Grey. Everything was grey.
The low hanging clouds that lazily floated overhead were as drab as the pale lichen covering the stone over which she tread. The smoke that sailed from the stone chimney of the squat Dwarven house, her thick wool cloak, the resealed cracks in the ice of the courtyard’s fountain: all the same, lifeless shade of dust.
Even the scarce light that barely filtered through the airy, winter canopy was cold and dead.
A breeze whipped loose strands of her hair across her forehead as she drug her feet over the stones. The birds were gone. Hiding away, warm in their nests. Now and then a dusting of snowflakes would alight on her, coming down from the snow-capped mountains, hidden in the cloud.
But all she saw was grey. Any other day, she might’ve relished the many different tones and hues of it in nature, but not today. Her mind was filled to the brim with it, like an overused fire pit, overflowing with ashes.
Listlessly she found herself wandering up the stairs to the Western ramparts.
A familiar spot.
She leaned her chin on the icy merlons and took in a deep breath of cold air.
Despite the low clouds, the view still stretched on far to the West- the dark slate of forest and its dormant inhabitants.
Her eyes saw nothing. Nothing there, at least; but searched deep and delved tirelessly in her soul.
The understanding slowly unveiled itself, but the will still cowered away.
“It’s nothing to fret about, alright, just make Grezof and Vahgdûr get the message,” the firm, pointed tone of Bridi ordered, while she distractedly rifled through a large oak chest of gear.
”Aye, milady,” said the burly Dwarf, trying to hide his confusion.
“And give them these,” she turned and thrust a pair of old, metal shields in his arms and laid an array of Dwarven projectiles on top.
”Crossbows?” he wondered aloud. “We expectin’ visitors?” his piqued interest hovered between excitement and worry.
“No. Just do it.”
When Bridi closed a conversation, it was closed. He nodded hastily and exited the room.
Bridi sighed and folded her arms under her chest as she surveyed the room. The magnificent stone walls rose high up into the darkness until they mingled with the living mountain’s flesh. But below, only a few dust chests and dilapidated armour-stands remained to tell of the glory it once had seen as Azaghâl’s armory.
True, it was in the holding of Durin’s proud heir, but that was all.
An attempt at expansion…that failed; Bridi’s thoughts drifted in melancholy over the past decade. He tried so hard, wanting nothing more than the good of his people and to restore to them their birthright. Their place as Lords of the Mountains.
But that would not come. Not until Thorin Oakenshield sat on the restored throne of Erebor.
An ancient heirloom from the line of Thrór, a heavy buckler of once-shiny steel, hung on a rack on the wall. Reverently she dusted off its engraved boss, her breath on the cold metal forming a static cloud that slowly faded away.
A tired, square-faced woman stared back at her, wisps of coppery hair framing her forehead, and mahogany-red brows lowered over a permanently intense scrutiny of green eyes.
The edges of her tightly closed lips sunk downwards seriously, set with her jaw in an uninviting frown. A long white scar ran down the length of her brow to lower cheek; it had been there for a good long while. But an inexplicable feeling in her gut told her it was about to have company.
A patter of footsteps in the outside hall drew her away from the shield. Kjar, no doubt.
Bridi hurredly closed the lid to the chest and stuffed the new whetstone into her belt just before the elderly matron entered the room.
”Ah, there you are, lass!” she said, her huffing making evident her search for the other. “I was-” A befuddled look on her face interrupted herself, “What are you doing in here?”
Bridi had expected that, “What are you doing in here?”
The old woman sputtered, “Well, looking for you, of course!”
Bridi shrugged, “I was just making sure nothing was rusting. It’s too damn quiet around here…”
Kjar gestured clearly that she fully agreed and resumed her previous business.
“I’ve been looking for you for a half hour!” she tossed up her hands, “Because I’ve been looking for Vaenomar even longer! Where’s she got to?”
Bridi’s features paled rapidly. Vaenomar!
Without even acknowledging the other woman, Thorin’s counselor marched off in a storm, muttering, “Can’t leave that whelp alone one minute without her flying off! Curses on those long legs,” and left Kjar to hobble after her.
After a quick, unsuccessful search of her room, the kitchen, Thorin’s room and any other sub-mountain haunt of hers, they took to the village.
