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The Apprentice

Chapter Text

At this time, Thorin has taken work in a town of Men in a stony river valley, where the broken bridge on a Númenórean road forms a ford over a wide, grey river. The House of Durin is working its way westward to the Blue Mountains, to see what ruins of the ancient Dwarven cities there might suit as a footing to build themselves a hall – a home, at last. But they have stalled here for now, west of Dunland, for want of coin. Unusually, Thorin has come alone, after Fíli and Kíli took another contract in a town upriver. Thorin found a notice seeking metal-workers in that town’s square, and followed it here.

This is an unfriendly place, and ill-kempt. Nothing has been made with care. The public hall of the aldermen, where Thorin sought his audience, was made of plain, oiled slats, the joinery barely square. There was no waiting chamber – he was made to stand on the street to await admittance. The cobbles beneath his feet were not even grouted. A grey, windblown crowd gathered to look at him as he stood. When he nodded to them, he got no reply. He was a beggar, but with his buffed and tooled leathers, his dyed linens, his carven-hilted tools, he looked, next to them, precisely the prince he had used to be.

The town makes its living from toll-collecting on the ford, and also by panning for gold in the river’s quartz-rock shallows, which Thorin considers to be a mining game for children. The spidery veins of gold in the surface quartz suggest a deep seam beneath the earth, if only the Men here had the wit to dig. If this were a Dwarven city, well – Thorin thinks of Dale, and Erebor.

Prospectors have suffered a series of bandit attacks, and the aldermen are arming a small militia. On the notice Thorin answered, he assumed the use of the Mannish words for worker of metal, rather than smith, was just a way of speaking. But the first short falchion he forged to show them his craft took twenty days: it was folded and re-beaten fifteen times, quenched, and then tempered four times, hotter at the tip for hardness, cooler at the tang for flexibility.

By the second week, the alderman who sought to hire him was stalking past the smithy several times a day, glowering. Upon presentation of the blade at last, he gazed down its shimmering length, swung it pre-emptorily downwards through the air, and barked a bitter laugh. “Are we princes here, Master Dwarf?” the alderman said. “Are we kings?”

“I am,” Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain, refrained from saying.

So Thorin has agreed to fold the steel twice only – the quality of the rods is so mixed, he cannot justify less – and to temper only once. And he has accepted the hindrance of three Mannish apprentices, although what he is to do with them, Aulë only knows. He will deliver ten blades each turn of the moon. When the moon has turned three times, he will be free of this low place, with its loose-stoned streets and ill-stitched thatch. The only thing well-made here is the ancient road by which he will depart.

The three apprentices are lined up in the yard, the first day, with identical gawps on their faces, like three nesting dolls: large, medium and small. One great, big lout like three-quarters of a Gundabad Orc; one middling-tall string-bean of a youth; one child, shorter than Thorin, who would barely tip the scales against two stout dogs.

“Gentlemen,” Thorin says.

“Sir,” the middling youth says, anxious, but polite enough.

“Sir,” the child squeaks hurriedly.

There is nothing to do but shout at them. Just shout, and tell them exactly what they are to do. He sees no cause for faith in the judgement of people who wear sackcloth for clothes.

The big fellow – Thorin thinks of him as the Lout – can beat on an anvil like a ram on the gates of an enemy, but has about the same amount of finesse. Over the course of the first three days, he over-beats every single billet Thorin leaves him alone with, so that Thorin must reforge them. Thorin finally concludes he cannot be left alone with beating or finishing at all.

The little boy, when asked to beat hot metal, leaves only a pattern of stipples down its length like a flutter of insect’s wings. As predicted, he will be the cinder boy.

It is the third one, Dervil, who was the old smith’s apprentice before his master was taken by a fever, who shows the most promise. He is freckled and tousle-headed; he wears a loose, undyed smock and breeches kept up with a rope girdle. Alas, he is lanky with youth, and yet to find his adult strength. The first time he folds and beats out a billet, Thorin can barely see the fold, and the contour of the surface is lovely – a soft-curved fall from the stouter core to the slender edge. Thorin turns to compliment him, but sees the lad is bent over, panting, his hammer hanging from his hand like lead – he will work no more that day.

By the end of the first week, they have brought only one blade fully to completion at a standard that satisfies Thorin, and Thorin is feeling intense regret that it would be physically impossible to do the whole job alone.

Clearly he must somehow improve young Dervil. He begins by setting him to chop wood for charcoal one morning, a task that previously Thorin himself and the Lout split between them.

When he comes to fetch the lad for the noonday meal, he sees he has erred. There is a mess of multiple cuts on each piece of wood, and Dervil’s axe is wavering in the air on the upswing. “Come in to eat,” he calls, and the boy’s whole body bows with relief.

Dervil’s shoulders and arms are jumping as he ducks his head to pass Thorin and come in. He has sweated through his smock to the waist.

“Sit,” Thorin says as they reach the common table, and Dervil goes to take his place on the place at the bench beside the other two. “No, here,” Thorin says, motioning to a stump of wood that is lower to the ground.

Dervil complies, and Thorin goes to work soothing the twitching out of him. He picks up his arms one at a time, and gently rotates the wrist, bends and unbends the elbow, then rotates the shoulder – this last, especially, makes Dervil hiss, panicked. “Hush, you’re all right,” Thorin says, and firmly strokes his arm up, down and around its girth. Then it’s up again and across the shoulder blades, and down his back, then over to the other arm. It’s much like grooming a pony to warm it down. Soon enough Dervil’s twitching settles, and they join the others at the table.

“Weak as a lamb,” the Lout scoffs under his breath. The cinder boy’s eyes widen.

“The skill of the two of you together barely adds to one good smith. At least he’s trying to improve,” Thorin declares, surprised at his own thunder. “I suppose you’ve beaten that blade too wide again?”

Thorin gets up, tearing a hunk of bread in half with his teeth as he goes, and stamps away to the cooling rack, where he confirms that his accusation is just.

“Well,” he says, returning to the table, “looks like I’ll be fixing your errors this afternoon, while you chop the rest of that wood.”

The Lout exhales loudly.

“Unless you want to chop the wood?” Thorin asks the cinder boy.

“No!” the boy squeaks.

“You wouldn’t have to get in such a state as all that,” Thorin says. He points his thumb at Dervil. “I let this one go on too long, is all.”

At the look on the cinder boy’s face, Thorin says, “Maybe another time,” and tries very hard not to smile.

As they are closing up that night, Thorin says to Dervil, “Tell your mother to give you a hot bath.”

“I don’t have a mother, begging your pardon,” Dervil says. He is using a hooked poker to scrape up the coals in the forge fire and bank them for the night – there is still a slight tremble in his hand. He speaks softly, and the scraping noise makes it difficult to hear him.

“Your father, then,” Thorin says, idly annoyed – he is rehanging the tools the Lout never puts away.

It takes him a moment to notice the silence in response. “Or whoever there is,” he says.

“Landlady charges two coppers a bath. Which I don’t happen to have,” Dervil replies. His tone is the closest to disrespectful he has ever been to Thorin.

Thorin uncinches his coin purse and fumbles for two small coins. When he looks at them in the light, both are copper, but one is Mannish and one Dwarven. “See if she’ll take that,” he says, and proffers them.

“I’m not a pauper,” Dervil says hotly, letting the poker fall to the bricked floor with a clang.

“I’m your master,” Thorin says. “It’s my fault I worked you too hard. If you’re too sore tomorrow, I can’t make use of you.”

The lad stares at the floor.

“Do as you’re told and take it,” Thorin says. “And pick up that poker.”

One morning, a young woman flicks the gate open carelessly and sidles up the smithy. She’s blonde – a pretty one, at least in the mode of these long-shanked, hairless folk – a full-grown woman at an age when a girl of his people would still be an infant.

“Well, then, Dervil,” she says. “How’s your new master treating you, then?”

Dervil sets his hammer down and splits his freckled face in a grin. “Well enough,” he says, flicking a glance at Thorin.

They are still well-behind schedule since the disaster of the first week. Thorin strikes the red-hot rods on the anvil with a clash.

“Does he talk, then?” she says, dimpling.

“When he needs to,” Dervil says. He was already flushed from the heat of the forge before she arrived, but now the flush has spread to his neck.

“Doesn’t he say hello to a person when he meets her?” She turns to look directly at Thorin. Her hands are on her hips; her head is tilted.

Thorin assesses her. Her clothes are rough-spun but clean, modest in cut but girdled to cleave to her figure. The daughter of a humbler sort of shopkeep?

He notes that both the other apprentices have set down their tasks to watch. Every moment they spend on this is a moment Thorin’s people cannot depart to the west.

“You’ll have to ask him yourself,” Dervil mumbles. Embarrassment and pleasure battle in his voice.

The girl raises one scanty, pale eyebrow.

Thorin meets her eye steadily, and strikes the anvil hard, throwing up sparks.

The Lout has already been banned from folding and beating unless supervised. Then, one day, he leaves a shocking warp on a blade by clanging it on the way into the quenching water. So he is no longer allowed to quench either. He is left only with welding the initial billets, where if his work is poor, it can be beaten out in the forging later.

