The long years after Moria were not kind to many who'd been shaken out of their homes and dumped somewhere into the Blue Mountains or into mining towns, to live among men. Those who had been warriors were blacksmiths, traders, and merchants. Those who had been miners were craftsmen. Even those who had been nobility in Erebor were cast out to wander the wilderness, and those who had never had titles and riches as those found under the Mountain—now under the dragon—had even less to scrape together and call a life.

But they made do. As Thorin found smithing work over which for some decades to brood the reclaiming of the Mountain, so did his kin settle down, wherever they dropped from exhaustion after the long wandering journey. Some of his people followed the young prince, some went their own way, and some who were not his kin followed because they had nowhere else to go. They made do, I have said, as toymakers or cooks, and were reasonably happy. That is, until a few more straws arrived upon the camel's back, one late winter day, and things began to break down.

There was a knock, then another.

"Ah, don't get the door, Bombur. We're closed."

A light snow was coming down as the lamplighter went around performing his duties. Though the days were growing longer, the Men and Dwarves of this western town were still used to turning in early, and there was not much motivation to be out in the cold mountain air anyway. But there was that knocking.

"Someone's trying to get in, though," the fat dwarf replied. His massive orange braid was halfway undone, a sign of his eagerness to call it a night. He'd left it, however, and was staring at the door. There were three more knocks. "Really determined, he is."

Bofur shuffled in from the backroom, yawning, hat askew, and witnessed the front door of their shop beginning to rattle on its hinges as the dogged intruder knocked still more. This sight woke him somewhat. "Oh, dear. Bombur, what if we're getting burgled?"

"Burgled?!" Bombur stumbled back a pace, and into his smaller brother. "Bofur! Who would burgle us?"

"I was thinking that myself," Bofur admitted. "They'd be mighty disappointed once they got in, if stealin's their intent."

Bombur huffed at this, and frowned importantly, and strode over to the kitchen fire. "Well, they aren't getting in!" he said, and came back with an enormous iron ladle. "Because I'm not going to let them! We may only have one sack of copper to our name but it's ours!" With that he walked up to the jumping and shaking door and laid the long-handled ladle across it, in the hooks on either side of the threshold. Now when the door bounced with each crazed knock, it hit against the ladle. The incessant pounding paused for a moment at this revelation, but it had the unfortunate effect of causing the knocker to resume his task with all the more demented ferocity.

"You think that'll hold them off?" Bofur shouted over the noise. The door banged and jittered, as the mad knocking became nearly continuous. "He's going to break right through the door, if not wake the neighbors! We need to get out of here, and…and call the guard!"

Bombur gave him a sad, sorry look over his massive shoulder, as he tried to hold the door in place with his hands. "We don't have the guard, Bofur. We're not in Moria anymo—"

His last words were swallowed deeply in the cracking noise that followed, as nearly upon the word "Moria" the wood above the ladle exploded and a thick fist came sailing through. Splinters showered about the floor and Bombur fell flat on his back, with Bofur above him, paralyzed, staring at the hole that now punctured the shop door.

The fist retreated. In its place the frigid, lightly snowing air lilted through into the shop, making the dwarf brothers shiver. Slowly, inchingly, Bombur rolled to his knees and Bofur crept around him, as both were drawn to peer through the hole. A morbid curiosity pulled them—what force were they being invaded by? What did they have to defend against, that this thick oak door was not enough to protect them? They both leaned in, vying, and yet shying, from a peek at—

Two narrow eyes, one wide and one pinched in curiosity, arched by two thick grey eyebrows snapped into view through the hole. Bombur and Bofur fell over once more, crawling back from the door with all of their speed.

"Burglar. Definitely, burglar," Bombur moaned.

"He looks a wee bit mad, at that," Bofur whispered. "Maybe dangerous!"

"Khazad ai-menu!" a voice outside exclaimed.

This was followed by silence. The two dwarves inside looked at each other for a moment of confusion, then both said, "What?"

"Did he just say—?"

"—in Dwarvish?"

The two remained seated on the floor for a good while longer, not daring to look over at the hole in their door lest the "burglar" cast his crazed eyes in their direction again. But something else kept them there, a familiarity in the voice, though it was now rough around the edges, and caused Bofur to rise, slowly, leaving poor Bombur rocking on his bottom against a display case, saying, "Don't! Oh, Bofur, what if he's mad?"

