It was nearly midday and the summer sun shone without mercy on Lori's little tent, reinventing it into a hothouse with her sleeping in a steady sweat inside. If not for her exhaustion she would have tossed and turned from the heat, but instead she got steadily more and more dehydrated in her semi-unconscious state.
When someone gently shook her foot, she woke up groggy with a pounding headache and all of her movements were sluggish due to both fatigue, muscle aches, bruises and dehydration. She stumbled out of her tent in a daze and Fili handed her a water skin with a worried look on his face. She quickly gulped down half a liter of water and sat down to collect herself for a moment.
"You okay?" He asked quietly.
"I will be. Just give me a minute." The world swam before her eyes and there was a creeping blackness in the periphery of her vision. "I'm a little hot." She breathed deeply trying to regain her equilibrium.
Kili, having overheard her while he was watering the horses behind her, quickly decided to help the poor girl by unloading the contents of his bucket over her head. The water contrasted violently with the overheated temperature of Lori's skin because the cold mountain river came from the melting snow on the Ettinmoors, making her jump up rigidly. After a second or two, she gasped deeply for air before letting out a loud guttural scream.
Kili, who had been standing behind her with a big grin on his face, thought better of his games when Lori's murderous stare turned on him. Even under wet sloppy braids that clung un-fetching to her face, she looked positively terrifying, with boiling cheeks and purple fire in her eyes.
He stumbled backwards and threw down the bucket before he bolted at full speed for the woods. "Now now, Lori! It was only a joke!" He called over his shoulder.
"KILI! Get back here, you coward!" She shrieked and tore after him.
Kili, for all of his silliness, was wise enough not to obey her and didn't slow down until the river bend cut him off. By the time he reached the edge where a small, steep incline led to the waist deep water, he was out of escape routes. He turned with his hands raised in an appeasing manner, only to be tackled by a flying bundle of soggy Lori.
They landed in the frigid water in a tremendous splash, and they forgot their feud instantly as the chill hugged every part of their skin in a rush of cold. Gasping and panting they reached the surface and clung to each other's arms to stand steady in the strong current. When they finally found their feet, their eyes met and mirth spread on both their faces, quickly erupting into a loud laughter.
"Truce?" Kili offered when the last chuckles faded.
"Truce… For now." She consented through now chattering teeth. "But never peace! I will get you back eventually."
"Oh, goes without saying!" He grinned. "Let's get out of this freezing water."
"Gladly!" She stumbled to the edge and grabbed the roots that protruded the earth to pull herself and Kili in. He gave her a leg up to the grassy shore, and Lori in turn pulled him out of the river. She was wringing the water from her long hair when Kili looked at her, blanched and instantly turned his back on her.
"Uh, Lori? You'd better dry off or cover up before we return…"
"What do you mean?" She looked at the back of his head from under her messy braids that were all but undone by now.
"Your, uhm… Shirt," He gestured awkwardly at her with his back still turned. "It's wet. And you can see straight through it… I mean… Uhm…"
"Oh!" She grabbed the white fabric and held it away from her skin, attempting to wring the water from it.
"Yeah… Wouldn't want Thorin to see you like that." He mused.
"Thorin? Well no. But I wouldn't want any of you other guys to see me like that either."
"Oh, I wouldn't mind…" He shrugged nonchalant and almost dismissive.
"Kili!" She gaped at him, aghast at his audacity.
His back stiffened and he fiddled uncomfortably, trying to find a hole in the ground he could sink into. "No! No no no no, that wasn't what I meant, I promise!"
"Well, what did you mean then?" She glared sourly at the back of his head.
"I only meant that you are in no danger from the rest of us. Err… I mean… Not that you're in any danger from uncle. Not in that way, anyway…"
Her brows furrowed deeper and she tried to gather any meaning from the young dwarf's rantings. "What on earth are you talking about?"
"Nothing! Nothing at all… Let's just get you dry and back so we can start searching for the cave."
"What cave?" She asked, even more puzzled.
