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The Voice (continued)

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Prologue

Orla died simply.

While napping in the passenger seat of her cousin’s car one winter night, headed from the airport to her cousin’s home for the holidays, another driver lost control of his vehicle on the black ice coating the asphalt of the interstate. Orla died on impact as the sedan t-boned the passenger-side door of her cousin’s smart car.

She next remembered waking up under an overturned wagon, lying on warm grass, the stench of rotting meat poisoning the air. It was a mercy when blackness overtook her mind once again.

 

Chapter One:

The Dwarves of Erebor had been brought low.

The Men of Dale who managed to survive the dragon’s attack on their city had little in the way of supplies and none to give the dwarves for succor. As for the fair folk of the Greenwood, Thranduil Oathbreaker had turned his back on every dwarf, dam, and bairn. Every death which followed the dragon’s attack was heaped upon his crown of twigs as the cost of his cowardice and pride.

After the Calamity, and the subsequent flight from their kingdom and the shadow of the dragon, the dwarves found themselves wandering. Trekking from village to village, scrounging up any work they could, trading away precious heirlooms and any coin or jewel to feed their young, and eventually to provide for their full numbers.

Shunned in many villages and towns of Men, the dwarrow of Durin’s line restlessly walked onward. None of the other dwarves settlements had the means to welcome and harbor the refugees, although several Darrow managed to settle with Lord Nain in the Iron Hills, mostly miners and goldsmiths, those whose crafts could not be borne outside of mountain halls. Those lucky few wandered only two terrible years.

The majority of Durin’s folk traced lines across Arda, east to west and north to south, burying more of their kin in the dirt, far from the stones that were intended to use their shrouds, for there was no other choice on the road.

The weak went first. Those with lungs damaged by the smoke did not last three months.Those with severe burns lasted a fortnight at most. One silversmith’s apprentice lived despite the mass of silver that had melted onto his left hand, from palm to elbow. The pain had been excruciating, but now he carried his weight, like all those who hope to survive in the unsheltered wilds.

The bairns born on the March were all so small, too small. Their mother’s breasts ran dry too soon, too often. Only three survived their first year.

Fifteen of the mothers died in childbirth. Seven others simply wandered off in the night.

Several of the eldest of the dwarves spent as much time as possible minding the young ones, teaching the children what they could: history, sewing, knitting, embroidery, wood-carving, fire-building, Khuzdul, hunting, any skill they could pass on before they left for the Halls of Mahal. They knew in the way most recognize death that it would not be long.

The King minded none of the information his advisors delivered, and left his son Thrain to manage the affairs of a leader of such a tribe. Thror was often found, muttering to himself, or glaring viciously at those who approached him. He tolerated only his daughter-in-law Fris and his granddaughter Dis to feed, bathe, and clothe him, as he lacked the presence of mind to perform these duties himself.

Thorin and Frerin, despite their youth, were pivotal in firming up the morale of their people, their kin. Thorin spent many long hours in discussion with his people, listening to their complaints with his full attention, promising to resolve the issues and upholding his word as swiftly as he was able. Frerin made himself a figure of cheerful nature, getting his people to laugh, to sing, to dance, despite their troubles, despite their dead, despite their poverty, despite their weary feet.

The royal family presented a united front, and led their people with certainty, a certainty which translated into hope for their people.

~~~*~~~*~~~

The Dwarrow moved from dwarven settlement to dwarven stronghold, hoping to house even a handful of their people in a place which would not only house and feed them, but also provide a means for craft and trade and aproper dwarven life. Their numbers had dwindled steadily, more from death or illness than installation in another kingdom, but as the group decreased in size, Thrain and Thorin began discussing the possibility of finding some place which might be able to house their smaller numbers.

And so it was that three thousand Ereborean dwarves began marching towards Ered Luin, the Blue Mountains far to the west.

The dwarves currently inhabiting Ered Luin delivered several warriors in response to the royal ravens Thrain had sent out to seek sanctuary. These warriors, including one Bifur of the line of Ur, were to guide the remainder of Durin’s folk to their refuge.

Knowing their large numbers would slow their progress and draw too much unwanted attention, the caravan was broken into five arms, each intended to pass through a different village of Men to work for whatever they could manage in this last press to their last possible home. Thorin and his father’s cousin Fundin led the northernmost shaft, six hundred dwarves crossing the southernmost slopes of the Misty Mountains. They encountered little in the way of trouble, discounting one small party of Manish bandits.

Thrain led the innermost branch, marching straight around the edge of the woods bordering the elven city of Imladris.

Frerin led the branch in between his father and brother, accompanied by Groin, wending through the pass around the valley of Imladris, since Frerin was the most diplomatic son of Durin and therefore the most likely to sway the First-born into understanding his need for trespassing. This was proved true two days into the march; the dwarves under his banner were given an elven escort and arrived at the meeting place first.

The branch just south of Thrain’s was led by Thror and Fris and Dis, accompanied by Bifur. Moving just north of Bree, a Manish way-stop, the group paused for three days to acquire much-needed goods, and trade their own crafts for food.

The final branch was led by Farin, father to Fundin and Groin. Their caravan marched just into the Shire, near the Old Forest on the edges of Buckland.

~~~*~~~~*~~~

Thror’s group was the fourth to reach the meeting point, two days past the appointed time due to sustaining attacks.

Firebeards had ambushed the group and began slaughtering any Longbeards in their paths in an attempt to assassinate the King. Bifur stood guard by the princesses and took an axe to the head before his assailants struck Fris down.

Thrain roared his grief as a wagon brought the bier of his wife into the center of the camp. Thorin and Frerin ran to embrace their sister and watched as their grandfather wept for the first time since long before the dragon had turned their lives beard-side-down.

Bifur and several other dwarves were moved from an additional wagon and laid out into a swiftly constructed healing tent. Most with serious injuries didn’t last the night. Bifur woke around third watch, bellowing in Khuzdul, mind in a berserker rage. It took four dwarves to hold him down as the stem of the axe was removed and his wound cleaned and treated. All that was left at that point was to ask Mahal to keep the warrior who defended Fris and Disin his halls, or to return him to his kin where they might honor him.

After one more day, and still no sign of the fifth branch, Thorin sent the order for scouts to seek their absent brethren. Three days later, the scouts returned by midday, bearing the helmet and beads of Farin and a single stretcher.

A lass, barely forty if the healer was any judge, bering a large and bloody bruise on her temple.

The healers could find no other injury on the girl. When questioned, the scouts described the scene they had discovered, a field of blood, bodies torn to pieces by scavengers. Except the lass, whom they had found beneath an overturned wagon. She had called out for help, or they might never have found her. They got some water down her throat, but once she had been lifted onto the hastily made stretcher, she had fallen unconscious and had remained so for the remainder of the journey.

The healers cleaned her wound and bound her head, lying her on a cot near BIfur. Thorin, speaking in his grieving father’s stead, had granted the healer’s one week’s stay as their location was an easily defendable one. But once the week was up, they marched for Ered Luin. He prayed to Mahal that the warrior who nearly died defending his mother and sister, and the little girl who had finally lost everything else she’d had, would both recover quickly. It would not be an easy march, even for those not wounded.

~~~*~~~*~~~

Bifur woke fully the following afternoon.

His words were slurred but discernible Khuzdul Proper, and the healers expressed great relief and anticipation for the swiftness of his further recovery. Dwarven skulls were strong and it took much to knock a stubborn mind about!

Bifur was fed a hearty stew with an ale for supper, but he seemed disinterested in its contents. When one healer’s apprentice suggested a lighter meal, a thin and watery vegetable broth with a pitcher of water, it was tried and found suitable to the injured dwarf.

It was in the process of eating his meager meal that Bifur finally noticed the presence of the young dam on the cot several meters to his left. Further inquiry detailed her journey to her current bed.

The pie-bald Broadbeam slipped into a melancholic mood, and he shifted his focus from rebuilding his strength to tending for the nameless dwarfling.

He spent the remainder of his time in the encampment pouring water and thin broth past her lips incrementally, speaking to her, telling her every story he could think of including many involving his young cousins Bombur and Bofur, cleaning her injury, and changing her bandages until they were cleared to come off entirely. Thus it was that he was the first dwarf to notice that her bruised temple was no longer swollen and that at the center of her injury was a rune, the mark of Mahal.

Bifur spoke of his discovery to no one, except young Dis, who had come and shared some of his time spent waiting at the lass’ bedside in companionable silence, and who happened to be with him at the moment of its discovery. The princess swore to her protector to remain silent until the girl was awake to decide the course of action for herself.

Bifur agreed and moved and braided the young dam’s hair in such a way as to hide the mark from those who might peek in on the lass. In the course of their private conversation, Bifur told Dis, “I would claim her as mine. No lass should be without kin. Especially above ground.”

Dis had hummed, “Agreed. But what called out to you that she should call you kin?” For while children were precious to dwarrow, adoption was a rare occurrence, even for orphans. Typically, kin would claim the child, and nothing official need be done. For an adoption outside of kin, however, the king himself needed to be involved.

Bifur raised a slow hand to his axe-laden brow before gesturing to the girl’s own marked forehead. Dis smiled. “I see. You will be good for her, and she for you, I believe.” Her voice was matter-of-fact, and free of any other judgement.

“I will wait for her to wake, before I speak of it formally. That she may choose freely.” He bit the words out tersely, head pounding with emotion, determined to speak clearly.

“I expected no less of you.” Dis’ voice was soothing in its regularity of tone and volume. She was a quit princess, or at least had been since her mother’s death.

Bifur nodded at the princess and nothing more was said on the matter.

~~~*~~~*~~~

On the last day before the camp was packed up to move on, Orla woke.

Chapter Text

Orla moaned as she opened her eyes. Her head was pounding and she felt nauseous. Had they spiked the eggnog at—with sudden clarity, she recalled the force of the sedan crashing into the passenger door and the metallic crunch as the door gave way before pain overwhelmed her mind.

A vague memory of paramedics calling out in indecipherable words swam lazily through her mind, but the sounds in her memory would not scramble into words she could recognize, no matter how she focused.

A numbing headache whited out her vision for a heartbeat and then a breeze tickled along her hairline. Shortly after that, she managed to make out the sounds of some, someone very close by, moving clothes or blankets around. Tilting her head marginally, she noted the constant sound go things being forced into a bag of some sort.

Was she sharing a hospital room with a patient who was being discharged?

Blearily, she blinked and focused her eyes on the ceiling above her. It was oddly shaped and seemed to bend in places a ceiling normally shouldn’t. But then the ceiling was also a deep brown in color, so it was already unusual for a hospital.

What was the closest hospital to her cousin’s house? She couldn’t remember.

Turning her head towards the continued shuffling noise, she caught sight of a large, bearded man. He appeared to be a patient, his head bundled in bandages with some sort of metallic fastener, and he was leaning his weight against the cot…

The cot on the dirt floor.

Orla squeezed her eyes shut. Oh no, I’m hallucinating, she thought as he level of nausea rose.

She breathed forcefully out of her nose and then held her breath before inhaling deeply through her mouth. She repeated this several times, too focused on her breathing to notice the sudden silence from her companion.

The man moved closer to her and grunted out something in sharp syllables she couldn’t break apart and piece back together into recognizable words. “Water,” she gasped out, throat dry. The man either understood her or her intent. It wasn’t until she was finished with the broad and shallow bowl-like cup of water that she attempted to ask him where she was.

His face turned away from her and he shouted over his shoulder. His voice pounded like a hammer in her soul.

More people entered the room, moving the entrance curtain aside. The floor was still dirt, and the ceiling still made of odd planes. Or rather a juxtaposition of planes. “I’m hallucinating," she told the bearded doctor? nurse? before her.

“Khalganash?” he asked in a feminine voice.

Orla turned her head in confusion, then winced and raised a hand to the goose-egg on her temple. “I don’t understand you,” she managed through gritted teeth.

“Khazad menu t—,” the rest was a barrage of gibberish and deep noises. Phlegm was involved, an the broad Scottish “-ch” sounds as well.

“Where am I? What happened to my cousin? How… How longs I asleep?” Orla began rattling off every question she could think of, despair growing as the bearded faces around her looked more astonished and confused by her own speech.

One rather short doctor attempted to speak in something lighter, a language more similar to Spanish or French in sound, but it still made no sense to Orla.

“Help me,” she pleaded with the bearded men. “Help me please.”

~~~*~~~*~~~

No one could understand the lass.

She didn’t understand Bifur’s Khuzdul proper, nor the cradle Khuzdul Groin tried when he entered the tent. When Oin thought to try Westron, hope rose again because the lass clearly recognized that it was something different, but she still was unable to understand them. Dis stepped forward and began to sign to the girl, thinking she might better recall the physical language of the dwarves. The lass focussed on the princess in astonishment, and some recognition did shine in the girl’s gaze, but they were unable to communicate.

Bifur stepped up, “Is there nothing we can do, Master Groin?”

Groin shook his head sadly, long braid at the back of his head moving like a tail along his spine. “It is like your speech, Bifur. Unlike your limitation to our Khuzdul Proper, her head injury seems to have removed all traces of known language. We shall simply have to reteach her to understand her own people.”

“I will teach her.” The gathered Darrow looked to the injured dwarf. “I also… I had hoped to seek her approval, but until we can communicate with her, I should like to step forth as her guardian. And once she is able to understand, I would like to claim her as my daughter, should she be willing.” Bifur stood, ram-rod straight, gesturing to Orla frequently, causing the lass to stare at him in confusion, through she continued to send short glances to the others as well.

“I think that would be a wonderful idea,” Dis spoke up from the girl’s bedside. “I think you of all dwarves would know best the manners of dealing with a language-affecting head injury. And your care for her this past week speaks much of your nature as well.” Her small smile inspired the girl on the cot to smile as well, which seemed a sign from Mahal to those in the tent.

Groin smiled, “I acknowledge and grant your request, Lord Bifur.” Bifur still felt uncomfortable with his new title, granted for his defense of Fris and Dis, but it was certainly to his benefit to acknowledge it in these proceedings. “The lass is for with under your care. Let us know when we do discover her name, that we might search among the records to ensure she has no surviving kin that might disagree with or contest your proposed claims.”

Bifur bowed and sat as the healer began checking the lass’ bandages before following theaters out of the tent. Dis settled herself at the foot of the lass’ cot as Bifur approached the pair.

Dis urged Bifur to sit closer and began a conversation with the silently staring girl. “Hello, my name is Dis. Dis,” she repeated again, pressing a hand to her chest.

The girl blinked at her before smiling. Placing a hand on her own flat chest, the girl said, “Orla, Orla,” before glancing down at herself wearing a bewildered expression. She patted her flat chest a few times before she brought her hand to touch the wispy beard she could barely see the edges of. With wide eyes she looked up to Dis once more, tugged at her facial hair and made a desperate, inquiring noise.

“Beard. Your beard. It is a very nice start to a beard, and will be quite lovely when you are older.”

“Be-ear-d?” The girl slurred out.

Dis nodded. “Beard.”

Orla shook her head. “Mhfg beard.”

Dis looked in askance at Orla. Orla sighed, and looked around, seeming to search for the words. Eventually, Orla just shrugged and tugged at her beard once more. Dis shrugged in return and the two moved onto having Bifur introduce himself, and both lasses took turns naming things in their own tongues.

“Tent.”

“Hspinash. Tent.”

“Water.”

“Agulin Wat. Er. Water.”

“Orla, Dis, lass.” Orla expressed confusion over that until Dis pointed directly at her own breasts and crotch with eyebrows raised. Bifur made a show of looking away.

A look of clarity struck Orla and she replied, “Orla hn Dis kreshlyn. Lass.”

Dis cheered the girl on and they continued for a few more minutes, breaking down the components of her meal. “Meat.”

“Gnnr. Meat.”

Then Dis left to finish packing up her belongings, and preparing to move out the next morning.

Dwarves were hardy creatures who could endure with greater strength the threats of nature and violence thrown their way. And it was only her youth which had kept Orla abed so long, Groin assured Bifur. So Bifur marched alongside Orla, leading her to the Blue Mountains in the long chain of Durin’s Folk.

Chapter Text

Orla watched in a daze as the doctors filed out of her… tent? Was she really in a tent? Had something truly awful happened that they had to set up a medical station in a field?

And where had the cold weather gone? It hadn’t been snowy on the drive from the airport, but this weather felt more like November than late December. Was it just a warmer day?

The bandaged patient had stayed with her and had helped the boy with the dark hair and a close-cropped black beard to feed her, and the boy had tried to help bathe her but Orla had drawn the line. Even though the boy claimed to be a girl, that was a thick beard for a fourteen-year-old of any gender to have managed, even if the ‘girl’ was going to be a bearded lady. Orla was conscious now and could readily bathe herself despite her communication issues and potential hallucinations—had she ever seen so many people with facial hair (beards, mustaches, sideburn, and goatees, in her life? And everyone was roughly the same height and build, which she might not have noticed if it hadn’t brought her attention to the changes in her own form.

Her boobs were gone. Completely gone. Not missing, like something horrible had happened in the accident: no scars, no stitches, or any other mark of their previous occupation. Her chest had seemed to have regressed to prepubescence. Upon further investigation, she found her underarm and groin were still coated in hair, though it was a much sparser gathering than she had previously possessed. Her entire body seemed to have more hair across it in general. She was much shorter too. The ground was much closer, her legs and arms were thicker, stubbier. But no one else towered over her. She even stood an inch taller than the boy with the beard. Dis, he’d called himself. Or herself.

Her injured companion had braided her hair that morning, moving a braid over the slight mark on her temple and tied it off with a dark wooden bead from his beard. The man was now helping Orla to pack a small bag. He had stuffed some bandages in first, wrapped around breakable clay jars, before sticking the combs made of different types of wood he had used on her hair into the bag as well. After tying it off, he slung it over his back and held a large hand out to her.

And so, Orla tucked her much smaller hand into his. They left the tent, which several more men were working to dismantle, and Orla found herself in a large plain surrounded by several thousand people, all bearing facial hair, some as sparse as her own, and even more with beards braided down to their belts.

Her companion, who referred to himself as Bifur, led Orla to a wagon and lifted her up onto the seat beside the driver. He passed her the bag and stood beside her as they waited for the activity to dwindle around them and for the chain of wagons and people to begin moving.

Orla shivered as her wagon started forward. Bifur marched alongside with a large spear in his hands.

Her hallucinations were either getting worse, or she was still in a coma and dreaming vividly. Unless, perhaps she was dead, and this was purgatory? It wasn’t hellish, and it certainly wasn’t paradise, but it would make sense for purgatory to be somewhere no one could understand her and she was struggling to come to grips with the changes in her own body, and the strangeness of the bodies of the people around her.

They were kind to her, not trying to harm her. In fact Bifur seemed to have appointed himself her protector, as he’d shooed several of the bearded folk along, lifting his spear and grunting at them.

Coming to a decision, Orla pledged to work to understand the language spoken all around her, so that she might be able to understand just where she was, what was happening to her, and she was going to start with Bifur.