Carefully, Bofur removed the iron ladle, and set it against the wall. Then, with great care to be silent, he slid open the lock, deliberately turned the knob, and, hiding most of his body behind the thick safety of the wooden shield, creaked open the door.

He peered out in the night, expecting the worst, and found, to his utter astonishment, something stranger even than that.

A broad, black-haired dwarf stood on his threshold, holding a thick steel halberd and a manic expression. Heat poured off his body, and his face was lively and red. He grinned beneath his wild, black and gray beard, and extended a hand in greeting.

"Bifur, zai dashunizu!"

Bofur's jaw dropped, and the gears in his brain took a while to get up to speed. Once they did, he had to bend them not only around deciphering the ancient dwarvish his cousin had just uttered, the fact that his cousin Bifur was standing on his doorstep in the middle of a chilling winter evening, but the fact that his cousin, carrying a warrior's weapon, also appeared to have a piece of an axehead buried in his skull. At that moment, all he could think to say was, "At yours!"

Bombur had maneuvered himself to a standing position and waddled over behind his brother, so he too could peer out at the unlikely visitor. "Bifur!" he cried. "By Durin! It's been nearly 150 years! Come inside! Bofur, you're so rude, letting him stand out there, freezing to death. Bifur! We thought you'd gone north, with uncle!"

"Khazad ai-menu!" Bifur repeated, which, it was determined, after several excited questions from his cousins, was one of only 4 or 5 phrases Bifur was capable of saying. This put a slightly confused damper on the mood of reunion, which was nevertheless quickly brushed aside as Bifur was shuttled over to the kitchen fire and made something to eat. He ate slowly, but drank enough for a horse, and Bofur and Bombur soon found that they'd need to go to the market for beer again sooner than they'd been planning for. Still it was quite a merry reunion of cousins long lost to each other, when they had all been close in the days before Erebor fell, when the three of them were younger and happier.

All three of a mining family, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur had for the most part been content to dream of bigger and better things. Bombur had long wanted to be a chef, Bofur a musician, and Bifur a soldier of the royal guard. Of the three dreams, all were fairly ridiculous for dwarves of their class, but Bifur's most of all. Miners were not fighters, and Bifur's fascination with weapons and armor was hotly discouraged by their grandmother. But Bofur would often watch him, practicing in secret in some dark forgotten hallway after school, and would dream about how wonderful it would be to have his friends and family thank him for slaying the dragon and saving their lives. "Thank you, Bofur!" they'd cry. "You're so brave, Bofur!"

But that was usually where the dream fizzled out, for no one of his friends or family had ever described Bofur in the particular term, "brave". Caring, generous, and loyal were fine, but brave sounded so much more…admirable. "Bofur, stop playing that flute," or "Bofur, don't lean on your chair like that, you'll fall," and "Bofur, stop talking, that guy's about to faint," were much more common phrases to be uttered in his presence.

You can see then that it was with genuine childlike curiosity and not an ounce of shame that Bofur interrogated his lately arrived cousin on his apparent battle adventures since their last meeting.

"But how did ye get that axehead in your own, cousin?" Bofur demanded as they all sat around the fire, finishing the generous meal.

"Bofur, don't be rude! If he doesn't want to tell us, he doesn't have to," Bombur said.

Bifur put down his fork and pointed at the offending weapon. "Burk [axe]," he said, and they nodded eagerly, "Bund [head]!"

"Yeah, I can see that! But how did it happen?"

"Bofur!" Bombur hissed. "Rude!"

"You don't have to ask him if you don't want," Bofur snapped. "I'm askin' cause I'm curious!"

"Let him finish his meal first, he's barely touched it!"

"I'd say you could take a page from his book!"

"Ay, Bofur," Bombur moaned, his wide face turning red.

"I'm no' joking."