But this leaves not enough heavy work for Dervil to do to build his strength. So Thorin rotates them frequently in their tasks, using his own time to supervise the Lout closely when required.

He sets Dervil three sessions of woodchopping a day – he is to work each time until his muscles begin twitching, then stop and move to the next task. The cinder boy clearly envies his progress, so Thorin sets him a small program as well: each time Dervil finishes, the little one may take over and split three pre-sectioned logs. As the weeks pass, he progresses to four, then five, and struts around like a prize rooster with each increase.

All this slows them down, of course: Dervil takes longer with heavy tasks, and Thorin’s supervision of the Lout slows the finishing work down to a crawl.

The Lout grows ever more irritated. Clearly he would rather, in his stolid way, be set a single thing to do and dumbly do it all day, till his strength or the materials at hand ran out.

One day, at last, the Lout swings the blocksplitter vengefully deep into the earth, lays a hand on his hip and brays the ugly truth of his real concern: “He’s paid the same as me. And you let him work less.” He means Dervil.

“You’re paid to turn up and do what I tell you,” Thorin says. “Same as him. I’m telling him to improve himself, so he is. He’s keeping his bargain, same as you. It’s no skin off your nose.”

“If we don’t have the swords on time, we’ll all get docked.”

“If we cannot deliver on account of some failing of my leadership,” Thorin booms, “I will pay you all you are owed.”

The Lout drops his gaze. “All right,” he mutters, and turns to go inside.

“I will teach you,” Thorin offers, with as much grace as he can muster. “I will teach you as I teach him, if you wish it.”

The fellow turns back towards him.

“But I do not think you do wish it,” Thorin says. “I fear you do not love your craft enough to make it worthwhile.”

The Lout laughs. “I save my love for a bit of skirt, mate. You ought to try it.”

Thorin smiles politely.

Through the open wall of the smithy, Thorin catches the eye of Dervil, inside at the forge with his hammer hovering in mid-air. Thorin raises an eyebrow. Dervil ducks his head and goes back to pacing an even spread of light, careful blows down the outer edge of a blade.

The girl catches Thorin again, several days later, when he goes for a walk up the stamped-dirt street that leads uphill from the smithy, just before sundown. She darts out from a lane between two low cottages, into his path. “Where are you going, then?”

“For a walk,” he says.

“Well,” she says, “I shall come with you.” She falls into step beside him.

Alarm flits in his breast. Clearly her kin let her roam as she will, but if she should be seen by some acquaintance, chasing after him? He thinks of the sour-faced crowd outside the public hall on his first day.

He carries on, making an effort not to speed up. He knows how his stride frustrates longer-legged folk if they walk beside him for long. She, however, rocks herself from foot to foot as she walks to slow herself down, and remains placid.

“Where are we going for a walk to, though?” she says.

“You should carry on to wherever you were going before you met me.”

“I was following you from the smithy when I met you. So I’ll just be carrying on wherever you’re going.” The smile in her voice only brightens.

He can see from the corner of his eye that she is craning her neck to look down at him. He looks resolutely ahead.

“You don’t like to talk much, do you?” she says.

A number of replies leap to mind. He quashes them all.

The cottages are poorer and further apart, the further they venture from the main street.

“We’ve never seen your kind in town before,” she says. “Where did you come from?”

“Before this, I was working downriver,” he replies.

“And what about before that?”

“Even further downriver.”

“Yes, but where did you come from?”

He allows a full ten steps to pass in silence. “Far away,” he says.

They trudge on uphill. Soon they have left the town, and are climbing among sparse, windblown scrub.

Suddenly she stops and laughs. “Is that where you’re taking me?”

It’s a small granite bluff protruding from the hillside, amid a stand of bent, yellowish trees.

“Yes.” He cannot bring himself to ask what is funny.

There is a kind of path up the side of the bluff, where the block-ended shards eroding off the edge of the granite have been used as stairs by many feet. He motions her to go first, as he would any woman at a threshold, but then sees his error. The climb exposes her legs beneath her skirt. He turns his face aside and waits for her to reach the top. When he judges it safe to resume his own ascent, he looks up, only to see her sitting on the top step, dimple-cheeked, with her skirt pulled up to her knees, swinging her bare calves out into space. There is nothing to do but carry on climbing and studiously watch his footholds.

The earth on top is thick with bracken. Here and there, roundish patches of the bracken have been crushed flat, as though animals have been lying there.

They have arrived just at the right moment. He stands at the stony crest of the bluff, at the highest vantage point. The drear, grey land below lies soft under a golden haze. The falling light turns the river to a sword of living mithril.

“Oh,” she says, moving up to stand beside him.

He tries to remember what he felt when he last came up here alone. The deep drop into the valley below, and the beauty shining there, the flinty scent on the breeze – he recalls that the clenched fist that lives always inside his chest eased open a fraction.

“Just now I think this must be the most beautiful place in the world,” she says, dreamy.

His heart moves for her for the first time – in pity. He could so easily tell her of a city beneath a mountain where the carven vaulted halls are deep as mountains themselves, where whole rooms flash silver and gold from every surface, where vats of gems may be poured out in a shower, bright as stars. It is a subject on which he has a great deal to say. But it would be unkind.

Then the light fades, and they are merely looking down upon a grey, unlovely place while the wind tears down cold from the heights above.

She speaks again, tension in her voice. “Did you know this is where boys bring girls to lie with them?”

“No,” he says.

“No,” she echoes. “I don’t suppose you would.”

He is annoyed. It means he cannot come here again, and he has enjoyed coming here. He tries to imagine his frustration as a stream that springs from beneath his ribcage and pours away freely down the hillside to disperse.

Now that his old walks to the bluff are denied him, Thorin has nowhere to go of an evening. His departure on the walk used to announce the end of the workday for the apprentices. Now the Lout and the cinder boy take to leaving at sunset. But Dervil tends to hang around later. By rights Thorin ought to defend his leisure against this incursion, but in truth he has little better to do with the hours after dark but various smallcrafts, and it is not unpleasant to teach them to Dervil as he goes. Dervil, being quite in awe of him, is certainly a fair better behaved audience than Thorin’s nephews ever were.

When they carve a set of dice to be inlaid with silver, Dervil makes sample number pips all up and down a scrap piece of timber. Still not satisfied, he shadows his hands over Thorin’s as Thorin demonstrates his own technique. “I think I’m just not strong enough to be so controlled,” Dervil says at last, tragically.

“Nonsense. Look how you’ve improved,” Thorin says, holding up the scrap timber.

Privately, Thorin thinks Dervil’s final die could have been made by a Dwarf – though perhaps on a bad day.

The tooling of a tan leather belt, which Thorin intends to replace Dervil’s rope girdle, goes especially well, right up until Dervil realises it is a gift and he the recipient, whereupon he goes quite pink and cross, and repeats his old protest, “I’ve told you, I’m not a bloody pauper!”

At this time in Thorin’s life, an exile and a pauper himself, he would rather die than accept charity. And yet, he means to make Dervil do so with all his might. He asserts the master’s prerogative of scolding. “Young man, I have no wish to insult you, but you must know you run errands for me about the town, and it does nothing to ornament the reputation of your master to see you go about dressed like some mendicant.” He flips the end of Dervil’s girdle rudely.

Dervil is stunned by outrage, and Thorin seizes the moment to thread the belt about his bony hips.

“Besides,” Thorin says, “I’ve nothing better to do of an evening than keep my hands busy. I have no use for the thing now I’ve made it. You do me a kindness to take it off my hands.”

“Well,” the lad says at last, angrily, miserably, his face aflame, “thank you.”

“It’s supper-time,” Thorin said. “Come and help.” He stalks off to the living quarters of the smithy-house. When Dervil does not follow fast enough, he thunders back at him, “There’s an onion and a turnip as needs cutting, and hurry up about it.”

Thorin soon devises a plan for Dervil, and begins to take the necessary steps. Matters come to a head one afternoon, more quickly than he planned, when Dervil is burned very nastily with a large, flying flake of iron that singes straight through his rough shirt. By the time Thorin gets to him and helps him off with the shirt, a welt above his ribcage is already florid and blistering. Thorin has him kneel over the firebucket, and splashes the burn with water for him until he can do it himself. In the meantime, he has the cinder boy, wide-eyed, draw water up from the well and fill a cold bath in the living quarters. When it’s done, he brings Dervil in, strips him and ushers him into the water, where he sighs with relief, but immediately begins shaking like a leaf from the cold.

“Stay in as long as you can stand,” Thorin says. “I’ve some ointment, but the best thing at first is cold water.”

“All right,” Dervil says, voice chattering. Thorin tousles his head.

Then Thorin has a thought. “Are your legs long enough to hang out the sides? You might be less cold.” He helps Dervil swing his legs out. Above the rim of the bath there now protrude one tassel of grubby flaxen hair like a frayed end of rope, and two skinny legs with big, jutting feet. “You look like a goose that fought back halfway into the pot,” Thorin says, and tousles his hair again for good measure. Dervil’s spirits must be improving – he swats Thorin’s hand.

“I’ll be back shortly,” Thorin says. “Stay in if you can.”

He goes back out to the others, who have flagrantly downed tools in favour of craning their necks. “He’ll be fine,” he announces. “There’s a good hour till sundown. Back to work, thank you.”

