flesh is not enough to consider a couple wed. Not all who are lovers are also One, though it is rare that the bond is not at least a little romantic. Not all of us are lucky enough to find our One, and many simply fall in love and marry like those of other races. My brother was very young when he found his, only twenty-five, but they both knew it the moment they met. That is exceedingly rare. Most couples find a sense of well-being in the presence of their One, though it might not be distinguishable from being in love, and as their bond deepens, so do their love until the realisation happens to one or the other. A Dwarf will usually know whether they have a One somewhere, however, feeling hints of the Longing as they grow or dreaming of the other. Dwarrow will usually have several partners through their lives until they either find their One, marry whoever they love or become Craft-Wed,” he explained, watching the redness deepen further before the elf suddenly paled. A sound from below their rooftop perch announced Thorin’s entrance to their room and the elf was gone before Dwalin could ask what had put that miserable look on his face. Shaking his head, he too made his way down from the roof, happy to spend the night in Thorin’s arms…after he’d told his beloved a story about his departed Amad.

 


 

 

“I’ve found more of your grandfather’s work here in Laketown,” Dwalin began, quietly divesting Thorin of his tunic and rubbing his large hands over his Kurdel’s tense shoulders.

“Really?” Thorin said, interested despite his tiredness. It had been a while since he had spent a full day in a forge and the dwarf had relished the chance to use his muscles that way again, even if it led to his current stiffness. Dwalin was the best cure for such stiffness as usual, though his hands roaming Thorin’s skin always led to a certain different kind of stiffness, Thorin chuckled to himself. He pressed a playful kiss against the knuckles of the hand that was massaging his right shoulder, looking up at Dwalin with a sappy smile he’d never dare wear in front of his nephews.

“Aye,” Dwalin rumbled softly, bending to claim Thorin’s mouth in a kiss before continuing, “Those swords the elf-prince carries were made by Hanar.”

“And how would my grandfather’s work end up in the hands of a prince of Elves?” Thorin hissed a moan as Dwalin’s strong fingers found another stubborn knot. “And why would he deign to use them? I did not think Elves would know the value of such a craft.”

“He does not realise the significance of Hanar’s status, Kurdelê. To Legolas, the swords are a gift from a friend. He has treasured and used them for 300 years.” Dwalin replied, turning his attention back to Thorin’s tense frame as he told the story of Frís’ Mirkwood adventure. He made sure to distract him with kisses at certain points of the story, until Thorin was once more pliant under his rough fingers.

“It seems we have more reason than I thought to trust Thranduil’s goodwill, Halwmugrê[90], though it explains why he would throw such a celebration in her honour. I wonder why amad never told us this story… actually, no, I don’t. Thrór would have forbidden it,” a dark look passed over his face at the thought. Dwalin kissed it away. “In the morning, I will ask Balin to work out the claiming ceremony,” Thorin sighed, sinking down onto the bed and pulling Dwalin down atop him by twining his fingers into the warrior’s beard. Dwalin went happily, rewarding his lover with a kiss when Thorin’s hands wandered down his body to squeeze his backside.The Smuts

The rest of the night passed in lustful kisses and happy groans of pleasure, and Dwalin forgot to mention the slight suspicions that had been all but confirmed in his mind when he watched Legolas talk about Rhonith.

 


 

 

The Company had diplomatically declined – Balin had handled that – the use of boats for their journey towards the Mountain that the Master had tried to foist upon them as an obvious show of his goodwill. They had all seen Bilbo’s fear of water, and although dwarrow were capable of swimming and had no Hobbit-like fear of boats, it was hardly their preferred mode of transportation either and so they had decided to take the land route. Their journey on foot would be longer, but they had plenty of time before Durin’s Day was upon them. Glóin had been sent out to obtain as many ponies as he could, but with the mass exodus of Lakemen, beasts of burden were hard to come by and he could only get five. Those five were laden with as many supplies as possible: all the food Bilbo and Bombur had made; a few barrels of decent ale – in his heart of hearts, Glóin was only barely optimistic about gaining access to the Mountain, to say nothing of killing Smaug, but he would not be the reason they had nothing to celebrate with once the wyrm was dead – as well as assorted miscellany; ropes, a shovel, some firewood, medical supplies, pipe weed, and even some thick candles. The latter purchase had sprung from Ori’s fear that Bilbo would not be able to see when he entered the Mountain. After all, even though the Dwarven diaspora still called Erebor home, no Dwarf had lived under the Mountain in 170 years and any torches would be long since rotted. It would be terrible if Smaug awoke because their Burglar stumbled blindly into a wall, for example, Ori said, making the rest of the dwarrow nod thoughtfully. In the end, the five ponies were loaded almost as heavily as those who were going to take refuge in Thranduil’s Halls. On top of the things they had packed onto the ponies, each dwarf carried his own pack. These were filled with a change of clothes each, a comb, whetstones and whatever extra food they could scrounge up. A few had even sewn travel rations into their clothes, like Nori had shown the princes. Their adventure so far had taught them to keep their most valuable items on their person at all times, simply because of the ease with which vital supplies could be lost. Scrounging the stores and pantries of Rivendell had replenished their meagre supplies once, after the ponies had bolted with what had been left in their saddlebags, and although Beorn’s generosity had been a staggering kindness, it had also hammered the point home that packs might be lost just as quickly as ponies. Simply looking toward Erebor from the shore of the Long Lake had let them see the desolate remnants of Smaug’s rage. No plants grew between Laketown and Erebor, and no animals called the dormant plains home. Even in the best-case scenario, they would need food for more than a month before they even made it to the part of the journey that involved killing the dragon, and then they would need to survive inside the Mountain until Lord Dáin could arrive from the Iron Hills with Dwarrow to help with the rebuilding.

Around the Company, the Men of Laketown were busy preparing for their own departure. The second group of Men would leave the Long Lake the day after the Dwarrow, leaving behind only the bare bones of their stilt town. After long debate, it had been decided to take Thorin’s suggestion, and remove the bridge behind them. Life on the Long Lake may be difficult and its hardships and heavy taxes made for a meagre reward, but it was still all they had. As unlikely as it was that someone would come by and take over a whole empty town, removing the bridge still made some of the wealthier merchants feel slightly more secure in leaving behind valuable goods.

Bard, along with a few of the other fishermen, had boats capable of reaching the edge of the forest, where the Forest River widened enough to accept flat-bottomed boats. These vessels were loaded with whatever supplies had not already been carted off, and would be floated to the Forest, where the wagons that Thranduil usually sent when his wine barrels were delivered would meet the boats, carting the rest of their supplies to the Elvenking’s Halls. The Forest River was too narrow and rapid for anything but empty barrels to survive a trip down the white waters, but a small track had been made alongside the fast-flowing currents to enable trade in either direction. The last few miles were too steep for wagons, but from there the Elves usually loaded their goods onto the backs of massive elk or used sleds for transport. Curulhénes had pledged the support of her family’s wagons, and Legolas had given Faindirn a message for Thranduil to send out as many helpers as could be spared to move the goods from the fully-loaded barges.

 

 


notes:

 

[90] My honeybear.

Chapter Text

It took them almost a month to return to the Halls and most of that time had been spent in silence. Gandalf was lost in thoughts of his battle with the Necromancer, whom he now knew was indeed Sauron. Their battle had been in the mind as much as in the physical realm and it would take time to sort through the damage. Gandalf was almost certain he had caught glimpses of the Enemy’s Plan, but he could not discern whether what he had seen was the truth or simply a smokescreen for the real plans. He was very worried. The Enemy had been routed from the fortress, but not slain. If what he had seen was truly what would come to pass, grave danger lurked around the corner, especially for the Company.

 


 

 

As they moved ever further north, Gandalf slowly emerged from the deepest recesses of his mind. Quietly he mused that if he was to have company during times when his existence was more of an ephemeral than a physical nature, a dwelf was probably the best choice. All the patience of the Elves, but with the fiery heart of the Dwarrow. Not that the Eldar’s passions did not burn just as intensely, but theirs was a cooler fire, he felt, tempered by patience and time. Their long lives gave them plenty of pleasure and love, but the short spans of mortal years were evident in the way the other races felt things. He had wondered before, whether the inherent knowledge that it could be over so quickly was what led the Men and Hobbits of his acquaintance to love as they did, and not for the first time he felt a stab of pity for his companion; stuck between two races at once so different but in truth far more similar than either would admit. Ilsamirë let him brood, but kept him anchored to the present with her constant singing and physical presence. Most of the songs were in Sindarin or Westron, but when he surfaced enough to notice he even caught strands of Quenya and what could only be Khuzdul. The snippets of Khuzdul seemed to increase in frequency as the days wore on, revealing his companion’s thoughts, and he could feel his own worry growing too. He had meant to re-join the Company before they could enter the mountain, but that seemed an unlikely goal now. As Gandalf gradually emerged from the hazy reaches of his own subconscious, they conversed more. The wizard was not yet fully healed, but even as he walked the paths of dreams, he wished for news of the Company he had helped send off to face a dragon. They had been approached by no scouts, which would indicate that the Woodland Elves were kept busy with their guests – a good sign.


 

 

“They must have reached the mountain by now,” the wizard said, on a chilly morning in the middle of October. Ilsamirë nodded, looking slightly relieved at the level of alertness inherent in the Wizard’s gaze and words.

“Yes, mellon-nîn, they should have. Legolas and his patrol should have returned to the Halls with the Men of Laketown as well. Durin’s Day is in less than a fortnight. We should arrive in Thranduil’s Halls by the end of next week. At this speed, another 9 days. I wonder if the dwarrow will have sent news by then.”

“I am sorry, my dear, that I am slowing us down so much. I’m afraid this battle has wearied me more than I thought. Did I remember to thank the Lady for her timely assistance before we departed?”

It was not the first time Gandalf had repeated a question already answered, but Ilsamirë did not draw attention to the fact that this conversation had happened more than once during their journey.

She smiled fondly at the Maia. “I conveyed thanks on your behalf in case she had not seen your gratitude in your mind. Galadriel was quite exhausted as well. She will recover once she is back home with Celeborn. Your slowness is no bother, old friend, it is not the first time I have kept you company on a slow journey and I would wager it will not be the last,” she winked and Gandalf gave her a wry smile in return. “I have never required your constant mental presence while rambling and I am easily capable of steering your physical form through this darkened forest. Mahal wept, Gandalf, you just battled the Shade of the Enemy, you are allowed time to recuperate. I will not press, but I am here if you wish to discuss what you saw. I know you must have breached his mind.”

“It would seem I did, my dear, though I do not know how accurate my visions were. I am troubled. I fear that I saw the truth and Erebor will soon be besieged by an army of Orcs and Goblins, led by Azog and Bolg.” They both shuddered at the foul names.

“With what we know of Azog and his thirst for revenge, I should be surprised if he did not come for Thorin. He has wanted the Line of Durin extinguished since before Azanulbizar. When I left, Thorin and Thranduil were well on their way to becoming allies. We may rely on his aid, if it comes to war. The Men might fight too, neither people is interested in Erebor being held by Dark forces. Orcs holding Gundabad and Khazad-dûm is already a stain on the soul of all Dwarrow. The Angmar Orcs have always been the most reviled for this slight.” She frowned and continued, “If Bolg has command at Gundabad, he could raise a sizeable army against the dwarrow. Angmar Orcs have a deep hatred for Durin’s Folk. The taunts of the Goblin King indicate that he is in contact with the Orcs at least, and his death at your hands might incite the Goblins to join a potential alliance for revenge. We could face both.”

Goston sen.[100]

Neither gave voice to the fear that Orcs and Goblins might not be the worst beings they could be facing. Smaug would make the rest of the armies entirely redundant if the dwarrow failed in their quest to kill him.

 

 

notes:

[91] The 5 Maia sent to Middle-Earth to protect it from evil are collectively known as the Order of Wizards – Heren Istarion, later shortened to the Istari, a plural of Istar, the noun form of the verb for to have knowledge, ista-. Thus it means something like the knowledgeable or alternatively the wise. Their names are Saruman(Curumo, chosen by Aulë), Radagast(Aiwendil, chosen by Yavanna), Morinehtar(Alator, chosen by Oromë), Rómestámo(Pallando, chosen as a friend by Alator) and Gandalf/Mithrandir(Olórin, chosen by Manwë). Gandalf did not want to go, because he was afraid, but Manwë said that was the reason he should go.

[92] Feast under Stars, 22 September, the day after the autumn equinox

[93] Come.

[94] The Ring of Water; imbued with powers of protection, preservation and concealment from evil. Galadriel used this ring to guard the realm of Lothlórien.

[95] Valour/courage (Noldorin; elvish as spoken by the Noldor)

[96] The Ring of Fire; given to Cirdan the Shipwright by Celebrimbor and passed to Mithrandir.

[97] Elbereth(Queen of Stars) Gilthoniel(Star-Kindler): Sindarin names for Varda(Quenyan name meaning Sublime), the Star-queen, most beloved of the Vala. She is the highest Queen of the Vala, and wife of Manwë. Her name is invoked as a prayer in times of need.

[98] I name you Sauron! You are exiled! Begone, betrayer!

[99] I know your face, Little Jewel-smith (affectionate nickname)

[100]That [is what] I fear

Chapter Text

The great gates of Thranduil’s Halls were thrown open. The refugees passed slowly through the massive doorway, exclaiming at the interior architecture and the impossible beauty of the caves. The massive tree roots that wound their way through the complex, in places thick enough to serve as walkways had them shrinking back warily. Such plants were not natural, and it brought home the stark contrast between the two races. During their long march, the Elves, while otherworldly, had seemed part of the land around them, aloof but approachable. The Elves who walked the paths of Thranduil’s Halls, however, were nothing like they had expected. Most of them were content to ignore their guests, or simply nodding briefly as they silently slipped by, like water flowing around rocks in the path of a river. The first group of refugees, led by Faindirn and Erfaron, moved slowly through the Halls until they reached the massive cavern that held Thranduil’s Throne. The Woodland King sat languidly on the massive carved seat. Behind him, giant antlers that were taller than most grown Men framed his throne, and his head was crowned with autumn leaves and berries. The crown made of plants, somehow fit the ruler of a forest Realm, and, even if it reminded a few of the refugees of the tradition of crowning a Harvest Queen thus, it did nothing to detract from his majesty. The sheer power of his presence had many of the Lakemen sending silent prayers to the Valar for protection. The Elvenking sat in silence, his eyes roaming across the group, wherever his gaze fell, those beneath it tried their best not to cower. This Elf exuded power, as though only his benevolence or possibly the utter insignificance of their might in his eyes allowed them to even breathe the air of his Realm, let alone live on its borders. 

Faindirn, Erfaron. Are these all the guests we should expect? Where is my son?” The soft Sindarin voice rung with command, and, if anything, the musical language of the Elves made the Men only more fearful. A few scholarly inclined Men among them understood the King’s words, but they did not draw any attention to their skills. It was abundantly clear that the best policy for living in their temporary sanctuary would be speak when spoken to – at least when it came to the mercurial King. The two members of Legolas’s patrol group bowed to Thranduil. The theatricality of their welcome did not fill them with the same awe and apprehension as their charges, being far more familiar with their ruler. Thranduil was not angry, simply a little concerned, and Faindirn hastened to answer his query.

This is the first group, King Thranduil. Curulhénes and Legolas will arrive with the last inhabitants of Laketown in four days. We thought it would be easier to guide the Men in several groups rather than have them all move through our forest as one large party, in case the remnants of the Orc band we fought on the way to Laketown remained. They are bringing barges with supplies up river as far as they can. Prince Legolas sends his greetings to you and Lady Rhonith.” Faindirn explained. Thranduil nodded. “King Thranduil, may I introduce to you the Master of Laketown.” The elf bowed again, pushing the Master forwards with a hand against his back. The Man stumbled slightly, his face pale under Thranduil’s scrutiny.

“Y-Your Majesty, thank you for this gracious welcome,” he began rambling, trying to act as if being here was a grand honour, even though he personally found Elves unnatural and more than a little creepy. This King was even worse than those whose company he had had to suffer on the walk through the dark forest and the Master was fearful. He had to play nice with the Elf, but he did not like it. His reluctance and revulsion easily transmitted through his eyes, and Thranduil’s annoyance climbed steadily. He had known that the Master would be an odious acquaintance, but – for the first time in more than a thousand years – he felt a desire to cleave this repulsive man’s head from his shoulders. The King idly entertained the thought, but waved it away with a negligent motion and stood. His fluid grace thankfully stopped the man’s babble, and Thranduil took two steps towards the Lakemen. The Master shrank back, and Thranduil allowed himself a smug mental grin at the fear on the Man’s face. Turning slightly, so his words would be addressed to the group as a whole, the King made it clear that the Master was not someone he would waste his breath on. A few Men snickered, but their mirth at the Master’s obvious cowardice was quickly hidden in scarves or smothered by an elbow in the ribs from their women.

“People of Laketown,” Thranduil’s Westron was quiet and carried traces of the accent of his Doriathren childhood. The Elvenking instantly held the full attention of the assembled refugees. “Be welcome in my Kingdom. We will assign quarters to you, though the space is limited. Whatever possessions you do not immediately need will have to be put in storage, and any food supplies you have brought will be taken to the kitchens. Meals will be served in the communal dining halls.” He waved towards the redheaded Galion, “My Steward will see to it that you are comfortably housed and that those among you who wish to be useful are put to work.” Another wave brought the smiling baker forward. Her shrewd gaze slid over the group of refugees while Thranduil spoke, “Maeassel is in charge of the kitchens and she will need a few hands to help. Those of you who are sick or injured should report to Nestor in the Halls of Healing, any Elf will show you the way. Many of my people do not speak the Common Tongue, but they will endeavour to aid you in going where you need.” He paused slightly, giving them all a gimlet stare, “You should also be aware that you are now subject to Elven law… if you have any questions, direct them to Master Galion.” With those words, Thranduil returned to his throne, letting the Steward get on with the task of settling in the Men. His thoughts flew far from the commotion in his Halls, however, seeing in his mind the short form of Rhonith lost in the woods, and the taller body of his son leading Men among the Mirkwood trees. He tried to keep his worry from reaching his subjects, but he did not like that Rhonith had not sent word. He had expected her to have either arrived herself, along with the Wizard, or at least to have been spotted by one of his patrols or one of the hunting groups. Mereth Nuin Giliath had passed the night before, and the uncertainty of her whereabouts and condition had diminished his joy in the feasting of his people.

 


 

 

Four days later, just as firith[101] began painting the trees around the Halls in its vibrant colours, the second group of refugees arrived. In the time since his arrival, the Master had managed to offend and alienate all the Elves unfortunate enough to understand him, and tempers were frayed. Thranduil had taken to staying as far from the leader of his guests as he could, letting Galion deal with the reprehensive mortal. His worry was steadily climbing, and he was staring out of the window of his study when Legolas entered. The trees were brilliantly red, the leaves only just beginning to fall, and the Elvenking’s mind was far away. In his memory, he walked once more with his beloved Nínimeth, who had loved the fading season most of all. She had made the first crown of red-leaved maple twigs and bright berries for him, and had sparked a tradition he still followed to this day.

Ada. I am home.” Thranduil felt more than saw his son coming to stand beside him.

I am glad. I hope those you have brought are less troublesome than those who are here. Many of our people are taking wagers on whether the Master will have an unfortunate tumble off one of the open walkways. He is a displeasing character.” He reached out unerringly, even though Legolas had taken position on his blind side, stroking softly over the fine point of his youngest son’s ear. Legolas sighed, accepting the comfort with a slight nudge of his head.

“He did not strike me as a good man, and King Thorin was even more eloquent in his assessment of his character than you… I believe his phrasing was akin to ‘sack of troll excrement’, though it might have been even more unflattering. Master Dori went to cover young Ori’s ears.” He laughed lightly, seeing again the expression on Balin’s face, torn between amusement at his King’s extensive vocabulary of Khuzdul curses and outrage that Thorin had forgotten that he was speaking their secret tongue in front of an Elf. “I have brought Bard, descendant of Girion, perhaps he will be able to corral his people. They seem to hold him in higher esteem these days for his willingness to speak with Thorin Oakenshield and his efforts to persuade them to go against the Master’s wishes and evacuate.” Joining his father in perusing the fiery foliage, the two elves fell into comfortable silence. “Ada-nîn, where is Rhonith? I did not see her when we arrived.” Legolas did not miss the Elvenking’s slight flinch at his question, but the answer made his own shoulders tense under his leather tunic.

Rhonith went to Dol Guldur to look for Mithrandir with Lady Galadriel almost lefneir leben io[102]. She has not yet returned. I do not know where she is now.” Thranduil admitted slowly. He had hoped to avoid having to worry Legolas, but he would not lie to his son either.

Why would she go there? That fortress is dark, how could you let her go?” Legolas’ tone was one of cold fury. He did not truly blame Thranduil, for he knew that his friend was a wilful elleth, and if she had made up her mind to go, the stubbornness of her mother’s people would shine through clearly and ensure that she would go. That did not stop him from feeling acute horror at the thought of those dark stones shining red with her blood. Dol Guldur had been a foul place, even in his youth, and the old fortress had only grown darker of late. The Guards of the Woodland Realm were convinced that Dol Guldur was the reason for the giant spiders that infested their forest, strangling the trees with their webs and poisoning the soil with darkness. At first, they had tried sending in warriors to clear out the place, but after none of the twenty chosen had returned, Thranduil had abandoned the plan and they had taken to simply culling the spiders wherever they found them, burning the nests and the webs. So far, most of the northern part of Mirkwood was still relatively safe, but the peril was growing. To voluntarily venture where so many had perished… Legolas felt fearful.

Legolas. Ionneg, I stopped her going after the dragon, and that was difficult enough. You know what she is like, however, never one to remain behind if she could be off on an adventure. Our Rhonith has fire in her heart, much like your naneth. I could no more stop her than Nínimeth if her mind was truly made up. We simply have to trust that her skills will see her returned to us soon. She is a capable fighter and she was going to meet Lady Galadriel. The Marshwardens will see her safe, even if Mithrandir has gotten himself in trouble. Have faith my son. She will return ere long, I’m sure.” In truth, he was more than beginning to worry, but he would do his best to shield Legolas from the same fears that swirled in his heart. His son was far too impulsive, and Thranduil did not want him to get the idea to run off into the forest looking for Rhonith. If she had not been seen within the next three weeks, he would send out more scouts, but for now the Elvenking decided to bide his time.

I will try. She is…important to me.” Legolas mumbled, not entirely convinced by his Ada’s admonition. Trying to hide his worry, he put on a slight smile.

Loved,” his father chided. Legolas stiffened. Thranduil continued calmly, as if his son had showed no reaction to the correction, “I may have only one eye, ionneg, but do not think me so blind as to miss the way you watch her. Long have you desired her, my son, and yet done little to sway her heart towards you. I have kept my peace on the matter, I wanted you to work out your own heart, but I think the time has come to discuss this.”

Legolas, who had believed his father ignorant of his deepening feelings, something the elder elf had never given him reason to doubt before, was caught off guard. “How long have you known?” he could barely whisper the words through fear. What if Thranduil did not approve?

You have watched her for nearly four yén[103] by my count, but it might have been longer… I had despaired of you ever finding the courage to ask her, but it seems you have been closer than I have seen you in some years before during this visit. She has forgiven whatever made her so angry with you three centuries hence.” Thranduil turned his shrewd gaze on the fidgeting prince. “Did you think I could not see it? Even if I were completely blind, ionneg, you are my son, and you are beloved by our people. They are very protective of you and word of your exploits and endeavours spread quickly. I do not think there is one in my Realm who do not see how you look at her…” he trailed off softly, looking at the red leaves rustling in the breeze once more, giving his son time to collect himself, “Perhaps except Rhonith herself. You are my son, Legolas, and you look at her the way I looked at your mother.” Legolas drew in a deep breath, blowing it out in a heavy sigh. He too turned to look at the reddening leaves.

I don’t think she knows I care for her more than a friend would. She has given me no sign that she returns my love.” And it was a relief to say the words finally, even if his next ones made him feel like an elfling clinging to his father’s robes, “What do I do, Ada? What if she does see me as only a friend? What if she doesn’t?” he did not know which of those were the more frightening option, truly. If Rhonith was amenable, he would get his heart’s desire, but he had little reference as to what it meant to be someone’s husband. Those among his friends who were married did not behave much differently with their spouses in public than before they had wed, and the only lesson he had taken from his father’s fate was patient stoicism and well-concealed longing. On the other hand, if she wasn’t inclined towards him, he would spend the rest of his days pining for her, possibly fading, he fretted, having ruined their friendship utterly.

Peace, Legolas. You have been cautious so far, do not let your fears run away with you. Rhonith loves you dearly, it is simply a question of letting herself love you fully.” Thranduil did not say that he thought she already did, even if she would never admit it. He had seen far more than Rhonith probably wished he had, he knew, and certainly more than she realised, but he had given Legolas ample time to sort it out between them. It was time to intervene, even if it was not his place to tell Legolas that she had looked upon him with love since he had been placed in her arms as a new-born elfling. He had seen the light of joyful realisation quickly followed by a flash of despair that had crossed her features, and Nínimeth’s dry words had confirmed his suspicions later. Rhonith had never brought up the topic, and Thranduil knew better than to mention it. He well remembered when that same realisation had happened for his son, even if Legolas had not confided the feeling at the time. He knew the true reasons Nínimeth had asked Rhonith to remain beside him as often as her wandering feet would let her. “Because of what she is, her path has never been easy.” He cautioned, “You will need to convince her that you are in earnest, and that will not be without difficulties. She will be scared to let you into her heart, though the reason is hers to share.” Thranduil paused, studying his son, “It goes without saying that if you hurt her, not only will I punish you, but I will hand you over to the Dwarf-King to punish as he sees fit. The Dwarrow, though they have not known her long, have grown protective of their cousin.” Legolas paled. Thranduil continued blithely, “They will expect you to court her in the manner of her mother’s people, something no elf has undertaken since Celebrimbor won the heart of Narví. Dwarrow were crafted from stone and made to endure, they will not accept a love that will flicker like a candle flame, but only one that will burn steadily like the coals of a well-stocked forge. In the days before Thrór went mad, I had several conversations about love with his Queen. Dwarrow believe in the existence of Ones, the person who is crafted for them, the match to their soul, although how to discover whether a lover is their One seems to be difficult to explain. Nevertheless, I give you my blessing, both as your father and King and as her adopted father to pledge your suit.Oh, Ionneg, you have a battle ahead of you, Thranduil thought wryly. Rhonith had spent an age denying her own heart, suppressing the feeling of ‘One-ness’ as Sigvór had called it, pretending what she felt was not what it was. Her absences were growing longer, and he could see the struggle she faced every time she arrived, though it was nothing to the one she fought every time she left, and Thranduil feared that the Longing would soon grow too strong for her to fight it. When that happened, he had guessed many yén before, she would go into the West, or perhaps simply fade away, because she believed it was the right thing to do for her One. It was not a fate Thranduil was willing to accept. He had so little true family left in Arda, he would go very far to protect those who remained to him.

 

Soon thereafter, the prince made his excuses and went to find his patrol group. He had not checked on Thalawen since his return, and the duty weighed heavily on his shoulders. He pushed back all worry for Rhonith, and tried not to imagine what hideous tests the Dwarrow would devise for him to be worthy of her, nor how he would even make his desire known to her. Making his way through the dimly lit corridors of his father’s Halls, he passed a few of the Men who had been under his care for the past week’s travel and received several nods of recognition. They did not have enough spare rooms for all the Laketown inhabitants, and even after putting the cells in the dungeons to use – unlocked and with open doors, of course – some families still had to camp out in the wider hallways. In the daytime, their packs and belongings were stowed in nearby rooms, filled to the rafters with things, but at night they would bring out bedrolls and blankets and settle around warming braziers along the walls. When he finally reached the room usually occupied by his group, who did not all live in the Halls permanently, he found only Thalawen and Curulhénes inside. The two elleths were talking quietly, admiring the picture Ori had drawn before their parting. Tears were running slowly down Thalawen’s cheeks as she recounted a silly story of the time Dínelloth had walked backwards into a spider web because he had been too busy staring into her eyes to watch where he was going. Eventually, the rest of their group trickled into the room, settling down for the night’s reverie and combing. Each of them kept contact with Thalawen somehow, anchoring her to the present, although they could all see the pain of sharing her comb with anyone who was not Dínelloth. She had not yet begun fading in earnest, but Legolas was less than hopeful. Thalawen’s eyes were dull, lacking their customary vibrancy and colour. An orphan herself, Dínelloth had been her only family, and his parents had died in the same war that claimed the life of their King. He feared that she was simply biding her time, but the greyed out irises were usually the first signs of fading. It could be quick or it could last for decades, but eventually Thalawen would grow increasingly transparent until they day came when she was so thin and stretched that her spirit could not sustain her form and then she would be truly gone, turned to starlight and shadows, faded into death.

 

The days passed slowly, and the two royals felt their worry for their missing elleth grow.

 


 

 

When at last they spotted the great Gates, the days had started to shorten in earnest and the calendar was moving steadily towards the end of October. Mithrandir was taken straight to the healing halls by Nestor, who would not take no for an answer, and Rhonith was left to seek out the Elvenking alone.

Walking through the corridors was a quest fraught with obstacles in the form of humans. They all stared at this short elf with the peculiar braids. The Elves also braided their hair out of their faces, though most of it was left loose, and the King’s was only restrained by his crown, but this one’s braids were clasped with silver and beads winked in the light of passing torches, just like the dwarrow they had seen. None of them realised that she was as grown as she would ever be, and by the time she reached the hall to Thranduil’s study she had acquired a tail of children looking for a new playmate. Word of her ran like a wildfire through the Halls, and a passing elf with decent command of Westron explained who she was.

The guard outside the door did his best to remain stoic in the face of Rhonith’s difficulties explaining that she was indeed an adult and they had to leave her alone to see the king, earning him a sour glare from the exhausted elleth. Rhonith sighed loudly as the last child, a little girl in a blue dress and clutching a ragdoll – who had introduced herself as Tilda – extracted a promise of a story later and scampered down the corridor. Even though she loved telling stories – and to children especially – she was beyond tired. Finally the hall was cleared and she could push open the door to Thranduil’s study. Rhonith stepped into the lush room, comforted by the familiarity. She would have preferred a bath and some food before talking to anyone and was quietly relieved to find the study empty of its occupant but containing a platter of assorted nibbles. A cushioned divan accepted her weary limbs and she set to filling her stomach with something that wasn’t lembas. As tasty and nourishing as the waybread was, it got repetitive after a whole month on the road. The Dorwinion wine slid smoothly down her throat and she could barely help a moan of pleasure escaping her mouth. It was answered by a low laugh from the doorway.

I mâr nîn i mâr gîn[104], Rhonith.”

Gi suilon, atheg. Ni lôm.[105]

The king walked slowly into the room, pouring himself a goblet of wine and trailed a hand over her ear on his way to his own chair. In his chest, his heart lightened, though the obvious shadows in her eyes and the tired cast to her face, the paleness of her skin, worried him greatly.

You have been gone for a long time, sellig vuin[106]. Trouble?

Indeed. I met up with Galadriel and her warriors outside the fortress. When we went inside to look for Mithrandir, we found him locked in combat with a nebulous shade. It was the Necromancer, who turned out to be Sauron in disguise. The Enemy was routed and fled South to Mordor we assume. The Nine came to his aid. Several Lórien Elves were badly wounded but my Lady claimed they should make a full recovery once they returned to the boughs of the Mallorn.” She sighed heavily, weary of the journey. “That is not the most imminent threat however. When he was battling the Shade, Mithrandir penetrated his mental defences and glimpsed pieces of a greater plan. We believe that an army of Orcs and possibly Goblins is marching on the Lonely Mountain. They wish to destroy the Line of Durin and leave the Dwarrow of the North without true leaders. Even if Thorin can defeat Smaug, they will attempt the Mountain. Mithrandir has sent envoys to the Eagles, for scouting reports. An army of the size he has seen cannot march invisible. Soon we will have proof. After this, we will have to decide what to do. If the Mountain is won, the Company will have to defend it from thousands of creatures of Darkness. They will need help. Dáin of the Iron Hills would come to their aid, but whatever troops he can spare will be too few by far.”

Thranduil nodded. “You wish me to say that I will send warriors to the aid of your kin.” Rhonith nodded, too tired to beat around the bush and sipping her wine slowly. The journey had drawn lines across her forehead and her mouth was pulled into a frown as she nibbled absentmindedly. Thranduil worried in silence, “I think… we will muster our forces and keep in readiness. Once we have word of the fate of the Mountain, we will move to Erebor and prepare for the siege.” He smirked at her and raised his glass for a wry toast, “If I am to build an alliance with Dwarrow once more, best ensure there are dwarrow around to build it with. I chyth 'wîn dregar o gwen sui fuin drega od Anor. An tûr.[107]

An tûr, Thranduil aran.”

You should rest, Sellig. You do not look well. Tomorrow I will introduce you to the leader of Esgaroth, but for now, your bed awaits. I would ask that you seek Legolas before you retire, however. While they were escorting the dwarrow to Esgaroth, they ran into an Orc pack. Dínelloth was killed.”

Rhonith gasped. “Nae, amarth balch[108]!” she cursed loudly. “Poor Thalawen. How is she?

She is strong. Time will tell if she is strong enough to overcome the darkness which stains her spirit, though I am not hopeful.” Thranduil sighed. He cared deeply for his people, and although Thalawen’s pain was fresh, it brought old memories of his own state after Nínimeth’s passing into the West to life in his mind. He had had Legolas, who needed him, as well as his duty to his people, to bring him back from the brink of fading, but Thalawen did not have the luxury of a child who would remind her to live. She never would, now.

With a tired smile and a nod, Rhonith abandoned Thranduil to his morose thoughts and set off through the corridors once more. First she made her way to her own chambers for a much needed wash and a change of clothes. Night had fallen outside the Halls, and she blessed the Valar that she met no overly inquisitive children on her way to the chambers Thalawen had shared with Dínelloth. She knocked softly at the door and entered quietly. Thalawen was reclining on the bed, surrounded by her group, anchoring her to the physical realm through touch. Rhonith joined them silently, at once wrapped in welcoming arms. No one spoke. Eventually she fell into a true sleep. The journey with Gandalf had been harder than she had let the old Maia know and she truly was exhausted. Gandalf had been in no fit state to guard her sleep and Aithiel could only do so much. Rhonith rested, safe between the warm bodies of her friends. One hand rested gently on Legolas’ leg, but neither spoke a greeting. She curled an arm around the still form of Thalawen, who pillowed her head on her chest. Behind her, Legolas watched silently as she slipped into peaceful dreams, his fingers running slowly back and forth along her ear. Her hair spread over the pillows in waves of damp mithril silk and the prince’s fingers itched to redo her braids. He contented himself with letting her scent follow him into reverie, walking among sweet blossoms and twinkling stars in his dreams.

 


 

 

When Rhonith woke, she was alone and made her way to the kitchens. Her sense of time told her it was early afternoon and she had slept for a long time. She flitted silently from shadow to shadow, taking obscure routes to avoid anyone’s notice. Once in the warm, happy domain of Maeassel, she claimed a plate of food and settled in an unobtrusive corner to eat. She paid no mind to the surrounding bustle and noise of the kitchen, lost in her thoughts. Absentmindedly, she braided her long tresses while she ate. When she surfaced at last, she escaped with a smile of thanks to the friendly baker and made her way towards the Halls of Healing.

“My dear Lady! Good to finally see you. Would you please explain to this old dragon that I do not need to be fed only gruel?” The belligerent face of Mithrandir greeted her unhappily, stabbing his spoon into his bowl. Nestor scowled beside him.

“Mithrandir, you know Nestor only wants the best for you. I’m sure if you eat the whole bowl, I might be allowed to bring you a few slices of cordof[019]? Perhaps one of Maeassel’s mini berry tarts.” Rhonith cast a beguiling smile towards the cranky old healer, who relented with a grunt. Gandalf beamed. Laughing softly, Rhonith turned around and headed back to the kitchens to beg a treat for the recalcitrant wizard. She fetched a second tart, thinking that Nestor might relent in his vehemence if he too received a treat.

 

When she returned, treat in hand, Mithrandir had been joined by Thranduil and the two were talking in low voices. Having handed over the treat and exchanged a few sentences with the king, Rhonith made her escape, going to the riverbank to watch the last rays of the sun dance on the rapids of the coursing water. After sundown, she returned to eat in the kitchen then retreated to her own bedroom for more sleep. She did not wake when Legolas entered, hours later, bearing a tray of dinner, and the elf sat quietly, smoothing the frown on her face by running his fingers lightly over her ears in a show of comfort. He was gone by morning.

 

notes:

[101] Fading, the season after the autumnal equinox in the elven calendar.

[102] Five weeks (of five days each) ago. Week = lefnar, plural lefneir.

[103] One yén = 144 years of the sun.

[104] My home is your home.

[105] I greet you, father. I am tired.

[106] Dear daughter

[107] Our enemies flee like darkness from the sun. To victory.

[108] Alas, cruel fate

[109] Small red apple.

