1: The Blood-Debt
The morning after the battle, a Dwarven woman reined in her pony beside one of the tents that sheltered among the ruins of Dale. She dismounted and, taking a bundle from her saddle-bag, strode purposefully towards the entrance.
A guard – a Man who, just a short time before, had carried a Hobbit into that very tent – barred her way.
"Stand aside," she said.
He did not move. Eyeing her up and down, he had a good idea what she might be. Her cloak and gown had once been fine, but were shabby and spattered more recently with mud and blood. With every movement, she jangled with jewellery. A strange, whiskery creature – surely some sort of camp-follower.
"I cannot," he said firmly.
"I was told the King Under the Mountain lies within."
"That's why you cannot enter."
"But I must." She was calm but insistent.
"And I say you must not. He's hurt badly. It's not seemly for a woman of your sor–"
She pushed back her hood. Silver clasps gleamed in snaking plaits of grizzled black hair. Her face was drawn from weariness and grief, but still she bore herself straight-backed. "And what 'sort' would that be? It is not 'seemly' for you to command the Daughter of Thráin Thrór's-son."
"Forgive me, my lady!" He bowed very low: she was, after all, over a foot shorter than he was. "I didn't think –"
"Evidently not. Now, I must see my brother."
"He's dying, my lady."
"No." She did not raise her voice, but her eyes flashed. "He is not. He is not dying: I do not permit it. Not him, too."
The guard stared at her, shock mingling with pity.
"Now, let me see my brother. And that is an order, not a request."
The gilded byrnie from the dragon's hoard, that, last night, had "gleamed like gold in a dying fire", lay bloody and broken on the ground. Beside it, notched and stained with the black blood of Orcs and Goblins, was the great, silver-hafted war-axe of the Kings of Erebor.
Thorin Oakenshield lay propped up on a bed made from folded cloaks. He was making his peace with his friends: an extremely tall Grey Wizard, and a short, dazed-looking Hobbit, who knelt beside him. The king's face was wax-pale amid the dark tangle of his hair and beard. From waist to shoulders his body was roughly bound up with rags, now much blood-stained. Each breath came with pain, each word all the more so; but he would say what he needed to say.
"…Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure." He broke off, coughing, his hand against his right breast, where the socket of an iron spearhead protruded through the dressings. After a pause, he resumed, his voice weaker: "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world." He coughed again. "But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell…"
A rustle of fabric, a jingle of metal.
A woman's voice: "You must not leave it. You will not. I forbid it."
Bilbo looked up. At the king's feet stood a Dwarven lady. He had never seen such a creature before, and no-one announced her, but her strong features, dark hair (and side-whiskers) and imperious manner rendered that formality unnecessary.
"Dís…" The wounded king forced a faint smile.
The tiny, hammered tin plaques that edged her gown clinked and chinked as she moved. She knelt beside him, facing the Hobbit. Firmly she grasped Thorin's hand. "You will not die, brother. Not now. I have lost my sons – I will not lose you. I will not lose everything!"
"Your sons… the gold I should have valued most…" He coughed hard. Blood ran from his mouth into his beard. She wiped it with her fingers, which she then raised to her own lips, tasting the blood.
"My sons were a stronger shield for you than any oak-branch, Thráin's-son Thrór's-son. I will not let it be in vain. You owe me that blood-debt, and I hold you to it!"
She turned to Gandalf, who towered above her, one arm in a sling. "What say you, Gandalf-Tharkûn? He shall live, shall he not?"
"My lady, his hurts are grave, but if he has the will to live... Otherwise, I don't know what further can be done."
"More in Erebor than in Dale, I think" she muttered as she investigated the field-dressings. "What care has he had this night?"
The Man answered. "Our healers cut two spears out of him, but his flesh won't sear with hot irons."
Her people's physical resistance to heat was usually an advantage: it protected them in smithing and smelting, and had enabled many to survive terrible burns when Smaug had struck. (For some, though, it had only prolonged their suffering: her aunt had lingered five days and died in her arms.) However, it meant that, to seal wounds, cauteries had to be hotter than any Man could bear. Small wonder he seemed to have lost so much blood…
"– And the one in the breast they daren't touch at all. He never made a sound – a wonder, being just a little fellow."
One of her eyebrows began to rise.
"I mean, it's not as if you folk are the stuff of heroes – smiths, tinkers, miners! Last night – that charge – well, that was a surprise! It's not as if anyone expects much of Dw…"
The Man's words trailed off as she fixed him with a look that Thorin himself would have had trouble matching even in health. Too tired to talk now (he had exhausted himself speaking with Bilbo), the king's eyes glimmered with a mixture of fury and amusement.
"Now," she said, "have you a flask of strong wine? Some boiled water? I brought clean linen and salves. I will do what is needed for now."
The guard, now feeling somewhat ashamed, went off to bring the wine and water. Dís began to braid back her brother's hair, to keep it out of the way while she tended him.
Bilbo cleared his throat. "My lady… Did you say that – that Fíli and Kíli…?"
"They feast with their fathers."
The Hobbit put his head in his hands.
"Don't weep," she said, without obvious emotion. "They are happy."
