Chapter 1: Innocents
As the Khazâd discovered in exile, no place is home to perfect luck. The Iron Hills had pure ore but harsh weather. The Red Mountains had veins of precious stone but no fuel for fires. Khazâd-dum had a Balrog, Azsâlul'abad a dragon, Gund’abad a rash of orcs. And what did the southernmost tip of Khagal’abad have?
Rivers full of salmon. Meadows full of cows and clover. And the happiest, healthiest, stupidest dwarves alive.
The Firebeards of the Southeastern Spur had heard once about a Great Wandering. Was it not long ago? Books described great stone citadels fallen and people scattered like tiny pebbles. As blind luck had it, some landed at the tail-tip end of the Khagal’abad chain. They dug themselves right in and wandered nevermore.
The Spur overlooked broad, green, flower-strewn downs rolling all the way to the placid Brandywine. No invading army could cross such country unnoticed, and none ever tried. There, Firebeards waxed prosperous and peaceful, knowing no want, fearing no foe. With every passing decade, they grew wealthier, happier— and more and more ridiculous.
At home, all of life’s richness was theirs to wear like a crown. Outside, they were considered nitwits. They didn’t know that their clothes lacked taste, their conversation lacked sense, or that their luck rankled those who had starved and scraped. Their naivety endeared them to cutpurse and charlatan. You literally could not take them anywhere— lucky, since they seldom traveled.
If the Spur-Dwellers’ seclusion had one benefit, it was this: their friendly natures remained unspoilt. Cynicism was as unknown to them as hunger or ague. Had Thorin ever bothered to seek them out, he might have found them willing allies. As it was, they remained blessedly unaware of the slight.
Thorin’s quest affected the Spur-Dwellers little, but his death struck them deeply. For them, he was a hero of legend, shining dimly in the distance, revered if not exactly remembered. A number of their chieftains proposed to travel north and pay their respects. They nominated Fjôl – a junior chieftain with four strapping sons and a daughter too plain to compete with their own – to act as chief map-reader. Then they set forth, waving tribal pride like a banner, parading in style to meet their new sovereign!
They got lost halfway down their own valley.
Chapter 2: The Black-Eyed Girl
Open, Master Bhurin called up to the sentry.
They - eleven chieftains, eight wives, twenty-one sons, four daughters, seven master-craftsmen, and twenty-eight servants - swept through the gates and into the courtyard on a stream of glad-hearted chatter.
What lovely views… Such pleasant, shady trees… And the most delightful weather, not at all as chilly as everyone says…
To no longer be in motion was such a relief that some even sat down directly on the paving-stones.
When we see our rooms… When we bathe and dress… have an audience with the Durins… feast and dance… meet the Heir… tour the grounds…
Bhurin beat a hasty retreat behind the stronghold door.
Moments later Nori (unrecognizable in fresh garb, hair and beard tamed by Ori’s best effort) slipped through a side portal. Dozens of eager faces turned toward him, then - bored or disinterested - turned away.
How little it takes, Nori marveled. A clean kit and a bit of pomade, and no one would know me from a stone.
Her parents had decked her out in a traveling outfit as achingly new as Nori’s, and a brocade hood concealed her rust-red curls. But she was herself, and she met and held Nori’s eye. No smiles, no nods— too risky in mixed company, and anyway, they had a fiction to uphold. But their shared gaze knitted back together a seam temporarily unsewn.
(So I see. That’s some outfit.)
(You should talk.)
Black eyes unblinking, she turned her head toward a second group of travelers streaming now through the gate. In their center, a knot of sober-looking greybeards held themselves aloof.
Nori rolled his eyes.
Jera scratched the right corner of her mouth with her middlemost finger, then made a show of adjusting her rings, slipping them up and down from joint to joint and turning them around— once left, twice right, back to the start and around again. Decoded, the message made Nori’s mouth curl. Too bad he’d not have a chance to speak to Fíli until later. He touched the midpoint between his eyebrows, then tugged his beard-braid once. Thus was the hour of his next rendezvous with Jera set.
The stronghold door swung wide open: Bhurin again.
They’re waiting for you in the great room, he announced.
A faint, restive note threaded through the crowd, tarnishing joy as it traveled. Not even a bath first, or a change of clothes? No drummers or trumpeters, not even a banner-bearer for show? ‘They’— is that how these northerners address the Heirs of Durin the Deathless?
By right of their status, the elders should have led the procession. But they stood talking only to each other while the Spur-Dwellers stewed. Greatly embarrassed, High Chieftain Halfur finally gave the signal to move.
Fjôl nudged his wife Eira, who in turn glanced at their four sons. One of them whistled through his teeth, and without another glance at Nori, the black-eyed girl rejoined her family.