~~~*~~~*~~~

They didn’t stop walking until an hour past nightfall. No tents were put up, and everyone just laid out on blankets, on wagons, under wagons, or stood watch. Orla turned and tucked herself closer to Bifur, as he was warm and the night was not.

“Bifur,” she queried. “Cold?” She shivered several times audibly, teeth clicking together, trying to ferret his word for the term out of him.

Instead of replying, he tucked his blanket more firmly around her and bundled her up into his arms, rubbing his hand up and down her back to warm her up.

“No,” she insisted. She touched a hand to her lips and said, “Cold.” She then put her icy fingers against his beard wrapped mouth and repeated herself. “Cold.”

Bifur grunted in something like surprise before he responded, “Tentrul. Tentrul.”

“Tentrul,” Orla parroted. She touched her fingers to her own bearded whispered the word Dis had taught her before repeating it and wrapping her fingers around the braids in Bifur’s own beard. He grunted but didn’t stop her, instead repeating the word back to her.

Bifur reached a hand up and tugged at her fingers, tracing them individually and tugging lightly before whispering, “Tringon.” He moved his hand to grab several fingers at once and whispered “Tringoy.”

“Tringon, tringoy,” Orla repeated, mimicking his behavior with her own fingers before recreating the actions on his own hand. She then pointed at her palm and looked up at him in askance.

And so they spent the time until she nodded off to sleep teaching her to speak his words for parts of the body, for night, for blanket, and the last word he taught her was, “Sleep.”

~~~*~~~*~~~

It was the work of several days for Orla to manage to retain enough terms to make a very simple, badly enunciated version of a sentence, but she compensated with physical gestures and Bifur soon surmised that teaching her Inglishmek might be a smoother transition than working on Khuzdul Proper. Dis had joined them for the day and helped him to explain some of what he hoped to convey. Soon the three were in agreement and gesticulating madly.

Chapter Text

Over the next several days of the march, Orla lost several of the words Dis and Bifur had given her. Names seemed to stick in her mind well enough, and another ten words seemed cemented in her mind: the words for beard and water among them. The sign language they taught her however, stuck to her mind like a burr in a dog’s coat.

Dejected by her losses in speech, Orla redoubled her efforts in sign language and was soon successfully able to carry on small conversations with Bifur fluently: small talk mostly, covering topics such as weather, food, and physical objects in their slowly-evolving environment.

Bifur seemed focused on teaching her certain words, possibly attempting to teach her enough to be able to communicate some of the questions—they had to be questions—he kept trying to ask her. Each night as they settled in to sleep, he would rattle off more of those butchered phonetics before devolving into abrupt hand gestures and finger signals.

Orla was still no better at the spoken word, but Bifur never stopped trying. Had something important happened? Not that it would matter if it had, Orla could only recall the crush of impact, and the medics giving her water. She had nothing in between those moments, and no memories between the medics and waking up in the hospital. Tent. Hospital tent.

Seriously, had an apocalypse level event occurred?

Orla tried to push the incident from her mind, and not only because it made her head ache. Dis was coming over and walking alongside Bifur to chat about something—Orla’s inability to communicate, or her lack of significant progress in correcting that inability, probably.

Not that either was unkind, but Orla could see their small frustrations just as surely as she could feel her own.

Her tongue felt trapped in her skull. Nothing she said had any meaning, and nothing she wanted to learn to say stuck in her mind for very long.

“Dis,” she called out.

The short, dark-haired girl—definitely a girl, you can only “Oregon Trail” so much with people and not figure out their bathroom equipment—turned and grinned up at Orla before climbing onto the wagon with her.

“Orla?” Dis’ voice was cheerful. That was a rare sight, not that the girl had ever been cross with Orla, but she wasn’t a generally cheery person.

Orla sighed and began moving her fingers into the symbol for question—hadn’t that been a job and a half to learn?—then pointed at Bifur and said his name. She shaped her left hand into a bowl, pointed into her palm, and pointed at a nonexistent ‘gift’ before repeating Bifur’s name, and pressing her gift to her flat chest and quickly adding the sign for question once more.

Dis stared at Orla for a long moment before turning to Bifur and speaking to him. Their language had become less aggressive to Orla’s ears the longer she listened to it and nothing else, but it was no less indecipherable.

Bifur looked up at Orla with a noise of surprise. He rumbled his question out to Dis and to Orla, eyes moving from one to the other and continued to march forward, glancing before his feet ad about the distant hill and tree line as he waited for an answer.

Dis looked over at Orla, who stared blankly back. Dis sighed and started to sign: first she made the sign for question, saying Bifur and Orla’s names, and then made the sign for shield, which Orla had learned two days before when she noticed some of the travelers carrying some.

After shield, Dis hesitated before making a gesture that looked as though she were rocking an invisible baby.

“Baby? Shield baby?” Orla’s confusion was easily visible on her face in the scrunch of her brow and the pinch of her mouth so Dis tried again: “Bifur” and the sign for shield, “Orla” and the baby-rocking motion.

“Orla?” Orla asked as she pointed at the invisible ‘baby’.

Dis nodded happily, practically singing the word for yes.

“Bifur thinks,” here Orla pointed to her head, “Orla is a baby?” Here Orla pointed again at the nonexistent baby in Dis’ cradled arms.

Dis peered at Orla for a minute before she nodded and shook her head.

Yay.

~~~*~~~*~~~

“Bifur, how do I explain that you don’t believe her to be a newborn? But still explain that you are acting as her guardian and wish to adopt her?” Dis’ voice and expression remained serene, as all the Durins worked to be when in the eyesight of their people; even a small dissatisfaction could undermine the fragile hope that bore their kin forward.

“Show her the children.”

Dis blinked down at the Broadbeam warrior who had nearly given his wife in defense of her mother, and to whom she owed her own life. “What?”

“There are children of different ages on the caravan. Show them to her and make clear the gaps in age, before working your way up to those dwarves of age. Explain to her that she is not a bairn, but still very young.” Bifur sighed and looked over at Orla. The lass was watching the two of them discuss her as though she were an imbecile. He flushed with shame. He wants to help her, but to leave her so far from the matter of her own business?

“Orla,” he called up to her. Once her full attention was on him, Bifur pointed at the wagon before theirs, where a father and son walked alongside the wagon. The lad was about eight or so years Orla’s senior, but that would do.

Orla looked and then glanced back at Bifur. “Adad,” he gestured to the father. “Child,” he spoke, this time gesturing to the boy.

He repeated the words over and over, adding Inglishmek symbols for each term once he saw recognition flare in Orla’s eyes.

“Adad, child,” Orla repeated, using the words once before sticking to the gestures.

“Orla, child,” Dis chimed in, making the hand gestures herself.

“Orla, child?” Orla asked incredulous.

“Orla and Dis, child,” Dis signed and patted her own flat chest, causing Orla to glance down at it, before examining her own. Dis ran her finders over her beard and pointed at Orla’s, careful not to touch it.

Orla’s shoulders slumped as she peeked a glance down the front of her tunic and she sighed. She righted her tunic and closed her eyes, hands limp in her lap. They rode in silence for half an hour or so before Orla turned tearful eyes to Dis and glanced down at Bifur as well. “Orla,” she said, her voice thick with emotion. Then she made the gesture for child.

Dis nodded and made the gesture for yes, careful not to say anything further.

“Orla,” Bifur spoke up, adding the gesture for “you want?” Orla had learned through a long week of pantomimed camp meals. He added his name again, pointing to himself, and then, “Adad.”

“Orla,” hands pointed at Orla and then going flat, palm up in offering, “Bifur”, pointing at Orla again and the sign for father. “Orla, you want Bifur your Adad?”

~~~*~~~*~~~

Orla was floored. Bifur… Bifur wanted to adopt her?

Orla looked numbly around the caravan noticed so many families she had blindly seen but not noticed before. She had even seen Dis with her father and brothers and grandfather. Everyone was with someone.

Except her. And Bifur.

Was this another layer to the purgatory theme?Her becoming a minor once more?

She wasn’t accustomed to the thought of needing a minder, or a protector.

But.

She didn't have breasts, or an actual beard, because apparently feminine gender and beards were no longer mutually exclusive. So, she was a prepubescent herself. Definitely a child.

And she wouldn’t leave a child alone. She glanced over at Bifur around Dis, and thought that she wouldn’t leave him alone either.

He had taken on the role of fatherhood out of necessity while he couldn’t ask his question, but he had asked her every day all the same.

He wanted to be her father, but cared that she agreed to his adoption of her as well. He cared that she wanted to be his child.

She looked up ahead through the line of dusty wagons. There were so many people, and once they arrived wherever it as they were going, she would probably get lost in the change.

At least Bifur had… He had done so much for her, and never asked for anything in return. This wasn’t even asking for anything in return, this was him asking her if they could continue as they had begun, just more officially.

Orla didn’t answer right away. She considered it through the remainder of the day’s march. Neither Dis, who climbed down after two hours of silence and rejoined her grandfather on his wagon towards the front, nor Bifur, who marched steadily beside her, pressed her for an immediate answer.

Orla meditated on what this would mean for her. If she was dead, and this as purgatory, then she could use a guardian or guide for sure. If she wasn’t dead, and an apocalypse had occurred, which had somehow also managed to make her younger, thicker, and hairier, then a guardian would also be a good thing, at least until she managed to locate her family. If they weren’t dead.

Orla refused to consider that.

If she was trapped in a world of her own making, her body comatose on a hospital bed somewhere, then having a guardian certainly wouldn’t do her any harm.

The only other option, her mind offered from the role of devil’s advocate, was that this place was real. And if that as true, she needed a guardian more than any other option.

That night, after supper, curled up beside Bifur after their supper on the ground beside their wagon, Orla turned to Bifur, ready with an answer.

Chapter Text

Bifur was nodding off when Orla placed her hand on his shoulder . His eyes flew open and he pushed himself quickly to his feet, scanning the perimeters for a threat as he grabbed his spear.

Finding no threat, he turned back to the lass, who had risen to her knees and stared up at him in shock as he hefted his weapon defensively. Bifur took a step back, returned his spear to its place beside his bedroll, and sat down. Hands on his knees, cross-legged and straight-backed, he looked to Orla and waited for her to speak. Or sign.

Orla seemed unsure and hesitated before saying, “Bifur?” And she made the sign for question, followed by the sign for location. “Adad Orla?” She made a shrugging motion and looked around.

Bifur looked at her in askance.

“Orla Adad?” She repeated and looked around once more.

“Oh. Where is your Adad? Where are your parents? Adad and Ama Orla?”Bifur breathed in revelation.
Orla’s face lit up and she nodded, “Yes! Orla Adad and Anad!”

“Amad,” Bfur correced without thinking.

“Amad,” Orla repeated dutifully.

Bifur struggled over how to ask his questions, before pointing at Orla and saying, “Orla. Orla.” Then he pointed at himself and said, “Bifur. Bifur.” Lastly he said, “Orla Adad and Amad?” Before adding the gesture for question.

Orla blinked up at him. She really was terribly young, ad so very small. Her dark hair made her Durin-dark skin seem warmer than she ever was. The lass shivered so much in the night, Bifur had requisitioned extra blankets from Groin.

“Oh!” Orlad looked excited. “Ghgsmf vrrty." She nodded. “Orla Adad, Mark. Ola Ama Bess. Mark and Bess Orson.”

“Orson, Orsonul?” Bifur tried to clarify. Who was Orson, and why had he named his son Mark? It was the third letter of the Kuhzdul alphabet, not a name! Bess was slightly better. But only by a little; not too many dwarrow, dam or otherwise, were named for the moon.

Orla nodded brightly, “Mark Orson. Bess Orson. Orla Adad and Amad!”

Bifur nodded and stood to walk over and check the list of the dead. Orla walked beside him, bundled in three blankets, on nearly silent booted feet.

~~~*~~~*~~~

It was the work of nearly twenty minutes for Bifur to scan through what he could read of the records. But there was no Orson or Orsonul on the records anywhere. So he turned to the accounts of the caravan itself, much to the consternation of Fundin, who responsible for the keeping of these records and grumbling over the disturbance of his sleep.

When Bifur could still find no record, Fundin himself made short work of the records in a second search. He shook his head and pointed at a page which was largely blank.

“They probably died in Erebor. The only deaths left unrecorded at the moment are the innumerable souls consumed by dragon fire.” Fundin shut his scrolls with a snap, tucking them back into their leather cases. “The lass has probably been an orphan this whole time, but has forgotten thanks to her…” Here Fundin trailed off and gestured to his forehead.

Orla made a questioning noise and repeated the gesture. Then she started to cry. “Hallof? Nun halloff! Nun halloff!”

Bifur moved towards her, arms outstretched, and made the gestures for question and cry. “Orla, lass, what’s wrong? Why do you cry?”

“Nun halloff!” She cried again, shoulders shaking as she sobbed. She put her hands on her head and made a gesture neither Fundin nor Bifur had ever seen before. Her hands were moving rapidly, jerking near her ears, fingers waggling strangely.

“Tangling? Moving?” Fundin attempted.

“Scrambling?” Bifur tried, thinking of his youngest cousin Bombur, another orphan who counted on Bifur, but one who adored food and cooking. He had made an egg dish the day Bifur left to join the caravan, and had called it ‘scrambling’. For a young dwarf, his craft had found him swiftly.

Orla tried again, repeating the new gesture, before adding the familiar signs for speech and adding the words “Orla, yes.” She shaped the new gesture once more, pointed to her brow, and said, ‘Orla, no.” Her voice was deeper from crying, but Bifur understood her.

“Oh,” Bifur exhaled. He moved forward and hugged her, murmuring Khuzdul promises he would die trying to keep. He pulled back so he could sign to her. “Orla,” he pointed to himself and made the sign for “think, know” and said, “Orla, no,” before imitating her new gesture. “I know you’re not mad, Orla.”

Orla seemed to sag, leading him to embrace her once more as she cried herself to sleep. Bifur thanked Fundin, and carried Orla back to their bedrolls for the night.

He had just laid her out and knelt down himself when her sleepy voice asked, “Orla Adad, Amad?”

Bifur looked down at her sadly and shook his head before sliding his thumb under his beard and across his throat, a universal sign or death. Fresh tears spilled from Orla’s eyes, but she nodded, having presumably anticipated that answer. “Bifur? Bifur is Orla’s Adad?” she asked.

“It would be my honor, Orla. Yes,” he gestured his want to be her adoptive father ad his agreement.

Orla smiled up at him through her tears and hugged him. “Adad.”