Bifur continued, after he'd gotten the attention of the quarreling brothers back. "Rahkas [orcs]," he said. "Khazadum [Moria]!" That brought some understanding into the eyes of his cousins, and Bifur, seeing it, saw that this was enough and said no more that evening. He left the speculating to the brothers, occasionally nodding in ascent to a true conjecture, or shaking his head vigorously in denial of a false one. When Thror had summoned his kin and armed guard to reclaim Moria, Bifur had picked up the nearest wood cutting axe that lay by him and enlisted to the cause, fighting the Pale Orc Azog back into the mines. At some point during the battle, Bifur couldn't remember when, a tall, ugly orc with nothing on him but a hand axe had lobbed the thing in the Prince's direction, and Bifur, thinking to deflect it from the young Prince's body, put himself in the way. The axe buried itself deep in Bifur's skull, and he collapsed as if dead. In fact, Thorin and the rest had thought him dead, and would have buried him had not his body been lost among the piles of dead orcs. Bifur was left on the battlefield, and it had taken him some time to extricate himself from all the death and ruin. Even then, surrounded on all sides by waste, he had taken up some other poor dwarf's halberd, and gone to wandering, trying to find some remaining dwarf settlements in the Misty Mountains, but there were none then. He hunted, pitching camp in the wilds alone for many years, took up with some Men treasure-hunting in the North, was hired as a guard in Bree for a good long while, then eventually heard tell of a settlement south of Ered Luin, where the dwarf Prince had been living nearly as long as Bifur himself had been wandering. Bifur wondered if any of other dwarves had accompanied him there, and was completely astonished and delighted to hear the names Bofur and Bombur pass his ears. He came straight to the toyshop, to be finally reunited with his long lost cousins, and try to remember, from what little fragments he still could, their old days as miners of Moria. The axe had taken away much of his ability to communicate, but little of it to understand. He was eager to see the Prince again, as well. The brother informed him that Thorin was highly respected in the blacksmith shop just up the road, nearer the mines, but kept to himself there, and they'd exchanged very few words with him since coming south of Ered Luin.

All while he recounted this, Bofur eyes had misted over with the thought of such high adventures. One would need to be especially skilled, he thought, with some kind of weapon, to survive in the wild, forgotten lands of the North. To think of the people one would meet, the friends make, the songs learn, Bofur was beside himself with the thought of it—a journey through Middle-Earth, making one's own way about the world, with treasure and glory at the end of it. Even those together were not worth the return journey, when one could come back and recount those tales to a child, or a brother, beside the kitchen fire with a pipe and a flute ready to play the new songs.

Bombur was getting a bit teary himself. "Oh, Bifur. Poor Bifur. We're so glad to have you back. Ye don't have to wander no more. Why, you can live here with us behind the toy shop, and we'll teach you to craft and carve. You'll stay with us now, Bifur. Oh! I'm so glad to have ye here, and so glad ye're alive yet."

This woke Bofur from his reverie, and Bifur shed a tear and got up and hugged Bombur, with arms strong enough to crush him, if he'd been a smaller dwarf. Bofur smiled wide and joined in, but he had just remembered the empty kegs of ale, and the small bag of copper coins they'd not been robbed of, and wondered how he and Bombur were to continue to support themselves, let alone their cousin too.

That night they gave Bifur Bofur's bed, and the toymaker slept curled on the rug by the dying fire. Bifur fell into a deep sleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, and so his cousin wandered back into the shop where Bombur was still clearing up from dinner.

"How'll we do it, Bombur?" he asked. The fat dwarf raised an eyebrow. "The money, I mean—?"

He rested the plates with a soft clank in the sink, then shook his heavy head. "We'll do it, that's all."

"He can't stay here," Bofur said.

His brother threw a surprised look back at him. "And where can he stay?"

"You know what I mean…"

"Family's first," Bombur proclaimed, picking up the next dish and running a thin towel over it. "We'll take care of him, somehow."

"Somehow," Bofur mocked. Restless and annoyed, he strode across the length of the small kitchen and back, kicking the rug into place for his bed before the fire. "I'm going to teach him to make toys?" Bombur shrugged, and nodded. "Yeah? And if that doesn't work?"

"We'll think of something else," he brother replied, smiling in an attempt to lighten the mood. "Calm down, Bofur. We both had quite a shock this evening."

"Think of something else," Bofur was still muttering to himself. Then like the flash of a match in the dark, it occurred to him. "Bombur," he accused. "You've already thought of something else." Again his brother shrugged. "Och, you can't be serious. You? Going back to the mines? In your condition?"