“Go ask Salfgar and any one else you see on the way.”
“They’re all gone,” said Kjar sadly as she set off towards the tailor’s house at an sturdily wobbling pace.
Bridi’s metal-toed boots thudded rapidly over stone after stone, eyes darting about, ears piqued for any odd sound. Wind funneling in between two mountain houses caught her in a gust causing her to sway momentarily. She clenched her teeth against the biting chill. A heavy, studded door creaked open behind her and she turned, in one fluid movement on her heel.
He jumped at the intensity of her tone and at her presence; Bridi wasn’t a common sight out from under the Halls.
”The girl- you seen her?” the King’s right-hand demanded, but not without an unsettling amount of worry in her stern hoarseness.
“Eh- Vaenomar?” the off-duty gate guard stuttered hastily.
”You’ve seen her?”
“No, no,” he said, waving his palms defensively, “But I-”
”Help me look for her,” Bridi cut him off and resumed her determined march.
It was far too early to panic, yet. But if that girl was gone…if she’d run off to perform some hair-brained heroics- or worse- if she was taken captive…by him…
Bridi jogged to a halt, her long whip-lash flopping over her shoulder as she quickly surveyed the market area. No one was around in this frigid weather- the trading only took place in summer, when there were new trades to be made from the payment of Mannish villages.
The breeze eerily stirred a ragged cloth awning over one of the stalls and a dusting of sleet swirled around her feet in the lonely, empty court.
“Vaen?” her voice bounced off the cold rock that surrounded her and came back, dull and out of place. There was no one here.
Was it Thorin’s absence combined with the oppressive silt-grey of the sky that brought on these sudden bouts of hollow melancholy? But Kjar seemed to feel the same way. Not all was well: every fibre of Bridi’s subconscious being told her so. Even her rational mind worried constantly over the unknown ‘man‘ in Jarlich. The draegk.
A few blocks down, Bridi heard Vahgdûr calling the girl’s name, muffled by the wind and stone. She took in a generous, numbing breath to slow her escalating heartbeat and clear her mind.
Jaw set like steel, she turned south and strode towards the gate.
From several dozen paces off she could see the squat forms of the guards, Khin and Narukar, sitting at their posts on either side of the gate. In addition to the great bear furs that draped the cousins’ already bulky forms, they bore the shields Bridi had assigned to them that morning.
Aulë grant they not need them.
Along with the shields and the one crossbow and a few spare bolts she’d dug up to give them, they’d also been given the order not to let Vaenomar near the gate. Bridi didn’t really think she would leave, but she was as precautious as Thorin was headstrong.
And young things often fill their heads with rash nonsense, she though to herself in growing nervousness.
Looking left revealed only a barren, sloped street devoid of life. She turned right to see Vahgdûr emerge from between the buildings and look in her way with a shrug of fruitlessness.
A few more paces brought her in calling distance of the gate. But her name, short and urgent, caused her to glance back at her companion. He pointed West, far behind her, and up.
She whipped around and immediately let a sigh of relief puff like smoke from her nostrils.
High above, perched like a rock-dove clad in slate-grey, on the massive wall of the bulwark stood Vaenomar. The same spot where Gormna had ‘caught’ her so many months ago.
Her cloak billowed restlessly behind her, a colourless banner for the nameless, houseless one.
She was motionless, but for her windswept hair and garments. Her dark, still figure could’ve been carved there, thought Bridi, as she motioned silently for her companion to join her.
“Find Kjar. Tell her she’s fine. Look with Salfgar,” she ordered in a low tone.
The girl was alone too much as was. Contemplating could be dangerous. Very dangerous.
”He’ll be back soon.”
Those simple words, soft and firm, caused her to nearly jump out of her boots, as she gasped and took a few steps backwards.
”Bridi!” said Vaenomar breathlessly, as if awoken out of a dream.
The Dwarf peered off into the distance, leaning against the solid merlons and rubbing her stubbily-nailed fingers over the pocks and cracks of the stone.
Giving the younger woman a moment to regather her composure, Bridi surveyed the steep, craggy descent from their mountain abode. Even from that height the precarious path was practically invisible.
A calm settled over the Dwarf woman’s spirits as they both gazed out over the mist-covered expanse.
It was time.
