True to the hardy nature of the Dwarves, Thorin recovered rapidly. Although he never related the specifics of the battle to young Vaenomar he did tell Bridi, after her inquiry as to the teeth marks, that the last thing he had seen was a great bunch of coarse fur poking his eyes and smothering his breath. He was alright and on the mend and that was all that mattered, he said finitely.
“How many were there?” Bridi later asked one Vorri in an undertone.
He shook his head, “A lot.”
Bridi sighed, “I’m surprised so many made it back…”
He nodded, “We’re a canny bunch. But that lass worked wonders for Thorin, didn’t she? He was pretty badly chewed up.”
Internally, Bridi rolled her eyes, but agreed, “He is lucky, no doubt. But he won’t tell me what happened. Who found him?”
“Just like that old beast to be modest about something like that. Though I don’t understand it.” Vorri chuckled. “After searching for an hour we’d almost given up hope. Thought he’d vanished into thin air! Or been swallowed by one of those infernal demon-wolves. My brother found him squashed and cold beneath the big white bitch. Was she who gave him those lovely scars too. I don’t think that’s the first he’s seen of her either, but it’s definitely the last.”
“Ai, the very same.”
“Damn that bitch to the abyss forever!”
“It’s where she is. But, by Durin, we found him flatter than my steel shield lying under that old fiend, her mate’s head smashed to bits next to them. But somehow that true son of the Deathless Durin managed to skewer her through and through with a goblin-spear. No doubt at the last moment too…she was full on top of him as if she wanted to give him a kiss or something,” he chuckled again.
Bridi snorted, “A kiss of death…with teeth.”
“Ai, but he’s all well now. And so are the most of us. My brother tells me the long-thighed lass has been giving her medicine to some of the others. Leastways those that will let her.”
“Medicine?” hissed Bridi suspiciously.
“Ai, the very same she used on the Prince.”
Prince, beast, Durin’s son…how many names other than Thorin and ‘my lord’ did he have? “Well I’m sure they’re doing quite well themselves,” said Bridi aloud, with a hint of sarcasm.
“That they are. That they are…”
Only three weeks later, in reward to Vaenomar for her unrepayable debt of life given him, Thorin, just before he and his small brigade of Dwarves left on another excursion despite the ‘doctor’s’ advice against it, instructed the girl to be schooled in the art of weapon wielding.
“Mind you,” he’d told Master Branbur, the swordsmith, when he charged him to teach the newcomer, “She is only to be taught the absolute basics. No more. I don’t want her thinking she is some shield-maiden or warrior queen like in the tales. It’s all for ‘just in case’. If one hair on her head is harmed- you know who you answer to.”
Not that Branbur needed any reminding. He hadn’t wielded a sword or axe blade in battle for years, and he hoped his methods wouldn’t be too…rough, to say the least, for a young delicate Elf-child like Thorin’s ward. He hadn’t met her yet and had no idea what to expect. He wondered if she’d even be able to lift his lightest weapon! Elves..what did they teach their children if not to defend themselves?!
That afternoon, Vaenomar made her way nervously to the south of the city. She hated introductions. She hoped this Branbur would be just an easy-going old fellow that would get her started on some combat tips, maybe even practice with her. She tried to picture herself there and meeting him, with all the polite effects she’d been taught by her Elvish peers. Too soon did she find herself at the door of the swordsmith’s home and workshop. She paused for a moment outside to clear her mind. Here goes.
“Sooo…you’re wanting to learn to hold a sword, are ye missy?” the ageing but powerful looking swordsmith said, nimbly twirling two bulky two-handers about him, as soon as the girl entered.
He looked pleasant enough but there was something in his eyes that made the whirling swords that much more threatening.
“Lord Thorin sent me to you with his compliments. He asks that you train me fully- not just how to defend myself,” she lied as convincingly as she could, not knowing of Thorin’s previous visit.
The Dwarf glanced at her suspiciously but his look faded into a toothy grin.
He winked, “Is that so? Well, I remember my first orders a tad bit differently- but they say: Follow your last orders first.”
Vaenomar smiled and nodded nervously.
“However, I trust you’ll not hold me responsible for any wee accidents that may befall ye. Nothing monstrous of course, miss.”
“Of course not,” Vaenomar assured him, with less conviction than she meant for.
“Let’s not waste any time then!” And with that he effortlessly tossed one of the hulking blades towards his unexpecting pupil.
But for the agility and nimbleness taught her by the Elves she might had lost a limb, but she grasped the hilt with two hands.
