Se Isarn Khuzd: The Iron Dwarf (seven)

Prologue: Many Secret Meetings

Disclaimer: I own nothing. Also, a note on canon: Tolkien claimed Bilbo's account of the journey was entirely from Bilbo's point of view and not entirely historically accurate, which explained his irregularities between The Hobbit and what Tolkien needed to set up LOTR. I'm using that as my headspace canon. Anything that happened in the movie is 'real' and the novels are 'interpretation' by the people in Middle Earth who recorded the events.

Origins of Names Given

Humans believe the name of a dwarf determines the personality. Dwarves know the opposite to be true. Some dwarves wait decades to be given their name, taking on temporary nicknames until then. The person closest to the child gives the name, be it a parent, or a guardian not of the same blood, but of the same mind. Throughout their lives dwarves carry two names. Their one, true name, known only to them and their kin. And the name known to the world which embodies everything they are.


Village of Gil at the base of the Blue Mountains

Sometimes being a close personal friend to the king-in-exile's niece can be frustrating. For example, when she receives an invitation to a secret meeting being held at the end of day and I don't. Fortunately, the king's niece and the king's nephews come as a packaged deal. And the nephews can't tell a lie if their lives depend on it. Something about that entire line, I believe.

Honest to a fault.

Earlier today I cornered Kili in his room. I caught him packing for the secret adventure Fili is whisking him off on. Although not happy to see me, Kili had known he owed me for keeping his secret. Calling in on that favor, I demanded to be told where his sister, Sefi was. He tried to be regal and arrogant about staying silent at first, but that never works on me. He's only two years older, and I've seen him go pale as an elf child when faced with his mother's wrath. And Dis would be very angry to find out the truth about her sons' adventure. Suffice to say, he confessed that tonight Dis and Sefi were staying late in Gil, the human village we trade with. He and Fili intended to use the opportunity to sneak away unnoticed. I helped him pack while he explained everything. Or I would have, if he hadn't continually attempted to forcefully remove me from his room. After I learned everything I needed to know, I finally let him catch me. He picked me up, dumped me outside his room, and slammed the door. Sometimes being short even for a dwarf has it's downsides.

What Kili doesn't know, because I haven't felt the need to tell him, is that Dis suspects something. I have no chance at finagling my way into the boys' adventure. Kili might be persuadable, but Fili is more likely to tie me up and leave me under a rock somewhere. And then feel guilty about it, and leave a note for Bofur to find me by the time it's too late to catch up. However, if Dis decides to chase after her wayward sons, she will need a scout to spy on them, and the entire kin knows I'm the logical choice for that.

Which is why I am currently running down the main street of Gil, dodging humans.

Life in the swamps at the base of the blue mountains is hard, and human feet are delicate, so raised walkways connect the entire village. My metal-toed dwarven boots smack the wooden planks in resounding hollow clomps as I run. I skid around a bend in the road, propelling myself forward off the handrails. I nearly knock over a barrel, hurdling it with a running leap.

"Watch where you're going, lad!" the barrel owner yells after me.

I wave and keep running. In between heavy breaths, I laugh gleefully at the success of my disguise, necessary because of the One Rule. Tradition dictates dwarven women never leave the caves. There are few of us left. Too many inexplicably sickened and died on the retreat from Erabor to the Blue Mountains. The rule is now kept strictly. Since the dragon attack happened over one hundred years ago, and I've never even seen the mountain let alone the palace inside, I find the rule dreadfully limiting. Each year the elders choose a few exceptions to trade with the humans, but given my already nefarious reputation among the kin, I will never be among them. The elders are loath to risk me disgracing the name of the Longbeards in front of humans. They chose Sefi instead, which contented me. My time was better spent outside hunting in secrecy with Kili and Fili. Until tonight. Tonight the select six exceptions to the One Rule prepare to discuss important business privy only to them in a place only they can access. Important business I long to be involved in.

Yet because of the ban, every time I venture into the human world, I must expertly knot my long hair in braids, working strands back and forth across the lower half of my face and hanging the excess down my chin to create an illusory beard. Dwarves recognize the beard as fake, but it fools humans.

When my fellow beardless wonder, Kili first saw my disguise years ago, he nearly passed out from laughing. I was forced to throw a knife between his toes to help him breathe normally again. After confiscating all my knives, for unfortunately my lack of aim is as well known around the kin as is my ability to be in places I shouldn't, Kili begged me to braid his hair too. I did, and showed him the secret, feeling unusually empathetic to the dwarf prince because I've seen the other dwarflings tease him. Never outright thanks to the King's influence, but in cruel, subtle ways, driving him to only associate with his brother and his uncle's friends. Kili and I wore our beards around the mountain with pride, until his Uncle found out and put an end to it. Nowadays, Kili believes himself too old, too important and sporting far too much stubble for childish games, leaving me to escape the confines of the palace alone.