Her voice, poignant and low, broke the heavy silence, “Before Thorin found you- what were you?”
It almost seemed as though she expected it, her manner changed so little. Vaenomar didn’t look up, but an unnoticeable shudder coursed down her spine.
Though silence persisted a few moments longer, Bridi knew she would answer. The cloaked fear of rejection was being cast off and a firm, level resolution being made in that secretive brain of hers. Bridi the mind-reader could see that far.
At last, Vaenomar breathed in soft and slowly, and answered.
Bridi glanced at her from the corner of her eyes, but said nothing.
“Or so I wished,” continued the younger woman.
”Deep in those woods lies an Elven city. Taurëmith. City of the Trees. You’d never be able to find it,” she gestured with her head towards the vast sea of forest to the West, “I wouldn’t either. But it is beautiful.”
Bridi thought a sigh escaped her.
”I was a border scout, along with many others. Tairiel and I…wandered too far from our camp…” her voice took on the old, musical, Elven accent as she spoke.
”I was foolish, I know well, now, that Taurëmith was in no danger of being found. But then- I would have protected its secret with my life.”
Bridi nodded thoughtfully. None of this was too surprising news. But she wondered aloud, “None can find it?”
Vaenomar shrugged, “Except for the Elves. There is a Girdle of ancient magic surrounding it. Nonetheless, we- they- keep their borders safe and pure. Or so they try.”
”Yet you doubt?” queried Bridi, reading further into the girl’s thoughts.
Vaenomar’s head dropped low and she scraped at some grey-green lichen on the wall. “I- feel something. Something strange…ancient. As old as their magic- yet, stained,” she turned to Bridi, pallid and eyes wide as if from a waking nightmare, “Evil.”
The Dwarf clenched her teeth and nodded darkly. “Anything like…” she paused, searching for the right words.
“Me, Bridi,” interrupted Vaenomar, feverishly. “Calling nature to my aid, through a word, a thought. Like in the forest…before Tharkûn arrived.”
”I thought you didn’t know it happened,” said Bridi, mildly suspicious.
Vaenomar shook her head,”I didn’t. But I remember it now. And…with Thorin…the first time. Bridi,” she turned fully towards the Dwarf, “Ever since I met him, I remember. I…” she grimaced confusedly, “I recognized it in him. It’s nothing I was taught. It’s…in my blood…? Spirit- Ach!” she slapped the rock exasperated, “I don’t know.”
Bridi suddenly seized her wrists firmly, her cold-numbed fingers gripped tightly over Vaenomar’s bare pulse. “But you do know!”
The girl’s eyes widened in shock.
“You may not know what is it- but what does that matter? You have power. Thorin- Lord Thorin- sensed it in you from the beginning! Why else did he keep you and release the Elf? He could’ve used her for ransom- but no! He chose you! Your power- use it. Against the creature- that thing- that seeks to destroy us. Turn it against him!”
By now the young woman was trembling and paler than before, droplets of salty water at the corners of her eyelids. Her lips quivered and her chest rose and fell in short breaths.
It worked. All that- Bridi had made up- just in that instant. But it worked. She had no idea why Thorin had chosen Vaenomar; she doubted if his choice had more to do with rationality than matters of the flesh.
But in the end, she was right.
Vaenomar could help. The fortress of Azaghâl would have a worthy regiment atop its walls- praying Thorin and the rest returned before anything hit.
”You can control it, Vaenomar, right?”
The girl bit her lip, still trembling, “I…think.”
”He may be undead. May be ancient- but not even the forces of Gundabad could stand against the Heir of Durin. If that creature comes here- he will taste the true meaning of ‘cold as the grave’.”
Vaenomar nodded vehemently, riled by Bridi’s speech.
The Dwarf patted her shoulder and turned to leave, her mission well accomplished.
”He’ll be back soon,” she added in a softened tone and glanced at the mountain stairs, wishfully hoping to see her lord.
As the Dwarven metal boots clanked down the stairs, the tear dislodged itself and splashed, alone, onto the cold merlon.
But it was more than that. She could feel him. Not Thorin, no. The draegk, as Bridi called him. The man from Jarlich. The nameless shadow that haunted her dreams and made her moments of waking into nightmares.