The incredible weight came as a shock to her, “Wait! I- it’s so heavy!”
The grey-locked Dwarf grinned, at least half his teeth were of precious metals.
“You want to learn or no?” He took a combative stance.
She tightened her grip, gulping nervously. “But what if-”
“There’s no ‘what ifs’ in battle, miss. You don’t get second chances.” And with that he charged at her, wielding the weighty blade in one hand as if it were nothing. Vaenomar, preferring to stick with her own skills, darted out of the way and readied herself, again on the defensive.
“You’ll never defeat an enemy waiting for him to attack you! Come on! I’m not afraid of you. Come get me!” he growled, tauntingly.
She knew this game wasn’t easy or nice and that lessons were learned in many ways. She feinted and drew back. He swung low at her calves and she sprung up at the right second, avoiding the severing of her legs in two. Desperately fired up, she swung at an angle towards his shoulders, but he parried and brought her weapon down. The hard clang of the metal jarred her arms and her hands were numbed. He made a side cut, she parried, but the force of his blow brought her own blade full around into her shoulder, drawing blood. She grit her teeth, growing more frenzied with every drop that fell. He was playing easy, she could tell, but her strength wouldn’t hold out much longer. They moved about the spacious forge room area, avoiding anvils and workbenches in the nick of time. It was fiery hot and sweat dripped into Vaenoma’rs eyes. Soon she was fighting with sheer desperate will and she was losing. She parried, dodged and was nicked again and again by his blade. Her ground was taken step by step as he tirelessly swiped and cut at her, forcing her backwards. His wild grin grew more threatening as they fought and the old blood-lust rekindled in his eyes. It’d been too long since he last crossed blades. Far too long.
Vaenomar’s foot hit something and she lost her balance. Her Elven grace saved her this time with a somersault backwards and she was back on her feet in a flash, holding the sword up with the last of her strength. He approached her slowly, like a well-fed cat cornering a mouse, his breath loud and sweat dripping down his beard. Bending her whole mind on repelling his next attack, she didn’t feel the steadily intensifying heat glowing behind her.
“Uh-oh,” he cooed, “Out of the frying pan into the fire!”
She panted, confused, but he was on her in a moment. Three blows he made in a row and knocked her sword to the side. In a flash she felt his sword time at her throat and an incredible heat scorching her back. She took a step backward.
“Ah ah! I wouldn’t do that if I were you!”
He pressed the sword tip harder into her throat and she saw behind her from the corner of her eye: the forge.
Her head touched something hard, but it was cool. The stone mantlepiece for hanging things from over the heat of the forge. She tried to swallow but the point pushed harder and harder into her throat.
“Drop your sword,” he ordered gruffly, “You’re defeated.”
“Not while I’m alive!” and with that she pushed away his sword and gave him a blow on the shoulder with the flat of her blade.
“You!” he staggered back, surprised. In the blink of an eye he had dropped his weapon and had twisted her arm behind her back, bringing her to her knees and straddling her calves. He turned her own blade to her throat.
She couldn’t move and panted, nervous and exhausted, unsure of his next move. He was crushing her already pained arm and his huge hand smashed hers on the sword hilt.
“I don’t have much of a choice,” she sighed raspily.
He laughed, “Now that’s the spirit!
He released her arm and gently slipped the huge sword out of her hand. The mad flame that had burned in his eyes was smouldering now, about to go out.
“Actually, miss, you quite impressed me. You have incredible instincts!” he patted the sword’s fine blades as the girl rubbed her sore arms.
He motioned for her to follow him and they found a small table with a basin of water and some rags.
“Always prepared for accidents around here,” he pointed out.
She cleaned and wrapped up her minor wounds while Branbur seated himself on a stool nearby.
That was quite an introduction, she thought to herself.
“So…how are you getting on among such fine, interesting folk such as us Dwarves, miss?”
“Fine,…just fine,” she answered bluntly, a bit thrown off by his sudden change of mood. He’d gone from a serene blacksmith to a battle-frenzied maniac and back to friendly again in a very short space of time. She wasn’t sure how to act.
“Well, I’m glad to hear it. Methinks you and I are going to get on just fine, miss.” He eyed her with one of those looks that saw much and revealed little.
She shrugged, not knowing what to think of him, “I’m sure.”
His brown eyes observed her and the scars on his leathery face moved about with his thoughts.
“Now I can see you’re a bit ruffled by my training style,” he said after a pause of silence. She held the throbbing slice in her arm and said nothing.
