1. An Explorer in His Own Land
"Why exactly are you going to Helm's Deep?" Héalwine asked as Onthéon saddled his horse.
"I want to go and meet the Dwarves. I'm curious. Aren't you?"
"No. Not in the least," Héalwine replied. "I have heard that they prefer to keep to themselves, and I have no interest in mining. I could not begin to imagine what we would talk about, aside from the caves themselves, and that would not take long."
"But they are doing such metalworks! Surely you saw the shield they made for King Éomer."
"Yes, it was indeed a kingly gift. But unlike you, I have no desire to go and visit them."
"Well, to each his own. I don't know if they are inclined to be friendly or not, but I would like to see what they have done in the caves."
"Suit yourself. My horse needs to take his exercise."
Onthéon said his goodbyes, mounted his own horse, Salupád, and headed off at a gallop for Helm's Deep. The day was mild, a pleasant late spring day with high, wispy clouds shaped like horse tails decorating the blue sky. As he rode up to the Keep with its hidden caves, he felt a twinge of nervousness. It wasn't that he was worried about the Dwarves, and he'd survived the battle against Sauron, but being a lone man of Rohan among a culture so different from his own was unsettling. He rode up toward the causeway at the Deeping Stream and saw, much to his surprise, a solo Dwarf hoeing a vegetable garden. He knew that the Dwarves of Aglarond traded with the Rohirrim for food, and quite frankly he'd not thought that Dwarves had any sense of food cultivation or animal husbandry.
He dismounted and approached the Dwarf, calling out, "Hello! I'm Onthéon of Rohan. I've come to find out about you and your people."
The Dwarf stood up, hoe in hand, and gave him what Onthéon thought was a quizzical expression. It was hard to tell under his bushy eyebrows and impressive beard.
"I am Dimvin. What do you want to know?"
Onthéon let Salupád graze on the nearby grasses as he pondered his response. "I suppose I want to know a bit about your culture. Never before have we had Dwarves in Rohan, and I'm unfamiliar with your kind. I did not realize that you grew some of your own food. I thought your handiwork all had to do with mining and metalwork."
Dimvin gave him a long, hard look, then said, "I am very atypical among my people. For whatever reason, I was born without the skills others have. I can grow things, but my skills at metalwork are…" He paused, seemed to collect himself, then went on, "…an embarrassment. But to make up for it, I am very good with my axe."
He smiled, a disconcertingly wide smile that showed a mouthful of large teeth. Onthéon spent a moment to take in as much detail as he could about this foreigner of another race. He wore a long-sleeved tunic and leather vest and his chestnut hair was unbound and wavy. His beard had a set of braids tied with thongs and he wore gloves. All in all, aside from his stature and brazenly hirsute nature, he wasn't necessarily so different from a particularly rustic man of the Westfold. Certainly not so different as the few Elves he'd seen at the coronation in Gondor. Their otherworldly presence had given him chills, reminding him of his very real mortality in a manner altogether quite unpleasant.
Onthéon forced himself back to the present, realizing that he needed to say something in reply to Dimvin.
"I have no doubt that you and all your fellows are handy with weaponry. As for your other plight, I suppose that would be like one of us having a fear of horses."
Dimvin seemed to sag. "Yes, that is an apt comparison. But I have been forced to accept the undervalued talents that Mahal gave me. Would you care to see my flowers? I have discovered that your soil is excellent for growing roses. Come!"
"Roses?" Onthéon repeated, trying to reconcile this gruff creature as someone with a passion for such delicate charges.
"Oh yes. I tend a herb garden as well, but it is my flowerbed that brings me the most contentment. Well, that and carving. I assume you would like to see how we have transformed your caves?"
"Yes, I had hoped to be shown your works."
Onthéon was surprised at how quickly the Dwarf moved, given how short his legs were. But he led Onthéon over to a well-tended rose garden near Hama's grave, telling him about each variety as though introducing a member of his family.
"But enough of this. Let me take you down into the caves. I must admit that I agree with Gimli, they are a most amazing and wondrous treasure. It surprises me that all you did was use it for storage or to hide your people. Then again, it would not be such a hospitable place for horses." He gave Salupád a wary look. "Do they stay with you in your houses?"
Onthéon spluttered through his answer. "Of course not! Well, Salupád can stay within the Burg as there are stables for at least a dozen horses. Some people have dogs as pets, and we do care for our horses very much, but they most certainly have their own stables."
"I didn't know," the Dwarf said with a shrug. "We do not ride and we do not keep pets."
"Yes, but you are known for your mining and metalwork, and yet here you are, with a green thumb! So at least from time to time a Dwarf such as yourself comes into being."
"Yes, I am rare indeed, yet you will never find me on the back of one of those creatures." He jerked his thumb at Salupád, who Onthéon was now leading by the reins as they crossed over the Deeping Stream.
"Has your kind never taken to riding?" The thought was so foreign to Onthéon as to breathing underwater. "You mean to say that you walk everywhere?"