It had all happened so fast. One day, she had been a happy, pensive Elf-child, carefree and studious in everything. Then she became a Dwarf. Much too tall and awkward, doing her very best to fit in the rigid, stony structure of their culture. And then Thorin. It had started as fear, became fearful respect, mixed ever so slightly with defiance. But she had felt herself falling much deeper than that. The little they had seen of each other had ‘blossomed’, though hardly a fitting word, into the closest thing to love the hardened Dwarf-king could feel. And then he showed up. She wondered what would’ve happened if she hadn’t gone to Jarlich. Would he have found her anyways?
Was his sole intent to entrap her? Or was she only another piece to a larger construct; one that had no relish of good in it.
Elves, when confronted by a hidden evil, always recognized it and shunned it ruthlessly.
She had felt it, though not immediately, and had been tempted by it. Why?! She was raised in goodness and light. She knew right from wrong as easily as a raven from a hawk.
Squinting, she tried to make out a small dark shape breaking through the heavy mist.
As the little form slowly grew closer, Vaenomar chided herself. “Maybe that’s what he wants you to think. To question. To doubt…” She growled in frustration. “Curse him! These are my people and I will defend them with my life!”
She made out a bird of prey, flapping then gliding, in an unbalanced fashion in her general direction. It seemed…wounded, over-tired?
Her pity aroused, she watched intently as the distance between them shrunk. “Land here…” she muttered, scaling the length of the wall restlessly, “Land…”
Soon enough the bird began to slow and spread its chest and wingspan to land.
Alighting on a merlon, the nighthawk’s dappled feathers heaved rapidly as it struggled to regain breath.
Vaenomar approached it slowly, in a non-threatening, slow amble. She greeted him, but no reply came. She asked him where he was from, but he only looked at her with sad, frightened eyes. Something was wrong. He had much to say, but couldn’t.
Vaenomar held out her finger and the tired bird curiously stretched out his hooked beak and nibbled it.
”Will you not speak to me?” she asked pitifully, aloud.
The nighthawk sullenly looked at its rock-hewn perch, shook out its soft feathers, and then pecked at its own claw.
Then she noticed a tight, rolled piece of weathered parchment tied by a strap to the raptor’s scaled talons.
A messenger bird! No wonder it was so tired, the poor, dear thing.
With tender gentleness, she reached below the bird’s downy body and slipped the tiny note from the leather carrier.
Despite her attempts at friendliness, rubbing his bony jowls, stroking his underchin, the stately nighthawk seemed indifferent and a hollow tranquility loomed in his black eyes. An emptiness in his thoughts- and he would not speak. Vaenomar thought that he wished to, but, knowing he could not, didn’t even make the attempt.
With consternated brow, her numbed fingers unrolled the parchment.
On the outward side there was a faded scrawled note, bearing a few sentences in the Common Tongue which were hard to make out, because of the water stain and weather and the curling faint hand.
An immobilizing frost spell seemed to fall on her as she turned the note over.
In bold Cirth runes the colour of dried blood, it read:
The frost fall sparkled and shone as it caught the first light of dawn. A silvery field of tiny shards and prisms; every stalk of grass and slumbering leaf encased in a wintry suit of mithril.
The cloud of vapour that floated away from the mouth and nostrils of the solitary figure dissipated quickly in the clear, crackling air. Even the axe blade at his hip was covered in a blue brocade of organic swirls and shapes. A blanket of grey clouds barely moved overhead, their soft undersides just beginning to take on the tint of the rising sun, which would soon be lost above their wooly forms.
With a lung-numbing inhale that came out a sigh, Thorin turned and began an idle march back, the lifeless vegetation crackling underfoot, showering little crystals onto the king’s furred boots.
He could almost imagine the frosty carpet being of the finest velvet, covering lengths and lengths of black marble streaked with emerald veins. Silver and gold in all forms imaginable, at his feet. Gems so plentiful they were commonplace- but their beauty still unmatched by all the world.
But Vaenomar would find all this- the curled leaves, the bent grasses, red berries all covered in the night’s icy tears- to be most lovely. The clouds the colour of her cloak, touched with the cold pale blue of her eyes.
If she was with him now… But, no. She was gone. Running wild in the woods, cursing the name of his cousin, his family- maybe even his. What if she came back while he was away? Or worse- never came back at all.
