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Springtime at the Lonely Mountain

Chapter Text

A dwarf maiden sat resting her back against a great old oak growing on a hill by the northern trail to Erebor. Her face turned towards the Grey Mountains far in the north. Her eyes were firmly set on the road, eagerly waiting to spot a familiar figure on a horse. It was a quiet, lazy spring day, and the afternoon sun shined on the flourishing land below. A gentle breeze passed through the oak’s branches and nearby bushes. Not seeing any signs of the rider, the young woman sighed and returned to her drawings. Her hand was absentmindedly chalking some abstract shapes in a sketchbook resting against her lap.

“He’s coming back today, I can feel it,'' Ása reassured herself for the tenth time that day, not being able to focus on her work. If she could only conjure it up by uttering the words aloud.

The Bonfire Festival would happen in less than two weeks. The whole city of Dale was already busy as a beehive with all the preparations.

Thorin had promised her that they would celebrate it together, as soon as he came back. He was about to leave Erebor on a long, diplomatic mission, accompanying his father, Thrain. She closed her eyes for a few moments, recalling that day. It was a few months ago when they had said their goodbyes. Much too long. She still remembered his touch, his hungry mouth, and his affectionate words when they last met in their secret place. Her heart was painfully yearning for him with each passing day. But now her Mizim* was finally coming back to her.

Not until the first raindrops fell on her face did she realize she had somehow managed to fall asleep. She sighed, not opening her eyes, and wrapped herself tighter in her shawl. Rain or no rain, she desperately wanted to get back to the dream of her beloved she was having just a few moments ago. She knew she should be heading home soon, lady Barba has probably already discovered her ward has disappeared. As far as she knew the energetic matron, Ása suspected that Barba had half of the Erebor’s guards searching for her by now. She should not have sneaked out again, she knew it very well, but the thought of finally seeing Thorin was overwhelming. Ah, Thorin, the only dwarf she had eyes for...

Suddenly, she felt a whiff of cool air and a rush of quick movement. A very well-known voice whispered something into her left ear... Was she dreaming again?

“What a lovely surprise, my lady,'' the deep baritone voice murmured, almost instantly making her shiver with pleasure. “May a humble traveler ask who you might be waiting for?”

Her heart fluttered. She opened her eyes and her smile widened. This was much better than any dream. Just a few inches away, she saw his handsome face, tanned during recent travels. His dark beard seemed to be thicker and a bit longer than she remembered. And those deep blue eyes that always made her think of a stormy sea were now expectantly looking into her own. He smelled of fresh air, bonfire smoke, and pines. Of adventure and freedom.

“Oh, but my lord,'' she whispered, feeling his body heat so close to her, “You must know that I have not been waiting for anyone. I have been simply observing the white-eyed kestrels and sketching these birds for artistic purposes. Travelers, humble or not, do not interest me in the slightest.” Saying this, she sat straight up, just like a proper lady would. 

She even moved slightly away from him, breaking their eye contact and trying to look unmoved, but her body betrayed her. She felt her cheeks flush. She swallowed and licked her lips in anticipation, not daring to look at him.

“Is that so?”, his mouth came even closer to hers. Dangerously close. She could feel the warmth of his steady breath on her left cheek. The sensation mingled with the scarce raindrops falling from between the tree branches. Her heart started beating even faster, her cheeks flushed with excitement. He smiled, realizing he was close to winning the teasing game they both knew by now almost by heart.

“Is that so?”, he repeated, his voice deepened even more. His eyes twinkled. “And is it a bit unseemly for such a young lady of a noble house to wander alone and unchaperoned into the wilderness, where the wild beasts roam?”

“I am not afraid of any wild beasts, my lord,” she teasingly moved her face a bit away from him. She made an effort to avoid his eyes and tried to keep her resolve.

His warm fingers touched her right cheek, slightly damp with rain. He gently turned her face towards him. Their gazes met again, and she could almost see the sparks flying between them. She could drown in those magnetic eyes that seemed to never leave her face.

“Then tell me, my lady, what are you afraid of?” he asked, looking at her expectantly. 

“I think you know the answer to this question very well, my lord. I am only afraid of a certain Beast... This Beast roams the halls of Erebor and pretends to be fully tamed,” she whispered, knowing she could not resist any longer. Slowly, she leaned towards him, almost closing the distance between their lips.

He chuckled, shaking his slightly wet mane of dark hair adorned with silver beads. She could feel the water droplets landing on her flushed neck.

“If this dangerous beast strikes fear into your heart, my lady,” he murmured, “I feel obliged to alleviate this unpleasant feeling... at once.”

Just then, their lips finally met in a hot, passionate kiss of two lovers kept apart for too long. Thorin tried very hard to keep his resolve, to act like a gentledwarf, but when he tasted her, her closeness and scent made him feel intoxicated. She smelled just like he remembered, with lilac and lavender. And she was finally in his arms.

He had been waiting for this moment for far too long, but it was certainly worth it. Her closeness and her warmth, it was all he needed right now. He gently nibbled on her lips and then placed a flutter of butterfly kisses on her face, enjoying how she responded to him, her breath quickening, a barely audible moan escaping her lips. 

She wrapped her arms around his neck, one of them delving into the long hair on his neck, while she playfully sucked on his lower lip. He growled, and then pressed his torso against her breasts, almost crushing them. He skillfully slid his tongue between her lips, moving deeper, exploring, their kiss becoming more and more passionate. 

When she purred with pleasure, he grinned and murmured, “I am sorry to inform you, my lady, but I believe this beast can’t pretend any longer that he is untamed. He needs to ravish you here and now.” Saying this, he laid her on the ground, moving on top of her and covering her mouth with his.

“But my lord…” she started, feigning outrage in her voice and pulling him closer to her. He moved to her neck, nuzzling her with his mouth and arousing her even more. 

“Oh, Thorin...”, a soft moan slipped her mouth. 

“I missed you too, Ása, my love,'' he replied, raising his head and looking into her eyes with the look that made her heart pound even faster. 

He playfully smiled with that secret smile he had just for her, and then Thorin’s mouth rushed towards her neck and further, to her collarbone. His hair and beard tickled her sensitive skin. She chuckled. 

“Oh… Please, my lord… have mercy on me, my untamed Beast...!” she muffled a giggle.

“Oh no,'' he growled mischievously into her ear, “nothing can save you from the Beast now,” and returned to nuzzling and tickling her neck even more. She couldn’t contain her giggling.

All of a sudden, they heard a horse quickly trotting, stopping and whinnying in a distance. They both froze, exchanging an alarmed glance. This could mean only one thing. They have been discovered!

“Thorin!”, a voice shouted. “I know you’re there!”.

Chapter Text

Thorin growled.

“Dwalin.” He murmured.

The tension on his face slowly subsided.

Ása sighed with relief. How could she not have recognized his voice sooner? It definitely belonged to Thorin’s right hand (and his best friend) who accompanied him on this journey.

The young prince quickly helped her to get up. Luckily, it took just a few moments for them to make themselves a bit more presentable, even though their clothes have become wet from the falling rain.

“We’re here, Dwalin”, Thorin shouted.

“I’d better go,” Ása started, quickly gathering her things, including the almost completely soaked sketchbook. “Something tells me that Lady Barba is already tearing the whole Erebor apart searching for me.”

Thorin sighed.

 “My father…” he started, lowering his eyes to the ground and clenching his fists. The raindrops flowed down from his troubled face. 

“Your father doesn't like surprises. Nor scandals,” she said, gently cupping his face, her small hands brushing against his damp beard. He pressed one of her wet palms to his warm lips. 

“Leave it to me, my love. Meet me at our place at midnight. I have to tell you something,” he whispered, squeezing her hands reassuringly.

“I’ll be there,” she replied, seeing a storm of emotions in his eyes. 

They kissed longingly again under the ancient branches of the old Traveller’s Oak, while the rain kept growing stronger around them. 

The steady hum of rain seemed to cancel out all the other sound, except for the noise made by someone walking towards them among the wet blades of grass.

“Ahem,” Dwalin cleared his throat. He stood just a few steps away from the couple, wrapped in a cloak, hood pulled over his head. 

Thorin growled, having to interrupt the kiss. 

“Yes, yes, I know it, they will be here any moment,” he scowled.

“Good day, m’lady”, said Dwalin, taking a bow.

“Good day to you, master Dwalin,” Ása replied, nodding. “What brings you here in this wonderful weather?” she smiled.

“I came to tell Thorin that he is getting sloppy,” grinned the dwarf. “I could see his pony from a couple of miles away!”

Ása giggled.

“Dwalin…” Thorin scowled, not finding this remark amusing at all.

“I told Crown Prince Thrain that I would go ahead to find you,” continued Dwalin, pretending not to notice Thorin’s scowl. “He wants us to rejoin his train before reaching Erebor. Will Lady Ása perhaps be joining us?” he winked at the young woman.

“You are right, Dwalin, I need to go now if I don’t want to get caught in a compromising position with two handsome dwarf warriors”.

“Indeed, m’lady”, he replied. “Although I see only one handsome warrior here and one very wet hen,” he chuckled, pointing at Thorin. The prince's mane of dark hair was soaked with rain.

“DWALIN.” Thorin growled, stepping towards his friend. “Better bring Lady Ása’s pony here. Or else.”

“Of course, m’lord Wet Hen, I’m on my way!” Dwalin chuckled, feigning a silly bow, and went to fetch the pony. Thorin sighed hopelessly.

“He’s in a very good mood today,” observed Ása.

“I suspect it may have something to do with a certain lady he took a liking to before we left,” said Thorin. “And now he can’t wait to see her again. I think I understand how he feels... At midnight?”

"At midnight." Ása nodded, pulled on her coat and hastily said her farewells to both dwarves. Soon she and her swift pony were following the trail back to Erebor.

 

Thorin turned to his friend.

“Thank you, Dwalin, you saved us again,” he patted him on the back in appreciation.

“‘Tis but my duty, m’lord,'' Durin made another of his mock bows. “Besides, I couldn’t look at this poor lassie getting completely soaked…”

“Oh yes, the rain,” Thorin nodded absentmindedly, sighing and staring at the small figure in the distance striding on a pony towards the Lonely Mountain.

“No, you wooden-head, in your saliva!”, Dwalin laughed, clapping his hands against his thighs.

Thorin growled.

“Dwalin, I swear… Your punches fly really low today. Weren’t you supposed to be a decent wrestler?”

“Whaaat? Are you doubting my prowess? My prince, you wound my dwarven pride! I demand satisfaction!” replied his friend, grinning. Dwalin quickly took off his cloak and feigned an attack. Thorin chuckled, got rid of his tunic, and soon both were entangled in a wrestling match. Thanks to the steady rainfall, their mock fight soon started to resemble mud wrestling. The young prince was aware that his friend was trying to take his mind off all of the problems and duties that waited for Thorin in Erebor, but he didn’t mind it in the slightest. Physical activity was just what he needed after spending too many days in the saddle, surrounded by ever-helpful servants.

Both dwarves seemed to be relentless in their fight, not minding the drenching rainfall and muddy turf beneath them with grass completely trampled by their heavy boots. Finally, after an especially tricky wrestling hold, the ground simply gave way and they both slipped, falling onto their backs. Dwalin tried to get up first, but he slipped again. Thorin was just on the way to lift his upper body when his friend pulled him down and they both fell into a newly created puddle. The dwarves looked at each other, their faces and clothes almost completely covered with mud, and both burst out laughing loudly.

 

“What is so funny, my son? Will you share the joke with the rest of us?” a raspy voice said.

Their laughter stopped as if cut by a knife.

Thorin’s father, Thrain, son of the king Thror, looked at both dwarves from the height of his pony with a cold glance. The Crown Prince was dressed in the finest and richly ornamented dwarven clothes. His personal guard surrounded him. Behind him, Thorin could see the other members of their rather large party.

“Father, I…” the young prince started, taking a step towards the regal figure of his father.

“Dwalin,” continued Thrain, not letting his son finish. “Did I not tell you to bring my son back to me?”

“Yes, Your Royal Highness, you did,” mumbled Dwalin, getting up and bowing. “I apologize, Your Royal High..”

“Hilni,” Thrain shouted through the rain. “Get these two out of my sight. And make sure they do not bring shame to the king, looking like that during our triumphant return to Erebor. We have to make the best impression on our guests.”

“Yes, Your Royal Highness, right away!”, a stout dwarf with a large reddish nose directed his pony towards the two miserable culprits. “This way, Your Highness, Master Dwalin”, he bowed his head and turned towards the far end of the traveling party.

“I will deal with both of you later,” Thrain announced coldly. “Move on!” he shouted to his guards and ordered his pony to trot towards the Kingdom under the Mountain, not sparing another glance at his son.

Thorin growled, pacing towards his pony. 

This was turning out to be a very long, rainy afternoon.

Chapter Text

“And for the love of Mahal, you ruined your hair completely! How are we going to fix it properly?”, Lady Barba sonorous voice filled Ása’s chambers completely.

The young dwarf maiden was standing in a puddle of muddy water in front of a large fireplace. Her clothes were soaking wet. She was soaking wet. And cold on top of that. She felt like a miserable pile of laundry left in a washtub for too long by a forgetful washerwoman.

“I’m sssorry, Lady B-bbb-barba, but I really wanted to sketch t-tthose white-eyed k-kestrels.” Her words were barely comprehensible through chattering teeth.

Lady Barba sighed. “Birds? Again? You and your wild escapades! Yesterday you wanted to hear some larks singing, the day before that you absolutely needed to find a… a…”

“A b-bb-bullfinch, Lady Barba” Ása uttered quietly, grinning slightly at her latest excuses for sneaking out of the mountain to check for any signs of her beloved’s return. She lowered her head to hide the happiness she felt, trying to withstand the raging storm around her in the form of a very energetic and distinguished older lady. Lady Barba kept walking back and forth and throwing her hands up in a dramatic fashion.

“A bullfinch or not, this is not how a proper young dwarven lady spends her afternoons. Oh, no! Are you a forest vagabond or a maiden of a noble house? And to think you sneaked out completely alone! Unchaperoned! What a scandal it would be if someone noticed you. And even worse, if something happened to you! I don’t know what I would do. I don’t even want to upset my poor heart thinking about it!” Lady Barba put her hand on her ample bosom.

“I’m sorry, Lady B-barba” Ása said quietly. “But I assure you, I was s-safe all the time and didn’t ride off v-very far!”

“Perhaps,” Lady Barba glanced skeptically at the girl. “But apart from that, you were away for too long! Only look at your complexion and hair, completely ruined by sunlight and rain! Have I not taught you anything, my child? Beauty and decorum!”

“Yes, Lady B-barba, b-beauty and d-decorum” Ása nodded, trying to sound convincingly.

“Exactly. And now, my girl, you will take a warm, nice bath.” Lady Barba stopped and smiled to her, fury almost gone from her face. Her mood changes were legendary and feared in Erebor and even the bravest dwarf warriors knew better than to “wake the Lady Dragon”, as they called her in secret. And that included her husband, Lord Beldrum, who was considered to be the bravest dwarf of them all. Or the stupidest, depending on how one looked at it. He, however, considered himself to be the luckiest dwarf in the entire Middle Earth. Hot-tempered or not, she was his One.

“Jutta, is the bath for lady Ása ready?” demanded Lady Barba.

“Just a moment, m’lady,” the maid’s voice came from the adjacent bath chamber. After a few moments, a red-haired girl in a maid’s uniform came out and said: “It’s ready, m’lady.”

“Thank you, Jutta. Take good care of our young lady Ása here. Make sure she is warmed up properly and presentable at the feast tonight. I’m thinking… that powder rouge dress would fit nicely…”

“The… feast? What feast?”, asked Ása suddenly.

“Oh, my girl, you and your escapades… haven’t you heard the news yet? Have you not seen the commotion everywhere? Remember what I taught you? A young lady must not only be sharp of wit, but also very perceptive, one step ahead of her allies and enemies alike,” the corpulent matron tsked.

Ása nodded. She knew better than to interrupt her guardian when she was in one of her moods.

Lady Barba continued. “His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Thrain has been spotted on the northern trail together with his train. Finally, after all these months! They are to arrive back to Erebor just before dawn. The king has ordered a grand feast to celebrate their return and everyone is working frantically to finish all the preparations on time.

“Do I h-have to go, Lady Barba? I’d rather finish my sketches, I promised Master Halfgrim…” Ása started, not really convinced by her own words. In normal circumstances, she would love to stay in her chambers after a long day, but the thought of seeing Thorin sooner than at midnight filled her heart with joy and new strength.

“Yes, my dear, you have to go.” Barba sighed. “Everyone will be there. Your presence is required, too. Remember you’re a young lady representing the Iron Hills Kingdom. And now, my child, it is time for your bath,” ordered Lady Barba, smiling. She put her arm on Ása’s shoulder and gently but firmly directed the girl towards the waiting maid. “And remember to get a really good soak. You have to look especially pretty today! Think of all those fine young gentledwarves!”

“Yes, Lady Barba,” Ása said with a sigh of resignation, thinking only of the one gentledwarf that filled her heart completely.

 

* * *

 

The feast turned out to be splendid. The royal staff have outdone themselves in such a short time. There was music and singing, plenty of food and drink and quite a lot of merry dwarves present. Everyone wanted to see Crown Prince Thrain and his son finally back in Erebor, so the number of tables, chairs, benches, and stools in the Great Hall was simply uncountable. Prince Thrain brought guests to the Lonely Mountain, all the way from the farthest edges of Ered Luin! The newly arrived dwarves sat by the king’s table and enjoyed the party as much as everyone else. Their clothes and adornments were a bit different from the usual Longbeard’s style, but they seemed to have equally good appetites as their hosts. And speaking of appetites, Ása decided to taste as many different dishes as she could and talk with her companions at the table, including Lady Barba and Lord Beldrum. There was even a merchant dwarf who shared a few interesting stories about the places he visited recently, including Shire where the hobbits lived.

After the main part of the feast finished, it was time for desserts and sweet wines. When Ása spotted her favorite dessert among all the delicacies, wild strawberry tarts with whipped cream, she forgot about everything else. Being a dwarven girl with a healthy appetite, she was in heaven. Well, almost. Throughout the whole celebration, she tried to catch a glimpse of Thorin from behind her fan. She sat not too far from the king’s table and could see him quite clearly. His dark hair seemed to be freshly washed, braided and clasped with silver beads. He wore a deep blue tunic ornamented with silver and the fabric color matched his eye color perfectly. The most handsome dwarf in the entire realm. The only one who knew the way to her heart.

Thorin was deep in a conversation with some of the guests. At one point, he reached for a goblet and drank some wine. Just at that moment, he gazed intently straight at her, as his mouth touched the goblet’s rim. She recognized that passionate look in his eyes. A promise of things he would do to her when they would meet. His stare was so intense that she almost blushed and she immediately hid her face behind the fan she held, to avoid embarrassment. She could have sworn that she saw a corner of his mouth curled up in a smile, his eyelids drooping a bit. He was such a tease! She just hoped that no one noticed them.

They were not supposed to exchange glances like that in public. Nor spend too much time together, especially without a chaperone. Nor even talk to each other without a good reason. Those were the unspoken rules of the dwarven society concerning unmarried dwarf men and women. But in their case, the rules were even stricter. Thorin was a prince, the heir to the throne of Erebor. She was a maiden from a noble family of Iron Hills, officially a ward of king Thror due to some complicated agreements between both dwarven kingdoms. The bottom line was, each of them had a political role to play, a certain, meticulously planned purpose in life. Just like some pawns on a chessboard. All the dwarves liked the game of chess because it was said that it sharpened the wit greatly… and could make you rich if you played for money. Ása thought however that some dwarves, especially the kings, liked this game way too much and played it with real, living and breathing dwarves instead of pawns made of iron. Probably because the stakes were much higher. She didn’t like it even a bit. In such moments she wished she could be an average baker’s daughter and Thorin - a simple blacksmith. This way, she thought, they would have much more freedom to follow their hearts’ desires in courting whomever they liked and choosing their lifepaths.

She sighed and looked at the nearest strawberry tart. It looked delicious. And she was free to eat it. Even a king wouldn’t dare to stand between her and this treat.

Ása took a bite. The fresh, fruity aroma and sweet vanilla-like taste of whipped cream together with a piece of crisp pastry. It deliciously melted in her mouth. She took another bite and started feeling better already. After a few moments of polite conversation with her neighbor to the left, an elderly scribe, she reached for another tart. She could have sworn it had been begging her to be eaten. And since she was a very well-behaved young lady, she surely had to comply with its wishes!

She felt Lady Barba’s gaze every time she reached for another tart. Her guardian hmpfed and waved her fan meaningfully, as if saying: “Think of your waist, my dear!”

Ása giggled, nibbled on a wild strawberry and licked her lips, thinking about her waist, just like Barba ordered.

 

Her waist... A few months ago, there was a certain handsome dwarf who’d insisted to help her get off a pony. She clearly remembered she jumped off her steed so vigorously, that he barely managed to catch her on time. Thorin’s large, strong hands firmly gripped her waist and drew her towards his body, steadying her. The distance between them was almost non-existent and totally indecent, but she simply couldn’t move. She realized that her palms rested on his broad chest. She could feel the heat radiating from him, and his chiseled muscles playing beneath the tunic he wore. Ása could even feel his clear heartbeat getting faster, just like hers. She looked at him, still startled. Her mouth were just a few inches from his neck, his long dark hair tickled her nose. He smelled of woodsmoke, pine needles and something more, something unidentifiable, but very enticing. She felt that she was getting dizzy. Thorin lowered his face towards her and looked into her eyes. Just when she thought she would completely drown in the azure sea of his gaze, he murmured, sending chills down her spine. “My lady. You’re not an easy catch.”

Ása blushed. “Nevertheless, my lord prince, it seems that you managed perfectly.”

“Always at your service, my lady,'' he smiled and whispered, “Is there anything else my lady wishes?”

His steady grip on her waist seemed to burn through her riding gown. Her heart was fluttering and her head was spinning. She licked her lips and murmured: “I require a favor from my lord prince.”

“What kind of a favor?” His eyes focused on her luscious, moist lips. Ása didn’t answer. Instead, she closed her eyes and moved her lips towards his.

“Favor granted,” he whispered passionately and covered her mouth with his. She melted completely, feeling his lips gently brushing against hers, tasting her slowly, bit by bit, thoroughly claiming each and every inch of her mouth. She was happy he was holding her so firmly, she was on the verge of losing balance and completely surrendering herself to him. All of her body was tingling, her mouth pulsing, returning the affection and yearning for more. His kisses became more greedy and bold. He sucked on her lower lip, and then gently slid his tongue into her mouth. A small moan escaped her lips…

 

Ása opened her eyes. She had been daydreaming again… And she somehow managed to completely forget about the tart in her hand and about the whole feast. She looked around to see whether anyone noticed her strange behaviour and then her eyes were drawn to a familiar figure sitting by the royal table. The one dwarf who made her heart beat faster. Thorin.

His face was turned towards her again, his eyes looking at her intently, almost devouring her. Did he know what she was thinking about just now? Did he know what he was doing to her? The passion he stirred inside her? Did he feel the same yearning she felt? Did he long for her touch as much as she yearned for his?

“Are you unwell, my child?” Lady Barba’s voice snapped her out of her trance. “You look flushed.”

“No, Lady Barba, it’s just the heat,” started Ása, lowering her eyes and feeling embarrassed. Again.

“Ah yes, indeed it is quite hot in here,” Barba started fanning both herself and her ward with her large red and gold fan. “I just hope you haven't caught a fever in this rain...”

“I’m well, Lady Barba, no need to worry.” Ása replied, blushing even more, still feeling Thorin’s insatiable eyes on her. She hoped Lady Barba wouldn’t notice his behavior.

“But you don’t look too well, my dear.” Her guardian looked worriedly at her. “Perhaps it would be best if I walked you back to your chambers.”

“Surely, Lady Barba, you’re so kind, but it’s not needed…”

“It’s better to be safe than sorry. We can’t have you bedridden where there are so many eligible bachelors around!” She decided. “Dear,” she turned to her husband who sat next to her. “Ása is a bit unwell, we’re going back to her chambers. I will be back soon.”

“As you wish, my dove,” said Lord Beldrum and turned to Ása, smiling with one of his heartwarming smiles. “Get some rest, my dear, I’m sure you’ll feel better in the morning.”

Ása nodded to him, smiling and said her farewells to everyone at the table. Then she followed her guardian out of the great hall. Standing in the way of Lady Barba when she made a decision was pointless. Besides, it was getting close to midnight. It would be much easier to sneak out from her chambers to meet Thorin unnoticed. They would meet again very soon. 

Ása’s heart fluttered with joy.

 

Chapter Text

„Are you sure about this?” Asked Ása’s red-haired maid Jutta, who was standing in front of her, looking worried. As far as everyone was concerned, Jutta was exactly who they thought she was - just another lady’s maid who came to Erebor together with Ása. Only a handful of dwarves knew, or suspected, that her real task was to protect the young lady… with any means necessary. Since their arrival to Erebor the two dwarven women have become very close, and Ása was glad for having a companion like Jutta by her side.

„Absolutely. I need to go. It is really important,” Ása tried to sound serious and determined, but she blushed a bit and cleared her throat in a hopeless effort to hide her embarrassment. One look at her confidante’s face told her that Jutta was suspecting something.

„Important. I see,” answered Jutta after a significant pause. „Since there is clearly no point in convincing you to do the sensible thing, at least let me follow you. The feast has not finished, and there will be lots of very merry dwarves everywhere. You know that I can assist you in case of any trouble.”

„Thank you, Jutta,” Ása smiled to her companion warmly and took her hand. „You are wonderful. I sincerely thank Mahal every day for bringing you here with me from the Iron Hills. I don’t know what I would do without you.”

„You would probably get lost in those old corridors, just like you did on you first day here,” Jutta grinned.

Ása chuckled. 

„I’m happy you were there to save me from that misery. You stopped a diplomatic incident, you know? A daughter of Iron Hills found dead of starvation in a forgotten corridor. That would have been a serious reason for war between two dwarven kingdoms!”

„Oh, spare me! You were still munching on those blueberry cookies you’d bought in Dale!” Jutta laughed. But then she looked at Ása with concern.

„At least… take this,” she reached into one of many hidden pockets in her maid’s uniform. A moment later, she procured a sturdy, double-bladed knife with a dark red leather handle. „Just in case.”

Ása’s eyes widened. ”Your… your knife? No, I can’t...”

„Yes, you can and you will! You were properly trained. You know how to use it. And I expect you to, if something happens.”

Ása nodded. She knew that her friend would not part with her favorite knife lightly. And Jutta was quite fond of knives. She had been schooled by the best warriors in the Kingdom of Iron Hills for the sole purpose of protecting Ása in Erebor. On the surface, all the dwarven kingdoms had friendly relations with each other, but there were lots of diplomatic forces and dangerous undercurrents on the wide seas of dwarven politics. And in the time of peace, politics was the real battlefield. Ása suspected that there were some fractions in both kingdoms that would prefer to see her removed from her current position. As an official ward of king Thror, she was a living and breathing warranty of sorts, ensuring stable cooperation between these two realms. If she „conveniently” disappeared one day, it would stir quite a few ripples in those deep waters. It would certainly ruin amicable relations between Erebor and Iron Hills. She could already imagine the aftermath. Unending accusations from both sides, broken trade agreements, dissolution of dwarven alliance or even war, if the meddling parties were determined. Quite a snowball effect. Ása sighed. It seemed she had no choice in this matter.

„Th… thank you, Jutta, I really appreciate it.” She said, taking the knife with her and hiding it among the folds of her plain grey dress. After getting back from the feast, she decided to wear something inconspicuous to avoid being noticed and recognized. She put on a hood of an equally plain cloak over her head, hiding her face. „I’ll steer away from the Great Hall and choose less frequented paths. I will be fine, don’t worry.”

„You know I am worrying already. Just get back safely as soon as you can,” replied Jutta.

„I will. I promise. And if Lady Barba checks on me later…”

„Yes, yes, I will tell her: Lady Ása complained about a headache and decided to retire for the night. Do you wish me to wake her up, m’lady?” Jutta replied, half-mockingly playing the part of a humble servant she was so good at.

„Have I told you that you are the best?”

„Not often enough,” Jutta grinned. „Go now, before I change my mind. Don’t let your handsome gentledwarf wait for you for too long!” She winked.

“My- who? I don’t know what you are talking about!” Ása tried to protest.

“Sure, sure,” sighed Jutta. “I’m pretty sure you’ve got a very good idea. Off you go now!” She winked and closed the door behind Ása.

Ása grumbled. That was not the first time Jutta tried to yank her chain to see her reaction. Ása never told anyone about Thorin nor about the irregular late-night meetings they’ve secretly been having for some months now, but Jutta was a clever dwarf and apparently, she started suspecting something. Ása knew she could trust Jutta with her life, but there were some secrets that she wanted to keep to herself. And Thorin was the most important one of them.

She hastened her pace, navigating through shadows and empty passages, her heart yearning to see her prince.

Finally, she stopped in front of a richly ornamented wall in one of the older walkways. No one lived in this part of the mountain. Most of the dwarves didn’t like to live too close to the surface, so the corridor was half-forgotten. Luckily, Thorin, being a true son of Erebor, knew that the mountain held many secrets, and a few of them turned out to be quite useful. He discovered this place by accident some years ago and decided to share it with her. Their secret place. Ása smiled, and looked around to make sure that she was alone and no one followed her. Then, she counted the star ornaments: fifth from the top, third to the left from the relief depicting the sun. She pushed in the protruding star. Something in the wall clicked and the stone slab in front of her slowly divided, revealing a narrow passage. She squeezed herself through the entrance and soon she reached a wider corridor. She pushed another star ornament from the inside and the entrance to the hidden corridor closed completely with a dull thud.

Ása was prepared for a short walk in total darkness, but then she saw a burning torch in one of the wall brackets. This meant that Thorin was already here. Her heart skipped with anticipation. She hastily followed the corridor, making a few turns, and finally reaching a chamber. Inside, she immediately saw a familiar, broad-shouldered figure of her beloved, cut against a night sky, his back towards her. There was an opening in the external wall of the chamber. Since it was the wall of the mountain, the rock balcony formed by skilled dwarven hands offered a wonderful view over the lake, as well as Lake Town and Dale. Ása knew that the young prince enjoyed the view greatly and sometimes came here to ponder, to find a moment of quiet respite from the busy life in court or… to meet her, like today.

„My lady,” she heard his deep, rumbling voice as he turned towards her. There was only one source of light in the chamber, a lantern, but she could see the tall figure of Thorin in its glow quite clearly. He must have come here straight from the feast, still wearing his festive clothes. His dark hair cascaded down around his shoulders. The silver cuffs clasped around the braids in his hair and beard glittered in the faint light, just like the eyes in his handsome face did. He gave her one of his best smiles, the special one that made her heart beat faster.

„My lord,” she replied, taking off the hood from her head and returning his smile.

It took him two long steps to close the distance between them. Thorin took her into his arms, holding tight, as if determined not to let her go. She immediately wrapped her arms around him and rested her head against his chest, sighing with relief. She had waited for this moment for so long…

„I missed you, Ása.” he murmured and gently kissed the top of her head, still holding her close. She was not as tall as he was, petite even for a dwarven woman, and that somehow made him feel even more protective of her. He wanted to hold her in his arms, shield her from all danger and make sure nothing bad would ever happen to her.

“And I missed you, Thorin.” She whispered. “I’m happy you’re back.”

They stood in the middle of the forgotten chamber for a longer while, enjoying the closeness they shared. Ása wished it would never end so they could stay like this together, in an unending, tight embrace.

„I was worried that I would not see you here today.” Thorin finally broke the silence. “I saw you leave the feast early and I heard you were unwell.” He lowered his face to kiss her lips and then cupped her face, looking at her with concern in his eyes.

„I was unwell, that is true. But it was all your doing!” Ása giggled.

“Pray tell, how was it my doing?” Thoring smiled, questioningly. “I wasn’t even nowhere near your table...” he continued, placing another gentle kiss on her lips. “... Unfortunately.” He whispered into her ear, his beard scratching against her smooth cheek, making her gasp. She could feel his warm breath on her neck.

“Well,” Ása tried to compose herself and not lose her head completely, feeling his body so close to hers. “You looked at me.”

Thorin chuckled and raised his head to meet her gaze. She saw a glint of tenderness in his azure eyes. And… and something else, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.

“Just like I am looking at you now?” he asked.

“Not quite… It was... intense,” she swallowed, blushing and lowering her eyes.

“And was that what made you feel unwell?” he asked.

“In a way.” she murmured. “Your gaze… it made me feel... a bit... light-headed.”

“Was that why you blushed so beautifully?” He whispered into her ear. His hand traveled to her neck. “I saw you. Your cheeks were almost the color of exquisite rubies,” he kissed her left cheek. “Almost the color they have now.” He continued kissing her, moving his mouth towards her ear, and then trailing down her neck. “I wondered what kind of thoughts would make you blush so much…” He murmured, nibbling on her earlobe. “Would you care to share them with me?”

Ása shivered, feeling the pleasure stirring in her, enjoying his touch and the sensations it woke in her.

“I… I don’t… remember…” she muttered. And she realized it was true. She couldn’t think straight any more, not while he was doing all these wonderful things to her. Thorin’s hard body was pushing against her and she could feel his heat through their clothes, not minding the evening chill that crept into their secret chamber. All the thoughts about how improper this situation was simply vanished from Ása’s mind. His closeness was exactly what she needed after months of being apart.

“Well then,” Thorin smiled. “I wonder if this would refresh your memory.” His hands quickly removed her cloak. Before it fell to the ground, his mouth started lazily covering her collarbone with wet kisses. She felt his mouth on her, smelled his manly scent, felt his warmth. Her heart was racing, her head started spinning and she almost lost her balance. But Thorin swiftly put his strong hands on Ása’s waist, steadying her.

„You seem a bit unstable. Are you unwell again?” A devilish grin appeared on his face. „Maybe I should stop then…”

„Please, don’t...” she whispered, took his face in her hands, stood on her toes to reach him and quickly moved her mouth towards his. Soon, their lips met yet again, continuing the dance they’ve started.

„Oh, I see. Someone is eager to refresh those memories,” he chuckled.

„It seems that we have a lot to do, my lord.” Ása replied and caught his lower lip playfully between her teeth.

„Yes, my lady, we have.” Thorin growled a moment later and greedily reached for her mouth, covering them with his own. He slid his tongue between her lips, twirling it, searching for her tongue, synchronizing their movements. She didn’t know how and when her hand moved towards his neck and touched it, but he sighed with pleasure. Ása dreamt of reaching deep into the thick mane of his hair, but she was apprehensive about it. In the dwarven culture, touching each other’s hair in this way was reserved only for married couples. He sensed her hesitant movement and drove her hand into his hair. “Don’t be shy, Mizim*,” he said, looking into her eyes encouragingly. “It’s only you and me here.”

When Ása’s fingers started caressing his scalp, he closed her eyes.

“So good...” Thorin growled and pushed himself harder against her body. Suddenly, Ása felt something very hard and hot pushing against her belly. Something that triggered an instinctive wave of yearning heat in the secret place between her legs. Was it…? She felt a scarlet blush creeping up onto her cheeks again. She didn’t dare to look down. Ása was aware of the differences between dwarven men and women and knew where the dwarven babies came from. In theory, at least. But it was the first time she actually experienced a dwarf being ready for her. Being ready to…

“You look so lovely when you’re blushing” Thorin whispered, gently caressing her cheek with his thumb. “Was it my fault again?”

“No,” she started, determined not to show her embarrassment. “Not quite. I was thinking about... you.”

“And…?”

“And I think that a breath of fresh air is what I need right now,” she replied, winking at him.

He laughed. “I don’t dare to ask you about the thoughts that made you feel like you needed to cool down. But your wish is my command.” He bowed his head courtly and led her towards the balcony. When Ása sat on a stone bench there, Thorin pulled her cloak around her shoulders. The night was quite cool, but Ása felt as hot as a blacksmith’s furnace.

“I can’t have you catching a cold now,” he sat beside her, taking her small hand into his large ones.

“I won’t,” she smiled, kissing the thoughtful dwarf on his cheek. “I have you to keep me warm.”

He wrapped his arm around her and gave her a little hug. She put her head against Thorin, cuddling up closer to him. They stared at the breathtaking night view of the lake. Its waters were so still that they reflected the stars. Sometimes, it was difficult to discern whether some of those lights originated in the sky or the houses by the lake. Ása was sure, however, that the star of her love shone brightly in the sky tonight and it was not just a mere reflection of something greater.

Thorin touched Ása’s cheek. His warm fingers moved against the cool skin of her face. A cold gust of wind from over the lake made her shiver.

“I am aware of quite a few warming up methods,” she heard his whisper dangerously close to her ear.

“And let me guess, you’d like to show me some of them?” Ása looked at Thorin and saw him smile slyly, his deep blue eyes darkening.

“Your wisdom is as great as your beauty, my lady.” He turned her face towards him. His fingers touched her face tenderly, but the kisses that came after them were much more passionate than she expected. It was as if something in his mind suddenly changed.

„Oh, my Beast…” she half-moaned into his ear when his mouth moved to the front of her neck. Her hand dove into his long hair, making him growl with pleasure. His hungry lips started migrating lower, towards her exposed cleavage. Ása sighed in surprise. He had never been so bold before, always balancing between teasing and tempered outbursts of emotion, always stopping before it could lead to anything more serious. But this… This was different. And, to make matters worse, she liked his fervent caresses more than she could admit to herself, even though they were quite indecent. His burning lips invaded her neckline. One of his hands covered her ribcage just below her bodice. She could feel her nipples tingling expectantly. A new sensation flooded her senses. Ása was breathless with anticipation. Her pulse quickened. Thorin’s large hand started moving upwards, preparing to cup her breast, touching its base, feeling its softness… and then it suddenly disappeared.

Thorin raised his head, heaving as if he had just completed a long run. Their eyes met, but she couldn’t make out the meaning of his dark gaze. He rested his hot forehead against hers, took her hands into his and squeezed them tightly.

“Forgive me, my lady. I shouldn’t touch you like this now. It is… a dishonor.”

“But Thorin… there’s nothing to forgive, we both want it, don’t we?” Ása frowned in surprise.

“Mahal is my witness, there is nothing else I’d rather do now. When you’re so close to me, I completely lose my resolve. It’s like a fever…” he started, then cleared his throat. “This is not how I planned this evening.” He took a deep breath and sat straight, not letting go of her hands.

“I had asked you to come here, because I wanted to share something very important with you,” he started. “And instead I...” He shook his head in silence, dreading the thought that he may have just lost his chance by losing control.

I? I believe you wanted to say WE, my Beast,” she smiled, trying to tease him. “It takes two to play this game, wouldn’t you say?”

He nodded, a faint smile visible only in one corner of his mouth just for an instant, and then gone. The silence hung between them menacingly.

“What is it, Thorin? What did you want to share with me?” She asked, encouragingly squeezing his hands. She looked at his serious face and felt the sting of uneasiness. He didn’t act like the Thorin she knew and it worried her.

Thorin stood up in front of her and took a deep breath, slowly finding his calm.

“Lady Ása…” He took one of her hands and kissed it gently. “I need to apologize for my behaviour today... and I’m asking you to hear me out.”

“I’m all ears, my lord Thorin.” Ása looked puzzled by his unusual behaviour. The tone of his voice was almost official, as if he was standing by his grandfather’s throne during one of the audiences.

“As you know very well, I spent the last few months away from Erebor. Away from you. During this time, I had a lot of time to think... and it helped me realize something important. You found the way to my heart and filled it completely. You are on my mind when I wake up and when I fall asleep. I have never met a dwarf maiden with such a great mind and beauty. There’s no one else I’d rather spend my days with… And I want everyone to know about us. To finally make it official. You are a noble lady of Iron Hills and I’m a prince of Erebor. I would dishonor you if I kept our relationship a secret any longer.” He paused and took a formal, nuanced bow reserved only for very specific occasions.

Ása gasped and her eyes widened when she recognized it. The courting bow.

“My lady Ása, will you do me the honor of allowing me to court you?”

Chapter Text

Ása never saw herself as a good wife material. Her upbringing had clearly shown her that a dwarven lady who was to marry a dwarf from a noble house needed a certain set of skills. And she lacked quite a few of them. Even though she had learned, or at least tried to learn everything that a young dwarven lady from a noble house should know, she never knew how to match the right jewels to a dress, neither how to lead polite and extremely dull conversations with other ladies at tea parties. Without extensive yawning, of course. She was hopeless when it came to exchanging the newest court gossip. And trying to remember who married whom, how many children they had and when their birthday was… It was simply too boring for her. She didn’t care about how to make the servants properly polish silver - she didn’t see the point of having neither servants nor silverware, to be honest. On top of that, she simply couldn’t be less bothered by things like knowing how to decorate a dwarven hall in the most fashionable way or other similar nonsense.

On the other hand, if anyone asked her about the difference between blue tit and great tit - she could talk about these birds for ages. And about any other animals or plants for that matter. She already knew where exactly one could find the largest lingonberry bushes in the woods in the vicinity of Erebor. Ása tried to remain close to nature whenever she had a chance to do it. But what noble dwarf would even think of marrying a maiden who’d rather roam the forests or gallop her pony through the wilderness instead of planning formal events or embroidering fine shawls every single afternoon? Spending time alone and outdoors was very unladylike and generally frowned upon in the dwarven society. 

That was why Ása decided that marriage was not for her. She didn’t want to spend the rest of her life closed off in some vast dwarven hall with thousands of dark chambers, not being able to see the sun nor feel the fresh wind on her face. She quickly learned how to present her “disadvantages” to any potential suitors that Lord Grohir, her father, together with her stepmother decided to throw at her back in the Iron Hills. Usually, after one or two meetings, most of these young gentledwarves left her alone... much to the despair of her father and his wife, of course. Since the situation hadn’t changed for quite a few years, Lord Grohir tried a different approach. Having an unmarried daughter of a certain age still at home, especially since dwarven women were so rare, was either a sign of her serious shortcomings or his ineptitude. As a seasoned politician, Lord Grohir attached great importance to appearances and came up with a plan that would kill two birds with one stone. He decided to send Ása away to Erebor to play the role of a political pawn. This way he could both strengthen his position and get rid of “the problem”, as his wife referred to the situation (meaning: “Ása”). Lady Esta was not keen on having her stepdaughter around, unnecessarily reminding her husband about his dearly departed first wife. With Ása out of the picture, they could also finally start thinking about a financially (and politically) beneficial match for their son, Ása’s younger half sibling. 

This arrangement suited Ása very well. She planned to gain more independence, away from her stepmother’s harsh supervision. She knew she was expected to dutifully bow and nod on official occasions whenever she was asked to, and she learned to play that role sufficiently well. Apart from that - and her studies - she was left to her own devices… whenever the stern Lady Barba looked the other way, that is. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen as often as Ása would have liked.

The young dwarf maiden imagined that this was how the rest of her life would look like and she already started to get used to it. And then everything changed. She hadn’t planned for meeting Thorin and falling in love with him. The prince of Erebor, of all people! At first, she suspected it was just a fleeting fancy on his side, a bored heir to the throne killing time by trying to charm yet another dwarven maiden. Unexpectedly, it turned into something completely different. Even if her heart kept beating to the rhythm of the young prince’s name, Ása was well aware of the current political situation and dwarven customs regarding royalty. They did not marry whomever they wished - their spouses were chosen for political benefits, power and influence they could bring to the realm. The rulers of Kingdom of Erebor already had all they wanted from the Iron Hills through their latest agreement. The one she was a part of, ironically. Besides, she was convinced she was not the right person to be a proper prince’s wife and a potential queen in the far future. Last but not least, her fate was only for the king Thrór to decide. She was his ward now, with Lord Beldrum and Lady Barba appointed as her guardians. From what she heard, the king had already some plans regarding her future. Ása was bound to obey him, both by honor and by the agreement between Erebor and Iron Hills, the kingdom of Grór, Thrór’s brother.

All those thoughts passed through Ása’s mind in a split of a second. She realized what had to be said now. She knew what should be done, even if it pained her greatly. With a heavy heart, she looked at her beloved’s handsome face illuminated by the lantern, at his hopeful expression. As the tradition demanded, he remained bowed, waiting patiently for her answer. She knew she would remember this moment until the end of her life. Her heart’s desire. Her greatest dream coming through. But she was aware that it was her duty to bury their desires and shatter their dreams before the reality of their stations did it to them. She had to break the heart of the only dwarf she ever loved. Ása took a deep breath, stood up and opened her mouth to utter the cruel words… 

And then, Ása’s heart betrayed her mind. Not believing what she was doing, she made an intricate bow to match the one Thorin made just a few moments ago and said instead:

“Prince Thorin, I am greatly honored by your words and I will gladly allow you to court me.”

With these words, she stretched out her hand to him, as the dwarven tradition demanded. Thorin took it in a split second and her heart leaped with joy when she felt him kissing it. He looked at her, his lips still touching the back of her hand. She could see sparks of joy in his eyes.

“You just made me the happiest dwarf under the mountain, my lady.” He said and closed the distance between them. There was something raw and powerful in his gaze, barely contained under the surface, while his face expressed uninhibited joy.

Ása smiled shyly, trying to bury the whirlwind of thoughts deep inside her. At that moment, Thorin filled her world completely. Only he mattered now.

“That makes two of us, my lord Thorin.”

He took her in his arms. His lips were dangerously close to her own. She closed her eyes and reached out to meet him halfway.

“Wait! I almost forgot…” he said. “There is one more thing that I’d love to do… that needs to be done before we go any further. Ása, will you…” he cleared his throat, his voice changing into a low whisper.
“... will you let your hair down for me?”

This was a very intimate thing to ask, but an expected one if they were to court. And, surprisingly to Ása, Thorin, the Prince Under the Mountain sounded... embarrassed. It just struck her that he never asked a woman to do that for him. Obviously, she scolded herself immediately. It wasn’t as if he kept asking dwarf maidens to marry him every other day!

Ása managed to nod, not trusting her voice and started unpleating her festive braids with nervous movements of her hands. She kept freeing one golden lock after another, removing the hair beads that held them in place, letting each strand fall freely all the way to her waist. She smoothed them afterward with her delicate fingers. Thorin stood in front of her, mesmerized, following her every move with his hungry eyes. He didn’t dare to make a move, not wanting to startle her in any way, but Ása noticed his arousal. He licked his lips and his breath quickened. She blushed and lowered her gaze.

“Look at me, Amrâlimê*.” She heard his raspy whisper that sent a shiver down her spine. He’d never used this intimate word before… and no one called her that before. She raised her head and looked at him. A faint smile played on her lips. She smoothed her hair one more time and shook her head to make her hair fall naturally.

Thorin gasped, seeing a golden veil of hair floating around Ása. She looked almost as if she was covered in liquid gold.

“You are breathtaking…” He said, staring at her intently.

Ása’s smile widened. She felt her cheeks growing even hotter than before.

“Can I touch it?” His raspy voice sounded a bit louder, with a recognizable hint of yearning.

“I… would like that very much,” she replied timidly. Ása was not quite sure what to expect. She knew what the tradition demanded, but she has never allowed a male dwarf to touch her hair before, as it was a sign of great intimacy.

Thorin’s hand moved towards her temple and gently took a golden lock between his fingers. Her hair was softer than silk. He closed his eyes and smelled it. A scent of snowdrops and violets surrounded him.

“Mahal… You’re the greatest treasure of Iron Hills, greater than all of their mines. And they didn’t even realize it.” Thorin looked deeply into her eyes, running his fingers through her hair, getting acquainted with its texture and density. He felt like he could drown in this precious cloud of gold. When his hand moved down towards her cheek, she kissed it. The prince moved his hand away and his mouth claimed hers. At the same time, his fingers dove into her hair impatiently, caressing her scalp and the back of her neck. Ása moaned, not being able to contain her pleasure. She never felt like this before, she never expected such intensity. 

“It’s time,” said Thorin finally, reluctantly breaking away from the sweetness of her soft lips. “Are you ready?”

“Yes. I am.” Ása replied, her voice quivering. 

She watched his movements when he unclasped one of his dark braids, his hair falling loosely on his shoulder, some of them slightly curled. His fingers chose a few strands of her hair and skillfully pleaded his personal braid pattern, finishing it with his silver bead adorned with a small sapphire.

“With this braid, I pledge myself to you. Let it be known that we are promised to each other.” The words of traditional dwarven oath left his lips.

“Let it be known.” repeated Ása.

“Will you sit down for me, my love?” she asked quietly. Thorin’s face expressed may emotions, but his eyes were brimming with tenderness. When he did her bidding, she reached towards him and braided her own pattern in his thick mane of hair. It was a bit coarser than her hair, but she liked how it felt under her touch and how it smelled of pine needles with a hint of woodsmoke. As a final touch, she added her own ornamental jade bead and said:

“With this braid, I pledge myself to you. Let it be known that we are promised to each other.” 

“Let it be known.” Thorin replied. It was done.

 

After a few moments of reverent silence, he mischievously winked to her, breaking the tension. He pulled Ása to sit on his lap and kissed his Promised One with all the affection that filled him. 

“Ah, the Beast attacks!” she giggled, light-headed, enormously happy and somehow strangely relieved knowing there was no turning back now. She felt an irrational seed of hope sprouting in her heart. Maybe they had a chance, after all?

Thorin held her tightly in his arms. His heart was light as a feather and he didn't want to let her go. Ever. Ása was his One, and he had just marked her as his. Nothing could keep them apart now. 

“You are mine.” He growled into her ear with a distinct hint of satisfaction in his voice.

Chapter Text

On the way to her chambers, Ása felt as if she was soaring with joy. No corridor was too dark nor too dangerous. She still couldn’t believe what had transpired between her and Thorin that night. Her hand tugged on the newly pleated braid and touched the bead that clasped it. It was still there. It certainly wasn’t a dream. They were promised to each other now. She smiled to herself, recalling Thorin’s intimate touch on her hair. 

The sounds of the feast were getting louder as she was walking back towards the main halls of Erebor. Music and drunken singing echoed ahead of her. With each step, she was closer to her chambers. Ása hastily took another turn into one of the smaller corridors, making a detour and trying to avoid the main walkway, now crowded with celebrating dwarves.

“What’s the hurry, luv?” a slurring male voice came from one of the dark alcoves carved out in stone corridor walls along the way.

She lowered her hooded head, quickened her pace and tried to ignore him.

“Oi, I’m talking to you!” the voice repeated and a hand suddenly shot out the darkness, grabbing her arm. Ása tried to break away from the painful grip, but the unfamiliar dwarf’s grasp was too strong, bruising her. Another hand grabbed her other arm. In the dim corridor, she could see a large, stout figure that appeared in front of her. A tunic with golden embroidery. A messy black beard with quite a few large golden cuffs that glistened menacingly in the dark. He smelled of onion, stale sweat, and beer. 

“Let me go!” she shouted, futilely trying to escape again.

“And why would I do that, luv?” he asked, laughing. “I’ve been sitting ‘ere by meself, feeling a bit lonely, and then you came! Have some fun with me, luv, show me the famous hospitality of Erebor!” 

Ása felt a cold shiver down her spine.

“I said: let me go at once! I’m not interested!” she yanked, trying to free herself, but could only feel his fingers delving deeper into her skin. Tears started forming in her eyes.

He pulled her towards him, shoving her against his protruding beer belly.

“Come on, give us a sweet kiss!” his foul mouth was getting closer to hers. One of his hands grabbed her chin while other lecherously cupped her buttock, making her writhe in pain.

She tried to bite on his hand, but he managed to escape her teeth and grabbed her by the throat instead. She felt the horrible, clammy touch of his coarse fingers. Cold, sharp edges of the rings he wore injured her delicate skin. 

“Feisty, aren’t we? I heard you local wenches like it a bit rough!” he laughed again, his face dangerously close to hers. A few golden teeth glittered in his mouth. His small eyes situated between a large red nose looked at her greedily. There was nastiness in these eyes. And a promise of more violence.

Ása yelped in pain, trying to cry for help, but could barely breathe. 

She closed her eyes and prepared for the worst when he reached towards her chest, ripping her bodice apart and growled with content. She covered her breasts instinctively, but then he yanked her arms… and suddenly stopped moving for a moment. Equally quickly he pushed her into the alcove with brute force. She fell on a bench that stood against the inner wall. The air knocked out of her lungs. Ása opened her eyes. The darkness seemed to dance in front of her eyes. She reclined on the bench, feeling dizzy. 

The assailant towered above her, blocking the only way out. 

“Well, well, what do we have here? A lovely kitchen maid running around with ‘er hair hanging loose? You’re a real wench, aren’t you?”

Ása was mortified. Somehow the hood fell from her head, revealing a cascade of unpleated hair. The hair that Thorin gently touched not so long ago. No decent dwarven woman would show herself in public like that, with her hair undone.

Her eyes widened when she saw that the dwarf reached towards his waist and started unclasping his belt buckle. Ása felt cold reason filling her mind, her dizziness and disorientation slowly going away. She had to fight back somehow before...

“Be a nice girl now and show uncle Zohur some good time, wench,” he said, reaching towards her plain linen skirts and pulling them up.

“I said: leave me alone!” she shouted again and swiftly cut through the air with Jutta’s knife she finally found among the folds of her dress. Its blade found something soft on its way and sliced through it.

She heard a roar, a curse, and then a heavily ringed fist hit her left temple. The blade of her knife clinked, falling on the floor. Her head fell sideways and back. She must have blacked out for a moment or two. When she came to, she was spread out on her back. Her head was swimming. The roof the alcove seemed to rotate, spinning round and round. She felt something wet and warm on her temple, was that her blood? It would surely stain that bench… What did Lady Barba say about the best way to remove blood stains from a velvet fabric? Ása’s mind was desperately trying to run away from the here and now, shocked, not registering those disgusting, clammy hands grabbing her ankles and spreading her legs.
“You will pay for this, bitch!” her assailant spluttered.

“Let… me… go…” She tried to mumble, not being able to properly form the words.

But then she heard some other words uttered in rage by a very familiar baritone voice.

“The lady…”

There was a thud. And a cry of pain.

“Told you…”

Another thud and a moan.

“To let… her...”

Thud. Thud.

“Go!”

And then a smash. Something heavy fell on the floor. The last thing she remembered was tears falling down her cheeks, warm fingers gently wiping them off her face and the soft murmur of his voice.

“It’s all good now, Amrâlimê*. I’m here with you. Everything is going to be fine now. I’ll protect you.”

A familiar smell of woodsmoke, pines, and leather encompassed her. She was safe now. Thorin was here, with her.

And then the darkness took her mercifully into its velvet arms of oblivion.

 

***

 

Next afternoon

 

“Attacking a diplomatic envoy from Ered Luin and beating him almost to death? Did you completely lose your mind?! Or were you that drunk?!” Thráin was furiously pacing back and forth along his chamber, waving his arms around. His shouts echoed against the walls. 

“You bloody fool, this can cost us a powerful ally! And pray to Mahal that he survives your assault. Otherwise, we will have a war on our doorstep!”

Thráin’s face turned scarlet. He threw a crystal goblet to the ground, smashing it in a million pieces. Spilled wine colored the stone floor red, like a puddle of blood gathering by Zohur’s body when Thorin was finally done with him.

Thorin stood there, unmoving, not speaking, a maelstrom raging around him. And he was in the middle of it. He knew he had to keep calm. This was the only way to reason with his father.

“Have you completely lost your senses?! Have you forgotten how to treat such important guests?! Do you want to dishonor our house and bring an end upon our kingdom?!” Thráin’s shouts grew even louder.

“No, father.” Thorin started, gritting his teeth.

“So why do you keep acting like an irresponsible brat?!”

“I was defending a lady’s honor, father.” Thorin clenched his fists, trying to show restraint for as long as he could and wait for a proper moment. “That vile swine was completely drunk and tried to… to force himself upon her.” He growled with anger.

“What are you talking about? A lady? No honorable dwarf would harm a lady in my halls!” The crown prince seemed taken aback.

“But HE did that, father.” 

“Then who is she? And where is she now? Why has no one from her house come forward with this?”

When Thorin opened his mouth, there was a knock on the door.

“What is it now?” Growled Thráin furiously.

“Lord Beldrum to see you, your highness. He says it’s urgent.” a servant replied fearfully, seeing the wrath on his master’s face.

“I believe they are about to.” said Thorin to his father, smirking. Thráin looked at him with a furrowed brow.

“Invite him in,” ordered Thráin. “And you,” he pointed at his son, noticing the bruises and bloodstains on his rumpled tunic for the first time. “Stay here. I’m not finished with you yet.”

 

“Lord Beldrum, what a pleasure to see you again.” Thráin put on his polite face as his guest entered the room and seemed almost calm, but Thorin could still see the fury in his eyes.

“Thank you for seeing me, my lord.” Lord Beldrum bowed his head. “I’m afraid I'm a bearer of rather unpleasant news today. I must inform you that King Thrór’s ward, Lady Ása, who is in my custody, as you remember, was gravely assaulted last night. She suffered some considerable injuries, but, Mahal be praised, the healers assure me that she will recover fully and that she is still… untouched.” Lord Beldrum cleared his throat in embarrassment. “It is a matter of Lady Ása’s personal honor, and my house’s honor as well. It is my duty as her guardian to demand satisfaction!”

The Crown Prince Thráin finally spoke after a few long moments of silence.

“Indeed, this is horrible news! What a scandalous deed!” He shot a sharp glance at Thorin. “What kind of satisfaction do you request?”

“First of all,” Lord Beldrum started, “I would like to officially thank prince Thorin for saving the young lady’s life and honor. If not for him, I believe I would be requesting the punishment of death on the dishonorable Zohur, whether he was a diplomatic envoy or not.” He made a deep formal bow towards Thorin.

“No words of thanks are needed, Lord Beldrum. I was simply doing my duty.” Thorin replied, bowing in turn.

“You are too humble. We will be forever grateful to you. We’ve become quite fond of dear Ása since she came to live with us. I don’t know what we would do if… if…”

“Let’s not dwell on those things now, Lord Beldrum.” Thráin interrupted.

“Quite right, of course. But would your highness be so kind and convey my words of gratitude to his majesty king Thrór himself? I wished to do it myself, but I received the news that he’s unwell at the moment…” Beldrum’s voice trailed off. 

Thorin looked at his father in surprise. His grandfather feeling unwell? He almost never got sick… almost. Except for when his “spells” came...

“You can be sure, Lord Beldrum, that my son will be adequately rewarded for his actions.” Thráin growled in reply. “And now, let us return to the matter at hand…”

Chapter Text

At first, there was just a cold, uninviting darkness. Ása knew something bad had happened and tried to gather her thoughts, but it was too difficult, as if something shrouded her mind, denying her the state of full consciousness. But then she heard familiar voices from far away and a soft shroud of warmth cocooned Ása, lulling her to much-needed sleep.

 

She could see the blue sky above her and the green tree crowns greedily reaching towards the bright light of the sun. The air smelled like summer, the birds were chirping and she could feel the soft grass beneath her back, at the same time enjoying the complete serenity of a beautiful early morning, shortly after sunrise. Sometime earlier that day, she witnessed this breathtaking spectacle of nature on the rocky slopes of the Lonely Mountain when the sun came out from beyond the horizon to shed its light on the lands below. Seeing the alluring pink skies at dawn filled her with an urge to visit the nearby woods again, so there she was, enjoying its peace, away from the prying eyes of the royal court. It’s been quite a long time since the last time she’d managed to sneak out.

 

The still conscious part of Ása’s mind remembered that morning very well. It was a memory of last summer, one of the days when she managed to sneak out of Erebor. She didn’t want to get back to that cold darkness anymore, so she gave in to this dream completely, reliving the past.



After a long, brisk walk, she finally reached one of her favorite spots in the forest. She laid out her green woolen shawl on the grass and fell on top of it with her arms outstretched, taking in the endless blueness of the sky above. She moved her face towards the sun, basking in the pleasant warmth it offered. She knew Lady Barba would have had a fit if she’d known that Ása was sunbathing at this very moment instead of getting that mandatory beauty sleep in her chambers. And what was worse, she was willingly exposing her face to the natural elements! It was very unladylike to spoil her complexion like this, Lady Barba would surely say. Ása chuckled and, as a sign of defiance, she reached out towards the sun even more. It was her time now. Everything else could wait: a lecture on the history of Erebor, dancing lessons, the ladies’ afternoon tea and that evening formal event celebrating yet another diplomatic visit of the Ironfist Clan envoys. Utterly boring. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and focused on enjoying the birdsong, letting go of her everyday concerns. Suddenly, the bird chirping changed its tune. A few notes became irregular, others disappeared, some voices hushed… and then, just after a few moments, everything returned back to the way it had been just a few moments ago.

“Maybe it’s just the wind,” Ása thought lazily, feeling a gentle breeze on her cheek. But then she heard a rustling in the bushes. She sat up quickly and looked around, alarmed. There was no one there. No curious roe deer, not even a stray hare.

“The wind is simply playing tricks on you,” she sighed to herself and then decided to get up and go to the nearby spring.

 

He stood behind a fir tree, unmoving and trying not to breathe, keeping his eyes on this strange apparition. When he first saw her, he thought it was just a figment of his imagination. It seemed as if a bright light shone all around her. “No,” he shook his head. It must have been a trick of light, it was all because of her bright golden hair. Was that a ghost? Impossible. A forest dryad? He heard tales about those creatures, but had never encountered one. After a few moments, his deep blue eyes suddenly widened in realization. A dwarven maiden? Here, in the forest? Completely alone? He had been away from home for a while, but could not believe that the traditions changed that much, not while his grandfather was still on the throne.

Then, he observed her petite figure nimbly moving through the forest, almost as if she was an elf. He noticed the unmistakably dwarven braids in her hair as well as the familiar clothing she wore. It was a plain garment, leather pants and a tunic, usually worn by the male and female dwarves alike when traveling outside of their kingdom. One of its functions was to offer a basic form of disguise for dwarven women and make them less distinguishable from their men. Dwarves did not trust other residents of Middle-earth lightly and certainly did not want Men nor any other races to get themselves too acquainted with dwarven women, especially since their numbers were so scarce. It was widely known that dwarves guarded their treasures very fiercely. And dwarven women were considered to be the greatest treasure of them all.

This one, however, was quite different, not like any woman he’d met before. Maybe it was her hair in disarray with a leaf or two entangled in their midst, maybe the natural way she moved through the forest as if she belonged there or maybe… maybe it was the way she smiled. He was intrigued, he had to admit. He decided to follow her, not wanting to leave the mysterious maiden alone. He had to protect her now and make sure she was safe. He would take her with him to the safe dwarven halls of the Lonely Mountain.

 

Ása moved quickly between the trees until she reached a small spring that she discovered during some of her earlier escapades. It flowed out from between the rocks, creating a small pond below. She crouched and started drinking the crystal-clear water, enjoying its pleasant, sweet coolness and quenching her thirst. She looked at her own reflection in the water and smiled, seeing a movement under the surface.

Next to it, a reflection of a dark shape towering over her appeared out of nowhere. She jumped up, startled, turning around, but then the ground gave way under one of her feet and she lost her balance. Just when she thought she’d take an unplanned swim, a pair of strong arms caught her and held her in place. Ása looked up and saw a young dwarf in a worn dark blue tunic leaning towards her. He was at least a head taller and only slightly older than her. A dark beard with a single braid covered the lower part of his handsomely tanned face. She could feel the strength in his forearms that still held her in place, his hands resting now against her back. Dark, unruly hair fell over the dwarf’s broad shoulders.  

She opened her mouth, speechless. When their eyes met, Ása felt a myriad of inexplicable sensations. A hot shiver went down her spine and her heart started beating faster. 

They stood there for a long while in complete silence, drowning in each other’s gazes, their noses nearly touching.

“So… you are not a ghost,” the dwarf murmured, finally breaking the spell that seemed to hold them in its power. His voice was deep and vibrant. Ása looked at his lips that somehow ended up surprisingly close to her own. 

“Do I look like one?” she replied.

“Well… You certainly don’t feel like one.” he said, looking at her intently. His lips curled up with a smile. A treacherous blush crept up her cheeks. Ása lowered her gaze in embarrassment, not finding a proper answer. No dwarf before was allowed to be that close to her. She was aware of his firm touch. His steady arms were still holding her and she registered a scandalous thought in her mind: she didn’t want him to let go. She should probably feel uneasy or wary, but she didn’t, and the strong reactions of her body puzzled her greatly. The dark-haired stranger stood completely still, as if trying to not to startle her yet again. She could feel the heat of his body. She was sure that Lady Barba would not approve of such shameless behavior. Physical closeness between two dwarves of the opposite sex who did not know each other? An outrage! Yet, they were still there. It seemed like none of them wanted to do the proper thing and break their touch. 

“Do you always smile at the water, my lady?”, he murmured again, clearly amused by her reaction. She could feel the warmth of his breath on her cheek.

“I was smiling at the frogs, if you must know,” she whispered, looking up at him again.

“At… the frogs?” he sounded confused.

“Yes, they have a lot of work to do now. It’s spawning time here… I thought they’d probably need some encouragement,” only after uttering these words, she realized how it must have sounded in his ears. She just talked about a mating season. And hinted at making babies. To an unknown male dwarf she just met. Her blush deepened.

He looked at the water, then at her… and suddenly started laughing heartily, letting go of her. Ása couldn’t explain it, but she felt a bit disappointed that his hands were gone. At the same time, she immediately took a liking to the way he laughed.

“From what I know, frogs do not need any encouragement when it comes to… to that,” he gestured at the pond. She could have sworn his face darkened slightly under his tan. Did he feel embarrassed too?

“Neither do other species, hares, wolves, nor dw… nor any other species you may think of.” He quickly finished the sentence, cleared his throat, and quickly changed the subject. “Why did you come here? To scare off these animals?” he blurted the first thing that came to his mind.

“I wasn’t scaring them off,” she interjected. “Besides, you were the scary one! Do you always sneak upon dwarven maidens, as if you were a wild beast?”

“I was passing by,” he retorted, “and saw you alone in the forest. I had to make sure you were safe. It’s what honor demands.” He bowed his head. “Speaking of which, would you do me the great honor of escorting you to Erebor, my lady? My pony is…”

“No.”

“You must excuse me, my lady, I believe I heard...”

“You heard me well. I said No. Thank you, but I am not getting back with you to Erebor.” Ása said, folding her arms and took a step away from him, her mood changing rapidly. She was not going to let any dwarf, even a very handsome one, ruin her rarely found alone time just like that. And besides, she could not be seen riding openly into the Lonely Mountain by the front gate for everyone to see.
“But you are in need of protection, my lady, and I simply can’t leave you here just by yourself.” She heard a commanding tone in his voice, even though he looked even more puzzled than before, his brow furrowed. Clearly, this was not what he expected from a young dwarven lady. But he puzzled her too. This courtly behavior was not what she expected from someone who looked like a common worker in plain clothes covered with road dust. Had he been traveling somewhere?

“I thank you for your honorable concern, Master Blacksmith,” she finally managed to decipher the meaning of one of the silver braid beads in his dark mane of hair. This intriguing dwarf seemed to be an apprentice at the forges. She wondered what he was doing there, in the forest, instead of working by the famous great furnaces of Erebor. ”I must inform you that I do not require any assistance at this moment,” she continued. “In fact...”

Just at that moment, a faint sound of horse hooves was heard in the distance. Ása looked at the dwarf anxiously.

“Don’t be alarmed, my lady, these are my travel companions who…”

Her eyes widened, and before she could understand what she was doing, she instinctively took his large hand in hers, squeezing it lightly. “Please… No one can know that I was ever here,” she pleaded.

“My lady, I…” he started, looking surprised, at the same time covering her hands with his other hand, in an attempt to mollify her. Ása felt its pleasant warmth on her skin, the dormant male power in his gentle touch.

The sound of hoofbeats was getting closer. A horse neighed somewhere among the trees. She couldn’t wait any longer.

“Please…” she whispered, squeezed his hand once again and then let go of him, not being able to wait for his answer any longer. She had to run and hide now, she knew it, and so she did at once, almost leaping into the thick of woods. Ása knew the annoying overprotectiveness of dwarf men and suspected that this one, or his unknown companions for that matter, could stubbornly follow her. That is why she chose the narrowest paths and thickest bushes, trying to make it difficult for anyone to pursue her. She heard a shout or two in a distance, but decided to completely ignore them.

Finally, she stopped running after a while, breathing heavily, not hearing anything but the usual forest sounds. It seemed that she succeeded. 

Only then did she realize that her favorite shawl was gone.

 

***

 

Yet another official evening. And another extremely dull one. Erebor’s main hall was completely filled with dwarves, both Ironfists and Longbeards. A historical occasion, as Lord Balin explained to Ása on the way to this “momentous meeting”. Apparently, that was why her presence had been requested that night, as a symbol of unity between the Lonely Mountain and Iron Hills. 

King Thrór sat on the throne, his impressive beard accented with elaborate metal adornments. He spoke at length about the esteemed guests. After that, Lord Balin took the time to remind everyone about the history both clans shared. Then, a few words spoken by an Ironfist envoy. Blah, blah, blah. Ása started getting more and more impatient. Great, another speech. What a surprise. This time, an elderly dwarf with a silvery-golden beard wearing a richly embroidered golden tunic talked about the prosperity of the Ironfist Clan and their valuable trade goods. 

Ása suppressed another yawn, hiding her face behind the ornate fan she carried. She started looking around the assembly, trying to recognize some familiar faces. She was sure Lady Barba would ask her afterward about who was seen with whom, whether Lord Karden’s son was present this time, and what Lady Revna wore that night. Ása didn’t recognize that many faces yet, being a relative newcomer to the court, but she tried to make the best impression on her guardian. She scanned the king’s closest surroundings. Crown Prince Thráin was there, of course, together with a few prominent lords of the realm, including Lord Balin in his elegant burgundy robes. To the left, she saw Lady Sigrun, prince Thráin’s wife, sitting there with some of the lords’ wives and… Just then, a flash of familiar deep blue color caught her eye. She returned her gaze towards Lord Balin. He sat there, turned towards someone standing in the darkness behind the throne, someone he seemed to be immersed in a conversation with. She squinted, trying to see who that was… and a gasp left her mouth. 

She couldn’t believe her eyes. It was the mysterious blacksmith she met in the forest that morning! But what was he doing so close to the king’s throne on such an official occasion? And why was he dressed in such fine clothes? Was it really him? At that moment, their gazes met and all of her doubts disappeared. She could recognize these azure eyes everywhere. She knew he recognized her too. Ása felt the warmth of color invading her cheeks. Why was he staring at her so intently? She covered her face with her fan and noticed a small smile forming in the corner of his lips. He bowed his head slightly, as if in greeting, still keeping his eyes on her. Just when she wanted to avert her gaze, he winked at her playfully and turned back to Lord Balin as if nothing happened. What a nerve! How could he do such a thing under the scrutiny of so many keen eyes? Ása hoped that no one noticed their short exchange of glances. She felt an intense emotion growing inside her. Anger, it was anger she felt, she explained it to herself, it must be anger. What else could it be? How dare he do such a thing? Winking at her as if she was a barmaid he fancied… Did he…? Ása scolded herself. She had to get to the bottom of this and discover the identity of this extremely rude dwarf! He deserved an earful! And this was the only reason why she wanted to know who he was. It had absolutely nothing to do with the magnificent way he looked that night in his beautifully adorned tunic, tall and wide-shouldered. Nothing at all. He stood there, proud and confident, as if he was…

 

“The prince.” Lady Barba said calmly later that evening. She and her charge sat by the fireplace, resting after the official event of the day.

“The… who?!” Ása exclaimed, stunned.

“That was the prince. Thorin. Son of Thráin, son of Thrór. Heir apparent to the throne of Erebor, second in line after his father, that is.” Lady Barba explained patiently.

“Are you sure that was really him? Wasn’t he supposed to be away somewhere?” Ása tried not to hyperventilate, nor to faint, at least not until she got to know the whole truth.

The older dwarven lady chuckled good-heartedly. “Yes, I am quite sure. Yes, he has been away. It’s been a while, but he finally returned from his trip. His mother, Lady Sigrun, must be beside herself with joy!”

“Indeed, she must be,” Ása tried to mask the storm of emotions raging inside her. She somehow managed to smile stiffly instead of growling in horror.

“I’m quite glad we’re visiting with her tomorrow,” Lady Barba continued, clearly not noticing the distress she was causing to her protégé. “I’m sure we will hear all about his journey from the source.”

“What?!” Ása exclaimed, not being able to contain her emotions.

“Is there something wrong with your hearing tonight, my child?” her guardian looked worried.

“No, Lady Barba, I am sorry… It’s just… How do you mean we will hear it from the source?”

The older lady chuckled. “What do you think it could mean? Lady Sigrun assured me Prince Thorin himself would be there. It would be a great opportunity for you to get introduced to him. And I’m sure you’ll like Thorin, he’s a fine young man,” Lady Barba’s smile widened.

Ása stifled a groan. How was she supposed to face him now? Her anger at his recent actions evaporated, leaving her with an unsettling feeling of uncertainty. What if he’d told his mother, or anyone else, about their meeting in the forest? What if… She didn’t even want to think about everything that could go wrong during their official meeting. She was mortified. It could even mean that her days at the court were already numbered, her reputation - soon to be ruined.

Ása wished the next day would never come.

Chapter Text

The afternoon tea with Lady Sigrun and a few other ladies of the court started quite smoothly. Ása usually liked visiting prince Thráin’s wife, knowing that she could expect a bit less formal atmosphere at those gatherings. The Crown Prince’s spouse preferred to keep it simple. She was an easy-going woman with a kind face framed by finely braided dark hair gathered together in an elegant bun at the top of her head. She did not care much for jewelry, and because of that, one could see only a few mandatory hair beads adorning her hair. 

When all the ladies arrived, everyone exchanged the expected polite niceties that etiquette demanded. When everyone shared the latest court gossip, Ása perfected the art of mental yawning and not looking utterly bored at the same time. At one point, Lady Sigrun looked at Ása with her kind blue eyes that immediately reminded her of Thorin, and then asked the young lady about the most popular games young children in Iron Hills liked to play. Lady Sigrun’s youngest child, Dís, was easily bored and prince Thráin’s wife hoped that a new game would keep her daughter both occupied and away from trouble.

“Two days ago, I found her in the kitchens, diving into a sack of flour, while everyone thought she was soundly asleep in her bedchamber. When we managed to finally fish her out of the huge sack, her hair was as white as our king’s,” Lady Sigrun chuckled. “She looked like a miniature snowman! She claimed she was treasure hunting, just like her brothers used to do. Unfortunately, the cooks were not amused when they saw the mess… but my little Dís can charm her way out of the biggest trouble, as you all know. Somehow, she managed to placate the head cook with a lovely smile and those sweet dimples of hers. Needless to say, she returned home with a box of freshly baked butter cookies instead of a proper scolding from him.”

“Well, it seems that her treasure hunt was quite successful,” a deep male voice suddenly filled the room.

Ása closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. She could recognize this voice everywhere. Thorin. He finally arrived.

“Good afternoon, Mother,” he said, beaming at her.

“Thorin, my dear boy, I’m so happy you could make it,” Lady Sigrun’s face brightened.

“How could I not?” he approached the ladies and hugged his mother. “I never miss an opportunity to taste the best cookies in Erebor!” he grinned mischievously and reached for one of the plates. 

“Hey, leave something for me, too, you hog!” another dwarf appeared in Lady Sigrun’s drawing room. He wore a leather tunic and was at least as tall as Thorin. His head was shaved clean on the sides, leaving only a long strip of dark hair on the top, giving him a rather fierce look.

“Dwalin, what a lovely surprise!” Lady Sigrun exclaimed. “Please, sit down with us, both of you.”

Ása sighed with relief. It looked like there would not be any formal, awkward and dangerous presentations. But then she heard Lady Barba’s voice.

“My lady, I believe that some introductions are in order.”

“Ah, yes, dear Barba, you are right as always. Thorin? Dwalin?” Sigrun turned to the two young dwarves who already managed to take the strategic positions by the cookie plates. “I believe you haven’t had the chance to meet the newest addition to our court. Ása, my dear, let me present my son Thorin and his cousin, Dwalin.”
Both dwarves stood up at the same moment and performed their customary bows.

“Thorin, at your service,” he said, looking at Ása intently, his face not revealing any emotions. She thought she recognized a hint of surprise in his eyes.
“Dwalin, at your service,” the other dwarf smiled, quickly munching a cookie and trying to cover his mouth.

“My dear boys, this is Lady Ása from the Iron Hills,” Lady Sigrun said.

Ása curtsied to them, as it was expected.

“It is an honor to meet you both,” Ása said stiffly. She was thankful for the endless hours of training with her etiquette tutor that made her perform all the expected bows, movements and greetings in the correct order without thinking nor stumbling, even though she felt the nervousness tying her stomach into a knot. Was it going to happen now? Would Thorin give her secret away in front of everyone?

“Lady Ása is our king’s ward and will be staying with us. I hope you will make her feel at home here in Erebor.” Thorin’s mother looked at both young dwarves.

“Of course, Mother,” replied Thorin solemnly. “I will do everything I can to treat her like a princess...” 

Ása felt his scorching gaze on her face and dared not to lift her eyes to meet his. The heat crept up treacherously on her cheeks.

“... if she promises to stay away from MY cookies!” Thorin finished, suddenly grinning and grabbing another tasty-looking piece of pastry.
Lady Sigrun made a theatrical sigh and addressed Ása, feigning seriousness. “I’m afraid this is what happens to certain dwarves who have been away from the civilized society for too long, my dear. I am sure you can understand that. I can only hope that my son manages to recall his manners one day...”

Ása giggled.

“Ah, mother. You wound me deeply with those unsubstantiated accusations!” Thorin chuckled.
“Don’t worry, m’lady”, Dwalin interjected. “I’ll make sure he acts like a gentledwarf, starting with leaving some of those delicious cookies to ME. I meant, to Lady Ása!”

Lady Sigrun laughed. “Boys, boys… I’m truly counting on your best behavior! We can’t have our guest thinking that the finest young men of Erebor are quite boorish and only have food on their minds.”

“This is simply not true,” protested Dwalin. “Sometimes, we also have a good drink on our minds!”
Laughter filled the room and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Soon, Thorin and Dwalin started speaking about their latest adventures in the north. 

Their stories were entertaining, amusing and a bit exaggerated from time to time, but that was exactly what the ancient dwarven storytelling tradition demanded. The most important thing was to keep the listeners sufficiently entertained. Unfortunately, Ása couldn’t shake off the nervousness completely and enjoy the evening fully. She kept thinking about the young prince and the enigmatic glances he shot at her from time to time from across the tea table while spinning his fantastic tales. 

“... and that’s when Dwalin started sounding like an old sawmill, dozing off in his saddle.”

“Hey! I wasn’t asleep, I was only resting my eyes! And I certainly didn’t snore! I simply couldn’t, because yer empty belly kept growling like a hungry bear! Ouch!” Dwalin protested, earning a nudge in his ribs from the prince.

“In order to save my hearing, I decided to ride ahead and find a suitable place for a camp in the forest glade,” Thorin continued his story, pretending he didn’t hear his cousin’s teasing. “I left my pony at the outskirts of the forest and followed a path among the trees. Suddenly, there was a movement and I noticed a strange glow ahead. I sneaked up towards it, and you’ll never guess what I saw… It was... a forest dryad.”

Several gasps of surprise could be heard. Even Ása listened intently. She always dreamt of seeing one of those legendary forest beings. It was said that they were extremely rare now and avoided being spotted by anyone, preferring the company of trees and forest animals.
“How did she look like?” Ása asked timidly. She knew she probably shouldn’t attract Thorin’s attention, but curiosity got the better of her.

“This dryad looked exactly like the stories said,” continued the young prince, focusing all of his attention on Ása. ”She was shorter than an average dwarf. She moved through the forest like a ghost and… something like a shroud of magic surrounded her. The source of that intense glow I first noticed became obvious to me now. It was her golden hair. It shone almost as brightly as the sun itself, like a pile of freshly polished bright gold, finely braided, adorned with leaves, twigs and small flowers, always dancing in the air around her, as if it had a life of its own. And she could communicate with animals. I saw her talking with frogs at a forest pond as clearly as I can see and hear you now…” Thorin kept his eyes on Ása. She couldn’t read his expression. At the same time, she couldn’t believe her ears. A pond? And frogs? No, it couldn’t be… He wouldn’t...


“I approached the pond, hoping to talk with this magical creature,” he continued, “but she disappeared between the trees just after noticing me. I called after her, tried to follow her, but I failed. She was already gone, almost as swift and graceful as a doe. I guess she probably hid inside one of her trees, as the dryads do.” He paused for a moment. “I have never seen anything like this before. Such beauty... Shining like the most precious jewel.” Thorin sighed. “I can only hope that Mahal allows me to see this mysterious dryad by her pond one more time...” he looked at Ása intently. She lowered her gaze, trying to hide her embarrassment mixed with anger. She hoped Lady Barba hasn’t noticed anything and wouldn’t pay any mind to yet another made-up story told by the young prince.