He pulls the shade-cloths down around the forge fire and heats the billet Dervil had just begun to beat, to examine it. There’s a persistent shadow in the red heat of one of the rods – an unevenness that could easily have made a hammer blow stutter. Wrath rises in his heart.

He goes to the storeroom, and the rack that holds their stock of rods. At Thorin’s command, the cinder boy has inspected them and sorted them into piles by quality. The pile of the poor ones is the largest. A full half of them would be as dangerous to work with as the one that injured Dervil today.

He counts the rods in each pile, and acknowledges the truth: there is no way to fulfil their contract without the poor ones. Of course, he has counted them several times before, and come to the same conclusion – but somehow his anger aroused some new, mad hope.

He pinches the bridge of his nose, and goes back in to Dervil.

In the cold bath, the lad’s face is marble-white beneath his freckles, with spots of magenta on his cheeks. Thorin has to lift him out bodily, under the arms, like a child. He’s lost circulation to his legs, which hang, pigeon-toed. He’s far too tall for Thorin to lift him off his feet, but he can’t take his own weight just now, so they are left staggering until Thorin can tumble him down onto the sheet he laid on the sleeping pallet earlier. Dervil huffs happily when Thorin wraps the edges around him and begins to pat him dry. A moment later, the relative warmth of the air awakens the burn again. He whimpers, wide-eyed.

“All right,” Thorin says, “time for that ointment.” He fetches it from among his things – a small lidded pot of red, patinated steel, engraved and embossed, of his own make.

The scent is cool and herbal – a smell of Thorin’s childhood hearth. But Dervil can barely sit still to tolerate the first fingerful. “Shall I hold you down?” Thorin asks.

Dervil lies back, accepting Thorin’s forearm across his chest. Thorin gets the ointment on easily enough then, though Dervil’s ribs are heaving.

“There,” Thorin says. “This is the worst part. It’ll settle down soon.”

Dervil takes a few breaths still lying on his back, then smiles wanly and sits himself up.

Today has at least satisfied a longstanding curiosity of Thorin’s about the bodies of Men. He was not sure if perhaps they were bald all over – but no, Dervil’s groin and thighs are quite satisfactorily hairy, and the patches on his chest and belly show a pattern that suggests more will yet grow as he advances further into manhood.

“Stay a while till the pain eases,” Thorin says. “I’ll make supper.”

“Thank you,” Dervil says.

Thorin goes outside and dismisses the others, then closes up the shop for the night.

When he returns, he brings in a shovel of coals for the stove, and puts some soaked beans and beef bones on to boil. He looks at the bath. “Might as well have one myself,” he says, and puts another pot on to boil for hot to add to the cold bathwater later.

“Now, young man,” he says, as he begins to cut some vegetables, “I’ve a matter to discuss with you, and this injury of yours, though unfortunate, is also serendipitous.”

Seren-what-imus?” Dervil says, pert.

“Never mind that,” Thorin says. “The point is, you need a suit of leather clothes, at minimum, to carry on in your profession.”

Dervil’s face flickers, bleak. Thorin hurries on. “I know you have no coin for it. But the tanner across the river needs a cauldron. And we have the bronze for it in the storeroom, and we have a cauldron cast. So –”

“So you’ve got it all worked out, have you?” Dervil says, bitter. “You’ve let him know my business. Let him know I’m a beggar. And all before you spoke to me.”

Thorin exhales slowly, quashing the urge to shout. “You are the best man I have available to assist me with this contract, and I need you to be appropriately equipped.”

“You’ve always got a story ready, haven’t you,” Dervil says.

“I am little better than a wandering tinker, begging at your aldermen’s table for crumbs. Are you so grand you will not take a favour from a tinker?”

“You’re not a tinker!” Dervil says. He picks up the decorated ointment pot. “Look at this!” He gestures to Thorin’s battle-axe where it hangs on the wall. “Look at that!”

Thorin holds his face still, trying not to smile. Dervil’s own smile suggests he is not succeeding.

“This needs a parsnip, I think,” Thorin says, turning back to the soup.

“I hate parsnips,” Dervil says.

Thorin chops the parsnip with particular relish before slopping it into the pot.

They’ve almost finishing eating when Thorin asks, finally, “Will you go and speak to the tanner tomorrow, then?”

At length, Dervil says, “Yes. You win.”

The bathing water has boiled. “I’ll need that sheet back, I am afraid,” Thorin says, rising. “Can you bend enough to put your breeches back on?”

Dervil hesitates. “I shall take that for a no,” Thorin says, and helps the young man to his feet, the sheet dropping behind him.

Thorin goes to his knees and holds the legholes of the breeches open. Dervil’s neck and chest have suddenly flushed livid. Thorin is amused. Dervil steps into the breeches and Thorin pulls them up for him.

Thorin bathes himself. When he has finished, he stands up in the tub to let the water stream out of the pelt of his body hair, then begins to wring out the hair of his head. There is no mistaking that Dervil is staring.

“Have I something in my trousers to which you are not accustomed, young man?” Thorin says drily.

“No,” Dervil says, and puts his hand over his mouth.

Thorin wraps himself in the sheet perhaps sooner than he might have otherwise.

He sits on the pallet to oil, comb and braid his hair. Sitting side by side with Dervil, it is easier to ignore that the lad is once again staring.

The Lout is shirty when Dervil heads off on an errand for the morning. He is shirtier still when, over the next week, Dervil drags out the cauldron mould, cleans it, damps and sands it, and then occupies most of the furnace with a large crucible.

Watching Dervil pour the molten metal into the mould, the Lout cannot contain himself any longer. “This doesn’t look much like swordsmithing,” he says to Thorin. His voice, at least, is an undertone, pitched to avoid startling the man with the boiling liquid.

“I thought I had made it clear,” Thorin says, “that I do not explain myself to you.”

The Lout strides away. He swings the blocksplitter at a tree in the yard, and lodges it there. When he yanks it out again and goes back to work, Thorin decides not to comment.

The cat is out of the bag when the carter comes to collect the cauldron, and then, two days later, Dervil arrives at work in a brand new leather jerkin and breeches.

Dervil is too pleased with himself to scent the danger on the air. “What do you think, then?” he says to Thorin, brushing imaginary dust from his chest.

“Too early in the morning to go digging for compliments, thank you,” Thorin says.

Dervil grins.

The Lout snorts, and stamps off into the yard.

“What’s up his jumper?” Dervil says.

“Get to work,” Thorin says. To the cinder boy, whose face is like a spectator’s at a ball game, he says, “And you.”

They do, with reluctance.

The Lout is striding back and forth in the yard. When he makes to return to the smithy, Thorin steps out into his path.

“This is what’s bloody well going on, then?” the man spits. “You’re outfitting your sodding catamite.”

“Watch your mouth,” Thorin says.

The Lout comes close to Thorin. He’s a full two heads taller than him, broad as a bull, and blowing like one. He’s holding the blocksplitter two hands’ breadth from the head.

“If you don’t like it,” Thorin says quietly, “you know what to do.”

Their eyes are locked. The man’s breath is hot and stale on Thorin’s face.

“Sod this,” the Lout says, at last. He throws the blocksplitter away towards the fence, and stalks from the yard, leaving the gate open behind him.

As the man’s back grows smaller on the road, Thorin becomes aware of the absence of sound from within the smithy. “Do we not recall what work is?” he shouts.

Chapter Text

When he hears metal clashing on metal once more, Thorin retires to the common table with a ledger book, a pencil and an abacus.

At the noon meal, he presents his findings to the apprentices. “Well, my friends,” he says, “I have reviewed my accounts. And we have two choices before us. Either I go and chase after that great lump, and kiss up to him so he’ll come back. Or –” He puts the numbers to them – how much they must each do per day, if they are to fulfil their contract without the big fellow to help.

“I can do it!” pipes the cinder boy, bold as brass. Thorin nods, trying not to smile.

“And you?” he says to Dervil. “You are stronger every day. But this is more than you have ever done to date.”

Dervil hesitates. It is only, Thorin thinks, the burning look on the cinder boy’s face that makes him finally say: “Yes. Yes, I can.”

It’s wondrous, in the end, how well they come together – like a machine freed of a sticky cog. There is no griping now, no hesitating, no crossing of purposes. Each of them knows the moment he finishes a task, there is another pair of hands at the ready, eager to receive the product – and this makes him eager to finish quickly. By the end of the first day, they are only a fraction behind where they would have been had the Lout stayed. By the second, they’re a fraction ahead. Dervil and the little fellow are actually racing each other, Thorin realises, when he sees the cinder boy empty a cooling rack faster than Dervil can fill it, then stand with his hand jauntily on his hip in a silent taunt.

Still, there are limits to what mortal bodies can do. Before midday on the fourth day, Thorin turns away from the forge for a moment to scratch an itch, and catches Dervil quietly crouching over to pant, hands braced on his knees. He calls them to the table to eat early, and watches them both tear into their bread like frenzied wolves.

 “I see I must manage you, lest you gallop yourselves to death like ponies,” Thorin says, and fetches them more to eat from his personal stores.

