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Her hair was a riot of raven curls, tresses that spilled from her elaborate braids onto her broad shoulders. There was a single lock of hair that fell before her eyes, as though taunting her. She had a feeling that one lock of hair would one day be the difference between success and ruin--

Ori stared at the paragraph and groaned out loud.

He flipped forward a few pages to see where the chapter would end when he came upon another passage.

His eyes shone like emeralds, set into a face the color of burnished bronze. His nose had only been broken once, giving him a regal countenance that would not have been out of place in the royal court of Erebor or even Khazad-dûm in ages past.

And now, those eyes gazed upon her. She felt her breath quicken, her heartbeat skip, her fingers tremble.

“May I know the name of such a handsome smith?” he asked, his voice smooth and low, sounding to her ears like a rich mead would feel to her parched throat.

Just as she was about to answer, she awoke from her slumber.

Very calmly, Ori eased the book closed, set it to one side with the care he reserved for all the materials that Balin gave him to copy, and proceeded to beat his forehead against his desk until the pain stopped.

***

“Is it a good read so far, lad?”

Ori glanced up from page fourteen of ‘On the Battlefield of Love’ to see Balin walk over to his desk and sit down. “I’d prefer not to answer, if it’s all right with you.” At Balin’s arched eyebrows, he snorted. “I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, Master.”

Balin snorted back. “I see now. You’ll entice me with tidbits of what’s to come and then say that you won’t be able to finish the chapter this evening with the amount of Tengwar you have left to do.”

Ori blinked. “Tengwar...?” he repeated blankly. “But I have this book to copy?”

“You didn’t think you were going to get out of your Tengwar lessons just because you have a paying job, did you?” Balin asked, a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a chuckle looming.

“But--”

Balin shook his head. “Scribes don’t usually have the luxury of only working one job at a time, lad. You have to learn to prioritize.” At Ori’s astonished look, he finally chuckled. “Think of it as another lesson, if you wish.”

Ori groaned again. “Why did I agree to this torture in the first place?”

Balin’s smile dimmed for a moment. “I’m sure you remember why, lad.”

It was surprising how quickly Ori was able to set aside feeling like his teeth were being permanently set on edge by the prose. “Were you able to speak with Mister Dwalin?”

Balin nodded. “Aye.”

After a significant pause, Ori frowned. “What’s wrong?”

Balin snorted. “My brother didn’t give me much to go on. The guard assigned to protect your brother is Maris, daughter of Ovarr. A refugee from Erebor, she’s about your brother’s age or a little older, from a good family, and she’s been serving in the city watch for a short enough time that my brother seems willing to trust her.”

Ori blinked. “Nidi said she was trying to get into my brother’s--” When he saw Balin’s intrigued expression, he snapped his mouth shut as he wished that the floor would open beneath him and swallow him whole.

“Oh?” Balin prompted, sounding entirely too amused for Ori’s comfort.

His face getting redder, Ori said, “Apparently, her cover is that she’s interested in courting my brother, and seems… quite enthusiastic. According to someone I know who’s seen Dori.” Any minute now, the carpet would rip apart, and Ori could disappear into the stone of the mountain itself, never to be seen again. At least, that’s what he was hoping would happen. Maybe if he faked being violently ill, he could avoid the mental image of a dwarrowdam trying to flirt with his fussy, older brother.

Maybe he could actually be violently ill.

Balin looked pleasantly surprised before nodding in approval. “From what Dwalin tells me, Maris tends to favor a more subtle approach. It seems that’s why he chose her for the position.”

“Please don’t mention positions,” Ori squeaked.

Balin blinked at him for a moment before chuckling. “The job, then. Dwalin swears she’s been staying close to him, noon and night, and she has a good eye for spotting trouble before it happens.”

Ori nodded reluctantly. “Have you met her, Master?”

Balin shook his head. “I’m not involved in the training of new recruits for the Watch, but…” He sat back in his chair and watched Ori steadily. “It takes Dwalin longer than most to trust someone. If my brother says that she’ll defend Dori with her life, she’ll do just that.”

Ori had to stop himself from snorting out loud at the understatement. He'd certainly seen for himself that Dwalin didn't trust easily -- they’d stood in each other’s presence perhaps twice, and only once had they actually exchanged words instead of Dwalin silently glaring at him. The fact that they were soulmates just made it feel worse, because if there was supposed to be one dwarf that Dwalin should’ve been able to trust above anyone else, it should’ve been his soulmate, but no, he didn’t even bother acknowledging him unless Ori did something outrageous, like grab his arm to stop him from walking away again, and insisting that he wait and get medical attention because he was bleeding--

Ori breathed in deeply to try to stop himself from getting worked up, with limited success. He couldn’t let his personal issues with Dwalin get in the way of making sure that his brother was as safe as possible, and since Dwalin was the one making sure Dori was safe, he would have to trust him, just this once. “I… guess I’ll have to see for myself how the arrangement’s working out so far between them.”

“Make sure to give it a few more weeks,” Balin said and Ori could recognize it for the order it was. “I don’t want you to be put in danger quite so soon, and the two of you together might be all too tempting a target.”

Ori frowned. “Is that why you haven’t sent me out for any errands?” And then realization hit. “You’ve been assigning nearly double my normal workload for the past few days.”

Balin raised an eyebrow at him, unsurprised but not concerned. “You’re an excellent student, and I knew that you weren’t going to start worrying that you had more work than before.”