Chapter Text

Leaving Laketown on the 19th of September was a boisterous affair. The children – and even some of the adults – were singing the old song about the King under the Mountain, as the fully loaded ponies trotted away from the Long Lake.

Considering Bilbo’s fear of water and inability to swim, as well as a marked reluctance towards anything to do with sailing, they had opted not to take the offer of being sailed across the lake and meeting the pack ponies on the shore. They would still have to walk to the Lonely Mountain, but the journey was eased considerably by their own lightened packs. The Company were in high spirits as they began the last leg of their long journey, trading quips and jokes with abandon. The land surrounding Laketown did not immediately show the taint of the dragon, but as they moved slowly across the open land, those who had lived in Erebor felt remarkably uneasy. In Balin’s youth, this land had been well-tended fields interspersed with small woods teeming with game. Now the land felt harsh and unwelcoming.
Bilbo’s lingering sense of unease, which had never really abated since entering Mirkwood, flared up again as he looked across the land. Where babbling brooks had once fed the fields, no flowing water could be heard. The woods, those that had not burned or been smashed to kindling by the dragon on his last raid sixty years before, were too silent. The Hobbit couldn’t help but wonder if the land had once resembled his beloved Shire, and a shiver of dread filled him at the thought. Ilsamirë had promised him that the elves could heal and restore the land, and even here, so close to inhabited places, he saw the need. What should have been a riot of autumn colours was a dull brown, and even those fields that had not yet been harvested by the Lakemen looked less vibrant than those he had known in his homeland. The Dwarrow did not seem to notice this pall lying over the land, but Bilbo wisely thought to keep his silence. Although he certainly believed – even if doubts, especially at night, haunted his mind – that the Company would succeed in reclaiming the Mountain, his Hobbit heart could not help but hope that Thorin’s people would stay in Ered Luin until spring. This was unlikely, his more pessimistic – or realistic – side claimed as soon as the thought entered his mind. Dwarrow were stubborn creatures as a whole, and Bilbo considered it a foregone conclusion that they would set off almost before any news of victory had reached them. It was at once a lovely and exasperating trait in his companions, he mused, walking slowly behind Dwalin and Nori, who were bickering about some crime of Nori’s that had apparently been committed 80 years before, when Dwalin had been a new guardsman in the Blue Mountains. Bilbo stopped paying attention when he realised that the friendly banter had moved to a discussion of the relative merit of two taverns in one of the shadier parts of the settlement. In the beginning of the journey, the hobbit would have sworn against Nori and Dwalin being friends, but now he was not so sure. He had been slightly shocked at Beorn’s, when he realised that Thorin and Dwalin were lovers, but the notion had sparked a fierce mental debate about whether he even understood his companions at all. If two dwarrow, who – outside of sparring matches – barely touched, could be one of the strongest and greatest loves in the whole race, Bilbo felt certain that two dwarrow who only ever bickered, teased each other, and fought were actually fond friends. The thought hit him hard with a longing for home and those few hobbits he called true friends. Aside from matters of silverware inheritance and such, Hobbits as a whole were a straightforward people. The little traveller shook his head fondly at the drama playing out in front of him. Nori had drawn one of his many hidden blades and was using it to demonstrate the way he had once escaped from the custody of Dwalin’s friend. Fíli watched avidly from beside him as the slender dwarf swerved and ducked while stabbing his imaginary opponent. Dwalin chuckled.

Slowly, the light of the day waned. Thorin called a halt and the Company set to making camp with the ease of long practice. Bilbo joined the by now somewhat less rotund Bombur by the cook-fire and set to making a savoury fish stew with the most perishable supplies from Laketown. The stars shone clearly over their heads that night, leaving Balin inspired to tell stories of the pictures they showed. At first Bilbo tried to follow his pointing finger, but he soon realised that the stars were different than those shining over his hole in Hobbiton. Instead he simply listened, idly smoked his pipe, and sent a stray thought towards the dwelf girl who had carved it for him to replace the one he had lost beneath Goblintown.

Thorin spent the night staring towards the Mountain, deep in thought. He barely noticed Dwalin’s steady presence beside him, but took comfort in the solid warmth of his Kurdel nonetheless. His mind was in turmoil. He both feared Durin’s Day and wished for its arrival with all haste. The two desires warred in his breast and mingled heavily with fear of waking the dragon. He wished they had a better plan, but he was not so blind as to miss the very real possibility that one or all of the Company might not survive reaching their goal. He spared a thought for his sister and avowed once more that he would protect her sons. His sons, too, of course, in his heart of hearts. Fíli barely remembered his father, and Kíli had never even met Víli. Thorin had always been close to the lads, he and Dwalin both considering the two rascals their children as much as they were Dís’. Hidden by a fold of his cloak, Thorin reached out to hold Dwalin’s hand, taking comfort freely offered. Dwalin squeezed his fingers gently, leaning against him in comfortable silence as he watched his brother across the fire. Balin was a gifted storyteller, which was also part of what made him such a capable diplomat. Balin’s rumbling by the fire soothed them both, reminding them of long winter-nights spent talking and trading stories by the hearth. Thorin wondered whether those days would come again in Erebor, but feared the answer. Firmly taking hold in his thoughts, no matter how hard he tried to shake the notion, was the fear-tinged certainty that those nights could never again happen. The bleak mountain ahead, and the increasingly bleak landscape around him, filled him with a sense of foreboding. Restlessly, he turned in his bedroll, keeping himself anchored to Dwalin’s steady heartbeat pulsing under his hand with the blood coursing through his veins.

 

The morning dawned chilly. A thick fog had risen in the night, and the Company were half-hidden from each other. After Fíli had grabbed Thorin thrice looking for his brother, the Dwarf finally growled at his nephew to sit down and wait for breakfast, his poor sleep the night before making him even grumpier than usual in the mornings. The startled Crown Prince jumped about a mile when he realised that his brother was actually his unamused Uncle. Bombur’s call for breakfast saved the young dwarf from feeling more foolish and he went gratefully. Thorin’s temper was not something he wished to cross – especially not before breakfast! – the Dwarf-King had more in common with a bear woken from hibernation in the morning than his people would ever realise.

A filing serving of oatmeal and blackberries later, which at least appeased Thorin’s temper, the Company packed up slowly. The last wisps of fog dispersed, leaving a clear and brilliant autumn morning. The distinct breath of winter that nipped Bilbo’s nose warned of colder times to come. Counting the days, Bilbo felt a bit discombobulated. The Shire was much warmer even in late Halimath[110]. When he mentioned that to Balin, the old advisor had a fit of laughter, before he managed to explain that for their location, the weather was actually fairly mild and that the river would be frozen over thickly enough to support a fully-grown, armoured dwarf within a month’s time. He also launched into a lesson on the Dwarven calendar, having had to let Bilbo’s Khuzdul lessons lapse while among Men and Elves. The Dwarrow did not count the days quite like Hobbits, and their calendar was based on the moon, rather than the sun, which was why Durin’s day moved every year.

 


 

Seven days after their departure from Laketown, they had made it to the foothills of Erebor. They were now at the southernmost part of the western spur of the Lonely Mountain. As they had walked, the Mountain had grown bigger in the horizon, but this night had a festive feel. Bilbo was slightly confused; the closer they had gotten to the mountain, the more restless his companions seemed. Tonight, Bofur seemed downright giddy as he spread out on the hard cold ground, not even bothering with his bedroll, and sighed out a happy moan. Coming from anyone else, Bilbo would have considered the sound downright inappropriate, but the dwarrow around him were simply looking at Bofur with indulgent smiles. Bifur signed something in rapid Iglishmêk, which had half the Company in stitches, but Bilbo did not understand. He watched the hatted dwarf with concern through the evening, but Bofur did not seem to want to move from his spot. His dopey smile reminded the Hobbit of those who had indulged in slightly too much Longbottom Leaf at the Litheday Feasts. As night darkened the landscape around them, their merry fire tried valiantly to keep off the chill, but Bilbo still shuddered every now and again. Glancing at Bofur showed the Dwarf unchanged, seemingly unable to feel the cold that must be seeping through his clothes. Bilbo walked over slowly, looking down at his usually joyful friend. He had grown quite close to the toymaker during their journey, and worry etched itself across his features when Bofur failed to acknowledge his presence.

“Are you alright, Bofur?” Bilbo’s voice was quiet, but garnered no reaction from the prone dwarf.

“He’s basking, Master Baggins,” came Thorin’s low rumble from behind him. “Bofur’s family have been miners and makhuhâlukaiku[111] since the Second Age… their line has always had excellent stone-sense.” Bombur nodded from beside the fire, continuing Thorin’s explanation:

“Bofur has excellent range. I think he is feeling a seam of gold, but my senses are more useful when it comes to stone and fault-lines,” he smiled kindly, “That’s why I trained as an Architect, you see.” Bifur stepped up to his lounging cousin, prodding his side with a metal-capped boot once, before saying something low and growly, but strangely musical sounding while he signed something at Bilbo.

Tazrimi ni biriz ra kibil, sagl mabekh[112].” Ori translated the gestures into the correct idiom. “Don’t worry Bilbo, Bofur will be fine.” Bifur clumsily patted the Hobbit’s shoulder, but Bilbo did not feel reassured that his friend would be fine and shot a desperate glance around the Company. The wild-looking dwarf spoke with a cadence and an accent that made him nigh incomprehensible. Not only would Bifur routinely use High Khuzdul, a language that had fallen out of use before Khazad-dûm was lost, and which was used only by the Singers and Cantors of Mahal these days, but the speed with which he spoke made most of his phrases seem like they were one word to the Hobbit. Bofur was the only one who understood him all the time, although most of the others were at least able to get the gist of Bifur’s meanings through Iglishmêk. The others had turned their attention back to their dinners, leaving Balin to take pity on the poor worried Hobbit.

“Bofur is enjoying himself, Bilbo. He has never felt anything like the vast riches of Erebor, and the experience can be a little overwhelming the first time. You may see several of our Company swoon like this before we reach the Mountain, especially those who have never been near such riches. Our life in Ered Luin, while relatively peaceful, is not rich,” the old dwarf said kindly, patting a space beside him and handing the hobbit a bowl of hot stew when he made his way over. “If he isn’t out of his stupor by the time we go to bed, we will all put our bedrolls around him to keep him warm, do not worry. It would be cruel to separate Bofur from the ground, but we will not let him freeze.” Reassured, but with several worried glances towards Bofur’s prone form, Bilbo began eating.

“If my memory is correct, Master Baggins, we are directly atop the most recently discovered seam of gold in Erebor,” Thorin said, when he had finished his bowl of stew. “My Grandfather’s Chief Advisor, Lord Nár, son of Vár, proposed that – as the seam was discovered on Grandfather’s Nameday – the gold hauled up from the depths should be used to honour Thrór. He had a giant mould made, in the Gallery of Kings, where statues of all Longbeard Kings since Durin can be seen. The mould was to be filled with molten gold and the statue revealed at Khebabnurtamrâg[113], a feast day where we celebrate the skill of our smiths. Smaug attacked only days before the feast, which marks the end of winter. It might interest you to know that the statue would be fifteen dwarrow tall, and the gold for it would have barely made a dent in the seam. Most of it should be in the Great Forges, I reckon. I don’t think they had time to begin filling the mould.”

“Really, Uncle? There’s that much gold right beneath our feet?” Kíli gaped. Fíli elbowed him sharply.

“A bit further down that that, Kíli, but yes. Erebor was rightly named the richest Dwarven Kingdom of Middle Earth. It is the Treasury of Durin’s Folk, whereas the Iron Hills are known as the Armoury, those mines producing almost solely iron of the finest quality. Dáin’s steel is the best in the world, sold far and wide.”

The night passed with stories of the beauty of Erebor. The green stone of the mountain, unique in all of Arda, the massive seams of gold studded with clusters of gems, even the ingenious architecture and engineering of the Halls within the Mountain were praised. Later, Bilbo would consider it one of the last truly peaceful nights they had spent as a Company.

 

Their journey continued ever onwards. The view of the blackened ruins of Dale made them shudder. Even those who had not seen the city at the height of its power felt a chill travel up their spines at the sight, and Bilbo’s worry increased significantly. The stone buildings were still standing, but even from a distance they could see the devastation wrought by dragon-fire. The ring-wall that had been dotted by watchtowers had crumbled in places. The massive city gates, which had been left open by the fleeing Men was a gaping maw. The doors had long since burned or rotted away, leaving scorch marks on the walls. A few towers still stood, like fingers of bone reaching towards the bleak grey sky, silently condemning the watchers for bringing the dragon down upon the people of Dale. It was a subdued Company that camped on the Overlook that night. Bilbo wished for Gandalf’s presence more fervently than ever before. The dwarrow were fierce fighters and he did not doubt that they would protect him to the best of their abilities, but in his heart he knew that the wizard’s warning had not been idle platitudes. Something besides the pall of Smaug’s desolation lingered over the dreary landscape. He took to praying to Yavannah at night, hoping for the wizard’s swift return.

 

Balin’s prediction came true. Those with stone-sense beyond the average fell into periods of awe while they journeyed. Even those who had never been particularly gifted had moments where they would simply stare into thin air, focusing only on what they could feel from the surrounding stone and not where they put their feet. Kíli was especially unlucky in this regard, as he managed to fall over and tumble down a hillside because he had not been watching where he was going and the others had been too far to pull him back. After Óin had set his nose, grumbling about foolish princelings all the while, the decision was made to walk in pairs. Hopefully, that would keep injuries to a minimum. The slight misadventure did not deter Kíli, who continued to range out with the senses he had only just discovered. The elder dwarrow hid their smiles in their beards, watching the young warrior scampering around like a dwarfling with a shiny toy.

The nights were spent telling stories and sharing songs. The landscape did not affect them quite as badly as the oppressive gloom of Mirkwood, but stories bringing cheer and laughter were appreciated by every member of the Company. Thoughts of days long past kept them from dwelling on thoughts of the dragon waiting at the end of their journey, looming ever closer on the horizon as Durin’s Day approached. Dwalin’s stories of trying to complete his first shifts as a young guardsman-in-training, despite Thorin’s and Frerin’s best efforts at distracting him had them all laughing. The King grumbled when Dwalin waxed poetic about thin wires set up as tripwires along corridors he patrolled, or mischievous princelings attacking him from behind, but his eyes were fond when he looked at the bald warrior. Of course, Thorin had his revenge in due time, telling the story of one of Frerin’s infamous adventures, involving his cousin’s new battle-ram, some silk dye he had bought for their amad and an unlucky Dwalin getting in the middle. Balin’s chortles made the old dwarf fall off the log he had chosen as a seat when Thorin reached the point where Thraín and Fundin had happened by – just as Dwalin had collided with the goat, making Frerin lose his grip on the pot of dye he had been holding as he rode through the mountain. Dwalin’s mohawk had been pink in spots for months after that debacle. It devolved into a competition after that, stories of pranks gone awry spilling from every dwarrow. Even Bilbo chimed in with a few stories from his own childhood, scampering through the Shire with the other fauntlings.

 


 

Two weeks after they had waved goodbye to Laketown, the Company had made their way past the Front Gates, ominously open after Smaug’s fiery attack had broken through the heavy metal and left them dented. They had passed the old watchtower at Ravenhill, where the Raven Matriarch had nested in bygone days. They had set up camp in the western valley along the mountainside. According to the map, the hidden Door would be found along the north-western spur of the Mountain. That side of the Mountain had very little in way of adequate campgrounds, however, at least according to Thorin’s memories of childhood adventures and Balin’s vaguely annotated maps. Eventually, it was decided to make camp, and not move from the valley until they knew where to go. The ponies could not be dragged up and down the steep slopes, and the loose scree was treacherous to anyone on foot. Instead Bombur was left behind, taking care of the ponies and preparing food while the rest crawled all over the Mountain, searching for anything that could possibly be a doorway. Thorin had ordered them to split up, covering more ground, but it was slow going. Even for the dwarrow, who were used to moving through mountains and stony terrain, the unsteady ground was treacherous. When they trudged back to camp at night, several of the Company would be sporting minor cuts and bruises from falls or accidental rockslides. Óin’s salves and bandages saw quite a bit of use, especially among those dwarrow who were too excited to be as careful as the situation demanded. Their task was made more difficult by the fact that sheer cliff walls were not uncommon on a Mountain like Erebor. The first time Kíli came running back to camp claiming to have found it, the “Door” turned out to be too narrow to fit the description on the map. Thorin had scowled heavily, but the young dwarf’s excitement had lent new energy to the rest of the Company and they took up the search once more, shouting excitedly from pair to pair. On October 9th, just as the sun was setting, Nori and Bilbo found a spot that could very well be the door. Due to the lack of light, the Company decided to leave exploring the site further till the next morning. That night, the map was pulled out once more, leading to a massive argument about the accuracy of both the map and Nori’s drawings of where they had found the possible doorstep. Bilbo tried to interrupt a few times, lending the thief his support, but he was roundly ignored by the louder dwarrow.

In the morning, the Company made their way up the slopes, heedful of the treacherous ground. Nori was in the lead, stepping carefully on the loose rock as they climbed slowly. By midday, they had all made it to the stretch of mountainside that the burglar and the thief had agreed must be the door. Another fierce debate broke out, the ‘Ri’s and the Royal Durins agreeing that this must be the spot while Glóin, Óin and the Ur’s were less convinced. Those possessing the most accurate senses crawled all over the piece of wall, but the door had been disguised too well to find through such means. In the end, it came down to Thorin.

“I believe this is the Door,” the King said, tiredly, “We should re-camp below, and get as many supplies up here as we can during the next three weeks. You may continue to search the mountainside, but I have faith that Nori and Mister Baggins have found the right spot.” As their King ordered, so it would be. Once they made it back to Bombur and the camp, it was time for dinner, so moving camps would have to wait.

Getting their ponies and supplies to a spot below the door was precisely as difficult as Balin had feared. The journey that had taken them half a day plus their climb, had taken them a full day with all their packs. When they finally resettled in the narrow valley underneath the Doorstep, as they had named the small ledge that just barely fit all of them, night had fallen hours before. That night was a lot less cheerful than it should have been, and minor arguments and bickering could be heard around the fire. Tiredness plagued everyone, but eventually those who could sleep settled in to do so and those who had watch kept a wary eye on their surroundings.

Masakhshami, amrâlimê[114].” Dwalin rumbled, coming up behind Thorin, who sat, staring broodily into the fire and puffing on his pipe absentmindedly. “Jalai’gil kulhu huhud dê [115].” He said, sitting beside the dark-haired dwarf. Dwalin pulled out his own pipe and settled in to wait. He had long since learnt that Thorin would speak when he had figured out what to say, and could only be rushed if he wanted less than half of what weighed on his Kurdel’s mind.

Agridi…za-amshagi[116]? Zamaha’tini azafr Thrór? Bilbo zatamradi? Kamdrafi id-uslukh? Kanâgmâ katannikîn du azhârmâ?” Thorin shrugged. “Ammâ mangati, amrâlimê. Mudtuwê bintadkhiti diblal. Elrond ranaka zabirâ’bifi ni satâf Thrórul. Akhshami hu hugur[117].” Only the late hour and the fact it was Dwalin asking would allow him to speak of his fears. His Kurdel had been at his side since before the fall of Erebor, through untold dangers and hardships, always Thorin’s stalwart protector and steadfast support. A fierce wave of love swept over him when Dwalin rumbled quietly, speaking words Thorin had not known he needed, but desperately wished to hear.

Uthran Mamahdûm… Astû ablâkhul mi Elrond tarniki, amrâlimê. Zanâdrafi uslukh makalful[118].” Dwalin continued, wrapping his hand around Thorin’s. The two sat staring into the night for a long time before making their way to their bedrolls.

 


 

Over the next two weeks, the Company managed to convince each other that they had found the Door. They kept searching for other likely locations for another few days after their camp had been moved, but found no worthy contenders. In the evenings, stories and songs gave way to tense strategy sessions, and dreams of what they would spend the gold on once the dragon was defeated. Bilbo did not have much of an idea of what to expect from the Treasure hoard of Thrór, but he found Kíli’s plan of filling a tub with sapphires and pearls for a treasure bath to be quite ridiculous. When he quietly shared this thought with Balin, the old advisor had simply chuckled.

“But Bilbo, when the dragon is gone, Kíli will have gems enough for fifty jewel-baths,” he laughed, not unkindly. Such wealth was unimaginable to most of the dwarrow who had not lived in the splendour of Erebor, but Bilbo could not doubt Balin’s word and the plans for the treasure only grew more preposterous to his ears with each passing day.

Plans were made for fighting the dragon in most areas of Erebor. Thorin assumed that Smaug would be in the Treasury, but if it could be avoided, he would prefer not to get within range of Smaug’s claws. The tentative plan, with Durin’s Day fast approaching, was for Bilbo to go down, quiet and still, to find out whether the dragon was dead or asleep. When Bilbo returned – none of them entertained the idea that he might not, for fear of jinxing the endeavour, not even Bofur dared speak of that – the Company would follow him and spread out around the dragon. If Smaug slept, Kíli’s new arrows would be used to shoot him and hopefully the arrows would do some damage. The Cold iron was hard enough to pierce dragonhide, but it had a tendency to be brittle, and Thorin could only hope that he had not ruined Master Hanar’s careful work. If not, Kíli would save his arrows until the dragon woke from the others’ attacks. If they had to fight the dragon, they would attempt to lead him to the Great Forges, one of the only other places in Erebor where a dragon would seem small, and where they could quench his fire by using the massive water systems that had been installed by the engineers of Erebor in case the forge area caught fire. No one had any desire to fight inside the Treasury, where footing would be even more treacherous than the slopes they had traversed so agilely to find the Door. Gold coins and treasures thrown in haphazard piles would be too unstable and give the dragon a distinct advantage. In his heart of hearts, the Dwarf-King did not expect to survive the fight. As one of the only one carrying a weapon that should be effective against a dragon without relying on the Cold Iron, the responsibility for killing Smaug rested firmly on his shoulders.

As the days shortened towards the end of October, Thorin grew quieter, spending hours brooding and discussing tactics with Dwalin and Bifur, the most experienced warriors. Nori had applied himself to the task of poisoning as many weapons as he could get his hands on, including Dwalin’s warhammer, in the perhaps futile – and certainly fatalistic – hope that even if Smaug ate any one of them, he would be poisoned, even if the poison did not enter through the bloodstream. A lot of his time was spent in the company of Fíli and Bilbo, trying to teach the latter the skills to dodge the dragon’s claws and flames. If the arrows could not finish Smaug, they would have to resort to melee range attacks, and the hobbit had precious little experience. They did not have time to imbue Bilbo with anything approaching proficiency, but hopefully he would at least refrain from stabbing himself in the leg.

Three days before Durin’s Day, their plans were finalised. Bilbo had insisted that he be allowed to fulfil his contract by going down first and scouting out the place. The Company had grumbled, but eventually given in, although they would not hear of him trying to bring back any of the treasure. Balin, backed by Ori, had claimed that dragons were intimately familiar with their hoards and would notice if Bilbo snagged as much as a coin. They did not know if it was magic, but, according to the legends Ori had studied in Rivendell, stealing anything was a sure-fire way to wake the beast. The Company would await the Hobbit’s return. If the dragon slept, there was no reason to wake him by making the refreshed smell of Dwarf waft through the hallways.

 


 

Durin’s Day dawned bright and clear. The Company gathered on the Doorstep, anxiously waiting. A few times someone tried to start a conversation or share a song, but those paltry attempts soon petered out into watchful silence. Thorin felt – for the first time since they had fled Erebor and seen the Elvenking turn away – hopeful. This hope seemed to burn like fire in his heart and he stared at the stone as though his eyes could force the keyhole to reveal itself. Beside him sat Dwalin and Balin, who both remembered the feeling of their old home, one quietly apprehensive but hopeful, and the other filled with fearful longing. At first, Fíli and Kíli had sat, wrapped closely together in the morning chill under Thorin’s protective arm, but eventually, as the day wore on, the younger dwarrow’s patience ran thin and they scurried away. The Company spent the day quietly, none daring to disturb the three watchers. Glóin was born outside Erebor, and Óin barely remembered the halls, and the rest had never even seen the mountain. Possibly aside from Nori, but it had been from a distance during one of his longer trips away from Ered Luin.

“Do you think Gandalf will come? He said not to enter the Mountain without us.” Bilbo asked, hesitant to raise his voice and break the sombre silence of the group.

“He will not. Even if we could see him and wave him to our location, the wizard would have no time to climb up here, Master Baggins. We are alone.” Thorin said. The continued absence of the wizard, as well as the reminder of his warning, only added to his worries, but he could not let the Company see him faltering and fearful. He was their leader and he had to remain strong. Beside him, he felt Dwalin steadily press his leg against his thigh, giving no outward sign of the comfort he knew Thorin needed. Thorin pressed back, accepting and returning the offered reassurance of his Kurdel. Once more he thanked the Maker for sending him Dwalin, and cursed his own stubborn, romantic side for not letting him marry the extraordinary being at his side. Dwalin had never complained, not once, knowing exactly how Thorin felt, but he knew that Thorin’s continued refusal to marry anywhere but in Erebor had given Dwalin more than one sleepless night, mired in doubt. He had done his best to dispel them, but he knew that he had not always succeeded. It was neither his hear nor Dwalin’s that was in question, but he knew it hurt the big warrior that their people saw him simply as their King’s bed-mate. The birth of Fíli had simultaneously lessened and deepened those wounds; having an heir meant Thorin did not need to sire children, and the boys had always known that Dwalin was their Uncle just as much as Thorin himself. Thorin had often wondered, especially when they were small dwarflings, why they – and any other children Dwalin came across – had been so fascinated and fearless around the burly dwarf. Children never feared Dwalin, unlike their parents, who often pulled them away from his scary, scarred figure, and Dwalin loved them in return. Lost in thought, Thorin only just managed to accept his bowl of supper from Bombur, when Dwalin elbowed him sharply, thanking the dwarf absentmindedly.

Bombur had ensured that they had eaten well before sundown, and had even managed to sneak Bilbo an extra portion. He had been quietly horrified in Laketown when he overheard that Hobbits usually ate seven meals a day, despairing that they had been starving the small being. Bilbo’s girth had certainly lessened over their journey, but so had the others’ and Bombur had thought nothing of it, knowing that the two meals a day they had subsided on were alright for travel, if not for ordinary living. Bilbo had spent most of that day attempting to reassure the distraught cook, finally managing to calm him down with the help of Bofur, but Bombur had been sneaking him larger portions as often as he could since.

At last, sunset arrived. Everyone stared at the cliff while the sun slowly sank behind them. Thorin’s hand gripped the key so tightly he felt his knuckles might burst through his skin. Their shadows lengthened. The keyhole did not appear. When the sun finally fell behind the horizon Thorin could only stare. There was no keyhole.

“What did we miss, Balin.” Despair writ itself across the Dwarf-King’s stern features. He looked lost, like a dwarfling, and the wounded noise he made when he turned to look at the old advisor broke all their hearts. “The last Light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the keyhole…Where is the keyhole…what did we miss?” Thorin could barely hold back tears. He had been so certain. So sure that this was the place.

“You tried, laddie. There’s nothing more to be done.” Balin sighed, trying to hold back his own tears. “We’ve lost the light.” Dwalin roared, smashing his axe against the wall, but to no avail. Nori, who had spent days searching the sheer cliff wall, tried once more to find something that might be a keyhole, but found nothing.

The key slipped from numb fingers as Thorin turned, gripping Dwalin’s wrist in an effort to anchor himself to something real. Slowly, he began climbing down from the Doorstep, back to the hobbled ponies. The Company followed silently. Ori was openly weeping and the others did not seem far from tears. Bilbo tried in vain to get them to stay, pulling on Balin’s sleeve and holding onto Bofur’s coat, but the dwarrow kept moving, leaving the little hobbit alone by the door.

Bilbo sank to his knees, “But it has to be here, the last light shone right here!” he cried. He closed his eyes, trying to find a different answer to the map’s words. Stupid puzzle. A riddle? A feathery wing hit the tip of his ear. Bilbo jumped in shock, crying out loudly as he sprang to his feet. The moon rose behind him, giving enough light to see a small brownish bird holding a snail in its beak. The bird looked at Bilbo, hopping around the rocky outcropping while it studied the strange creature. Apparently deciding that the hobbit was no threat, the small bird turned to the stone wall, knocking the snail’s shell against the rockface. The slight echoing sound pricked Bilbo’s ears. He looked up, at just the right moment for the moon to appear from behind a cloud and shine on the small plateau. Something glimmered on the wall. Bilbo gasped. “The keyhole!” he shouted, turning back to scream after his dwarrow. “The keyhole! The last light…it’s the light of the moon!” He looked around his feet, mumbling to himself, but he could not see the key Thorin had dropped. The small hobbit turned this way and that, muttering to himself, until – to his own abject horror – one of his feet found the key…and shot it straight towards the edge of the plateau. With a scream, the hobbit launched himself after the key, just as Thorin’s boot stomped down on the fleeing metal. A sigh of relief escaped Bilbo.

 

Thorin had heard the hobbit’s pleas as he walked away, but he could not find the heart to offer comfort to anyone. His nephews were clinging so tightly to each other that they might never let go, and he would have worried that his own grip would leave Dwalin with bruises if the warrior’s hand had not been just as tightly wound around his own. In his chest, his heart still beat, but he felt deadened. So much had been riding on this venture, so much hope was now lost. For a second, he toyed with the thought of simply throwing himself off the mountain or climbing through the smashed Front Gate and screaming his defiance at Smaug, but he knew that he could not follow the impulse. And then he heard the sweetest words he had been told since Kíli’s difficult birth: The keyhole! The last light…it’s the light of the moon!

 

He grasped the key between shaking fingers. Sharing one last look with Dwalin, the King turned to the Door and the Burglar. He almost wished he could think of something profound to say, but all his words had deserted him as the gravity of the moment made itself known. He pushed the key into the small hole in the wall. Inside the rock, the shifting of gears and tumblers could be heard.

The Door opened, bringing with it a draft of fetid air, the smell of dragon faint but powerful in their noses. Behind him, Balin blanched and Thorin knew intimately the memories that would be on the forefront of his oldest friend’s mind. Putting a hand on the hobbit’s slim shoulder, Thorin squeezed once.

“Good luck, Master Baggins. Remember the plan.” Bilbo nodded, giving them a tremulous smile as he turned to face the darkened hallway. Ori handed him a fat candle, lighting the wick with a twig from the fire.

 

notes:

[110] 9th month of the Shire Calendar. August 23rd to September 21st. Winterfilth(10th month) lasts until October 21. Bilbo’s birthday is given as Halimath 22, which is September 13th.

[111] Orefinders

[112] He is swimming in gold and silver, no question.(Here Bifur is using an idiomatic phrase to indicate Bofur’s enjoyment, although it is contextually true, Bofur’s mind is swimming in the rivers of precious metal he can feel deep below ground)

[113] Forge Day Feast. The exact date of Smaug’s attack is unknown, only the year TA 2770, so I’ve decided that he attacked just at the beginning of Afnu’khazâd, the month of two dwarrow(This refers to the two Dwarven survivors after the death of Thingol in FA 502). The Feast marks the end of the winter season and falls on the 19th day of Afnu’khazâd.

[114] You are worried, my love.

[115] Tell me what is wrong

[116] I fear…will I become mad? Will I become ill like Thrór? Will Bilbo die? Can we kill the dragon? Can our people return to our home?

[117] We are so close, beloved. My heart does not rest easily. Elrond thought I would follow in Thrór’s footsteps, I worry he is right

[118] Darer who is blessed (Thorin’s inner name is a hope. Thorin’s strong personality is the largest reason for the success of the Blue Mountain settlement. He dares dream of things others would not attempt.) …You are stronger than Elrond thinks. We will kill the cursed dragon together.

Chapter Text

“I know this stone…” Thorin breathed, awed by the feeling of home that enveloped him. “Erebor. Do you remember it, Balin? Chambers filled with gold.”

“You did it, lad. You actually did it.” Balin whispered, almost in disbelief. “Herein lies the Kingdom of Durin’s Folk. May the Heart of the Mountain unite all Dwarrow in defence of this home.” He read, pointing to the inscription on the wall. Bilbo reached out to touch the carved relief below it. “The King’s Throne.” Balin explained hoarsely. “And the Arkenstone.”

“What is it?”

“It is the Heart of the Mountain, the King’ Jewel,” Balin said. “A large, white jewel that seemed to glow with an inner light.”

“It’s why you are here, Master Baggins. We need the stone to summon the armies of the seven clans.” Thorin grumbled, running his hand slowly over the green stone wall.

“Didn’t Ilsamirë call it cursed?” Bilbo wondered, but Thorin simply scoffed.

“That half-elven girl doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” He huffed. Thranduil would have made sure to paint himself innocent in his dealings with Thrór. Blaming the Arkenstone is just the sort of petty move he would make, Thorin grumbled to himself. Bilbo nodded slowly, a twinge of unease settling like lead in his stomach.

 


 

Walking into the silent mountain was the most nerve-wracking thing Bilbo had ever done. Even standing before Azog, as the only thing between his King and death, had not been quite so terrifying. Probably because it had been a split-second decision made in the midst of battle with adrenaline pumping in his veins, and this had been an hour long in arriving, but known and anticipated right from the beginning, all the way back in Bag End. One last desperate look back was all he allowed himself, catching a final glimpse of Bofur’s encouraging but fearful face and his ridiculous hat, which he had somehow managed to hold on to even through all their adventures. Balin had told him that there was no shame in turning back from his task, but Bilbo’s stubbornness had proven to be equal to that of any Dwarven naysayer on the topic. He would be the one to enter the mountain and check if the dragon slept, and that was the end of it. The hobbit was not blind to the fact that he held the hopes of an entire people on his shoulder, the weight only increasing if he let himself consider the added hopes of the Eldar and the Men of Laketown. Bilbo made his way down the stone hallway on feet that had never before been so silent, as if the very mountain was cradling each step, trying to help him stay undiscovered. The small candle burned steadily once he had passed the first corner, but when he got to the Treasury the flame flickered. Bilbo hardly noticed, distracted by the veritable sea of gold stretching out before him. The stories of the vastness of Thrór’s hoard had not done it justice. The candle flickered again. This time, the hobbit saw it, holding his breath as he watched the flame. In his head, he counted, every two minutes, the flame would flicker. The dragon was still alive. Casting his eyes back to the Treasury, Bilbo did his best to spot Smaug, but all he saw were mounds and heaps of golden treasure. Then coins fell, slowly, rolling down a minor hill with small plinks as they hit other coins. Bilbo finally realised the sheer scale of what he was looking at. Smaug’s one nostril, which had made the coins fall with a particularly loud snore, was roughly the size of his head. That meant that what he had taken for a hill there was in fact the dragon’s head, there was his body… slowly, Bilbo followed the curves of the supine dragon with his eyes. Smaug turned slightly, but did not wake, and Bilbo fled.

 


 

Outside the mountain, the Dwarrow were getting frantic. They had not set a time for Bilbo’s return, and worry ate at them. Finally, Thorin grumbled an order at Dwalin, who scowled, but held back the young princes when they wanted to follow the King into the Mountain.

“You will stay out here. Thorin will bring back the Burglar. Or he will answer to me,” Dwalin growled, his voice invoking thoughts of hours upon hours on the practise fields if his orders went disobeyed. It was a voice and a punishment the young princes knew well from their childhood in Ered Luin and they immediately ceased protesting. They knew he loved them dearly, and freely returned the sentiment, but when their Uncle spoke in his ‘Mister Dwalin’-voice, there was no disobedience allowed. Even those who had not had the pleasurable – or possibly horrid, depending on one’s view of being soundly defeated time and again in the rings – experience of Dwalin as an instructor of weaponry felt compelled to obey him. Dwalin’s unofficial status as Thorin’s Consort made him second-in-command automatically, but his skills and experience lent him an air of authority that made even those unaware of his position in the King’s heart follow his orders. In Ered Luin he was the Captain of the Guard, a position of great responsibility, tasked with the safety of not just the Royal Durins, but also the common folk. Even Nori’s ilk did not question the word of Dwalin Fundinul, and since his promotion to Captain, the level of crime in Thorin’s Halls had dropped significantly. The criminals knew him as a hard but fair Captain, willing to listen to the accused as much as the accuser, which was a rare trait among the Guard before he had taken over the position of Shumrozbid.

 


 

Heart hammering in his throat, the hobbit ran back through the hallway. In his hand, the candle sputtered and blew out, but the corridor still seemed dimly lit or perhaps his eyes had adjusted to the darkness and Bilbo did not falter. He kept his feet as quiet as possible, while maintaining the speed of abject fear. As he turned a corner, he smacked into something hard and unyielding. Hands came up to steady his shoulders, and the frightened hobbit looked up into the blue eyes of Thorin Oakenshield.

“Did you see the Arkenstone? Did you wake the dragon?” the King asked quietly, but the hobbit could only stare. Shaking his head mutely, the hobbit sighed when the King repeated the questions, managing a feeble, stammered ‘N-no.’ into Thorin’s chest. He felt more than heard the Dwarf’s sigh of relief, before Thorin dragged him back to the entrance.

