Fili sat up suddenly and stared around him. He knew that it had only been a dream, but still his heart pounded in his chest and his breath came quick, as if it were he who had been pulled from the icy river. All of his dreams had grown more vivid since the battle with the orcs. He had thought the worst were the visions of his future home and family that had been swept away when the river took Betta, but this dream was more terrible, and it clung to him with sharper claws. Almost, he had thought himself there, standing in the snow while the dark-haired hunters pulled a limp body from the river...
But no. Fili shook his head; that way lay madness. It was only a dream and Betta was dead. He must move on and think of Kili now, of bringing his brother home.
His eyes were open, but it was several moments before the room about him showed itself. He was more used to the dark now than he had been before being buried underground, but he could not see half so well as the Naug who lived there. The only light in Magha's cave was a small lamp set on a shelf above his head, but its flame was small and dim, hardly enough to see by.
Slowly, the darkness receded from before his eyes. He saw Kili first, still stretched out on the floor next to him and fast asleep. Not light had been needed to know where his brother lay; Kili was snoring loud enough to wake a stone dragon!
Around the room, Fili saw the rough walls and low ceiling of the cave where they had taken refuge. There were many shelves carved into the stone, and many baskets of woven moss hanging from iron hooks above. It was as cluttered as a troll's hoard, but each pile was neat and there was little dust. A well-used broom with bristles of what appeared to be woven hair rested in one corner; the other corner was a narrow fissure that seemed to lead into another, smaller room. The path between the two was well-worn, but Fili did not explore it. He did not think that their host would take it well if he began to snoop. Magha had already, seemingly, done much for them, though Kili still insisted that she would betray them in the end. He was sullen and had taken the Naug-woman's teasing too much to heart.
And yet, Kili had not stinted with the tale that he had told to her. He still insisted that he had heard it from Betta, the history of the horse-lord, Helm Hammerhand, but Fili only half believed him. He knew his brother, and he knew their former guide; if she had indeed described all of the many battles that Kili embellished, then there would have been more names to the many heroes he described. Whether true or invented, or both, the story had been enough to earn Magha's aid. She had taken them under her protection, for a while.
After the long tale had been told, the Dwarves had packed up their things (the same supplies that Magha herself had unpacked for them) and they had followed her. Fili was not surprised when she led them back to the blocked road and showed them a narrow gap between the fallen stones. It was a tight squeeze, and both brothers were forced to undo many of their belts and buckles as well as remove their thick cloaks to fit through, but they did not have far to crawl. Only a few yards beyond the blockage, they came to a door on the southern wall. It was similar to the sealed doors that they had found farther below, but wide open and the tunnel beyond was clear.
The western fork of their original road was blocked the whole way along, Magha assured them; and, though many of the lower doors might have been opened from the other side, the Naug kept them shut tight. Invisible doors were a better defense than an army of guards before an open way.
After leaving the wide road, the brothers had to go quietly. They said nothing as they followed Magha through tunnels and between narrow fissures. She picked out a path that was least travelled by her people, but now and again, she would gesture for them to stay still and, in the distance, they would hear the soft thump of heavy boots marching past. Both brothers knew that if they were caught, there would be no escape for them, but Magha was careful and they reached her home without being seen.
Still, they were lucky, or so Magha said. She lived apart from the rest of her people and no one would bother them in her home. Luck had also been with them that the Naug-woman had found them at all. She did not often take the main road when she went about her scavenger's work, but she had heard about the orc captured in the southern tunnels and avoided them that day. Once safe in her home, she explained to them quickly that with no sun to guide them the Naug had their own schedule of sleep time and wake time. It was soon to be sleep time, and there were things that she must do. She bid the brothers more good luck and then disappeared into the darkness.
It was then that Kili had muttered that she would bring the guards down upon them, but after only a quarter of an hour of careful watching, Kili had fallen to sleep. His apprehensions were apparently forgotten.
Fili considered all these things as he sat in the dark and listened to his brother's snores. He wondered what Betta would have thought of it all, whether she would have been surprised to see Fili play the tolerant brother for once. He wondered what she would have thought of their new guide.
With this guide, he could not fall accidentally in love, he thought, laughing to himself.
"Why laugh?" a voice whispered from the outer doorway. "What joke?"
Fili gave a start and reached for his sword. It was Magha. "Good joke that," she said, chuckling and ducking into the cave. "Khazâd always first to fight, last to think."
Fili sighed and relaxed again. If Kili had been awake, he might have pointed out that Magha had returned alone and without any guards. She brought only a large, heavy-looking sack that she dropped down onto the floor before him. She opened it and began to dig through the many smaller bags and bundles that were there.
"Well, what joke?" she asked again. "What makes Khazâd laugh?"
He shook his head. "It was not a joke," he said. "I was thinking of… someone…"
She looked up from her work, and her eyes shone in the dim light. "You think of wife?" she said quietly.