Chapter 3: Making Ready
You have only ever known people of our own tribe, Dís said. Her hands compulsively smoothed the panels of her caftan. These Khazâd are Spur-Dwellers, a very old and wealthy clan. They don’t travel much, and some folk think them… odd. Quaint. Still, they come in friendship. We must all show them hospitality.
And may the elders choke on the crumbs, Ori thought.
I wonder what they’ll make of us, offered Fenja. A crew of roughnecks with no manners to speak of.
I like our manners. Sulky Kíli stood passive as Fíli walked around him, tugging and tucking and straightening. We’re p-plain people. We didn’t grow up with gold. We forge our own nails and sh…shoe our own ponies.
I wish there was time to carve these words on the main gate, said Fenja.
They must be aware that this is not Erebor. Fíli spoke gravely, though his glance struck Dís as wry. If it’s grandeur they want, they’ve come a long way for nothing. He finished his once-over and whispered to Kíli, Unless they came to see you, beautiful man. I’ll have to fight them all for a moment of your time.
Sssh, warned Dís. I hear them in the hall.
Chapter 4: Tribute
As they realized that what seemed like a guard house was the whole house, and its great room would barely qualify as a parlor back home, the Firebeards of the Southeastern Spur grew very quiet. Did royalty really, truly live here? Did they come all this distance to be received in a broom closet?
It had to be a joke. Yet none of the elders seemed put out, so the Spur-Dwellers nervously held their tongues.
Beneath a massive bronze ikon of Durin the Deathless stood a group of Khazâd, deplorably small in number. All wore simple tunics and trousers under caftans edged with common wolves’ fur. No regalia, not even a gold thread! In such plain garb, the dark-haired woman who raised her hands to hail them could have passed for a servant in the Spur-Dwellers’ own halls. Then she spoke, and their displeasure vanished at the sound of her deep, mellifluous voice.
I am Dís, daughter of Thráin, granddaughter of Thrór, sister of Thorin…
Jera noticed that Thráin’s daughter spoke directly to High Chieftain Halfur. She didn’t even look to the elders, and neither did any member of her household.
…let friendship weld us and no strife sunder us.
Halfur waved forward his attendants. They carried a tall, satin-draped object to the front of the room and set it down before Dís. As they lifted the cloth, her gasp sliced through the hush of the hall.
Halfur’s artisans had created an exquisite golden ikon in the form of a triptych. On its center panel, Thorin battled a gem-encrusted dragon. It entwined him in graceful curves, lapping under and over and around his limbs. Where his sword pierced it, cut rubies spilled from the wound. Thráin and Thrór watched proudly from the side panels, one holding the Crown of Durin, the other the Arkenstone. In the background loomed a stylized Aszâlul’abad.
As Dís and Halfur clasped hands and shared breath in front of the triptych, those closest said they saw tears in her eyes. It was well that she held their attention, for her sons battled their own dragon in the background.
They’ve made up a ssss…story about how Uncle died, Kíli hissed in Fíli’s ear.
They didn’t mean to, Zanid. They don’t know what we know.
It’s not rrrrrr… not right. Kíli shook with the effort to keep his anger from showing. It’s a lie, Mim.
Fíli placed a hand on his naddith’s back, half to calm, half to warn. ‘Ibinê, you upset yourself too much, he whispered. Share with me.
Brow resting on brow, hands resting on shoulders, they shut out the rest of the hall as best they could.
Remember what you promised Mother, murmured Fíli.
To be good.
Yes, to be good. Remember what you promised me, love of mine.
Kíli leaned a little more heavily into their breath-sharing. To be calm so that I don't f-fall.
Yes. These people want to please us, not hurt us, said Fíli. They think Uncle was a hero, like we do. What they don’t know about it, they imagine— so let them. It doesn’t change anything, does it?
Kíli shook his head. Unseen, his thumb strayed above fur collar to brush warm skin.
Then be patient, yasthunê. This day will not last forever. Remember that our quiet room is at the end of it. Fíli wrapped a steadying arm around Kíli’s shoulders. And at the end of every day until these people leave. And then winter will come and go, and then we’ll be on the island…
The Spur-Dwellers’ hearts swelled to behold how their tribute moved the Heirs of Durin. A great sigh gusted through the hall as they knelt as one, prostrating themselves on the floor in the old way.
Who but hill folk would be so backward? sneered one elder to another.
Chapter 5: Feast for the Eyes
Khazâd flaunt their pedigrees as much as Shire-folk, but in a manner uniquely dwarven. Long-winded lists of who begat whom bore them. Why talk when one need only look?
