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The Seventh & Last

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 "It is a wise father that knows his own child."
-Billy Shakespeare


 Durin had always been able to recall things he should not possibly have been able to. Memories that shifted through his mind like clouds on the horizon, at once both foreign, and so terribly real he'd often awoken in the dead of night from the horror of them. He'd had them since he'd been too young properly recall, but over time they had become strangely comforting--a strong, familiar mountain in the midst of a storm. 

 When he'd been taught his lessons on the history of the Longbeards, especially concerning the flight of Durin's folk from Moria, he'd wept for hours upon end. It'd been worse when he'd learned of Nain I, son of Durin VI, who had gone back to fight Durin's Bane and died in the attempt. You would've thought his own mother or father had been killed before his very eye' from the way he'd blubbered and cried. 

Many folks had begun to see him as soft-hearted because of it. A sad thing indeed, they would whisper, you'd think with a lad with a name like that should be tougher. How's a dwarf like that to get anything done? As Durin aged, he'd quickly learned to stiffen his upper lip, and ignore the niggling wisps of memory.

 But  the thought of what had occurred in the collapsed mine--what had become of Alvís-- had brought them out into the light once again. It felt utterly, horribly real. The scent of death still lingered in his nostrils, something he'd never thought about when he'd recalled those dwarves who were just names in dusty tomes to others. Only the memory of that sorrow made his heart twist with grief, like an old scar aching in the cold, but the guilt he felt over Alvís was more akin to a festering wound, promising only to worsen with time.

 Why had he been so foolish? Why had he gone and gotten yet another dwarf killed? 

 Time passed quickly in the infirmary, though it was far from painless. Durin learned that the rubble had broken a few of his ribs, fractured his collarbone (Gimrís reminded him constantly that it had been a mere hair's width from snapping his neck), bruised his left femur, given him a proper concussion, and a cut along the edge of his temple that would most definitely leave a scar.

 But the worst part of it was his left arm, yet it was the only part of him that didn't ache.

 His arm had been completely crushed when the mine had collapsed, the bones in it little more than dust and the muscles mush. It would heal, thanks to the help of Elvish medicines, one of the healer's assistants had explained, and it wouldn't need to be amputated, thank Mahal. But it would heal wrong, and though the feeling may be gone for a time, that didn't mean it would stay that way. The bones would be warped, she'd said, like poorly forged metal. With time and effort, he'd be able to move it some, if he were lucky. But he'd never be able to wield a weapon with it again, nor hold the smallest of quills with ease.

 The entire time, Durin could swear, he'd only been able to see the crushed remains of his friend. His pain was nothing compared to that.

 Any dwarf worth their beard wouldn't find solace in a debacle like this, and Durin was no different. It left him somber and moody, and he'd most certainly have wallowed in it for an eternity if it weren't for the others. As time passed, his sizeable amount of Uncles and Aunts and cousins had come around to cheer him up. His Uncle Barur had brought more pies than he thought possible to eat, and his Aunt Baris sang some old songs for him in that crystal voice of hers. Even his cousin Gara, who wasn't much older than him, had stopped by to show off her axes.

 But in those first few days when Alvís' death had left him shaken and mute, he'd preferred the company of the Captain above all else. Thorin had sat by his bed from dawn until dusk without saying so much as a word. His new-found chattiness from the first night was short-lived, which didn't bother either of them. Durin liked the company of a taciturn companion to one that that would offer pity as a salve and the Captain ,for all his gruffness, understood the need for that.

 Plus, where else could he read the books his friend in the South sent him in peace without every dwarfling trainee in the mountain snooping over his shoulder?

 It was one afternoon, about a week into his recovery, when the Captain broke his silent streak. He'd just received a new edition from his friend, 'proper literature'  he'd sarcastically said, and had it propped open on his knee as Durin sat staring up at the distant stone ceiling.

 "Mahal's bloody beard, Gimizh!" the captain cried suddenly, shutting  the small book with a loud crack! of its spine, his dark face a deep beet red. "I don't know why I read these," He snapped. "I should just burn them when they come in with the traders."

 A smirk tugs at the corner of Durin's mouth before he can remind himself that he's grieving.

 "He probably does it for the look on my face," the Captain continued with one eye gauging Durin's reaction. " Even if the bampot is halfway across Arda, I just know he's having a good laugh at my expense right now. Hmph. I should send him something embarrassing in exchange...Any ideas?"

 Durin thought about it, but just imagining the straight-laced Captain of the Royal Guard searching about for something embarrassing to send with the traders was enough to make his sides ache with laughter. He finally just shrugged, unable to come up with an answer and grinning like a fool.

 "How about a letter?" Durin said. "Something horrid...like Gimrís finding it!"

 Thorin grinned devilishly and waved the book about. "Aye! There's an idea, lad! He thinks I can never be as clever as him, nor as daring. Maybe something like..." His voice rose three octaves higher. "Dear Gimizh, this is your Mother and I cannot believe what I've just read-"

 "What have I read exactly?" A voice asks, startling them both. In a flash, the book is gone from Thorin's hand and in the grip of Erebor's highest ranking Healer.

 The captain yelped. "I was just--"

 Gimrís flipped to a random page before Thorin could stop her. "Tch, Wee Thorin..." She chastised.