Instinctively his fingers fondled the axe-head restlessly.
It was time to go home.
It didn’t take the keen sense of a Dwarf to smell something rotten going on. There were no goblins. No bandits. Nothing here. Nor had there been.
His boot met with a hollow, hard object and sent it rolling several feet ahead. Picking it up, he found a jawless skull, covered in cracks and filled with dried leaves and fur, having served as some small creature’s bed.
Washed white by many years under sun and sky, its brittle frailty belied the importance it once held. And havoc it once wreaked. An ugly, oversized canine tooth along with a couple others were still rather sharp. Thorin tossed it down.
At least there hadn’t been any goblins for a while.
When he arrived back at the longhouse after many hours of a sleepless morning out in the countryside, Thorin heard the boisterous chatter of feasting Dwarves, and smelled good, fatty meats, eggs, cheeses and fresh baked bread.
He had been treated much more hospitably than his actions of the night prior had merited, but the men- it was just what they needed. Good rest, good food, good company. And then a good, quick march home. Then their minds would forget and forgive the mistake.
Mistake, he sneered inwardly. The trick! A cunning play by a clever enemy. But he had survived worse.
Quietly he came into the hall where a table had been set up, and took a respectfully-left-open place next to his cousin, Dáin. The same smiling, round face with autumn curls bounced up to him, hands full of breakfast and back again with warm spiced mead.
As he politely smiled his thanks, a less than subtle jab in the ribs came from his onlooking relative.
“Eat up,” Thorin quipped, ignoring the gesture, “Or you might die of starvation. Just look at you.”
Dáin just snorted, patting a robust waistline, and continued to shovel steaming heaps of eggs and sausage into his mouth.
“She is pretty, though,” Thorin admitted, as the friendly Thaneling’s daughter reseated herself between an Iron Hills woman and a doting Gorlath.
”We get it from our mother,” Thorin heard her say and shake out her fiery hair.
“Like Bridi…except taller. And happier,” he thought.
”Rúan’s name even means red-headed,” she laughed again and Gorlath refilled her mug.
“Good thing you don’t name after your surroundings like we do,” he said, “Else you’d be a bunch of Browngrasses and Softmuds.”
The Dwarf woman rolled her eyes and explained to Dána, “Like Ironfoot, Stonefist…and Numbskull- like him,” she gestured to Gorlath.
Thorin turned back to his food. He’d never seen Vaenomar enjoy herself that much. What had he done to her…
”What do you got against your food that you’re glaring at is so?” said Dáin, his grating voice making Thorin look up from his thoughts. “If you’re not going to eat that-”
“Get off my food!” Thorin pushed his cousin away, “You’ve got plenty!”
The clear, feminine voice of Dána rang out again, “Little Rúan- he might seem scrawny and young- well, he is. But he’s got some skill. Not as good as I am, of course, or my older sisters… but he can hold his own, well enough. He’s always dreaming of being a warrior- like the tales of my father….when the militia was still around.” She shrugged. “Shining his knives, oiling his armour, always practicing with me and Fían. Silly boy. He’s not even been out of Aldon for five years.”
Thorin drained his third mug and followed it with a rinse of cold well water, and arose.
Dáin followed him and then a few others, at their own pace. The rest of the table looked up expectantly at their respective leaders.
”A hearty thanks to you and our family for your hospitality, Lady Dána,” Thorin bowed low. “I’m afraid we must take out leave. Home calls us.”
Dána bowed respectfully back, “It was good to make your acquaintance, Lord Thorin, and that of your people. You all are welcome here any time. Lord Dáin,” she nodded also to his cousin.
Wooden plates and bowls, metal tankards, rustic iron cutlery began to clink and clack together as the table was rapidly cleared and the hall restored to proper order.
The aged Thaneling, Thorin was told, would not be awake and ready for an audience until a few hours later. Dána promised to give him the Dwarf lords’ regards. And relay thanks to her strangely absent brother.
”It’s quite possible that he over slept, drunk too much, or something of the like. Could be in town, too, with his lady friend,” she shrugged.
Thorin took her small, white hand and pressed it gently to his bristling moustache. “Take care. We will probably never meet again.”