“Oooh, poor Thorin!” Dwalin interrupted the silence. “I think I remember that day, we didn’t have any breakfast so he hallucinated from hunger! Are ye sure that it wasn’t a nice and fatty suckling pig you saw in those woods?” he laughed.

“No, Dwalin, I know a suckling pig when I see one,” Thorin retorted, nudging his cousin in the ribs again and looking at him with rebuke. Dwalin rose immediately and started impersonating a ridiculously looking cross between a nimble dryad and a pig, half-running, half-dancing around the table and grunting like the animal in a very convincing manner.

“Oink! Oink! Oh, master Thorin, look at me, I’m a wee forest piggy! Am I not succulent and pretty?” said Dwalin, patting his buttock playfully. “Oink! Oink! Wouldn’t ye like to roast me? But first, give us a kiss!” Dwalin gave Thorin a good, wet peck on his forehead and immediately run away from the prince, hearing his angry growl. When Dwalin found himself at the safe distance, on the other side of the table, he started blowing coquettish kisses towards his cousin, oinking relentlessly and making everyone laugh. 

Thorin stood up, his face darkened with suppressed emotions.

“Mother, ladies,” he bowed courtly to the women gathered around the room, this time avoiding Ása’s gaze. “I’d like to apologize in advance for the brutal scenes you are going to witness. I believe there is a piglet that needs to be slaughtered at once!” he jumped towards his oinking cousin, and soon both dwarves started a droll chase around the table. From time to time, Thorin would throw a cookie at Dwalin pretending it was a deadly javelin, but his cousin would quite often catch it with his mouth and mercilessly devour at once. At that point, even Lady Barba had to take out her handkerchief to dry the tears of laughter running down her cheeks.

 

“Thank you for a lovely afternoon, Lady Sigrun,” said Lady Barba to her hostess just before leaving.

“I should be the one thanking you for coming and bringing our lovely Ása with you,” Thráin’s wife smiled. “Thorin and Dwalin did everything they could to… well, show themselves in the best light possible. We’ve had so much fun, wouldn’t you say?” Lady Sigrun said with a glint in her eye.

“Yes, indeed, I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much. I hope we will see these two fine young dwarves at your tea parties more often, since they are finally back with us,” Lady Barba glanced meaningfully at Thorin’s mother who bowed her head slightly, as if agreeing to something unspoken.

“You can be sure of that, my dear Barba. You will hear from me soon.”

***

“How did you like the tea party, my dear Ása?” asked Lady Barba when they were back in their chambers.

“It was… fun,” replied the dwarf maiden cautiously. She still wasn’t quite sure how to feel about everything that happened there. And how to feel about the prince. Thorin. Why did she feel this strange warmth in her chest every time his name was mentioned? Wasn’t she supposed to feel anger or even cold fury?

“And what do you think about our dear prince Thorin and his cousin Dwalin? They have been the life of the party today, haven’t they?”

“Yes, Lady Barba, they have. Although, I didn’t imagine them to be so… so…”

“So… funny?”
Ása nodded, although she had a few other words on her mind, especially when it came to Thorin and his reckless tales about forests, dryads, and frogs. What a nerve he had!

“Well, my dear,” replied the dwarven matron. “I believe that they tried to make sure that you noticed them.”

“Me? Why would they?”

Lady Barba sighed, “Oh, Ása, haven’t they taught you anything in the Iron Hills about the way young dwarves sometimes acted around dwarven maidens? These two met you for the first time and apparently took quite a liking to you. Haven’t you noticed how Dwalin grinned at you and performed all those tricks with cookies over and over?”
“I thought he did that to amuse everyone…”

“And what about prince Thorin and his story of that golden-haired dryad?”

Ása’s pulse quickened. Did Lady Barba suspect something?

“Well, it was just another story, wasn’t it?” she said carefully, hoping her voice wouldn’t betray her.

“My dear, when was the last time you looked at yourself in a mirror?” the matron shook her head. “Think about the story one more time when combing your hair before going to sleep tonight. I’m sure you will figure it out and recall the way the prince glanced at you.”

Ása nodded, blushing involuntarily. She sighed with relief, hoping that her guardian would not draw any dangerous conclusions.

Lady Barba smiled quizzically and changed the subject, “Very well, and now I’d like to ask you what you thought about Lady Hildur’s dress…”

 

***

 

A week has passed since the memorable tea party and Ása did everything she could to avoid meeting Thorin in public. There was no saying what he would do next to embarrass her further. At the same time, she had to admit she had no idea how she would feel about meeting him yet again. She hated the uncertainty she experienced. She should be annoyed at his behavior. Angry at him. At the same time, she caught herself dreaming away about the way he’d held her in his strong arms in that forest glade, the way he looked at her, the way their lips almost met… 

One morning, Ása found an unsigned letter in her mail. She broke the seal and saw only one sentence: “If a certain forest dryad misses her shawl, it will be waiting for her in the Queen’s Gardens on the day after tomorrow, at dawn.” There was no signature, but she didn’t need one. This was the chance to confront the prince, she decided, gathering her courage. She needed to let him know how to treat ladies properly once and for all!

 

The Queen’s Gardens. It was the first time Ása set her foot in this secluded, half-forgotten place. It wasn’t easy to find, so she arrived late, a few moments after dawn. It was clear that these gardens hadn’t been properly taken care of for quite a while. From what she had gathered, these spacious “Gardens Under the Mountain”, as they were sometimes referred to, were created many years ago by Queen Urtha, king Thrór’s wife. Queen Urtha had unfortunately passed away over 30 years ago and since then, large parts of the gardens in this mountain chamber have somehow fallen into disrepair. Nevertheless, they still looked quite impressively with many unusual plant species, gravel paths, benches and stone sculptures creating a complicated, but well-thought-out mosaic of shapes and colors. Dim morning light seeped through the crystal ceiling made for the sole purpose of nourishing the local flora with the sun’s life-giving energy. Ása promised herself to take a tour of this fascinating place at a later date. Now, she hoped her soft, woolen shawl, the one she liked so much, would be waiting for her somewhere there. She started walking deeper into the maze created by the lush plant life, admiring the surroundings and trying not to feel nervous. A part of her wondered whether Thorin would really be there. There were a few things she needed to spell out for him. How dared he act so… so arrogantly towards her in the throne room? How could he embarrass her yet again at Lady Sigrun’s party?

She was so deep in thought that she hasn’t noticed a familiar figure walking towards her.

“Lady Ása,” she felt a shiver down her spine when she heard her own name spoken in that deep voice of his. Thorin bowed, greeting her with a captivating smile. Here he was, as tall and athletic as she remembered, with the same cerulean eyes that somehow started melting all of her resolve she’d managed to muster. 

“Prince Thorin,” Ása curtsied, hiding behind a mask of courtly behavior.

“It is a pleasure to meet you again, my lady,” Thorin said, taking a step towards her.

He was drawn to her from the first moment they’d met in the woods, as if bound by some inexplicable force. When he saw her in the gardens, he could feel the yearning for her closeness getting even stronger than before. She was finally there, standing just a few steps away from him. He sighed with relief. This was his chance. He knew he had to act sensibly now, she wasn’t one of the frolicsome young ladies of the court. The last thing he wanted was to scare her off completely.

“Thank you for your kind words, my lord prince. I am grateful you found a moment in your undoubtedly busy schedule to return my shawl,” Ása replied.

“My lady must be mistaken. The shawl I found belongs to a forest dryad I met in the woods once and I intend to return it to her. Does a grand lady of the king’s court like you know of any dryads in the vicinity of Erebor?” he took another step towards her, like a mountain lion approaching his prey.

“It depends whether you, my lord prince, know the whereabouts of a certain Master Blacksmith. I may have heard from the dryad in question that he is quite a gentledwarf, unlike… other dwarves.”

“And why is that?” he looked at her, amused, seeing her temper rise.

“First of all, he saved her from a dangerous fall, while a certain arrogant prince demonstrated a shockingly rude behavior towards a lady at an important social function!” she pointed a finger at him accusingly.

“I admit it was rather surprising to see you there, my lady. Was it rude to admire your lovely features?” Thorin asked innocently, his smile widened. He simply couldn’t stop himself from teasing her and seeing the delicate features of her face change with embarrassment.

“My…” Ása felt her cheeks burning up. “Well, it was rude to wink at me like that!”

“Ah, the winking?” Thorin chuckled. “Then I’m guilty as charged. I must ask for your forgiveness at once! I wanted to make sure it was really you, not a figment of my imagination. I had to see that lovely blush on your face once again…” he looked at her intently, his powerful gaze finding its way through the cracks in the armor of anger she shielded herself with. Thorin took another daring step towards her, their bodies dangerously close to each other. He immediately recognized the intoxicating smell of lilac and lavender in the air around her.

“I…”, she stumbled over a word and bit her tongue, her brow furrowed as if trying to focus on something. She took a deep breath and continued.

“Furthermore,” she said, looking as if she tried to muster all her strength, “A real gentledwarf would not embarrass a lady with strange tales in front of other respectable ladies! What if anyone started suspecting it may have been based on true events?” she raised her voice, pointing a finger at his chest once again. Thorin noticed the hints of anger in her voice, but instead of accepting the challenge he could only think about how fiercely she looked with a few loose strands of hair around her face and sparks of fury in her eyes. Simply breathtaking.

“My lady, it was not my intention to disconcert you nor raise any suspicions. I hoped it would be understood as a sign of my great admiration.” Thorin took her hand into his, attentively observing her reaction to this bold move.
“Nevertheless, I see that I caused you distress. Will you accept my sincerest apologies?” he asked quietly.

“My prince, I…” Ása blushed even more. She was speechless. She didn’t see it coming. He was supposed to be angry at her, or offended at the very least. She expected a scene and certainly wasn’t prepared for these words. Nor for his gentle touch. She didn’t take her hand back, even though she most definitely should. He… he was just being polite. And tried to impress her with his manners. Yes, this was surely it.

“You can rest assured that from now on I will double my efforts in trying to act like a civilized gentledwarf,” Thorin added with a hint of a smile, still holding her palm in his firm hands reassuringly, looking deeply into her eyes, as if trying to uncover her thoughts. Ása felt his male heat radiating towards her. What has happened to all her anger? Where has it disappeared? And why was her heart beating so fast?

“A civilized gentledwarf?” she raised her head and looked into the endless ocean of emotion in his eyes.

“Yes,” Thorin nodded solemnly.

“I’d like that very much, my lord prince,” she whispered shyly, lowering her eyes, all of her resolve melted away.

“Thank you, my lady, I appreciate your kindness. And now, I believe I have something for you,” he smiled and reluctantly let go of her hand to give her the green shawl she’d lost in the forest. 

“Thank you, my lord” Ása slightly bowed her head. When she threw the shawl around her shoulders, it was still warm from his touch. It almost felt as if she was enveloped in Thorin’s embrace. She scolded herself immediately. How did this puzzling thought even find its way to her brain?

 

“Have you visited this place before, my lady?” he asked after a moment’s pause.

“I’m afraid not.”
“Then allow me to show you the way around these gardens,” he reached out towards her invitingly. Ása wrapped her hand around the arm he offered.

“It would be a pleasure.” she looked around, trying to focus on the world around her and not on Thorin’s closeness nor his strong thigh brushing against her when they started walking. 

The gardens surrounded them by rose bushes that’d quite outgrown their flower beds. Some of the thorny branches covered an old statue of an ancient warrior, now completely forgotten together with the rest of the gardens. Sweet scent of roses filled the air.

“It’s such an intriguing place!” Ása exclaimed.

“I’m glad to hear it. It was one of my favorite childhood places. My Grandfather wished to keep it untouched since the day his wife passed away,” Thorin said with a hint of sadness in his voice. “She was his One.”

Ása looked at the young prince in surprise. Discussing dwarven love and Ones was a very private matter, most often reserved for the closest family members. Apart from that, it was a very delicate subject for the royal families. Their members were expected to marry based on the best interests of the realm. The younger generations were even sometimes discouraged from searching for their Ones, the soulmates they would spend their lives with. In some cases, crucial political alliances were perceived as more important for the kingdom that personal happiness. Ása suspected that it had been the reason behind the marriage of Crown Prince Thráin and Lady Sigrun. Even she, the newcomer from Iron Hills, heard some gossip about this not quite happy marriage.

“I’m glad, then, that your grandparents had found each other and lived their lives together in happiness,” replied Ása after a moment of silence. “And although a part of me wishes I could have seen these grand gardens when the queen was still with us, I enjoy the eerie charm they hold now.”

“Thank you for your kind words, my lady,” he affectionately squeezed her hand that rested on his broad arm. “And now, allow me to change this solemn mood and show you the place where I fought my first bloody battle as a child.”

“A battle? Against whom? Have you encountered a monster here?” her eyes widened.

“Oh, yes, it was a deadly one. The dreaded stone bench. It suddenly appeared in front of me when I tried to outrun my older cousin Balin,” the tone of his voice was serious, but she could see a mischievous glint in his eyes.
“And who won? You or the deadly stone bench?”

“The bench, I’m afraid. I lost my first milk tooth in that battle!” Thorin grinned, showing a full set of even white teeth.

“A scar worthy of a brave warrior!” Ása chuckled. She hadn't imagined the prince to be such an easygoing and open person. She expected the heir to the throne of Erebor to be haughty and contemptuous, but he turned out to be quite charming instead, and an amusing conversation partner. That morning was full of surprises.

 

After visiting a few other places, hideouts and curiosities, they finally reached an old, dried-up stone fountain wrapped in dark green ivy. It was located close to one of the entrances to the gardens.

“Thank you, my lady, for the privilege of escorting you throughout the Queen’s Gardens. It was a pleasure,” Thorin bowed and took Ása’s hand into his once again.

“I should be the one thanking you for this lovely tour, my lord prince. I’ve learned quite a lot about Erebor!” she smiled gratefully.

“Then I’m more than happy to be of service to you. Both now and in the future. I’ll gladly show you other hidden gems of our kingdom. Just send a word, my lady. I’ll be waiting.” Thorin lowered his lips and placed a tender kiss on her hand, looking at her intently. His eyes darkened.

A wave of hear flooded Ása’s body, her pulse quickened rapidly, her cheeks flushed yet again.

“T… thank you, m-my lord… I’ll keep that in mind,” Ása replied, stumbling upon words and hoping he would not notice her reaction. A part of her was afraid of the strong emotions he woke in her. She never felt anything like this before. Ása tried to convince herself that she should not read too much into his words nor his courtly gestures. Kissing a dwarf maiden on a hand was considered to be a sign of great affection in the Iron Hills, reserved mostly for dwarven couples, but perhaps it was different in Erebor. The prince was just being polite, she reasoned. And this invitation to contact him? He simply wanted to fulfill his mother’s request. Nothing more. She asked him to be a real gentledwarf, didn’t she? If only she could make her heart stop fluttering like a dozen of butterflies…

 

And then Ása suddenly returned to that cold and uninviting darkness, but it wasn’t that cold anymore.

She still felt his lips burning the skin on the back of her palm, his fingers gently caressing her hand. She even heard Thorin’s affectionate words.

“Ása… Amrâlimê, you are safe now. I’m here, with you…”

She gathered all the strength she still had and decided to follow his voice guiding her to safety.

Chapter Text

“Ása… Amrâlimê*, you are safe now. I’m here, with you…” Thorin’s words rang in Ása’s ears. At first, she felt as if she wasn’t able to move, but finally her eyelids fluttered and opened reluctantly. It took her a while to get used to the dim light and focus on the surroundings. It was a challenge to move her pounding head, but she managed to recognize her bedchamber. A sigh of relief escaped her mouth: she was in her own bed. But why did everything hurt? And how did she get there? The last thing she remembered was… it was… She felt a wave of dizziness coming over her and tried to swallow, but her throat was dry and aching. She tried to look around, her eyes going out of focus, in search for something to drink. And then she noticed him. His large frame leaned against her bedside table. He sat on the floor on the side of her bed, holding her delicate palm in his large, bruised hand. His head rested against the bed mattress and he was completely still except for the slow, regular movements of his chest, rising and falling.

“Th… Thorin?” she croaked, faintly squeezing his hand.

He stirred immediately and got up.

“Ása…?” Thorin’s alert gaze rested on her face. Ása tried to say something more, but was unable to articulate even a single word. It felt as if her throat was full of shattered glass.

“Don’t try to speak now, my sweet,” he took a mug from the bed table, filled it with water and sat on the bed, helping her to sit up and quench her thirst.

“Better now?” he asked and put away the mug.

Ása nodded. The throat still hurt but the pain was less intense.

“Is there anything you require? Food?”

She shook her head. Food was one of the last things on her mind.

“Anything else? Please don’t strain your throat, just show me.”
Thorin smiled tenderly, reached towards her face and moved a stray strand of hair away from her eyes. She grabbed his warm hand and placed it against her cheek, closing her eyes and enjoying his touch. A lonely tear ran down her cheek.

“Amrâlimê…” he whispered, drying it off with his thumb. “It’s all right. You are safe now. I’m going to…”
“Is she awake, my lord prince?” said Jutta quietly and rose from a chair by the fireplace, waking up from her slumber.

“It appears so, miss Jutta,” Thorin replied, reluctantly removing his hand from Ása’s face and taking her hand in his once again. Ása’s thoughts were still cloudy, but something told her that she should be puzzled at the way he openly demonstrated his affection for her in Jutta’s presence. She didn’t want to think about it now as long as Thorin was here, with her. She was safe. He would protect her.

“Lady Ása had a bit of water just now,” he explained, getting up from the bed. “Perhaps it would be best if I gave you a few moments alone in case…” he cleared his throat in embarrassment, “in case the dressing needs to be changed.”

“Thank you, my lord prince,” nodded Jutta, “I’ll tend to lady Ása’s needs the best I can.”

“Thank you, miss Jutta. Please let me know as soon as I’m allowed back here.”
“Of course, my lord.”

“I will be back soon, my lady,” Thorin addressed Ása and squeezed her hand gently, trying to let it go, but she clenched his hand with all her strength, not wanting him to leave her side. Her eyes widened in fear.

“It is all right, my dearest, I am not going anywhere, I will be waiting on the other side of your bedchamber door,” he explained. Her grip didn’t lessen.

“My lady,” said Jutta, furrowing her brow. “I will be changing your dressing now and it would not be proper for our lord prince to be in a dwarf maiden’s bedchamber at such a moment.

Ása’s mouth moved silently.

“Yes, I will come back as soon as I can, my lady,” he assured her, raising her hand to his mouth and kissing her gently.

 

When the prince left the chamber, Jutta started checking the state of Ása’s dressing and bandages. After a few moments, her solemn countenance changed.

“Ása, how are you feeling?”

Ása shrugged her shoulders. It hurt, like everything else.

“How is your head?” asked Jutta worriedly.

Ása put her hand to her left temple to show where it hurt the most. She felt a bandage covering her hair on the side of her head.

“That bastard. He will get what he deserves, you can be sure. He already took quite a beating from your brave prince Thorin,” she grinned, “but everyone in Erebor is furious now. I hear that the king was so angry that he locked himself in his chamber to plan some great punishment for that disgraceful piece of filth.” Jutta looked at Ása and noticed her face getting ever more paler than before. 

“Oh, and master Óin was here and examined you. Good news! There is nothing broken, just a few bruises, but you will be fine. And you should avoid speaking at least for a few days, until you throat gets better. You should sleep a lot, eat a lot and drink linden tea with honey. I will bring you some in a moment... But first, I have to tell you something important…” Jutta lowered her voice to a whisper and sat closer to Ása, covering her neck carefully with a fresh dressing.

“When prince Thorin brought you here last night, I saw your courting braids. Ása, you and him! What a wonderful surprise! You have to tell me all about it later!” Jutta beamed with joy, seeing Ása’s cheeks flush faintly, and started talking even more excitedly. “And you should have seen the prince when he carried you in here, bloody and furious, but he didn’t want to leave your side, not even for a moment. Ah, and then Lady Barba came in and heard all about what happened. I thought she would faint, but instead she started yelling at everyone with that resonant voice of hers. They summoned a healer and when Master Óin finally arrived, he had to threaten Thorin with bringing in the king’s guards to escort him out of your bedchamber so that he could examine you in peace. There was a lot of shouting, but Master Óin and Lord Beldrum somehow managed to drag the prince out of your chamber. I’ve never seen the lord so agitated! And there was a lot of commotion, dwarves coming and going all the time… Ah, and there is something you need to know, Ása. I hid your courting braid within your regular sleeping braid I pleated before the healer came here.”

Ása furrowed her brow and touched the long, thick braid, looking at her friend questioningly.

“Trust me, Ása, this is not a good time for you to announce your courtship. Please, don’t worry, this was Lady Barba’s decision and I think she is right. She is a very experienced lady of the court and believes that this scandal has to quiet down first. Otherwise, there may be rumors... Well, there are rumors already now, but… ah, nevermind,” Jutta bit her tongue. “That bastard Zohar needs to be punished first, this is a matter of your honor, that’s what Lady Barba says. We need to wait for a better moment. She and Lord Beldrum are going to take care of everything. He has already talked with the prince and lord Thorin agrees, too, so everything will be fine, you’ll see. I won’t bore you with details for now, but please, rest now and I’ll bring you your tea.”

There was a knock on the door. When Jutta opened it, she saw Thorin accompanied by one of crown prince Thráin’s servants, a chestnut-bearded bald dwarf.

“...it’s quite an urgent matter, my lord, and...” the servant interrupted with a scowl on his face.

“Miss Jutta,” Thorin said, turning his back on the servant and staring at her intently, “my lord father has urgently requested my presence by his side. Please convey my best regards to Lady Ása and please tell her that I wish her quick recovery. I will visit as soon as possible to inquire about her health.”

“Of course, my lord prince,” Jutta replied, surprised. She could only wonder what this urgent matter was. She had a bad feeling about this and she didn’t like the look on that servant’s face.

 

***

Later that afternoon, at prince Thráin’s chambers

When the door closed just after lord Beldrum had left, Thráin shot an angry glance at his son.

“This is an utter mess. The king’s ward assaulted. A prominent envoy from Ered Luin beaten up by none other than the king’s grandson. The diplomatic talks halted indefinitely. Years and years of preparations ruined because you felt like having a barroom brawl! Do you have any idea how much convincing it took me to make the delegation finally come here?!”

“I am aware, father. I was there by your side, remember?”

“Don’t take that tone with me, boy. This treaty was supposed to finally start a solid trade exchange between us and Ered Luin.”
“The rumors about finding mithril there--”
“We haven’t seen the proof yet, but they may be true!” Thráin banged his fist on the table. “This could be a great opportunity for us! I went to the council chambers this morning to discuss the fine details of this agreement in good faith. And do you have any idea how many envoys from Blue Mountains I met there? NONE. And did I get informed by anyone about what the reason was? NO! I had to spend the better part of the day figuring it out on my own!”

Thorin sighed, while Thráin continued his tirade, his words getting louder with each sentence. His father loved the sound of his own voice.

“And did my firstborn son, my heir, come to inform me about this mess, as a should dutiful son would? NO! Would you care to guess how I got to know what transpired last night? No? Well, I was lucky enough to overhear a servant’s gossip! Me, the crown prince, the heir apparent…! This is an outrage!!! Tell me… How am I supposed to run this kingdom when I am not informed about such crucial things?!”

“Father.” Thorin started, his patience wearing out. “Has Grandfather not received my message?”

“Your Grandfather is overcome by his sickness now and in no shape to make any decisions.” Thráin swallowed and looked away for a moment. “That is why I have to take care of the mess you’ve made!”

“But it’s been such a long while since he last succumbed to…”

“Don’t change the subject! We’re talking about you now! Where were you all day long?! Why did you not come to me at once?!”

Thorin lowered his head. He still felt the limpness of Ása’s body in his arms. The sound of his cry for help in the middle of the night. The soft, burgundy-colored carpets in Lord Beldrum’s and Lady Barba’s chambers where Ása lived. The sight of her unusually pale face. A bloodstain. Her cool skin under his touch. The unending hours he spent by her bedside, waiting for a faintest sign of movement and finally, the gentle squeeze of her small hand in his.

“I was at Lord Beldrum’s chambers. I requested Master Óin at once. I had to make sure Lady Ása was safe and getting the best help available,” he looked at his father and continued. “I thought it would be wise to make sure that she was well. And I placed two guards by the entrance to their chambers to keep her safe. It would not do to have a conflict with Iron Hills on our hands.”

Thráin’s face was impenetrable. He started pacing around the chamber.

“This is unheard of… Are you sure Zohur forced himself upon her?” he asked after a few moments of silence. The wrath seemingly disappeared from his voice, but Thorin knew his father and those sudden outbursts of temper. He hoped that wrath didn’t transform into something much more dangerous. Thráin’s cold, vicious, calculating fury manifested itself when it was least expected and earned him a nickname among his enemies. The Viper.

“Yes, father, I am sure,” Thorin uttered, clenching his fists.
“Did she encourage him?” Thráin continued, observing his son intensely.

“NO! She is a lady and would never act like this!” Thorin shouted angrily and immediately got up, knocking over the chair he was sitting on, before he realized what he was doing.

Thráin observed his son for a few moments, and then there was a glint in his eye.

“I see…” he smirked. “So maybe you were the one who encouraged her too much and Lord Zohur intervened on the lady’s behalf, hmm?” Thráin’s voice was suddenly smooth and sweet as honey.

“NEVER! How could you even think such a thing?! I would rather die than ruin her in such a way! She’s innocent and deserves to be treated like a queen!” Thorin exclaimed, but his father chuckled coldly in response.
“Interesting… Well, it seems I’d have to take your word for it. What a shame neither Lady Ása nor Lord Zohur are well enough to tell their sides of this story.” Thráin seemed to regain his composure, he even looked slightly amused.

“It was exactly as I’ve already told you, father!!!”

“Be quiet, Thorin, I’m the one speaking now. It’s high time you learned what duty, discipline and self-denial are, son. For quite a while now, you have been a constant disappointment to me. I believe I had been too soft on you when you were younger, trying to humor your mother and raise you with much more freedom than I had in my youth. But it has to stop now. You will be the king of Erebor one day. You finally need to learn the true meaning of responsibility and hard work. As of today, I am terminating your apprenticeship at the forges.”
“The forges? I don’t understand…” Thorin looked completely puzzled.

“Quiet,” his father continued. “Starting tomorrow, you will be working in the mines. Full shifts, like any other dwarf. You are going straight for the deep mines and don’t even think about any special treatment.”

“But I’ve never…” his son was baffled. Thráin’s suggestion about Thorin enjoying special treatment at his work due to his noble birth was a crude insult. Such treatment was against the dwarven traditions.

“Quiet, I said! Furthermore, I expect you to carry on with your usual studies and training. You need to start acting like a true son of Erebor and not like a spoiled princeling! Look at your younger brother.”

“Father, this is unfair…”

Thráin banged his fist on the table again, even louder than the previous time.
“Did I not tell you to keep quiet?! Your current insubordination is proving me right yet again. You WILL do as you are told, no discussions. And now… leave my sight.”

 

***

 

Thorin walked ahead aimlessly. He needed to get away from there, as far as he could. Away from his father… He still couldn’t understand Thráin’s decision. The dwarven tradition said that every dwarf, royalty or not, had to learn a trade. Thorin truly enjoyed his work at forges and was quite proud of the progress he’d already shown throughout the years. The forge master had even admitted that the prince had both the makings and the skills of a good blacksmith. But now, with just a couple of years of his apprenticeship left, Thorin was suddenly supposed to start learning a completely new trade, just like a dwarfling. It would take him many years to master the new set of skills. This wasn’t how things worked in Erebor, no one would change his profession like that unless they were really lacking skill or talent. Why would his father do such a thing and humiliate him so openly? Thorin understood that Thráin had been angry with him. Too angry, and for all the wrong reasons. But at the same time, the prince was sure that he did not deserve such treatment. Thoughts in his head kept buzzing like uproared bees. He had to…

 

“Thorin, where have ye been? I’ve been searching for you all day long!” said Dwalin who managed to catch up with his friend. “And what’s with the clothes?” he pointed at Thorin’s dirty tunic. Only then, the prince realized that he hasn’t changed his clothes since yesterday. Since he and Ása… his heart clenched. Every fiber of his body wanted to return to her at once, to make sure she was getting better, but he knew he couldn’t risk it now. He was afraid he’d already revealed too much to his father. Thráin’s most trusted servants, his “eyes”, could be anywhere and Thorin didn’t want to lead them to Ása… He gritted his teeth. He needed to protect her so badly it ached. At least, he tried to reason with himself, she was safe in Lord Beldrum’s care.

Thorin grunted.

“It’s a long story, Dwalin. And it has to be told over a pint of ale. Or two. But first, I need a favor to ask of you.”
“Your wish is my command, m’lord!” Dwalin smiled reassuringly.

 

***

 

Ása woke up, startled, hearing the door to her bedroom creak.

“Thorin?” she whispered faintly through parched lips, feeling feverish. She has been slipping into restless sleep for a few times and then waking up suddenly, panting, as if after having a nightmare she wasn’t able to recall. She didn’t how much time has passed since Thorin was called away by his father nor she was able to tell whether it was day or night.

“It’s just me, Ása. I’m back. I’ve brought you some herbal tea so you can sleep better. I’ll be sitting right here and watching over you,” Jutta tried to calm her down. “Drink it, please, it will help you with the fever… yes, that’s it, bottoms up! Lovely.”

“But… why…” Ása tried to utter a few words.

“Master Óin forbade you to speak, remember? Please. You need to focus on getting better now, this is all that matters. Besides, I have some news. Master Dwalin was just here,” explained Jutta. Ása felt drowsy, but she thought she noticed that her companion blushed slightly.

“He brought some news regarding prince Thorin,” Jutta continued. She couldn’t tell her everything. She knew she had to choose her words wisely, not wanting to upset Ása in her fragile state. “Apparently, there has been some... emergency and Crown Prince Thráin himself asked his son to take care of some… new and time-consuming tasks. It has something to do with politics and our guests from Ered Luin. The prince asks for your forgiveness and would like to visit you tomorrow at dawn. Would you like me to let him in when he comes?”

Ása nodded, smiling faintly. At dawn. Both her and Thorin’s favorite time of the day. She would wait patiently. Her eyelids drooped and she quickly slipped into a dreamless sleep that mercifully took all of her pain away.

 

Next time she opened her eyes, she felt a soft touch on her cheek. It was Thorin. 

“Good morning, my sweet Ása,” he whispered, caressing her face.

“Thorin?” her mouth moved silently. She took his wrist and lightly kissed the inside of his hand.
“I missed you too.” Thorin’s lips curled up in a smile, reflecting the joy he saw on her face.

He was dressed in fresh, plain work clothes, but one look at his tired face told Ása that he barely had any sleep last night. She noticed that his courting braid she pleated was intertwined with another one, with her jade bead hidden inside it. Ása reached out and touched it, trying not to think of her pounding head and her blurry vision. It felt worse when she moved.

“Yes, I know. It seems that we will have to wait a bit until we can announce it officially, and I need to speak to my grandfather first. I hate this waiting.” His face saddened. “I want to tell everyone about it now, make everyone see your bead in my hair and my bead in yours. I want everybody to see that you are mine, and only mine,” Thorin’s eyes glinted passionately in the candlelight. “But… we have to be patient just for a short time. Don’t worry, your braid is still here, my love,” he reassured her calmly, taking her hand into his. “And it will stay here until…” Thorin stumbled upon his words, “until you... decide to braid a… another braid… together with me,” he looked at her with a glint of hope in his stormy blue eyes.

Ása blushed instantly. Her heart was racing. She knew what he meant. According to the dwarven tradition, a successful courting ended when a dwarven woman accepted her suitor as her future husband. Then, at the wedding ceremony, the couple would braid one braid together, using the hair from both of their courting braids. As a result, they would be joined for the rest of the day by their hair and would become inseparable. This wedding braid was a symbol of unity and of joining two dwarven hearts into one.

They have never spoken about the future before, enjoying only short, stolen moments together, not daring to dream about anything else until a day ago when Thorin asked to court Ása. She still couldn’t believe it. And now, the dwarf who stole her heart, her prince, ignited this spark of hope she never even dared to dream about. Her fingers slowly moved to the side of his face, sliding against his thick beard, and then traveling along the courting braid she’d pleated. A dark thought appeared in her mind. Did he really think about their future together, even after the events of the previous night? She could still feel the brutal, soiling touch of her assailant. She was tarnished, not worthy of Thorin’s attention.

Ása swallowed the growing nausea in her throat and tried to smile, but it didn’t look convincing. She felt his longing gaze on her face and wanted to tell him how much he meant for her, how much she yearned for spending the rest of her life together with him, that she was willing to do whatever she could to be worthy of his feelings again. At the same time, her head started pounding even more, bringing flashes of last night’s events in front of her eyes. Her injured throat betrayed her and she managed to utter only a short croak.

“Please, my love, don’t try to speak,” Thorin interjected, looking slightly embarrassed at her reaction. “I apologize, I shouldn’t have said… We will have plenty of time to talk later. I am afraid I am expected in the mines soon,” he sighed. “It’s nothing serious. My father assigned me some new duties and I have to take care of them if I want to be worthy of the king’s crown in future. At least that is what he says,” he smiled, trying to sound reassuring. “I will try to visit you soon and as often as I can. And while you are getting well, I’m going to take care of everything else,” he kissed her hand and laid it on top of the quilt she was covered with. “Rest now, my sweet Ása.”

And then he was gone, taking all the light in the world with him, leaving only a small candle burning at her bedside table. Its flame cast ominous shadows on the walls.

 

***

 

Thorin’s mind was in turmoil. How could he be so stupid? Why couldn’t he control himself? For the love of Mahal, what made him speak about the wedding braid? It’s been barely two days, two very eventful days, since Ása agreed to court him. He’d noticed how she’d hesitated before she allowed him to braid her hair in their secret chamber. And now, he carelessly assaulted her with this stupid suggestion of marriage, scaring her off. The distaste on her face was unmistakable. Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, the greatest idiot under the Mountain.

 

“Thorin, what is going on?” Frerin asked his older brother, trying to match his swift pace. He was noticeably younger than Thorin, his beard barely growing in. Frerin was mostly lanky and not as tall as Thorin yet, but one could see their resemblance clearly. Dark, wavy hair, prominent Durin noses and their steel blue eyes. This was supposed to be their first day of apprenticeship together and Frerin was quite thrilled about it. He looked up to Thorin and had often wished for them to apprentice together, even if he knew how much his brother liked working in the forges. Two years ago, when Frerin became old enough to become an apprentice, he asked for being assigned to the forges as well. Unfortunately for him, their father disagreed, since they needed to uphold the family tradition. Each of the sons in the line of Durin was to learn a different trade in order to show the dwarves of Erebor that they still honored their roots.

And then, something has changed yesterday. Frerin heard about a quarrel between his father and brother. He didn’t know the details, but he witnessed yet another shouting match between his parents later in the evening. His father slammed the door on the way out of their bedchamber, smashed a chair that stood in his way to pieces and then left the royal family chambers for the whole night, leaving his mother sobbing. Thorin, too, was nowhere to be found second night in a row. In the morning, they were present at the breakfast table, but none of them spoke except for little Dís who cheerfully chattered throughout the meal. Mother was barely eating, while Thorin attacked his food with a grim ferocity of a dire wolf, not acknowledging the triumphant stare his father tried to scorch him with. When lord Thráin informed Frerin that from now on Thorin would accompany him to the mines as an apprentice, the young dwarf was overjoyed. Frerin’s happiness lessened when he noticed that his mother left the dining chamber exactly at this moment, taking Dís with her. Then, Thorin stopped jabbing at the meat on his plate, got up and said dryly, “Let’s go, Frerin.”

 

And now, both of them stood in front of the main entrance to the great mines of Erebor.

“Thorin. Tell me, please,” Frerin spoke one more time, trying to snap his brother out of his brooding mood.

“There is nothing to talk about, Frerin. It’s between me and Father.” Thorin threw a dark look at him.

“But I don’t understand! What happened? Why aren’t you working at the forges any more? Why is Mother so upset and where did you disapp--”

“Frerin, please,” Thorin interrupted him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “It will have to wait. We’re going to be late,” he glanced at the last dwarven miners hurriedly entering the mines. 

“Where were you assigned?”

“At the upper sorting stations,” replied Frerin, trying to hide his disappointment. “We’re learning about the difference between pyrite and gold deposits now. I’m sure they will assign you with us in the beginning…” his voice trailed off. It was quite unusual to see a grownup dwarf learning together with the youngsters. Only then Frerin realized how humiliating it must be for Thorin to start his apprenticeship once again, as if he were just an ignorant dwarfling.

“We will have lots of fun together, Thorin,” he tried to cheer his brother up, “Master Orath is almost blind, so he can’t see a thing when we…”

“Next!” shouted one of the mine sentries, looking at the brothers. His tired, craggy face was already darkened with soot and he wore a banged up helmet with a burning candle attached to it.

“Frerin, son of Thráin, upper sorting stations,” recited the younger one, familiar with the everyday procedure. He added proudly: “And Thorin, son of Thráin, upper sorting stations, too!”

The sentry looked narrowly at them.

“Good morning, young master Frerin. And good morning, master Thorin, I haven’t seen you here before.” He bowed his head slightly in casual greeting, not using their royal titles. This was customary in every dwarven line of work. In the mines, as well as in the forges, it was manual labor that counted, not noble lineage. Here, a dwarf could only be respected if he worked hard. 

“Indeed, I believe you haven’t,” replied Thorin in a low voice.

“Let me check the records.” The sentry looked at a pile of documents placed at a stone table nearby. A drop of wax from his candle fell on one of the pages.

“Ah, here it is. Thorin, son of… yes, hmmm… I see.” He glanced at Thorin, looking a bit perplexed, scratching the back of his head under the helmet. “It seems that, err…, master Thorin is assigned to the deep mines. Coal mine level 25.”

Thorin nodded.

“What?!” Frerin exclaimed. “This is a mistake, it’s too dangerous! He hasn’t--”

“It’s not a mistake, Frerin,” Thorin said to his brother calmly. “I will be fine, as always. I’ll meet you at the end of the shift. Agreed?”

“Yes, Thorin. But… are you sure?”

“Of course. Go now, little brother, don’t let them wait for you,” he smiled to Frerin reassuringly.

When Frerin was out of sight, Thorin growled and turned to the sentry once again.
“I’m afraid I have to ask you to show me the way. I haven’t had the pleasure to visit the deep mines yet.”

It took quite a long time to reach the lowest levels of the coal mine. They walked through narrow tunnels. They crossed crevices and bottomless chasms illuminated only by faint candlelight used by miners. Each step took them deeper into the bowels of the Lonely Mountain. After they took a ride in a shaky mining cart into yet another dark tunnel, the sentry took his leave. A large-eyed dwarf called Gundin joined Thorin and showed him the rest of the way, walking in front of him with a lantern that didn’t give out much light. They reached a cliff’s edge, rappelled down on ropes into almost complete darkness and finally reached level 25. The air here was humid, stuffy and full of coal dust. This dust found its way everywhere, onto their clothes, faces, into their hair and between their teeth. The low corridors here were filled with the sound of mattocks clinking against the coal-bearing rock. Thorin felt hot, disoriented and almost out of breath. Gundin handed him a battered mattock and a miner’s helmet, and patted him encouragingly on the shoulder.

“Welcome to the deep mines, Thorin.”

Chapter Text

 

“My dear, you look full of energy today,” exclaimed Lady Barba, seeing Ása coming into the breakfast room. The young dwarven maiden was dressed in a white morning gown, with smiling eyes and slightly pink cheeks. 

“Did you sleep well?” the older lady asked.

“Yes, Lady Barba, and I can’t remember the last time I slept so well,” Ása smiled and sat down by the table. “Is Lord Beldrum not here?” she asked.

“Oh, you know how he is, already in his study, checking the quarterly income of the realm or something equally fascinating. But I am sure you were happy to wake up and find yet another delightful token of admiration from your prince, were you not?” she looked at Ása with inquiring eyes.

“Yes... very happy,” Ása blushed and lowered her gaze towards the plate in front of her. Today, before dawn, Thorin left her a small bouquet of freshly picked forget-me-nots together with a short sealed note: 

“I may not be able to see you every day, but whenever I close my eyes, your lovely face is there, always with me. T.”

Every day she would wake up to yet another surprising gift waiting for her. A bullfinch, one of her favorite birds, carved in wood. A scroll describing different species of frogs that lived in the valley of Rivendell with a note: “I’m sure they don’t need any encouragement from the forest dryads!” that made her smile. A set of new charcoal sticks for drawing. A pair of soft riding gloves. And more. Each of these courting gifts was thoughtful, proper and gained full approval of Lady Barba. The scrupulous matron took her duties as a guardian very seriously and made a point of making sure that the whole dwarven courting ritual proceeded according to the tradition.

Initially, when the gifts started arriving and Ása was well enough to enjoy them, she was puzzled by Lady Barba’s actions. She expected a lecture on propriety, on her scandalous behavior on that memorable night (“What well-behaved young lady would leave her chambers alone at such an hour?”), or even words of disapproval on allowing prince Thorin to court her without Lady Barba’s and Lord Beldrum’s approval. But not a word was said about the events of that bittersweet night. Instead, Ása’s guardians treated her with care and kindness, doing all they could to make her forget the dark events that cast a shadow on one of the happiest moments of her life - when Thorin asked to court her. 

 

When Ása was still bedridden, Lady Barba spent most of her time by her side, caring for her together with Jutta, reading for her, sharing the newest court gossip or simply talking. During one of those afternoons, she took Ása’s hand and said, “You should know that Lord Beldrum and I are very happy that you and prince Thorin are courting. He is a good, honorable dwarf and if you decide to choose him…”

“I already have,” Ása said with confidence.

“But… so soon?”

“He is my One, Lady Barba.” 

“Mahal…!” Lady Barba looked at her protégé in astonishment. Ása has never seen her speechless before. “Are… are you sure? Of course, you are, what a stupid question to ask. I knew my dearest Beldrum was my One the second I laid my eyes on him. It took him a bit more time to realize it, mostly because he was, as usual, busy with his parchments, ledgers and abacuses,” Lady Barba chuckled, recalling old memories, her face looking a bit brighter and younger.

“But enough about those ancient times,” she continued. “Have you told prince Thorin about how you feel?”

“Not yet,” Ása admitted shyly. 

“And has he spoken to you about his feelings...?” 

Ása shook her head. “He hasn’t said anything yet… But the way he looks at me sometimes…”
“Well, he does look at you that way , even a blind hen would have noticed it. Why do you think I took you away from that feast after Crown Prince Thráin’s return? A few moments more and you would have been completely scorched by that gaze of his, or someone would finally see the way you stared at each other!”

“So... you noticed?” she felt a pang of embarrassment.

“I admit I am old, but I can still see quite well, thank you very much! Until today, however, we thought that it was merely a youthful infatuation between the two of you.”

We? ” Ása looked alarmed.

“Yes, we. Me and Lady Sigrun.”
“Thorin’s mother?!” Ása moaned with embarrassment, feeling a headache coming on. “How...?!”

“It may shock you, my dear, but Lady Sigrun’s eyes are even better than mine. Additionally, she has the indisputable advantage of knowing her son quite well. She has known him all his life, after all,” Lady Barba smiled playfully, “and she claims he has been eyeing you like a hawk ever since the two of you met at her tea party all those months ago. And do you remember that day when you went for a ride with master Dwalin? Apparently, prince Thorin fell into a fit of rage when he found out. She claims she has not seen him acting like that ever before.”

Ása’s heart made a loop of joy at the mention of Thorin, her cheeks flushed.

“And was she not angry with this? Are you not angry now?”
“Why on Arda would we be angry?”
“Because we did it in secret. And because of Crown Prince Thráin. Me and Thorin courting… It is against his will. Oh, Lady Barba, you probably think that I’m a very silly girl. I accepted Thorin and simply hoped that…” her voice faltered and her eyes filled with tears.

“My dear Ása,” Lady Barba’s hands covered Ása’s trembling palms. “The Crown Prince Thráin is a very powerful dwarf, but he is not the king of Erebor. Remember that you are a ward of our king Thrór and he has the final word. His son certainly does not hold power over your heart nor Thorin’s. And certainly not over our Creator’s will. Standing in the way of your happiness would be against our tradition. Even the youngest dwarflings know that such a powerful bond between two dwarves is unbreakable. Mahal has chosen you to be Thorin’s One and him to be your One. Your hearts must be joined, any other way would be unthinkable.”

“Do you really think so?” Ása had a hopeful look on her face.

“I know so, my dear. In fact, we will do everything we can to make it happen. We are going to talk with our king as soon as he is available and then announce your courtship. We need to be patient for now and wait until the dishonorable Zohur’s trial has taken place.”

Ása shivered at the mention of that dwarf’s name and felt a spell of nausea coming on. She knew that the trial would start soon, as soon as Zohur was well enough to appear in the throne room. Luckily, Ása would not have to face him there. One of the court scribes met with Ása one day and wrote down her statement. Revisiting the events of that night, the ones that she was able to recall, was quite a painful experience. Luckily, Lady Barba was there at her side, giving her all the support she needed and mercilessly scolding the poor scribe if he lingered too much on details of no consequence. Ása recalled the vivid nightmares that haunted her that night. Those nightmares kept haunting her still. A cold shiver ran down her spine. She had to stop thinking about this. She had to focus on here and now. Ása took a few deep breaths to calm herself down. Zohur, that vile dwarf, was locked away. He could not hurt her any more.

 

“In the meantime,” Lady Barba continued, “it may be a good idea to talk with prince Thorin about your mutual feelings and see how you both feel about them. It must be Mahal’s blessing that you are already so sure of it. Some dwarves can not believe that they have found their One and find it difficult to admit to themselves at first. Others find it a bit overwhelming. I remember I couldn’t sleep and eat myself!” she chuckled to her memories. “Both of you need to tread very carefully for now. Many dwarves tend to, how should I put it, act very instinctively after they have found their Ones. Often, it is very hard for our men to control themselves, but right now your prince might need his resolve more than ever,” Lady Barba looked at Ása thoughtfully.
“I understand, Lady Barba. I will talk to him as soon as I have the chance.” Ása replied. Strong emotions brimmed inside her, and she threw her arms around the older dwarven lady, forgetting the pain lingering in her healing limbs. “Oh, thank you so much! I don’t know what I would do without you!”

Lady Barba hugged her back not being able to utter even a word, and wondering why her eyes became so misty all of a sudden.

 

This happened over a week ago. And now, Ása stared into her breakfast plate, pondering about when she would have the chance to see her beloved again. From what she’d heard from Jutta, his work at the mines started every day shortly after dawn and finished after a double shift. She wondered how Thorin managed to find the time to prepare all the courting gifts and leave them at her doorstep every morning, at dawn.

“The Bonfire Festival is tomorrow,” Lady Barba said casually, sipping her morning herbal tea. “Many dwarves are going to Dale, but I don’t think you are well enough to join the celebrations there. And Lord Beldrum keeps complaining about his back pain again, so we are staying here as well.”

Ása sighed joylessly. She was looking forward to the festival. A few months ago, Thorin had promised to take her there. There was a problem, however: she still felt quite weak and dizzy from time to time. There was no point in arguing; Lady Barba’s judgment was correct as usual.

“Luckily, Lady Sigrun has decided to organize a small, quiet party here, in Erebor, on the terrace behind the Front Gate’s battlements. It is going to be a rather informal gathering of friends and family,” said the dwarven matron. “And we are invited, of course. A truly splendid idea. We will be able to admire the fire show from above, and in a good company. There will be just a few ladies of the court with their families. Lady Sigrun, for example, is taking little Dis with her. Her husband will not attend, he is busy with some urgent matters. Her sons will be there instead,” Lady Barba peered at the young lady with a seemingly innocent look in her eyes.

Ása’s mouth formed into an “O” of surprise.

***

The outdoor party turned out to be neither small nor quiet, and certainly not low-key. Large, comfortable chairs and benches with lots of furs and soft pillows to sit on as well as tables with assorted snacks filled the usually empty stone terrace. Decorative lanterns were everywhere, burning brightly and adding to the mood of the evening. Music, song and a cheerful chatter filled the air around them. Ása lost count of all the guests present here, including children running around merrily. 

“My ladies,” Thorin’s face brightened when he bowed courtly to Lady Barba and her young companion. Ása noticed that his deep blue eyes were solemn, and he seemed to look a bit tired, or perhaps worried. 

“I am very glad to see you here. I hope you are enjoying the party?” he addressed them.

“Of course we are,” replied Lady Barba joyfully. “Your mother knows how to throw a wonderful party.”

“Oh, stop it, my dear!” protested Lady Sigrun with suppressed laughter. “We both remember very well which one of us threw that wild party when Lord Karden lost his shoe in a punch bowl… and a bit of his dignity, too!” Both ladies giggled.

“Shh, my dear, it was a long time ago,” protested Lady Barba.

“Come now, dear Barba, it is good to let the youngsters know that we used to have fun in our youth. We even had a saying, ‘What happens at Barba’s, stays at Barba’s.’” Lady Sigrun sniggered.

“Well, the shoe definitely stayed there…” Lady Barba sighed, unsuccessfully trying to look serious, but then bursting into giggles together with her friend.

“Don’t mind us, my dears,” she said to Thorin and Ása after a moment’s laughter. “Listening to old women exchanging conditional jokes has to be utterly boring. No, don’t say a word, I can see it in your eyes, you would rather be somewhere else!” she smiled. 

“Barba, I just recalled, I wanted to ask for your opinion about a dress I am thinking of... Thorin, perhaps you would like to show the view from the upmost terrace to Lady Ása?”
“It will be my pleasure, Mother. If Lady Barba can spare Lady Ása for a few moments, that is.” said Thorin, his gaze moving to his beloved’s face, as if searching for something.

“Of course I can! Ása, remember to take your shawl with you, it is rather windy up there,” Ása’s guardian replied quickly with a quizzical smile.

“Yes, Lady Barba,” Ása’s eyes shined with joy. She was aware of what these two sly ladies were up to, but she didn’t mind it even a bit. In fact, she wanted to hug them both at once.

“Perfect! Prince Thorin, please make sure that lady Ása does not exert herself too much,” Lady Barba said with a spark in her eye.

“Of course, Lady Barba, I will take good care of her.” Thorin bowed to her.

 

They climbed the staircase to the upper terrace above the Front Gate in silence. Thorin carried one of the lanterns with them. Its light threw fantastic shadows on the dwarven stronghold’s sturdy external wall. Ása had problems focusing on this breathtaking work of dwarven architecture and masterful craftsmanship. Every single bit of her body and mind focused on being close to Thorin. She couldn’t quite believe their luck. This was the first time they were allowed to be seen in public together. On all the previous and sparse occasions, there were always other dwarves with them. And now, they were completely alone, without a chaperone, with Thorin’s mother’s and Lady Barba’s blessing instead. This seemed both very real and like a dream coming true at the same time.

Soon, they reached the upmost terrace and Thorin guided her to a wide bench nearby, putting the lantern on the stone floor. It was quite windy, so Ása wrapped herself in the warm shawl she brought with her. They sat down without a word and were rewarded with a breathtaking view from the top of the Erebor’s Front Gate. The River Running’s silver ribbon meandered among the patchwork of meadows and fields below that disappeared in the velvety darkness of the night. The river flowed out from under the Lonely Mountain, passed by the colorful city of Dale and led towards the waters of the Long Lake, now glistening in the moonlight. One could already see the commotion in the city below: dozens of bonfires, lanterns and candles illuminated the city, shining like golden nuggets. An unmistakable sign that the festivities have already started.

“Was the climb too tiring for you, my lady?” the young prince asked thoughtfully.

“Not at all, my lord,” she replied, trying to catch his gaze. “I am glad to be able to walk with you again.”

“As am I,” he nodded, not smiling. “Thank you for coming today, my lady. I was not sure whether you would be well enough to attend my mother’s party… and whether you were willing to,” he lowered his gaze, his hands resting on his knees, not reaching out to touch her. Ása immediately felt a pang of unease. Something was not right.

“I felt well enough to come here. And I wanted to meet you. Besides, your mother and Lady Barba planned this brilliant scheme so that we could meet. We haven’t seen each other for so long. I missed you, Thorin,” her last words were spoken with a hint of timidity. Looking at his solemn face, Ása wondered what kind of thoughts filled his mind right now. She’d been looking forward to this meeting, counting hours and imagining what they would do together and what fun they would have. Nothing prepared her for this distant, solemn Thorin. He turned his head towards her and looked deeply into her eyes.

“Are you sure that you still want to see me? Even after the things I said last time we spoke?”

“I don’t think I understand…” Ása replied, confused.

“I know now that I may have assumed too much. You barely agreed to court me, my lady. You have been through a lot of strain. Your mind and body were in such distress. And I acted foolishly, without thinking. I was too forward in suggesting… in hoping that you and me… that you could accept me one day. It was not the right time nor place for such assumptions. It was not my intention to put you in an uncomfortable position, nor force a decision upon you,” he swallowed, not looking up, not moving. His knuckles turned white as he clenched his knees. “I apologize for my behavior, my lady. I am prepared to conclude our courting and I will understand if you wish to return all the gifts I was bold enough to send you.”

“My lord? Thorin?” Ása’s heart pummeled in her chest. She felt the cold darkness creeping up towards her again, making her eyes well with tears. What was he saying? Was he searching for a way out of their relationship? Was that it? Was he appalled by her? Was she too damaged and impure after that awful night? Did Zohur’s touch made her so befouled in Thorin’s eyes? Ása reached out and lightly touched the hand of her beloved, not being sure of his reaction. He was cold as stone and didn’t make even the slightest movement. 

“You never said nor did anything to offend me,” she said quietly.

Thorin’s back slowly straightened. His face was pale. His eyes widened and his brow furrowed, but Ása continued. She needed to speak up now, wanting to know the truth.

“I must admit that I am confused by your words. Do you really wish to conclude our courting? Are you saying that I am not worthy of you any more? Do you consider me too tarnished after… after what happened to me that night?” her voice quivered. 

Thorin looked at her with surprise. His hand caught hers and squeezes it tightly.

“Never!” he growled, his chest rising in barely contained anger. His upper lip curled up, showing a predatory flash of white teeth.

“That bastard dared to touch you with his filthy hands. And he is paying for it now.” Thorin took a deep breath, reached out towards her and gently put a stray lock of her hair behind her ear.

“My sweet Ása, I could never think of you that way. The only tarnished thing that I know of is that dishonorable creature’s mind. You don’t need to worry about my feelings for you, they are unchanged and will not be changed.” He wiped away a stray tear from her cheek with his thumb. “You are not at fault and you never were, my love. It is my inconsiderate behavior I should be ashamed of.”

“But Thorin, you don’t…” she started.
“Please allow me to finish. I wish to let you know how I feel so you can understand my actions better. The inconsiderate words I had spoken were caused by the hope that appeared in my heart. It steadily grew since the day we first met, in the forest glade. Do you remember that day, my sweet?”
“Of course, how could I forget?” Ása replied, even more confused than before. Almost instantly, she saw a bright spark in Thorin’s eyes.

“For a long time now, I have been confused. I tried to put my feelings for you into words, but I could not. I dared not. Last time we saw each other, I misspoke at the worst possible time. I understand now that no words can describe what my heart has known for a while now. I have never felt such a thing before and I have not suspected that it would happen to me. Whatever you may think of me, Ása, I would like you to know that…” he took a deep breath once again. There was no going back now.

“I believe you are my One,” he finished, his tormented stormy blue eyes looked at her hopefully.

Ása’s heart skipped a beat, and she heard herself saying two short words, “I know.”

“You… know?” Thorin moved closer to her, piercing her with his intensely blue gaze, his hands holding her tight, not letting go. She felt the warmth getting back into his body again.

“Yes, my love. My Azyungal. My One,” she whispered timidly.

Thorin pulled her up from the bench. Their lips met passionately, welcoming the vivid sensations brought forth by their confessions, everything else forgotten. Thorin cupped her face as his mouth devoured hers, making the blood rushing through her veins. Ása had never felt more alive. His kisses spoke of his boundless yearning for her. When he buried his fingers in her hair, she whimpered with pleasure, feeling an impossible heat traveling along her spine, towards her underbelly, and even lower. His deep, animalistic growl rumbled against her mouth. Ása felt light-headed, as her world filled only with their thirst for each other, with Thorin’s mouth and his touch. His hands traveled along her back, grabbed her waist and pulled her possessively towards him. Nothing has prepared her for intense feelings overflowing her. Ása’s body did not just experience a kiss. Every touch, every caress and every breath filled her with pulsing energy, promising some mysterious fulfillment, a release from the growing tension she felt. When their lips reluctantly parted, both were panting as if they have just finished a long run.

“Let us take a break, my love,” Thorin finally said, putting his hot forehead against hers. He slowly wrapped her in a tight but tender embrace. She was aware of cold gusts of wind around her, but the warmth of Thorin’s body shielded her from it completely. His dark hair moved with the wind. Ása rested her hands against his powerful torso and felt his hard muscles move, his chest rising and falling. She blushed when their gaze met again, recognizing the strength of Thorin’s feelings for her in those stormy blue eyes of his. 

“Whenever I kiss you, I feel fire burning inside me,” he murmured, his voice rumbling with desire. “With each passing day, it is more and more difficult to keep it at bay. Sometimes I fear I will not be able to stop myself when you are so incredibly close to me, when I can smell your scent, taste your sweet lips, feel your skin against mine. I am instantly yearning for more, dreaming of burning together with you...”

Red heat crept up on Ása’s cheeks. His raspy, enthralling voice saying those words promised unspeakable passion beyond her imagination and fueled the same scorching fire she felt inside her. Thorin truly wanted to become One with her, heart and body and she found herself yearning for the same thing. The flames inside her rose at this thought, devouring and melting everything they encountered on their way. She could feel the liquid heat pulsing between her legs, craving for more.

“Thorin… my fiery prince…” she mumbled. She couldn’t find the proper words in her mind and put them together into a sentence. Her lips were swollen and hot. All she could think of was the touch of his possessive mouth and his manly taste lingering on her tongue. 

She felt his fingers burning the skin on the side of her neck, then tracing slowly the line of her collarbone. She closed her eyes, enjoying the pleasure. Thorin ran his fingertips along her breastbone, towards the valley between her breasts. He stopped just above the hem of her bodice. Ása could hear his breathing quicken, but didn’t move, hoping that he would continue the caresses. She needed to feel his hands on her breasts, the bold heat of his rough skin against hers. She waited for him to explore every inch of her body, to claim her as his, here and now.

“Don’t open your eyes, Amrâlimê,” she heard his voice in her ear. Suddenly, he moved away from her, leaving her exposed to the cool evening air.

“What is it?”

“Patience, my love. You will see soon enough,” his voice sounded from behind her back.

She turned her head towards the sounds he was making, but then, almost suddenly, his body pressed against her back.

“No peeking!” he warned her. “And don’t move now, my sweet.”

Ása felt a whiff of air on her cheeks and then something cold as metal rested against the sensitive skin of her cleavage.

“You’re the most fascinating dwarven maiden I have met, Ása,” he murmured into her ear again, standing behind her and putting a hand on her bare shoulder, caressing it gently. “And the loveliest one I have ever seen. You are my One, more precious than all the jewels of Erebor. And I am yours. I want you to always remember it. I want you to think of me whenever you wear it. Open your eyes, my dearest.”

Ása looked down and saw a tear-shaped pink sweetwater pearl hanging from a delicate golden chain around her neck. She gasped.

“Thorin, this is beautiful!”

“I am glad you like it. For me, you are like this pearl. Pure, unique and priceless,” he nuzzled her ear with his mouth.

“Thorin, I… I am at a loss for words. I have never received anything like this before. Thank you!”

His hands grabbed her waist possessively, pulling her closer to him.

“You deserve nothing less, my love.” He started placing gentle kisses on the side and back of her neck, still standing behind her. Ása purred with pleasure, arching her neck towards his hot and greedy mouth. How did he know where to touch her? What was he doing to her? How did he make her feel this way? His touch was almost driving her crazy with lust. Thorin. The dwarf who filled her heart completely. Her One. She wanted to give herself to him, fully and unconditionally. Ása took one of his hands and guided it against her ribcage, sliding it all the way towards her left breast. He cupped it instinctively, making her moan with pleasure. He squeezed her, trapping her nipple between his fingers. A lightning of pleasure shot through her body. No one had ever touched her there before and the feeling was much more intense than she expected. Her heart raced at this new sensation, while her mind was in a blissful haze, enjoying every single of Thorin’s caresses. Her nipples stiffened, rubbing against the fabric of her bodice, her breasts pleading for being released from its confines. The proof of his arousal, his hot hardness, pressed urgently against her lower back. Her body’s yearning for him reached a whole new level, the liquid heat between her legs intensified.
“I… want you, Thorin,” Ása moaned between gasps of pleasure. She couldn’t believe the words that shamelessly escaped her mouth in the heat of the moment.

A low growl escaped Thorin’s throat as he squeezed her breast again.
“For the love of Mahal,” he said in a hoarse voice, turning her around to face him. “Don’t even tempt me like this. Not here,” he panted, his eyes were dark like a stormy sea at night.

“But you are my One and this is how I feel. Is it wrong of me?” she asked timidly.

“Oh, no,” he growled again. “On the contrary. It is very right to feel this way, believe me. But I am afraid my resolve is not my strongest advantage at this moment," he sighed. 

“The Beast that roams the halls of Erebor is very much untamed right now,” Thorin smiled cheekily, “and he can devour you at any moment.”

“I don’t expect anything else from my Beast,” she grinned playfully. “And I’m not afraid!”

“Unfortunately, I must admit that I am,” he said with a glint in his eye.
“What is it that makes you afraid, my fearless Beast?”

“If you must know, it is the Lady Dragon’s legendary wrath,” Thorin grinned at her. “I made a promise to Lady Barba that I would take good care of you tonight. And I don’t intend to break it, my love.”

“Not even a little bit?” Ása teased, tempted to test his willpower one more time, yet, at the same time, adoring the honorable way he acted. He chuckled and placed a gentle kiss on her mouth.

“We have all the time in the world, my sweet. Good things come to those who wait,” he winked at her, and this time, she loved it.

 

The fire show in Dale and the fireworks that accompanied it were spectacular. Thorin and Ása stood in silence, enjoying the view, hoping the night would never end. Ása realized that they needed to return to the party soon. She wrapped her arms around Thorin and put her head on his broad chest when he reciprocated the embrace, enjoying all the feelings that blazed through her heart. Thorin, her hero, was so close to her. She took a deep breath, all the way in. He smelled of pines, leather and charred wood. It made her think of raw, manly strength. A promise of safety.

“Thorin, I…” Ása whispered into his chest after a while, trying to find the right words. 

“Mmm?” he murmured. She could feel his chest rumbling.

“Thank you for saving me that night. If… if you hadn’t come…”

“Shhh, Amrâlimê… There is no need to thank me. You are my One,” he explained, “and you have me to protect you. Always.”

Chapter Text

A dark-haired dwarven boy with bright blue eyes sat at the foot of an intricately ornamented red armchair. The ancient piece of furniture was occupied by an almost equally ancient dwarf with a pipe in his mouth. The old dwarf’s impressive grey beard flowed all the way to his belt, covering most of his richly embroidered tunic. Both dwarves were seated in a cozy reading chamber where they both liked to spend time in the evenings. The older of the two would tell or read stories to the youngster, or the boy would speak about his day and the mischiefs he’s made. Sometimes, they would just sit in this chamber, in their favorite place in the whole Lonely Mountain, and simply enjoy each other’s company without even saying a word. Here, bookshelves stood against each wall and thick wool rugs in warm colors covered every inch of the stone floor, creating a cozy, homey feeling a passing human traveler could expect to see in a hobbit’s hole and not in a dwarven kingdom. But humans did not know much about dwarves and did not suspect that the children of Aule who lived in dark underground halls of stone greatly cherished comfort and warmth. Flames from the bright fireplace were a testimony to this fact, spreading a pleasant golden glow around and illuminating the chamber. 

“Grandpa?” the boy asked.

“What is it, my dear Thorin?” replied the old dwarf, smiling fondly at the boy and puffing out a small cloud of aromatic pipe smoke into the air above their heads. 

“How is it like to meet The One?”

The grandfather chuckled to himself and cleared his throat.
“Ah, Azyungal*? You must know, my boy, that this is a very serious business. But let me ask you this first: have you already met a beautiful dwarf maiden that caught your attention? Is that why you are asking about The One?” he spoke his grandson with a sparkle in his eye.

“N-no…” The boy blushed. “Girls are sooo boooring!”

The old dwarf chuckled again. 

“Something tells me that you might change your mind in the future. But let’s leave it for now. Will you tell your grandpa why you would like to know about The One?

“Yes! So… I had a lesson today and I learned a lot about what ponies like to eat in winter and summer and then Master Adin gave me homework. It was a... a ballad. To read and think about,” young Thorin rolled his eyes. “It was a kind of boring, ancient poem called Lady Urtha’s Gold . The lady in this looong poem was called Urtha, exactly like grandma! And your name was there too, grandpa!”

“You don’t say!”

“Yes, It’s true!” The boy continued, not noticing his grandfather’s amused gaze. “And it went on and on about how she came from a faraway dwarven realm in the east, all the way from the Red Mountains. And how beautiful she was. And it said she brought huuuge amounts of gold in her dowry, but it turned out that she found something much more precious than all the gold in the world in Erebor. Her One. King Thrór. And…,” the boy scratched his head. “ And I think it means you, grandpa. This poem says you were her gold, her Jewel of Jewels , and she was your One. Your... Azyungal*?” the boy looked at the old dwarf questioningly. “Is it really true what the poem says?”

Thrór smiled at his grandson with a hint of sadness in his eyes. He reached out his hand and ruffled the boy’s unruly hair.

“Well, that boring, ancient poem, as you say, was right. When a dwarf finds his One… it is as if he opened his eyes for the first time in his life. And that is how it was with me and your grandmother. Mahal’s grace shined on us on the day we met. I’d known she was my One since the first moment I laid my eyes upon her. Grandma Urtha was the most beautiful dwarven lady I have ever met. And the most cunning politician! But most importantly, she was my Other Half. My inexhaustible deposit of strength. Sturdy as a diamond. I knew I could always rely on her. I could be myself with her,” a sigh escaped his lips. “One day, when you are a king and you find your One, you will understand how important this is for a ruler,” king Thrór made a short pause and then continued.

“We were very happy together for many, many years. She understood me like no one else… I only wish Mahal took her to his halls in a less sudden manner.”

They both sat quietly, Thrór lost in his memories, the pipe in the corner of his mouth hanging loosely, almost extinguished.

“Do you miss her a lot, grandpa?” Thorin finally asked.

“Of course, my boy, every day. But I have a lot of memories of her to cherish in my old age.”

“Come on, grandpa, you’re not that old! You’re over…” the boy counted quickly, “2,000 years younger than Durin himself!”

“My body has a slightly different opinion on this matter.” Thrór smiled. “Some mornings I feel like I’m 2,000 years old!”

Thorin giggled.

“You know what grandma Urtha would say now, right?”

“Oh, yes...” Thrór grinned, his eyes looking at something far away, above the boy’s head.

“It would be something like this: Quit whining, you silver fox, we’re going on an adventure! ” He said with a higher-pitched voice. “Ah, we’ve had many great adventures, me and your grandma.” He continued, leaned towards his grandson and whispered: “And I will let you in on a secret: she was more precious to me than all the treasures of Erebor!”

“Really?” Asked the boy wide-eyed. “And is that how you know that a dwarven lady is your One?”

“Well… You must know that not all the dwarves are lucky enough to find their Ones during their lifetime, especially since there are much fewer dwarven women than men. But when Mahal deems you worthy of meeting your One, you will not be able to think about any treasures. You will simply know it - it can’t be mistaken with anything else. You will feel as if you were truly alive for the first time in your life! Your heart will tell you, so listen to it very carefully. And when you find your Azyungal, you can’t let anything stand in your way, for you are meant to be with your One until the end of your days. This is Mahal’s will. The most important thing in the world. There is no greater honor for a dwarf than when a dwarven lady chooses him to be her One. But he has to prove himself worthy of her first. And when a dwarf wins his lady, the most important thing for him to do is to respect and cherish her every day and make his One happy whenever he can. You never know what the future can bring. If you lose her, your life will never be the same again.” Thrór sighed again with glossy eyes. “Mahal blessed his children with this great gift. The old legends say that our Maker decided in his wisdom to bestow the gift of real, eternal love upon us, but the dwarven hearts could not contain such an overwhelming feeling. So Mahal made our hearts twice as big and divided them in two. He put one half of each heart into the male chest and the other one - into the female one. Only together we can truly feel whole. We should be thankful to Mahal for this generous gift, even though it means that we, dwarves, only love once in a lifetime. But when you are united with your Other Half, you will both feel like one. This is when you really start living. It happened exactly like this with me and your grandma Urtha.”

Little Thorin looked at his grandfather in silence, his mouth opened with awe, focusing on every word the King of Erebor uttered, nodding and trying to put them all to memory for safekeeping. Thrór sighed, wiped his misty eyes with arthritic fingers and continued.

“Ah, but enough of your grandpa’s ramblings. Tell me, would you like to hear a story?”

“Yesss!” the boy brightened at once. “The one about how you and grandma Urtha sneaked out of Erebor and went to Dale in disguise, and no one noticed!” exclaimed Thorin with joy.

“Are you sure? The one when grandma got into a fistfight and…”

“... got back home with a black eye! YESSS!” Thorin exclaimed with a wide smile on his face.

Thrór chuckled, the last signs of melancholy disappearing from his eyes.

“Your wish is my command, my future king.” He started, bowing his head and making his grandson giggle. 

“It was many, many years ago, when your father was just a baby with only one tooth.” 

Thorin laughed a bit louder, imagining his stern father wrapped in a baby blanket.

“I sat in the throne room,” the old king continued, “and my throne seemed very, very uncomfortable that day. It was so bad that I was worried that my buttocks had gone to sleep and would fall off the second I got up!” They both shared a laugh, and then the dwarf continued.

“I was really bored with all that kingly business we, kings, have to do. And then a strange lady who looked like a poor peddler asked for an audience.”

“Who was it, grandpa? Who was it?” Thorin squealed in anticipation. 

“I didn’t recognize her at first, but then she spoke. When I heard her voice, I instantly knew who it was… Wait a moment, my memory is not what it used to be…” He winked to his beloved grandson. “Was it… our cook Dagor?”

“Nooo, grandpa! It wasn’t him!” the boy chuckled.

“Ah, perhaps not… Hmm… Let me see… Was it… your pony?”

“Grandpaaa! Not my pony! He has a tail!”

“Of course, my mistake. I know! It must have been… Master Adin!”

“ Noooooooo, grandpa! He’s waaay too old! And he has whiskers! Dwarven women do not have any whiskers! It was grandma Urtha, grandpa!” Thorin giggled with glee, knowing the story by heart.

“Ah yes, you are right, of course… Where was I…” continued Thrór with a spark in his eye. “So your grandma approached my throne in disguise and said in a squeaky voice so that no one would recognize her: Would you like to buy a good luck charm from this poor saleswoman, my lord king? I agreed, of course, wondering what grandma Urtha was up to again. Name your price, saleswoman!, I said. And she replied…”

“She said,” Thorin interrupted him, imitating his grandma’s voice. “She said: You can get this ancient talisman but only if you grant me three wishes!” The boy’s bright blue eyes shone with excitement.

“Exactly, dear boy, that’s how it was! And then I knew a new adventure was on the horizon...” Thrór started spinning his tale for good, his mind reliving these happy times once again.

The flames from the fireplace cast their soft glow at the young dwarf and the old one alike and kept their bodies and hearts warm throughout the whole evening.

 

***

 

Thorin smiled at the fond memories of his childhood. A pair of enormous, luxuriantly gilded oak doors stood in front of him. They guarded the way to the private chambers of his majesty king Thrór, son of Dáin, son of Náin, King Under the Mountain. His grandfather. 

The young prince nodded at the two guards standing watch by the entrance to the king’s chambers. It worried him. There was no need to place guards there unless something serious has happened, there was a threat or... king Thrór succumbed to his sickness yet again and had to be contained in his rooms for his own safety. It wasn’t the first time it had happened. His mysterious illness started some time after Queen Urtha died and none of the king’s healers could tell what caused this affliction nor how to remedy it. The king would be himself for weeks or months, not suffering any symptoms, just to suddenly lapse into the sickness yet again for a few hours, days or even longer. Thorin didn’t want to admit it to himself, but it seemed that each episode lasted longer. He dreaded the thought that one day his grandfather might not return to his senses, losing the war that raged within his mind.

 

Overwhelming silence filled king Thrór’s opulent chambers. Thorin quietly closed the door behind him and directed his steps to his grandfather’s bedchamber, passing by an empty parlor. He knocked on another heavy door, but there was no reply. 

“Grandfather? It’s me, Thorin,” he cracked the door open. No reply. Concerned, he looked into the chamber, hoping to see his grandfather resting in bed.

The king’s four-poster bed was empty and still neatly made. In the warm light of the fireplace the prince could see the various golden ornaments and trinkets that covered most of the surfaces around the chamber in disarray. His grandfather’s dressing gown hung from a chair together with a wide, heavily ornamented jade-studded belt, his pipe laid on a desk next to a masterfully sculpted golden chalice beautifully adorned with gems that was still half-filled with wine, and a pair of his slippers waited by the bed, next to a thick chain adorned with large rubies, casting yellow and red glow around it. The owner of all these precious possessions was not there.

“Grandfather?” the silence pierced his ears.

Thorin searched the king’s chambers thoroughly, but wasn’t able to find even the smallest trace of his grandfather. He returned to the bedroom leaving the door open behind him and then he felt it. A faint whiff of cool air. He followed it instantly towards the opposite side of the room. There was a beautifully carved dark green wall in front of him, but the air current disappeared without a trace. Perhaps his tired mind played tricks on him. It wouldn’t surprise him at all. Thorin dreamed about getting some well-earned rest after another long and exhausting day in the mines, but he had more important things to do now. He started turning away from the wall when something caught his eye. A golden glint just above the floor. A coin? Stuck in the wall? The prince reached down for it and then he noticed something else: there was a crack in the wall’s surface, running all the way up. The coin seemed to be wedged within it. He closely examined this part of the wall. It looked as if some of the carvings decided to pop out of the wall in a strangely geometrical manner. This protruding part moved slightly when Thorin touched it, feeling its cold smoothness under his fingers. It didn’t take him much time to realize what he found: a hidden door. Erebor was full of secret passages, corridors, and walkways, but Thorin didn’t suspect finding an entrance to such place here, in this chamber. He plucked out the coin, and opened the door concealed under the carvings. The corridor behind it was dark, chilly and seemed to stretch far ahead. Thorin took a candle with him and made a step into the darkness. The flame in his hand danced against the cold air, making the walls come alive with grotesque shapes and winged shadows.

After quite a few steps, turns and dead ends, Thorin saw a faint light ahead of him. The corridor went down and turned into a stone, slippery staircase. It looked like scores of feet had walked it, polishing its surface throughout the years. The prince stumbled and cursed under his nose in Khuzdûl, managing to regain balance in the last possible moment. He must have been more tired than he thought. He shook his head trying to chase away the fatigue and continued the climb down. The stairs ended with an opening that changed into a large platform. It reached out further away and another staircase led down to the bottom of a gigantic natural cave transformed by the dwarven stonemasons into a tangle of columns, walkways, and staircases connecting different levels of this enormous chamber. The place was noticeably colder than the main parts of the dwarven kingdom. A steady golden glow without an identifiable source illuminated its central area. It was then when the prince recognized this place. The treasure chamber of Erebor in all its glory, filled with the kingdom’s riches: treasure chests brimming with gems, gold, and other precious metals; jewelry, weapons, exquisite works of craftsmanship in abundance, everything neatly stacked and ordered. At first, it looked like there was no one else in the cavern except Thorin, but then he saw a familiar figure sitting hunched over one of the large wooden chests filled with gold coins.

“One thousand seven hundred fifty-four... one thousand seven hundred fifty-five…” each of these numbers was accentuated by a clink of a coin falling on top of the pile. King Thrór continued the count, murmuring something indistinguishable under his breath. He seemed ecstatic, his face shining with the reflected glow of hundreds of golden coins gathered there. Thorin needed a few moments to take in the state his grandfather was in. The king was disheveled and barefoot; he wore crinkled, baggy trousers and a dingy, stained shirt. It seemed that he didn’t care about the cold whiffs of air around him. The men of the line of Durin took great pride in grooming their thick, long hair, and Thorin’s grandfather was not an exception to this rule. Now, however, both his hair and beard were unadorned, unkempt and bristly, giving him the appearance of a dwarf who had been lost in a forest for at least a week. Thorin hasn’t seen him in such a state before. Nothing remained of the kingly stature that was so characteristic to his grandfather.

“Grandpa?” the prince asked, approaching Thrór and trying not to make any sudden movements. He knew he had to be prepared for everything.

“Oh, it’s you, my boy!” the old king smiled warmly and looked at him with a clouded stare Thorin recognized very well. Thrór’s eyes seemed to glisten like molten gold. “Come here, my lad, sit by your grandpa and let me know what you learned from Master Adin today.”

Thorin tried to blink away the wetness that suddenly filled his eyes. 

“Grandpa… Master Adin is no longer my tutor and has not been for more than 20 years now,” he replied quietly. 

“Is that so, my boy?” the king’s stare intensified, his hand clutched a fistful of coins. “Then why are you here? Have you come to take something away from me?” his brow furrowed as he rapidly moved to stand between the treasure chest and his grandson.

“Why would I do that? I was searching for you. I was worried when I could not find you in your bedchamber.”

“I can’t trust that place any longer. It is not safe, not during the night. They are waiting… They do not know about it, but I can hear them. Every word. They want to get rid of me, Thorin! They want my treasure, but I won’t let them have it!”

“Grandfather, please. Let us go back. There is a warm bed waiting--”

“No!” Thrór bellowed, yanking his arm out of Thorin’s grasp, his demeanor rapidly changing, his weathered face contorting with wrath. “Not since my only son betrayed me, his father and king! He waited for me to lower my guard, and then he took it from me! I know it was him!”
“What--” Thorin started.

“I know you are not aware of it, my boy. You are the only one I can trust now,” the king’s voice turned into a hissing whisper. “They are all plotting against me, together with Thráin. He orchestrated everything. He wants the crown for himself, he wants me dead… I am sure of it!”
“No one wants you dead, Grandfather. We all need you to get well soon. The throne of Erebor awaits you.”

Thrór shook his head in disbelief.

“You don’t see it yet, Thorin, but you have to be extremely careful around your father. He will stop at nothing.”

“What did he take from you?”
Only silence responded back.

Thrór, the King Under the Mountain, stood in the middle of his treasure chamber in wrinkled, tousled clothes, without his crown, looking more like an old pauper than a king of the richest dwarven realm in Middle-earth. His gaze moved to the coins he still clutched in his hand. His body shivered.

“Thorin? What are you doing here, my dear boy?” he finally said in a weak voice, smiling, anger completely gone from his face, his bright blue eyes stared at the prince, without a trace of molten gold in them. “And, what is even more puzzling, what am I doing here?” the king looked around in surprise. Recognizing the shift in his mood, Thorin released a sigh of relief.

“Grandfather! You were unwell. Let us go to the kitchens at once and sup on a warm meal together.”
“Is it evening already?”

“It is. And I hear that Dagor prepared a delicious roe deer stew today.”

“Ah, Dagor’s famous stew....” he raised his hand to his forehead and then continued, seeing Thorin’s concerned look. “Do not worry, my boy. I feel a bit lightheaded. Let us have a seat for a moment so that my strength can return. These damned spells of mine… they are quite exhausting, I’m afraid.”

“As you wish, Grandfather.”

They sat for a few moments in silence.

“Was it very bad this time?” Thrór asked quietly.

“No, I don’t believe so. As far as I know, there were no… incidents in public this time,” Thorin chose his words with care.

“Good, good. How many days have passed since I…?”

“We celebrated Bonfire Festival last night.”

“It has been quite a few days, then.”

“We managed,” Thorin averted his gaze. It was not the right time to mention everything that happened between him and his father. The most important thing was that the sickness has once again retreated and his grandfather was himself again. All would be well now.

“You always do, and for that, I am thankful,” Thrór patted his grandson in the back and took a closer look at him.

“Thorin? What happened to your braids? A miner’s apprentice? What does that suppose to mean?”

Thorin closed his eyes. Thrór has always been very observant. It was a matter of time until he noticed his new beads.

“Were you not supposed to continue preparations for your blacksmith’s test?" his grandfather continued the inquiry, pointing his finger at the bead marking the prince as a blacksmith’s apprentice. It was expected of the prince to take it off since he started a new apprenticeship, but Thorin refused to do it.

“I was, but my father had other plans. I work in the mines now,” Thorin admitted reluctantly.

“What is he up to? Has he completely lost his wit?!”
“It was my fault, Grandfather. This is my punishment,” he lowered his gaze to the floor.