 As far as Durin knew, Gimrís was the only one that called the Captain that ridiculous nickname. Thorin towered over most of the population of Erebor. Yet it was well worth it to see the towering dwarf blanch at the Dwarrowdam, dark eyes wide.

"Now, what would Dwalin say if he saw you reading this, hm? Near our young prince of all things, " she asked flatly, her mouth quirking just a bit. "Or your 'amad?"

"She wouldn't be pleased, me thinks," Durin added, propping an elbow on his knees and chuckling at the captain's petrified look. "Not in the slightest."

 "I-I, er..." Thorin stammered, and couldn't seem to meet the Dwarrowdam's gaze. "Lady Gimrís, please don't tell her."

The squeaky request broke Durin's resolve, and he doubled over with laughter. Gimrís smiled brightly at him, then tossed the book back to Thorin who quickly tucked it beneath his jerkin.

"Relax, lad! I know it's from my boy, " she chuckled, winking at them both. "How about you let me send it out with a proper note back to him? Maybe then he'll will remember to write his mother once in a while."

Durin is still tittering foolishly as the Captain nods in hasty agreement. As the fiery-haired dwarrowdam sauntered away the Captain gave Durin a deep, familiar scowl.

"Back to teasing me already?" Thorin harrumphed. "Aye, you'll be out of here in a week. Mark my words."

 

~*~

Captain Thorin certainly was the optimist. It was well past a week before Durin was allowed from his bed, and even longer than that before he was given the privilege of walking about the corridors of Erebor once again. It was late into cold season, the morning of Durin's Day no less, before he was finally allowed to leave the healer's meticulous care to attend --of all things-- a meeting. It certainly wasn't the first place he'd wanted to go, but it was better than stewing in the healer's care a minute longer.

 When his mother had shown up to walk with him, she'd looked exhausted. Her ginger hair was in a mussed, half-up braid that she only ever wore when she went to the rookery.

Durin smiled as she stepped up to him, sleeves rolled up and large hands covered in hay and claw marks. She gave him the same quirk of the lips.

He was always being told how much they looked alike in their expressions, though his 'amad often teased him that her nose was not near as big as his, nor her eyes as blue or her neck as thick.

"Durin, "she said, and hugged him close."Finally allowed your freedom again I see."

 He returned it with his good arm, hoping that none of the healers were nearby to see him blush as his 'amad began to braid his sparse beard for him.

 "Where's 'adad?" He asked when she'd finished and they'd left, setting off down the corridor. Dwarves bustled past them in waves, many carrying decorations and such for the later celebration. He continued to look about for the familiar stern countenance of the king, but couldn't find it. Durin was half convinced that his father didn't have the heart to see his only son swathed in bandages again, but his mother was quick to snuff that thought out.

 "On his way the meeting as well, inúdoy. You know that,'" she told him. "Bursi insisted upon it. I've never seen a dwarf so fussy about timetables, and I believe the quake still has him shaking in his boots."

 Durin nodded, not paying much attention to his mother's words. His mind was already wandering back to the dark, stuffy tunnel, Alvís telling him to run ahead and he doesn't want to, he doesn't want to, he-

 "Trouble about, then?" He asked quickly, and pulled at a frayed bandage edge to still his nervous fingers. His mother was slow to answer, looking him over before continuing.

"The areas that were destroyed in the cave-in are still being dug out. It's taking damned longer than I thought it would to clear all the rubble," His mother's nostrils flared in irritation."Not to mention all the preparation for Durin's Day isn't helping."

 "Oh joy."

 The queen squinted at him quizzically, and she was quick in pulling him into an out of the way alcove, placing a comforting forehead against his.

 "Zûr zu? You can talk to me, you know." She murmured.

  "I'm fine, 'amad,"Durin lied, and shrugged his shoulders. "My...arm just aches."

 The queen puckered her lips at him, moving a stray strand of hair from his head. "Nothing else?"

 "I..."he looks away. "It's nothing."

 Skeptically, she peered at him. "Sometimes I regret how much you turned out like me," she said with a heavy sigh. "Brash and stubborn ‘til  you won't talk to no one. You have a good head on your shoulders, Durin, but you're far too hard on yourself. Just take some time to calm yourself, and heal. Heal, and breathe. Izzûgh?"

"Sugùl ma,"Durin agreed, leaning into the comforting touch. Bomfrís smiled at him, pulling lightly on the ginger braid at his temple.

 "Come, then. Your father won't wait forever to start, however patient he likes to think he is."

 They leave the quiet of the alcove and return to the bustle of the main corridor. Durin meets any curious gaze directed at him with one of his own.Better to face it head on. Most are sympathetic, but some seem like sneers. His 'amad noticed where his roaming eyes went, and scoffed.

 "I still remember all the nasty looks I got after I declared that I wanted to fight with a bow," she said, leading him with a hand on his shoulder. "I actually had people ask if I didn't know how to use a sword! Pft. I was taught by Lady Mizim herself, and showed all of them." She continued smugly.

 Durin tries to clench the muscles of his hand, but they remain rigid. "I hope I can as well."