"Of course. They made a good end, that will be sung of as long as there are Dwarves to sing." She was speaking as much to give heart to Thorin as to Bilbo, but the latter felt chilled. No Hobbit mother would have spoken thus. "Their king lives because of them," she went on, "and he will live and reign long."
"When did you arrive at Erebor?" Gandalf asked her.
"With Dáin's army. I rode to the Iron Hills to seek funds for our cause when the king and my sons left the Blue Mountains."
"All night I tended the wounded who were carried within the Front Gate. My sons were brought in at dawn: I laid them out. Then I was told Beorn Skin-Changer had borne my brother, sore hurt, from the field. I came as soon as I could."
"It is well that you did, my lady."
"Indeed. But he has courage. Elvenkind may die for sorrow and self-pity, but we Khazâd would have died a thousand times already, were we so made."
She took off her cloak, and spread it on the ground. Upon it she methodically unpacked the bundle she had brought: cloths – soft for cleansing and dressing, stronger linen for bandaging, some pieces of oiled silk – and a horn filled with a thick herbal paste.
"Kingsfoil, bloodwort and poppy, to soothe and heal. Óin was boiling it up by the cauldron last night – so many were hurt. I hope there's enough here."
"Kingsfoil?" Gandalf's curiosity was piqued. He knew the lore associated with it: that it was the Kings of Gondor who had knowledge of its best preparation, and whose touch gave its greatest power. Otherwise, it was a fairly weak herb used in popular remedies.
"The Kings of Men are not the only kings; Óin is of Durin's line," she said, spreading the salve on to the oiled silks with her dagger.
When the guard returned with both a flask of wine and a jug of boiled water, she set to work.
Gently, using the warm water, she eased the field dressings from her brother's body. Her mouth set in a thin line when she saw the ruin they had covered. Since girlhood – the time of the dragon-strike – she had tended all manner of hurts, but these were severe, even for a Dwarf to bear. (Far fewer would have slain a Man or Hobbit outright.) Warg claws had ripped through his byrnie, driving gilded links through the clothing beneath, lacerating his chest and back. Swords had gashed deep into muscle. One spear had entirely transfixed his left shoulder: she dared not disturb the moss and cloth that now packed the wound. Another had torn his left flank to the ribs, fortunately without piercing them. The spearhead in his right lung would be better kept in place until he was in a surgeon's care, she thought.
Very tenderly, she bathed his wounds with wine, then applied the poultices, and bandaged them carefully but firmly in place. She padded the spearhead, to hold it steady and prevent further hurt, and positioned him with his good lung uppermost.
He scarcely groaned throughout, but his fingers clenched on the cloak that served as a blanket.
She kissed him lightly on the brow: a cold sweat lay on his skin.
"Easy, now," she said. "You've fed the ravens well by your hand: they'll not have you for their Hero's Portion. Nor will Dáin have our kingdom as his fief."
He tried to motion with his hands, in Iglishmêk: No strength.
"My sons have given you theirs. You will not be broken again, in mind or flesh."
He grimaced – whether from physical pain, or grief, or both, she could not tell.
"You will heal. I'll make sure of it, as will cousin Óin – at home in Erebor," she said.
At the mention of Erebor, his eyes brightened.
"It may be dangerous to move him," Gandalf warned.
"And more dangerous not to: I've seen folk die from neglected wounds, ere now. He needs a surgeon, one of our kind best of all, and this is hardly a fit place to try."
"Yes, that is true."
Dís narrowed her eyes. She was unsure what to make of the Wizard. She knew her brother had long been suspicious of him. He had been insulted by him before all, and last night, she had heard much talk among his war-band of their previous dealings. It was little to her liking. The Hobbit, too: whatever words of reconciliation she had heard as she entered, she knew about the Arkenstone's double theft. That was unfinished business. Still, it could wait for now: Thorin's survival mattered most.
And so it was that the King Under the Mountain returned at last to Erebor – slowly and painfully, on a litter carried by the Men of Dale. His sister rode alongside on her pony. Gandalf and Bilbo followed on one horse.
The guard had been sent ahead to give notice of his approach. As the litter drew near the Front Gate, Dís saw the Dwarven forces lined up in welcome – but a grim silence fell upon them when they saw their king lying still, wrapped in bandages and blanketed in cloaks.
"They've brought him home to die," one muttered, in the accent of the Iron Hills.
"Ach, nonsense!" scoffed another – one of Thorin's own company. "'Twould take more than a few poxy Orc spears to kill that one!" He threw his battered old hat high into the air and began to sing:
"The King beneath the mountains,
The King of carven stone,
The lord of silver fountains,
Shall come into his own!"
The surviving companions took up the song, and it spread through the Dwarven army:
"His crown shall be upholden,
His harp shall be restrung,
His halls shall echo golden,
To songs of yore re-sung..."
Thorin managed to raise his head and give a nod of acknowledgement.
At this the Dwarves cheered: "Long live the king!" Even Dáin Ironfoot joined in. But which king was he cheering, wondered Balin Fundin's-son as he stood beside him...
To be continued
Bofur's song is taken directly from The Hobbit.