For the banquet that evening, Fenja donned a rich velvet surcoat with a hem motif picked out in seed pearls. Its pattern told of her descent from Ivar, brother of Stavja, Glóin the First’s chosen queen. Though distant, the relation was direct, so Fenja had full right to it.
According to their embossed leather wrist cuffs, Dori, Nori, and Ori traced their lineage back to Ran, wife of Óin the First’s reckless brother Stavrin, who squandered his legacy on a barren mithril mine. The brother’s cuffs omitted that last part, but their thrice-mended caftans told the truth.
The silver gorget that lay upon Bhurin’s breastbone had once covered the heart of his cousin Ganin. Its motif of eagle’s wings declared their mutual kinship with Hríma, Thorin the First’s common-law wife after his Queen died of fever. Every time Bhurin wore it, Dís touched it for remembrance.
A surfeit of crests adorned every Spur-Dweller neck, wrist, finger, brow, earlobe, knife hilt, belt buckle and sash, but Fjôl’s wife Eira outdid them all. She wore a massive gold torc whose dragon-head finials proclaimed her descent from Heira the All-High, the legendary warrior-queen whose consort Tethet Split-Tooth tamed a cold-drake runt to give to her as a pet.
Haya fastened her new overgown with a gaudy jade pin given her by her father, the obscure son of even more obscure parents. He’d won it at a fair for lopping off a lit candlewick in one axe-stroke without extinguishing the flame. It wasn’t much, but Haya cherished it like mithril and wore it with no less dignity than Eira did her torc.
Being the mistress of this hall, Dís had no need to declare her lineage through dress or ornament. Instead, she wore personal pieces: matching silver shoulder-brooches given her by her brothers; a tourmaline ring of her mother’s; the sand-diamond circlet, whose makers (it was noticed) had not yet made an appearance.
Shall I fetch your good tunics out of storage? Fenja had offered. The question stirred up an old obstinacy in Fíli.
No, he’d retorted. Little sense in looking like princes when we won’t be kings.
But Kíli thought differently. Let’s wear Uncle’s. For luck, Mim.
No fanfare marked their entrance to Thorinutumnu’s feast-hall; they simply strode in like a pair of common smiths home from the forge. Surveying their entwined fingers, no one thought twice, for Khazâd do not consider affection any kind of fault. Rather, it was their borrowed garb that drew comment.
Thorin’s castoffs, one of the elders - Stothrin of Gund’abad – bitterly observed. I suppose they hope to appeal to the local riffraff. Patched elbows and ragged hems! This is what the line of Durin has come down to—
You look, yet you don’t see. This from Forekhet of far Baraz’abbad. He’d noticed the brothers’ traded hair ornaments and matching rings. His eyes pierced their veil. But at that very moment, the crowd erupted—
They’ve come! The Heirs have come!
—and the roar swallowed up his words of caution.
Chapter 6: Meeting
East by...just south of nn-northeast.
By you or by me?
Me. By you, it’d be… oi, she’s looking right at us!
She stood across the courtyard, resentment scorching a circle all around her. At dinner she’d kept those baleful eyes trained on her plate. Now they pierced Fíli and Kíli like augurs red-hot from the forge. Fíli thought she could use a drink or six; Kíli feared she might challenge him to a hand-axe match.
Why does she hh-hate us so much? he asked.
Fíli reckoned that what she really hated was her dress. The stiff, shiny-new, gold-encrusted, fur-bordered cherry velvet sarafan swayed like a bell with her every movement. She tried to hold it down with stiff arms, but it would not be subdued.
Her parents made her wear it, thought Fíli. She’d rather dress like Mother, or us. She hates everyone looking at her.
So stirred the first traces of fellow-feeling.
Every so often over the many decades of their friendship, he would ask, Whatever happened to that dress? He knew the answer, but he liked her version better.
What can I say, she'd drawl, twining her own grey-streaked hair as bachelors do. My forge-fire was hungry.
Here she comes, Kíli hissed. She ww-walks like Dwalin! Do you think we’re going to die tonight?
The other marriageable girls had practiced their lines. She had none, and she knew it, and no amount of mink and brocade could mask it. The only thing to do was to strip off the gilt and pursue her purpose.
Skidding to a halt an arm’s length from the brothers, she drew her courage from some deep well and let loose. Is there someplace quiet we can go to talk?
Fíli and Kíli froze like rabbits in an open field.
She tried again. Just to talk; nothing more.
Their eyes widened. Such was their innocence of women that more could mean anything, most of it alarming. Kíli hoisted one black banner of a brow as high as it would go.
Exasperated, the girl burst out: I’m not looking to marry you, if that’s what you’re worried about.
I’m not worried, Fíli replied.
