Summary: Based around Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield's early discussions, as revealed in the "The Quest of Erebor", this story synthesizes information provided in The Hobbit, the Unfinished Tales, and the history of Durin's Folk from Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings. It is also influenced, rather heavily, by images from Peter Jackson's upcoming film.

Author's Note:

There are slight discrepancies between Bilbo's recollection of his first meeting with the dwarves, and Gandalf's later account, but a divergence of interpretation is expected given the varied points of view of wizard and hobbit. The tale related here is from the perspective of Thorin, the exiled king of Erebor, and shows how Gandalf was not the only one who felt convincing the dwarf to include a hobbit on the journey was "the most difficult part of the whole affair."

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A Quarrel of Oak and Flame

Part I

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit, for which reason Thorin Oakenshield, proud heir of Erebor, spent much of the evening seated on a spindly wooden chair, in a very small dining room, surrounded by more of his kinsmen than could comfortably fit around the table. Gandalf had advised they leave their weapons in the entryway, or else risk an inadvertent massacre. Thorin had been loath to relinquish his sword, but it was moderately amusing watching their hobbit host gingerly take each weapon—many of which were as long as the fellow was tall—and struggle to find places to put them. The antechamber soon became an unlikely armory, with pegs more used to coat and cap, than mace and ax.

The leader of the dwarves was already growing impatient while introductions and explanations were made. He had not dragged a dozen of his kin and kind along for a social visit, but to select the final member of their Company. In contrast, the wizard appeared in no hurry to get through the evening. Gandalf looked oddly at home in the hobbit's halls, despite having to duck low under every lintel. With a flash of fire, he lit a long pipe, and settled his grey form on a nearby stool.

Perhaps, because Thorin was the rightful King under the Mountain, Gandalf believed he would find this dwelling comfortable. But dwarves did not burrow like badgers into dirt. There were reasons they chose mountains, not mounds, in which to build their palaces. This warren was stifling, a feeling not lessened by the masses of hobbit "treasure" which lay heaped on tables and shelves around him. He could hardly move without sending clusters of objects hurtling to the floorboards. When describing the Shirelings' attributes, Gandalf implied they made things of great skill, but it appeared they valued quantity more than quality. There was little of the silver and gold he had been boasting of; mostly iron or wood, and crudely carved at that. Admittedly, there were many books and parchments lying about, which might prove this Mr. Baggins was not as common as the clay he lived in, but it would take more than a scholar to oust a dragon from his nest. They needed someone with skill enough to defeat one of the greatest worms to come from the North. He was not certain the hobbit would win a battle against an earthworm, much less a spawn of Ancalagon the Black!

It seemed a matter of good fortune when he met Gandalf in Bree, just under a month ago. The old man was widely known to be a conjuror of good repute. Among the Khazâd, the deeds of Tharkûn, the staff wielder, had been recorded since his great grandfather's time. If any there were who might have power to aid him, it would likely be the wizard. So it came as a surprise when Gandalf's council led them nowhere greater than the village of Hobbiton, for the express purpose of hiring a thief.

He could not deny the wizard's assertion that they would lose a direct battle against the fire-drake, but almost anything would have been preferable to the frivolous plan he had proposed. Across the Misty Mountains, through the depths of Mirkwood, and into the Desolation of the Dragon did he expect them to travel with a hobbit in tow. And there, at the edge of all sanity, would they wait, until such time as their hired "burglar" worked out the secret of getting into the Mountain without Smaug perceiving it. The very idea was an assault to common sense, and after inspecting the chosen burglar, he had seen nothing to change this opinion. Baggins was more skittery than most of the Shire-folk they passed on the trip to Bag End. He could not imagine this fussy person being any use, except perhaps as bait. Even then, he doubted the beastly reptile would rouse himself for such a scant morsel!

It was a mark of their loyalty that his followers did not riot the moment they set eyes on the sandy-haired little mouse. Several laughed outright, as if it were a good jest, but Thorin found it far from amusing. He was not the only one. Balin, his closest friend and adviser, looked profoundly dissatisfied, while Balin's less subtle brother, Dwalin, growled like a dog spotting a rat.

He felt a stab of guilt that he could not produce something better to present to Balin, who had come to believe retaking the Mountain was of less importance than reclaiming the more ancient, and cursed, realm of Khazad-dûm.

In the midst of their initial discussions with Gandalf, Balin had spoken with typical candor, "Were it up to me, I would leave Erebor to the lizard. Dwalin and I have already been on one mission to take it back, and all it led to was your father's disappearance. In any case, the Mines are of far greater value in terms of resources and trade, not to mention strategically."

This had provoked a surprisingly brusque response from Gandalf. "If you intend to go calling at the doors of Khazad-dûm, you will go without my help."