 "You will." She looked ahead and gripped his shoulder. "Well. Look who decided to wait up after all." Durin looked up and smiled just a bit, too.

 His father's dark head had more grey in it than black nowadays, while his beard was nearly all white save for small patches of rust, but the old dwarf was as sturdy as an ox. He refused to be bent by age, and the royal crown and mantle only made him look more distinguished.

As he strode proudly down the corridor toward them, Durin couldn't help but straighten a little. He silently cursed his stiff arm that refused to move from its odd angle at his side. The king paused as he neared them both, his eyes surprised by what they saw outside the dark of the infirmary. The look passes just as quickly as it appears though, and is replaced by a broad smile as he places his forehead against Durin's.

 "Ach, lad, up and about again already," He said, cracking their skulls together, then grinning sheepishly like a child who's been too rough with a delicate toy. "How d'you feel, m'boy?"

 "It hurts, but I'll manage." Durin offered up a smile as he rubbed his head. "Not as painful as your face is, I'm afraid."

 His father guffawed. "Aye, your sense of humor seems to have returned quick enough," he said, pulling away to smile at his wife. She looked up at him skeptically, a light eyebrow raised. He laced his fingers through her hair.

"And you," he said playfully. "I like your hair. Very...unconventional."

"Shut up, dear," She replied with a wry chuckle. "And try not to take too long. It's the first day in too long that I'll have both of my boys at the table, and I want to have a decent breakfast together before the actual celebration starts."

 The Stonehelm smiled, his blue eyes brightening.

"Aye, ma'am. Right away, ma'am."

"You're not coming?" Durin asked as she turned to go.

"Unfortunately no," His mother sighed. "Believe me, I would do anything to join the riveting meeting that's about to take place, but I'm far too busy."

The Stonehelm rolled his eyes, and ushered his son to follow him.

Lucky, Durin thinks.

 He follows at his father's side into the great hall, where the throne carved sits surrounded by the blues and silver of Durin's line. They stride past it, and into a more modest room to the side, where a long table stands in the center.

The Stonehelm sighed as he takes his seat. "It'll be good to see you in a helm again, inúdoy. A prince shouldn't wear a circlet of bandages."

 Durin snorted at that as he sat at the left hand of his father. Others began to trickle in as they waited, until each of the thirteen seats were filled.

He waves back to Thorin, who offers him a polite nod back, and enters with his parents: the severe-looking General Orla Longaxe of the Orocarni in full battle gear from training, and his father, General Dwalin, who was by far the oldest Dwarrow Durin knew of, his hair white as snowfall. Though he was hale and hearty enough, he still leaned on his eldest son's shoulder as he sat down with a grunt. Durin often wondered how two of the most serious Dwarves ever to be born had had a son like the Captain- one of life's great mysteries, he supposed.

When Gimrís entered, she immediately stepped up to ask how he felt.

"Perfectly fine," Durin answered quickly. The dwarrowdam gave him a quick once-over with her eyes before nodding and taking her seat across from the Captain and his parents.

When everyone had settled, the Stonehelm stood up.

"Baknd ghelekh, everyone. It's time we began, " he stated. "What do you have to report, Bursi?"

 The anxious seneschal trembled as he rose from his seat and bowed, his pale and pointed beard brushing the tabletop. "Umlhakh," he began happily "I'm delighted t-to report that preparations for the new year have gone smooth-smoothly. The Biz-bizarûnh merchants suh-such-say this Durin's Day has attracted one of the-the biggest crowds they've ever--"

"Bursi," the king repeated patiently. "I know more than enough about our closest neighbors. What of the Dwarves in other mountains?"

Bursi bit his lip nervously. "A-a-a-apologies, sire. "He stuttered. "Er...E-Ered Luin had an early winter this year and, um, the Iron Hills report n-no change with the E-e-easterlings-"

 "Any news from the Orocarni?" The king turned toward Captain Thorin's mother, leaving the seneschal bleating like a sheep.

The old warrioress answered succinctly, her sentences bitten short at the ends. "Nothing except the usual drivel. The Easterlings continue to be a nuisance, but it's nothing they can't handle. As for the south--"

Gimrís's grey-tinged head perked up at that. Any news from the south always succeeded in waking her up in the oft dull meetings. "What happens there?" she asked

Bursi raised a hand. "I-I think I can answer that, Lady Gimrís." His oddly colored eyes grew wide from the dark stare that Orla gave him. Bursi gulped. "I-if Lady Orla permits it, of course." Durin grimaced at the piercing stare, even if it wasn't directed at him. He noticed both the Captain and the General Dwalin had their eyes trained on the shaky seneschal as well.

"Go on." His father nodded, the Raven Crown atop his head shifting slightly from the quirk of his brow.

The seneschal cleared his throat. "Talk of strange folk about--"

 "Strange folk?"

 "Aye, Men spouting nonsense about the-the return of darkness, and the end of the world. They tell anyone they can that they'll be saved if they join their cause. They're thought to be originating somewhere in Harad, but no-one is sure. K-King Elessar is over encumbered with the Khandish and political turmoil within the Umbarian government to be of much help in deal with them."

"Do they pose a threat to our colony in our colony in Ered Nimrais?" The king asked.