Ori had to stop himself from being too pleased by the praise. “Master, I wasn’t going to…” His voice trailed off at Balin’s skeptical look. “I did think about it,” he admitted in a mumble. “But I couldn’t. I made a promise to Dori.”

Balin nodded. “Promises to family can sometimes be the most difficult to keep, but also the most rewarding if you manage it.” His gaze slid to the book on Ori’s desk. “Now, do you have the first chapter for me?”

Ori shook his head. “The author seems to like long chapters, sorry.” Of course, he was only sorry that the book wasn’t shorter, so he wouldn’t waste so much time copying romantic drivel, but he didn’t need to tell Balin that.

Balin shrugged. “The more for me to read when you finish it. If you finish it after I retire for the evening, leave it under Patience and I’ll get to it in the morning.” He waved absent-mindedly at the orc skull on his desk, which was positioned to stare at anyone who entered the room.

Ori nodded. “Yes, Master.”

***

She was in the middle of forging the blade for a scythe when she felt it come upon her.

Ori stopped, reread the sentence, and stared, a sense of impending dread rising up in his chest.

Rhis took a slow, deep breath, and shook her head. “I must finish my work. I cannot stop to make another ill-suited blade.”

And so it was her resolve that she continued her work, ignoring the minor ache in her belly as her soul attempted to take her attention from her task. But Rhis was strong, and not to be swayed. She had been specifically requested for this work, and she would do it to the utmost of her ability.

Her soul, she decided with a toss of her raven tresses, would have to wait.

Ori stared. He reread the passage four times. He stared again. Finally, he couldn’t help himself. “What?

He was so wrapped up in staring at the book in complete outrage that, when Balin startled in his chair, Ori ended up startling in his own. Ori turned quickly to see Balin shooting him a look that was partly worry, but mostly irritation.

“If you’re going to keep objecting over how the book is written,” Balin began a bit waspishly, “you might want to either warn me that you’re working on it, or copy it over on your own time.”

Ori spluttered, holding up the book as if he were physically unable to put it down, even though he wanted to drop it like it had caught fire. “But!”

Balin sighed, setting the contract down and staring at his student. “But what?”

“That’s not how soulspeaking works!” Ori protested.

It appeared that Balin hadn’t expected this. He blinked a few times before holding his hand out for the book. When Ori didn’t immediately get up and hand it over, he flexed his fingers in visible irritation. “I’ll not read ahead. Just hand it over.”

Ori did as he was told, leaning over Balin’s desk to point out the offending passage. “Start there.”

It took all of a moment for Balin to read it over, and when he returned his gaze to Ori’s, he looked apologetic. “To be fair, these authors aren’t aware of what happens when a dwarf soulspeaks, and neither are the readers.”

“But that’s all the more reason to get it right, Master. Shoddy research doesn’t excuse spreading incorrect information,” Ori snapped before he realized what he’d said. “Um, sorry.”

Balin stared at him for a moment before he started chuckling.

“He could’ve asked someone what it was like,” Ori protested weakly.

“Oh, believe me, lad, I completely agree with you,” Balin said through his chuckles. “Try to think of it as artistic license, if that will help you to copy it.”

Ori shot his master a half-hearted glare. “It couldn’t have been that difficult for him to find someone and ask,” he muttered.

“Ah, but would you have felt comfortable talking to a dwarf who wanted to write a romance novel about a pair of soulmates, and wished to ask you what the experience was like?” Balin asked mildly.

Ori opened his mouth to declare that he would, if it would prevent a travesty like this. And then he thought about his own situation with Dwalin -- a handsome guard of the City Watch who wouldn’t even say more than two words to him. He subsided with a sour look, his eyes drifting away from Balin’s gaze. “I see your point, Master.”

He could feel Balin watch him for a long moment before he sighed. “To be fair, your relationship with Dwalin is fairly unusual--”

Ori shook his head once, turning back to Balin. “Master, I’m sorry, but can we not talk about it? Please?”

Balin watched him for a long moment, and then nodded. “Aye, we can do that.”

***

Ori blinked hard, only to find the half-page he’d copied about Rhis’s smithing work was interrupted by what he felt to be an obnoxiously large drawing of Dwalin glaring at him.

He breathed in deeply to try to calm down. When that didn’t work, he very carefully capped the ink bottle sitting on the corner of his desk, set it gently on the floor, and then slammed his fist onto the top of his desk, right into the sketch’s eyes.

Pain exploded in his hand, lancing up his arm and setting his teeth on edge. As much as Ori tried not to make a sound, he let out a small squeak.

“Ori?”

Cradling his injured arm carefully, Ori turned to look his master in the eye, feeling like he’d gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “Sorry, Master.”

Balin looked startled and slightly annoyed at the same time. “Even if Bruni really is as much of a idiot as you say, you don’t necessarily need to take your frustration out on the furniture.”

Ori cleared his throat. “It wasn’t Bruni, Master. I just have a page to recopy, is all.”

Balin frowned. “I’m sure whatever mistake you made can’t be as bad as--”

Ori used his left hand to pick up the page he’d been copying, complete with Dwalin’s slightly smeared face, and held it up one-handed.

“Ah.” Balin said.

Ori smiled wryly. “I’ll recopy the page.”

Balin nodded to him, his smile a faint curve of his lips. “Good lad.”

As Ori set aside the sketch and picked up the ink bottle from where he’d placed it on the floor, he heard Balin clear his throat. “Ori?”