“Nathue kurdu,” he whispered into her hair, hers running down his face and clinging to his beard. “Daughter of my heart.”

~~~*~~~*~~~

Dis watched the lass get presentable for the adoption ceremony. She was pleased by the joy which seemed to shine in Orla’s eyes. It was hard to remember that Orla was in fact older than Dis. If the healer’s estimates for Orla’s age were correct, as they seemed to be.

At twenty-three years of age, Dis was hardly a bairn herself, but neither was she of age. She had not even entered into her fertile majority yet either, though many of the younger lasses who were due for that threshold had yet to cross it. Many reasons were tossed about, from hunger and strain, to the curse of the dragon or evil magic of elves on the above world. Dis would bet good sticky buns that Orla was still awaiting that threshold herself, whether by deficit of age, or by another reason only Mahal could give.

Bifur was prouder than any newly-minted Master of Craft to be getting a daughter, but beyond that, Dis had been privy to the genuine fondness the two shared. Bifur understood his duty of care to Orla and that duty always preceded his own desires. Mahal had ordained that he be at her bedside when she woke, it seemed. As surely as a child is crafted in her mother’s belly, Mahal had crafted the circumstances for this Adad to gain a daughter, bittersweet though it might be.

But what childbirth is free of all pain?

Once her face was scrubbed, Orla neatly brushed her hair—and such lovely hair too! Dis fought to keep her hands from brushing the silken strands of deep darkness. It reminded Dis of the space in her nursery in Erebor just between the door and the wardrobe had been a little cave she had huddled in while playing with her toys, or avoiding bath time. She stopped Orla from doing her braids in her customary style; Orla’s hair needed to be unbound for her adoption so that Bifur could braid in her new clan, kin and deed braids.

Beads were a precious commodity in the richest of times; now, many beads had been traded to feed small stomachs, but Bifur seemed to have carved his own beads out of wood, and had made a full set for his new daughter. Dis had watched him carve one untouched by any mark of his kin or clan and bearing only the mark of Mahal. Dis had a strong suspicion of where that bead might sit.

Thus prepared, Dis led Orla into the tent housing her grandfather Thror, father Thrain, and brother Thorin. Frerin was on duty with Fundin, Dwalin, and Balin. However, the healer Groin, and his son and apprentice Oin were present as well, to give testimony and bear witness.

Official adoption, in Dwarrow culture, is usually a simple affair, much like the birth of a child, and just as heartily celebrated. But in those cases, it is an adoption by near kin. In cases of non-kin adoption, the office of the royal family is involved in a prominent fashion, behaving as the intermediary of Mahal in the adoption.

Bifur responded in the proper places and added Orla’s braids one at a time, as each layer of the adoption proceeded: first naming her as a daughter of Mahal, and placing the braid and bead over her temple. Then with a bead Dis had given Bifur in thanks for saving her life, bearing the mark of Durin’s Line, and a small braid trailing behind her right ear. Next he gathered a large section of her hair towards the back of her head and wove a thick braid bearing a bead with a carven image of the Lonely Mountain. “For the home and kin you have lost, as you gain a new home end new kin.” Lastly, Bifur gathered a section of hair before her left ear and added his clan braid and clasped it with his own copper kin clasp. “I give you the clasp of my line; it is fitting that my daughter should bear it for me.”

And it was official.

Thrain stepped forward with a broader smile than she had seen since the passing of her mother.

“On behalf of His Majesty, King Thror of Durin’s Line and Durin’s folk, and myself, Thrain Throrul, Prince of Durin’s Line and Durin’s folk, well met, Orla Bifuril, of Durin’s folk, the Broadbeam Clan, and the Line of Ur.” Dis watched as her father winced around “Durin’s Line and Durin’s folk” when "of Erebor” should have come before it. But how can you be either King of Prince Under the Mountain without the mountain?

Orla nodded at the King and his son, clearly not understanding their gravity, though she certainly seemed to recognize they had the authority to administer the adoption procedure.

“Well met, Orla Bifuril, of Durin’s Folk, Broadbeam Clan, and the Line of Ur.” Thorin inclined his head lower than his father, but it still could not be called a bow. “I am Thorin Thrainul, Prince of… Durin’s Line and Durin’s folk.” Dis bit her lip as her brother stumbled over the adjusted title.

“Thorin?” Orla asked, a spark of recognition on her face. “Thorin… Hghysfr? Thorin Hghysfr and… Erebor.”

There was a thick beat of silence in the room before Thrain laughed and clapped Thorin on the back. “She must have seen you at one point back in the mountian, inudoy, and she remembers even the shadow of that day!”

Thorin nodded and looked Orla in the eyes. “The thoughts and memories of Erebor are strong in the hearts of our people, that she lasts as an edifice in Orla’s mind where even Khuzdul does not.”

Orla, unable to follow the whole sentence, only nodded and repeated, “Erebor.”

“It is a good omen, Your Majesty,” Groin spoke to Thror loud enough for all to hear.

“A good omen indeed,” echoed his son Oin, in a quieter, more pensive tone of voice.

Chapter Text

Orla was still coming to terms with the reality she was facing. Thorin Oakenshield, King of Erebor, leader of the dwarves of Durin’s line, the Longboard clan, heroic head of the company, was here. With his father, and grandfather. Dis was his sister Dis.

Orla was walking with Tolkien’s dwarves!

She was also a little miffed she hadn’t put Bifur’s injury and name together earlier, but his head was still cloaked in bandages, and she hadn’t seen proof that an axehead was lodged in her Adad’s skull.

Her adopted father. Because she was a dwarf now. A lady dwarf, well, a little girl dwarf, apparently, beard and all.

Orla sat on the bench of her wagon and looked out over her caravan with new eyes. These were the dwarves of Erebor fleeing Smaug and seeking to carve out a new life for themselves in a new home.

She turned to Bifur, “Bifur-Adad?” She saw the smile light his face when she added the new moniker and it made her happy to make him happy, but honestly, she had no one here except him. Why wouldn’t she be pleased to have this caring hero for a father?

Those thoughts were quickly brushed aside as she struggled to communicate her question. “Erebor?” She asked, and made the signs for sleep and safe. Then she gestured around and held up empty hands to him before pointing ahead of the wagon line.

“Ered Luin,” he answered. “Grrunnfsh.”

“Groon-fish?”

Bifur sighed and tried a hand sign she didn’t recognize. She repeated it , but her face still communicated her lack of understanding. Bifur added the signs for sleep, safe, meals, Adad, Amad, an many others she wasn’t sure she had right.

Bifur grunted before trying a new tack. “Bifur,” he began, pointing at himself, “porlket,” here he made two of his fingers sit on his hand. “Ered Luin.”

Orla nodded. She made the signs for Adad and said Ered Luin and lifted her bum from the bench slightly before sitting soundly again.

Bifur grinned and let out a brief chuckle. He made the sign for yes, and then made the two fingers walk across his hand before giving her the inglishmek sign for travel and gestured at the dwarves around them. “Orla,” he said. “Bifur hhungesh Ered Luin fe Orla.” Then he pointed at the ground and made the gesture for now. “Orla t Bifur hhungesh Ered Luin fe Grrunnfsh.” He added gestures and repeated himself slowly.

“Yes, I get that we a re heading there, but…” Orla grumbled in a frustrated tone and waved her hands. She sighed and looked down at Bifur and asked in a defeated tone, “Erebor. Ered Luin. Next?” She pointed to an invisible dot on her hand as she named the places, three in a row.

Bifur’s face lit with understanding and he shook his head emphatically. “No. Erebor. Ered Luin. Ered Luin.” HE pointed at his palm, showing only two points.

Orla felt understanding creep over her. “We will live in Ered Luin?” She stood up in the wagon and stared forward, imagining she could see blue mountains on the horizon line. “Ered Luin is home?”

Bifur puffed his chest out. “Orla. Bifur. Ered Luin.” He seemed to realize something and turned wide eyes to her. “Bifur… adad-nadad inudoy.”

“Father, brother, sons?” Orla made the gesture for each as she repeated them.

Bifur corrected her with a sign that combined brother and father, then repeated her gesture of sons. “Bombur, Bofur.”

“Oh!” She exclaimed. “Your cousins! Your father’s brother’s sons. Your uncle’s sons, Bofur and Bombur,” she clarified, repeating the symbol for uncle.

Bifur pressed a fist to his chest twice quickly, and nodded, a proud look on his face. “Bombur,” here he gestured to his hip, implying a very small child. “Bofur," and here his hand rose to his chest, implying an older, certainly taller child.

Orla beamed at him. “Orla Adad adad-nadad inudoy, Bombur, Bofur?” Bifur smiled and nodded at her.

“Ered Luin, Orla and Bifur, Bombur and Bofur.”

She laughed and turned her gaze back to the winding caravan ahead of the. She would meet more of the company! Not only that, but they would live with her, and hopefully help her to improve her grasp of the dwarfish languages, both spoken and signed.

Oh, this was turning into such an adventure!

~~~*~~~*~~~

Bifur led Orla to Dis the next morning following breakfast and managed to communicate to Orla that she should spend her day with Dis. The princess could use some companionship, and Bifur was finally well enough for exterior guard duty again towards the tail of the wagon train. Oin had expressed concern about the dust affecting Orla’s lungs while she was still recovering, so she would be apart from him for the duration of the day.

Orla nodded at him, but didn't seem to quite follow his instructions. It was only as he turned to leave the pair and Dis tugged on her arm in the opposite direction that she cried out, “Bifur-Adad!” and ran to his side, throwing her arms around his stomach. He grunted as she hit him, and stepped back to compensate for her force as she curled her arms more securely around him.

He hugged his heart-daughter fiercely for a moment. “Dis,” he said to Orla, as he pulled her arms off him. “Dis, meal and next meal. Then Bifur, sleep.” His simple sentence seemed to reassure her, and she nodded and stepped back to stand with the princess.

He walked off to join the rear guard, confident in the princess’s care of his daughter.

~~~*~~~*~~~

Orla spent the bulk of her day following Dis around and helping her wth whatever she did.

The two delivered water up and down the lines, Dis laughing with and talking to those they met, Orla nodding and smiling dumbly. She felt utterly useless and disheartened by her stunted progress with Inglishmek and lack of progress with Khuzdul.

During their lunch, Orla watched Dis closely. This was the woman who was sister to the Thorin she knew so much about. The Thorin who did not yet exist. His grandfather yet lived, and his father walked among his people. Frerin’s blond head was in and out of every circle, stringing laughter along behind him wherever he went. No oaken branch had spared the dwindling line of Durin yet.

Orla watched as both brothers constantly circled to their sister, embraced her, and returned to their duties. She found it sweet that they doted on and cared for her, so visibly. Her heart ached for the danger she knew would one day claim them from her.

Orla sent some time working on more signs with Dis, and she found herself thinking of Fili and Kili, wondering at the relationship they would have with this strong girl, once she was grown and brought them into this world.

Middle Earth.

Orla couldn’t get it to settle in her mind that she was in Middle Earth, not every moment at least. It fit when she didn’t think about it, but when she stopped to wonder her head ached and she couldn’t think straight.

~~~*~~~*~~~

The following day, Bifur led Orla around the caravan. As near as they could estimate, she was forty years of age. This was a reasonable enough age for her to be able to hear the call of her craft, though Bifur had some fears it might be as warped as her speech.

But. She remembered Thorin and Erebor. Bifur wouldn’t give up without trying. And then, many dwarves couldn’t hear the call until fifty. And, the lass might be younger than they believed.

It was the sacred duty of a father to show his child the crafts at their disposal, in hopes of hearing the call. And, while the road was not an ideal location, he could begin working with some crafts which did not require halls of stone to work.

He quickly dismissed metal-working when she tried to gesture by copper and bronze by the same name. Gems were equally set aside when her inability to tell a white sapphire from a diamond became apparent.

“Perhaps they speak to her in her language now?” Dis suggested.

Bifur allowed the possibility, but still thought that perhaps another craft beckoned his daughter’s soul. And he swore to help her find it. Perhaps not today, but when her soul and craft called out to one another, she would need for nothing to seek it out. It was the honor and privilege of a father to do so.

~~~*~~~*~~~

They had stopped by a calmer section of the large river they trailed beside and he caravan took the second half of the day for a washing day-bodies and clothes.

Orla walked up and down the wagon ranks with Dis, collecting small children so the mothers could bathe with the older ones. Bifur stood guarding the makeshift nursery with a fierce countenance. That countenance broke each time he heard Orla coo at a bairn, or laugh at the spit bubbles blown by another, or when she sang songs in her nonsense tongue to the wee treasures.

She would make a good mother, one day, in the very distant future. Bifur considered for a minute before dismissing the possibility that any dwarrow would be worth his salt enough to possibly tempt Orla. He snorted. Sheer nonsense. As if any dwarf could be worthy of his Mahal-touched Orla.

“Bifur!” Dis called out on a laugh. He glanced over his shoulder and found Orla lying on the dirt, all five of the brains kneeling with their heads leaning against her torso. Orla was beaming at the little ones, and struggling not to laugh so she didn’t jar the wee gems. Bifur felt something in his heart melt. His daughter, though she had not been his her whole life, was a gift from Mahal, from the hands of strife. He would not allow any further ill to befall her.

He turned back to the tree line just in time to cut down the lead orc charging for him, the bairns, and the lasses.

Chapter Text

The roar startled Orla badly. “Khazad ai menu! Baruk khazad!!”

Bifur moved like a cat, she noticed, quick and fluid movements brought his spear into the chest of the nearest… what the fuck was that?

Orla grabbed two of the smallest babes, an afterthought guided by Di’s own arms reaching or the two babes closest to here. Th remaining child blinked up at Orla from the ground between Orla’s knees.

In the chaos of the snarls and shouts as more dwarves broke through the foliage behind her—most wearing only their hair, weapons hefted high—Orla moved without thinking, rolling carefully over, bowing low to the ground, head pressed into the grass. She laid the three babes side-by-side between her knees and planted her forearms along either side, bracketing them in within the diamond of her limbs.

As the noise and heat and breeze of the battle stirred all around her, Orla felt the tiny hands gripping and grabbing at her tunic, and small ‘whuff’s of air leave the rosebud lips against her collarbone. Prayers tumbled off her lips in emotion older than memory: “Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle…”

Thud.

Orla forcibly ignored the noise of a body—dwarf or not she wouldn’t look to learn—and kept on, “…be our protection against the snares and wickedness of the devil…”

A sudden blow across her back winded her, spreading her hips and pushing her knees further out to either side from the force. A voice or growl of indecipherable sounds flashed against her ears as she fought to inhale.

A roar in a familiar voice cut through the gnashing voice and a swift movement over her back removed the heavy, blunt weapon.

“Orla?” Thorin’s voice called through the haze of her thoughts. She opened her eyes and stared out of the corner of her eye, through a part in her wild hair.

Thorin and two other dwarves stood between her and the attackers. She chanced a glance around and saw Dis closer to the tree, babes pressed between two large roots and covered with her body. Orla stared at Dis in silent fear until she noticed her friend’s breathing movements.

And then she could breathe again. Orla glanced up at Thorin once more, but his focus was back on the battle, a sight Orla’s mind refused to process. So she buried her head against the ground once more and started murmuring meaningless coos to the little ones.

The noise of the battle moved away and then died down. Orla’s arms were shaking from how tensely she was holding her muscles. Tears tracked noiselessly down her forehead, and the babes moved restlessly below her.

“Dis!” Thorin’s voice called from behind Orla and she froze, eyes flying open.

“Orla!” Bifur’s voice relaxed her tense muscles almost instantly and she pushed herself up gingerly onto her hands and knees. Her back protested at even that slight movement.

She lifted her head and dazedly watched Bifur approach. She heard Dis and Thorin talking animatedly alongside two other dwarves: Frerin and some mohawked dwarf. Was punk a thing for dwarves?

“Orla?!” Bifur said, surprising Orla by being suddenly in front of her. She choked on a gasp and coughed for a minute to clear her throat.

Bifur’s hand settled gently on her shoulder and held her upright, careful of the babes.

Dis moved over to Orla, her own charges safe in Frerin’s arms. “Orla?”

Orla continued to pant, struggling to inhale properly before her vision blacked out and she slumped again Bifur.

~~~*~~~*~~~

“She was struck by one the orcs, across her back,” Thorin supplied as Bifur carefully moved his young daughter to lay out beside the whimpering little ones.

“They came out of nowhere,” Dis murmured, her hands visibly trembling, the skin around her lips white, but showing no other sign of her own fright. She was already stronger than she should have ever needed to be. "I only managed to grab With and Kit, but Orla…”

“She laid over them,” Thorin whispered.

“Brave lass,” Dwalin grunted, appreciatively.

“The parents should be fetching these pebbles soon enough,” Frerin added, shifting his little charges in explanation. “Will Orla need a healer?”

True to his word four distraught mothers and one terrified father came to fetch their bairns, holding them close in relief.

Frerin stepped in to explain the actions of his sister and Orla in defense o the youngest members of the caravan.

Thorin moved to bring Groin over to tend the unconscious dwarrowdam and left to seek out his father and grandfather. The caravan would need to move on again, and soon. They were clearly far too vulnerable here.

“She has some bruising, but I don’t feel any breaks or sprains. She’ll be fine with some rest and a little more water than her ration serves. I’ll make sure the water wagon knows to send a little more for our heroine.”

Bifur nodded, shoulders drooping in relief, and a not unpleasant fatigue from the sudden skirmish. He hefted Orla up into his arms, and managed his spear under her. He walked over to their wagon and sat on the bench with her form cradled across his lap, her head against the hollow at the front of his shoulder. His fingers trailed through her tangled braids and loose hair to keep from trembling.

He had not realized how quickly he could lose his daughter. But she was well, and had bravely stood as a dwarven shield for those three bairns. He was proud of her, for reacting so well to the first conflict she had witnessed.

Unless she retained any memory of the attack which stole her voice? Had she passed out due to some returning memory?

The thought plagued him as she slept during the first several hours of the hurried move onward.

~~~*~~~*~~~

Orla groaned herself awake, wincing at the pinch and ache of her back. Had she slept on a rock?

Bifur’s voice rumbled immediately behind her, and she moved to sit up carefully, glancing around at the moving landscape. The caravan was moving again.

Then she remembered.

“Bifur!” she exclaimed fearfully. Moving quickly in spite of her injury, she began moving her hands over Bifur’s arms and back and head, feeling for an injury. Her hands finally came to fret around the bandaged axe bound to his skull.

Bifur smiled down at her happily, broad teeth in a broad grin. “Bifur well,” he signed once he managed to get a hand free from holding her. “Orla well?”

Orla exhaled heavily. She made a so-so motion with her hand as the twinges in her back grew and clamored for attention.

Bifur pointed at her abused back and made the sign for “not well” and the sign for question.

Orla nodded tiredly.

Bifur passed her a water skin and mimed drinking, prompting Orla to notice just how dry her throat was. She signed her thanks before taking long draws of the warm water from the skin.

As she returned the water skin to Bifur, she noticed a hazy purple shape over the distant tree line. She pointed to it and signed “question’.

“Urd?” Bifur asked, pointing. “Ered Luin.”

“Oh,” Orla sighed. That was a mountain range in the distance, of course! She felt foolish for not figuring it out, and by the time they made camp that night, they were close enough that she could see it more clearly. The mountains were bluer now and less purple. If she recalled correctly, Ered Luin meant Blue Mountains.

She sat through dinner staring at the mountains without speaking. Bifur pulled her aside for a healer to thoroughly inspect her back. She allowed her new father to lift the tunic over her head, her hands instinctively moving to conceal the large breasts she no longer possessed.

It was very disconcerting, waking up a book character.

“Hergu shallanth!” Bifur exclaimed, causing Orla to crane her neck back to try and look over her should to catch sight of her injuries. The healer ran soft hands over the mottled skin, inspiring hisses and winces from the bruised girl.

Apparently, it wasn’t too bad. The healer handed Bifur a tin of lotion or cream or oil to rub into her sore muscles and walked away. Orla struggled not to cry as Bifur massaged it into her bruises, each span of pain traveling deeper than she had felt earlier. She made sure not to complain, even as tears fell.

Dwarves were strong, and while she hadn’t always been a dwarf, she had always been stubborn. If the medic determined that she needed this treatment, she would take it and heal. No matter how much it hurt.

Once Bifur was done, he resealed the tin, and helped her don her tunic once more. They moved to sit closer by the fire and he took out the combs from her bag with care, before focusing on detangling the mess of snarls on her head. Braids redone and hair combed smooth, Bifur tucked a barely conscious Orla into her bedroll for the night.

~~~*~~~*~~~~

In the early morning light, a short breakfast was shared before the host set out once more. They had only another three days journey before the reached Ered Luin if they pressed hard, and all were anxious to get there and be under good stone once more.

Orla rode in the back of the wagon, muscles stiff and sore despite the salve Bifur had massaged into her bruises. His daughter’s back had been yellow and green, horrid vivid colors Oin had said were signs of deeper bruising.

Bifur knew he would face his own ghosts from his battle, but worried the damage Orla bore might be worse than he could see. Already communication was difficult, but with such a sensitive topic he feared waiting too long. Perhaps when she wasn’t so tired or in so much physical pain he could ask about the nightmares he was sure this would bring, as well as inquire after the memories the encounter may have knocked free.

“Bifur?” Princes Thorin and Frerin stood behind him and a handful of dwarrow stood at a small distance.

“Your Highnesses?” he inquired with concern.

“We came to express our thanks once more for your defense of our namadith, and to escort these families to you. These are the parents of the three children Orla was injured defending. They wish to thank her, if they can.”

Bifur smiled and bowed to the princes before replying, “I’ll see if she’s awake.” Moving to the rear of the wagon he saw Orla curled up on her side, eyes shut. He said her name in a low voice and her eyes opened to look at him. He signed for her to join hm and she sat up gingerly.

Once she stood on the ground, she noticed Frerin and Thorin and greeted them with a sweet smile. As she noticed the other dwarves standing in wait, she signed ‘question’ to Bifur.

His response was a mixture of Khuzdul and Inglishmek gestures to say, “They wish to give you thanks for shielding the bairns yesterday.”