I refocus my mind on the task at hand, my goal in sight. Leaping off a wooden bench, I land briefly on the handrail behind the Boarding House before flinging myself at the hanging sign above the back door. The backdoor leads to the kitchen and connects to the rocky platform where supplies arrive daily on the spoke wheeled carts humans use to navigate the marshes without the help of boardwalks. Swinging on the sign's pole for momentum, I hurl across the gap and land heavily on the stone. I push through the wooden door to the kitchen.

"Kid!" the cook says with surprise, fanning her face and clutching the counter beside her.

"Tell me which table capable of holding six dwarves is the most private" I gasp at her in a rush.

"The corner in the old hall," Jo-Jo says.

I stumble in that direction.

"Between the courtyard and the bathroom!" Jo-Jo calls after me.

"Thanks!" I call back, "And I was never here."

Jo-Jo snorts and returns to her stove.

I emerge from the kitchen, make my way to the hall, and slide underneath the tablecloth in the corner with no time to spare. Before being engulfed in heavy woven fabric, I notice six female dwarves entering through the front door. The human women in the eatery stare suspiciously. I silently huddle beneath the table. Soon six pairs of boots appear below the cloth's hem. I know the owners by the leather and buckles. The king's sister, Dis, wears the regal black. Her daughter and eldest child, Sefi, sits next to her in simple pale suede.

When Sefi sits down she hikes the tablecloth around her legs and uncovers a crude notebook. She expertly arranges the book on her lap, pen poised on the blank page ready to take secret notes. I gaze proudly at the notebook. I half earned the money to buy that bit of writing paper. Kili, Fili, and I snuck out every night for three months to go hunting and sold the spoils to Jo-Jo. Together, the three of us bought paper, cloth, and leather and bound the book ourselves. Sefi intends to be the next great author of history. Except women aren't exactly encouraged to write. The elders dictate only the elite male scribes in the kin be taught dwarven runes to maintain secrecy. Sefi must make do with handcrafted charcoal pencils and hide everything from her mother. If she can't get paper she writes on the walls of her bedroom until Dis discovers the scratchings and yells at her to stop wasting her time. Ever eager to disobey their mother, Kili and Fili try to provide Sefi with a steady supply of paper. Dis still hasn't quite forgiven them or the dwarf who taught Sefi to write in the first place, Pru.

Speaking of, Pru sits next to Sefi. The middle aged dwarf's spiked boots rest firmly on the ground. If any place on her body exhibits a logical excuse for spikes, Pru adds spikes. This includes her hair, which she wears unfashionably short and sculpts around her skull in prickles resembling a porcupine. No word of disrespect or disapproval reachers her ears, however. Rumor says she kills dwarves and men for less.

On the other side of Dis, Erna's ruggedly practical boots ooze half encrusted mud. With four sons, the youngest not even a grown warrior yet, Erna embraces dirt. Her youngest, Gimli, is a particularly curious dwarf with not an ounce of skill at stealth. He insists on dogging Sefi's footsteps every time she sneaks into the human library, excursions that always end with them getting caught. Sefi told me he always reads the books on elves. He says the interest only pertains to research for an eventual revenge, but Sefi suspects the Elven race secretly fascinates him. When he found out his father and the King were taking Kili and Fili on an expedition without him, he threw a fit.

Next boot under the table, is my aunt Alfruna's snow white suede. Her boots daintily cross at the ankle and appear deceptively delicate. In truth, the leather takes a great beating and must be the stiffest, toughest of the lot. Aunt Alfruna is forever tripping over nothing. I suspect her head is only half in reality at any given moment.

Last in the line, my great grandmother's ancient stompers rest heavily on the wood floor, toed with iron identical to mine, and covered in colorful hand-knit warmers. She can crush fingers with those soles.

I wriggle with excitement and drag my knees against my chest to avoid catching a stray boot in the shin during the heated discussion. Dwarves tend to express their feelings physically. I ignore the first half, dealing with the pleasantries and greetings. My mind slips into a favorite daydream; a Balrog, akin to the one deep in Moria, rises from the depths of the Blue Mountains to seek vengeance, the men away on quests and trading expeditions, a lone lass, trained as a warrior, stands between the evil foe and the innocent people of the underground city, the fight is terrible but in the end...

"I sense a pattern," Dis's words interrupt my imaginings, "He calls for warriors, all except my sons."

"My husband mentioned new trade agreements with the hobbits before leaving Gimli and I," Erna adds, "He's taking Bofur and Dori, and all the close relations. Toymakers, all of them."