The warmth in his deep, smoky voice was like a thrilling caress to her smooth cheek. She blushed the colour of musk rose, but nodded, a little sadly, at his words.
“And you take care, too. Eru keep you.”
And leaving the proud daughter of Aldon on the steps of the longhouse, he joined his cousin and followers at the gates of the town.
On approaching, Thorin was met by his wild-maned, broad cousin with outstretched arms and a metallic grin.
As the tree-trunk thick arms of both men slapped familiarly on each other’s backs, Dáin chuckled, “Well cous, I’m glad you managed to live through my visit. You’ve gotten grumpier since last winter. And worse since the winter before!”
”And you’ve gotten fatter and uglier,” Thorin tugged his cousin’s white braid back and received a playful punch in the stomach.
”You get back to that long-legs of yours and tell Bridi there’s still room for two on my throne. I’m not that fat yet.”
”I can only imagine what she’d say to that,” snorted Thorin and motioned for Gormna and Gorlath to get the others ready.
Newly laden packs were slung over shoulders and belts loosened for walking with full bellies.
”You send me word if anything shows up along the way,” Thorin told his cousin seriously. “Anything.”
”Ah, even, say- a little, white rabbit or something?”
Tossing his black head of hair behind him, Thorin grunted and beckoned for his men to follow him Northward; homeward.
Dáin and his retinue headed southeast, towards the Old Forest Road and began their long march to the Iron Hills and other stops along the way.
Gorlath the Scout’s jogging footsteps were much springier than the day before as their sound slowly disappeared ahead.
Hopefully they would all reach the mountains in good speed and unscathed- no surprises along the way or when they arrived.
But just as Gorlath’s quicker pace drew out of earshot, a longer stride behind him and the Dwarves caught Thorin’s ears. He whirled around, hair on end, to see a very slim figure with long, lanky legs and the sun blazing on a bright copper head. The satchel at his side bounced wildly as he jogged to catch up, breath puffing away in the frigid morning air.
The others stopped and turned, surprised at their sudden halt.
Steam puffed violently from Thorin’s flared nostrils as he folded his arms across his thick chest and waited, stoically, for their pursuant.
Drawing closer to the Dwarf lord, Rúan slowed to a lope and then a walk.
Lungs filled with the nipping cold, he panted a bit to catch his breath, grinning widely, pink cheeks spread with excitement.
”I didn’t think you’d get far,” he laughed in between breaths.
Thorin eyed him suspiciously, “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded.
“Did we forget something?” put in Gormna, helpfully.
“Or did you?” Thorin raised his eyebrows.
The young man was in fur-lined leather armour, very new and very clean looking, gird with a matching brace of daggers and some throwing implements jangling from his belt.
“I am headed to- ah- Old Estenna- to see my sister. Maybe to find our missing hawk, too. So- I thought I could travel with you.” He glanced around, a little less comfortably than before.
”Is that so?” Thorin said measuredly, “And leave your father?”
Rúan shook his head, “Oh, he’s in the best of hands with Dána. We don’t get many- or any- visitors, anyways.”
“And what about the strange man from the inn? What if he comes back?”
Rúan’s already pale face blanched from beneath his cold cheeks, and he nodded. “That’s why I want to come.”
Thorin’s black brows lowered darkly and he huffed, “Very well. To Estenna, then we part ways.” The smile returned to the young man’s face and he gladly fell in line next to Gormna.
Only one or two Dwarves muttered or grumbled at having the tall, trim fellow obscuring their view.
His good-natured and genuine excitement was rather infectious, however, and Gormna queried, “So…where were you, lad?”
”Who, me?” the Thaneling’s son glanced around.
“Nah, him,” Gormna sarcastically nosed towards Thorin in front of him.
Rúan grinned, “Eh…giving farewells.”
Gormna nodded knowingly, “I see. So…she’s heartbroken now?”
To his surprise, Rúan threw back his head and chuckled. “Actually she took it quite well…along with the key.”
“Had someone else to give it to, I suppose,” Rúan shrugged.
”You don’t seem too worried about that, lad.”
Rúan’s dark blue eyes twinkled, “I’m not. I’m gone.”
And so began Thorin’s long walk ahead of a young, energetic human who hadn’t been away for a half a decade.