Dimvin's rant about the benefits of walking or running from place to place lasted until they'd crossed through The Narrows and reached the entrance of the caves. Onthéon had expected to hear the sound of tools ringing, but it was strangely silent.
"How many of you are there?" he asked as the Dwarf plucked a torch off of the wall to light their way.
"About three dozen. I will introduce you to any we see, but most Dwarves spend their days in their workrooms. Since we are carving designs in the dining room, you will probably see Dombur and Grim, and maybe Thram or Dolóin."
"What of your lord, Gimli?"
The only other name Onthéon thought he could hope to remember was that of the Dwarf king. He was looking around at the walls, not seeing much of a change from when he'd helped to take wheat to store for the winter, but they were still close to the Hornburg.
"Gimli oversees everything. But he is a silverworker at the core, and I believe he and your King Éomer have been in discussion about a new crown for his queen."
The further underground they travelled, the more confined Onthéon felt, though Dimvin's companionable chatter helped his comfort immensely. Dimvin kept up a stream of commentary about other plans and requests for items of mithril that had come from Gondor which Onthéon found interesting, though how the Dwarves could accomplish such feats seemed like magic.
"Ah! Grim! How is your lamp?" Dimvin called out to a stout, black-haired Dwarf. He was perched on a ladder, and appeared to be carving something literally out of a cave wall.
"The work goes well," Grim answered before he stopped and stared. "Why is a man with you? Is there bad news? Are orcs on the plains again?"
"No, nothing like that. This is— what did you say your name was?"
"Onthéon, good Dwarf," Onthéon replied, placing his hand on his dagger hilt and giving a slight bow.
"What are you doing here?" Grim asked in a not altogether pleasant tone.
"He wanted to see our works. They aren't a secret, so I brought him into the caves."
"I have lived my life on the Westfold and had not seen a Dwarf or any other race until very recent times. To have a collection of Dwarves move to take up residence in the caves, well, I admit that I am curious."
"We are not here to be gawked at," Grim stated, placing his tool-clenched hands at his hips.
"I am not here to stare, only to… say hello. And welcome," Onthéon said, grasping at anything that might sound diplomatic. Apparently King Éomer related splendidly with the Dwarves, their ruler especially, but it seemed that everybody else in Rohan was quite content to let them remain unto themselves. Until this point, with the exception of trade for food, there was not a proliferation of interaction between the two races.
"Have you seen Gimli?" Dimvin asked, slicing through the growing tension in the room.
"Yes. He's in the kitchen."
Onthéon bid the other Dwarf a hasty farewell and continued to follow Dimvin deeper into the caves. He'd never been this far into them, and he was glad to have a guide. The walls here were opalescent, a creamy pearlised colour that was quite attractive, though very different from the grey stone of Meduseld. The aroma of cooking meat wafted to him and he marvelled at how the Dwarves cooked so far underground. He knew there must be holes that let in air, but they would be far, far above.
"This is our Lord," Dimvin said proudly, as he gestured to a russet-haired Dwarf wearing a wide leather belt and several chains of gold around his neck. He had just raised a tankard to his lips and took a long swallow before placing it on the table and giving Onthéon a nod.
"Hail, man of Rohan. Do you bring a message from King Éomer?"
"My lord Gimli. I am just a man of the Westfold, but one whose curiosity got the better of him. I went to the marriage ceremony of King Éomer and saw the shield you presented. I have felt compelled to discover more about your race since then."
"Well, here we are. Though we are a solitary folk, so unless you are here during an evening meal or singing afterwards, you will not lay your eyes on many of the Dwarves here. But we are a happy lot, myself most of all. Ale? Our brew is even finer than your mead, though Éomer feels differently."
His grin grew even wider, and Onthéon found that he smiled in return.
"I do not doubt that! And yes, I would be glad to share a cup with you."
"Excellent! Dimvin, why don't you draw a tankard for yourself and this man of Rohan. Aren't the caves a work of tremendous beauty? I could talk for days about these extraordinary realms."
"And he did," Dimvin interrupted from the cask of ale. "How else do you think he convinced us to leave our homes and follow him here?"
"I imagine that you are quite persuasive," Onthéon acknowledged, taking a proffered tankard from Dimvin. "Here is to the continued prosperity of our two races, and to your new life in Rohan."
"Hear, hear!" Gimli enthused before saying something in a language Onthéon could only assume was Dwarvish. It was short and rough, a gruff language that seemed to fit them perfectly.
"Westu hál!" he toasted in Rohirric, and was shocked beyond belief when Gimli replied in kind, seemingly knowing what he said. "Did our king teach you that as well?" he asked, incredulous.
"I told you that my lord Gimli is in the good graces of your King Éomer," Dimvin said as they all sat down at a sturdy wooden table.
"I am now, but at our first meeting, well, let me just say that we did not see eye to eye."
Dimvin chuckled while Onthéon tried to suppress his uncharitable thought that only another Dwarf would literally see him eye to eye, despite his larger than life presence.
