1. The Dwarven Blacksmith
The afternoon sun oppressed the vast city and its cruel rays refused to offer the least respite. The great walls were of a pure and radiant white beneath the brilliant light and the once proud banner of men, once facing the wind with a resolute defiance, was of an indolent immobility. The heat stifled men, who were attending to their daily task with a heavy pace, trying desperately to reach the salutary shadow of the narrowest lane, where they would wander amongst the crowd, jostle a peddler, meet a merchant, or hail a pedestrian, forming a colourful and noisy community.
At the very heart of the affluent city, the market inspired opulence and profusion; each stall weighed down under a foison of rich tapestries, plump fruits and perfumed spices. Merchants praised, with an enthusiastic voice, the quality of their fabrics, the dexterity of their crafts and the beauty of their beasts, which constant neighs and cries increased the heavy murmur raising from that agitated crowd. A nimble horde of children, emboldened by that cruel summer day, were playing amongst the drifters, constantly running, cheering and jolting the displeased traders. They were alike fiery salamanders, dancing beneath the ardent sun with a delighted laugh, as if they were drawing their joy directly from the heat. The bustle deafened the wanderers, who added their voice to the ambient commotion, as they awoke every sense to estimate the quality of each product; they contemplated the intense carmine of a rich needlepoint, caressed the tawny coat of a peaceful mare, intoxicated their sense of smell with cloves, herbs and spices in abundance, tasted flavourful berries and sweet apples, or listened to the melancholic chirp of a captive dove.
This picturesque scene would captivate the beholder, provided that he accepted to admire for a while the array of sounds, colours and smells, to witness the different attitudes of men and women accepting their part in this vivid theatre, indifferent, for a transient instant, to their cruel condition and to the trouble of their ephemeral path in Middle-Earth.
Apart from this oblivious crowd, the blacksmiths barely noticed the enthusiasm of commerce; their feverish eyes were staring at the heated metal and they had no interest whatsoever for the superficialities and delicacies of life. Their absolute concern was for the metal they were attempting to bend and shape in an endless furnace of ashes and sparks. The hammer repetitively hit the anvil in a resonant litany; the forge was not the province of the human voice, it was the fiefdom of steel and the blacksmiths were slaves swooning upon the inferno, servants of shadow and flame. The smiths were stiffening their tensed muscles, hypnotised by this redoubtable chant of steel. Their bare chest was sullied by dirt and sweat, and tautened with fury when the hammer was raised, prepared to collide with the metal.
In the heat of the forge, apart from the other blacksmiths, was a dwarf. His hand was firm and skilled, and his work, though perfectly crafted, was realised with a violent dedication. His black tunic was open wide and stuck to his skin from the sweat. The damp fabric revealed a sturdy chest, broad shoulders and muscled arms. He had massive hands and his strong face was of a wild and male beauty, adorned with a black beard and enhanced with a vigorous nose. His long dark hair, ornamented with braids and mithril beads, was strewed with silver strands. His deep blue eyes expressed resentment and wrath. He fixedly stared at the malleable metal while he was shaping it furiously; fool would be the blacksmith or the customer who dared to interrupt his labour, for he would be considered with the utmost disdain and receive the most discourteous dismissal. Powerful and massive was his stature, even if he had the small size of his race, and none would venture to trouble him in his craft, for his austerity was without doubt as renowned as the quality of his weapons.
The blacksmiths admired the precision of his work, as well as they praised the sure skill of his large hands, tautened, calloused and tanned by years of toil. But they feared him for his wildness and disdained him because of his race. The blacksmiths never talked to him and stared at him with contempt, while the customers were used to give him half a wage; they were pretending that a dwarf deserved no more no less than a salary consistent with his size, and they towered over him with arrogance each time they had to deal with him. They had heard foolish rumours about a dwarf king, dismissed from his mountain by a covetous dragon. They were most pleased by that ironic tale and by the moral they found in it; the greed of a reptile had chastised the avarice of a race they had learnt to despise.