Ori turned back to see Balin still looking at the parchment in his hands. “Yes, Master?”

“If you need privacy, all you need to do is ask, lad,” Balin said reasonably. “I wouldn’t begrudge you.”

Ori blinked a few times, wondering what he was talking about. “Thank you, Master...?” he offered weakly.

Balin nodded, looking satisfied. “I usually tried to get soulspeakings out of the way in the mornings, but you’re still young. It may take some time, but I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

Ori had been staring blankly at his master until he couldn’t take it anymore. “What are you talking about?”

Balin looked up finally, blinking at Ori in surprise. “You’ve only had two lapses so far, lad. That’s quite a bit better than some twenty years your senior.”

Ori blinked. “Really?” He suddenly remembered that the other drawings he’d made since he’d arrived had taken place in his room, for the most part.

Balin chuckled. “There are a fair number of dwarves who stumble around, trying to figure out how, only to embarrass themselves in public before they get the knack of it.”

Ori opened his mouth, and then closed it when the words died in his throat. Which, of course, was when he blurted out, “Master, are you saying I can control the soulspeaking?”

Balin stared at him. “You didn’t know you could?”

Ori shook his head mutely.

Balin frowned at him. “Why didn’t your brother tell you?”

“Dori doesn’t have a soulmate,” Ori said. “He said that our parents were soulmates, and he told me about the headaches that could happen, but that was all he knew. Well, that, and to keep all the soulspoken craft.”

Balin shook his head, looking astonished. He opened his mouth to say something, but then shook his head and composed himself. When he met Ori’s gaze again, he asked, “Have you ever tried to deliberately soulspeak before?”

“Start the conversation myself?” Ori said, remembering how Dori had phrased it months ago. He shook his head. “I’m not sure how.”

Balin nodded. “I see. Well, when you’re able to start soulspeakings yourself instead of having them ambush you, you can start controlling them. When I learned I could soulspeak with calligraphy, I found it helped to imagine all of my cares, worries, and thoughts were like a pool of water. Then I pictured them draining out of me and flowing away like a river.” At Ori’s confused look, he explained, “If you’re too anxious or concentrating on other things, your soul won’t have your undivided attention. You have to meet your soul halfway if you want the conversation to make any sense.”

Ori nodded slowly, beginning to understand. “But I haven’t been calm each time I’ve soulspoken. Well, except for the first time, but I didn’t know what was happening.”

“It’s all right, lad. It’s fairly typical for your first few soulspeakings to happen when you’re stressed. After a while, you’ll discover that they start to happen when you’re much calmer, and then you can learn to control them without too much trouble. Unfortunately, it takes a great deal of time and practice.”

Ori nodded.

“Like I said before, if you need privacy to soulspeak, just ask,” Balin said with a reassuring smile.

“Thank you, Master.”

“And don’t forget to copy that page over,” he said with a wink. “I want to know what happens next.”

Ori rolled his eyes with a fond smile. “Yes, Master.”

***

“Beggin’ yer pardon, Sir Bruni, sir, but I was wantin’ to clarify something.”

Bruni turned just enough in his saddle to regard his squire. Andvari was a young lad, not more than sixty at the most, and already considered a consummate veteran of all matters squirely and… less reputable. Many a long journey had been whiled away by the squire’s amusing anecdotes of farmer’s daughters he’d charmed and vicious squirrels he had slain in battle. This interruption, however, was startling, making Bruni reflect on the last few hours -- indeed, Andvari had been uncharacteristically silent.

“Speak, Andvari,” Bruni murmured. “You know I would know your mind at all times.”

“Exceptin’, o’ course, when you’re fighting a battle,” Andvari quipped.

Bruni laughed merrily, remembering the first battle they’d fought together when Andvari would not keep quiet. “Even so. Speak, and I shall hear.”

“All right,” Andvari said. “So, we’re going to fight a dragon, eh? And it’s only the two of us together?”

“Indeed so,” Bruni said with a nod. “Might and valor shall win the day. The bards shall sing of our honor and heroism for centuries to come.”

Andvari nodded, as though his master had said a very solemn truth. “That’s nice,” he said, “but if we’re the only ones around to get burnt to a crisp, who’s going to tell the tale of how we died?”

Ori snorted. He liked Andvari already.

***

Ori was in the middle of copying Bruni’s highly-implausible fight with a cold-drake when there came a knock at the door.

Setting down his paperwork, Balin frowned at the door before giving Ori a curious glance. “Are you expecting anyone, lad?”

Ori shook his head, just as puzzled as Balin was.

“Get the door, then, would you?”

Ori got up, opening the door to reveal the guard who’d brought him to Dwalin’s office a day or so ago. “Can we help you?” he asked, ducking his head out into the hallway and keeping his voice low.

The guard nodded. “There’s a dwarf waiting at the front entrance for Ori. He says he has something to--”

When Ori realized who the guard must be referring to, he turned to Balin. “It’s for me after all, Master. I’ll be back.”

Balin’s eyebrows rose in surprise before he nodded. “All right, lad, but be quick about it. The work won’t finish itself.”

“Yes, Master, I will,” Ori said quickly before ducking into the hallway, much to the guard’s surprise. “Sorry about the misunderstanding. The dwarf who’s waiting for me -- does he have red hair? And is he wearing clothes that are too big for him?”

The guard nodded before leading the way. “Yes, sir. He’s got a large book that he isn’t letting anyone touch except for you.”