"His excuse sounds plausible, but still doubtful considering the rumor that Dwalin and Balin have been seen on roads leading back from Gondor," Dis comments, "Those two warriors haven't been home in years. Not since..." She trails off, lost in memory.

"Exactly," Erna interrupts solemnly, "If Thorin is indeed calling a meeting, I don't appreciate your brother stealing my husband away when Gimli is at an age where even the rocks around him can't seem to contain him anymore."

"If I could talk to my brother..." Dis starts.

"You can't talk to Thorin, no one can talk to Thorin once he gets an idea in his head," Erna laughs, "Except that blasted wizard friend of his. There's a meddler if I've ever seen one."

"We can't decide anything until we know their plans," Dis argues.

"Erabor," Pru grunts. Being a poet, Pru never says much, unless she can shock and awe her audience. The brief silence that follows her single word gratifies her need.

"No!" Erna breathes disbelievingly, "Even Thorin wouldn't be that foolish."

"Especially with such a group..." Dis adds.

"He would get lost," Erna throws in.

"My brother," Dis concurs, "Couldn't find his backside with a map and a key."

"Wizard," Pru grunts.

Silence again.

"No!" Erna hoots a little louder this time, slamming her fist one the table, "That meddler! Hasn't the kin born enough strife already? Why bring on more?"

"Taking back our home can hardly be described as 'bringing on' strife," Dis chides.

Pru grunts and waves a fist in agreement.

"There are so few of us left," Erna insists, banging her hand on the table to punctuate each word, "You and I have done our duty, Dis. Married, continued the great lines of our people, raised our children. I will not see them die in war like so many others," she casts a judgmental glance in Pru's direction, "Perhaps some without offspring can't understand."

Pru stands threateningly, shaking the table.

"No one has taken your Gimli away from you," Dis reminds Erna crossly, "Nor any of your other sons."

"Yet!" Erna counters, "Perhaps after your brother, in his blind arrogance, gets every dwarf in his current company killed he'll return for more."

"They will not come to harm," Dis hisses between clenched teeth, "My brother would die first."

"Yeah?" Erna asks with a melancholy laugh, "Then the dragon is going to simply give all that gold over for no reason. No one can ensure the company returns alive."

"I can," Dis insists, stomping her feet as she stands.

"How? With what army?" Erna leaps to her feet, glaring up at the taller dwarf, "Because it would require an army."

An argument breaks out between Dis and Erna, with Sefi chirping in uselessly on occasion. I curl my body in tighter to avoid the stamping feet.

"Follow!" Pru barks.

Immediate silence, heavy and full.

The humans in the other room hastily turn their heads back to their food, embarrassed to be caught eavesdropping on dwarves. A dull murmur of conversation fills the inn.

Erna and Dis sit down, shocked into propriety.

"What about the rule?" Erna asks quietly, solemnly.

More silence. Amma's feet shake under the table. Amma never talks. Instead she signs, leaving me in the dark, unable to see her hands. Murmurs of agreement follow Amma's addition to the conversation. Being the only surviving female elder, everyone obeys Amma's wishes. Everyone.

"It's settled then," Dis confirms, "We have fifteen days. First order of business, find out exactly what happens at the 'trade' meeting in the Shire."

"Auga said that Kili told her..." Sefi mumbles quietly. I kick her in the shin. It must have been a harder kick than I intended because she jumps and gives a squeal. Before I can move, the tablecloth next to Dis jerks upward and the dark haired woman angrily peeks her head below.

"Hi," I say with a smile.

Dis's hand reaches down and yanks me out by my beard. She slams me onto the middle of the table, her hand remaining at my throat.

"I didn't mean to spy, I was simply visiting my good friend Jo-Jo, and..." I rattle off a hastily invented excuse.

Dis shuts me up with a single look, "What did my son tell you?"

"He let it slip that Thorin told them to visit a Mr. Baggins," I answer, relieved to draw the attention away from my discretions and focus on Kili, "A hobbit in Hobbiton."

The dwarves exchange glances.

"Hobbiton? Where Gloin is headed?" Dis laughs, "I guess we better go visit Mister Baggins, then," Dis announces, her eyes glinting with a hint of amusement and excitement.

"We?" I choke.

"We'll leave at dawn," Dis nods, "Pru, our warrior. Erna, our guide. Sefi, our translator. And Amma and Alfruna," she does a head count, "Seven. Khzud. A lucky number among our people. That will bring speed and good fortune to our journey."

"What about me?" I ask, "What is my role?"

Dis smiles knowingly at me, "Considering your gift at sneaking around, I have plans for you."

I smile in return.