Orla’s eyes went wide and she looked to the parents, mouth open in surprise.

Chapter Text

Orla stared at the five adults gathered nearby, all bearing the babes from the day before, some with older children clinging to their trousers or tunics as well.

She smiled at one toddler with peach fuzz across his chin who returned a shy smile.

One set of parents with two boys who looked like they were six, but had to be older—how exactly did dwarves age?—approached Orla and the mother made gestures in Inglishmek: “Thanks” “Shield” “Child” “Mahal” “Question” “Gold” “Question” “Thanks”.

Orla blinked at them and turned to Bifur. “Thanks for the gift of shielding golden child?” She asked, confused by the laughs of the dwarves around her.

“No,” Bifur answered. “Thanks for shielding the bairns, they want to give you gold in thanks.”

Orla shook her head dramatically. Then paused. “Bifur-adad need? It is custom?” She asked, realizing her own ignorance in the matters of her own finances—had the Urs been well-off?—and dwarven etiquette. “Adad, what do I say?”

Bifur smiled at Orla, a fierce show of teeth through his black beard, and replied to the parents with a few words and the parents nodded, pulling three tiny beads of gold from the mother’s necklace. Bifur bowed to them and tucked them into a pouch with the words, “Gift for Orla,” to both the parents and Orla.

The second set of parents, ones with only the small bairn in arms, approach and made a similar offer. Bifur accepted a long knife, and tucked it into his belt, with the promise to “Teach Orla,” to use it.

The remaining parent stood alone with a bairn in her arms and a toddler clinging to her legs. She ushered her shy toddler forward. The little one had striking auburn hair, and the squattest nose Orla had ever seen, even among the dwarves. Seeing his hesitance, she knelt carefully down and waved at him.

He pulled away from his mother and peered closer at her. She grinned at him and he moved forward a little. “Gror tunil nadadith, unoh ree?” He asked.

Orla wrinkled her brow in confusion and glanced up at Bifur once more.

“Orla speak hands,” Bifur signed to the dwarfling.

His little mouth puckered into an “oh" before he concentrated on his fingers, tongue peeking out from the corner of his mouth. “Orla shield my brother?”

Orla signed yes in return and asked if the boy and his little brother were well.

The toddler puffed up and signed, “Yes. I am strong. My little brother is smaller but strong. We are well.”

Orla signed her happiness at the fact and asked how old the ‘strong’ dwarfing was. “I am ten and two. How old is Orla?”

Orla paused and looked up at Bifur. He signed “Forty,” answering both the dwarf’s simple question, and a few larger ones that had plagued Orla’s mind during idle hours sat on the seat of the wagon.

“Nori is only five,” the child continued.

“Nori?” Orla asked, mind moving from her age to the familiar name rapidly. “Dori?” She asked before the toddler could reply.

“My name is Dori,” he told her, a surprised but happy look on his face.

“Nori?“ she asked again, looking around.

The mother leaned down, turning the young one in her arms to face his savior. Sure enough, there was the little ginger lad who’d been at the center of the mess yesterday, clutching to her with thief-long fingers and Ri-strong grip. He stuck those little hands out towards her and she slid her finger into one of them, allowing him to tug at it.

Orla looked up at the dam, Dori, Nori, and Ori’s mother. “Dori,” she pointed to him, “Nori,” and she pointed to the babe. “Ori?” she asked, gesturing to the woman’s middle.

The woman froze and parroted, “Ori?”

Orla nodded and pointed at the woman’s stomach again. “Dori, Nori, Ori.”

The dam in front of her turned and began speaking to Bifur in rapid Khuzdul, but Dori went to Orla and put his hand on her temple, pointing at the mark he could see. “Mahal,” he said, before asking, “Ori?”

“Nori is Dori’s little brother,” she responded, ignoring the adults. “And Ori is little brother to Dori and Nori.”

Dori grinned at her and embraced her in a tight hug, proving his earlier claims that he was indeed, very strong. “Orla play with Dori? And Nori?” He paused then added, “And Ori?”

Orla nodded and pressed her forehead to the boy’s. “I promise,” she said in slow Khuzdul.

~~~*~~~~*~~

Bifur explained as best as he was able to the Lori concerning Orla’s mark and her strange words, but he had never heard her say anything of the like. He couldn’t explain it any more than they could. But they had all heard her words to little Dori, swearing to play with the boy and his two younger brothers, Nori and Ori.

An Ori who had not yet been born.

“Why does she say these things?” asked Lori. “Who is she to prophesy another son for me? I have no husband any more. My One is dead and gone; where will this son come from?”

“She bears the mark of Mahal. What dwarf could claim to know his workings?” Bifur replied. The two adults watched as little Dori pointed to the very mark again.

Bifur turned to the dam, “I have never heard her speak prophecy before, but I do not doubt her word. Only time will tell.”

“But,” the dam hesitated. “How does she know?”

Bifur shrugged and watched his daughter snuggle with Dori and begin teaching him a simple game, doodling shapes in the dirt with sticks, humming all the while. As the caravan continued to move around them, Bifur asked Lori, “Can you keep her words to yourself? At least, until we know them to be true? It may be only that my efforts to teach have not gone as well as I had hoped. Or…”

“Or she speaks the truth and I shall have another son, despite the death of my One.” Lori nodded, shifting Nori onto her hip. “We will keep this to ourselves, my lord Bifur.”

Lori nodded and stretched her arms out for Dori, who turned quickly from a joyful dwarfing to a sullen one. “No! I want to play with Orla, Amad. She's my friend.”

“Friend?” Orla asked, not recognizing the word. Bifur mimed through a comparison of “kin” “friend”, and “enemy”. “Yes, Dori is Orla’s friend. We will play. But not now. Now we walk to Ered Luin.”

Fortunately the dwarfing was satisfied with that and allowed himself to be returned to his family’s place in the wagon train. Bifur helped Orla to stand, and helped her to stumble forward until she could walk with her back straight.

They reached their wagon an hour before dinner, and she slept very well that night, tired but happy.

~~~*~~~*~~~

The caravan had arrived at the gates of Ered Luin. A cheer, which began at the front, wove it’s way down the length of the Ereborean refugees. Orla looked up and up at the tall gray stone and acres of pine trees covering the mountainside.

Up close the mountains weren’t blue or purple, but a light green with grey peaks, where even the pines wouldn’t grow. In the past two das, Orla’s back had recovered so that it only twinged when she overstretched it, or slept badly. A warm breeze curled up and down the wagon line, stirring the first leaves littering the ground.

“Home?” she asked Bifur, eyes on the large stone doors that had been forced open for the caravan. Towards the front, the Durins were speaking to the leaders of the Broadbeams, but neither Bifur nor Orla were close enough to understand what was being said.

“Home,” Bifur confirmed as he strapped Orla’s bag to his back and held out a hand to her. Bifur and Orla bid farewells to Dori, Lori, and young Nori, with promises of Orla’s new friends coming over to the address Bifur gave Lori once they had settled into their own new dwelling.

Bifur marched forward with her, turning east once the caravan was directed to several waiting officials. Because he was already a citizen, he didn’t need to register for housing or food rations. He steered Orla instead towards the lower levels of the market district.

They had walked for nearly an hour before Orla heard excited cries. “Bifur!! Bifur!” a small boy with bright orange hair came barreling around an empty vendor’s stall and crashed into Bifur.

“Bombur!” Bifur crowed, leaning down to ruffle the mop of braids which barely reached his waist. It was another minute before a second dwarfing hurtled around the corner, brown braids flapping behind him. “Bofur!”

Bombur was clearly younger than her, but she wasn’t sure about Bofur. He was shorter than her, but she had come to learn that meant little when it came to dwarves.

Orla stood on the sidelines, watching this family reunion with unhindered glee. More of Tolkien’s dwarves! In fact, even better, these were Bilbo’s dwarves!

~~~*~~~*~~~

“Bifur, you’re back! You were gone a long time. Like a really long time. Longer even than the time you went to visit umad. What happened to your head? Did you get hurt? Is that what the bandages are for? They look odd,” Bofur prattled.

“Boys, boys, I have someone I need you to meet.” Bifur’s serious tone silenced even the most talkative dwarf in the Blue Mountains and the two glanced over at Orla.

“Mahal’s heavy anvil.”

“Bofur!” Bifur smacked his cousin upside the head.

Orla snorted and waved at the two. “Hello,” she signed. “I am happy to meet you, Bofur, Bombur.”

“This is Orla, my nathue kurdu. Her family was lost to the dragon, and she had no one. I have adopted her. She is going to be living with us. You can think of her as a sister.”

“A sister,” exclaimed the entranced Bombur. Girls were rarer than mithril and now they had a sister? “Yay!” Cheered Bombur, elated to be one of the few lucky dwarrow to claim such a blessing, and he ran to embrace her.

Bofur stood by Bifur, motionless, his face slowly heating more and more. There was a long moment of silence before he turned to Bifur, “Do I gotta be her brother?”

Bifur frowned down at Bofur. His cousin was the friendliest, kindest dwarf Mahal had ever crafted. Why was he so averse to Orla’s kinship? “I suppose not, but she is my daughter, Bof, and—“

“Oh, that’s fine,” Bofur interjected. “I just don’t wanna be her brother. I want to be her friend.”

“Hi Bofur-friend,” Orla offered, piecing together what she could of their conversation over Bombur’s gleeful chatter.

Bofur lit up like one of the deep forges and flushed just as warm. He looked down and reached his hands up to tug at the braids by each ear. “Hullo,” he mumbled to his scuffed boots before risking a peek up at her.

Orla signed a few words of greeting to Bofur and both boys’ expressions morphed to confusion. Bombur turned to Bifur as Bombur signed back, “Why sign not talk?”

Orla shrugged and moved her dwarrow-dam braid away from the still-bruised mark on her temple.

“Mahal,” breathed Bofur.

“I was hurt,” Orla signed.

“Like Bifur?”Bombur asked, gesturing to the bandages on Bifur’s head.

Orla nodded. “Now I talk with my hands,” she signed.

“And I can’t speak in Westron any longer,” Bifur added.

“What?” Bombur asked in that language.

“I can still understand you when you speak, little cousin, but I cannot make my tongue shape the words.” Bifur smiled sadly at the two dwarflings who looked at him in horror.

“Are you okay?” Bombur demanded.

Bifur nodded and confirmed his health. “Orla and I are both well; we simply have to use different languages. I can speak Khuzdul and inglishmek. Orla has her own language and Inglishmek.”

Bofur immediately latched on to the second half and turned to Orla. “Orla speak Orla’s language?” He asked in Inglishmek.

Orly nodded and exhaled slowly. She started humming before turning to the song that had been playing across her mind on the walk through the city. The words found their way to her lips in familiar English steps, “Can you sing with all the voices of the mountain? Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?”

Bofur’s grin stretched across his face from ear to ear.

Chapter Text

The house was nothing like Orla had expected, yet it suited the three Urs down to the ground. The walls and floors were bare stone, with none of the veins of metal or gems she’d seen throughout some of the larger sections of the mountain range.

The hearth filed the great room, a combined kitchen, dining room, and living space. There was a squat stone table, made of something much darker than the stone of the walls. The chairs are a mismatched set of wood, each large chunks of pine, and carved with thousands of symbols. Orla traced her fingertips over the sharp lines as Bifur settled in to a large cushioned bench in front of the fire.

A large pot of water was sitting on the grate over some red coals and a metal kettle was sitting on the stones stacked in front of it, all drawing in the warmth.

In the corner furthest from the door, and opposite the hearth, was a low wooden platform covered in furs, woven blankets, and flat cushions. It appeared to be the only bed in the house.
A squat jar below the platform looked like the closest bathroom.

Orla tried to ignore any thoughts about that particular treat and turned back to watch the dwarves. Her new dwarf family.

Bombur happily chatted away to Bifur in rapid Khuzdul and slower, stumbling Westron. Bofur dropped to sit cross-legged in front of the fire and poked at the coal with the poker that was tucked in front of the stones. He began humming, the tune much similar to the song she had sung earlier.

More Disney tunes escaped her memory, but “Colors of the Wind” was inescapably on loop in her mind. Orla watched the scene with no small amount of fan-girl bliss, before Bofur looked up and waved her over to sit beside him.

She sat down, delighted by just how warm the spartan space was, and started singing the song in tune to Bofur’s humming.

~~~*~~~*~~~

The next morning, she crawled out of her hastily-made bed: a pile of blankets and pillows pillaged from Bifur’s bed and the bed shared by Bombur and Bofur.

The coals had died down, so she stirred them a bit, but they only died faster. Sighing, she looked around the table to the two beds, and crawled over to shake Bofur awake.

He sat up slowly, stretching his arms out with a yawn. Before he could speak, Orla pointed to the cooling hearth and he nodded. He ambled over to the coals and began breathing life back into them.

Orla stretched, soothing the pull of tight muscles between her shoulder blades. She looked around the room as her stomach made noises of hunger. She saw a loaf on the table, but didn’t see anything else.

Bofur signed to ask if she was hungry and she nodded.

He pulled a knife from a sheath she hadn’t seen on his belt, and he sliced two large slices. He stuck them onto two large forks and laid them out over the fire to toast. He walked over to the table and opened a hidden door on the thick base of it. From within, he pulled out a pitcher of water and some cheese.

Over a simple breakfast, the two had tiny conversations, trails that ended shortly after they began. Soon Bofur’s limited Inglishmek and Orla’s limited Khuzdul stopped the conversation completely. “I will learn more,” he vowed to her, looking as serious as stone.

Orla nodded and turned back to the sleeping dwarves, little Bombur curled up around Bifur’s left arm, snoring lightly. She smiled, looked back at Bofur and gestured to the rest of their home. She shrugged and rose, tidying as she went. The house had little in the way of clutter, solely due to the lack of possessions in general.

Vague notions from the book, a vivd image of life in the lower class, the harsh poverty of the dwarves, low quality of the veins and mines of the Ered Luin mountains, and the desperation that drove thirteen of the dwarves who lived there to challenge a dragon for a better life, swirled through her mind.

The fire flared to life as a piece of toast fell onto the coals and she watched as Bofur pulled the forks out of the hearth and over to the table. He cut shavings of cheese and laid them over the steaming bread.

As she and Bofur munched away at the cheese and toast, she eyed the room again in the ruddy firelight.

There was almost no ornamentation in the space, and very little in the way of anything if she was honest. It seemed they were poor.

She struggled to recall anything about the lives and livelihoods of the Ur dwarrow from the Hobbit, but the details felt a little fuzzy. Bombur woke and watched smiling brown eyes as Bofur sliced the loaf and prepared a toasting fork for him.

“More bread, sister?” Bombur asked Orla, an eager look on his face.

Orla shook her head and signed no. Bombur nodded and smiled happily at her before marching over to cook his breakfast.

Bofur wrapped up the remainder of the bread in a kerchief. Orla poured a cup full of water and brought it over to the bed. "Bifur-adad?" she called.

Bifur rose up from the bed with a deep rumble of Khuzdul and grabbed the nearest object--a pillow Bombur had kicked aside--and swung with it, narrowly missing Orla.

"Bifur!"Bofur called out, rushing forward to grab Orla out of his reach.

Bifur reeled to the right, swing his weapon for Bofur now, crying, "Baruk Khazad!"

"Bifur-adad?" Orla asked again in a tiny voice, water cup clutched to her liberally splashed tunic.

The small sound seemed to pierce a haze around the warrior, and he deflated, bringing his hands up to his head in pain. Orla held out the glass of water, which he took and drank slowly.

"Headache?" Orla signed slowly, hands low enough for Bifur to see.

He signed a yes in return.

"Groin?" Orla asked,

Another yes.

"Bofur, Bombur?"

Bifur rumbled in low Khuzdul to the boys. Bombur munched the last bite of his toast, which he had dropped when Bifur had roared the first time, and pulled on his boots. Bofur grabbed his own boots, and the three left the house and headed for the upper levels in search of Groin.

Chapter Text

Bombur held onto Orla's fingers with his whole fist. "This is my favorite fountain," he said, and had Bofur sign for him, as the trio passed a rather large fountain of simple design. Orla nodded and made appreciative sounds.

Not a full two minutes later, Bofur was signing about Bombur's other favorite fountain, only it was farther from the house and he couldn't go to it alone. And then they saw "My bench for thinking", "my best hiding spot for games", and "the best smelling place in all Ered Luin", the alley beside a bakery.

"Bofur," Bombur asked, "Does my sister like my fountain?"

"Yes, Bom."

"Bof, does my sister like the bench?"

"Very much, Bombur."

"What about my hiding spot, what does my sister think?"

Bofur handled each of Bombur's questions about his sister and her responses to his prattling, largely one-sided conversation.

"Bofur," Bomber asked, more quietly, "does my sister like me?"

Bofur stopped still, then turned to Orla. He made a few short gestures and added a few pieces of Khuzdul to cobble together Bobur's thoughts.

Orla's eyes went wide. She crouched down and squeezed Bombur's hand. "Orla loves her nadadith Bombur. I swear, I love you, little brother."

The beatific smile that slowly dawned across Bombur's face was the loveliest thing Bofur had ever seen, Orla aside.

Bombur threw himself forward, and hugged Orla tightly. Her response was a small laugh. She was clearly happy with Bombur's delight, but there was a tension in her spine and a tightness around her eyes.