"N-no, sire, none at-at t'all. They are nothing more than radicals, and buh-besides that the cultists are situated closer toward the border of Harondor and Gondor, but some have been seen trying to get into the traitor wizard's tower in Fangorn."

 The king's eyes narrow darkly. "Lord Legolas kept them out?"

 "Aye."

 The Stonehelm sat back, "Very well. Lord Gimli will keep us updated, I'm sure, as will the elf. If there is anything else concerning these...'strange folk', then I expect to be told immediately."

 "Of course, sire!" bleats Bursi before taking his seat again

 At this point his father glanced down at Durin seated at his side, the first time he has in the entire meeting. It's fleeting though, but his gaze softened and Durin saw his father in the look: unsure, and worried. Durin offered a small smile, and nodded in encouragement.

 "What of the cave-in?" The King asked, as each pair of eyes in the room landed on Durin. " What progress have we made on the repairs of the lower tunnels?"

 A Dwarrowdam with steel-gray hair and a deep scar on her cheek- the head of the Miner's Guild- answered in a heavy voice.

 "Milord. My miners are workin' around the clock to clear the rubble, " she said matter-of-factly. "It's taken longer than we first thought. Old areas, old stone, and half those tunnels haven't been used for a terribly long time."

 "And the catacombs?" His father asked. "I would hope the tombs of my forebears remain unscathed."

 "We've barely scratched the surface there, milord, " she said staunchly. " Though we're sure no permanent damage has been done to the sepulchers, we won't know for sure the extent of anythin' til we break through the last of the rubble. I fear for the integrity of the older tombs, though," her eyes slipped surreptitiously to Durin, and the prince couldn't let himself meet them. "There was not much thought towards finesse whilst we dug those lads out--"

 "I'm sure there wasn't," The king cut in, voice steel. Durin gulped at the sharpness of it. "Which area worries you ?"

 The miner stiffened her upper lip and nodded, dropping the subject immediately. "We've yet to reach the worst area safely yet. It's been much too treacherous," she replied succinctly."Particularly...particularly where Lord Thorin Oakenshield was laid to rest. I doubt much remains."

 Durin noticed the way old Dwalin's scowl had deepened with the miner's words, and the aged dwarrow growled into his beard with a thick, worn voice: "Birashagimi, gamil bâhûn..." He watched Orla place a hand upon her husband's shoulder, and old Dwalin quickly placing his over it.

Beside the two, the Captain had a scowl similar to his father's stretched across his face, but he remained as impassive and immovable as a statue. Durin felt a thick weight settle in the pit of his stomach.

 "That's an ill omen if ever there was one," The Stonehelm frowned at the tabletop. "Do you have any inkling how long it will take to get through it all?"

 "We should know by tomorrow, my king," The miner thumped her forearm with the words. " Perhaps even sooner. My miners plan to work throughout the day, an' tonight as well."

 "And what of Durin's Day?" The king asked. "I cannot request you or your miners to work through such a time, when it should be spent with your kin."

"My workers and I cannot stand idly by and celebrate when the remains of a hero are dishonored in such a way," She answered back respectfully. "We are proud to do this."

"Aye?" Durin's father inclined his head to her. "Then you have my respect. Inform me when you are done and then we can find a proper place for our honored dead to rest once again." With that, he turned to the rest of the room. "Is there anything else to report?"

 No one answered.

"Then it's time to end this and continue with our mornings. I hope you all enjoy the celebrations."

A series of voices answered him the same, and the room quickly emptied of people. When the last one had left, Durin's father inhaled and lets his demeanor wane a bit as he slumped into his seat.

Durin looked at him hopefully. "You know, 'adad, it seems more fitting to help the miners than greet a bunch of visitors. "

"Aye, lad, "He chuckled dryly. "I feel the same, but--"

Durin nodded lightheartedly, "'But relations with folk outside of the Mountain are just as important as those within', right?"

His father gave a wane little smile, "I was gonna say 'and I don't know the first thing about the finer points of mining," he said. "But that works just as well."

 "Didn't you crawl into the rubble of a collapsed tunnel during the War of the Ring?" Durin pointed out.

 The king smiled. "I did, and it was completely reckless of me."

 "Reckless and brave," Durin added softly. "You saved many people that night, because you were brave enough to crawl into the dark."

 "And there were many I didn't save." replied the king, his eyes clouding over slightly. "Aye...But that doesn't mean I know how to dig myself out safely!" He slapped a hand on Durin's shoulder, rubbing small circles into it that the prince couldn't feel. Durin didn't have the heart to remind him.

 "I would feel better if I could be of help," Durin said. "I want to help fix this."

 "You can help by allowing your body to mend, lad," his father answered, and stood. "But enough with such dark thoughts and words! We'd best be getting back to your mother, or neither of us will hear the end of it."

 

~*~

 The wind was blistering cold as they made their way over the last hill of the rocky road, tearing through the thin stuff of his cloak to make Tobias tremble like some cornered little rabbit.

 "Here you go, Daddy." From inside the modest waggon, nothing more than canvas pulled over a cart, a dainty little hand  popped out holding a scarf. A face appears quickly after, red from the cold but smiling brightly up at him. Tobias couldn't help but return the gesture.