"Oh, that's right. You don't know…" He glanced over his shoulder at her, satisfied that she was no longer indecent. "The trolls might have a cave nearby, and we're going to go look for it."
"Why would we do that?" She had a sneaking suspicion that she knew where this was going.
"Trolls are well-known for hoarding treasure and stolen goods in their caves. We might find something we can use." He turned and offered her his vest for modesty so she didn't need to cover herself with her arms.
"Ah… Treasure. You mean to say that you dwarves have an affinity for treasure?" Her eyes were large and innocent, and Kili fell for her act without hesitance.
"We dwarves can make such wonders of precious stones and metals as you have never seen! We are the greatest craftsmen of all things that dwell in the earth and…" Finally he saw the mirth in her eyes. "You're making fun of me?" His eyes squinted in suspicion, but his lips still smiled.
"Oh no, master dwarf. I would never!" She tried to hold her face, but failed. "But you forget that I have dwarven ancestry myself, not to mention that I've read loads of books, even ones on our secretive race." She smiled as they walked side by side through the woods.
"Right…" He scratched his cheek awkwardly. "I suppose you know of our great obsessive love of gold as well?"
Her humor fell away. "I do. I've read the stories of Thror, and the dragon sickness that took him." Her head hung in reverent memory. "It was a tragedy."
"It was a disgrace, you mean." Kili's words turned uncharacteristically hard. "If not for his greed, the dragon Smaug would never have come. We would still have our home." He turned sad, which was a most unnatural thing to behold for Lori, who only knew him as a dwarf of merrymaking and action.
"I am sorry, Kili," Lori put her hand comfortingly on his shoulder. "However, I don't believe he did it out of malice or lack of love for your people, but I understand your grief nonetheless. His sickness cost you so much."
"If he loved his people so, why didn't his love stop his greed?" Kili's young voice pleaded as he spoke of a doubt he had often struggled with. "I've never understood that."
"I don't know, my friend. But let's undo the hurt he put on your people all those many years ago, and maybe someday you'll find it in your heart to forgive your great-grandfather his wrongdoings, yes?"
Kili sighed and nodded. "Aye, perhaps that is for the best."
"Come, I need to change into dry clothes before we leave." She offered him another smile as they picked up the pace back to camp.
Thorin had to admit that he was intrigued. Three large trolls could have gathered immense amounts of treasure over the years, and now it was theirs for the taking. He was on alert, just in case the three monsters had not been alone, even though it was unusual for them to even travel in packs as large as three.
The first thing that alerted him to the fact that this was indeed the right cave, was the putrid stench of decay and excrement that hit his nostrils in a thick mist of rot. Never in his life had he smelled anything so foul, and travelling with a bunch of male dwarves, that was saying a lot. Inside was a macabre collection of body parts in varying states of decay, a decoration of human hands on spikes, where he to his deep horror saw that two of them were child-sized. There were collections of skulls from both human, sheep, a few dwarves and orcs littered around the floor, evenly spread through the piles of trash, riches, gold, armor, weaponry, silks and troll shit.
Here and there were meat hooks adorning the cave ceiling, and on them were different limbs of flesh from both beasts and men. Trolls apparently didn't seem to discern if their meal consisted of animals or talking beings, and these particular trolls had been passionate about their culinary arts. He even saw dried sage and coriander hanging in dried bundles for seasoning amidst the macabre displays. Thorin gagged and covered his face with his sleeve.
He, Gandalf, Gloin, Bofur and Nori started to tentatively look through barrels and boxes, hoping to find something useful or valuable, at the same time as dreading to discover something morbid and horrifying.
A small exquisite jewelry box covered in webs and dust stood next to a couple of rolls of old carpets. Thorin crouched down to look closer at it whilst Gloin called for Nori to fetch a shovel. It was a hand-carved wooden box depicting chains of small delicate flowers on the sides, and a dancing couple on the top. He opened it and found that it contained cracked bracelets and broken necklaces, scratched rings and a few hair clasps, that some amateur had tried to adorn with engravings even though he obviously hadn't had the tools nor the talent for the job. In short, the fine box was full of scrap.