In this city inhabited by men, dwarves were few and their race often was perceived as stern and coarse. This particular dwarf, scornful and resolutely acrimonious, did not contradict their hasty judgement. He never spoke to the other smiths and refused to join them in their chatter. He was dedicated to his work and spent countless hours staring at the metal as if his heinous eyes were capable to bow and subdue it. A few blacksmiths thought him mute, for they had tried to question him once, but all they received as a reply was a grunt, and his silence increased their sarcasms tenfold. The dwarf seemed deaf as well, for never did he appear to take offence of the veiled calumnies he sometimes received. He had withdrawn into solitude and silence. He was blind to hope, since his existence was deprived of faith, and the life in his heart was buried as deep as a sword in a sheath.
While eventide approached, the smiths rendered hammer and anvil, abandoning the furnace to find comfort with the zephyr of dusk. The empty forge echoed their cheerful laugh even after their departure. Howbeit the dwarf continued to shape the steel, alone, just like he would shape fate if fortune did not decide otherwise. After what seemed an eternity of exertion, he realised, with a wild grunt, that he could no longer raise his powerful fist. He laid down hammer and tool, such a warrior rendering sword and shield after a defeat. He left his retreat, pace heavy, and wandered across the deserted alleys, returning to his kin with a weary heart.
A few of the dwarf's relatives dwelt in the same city and endured the existence of perpetual proscribed. Exile smote their kind face and, though their cheerful nature proscribed grief, their features reflected the sorrow of their faithful heart. They knew as well the contempt of men, they knew the frustration of a pitiful remuneration and they found contentment in the cheerful presence of their kindred.
When Thorin Oakenshield, dwarf without a mountain, king without a kingdom, returned from his labour, with sore body, desperate soul and empty purse, his kindred welcomed him with the respect due to his rank. However, their respect had no resemblance with some cold consideration reserved to a conceited noble. Genuine deference, tinged with concern and devotion; a bow with a smile, a hand on the chest with a kind oath, a look lowered with a benevolent speech. They leant their beard towards the dwarven blacksmith, still covered with sweat and dirt. They recognised him through the torn clothes and the sullied skin, and his royal ancestry could be stained by neither servitude nor abasement.
The dwarves shared a modest hovel in a popular area of the city. The house was simple and bare, though it was comfortable, which was to be expected for the dwelling of a dwarf; a wooden table and a bench were the only furniture in the living room, but it was enough for their pleasure. While they had a place to drink ale and share their meal, they were perfectly content, and every night their laugh warmed the room, as well as a lamp and a few candles, which dim light revealed their plentiful beard and their cheerful smile.
The old healer Óin sometimes crushed a fragrant herb he had garnered from the modest courtyard garden to prepare a medicinal unguent, keen to ease the soreness in the blacksmith's muscles, but Thorin, as was his wont, declined, for he revered his pain as a reminder of his fate. However, tonight he accepted the healer's craft with gratitude, for the day was tiresome and sadness clinched his soul. He could endure much, but, if his mind did not find rest, at least his painful members would feel a semblance of consolation.
The old healer was preparing the herbal ointment at the light of a candle and crushing them with a wooden pestel. The aromatic smell of medicinal herb perfumed the fresh night air. A dwarf brought a piece of bread and a plate of meat to Thorin, and the king ate in silence, parting the bread and nibbling at a mouthful without appetite. His kin was waiting for him to finish his meal; crucial matters were to be discussed and impatience was tormenting their heart.
Earlier, they had heard a portent about the once thriving kingdom of Erebor. Fíli and Kíli, nephews of the king, could not restrain the agitation of youth; they suddenly left the bench they were impatiently contorting themselves on, and strode along the dining-room, eager to reveal what they had learnt from Óin.
A brief smile caressed Thorin's severe face. He had perceived their haste and he raised an eyebrow at his nephews. His deep voice resonated in the silent place, only interrupted by Óin's quiet mumble:
"Will you cease your constant bustle and tell me what you've been burning to tell me since my return tonight?"