 "Thank you my dear," He took the burgundy colored material and wrapped it around his neck. It smelled of flour and the dusty insides of an unused room in a hobbit hole. "How was your nap?"

 "Bumpy," she groused."I miss my bed back home."

 "I miss mine too." Unbidden, old memories of the home they'd left behind crept through his mind. Old shelves full of books, pictures hanging on the walls, his nice, warm chair by the fire...

 He grew so homesick he scarcely heard a word his daughter said until she was shaking his shoulder emphatically.

"--Daddy!"

 "Hm? What, Aster...what?"

 Aster's little face scrunched up at him in irritation. "I asked 'are we there yet'?"

 Tobias grinned. "Take a look for yourself," he said, gesturing with his nub of a chin towards the end of the road. Just past the outcropping of grey stone, large domes, rooftops of red tile, and spires of golden-brown stone taller than any of the rolling hills back in Shire pierce the sky like lances, and all about them kites fly about like birds.

 "Whoa," murmured Aster, green eyes alight with wonder.

 "Whoa indeed."

 "It's a lot bigger than Michel Delving," she noted happily. "Like great big stone trees!"

 Tobias chuckled and clucked at his pony as they rounded the last  bend in the path. The road became steeper here, leading down towards the only open gate. All about them were all sorts of other travelers, some on foot, others on horseback, some even with waggons like themselves. Unfortunately, there were no other hobbits as far as he could see. There never were outside of the Shire, he thought somberly.

 "What're those?" Aster asked curiously, pointing off in the distance behind the gold-brown towers of Dale, to where twin sentinels of stone stood guard before two great doors.

 "That," answered her father as he adjusted his spectacles and squinted, "Is... Erebor, I believe. Home of the Longbeard Dwarves."

 "Like in the stories?" she oohed elatedly.

 "I should think so."

 "D'ya think we can visit it?" she asked suddenly, hopping up to peer even closer. The seat of the cart creaked dangerously. "I've always wanted to meet a dwarf!"

 "You've met plenty of dwarves, dear," he replied, pulling her down to sit beside him before she took a tumble. Aster slumped in the seat beside him, crossing her arms petulantly.

 "They were from the Blue Mountains, though!" she said. "I want ta see a dwarf from Erebor."

 "There isn't much of a difference. It's like saying hobbits in the Shire are different from ones in Bree."

 "I still wanna go," she pestered. "Pretty please, Daddy?"

 "They don't let outsiders in often." he offered as an answer, pulling at the reins to calm their pony.

 "How come?"

 Tobias bit the inside of his lip."Because Dwarves like their privacy."

 "Why?"

 "Same reasons we hobbits do, because they enjoy their secrets," He hoped the mystery of it would put an end to her questions.

 She continued undeterred. "Like what? What sorta secrets?"

 "Hm...like their secret language I suppose."

 "Secret language?" her mouth opened into a perfect 'o' and Tobias realized his mistake too late. "A secret code? I wanna know it! Wha's it called?"

 He thought of the name scrawled in an old book, still on the shelf gathering dust in his study. "Khuzdul."

 She rolled the strange word about in her mouth like a new piece of candy. "Kooz-dool? Khooz-dool..."

 Wearily, he smoothed back her unruly blonde curls. "I'm sure they'll adore an eager little student like you,"

 Aster furrowed her thin blonde brows up at him."How am I s'posed to learn it if we can't go in their city, though?"

"There will be plenty of Dwarves in Dale."

 Aster smiled eagerly. "Good."

Finally, she settled into the seat beside him, her legs too short to even reach the footrest. For a few solid minutes (more than he thought possible, really) she remained utterly silent, taking in all the strange sounds and sights about her. Tobias had been relentless in making her stay in the waggon as they'd traveled through the Misty Mountains and the Greenwood after that. Though the New Forest Road was more than well protected by Men, Dwarves, and even Elves, Tobias hadn't allowed her to step one furry foot into the tree-line. She'd given him the silent treatment for that: the worst punishment anyone could possibly give, as she saw it.

But, as it had in the forest, her silence didn't last long.

"D'ya really think Mummy will be here?" Aster asked, her voice light and unsure. " Will she recognize us?"

The small question made Tobias' stomach take a sudden turn. His hands tightened on the reins.

"I hope so."

"Me too," she whispered quietly.

 As they neared the city proper, the crowd became a throng then a stream then a wave of passerby that brought them nearly to a standstill. Tobias reached out to calm his short Shire pony while at the same time trying to calm his excitable little daughter.

 "So many people!"

 "Stay in the waggon," he told her sternly, gasping when Pretty-Pony waved her head particularly hard.

The walls of Dale are nearly as tall as the buildings themselves, made of strong, solid stone,  and the gates were just as well forged, with great steel bars of dwarvish forging, and guards high above on the battlements, and down below as well to mind the flow of traffic. The sight of so many of them hadTobias on edge when they finally reached the checkpoint, but Aster was positively giddy with the eagerness that only small children can handle and didn't seem to notice.