Ori frowned, a bit surprised by Nidi’s sudden sense of loyalty, and wondered if Dori was behind it. “Why didn’t you let him in, then?”

The guard shot Ori an unamused look. “Orders.”

“Orders?” Ori repeated blankly. “But I’m able to come and go as I please. Why wouldn’t Nidi?”

The guard snorted. “We don’t know that dwarf from an copper vein in the wall. And if you think that you’re leaving here unescorted, you must not’ve heard about the new protocols.”

“New protocols?” Ori felt a bit silly for repeating everything the guard said, but he couldn’t help but be absolutely mystified. Master Balin had mentioned he wasn’t going to be running as many errands as before, but the guards having orders specifically about him was a bit of a shock.

The guard nodded firmly.

As they walked down the corridors, Ori belatedly realized who had most likely made the orders the guard had mentioned. While he wondered just what these new protocols entailed, the guard led him to the front entrance to find Nidi standing visibly apart from the guards, looking like he wanted to be anywhere on Middle-Earth than where he was standing while holding onto the unwieldy tome Ori had left behind at Dori’s house. With the way he was shifting from leg to leg, he looked like he’d stolen it from the library himself instead of running an errand.

“Hello, Nidi,” Ori said, biting his lip to keep from laughing at the younger dwarf’s discomfort.

Nidi glared at the guards one last time (which they returned with the weight of visible arms and armor backing them up) before turning to Ori. Looking at Ori with practiced dismissiveness, he snorted. “Mister Dori said to give this to you and only you,” he said by way of explanation, shoving the tome into Ori’s arms. “He says hello, and don’t get into trouble, or he’ll break your neck.”

Ori blinked, wobbling for a moment before righting himself. “Did he really say that?”

Nidi rolled his eyes. “Close enough. The tosh says he’s in good hands.” Surprisingly enough, he blushed a brilliant red before turning on his heel and starting to walk back to the city proper.

“Wait!” Ori yelped, shooting the guards an apologetic look for the noise. “I couldn’t convince you to--”

“No,” Nidi snapped so quickly that Ori blinked at him. “I ain’t doing no more fetching and carrying for nobody. Already had enough of that when I was at Mister Dori’s.” He looked like he’d swallowed fuzzy mushrooms. “You said to bring that here, and I did.”

Ori watched as the younger dwarf’s face got nearly as red as his hair. “Nidi? Are you all right? Did something happen?”

No,” Nidi snapped again. ”Bye.”

And with that, he stormed off. The guards turned to Ori, looking as curious as possible without being unprofessional. Ori gave them all a look that said he didn’t know anymore than they did.

He turned and headed back to Balin's office, shifting the heavy tome from arm to arm and idly wondering why it was so unnecessarily large to begin with.

Balin glanced up when he entered the room, only to light up when he saw what Ori was carrying. “Ah! I was wondering where that had gone to.”

Ori cleared his throat apologetically. “Sorry, Master. I had been bringing it back with me from the library when I heard that Dori was in trouble. I had a friend bring it when he had the chance.”

Balin nodded, motioning for the book and clearing a space on his desk. Ori set it down with some trouble, but as soon as he did, Balin moved in for the kill, easing the cover open and then flipping through pages while muttering under his breath.

Ori alternated between looking at the rapidly-turned pages, and Balin’s intent frown. Tilting his head to one side as the pages were carefully, yet quickly turned, Ori frowned himself. “What’s so important about this book, Master?”

“Fortifications, preservation, warfare…” Balin muttered before he seemed to remember his student had asked a question. He looked up from the book with a distracted look that Ori only ever saw when his master had been eyebrows-deep in contracts, and had been interrupted mid-sentence. ”Hmm?”

“The book?” Ori gently prodded. “What is it?”

Balin blinked. “Oh, it’s a book of spells, set down during the First Age. I’d been meaning to borrow it from the library, but it was never available.”

Ori frowned. “Spells? You mean the way to create secret doors?”

Balin chuckled. “Not quite, lad, at least, not entirely. It’s true that we know the secret of creating doors that can only be opened under specific conditions, but there are other magics that we as a race have learned and developed over the centuries.”

Ori looked down at the book curiously, only for his face to turn a bright red as he saw a dwarf and a dwarrowdam locked in mid-coitus. “Um…”

Balin blinked at him before turning back to the book and laughing out loud. “Unfortunately, some of these spells are purely speculation.” He turned the page, revealing a page full of text without any more illustrations, though one heading read, ‘On the Subject of Ensuring Dwarrowdam Children’.

Ori kept his gaze firmly locked on his master’s face. “I see.”

At least he didn’t have to wonder anymore about why Nidi didn’t want to have anything more to do with the book.

***

“Rhis, you must come see this!”

Rhis lifted her head from her work, carefully massaging the back of her neck and gently brushing aside the wayward lock of hair from in front of her eyes. “Jaris, what are you doing? Or would it ease my mind more if I weren’t aware of it?”

Jaris, her stout arms carrying a large, wooden box into the smithy, gave her a sad expression. “Of course not! Mahal’s beard, you and your way with words!” she huffed, heading for an empty counter and setting the box down with more care than Rhis had seen her use. “Come here! You must come see this!”

“But my work--” Rhis turned back to the half-finished blade, and upon seeing Jaris’ sad, brown eyes, she sighed heavily and set the blade down to join her companion. “I sincerely hope this is worth losing time for a com--”

Inside of the box, a puppy yipped.