"What about my condition?" Bombur whirled, dropping the dish in the sink and leaning one fat fist on one fat hip. "You've got to mind the shop, you can't do it."

"Mind the shop," Bofur repeated in annoyance, his head still filled with dreams of high adventure. "Well—" he stammered, horrified. "They'd—they'd never take you—not now. Look, Bombur," he pleaded. "You're meant to be a cook, not a miner. You're in no shape to handle the depths anymore. Maybe—after a little—" but he couldn't go on.

"After a little what?" Bombur prompted. "Dieting?"

Bofur, thoroughly distraught, spun on his heel a few times and took of his hat and wrung it between his anxious fingers. He couldn't answer.

Bombur scoffed, and turned back to the dishes. "Yeah. Well, if we don't have enough money for food for three, we always had enough for two. You and Bifur can eat, and make toys, and I can live off what I've already eaten."

"Ay," Bofur moaned, shuffling silently closer to his brother. "I'm sorry brother. I didn't mean nothing by it, you know that."

Bombur smiled into the sink. "I know."

"I'll teach him to make toys," Bofur continued. "He'll be the best bloody toymaker in countryside. He'll put us both out of business, I swear it. He will. And you'll eat!"

Confident as Bofur was, Bifur wasn't the best blood toymaker in the countryside. He wasn't even one of them. After two weeks at the job, he was approaching adequate, but Bofur was approaching the edge of his patience.

"What are ye doing, laddie? That there's a square peg, and this here's a round hole! Puzzles are supposed to be fun! Not impossible! And that! What's that? Is that the doll ye been working on? Looks like she had a run-in with the same bleeding goblin that cleaved your cranium! Dollies have two eyes, and they go one here, and one here!"

"Ishkhaqwi ai durugnul!"

"Oi! You clot! So's your mum!"

Bombur watched on sadly, and not without sympathy for both parties. It was common for Bifur and Bofur to go storming off in opposite directions for afternoons at a time, only to forgive each other over dinner. But it happened again, and again, and again. Bifur's toys were strange, dysfunctional, nightmarish, or ugly. Though Bofur's toys were the same bright, cheerful kind as ever, parents in the town stopped bringing their children to the shop for distaste of Bifur's creations. This, rather than allow them to double profits with another pair of hands crafting toys, actually decreased their gain, and despite Bofur's brief ventures into the world of instrument crafting, which produced exactly 1 and a half flutes and most of a drum, they were losing money hand over fat fist.

For Bombur did not diet as he had threatened. Bofur made sure he ate enough each night at dinner, as much as he always had, despite their slowly draining purses. This time it was Bofur trying to keep the cheery attitude, Bifur trying to learn to read again, and Bombur finally deciding that something must be done about all this, or they would all three slowly starve to death before spring.

One morning he put on his pale green hood, took up his iron ladle, and left the toyshop while Bofur was hopping around, cursing his inability to pull together a decent looking toy drum. Only Bifur saw him leave, and though they did not exchange words, it was known where Bombur was headed. Outside he walked up the street, around a corner or two, and found himself on the smithy's row, across from the entrance to the iron mines of that region of the land. There he stopped, and stared at the dark entryway, trying to remember those days when it was a familiar sight to him, when the round dwarf was younger, and much slimmer.

Bombur looked around. Behind him, the blacksmiths pounded away with great iron hammers on great pieces of iron on top of great iron anvils. Bifur had perhaps the arm-strength to do such a job, but not the patience. His mind wandered, as his feet had wandered, for so many years before. Bofur was too much of a free-spirit to go back to that life, smithing or mining. No, it was up to Bombur, however unlikely that conclusion seems to you or I.

One of the smiths on that very street was the famed Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King Under the Mountain, who soon would set out on a great journey with some of his kinfolk across the northern part of Middle-Earth to reclaim that mountain from a ferocious dragon named Smaug. But at the moment that Bombur was standing in front of him on the street, he was hammering flat a piece of fencework for the Master of the town, and he was not looking at Bombur. He barely knew who Bombur was, for he was not of Durin's folk.