 "Look at all the Big Folk, Daddy! Look! Look!" she said as they were ushered through by a guard with frost on his brows. Aster's small fingers go out to brush it away before Tobias can stop her, and for a moment he fears the startled look on the Man's face will twist to anger. But he only smiles and ruffles Aster's bramble of blonde hair with a gloved hand. He gave one curious glance at her large, furred feet, yet thankfully didn't say a word.

 Tobias grinned bashfully at the Man, then continued down the lane. The dirt road quickly turned to stone that clicked with each clop of their pony's hooves, and navigating through the cobbled avenues of Dale soon becomes sport for them both. Despite the cold, plants of all sorts aligned the street, some hanging from window boxes in small potted jars, others clinging to the stonework like hands. Lanterns dangled from strings hung from rooftop to rooftop, just barely beginning to be lit, and as they moved deeper into the heart of the city other travelers turned from the road to set up shop on street corners. All sorts of wares could be heard shouted over their heads, and tantalizing smells wafted through the air, beggaring investigation . Children at play- Dwarvish and Man- whooped and ran about beneath the legs of adults as they chased one another, Race lost in the haze of the moment. Tobias glanced at Aster as she watched the other children, her large eyes strangely somber.

 Part of him wished she would ask to join them, but the last thing he needed was to lose her in a city he's never been in before. Besides, they hadn't come here just for celebration.

As the sun just barely began to tinge the distant bows of the Greenwood red, Tobias spots the seediest, dingiest inn he can find and stops the waggon a street or so away. He turns in his seat.

"I'll only be a minute," He told Aster. "Mind the pony, please, and don't go investigating anything until I get back." She nods, not even looking up as he jumps from the waggon seat and makes his way towards the dark insides of the building.

 Solidago loves the dangerous places best--seeks them out like a moth to a flame. It's the most obvious place to start, he thinks.

Tobias pushed open the doors, and is immediately hit with the thick, pleasant fug of a bustling inn. Even if the place is poorly lit, he can tell that it is absolutely packed. Leery-eyed folk sit at the tables picking their teeth with daggers, mirth and merriment fill the air as loudly as it does outside. Men sit around mostly, but here and there are tables filled with bearded Dwarves ( and was that a Wood-elf in the corner?) talking eagerly amongst themselves. Tobias stopped to rub the glass in his spectacles clear before adventuring further in.

He passed a dwarf tossing axes in the air in a flurry of movement that looked graceful enough to be a dance. The dwarf in question is humming a song as they spin the weapons nearly to the ceiling, and the crowd huddled around cheers them on happily when they did a particularly well-timed kick.

At the bar in the back of the tavern, a grumpy-looking Man stood cleaning a mug with a foul-looking cloth. He had one eye that glinted in the bad lighting, and his scowl only deepened when Tobias took a seat on the stool in front of him.

 "Hullo," Tobias greeted with a smile.

 "...'ello," answered the barkeep as he  looked him over with a withering eye. "What'll ya be havin'?"

 "Information," Tobias had been over this sp many times in the past few months. More than he cares to remember, but he still feels a tad silly talking like that. He fishes out a few gold pieces from his pocket before taking out the locket with her portrait, and slides both across the wooden counter to the Man. The barkeep takes the gold first (they always do) and stuffs it in his greasy apron pocket, then lifts the small portrait close his face. Tobias always hates this part: Watching as these strangers scrutinize Solidago. He looked away as the Man does, surveying the growing crowd in the fuggy room and listening to what conversations he can.

 The large dwarf with the axes had already retired from their show, glinting with sweat as they're slapped playfully on the shoulder by their companions.

 "Durin's Day goin' t'be grand this year," said one. "Every lord and lady that sees ya will be thrown off their seats!"

 The dancing dwarf took a swig of ale, "Aye," they reply, wiping a meaty forearm across their generous chin. "I jus' hope it helps Durin, too."

 "Cheers to that. Poor lad." the companion sighed before raising his glass. "To Prince Durin! May he be well and whole afore the night is through!"

 "Or at least grow a pair and get over it!" Another guffawed as the others groaned, but don't argue.

 The dancing dwarf face reddened.

 "Ach, dunnae be like that!" they growled darkly. "He's my cousin, you bastard, and both of our prince. I'll make ya show some respect!"

 "Calm down, Gara!" the insulting one replied hastily. "We were kiddin', right? Now c'mon, enough with dark words. Cheers!"

 It's as the group is slamming their tankards against each other that Tobias is pulled away from his eavesdropping by a hand snapping in his face.

 How rude.

 "Well?"

 The Man hands him back the picture, then-- to Tobias's surprise--the gold as well.

 "Aye, I've seen 'er."

 Tobias' heart fluttered for a moment, and he can imagine Solidago's hand in his, her soft lips and bright smile. He could see her meeting Aster and being so, so proud.

But the barkeep wants to continue and leaned in close, but not before glancing about him with his one good eye. His breath is cloying and hot, and Tobias has to fight the urge to pull away. "An' she's bad news, lad." he warned. "Seems to rub folk the wrong way. Brought nothin' but trouble wit' her, and lucky fer us she took it away too."

 Tobias deflated. "So she isn't here?"

 The Man shook his head. "Not fer quite some time. She lef' about the same time that dwarf prince got hurt. You'd 'ave thought she'd had a hand in it herself, the way she fled like there were wargs nippin' at her ankles. "

 He tried to keep the bitterness from his voice, but failed. "That sounds like her." Leaving, always leaving.