Rhis blinked. “That’s a dog.”

Jaris grinned. “Indeed it is. Isn’t he adorable?”

“It’s a dog,” Rhis repeated, overcome with confusion and growing worry. “Where did you find it?”

“Oh,” Jaris said, looking away, guilt writ large on her round features. “Around.”

“Where?” Rhis demanded.

“From the newest commander’s tent?” Jaris answered with a grin.

Rhis groaned and wondered briefly if her friendship with Jaris was Mahal’s way of keeping Jaris from getting herself killed, or to drive Rhis to die sooner.

Ori stared, reread the last few paragraphs, and found himself laughing helplessly. Apparently, friends like Fili and Kili weren’t as uncommon as he’d originally thought.

***

Ori carefully set the newest chapter underneath of Patience, turning the skull so it faced Balin’s chair, and was about to tuck one of his worn-down quills into the skull’s teeth when the door opened, revealing Balin.

“Another chapter?” Balin asked eagerly, sitting down and waving away the quill in Ori’s hands. “Never mind that, lad. You can go.”

Ori blinked, feeling the need to point out, “As much as I don’t want to bite the coin to see if it’s real gold, it’s early in the afternoon, Master.”

Balin picked up the orc skull and the newly-finished chapter, only to set them aside carefully to clear the space on his desk in front of him. Ori was about to ask why his master didn’t leap on the new chapter as he usually did when he saw Balin carefully set down the large tome that Ori had fetched for him from the library, much to Ori’s surprise.

Flipping open to a page that he’d had bookmarked, Balin eyed Ori sternly. “Aye, and Fili and Kili seem to be getting into mischief. No one’s seen them all morning, and it’s starting to worry the servants. I’ll say that your assignment for the rest of the day is to find them and fetch them back, if you can manage it.”

Ori groaned, his shoulders slumping both from annoyance at having to be the minder for two dwarves who could get into trouble accidentally, and because slumping helped relieve the crick in his neck that had started two hours ago. Rubbing it gingerly, he sighed and said, “Yes, Master.”

“Good lad,” Balin said, turning his attention back to the tome. “Off you go, and don’t come back until they’re returned to their uncle.”

Ori nodded, though Balin wasn’t paying attention, and left the room.

***

It took a suspiciously short amount of time to find Fili and Kili, and they looked surprisingly nonchalant for two princes who had been gone “all morning”. In fact, they were at one of the smaller training grounds, away from the general flow of comings-and-goings, with Fili practicing a fighting form with two swords, and Kili shooting at a target painted onto a large broadcloth. Knowing better than to surprise anyone practicing with weaponry, Ori stood to one side and waited for a pause in the practice before pointedly clearing his throat.

Kili turned around where he stood, and grinned when he saw who it was. “Ori!”

Fili aimed a low swipe at an imaginary opponent’s legs and struck in a one-two strike with each sword before turning as well. “Master Balin finally let you out, did he? Swallow too many dustbunnies?”

Ori rolled his eyes. “For your information, I’ve never swallowed a dustbunny, and I was given an assignment.” Fili and Kili looked uninterested until he added, “To find the two of you and take you back to your uncle. No one’s seen you two all morning.”

Fili and Kili traded a confused look before turning back to Ori. “We’ve been here training like Thorin asked us to,” Fili said with a frown.

“Yeah.” Kili nodded. “He said not to move from this room until we’d done a hundred repetitions without any mistakes. Why would he send you to find us if he knew where we were?”

Ori shook his head. “It wasn’t Master Thorin who sent me. It was Master Balin.”

Fili frowned. “Have you been working especially hard lately?” he asked, sounding almost like Dori for a moment.

Ori blinked, and then shrugged. “Master Balin’s had me doing more than the usual work while I’ve been learning Tengwar, and then there’s the copying job--” Ori suddenly remembered it wasn’t in his best interests to talk about what exactly he was copying to these two in particular. “But it’s not anything that complicated,” he said quickly. Inspiration struck. “Just an old book that Master Balin has in his personal collection that he wanted to copy because the original’s about to fall apart.”

He mentally breathed a sigh of relief when the brothers looked politely bored.

“So,” Fili said slowly, “more work than usual?”

Ori nodded, and then frowned. “Why are you asking?”

Kili snorted. “After the time that you threw the ink pot at us, we made an agreement with Master Balin.”

Ori blinked, looking between the two of them. “Agreement?”

Fili nodded. “If you were working too hard, we were to drag you off to have a drink--”

“Or do something fun.” Kili grinned. “But, well, since we’ve been so busy because Uncle caught us stealing his books, we haven’t had much of a chance to do anything with you.”

“We go out for drinks,” Ori protested.

“Master Dwalin says that we need to be doing something other than drinking all our training away,” Kili made a face, sounding like he was quoting the dwarf himself.

For some reason, Ori felt his spine stiffening. “He doesn’t control how you spend your time when you’re not training with him.”

Kili shook his head, looking surprised. “Well, no--”

“But he’s right that we need to keep up our training,” Fili grumbled. “We had our backsides handed to us yesterday.”

“Let me guess,” Ori said with a long-suffering sigh, “if you can turn around and hand the other recruits their backsides, your training regimen will get lighter?” At the brothers’ surprised looks, Ori rolled his eyes. “It seems to be a good way to motivate you, seeing as how you didn’t mind stealing books from your uncle on your master’s say-so.”