Six hundred miles West, in Rhudaur, at the entrance to the High Pass through the Misty Mountains

I haven't eaten in seven days. I've survived longer periods of starvation, but it still hurts. The ache in my stomach has died down to a dull roar, the pain pushed to the back of my mind for later consideration. I'm not hungry anymore. I chew on leaves to distract myself, or berries, if I can find them. Sometimes Adleitha brings me nuts.

But a person can't survive on nuts and berries for long.

Desperate, I find myself lurking in the trees behind the Lil Inn. The owners of the Lil know me. The woman hates me. The man tolerates me, rather as the trolls tolerate me. He would kill me, if he had the chance. To put me out of my misery.


Thankfully when I do steal from them, I'm fast. She never catches me. He never expends the energy chasing me requires. The Lil is the last safe rest house for miles. A welcome spot of civilization in wild country, even if the house's level of civilization is deteriorating and dingy. I suspect this is why they hate me. Food is eternally scarce. Especially with the trolls. Because of the trolls. The three will be down from the mountains again soon. Then I shall feast.

I'm considering stealing from the Lil tonight. Fortunately the house is unusually crowded. There are a few men there. Dangerous men, from the south. And even more interesting, a party of dwarves. With the owner's interest elsewhere, I might have a chance at nicking a pot of meat. Or bread. It would be wiser to take the bread. I wouldn't throw up afterwards. Meat can be too rich after a starving time.

I can see her through the diamond windows, serving the dwarves, smiling at the men. She enjoys company. The man sits in the kitchen by the pot and fire. The light silhouettes the back of his body. He's thinking about her, not me.

I ease my legs off the tree branch I'm perched on, and drop lightly to the ground. Adleitha glides down after me and burrows into my hair. I check the windows one more time. No one watches. Remaining half crouched, I bound across the open grass in two leaps and press myself up against the house's stone wall. The Lil nestles in the crook of a mountain's arm at the edge of a lake whose waters are as clear as the mirrors behind the Lil's bar. Crystal clear. I know because of the time I stood up and was confronted by a strange face framed by a dirty lion's mane during a theft. I didn't know who she was until I realized she was me. That was also the time the woman nearly caught me.

The sound of a heated argument already echoes out the kitchen window, always propped open in the summer because of the heat. The wordy fighting always happens when a company of men take shelter at the Lil. I never bother to listen. But an argument means an unattended bar; means unattended food. The woman leaves a pot of stew on a hot plate for easy serving. Travelers always need seconds.

My hands run along the ridges of the stones, searching for the loose one. Neither the woman nor the man are intelligent enough to figure out how I get inside. One stone block wiggles at my touch. I gently slide the stone inward. My hips fit through the opening with no excess space. Sneaking in would be impossible if I were the proper size. The passageway connects to the floor behind the bar. Squatting low to remain invisible, I creep across the dirty tile towards the pot.

In the reflection of the bar mirrors I can see the dwarves seated at a low table inset into the bay window. The candlelight reflects off the cracked stained glass. Each dwarf seems to be a different color. Perhaps because they wear dyed hoods representing their clans, the hues saturated by the colored light. Loud angry words come from their corner table. One dwarf appears increasingly disappointed. The three men sit across the room, pretending to be uninterested in the dwarves' discussion, yet oddly silent for the Lil's usual clientele.

"This quest is your own, Thorin son of Thrain, heir to the line of Durin, king of the Longbeards!" the dwarf in the grey hood exclaims. His boots pound the floor as he stands up to command attention, "Long have we sought tirelessly for peace, a secure home, where we can practice our craft without interruption. The Ironfists will not risk waking wrath once more."

I pause, staring transfixed at the table. The rest of the dwarves yammer their agreement while the lone dwarf in the blue hood, sitting slightly apart from the rest, silently accepts their judgement. Although he says nothing, underneath his eyes and in the set of his jaw, he seethes in anger.

"Very well," says blue hood, "That is your choice. And I must be on my way."

"On your way?" a dwarf in a yellow hood says, "Stay, rest. You can leave at dawn."

"Night has barely fallen, and I promised my kin a meeting in Hobbiton," blue hood explains, "I am already late."

The dwarves laugh, "What use are hobbits other than to grow the food to fill our bellies?"

"The Gray Wizard tells me there is something more," blue hood continues, "Something to tip the scales of luck in my quest."

The rest of the dwarves only laugh louder. One laughs so loud he spits out his drink.

"I wish you and your quest all the luck in the world, lad," the yellow hood announces with a grin, "Only that it does not darken my doorstep."

The blue hooded dwarf nods gravely and does not join in when the discussion switches over to mundane topics such as the steadily emptying pints of ale around the table.