“Well now, I’ll have you know- I’ll never give you a hurt you can’t recover from- and every hurt you receive will serve as a reminder to never make that mistake again.” His voice was solemn as if in prophecy. “It may seem brutal to a young person such as yourself, raised with Elves and all- but, miss, war is brutal.” He caught himself, “Ah, but you’ll not be going to war anyways…so, if you’d prefer-”
She cut him off, “No! Make no difference in your training! I have complete faith in your methods.” She smiled convincingly, “I’m absolutely sure I can cope. It’s not very bad,” she indicated her arm.
“Now that’s a girl after my own heart,” chuckled Branbur. He looked into the wall but seemed to see other things.
“I knew a woman….much like yourself, except she was a Dwarf.” He shook his head, “But no! You don’t need stories from an old swordsmith. That’s not a bit what Thorin is paying me for, now is it.”
But the girl sat expectantly, “Who was she?”
That was all the Dwarf needed to take his mind back to many years passed: his youth.
“Reykin was her name, she was of the clan of the Firehammers. A beauty she was, despite her great size. She was as tall as the Lord Thorin himself, which is quite tall for a Dwarf, let me tell you. Her muscles were as big as mine,” here he rolled up his sleeve and flexed, for illustration, “And she’d been training in the art of war since she was a wee bairn. Most Dwarves are, you see lass, but more especially male children. But she was an exception if ever there was one. She was the only child of the famed war hero, Tîrkhna and his wife Nisli. At her mother’s request her father trained her and by the time she was eligible for marriage she could beat any Dwarf- male or female- in a duel without so much as a scratch on her person. She fought with all kinds of weapons; swords, axes, knives and even the spear!”
“Not the bow?” broke in Vaenomar, eager to know whether or not Dwarves had ever touched her weapon of choice.
He laughed and shook his head. “No, no- not the bow. There is only a small handful of us that will even touch it. The crossbow, maybe, but still not very likely.”
I wonder why that is, Vaenomar wondered.
Branbur continued, his eyes aglow in the excitement of reliving old memories.
“But it was the custom at that time- it’s since died out, being rather too dangerous- for a suitor, if his bride of choice was being wooed by another Dwarf, to challenge him to a duel and who ever won it won the bride. Of course she and her family had to accept him first but this was always done before the battle. Often times the loser died…and that’s why it stopped.”
Vaenomar’s nose wrinkled in disapproval, “Died?”
“Oh yes! Dwarven duels are such as you’ve never seen! And hopefully you never will…though they are quite a sight.”
She had seen duels, or very close to them, though definitely not to the death, and had mock-fought with fellows in training. But to come so close as to kill? Ridiculous.
“Dwarves are a sturdy and enduring folk in peace,” he said, “but if stirred to vengeance, jealousy or greed were are most dangerous. The saying goes- Never provoke a Dwarf…or you’ll lose more than your head.”
Instead of looking nervous Vaenomar snorted and mumbled, “Sounds about right.”
“But you mustn’t worry about me, lass, I can keep my head in a fight.”
She raised her eyebrows slightly, “Glad to hear it. But- continue!” She smiled, “Who had a duel?”
“Ah yes! So, Reykin, being of marriageable age, was expected to put forth a suitor for her clan to judge. Of course it was preferable that she loved him…or at least liked him, but that was not always that case.”
He looked a little gloomy. “For a long time I had been falling head over heals with love for her, the foolish bairn of a Dwarf I was. I had first met her when she came to the smithy where I worked. It was my father’s then and I repaired her weapons for her. She was still in training and we got to talking and soon she became interested in swordmanship, for before then she was only trained in axes and the use of a shield. We became…let’s say…close. I taught her all that I knew of fighting with a blade. All that I’d learned from my skilled father, bless his beard. From then on for me it was like rolling downhill all slathered in lard. We fought together, forged together and…did other things…”
“But then came the day when her clan announced she should put forward a possible mate. Now then no one knew about our shared passion…of love or of the sword. Swords were very unpopular weapons back then- greatly looked down upon. I’m not quite sure why though…” He looked thoughtful for a moment and continued. “Most of the weapons my father, bless his beard, and myself made were shipped off to Elves somewhere or other and to kingdoms of Men. The folks where I lived never expected one among them to be a sword-wielder and even less to be schooling a daughter of a well-respected family to use them. It went too far against tradition to be acceptable. Anyhow- I don’t see how anyone can forge a weapon without knowing how to use it! It doesn’t make sense…”
He paused and twirled his beard around his finger, “Now where was I..?”