 


 

“The Beast yet sleeps. Bring our packs inside the Door and leave them in the tunnel.” Thorin barked. The Company scrambled to follow orders. Dwalin punched him on the shoulder, but Thorin took it as his expression of relief, rather than condemnation. He smiled happily, knocking his forehead against Dwalin’s before shouldering his own pack.

As they walked down the tunnel, they reached a small anteroom, hung with several dusty and dark tapestries, which Bilbo had passed without noticing, simply continuing straight across, through the open doorway on the opposite side of the chamber.

“I remember this tapestry… but it was in my room?” Thorin muttered, reaching out to touch the faded ancient fabric. A cloud of dust rose from the tapestry, but Thorin just waved it away, searching the weave intently.

“What do you mean?” Fíli frowned, while Dori – arguably the most well-versed in the topic of weaving among those present – began examining the tapestry beside him.

“I think this hides a passage to the Royal Quarters,” Thorin mused, still looking at the tapestry that depicted the Family Tree for the Royal House of Durin. “If I could only remember.” He frowned, “Amad used to tell me a story about the tapestry in my rooms.”

“There are… inconsistencies in the weave,” Dori said quietly, still examining his own tapestry. “Nori, you know the knot-language better than I... does that look like a door marker?” The mithril-haired Dwarf pointed to something in a corner of the fabric. It was made to look like a rune, spelling out what the tapestry depicted – ‘Yavannah’s Garden’ – but when Nori leaned in, he nodded.

“Yes. I’ve never seen knots used like this, and it’s only obvious when you’re this close that the knots were woven into the very fabric of the tapestry,” he mused. “In my professional opinion, this tapestry hides a door, leading to something like ‘Yavannah’s Garden’ as the title states, though I don’t know what it could mean. Did Erebor have gardens?” around him, the rest of the Company shrugged.

Thorin kept running his hand over the aged fabric, accidentally catching a few loose threads with his fingers. The tapestry moved. Thorin pressed a little harder on the rune in the corner and a small door swung open. “I guess Nori is right to think that the other ones also conceal passages,” he said, looking around the small room. He wanted to explore, but the dragon was waiting and this childhood bedtime story come to life would have to wait.

“Where would they lead?” Kíli asked.

“Probably the more important areas of the mountain. My grandfather often had a way of showing up in places without being seen walking there. Perhaps he used these passages to do so,” Thorin mused as they kept creeping along the hallway that led to the Treasury.

 


 

 

Smaug chuckled. The little thief who smelled like Dwarf though he wasn’t one had fled. He wondered what sort of creature it was, but it was merely idle curiosity. The little thief had left without taking any of the treasure, something that rather puzzled the dragon. He was unused to beings who could resist the lure of his enchantments. That alone was worth letting the little thief run back to his dwarrow and let him lure the small morsels back to his waiting maw. Smaug smiled smugly, rustling the treasure above him. The smell of dwarrow was wafting through the corridors. He wondered idly where they were coming from, but in truth it hardly mattered. He knew what they were here for, after all. The Arkenstone. He had heard the ravens chattering in the woods on his last outing, and even though that had been many years ago, he had heard of the death of the former mountain-king. Smaug had laughed himself silly; Thrór deciding to go have a look at Moria… practically suicide by orc. The ensuing revenge-war was a bloodbath and the subsequent disappearance of Thraín meant there was only one Dwarf who could be sending thieves into his Mountain.

Sinuously twining his way through the treasure throve, Smaug smiled to himself. He could hear the steps of iron-capped boots on the green stone of the mountain. Thorin Oakenshield was coming. He wondered if royal dwarf would taste different than other dwarrow. He hadn’t the pleasure when he took the mountain, which really was a shame, he felt.

 


 

 

The Company snuck towards the Treasury. They were as quiet as possible, and, considering that they wore iron boots on a floor of stone, that was very quiet indeed. Not quite as quiet as a Hobbit, but still very quiet indeed. Reaching the door to the Treasury, Iglishmêk signs were flashed around the group, finalizing positions. Kíli would stay by the door, while the rest of them spread out along the walls.

 


 

 

Smaug smiled to himself, burrowing deeper into the golden hoard. He could smell them. Their fear. Delicious.

 


 

 

Awake, Dwalin signed.

Yes, Thorin replied.

They both hid their hands from the rest of the group, as they made their way side by side around the room. They had been heading to the farthest end of the room, heading to the north end. Thorin’s eyes roamed fitfully across the gold, but his nerves were only visible to Dwalin because he knew him so well.

Plan, he signed.

That. Pretend. Sleep. Thorin replied. We. Attack first. Lead. Forge. Dwalin nodded. His axes were ready in his hands, as he kept watching the piles of gold warily for any sign of Smaug attacking. Bilbo had pointed out where the lumps he had identified as parts of the dragon were, and they were heading for the end with the head.

 


 

 

Kíli was straining his eyes. Beside him, Bilbo hovered anxiously. Having the best eyes in the Company, it had been decided that the two would work together to spot Smaug’s possible weak spots.

 


 

 

Smaug laughed to himself. They thought they could surround him? In his own hoard?! For a moment he briefly admired Oakenshield’s arrogance. It was almost…draconic. For a lesser race at least. He wondered which one he should eat first. Oakenshield might be more delicious, but it would be more fun to watch him see the others perish. His screams would be so sweet… delicious. Decision made, Smaug laughed.

“I see you have returned, Little Thief… and you have brought delicious food for me.” He rumbled, still covered with gold as he turned, sinuously wending his way through the piles until he was facing the smell of the scared little thing. “I suppose I should thank you for bringing me Oakenshield… much easier than having to hunt the little would-be usurper down myself… what did he promise you for your aid in this venture, hmm?” Smaug was having fun. The little thief was shaking with fear, stepping back into the shadow of the dwarf beside him. “Treasure? This treasure is not his to give, little thief, it is my hoard now and I am King under the mountain. Did they tell you, little thief? Did they tell you how I ate his people, like a wolf among sheep?”

 


 

 

Bilbo was terrified. The dragon was invisible under the treasure, but they could see him moving piles of gold. The Company froze instantly the moment Smaug spoke. Bilbo’s entire body was shaking. He caught sight of Thorin and Dwalin, signing rapidly, but he had never been taught proper Iglishmêk and did not understand.

Suddenly Bilbo was struck by the same kind of recklessness that had let the small, soft, untrained Hobbit stand between the mighty Pale Orc and his King.

“I have indeed heard the tales of your magnificence, O Smaug the Unassessably Wealthy. I have journeyed far to gaze upon your splendour. I did not believe the tales of your majesty. Travelling with dwarrow of a like mind to my own was the only way for one such as I to reach your glorious lair, O Smaug the Terrifying.” Bilbo said shakily. The dragon laughed cruelly.

“And do you believe them now?”

“Truly, the tales and songs fall utterly short of your enormity, O Smaug the Stupendous.”

“Do you think flattery will keep you alive?” Smaug asked, sounding genuinely curious.

“No- no, no.” he stammered, shaking like a leaf. Kíli put an arrow to his string, ready to fire.

 “No, indeed. You seem familiar with my name, as the puny mortals call it, but I don’t remember smelling your kind before. Who are you, and where do you come from, may I ask?”

 


 

“I- I come from under the hill.” The little Thief said. Smaug revelled in the scent of fear surrounding him. The rest of the dwarrow had stopped moving, frozen around the edges of the room.

“Underhill?” he asked. The Thief was intriguing for the moment, and Smaug had not talked to anyone in a long time. He could spare a few moments to sate his curiosity before he killed them all. The chatter of the Ravens – while it brought him news from the world outside his hoard – got tiresome quickly. He usually roasted the tiresome ones.

“And under hills and over hills my path has led. And, and, through the air.” The Thief stammered. Smaug flicked his tongue out, tasting the small creature’s fear. So sweet… “I am he who walks in darkness with the one between worlds.” A riddler? Pity he chose to accompany Oakenshield, Smaug thought. He would have made an amusing servant; at least for a little while.

“Impressive titles,” though they were most likely metaphorical, he could not smell lies on the little Thief, which was interesting, “what else do you claim to be?”

“I am...luck-wearer.”

Lovely; go on.” Smaug smiled. Dinner and entertainment, delivered straight to his hoard, he should almost thank the little Dwarf for bringing him such a treat. Amusement was so rarely found in a hoard… dragons tended to eat those they kept for company sooner or later, he mused. He vaguely recalled that his mother had managed to keep her Little Morsel alive for almost thirty years, but as she had been killed by elves while her pet yet lived, that was hardly a standard for their race. He shook off the thoughts of his mother’s ignoble end. She had tried to kill him once, as a hatchling, after all, so really, the pesky elves had done him a favour by killing her. Smaug had only grown large enough to be assured of winning against the older female in recent centuries, and three thousand years was a long time to wait for revenge – even for a dragon. His attention returned to the peculiar little thief. He might prefer a different title, but Smaug knew that he had been Oakenshield’s intended Thief, so that was his name.

“Riddle-maker.”

“Riddles? Now that is interesting. And what about your little dwarf friends? Why are they hiding?” As if he could not smell them, hear them moving. He chuckled. The little thief squeaked. Yes, he thought, I will keep that one for as long as it amuses me.

“Dw- Dwarrow? No, no, no dwarrow here. You’ve got that all wrong.”

“Oh, I don’t think so, luck-wearer. They sent you in here to do their dirty work while they skulked about outside… I heard you.”

“Truly, you are mistaken, O Smaug, Chiefest, and Greatest of Calamities.” Really, the little Thief had managed to refrain from lying so far; Smaug was almost disappointed to smell it now.

“Silver-tongued Thief. You have nice manners, for a small thief and a liar. I know the smell and taste of dwarf. They are drawn to treasure like flies to dead flesh. Your words are pretty lies,” Smaug hissed. “Did you think I did not know this day would come? That a pack of canting dwarrow would come crawling back to the Mountain? The King under the Mountain is dead. This is my hoard and I will not part with a single coin, not one piece!” Smaug roared, bursting from the gold with a blast of fire. He aimed slightly left of the thief and his Dwarven companion, making the small creatures throw themselves to the side to avoid the plume of heat. The Dwarf, armed with a bow and arrow, fell off the small overlook, landing hard on the cool gold. The Dwarf did not move. Smaug grinned, looking at the cowering thief. “So, Thief,” he spat sibilantly, “Which of your companions shall I devour first? I’ll save Oakenshield for last, let him watch as I clean my teeth with the bones of his kin,” he smiled, showing the small thing his massive teeth. No one – if Dragons had been given to such conversation – had ever accused him of lacking a sense of dramatic flair. “Perhaps the little archer?”

 


 

 

“Don’t you dare, Worm!” Thorin screamed from his position behind the dragon. Smaug was still mostly covered by golden treasure, but his head was level with Bilbo. Thorin took a few steps forward, only to be pulled back by Dwalin’s hard yank moments before Smaug’s tail hit where he had been standing. It would have swept him up hard if he had remained, but Thorin had little care for anything besides getting to Kíli swiftly. Kíli was certainly unconscious, and the two dwarrow could hear Fíli bellowing defiance from another corner, where Bifur was holding him back from following Thorin’s example.

 


 

 

Bilbo was terrified. He couldn’t rightly figure out which option terrified him more; Kíli being eaten or himself roasted by the dragon’s fire. He could see the dwarrow moving as stealthily as possible towards the main Treasury Door. The Hobbit remembered that Thorin had wanted to lure the beast out of the Treasury, but he had no idea how the Dwarf-King was going to accomplish that feat. It seemed the rest of the Company were in on the plan, however, and the Hobbit cursed his lack of sign knowledge.

“Truly, O Smaug the Stupendous, a Dwarf alone is naught more than a mouthful. The archer is too skinny to be a proper appetizer, O Lord Under the Mountain,” he babbled, as he tried not to bring Smaug’s attention to the way Nori was making his way towards Kíli or the way the Company was making their way to the main exit. This was worse than the Trolls by far. There was no figure in grey darting through the shadows to help him this time.

“Too cowardly to face me, Smaug? Preferring your meals small and unarmed?” Thorin bellowed. Bilbo squeaked fearfully. Smaug turned his head slightly, letting the Hobbit escape from his piercing gaze. Nori had grabbed Kíli while the dragon was distracted. Bilbo joined him, dragging the unconscious Kíli back into the tunnel that led to the secret door. “You have grown complacent and fat lying here. Scared of-” Thorin shouted, barely escaping a fate of fiery death when Dwalin pulled him through the Treasury Door.

 


 

 

Bilbo led the way back to the tunnel, but on the threshold Nori turned back, with a flick of his wrist throwing a small blade straight into Smaug’s mouth. His most potent poison coated the small dagger, and though Nori did not have much hope as to its efficacy on a dragon, he felt obligated to try either way. The knife had been made by an Erebor survivor and using it against Smaug felt like poetic justice. He did not stay to see the knife cut into Smaug’s lip, but the plume of fire the dragon sent after them in retaliation almost singed his hair.

 


 

 

“I can smell you, Little Thief! You and the archer and another dwarf. I hear your hearts, beating with fear!” Smaug roared. “You know your quest is futile. Oakenshield has weighed your life and found it wanting. He seeks the Arkenstone, I know. A pretty bauble… I’m almost tempted to let you have it. If only to see him suffer. Watch him be devoured by its beauty. Watch it drive him…mad. But I think not. Goodbye, Thief.” He breathed a roaring plume of fire after the fleeing dwarrow. Smaug shook himself free of the treasure, barrelling towards the door and chasing the escaping dwarrow.

“You think to challenge me, Oakenshield?” Smaug hissed. He would show the little rat. “I am invulnerable. I kill when I wish, where I wish. My armour is iron! My teeth are swords! My wings are a hurricane! I will kill every last one of your puny companions, roast them in their armour, and cook them in my fire! I AM DEATH!” he roared, coming through the door. The corridor was empty. “Hiding from your fate, are you? It matters not; the Darkness is coming. It will spread to every corner of the land.” He could hear their boots crashing against the stone. They were heading deeper into the Mountain, a different level to the Treasury, but he knew his lair well. He had not spent the last 140 years asleep. Oakenshield was leading them to the Great Forges, the once-living heart of the Mountain.

 


 

 

Kíli groaned. Hooking a finger in the neck of Bilbo’s jacket, Nori made the Burglar stop. The Hobbit was panting with the exertion of their run, but looked back fearfully. Nori grinned mischievously.

“This room has several passages, Bilbo.” Nori left Kíli leaning against a wall, studying the tapestries on either side of them. The tunnel that led to the secret door was ahead, but Thorin had sworn that there were other doorways connected to this room, as a way of reaching the Door from places other than the Treasury. Finding the tapestry which seemed most likely to lead to the forges – it was a picture of Mahal in his forge, after all – Nori began looking for the trigger. The Hobbit busied himself trying to wake up the slightly groggy Kíli, and Nori breathed a sigh of relief that the young prince had not been badly injured. Apparently there were some uses for the thick skulls of the Durin Line, Nori chuckled mentally.

 


 

Most visitors believed that the Throne Room was in the true centrum of Erebor, but it was merely made to look that way through clever architecture and engineering. The real hub of the Lonely Mountain, the Great Forges, was where life pulsed the strongest. The Throne Room sat several levels above the Forges, which, when lit, supplied the Mountain with warmth throughout. When Thrór had first taken control of Erebor, after leaving the Grey Mountains, the Forges had been in a different part of the Mountain entirely, near the top. Thrór’s decision to move it down into the depths had been seen as peculiar, because while the new location was closer to the mines, it was also farther from the markets and the trader’s halls. Over time, the wisdom of Thrór’s decision became clear. With clever piping and vents built into the walls and floors of Erebor’s halls, the Great Forges could heat the living quarters of all of Erebor’s inhabitants. While Erebor’s winters were slightly less harsh than those suffered in Ered Mithrim, the Lonely Mountain was often blanketed by winter storms and snow. The Mountain, at least underground, remained a fairly constant cool temperature, but the upper reaches froze quickly. Venting heat upwards allowed the Dwarrow to use accommodations towards the top of the Mountain year-round, making it possible for more dwarrow to live in the mountain. The parts of the mountain that had held the old forges and tiny workshops was extensively remodelled and turned into a light – for dwarrow were keen mirror-makers and lamp-wrights – airy and spacious Library, made to rival the lost Mazalufahn[119] in Khazad-dûm.

 

As the Company made their way to the Great Forges, they left footprints in the dust. As they passed through long-abandoned hallways, skirting rubble the dragon had scattered on his violent way to the Treasury, they came across several rooms filled with old bones. These were those of Smaug’s victims, who had not had time to flee, or who had been too deep to make it past the dragon once he gained the mountain.

“So many corpses,” Fíli whispered sorrowfully as he caught sight of a mother cradling her child against her chest. Both mother and child were reduced to bones, even their clothing having rotted away over the long years. They could see where the mother’s beads had fallen, a few still holding wispy strands of colourless hair, in a halo around the empty skull.

“Erebor was home to at least ten thousand dwarrow, Fíli,” his Uncle replied hoarsely. “So few of us made it out… Many died in the attack, but we knew that several thousand – miners, smiths, treasurers, and the like – were left behind. Smaug’s body smashed the rock where he did not fit, destabilising several major thoroughfares. The North Mines were entirely blocked, none who worked there escaped. Either they died of hunger or they-,” and here, he gulped, sharing a dark look with Balin, who shook his head sadly.

“I know many would have preferred to speed their way to the Halls of Waiting rather than suffocate in the depths.” Balin said quietly. Behind him, Ori gasped. “When this is all over, we will honour them, lad,” Balin whispered, squeezing the young Scribe's arm. Thorin nodded, mentally swearing that the monument for those who perished in Erebor would be the grandest his kin had ever seen – but not made of gold. They would collect the dead, give them their names back and inscribe them in the green stone of their home before they were burned and the ashes poured into the Soul-Stones. He could not help but think of the great pyres after Azanulbizar. Those who had died there were known as the Burned Dwarrow, and though they had died with honour, the fact that they had not been returned to the stone was a wound that would never heal in the eyes of the survivors.

Behind them, they could hear the dragon crashing through the halls. Ahead lay the Great Forges, once a place of comfort and joy to any smith, but now the Great Forges were empty and cold. No hammers rung in the depths, no songs sounded with happy smiths keeping the beat on their anvils. The Great bellows were silent, and, though the giant melting pots were full, the forges were dark. What had been one of the liveliest workplaces in the mountain had turned into a silent mausoleum. Thorin could not help a morbid comparison to the Song of Durin he had performed in Thranduil’s Halls. At least they might have a chance at defeating the evil that had taken root in Erebor, where he believed Moria forever lost to them. In truth, he had not wanted to go to Khazad-dûm, but when Thrór’s body had been dumped at the doorstep, headless and with Azog’s mark branded into the forehead of his severed head, there had been no choice. Thrór had been determined to regain Moria, and, although Thorin might have been able to sway his father from the purpose if Thrór had died peacefully, there was nothing to be done. Thraín had been filled with the fire of vengeance and the souls of their people stirred with a greater wrath than that which Smaug had inspired, simply because Thrór had been a symbol of all they had lost already. Losing him in such an ignoble fashion felt like losing Erebor all over again, and so Thorin had gone to war with his father and his kin. Looking at Fíli, reminded once more of the laughing brother he had lost in Azanulbizar, Thorin saw the lines of strain on his Heir’s face and knew they mirrored the ones on his own. Had Kíli survived his fall? Had Nori managed to get him and Bilbo safely away from the dragon? The worries ate at him, and he could only wish fervently and pray to the Great Maker that Fíli was not about to share in his grief, watching his younger brother slaughtered before him, helpless to stop it.

They were taking shortcuts to reach the Forges ahead of Smaug, who had to stick to the larger hallways. They could hear the dragon roaring, echoing through the stone, but the words were indistinguishable.

 


 

Bilbo trembled against Kíli, helping Nori keep the younger dwarf upright. Kíli was groggy and listed sideways at times, but was otherwise unharmed. Bilbo couldn’t help but think wryly of the time he had been the groggy one under Goblintown, once more thanking the Valar that Ilsamirë had found him, rather than some unsavoury manner of creature like a goblin. The small cut on Kíli’s temple that had bled so profusely had clotted, leaving him with a grisly trail of blood down his face and neck, soaking into his tunic. Bilbo had fretted, but Nori had assured him that Kíli was in no more danger than the rest of them, as long as they could keep him from being eaten, at least. The dwarf had a concussion, Nori said, so certainly that Bilbo could not argue, but would be fine eventually. It meant that Kíli would probably be unable to shoot with any level of success or accuracy, however, so the part of the plan where they relied on the archer to bring down Smaug would have to be scrapped. They moved slowly through the tunnel. No hallways branched off the main path, though it curved and twisted several times, leaving them walking in the wrong direction until it turned again, but always heading downwards.

 

 

notes:

[119] The Chamber of Knowledge

Chapter Text

“He’ll see us, sure as death.” Dwalin muttered, as they turned a corner and saw Smaug stalking down one of the main thoroughfares. They would need to cross his path to reach the Forges. Pausing by the bodies of their fallen kin had given the dragon the few minutes he needed to overtake them, and their shortcuts had not bought them enough time. His hands went to the hilt of his axes, running his calloused fingers over them for reassurance. He would go down fighting, protecting his Kurdel with his last breath if he could.

“Not if we split up.” Thorin said quietly, looking at Dwalin with a plea in his eyes. The big warrior stiffened, already knowing what Thorin was asking him to do. Thorin’s fingers wrapped themselves around his wrist as the King pushed the keeper of his heart towards his nephew. The elder Durin was more capable of keeping himself safe than the younger, no matter how well trained. Fíli had never been in more combat than their orc skirmishes and Thorin would never let harm come to the lad if he could help it. He was almost thankful that Kíli had been knocked out so early. Even though they had not been able to see Nori drag him off, Dwalin had faith that the wily dwarf would manage to keep all three of their missing Company alive. Nori always found a way out of whatever scrapes he got himself into and Bilbo was clever, even though he was a soft creature and hardly able to fight with his little letter opener. The Hobbit was also fiercely loyal, Dwalin thought, and he had adopted all of them almost from the moment they had left Bag End. It had taken them a while to see the little one’s true value, but Dwalin had been one of the first Bilbo had won over. When he realised that the hobbit had had no idea of their arrival, he had seen his behaviour that evening in a different light. Bilbo had been fussy, but not unkind, and he had not tossed them all out for invading his house without so much as a by your leave. He had not even protested Dwalin taking what he later learned had been Bilbo’s own supper and graciously offered the dwarf more food. Dwalin knew he could be intimidating, and he had layered on the menace as thickly as he could that evening, uncomfortable letting Thorin and the boys enter a place he had not searched for danger. Bilbo had been frightened, but he had still been polite and courteous, something Dwarrow rarely found in other races. Dwalin nodded once, and read the relief in Thorin’s eyes. He never wanted to leave Thorin’s side, but Fíli no longer had his brother to watch out for him, and Dwalin trusted no one with the safety of his royals as well as he did himself – nor did Thorin, he knew.

 


 

 

“Thorin, we’ll never make it.” Balin protested, keeping his vehement voice low to avoid alerting Smaug to their presence. They did not know how sharp Smaug’s sense of hearing was, and though his sense of smell might be as much help to the dragon, Balin could only affect his impact on one of them. He gripped Dwalin’s rough fingers and squeezed them once. He had seen the silent exchange between his King and his brother, and he too knew that what Thorin had really asked – it might as well have been an order, but Thorin would never order his love away – ‘Keep my boy safe, Dwalin. Take him home if I do not make it.’ Balin hoped it would not come to a point where Dwalin would have to follow his King’s last wish, but he was clever enough to realise that there was a very real possibility that it would come to that in the end.

“Some of us might,” Thorin said grimly. “Lead him to the forges. We kill the dragon. If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together.” The Company looked at each other. Balin could see them resigning themselves to death this night, but by Mahal, they would take Smaug with them. A powerful sense of imminent victory came over him and he grinned sharply at Thorin. Even if it cost them all their lives, reclaiming Erebor for their kin would be worth any sacrifice.

 


 

 

When they made it to the door to the forges, Nori sighed. Looking back at Bilbo, the Hobbit nodded once, and the two shared a silent look at Kíli. Mutual common sense made them leave the groggy archer in the tunnel, with strict orders to stay hidden. Kíli complained, but considering that he could not stand unsupported, and the fact that he was seeing four companions rather than two, he had to admit that he would be nothing more than a liability and a hindrance in the upcoming fight. Even the infamous Durin stubbornness had to admit defeat in the face of such overwhelming logic. With a muttered oath, he pressed his bow and arrows into Bilbo’s hands.

“Uncle isn’t a bad shot. If he gets the chance,” he muttered, eyes blazing with determination, “make sure he takes it.” Nori nodded, and Kíli slid down the wall to rest on the floor with a heartfelt groan.

The thief and the burglar opened the tapestry-concealed door.

 


 

Thorin, Balin, and Óin went first, running across a thin bridge. Smaug’s head reared up when he spotted them.

“This way!” Thorin yelled. With a great roar, Smaug pursued them.

“Flee, flee! Run for your lives! There is nowhere to hide.” He hissed, grinning at them. Smoke curled lazily from between his lips, he made to swipe them off the bridge with his long claws, but another sound distracted him.

“Behind you!” Dori yelled, bringing Smaug’s head swivelling towards them. Dori, Ori, and Bombur were running on another bridge and yelling obscenities towards the dragon. Dori looked torn between pride and despair at Ori’s vocabulary; the young dwarf had definitely picked up quite a few curses from Mister Dwalin during their journey. The long serpentine neck stretched as Smaug lunged towards them. The three dwarrow turned and ran, letting the first three escape to the other side of the bridge. “Come on! Ori!” Dori grabbed his brother’s knitted collar, yanking the younger dwarf along behind him. Bombur ran ahead, once more demonstrating that his size – though diminished from the first time they had been running from Orcs – had no impact on his speed.

“Hey, you! Here!” Dwalin bellowed, as he and Fíli made their way across another bridge, a level above Dori’s group on the other side of the dragon. Smaug turned, jumping into the air at them. They barely managed to reach the dubious safety of a tunnel mouth before his claw landed where they had just stood. Breathing hard, Dwalin pushed Fíli ahead of him, keeping up their mad dash until they could turn a corner. He might never have fought a dragon before, but he had realised something as Smaug’s great head swivelled in his direction. Distracting the dragon was all well and good, but they were trying to outrun his fiery breath too, and that would move a lot faster than his teeth, Dwalin feared. When no burst of heat followed their hurried footsteps, Dwalin slowed down slightly. The corner they had turned would protect them, and he tried to remember where the tunnel they had picked would lead.

Glóin, Bifur, and Bofur used Dwalin’s distraction to flee across the bridge Thorin’s group had also taken. Just as they dove into the tunnel on the other side of the chasm, Smaug’s fiery plume of death followed. The three Dwarrow kept running, adrenaline and fear giving their feet wings as they tried to avoid becoming Dwarf roast. With an angry roar, the dragon spun, breathing flames into all the surrounding tunnels.

Bifur was swearing loudly – needing no translation, and, if he had had the breath to do so, Glóin would have agreed with the Cantor’s sentiment – as he felt the stone beneath his feet warm rapidly. Smaug’s fires were hotter than any other, and the stones glowed with heat. The soles of their boots smouldered and smoked as the hot stones burned the soil they had tracked into the Mountain. They had taken a turning, but the heat followed. Reaching a cliff edge, Bifur jumped into the air, Bofur, and Glóin following his example, and landed in a large trough which began skidding down metal tracks. The whine of metal against metal tore at their ears, but they had managed to escape the hot plume of fire. At the bottom of the track, the dwarrow were hurled through the air once more, but landed relatively safely in the large buckets on the hanging conveyor belt that had been used to move ore into the forge. The dragon was far too large to follow. The three shared a look and a sigh of relief, before Bofur began hauling them along the lines toward the Great Forges.

 


 

Balin, Thorin, and Óin were running through a large hallway, the King in the lead desperately trying to remember the right way. Balin turned into a side tunnel, but Thorin continued forward with Óin at his heels.

“It’s this way! This way! Come on!” Balin shouted, waving at Thorin. He'd spent far more time in the Great Forges than Thorin, even though he had never been called to smith-craft, and he remembered all the shortcuts he used to take to get a few more minutes with Skaro before they walked home together when his Master let the young goldsmith go for the day. Óin stopped dead, sprinting back to the tunnel.

“Thorin!” Óin shouted. Thorin turned and began to move back towards them. He had almost reached them when Smaug appeared at the end of the hallway. Thorin shot Balin a look of despair. He would not be able to reach a safe tunnel to turn into before Smaug’s flames – already brewing in his belly – reached him.

“Follow Balin!” he yelled, turning around while Óin protested loudly. The old healer had his back towards Smaug, and had not realised why Thorin was running away from them.

“Come on!” Balin hissed, yanking the old healer into the side tunnel just in time to avoid being burned by Smaug’s fire.

Thorin ran away from his cousins, hoping beyond hop that he remembered the layout of this level of tunnel correctly. His memory proved true when he reached one of the deep mining pits, jumping into thin air with a loud yell. He caught one of the bucket chains that had once been used to cart up ore from the miners in the depths, hoping that Smaug’s fiery breath would pass over his head if the dragon had decided to spew flames after his quarry. The chain-lock gave way, and Thorin cursed loudly as he descended rapidly, unable to stop the bucket until it reached the bottom. When he looked up, another curse fell from his lips. Far above him, Smaug was climbing into the pit. His claws found purchase on the rough walls of the mining shaft and he quickly sped down into the depths, filled with rage and hunger. Snapping his jaws at Thorin, Smaug growled when he missed, following the dwarf ever further down.

“Thorin!” Dwalin screamed, running up to the mouth of the mining shaft and looking down in horror. His heart felt like it had stopped beating for the few moments between watching Thorin jump, and seeing him reach the precarious safety of the bucket chain. With a roar, he smashed his axe into the heavy machinery, releasing the counterweight bucket. Far below him, Thorin’s fall came to an abrupt halt, but the Dwarf-King managed to keep his perilous footing on the swaying bucket. As the counterweight fell, the bucket soared upwards once more. Thorin gripped the chain tightly with one hand, pulling out Orcrist with the other. As he rose, he narrowly missed smashing into Smaug’s face, but Orcrist's blade bit deeply into the dragon’s cheek. Smaug roared, his eyes burning with anger, even as his chest began to glow with fire. The sword continued its upward slice, blinding the dragon. Smaug turned, looking up at the hastily disappearing dwarf. With a loud screech, Smaug’s claws grabbed Thorin’s chain and with a mighty yank he unmoored the heavy machinery at the top of the shaft. The chain went slack, making Thorin fall once more. He landed with a grunt, winded and breathless, on the tip of Smaug’s mouth. Smaug slowly opened his massive maw, fire rumbling deep within his breast. Just as he snapped his mouth shut to eat Thorin, the dwarf jumped once more into thin air. Thorin’s luck held, letting him reach another chain attached to a miner’s chair. Above him, Dwalin whimpered, swearing to everything he held sacred that he would never again leave the side of his foolhardy love. Smaug turned his head, opening his mouth to bite at Thorin again, but the heavy winch he had dislodged from above finally reached them. It hit the dragon square across the face, making his grip on the wall falter. Dori, having reached the pit on the other side, pulled out a large hammer, hastily abandoned by a fleeing engineer 171 years before, hitting the gear lock on the machinery with all his might. His stroke dislodged almost two centuries of dust, sending the gears spinning rapidly. The chair lurched once, before climbing quickly towards the top. Thorin could only cling to the chair, keeping hold of Orcrist with one hand. Smaug roared, in pain and anger, drawing in a mighty breath and expelling a fiery plume of destruction upwards. The heat was immense. Thorin screamed as the chain beneath his hands began glowing cherry red, but he made it to the top before the fire. Dori yanked him off the chair, pulling him ungently into the tunnel behind him.

“Go! Go!” he shouted. Thorin winced. His gloves had protected him somewhat, but he could feel slight burns on his palms. He looked up, catching sight of a relieved Dwalin and began running. The two ran through another narrow tunnel, passing through the tall stone pillars that marked the West Entryway of the Great Forges and joined the other dwarrow on the Furnace Floor, just as Bilbo and Nori appeared from behind a tapestry of Mahal at work. Several massive furnaces greeted their eyes.

 


 

 

“What’s the plan?” Balin asked. The silence of the hall hurt his soul. He could see the door to Master Tindri’s workshop, where Skaro had learned his trade, and Balin’s mind served up countless memories of happy times in these rooms, watching exquisite work grow under his beloved’s hands. Skaro had been a gifted goldsmith and jeweller, and his work had adorned many high-ranking dwarrow despite his youth. Balin knew pieces of his skill still rested in the Treasury, and they were part of his own contract for the venture. Holding trinkets that his beloved One had worked would never compare to his loss, but Balin felt a sense of comfort that there was proof of Skaro’s life. He tried not to wonder if they would find Skaro’s corpse, unsure which alternative would be more heart-breaking.

“Without Kíli’s bow, we will need other means to subdue the dragon,” Thorin interrupted his old friend’s dark thoughts decisively. “We are going to kill this dragon if it’s the last thing we do. We could try to use the scent of molten gold to distract him?”

“The plan’s not going to work easily without the element of surprise, and these furnaces are stone cold.” Dwalin rumbled. All their many hours of planning, both in Mirkwood and while they crossed the desolation and searched for the Door, was essentially useless now, and Dwalin steeled himself. It would come down to their weapons against Smaug’s; the Shumrozbid was not sure what madcap scheme was brewing in Thorin’s mind, and his long experience with the son of Durin’s thought processes told him that Thorin had very little idea what he was going to do either.

“He’s right; there’s no fire hot enough to set them ablaze.” Balin shook his head. Around him, the Company gripped their weapons tighter. The furnaces were all dark, with no sign of fire within. Thorin turned back toward the pit he had just escaped.

“Have we not?” Thorin grinned, the light of reckless mischief shining in his eyes. At that moment, none could dispute exactly how Kíli had come by the expression. “I did not look to see you so easily outwitted!” he yelled in Smaug’s direction. The Dragon’s claw emerged from the pit, his body following it quickly; a sinuous move of scales and flesh and anger. Thorin continued taunting him. “You have grown slow and fat in your dotage.” Behind him, the Company were looking at each other worriedly. Dwalin put a hand on Thorin’s arm, but he ignored it easily. Smaug snarled angrily. With a grin, Thorin delivered his final insult. “Slug!” With a snarl, Smaug made it out of the deep pit, advancing on the Company. Thorin leapt behind one of the stone pillars with a yell, “Take cover. Go!”

Proving once more that their loyalty to his orders was  perhaps greater than their common sense, the Company ran to follow, pressing themselves against the pillars just as Smaug unleashed the fire glowing in his breast. The flames were blocked by the wide pillars, but reached the furnaces, igniting the coal beds once more. They screamed. The heat and pressure of Smaug’s fire surrounded them, tightening their skin and making them cry out in pain and fear, but not burning anyone to a crisp. Smaug growled, halting the stream of fire. The furnaces glowed. The Company ran from the protective stone pillars, leaving Smaug to begin banging against the metal latticework that both decorated and shielded the pillars above a dwarf’s head height. The metal was thick and strong, groaning under the onslaught, but holding for now. It would not take long for Smaug’s immense strength to bend them, however.

 


 

“Bombur! Get those bellows working. Go!” Thorin shouted. The fat dwarf ran towards the largest forge.

“Alright!” Bombur took a flying leap, hanging on a chain attached to the large bellows. He landed hard on the handle of the massive bellow, compressing it with his weight. Air blew into the furnace, turning the flames bright blue. On top of the furnace, unrefined gold glimmered in the low light. Bombur kept the bellows moving easily. Thorin sent a prayer of thanks to the Maker that they even still worked after 170 years of disuse. He did not know what material they were made of, but he could only be grateful that it had not rotted away in time.

“Bilbo! Up there, on my mark, pull that lever. We’ll kill his fire!” the air of recklessness still permeated Thorin’s entire being, but the hobbit just nodded. Thorin pointed at a lever high up on a mound, and Bilbo ran towards it, climbing the stairs and thanking any Valar he could think of that Dwarrow were only slightly larger than Hobbits. If the stairs had been designed by Men – or, Eru forbid – by someone the size of Beorn, he would have had to climb in truth, rather than simply run up the steps. He spared a stray thought on the wish for railings, but it seemed to be a futile desire with most of the bigger races. He had seen very few bridge railings in Erebor so far, and Rivendell had been distinctly lacking in that capacity too. The other dwarrow ran toward the forges as the latticework began to break. Thorin grabbed Balin’s arm.

“Can you still make flash-flame?” he barked, but Balin just nodded. 

“Aye. It’ll only take a jiffy.” He turned, looking at the storage areas by the east end. “Come on!” Grabbing Ori and Dori, Balin ran off swiftly.