One hair clasp stood out from the rest, though. It was solid and untouched, the hinges small and almost invisible, and the surface shone brighter than any silver Thorin had ever seen.
It was clear to him that whoever had made this band had nothing to do with the craftsmanship of the rest of the box's contents. This was clearly dwarfish artwork, but it was painfully unfinished, like a great love song that no one had ever heard. Perhaps the craftsman had died before he could finish his work. Perhaps he had been forced to sell it prematurely to feed his family. Such a story would not have been unlikely among his own people as they scrambled across Middle Earth, struggling to stay alive after the dragon had destroyed their homes and the elves abandoned them.
It dawned on him that if that was truly the case, the clasp could very well be mithril, a piece of jewelry worthy of a king or queen once it was properly carved and shaped. He would have to ask some of the others in the company, because his own expertise in smith work lay with crafting tools, weapons and to an extent, armor. He didn't know nearly enough about precious metals to discern the value or the best way to finish this item.
As he slipped it into his pocket, an image of Lori in a fine dwarfish garb, adorned with fur, white gold and deep purple silk popped into his mid unbidden. Her hair would hold at least one perfect braid and the clasp would flash brilliantly on it as she stood by his side. Perhaps he had even been the one to put it there himself after tending diligently and caring to her hair after messing it up in the first place.
A pleasant shiver ran through him and he shook himself out of his reverie. Those kinds of thoughts had come up far too frequently lately. The woman, the girl, was never far from his mind since she'd slept in his arms after her fall. But she couldn't be much older than Fili's 82 years, less than half of Thorin's 195, and the thought of his own lustful reaction to her was scandalous to him if he allowed himself to dwell on it.
Then there was the question of her lineage. She wasn't even a full dwarf, which showed clearly in the way she moved, her elegant build and her lack of facial hair. It was a strange thing that he should feel so attracted, as foreign and different as she was, but still his thoughts kept revolving around her. His sight was constantly drawn to where she was and ever did he check her whereabouts and well-being from afar.
Not to mention that if he succeeded in reclaiming the throne of Erebor, his queen would have to be accepted by his clan, and never before had a half-dwarf been included into their society. Actually, the mere fact that her mother's mother had married a human was enough to have her exiled from her family, clan and race. Still, there would be no denying that her beauty would fit any throne, and her strong will would make her a force to be reckoned with in the political landscape.
Oh, but who was he kidding. She could have anyone she wanted, do anything she liked, and she had given no indication that his advances would be welcome. In fact, she seemed much more open with his nephews and the rest of the dwarves than she did with him, the exiled king of a homeless people. The shame and misfortune that Thror had brought upon them was now his, and until he undid the calamity, he would not re-grow his beard or be worthy of anyone's favor.
Thorin sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. These thoughts had plagued him almost since he learned that she was tagging along in Hobbitton, and they had only gotten worse. The likelihood that he could solve this puzzle now, while standing in a stinking troll hoard, was minimal. He would keep the clasp for her and not think on it too much if he could help it. Maybe it would disappear on its own in time, just as it had come, this… Infatuation. Yes, that's all it was. Infatuation.
Surely it would pass in time.
Lori had stayed outside the reeking cave when Gandalf and some of the dwarves dove into it in search of… Whatever it was they were hoping to find in there. Even if they did find heaps of gold and precious stones, there was no possible way to take it with them, so her understanding of their eagerness was somewhat lacking.
She sat up on a cliff keeping watch while the search went on, occasionally glancing at the opening in the mountain where she'd last seen Thorin. Her gut clenched uncomfortably when she thought about him. Coming back to camp drenched and wearing his youngest nephew's waist coat he had sent her a look that she didn't quite know how to interpret.