 The barkeep's brow puckered at him. "She someone important to ya?"

 "You could say that," Tobias replied.

 The barkeep crossed his burly arms. "You keep company like tha', and a man has to wonder wha' kind of character you 'ave."

 He chose to ignore that. "Would you happen to know where she may have been heading?" he asked, and looked up hopefully.

 The barkeep seemed about to answer, then stopped himself.

 "No, lad. Apologies."

Tobias knew the man was hiding something, but what could he do? Cause a ruckus and give his kind an even worse name than Solidago already undoubtedly had? He began to feel unbearably tired all of the sudden, and wanted only to go back to the waggon and curl up to sleep. He thanked the man, and was about to leave when a loud shout pierced the room.

 "--I'm sorry, mister!"

 "Oi, you little brat! " a deeper voice bellowed. "Where do ya think you're off to?!"

 A tiny whimper can be heard in the rapidly silencing pub.

 "Well, ya little shite?"

 A familiar voice answered him, defiant yet hushed.

 "Leggo! Let me go right now!"

 "Wha' ? Little bloody--"

 Before she can answer, Tobias is in-between the two. The Man is big and brutish, glaring angrily at Aster with his hand wrapped around her thin arm. A drink is dribbling down his shirt front, no doubt spilt there when Aster decided to barge in, but he seemed more than drunk enough already from the ruddy look of his face.

"Now calm down! I'm sure it was-." Tobias began.

"You the little brat's Da', then?" growled the man fiercely. "I'll beat the living shite out of you, then that little brat will see what accidents cause."

 "Don't--" A fist connected with his jaw, and Tobias fell back as his spectacles flew from his face.

 "Leave my Daddy alone, you big stupid bully!" Aster shouted, and Tobias can feel his heart flutter to a stop as the Man picks her up as easily as a rucksack. She claws at  his face helplessly, succeeding in drawing blood from his cheek.

There's no other way. Tobias reached for the weapon held at his side. Bugger it all, e hadn't wanted to create a scene...

 "Agh!" There was a malicious gleam in the foul Man's eyes, "THAT BLOODY HURT!!" he howled "I'LL KILL YA, YOU MISERABLE LITTLE BRAT!! "He pulled her away from him as if to throw her, when a robust form put a thick arm between them.

 Tobias quickly sheathed his dagger.

 "Tha's enough from ya, Burt, " The one-eyed barkeep said, a heavy cleaver in his hand. "It was just a wee mistake. Put the girl down."

 The man named Burt sneered. "Wha'? Are ya gonna throw me out, Giles? I'd like to see ya bloody try."

 As Burt turned from the barkeep, a spinning object flashed by him. It imbedded itself in the wall beside his head, and Burt turned to stare wide-eyed at the person who threw it.

 "You heard 'im. Put the lass down," The dancing dwarf already had a second axe in their hand, and their eyes bored into Burt's. Around them, the other dwarves were tensed as if preparing for an all-out war, " Before I spill more than just yer ale."

 Burt glanced from them, to the barkeep, to Tobias before settling on the squirming Faunt in his hands. With a look of pure fury, he dropped her to the ground.

"You'll bloody regret this, the whole lot o' ya! But especially you, halfling," he said, and stalked from the inn.

 "An' stay out!" Giles bellowed at his retreating form.

 "Daddy? Daddy! Are you okay?" Aster sniveled as she stumbled toward him, wrapping her arms around his neck.

 "He's alright, lass," Gara said, walking over with a small object-- too small to be an axe-- in their hand. Tobias thinks they must be his spectacles, though everything seems a bloody haze at the moment as the dwarf pulls him to his feet.

 Tobias doesn't realize he's been holding his breath.

"Thank you," He finally manages out.

"Weren't nothin', Master Halfling. Just try not to take on blokes bigger'n you," they guffawed. "Unless you decide to actually use that pig poker at your hip!" His spectacles were placed on his face. Thankfully, the glass wasn't broken.

Aster seemed too shaken to ask the kind dwarf about Khuzdul, but she does watch curiously as the dwarf pulls their throwing axe from the wall and pushes it into a loop in their belt before leaving.

 As the dull whir of noise resumes in the pub and the pair of hobbits becomes unnoticeable once again, Tobias turns to the barkeep that had been hovering over them like a cloud.

"Giles, was it?" Tobias asked. "I owe you and those dwarves a debt, sir. You saved my daughter and I from what would have undoubtedly been an awful scuffle."

The Man waved away his comment.

"I dunnae allow any kind of violence in this establishment. Besides, I couldn't allow such a darling lil lass to be bothered like tha'," He smirked down at Aster (the first smile the gruff barkeep has shown. She tended to have that effect) as she retreated behind her father and peaked over his elbow.

"Such a pretty wee thing should'nae be in places like this." he remarked softly.

 Aster simply stared him down with those big, unblinking eyes of hers. She mumbled out a small "thank you" before falling into silence.

 "It ain't no problem," continued Giles. " I've seen Burt start things simply for staring at him wrong. He's a drunken cur, but harmless... Say, does she like apples?"