Bofur was worried about Bifur too.

~~~~*~~~~*~~~

The young trio made their way through the market levels and turned into one of the three main offshoots of the Mountain Road towards the royal quarters and royal infirmary. The general infirmary was much closer to home, but Groin was here, and it was for Groin they'd been sent.

Bombur continued to share little things with Orla, which occupied him just enough to distract his short legs from the long journey. Orla kept his hand in hers and glanced over at Bofur often.

In the book, Bofur was very jovial, and incredibly kind. She had seen much of his kindness, in his smiles and attention to her the night before, as well as his handy preparation of the breakfast. But he didn't seem jovial, or at least not so jovial as she had long envisioned. Was he so worried for Bifur? Could it be worse than Bifur let on? Migraines wouldn't surprise her after his injury. Was it the newness of the injury that had Bofur's smile so buried? Was it perhaps the strain of another mouth to feed? There had been little in the way of food in their home. And who had looked in on the two boys while Bifur was on the road?

Orla kept her concerns to herself, but turned to speak to Bofur all the same. "Bofur," Orla asked before signing the remainder of her question, "Groin is which way?"

Bofur nodded to their right, and further down the long cavernous halls, lined with dwarves of every rank, status, and craft. The tiny trio made their way into the infirmary where Bofur did the talking, requesting Groin's attendance on Bifur.

In the end, it was Groin's apprentice and son, Oin, who joined them.

Bofur and Oin spoke the long way home, and Orla ended up carrying Bombur the last few levels, his head lolling on her shoulder as he napped, his tiny hand fisted around one of her braids, exhausted by the stress of Bifur's fit so early in the day and the long trek to the upper reaches of the mountain city and back. Orla carried his little weight fondly and lagged a little behind the other two.

She hummed a little until Bombur's breathing slowed into a steady rumble of snores, and then started singing quietly in English. "Home is behind.... The world ahead.... And there are many paths to tread... through shadow... to the edge of night.... until the stars are all alight... Mist and shadow... cloud and shade... all shall fade. All shall fade."

Her mind supplied memories of the orchestral sequel to Pippin's lonely song, and she murmured along to it, humming and sounding out the music her heart was playing. She glanced up at the two before her and heard Bofur mention the word "gold" but not much else. Were they going to pay Oin? Of course they were. But how?

Orla's stomach grumbled around the last of the scraps of bread and cheese from breakfast. And they would need more food.

It was her new little brother who came to the rescue there, with a strong tug of his sleeping hands. Orla winced at the pain in her scalp and pulled her braid carefully out his chubby fist. It was then she noticed the golden beads that marked this braid, the beads she had been given in gratitude for defending the children from the orcs.

Orla rubbed her fingertips over the carved beads for several blocks before nodding firmly and pressing a kiss to Bombur's forehead.

Those beads would bring medicine, medical care, and food for a short time if she was lucky. Once that was settled, she would simply have to sort out a means of bringing home more gold. There had to be a job she could take? Bofur could care for Bombur and Bifur, well enough; he had in the book, hadn't he? So, while she was an extra mouth to feed and body to clothe, she was also going to be an extra means of earning income.

Her mind began to spin out with various plans. Did they own their home? Or were they renting? What of the coal in the hearth, was that a regular cost as well? Math slowly tumbled together as she tried to plan ahead, before she remembered.

She couldn't talk to almost anyone. How was she took take on any sort of unskilled labor? And how would she ever gain an opportunity to gain an apprenticeship in a skilled trade? Biting her lip she mentally adjusted her plan. She could mind Bifur and Bombur until he was old enough, or Bifur had good days. Bofur would have to be the breadwinner if Bifur was off his feet for too long.

Bofur would know better than her if a wage or price was fair, as well. Nodding firmly to herself, she peeled the gold beads out of her braid and clenched them in her palm. "Bofur," she called out when they were approaching the door of their house. Oin went through the door ahead of them to begin treating Bifur, while Bofur turned back to Orla.

He smiled a bit at Bombur curled up before returning his gaze fully to Orla. She held out her free hand, and once he held his out in return, she dropped the heavy beads into his hand.

"Orla!" he exclaimed, staring in awe at the little lumps of rudely worked gold. "Why?"

Orla nodded to beads and made a one-handed version of "food", "medicine", and added " Oin, Bifur," in Khuzdul.

Bofur stepped forward to grab Bombur from her arms and she continued more ably with, "Bifur is ill. We need money for food, medicine, and things. Use the gold beads."

Bofur nodded slowly, seeming to wage an inner war Orla wan't privy to. He dropped his internal debate for the time and led the way into the house.

~~~*~~~*~~~

Bifur was sweating. He'd nearly taken her head off. He'd sworn to protect her, raise her, guard and guide his heart-daughter. And he'd nearly taken her life himself. In the moment he'd seen her, and not the goblin his mind had provided, his insides had turned from boiling blood to shattered ice.

As soon as Bofur had led Orla and Bombur to fetch Groin, Bifur had rolled off the bed, barely managing to be sick into the ceramic basin stored under the bed for when young Bombur couldn't manage a late night run to the public garderobes down the street, or or times such as this, when one of them was ill.

The chamber pot was half full by the time his heaving slowed to a stop. He spat once more, in a feeble final attempt to rid the taste from his mouth before he pushed the basin away. He gingerly laid his head down on the cool stone floor, wincing as his head rung.

The vomiting hadn't been gentle on him, jostling his already sore wound, increasing the headache he had woken with, after the night terror. He hadn't had battle dreams in a long time, but perhaps his injury tapped into the part of his head which manufactured dreams, biting into it with battle-steel, reforging his dreams forever.

But they hadn't plagued him on the road. Not even after the orc attack following his recovery in the healing tents.

Time slipped away from him, though he never slept, his mind too weary with guilt, and too tried with pain, as the migraine grew from his wound to sound out from his eyes, his ears, his cheeks, his teeth, his neck, his scalp, his entire head. He would have gone so far as to swear that his beard hurt, even the tips, by the time Oin walked through the door.

Bifur didn't know why the healer entered alone, and only spared the engergy to be glad the lad tidied him up and rolled him onto the bed before Orla and his nephews walked through the door.

Quick instructions had Bofur passing a still-sleeping Bombur to Orla before building the fire once again and boiling a thick iron kettle with the last of the water before running with a large jar only just taller than him to fetch more from the well. Orla tucked Bombur into the nest of blankets she had abandoned just that morning, moving the pile out of the way of those reaching for the kettle, while still keeping Bombur close enough to the hearth for the flames to warm him from the chill of the deep mountain.

Oin gave Bifur a strong tonic which tasted somehow fouler than his own sick and stomach bile before giving him a second tonic, which started the pain draining from Bifur's body. He swore he could see it trail off the ends of his beard braids in vile green and violet trails, but no one else seemed to notice, so maybe that wasn't happening.

Bifur simply accepted the tinctures, teas, and tonics as they came, allowing Oin to lift the pain from his head enough to allow him to slip into a peaceful state.

~~~*~~~*~~~

It was Bofur who led the conversations for Bifur, addressing the medicines names, dosages, and purposes, so he could insure his uncle was recovering from his bout of "battle dreams" and "inflammation" according to Oin. The older dwarf was treating the wound on his uncle's head, and it looked on fire for sure. There were great swollen and puffy sections of skin surrounding a great axe-head, with some layers of dead skin just stripping off from around the wound, as yellow pus leaked out.

"His body finally started resting, now that he's home. He was travel-well for the road, and now he'll get truly well. I've got a salve recipe I can give you, that should calm his inflammation. A tea as well, to fight on both fronts, eh?" Bofur had to look away as gobs of yellow pus was summarily scooped into the already vile chamber pot soup.

He continued to listen intently to Oin, devoted to memorizing every detail since he couldn't very well write any of it down. Literacy was a rare thing below the market levels, even rarer in orphans taken in by kin who lived below the market levels. But he turned his gaze towards his brother, who appeared to be awake now, and listening to Oral sing something quietly, a look of pure wonder on his little, scruffy face. Seeing Bofur's attention, Orla stood, gestured for Bombur to stay, and walked over.

"Bofur?" she asked quietly. "Medicine instructions?" she mimed a gesture he didn't know the meaning of, but it looked as though she were using a quill in one hand, and her other hand acted as a bit of parchment.

"You can read and write?" he asked, both hopeful and hopeless, confused by his own mixed despair and delight. He pointed to Orla and repeated her gesture, causing her to smile and nod.

Oin fished a bit of parchment from his numbers pouches along his belt, and Bombur walked over with a piece of charcoal from near the hearth, his sooty fingers moving to stain Orla's hem as his fingers buried themselves there as his worried gaze peeked up at his uncle.

Oin motioned for Orla to watch him apply a salve before handing her the tin and having her finish the job. "Before sleep and after sleep," he said simply, holding up his thumb and forefinger to indicate the number of times she should do this daily. Orla finished applying the salve with the cloth Oin had used before scribbling not the parchment scrap. Next Oin tutored her on wrapping the bandage tightly enough to stay and protect the wound sight, but not so tightly as to harm Bifur, or be cut by the axe. Orla was a devoted pupil repeating his gestures before taking her notes, through his display of tonics and teas, writing in a language Oin had never seen before, despite his studies of dwarven, manish, and even elven treatises on the healing arts.

Bofur scooped Bombur up once the bandages were secure so that he could better see his uncle, with the infected wound out of sight. Bifur smiled up at the lads, starting to drift off to sleep from the tea and tonics.

Orla tucked the tonics and parchment safely into a small chest Bofur rummaged up for her. She moved it to rest on the mantle over the hearth, safe from reach.

Bofur turned to speak to Oin once again of payment.

"I will not hear it, lad. The royal family decreed his medical expenses be theirs, as his injury saved the life of Lady Dis, and came at the cost of defending the late Princess."

"But-"

"I know I'm only an apprentice, and not yet of age, but I know of what I speak, lad. You trust me with your Uncle's injuries. Trust that I would not be dishonest in this matter as well."

And what could Bofur say to that, really?

And so, after Oin left, Bofur went to the market, and managed to scrounge up some small fish to be steamed in the hearth for supper, and Orla' beads bought stock for a stew recipe his amad had taught to him and Bombur. The stew kept on a simmer for a month before a new one needed making.

They'd not want for food until then, at least.

Chapter Text

Bofur sat beside the hearth, strew heating nicely under Bombur's watchful eye. Even for just a pebble he had a ken for these things. Just before something needed stirring, adding, or cooling, Bom was there, tugging on Bofur's sleeve with quiet instructions.

Orla was dosing Bifur's wound for the night and wrapping it all up. Bifur himself was mostly back with them, no longer in pain, and not quite so mentally elsewhere. Orla had started washing Bifur's hair, and was tying off the last of his braids in leather cord, his usual beads currently nestled in Orla's own hair.

The girl was a conundrum to Bofur.

She was quiet when others were near, but chattered to herself when she thought no one could hear. Her nonsense language couldn't be nonsense. It sounded too regular. And when she sang in it, the words didn't change when she hummed the same tune.

But she also had gawked around the upper levels as though she'd never been in a mountain city. Ered Luin was marvelous but everyone knew it wasn't even a copper to Erebor's mithril.

Bifur had mentioned her loosing her tongue, but what else had she lost when the dragon came? Bofur's mind was a stew of worry for the lass.

~~~*~~~*~~~

Orla stepped out of the house for a breath of fresher air. The enclosed space didn't smell, but Bifur's wound certainly had.

She blinked her eyes as she took in the lights of their level. She had seen enough of the mountain in their trek to the infirmary to know they were the bottom rung of the social and economic ladder. Even worse, her three golden beads had only bought enough food for a large stew. She had no idea how long that would last them, but what were the actual prices of food? Coal? Clothing, rent, and medicine?

What were they going to do until Bifur was able to work again? Orla groaned and pressed a hand to her cramping stomach. She was hungry, but too queasy from cleaning Bifur's wound, and too stressed from the thought of not knowing when they would be able to buy more food to actually want to eat.

Her eyes closed and tears fell down her cheeks. It was little wonder her dwarves had signed onto Thorin's company. They had a hard life now; how much better would it be in the years to come, before there came a call for the quest?

She wiped her face, and sighed. There isn't much she could do about the distant future, but there was plenty she could do about tomorrow.

She turned and went back into the house, running her fingers through Bombur's hair and placing a hand on Bofur's back.

Bofur paused for a moment before signing, "Hungry?"

Orla simply nodded, mind filling with plans for their future.

~~~*~~~*~~~

Orla was quiet during the simple meal, dunking her bread into the root-filled broth and nodding along to Bombur's rambling account of the meal preparation. Bofur tended to the stewpot, moving it off any direct heat, but allowing it to continue to warm itself, and settled a pitcher of water nearby to add to the stock as it cooked down.

It wasn't until Bombur's face had been scrubbed, hair brushed and braided by Bofur--slowly to show Orla how it was done, as Bombur insisted--then tucked into bed in his shirt that Bofur and Orla tried to have a conversation about their worries.

Orla was able to sign enough that Bofur gathered her fears wee based on their needs, not Bifur's illness, though it was a factor.

He simply sighed and nodded. He was only 48 and not nearly old enough tot apprentice out, not that he had a calling to any useful craft. Wood-carving was beautiful, and it soothed his soul in ways nothing else did. But it wouldn't feed them, clothe them, or keep coal in the hearth without him achieving at least a journeyman status.

He turned away as Orla started combing out her own hair and washing her face, his own face flushing slightly. He fiddled with the knife from his belt and a scrap of wood Bombur had found before Bifur and Orla had come to them. Focusing on the piece of smooth pine branch he had already peeled the bark for kindling, he tried to let his Craft shape his hands, and guide the shape the wooden piece would finally take. He had finished after Orla had tucked herself in for the night, beside Bombur on the sleeping platform.

A long, angular vine crawled over his hand, carved with deep leaves. It bore no fruit, nor any flower. The leaves were not unique in any sense, not that Bofur knew many plants as it was. It reminded him slightly of the vine that sometimes accompanied the gourds he purchased when they were available. Satisfied with the carving, he set it out with the medicines for Bifur, and performed his own toilet before tucking in for the night.

~~~*~~~*~~~

The following day, after Orla had tended to Bifur's head, and the four dwarves had eaten a meal, Bifur seemed well enough to leave the cot and move to the chair closest to the hearth. After settling him in, and leaving Orla and Bombur occupied with a game and storytelling, he left the house and marched to the end of the level and descended one further.

He reached the gaping maw of the nearest mine and searched around until he found the overseers' office. "Hello?" he called, unable to find anyone.

"What in Mahal's left gem are you doing down here, lad? You're too young for this place! Now go on!"

"I'm here to talk with the overseer," Bofur managed in a tumble of words. "I'm here to ask for work. My family, well, they need me to work, you see. And nothing else is close enough for me to stay with them and help. My uncle was wounded protecting the princess Dis, and he can't work now. And my brother and my uncle's daughter, they're both little than me. I've got to-"

"Just hold on there." The dwarf interrupted. "You're one of Bifur's litte'uns?" The gruff voice was thicker now but Bofur nodded happily, a smile darting across his face.

"Yessir."

"Huh. I'd heard he was injured, poor bloke. I'm Senner, the foreman down here. We've no overseers on duty at present, least-aways, not above-shaft. I'm sure we Ould find a use for an eager set of hands." Bofur held his breath as Senner mumbled to himself. "Well, how does two pennies a week sound? You'll be in the mines ten hours each day, six days each week. No one stay down longer than three days. You can run messages from shaft to shaft, and work to update the maps, once we get you taught up on the drafting."

Bofur felt tears well up but fought from letting them slip. "Yes! Yes, sir, I'd be honored to learn the trade, if I could sir."

Senner smiled sadly down at the lad, older, sooty face watching the younger, cleaner one with conflicting emotions. "Then be here, before fifth-bell tomorrow morning. Here." Senner fished a pen from his pocket and scribbled onto a sheet of parchment. "A written document stating I'll hire you on and train you myself."

Bofur held the paper with trembling hands, an awestruck expression on his face. "I'm... I'm your apprentice, you mean?" His breathless question startled a chuckle from the older miner.

"Nah, lad. You're too young to be a 'prentice, yet. But, you are tutelaged under the miner's guild once you sign that." The old dwarf was scribbling out a second note, so each could keep a copy.

Bofur looked gobsmacked, and then ashamed. "I... I don't know how to sign my name," he admitted, not looking away from the contract in his grip.

Senner looked carefully down at the lad. "I see. Suppose I'll have to teach you that too."

Bofur blinked up, and a deep grin firmly planted itself on the young face. "You will?"

"Certainly. Now, hold the pen like this... Yes, and shape each letter like so... Now, Bofur, so you'll need this symbol, see where I wrote it above, just copy it below. Good. Now that one. and these two, mind they stay together. And the final... yeah. You've signed your name! Would you mind signing it again, on my copy?"

And so it was done.

~~~*~~~*~~~

Bofur's new job was met with various reactions: Bombur was excited for his brother, Bifur was reluctant to allow his nephew in the dangerous mines, but aware enough of their need of the income, and Orla, who simply smiled, signed her thanks, and hugged Bofur.

His first three days he spent trailing Senner, noting which mine was which, and learning the names of the overseers of the groups responsible for each mine. At the end of three days, he was given one penny as promised, and a bucket of the weak coal the miners in the coal mines couldn't sell as gratitude for his constant jokes and songs.

He came home filled to the brim with joy. He could help his family, and even if it wasn't working on his craft, at least that was something. Orla's grin upon seeing the bucket of coal made him more determined than ever to do well in the mines. It was as he was washing up for the night, scrubbing soot away as well as he could that he saw Orla's fingers trailing over the leaves in his carved vine. She was humming one of her Orla-tongue tunes, and it made his heart fill in his chest.

Bofur ignored the feeling, focusing instead on the aches in his arms and legs before tucking his sore feet into the cool, sooty water.

~~~*~~~*~~~

Bofur had worked in the mines for two and ahead weeks before Oin declared Bifur well enough to journey to the guard barracks to report for a roster. Frerin had accompanied Oin, eager to check in on his sister's friend, and so he stayed to watch Orla and Bombur as Oin and Bifur made the trek. Despite being only fifty, he was certainly old enough to mind the younger dwarves, as Bofur was old enough at his own forty-eight.

The youngest prince had several tricks up his sleeves, including a pocketful of sweets. Bofur returned home before Bifur, and found Bombur sucking on a cinnamon sweet by the fire while freeing shared tiny chocolate shavings with Orla.

Bofur decided in that moment that he was not friends with Frerin.

"Who are you?" he demanded, stepping between Orla and the blond dwarf.

Frerin bowed his head and introduced himself. Bofur blanched for a minute, realizing his chastising had reached royal ears, before continuing forward, "Where is Bifur?"

"I'm here, Bof." Bifur was indeed behind Bofur, stepping over the lintel with the healer in tow. "You have my thanks, your highness. My next call isn't for a week, and I'll be on the gate for a fortnight before a week back here, then a week guarding your sister."

Frerin smiled at the large warrior. "I'm sure she'll be glad of it. Feel free to bring Orla and Bombur when you go to Dis. and Bofur, too, if he is free."

"You are too kind, your highness."

Frerin just grinned and nodded over at Oin. "I'm sure my cousin has places to be, so I'll accompany him. You all have a wonderful evening." With that freeing lifted a small pouch from his pocket handed it to Orla and left with his cousin.

"Sweets?" Bombur asked curiously, pointing at the bag.

"Sweets," Orla confirmed, tucking the pouch into the hidden compartment of the table. "After meal," she added firmly.

Bombur pouted, but cheered when Bofur told him he could design their supper meal. An eager Bombur rummaged through the food bins by the table and began making his selections.