“What have you done?!” Thrór raised his voice.
“I do not wish to talk about it.”
“Thorin, I am your father’s father and your king. Tell me at once, what happened? I demand an answer!”

His grandson stood up, folded his muscular arms across his chest and stared at Thrór with a challenging gaze.

“I beat up a diplomatic envoy from Ered Luin. A disgraceful being without honor,” he spat, ”a filthy pig not worthy of being called a dwarf.”

“You? Did you indeed raise a hand on an envoy?” the king’s eyes widened.

“He tried to force himself upon my One,” Thorin growled, anger burning in his veins. His last two words echoed against the walls of the chamber.

“Ah, now I am starting to understand the situation. It seems that a lot has happened when I was… gone,” Thrór’s eyes flickered. “You found your One, you say.”

“You will not be pleased once you hear who it is.”

“And why do you think so?” Thrór looked at him intently.

“It is Ása, Grandfather. Your ward from the Iron Hills,” Thorin looked at his grandfather defiantly, his muscles tightening, subconsciously preparing for a conflict.

“I see,” two enigmatic words hung heavily in the air.

“I suspect you had different plans for her.” 

“My plans are of no consequence if she reciprocates your feelings. Does she?”

“She does, Grandfather!” the prince’s eyes filled with a glint of hope. The beads in his dark mane of hair glistened in the dim light. “You should know that we did not mean any disrespect to you. I wanted to seek your approval on the night we returned from Ered Luin, but I could not find you anywhere. And I had been away from her for so long…” Thorin’s tense featured softened. “That journey was like torture. I dreaded that she would forget me by the time I returned. I did not want to lose her. Since I met her, I can’t think about anything else. She is always on my mind, even when I sleep. I feel almost physical pain when I am not around her,” he lowered his voice, “and sometimes I can’t think straight, my feelings are nearly uncontrollable. I fear I am losing my mind, Grandfather,” he whispered. 

He knew that everything depended on this moment. If he could just explain everything in a logical manner, make Thrór understand the urge that guided his actions, they could still have a chance, he thought. There was nothing else Thorin wanted more than to make Ása his, to spend his whole life with his One. In order to make it happen, he had to convince his grandfather and secure his approval, even though he dreaded the thought of admitting to courting Ása without the king’s consent. He needed proper, sensible arguments, but it seemed that they all decided to disappear at that very moment, leaving him with emotions raging inside him.

The old king smiled kindly, perceiving his grandson’s internal struggle, and patted him reassuringly on the knee.

“You remind me of myself when I first met your grandmother. My mind was in a complete haze back then,” he cleared his throat. “I can assure you: you are not losing your mind. It is completely normal to feel this way. In fact, this is how you know she truly is your One. Ása is like a fresh breeze in our stuffy old halls, is she not?”

“She is. The most wonderful dwarven maiden in all seven dwarven realms,” Thorin nodded with dreamy eyes and a hint of a smile in the corner of his lips. Thrór looked fondly at his grandson, recalling his own youth and the all-consuming love for Urtha, his One.

“And does this have anything to do with that other new braid I see in your hair? It is a braid-in-braid, is it not?” the old king enquired.

“Yes, Grandfather,” the prince took a deep breath. “She agreed to court me,” he simply stated. With a few quick moves, he unplaited the thick braid that hid his courting braid clasped with Ása’s jade bead and presented it to the king. He braved a look into his grandfather’s impenetrable eyes, preparing for the worst.

“Thorin, my dear boy! Mahal be praised! I am truly happy to hear it!” Thrór embraced him in a bear hug. “I am sure your grandma Urtha would be just as happy for both of you.

“Does that mean you do not feel anger towards me?” the prince looked puzzled.

“Well, a little bit. I wish I were there to announce it in the Great Hall to everyone and say my blessings over you,” the king grinned, suddenly looking much more lively and youthful.

“Thank you, Grandfather!”
“Thank Mahal, not me. You found your Azyungal, it is all that matters now. And why are you hiding your courting braid?”

“It has not been made official yet. We were waiting for you, Grandfather,” Thorin bowed his head in reverence. “Besides, Father does not know. He would disapprove of it and I do not wish to jeopardize Ása’s safety.”
“What are you saying?!” Thrór stood up, clearly agitated. “How could he disapprove? You found your Other Half, he would not think of standing in your way!”
“Some months ago, Father clearly stated that he did not wish me to search for my One.”
“He did… what? How dared he?!”
“He saw me with Ása one day. He made it clear hat I had to think of the good of the realm and not of myself. I would marry someone suitable depending on Erebor’s current interest, and my marriage would be a political match, just like his,” Thorin sighed, his father’s words still burning in his mind. 

Thrór furrowed his brow, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Outrageous! Thráin has always been obsessed with politics. But now he went too far! Why have you not informed me about this sooner, my boy?”

“Father forbade me to see Ása and to speak of it to anyone. Even to you. I was supposed to forget her completely. Otherwise, he threatened, he would publicly disgrace Ása’s honor, or even send her away. But I refused to let her go,” he growled, gritting his teeth as his jaw clenched. 

“I can not believe it! This is not how I raised him!”

“Believe it, Grandfather!” his voice changed into a roar. “Afterwards, he even had the audacity to send scantily clad maids to my bedchamber in the middle of the night! So that I could taste the milk from the other cows without having to buy ‘the one’, as he put it. Yet he is my father and I am supposed to obey him! Where is the honor in this, Grandfather?! Is that what the good of the realm demands?” 

“Mahal…” Thrór’s face paled in the darkness. He staggered and would have lost his balance, but Thorin immediately rushed towards him, steadying the king and helping him sit on a bench nearby. At that moment, the king looked somehow smaller, older, and as fragile as a porcelain figurine in his grandson’s eyes.

“Forgive my outburst, Grandfather, I should have waited for a better moment. You need to regain your strength, we shall--” the prince started, concern ringing in his voice.

“No, Thorin. This I needed to know!” his deep voice rumbled in his chest. “My son! The heir to the throne of Erebor! A disgrace!” he spewed out the words. The king took out a golden coin from his pocket and started flipping it between his sturdy knuckles as if to calm himself down. 

“How is this possible?! How could I not see it? Already? There were no signs… Or were there…?” he started murmuring to himself. Thorin opened his mouth to reply, but just then he noticed a pale band of skin on Thrór’s ring finger.

“Grandfather?” he gasped. “Where is your Ring?”

The King’s Ring, the first and most precious of the seven Dwarf-rings was gone. It had been bestowed upon the rulers descending from Durin thousands of years ago. Thrór never took it off and wore it with great pride, as a symbol of his station and ancestry.

Suddenly, the king raised his head and stood up rapidly, straightening his posture. 

“He stole it from me!” he hissed violently. “The stain on the honor of Durin’s line! His blood needs to be spilled for this insolence! Get me my sword!” he shouted as soon as he stood up. The menacing eyes of molten gold looked commandingly at Thorin.

“Grandfather, please, come back to me!” the prince rested his hands on the king’s shoulders, hoping to calm him down somehow.

“I am all here, my grandson! More powerful than before!” Thrór shouted, clenching his fists. “He will pay for his despicable deeds! Where is my weapon, have you hidden it from me? Are you plotting against me as well?”

“I am only trying to help. Let us return to your chambers,” Thorin said with immeasurable sadness in his voice. His grandfather has never before slipped into another bout of his sickness so soon after a previous one. The prince swallowed, trying to sound calm. “It is quite chilly here, you don’t want to catch a cold.”

“Ah, always the caring Thorin. So unlike Thráin,” as the king’s wrath vanished abruptly, he walked up to the prince and patted his cheek. “So thoughtful. You got it from your grandmother, you know,” he sighed and looked at Thorin. “I couldn’t wish for a better grandson, but sometimes…” his eyes narrowed, ”sometimes I wish you were my son instead of this cold-hearted…”
“Please… You are not yourself now, Grandfather. You need to rest.”

“He had no right to claim it! It was mine!” Thrór shouted suddenly, his face reddening with rage. In just two steps he closed the distance to a weapon’s rack and took out a sword heavily ornamented with rubies, raising it up in the air. “And I will take it back when the time comes! He is too weak to wield it anyway. It will devour him. But you, Thorin,” he pointed the sword at the prince, ”you have to stay away from it for as long as you can!”

“But why—?” Thorin took a cautious step back, trying to make sense of Thrór’s erratic exclamations and move out of the sword’s reach at the same time. 

“Let us not speak of it now. Help me move this chest, my boy,” the king threw the sword on the floor and pointed at the chest brimming with coins behind him. “It contains my greatest treasure. The last one I have. Come!”

Thorin knew better than to protest when his grandfather was in this state and simply followed his lead. After its heavy lid fell with a thud, the king locked the chest with a key he kept on a chain around his neck. Thorin felt his exhausted muscles protest in pain when he lifted his side of the chest, but tried to not think of how he would feel in the morning.

“First, they took my Urtha away from me,” the king continued.
“Grandfather… she was very sick,” Thorin spoke slowly, wondering how many of his words managed to reach his grandfather’s clouded mind.

“It was not a regular sickness. I can see it clearly now,” a sob escaped Thrór’s throat. “Mahal took her to his halls before her time. And then, your treacherous father attacked again and stole my… took it from me. It was very… precious,” he raised his voice again. “I have been too lenient for too long. I won’t allow him to take my last prized possession! Now, help me move it behind that pillar.”

When the chest was placed in the darkness behind the column, they covered it with a pile of boxes, trinkets and other treasures.

“Out of sight, out of mind. It is safe now,” the old king breathed out with relief, visibly calming down. “Thank you, Thorin. I have to ask you to keep it to yourself. Not even a word to anyone. Understood?” he rested his hand on his grandson’s shoulder and looked him deeply in the eyes.

“Of course. I will be silent like a stone.”

“Before we do anything else, promise me one thing, my beloved grandson,” Thrór looked around the chamber.

“Anything, grandfather. You can rely on me,” Thorin nodded, looking into searchingly into the king’s troubled face.

“If anything happens to me, avenge me. Life for life.” Thrór’s slithering whisper filled the chamber, echoing in the distance long after everything else quieted.

 

Chapter Text

Ása felt the pleasant warmth of the morning sun on her skin and the familiar heat of Thorin’s chest against her cheek. She had to admit to herself that she preferred the latter, hoping that the sun won’t really mind it. With her eyes closed, she could hear her One’s deep breaths along with his steady heartbeat. Her mind registered sounds of faint wind in the trees and the chirping of birds in the background. The familiar music of the ancient forest.

A few days ago, Crown Prince Thráin went away for yet another diplomatic trip in an undisclosed direction, taking only a few trusted dwarves with him. It was quite a sudden and unexpected decision, but Ása decided not to overanalyze the situation too much. She and Thorin were glad that they finally had a whole day to themselves, and they were free to enjoy it however they wished. The golden-haired dwarf maiden smiled, rested her head firmly against Thorin’s raising chest, feeling his strong arm wrapped around her back, and let her thoughts fly away into unconsciousness.

Something tickled her nose. She wrinkled it, hoping that the obnoxious fly, or whatever it was, would go away. It disappeared for a moment, but then the tickling came back. She exhaled rapidly through the nose and waited. The annoying sensation returned yet again. Ása’s hand moved to her nose and her eyes opened wide. She heard herself giggling. 

“Thorin! You awful Beast! It tickles!”

His chest rumbled with laughter as he teased her with the tip of one of his temple braids.

“It is supposed to tickle,” he explained in his deep voice in a serious manner.

“Not when I’m trying to sleep!”

“Especially when you are trying to sleep, my lady. What would the people of Lonely Mountain think? The prince of Erebor must be a very dull fellow if his One prefers sleeping to talking with him. He is clearly not suited to be our king, he would surely bore us to tears !”

Ása laughed and raised herself on the elbow to meet his amused gaze.

“What a calumny! I simply needed a pillow and I prefer your chest to your mouth, my lord prince! Your beard tickles my ears!”

“Am I just a pillow to you, my lady?” he sat up, trying to look offended. “I see that it is my duty to remind you that I have other uses as well,” he pulled her closer towards him and started tickling her underarms.

“Oh no, don’t you dare,” she tried to defend herself, chuckling. He knew very well how sensitive she was to tickling.
“Oh, I do dare, my sweet,” his murmur was almost fully obscured by her outbursts of laughter.

“Thorin, please,” she gasped. “Have mercy!” she laughed again, not being able to stop.
“I may offer you mercy, but only under one condition.”
“Whatever… you… ask… for…” she giggled, trying to breathe at the same time. “I surrender!”

Thorin’s nimble fingers stopped teasing her at once.

“Your capitulation is accepted, my lady,” he smiled wickedly, seeing her flushed and panting.

“What is this condition of yours, my lord?”

“Let me see… what was it?” he pondered teasingly, stretching the whole length of his formidable body against the ground. He put his arms behind his head and stared into the cloudless sky, as if searching for divine inspiration.

“Ah, I remembered now. My condition is simple: you are going to fulfill my wishes,” he grinned. “All three of them.”

Ása wondered what this resourceful dwarf would come up with.

“Three wishes? So many? What if I fall asleep again? Out of boredom, you see,” she retorted with an innocent grin and was rewarded with Thorin’s growl.

“Be assured that you will not be bored in the slightest,” he looked at her mischievously.

“Well… since you insist, my lord, I accept your conditions.” Ása’s curiosity took the better of her. She wanted to see what her handsome prince had in store for her this time.

“I am pleased to hear it, my lady. Now, the time has come for my first wish,” his eyes darkened. “Let your hair down for me,” he commanded.

A blush crept up on Ása’s cheeks. She has unplaited her hair for Thorin in secret once before, but this was different: outside, in the open, away from the safety of the underground dwarven realms. She sat up and looked around cautiously, but could only see the forest trees and their ponies peacefully grazing nearby.

“What is it, my sweet?”


“Do you want me to… do it here?” Ása asked timidly.

“Oh, yes, I do,” her prince demanded, his eyes not leaving her face. “There is no one to see you here. Only me.” His irresistible voice sent a shiver down her spine.

Without a word, she quickly started taking pins and beads out of her golden hair. Lock after lock, braid after braid, they fell smoothly around her shoulders and down her back, flowing like a river of molten gold.

“There is no need to rush through it, my sweet,” Thorin said, staring intently at her, “we have time, have we not?”
“Well, yes..,” she replied quietly, stumbling upon the words. Ása could not understand what was happening to her. As soon as she felt Thorin’s eyes on her, this simple ritual she performed every night changed into something highly sensual and thrilling. She felt almost naked under his gaze. Her hands shook slightly, losing their usual dexterity. Her heart was beating faster, and there was an inexplicable but pleasant dizziness in her head, as if she drank too much wine. What was he doing to her? How did he make her feel so overawed by his presence? She attempted to slow down her movements and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself down. Her fingers moved down along one of her more intricate braids and intertwined with each of the five strands of hair, slowly unplaiting it and allowing the hair to fall freely.

“Yes, this is much better, my lady,” the prince murmured with that enthralling voice of his. Ása stole a glance of him from behind the curtain of her hair that spilled all around her, creating a long, golden cloak illuminated by sunlight. Thorin’s eyes seemed to glisten and his breath quickened slightly, but he hasn’t made even the slightest move, watching intently.

She moved her hands to the last braid on her head and stopped. It hid her courting braid.

“Do not be shy, Ása. We are alone here. Show it to me. I want to see how you look with my bead in your breathtaking hair.”

Soon, the braid he made all those weeks ago was the only adornment in her hair. 

“You are perfect, my Azyungal. My treasure of treasures,” he uttered in a raspy voice and started playing with her hair, lazily running his fingers through its silky softness. Her heart leapt at these words.

“This glow… it is simply astonishing,” he murmured. His eyes were like dark blue vortexes with glints of gold swirling inside them. Ása knew very well how they looked, but was surprised to see these golden spots. She could have sworn they have not been there a few moments ago. Perhaps it was just a trick of light. She shrugged off this puzzling observation and turned to her One.

“The glow?”

“Have you not noticed that a golden glow surrounds your hair, especially when the sun shines on it?”

“I was not aware of it,” she shook her head, making even more strands of hair shine in the sunlight. Still, she was unable to see that special “glow” he mentioned. 

Thorin’s fingers moved through the golden strands, smoothing them and making them catch even more sunlight. His gentle caresses turned out to be so pleasant and relaxing that Ása closed her eyes, enjoying it fully. She barely noticed his movement and the fact that she was suddenly sitting in front of him, between his strong thighs.

“You are wonderful, my sweet,” he murmured into her ear, stroking her hair and massaging her scalp.

“Mmm…” was all she could say, overwhelmed by all the new sensations.

Thorin chuckled. “Does that mean my lady likes it?”

“Mmm… don’t stop…”

“I would like to remind you that you are fulfilling my wishes today, not the other way around,” he teased her, exposing her neck and moving her hair away to the other side. He nuzzled the skin behind her ear, slowly placing butterfly kisses on this sensitive area. She purred with pleasure, expecting more of his thorough ministrations, but then his mouth and hands disappeared.

“Where did you go? Come back,” upset, she turned towards Thorin only to see him standing up with a mischievous grin.

“It just occurred to me that our deeds can be deemed as very improper, so I decided to stop this at once. Perhaps I should ask Lady Barba to recommend us a respectable chaperone that could accompany us from now on. How do you feel about the kind little frail Mistress Dara?”
“Thorin!” she immediately jumped up on her feet, resting her fists on her hips. What an insufferable dwarf! “You know very well that Mistress Dara keeps all her kindness exclusively for her sons, and that she is by far not little nor frail!” Ása vividly recalled the elderly widow in question. She was undoubtedly respectable, but her gossiping skills and the unnerving ability to ask very embarrassing questions were the stuff of legends. The same legends spoke about her right hook, so Ása tried to avoid any close encounters with her just in case. In the meantime, she took a step towards the prince and reached for his hand, hoping that he would continue making her feel all those wonderful sensations. She needed to feel his touch again.

Thorin chuckled and took a step back, staying out of her reach. Ása took another step forward.

“Ah, but Mistress Dara would make a formidable defender!” he grinned.

“Against whom?” Ása lunged forward, but Thorin managed to dodge her yet again.

“Why - against you, of course!” he retorted, smiling widely, “I must admit I feel threatened at this very moment. My virtue may be in danger!” he winked to her playfully.

Ása burst in laughter.
“It is all your fault, you know!”

“My fault? What did I do this time?” Thorin asked, acting surprised, flickers of laughter swirling in his eyes.

“Well... If you must know… You kissed me!” she grinned.

“This does not sound that bad. But are you aware that it could be even worse?” he stared at her intently.

“How so?” Ása looked puzzled.

“I may ask you to fulfill my second wish,” he grinned and took a step towards her.

“Oh, and what would that be?” 

“Kiss me, my lady,” he rumbled in a commanding tone.

Ása smiled slightly. This was a wish she definitely knew how to fulfill and has been eager to do it for quite some time. Her mouth moved towards his. She could feel his warm breath on her skin and knew she had to muster all the remnants of her resolve that she still had. Ása stood on tiptoe and stretched upward to place a kiss... on his left cheek. His skin was warm and smelled of pine needles, woods and fresh wind.  

“It is not quite what I wished for,” he observed calmly, but Ása could see the first signs of a storm in his eyes.

“Oh, perhaps you meant this, my lord prince?” She chastely kissed him on his right cheek and was rewarded with an impatient growl.

“I regret to inform you that you still have not fulfilled my wish, my lady. My patience is wearing thin,” she heard his murmur and noticed that his deep blue eyes darkened dangerously. The prince of Erebor held her tightly in his arms and apparently did not have the slightest intention of letting her go. Ása found this feeling deliciously captivating.

“Then allow me to try one more time, my lord. Perhaps I will do better this time."

She leaned towards him while her lips gently brushed against his, caressing and nibbling his upper lip. Ása planned to tease him again and move away, but just then Thorin cupped her face with his hands and passionately covered her pink lips with his hungry mouth, grazing her skin with his beard. Ása sighed when his skilled tongue found its way inside her mouth, swirling slowly and finding the tip of her own tongue. She succumbed to his caresses completely, tasting his manly flavor, her tongue joining his with equal ardor. Thorin brought his hand to the back of her head, his fingers dove into her hair, making her shudder with pleasure. Ása instinctively leaned towards his hard body even more, not wanting the moment to stop. A warm chuckle reverberated in Thorin’s chest as their lips finally parted.

“You seem quite insatiable today, my sweet Ása,” he tucked some stray strands of her behind her ear and peered at her attentively.

Ása took a deep breath, trying not to blush at his comment. Again, Thorin easily managed to make her lose control completely. Her appetite for him grew slowly with every kiss they exchanged, leaving her wanting for more, even though she was aware that they were steadily approaching an unspoken boundary. A whole other world of pleasure and exploration waited for them beyond it. There was just a simple matter of “being proper”, as Lady Barba would put it - meaning marriage, of course. Some dwarven couples chose not to wait with certain levels of intimacy until their wedding night, but Ása knew very well that in their case, them being a noble lady and a prince, traditions had to be observed strictly. “Being proper” was expected of them, even though their bodies had a slightly different opinion on this matter. She clearly saw the restraint in Thorin’s eyes whenever his hands wandered along the curves of her body, his raspy breath whenever she touched him, his intense heartbeat when they kissed. She was aware that some of the teasing games they played sometimes brought him to the edge as much as her. Yet being an honorable dwarf he was, he usually managed to keep his resolve, a skill she had yet to master herself. It was clear that Thorin was more experienced in these matters than she was, but his willpower impressed her just as much. Especially since she recently started to notice minor cracks in its facade. Ása wondered what would happen if this wall of restraint would fall. She licked her lips and caressed his bearded cheek.

“I think I liked this wish,” she whispered, her eyes shining with affection.

Thorin tenderly kissed the tip of her nose and run fingers through her unbraided hair.

“Then I remain hopeful that you will like my third wish as well.”

“And what is it going to be?”

“You will see soon enough, my love,” he smiled enigmatically.

Chapter Text

Ása was drowning. An endless, freezing sea of darkness surrounded her. Its waves, thick and sticky as molasses, immobilized her completely. A dark, ominous shadow crossed the grey sky above her. She shivered, feeling a powerful undercurrent pulling her under the waves. What was happening to her? A pair of hands brutally grabbed her arms.

“What’s the matter, luv?” she recognized that slurring male voice at once, suddenly feeling his foul breath on her face again. “Give us a kiss!” the repugnant dwarf demanded, shaking her body forcefully, bruising her in the process. She was back in that dark corner of a forgotten corridor in Erebor again. Zohur’s lips were getting closer to hers. She shivered in terror. She tried to turn her head away, but he grasped her chin forcefully and turned it back towards his face, causing even more pain.

“I heard you local wenches like it a bit rough!” he laughed, showing a few of his golden teeth and grabbed her by the throat.

She was terrified, being barely able to draw shallow breaths. She wanted to shout at him, to spit into his face, to break away, kick the attacker and run, but she was unable to do anything besides fighting for each breath.
“No!” she tried to scream. “No! No! Leave me alone!” 

 

A hand touched her shoulder.

“Ása, wake up! It’s only a bad dream!” 

Jutta’s voice.

The sea of darkness retreated, leaving her mind empty, like a forgotten beach during low tide. She could breathe again.

“Jutta…?”

“Yes, it’s me. I heard you screaming. Was that the nightmare again?” her companion asked her worriedly, squeezing her hand.

“I’m afraid so,” Ása nodded, embarrassed. “I’m sorry if I woke you up.”

“You shouldn’t be. I’ve been already awake. I had some things to do,” Jutta responded hastily. Ása could have sworn that she noticed a hint of blush on her companion’s face. “I was already out today, the weather is lovely. You have to go out and see for yourself! But first, what would you say about some breakfast?”

Ása still tried to shake off the uneasiness that the nightmare left behind when her stomach growled. 

“My stomach seems to be interested.” It didn’t surprise her. Yesterday, she spent the whole day wandering with Thorin through the woods. Well, not only wandering, she smiled to herself. The point was, they didn’t have food on their minds. That wicked dwarf prince and his wishes! She still kept dying of curiosity thinking about the third wish that waited for her, but he was very secretive.

“Perfect! A proper breakfast it is! No, don’t get up, I will bring a tray to you,” Jutta decided and rushed to the door.

“Thank you, Jutta, you are wonderful!”
“And don’t you forget it!” her confidante giggled and disappeared behind the wooden door.

Soon, Ása was happily devouring her breakfast, the last memories of the night terror slowly fading. It simply couldn’t stand a chance against fluffy scrambled eggs and crunchy bacon, freshly baked golden oat buns, spring carrots glazed with honey and creamy milk tea.

There was a knock on the door.

“Mmmfff,” the distinguished young dwarf maiden from Iron Hills desperately tried to stuff her face with another bite of food and quickly chew it before replying. The knock repeated.

“Come… come in!” Ása swallowed the tasty morsel just in time. 

“Good morning!” Lady Barba barged into the bedchamber, smiling and full of energy, as usual. “Have you slept well, my dear?”

“Yes, Lady Barba,” there was no point of worrying her with such things as nightmares, Ása decided.
“Wonderful! You will be happy to hear that we are going to visit a seamstress in Dale.”
“Are you thinking of a new gown, Lady Barba?”

“Yes, I am. You need one!” the matron smiled and clasped her hands.

“But I already have enough of them,” Ása would prefer a pair of sturdy shoes and a new tunic. Her current one was quite worn and had a nasty tear on the side; it was all Thorin’s fault, he should not have chased her through the thickest forest yesterday! And what was worse, it had grass and dirt stains all over it. Thorin’s fault too, of course! She grinned to herself.

“Nonsense! There is no such thing as too many gowns! And something tells me you might need a festive one or two before the years’ end. Unless you changed your mind about a certain dwarf…?”

“No, Lady Barba,” Ása blushed. She still felt shy talking about her feelings. “And I don’t intend to. I am going to accept him when the time comes. Nothing has changed.”

“Splendid!” the dwarven matron’s face was filled with excitement. “We need to follow the tradition of course, and the courting must take at least six months, but you need to be seen properly dressed on all the official occasions. No one must doubt that you are worthy of our dear prince.”
“Would anyone doubt it?”

“Yes, there are some factions in Erebor and beyond our kingdom who would rather see other dwarven ladies by Thorin’s side. He is going to be a king one day and who else has more influence on the king’s decisions and the politics of our realm than the queen?” 

This realization hit Ása hard. She hasn’t thought about it before, but it made perfect sense. This was exactly why arranged marriages were encouraged among the dwarven noble houses.

“And this brings us to another delicate matter.”
“Yes, Lady Barba?”

The dwarven matron cleared her throat.

“Please do something about those breadcrumbs in your hair. And what about that fatty stain on your sleeping gown?” her guardian tsked disapprovingly. “My dear, when you are married, you have to take much greater care at all times, even when eating breakfast in bed! What would happen if someone, let us say a servant came in now and saw such a disheveled, wild-looking creature covered with food - yes, you have a piece of carrot there - instead of a clean, composed and dignified wife of the prince of Erebor? What if His Highness the Prince walked in here himself and saw you in such a state?”
Ása instantly blushed at the mention of Thorin as her future husband walking into her bedroom. She felt butterflies in her stomach.

“My husband would probably ask what that composed and dignified lady was doing in my bed,” she chuckled, licking the sweet honey off her sticky fingers.

“Mahal, have mercy! This is no time for jokes! Have you not learned anything from my teachings, dear girl? You are a lady and you may be even more than that in the future. The appearances matter greatly in the highest circles of our society,” Lady Barba’s stern voice filled the chamber. Ása inwardly sighed. Apparently, the time for another of her guardian’s lectures has come.

“Beauty and decorum!” continued the dwarven matron. “This is the key to your success at the court. This is your shield against the enemies and a strong incentive to your potential allies. You are one of those lucky ones who were born with the gift effortless beauty, but what about the decorum? I am aware that you do not draw pleasure from court life and its events, but as prince Thorin’s wife, you will always have to be on your best behavior. You will be under constant scrutiny. That is why you cannot allow anyone in the court to know you too well. They should not be able to see the real you, nor be aware of your weaknesses. Remember that many would turn this knowledge to their advantage, against you. Promise me that you will not forget about it, my dear.”

“Of course, Lady Barba. I promise. I understand how important this is,” Ása nodded, coming to terms with the thought that court intrigues would always be an unnecessary waste of time to her. The forest wildlife made much more sense. “I am very grateful to have you to guide me,” Ása squeezed her guardian’s hand and was awarded with a smile on Lady Barba’s delicately wrinkled face.
“My dear girl, I will be there to help you on the way for as long as you need me.”

 

***

 

Jutta had been right. The day was warm and sunny, which made visiting Dale even more pleasant than usual. The colorful city was bustling with life, there was music and laughter in the air. The merchants located in the Market Square praised their merchandise, in a constant effort to draw more customers to their booths. Children played joyfully in front of their homes, their parents were busy with everyday chores. Just a usual market day in Dale. Ása was already familiar with the city, but each visit made her discover and appreciate new places, people or events. She had visited a few smaller settlements of men in the past, but Dale was the most impressive by far, and, she had to admit it, the tidiest of them all. Men living in other places were usually unpleasant and not as fond of cleanliness as dwarves, nor did they know much about grooming their hair. The good people of Dale were a bit different: much more presentable, kind-hearted and hospitable. She suspected that the key to this state of things was prosperity. The city thrived together with Erebor, thanks to the riches of the Lonely Mountain, being a center of trade and culture. Men from different parts of the continent would travel to Dale in search for a better life, profitable trade agreements and the legendary works that came from under the hands of dwarven craftsmen.

 

Ása noticed that a guard was following them in a respectful distance. She knew him well, it was one of two dwarves who usually guarded the main entrance to Lord Beldrum’s and Lady Barba’s residence since the night she was attacked. Anyone who wanted to see her had to go through them first.

“Lady Barba, why is the guard following us here?”

“Do not worry, my dear. It is his job. Prince Thorin’s orders. He is here to keep you safe, both in the Mountain and outside,” her guardian explained.

“But I am safe! And I am capable of protecting myself!” there was anger in her voice. Did Thorin really think that she was some feeble lady of the court that would faint at the first sight of blood? No one would dare to attack her here, in the peaceful, hospitable city of Dale, and besides, she had Jutta with her.
“Now, now, my dear. There is no need to raise your voice. Our guard is doing his duty and we should be grateful to him for following us in this heavy armor of his on such a sunny day like today. He could be sitting now in the cool halls of Erebor over his ale,” Lady Barba scolded her. Ása lowered her head in embarrassment and stole a look at the guard, hoping he had not heard her, but his craggy face was, as always, completely devoid of emotion.

“Here we are,” Lady Barba pointed at the white stone building with a green wooden door. “This is where Mistress Mathilda, the best seamstress in Dale, does her magic.”

 

The visit to the seamstresses’ workshop was quite a lengthy one, but not as boring as Ása had dreaded. The auburn-haired Mistress Mathilda was a very lively person, not much taller than the dwarven ladies, so Ása didn’t feel too intimidated by the human woman. As soon as the seamstress quickly took the necessary measurements, Lady Barba, Ása and Jutta found themselves surrounded with uncountable cloth samples, different kinds of laces, appliques, embroideries, ribbons, and threads. Lady Barba kept shooting stern looks at Ása, each time the young dwarven lady frowned at the unnecessary ornaments and luxurious fabrics. She was not used to such opulence, as the fashion in Iron Hills was much more toned down. The dwarves of her homeland preferred practical clothes over the fashionable ones.
“There can be nothing too luxurious for you, my dear,” her guardian reminded her. “You have to make a lasting impression now. After your courtship is publicly announced, we need to make everyone see that you are a treasure worthy of the prince himself.”

There was an almost inaudible gasp coming from the seamstress who just walked into the room with a handful of laces.

“His Highness? Prince Thorin, m’lady?”
“You heard well.” Lady Barba frowned. “We need the best you can offer. Can we count on your discretion?”
“Of course, Lady Barba, I won’t say a word to anyone about it. I see that we are talking about a special gown. I have something worthy of the king’s court, m’lady!” Mistress Mathilda grinned enthusiastically, apparently glad of this new challenge that presented itself before her.

In a matter of moments, she brought a shimmering fabric, smooth and cool to touch. It flowed like the soft, lazy waters of the Lake. Its color reminded Ása of the unusual lavender roses growing in the Queen’s Gardens in Erebor.

“It came to us with the recent shipment of goods from the Eastern Realms. They call it silk there. It is thin, but very strong and envelops your body like a cloud of morning mist,” the seamstress explained, while Ása looked at it in fascination. She has never seen anything like it before.

“Intriguing. And it would suit your complexion very well, my dear. Yes, this will certainly do for one of the dresses. A perfect gown for official occasions at the Great Hall of Erebor,” Lady Barba decided, making the seamstress even happier.

“It will be a great honor for me to make such a gown, m’lady,” the seamstress bowed her head. “You can be sure, Lady Barba, that this dress will be worthy of a queen! Me and my apprentices will start working on it right away,” Mistress Mathilda assured her.
“May I ask for one thing?” asked Ása timidly. Maybe the official court gowns of Erebor were the peak of dwarven fashion, but quite a few of them lacked an important detail.

“I’m all ears, m’lady!”
“Can you please make sure that this gown has pockets?”

“Of course, my lady. This is something that we womenfolk have in common, no matter where we come from. A useful gown needs to have pockets!” the seamstress nodded, making some notes on a piece of parchment.

Ása decided that she liked Mistress Mathilda very much.

 

***

 

They were in the Market Square again, surrounded by the townspeople, merchants, and their goods. Here, a middle-aged woman sold “the sweetest honey in the whole Dale”, and there, a stout gentleman professed the extraordinary qualities of his herb wines. At the same time, a pleasant smell of freshly baked bread filled the air. Ása wondered whether she should investigate its source when she heard a familiar sound. A song thrush singing. She froze. A song thrush? Here, in the middle of the city? The sound repeated. It was coming from just around the corner. She looked at Jutta and Lady Barba, but they were busy discussing the fashionable ribbon shades with the mercer. The guard who followed them was currently equally busy balancing the numerous parcels that contained their purchases. He definitely deserved a day off after today’s excursion to Dale, she thought.

The song thrush twittered again. Ása turned towards the source of this sound and soon disappeared around the corner, unseen by her companions. She found herself in a narrow, shaded alley with walls of stone buildings on both sides. It was almost empty except for a tabby cat sitting on a windowsill and observing her intently.

“Hello, Cat,” she greeted him, “Have you seen a thrush in here?”

The cat yawned, turned his gaze away and decided to lay down, demonstrating his total indifference towards the dwarf maiden that dared to disturb him.

The singing repeated. It came from an old red brick storage building. What would a song thrush do in a merchant’s warehouse? Puzzled, she took a step inside through the open door. Darkness surrounded her almost instantly. There was a clear smell of flour and spices in the still air. The inside of the warehouse seemed devoid of life. Before her eyes could adjust to the surroundings, she felt someone pulling her to the side, against a wall. Ása gasped in surprise.

“Shhh, it is only me, Amrâlimê,” a very familiar baritone said and a finger was gently pressed against her mouth. A smoky smell of rock dust, tar and pines surrounded him. She felt his manly, salty taste on her tongue.

“Thorin…” she whispered, her heart beating faster. “What are you doing here?”
“And what does it look like, my sweet?” he murmured into her ear. “Is it not obvious that I am haggling the price of pickaxe handles at the Market at this very moment?”

She chuckled, seeing his eyes glittering with amusement in the dimness of the room. She opened her mouth to reply, but just then his lips crashed with hers, devouring them passionately, his hands wandering along her body, his chest crushing her breasts between them. She wrapped her hands around his neck, burying them in his rich mane of hair.

“Mahal, I missed you…” a low growl escaped him when their lips finally parted. Ása could see the primeval hunger in his darkened eyes and was distinctly aware of the urging intensity of his caresses. Thorin’s breaths were quick and unsteady, as if he was a drowning man who was finally pulled above the water’s surface. She has never seen him in such a state before. 

“I have been hoping to see you today as well, Mizim,” Ása smiled at him and put her hand against his cheek, feeling his beard brushing against her skin.

He grabbed her palm instantly and placed a kiss on her fingers.

“I despise this hiding, I hate being secretive about us, I want everyone to know that you are mine!” he roared, squeezing her hand.

“We have to be patient…” she started, trying to calm him down.

“Not much longer. I talked with my grandfather. He approves of our match.”
“He… he does?”
“Yes, Ása,” he put his forehead against hers and peered deeply into her eyes. “We can finally be together. As soon as he is well again, Grandfather will announce our courting to the whole of Erebor!”
Ása’s heart leaped. She squeaked with joy, hugging Thorin as tight as she could. He reciprocated her hug with even more strength. She should be worried about her ribs being on the verge of cracking, but she didn’t care about it at all.

“I can’t believe it! Can this be true?”
“Yes, it is, my sweetest,” he murmured into her hair. “Soon, we will finally show our courting braids to the world.”
Ása breathed a sigh of immense relief. No more secrets, no more worries.

“Thorin, my love, this is wonderful news. We should...”

 

A thundering rumble filled the air around them, unending, much louder than a hurricane. Ása’s ears popped with the changing air pressure, and the hair on her arms stood up. She shivered. 

A collective shout of terror arose from the crowd gathered in the Market Square.

“Stay here!” Thorin shouted through the overwhelming noise and immediately jumped outside.

A sudden pang of nausea gripped Ása. She swallowed and tried to take a deep breath when a piercing pain immobilized her. 

“WHERE ISSS ITTT?!” a horrifying voice slithered into her mind, burning every thought and barrier it encountered with inexorable power. She fell on all fours and retched. When she finally tried to sit up, the world danced around her in protest, making her slip under the merciful shroud of unconsciousness.

 

***

 

Outside, Thorin looked around, searching for the source of that deafening noise. He approached the Market Square, but it felt like everything was frozen in time. A shadow crept upon his face. He looked up.

The sun was gone. Its warmth disappeared, replaced by cold, turbulent wind. 

An impossibly large shape elegantly flowed in the air just above the city, shrouding the city in darkness.

And then the roar came, sowing the seeds of terror in the unsuspecting hearts of Dale’s people.

The ominous creature circled above the city, its head searchingly moved down. Its enormous bat-like wings moved just once, creating a vortex of freezing air that quickly dropped onto the city.

A thick, serpent-like tail covered with green scales lashed against the highest city tower, shattering it in pieces. A rain of bricks, wood and stones fell on the Market Square. Hundreds of tiny voices shouted in utter terror, trying to escape a horrible fate.

Another movement of wings, another angry roar, and the creature soared high into the sky, quickly disappearing among the clouds in the south, leaving despair and destruction in its wake.

 

***

 

“Ása, wake up! Please! You have to wake up now!” Thorin’s shouts were strained and hoarse, but it was his voice. She was safe now. The agonizing words in her head were finally gone. She slowly opened her eyes. There was a dull ache pulsing under her skull.

“Thorin?”

“Thank Mahal!” he kissed her forehead. “How are you?” his hair and clothes were dusted with grey powder, while his face was covered with dirt and sweat. “Does anything hurt? Can you walk?” he peppered her with insistent questions.

“I… I don’t…” she whispered faintly in confusion, her ears ringing, her vision blurry.

“Wrap your arms around my neck, we need to go back to Erebor at once,” he urged and helped her move. Thorin took her in his arms and went outside.

“Hold on to me, Ása. Do not let go,” he held her close to his chest, quickly striding ahead. She clung to him, seeking warmth, disoriented and chilled by the sudden whiffs of cold, dry wind.

The usual sounds of the city, its ever-present music and laughter, were completely gone. She could only hear single shouts in the background. A child wailed somewhere nearby. The city bell was ringing the alarm, though it sounded more like a mournful tune. Dozens of Dale’s flags and festive pennants fluttered fearfully in the distance.

“What…” she tried to open her eyes, but the brightness made her headache even worse.

“We are going back. The Lonely Mountain needs to be prepared in case he returns. We have to reinforce the ramparts first,” Thorin seemed to speak more to himself than to her.

“He...?” Ása couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying.

Thorin tightened his grasp around her and hastened his pace.

“The dragon.”

Chapter Text

The bright interiors of the infirmary smelled of herbs, healing poultices and fresh linen. Healers and nurses bustled between beds in an effort to care for all the dwarves injured in Dale. Among the wounded were both merchants and traders, as well as regular visitors to the famous Dale Market, dwarves of all ages. Ása hadn’t seen so many wounded gathered in one place before. She closed her eyes, still feeling slightly dizzy after what happened to her, and took another sip of a medicinal brew that Master Óin administered after examining her scrupulously. The dragon’s piercing roar seemed to still resonate in her head, along with the terrified shouts and cries for help of both Men and dwarves who had the misfortune of being present in the Market Square of Dale. The strong, acrid taste of the medicine on her tongue didn’t seem to bother her at all. There were more urgent things on Ása’s mind right now. A dragon? Here? So far to the south from the Northern Waste they were rumored to live? And why would such a creature leave its lair now, so early in the year? As far as she could remember from her studies with Master Halfgrim, the dragons were especially partial to sunshine and warmth. These factors, as the ancient dwarven scrolls claimed, made them much faster and even more dangerous than usual. One of the theories claimed that it had something to do with their circulatory system, quite different from the dwarven one. Ása wished she could recall more than a handful of random facts. She hadn’t paid much attention to those writings before. Dragons were considered to be very rare and some scholars suggested that they were on the brink of extinction. The dwarf maiden preferred gaining knowledge about the species, animals and plants she had a chance to see and observe in nature. She shook her head, not wanting to think about her encounter with the dragon. She hadn’t seen it, but she certainly felt it. Or rather, the creature made her feel its presence. A cold shiver ran down her spine. Later, she promised herself. She would try to make sense of it later. 

Ása emptied the contents of her mug in one gulp. Lady Barba wouldn’t be happy if she saw such behavior. A proper dwarven lady should take elegant, miniscule sips and not drink like a parched miner after a long shift. Ása wished she could hear her guardian’s sharp, scolding voice - now or at any time in future. She’d never thought she would miss the dwarven matron’s intense personality so much. Putting the mug away, she took Lady Barba’s frail, parchment-like hand into hers. It felt cool under her touch, dry and almost lifeless. The dwarf maiden moved her chair closer to Lady Barba’s bed and cast a worried glance at her guardian’s pale face covered with cuts and scrapes. Only the slow, shallow movements of her heavily bandaged chest were a sign that she was still with them.

“You need to show everyone how strong you are, my dove,” Lord Beldrum murmured to his wife, sitting on the other side of the bed. Ása thought that he looked visibly more tired and older than when they parted in the morning, before their visit to Dale. Could a dwarf age so much in one day? He was a rather quiet and stoic dwarf, usually not prone to showing much emotion in public. Now, she could see the tenderness in his tired eyes and movements; the way he touched his wife’s hollow cheek spoke more than any words could.

“The healers say that you need a lot of rest,” he continued, his voice crackling, “but I am sure that with Mahal’s help all will be well. It has to,” his voice died away, like a last breath of evening wind.

At that moment, Ása saw a movement in the corner of her eye and turned towards the entrance to the infirmary. Master Óin, son of Gróin, the healer with dark and fancifully braided two-pronged beard stopped to talk with none other than prince Thorin himself. At the sight of her beloved’s familiar figure, Ása felt relieved. He was clad in dark blue tunic with black leather trousers, but the rumpled hair and even more dirty clothes than before suggested that the prince made yet another visit to Dale again, probably to oversee the rescue efforts. With king Thrór still indisposed, and his father, Thráin, away on some business of the realm, the responsibility for the most important decisions belonged to Thorin. This burden already seemed to fall heavy on his shoulders. The healer was explaining something to the prince who at that moment stole a glance at Ása. She smiled faintly, but he just slightly bowed his head towards her with a frown and returned to the conversation. A few moments later, both dwarves disappeared around the corner, accompanied by several nurses and healers. Thorin didn’t look back.

“Lady Ása?” a nurse approached her, respectfully lowering his gaze. It was a young dwarf with multiple dark blond braids on his head. “Miss Jutta is asking for you.”

“Lead the way. How is she?” Ása followed the dwarf to one of the other infirmary chambers.
“Not in the best mood, as one might expect, but at least she is conscious now. Master Filur is very skilled with setting bones and says that miss Jutta will be able to walk again in two or three months. It was a clean fracture, but she needs to stay with us for two more days.”

“Two days?”

“Normally, we would keep her here for at least a week, but there are new dwarves coming from Dale and we are, well, running out of beds,” the nurse admitted.
“No need to explain. I understand completely, nurse…”
“Ardi,” the young dwarf replied shyly, apparently not being used to talking with dwarven ladies.

“Nurse Ardi, thank you for the information. We will move Jutta to our chambers as soon as Master Filur allows it. And where is he now?” 

“Back in Dale, helping with the severely wounded. I hear that there are quite a few dwarves… and Men… buried under the rubble,” Ardi hung his head.
“I see. Let us hope that Mahal is merciful today,” Ása replied as soon as they arrived at Jutta's bed. “Thank you for your help, nurse Ardi, and if there is anything I can do to help, please let me know.”

The dwarf bowed his head, murmured something indistinguishable under his nose and returned to his duties.

“Ása! Lady Ása!” Jutta exclaimed a bit too enthusiastically, trying to lift herself on her elbow and sit up. There was a slight paleness to her face, her right leg was immobilized by a solid dwarven cast and her right arm was covered with a bandage. Jutta’s eyes, though, shone with fever and most probably a healthy dose of medicines used to alleviate the pain.

“Jutta, please, don’t get up,” Ása protested. “Do you need anything?”

“I need to get out of here and get back to work!” her “maid” grinned and winked. It was clear she didn’t have ironing nor making the beds in mind. Knowing her, Ása suspected, it was probably another axe throwing or wrestling training.

“No, no, no - not in this state. You need to rest now. I heard what you did down there, in Dale, and I wanted to thank you. If not for what you did, Lady Barba would…”

“Oh, shoosh! I did what anyone else in my place would. And it was my duty to protect her, since you suddenly decided to take a walk without us,” Jutta winked again. Ása tried very hard not to blush at the implication.

“Besides,” Jutta continued, “if not for your… that is, if not for OUR prince Thorin, we would still be stuck under that massive slab. What a coincidence that he was just passing nearby!” Jutta grinned widely.

“Jutta! Please! Not here! What if anyone hears us?” the dwarf maiden whispered, looking around, but the four other injured dwarves present in this chamber seemed to be sleeping.

Jutta giggled. Ása promised to herself that she would talk with the healer, Master Filur, about lessening the dose of the medicine Jutta received. Those herbs seemed to be a bit too potent.

“Calm down, Ása, it was just a joke! I wish the dragon wasn’t though…” Jutta looked towards the ceiling, as if searching for a glimpse of the beast.

“Have you seen it?”

“Yes,” Jutta’s demeanor changed visibly. She sounded as if she was in a dream. “I saw it right above my head. I felt the wind on my face. It was as if a lover kissed me. Such passion… I haven’t seen a more magnificent nor more powerful creature before,” she closed her eyes. “Its scales shimmered like emeralds in the sunlight, each of them at least as big as my both palms. Or bigger. I haven’t seen anything like it before. The way they shone… I couldn’t peel my eyes off him. And those tremendous wings… He was simply… imposing. I wish you could see the way he danced in the air with unsurpassed grace and skill. The true king of all the skies in the world. We were truly honored that he chose to grace us with his presence…” her voice changed into a barely audible murmur. “I think I am going to dream very pleasant dreams about him now,” she yawned and put her head on a pillow.

“Jutta?”

“Mmmm?”

“Rest well,” Ása covered her with a quilt. 

“I will. He will be waiting... in my dreams.” With those words, Jutta fell asleep with a barely visible smile on her lips. She obviously needed to recuperate, and they could talk more tomorrow. Ása had to have a few more words with Master Filur. She wondered what herbs he chose for Jutta. Perhaps something hallucinogenic to ease her pain? That would certainly explain her behavior and this almost poetic monologue. Ása knew Jutta well enough to be sure that she had many skills, but being a poet was not one of them. What an interesting mix of herbs it was...

***

When Ása returned to Lady Barba’s bed, Lady Sigrun was there as well, accompanied by her maid, and deep in conversation with Lord Beldrum. 

“... you understand, dear Beldrum, it needs to be done fast,” the lady said.

“I do, Lady Sigrun, of course. In this situation, it would be the best solution for her, to be sure,” after Lord Beldrum nodded, his troubled gaze rested on Ása. “Ása, come closer, my dear, and greet Lady Sigrun!”

“How are you faring, dear child?” Thorin’s mother asked with an inquiring look on her face. “I heard that you were quite unwell.”

“I am much better now, thanks to Master Óin’s remedies,” Ása bowed her head politely.
“Splendid,” the lady smiled with a sadness in her eyes. “We can only hope that dear Barba gets well equally soon. May Mahal bring her back to us quickly.”

“Thank you, my lady,” Lord Beldrum bowed. “I am sure that she will recover.”
“She will, for sure. We will all make sure that she has all the comforts she needs.” Lady Sigrun patted his hand reassuringly. “Ása, my dear, could you spare me a moment of your time?”
“Of course, my lady,” Ása’s eyes widened in surprise.

 

“You understand that the current situation with you and my son is quite, well, unofficial and highly irregular,” Lady Sigrun started with a solemn look in her eyes, as soon as they were alone.
“I do, Lady Sigrun,” Ása nodded nervously, not being sure where the conversation was going. She assumed that Thorin’s mother approved of their relationship and even encouraged it for some reason. Has anything happened that changed her mind? Has Lady Sigrun’s husband managed to convince her somehow that their firstborn son and heir to the crown needed a more politically suitable match?

“I hope you are aware that your current position in Erebor is quite irregular as well?”
“I do not believe I understand…” Ása’s heart started beating faster and faster.
“You will, my child, soon enough. Some things need to change as soon as possible. You are our king’s ward - but unfortunately, as of now, he can not protect you since he is currently… indisposed,” Lady Sigrun cleared her throat. “Your guardian, Lady Barba, is in no position to properly take care of you. I hear that your maid has been injured as well?”
“That is true, my lady,” Ása lowered her gaze, fearing the worst, and staring at the tips of her dust covered shoes. When did they get so dirty?

“And as far as I know, you do not have any relatives here in Erebor, am I correct?
“My whole family resides in Iron Hills, my lady,” Ása replied quietly.

“Well, in such case, it seems that there is only one thing to do. It would not be proper for you to keep living under Lord Beldrum’s roof without any dwarven women present. You know our traditions well; a young dwarf maiden needs to be under female protection at all times. We must assure that your reputation stays unblemished. In order to do that, you need to be relocated.”

Ása felt a pang of dread. Everything was perfectly clear now. A few days ago, she received a highly unusual letter from her stepmother. First of all, Lady Esta was never really fond of Ása and would not bother with writing letters to her unless something important had to be communicated. Secondly, her father’s wife puzzled her completely by conveying the warmest congratulations from her whole family on a “certain joyful event” in her life. Ása hadn’t the slightest clue what that disagreeable woman was writing about. No one could possibly know about Thorin courting her, it was a secret known only to a handful of trusted dwarves. Thirdly, her stepmother advised Ása to prepare for the upcoming changes and to be ready for the long trip that supposedly awaited her. The letter ended with an information that they would soon meet, as the whole family would visit the Lonely Mountain in the nearest future.

It could not be a coincidence, Ása realized. It had to mean one thing: the royal family of Erebor decided that it was time for Ása to return to Iron Hills.

 

“I… I see, my lady,” Ása whispered, averting her gaze and trying to blink away the tears. “I can start packing right away.”
“Packing? What are you talking about, my dear? There is no need to pack! It will be perfectly enough with the most necessary things. Anything else may be brought later, when needed. You are moving to the royal family chambers and not to the other side of the world, for Mahal’s sake! Tell me, why are you looking at me so intently? Have I suddenly grown a pair of elven ears?”

Ása was pale as an infirmary sheet. She couldn’t believe her ears.

“Royal… family... chambers…? Oh, Lady Sigrun! Thank you so much!” she brightened with joy and hugged her without thinking about how many rules of protocol she was breaking at that particular moment.

“There, there, my child,” Lady Sigrun returned the hug, quite amused with this lively demonstration of emotions. “You surely did not think that I would leave you, my best friend’s protégé, and my son’s One, without any protection?”

Ása wiped off her cheeks that somehow have gotten wet and smiled widely.

“Thank you, thank you so much! It is a great honor!” Ása recalled her manners and performed an official bow.

“Please, my dear, stop it at once. You can save all those boring ceremonies for official court events.”
“Yes, Lady Sigrun, I am sorry.”
“And do not be sorry. This will be a wonderful opportunity for us to spend some time together and learn about each other a bit more. I am looking forward to getting to know you, dear Ása,” she smiled warmly.

“As I am, my lady,” Ása replied shyly, still not being able to believe what just happened. 

“Now, my maid Varla will accompany you to your current chambers. Take whatever you need. Do not forget the evening gown, we will be dining together!”

Chapter Text

That evening

 

“We need to evacuate Erebor at once! Who knows when the dragon returns?” a solemn voice reverberated against the council chamber’s walls.

Shouts of outrage from a dozen throats filled the air above a large, wooden table surrounded by chairs on which the King’s Council members were sitting.

“Abandon both our kingdom and our treasures? Nonsense!”

“Have you completely lost your wit?”

“How dare you suggest such a thing?!”

“He has a point! W-we have to protect our women and children!”

“We shall defend Erebor against the dragon or die trying!”

“Let us find this beast and kill it! It is not too late!”

“And leave the Lonely Mountain unprotected?”

Thorin quickly rose from his seat at the head of the table. His figure, clad in a formal, richly embroidered dark blue robe with a silver belt, towered over the uproar created by the council members. Lightning bolts of anger were flashing in his eyes.

“Enough! Quiet! All of you!” he roared in a commanding tone and banged his fist on the table.

The room fell very silent in the blink of an eye.

The young prince of Erebor’s piercing gaze thoroughly scanned the faces of the councilmen. 

“We have gathered here to decide on the best course of action, and not to prattle idly until the sun rises.”

Several heads nodded in agreement. Some of them belonged to respectable nobles, like Lord Gróin, the father of Óin and Glóin, as well as Lord Fundin, Balin’s and Dwalin’s father. As members of the House of Durin, both were utterly loyal to king Thrór and the prince knew he could rely on them, especially since his grandfather and father were still absent. When it came to several other members of the King’s Council, he couldn’t be quite sure about where their loyalties laid. They had their own agendas and goals which were not always in line with the kingdom’s best interests. Thorin ground his teeth. He had to bend the reluctant councilmen to his will. Fighting with a sword against the enemy on a battlefield was much easier than these games of politics and court intrigue, but he would prevail. There was no other way.

“Let us concentrate on the facts,” he started speaking in a steady manner. “Lord Fundin, would you be so kind and elaborate on what we know so far?”

“Certainly, my lord prince,” the king’s military advisor stroked his thick red beard. “Around noon today, a green-scaled dragon was sighted by the Outer Guard of Erebor. The creature approached from the north. It slowly circled the Lonely Mountain, keeping its distance, and then it flew towards the city of Dale. We do not exactly know what happened then, but it suddenly roared and fell from the sky onto the Market Square like an attacking hawk. We believe that something spiked the beast’s interest or perhaps annoyed it and that is why it swung its tail. As a result, the main city tower was destroyed together with a few adjacent buildings. After that, the beast roared again, returned to higher altitudes and flew towards the south, as the witnesses claim. It passed Esgaroth on its way and continued along River Running. It is quite probable that it entered the eastern parts of Mirkwood and probably flew past it by now.”

“Are all our lookouts in place?” Thorin asked.

“Almost, your highness. They were sent out soon after we received your orders. We expect the last few of them to reach our furthest outposts south of the Lake in the morning. If the dragon decides to return, we will know in advance.”

“Thank you, Lord Fundin,” the prince replied. “And what about the casualties?”

“A significant number of dwarves and Men were injured. We are still conducting the rescue operations together with the Dale guardsmen, and we do not have the final count yet. We can expect a more thorough report as soon as Master Filur returns from Dale,” Lord Fundin pointed at the empty chair beside Lord Gróin. 

“Do we know anything more about the dragon?” another council member, Lady Agda, asked in her characteristically raspy voice. One look at her was enough to convince everyone that she was a dwarven woman to be reckoned with. Her dark brown hair was plaited into four straight braids and her face emanated with an unconventional beauty, her deep-set hazel eyes always seeming to hide many secrets. A long scar ran down her cheek, ending at the edge of her lips, making her look as if she kept smiling sourly at everyone.

“Not much, I am afraid,” Lord Fundin tugged at his fiery moustache adorned with golden beads. “We know that its roar was heard far and wide. It disturbed the ravens greatly. Some of them left Ravenhill as soon as the dragon appeared and not all of them have returned yet. When it comes to the size of this creature, the lookouts estimate its wingspan at 50 metres, possibly more.”
A few gasps and murmurs were heard.

“Mhmm, yes, a large beast indeed,” an elderly white-haired dwarf with a wise, wrinkled face interjected. “As I have already mentioned before our… heated exchange,” he cleared his throat in a clear sign of disapproval, “Erebor’s best scholars are currently researching the subject, but, mhmmm, it may very well be one of the largest dragons we have ever encountered. As of now, we can only theorize about his abilities. The initial report of our findings will be ready by, mhmmm, tomorrow evening, your highness.”

“Thank you, Lord Sverre, please make sure that it reaches me as soon as it is ready,” Thorin replied.

“Of course, your highness,” the elderly scholar bowed his head in a practised manner and took a sip from a goblet in front of him.

“Whatever the size and abilities of this dragon are, we need to be fully prepared if - or when - it decides to come back,” the prince turned to everyone at the table. “As you all know, we are already reinforcing our defenses and moving more warriors to the outer ramparts, but there is more we can do…”
“Please, m-my lord prince, y-your highness, let us first t-take a moment and t-think about our families!” Lord Karden, the king’s trade advisor interrupted.

“Are you suggesting that we are not doing it at this very moment?” Thorin’s icy glare met the councilman’s uneasy gaze.

“Well, what I meant to s-say is that we should p-perhaps think of an alternative solution,” Lord Karden continued, not averting his eyes. “I only have the well-being of our women and children in mind when I say that perhaps they should be evacuated along with…”

“Along with yer treasure, ey, dear Karden?” Lord Gróin grinned at him. Lady Arda stifled a snort.

“T-that is not what I meant!” Lord Karden’s face reddened in outrage. “And y-you know very well that I would g-gladly fight any beast, dragon or not, by your side, if it was necessary, just like we did in our youth. B-but today, we do not need to! We have a chance t-to protect our families, there is still time to send them to the Iron Hills. I implore you, my lord p-prince, please, think about it!”

“I already have,” Thorin replied. “The shortest trail to Iron Hills is too risky for the youngest and weakest and it may even prove fatal to the elderly. What if the dragon returns when they are still on the road and without shelter? I can not in good conscience allow our people to embark on such a perilous journey.”

“But y-your highness…”

“I have not finished speaking, lord Karden,” the prince uttered through clenched teeth. “I know that your wife is with child and it is perfectly natural that you want to protect her. Nevertheless, we need to stand our ground. Erebor is our home and we shall protect our people. All of them, not only the ones who are strong enough to be sent away. They entrusted us with their lives and it is our duty to keep them safe - by all means. We have our honor and we are no cowards. Our stronghold can withstand powerful attacks and our warriors are known for their skill in battle. We will not desert our kingdom nor our people in need.”

“Hear! Hear!” exclaimed the dwarf with black and extremely bushy eyebrows. Master Raunur, the head of Erebor’s mining and forging operations, was considered to be one of the most influential people of the underground realm. Several council members followed his lead, nodding in agreement. There were however others, including Lord Karden, who were less inclined to show their support. Thorin made a mental note to remember those who weren’t so enthusiastic about his decision.

“I have already taken additional measures to further protect our kingdom,” he continued, carefully choosing his words. A lot of things depended on what he was about to disclose. “Lord Balin, what news of the ravens?” he turned to his cousin.

“They were quite uneasy after the dragon’s visit, but the Raven Masters managed to convince the bravest ones to carry our messages to our neighbors, as per your orders. I expect that Lord Grór of the Iron Hills will be the first to respond. His reinforcements should arrive within two weeks. I have spoken with the envoys from Ered Luin as well. They offered their help gladly, but due to the considerable distance between our kingdoms, they can only offer the wisdom of their scholars as well as their own fighting skills. Otherwise, it would take months before their forces appeared at our gates.”

Thorin nodded in response.

“Have we sent word to our Sigin-tarâg* brothers from the Misty Mountains?” Lord Gróin asked.

“The ravens are on the way and should reach their destination in a few days,” Lord Balin replied reassuringly.

“What about the Woodland Realm?” asked Thorin with the gravity of the situation written all over his face.

The response to his question came in the form of whispers and gasps of surprise.

Balin repressed a sigh and cleared his throat, “The message to king Thranduil was sent as well. He should have received it by now.”

“Elves? Are we asking these pointy-eared tree-lovers for help now?!” shouted Master Raunur, his face reddening with anger.

“No, Master Raunur,” Thorin replied authoritatively. “We are asking our closest neighbors to cooperate with us against a common threat. A threat they may know more about than we do.” 

“Cooperate? With the elves?! It is unheard of!” Master Raunur leaned sideways and spat on the floor in contempt.

“That is not quite true, Master Raunur,” the elderly Lord Sverre corrected him in a shaky voice, “They were, mmhmmm, our allies in the past. Quite a few times in the past we stood united against the forces of evil. That is why we all prevailed throughout the ages.”

“Thank you, Lord Sverre,” Lord Balin replied, respectfully bowing to the scholar, “It needs to be added that there is an ancient treaty between our kingdoms that has always been honored by both sides, despite our, well, small misunderstandings.”

“Do you call that latest raise of toll fees a small misunderstanding?! And what about that last canceled order of gold bars?! My men have been working day and night to fulfill it!” Master Raunur huffed.

“Do calm down, Master Raunur,” Lady Agda interjected loudly, earning a sour look from the dwarf. “Let us talk like grown-up dwarves now. Your Highness,” she directed her question at prince Thorin, her face not showing any emotions ”If I may be so bold as to ask, how far this… cooperation would go? Will we allow them into the mountain? I am a bit concerned.”

“That is completely understandable, my lady,” Thorin replied in his deep voice. “If the ruler of Mirkwood agrees to my proposal, this will only be a military alliance. And to answer your question, I will not have elven warriors entering Erebor. King Thranduil commands the largest amount of seasoned warriors that can be here within days, which is much sooner than the reinforcements from Iron Hills. May I remind you that the elves have their own ancient magic at their disposal. We should not underestimate such power if we want to defeat the dragon. We need to do everything we can to ensure the safety of our people.”

“And w-what if t-the elves try to use their magic against us?” Lord Karden asked.

“They are too lazy to do that, Karden!” Lord Gróin shouted. “Since when do the elves like to mine precious metals and live underground? If they really wanted to destroy us with their magic, where would they get their precious jewels afterwards? Can you imagine them doing all the dirty work on their own? Ha!” he snorted. Several dwarves accompanied him in laughter.

“I-if only Tharkûn* was here now…” Lord Karden sighed.

“The Grey One chooses his own mysterious paths and we have no way of knowing where to find him,” replied Master Skáldi, an unpresuming dwarf who sat next to Lord Fundin. “As the old adage says, a wizard appears precisely when he means to.”

Thorin interrupted the silence that somehow appeared after these words. “Now you know the main reasons for my decision and I hope you can understand them,” he continued, “I was quite reluctant to make this choice, but I am doing it for our kingdom’s survival. Erebor needs to be reinforced as soon as possible. With any means necessary. Let us protect our home and make our forefathers proud!”

Lady Agda nodded, slightly frowning, but did not speak. Thorin was not quite sure whether it was a good sign or not. The spymistress’s loyalties laid solely with Lord Thráin. The prince was sure that his father would hear every word spoken at this meeting as soon as he returned from his travels. Thorin hoped that it would not happen too soon.

“We will defend our kingdom, my lord prince!” Lord Fundin exclaimed enthusiastically at the same time. “We will not let a puny dragon scare the dung out of the proud dwarves of Erebor!”

“For Erebor!”

“For Erebor! For Erebor!” one by one, the members of the Kings Council rose from their chairs as their voices joined in unison, chanting one of their powerful battle cries. Thorin smiled at them approvingly, roaring together with them. This battle turned out to be victorious, but he hoped he would win the war as well.

 

***

 

It was late in the night when Thorin was finally able to return to the royal family’s chambers just after yet another visit to the Erebor’s cold, windy ramparts to see how their reinforcement was proceeding. He was so famished that he didn’t bother to change from his formal attire into something more comfortable and turned his steps directly to the dining room. When the prince finally satisfied his hunger, he sat down in an armchair by the fireplace, feeling the pleasant warmth spilling throughout his body. A pile of parchments in his hand reminded him that there were still a few decisions to be made. Some reports waited to be read as well. He wished his grandfather was there, even if only to advise him on the most urgent matters. Thorin shook his head in solemn acceptance of his current duties, knowing very well that king Thrór was still unwell and in no shape to take over his usual responsibilities. Mahal, watch over him and preserve him , he worded a silent prayer. The prince was on his own now and he had to do his best. After all, this was exactly the role he was being groomed for by his grandfather. The King Under the Mountain. He’d never suspected he would be serving his homeland in his grandfather’s stead so soon. Especially since his father was the Crown Prince, first in line to the throne after the current king, Mahal, give him a long and healthy life , passes to the halls of his forefathers. Thorin found solace in the fact that he wasn’t completely unprepared for the tasks at hand. The unending studies with his tutors, the council meetings and audiences where he had the chance to discuss the current matters, observe and learn from the king, the multiple practical problems he was given to solve - all of this, and more, outfitted him with a set of skills that turned out to be more than useful on this eventful day. He could not believe that less than a day had passed since the dragon appeared and this dreadful crisis started. It felt more than a week to him. 

Thorin stifled a yawn and tried to return to his reading, but it turned out to be a challenging task for his drooping eyes. A part of his drowsy mind started pondering whether it would be more beneficial if he perhaps rested his eyes just for a few moments before returning to his duties. Those parchments were not going anywhere, and he was sure that he would make better decisions when rested. His eyelids drooped again. Yes, several quiet moments by the fire, that was all he needed. Just a few moments…

Only three sounds filled the chamber. First, the soft rustling of parchments falling onto the floor, then, the soothing crackling of firewood and finally, the steady breathing of a sleeping dwarf.

 

The sound of a floorboard creaking filled Thorin’s hazy mind. He didn’t know how long he had slept, but he was sure that someone was nearby. He wondered whether he should open his eyes and identify the intruder or perhaps return to sleep, but at that very moment, something soft and pleasantly warm covered his body. A blanket. Perfect. He made a grunt of approval. Whoever the intruder was, they knew how to properly treat the future king of Erebor. He would sleep even better now.

Just then, someone’s fingers gently moved through his hair, moving them away from his face. A soft, moist mouth pressed against his forehead. And that smell… he would recognize it everywhere. Lilac and lavender. Here? At this time of the night? Was he dreaming? His heart started beating harder.

“Good night, my prince,” she whispered. He could feel the sweet warmth of her breath against his cheek. It didn’t feel like a dream at all. Her skirts rustled as she started to move away, but he wouldn’t let her. In one swift move, he caught her wrist.

“Where do you think you are going, my lady?” he murmured, opening his eyes and taking a moment to focus on the looks of his captive. His golden-haired Ása stood in front of him, her eyes widened with surprise, and her lovely lips formed an “O” of surprise. Her shapely body was wrapped in a beautifully embroidered night robe that only accentuated her enticing curves, not restrained by any corsets or elaborate dresses. Oh, Mahal! Thorin stifled a growl, trying not to think of what she was wearing underneath it, or, perhaps, what she was not wearing at all.

“Forgive me, my prince,” Ása curtsied formally, but a sly smile appeared on her face. “I did not want to wake you up.”

“And yet, you did. Your prince demands an explanation: what are you doing at the royal chambers at this hour?” Thorin did his best to solemnly glare into her eyes, trying not to show his emotions.

“Your mother invited me to stay at the royal chambers for the time being, my lord prince,” Ása bit her lip teasingly and cast a seemingly innocent look at him from under her eyelashes. Unbelievable. She dared to tease her prince wearing such a thin gown! He had to do something about it.

“Did she now? And how did you end up in this chamber, my lady?” Thorin pulled her gently towards him, deciding to put aside this new and interesting piece of information for later. Now, he had an urgent business to take care of. Their teasing games proved to be exhilarating - every single time.

“I felt thirsty and hoped to find some water here. And then I saw you, my lord prince…” her voice trailed off.

“It would be extremely rude of me if I didn’t help you to quench your thirst, my lady,” he looked intently into her eyes. As he suspected, she understood the underlying meaning perfectly and a hint of blush graced her innocent features. Thorin smiled triumphantly; he loved to make her blush this way and to see how she reacted to his closeness. If she only knew of the many ways in which he wanted to quench their mutual thirst… If she only knew of the longing he felt now, the powerful urge telling him to lay her on the floor and cover her body with his... He was not far from completely giving in to his primal instincts. He could just rip apart her night robe and... No. Control. He needed to control himself. Now. Breathe in. Breathe out. 

“Thank you, my lord prince, for your kind offer, but I think that I have already quenched my thirst,” Ása replied, a corner of her mouth curling up. Unthinkable! That little tease dared to challenge him! His blood rushed through his veins like a torrent of molten gold. She needed to be shown what he thought about such insolence.

“No, you have not,” he growled, pulled her towards him and wrapped his arm around her waist. A squeal of surprise escaped her lips as she landed on his lap. He covered her lips with his, tasting her, exploring, reveling on her ravishing mouth and relishing the small sounds of pleasure she made when his tongue swept hers. She purred when he slid his hand into her hair and her kisses became more passionate. He marveled at the sensual way she responded to him, at the insatiable fire he sensed crawling just under her skin. His other hand daringly moved from her waist to her upper thigh, squeezing it. His fingers dug into her soft skin covered only with a layer or two of thin fabric, sliding deliciously close to that forbidden place between her legs. He could almost feel its warmth and wondered how it would feel to...

“My lord prince,” Ása gasped, blushing, as if she could read his mind, “I implore you to behave!”

“I probably should,” Thorin murmured in response, reluctantly moving his hand away, towards her face. He gazed deeply into her bright, hopeful eyes. “But…” he kissed her passionately, “the question is…” he moved his mouth to her earlobe and nibbled on it, “will I?” 

With these words, Thorin nuzzled her neck as she exposed it towards him, and showered her smooth skin with a myriad of kisses.

“Oh, Thorin…” a sigh of enjoyment escaped her.

“There, that should suffice for now,” Thorin finally murmured, placing a last, lingering kiss on Ása’s lips. Everything about her was driving him wild. The way she tasted, the way she spoke his name in those intimate moments, the way she smelled, the way she looked at him with a mix of enticement and pure innocence. He had no idea how he managed to keep his desire for her at bay all this time. Mahal, help me. How on earth was he supposed to keep her honor intact until they were wed, whenever that might be? Will this all-consuming urge for his One keep gnawing at him until he loses his senses completely? Control. He had to control himself better. He had to try harder. Once again. Breathe in. Breathe out. 

“Have I quenched your thirst, my lady?” he asked in a rough voice, looking at Ása’s face with satisfaction. He adored that dazed and out-of-focus look her eyes had each time he stole a few kisses from her.

“Mmmm,” she managed to reply and rested her head in the crook of his neck.

“I will take it as a yes,” he chuckled, holding her close to his chest and enjoying the sensation of her petite, delicate body pressing against his. Serene moments like this were more precious to him than he dared to admit. He closed his eyes and wished they could stay like this forever, or at least until the morning. None of them moved nor made a sound for a long while. Soon, they were dozing off in each other’s arms.

 

“Thorin?” Ása murmured into the nape of his neck, lightly touching his skin with her lips.

“What is it, my sweet?” he opened his eyes rapidly, trying to shake off the sleepiness that still lingered inside his body.

“Thank you for taking care of me in Dale,” she began, “and for rescuing Lady Barba and Jutta.”

“There is no need to thank me, sweetest. Every dwarf in my place would do the same,” he took her hand and kissed it gently. “Besides, I had Ottar to help me.”
“Ottar?”

“The guard that accompanied you to Dale. He is as strong as they come. We managed to get rid of the worst rubble together.”

“Thank you,” she repeated and her lips pressed against his bearded cheek. “Lady Barba has become very dear to me and Jutta, she is not only my maid, she is my--” Ása stumbled on a word. “She is my friend.”

“Our healers will do everything in their power to nurse them back to health,” he squeezed her hand reassuringly. “Especially when it comes to Lady Barba. They will triple their efforts as soon as our dear Lady Dragon wakes up and starts scolding everyone, the head healer included. Even the dwarves in the deep mines will soon hear her voice: How dare you to serve me a lukewarm porridge? Why are those bed linen not starched properly? Have they not taught you how to properly button up your robes? “ Thorin tried to do his best impression of the dwarven matron and was rewarded with Ása’s faint chuckle. “She is as sturdy as the rock of Erebor. A pile of rubble is not enough to stop her,” he smiled, seeing hope shining in her eyes.

 

“Can I ask you something?” she asked sometime later.

“Anything you wish, my love.”

“Do you know whether the dragon will return?”

Thorin stiffened at once, surprised by her question, “There is no way to know for sure. Our lookouts have not reported any more sightings of this beast.” He could feel her cuddling up closer to him  and he instinctively wrapped his arms around her in a protective gesture.

“Did you hear the dragon’s roar?” her whisper was almost inaudible.

“Every person in Dale and Erebor heard that deafening howl. Including me,” he answered, puzzled by her question.

“Did you,” she hesitated, “did you understand it? Did you know why he was roaring?” she looked at him intently.

“How could I understand it? It was a roar. A loud and terrifying noise. What are you trying to say, Ása?” a sudden feeling of uneasiness washed over him, seeing her troubled expression.

“It may sound like a very peculiar thing to you, but please, believe me. I… I heard this roar inside my head. The pain was almost unbearable… but before I fainted, I understood it, or at least some of it.”

“You -- what? How? Why?” Thorin struggled to compose a sentence. He wasn’t prepared for this revelation. What was she saying? Was such a thing even possible?

“I don’t know, Thorin, I am as confused as you are. Nevertheless, I am sure of one thing. This dragon is searching for something he lost. And if he does not find it, sooner or later he will be back.”

Chapter Text

Ása stifled a yawn, wishing she’d caught more sleep instead of... A blush instantly crept up her cheeks at the recollection of her nightly activities. No, she would not exchange those stolen hours for anything, even if it meant feeling drowsy all day long. She quickly finished her morning meal and got up from the breakfast table. She hoped to see Thorin in the morning, but apparently, he’d left for Dale just after dawn.
“What are your plans for the day, my dear?” Lady Sigrun asked, encouraging little Dís to eat a piece of biscuit. The kitchens stopped serving most of the usual warm meals, like the girl’s favourite berry and nut porridge, in favor of quickly and easily prepared cold dishes, on account of being short-handed. Many of the able-bodied dwarves living under the mountain volunteered to work with the reinforcements of the kingdom’s outer fortifications, some of them joined the ranks of Erebor’s defense guard, and some were sent to help with the rescue operations and rebuilding effort in Dale.

“I was hoping to visit Lady Barba and Jutta, my maid, and ask Master Filur whether they needed any help with the wounded,” Ása replied.

“Do you know anything about helping the wounded and sick, my child?” Thorin’s mother cast a concerned look at her.

“Before she died,” Ása started, trying not to give in to sadness at that moment, “my mother taught me a few things about herbs and medicine. She was quite a good healer, my lady.”

“And if Master Filur decides to take you up on your offer, are you sure you will manage it so soon after what happened to you yesterday? Have you rested sufficiently, my dear? You look a bit tired.”

“I feel well enough, my lady, I would simply like to do something, and to help instead of sitting idly in my chamber.”

A smile of approval appeared on Lady Sigrun’s face. “Very well, then. My maid will accompany you today on your errands.”

“Thank you, my lady, but I do not want to be a burden; there is no need--” Ása protested.

“My dear girl, of course there is a need! Lady Barba would have had my head if she’d known that I let you roam freely around Erebor, without a companion, at such a time! You have to think about your safety and your reputation, especially now, when we can soon expect certain happy news to be announced,” Lady Sigrun’s smile widened even more and Ása could not stop herself from blushing. Realizing that Thorin’s mother fully accepted her as a future wife of her firstborn son was more than she could have ever expected.

“T-thank you very much, Lady Sigrun, I will do my best,” Ása bowed respectfully to her, promising herself to think before speaking next time she talked with the Crown Prince’s wife.

“Perfect. Then I will not delay you any further. I hope to see you at supper. Have a lovely day, my dear!”

***

As soon as Ása walked out of the main door to the royal chambers together with Varla, Lady Sigrun’s maid, a warrior joined them before they disappeared in the busy crowd. The usually calm walkways and corridors were now full of tense and mostly tired dwarves frantically running their errands.

“M’lady,” the guard respectfully bowed his head, “I’m at yer service.”

“Oh, it is you, master guardsman,” Ása recognized the dwarf who followed her to Dale that morning. “Should you not be in Dale, helping the city? I hear that they need every pair of hands available.”
“I have my orders, m’lady,” he said curtly.
“What orders?”

“Lord Prince Thorin’s orders, m’lady,” he explained patiently, striding next to her. She noticed a few new scratches on his face that hadn’t been there before. His hauberk was torn in a few places.

“And what are those orders, master guardsman?” Ása stifled a sigh of impatience.
“To protect you at all costs, m’lady,” he lowered his head and placed a closed fist against his chest as a sign of allegiance.

Ása frowned. Protect her at all costs? Was there any need for such extreme measures at that moment? Thorin was being a bit too overprotective for her taste. Did he really think she would get lost here, in Erebor? She was not a child, she was capable of navigating all the walkways and corridors on her own, thank you very much! Well, at least the main ones in the areas she often frequented; she was still a bit uncertain when it came to all the other parts of the Kingdom Under the Mountain, but that was not the point. Apparently, his stubborn-headed highness thought that she needed a nanny, as if she was a dwarfling. Ridiculous! She was perfectly fine on her own, without any intimidating dwarves constantly following her wherever she went. And what would be next? Two armed guards escorting her to a privy down the hall?

“Master guardsman, may I be so bold as to ask your name?”, she mustered her patience, trying to imitate the tone of Lady Barba’s voice whenever she was displeased with someone.

“It is Ottar, m’lady,” the guardsman said.

At the same time, noises and shouts were heard in the distance. The large guardsman turned his head above the crowd towards the source of this ruckus and frowned. Ása followed his gaze but was too short to see anything, so she continued speaking, determined to have the matter settled as soon as possible.

“Thank you, guardsman Ottar. I am sure that your service is invaluable, but as of now, I am simply going to visit…”
“Forgive me, m’ladies,” he interrupted her as he unceremoniously shoved both her and Varla into the nearest alcove carved in the corridor’s wall.

“What are you--” Ása gasped, almost flattened against the inside wall and deafened by Varla’s scream of surprise. 

“Make way! Make way!” a loud, bellowing voice was heard.

Guardsman Ottar pulled both dwarven women protectively behind him, standing in the way of the suddenly turbulent crowd that desperately tried to push forward and fill the alcove. There were angry shouts, curses and elbows pushing in all the possible directions, but Ottar did not budge and stood his ground.
“Get out!” he roared. His large frame filled the entrance to the alcove, preventing anyone from entering. 

His voice was soon drowned in a new kind of noise. Ása recognized it at once. A sound of fast-marching warriors. It seemed to have a peculiar influence on the crowd. Everyone froze.
Several dozens of fiercely looking dwarves in full black armor, armed with war pikes, passed by, unceremoniously shoving the passers-by aside. To Ása’s astonishment, no shouts of protest were heard. This was the most elite military unit in Erebor, called the Mahal’s Hammer. The sight of these seasoned warriors stopped all of the commotion and once, pouring fresh hope into the shaken dwarven hearts instead of fear. All the previous shouts of anger and disgruntlement changed into a collective cheer: “Mahal’s Hammer! Mahal’s Hammer!”

 

When the mighty warriors finally passed and the crowd dispersed, Ása sighed with relief, not wanting to admit to herself that having that huge guardsman by her side was not that unhelpful after all. She would still have to talk with Thorin and tell him what she thought about making such arrangements behind her back!

“Thank you, guardsman Ottar. It seems that you have just saved us from being squashed,” she spoke.

The guardsman simply bowed his head as if the recent events were nothing out of the ordinary, “Where to now, m’lady?”

“Let us go to the library,” she replied, ignoring the confused look on Varla’s face.

***

The library was one of Ása’s favourite places in Erebor. An amazingly spacious chamber, or perhaps a row of them, skillfully combined into one large space by the skilled stonemasons, filled with scrolls, old parchments, thick tomes, and ancient tablets. It was still quiet at that time of the day, but a few scribes were there already. One of them helped her find the person she was looking for. She knew her tutor would be there already. He was so passionate about his research that she sometimes wondered whether he even slept.