Recalling my original purpose, I shrug my cache of water skins off my back. The sacks of leather tied to straps stolen from various travelers over the years can hold enough stew to last me a week. Longer if I ration properly, which I never do. I uncap one and begin ladling the warm broth into it. The smell gives me strength, filling my mind and easing the dull pain. I spare a precious second to breathe it in. In that time another figure looms over me. The yellow hooded dwarf. He exclaims in surprise to discover me hiding behind the counter. I tumble backward, my water skins fall to the floor, and the stew slops out bit by bit. The woman hollers and crashes through the kitchen door.

She knows.

Too soon, she appears at the end of the counter, knife in hand. Terrified, I stumble backwards on all fours. By some luck, I failed to push the stone back into place before I stole the stew. Now, my error saves my life. I shoot out the opening and run as hard as I can.

"Stay out you miserable cretin!" the woman screams after me.

Instead of going to the trees, where I know she will search, I dash towards the front of the boarding house. I slide into the one place she would never think to look; underneath the front steps. The steps are old, wooden, and in poor shape. Vines cover the lattice on the right half, hiding a gaping hole. I crouch there for safety and listen to the thrashing sound of her snapping branches in the forest. Only when my head clears do I realize I left my water skins on the floor of the bar. I can't return to The Lil again. She will seal the entrance by tomorrow. I must steal new ones.

By luck or fate, a lone traveler steps out of the inn and onto the front porch. The wooden planks creak under his weight. I remain hidden in the shadows, waiting to take note of his direction and follow him. I intend to waylay him farther down his path and take his water skein. He is traveling, undoubtably he will come to a place where he can buy a new one.

As the traveler walks, I notice a blue hood.

The dwarf, traveling alone, at a time when few travelers would dare the road, on a quest no other dwarf in his circle would join. I have collected books on men, and elves, and dragons, on great wars and small, on forests, and mountains, and seas, but dwarves remain a mystery.

Adleitha notices something else entirely. He jumps from my hair onto my shoulder and makes faces at me, his bushy tail pointing emphatically towards the dwarf.

"Now is not the time for games," I hiss.

Adleitha pays no attention, leaps to the ground, scampers towards the unsuspecting dwarf, and scurries up his leg. The dwarf stops in surprise and dances a strange sort of jig in reaction to the tiny claws climbing on him. Adleitha disappears under the dwarf's cloak and reappears on the fur trim of his vest. Vest and cloak swing outwards as the dwarf spins to face his attacker, his ax at the ready and his right hand poised over his sword.

He confronts an empty yard. His eyes widen and dart around until finally they find mine. I'd forgotten how eyes glow in the dark, even when the rest of the body can't be seen. He lets out a breath and straightens up, leaning on his ax. He briefly looks to the side of the house, sees the stone block sliding back in place, and realizes who must be underneath the steps. Someone harmless, and hungry.

"Come out," he says quietly yet gruffly, "I won't hurt you."

I recognize a sympathy in his eyes. He's seen cold, desperate hunger himself. Hesitant, yet curious, I shift my crouch forward to let the yellow glow from the window illuminate my face. His mouth opens slightly, silently; probably surprised to discover I'm not an animal.

"I'm sorry," I say curtly.

"You talk?" his eyebrows raise.

"Of course, don't you," I reply.

He inclines his head in acknowledgment, assessing me from underneath his eyebrows.

"He thinks your fur is my hair," I explain.

After giving my head a surveying look, the dwarf narrows his eyes in confusion, "he?"

"Adleitha," I say, "The flying squirrel inside your vest."

Upon hearing his name, Adleitha clambers over the dwarf's shoulder to roll between the fur and black curls in the crook of the dwarf's neck. The dwarf watches the squirrel with a stony expression.

"Adleitha," he repeats, pausing to recall something long forgotten. His face remains deadly stoic, his eyes turning to meet mine, "Is Elvish."

"Yes. Means freedom."

"You speak Elvish?"

"Of course, don't you," I repeat my original line with extra sarcasm.

"No," he says, a thinly veiled disgust sneaking into his tone, "Take your pet and go."

"I can't."

"Why not?" his voice rumbles.

"If I move any father, I can be seen through the window."

He studies me silently.

"I must wait until the light is gone," I continue.

As if on cue, someone snuffs out the candle in the window. The dwarf tilts his head higher to stare down his nose and raises a brow, inviting me to collect the flying squirrel nestled in his collar bone. I carefully stand halfway up and take a few steps closer. When I reach him, I straighten, and discover I'm looking directly into his eyes. He is tall, for a dwarf. Almost exactly my height. I stretch my hands out, lift his hair gently off his cloak with one and scoop Adleitha carefully into the other. I take a step back, and our eyes meet again. Neither of us quite understands what the other is. And it bothers us; being uncertain of something.

"Cretin!" the screech from the front door of The Lil shakes us back to reality.

She's found me despite the darkness. I stood too long in one place. Before I can react a strong arm shoves my body to the side and the dwarf steps in front of me.