She blew an errant strand of reddish-brown hair out of her eye. I won’t marry you either, she informed Kíli.
Poor me, he retorted, stunning all three of them.
Incredulous, she looked Kíli up and down. I like him, she announced to some invisible witness. Maybe I will marry him. Mother will die of joy if I bring home a Durin. She jerked her head to indicate a falcon-eyed dame surveilling them from across the courtyard. You can see she's already circling.
Fíli saw as if through an open window the life of a chieftain’s only daughter, and he felt indignant for this strange, prickly girl. Fenja would like her, he mused— then realized with surprise that he liked her, too. For reasons he might never entirely grasp, he’d already begun making room for her in his tribe.
What’s your name? he asked.
Jerrrrrrrrrra. Fíli and Kíli winced; how would they manage the trill? But the girl waved their misgivings away. That's how Mother says it. She’s from Baraz’abad. Plain Jera – this spoken with the Khagal’abad tapped R – is fine.
I'm Fíli; he's Kíli.
Oh, I’m aware. Will you speak with me, then? Not here; somewhere private.
I don’t know. People talk.
Jera flashed a wicked smile. If you fear for your virtue, bring your brother, and I’ll bring mine. Thrusting finger and thumb into her mouth, she whistled, and four broad-built Khazâd trooped to her side.
Ari-Uri-Ruri-Eri, said Jera. You can imagine what Mother does to their names.
As the four swept off their fancy hoods, Fíli marveled at their shared resemblance. All - including Jera - possessed curly auburn hair, tanned faces liberally sown with freckles, keen walnut-black eyes. They held themselves identically, too: square and broad, feet planted wide, utterly confident in themselves and each other. To a pair of brothers so distinct and yet so dependent upon one another, this proud little band was an eye-opener.
The two groups - Durins on one side, Spur-dwellers on the other - began to search the terrain between them for the footholds of friendship.
Which one of you is the oldest? Fíli wanted to know.
She is, replied Ruri. He rested his chin neatly atop his sister's head. I'm youngest.
And tallest, like him. Jera jabbed her thumb in the direction of Kíli, who at that very moment was waving Ori over; he'd thought up his own joke and longed to show off.
Hhh...here's Ori, he told Jera. Ori, these are Jera, Ari, Ruri… Eri and Uri.
That's not all, Fíli cut in. Ori has two brothers named Nori and Dori.
NO, Jera shouted.
Heads turned, especially her mother's.
NO, Jera forged onward. That's it. It's fate. We're all swearing kin-oaths tonight, or may our talk end on an axe’s blade!
Kíli snatched at Fíli’s elbow. He was right from the first! She wanted to fight!
In time, he would learn to laugh at Jera's outbursts; her mock-rage was her best running joke. But he and his family would also come to understand the purpose behind it. Jera had a craft, and that craft required many voices, many acts, many masks. She showed her true being to her chosen friends only. In return, their secrets were guaranteed safe with her.
As Ari-Uri-Ruri-Eri took turns knuckling their new brother Ori's pate, Jera’s face subtly softened. Angling herself toward Fíli and Kíli, she commenced hand-signing.
(Let these boys play while we grown people talk.)
Fíli hesitated. Jera's obsidian eyes snapped with humor and challenge.
(If you need more proof of my good intentions, ask Nori to join us.)
An ice-water thrill raced down Fíli’s spine; he felt his pulse accelerate. He kept his hand-signs close to his body and inconspicuous, but excitement made his fingers shake.
(I'm already vouched for, am I?)
Fíli dared to think so.
(Tomorrow morning in my mother’s quarters. Bring your brothers. I'll bring Nori.)
(And this one?)
She meant Kíli, who immediately reared up like a resentful foal. Fíli touched his brother's chest and signed to Jera with special emphasis.
(I will hear nothing that he doesn't.)
(Suit yourself. Let's play.)
And with that Jera punched her supposed future sovereign on the arm.
Over the next century, fortune would sow them all far and wide. Ori and Haya landed in Moria; Dori and Nori in Erebor. Eri and Uri ran a jasper mine in Baraz’abad, where they learned to properly trill their R's. Ruri took up with a widow and founded a profitable brewery in New Lake-town. Ari stayed on in the Spur and succeeded his father as chieftain; he married Balin's youngest daughter. And Jera remained married to spycraft, though she dabbled in cast iron. Every gate, grate, firedog and frying pan on Himling bore her maker's mark.
All through the decades, hawks flew back and forth. Ori, as always, was the most prolific letter-writer, and Kíli the least. But only one note between Fíli and Jera still exists— a scrap of paper delivered by sea-raven from Himling, bearing a single word: COME.