His grim appearance was reinforced by the dim light. His skin had the colour of dark gold and his abundant hair was black like the wing of a raven.
"Uncle," exclaimed Kíli, "Óin has deciphered a portent about the Lonely Mountain."
"He has read the omen and said it was time," added Fíli. "Ravens have been seen flying back to the Mountain."
The blond dwarf, eldest child and more moderate, was trying to temper Kíli and both sat on the bench again and looked at Thorin with expectation.
"As it was foretold, when the birds of yore return to Erebor, the reign of the beast will end," recalled Óin, who was a bit deaf but knew that Fíli and Kíli had revealed what they had learnt from the portent in their haste.
The healer had awoken their wit, for they all jumped on their feet, except Thorin who was glaring around with a displeased stare, and quarrelled about the prophecy. They argued upon various details and shared contradictory statements until their joined voices formed a deafening clamour. Irritation and impatience began to seize Thorin's heart when he heard a dwarf initiating a seemingly endless dissertation about ambiguous signs that could cause a misinterpretation of the portent or, even worse, reverse its whole sense. Another dwarf answered that the velocity of the ravens should be considered as one of those decisive details. The tankards were colliding with passion and spattering Thorin with ale. The dwarf king, abandoning what patience he had left, turned completely wrathful.
His deep voice resonated, silencing everyone, and he arose in a proud movement, slamming a thick fist on the table:
"Atkât, I shall not listen to that foolish nonsense and I refuse to believe in that portent. I shall not let myself influenced by such a despicable falsehood. That fable is long overdue; my kingdom and my dignity are lost, what should I expect from it except another painful disappointment? You speak of portent, but why didn't we foresee that Smaug would seize our realm and why didn't we predict the demise of Erebor? We didn't anticipate that no one would come to our aid after we were exiled and that we would plead for assistance in vain. We couldn't foretell that we would be sentenced to a life of dishonour, expelled from our home, vowed to humiliation and indigence. I don't recall that an oracle came to me that day, in order to warn me that I would lead my kin in the province of men, beg for a wage of copper and roam the path of a pauper, while the dragon rests on a plunder of gold. Who could predict the ordeal we would face and the mortification we would endure? I will not listen to that portent, and I will not lure myself into a false hope."
The dwarves remained silent, devastated by his stare, full of wrath and despair. They were concerned for their king. In their heart promptly grew the innermost fear that he would give in to grief. However, they knew that they could not help Thorin in such spirit, and that they should grant him a reasonable amount of time to think about the fate of his kin. They endeavoured to remain patient and they leant their head with respect when he left, in an abrupt gesture, to find comfort in his room. Fíli and Kíli realised that their uncle had scarcely touched the content of his plate and they shared a look of concern. Óin had finished preparing the balm, but he dared not to give it to his king, for Thorin had left in such a sudden impulse, defying anyone to detain or follow him with a glare.
"Is he serious?" asked Kíli after Thorin had left.
Worry was perceptible on his juvenile face. Fíli patted his shoulder to reassure him and looked at his kin with determination.
"We must convince Thorin," he said, "the dragon may be dead and the wealth of our race may lie unprotected. If we could read the sign, perhaps others will, and surely they will try to claim our vast richness while we remain in exile, in the deepest poverty. We must persuade our king to take back his kingdom, for our very honour, for our kin, and those who endured the fall of Erebor."
The dwarves nodded and Óin raised a hand:
"Thorin will change his mind," he replied, "and I have faith that he will accept his fate. He is a proud king and he will never let anyone seize his kingdom. Besides, he will not abandon his kin, for he has a loyal heart, though his feelings are buried deep within him, as a gem in the deepest mine. He forgot that a dwarf cannot survive without the light of hope... Therewith, I've decided to conceal an enigmatic sign directly involving our king, and I have faith that it will restore hope in his heart."
"You didn't tell us about that sign! What is it?" asked Kíli, approaching the healer and looking at him with a wide and warm chestnut stare.