“Master Arnur! Good morning!” Ása greeted the good-natured dwarf when she finally found him in one of his usual hideouts, sitting by a desk covered by multiple stacks of books and scrolls. He was not as sturdy-looking as most dwarves, but she knew that he had enough brains for two or even three of them.

“Good morning dear Ása, did we have a study session planned for today?” he glanced at her from behind his glasses with surprise. His salt-and-pepper hair was neatly braided and gathered together in a loose bun at the back of his head so that no loose strands could obscure the dwarfs vision.

“No, Master Arnur, we are meeting tomorrow. I came to you today because I have a favor to ask of you.”

“And what might that be?” he raised his eyebrows. 

Ása looked around, making sure that no one would eavesdrop on them, and then lowered her voice.

“I need to know everything there is to know about dragons!”

***

 

Ása spent only an hour in the library, but it felt like ages. Her head was spinning from all the facts, scholar names and theories her tutor tried to convey to her in such a limited time. Before she left, she received a large, well-worn tome from Master Arnur, with its title, “A Description of Ancient Serpents”, written across its cover in gilded letters. After leaving the library, she immediately gave this quite heavy piece of knowledge to Ottar. If he was to follow her all day long, he may as well prove himself useful, she decided.

 

The infirmary was filled with the wounded, healers, nurses and visitors and felt more and more crowded by the hour. Someone groaned in pain, a nurse demanded more clean sheets, and there was a group of dwarves that apparently just arrived with more beds and mattresses and tried to squeeze them into one of the chambers. So that’s how chaos looks like , Ása thought, directing her steps towards Lady Barba’s bed. The matron’s face was still pale, her eyes closed, but her body was not giving up yet. Ása whispered a short prayer to Mahal, pleading for her swift recovery. 

Lord Beldrum was there, too, sleeping on his chair, clearly defeated by his tiredness. Ása suspected he spent a whole night there, watching over his wife. She made sure he was covered with a blanket, especially when it came to his arthritic knees. Making sure his knees were covered and warm at all times was something Lady Barba would often do while berating her husband at length about how he does not take good care of himself at all. Ása remembered how Lord Beldrum would simply ignore all the scolding, smile fondly at his wife and say, “I love you too, my dove.”

Ása hoped the relentless lady would return to them, even if it meant being berated for wearing a dress that was too plain or choosing wrong shoes for the occasion. She kissed Lady Barba’s cool forehead and gave her limp hand a small squeeze as if trying to pass some of her own strength along to the dear lady.

When Ása went to the adjacent chamber to visit Jutta, she noticed that she was not the only one there. A broad-shouldered dwarf sat on the edge of her maid’s bed with his back towards Ása, slightly hunched over Jutta’s body. His distinctive hairstyle left no doubts about his identity.

“Master Dwalin?” Ása exclaimed in surprise.

At once, he straightened and stood up, turning towards her.

“Lady Ása!” he looked at her with a sheepish smile. “I was just… Prince Thorin sent me to check… That is, the supplies in the infirmary...”

“Dwalin. Drop it, you oaf,” Jutta grunted faintly from behind him. “You couldn’t tell a proper lie if your life depended on it.”

“I was surprised! Jutti, dearie, don’t you get angry now, the healer said that you needed to rest,” the warrior’s face reddened slightly in embarrassment as he turned towards the bed.

“Jutta, how are you feeling?” Ása asked, trying to keep a straight face. So that was the dwarf responsible for Jutta’s mysterious disappearances early in the mornings, her lengthy sighs and elaborate hairstyles since the day Dwalin returned to the Mountain together with her prince. Thorin will be thrilled to hear who Dwalin’s sweetheart was. The warrior himself had been extremely reluctant to disclose this information, even after quite a few beers.
“How do you bloody think I’m feeling? My bones are broken, everything is itching and these ruddy nurses don’t want to let me out of here! I need to return to my duties!” Jutta spat out sentences one by one, taking deep breaths in between them. As soon as she finished, she closed her eyes, probably gathering strength for a new outburst.

“Jutta, please, you need to think of your health,” Ása started.

“What about your… health?!” her companion shot her a meaningful look. “What if… something happens to you?”
“Nothing will happen, Jutta. Prince Thorin was kind enough to offer me protection. Guardsman Ottar is one of the best in the prince's guard,” she patted Jutta’s hand reassuringly.

“See, dearie? Everything is in perfect order,” Dwalin smiled tenderly at Jutta. “I’d better leave ye both, m’ladies, before Prince Frowny McFrownsson demands my head,” he grinned at them. “We ‘ave plenty of things to do before the elves arrive,” Dwalin whispered confidentially.

“The elves? Here, in Erebor?” Ása couldn’t believe her ears.

“You haven’t heard that from me, m’lady,” he winked at her conspiratorially and turned to Jutta. “I will come back in the evening to see how you are faring, Jutti.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” the girl replied, but Ása thought she could see a hint of a smile on her companion’s face.

“So. Jutti . Is there anything you wish to tell me?” Ása teased her friend when Dwalin left them alone.
Jutta groaned, “Please. It seems that you already know… everything. Yes, it’s Dwalin. It all started when it turned out he was a great… sparring partner.”
“A sparring partner ? Is that what it’s called now?”
“He’s extremely good with… axes, if you must know,” Jutta retorted, but her face blushed a little.
“Oooh, axes . That explains it. Anything else he’s good at?” Ása grinned.

“Have mercy on me! Can’t you see I’m seriously annoyed... and wounded? I need sympathy and care. And cookies. The food they are feeding us here is... outrageous. Broths, vegetables and... no sweets. Disgraceful.”
“I will see what I can do,” Ása chuckled, happy to see Jutta in a better mood. “But don’t you think you will get away with not telling me about Dwalin earlier. Why did you keep it a secret for so long?”
“It… it just happened. And I wasn’t sure how… what would come out of it.”

“And now, are you sure?’
“I’m sure I don’t want to… tell you here,” Jutta glanced at all the commotion around them. “You’d better tell me what’s... happening in Erebor instead.”

 

Ása left Jutta’s bedside in an improved mood, promising to visit her the next day. There was one more thing she needed to do: meeting the head healer. She found him giving treatment instructions to one of the nurses. When he finished, she asked, “Master Filur, may I have a moment?”
“As long as it is a quick one, my lady,” he replied impatiently, packing medical supplies into a bag, “there are patients in Dale who need medical attention.”

“That is why I am here. I would like to help in the infirmary, as a nurse. I have some knowledge of herbology and can prepare ointments, poultices and healing infusions.”

“You, my lady?” the healer eyed her up with scrutiny. She realized that she didn’t quite fit the description of a typical nurse with her fine dress and delicate hands of a dwarven lady who never had to lift a finger for a living.

“Yes, Master Filur. I learned from my mother. She was a healer in the Iron Hills.”

“How would you treat this patient, then?” he pointed his bony finger at one of the beds nearby. A teenage dwarf with a bandaged chest was laying there. The left side of his face was visibly mauled.

“Willow bark to ease pain and reduce the swelling. It should lower his fever as well,” one look at the boy’s flushed face and beads of sweat on his forehead told Ása what she needed to know. “Comfrey compresses for the wounds, and ribwort plantain for any excessive bleeding,” she added.

The healer nodded, “Hmm, well, good enough. You can start right away.”
“Thank you, Master Filur!” Ása beamed.

“You will start by taking care of this boy’s wounds. They need to be dressed again. You will be working with nurse Ardi. Ask him for help, he will show you where you can find comfrey and everything else that is needed.”

“I will, Master Filur.”

“I will be watching you. I expect that you will be working as hard as everyone else here. No special treatment for anyone, nurse Ása. I have no patience for highborn time-wasters.”

***

When her shift finally finished, Ása was exhausted, but content, feeling an inner sense of fulfillment at the same time. There was finally something real she could do, take care of the dwarves in need of help. She enjoyed the feeling of making a difference, even though small successes were sometimes intertwined with hopeless cases. There were wounded whom even Master Filur couldn’t save from slipping into the deep abyss of untimely death.

With guardsman Ottar by her side, she quickly returned to her new chambers, washed and dressed for supper. Food. She couldn’t recall the last time she ate. Around noon perhaps? Her stomach growled. It was definitely too long. 

The dining chamber was filled with food, light and laughter of three members of the royal family. Little Dís was running around the table with biscuits in her hands and prince Thorin followed her slowly and clumsily, pretending to be a hungry troll.

“Wheeere be the little girl who ssstole my biiiscuitsss?” he roared in a low voice, contorting his face in a silly way. Dís giggled in response and hid under the table, in the safety of the rich folds of her mother’s skirts.

“There are no little girls here, Mister Troll,” Lady Sigrun joined in, amused. “Go back to your cave before the sun scorches you to dust!”

“Nooo! I waaaaant my biscuits! I smelll little girrrrl! She is heeeereee!” Thorin sniffed with his nose loudly, looking over the table. “Or maybe heeere?” he turned around and looked behind the comfortable armchair that stood by the fireplace. He pretended to trip over a footrest, making his sister giggle loudly.

“It is only me here, Mister Troll! You are wasting your time!” Lady Sigrun chuckled, making sure her daughter was well hidden.

Ása took a small step from the door towards the side of the chamber, not wanting to disturb the scene, but she realized her mistake too late.

“Ahhh! Hereee she issss!” Thorin exclaimed and rushed towards her. He quickly took Ása in his arms. 

“I have you noooow!” he roared triumphantly while she squealed in surprise. Thorin leaned over her with a mischievous grin and looked deeply into her eyes, making her drown in the azure sea of his gaze yet again. She realized she was holding her breath when his face slowly moved towards hers, only to see it contort in a funny, troll-like expression.

“Unhand me, you monster!” she giggled, squirming in his firm grasp.
“You are no little girrrrl! You are pretty laaaady.” he sniffed. “You don’t smell of biscuitssss! You smelllll of fllllowers, yuck!” he comically wrinkled his nose and pretended to sneeze. Ása heard Dís giggling under the table. 

“Wheeere are myyy biscuitsss?” he roared again.

“I ATE THEM!” Dís jumped from under the table like an adorable, chubby lightning with a cloud of wavy brown hair. She took out a wooden spoon and started jabbing her brother’s leg with it. “Leave the pretty lady alone, Mister Troll!”

Thorin pretended that he had lost his balance and fell on the floor with a thud. “Oh noooo! I’ve been woooundeed!” he shouted, laying on his belly. Dís seemed to wait for that moment; she bounced towards him and sat on his back, poking him between his ribs with her weapon.

“Ouch!” a muffled roar came from the ground, but the troll didn’t move anymore.

“Mommy! Look! I killed a nasty troll!”

“What a brave warrior you are!” Lady Sigrun laughed. “Now come here so that we can steal more food from the troll while he is dead.”

“Thank you for saving my life, princess Dís,” Ása made a bow towards the girl. “I am in your debt!”
“Good! You are my squire now!” Dis smiled.

“It will be an honor! What do you command me to do, my lady?” Ása bowed like a squire would.

“Let’s eat!” the girl grinned and poked the troll carcass one more time. “Go on, horsey, Mommy is waiting!”

“Am I not the troll any more?” Thorin growled.

“No! You are horsey now!” demanded Dis.

“Whatever my lady commands,” he grinned, got up on all four and started trotting towards Lady Sigrun with his tiny sister on his back. When they arrived at the destination, he whinnied, making her sister giggle yet again. When the princess was seated in her chair, she looked at Ása and commanded sternly in her squeaky, childish voice, “Squire, feed my horsey now!”

“Of course, my lady,” she bowed her head and heard Lady Sigrun’s chuckle. “My lord Horsey, may I ask you to join us at the table?”

Thorin grunted and sat down next to Ása, running his hand through his hair in an attempt to disentangle them.

“Being both a troll and a horse in one day is more exhausting than I expected. I require a lot of nourishment, my lady Squire,” he said with a sigh.

“No, pumpkin, you have had enough biscuits for one day, it is time to eat your carrots,” Lady Sigrun explained to her daughter.
“Nooo! I hate carrots!” Dís protested.

“I hope the contents of your plate will be to your liking,” Ása turned to Thorin with a grin.

“You know who is to my liking…” he murmured while his hand squeezed hers under the table. She could feel the heat of embarrassment coloring her cheeks pink and noticed that his smile widened.

“Thorin!” she quietly protested and was rewarded with a bold wink. 

“And what do we have here?” he looked innocently at his plate as if nothing transpired between them. “Turnips, carrots, green peas, and… salad? Where is the real food? Do you want me to starve, my lady?!” he turned towards her, pretending to look appalled.

“I heard that horses do not eat meat,” she smiled impishly.

“See, Mommy? Thorri hates carrots, too!” Dís declared happily and pushed her plate away.

“My dearest son,” Lady Sigrun said with a solemn expression on her face, but Ása could have sworn that her lip curled up a bit in amusement, “would you be so kind and tell your sister how you managed to grow so tall and so strong?”

Thorin sighed, jabbed his fork at a carrot and opened his mouth in order to capitulate, but then a voice by the door said, “He ate rocks!”

“Ferri! Dwarves don’t eat rocks!” Dís jumped up and down on her chair in delight, excited to see her other brother, “Trolls do! And I killed a troll today!”

“You did?” Fenrir smiled at her and sat by the table, greeting everyone. “You have to tell me all about it while we eat our carrots!”

When Dís was finally focused on her tale and food, Thorin whispered to Ása with a devilish glint in his eyes, “You are aware that this food will not be enough to satisfy my hunger?”

Ása felt that his warm fingers intertwined with hers under the table.

“And what other sustenance do you require, my lord?” she lowered her gaze towards her plate, blushing even more and trying to contain her emotions.

“Meet me at--” he started, but at that moment the door was loudly opened ajar and a regal, finely dressed figure appeared in the chamber.

“Good evening, may I join you for supper?” King Thrór said with a warm smile and patted his impressively adorned beard.

Chapter Text

“Grandpaaaa!” Dís jumped off her chair and ran towards king Thrór with a shout of joy. Soon after, she was enveloped by his arms, lifted high into the air and hugged tightly.

“Grandpa has missed you greatly. And have you missed your grandpa?”
The little girl smiled, showing cute dimples in her full cheeks, and nodded.

“Where have you been, Grandpa?”

“I had to… be away for a while,” the king said, exchanging a quick, somber glance with Lady Sigrun, “but now I am back.”
“What did you bring me?” Dís asked matter-of-factly, playing with the countless beads and ornaments in her grandfather’s hair.

“A lot of hugs!” he chuckled and hugged the dwarfling one more time, moving towards the table. When Lady Sigrun took Dís into her arms, the king kissed both women on their foreheads, whispered something and turned to his grandsons, giving them both a tight, heartfelt hug. Ása felt warmth in her heart, observing this scene. She hadn't suspected that the royal family of Erebor was so affectionate and close-knit, and she felt a pang of jealousy, thinking of her own family. Her mother had been a very caring person, but Lord Grohir, Ása’s father, was a typical thrifty dwarf from the Iron Hills, both when it came to his finances as well as feelings. After her mother died and Lady Esta appeared on the horizon, Ása and her father drifted even further away and the chasm between them deepened when her stepmother gave birth to her stepbrother. Since then, Ása constantly felt like a third wheel until she arrived in Erebor. Until she met Thorin, the prince who stole her heart.

“And Ása, my dear, how capital to see you here!” the king turned to her. She immediately made a deep, formal bow. Since she arrived in Erebor as the king’s ward, she would attend the official monthly meetings with him, together with Lady Barba and Lord Beldrum, but it was not enough to get a grasp on his character hidden behind the regal demeanor he manifested on such occasions. After seeing the legendary Thrór here, at his home, Ása decided that she needed to know him better than she did during all those boring, ceremonious meetings.
“Your majesty, it is a pleasure to see you again,” she said, feeling intimidated by the fact that everyone’s attention was focused on her.

“Now, now, we leave all this official etiquette outside our door. It is good for throne rooms and such, but here, at home, we are regular dwarves, my dear.” the old king’s wise, piercing eyes looked at her intently.

“I-I understand, your majesty,” she responded shyly. Ása liked the idea of home as a place where everyone could be themselves, but she wondered how much time would pass before she’d stop bowing every time she saw the famed King Under the Mountain himself. His sheer, commanding presence was enough for her to feel the need to show appropriate respect to the sovereign of the richest and most revered dwarven kingdom. Lady Barba would have been quite proud of her now.

“Thorin, my dear boy! Where are your manners? Is this not the moment when you are supposed to ask me something rather important?” king Thrór gestured at Ása and grinned at his grandson. Thorin smiled sheepishly and moved closer to her.

“Grandfather,” Thorin cleared his throat, “I… I would like to officially ask your permission to court Lady Ása, your ward.”

Ása suppressed a gasp. She did not see this coming. Was this really happening here? Now?! In such an informal way? She wasn’t even wearing a proper dress!
“Lady Ása, my dear child,” king Thrór turned to her with an encouraging smile partially hidden in his lush beard, “are you aware of my grandson’s intentions towards you?”

“Y-yes, I am,” she answered in a trembling voice.

“And do you accept his courting proposal?”
She turned her gaze towards Thorin, noticing the expectant hope in his eyes. A small smile wandered on his lips. 

“Yes, I accept,” Ása finally whispered, hearing a sigh of relief leaving the prince’s lips.

“Very well,” the king beamed. “My grandson, prince Thorin, I grant you my permission to court my ward, Lady Ása. Now, I take Lady Sigrun as my witness, that the courting has been entered into by both parties of their own free will.”

Thorin’s mother nodded in agreement, wiping off a stray tear from her face.
King Thrór joined their hands together and said, “May Mahal bless you.”

Everyone lowered their heads. Ása felt Thorin’s fingers squeezing hers, a thousand drunk butterflies appeared out of nowhere in her stomach, flying in circles. Was she dreaming? Were they really, finally allowed to hold their hands together in public? To be seen together, without fear of being discovered? She felt quite overwhelmed. Thorin’s fingers squeezed her gently again and she realized that the king was speaking again.

“It would be a good moment to perform the beading ceremony now, but a little bird told me that it may have already happened some time ago,” the ruler of Erebor chuckled, seeing their embarrassed faces. Ása could have sworn that she heard prince Fenrir’s snigger behind her. It wasn’t funny at all!

“Nevertheless, it is finally time to show your courting braids and make your intentions known to the world. Thorin?” the king turned to his grandson.

“May I, my lady?” the prince asked. When she nodded, he skillfully unpleated the braid that hid the courting braid he had made, exposing it together with his silver bead adorned with a small sapphire. His fingers ran quickly through her hair and soon the braid finally hung at its proper place, at her left temple, at her heart's side. Something flickered in his eyes when he let go of her hair and their gazes met. Ása felt a shiver of excitement down her spine and she bit down on her lower lip, trying to stay focused.
When it was Ása’s turn, the prince lowered his head and patiently waited until she freed his courting braid clasped with her ornamental jade bead at his left temple. Thorin’s eyes were closed, but she thought she heard a muffled growl of pleasure when her hand dove into his thick mane. After she was finished, she reluctantly removed her hands from his wavy hair and took his warm hands into hers.

“With this braid, I pledge myself to you. Let it be known that we are promised to each other,” they repeated the words they’d said to each other in their secret chamber. Ása looked deeply into Thorin’s cerulean eyes, his soft gaze contained an overwhelming wave of emotion flowing towards her. She still couldn’t believe that the prince chose her from among all the ladies in the court.

“Let it be known,” king Thrór, Lady Sigrun and Fenrir recited, while Dís dozed off in the younger prince’s arms.

It was done.

They were a courting couple now. She and the prince of Erebor. Her One, her treasure of treasures. Ása wanted to throw her arms around him and keep kissing him until the end of the world, but a tiny voice in her head that suspiciously resembled Lady Barba’s mentoring tone reminded her how inappropriate it was to kiss in public, especially if the couple wasn’t married. And in order to get married, they would first have to court for at least half a year. An eternity.

“I am so happy for you, my children!” exclaimed Lady Sigrun and hugged them both. “May Mahal give you all the happiness in the world!”
“He already did, Mother,” said Thorin with a mysterious smile. “My happiness is here,” he raised Ása’s hand to his mouth and kissed it devoutly. Her cheeks blushed almost immediately, being aware that he dared to demonstrate such a bold gesture in front of his family even though they were not even married yet, but her heart leaped at his words, knowing that there was no other dwarf like him in the whole Arda.

“Splendid! Your courtship will be officially announced tomorrow,” the king clapped his hands together, beaming. “And now, let us eat!”

 

***

That night

 

She was a wanton woman.

There was no doubt about it.

Ása was laying down in her bed, looking at the dark ceiling of her current bedchamber, one of quite a few within the royal chambers. Her head was spinning. She’d never thought of herself this way before, but it was the only logical explanation. How could she even suspect it? It had always been extremely easy to be a proper dwarven maiden, a genuine lady with a spotless reputation. Until she met Thorin, that is. Until his ardent gaze, his burning touch and his seductive voice completely melted her resolve like fire melts a candle.

 

Everything started quite innocently. Thorin was simply supposed to escort her to the door of her temporary chamber. This was considered as a proper thing to do for a courting couple. What happened afterwards was utterly scandalous and shameful. No, Ása corrected herself, shameless. 

After the supper, Ása’s heart and mind floated high among the clouds with joy so she wasn’t sure what exactly transpired just after they reached their destination. One thing was certain: she found herself sprawled against the hardwood surface of the door, feeling Thorin’s hungry lips on hers. The problem was, they were somehow already inside her chamber and the door was already locked. At that point, Ása was unable to think straight and fully comprehend what could happen if anyone was to find a male dwarf in her rooms, even if it was the prince of Erebor himself. An unmarried dwarven maiden shamelessly entertaining such a guest? The scandal would be immense. If they were to be uncovered, it could even jeopardize, or worse, blight their hopes for a future together. The rules were simple. The unquestionable purity of royal and noble bloodlines was one of the cornerstones of the dwarven society. A prince of Erebor must conduct himself honorably at all times, as an example to his subjects. A disgraced dwarf could not become a king, and a lady with a tarnished reputation could not become his wife. The gossip would spread like a wildfire. If she was caught with a male dwarf in her chamber, who knows how many others visited her before? If she was to be married to the prince and bear children, how could anyone be sure that her offspring was of royal blood?

All those thoughts were simply non-existent in Ása’s mind. She could only feel Thorin’s strong body pressing against her. His fingers dove into her hair and she heard a groan of pleasure escaping his mouth as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pushed herself towards him, desperate for more closeness between them.

“I can’t believe it! We are really courting, Thorin!” she whispered.

“There could not be any other way. We belong to each other, Amrâlimê,” he responded, running his fingers along the courting braid at her temple. “All the world will know that you are mine now,” his voice rumbled into her ear and she felt his lips barely touching her highly sensitive earlobe. Thorin’s hot breath scorched her skin, making her blood run faster through her veins, rousing forbidden urges within her body.

“You are mine, Mizim. I have only you in my heart,” she murmured, exposing her ear to his unhurried ministrations. She was drowning in a rapidly growing pool of blazing desire and she didn’t want him to stop. She moaned when he gently sucked the lobule of her ear.

“No one and nothing will tear us apart now,” he murmured hoarsely after a while, gently caressing her cheek and gazing deeply into her eyes. “You will be my wife, soon.” 

She felt his chest rapidly rising and falling as he said these words, his eyes darkening like an ocean before the storm. He placed one of his large palms on the small of her back, pulling her flush against his strapping body.

“Tell me sincerely, do you want this, Ása? Are you sure you want to bind your life to mine?” 

She thought that she heard an unusual note in his voice. Was it possible that the prince of Erebor himself, her One, was still uncertain about whether she would accept him at the end of their courtship?

“I can’t be more sure, Thorin. I wish to spend my whole life with you. I want you to be my husband. I want your face to be the first thing I see every morning,” she rose up on her tiptoes to kiss him passionately as her hand slid into his hair. She daringly sucked on his lower lip. A growl escaped his mouth.
“I will make sure that my face will not be the only thing you see in our marital bed,” he murmured triumphantly under his breath, moving his hands possessively along the curves of her body while his mouth attacked her neck with incessant kisses. 

A crack in the wall of restraint the prince built around himself.

“What,” she sighed with pleasure, immensely enjoying the way his coarse beard prickled her delicate skin, “What other things do you plan to show me?”

As soon as she said the words, Ása realized their meaning and blushed at her own unladylike boldness. 

“You are very curious tonight, my lady,” Thorin rumbled and looked straight into her eyes. “Are you not aware of what married couples do in their beds?” a corner of his lip curled up.

Ása felt her face heating up even more and lowered her gaze. 

“I…,” she swallowed, “Well, I read the books!” she retorted. Learning about their bodies and the intimate moments dwarven couples shared (preferably the married ones, as Lady Barba would insist) was a regular part of each dwarven maiden’s education. Ása considered herself sufficiently well-read within the topic, but theoretical knowledge was quite further apart from the practical side of things than she had suspected before. Being a young dwarven lady meant that her upbringing was quite sheltered and all the propriety rules had to be strictly followed. It was a price she had to pay for being a woman. Only one in three dwarflings was born a female, so it was quite natural for their male counterparts to feel the overwhelming urge to protect them from everything. Apparently, it included quite a few interesting physical experiences as well, as Ása discovered recently. Curious as she was, she intended to fill the gaps in her practical knowledge.

“My sweetest Ása,” he slowly lifted her chin until their gazes met again. She noticed Thorin’s heavy, accelerated breathing. “There is no need to be embarrassed. We have a whole world to discover together,” he placed a gentle kiss on her lips, “and... and our whole lives to do it.” 

His kiss turned into something more passionate as he slid his tongue between her lips, twirling it, searching for her own tongue, synchronizing their movements. His hand moved to her thigh and squeezed it firmly. 

Another crack in his wall.

Ása’s heart beat even faster than before and she couldn’t help it. His words promised her new lands of passion to explore and his caresses hinted at even more pleasure than she could imagine. Every cell in her body craved him, demanding the fulfillment his kisses and hands promised her. Then his teeth nibbled her neck and his bold hand unhurriedly covered her breast hidden in the bodice of her dress. She heard his growl when his fingers cupped the round softness, sending a myriad of sensations into her hazy mind. 

And another crack.

She could feel her nipple becoming hard under his touch. A wave of impossible heat blossomed in her breasts and reached the secret place between her legs, pulsing intensely. She’d never experienced such powerful, sensual passion before. Ása was not sure how it was even possible and whether Thorin knew what he was doing to her, but she was sure that she wanted more. Much more. As if he could read her mind, Thorin greedily reached for her mouth, covering them with his own and gently squeezing her breast once again. When she moaned in response, it seemed that something snapped inside him. 

The crack in the wall of his resolve widened.

She felt the weight of Thorin’s other hand moving up her thigh and raising her skirt while his tongue rhythmically moved in and out of her mouth. She purred and pushed her hips against him, feeling the hardness of his arousal. 

“Ása…,” he growled, his caresses changing, becoming rougher and even more desirous. Once again, Thorin pushed his demanding, muscular body against her. She could feel his legs pushing against hers, his hand firmly placed on her breast. His other hand kept grabbing her thigh firmly through her dress.

“Ása… I'm burning for you,” Thorin said in a husky voice, the voice that held an invisible power over her, sending shivers of pleasure down her spine. When his knee pushed against her thighs, she instinctively pulled her legs apart. His leg instantly slid right between them, his thigh grinding against her soft flesh. She sighed in surprise, feeling its hard muscles against the most sensitive part of her body. An intense blush crept up her cheeks. She was sure that Thorin could feel the excessive heat radiating from the most intimate spot of her body through their clothes, but she couldn’t stop herself any longer. At that moment, she wasn’t thinking as a lady. She was simply a dwarven woman desiring the man her heart chose. Her body arched towards her One. He growled, his hand sliding all the way down, finding its way under her skirts. He found her naked thigh and started caressing it.

„You are so soft…” he whispered and rhythmically moved his own thigh back and forth several times, teasing all the nerve endings in her special place. He grabbed her buttock and positioned her firmly against his moving thigh, while his other hand was cupping her breast. 

A part of the wall crumbled.

“Oh, Thorin…” she moaned when this completely new sensation flooded her senses. A growl escaped him when she pushed her pelvis against his thigh, visibly craving for more. Thorin suddenly returned to devouring her mouth, crushing it forcefully.

The insistent and very unladylike urge deep inside her took over and Ása heard herself say, “Thorin… please… I want more… I need… you...”

All his ministrations suddenly ceased. Instead, his strong arms lifted her, and a moment later she found herself lying on her bed as his craving lips burned a trail along her jawline.

“Ása,” he murmured, “would you like me to pleasure you? Is that what you want?”

“Yes, Thorin, please...”

Her head was spinning and she could not believe her ears. For a split second, she recalled that she was a decent lady from the Iron Hills, and no lady would act in this way, she was certain of it. How could she utter such lascivious words? All of the doubts quickly disappeared from her mind as soon as she felt Thorin’s hand reaching back under her skirts, its scorching heat traveling upwards, against her naked thigh. His touch on her skin was more than enough for her to feel her core pulsing with need, demanding the forbidden pleasure she has never known before. When he slid his exploring fingers between her thighs, she widened her legs slightly in anticipation. Her breath quickened as he moved upwards, while he placed meticulous kisses on her throat. She gasped when his hand reached its destination and gently cupped her mound of pleasure. Through the thin fabric of her undergarments, she felt the impossible heat and the roughness of his skin. His touch was tender, yet unhesitating, and carried an inexplicable promise of sweet completion. 

When he raised his head, his handsome face was flushed, but his intensely blue eyes focused on hers, waiting patiently.

Ása moved her hand to his bearded cheek, “Please, Thorin, I need… I need…”
“What do you need, sweetest? Tell me…”

“I…” she bit her lip, not being able to find the right words, realizing that she did not know what to ask of him. There was only that exciting yearning in her mind that overtook all of her senses and the intuitive need to release this powerful tension.

“May I take this opportunity to remind you, my lady, that I still have my third wish?”, a familiar smile appeared on Thorin’s face. 

Ása nodded in response, her heart skipping a beat, not being sure of what he wanted from her. 

“Would you like me to tell you what it is?” he asked.

Ása licked her lips. 

“I would,” she admitted timidly, suspecting that the blush on her cheeks had the color of ripe apples by now. She wasn’t able to think straight. The only thing on her mind was Thorin’s hand between her legs, patiently waiting and unmoving, giving her body a chance to acquaint itself with this new sensation.

“My third wish is for you to show me how you would like me to touch you, my lady” he placed a careful kiss on her mouth. “If my lady approves of such a wish, of course.”

“I do,” Ása whispered, feeling a bit bolder. “I would not dare to defy my lord prince,” she returned his kiss, guided by the mounting yearning she felt. The thought of her One giving her pleasure carried a thrill of excitement. She had never before allowed anyone to explore her in this manner and expected to feel comprehensive about it, but her body responded to his closeness with a whirlwind of sweet sensations, as a parched traveler reaching a freshwater well in the middle of a desert.

Her hand moved on its own accord to cover his. Their fingers intertwined when she slowly led his palm to slide between her legs. She could feel her own heat and a hint of moisture through the fabric of her undergarments, the indisputable proof of her arousal. 

His fingers moved in a light caress together with his, and she was rewarded with a low, inarticulate growl. Thorin’s eyes were closed and his jaw was clenched tight.

“Mahal…” there was a visible strain in his voice as he took in a deep breath.

She remained silent, focusing on the thing she secretly dreamt about for so many lonely nights. The prince, her beloved Thorin, explored her body to help her find the release she needed so desperately. He was like a bold traveler, uncovering the many secrets of an untrodden land.

She led their joined hands back towards her belly and then slowly slid them back down, this time moving under the layer of the fabric that was in the way, exposing the most intimate part of her body to his touch.

“So incredibly wet…” he murmured raspily, while his fingers slowly explored the mountains and valleys of her secret kingdom, led by her subtle directions. “Your skin... it is like the exotic silks…” he continued, as their joined hands uncovered a new path together.

She gasped when one of his fingers found an especially pleasurable spot and caressed it lightly, making her writhe under his touch.

“Yes?” he asked.

“Yes...” she whispered timidly.

“And this?” he whispered hoarsely into her ear, his sensual movements becoming bolder and more independent, but she could only moan in response, raising her hips towards his hand as it uncovered a new, promising trail.

“Shhh, my sweet, we would not like anyone to hear us now,” he covered her mouth with his in an attempt to muffle the sounds of excitement coming from between her pink lips. The thought of his strong manly hand pleasuring her was making Ása drunk with ecstasy. He had the large, calloused palms of a blacksmith, but the gentleness of his movements astonished her.

While he continued his ministrations, their lips and tongues were entangled in a dance of their own. At one point she realized that her undergarments were gone and his hand dominated her mound completely, slowly moving her towards the brink of ecstasy, searching intently for the trail leading to her summit of pleasure.

“You are incredible, my sweet,” he murmured.

“It is your touch that makes it incredible. Will you touch me... there?” she guided his hand a bit lower between the twin hills of her womanhood.

His eyes, heavy-lidded with lust, looked searchingly at her face. Ása nodded slightly in response.

“Mahal…” he groaned, his thick digit unhurriedly delving into her silken flesh. A gasp of astonishment escaped her, marveling at the amazing sensation she felt. He repeated the deliberately slow movement within her one, two, three times like a curious explorer acquainting himself with a newfound mountain path. Ása stifled a soft moan and bit on the back of her palm to silence herself. Her world comprised only of Thorin’s touch, his caresses and murmurs and the accelerating pulsing heat between her legs. 

His mouth moved to her ear, “When we are wed, I will pleasure you like this whenever you wish,” he whispered hoarsely, “And make you moan loudly in ecstasy.”

She rewarded him with a sigh of rapture when his caresses became bolder. She was wondering whether one could die of this insistent throbbing, euphoric sensation. Thorin completely took over the initiative, his hand curiously exploring, moving, searching for the unknown pathways, hidden coves of pleasure and the blissful treasures they hid. She could feel his gaze on her face, watching, scrutinizing her every expression and reacting in kind. Her ragged breaths became louder as her body shivered slightly. She felt an enormous, sweet wave of heat building inside her, demanding release.

“Thorin,” she managed to mumble, “Don’t stop now.”

“I will not. I love watching how you come undone under my touch, Amrâlimê,” he rumbled and she was awarded a plethora of new sensations as his explorations intensified even more.

At the same time, his mouth moved onto her neck and cleavage. His hot breath burned her skin, his lips covered it thoroughly with kisses, nibbling and sucking, as his rough beard scratched her skin mercilessly. It was then when the sweet tide of fulfillment consumed her completely, sending shivers of immense pleasure to all the distant corners of her body. She arched her back in response to the electrifying sensation his touch brought upon her. He was still there, the explorer who was boldly fueling the avalanche of senses she experienced, staying on his trail even until after he found the closely guarded summit of ecstasy. The world was spinning around her, exploding, sending sparks of fire up into the sky. There was a moan that sounded suspiciously like her own voice, but it was stifled by a pair of very familiar lips that lingeringly kissed her until the waves of her passion subsided completely. 

There was a hand that straightened her dress, decently covering her with its fabric. 

“I hereby consider my wish fulfilled,” a voice rumbled. She knew that voice very well, it belonged to the mouth she felt on her swollen lips a few moments before. Someone was lying down next to her limp body. “Did I please you sufficiently, my lady?”, the voice inquired. She was vaguely aware of the fact that it belonged to a certain handsome dwarf that was fully to blame for her current half-conscious state.

“I think I have died and gone to the halls of our forefathers,” she whispered, leaning towards him.

“I would like to inform you that you are still here, with me, my sweet,” he caressed her cheek. “And that is where I would like you to stay. In my arms.”

“Then your wish is my command, my lord,” she replied as their lips met in a soft kiss. Her hand moved to his chest, feeling his hard body under his tunic, his tense, alert muscles rising and falling as his breathing quickened. Ása felt satisfied and content, but she could almost touch Thorin’s yearning for her that mingled with restraint. The pleasure he had just given her should be shared, she decided. That is what married couples do, don’t they? She wanted to make him feel all the pleasure that filled her body moments ago. As her small hand moved to his flat stomach, a low smothered growl escaped his mouth. She reached towards his belt buckle, trying to unclasp it, when he suddenly caught her wrist.

“Don’t,” he grunted darkly. 

Her eyes widened in surprise. Thorin’s chest was heaving as if he just finished an exhausting run. He rested his forehead against hers and carefully but decidedly placed her hand on the bed, away from his body. 

“I desire you too, Amrâlimê. More than you can imagine. You respond to my touch in such a way that is driving me mad,” tiny beads of perspiration shone on his forehead as he closed his eyes and took a deep breath in an effort to calm himself. Then, he sat up slowly.

“Nevertheless, you are my treasure of treasures,” he continued, “And it is worth waiting for our wedding night. There is a possibility that if we... if we share a bed, Mahal may bless us with a child,” he cleared his throat. “And as it is customary for the courtship to take at least half a year, it would become clear to everyone if you were to be… expecting.” Ása noticed that his face darkened as he averted his gaze. It seemed that the topic of dwarven women carrying and bearing children was as embarrassing for the prince of Erebor as for all the other male dwarves. Since Mahal favored the women of dwarven folk with the unique gift of bringing new life to the world, it was perceived by their male counterparts almost as a mystic event, a proof of Mahal’s exceptional grace attainable only by their women. But she recognized the truth in his words and felt shame that she hadn’t thought of such things before. The topic of pregnancies out of wedlock simply wasn’t discussed when she was around. Young dwarven ladies of noble houses were expected to keep their maidenhood until their wedding. She was aware that other dwarven women had more freedom in those matters and that even her maids knew a thing or two about contraceptives - a topic that was often frowned upon in the dwarven society. The children were considered as Mahal’s blessing, especially since they weren’t conceived as often as it happened among Men.

“I would not see my Azyungal dishonored by wagging tongues and slander if you were to appear at our wedding in this delicate state, however blessed it may be,” Thorin continued, his features softening, “I will not risk your honor nor the honor of our future child for a night of passion, even the most exquisite one.”

Ása subconsciously placed her hand on her underbelly, feeling a new, sweet and tender sensation overflowing her in place of the earlier embarrassment. Only then it dawned on her that Thorin was openly speaking about the possibility of having a child together with her, and he clearly accepted it. He chose her to be not only his wife but also the mother of his offspring. His heirs. As she realized it, the blush on her face reached her neck. Without thinking, Ása moved towards him, tucking her head under his chin and held him tight.

“What is it, my sweet?” he murmured softly into the crown of her head.

“Thorin, my love, you must think me a complete fool,” she admitted. “I had not thought about those things before. The truth is, I am not able to think at all whenever you are so close to me. When you touch me, Mizim… I seem to completely lose my senses.”
“That makes two of us, my love,” he chuckled and lowered his face to meet her gaze. “You are blushing again,” he caressed her cheek. “So beautifully... Were my words too improper? Too shocking? I am aware that these are not the usual conversation topics between dwarven couples, but I felt that they had to be said even for the price of offending your sensibilities.”
“You have not offended me, Thorin, in the slightest. I appreciate your candor and I agree with you. In fact, I would very much like us to be equally open in the future. You are my One, and I am yours.”

As she said those words, Thorin murmured his agreement, gently kissing her forehead and holding her tight in his embrace.

 

***

 

Ása’s head was still spinning as she recalled the events of the evening. It was late in the night, but the sleep wouldn’t come. She touched her courting braid yet again, making sure that Thorin’s bead was still in its place. Her fingers drifted towards her swollen lips. She could still feel his passionate kisses, his hands on her body and the indescribable pleasure he gave her.

She couldn’t believe her own boldness. She acted so shamelessly, so scandalously. Would Thorin think less of her in the morning, when he wakes up and recalls everything that transpired between them? A proper lady of the Iron Hills would never even dream of acting like this!

And yet she did.

Deep inside she knew that if the situation repeated itself, she would act exactly in the same way.

She was a wanton woman, after all.

 

The sleep finally came, shrouding her in its peaceful veil.

Chapter Text

Zohur the Dishonorable wasn’t an imposing dwarf anymore. All of his lavish clothes and golden jewellery was gone. He stood in chains in front of the king’s throne, looking ragged, worn down and decidedly thinner, but his good eye was like a fiery ember, burning with hate. A piece of cloth covered the other eye socket. His face was grimy, quite pale, but full of bruises that hadn’t had the time to heal. Thorin was not proud of the multiple injuries he inflicted on the dwarf, but when it came to protecting his One, he would not resort to half-measures. 

There was a fresh, pink scar that slashed Zohur’s face in two, running diagonally over his mutilated cheek and nose all the way to the piece of cloth over his eye, a clearly visible proof of Ása’s attempt at defense when she was brutally attacked. Thorin still remembered her injuries and the long hours he spent by her bed, not knowing if he would ever see her smile again. He refused to think what more could have happened to her that night if he hadn't appeared on time. 

Now, she was safe and under protection. Early in the morning, before the trial began, Thorin made sure that Ottar and two other guardsmen wouldn’t leave her side and would keep her in the royal chambers until it was over. He imagined she would not be pleased when she received his note, but he hoped she would understand that this was best for her. Not all of the envoys from Ered Luin could be trusted and Thorin was aware that some of them didn’t share the general indignation towards the dishonorable Zohur. The prince of Erebor couldn’t risk being unprepared for an ill-conceived act of vengeance. Ása was his and he intended to protect her life in the best way he could. No harm could come to his treasure of treasures, to her golden hair scattered on the pillows, to her soft lips that murmured his name so enticingly, to her white neck arching in ecstasy, her shapely breasts desperately rising and falling while he… No. He shook his head in an attempt to clear his mind from the vivid images his memory presented him. He needed to focus on the trial and not on last night’s events. Mahal, give me strength , he said a silent prayer in his head, steadying his thoughts.

 

A screeching voice filled the throne room. 

“I’m not guilty, yer majesty! It was that female! She led me astray with ‘er feminine wiles!” Zohur pleaded. 

Shouts of outrage from many dwarven throats echoed against the stone walls. Thorin’s blood boiled when he heard the dwarf’s offensive statement. His knuckles whitened as he forcefully clenched his fist. When someone’s heavy hand landed on his shoulder, Thorin realized that he was already rising from his chair, his muscles tense and ready to attack.

“Thorin, laddie, now is the time for the king to pass the judgment,” Balin said in a steady voice, his hand not leaving Thorin’s shoulder.

“This filth has no honor!” the prince spat.

“Aye, there is no doubt about it,” Balin nodded. “But we do.”

Thorin muttered a curse under his breath and settled down into his chair again.

“Indeed, we do,” Thorin gritted his teeth, looking gloweringly at the chained prisoner.

At that moment, king Thrór stood up and spoke.

“Zohur the Dishonorable, for the disgraceful attack on my ward, for raising a hand against a woman of your own kind, for actions against the letter of our law, we find you guilty. Your wealth will be confiscated and used for the remuneration of injuries and moral damages inflicted on the lady in question her and her house. Your name will be removed from the official records. Your sentence is death by exile!” he announced solemnly. 

The king’s words were met with a roar of applause. Such a sentence was expected for this kind of offense. Zohur would suffer a fate worse than death: he would be forever forgotten. Even if he survived in the wildlands on his own, no dwarf would speak to him ever again, no dwarf would look upon him and no dwarf would ever open his ears to hear his voice.

Thorin watched with satisfaction as two guards held the prisoner while the executioner proceeded to shave off the thick hair from his head, including his beard. Zohur shouted and writhed, trying to avoid his fate, but to no avail. The guards held him in a steel grasp, strengthening it when the smoldering hot branding iron appeared. A piercing cry of pain escaped his throat when the iron pushed into the skin on his forehead, marking him forever as a banished creature with no right to return to any dwarven settlements. Every dwarf knew this symbol and was aware that it marked the greatest offenders of their race.

 

“You are not a dwarf any longer. Begone,” the executioner said, but he didn’t use the words in Khuzdul any more. He spoke in Common Speech. Zohur was not worthy to hear the language of dwarves any longer, the language that was one of Mahal’s gifts to his people.

As tradition dictated, all the dwarves that gathered in the throne room averted their faces and waited for the guards to remove Zohur both from their sight and from Erebor. His fate was sealed. He would be transported to the north, towards the infamously dangerous Withered Heath beyond the eastern spur of Grey Mountains, and left there to perish.

 

As the guards dragged him out, Zohur shouted, “The end is coming! The Lord shall rain cleansing fire down upon you all!”

A wave of whispers washed through the gathered crowd.

Thorin heard Lady Agda’s raspy voice nearby as she leaned towards the throne and whispered, “What nonsense! We should have killed him at once when we had the chance, your majesty. His mind is clearly gone.”

“Perhaps so, Lady Agda,” king Thrór replied calmly, but there was a dangerous glint in his eye, “Nevertheless, I chose to act in accordance with our laws. Do you have anything against my decision?”

“Of course not, your majesty. I beg your pardon,” the King’s Council member bowed her head, her black robes rustled as she took a step back, her lips pressed together into a thin line.

 

The massive door to the throne room was closing behind Zohur when he raised his head and laughed madly. 

“The vengeance will be mine!” he shouted.

If the prince of Erebor had raised his gaze towards the offender at that very moment, he would have noticed that the banished dwarf turned his head back and stared directly at Thorin. Zohur’s face was distorted in a vile grimace and there was only boundless hate in his good eye. 

The echo of Zohur’s menacing laugh was the last trace of his presence in Erebor.

 

***

 

It was one of those days for Ása. First, she overslept (she blushed, trying not to think about the events of last night), then there was that stupidly arrogant note from Thorin along with his guards forbidding her to leave her chambers, and finally, Master Filur scolded her in front of everyone in the infirmary for arriving late.

“I told you I have no patience for highborn time-wasters, did I not? You will stay longer today to make up for the time you lost,” she still heard the healer’s harsh tone.

Her day was filled with demanding work, caring for the patients, changing dressings, administering healing drafts and doing whatever she was ordered to do. Luckily, she managed to steal a few short moments to see Jutta and Lady Barba. The first one seemed to be in a better mood and was excited to leave the infirmary the next day. When it came to the old matron, however, it was quite the opposite. Nothing hinted at the fact that she would leave this place any time soon. Her face seemed to be even more hollow and pale as her spirit drifted away from her injured body. Ása did her best to make her guardian as comfortable as she could and returned to her work. No new dwarves who were injured in Dale were admitted on that day, and this was a good sign for the already overcrowded infirmary’s capacity, but the current amount of patients required twice the amount of healers. At a time of peace like this, Erebor wasn’t prepared to handle so many wounded, so Ása and other nurses tried to do everything in their power to care for as many dwarves as they could. In the onslaught of work, she lost track of time just to notice that the evening has sneaked upon her unexpectedly and much too soon.

 

And now, she was about to be late for the audience. The king was going to announce the courtship between her and Thorin to the whole Erebor, and she was not yet there! Perfect. Just perfect. Ása barely had the time to change into a fine gown and take care of her hair, but she suspected that she’d already missed the diplomatic meeting with the Mirkwood Elves. Anger and disappointment swelled inside her. She had never seen Elves face to face before and she had always wanted to meet them. She managed to read a number of books on the rich and ancient culture of the Elves, but it was not the same as seeing these fascinating, near-immortal beings from up close. Ása was aware that the history of Elves intertwined with her own people’s history and the relations between the two races were quite complicated. They fought many wars, often side by side, but there were also a considerable amount of conflicts where they spilled each other’s blood on the battlefields. As far as she knew, both kingdoms were now in a state of fragile balance: not hostile, but not overly friendly either. Ása recalled that Master Arnur told her once that the Woodland Realm and Lonely Mountain had been on much better terms with each other when king Thranduil’s wife was still alive.

Ása’s thoughts were interrupted by Ottar’s voice. The guardsman followed her ceaselessly everywhere she went. Ása was so lost in her thoughts that only then she realized that they were already standing at the entrance to the throne room.

“I have spoken with a servant, my lady,” he bowed his head. “The meeting with the Elven King has already started. We are to wait for Prince Thorin in that alcove,” he gestured towards a place further down the corridor.
“Thank you, Ottar. Did he not say how long will it…”

 

There was a loud thud when the stone door to the throne room suddenly opened as if moved by an invisible power. Four tall Elven guards bearing elegant longswords marched out quickly through it. A fifth Elven figure was among them, wearing a shimmering silver robe that flowed to the ground like water. There was a distinctively regal grace in his movements. Ása’s eyes widened in surprise when she noticed his long, bright, almost white hair and an elaborate crown on his head. It was made of tree branches and woodland flowers. 

“King Thranduil…,” she whispered under her breath when the Elves were passing by her. She read so many descriptions of this ancient ruler and saw so many sketches of him that there could be no doubt about his identity.

The king, she was sure of it now, stopped and looked at her with piercing eyes, blue and powerful as the crystal-clear waters of a rapid mountain brook. The Elven guards froze on the spot, unmoving, resembling at that moment statues more than living creatures.

“You. You were marked,” he said with a faint hint of surprise in his slightly irritated voice.

“Me, your majesty?” Ása recalled her manners and bowed to the king. When she raised her head, she noticed that the Elven King was standing in front of her now. He was tall. Very tall and slender. She looked up to see the king’s impossibly handsome face. It was paler than the dwarven faces and resembled a young man’s countenance except for those penetrating eyes that seemed to contain the knowledge of ages. His expression didn’t seem to show any emotion, except for his furrowed brow.

“Do you see any other dwarven females here?”
“N-no, your majesty,” she mumbled, feeling abashed.

“Exactly. They usually hide you away, those males of yours, do they not?” the Elven King did not bother to wait for her answer and continued, “They are afraid an Elf might lay his eyes upon you and decide to steal you,” he smirked, grimacing, as if offended by such a preposterous suggestion.

She lowered her head, deciding not to reply in fear of offending him with the answer she had in mind. She was sure that Lady Barba would not approve of “ If an Elf tries to do that, I’ll bite off their nose.” as an acceptable response to the legendary king of Woodland Realm.

“Have you had the dreams already, dwarven lady?” the Elven king continued his questioning.

“The dreams? I do not think I…”

“I see that you have not,” he interrupted her impatiently. “Good. Perhaps they will not come to you after all. Unless…” he looked at her intently and placed two of his long fingers against the middle of her forehead, straight above her nose. She stiffened in surprise. King Thranduil’s touch was cool, yet strange, and Ása could have sworn that she felt a warm, tingling sensation where he touched her.

Stand down, she signalled to her guard with her hand, seeing from the corner of her eye that Ottar made a move to approach her. The dwarven sign language proved to be especially useful in unusual circumstances like these. She wasn’t sure what was happening, but she wanted to see for herself what the Elven King intended, without any interruptions.

“It is essential for you to protect your mind. Seal it off every evening before you retire,” king Thranduil stated matter-of-factly, “You need to guard your thoughts at all cost.”

Ása opened her mouth to ask what on Arda this was supposed to mean, but just then his words, no, a silvery thread of thought appeared directly in her mind somehow, like a sweet, forgotten childhood song. “If the dreams manifest themselves, be wary, for they can both be a blessing, and a curse.”

“Remove your hand, king Thranduil,” a familiar, richly deep voice reached Ása from the direction of the throne room. “At once,” Thorin snapped through clenched teeth, clearly conveying a warning.

“Ah, yes, I seem to have forgotten that there are even more treasures under your mountain that are denied to me,” Thranduil’s mouth twisted in a mocking smile, but his hand was suddenly gone from Ása’s forehead, leaving her unsteady and gasping for air. What did he do to her? How long has this peculiar connection lasted? Why has she forgotten to breathe?

“This one has never belonged to you, and never will,” Thorin gnarred in a challenging tone. 

The statuesque Elven King only chuckled in response.

 “Tell me then, your princely highness, what do I owe the undoubted pleasure of seeing you again so soon?” he smirked. “Has your grandfather changed his mind about my proposal?” his voice flowed sweetly like honey, but his eyes were cold as ice.

Thorin covered the distance in a few strides and positioned himself between Ása and the Elven King. Standing behind the prince's broad back that obscured most of her view, she noticed that his hands were forming into fists.

“I need to discuss it further with my grandfather,” the prince of Erebor rumbled. “He will see the truth in my words. The help the Woodland Realm has to offer is of great value to us.”
“Are you truly capable of convincing king Thrór in his current state?” king Thranduil smirked, his eyes narrowed. “Do not offend me by thinking that I do not know what has clouded his mind, prince Thorin.”

Thorin stiffened in surprise, but the expression on his face remained unchanged. “Do not worry about the king of Erebor. He is a reasonable ruler,” he responded as if he never heard the last remark. “Both of our kingdoms need to work together against the dragon threat. You know as well as I that the beast may return. If we do not unite, we will not stand a chance--”
“The Woodland Realm will prevail whether the dwarven army and your weapons are there to help us or not. We survived many grave threats throughout the ages. We will survive this one as well.”
“Perhaps, but at what cost? What if it is a fire-breather? Will you see your precious woods perish in flames?” Thorin retorted. 

King Thranduil stood unmoving for a few moments in complete silence, like a statue made of ice. When he finally spoke, his voice was completely devoid of emotions, just like his face.

“I am patient. My offer still stands, young prince. If you agree to my price, the warriors of Mirkwood will join you and stand against this vicious creature in the time of need.”

“I will hold you to your word, king Thranduil,” Thorin responded.

The Elven King nodded to him and then turned his attention to Ása once again.

“Remember my words, dwarven lady,” he bowed courtly to her and swiftly turned away with impressive grace, his richly embroidered robes softly following his movements.

The Elven guards quickly joined their king on the walkway leading out of Erebor, instantly matching his pace. The sound of their footsteps vanished quickly together with the Elves.

 

“What did he tell you, Ása? What did he want?” Thorin turned towards her, narrowing his eyes. There was burning anger in his gaze, but when he took her hands in his, there was tenderness in his touch.

“I am not sure, the Elven King spoke in riddles,” she replied, still confused about what transpired between the king of Elves and her. She needed to remember his words, they felt important and threatening at the same time. She had to make sense out of them.

“Well then, we will discuss it later. We need to go now,” Thorin frowned at Ása. It reminded her of the look he gave her some time ago in the infirmary. She thought she saw the worry in his eyes, and something else. Something was not right. He took her arm decisively and started striding back towards the throne room, making her almost run in order to keep up with him.

“Thorin, wait! I don’t understand--” she exclaimed.

“My grandfather is… he is not himself again,” the prince said quietly. “He wishes to see us now, and we can not make him wait. The way he acts… I have not seen him like this before.” Thorin slowed down slightly and looked into her eyes, the frown not leaving his face. “Please, my sweet, do not be alarmed. I will be by your side. Try to agree with everything he says and if he loses his temper… placate him if you can. He is quite fond of you, after all,” a faint shadow of a smile appeared on his face.

 

They stood at the entrance to the throne room. This spectacular chamber was filled mostly with prominent dwarves, politicians, and members of the King’s Council. Ása noticed that there were almost no dwarven ladies among them. The ones who were present, like Lady Agda, who was dressed in a dark, shapeless tunic with a hood, did their best not to draw any attention to themselves. Ása wasn’t surprised. The Elves had been visiting, after all. Mahal forbid if an Elf was to see the face of a dwarven woman! She lowered her head and stifled a chuckle. Thorin cleared his throat and squeezed her hand still resting on his arm. 

“Ah, Thorin! Is the Elven spawn gone?” king Thrór’s sonorous voice ringed against the walls of the spacious chamber. There was a strange and slithering quality to the way he talked, Ása observed. All the warmth that usually had been there, was now gone without a trace.

“Indeed, your majesty,” his grandson said in a strained voice.

“Splendid. They shall not fill our halls with their foul stench again,” the king spat in disgust. The throne room was completely silent. 

“Well then, you may both approach,” king Thrór ordered. When they took their first, measured steps into the throne room, Ása’s hand hesitantly resting on Thorin’s arm, they were surrounded by whispers of surprise. She felt many curious eyes upon her face, her gown, and her courting braid that was now visible to everyone. These eyes were relentless: questioning, scrutinizing, assessing without an end. She felt as if a cold block of ice was forming in her stomach and leaned a bit closer towards Thorin, holding his arm even tighter. He responded by covering her hand with his and giving it a reassuring squeeze.

“Let them stare, Amrâlimê,” he whispered under his breath as if reading her mind. “They wish to see the most beautiful maiden under the mountain who stole my heart.”

“And who gave her heart to the handsome prince of Erebor,” she replied.

“And who allowed the prince to fulfill his third wish,” he murmured, squeezing her hand again.

“Thorin!” she gasped quietly, feeling a wave of heat traveling to her cheeks and trying to keep a straight face at the same time. “You have no shame!”

“Maybe not,” he chuckled mischievously, “But now, every single dwarf in this chamber wonders about the scandalous exchange we are having that makes you blush like a beautiful rose.”
“There will be gossip!”
“I truly hope so, my sweet. And then you will have no other choice but to marry me,” he grinned. Ása knew why he was teasing her and she was more than welcome for this distraction.

“I love you too,” she whispered and was rewarded with a squeeze of his hand.

 

Finally, after what it felt like ages of walking, they reached the bottom of the steps leading to the throne. It was carved out of one piece of dark stone, inlaid with gold and precious gems. It symbolized the unity and opulence of the seven dwarven kingdoms united under the rule of Thorin’s grandfather, the king of Erebor. The source of his power and a tangible sign of Mahal’s favor hung above his head, surrounded by golden ornaments. The Arkenstone. Ása’s eyes widened when she marveled at its glowing, ethereal beauty. She never saw it from such a short distance. The legendary jewel emitted a light that seemed to be stronger than a moon shining against the backdrop of a starless sky. She would stare at it much longer if not for Thorin’s gentle squeeze. Ása turned her attention to the king.

Thrór, son of Dáin I, the grandson of Náin II, was finely clad and his magnificent beard was richly adorned for the occasion. The black and golden crown rested on his head, a symbol of his power. Unsmiling, he nodded in greeting at the couple in front of him and gestured at them to turn around, to face the gathered dwarves.

“It is with great pride that I would like to announce to you all the courtship of Lady Ása, daughter of Hadrid, daughter of Farra, with my grandson, Thorin. May Mahal bless them,” he spoke.
The throne room filled with the sound of cheers and clapping hands. Ása smiled and, together with Thorin, performed a traditional bow to everyone. She was puzzled by the fact that the king did not mention Thorin’s full lineage, as he did with her. The tradition required to mention two of their closest ancestors so that there would not be any doubts about their birth. Additionally, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that some of the cheers she heard sounded slightly unnatural, or even strained. She looked at Thorin, but he seemed not to notice anything, smiling widely. He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it reverently. Oh, this bold dwarf of hers, always tiptoeing along the thin border between propriety and scandalous behavior.

“I am honored, my lady, to be courting you,” he said loudly so that everyone could hear. Ása’s cheeks burned while she nodded graciously in response, as it was expected of her. 

“Our courting braids are a testimony to our oath.” 

“Let it be known that we are promised to each other!” Thorin said.
“Let it be known!” the gathered dwarves repeated the words of an ancient ritual.

King Thrór held out his arms to appease the loud crowd. When the chamber finally silenced, he spoke in a raspy voice.

“These are hard times for our kingdom. We are mourning the loss of our beloved brothers and sisters, while the enemy is lurking at our gates. It may even be in our midst! Fret not, my faithful subjects! I took sufficient steps to ensure our survival. First of all, we are closing off the mountain from the influences of the world above. We do not need the filthy Men and treacherous Elves to thrive! We have our mines and our treasures! Mahal is with us and he will bless us in our endeavors!”

Complete silence filled the throne room. Wide eyes, mouth gaping in surprise, every dwarf in the throne room stood still like a rock.

Ása exchanged puzzled looks with Thorin, still holding his hand. She felt a pang of fear and did not want to let go. Not now. Not ever. She wondered whether she could have perhaps misheard the king. Was he really giving an order to isolate the mountain so completely? Surely, he didn’t mean it. Maybe it was a joke. Ása wondered whether her face was as pale as Thorin’s. 

“Grandfather,” he turned to the king, but he stopped him with a gesture.

“Silence, I have not finished yet,” Thrór hissed to him. A gasp escaped Ása’s mouth. When the king leaned towards them, she noticed that something strange had happened to his wise, bright blue eyes. Now, they were speckled with gold, or rather, filled with golden swirls that somehow made the old king look like Skarr, a vicious creature from the deepest mines that Thorin told her about once. Skarr was often mentioned in the old dwarven legends of Erebor. Thorin’s grandfather used to tell him scary stories about it when the prince was still a dwarfling. This creature could give you all the wealth in the world - or kill you in an instant, on a whim. She shivered, not wanting to think about what the king could be capable of if he truly had access to such magical powers.

 

“It is high time we honored loyalty and faithfulness and got rid of the vermin that corrupted our kingdom like a disease,” the king continued, not bothered by the reaction to his words. “As of today, I am excluding my son, Thráin, from the line of succession for the betrayal of trust and disreputable conduct. A dwarf who lacks honor can not become a king. As a result, my grandson, Thorin, becomes the heir apparent. He is to become the King Under The Mountain after Mahal calls me to the halls of our forefathers. Thorin, my beloved grandson, and a skilled warrior, is granted henceforth the title of Erebor’s War Chief!” Thrór got up from the throne and raised Thorin’s free arm triumphantly. Ása felt Thorin’s fingers clutching her hand even tighter than before.
“But my father…? War?!” Thorin looked at his grandfather, utterly puzzled and crestfallen.

“Yes. War!” the king shouted with unconcealed excitement, his face reddening. “Soon, we shall go to war against the Elves and we will crush them once and for all!”

 

Chapter Text

The cool, refreshing wind soothingly caressed her body. It smelled sweet, like a mountain brook. Like green grass and vast wilderness. Not like those cold, lifeless caverns. She spent far too much time in that gloomy darkness, surrounded by stone. She huffed. There was no point in thinking about it now. She needed to focus on here and now. Above her, the sun was shining, pleasantly warming up her body. Her back muscles relaxed and then tensed once again. She tilted slightly to the left, towards the sun. Yes, much better now. 

She should have done this much sooner. Her body has almost forgotten how much it enjoyed this feeling of unrestrained freedom and power. This is what she was meant to do. Everything was within her grasp now. The usual unsettling soreness in her mind was temporarily subsided by a loud rumbling in her stomach. An overwhelming pang of hunger dominated her thoughts. She couldn’t recall when the last time she ate was, but this was of no consequence. The wind brought a new scent from the ground down below her. Food. A lot of it. Yes. She looked ahead and saw a group of dark shapes among the rocks. This was promising. She was so high in the sky that distance made them look as small as field mice, but she knew that they would be more than enough for her. The hooved creatures moved in one direction among large blocks of stone. A whole herd. Splendid.

She soared even higher, above the nearest cloud, in order to obscure her shadow. Her pulse quickened. The hunt had begun. She waited until the succulent morsels of food approached a small patch of barren ground. An ideal place for an ambush. And a feast. She took a deep breath into her lungs, folded her magnificent wings and shot down towards the land below. Towards the feast. She was like a green lightning bolt, a herald of death from the skies above. And she was fast. The food bleated in surprise, trying to escape, but it was too late for them. Her sharp teeth dug into their flesh in a blink of her vertically-slitted eye.

The last flickers of life fading in their horrified eyes.

That lovely sound of crunching bones.

This exquisite taste of warm blood on her tongue.

And the deliciously tender meat, pulsing with life mere moments ago.

 

Ása woke up with a cry of terror and a horrible taste of iron in her mouth.



***

 

Clang. Clang. Clang.

“One more time, faster!” Thorin shouted, wielding his axe and preparing his bucklered arm for Dwalin’s heavy blows.

Clang. Clang. 

Clang. Clang.

“And again!” he roared, attacking his cousin at once, his well-trained muscles working relentlessly as if he was hitting an anvil with a blacksmith's hammer. Dwalin barely had the time to react, but he managed to parry Thorin’s continuing onslaught.

“What in the seven hells has gotten into ye, Thorin?! Do I look like an orc?” he protested angrily after his buckler received a large dent, almost injuring his arm. It was supposed to be their usual, friendly sparring practice and not a fight for life and death.

“No. Orcs are prettier,” Thorin growled in response. “One more round!”
Dwalin threw his weapons on the ground. “Not until ye tell me what is bothering you.”

“Nothing,” the prince scowled, wiping off the beads of sweat from his face.

“Yer nothing is the reason I will have a plum-sized bruise on my forearm!”

“You will live,” answered Thorin matter-of-factly, while checking the sharpness of his axe.

“Go on, ye can tell me,” Dwalin relented.

“There is nothing to talk about,” the prince's statement sounded more like a growl of an infuriated animal.

Thorin sat down with his back towards his cousin and started sharpening his axe with a whetstone. For a few moments, only the steady metallic sounds filled the wordless emptiness between them.

 “Who was it this time? The golden-haired one that makes you drool, or the bearded one sitting on the throne?”

“Should you not be somewhere else at this very moment, Dwalin?”

“No,” his cousin grinned mischievously and sat down next to him. “My place is next to you, Your Royal Crankiness,” he annoyed him further, attempting to pierce his armor of silence. “At least until ye tell me what it is that is eating ye alive. When was the last time ye slept properly?”

“Are you my mother now?” Thorin growled.

“I wish,” Dwalin chuckled. “I would give ye a proper spanking!”

Thorin sighed heavily but said nothing. They sat there in silence for a while.

“Let’s hear it, Thorin,” his friend changed his tactics and spoke in a more serious tone this time. “Which one was it?”
“Both of them,” Thorin mumbled reluctantly after a pause.

“Ah, now we are getting somewhere,” Dwalin smiled slyly.

“No, we are not,” the prince protested. “I am not getting anywhere. We are not prepared. There is still no word about reinforcements from the Iron Hills, we do not have enough food supplies, our defenses are not ready and as soon as all the dwarves return, the gates of Erebor will be closed for Mahal knows how long. This is madness! Grandfather is under one of his ‘spells’ and I can’t convince him to change his mind. He does not want to listen to me and he refuses to see anyone,” the prince said in an undertone.
“Not even you?”

“Not even me. Now he claims that there is a plot against his life. Another one. He barricaded himself in his chambers and wants me to prepare our army against the enemies.”
“What enemies?”
“Internal, external, evil dwarven cultists, greedy elven wizards, filthy fishermen from Dale. You are most welcome to choose whichever you like,” Thorin hung his head. “I do not understand this, Dwalin. Lord Fundin, your father, is the king’s military advisor. He should be the War Chief, not me. He has the experience, he built half of our army from scratch, for Mahal’s sake. And now I can not even count on his support, he is…”

“Furious,” Dwalin admitted openly.

“As I would be in his place.”

“He took it personally. Father feels that the king has made a great dishonor towards him. I tried to reason with him. Balin tried it, too. I’m sorry, Thorin,” Dwalin shook his head.

The prince grunted in response.

“At least the Ered Luin envoys are finally leaving,” he changed the subject. It was to be expected since the trial was finally concluded and the diplomatic agreement was finally hammered out. Nevertheless, they seemed to be highly reluctant about their return trip. What was more puzzling, they refused to sign the agreement without Thráin and kept asking about his whereabouts. Thorin was pretty sure that this was somehow connected to his father’s schemes, perhaps an unofficial and very lucrative deal. But it looked like his father’s plan wouldn’t succeed after the latest announcement from king Thrór.

“Balin tells me that Mirkwood is quiet, no movements on their border,” Dwalin said.

“Good. Any news about my father?”

“The king’s scouts returned empty-handed. Even the lookouts don’t know where he went. The captain of the guards told me that they were ordered to capture your father as soon as he arrived at the Main Gate.”
“Grandfather claims that there is already a special cell in the dungeons prepared just for him,” the prince exclaimed. “For his own son! Will there be a special cell waiting for me as well in a while?”
“Thorin, don’t be ridiculous! We just have to be patient. He will return to his senses, just like the last time. Any day now.”

“We can only hope,” the prince murmured, frowning. He didn’t share Dwalin’s enthusiasm. On the contrary, he felt that king Thrór was taking a turn for the worse. He’d never seen him in such a state before. He was aware that his grandfather and father did not see eye to eye. Thorin had also reasons to believe that Thráin might have done something inexcusable, acting against his own father and bringing his wrath upon himself as a result. But did he really lay his hands on the King’s Ring, of all of the Erebor’s treasures? Or did it simply slip from the king’s finger somewhere in the treasure chamber? 

Thorin thanked Mahal that he had been given at least some time with his grandfather when Thrór’s mind was still clear, before the events in the throne room. 

His hand moved unconsciously to his chest, feeling the cold metal shape of a key that hung from the chain around his neck. The same key that had been hanging from his grandfather’s neck before. This mysterious gift he had recently received from his father’s father was now safely hidden under his tunic. The young prince still remembered the king’s solemn words and his wise, warm gaze so different from his current golden stare: 

I do not know how much time I have. There is something of great importance I need to ask of you before I succumb to the sickness once again. Here is the key to the last of my great treasures. Take it. I trust you to keep it secret. Remove the chest we hid together from its current hideout. It needs to be kept out of my reach. Never speak of it to me again. Whatever you find in this chest, consider it my wedding gift for you and Ása. I trust you with its contents. Do with it as you see fit. And Thorin, under no circumstances are you allowed to give me back this key, or the chest, no matter how insistent I am. I can not be trusted with such treasure any longer. Forgive me, my son’s son.

 

“So, my brother,” Dwalin suddenly interrupted Thorin’s reverie. “How about the other one of yer reasons for sleeplessness. Ye know, the one that changes your mind into a porridge every time a certain lady enters the room.”

His playful insolence was rewarded with yet another grunt.

“Go away, Dwalin, or I swear--”

“What? Will you tell my mommy I misbehaved?”

“Better. I will speak with Jutta,” Thorin bared his teeth in a scowl.

“How did ye…” Dwalin’s narrowed his eyes. “Ah, so Ása told ye.”

“She did, you oaf ,” the prince teased him.

“Oooh, and here I was, thinking that ye both never cared for talking, having other things to do!” he winked impishly.

“It seems like you speak from experience!” Thorin retorted, making his best friend grin even wider than before. “Jutta is a fine maiden, from what I gather,” the prince admitted.

“Aye, she is. A fiery one.” Thorin could have sworn that his friend’s cheeks flushed under his tan when he said it. “And a skilled warrior, too,” Dwalin continued. “I rarely see a dwarf handling two axes as well as she does!”

“A peculiar skill for a lady’s maid.”

“I believe she’s more than she seems. Much more.” Dwalin exhaled loudly. “If I could have my way, we would be courting already.”

Thorin blinked. What was that soft look in his best friend’s eyes? And was there a dreamy smile hiding under his mustache? Dwalin, his brother in arms, a fierce warrior, smitten by a lady? That was something new.

“Is there an obstacle?” he prodded.

“Jutta swore an oath to Mahal,” his best friend explained.

“Did she? Interesting.” Thorin mused. The oath to Mahal was quite uncommon and saved only for grave situations. The dwarf under an oath vowed to devote their lives to fulfill their secret goal, refraining from any distractions along the way, marriage included.

“Only when her vows are fulfilled can she decide whether she wants me to court her,” Dwalin explained.

“And you? What have you decided, brother?” the prince asked.


“I will wait.”

 

Chapter Text

Ása’s finely embroidered sky blue dress emphasized not only the color of her eyes but also her silhouette. He was sure she chose this gown on purpose. She had to know what she was doing to him, Thorin decided, desperately trying to stop thinking about certain parts of her alluring body. 

It was one of their first strolls in public since their courtship was officially announced by the king. A very modest and proper thing to do for a couple. On their way to the Queen’s Gardens, they were being continuously approached by friends, acquaintances, and even completely unknown dwarves who conveyed their best wishes to the couple. Every time it happened, Thorin enjoyed seeing the delicate blush and timid smile on his One’s face when she exchanged words with them. His chest swelled with pride, when they congratulated him in turn, praising the lady that agreed to be his betrothed. The loveliest maiden in the world chose him and now here she was, standing next to him, smiling and making the world brighter and more vivid. His Ása. He admired her graciousness and the way she handled those conversations, with humility and politeness, treating everyone equally, noble lords and simple craftsmen alike. 

She has the makings of a queen , he caught himself thinking. His queen. The title that would be bestowed upon her when the time came for him to be the king. But for now, this was an idle thought. He did not choose her based on whether she could fit the role of a queen or not. It was a choice of his heart and this maiden was the person he wanted to spend his whole life with. He couldn’t be more sure of it. The kings of Durin’s line tended to live quite long lives, so he didn’t expect to ascend to the throne anytime soon. Mahal, grant my father’s father and my father unending health. He and Ása would have at least 150 years to cherish each other before they would start thinking about fulfilling the royal duties. All the time in the world, with her. He had to stifle a great urge to kiss her delicious lips just then, in front of all those dwarves around them. The courting braids were not enough for him, he wanted to demonstrate to everyone that he truly won her, that she was his and he was hers, so that no one would have any doubts about it. He had to remind himself that they were accompanied by a chaperone, the infamously strict Mistress Dara, as well as his mother who brought Dís along. They should definitely not witness such a scandalous display of affection, especially not his little sister. He had to wait until he was alone with Ása again, whenever it might be. He grunted to himself. Paradoxically, now, when they were courting, it was more difficult to steal such intimate moments than when they were meeting in secret. The eyes of the whole Erebor were on them now and they needed to demonstrate the highest level of propriety. This was the price to pay for being the heir to the throne, but he would gladly pay it, knowing that they would be joined forever in six months. In half a year. An eternity.

 

The three dwarven ladies, including his giggling sister, followed the couple slowly while walking in the gardens. As the custom dictated, the ladies kept a moderate distance, not losing them out of sight. This way Thorin and Ása could have at least a bit of privacy. It was expected of them to discuss appropriate subjects, like literature, music, the newest statues in the Great Hall, even the weather. Instead, his treacherous mind started focusing on the tightness of her bodice, on the way her breasts rose and fell with each breath and on the softness of the skin on her neck. Mahal, help me, I want her so badly. His nails painfully dug into his palms. He had to stop thinking about how it felt to kiss her neck, to caress her thighs, to...

“Is something the matter, my lord?” Ása asked. “You have barely said a word today.”

He grunted.

“I am afraid that this does not count as a word.”

“You have to forgive me, my lady. I seem to be distracted,” he explained. No, it was not true. He was focused, very much focused on the way she ran her fingers through her hair, the way she licked her lips and…

“Thorin? Why are you stopping? Are you unwell?” there was a concern in her voice. 

He shook his head and looked into her face, only then noticing shadows under her eyes. Was she having trouble sleeping as well? Perhaps the strain of the recent events has finally caught up with her. At least he was pretty sure that her nights were luckily devoid of the torment that mercilessly plagued his dreams.

“It is nothing, my love,” he finally answered, taking a few deep breaths to clear his head. “There is a lot on my mind,” he took her by the arm in a courtly manner, continuing their walk. 

“I met a forest dryad today,” a mischievous smile appeared on Ása’s face after a moment, “and she wanted to know when she would see her blacksmith again. She thinks he would enjoy some peace and quiet and says that the water in the pond is quite refreshing.”

“Are you trying to tell me, Ása, that you went to the forest alone?!” he shot her a stormy glance.

“The gates of Erebor will close soon and no one will be allowed to leave, not even for a visit to the forest,” she explained. “You know how I like it there, my love. I returned before anyone noticed.”

“But what if someone noticed you? What if someone were to hurt you? You can not risk your life this way, my sweet,” he took her hand into his and squeezed it gently, standing in front of her. “Promise me that you will not venture into the forest alone anymore. Nor anywhere else, for that matter. From now on, I will be accompanying you and if my duties make it impossible, you will take Ottar with you whenever you leave Erebor and do not use those secret passages any longer.”
“I would like you to go with me next time, Mizim. You deserve some rest,” she replied. “But please, do not ask me to spend all of my days locked up under the Mountain. I spent far too much time in that gloomy darkness, surrounded by plain stone, she said the last sentence in a raspy voice and as soon as she did it, she flinched.

“Gloomy darkness?” Thorin looked around, seeing the gardens bathed in sunlight seeping in from above. He was puzzled to hear such an odd statement from her. She never complained about the bright and spacious stone halls of Erebor before. On the contrary, until now, she had always admired the mastery of the local stonemasons, even deeming it superior when compared with the Iron Hills stronghold. “What do you mean, my sweet?”

Ása took out her fan and started waving herself with it. He noticed a sheen of perspiration covering her forehead.

“Forgive me, Thorin, I am not myself today. I’ve slept poorly and dreamt horrible nightmares all night long. What I meant to say is… I also need to see the sun, feel the wind, and smell the flowers. It makes me happy.“

Nightmares. So she was still having dreams about that piece of filth, Zohur. Thorin took a step towards her and tenderly wrapped his arms around her.

“You truly are my forest dryad, Ása,” he murmured, tucking away a stray strand of her golden hair. “I will chase all of your nightmares away, Amrâlimê. You deserve all the happiness in the world and I intend to give it to you. I believe it is my duty as your One,” he curled up his lip. 

She lifted her head and met his gaze, smiling. Her eyes were shining brightly and her lips were drawing close to his. He could feel the warmth of her breath on his skin.

A meaningful cough was heard in the distance. Thorin sighed and reluctantly pulled away from Ása. Of course, the hawk-eyed Mistress Dara did not approve of this. To be honest, there were not many things she approved of.

 

“Thorri! Ása!” a small creature squeaked, running towards them with all the strength in her short, chubby legs. “Let’s play Treasure Hunt!”

Ása chuckled and caught the dwarfling in her arms. “Are you sure, Dís? Thorin tells me that quite a few monsters are lurking in these gardens.”

“Indeed there are. We have to be really careful here, Goblin,” Thorin agreed, whispering confidentially. “See the bushes behind that column? When I was a boy, a smelly troll used to live there!”

“But I wanna play! Trolls can go and get stuffed!” the girl insisted loudly, wiggling herself out of Ása’s embrace.

“Tsk tsk, is that how a young lady speaks, Pumpkin?” Lady Sigrun interjected.

“I’m not a lady now, I’m a treasure hunter!” Thorin’s little sister protested vigorously and stomped her foot. Her brother could not help but chuckle and crouched in front of her to meet her gaze.

“Very well, Dís, we will go for a treasure hunt together, but you have to be nice. Our troll here is quite shy and does not like naughty girls,” he reached out his hand.

“Oh, okay,” the dwarfling seemed a bit disappointed but grabbed her brother’s much larger hand nevertheless. “But does he have treasures?” she asked hopefully.

Thorin playfully winked at her and stood up, “Let’s go and find out, Goblin!”

The little girl let out a squeal of joy.

 

Lady Sigrun chuckled when both siblings disappeared behind a large shrubbery, still holding hands.

“Dís adores him so much,” she said to Ása sometime later, when they walked along one of the gravel paths, after leaving Mistress Dara with the task of waiting for the treasure hunters.

“He is very good with her, and he seems to enjoy it,” Ása agreed. She could clearly see the joy in his eyes whenever he spent time with his little sister. Perhaps it was also a way for him to get in touch with his inner child, forgetting about all the princely burdens he was confronted with every day.

“He probably does not seem like it at first glance, but he is quite fond of the little ones. I could only wish that more dwarven men were as patient and thoughtful as he is when it comes to children.”

Ása swallowed. Was Lady Sigrun having the dreaded “children talk” with her right now? Of course. She should have seen it coming. It was only a matter of time before they had it, but Ása didn’t expect it would be so soon and was quite unprepared for it. Prince Thráin’s wife was going to be Ása’s mother in law after all. For the mother of the prince of Erebor, this was probably one of the most important topics on her mind at this very moment.

“It is… very commendable of him,” Ása replied carefully. “I did not expect it. In the Iron Hills, men usually do not help much with raising children. My father… I barely saw him when I was a child,” she said quietly.

Lady Sigrun nodded, “He is not the only one. Some of our men in Erebor are the same. They notice their children only when they are grown enough to have a discussion about politics with them, but at that time it is too late to start building close bonds between them,” there was a hint of sadness in her voice. “I suspect that your mother wasn’t thrilled about it.”
“I guess she expected my father to be more involved, but he never was,” she admitted.
“And what about you, my dear? May I ask you whether you wish to have children of your own?”

“Before I arrived in Erebor, I had never thought Mahal had them in his plans for me,” she confessed timidly, after a pause. “But recently, I started hoping… thinking that maybe…” Ása’s voice trailed off and her cheeks burned.

Lady Sigrun patted her hand with a soft smile, “It is quite understandable, my child. Here I am, embarrassing you with such questions and you have barely agreed to court Thorin! You must excuse a mother who is thrilled at the prospect of her first-born son finding a lady that he adores so much. Do not worry, there will be plenty of time to discuss it with him. That is, if you decide that he is the one to marry you.”

“I… I think I already have, my lady,” Ása smiled timidly. “I must admit that he stole my heart and has no intention of returning it to me.”
Lady Sigrun’s kind eyes smiled at her and suddenly, Ása was wrapped in a warm embrace.

“I can not express how much your words make me happy, my dear Ása. What is more important, I know that you will make Thorin happy. But there is a piece of advice that I would like to share with you, if you allow me.”
“What is it, my lady?”