The fat dwarf was in the process of making up his mind about certain things. He was well set on others, but first impressions were very important to him, and generally didn't go well. He was deciding on how he should approach the group of Men standing around the entrance to the mines, from whom he could presumably ask for work. They had a collection of tools scattered about them, and tables with papers on them, and so looked fairly official. A few of them held pick-axes, some shovels, and there were more of these along with buckets and ropes, pulleys, and mattocks piled around or laid against the tables. They were standing in a close circle and talking to each other, and grinning and laughing, and casting their eyes over their shoulders and spitting on the ground, as the Men of the town were wont to do.

They towered over Bombur. At long last and with a few deep breaths, he finally on, "Greetings, gentle Men!"

"Ah, stupid thing. Maybe if I—no. It just needs a bit more cloth. Hey, Bombur! You don't use that hood anymore, do you?" Bofur called into the kitchen. When he received no reply, he repeated, "Hey, Bombur!" but that produced nothing as well. After a moment of annoyance, Bofur threw down his tools and stomped out of his workshop into the kitchen, shouting, "I'm only in the next room, you great fat—" but he was arrested by the sight of absolutely no one in the kitchen.

"Bombur?"

Stunned, and frowning, he rocked back on his heel into the main room, where Bifur was sitting over a book and scratching his head. "You seen Bombur?" he asked.

"Thak!" Bifur said heartily, grinning and holding his fist in the air.

Bofur's heart stopped in his chest, and a great outrage collected in him against Bifur, who did not seem through his expression to understand the gravity of the situation.

"To the mines?! I thought—but he—I—you! You, Bifur, are going to stay rrrright here, until I come back. Hm? With Bombur. I'm going to go get him, and bring him back, before he hurts himself, and us. Hm! Thinking he can go into the mines with Men! Hm! At his age! We'll see!"

But Bifur noticed that for all his hm-ing, and shouting and stomping about, while Bofur was throwing on his yellow hood and fumbling with the front door locks as he dove out into the street after his brother, that the toymaker was trembling, as one who is afraid.

After a few more moments alone in the toyshop, Bifur too got to his feet, struggled to throw his own yellow cloak over his own broad shoulders, and dragged himself out in the street, to go rescue his poor blindly courageous cousins, for they would need him before long.

The Men grew silent, and slowly broke from their tight circle. The sound of a dwarf amongst them, much less the sight of him, was quite arresting. In general the Men and Dwarves of that town did not interact on such a level. The dwarves ran shops, or smelted and worked the iron, and the Men mined the iron, and bought things from the shops. That was that extent of it. At times a Man might recommend a dwarf's shop to his fellow Man, because his plates and cups were simply better than the rest, or a dwarf might even rise to a position of great respect within the blacksmith forge, as Thorin had, but they were not partners in any sense. They were never quite friends, and they were certainly not equals. Some Men were above some Dwarves, some Dwarves above some Men, but no one seemed to have found themselves on quite the same ledge at the same time.

The Men in front of the mine were tall, and gangly. To Bombur, they were twice the height they really should be, and creepily thin. Their chests were sunken, and the muscles on their arms were long. They seemed as if they might topple over in a good wind. Moreover, only a few of them had beards. Bofur and Bombur had always supposed that this was because Men did not live nearly as long as Dwarves, and so didn't have time to get a proper beard in. These Men were certainly on their way with them, with oily hair on their heads that came to their chins, and stubble like an adolescent dwarf of some 50 or 60 years.

Bombur tried to smile. The Men looking at him saw a four-foot-tall squishy orange boulder, quite nearly spherical in body with two large feet at the bottom. They may have found it hard to discern his face out of the masses of orange hair he tried to keep contained in that one long braid that swooped around his belly, but that frizzed up around his upper lip, cheeks, and ears.

The Men chuckled.

"Greetings, Master Dwarf," the tallest of them said. He took a step towards Bombur, and bent his grossly long legs, settling his long-fingered hands upon his knees, and peered down into the dwarf's face. "What can we do for ye?"

When he smiled back, the man's teeth were also large, and not as white as perhaps they could have been. Bombur tried not to cringe. "I'm looking for work," he said, then took a moment to re-muster the courage that had initially been in his voice. "Uh, I'd like to work in the mines. I am very strong and don't mind confined dark places, bein' a dwarf, and I've a great deal of experience gold-mining in Moria!"