Bifur smiled and settled in beside the youngest, helping him as directed in the meal preparation.

Orla brought the constant bucket of water for Bofur to wash with, soot now a regular addition to his hair and face.

Before Bofur could ask her about the prince, she grinned at him and signed, "Your hair is black with soot. You need a hat."

He cocked a grin at her and signed back, "Me? With a hat? Nah, too much for me, I think."

Orla laughed at that, a sweet sound that eased the tension around Bofur's hat. "Bofur, hat" she assured him with a nod.

~~~*~~~*~~~

It was two days before Bifur's shift on the gate, and Bofur's only day off that week, that Lori stopped by with Dori and little Nori. Dori and Bombur took to each other like dwarves to stone and began a game together, a very intricate one with pebbles, and lines in the dirt, and short threads of varying colors plucked from the loose ends of Dori's clothes.

Orla was holding Nori who was staring sweetly up at her, clutching his fingers on anything he could reach, her hand, her nose, her braids, and once the tufts of her short beard.

Bofur was in love.

He hadn't really known it before. Or hadn't really let himself know it. But seeing her talking in her own language to the little one. It came Bofur's stomach catch fire, and his limbs feel lighter than air. He sat beside her, trying to make Nori coo at him sometimes, but often just enjoying the sight of the two happy dwarves.

Lori and Bifur were sat further back from the children. Lori confessed that the home allotted to her and her sons was a room much smaller than the Ur residence, with a hearth half the size, though she was a level up. She shared her fears about feeding the babes, the two she had and a someday future one too.

She wasn't able to work anywhere with Nori. The only places hiring refugees weren't suitable for a child.

Bifur shared his concerns for his own clan. The burdens Bofur was bearing well before he should, the thought of Bombur and Orla alone all day.

It wasn't until their cups of misery had been poured out to each other before they began to come to a realization, then an accord.

And so it was settled, Lori and her boys were to move in. Nori's cradle would move in. Bombur, Bofur, and Dori could share the one cot, and Lori and Orla the other, while Bifur lived up at the gate barracks. Lori wouldn't need to manage the rent on the tiny room one level up, and would mind the children. Two incomes plus Lori's compensation for her husband's death would feed the two families better than if they were apart.

Orla was delighted at the new plan, and Bombur was ecstatic. Dori and Bofur weren't so sure, but by the end of the first week, the families were stone-sure.

~~~*~~~*~~~

Orla smiled as she washed baby Nori. Bombur and Dori were learning new recipes under Lori's watchful eye. Bifur was guarding Dis this week, and had decided to wait to bring the little ones with him until he had spoken with the princess. Bofur was on his sixth day of work and would have the next day off.

Orla's back was fully healed, with not even a twinge left as a reminder. Bifur still had bad days--his first day back from the gate was the worst by far. But they were all adjusting. And somehow, more dwarves in the space made everything less worrisome, rather than more.

Orla bundled the freshly cleaned babe into his diaper and swaddling before tucking him into his cot.

She signed to Lori that she was off for fresh water and left the house to walk down the street to Bombur's favorite fountain.

That was where Bofur found her not a full hour later on his way home. Orla was curled in a ball on the ground, water jug shattered beside her, her face white with pain and her breathing shallow.

Chapter Text

Bofur's mind went blank. He'd dropped his things and ran to her, rolling her onto her back, where he first caught sight of the shallow cut on her cheek. So great was his shock that he didn't notice the blood staining her tunic or his hand until he went to touch her scratched cheek. "Orla?" he begged helplessly, as his eyes stared at the large dark stain.

Fear gripped his heart firmly and squeezed. Breath tight in his lungs, he scrambled to scoop her up, no easy feat as she was taller than him by several inches despite being eight years his junior. He moved as quickly as he could, each whimper from her lips another tear in his lungs, another slice of his heart. He made it to the door of their home when a frantic Lori came up behind him.

"You found her! What is the mat-" Lori's response trailed off as she saw the blood. "Get her inside." The to maneuvered through the house, ignoring the questions and shouts from the other children. "Where is the wound?"

"I didn't-" Bofur choked out, throat rusty with pain. "I couldn't find..."

Lori wasted no more time with words and lifted Orla enough to pull her tunic over her head in a smooth motion, stopping only to pull the sleeves over her arms as well. Bofur blushed a hot read, but couldn't stop his eyes scanning for a wound. When he couldn't find one, he looked away.

Lori moved to Orla's belt and leggings. "Oh, lass," she murmured. "You poor dear." Bofur fought to keep his eyes on the little lads he ushered away from the bed. "Lori, is..."

"She's bleeding. A great deal. Tis heavier than most first bleeds. Keep their eyes away." Lori didn't say that she was checking to insure there was trulls no injury and just a first bleed, albeit a heavy one. When her search proved fruitless, she nodded and covered the girl's privates. "I need to get her in the baths. Can you mind the three here until I get back?"

Bofur nodded, jaw clenched. "Will she?"

"She'll be alright, lad. Miserable, and in pain, but she'll live through it." Lori bundled the lass in the sheet she was already staining, put together a small bag, and carried the two out of the house.

"Bofur?" Bombur asked, Dori quiet beside him. "Why was Orla bleeding?"

Bofur squatted down. He looked both little ones in the eye before sighing. "Dunno, Bom. But Lori's gonna take good care of her, you know that. Right, Dori? Yer mom's got her and they'll be back soonish. You'll see." Bofur put on a false smile and began playing with the lads, little Nori soon snuffling off to sleep in his cot. All the while it was all Bofur could do to not run to Orla. His hear beat weakly, dread pumping through his veins.

~~~***~~~***~~~

Orla winced as the hot water lapped at her cheek, salt stinging the cut. "Oh," she moaned, pain knifing through her gut ferociously. "What happened?"

Groggily, she blinked up at Lori, who was... naked.

Orla linked again and angled her head to see around the breast at eye-level. She glanced down and saw she was similarly nude, and floating. Then she looked around and recognized the walls of the public womens' bath cavern. Some things came rushing back; no in house baths, no private baths, just large caverns of mineral-rich, steaming water.

She moved to stand on the silty floor, Lori's hands moving to cup her head and brace her back. When she stood, despite the buoyant of the water, her knees buckled at her diminished weight. Lori's arms soon returned Orla to her floating state with a soft smile. Pulling one hand away she signed blood and woman. Orla wrinkled her brow.

Lori laughed and signed, "Orla is child. Now Orla bleed. Orla is not child."

Orla wrestled with the confusing tenses of the short signs before another cramp helped her along. "Oh!" Realization painted across her features as Lori reached back for a cloth and began gently wiping at Orla's stomach. When Orla's mind caught up with the action, she reached out and took the cloth, curling up to a half stand, leaning against Lori as she scrubbed at the blood between her legs, and massaged the cramping muscles.

My period. Orla blinked down at the blood diluting in the water, dissipating away for good. There must be magnesium in these stones, she thought as the aches were soothed by the heated pool. Lori moved to stand back and allow Orla some space. The girl managed to stand this time, ready for the unfamiliar pain. Her periods had always been easier than most, but perhaps this was the lot of dwarrowdams?

She soaked in the pool for a long time, mind spinning, until noise was heard at the entrance of the cavern. Bifur's voice could be heard. Lori sighed and stepped out of the pool, wrapping herself in a long tunic, hair wrapped up in a long cloth, much like Orla was accustomed to doing with a towel after a shower.

Lori moved to talk to Bifur and left Orla to her own devices. What was womanhood for dwarrow like? Her fingers moved up to her chin. Was the facial hair thicker than it had been? She glanced down, but still no breasts. Her hips weren't very noticeable either. She had gotten her period at 12 when she was a human, but had already had breasts larger than her mother's at that point. Perhaps breasts appeared after periods in dwarves?

Orla stood to leave the pool before realizing, she had no pads, no tampons. Nothing. She sat back down. Am I going to stay in the bath the whole time? she thought wildly.

Lori soon returned, and noticed Orla sitting by the edge of the pool. Lori nodded and scooped up a bag beside their clothing, Orla's was in need of a good scrub, she could tell. Lori rummaged through the bag before pulling out a sponge? A sea sponge. Lori handed it to Orla and made a gesture with her fingers to indicate Orla should insert the sponge to stem the blood. Orla's eyes stretched as wide as they could.

She was supposed to use a sponge as a substitute tampon?

Lori laughed, not unkindly before offering aid. Orla froze, and refused with a jerky shake of her head. She stood enough to squat over the water and though it took several fumbling attempts, and many rinses of the sponge, she soon had a medieval tampon in place.

That alien chore accomplished, the two women began to scare Orla's tunic and leggings. Once the two garments were set to dry, Lori dressed herself, and loaned Orla a spare tunic to make the trek home.

Bifur hugged her the moment they met him outside the baths. "Orla," he whispered, gently pressing his forehead to hers. His large thumb traced over her cheek, reminding her of the small cut. "I fell," she signed. "It surprised me and it hurt, right here," she gestured above her crotch, the place the pain has suddenly spiraled from. "I fell, and hit my head on the stones by the well," she finished. It had surprised her, and it had hurt. She'd never been in so much pain for a simple period before.

The trio returned to the house, where Bofur was waiting by the door. "Orla," he cried out, tears streaking through the soot he hadn't managed to wash completely from his cheeks. She had no further warning before he was hugging her tightly, and she moved her arms around him in return.

"Bofur," she murmured into the back of neck, "I'm ok. I'm ok, I promise." The words flew form her so naturally, she didn't realize she was speaking English for several moments before she switched to Khuzdul. "Orla well. I swear. You have my thanks, and I am well."

Bofur clung to her even more tightly before pulling back to sign, "There was so much blood."

Orla fumbled for the signs she needed before turning to Lori helplessly.

~~~***~~~

"Bofur, Orla has begun her maturity. She got her menses, her bleedings. Apparently the cramps were strong enough to knock her down, where she smacked into the fountain."

Bofur's face danced from concern to many different emotions, before settling on confusion. "Her bleedings?" He inquired.

Bifur cursed in a low voice. "I haven't gotten to explaining the... y'know, just yet."

Lori rolled her eyes. "Bofur, Orla is becoming a dam. Part of that is her body preparing itself to forge babes. The blood is normal, though a lot for a first bleeding. Much as Mahal crafts life in his forge, a dam crafts a child in her own forge. And just as every forge left vacant must be cleaned, so too must a forge with no babe in it."

Bofur was staring at Lori in horror, clutching Orla to him desperately. "But Orla's not ready to have babes!"

Bifur chuckled, "No, lad, not for many years. But the hand of Mahal declares a forge ready when it must be to be ready for the great works to come."

"Or not to come, should she not choose to bear," Lori interjected.

Bifur nodded. "True. Despite having the forge and the tools, not all are called to craft children. And not all who are called have the tools or the forge. Mahal moves in mysterious ways."

Bofur let the metaphors wash over him, the voices of his uncle and Lori soothing despite the jarring news. "Does it hurt a lot?" he asked when there was a lull.

Bifur looked to Lori who simply nodded.

"How can I help her?"

~~~***~~~

Periods sucked.

It didn't matter the setting, though learning to clean and care for sponges was a unique haul with a language limp.

Her cramps returned viciously in the night, shortly after Lori had helped Orla to replace the sponge behind a divider the dam had erected in a corner of the home, which now housed the chamber pot, as well as an array of tools for the sponges.

Dreaming fondly of chocolate bars and other sweets, Orla remembered the sweets Frerin had brought earlier. She savored each curl of the dark, rich flavor as it melted on her tongue. She wanted nothing else to eat, though she drank much water and several mugs of herbal tea, over the next four days. She woke up the fifth morning with a lion in her stomach, roaring to be fed. Bofur sat across her at the table, blearily watching her scarf a full bowl of heated porridge in large spoonfuls. She smiled up at him over a full mouth, cheeks puffed out and he laughed happily at her.

Bombur and Dori settled in on either side of her, happy to have her eating with them once more. Bombur's little feet kicked out as he talked, and Dori slowly fed himself polite mouthfuls, napkin tucked on his lap.

The new development soon wove itself into the fabric of their daily routine, and Orla adjusted to Middle Earth menstrual cycles.

Lori worked long hours again, a seamstress finally fulfilling her craft after the loss of Erebor. Bifur made his rounds between the barracks and guarding Dis, occasionally picking up the odd patrol shift. Bofur lugged buckets from mine shaft to mine shaft, running messages back and forth, and learning to scribble different miner's marks: the sharp warning of brittle stone, the gentle slope of water, the more complex signs for bad air and landslides. He still needed to focus when he made any of the symbols, or even his name, but he could recognize their meaning by sight now, which had to be progress.

Dori had become fussy lately, grumping his way around the home he wanted to have certain way. His frustration and strength coupled to a chair that weighed nearly as much as he did being stacked against the hearth as he moved things to his liking. Orla let him have his way, a small smile dancing in the corner of her mouth as she looked forward fondly to the dwarf this toddler would become.

Bombur was happy enough as long as he could help with the cooking, and Nori had learned to sit up on his own, and was now mastering the art of scooting everywhere on his bum. He could move backwards and was often found with his head craned over his should as his chubby legs pumped, sending him over every free inch of floor. This new skill resulted in Dori completely rearranging everything again.

As for Orla, her heart danced between highs and lows. Suddenly a member of her new family would remind her of her knowledge of their future--little Nori grabbing a copper bead from her braids and tucking it in his, thankfully clean, nappy-- and other times she reconciled her current life as a teen dwarrowdam in Ered Luin with her memories of independent adult life in the modern United States. She missed the freckles on her arms, though her dark skin was beautifully soft and smooth. Her braids were difficult to learn, but she now could do them with little effort. She had adjusted to the toilet and bath habits, though the hardest had been the public aspect. She still had to force herself to ignore the fact that she was naked in a pool with thirty other dams from toddlers to white-haired matrons. Or whatever the dwarf term for senior citizens was.

All in all, it was moments when questions she wasn't sure she could ask filled her mind that were the hardest. What were the attitudes towards women in dwarf society? How did a dwarven monarchy differ from the ones she'd learned about in her history classes? Mahal was their god, but was there a form of structured worship? Did they pay taxes? Could she pursue an education like she had in her former life? What would her future look like?

Orla took these thoughts and mulled over them many times. Some answers developed naturally, such as the trip to the temple four levels above them for a holy day of some sort. There had been somber singing, and lit candles, and good food. It reminded Orla of a funeral, but she didn't ask, afraid to be found too ignorant, too unlike a dwarf. She couldn't sing along anyway. She held her candle, arms hooked through Bifur's and Bombur's, swaying in time with them.

Other answers came from some very unusual places.

~~~***~~~

Dis showed up just before lunch one day, Bifur in tow as her main guard for the week.

"Hello, Orla," she greeted her friend, taking a seat and accepting Nori's request to be held, his long fingers digging eagerly into her bright blue tunic and he chewed at a large button right before his face.

Once sure the child couldn't actually remove the button and choke on it, Dis turned to speak to Orla. "Orla, Bifur has told me you have begun your bleedings?"

Orla wrinkled her brow at the unique nature of the conversation starter but nodded.

"Good, so you can begin working, if you would like."

Orla looked at Bifur in surprise. He nodded, eyes on the two little boys napping on his bed, Dori clinging to his blanket and Bombur with all limbs spread wide.

"Why Dis say this?" Orla asked slowly.

Dis smiled at her friend reassuringly. "Orla, would you be willing to work for me? I can pay you well, or at least, decently. I'd need you to move in with me though. you could still come home for times, of course, but I'm quite far from here. I had four maids while in Erebor. I won't need that many here, as things aren't as... ornate. But, I will need two. My head maid, Irlde, is still with me. I have not seen the others since the mountain. I had hoped to have a friend among my handmaids, but if you don't wish it, I understand."

Orla didn't answer right away, looking around the home with much on her mind. "Bombur? Dori? Nori?" she inquired.

"Bofur," Before responded. "Lori, Bifur, and there is the child center."

Orla frowned over the foreign words until Bifur supplemented with signs. Her face jumped with anger, before settling into defeat. "Child center," she parroted. "How much coin?"

Bifur glanced over the three babes and murmured a number for a day; it wasn't steep, but it would pinch their belts considerably.

Orla turned to Dis and said "That much times two for a day."

Dis blinked before smiling. "Times three," she replied. Orla smiled and nodded, reaching out to hold Nori.

"When?" Orla asked.

"Tonight."

Chapter Text

Bofur came home to dinner, Lori ladling stew into Bombur and Dori's dishes from the stewpot with one hand, as her left arm held the steadily nursing Nori to her chest.

"Where's Orla?" he asked, already aware of Bifur's schedule, scrubbing his hands in the typical bucket.

"Gone to work for Dis," was the short response.

"What?" His hands stilled in the murky water.

"Dis offered her a position as a handmaid. Orla took it of course, but nor before haggling for the funds to cover what Maude'll charge to mind these terrors, and then some. Smart lass, our Orla. Bifur was here with the princess when she offered. They stayed until I showed up, filled me in an headed back up to the Royal wing."

Bofur's tongue felt like a salt brick in his mouth. "She's gone?"

"Yeah," Lori paused to return her nipple to Nori's mouth as the bairn craned his neck to see Bofur, having heard his voice. "She'll be a lady's maid and wear the Durin colors. She has a position, and if she holds true to the lass I know she is, she'll have no end of prospects for work when her Craft calls to her. The King... Dis will see to it our lass has what she needs."

Bofur's heart dropped to his boots. He nodded at Lori and went back to washing his hands. Orla was gone. She'd been smart to take the offer, and Orla was nothing if not smart. But he hadn't gotten to hug her goodbye. He hadn't even seen her on his way out this morning as she'd been in the baths when he left. It hurt, the not-knowing when he'd see her again. It ached, like bruise on his heart.

"You've the day off tomorrow. Can you mind the lads? Bifur said he wanted to keep the minding between us until Orla's first pay. Better to have the coin ready at the start."

Bofur nodded, heart feeling even heavier as he tried to think when next he might see his One.