When they’ve finished, and calmed themselves, Thorin sends the cinder boy into town for more bread and a new wheel of cheese. Once he’s gone, Thorin says to Dervil, “How are you bearing up, young man?”

“Well enough,” Dervil says, eyes down.

Thorin goes to him and touches the back of his shoulders. But it’s too difficult to feel anything through the leather jerkin, so Thorin unbuttons it until he can spread the neckline open and insert his hands. As expected, the muscles of Dervil’s shoulder are raised, hot and ropey to the touch. The lad leans his head back against Thorin’s chest.

“To push yourself is a fine thing, and will make you stronger,” Thorin says. “But you must stop pushing before you reach exhaustion. What good is it if you do much today, but then you can do nothing for days afterward?”

“I don’t want to fall behind,” Dervil says.

“If you’re falling behind, I’ll tell you,” Thorin says, and pats him – gently.

Thorin institutes a new regime then, that very afternoon: they will break briefly on the hour, every hour, to rest and stretch, and they will eat a small meal at mid-morning and mid-afternoon in addition to the large one at midday.

The new regime comes too late for Dervil, that first day: he has already done for himself in high style. Thorin feeds him supper that night, then puts him in a hot bath. Before he can doze off in there, Thorin drags him out, then adds another pan of hot water and gets in himself.

He is re-braiding his hair afterwards when he feels a weight slump onto his thigh. He thinks Dervil is being affectionate, but then he realises the lad has fallen asleep with his head in Thorin’s lap, without ever managing to put his clothes back on.

The burn on Dervil’s ribs has scabbed into a leathery patch the colour of a wine spill, Thorin notes. He rubs some ointment into it.

They are hard and fast at work, one afternoon, when the girl comes back. “Fancy meeting you fellows here,” she calls, loud enough to be heard over hammer blows.

Thorin barely spares her a scowl. Surely she knows they cannot pause while beating hot metal?

He is pleased to hear that the rhythm of Dervil’s hammer remains steady, too.

The cinder boy’s voice pipes up: “Begging your pardon, Miss –” Thorin cannot make out the rest, but he trusts the little one is explaining the case to her.

When he looks up a while later, he sees she has sat herself down on a bench to wait, twirling an artfully straying lock of her hair around her finger. She has much the same, self-satisfied air as she always does – as if she is the only one in on a joke. He feels a surge of pure and pointed irritation.

When they have finished on the anvil for now, courtesy obliges him to speak. “Madam,” he says forcefully, “I regret we are hard at work and unable to entertain callers.”

Dervil is virtually scuttling on his way to his next task. Thorin should perhaps reassure him later that he does not hold him to blame; clearly the wench is ungovernable.

“That’s all right,” she says. “I’ll just enjoy the view.”

He cannot think what else to do, short of threatening her with a weapon. So he turns his back, and makes for the storeroom to fetch new rods for the next batch of blades.

He is inspecting a pair of them by holding them up to the light from the storeroom door when, abruptly, the light is extinguished. Someone has closed the door.

He gropes for the head of a battle-axe above his shoulder. But of course it is not there.

It’s the blighted girl.

“Madam,” he says, as rudely as he dares.

“Hello,” she says.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m not sure,” she says. She sits herself down on a barrel, between him and the door. “I was hoping you’d come to see me.”

“Why would I come to see you?”

“I just thought you might.”

“I don’t know where you live,” he protests.

“Of course you do,” she says. “Where I met you in the street, that time.”

He is stymied. His eyes have adjusted to the gloom now – he sees there is a new, satin ribbon tied around her dress beneath the bust, and another in her hair.

“I have no cause to be visiting young women,” he says. His voice is rather limp to his own ears.

She gets up, steps within arm’s reach of him. “None at all?”

He is a fool. He has just now realised what she wants.

A confused rush of fantasy. He has never actually had the opportunity – there are so few Dwarven women, and he has been cautious with the good name of his House, and busy with his crafts besides. But he has certainly thought on it – indeed, a great deal, especially when he was younger.

This girl – how tall her knees would be, if she were on her back, spreading them. And perhaps it is the women of this race who are as beardless below as they are above? Perverse, to think of it.

He has heard Men’s cocks are not as thick as Dwarves’ – it is true of Dervil’s, in the bath, to be sure. Would it hurt her? He thinks of her bent over that barrel, skirts up, stricken and flushed, as he squeezes himself in. That would repay her pertness, no?

She moves – a step back.

He is startled from a reverie in which he has been assessing the shape of her body rather intently.

Her face is pinched. Is she frightened?

He lifts a hand to reassure.

She steps back twice more, quickly. “I shall be on my way, then,” she says, voice quivering.

She is groping at the catch of the door, struggling in her haste. Then she is out, and gone.

He barks a single laugh. He supposes he is a strange and beastly creature to the Mannish eye, apt to cause alarm if caught leering at maidens.

He will have no more unwanted visits from her, he thinks. Which is a relief.

Still, that short moment of leering has stirred him as he does not recall being stirred for years. He is obliged to sit a while in the storeroom, embarrassed, waiting for the blood to subside.

When he returns to the yard, Dervil is belting the blocksplitter into a stump over and over, frenzied as a wind-up toy. “Lad?” Thorin says.

“What?” Dervil says, strained – though whether from breathlessness or some other cause, Thorin cannot tell.

“Are you well?”

“Fine.” His action does not slow.

Thorin leaves him to it a while, and goes in to put the rods for the next billets in the fire to heat.

When they’re ready, he calls, “Lad?”

Dervil comes in flushed, rope-end hair sticking to his forehead. He clangs the metal down on the anvil and beats it ringingly hard.

“Dervil!” Thorin says. “Settle down. You’ll do yourself in.”

Dervil steps back, letting the end of his billet drop onto the anvil with a clang. “Did you lie with her, then?” he demands.

“No.” Thorin is too startled to know what else to say.


“Really,” Thorin says. He wants to say it would have taken longer than the time he was in the storeroom. But absent personal experience, he is not entirely sure of his facts.

“Don’t you like girls?”

“Go back to work,” Thorin says.

“What were you doing in there then?” Dervil says.

“Fetching new rods. What do you think?” Thorin puts his own billet down. They stare at each other.

Dervil consents to return to the anvil and pick up his billet. But he strikes his work only once before he stops again. “She says you took her up to the bluff.”

Thorin loses control of himself so far as to sigh.

“Did you?” Dervil says.

“I went for a walk,” Thorin says. “She happened to invite herself along. That is all.” He feels he ought to protest this interrogation – certainly, that he ought not be answering. But the whole thing is so unexpected, he is quite wrong-footed by it.

“And what did you do when you were there?”

“Looked at the view,” Thorin says, helplessly.

“The one under her skirts?”

“The one over the township at sundown.” Thorin manages to squeeze a touch of authority back into his voice, at last. “Now will you go back to work?”

Dervil does, but he carries on in the same, impossible mood all day. He says not another word, only works fast as a spinning top at whatever his current task is, until he’s winded and needs to spin away into the yard a while. Then he staggers back in and starts again at the same breakneck pace.

One of the times that he’s out in the yard, Thorin says in an undertone to the cinder boy, “What’s wrong with him?”

But the boy only looks a little shifty – though perhaps Thorin is imagining this – and shrugs his shoulders.

Not unpredictably, by the end of the day Dervil is a wreck – eyes barely focussed, muscles twitching all over his body. “You are staying for a bath, I take it,” Thorin says, and claps him on the back. Dervil almost falls before he can take a seat on the bench at the common table.

“Should I ask the little one if he wants one too, I wonder,” Thorin says. He is half thinking aloud.

“His name,” Dervil says, with sudden outrage, “is Oswald.”

“All right,” Thorin says, “all right!”

“And no,” Dervil says, urgently. “Just give him a copper for the landlady. We’ll be up all night if he stays here.”

“All right,” Thorin says again. It seems he must placate this youth all night and day. Oddly, his usual temper has gone into hiding. “Oswald?” he calls.

“Yes, Master?” The cinder boy seems to stand a foot taller at being called by name, which makes Thorin suitably embarrassed.

“Coins for a hot bath tonight,” Thorin says, and hands them over.

“Thank you, sir,” the boy – Oswald – says, beaming.

“Off you go, then,” Thorin says.

Later, in the bath, Dervil quakes like a leaf. Thorin strokes him, long and gentle, up and down his arms and the planes of his back, which leap with tension. He eases the lad down deep into the water, up to his chin, to get the heat into the tightest parts, and reaches in to carry on rubbing under the water. Dervil stares into the middle distance, gasping.

But even when the worst of the knots have softened under Thorin’s hands, Dervil is still shaking. At a loss, Thorin pats him as he might a hound. Dervil leans the side of his face pitifully against Thorin’s chest.

When the bath has cooled, and Dervil’s fingertips are water-logged craggy as granite, Thorin gets him up. For a moment it seems he will refuse to stand on his own feet. But he recovers, and gets himself out unaided, clamping the sheet over his groin – a strange, belated modesty.

Thorin’s shirt is soaked in the sleeves and front, so he removes it and sets it to hang. With a huff, Dervil sits down on the sleeping pallet. His gaze rolls like a frightened animal’s. Thorin sits down beside him and puts an arm around him. “You are not well, are you?” Thorin says. Dervil only hunches and tilts in response, laying his head on Thorin’s shoulder.