Fili snorted, sheathing his swords. “You’ve got us there.”

Ori looked at the two of them for a long moment, taking in the broadcloth that Kili had been using for target practice and then turning to look at Fili. “How have the repetitions been going?”

“I’ve gotten to seventy-five,” Fili said.

“And how many mistakes have you made?” Ori asked with a smile.

Fili gave him an annoyed look. “None, thank you.”

“Well, I’ve gotten through my repetitions,” Kili said with a grin. “I’ve just been shooting arrows for fun.”

Fili rolled his eyes. “You have not. After you finish firing at the target straight on, you’re supposed to do it while walking left and right.”

Kili stuck his tongue out at his brother. “I already did that too.”

Ori eyed the target, and then found himself struck by inspiration. While it was true that he happened to like hunching over a desk and copying over pages of Tengwar (and being paid quite handsomely for any pages of a horribly-written romance), he found that he wanted to do something that required a bit more exercise. And it had been a while since he’d had a chance to practice with his slingshot....

When he turned back to the brothers, only to find them bickering, he cleared his throat pointedly. And when that didn’t work, he said, “I hate to interrupt, but would you mind helping me out with my own target practice?”

Both dwarves turned to him in obvious surprise. “Target practice?”

***

When Bruni stopped his deadly blade-dancing, Frosti ran up to him with a ferocious scowl on his face.

"By Mahal's beard, what was that?" The older dwarf demanded, the frost-white braids in his hair that were his namesake bouncing and quivering in outrage. "You nearly killed half of your squad! This is to be a training exercise, you dolt!"

"But I was soulspeaking, Master Fr--" Bruni protested, lowering his sword.

"Soulspeaking? Pah!" Frosti boomed, his face reddening until he looked like a tomato topped with a healthy covering of snow. "Daydreaming's more like it! Never had a warrior on my watch soulspeak in the middle of a fight! Soulspeaking's for dwarflings who're too romantic for their own good!"

"I'm sorry, Master," Bruni said glumly, finally sheathing his blade and wishing it didn't feel quite so awkward in his hands. There had to be a better smith who could balance such a blade for him. True, his own blade was fine, but there was still something not quite right about it.

Alas, the vision of beauty he had seen while he was drilling might have something to do with his awkwardness. She was strong, with raven tresses, though alas, he could never seem to see her face with any degree of certainty. Somehow, he knew in his heart that she sported a single lock of hair that hung in front of her eyes, giving her an impish look that he had trouble ignoring.

"Bruni!" Frosti yelled at him, jerking his attention back from his soulspeaking vision. "If you have enough time to be off daydreaming, perhaps some running will do you good! Fifty laps, full armor!"

"But--"

"Now!"

Ori nearly gave himself a headache from rolling his eyes. The prose and dialogue were pretty awful sometimes, but something he was surprised to find himself annoyed with was how heavy-handed the author was with some of the other characters. It was obvious that Frosti was going to be a hard-bitten, old soldier who had seen numerous wars and didn't have a family waiting for him at home. He was there to either provide common sense to the hero, be the cynic who told the hero he wasn't waiting and thinking enough, or he might even have been a potential rival for the heroine. He was fairly sure the last one wouldn't be true, especially with how the author went on for a few paragraphs describing how Frosti was well into his age. But with the way the narrative was going, he wouldn’t be surprised.

***

Nyr and Austri were both taller than the average dwarf, very impressive in their city watch uniforms, and the only way that Ori could tell them apart was by the color of their beards, and the fact that Austri's nose was a little bit longer. Or maybe he was thinking of Nyr.

As he carried the tome with as much care as he could manage, given how unwieldy it was, he couldn't help but feel like he was being braced between two stone walls who probably forgot how to smile when they were recruited for the Watch. He'd stammered where they were heading, and they’d nodded as one.

It was extremely strange to see dwarves who would ordinarily ignore him getting out of the way and openly gawking as the three of them navigated through the busy streets. Ori was fairly sure he heard some people wonder why two guards were escorting him (along with a few people wondering what royal family he belonged to). When they finally got to the library, the guards followed him inside, one holding the door open while the other preceded him.

It was easy to tell who were the apprentices and who were the librarians -- while the apprentices started to panic, the librarians glanced over and went back to their work as if nothing unusual was happening.

Master Hamal came out from behind the front desk, eying the guards who were standing within striking distance before turning his attention to Ori himself. "Ori, my lad! It's good to see you!"

Ori ducked his head with a smile he couldn't help. "It's good to see you too, sir. I'm sorry that we held onto this book for so long--"

Hamal stopped him with a raised hand. "Think nothing of it." He leaned in, dropping his voice from a genial boom to a dull roar. "I heard about the trouble that happened. Are you all right? How's your brother?"

Ori nodded. "Dori's all right," he said, hoping that he wasn't lying. As much as Balin had told him what details he could of Dori's protector, he wanted to see for himself that his brother was all right. "So am I. One of the city watch was there to help us get out."

At the mention, the two guards straightened their shoulders and managed to look even more intimidating than the moment Ori had first seen them.

Hamal eyed the two of them. "They think you're still in danger."

Ori blushed. "It never hurts to be careful."

Hamal nodded approvingly. "Good. I'd hate to think of something happening to you."