Fili winced, but he nodded. "Yes, my wife…" he said. He did not know what had possessed him to begin calling Betta by that title, but it came easily to his lips and soothed the pain in his heart. He had asked her, more than once, and she had been right to refuse him, but that was in the past. She was dead, and it hardly mattered anymore whether Thorin would have approved or not. Fili was widowed, and he would never love any woman but the one that he had lost.
Magha was watching him intently. By now, Fili's eyes were used to the dark and the thin light was as bright as day to him. He was surprised to see a softer expression on the Naug-woman's face. She seemed sad, and the light of her eyes glanced briefly toward Kili then back again, but his brother's loud snores could not be faked. Kili was fast asleep.
"This one had a wife, long ago," Magha said quietly. "My wife."
Fili frowned at her. He may once have doubted it, but Magha had been very clear that she was a Naug-woman and not a man.
"You mean you once had a husband," he said, and her soft look hardened to stone. She stared at him for so long that he shifted uncomfortably in his seat and cleared his throat. "I did not mean to offend," he stammered. "I must have heard wrong…"
"My wife," Magha repeated angrily. "Khana, my wife. She is gone, and now Magha lives alone. Other Naug do not like her. They will not visit her." She showed her teeth in an unhappy smile. "Khazâd are so lucky. They are safe with Magha, because Naug do not want her."
Fili was more than a little surprised to hear such a confession from his host. He had heard that the Petty Dwarves were less secretive than their kin, and that was one of the reasons why they had been driven away; it seemed, after so many generations apart, that the rule still held true. But Fili had never heard of any Dwarf-woman, petty or otherwise, taking her own wife. The Dwarf-men down in the mines of Ered Luin often banded together in clans. So few of them married that there were not many family groups, though even distant cousins held their kin very close. Fili was Thorin's heir, and he knew little of the day-to-day life of those Dwarves who were not his kin. Perhaps some of them called each other husband?
"It is a hard thing to lose the one you love," Fili said finally. The Naug-woman had done much for him and his brother, and he would not insult her hospitality by judging her choice in mate. Hadn't he chosen a human to love?
"Where is your family, Magha?" he asked. "Surely they still care for you. Where is the mother of your mother who you say told you so many stories?"
"They say Khazâd do not like what is different," she said. "Maybe in this they have changed. Your wife not Khazâd , but your brother is here. Naug do not forgive so easy." She shook her head. "Other Naug, they never liked this one. She was different, and only Khana loved her. Very happy day, my wife she said yes, but other Naug, they say, Magha took two wives when she should take none."
Suddenly, Magha struck her fist hard against the floor. "Khana did not love them! She say yes to Magha, not to them!"
As much as he did not wish to insult the Naug-woman, Fili could guess why the other Naug had been angry. If Magha's people had as few women as their long-sundered kin, then two Naug-women choosing not to marry Naug-men would be a loss to their dwindling race. Still, many Dwarf-women chose not to marry at all, and they were not cast out or shamed for it. Magha's family had abandoned her and after her wife died, she lived alone and ostracized. Fili understood Magha's anger, too.
The thought struck deep in his heart. He had lost his wife, too, hadn't he? And he would live a long life without her, but what if he had brought Betta back to Thorin's halls? What if Thorin had cast him out and refused to see him again? Betta's life would have been short compared to the long years of the Dwarves, and Fili would have outlived her, just as Magha had outlived her wife.
Fili could see that the Naug-woman's cheeks were wet with tears, but she did not wipe them away. She scowled at the floor in silence.
"It is true that my brother has not abandoned me," Fili admitted, "but the rest of my kin would not have been so forgiving. They never knew Betta. We had very little time together. There is so much that I never said to her, and now, it is too late…"
"Always, more to say," Magha said sadly. "Always, too late. Many years I had Khana, but not very long to me. This one lives on, alone, and there are Khana's bones." She gestured through the narrow fissure into the next room that Fili had seen before. He was glad now that he had not gone snooping.
"There I will lie with her," she said softly. "Not long now, but maybe good. Maybe I do some good here."
"You have done much good for me and for my brother," Fili said, "and we thank you for it."
Magha looked at him for a long moment, and then she grinned, but good-naturedly this time. "What use be thanks from Khazâd?" she scoffed. She waved her hand in the air as if dispelling some thick cloud that had gathered. "Better to have these useful things here." She reached for the sack again. "More help for two helpless Khazâd."
Before she could take out another bundle, however, Magha's body tensed and she looked up and the stone roof over their heads. She sat still as if listening, and Fili frowned. He heard nothing, but the air seemed a little more still, the stone more quiet than it had been before.
"Soon be time for sleep," she whispered. "Naug go to bed, then tunnels be almost empty. Only guards here and there, but they move slow and will not come here. We walk soon. Wake that one." She pointed at Kili.