"That creature has stolen more food from me than is possible to repay," she cries, marching down on the dwarf. He keeps his body between me and the woman, glaring into her face, yet somehow maintaining his superior look down his nose.

"How much?" he asks.

His question replaces the anger on her face with shock.

"What?" she barks.

"How much is owed?" he repeats calmly, taking another step forward.

She names an impossibly high number. He pulls a small bag from his tunic, releases the drawstring, shakes out a few gold coins for proof, tips them back in, wraps the bag closed, and tosses it at the front porch. It lands with a chink on the wooden steps. The woman dives after it. Without sparing a second glance at me, the dwarf thrusts a larger bundle in my arms and walks off, pulling his blue hood up as he leaves. The woman tromps inside, muttering about crazy dwarves and slamming the door. I'm left standing alone.

I run up a tree and settle myself comfortably on one of the larger branches. Eagerly unwrapping the rags, my mouth waters with anticipation. I caught a whiff of the freshly baked travel biscuits when he handed them to me. The first one disappears in seconds. I eat the next slowly, carefully. My stomach probably can't handle more than three.

I'm licking the crumbs from my fingers after finishing the third biscuit when the first man tumbles out the door of the Lil. He laughs cruelly, dragging his dirty hair from his eyes to see better. The second man strides out onto the porch and, adding his voice to the laughter, kicks the first man down the rest of the stairs. The first man trips, pitching forward towards the dirt. Not a moment to spare, the second man catches the first by the seat of his pants and roughly stands him upright.

"Idiots!" a loud, arrogant voice yells over the other two's voices, "Stop fooling around. Pull yourselves together."

"But did you see the gold that old witch was counting in her palm?" the first man asks, slapping the second on the back. The two men are almost identical, both tall, lanky, and muscular with bodies hardened by labor.

"The dwarf must have bags of stolen gold to be throwing it away like that," the second man, or more accurately, woman says.

"Gold we haven't gotten yet," Another man exits the Lil, slamming the door behind him. He adjusts his frayed collar and pulls the tattered sleeves down on his frayed jacket. The cane in his left hand clunks slowly down the wooden steps as he takes them one at a time.

"Ah, but it will be!" the young man says.

"Which way did he go?" the woman asks, searching the ground around her and completely missing the dark footprints already filling with new mud.

The old man shakes his head back to express his irritation and remove his fluffy white hair from his eyes. He strolls in the correct direction, subtly noticing the footprints and saying nothing. His walk is casual, but hides a limp.

"The gold might pay for a new leg," the young man says, "One the right height. To replace the one the dwarves took."

"Hrmph," the old man gruffly puffs his chest out and continues to walk. The twins fall in behind him, still poking and pushing at each other.

I nearly drop my bundle of biscuits. I deftly gather the cloth around the leftovers, twist it tight, and tie it to one of the many leather belts wrapped around my waist. I slide along the tree branch and leap to the next one. Crawling from branch to branch, tree to tree, I follow the humans. I know they plan on ambushing the dwarf. The old man seems harmless. The twins, however, appear strong.

I try to convince myself the armed and undoubtably experienced dwarf can take care of himself. But the fight will be two against one and they might catch him unaware. The twins start to sing a song in the olden tongue of man. I can barely understand the nonsense words, but I hear enough; "death", "revenge", "axe", "sword", "glory".

I owe the dwarf. I must warn him.

Breaking into a run, I keep my balance by briefly touching branch after branch as I leap through the trees. The thick leather padding on my gloves stops my skin from being worn away by the bark. The cracked soles of my boots help my feet grip the uneven surfaces. I navigate the forest as swift and silent as a bird flying through the leaves.

Within minutes I find him. He walks tirelessly, though he hasn't gotten very far; a mile, maybe two. I follow in secret, high above him in the foliage. Despite my attempts to remain hidden, he senses a presence, whether by the slight noise or the movement in his peripheral vision. His stride becomes more alert, his head held high, turning to scan the forest on both sides. The fog at the end of the road fades to reveal the the three men trailing the dwarf's footsteps. A twig snaps. The men aren't bothering to walk quietly.

The dwarf slowly turns halfway around, steps to the side of the path, and rests his hands on the crest of his axe. A weary, annoyed expression settles on his face, though his stance is strong. His mouth forms a grim line and he watches the humans approach.

"Greetings master dwarf," the young man mocks, "Why do you stop?"

The young woman laughs jeeringly.

"You would be wise to continue down your path," the dwarf tells the man, bowing his head without taking his eyes off the humans. The stiffness in the dwarf's neck, and furrowed brows belie the apparent servility of the gesture. A carefully controlled anger lurks underneath the calm.