Balin peered at him, sharp eyes glinting under snow-white brows. "The goblins were routed years ago. For all we know, the Mines are not even inhabited anymore."

"Not by anything you would want to meet," Gandalf muttered, then proclaimed more boldly, "Think well before you make Durin's Bane your own, Balin, son of Fundin."

Balin appeared ready to object, but Thorin had interceded. "Already enough ashes of our kin lie before those gates. Dáin would not speak of it, but his entry into the Mines left him shaken. I do not question his valor, so I can only assume it is beyond our means to defeat. We know the dragon is made of blood and bone, and for this reason I fear him not. I cannot say the same for whatever dwells in Khazad-dûm."

All this he felt to be true, but in addition, there was something in Erebor which he coveted more than all the veins of silver-steel under Barazinbar: the Arkenstone. The heirloom of his House. Ever since Thráin the Old found the gem, it had shone with a light which beamed most brilliantly before the eyes of Durin's Heirs. It was partly due to a desire for the stone that he let himself be led to the point they were at now; entreating the services of this silly thief. He would rather have done without such useless baggage, but unfortunately, Gandalf made it clear they risked his enduring disapproval were they to set out without the hobbit. The wizard had cursed them all for coal miners if Thorin would not agree to his plans.

The aggravating truth of it was, they were nearly at that point now. His people had been living as exiles in the stagnant Blue Mountains for over a hundred years. The once mighty range was eroded, and gone were the veins of wealth which fed the lost cities of Gabilgathol, and Tumunzahar. He feared the descendants of Durin's greatest smiths would make treasures no more, their talents wasted on lesser ore. But he would not allow any that lived in his halls to grow content with less. Several of the Company, including his nephews, Fíli and Kíli, had been born during the exile, but all were raised to know what they had lost. He would see his sister's sons come into their rightful inheritance before he was through.

He had promised Dís as much, before the Company took their leave of the very Halls he once helped build. She stood on the icy steps outside the Great Chamber, wrapped in a dark cloak, and an even darker mood, and he reckoned facing the dragon could not be significantly more difficult than facing her that day.

"Your sons will bring you back more gems than you could craft settings for, my skillful sister, even if you live to three hundred!" He had hoped his voice conveyed more certainty than he felt, but judging by her look of scowling contempt, it had failed rather fantastically.

"You are as dense as the oak whose name you bear!" she had snapped. "They are my treasure, yet you steal them from me with less pity than a cold-drake!"

"I cannot steal what is freely given," he countered. "They come of their own will. I would not deny their right to go."

"No, but you could convince them otherwise. Tell them it is as much their duty to remain here, to lead our people, should you fail to return," she argued, eyes flashing emerald fire.

"You know that would only strengthen their resolve." He kept his voice even, hoping a rational tone would convince her of the veracity of his point. "There is nothing I can say to dissuade them."

But Dís only looked at him coldly. She understood him well enough to know when he was not being entirely forthright. And she was right; he did not want to discourage the boys at all. His father bequeathed the task to their House. If something should happen to him along the way, he was certain his nephews would continue in his place. Had he been more cruel, he might have chosen only one of them, dividing brothers who would rather die than be separated. He knew there was a saying of men, which cautioned against putting one's entire supply of some fragile thing, like eggs, in a single basket. No equivalent phrase existed among dwarves. True to his race, Thorin had chosen the more risky option.

He looked at Dís' sons as they sat in the hobbit's parlour, one the image of their mother, the other like their late father. They were already making the most of their freedom, laughing with their older companions, and enjoying being treated as equals, and all but untainted by their mother's sorrow. But that was as it should be. If all warriors troubled themselves over what their mothers thought, they would never set foot out of doors! But then, not all mothers had to worry about their sons meeting dragons. Unlike her boys, Dís had witnessed the horror they were heading for.

Neither he, nor Dís, had returned to their grandfather's kingdom since it fell beneath the flames of Smaug, though many a night, he dreamt of the Lonely Mountain's peak against a molten sky. Often, he awoke with memories of a sound no survivor could forget; the hissing whine as the creature drew breath through blackened nostrils into the bellows of its chest. The chill air was then set alight by a spark deep within, and the roaring fury, as it burst forth from serrated jaws, could be heard half a league away. He and his companions were near Ravenhill when they first heard the dragon approach. They could do little but gape in horror, while a red glow bloomed in the North-east, and the entire town of Dale was transformed into a smoldering brand. The warriors of Erebor had met Smaug at the gate of the Mountain, but his fires were hot enough to warp steel, and melt iron. It was beyond the strength of their armor to withstand, and they were roasted within, like chestnuts in their shells, as his father once bitterly described it. To journey to the East would be to revisit the nightmare, but it remained Thorin's burden to decide when and how the people of Durin would return.