“You both have a whole half a year of courting ahead of you. Do not rush through it. Try to get to know each other better. Your everyday habits, your likes and dislikes, your character flaws, even your quirks. No one is perfect, not even my dearest son. Believe me, I know. Before you make your decision at the end of your courtship, I would like you to take time and think about it thoroughly. I am sure that you are aware of what a marriage with the future king of Erebor entails. Can you truly accept him as a whole? Can you, and will you support each other in your duties? And, what’s most important, will you thrive together? Or will you become bored of each other in ten or perhaps fifty years? If you have any doubts about it, remember that you are not obligated to accept him. The decision has to be your own and I will support it, no matter what you choose.”

“Thank you, my lady. I will take your wise words to heart,” Ása bowed her head, surprised. She expected Lady Sigrun to list the superb qualities of her son and convince her further to accept him. That was what a mother in law would usually do when a dwarven maiden showed even the faintest interest in her son. This was different.

“Oh, do not make me sound like some kind of an old, all-knowing crone. I am simply talking from my own experience. If a husband can make his wife happy, then their marriage will be a happy one,” Lady Sigrun smiled, but Ása noticed that the smile didn’t reach her eyes.

“Thorin makes me happy, and I would like to make him happy for many years to come,” Ása whispered.

“Then you have already started off on the right foot!” Lady Sigrun patted her hand again. “Remember, dear Ása, you can always talk to me, whenever there is something on your mind.”

“You are too kind, my lady.”

“Hush, my dear. I am simply doing whatever I can to lure you into our family. I have far too many stubborn-headed men on my hands. I would not mind having an ally,” she chuckled and Ása couldn’t stop herself but join in the laughter.

 

They were sitting on one of the garden benches together with Mistress Dara when Ása heard a loud rustling sound coming from behind nearby bushes. It was Thorin, who effortlessly carried his giggling sister piggyback. Ása smiled involuntarily, looking at him. The somber, worried look, that she’d recently seen on his face much too often, was completely gone, replaced by happiness. She wondered whether he would be just as happy playing with a child of his own. Their child. She felt a wave of warmth inside her and wondered how it would be to carry his son or daughter, to feel the new life growing inside her, to hold the little bundle of joy close to her. She imagined the brightness in Thorin’s eyes when he would hold his heir with pride in his strong, protective arms. Ása couldn’t take her eyes off her strapping prince when he carefully put his little sister down. She knew that her heart chose well. There was no other dwarf like him in the whole world.

“Look what I found, mommy!” Dís immediately ran to her mother, showing her the new treasures she found: leaves, flowers and interestingly looking pieces of stone.

Thorin’s gaze turned to Ása and she immediately felt the intensity in his dark blue eyes that made her knees weak. He hadn’t said a word, but he didn’t have to. She wished she could run towards him just to be wrapped in his arms, to feel his closeness and warmth. Ása didn’t know how long they stared at each other, drowning in each other’s eyes. An eternity? Just a few blinks of an eye? It seemed as if the world around them ceased to exist.

“Thorri! Show her what you found!” Dís demanded loudly, sitting on her mother’s lap.

“It was supposed to be a surprise, Goblin!” Thorin whispered conspiratorially to her, grinning.

“But it can be a surprise now!” the little girl insisted, whispering back. 

“I do not think this is how surprises work like, Pumpkin,” Lady Sigrun stifled a chuckle. “They are supposed to be a secret!”
“But it is, Mommy, Ása doesn’t know anything about the…”

“Hush, Goblin...” Thorin placed a finger on his lips.

“What is this secret, Dís?” Ása asked.

“Ooooh, it’s a... it’s a secret!” replied the girl and covered her mouth with her tiny hand, afraid to say too much.

Thorin chuckled, “It seems that this secret needs to be uncovered now, my lady,” he addressed Ása and winked at his giggling sister.
“Well, then, my lord prince, you certainly have my attention,” Ása smiled to him, intrigued.

“After the fearless treasure hunters chased off the smelly troll,” he smirked, “they found his lair. Among the uncountable treasures, I found something most precious that reminded me of you, my lady.” Thorin bowed and handed her a beautiful lavender rose flower that somehow appeared in his hand.

When Ása reached out to take the gift from him, their fingers touched for a moment. His skin was soothingly warm and she felt his fingers gently caressing her palm, sending shivers throughout her body. 

“Please accept this small token of my affection, my lady. You told me that you wished to smell the flowers and I am happy to fulfill your wish. This flower is a rare sight here and just as lovely as you are.”

“Thank you for your thoughtfulness, my lord,” Ása took the unusual flower, feeling the softness of its petals, but didn’t move her hand away from his. “I accept your gift with pleasure,” she nodded towards him. There were strict rules concerning receiving gifts from dwarven men, but she was sure that she could openly accept the lavender rose since it was offered as a traditional courting gift. Her heart leaped when she recalled her lessons in the language of flowers. She never suspected she would ever find them useful. What was the meaning of lavender rose? Ah, yes. Enchantment. Admiration. Love at first sight. Oh, Thorin. Her heart leaped once more and sang his name. He was her One. The most wonderful dwarf under the Mountain.

She smiled and looked at the delicate flower admiringly, feeling Thorin’s fingers squeezing around hers, not letting go of her. His gaze seemed to burn into her very heart.

“Ahem,” someone loudly cleared their throat. Of course. Mistress Dara didn’t think it was proper for an unmarried couple to hold their hands in this manner.

Instantly, Ása moved her hand away and lowered her head, feeling her cheeks burn. How was it that she kept forgetting herself whenever the prince was around? She could only hope that Lady Sigrun would not disapprove of her behavior. 

There were female voices in the background, including Dís’s giggling, but Ása could not focus on anything else than this wonderful rose. Its petals were still warm from Thorin’s touch. She could still feel his eyes upon her but didn’t dare to look back at him yet. Instead, she moved the beautifully bloomed flower to her nose. Its fragrance was sweet and intoxicating, like a promise of a long, carefree summer. A summer of love.

 

***

 

It was late in the evening when Ása smelled the lavender rose once yet again, smiling to herself. She placed the flower between the pages of a book she held on her lap. It was the tome she received from Master Arnur. She stifled a yawn and stretched. “A Description of Ancient Serpents” was certainly not a light piece of bedtime reading, but it contained quite a lot of interesting information about dragons. It claimed, for example, that there used to be quite a lot of these creatures, including several subspecies, but for some unexplained reason, their numbers started to dwindle hundreds of years ago. She sighed. It seemed that not only dwarves were affected by this problem. There were even rumors that some of the Elves were disappearing from their forest domains, just like the Entwives had done. Only the race of Men kept growing stronger. Ása wondered whether it would come to a point when the Men would be the only sentient race living on Arda. She shook her head. It was not her place to ponder about such things. Everything was in the hands of the gods. The only thing she could do right now was to rest for the night and try to get some well-deserved sleep.

 

***

 

First, she heard a distant howl of the wind. A strong gale passed above the Lake and sped up, unhindered. It hit the walls of Erebor with the strength of a hurricane. The pines on the mountain creaked and cracked in the hot, dry wind. The banners of the Lonely Mountain helplessly, frantically flapped in the air. A large, menacing shadow passed over the green meadows, the turbulent waters and the colorful streets of Dale, making its inhabitants scream in terror.

And then the fire rained from the sky.

An elderly woman took a crying toddler into her arms and ran. A portly man in a red hat ushered his family to safety, hiding in a cellar. A house with a thatched roof burned down in mere moments.

There were shouts, wails, and screams everywhere. A frightened horse neighed, desperately trying to escape, its eyes flashed in horror. 

A cracking sound was heard. Several buildings suddenly fell apart, burying Men under the rubble.

The fire devoured all the shopping stalls at Market Square. Dark smoke filled the air.

A little, wide-eyed girl wandered aimlessly with a puppet in her arms.

 

The winged shadow moved towards Erebor and soon the fiery tongues hungrily licked its Main Gate. The trees covering the mountain blazed bright, like torches. The beast’s large claws dug into the metal.

She was inside now, within the walls of the dwarven kingdom. Thorin was nearby, facing the gate. He held a broadsword in his hands. His father stood next to him, brandishing a war hammer. The whole hall behind them was filled with the elite Mahal’s Hammer warriors armed with spears and shields, readying themselves to battle. 

“THORIN!” she wanted to shout, but she couldn’t open her mouth; she knew what was going to happen, she had to warn him, but her body didn’t listen to her; she simply stood there, completely paralyzed, watching the dreaded events unveil before her eyes. 

The dragon mercilessly demolished the gate with fire and his claws.

The last obstacle between the beast and the dwarven kingdom fell.

Sharp pieces of metal and large chunks of rock exploded at the warriors, decimating them instantly. Thorin fell to the ground, hit by one of them.

The dragon roared and lashed with its tail.

A large granite statue of a legendary dwarven warrior fell with a loud thud, burying the prince of Erebor underneath.

She couldn’t scream. She couldn’t breathe. Her body hit the cold, stone floor. Dark smoke filled her lungs and completely obstructed her vision. She was surrounded by darkness, drifting in the void, drowning in it.

Thorin. No. It couldn’t happen. It simply couldn’t. She had to get back. She had to wake up. She had to save him. Save everyone. She needed to do something.

She had to.

Chapter Text

It was late evening when Thorin finally returned to his chambers, recalling the stroll with his One and the moment he held Ása in a tight embrace. His tunic still smelled faintly of lilac and lavender. If he could only feel her body against him now… The thought of her being so close, just a few chambers away, and yet completely out of his reach, was unbearable.

Thorin directed his steps to his bed. His body needed the sleep, and his mind could use the rest from this continuous torment. Nevertheless, as soon as he closed his eyes, the dream came to haunt him yet again.

 

She stood in front of him, dressed only in a white linen shift cut off under the bust, accentuating the slight curve of her breasts. Her impossibly long, unbraided hair surrounded her like a cloak woven of finest gold, casting an unearthly glow around her. 

“Ása…” he whispered. She was there. She came to him as if she had heard his thoughts.

“You summoned me, my lord,” she bowed her head and looked at him hesitantly from under her long eyelashes.

“Come closer, Ása,” he ordered her.
She approached him slowly, carefully placing both of her delicate feet on a fluffy rug by the bed. He noticed a glint; an intricate golden bracelet adorned her shapely ankle. 

“What do you wish of me, my lord?” she looked at him  questioningly with her blue-green eyes and bit her lower lip. Mahal, her sweet lips…

“Kiss me,” he rumbled, lowering himself towards her, his dark braids intertwining with her golden strands. She obediently lifted her face towards him and grazed her lips over his. Her hands followed her movements, smoothly caressing the hot, naked skin of his chest. His breathing quickened. She was so incredibly close to him now. The feeling of her skin against his was intoxicating and Ása’s tender kisses made his blood boil. He wanted more, much more. His hands ravenously grabbed her round hips and pulled her flush against his body. 

“My lord!” her eyes widened in surprise at the sensation of being pressed against him.

He ran a hand against her lovely cheek. She was perfect. And she was only his.

“It is time for you to undress, Ása.”

“As you wish, my lord,” she whispered timidly, took a small step back and slowly started untying her shift. He licked his lips, eagerly awaiting the moment when she would finally bare her ravishing breasts to him. He could clearly see her hardened nipples eagerly pushing against the fabric of her shift. She untied one lace, then another, unhurriedly uncovering her collarbone… No, he could not, he would not wait any longer. In one hasty movement he ripped her shift apart, exposing her whole body to his hungry eyes. Her milky white skin, her raspberry-tipped breasts, her soft belly. A flush crept up her face as she was breathing heavily, waiting impatiently. Her gaze was brimming with passion. All of her body was his for the taking.

She moaned when his hand greedily covered one of her breasts. He marveled at how supple it was, how silky it felt against his rough skin. She melted under his touch, surrendering to his caresses. His One. Her beauty untouched by any other man. His caresses grew more intense when he placed a myriad of kisses along her neck, tasting her sweet skin and making her sigh with pleasure. When his mouth once again found hers, she responded with equal ardor, slipping her fingers into his hair, exactly the way he liked it. He placed his hand on her lower back and pulled her closer to him once again, feeling his hardened manhood pushing against her soft underbelly. A soft purr escaped her lips, driving him wild. He couldn’t wait any longer. 

“I am going to fulfill my duty as your One. I am going to make you mine forever, Ása,” he said hoarsely and kissed her zealously. Soon she was where he wanted her, on the bed, lying on her back. Her golden hair spilled around her head, glowing even more intensely than before. He kneeled between her legs, towering above her, all the muscles in his powerful, naked body tensed in anticipation. 

“Please, my lord, I want you,” she whispered, meeting his gaze. His lips covered her beautiful breasts, ravaging, devouring every inch of them, nibbling, exploring, tasting their sweetness, his tongue dancing along their curves. He saw the yearning in her when her hand intertwined with his and impatiently moved down, disappearing between her legs.

“I want you here, Thorin.”

He rushed onto her like a wild beast capturing its prey, pinning her captivating body to the bed. His fingers dug into the delicate skin on her hips, lifting them, while his manhood pushed into her silken depths in one swift stroke, making her moan. The sensation was exhilarating, dizzying, waking his primeval instincts. His lovely Ása was petite, but he fit perfectly inside her. Deep inside her. His body covered hers, reigning over her. He moved his hips, pushing into her once again. She closed her eyes and moaned louder, wrapping her legs around him, inviting his conquest, surrendering unconditionally.

“And I want you here, under me, pleading for more,” he growled into her ear, thrusting heavily one more time, hearing her whine with pleasure. He clasped her hands above her head and kissed her passionately, assaulting her lips with his while he continued his powerful thrusts, claiming her completely. 

“More, Thorin, more,” she gasped when he bit into her arched neck, her body eagerly responding to his movements and caresses. She was his One and this was his privilege, his duty. He would bring her immeasurable pleasure and make sure she was fully satiated with his lovemaking.

He lunged himself into her ardently, again and again, unstoppable. The smooth, pale skin of her breasts brushed against his tanned body, her moist lips kept crushing against his, her sensual moans were becoming louder, driving him crazy with lust, his tongue constantly invading her mouth, the feeling of her legs tightly wrapped around him, his beard scorching the delicate skin on her neck, the constant, unending coming and going, their bodies fervently moving in unison, until he didn’t know any longer where he ended and she began. He nibbled on her nipple, pulling it slightly with his teeth, making her whimper softly with pleasure. Her fingers intertwined with his, squeezing his hand tightly; her breaths were ragged. When their gazes met, the intensity of her gaze flooded his senses. Instinctively, he lifted her leg, resting it against his shoulder and attacked her with a new strength, her divine body raising towards him as he rocked his hips against her, plunging into a new rhythm. 

”I will not stop until you come for me, Ása,” he murmured in a husky voice. “Until I see you reach the top of your pleasure when I am deep inside you.” His hands played her delicate body as if she was his harp, teasing, stroking, caressing, bringing her closer to the edge. And then, he felt a sudden tremble growing deep inside her, a grand finale to his concerto.

“Thorin!” she screamed, arching her back and coming undone under him in an explosion of rapture, her body spasming under him endlessly. That was when he finally allowed himself to let go completely, surging into her, filling her with his ecstasy. Its incredible intensity flooded all the corners of his body, wave after wave, when he buried himself in her completely.

“Amrâlimê...!” he roared.

 

Thorin opened his eyes, hearing the echo of his own voice in his bedchamber. He found himself laying down on his bed, naked, sweaty, and alone. Again. His chest was heaving in the aftermath of the fulfilling pleasure he felt just a few moments ago. He was spent. His hand was clenching the bedsheets instead of her hips. His eyes searched longingly, hoping to see her heavenly body next to his, but, as usual, there was no one there. It was all a dream. Another strikingly sensual dream. He wanted her badly, aching for her with each fibre of his body. The tension in him grew unsatiated, multiplying every day. Ása, the dwarf maiden who made his days brighter and his nights full of vivid, passionate, torturing dreams. Luckily, it was about to change. Just a few more months and they would be wed, inseparable forever, day and night. All would be well then.

Thorin was always proud of his resolve, but it was wavering at an alarming rate and he trusted himself less and less around Ása. He still couldn’t believe that he somehow managed to restrain himself that evening in her bedchamber when she allowed him to... Mahal… He’d already crossed a line, giving her pleasure in such a daring way. Being a dwarf male, and a prince at that, he learned all the intricacies of courtship and marriage. As a result, he was painfully aware that such acts were reserved only for couples that were wed. He waited for a pang of shame, but it didn't come. Instead, his heart filled with pride, knowing that he was able to fulfill Ása’s yearning. Since it was expected of dwarven husbands to satisfy their wives’ needs, he reasoned with himself, and he would become a husband soon, there was nothing shameful in his actions. They simply felt right.

He closed his eyes only to see the lustful scenes from that passionate evening when she moaned his name in ecstasy. Almost immediately, he felt a familiar hardening sensation in his loins. With a growl, he quickly rose from the bed and went to the washbasin. His chiseled body of a warrior glistened in the dim light from the fireplace. Without thinking, he poured the contents of the water pitcher over his head, letting the rivulets of ice-cold water travel along his broad, tattooed back and chest. The narrow streams of water trailed around the sinewy muscles of his trim torso and ran all the way down to his muscular thighs. Thorin shook his head, making the water drops fall from his hair in every direction, feeling that the strain in his body lessened temporarily. He would not get any more rest that night, he was sure of it. The dreams would surely come to torment him once again. He had to make his hands busy with something. 

 

***

 

In the pre-dawn hours of the night, a guard stood watch by the forges, half-slumbering when a loud thud, thud, thud of heavy dwarven boots interrupted his rest. He straightened up just moments before a tall dwarf clad in a dark blue tunic approached him. The guard immediately recognized that commanding gaze and damp, raven hair that was now gathered at the back of the visitor’s head.

“P-prince Thorin?!” the guard muttered, standing upright, “I mean, Your Royal Highness, welcome back to the forges!”

“Vàli, son of Dàli! It is good to see you again,” the prince nodded to him in a friendly manner. “Please, it is still Thorin here, remember?” He still wasn’t used to his new title and, to be honest, he wasn’t thrilled about it either. Whenever anyone addressed him “Your Royal Highness” or “Crown Prince”, he reflexively looked around, anticipating to see his father. But Thráin, of course, was nowhere to be found.

The guard cleared his throat. “Of course, Your--, Thorin!” he grinned sheepishly. “Early start today?”

“Indeed. There is a project I need to finish.”

Soon, he was at his anvil, working restlessly on a piece of burning hot metal, his muscles bulging. Whenever his hammer hit the anvil, Zohur’s hateful face appeared in front of Thorin’s eyes, and he heard those menacing words once again: “The vengeance will be mine!”. The prince gritted his teeth. He was going to make sure that the filth would never threaten Ása again. Thorin didn’t know what the nearest future would bring, but he would do everything to ensure the safety of his One even if it meant risking his own life. He would not expose his betrothed to any more danger. He recalled that night when he stood in a pool of blood over Zohur, holding Ása’s limp body to his chest, hoping that he hadn’t arrived too late. Or that day when the dragon appeared, raining stone over the city of Dale. If he hadn’t been there, Ása might have been buried under the rubble that day. Forever. He could not lose her. She needed his protection. There was an incredibly strong urge deep inside him, compelling him to ensure his One’s safety, no matter the cost. He explained to himself that this overwhelming sensation was simply his duty to the lady of his heart, his privilege and a matter of honor. Nothing else was more important than this.

His blacksmithing work slowly took away all of his torment and yearning, reforging and pouring it into the object he was working on. The forges resounded with the clang of the hammer in his hand rhythmically falling on the incandescent metal. 

Indeed, it was good to be back.

Chapter Text

“Jutta! I was hoping you would be awake. I brought some of your clothes.” Ása walked into her companion’s room with a bundle in her hands. Even though Jutta was officially a maid, Ása made sure that she received a separate room next to hers in the royal chambers until her injured leg was properly healed.

“It’s hard to sleep when you’re hungry,” Jutta admitted, sitting in her bed with a breakfast tray on her lap. “Although I may still be dreaming. I can sleep as long as I wish, I get to live in a fancy room in the royal wing, and the servants are at my command. Being the maid to the prince of Erebor’s betrothed has its perks,” she grinned.

“Enjoy it while you can,” Ása replied. “When we’re back at Lady Barba’s chambers, there will be no one to bring us those breakfast trays.”
“But it won’t be for long, will it? You’ll be back here in a few months as Prince Thorin’s wife and I hope you won’t forget to take me with you!” Jutta smiled widely, seeing her embarrassment.

“Only if we wed,” Ása said quietly and a shadow of sadness crossed her face. “What if Thorin becomes bored with me? Or if he decides that he doesn’t want to marry yet? Most dwarves who marry are usually twice our age!* And... what if he changes his mind and chooses someone better suited to fulfill all the royal duties as his consort? What if...”

“Ása, wait,” Jutta interrupted her frantic stream of words. “Are you sure you are talking about the Prince Thorin of Erebor and not some other dwarf? The one who’d spent his days and nights by your bed when we didn’t know whether we lost you or not? The one who keeps staring at you like a hungry wolf at a sheep since the day you met?”

Ása blushed and averted her gaze.

“Oh, Jutta… you’re embarrassing me on purpose.”

“No, I’m only trying to make you think straight again,” Jutta grinned. “Thorin would sooner shave off his beard than change his mind!”

Ása only sighed in response, not smiling back.

“Tell me, what is bothering you, Ása?” Jutta furrowed her brow.

“Nothing, really… I guess I’m agitated. I’m not sleeping well.”

“Have the nightmares returned?”

“No, luckily not. But I’ve been having these strange dreams for a while now. They started after… after… after the dragon.”

Jutta sucked in air in surprise, “What are those dreams about, Ása?”

“They are full of flying dragons and other bizarre things... The dreams are very vivid, sometimes even too much. It’s all very confusing,” she looked at her friend and noticed her creased brow. “Don’t worry Jutta, it’s only my restless mind conjuring up weird images after everything that  recently happened.”
“Are you sure, Ása?” Jutta asked somberly.

“I am,” she nodded and smiled reassuringly. 

“You know that you can always talk to me about it. It’s not like I’m going anywhere,” Jutta pointed at her bandaged leg.

“Thank you, Jutta. I will keep it in mind. I just need a good night’s sleep and all will be well,” Ása smiled to her companion reassuringly. It was not the right time to share her secret with her friend. The most important thing was to let her recover in peace instead of burdening her with all the problems Ása currently faced. Besides, if Jutta knew what was on her mind, she would fiercely oppose her ideas since she would not be able to help nor, what’s worse, accompany her. Knowing Jutta, she would probably find a way to disrupt her plans. The plans that Ása laid out since she had that horrible dream a couple of days ago. She desperately wished to speak with Thorin in private about this, but finding a suitable occasion proved to be nearly impossible. Whenever they managed to see each other, even for a moment, there was always someone around them: a chaperone, the members of his family, Balin, Dwalin or any other dwarf who at the worst possible moment had a very important issue to discuss with the new Crown Prince. The amount of Thorin’s duties has grown visibly and it seemed to Ása that it would only increase, especially since the king seemed to trust only his grandson when it came to the execution of his most important orders. She wished she could somehow ease her betrothed’s burden and was annoyed at her own powerlessness in this matter.

 

“And what about you? How are you feeling?” she turned her attention back to Jutta.
“I’ve been better… I wish I could at least go for a small walk. This constant sitting bores me to tears,” Jutta sighed and tried to change position by bending both of her legs, apparently forgetting about her injury. Her efforts ended with a loud, painful groan. “Ouch… It hurts quite a bit, almost like that time when we went hunting and that bear tried to eat us for dinner. Remember how fast we run? And those low hanging branches, I swear I hadn’t seen them...” she chuckled faintly through clenched teeth.
“Jutta, please,” Ása sighed, helping her friend to sit up properly in bed and covering her with bedsheets. “Can you please try to lay still and rest? Can you do it for me?”
“Whatever you say, Ása,” her companion replied with a hint of restlessness in her voice.

“Perhaps I can cheer you up with something,” Ása reached into the bundle she brought with her and took out a leather pouch. “This is from Dwalin.”

“What has he… Oh, my daggers?” Jutta sighed in surprise, admiring the shiny twin blades she found inside the pouch.

“He sharpened them for you,” Ása smiled, seeing her companion beaming with joy.

“They are wonderful,” her face brightened while she inspected her weapons, “But he shouldn’t have… He has a lot of other things on his mind now.”
“He did it, nevertheless. Dwalin is sending his regards and wonders whether you would like to see him.”
“Here?!” Jutta shot an alarmed glance at her.
“No, of course not. You know what Lady Barba would say,” Ása’s voice shivered slightly when she recalled her guardian, “if you were to entertain a male guest in your bedchamber! What if I were to invite you both, and Thorin, for tea tomorrow? That would be perfectly proper, don’t you think?”

“Thank you, Ása, but it’s out of the question. Thank Dwalin for me and tell him that I’ll meet him when I’m recovered,” Jutta said in an upset tone of her voice.

“But it will be weeks before you’re well enough to walk! Do you really want your Dwalin to wait that long?” Ása was completely puzzled by her friend’s reaction. If it was her and Thorin, she would do whatever she could to meet him as soon as possible.

“It’s not my Dwalin, Ása. He is the son of a great lord from Durin’s line and I’m a lady’s maid!” she spat.

“Jutta, please…” Ása squeezed her hand. “First of all, we both know that you are not only a lady’s maid but also my personal guard and that is why you came here with me. And second, nothing of this matters if you have true feelings for each other.”

“I’ve been given the task of protecting you and not falling in love!” There was a look of determination on her face. “Besides, I’m sure it’s just an infatuation on Dwalin’s part. He only got interested in me because I am a good sparring partner who happens to have different body parts than he has.”

“And yet he took time to take care of your favorite daggers,” Ása replied. “And he visited you every day in the infirmary.”

“I know where you’re going with this. No, it has nothing to do with wooing. I’m sure he was just bored.” Jutta huffed in annoyance, but Ása could have sworn that her cheeks darkened with a slight blush.

“And here you were telling me about my blindness towards Thorin's feelings…”

“You and Thorin - it’s completely different, Ása. I can’t… I don’t want to talk about this now,” Jutta shook her head and quickly changed the subject. “Here, try this butter bun and tell me about your plans for the future. How many children did you agree on with Thorin? Three or more?”
“Jutta...” Ása’s cheeks burned immediately as she shot a deadly glance at her friend.

“Does he want your firstborn to be a boy or a girl?”

“Jutta!”

“What? My grandmother was a midwife and she told me that there are certain positions that make it easier to conceive a--”

“JUTTA! Stop it right now or so help me Mahal I will stuff your mouth with all of these butter buns!”

 

***

 

A whole day passed and Ása still hadn’t had the chance to talk with Thorin nor even to see him in passing. Lady Sigrun informed her that he was supervising the newest shipment of food supplies for Erebor. There was still no word from the king as to when he would choose to close the gates to the dwarven kingdom, but it was clear that they still weren’t sufficiently prepared for such a drastic step. As far as she knew, most of the King’s Council was against the king’s new isolationist doctrine, but they chose not to speak about it with His Majesty, not when he was in his “mood”, as they would delicately put it. There was a Mûmakil in the room, but no one dared to address this issue. Thorin’s mother secretly hoped that king Thrór would soon snap out of his illness and change his mind. 

When midnight came and there was still no sign of Thorin, both dwarven ladies reluctantly decided to retire for the night. Ása returned to her chamber, but she was determined not to fall asleep this time. For her, a sleepless night meant no horribly realistic dreams. She yawned. Exhaustion was a small price to pay for a night of peace. She settled herself on an armchair by the fireplace and her gaze fell on a cup filled with her evening herbal tea prescribed to her by Master Óin. She wrinkled her nose. The healer had said that this brew would help her with sleeping problems, but right now it was doing the opposite. The herbs worked well - they helped her sleep more soundly, but it also meant that she would slip deeper into the realm of dreams. As a result, the nightmares were becoming even more frequent and disturbingly vivid. An unexpected side effect. But she couldn’t simply run back to Master Óin and say: “Your herbs don’t work, I’m still having those awful dragon dreams about murdering living creatures and wreaking havoc on the land, is there anything else you can recommend? Oh, and by the way, why do I have those cravings of fresh, raw meat in the morning?” She could imagine the shock on his face. And on everybody else’s too, for that matter.

What if she was losing her mind? It would be a matter of time when the news would reach the royal family and the members of the court. Could the heir to the throne of Erebor wed a dwarven maiden who was losing a grip on reality and who suspected that she might be slowly turning into a dragon? Ása knew the answer to this question. Her greatest dream would be shattered in a blink of an eye. She swallowed the tears in her throat and realized that her cheeks were wet. Ása‘s hand traveled to the courting braid in her hair and touched it, seeking comfort. It was almost as if she was touching Thorin’s fingers that braided his pattern a few weeks ago. Back then, she was the happiest dwarven maiden in the entire world and her only worry was whether the king would agree to their courtship. She was eagerly counting down the days to their wedding when everything changed for her.

Before the dragon dreams came, Ása was sure that nothing in the world would stand in their way. She was not that certain anymore. The thought of losing Thorin was more and more insistent after each of the dragon nightmares. The most horrible one, the latest one, was something she refused to think about. She tried to convince herself that it was just a regular nightmare, but a tiny voice in her treacherous mind kept whispering: “What if it was a premonition?” .

Was that what the Elven King had in mind when he warned her? What did he say? He wanted her to protect her mind, to seal it off somehow. But how could one seal off their own mind? It wasn’t a treasure chamber outfitted with a heavy door with a sturdy lock. Ása sighed. She tried everything she could think of. Various herbal remedies, physical exhaustion, counting golden nuggets in her mind and other traditional remedies simply didn’t work. She even tried taking short naps at irregular times, but she only earned a slightly worried look from Lady Sigrun when she almost fell asleep during breakfast.

Ása stifled another yawn and stretched. She needed to make her mind busy with something. Ah, Master Arnur’s book. It should take her thoughts off the current subject for a while. It was a rather large tome with hundreds and hundreds of pages, but she was determined to give it a try, even if its subject matter did not interest her in the least. Could there be anything less interesting than genealogical studies? Nevertheless, she promised Master Arnur, her tutor, that she would read it. This book was his latest (and greatest, as he claimed) achievement, the result of many years of research. He decided to gather all his findings about the line of Durin in his work, and now a copy rested on Ása’s lap.

She read the preface, yawning, and tried to focus on the chapter about the legendary reign of none other than Durin The Deathless. Her eyelids drooped after a few pages. She couldn’t help it. Master Arnur was a great scholar and teacher, but his writing style was exceptionally dull. Ása rifled through the book, admiring the illuminations and beautifully illustrated parts of the royal family’s genealogical tree. Finally, she found what she was looking for. Her heart leaped at the meticulously calligraphed golden runes that formed the name “Thorin, the Second of His Name”. Her One bore his name after a great king, but in her heart, he was the first, and the only one. Ása ran her fingers over her beloved’s family tree* and was about to turn the page when she spotted a curious detail. It seemed that Durin The Deathless along with a number of his descendants were blessed by Mahal with many children, securing the royal line for many hundreds of years. That is why it was impossible not to notice the sudden decline that came afterward. Quite a few kings in later times, including “Thorin, the First of His Name”, left only one heir. In several very rare cases, there would be two royal offspring in a generation. That is why king Thrór’s generation stood out visibly. He had two brothers, Frór and Grór, and a sister called Frigga. Four siblings! This was unheard of. Ása hadn’t heard about a dwarven family with four children before, except for the old sagas. 

This book was becoming more and more interesting. She kept on reading, barely registering the part of the family tree that focused on Grór, the ruler of Iron Hills. Every dwarf born in there, including Ása, knew it by heart. Grór had only one son, Náin, and one grandson, Dáin II, a dwarfling. Apparently, Mahal’s blessing seemed to favor solely the Erebor royal line. According to the family tree, the current king, Thrór, had three children… Three children? Ása frowned in confusion. She only knew of his one son, “Thráin, the Second of His Name”, Thorin’s father, but according to this book, he had had siblings, Dáin and Dáina. The dwarven maiden narrowed her eyes, noticing three inconspicuous words underneath these names: “deceased in childhood”. She wondered what tragedy hid behind this laconic piece of information, but she kept on reading.

Thráin, the only surviving heir of the king of Erebor, together with Lady Sigrun, had Thorin, Frerin and Dís. Three children, like his father. What an unusual coincidence, especially in times when the numbers of dwarves were dwindling and having even one child was often considered a blessing. Would that mean that Thorin and her... when they are wed... that is, would their union be similarly blessed by Mahal? She felt a warm blush on her cheeks and an equally warm ball of sweet heat in her underbelly. Not one, but three cute dwarflings to hold them close, to love them and make them laugh. With her eyes closed, she let her imagination run freely. A baby girl with golden curls slept soundly in her arms. A chubby green-eyed boy giggled, shaking his unruly raven mane, and running into his father’s outstretched arms. An older boy with a narrow chin, just like hers, held a miniature axe and a buckler made of oak in his hands. His dark hair was gathered in a ponytail, and there was one braid against his temple.

“Look, Daddy! I’m a warrior like you!” he shouted, as his bright blue eyes shone with excitement.

Their own children. The visible proof of their love. This was a dream she could dream forever…

 

No. Ása shook her head. She needed to stay awake. She scolded herself for dreaming away and returned to Master Arnur’s book. She wondered why she’d never noticed all those details about the line of Durin before. Ah well, she thought, that’s what you get for planning how to avoid the guards and quietly sneak out to the forest instead of listening to all those boring lectures on dwarven history. She never gave a cave bat’s ass about who married whom or how many children they had or how many treaties they signed to secure spouses of noble dwarven lines for their offspring. Yawn, yawn, yawn. But this… this was different. This was about her One and his family, the living and breathing dwarves, not some long-gone legendary kings one could read about in all those tomes that gathered dust in the Erebor’s library. Besides, now she needed to know more. She would become a member of the royal family in a few months as Thorin’s... wife . Ása smiled to herself, tasting this word on her tongue yet again, feeling the familiar feeling of butterflies bouncing around in her stomach. And Thorin would be her husband . They would share a life together, and everything that it entailed. She wanted to spend the rest of her life by his side, to share both the joys and sorrows of everyday life. This was her heart’s desire. Only now she was finally starting to understand the bright smiles and dreamy expressions her childhood friends had just before they wed.

Since she met Thorin, she realized more and more that marriage was not all about fulfilling a duty to her house, finding a suitable match and securing a profitable marriage contract. Her thoughts immediately went to her parents’ loveless marriage. Lord Grohir, her father, made her mother stop her practice as a healer due to her new duties as his wife and mother of his children. Ása clearly sensed her unhappiness throughout her childhood just as she noticed how her mother would brighten up every time she taught her the basics of her trade. But Ása was convinced that when it came to her and Thorin, it didn’t have to look like this. They loved each other, and not only that - he was her Azyungal and she was his. They were like two halves of a coin and needed to be joined, to become One and live like One, completing each other. Their feelings were all that mattered; they both wanted to be happy together, every single day of their lives.

 

She closed her eyes, imagining what it would be like. 

Thorin would return to their chambers after a long day of his princely duties and she would be there, waiting for him at suppertime with his favorite meal. He would be dressed in his fine blue-and-silver tunic that emphasized the width of his blacksmith's shoulders so well.

“Have you missed me, wife ?” he would say in that deep, rumbling voice of his, moving his arms around her. She could almost feel his warmth wrapping around her like a snug blanket. Then, he would give her one of his half-smiles and place a tender kiss on her lips that would send shivers of pleasure down her spine.

“I have... like the forge misses the fire in its hearth at night. And have you missed me, husband ?” she would reply, drowning in his bottomless, stormy eyes.

“More than the sun misses the sky at night,” he would murmur into her ear while his hands would hungrily travel along her curves. The warm supper would become cold, and the evening would turn into the night, but they wouldn’t mind, busy with demonstrating how their bodies missed each other after being apart for a day…

Unhurriedly, Ása’s fatigued mind once again drifted from the calm waters of daydreaming into the boundless, treacherous sea of unwanted dreams.

 

Darkness.

A narrow, forgotten tunnel cut out in the dark rock many centuries ago.

A faint, golden flicker of light somewhere ahead. 

A dark silhouette of a dwarf carrying something large and bulky in his arms. Something heavy.

One strained step after another.

Gravel crunching under his feet.

Stop.

Silence.

The dwarf’s head turns left and then right. Silver and jade beads in his wavy, dark hair glint in the faint light. He pauses for a blink of an eye and then directs his steps into the left tunnel.

Step after step. Not much further.

At the next intersection, he takes the left turn again.

Ten long steps more.

Stop.

The heavy object is placed on the ground with a dull thud.

He sighs with relief and looks at the wall. He doesn’t need much light; he is a dwarf, after all. His eyes quickly find the barely visible marks. His fingers push the rock in three different places at the same time.

The wall hesitantly moves to the side, uncovering a small, dark chamber.

Its rough, unfinished walls are veined with glistening gold.

A perfect hiding place for a treasure.

The large, bulky object is moved once again and placed in the middle of the hidden room.

As the dwarf leans over it, a golden shape escapes from under his tunic, as if pulled towards the object with an invisible force.

A key. The Key.

It hangs on a chain around the dwarf’s neck. It is made of gold and ornamented with rubies in a style that dwarven artisans used to prefer several hundreds of years ago.

The dwarf takes off the chain and looks at the key that rests in his large, calloused hand.

He removes the dark piece of cloth that covered the object until that very moment.

It is a metal chest with sturdy black steel fittings, adorned with gold and rubies. Just like the key.

The dwarf inserts the key into the keyhole. It fits perfectly.

His blue eyes widen, reflecting the golden glow emitted both by the ornaments and the rich veins on the walls. The shining seems to grow stronger, like a golden halo, just like…

The dwarf forcefully closes his eyes, lowering his head. His raven hair follows his movements.

His hands move away from the chest and form into fists.

His forehead is beaded with perspiration.

When he opens his eyes, he notices a jade bead clasped on a braid in his hair.

One swift, purposeful move.

The key is back in his hand. Away from the chest. He puts the chain back around his neck and hides the key under his tunic.

He secures the chamber and leaves.

The time has not yet come.

 

When Ása opened her eyes, she could still hear the tiny, insistent whisper in her head that followed her in the dream.
Release me.

Chapter Text

Lady Barba’s cool, dry hand felt even frailer than before. Ása caressed it gently and looked at her hollow face. If she hadn’t known her at all, she would have thought that the lady was simply asleep. Ása wished she could do something to make her guardian well again. The healers still weren’t sure what exactly ailed her. There were many conflicting theories, approaches and healing methods, but none of them seemed to work. Lady Barba was still drifting on the sea of unconsciousness. It seemed that the only thing Ása could do at that very moment was to pray to Mahal and give him thanks that he hadn’t decided to take Lady Barba’s soul to the halls of the forefathers. At least not yet. The awed Lady Dragon was stubbornly holding on to her life. Ása smiled faintly and gently wiped her guardian’s forehead with a damp cloth. She was just about to change her bedsheets when someone cleared their throat behind her back.

“Master Frerin?” This was a surprise. Infirmary was the last place she expected to see Thorin’s younger brother at this time of the day.

“Lady Ása,” he bowed with a smile. “I bring you a message. Yet another one,” he rolled his eyes.

He held out his hand with a sealed piece of parchment. She would recognize the seal everywhere. Thorin’s ring. Her heart fluttered when she opened the message. Yes, it was written by her One, she immediately recognized his neat handwriting:

 

Meet me at our place tonight, after the last evening bell. 

T.

 

“Thank you, master Frerin,” Ása nodded officially and smiled, trying to ignore the heat of her blushed cheeks.

“Will there be a reply, my lady?” Frerin asked in an equally official manner, but his eyes glittered with laughter.

“Just one word: yes .”

“So, what does he write?” asked Thorin’s younger brother in a confidential tone and grinned.

Ása chuckled, “I am afraid I can’t tell you, Frerin. It is a secret message, after all.”

“Sure, sure. It’s another of those lovey-dovey messages, isn’t it?”

“Maybe,” she replied cryptically, half-smile playing on her lips.

“I think I need to start charging for my services from now on…” the young dwarf mused. “This secret message delivery business is growing more and more boring by the hour.”
“You are a very industrious young dwarf, Frerin, and you are right. Of course, we can’t have you bored. What would you say about a payment in secrets instead of coins?”

“I’m all ears!”

“I can tell you,” Ása lowered her voice to a whisper, “that Thorin dreams of having a whole bowl of brussels sprouts as a side dish for breakfast. But don’t tell anyone!” she winked. 

Frerin’s eyes flashed with comprehension. He was very well aware of his brother’s love-hate relationship with vegetables. Or, in the case of brussels sprouts, mainly hate.

“His secret is safe with me,” the young dwarf winked conspiratorially and quickly disappeared.

Ása smiled to herself, pleased to be able to occupy Frerin’s mind with something else than worrying about the current situation in Erebor. Although he was still too young to actively help Thorin with the princely duties, he was well aware of the omnipresent nervousness and strain visible on dwarven faces throughout the kingdom after the dragon’s unwelcome visit. Everyone needed a good laugh, especially the youngest dwarves. Thanks to this new distraction, Frerin would hopefully plan yet another mischief. If he were to go through with it, Ása would only have to think about how to keep a straight face when Thorin was about to see a bowl of the vegetables he hated so vehemently placed next to his favorite eggs, bacon, and porridge.

The dwarven maiden couldn’t stop but giggle wondering whether he would be forced to give a good example to Dís yet again and eat the vegetables he detested. There was a chance that he would be quite furious afterwards. If he did, Ása had already some ideas on how to appease him and she couldn’t wait to try them out. 

 

***

 

“Amrâlimê...”

Thorin closed the distance between them in a blink of an eye. And then, there were only his arms around her, the heat of his body against hers, his lips gently nuzzling hers…

“I missed you, my sweet,” he murmured into her hair when she rested her head against the hard expanse of his chest. His steady heartbeat matched her own and she could feel the raw, masculine strength of his body under her touch. The rough fabric of his tunic smelt of smoke and forges, of a day filled with hard, demanding work. A few strands of his unruly hair tickled her cheek. This is where she wanted to be. In his arms.

“I missed you more, Mizim,” she confessed, tightening her embrace. “In fact, I am going to continue embracing you at least until tomorrow.”
He chuckled with a soft rumble in his chest while his arms squeezed her tighter in response.

“Is that so, my lady?”

“Yes, that is so. And I forbid you to let go of me, my lord.”
“Forgive me, my lady, but it is my duty to inform you that you can not forbid anything to the prince of Erebor.”

“Are you a prince? I have not had the slightest idea!” Ása looked at him with feigned astonishment.

“And here I was, thinking that you chose me because of my station. It is a great relief to finally know the truth!” Thorin grinned.

“Obviously not, my lord. I chose you because I heard that the royal family had the best cook in all the dwarven kingdoms!”
“Are you implying, my lady, that you would choose Master Dagor’s pastries over me?!” he exclaimed playfully.

“Well… let me think…” she smiled mischievously.

“It is out of the question, my lady, let me give you a good reason not to…” he murmured and lowered his face towards hers. Ása closed her eyes in anticipation. When their lips finally met, he didn’t rush through it, slowly covering her soft skin with butterfly kisses. When he gently nibbled on her lower lip, a barely audible moan escaped her.
“You were saying…?” he said under his breath in this deliciously velvety voice that made her knees weak.

“I think…” she managed to whisper before he kissed her again. Soon, his lips moved along the line of her jaw towards her neck as his hand slid into her hair.

“Yes, my lady?” he murmured seductively into her ear. Thorin’s hot breath scorched her sensitive skin, making her shiver with pleasure.

“I... I think,” she swallowed, mustering all of her resolve and opening her eyes only to meet his piercing blue gaze. She threw her arms around his neck and deepened their kiss, feeling his prickling whiskers against her skin and his tongue twining with hers.

“Mmm?” a rumble of encouragement rose from his chest.

“The… the pastries... can take a second place,” she acknowledged her defeat and surrendered her mouth to his.

 

As they admired the evening view from the balcony overlooking the lake, a chilly whiff of wind surrounded them, but Ása didn’t mind, feeling the warmth of Thorin’s body next to her. They were together, holding hands, and it was all that mattered at that moment. No duties, no chaperones, just the two of them. A part of her admired the peaceful waters by the moonlight, but her mind focused on Thorin’s dizzying closeness beside her. His thumb lazily caressed her palm. She glanced at her prince, admiring his regal profile, so similar among the dwarves from the line of Durin, but his individual features together with the thick mane of hair made him the most handsome dwarf in the entire Arda. Her courting jade bead stood out among his raven strands, clearly stating that Thorin was her betrothed. Her One. Her heart leaped at the realization that the dream she secretly carried in her heart for almost a year was soon going to come true. There was no one else she would rather spend her life with. A content smile appeared on her lips when her gaze returned to the spectacular view below.

“This is beautiful,” she sighed, squeezing his hand.

Thorin turned towards her, his cerulean eyes shining in the silvery light of the full moon.

You are beautiful,” he murmured. His fingers touched her cheek, moving away all the stray strands of hair from her face. “Even the Moon* pales in comparison to your beauty, my love.”

“Thorin…” she lowered her head in embarrassment. “I’m just a regular girl from the Iron Hills, not a celestial object.”
“Ah, but you are my girl from the Iron Hills, and there is nothing regular about you, Amrâlimê,” he lifted her chin with his fingers and softly kissed her inviting lips. “That is why I have something for you.”

Ása found herself with an oblong, dark wooden box in her hands.

“What is it?” she eyed the gift in surprise.

“See for yourself, my sweet.”

When her fingers found the latch, she opened it hesitantly. There was a long, black shape inside. She recognized its function immediately and took it out of the box. The object was cool and smooth under her touch. She snapped it open in one swift move and tried it out. 

“A new fan!” she smiled. It was noticeably heavier than the fans she was used to, but it was not surprising once she realized that it was made entirely of metal. Beautiful openwork patterns visible on every second slat created the impression of lacework. “I have never seen anything like it before! It is beautiful! Where did you find such a thing?”

“In the forges,” his lip curled up in a smile.

“Did... you make it yourself?” her eyes widened, still admiring her gift.

“I know how you are fond of fans,” he nodded. “Now, you will have yet another one to hide behind at boring official events,” he winked.
“This is a lovely gift, Thorin,” she chuckled. “Thank you, Mizim,” she kissed him on his bearded cheek and made a few gestures with the metal fan to try it out. “I like the way it sits in my hand.”

“I am happy to hear it, my sweet. I tried to make it well-balanced because you will need it on various occasions.”

“What do you mean?”

“Allow me to demonstrate it,” Thorin moved behind her. His arms encircled her and held her tightly against his chest while his large, warm hands covered hers. Her mind went blank as she rested her back against him, enveloped in the captivating, masculine aura he radiated. A shameful thought crossed her mind. She enjoyed the closeness of Thorin’s body more than his beautiful gift, the fan she held in her hands. 

“Amrâlimê?” he whispered into her ear. The rumbling in his chest sent a shiver down her spine. Ása turned her head to the side and somehow his lips met hers in a soft kiss. And the second one. And the third, even longer and deeper than the previous ones.

“Mahal…” he murmured, reluctantly removing his lips from hers, “we need to stop this before it gets... worse.”

“I was under the impression that it was getting better,” she giggled.

“Believe me, it will be better for both of us when we get on my little demonstration,” he growled, nibbling on her earlobe.

“I’d say that you’ve already demonstrated quite a few tricks,” she teased him, noticing all the small signs that told her how close he was to losing control.

“And there will be more as soon as I’ve shown you this one,” Thorin was adamant. “Let us focus on the fan for a moment, my sweet.” 

She feigned a sigh of disappointment, “I will try, but you will owe me a kiss afterwards.”

“How about two kisses?” he murmured seductively, nuzzling on her neck.

“You drive a hard bargain, my prince. Two kisses it is!”

“Perfect!” he chuckled. “And now, let us take a look at your fan. Can you see a small sapphire ornament here, at its base?” he said matter-of-factly.

“The one that looks like a flower?” she asked hesitantly, noticing a protruding element on the fan’s handle.

“Exactly this one. Now, close the fan again and hold it like this,” he guided the movements of her hands. “Perfect. Now try pushing in the flower.”

As soon as she did it, a narrow blade slid out from the top of the fan with a clang of a hidden mechanism.

“A knife… in a fan?” she looked at him, puzzled, while sliding her fingers along the sharp, silvery piece of metal.

“You are my treasure of treasures, Amrâlimê. It is my duty to protect you in any way I can. With this fan you will never be defenseless, even when you are alone,” his voice rumbled from behind her. 

Ása turned around to face him. Was there a hint of sadness in his voice? She swallowed hard and wondered whether he was thinking about that horrible night of her assault when he came up with the idea for this gift. No, she would not allow herself to think of that night ever again. She was safe now, by Thorin’s side, and that foul Zohur was gone forever.

“I wish to keep you safe at times when I can not be with you, my sweet,” he added, protectively wrapping his arms around her as if sensing her confusion. “In fact, it may happen quite soon.”

“Are… are you going away somewhere?” she asked, noticing a frown on his face.

Thorin closed his eyes and nodded.

“I will be away for a few days and plan to return just before the closing of Erebor’s gates. No one can know about this, Ása. If my grandfather was to hear of this…” he shook his head.

“Of course. I will be silent like a stone, Thorin. But I do not understand… What are you planning? Do you really need to leave Erebor?” her voice shivered when she asked the last question. The thought of her One being away from her even for a few days was horrible. Even if she sometimes hadn’t seen Thorin for a day or two, she knew that he was always nearby, under the Mountain. Now, he was about to abandon the safety of Erebor and go on some secret mission, leaving her behind.

“There is no other way. Even the ravens can not be used for the task I have in mind. I am going to visit the Woodland Realm and speak to the Elven King,” he whispered cautiously. “We need to make an alliance with the Elves, whether my grandfather likes it or not, and I know how to convince Thranduil.”

“I do not understand… An alliance with the Elves? But Lord Balin told me that the warriors from the Iron Hills are bound to arrive soon. King Grór will surely send help to his own brother!” Ása replied in surprise.

“The raven has brought a message today. King Grór will not be sending any military help to Erebor, not wanting to leave his kingdom undefended. They are only sending some supplies they can spare,” Thorin sighed in disappointment. “My own kin, my grandfather's brother, decided to send us a few cabbage heads instead of surplus axes and swords. This is what a blood bond means to him,” his raised voice echoed across the chamber.

“I can not believe it...” Ása started, thoughts racing in her head. King Grór not honoring the alliance with Erebor? Very puzzling. She was sure that when she was leaving her home, there were more than enough troops in the Iron Hills to both successfully defend the kingdom and send out aid to their neighbors in times of need.

“Forgive me, my love,” Thorin took her hands into his, misinterpreting her silence. “I am boring you with all these unnecessary details.”

“Please, continue. I need to know what the situation is,” she interrupted him. It was too good to be true. She spent so much time thinking about the execution of her plan only to discover that a wonderful opportunity presented itself before her. “Thorin, my love,” she continued, registering the look of surprise on his face, “I am going with you.”

“You are--- what?! No, my sweet, it is not possible. You will remain in Erebor. It is safe here,” he rumbled, his brow furrowed, his hands covered hers in a subconsciously protective gesture.

“It will not be safe if the dragon comes. When it comes,” she corrected herself, recalling her recent nightmare. “Thorin,” Ása whispered, lowering her gaze and feeling a knot forming in her stomach. She dreaded what the next few moments could bring, but she had to let her One know. He deserved the truth. There was no other way. “I have to see King Thranduil privately… and urgently.”

The warmth of Thorin’s hands suddenly disappeared when he took a step back. 

“Privately?” he growled. His One wanted to do the unthinkable: leave the safety of the Mountain and seek an unofficial audience with the Elven King. It was simply not done. Mirkwood was the last place a dwarven maiden ought to visit. Thorin’s duty was to protect her at all costs. He didn’t know the reason behind this shocking idea of hers, but he recalled the meeting between Ása and the Elf very well. Whatever transpired between them on that day, it must have influenced her more than he’d thought. There was talk of Thranduil’s peculiar tastes. What if he dared to charm Ása with his elven ways? What if she... He gritted his teeth, not wanting to form his thoughts into words, trying to fight the jealous suspicions forming in his mind. Perhaps it simply was a calculated move on the Elven King’s side. He must have recognized Thorin’s bead in her hair and realized that Ása was his betrothed. A lady under the protection of the royal house of Erebor could become a valuable pawn in the diplomatic games that both the Elf and his grandfather liked to play so much.

 

Ása didn’t dare to look up and meet Thorin’s steely gaze. She was afraid of what she would find in his eyes after the request she made. Shock? Anger? Disappointment? Did he somehow suspect what she was about to tell him? Perhaps he did, and he was already distancing himself from her...

“Ása,” his deep voice, emotionless and cold as ice, interrupted her thoughts. “Would you be so kind as to explain what private and urgent business you may have with the king of Mirkwood?” 

 She swallowed. There was no turning back now.

“I… I am not well. I believe that only he can help me,” her lower lip trembled. She stood there, unmoving, not daring to take a deeper breath, her gaze out of focus.

“I knew it!” Thorin rumbled wrathfully, pacing back and forth through the chamber, not looking at her, his fists clenched. “He put some kind of an accursed elven spell on you that day, did he not? I saw it! He dared to look at you! He even had the audacity to touch you! He and his foul elven magic!” he roared, his voice echoing in the chamber. “He will pay for this!”

“Thorin, it’s not--” she started, her voice faltering, but before she could explain anything, her One was back with her, holding her hands tight, the fury slowly disappearing from his face.

“Tell me, Ása,” he demanded in a softer voice, “I need to know what this elven charlatan did to you. What is this ailment that befell you?”

“This is not an ailment of the body, Thorin,” she sighed, not sure where to begin. “Do you believe in portent dreams?” her words were just barely louder than a whisper. She still didn’t dare to look into his eyes.
“I know that some priests and soothsayers do. Why do you ask?” there was a clear tone of puzzlement in his voice. 

“I dream… very peculiar dreams. First, it happened once or twice, but now it happens almost every time I close my eyes to sleep.”

“And what do you dream about?”

“About… being a dragon. In those dreams, I’m killing animals. Sleeping. Flying… somewhere. South, I think. I am chasing or searching for someone... or something,” she furrowed her brow in confusion. 

“Have you ever had such dreams before?” he asked carefully.

“No, never before the dragon came to Dale.” Ása shook her head. “These dreams terrify me, Thorin, and they are getting worse. Sometimes, when I wake up, it takes me a while to realize that I’m not a dragon and it was only a dream. I’m afraid,” she couldn’t stop the shivering in her voice, ”I don’t know what is happening to me. Am I losing my mind? Will I wake up someday and completely forget about who I really am?” 

There, she said it. Her shoulders were shaking, and she felt the treacherous wetness on her cheeks. Her hand shot up to her face, trying to wipe away the tears, the most visible proof of her weakness. She was supposed to state her problems matter-of-factly and accept his reaction, whatever it was, with unwavering calm. She certainly wasn’t planning on showing Thorin how weak and exhausted she felt. The prince needed a strong dwarven lady by his side, not a pathetic, crying maiden. But… but maybe now he would really see her for what she was. Deranged and too fragile. Maybe it was for the better. What was she thinking, accepting his offer of courtship? She was clearly unfit for becoming the future king’s consort.

Only then Ása noticed that Thorin’s face paled as the last signs of his fury melted into a look of deep concern. Suddenly, he pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her. She clung to him like a castaway finally washed off on the coast of her homeland after a perilous storm. Ása closed her eyes and rested her head against his firm chest. It rose and fell to the reassuring rhythm of his heartbeat. He was not pushing her away. Not letting her go. She relished the moment, while still being apprehensive of what would happen next.

“All will be well, my sweet,” he rumbled soothingly, as his hands slowly cupped her face. When their gazes met, his clear blue eyes were filled with warmth. Contrary to her darkest expectations, there was no disappointment nor disdain lurking in them. Thorin’s fingers brushed gently against her cheeks as if trying to dry off her tears completely. “Erebor has the best dwarven healers, and no matter what this ailment might be, you will recover speedily, my sweet,” his voice was barely a whisper, but it brimmed with tenderness.

“I have already tried Master Óin’s remedies. They didn’t work. On the contrary - they made me dream even more,” she sighed. “If only our healers knew as much about magic and… and dragons as King Thranduil knows. He recognized my affliction and warned me against it.”
“It was he who cast a spell on you!” Thorin growled, his face darkening in anger yet again. “He is cunning; he probably did it to gain an upper hand in the negotiations. King or no king, he has no honor. I will make him--”

“Thorin, please, believe me! He did not do anything to me. On the contrary, he tried to help, I am sure of it!” Ása recalled the short-lived but intense connection she shared with the Elven King. She tried to appease her One, tried to explain it the best way she could, but it only made him even more enraged.
“That is what he wants you to think, Ása! He used his elven magic to muddle your mind!”

“Did he? If he’d wanted to gain leverage in negotiations, he would have resorted to much easier methods. Besides, do you know of any spells that would make me dream such peculiar dreams every single night?” she glanced at him, all of her worries suddenly gone, replaced by a newly found spark of resolve. Thorin had to understand how important this was for her.
Thorin only furrowed his brow in response. They both knew very well that the dwarves simply did not do magic.

“I simply don’t understand why he would make me dream of dragons and… and you,” Ása swallowed. She needed to say it soon, before her courage would wear out completely.

“You see me in those dreams as well?” he asked in bewilderment.

“I do, Thorin. But I’m afraid that these dreams are very real and not at all good.”

And then, she told him everything she dreamed of that night. The dragon raining terror and destruction on Dale, Thorin facing the beast side by side with the finest warriors of Erebor and losing the battle before it started for good. Each time she recalled that dream, a sudden, chilling aura of death overwhelmed her; she could even smell the sulfury stench of the smoke that filled her lungs in the dream.

“There has to be a logical explanation to this, my sweet,” Thorin said after a pause. “Perhaps you are suffering from nightmares again, just like you did when…” he cleared his throat, “just like you did some weeks ago.” The prince cursed his stupidity and tried to mask his blunder. How could he be so brainless and bring up Zohur’s attack when Ása clearly hadn’t recovered from it yet?

“No, Thorin, these are not regular nightmares. I believe that I am sometimes seeing things that are yet about to happen. It is very confusing, but they feel different.” She looked at him, trying to meet his gaze, but he seemed to be completely lost in thoughts, his brow furrowed.

“How do they feel different?” there was a strain in his voice when he asked this question after a while.

“It is difficult to explain, but it is as if they were woven of a thick, sturdy yarn while the usual dreams are like wisps of smoke, unsubstantial and gone after a few moments,” she paused, waiting for more questions, but Thorin nodded, encouraging her to continue. 

“For example, last night I had a dream of you. You are standing in a dark, hidden chamber. Its walls are lined with gold veins and there is a strange chest in front of you. A golden key hangs around your neck and the chest is somehow wanting to be opened by it. Yes, I know how it sounds. Some details of this dream are vague, but I clearly remember the key. I can’t explain it, but I felt like I had seen it before. It looks very old, adorned with beautifully cut rubies.”

Thorin yanked his head up in surprise, but she continued, trying to remain unaffected by his sudden piercing glance.

“I think,” she swallowed, “that this key will find its way to you somehow. Then, you will find this huge chest and you will bring it to the secret chamber, passing many dark corridors on the way.”

Thorin huffed, but not even a word left his lips. 

“And finally, in my dream, you try to open this chest on your own, but you…”

“...stop,” he finished her sentence through his clenched teeth. Only then she noticed how pale his face was.

She flinched, “How do you know?”

“Because I already visited that chamber last night, just like you said.

”He took her hand into his and nodded encouragingly. “Come with me.” 

“Where?!” Ása tried to match his long strides and had to run a few steps.

“I need to show you something.”

 

***

 

They both stood in front of a large and sturdy metal chest adorned with rubies set in gold. Ása looked around once more and gasped.

“It is exactly like in my dream! Even the walls look the same,” she pointed at the glittering gold veins running through the rock of Erebor.

“This is one of the oldest parts of the kingdom,” Thorin explained, admiring how the golden reflexes lightened up her beautiful face. “That is why the corridors here are so narrow. Just a handful of dwarves know about these passages and the secret chambers hidden among them.” His deep voice reverberated against the walls.

“Are there more places like this in Erebor?”

“Quite a few,” his lip curled up in a half-smile. “But I brought you here to show you this chest. It was given to us by my grandfather. He meant it as a wedding gift,” with these words, he took off the key from around his neck and presented it to Ása.

“Thorin! This is the key I dreamed of!” she admired the key, barely believing her eyes. Together with everything around her, it was the tangible proof that her dreams were true. Feeling that her dreams were not just figments of her imagination was one thing, but actually seeing it all when being awake felt right, as if she was supposed to be here at that very moment. A wave of relief washed over her and before she could realize what she was doing, she wrapped her arms around her beloved, squeezing him as tight as she could.

“Yes, it is,” he wheezed jokingly, “but will you do me the honor of letting me breathe a bit, my lady?”

“Oh, I apologize, my prince” she smiled sheepishly, loosening her grip. “I just… I never thought… My dreams… the key… and now this…” she mumbled with a bewildered look on her face.

“I am as confused as you are,” he admitted, returning the embrace. It felt right to feel her tiny body against him, knowing that he had the power to soothe and protect the maiden he loved from all the evils of the world. “The good thing is that we learned something about the peculiar nature of your dreams.”

“They are real, they are not just a figment of my warped imagination. If I only knew why I am having them...” Ása's voice trailed off as she raised her head, meeting his gaze. There was hope in her lovely blue-green eyes and a bright smile on her face. She was breathtaking. She was his Azyungal and his heart beat only for her.

Thorin didn’t know how long they stood drowning in each other’s gazes and enjoying the closeness, but it was clear he was completely mesmerized by her. If he could have it his way, he would probably stay with her in his arms for as long as he could. His golden-haired dryad made him feel like the luckiest dwarf on Arda.

“Thank you for showing me this place and the key, Mizim,” Ása finally said. “I couldn’t hope for a better ending of the day, but perhaps it is time for us to retire for the night before someone starts wondering where and how indecent we are?”

Thorin stifled a chuckle.

“Does that mean that you do not wish to take a look at our wedding gift with me?”
She gave a sidelong glance at the chest.

“Are we allowed to do this before we wed?” she asked doubtfully.

“My grandfather entrusted me with the contents of his chest. He called it his greatest treasure and wanted us to take good care of its contents.” Thorin took a deep breath. “He is still unwell, as you know, but when he was himself, he asked me to hide it away from him.”

“I see. You wish to check what it is before we decide what to do,” she tilted her head.

“It may contain something more than precious metals and jewels,” the prince admitted.

 

The golden key fitted the lock perfectly. They turned it together, and the lid slowly opened, as if on its own accord. Both dwarves exchanged their glances and looked inside the chest, driven by unstoppable youthful curiosity.

“Gold coins?” they exclaimed in unison.

“Is this your grandfather’s greatest treasure? Gold? Isn’t his treasure chamber full of it?”

“There has to be more than this,” Thorin reached into the chest, digging into its contents. The gold cast a strange yellowish glow on his face. Ása couldn’t help but think that it made him look unwell.

The clink of the coins suddenly stopped.

“I believe I found something,” Thorin said hesitantly. His face paled, giving off a sickly greenish sheen. “Look at this, Ása” his hand hovered over the finding.
Ása looked inside and all the air escaped her lungs.

It was placed in the middle of the chest, surrounded by all the shining coins. 

It was grey and ugly. And it had a faint but sharp smell. It looked like an irregular, large piece of rock.

The problem was, it wasn’t a rock. Every little dwarfling heard ancient tales about such things and saw numerous illustrations in children's books. The dwarven cooks made little cookies shaped exactly like this object and the stonemasonry apprentices would carve similar shapes in stone. But it wasn’t supposed to be there, in Erebor. And if one would believe the old dwarven legends, it wasn’t even supposed to exist.

“It… it is… isn’t it?” she stuttered.

“Yes… it has to be,” he muttered. 

“We have to check it.”

“We need to make sure it is still intact.”

They both carefully took it in their hands and placed it on the stone floor. It was larger than a dwarven head, but much cooler under the touch. Its surface was rough and uneven and it was lighter than they expected. Kneeling over it, they examined the object, holding it in their hands.

“Have you noticed...?”

“Yes, it feels warmer than before.”

“And pulsing.”

“Is it supposed to do that?”

 

BANG.

Darkness.

Light.

Slithering shapes.

Large, bat-like wings.

The hissing.

The overwhelming hissing...

 

Something happened. Something unnatural. Thorin opened his eyes and tried to gather his thoughts. He may have lost consciousness. He felt dizzy. The prince wasn’t sure what happened, but his muscles tensed immediately, instinctively preparing for a fight. There was a slight problem, however. He was spread out on his back, his ribcage hurt and he felt as if a dozen horses decided to kick him all of a sudden. He tried to get up, but there was something hard on his chest pinning him to the ground. Thorin placed his arm on the unmoving shape and looked at it. When he touched it, he heard a small moan.

“Ása?” he whispered.

She slowly lifted her head and looked at him, her eyes out of focus. Her movement revealed the source of his discomfort. She still clutched the object in her hands, trapping it between them. At least now he knew why his sternum hurt so much.

“Are you well, my sweet?” he croaked through his parched throat.

“Yes, I believe so,” Ása shook her head, disorientedly looking at the inconspicuously looking object, much cooler under her touch than before. “Tell me, Thorin, what has just happened and where on Arda did your grandfather find a dragon egg?”

Chapter Text

Everything made sense now. 

No, nothing made sense.

Ása had even more questions than before, but at the same time she somehow felt more grounded. A new kind of calm filled the place in her heart when there had only been dread and turmoil just a few hours before. Thorin, her One, was still by her side, steady as the bedrock of Erebor, offering comfort and reassurance. She squeezed his hand for reassurance as they followed one of the narrow, secret corridors in the bowels of the Mountain.

“Do not fret, my sweet, we will overcome this together,” he responded to her touch, his voice reverberated against the unpolished rock walls. “And I am going to do everything there is in my power to ensure that your dream remains only an unpleasant memory. Erebor is not going to fall prey to any dragon. The Kingdom Under The Mountain will prevail. We will survive,” with these words, he turned towards her and embraced her carefully, as if she was a fragile porcelain doll. When they parted, she could clearly see concern in his azure gaze.

“But… the egg? I don’t understand what happened there,” Ása’s eyes traveled back towards the secret chamber they left a few moments ago. “What’s more, I don’t understand how or where your grandfather found it. Until recently, I thought there were no more dragons in these lands, so how would a dragon egg appear in Erebor? And that dragon in Dale… Thorin, I need to tell you something.”
“What is it, my sweet?”

“Do you remember when I told you that the dragon might have been searching for something?”
“Of course,” he nodded. “Something like this egg.”

“Exactly! In my dreams, I feel, I mean, the dragon… it’s a female.”
“A female dragon,” he repeated and took a deep breath. “You are sure of this?”

She replied with a solemn nod.

“Splendid. Are you saying that very soon we may be once again facing a dragon? An angry mother searching for its lost child? A child whom we are keeping against her will in hiding, here, in Erebor?”
“It seems to be the logical explanation, is it not?” she admitted.
“I am afraid so. Additionally, something tells me that a desperate dragon mother is a tiny bit more dangerous than a wild sow that has lost one of her offspring,” he ran a hand over his face and sighed. “Erebor’s defences may not be prepared for such an onslaught. But first of all, we need to figure out the egg conundrum and uncover the truth. For now, this treasure has to be concealed. No one can know about the chest. If its contents fall into the wrong hands…” his voice trailed off into the darkness.

“Will it be safe here? Does anyone…” she hesitated. “Does your grandfather know this place?”

“He knows of these corridors,” he admitted, “but there are many tunnels and chambers here. It would take him, or anyone else for that matter, forever to find this chamber.”

They walked ahead without a word, holding hands and hearing only their own breaths and footsteps.

“Thorin,” she whispered after a lengthy consideration in an attempt to convince him. “I am sure that we can find at least some of the answers to our questions in the Woodland Realm.”
We ?” he shot her a scrutinizing glance. “ I am going there myself, with a group of trusted warriors. This will not be a courtesy visit, I need to negotiate the alliance before the dragon mother returns. There will not be time for anything else.”

 “I understand it perfectly. Nevertheless, I need to go there with you.”
“Ása...” there was a warning in his voice as his brow furrowed. 

“Please, Mizim, the Elven King possesses the knowledge of thousands of years. Do you remember all the songs that minstrels in Dale sing? The ones about the Elves battling the dragons of the North? I read through some of the old writings from the Erebor’s library, and according to them King Thranduil took part in those events. The knowledge he has comes from his first-hand experience. No living Dwarf can boast such understanding of this subject. I have to talk to him.”

“My love,” he rumbled. “You are safest here, in Erebor. No harm can come to you within the walls of our kingdom. I will not expose yourself to any danger, even if it means not gaining this knowledge you speak of. This includes exposing you to the manipulative ways of the Elven King,” Thorin’s eyes darkened and he raised his voice slightly. These were the only visible signs of his temper raising its turbulent head at the thought that he could witness the Elf daring to touch his One yet again. Or worse. He simply couldn’t bear it. Ása was his and no one, not even the king of Mirkwood, would make free with her in such a manner. He would protect her, this was his first and foremost prerogative. 

“If I meet the Elven King, I will be able to discover what lies beneath my dreams. I need to know this!” she put all of her determination in these words.

Thorin faced her. “Your visit to the Woodland Realm is out of the question,” the adamant tone of his voice balanced on a very thin line between a statement and an order. It didn’t feel right to speak to his One the way he would address his advisors in his capacity as the prince of Erebor, but this was something she had to finally understand. Perhaps the everyday customs in the Iron Hills were slightly different than in Erebor, but Thorin was sure that they did not allow a dwarven maiden of a respectable noble house to roam freely wherever she wanted, especially since her current plan was to leave the Mountain. She was his betrothed and he would simply not allow it. He would have her see sense in his words.

“Thorin, if I went there with you, we could kill two birds with one stone. You would hammer out the details of this alliance while I...”

“This matter is concluded, Ása. You are staying under the Mountain,” he snapped. “Do you understand?” his face darkened menacingly like a sky before the storm.

“I… I do,” she whispered, lowering her gaze. “I understand that you worry for my safety, Mizim,” she admitted quietly and took his hand in an attempt to appease him. When it reluctantly opened, she placed it on her face. She heard a deep sigh and was awarded with an approving grunt. Thorin’s countenance brightened, chasing away the shadow she glimpsed before, but his adamant gaze would not leave her face. 

“I simply wish we could have all the answers now. I am worried and very confused,” she explained.

“I see that. I am troubled as well,” he uttered, still frowning, but his large thumb gently caressed her cheek, sending pleasant sensations across her skin. “Yet we do not need the deceiving Elf. We will discover the truth without him. I will start by talking with the scholars and summoning our best healers so that they can find a way to help you sleep better.”

“So that half of the Erebor can gossip about the Crown Prince’s betrothed going mad?” she grimaced, dissatisfaction clearly visible on her face.

“Ása, you are not going mad, have you not just seen enough proof of it there, in that chamber?” he placed his hands on her shoulders in an reassuring gesture. “Besides, it will all be handled discreetly. For all we know, the answers may lie in Erebor and we should begin our search here before we decide to broaden it. But first, we will ask Master Skáldi for advice about your dreams.”

“Do you think that the runestones will speak to us?” she asked, not convinced by his reasoning.

“Only Mahal knows, but they may be helpful. Master Skáldi is a very wise Dwarf, even if he likes to speak in riddles,” when their eyes met, a faint smile danced on Thorin’s lips, as if he just remembered something amusing. 

Ása smiled faintly in response, drowning in his deep blue gaze and feeling that she was losing the battle within her. She’d wanted to show him how important it was for her to see King Thranduil, and if he still wouldn’t budge, she was ready to demonstrate her anger and disappointment. Nevertheless, one look at Thorin’s face was enough to melt her resolve as if she was a flaming wax candle. How did this ridiculously overprotective, handsome Dwarf manage to do it? She couldn’t say. She couldn’t even trust her own body at that moment. Her own hand reached towards his face out of its own accord, wanting to move a few stray strands of hair away from his face.

“For example, Master Skáldi once predicted that I would find my greatest treasure in a forest, but I would have to pay a king's ransom to keep it,” Thorin continued, his expression softening at her gesture while his arms encircled her waist and pulled her towards him. “Now I know that he meant you, my forest dryad.”

“And what about the king’s ransom?” Ása asked while her fingers delved into the wavy mane of his hair she adored so much, making him sigh with pleasure.

“The moment I saw you for the first time,” he said in a husky voice, enjoying her caresses as her hand moved along the curve of his scalp, “I lost my whole heart to you. A future king’s ransom.”

He lowered his lips to hers and when they met, he took her in his arms and then, there was only their blissful closeness, all the worries forgotten. Nothing else mattered in the entire world.

 

***

 

Everything within her sight was covered with blindingly white frost. The surrounding world clearly contrasted with the blackness of the mourning dress she was wearing. The bushes, the blooming flowers and the lush green trees had frozen within moments. Even the faint sunlight from above seemed touched by the frigid fingers of this unexpected winter. Ása was chilled to the bone, but she didn’t care. She had to keep going. 

The unnatural silence of the ancient forest filled her ears. Suddenly, a wooden branch loudly crackled beneath her as she walked on the frozen ground barefooted. She felt the painfully sharp splinters injuring the sole of her foot, but she didn’t mind. Blood stained the frozen white leaves that covered the ice-hardened soil, leaving a clear red trail behind her. Soon, the hungry predators would pick up her scent. A defenseless prey indifferent to her own fate. Her heart had been frozen for far too long to care. She was alone now. He was gone forever.

Only then she realized that she clutched a small bunch of white, seemingly frail flowers in her hand. Minnûrmin**, as the Dwarves called them in Khuzdul, “forever in my memory”. She even recalled the name given to this plant by Men: simbelmynë. All these names didn’t matter to her any longer. These flowers were a symbol of mourning after his death.

The dull pain of her profound loss was the only thing she felt, aside from the overwhelming cold. A sob escaped her mouth, but she’d cried out all of her tears of grief long ago. She had to keep walking.

A forest clearing opened ahead of her just as the first snowflakes started falling from the grey, heavy skies above. Large, fluffy and pure chunks of winter. When her gaze followed them down towards the ground, she noticed countless large white silhouettes resting among the frozen leaves.

The elves. Frozen in eternal slumber, never to wake. Their faces were calm, as if they were sleeping under their thickening quilts made of freshly fallen snow. Only their bodies told a different tale. A dark-haired elf held a sword in his hand and his unmoving head rested against a piece of a shattered shield, his neck twisted in a strange angle. Another one wore a light armor, but his helmet was gone and there was a broken javelin next to him. The third one was a female archer whose red hair spilled around like a puddle of blood. And there was the fourth one’s frozen body trapped forever under a fallen tree. She noticed the fifth one who tried and failed to protect a baby with his body from an invisible threat from above. The sixth one… she stopped counting, just like she’d stopped counting bodies of all the dead Dwarves back in Erebor. There were too many of them. Numbers were meaningless. Dwarves. Elves. They were all dead anyway. Just like she would be soon. She pressed ahead, aware of her faltering strength.

A shattered, headless statue of an elven warrior beckoned to her from among the trees. She passed a fallen tombstone and several broken pillars that led the way to a breathtakingly sculpted marble tomb. Frozen blades of grass crunched under her numb feet as she walked towards a pristinely white sarcophagus. An elven couple chose its lid for their final resting place. The dwarven maiden approached them in reverence. A lady of great beauty was laying down on her back, a small smile dancing on her full, white lips, her body covered with an impressive battle armor. She held a longsword in her white hands. Her countenance was deceivingly full of life and it almost seemed as if she was engulfed in a slumber, but her stillness wasn’t temporary. She was as eternal as the white marble she was carved out from. An exquisite work of the best elven sculptors, not of nature, unlike the imposing elven silhouette that rested by her side. A male Elf was clinging to the marble portrayal of his beloved in a desperate, final embrace. He had been alive once. Ása recognized his long bright hair and dark eyebrows against the paleness of his face. His eyes were shut, but a frozen crystal of a lonely tear graced his cheek. White as the Gems of Lasgalen he’d once desired so strongly.

She remembered the Elf clearly from their meeting in Erebor. He seemed unchanged, except for his unnatural stillness. Only his crown, the symbol of his power, had been embellished differently: full of green leaves and colorful flowers. Now, every single one of these ornaments was covered with a thick layer of frost, just like his robes and the rest of his unmoving, lifeless body.

Ása took a step forward and placed the flowers on the tomb of King Thranduil and his wife. It seemed such an empty gesture now. She would rather bring them to the final resting place of the Dwarf she loved with all of her heart. The Dwarf she lost. Unfortunately, unlike the elven couple, he had no thomb and she would remain separated from him until the end of days. She had only memories to remember him by.

The snow kept falling in silence, erasing the scattered remnants of the Elven Kingdom from the face of the world.

“Forever in my memory.”

 

***

 

“Where is he, Balin? Let me guess, he overslept!” Dwalin’s resonant voice filled the stables. He was rewarded with a few chuckles coming from the soldiers who gathered outside.

Ása huddled into a corner behind a bale of hay, wishing she had one of those magic rings of invisibility with her, the ones from the legends she heard as a dwarfling. The leather tunic she wore was definitely too wide for her, too stiff and too uncomfortable. On top of that, she was beginning to sweat under that blasted fur-lined helmet. Not only was it too large, but also the eyeguard and chainmail covered all of her face, making breathing a challenging task. And besides, judging from its smell, the helmet’s previous owner wasn’t a great fan of bathing. The only good thing about it was that no one could notice that she wasn’t a male and didn’t have a beard. It meant that the chances that someone would actually recognize her were quite slim as long as she played her part right.

She sighed, blaming those annoying soldiers for her discomfort. Couldn’t they act like gentledwarves and leave behind more comfortable pieces of armor to choose from? It was highly inconsiderate of them. If Thorin was in their place, he would surely… Well. She swallowed and slapped herself mentally for her silly thoughts. He would probably be furious. No, not probably. He will be very furious once he realizes that I haven’t stayed in Erebor and followed him and his soldiers instead. I will reveal myself when we’re close enough to the Elven King’s domain. It will be too late for him to escort me back to the Mountain. I will have to face his wrath and its consequences, but this is the right thing to do , she convinced herself once again since the time she made up her mind.

“Stop shouting, Dwalin, or you will wake half of Erebor,” Balin mitigated his warrior brother as soon as he entered the stables. His finely coiffed beard and richly embroidered purple robes visibly clashed with the crude simplicity of this building, but his confident movements suggested a clear familiarity with this place.

“Thorin is late,” Dwalin muttered. “We were supposed to ride out one bell before dawn. Did he get himself lost on the way here?”

“If it only were so simple, my brother…” Balin shook his head. “Unfortunately, he sent me here with new orders. There’s been a change of plan. Ride without him. You are to check the situation in the western outposts and return tomorrow.”

“What happened, Balin?” the tall warrior looked confused.

“It is the king again…” Balin lowered his voice to a barely audible whisper and said a few more words that Ása couldn’t hear from a distance.

Perfect. Not only was he not coming, but also he had some problems with the king and she wasn’t there to help. A strong tug of loyalty made her consider for a moment whether she should return inside the mountain to help her One in any way she could. She closed her eyes, trying to gather her thoughts, but instead she saw the white tomb of the Woodland Realm and a wave of overwhelming, unbearable grief washed over her again. In her dream, her One was lost forever, and the Dwarves of Erebor were gone together with the Elves. She could not sit idly and watch these events unravel. She only hoped that Thorin would understand.

“What are you doing here, boy?!” A rough voice snapped at her. It belonged to a burly Dwarf warrior with a red beard plaited into two thick braids. He stood in front of her with a large axe in one of his hands and frowned. “No time for a nap now, you lazy bugger! Take your pony and get back to your unit!”

“Yes sir, right away!” she mumbled, quickly getting up from behind the hay bale and hoping that her helmet wouldn’t decide to fall off her head at that very moment. Revealing her true identity to the soldiers was the last thing she wanted to do.

“Move it! We don’t have all day!” he shouted as she clumsily took the reins of the nearest chestnut pony and led it out of the stables.

As the red-bearded warrior shouted orders to ride out, she jumped on her pony, mimicking the actions of the soldiers and soon they were riding west, leaving Erebor behind them, with Dwalin leading the unit. She stole a quick look back at the dark gates of the Kingdom Under the Mountain as her steed carried her away from safety and from her One. A ball of ice started to form in her stomach. That’s not how her plan was supposed to work.