His arms ached to hug her again, to see her stood by the hearth, firelight in her hair and laughter in her eyes, a song in her private tongue on her lips. He dunked his face in the bucket and began to scrub at the soot on his cheeks, letting the tears fall freely.

~~~***~~~

It didn't take long for Bifur to pick up on the shift in Bofur's mood. He was still the same endearing jokester with Bombur, and teased Dori and Nori affectionately. He had always been polite to Lori, but now he fluctuated between needing her for something one moment and not knowing she was there the next. He was quieter. His fingers began to do more talking than his voice, or rather, he used his fingers and hands even when he used his voice.

The lad missed Orla.

Truth be told, they all missed her. She had been a bright spot in their lives. Little Dori seemed more dour without his new friend, as did Bombur without his 'new sister'. Nori was too young to be much affected, or at least for Bifur to notice any significant difference in his fussiness.

Lori missed Orla too, though she put on a brave face for the children.

Bifur had grown quieter as well. He also began signing, along with his speech, at first to cater to Bofur's melancholy, and then because it truly helped the little ones to learn Inglishmek.
Bifur did get to see Orla when he next guarded Dis, and he offered to deliver messages from all the children. Dori and Bombur quickly shouted many different "I love you"s and "I miss you"s and similar messages. Bofur blinked up at Bifur before turning and grabbing something from the floor beside his bed. When Bifur looked down at the objects Bofur had passed him, he saw several pieces of kindling that had been carved with vines, geometric shapes, and miner's symbols.Bifur nodded at his cousin and left for his shift.

The household found its new routine and seemed to shuffle on just fine, as they had always managed to do, somehow. And while Bofur did try to cheer his brother and Dori, he knew something was very wrong with him.

Why couldn't he be happy for Orla with her new job? Or, he was happy for her, but why wasn't his pride in her bigger than his missing her?

~~~***~~~

Orla woke early. She was still unaccustomed to the new bedroom, and her other companions. Dis' room was just about the size of the Ur residence. Orla wasn't sure if the royal family had received the only large accommodations due to status or if there were more ones with just as much room not given to the bigger families in the lower levels.

There were days when she was accustomed to her life in a fictional past, one with the blessings of hot springs and indoor plumbing, but ancient medicines, monarchies, and no obvious education system. Her grasp or Inglishmek was nearly a mastery at this point, the words taking no thought and minimal effort at the point to make herself heard. But not all the answers to her questions were exactly what she thought they ought to be.

For example, when she inquired into the matters of the legal system, the response covered several family trees and no court cases. Orla couldn't wrap her mind around it.

Orla’s communication was nearly flawless, the words flying from her mind to her fingers without thought and nearly no effort. She was still stymied by a few words that didn’t have easy signs, and by a few whose definitions she couldn’t be certain she understood. There was also another word, one which defied Orla’s every attempt to decipher it. It came up in normal daily conversation on occasion, and was referenced in politics, gossip, announcements, news, and more. Orla wished Bofur was nearer, as he had more patience than any other dwarf with Orla, even Dis. The princess had a considerable treasury of patience, after having spent her life with Thorin, Frerin, Dwalin, and Balin causing mischief. The last has initially surprised Orla, but made more and more sense each time she considered it. The future advisor was certainly cunning.

Orla was also adjusting to her new life as a lady’s maid in leaps and bounds, though the gaps there usually overlapped with those left by suddenly living in a fictional past. Though blessedly the dwarves has indoor plumbing, Orla still became over vigilant in washing her hands and belonging, terrified of needing the ancient medicines that had cleansed her back. She knew they worked, but it her doubts rose from the odds that they would work every time. Dis indulged this strange habit, almost without comment, though the looks Dis often sent were comment enough on Orla’s strangeness.

The first of Orla’s duties to Dis was to keep her counsel. It wouldn’t do for the words, thoughts, and private behaviors of the princess to become common knowledge, no matter how innocently intentioned. Similar duties addressed Orla’s appearance and decorum as a representative of the royal house.

Those duties resulted in Dis outfitting Orla’s uniform. The linen dress with gorgeous and intricate blue trim was overlaid with a dark woolen tunic, interwoven with some silver-colored wire. The wire and trim of her dress complemented the belt with bunched the dress just above her legs, much like a pair of low rise jeans. Orla was surprised by how comfortable the garments were, and how full the pockets!

Many dwarrow women wore a similar style of garment, one which assented the muscles of their arms and chests, and shadowed their res and stomachs behind modest drapes of fabric above their hips. Orla didn’t imagine her uniform would change significantly when her breasts eventually developed since with the exception of Lori, most dwarrowdams had little breasts to speak of. Irlde, Dis’ other maid, honestly appeared most like a short linebacker or body builder in dresses carefully designed to her proportions.

And then there were the dwarves in the court. Dis would appear every week or so, standing with her family. Irlde and Orla stood back some way, but went regularly with their lady. Orla gawked as unobtrusively as she could, but it was a glorious sight for a newcomer to this world. Nothing like a Grecian council she had envisioned, it looked more like a market square with a raised platform. The speaker, be he king or guildmaster or even Dis herself, would speak from the platform, turning constantly, to face the sea of beards around them. Questions came from everywhere at once, but all were careful to listen when anyone had the place of speaking.

The dwarrow paid her very little attention beyond brief glances from guards, and occasional looks from this or that lord.

Orla was happy to remain unnoticed, braid in place over her mark. She wasn’t sure what the consequences were if one was found to not be a dwarf in dwarf's skin.

Although, she was a dwarf. She just hadn't always been. Perhaps that was different?

Occasionally the princes would join Dis in her chambers. Frerin was always bearing something sweet when he could, or jokes and pranks when he couldn’t.

He lived to make Dis laugh and was always smiling.

Thorin on the other hand was more serious, the brooding leader he would make on the Quest.

Dwalin was a constant shadow on either prince, though Balin seemed to wander mostly on his own, finding his own sort of trouble.

One day, he found Orla after she had managed to find a scrap of paper and idly drew the design of the arkenstone, dwelling on the memory of the secret door in the story as she nodded off during a break in the day. She was woken by a stunned Balin, who asked when she had found the image. Bewildered, she shrugged and pointed to her head and said, “Erebor. Arkenstone. Thorin.” She shrugged.

“Thorin?” Balin inquired, peering at her. “Ish Thror? Ish Thrain?”

Orla shook her head and repeated, “Thorin,” before her mind caught up with her mouth.

“You dreamed this?”

Orla nodded and shrugged. “Yes and no.” She sighed heavily, panic making her eyes water. “I am… I see. I see Thorin. In Erebor. With Arkenstone.”

Balin released a sigh. “Ah, yes, your memory. Is this your only memory of Erebor? Thorin under the Arkenstone?” Balin’s eyes were kind again, making her realize just how little kindness has been in them a moment before.

Orla shook her head. “Ravens. And stairs. And… Smaug.” Orla looked down but Balin patted her hand gently before voicing that Dis was looking for her.

Orla fled happily.

It was in her journey to the bathhouse with Dis and Irlde that she allowed her mind to finally ask, “What would they do to those who claimed to know the future? What would they do to her?”

~~~***~~~

Durin’s day was a tomorrow, and Bifur would be bringing Orla to join them again for the days festivities. Bofur couldn’t keep still for more than a minute, first dashing about to clean their home, then to the baths to clean himself. His fingers kept busy carving tiny wooden beads and figurines: a dwarf and dam holding hands, a wagon pulled by ponies, a miner with a pickaxe, and a warrior with a spear very similar to Bifur’s. He'd already made little such gifts for Bombur and Dori, and slightly bigger pieces for Nori, to prevent his trying to swallow them.

But he made the ones for the lads to keep busy. The ones he made for Orla… They were different. And he wanted to do more. Using his wages, he’d saved coin each month, and with the four he now had to spend, he went to the market hoping to find something incredible.

He found a shop selling pouches of herbs, and though he perused everything, he kept walking. Past the candlemakers, the bakers, and the blacksmiths, he made his way to the scriveners display. Four coins wouldn’t afford him much, but he knew what he wanted for her the moment he saw it. A pen, carved from the finest moonstone, hollow for ink, and displayed beautifully. He managed to haggle the price down to six coins, from ten. To make up the two he didn’t have, he promised Lori to keep none of the coins for the next three months, allowing one coin’s interest, and was soon bearing the precious pen back to their lodging while Lori spent an additional two coins on spare parchment. After all, a pen wasn’t much use with no parchment.

It wasn't until an hour before Orla and Bifur’s arrival that this thought occurred to Bofur and he panicked or a full five minutes before Lori gave him the parchment. “My gift to you, this Durin’s day,” she explained.

He beamed up at her and hugged her tightly, careful of the precious parchment.

His gift was tucked safely away when Orla arrived with Bifur. She had barely stepped inside before Dori and Bombur were attached to her with tin shrieks of delight. Nori babbled, hands reaching for her from he perch on Lori's hip, and Bofur stared in awe from the hearth. She looked like a princess in all her finery. His heart did a strange maneuver in his ribcage, and he pressed his hand over it, either to calm it down or keep it in his chest, he wasn't sure which.

"Our beautiful lady returns," Lori called out. "Come in and tell me just how many offers of courtship you've had." The tone was teasing, but Bofur's finger spasmed violently, dropping the bowl in his hands to land loudly at his feet, a crack showing in the wood grain.

"Courtship?" Orla parroted with confusion. "What is word?"

Bofur's heart stuttered. Bifur grunted, "Better not have any, you're too young for marriage. Or any of that." Bofur stared at his cousin's adopted daughter with rapidly dawning understanding.

"Oh, courtship!" She parroted again. Then she laughed. "No. No courtship. I am not..." here the word escaped her and she signed the words for 'battle-ready', spurring more laughter from both adults.

"Battle-ready, indeed, lass," Bifur chuckled. "That's my Orla, greeting flowery nobles simpering with shield and axe, aye?"

Lori rolled her eyes and embraced Orla fondly, pulling apart only once Nori's fingers were intricately woven into the wire of Orla's overtunic to untangle the babe from his friend.

Bofur found he could breathe again and propelled himself towards Orla.

Her face lit up as she saw him,"Bofur!" She reached out and pulled him into a tight hug that felt exactly like coming home.

The last piece fell into place and Bofur's stomach dropped through the floor.

Orla was his One.

But he might not be hers.

Chapter Text

Durin's Day was a new experience and a good one.

Orla watched with joy as her patchwork family came together. It reminded her of Christmas, between the familial joy and the gifts given, but it was very different somehow.

Bifur led the others in a low song, nearly a chant, before they started dishing up their meal. It hadn't felt like a prayer. It seemed more like a story that each person had a part to tell. Except Orla and Nori.

Orla was intrigued as various games and rhymes were traded across the table throughout the meal, an actual tray of meat with side dishes of stews, gravies, and tubers prepared in heavy sauces. The spices smelled heavenly, and some she could place: paprika, saffron, nutmeg, and cinnamon, but others were alien to her palette, either by neglect to try them in her world, or by deficit of a comparable flavor or plant across the two planes.

Bifur the long table-a new addition in her absence- had one end butting against the wall, and the other end free. Two long benches bore the load of the diners, Bofur, Orla, Dori and Nori, who was in some version of a booster seat, on one side and Lori, Bifur, and Bombur on the opposite.

Cider was given to the little ones, but both Bofur and Orla were given mead cut with water. It was very sweet, and Orla found herself happily seeking more, not minding the added water Lori served in it. Bofur was unusually quiet, but it allowed Bombur and Dori to chatter loudly about their days and weeks away from Orla. She laughed at various escapades, moaned over boring days, and commiserated over their difficulties. Somewhere deep in the mountain a reverberation echoed and tickled Orla's ears before the noise of the gong reached her and she smiled. Dori and Bombur and Bofur all cheered and quaffed their drinks. Lori and Bifur did the same though with less knocking of glasses, so Orla took a sip from her cup and pressed a kiss to Nori's fuzzy cheek. He shouted out "La!" and reached for her.

"Orla!" Dori echoed his brother, and Bombur added his own shout of her name.

Orla giggled as Lori came over to embrace her and kissed the top of her head, "Our Orla!"

Bifur added his own "Nathue Kurdu, Orla."

The joyful mood continued as Bofur added his own salute of, "Orla!"

She smiled widely and asked, "Why Orla?"

Lori scooped Nori into her arms and pressed her forehead to his. "Nori's first word, and the first word under our roof after Durin's day. It is a good omen, and good luck for us to have you here."

Orla tilted her head in confusion and asked, "Luck? What is luck?"

Bifur laughed loudly and Bofur grinned while Dori and Bombur began chanting "Luck! Luck! Luck!"

Lori rolled her eyes and pulled Orla close. "Blessing. You are a blessing to our families."

Orla smiled up at the woman who reminded her of no one back in her former life, but had filled the hole labelled mother somehow anyway. A deep warmth wrapped around her heart and she smiled into her cup.

~~~***~~~

Lori sat on the bench nearest Nori's cradle as she watched the two little boys cuddle on either side of Bofur, each with a hand wrapped around his mustache braids, which had grown in quite a bit in the last few months. Nori was restless from all the energy from earlier and seemed to be contemplating an escape from his bed. She shushed his fussing with a low lullaby, as Bifur came to sit beside her.

The pair sat together until Nori finally drifted off, hands wrapped tightly around the brilliant copper ball Orla had purchased as his gift. Lori sighed and rubbed tiredly at her temples.

"Tonight was good." Bifur's hands were preoccupied with a piece of kindling he was carving into a long, curling piece of wood.

"Yes. It was good to be under stone again for Durin's Day, after everything."

Bifur's eyes were on his hands as he spoke, "Do you want to speak of it?"

Lori looked away and mulled over his question for few moments, savoring the last of her wine. "My One. He worked in the furnaces. His name... His name was Duna. His smile... His smile was small and quiet, but it shone like a beacon to me. His hands were smaller than mine, but strong in their own way. He crafted me a necklace, set with fine gems. I can only imagine how long he slaved to earn the pieces and how long it took him to create."

"It sounds beautiful."

"It is." Lori's voice turned bitter. "And it is currently somewhere beneath the breast of a great, fat wyrm. And probably received more care from the greedy lizard than my One's corpse."

Bifur nodded solemnly. "Describe it to me?"

Lori smiled sadly, and looked into the fire as she continued to speak, as some of the ache in her heart was slowly soothed.

~~~***~~~

Orla woke early from habit, and smiled once she recalled where she was.

The room had undergone another change in her absence, which was more obvious in the quiet morning stillness than it had been the night before. She sat up in bed, shifting away from Lori's warm form. She curled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. Bearded chin resting on her knees, she looked out at the sleeping family.

Dori's mouth was wide open and his limbs were twitching lightly in sleep. Bombur was curled up in a light ball, a gentle rumbling noise echoing from the small dwarf. Nori, right leg was hung over the left side of his cradle, foot kicking gently, but otherwise the ginger babe was unmoving. Bifur was asleep upright along the wall beside the bed. She could see all the details of the axe embedded in his skull now. It shone brightly, marked with runes, and in a tight patch around it, Bifur had little to no hair. She found herself contemplating the quest from the Hobbit as she looked over its characters, her friends.

Bofur was missing from the tableau, she realized, mind returning to her slumbering company.

She stood from the bed, and let herself out of the house. She walked down to the fountain where she had fallen all those months ago. How long had she been here? Was a year nearly up? Was she a year older now?

Shaking her head, she looked around for Bofur. He wasn't at the fountain, so she turned and made her way to the baths.

Sure enough, as she approached, the missing dwarf was exiting the cavern from the male baths. "Bofur!" She called, mindful to keep her voice low out of care of the slumbering city.

Bofur's head flew up, and a broad grin took over his face. "Orla!" He jogged quickly to her. She noticed that despite his youth he was beginning to look more like the version of him that would take up membership in the company. His labor in the mines had helped to define some of his muscles, and he already held some extra layers of confidence the responsibility lent him.

What a strange world where children--which they both still were--worked such jobs. It was bizarre only when she took the time to think about it. Having worked prior to landing in Tolkien's Middle Earth, it was familiar to be working most of her day.

Bofur gave her a quick hug before pulling away and stepping back."So. What's... Why did you leave the house? Are you headed to the baths, yourself?"

Orla grinned and signed, "I was looking for you," and then asked, "How is work?"

Bofur started walking them back to house, signing and gesticulating as he spoke in khuzdul, allowing both languages to speak simultaneously, overlaying any gaps in either for Orla.

~~~***~~~

It was a week after Durin's Day, Orla had returned to Dis' quarters and was jotting down diary entries on the paper Bofur had gifted her.

Dis looked up from her new blade, a gift from her brothers, and peeked at Orla's scribbling. Orla didn't mind, it's not as if even Dis knew English lettering or language.

"What is this?" the princess asked.

Orla hesitated before replying, "My journal."

"Journal? I did not know you could read and write!"

Orla bristled before reminding herself literacy was not a common skill here, and besides, "I cannot write or read Khuzdul, Dis. This is my language."

"But it is so uniform! How did you make it up?"

Orla blinked up at Dis before shaking her head, "I didn't make it up. I lea-- I know it." She bit her tongue, afraid of discussing too much of her former life with anyone.

Dis' eyes eagerly roved the pages. "This is incredible! It's as though you have your own secret language!"

Orla shrugged.

"Would you teach me?" Orla nearly dropped her pen in surprise. "We spent so long teaching you Khuzdul, and then Inglishmek, when maybe we should have had you teaching us. Do you know how useful a private language is in dangerous situations? You and I could talk or pass notes in front of people with no idea of what we were saying!" Dis was grinning now, "Plus it'll drive Thorin and Frerin mad with envy. Oh, please say you'll teach me!"

Orla considered but ultimately agreed. It would be nice to have an easy conversation again.

~~~***~~~

"Bifur?" Bofur's voice was low, and clearly pitched to not disturb Lori or the three little ones playing a game and giggling.

"Yes?"

"Isn't there story about Tuni, who's One was... wasn't..."

"Tuni's One Imla was also the One of another dwarf. And that other dwarf was Imla's One, not Tuni. Is that the story you mean?"

Bofur nodded, eyes wide. "Can you tell that one?"

Bifur looked at his little cousin for a long time before nodding and beginning the tale.

Chapter Text

"Bifur?" Bofur's voice was low, and clearly pitched to not disturb Lori or the three little ones playing a game and giggling.

"Yes?"

"Isn't there story about Tuni, who's One was... wasn't..."

"Tuni's One Imla was also the One of another dwarf. And that other dwarf was Imla's One, not Tuni. Is that the story you mean?"

Bofur nodded, eyes wide. "Can you tell that one?"

Bifur looked at his little cousin for a long time before nodding and beginning the tale.

~~~***~~~

Tuni was a strong, young dwarf with hair the color of gold, and eyes of earthen hue. He was broad in shoulder and strong of arm. His prowess was unmatched on the battlefield, and his skill in his craft, the working of leather, was unparalleled.

Tuni was one hundred and seventy years when he first saw Imla the Radiant.

