Chapter 1

"You will do this, Dwalin," said Aunt Nott firmly. She glared at me, her white eyebrows bristling.

When Aunt Nott glares at you, and you are her least-favorite nephew (which I was, at that particular moment in time), it's certain you'll soon find yourself doing whatever she wants. No ifs, ands or buts. So I held my tongue and nodded.

Aunt Nott is the head of our household in the Blue Mountains. It's a big household, full to bursting with proud sons, grandsons, nephews and cousins of the House of Durin, and she rules us all with an iron skillet and a fist that is at least as hard. I'll tell you a secret: Dwarves may bow to their king, but we all know where the real power lies under the mountain.

I didn't want to leave the Blue Mountains. I was happy in Aunt Nott's bachelor quarters, drinking with my cousins and pursuing some quiet amusements in the off hours. Unfortunately, our most recent amusement had not been quiet enough. Someone had complained about it to Aunt Nott, and although several participants had gotten off lightly (or eluded capture by the enraged dwarves who were the butt of that particular joke), she decided to make an example of me.

"A considerable quantity of gold was stolen from our treasury in Dunland. My intelligence sources say the thieves plan to move it north through Eriador to Bree. You will intercept the caravan and retrieve our gold, then bring it to me at Bree."

There was no sense in asking how Aunt Nott knew all this. She had her ways. The only mystery was how the gold had come to be stolen in the first place. However, since it wasn't my gold and (considering Aunt Nott's mood) wouldn't ever be my gold, I wasn't even tempted to ask.

"If they're going to Bree, why not let them bring it all the way, and reclaim it there?" It was a sensible question, I thought. Why risk a pitched battle on the caravan route, when a little subtle skullduggery in town would get us the gold with less trouble? In that case, of course, I would be off the hook. I'm not known for my stealthy qualities.

Aunt Nott brought her fist down on the solid oak table with a crash. "Because I don't want any trouble with Men! The last thing I want is rumors of dwarven gold floating around Bree. Get the treasure back before it gets to a town where the walls have ears and tongues run on wheels."

"There will still be rumors, if it's known that a caravan has set out—"

"Just do it, Dwalin."

So that's how I ended up a few days later in the wilds of Dunland, a Mahal-forsaken place if ever there was one, freezing my hindquarters off and skulking behind a large boulder as a caravan with stolen gold was about to pass by. If you've never been there, Dunland is a rock-strewn and mostly uninhabited plain covered with rough dun-colored grass, pale and yellow-brown as far as the eye can see. Get it? Dun. Land. Other than the grass, the only vegetation is a species of thorn bush with wicked, inch-long thorns. Not exactly the vacation spot of the Valar.

The caravan hove into view, led by two Men on horseback. Behind them, a pair of oxen pulled a closed cart like a windowless wooden box set on wheels. Then came three pack-mules followed by a half dozen shambling figures, laden as heavily as the animals.

The pack train was escorted by an armed guard, a Dunlending with an evil squint and several well-polished swords thrust into his waist sash. A weakness, I was happy to note—it takes a lot of vanity or carelessness to carry swords around unsheathed. While his weapons were too shiny-looking for negligence, it seemed very likely that here was a vain man. Vain men are usually too sure of their own abilities, which means they aren't on the alert for danger. That meant Plan A: Take him by surprise.

I gave a low whistle, like a thrush—well, like a bird, anyway—to let the team know that the fun was about to begin.

My team was hiding behind the rocks that reared up on either side of the caravan route. The road ran through a natural arrangement of boulders that formed a kind of gully—not high enough to constitute a canyon, you understand, but enough to serve as a trap for an unwary collection of mules and carts.

I was reasonably certain that the team I'd assembled would work well together, although I had some doubts about the new dwarf. He'd been brought in at the last moment upon recommendation from another cousin, and since there wasn't anyone else available in the rough bar where I'd done my recruiting, I'd had to gamble that Nori would be motivated by the promise of the gold I'd offered in payment, and not by the hope of making off with the entire treasure. His fingers twitched a little too much at the mention of gold. Too late now.

Showtime.