Ori cleared his throat, feeling awkward talking about the watch while two guards were standing right in front of him. “Ah, yes, well, I wanted to return the book--”

“That’s right,” Hamal said. “Here, wait a moment.” He caught the attention of one of the librarians, and as Ori watched, the two of them murmured quickly to each other before Hamal turned back to him. “I’ll take you to my office. It’s right this way.”

As he circled the front desk and headed for the back, Ori spluttered, “We don’t have to-- I’m sure you’re very busy, and I wouldn’t want to--”

Hamal glanced over his shoulder and snorted loud enough that one of the guards had to stifle a snicker. “The day I’m too busy to catch up with you, especially now that you’re an apprentice, is the day I resign.”

The offices were all tucked along a narrowish hallway, behind a door marked STAFF ONLY. As they passed various offices, Ori could see one or two with lanterns burning away, revealing rooms in various states of tidiness. It didn’t prepare him for Hamal’s office.

The room itself would have been cramped, had it not been for the piles of papers, books in various states of repair lining the bookshelves built into the walls, and the fact that there didn’t seem to be any chairs. Hamal paused for a moment, stacking scrolls of parchment haphazardly to the edges of his overcrowded desk and then grabbing the book from Ori’s arms. “Here, lad. Don’t want you to tire yourself out with lugging this around.”

He motioned at a pile of books and papers that seemed to be about chair height before he stopped and realized his mistake. As Ori watched, dumbfounded, the pile was cleared away to reveal a chair with a cushion that had seen better centuries and had probably not been dusted in as much time. “Here you are, have a seat.”

Ori perched on the end of the chair, not quite sure it could handle his weight, and smiled. “I didn’t realize your office was nearly so….” When he couldn’t find a way to finish the sentence diplomatically, he let his voice trail off.

Hamal snorted. “Crowded? Cramped? Claustrophobic? Take your pick of any word that begins with the eighteenth rune and means ‘not having enough space to fart in, let alone breathe’, lad. I’ve only been using it for the past ninety years or so.” At Ori’s surprised look, he winked. “You should count yourself lucky, lad. Before we had that bookworm infestation about forty years back, it used to be worse.”

Ori blinked. “Worse?”

Hamal looked at him for a long moment, and then burst out laughing. It took a minute or two, with the guards eying him warily from the doorway, but when he finally recovered, he wiped his eyes and grinned at Ori. “So! That bit of research that you did, did anything ever come of it?”

It took Ori longer than it really should have before he realized what Hamal was referring to. When he noticed the librarian’s gaze flick over to the guards, he also remembered that there were some things he wanted to keep private. Nodding his thanks, he said, “Ah, well, sort of?”

Hamal raised an eyebrow.

“Well, I did find one book -- it had gotten wedged behind a few other books on the shelf -- and that was pretty informative. There was one tale in particular that I meant to ask about, since the last page of the tale was missing from the tome it was in. Dungan and Nola?”

Hamal’s eyebrows rose sharply. “I thought we’d weeded that book long ago, or moved it to one of the special collections.”

“You know the tale I’m referring to?” Ori asked, eager and surprised. Given how Hamal hadn’t talked in detail about soulspeaking like he usually did when he knew about a subject Ori was researching, Ori hadn’t thought that Hamal would be familiar with the tome in question.

Hamal nodded slowly. “That, and the other tales that I’m fairly certain are in the tome you found. Was it in the section I directed you to?”

Ori nodded, starting to get worried at the librarian’s tone. “It had fallen behind the shelves. What’s so special about that tome? Apart from the obvious, I mean.”

Hamal’s frown was worried, even as he sat back in his chair. “The obvious, right,” he said with a snort. “Lad, those tales can give a distorted view of things. I had a colleague use that tome in his defense when he became a master, so the book has enough academic merit to pass muster, but it’s an example of heavy bias. Whoever wrote that had a bone to pick with the process, and it’s not something you should base the bulk of your research on.”

“What if the author’s bone to pick was because his story was similar?” Ori asked. He’d meant to sound nonchalant, but the two guards at the door reminded him of Dwalin, and thinking about Dwalin never helped him to stay calm.

Hamal frowned at him. “It sounds like your story might be similar as well.”

“Um, yes, well,” Ori said quickly, wanting desperately to not talk about Dwalin with a librarian he’d known since he was a dwarfling, and especially not in front of two guards whose names he kept getting confused. “Stories have a way of… changing. Over time.” He coughed. “How’s the library been? Any promising dwarflings borrowing ink bottles and grabbing more parchment than they should?”

Hamal snorted, his smirk saying quite clearly that he was aware of the subject change, and would allow it for the moment. “There’s always one or two, but I don’t think I’ve seen a dwarfling with your drive, or your natural talent.”

Now Ori felt awkward for a different reason. “I just copied what was in front of me, is all. It wasn’t that special.”

Hamal shook his head with an affectionate look. “Of course it wasn’t. It was so unremarkable that you got taken on as a scribe without any prior training other than your letters, and nowhere near the leg-up that being a native of Ered Luin would’ve given you.”

Ori smiled a little. “I can’t take all the credit. I seem to remember a grumpy librarian who kept an eye on me and reminded me there was a difference between the forty-seventh and forty-ninth runes.”

“Flatterer.” Hamal chuckled. “So, how’s the old warhorse doing? He keeping you working to all hours of the night, getting calluses on your hands?”

Ori nodded, showing Hamal his hands with a smile.

***

“That blade isn’t for sale, sir!” the vision of beauty objected firmly, trying to beat him to the rack of blades where a particularly fine specimen had caught his eye.