Fili shook his brother awake, and it was not an easy task. Though Kili had had the most sleep of the two of them, and certainly the better, he was as stubborn as a mule and irritated at once again being woken in the dark.
"It is always dark down here," Fili muttered. He held tight to Kili's arm, refusing to let him lie down again. "The sooner you wake up, the sooner we can be on our way home to softer beds and regular hours."
That caught Kili's attention and he finally sat up, stretching his arms and looking around. "What is this?" he asked, seeing the many bags that Magha had laid out.
Magha grinned at him and laughed, knowing that the sound annoyed him. "This be help for you, foolish Khazâd. The road you take be dangerous, foul air and full of smoke. No good carrying fire into that place, no, no!"
She took out an old, iron lamp much like the one that she had carried before but with an enclosure over the bowl and three round doors. She set the lamp down on the floor and set beside it the brothers' bundle of torches. "This, we trade," she said.
"If we cannot carry an open torch, I do not see how this rickety thing is any better," Kili said, picking up the lamp. "What is this stuff?" he stuck his finger into the lamp's bowl. It held, not oil or coal but a strange, clay-like substance that smelt of moldy earth and singed hair. A tattered wick was thrust into the center.
"Urkhs," Magha said, grinning.
Kili's face turned pale and he struggled to wipe the clay off of his hand. He swallowed the bile in his throat but failed to hide his disgust. "You expect us to burn orc fat for a flame!?" he said, shaking his head. "And how are we to light this without wood to catch the spark from our flint?"
Magha sighed. "Khazâd know nothing," she said, picking up a small box that had sat hidden beside the lamp. She took from the box a pinch of what seemed to be black sand and sprinkled it over the wick. Where the sand struck the clay, sparks flashed and several caught on the cloth wick, lighting it.
The light burned thin and blue, and Fili recognized it as the same light that came from the lamp on the shelf over their heads. He knew that the miners of Ered Luin used a similar powder and clay in their work, but he had never heard of such things being used for so delicate a task as this.
Magha blew out the lamp and then looked at Fili. "The road be dangerous," she said. "Long walk, and wet. No wood in there, no open fire. Must be careful, very careful."
Then, for the first time, Fili questioned her closely regarding their future road. Magha described it in vague terms, but the brothers soon learned that they would have to pass through a large cavern that was very nearly filled by a great, steaming lake of foul water. Fili guessed that it was not a true hot spring, but if Magha knew what had caused the water to warm, she would tell him. All that she would say was that the lake was hot enough to burn and that once, long ago, it had boiled.
The steam of the lake was as poisoned as the waters. It dampened wood and tainted any meat that it touched. It would taint the Dwarves, too, that breathed it in, but Magha seemed less concerned about that than she did the loss of their wood. Fili, too, was confident that he and his brother could whether any hot room or stinking steam. It was the food that he worried about, but Magha had thought of that, too.
She took out another lumpy bag from her sack and set it down proudly before the brothers. Once again, Kili was the first to take out what was inside and he pinched up his nose when he saw what he held. "What is this? Some form of mushroom?"
"Is good food," Magha said. "No place for meat to grow underground. This be good food. Foul air does not taint it. It good for long time."
Fili took the piece from Kili's hand. It was certainly like no mushroom he had seen before. It was larger and thicker than a biscuit of cram but was soft and a pale yellow color. "It is a sort of lichen, I think," he said. "I have seen something like it in the deep caves of Ered Luin, but we do not eat it."
Magha shrugged. "Is good food. Khazâd take this and leave meat for Magha."
"I think that we are being tricked," Kili muttered.
She scowled at him. "Take or not take. You choose," she said.
Fili glanced at his brother, then said slowly, "If we are being tricked, then I think that we are still getting the better part of this deal." Kili stared at him in surprise. "I swore that I would trade all that we had for a way out from under these hills. Well, Magha has given us our way out, and I believe that the trades she makes will work out well for us."
He reached out his hand to the Naug-woman. "It is a good trade," he said. "I agree."
She hesitated for a moment, looking back and forth between the brothers, but Kili would do as his brother said, and he did not protest when Magha accepted Fili's hand, sealing their deal. He watched their interaction with surprise and confusion but said nothing. He had learned to keep his mouth shut where Fili and women were concerned.
Their trades complete, the Dwarves packed up their new supplies and heaved the heavy load onto their backs. As small as they were, the strange lichens were heavy. Fili felt a pain in his arm as he lifted his pack and remembered the fresh orc-wound that he still carried. He winced and pressed his hand over the bandage. He had almost forgotten the injury, but it had not forgotten him.
"The stone is quiet," Magha said. "All Naug who sleep will be in their beds. Now we walk, but quietly, too. No good sneaking and trading if Khazâd finish dead."
"How far is it to this Black Door?" Fili asked.