I poured a little ale down my leather jerkin (making sure to avoid the Warg pelt across my shoulders, because the stink would be nearly impossible to get out of the fur later on) and urged my pony out into the caravan's path, singing a lively tune about the Man in the Moon. My singing voice is known far and wide amongst the dwarves, but not always appreciated.

The caravan came to a ragged halt at the narrowest point between the boulders, right where we wanted them.

I waved the jug of ale in my hand. "What ho, weary travelers! Care for a drink or two to refresh yourselves along the way? I have ale to share and would be glad of the company."

The squint-eyed Dunlending urged his horse forward. Like most of his people, he was a swarthy, ill-favored Man, not much taller than a dwarf, but tough and wiry where dwarves are stocky and strong.

He laid his hand on the hilt of the bigger of the two swords thrust through his waistband. "Get out of the way, you drunkard," he growled. "We have no time for your foolishness."

I pulled a sad, drunken face, and raised the jug high. "Are you sure, laddie? Well, if you won't drink with us, you can FIGHT!"

I dashed the jug to the ground. Not a full jug—don't worry, I wouldn't waste good ale.

That was the signal for the others to come pouring out of the hills, their weapons drawn. They did, right on cue. Meanwhile, I drew my axe and cut down the Dunlending guard where he stood. He never even managed to draw his shiny and impressive weapon. Poor fellow.

It was a vicious little fight. Howls and shrieks erupted everywhere. Nori, the new dwarf, did for one of the horsemen, and the other one was dispatched somewhere along the line. I didn't see that one go down, but he was dead enough when Nori started going through his pockets.

It wasn't strictly correct procedure on Nori's part, but I didn't want to discourage a little free enterprise—and after all, the important bit was the gold belonging to Aunt Nott, which was probably in the closed cart being pulled by the oxen. The startled beasts had somehow gotten twisted around in their harnesses and were lowing in distress. Riki, who was good with animals and doctored our ponies when they needed it, was seeing to them, so I went to investigate the cart. Nori came too, which probably meant that the pickings had been slim on the bodies of the ringleaders.

"Crowbar," I ordered, holding out my hand. Nori produced one instantly, which raised my opinion of him. I fitted it into the padlock on the door, broke the lock, then swung open the door.

A dark figure sprang out at me, hissing like a cat. Something sharp catapulted toward my nose and I slapped it aside. With a sob and a clank of chains, my attacker fell against the inside of the cart.

A woman.

I blinked, adjusting my eyes to the dim interior. A great swath of tangled golden hair cascaded over her face and shoulders, and lower down, a luscious female form was covered only by a silky pink gown. It looked like some sort of underwear. Now, what I don't know about women could fill an encyclopedia, but even so, that dress didn't look like the most practical outfit for traveling across a thorn-filled wasteland in early Spring.

Across her lap lay the reason for the clanking sound—her wrists were clamped in irons, and the chains from each wrist were joined in front of her at a larger ring, from which a third chain led to the iron strongbox in the center of the cart. In one fist she held a large, pointed splinter of wood like a dagger.

Then she twitched her hair out of her face and rose up on her knees to glare at me, and I finally got a good look at her. She was a dwarf-woman. A beauty, too, or she would have been, if she hadn't been snarling and snapping those pearly white teeth at me. Blue eyes blazing, full pink lips drawn back, the golden fringe of her beard framing a piquant chin… She was breathing hard, as I could tell from the rise and fall of her truly impressive bosom. I stared at her, my mouth open.

"Don't come any closer," she said in a deadly voice, holding the makeshift wooden dagger in front of her. There were flecks of blood on her fingers, and a ragged tear in one of the planks in the floor of the cart. She must have ruined her nails making that miserable weapon. Resourceful, though—I had to give her that.

"What the hell?" I asked, calmly and sensibly.

"It's a woman," said Riki, who'd come over to see what was going on.

Nori muscled between us to get a better look. He was talking fast. "Chained. A prisoner. Valuable. Planned to sell her, I bet. Good looking. She'd fetch a good price. Lots of gold."

Sell her? Sell her? Fury swept over me, fury at the vile despicable monsters who kidnapped and enslaved helpless people. I glared at Nori. He took several steps back.

"Not me," he stuttered. "Not me. Terrible thing. Never would. Not me, no. Gold, yes. People, no."