 “We don’t have a jiffy.” Dwalin groaned, watching Smaug attack the latticework, bending the solid steel easily. With an oath, Nori thrust Kíli’s bow and his quiver of arrows at Thorin, before pulling out all the throwing knives and darts he had secreted about his person, hurling them against the dragon. Thorin pulled the bow back, letting one of his modified Black Arrows fly. Smaug roared and redoubled his attack on the metal latticework. Most of Nori’s weapons were turned away by his scales, but a few found purchase in the softer skin of his lips and when he reared back, Nori spotted the weak spot on his chest.

“The rumours were true!” he spat, pointing at the slight discolouration of Smaug’s jewel-and-gold-encrusted underbelly. Thorin put another arrow to his string. The first one had managed to hit Smaug’s eye, but unfortunately it was the one he had already blinded with his sword.

“There IS a weak spot!” Dwalin growled, readying his axes. The latticework groaned and bent. The bow sang as it released another arrow, but Smaug turned at the last moment, and the arrow that had been heading straight for his chest glanced off one of the gold coins embedded into his soft underbelly. With a final scream of tortured metal, the latticework gave way and fell to the ground. Smaug landed on all fours once more, hiding the darkened spot on his chest from view and stalked into the Great Forges with a growl. The Dwarrow reared back, spreading out around the dragon.

 


 

 

In the East Chemical Storage room off the Great Forges, Balin was frantically mixing powders from the dust-covered jars into smaller containers. Ori was fetching whatever Balin called for, while Dori kept watch through the doorway.

“Where’s the sulphur?” he cried, while Ori carted over another large jug, marked with the symbol for sulphur.

“You sure you know what you’re doing?” Dori snarled. Balin just chuckled, adding more powders to his jar. Dori was watching through the doorway as Smaug stalked towards Thorin. “Come on!” Balin dropped a small ball in each jar.

 


 

 

Smaug raised his head to look at Bilbo, who had reached the lever Thorin had asked him to pull. With a groan, he realised that his part of the plan might just be the lynchpin; the lever was obviously built for the size and strength of a dwarf, which Bilbo decidedly did not possess. Smaug turned to look at Thorin with a snarl, fire glowing in his breast.

“Now!” Thorin yelled. Bilbo leapt into the air, wrapping both arms around the lever and using all his weight and momentum to pull it down. Huge jets of water burst out of carved faces in the wall behind Bilbo and slam into Smaug, knocking him off balance and quenching the flames he was beginning to blow at Thorin. Bilbo cheered as Smaug sputtered, the water’s force sweeping his legs out from underneath him and sending him crashing into the side of the furnace. The glowing fire in his chest disappeared. Roaring in rage, Smaug flapped into the air and began thrashing about madly. The jets of water, designed to flow into canals and back to the watermills that pulled the conveyor belts with the power of the River Running,  dislodged the debris that clogged up their paths and one massive wheel began turning slowly, fed by the renewed access of the river. Out of sight, ancient gears began turning creakily. Above the Furnace Floor – the part of the Great Forges dedicated to smelting – old conveyor belts that had not moved since the emergency shut-offs had stopped them in their tracks began moving once more. Some of the conveyors controlled the large buckets that transported ore directly from the mines to the Furnace Floor, while others were filled with the finished ingots that were shipped to the various Crafting Halls around the Mountain. The noise was deafening, and Bilbo could only imagine how loud it had been when the Forges were in use.

Below his platform, Bombur continued going up and down with the bellows. The bright blue flames of the furnace slowly melted the gold, making it glow. At this point, even Bilbo could distinguish the scent of it, as the heat burned off impurities. To his Hobbit nose, it was not a particularly pleasant smell, but the dragon breathed deeply. Smaug began crawling towards Thorin again.

Above the forge floor, Glóin, Bifur, and Bofur had finally arrived. Pulling the conveyor along with their own hands had been slow, hard work, as most of the buckets were filled with rocks and heavy ore. They surveyed the scene below them. Bilbo was beginning to climb down from the water lever, but Smaug was advancing on Thorin, who had put the bow back on his chest and drawn his sword. Without a clear shot, the sword would be more useful, and if this was to be the hour of his death, he could think of no finer blade to be holding. Thorin slid gracefully into his fighter’s stance, while Dwalin took up position beside him. Small blue explosions hit Smaug’s face, tossed with surprising accuracy by Dori and Ori, but he shook off the impact of Balin’s flash-flames irritably. Glóin raised his axe. Bofur pointed silently to a rope. With a last glance at his bucket companions for luck, Glóin cut sharply through the rope. The heavy buckets opposite them fell, raining rock and ore onto Smaug’s head and making him crash to the ground, roaring in anger.

 

On top of the furnace, the gold had turned fully liquid. Óin yanked on a chain, opening a gate at the bottom of the furnace and letting the molten gold flow out. The precious metal poured from the furnace and through long channels built into the floor. The scent intensified.

 

Smaug, tangled in ropes, buckets, and pulleys, and bruised by falling rocks, roared angrily. He trashed about, trying to free himself from the sturdy trappings. As he twisted, he exposed his weak spot more than once, but the constant movement gave Thorin no opportunity for attack. Fíli had taken position next to his uncle, lobbing flash-flames at random. Smaug’s claws hit other conveyor systems, bringing more ropes and buckets crashing down. When he hit the one holding the three dwarrow, the Company all gasped.

“Noo!” Glóin screamed, as they plummeted towards the ground. Bofur’s hat fell off his head, no longer shielding his pale face. Bifur’s curses continued in a high pitch of fear. Beneath the thrashing dragon, rivers of molten gold flowed across the floor. In what they would later call miraculous luck, the three dwarrow landed safely on the ground, scurrying out of range of the deadly dragon. Blinded, trapped and furious, Smaug was still more than dangerous. The ancient ropes began snapping under the strain, letting the dragon free one wing as another of Thorin’s arrows hit, this one piercing the weakened spot on his chest, but penetrating less than four inches into the flesh behind the missing scale. Smaug roared, tearing himself free of more rope. With a curse, Thorin began running. His carefully laid plan – as well as his slapdash effort – had already failed, and he was scrambling to come up with new ideas. The dragon seemed a little slower than he had in the Treasury, and he was bleeding steadily from both face and chest, but it was hardly a noticeable advantage when their weapons were mostly useless. If only they could drown him in the gold, Thorin thought wildly. An idea was born.

“Lead him to the Gallery of the Kings!” he shouted, changing course.

Smaug’s thrashing dislodged one of the heavy metal buckets he had been tangled with. With a vicious yell, he sent it flying off towards the wall… straight towards the terrified Hobbit on the stairs. Bilbo screamed, ducking instinctively. The bucket missed him by a hair, crashing into the stone wall and taking great big chunks out of it.

Thorin grabbed a wheelbarrow and pushed it while he ran, dodging Smaug’s thrashing limbs. Smaug’s tail smashed into the base of the stairs, cracking it. Bilbo screamed again, as the cracks travelled rapidly through the stone. He sped up his attempts to get down, wanting to head towards Óin who was waving frantically at him. Thorin threw the wheelbarrow into one of the channels of molten gold and leapt into it; it floated on the gold and was carried along.

 


 

 

Smaug roared. Whipping his head around, finally managing to free himself from the tangled mess of rope and metal, he took up pursuit of the filthy little usurper. He stomped after the dwarf, following the direction of the gold, which he had never realised was left here. Ahead of him, the dwarf’s wheelbarrow disappeared through a small entrance. Smaug’s tail lashed out as his teeth snapped closed over empty air. He hit the base of the stairs once more, and they crumbled. He enjoyed the Thief’s screams with a corner of his mind, but the major part of his attention was fixed on the Dwarf-King, plotting revenge for his eye.

 


 

 

Bilbo was falling. Another scream tore itself free of his throat as he watched the stone under his feet give up against the force of Smaug’s hits. He had no idea how he managed to land safely, but when he straightened from his instinctive roll, Bilbo began running instantly. Smaug snarled behind him and Bilbo put on an extra burst of speed. He had to reach Thorin and get out!

“Keep going, Bilbo! Run!” Thorin yelled, but he disappeared before Bilbo caught up, swept away on the tide of gold.

Bilbo took off running, Smaug close behind him. He had no idea where he was going, the name Gallery of Kings meaning nothing to him in a cartographical sense. His best bet was following the direction of Thorin, as Smaug had blocked him from reaching the tunnel Óin and the others had taken. With a prayer, he leapt onto a stone slide that had once been a wall, he was sure, hearing Smaug crashing after him. The dragon’s wings destroyed the stonework around them as they slid down the smooth green stone.

 


 

The channel Thorin had used to float away from Smaug’s ire ended at a sharp drop. As his barrow went over the edge, Thorin leapt once more into nothing. His luck held. For the third time, he caught himself on a chain, lungs working overtime with fear and adrenaline. He had expected to see the massive sight before him, though he had not actually expected to reach it, when he jumped into the river of gold. The molten gold dropped from its chutes into a large stone mould. Thorin clung tightly to his chain. He could hear Smaug coming closer, but he could only hope that the small Burglar survived. He climbed onto the mould, standing on the shoulder of the unfinished statue as the rest of the Company assembled behind him, grabbing the chains attached to the bands around the mould. Thorin flashed them a grin, receiving a relieved look from Fíli and Dwalin, before he turned to face the long gallery once more. The stone was warm beneath his feet. Thorin waited.

Bilbo ran from the base of the slide, rushing through a doorway and into a large cavernous hall. Along the walls were large statues, and from the ceiling hung banners with faded colours and symbols. He gasped in a surprised breath. The sheer majesty and scale of the room took his breath away. Smaug burst through the wall above him, interrupting Bilbo’s amazed gazing with more running. He tried to outrun the falling banner Smaug had pulled from the ceiling, but the long heavy cloth knocked him onto his belly as it landed across him. The rod that had held it thumped into the floor ahead of him, leaving a sizable dent, and Bilbo felt grateful that the cloth had stopped him in time. Smaug leapt down, snarling angrily. Warm drops of blood flew through the air, hissing when they landed on the cold stone.

 


 

 

“You think you could deceive me, Thief?” Smaug roared. The Thief cowered under the fallen banner, peeking out from under the edge of the worn fabric. “You have come from Laketown. This is- is some sort of scheme hatched between these filthy dwarves and those miserable Lakemen. Those snivelling cowards with their longbows and black arrows!” Smaug felt a frisson of fear crawl up his spine when he mentioned the arrows. He had not thought there had been any of the arrows left, taking great pleasure in burning Girion’s windlance to the ground wlong with the supply the Lord of Dale had not had time to use against him. He remembered the agony of losing his scale; a minor thing, compared to the filthy usurper stealing his eye, but painful enough to earn his wrathful vengeance, nonetheless. “Perhaps it is time I paid them a visit. Clearly they no longer fear my wrath.” He snarled, turning away from the banner hiding the Thief. When he returned, he would play with the little thing that had so vexed him.

 


 

 

“Oh, no.” Bilbo gasped, scrambling out from under the banner to yell at Smaug, “This isn’t their fault! Wait! You cannot go to Laketown.” Of course, the town had been emptied, but Thorin had stated that it was imperative they kept Smaug from leaving the Mountain if they were to have any chance of killing him without an army. Bilbo watched, panicked, as Smaug moved towards the far end of the Gallery, where a large empty archway would provide him an easy egress; it led almost directly to the King’s Avenue – Kalm’uthrakh; the main thoroughfare that linked the Front Gates to the Throne Room, and from which most other hallways in Erebor branched.

 


 

 

Hearing this, Smaug stopped for a moment and then turned toward the little creature, who was running after him.

“You care about them, do you? Good. Then you can watch them die.” He snarled. His fire had not yet reignited and his thirst for vengeance and desire for inflicting suffering on this pathetic little creature far outweighed his desire to eat the little thing. No, he decided, that one would be eaten last, along with Oakenshield, the coward, who had fled. He turned; intent on striding down the hall and reaching the Gates of the Mountain. Behind him, the Thief cried out in despair.

 


 

 

“Here, you witless worm!” Thorin snarled.

Smaug stopped, turning with a loud growl and squinting angrily.

You.” He hissed, sinuously moving towards the angry dwarf. Thorin kept a firm grip on his courage and the chain in his hand.

“I am taking back what you stole.” Thorin said firmly, holding his ground as he stared Smaug in the eye. On top of the mould, he was more equal to the dragon’s height and he allowed himself a smirk at the thought. Smaug slowly stalked across the floor in front of him. Thorin tracked him warily. He believed the fire to be dead, but the vicious dragon was more dangerous than any foe he had ever battled.

“You would take nothing from me, Dwarf.” The dragon spat, “I laid low your warriors of old. I instilled terror in the hearts of men. I am King under the Mountain.” Smaug’s sibilant tones caressed the title. Thorin grit his teeth. Keeping the dragon’s attention on him allowed Bilbo to escape to the next hall, and Thorin breathed a slight sigh of relief when the little Burglar disappeared.

“This is not your kingdom! These are dwarf lands, this is dwarf gold, and we will have our revenge.” He gripped his chain tighter, knowing that the others were doing the same behind him, unseen by their adversary. As he spoke, he reached up to a rope above him. With a final yell in Khuzdul, he yanked on the rope, “Magakukha ai-mê dumsu![120]

The rope pulled tight, and a pin fell out of the wooden and iron bands that kept the mould sealed tight. Behind the statue, the rest of the Company pulled on equivalent ropes, and the mould fell apart, leaving Thorin to swing to safety with another chain. Smaug reared his head in confusion. With the obscuring stone gone, lustrous gold was revealed, intricately detailed into a statue of long-dead Thrór. Smaug stared, entranced by the massive figure. His mouth opened slightly, avaricious pleasure flashing in his eyes. The sound of a drop falling on stone seemed to ring through the silent chamber. Before Smaug could find the source of the noise, however, the eye of the statue warped. In an effect that looked almost like tears, it burst, spewing molten metal towards him. The gold in the statue had not solidified and the statue collapsed in a wave of burning liquid. Smaug screamed, scrabbling back on his claws to get away from the tidal wave of gold. From the balcony a few levels above the floor, Thorin pulled out Kíli’s bow. He aimed. From behind the statue, Ori’s slingshot was pulled back, having released the pebble that made the statue cry its first tear. Beside him, Nori was flinging every last of his thrown weapons and a few of his less favourite poisoned daggers towards the weak spot that Smaug’s position did not protect. The dragon screamed when he was struck by several weapons at once. The gold flowed over him. Smaug disappeared under the liquid.

Beside Thorin, Bilbo was gaping. On the scaffolding behind the former statue, the Company were simply staring, not daring to believe that their foe had been vanquished. Minutes passed, with no sign of Smaug.

Cautious joy began filling the bearded faces, a single tear making its way down many cheeks.

 

Smaug burst from the golden floor. He was bleeding again, and coughing up gold. He tried to scream, but the words were hoarse and pitiful. “Revenge?! Revenge! I will show you REVENGE!” He was entirely covered in gold, trying to shake off the burning metal frantically. Fíli’s sword, thrown in what he later called a ‘moment of panicked brilliance’, hit his undamaged eye, embedding itself deeply into the glowing orb. It was followed rapidly by Dwalin’s axe. Though it was not balanced for throwing, the warrior’s brute strength – combined with long years of experience - ensured that his axe flew true, smacking into the dragon’s skull and burying itself until only the end of the shaft poked out. Thorin shot his last arrow, making Smaug’s missing scale look like a pincushion when it joined the two daggers and three arrows already there. The dragon whimpered in pain.

Smaug’s great wings could no longer hold him aloft, and the dragon plunged downwards. He was bleeding profusely, both eyes staring unseeingly as he thrashed, burned scales flaking off his skin. Dragons were largely fireproof, but mostly on the inside; the molten gold had filled in the tiny cracks between the scales and burned them off. Smaug’s death throes carried him through another wall and out of the Gallery of Kings, followed by a wash of liquid gold. The cold stone floor of the gallery had already solidified a bottom layer of gold, so the receding tide left behind a shiny reflective flooring.

The Company simply stared, dumbstruck, at the wall Smaug had broken. They could hear him moving still, but his roars were muted. As one, they began running, jumping from scaffolding to scaffolding to follow Thorin and Bilbo as they sped into the adjoining hall.

No one cared that they were stepping in puddles of Smaug’s blood apart from the hobbit, who was obviously still barefoot. Bilbo jumped between puddles while the dwarrow simply strode through undaunted.

The sight of the dead dragon was as awe-inspiring as the living creature had been. Smaug’s blinded eyes had turned milky in death, ichor flowing from them in great drips. His blood pooled with the gold on the floor around his corpse. No one spoke a word.

 

Balin cleared his throat. No one reacted, lost in staring at their defeated enemy.

 

“Welcome, my friends and companions,” Thorin said hoarsely, pausing in the middle of the cavernous Front Hall. “To Erebor!” he roared. The Dwarrow and Bilbo cheered loudly.

“We made it!” Dori cried, tears of happiness trailing down his cheeks as he hugged Ori tightly.

Nori cursed loudly.

“We forgot about Kíli. He’s still in the secret tunnel.” He said quietly, when Thorin whirled to glare at him for the language. Nori shrugged.

The Company exchanged several long looks, before Ori’s wheezing giggle broke the ensuing silence. As if Ori’s giggle was the first stone of a rockslide, the Company followed him, collapsing in paroxysms of laughter.

When the laughing fit finally subsided, they helped each other to their feet and made their way slowly back to the Great Forges.

 

 

 

notes:

[120] I’m not sure if this is what he actually said in the film, as the first bit is difficult to understand, but dumsu(doom) is fairly clear, so I’m choosing to have him say “Doom on you!” lit. “let doom be upon you ordered!”

Chapter Text

When Rhonith woke, it was Durin’s Day. An underlying feeling of anxiety and unease dogged her footsteps as she made her way to the private chambers of Thranduil. As she walked, she missed the glances sent her way by passing humans. Lost in a daze of sinuously twined fears and dreams, she only managed enough awareness of her surroundings to avoid bumping into anyone or tripping and falling off walkways and stairs. Passing Silvans shot her looks of concern but did not attempt to call for her attention. A few bowed or nodded their heads, which alerted the Men to the importance of the short, pale, ethereally beautiful Elf. One man elbowed his neighbour and made a ribald remark, but she did not seem to hear him, her eyes curiously clouded and blank as she passed. The man found himself with a gleaming dagger to the throat and a red-haired elf hissing threats in his native tongue. Another grasped his arm and pulled back slightly.

“Peace, Galion. Our guest surely did not mean to offend our Beloved Lady Rhonith. I’m certain his tongue merely misbehaved for a second and he will henceforth control it better lest it simply pops-“ here, he gave the terrified man a truly menacing smile, “- out of his mouth…won’t you?”

Speechless, the petrified man nodded, cowering from the fury sparking in those impossibly ancient eyes in the ageless face before him. Galion’s answering smile sent chills down his back.

“We are not Men. Our elleths will not tolerate derogatory remarks of any kind and had you been an Elf, we would punish you severely. I hope we have made ourselves clear? Your women may not protest such words, but we most definitely will. With great prejudice.” He hissed, his eyes conveying his desire to dole out punishment right on the spot. They flicked down to land on the hapless Man’s crotch. The dark-haired man cringed away, a small drop of blood beading on his skin. Galion’s dagger never left his throat as the two elves turned, following Rhonith’s steps with their eyes until she turned a corner and passed from view. They shared a look, and turned from the man, who was still cowering against the wall and trying to look, if not innocent, then at least small and beneath notice, still trembling with fear. The elves left. The man’s comrades, who had been inching ever further away from him, exhaled slowly in relief. Farther down the corridor an old woman cackled with glee.

“How many times have I told you to keep a civil tongue in your head, Alfrid, when you’ve been in my inn? Bad enough when you’re talking about the serving wenches, but that was a proper Elvish Lady that was. I’ve seen her with the Prince.” She shouted up the corridor, where the man had collapsed in a heap, his hands shielding his groin. Galion’s implied threat rang in his ears.

Several women nodded in agreement with the old innkeeper, a few having been the subject of Alfrid’s derogatory remarks before. He was under the Master’s protection, as his closest toady, but that did not count for anything here, they realised, smiling at the thought.

At the end of the day, the story had spread like wildfire among the refugees and it had only grown harsher for the retelling. The elves chuckled to themselves, but no Man dared speak to an elleth with anything less than the utmost politeness afterwards. Not that they had done so before, but their manners had been polished by the unfortunate incident. Maeassel gave Galion a wink and an extra slice of berry tart, which made the Steward flush with pleasure. The cook’s approval was hard-won, but once gained, Maeassel’s fondness came with plenty of treats and Galion coveted her best baked goods just as much as anyone else. The scrumptious berry tarts usually went for the King’s table, but Maeassel would keep a few back for elves who had particularly pleased her and Galion was proud to often be counted among them.

 


 

By the time the tale had reached the ears of Bard, it had grown so much that it sounded as if the man had attempted to force himself on the highborn Lady in the corridor, endangering the prospect of Thranduil marrying his son to her. Her personal guard of five of the strongest elves in the realm had jumped on the hapless fool and threatened to cut off all his extremities, starting with fingers and toes and working their way up in size from there. Only the grace of the Lady had spared him an unmerciful end. It was a very nervous Bard who entered Thranduil’s Throne Room that evening.

 


 

The Master had been introduced to the wonders of Dorwinion wine by the unscrupulous Steward, Galion, and was snoring happily in a forgotten corner somewhere, goblet still unfinished. It might have been spiced, but Galion would never tell, content to work behind the scenes to improve life for his King. None of the Elvenking’s subjects had missed the disdain the Master seemed to harbour for them, nor Thranduil’s icy politeness which covered a deep well of dislike. Legolas’ arrival with Bard had eased the King’s temper some, as the Bowman was a far more agreeable leader to deal with and Thranduil did not mind the Master’s absence. A slight glance at Galion was answered with a motion, which on anyone else would have been simply a smile, but in Thranduil’s mind, it answered any and all questions he might have had. A flicker of his blue eyes conveyed his pleasure to the capable Steward and the matter went unmentioned by anyone. Rhonith did not care, as she had never even met the Master, and Legolas cared even less for his company than Thranduil himself. Bard didn’t realise that the Master ought to have been there, and his lack of diplomatic training would hide the slight snub from his otherwise keen mind. Thranduil smiled to himself. He had met several times with Bard, trying to gauge the man’s character as the probable future Lord of Dale. If Bard wanted the position, Thranduil would prefer to trade with him, rather than the Master, and his mind had quickly resolved to work towards that outcome. He was certain that the Dwarf-King would prefer Bard as a possible ally too, and had no scruples in treating the Man as though his presence in future diplomatic relations was a given already. Thranduil was a great believer in acting as though something was already settled; it usually meant things got settled to his satisfaction.

 “Aran vuin Thranduil. Caun vuin Legolas. Hiril vuin Rhonith.” Galion spoke clearly from behind the guest, making Bard jump. “I present Lord Bard, Heir of Girion of Dale.”

 


 

As the grim man approached, Rhonith studied him keenly. Legolas had told her about meeting him in Laketown and given her his opinion of Girion’s heir and the man looked fierce, she had to admit. In his eyes shone evidence of a keen mind and a harsh life. He bowed nervously when he reached the dais, shooting an uneasy glance her way and surreptitiously looking around for the terrifying guard he had been expecting. Rhonith’s earlier preoccupation had been banished to the farthest corners of her mind. She could do naught to aid her dwarrow and worrying did no one any favours. She stood by Legolas, slightly behind the Elvenking, who rose fluidly to greet the de facto leader of the Lakemen.

 


 

Thranduil cast a shrewd eye over the man who was fighting to appear calm. “Lord Bard, be welcome at our table. You already know my son, Prince Legolas, and this is our Beloved Lady Rhonith, my ward, who only recently returned to us from Dol Guldur.” Thranduil took pity on the man, who was doing his best to seem unperturbed at the company he found himself in. If said company had been born with the lesser eyes of mortals, he might even have succeeded.

Legolas appeared to be struggling with hiding his amusement and Rhonith felt a frisson of pity for the man. She had not heard the embellished tale of Galion’s vehement defence of her honour and simply thought the man unnerved by the presence of the Elvenking. Legolas exchanged a brief glance with Rhonith, easily conveying his amusement; he had only known Bard as a man of great fortitude and strength of heart, but that determination seemed to have been left outside the door. Rhonith stepped forward, a resplendent vision in her deep green dress with her mithril hair bound only by a thin circlet crafted by her father in a bygone Age. She placed her hand lightly on Legolas’s arm and gave the skittish Man a soft smile. The Princeling brought his face back under his control and Rhonith let go with a slight squeeze.

“Girion’s descendant? You were correct, mellon-nîn, the resemblance is striking. Girion was a very handsome man, though I hope you have a better head for wine, Lord Bard,” she laughed lightly, trying to set the tense man at ease and succeeding at least slightly. “Ni veren an dhe ngovaned, Bard, Lord of Dale[121].”

”I am no Lord, my Lady. Just a simple bargeman and hunter.” He bowed, “I fear that we of Laketown owe you an apology, my Lady. I have heard that there was an altercation this morning involving one of our more uncouth number.” Bard was trying hard to hide his apprehensions, wondering whether he would face some form of punishment as Alfrid’s apparent superior, but the Lady simply smiled at him.

“Ahh, yes, the gentleman with the unfortunate mouth. I believe sweet Galion, the Steward for my Lord Thranduil dealt with the matter.” Rhonith wondered why he even mentioned the incident, surely such a trifling matter as a few rude words was not something for a leader to worry over. Over her shoulder, Thranduil’s smile was toothy like a shark, as both the royals moved slightly to surround their shorter member; an undeniable symbolic gesture whose significance Bard did not miss.

“You may wish to remind your friends and neighbours that they are guests in my Halls and it would behove them to act as such.” Thranduil said, sternly, putting his hand on Rhonith’s shoulder. “Living as long as we do, elves are very aware of polite interactions. A grudge that may be kept for a millennium is a great deterrent from rudeness. Best they not start any.” He would accept no uncivil behaviour from these Men, especially not in regards to the elleths of his Halls and most definitely not towards his beloved daughter.

“Peace, Lord Bard, King Thranduil. No offense was taken and I am sure Galion demonstrated your point with admirable skill. No more need be said about it.” Rhonith nodded at the Steward, who smiled in grim satisfaction. “Now, do join us for the evening meal. I should like to hear your impressions of my kinsmen, whom I believe you aided in their endeavours in Laketown.” Another step and a sweeping hand gesture had Bard walking beside her, still tongue-tied by the idea that this slip of a girl, who looked no older than his own daughter, had known his ancestor well enough to comment on his alcohol tolerance. When Bard’s back turned, Legolas’ mirth overtook his face, and he could feel Thranduil’s amusement in the glance his Ada sent him before following the two to the laden table. Outside the Halls, the sun sank behind the dark trees.

The meal passed with quiet conversation, the three Elves doing their best to include the Man and leaving heavier topics of discussion for a later hour. Once Bard had been sufficiently calmed, Rhonith returned the conversation to the topic she had most wanted his insights on. Legolas and Thranduil had of course given their impressions and interpretations, but Bard would have a different perspective.

“So, Lord Bard, how did the Company fare in Laketown?” Bard still seemed uncomfortable with the title, but Rhonith was determined to use it. Legolas had told her how much help the Man had been in winning over the reluctant townspeople, and he was owed respect, if nothing else, she felt.

“At first, they were refused entrance by the bridge guard. The Master’s made new rules about turning away foreign travellers. The Elven guard,” Bard nodded towards Legolas, “helped convince them to let the Dwarrow meet with the Master. On their way there, the white-haired old one – Balin – noticed me. He called me Girion. It was peculiar. Usually no one mentions him, except when I am being punished for his failure,” Bard found himself sharing much more than he had wanted to with the elleth whose compassionate blue eyes seemed to look deep into his soul. Rhonith smiled softly.

“My dear cousin was quite correct, the resemblance is uncanny. I suppose it must have been odd for you to meet someone who knew him.” She said, trying to put his mind at ease by changing the subject. Obviously he was unused to his ancestor being mentioned in a good light, but the Girion she had known had been a good man.

Thranduil sipped his wine slowly. “I did not realise Balin was old enough to have met Girion when he ruled Dale. Though he looks older than Thorin, I had the feeling he was not that old when Smaug took the Mountain. I have known many dwarrow from cradle to tomb, but I have never been good at telling their ages. After maturity they never seem to change much until they’re almost ready to journey to Aulë’s Halls.”

“Balin is a little older than Thorin, a few decades I believe. He is also Dwalin’s older brother, Thranduil. They are the sons of Fundin, who served on Thrór’s council. Balin met with Girion as his father’s apprentice. Furthermore, Balin is Thorin’s chief advisor, a role he was trained for almost from birth, and as such it is his job to know diplomatic facts about anyone the dwarrow do trade with. I’m sure he could tell you much about Dale of old.”

Bard continued his tale, explaining how the Company had met with the Master, who had granted them permission to stay, but who had initially refused to seek refuge with Elves and probably would have tried to stop the Company from leaving Laketown. Once they had been sent back to the rundown building the Master had deemed a worthy guest house, the Dwarrow had gone to explore the town. The townsfolk, many of whom had never even seen an Elf, let alone a Dwarf, had been cautiously welcoming. Some of them remembered their ancestors’ stories of the wealth of Dale and Erebor, and were intrigued by the idea of getting rid of the dragon. That did not mean that they wanted to leave their home just because a group of Dwarrow had arrived. The Master’s continued refusal to listen to reason had annoyed Thorin, but more disheartening was the stranglehold he seemed to have over the townspeople, many too intimidated to gainsay his orders. A few dwarrow had run into Bard again, and invited him over for the evening meal. Eventually they’d explained their plans to him and secured his aid in speaking with several key figures in Laketown. With the help of the Laketown midwife and one of the wealthier merchants they had begun to spread the plan among the general public, slowly turning the tide of public opinion. Nori had found the darker elements of Laketown and this two-pronged attack eventually forced the Master to agree to seek refuge in Mirkwood. The odious man had somehow managed to make out that doing so had been his plan all along and that he had only hesitated in hopes of securing a better deal for the Lakemen. At the end of Bard’s tale, Rhonith thanked him for his aid, leaving the man fidgeting slightly. She gave him another kind smile; Bard was a likeable if slightly gruff Man, and he truly reminded her of old Lord Fernel, Girion’s father, who had been instrumental in the prospering development of Dale. Fernel had been just as cautious as his many times grandson, but he had had a good eye for people. He had treated equally with Thrór, and he had won the respect of the Mountain-King years before Thrór’s goldsickness made relations so unstable. Rhonith had considered it a blessing that Fernel had not seen the very worst of Thrór, the Mad King, for the man would have wept at the sight of his friend and fellow ruler so diminished. She had wept herself, though her tears were ones of rage mingled with sorrow. This descendant was hesitant, and slow to trust, she thought, but his cautious nature would serve his people well and be a boon to both her races in the coming years. Quietly she approved, knowing that the future leader of Dale would need to be able to stand up to beings older and far more stubborn than Men. He would need to earn their respect, and it seemed he was already on the right track with her Atheg; polite, not deferent, respectful, not obsequious and willing to reach compromises, work for the betterment of all their lives. His priority was his family, it was clear in Legolas’ tales of their Laketown adventure, but it was that very priority that would force him to be the leader his people needed. Bard’s strong sense of duty would allow him to counterweigh Thranduil’s more isolationist notions, and his input might well be the balance between the forceful characters of his neighbouring kings. He would not let either one gain the upper hand, not Thorin, who controlled the flow of gold, nor Thranduil whose skilled woodsmen would be needed to help the Men bring trade goods through the forest.

 


 

 

After dinner, the three Elves retired to the healing wing, to hold informal council with Gandalf, who was still not permitted to leave his bed for more than a few moments. This forced inactivity did not please the Maia, but he was still rather unwell, both after his harrowing journey to the High Fells and the terrible battle in Dol Guldur which followed. The long journey through Mirkwood, while relatively safe, had hardly helped him heal physically, even though he had spent a large part of it being carried by Aithiel.

“Mithrandir, you are feeling better, I hope?”

“I am, my Lord Thranduil, and most anxious to set off to the Mountain. I fear grave danger is afoot – in more ways than one.”

The Elvenking tilted his head in query at the frail figure of the wizard. Nestor huffed angrily behind him. In his opinion, the Maia was nowhere near fit to leave the infirmary, let alone hare off to a dragon-infested mountain. Gandalf sent him a piercing glare, which had Rhonith and Legolas stifling laughs behind his back. Nestor was a fine healer, if somewhat recalcitrant and more stubborn than most dwarrow, and he had a tendency to be annoyingly persistent in his demands for people to remain in their beds until he said otherwise. Most of the people who entered his Hall of Healing learned that it was better to lie there quietly and heal, rather than invoke Nestor’s ire. He would never keep a healed patient out of spite, but he had been known to slip uncomfortable potions into the drinks of unsuspecting former patients who displeased him. It was not a fate many dared tempt. Nestor’s skill with medicines was legendary, rivalling the great Lord Elrond in some areas.

“Though the Enemy was routed from Dol Guldur, his Orcs have built massive armies, sheltered in the ancient fortress. These Orcs are led by Bolg, son of Azog. On our journey here, we learned that he is allied with the Goblins, whose king we killed on our way through the Misty Mountains. If the Enemy gains the Mountain, he will have an unparalleled stronghold in the North.” Gandalf grimaced.

“Angmar will rise again. Already Orcs hold Mount Gundabad. It is a source of great shame among the Longbeards that Gundabad was lost. It is the mountain under which Durin woke.” Rhonith whispered, abruptly serious. “We cannot let his plans come to fruition. The Nine have returned. Darkness is coming.”

“So there will be a battle, Mithrandir?” Legolas’s visage was grim. “You are certain? We will need to go to war?”

Thranduil stiffened imperceptibly. Legolas had never seen real war. During his lifetime, Greenwood had fought against the Orcs of Gundabad, but he had been asked to remain home while Thranduil went to war. It had been some of the worst months of his young life. With Thranduil gone, along with most of his armed forces, there had not been many elves in the forest for Legolas to rule, but he had not enjoyed the experience and told his Ada upon his return that he was not suitable for the crown. Thranduil had chuckled ruefully, but he had agreed that Legolas did not have to become king if he did not wish to. He had taken the crown of necessity, and though he knew he had done well by his people, it was not the fate he wanted for his son. When rule of the Woodland Realm passed from him, his successor would be ready for the burden. Thranduil had sworn that oath to himself after his coronation. He had never been meant to take Oropher’s throne, and parts of him resented both his father and his elder brothers for leaving it to him, even if both Bregolion and Glaerdor had died before Oropher became King. He had weathered the storm of grief after the War of the Last Alliance, and while Legolas was strong enough to cope with the loss of his father, Thranduil did not think he was ready for the responsibility of the crown. He could command patrols, and he knew how to inspire the hearts of his subordinates, but Legolas was far too… Thranduil could only describe it as too young, for the weight of a whole Realm and all its people and domains. If not for her wanderlust, he would have asked Rhonith to take up the rule of his people beside Legolas, but he would never force her to give up the freedom she never stopped hungering for after her long incarceration. He sighed, turning his attention back to Gandalf’s words with a fervent prayer that they would all live through the coming weeks.

“I am afraid there can be no doubt.” Gandalf explained, “The Orc leaders are sworn to end the line of Durin, and the line of Durin is currently in the mountain. Have you had news of the Company? Have they gained entry? Durin’s Day must soon be upon us.”

Rhonith’s hand landed softly on the Maia’s shoulder, pressing the agitated wizard back into his pillows. “Today was Durin’s Day. Our scouts have seen no reaction from the mountain yet, so either Smaug is still asleep or has been killed. We expect a raven will arrive with news as soon as they have any to give.” She smiled wanly and continued, “Hopefully it will be good news.” The old Maia patted the young hand on his arm.

“Fret not, my dear. Our friends are strong of spirit and body.” Mithrandir said, but the words were empty comfort at best, and he knew it just as well as his audience.

“Mithrandir, why did you not want them to enter the Mountain without you? The Hobbit, Bilbo, seemed quite worried that you would not catch up with them in time.” Legolas tilted his head, studying the frail-looking wizard intently.

“As you know, the power of dragons is in both their voices and bodies. I fear that the gold upon which Smaug has lain for all these years has soaked up some of his vile magicks. Even if the dragon is no more, I would not consider it safe to enter the treasury until I have checked for myself that there is no enchantment on the gold. The spells would be insidious, terribly difficult to overcome once they take hold in the soul-” The old wizard stopped abruptly, staring intently at the short elleth to his left. He frowned.