“She had to choose a suitor?”
“Ah yes! So Reykin, being an extremely headstrong and courageous lass, even for a Dwarf, announced to her parents that she wished me, the humble Branbur, son of a swordsmith, to be her husband. Of course I was elated, as I had never really expected her to choose me.”
Vaenomar looked puzzled, “Didn’t she love you?”
He sighed, “Yes lass, but Dwarven tradition and respect of family are first priority. You, as an Elf-child, would not understand. Anyhow…”
“She chose you?”
“Yes, yes. Of course her parents and clan were surprised and furious and refused quite absolutely, saying I was not her equal, I was a mere sword-maker, I was no warrior- because I’d never fought in a real battle- and I had no title to be proud of. But dear Reykin was simply immovable. She demanded her folks to put forth a better choice and she would fight a duel, not to the death, and who ever bested her would win. Now to you, miss, I’m sure this seems a ridiculous, senseless manner of doing things, but what you must remember is that a Dwarf- no matter who they’re fighting for whatever reason- will try their best to win the fight. So Reykin was not about to yield to me on purpose. She wanted me to prove myself to her parents. Of course they laughed and agreed, thinking that I had no chance of winning. She declared the weapons of choice were to be chosen by the bearers. Her parents had no trouble whatsoever finding a worthy contestant. I can’t recall his name, for I never met him and did my best to forget him. But I do remember he was simply bulging with brawn. He had a title, battle prowess and worst of all he was good looking.”
He shook his head and sneered.
“He chose two axes and she one. A huge two-headed axe, used by her grandfather in a great battle against the goblins. They fought long and hard, both sustaining injuries, but not of the deadly kind. He began to tire and I remember my stomach coming so far up my throat that I almost gagged when my love at last threw him to the ground and kicked his weapons from his hands.
“She was allowed to rest the day and the next we were to meet in battle, perhaps for the last time. Fearing further disapproval from her parents I chose an axe and shield for our duel. Though we fought long, it passed so quickly. Like our training at the forge. I don’t remember how but soon I found myself staring up at her, from a rather foreshortened view, the dust under my head. She had bested both her suitors, but her parents, though visibly impressed, I like to think, by my attempt, were still unsatisfied. Reykin was angry but would not give in. ‘Then they will fight and I shall choose the weapon! And whoever wins will have my hand!’ she roared in their faces.” He laughed sadly, his deep brown eyes gazing into space.
Vaenomar waited expectantly, “What happened?”
The rest seemed to be more painful by Branbur’s hesitation. He swallowed and took a deep breath.
“She chose the sword, much to her parents dismay,” he continued with deliberation, “We fought… and I won.”
Vaenomar clapped excitedly, “I knew it!”
But his face was sorrowful, “Yet still her family would not accept me.” The memories pained him so much that he began to summarize briefly.
“She was forced to marry him. Some relationship that must have been!” he snorted. “They were married no longer than a week when a goblin horde attacked one of our outposts. I heard she was in the troop that went to retaliate and I hurried to join her. My first real battle. In the heat of it all I saw her, venting her long pent-up fury and frustration on the heads and limbs of her foes. Their blood splattering like red waves upon rocks and heads rolling like the ball games Mannish children play in the streets. She didn’t stop even when the retreat was sounded. Her lusty rage wouldn’t let her. She was struck by a black-shafted arrow. I found her and drug her to safety.” His voice cracked, “Once more I held her in my arms…and she smiled at me. One last time.” He sighed and a large tear flowed through the creases around his eye.
Vaenomar placed her hand on his broad shoulder and said nothing.
A moment later he breathed in sharply and stood up, “Ah, old stories! They bring out the worst in me.”
Vaenomar smiled kindly, “Thank you….”
He nodded brusquely and said, “Well you’d better be off with you now! I’m sure that bear of a woman Bridi will have my ba- er..head, thinking I’ve kidnapped you. They’ll be wonderin’ if I’ve killed you or not.”
Vaenomar grinned. “Not sure Bridi would mind that much…But I’ll see you tomorrow?” she asked excitedly.
Branbur laughed heartily, “Oh no lass! Give yourself a week at least to recover!”
She looked disappointed, “But I-”
“Believe me, miss. We’ll be up to everyday before you know it. Just ye wait and see how your muscles feel tomorrow.” He winked and sent her on her way.
“An eager one,” he smiled to himself, “I hope Thorin knows what he’s getting into.”