The Man frowned impressively, and with two raised eyebrows checked the expressions of his comrades over his shoulder, who were nodding with him. "Moria!" he repeated. "Well, that's a big operation. And how long ago was that, then?"

Bombur stammered, "W-well, many years in the reckoning of Men, certainly, b-but—dwarves have a long memory! If you want to test me, I—"

"Oh, looks like you need more than a test, good Dwarf!" one of the other Men snickered.

"Much more!" another chimed.

"More?" added yet one other, trying to contain his chuckling. "Maybe a bit less!"

The four men burst out laughing at once, clutching their long, thin stomachs and even sliding to the ground against the tables. A dwarven smithy in the shop across the street looked up from his work at the commotion.

Bombur floundered. He could see, perhaps, if they doubted that he still remembered how to work a mine. Dwarves live lives that could be three lifetimes of Men, and it is possible that they did not believe him. But he couldn't understand why they were laughing.

"Uh, I'm sorry," he begged. "I can't…is there any work? Because I tell you, I can do it!"

"Oh, there's work, good dwarf. And I tell you," the first Man who had approached him said through his remaining chuckles. "That you cannot!"

"But…" Bombur demanded, thoroughly disheartened. He had envisioned this as an easy thing—sure the work would be hard and cold and dark and damp, but he could settle with that, if the pay was fair. He would have thought every mine would want a dwarf or two in its depths, for they were known all throughout Middle-Earth as beings who lived in great halls of stone underground. "But…why?"

That broke them into laughter afresh, and Bombur stood by, growing red in the face with shame and embarrassment, while they collected themselves. The first Man who had addressed him eventually made himself calm, and to address the dwarf.

"Why?" he asked. "Why? Look at yourself! You're a great mass of pudding, not a miner!"

"You wouldn't fit down the shaft!"

"There's no' a rope that could hold ye!"

"Why, he's the largest dwarf I've ever seen!"

The Men were creating quite a distraction in the street at this point, and poor obese Bombur was the center of it all. Oh, he knew well he'd grown larger since the days in Moria. That was not the problem.

"Poor fat dwarf," the first Man was saying now, cruelly. "Cannot make a living, eh? I can see why the sweet shop wouldn't want you, or the butcher's or breadmaker's. You'd eat all their merchandise!" The Men laughed, and laughed. A small crowd of jeering young boys gathered. The blacksmith's hammers stopped ringing. "Have you tried the toyshop? Or are your over-sized fingers too indelicate to craft a thing?"

Bombur found himself unable to reply. He could think of nothing to say in defense, and his huge heart beat quicker and quicker with the shame of it all. His cheeks burned, and he wished only that he could return to his and Bofur's warm little kitchen and curl up on the rug by the fire and eat a big bowl of hot stew. He wished no Man would look at him ever again. But in picturing the toyshop, he pictured Bofur, counting the week's earnings in one small pile, and Bifur, drinking their last drops of ale from a tin mug. And Bombur stood his feeble ground.

"Nope," the Man said, approaching Bombur menacingly. He reached the poor dwarf, then extended a strong hand and picked him up by the collar, while Bombur whimpered pitifully. "Too fat to work anywhere," the man declared.

"That my brother ye're talking about?"

There was another dwarven voice from the crowd. The Man did not drop Bombur, but he and his red-faced victim turned their eyes to find Bofur striding towards them. He took deliberate, gliding steps, and seemed to be watching them in a sort of haze, as if he was surprised to find himself walking into this crowded circle, and talking to these Men.

"I don't know," the Man said, sneering at the newcomer and pointing at the heavy one in his hand. "This poor fat oaf your brother?"

"He is," Bofur replied. He was fully two feet shorter than the Man. "You care to put him down?"

The Man threw back his head, feeling high and mighty. His companions laughed. "Or what?"

The mattock was the closest thing on the grassy ground in front of the mine entrance. Bofur leaned down and picked it up, testing its weight in his hands. The handle was thick, and it had one blunt end like a hammer, but it was heavy, and handled well. He hefted it over his shoulder. "Or I'll make ye," he said calmly. The growing crowd around him 'oo'-ed and hissed.