 

***

 

After a whole day of constant riding Ása was exhausted, but she managed to withstand the demanding pace and thanked Mahal for the riding lessons she was allowed to take against her father’s better judgment. Lord Grohir was a very traditional Dwarf and according to him, a dwarven maiden had no need to learn such an useless skill. As a future lady of a noble house, she was expected to stay within the borders of the dwarven kingdom and not ride around on her own like a common loafer. Luckily, her mother somehow managed to convince him. Lady Hadrid had been a pretty skilled rider herself, as every member of her house took great pride in honing this skill, and she made sure that her daughter would not be any different. Ása wondered what her mother would say if she saw her now, sitting by the fire in the middle of the night without any female companions, but with a group of dangerously looking soldiers exchanging raunchy jokes that made her blush almost constantly.

Luckily, she didn't dare to take off her helmet until now for the fear of being recognized. As long as she kept to herself, the group seemed to ignore her, except for the red-bearded sergeant who kept an eye on her since the morning’s unfortunate meeting in the stables. When they reached their destination, a small outpost by the border with Mirkwood, he made her take care of the horses, gather the firewood and do every minor and inconvenient thing he could think of. The insides of her thighs hurt from riding, her hands were full of splinters and all of her muscles demanded a good night’s rest. Ása stifled a tired yawn to the sound of her rumbling stomach. She didn’t have a chance to eat anything, since that would require her to take off her helmet. Some of the warriors had already started teasing her about it, encouraged by her small frame and timid demeanor. Luckily, most of them were asleep now, the fire was slowly dying out and everything was shrouded in darkness. Now was her time to act. She grabbed her satchel and started walking slowly towards the forest, trying to move as quietly as she could. At least she wasn’t wearing one of her elegant gowns, otherwise she wouldn’t be able to take more than ten steps in the rough terrain.

“Where are ye going, laddie?” Dwalin’s voice reached her from the darkness behind her. Of course. It was his watch now.

“I.... I need to… go to the privy, sir,” she lowered her voice hoping to sound more like a young male. If Dwalin discovered her true identity, he would take her back to Erebor in a blink of an eye.

“Off with you, then! And don’t go too deep into the forest. These pointy-eared tree lovers don’t like uninvited guests. Be quick about it,” the warrior said.

“Yes, sir,” she replied and took a few hastened steps into the woods when she heard loud croaking and wings of a large bird flapping in the air. She froze in her steps, recognizing these sounds at once. A raven of Ravenhill has arrived. Puzzling. What could be so important that one would send a messenger raven to a remote outpost in the middle of the night?

Ása heard a few croaks more and turned around to see Dwalin standing by the fire with a large raven perched up on his shoulder. The Dwarf’s brow was furrowed and he was staring in disbelief at a piece of parchment in his hands. Then he crumpled it up, threw it into fire and spat a curse under his breath.

“Wake up! New orders! Saddle up!” Dwalin shouted.

“What is it, sir?” the red-bearded warrior asked. “Orcs? Are we to prepare for battle?”

“On the contrary, sergeant Breidr. Crown Prince Thorin wants us to return as soon as possible and help the Dwarves stranded outside of the Mountain,” Dwalin explained dourly.

“Stranded, sir?”

“By the order of our king, the gates of Erebor have been closed.”

 

Chapter Text

Her ankle was seriously swollen. Ása tried to move it, but it only made the pain worse. Those damned roots! Great. Now she was blaming the trees for her own clumsiness. Not a clever way to tackle the situation at hand. She shouldn’t have run deeper into the woods so frantically.

When she’d heard the news about closing the gates of Erebor, she almost succumbed to the pang of fear she’d suddenly felt and was almost ready to rejoin the soldiers. The thought of being left behind terrified her, but her distress deepened when she realized that the impenetrable rock of Erebor was now between her and her One. The main gates to the Kingdom Under the Mountain along with all the other “unofficial” entrances had been sealed off and there was no way of getting back in. She couldn’t believe it. Perhaps king Thrór was in a worse state than it seemed. This was not supposed to happen yet, Thorin said himself that they were still waiting for supplies and Dwarves who were returning from their travels. Oh, Thorin… He probably knew by now that she’d disappeared without a word. She could only imagine what he had to be feeling at that very moment. 

Everything happened so quickly afterwards. The soldiers started shouting, urging “the boy”, as they called her, to come back. When one of them went into the forest to find her, she didn’t think twice and ran away into the thicket of trees. Too much was at stake and she needed to follow her plan, or rather its miserable remains, as best as she could.

She didn’t know how long she ran, but she was now deep in the ancient forest of Mirkwood. As she congratulated herself on losing the sight of the dwarven warriors, the blasted roots got into her way. And now she was sitting under a tree, barely able to make a few steps at best. She took off the horrible helmet and cursed as her hair got stuck in the chainmail, causing pain. When she freed herself of it, she threw the helmet away into the darkness with spite. She was disheartened, as the early hours of dawn found her hungry, cold and lost somewhere deep in an unknown forest and with an injured ankle on top of everything. Perfect! Just when she thought it couldn’t have gotten any worse, a melodic voice filled the darkness around her.

“Do you know what the punishment for trespassing Mirkwood is, Dwarf?”



***

 

“Have you found her yet?!” Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór roared.

“We’ve searched the Merchants Quarter and the lower levels as well, Your Royal Highness,” a guard cowered under Thorin’s gaze. “No one has seen Lady Ása.”

“We even checked the forges,” added his companion.

“What about the mines?!” demanded the prince.

“The mines, Your Royal Highness? We didn’t think that Lady Ása would…”

“Exactly, you did not think! And you call yourselves members of the Royal Guard?! Go there at once, check everywhere and do not return until you have found her. Get out of my sight!” Thorin shouted furiously, glowering at the guardsmen. They made themselves scarce within seconds. None of them had seen the prince so wrathful before. 

He drank the last sip of the wine from his goblet and threw it furiously onto the floor. It rolled into the corner of the chamber with a clank.

A door behind him creaked.

“What is it now?!” he snapped, turning around.

“Thorin, what on Arda does all this shouting mean?” Lady Sigrun approached her son with a concerned look on her tired face. She immediately noticed his rumpled hair, shadows under his eyes and the way he stood in front of her, his muscles tense, alert posture and clenched fists.

“Forgive me, Mother. I did not expect you here at this hour,” he replied huskily, trying to rein in his flaring temper. “Did I wake you?”

“The sleep seems to elude me after such an eventful day,” she shook her head, wrapping her night robe tighter around her. “Any word on dear Ása?”

“They have not found her yet, Mother,” Thorin hung his head. “She is gone,” he added quietly, more to himself than to his mother.

“Come, sit by me,” Lady Sigrun took his limp arm and led him to a settee by the fireplace. He followed her reluctantly and sat down, burying his face in his hands in a resigned manner.

“I do not know where she is,” he growled loudly, sounding more like a seriously wounded animal than a Dwarf, and a member of the Royal House of Erebor at that. “I lost her!”

His mother put an arm on his shoulder in a consoling gesture. 

“We do not know what happened yet. Maybe she simply needed some time to herself. Lady Barba told me that Ása would often disappear for hours to go on her escapades Mahal knows where just to return as if nothing happened.”

“It is almost dawn, Mother. If she wished to spend time on her own, she should have returned by now,” he tried to keep his voice steady. Ása and her escapades. He almost smiled at his memories, but then he commanded himself to return to the painful reality. Recently, they spent most of that “escapade” time together, cherishing every moment of closeness they were given. And now she was gone, perhaps never to return and never to share those sweet moments with him again. He snarled. He would not have it.

“Wherever she went, she could not have simply disappeared into thin air. She will be found, my son,” Lady Sigrun spoke calmly.

“I can not bear this constant waiting and not knowing where she is, Mother,” he said through gritted teeth, his stormy eyes gleaming with bottled up emotions. “What if someone kidnapped her? What if that bastard Zohur returned and--”

“Thorin, my dear, the last thing Ása needs at this point is you tormenting yourself."

“But she is my One!” he growled and stood up, facing the fireplace. He rested his hands on the mantelpiece, his knuckles white with strain. The bright flames in the hearth seemed to burn with the same ardor as his heart.

“And that is why a clear mind is your best weapon,” Lady Sigrun continued steadily, undeterred by his exclamation. “You know her, Thorin. Can you think of any place where she would want to go?”

“I have searched everywhere. I have even checked every single corner of the Queen’s Gardens myself, yet I did not find any trace of her there,” he kept gazing into the fire, flames dancing in his eyes, forming bizarre shapes. First, they looked like waves of a stormy sea, then they turned into a snarl of hissing snakes, finally transforming into tall tree trunks growing next to each other. A forest. Ása and her escapades. Just then, he recalled something she said in the secret corridors. There was one place she was very eager to visit.

“Oh, Ása, you did not...” he whispered under his breath, refusing to believe his own reasoning. She was not supposed to do this, he specifically asked her about it. Surely, she would not do it on her own… would she not?

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” Lady Sigrun ordered, her gaze set on the tall figure of her firstborn son illuminated by the fireplace. Thorin did not move, seemingly lost in his thoughts.

“I beg your pardon for bothering you at such an hour, my lady,” a young red-haired Dwarf entered the chamber with a bow, his gaze respectfully averted. His beard hadn’t grown long yet, but it was full of decorative silver and golden beads.

“Glóin,” the prince turned towards him. “Any news?”

“We found something in the guardroom by the main gate, Your Royal Highness,” the Dwarf replied and paused, waiting for an answer, but there was none. Thorin’s jaw clenched, being the only visible sign that he understood his words. 

“There were a few pieces of armor scattered above it,” Lord Gróin’s younger son continued hesitantly, clearing his throat. “That is why it was found only now.”

With these words, he presented a green knitted shawl to the prince. A shawl Thorin would recognize everywhere. It was Ása’s favorite shawl, the one he’d found in the forest so many months ago when they first met. Its fabric was as soft as he remembered; it even still smelled faintly of her, of lilac and lavender. Of the dwarven maiden he loved more than life. His One. But she was not there. Gone from Erebor. He wanted to roar, to howl in despair, feeling an almost physical pain of separation.

“Thank you, Glóin, that will be all,” he quietly said instead, barely restraining his actions.

As Glóin left the chamber, Lady Sigrun approached her son, noticing the visible tenseness in his broad shoulders.

“Thorin?” she spoke softly.

“She has gone to Mirkwood,” he rumbled and hit the stone mantelpiece with his fist, oblivious to the pain. There was something in his chest that hurt him even more. Ása did the only thing she was not to do and left Erebor on her own. Without his protection. Why did she act against his wishes? He wondered whether she lost her senses or perhaps felt so strongly about seeing Thranduil that she threw all the caution into the wind. His eyes darkened dangerously at all the possible implications of this fact. Either way, she may have already been captured, or welcomed with arms wide open by the depraved Elven King, provided stray Orcs or wild animals hadn’t caught her sooner.
He would not rest until he found her, whether she liked it or not.

***

“Please, I need to see King Thranduil!” she pleaded to the elven guard who found her in the woods and brought her to the Elven King’s Halls.

“The king does not have time for intruders,” he replied indifferently. 

“But I have to warn him! Mirkwood is in danger!” Ása exclaimed.

“You will stay here and await your fate,” he added indifferently and locked the door to her cell. It was a small room, but it had a cot and there was a jug of water standing next to it. Ása shook the door, but it wouldn’t even move. Of course, what did she expect?

She fell on the cot in defeat, trying to save her injured leg. When she finally took off her boots, it turned out that the ankle was swollen even more than before. She was almost unable to move it and, what was worse, it seemed like there was no way out of the elven prison. She was stuck. Laying down on the cot, she stared blankly at the stone ceiling of the cell, trying to figure out what to do. If she was a rock thrush, she would be small enough to squeeze through the bars of her confinement and quickly fly away. Yes, having wings would definitely be helpful, but she wouldn’t count on growing a pair of them. Wasn’t there anything she could do? The dwarven heroes from the old sagas were always impressively strong or resourceful. If she was one of them, she would probably fight her way out with her mighty axe which she would conjure out of the thin air. She almost chuckled, recalling that the only weapon she had, an old hunting knife, was already confiscated by the elves. She sighed, feeling her exhaustion catching up with her and her eyelids drooping. If she only was as resourceful as a hobbit, she would certainly think of something clever…

 

***

“Wake up, my child! Wake up!” she would recognize this voice everywhere.

“Mother? Is that you?” Ása mumbled. She was a dwarfling again, back at home in her bed in the Iron Hills. She was very tired and she certainly didn’t feel like waking up. 

“Of course it is me, poppet. Who else?” Mother’s hand gently brushed off Ása’s hair from her cheek. She always smelled of herbs and cinnamon. Ása liked her smell, it somehow made her feel safe.

“A wild bear coming to eat me!” she chuckled sleepily.

“Even being eaten by a wild bear would not excuse you from your lessons.”

“But they are sooo boooring!” Ása protested with a yawn. “Have to memorize all the kings of Erebor. I’d rather sleep!” she covered her head with a pillow in protest.

“Poppet, this is not a good time to be rude. Your tutor is waiting,” Mother said with a laugh. “Get up!”

 

“Get up, Dwarf, the king is waiting!” a sharp voice rang in her ears. A tall elven figure stood above her. Ása, you aren’t in the Iron Hills anymore , she sighed in disappointment. It was just a dream.

The elven guard tried to lead her unceremoniously out of her cell. She stumbled, not being able to support her weight with her injured leg and grabbed his sleeve, trying to catch balance. 

“Can’t you walk, Dwarf?” he spat, clearly irritated, but supported her until she reached her bed.

“My ankle is sprained,” Ása replied timidly.

The chestnut-haired Elf shook his head and locked her in the cell, saying something loudly in his tongue, probably to his counterparts. Soon, he was rewarded with a reply. Ása wished she could understand the elvish language in order to know what to expect. The tone of their voices wasn’t encouraging. Just then, she heard footsteps and the door of her cell was unlocked yet again.

“Here, take this,” the same elven guard appeared, throwing a wooden pole at her. “And be quick about it. The King is not known for his patience.”

Ása took the pole and started walking, using it as a cane. It was frustrating and agonizingly slow, not mentioning quite painful. And just when she thought she was out of the elven dungeons, sighing in relief and catching her breath, she noticed a long, steep staircase in front of her.

“How am I supposed to climb all the way up?” she asked in disbelief.

“Use your legs,” the annoying elven guard smirked. He seemed to enjoy her feeble attempts at walking. Ása was prepared to snap at him when an elven figure appeared at the top of the stairs. The elf-woman wore a green tunic, just like the guard who accompanied Ása, but her long hair was red and gathered in braids on the sides of her head. Her tresses were as red as in Ása’s dream. She remembered the elf-woman’s beautiful pale face clearly, her limp body stretched on the forest floor.

“It is you!” Ása blurted out without thinking.

“What do you mean, Dwarf?” the elf-woman turned her attention towards her.

“I saw you in my dream,” Ása explained, but the only response she received was a puzzled frown. The elf-woman seemed to ignore her and spoke to the guard in the elven tongue with a hint of impatience in her voice and then listened to his reply. The exchange between the elves continued for a few moments and Ása noticed that the elf-woman’s gaze rested on her injured leg.

“King Thranduil is not known for his patience,” she spoke in the common tongue and left.

Ása looked at the tall staircase in front of her and sighed. The elven guard who stood next to her smirked. It would be a long climb.

***

When they finally reached the throne room, she had to admit that it was as spectacular as the throne room in Erebor. Ása could not hide her astonishment. She always dreamed of visiting the Elven King’s Halls and often imagined how it would look like, but never expected to see a place where beauty, elegance and functionality came together in an effortless way, as if nature itself bent to the will of the Elves. This place seemed to be not built but grown into shape, molded out of rock and trees for countless hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years. It was spacious and bright, full of arches and richly ornamented. For a moment she wondered whether she accidentally stepped into a surreal dream, but one look at her clothes told her that she was very much awake. Her hair was a mess, she was dressed in an ugly, smelly tunic and shapeless trousers, her legs were shaking with tiredness and her ankle was pulsing in pain. She was hungry and exhausted. On top of that, she was missing a shoe that wouldn’t fit her swollen foot. A perfect attire to wear to an audience with the Elven King. What an impression she would make…

“Of all the trespassers entering Mirkwood, you are the most peculiar one, dwarven lady,” a familiar voice sounded from above. Ása looked up and saw the Elven King walking down the steps leading from his beautifully carved throne. He wore long, shimmering robes that followed his every movement like a river of molten silver. King Thranduil’s elegant bearing in contrast with how miserable she looked made her feel like a lowly sparrow observed by an amused bird-of-paradise. 

Mae govannen* , king Thranduil,” she bowed as courteously as she could without straining her leg. These were the only elven words she knew and now she hoped the greeting wouldn’t pass unnoticed.

“I see that they teach manners in Erebor. How charming,” the king smirked as he approached her with a frown, noticing her lamentable state. He was intimidating and seemed to be even taller than she remembered. This impression was fortified by his long-branched crown adorned with green leaves and blooming flowers.**

“T-thank you for s-seeing me, king Thranduil. I did not think you would remember me from Erebor.”

The king stopped in front of her and cupped her chin with his hand, pulling it up to meet his piercing stare. A stare that made her freeze on the spot.

“How could I not? Your prince made sure that I would remember how much you mean to him. A very useful piece of knowledge,” his lip curled up in a mock smile, but his eyes were as cold as the ice cap of the dwarven mountain. Ása felt a blush creeping up her cheeks while a thousand thoughts raced through her tired mind. Was he telling her that he was aware of her worth and would use this knowledge to his advantage? A shiver of cold realization crept up her spine. What if the Elven King wanted to keep her in his halls against her will? Was she to become a pawn in negotiations between the two kingdoms? She cursed inwardly. Why didn’t she think of it sooner? Is that what Thorin meant when he said that she would be in danger in king Thranduil’s hands?

“Your dreams have finally surfaced,” he replied after a short pause, letting go of her face as unexpectedly as he grasped it before. This was more of a statement than a question.

“Y-yes, indeed… t-they have, Your Majesty.” Ása replied timidly. “I came…” she licked her chapped lips, “I came to warn you about a great threat to Mirkwood and Erebor,” she finished, overwhelmed by the situation she found herself in. Her previous determination suddenly disappeared without a trace.

“Speak, child of Aulë, do not make me drag it out of you,” king Thranduil commanded.

“I…” she cleared her throat. “I have seen the demise of both our realms. Erebor was attacked and destroyed by a dragon, our army defeated, every single Dwarf dead, the kingdom in ruin,” her voice shivered, recalling the vivid images she saw in her dream. “The line of Durin broken, the treasures lost and darkness reigning over the whole Rhovanion.”

The Elven King closed his eyes and Ása could have sworn that she heard him sigh.

“Tell me, how does your king fare?” he asked, looking down on her, his handsome face devoid of emotion.

“The King Under the Mountain is in good health,” Ása averted her gaze, puzzled by this unexpected question. If the Elven King thought that she would be disloyal and divulge such information, he was gravely mistaken.

“I see,” Thranduil sneered. “Nothing has changed, then. When a dragon buries his claws into someone, it leaves a permanent mark.”

“A dragon…?” she couldn’t believe her ears. “Do you mean to say, Your Majesty, that King Thrór…”

“This is a question you should be asking your king, child, not me,” he dismissed the topic with a decisive gesture of his hand adorned with rings. 

“But Your Majesty, I need to know, this is a matter of great urgency!” she hastily moved towards Thranduil and faltered, forgetting about her ankle and falling to the ground with a scream of pain.

“Take my arm, child,” said the Elven King, swiftly lowering himself towards Ása and leading her towards a nearby bench. As she sat down, she could have sworn that she’d seen a glint of concern in his eyes. 

“Your injuries and all your needs will soon be taken care of,” he continued in a friendlier manner, straightening up, but his face was once again as impenetrable as before. “You must forgive me, however, dwarven lady, for my lack of patience. Before I release you, I will have you tell me about the threat to Mirkwood as it may be crucial to our nearest future.”

Ása barely registered the change in his demeanor, trying to breathe deeply in order to lessen the pain she felt. She would agree to his wish, give him what he wanted and then she would require answers.

“In my dream… the Woodland Realm was desolate. Only death ruled in this ancient forest. Its invisible hand did not spare even a single Elf. It came swiftly. A sudden winter in the middle of summer. Your whole kingdom was frozen. Even you, king Thranduil, found your end at your wife’s marble tomb. She was waiting there for you with a smile on her lips, but you only held her cold statue in your arms, never to meet her spirit in the afterlife…”

“Enough!” the king interrupted her with a commanding shout, glaring daggers at her. “I forbid you to speak of her! You are not worthy!”

“Your Majesty, I didn’t…” she cowered.

“Guards, take her away!” he spat, turning his back towards Ása.

The audience was concluded. Only after leaving the throne room did Ása realize that the Elven King never answered her question about king Thrór.

 

Surprisingly to Ása, King Thranduil turned out to be an Elf of his word, despite his outburst. She was given a room in his halls and an elven maiden attended to her needs. After a bath, she was presented with an elven gown to wear instead of her dirty, misshapen clothes. Since the gown fit her perfectly, she suspected that it may have belonged to an elven child, but it was sufficiently comfortable and that was enough for her. Just as she was finishing her meal that consisted mostly of fruit, there was a knock on her door and an Elf entered her chamber, dressed in dark green robes that matched his red hair. As he was closing the door, Ása couldn’t help but notice that a guard was placed on the outside of her chamber. It was clear, then. She was not a guest in the Elven King’s Halls.

The Elf turned out to be a healer. His name was Athradiel and he swiftly took care of her injury. His touch was gentle and the attentive manner in which he acted towards Ása lifted her spirits slightly. Perhaps not all the Elves were as indifferent and openly disdainful as the guards nor as unpredictable as the Elven King. 

Soon, tiredness overcame her for good and she drifted away into a deep sleep. Her last conscious thoughts focused on her One, wishing that she could reach him somehow and let him know of her predicament. She yearned for Thorin and his reassuring closeness, but he was too far away from her now. Her heart sank with the realization that she might not see him for a quite long time. She was utterly lost without him, her Mizim***, the brightest star in her sky.

 

No dreams came to her that night.

Chapter Text

He could recognize her sparkling laughter everywhere. She was somewhere around, hiding by this tree or maybe behind that bush. His mischievous forest dryad. When his eyes registered a movement, he could have sworn that he saw a glint of gold among the foliage.

“Come and catch me, my love!” she chuckled again. She wasn’t far away.

He followed her voice in an instant, intent on seizing Ása in his firm embrace and placing fervent kisses all over her lovely face. After that, he would run his fingers through her breathtaking hair and trail his lips across her jaw all the way to her shapely ear. He would whisper the sweetly scandalous things he was going to do to her. He was well aware of the effect his voice had on her and intended to use it. First, she would gasp both in pretended shock and anticipation, and then her cheeks would blush so very becomingly with a deep shade of pink. He would move his mouth along her neck, nibbling on her smooth skin. Her bright blue-green eyes would glaze over with pleasure and then he would...

“I have you now,” a different voice said, a male voice that was too melodic to belong to a Dwarf. Thorin reached the edge of a forest clearing and found that this voice belonged to a tall and slender figure clad in magnificent golden robes worthy of a king. The Elven King himself. 

Thranduil’s arms were impudently wrapped around Ása’s small frame as his crowned head reached towards her in an attempt to place a kiss on her sealed lips.

At once Thorin attempted to charge towards them, wanting to growl and scream in anger, but something paralyzed him completely, making him unable to move and speak, leaving him powerless. He could only look at the events unfolding before his eyes. 

“You belong to me, Ása,” the king of the Woodland Realm said with a smirk as his lips approached hers. “You are my treasure now and I will not let you go.”

Thorin noticed her widely opened eyes, her face white as a sheet and her trembling lips. He wanted to throw himself at the vile Elf and beat him into the ground with his bare fists. Ása was his and no one else’s. No one was allowed to dishonor her with their advances. 

The look of terror on his One’s face softened as her eyes met his.

“Thorin, please… Help me…” she whispered under her breath mere moments before the Elf’s pale lips claimed hers.

“NOOOO!” 

 

His own scream rang in his ears when he opened his eyes and took a deep breath, finally able to move. Thorin immediately got up from his bed ready to fight before he realized it was all just a dream, a nightmare. 

In normal circumstances, he would go to the battlements to clear his head, but now Erebor was sealed off from the outside world. His grandfather made sure of it. Thorin paced back and forth in his bedchamber, recalling his last confrontation with King Thrór when he desperately tried to convince him to reopen the gates. The prince used all the logical arguments he could think of, but nothing seemed to convince the King Under the Mountain. With reluctance, Thorin had to admit to himself that the king kept delving deeper into his madness with every passing day. It seemed as if his grandfather was slowly disappearing into nothingness, while a new person formed in front of Thorin’s eyes in his stead, a cold and ruthless ruler of Erebor he didn’t recognize any more. Throughout their heated exchange, the king even stopped recognizing his own grandson, mistaking him for his own brother Grór. Afterwards, Thorin had to withstand the usual avalanche of curses and threats addressed at the absent Thráin in hopes of changing his grandfather’s mind when his bout of anger passed, but to no avail. When the king started demanding to see his wife Urtha, Thorin realized that he had to think of a different plan.

The complete isolation of Erebor at that particular time, without proper preparation nor resources, was pointless and dangerous. Not only the kingdom was unable to sustain itself without all the supplies and manpower needed, but also it would lose all of its trade and income. On top of that, the prince wasn’t quite sure whether the current defensive measures were strong enough to keep the dragon away if it returned. Or, as Ása believed, when it returned. Ása, his sweet Ása… What he would give to take her in his arms, to make sure that she was safe and sound. He forbade himself to revisit his nightmare, wondering about her current situation. What if she reached the Woodland Realm? What if she met the Elven King already? What if he…

Thorin gritted his teeth in anger. No. This had to stop. Such thoughts wouldn’t help him in the least. He had to act and bring his beloved back to him.

He quickly dressed and was about to leave his chambers when he heard a knock on the door.

Thorin opened it hastily only to see his cousin’s worried face.

“Balin! What brings you here at this hour?”

“You are needed in the mines, Thorin. It is your grandfather… Let us not waste time. I will explain everything on the way.”

The prince nodded solemnly and locked the door behind him. They were on the way of the Royal Chambers when the predawn silence was interrupted by a scurry of bare feet against the stone floor.

“Thorin!” a young voice shouted. “Where are you going?”

Thorin turned back to see his brother who was quickly catching up with them.

“Frerin, we need to take care of something in the mines.”

“The mines? Let me go with you! I can help, I know how to…” the young dwarf spoke excitedly.

“It would be best if you stayed with Mother and Dís, Frerin,” Thorin spoke as he put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I need you to make sure that they stay in the Royal Chambers until I am back. Will you do this for me, brother?”

“Aye, Thorin, of course,” Frerin looked at both older dwarves in puzzlement. “But tell me, what is happening?”

“Your grandfather is… unwell again,” explained Balin after exchanging a quick glance with Thorin.

“Do not worry, brother, we will return soon. Tell Mother not to worry too much,” Thorin half-smiled at Frerin.

“I will, brother,” the younger prince nodded.

“Thank you, Frerin. Let us go, Balin!”

 

As they hurried towards the mines of Erebor, Thorin noticed that the guards were unusually active. Orders were shouted, several units seemed to be forming and some troops were already trotting in the same direction as them.

“Speak, Balin,” the prince demanded.

“Your grandfather… He ordered the King’s Guard and all the guardsmen he could muster to march down to the mines with him. He claimed that the ‘Terror from the Deep Mines’, Skarr, needed to be slain.”
“Skarr? The creature from the old legends? The one that the old matrons use to scare dwarflings with?”
“None other, I am afraid,” Balin sighed. “Our king claims that Skarr stole his greatest treasure from him.”
Thorin froze. He knew what his grandfather meant. His greatest treasure. The chest filled to the brim with gold coins with a dragon egg hidden underneath them. The one that was hidden in a maze of forgotten passages and secret chambers.

“This… this cannot be true!” he exclaimed.

“Aye, Thorin. Unfortunately, it is. We can only thank Mahal that one of your warriors was among the guards. He managed to send word before they descended. What is worse, the king ordered more troops to follow. The Mining Master, Brogi, tried to warn him about the dangers of the deepest mines, but to no avail. The king imprisoned him for treason. Thorin, it is worse than before.”

“It certainly is,” the Crown Prince agreed as they reached the entrance to the mines. “We need to reach the king before it is too late. You there!” he shouted to one of the mine guards. “How many troops have already descended with the king?”

“Around sixty, Your Royal Highness,” the dwarf bowed. “I was told to expect three times as much very soon.”

“Is there anyone working in the mines now?”

“No, my lord Crown Prince, the morning shift hasn’t started yet,” the dwarf explained.

“Thank you. I need you to fetch Master Gundin. Inform him that I require his expertise on the deep mines.”

“Right away, Your Royal Highness!”

“This is madness,“ Thorin muttered to Balin, recalling everything he learned about the deep mines when he worked there as an apprentice. “Neither the mine shafts nor the ventilation system is prepared for so many dwarves appearing there at once. Many of the tunnels are not secured. What is more, the warriors wear full plate armors. Dwarves or not, they will not withstand the heat of the mountain for long. Balin, gather as many miners as you can. We may need their help. And healers, too,” he ordered.

“At once, Thorin. Tell me Your Royal Highness, what is your plan?”

A multitude of thoughts flooded Thorin’s troubled mind. His Azyungal. The safety of his family. His dearest grandfather and the sickness that tormented him. Ása’s disappearance. His father’s sudden absence. The dragon and the hidden egg. His obligations to the Kingdom of Under The Mountain as the heir to the throne. His yearning to protect his One. His duty to the Crown as the descendant of Durin the Deathless. There was, of course, one more thought that wouldn’t let itself be buried. The meeting with king Thranduil followed by that ominous nightmare he had last night. Thorin took a deep breath in an effort to rein in his conflicting emotions. With the sudden absence of his father and his grandfather’s unstable mind, the responsibility for the whole of Erebor and its people lay solely on his shoulders. To make matters worse, somewhere beyond the gates of the dwarven kingdom, Ása, his beloved Ása, was in peril. His heart tried to leap from his chest towards his One, restrained only by his stubborn ribs that refused to budge. He’d been groomed for the role of the king since childhood, he spent uncountable days learning about what it meant to be a good and just ruler, but nothing had prepared him for a choice between his heart and his duties, between the love of his life and the fate of his kingdom, his home.

Thorin clenched his jaw. This decision was only his to make and he would have to accept its consequences.

 

***

 

More than a week has passed since Ása arrived at the Elvenking’s Halls and she was slowly growing used to Athradiel’s unassuming presence. She even welcomed it gladly. The red-haired healer would visit her daily to check on her injured leg and then they would usually spend some time together. She was left to her own devices as long as she didn’t leave her room unaccompanied, but Athradiel was the only Elf who took the effort of getting to know her better. Even the elf-maidens who brought her meals kept to themselves and left her room as quickly as they appeared. The healer was different. He acted in a friendly manner and kept her entertained whenever his duties allowed. Athradiel would often speak of the Woodland Realm and she would reciprocate by telling him how life in the dwarven kingdoms looked like. They would discuss the medicinal use of various herbs, talk about the forests of Rhovanion, or simply exchange entertaining stories of their peoples. 

Athradiel’s company was a welcome distraction that made her forget about her miserable predicament at least for a couple of hours every day. Not only did she miss her One and worry about the situation in Erebor more with each passing day, but also her escapade, brave as it was, was turning out to be pointless. Although she was treated like a guest, Ása was aware of her real status as the Elvenking’s prisoner. There was always a guard nearby, wherever she went, and despite her pleas, king Thranduil refused to see her. At that point, she would gladly return to Erebor empty-handed, even if it meant facing Thorin’s discontent or even wrath. At least she would be close to him and the constant, almost physical pain of separation would finally disappear. Unfortunately, in her current situation, she couldn’t leave the Elvenking’s Halls not only because the king disallowed it, but because her injury didn’t seem to heal fast enough. Ása was limited to short walks with Athradiel. He provided her with a walking stick appropriate for her height, but she felt like her own grandmother every time she reluctantly used it, even if it helped her. The problem was, she still wasn’t well enough to escape from the elven kingdom.


Ása sat at one of the terraces in the Elvenking’s Halls that was overlooking a large open area of the caves. Below, a group of elves finely clad in shimmering white robes gathered in a circle, holding hands. They sang in unison, their voices weaving an enchanting melody that made Ása yearn for the comfort of her childhood home, for her mother’s touch and for the past that was now behind her.

“What are they singing about, Athradiel?” Ása asked the healer who stood by her side.

“They are lamenting the ones that have not returned home after a great war, brennil nin *,” Athradiel responded after a pause, dragging his eyes away from the spectacle below to peer at Ása.

“A great war?” she asked in astonishment, not recalling any such recent events.

“A war that happened long before you were born,” a new voice joined in on their conversation. “Many of our brethren faced the dragons and perished.”

Ása turned towards the newcomer and saw a red-haired elf-woman in the green uniform of the Mirkwood guard. She instantly recognized her; they met once before when she was on her way to see King Thranduil.

“Tauriel,” Athradiel smiled. “Were you not to return tomorrow?”

“I missed you too, brother,” the elf-woman replied with a mischievous glint in her eyes. Ása eyed the siblings. She could clearly see their resemblance. There were clear similarities in their height and facial features, as well as the hair color, but they differed in temperament; while Athradiel’s bearing was calm and composed, Tauriel seemed alert and brimming with energy.

“Lady Ása, allow me to introduce you to my sister, Tauriel, the captain of king Thranduil’s guard,” Athradiel bowed his head slightly.

“We have already met,” the elf-woman cut in before Ása could reply. “Although our guest claims that she has seen me before.”

“Have you indeed?” her brother raised his brow in surprise.

“I have… That is, no, I have not,” Ása shook her head, struggling to find a proper way to explain it.

“Which one is it, then?” Tauriel asked impatiently.

“I meant to say…” the dwarven maiden gathered her thoughts and tried one more time. “I saw you in my dream, back in Erebor.”

“In your dream? Brother dear, have you already heard that the king calls our guest a Dreamer ?” Tauriel said pensively, casting a look at him. Athradiel stiffened but remained quiet.

“I am not sure whether I am a dreamer , as you call it,” Ása responded, avoiding his gaze. “I indeed had vivid and very disturbing dreams in Erebor, but they are gone now,” she admitted. Since she crossed the border of Mirkwood, Ása hadn’t had a single dragon dream. They simply disappeared. Each night in the Woodland Realm was blissfully uneventful as she dreamed the usual dreams in peace while her body regenerated after many sleepless, tiresome nights. She even started feeling hopeful that the dreams would leave her alone forever.

“Such is the magic of the Woodland Realm,” Athradiel spoke after a pause. “Here, your mind is protected from external influences. These Dreams you speak of will most probably return to you as soon as you leave our kingdom,” he added. “If they are what our king suggests, that is.”

“Tell me now, dwarven lady, if you please,” Tauriel broke in, not allowing Ása to reply and continuing her interrogation as if she hadn’t heard her brother’s words. “What was I doing in your dream?”

“I am sorry to say it,” Ása drew in a breath and looked the elf-woman straight in the eye, trying to muster at least a bit of much-needed courage. “But I saw you dead in the aftermath of a battle. Your body was here in Mirkwood, among the graves of your kin.”

A barely visible frown appeared on Tauriel’s face.

“Who were we fighting in your dream?”

“I have not seen your foe, but the death came swiftly to all the Elves of Mirkwood. It looked as if winter came too soon, covering everything with a layer of frost. Your hair spilled around you like a puddle of blood. A broken bow lay beside you. I remember you well from my dream, because you held something very unusual in your hand, close to your chest.”

The siblings exchanged a quick glance.

“What was it?” Tauriel asked calmly, her face not showing any emotions.

“A dwarven talisman stone carved with dwarven runes,” Ása explained nervously. After she woke up from that dream some days ago, she was as puzzled as the elf-woman. How would an Elf end up with a dwarven token of affection, of all things? Who was that mysterious Dwarf? Who would dare to present her with a talisman that held such a meaningful message? “ Innikh dê **”, a powerful plea to someone very dear. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t come up with a sensible solution to this riddle.

“What would I do with a dwarven stone?” Tauriel asked, clearly astonished.

“I hoped that you would explain it to me,” Ása admitted with a hint of disappointment in her voice. “The runes on the stone said: Return to me ,” she added quietly. “Does it hold any meaning to you?”

“I am afraid not,” the captain of the Elven guard admitted. “How about you, brother?”

“You know very well that dream reading is not my area of expertise, especially when it comes to these... Dreams . Ask me about caring for battle wounds instead,” he smiled faintly.

“Speaking of battle wounds…” the Elf-woman turned to him, but just at that moment, a guard approached Tauriel with a respectful bow. He exchanged a few words with her in the elven language and then departed quickly. Athradiel’s sister surveyed Ása for a few moments with an impenetrable expression before she finally spoke.

“It seems that we will have to finish our conversation at a later time,” the captain explained flatly. “We found yet another Dwarf trespassing within our borders, I’m afraid,” her eyes didn’t leave Ása’s face in a clear attempt to see her reaction.

“A Dwarf…?” the maiden of Erebor couldn’t believe her ears. One single Dwarf. Here, of all places. Her heart started beating faster. It was him. He came to rescue her. It had to be him, her One, who else could it be?

Athradiel raised his head and his curious gaze met Ása’s, noticing her flushed face.

“Surprising, is it not?” the elf-woman tilted her head.

Ása started mumbling an incoherent response, but captain Tauriel didn’t seem too eager to wait.

“Be so kind as to follow me, dwarven lady. The king of the Woodland Realm is expecting us.”

 

***

 

“It is an honor to see you again, dwarven lady,” King Thranduil’s low voice reverberated in his throne room as he greeted her by the entrance with a slight bow, but Ása thought she could see a shadow of a smirk on his face. His striking figure seemed to fill the whole chamber, overawing her completely.

“Your Majesty,” she bowed courtly, carefully adjusting her movements. She didn’t feel comfortable in the garments she wore. The long, narrow gown made of pale blue elven cloth was much lighter and, what was worse, tighter and more revealing in some places than her usual clothes. As beautiful as it was, Ása couldn’t wait to wear her own gowns that waited for her in Erebor.

“It seems that my kingdom is under attack by a dwarven invasion force!” the Elven King raised his voice slightly and directed his impenetrable gaze at her. 

“Your Majesty…?” Ása wondered whether her ears deceived her, not understanding what he meant.

The king took a step towards her, his arms behind his back.

“First it was you, my lady, a dwarven girl lost in my forest,” he said with a hint of impatience in his voice. “And now, yet another Dwarf was found roaming around in my forest as well. Tell me, child, who is going to appear here next? Your great ancestor, Durin the Deathless?” King Thranduil scowled and paced to the side, giving her a clear view of the whole throne room.
“See for yourself.”

 

A gasp escaped Ása’s mouth when she noticed a tall Dwarf standing in the middle of the large chamber. Her heart leapt. He was accompanied by two elven guards and as far as she could see, he was unharmed, but it looked as if his hands were tied behind his back. She took a few hesitant steps towards him, apprehensive of the Elven King’s reaction, but Thranduil simply observed her without a word. 

The Dwarf’s boots and clothes were covered in mud and several links in his chainmail were torn, a clear sign of a fight he must have gone through. His wide shoulders were slouched and his head lowered as if he was intently studying the state of his heavy boots. His beard, as always, was skillfully plaited. Three long chestnut braids adorned with copper beads rested proudly on his chest.

“Ottar!” she cried out and quickly covered the distance between them.

“My lady,” he muttered in a raspy voice, raising his head to meet her gaze. His lower lip was swollen and his brow was covered with a crust of dry blood, but the brown eyes in his battered face glinted with rage.

“What did you do to him?!” Ása shot an accusing glare at the elven guards, but they stood still, unmoving, not uttering even a word, as if they were lifeless statues and not warriors in flesh and blood.

“They did what they were ordered to do,” King Thranduil’s voice sounded closely behind her. “They apprehended yet another trespasser.”
Ása turned towards the Elven King, fury written all over her face. 

“This is a warrior of Erebor, not a common thief! I demand you to release him at once!”

“You demand ? Oh, how amusing you are, child,” the king chuckled, showing a row of perfect white teeth, but his eyes remained cold and emotionless. “Perhaps you are not aware that you are a guest in my halls, and as such, you are only allowed to ask. Or plead. I must admit I am partial to pleading, especially if said pleading is performed by a lady,” his lips curled up in a slight, predatory smile and Ása could have sworn she saw a dangerous glint in his eyes. She felt overwhelmed with shame by her reckless action. She almost shouted at none other than the king of the Woodland Realm! How could she be so unbelievably stupid? In Erebor, it would be treated as one of the greatest offences against the Crown. What would dear Lady Barba have said if she could see her now? Ása could imagine her guardian’s frown very well. She knew what the dwarven matron would have her do now. When she spoke, her words were merely a whisper.

“I beg your forgiveness, King Thranduil,” she bowed as she was taught. “I… I plead you, Your Majesty, to release this warrior and unshackle him.”

“Much better, my lady, much better,” the king nodded in approval and turned to the Dwarf.

“Do I have your word of honor that you shall behave peacefully as long as you are within my halls?”

Ottar grunted in response.

“Your lady has not heard you, warrior,” the Elven King said in a sing-song voice.

Ottar glanced at Ása questioningly and replied in Common Speech only after seeing her gesture in iglishmêk, the dwarven sign language.

“You have my word of honor, King.”

“I accept it,” replied the Elven King and nodded at the guards. After a few moments, chains fell onto the stone floor with a heavy clank.

“Thank you, Majesty,” Ottar moved his freed arms in an attempt to stretch them.

“Later, you may thank your lady for this favor, dwarven warrior, ” the king replied. “Wait with him outside,” he gestured towards his guards and turned to Ása. 

“I do hope your Dwarf behaves,” he continued as Ottar was leaving together with the guards. “It would be a shame if he had to spend the next hundred years in my dungeon,” the king said lightheartedly as if he was speaking about the weather. “From what I hear, he is a fine warrior. He managed to single-handedly stave off several giant spiders and afterwards, I am ashamed to admit it, he even mauled a few of my guard members.”

“Ottar is one of the best warriors of Erebor,” Ása admitted gladly. “He is a member of the Crown Prince’s Guard.”

“Is he indeed? Tell me then, dwarven lady, what was he doing in Mirkwood instead of guarding the Crown Prince?” the king took several steps towards her, his gaze not leaving her face.

“Crown Prince Thorin does not need to be guarded!” she retorted without thinking.

“Crown Prince Thorin…? Well, well, well…” King Thranduil hummed to himself. “I see that there have been significant changes in the succession to the throne of Erebor. Perhaps someone else is unfit to perform the royal duties...? Interesting...”

Ása cursed herself for recklessly divulging too much information. The Elves didn’t need to know of everything that transpired under the Mountain. She had to be more careful.

“I… It is not my place to speak of my king’s decisions,” she said, trying to choose her words with utmost care.

The Elven King smirked in reply.

“You must be quite bored in your kingdom to ride all the way to the Woodland Realm just to play cat and mouse games with your guards.”

“It was not a game. I admit that the guardsman might have been following me,” she spoke. “But I arrived here out of my free will. I needed to warn you, to inform you about what my dreams showed me.”

“Your dreams yet again. Have I not warned you against them? Have I not told you about their deceptive nature, child?” the king demanded.

“Y-you have, your majesty,” Ása conceded, her face flushing in shame.

“Pray tell, why have you not done as I instructed, child?” he gracefully approached her.

“I… I tried, I truly did, but nothing seemed to work!” she snapped, feeling her eyes fill with tears. “There were herbs, poultices, and various concoctions, it only made matters worse!”

“The usual dwarven remedies. Of course they would,” king Thranduil made an exasperated sigh as he looked down at her intently. “Your kind has so quickly forgotten the appropriate methods, just as you have all forgotten the bond you shared with the amlug ***…” his melodic voice drifted off suddenly. 

“The… amlug , your majesty?” she quickly dried the treacherous tears, trying to compose herself once again and understand the meaning of king Thranduil’s peculiar words.

“You have met another one,” the Elven King stated, lowering his face towards hers. Ása felt pulled into his ice-blue eyes, not able to avert her gaze.

“Another one?” she whispered and searched his handsome face for an explanation, finding it completely devoid of emotion.

And there it was again. The cool touch of his fingers on her forehead, the tingling sensation and that unusual feeling of lightheadedness. She closed her eyes and a familiar feeling of warmth surrounded her.

“Yes. A young one. Recently. In… Erebor, of all places,” she heard his calm, measured voice. 

Ása stiffened. This was not a question. He must have meant… No, it wasn’t possible. He couldn’t possibly… could he? But he somehow knew . The dragon egg. She took a deep breath and forced herself to break the connection they shared, taking a step back.

“I am not sure that I take your meaning, your majesty,” Ása stated in a tremulous voice, resting heavily on her walking stick and trying to fight off a sudden wave of nausea building in her stomach. She felt disoriented and slightly dizzy, but the Elven King’s touch was gone. Instead, after opening her eyes, she was faced with his piercing gaze. He was still very close to her, too close, overwhelming her with his powerful presence.

“What a charming demonstration of loyalty,” he chuckled to himself in a slightly amused manner. “Nevertheless, I am sure that you know my meaning, child. I can smell the amlug on you. Both of them. I knew the winged serpents of old before the Dark One corrupted them and broke the great alliance. Ultimately, I faced them in battle. I saw the death and destruction they laid in their wake. Do not play games with me,” there was a warning hiding under the velvety smoothness of his voice.

“I…” Ása swallowed, trying to avert her gaze and failing miserably, immobilized by King Thranduil’s all-knowing stare dangerously close to her face. “F-forgive me, I did not mean…”

“Of course you did not,” he smirked in disbelief. “Tell me, dwarven lady, what are the children of Aulë doing with a dragon youngling in the depths under your Mountain?”
“You… you are mistaken!” she exclaimed. “We… we do not do anything!”

“Do not lie to me, girl,” the king commanded and took a step back. “A fully grown serpent threatens our lands with its wrath. You keep a young one in Erebor. Do you truly not see a connection? I warned your king that his greed would be his undoing. An end to your great kingdom. Have you not seen it in your dreams?” his voice echoed in the throne room as he paced, not letting her out of his sight.

“I have,” Ása admitted in defeat, having a strange feeling of being led like a sheep to the slaughter.

“Do you plan to sit idly by and watch these events unfold?”

“No, your majesty. That is why I came to you with a warning.”

“Very good, dwarven lady. Very good,” the king nodded, reminding her of a teacher satisfied with the answer his pupil gave him. A smile appeared on his face, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I will give you a chance to act since that is your wish. Now that your betrothed has become the Crown Prince of Erebor, he finally has the power to personally lead the negotiations he so desired. Am I correct?”

“Yes, I believe so, your majesty,” she swallowed, not being sure where his questioning was going.

“You will inform him that my conditions have not changed since my last visit to your kingdom. I offer him an alliance between our realms if he returns what is rightfully mine. I am willing to enter the negotiations with him, and only with him. Will you agree to be a bearer of the good news, my lady? A token of my good will?”
“Yes, your majesty. I will convey your message to Crown Prince Thorin with pleasure,” Ása nodded, barely able to believe her ears. Was he truly letting her go? Allowing her to leave the Woodland Realm and giving her such an important task?

“Splendid. Tell your betrothed, that I am patient, but I will not be trifled with,” the king turned his back towards her and started climbing the steps that lead to his throne. “Is that understood?” he added as he sat down.

“Of course, your majesty!” she confirmed, memorizing all of the Elven King’s words.

“What are you waiting for, child?” King Thranduil leaned back and crossed one long leg over the other.

“Will this be all, your majesty? Am I… free?” Ása asked hesitantly.

“What else would I need you for, child?” he raised his brow, glancing at her irritably and shedding the pretense of an indulgent teacher. “You are only to return to your Mountain with my message.”

“Thank you, your majesty,” she took a reverent bow.

“Begone, before I change my mind,” he averted his gaze and waved his hand dismissively.

The opulent rings on his long, elegant fingers glistened in the pale, cold light that filled the chamber.

 

 

“Forgive me, my lady,” Otter lowered his head in reverence as they walked the corridors of the Elvenking’s Halls. He spoke in Khuzdul, clearly not wanting to be understood by anyone else but Ása. “I failed to protect you.”

“It is I who should be forgiven, Ottar,” she protested. “I left Erebor alone, not informing anyone…” her voice broke with emotion. She took a deep breath to calm herself down. “Tell me, how does… everyone fare? In Erebor?” she blushed, cursing herself for being too shy to speak the name of the Dwarf she cared for the most.

“When I left the Mountain over a week ago, everyone fared well,” the warrior replied. “But the gates are sealed now. I was one of the last Dwarves to leave Erebor, on prince Thorin’s orders.”

“Prince Thorin? And what were his orders?” Ása felt how the heat in her cheeks rose, most probably changing their tint to a darker shade of pink. 

“Yes, my lady,” Ottar nodded. “He ordered me to search for you and not return until I found you, my lady.”

Ása had to stifle a happy sigh, trying to focus on the conversation they were having and not on the fact that made her heart melt. Thorin thought of her and was concerned for her safety. Perhaps it meant that he wasn’t really cross with her for leaving the dwarven kingdom on her own, after all. She cleared her throat.

“And here, you found me, guardsman Ottar. For this, I am grateful and apologize for all the hardships you experienced. Would you be so kind and escort me back to Erebor?”

“My lady,” the warrior said, placing a fist over his heart, “It would be my honor to escort you back to your betrothed.”

Ása’s heart fluttered and her cheeks burned with fire. Her betrothed. She would finally rejoin him, cherish his closeness and his warm embrace. She would drown in his cerulean eyes yet again, hear the tenderness in his voice when he’d say her name and all would be well. Soon. She just had to be patient.

 

***

 

“Please accept this small token from a fellow healer, lady Ása,” Athradiel whispered when they were about to say their good-byes. “If you are ever in need of a respite from your dreams, this will help you regain your strength,” with these words, he passed her a soft pouch.

“Athradiel… I do not know what to say,” Ása looked at him in astonishment. When she peeked into the pouch, a distinctive herbal scent surrounded her.

“No words are necessary, brennil nin . We are both healers and it is our duty to help others in need, is it not?”

“Nevertheless, you have my gratitude,” Ása smiled warmly in response, still not believing what she was hearing. “And this… will truly help?”

“Without a doubt. This blend of woodland herbs has been known among the Greenwood Elves for thousands of years,” he reassured her. “It used to be sought after by your kind many generations ago.”

“It is time, my lady,” Ottar approached them quickly with a visible frown on his face. The Dwarf immediately positioned himself between Ása and Arhradiel in a protective manner and shot a warning glance at the elven healer. 

“Indeed, it seems so,” Athradiel replied with an amused tone of voice.

“It was an honor to meet you, Athradiel. Farewell!” Ása lowered her head in a sign of respect.

Ollo vae , lady Ása. Namárië !**** May we meet again in more fortunate circumstances,” the Elf bowed and departed hastily, disappearing behind the beautifully carved gate to the Elvenking’s Halls. When it closed with a soft thud, a peculiar feeling of cold absence washed over Ása, as if someone suddenly took away a warm, cozy blanket she wrapped herself with. It was high time to leave this place and return to Erebor, into Thorin’s arms. 

Four elven guards on horseback waited for them by the forest trail.

“Let us go, my lady,” Ottar stretched out his arm and helped her reach her horse. After she mounted it, she took a last look at King Thranduil’s halls. The place seemed deceptively devoid of life. No sound was to be heard except the faint rustling of leaves in the wind, but she was sure that multiple pairs of eyes followed their every move. 

 

They traveled along the forest road that led to Dale and Erebor. The horse she rode was very tame and seemed to know the way by heart, but she had to admit she’d have felt safer on a pony. Luckily, Ottar rode beside her, as always ready to intervene at the slightest sign of any trouble.

They covered the distance quickly and reached their destination in the afternoon. At the edge of the Woodland Realm Ása thanked the Elves for their assistance. As their escort rode back to the Elvenking's Halls, she and her guard started following the trail towards Erebor. Towards Thorin. Her prince. She missed him dearly. She missed the way he looked at her with his piercing blue eyes, she longed for his touch, she wanted to hear his husky voice again when they engaged in their usual lovers’ banter. Ása suspected that he would be furious with her, but she promised herself to clarify the situation to him. As soon as he heard all the details of her trip, Thorin would understand and approve of her actions, she was sure of it. First, however, she had to find a way into the Mountain, not having the slightest idea how to return inside it with all the entrances sealed off. The most important thing was now to be as close to her beloved as she could. Besides, she was counting on meeting Dwalin by the main gate. Ottar mentioned that he met the warrior and his troops on the way to the dwarven camp at the feet of Erebor. Dwalin would certainly know what to do. 

Ása took off the hood of her elven cloak and was about to hasten her horse when she heard a throaty voice that made her jerk in surprise.

“Well, well, what do we have here? Lady Ása, has the fashion in Erebor changed so much since I left, or have you decided to join the Elves?”

Her heart froze, but she tried to act calmly. She respectfully bowed her head at a group of riders approaching them and spoke.

“Your... Your Highness, it is an honor to see you again, p-prince Thráin.”

Chapter Text

Crown Prince…, no, that wasn’t right , prince Thráin - Ása corrected herself - smiled to her widely, but she could clearly see an unsettling spark in his eyes. He approached her on his steed, leaving his rather large entourage behind.

“Would you care to explain your presence here, Lady Ása?” he spoke in an all too pleasant tone as he came to a stop. She was not acquainted with prince Thráin that well, but she instinctively felt that his politeness didn’t bode well.

“I… I am returning from the Woodland Realm with an important message to Crown Prince Thorin,” she replied quietly, focused on withstanding his piercing gaze for as long as she could. “And as for my attire, His Majesty King Thranduil was kind enough to offer me these clothes since my own have become... unusable.” All these endless lessons on how to lead courtly conversations and deflect any unwanted questions turned out to be useful. Her tutors in the Iron Hills used to say: If you find yourself unable to speak the whole truth, try to keep as close to it as possible.  

“Is that so, my lady?” prince Thráin narrowed his pale blue eyes for a split second, but his smile never left his face. She could feel his scrutinizing glance on her. “And why did you venture on this mission to see the Elven King unescorted? Why none of our diplomats accompanied you?”

“My lady was not alone. I followed her on Crown Prince Thorin’s orders, my lord prince,” Ottar spoke while his face remained inscrutable. This came as a surprise to Ása who wondered how the reticent guardsman managed not only to utter more than ten words at once without being ordered to but also to confirm her statement. 

The prince furrowed his brow and as he did so, the tattoos on his forehead became skewed, giving him a menacing look.

“And as to the lack of any diplomats by my side, I can only say that none of them knew about my whereabouts. This was an,” she made a meaningful pause, ” unofficial mission , my lord.” Ása could only hope that Thorin’s father would believe her words and wouldn’t start questioning everyone back in Erebor. If they managed to find a way to enter the Mountain, that is.

“My lord,” one of the prince’s companions shouted from a distance. “Is there anything amiss?”

“All is in perfect order, Lord Randorm,” prince Thráin replied loudly, looking back towards his entourage and raising his hand in confirmation.

“Lady Ása,” the prince turned to her and spoke as his countenance changed rapidly. “We will have to finish our amusing little chat at a later time. As you can see, I am accompanied by noble guests who arrived from far away to pay their respect to our king. Be a charming young lady and do your best to make a favorable impression on them.”

“Of course, my lord,” she bowed her head. It was understandable, this was clearly yet another group of envoys and he wanted to make them feel welcome to help with the negotiations. Smothering such guests with pleasantries and lavish entertainment was one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it somehow always seemed to work for the Longbeards.

“Perfect, my lady. And now, you will do exactly as I say. There is no time for explanations. Put your hood over your head and follow me. Do not take it off when you are around our new guests. I trust I do not need to emphasize how important this is,” he spoke in an earnest tone of voice and continued only after she followed his order. ”When conversing with them, do not mention anything of importance that pertains to Erebor. Anything. Is that understood, my lady?” he asked, looking at her intently from under his bushy, greying eyebrows. 

“Yes, my lord prince,” she agreed, but a part of her wondered if he mostly referred to the current state of the king’s health.
“Furthermore, it is vital that you agree with everything I say to them. Do not look surprised, whatever you hear from them or me. Can I trust you with this matter? Can I count on you to help me? The future of our kingdom may depend on it,” as Thorin’s father spoke, she thought she could recognize a hint of unease in his voice. This delegation had to be truly important if prince Thráin personally rode out to meet them and now was so anxious to ensure that everything went smoothly.

“I will do exactly as you say, your highness,” Ása replied, puzzled by prince Thráin’s unusual request. If this visit was of such importance, she would do whatever she could to help, but she couldn’t understand one thing. Why, of all things, was she supposed to wear her hood around these unknown diplomats? Why was the prince trying to hide most of her face from their gazes? Were their customs different from the ones in Erebor? She heard legends about dwarven kingdoms in faraway lands where women were treated with even more reverence than among the Longbeards. They dressed in luxurious garments that alluringly covered them from head to toe so that only their enchanting eyes were visible. The stories said that each of these dwarven women could even take as many as seven husbands if she pleased and only they could have the honor of seeing the face of their wife. Ása found this custom excessively romantic, even though the thought of having so many husbands made her blush intensely when she imagined how their nights in the marital bed could look like. She shook her head, trying to focus on the task at hand. It was possible that prince Thráin’s guests came from these faraway lands and he simply didn’t want to shock them with her uncovered face.

As they neared the prince’s sizable entourage, Ása realized that she was mistaken about the origins of their guests. It looked like about half of the dwarves did not belong to prince Thráin’s own train. All of them rode black, sturdy ponies and wore impressive armor made of a metal she didn’t recognize that gave out an anthracite shine. A few of these dwarves didn't wear helmets, including a middle-aged, black-haired woman that looked at her intently. Not only her face was uncovered, but also her clothes were fit for a warrior and not for a great lady of a court. Ása sighed in disappointment. It seemed that these dwarves didn’t come from that legendary faraway land, after all. There was, however, something in that woman that attracted Ása’s gaze. She had a bearing of a seasoned warrior and her dark eyes seemed to be very perceptive. A scar ran across her forehead, splitting one of her eyebrows in two. The woman certainly had her share in battle.

“My lords, my lady,” prince Thráin smiled pleasantly at the dwarves unknown to Ása. “Mahal himself blessed us with the presence of none other than Lady Ása herself!”

A wave of astonished murmurs passed through the group. 

“I believe that Mahal guided our steps today to meet our lovely lady. She is returning from a successful diplomatic mission to the Woodland Realm and we are immensely proud of her. Lady Ása is a real jewel of immeasurable worth!”

Ása exchanged a quick glance with Ottar, trying not to look puzzled. If not for him, she would have thought she was hallucinating, but the guardsman’s face told her that he was as surprised as she was.

An elderly dwarf with a large, round nose and impressively long salt-and-pepper beard pleated in four massive braids, approached her on his steed, and bowed deeply. The ruby and anthracite beads in his hair clinked against each other as he did so.

“It is a great honor to finally meet you, my lady. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Lord Randorm of the Ironfist clan. May I take this opportunity to say that we heard much of your accomplishments and your beauty, but the stories do not do you justice.”

“I am happy to make the acquaintance, Lord Randorm. Thank you for your kind words. Do you come directly from your homeland in the Red Mountains?” she replied politely. These diplomats came from further away than she’d suspected. It would have taken them several months to travel to Erebor and as far as she remembered from her studies, the Ironfists rarely, if ever, left their kingdom. Every dwarven child knew that the members of this secluded clan guarded the secrets of their mountains very fiercely.

“Indeed, I do. Our voyage from the Orocarni* was not the easiest one for a man of my age, but meeting you in person here is a reward in itself,” the envoy admitted. Ása blushed slightly and managed only to smile in reply, not knowing how to interpret this unusually heartfelt statement from a dwarf she hadn’t known nor heard of before.

“My dear Lord Randorm, may I suggest that we leave your kind compliments for the feast in your honor that awaits you in Erebor. It is time we continued on our way,” Thorin’s father joined in the conversation. “We will soon reach the Kingdom Under the Mountain. Tell me, my lord, have you ever visited Erebor?”

“Only once, when I was but a lad. I still remember…” Lord Randorm’s voice trailed off as they started riding towards the Mountain towering over the landscape. Soon, the whole group, including Ása and Ottar, was on their way, leaving the unmoving, silent wall of lush Mirkwood trees behind them.

 

***

 

The sun caressed her shining green scales with its exhilarating warmth. A pleasant sensation was spreading all over her glorious body. Wonderful. Yes, this is what she needed. No more chilly caverns. She slept for too long. Now, she was finally awake. Basking in the hot sun. Feeling the gloriously cool air currents under her magnificent wings. Being alive and ruling the skies once again.

Too much time has passed. She was sure of it. Looking at the sun-dried lands below, she couldn’t recognize them any longer. Gone were the spectacular monuments carved out of yellow stone and painted in vibrant colors for her amusement. Gone were the places of worship, the plazas, the ponds and waterfalls, the ever-present hustle and bustle of the servants and priests. Gone and forgotten. She roared in annoyance. In rage. They were not here anymore! How dared they?!

It was then when she recognized a familiar landmark. Ahead, on a barren, dusty plain speckled with rocky hills. Some of these hills formed a valley. A group of large rocks shaped like fangs guarded the entrance to this secluded place. Yes, she definitely remembered this place. It was there, below. Just a few moments of flight ahead. She slid out her forked tongue, taking in all the scents. A hiss of displeasure followed. Some creatures still lived there, but they didn’t smell right. A foul stench of dirt and decay reached her. They were revoltingly filthy. But the wind brought something more with it. A promise of food. Fresh meat. She could already imagine their helpless bleating. The sweet taste of their blood on her tongue. Her stomachs growled loudly. She was famished after such a long flight. Filthy or not, the servants surely remembered how to tend to her wishes. How to welcome their queen with an abundance of food and opulent gifts. She expected more of those lovely precious stones they presented to her during her last visit here. She could still remember their enthralling purple luster. A bounty worthy of their queen. She filled her lungs with the hot, dry air and let it out in a deafening roar. Now they would know it was time to greet her. She was returning!

As she approached the valley, another disgruntled hiss followed. Again, something was not as it should be. The city was gone, except for one or two crumbling spires sticking out from the ground. All the opulent beauty disappeared. Buried under heaps of dirt and sand. Instead, a group of unimpressive, falling apart huts clung to each other by a lake. Or rather, what was left of it. She used to bathe in its azure waters. Now, this miserable, grey puddle was not even large enough to quench her thirst. And it reeked! She huffed. Where were the minstrels praising her greatness, the flowers, the golden coins thrown in the air? Why was the feast not ready yet? She could only see a pitiful herd of hooved animals. At least there would be some food when she was done punishing whoever had the audacity to live in this place instead of its keepers.

She roared once more and circled the valley, lowering her flight. Her menacing shadow trailed obediently behind her, filling the meek hearts of those filthy creatures with fear. They were running around aimlessly, crying in terror, their feeble minds in despair. All of them were tall and wore dirty, tattered clothes, completely unadorned with gold. Ah, she recognized that unpleasant smell now. Men. Short-lived. Insignificant. No real appreciation for the treasures of the world. Nevertheless, she would teach them respect. This was not the way to greet the queen!

She folded her wings and shot to the ground like a deadly green thunder. Screams filled her ears. The stench of tremendous fear filled the air. They were about to learn the full meaning of her wrath.

She lunged forward, breathed and opened her maw, releasing the devastating horror on the valley below.



Ása woke up with a gasp. 

It was just a dream, it was not real, nothing more than a dream, she frantically thought to herself. Just a dream. Unfortunately, Athradiel, the elven healer, had been right, the dreams returned as soon as she left Mirkwood. 

She felt hot. Too hot and sweaty. She kicked off the blanket that served as her quilt and looked around, disoriented. It took her a few moments until she recalled where she was. Darkness surrounded her with its silent shroud, but she recognized the roughness of the blanket’s fabric and heard Ottar’s snoring outside. The stubborn guardsman insisted on not leaving her out of his sight again. Apparently, this included keeping guard by the entrance to her tent and inevitably dozing off in an uncomfortable position instead of enjoying a night of proper sleep. The stubbornness of Dwarves. She was safe here, surrounded by dozens of dwarven warriors, merchants, and their kin. She tried to explain it to him, but, of course, he simply grunted and refused to rest.

The beautifully embroidered tent she slept in belonged to the Orocarni delegation. Lord Randorm kindly offered it to her as soon as they arrived at the camp at the foothill of Erebor. It was much too large for her needs, but one look at prince Thráin’s face told her to accept the gift with grace in order to please their guests. Since she was a dwarven maiden traveling alone, the warrior woman from the Ironfist clan was to be her companion for propriety’s sake. Her name was Adra and she turned out to be almost as taciturn as Ottar. Luckily, she didn’t snore in the night (as he did), so Ása welcomed her companionship both during the day and night as they shared her tent. To Ása’s amusement, a quiet rivalry developed between the two warriors when it came to her safety. Even though Asa clearly stated that Ottar was her personal guard, Adra continued to act as if the maiden’s life and honor solely depended on her vigilance. Ása suspected that the local Orocarni customs were probably the underlying reason for Adra’s behavior. She’d never had a warrior chaperone before. Both in Iron Hills and Erebor, this role was reserved for respectable matrons whose weapon of choice was a sharp tongue and not a dwarven axe.

Ása’s tent was pitched in a large and steadily growing group of other tents outside the Front Gate of Erebor that still remained closed. When Ása arrived there as a part of prince Thráin’s train, she was shocked by the size of the temporary settlement that appeared within the last week at the feet of the Mountain. Dwalin and his warriors kept peace and order in the new dwarven ‘village’. Lord Gróin with his aides, who was also unfortunate enough to find himself on the outside, made sure that every Dwarf had access to food and other necessities, even though they were scarce. None, however, could improve the deteriorating moods in the camp. Worried faces were a common sight as dozens and dozens of Dwarves found themselves stranded away from their homes and their families. There were merchants among them, caravan guards, travelling salesmen, scribes, artisans, stonemasons, healers, and many others, including the ones who helped with the restoration efforts in Dale. Every one of them cast longing glances at the gate of their kingdom an uncountable amount of times a day, perhaps hoping that the stone doors would finally open if they looked at them often enough. To no avail. Almost two weeks have passed and still, there were no signs that the Dwarves inside Erebor knew of or cared about the situation outside of the Mountain. Even the Ravens of Ravenhill could not reach Erebor with their messages as their usual way into the Mountain was sealed off as well.

Ása bit her teeth into her lower lip, trying to stop the tears welling in her eyes. If she’d only stayed in her rooms on that day instead of following Dwalin’s troops to Mirkwood, she would have been sleeping in her comfortable bed at that very moment, knowing that Thorin was only several rooms away. She would see him every day. She didn’t even dream any longer about his embrace, his fervent kisses nor words of love he’d whisper into her ear. The only thing that mattered to her was being close to him and knowing that he was well. There was no way of knowing what transpired in Erebor. Ása could only suspect that King Thrór was still in one of his moods and clearly his orders prevented anyone from opening the Front Gate. Her thoughts drifted off to Lady Barba and Jutta. She was sure that her companion could take care of herself, but worrisome thoughts swept over her whenever she thought of her guardian. Did they have enough healers left in Erebor to take care of all the wounded, including Lady Barba? Ása could only hope that Lady Sigrun would care for her old friend, but she'd prefer to do it herself. It was the least the dwarven maiden could - and wanted - to do, not only because the matron took her under her wing, but because of the great fondness she felt towards Lady Barba. And as for Lord Beldrum, she hoped his manservant was making sure that he did not forget his meals nor the rheumatism ointments that…

Suddenly, a low, dull sound reached her ears. At first, she was not sure what it was nor where it was coming from, but as it grew clearer and more distinct, she understood what it was. Heavy blocks of stone scraping against stone. Just then, a call of several horns sounded in the night.

“My lady,” Ottar stuck his head into her tent, “The Front Gate of Erebor… It is opening!”

 

***

 

Ása couldn’t recall clearly how she found herself within the familiar walls of the Kingdom Under the Mountain. It seemed as if everything happened at once. The whole dwarven camp went into an uproar, there were shouts, whinnying ponies, crying children, dwarves with torches running back and forth, and everyone seemed to be possessed by the idea of finding themselves safely back in Erebor with their families. If not for Ottar’s and Adra’s protection, she would probably be trampled by the widening stream of dwarves desperately trying to reach their home as soon as they could. Luckily, the King’s Guard’s members who appeared outside quickly controlled the crowd and were letting in all the dwarves in an organized manner.

She finally crossed the threshold of Erebor just after the break of dawn with Ottar and Adra by her side, both helping her with walking. Her ankle still wasn’t fully healed and it felt as if an eternity had passed before she finally found herself in the spacious entrance hall of the dwarven kingdom. Ása looked around in confusion, succumbing to the feeling of tiredness intermingled with joy. She couldn’t believe it. She was finally back. Unfortunately, with so many dwarves constantly moving around, it was difficult to find even a glimpse of a familiar face. There was one face in particular that she dearly wished to see now.

Her search was interrupted when she noticed that the Ironfist envoys were being led by Thorin's father to the guest quarters and she sent Adra to join them. The warrior simply nodded and followed her companions without a word.

“Is everything in order, m’lady?” Ása heard someone speak to her and when she turned towards the voice, a smile appeared on her face.

“Of course, Dwalin! I am relieved to be back,” she admitted.

“And I’m relieved, lassie, that I do not have to tell Thorin the story about how I lost you, or rather, how I thought I lost one of my warriors in the Mirkwood forest,” he cast her a meaningful look. Since the moment she'd arrived at the camp and met Dwalin, he kept casting disgruntled looks at her and muttered something about incorrigible young ladies before he went on with his tasks, but his eyes seemed to sparkle with amusement.

“I am so sorry, Dwalin,” she looked down in embarrassment once again, ready to receive a new portion of scolding. “You would have sent me back at once if you’d known it was me.”

“And you were right to think so, lassie,” he replied sternly. “If anything happened to you, Thorin would have my head on a silver platter! Thank Mahal that Ottar found you,” Dwalin nodded towards the guardsman who silently returned the gesture.

“I simply followed my orders,” the guardsman spoke in a deep voice, carefully uttering each word.

“And for that I am grateful, guardsman Ottar,” she admitted. 

Dwalin grunted, “It is not my place to say it, lassie, but you should have stayed in Erebor, under Thorin’s protection. He will not be thrilled when he hears that his father has you in his clutches and uses you for some political games of his. I don’t like how he tells you to smile, bow and entertain the Ironfists every day, as if you were their hostess.”

“Luckily, I am back and will not take part in his schemes any longer. Besides, I… I do not mind. It is valuable training for me, Dwalin. In a few months’ time, I will hopefully be helping Lady Sigrun with similar tasks,” she blushed, hinting at her upcoming nuptials. “Perhaps prince Thráin has come to terms with the current state of affairs and wants to see whether I am worthy of his son.”

“Whatever he does, he always has an ulterior motive, lassie. You mark my words.”

“Thank you, Dwalin, I appreciate your concern,” she nodded and whispered, “And speaking of prince Thráin, can I ask you a favor?”

“What is it, m’lady?” Dwalin moved closer towards her, lowering his voice. 

“If anyone asks, especially prince Thráin, you have not seen me since you left Erebor. And you do not know anything about a young warrior that got lost in the elven woods,” she pleaded. “Pretty please? I can’t fall into more trouble now. Not with Thorin’s father when I am trying to be on my best behavior.”

“And what about Thorin?” he eyed her suspiciously.

“He…” her face reddened as she started. “He should know everything. He knows… my reasons behind my trip to Mirkwood. And I have an important message from the Elven King. For his ears only. I need to see him as soon as possible.”

Dwalin hummed in surprise. “Why am I only hearing of this now?”

“I had no way of telling you all the details with Thorin’s father and the Ironfists around. The fewer people know about this, the better,” she looked around vigilantly.

“I will do as you ask,” Dwalin spoke slowly.

“Oh, thank you, thank you, Dwalin, you are the best--” she squeaked enthusiastically.

“Easy now, lassie, I haven’t finished yet,” he grinned. “I will do as you ask under one condition.”
“Whatever you say, Dwalin!” she hastily agreed.

“Will you please ask Miss Jutta to spend an afternoon with me?” he asked sheepishly and his face darkened slightly under his beard. “Nothing improper, mind you… perhaps she would be more inclined towards it if you and Thorin joined us?”

Ása couldn’t believe her eyes. Dwalin, the fearless warrior, the mighty Dwarf, prince Thorin’s right hand was... blushing. She wondered whether Jutta was aware of how seriously he seemed to be treating her. He would not have asked Ása for help if it just was a fleeting fancy on his side. She needed to speak to Jutta.

“Of course, it would be my pleasure!” she exclaimed reassuringly. “If she agrees, and I am sure she will, we will spend a lovely afternoon together.”

“Thank you, m’lady,” he bowed courtly. “Your help will be much appreciated.” 

It looked as if he wanted to say a few more words when he glanced somewhere above Ása’s head and stopped speaking. She followed his gaze into a nearby hall. It was filled with the newly arrived Dwarves and she noticed a tall and very familiar figure among them. Her heart fluttered. Her One was there, among his people, deep in conversation with some of them. Thorin’s brow furrowed as he spoke orders to his men, helping the ones who were the most in need. He looked different than the last time she saw him. He wore his princely crown, its golden elements contrasted with his hair that was almost as dark as the geometric ornaments made of obsidian. Furthermore, his tunic was black and gold, as well as the richly embroidered cloak he wore. Surprising. Ása knew that he wore his crown only on rare official occasions and was surprised to see that he didn’t wear his customary dark blue garb, choosing formal attire instead. It took her a moment to understand what the new colors meant. They were reserved only to rulers of Erebor.

As if he felt her gaze upon him, Thorin turned his head towards Ása. When their eyes met, she could not help but smile widely at him. His face brightened as he nodded to her, his lips curling up in that gorgeous half-smile she adored so much. And those amazing eyes of his, oh, how she’d missed them. How she’d missed him every single day she spent away from the Mountain. She ached for his closeness and the strong embrace of his arms. She wanted to wave to him and perhaps even create a scandal by blowing him a kiss, but just then Thorin looked to the side of her where Dwalin stood. The Crown Prince made a quick and almost unnoticeable gesture that she failed to understand. As she took a hasty step forward in hopes of approaching her betrothed, a hand landed on her shoulder.

“Forgive me, m’lady,” she heard Dwalin say. “It would be best if Ottar escorted you back to your rooms.”

“But I want to… I need to speak with Thorin,” she turned to him, annoyed by such treatment.

“You will, lassie, do not worry. I will let him know. Our Crown Prince wants you to be safe now. Besides, between you and me, your presence is distracting him from his duties. Just look at him. See that glance? He is barely listening to what these poor Dwarves have to say,” he chuckled. “Have mercy on my dear cousin and allow His Enamored Highness to keep his head on his shoulders for a little while longer,” Dwalin grinned, winking at her playfully. “What do you say, lass?”

“Dwalin! You are impossible!”, she blushed, avoiding his gaze.

“Thank you, m’lady,” he chuckled mischievously. 

“Perhaps it would be indeed best for me to retire to my chambers.” She looked at Thorin, hoping to catch his eye one last time, but he’d already turned away from them and moved further away, discussing something with a different group of dwarves.

“Brother!” a shout came from nearby. It turned out to be Balin who pushed his way through the crowd.

“Brother!” Dwalin bellowed cheerfully and stretched out his arms to greet his brother. Soon, both of them, the tall warrior and the stout diplomat, embraced quickly in a bear hug and butted their heads together.

“You look as if a stray warg found you too tough to chew and spat you out!” Balin smiled widely, with a spark in his eye.

“And you look as if your beard was attacked by a mad raven!” Dwalin pointed at the dark, tousled strands below his brother’s face.

“Yours wouldn’t look any better if you were here,” Balin stifled a yawn and then he finally noticed Ása. “Lady Ása, what a pleasant surprise! We were quite worried! May I be so bold--”

“Not here, brother,” Dwalin spoke in a low voice. “Let us escort our lady to the Royal Chambers. Thorin’s orders.”

 

***

 

When they reached their destination, an overjoyed Lady Sigrun greeted them and ushered them in, insisting on an early breakfast.

“Especially you, dear Balin, when was the last time you ate?” she scrutinized the young Dwarf, but there was an unmistakable fondness in her gaze.

“We had a meal with the miners before the ceremony,” he admitted, not sitting down.

“That was yesterday,” she retorted mercilessly.

 “It would be better if I returned, your ladyship, Thorin needs me,” he bowed respectfully.

“First of all, Thorin had his breakfast already. Secondly, he does not need an aide who can barely stand on his legs, young man. I promised your mother that I would take care of you, boys,” she looked at both brothers sternly, “And I intend to keep my promise. Now, you will both sit down and eat,” she spoke calmly, but in an authoritative tone of voice. The brothers exchanged a defeated glance and sat down without a word. Ása could only admire how quickly Thorin’s mother succeeded. She certainly wouldn’t like to be in Balin’s shoes at that moment.

 

Before the breakfast arrived, Ása spoke in general about the events outside of the Mountain. She vaguely mentioned her ‘unofficial mission’ to the Woodland Realm, focusing mostly on the arrival of prince Thráin and the Orocarni emissaries of the Ironfist clan. Balin was particularly interested in Lord Randorm and when she mentioned Adra along with her dutiful behavior, she couldn’t fail to notice that he exchanged a quick glance with Lady Sigrun.

 

Afterwards, Balin and Lady Sigrun shared the information on what transpired in Erebor while she was away. From what they said, King Thrór took a turn for the worse and proclaimed a crusade against a ‘Terror’ that supposedly lurked in the dreaded deep mines. This monster was referred to as Skarr and she recalled that Thorin told her about it once. The thought that the king would attempt a war against a creature known only from the bedtime stories told to the children of Erebor, made her gasp. She’d hoped that Thorin’s grandfather would feel better by now, she even thought that he was the one that ordered to open the gates. Unfortunately, the reality was worse than she’d expected. With the king gone to the most dangerous part of the deep mines, Thorin managed to intervene on time. Together with a group of experienced miners, he managed to rescue both the king and his warriors. They avoided certain demise, escaping just in time before a sudden rockburst buried them alive. Only two men were lost and quite a few of them were currently recovering from their wounds, but they survived. Afterwards, the King’s Council gathered and deemed King Thrór unfit to rule. He was now confined to his chambers, surrounded by healers who did their best to find a cure for his affliction. With the absent prince Thráin removed from the line of succession by the king, The King’s Council appointed his firstborn son to govern the Kingdom of Erebor in King Thrór’s name until he would be fit to rule once again. Thorin's first decision in his new role was to annul his grandfather’s last decree to isolate his kingdom. As a regent, he was finally able to legally revoke King Thrór’s orders.

Thorin. Her beloved. The Royal Regent of Erebor. Ása couldn’t believe her ears. If memory served her well, he was now the youngest ruler of the Kingdom Under the Mountain. It was an unprecedented event and Ása couldn’t help but wonder what it would mean to their relationship. She looked at her beloved’s mother who seemed to be lost in thought and tried to put herself in her situation. She noticed a few lines of concern on Lady Sigrun’s face. She worried about her son, she suspected. Her husband must have been on her mind as well. Ása wasn’t sure how prince Thráin would react to this unexpected turn of events, but she surmised that his wife didn’t worry in vain.

 

As soon as the sons of Fundin left the Royal Chambers with full bellies, Lady Sigrun turned her attention to Ása.

“My dear child,” she smiled encouragingly. “I am sure that my son will see you as soon as he can, but it may take a while. With the gate finally opened, he has quite a few things to attend to.”

“I am aware of it, my lady. I would not like him to relinquish his duties on my behalf.”

“I am glad to hear it, my child,” Thorin’s mother nodded approvingly. “You look quite tired. What would you say about a long bath and a nap in the meantime?”

“It sounds wonderful, my lady,” Ása sighed gladly. Since her hunger was already satisfied, a warm bath and a soft bed were at the top of her list of priorities. Apart from embracing Thorin and kissing the handsome face of her beloved, of course. She scolded herself for such indecent thoughts. Couldn’t she think of something a bit more proper while talking with his own mother?

“Perfect, my dear. I will ask my healer to see your poor leg afterwards,” Lady Sigrun patted her hand, unaware of the shameful thoughts that circled in Ása’s mind.
“It is getting better, my lady. I received a special ointment from the elven healers and it has been working wonders,” Ása spoke, desperately trying to remove the image of Thorin’s strong forearm pulling her towards his muscular body from her head.

“Nevertheless, I will sleep better knowing that everything is in order,” the mother of her beloved admitted, looking concerned. “And since we are waiting for your bath to be drawn, I would like to have a few words with you, if you do not mind too much.”

“It would be a pleasure, my lady.”

“Splendid. Would you be so kind and tell me everything that you omitted when we spoke at breakfast? I must admit, I am quite curious to know what was so important that made you leave Erebor in such a mysterious way.”

Ása gulped. It was going to be a long conversation.

Chapter Text

“Mother, is she here?” Ása’s heart started beating faster when she recognized her beloved’s voice. Thorin stormed into the chamber slamming the door behind him and at once directed his steps towards the large armchairs by the fireplace. Two dwarven women sat there, enjoying the hearth’s warmth.