Thorin explores Dervil’s back with his hand. The right shoulder is hottest, which is to be expected. He can just reach the pot of ointment on the upturned crate by the bedside. He applies a generous smear to Dervil’s shoulder, and rubs it in – firmly, as is most healing for a muscular injury. Also most painful – Dervil’s breath comes heavily. “It’s all right,” Thorin says.

When he is finished, he gentles Dervil, running his fingers down the shallow divot of his spine, neck to base and back again. How curious, Thorin thinks, to be hairless all over one’s back. He rather wishes he might examine the lad more closely all over.

Dervil whimpers, and begins to wilt towards Thorin’s lap.

His hand is on Thorin’s groin, squeezing. “May I not do something for you?” he moans.

Heat spears Thorin. He has never been touched so intimately before.

Dervil pushes him onto his back, strips his trousers to his ankles, and Thorin lets him, meek as a lamb. His cock is like a blade straight from the furnace.

Dervil casts the sheet aside, revealing his own cock, red and rampant.

It is Dervil who strokes Thorin now, combing the pelt of his chest hair, rolling his nipples slow and luxurious. And his hand – that ring of tight, clever fingers – blissful fingers. Right where Thorin needs it – up and down, slow and wonderful. It is mad how good it is to be touched by another. His body has become a different body, no longer its workaday self at all. He is on fire, bucking like a spooked pony.

Dervil leans hard down on Thorin’s hip, makes a sound both chiding and pleased, and swallows his cock.

Thorin is wild, caught in the sinuous clasp of a sucking mouth. They are fighting, almost, in fits and starts – Thorin trying to insinuate himself deeper into that sweet throat, or sometimes to try to pull out, escape the intensity of it, and Dervil trying to control how deep and rude he shoves himself, and other times trying to prevent his escape.

Thorin hears someone bellow like a bull – it is him. He is shooting his seed violently down Dervil’s hot gullet. Dervil makes no protest, only a soft, involuntary sound of choking, abject and delicious. Thorin forgets himself a long moment and holds the lad’s head down so he cannot withdraw, loving how his throat flutters.

Thorin lets go at last, belly shuddering with shame. But Dervil is up, wild-eyed, hurling himself across Thorin’s lap, scoring Thorin’s palm with his nails in haste to bring it to bear on his small, hot cock.

Thorin goes as fast and hard as he is bade. He would not dare do otherwise – the look on Dervil’s face is terrible. Six, seven strokes is enough. Dervil cries out, thrusts, spills himself in jets.

How charmingly it fits in his hand, this little thing – Thorin is reluctant to give it up.

The hair on the front of Thorin’s body has always, since he was a boy, grown inwards to a crest that is not quite centred on his body. Slantways across this crest there are now draped great ropes of another man’s seed. Dervil, who is still rocking his hips a fraction against Thorin’s belly, gazes upon this as if on all the gold in Erebor.

Thorin’s ears are very warm.

Chapter Text

Thorin is uncertain of the etiquette of these things. But he feels – perhaps – shy about getting up to wash himself in the bath until Dervil is breathing deep with sleep. The water is long cold, so he only crouches gingerly and splashes, before getting out again. He rinses too the corner of the drying sheet he used to wipe off with earlier.

He is hungry, and there is yesterday’s barley stew still in the pot. But he cannot eat without his guest, surely, and his guest is asleep.

He resigns himself to hunger, and turns to go back to bed.

Dervil is not asleep – the faint starlight from around the shutters reveals him up on one elbow, covers pooled around his waist.

“I’m hungry,” Thorin says quietly. “Do you want some cold stew?”

“Yes. Thanks,” Dervil says.

Thorin lights a taper on a coal in the stove, then lights a candle with the taper. Dervil blinks at him like someone craning to see across a vast distance. He stays up on his elbow and watches Thorin as he goes about fetching the crockery and dishing up. Thorin is left rather wishing he were wearing his nightshirt. But then, he has no spare to offer a guest.

He returns to bed with the candle and the food, and throws the covers over his lap.

As they eat, Dervil’s arm bumps his, and Thorin shifts away to give him more room. Dervil lays the whole palm of his hand on Thorin’s arm, and smiles.

When they are done, Thorin sets their bowls aside on the floor. Dervil lies down again.

Thorin lifts the candle and looks down. There is a naked youth reclining on his pillow, gazing up at him complacently.

Thorin blows the candle out.

The pallet is hardly sized for two, and Thorin sleeps poorly – short of violence, it is not clear what is to be done about Dervil’s encroaching elbows and knees.

He permits himself to abandon the attempt at sleep just after dawn. The disrepute of the room in the morning light is pointed: bowls on the floor, discarded clothes in every which place, the bath abandoned. He tidies, washes up, drags the bath outside and tips it in the sump pit in the yard. Dervil sleeps peacefully on, his face and bare shoulder serene in the light from the open door. So there seems no harm in doing more – sweeping up the floor, for instance.

He is hungry. It is not too rude to break his fast already, is it? He has a sausage to char on the fire, and some yesterday’s bread. Dervil could always eat his half later. He throws some kindling on the coals.

An hour-bell sounds, distant in the town square. Thorin decides to resolve the problem by shaking Dervil’s arm. “Wake up,” he says. “There’s some sausage to eat in a minute.”

Dervil murmurs, and rolls on to his back, blinking. He runs his palm up Thorin’s arm.

“Your clothes are on the end of the bed,” Thorin says, and goes to get up. But Dervil’s hand tightens at his elbow.

Dervil flips the covers back, away from his hips.

It is strange how absolutely Thorin is compelled to cooperate. The lad’s hard cock leaps at his touch – it is under the same spell.

Thorin has been kissed on the mouth before, but not in this lewd way with tongues. It takes some getting used to – there is some confusion about the role of teeth, and working out whose tongue’s turn it is – but it is very agreeable.

How like battle lovemaking is proving to be: the jerking, shocky brightness of everything – the loss of all thought but that of the present moment.

Thorin very nearly takes a cheeky wad of spunk to the chin in the end, though he jerks away at the last second. Dervil’s beaming face is barely sorry at all.

They are late opening the smithy that morning. They find young Oswald waiting outside the gate, looking curious. There is no mistaking that it was locked last night with Dervil on the inside.

“He did himself in yesterday, and fell asleep here,” Thorin says. Then he realises that only a day ago he would not have deigned to explain. Then he suppresses a strong urge to explain further.

Dervil is still in a state from yesterday, last night’s bath notwithstanding – he is walking like the crossbar of his shoulders has fused solid. Thorin starts him off fetching and carrying.

He feels curiously aware of Dervil as he moves around the smithy, as though the young man’s body has begun to radiate unusual heat. Again this is like battle – the way one may track a particular enemy in a melee. And Thorin finds him noticing a thousand small opportunities where he might plausibly touch the lad, though he takes care not to avail himself of any of them.

By the next hour-bell, Dervil is still slow and hunched. So Thorin has him jump up and hang by his hands, moaning quietly, off the eaves of the smithy’s porch.

Oswald has been buoyed by the spectacle of Dervil’s comedown today, and now adopts a grand stance as he condescends to chop some wood.

Dervil cannot stay up there long. His soft cry of dismay alerts Thorin, who turns around in time to see him fall, his knees buckle, and his backside hit the dirt. Thorin sets his work down and goes to offer him a hand up. Dervil looks at the hand as though it is a bucket of boiling oil, but takes it, and grits his teeth and closes his eyes as Thorin pulls him to his feet.

“Any better?” Thorin says, as Dervil brushes off himself off.


“Well,” Thorin says, “there comes a time when kindness is no longer kindness.” And he waves Oswald away from the wood, and sets Dervil to it instead.

Thorin returns to the forge, and brings Oswald inside too, that Dervil may muster his dignity as best he can.

The rhythm of the blocksplitter, as Thorin overhears it at the forge, never reaches the speed he would like. After a time, it becomes perilously slow. After that, far too fast and shallow.

Thorin puts his work down again. This will be the second time he has to reheat the same incomplete weld; he’ll be lucky if it doesn’t shatter. He goes outside. “All right, all right,” he says, and catches the blocksplitter in mid-air. Dervil surrenders it instantly, arms falling limp. “Come inside.”

He sets Dervil to confirming the tallies in the old smith’s accounts. The lad is puzzled, but does it. When Thorin checks back in with him, he has all right but one, but the one quite spectacularly wrong. So Thorin shows him how to estimate first by roughly adding the largest numbers, so that he might check his total against the estimate.

Then Thorin gives him the receivables, the payables and the cash ledger, and asks him how much a particular townsman owed the old smith. Dervil mutinies at last. “What do you want to know that for?” he scoffs. “He’ll never pay now.”

“If you’re to be the master here after I’m gone, you will need to keep books,” Thorin says.

“Who says I am?” Dervil says.

“Do you not wish to be?” Thorin is confounded.

Dervil gives no reply, only slumping in his seat.

Thorin cannot see what else to say, so pushes on. He sends Dervil into town to obtain quotes for packing their finished blades for delivery. He wishes to compare the price of ready-made chests and packing from the carter with the cost of making up their own from planks and rags.