Ashdautas vrasublatas, Lulgijak Mabrotnosh foshnu, sma kjani kulkodarob[122].” Rhonith spoke the dark words with a harsh cadence, a voice belonging to a creature far crueller and darker than herself. Mithrandir shuddered, while Thranduil reared back sharply. Nestor gasped in distress. She stared blindly ahead, lost in whatever horridness held her captive. Legolas pinched her arm sharply, startling her. The elleth sprung up and flinched back in a move so fluid and violent that the onlookers could only stare. Chest heaving and breath short, the blade in her hand seemingly having sprung there from its sheath, she stared at them, eyes unseeing. She did not shift from her battle-ready crouch, made no move to attack, but Thranduil was wary when he took a cautious step towards her, starkly reminded of the dark days of fighting to regain her mind after her captivity. The words she had uttered were the harsh syllables of an ancient tongue that was spoken in only one place: Mordor, by those orcs who were Sauron’s favourites. He did not know what they meant, but it could not be a good thing that had left her like a mindless creature, poised to flee or fight. He spoke in soft, gentle tones, an ancient lullaby falling soft as summer rain:

Losto mae, guren vell,
Avo gosto i morchaint
Elin lim tirar dad
Tinnad ah calan faenwain
Losto vi sîdh veriannen sen
Losto mae pen achas
Losto mae, guren vell,
Ôl dartha vi i fennas.[123]

 


 

 

Ashdautas vrasublatas, Lulgijak Mabrotnosh foshnu.” The Orc servant of Sauron who brought her food sneered. It was the only language he would speak, the dark tongue of Mordor, and she had learned, after the first couple of years in the dark tower, that it was simply the way orcs greeted each other. The correct reply was ‘Nar udautas.’ which meant ‘Not today’ and she felt vicious glee in spitting it back at him, even though there was very little she could do to stop him, her ankle chained to the wall with mithril the Deceiver had stolen from her father when he still wore the face of Annatar. She no longer knew who she was, not really, apart from a few fragmented pieces of memory that reminded her that she had once lived in sunlight and felt love. Today, however, the Orc, who had never had a name that he had deigned to share with her, which made him Kjanisnaga or ‘food-slave’, in her mind, grinned at her attempt at defiance. Usually he snarled, and the difference in their interaction made her fearful, though she squashed the feeling ruthlessly before it showed on her face, never letting him win her fear. “Goth burguul katu,” he spat, and a shiver ran down her back. “Goth marr lulgijak mabrotnosh foshnu u kulkodar!” Pure fear speared through her soul. The Dark Lord was here…to give her to a dragon. “Sma kjani kulkodarob!” the Food-Slave laughed harshly. The one he called Elf-Queen bared her teeth in hatred as she hissed at him, wishing for a weapon.

Ashdautas vrasublatas, Kjanisnaga!” she hurled her words at him, the foul taste of the dark language coating her tongue.

“Not today, Princess.” A new voice said, fluid Sindarin so different from the harsh Orcish syllables she had just uttered. Princess turned to look at the newcomer, who was beautiful…on the outside. Inside, she knew, Darkness reigned. The face of Annatar grimaced in disgust, looking at the orc who was still grinning dumbly at his own joke. With a push, Kjanisnaga tumbled out the door, but she did not hear him tumble down the stairs, and so she would have to wait for her oath to be fulfilled. The Dark Lord held out his hand towards his prisoner. “It is a pity you have not yet seen the beauty of my way,” he muttered, running his fingers through her mithril hair. Princess forced herself not to shudder at his touch. The Deceiver laughed, holding out his other hand. On his palm lay a single piece of red material. It looked like nothing she had seen in the parts of her life she remembered, but the Darkness fairly emanated from both the red scale and the hand that held it. She bared her teeth in a furious snarl, but the Dark Lord simply laughed. Ripping her dress open by splitting the side seam with his overly long nails, he pressed the scale against the back of her hip. Princess screamed. When the burning pain gave way to unconsciousness, she collapsed heavily on the cold dark stone beneath her feet. The Dark Lord’s laughter hung in the room for hours after he left.

 

 

“Well, you are a Little Morsel, aren’t you, my pet?” the dragon purred. The young elleth could only stare at the giant red beast, whimpering in pain and terror. “You’re mine now, Little Morsel, and dragons keep what they claim…forever.”

 


 

 

The familiar tune slowly penetrated the fog around Rhonith and her stance calmed. The fourth repetition saw her collapsing as if the strings holding her up had been cut. Only Legolas’s swift movement to catch her saved her from a hard meeting with the stone floor.

“Hush now, sellig, you are safe among friends.” The elleth nodded weakly at Thranduil’s words, hiding her face in Legolas’s shoulder and clinging to him while silent sobs shook her slight frame. She clutched at his arms hard enough to leave bruises on his fair skin, but he made no mention of it and her grip did not lessen as she calmed down slowly.

“What happened, my Lady?” the Wizard asked gently, but Thranduil was the one who replied hoarsely.

“She remembered something. It has happened before, when she has been touched by darkness, but not for many years now. Her memory rises up and overtakes her present self until she remembers only what she knew at the time of the memory.” The Elvenking shook his head sadly as the Maia’s questioning gaze passed the still entwined shapes on the floor and landed on the fair elf. “The day Smaug attacked, she was the scout who brought us news. She was coherent only long enough to convey the sight of the dragon before her mind shut down. I spent more than an hour with Nestor, singing, while my people mustered our forces. When we left, she was still not in her body. It took almost the whole trip to the mountain to return her spirit. I feared she might be lost forever, or I would have left her here while we went to Erebor.” He looked at the elleth, speaking softly and running calming fingers over her ears. “Would you prefer to spend the night under my eyes, sellig?” Rhonith raised her eyes and shook her head at him.

“That won’t be necessary, atheg. I am recovered. Or,” she paused, attempting a wry smile which utterly failed at conveying any form of reassurance to any of the four onlookers. “I am as recovered as I shall ever be. Once again, I am in your debt.” Her head sunk back onto Legolas’s shoulder, as if she lacked the strength to hold it up. Her tears flowed still, wetting his tunic, but her shaking sobs had abated. The prince looked at his father fearfully. He had never before witnessed such an event directly. The Elvenking squeezed her shoulder lightly, running his fingers over her ears and onto his son’s, surrounding both the younger elves with his grounding presence.

“No debts between us, my dear. I am only glad that I am able to help you. Do not sleep alone tonight. Tomorrow, we shall hear news of your kin, and begin preparations for fighting an Orc army. Legolas, escort Rhonith to her bed.”

The younger elf got to his feet and easily swung the slight form of the elleth into his arms, setting a brisk pace towards the door. Both onlookers noted the lack of protest from his burden and each felt a frisson of worry for the otherwise spirited and fiercely independent elleth. When they reached her rooms, he deposited her on the bed, sending a passing servant to fetch a sleeping aid from Nestor before he joined her on the soft mattress. Rhonith had curled up under her blankets, but when Legolas’ weight dipped the surface of the mattress, she uncurled from her ball, instead clinging to him like a limpet, her head resting on his chest as she let his heartbeat lull her to sleep. Her tears continued to fall.

 


 

 

When she opened her eyes, the landscape was bleak. It reminded her simultaneously of the Desolation around Erebor after Smaug’s settlement of the Mountain and the Death Marshes where so many of her companions had perished in the War of the Last Alliance. The diffuse light did not cast shadows and no noises could be heard. No birds cried, no mice rustled the grass. She could not see the sun, and without a clear heading, she set off walking slowly through the low mist. Beneath her bare feet, the ground felt harsh. She was cold, dressed only in a thin gown that was more suited for the balmy air of Imladris and could not protect her from the chill wind. As she walked, the landscape became increasingly marshy and swamp-like, threatening to drag her down into the depthless bogs with a single misstep. She kept moving. She was trying to regain warmth, just as much as she wanted to escape the bleak, colourless landscape around her. The wind picked up, with the beat of a pair of great wings. She stiffened. Turning around slowly, hoping beyond hope that she would not see what she expected to see when she did, she gasped.

“You. Y-you’re dead. Atheg killed you.” She stuttered fearfully. The dragon, hovering menacingly above her, roared with laughter.

“You will never escape me, Little Morsel. It was just a dream.” It taunted.

“No!” she screamed, sinking to her knees in despair. Dark clouds rolled in from the horizon, dimming the world. The dragon laughed, picking her up easily in a single, massive paw. Its claws made rents in her thin dress, but did not pierce her skin. She screamed. The dragon’s cruel laugh echoed across the lowlands as it flew towards a large dark mountain range.

 


 

 

Legolas spent the night much as he had the one before, running his fingers through strands of mithril silk and wishing that he could find the words to make her feel better. Instead, he sang gently, the long story of Beren and Luthien, which had always been one of her favourites, being a child of a mortal and an immortal herself. Rhonith slumbered, under the heavy influence of one of Nestor’s sleeping draughts, oblivious to the prince’s emotional turmoil. It tore at him that he could do nothing to help her, and he spent hours castigating himself, never realising that the smell of his skin and the sound of his heart were doing more to calm her dreams than he might ever know.

 


 

 

She did not remember her dreams beyond that first look at the dark mountains, but she felt more at peace than she had in years.

 


 

notes:

[121] I am pleased to meet you, Bard, Lord of Dale.

[122] Some day I will kill you, baby Elf-queen, little morsel of a dragon. (Orc-language)

[123] Sleep well, my dear heart,
Do not dread the shadows.
Clear stars look down
Glinting with most radiant light
Sleep in this protected peace
Sleep well without fear
Sleep well, my dear heart
A dream waits in the doorway.

(taken from http://www.councilofelrond.com/members/Neneithel/ )

Chapter Text

The next day passed slowly. Those who were aware of the significance of the date were deeply uneasy at the lack of news and conversation was hard to come by. Rhonith did not leave Thranduil’s side, and Legolas was never more than an arm’s reach from her. The tension among the Elves quickly spread to the Men and several minor squabbles turned into outright fights. Most of the Men now looked to Bard as their unofficial leader, and he had his hands full keeping the strained peace. The Master was conspicuously absent, having found a ‘Guard’ he could ‘bribe’ into giving him more of the Elvenking’s wine. For his part Thranduil simply put any troublemakers under the firm hand of Galion, who could always find them more work to help with the arming of the Elven host and their Lakemen refugees.

 

What happened yesterday… that’s why you did not want her near the Mountain,” Legolas stated quietly. “She was…haunted. Gorgred[124]. I was frightened for her.” Thranduil nodded, unsurprised that his son had sought him out once more, looking out at the colourful trees around their woodland home.

You have never seen her truly lost from herself, ionneg, and I hope you never will. Yesterday was the attack of a single remembrance, dragging her spirit beneath the waves of her memory. Rhonith was so very young when she was taken, and I fear she will never be healed fully.” Thranduil’s voice was serious but quiet. “We have never told you the whole story, I fear, and I doubt she ever will let you see the extent of her scars. There is a reason she never wears red, a reason she does not like golden trinkets, and a reason she will not eat wild boar.” He sighed softly, tracing the edge of a red maple leaf. “If she wants you to know, she will tell you. Her story is not mine to tell. You can ask, but let her decide what to tell you, please. I worry that forcing the topic could send her back into the maelstrom of grief, and I do not know if we could pull her back if she was ever truly lost. Rhonith is strong, stronger than many I know, but she is also fragile.” He did not say that he did not want his own fate to be shared by his son; forever longing for someone beyond the Sea. Legolas nodded solemnly. Both father and son had returned to contemplate the gently falling leaves when the elleth in question stepped through the door.

“Atheg, Legolas,” she nodded, “Dhe suilon.[125]

“Sellig,” Thranduil smiled, reaching for her ear with a gentle finger. “Ci vêr?” Legolas smiled and copied his father’s greeting, lingering slightly at the tip of her ear.

Ni vêr, atheg, ci athe. Olo-nîn duir, ni maer si.[126]” She smiled, but the Elvenking saw the way she leaned into their touch, taking comfort from their presence as the day lengthened without news. Thranduil saw the worry hiding in her eyes, and sought to keep her mind occupied with other matters. The three elves spent time discussing the Master, who had finally been introduced to Rhonith when he accidentally came across her in a hallway. At first, the man had mistaken her for a servant, drunkenly directing her to fetch him more Dorwinion wine, but a passing guard had saved the Man from her anger at his callous disregard for someone he considered beneath him. Among Elves, there were those who served, of course, but it was a choice and the servants received the same respect afforded any other Elf in the Realm. Compared to Bard’s quiet competence, the Master’s brash disdain and self-serving personality only compounded his faults in the eyes of the elleth. Bard would be a much preferable ally.

 


 

 

Shortly before dawn on the second day after Durin’s Day, a raven was spotted flying towards the forest. It cawed its way into the large Throne Room, and went straight to the King’s dais.

“The dragon Smaug the Terrible, is dead!” The king did not shout, but his voice carried easily to every corner of the cavernous room and runners were immediately sent to spread the word amongst those who were not present. The Elvenking gazed pensively across his Court.

Toltho i megîl dhîn, gwedeir a ‘wethil[127]! We march to Erebor at once, there to make a stand against the Orcs of Gundabad and Dol Guldur!” The king rose, drawing his sword in one swift move as he spoke. “Iston i velthas lîn ne ndagor. Gurth anin yrch![128]

A raucous clamour of blades being drawn and shields being struck greeted these words. One voice began the chant, but it was quickly taken by others, until the entire hall was filled with Elves all shouting one phrase: “Ve thorthol![129]

Thranduil held his blade aloft for a minute, letting the reaction of his people echo in the caverns of his Halls. As his blade was lowered, so did the level of noise in the Throne Room, as people departed in small groups, returning to their preparations.

Within five hours, the Elven host was leaving the Halls, led by Thranduil, resplendent in his glinting silver armour, seated on his great Elk. Legolas rode behind him on another elk and Rhonith had taken the spot beside the Prince, clad in her mail and leather armour and with her hair braided in a tall mohawk braid, a style favoured by the ancient Warrior Princesses of Khazad-dûm. It exposed her elven ears, but it also made her look distinctly Dwarven to her Elven companions. Mithrandir rode next to the Elvenking on a horse he had borrowed from the Men of Laketown. He still looked rather unwell, but the fresh air had perked him up a little. Nestor had demanded a spot in the front so he could keep an eye on his belligerent patient. Mithrandir had grumbled, but eventually he had agreed to being under the Elf’s careful supervision. The healer was watching his patient carefully as he walked beside an elk-drawn cart, filled with remedies and bandages. His assistants had more wagons and carts full of medicine, tents and other paraphernalia needed to create a battlefield infirmary, for Nestor believed in being prepared and he did not think Erebor would have anything usable for healing the wounded. Behind them came troop upon troop of Elves, armed and garbed in the green and golden colours of Mirkwood. The wagons led by Nestor’s assistants and Maeassel’s underlings at the back of the army were stuffed to the brim with food and large canopy tents as well as the medicinal herbs and potions Nestor had deemed necessary.

A minor company of a few hundred Men also joined the army, led by the Master, who had commandeered a horse. Alfrid Lickspittle followed in his wake, still cowering away from the closest Elves, but trying to seem unaffected. Neither he nor the Master truly wanted to be there, but they were politically savvy enough to realise that if one wanted to remain the leader of a people undergoing turmoil, one had to seem to be the only leader. None of Thranduil’s generals had wanted the Man to be the leader for the Lakemen, but the Master had proven annoyingly unsusceptible to Galion’s manipulations and Bard did not want to usurp his position, even if the Master was neither a warrior nor a tactician. A silent agreement among the Elven strategists and commanders ensured that the Man would have no influence on orders given to his men nor on the plans being made for battle, but the Master did not realise that they had manoeuvred him skilfully into a position of glorified figurehead. He sat tall – as tall as a not very tall and rather fat Man could, anyway – atop his horse, overlooking the contingent of Lakemen walking behind him. A large part of the men were armed with repurposed fishing spears, though Thranduil’s armourers and leatherworkers had created toughened leather and modified chainmail armour for most of them. A few carried swords, which had last been used before Dale fell to the dragon. Looking back at the rather pitiful contingent of human soldiers, shabby-looking compared to the sleek Elven army, Legolas shook his head.

“They have little armour, and fewer decent weapons. Will the Men be more than a hindrance to us in the fight to come? Few have received any battle-training at all, even with the drills we’ve held since their arrival in Mirkwood.”

“They are fishermen and merchants, not trained warriors, Prince Legolas,” rebuked Gandalf. “They have a right to fight for their home, same as any other creature. They may be no match to you and your kin, but do not disdain their courage. You may be glad of their aid before the end.”

The princeling sniffed haughtily and turned his eyes to the mountain. He was not convinced. The few guards he had seen in Laketown had been pitiful, even compared to his own greenest recruit. The few among them who had armour, had worn it for the journey through the forest, but the quality was overall poor. He recognised the sigil of Dale on a few pieces, which had been handed down over the generations and sent a friendly thought to Hanar. The armouries of Dale had been stocked with Dwarven mail and weapons mostly, and their work withstood the ravages of time and use far better than the work of Men. In truth, the old Dale armour was probably in better condition than most of the newer pieces. His hands went to his own trusty knives, joined by a long sword of the same type as the one Thranduil favoured, and patted them gently. He had cared for those weapons since the day they had been gifted to him, and he had killed many spiders with their blades as well as quite a few Orcs. On his saddle hung his beloved bow, along with two full quivers of arrows. He was wearing his own armour, less shiny than Thranduil’s but worthy of a Prince nonetheless. He did not know who had made it originally, but he did not particularly care. His cloak was fastened by a pin Rhonith had made for his birthday 200 years ago. It was a fairly simple thing, steel and silver inlay, with a decorative leaf pattern made with tiny jade chips, but it pleased him to wear it and he’d seen her smile when she spotted it. The cloak had been made with the pelt of a warg he had killed four winters before, and its warmth surrounded him with comfort. Elves did not feel cold or warmth the way mortals did, or so Rhonith had explained to him, and many of the Lakemen had given him envious glances when he pulled on the cloak. It was not really necessary, for the weather, while chilly, was nice and sunny, with a blue sky above them. Legolas wore it anyway.

I Anfangrim en-Dyl Engrin nidhir tolo[130], Legolas. This battle will not be a war of Elves and Orcs alone, mellon-nîn. Thorin’s cousin Dáin is a great warrior, if a little hot-headed. He earned the epithet Ironfoot in the battle of Nanduhirion, where his father, Naín II was slain. Naín was the son of Grór, son of Dáin I, who ruled Ered Mithrim. Dáin I had three sons; Thrór, the heir, Frór and Grór. When Ered Mithrim was abandoned after King Dáin’s death in the war against the Cold-Drakes of the Withered Heath, Thrór resettled Erebor, leading a large number of his people to a prosperous future there, but Grór settled further East, in the Iron Hills where the Longbeards have always mined most of their iron. His settlement is far larger today than the one Thorin Oakenshield rules in Ered Luin, but many of his people are Ereborian refugees. The Iron Hills is home to almost 20000 Dwarrow, and Dáin’s standing army numbers at least 500 soldiers. Erebor was the Treasury, but the Iron Hills are the Armoury of the Longbeards and their skill is unparalleled. You will see the evidence of the glorious Dwarven ingenuity in weapon-crafting then. My people are fierce warriors and our weapons are strong. The Woodland Realm will not stand alone against the oncoming storm.” The soft rebuke came from the elleth beside him. Legolas flushed slightly. He had forgotten about the Dwarf-King’s kin to the East, who would have received the same message about the mountain that they had. Lord Balin would have announced their victory in every corner of Middle-Earth, he knew.

Seated on the gently swaying Aithiel, who had recovered quickly from the trip to Dol Guldur, Rhonith gazed towards the solitary peak, fondness in her eyes. Legolas looked askance at her. It was easy to forget that she was a child of two races, but sometimes her words reminded him sharply that she was both millennia older than him and had lived through many battles for either people. She had seen war. She had stood with the Durins of Khazad-dûm in the Last Alliance, and she had been there after the Fall, too, helping the Longbeards reach safety. She had fought Orcs with her mother’s kin more than once, even if she had not taken part in the slaughter that was the battle of Nanduhirion[131] as a warrior, instead employing her skills as a healer, before returning to Lothlórien’s golden boughs and her home in Caras Galadhon.

“I hope you are right, my Lady. I cannot help but feel uneasy at what we might find inside the mountain. Smaug may have perished, but his touch will linger long over the halls of Erebor.” Gandalf’s voice was solemn, his mind also far to the East.

“My heart, too, lies heavy in my breast, old friend. I can only pray that Mahal sends his Children wisdom, and that they remember your warning. I told Thorin and Bilbo the rest of my story before they left, hoping it would instil in them all some caution, though I fear it was for naught. Dwarrow are ever reckless when treasure and honour is at stake. Dark have been my dreams these past few nights.” She shuddered, not wanting to dwell on thoughts of the Mistress.

The sombre conversation petered out after that confession of worry, but the host of elven warriors marched ever onwards. At nightfall, they made camp on both sides of the river, interspersing the 300 Men among the 2700 Elves. The mood among the soldiers was merry, still close to home and hearth and aware that battle was yet days away. Friends were seen laughing together and some musicians were found for an impromptu sing-along among the Men. A few Silvans joined in on the more well-known songs, but as the hour grew late, sleep claimed their mortal companions and the songs turned to less raucous and ribald tunes, sombrely re-telling stories of past wars. By the time dawn sent the first fingers of sunlight over the horizon, the silent Silvans had almost finished packing up the camp. The Army continued, eating a breakfast of lembas and late summer fruits while marching to the beat of an old song.

 


 

 

Twelve days later the Elven host and their human allies reached Erebor. Camp was set between the western spur of the mountain and the River Running, giving them a view of the ruins of Dale. From there, most of the Elves settled in to wait for the arrival of their enemies. A few went into the ruins, looking for suitable locations for devising possible ambushes, depending on where the enemy would strike. Thranduil sent out scouts and trackers, both to sound an alarm at the approach of the Orc army and as a food gathering expedition. The hunters had to range far away from the Desolation of Smaug to find game, but it was still a useful occupation. The hunters also brought back word of the state of the land surrounding Erebor, information that would be crucial in the process of rehabilitating the mountain. In the evening, the Elvenking gathered a small group of carefully selected people to go to the Front Gates and make first contact with the dwarrow within.

 

“It worries me, Mithrandir, that we have had no further word from the dwarrow since the first raven.” Thranduil spoke quietly, but his voice was clearly heard through the twilight gloom. Rhonith nodded.

“I agree, it’s inauspicious. They made no reply to our warning of the impending battle, nor any messages pertaining to the slaying of Smaug. I fear they did not heed your warning, Mithrandir.” A heavy sigh accompanied her words, as her eyes roved restlessly across the Mountain.

“You knew it was a long shot, though I had hoped that Bilbo’s Hobbit sense had given him pause before ignoring the word of a wizard. Hobbits are usually sensible people.” He claimed, feeling rather perturbed by the thought.

At this, Rhonith barked a short laugh and chuckled fondly at the old Maia, “You forget, old friend, Bilbo Baggins went on a mad adventure with 13 dwarrow on the whim of said wizard. I’m sure that his sense is greatly questioned by everyone in the Shire. I would not be surprised if you are labelled a Disturber of the Peace hereafter.”

Gandalf shook his grey head and twinkled his eyes at her. “Ahh, but what is life without a little adventure, my dear?”

“What is that smell,” Bard asked, wrinkling his nose.

“I think I know what became of the dragon,” Legolas’s voice broke through the mirth of the two friends. Beside him, Bard frowned, eyes once more searching the foot of the Mountain and a frown pasted onto his grim face. “There is a great bonfire outside Erebor. It looks and smells foul; like burnt, rotten, and tainted meat.”

Nan ear adh in elin![132]

Hortho!” Thranduil gently sped up his mount, and soon the others were in complete agreement with Legolas’s description. The air in front of the Gates was foul and felt greasy on the skin.

More worrisome was the lack of any acknowledgement from within Erebor.

 


 

 

The elven group halted in front of the Great Gates and stared. The doorway was almost entirely blocked by rubble, which had to have been piled up by the dwarrow within, as the dragon had torn the great doors off their hinges in his first frenzied attack. Rhonith’s sharp eyes noted the careful way in which the stones were stacked. This was not the work of a dragon, but the careful work of her industrious kin. She breathed a small sigh of relief at the thought; if her dwarrow kinsmen were well enough to construct such skilfully made fortifications, perhaps not all was lost. The bleak landscape surrounding them only added to the decidedly unfriendly feel of the mountain. The burnt remains of the dragon lay in a massive pile a little ways from the Gate, no longer smouldering, but tainting the air with its stench. It appeared that nothing had been done to dispose of the corpse save burning the meat, a task that had not been altogether completed. Gandalf and Thranduil exchanged a worried look. Proceeding slowly, the mounted contingent approached the Gates warily.

“Halt!”

The shout had come from within the walls, and Rhonith drew a silent breath of relief. At least someone was alive. Their eyes turned up, towards a cleverly hidden plateau above the gates, perfect for ranged defence of the entrance below. A head peeked over the battlements. The white hair of old Balin was easily recognisable to keen elf eyes and Thranduil urged his elk forwards.

“Master Balin. It is good to see that you have not all perished. Your lack of reply to our missives was worrying. My congratulations on the defeat of your foe,” he paused slightly, “may the defeat of this oncoming foe be as swift and bloodless. Tell me, where is Thorin, for we much desire to speak with him?”

“Forgive me, King Thranduil, but King Thorin is not available. He is busy searching for the Arkenstone in the Treasury.” Balin grimaced, as if the message sat poorly with the old diplomat.

“Who then, will lead the dwarrow in his stead? We shall need to discuss strategies and make preparations for the battle to come. Orcs under Azog’s command are making their way here as we speak,” Gandalf was frowning, but Thranduil continued, concern coming through in his voice. “Do you have sick or injured parties? We have brought what supplies could be needed.”

Balin’s head shook slowly. To the sharp gazes of the Elves, the old advisor looked aged greatly, wearied and weighted down by sorrow and grief. They feared what might have put such a look on the otherwise calm and collected Dwarf.

“Balin, may I enter the Mountain?” The wizard’s concerned face turned intently towards the dwarf on the battlement.

“I apologise Gandalf, but we are under orders not to let any outsiders into the mountain.” Something sounded behind the old dwarf and he turned slightly before facing the elves once more. “I have to go. I am needed.” He nodded at them and disappeared swiftly.

Rhonith placed a calming hand on Thranduil’s arm. The Elvenking had stiffened in outrage.

“I wonder what has made Balin so fearful. Something is wrong in Erebor, and it is not just the smell of burnt dragon.” She whispered, eyeing the smouldering pile fearfully. With a swift command, Aithiel turned, making her way back towards the Elven Host, which had halted near Dale. Legolas sped off after, exchanging little more than a glance and a nod with his father before his mount, Tálagor[133], galloped after Rhonith’s.

 


 

 

“You are scared, mellon,” he said quietly behind her when he found her by the bank of the River Running. Aithiel was lapping calmly at the icy water. “The dragon is dead, the corpse burned. It cannot harm you.”

“Yes. I do not fear death, but I do fear the power of dragons. Even when they are gone, they…linger. My heart lies heavy, mellon.” A shudder passed through her frame, but Rhonith did not turn to face Legolas, simply staring across the river. “I remember… I remember my mother, who died when I was barely a century. I remember my father, the way he smiled the last time I saw him, his dark hair loose in the wind as he waved me off to play in the forest. I remember… the Deceiver and the Tower. I remember my sister. Thranduil. I do not know if I remember all I should about any of them. The Dragon, whose name I have not spoken for more than four thousand years of the sun, her voice… I can remember her voice. Her voice as it leeched into my head, stealing the thoughts and the memories I held dear. I remember days, weeks perhaps, where the idea that someone once loved me is all that kept me from pulling the scale from my skin, cutting it out with a sharp knife. Sometimes, I heard her sing to me, while I slept. Spells woven with her blood, her corrupted love. The Dragon once had children, hatchlings. She ate most of them, but me… me she called child, or pet, or morsel. I spent years with the knowledge of my own name lost to me. The one name that remained, I guarded more fiercely than any other I have possessed, for it is the core of me, the Deep Heart. In my mind, I am certain that without such a name, known to none but my Amad in the Halls of Waiting, I would have ceased to exist. I might have lived beyond the hoard, but I had no hope of rescue, only the slightest glimmer of possible vengeance.” Legolas dared not interrupt, hardly daring to move for fear she might stop talking. “Dragons weave spells around the names of their victims. It took millennia for the name my father gave me to be free of the taint. I still don’t use it…” She sighed, letting her words float away with the quick stream.

“Will you tell me your first name?” Legolas eventually had to ask. He took a step closer to her; close enough to feel the heat of her against his chest, but not close enough to touch her physically .

“No.” She said firmly, continuing before he had time to feel hurt by the rejection. “My first name is the Deep Name. I may share it as I desire, but it is sacred to my mother’s people, a name given in secret, when a child is born. Only the mother knows that name, until the child shares it with his or her One, if they choose to. Atya-nîn did not know it. I will tell you what he named me, if you like, in the Quenya tongue of his youth. He called me Almarië, his blessing, and the Sindar called me Galweth or Celebriel. I never liked Galweth, but Almarië… I was Almarië then. Now… Almarië is little more than the memory of bright days and a happy family. When I came back, I told them to stop calling me Galweth, for the one who had the right no longer walked these shores,” Still, she did not turn to look at him, did not choose to see the way his eyes burned with her pain. She did not move away when his hand landed on her shoulder and she tilted her head into the caress when his fingers smoothed across her ear. “For a long time, I was Celebriel… in an effort to remind myself of my past. When I chose the name Ilsamirë it was both a freedom and a curse. I removed myself further from his memory, yet I stayed the same…” she hesitated briefly, before leaning back against his chest. Legolas’ arm wrapped around her waist, reminding him of happier days involving a certain small dwarf. “I liked the name Rhonith. It is an aspect of me that is much wilder and freer than the rest of my heart, one which was not stolen away in fear and doubt. Nínimeth chose well.” He felt the tension in her when she spoke the name and knew it was for his benefit.

“She loved you.” He whispered, close but not daring to touch her pointy ear with his lips. “You miss her, I know. It is alright.” If he could avoid it, Legolas never spoke the Queen’s name. He did not truly blame her for abandoning him, but he did not understand it. Thranduil rarely spoke of those early days of his life, and Legolas had never wanted to ask, seeing the pain in his father’s eyes every time he was reminded of his lost wife.

“She loved you too, Legolas.” Rhonith squeezed the hand that rested on her stomach, “Never forget that she loved you fiercely. You may not remember her, but you should never doubt her love for you.” Shaking off her gloomy thoughts, Rhonith half-turned, giving him a smile that faltered slightly when she met his sad eyes. “Her last words… the last thing she asked me was for you. The last time she was Nínimeth in this world, she thought of you and Thranduil. She asked me to stay… for you.” The words were a low confession and she clearly saw the shock they painted across Legolas’ face. Her heat twinged. When his face smoothed into careful blankness, covering any emotion, she took a step back, releasing his arm.

Legolas was reeling. His mother had asked her to stay, to remain on this side of the Sea? Had she wanted to go? Had she ever wanted to remain, left behind like a lost toy? Anger followed. How dare she tell me that. As if I am keeping her prisoner on these shores! When she left his grip, he barely noticed, almost throwing himself away from her. I am her shackles, her cell, his mind wailed. He heard her make sounds, but his mind did not comprehend any words and with a muttered word that might have been a farewell or might have been a curse, he strode off towards his father’s command tent.

 

notes:

[124] Her haunting/extreme fear.

[125] Greetings.

[126] I am well, father. My dreams were dark, I am good/better now.

[127] Fetch your swords, sworn brothers and sisters!

[128] I know your strength in battle. Death to the Orcs!

[129] We are yours to command. (lit. you command us)

[130] The dwarrow of the Iron Hills will come.

[131] Elvish name for Azanulbizar, the Dimrill Dale in Westron.

[132] By the sea and the stars! Hurry!

[133] Talagor: Fast foot. Aithiel means Spearpoint Sister.

Chapter Text

They had spent the first night enjoying Glóin’s ale and retelling the greatest moments of the battle to each other. The stories were already getting at least a slight embellishment, especially for the sake of Kíli who had missed the whole thing. Even he would not believe that Dori had made his mining chair yank Thorin out of Smaug’s actual mouth, however, but he laughed good-naturedly at their jibes.

 

The next morning, Bilbo got another glimpse of the industrious nature of Dwarrow. Ori was kept busy sketching and writing his account of their battle against Smaug, while Balin wrote letters to the Iron Hills, the Blue Mountains and the Elvenking, proclaiming their victory and the reclamation of Erebor. Óin had decided to go set up an infirmary station. Climbing around a mountain that had been subjected to a dragon for 171 years was bound to lead to injuries, he reasoned, and no one had argued with the assessment. Thorin’s first order as King under the Mountain had been chopping up and removing Smaug’s corpse from the Entrance Hall. Apart from Ori, Balin, and Óin, the dwarrow did not seem to care that they were slopping around in the dragon’s spilled blood, which was congealing slowly, though it remained warm. The dragon’s corpse was stripped of all salvageable scales, teeth, and claws. Thorin had a wild idea about outfitting the Mountain’s guard with dragonhide armour, and none of the others questioned it. Bilbo had given the bloody process one look and barely managed to retain control of his breakfast. The dragon’s corpse and buckets of his blood were dumped in a massive pit a ways off from the Front Gate and, looking grand in one of Thrór’s old fur cloaks and wearing the Raven Crown for the first time, Thorin burned it using the last of their Mirkwood tree splinters as well as some old coal found in the Forges. Bilbo found all the ceremonial trappings slightly ridiculous – even if he too liked seeing this final end to the monster that had plagued the hearts and minds of his friends for so long – but he wrote it off as a Dwarf thing and went exploring with Kíli who was banned from strenuous work. They had scrounged up enough fuel to keep one of the smaller furnaces going, making the closest parts of the Mountain somewhat habitable – even for a Hobbit unused to harsh mountain winters – and set up their bedrolls and supplies around it.


 

Bilbo watched in awe as – under Bombur and Bofur’s guidance – rubble and piece of crumbled stone was joined together almost seamlessly to block up the open hole of the Front Gate. Smaug had ripped one door off entirely, and had simply propped the gates up with bits of rock to keep the snow out. Half the dwarrow, those who had prior experience with stonework or, like Dwalin and surprisingly Dori, were freakishly strong, laboured tirelessly on the ‘door’. The rest were busy searching the Treasury for the Arkenstone.


 

Once the Gate had been blocked, the dwarrow spent their time almost exclusively in the Treasury, searching for the Arkenstone and exclaiming over the many trinkets and pretties they found.
Kíli had fulfilled his dream of a sapphire bath, under much laughter from the Company, and most of them were bedecked with rings and necklaces, adorned with gems in all the colours of the rainbow. He had also found a new set of tools for leatherworking, and Dori had helped him reopen an old tannery they had discovered, in an attempt to cure the hide of Smaug so Thorin’s Dragon Guard could become a reality in proper armour.
Dori had found a set of pretty silver and amethyst hair clasps, the family colours of his father’s house, and wove them proudly into his hair. Nori favoured gold, muttering under his breath as he waded through the treasure heaps. Once Bilbo realised that he was making a running commentary of the value of the different parts of whatever he picked up, the Hobbit left him to his own company. Bilbo did not need to know the going rate of rubies in the Iron Hills, really.
Glóin had fallen into rapture over some golden beard ornaments, which would be simply perfect for his wife’s dark hair, and had then thrown himself wholeheartedly into the task of finding a similarly perfect gift for wee Gimli. In truth, most of the Company were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of treasure they now had access to – and ownership over, which was the main thing, of course – spoiled for choice.
Dwalin did not seem to care for hair beads or beard ornaments, instead looking at the finely decorated weapons stashed in the Treasury. He had recovered his axe from Smaug’s skull, but the Cold Iron which had helped him penetrate the thick hide had not let the axe survive the impact with Smaug’s tough forehead, and it had splintered into warped shards. Thorin had given him an apologetic glance when he saw the broken axe, but he could not repair it yet. Keeper would need a complete overhaul, but that was not feasible until they got a proper forge going, so Dwalin found himself a suitable substitute. Dwalin had also found himself a small viol with silver inlay, but he had not yet suggested that Thorin should go find the silver harp from his childhood bedroom. They had spent hours in the Royal Wing playing together when their duties and classes permitted and he rather missed playing with his Kurdel. Even in Ered Luin, there had been time for music, even if their instruments had been far cruder than the Erebor selection. Dwalin had loved it, toying with the thought of becoming a proper musician before the dragon and his skill with weapons made music more of a fondly thought-of hobby than a way of life.
Fíli had found a pair of matching crowns for himself and Kíli, which Thorin revealed had belonged to himself and Frerin, and the two Princes were crowned with as much solemn ceremony as they could muster. There would be an official crowning once Erebor was properly resettled, but Thorin’s heart glowed with love and pride when he saw the two dwarrow wearing the work of their grandmother’s hands. When he looked at them, he could almost see himself and Frerin as youngsters – dwarflings, really – on the days they had been given the thin circlets. It had been a momentous occasion in his young life, being presented to the Court on his tenth name-day, as it had been for Frerin[134] on his tenth name-day and he had been looking forward to watching Dís receive her crown when she reached her tenth name-day. That ceremony never happened, Smaug had arrived years too early for Dís to even remember Erebor, but he knew Frís had made the circlet before the attack, and when he found it, he would give it to his sister as a welcome home gift.
Bofur did not really know what to do with himself among all this treasure. His family had been miners in the Blue Mountains since the fall of Khazad-dûm, and while they had been skilled, and their skills had seen them well-off at first, the dwindling resources of Ered Luin meant even the position of Foreman did not guarantee a lot of disposable income. He spent his time trying to separate the joy coming from his senses, ranging out to follow the unmined seams of gold running through the green stone, from his joy of knowing that their quest was over, their lives forever changed for the better.
Bifur seemed particularly pleased with anything made with emeralds, though when he found an emerald-encrusted hat, woven from the finest wire metal and supple as cloth, he seemed to snap out of it. The hat was tossed carelessly on the pile behind him, and Bifur returned to poking his boar spear into mounds of treasure looking for the Arkenstone – or possibly just anything that caught his interest. It was hard to tell, especially when he held aloft a sapphire-lined crockpot, smilingly handing the pretty but ultimately useless item to Bombur before wandering off, whistling under his breath. The big dwarf looked puzzled for a moment, but then he shrugged and went back to his own search, the crockpot abandoned on one of the many piles of gold. Bombur had little time for the treasure, mostly looking for the Arkenstone or a few small pieces he might send home for his wife and children. He had, as the only one aside from Balin and the three Durins, chosen a building as his future home. Thorin had given them all the right to pick a house, but the choices were limited to those buildings they didn’t know would be claimed.  