“Of course, my son. We have been keeping each other company since morning,” Lady Sigrun stifled a chuckle, seeing Thorin’s impatience, and turned to Ása. “My dear, would you be so kind and stand up so that your betrothed can see you? I am afraid that he may otherwise rip apart these armchairs while looking for you, and I will simply not have it. I am quite attached to them, you know.”

“I am here, my prince,” the dwarven maiden spoke softly as she got up, quickly straightening her violet evening gown, her eyes shining with joy since the moment he entered the chamber. He was even more breathtaking than she remembered. He still wore the same ceremonial attire as before. Golden embroideries glimmered on his black tunic tailored to emphasize his wide shoulders and chest. A faint blush appeared on her cheeks as his cerulean gaze rested on her. There was such power, such urgency in his eyes that she felt dizzy just by looking into them. She searched his handsome face for any signs of wrath or disgruntlement, but before she could notice anything, Thorin hastily stepped towards her and took her hands into his. She felt the reassuring heat emanating from his large palms, warming up her cool skin. Her cheeks reddened even more when he placed a careful, chaste kiss on her fingertips, his hot breath brushing against her skin. She missed his touch dearly and the sensation of being close to her betrothed once again was exhilarating.

“Lady Ása…” Thorin rumbled. “It brings me great joy to see you safely returned to Erebor.”

When his husky voice filled her ears, she felt as if she was being immersed in a pool of thick and sweet dark honey that found its way straight into her defenseless fluttering heart. 

“I am glad to hear it, Your Royal Highness,” she replied, lowering her gaze and curtseying as she would to a king. “I am immensely happy to be here once again.”

“You will have to excuse me, my children,” Lady Sigrun cleared her throat, trying to hide the amusement in her voice. “I have suddenly recalled that I need to take care of an urgent errand.” She smiled meaningfully and walked out of the chamber, leaving them all by themselves. 

There was a moment of silence interrupted only by Ása’s shallow, uncertain breaths ringing in her own ears. She didn’t know whether she should be immensely grateful for what Thorin’s mother just did or whether she should dread what was about to happen next. She didn’t dare to straighten up and look into her beloved’s face.

As soon as the door closed behind his mother, Thorin spoke, “Ása, you do not need to bow,” his voice softened. “Not to me.”

“But you are the Royal Regent of Erebor now, my lord,” she objected, intimidated by his presence and regal bearing.
“And if memory serves me well, you are my betrothed. Are you not, Ása?” he asked, his eyes closely studying her face.

“I am, my lord… Thorin,” she nodded and finally finished her curtsey. A frown crept up her face when a jolt of dull pain shot through her ankle. She cursed her own stupidity. Putting her whole weight on her injured leg was certainly not a clever idea. How could she forget about it yet again?

When Ása focused her attention on Thorin, it seemed that he froze mid-step, as if he’d wanted to approach her but something made him change his mind.

He made a reluctant step back, putting a distance between them. His gaze raked her from head to toe.

“Let us sit, Ása,” Thorin spoke solemnly and led her to the armchair. “There is something that I wish to discuss with you,” he took her hand into his as they sat down, but his face was impenetrable, as it often was during the official meetings in his grandfather’s throne room. The prince knew how to hide his emotions when needed, but Ása felt uneasy, not understanding why he chose to do this now when they finally met.

“What is it, Thorin?” she looked at his face searchingly, hoping to decipher his emotions.

“How are you?” he started slowly. “Are you well? Are you… unhurt?”

“Yes, I am, for the most part. Only my ankle is injured, but…”

“Was it the Elven King’s doing?” he growled in sudden anger.

“No, it was not him, I was running through the forest and fell,” she shook her head.

“You were running away from him, were you not? Did he threaten you?!” his temper was flaring up and his eyes narrowed.

“It was before I left King Thranduil’s dungeon to gain an audience with him. And he did not threaten me. Not directly… I think,” her voice shivered.

“His dungeon?! He will pay for this... And yet, you are unsure? What did he do to you, Ása?!” his inflamed growls seemed to come from the back of his throat, reminding her of a wounded beast, ready to strike back.

“Please, Thorin, let us talk calmly about this. I wish to tell you what transpired between me and the Elven King,” she swallowed, seeing his enraged face, feeling his fingers squeezing hers.

“Did he lay his hands on you? Did he hurt you in any way? I need to know!” he demanded as his large fingers trapped her palms in a firm grasp. “I will thank him properly for his affront to your honor!”

“There was no affront, and he did not cause any harm to me,” she explained in an attempt to appease him. Once again, she felt remorse for leaving, scolding herself for not staying by her One’s side.

“But he placed you in a dungeon! You, a noble dwarven lady! He had no right!” he protested, raising his voice.

“There was a small… misunderstanding and the fault was all mine. You can rest assured, Thorin, that King Thranduil acted... honorably, even though both I and Ottar... imposed on his hospitality,” she hesitated as she spoke, carefully choosing the words. Thorin’s hold on her hand gradually lessened as she spoke to finally let go of her completely. Ása watched his face closely as he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“If it was as you say, we can only thank Mahal for watching over you,” he looked at her intently. “We will talk more of this, my lady, but currently I am in the mind of demanding satisfaction from the Elven King.”

“Thorin, please, this is unnecessary! He did not harm me, he allowed me to return to Erebor,” she pleaded.

He sighed and shook his head disapprovingly. “I talked with Ottar. Thranduil kept you imprisoned and yet you defend him! And as for him letting you go, rest assured that his motives are never selfless.”

“About that… I need to tell you something important…” she wanted to explain, but Thorin interrupted her with a gesture.

“Which brings me to the matter I wish to discuss with you before anything else,” he frowned. “Ása, you chose to disregard your own safety, your honor and my explicit wishes only to see the Elven King in secret, no matter the consequences,” the Crown Prince’s temper manifested itself only in his eyes now, burning like furnace fire, but Ása felt its flames were cold as ice. There were shadows under his eyes and an unusual, sharp expression crept upon his face, but she also noticed something else that hadn’t been there a few moments before. His eyes shone with tiny sparks that seemed to dance in his irises like golden flower petals on a wind, matching the metallic sheen of the crown on his head. Ása recalled that unfocused yet intense glowing gaze of his. It had rested on her once before, in the forest, when Thorin told her to let her hair loose. She couldn’t explain it, but there was something about it that made her slightly wary at that moment.

“Please, understand, I only meant--” she pleaded, wanting to explain everything, but he didn’t give her a chance to speak further.

“I understand it very well. You put yourself in grave danger only to visit Mirkwood. It was more important for you to see that Elf than to stay here, by my side, where I can protect you. I have been pondering long and hard about this, wishing to understand the reasons behind your actions. I do not know what drove you away from Erebor. Were the recent events before your departure so overwhelming to you? Look at me, Ása, and tell me the truth! Do you truly wish to disengage from our betrothal?” he spoke in a low voice, his gaze piercing her face, still shining with that strange glow.

She gasped in surprise as she met his scorching eyes. Was that why…? Now both his words and his actions made more sense. Being her betrothed, he was, among other things, bound by honor to ensure her safety. That is what the ancient dwarven tradition demanded. Her actions made it look as if she refused to give him even the slightest opportunity to fulfill the duties expected of a future husband as if she thought he was not able to perform them to her satisfaction. As if she acted purposefully to demonstrate that he was not worthy of her. And since he was the Crown Prince of Erebor, his general conduct had to be worthy of the crown. If she deemed him inadequate and thus unsuitable for her hand in marriage, his people could consider him flawed and unfit to be their ruler. Thorin spent the last two weeks without his future bride from the Iron Hills by his side, not even knowing of her whereabouts. How must it have looked for his grandfather’s subjects, especially now, when king Thrór was deemed unfit to rule? The Kingdom Under the Mountain needed a strong leader more than ever and by leaving, she didn’t do what was expected to her. She didn’t fulfill her duties as Thorin’s betrothed. She wasn’t there when he needed her support and her help to handle this difficult situation. She should have been there, by his side, a living proof of the friendship between their two kingdoms, welcoming the returning dwarves, making sure that they are assisted in the best way possible. Instead, she abandoned him. Her One wasn’t a simple miner or a merchant, he was a descendant of Durin, an heir apparent to the throne of the greatest dwarven kingdom on Arda and currently - its ruler. She was to marry a dwarf committed to his heritage, a dwarf who took his obligations with exceptional seriousness. She had her own role to play as his future spouse, sharing his burden, being the person he could always rely on, no matter the circumstances. Why didn’t she realize it sooner? How could she be so blind? At that moment, she couldn’t even remember why she thought that visiting the Woodland Realm was such a great idea in the first place.

“Oh, Thorin… Before I reply, I would like to apologize for my recent actions,” Ása spoke timidly, averting her gaze. She needed to say the words that lay heavily on her chest for a long time, she couldn’t wait any longer. “I should not have left Erebor in such a way. I simply wanted to find some answers. I… I didn’t think about what it would mean. It was reckless of me,” she spoke, tears slowly welling up in her eyes, recalling the humiliation she had gone through in Mirkwood for the price of receiving Thranduil’s ultimatum. She tried to blink the wetness away, but one of the tears rolled down her cheek.

A heavy silence hung between them. Ása wondered what thoughts filled Thorin’s mind at that very moment. She lifted her eyes cautiously, wiping the lonely tear away, only to meet his piercing gaze. The twin azure pools brimmed with primeval power, reaching into the deepest corners of her soul. But there was no wrath on his face. Instead, it seemed paler and devoid of emotion.

“Indeed, it was,” he replied dryly after a pause, his hands resting on his knees, their knuckles whitening. 

Slowly, she took one of his heavy hands and placed it over her heart. The warmth of his skin wasn’t subdued in any way by the layers of the clothes she was wearing. “Do you feel my heartbeat, Thorin?”

A frown on his face deepened when he searched her face for a long moment.

“Yes,” he finally nodded. “Your heartbeat is strong and fast, like that of a running animal,” he admitted quickly in a low voice, moving his hand away from her chest. “But I will have your answer, Ása,” he pressed his lips in a thin line so that they almost disappeared within his dark beard.

“You can already feel how my heart beats for you, my love. There is nothing I wish for more than to become your wife, Thorin. I can only beg your forgiveness and hope that you would still want me by your side. Let me prove it to you,” As soon as she spoke the last words, she took his right palm into hers and looked deeply into his eyes.

“Do you mean it, Ása? Do you truly wish to bind your fate with mine, not only as my life companion but as the future queen of Erebor, serving our people together with me? Putting their needs before yours?” He returned her gaze, the bright blueness of his irises intertwining with molten gold. Somehow the sheen of his eyes didn’t make her uneasy anymore. It’s just a trick of light, she thought. The fireplace burns so brightly...

“You are my Azyungal*, Thorin. I want to spend my life with you,” she took a deep breath and mustered her courage to whisper: “In... In good times and bad times alike.”

Thorin’s eyes widened. She was sure he recognized this sentence, a part of the traditional dwarven wedding oath, spoken only on that rare occasion.

The weight of these words hung between them for an impossibly long moment. It seemed like the world froze around them. She closed her eyes in doubt. Did she overstep the boundaries of propriety, speaking these sacred words ahead of their time? 

Two impossibly warm hands gently cupped her face. “Open your eyes, my sweet,” he murmured encouragingly, his breath burning her cheek. When she did as he asked, she saw him kneeling in front of her armchair. He was so close to her now, leaning towards her, his body suddenly pressing against hers. When their gazes met, he spoke quietly.

“Would you mind repeating these words to me?” as his fingers gently caressed her face, Ása felt her uncertainty disappearing. Thorin’s gaze glowed with golden warmth, like the turquoise waters of the Long Lake shimmering in the sun.

“In good times and bad times alike,” she timidly spoke those meaningful words again. A warm and fuzzy feeling filled her heart at the thought that soon, in a few months, she would take Thorin’s hands and speak the full wedding oath together with him.

And then his lips touched hers, demurely at first, as if not quite sure of her reaction, but Ása was certain. She yearned for him and for the wonderous feelings their intimacy woke in her heart. She responded to his caress with a kiss of her own, meeting him halfway, tasting him for the first time in what seemed ages for her. 

A satisfied hum escaped Thorin's mouth, “Yes, in good times and bad times alike, Amrâlimê.**” His azure gaze brightened, mesmerizing her completely along with the words he huskily spoke. The affection in his voice was unmistakable. A spark of understanding appeared in their eyes and Ása blushed extensively at the implication of the statements they exchanged. Perhaps those weren’t the official vows nor the proper occasion, but their hearts beat in unison, their minds thinking similar thoughts.

“I missed you dearly, Thorin, I thought of you every single day!” she suddenly exclaimed, leaning towards him and throwing her arms around his neck in an uninhibited and very unladylike manner. Her beloved chuckled, his eyes brightening with joy. 

“Mahal, I missed you more,” he grumbled from the depth of his chest.

Without a warning, he stood up and effortlessly pulled her up towards him. She steadied herself against his firm chest as Thorin took her in his arms. 

“I can barely believe you are in my arms, my sweet,” he murmured, resting his forehead against hers, the ridge of his nose touching hers. “You were gone for such a long time,” he ran his hand through her hair. “I did not know what befell you until I saw you today. I believed that I… that I had lost you,” he admitted in a low murmur and hugged her tightly as if wanting to confirm that she wasn’t a figment of his imagination.

“You have not. My place is in your arms,” she whispered, resting her head against his broad chest. She felt the possessive strength of the arms that encircled her, the reassuring touch of his chin against her head and his fingers trailing through her hair.

“You are my greatest treasure, Amrâlimê. And you are mine, only mine,” he whispered, his voice brimming with passion.

“I am yours, Mizim***,” she replied, hugging him closer, her words muffled by his tunic. She enjoyed the familiar music of his heart that beat underneath it. This was her Thorin; her promised one. And now, she was truly back. All was well. 

Their lips met yet again, reassuring each other of their unwavering affections. Ása melted under his scorching lips. Thorin tasted of something sweet and dark, like roasted nuts or malt beer. His hair tickled her cheek, just as she remembered. He smelled of pine resin with hints of woodsmoke, the smell she could recognize everywhere. The dull pain she’d constantly felt in her heart for the last two weeks finally disappeared. Only then she realized how much she’d truly missed her One. His closeness made her dizzy and her knees weakened, but a pair of strong arms was there to hold her steadily as he placed sweet, tender kisses on her face. 

She moved her hand to his bearded cheek and marveled how wonderfully it felt under her fingers, soft and briskly at the same time. When he closed his eyes and hummed at her caress, she could clearly see his features softening under her touch. Remorse and guilt bared their venomous fangs in her mind once again and attacked her with full strength. 

“I can not take back the past, but I am with you now and I will not repeat my error, I promise.”

Thorin took her hand to his lips and kissed it softly in response. “I am not without blame myself, my sweet.”

“You? I do not understand,” she looked at him, frowning. 

“I neglected my duty towards you. I could only wish that I’d opened the Front Gate sooner so that I could ride out to find you at the first possible opportunity,” the prince explained thoughtfully. Ása couldn’t believe her ears. The sheer thought that her One considered leaving his kingdom at such a time because of her was too overwhelming.

“There is nothing to forgive, Mizim,” she protested. “Your mother and Balin explained what happened while I was away. Your first and foremost duty lies with the people of Erebor. You sent Ottar to protect me and for that, I am deeply grateful.” 

“You honor me with your words, my lady,” he replied, bowing his head. “Will you remember not to leave Erebor without me knowing about it.”

“You have my word. In fact, I can do something better. What would you say if we were to have a picnic in the woods? Whenever your… our duties allow,” she corrected herself.

“You and me in the forest? It sounds like a lovely idea, my sweet. I missed my forest dryad,” his lip curled up in a half-smile. 

“Perfect!” she smiled widely. “I will arrange everything, and make sure that Dwalin and Jutta are ready.”

“And what do they have to do with our picnic?” Thorin furrowed his brow.

“They will accompany us, or rather, we will accompany them. They need a bit of encouragement, you know,” she whispered conspiratorially. “And besides, Dwalin asked for my help in this.”

“Dwalin did… what?! I do not believe it!” the prince gasped.

“Then you can simply ask him,” she grinned. “Between you and me, I think he really likes her. He even sharpened her blades for her.”

Thorin groaned. “I know that Dwalin wishes to court her, but… he spoke of some obstacles. I was under the impression that he would wait. And now, he sharpens her blades like a dutiful husband would. Ása, what does Jutta say to all of this?”
“I think she is overwhelmed by the fact that she is a maid and he is the cousin of the Crown Prince of Erebor. She just needs a bit of encouragement. This would be a great opportunity. Only four of us, and no chaperones!”

“Very well. As long as she is not against it, we can spend some time with them,” he sighed in defeat, but Ása could have sworn that his eyes glinted when she spoke about the absence of chaperones.

“Thank you! It will be wonderful, you will see!” she squealed in joy.
“Only under one condition,” Thorin spoke in a serious tone of voice.

“What is it?” her eyes widened.

“Take twice as much food as you normally would. Dwalin is a hog,” he grinned.

“It will be arranged my lord!” she giggled, lifting herself on her tiptoes in an attempt to reach his lips, but the prince was too tall for her to accomplish this feat. She huffed, displeased. “And now, Your Royal Highness, would you be so kind and kiss me? It has been far too long!” she demanded, tugging at his tunic playfully. 

“Oh, my sweet Ása…” Thorin laughed, his white teeth contrasting with his dark beard, his deep blue eyes brimming with joy, the golden reflexes gone without a trace. 

 

He tightly wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her towards him and cupped her head in his hand, sinking deeply into a passionate kiss. She moaned when his tongue ran across her lips and, as they parted, found its way into her mouth. A familiar fire stirred inside her as his ministrations woke her desire for the forbidden pleasures of the marital bed. She clung to him, trying to hide a sudden blush and sinking her fingers into the thick mane of his hair. A groan of pleasure rose in his chest. His hand slowly traversed down along the curves of her body while his teeth grazed her lower lip. 

His mouth moved to her ear. “You are blushing beautifully, my sweet,” he murmured in his wonderfully deep voice, sending a shiver down her spine as he placed a delicate kiss on her earlobe. “Would you care to tell me what caused the lovely coloring of your cheeks?”

Her eyes fluttered open, “I dare not speak of it,” she said, blushing even more and averting her gaze.

“Is it so scandalous?” Thorin asked in a gruff voice, heavy with passion.

“Very.”

“More scandalous than what we did in your chamber?” He lowered his head to kiss her lips, his hand resting on her hip, gently squeezing it, but she buried her face in his chest.

“Yes… I mean, no, that is… Thorin, you are embarrassing me!” at that point she felt that her ears reddened as well.

“It was not my intention, my sweet. Well, perhaps not quite,” he admitted with a playful grin. “The truth is, I wish to know how to please you best.”

“I believe you possess this knowledge already, my lord,” she whispered into his tunic, not daring to look him straight in the eye.

“Indeed, you were kind enough to show me a thing or two,” Thorin said huskily as soon as he found his way to her ear once again. “Unfortunately, it has been such a long time that I may have forgotten all of it. Perhaps you would be kind enough to refresh my memory…?”

She giggled in response, feeling his lips grazing against her skin.

“How about this?” he gently nibbled on her earlobe, causing her to sigh, “Or maybe this?” he peppered the crook of her neck with sensual kisses, making her bite her lip and purr with pleasure, “Ah, just as I thought. However, I strongly suspect that you may be partial to this,” he moved to the front of her low cut gown, allowing his shamelessly bold lips to travel down her cleavage, reaching her bosom, while his beard burned a trail on her skin. When his hand closed possessively on her breast, she moaned with pleasure as her body arched, trembling in anticipation, sultry wetness pooling between her thighs.

“Yes… all of it, Thorin,” Ása whimpered, burying hands in his hair as his mouth moved relentlessly over her cleavage that revealed the tops of her round breasts. She moaned when his hand found its way under her skirts, trailing against the soft skin of her thigh. The touch of his fingers inflamed her. A shiver of pleasure ran through her body at the recollection of what they were capable of doing to her. She wanted... she needed all of him, and she didn’t care whether it was decent or not. Thorin was the one she was promised to; he was her One, and her body yearned for him immensely. She felt the physical proof of his desire for her prodding her underbelly and suddenly the thought of them consummating their union before marriage, here, in front of the fireplace didn’t feel shocking nor indecent any longer. She stopped caring about decency when his tongue danced against her skin. Mahal, have mercy on her... 

 

And then...

 

A knock on the door made them freeze on the spot.

When Lady Sigrun entered the chamber, she tried with all her might not to notice their shining eyes, their disheveled looks, heaving chests nor the evident blush on Ása’s face. They both sat in front of the fireplace, putting a lot of effort into looking composed and dignified. 

“My children, you will have to forgive me, but the hour is becoming late,” Thorin’s mother controlled her amusement so that her voice sounded bland and monotonous when she hinted at the need to observe at least some of the rules of propriety. Lady Sigrun wondered whether her own mother had a similar difficulty stifling a chuckle when she’d caught her and Freki fooling around in the gardens. Freki. This was the name of the dwarf she’d loved and hoped to marry in her youth before her father decided that it would be more profitable if young Sigrun wed prince Thráin. She often wondered what would have happened if she’d eloped with Freki all those years ago, but one glance at her son dispelled her doubts. Her children were the constant source of pride and joy for her, her greatest treasure. She and her husband weren’t an ideal married couple, but the offspring they had together made up for the hardships. When Thorin and Ása spoke their excuses and left the room, she settled into her favorite armchair and gazed into the fire, a faint smile gracing her lips.

 

***

 

They stood by the door to Ása’s room. Their walk towards her chambers was much longer than it should - not only because Thorin helped her take each step, insisting she lean on him. The biggest problem was their unending chuckles that were excessively hard to repress.

“Your mother will think the worst of me now,” Ása admitted.

“She will only think that we love each other greatly,” Thorin widened his smile and placed a quick kiss on her lips after making sure that the corridor was empty. He wouldn’t have his beloved’s reputation tarnished if a maid or a manservant saw them in a compromising situation. Tongues would start wagging all over Erebor soon enough. One embarrassing situation, like the one with his mother, was more than he needed that day. 

“Nevertheless, I am ruined in her eyes forever,” she retorted with a glint in her eye.

“Then we will have to remedy the situation at hand,” the prince explained calmly.

“Oh? What do you have in mind?”

“We need to marry in order not to offend my mother’s sense of propriety,” he chuckled. “Oh, what a coincidence, we are to marry already! How could I forget?” he feigned surprise and winked at her. He loved to make her smile, even with the silliest quips.

She broke out in giggles, “Do not dare to forget it once again, my prince!” 

He groaned. How could she even suggest that such a thing could slip his mind? Thorin felt that his duty was to show her the error of her ways. He took her small hand in his and stepped towards a nearby alcove that would hide them from prying eyes. She followed him with a little silvery laughter that made his heart beat faster. 

“Let me show you how vividly I remember it, Amrâlimê,” he murmured huskily. Her giggles became muffled as soon as his mouth possessively covered hers. She didn’t protest when he tasted her sweet, soft lips, grazing, nibbling, and deepening his kiss. She clung closely to him and one of her hands dove into his hair, her fingertips moving against the back of his head. He let out a growl of pleasure. Mahal, how he’d missed her. But now she was finally here, in his arms, and she still wanted to be his wife. The woman who stole his heart the moment he laid his eyes on her for the first time in the woods. His forest dryad. His future wife.

As their lips parted, Thorin traced her lovely flushed cheek with his thumb, observing how her long lashes fluttered when her eyelids moved up slowly. She needed a moment to focus her gaze on him. His lip curled up in a smile. The way she responded to his closeness, to his caresses and words was delightfully enticing. He looked deeply into her blue-green eyes, once more marveling at their otherworldly beauty. She was the only dwarven maiden he knew of who had such intriguing eyes.

“Before I retire to my chambers, I have a favor to ask of you, my lord,” Ása smiled at him playfully, her eyes gleaming with mischief.

“And what can this favor be, my lady?” he replied, irrationally wishing that she would ask him to spend the night with her, even though the decent (and very tiny at that moment) part of his mind faintly hoped she wouldn’t. Thorin was very well aware of how weak his self-restraint was, finally having his betrothed so close after their long separation. He knew what would certainly happen if he was to step into his betrothed’s chamber. He was, or at least he tried to be a gentledwarf, but at that moment Thorin wasn’t sure how long his resolve would last if this particular maiden was to invite him in. He realized how close he was to ravishing his One before his mother stepped into the room. He didn’t even want to think what would have happened if she didn’t. His imagination was too vivid. And the possibility… much too tempting.

“Would you be so kind and kiss me goodnight, so that I have something to remember you by throughout the night?” Ása spoke after a pause, licking her lips subconsciously and pulling him by his tunic towards her. Thorin sighed with relief, knowing that he was able to accomplish this particular task without losing control. He just had to focus on her velvety lips and not on the way her breasts kept so enticingly rising and falling, nor on the way her hips pushed flush against him, nor on her… No, not now. Focus. He had to control himself. Breathe in. Breathe out. 

“As my lady wishes,” he whispered hoarsely as he lowered himself to her firm, sweet lips to give her a proper kiss that would wipe every single thought out of her mind. Honor demanded that a gentledwarf always fulfill the wishes of the lady of his heart, and who was he to contradict the oldest dwarven traditions?

 

***

 

Under the shadow of the night, a cloaked figure soundlessly moved towards an infirmary bed where a dwarven matron lay. Pale light from a faraway light source cast an unearthly glow on the dame’s wrinkled face and her hollow cheeks. The figure put a small round object on the patient’s forehead and then a small vial that appeared from under the cloak. A gloved hand tilted it above the elderly lady’s mouth and soon a thick, dark fluid flowed out, disappearing between her lips. A hooded face moved towards her ear. The uninvited guest’s voice was raspy as it spoke words in an ancient tongue.

After several moments, the dwarven matron’s chest moved visibly once, twice, as if coaxed into breathing in more air.

“The dragon… Ása, beware... the dragon…” an almost unintelligible murmur escaped Lady Barba’s parched lips. 

When a night nurse entered the room on one of her rounds, the mysterious figure was long gone.




Chapter Text

The bacon was crunchy, just the way he liked it. It fitted well with the fresh, perfectly done eggs, with only a pinch of salt and pepper. And there was a generous spoonful of thick, fresh cream topping his porridge as well. He had to admit to himself that he’d greatly missed the daily dairy deliveries from Dale until this morning. The Men who lived in the city had strange, almost barbaric customs and didn’t know how to properly treat their women, but they certainly knew how to churn butter so that it shone like gold and produce both thick cream and aromatic cheeses. He would have to ask the kitchen staff whether the cheesemaker had already resumed his deliveries. That hard and spicy one, he kept forgetting its name, went very well together with dwarven ale. Perhaps they could serve it at the feast in the evening. Speaking of which, he would have to take a look at the latest supply reports as soon as he finished his breakfast. 

Thorin didn’t mind the early hour. He woke up at the break of dawn but felt rested better than in weeks. Ása, he thought to himself. My beloved is here. He smiled, trying to imagine her sleeping face and wondered how it would feel like to fall asleep and wake up beside her every day. Five months more. Only five months until their wedding day. He attacked the porridge mercilessly as if devouring it so quickly would make the time pass faster. He hoped to catch a glimpse of her before leaving the Royal Chambers. 

His mind returned to the matters of state. Except for those reports, he wanted to see the mines and check the progress on the reinforcement work. The structural integrity of some of the deeper mine shafts and tunnels became weakened after his grandfather’s recent escapade with his troops and the difficult rescue operation. 

And there was also this worrying matter of the Orocarni envoys. Thorin knew that this visit hadn’t been planned, at least not by King Thrór. He wouldn’t mind renewing the amicable relations between the dwarven kingdoms, and perhaps even negotiating new trading contracts, but at the same time, he worried. His father was involved in it and it seemed like he devoted much effort to pampering the diplomats in order to soften them sufficiently during the negotiations. It could only mean one thing: the game Thráin played had high stakes. And this worried him even more.

Thorin was so deep in his thoughts that he barely noticed when Frerin appeared at the breakfast table, mumbling something incoherent about his early shift in the mines.

“Thorin!” his younger brother nudged him. “You are not listening to me, are you?”
“Forgive me, Frerin, you were saying?” the Crown Prince looked at his brother’s sleepy face.

“I said,” Frerin sighed with impatience, “that I am thinking about swapping shifts. These early mornings are killing me. I want to see how it is to work in the mines at night time. What do you think about it?” Frerin grinned.

“I think you should first try going to sleep before the last evening bell instead of playing your fiddle in the middle of the night. It gives me nightmares, brother,” Thorin smirked playfully.

“I am practising! At least my music doesn’t make the milk curdle like it happens each time when you play your harp!”

“You are mistaken, it is…” Thorin started, but the sound of the opening door stopped him from finishing his sentence.

“Good morning,” a female voice filled the chamber. Thorin stood up immediately and went to the door.

“Lady Ása, have you slept well?” he asked, placing a light kiss on her shapely hand. The smell of lilac filled his nostrils, making his blood rush through his veins. 

“I did, my lord, thank you,” her lips curled up slightly. She was stunning. The way her intricately braided golden hair fell on her back, revealing her graceful neck, the way her lovely eyes smiled at him while her cheeks bloomed with a blush, the way she gently squeezed his palm in a discrete sign of affection - everything made him want to disregard the rules of propriety and start kissing her sweet lips at once, just as he did the day before. He recognized the invitation in her gaze… And then Frerin had to ruin everything by yawning. Loudly and theatrically.

“And good morning to you too, prince Frerin,” Ása turned to him. “If you are truly awake, that is.”
“I am not sure myself, my lady,” the young prince stood up and greeted her. “Waking up so early should be forbidden. But it could be worse. I could always be served a bowl of brussels sprouts for breakfast,” he grinned mischievously.

“So that was you!” Thorin growled with a half-smile on his lips, amused by his brother’s involuntary admission, but Frerin only laughed in response. Thorin still remembered that horrible breakfast. The worst part was that both his mother and Dís accompanied him on that day. Lady Sigrun’s meaningful gaze combined with the sight of his little sister being fussy with food again left him no choice. He had to play the exemplary brother yet again and eat those horrible vegetables. He hated brussels sprouts. He really, wholeheartedly did.

“I am afraid not… not entirely, my lord,” Ása chuckled, avoiding his eyes.

“This cannot be! I am surrounded by enemies! My own brother and my betrothed… unthinkable. Do you know that I was forced to eat a full bowl of these abominations of nature? I will avenge this treason, mark my words!” he faked a groan of pain, covering his eyes with his hand in a seemingly tragic gesture, waiting for their chuckles to die down. He felt light fingers touching his palm and moving it away from his face. Ása stood in front of him, trying to compose herself.

“I beg your pardon, my lord,” she gave a mock curtsy, her body shaking with laughter. “I will try to make it up to you somehow,” she added, winking playfully and biting on her plump lip in that special way that made him hold his breath. And did he just see the tip of her tongue sliding between her lips? Oh, Mahal. The insolent woman. He needed to show her what he meant to do with her. At once. If only they were alone...

“See that you do, my lady,” he said in a measured tone of voice, trying to ignore the vivid images in his head and taking deep breaths. “And now, let us sit down and enjoy our breakfast. No backstabbing this time,” he glanced at Frerin who smiled sheepishly.
Thorin found that his resolve to quickly start with his duties weakened significantly since the moment his betrothed appeared, and he allowed himself to linger for a few moments longer in Ása’s and Frerin’s cheerful company.

“What a lovely surprise,” a familiar male voice spoke, cutting their playful banter sharply like a knife. Thorin raised his head only to see prince Thráin accompanied by his wife. Lady Sigrun looked slightly thoughtful, while his father seemed to be in a great mood. There was a wide smile on Thráin’s face. He reminded him of a cat that had just caught a fat mouse or two. Thorin couldn’t shake off a bad feeling about his father’s uncharacteristically joyous mood. No matter what game - or games - Thráin was playing this time, he, Thorin, needed to continue with his own, a fairly simple one. It was not a game of chess, but it had a similar purpose: to secure and protect his future Queen. His father never approved of him taking an interest in Ása since there were no new trade nor military advantages to be gained from their union. A confrontation was on the horizon, but Thorin would prevail. He had the higher ground this time.

“Good morning, Mother, good morning Father,” he greeted them, standing up from his chair. Both Ása and Frerin quickly followed his suit, startled by this sudden appearance. Thorin took Ása’s hand and led her towards his parents. He noticed how tense she became, her mouth pressed in a thin line, and tried soothing her, his thumb gently circling the cool, soft skin of her palm.

“Father, it is my honor to officially present you Lady Ása as my betrothed,” he spoke in a challenging tone, meeting Thráin’s steel gaze with fierce determination. His jaw clenched in anticipation of his father’s furious response.

One heartbeat. Two heartbeats. Three… His father didn’t move a muscle, didn't blink. His wide smile never left his face. In the corner of his eye, Thorin saw his mother squeezing her husband’s arm.

Somewhere between the sixth and seventh heartbeat, Thráin finally spoke.

“I rejoice with you, my children!” he clasped his hands loudly. “I always knew that our dear Ása here was fit for a king, my son! My congratulations to you both.”

Thorin’s eyes widened in surprise. This was something new. He wondered about what could have happened to make his father suddenly accept his choice of a bride.

“I must admit I had my doubts about our young lady from the Iron Hills,” it felt as if Thráin read his thoughts. “But I had a chance to reevaluate my opinion. You did exceptionally well, dear Ása, being a splendid hostess to our new guests. You charmed every single one of them. Lord Randorm speaks of you very highly!”

“Thank you, Your Highness,” Ása spoke timidly. “I simply did what was expected of me.”
“And you showed the true makings of a future queen!” prince Thráin added and turned to Thorin. “You know, my son, that I had different plans for you, but it seems that we all have to remember: the future is not written in stone. I see a bright future before both of you!”
Thorin held his breath until his father finished speaking. This was the gentlest scolding he had ever received from his father. He couldn’t wrap his mind around this sudden change in him, not being ready to believe that his father acknowledged the error of his ways. Unease gnawed in the back of his mind. Something was not right, but he couldn’t quite put a finger on it.

“Thank you, Father. I appreciate your words,” he admitted and was about to say more when Dwalin suddenly barged in through the door. He was clad in his battle armor and held his helmet under his arm.

“Thorin…” he stopped to catch his breath. He panted as if he ran all the way from the deepest mines. “Yer Royal…” he tried again, recalling to use his new title as he steadied his breath.

“What is it, Dwalin?” Thorin approached him, giving him a few moments to recover.

“Urgent news… from the northern… border. Our outpost… in flames. The warning beacon… it is lit... They have been attacked… by the Orcs!”

“Oh, Mahal!” Lady Sigrun exclaimed, covering her mouth with her hand.

“We have no time to waste. Dwalin, will you ride out with me?” Thorin put his hand on his cousin’s shoulder.
“Why do ye think I put my armor on?!” his cousin wouldn’t miss a chance to fight for the world. Thorin nodded gladly, accepting his response.

“Guards!” he exclaimed and continued when a dwarven warrior appeared in the door. “Send word to the troops at the Front Gate. I need two Hammer units in fighting condition. We are riding out at the next bell.”

“Right away, Your Royal Highness!” the dwarf saluted, putting his fist to his heart, and marched away.

“Be safe, my son,” Lady Sigrun whispered, hugging him. He returned the embrace, murmuring a few reassuring words to her.

“Do not worry, m’lady, if an Orc tries to crack that empty skull of his, he will have to go through me first!” Dwalin exclaimed.

“I will return as soon as I can, Mother,” Thorin spoke, scowling at his cousin’s hopeless joke. “In the meantime, I am asking you to take good care of my betrothed.”
“Rest assured, Thorin, she will be in good hands,” she replied, wrapping her hand around the maiden’s arm. Thorin met Ása’s gaze and noticed her widened eyes, more green than blue, glistening with worry. Wishing he could take her in his arms and kiss her sweet lips in front of everybody, he raised her hand to his lips and placed a lingering kiss on her delicate fingers.

“My lady, if Mahal allows, I will return in time for the evening feast. Will you do me the honor of the first dance?”
He saw with satisfaction that a lovely pink shade covered her cheeks. Oh, how he wished to caress her, to place soft kisses on her smooth skin… He sighed and promised himself to steal a few kisses from her at the feast and make her blush even more.

“It will be my pleasure, my lord,” Ása replied and her lips curled up in a joyful smile.

“Be hasty, son,” his father interrupted their farewell and placed his hand on his arm. “The Orcs will not be waiting.”
“You speak the truth, Father,” Thorin agreed in a displeased tone of voice, frowning and turning away from his One, reluctantly letting go of her hand that fitted so well in his palm. He was bothered by the way his father acted and did not make an attempt to hide it.

“The kingdom will be in good hands until your return,” prince Thráin smiled widely. Too widely for Thorin’s liking.

“It will, Father. The members of the King’s Council know their duties well,” he reminded him, casting a challenging gaze at Thráin, but he only nodded and a wide smile never left his face.

Thorin said his farewells and took a last glance at his beloved, his heart leaping out of his chest, wishing he could stay with her in Erebor. Instead, now, when she was finally here, he had to leave. But there was no other way. It was his duty to defend his kingdom, as his grandfather would have done in his place. The thoughts of his dear grandfather kept assaulting him as he walked towards his chambers with Dwalin by his side. King Thrór was still suffering from the mysterious illness, completely powerless. Just then, a realization hit him. Thorin finally understood what really bothered him. It was not only his father’s behavior. When prince Thráin said his farewells to Thorin, putting his hand on his arm, the King’s Ring, the first among the seven Dwarf-rings, glistened on his finger. Thorin finally knew where King Thrór’s symbol of royal power had gone. It found its way to his son. His grandfather had been right all along.

 

***

 

Ása impatiently paced back and forth in front of the door to Thorin’s chambers. Apparently, dwarven men took at least as much time to put on their armor as she did when she was dressing for a feast. She looked down the corridor. It was empty and she hoped it would stay this way until she met Thorin. She felt the need to properly see him off, without any curious eyes observing them.

The heavy wooden door finally opened. Ása froze in anticipation.

“What a pleasant coincidence, m’lady!” Dwalin grinned and stepped outside. “There is someone here who would use a good farewell kiss.”

She heard a very familiar grunt coming from inside the chambers and soon Thorin’s tall figure appeared outside, clad in his battle armor. He looked magnificent; he was not a prince at court any longer, but a fierce warrior, ready to crush his enemies. There was this special smile on Thorin’s handsome face that was meant only for her. His wavy hair fell on his wide shoulders covered with formidable dark golden shoulder pieces that were decorated with black raven heads. The breastplate made of geometrical shapes emphasized his broad chest, giving out a faint golden sheen as he approached her. Ása held her breath, hoping that her knees wouldn’t give out beneath her when his fiery eyes met hers. Thorin took another step towards her, his heavy boots thudding against the stone floor.

“Dwalin, you will turn away and admire the corridor walls. Now,” he growled, not looking at his companion. 

“And why would I do that?” Dwalin teased, faking complete obliviousness.

“That’s an order, Dwalin. Do not make me spell it out for you,” Thorin rumbled, taking another step towards Ása, his azure gaze brimming with hunger. Her heart beat faster and faster.

“Very well, then,” she heard Balin’s brother chuckle as he finally turned his back towards them. “Just don’t do anything my poor heart couldn’t withstand…”

But no one listened to him any longer. Ása closed the distance between them in two small steps and wrapped her arms around Thorin’s neck as he took her in his arms, pressing her body against his hard breastplate. One of his vambraces pushed into her back. The metal was cold, its shape uncomfortable, but she didn’t mind it at all. Her mind was already drifting in a haze of pleasure since the moment Thorin’s mouth found her lips. His kiss was distinctly different from their other kisses, full of raw, unadulterated passion, more possessive, and it seemed to overwhelm all of her senses. It felt as if her prince tried to put all of the feelings he felt at that moment into this one desirous kiss. She stifled a moan when his tongue thrust between her lips. Gone was his usual gentleness, his slow wooing of her senses, his lazy explorations of her body. He conquered her, ravishing her mouth like a warrior fighting a battle, demanding an unconditional surrender. A surrender that was eagerly given. She melted in his arms, barely aware of her fingers moving through his dark sable mane as he deepened their kiss, a victor triumphantly enjoying his spoils.

“You are mine, Ása,” he murmured huskily as his beard scratched against her skin, his arms steadily embracing her.

“I love you too, Thorin,” she whispered, placing a soft kiss on his lower lip. And another one, on his upper lip. And a next one, on his bearded cheek. 

A storm that roared in his eyes seemed to slowly subside when he finally spoke. “Stay with my mother. Ottar will accompany you if you need to leave the Royal Chambers. I do not trust our guests, nor do I trust my father. Be wary of him, my heart.”

“Do not worry, Mizim*. I will be well protected here. Promise me you will return to me safely, my husband-to-be,” she whispered, moving her fingers along the courting braid in his hair clasped with her jade bead, her cheeks slightly flushing.

“I will count moments until we meet again, my wife-to-be,” he kissed her gently on her swollen lips. “Do not forget about the first dance,” he added.
“I will be counting on the second dance as well, my lord,” she winked.

“As you wish, my lady,” he lowered his head with a satisfied smile.
Ása stood alone in the empty corridor, looking towards the disappearing figures of her beloved and Dwalin. Mahal, keep him safe, she whispered inaudibly. Her One was going into battle with Orcs and away from her. She wondered whether Thorin felt the same heartache she was subjected to now. He was leaving Erebor for less than a day, but she already longed for his closeness, like the snow-covered ground longs for the warmth of the spring sun. With Thorin gone, cold darkness found a way to slowly drizzle into her heart, but she refused to give in to those feelings. There was something she needed to attend to.

 

***

 

“But Jutta, it is going to be a picnic, nothing more,” Ása explained, trying once again to persuade her companion. “Just friends eating delicious food and having fun!”

Friends , huh? Is that what you call it these days? You and Thorin… friends ? And when you marry and start living together you will be his… flatmate ?” Jutta snorted mockingly, wrapping her arms across her chest. 

“You know what I mean, Jutta...” Ása sighed. This was turning out to be tougher than she thought, but she had no choice. Her promise to Dwalin aside, she wanted to see her friend happy again and not in that grumpy mood she’s been in since her injury. She clearly remembered how happy Jutta had been when she used to sneak out to train her martial skills with Dwalin.

“Oh yes, I know! I’m supposed to become friends with Dwalin too, am I not?” Jutta furrowed her brow.

“I’m not telling you what to do. I simply think it would be wonderful if we could spend some time together, all four of us. And yes, I know for a fact that Dwalin wouldn’t mind having the opportunity to see you after all this time. I think,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “that he misses you.”

“Ása, you’re imagining things!” Jutta huffed, clearly showing displeasure, but Ása noticed her widening eyes and flushed cheeks. “He just wants his sparring partner back, that’s all there is to it. Although I don’t understand it. Many fine warriors in Erebor specialize in dual blades and would gladly spar with him.”

“Perhaps he thinks that your face is prettier than their bearded mugs,” Ása grinned.

“Nice try! I’m not going to that picnic of yours. I can’t even walk properly!”

“I have already thought of it. You’ll be carried in a litter, so you don’t need to worry about…”

“Me? In a litter?! Do I look like an elderly matron or an ancient lord suffering from gout?! I’m a warrior and I’m telling you: not a chance!”
“Jutta, I simply want you to be comfortable,” Ása pleaded, concern clearly showing in her voice.

“I will be more comfortable here, in this room, on my bed, dying of boredom, instead of figuring out which fork I should use for this or that fancy dish,” she looked away in slight embarrassment.

“There will be no fancy dishes, and we will eat with fingers. It will be a simple lunch and not a royal dinner! Unless you’d like to wear a pretty gown to impress a certain someone…?” the dwarven maiden teased her companion.

“I hate gowns! I’m not a fancy lady. I’m useless, that’s what I am. I can’t even guard you. It’s bad enough that now I have to wear gowns every day because of my stupid leg,” Jutta grunted. “If Dwalin wants to see a girl in a nice dress, he’ll be sorely disappointed!”

“Does that mean you’re coming?” 

“No. I’m not,” the stubbornness in her voice made Ása grit her teeth.

“Would you do it for me? If I asked you to?” Ása waited until Jutta turned her face back towards her. “I know I’ll sound like a silly, enamored girl, but I thought… I barely have the chance to speak with Thorin these days, he is so very busy. What’s worse, whenever we try to steal a moment in private, the chaperones are always conveniently flocking around us. I hoped that this picnic would be a wonderful occasion to spend some time together, him and me, you and Dwalin, without all that exhausting bowing and courtly manners. If you think that this would be too much for you now, I’ll understand and we’ll never speak of it again.” She looked at Jutta intently, once again trying to figure out the reasons behind her friend’s reluctance.

“Well, what I think is…” at the same moment when Jutta spoke, there was a knock on the door. After hearing the invitation to come in, the door opened, revealing Thorin’s mother standing at the threshold.

“I am sorry to disturb you, ladies, but I have urgent news for you. Mahal be praised, Lady Barba is finally awake!” Lady Sigrun’s face brightened.

“She… she… is she?” Ása gasped, getting up at the same moment and almost toppling the chair.

“Wonderful,” Jutta joined in.

“Indeed. I have just returned from the infirmary. She wishes to see you, Ása. Would you like to accompany me?” the lady looked at her expectantly.

“Go, Ása,” Jutta decided. “I’ll wait for you here. Wish Lady Barba all the best from me.”

“I will, Jutta, for sure,” the maiden nodded reassuringly.

“And… Ása?”

“What is it?” their gazes met.

“About your question… I’ll think about it,” Jutta smiled faintly.

“You will? Oh, Jutta, thank you!” Ása squeezed her hand hopefully. 

Ása was leaving the room when she heard Jutta’s grumpy voice. “I haven’t agreed yet!”

Perhaps there was still a chance to have this picnic after all, Ása hoped, smiling to herself. Nevertheless, they would discuss it later. Right now, she wanted to see her guardian and do everything she could to help her.

 

***

 

The familiar smell of healing poultices and lye soap surrounded Ása as soon as they entered Lady Barba’s chamber in the infirmary. The dwarven maiden expected to see an empty room with her guardian silently resting, perhaps even napping in her bed. Instead, they encountered several servants and nurses bustling about, and one very pale and very scared healer who stood by the invalid’s bed. 

“What do you mean: ‘he is gone’? Bring him to me at once!” demanded the aforementioned invalid in a fainter than usual but nevertheless adamant tone of voice. Lady Barba sat upright in her bed, propped up by a small mountain of pillows behind her back.

“F-forgive me, my lady, but Master Filur is c-currently in Dale…” muttered the terrified healer.

“And why is he not here? He should be in Erebor!” she continued.

“It-it w-was urgent, my lady. Please, understand, you and the other patients who also fell into this sleep after the d-dragon came… there aren’t many of you, you see... but you woke up so suddenly… and Master Filur thought… and he decided…” the young dwarf spoke nervously, looking down at the floor and probably hoping for the earth to swallow him right there and then.

“Speak plainly, young man, I do not have the patience for your mumbling!” Lady Barba insisted.

“My dearest Barba, have mercy on our master healer. I see that you are getting better and better,” Lady Sigrun chuckled.

“Sigrun! And Ása, my dear child! Please explain to this young man here that my husband needs Master Filur’s expertise as soon as possible. His rheumatism is acting up again, you see,” Lady Barba’s face brightened up with a smile. Ása’s heart filled with warmth. Even though the dwarven matron looked more like a shadow of herself with her uncharacteristically pale skin, hollow cheeks, and circles under her eyes, the sparkle in her eyes was as strong as she remembered. Lady Barba was truly back. Overwhelmed with sudden emotion, Ása ran to her bed and gently hugged her guardian, noticing at the same time the unusual fragility of her body; Lord Beldrum’s wife was much thinner than she remembered.

“Oh, Lady Barba, I missed you so!” she exclaimed.

“There, there, my dear. Nothing to fuss over. The healers assure me,” she cast a terrifying glance at the healer who seemed to be rooted to a spot, “That I will be back on my feet soon enough. Is that right, young man?”

“Y-yes, Lady Barba, I-it is!” he stammered out and cast a pleading look at the women. “M-may I go now?”

“I will make sure that Lord Beldrum receives his treatment, Lady Barba,” Ása reassured her, feeling sorry for the healer.

“Well…” the matron eyed him sternly one more time.

“Let the poor boy go, Barb, I am sure he has many other patients to attend to,” Lady Sigrun greeted her friend and sat by her bed.

The matron nodded and dismissed him with a single wave of his hand. Her head fell on the pillows as soon as he was gone, taking the nurses and servants with him.

“Those healers can be quite exhausting,” she closed her eyes and stifled a yawn, suddenly looking as if she’d just finished a night shift in the mines.

“Do you wish to rest, Lady Barba? Are you hungry? Thirsty, perhaps?” Ása peppered her with questions.

“No, thank you, dear. Although I would like to lie down now,” she admitted and Ása immediately took to adjusting her back support to improve her comfort. The dwarven maiden’s hand slipped under the fluffy pillows and suddenly she touched a cold, irregular shape. Without thinking, her fingers wrapped around the unknown object and quickly hid it in one of the pockets of her gown. She will have plenty of time to look at it later. Lady Barba needed her full attention now. Her eyes were closed as she rested her head on the pillow, but her breathing was healthy, deep, and measured.

“... but first and foremost, you should be thinking of your own health,” Ása focused on Thorin’s mother’s voice who gently scolded her friend. “I need your sharp wit more than ever.”

Lady Barba slowly opened her eyes. “What happened?”

“My husband is plotting. Again.”

Ása’s eyes widened, but she didn’t dare to make a sound.

“How bad is it?” Lady Barba went straight to the point.

“He congratulated Thorin and Ása on their upcoming nuptials,” Lady Sigrun explained.

“It is bad,” her friend agreed, her forehead wrinkling as she frowned.

“There is more, Barb.”

“I’m listening.”

“He did it… while smiling,” Lady Sigrun finished, casting a concerned glance at Ása. The dwarven maiden felt the blood leaving her face. Ása didn’t know Thorin’s father too well, but she had to admit that she rarely saw him glad or smiling as widely as he did at brekfast.

“It is worse than I thought, then,” Lady Barba sighed, covering Ása’s palm with hers. It was cool, but the familiar touch of her skin seemed to bring comfort to both of them.

“I am afraid so. That is why I need you to focus on your health. And that’s an order,” Thráin’s wife insisted. One look at her guardian’s face told Ása that Lady Sigrun knew very well how to speak to the dreaded “Lady Dragon”. The older lady hated idleness and needed to occupy her sharp mind with something. Something like prince Thráin and his mysterious plans. She felt a knot growing in her stomach. 

Lady Barba squeezed her eyes and took a few deep breaths as her head rested on a pillow. Ása noticed a few drops of perspiration on her forehead.

“Under one condition, Sig,” her voice was a bit fainter than before. “I need to hear about everything that has happened since the dragon came to Dale.”

“Perhaps you would like to rest first,” Thorin’s mother suggested.

“I am resting, can you not see? Tell me, Sig, what have I missed?” Lady Barba’s voice turned to whisper.

“Very well,” Lady Sigrun shook her head in defeat and shared all of the recent events with her friend. Ása joined in, speaking about her trip to Mirkwood and meeting with prince Thráin afterwards. She didn’t dare to look at Lady Barba’s face to know of her disapproving gaze.

“I am away for a few moments and Erebor suddenly falls apart into pieces…” the matron seemed to berate the whole kingdom. “The dragon can return Mahal knows when… Our king is unwell... Crown Prince Thorin is in dire need to strengthen his position as the Regent… While my protégé forgets about her honor and decides to play a diplomat in Mirkwood… And what is worse, she wears a morning dress in the afternoon! Is this how I trained you, child?”

“Lady Barba, I simply…” Ása lowered her head. So many things happened that day that changing her dress was the last thing she had on her mind.

“Barb, have mercy on her,” Lady Sigrun chuckled. “Do not worry, my dear, your guardian is teasing you mercilessly.”

“Sigrun, I will not have you questioning my methods. I will make a proper lady out of her, you will see,” the matron declared sternly, but Ása thought she could see a minuscule twitch in the corner of her lips. “And do not look at me with those puppy eyes of yours, my child, we will have a serious talk about your behavior later,” Lady Barba continued, addressing Ása. “I do not know how you managed to convince King Thranduil, but his proposal will certainly help Crown Prince Thorin in the current situation.”

Ása smiled faintly, glad of her approval. If only there was a way to chase away all the dark clouds gathering above their heads, or at least know from where they were coming...

“Do you think…” Ása couldn’t hide the shivering in her voice. “Do you think that prince Thráin still does not approve of Thorin’s betrothal to me?”

“Either this,” Lady Barba explained, “or he is covering a greater scheme with his current actions. He enjoys keeping everyone in the dark and wondering about his motives.”

“Whichever it is, remember, Ása, he does not have the power to threaten your union,” Lady Sigrun added, but there was worry written all over her face. “Once you are married, he will have to accept it forever. Remember, my dear, I will be by your side to help you and Thorin,” she smiled reassuringly.

“Thank you, my lady,” Ása replied. “I believe that Thorin already does not trust his father’s intentions. He warned me about him before he left Erebor,” she admitted, feeling a faint blush appearing on her cheeks when she recalled their passionate farewell.

“I told you, Sig, this boy is not only muscle. He has some brains in him, as well,” Lady Barba nodded approvingly. “Until we know more, it will be best to observe prince Thráin’s actions and act as usual. Especially you, dear Ása. He can not know that we are on our guard,” the old matron’s gaze rested on her face.

“I will do my best, Lady Barba,” she nodded. A horde of thoughts galloped through her mind.

Lady Barba patted Ása’s cheek and spoke quietly, closing her eyes again. Ása welcomed the reassuring touch. “All will be well now, my child,” the lady murmured, a shadow of a smile dancing on her lips. “All will be well. Old Barba has returned to take the bull by its horns.”

With these words, she drifted off to sleep. 

Ása’s hand slid into her pocket and found the unfamiliar, unsettling shape. She had to find out where this mysterious stone came from.

Chapter Text

Ása hadn’t seen anything like this stone before.

Its surface was dark grey, almost black, but it was covered with small green spots that glittered in the candlelight. This rock reminded her slightly of mica, but she was sure that this particular piece came from a completely different kind of mineral. The frustrating part was that she had no idea what it could be. She wrinkled her nose in frustration. Being a Dwarf, she’d known about Mahal’s underground riches since she was a dwarfling. Quartz, magnetite, various types of feldspar - she could name these and many other minerals, but the unusual stone she’d found under Lady Barba’s pillow was a mystery to her. Perhaps it was simply a piece of rare rock that she didn’t know of, but a miner would recognize it at once. She decided to show it to Thorin after the feast. When he returned, that is. What if… She sighed and shook her head. There was no word of his return yet, but there was still time. The only thing she had to do was wait. Trying not to dwell on her worries, she reluctantly returned to the matter at hand, hoping it would prove to be a distraction.

Once again, her eyes rested on the stone. How had this object found its way to Lady Barba’s sickbed? And why? At first, she thought that it was a talisman or a good luck charm that simply fell out of someone’s pocket because she noticed a single rune on its surface. It must have been carved there a long time ago, because the symbol was barely visible and, unfortunately, unrecognizable. Some time ago, she returned to the infirmary with some snacks for Lady Barba and asked the matron about this stone, but the respectable lady called it the ugliest piece of rock she’d ever laid her eyes on and shrugged. Talking with the healers and nurses hadn’t been helpful either. No one seemed to recognize it. What if someone left that stone there on purpose? And why? Was it supposed to be a secret gift for Lady Barba?

Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. After a while, a middle-aged dwarf woman walked in and curtsied.

“Good afternoon, m’lady. My name is Breka and I was sent here by prince Thráin to assist you until your own maid gets better,” she explained.

“Nice to meet you, Breka. Thank you for coming, but I think I am managing quite well,” Ása cast a suspicious gaze at the maid, wondering what prince Thráin was up to this time.

“I’m sorry, m’lady, His Highness informed me that you will be needin’ a hairdresser for tonight’s feast, and I’ve been dressin’ ladies’ hair for many years now,” she smiled confidently.

Ása gasped in panic. The feast! Was it that late already?! With all the events of the day, she almost forgot about it. Instead of preparing and thinking about dresses, matching jewels, shoes, and fans, she was trying to figure out the origins of the mysterious stone and reading ancient tomes about dragons. By the way, according to one dwarven scholar, the dragons would lay their eggs in groups in the nests they dug in the ground. Apparently, each egg was different, and depending on various conditions, it could take a long or a very short time until it matured enough to hatch. Another scholar suggested that it mostly depended on the dragon mother’s diet and the amount of sun that…

Breka cleared her throat, looking expectantly at her. Focus, Ása, focus! She was hopeless… This was not the time to think about dragons and their eggs. The feast was coming and she wasn’t ready! An alarming thought flashed through her mind. Oh, Mahal, Thorin! She promised the first dance of the evening to him and she hasn't even picked a dress yet! Thorin… she closed her eyes. This wasn’t the time to worry. She had to be ready for the feast, and the first dance of the evening with her prince. The sheer thought of being held in his strong arms was enough to make her heart beat faster. This would be the first official occasion after their betrothal where they would dance together. The eyes of the whole court would be on them. It had to be perfect. She would do everything she could to look worthy of the Regent of Erebor himself. Her One. 

Ása stood up from her chair and approached the maid, desperately trying to remain calm. “Do you think you can help me prepare for the feast in such a short time?”
“Of course, m’lady! Prince Thráin thought you might want to wear one of your new dresses, so he sends them as well. Should I bring them in, m’lady?”

“My new dresses…?” Ása’s voice trailed off. “Yes, please do...” she said without thinking and her eyes followed Breka as she curtsied again and left her chamber.

This was puzzling. What was Thorin’s father up to now? Was he trying to get into her good graces by giving her new gowns? Or was this his attempt at controlling her? Was he trying to tell her what she was supposed to wear? She remembered what Lady Barba told her about being inconspicuous, but this was simply too much; she would choose her own dresses, thank you very much!

“Here are your dresses, m’lady,” the brown-haired maid entered the room with a wide smile on her face. “They came from Dale just around midday. I hope you don’t mind me sayin’ this, but they are so pretty!”

Ása recognized both gowns at once. They were ordered by Lady Barba at Mistress Mathilda’s, on the day when the dragon came to terrorize Dale. A shiver traveled down her spine when she recalled the beast’s unbearable shriek tearing through her mind. 

“M’lady? Which one will it be?” the maid’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

“The lavender one, I think,” Ása replied after a few moments, touching the soft silk fabric and admiring its lustre. She didn’t know how prince Thráin had known about these gowns, but he certainly did his homework very thoroughly.

“A wonderful choice, m’lady!” Breka exclaimed enthusiastically and started helping her dress for the feast, oohing and aahing about how beautifully Ása looked in it.

Soon, Breka started dressing her hair and told Ása about herself. She had two young sons with her husband who used to be a miner, but now wasn’t able to work any longer due to an injury he sustained in the mines. Breka was a cheerful woman, but Ása could see the worried creases when she spoke about him. Being a sole provider for both her husband and children surely wasn’t easy, and yet here she was, smiling, sharing anecdotes from her life and doing wonders with Ása’s unruly hair. Perhaps Breka wasn’t that bad, after all.

When her hair was ready, Ása looked into the mirror, surprised at her own reflection. The maid skillfully pleated her hair into countless beautiful braids that were elegantly pinned on the top of her head in the shape of a golden crown, giving her a regal look. If Lady Barba’s own hairdresser saw this, she would have been green with envy.

“Breka, this is wonderful!” she admitted.

“Thank you, m’lady, I’m glad you like it,” the maid replied with a visible joy in her voice.

“I love it! I’ve never had such an elaborate hairstyle before!” Ása said, taking another look into the mirror. “I wonder, though… it is a bit untraditional, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps in Erebor, m’lady, but from what I know, this is how the Orocarni ladies wear their hair,” Breka explained.

“Without any beads?” Ása listened to her curiously.

“I talked with some of their servants, m’lady, and it seems so. They say that the women of the Red Mountains wish to be respected based on their skills and not on the beads they wear nor what house they belong to. Instead, Orocarni men wear too many of them for my liking,” she chuckled.

“I see…” Ása pondered, recalling how Mistress Adra wore her hair. She had to admit to herself that she never saw beads in the warrior’s hair. Yet another local custom, she shrugged.

“Don’t worry, m’lady,” Breka continued, seeing the undecided look on Ása’s face, “your beads are still there, safely tucked under your hair, but if you don’t like it, m’lady, I can redo it. I simply thought that you would like to impress your guests...” her voice trailed off as she looked away in embarrassment.

“You did well, Breka. It would be a shame to destroy such a beautiful hairdo. Let us hope that the most conservative ladies of Erebor would not have a fit over it,” Ása decided.

“Thank you, m’lady,” the maid looked relieved. “Should I help you with your earrings?”

“No, that won’t be necessary. Has Crown Prince Thorin already returned?” Ása hoped that her voice sounded natural. Ottar was supposed to inform her about Thorin’s return, but there was still no word from him and she was growing more and more concerned with each passing moment. It didn’t help to know that her prince was considered to be a skilled warrior nor that he was accompanied by the Mahal’s Hammer troops, the elite warriors of Erebor. Mahal, bring him safely back to me, she pleaded, unable to fight off the worrisome thoughts that slithered through her mind. What if they met with too much resistance from the Orcs? What if the enemy forces were too strong? What if it was an ambush?

“No, m’lady, I’m sorry. They haven’t come back yet,” Breka replied. “The northern outpost is not that far, so they may have been simply delayed a wee bit. Y'know how the warriors are, they like to celebrate after a battle they’ve won. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were simply taking their time to return. And if they seem a tad merry afterwards, if you know what I mean, m’lady, you’ll know why!” the maid grinned.

“Thank you, Breka, you are probably right,” Ása forced a faint smile on her face even though her stomach clenched with worry. Until that moment, she was proud of acting like a true lady and masking her uneasiness. As Crown Prince Thorin’s betrothed, she had to project calm and confidence. Showing her true feelings, as irrational as they were, could be interpreted as a sign of doubt in his abilities, both as a dwarven leader and a warrior. This was the last thing she wanted to do. One glance at her face should tell everyone that she wasn’t a bundle of nerves, but a noble dwarven maiden peacefully waiting for her intended, as if he went for a stroll and not rode out to fight a raiding band of bloodthirsty Orcs. She would have to keep on wearing her fake smile throughout the whole evening, and play a charming hostess to the Orocarni guests, even if Thorin wasn’t to return by the time the feast started. What if he wasn’t to return at all… A pang of fear swept through her. She couldn’t shake off that bad feeling that seemed to settle permanently in the pit of her stomach. In her mind, dark clouds were gathering on the horizon, heralding an upcoming storm.

***

 

Thorin wasn’t there when the feast started. 

There was no word from him and no sign of his troops returning to Erebor. The feast had already started, both the dwarves of Erebor and their Orocarni guests were enjoying good music, entertaining conversations and, of course, delicious food and drink. The contents of each platter looked and smelled deliciously, Ása even spotted her favorite wild strawberry tarts, but she couldn’t force herself to eat anything. For a thousandth time since she arrived at the Great Hall that evening, her eyes drifted towards its entrance, hoping to see the familiar figure of her betrothed crossing the threshold, only to be disappointed by the sight of an empty walkway.

“May I know your opinion about it, my lady?” Lord Randorm turned to her.

“I… forgive me, my lord, I believe I lost track of our conversation,” she bowed her head in reverence, recalling her hostess duties and trying to rein in all of her worries at the same time.

“May I ask whether everything is in order?” the Orocarni diplomat observed, his face expressing concern.

“It is nothing of consequence. I have been a bit preoccupied, that is all,” Ása said, trying to avoid the painful subject. “You were saying, my lord?”
“I have been wondering whether you had the chance to see the works of the most renowned Orocarni stonemasons. I consider their skills to be at least on par with those of the Erebor masters,” he eagerly returned to one of his favorite subjects.

“I am afraid not, my lord, but I am sure they are as splendid as you say.”

“If you do not mind me saying, my dear lady Ása, it will be my honor to introduce you to them in my homeland,” Lord Randorm stroked his impressively beaded beard with a content smile.

“I will be honored, my lord, whenever it may happen,” she replied in a non-committal manner. Ása had other plans for the foreseeable future than visiting the Red Mountains and going on a sightseeing trip with Lord Randorm, but she caught prince Thráin’s warning glance from across the table and resigned herself to accommodating the Orocarni diplomat, smiling and nodding at everything he said. 

 

Thorin wasn’t there when the dances were about to start. 

Something must have happened to her prince. Something bad. What if an Orc… No, she refused to think such thoughts. Ása bit her lip in an effort to stop her eyes from filling with tears.

“May I say that you look exceptionally lovely tonight, my lady?” Lord Randorm spoke. “Especially your hair. I am honored by your choice of headdress,” he tilted his head in appreciation.

“Thank you, my lord, it is too kind of you,” she replied mechanically, casting a longing glance at the entrance to the Great Hall. There was no one there. Ása mustered a faint smile on her face, trying not to show her true emotions.

“Would you care to join me for the first dance, my lady?” the diplomat stood up and bowed to her courtly. This was wrong. She promised this dance to Thorin. He was supposed to be here and enjoy the evening in her company. Thorin, where are you?

Ása felt prince Thráin’s eyes on her once again. Lady Sigrun, who sat next to him, gave her an encouraging look and slightly nodded. Thorin’s mother’s countenance didn’t betray any emotions, but Ása noticed her tense muscles and her long-fingered hand clenched tightly on the armrest of her chair. She was worried, too.

Ása stood up, accepting defeat. The only thing she could do now was to keep up the appearances and make the guests happy.

“It will be my pleasure, Lord Randorm,” she placed her hand in his, but her heart was away from Erebor, together with Thorin at the Northern Outpost. Even though the Ironfist lord turned out to be quite a skilled dancer, she wasn’t able to enjoy it. She didn’t even dare to ponder all the agonizing possibilities of what could have befallen Thorin.

Her heart ached.

Her One wasn’t there.



“May I ask you a question, Lady Ása?” Lord Randorm spoke when they returned to the table. As she was sitting down, she noticed prince Thráin giving her a small smile and a nod of approval.

“By all means, my lord,” she nodded, focusing her attention on the guest.

“Would it be very inconsiderate of me to ask you about the dragon that has been seen in the vicinity of Erebor some time ago?” the elderly diplomat smiled tentatively.

Ása blinked in surprise. It was to be expected that the news of that horrifying day in Dale would reach his ears eventually, but she didn’t expect it to happen so soon. She tried to ignore the memories that popped up in her head for the second time that day. The terrible screeching, the piercing pain, the thick smoke that smelled like sulfur… 

“What…,” she took a deep breath, trying to calm herself, “What would you like to know?”

“Have you seen this formidable serpent, my lady? Could you tell me how it looked? I have never seen a living dragon myself,” he admitted with a gleam in his eyes.

“I am sorry to disappoint you, but I was indoors when the attack happened. I only saw a  glimpse of its tail. It was long, green and… two-pronged, I think,” she wrinkled her forehead. “If you visit Dale, my lord, you will be able to talk with Men who saw it as it came over their city.”

“Thank you, my dear lady, that will not be necessary. A green dragon attacking the city... well, that must have been a terrifying day,” Lord Randorm saddened.
“Indeed. Many lives were lost. Many wounded,” she spoke quietly, recalling those events.

“And you, my lady? Were you safe, here in Erebor?” Lord Randorm’s keen eyes rested on her face.
“Unfortunately not. I was visiting Dale on that day. I believe that I fainted when the dragon’s poisonous fumes reached me. Luckily, Crown Prince Thorin was there to help me,” she couldn’t stop a blush from appearing on her cheeks. “Otherwise I would probably fall into the same deep, unending sleep as some of the other Dwarves did.” She stole another look at the entrance, seeing a movement there, but it was only a guard passing by.

“I am very sorry to hear of your discomfort, my lady. Thank Mahal, you are here with us now, gracing the feast with your presence. I have heard that the dragon’s fumes can be very dangerous. I hope that you have fully recuperated? No lingering side effects?” the Ironfist diplomat asked worriedly in such a manner that Ása was touched to see his genuine concern.

“No, Lord Randorm, nothing is bothering me, Mahal be praised,” she replied. It was true; she had already started taking Athradiel’s herbs and was finally able to sleep through the night without any disturbing dragon dreams, but the Orocarni diplomat didn’t have to know all of the details.

“Mahal be praised, indeed, may he keep you always in good health,” he agreed and soon changed the subject. “Do you think, my lady, that the great King Thrór will grace us with his presence tonight?” he asked in a conversational tone as if he was discussing the weather.

Ása stiffened. She was certainly not prepared to answer him. If prince Thráin had already given him a reason for the king’s absence, her answer would reveal its untruthfulness. Oh, how she hated all those court games, questions-in-questions, hidden meanings and agendas. She would rather be spending time in the forest, observing the birds during their nesting season. With everything that was happening around her, she couldn’t leave Erebor even for a short while and she missed the peaceful atmosphere of the woods more with each passing day.

Wondering whether there was something more behind Lord Randorm’s question, she glanced at Thorin’s father who was deep in conversation with another Orocarni diplomat. It seemed that she was on her own.

“From what I know, I am afraid not. Has prince Thráin not informed you?”

“Unfortunately not, my lady,” Lord Randorm admitted, “but…” he stopped in mid-sentence, noticing a commotion by the entrance to the hall.

Suddenly, the music stopped. There was a movement by the widely opened door. Ása’s heart leaped, but her hopes were soon shattered as the Chamberlain of Erebor entered the Great Hall. 

“Noble ladies, noble lords,” his sonorous voice rose above the sounds of the feast as the hall quieted down. “It is my honor to present our newly arrived guests: the delegation from the Iron Hills!”

A wave of cheers and shouts of joy went through the hall. Ása gasped, seeing a group twelve Dwarves entering the chamber.

Prince Thráin stood up and approached them with a smile. “Lord Grohir! What a pleasure to see you again!”

The portly dwarf in dark violet robes whom prince Thráin addressed, smiled widely and exchanged quite an informal bear hug with Thorin’s father. Ása’s brow furrowed. She had no idea that they knew each other so well.

Prince Thráin proceeded to greet the other guests while an elaborately dressed lady with a dwarfling in tow joined the Iron Hills lord. She was as elegant and beautiful as Ása remembered, with her stunning auburn hair decorated with glittering emeralds. Ása focused her whole attention on these three unexpected guests as they directed their steps towards her.

“Lord Randorm, allow me to introduce my father, Lord Grohir, my stepmother, Lady Esta, and this young gentledwarf is my stepbrother Gromi,” the dwarven maiden spoke, wishing that she could be anywhere else but in the Great Hall at that very moment. This was going to be a long and dreadful evening.



“My dear, dear Ása, how lovely you look!” Lady Esta exclaimed after Ása’s family joined her at the table. “It is quite unexpected! I see that someone finally found a hairdresser who managed to tame your hair! How quaint!” she delivered one of her usual vicious compliments, smiling a bit too widely. 

Ása counted to ten and, as usual, feigned a clueless smile. “Thank you, Lady Esta, but even my hair can’t match your beauty tonight.”
“What a sweet child you are,” Lord Grohir’s wife spoke, smiling even wider. “Is she not sweet, my lord husband?”

“Yes, she is,” Lord Grohir agreed, nodding to his daughter approvingly and taking a sip of ale. “Are they treating you well here, daughter?”

“Oh yes, Father. Better than I could have hoped.”

“Splendid.” he smiled in contentment. Ása’s father was a handsome man, but his features seemed to gradually soften with age and there were more grey strands on his temple than she remembered.

Lord Grohir wasn’t much of a talker unless the conversation focused on trade, gold or politics, so his next words didn’t surprise her at all. “Lord Randorm, I hear that you have quite harsh winters in the Orocarni,” he turned his attention to the diplomat. “Wouldn’t you be interested in acquiring three wagons of the best goat wool in the whole Rhovanion?”

And that is when Ása knew that she was now condemned to the torture of conducting a polite conversation with her stepmother without making a scene in front of everybody.

“My dear, we are so happy to finally see you! We were so thrilled when the news came about your upcoming nuptials! Did you get my letter? Well, of course you did. Your father is very proud of you. To be honest,” Lady Esta lowered her voice slightly, “I didn’t think you would ever catch a husband, especially with your complete lack of feminine grace, but I am happy to see that I was wrong. Look at you now! The future wife of a king! I’m truly glad that you accepted his proposal.”

“Thank you, Lady Esta, it is very nice of you,” Ása replied, smiling sincerely this time. “I simply couldn’t say ‘no’ to him,” she admitted, feeling a blush appearing on her cheeks. She didn’t care for her stepmother’s mean remarks, as long as she refrained from meddling in her private matters. “And yes, I received your wonderful letter, it was very thoughtful of you. May I ask how did you know about all of it so soon?” This was something that had been bothering her for weeks now. Her betrothal to Thorin happened in secret and yet her family knew about it before anyone else.

“Why, from His Royal Highness Thráin, of course! Who else?” Lady Esta looked at her in surprise.

“Of course, why didn’t I think of it? How silly of me…” she babbled. Thorin’s father. Indeed, who else. She wondered how he knew about it and, since he did, why he didn’t stop them. He had been decidedly against their union since the beginning, but more and more of his actions puzzled her lately. Did he find some advantages in the current situation, changed his mind and finally accepted their match? She had to speak to Thorin about this.

Thorin. She cast yet another hopeful glance at the entrance, but there was no sign of him still. A sigh escaped her lips.

“Why are you sad, Ása?” her stepbrother approached her chair, looking at her with his large hazel eyes. “Aren’t you happy to see me?” he pouted.

“Of course I am, Gromi,” she embraced him and lifted him on her lap, pecking his chubby cheek. No matter how unpleasant her stepmother was, Ása adored her little brother. It was good to see the sweet boy again.

“Good, ‘cause I’ll be staying here now. And we’ll play a lot together, you, me and Mister Boggins. And then you will go and marry! But shhh, don’t tell anyone, it’s a secret!” he looked at her with a wide grin, hugging tightly the aforementioned Mister Boggins, his favorite teddy bear.

“Hush, my child,” Lady Esta ruffled up his bright red hair. “Do not speak nonsense. Let me talk with dear Ása for a moment. You will have plenty of time to play with her later, just like I promised.”

“Yes, mommy. Can I have a cake now?” Gromi instantly focused his attention on the table that was filled with food.

“Of course, my son, here you go!” his mother decided, making him squeal with joy.

 

“Is it true what Gromi says? Are you going to stay here, in Erebor?” she asked when her stepbrother was safely seated on his own chair, his attention turned to a cake topped with a mountain of whipped cream.

“We are, for a while,” Lady Esta nodded. “After all, you are Lord Grohir’s daughter and the ward of the King of the Erebor. Someone has to take care of the preparations for your wedding day. Do not worry, I will see to everything. We need to fill your glory box and we do not have much time! And there are also your wedding gowns to think of, all seven of them, each for every day of wedding celebrations! I hope the seamstresses of Erebor can work as fast as ours in the Iron Hills. Have you already chosen the colors? I have been thinking green for the first day…”

Ása played idly with her fan, enjoying the feel of its cool metal surface. Having it with her reassured her somehow, since this was the fan that Thorin made especially for her. She still remembered the day he gave it to her, his scorching touch on her skin, his incessant kisses on her lips. Oh, Thorin, please, come back to me.

 

“And then, we need to think of your gifts to the groom. It should be something not too lavish, it is him who is supposed to shower you with riches, after all…” Lady Esta droned on tirelessly. Ása kept on nodding and uttering sounds of approval from time to time. Her stepmother was in her element and it was of no use trying to stop her. Fashionable gowns, matching jewels, fans, and shoes were making Ása dizzy. The thought of having to choose between different weaves of the same fabric used for bed linen made her yawn, but when she heard that she would have to spend most of the mornings on crocheting doilies (an important part of the glory box, of course), made her writhe in terror. Not only because she found this activity utterly pointless and boring, but also because Lady Esta was going to help her with it every day. Until her wedding, Ása was about to spend every single morning with Lady Esta, listening to her malicious remarks while trying to do a decent double crochet stitch. Five months of torture with her stepmother. Every single morning. Unless Thorin… she squeezed her fan in her hands. Thorin. Her One. Only Mahal knew when... if she would ever see him again. Was he still fighting the overwhelming Orc forces, endangering his life? Or perhaps he’d been seriously wounded. She closed her eyes. She could see him, pale and lifeless, lying unmoving on a battlefield crawling with Orcs. All the negative thoughts, worries, and terrifying scenarios flooded her mind, leaving her eyes brimming with tears. Beauty and decorum , she recalled Lady Barba’s words. She wouldn’t, she couldn’t make a spectacle out of herself, not here, not now.

“You will have to excuse me, Lady Esta,” Ása interrupted her stepmother’s monologue as she got up, “I… I will return shortly,” she mumbled, desperately trying to control her emotions.

“What is it, my dear, are you unwell?” the lady cast her a scrutinizing look.

“It is nothing… I need a few moments for myself,” Ása explained, barely holding back the insistent tears.

“Unwell?” Lord Randorm joined in. “My lady, let Mistress Adra escort you to your chambers,” as soon as he said it, the Orocarni warrior woman appeared by Ása’s side without a word.

“It is... not needed… I just...” the dwarven maiden stumbled over the words.

“I insist,” the diplomat opposed, seconded by Lady Esta, but Ása didn’t listen to their words. She was losing the battle with her emotions, being on the brink of giving in and letting her tears stream down her cheeks. She covered her face with her fan and quickly left the feast and all the guests behind before anyone could notice the state she was in. 

Ottar joined her by the entrance without a word, and grunted, clearly dissatisfied at something he saw behind her. Mistress Adra was following her, of course. Ása gathered her skirts and hastened her pace, running down a staircase and turning into the main walkway leading by the Front Gate, choosing the shortest way to the Royal Chambers. A tear trickled down her cheek. She wanted to be left alone. She didn’t care about the two warriors following her nor about the messenger that hurriedly passed her by, giving her a quizzical look, nor about the sudden commotion by the gate, nor about the voice that came from that direction.

“Excuse me, my lady.”
That voice. She stopped in her tracks, quickly wiping off her cheeks, her heart racing.
“Would you care to tell me whether the dances have already started?” the voice approached, accompanied by the sound of heavy boots against the granite floor.

Ása raised her head. “Thorin! You are alive!” she squealed and rushed towards him without thinking, wrapping her arms around his waist and hugging him as tight as she could. His tunic smelled of iron, charcoal smoke and the cold wind that roamed the plains north of the Lonely Mountain. 

“I most definitely am, my sweet,” he hummed quietly and a deep, tender chuckle reverberated in his chest. Oh, how she loved that sound, how she loved his warmth, his closeness, and his embrace.

Cheers, whistles and enthusiastic shouts from many dwarven throats filled the air, bringing Ása back to reality. They weren’t alone and here she was, in a public place, in a tight embrace with a Dwarf that wasn’t even her husband. At least not yet. Nevertheless, Lady Barba would have been livid. She will be, as soon as she knows of it. Ása hastily let go of Thorin and took a step back, seeing a large group of warriors behind her betrothed, each of them with a wide grin on his face. Her cheeks reddened in embarrassment.

“I am very happy to see you, my lord prince,” she somehow managed to gather her wits and bowed as the tradition demanded. “It is good to see your brave warriors as well!” That caused another round of cheers.

“I am equally glad, my lady,” he responded with a bow, pressing a light kiss to her hand, tickling her with his beard. “I rode like the wind to see you.”

“Was your mission successful?” Ása asked, her cheeks flushing. Her heart sang. Her One was finally back with her.

“Indeed, my lady. It took some time, but once again the brave Mahal’s Hammer gave the Orc filth a taste of dwarven iron!” Thorin exclaimed as the warriors began cheering once more. “I believe that we all deserve some music, food, and drink, what do you say, lads?”

“We do, Thorin,” a Dwarf with his hair braided in two long black braids replied. “And you deserve a dance or two with your lady!” His companions loudly applauded this idea.

“It can be arranged,” Thorin smiled and looked at her intently, “if Lady Ása agrees.”

“My lord,” Mistress Adra interrupted, approaching them and positioning herself directly in their path. Her lips were pressed into a thin line, “we are on the way to lady Ása’s chambers. She has been feeling unwell,” her words were accompanied by Ottar’s disapproving grunt.

Thorin cast a worried look at his betrothed.

“Thank you, Mistress Adra, I am very well now,” Ása explained. “A dance is exactly what I need at this very moment.”

“But my lady--” Adra protested, taking a step forward.

“I promised Lady Ása a dance,” Thorin stepped towards the warrior woman in an intimidating manner. “As you heard, this is her wish as well, and I intend to fulfill it. Is that understood?”

“I’m sorry, my lord, but Lord Randorm entrusted me with Lady Ása’s safety. I am under orders to escort her to her chambers undisturbed by anyone.”