"That's mine," the Man growled, all sadistic delight draining away. He pointed his disgustingly long arm at the mattock Bofur had just claimed. "You put that back, or I'll have you arrested for theft!"

"Is it yours?" Bofur replied, leaning an eye on the axe-like tool. He thought of several things to say, but the one that amused him most, and came out along with an amber glint in his eye that Bombur long afterwards remembered, was "You like to fight me for it?"

Livid, the Man threw down Bombur, who landed flat on his back, and readied a swing of his great long arm, as he lunged towards Bofur. But Bofur was charging him on solid dwarven feet and with the full force of the mattock. The dwarf cried out and caught the Man's legs in an ill-aimed swing, which had the good fortune of knocking the tall gentleman right next to Bombur on his back in the middle of the street. Bofur, surprised that this had even occurred, took a moment to recover himself, before rounding on the Man once again on jumping atop his chest, with the blade of the mattock resting lightly below the Man's chin.

"Now," he said. The Man gasped for air as Bofur pushed a knee down upon his ribcage. "What was that ye were sayin' about me handsome brother over there?"

The Man coughed and sputtered, unable to really speak with the full weight of a dwarf seated on top of him. "What's that?" Bofur asked. "Repeat that? I canno' hear ye." But the Man said nothing.

"Your brother's a stout beggar," another of the Men said. Bofur felt a sudden cold under his chin, and glanced up from his charge to the other miner standing far above him, holding a small steel knife to his throat. Bofur raised his head, and trembled, and the knife followed. "And you're a skinny little fool. You best both be getting out of here."

On any other day, perhaps, Bofur might have feared the knife. He might have put down his mattock and taken off his hat and risen slowly to his feet with his hands in the air, ready to run all the way back to his toyshop because courage was for other dwarves. But today, Bofur feared things greater than the small knife brushing his neck, and he acted out of a courage he'd always had, reserved specifically to stave off those fears.

Bofur's gaze rolled up slowly and landed on the Man's. He held it there for a moment, until the Man with the knife was becoming annoyed. Bofur said, "Sure thing."

Then he heaved his mattock up and thrust it into the stomach of the Man with the knife, who toppled over with all the wind smashed out of him. The Man Bofur'd been sitting on jumped to his feet, and Bombur too, and was swinging the iron ladle in every direction he could reach. Bofur's mattock smashed the toes of another of the Men who'd joined the fight, and soon it was the two of them against the six who'd been standing around the entrance to the mines, fists against tools, height and reach against small, tight speed. A fist flew this way and smacked into the ladle, a leg kicked out and caught an arm. A blow was missed and the handle of the mattock grabbed and yanked, a body flew down, a grasping hand flew up, and caught upon a neck. A dwarf tumbled down, then sprang to his knees again in an instant. Cries of "Errgh! Get off me!" and "Owww! By the White Hand, he's bitten me!" and then one of "Khazad ai-menu!" erupted form the brawl as Bifur practically flew over a nearby fence with his halberd out and pointed at the nearest Man daft enough to be found there. His bushy grey brows fell over positively crazed eyes, for the battle-lust was in Bifur, fresh and hot-running now that he had true kin to protect. He swiped this way and that, and the Men were finally being pushed back against the mine entrance, when suddenly two of them got the idea to roll barrels across the street, and clean bowled poor Bifur over, throwing his halberd far out of reach, and then poor Bombur, who fell on top of him, and neither were able to get up.

The Man who'd been sat upon by Bofur now regained his awful composure, and scooped up said dwarf in one movement of his arm. He caught the toymaker by his throat and pinned him on top of a workbench, with his mattock laying useless on the ground. Bombur and Bifur moaned from the road, and Bofur squirmed and kicked in helpless, trembling fear, sputtering and choking on pleas for aid.

With his free hand that Man had produced another small steel knife, and was holding it up the light and saying, "Well, I'm glad that's all settled, then. How many drops of your blood do you think is payment enough for today's little distraction? I suggest the currency because your brother makes it appear you have none other." Then he smiled horribly.

Bofur spit in his face.

In wiping the saliva off, the man's smile disappeared too, and his raised the knife high above his head, mustering the force to bring it back down upon the poor dwarf when a great roar thundered from among the crowd—

"ENOUGH!"