The humans, however, fail to pick up on the subtleties. The young twins stop a few paces away from the dwarf, putting their hands on their hips and fidgeting in a boisterous manner. The old man staggers over to the tree I'm hiding in, and lowers himself onto a root. He surveys the three standing in front of him with a bored expression.

"Have fun," he instructs his young companions with a flick of his hand, "But don't kill him. We don't need another mess to clean up."

The dwarf's brow rises in disdain. He rolls his eyes and sighs. The young man attacks first, eagerly swinging his sword at the dwarf's head, forcing the dwarf to step back and catch the sharp steel with the heavy wood of his axe. In a few strokes of his axe, the dwarf overpowers the man and sends him flailing backward. Before the dwarf can take advantage of the man's vulnerability, the woman lunges in an attack. She carries two smaller swords. Although faster, her technique is wild and imprecise. Regaining his feet, the man joins the fray. The fight grows in intensity. The dwarf's superior skill and strength outweigh the humans' longer reach. Watching from above, I'm mesmerized by the dwarf's fur trimmed coat swirling with each blow. In action he grows twice in size. Yet one cannot match two. The man creates a distraction, allowing the woman to discard her swords and lock her arms around the dwarf's shoulders from behind. The dwarf roars, tries to twist away, but the man kicks the dwarf's axe out of his hand. The loud crack catches my breath in my throat. I fear for the bones in his fingers. The dwarf stays eerily silent even as he slumps forward. Grimacing, and clearly working through pain, the dwarf staggers to his feet again, straining against the woman's hold.

With heavy breaths, the man raises his own sword and points it at the dwarf's chest, "You fight good, for a dwarf," he sheathes his sword, "But we have plenty of experience beating dwarves."

Another laugh from the woman.

"We killed the dwarves who forced our people out of the hills," he says and strikes the dwarf across the face with the back of his hand, "Every one. As reparations for the women and children cut down by Rohan warriors. Warriors who took our lands. Us left defenseless with no caves to escape to."

His speech sounds rehearsed. A well nurtured grudge, a story oft repeated to captive audiences. The dwarf offers no response except his unwavering angry glare.

Sensing the dwarf's pain, Adleitha scampers down my shoulder, across the clearing, and onto the dwarf's back. His movement goes unnoticed. A larger distraction might steal the human's attention away long enough for the dwarf to escape. I desperately hunt around the tree for an object to throw. Nothing. But below me sits the old man, calmly observing. I swing my legs to one side of the tree branch and yank my notched, dull food knife from my boot. Harmless, but possibly threatening enough or a brief moment.

"We want your gold, dwarf," the man spits, "Undoubtably stolen from an honest man."

The man punches the dwarf in the stomach. The dwarf doubles over, yet stubbornly raises his head with pride. Suddenly Adleitha pops out of the newly formed gap between the dwarf's tunic and flapping coat. The dwarf sense the movement and watches the squirrel out of the corner of his eye, a calculating expression on his face.

"What is that?" the man asks hesitantly, bewildered.

"A flying squirrel," the dwarf growls, slight amusement in his voice.

He knows.

I drop from the tree and land hard on the old man's shoulders. I wrap my legs around his body, dig my fingers into his hair, and press my knife to his exposed neck.

"Don't move," I whisper to him. The old man becomes still as stone.

"Release him," I yell to the others. The man and woman freeze, looking to my captive for direction. Silence falls, except for the twittering of birds and rustling of branches in the wind. No one realizes my knife can't cut more than cheese. The humans hesitate, unsure of their next move, possibly testing how necessary the old man is to their survival. I'm relying on the dwarf's superior strength to tip the balance.

The dwarf proves my assumptions correct. He breaks free of the woman's loosened grasp, kicks the man face-first into the dirt and simultaneously draws the man's sword from his belt. Swinging the sword expertly around his wrist, he knocks the man on the back of the head with the hilt. With a holler, the woman swings her swords wildly in the dwarf's direction. He ducks, slices open the woman's thigh, and dives into a roll to reclaim his axe. He charges at the woman's back, jumps, and aims the wooden heel of the axe at the back of her head. She collapses to the ground, unconscious.

Finished, he throws the man's sword to the ground and looks up at me. He gives a nod, eyes staring pointedly at my knife. An expert metalsmith, he can recognize a dull blade. He wants me out of the way.

"No!" the old man cries, misinterpreting the nod to mean I should cut his throat. He struggles in my grasp, "Unhand me, wretched animal!"

I whip the knife away from his throat, slide it into my boot, grasp the branch over my head, and kick my legs up into the tree. I spin backwards about the branch and climb safely through the foliage. Below, the dwarf advances on the pleading old man, knocks him out, and leaves him to lie at the base of the tree.

"You are safe now," he calls gruffly without sparing a glance at me.