“You are most keen to be rid of us, it seems,” Dervil says.

“We’ve less than a turn of the moon left on the contract,” Thorin says, “as it has always been.”

Dervil leaves without further remark.

Oswald has been lurking, wide-eyed, just at the edge of Thorin’s line of sight, for a while. Now Thorin turns to him.

Oswald sees Thorin’s expression and dashes back to work like a pack of dogs is after him.

Dervil returns late from his errand, and repeats the numbers the merchants gave him in a flat voice.

The carter has given two quotes for ready-made chests; the cheaper one is if they’re also paying him to transport them, which is what Thorin envisaged. Thorin puts it to the lads: “It’ll be a few coins less in your final pay. But we’ll be running behind as it is. My view is, banging up crates ourselves is just a rod for our backs.”

“It’s all the same to me,” Dervil says, surly.

“Aye,” Oswald says.

“Well, that’s settled, then,” Thorin says. His intention was to put this up for discussion, and teach them something about the business of being in trade. But it seems his gambit has fallen flat.

“If you don’t need me, I’ll be on my way,” Dervil says.

And so, for the first time in weeks, Dervil does not stay for supper with Thorin. Thorin cooks and eats alone. It certainly involves less mess and far less heckling than usual.

Afterwards, he picks up a walnut bookend he has been working on carving with Dervil. There is a sense of displacement – irrelevance. The object no longer seems to have any value outside he and Dervil’s conversation over it.

The sun is full down, and the night insects singing outside, audible now that Thorin has fallen so still.

He will go for a walk.

He pulls his boots back on. He will stay off the riverside and the main street both, so he ought to encounter neither toughs nor the night’s watch, but still – he slips a dagger into his belt, for caution.

He follows the curve of the hill downward without thinking, till the stamped-earth street gives way to cobbles, and lamplight shines behind shutters. The stars are bright as gems on a velvet ground, above. He realises he has almost walked to Dervil’s boarding house.

A curious thought: what if he could use the starlight to climb some tree outside the boarding house, and knock on Dervil’s window with the hilt of his dagger?

His mind rushes on with the rest in spite of him: inside, in the quiet dark of the bedroom, Thorin would whisper his remonstrations to Dervil for his coldness, his petulance today. Dervil would be unable to argue lest he make noise and his guest be discovered. If remonstration failed, Thorin would kiss him until he was more agreeable.

In reality, he can’t remember for certain, but Thorin is fairly sure there is no tree outside the boarding house. If there is, no doubt it is too short or too spindly to climb – he would fall and hurt himself, and rouse the household, who would probably call the watch. Also, he does not know which window is Dervil’s, and in any case, penniless Dervil no doubt shares a room – perhaps even a bed – with several other boarders.

How strange that the mind can formulate a plan that it already knows is ridiculous, and become so attached to it. What mayhem he might have wrought, had he taken a lover in his youth.

He turns away, and tracks back up the hill. Past the smithy he goes, and through the humbler outskirts of town, the ground steeper and steeper, until he’s free, out in the open on the windy hillside in the dark.

Black earth and jewels of lamplight below; deep blue sky and stars above. It could almost be a treasure cavern under a mountain.

He has become strangely involved in this contract, in life in this town, he sees. He is losing sight of his real objectives. He is not here to play the father – or anything else – to some Mannish youth.

He will be well-paid for his work here, and he had a letter from his nephews last week, saying they profit well from their labours upriver. After this, his people may well be ready to move on westward at last.

Still, a fantasy lurks in his mind. He half-imagines staying here, at the smithy, making his living casting cookware, forging tools and shoeing horses. Dervil always at his elbow, diligent and attentive. Dervil in his bed by night. It is of a kind with the fantasy about climbing to the window – ridiculous. But so sweet.

The next morning, Thorin watches the shape of Dervil’s body approach from a distance up the road. It is an easier, looser sort of shape today.

“How are you?” Thorin asks, as he lets him in the gate.

“Well enough,” Dervil says. Which is, Thorin notes with shame, rather like something Thorin would say – it is markedly unhelpful from this end.

“Will you start with the wood, or at the forge?” Thorin asks him.

“I dunno.”

Just then Oswald arrives, with a piping, “Morning!”

Thorin is mostly joking when he replies, “Do you think he should start with the wood or at the forge, since he won’t tell me?”

“At the forge to start, then come back to the wood,” Oswald declares.

“Well then,” Thorin says, “the master has spoken.”

Later that morning he has to shoo Oswald away from posing with Thorin’s hammer, though he can barely lift it. Oswald then goes outside and heckles Dervil for not chopping fast enough.

“I don’t say that,” Thorin protests.

They both smile at him – Dervil a fraction more embarrassed than Oswald.

By the afternoon, the work has picked up speed, and the two lads are beginning to compete again to see who can finish things first. Thorin is pleased, after the time they lost yesterday, and he joins in where he can.

Still, all day long Dervil is close-lipped, and Thorin struggles to make conversation.

As they’re closing up, he worries Dervil is going home again. He forces himself to speak. “Will you stay for supper?” His voice comes out with a quaver.

“All right,” Dervil says, looking down.

By the time they’ve got the stew on to cook, the silence is becoming intolerable. What is this cowardice that stills Thorin’s tongue? He must steel himself and do it.

“You were angry with me yesterday,” he forces out.

Dervil won’t meet his eye. They are side by side on the pallet. Thorin touches Dervil’s knee with the back of his knuckles.

Dervil leans in to him. “It’s only I don’t want you to leave.”

“Oh,” Thorin says. He moves his arm around Dervil – it seems awkward not to, when they are sitting so close.

“Do you have to?” Dervil says. His eyes are fixed on Thorin’s face. Thorin has a strong feeling that he should kiss him.

“I do,” he says instead. “My people are – exiles. We are on a long journey westward. We fetched up in these parts when our coin ran out. I have kin – and two nephews – waiting for me to finish here, that we might go on.”

“Where did you come from?”

“Have you heard of the Lonely Mountain?” Thorin says. The old fist of sorrow closes on his heart.


“It lies far east and north of here, beyond the Misty Mountains. It is a single mountain that stands alone on a plain, beside a great and beautiful lake. We lived there, under the mountain, as miners. But we were driven out.”

“By bandits?” There is a certain boyish excitement under the sympathy in his tone.

“Of a kind,” Thorin says.

“And you have nephews?”

“Two. My sister’s boys. I taught them everything they know of smithcraft – but I must say they are not as attentive pupils as you.”

Dervil smiles, and Thorin goes to tousle his hair – but Dervil resists. They begin to wrestle. The sorrow has lifted. Dervil stares up at him as they wrestle. Thorin feels again the very strong urge to kiss him. He pushes Dervil onto his back on the pallet, the better to wrestle, and also kiss, him. The wrestling is a touch uncomfortable, between leather, studs, buckles, and the like. “Why do you have your boots on in my bed?” Thorin demands, and begins to wrestle Dervil’s off, while Dervil laughs and struggles.

He can smell the stew boiling, so he gets up to see to it. Dervil lets out such a complaint at the loss of him, that Thorin feels it in his stones. “I shall return,” he says forcefully.

He scrapes down the sides of the boiling pot, stirs it well, and closes the vents on the stove to reduce the heat.

When he turns around again, Dervil is naked to the waist, bootless and beltless, staring. Thorin takes his time returning, and taking a seat on the pallet to remove his own boots. Dervil’s stare is so pleasing that Thorin carries on and takes the rest of his own clothes off, and then Dervil’s breeches off – which makes Dervil wriggle like a fish. Then they have a most enjoyable wrestle, unclothed, with kissing.

Thorin is on top of Dervil, clasped between his thighs. “Will you bugger me?” Dervil says, squeezing with his knees.

Thorin is beyond dissimulation. “Oh,” he says, “by all means, if you’ll show me how.”

“You never have?” Dervil says, as if he means to laugh.

“No,” Thorin says. It seems too late for embarrassment.

“How old are you?” Dervil demands.

“Older than your father would be,” Thorin says, with a grin. He wants to kiss Dervil, but he can’t reach when they’re clinched hip to hip.

“But do you want to?” Dervil says, as if this could be in doubt.

“I’m sure I do,” Thorin says. “I only require guidance.”

“All right, then,” Dervil says. “Let’s roll over.”

And so Thorin learns of a new use for his ointment, and the need for some coaxing of the necessary place into a state of relaxation. Dervil undertakes this himself at first, but then recruits Thorin’s larger fingers. “You know,” Dervil says rather dreamily, “if you do this to me a lot, it will become much easier.”

“By all means,” Thorin says. His voice sounds distant to him.

Then they are doing it – trying to actually get the sword into the sheath. There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing at first – Dervil can sit on it a little way, but then gasps unhappily and retreats a while, only to come back and try a little deeper. Thorin holds himself outwardly, perfectly still, while his insides turn to roiling flame.

How vertiginously strange to see himself disappear inside Dervil this way – Dervil’s body like a split fruit, and Thorin the cleaving knife.

Oh, but how the body knows what to do, once he gives it permission. That instinct to clutch, to drive it in. “Yes,” Dervil croons.