I turned back to the woman, who was growling deep in her throat and clutching her big pointy splinter. "We're not interested in you. You're free to go. We just want what's in that iron box there."

You'd have thought she would have been relieved. You'd have thought wrong.

Her blue eyes narrowed. "In case you hadn't noticed—" she spat out, shaking her chained wrists at me. Apparently she'd gotten over her fright, because here she was making imperious demands. Mahal, I hate a demanding woman. Too many of them in my life already—by which I mean Aunt Nott, who got me into this mess.

"Right. Well," I looked at the crowbar in my hand. No way to get the irons off her wrists with that, because they fit too tightly. I couldn't use it to pry apart the individual small links of the chain, either—they were too small. The ring that connected the chains from each of her wrist-irons to the chain leading to the strong box was about as big around as my clenched fist. Too big to use the crowbar on.

But the ring was not soldered, just a hoop of forged iron bent so that the ends touched. So I got a good grip on the ring with both hands, took a deep breath, and pulled as hard as I could. The ring reluctantly gave and the gap between the two iron ends drew apart. It was enough space to slide the links free.

"There you go," I muttered, rubbing my fingers. All that pulling and tugging had left them sore as hell. Bending iron is a great party trick, but it's not something you want to do every day.

The woman may have been staring at me, I don't know. I wasn't looking at her. All I could see out of the corner of my eye was that waterfall of golden hair, as still as if frozen, and the rise and fall of her breasts.

Nori nodded. "Good. Very good. Can you do that trick again? Open the strong box?"

"I don't think so," I said honestly. "Let's take a look. Get out of the cart, lass."

"I can't." The woman sat back and brought her legs around, using both hands to hold that flimsy pink dress down around her calves. Her small feet were decked in dainty embroidered slippers, and above the slippers were leg-irons, hobbling her.

I raised my eyebrows. "Somebody sure didn't want you to wander off." That earned me an evil glare, and I sighed. "Look, I don't care what they wanted with you. I've got a job to do. Just get out of my way."

"Delighted," she snapped, and scooted forward to swing her legs out of the cart. She slipped down to stand on her feet, and her legs buckled. With a cry, she began to topple over.

I caught her, cursing myself for a fool. Iron shackles were hell on the circulation—they always seemed to cut off the blood flow, no matter where they lay against your flesh. She probably had been wearing these irons for some time, making it hard to stand. A right burden she would be to us, at least until we got her free of the ironmongery, and then she'd probably be a burden in all sorts of new ways. But here she was, helpless and woefully underdressed, and as far as I could tell there was no getting rid of her until at least Bree. We were stuck with each other.

Her skin was cold as marble and as pale; puckered with gooseflesh everywhere I touched. I lifted her up in both arms and held her against my chest. Just to warm her up. There was no way I could sling her over my shoulder. My axes, Grasper and Keeper, still rode in their harness on my back, and it seemed prudent to keep them out of her reach.

A short distance away, Riki was brushing his hands together after sorting out the oxen. I jerked my head at him to bring him to my side. "Find me somewhere to set her down."

He nodded and trotted off.

The woman was shivering in my arms. She'd pressed her face against my shoulder, getting a face-full of Warg hair, which isn't the softest fur around even if it is warm and waterproof. I didn't mind carrying her, because she wasn't very heavy. But her body was soft and curvy, and my fingers sank into that softness in a strange and disturbing way.

That was when I heard some of my other dwarves calling my name over the continuing shrieks and cries from the native bearers walking in the caravan.

Riki came jogging back. "Dwalin, you've got to see this. They're all chained together."

Still carrying the woman, I followed him over to the bearers who had made up part of the caravan. Nori loped alongside me, casting anxious glances back at the closed cart. I don't know why he bothered; we were in the middle of nowhere. Chances were the gold would be safe for a moment or two.

Damned if Riki wasn't right. A half-dozen of them, all chained together like animals with heavy packs on their backs. Two were Dunlendings but the rest were dwarves. I swore. "Mahal furku, what is this?"

Nori rushed forward with a shout. "Ori!"

"What's an Ori?" I growled.


Note: "Mahal" is the dwarf term for "God." Also, "Mahal furku" is a typical dwarf curse.