While most of the Company spent their days in the Treasury, Balin was busy searching through the old records, trying to ensure that houses with prominent owners would not be claimed by anyone unrelated. Some Houses had died out entirely during their long exile, of course, and some families had re-established themselves elsewhere, but Thorin had asked Balin to ensure that descendants were found where possible. Bilbo helped him with the job often, staying away from the Treasury except for three hours a day when he helped with the search for the stone. Ori was also working in the Library, trying to seek out salvageable scrolls and tomes, when he wasn't working to catalogue the dead they moved. Those tasks were considered more important than an extra pair of hands for the search in the Treasury.

Most of the dwarrow were having fun with the treasures, lost in the sheer amount of it. The longer it took for them to find the Arkenstone, however, the darker Thorin’s mood became.

 


 

 

When Balin realised that finding the Arkenstone was much like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack – the Dwarven equivalent might very well be changed to the Arkenstone in the Dragon’s hoard after this venture, he thought – the old scribe decided that he had other things on his mind that weighed at least as heavily as the desire to find the stone. After all, he reasoned, they had reclaimed Erebor, and no one would contest Thorin’s right to the throne as the true Heir, so there was really no rush in recovering a single gem. His prominent practicality and common sense both agreed with his heart that it was time to see what had become of their old home. Taking Dwalin by the hand one morning, as the warrior was about to follow the rest of the Company into the Treasury, Balin made his way through the mountain, his feet finding the roads as easily as if he had abandoned Erebor the day before, rather than 171 years ago. Dwalin, who knew his brother very well, did not have to ask where they were going. He wanted to see their house, up on Nâludanakhbilis – Emerald Street – just as much as Balin. For his brother, the greatest lure was finding out what had happened to Skaro, who had lived with them after the death of his parents in a mining accident. For Dwalin, however, though he did not begrudge Balin his wish to find Skaro’s bones and give his One a proper burial, the lure of going home was to find their Amad. Sigrún, the Lady Cantor of Erebor, had not made it out, and none of her small family had been able to find anyone who had seen her that terrible morning. Her loss had stolen Fundin’s laughter from their lives, and it almost felt as though Fundin’s spirit walked beside his sons as they made their way slowly through the dark halls of their old realm. The two had been reunited in the Halls of Waiting after Azanulbizar had cost their Adad’s life, but the Fundinuls still wanted answers and closure. Nâludanakhbilis seemed almost untouched, while it was one of the most prominent residential areas of Erebor, if was also relatively far removed from the Kalm’uthrakh and the Treasury itself, so Smaug had not passed this way.

Dwalin did not truly think that they would find either Sigrún or Skaro at home, but he knew Balin would want to claim the house for his own, and though he would never ask, he needed Dwalin’s support when he took the first step back into his beloved home. Balin had lived in Erebor far longer than Dwalin, moving there from the Iron Hills at the age of 26 along with Fundin, while Sigrún had remained in the Iron Hills until she had finished training her last Iron Hills apprentice, the current Cantor, Loni. Dwalin had been born the year Balin had moved away with their Adad, and having spent the first ten years of his life mostly in the company of his Amad, Dwalin had been much closer with Sigrún. When they had finally moved to Erebor, Amad had been immediately elevated to the position of Lady Cantor, and her frequently busy schedule had meant that the two brothers got to spend a lot more time together, even with Balin working as Fundin’s apprentice and tutor to the Royal Children.

Reaching their old front door, marked with the rune of the Cantor, as well as the mark of the Line of Durin and the House of Fundin, the two brothers steeled themselves for whatever they might find inside. Unlocking the door with the key Fundin had carried around his neck since the attack of the Dragon, and Balin had worn since Fundin’s death, they pushed the stone door open with a slight creak. Dwalin felt faintly surprised that the hinges had not rusted shut through the years, but the feeling was lost in a powerful wave of memory. This place, where they had been a happy family, was a dead and void of life as the rest of Erebor, but Dwalin felt a powerful surge of relief that it was empty. He did not know what he would have done had they come across Sigrún’s bones, nor what would have happened had they found Skaro. The goldsmith had been his brother in all the ways that mattered and Dwalin had missed him, grieved for him, even if his loss could not compare to Balin’s. They walked slowly through once-familiar rooms, pointing out things and objects in passing that they each remembered from life here. Finding his old practice viol was a bittersweet moment for Dwalin, though finding the golden beads Skaro had been polishing in his bedroom made Balin break down completely. The unfinished gift was clearly the first step in a marriage courtship, and Dwalin could only speculate that Skaro had meant to present them at either Khebabnurtamrâg or at Balin’s Name-day two weeks later. Wrapping his arm around Balin, Dwalin half-carried his weeping brother out of Skaro’s old room, remaining silent, even as tears escaped his own eyes at the thought of the joy his brother had been so cruelly denied by fate and a bloody dragon. In his mind, he once more cursed the very memory of Smaug, viciously gleeful at the thought of his burnt remains smouldering outside Erebor. Leaning against Dwalin’s broad chest, Balin clutched the golden beads in shaking fists, but Dwalin just held him through the resurgence of grief as he had done before when Balin was overwhelmed by his losses.

“I knew it was unlikely either of them were here,” Balin said, an hour later, breaking the profound silence that had enveloped them once the sound of his crying abated.

“If their bones are anywhere in Erebor, we will find them,” Dwalin replied, vowing to make his words come true, even if he had to trawl through every corridor and tunnel in the Lonely Mountain to do so.

“‘Ala abnathiduzu, nadad,” Balin gave him a weak smile. Dwalin nodded. For the rest of the afternoon, they explored their old home, finding long-forgotten objects that sparked fond memories.

 


 

 

Óin had reopened what was known as the Ruby Ward – barazamraldûm – the larger of the two wings of the Halls of Healing, meant for everyday injuries. The other side was known as Mother’s Bosom – Amadzengar – and used for those who were either going to be sick for months or who were dying. He had opened the door to that hall first, before reading the signs, and then he had quietly closed it again. That room would be opened when the King was with him, the Healer decided. In the brief glance he allowed himself, it was clear that this room had held Dwarrow who would rather meet their Maker quickly than linger in a mountain inhabited by a dragon, and Óin had no wish to search through their mummified remains alone. The weapon hilts that protruded from the chests of the corpses in the three nearest beds told him clearly what they would find upon closer examination. The Ruby Ward was devoid of life, as though those who had been occupying its beds had all left the Mountain. Óin knew that was an unlikely scenario, the sick and injured would have had to cross debris if not the dragon itself on their way to the gates from this point. The path he had taken to get here had been troublesome enough for a hale and healthy Dwarf and definitely impassable for Dwarrow with broken limbs or other mining-related injuries, he thought. He had asked Dori and Dwalin to help him clear a path to the Healing Halls, but the two Dwarrow had to work quite slowly. To ensure that they did not destabilise the hallways by clearing supporting piles of rubble, Bombur and Bofur had to give them the all clear for each small stretch of tunnel they went through.

Although their parents had met and lived together in Erebor, neither Glóin nor Óin were born in the Lonely Mountain, and they didn’t even know which house had belonged to their family, aside from it being on Moonstone Crescent, which had been entirely demolished, so Glóin had decided to claim one of the houses on Emerald Street near Balin’s old home for his own. Óin would probably keep a room there, as it had plenty of space, but had had also chosen a small house nearer to the Healing Halls for himself.

 


 

 

Making his way to the Royal Palace – around which the most prominent residential areas pivoted – Thorin was accompanied by Fíli and Kíli, uncharacteristically sombre, as well as the silent presence of Dwalin at his back and Balin by his left side. He knew that the Fundinuls had gone back to Emerald Street to look for their old home, but Thorin had been busy in the Treasury at the time. As they walked, he pointed out places he remembered to his nephews. The silver fountain in the Palace Courtyard had been Frerin’s favourite place as a Dwarfling, while their Amadel’s solar had been Thorin’s.

Leading the way to the part of the Palace that had belonged to Thraín and Frís, Thorin felt grateful that he was able to give his nephews this experience, and slightly guilty that Frís was not there to see it with them.

The Hall of Stars made the young Princes gasp in awe when Thorin extinguished his torch. The narrow corridor had been cut along a seam of diamonds and moonstone, and Thrór’s craftsmen had – instead of cutting out the precious diamonds and the gentle moonstones – made this hallway into a starlit night. Clever use of mirrors mounted in thin shafts among the clusters of gems ensured that light refracted in the carefully cut facets of the stones, providing a brilliant sight unparalleled in any Dwarf Kingdom. Even Khazad-dûm had not boasted such splendour, Thrór had once bragged, and Thorin had easily believed it. The intricate work had taken years to complete, though the hallway was less than 7 metres long. Above their heads, constellations – properly spaced and oriented in comparison to the real night sky – were easily recognisable, even if they would not actually be visible from Erebor itself.

When they reached Thraín’s Family Quarters – containing the Crown Prince’s bedroom, Princess Frís’ Solar, as well as separate bedrooms for each of their children and a study that Thraín had used for his royal paperwork – Thorin led the way first to Frerin’s room, where the elder three were harshly reminded of the golden prince whose last laugh had still been etched on his face when he died on the blood-soaked soil of Azanulbizar. They ignored Thraín’s study, which was next, as well as Dís’ nursery which contained mostly toys, where Thorin’s was filled with the everyday clutter of a young Dwarf. The King Under the Mountain was slightly mortified to find half a love-letter he had been writing to Dwalin still on his desk, but the burly warrior snatched it up with a booming laugh and his it in his tunic before Thorin could grab it. His scowl disappeared under the soft kiss Dwalin pressed against his lips, his eyes shining with mirth. Behind Thorin, Fíli and Kíli were collapsing on his old bed, suffering through loud guffawing paroxysms of laughter. Thorin got the last laugh, however, when a giant cloud of dust rose from the ancient bed furs, almost choking both his nephews. As he chuckled, he moved across the room, to the velvet-covered harp in the corner. The large instrument, made of the finest silver in Erebor, made a soft murmur of sound as the worn cloth was pulled away from the strings. Thorin smiled, caressing the metal softly. Frís had been the one to encourage his love of music, and the harp had been a gift for his twentieth Nameday.

“Do you want to play together tonight, amrâlimê?” he asked, suddenly hoarse with emotion. Dwalin just squeezed his hand silently.

“We’ll play the Water-Dance,” he promised. Thorin smiled. It had been one of Frís’ favourite Dwarven compositions, and they had practiced for months to be able to play it for her Nameday the year Thorin had been gifted with this very instrument.

Their coughing fit over, Fíli and Kíli pressed on with exploring, gaping at the massive mural that decorated Frís’ Solar, as well as the wealth of engineering schematics that littered the floor of their grandparents’ bedroom.

“Amad was very fond of making these,” Thorin rumbled, pointing at the smaller murals set into two of the bedroom walls. “She decorated many of the rooms in the Palace, as well as the Guest-Wing, her way of making her mark on her new home after she married my Adad.”

The five Dwarrow spent their evening going through the Palace, exclaiming at the many treasures that had been left here. Once Smaug had gained the mountain, the dragon had apparently not cared to wrest its treasures from the very walls and bringing them down to the Treasury, instead seemingly considering the whole mountain his hoard. They could see the most destruction where he had been going on walks through the airier parts of the halls that fit him. The Lower Commons and the Great Market on the level of the Great Forges had been mostly demolished, and Moonstone Crescent on the upper level, which had run as the wheel connecting the spokes of streets to the central hub: the Palace that had been built around the massive Throne Room, was all but gone.

 


 

They had not found Skaro’s corpse in any of the rooms they had searched. Even amid combing through the Treasury for the Arkenstone, the Company’s hearts would not rest easily, so two members were always absent, searching out and attempting to identify the corpses methodically. Ori was usually one of them, in his capacity as a scribe for the Quest, but the others rotated the duty. The job was made easier by the Dwarven custom of wearing beads with family crests and sigils in hair or beard, but it was still a gruesome task. Fíli had decreed that no one – including Ori – should do it for more than half a day at a time, after the first night when Ori had kept them all awake – aside from the notably absent King – with his nightmares and whimpering cries. Ori had only heard and read of the dragon’s attack, seeing the direct results was much different to reading a survivor’s account. Dwalin felt for the lad. Ori had tried to offer Fíli protests, claiming that he was strong enough to handle it without problems, but the Crown Prince had stood firm. The next morning, Dwalin had volunteered to accompany Ori into the next room.

 

“There’s no shame in it, lad.” Dwalin rumbled, when Ori had squeaked loudly at the first corpse they reached. “The dead cannae harm ye. Yon dreams may fade in time, or they may not, but they do not make ye weak.” Ori didn’t seem to know how to reply, so Dwalin continued quietly. “What you see, when you close your eyes; what you think was their last moments… the images are horrid, aye, but they are only images. I would worry far more if ye didnae care, lad. Yer heart is one of your strengths, always had been, as to hear Balin speak of ye. You shouldnae lose it,” he had rumbled, trying to bring a little light back in Ori’s reddened eyes. Even through all their hardships, Ori had maintained a level of innocence Dwalin had lost well before he witnessed the horrors of war. It was worth protecting even a sliver of that innocence in the youth. Though Ori was older than the lads, he had grown up far more sheltered, having lived inside the settlement in Ered Luin all his life. Not that it had been an easy life, Dwalin knew, but he had not had to say goodbye to parents he remembered at least. “We called them battle-dreams. After Azanulbizar. There was no night in the camp, nor on the march home, that was not interrupted by screams. Sometimes, wee Ori, surviving is the hardest part, and any real warrior will tell ye they have seen what you see.” He paused there, but Ori’s full attention was on him, and Dwalin decided he might as well admit to his thoughts. “You are young, lad, but those dreams… they will haunt you for a long time. I still see Frerin fall in mine. Not often, anymore, but I see it. I watch Thorin fight Azog; I watch his oak shield shatter and his head chopped off. When I am awake, I know that never happened, but in my dreams… in my dreams I am back among the blood and the fire and the screams of agony, and I cannot escape until I burst awake, usually swinging my fist or me axe.” Dwalin had been silent for the rest of the day, apart from calling out names he found, and Ori had asked no questions, but that night Nori had squeezed his arm in gratitude and Dori had smiled softly at him. No more needed be said, and none of them – not even the lads – had bothered Ori about waking them up with his crying.

 


 

 

On the third day since the dragon’s death, Bilbo found the Arkenstone nestled inside a golden goblet and covered by a few coins. The door had been finished, and everyone had been set to work in the Treasury at once. Thorin paced across the piles of gold like a caged bear, snarling at anyone close enough to listen. He wanted them to work faster, better, harder, NOW!

When he touched the glowing jewel, Bilbo heard Smaug’s sibilant hisses once more. Fear made his breath catch.

Watch him suffer… watch it corrupt his heart.

Watch it drive him…mad

The Hobbit shuddered.

The Arkenstone slipped into his pocket, and Bilbo did not mention it to anyone. Dread had taken root in his heart, and he watched as his dear friends slowly changed. He worried.

 

 

notes:

[134] Frerin was five years younger than Thorin, 19 in TA 2770, and died at the age of 48 at Azanulbizar, fighting beside Thorin who was 53. Dwarven births are so rare that children with only 5 years between them are almost considered twins. Dís’ age eludes me, but she was apparently too young to remember Erebor, so I’ve set her birth to 2765 making her a little less than a century old when she had children, which seems to be the relative norm. Fíli and Kíli are also five years apart at 83 and 78 at the time of the quest.

Chapter Text

“Any sign of it?!” Thorin demanded harshly on their fifth day of searching the Treasury. He was dressed once more in ancient finery, bedecked with the finest jewels and the brightest gold pieces he had found. Dwalin had woven tiny winking clasps through his dark hair; the warrior’s big hands were surprisingly nimble when it came to braiding, and it had always astonished visiting nobles when Thorin revealed that he never did his own hair. He would occasionally do the boys’ or Dís’ long locks, but Dwalin’s mother had been a Stiff-beard and he and Balin kept their beards without ornaments or visible braids in her honour. Sigrún had been lost with Erebor, no word on how she had died. Since Azanulbizar, when Dwalin had shaved off his warrior’s crest in favour of the memorial tattoos for Fundin and Frerin, Thorin had rarely braided his remaining hair, so his skills were probably rusty at best. He missed the proud crest, even if he understood why Dwalin had wanted a permanent reminder of the horror they had seen at Moria. Not that either of them would ever forget – nor would anyone else who had survived Azanulbizar – but the physical representation of his grief had seemed to give Dwalin some hard-won peace in the aftermath. That did not make Thorin miss playing with the surprisingly soft strands any less, however. Dwalin’s hair looked wiry – one of the characteristics for which Stiffbeards had once been named – but it was actually softer than his own wavy locks. With a shake of his head Thorin abandoned the thoughts and memories of running his hands slowly through the mohawk Dwalin had had through most of his early life. His attention returned to the Treasury in time to catch the Company’s replies to his barked question.

“Nothing yet.” Dwalin rumbled, but the King did not seem pacified. The big Warrior shrugged, gesturing tellingly to the vast sea of gold they were trying to plough through to find one palm-sized gem. Not that any of them really employed something that could be classified as a systematic approach, but it could take lifetimes to sift through all the treasure Thrór – and later, Smaug – had hoarded.

“Nothing here.” Nori said, tossing a golden goblet over his shoulder. His Thief’s Heart twinged. There was nothing here to steal! Well, there was treasure, but it already belonged to him! The conundrum of being able to steal anything he could carry every day for the rest of his life, yet never stealing a thing, was enough to make his head spin. He was currently wearing a fortune in necklaces and diamond rings, yet he felt no different than when he’d been limited to steel and ornamental bone pieces in Ered Luin. It was perplexing.

“Keep searching!” Fears were encroaching on his mind. Without the Arkenstone, I am not fit to rule, he thought morosely. Anyone could claim my throne, if they but hold the jewel…

“That jewel could be anywhere!” Óin exclaimed. He had found a new golden hearing trumpet as replacement for the one the goblins had flattened, and adorned it with silver chains so it could hang around his neck while he searched. The rubies dotting the rim of the horn winking in the torchlight. They had not yet had time to repair the mirror system that provided ambient light throughout the Mountain, so their only light came from torches.

“The Arkenstone is in these halls - find it!” Thorin demanded, whirling away from the rest of them to pick up more shiny pieces of treasury and discard them like they were pieces of rubbish and not tokens of his people’s history.

“You heard him - Keep looking!” Dwalin called, while he studied Thorin discretely. His worries were growing. His One was troubled by something, but Thorin would not share it – not yet. Dwalin hoped that his Kurdel would not continue to brood alone, but with the way Thorin was pulling away from their company, seeking solitude in the Treasury even when the rest of them gave up for the day and turned their minds to other pressing tasks, he was not optimistic. He would try to speak to Thorin when they went to bed that night, he decided, feeling slightly better for having a plan.

“All of you - No one rests until it is found!” The King called back over his shoulder. Catching Fíli’s eye, Dwalin could see that he was not the only one having misgivings about their leader, but the Prince – who had never met Thrór and only heard the tales – shrugged off his thoughtful frown and set himself to the appointed task once more. Dwalin sighed silently, staring after Thorin’s disappearing back – still clad in Thrór’s old sable fur cloak and looking more and more like his late grandfather – before he too returned to the immense job of combing through the Treasury. 

 

Bilbo, hearing all this, looked awkwardly around the Treasury. The weight of the Arkenstone, wrapped in his spare shirt and stowed in his pack, seemed to still rest in his pocket, Bilbo felt.

 


 

 

Thorin gazed upon the throne, over which the Arkenstone had been inlaid before it was lost. He spoke quietly to Balin, Dwalin, and Bilbo, who were standing behind him.

“It is here in these halls - I know it.” He said, barely louder than a whisper. He did not turn around to look at their faces.

“We have searched and searched…” Dwalin began, but Thorin interrupted, volume rising with each word.

“Not well enough!” It had been almost two weeks since Durin’s Day! The Stone had to be recovered! His hands ached to hold it, to gaze upon its lustrous shine once again, to see if it matched his distant memories of its brilliance.

“Thorin, we all would see the stone returned.” Dwalin continued, reaching for Thorin’s shoulder, but the King wrenched himself away from his hold to resume pacing before the throne. Dwalin frowned.

“And yet, it is still not FOUND!” Thorin paced in front of the throne.

“Do you doubt the loyalty of anyone here?” Balin asked, fearful of the answer he saw in Thorin’s eyes, as the King stalked towards them. “The Arkenstone is the birth-right of our people.” Balin said quietly, remembering the stone’s glow and trying to appease Thorin’s barely controlled fury.

“It is the King’s Jewel.” Thorin said. “AM I NOT THE KING?!” he shouted, still staring at the spot where the stone had once sat above the throne of Thrór. “Know this - If anyone should find it and withhold it from me, I will be avenged.” He turned, walking away slowly. The three friends could only stare at his retreating form with disbelief and poorly veiled sorrow.


As Thorin walked away, Bilbo ran from the Throne Room. That Dwarf who called himself King… Bilbo did not think there was any part of Thorin left behind those cold blue eyes.

 


 

 

“I am worried, Balin.” Dwalin said quietly, the death of night lending his words its cover. Balin stiffened beside him. It had been days since the bedroll on his other side had held the King.

“Aye, me too, brother. Me too.” He sighed. Balin’s quiet admission seemed to hang in the air, waiting for someone to wake and listen to their worries spilling over. Dwalin was almost glad the King was not with them – in his current mood, such talk would probably be called treason, he feared.

“He shies away from the lads, from my touch, as though he cannot bear anyone’s presence.” Dwalin admitted, almost losing his nerve. Balin’s hand found his own, but there was little comfort to be had in the familiar touch when he longed for a different familiar hand in his. “His eyes… they are not my Thorin’s eyes. The soul that stares back at me is… changed.” For 140 years, they had been each other’s only family. Fundin was lost at Azanulbizar, as one of Thraín’s chief generals, and their mother had perished in Smaug’s attack. They had never shied away from talking about difficult topics in all their years together, but Dwalin had to force himself to choke out his next words. “I hardly recognise my One.” Balin made a soft sound, but his tacit agreement with Dwalin’s observation broke his heart. The older Fundinul reached out, pulling his younger brother close, like he had when the great warrior had been a tiny dwarfling scared of thunder, and rested his forehead softly against Dwalin’s. They both breathed quietly, seeking and giving comfort. Around them, the sound of the Company’s snores continued uninterrupted.

 


 

 

Balin had found a hidden corner in the storeroom off the Great Forges, where no one would bother him. He had retreated after Thorin’s latest rant about the continuing lack of the Arkenstone. There was little doubt in his mind, and he could feel the tears pressing behind his eyes as he had shared one more desperate glance with Dwalin. They were trying to keep their knowledge to themselves, but Glóin and Óin had also known Thrór in his final years and the resemblance between the King and his grandson was growing more and more pronounced as the time passed. Thorin never left the Treasury anymore, and although Fíli had assumed command in regards to their continued clean-up of Erebor’s late inhabitants, the King’s word remained law. Balin felt fear settle deep in his bones. Their message of victory had been answered by the Elves with one of Orc armies marching on the Mountain.

When Bilbo walked in, Balin’s tears had stilled. He liked the small Burglar, but this was a personal moment, when he finally admitted that the Dwarf he had followed for so long had ceased to be. The old dwarf quickly wiped his eyes before turning to the small Hobbit.

“Dragon-sickness,” he said slowly, “I’ve seen it before. That look. That terrible need. It is a fierce and jealous love, Bilbo. It sent his grandfather mad.” Balin sighed. Bilbo looked nervous. He seemed even more fidgety than when Balin had sent him off alone into a dragon-infested mountain, which worried the old Dwarf deeply.

“Balin, if-if Thorin...had the Arkenstone...” he stammered hesitantly. Balin shot him a considering look when the Hobbit cocked his head. In a flash of sudden insight, the canny old diplomat suddenly realized what Bilbo was implying, “...if it was found - Would it help?” Bilbo finally managed to finish his thought, but Balin would not give him false hope.

“That stone crowns all. It is the summit of this great wealth, bestowing power upon he who bears it. Will it stay his madness? No, lad; I fear it would make it worse. Perhaps it is best that it remains lost.” Balin’s sigh this time was heartfelt and almost halfway to becoming a sob. He had given up hope. Thorin’s salvation would not lie in possessing the Stone; if his old friend were to return to them, his sanity restored, it would only come through Thorin’s own will, which seemed more subsumed by the dragon-sickness with every passing hour. Bilbo smiled tightly, and the two exchanged no more words as they walked together towards the Records Room.

 


 

 

“Uncle has changed, Fíli.” Kíli muttered, when he felt his brother’s familiar presence coming up the stairs behind him. He was sitting on the ramparts above the Front Gates, watching the dead land around Erebor morosely while he smoked a pipe. He had snuck out of the Treasury, fed up with sifting through all the gold; so much wealth was curiously deadening, Kíli had found, and he had returned to the iron and dark silver clasps Thorin had made him when he came of age. Balin and Dwalin, of course, had never bothered finsing fripperies in the Treasury, but Kíli had noticed that most of the others had also returned to the serviceable but cheap trinkets they had worn on the trek across Arda. Even Dori, who was always the most polished of them, had given up the multitude of amethyst and silver beads that had decorated his hair, and returned to his normal steel and silver. Fíli could only nod and join him, pulling out his own pipe. The two brothers sat quietly, staring across the bleak landscape towards the ruins of Dale. Neither spoke for a while.

“I know, Kee.” Fíli mumbled, “But Thorin doesn’t seem to see it. I heard him yelling at Dwalin yesterday.”

“Uncle yelled at Dwalin? Like when Dwalin broke his favourite pipe?” Kíli asked. He didn’t really think it was, but he was hoping it wold be. His brother shook his head sadly, dashing Kíli’s hopes in an instant.

“No, Kee. Like Dwalin was just his guard.” Fíli frowned. “What’s that, over by Dale?” he pointed. Kíli squinted in the sunlight.

“It’s the Elves… it’s Thranduil’s army!” Kíli shouted, shading his eyes with his hand.

The two princes ran towards the Treasury.

 


 

 

Bilbo sat in one of the halls adjoining the Great Forges. His fingers fidgeted nervously with the round object in his pocket as he considered his unsettling conversation with Balin. Thorin, walking by on his way from the Throne Room to the Treasury, spotted the small movement.

“What is that?!” The King growled, moving quickly over to the smaller Hobbit. Bilbo jumped up from his seat, clenching his fist in his pocket. He looked up at the dark-haired Dwarf nervously. “In your hand!”

“It-It’s nothing.” Bilbo stammered nervously. His thumb rubbed over the smooth surface almost without thought.

“Show me.” Thorin hissed.

“It…” The Hobbit held out his hand nervously, still closed around its small burden. “I picked it up in Beorn’s garden.” He opened his fist, slowly revealing the gleaming brown shell of a large acorn.

“You’ve carried it all this way.” Thorin whispered.

“I’m going to plant it in my garden, in Bag End.” Bilbo explained softly, running a finger over the smooth surface.

Thorin smiled weakly, “That’s a poor price to take back to the Shire.” His anger faded slowly, turning into a slightly fonder expression as he looked at the small acorn. It reminded him of the sun-drenched days the Company had spent in Beorn’s Hall. Thorin himself had been in considerable pain, both physical from the Orcs’ weapons and the warg’s teeth as well as emotional anguish from the stories they had been told by the half-elf who claimed to have rescued his smallest friend from the tunnels under the Misty Mountains. He was not convinced his clever little Hobbit couldn’t have found his own way out. She had clearly been sent by Thranduil to ingratiate herself with his Company, spying on his every move.

“One day it will grow. And every time I look at it, I’ll remember - remember everything that happened, the good, the bad. How lucky I am that I made it home.” Bilbo said, eyes shiny with the thoughts of his far-away home. They smiled at each other, and, for just a moment, Thorin seemed to be looking back at him from those Durin blue eyes. Bilbo struggled to find the words, “Thorin, I...”

Suddenly, Fíli and Kíli came running, interrupting whatever Bilbo had meant to say. “Uncle, the Elvenking is here… and an army. There’s hundreds of them.” The shutters slid back behind Thorin’s blue eyes, and his smile faded instantly into a stern, uncompromising expression when a dark scowl pasted itself across his face as anger brewed in their depths. “Call everyone to the gate.” He tossed over his shoulder as he strode off towards the Treasury once more.


 

“Balin! Dwalin!” Thorin shouted. The two brothers looked up warily, hiding the uneasy glance they shared before they turned around to face their King.

“Yes, Thorin?” Balin said slowly.

“My nephews are telling me that the treacherous Elvenking is standing on or doorstep with an army!” The King scowled. “I should never have trusted that cursed half-breed and her pretty words! Thranduil knows only betrayal and deceit! We must prepare for a siege. Dwalin, find weapons and armour for everyone, Fíli, go help him. Balin, you will speak for me. Kíli, return to the Treasury. It is even more imperative now that we find the Arkenstone swiftly. If Thranduil wants a war, we will give him one!” he roared, whirling back towards the golden hoard. The four other dwarrow walked off morosely.


 

 

Standing on the rampart, Balin wanted to hide from the sight of the small group by the Front Gates. He saw Thranduil on his giant elk, in the company of Bard, Legolas, Ilsamirë, and – surprisingly – Gandalf.

“Halt!” he shouted. The group came to a stop slightly before the Gate. The Elvenking rode in front, looking up at Balin from below. Though Thranduil was as stoic as Balin had ever seen anyone be, the old advisor would have sworn he could read relief in the Elf’s ancient eyes.

“Master Balin. It is good to see that you have not all perished. Your lack of reply to our missives was worrying. My congratulations on the defeat of your foe,” Thranduil paused slightly, “may the defeat of this oncoming foe be as swift and bloodless. Tell me, where is Thorin, for we much desire to speak with him?”

“Forgive me, King Thranduil, but King Thorin is not available. He is busy searching for the Arkenstone in the Treasury.” Balin grimaced, silently wondering what in Mahal’s name he was supposed to do or say. Thorin had not given him any orders, and this sort of diplomatic dance was vastly different to the meetings he had presided over in Ered Luin. The Elvenking was as temperamental and mercurial as any Dwarf-Lord, but he was also far more cunning and powerful than any one Lord could ever hope to be. Thranduil controlled much of their future prosperity, and offending such an important ally would not be wise. The fact that Thorin refused to greet him was already a snub, and Balin knew that the Elvenking would consider it such, possibly doing irredeemable harm to their fragile alliance before it had even been properly consolidated. He sighed. In his heart, he knew that Thorin’s words as he sent him up here – ‘cursed half-breed’ and ‘treason and deceit’ – were undeniable proof that Thorin was not in his right mind. The King himself had vouched for the peredhel below, when Balin had been outraged at her inherent duplicity in concealing her parentage, to have him go back on his word so easily was troubling at best, disastrous at worst.

“Who then, will lead the Dwarrow in his stead? We shall need to discuss strategies and make preparations for the battle to come. Orcs under Azog’s command are making their way here as we speak,” Gandalf seemed to be frowning up at him, but Thranduil continued, concern coming through in his voice. “Do you have sick or injured parties? We have brought what supplies could be needed.”

 “Balin, may I enter the Mountain?” The wizard’s concerned face turned intently towards the dwarf on the battlement. Balin’s head shook slowly. Thorin would never allow that in his current state. He wished he did not have to bar the wizard. Perhaps Gandalf might have been able to halt whatever was changing Thorin so rapidly.

“I apologise Gandalf, but we are under orders not to let any outsiders into the mountain.” Balin feared that he could not hide the sour taste those words left in his mouth and Gandalf’s frown only deepened. 

“Balin, Uncle wants to talk to you,” Fíli spoke quietly from the doorway behind the old dwarf and Balin turned slightly to nod at the young Heir before facing the elves once more.

“I have to go. I am needed.” He nodded at them and disappeared back into the mountain.

 


 

“Thorin, the Elvenking wishes to speak with you.” Balin said tiredly. “Azog is marching on the Mountain.”

“I’ve no wish to speak to that mibhilkags ahrânul[135]!” Thorin growled.

“At least go see him.” Balin hesitated briefly before ploughing on, regardless, “We cannot afford to offend him, while our nascent alliance is still fragile. Tharkûn has come with him too.” You at least trusted the Wizard some, Balin thought, but did not add, knowing it would be no use with the way Thorin’s face twisted in anger at the mention of Tharkûn.

 


 

“That Wizard,” Thorin scoffed, ignoring the look on Balin’s face. “I suppose I owe him the courtesy of seeing him once before we send them off. He was of some help during our quest before he abandoned us.” Thorin strode toward the blocked off gate, calling the other Dwarrow to him.

The dwarves lay down their tools, picked up their weapons, and followed him up the stairs Bombur had created in the blockage, all the way to the ramparts at the top of the gate from which they had the best vantage point over the plain in front of the gate. They see the walls of Dale filled with Elves ready for war. Thranduil was mounted on a large Elk, stopped in front of the gate. Behind him rode Tharkûn, the Man he recognized as Bard as well as the slender Prince and the mithril-haired elleth who had wormed her way into their Company from the moment they’d met her. Thorin scowled. Dangerous snakes, the lot of them.

“Hail Thorin, son of Thraín!” Thranduil cried loudly, “We are glad to find you alive and unharmed.”

“Why do you come to the gates of the king under the mountain armed for war?” Thorin spat angrily. This was proof – if he had needed any – that Thranduil could not be trusted as an ally.

 


 

 

“Because war is coming for the Mountain, King Thorin. Azog and his spawn, Bolg, are leading an army of Orcs to kill you and the Goblins have been made their allies.” Thranduil replied simply, keeping a calm façade even as his heart twinged with the pain he could see on Rhonith’s dear face. He knew that she – like he, himself – had recognised the symptoms of gold sickness in Thorin. He spared a thought to wonder at how quickly it had infested Thorin’s mind, but it was just idle musing. The how did not matter; only the consequences did, and he could see that Thorin did not believe their dire warnings.

“Why does the king under the mountain fence himself in? Like a robber in his hole.” Bard asked, and only Thranduil’s long experience and great self-control kept him from clouting the man about the head. He saw the flash of anger that crossed Rhonith’s face before she too smoothed her features into blankness, and privately vowed that someone would teach the Bargeman diplomacy post-haste.

“Perhaps it is because I am expecting to be robbed.” Thorin shouted down, and Bard winced when the insult he had casually thrown at the Dwarf was pointed out by a very quiet Legolas. Implying that Thorin had no right to be in the Mountain and the King Returned was a mere robber and opportunist was hardly grounds for a prosperous future relationship between their two kingdoms. He opened his mouth to shape some form of apology, but the Elvenking stopped him, moving his elk slightly forwards so it blocked Bard from view of the Mountain. Legolas’ hand clamped tightly around his arm ensured that he did not even consider opening his mouth again.

“My lord - We have not come to rob you, but to give fair council and aid to our allies. Will you not speak with me?” Thranduil tried again, keeping his simmering temper from colouring his voice. He hoped it was not yet too late, that they might still be able to reach the core of the Dwarf who was Thorin, the son of Lothig, whom he had genuinely enjoyed conversing with and hosting in his Halls. He had been sceptical at first, when Sellig had called them honourable Dwarrow on a noble quest, wanted to remind her that in his eyes, honourable Dwarrow were few and far between. Thorin might be of Hanar’s stock, but he also carried Thrór’s blood, which now seemed to run stronger than that of the gentle and slightly mischievous blacksmith who had been his other grandfather. Once again, Thranduil wondered what Thorin would have been like if Thrór had died in Erebor rather than Hanar, as futile as the thought was. So much might have been different in the lives of all of Durin’s Folk, if Smaug had killed Thrór.

 

Thorin nodded, stepping away from the battlement with a hissed command at the rest of the Company, and made his way down the stairs to the base of the blockaded door. Through a cleverly designed hole in the fortification, he could see out, and speak with the treacherous elf without leaving the safety of the Mountain’s bosom.

 

Thranduil swiftly dismounted his elk, striding across the bridge towards the blockade. Above him, the Company watches silently and behind him, their allies stay quiet too. Thranduil bent slightly, looking at Thorin through the small hole. Up close, the ravages his tormented mind had already inflicted on his body were almost staggering. The intelligent blue eyes had turned darker and a cruelty of spirit lived there. Thorin’s face was carved with deep lines of grief and anger.