"Not far," she said, "not far from here. Magha lives alone and far from other Naug."
"Let us go, then," Kili said, "and hurry. I have had enough of being attacked by strange creatures. I do not wish to be captured again."
The Black Door was indeed not far from Magha's cave, but the road they took was long and difficult. They climbed over many fallen doorways and through narrow tunnels to avoid taking the more well-trodden paths where they might meet by chance some Naug returning late from his work. There were guards, so Magha said, and she seemed as eager to avoid being seen by her own people as the Dwarves.
Eventually, however, they were forced into the open and walked down a wide, straight road similar to the one in which Magha had first met the brothers. The Naug-woman walked ahead and seemed to give no more thought to hiding. "No guards here," she said. "Naug do not come here. Sometimes young ones who are bored come looking for adventure, but not much to see. None goes inside."
Soon after leaving the side-tunnels, they finally reached their goal. The Black Door was in fact two doors, built together, blackened and licked by fire. The thick slabs were cracked and broken in many places, and there were bricks of lighter stone that had been cemented into the larger gaps.
Magha stood before the doors and held up her lamp. A sign was cut into the stone and it seemed to be one of the symbols that the brothers had seen carved into the floor of the tunnels above and tattooed onto Betta's skin. Whether it was the same mark or another variation of it, Fili could not tell. It was faded with age and a large part had been defaced by tools.
All three stood and stared at the doors for some time. In appearance, there seemed to be little of note about the place, besides the old burns and broken stone, but the air itself felt full of ghosts and a sour smell seemed to seep through the cracks from the other side.
"This one won't say whether this be good or not," Magha said. "This be the only way out that Naug does not use." She shook her head. "Maybe there be no way out," she mused. "It been many years since Grahn go that way."
"Who is Grahn?" Kili asked.
"He be thief and killer," she said, and spat on the floor. "He be exile. Sent through Black Door. He go that way and never come back."
Kili stared at her. "So, you do not actually know that we will find a way out through there?" he cried. "We might just as easily find a dead end and be trapped in your poisonous steam!"
She shrugged, ignoring his anger. "This one has not seen it, but she hears that the way is still open. There be a long hall at first, wide and full of fallen stone. That much they saw when Grahn go that way. After hall is long path, vary narrow and high, goes through old King's Cavern up above water. There was iron there once, they say, strong nails for hand-holding, but bad air rots iron. Maybe not there, maybe not very strong.
"You follow path, and it take you out, out of bad air and away from bad water. It take you away from Naug city and into free lands. Men there are sometimes… maybe you find Men…" Magha's words drifted off, and she frowned thoughtfully.
Kili glanced at his brother. "We're not actually going in there?" he whispered.
"Would you rather go back and try to climb out of the deep, stone well?" Fili asked. "Or try to dig your way out through the snow that blocked up the troll's cavern? This time, I will trust our guide. I believe that this is the way out."
Magha grinned and seemed to stand a bit taller at that. She took her lamp to the left-hand corner of the doors and set it down. Then, she pressed her hands against the corner and her fingers seemed to dig into the solid stone itself. Of course, she was only reaching into a gap that she knew was there. She pulled back one of the newer stones and revealed an opening just wide enough for a Dwarf to crawl through.
"Decide now," she said. "You go or you stay?"
Fili looked at Kili, waiting, and finally his brother sighed. "Alright, we will go, but I do not like it."
"Nor do I," Fili agreed, "but that has little bearing on the matter."
For all his reluctance, Kili did not hold back. He pushed in front of his brother and dropped his pack before the door. "Well, Magha, I fear we will never be friends, but if this way leads my brother and I out into the open air again, then you will have my thanks. If the ghosts of your folk fly into the West, then I will find you there and serve you up a mug at the long table of Mahal."
Magha laughed at him and she nodded. "Maybe I be there," she said. "Maybe you learn better manners by then."
Kili laughed and then nodded to his brother. He pushed his pack through the gap in the door and crawled in after it. Fili moved to follow him and handed through his own pack full of the strange food that Magha had given them. Then he hesitated and looked back.
"You might come with us," he said. "I will vouch for you before our people."
She shook her head. "This one goes home again," she said. "Khana waits for me. Once more, we sleep together, Magha and her wife. Once more. Long sleep. Good luck to you, Khazâd. Peace to your wife."
"And to you, and to yours." He bowed to her then knelt down and followed his brother through the gap in the door.
The Black Door was nearly four foot deep, but Kili had already pushed his way through to the others side. Behind him, Fili heard Magha press the stone back into place, and he imagined her walking alone back up to her empty caves where her only company was a pile of old bones. He shuddered, thinking that he might once have ended his life the same way, alone with only Betta's tomb for company, but then he crawled forward. Kili was waiting for him and had already lit their new lamp; though, Fili thought, the light was less comforting than the familiar presence of his brother.