I drop to the ground again and crouch near the old man. The dwarf searches the young man's pockets. Adleitha lies across the dwarf's head, half entangled in his hair, but the dwarf takes no notice. He lifts a coin bag and drops a number of pieces into his palm. Finished, he slips the purse into the man's coat and straightens. He picks up his axe, brushes dirt off the handle, and finally raises his eyes to meet mine. His expression hardens softly, a defiant glint in his eyes.

"Half of an hour's worth of work, they stole from me," he defends his actions, "I'm taking fair payment." He reaches down to unlatch something from the woman's clothes. The water skin he lifts is twice as large as any of my old ones. Water sloshes inside. The dwarf tosses it at me.

I catch the skin and cling to it tightly, still staring at him.

"You left yours behind in the Inn," he informs me.

I nod.

He nods in return.

I sling the water skin onto my back, attaching the straps to my own.

He watches me, "I suspect, had I not rescued you from the innkeeper, it would be my water skin on your back right now."

I stay silent. Verbal confirmation is unnecessary. He knows the truth. I saw it in his eyes back at the Inn.

"Thank you for giving your gold so freely," I answer instead.

"Think nothing of it," he casts his eyes towards the road behind him and sighs, "The gold was a bribe. Intended to persuade my kin..." he trails off, blinking in resignation, "It proved useless."

"Not completely useless," I add.

His eyes flick over to me. In two strides he closes the distance between us, stepping heavily around the fallen bodies. He stares down his nose at me and lifts an arm level with his shoulder.

"Your pet," he says. I detect the barest hint of a smile on his mouth but stubborn distrust in his eyes. Ever obedient to everyone except me, Adleitha scurries down the dwarf's hair, across his broad shoulder, and along his arm. I slowly straighten out of my crouch, maintaining eye contact. I leave one foot pointed towards the tree, half turned away from him, ready to sprint to safety at the slightest sign. He extends his hand and the flying squirrel jumps lightly into my own.

"Adleitha," I remind him.

The corner of his lip twitches, "And what are you called?"

"Depends on who you ask," I say defiantly.

He raises his brow, mild amusement in his eyes.

"Overgrown squirrel," I confess, "by the unobservant travelers on the road."

He gives me a brief, tight lipped smile before turning his face towards the ground and nodding.

"Cretin," I add, "by those who run the Lil."

A slight ripple of angry tension runs across his shoulders.

"Marmot, by the trolls."

He looks up in interest, surprised by my mention of the giants from the mountains.

"And Mot, by my friends," I conclude before he asks prying questions.

"Friends such as your pet," he comments.

"And others," I bristle, "I'm not entirely alone. Nor is this squirrel a pet. And his name is Adleitha, as I've told you before."

"I don't speak Elvish," the dwarf replies.

"Surely you can pronounce a name you've heard twice already."

"You misunderstand me," he explains, "I can speak Elvish fluently. I choose not to."

He watches me silently, a small smile on his lips.

I choose to ignore the insult to my second language.

"And you?" I ask, "What do they call you other than Master Dwarf?"

His eyes go cold. He turns to stare in disgust at the humans collapsed on the ground, "Do not remind me of their mockery," he warns.

I freeze, every muscle alert, the instinct of a squirrel who senses a disturbance in the air.

He notices my discomfort and sighs, "Thorin Oakenshield," he watches me out of the corner of his eye, "At your service." He inclines his head half an inch. He thumps his axe on the ground and strides off in his original direction as if he hadn't been nearly beaten and robbed.

"And what place calls so urgently you refuse a safe night's stay at the Inn?" I call after him.

He stops, hangs his head, examining his hand curled around the wood of his axe, lost in thought, and then turns to face me. The sadness in his blue eyes fills my entire body. I almost regret asking the question.

"Home," he says.

We stand in silence, neither trusting the other enough to voice our thoughts.

He opens his mouth to say something, closes it and reconsiders, and then says, "Pay no attention to the woman at the Lil. Dwarves are a race of our own, not deformed humans. You are no cretin."

I stare blankly.

He breaks eye contact and glares once more at the unconscious humans.

I run. In one swift movement, I'm swinging farther and farther up the nearest tree.

When he raises his head to say something more, he finds himself alone.

Without a second hesitation, he continues on his path. I follow. Invisible, high above in the trees; watching over him, to ensure he does not encounter anymore trouble on the dangerous forest path. I wish to see him safely home. But I stop at the border of the woods. I wait until he passes out of the early morning shadow cast by the trees on the grassy field, and into the sun. I watch him leave, sitting silently among my branches. I'm unwilling to simply let him go. He is not a merchant, nor a wandering bard, nor a ruffian, nor any other type of frequent traveler. He is heading home. He will not pass this way again.