 

“I’m listening.” The Dwarf-King said haughtily. Above him, Kíli would ensure that the Elf-Prince did not try to shoot through the gap, and it would be stoppered once more when he had sent the treacherous bastard off again.

 

“On behalf of the people of all our lands, I ask that you join us for War Council. The Orcs are coming, Thorin, and I have no wish to see the strength of the Mountain fall into the hands of the Enemy. Will you accept our aid and alliance?” Thranduil asked once more. As he peered into the gloom of the closed-off mountain, he fought to keep his surprise from showing on his face. Thorin looked like a wholly different Dwarf to the one he had said farewell to at his own Gates more than two months before.

 

“I will not treat with any man or elf while an armed host lies before my door.” Thorin sneered, “I have no faith that your words are true; why should you help us now when you abandoned my kin to starvation and fear before? I think it far more likely that you will besiege my Mountain until I am either dead or too weak to defend it. Then you will attack, taking the treasure for your own!” his voice rose steadily as he spoke, ending in a loud shout. Outside the Gates, Thranduil showed no reaction to the accusations hurled at him.


“That armed host will defend this mountain, if we can come to terms.” Thranduil sighed. “I see Thrór in you now, Thorin, and I am saddened by the sight. Mithrandir’s warning should not be taken so lightly. My people are here; ready to lend you our aid.” He did not address the Dwarf’s accusation, for that topic had been cleared between them before, and Thranduil felt no need to rehash old arguments.

 

“Begone, snake. You may have dressed up someone to act as Gandalf, but I will not be fooled by your pathetic theatre! There are no enemies here but you and your greed!” Thorin shouted, before turning sharply on his heel and walking away from the hole. “Igjijiyê![136]” he bellowed, and the Company silently abandoned their place on the ramparts to follow the King back inside the Mountain. Bilbo cast a long look towards the four mounted figures. Gandalf did not look like an impostor to him and Bilbo fervently wished for the Wizard’s presence on the other side of the blockade. Perhaps Gandalf’s magic could help Thorin see sense.

 

“What are you doing?! You cannot offer them such insults. Thranduil was kind to us, for Ilsamirë’s sake. This is not the way to repay them. Thorin, please, you cannot go to war with the Elves.” Bilbo cried, not noticing Dwalin’s hand trying to stop him from walking up to face the King, nor Balin’s eyes, pleading for his silence.

“This does not concern you.” Thorin replied darkly, temper brewing under his skin at the Elvenking’s audacity. Bilbo’s unveiled concern only made him despise Thranduil more. To instil such fear in his smallest companion was an insult to his skill as a protector. He scowled at Bilbo.

“Excuse me?!” Bilbo cried, aghast. “In case you haven’t noticed, there is an army of elves out there. Not to mention the many – many – Orcs on the way. We-We are in fact outnumbered.” Bilbo said, fearfully looking at the dark light in Thorin’s eyes. He did not think Thranduil would attack them, but as he had once heard Legolas say, ‘What is a century to an elf but a blink of the eye? We are patient, we can wait.’ The Elves would have no need to kill them, they could let them starve with a very simple blockade, await Thorin’s death, and hope that Fíli would be more reasonable. That would probably not happen before the Orcs arrived though, but the Elves didn’t have to help them. Fear and dread, which had hovered around the edges of Bilbo’s mind ever since the Door had opened, settled firmly in his stomach. Thorin turned back, the smile on his face enough to make Bilbo whimper.

“Not for much longer.” The King said. Bilbo shook his head.

“What does that mean?” he asked, trying to mask his panic.

“It means Master Baggins, you should never underestimate dwarrow.” Thorin said calmly, turning to face the whole group. “We have reclaimed Erebor - Now we defend it!” he shouted powerfully, sweeping them all along with the feverish need that coloured his voice.

 

notes:

[135] Dishonest elf!

[136] Follow me!

Chapter Text

When the raven winged its way into her brother’s study on the morning of ‘afdehar gimonsasêkh[137], Regent Dís was not alone. With her sat Vár, thankfully as adept as her husband when it came to ledgers, Dís thought, sending a grateful thought to the Maker for sending her such a stalwart friend. Vár, who was now almost eight months pregnant  and had moved into her cousin’s house almost four months before along with her son Gimli, sighed.

“There’s a bird, Cousin,” she said quietly. She would have left her chair, but these days that was a two-man job, and Dís was closer to the window, even if her head was stuck in the big ledger that tallied the taxes that had been paid to the crown that quarter.

“A Wha’” Dís said, lifting her head to stare blearily at Vár. The pregnant dwarrowdam sighed heavily, gesturing for Dís to hand over the large tome. “A raven, dearest. At the window.” Vár pointed, before she began adding up numbers and columns at twice the speed Dís managed. Her cousin groaned.

“Thank you, sweetling. My eyes were starting to double.” Dís smiled at her cousin and friend, who shook her head, amused by the Princess almost despite herself, before she turned to the raven, “I am Dís, Uzbadnâtha Sigintarâgu.” She said solemnly. The bird bowed regally, its eyes shining with intelligence beyond the common Raven. Dís’ heart did a funny little jump in her chest when she realised where it must have come from.

“Sister, we are home!” it cawed, Thorin’s voice instantly recognisable. Vár fell off her chair. The raven looked smug – Dís was not sure ravens were capable of smugness, but this one exuded a level of smugness hitherto unparalleled by anyone aside from Nori when he could report on a plot against her sons’ lives…and hand her the braids of the plotters at the same time. Dís could not help but smile. The stories she had heard of the raven messengers of Erebor… were true. The ancient line of bahazanâsh ‘Urdul[138] did not simply deliver messages; they copied the exact voice of the sender, adding the inflections and speech patterns of that individual. This made messages very difficult to fake, which was why the Ravens were so revered among her people. The raven shot a beady eye at Vár, who was climbing to her feet with a fierce glare at the bird, and continued, “The dragon has been killed and our legacy restored to us. Much work is needed to make the Mountain a true home, but I am optimistic. Oh, Dís, I wish you were here to see its splendour with me as I rediscover all our old haunts. Everyone is well; Fíli and Kíli send their love.” Dís did not care that tears were rolling down her cheeks, Vár herself had suspiciously wet cheeks too when she caught her up in a bone-cracking hug. Dís winced slightly; Glóin’s wife was certainly stronger than many, the result of a life working stone when she wasn’t out with the trade caravans. The raven preened; proud that it had remembered the long message correctly.

“This calls for a celebration,” Dís said, before hollering for Gimli. The red-headed lad came running, having learnt over the past few months that Dís’ hollers were not to be ignored on pain of, well, pain; most likely delivered in a sparring match that left him feeling decidedly like a green recruit with the amount of times he landed on his arse. “Gimli! Fetch the bards, fetch the lords, fetch everyone! We’re going home!” the exuberance in the room was such that Dís couldn’t help but picking up Gimli’s shorter form, though she wisely stayed away from Vár, whose stink eye made her think better of the impulse instantly. Instead she turned to the Raven once more. “How long did it take you to fly here?” the bird tilted its head, peering searchingly at the dwarf-lady.

“Roäc, son of Cärc, taught Ribril what you two-legs call a week.” It said, thinking some more. “Two of two-leg weeks and one night Ribril has flown since Ribril left home-nest.” It finally said, nodding to itself. Dís nodded once, running into her kitchen and rummaging loudly before returning with a small reward for the Raven.

“Can you take a message back to the Mountain?” Dís asked quietly, after Gimli had run off to spread the word. The raven lifted its head from the bowl of raw goat meat that she had set before it. It cawed once.

“Ribril, daughter of Roäc, will speak your words, Dwarf-Lady.” When she used her own voice, Ribril’s pitch was higher than any Dwarf could claim, and yet her imitation was such that she could mimic both Thorin’s deep voice and Dís’ own alto when she repeated back her words:

“Nadad, good news indeed. Give my love to all of you. Preparations will start at once. Send back a raven with a full report of what you need and I will tell you when the first caravans leave. You’d better not be married before I get there!”

“Can I add something?” Vár said, looking up from the ledger she had been writing in carefully. The raven bowed. “Will you tell my husband, Glóin Grórul that he will be a father once again before he can make it home, but that I expect him to arrive with all due haste to help me move our family.” With another loud caw, Ribril repeated both their messages, even including Vár’s deadpan tones. When Dís nodded, the raven flew off with another bow.

“You know…” she said, grinning mischievously at Vár, who returned the grin gamely.

“Yes, Cousin?”

“I really wish I could see Glóin’s face when that message is delivered.” Dís crowed, feeling like a much younger Dwarrowdam up to mischief with her friends. Vár smirked smugly.

“Yes… so would I.” Vár said, her voice trembling with the force of holding back her laughter. When she caught Dís’ eyes, her self-control failed and the two dwarrowdams burst into loud peals of laughter, slightly tinged with hysterical relief at the news that their far-away loved ones were safe.

 


 

A young Dwarf running through Thorinuldûm was not an uncommon sight; often it was one of Athalrún’s brood, though most mothers let their Dwarflings run around freely in the better areas of the settlement. The darker outskirts, where Thorinuldûm backed onto the ancient ruins of Belegost, were off-limits for anyone who had the sense to stay away, as it was the territory of the King of Thieves more than the King of Durin’s Folk.

There wasn’t actually a King of Thieves, the Black Owl had assured the Royals, though, by necessity, the one who was called the Shadow-man had a lot of power behind his words among the less lawful inhabitants of Ered Luin. No one knew his real Outer-name, which among criminals was guarded almost as closely as the Inner-name, but he was one of the best thieves in the mountains.

As he ran, Gimli spread his news to everyone he met, whether he knew them or not, and soon the cry was taken up by many voices as Dwarrow poured into the streets in an impromptu celebration:

“Erebor has been reclaimed!”

 


 

 

“Is it true?” When a breathless Athalrún burst into Dís’ kitchen, the Princess could not help but smile. Athalrún’s cheeks were flushed with colour and her eyes sparkled with hope. In her arms, little Bomba slept peacefully, one hand curled around the braid in her Amad’s beard.

“Aye, ‘tis,” Vár muttered, concentration clear on her face as she worked to ensure that Dís’ hair was impeccably plaited. With a joyous cry, Athalrún danced around the kitchen, waking her daughter with her laughter.

“You hear that, kafnith[139]? Your Adad is alive and well!” the pebble, too young to do much beside blink and smile still seemed to reflect her mother’s happiness. Dís chuckled.

“Thorin’s message said only that the dragon is dead and our kin are well in Erebor. I expect an extensive report with his next raven, however.” Athalrún nodded, but her thoughts were obviously half a world to the east, with her beloved husband and those she considered brothers.

“The dwarflings!” She suddenly gasped. “I have to tell my children!” with that, she flew out of the building once more. Behind her, the Princess laughed at Vár’s expression.

“That’s the most excited I have ever seen your friend, cousin. Not even at the birth of her daughter did she smile so brilliantly.” Vár said, shaking her head and releasing Dís’ dark locks.

“Athalrún is not a dam to wear her heart on her sleeve, cousin,” Dís rebuked gently. “She was happy at Bomba’s birth, but her joy was marred by the absence of those who should have been a part of it. She is not like you or I, used to going for months without news. To my knowledge, none of the ‘Urs have been gone from Thorinuldûm for longer than a fortnight since the birth of Bolbur. Do not begrudge her the joy of knowing her kin are safe.”

“And those three – aside from Bifur, I guess – are not exactly warriors. I suppose Athalrún’s fears were well-founded. At least we know that those we send out have a high probability of surviving the dangers of the world.” Vár sighed. “I will still sleep better when my Glóin is back in my bed. You know, I miss his snoring.” At that statement, Vár looked so disgruntled that her cousin could not help the laughter that tumbled from her throat.

“Miss Glóin’s snoring?!” she hooted, almost falling off her seat at the kitchen table. Vár scowled.

“I know!” Shaking her head, the dark-skinned dam tugged on one of the braids she had just put in Dís’ beard. “Fit to wake giants, my Glóin, but I miss it all the same. It’s maddening.” Dís’ tears of laughter eventually subsided into watery chuckles. Since Vár and Gimli had moved in, her large house seemed less quiet, but she also found herself listening for the familiar sound of Dwalin and Thorin snoring when she got up at night for a cup of water and feeling oddly bereft when she caught herself doing so. Shaking off her sudden melancholy, Dís turned back to Vár.

“So, how do you want your braids for the feast?”

 


 

 

The feasting that night was glorious. Dís had – in solidarity with Vár, who felt queasy from the taste of ale, which the Dwarrowdam had bemoaned in a very long soliloquy – stayed sober, but she had enjoyed watching her people revel in the news of their returned home. Athalrún had been at Vár’s other side, holding little Bomba as she calmly watched her children run about the Common Hall which had been turned into an impromptu ballroom. Her eyes were peaceful, for the first time since she had watched her family set off for the Shire, the shadows that haunted her gaze banished with deep joy. The small pebble slept through most of the proceedings, and Dís felt a stab of longing for the days when her own sons had been small. She permitted herself to wonder how much they would have changed when she saw them again, her golden boy with his father’s smile and her Thorin copy with Frerin’s easy grin. With Erebor reclaimed, the loads on her sons’ shoulders would weigh far heavier than the duties of the Exiled King’s Heirs, she knew, but Dís was confident that her boys would manage. They had raised them well, turned them into dwarrow to be proud of, even if they were nothing like her father or grandfather. Her boys emulated Thorin, which was not always a good thing, in Dís’ mind, but rather a grouchy Uncle as a role model for the future rulers of Durin’s Folk than a mad grandfather or a meek father who avoided anything to do with governing, like she and Thorin had had, she felt. Thorin had always recognised his responsibility, not only to her and their Amad, but also to their entire Folk, and though she had screamed at him when he proposed to take back the Arkenstone and Erebor, had called him all the names in the book plus a few more for good measure, she was proud of his daring to try. She was even prouder that he had succeeded, and participated gladly in the many toasts to her brother’s name that dotted the festivities. Her cup contained nothing stronger than a weak apple cider she had been gifted by one of her traders. It was Hobbit made, and quite tasty she had to admit.

“My Lady, when will the first caravans set off for Erebor?” the oily voice of Lord Sviurr, slithering into her ear from over her shoulder brought Dís abruptly out of her thoughts. Sviurr, one of Glóin’s competitors – Dís tried not to let that affect her view of the Dwarf, though Sviurr’s personality made it difficult for her to remember that she should treat her subjects equally. Vár, however, had no such problem.

“Tonight is for feasting, Sviurr,” she snapped, making Athalrún look up, startled out of watching her eldest, Bolbur, trying to teach his sister Fjelarún the steps of the Aznân’af. Bolbur, for all that he looked like brawn on two legs, was surprisingly graceful when he moved. Fjelarún, a tiny thing with her mother’s brown curls and very little beard, hopped round her brother, looking like a confused bird but her glowing smile warmed Dís’ heart as she followed Athalrún’s eyes, letting Vár fend off the first attack from the hounds. “Not for thinking about lining the pockets of experienced caravan leaders.” She huffed. When Sviurr pranced away in a stormy mood, Vár grinned unrepentantly at Dís. “Especially because I’ve already secured Ginnar and Nýr for your caravan, my ladies. I will be remaining in Ered Luin until the pebble is strong enough to travel,” she patted her bulging belly, “but I will ensure that you arrive as soon as possible.”

“I appreciate it, Cousin,” Dís couldn’t help but smile. Vár’s deviousness was a force to be reckoned with, and she could only be thankful that the Blacklock dam employed her wiles in Dís’ favour. “We will need to begin writing up those who will be in the first wave of re-settlers. I’m sure we’ll need plenty of craftsmen to ensure Erebor is safe once more.”

“You’ll need those few who have experience with food growing, too,” Athalrún said quietly. “And guards. Erebor is a realm unknown to many as anything but the legends of treasure. Many eyes will turn to the Mountain with greed and avarice.”

“Will you be joining us, then, Athalrún?” Dís asked. Even if Bomba was now five months old, Dís was not sure she would have dared travel with a pebble that young.

“Myself and all my children, along with all we can carry from both our and Bofur and Bifur’s house,” Athalrún replied, calmly wiping Borkur’s food-stained face when the dwarfling scampered past with a gaggle of his age-mates. “I planned it with the Urs before they all left. If they were successful, we would leave Ered Luin for good, Dís, and I do not intend to be parted from my husband nor leave my children without their father for a day longer than I have to. We will be going with you. Bolbur and Blidarún are old enough to be of some help, and Blákur will help me keep an eye on Fjelarún and Borkur. Our wagon is already made, and Bifur carved many chests in preparation all through last winter. We shall be able to leave in less than a week, my Lady.” Athalrún nodded, smiling easily. Dís gaped. Even she, arguably the one closest to Thorin aside from Dwalin, had not had that much faith in her brother’s success.

“Is Bomba not too young for travelling?” Vár asked curiously. The pebble was currently asleep, swaddled in her blankets on Athalrún’s lap.

“No. Bolbur was actually born on the road. Hobbits do not bear their young as long as Dwarrow, which was a surprise with him. He came out fully grown about three moons before the time the Healers had said,” Athalrún grinned, caressing Bomba’s round cheek. “I had him strapped to my chest for the rest of our journey. It was meant to be my last caravan job before my laying-in, but I gave birth two weeks outside the Blue Mountains. We were passing a Man’s village at the time and their midwife taught me a way of wrapping a long piece of cloth about myself that will not unravel and will hold the pebble securely while I walk. Bomba will be snug and warm for our journey.”

“I can see you will put me to shame, Lady Athalrún,” Dís laughed, while Vár giggled beside her, “Your industry is to be commended. I say we leave in two weeks with the first wave, and let those who remain behind leave in spring. The journey will be arduous in the deep of winter, but I find I am anxious to leave, to see my sons.”

“We will not, Lady Dís. Vár will need us ere long, but I doubt her pebbles will come for a month yet. We shall leave when they are born.” Next to Dís, Vár was gaping. Though she had made friends with the oft-quiet blacksmith, she had not assumed that Athalrún thought so highly of her as to put off her reunion with her own family to help Vár increase hers.

“That is kind of you, Athalrún,” Vár said hoarsely, choking back the sudden attack of emotion before it swept her off her feet.

“We have been together all these long months, watching your children grow heavier. You were there for me, when my Bombur could not; I shall do no less for you.” Athalrún said with quiet certainty.

“True. So be it, Cousin,” Dís smiled, happy that her two friends were becoming the close friends she knew they could be. Vár, especially, did not have many friends outside Glóin’s relations, and Dís had never considered that she might have needed some before the Quest had made leftovers of them all, drifting in their daily lives while waiting for news. “The Fellowship of Dwarrowdams Remaining Behind shall tarry a little longer in Ered Luin.”

The three of them laughed. The little nickname had been the result of a drunkenly celebratory Dís – who had been enticed to drink for three – on the night of Bomba’s birth. In the midst of her raving about absentee fathers and other relations, Dís had had a stroke of inspiration and drunkenly declared Vár and Athalrún her Company, nay Fellowship – and obviously far superior to Thorin’s bloody Company. Athalrún, exhausted in bed, but glowing with gentle happiness had simply smiled at Dís, who was drunkenly cooing at her new daughter, and shared a conspiratorial grin with Vár. Neither of them would ever let Dís live down the moment she declared herself Leader of the Fellowship of Dwarrowdams Remaining Behind, Manaddadâna Khazdâna Binganugâl Ôra.[140]

 


 

 

In the morning, Dís made the announcement that she would be leaving on the 15th of ‘afdush[141], five days before the start of the Yule Feasts, and that those who wished to join the caravan could sign up immediately. The Princess estimated that they would be travelling for at least four turns of the moon, and although Vár had already begun hiring the best trackers and hunters, those going should prepare themselves for living on rations and bringing as much food along as they could carry. Families would be responsible for their own belongings, but those who wished to seek employ as guards should report to Álfífa, Dwalin’s Second-in-command and the Shumrozbid in his absence.

 

 

notes:

[137] 18th day of Anvil Moon ~ November 16

[138] Ravens of the Lonely Mountain. Azsâlul’abad is the Khuzdul name for the Lonely Mountain, but those who live there call it ‘Urd, when speaking of the actual Mountain itself and say ‘Urd’ek, when referring to the Halls inside the Mountain. The compound for raven is Friend-Bird, because of the long history of friendship between the two races.

[139] Young carving, nickname

[140] Fellowship(They, females, who continue to accompany) of Dwarrowdams (those that are) Staying Behind. Here there’s an error in Dwarrowscholar’s dictionary, for the GNG radicals are listed as going, with bin-GNG as the verb for to stay/remain(location, not remain as in opposite of change), while ganugâl is listed as those who are stayers, which should be those who are goers.

[141] December 13th

Chapter Text

The morning after their first futile attempt to make Thorin Oakenshield see sense, Captain Bronwe sent out most of his scouts. While Elves were capable of incredible patience compared to mortal races, Silvans in general felt better when they were in motion, working towards a clear goal. To that end, he also sent off several groups to act as hunters for the army, as well as a group of twenty elves out to find firewood. The Dragon’s corpse, which had been attempted burned, had obviously not been burned properly, and the Dwarrow had been content to ignore the half-burnt rotting meat that still clung to the charred bones. It was enough to make most people sick, if they stood downwind of it, and Thranduil had demanded that the dragon be seen to immediately. The only way to keep whatever malevolent forces had inhabited the flesh from seeping into the soil and poisoning the desolation for years to come was to burn it properly, and plough the ashes into the land. In a way, it was poetic justice that Smaug’s ashes would be used to renew and revitalise the farmlands he had turned to ashes so many years before, the Captain felt, and he had made it his first priority to ensure that the corpse was reduced to ash as quickly as possible. They had not brought firewood beyond that used for camp- and cook-fires, so the wood-gathering expedition was necessary. Given their reluctance to cut down their beloved trees, the expedition needed to range far, across the desolation and back to Mirkwood itself, most likely, but needs must. With them went Dúmon, his youngest son, while Cúnir was leading one of the hunting groups. Bronwe’s oldest son, Amathanar, who was missing his best friend Magoldir for sparring, had been put in charge of running drills with the Men of Laketown. Prince Legolas wasn’t wrong to point out that many of them had little idea about fighting anything but fish, and indeed most of them were armed with fishing spears and other sundry tools-turned-weapons. In Bronwe’s mind, the drills were mostly a way of keeping the Men busy and out of the way – particularly the Master, who had been given the ‘important’ task of overseeing the exercise; a position of seeming importance, but where he could do no actual harm to either the army or the negotiation process with Thorin Oakenshield.

 


 

 

Seeing the mountain of dragonflesh go up in flames was immensely satisfying, Legolas thought, though his joy did not seem to be shared by Rhonith, whose face was somehow shadowed as she stood beside Thranduil and watched the great beast consigned to the pyre.

“Its destruction saddens you,” Thranduil said quietly, finding her hand cold to the touch. On his other side, Legolas stiffened.

“Should we not always mourn the destruction of something that could have been magnificent?” she replied, gazing sadly at the flames that leapt higher against the darkening of the night sky. “I have seen the pictures the Sandwalkers of Far Harad draw, heard the legends they tell of the beautiful drakes that once lived in the red deserts… and now I have witnessed the end of their last descendant. Yes, Atheg, I am saddened. But, I am also angry. Angry that this was necessary, angry that this being was twisted so far from Illuvatar’s original plan that his destruction was inevitable. There will never be another dragon in Arda – good or bad – and I think we should all consider ourselves slightly poorer for it.” With that, she spun on her heel and stalked away from the firepit and the corpse within. Legolas stared after her with a slight frown marring the serenity of his face.

 


 

 

Legolas’ unit had not been assigned scouting duty – he knew Bronwe was trying to be kind given their recent loss, but he wanted the distraction and distance while he sorted out his thoughts – but they volunteered to do patrolling close by the camp when Legolas asked. He knew that Erfaron, who knew him best of all of them, and who sometimes seemed to see more for the fact that he could not speak, probably guessed that he was avoiding something but the hunter did not pry, for which Legolas was grateful. Though he considered all the members of his group friends, none of them held the same position in his heart as Alphel had occupied for over 2500 years, knowing most of his inner thoughts. His current emotional turmoil made him miss her fiercely, the gently mocking tone she would have used to cheer him up a cover for her genuine concern. He hadn’t always appreciated her humour, but Alphel had had a way of making him spill all his secrets even if he hadn’t intended to do so, and Legolas wished he could talk through the thoughts swirling in his mind with her once more. Alphel would have been able to make sense of his head, he knew, but the Alphel in his memory did not help much, even when he tried to imagine what she would say. Possibly she’d simply have dragged him off to the archery runs and competed with him until they were both beyond worn out, quiet the clamour in his head that way. That was not an option, however, and so Legolas sought exhaustion elsewhere, and running patrols around their perimeter was a good use of his energy. Arastor and Tuilinthel had gone out with the hunters, and Thalawen was confined to camp duties even though she had been allowed to come along for a chance at revenge on the Orcs that had killed her hervenn. Legolas had assumed that Erfaron would have gone out with the hunters too, being one of the best trackers they had, but the silent ellon was staying by Curulhénes, which was probably Magoldir’s doing, the Prince thought. Bronwe’s Lieutenant was very protective of his little sister, and as he had been left behind to handle the guard of the Woodland Realm itself, it made sense that he would have asked his gwador to look after her. When the four of them – Faindirn, having joked himself quite far onto the bad side of Alfirin who was leading the scouting teams, had been demoted to camp watch post and jumped at the chance to go out with his usual unit – left camp, the sun had barely kissed the clouds above their heads with the colours of dawn. They did not return until the veil of night had covered the world for hours already, though they had seen no enemies nor anything else noteworthy. The time had not been entirely wasted, however, as it had allowed Legolas to think freely, even if he still did not have any real answers.

 


 

 

Every morning, Thranduil would ride to the Mountain – the Elven camp was situated a respectful distance away; close enough to be used defensively in case of an attack, but not so close that the King under the Mountain could claim that they were besieging him. Not that this kept Thorin from stating that very claim, loudly and with great vehemence, on the one occasion he deigned to appear after the first disastrous meeting. Thranduil was using all his available patience to stay calm in the face of Thorin’s vitriol, but it was taking its toll on him, even if he only let the façade drop late at night when only Legolas, Rhonith, or Bronwe was there to see. A strong leader was necessary to keep up morale in any fighting force, Oropher had taught his son, and it was a lesson Thranduil heeded well.

 


 

 

Returning from another morning trip to the Gates of Erebor, where an increasingly harried-looking Balin had once more met him with Thorin’s refusals, Thranduil threw himself angrily into his chair when he entered his tent. Being seen acting so petulantly would never do, of course, but his tent was abandoned by all and sundry. Or… so he thought.

“Frustrated, Atheg?” Rhonith said calmly, from where she had been hidden behind the screen that separated his own bed from the main room of the tent. She splashed slightly. From the main room of the tent came Thranduil’s heartfelt sigh.

“I envy your calm, sellig. I don’t think I could relax enough to enjoy a bath at the moment.” He scowled at the cloth ceiling. Her light laughter rang through the space.

“I am taking a bath in an attempt to relax and let go of my anger, though I am afraid it is proving rather ineffectual.” Sinking deeper into the tub – the Elvenking always travelled in style, and Galion had ensured that many amenities, such as bath sponges and indeed the tub itself – had been brought along. The calming scent of lavender oil infused the air around her, but it did little to soothe her temper.

“Sometimes, I wish you had never met the Company, Sellig,” Thranduil said wryly, pouring a glass of wine. His arm appeared around the screen, offering her a second goblet, which Rhonith accepted eagerly, uncaring that it was not even noon yet. She sighed, sipping the smooth drink slowly. “If you had never met them, you would be safely in Imladris by now, and one of our patrols would have come across Oakenshield in the depths of Mirkwood, most likely stumbling around aimlessly.” Thranduil continued his thought experiment. “Then, he would probably have attacked my people, or – at the very least – been rude and combative, and I would have had no compunctions whatsoever about tossing him and his Company into the dungeons.”

“And what would you have done with the Dwarrow in your dungeons?” Rhonith laughed, but with the way things stood, perhaps Thorin would have been better off being a guest of Mirkwood indefinitely.

“Well, kept their leader from going mad with the influence of a dead dragon, obviously!” Thranduil said, exasperated. “No, I suppose I’d have kept them only until Mithrandir arrived, and then that troublemaker would have either freed them or convinced me to let them go,” he sighed. “To think that the son of our Lothig would hate us as much as the King under the Mountain currently claims he does… it is staggering.”

“I do not wish to think on it, myself. That is not my sister’s child, Atheg. That is a stranger who has stolen his face. Speaking of children of my sister, do you know what is wrong with Legolas?” The fact that she found it necessary to ask the question stung, but not as much as watching him almost run in the opposite direction whenever he caught a glimpse of her.

“Wrong with Legolas?” The frown was evident in his voice, and Rhonith smiled gently. Even when he was distracted with a daydream of an imprisoned Thorin being the target of his ire, rather than the other way around, the Elvenking cared about his children.

“He is avoiding me, and I cannot figure out why,” she clarified. “I have not spoken to him since he followed me to the river on the day of our arrival.”

“I haven’t noticed anything troubling my son, Rhonith, aside from the worry that seems to be haunting all of us… I will keep an eye on him.” Rhonith sighed at that, but Thranduil did not say anything else on the topic.

“Well, if you see him, would you ask him to speak to me? I want to apologise for whatever it is I’ve done to offend him so.” Giving up her bathing exercise as futile when she was so wound up from worry and stress, Rhonith got to her feet and climbed out of the slightly-too-tall tub. Slipping a robe over her shoulders and wrapping a towel around her hair, she grabbed her unfinished wine and went to join the Elvenking for a midday snack.


“Master Baggins, come here!” Thorin called loudly. Bilbo startled, but came up, seeing Thorin holding up a tunic of whiteish mail. It was too small and short for a Dwarf, but it would be just right for the slimmer shape of a Hobbit after months of travel rations. “You are quick on your feet, Master Baggins, but you are vulnerable. If we are to go to war, you need more protection than that little letter opener can provide. Put it on.” Bilbo began removing his jacket, looking at Thorin doubtfully. The idea of armour was not something he had contemplated before, and it was far from his Hobbit-mind to think of any need for metal protection. “This vest is made of silver steel - “Mithril” it was called by the Elves. In Khuzdul it is called sanzigil, true silver. It was the most prized metal mined in Khazad-dûm.” He held up the shirt, measuring it against Bilbo for size. With a nod, he held it towards the hobbit, letting Bilbo slide it over his head. “No blade can pierce it, but it is light and supple as cloth.” Bilbo finished settling the metal shirt over his chest, Thorin and the rest of the Company watched. The Dwarrow all knew that Bilbo did not understand the value of what he had been given, but he had earned it. Finding the Keyhole was no mean feat, and there was his heroic defence of Thorin to consider, not to mention his role in riddling with the dragon. Bilbo looked down at himself. He smiled wryly, looking up and catching Bofur’s eye. The miner’s grin did not falter and Bilbo shrugged helplessly.

“I look absurd. I’m not a warrior; I’m a Hobbit.” He said, beginning to pull the mithril mail over his head. Thorin’s large hands stopped him, settling on the Hobbit’s slim shoulders.

“It is a gift. A token of our friendship. True friends are hard to come by.” Thorin smiled fondly at the short Burglar, but then he shot a twitchy gaze towards the rest of the Company and dragged Bilbo off by the shoulder. When the two had reached another hallway, well out of earshot, Thorin began pacing agitatedly. Bilbo watched him with a mounting sense of worry making his guts swirl. “I have been blind.” Thorin began, sounding far away, “Now I begin to see. I am betrayed!” His fit hit the wall hard.

“Betrayed?” Bilbo asked, his unease growing rapidly. Why was Thorin telling him this, rather than Balin or Dwalin? Whatever the reason, it did not bode well, the Hobbit thought.

“The Arkenstone.” Thorin explained, blue eyes burning even in the dim light of the hallway. He moved with an oddly serpentine grace towards the small hobbit. Bilbo looked uncomfortable, but Thorin did not seem to notice. “One of them has taken it.” He hissed into Bilbo’s ear. The Hobbit could not hold back his sigh of relief, even as he pressed himself against the stonewall. “One of them is false.” Thorin whispered.

“Thorin...the quest is fulfilled.” Bilbo tried to defuse Thorin’s anger, “You did it, and no one will deny it. You’ve won the mountain. Is that not enough? Your people can return to their home. You are King without the stone.”

“Betrayed by my own kin.” Thorin hissed, eyes flashing.

“No, eh...You...You made a promise...to Thranduil and the people of Laketown. You swore to share this wealth, to make the North prosperous again. Is-Is this treasure truly worth more than your honour? Our honour, Thorin. We were all there, too.” Bilbo tried to marshal his thoughts in a way that would appeal to Thorin’s stubborn pride. If Bilbo had realized anything about his Dwarrow companions, it was that their honour and their sworn words mattered more than gold… or at least it had.

“For that I’m grateful. It was nobly done. But the treasure in this mountain does not belong to the people of Laketown or the treacherous Elvenking Thranduil! This gold...is ours...and ours alone. By my life, I will not part with a single coin! Not...one...piece of it!” As Thorin spoke, his voice grew steadily deeper until it reached an almost Smaug-like timbre. The last line, which was exactly a repeat of what Smaug had previously said to Bilbo, truly scared him. In the Hobbit’s mind, it was incontrovertible proof that Thorin was mentally affected by the dragon’s curse, and Bilbo could only stare at him in shock as the other dwarves, dressed in new armour, strode by the other end of the hallway.


 

“You’ve been avoiding me, Legolas.” At the words, the Elven Prince stiffened. The accusation was not unjustified; he had been avoiding her for days. He leaned against the crumbling watchtower on the wall of Dale where she had at last tracked him down, out of sight of the army, though not so far away as to be considered reckless. He sighed. As he turned, however, she surprised him. “I’m sorry, Glasseg,” she said, putting her hand on his forearm like she so often did, and he was shocked to see her eyes shine with the beginnings of tears. “I did not mean to hurt you by speaking of the Queen’s departure,” she continued sadly, and he almost wanted to laugh that she had thought him upset by the reminder of his naneth’s absence.

“No,” he sighed, squeezing her hand where it rested on his arm, interrupting her unnecessary apology. “I’m the one who apologises.”

“I forgive you for running away from me for four days,” she smiled, but her eyes remained sad and he shook his head slowly.

“No, though I apologise for that too. I’m sorry she made you stay on these shores if you would rather have left with her. I’m sorry that she bound you here – with us – while you long to be West of the Sea.” He had never spoken words more difficult, he thought, not even saying his final goodbye to Alphel, but when they left his lips the words seemed to lift a weight from his shoulders he had not known he was carrying. Her laughter shocked him, but not as much as the gentle kiss she pressed against his brow, standing on tiptoes to reach.

“Oh, Legolas, don’t you see?” her blue eyes were lightened again, with the happiness and joy he had always loved seeing, ever since the first time he had met her as a small elfling. “Gwathel-nîn knew that I would never have been happy going with her. Avornien went, but she had no true family here, and none she would miss as much as I would miss you and my mother’s kin. She made me swear to stay, not for your sake, nor for Thranduil’s, not entirely. She did that for me; she did it so I would feel less guilty for leaving her to sail alone. She knew me – better than I knew myself at times – and she knew that if I had gone, I would have forever longed to return, until the despair of it killed me. This,” she gestured to the ground beneath them, the land around them, “this is my home; this is where I was born, and this is where I will end, I believe.” Her smile dimmed slightly, but Legolas could not scrub his horrified expression quickly enough to keep it on her face.

“You’re not going to die.” He wouldn’t let her. The vehement statement brought her laughter back to life once more, and earned him the squeeze of her fingers around his.

“I have no intention of dying just yet, Glasseg,” she smiled warmly, and for a moment he almost believed it. Then his old dreams swarmed back into his mind, once more picturing all the myriad ways she might lose her life during one of her adventures. She had turned away from him once more, however, and did not catch the dark grimace that twisted his face for a second. Jumping lithely down from the wall, she beckoned him to follow. It was almost time for evening meal , he knew, and, in a single graceful leap, he departed his watch post to walk beside her back towards the camp.