Thorin may never have been in so much agreement with anyone.

“Can’t believe that’s the first bolt you’ve sunk!” Dervil says, afterwards, flopping onto his back.

Thorin shifts; he is sticking to the sheets with sweat. “We have very few women among our kind,” he protests.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Dervil says. “Do I look like a woman?”

“No,” Thorin says. “But it never occurred to me before –”

“Before you met me?”

“Yes.” Thorin fears he is going to blush. But in fact it is Dervil who turns his face away, pink.

Thorin traces the curve of Dervil’s rib with a finger, which makes him squirm slightly.

“Am I any good at it, then?” Thorin says.

“Not bad,” Dervil says.

Chapter Text

The days are passing.

Thorin speaks with the aldermen. The old smith died without issue, his property defaulting to the town. On Thorin’s reference, they confirm they will take Dervil on to run the smithy, for a shared profit.

“Will you be his apprentice when I’m gone?” Thorin says to Oswald, at noon-day at table.

Oswald looks anguished. He throws his bread down and stalks out into the yard.

In due course, through much stammering, they confirm that this means yes.

Thereafter Dervil will sometimes tell Oswald what to do, with mixed results. Once he even ventures to tousle his hair, whereupon a small fight breaks out, and Thorin is obliged to pretend not to notice.

The old smith’s ledgers serve as an account of every service the townsfolk asked of him for the last several years. Each day they read through the ledger until they come to something Thorin has never seen Dervil do. Then Dervil must do it for him, and Thorin will critique it. Then Thorin has him explain how he will teach it to Oswald.

By night, the master is the apprentice.

They begin to take their clothes off directly after supper, without discussion – for there can be no question how they will spend the evening.

One night Thorin pushes Dervil onto his back on the pallet and says, “Will you show me how to –?”  He mimes putting something in his mouth.

“Aye,” Dervil says faintly. Wonderfully, his cock stands itself up before Thorin’s very eyes. Thorin is impatient to begin.

Thorin leans over him, his hair falling on Dervil’s thighs. Thorin begins to gather his hair aside, but Dervil says, “No!” Dervil tucks only a little hair behind Thorin’s ear – just enough, Thorin realises, to leave the weight of it on Dervil’s skin, but allow Dervil to watch.

Dervil wanting to watch makes Thorin want to be watched. He keeps his eyes locked on Dervil’s all the way down as he lowers his head to lick the head of Dervil’s cock, which has a glossy little bead of fluid at the tip. The briny, gamey taste of it is curiously palatable. Even as he is reflecting that he ought to be disgusted, a wave of involuntary, sympathetic desire rolls through him.

Dervil’s belly is heaving. “Good,” he says. Thorin can hear him trying to govern his voice.

At Thorin’s first attempt to take it inside, Dervil squeaks, “Teeth!” Thorin tries again with his lips puller tighter. That does the trick: Dervil sighs like a punctured waterskin.

Then Thorin has the knack of it. Dervil begins to struggle upwards, the way Thorin remembers doing himself, when Dervil did this to him. It is most pleasing to hold him down – to torment him with Thorin’s superior strength. Thorin is learning that lovemaking is often a form of torment for mutual enjoyment.

Then a perverse thought comes to Thorin. Carefully, lightly, he uses his teeth on purpose. Dervil cries out, as if anguished. But Thorin has learned that a lover’s outcry need not be a protest. Teeth sunk gently into tender flesh, Thorin looks up at Dervil. Dervil’s eyes are wide and intent upon him. Thorin licks the place he has scraped with his teeth. Then he scrapes it again. Air hisses from Dervil’s nose, frantic. 

Thorin sucks him down forcefully. Dervil shouts and grabs his hair, twisting painfully.

There is a moment of confusion. Thorin coughs several times. He realises Dervil has just finished directly down his throat.

It is as if Thorin has woken from a dream. His jaw is aching from unaccustomed use, and he is fulsomely, luxuriously pleased with himself. He is also wildly aroused, so that his hands shake.

Dervil rolls himself onto his front in invitation. Thorin fumbles for ointment, blood roaring in his head. When he begins to use his fingers, Dervil says, “No, just do it.”

So Thorin does it, for the first time – pushes in without preparation. It is stranglingly, gorgeously tight. He cannot get very deep at first. He pushes harder, and Dervil makes a sharp, keening noise. “All right?” Thorin asks, freezing. 

“Yes, go on!” Dervil says, ardent. And Thorin understands that Dervil was indeed keening in pain – and that Dervil likes it.

Thorin withdraws a little, then presses in firmly, a touch deeper than before. It is like the first time they did this. Dervil whimpers urgently, and tilts his hips up to present himself more fully. Thorin is almost frightened to be hurting Dervil so deliberately – not at all playfully, like he did with his teeth before – but there is a kind of wonderful, terrible contract between them that he is helpless to resist. Thorin gives Dervil what his lifted hips demand – vigorously.

Afterwards Dervil pants and clings to him, and Thorin strokes his back.

Eventually Dervil’s breathing quiets. He laughs under his breath and says, “That was fun.”

“I was afraid I was hurting you,” Thorin says. Immediately he curses himself for a coward – there is no uncertainty that he was hurting Dervil.

“Oh, you were,” Dervil says warmly. “I wanted you to. It’s nice sometimes.”

“Oh,” Thorin says.

“Are you worried about it?” Dervil says, teasing.

Thorin resists the urge to deny it.

“Don’t be worried,” Dervil says, and begins to kiss him all over his face.

This is more than Thorin can take. He rolls Dervil over forcefully, holds him down and tickles him into a jelly.

They sleep in an embrace that night. At one time, Thorin wakes from a doze, and is vaguely, reflexively anxious. But Dervil’s breath, slow and damp on his throat, lulls him. He feels the anxiety leave him like liquid draining away. Sleep trickles in, instead, and fills him.

Their deadline is coming. With the time Thorin’s teaching takes, they are behind, and work past sundown each night. Dervil gives up his lodgings formally, at last, and moves in. He owns, as it turns out, barely more than Thorin does, so it makes no difficulty.

They run so late that Thorin begins to feed Oswald of an evening, half the time, which Dervil is inclined to resent, until Thorin takes him outside and gives him a hushed talking-to. “He’s your apprentice now,” Thorin says, and is pleased to see the understanding dawn in Dervil, like a shade being pulled up.

One night Oswald simply falls asleep, flat on Thorin’s floor, while waiting for dinner. They lay a rug over him and leave him there. When they go to bed, they are chaste in nightshirts, with a hand’s breadth between their elbows. Thorin is almost asleep when Dervil begins to paw him. “He’ll wake and hear us,” Thorin whispers.

“I don’t care,” Dervil says thickly.

So Thorin takes him out into the smithy, and lays him out in the cool moonlight like a meal on the common table, nightshirt around his armpits. Dervil is already arching his back, though Thorin has barely touched him. Thorin runs his hand up Dervil’s flank, and lets his hair fall on Dervil’s belly, to encourage him. The feast has become so delicious, Thorin almost cannot bear to begin.

At last Dervil cannot contain himself any longer, and makes a noise like a wounded animal. Thorin clucks at him chidingly. Then Thorin relents and devours him.

They are packing the swords straight into crates as they cool now. Thorin is half-sorry to put the lids down, when they’re full – it is a lovely array of shining metal, a clutch of the feathers of a fantailed silver bird. It’s far better than these skinflints deserve.

He sees that Dervil is beginning to think of himself as the master of the smithy. It is there in the way that when he goes on an errand, he squares his shoulders and walks slow and sedate down the road, in the care he takes with his notes and ledgers, in the assertive way he will greet a visitor at the gate.

They have less than a week to go. Thorin brings out his ledger at the noon’s meal and updates his tallies. “Well, lads,” he says. “We’re running to time. We need only carry on as fast as we have been, and we will make our date. So: my thanks go to you both.”

“You’re very welcome,” Oswald says.

“Will you stay on a few days after we’re finished?” Dervil asks. “To help us start the ordinary trade of the place?”

He is not asking this in the dark, in the privacy of their bed, his breath hot in Thorin’s ear, Thorin notes. He’s asking him at table, as one man of craft to another. In front of Oswald, too.

“I’d be happy to,” Thorin says. “I’ve arrangements to make, in any case. I must write to my nephews, and await their reply.”

For all they have reached the home stretch, the weeks of work at this pace are beginning to tell. Some nights now Dervil falls asleep right after supper, simple as an animal, still in his clothes. Thorin will ease his boots and belt off for him, then leave him be. Dervil’s beardless face in sleep sometimes looks frighteningly young – each eyelash and freckle new-minted and vulnerable. Other times he is animate, squirrellish, with eyes rolling under their lids, and he will mutter and twitch like a hound dreaming of a chase.

Several nights, too, Thorin takes pity on Oswald and sleeps him on a rug on the floor. Then Thorin and Dervil go out into the shuttered smithy again – or once, memorably, into the yard, where they hide from the bright of the moon in the deep shadow of the tree by the fence.

Then, between one hour and the next, it is done. The last sword is packed in the last chest. Thorin straightens up and looks at the two of them.

Oswald is bright as a light.