"Éomer is known to be extremely loyal to his people, and if he felt you were a threat, then I don't doubt that you had a pike or a sword aimed at your throat."
Gimli laughed heartily. "Indeed! It took Aragorn's words to keep us from coming to blows. But now he has allowed me to rule this glorious realm. Are you in Edoras?"
"No, I live in a small village on the Westfold, a partial day's ride from here. I must admit that I did not expect to be greeted by a Dwarf with a hoe in his hand!"
"I am not a typical Dwarf," Dimvin said dryly before taking a long quaff of ale.
"But a much-appreciated one," Gimli said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Do you smoke? I do savour my pipe when enjoying ale."
"I do not, but please don't hesitate on my account."
Onthéon was enthralled as both Dwarves performed elaborate rituals around their pipes and tobacco until they both were puffing contentedly. He listened to Gimli with occasional interruptions by Dimvin about the project in which they were engaged, as well as Gimli's vision for his people and the exploration of the caves. After three tankards of ale, Onthéon was feeling rather tipsy and in increasingly desperate need of a urinal. After being shown the way and feeling far more comfortable, he decided that it was time for him to take his leave. He had no idea how much time had passed as the lights burned with the same brightness against the glittering cavern walls.
"I do not wish to take up your entire day, so I should return to my village," he said, having washed his hands and found his way back to the kitchen.
"I am greatly heartened that you came to satisfy your curiosity!" Gimli proclaimed before letting out a belch. "You are welcome to my realm any time you wish. And please do give my word to King Éomer if you find yourself travelling to Edoras. He usually sends someone to visit from Meduseld, but perhaps you could let him know that I would be interested in you being a regular liaison."
Onthéon caught the amused look in Dimvin's eye before turning his full attentions to Gimli.
"I am deeply flattered, lord Gimli. I will travel to Edoras next week and relay your message." While he felt a warm rush of pride, a more practical aspect of the message rose to the fore of his mind. "Perhaps you could put that in writing? I do not think King Éomer would accuse me of making up such a message, but something in your own hand would carry the appropriate weight."
"Yes, of course! I'll just go to my workshop and write a hasty note. I will meet you both in the dining room."
With that, the bejewelled Dwarf trundled off to his own space hidden somewhere in the caves while Onthéon asked Dimvin for more detail on the mithril doors for Gondor. They returned to the dining room where Grim continued to stand on his ladder, chipping away at the trumpet-shaped lamp emerging from the cave wall.
"This should suffice," Gimli said jovially, handing him a narrow piece of parchment held with a grass blade-thin circlet of silver.
"Thank you, lord Gimli."
"You are welcome. The ring around the parchment will go to you after Éomer has read the letter. You seem to have long, thin fingers, and I have a good eye for ring sizes."
Onthéon felt a flush start at his throat, but thankfully it didn't rise to his cheeks.
"Thank you, indeed! I have never worn a piece of jewellery, much less one made by such a renowned Dwarf."
"'Tis just a bit of silver. Dimvin, lead him out. I will look forward to seeing you again in a few weeks."
Dimvin accompanied him through the heart of the Hornburg where Onthéon readied Salupád for their ride home, and all the way out to his gardens across the Deeping stream.
"It has been a pleasure to meet you, Onthéon," Dimvin said, stroking his beard thoughtfully rather than extending his hand or bowing. Onthéon had done neither, expecting to follow suit with whatever gesture Dimvin engaged.
"One moment. I have a gift to give you as well."
Onthéon stood in a surprised silence as Dimvin walked hurriedly to his rose garden, evaluated the flowers, and settled on one. He cut it and carried it proudly back to Onthéon, who took it gingerly, avoiding its thorns.
"I do not know whether or not you have a lady companion. If you do, this could go to her. Regardless, take it as a living symbol of a new friendship. Are you certain you do not wish to stay the night? A dozen or so of your people live here at the Hornburg."
"No, I would like to get home. Thank you, master Dwarf," Onthéon said solemnly, and bowed slightly at the waist. "I have no companion, but I will keep it in water until it fades."
"And I will send you home with another when you next visit. Farewell for now!" he said and with a wave, turned and walked back across the water.
It was not far from midnight when he arrived at his small home, but he took great care to ensure that Salupád was properly taken care of before putting his own weary body to bed. Before he did, he took out the two talismans from his day's adventure, placing the note to the king on his dining room table and searching for a drinking cup. He poured some water in it and pulled out Dimvin's rose. Some of the petals had bruised, but otherwise it looked as beautiful as it had when the Dwarf had presented it to him. With a knife he trimmed the stem and admired the flower for a few moments, but then a deep yawn escaped his mouth. He was desperately curious to read what lord Gimli had written, but decided that such correspondence was not for his eyes.
"You shall have to tell Héalwine of what happened!" he said to himself when he tucked himself into bed. "Perhaps he will join you on the ride to Edoras."
That night he slept soundly, dreaming of the shine of mithril gates and the sparkle of mirth in the Dwarf-king's eyes.