 


 

 

Nori felt doom approaching. He could see it in Dori’s eyes; his sister knew it too. It was only a matter of time before Thorin openly declared one of them a traitor; a thief of the Arkenstone, and odds were on Nori as the most likely culprit. No matter how long he had served as the Black Owl, Nori was a known thief, and Thorin would never believe him innocent, even if the Stone was not found among his possessions. Dori had, in a fit of fear, tried to make him run, but Nori knew that there was nowhere to run. If he left, Thorin would see it as an admission of guilt, and at the very least, Nori would be hunted down. He shuddered at the thought of what this mad version of his otherwise decent King would do to Dori and Ori, if Nori were to escape. He had told Dori that escaping the Lonely Mountain would be easy, and it would be, but if he did, how long before Thorin cast his eyes on someone else? How long before Nori’s siblings were thought to be traitors too? He had watched the realisation happen in Dori’s eyes, and the tight hug she gave him afterwards spoke clearly. There was nothing they could do but wait and watch events unfold, the pieces had already been tossed, and only time would reveal how they were scattered. Nori had never taken much stock in the tossing of runes to divine the future, but he would have given almost anything to know that there was light ahead of them, that this darkness that had seeped into their midst could be chased away by the brightness of new hope. Beyond that, however, Nori was a practical Dwarf, and though he had given up being anywhere near the Treasury for fear of Thorin’s violent temper – Nori was a great believer in out of sight, out of mind, even if it didn’t always work – and spent a lot of his time roaming the empty halls of Erebor, or sitting on the ramparts, smoking. Watching the Elven camp was dull in the extreme, but watching the Desolation was even worse. Dori had showed him the place where their house had once stood – their parents’ house at any rate – and Nori had spent some time digging through the rubble left behind by the destruction of the Lower Commons

 


Bilbo found Nori on the ramparts, watching the Elves scurrying about their camp. He did not know much military strategy, but even the hobbit could tell that they had been ordered into defensible camps, surrounded by hastily built watchtowers. Each section of the main camp had been fenced by long mounds of dirt, topped by sharpened branches. His heart was tearing itself in two trying to keep the secret of the Arkenstone’s location. After the arrival of the Elves, Thorin’s manic frenzy in the Treasury had only increased. He watched the other Dwarrow like a hawk as they combed through the gold. Bilbo saw the looks of exhaustion and fear on his friends’ faces, but none of them dared speak against Thorin. Even Nori, who had never had a problem with defying authority, kept silent.

“Will Thranduil attack us?” Bilbo asked quietly. Nori chuckled low in his throat and shook his head.

“If Thorin pisses him off too far, he might besiege the Mountain, I guess,” Nori snorted, “But look at the way the defences are built.” He pointed towards the busy camp. The Elves were running drills with the Men. Bilbo didn’t know what he was supposed to be seeing, but he trusted Nori’s interpretation. “Thranduil is expecting an attack, but not from us. He defences are faced west and north, which tells me that his warning about Orcs coming from Dol Guldur is true. If he expected to go to war with Dwarrow, he would put his defences differently. Expecting us to receive reinforcements from Dáin, he would guard his East flank. If Thorin would bother to look, he would see that Thranduil’s actions support his story. I know that Dwalin and Balin have both seen what I see,” he sighed, “Even the princes can see it. We are running out of hope here. We cannot hold the mountain indefinitely without aid, and when the Orcs come, we will eventually fall without the Elves’ protection.”

“Thorin will come around.” Bilbo did not even believe his own words, and Nori’s crooked smile showed that he was equally unconvinced of the possibility. Instead of replying, he pulled out his pipe and began stuffing it silently. The smoke curled through the cool morning air. Bilbo sighed, pulling out his own pipe and stuffing it solemnly.

“I miss Old Toby,” he sighed, watching his exhaled puffs mingle with Nori’s and letting the taste of the Lakemen’s pipe-weed fill his lungs. The two shared a comfortable silence, as the sun climbed higher into the sky.

“If I wanted to travel West this time of year, I’d go south, find a caravan, probably going through the Gap of Rohan.” Nori began, when his pipe was almost finished, “maybe winter in Rivendell, Lord Elrond seemed fond of your kind.” He stood, squeezing Bilbo’s shoulder before he turned to leave. “Just something to think about, Master Baggins.” With a whistle, the Thief left the Burglar alone, juggling a knife as he walked down the stairs. Bilbo kept staring towards the blackened ruins of Dale.


That night, under the cover of the clouds that had rolled in to block out the moon and stars, a small figure crept onto the ramparts. Throwing a rope over the edge, securing it in a convenient crevice with a grappling hook he had found in an old armoury, the small shadow quickly climbed down the grey mountainside. The landscape seemed intent on tripping his large feet, the ground littered with hollows and treacherous branches. Here and there, pockets of ice made the journey more dangerous and forced him to move slowly.


Rhonith was sleeping on the cot pushed against the wall of the tent; she had given up the meeting as futile more than an hour before. Legolas sat at the table, sipping Dorwinion as the generals talked endless circles, rehashing the same strategies over and over. He envied the sleeping elleth. Rhonith was not formally part of the command structure – like he was – and she had the luxury of bowing out of the tedious repetitiveness. There were only so many plans they could make with the little information they had. No scouts had found the Orc armies, and without Thorin’s permission, Thranduil would not post archers on the Mountain’s ridges. He remembered some of the defences the paranoid King Thrór had built in his adamant desire to protect his treasure and had no desire to trip them inadvertently. Without Thorin’s permission, they could not see Thrór’s schematics, and so they were forced to make plans to defend the valley before the Front Gates without the tactical advantage of higher ground.

“My Lord, we’ve caught an intruder.” Bronwe stuck his head through the opening of Thranduil’s command tent, interrupting another frustrating strategy session. The Elvenking raised his head from where it had been resting in his hand.

“An envoy from the Mountain? I did not think Thorin would change his mind.” Thranduil said quietly. With a wave, he dismissed the other commanders – who looked as bored as his son – to their rest.

“He won’t.” A new voice said from the doorway, as the Elven commanders filed past. “Thorin will not change his mind, and the Dwarrow will fight to the death for the people they love. They will stand by their King.”

“Little One…” Thranduil mused, staring at the exhausted-looking hobbit, whose cheerful face had been marred by unsightly lines of worry and fear since they had last seen him. Even in the brief glimpses of the Company they had caught on their first day at the Gates, Master Baggins had not looked this haggard. “And why are you here? Do you have a message for me?” A glance at Captain Bronwe conveyed his orders, and the Captain of the Guard immediately left to find something for the hobbit to eat. Steepling his fingers under his chin, Thranduil turned his gaze upon Bilbo, who fidgeted slightly. Thranduil frowned. Gandalf’s hand landed on Bilbo’s shoulder.

“Bilbo Baggins!” The wizard exclaimed. “I am exceedingly happy to see you, my friend.” The Hobbit visibly steeled himself before replying shakily.

“I have no message. They don’t know I’m gone. I came to,” he gulped, but continued quietly, “I came to give you this.” Bilbo reached into his pocket and pulled out a cloth-wrapped parcel. He placed it on the desk, accidentally covering the Lonely Mountain on the map beneath it. With a slight flourish, he uncovered it.

“The Arkenstone…” Thranduil breathed. “The Heart of the Mountain. The King’s Jewel. I remember when it was found.” Legolas’ elbow brought Rhonith’s consciousness back to the tent, and her eyes blinked as they focused on the shining white gem. The light seemed to come from deep within the stone, shining with the brilliance of stars.

“Why do you have it, Bilbo Baggins?” she whispered. None of the Elves took their eyes off the Arkenstone. Rhonith looked undecided, almost scared, Legolas intrigued and a covetous but wary look crossed Thranduil’s face. Rhonith had taken an unconscious step towards the table when she rose from her cot, her hand reaching towards the soft light of the gem on the table, but suddenly a repulsed grimace contorted her features. “Lhoima-lóth[142]!” she spat, with her father’s favourite curse falling from her lips. “It feels… wrong. Something… something is wrong.” The peredhel shuddered, stumbling away from the table. Her fingers slid slowly down the uncovered blade at her hips, and her eyes were unwilling to meet the brilliance of the Arkenstone. Instead, she watched the faces of the other four people in the tent. Bilbo looked scared. Mithrandir simply twinkled at her, a secretive smile on his face, as though he knew more than he let on – he usually affected that air, even if he didn’t, however, so no one took notice. Legolas was ignoring the stone in favour of watching her with a worried gaze, a look he shared with Thranduil. Bard, who had kept silent in a corner, wanting a word with the Elvenking after the rest of the commanders had left, moved in for a closer look, though he kept his distance after Rhonith’s obvious fear.

“Ci vêr, sellig? Does it feel…” But Thranduil changed his mind about what question he wanted answered and instead said simply, “I doubt this is yours to give, Master Baggins.”

“I took it as my fourteenth share of the treasure.” Bilbo said, clasping his hands behind his back. He was feeling even more uneasy with the stone uncovered than he had smuggling it out under Thorin’s nose. Gandalf smiled slightly, but Bard seemed to share in Bilbo and Rhonith’s unease.

“Why would you do this? You owe us no loyalty.” Bard asked, turning to face the small Hobbit. He had learned his lesson about thinking before he spoke, but the question had to be asked. He had trusted the Company before, but in Bard’s mind Thorin’s behaviour had eroded most of the goodwill the Dwarrow had earned during their stay in Laketown.

“I’m not doing it for you. I know that dwarves can be obstinate and pig-headed and difficult, suspicious and secretive…with the worst manners you can possibly imagine, but they also brave and kind...and loyal to a fault. I’ve grown very fond of them, and I would save them if I can.” Bilbo sighed, but continued valiantly, “Thorin values this stone above all else. In exchange for its return, I believe he will give you what you are owed. There will be no need for war!”

Gandalf, Bard, and Thranduil looked at each other. Rhonith frowned and Legolas scowled. None of them wanted to go to war against the Dwarrow, but if Thorin believed they would, as it seemed, perhaps they could use the Stone to force his hand? Thranduil smiled. This, this was the leverage they had lacked.


Gandalf lead Bilbo, nibbling on one of Maeassel’s currant buns, through the encampment, away from the Command tent where they had left the Elvenking with Bard, Rhonith, and Legolas. “Rest up tonight. You must leave tomorrow.” The wizard said, walking quickly through the dark camp. Here and there, the night’s veil was pierced by smaller campfires, but with the lack of the moon’s light to guide their feet, Bilbo stumbled more than once.

“What?” Bilbo exclaimed, not understanding the wizard’s words.

“Get as far away from here as possible.” Gandalf said.

“I’m-I’m not leaving. You picked me as the fourteenth man. I’m not about to leave the Company now.” Bilbo said, shooting an affronted look at the old wizard. Gandalf huffed out a heavy sigh.

“There is no Company - not anymore,” he muttered. The wizard raised his voice, looking back at Bilbo seriously. “And I don’t like to think what Thorin will do when he finds out what you’ve done.”

“I’m not afraid of Thorin.” Bilbo claimed, even though his imagination supplied several instances of Thorin acting in ways that he would never have expected before reaching Erebor, and which had scared him even more than he was willing to admit.

“But you should be!” Gandalf cried. “Don’t underestimate the evil of gold. Gold over which a serpent has long brooded. Dragon-sickness seeps into the hearts of all who come near this mountain. I know Ilsamirë told you that, and you saw how she reacted to the Arkenstone tonight.” He shot an appraising look at the hobbit. “Almost all.” Spotting Alfrid walking by, Gandalf called to him. “You there! Find this Hobbit a bed, and fill his belly with hot food. He has earned it.” Alfrid sneered at what he perceived as an old man, shabbily clad even though he kept company with the unnatural leader of the Elves, who always dressed in finery, effortlessly outshining Alfrid’s own Master with his elegance. The old man seemed important, however, and Alfrid had always known how crucial it was to please those who outranked him. Begrudgingly, he came over, motioning for Bilbo to follow. “Hey.” Gandalf whispered, grabbing the Man’s arm. “Keep an eye on him. If he should try to leave, you will tell me.”

Alfrid walked off, cursing as a group of people walk in front of him and pushed his way between them. “Move it! Stupid...” Bilbo followed the grumbling man silently, mind whirling.

notes:

[142] Poison-flower! (Quenya)

Chapter Text

The Orc who rode a grey warg finally reached open air. Behind him, a long tunnel snaked its way through the earth, the opening dark as pitch in the light of the rising sun. Before him stood his general; a large pale Orc with a missing limb. Azog was feeding his white warg, letting her snap after the big chunks of meat and play tug-o-war with him. The great jaws bit down hard on the bloody haunch.

“Our army will be in position by dawn. The attack will be sudden and swift!”

“We will crush the fools! They have forgotten what lives beneath these lands...” Azog smiled in grim satisfaction. “They have forgotten the great Earth-eaters.”

The pale Orc jumped onto the back of his great white warg, who snarled at the smaller warg of his lieutenant. The two orcs rode away, the wargs loping swiftly towards great holes in the earth. The massive tunnels rung with the sounds of crushed and moved earth. Each tunnel snaked its way towards the distant mountain peak.


Alfrid walked into the tent where he had stashed the wizard’s little pet, carrying a bowl of food. “Wakey, wakey, Hobbit. Up you...get?” Alfrid paused as he realized that the room was empty. With a shrug, he began eating the food meant for the Hobbit. Waste not, want not, he thought. He didn’t care enough to go find the wizard immediately, why let the oatmeal get cold?


Thranduil and Bard rode together to the front of the armies and approached their side of the broken bridge over the outlet of the River Running. Behind them rode Rhonith and Legolas. Mithrandir – who had only been informed of Master Baggins’ absence moments before they left camp – was busy looking for thr errant Hobbit, though Rhonith had a pretty good idea about where Master Baggins had gone. From above the blockade, Thorin drew a bow and shot an arrow at the ground directly in front of Thranduil and Bard, who immediately halted in surprise.

“I will put the next one between your eyes!” Thorin shouted. He drew the bow once more and the dwarrow on the ramparts cheered as they shook their weapons towards the Elven army. Behind Thranduil, Rhonith glared at the Son of Durin on the battlements. The group dismounted in silence. Thranduil stared at Thorin angrily, and then tilted his head slightly. Instantly, several rows of Elves near the front of the army pulled out their bows, nocked their arrows, and aimed at the dwarrow, all in one fluid motion. The dwarrow’s cheering cut off abruptly as all of them but Thorin ducked behind the ramparts. After holding the pose for a few seconds, Thranduil raised his hand, and the elves easily put away their arrows. Thorin still had his bow drawn, however, and sneered down at the Elvenking. “Now we see your true agenda, Thranduil. You are here to attack us and win the treasure for yourself!” the Dwarf-King yelled.

“We’ve come to tell you: payment for your defence has been offered...and accepted.” Thranduil smirked. It was not his plan to keep the Stone, but he would use possession of it to bargain better positioning for his forces if possible.

“Our defence?” Thorin scoffed, but then the other half of the Elvenking’s statement registered. “What payment? I gave you nothing! You have nothing!” Bilbo shot him a worried look that the King did not see. Balin stiffened imperceptibly, but only Dwalin noticed when his older brother suddenly squeezed his hand hard enough to cut off blood supply to his fingers. A sense of dread filled the warrior.

“We have this.” Bard said calmly. The Master had not been told of the Arkenstone’s presence, in an attempt to contain the knowledge of their gambit to the small circle of Thranduil’s most trusted commanders. The Master might easily be tempted to steal such a valuable artefact and the loss would be devastating to diplomatic relations between the three peoples. Bard reached into his robe and pulled out the Arkenstone, holding it above his head. They had decided that Thorin would be less enraged if Bard held the Stone, having little trust in the Elvenking even after all the help Thranduil had given them. Thorin, shocked, lowered his bow.

“They have the Arkenstone? Thieves! How came you by the heirloom of our house? That stone belongs to the king!” Kíli cried, even as his eyes feasted upon the sight of the Arkenstone glimmering in the sunshine.

“And the king may have it - with our good will.” Thranduil replied as Bard put the Arkenstone back into his tunic. “But first he must honour his word and discuss the terms for the future with us.”

Thorin whispered to himself, but the dwarves near him could hear. “They are taking us for fools. This is a ruse, a filthy lie.” Far below the Company, Legolas sighed, shaking his head. Thorin’s voice carried to sensitive elven ears easily. He did not know how Thorin could believe they had faked the Arkenstone… it was impossible! It had not felt dangerous to him, when Bilbo revealed it the night before, but he trusted Rhonith’s word that it was wrong, even if she could not explain why.

“He thinks the Stone is a fake,” the prince grimaced. Beside him, Rhonith silently wrapped her slim fingers around his forearm, giving it a comforting squeeze.

Balin looked shocked that Thorin’s mental state had deteriorated to the point at which he would even consider that explanation. He took an involuntary step back, finding his brother’s strong hand once more. Dwalin’s fingers were trembling against his own as the big Dwarf listened to his Kurdel yell out:

“THE ARKENSTONE IS IN THIS MOUNTAIN! IT IS A TRICK!”

At the top of the battlements, Bilbo stepped forward. Dwalin’s fingers turned into a vice around Balin’s, and his free hand landed heavily on Kíli’s shoulder, holding back the archer as he tried to bring the small hobbit back beside him.

“It-It’s no trick.” The Hobbit stammered, but his voice carried to those below. “The stone is real. I gave it to them.” Thranduil and Bard exchanged a worried glance, as they had thought Bilbo was still safely in camp.


 

 

As Bilbo spoke, Thorin’s expression changed to a mixture of sorrow and anger. Thorin and the other Dwarrow looked at Bilbo in shock.

“You…” Betrayal and hurt shone from Thorin’s blue eyes. The Company stared in stunned silence.

“I took it as my fourteenth share.”

“You would steal from me?” Thorin asked, stunned beyond belief. Did Bilbo know what he had done?

“Steal from you? No. No. I may be a burglar, but I like to think I’m an honest one. I’m willing to let it stand against my claim.” Bilbo said, not realising the simmering anger in his friends, entirely focused on the hurt in Thorin’s eyes.

“Against your claim?! Your claim! You have no claim over me, you miserable rat!” Thorin shouted, throwing down his bow in anger as he began walking toward Bilbo.

“I was going to give it to you. Many times, I wanted to, but...” Bilbo bit his lip, hesitating in uttering the most damning words.

“But what, thief?!” Thorin’s anger broke through in his voice, overriding the hurt he felt. In his head rung the voice of his grandfather ‘The Arkenstone is the legacy of our line, the symbol of our right to rule!

“You are changed, Thorin! The dwarf I met in Bag End would never have mistrusted his ally’s warnings, never have gone back on his word! Would never have doubted the loyalty of his kin!”

“Do not speak to me...” Thorin paused, “of loyalty!” Turning to the other Dwarrow, the King’s judgement was swift. “Throw him from the ramparts!” Bilbo looked shocked. He had not expected Thorin to react fondly towards him, but capital punishment was so far from the Dwarf he had come to know as to be unthinkable. A race of warriors, Dwarrow still did not generally execute even the foulest criminals, instead preferring shaving and exile for their highest punishments. The other dwarrow, rather than obeying Thorin, stepped away from Bilbo in confusion. The Elves shared a concerned look. Thorin seemed surprised that no one obeyed him. “DO YOU HEAR ME?!”

“No!” Fíli cried, jumping towards Thorin with Glóin and Bifur who were closest, shouting, and pulling at his uncle’s clothes.

“I will do it myself!” the King yelled and lunged forward, grabbing Bilbo and shouting loudly. “CURSE YOU!” Holding the Hobbit by the throat, he began pushing him over the ramparts. Bilbo choked, scrabbling to pry Thorin’s hands off his neck in a way that would not end in him plummeting swiftly to his death. “Cursed be the Wizard that forced you on this Company!” Thorin shouted, tears tickling the back of his eyes. Even through the haze of the gold-sickness, he could see his own hands wrap themselves around Bilbo’s slim throat with horror, but he could only watch as he dangled the small creature above the sheer drop. The Elves below were looking on horror-stricken. Rhonith turned her face into Legolas’ chest with a small cry of anguish.

 


 

Suddenly, Gandalf stepped forwards, striding through the armies. His voice was magically amplified to incredibly loud, deep, and powerful tones.

“IF YOU DON’T LIKE MY BURGLAR…” he began, voice lowering when he was certain the Dwarf-King’s full attention was on him. It broke his heart to see Thorin so far in the grip of madness, but he could do little from afar. “Then please don’t damage him. Return him to me! You’re not making a very splendid figure as King Under the Mountain, are you, Thorin son of Thraín!”

Thorin slowly pulled the Hobbit back over the edge and let Bilbo go. Some of the other dwarrow rushed up to help the Burglar up. Dwalin and Balin stepped in, blocking Thorin’s view of the Hobbit.

“Never again will I have dealings with wizards...” he said quietly, turning to face Gandalf once more. Bofur gently pushed Bilbo toward the rope he’d hung the night before to climb down the walls.

“Go.” He said quietly, a dimmed version of Thorin’s pain in his eyes, warring with his fondness for his little friend.

“-Or Shire-rats!” Thorin spat towards the wizard. Bilbo threw his coiled rope over the wall and clambered down. Thorin threw the rope after him when the Hobbit had reached the ground.


From the East came the sound of a massive horn. The Dwarrow on the ramparts, as well as the Elves by the Front Gates startled.

“Good morning! How are we all? Oy! Pointy-ears! I have a wee proposition for ye! This is our Mountain! Perhaps you’d be so kind as to just bloody bugger off!?” the shout was the first sign of Dáin’s brusque personality as the Dwarf Lord came into view. As one, the Elven army turned, facing the belligerent dwarrow coming over the ridge. Their red-haired leader rode in front, followed by a contingent of Riders mounted on the massive rams native to the Iron Hills. Behind them came rank upon rank of heavily armoured dwarrow, ready for war.

Thranduil, angry and worried, forced his great elk through the ranks until he stood facing the fiery redhead.

 


 

“Ironfoot.” Gandalf said. Bilbo had finally reached the Wizard’s side and was staring wide-eyed at the newly arrived army. The Erebor dwarrow began cheering and shouting gleefully as they see their kinsmen arriving.

“Who is that? He doesn’t look very happy.” Bilbo mumbled, tugging on Gandalf’s robes.

“Thorin’s cousin Dáin, Lord of the Iron Hills.” The wizard sighed, “The Dwarrow of the Iron Hills are a force to be reckoned with, and none more so than their leader.”

“But that’s good, isn’t it?” Bilbo felt a stab of relief at the thought of more capable fighters joining their side. If these dwarrow were anything like the Company, they would be great warriors indeed. The little hobbit had never before felt interest in battle or warfare, but he had learned some things about dwarrow during their travels.

“Of the two, I’ve always found Thorin the more reasonable,” the wizard sighed, turning his attention back to the Dwarf-Lord.


 

“Perhaps, Lord Dwarf, you may be able to persuade your cousin that we are not here to rob him.” Thranduil said, but Dáin did not listen.

“Pah! Why else would you be here?” he snarled. “You wish nothing but ill upon my people! If you choose to stand between me and my kin - I’ll split your pretty head open! See if you’re still smirking then! We know your kind, Thranduil. Mukhas-takhrabmî zars-tamanâl.” Dáin spat. Thranduil’s face remained impassive, but the insulting tone was unmistakable, even if Bilbo did not understand all the words. “Îsh kakhfê ai-‘d-dûr-rugnul![143]” Dáin bellowed, to great cheers from the army behind him. Thranduil did not react, but his eyes were cold as he looked down upon the Dwarf-Lord.

“He’s clearly mad, like his cousin!” the Elvenking scowled. Behind him, Rhonith was pushing her way through the Elven ranks.

“You hear that, lads?!” Dáin shouted. “Come on! Let’s give these bastards a good hammering!” Behind him, his army cheered loudly.

Fiery anger sparked in her sapphire eyes, hardening her gaze. The Elves wisely moved out of her way, even as their commander tried to hold her back. With a growl, she threw off Legolas’ restraining arm, pushing her way past Thranduil’s elk and the first line of archers. Stepping out from the sheltering forces of Mirkwood, the short elleth stood between the two advancing armies.

Uzbad Dáin Zirinbasn Zirinhanâdu!” she shouted clearly. “Zâglibi d’zu! [144]

“What trickery is this! How dare you speak our ancient tongue!” Dáin bellowed angrily, raising his great warhammer.

E Usakh makartûna Mahal!” she replied. The Dwarf shook his massive warhammer threateningly at her, while behind him the Dwarven army moved restlessly.

Dáin nodded tightly. Though his temper was famous throughout the Dwarven Realms, he had not become so successful by letting it run away with him before he had all the information he desired. Holding out a hand, he stopped his army from advancing as he rode his ram towards the elf who dared speak the Maker’s words. His anger boiled in his blood. Behind Rhonith, Thranduil rode forwards, trying to bring her back behind the Elven lines. Rhonith shook off his arm, keeping her gaze fastened on the belligerent Dwarf-Lord who was riding full-speed at her. The ram jumped lithely off a small rock, landing with a spray of gravel before her. Rhonith smiled.

“What is going on!” Dáin said. “Who the feck are you, fundul. An elf pretending to be a Dwarf.” He sneered. “Me asnân tada Mahal duhû kansu tah[145].”

“Truly, Lord Dáin, you have trained this one perfectly. She is Ubnazul[146]?” Rhonith reached out fearlessly, patting the War-ram’s steaming nose. Dáin gaped. Even his own Dwarrow were usually at least a little cowed by the massive beast he rode. Among the archers, Legolas pulled back on his bow, aiming for the beast. If it dared attack, it would die. Around him, the Elven archers drew back their bows, ready to follow his orders. “E nadanu Mahal[147].” She turned hard sapphire eyes on Dáin, who gulped at the fire he saw there. “I am Geira Celebriel Ilsamirë Rhonith, the immortal daughter of Narví the Stone-carver, of the line of Durin and Celebrimbor the Elvensmith of the House of Fëanor…I hold the title of Usakh, and it has been my sacred duty to watch over and guide Naddun Mahal for more than an Age. Will you listen to me, cousin?” All at once, he was convinced that she was exactly who she claimed to be, which made her his cousin and kin. “I am Ilsamirë Celebriel Geira Rhonith. I hold the title of Usakh, and it has been my sacred duty to watch over and guide Naddun Mahal for more than an Age.”

Shamukh, ra galikh ai-mâ, iraknana’. Razammi astî[148].” Dáin said wonderingly, as he stared down at the girl who so fearlessly petted his battle-ram. Scowling slightly at the beast who was acting as placidly as a nannygoat, he studied her face. Pretty, in the Elven way which had always seemed rather too pointy for his own tastes, but there were traces of true Dwarven beauty in her features too. Holding out his hand, the Dwarf-Lord waited patiently until Rhonith had taken it before swinging her up on the back of his ram and riding swiftly back towards his army.

“RHONITH! Nandolo[149]!” Legolas screamed, but his father’s harsh command stayed the arrow that would have flown after the speedy mount. Rhonith did not respond.


 

When Dáin was back in front of his people, he dismounted easily, offering his hand once more to the elleth, who smiled and accepted the curtesy. When she had both feet on the ground, Dáin once more turned to face his men. “Right, lads! This here’s me new elf-cousin!” a great cheer greeted the announcement, although mostof the Dwarrow looked confused. “Now. She’s going to tell us what the pointy-ears are doing here, and what has happened to my cousins in the Mountain.”

“Azog has been hunting Thorin since the Company left Ered Luin. His armies are almost upon us, and Thorin will not leave the mountain or let us position proper defences upon the mountainside. He does not believe Thârkun when he tells him what he has seen in Dol Guldur. The Ancient Enemy is awakened once more, his armies are coming. If Erebor falls, the Kingdom of Angmar will rise again.” Rhonith waved towards the Elves. “I brokered an alliance for Thorin with King Thranduil and King Bard of Dale, and we are here to safeguard the mountain, but Thorin will not speak to us. I fear he is lost to the madness that claimed Thrór, for the Treasury was not cleaned of the Dragon’s taint before the Company entered.”

Kalfêl ai-rukhs![150] Dáin uttered harshly, but his belligerence was slowly giving way to belief. The elleth in front of him spoke with earnest words, and he could feel himself beginning to trust her. “So, what do we need to do, Lady of Durin?” he shot a glance back towards the elves, who were glaring daggers at him, and whose arrows were all pointed in his direction. “Yon Elves don’t look mighty friendly to me,” he scoffed. “How do I know they won’t attack us?”

“Try to speak to your cousin? My Lord, King Thranduil and the future King Bard would be willing to speak to you… even if you did just kidnap Thranduil’s adopted daughter,” she winked. Dáin loosed a bellowing laugh and those close enough to hear the last sentence joined him. “You’re not in danger.”

“In that case, I’d best return the Elvenking’s princess before he sets his hunters on my beard!” with that, he swiftly remounted and with a great yell from the Dwarf, the giant ram sped off down the slope towards the Elves. Behind them followed the army. Rhonith was laughing freely from the back of another ram, which had been handed over by one of Dáin’s lieutenants. “Baruk Khazâd!” they cried, as one, though the anger had been subsumed by a desire to show off; raising their weapons and controlling the large mounts with ease born of long practice as they stopped in perfect formation facing the Elves.

When the Elves, who could not hear the words of Dáin and Rhonith, saw the great ram barrelling towards them with the full dwarrow army on its heels, their bows, which had been relaxed slightly when it was clear that their King’s sellig was unharmed, tensed once more.

Atheg! Lasto Dáin[151]!” a joyous voice called, making the Elvenking halt his archers once more. Legolas shook with fury, having lost sight of her. When Dáin arrived in front of Thranduil, Legolas finally found Rhonith in the mass of advancing dwarrow. Her braids were dancing in the wind as she steered the massive ram with her legs, one arm raised, holding her blade aloft to wink in the sunlight. Gleeful laughter shone on her face, and Legolas felt a twinge of unease. This was – to his mind – not his Rhonith. This was Geira, daughter of Narví, and the disparity within her became clearer as she came closer to his eyes, exhilaration painted on her features. She had never reacted thus to riding the elks of Mirkwood or the horses of Imladris. He lowered his bow. Clearly there was no need to protect her from the dwarrow. He returned his arrow to its quiver and slung his bow onto his back, keeping his face impassive as he watched her come to a grinning halt in front of Thranduil’s Great Elk.

Sellig.” The Elvenking nodded.

Atheg-nîn, est Hîr Dáin Náinion estannen.” She gestured to the red-haired Dwarf, who scowled. Rhonith smiled mildly, before turning to Lord Dáin. “Lord Dáin of the Iron Hills, I am pleased to introduce to you the King of Mirkwood, Thranduil Oropherion and the future King of Dale, Bard the Bowman.” She bowed. Thranduil nodded regally from his mount and Bard made a peculiar half nod half bow which Legolas managed not to snicker at. After all, Bard had not been raised as a nobleman, and it was probably unfair of him to expect the Man to have a full grasp of diplomatic greetings.

“Lord Dáin, welcome to Erebor. It grieves me to meet you under these circumstances, but I believe your aid will be needed soon.” Thranduil said, polite but distant and Legolas wondered if his Ada had also been struck by the obvious difference in their elleth. His heart ached, feeling further from her than ever before. Legolas had never really seen her interact with dwarrow, the Company and Lothig’s parents hardly counted as seeing her among dwarrow. Yet here she sat, making polite introductions between her two people and looking as much at home beside Dáin as she had ever seemed beside him. Perhaps more. The three rulers made their way towards Thranduil’s tent and Legolas followed in morose silence. He had nodded curtly to Dáin when he was introduced and felt that he should be commended for managing even that towards this… Dwarf. The way Dáin was staring at Rhonith was almost covetous, and Legolas’ already black mood darkened. With a word in Sindarin to his Ada, the Prince made his way out of the tent, heading towards the northern ridge and Ravenhill Watchtower.


 

Later, Dáin made his way to the Front Gates, unaccompanied by any Elves, and with only two of his own most trusted generals at his back.

 


 

“Do you realise what you did by giving away the Arkenstone, Master Baggins?” The elleth’s soft voice startled Bilbo out of staring forlornly at the mountain, where Dáin was shouting words that the wind ate before they reached him, but which made Thorin scowl mightily.

“I bought peace…?” he had thought it was obvious. Her sad smile told him otherwise.

“You bought a peace, mellon-nîn, and it was dearly paid, even if Thorin’s Company survive the next few days. You have stolen the Arkenstone, which is considered one of the greatest treasures of the race, the symbol of the right to rule Durin’s Folk. Currently, Bard is King, as the holder of the stone, to any Dwarf’s mind. Such was Thrór’s love for the gem that he tied the ruling power of his people to its possession. The wielder of the Arkenstone is the Dwarven High King of the Three Clans of Durin’s Folk, which makes him a powerful figure. The Blacklocks, Stonefoots, Stiffbeards, and the Ironfists would pay him homage, though not fealty, and he could call them all to his banner in defence of the stone.” She sighed, patting Bilbo’s shoulder as the hobbit turned pale with realisation. “You have stolen this treasure, and though your intentions were good, the consequences may reach further than anyone can imagine. It was one thing to lose the symbol of his rule to a dragon, most would agree that Thrór did everything in his power to defend it, even to the point of having to be dragged from the Treasury by his son, but to have it stolen right from under your nose by someone you called friend… Thorin will not look lightly upon this betrayal, and once Dáin’s soldiers learn of your part in the situation…” she paused, letting the silence speak eloquently. Bilbo gulped. “I recommend you stay by the Wizard, myself, or Thranduil, even Bard. Anyone not too closely affiliated with Dwarrow.”

“But you’re closely affiliated with Dwarrow,” Bilbo exclaimed, suddenly fearful and took a step back. Rhonith gave him a sad smile.

“I am. However, I am also aware of much more than you may realise in regards to the powers at work. I believe that taking the stone away from Thorin was the best thing to do for him personally, even if he may never forgive you. Smaug’s spells lay heavily over the whole treasure, I’d wager, but the significance bestowed on the Arkenstone by Thrór made it smell all the sweeter, and I can feel Smaug’s dark powers surging inside it. It is calling to me, whispering in my mind when I am close enough, words I might understand if only I picked it up.” She grinned wryly, “I am stronger than the spells, however, and I know that my thoughts are sent from the stone, to poison my mind, rather than feeling its treacherous words as my own thoughts. Enchantment lies heavy upon that rock, and until it is safely returned to the Mountain’s bosom and ritualistically cleansed by one of the Mountain’s Singers, I would not trust anyone to hold it safely. Even you, Master Baggins, felt reluctant to part with it, or you would have spoken when you first found it, I’m sure. You struck me as a particularly honourable fellow when we met, and I have had no reason to change my assessment of your character – current burglary notwithstanding.” She winked, and Bilbo couldn’t help but smile. It was thin and stretched, but it was a genuine smile.

“Balin said he thought it was better if it remained lost. He knew Thorin was becoming gold-mad, recognised the signs from Thrór.” Bilbo tried to explain, even though he knew that part of his reason for hiding the stone had been exactly as Rhonith guessed; a marked reluctance to relinquish such a beautiful thing. Even though hobbits did not generally favour the beauty in gems and metal, even Bilbo had to admit that the Arkenstone was special.

“In a way, it is sad,” Rhonith mused, “One of the only points around which all Dwarrow will rally, and it’s simply a shiny bauble. If I’m honest, I think their willingness to protect it stems from a desire to possess it, rather than anything else. I hope Thrór learns of this predicament in Itdendûm. It would have been far more sensible to leave the ruling power within the bloodline, but his decisions in his later years on the throne were not particularly sensible by anyone’s definition. Fret not, Master Baggins, when this is all over, I will personally escort you back home. Amê, birasatdani Khazâd-buhel uksatul, galabiyê ai-tada, Bâhaimê[152].” With a last squeeze of his hand, Rhonith left Bilbo to his thoughts, and the hobbit walked off to look for Gandalf. He did not want to think about the ramifications of his actions, but he could not help but see over and over again the look of deep hurt as well as abject betrayal that had crossed Thorin’s face when he heard his Burglar speak the most damning of words: I gave it to them. Bilbo cringed, seeing again the shock on his friends’ faces, and understanding them better with Rhonith’s explanation. To the Dwarrow, giving Bard the Arkenstone was tantamount to declaring Thorin unfit to rule his own people. That Bilbo, one of the Companions, thought that a Man would be a better king for the Dwarrow than the rightful ruler or one of his heirs. Bilbo did not feel the tears that travelled slowly down his face as he walked, but Gandalf saw their tracks and felt a stab of pity in his old heart. Bilbo did not deserve to be thought of as a traitor and false friend when he had simply been trying to ensure that Thorin could keep his hard-won mountain. The wizard could only hope that one day the stubborn Dwarf-King might reconcile with his Burglar from the Kindly West.

 


 

When Dáin returned to camp, his mood had blackened with an intensity not oft paralleled in the usually jovial, but shrewd leader. His orders were terse and short as he moved towards the tent that held the Elvenking and his new cousin. He had spent most of the months since departing from Thorin at the Lords’ Council worrying that his cousin was heading towards certain doom, and now that ominous portend seemed to have come to fruition. He had always looked up to Thorin, but he did not recognise his stalwart and brave cousin in the cowardly and paranoid Dwarf who had hurled abuse at him from the ramparts while his cousins stood behind him looking decisively sick with stress and fear.


notes:

[143] Deer-riding tree-dweller. Pour my shit on the naked-jawed ones.

[144] Lord Dain Ironfoot of the Iron Hills! I want to talk to you!

[145] You(disrespectful) are proof that Mahal has a sense of humour.

[146] Of Kicker’s line /descendant of Kicker

[147] I am a child of Mahal

[148] Hail and well met, cousin. I believe you.

[149] Come back

[150] Curse of all curses upon the orcs.

[151] Father, listen to Dáin.

[152] To me, you remain most true Dwarf-Friend. My word on that, my friend. The noun-im-genitive determiner interfix model is used to stress belonging or ownership.