 Tobias smiled, though his face ached from it. "Loves them."

 "I have some in the back for a brave girl like her. Ask Merta and she'll show ya, dearie. Off with ya now."

 Aster beamed, and darted off without a word.

 Bartender Giles' frown returned as she speeds away, and he blinked down at Tobias.

 "Quiet waif, isn't she?"

 Tobias snorted skeptically. "A natural-born mute."

 "..So, that woman you were lookin' for- she's your wife?"

 "Something like that," he replied somberly. "She's the girl's mother."

 The Man seemed to mull that over. "Darling girl you have there. Fearless if I've ever seen it."

 "She's my brave little treasure," replied Tobias with a proud smile. "Though she should listen to her father a bit more often."

 Giles smiled crookedly. "A girl deserves her Mum," he continued, "She was making her way to Gondor, last I heard. The capital city most like."

 Hope flutterd about in his chest. "Thank you, Master Giles." Tobias reached into his pocket for the gold that had been returned. "This is the least I can give-"

 "Ain't no concern o' mine. Just keep that wee lass safe an' we'll consider it even. Have a good day, Master-?"

 "Tobias Took of the Shire, at your service."

 "A good day to ya then, Master Tobias."

 Tobias grasped the large hand he was offered, the palm sweaty and warm. "You as well, sir."

 "An' Master Tobias?" The Man called out to him as he turned to leave. "Careful who you let see that girl o' yours. Your wife didnae make many friends around 'ere."

 "I will, " He offered one last half smile. "Good afternoon."

 

 

 Tobias took a deep breath as he existed the inn, and leaned against the wall as more people bustled in and out. It's nearly dark outside, a bright yellow moon drifting listlessly through the sky, and all the hanging lanterns are lit. He hadn't realized he'd become so exhausted, and his face still smarts from the thwack he'd been given. It'd never been this way when he'd traveled with Solidago...

 Aster is led out a few moments later by a buxom young woman who seemed utterly smitten with her. She gives the girl an extra apple before returning inside, which Aster immediately stuffs into the deep pocket of her dress before settling beside him.

 "It isn't good when you disobey your father," he scolded her. "Especially when it means leaving the pony unattended. 

"Pretty-Pony is fine! " Aster replied hotly., then her high voice wilted with sadness. "You were takin' so long, an-and I thought somethin' must 'a happened..."

 He winked at her, flicking her nose with his thumb. "It's the past. Just respect my wishes next time, hm?"

 She smiled and his shoulders relaxed. For the moment, at least.

 "Ish Mubby here?" she asked him expectantly through a bite of apple.

 "No, my little bloom," answered Tobias with a sigh. "She's in Gondor."

She swallowed, licking her fingers. "Gondor? That's...south right?"

 Tobias smiled tiredly. "Very south."

 His little Aster nods her curly head slowly, her brow puckered. Tobias knew his daughter better than each finger and the back of his hand.

"A question unasked is--" he quoted.

 "--is an answer passed. I know, Daddy." Oh, but she was frightfully bright for one so young. It terrified him how much like her mother she was turning out to be. She looked up at him with her wide, clear eyes. "I wish I'd asked that nice dwarf about Kooz..koozdool."

"Perhaps we'll see them again," Tobias answered as he stood with a grunt. Aster still sat, pulling at her fingers.

"There's something else isn't there, my little bloom?" he asked, hefting her up in his arms and heading back toward the waggon. She fiddled with the brass buttons of his shirtfront, not looking up at him.

"Aster."

"Can we stay for the fireworks?" she asked suddenly. "I heard all the other kids  talkin' about them. It's s'posed to be a new year tomorrow," she snickered behind her sleeve. "I know it's not for months an' months an' months, but here it's different. They're in the future I s'pose. They even said there'll be sweets an' toy stands an' even a Prince, Daddy! I've never seen a Prince before. So...can we stay, even if Mummy isn't here?"

Tobias looked sadly at his small daughter, her young face alight with excitement. A proper father would agree completely when faced with a look like that. He'd buy a kite for his daughter to fly about and some sugar sticks to munch on as they watched fireworks burst in the night sky. A proper father would want to make sure she was happy and safe, not being dragged halfway across the world on fool's errand for a woman she'd never even met.

He stroked her hair. "You...know we can't, my little bloom."

The excitement and smile fade from her face, and he almost-- almost-- gives in and agrees. Almost. But deep down he knows he can't. Not yet.

"Tell you what, little bloom?" He said, in hopes of making it up to her. "I'll get you some sugar sticks for the road. How does that sound?"

She shrugged her petite shoulders. So small even for a hobbit child. It had to be because they'd done away with second breakfast on the road. Too little to spare.

He found himself breaking. Would Solidago spare him one day?

"Alright. We can stay." he finally agreed.

She beamed and hugged.

"Thank you, Daddy. Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

"But only for today!" he repeated as he returned the hug. "An' I expect no complaint when we're up bright and early in the morn."

 Aster beamed brightly. "Not a one!" she agreed.

 If Solidago had ever taken the chance to learn her daughter's face, she would. Learned what it felt like to have those eyes look at you with all the joy in the world.

 One night, he told himself as she scampered off ahead of him, one night would not hurt them.