When Thorin was young, he wanted to run away from Erebor and join a troupe of traveling players.
Each year, the players came to the big Summer Fair held in the open fields between the Gate of Erebor and the walled city of Dale. They juggled, sang, and performed little plays on the back of the wagon they parked among the sea of tents and market stalls that made up the Fair. When coins clinked into the tattered old hood they passed around, the players laughed and smiled and bowed with supple grace.
“I’m going with the players,” Thorin told me as we walked past piles of earthy brown potatoes, bright orange carrots, and dark purple plums, all guarded by sun-browned human farmers. Behind them, wuffling softly and cropping the grass, stood the huge plow-horses that had pulled their goods to market.
“Why?” I asked him, baffled. I shook my head at a milkmaid offering me a drink of milk.
“Because they’re free as birds! They go where they want, do what they want, and people toss coins to them, just for the pleasure that they bring! They soar, Dwalin. Players fly high, and their imaginations take the rest of us along for the ride.”
I snorted. “Being a Prince is better. Look at their threadbare clothes, those cheap and dented weapons they play-act with. That wagon is about to lose its wheels and the pony’s ribs stand out like a picket fence. And the coins people throw to them are copper pennies, not the golden coins of Erebor.”
He whirled around to face me. “You don’t get it, do you? They’re free, and I’m not. Being the prince means being weighed down with golden chains—duty, obligation, responsibility. The only thing that matters is what’s best for the people. Who cares what I want?”
Thorin pointed to one of the massive farm horses, hitched to a wagonload of hay. “That horse pulls the wagon day after day, pulls a plow through furrow after furrow, never lifting up its head, never looking at the sky.
“What if that beast only looked like a horse, and it was really a dragon inside? It wouldn’t make any difference. All the farmer can see is that it has four legs and strength enough to pull the plow. He wouldn’t care that it was really meant to fly.”
I crossed my arms and gave him a sarcastic look. “I think even a farmer could tell the difference between a horse and a dragon, Thorin.”
“You’re not listening! I’m telling you that everyone – my father, my grandfather, everyone in the entire House of Durin – expects me to just stand there and get hitched to their plow.”
I got mad. “Oh, come off it. You’re a freaking Prince. It’s your destiny. And let me tell you, it’s a damn sight easier to be a king than it is to be a farmer, or a farmer’s horse. Or a traveling player. Princes have more than enough gold. Players don’t.”
Thorin huffed out a despairing little laugh, and shook his head. “Gold is a trap, Dwalin. Too much gold—” He shut his mouth with a snap. “Never mind.”
He walked a little faster, and I noticed Thorin was carrying his harp slung over his back. I rolled my eyes and followed him.
Thorin ducked behind the makeshift curtain at the back of the player’s wagon. Planting his fists on his hips, he addressed the dwarf who was the manager of the troupe.
“I want to join your troupe,” he announced. Like a Prince. I could see that attitude was going over well.
“Thorin!” I hissed a protest, but he waved his hand to shut me up.
He pulled out his golden harp and began to play. The manager of the troupe stroked his beard thoughtfully as Thorin’s fingers plucked the strings. Something about the dwarf’s bland expression and the tiny twinkle in his eyes made me think that he knew exactly who was sitting in front of him.
At the end, when the sound of Thorin’s voice had faded and his fingers dropped from the harpstrings, the dwarf applauded. “Bravo, young prince! You are very talented.”
Thorin looked so dismayed, it was funny and sad at the same time.
The manager clapped one hand on Thorin’s shoulder, and swept the other arm wide. He had a big, booming voice. “But you know as well as I that your place is by your father and grandfather. I’ll tell you what—anytime you invite my players to entertain you in the palace, we’d be delighted to let you play a song or two.” He smiled ingratiatingly. “Have we got a deal?”
Thorin nodded, and of course he promised to arrange for the players to visit the palace. But he was in a gloomy mood as we headed back through the farmer’s market to Erebor.
Just before we entered the Gate, he stopped me, one hand on my shoulder. He looked seriously into my eyes. “Just remember, Dwalin. The day I let the weight of all the gold in Erebor count for more than singing and playing and enjoying life—that day, I will be truly hitched to the plow.”
“That will never happen,” I mumbled.
His grip on my shoulder tightened, and he gave my shoulder a little shake. “I hope not.”