Like a thunderclap, silence followed. It all stopped. The knife hung in the air, and Bofur and the Man forgot to finish their breaths. No one in the crowd moved, or made a noise, and all of the remaining mining Men followed suit. Even Bombur and Bifur stopped squirming, trying to regain their footing.

Who had spoken was Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King Under the Mountain, but then he was just one of the blacksmiths. Sure he was strong and a very hard-worker, and could work straight without talking or fooling around like some of the newly trained Men did, so that he produced far more wrought metal, and of far greater quality, than many of equal rank. He had a commanding presence, which demanded great respect, though he never with word or gesture asked for it. One could say, I suppose, that he was asking for it now, for it was holding a white-hot poker in the Man's face.

"Put him down," Thorin sighed, and the Man obeyed immediately.

Bofur collapsed to the ground in a fragile little heap, and the man dropped his steel knife and kept his hands in the air while Thorin kept the searing end of the poker near enough to his nose. The Prince reached an arm down and helped Bofur to his feet, then they both helped Bombur up, and poor crushed Bifur as well. They were too awed to dust themselves off, or really do anything but stare at their Prince with slack jaws and wide eyes.

"I trust no one was seriously injured?" Thorin asked the gathering of Men. They too were awed by the kingly dwarf, and shook their heads dumbly, checking that their limbs were intact only as an afterthought. They backed away, back towards the entrance to the mines, and stayed there while Thorin still held the poker. "Good," Thorin replied. "Then I suppose this is all over, and you can all go back to your work."

This last was addressed at the gathered crowd of people of the town who had witnessed the battle, but they too trembled and looked from each other and back and dared not move.

"Am I not speaking clearly!?" Thorin roared, and at once the crowd dispersed.

Soon all who were left standing in the street were the three shaken dwarves, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur, and the future King Under the Mountain.

"That was a brave thing you did," Thorin said at first to Bofur, then to the three of them together. "You're a loyal group, and know when Men need to be shown their places. What are your names, brave dwarves?"

They stood in the street together formally introducing themselves, bowing low to their Prince, with not only their names but their families, for Thorin was curious, about Bifur's history at Khazad-dum, and his sudden appearence recently, about the toyshop and Bombur's idea to make extra money in mining, and they dusted themselves off in many places that needed dusting off, and while Thorin looked on Bombur and Bofur hugged each other and thanked each other in quite unintelligible brotherly apologies. And it was already early in the afternoon when Thorin said, "Come," and took the three of them into the back of the blacksmith shop, once Bofur had picked up his mattock again, for sentiment's sake, and gave them lunch and ale and they warmed their still taut nerves against a furnace.

"There are not many loyal hearts like yours left south of Ered Luin," Thorin told them when evening was coming on. "It gladdens mine to know there are yet three." The three were embarrassed at such praise from the young Prince, but then he spoke again, so they would not be so humbled. "I have been preparing for a quest. A great quest, which would require travel far to the east, over the Misty Mountains to the old stronghold of Erebor. There I would reclaim our long-forgotten gold from the dragon Smaug, and the dwarves would have a home once more, where we would serve no Men." Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur nodded vigorously at this, like children about to be told an exciting tale. "I wonder, would you three ever join me on this quest?"

The three toymakers nearly dropped their mugs. They rocked back on their stools, shooting shocked glances at one another. Bofur almost laughed, but dared not in front of the Prince, who was so stone-faced.

"Join you?" Bofur stammered instead. "The three of us, you mean?"

"Yes," said the prince.

"Why—we're not warriors!" Bombur said.

"Yea, you saw me with that mattock out there," Bofur said. "I'm no good at fightin'."

"You could be," Thorin answered, taking a swig of beer. "With training. And you certainly would be rich, after we've reclaimed the treasure of my grandfather." This set Bofur on his stool, to contemplate.

Bifur added, "Men lananubukhs menu!" to which Thorin said, "Thank you."

Bombur was contemplating his half-empty mug, and his wiped-clean plate of dinner. "What about this?" he asked, pointing at the meal.

"Oh," Thorin said, this time allowing a smile to crack through his lips. "That's what you're after. Yes, the beer will be free. What do you say?"

The brothers and cousin looked at each other with the glint of adventure in their eyes, and Thorin was answered.