“You wouldn’t allow a potential customer to at least see your work, would you?” he asked with a soft smile. He knew her face because he had seen it so often before, on the practice field, and in his dreams. He knew it was cruelty itself to toy with her now, but the way that the light danced in her sapphire eyes made him wish to tease her more.

At once, he lifted the contested blade and unsheathed it. All at once, he felt his blood sing.

Ori couldn’t stop himself from wincing, and he really, really hoped nothing was going to happen inside of Rhis’ forge. There were some things he really didn’t want to read about. Out of self-defense, he’d started reading ahead in the story to make sure he wouldn’t make mistakes or groan aloud while he was in the middle of copying pages. After it had taken three sheets of paper to copy over one particular page near the beginning of the story because of the sheer inanity of the prose, he’d learned his lesson.

”My, my, truly a princely blade!” Bruni had meant to tease her, but he couldn’t help the note of awe in his voice. He gave himself room to swing freely, and soon, the blade was spinning in his hands, balanced so perfectly, and so light that he could scarcely feel its weight.

His vision of beauty, his soulmate with her lock of impish, black curls, stared at him in open amazement.

When he finally stopped his flourishing, he turned to her, ever so slightly breathless. “This is an amazing blade, and perfectly balanced! How much for it?”

She stared at him. “I’m sorry?”

“How much for it?” he asked again, this time a breathless smile on his face. “And for you?”

Ori groaned, rubbing his temples and telling himself for the eighty-seventh time that he wasn’t allowed to edit the story, no matter how much it was badly needed.

***

The next time that Ori went out with Fili and Kili, he couldn’t say he was surprised when Nyr and Austri came with them. He hadn’t seen them very often since his visit to the library a few days prior, but then, he’d been so busy with his Tengwar lessons and copying over the romance novel that he hadn’t had the time to run errands.

Upon seeing the two guards, dressed in durable leathers that made them look more like miners, Fili and Kili had shot Ori curious looks, but after Ori explained and then told them to just ignore his two new shadows, the brothers mentally shrugged and returned to the business of complaining that Dwalin and Thorin seemed to be working together to make sure that they never won any of their sparring practices with the recruits.

When they’d reached the Miner’s Drift, they ensconced themselves at a table, Kili not missing a beat as he described, complete with sweeping gestures and grand, melodramatic language, how the two dwarves he’d faced surrounded him and took him down, but not before he’d managed to knock one of them flat on his ass first.

Fili returned with the drinks, only for the three of them to discover that the guards were lining empty spaces along the bar, blending into the crowd with surprisingly little effort. Ori was fairly sure the only reason he could pick them out was due to having been on the receiving end of their stares before.

As the night wore on, the three of them drank and laughed and complained. Ori let slip that he could never remember which guard was which, which led Kili to demand that the two of them come over and introduce themselves properly instead of “playing with themselves in the dark corners.” If Ori had been more sober, he would’ve tried to shush his friend, but as it was, he sputtered a giggle and couldn’t stop when he got started.

Fili frowned at the dead soldiers flipped into careful piles on the table, and blinked owlishly when he saw how few were in front of Ori. “Huh.” He looked up at Ori and shook his head, sloshing a bit in his seat. “All right, Ori. Time to get you home.”

“What?” Ori demanded, swaying a little in his indignation. “Why?”

“You told us to cut you off,” Kili began, only to hiccup loudly. He blinked a few times, and turned back to Fili. “What was I saying?”

“Cut him off,” Fili muttered.

The understanding that only comes to the truly plastered lit up his eyes. “That’s right. We’re supposed to cut you off when you start giggling. S’a rule.”

“That’s a stupid rule,” Ori grumbled, trying to glare at Kili, and only managing to look vaguely annoyed. “Who came up with that?”

“You did,” Fili declared, wobbling his way to his feet. “C’mon. Up.”

It took a bit longer than usual to get the three of them out of their chairs all at once, but when they did, and they were bobbing and weaving through the tables (loudly apologizing to any dwarves who they ended up jostling in the process), the two guards materialized out of thin air to support Kili and Ori, who seemed to be stumbling worse than Fili.

It really was nice to have help with getting the three of them home, Ori thought happily to himself. Having to mother Fili and Kili into walking in relatively straight lines and making sure they didn’t bash their noses against doors and walls had always felt strange to a dwarf who was usually the target of over-protective mothering. Still, having assistance meant that he didn’t have to think too hard when it came to getting home. He just had to put one foot in front of the other. And then that foot in front of the other. And then that foot, and that foot, and--

“Hey,” Kili asked suddenly, almost too loudly in the growing stillness of the street. Though, when Ori thought about it, this street didn’t look quite so familiar to him. “Do you think we could--”

Ori turned just in time to see Nyr’s arm (or was it Austri’s?) lift from Kili’s waist, turn the dwarf around to face him, and then punch him in the side of the head hard enough for the younger dwarf’s head to snap away from the blow, and for him to fall to the ground in the boneless slump of the unconscious.

“Kili!” Fili shouted, launching himself at the guard, though he looked more like he was stumbling towards him than charging at him.

It was then that Ori remembered that the other guard was holding him around the waist. Before he could react, the arm around him tightened, and suddenly, there was an arm wrapped around his neck from behind.

He remembered yelping, because he remembered seeing Fili turn to him.

But then the arm squeezed tighter around his neck. His vision went black.

And he didn’t remember anything after that.