Imla was one hundred and eleven, with rich ochre hair, and eyes that marked with good humor. She was dancing with several other dams during the festivities for a midsummer contest, the seven stomping in formation to tell the story of Durin the Deathless. Each lass danced as one of the incarnations, except the seventh, that lass danced as Mahal himself. Of course, Imla held the lofty role in the performance and riveted her audience from start to stop.

Tuni knew in an instant that she was his One. He left the chambers and moved swiftly to his work station. Seven days and seven nights he worked, almost unceasing in his efforts.

At last, his work was complete. A tunic of soft leather, stiff enough to stop any blow, fitted exactly to her shape. Those who saw Tuni testing blades against the leather would have sworn he somehow crafted mithril into the hides for not even a large Warhammer could cleave or pierce the material.

Tuni bathed and braided and brought his gift to the home of Imla.

It was there his heart broke. For there sat his Imla, light of his soul, with her arms around another dwarf, kissing him soundly. In the background, he heard voices celebrating an "engagement" and he felt his heart rip.

He did not leave his home for a full month, and then only to attend her wedding, leaving his First gift intended to court her, in the pile of wedding presents. She looked so happy as she proclaimed the dwarf her One. And her groom-a dwarf called Boor-proudly declared her his.

Tuni accepted his fate. His heart match was unmet. It had happened before, the work of Mahal not always aligning perfectly. But it never hurt any less.

War came, as it always did. And though no one could explain it, Tuni seemed fiercer in battle, fighting alongside the lesser skilled Boor.

When the dust settled, Boor held the corpse of Tuni, weeping and declaring that he owed his life to the fallen Tuni. For an orc has snuck upon them, and Tuni had stepped into the path of a blade meant for Boor.

The hero was honored and buried in state under stone. And Imla, grateful for the life of her One, dedicated time each day visiting and tending to the tomb of the fallen Tuni. "This fallen dwarf has all the love I can give him for saving the life of my husband. If he had not fallen, I would be a widow, tending my husband's tomb. Does not Tuni deserve such care?"

~~~***~~~

Bifur's voice trailed off. "What happened to them after they too passed into the Hall's of Mahal is not known. Perhaps the three keep one another company, each loving the other as best they can. Perhaps Tuni and boor share Imla. Perhaps Imla stays apart from both warriors, and the two speak of that battle. It is unknown."

"But." Bofur's voice was small, "They both loved her. And, when she knew of them both, she loved them both?"

"Yes, though not perhaps in the way a One loves a matched One." Bifur hesitated before asking, "Why the curiosity over Tuni?"

Bofur bit his lip. "How do you know if your One... If you're their One too?"

Bifur's brows rose to his hairline. "You ask. Have you found your One?"

Bofur shrugged. "Yeah. But... I'm still young, so maybe... Maybe she's not sure yet?"

Bifur stared at his cousin for a long time before nodding sagely. "It does sometimes happen all at once for some dwarves and over many years for another. Give her time. But the tale of Tuni is not just to share of heartbreak. But a reminder of the duties of a One, even if that match in unmet."

Bofur wrinkled his forehead, nose, and mouth. "How do you mean?"

"Tuni still put the happiness of Imla first, even sacrificing his life for her joy. Serve the needs of your One, dutifully, Bofur. Honor this gift from Mahal."

Bofur nodded. "Of course!"

Bifur grinned. "So... Is she one of the miners you've been working with?"

Bofur choked and blushed a bright red, spluttering into his mustache braids.

~~~***~~~

English lessons with Dis were an exercise in patience. Dis apparently did have a head for languages, but struggled to pronounce the syllables of the words or draw the shapes of the letters. "You've almost got it, Dis."

"Never let it be said that a princess of Durin was defeated by a simple sentence!" The khuzdul was roared almost near a battle cry, which amused Orla and Dis determinedly pressed on. They had rolled through the alphabet, numbers one through one hundred, and several simple phrases, such as "Hello", "Thank you", "No", and "I don't know".

Life in the service of a princess continued very much the same, although now that her communication skills had markedly improved, though she still heavily relied on Inglishmek, Orla began sitting in on Dis' other lessons. Balin often presented information, taking care to sign as he spoke. The tales of Durin the first, the travels of the Seven Fathers, the wooing of the Six Wives, and the Calling of Crafts enraptured Orla.

"The Calling of a Craft often is more intuitive than most young dwarves would prefer. But their is great wisdom in this, for once you begin to exercise your craft, it feels as natural as breathing. This does not mean it is easy, for skills in any craft must be earned with work, practice, and failures. But the fulfillment of those efforts is worth all the frustration and work, I assure you."

"So how did you find yours, Balin?" Frerin asked from his seat.

Frerin was usually in attendance, and occasionally, so was Thorin. Today it was just the two younger Durin siblings and Orla.

"As I said, it will be different for everyone, but... There was a discussion about trade with... With the people of Dale. I got the opportunity to express some of my opinions on he matter to my father, who noticed the amount of passion in my words, voice, and behavior. He recommended that I serve the needs of those drafting the contracts, and it was the easiest thing to know that was my Craft."

"Yeah, but how did you know?" Dis voiced in frustration.

Balin sighed. "Words do not serve the certainty I felt, Dis. It was as if I had constantly had an internal voice crying out, so regularly I no longer even heard it. And it was suddenly silent. A deep sense of peace, I suppose I would call it. Though it will not feel that way for all. My brother, for example, compared it to the feel of sore muscles after a good round of drills with the guard."

Frerin pound. "Thorin said he was pulled. Like no matter where he wants to go, his feet take him to the closest forge."

Balin smiled ruefully, and Orla hid a grin of her own behind her hand. "Thorin's Craft has adapted to a particularly stubborn Durin, ensuring that no matter where he planned on going, the Calling would be heard."

Dis snorted and Frerin smirked.

"You are both young still, and I do not expect your Crafts to Call so soon. It is certainly possible, but less likely." Balin's tone was gently confident in the way of those who had lived such longer than he had.

Orla wrinkled her nose. Would she have a craft? She looked down at her hands. What would they make? Contracts like Balin, ironwork like Thorin, weaving like Lori?

"What about Orla?" Dis' voice drew her attention back to the others in the room. "Do you know your craft yet, Orla?"

Orla smiled tightly and shook her head.

"I should hope not! I haven't found mine yet and I'm older!" Frerin's mock relief lightened the mood enough for the focus of the lesson to return to the lore regarding Crafts.

~~~***~~~

Orla was combing out her beard, now substantially thicker and longer- a good two inches of thick hair that was much softer than it looked, when she noticed something different. Setting aside the silver comb Bifur had given her, she placed her hand against her nightshirt, pulling it taught against her barrel-shaped ribcage. She pulled her shoulders back and blinked down in mild misbelief. She had the start of breasts.

Again.

She had forgotten just how bizarre it have been the first time she'd grown them. So far, they weren't painful, heavy, uncomfortable, or obstructive yet, but she flashed back to several memories of her thirteen-year-old former self dealing with several new struggles. Wracking her memories, vague struggles in department stores before the dawn of training bras and learning to develop the habit of applying deodorant, when her morning routine had only consisted of putting clothes on and brushing her hair.

Fighting off a sudden wave of tears, she decided to turn in early. Her fingers began to braid tiny braids along her chin as she tugged on it to prevent crying. This had the unintended effect of making tears flow more freely. "Why am I crying?" she muttered helplessly in English to her pillow. "Why the hell am I even crying?" In response to her tears, anger welled up from the pit of her stomach and it was like her skin had been set to boil.

With the rage crackling under her skin, she lifted her pillow and threw it as hard as she could from the bed. The muscles in her arm sang in such a satisfying way, that she reached for the next thing at hand and threw it with both hands at the floor. The comb bounced against the tiles, and skittered under the bed, spine bent. With a low roar, she scooped up her belt near the bed with her clothes for the next day, and struck the bedding with it. For a full minute she repeatedly stuck the bed, whipping the downy-filled blankets, tears rolling down her cheeks, until she collapsed on her knees, panting for air, leather strap in hand.

Her fingers still hummed with energy, but the rest of her rage felt soothed, and her arms fell limply to her sides.

"Grrilytu."

Orla jumped and turned to find Irlde in the doorway, Dis standing just behind her. She wiped furiously at her eyes and mumbled, "What you said?"

Irlde smiled into her gray beard, wrinkles folding deeper on the patches of visible skin. "Grrilytu. Child then adult. Changing. Mind hot and cold. Anger. Love. Sadness." The simpler phrases Orla understood.

"Changing? Puberty?" Orla guessed.

At an impasse, the dwarrowdam sidestepped Orla's inquiry and gestured to the mess. "Feel better?"

Orla nodded, bewildered.

"Good. Now clean it up."

Orla moved to do so, not that much needing doing for order to be restored. She clutched her comb in her hands. It wasn't broken, but she had certainly dented and bent it. Seeing it warped along the spine and several of the tines poking at off angles, Orla felt a wave of disappointment flow over her. What had she done?

Irlde waved for her to pass the comb over, and Orla did so. Irlde tossed it into the lit hearth.

"No!" Orla' shriek volleyed her forward until Irlde's strong grip held her back from reaching into the flames. "That was a gift!"

Chapter Text

The hum of shuttles speeding between threads countered the wooden clacking of the looms. Lori’s muscled burned pleasantly: shoulders, arms, fingers, hips, thighs, legs, and feet, as she wove and wove.

She felt so much peace when working over a loom. Her mind could unravel all the tangled yarn in it, as her fingers swiftly bound dyed threads into patterns and panels, making sense out of chaos.

“So, things finally settled in for your little ones, then?”

Her loom partner, the dwarf sitting behind her, Tunin, had always preferred conversation over silence while working, unless the project was especially ambitious. And even then, he’d be talking to himself, snapping at anyone who tried to interrupt his channels of thought.

“Yes. The little ones are getting on very well with Bombur. They enjoy spending time with Bofur when he’s back from the mines, and with Bifur when he’s not at his post.” Lori paused her shuttle and reached for a new one, ready to begin weaving the color change.

“Ah, yes. Bifur. The heroic dwarf who saved our princess.” The words were spoken without a bite, but Lori suspected there was more. “And heroically offered you a home as well.”

Lori pinched her brow at him. “Well, it was my idea actually, as we would half our child care needs, initially, and be freer with them when we could be.”

“I know, I know,” Tunin nodded. “I just wonder what you see in the arrangement. Surely it isn’t all practical and child-minded?”

Lori snapped her loom sharply. “Do you have something to say about the two of us coparenting?”

“Your One died, Lori. There is no shame in seeking comfort.”

“Of course there isn’t. But I don’t need that sort of comfort, Tunin.” She wipes at tears on her cheeks. “I don’t think I’ll ever want that sort of comfort again. Bifur is a great dwarf, but I’m hardly a contender for his heart, or his bed. We share a house and work to make it a home for our children.” She started her shuttle once more.

“That is all.” She had expected a craft-we’d dwarf to be a little more compassionate, but Tunin had always been a study in blacks and whites, no room for greys.

She straightened her back and wove rapidly, deaf to the noises Tunin might make. She knew he only spoke up about it because he worried, but she gave every appearance of not having a worry in the world herself.

Her mind was far from as calm.

There was no shame in the solution she and Bifur had found for themselves. None at all, before themselves, their little ones, their king, or Mahal.

She felt no shame over any of it.

But.

How would her future Ori be born, as Orla claimed, if others questioned how close the co-parenting had bonded the two of them?

The better question might be, how would Ori be born, when she had no desire to “seek comfort” at all?

~~~***~~~

"Nori!" Dori was running around chasing the crawling toddler, red-faced. "You can't touch that! Or that! You know you shouldn't go over--NORI!!"

All this huffing and puffing from his brother amused the mischievous dwarfing who sat up and cackled, clapping his hands together in delight.

Dori wheezed a tired laugh and snagged his baby brother up and cuddled him close. "Stay away from the door; you could get hurt!"

Bombur waved the two over to join him on a large woven rug by the hearth.

The first day in the child center had been very scary for the dwarflings. They would be all alone, no one else they knew.

“You’ll be together, pebbles, and you’ll know each other!” Amad was always right, Dori knew, and she had been right this time. It was just like playing at home but in a different place.

Sure there were other dwarflings but none of them were as nice as Bombur, or as funny as Bofur, or as sweet as Orla. So, he decided it would be the three of them.

He took charge of their little trio, minding that Nori didn’t end up exploring where he shouldn’t—or quickly pulling him out of it when he did—and joining in on Bombur’s games.

Bombur knew loads of games!

They had started a game involving lines and dots on a bit of the hearth with charcoal before the mistress of the home told them they weren’t to mess up the place.

So, they began a new game. It was a finding game, but not about finding each other like they played with Orla. This was about finding something to look at, and making the others guess what it was.

Nori wasn’t a very good talker but he really liked pointing at things, so he must have liked playing the game too. In fact, it was the only game they could play that wouldn’t get interrupted by Dori needing to chase after his nadadith.

They played other games too, and sometimes just sat together quietly. Bombur was a good friend, almost as good as a brother, Dori thought.

~~~***~~~

Bifur stood at attention, eyes moving across the stretch of woodland within his vantage point. Those in his regiment moved silently, garbed in dark colors to blend in with the shadows of the mountains. Only the guards at the gate or patrolling the city wore the bright blue of The Blue Mountains, though every member had the black mark of Durin’s rune on their uniforms. Gate guard and city guard needed to be visible. Wall guard did not.

Scouts and lookouts, first line of defense and first warning, they did their work best in anonymity.

Bifur glanced down at the runner of their group, a lean dam by the name of Grin. She was a slip of a thing, as dwarrowdams went, and would easily evade notice as she sprinted to the inner reaches and sounded the horn.

Bifur looked to the left, eyes the shine of the water of the nearby river as it flowed under the moonlight. He glanced to the right and spied no movement in the trees. His ears picked up the chatter of night creatures nearby: bats mostly. He focused his gaze on the furthest part of the forest he could see and when that also turned up nothing he turned away.

He was replaced by another guard and helped himself to a bowl of stew and a hunk of meat still on the bone.

Guard duty was rather dull, but terribly vital. He couldn’t allow his mind to wander, and needed to focus on his task. So, whenever he found his thoughts wandering, he switched places with another guard, or put himself through a short stretch or exercise.

It wouldn’t do for the guards to become complacent when the edges of winter were lapping at the Mountains.

Mahal crafted dwarves for every purpose: to defend, to create, to lead and to love.

Mahal had called Bifur to be a guard: he had guarded the late queen and the princess, ready to lay down his life, even knowing his cousins would be shuffled along without him.

And Mahal had rewarded that service and attitude of sacrifice with Orla. A daughter.

A blessing for his household.

And Orla has brought more blessings: the Ri family were a boon for the young ones and for the ability to put more on the table. The boys had gotten new clothes from Lori and Bifur had proudly paid her for the materials though she had refused payment for the labor.

His life was a blessed one.

He would serve his family, his King, and Mahal in any capacity they asked of him.

~~~***~~~

Orla beat on the Irlde’s chest until her wrists were captured in a grip like steel.

“So much hot air and fire in the change. Cooler heads and common sense won’t come for a while, sadly,” the dam muttered.

She shoved Orla away from the fire before reaching in and plucking the comb up. It had heated quite nicely and her hands bent the soft metal until it looked like new once again.

Orla forget her anger in her surprise. “Not burned? Not broken?”

Irlde nodded safely. “Fire touch. I can hold heat and not burn. I am blessed by Mahal. Your comb was only bent. Adding heat, I can unbend it. All is well.”

Orla stared at the cooling, unbent comb held in fingers that didn’t feel the heat of it.

“Your temper is like your tears. Change is strange for the mind to mold.”

Orla blinked at her. Was she saying that was all a mood swing?

“But I felt anger, not gentle but rage?” Orla tried to make Irlde understand.

The older dam sighed and gestured Orla and Dis closet. “Longboard dwarves have tempers of fire; violent and hot, then gone. It is good that you are changing, but you need to learn to control your fire.”

~~~***~~~

There were thirteen miners to a team, and four teams to a shift.

Bofur learned the names of all the miners, the symbols for anything they were mining: coal, emeralds, sapphires, and quartz, and the routines.

So it stood out to him when the fourth group was twenty minutes late to report to him. Now he didn’t enter the mine, not really, but it was a long time just waiting at the mouth of one. So he took a few steps inside. Not far. Not far at all. Maybe the length of a spear or two stacked on end.

The smell hit him first, then the air rushing past, and then the ground began to shake. He hit the ground with bruising force and the ground seemed to wrap all around him and eager to bruise him on all sides.

His last thought was of Orla.

~~~***~~~

Balin left Thorin’s side to deliver his message to Dis inner chambers, regarding her request to spend more time together. The princess missed her oldest brother, who was forever needed somewhere in the mountain.

Balin nodded to Dis and her attendants. The younger one, Orla, looked at him with a polite smile, and then stared at him for a few minutes, intense sadness coloring her features.

He hurried through his business and left the room, but, he couldn’t shake that feeling that Orla had looked at him as if she knew his whole life, as if she knew when, where, and how he would die.

He shook the terrible thought aside, but didn’t let it disappear. He held onto it to dwell on later. For the moment, he hurried to meet his father and Prince Thrain in the Receiving Hall.

~~~***~~~

His mouth tasted awful. His tongue felt drier than dust and hands stung something fierce. The ringing in his head was also awful.

Most of him felt awful. Bofur gingerly shifted his head slightly, and felt a cascade of rubble, dust, and pebbles shiver down along his trapped body and limbs.

Right then.

He opened his eyes, and it somehow was even darker with them open than it was when they were closed.

Closed it was then.

He even his breathing, refusing to give in to panic. It was one of the first lessons the miners taught him: any time lost or caught in stone is a waiting game for a clear head, not a foolish one.

Once he felt slightly more calm he tried to focus on the feel of the stone around him.

Echoes of something like light but more like the reverberations of a large bell seemed to sound through him. He braved for another tremor but none came.

He listened and heard nothing, so he traces his fingers over the stones, and there was that not-sound again.

Carefully feeling around him, he tried and failed to hear or feel or whatever it was anything else.

Finally, when he gave up, it happened again.

It felt too real to be a hallucination and he couldn’t make it happen when he wanted it to, so what was it?

Bofur let go and felt for it, and it felt like flexing a muscle he’d never noticed he had before.

The gong was louder this time, and sheltered in it were thirteen quiet chimes. Smaller bells.

Bofur nearly choked on dust when he inhaled sharply as he realized what was happening. “Stone sense,” he breathed reverently.

The tiny hand bell sounds must be the miners.

And the large bell, it must be the Blue Mountains themselves.