The young dwarf had to repeat his question twice, for Óin could not quite hear. He tried to retrieve his hearing cornet, but it was stuffed with angelica and he removed the plant before he buried the end of the cornet into an impatient ear.
"The portent is still vague, for the sign is refusing to reveal itself fully," the healer replied after a while. "I need to refine my interpretation in order to decipher it whole. However, I've read that a future event will change his fate and that someone I still cannot identify is to be revealed, who will determine his future."
Kíli looked at Fíli with wonder, childlike contentment written on a mirthful face. They joined their kin in a merry jump and initiated an ardent discussion about what they had learnt from Óin. They all sat around the table, drinking ale until they had emptied the last barrel and devising their interpretation of the omen; they were wondering when that enigmatic creature Óin had talked about would be revealed and how their future quest to reclaim their homeland would be.
Thorin entered a secluded room, furnished with a small bed, though large enough for a cloistered dwarf. A single candle, on a damaged bedside table, decorated the poor bedroom. Extinguished and desperate, that candle seemed petrified in a posture of eternal affliction, weeping a sole tear of wax, beseeching for even a brief flicker of light.
The dwarf sat at the window to breathe the quiet air. His heart was burning proudly, torn between wrath and indecision. He remembered the countless years he spent in the ardent hope to reclaim his realm and slay the beast that had conquered the Lonely Mountain. Howbeit, tonight, his desire had become an extinguished pyre and his heart was a consumed fire, devastated with regret. Hope had left the once proud dwarf and he had given in to resentment. Weakened by a path of mortification, resolution had abandoned him and he thought with anger that he no longer was a king. He was a blacksmith, a pauper and obscure blacksmith. He would be stigmatised by exile until his demise and he wondered what to expect of his miserable existence. He craved to abandon his title just to feel a gentle presence at his side, a soul he could be bound to. A soul who could share a similar fate and consider him with compassion.
He had survived countless battles and faced battalions of enemies with a fierce stare and a firm hand. He had faced a life of pauper with an impenetrable indifference. Yet he was suffocated with despair and solitude.
His massive head turned at the cloudless sky and he observed silently the delicate crescent of the moon. His stature was stately and sombre, delicately illuminated by the pale gleam of the countless stars. He grabbed, with the strength of frustration, the ledge of the window, just like a captive who would try to escape his jail, desperate to find a word deep enough to voice his torment, but silent and guarded, unable to release a heart stirred with grief.
Suddenly, the dwarf caught an almost imperceptible motion in the alley beneath his window; he could glimpse at the furtive movement of a cloak, but it disappeared promptly in the shade nearby. Thorin stood up straight and leant at the ledge with great alarm. He had no weapon in his hand, but he was ready to face any assailant and his stare could have frightened anyone who would approach his dwelling. He scrutinised the dark in an attempt to find who or what had moved in the vicinity, but the alley was deserted again and the silhouette was gone.
Bystanders were not common in that remote corner of the city but they were not rare either; sometimes mendicants and wanderers frequented the area. They were passing silently, imploring the benevolence of a resident or merely trying to survive. This precise shadow, nonetheless, was most unusual, for it was incredibly swift and silent. It was not the drawling gait of a beggar; it was similar to a breath of wind or a flutter of wing and, somehow, Thorin did not feel threatened by it. The dwarf realised that fear had left his heart and had given space to curiosity and concern, for he felt an irrational impression of being watched.
He got a grip of himself and left the window in a sudden impulse, blaming himself for his weakness and thinking that, influenced by his fatigue, his impressionable mind had invented the brief event in its desire to escape the reality.
Thorin grunted and threw himself on the bed, which creaked under such weight of exhausted flesh. He looked at the moon from the window and at its pale gleam reflecting on the bare wall. The livid light reminded him of a precious gem, and he remembered with a sharp feeling of regret the rarest jewel of all, the Arkenstone, lost somewhere into the golden treasure of Erebor, under the protective paw of a fire-breathing dragon.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.