At first it had been almost murderous, but then when he looked her over and caught her eyes, it contained a heat that all but set her on fire in turn. They'd stared at each other for all of five seconds before Kili crossed her line of vision and broke the contact, but in that short moment her pulse had risen to a dull roar, her legs felt weak and her stomach did funny flips. Perhaps the cold dip in the river had made her sick.
It was impossible for her to guess his thoughts, and she was nervous that she had done yet another thing to antagonize him, for surely it would be her last. The way he had reacted this morning left some doubt in her mind as to whether he thought that she was a nuisance or a help to the company. Come to think of it, she did almost consistently go against his authority. It wasn't that she didn't respect his leadership or that she didn't want to follow it, goodness no! It was just that she'd never been under a commander before and it was difficult for her to adapt.
The last person she'd had to obey had been her sweet mother, and she'd died when Lori was in her fifties over a hundred years ago. Gandalf was a kind teacher and guide, as well as her ward and protector in those first, grieving years with him, but he never demanded authority over her. With him, everything was her own choice, and she'd gotten so accustomed to this freedom, that fitting into a system of ranks and orders had become hard for her now.
She decided then that she would need a real part to play in the company if she was to fit into it. Everybody had their roles and chores, except for her and Gandalf. It didn't seem to bother the wizard, but it did bother Lori. She wasn't a Maiar like him, and she would like to be a part of a community for once in her life, even if it would take some learning effort on her part. She only hoped that Thorin would give her a chance to prove that she could be an asset to him and not just a tag-along nuisance.
If only he would let her stand watch or some such thing. Her eyes and ears were extremely sharp and would be well utilized for that. But maybe she'd have to prove herself to gain the trust she needed for them to put her in the rotation. She would have to take up watch alongside one of the others then, and seeing as it was Thorin she was trying to prove her value to, he would have to be the one she followed. Hopefully he wouldn't take offence, or they would be in for some very long nights together.
Glad that she had made the decision, she started to relax as she watched the dwarves and Gandalf emerge from the grotto. They were examining the bounty of what seemed to have been a very successful expedition, and she smiled when she saw Gandalf hand Bilbo a large dagger that looked like a short sword in his hobbit-sized hand. It was a beautiful and fitting weapon indeed.
Just then, she heard a distant rustle and crushing of the underbrush and immediately stood and turned her eyes towards the east. It came closer very rapidly, but the forest hid the source from her sight. She tried for a few seconds to discern the noise, and it sounded as if it was a small army of paws coming towards them at breakneck speed.
Panicked she sought out Thorin's eyes that had been glued to her from the moment she jumped up.
"Thorin!" She called for him and he nodded quickly.
"Something's coming!" He yelled, making all of the dwarves flurry in activity to get themselves ready.
"Hurry now," Gandalf shouted. "Stay together. Arm yourselves."
Lori saw an annoyed look on Thorin's face at the orders to his men, and broke into a grin when she caught his eye. With a quick wink, she hurried down from her cliff to join the company in formation. It was nice to see that she wasn't the only one's nerves the old wizard could get on at times.
Everyone was on high alert and could now clearly hear what Lori had picked up on before them. Suddenly, a loud rustle and explosion of leaves spat out twelve large rabbits pulling a sleigh with a shouting madman on it.
"THIEVES! FIRE! MURDER!" The raving lunatic glared around at the company with a sneer, as his baffling, yet somehow comical procession came to a halt.
"Radagast!" Gandalf exclaimed and sheathed his sword with a welcoming smile. "It's Radagast the Brown." He informed them as if he was a long-expected party guest. Slowly the dwarves lowered their arms and relaxed.
As Gandalf proceeded to talk to the odd man to clarify his purpose, the fellow pulled a stick insect out of his mouth in the middle of the conversation, something Lori almost gagged at, she couldn't help but remember his earlier words; That Radagast was a great wizard. In his own way.
But at least danger was gone for now. Once again she looked at Thorin, who seemed to have similar thoughts to hers, judging by the smirk on his face. He saw her and nodded imperceptibly before turning around and distributing guards on the perimeter until the wizards had finished their business.
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