He sees Dervil’s throat move in a swallow.

“I believe, my lads,” Thorin says, “there is a pint at that tavern with each of your names on it.”

Thorin has not got properly stonkered in some time. The alderman he spots at a table in the rear of the tavern’s common room is certainly pleased to hear that the swords are finished on time, but admittedly (Thorin concedes to himself later) could have stood to hear a fraction less about how fine a smith Dervil is growing up to be. Dervil, who can hear this, sits several tables away with his face in his hands, resisting all invitations to come over. The three of them are saved only by the fact that young Oswald is about to get into a fight with a grown man twice the size of him. Thorin is so entertained that at first he does not attempt to intervene – until he sees that Dervil is going to if he doesn’t.

“Sir,” Thorin says, clapping his arm around Oswald’s shoulder, “whatever offense this young scamp has offered, I will surely discipline him.”

“Rather do it meself,” the man says, “if you don’t mind.” His tone is not polite.

“He’s my apprentice,” Thorin says, “and his discipline is mine.”

The man makes a show of looking Thorin up and down – or rather, down and further down. Thorin stares him in the eye.

The man shrugs. “See that you do it,” he says. “The little shit.” He retires to his table.

A man to their left has been watching this exchange – and Thorin’s person – with some interest. “Mate,” he says, “don’t suppose you fancy an arm-wrestle?”

“What, with you?” Thorin says, with more contempt than is probably wise.

A number of men get up from their seats – to form a queue.

If Oswald starts quietly taking bets in the background, Thorin is rather too busy to put a stop to it.

Thorin is not in the best health of his life the next morning. He sits up on the pallet, but does not rise. Dervil still sleeps beside him, the snuffle of his breath louder than usual.

On the floor, Oswald gives a piteous moan, raises his head and stares piercingly at Thorin. Then he vomits a extensive puddle of sick onto the rug.

Thorin lurches to his feet. “All right, up, up!” he says, and lifts Oswald to his feet with his hands under his arms, then shovels him out the door onto the grass outside, where he promptly collapses to his knees. Thorin folds the rug up carefully and carries it outside to dump on the grass as well. He draws a bucket of water from the well and delivers it to Oswald. “Clean yourself up,” he says.

He draws another bucket, and drags the rug over to the sump pit to rinse it off. Just then, Dervil emerges from the living quarters, nightshirt twisted, hair like broken rushes.

A rattle at the gate, which is still locked although the sun is a good way into the sky. It’s the carter, come for the swords.

“Pardon me, sir,” Thorin calls, wiping his hands on a clean corner of the rug, and coming to the gate.

The carter’s boys load the crates up on their wagon, while the carter has a good look at the three creatures in the smithy, all in their nightshirts.

“I am afraid, sir,” Thorin says, “I led the lads astray last night, celebrating the completion of this armoury stock, on which they have worked very hard.”

The carter only nods. Thorin is rather irritated by his smile.

“Master Dervil,” Thorin says, “will you settle with the gentleman?”

Dervil looks startled for a moment, but goes to fetch the ledger and the purse. Thorin explains, “As you may have heard, sir, the young master will have the running of the smithy once I’m gone.”

Dervil is back with the man’s coin, and a smile. “Sir, I undertake to have breeches on for all our future dealings,” he says, in a fine, firm, uncringing sort of way. “I recall you were a most valued associate of my late master, and I can only hope our relationship might be half so productive.”

“Indeed,” the man says. “I look forward to it. Breeches included.”

And then the carter is gone, and the three of them stand, looking at each other.

“I suggest,” Thorin says, “a bath for all. Then one of you must run into town to make an appointment with the aldermen to get us paid. Then we stocktake the storeroom.”

They toast some bread and sit on the grass to eat it while the bathwater boils. The plan seems an excellent one, right up until the water does boil, and someone needs to get up and go and deal with it. They all stare balefully at each other.

Thorin, at last, bestirs himself, and goes inside to tip the hot water into the cold. He comes back out and fixes his stare on Oswald. “You!” he says. It seems this adequately communicates the depth of his resentment, as the boy gets up and goes in to the bath without further protest.

Once he’s out, Thorin sends him off the errand. Then he gestures to Dervil, and points towards the door to inside.

“Are you coming?” Dervil gets up and says.

“It’s your turn,” Thorin says.

“Yes,” Dervil says significantly. “But wouldn’t you like to help?”

“Oh,” Thorin says.

By the time Oswald gets back, they have only just managed to get their clothes on, and are sitting at the common table, ruling up a tally sheet.

“Hello,” Oswald says. “Been tupping the whole time, then?”

Every hair on Thorin’s head stands up.

“Oh hush,” Dervil says mildly, without surprise. “None of your business.”

Thorin gets up. “Can we –” he begins. But his voice is wrong. He starts again: “Can we get moving on this storeroom, thank you.”

Thorin only waits for a letter from his nephews, and then he will leave.

Thorin has Dervil make enquiries, and they discover the travelling merchant who used to sell the old smith his iron and bronze is not expected back in town for months. On market day, they go to the square and buy up every last second-hand knife, tool and cookpot on offer. Anything with an interesting design, they take casts of. The knives and chisels in good condition they grind and polish till glinting; those in poor they melt back into rods, then forge anew. The cookpots and cast tools they melt down and re-cast. Any bone or wooden grip that looks anything less than ravishing they remove and replace with a new one from the woodturner.

There is a stack of crates in the storeroom that is particularly charming to bend Dervil over. But then they need to use the contents of those crates, so they move on to bracing against a rack, which tends to rattle. Oswald once bangs on the door while they are in mid-flight, this way. Thorin’s heart stops, as it always does. “Piss off!” Dervil cries, eloquently.

One afternoon, it becomes clear why Thorin’s nephews have not replied to his letter. It is because they have decided to come themselves, in person. Two cheery, blessedly Dwarf-sized figures are letting themselves in the gate: one blond, one dark.

“Lads!” Thorin cries, and they clasp wrists.

It is wonderful to look an adult in the eye without craning.

Thorin makes the introductions, and shows Fíli and Kíli around. “Well, I suppose you might as well forge in a bathtub as not,” Kíli says, assessing the furnace. His voice is not in quite enough of an undertone.

“None of that,” Thorin says, sharply.

“All right, all right,” Kíli says. Oswald is staring at him from the other side of the forge – Thorin raises an eyebrow to quell him.

“Anyway,” Fíli says, “we could probably make the next village by sundown.”

From the corner of his eye, Thorin sees Dervil pause in what he’s doing, and stand perfectly still.

“We’ll go in the morning,” Thorin says. “There’s space on the floor for you tonight.”

There are just too many bodies packed into the room for Thorin and Dervil to consider sneaking outside. They share the pallet, in nightshirts, collegially.

Lying awake, Thorin is soon reminded fondly that both Fíli and Kíli snore.

Dervil’s breathing, beside him, becomes thick and frantic. Thorin finds his hand in the dark, and Dervil clutches back.

Thorin whispers to him, as quietly as he can manage, “You will do well here. You are a fine young man.”

Dervil’s breathing is now unmistakeably the sound of crying. “Thank you,” he says laboriously.

There is a marvellous pain beneath Thorin’s ribs, with no physical cause – he has never felt the like.

He cups Dervil’s face and thumbs the water away from under his eyes. He guides Dervil’s head onto his shoulder, and strokes his hair and cheek until he quiets.

They will be seen lying together like this in the morning – Thorin will just have to pass it off as inadvertent.

There is not much to pack up, in truth – Thorin came with no more than he could carry on his back, and he is heavier now by only a purse of coins. Fíli and Kíli are keen to set out even before Oswald has arrived for the day, but Thorin has them stand around in the yard till he sees the spindly figure coming up the road. Oswald, indeed, begins to jog when he sees them, as if he fears Thorin will make a break for it. He bursts through the gate with a stricken look, and stops short, staring.

“All right, all right,” Thorin says. “I wasn’t going to leave without saying goodbye.” He steps forward to embrace the boy. “Now you be a good lad for your new master, you hear?”

“I will,” Oswald says, nasal. When he steps back, he is openly crying, his clever little face transfixed with misery. “None of that,” Thorin says, and pats his cheek.

He turns to Dervil. Dervil is dry-faced, but very quiet and still. Thorin embraces him firmly. He cannot linger like a lover. “And you,” he says. “Best of all luck to you. It has been an honour.”

Dervil says nothing, but his breath flutters in Thorin’s hair. Thorin holds on a beat longer than necessary, his neck prickling. Then another beat.

They leave.

At the first bend in the road, Thorin turns to look back. Dervil and Oswald are standing by the gate. He waves, and they raise their hands in return.

Thorin makes Fíli and Kíli stop for an unneeded rest at the crest of the hill, before the town drops out of sight for good.

“Bit of a sad place,” Kíli says. “Did you see that thatch everywhere? They must like to get wet.”

“Yes and no,” Thorin says.

He can only see the fact of houses from here, not their shoddy thatch, and the morning light lies friendly on them. The river too is lit up, shining like metal.

He hopes Dervil is at work.

“They get more out of you than they paid for?” Fíli says, mistaking his mood.

“They always do,” Thorin replies. He gets up and leads them on.