One look at Thorin’s face told Ása that a storm was coming. In fact, it was already raging in his eyes.

“Are you suggesting that I am not able to ensure the safety of my betrothed?” he growled menacingly, clenching his fists. 

“Your-- I am sorry, my lord,” Mistress Adra stiffened and hastily bowed. “It was not my intention. Forgive me. I will leave the lady under your protection.” The Orocarni warrior bowed again and stepped to the side, not blocking their path any longer. Ottar’s ice-cold glare followed her every move. Ása sighed in relief. She knew that Mistress Adra sometimes took her duties too literally, but she hadn't seen her overstep her boundaries before. Luckily, the warrior woman understood her error on time. This could have turned out into a full-fledged conflict between Erebor and Orocarni. 

Thorin huffed and turned to his betrothed, his eyes as dark as cloudy skies at dusk. “Lady Ása, will you do me the honor of escorting you to the feast?”
“With pleasure, my lord prince,” she took his arm, feeling his tense muscles under her touch as they headed towards the Great Hall.

 

A wave of cheers greeted them as Thorin and his warriors entered the feast hall, with Ása walking by the Crown Prince’s side. She was overwhelmed by the reception they received. Prince Thráin stood up along with the rest of the guests, joining in the rejoicing, the congratulations, and the laughter that followed. He even took on the duty of officially presenting Thorin to the members of the Iron Hills delegation, praising his son’s victory along with his exceptional warrior skills. Hearing this, Ása exchanged a quick glance with Lady Sigrun who gave her a small smile and a shrug. Perhaps her husband simply wanted to brag about his son in the eyes of his guests, to reinforce his status as his father. Ása had better things to do at that moment than questioning prince Thráin’s motives. The first notes of music filled the large hall and dwarven pairs started appearing in the middle of the chamber in anticipation of a dance.

“My lady, I regret not being here to enjoy the first dance of the evening,” Thorin addressed Ása formally, his azure eyes emanating with warmth. “Nevertheless, I would like to ask you whether you would consider honoring me with a dance?”

“With pleasure, Your Royal Highness,” she took his outstretched hand and let him lead her towards the already gathered couples, vaguely aware of all the glances and knowing smiles cast in their direction.

“You look stunning, my sweet,” Thorin murmured. “I can not take my eyes off you, and I am not the only one here who admires your beauty,” he took her in his arms as the dance started, his loving gaze resting on her face. 

“Thank you, my lord. Luckily, I have my eyes only for you. Other admirers do not interest me in the slightest,” Ása admitted with a small smile.

“Does that mean that I am admiring you in a satisfactory manner?” he spoke so that only she could hear him. His thumb was gently caressing her palm as they held their hands while dancing, a gesture that would surely go unnoticed by the curious eyes of other guests. Nevertheless, they had to be more careful if they didn’t want to scandalize the entire Erebor. Having her recent misstep freshly in mind, Ása promised herself to be on her best behavior.

“What sort of a scandalous question is this, my lord?” she chuckled, silently cursing her blush that eagerly bloomed on her cheeks.

“A question to make all the other admirers clearly see how much you enjoy my company, not theirs,” he smiled playfully and twirled her around. There was a warrior’s grace in the way he moved, brimming with confidence as he continuously adjusted his position to her motions. Ása knew that it would probably sound very silly if she spoke her thoughts out loud but for her, dancing with Thorin was effortless, like drifting among the clouds.

“I am afraid that one glance at us will make them suspect that you just made me an indecent proposal,” she returned into his steady arms as they passed another dancing couple.

Thorin hummed, “I can always make one if that is your wish, my lady.”

“Your Royal Highness?” she started, trying to furrow her brow in faked displeasure and utterly failing.

“Yes?” he grinned.

“You are the most incorrigible Dwarf I have ever met!”

“Thank you,” Thorin flashed his teeth unapologetically. “When it comes to you, my lady, I aim to be the best.”

She growled. He definitely aimed to be the biggest smartass she knew as well. And she loved it.



Chapter Text

“Has the feast been very tiresome to you, my lady?” Thorin asked while escorting Ása to the Royal Chambers. The feast had been far from over, but her need to finally be alone with her betrothed combined with the fiery glances the prince had been casting at her throughout the evening made Ása decide it was time to leave under the pretense of tiredness. It wasn’t entirely untrue, she was genuinely tired of entertaining the diplomats of the Ironfist Clan, not mentioning her stepmother’s constant unfavorable remarks.

“You arrived just in time to prevent my demise from boredom, my lord,” Ása chuckled, resting her hand in the crook of Thorin’s arm and enjoying the feel of his steel muscles under her touch, a physical proof that his presence was not just a figment of her imagination. Her prince was finally back, alive and well, and his closeness was the exact thing she wanted at that very moment. 

“Then I am glad that I could be of service, my lady,” he covered her hand with his in an intimate gesture. The skin on his large palm was warm but rougher than she remembered, most probably a result of the fighting he took part in earlier that day.

“Was battling the Orcs very dreadful?” she looked at her beloved hesitantly, not quite sure whether she really wanted to hear the gory truth.

“Mostly it was time-consuming. A band of Orc marauders, or perhaps deserters, attacked our Northern Outpost and destroyed parts of it. Luckily, there were not many casualties on our side. We arrived on time to fight the enemy off. The Orc filth scattered in different directions and they had to be chased after,” he explained matter-of-factly.

“Marauders? So this wasn’t a regular attack of the Orc forces?” 

“No. It was not,” Thorin confirmed. 

“What would marauders want here?” Ása could not stop wondering.

“Probably food, dwarven armors, weapons. Quite a few of them looked sick or starved, even though they knew how to put up a fight.”

“I have been awfully worried for you, Thorin,” her voice changed into a whisper.

The prince stopped in his tracks and looked at the lady of his heart, affection clearly visible in his eyes. “I would not let anything happen to me, my sweet. Not when I knew that you were waiting, here, in Erebor, for our dance,” he squeezed her hand reassuringly, one of the few gestures he was allowed to do in public.

“I do not care for any dances as long as I know that you are safe,” she put her other hand on top of his, mimicking his gesture. The prince’s eyes flickered slightly as he lowered his face towards hers. Her heartbeat accelerated in anticipation. Ása was almost sure that he would kiss her any moment now when a Dwarf passed by, making them return to maintaining the proper distance between a betrothed couple, meaning - much too far away from each other. Their bodies seemed to be constantly drawn to each other as if they were bound by invisible silken threads full of yearning and eager anticipation, their pull barely possible to resist.

They walked slowly, painfully aware that each reluctant step brought them a bit closer to their separate chambers. Soon, they would have to wish each other a good night’s sleep. Soon, much too soon, Thorin would courtly kiss Ása’s hand and then bow respectfully, never crossing the line of propriety. Soon he would leave her alone with her thoughts and restless dreams until the next day. The thought of being torn away from his enthralling presence made Ása slow down her pace even more.

Thorin stopped and looked at her from under his dark brow as his lip curled up slightly. “Would you care for a small tour, my lady?” he spoke in his deep, irresistible voice. And, of course, she couldn’t resist him. In fact, she didn’t even want to resist, and she didn’t care how unladylike it was. 

Her decision was made long before he finished speaking, but she said playfully, “At this time of night? A most indecent proposal, my lord,” with faked indignation.

Thorin’s lip curled up even more visibly than before. “Do not be alarmed, my lady. As your future husband, it is my duty to show you every part of the Kingdom Under the Mountain. My proposal is dictated by the good of my kingdom, my lady. Nothing else.” She saw it clearly. Prince or no prince, this Dwarf was incorrigible with his teasing.

“Well, I had my mind set on retiring to my chambers, but I am always ready to serve the great kingdom of Erebor, even at this hour,” Ása bowed her head, not being able to contain a smile.

“Your dedication is duly noted, my lady,” the prince nodded in approval, his eyes sparkling with pent-up laughter. “Will you be kind enough to follow me?”

“Of course, my lord.”

They turned into a less-frequented walkway, then into a corridor that led to a lower level that led them into another walkway, and another. At some point, Ása lost her count and was no longer sure where they were heading. Wherever they were going, they continued descending deep into the bowels of the tremendous mountain. Finally, they stopped in an empty alcove, in front of an inconspicuously looking stone wall. Thorin’s hands moved quickly against it, pushing its surface in a specific manner, and soon a hidden passage opened. He took Ása’s hand and led her in. As soon as the door closed behind them, the prince couldn’t wait any longer and impatiently took his One in his arms, lowering his mouth to her exposed neck.

“I missed you, Amrâlimê,” he said huskily between ardent kisses, his hands traveling across the curves of her body. “One day away from you… it was unbearable.”

“Oh, Thorin, you came back to me,” she whispered under her breath.

“I will always come back to you, my heart,” he murmured into her ear, his breath scorching her skin. She let out a sigh of pleasure as her body responded to his caresses. The way he brushed his lips against hers was enough to make her feel dizzy. Ása’s lips parted invitingly and the tip of her tongue touched the seam of his lips. Her own boldness surprised her, but she was rewarded by a rumbling groan in Thorin’s chest as he pulled her closer and claimed her lips, dominating it with his own, his tongue boldly delving into her mouth, engaging hers in an enticing dance. Her mind was in a haze. She melted under his touch and was dangerously close to drowning in his arms, giving in to the wanton thoughts that shamelessly appeared in her brain. 

“Thorin…” she moaned, trying to catch a breath in an effort to regain control over her body. “Please…”

“Yes, my love?” he murmured hoarsely when their lips parted.
“We should… think about… the good of your kingdom,” it took a great effort to whisper these mischievous words against her own will. Ása slowly opened her eyes and met his intense, dark blue gaze that brimmed with passion.

“My... kingdom...?” Thorin’s hazed eyes rested on her as he clearly tried to gather his thoughts.

“We are here on official Erebor business, are we not?” she smiled teasingly, slowly pulling out of his embrace as her hand reluctantly moved away from his dark hair, traveling along the muscles of his neck. “Perhaps it is time that we continued on our way, my lord.”

Thorin grunted, but his eyes twinkled as he composed himself, running his hand through his ruffled mane. “Perhaps it is, my lady. I think I may have forgotten myself,” he admitted, but Ása was sure that he didn’t look repentant at all. On the contrary, he seemed to be enjoying himself.

“Oh, and why is that?” she asked innocently.

“I believe that your low-cut gown is to blame,” he stated with a serious expression on his face, but his lips twitched, giving away his amusement. “I must congratulate the seamstress on its design,” he added seemingly to himself and Ása could not help but giggle in response.

 

They continued their walk, progressing deeper into the mountain. The air grew gradually warmer as they descended. Finally, they reached another stone door in a wall and passed through it into a cavern that seemed to stretch without end. Ása gasped, taking in the marvellous sight. Steaming pools of different sizes, filled with turquoise water covered most of the floor. The walls of this giant chamber flickered brightly with blue water reflexes that danced all the way to its high ceiling. The misty, warm air smelled refreshing, like minerals.

“ The hot springs of Erebor. One of the most important places under the Mountain,” Thorin explained. “This is where we take our warm water from, among other things.”
“I have never seen anything like it before,” Ása looked around in fascination. “I’m… speechless.”

“I hoped that you would like it. Only a few have seen this place,” a hint of a proud smile appeared on the prince’s face.

“It is amazing,” she admitted in appreciation, trying to take in the breathtaking greatness of this cavern all at once, but soon the curiosity took the better of her. “Where does the heat come from?”

“There, do you see this stone shaft?” he pointed at a large, C-shaped opening in the rock wall at the far end of the cavern. It seemed to lead both up and down, into the deepest bowels of the Mountain.

“What is it?” she wondered as they approached it, stopping at a distance. The air was noticeably hotter here.

“Our oldest stories say that it had been carved by the first Dwarves that inhabited the Lonely Mountain. Some say that it leads to the mountain’s core, but no one has been bold enough to descend all the way down to confirm it. The heat becomes unbearable, even for us,” he alluded to the fact that the Children of Mahal coped with high temperatures much better than other races of Arda.

She squinted, looking at multiple niches that covered the inner walls of the vertical shaft. “Are these... balconies? There, and there… There are so many of them.”

“Indeed,” he confirmed. “Unfortunately, much has been forgotten throughout the ages. There is a long-standing debate among our scholars about their purpose. They might have been simply meant as a decoration or a way to improve the heat circulation.”

“I see… I did not realize that our Longbeard forefathers had been so skilled,” she said.
“Oh, yes. It is a splendid construction. Do not repeat my words to our stonemasons, but I believe that the craftsmanship of the old masters remains unsurpassed,” he admitted.

After admiring the place for a few moments more, they returned to the shimmering pools. Ása gathered her skirts and squatted by one of them, dipping her hand in the water. It was deliciously warm.

“Do you visit this place often?” she looked at Thorin who sat down next to her.

“I will let you in on a secret,” he lowered his voice, a small smile dancing on his lips.
“I am all ears,” she smiled.

“I sometimes visit this place to bathe here after a long day, when I don’t want to be bothered.”
“But it is the warm water supply for Erebor… Is it allowed?” Ása looked at all the pools in surprise.

“Of course,” he grinned. “The water in these pools,” he gestured at a group of pools nearby, “is not intended for our pipeline.”
“What is it intended for, then?”

“Well, I had not the opportunity to ask the grandmasters of old, but something makes me think that they liked swimming and bathing as much as I do,” he grinned, the shimmering water glistening in his eyes.

“I do not blame them at all. Who does not like it?” she agreed, enjoying the sensation of the water invitingly swirling between her fingers.

“Do you, my lady?” she felt the heat of his voice as he murmured the words into her ear, making her heart beat faster. Surprised, she moved her head to face him, almost bumping into his nose. His mouth was unbelievably close to her lips. She swallowed. Thorin gazed at her intently, waiting patiently, not closing the distance between them.

“I… Yes, I do,” she whispered, suddenly very aware of his masculine frame in front of her, his vibrant presence, his fingers slowly intertwining with hers. They were alone in this place, just the two of them, with no chaperones to watch over them, no family members to disturb them. They could do whatever they wanted to. Whatever they desired. A flush crept up her cheeks. Her previous boldness was melting away piece by piece. In the king’s court, there were always certain rules to be followed, traditions to be observed, but here, in this magical place, she was treading into unknown territory. None of the countless lessons of etiquette would be of any help in this cavern.

“Then… Would you,” Thorin cleared his throat, “would you care to join me for a swim, my lady?” Ása thought that his face darkened slightly. She wondered whether he was as embarrassed as she was at this very moment. It was common for the dwarven couples, families, and groups of friends to go for a swim or even enjoy a bath together in the large bathhouses on the upper levels of Erebor, with all the rules of propriety observed, of course. This, however, was something completely different. They were not yet married, and in this place, this usually innocent activity turned in her mind into something much more intimate. The thought of sliding into the pool next to him, wearing only her undergarments, was both terribly thrilling and frightening. They were both becoming more and more familiar with each other’s bodies, but this was something completely new. Suddenly, she felt very self-conscious of her own body that could soon be exposed to Thorin’s gaze. He never saw her without a dress before. What if he didn’t like how wide her hips were? What if preferred ladies with narrower thighs? Or wider, for that matter? And what about her waist? She wore a corset now, but as soon as she took it off, he’d clearly see the results of her “wild strawberry tart diet”. It was obvious that her figure was not what every dwarven maiden strived to achieve. When it came to Thorin, however, she was almost sure that he looked definitely the way a warrior should. Almost sure. Her imagination ran wild as she imagined his broad shoulders, his athletic chest and so many other delicious details she was only vaguely aware of.

Her blush deepened as she mumbled, looking away, “I am… I mean, would you…? I mean…”

“We do not have to, Amrâlimê,” he spoke soothingly. “Forgive me, I did not wish to make you uncomfortable.”

“No, my love, this is not how I meant it. I-I’m simply… we have not done this before,” she admitted timidly.

“We have not,” he smiled in confirmation, “nevertheless, you are my One and I wish to share all the good things in my life with you. A swim in these waters is one of them. Perhaps you would rather return here with me after we are wed?” he rumbled, bringing her hand to his lips.

“No,” she spoke decidedly. 

“No?” Thorin raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“That is… yes, eventually,” she explained, mustering her courage. Her heart pounded. “Since we are already here... a swim sounds like a good idea,” she smiled faintly as their eyes met.

“Are you sure, Ása?” he looked deeper into her eyes, and she knew that he found the reassurance she was giving him willingly.
“It has been ages since I went to the forest to take a swim. We both deserve a treat after today, Mizim”, her quiet reply was met with a smile.

“We do,” Thorin nodded, his azure eyes brightening. He stretched out his hand to help her up. “Do not worry, my sweet, I will conduct myself like a proper gentledwarf tonight and avert my gaze,” he spoke, clearly seeing the nervousness written all over her face.

“I am sure you will, but one thing worries me,” she looked at him with an unspoken plea in her eyes.

“And what might it be, Amrâlimê?”

“There is something that I can’t do myself, you see,” she admitted, her voice barely a whisper. “Do you know how to unfasten a lady’s ball gown?”

He didn’t. Not at first, at least, but Thorin was a fast learner and quickly took care of the uncountable hooks, loops and ribbons.

“It would be much faster if I had a good hunting knife with me. Then, these infernal ribbons would be defeated once and for all,” he muttered, pulling a long ribbon out of a loop.

“A hunting knife? Do I look like game to you, Mizim?” Ása giggled.

“Oh, yes, but you are my game, my sweet,” he placed a quick kiss on her uncovered shoulder and returned to the task at hand. He finished his work with a triumphant hum and took a step back. Ása turned to face him, holding the now loose bodice of her sleeveless gown to her chest. She felt his gaze upon her, noticing the dark flames that were burning in his stormy eyes along with the strong, defined line of his bearded jaw, and reminded herself to breathe.

“Thank you, my lord,” she nodded, giving him an appreciative smile.

“Thank you, my lady,” his rumbling voice reached her. “It was an honor,” he added, respectfully turning away from her, acting like a true gentledwarf. His words, however, made her snigger. “If you require further help with disrobing, please let me know.”
“Oh, my lord, but that would be improper, and you promised to behave,” she spoke to his impressive back as she took off her gown, chuckling and feeling more at ease with each passing minute. A growl came from Thorin’s direction.

“I would like to inform you, my lady, that I am currently trying to recall why I made this pledge in the first place. A clear lapse in judgment on my part,” his deep voice reached her as the last layer of her clothes fell on the ground. Her bare feet rested firmly on the stone floor as the moist wisps of pleasantly warm air surrounded her body covered only by the thin fabric of her small clothes. She hugged herself, as if subconsciously trying to shield herself from prying eyes, and had to remind herself that the cavern was empty. One glance at Thorin told her that he remained unmoved. Reassured, she turned towards the pool and placed her foot on one of the carved steps that led into it. Slowly, she walked into the glittering water, enjoying its caresses against her skin as she lowered herself into the warmth it offered. 

A relaxed sigh escaped her lips when she stretched out in the water. There was something liberating about floating on its surface, something that made Ása forget all about her previous insecurities.

“This water… it is wonderful, Thorin!” she said in a dreamy voice.

“Does that mean that it is my turn now?” his words echoed in the chamber.

“It definitely is,” she agreed, moving towards the edge of the pool. Ása stretched her head over it and was rewarded with a view of Thorin’s strapping figure. His wavy dark hair adorned with several braids and beads flowed down his broad shoulders. A dark blue tunic held by a wide silver belt covered his upper body, accentuating his wide chest that narrowed at his waist. It was matched by a pair of black, closely fitting riding trousers that hugged his deliciously massive thighs and legs. She couldn’t help but blush when she caught herself waiting in anticipation to see how he would look without clothes. After all, she didn’t recall promising to her betrothed that she would avert her gaze, did she?

For the second time that day, she wondered whether he could read her mind because at that very moment he started taking off his clothes with his back towards her. The tunic went first, then he moved on to his shirt. At that moment she heard a small hum escaping Thorin’s mouth, and his movements slowed down slightly. When Ása's eyes moved down his covered back, stopping below his waist, she sighed in admiration at the shape of his sinewy buttocks, giggling to herself at the impropriety of her thoughts. She was fully aware that she ogled him quite shamelessly, but it certainly wasn’t her fault that Thorin’s muscular backside was one of his finest physical qualities. 

As the prince took off his shirt, she moved on to marveling at his athletic back, the powerful muscles playing under his skin with each movement he made as he removed his heavy shoes and trousers. She could clearly see the tattoos that covered his body. Seven stars ran across his shoulder blades, symbolizing Thorin’s birthright as the heir to the throne of Erebor. They formed the constellation of Durin’s Crown that could be seen in the night sky. There were more symbols and geometrical patterns on both his back and arms, but her eyes were quickly drawn to a long dark bruise on his left side.

“Thorin! You are hurt! Did the Orcs do this to you?” she gasped in alarm.

His movements stopped as the prince straightened, but didn’t turn around. “My lady, isn’t it improper to look upon a half-naked Dwarf who is not even your husband?” there was a hint of amusement in his voice.

“He is going to be my husband quite soon and I demand to know his state of health,” she huffed in indignation, splashing the water around her. “What happened? Is it bad? Have you seen a healer about this? Are any of your ribs broken?”
He lowered his head. “I am going to turn around, Ása,” he warned her. Hearing this, she quickly clung to the edge of the pool with only her head and arms sticking above it. Small clothes or not, she felt much better with most of her body safely hidden in the water. As Thorin approached her, wearing only his undergarments, she tried to meet his gaze, but her eyes kept wandering off to his chiseled, tattooed chest with well-defined pectorals, dusted with dark hair that trailed along his taut stomach and further down, all the way to his…

“My eyes are up here, my lady,” he reminded her, smirking slightly. A treacherous blush warmed her cheeks. His navel. She was a proper young lady and she was only thinking about his… navel, nothing more than that.

“I… yes, well… I knew that!” she retorted bluntly. She needed to calm down and focus on his face, not on his other body parts. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. Oh, these other body parts of his… She couldn’t think of anything else. Why does she have to lose her head so completely over this handsome prince? Couldn’t she have fallen in love with a less attractive Dwarf? Ása sighed in utter defeat.

Meanwhile, Thorin sat down at the edge of the pool and slipped his bare feet into the water. The sight of his muscular legs so close to her distracted Ása so much that she hadn’t noticed when he lowered his face towards her, his hair tickling her cheek. “To answer your questions: an Orc tried to dent my armor with his mace. No, it is not bad. Óin claims that I will live; and no, I do not think there is anything broken,” the prince smiled at her. “Do not fret, my sweet, I am well.”

“Does it hurt very much?” she cast an apprehensive look at his bruised side.

He grunted dismissively. “Not much at all. I danced with you, if you remember. And hot water will do wonders to my muscles,” he rumbled, leaning down to kiss her. 

Ása felt his warm breath against her cheek, as his spicy, manly scent surrounded her, overwhelming her senses, but she somehow managed to find the last shred of her withering willpower. A moment before their lips met, she moved back slightly and asked teasingly, “Are you sure, my lord, that hot water is what you need?”
Flickers of laughter appeared in his eyes. “Certainly. Hot water... and a hot kiss. No, not just one. Two hot kisses!” he grinned, his mouth moving towards her, his powerful body stretching out over the edge.

“Then you will have to come and take them yourself!” she giggled, quickly swimming away from the edge of the pool, out of his reach.

“You will not escape me, my lady,” Thorin rumbled as he lowered himself into the water with a splash, but Ása was already putting a good distance between them, closing in on the opposite edge of the pool. She was almost there, and then she would quickly climb out and then…

A shadow passed underneath her and then a wet mess of dark hair broke the water’s surface in front of her. “I have you now,” Thorin growled triumphantly, flashing his teeth, water dripping from his face. Ása squealed with laughter as his strong arm curled around her waist, drawing her up against him. 

“Oh, no, the Beast!” trying to fidget away from his grasp. 

“Oh yes, the Beast!” he murmured, pulling her even closer, his lips meeting hers in a hungry kiss, devouring her mouth, completely dominating it. Now she was clinging to him, responding to his caresses as if she was drowning and he was the only source of life-giving air in the entire world. There was something extraordinarily sensual in the way they caressed and touched as if the water heightened all the sensations. Ása suddenly recalled the state of her attire when his hand moved along her uncovered back and her breasts pressed against his bare chest, causing her nipples to harden in an instant. It was very indecent. And felt very right at the same time. Thorin made a low sound of pleasure, a groan, as his hands moved against the naked softness of her body. The pool of heat in her underbelly expanded, pulsing with incredible strength, filling her mind with scandalous ideas. She tried not to think that their bodies were separated only by one or two thin layers of fabric nor that her back was suddenly resting against the wall of the pool, her hand diving in Thorin's hair, pulling him closer to her. She was done with being proper for the day, done with thinking about how a young dwarven lady should behave. Not thinking was good. Not thinking but feeling was much better. Much more natural. She felt Thorin’s tongue tangling with hers, the coarse hair on his chest against her skin, his hands moving to her thighs, lifting them, coaxing her to wrap her legs around his hips. This was exactly what Ása did, her body instinctively finding the best position. A mewling sound escaped her throat when that secret place between her legs brushed against the hardness of his manhood. She stiffened at the completely new yet very pleasant sensation while her body and mind, her feelings and thoughts, her yearnings and the rules of propriety that had been drilled into her brain wreaked havoc on her.

“Ása…” he murmured huskily, resting his burning forehead against hers, completely still, all of his muscles tense as if he was waging a war against himself. Thorin’s voice was deeper than usual, his eyes firmly shut as he breathed in laboriously, not making even the slightest move.

“Thorin, I…” she panted, resting her palm on his chest, feeling the pounding of his heart. His body was like a stone statue, solid and motionless. “I want…”

 

The sound of many steps echoed against the walls, accentuated by a few whispered words. She looked at Thorin in panic. Someone was coming and they were about to be discovered, almost naked, in a compromising situation. Thorin placed a finger on his lips and held her tight as they lowered themselves into the water below the edge of the pool, out of anyone’s sight. A group of cloaked figures entered the cavern and gathered in its opposite end, dangerously close to the edge of the rock shaft that caught her attention before. Ása couldn’t recognize any of the mysterious visitors as their faces were covered with terrifying red masks adorned with golden ornaments. There was something menacing about them and the dwarven maiden clung to her One, instinctively searching for protection, all the passion long gone from her mind. 

“Who are they?” Ása signalled in iglishmêk.

“I don’t know. They shouldn’t be here,” Thorin’s fingers moved swiftly in reply.

They both observed the group of hooded Dwarves, for they were Dwarves without a doubt, without a word. These dark figures were now facing the chasm in the stone floor at the edge of the shaft. One of them approached the edge and faced their companions.

“The time has come, brothers and sisters! Let us begin,” the masked Dwarf spoke in a low, but a distinctly feminine voice. What proceeded was something that Ása could best describe as a mystical ceremony. Chants in an unknown language filled the cavern, unrecognizable words vibrated through the air, their hidden meaning intertwining with the strands of mist that drifted above the pools. Each of the cloaked Dwarves approached the edge of the chasm, throwing something into the abyss below, seemingly not bothered by the immense heat. When the deed was done, the group formed a circle and began to recite in chorus:

 

There shall come a time when the Shadow rises anew,

when the forest anemone blooms,

when the Ancient Mother wakes, turning the skies green,

the Lord will grace us with His presence, 

raining the cleansing fire down upon the unworthy.

Only then what was once lost can be found.

Only then the Blood Heir will ascend, 

bringing together that what was once torn apart. 

And the Children of Stone will embrace their fate 

or perish forever.

 

“The signs are here, just as the prophecy foretold. Our Lord is coming, brothers and sisters. Now is the time to act,” the woman’s voice reverberated against the walls of the cavern as she approached each of her companions, putting small, cylindrical objects into their outstretched hands. Each of those mysterious figures bowed reverently afterwards, disappearing from the cavern as quickly as they appeared, leaving no sign of their presence behind.

 

***

 

Ása sat by the fireplace in a sparsely furnished bedchamber that consisted mainly of a large four-poster bed covered with furs, a chest, a washbasin, and a weapon stand. Flames licked a stack of wood in the hearth, warming up the entire room, banishing the last traces of chill from her body. She was wrapped in a large piece of soft fur and there was a large male shirt underneath it that turned out to be long enough to serve as a nightgown. It smelled of pine cones. Of Thorin. He sat next to her, busying himself with unplaiting her wet hair. She looked at her One’s handsome, focused face, noticing how the reflected flames danced in his deep blue eyes, enjoying his careful touch as he freed her golden strands to make them flow loosely down her shoulders.

At the same time, her mind was brimming with questions. She hadn’t dared to utter even a single word until they found themselves in the safety of Thorin's bedchamber. After leaving the vast chamber in a hurry, wearing their wet and disheveled clothes, the prince led her here through the maze of secret passages. Now, Ása’s beautiful gown was laid out on a chair, full of wrinkles and dirt which made her wonder how on Arda she was going to return to her chambers unnoticed and without creating a scandal. She sneezed and moved closer towards the fireplace to catch more warmth. 

“Still cold, my sweet? Would you like more mulled wine? Or food?” Thorin asked, stopping to work on her hair.

“No, thank you. It is because of those drafty tunnels. I am warmer already,” she smiled reassuringly. “Please… can you continue? I enjoy it immensely,” as she put another of her braids in his hand, her fingers brushed against his scorching skin.

“I enjoy it even more,” Thorin murmured, sliding his fingers along her braid. “Your hair is like liquid gold, but infinitely more precious to me… as you are, Amrâlimê.” 

A warmth of a slight blush filled her cheeks. As a young dwarven maiden she was very well aware that this level of intimacy was far beyond what the courting couples were allowed to do. Lady Barba would have been greatly shocked, she was sure of it. A male Dwarf was allowed to touch her hair only if he was her husband - that’s what she was taught, but her heart had a different opinion on the matter of dwarven traditions. Since Thorin was her betrothed and she certainly didn’t plan to marry anyone else, there was nothing to be ashamed of. In addition, there was that exciting, tingling sensation in her body every time her beloved was close to her. Ása was reluctant to admit it to herself, but she used to spend restless nights back in the Iron Hills, wondering how it would feel to find her One, even if she hadn’t thought she’d ever meet a Dwarf she could call her Azyungal. Nevertheless, she yearned to be touched by him, to have her hair braided by him, to be loved with this unique, exhilarating kind of love. Now, she was here, in the prince of Erebor’s bedchamber and he was reverently working his way through her braids. Gentle movements of his fingers on her hair reminded her of the way he played his harp. She closed her eyes, enjoying his delicate caresses that filled her with indescribable bliss as sweet as the music he would sometimes play to her. And yet, these were the strong hands of a warrior, capable of bringing both pleasure to his loved ones as well as pain to his enemies. 

When Thorin finished his ministrations, only his courting braid clasped with his silver bead remained among Ása’s long tresses. 

“Thank you, Mizim,” she spoke, slowly opening her eyes.

“It is I who should thank you, my heart, for the honor you bestowed upon me,” Thorin replied, flames dancing in his eyes.

“You are my One,” these words were her only explanation.

“And you are mine,” he took her in his arms and Ása immediately wrapped her hands around his waist with a sigh, craving the safety only he could provide.

“I am worried, Thorin,” his tunic muffled her voice. “Who were those cloaked dwarves? Their chanting… What did it all mean?”
“I am going to find out, my sweet. There is no place for such dangerous conspiracies in Erebor,” he rumbled. “Especially if they have ties with other dwarven kingdoms, like Ered Luin.”

“The Blue Mountains? How do you know?” Ása looked at her prince in surprise.

“Some of the words they said… I have heard them before,” he cast her a worried look. “At Zohur’s trial. That dishonorable creature,” he avoided the word ‘Dwarf’, because Zohur was not considered a Child of Mahal any longer, “tried to curse us all, babbling something about the coming of a lord who would rain fire upon Erebor. I’d thought that his mind was gone from despair, but perhaps it was not so.”

Ása shuddered, pushing away the unpleasant memories that filled her mind. “Zohur…” this name tasted like ash on her tongue. “I can not believe it… But… He was banished, was he not?”
“Yes, my love, he is far away now,” Thorin’s voice was soothing as his arms encircled her. “He can not hurt you anymore. You have me to protect you,” he murmured into her hair.



They still stood in an affectionate embrace when a muffled yet insistent knocking on the door brought them back to reality. Thorin noticed at once that Ása’s eyes widened. The hour was too late for any visitors.

“Stay here,” he whispered, reluctantly moving out of her embrace. He quickly left the bedchamber, closing its door behind him, and directed his steps through his study towards the entrance door to his chambers. The knocking sounded again. Someone seemed to be quite persistent, trying to see him at this time of night. Perhaps a servant with some information about the continuing feast. Perhaps they have run out of dark ale again. Whatever it was, he promised himself to take care of it as swiftly as possible. He would not keep Ása waiting for him for too long. Not while she was sitting by the fire with that vulnerable look on her face. The way she looked in the firelight, waiting for her hair to dry while he worked on her braids… He could look at her beautiful profile forever, at her head tilted so gracefully… The knocking interrupted his thoughts once more. After opening the heavy oak door he saw someone unexpected at his threshold.

“Mother?”

“Thank Mahal, you are here,” Lady Sigrun whispered, looking worriedly down the corridor. “May I come in? It is very urgent.”

“Of course,” the prince let her in immediately.

“I am sorry to disturb you at this hour, Thorin. I am afraid that I am a bearer of bad news. Ása has disappeared again. I needed to see her, but she was not in her room, I have been searching for her everywhere. I have even sent Ottar to look for her discreetly. Your father doesn’t know about it yet, but I dread the moment when he does. Thorin, it is worse than we thought…” she sat down in an armchair with her palm pressed to her forehead. Only then he noticed the redness of her eyes and her hair in visible disarray. 

“Do not worry, Mother,” he sat on his haunches in front of her. “Ása is here. She has been with me since the feast.”

“Has she…?” Lady Sigrun sighed in relief. “This is the best news I heard this evening! I need to talk to her. In fact, I need to talk to you both,” she looked around. Not noticing anyone else in the room, she glanced at the door leading to her son’s bedchamber and then back at him, noticing his disheveled state. “Oh. I am disturbing you.”

“Not at all, Mother. We have not...” Thorin’s face darkened slightly in embarrassment as he cleared his throat. “I took Asa to see the hot springs and we have just returned. She is... drying her hair,” he looked away from his mother’s inquisitive stare, but he could have sworn that a shadow of a knowing smile passed through her lips.

The bedchamber door creaked behind him.

“Lady Sigrun?” he heard Ása’s uncertain voice.

“How good to see you safe and sound, my child!” the smile on his mother’s face widened. “I have been beside myself with worry. Do come here, my dear, there is something that you both have to hear at once,” she gestured at Thorin’s betrothed who hid behind the door, showing only her face.

“Forgive me, Lady Sigrun, but I am not dressed properly,” Ása admitted, her cheeks flushed.

“It is my fault, Mother, Ása’s gown was wet... and... she needed to warm up...” he mumbled clumsily, his ears burning. The prince of Erebor felt like a little dwarfling again, as if he tried to explain his latest mischief to Mother. He instinctively prepared for the worst, but instead of receiving an earful, he heard a peculiar sound she made. A sound that suspiciously resembled a small chuckle.

“Come, Ása, your attire is of the least concern to us at this moment,” Lady Sigrun encouraged the young maiden. Ása finally entered the room tightly wrapped in one of Thorin’s furs and let him lead her to a chair. His mother nodded approvingly, with a solemn expression on her face.

“My dear children,” said Lady Sigrun after a pause, as if trying to find the right words. The smile completely disappeared from her face. “I have to share grave news with you. My husband celebrated entering into a secret agreement with the Orocarni delegation today. From what I know, one of the terms of this contract promises Ása’s hand in marriage to Durthun, the king of the Ironfists.”

“WHAT?!” Thorin immediately stood up, clenching his fists, hearing Ása’s gasp next to him. “We are betrothed! This is not possible!”

“I am afraid that it is. Please, my son, sit down. You need to hear all of it. I received this information from Lord Balin who was present at the King’s Council meeting today and I have no doubts about his sincerity,” his mother explained.

“I was at the Northern Outpost! I did not schedule any meetings for today,” he fumed. His father. The Viper. Meddling again. How dared he. He had no right. He was the regent, not Thráin. 

“Your father convened a secret meeting while you were away,” Lady Sigrun admitted in defeat. “I hadn’t known anything about it. I had not imagined… If only...” she took in a deep breath. “Balin passed me a message during the feast. He suspects he is being watched and… Nevermind that now. Thorin, since midnight, you are no longer the Regent of Erebor. Your father is,” his mother was visibly shaken. 

“I… I do not understand. How? Why was I not informed?” he couldn’t gather his thoughts. Nothing made sense. Has his father lost his mind and orchestrated a silent coup against him, his own son? At a very convenient time, too, while he was away. Unbelievable. “Please, Mother. Tell me everything so that I can understand this madness!” he exclaimed, the fury slowly waking in its chest.

Lady Sigrun took a deep breath. “On the account of your grandfather’s illness, your father claimed his right to rule Erebor in his stead once again, as the heir apparent to the throne.”
“But he had no right! King Thrór named Thorin the Crown Prince of Erebor and excluded prince Thráin from the succession line!” his betrothed protested, furrowing her brow. Thorin’s heart warmed, seeing the fire in his One’s eyes.

“Apparently, this edict was never put in writing. The scribes could not find any traces of it,” Lady Sigrun sighed, suddenly looking much older than before.

“No… this is not possible… He must have. Grandfather told me that he did sign it,” Thorin growled to himself. When it came to his father and grandfather, he couldn’t be sure of anything any longer.

“Lord Balin says that your father had steady support from Lord Karden, Lady Agda, Master Raunur… and Lord Fundin. It was enough to secure the needed majority. He is sorry… Being his son, Balin couldn’t do much. His hands were tied...” her voice trailed off.

“Lord Fundin, of course.” This was to be expected after King Thrór’s recent unfortunate decision to make him, Thorin, the War Chief instead of Balin’s father. Apparently, prince Thráin knew very well how to take advantage of the lord’s wounded pride.

“The other members of the council supported your father as soon as he showed them the King’s Ring, claiming that he’d received it from your grandfather,” Lady Sigrun continued.

“That’s a lie!” Thorin bellowed as the wrath within him opened its sharp-toothed maw. “He took it from him against his will! I heard it from Grandfather’s own mouth!”

His poor mother looked at him searchingly, hopefully. “Are you sure, my son? Your father has been wearing the ring for many weeks now. I assumed that your grandfather decided to hand it over to his son while sickness tormented him…”

“I spoke with Grandfather when… when he was well. In one of his last lucid moments,” he still remembered finding Thrór in a miserable state in the treasure chamber. “He accused Father of it.”

“He… took it? This… can not be. I did not think he would be capable of such…” Lady Sigrun’s lower lip trembled.

“Dishonorable conduct? Indeed, Mother, never did I,” he rested his hand on her palm that clung to the armrest.

She shook her head in disbelief. “There has to be a logical explanation for his actions. He is clearly doing this for the good of the realm. He must be,” his mother’s troubled countenance showed him that she didn’t fully believe her words.

Thorin started pacing back and forth across the chamber, clenching and unclenching his fists.

“Is usurping his power after his previous transgressions any good for our kingdom? Is plotting behind our backs honorable? Is trying to take my One away from me a deed worthy of a ruler of Erebor?!” he raised his voice. Ása. His gaze rested on the petite figure of his betrothed, her fingers digging into the fur she was wrapped in, her shining hair cascading down her shoulders, her eyes wide open in disbelief. A possessive growl rose in his chest. Ása was his and only his and he would not allow anyone to separate them.

“Mother,” he spoke again, looking at Lady Sigrun who seemed to be completely lost in thought at one moment just to raise her tired eyes at another. “Tell me about Father’s contract with the Ironfists.”
“I do not know everything, but I heard a few scraps of a conversation after you both left the feast. King Durthun’s wife died in childbirth together with her babe, leaving him heirless. He has been searching for a new wife of childbearing age for a while now. Apparently, he entered into an agreement with King Thrór. At the feast, the Ironfists said that Ása was to become their king’s bride as a part of the alliance between the kingdoms. Their envoys accepted her on King Durthun’s behalf over a year ago.”

Over a year ago. At the time he met his beloved for the first time. He remembered clearly that afternoon in the throne room along with those endless speeches delivered by the tireless Ironfist Clan diplomats. On that day, his eyes wandered aimlessly throughout the chamber when he noticed someone he hadn’t expected to see. The runaway dryad he’d met in the forest. She wore a fine gown that hugged her body in all the right places and an intricately made crystal necklace around her lovely neck. After the official part of the evening, King Thrór had a meeting with his guests from the Orocarni, Thorin recalled. He had been too busy trying to ascertain who this mysterious and stunningly beautiful lady was to ask his grandfather about its details. Was that when the bargain was struck? His thoughts once again returned to the day in the treasure chamber when he revealed the identity of his One to the king. His grandfather’s words rung in his head: My plans are of no consequence if she reciprocates your feelings. The joy in Thrór’s eyes had been unmistakable. He’d truly meant it.

“They must be mistaken. Grandfather… He approved of our courtship. He announced it to the whole of Erebor,” thousands of frantic thoughts ran through his head.

“Would King Thrór send me off to marry the Ironfist king without my consent?” his sweet Ása’s helpless gaze moved from his face to his mother.

“That is where the problem lies, my children,” the lady replied slowly. “Since you are the ward of our king, he has the right to make certain arrangements on your behalf, especially if your parents approve of them. If an agreement was indeed signed a year ago, it would predate your courtship, making it invalid.”
“No!”, Ása gasped, covering her mouth. He closed the distance between them in an instant and gently took her palm into his hands. She looked so fragile at that very moment and he would do anything he could to protect her from all the dangers in the world.

“We are betrothed. You are my One, Ása. Nothing can change it,” he murmured to her.

“Balin has not found any proof that such agreement ever existed in writing, but the Ironfist envoys were quite sure of themselves,” Lady Sigrun continued. “Unfortunately, it may mean that it had been conveniently hidden away.”

“Father,” Thorin growled. “Why would he even…” and then it hit him. “He and his grand schemes. It fits very well with his marital plans for me, does it not?”

His mother nodded. “I am afraid so. I would not be surprised if he reopened the negotiations with the Ered Luin envoys when they were there.”

“Thorin? What does this mean? What plans? What negotiations?” Ása asked in confusion, but he was not able to speak nor even think of it. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t.

“For years, my husband has been planning to unite Erebor and the kingdom of Ered Luin under one rule,” his mother turned to Ása. “Thorin was supposed to marry the young Princess Dallia of the Blue Mountains within the next few years, as soon as she came of age. That is why Thráin was so strongly against your union.”

“I refused to play a part in his schemes, my sweet,” he cursed his father when he noticed tears brimming in his beloved maiden’s eyes. “He can negotiate to his heart’s content, but I will not abandon my One!” he brought her hand to his lips and kissed it ardently. 

“It all makes sense now,” Ása finally spoke, her face pale as a sheet. Her voice was surprisingly calm, almost devoid of emotion except for a barely audible tremble from time to time. “My hair. Your bead, my courting braid, he made me hide them… he wanted to conceal our betrothal from the Ironfist Clan. That letter from my parents... They did not arrive here for our wedding, Thorin. My father must have accepted the Ironfist king’s proposal. My stepmother knew. And little Gromi! They are planning to stay here. Lady Sigrun, is my stepbrother going to replace me in Erebor as the king’s ward?”

“I wish I knew, my dear,” his mother rumpled her handkerchief with trembling fingers. “I do not understand my husband’s reasoning nor his actions any longer.”

“No one is going to replace you, my sweet,” Thorin protested. Blood boiled in his veins. The serpent of wrath rose his spiky head. “You are not leaving Erebor, Ása,” he stood up, tightening his jaw in anger. “I am going to have a talk with Father. This has gone too far. I will make him--”
“Think, my son, think before you act!” his mother warned him. “To win this game, you have to be more cunning than him.”
“I will not play by his rules!” he spat as fury slowly consumed him. He made up his mind. The confrontation with his father was the only way to rectify this situation once and for all.

“Do you not remember the old saying the Raven Masters taught you when you were a dwarfling? If you are among the ravens, you have to learn to croak.

“I was also taught of honor, Mother.”

“Does honor dictate you to challenge your father at this very moment?”
“Mother…” Thorin growled in displeasure. She always had a way with words. 

“You are a warrior. Would you go into a battle without a weapon?” Lady Sigrun persisted.
“I would fight with my bare fists if I had to,” he gnarred, clenching his fists once more.

“Or you could use the time you have now. Prepare. Strategize. Be unpredictable. Choose a battlefield wisely. And a weapon.”
“You talk like a warrior, Mother. What are you suggesting?” he asked hesitantly, not willing to show that her words peaked his interest.

Lady Sigrun took out an ancient-looking roll of parchment from under her cloak.

“Before I came to see you, I spoke with Lady Barba. She is not well enough to be here with us tonight, but she sends her best wishes… along with this,” Lady Sigrun placed the parchment in... Ása’s hands. Not his. He cast a puzzled look at his mother, but she only smiled encouragingly at his betrothed. With furrowed brow, he watched as his One slowly unrolled it and read the words it contained, her eyes widening with every line. Suddenly, she stopped halfway through its contents. And blushed. Her cheeks took on the color of fully bloomed peonies. Mahal, how lovely she blushed.

“What is it, my sweet?” seeing her peculiar reaction, he could not contain his curiosity.

Ása didn’t seem to hear him; in an instant, she moved towards Lady Sigrun and closed her in a tight embrace. Both ladies exchanged whispers and hugged once more. He grunted impatiently. Women and their ways. He was clearly missing out on something important and he didn’t like being kept in the dark. He was the prince of Erebor after all, he had the right to know all the important information regarding this kingdom, including the reason why his betrothed hugged his own mother for the third time in a row, and afterwards both women affectionately kissed each other's cheeks. When they finally parted, his Ása turned to him. At last. Tears filled her eyes, but she had the widest smile on her face, fear and worry completely forgotten.

“We have our weapon!” she squealed with joy and threw her arms around him, giggling and placing sloppy and very wet kisses all over his face. A satisfied hum escaped his lips as he returned her embrace. That was much better. The fur she wrapped herself in tickled his nose, but he didn’t mind. He still didn’t have a clue what had just happened.

“A weapon?” he grunted again. Her words didn’t make the slightest sense to him.

“We can wed tonight!” his Azyungal squealed again and kissed him straight on his mouth, completely unbothered by his mother’s presence in the chamber. Thorin quickly forgot about his concerns as well. The enticing softness of Ása’s lips, her sweet taste, and the smell of lilac and lavender that surrounded him made him forget about everything else.

Women and their ways.

Chapter Text

Thráin. His cursed father. Thorin grunted as he quickly walked through the corridors of the Royal Chambers of Erebor, trying to avoid any unwanted attention. The Viper struck again, catching them unsuspecting and completely off-guard. First, he used his son, his own heir, to secure high profits from trade with Ered Luin and potential access to a possible, but not yet confirmed new source of mithril. To cement this treaty, his father wanted him to marry princess Dalia in a couple of years. And now, Thráin was doing everything he could to make yet another arranged marriage happen. It was supposed to take Ása, Thorin’s One, away from him, all the way to the distant Red Mountains in the east. His father was purposefully separating him from his Azyungal. Such premeditated cruelty was unheard of. How could he do such a thing to his own son?! Thorin’s blood boiled with fury, he wanted to turn around, get to his father’s chamber at once and keep shouting at him until Thráin would finally start listening. 

A recollection of Ása’s pale face, of the tears running down her cheeks, made him realize that it all would have to wait. There was something else he needed to do before he and his One could fulfill their hearts’ desires. He still couldn’t believe it and promised himself to thank Lady Barba for the idea as soon as he could. Idazûl. Instead of going through the unending months or even years of courting, he and Ása were to invoke an ancient custom of their people. According to the old manuscript, this tradition started in the era of great wars with Nargûn that claimed many dwarven lives. Most of the dwarven warriors of that time constantly traveled from one battlefield to another and only a handful of them had the luxury of time to court their beloved. A simple handfasting ceremony followed by bedding was enough to consider a couple married in the eyes of Mahal if both of them entered into their union of their own free will. Only then they were allowed to braid their marriage braids.

That was exactly what Thorin and Ása were going to do. When they were wedded, the prince mused with satisfaction, his father would have no choice but to accept it. They would be one step ahead of Thráin, he and his Ása, his beautiful wife . Soon, they would exchange their vows, and then, he would make her forever his, body and mind.

Thorin hastened his pace, trying to shake off and leave behind the red-hot thoughts that sipped into his mind like molten iron finding its way into a mold, showing him all the luscious things he wanted to do to her as soon as they were alone. First, however, there was the small matter of bringing another witness for their handfasting ceremony. He promised Ása he would fetch Jutta as quickly and as quietly as possible. It would not do if they were to be found out by his father before they joined their lives forever.

Thorin turned into the empty corridor leading to Ása’s and Jutta’s adjacent chambers when he saw a tall Dwarf with a long strip of hair on top of his bald, tattooed head. He kept walking back and forth, mumbling something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like “Knock on that door, you stupid Dwarf!”.

The prince’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Dwalin, what are you doing here?!”



***



Everything was prepared. Even though this was to be the most important moment of her life, no lavish necklaces adorned her neck. The only piece of jewelry she wore was the pendant with a tear-shaped pink pearl. A gift from her One. Ása ran her trembling hands down her simple green gown and let out a deep sigh.

“How do I look?” she asked nervously. It was time. Her stomach felt queasy, her heart fluttered like wings of a butterfly. 

“Just perfect, Ása,” Jutta grinned, adding finishing touches to her hair. “Your prince won’t be able to keep his eyes from you. I only wish I could braid your hair nicely.”

“Thank you, Jutta, but tonight, there will be only one braid in my hair,” she ran her fingers along the courting braid while the rest of her hair flowed freely down her back. 

Her friend discreetly wiped a single tear from her eyes. “I can’t believe it is happening. You and your prince… I am so very happy for you. When we were leaving the Iron Hills, I thought I was the only one to protect you for many years to come, but now you will be under the protection of both the House of Durin and prince Thorin and… I couldn’t hope for anything better for you.”

“Jutta, if you think that I will try to get rid of you after I’m married, you are mistaken. I hope that you will stay with me, but not as my maid any longer, only as my friend,” the dwarven maiden said hopefully.

“As long as you’d wish me to, Ása,” Jutta answered, beaming with joy, as they exchanged a warm embrace. “Besides, you will need all the help you can get handling all those stubborn Dwarf men of Erebor.”

“What about that particularly stubborn Dwarf who was willing to spend the night at your doorstep if you wouldn't speak to him?” Ása said with an innocent look in her eye.

“Don’t even get me started! That silly oaf! What was he thinking, sneaking in there in the middle of the night? He should be glad no one saw him! He’s lucky that prince Thorin was with him when I opened the door! If he was thinking that I’d let him into my room alone, then he’s sillier than I thought!”

“Or maybe just… silly in love?” Ása grinned and, to her astonishment, noticed that her friend blushed.

“Stop it,” Jutta clearly wasn’t amused.

“You are blushing now just like Dwalin did when you gave him that smile and thanked him for helping you on the way,” Thorin’s betrothed couldn’t stop herself. It was rare to see Jutta upset in this very particular way that reminded her of herself when she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to strangle a certain prince or kiss him senseless in the very beginnings of their relationship.

“I thanked him because he carried your dress and all the other things! He even wanted to carry me here, can you imagine?!” Ása’s maid huffed.

“He offered? And you didn’t accept such a treat?” this was getting more and more interesting. Dwalin acting so chivalrously towards Jutta… who would have thought?
“I’m not an invalid! I can walk on my own with crutches, thank you very much!” her confidante protested.

“And you’re losing the chance to see how it would feel being carried by such a specimen of dwarfhood,” Ása giggled.

“It would only give him the wrong idea. He doesn’t understand…” Jutta averted her gaze.

“Me neither, to be honest,” she admitted. “As soon as everything here in Erebor calms down, I hope you will explain it to me over a nice cup of chamomile tea.”
Her friend looked clearly displeased. “There’s not much to talk about… Besides, I have to talk with you about something else.”

“What is it?”

“I will tell you tomorrow,” Jutta’s gaze was solemn for a moment and then brightened slightly, seeing Ása’s reaction. “Now it’s not the time. Don’t you remember we have a wedding to attend to?”

“Well then, tomorrow it is,” Ása nodded with a bright smile. “And don’t think you can wiggle your way out of the Dwalin talk, nor out of our picnic for that matter!”

“I hear you,” Jutta grunted. “But Prince Thorin is waiting for you right now.”

Ása looked at the door leading out of Thorin’s bedroom to his study. Oh, Mahal. The first part of their idazûl, the handfasting ceremony, would start soon. And after that… A knot in her stomach tightened.

“Tell me,” she grabbed her companion’s hand, “Is there anything I should know before… before Thorin and I…” her voice faltered and a blush appeared on her face. “I want this to be a perfect night.”

Jutta patted her hand reassuringly. “Don’t worry! It will be. He’s madly in love with you, isn’t he?”

“Yes…” Ása whispered. 

“And you love him back.”

Ása only nodded in response.

“This is everything you need. You will figure out the rest without any problems. It will be lovely,  you’ll see! Oh, and don’t feel too stressed, but I can’t wait to hold your babes in your arms! With your beauty and Thorin’s handsome face, they will be the prettiest dwarflings in the world!”

“Jutta, please…” Ása’s cheeks burned. She suspected that they turned completely scarlet. 

“Just remember what my grandmother said, if you want your first child to be a girl, the position you should try is---”

“JUTTA! We are going out! Now!!!” Ása raised her voice, huffing at Jutta’s merry chuckles.

 

***

 

After entering Thorin’s study, Ása once more admired its spacious simplicity. A large fireplace that doubled as a source of light kept it sufficiently warm. A beautifully carved harp stood in a corner next to it, on the opposite side of the door leading to Thorin’s bedchamber. The prince’s writing desk was now moved to the side, making more space in the middle of the room. This is where Lady Sigrun stood together with the beaming Dwalin and Thorin who had changed into a finely embroidered dark blue tunic. The prince even managed to tame his unruly hair somehow and now the beads in his hair, including her jade bead, shone in the firelight between his dark strands just as the princely crown on his temple did. When she approached him, her One looked down at her with that tender smile she adored so much. 

“Amrâlimê, you look… gorgeous,” he spoke quietly, while Ása mustered all of her strength to fight off her nervousness and smile faintly at him. Thorin took her hands into his and held them the same way he held her heart captive. And then his bright blue gaze washed over her, full of emotion, like soothing waves of a sea. She was drowning in this expanse, willingly and unconditionally. There were so many unknowns on the horizon, but this was what her heart yearned for. Thorin was with her now and they would face each other from now on. Only her One mattered at that very moment. The moment they were both eagerly waiting for. As if through a haze, she heard Lady Sigrun’s steady voice reciting the traditional handfasting vows. Ása was faintly aware of what was transpiring, but she could only focus on her One and the reassuring, warm touch of his hands as they held them together. Something silky smooth touched her skin and she realized that it was the golden ribbon used by Lady Sigrun to ceremonially bind their left hands together. One elaborate knot around Ása’s wrist, a loop, and then another knot, around Thorin’s. 

“I bind my heart to yours, I bind my life to yours,” Thorin’s fingers gently squeezed her hands as he spoke, his blue gaze never leaving her face.

“I bind my heart to yours, I bind my life to yours,” the words left Ása’s mouth, barely a whisper. 

“What Mahal has bound together, no dwarf shall unbind,” they both spoke the words Lady Sigrun utter a moment before, with Jutta and Dwalin joining in.

Ása’s heart fluttered. It was done. She blinked, looking at her beloved’s handsome face and seeing his eyes sparkling with joy, his lips smiling. She could just stand there, completely mesmerized. Here he was, in front of her, the only dwarf she had her eyes for. The one she wanted to spend her whole life with.

“What are ye waiting for, Thorin?” Dwalin chuckled. “Kiss her before we all die of old age!”

That was the first time, she observed, when Thorin neither grunted at one of Dwalin’s jests nor glared at him icily. Instead, he pulled her towards him and pressed his lips against hers in a chaste, but lingering kiss that left her breathless and wanting more, much more of him. 

Ása took a deep breath to compose herself as they turned to the dwarves that witnessed the ceremony. It seemed that there was no end to the cheers; misty-eyed Jutta was beside herself with joy. Happily smiling, Lady Sigrun congratulated them both, kissing their foreheads in a motherly gesture. Dwalin impatiently shuffled his feet and when his time came, he mumbled the usual niceties, adding a very suggestive eyebrow wiggle and wishing them a fruitful wedding night. That earned him a nudge in the ribs from Jutta and a chuckle from Thorin’s mother. Ása was glad for this little distraction, hoping that no one, not even Thorin, would notice her blush at Dwalin’s suggestion. 

After receiving uncountable, hearty dwarven hugs, Lady Sigrun ushered the bickering Jutta and Dwalin from Thorin’s chambers. Not bickering, Ása had to correct herself with amusement. It looked more like her friend was scolding the warrior once again while he was silently gazing at her in a way she hadn’t seen before. Was that softness in his eyes? And that small smile on his lips… She really hoped Jutta had noticed it too.

“Congratulations, my children, may Mahal bless your union sevenfold!” Thorin’s mother said just before closing the door behind her.

 

***

 

“Miss Jutta,” that stubborn, no-brained dwarf said, “Will ye do me the honor of escorting ye to yer chambers?”

Jutta looked longingly towards the direction where Lady Sigrun went after bidding them goodnight, and sighed. What was she supposed to do with this heap of muscle standing in front of her with a sheepish smile on his face? Why was he doing all of this? To vex her?! Mahal, give her strength.

“Master Dwalin,” she started, resting her weight on her crutches and slowly walking towards her room, “don’t you think that it is very improper for you to be seen alone with a lowly maid in the middle of the night?”
“There is no one here, Jutta! Everyone is still at the feast. And ye know very well that ye’re no lowly maid ! Ye’re a warrior, just like me,” the dwarf followed her, grinning widely.

“Maybe it’s just my hobby!” she protested. It was certainly not his business to know those things.

“Hobby my ass! Forgive me…” he started. Maybe he was a silly dwarf, but the way he became embarrassed every time he blurted out a swear word in front of her was simply adorable. What a shame he didn’t know she’d grown up with two brothers and three cousins. By the time she came of age, she knew how to swear better than the bartender at the local tavern.

“What I want to say is, I know a warrior when I see one. And I can see that ye’ve had really good teachers.” Dwalin spoke again and he even had the audacity to look at her triumphantly.

“Maybe I really like my hobby !” her temper flared up again. “Maybe I like it enough to learn from the best and train with the best!” she barked.

Mahal. She and her big mouth. Judging from his face, he understood. During the last few months, he was the only dwarf she trained with. She cursed inwardly. She was not supposed to encourage him, no matter how much she liked the way he fought. And the way he made her smile. Oh, and the way he talked with her when they sometimes smoked their pipes after a sparring session… and….

“You do?” he murmured, as if only to himself. Maybe the oaf of a warrior didn’t understand her accidental compliment after all. And then that oaf of a warrior raised his raspy voice. “Well, maybe I really like ye, Jutta!” 

Oh. He did. Now he stood in front of her, folding his powerful arms on his chest and clearly waiting for her reaction. He looked fierce, like a mighty warrior preparing for a battle. Frantically, she tried to remind herself that she was done with fierce dwarven men once and for all.

“Dwalin. We talked about this,” she lowered her voice and took a careful step towards him. So that he would hear her better, of course. Jutta didn’t want any eavesdroppers to know what she was about to say. “We can’t. I can’t. I’ve sworn an oath to Mahal, I told you,” she looked away.

“And I told ye that I respect that, remember? And that I would wait for ye and help ye in any way I could, remember that too?” there was an unmistakable softness in his voice. Jutta knew it all too well from the countless hours they spent talking whenever they had a chance.

“Maybe,” she huffed, her cheeks suddenly very warm. She didn’t want to give him any satisfaction. It wouldn’t be fair to make him wait for her, Mahal knows how long. He deserved a happier life than that. “Besides, you are the prince’s cousin. I’m a maid,” she added, refusing to give in, as she continued her walk, trying not to rest too much on her injured leg.

“Jutta! Ye’re not a maid!” he shook his head. Fiercely. Her resolve wavered dangerously. His gaze was fierce, too. Why was it so hot in here? “And even if you were a maid, I don’t care!” he furrowed his brow.

“You don’t?!” her nostrils flared. He didn’t care. For her. At all. And she thought… Nevermind. It didn’t matter. Well, that simplified things. Besides, the comforting safety of her room was only a few steps away.

“No, I don’t!” he stepped towards her, resting his skilled (and fierce, of course!) warrior’s hands on her shoulders. “Don’t you understand, Jutta?! You could be an elf for what I care, as long as you’d have me!”

The whole world went silent. Jutta could only hear his words echoing in her head.

His face was so close to her. His ice-blue eyes fiercely (oh, Mahal, have mercy on her) burned their way into her heart.

And then, just like that, he kissed her. He lowered his lips onto hers and--

No, that was not quite right. She kissed him. He was only slightly taller than she was, so she didn’t even have to stretch too much to find his deliciously firm lips hidden somewhere in the thicket of his beard. It tickled pleasantly, by the way.

Or maybe they met halfway? The details of that moment, that fiercely, beautifully, exciting moment, were too fuzzy for her to take in. One moment, they just stood there, and the next, they were kissing senseless. One thing was certain. She had lips and he had lips, too. And they somehow… met. Clashed. Attacked. And parried. A feint followed by a lunge. And another attack, fierce and relentless. Dwalin was not only a skilled warrior, he knew all the right stances when it came to that other kind of sparring. His kisses and caresses, his touch, and all the sensations made her completely lose control over the situation. When did she grab that fistful of his tunic? When did she allow his arms (oh, Mahal, those strong arms) to encircle her? She didn’t care, purring in pleasure, enjoying this training session more than she’d imagined. Yes, well, she sometimes imagined things. And Dwalin. Not too often, mind you. It wasn’t a crime, after all. And who could have blamed her? Even Ása said that he was such a fine specimen of dwarfhood.

“Jutti… My beautiful, fierce Jutti…” the aforementioned specimen murmured into her ear, gently placing his hand on her cheek, making her heartbeat quicken, making her want much more than this short sparring session with this magnificent, fierce dwarf. 

And then, for the first time in her life, she retreated from battle. 

As quickly as her injured leg allowed, she moved away from him and hid behind the door to her chamber, leaving her heart behind, like a banner lost to the enemy.



***

 

They were finally alone, surrounded by complete silence, their hands still bound together. Thorin slowly raised his unbound hand to Ása’s face and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. He could clearly see how tense she was, although he noticed something new in her eyes. They flickered in the firelight with that unusual not-fully-green-and-not-quite-blue color. Slowly, he took a careful step towards her.
“What is it, Amrâlimê?” he asked with a soft smile as he caressed her pale, cool cheek. He loved the way her high cheekbones defined Ása’s beautiful face, making her stand out in a crowd. This was the first face he would see every morning and the last one he wished to say his goodnights to every evening from now on and he couldn’t be happier about it. 

“Is…” she licked her lips, her voice trembling. “Is this really happening, Mizim?”

He nodded without a word and decided to answer her question in a different way. His mouth sought out hers and he gently touched her sweet lips with his, unhurriedly easing into a kiss. Her lips reminded him of luscious raspberries, sweet, ripe, and ready to be picked. He wanted to devour them, no, devour all of her, very, very badly. He wanted to ravish her, taste her, cover all of her body with his mouth until she moaned with pleasure. Ása sighed and returned his kiss enthusiastically. He could feel her body slightly softening, surrendering to his touch unconditionally. And then she pulled herself closer to him, in an attempt to wrap her arms around his neck, raising their bound hands in the process and failing miserably as they got stuck between their bodies. A nervous giggle escaped her mouth.

“How am I supposed to hug you now?” she asked in confusion.

“Did that old parchment not say what is supposed to be done about these knots?” he scrutinized the ribbon on their wrists, trying to wish them away. Whatever there was to be done, he wanted to solve this problem fast. It wouldn’t do to leave Ása’s enticing lips without proper attention they required of him.

“Not a word.”

“Well then,” he continued, “that means,” he couldn’t stop himself and kissed her, enjoying the softness of her lips again,” we will do it the quick way.” This time he had his hunting knife with him and one swift move of its blade cut the ribbon in the middle, freeing their hands and leaving the knots still tied on their wrists.

“Is someone in a hurry tonight, my lord?” she winked at him, but her nervousness was still visible on her face. He threw the knife onto his desk and rested his hands on her lovely waist, pulling her close to him.

“I’m an impatient dwarf, my lady,” he responded huskily, his voice muffled as he nuzzled her neck, his hands travelling along the wonderful curves of her body. A gasp escaped her lips, and then another when he covered her mouth with his, his kisses turning from soft, careful caresses to a more passionate exchange, their tongues meeting, exploring, mingling. His body caught fire and it seemed that only her touch could extinguish the flames, promising all the pleasure in the world. The way she pressed against him, moved her hands through the hair at the nape of his neck and whimpered under his touch told him that the same unstoppable fire burned inside her as well.

“Thorin…?” she murmured into the corner of his mouth.

“Yes, my sweet?” he raised his eyes to her, stealing a quick peck from her lips.

“Idazûl… Is it… time?” his One asked with a hint of uncertainty in her voice. Mahal , her innocently flushed cheeks made him want to ravish her here and now, not in his bed, but on the carpet beneath their feet. 

“Does it mean that I’m not the only impatient dwarf here?” he teased her, hoping to make her blush even more and succeeding almost instantly.

“Am I not allowed to…” she stumbled over a word, “to yearn for joining my beloved in our marital bed?”

He wondered why his cheeks suddenly felt quite hot.

“Is this what my lady truly wishes?” his question hung in the air. He had been waiting for this moment and dreaming of it for an eternity, or so it seemed, but he didn’t expect it would happen this way. They were supposed to have a big, lavish, royal wedding in a few months, a seven-day feast and a month to cherish each other afterwards, before returning to their usual duties. And a proper marriage contract, securing her position, both financially and socially, as the spouse of the heir to the throne of Erebor. Now, he wasn’t able to offer it all to his One, to show her how much she meant to him. Instead, they were undergoing a simple, quiet ceremony in secret. Thorin realized that this was a hasty decision to make as well, for both of them. The handfasting ceremony was behind them, but before the whole idazûl was completed, this was the question he needed to know the answer to. What if Ása’s nervousness was a sign that she wasn’t yet ready for the intimacies of the marital bed? As much as he desired her, the last thing he wanted was to force himself upon her. 

He felt a soothing touch of her hand over his heart.

“You are my One, Thorin. My Azyungal. Mahal brought us together,” her bright eyes were full of hope. “My heart chose you the first time we met and I will not change my mind. I chose you to be my husband, not some old Dwarf-king from a faraway kingdom. I want to go through the whole idazûl with you,” she blushed intensely, resting her other hand on his suddenly heaving chest.

Finally, Thorin grasped the full meaning of his grandfather’s words: “There is no greater honor for a dwarf than when a dwarven lady chooses him to be her One.”

“My Amrâlimê,” he whispered. “My heart,” he growled. Her moist, parted lips kindled his passion even more, burning through his mind like a wildfire. The sheer thought that another dwarf could have claimed his One somewhere in a faraway land if his father's schemes had come to fruition, was unbearable. Ása’s place was by his side and his, by hers. She was his and she would not belong to anyone else.

Thorin took a deep breath in an effort to quell the firestorm raging in his mind.

“The generous gift you are offering to me is worth more than all the dwarven kingdoms altogether, my love,” he took her hand and lifted it to his mouth, making last attempts at trying to control his flaming passion. His beloved Ása stood there and smiled at him, her green-speckled blue eyes emanating with happiness. He saw the love in her innocent eyes, the invitation in the shape of her lips, the curves of her round breasts swelling up above her corset with each breath she took, waiting impatiently. Her waist waited for his large hands to cover it and the inviting roundness of her hips under her skirt promised unending pleasure.

Thorin had no idea what he’d done to deserve Ása in Mahal’s eyes, but he was sure of one thing: she was his One. Even the smallest possibility of her being torn away from him was unbearable. The recent events were the last straw that added to the constant pressure he was under during the last months. At that moment, he wasn’t the prince any longer, he was just a young dwarf driven by his emotions. He had everything he wanted. The woman he gave his heart to was in his arms, her lips soft and inviting, her eyes asking him how much he was willing to give her. And he wanted to give her everything, all of the pleasure, all of his treasures, all of himself. As his blood rushed through his veins, he knew he couldn’t wait any longer. He had to claim her and make her his wife. Forever. 

“Does that mean ‘yes’?” she smiled timidly and right then, at that very moment, he knew there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do just to see that smile on her sweet face.

The remnants of a crackling wall of resolve he carefully built around himself finally fell. 

“Yes, my heart, I’m going to make you mine,” he rumbled and in one swift move, he lifted her into his arms, kicking the door to his bedchamber open and carrying her straight to his bed.

Chapter Text

The furs were soft as down. It was the first thing Ása noticed when Thorin gently laid her down on his bed and sat down on its edge. She sighed when his lips slowly nuzzled hers.

“Yâsûn*,” he spoke under his breath, hovering over her, his eyes filled with tenderness.

“Yâsith*,” she smiled timidly, placing a hand on his bearded cheek. “I can not believe it. We are finally wed.”

“I only wish we could be celebrating it in other circumstances. I want everyone to see that you are my wife, that you are mine,” he placed a reverent kiss on her mouth.

“Then… make me yours, Thorin,” she whispered shyly, looking deeply into his eyes.

“This is exactly what I intend to do, Amrâlimê,” his eyes darkened as he spoke these words. “I wish to give you as much pleasure as I can.”

Her cheeks flushed instantly as she mumbled, “And will… will you show me h-how to give it to you? I-I want to please you…” embarrassed, she averted her gaze. Thorin lifted himself and gently turned her flushed face towards his.

“Under one condition, my sweet,” he smiled tenderly with a soft look in his eyes. “Will you do the same for me?”

“Of--Of course, but…” she sat up as well, frowning, trying to understand what he was saying. “Does that mean...”

“Yes.” It was difficult to see in the faint firelight, but she thought that she saw his cheek darkening under his dark beard.

“Are you saying that you haven’t…” Ása tried again, completely tongue-tied. Try as she might, she couldn’t articulate the words.

“Exactly,” he nodded, his lip curling up visibly as he caressed her cheek with his fingers.

“But… but you are a prince…”

“I am. And as such, I am bound by my duty,” he offered, but she still was at a loss.

“I thought… You see... prince Dáin of the Iron Hills, he… he is unmarried too and… he-he likes to spend time in the company of women. A lot,” she mumbled, confused, looking down, not able to admit what she was secretly dreading in her heart. 

“Ah, I see now,” his eyes brightened. “It is different here, my sweet. According to the tradition of the House of Durin Under the Mountain, such conduct would be deemed dishonorable. A prince of Erebor has to act respectably at all times. It mostly means sitting through uncountable lectures on the importance of honorable conduct and purity of the Durin’s line,” he rolled his eyes, eliciting a small giggle from her. “It also means having very strict tutors and not being left to one’s own devices. Not too often at least.”

“Oh. I... I see.” Mahal, what was wrong with her? Wasn’t she able to compose a whole sentence any longer? She tried once more. “I just… I have seen how some ladies of the court look at you, how they talk with you, so I assumed…” No, she couldn’t say it. She was hopeless. Besides, even a vague thought about Thorin taking some other lady in his arms made her blood boil.

“None of those ladies captured my heart. I gave it to you,” Thorin took her hand into his. “When I was a boy, I had the privilege to see what it means to spend your life together with your One.”
“Your… grandparents?” she guessed.

“Yes. They were a remarkable couple,” he nodded, a shadow of sadness passing over his eyes. “I’ve always hoped Mahal would deem me worthy of finding my One. I wished to show her how much she meant to me. What else could be a better gift for my One than myself?” he lowered himself to kiss her again. “When I met you, Amrâlimê, I instantly knew you were the first and only woman I’d ever want to share my bed with.”

“Thorin, there is no other Dwarf like you in the entire Arda,” relieved, she threw her arms around his neck, placing enthusiastic kisses all over his face and making him chuckle in response. Until now, she desperately tried not to think about the possibility of her handsome prince comparing her inexperienced caresses with his previous lovers, but now that worrying thought disappeared for good. There was however something more that gnawed at the back of her mind.

“You look relieved and worried at the same time, Ása. What is it?” he asked her when their gazes met.

“Well… ” she tried not to show worry in her voice. “I… You see, I thought that you would show me… I mean, the way you kiss… I thought… Don’t get me wrong, I read all the right books I could lay my hands on, and I have a general idea, but…” she blabbed again, a chaotic whirlpool of words coming from her mouth.

“Oh, my sweetest Ása,” he chuckled, covering her mouth with his sensual lips, stopping her mumbling at once, for which she was very grateful. “This is truly unexpected” he continued, his eyes flickering brightly. “And to think that I had to endure all those years of honorable conduct and self-restraint only to hear my One complain?”

“I did not mean it this way, and you know it,” she huffed.

“Well then, do you wish me to go and find myself an experienced maiden who will be eager enough to share her practical knowledge with me?” he grinned, faking an attempt to get up from the bed.

“Don’t you dare, Your Royal Highness!” Ása exclaimed furiously, catching him by the front of his tunic. This Dwarf was infuriating. “If you leave this room now, you’d better not come back at all!”

“Feisty, are we?” Thorin hummed in amusement, his eyes sparkling with laughter. He was slowly closing the distance between their lips.

“Not a single Dwarf woman will lay a hand on my One as long as I have anything to say about it!” she leaned towards him, her anger flaring. This feeling was exhilarating and she meant every single word she said.

“Amrâlimê, is this jealousy I see in your eyes?” he strived to contain his laughter.

“Be quiet and kiss me!” she uttered, leaning towards the prince, brimming with fury. Teasing or not, she certainly didn’t intend to share him with anyone. Thorin was her husband now and she would make him remember that very well. And that included putting a stop to that insolent chuckling of his while she was at it!

The moment her lips crashed with his, that brand new type of possessive anger she felt transformed into something deeper, more sensual and ferocious. She instantly recognized the throbbing in her body and then the molten gold that filled her veins, scorching everything in its wake just like Thorin’s mouth scorched her skin, sucking on her upper lip and making her purr in joy. She loved that insatiable fire that seemed to constantly burn inside him, his tongue finding its way into her eager mouth, his arms pulling her closer towards him. She didn’t know how exactly it happened, but soon she was firmly settled on his lap and one of his palms ran through her hair. Thorin was so close to her now, surrounding her with the smell of leather, pine resin, and pure desire. 

“My Ása...” the prince’s voice was muffled when his lips followed the line of her jaw, brushed against her ear and found its way to the crook of her neck, whispering sweet nothings along the way. Her mind was completely flooded with all the sensations he woke in her, placing dozens of feather-light kisses on her sensitive skin. Yet, there was more she hoped for, more she instinctively wanted, more her body hungrily demanded, eagerly responding to both Thorin’s closeness and his enticing caresses that grew bolder with every moment. His mouth found that sensitive place on her neck, the one only he knew of, nuzzling it and sucking on it gently.

“Thorin! You will live a mark,” she gasped, as her eyes fluttered open.
“That is exactly what I am planning to do,” he rumbled into her neck, his beard prickling against her skin, sending a shiver down her spine, while his hands kept her steadily on his lap.

“And what I am supposed to wear tomorrow?” she giggled. “High-collar dresses are not in fashion now!”

“Do you think, wife , that I will let you wear anything tomorrow, once I have undressed you?” his mouth moved to her neckline, hovering over her exposed flesh.

“You have no shame, husband!” she giggled, feeling his hot breath on her skin.

“No, I do not,” grinning, he shot her a suggestive glance from under his eyebrows and attacked her mouth with renewed ardor. Thorin growled into her as his hands moved to the bodice of her gown, fiddling with the complicated system of decorative buttons and loops.

“Is anything the matter, Your Royal Highness?” she tried to keep her face straight, seeing his futile attempts at conquering her attire.

“Can you not see that I am trying to show you how shameless I am by undressing you?” he rumbled impatiently, dropping a kiss on her cleavage.

“May I offer help?”

“No,” Thorin shook his mane decidedly. “I believe I have found the way.” He grabbed the two pieces of fabric of her bodice with his hands and simply pulled them apart. A cascade of buttons flew in all directions across the room.

“Thorin! You Beast! That was my favorite dress!” she laughed in a faint protest, a visible blush appearing on her cheeks. Her chest was now covered only with a white lace chemise, rapidly rising and falling in anticipation.

The prince looked ravenously at her, resting his hands on her hips. “And this is my favorite part of you,” he snarled and, oh, Mahal , placed a careful kiss right at the tip of her left breast. A moan of pleasure mixed with surprise escaped her mouth as she felt his impossibly hot lips nuzzling her through the fabric. He repeated his ministrations with her right breast, humming in contentment at her reactions when she dug her fingers into his hair, not wanting him to stop. His nimble fingers unfastened the ribbon that held the chemise together and slowly proceeded to uncover her bosom, lazily peppering every inch of her bare skin with tender kisses. Ása’s heart beat faster and faster, her blush appearing more prominently on her cheeks the further down he went. When his lips closed over her bare nipple, she gasped. 

“So sweet…” he murmured. She gasped again when his tongue swirled around the rosy tip of her breast, sending a myriad of incredible sensations throughout her body. Her mind told her that she probably should have felt at least a tiny bit of shame for propriety’s sake, but the fact was that she enjoyed it too immensely to be concerned by such unnecessary notions. Only Thorin mattered now, his curious, exploring hands, his daring lips, his playful tongue, his beard brushing against her skin, and even his teeth that gently teased these sensitive parts of her body, making her moan louder than before.

“Does my wife approve?” he murmured huskily.

“I… oh, Thorin, yes, this is… this is just…” Ása mumbled.

A satisfied grunt was followed by his murmur, “does my wife wish for more?”

She didn’t answer. Not in words, at least. Ása was too busy feeling, melting under his touch, gasping under his exploratory mouth, reveling in each new caress that sent a new wave of pleasure throughout her body. A moan was all she could muster.

“I will take it as a ‘yes’, my lady,” he smirked, lifting her from his lap and settling her in the middle of the bed, among the soft furs. The dwarven maiden instantly clutched her chemise to her chest before he hovered over her, his stormy blue eyes never leaving her face, promising her unending ecstasy. 

“But first, may I have the honor of helping you out of your dress?” 

Ása looked down, realizing that she was still almost fully dressed, even though she somehow felt completely naked under his burning gaze. Her heart raced in her chest like a herd of galloping ponies. A part of her was thrilled with excitement, ready to explore the new world of unrestricted marital passion together with her Thorin, her newly wedded husband. There was also the apprehensive maiden in her who remembered the whispers exchanged by the experienced, married dwarven ladies. The wedding night was supposed to be wonderful, or messy, or terrifying, and quite often painful. There were stories both of uncaring husbands and passionate lovers, but she also heard rumors of Dwarves seeking other partners if their spouses didn’t satisfy them. She dreaded all those unknown moments that were about to happen, fearing the thought of not pleasing her One sufficiently. Slowly, she took a deep breath and nodded. 

“Would you like to help me with my garments as well?” Thorin said encouragingly, his eyes twinkling with the reflected firelight.

Her eyes widened. He asked her to uncover his body. Her mind eagerly recalled the way Thorin looked just a couple hours ago, his naked torso glistening with water, and she suddenly felt unusually hot and breathless. In just a few moments, she would touch him, feel his skin against her skin, knowing that nothing and no one would stop them this time. Ása’s cheeks flushed at once. 

“This lovely blush of yours…” he murmured, caressing her cheek with the back of his index finger. “No need to be shy anymore, my sweet. Not with me. Tonight, we will do everything together, as husband and wife,” he smiled encouragingly, placing her hand on the ties of his tunic below his neck. 

Awkwardly, she tried her best to help Thorin out of his clothes, with trembling fingers, and, at the same time, direct him on the best way to disrobe her, trying not to giggle nervously too much. This time, he was gentle and careful, finding all the correct hooks and hidden buttons, unhurriedly peeling off the layers of her clothes, one by one. His steady presence soothed her gradually. Soon, she was wearing only her chemise and dared just once to glimpse at Thorin’s wonderfully bare skin as he kneeled on the bed in front of her, so very close. Her lips suddenly became parched.

“Where were we…” he pondered, while his powerful arms pulled her towards him and their lips interlocked. He cupped her face, kissing her with such a hunger that it almost made her stop thinking about his broad, naked chest in front of her. One of his hands found its way to the small of her back and pressed her lightly against him. The familiar sweet, ecstatic heat started pooling between her legs, spreading to her underbelly where something incredibly hot prodded against her skin through the fabric of his undergarments. It was… Ása’s breath hitched when she realized how hard the proof of his arousal was. That mysterious part of the male anatomy that, according to the books she read and the gossip she heard, was responsible for bringing great ecstasy. And babies, of course. Her heart fluttered. It wasn’t unheard of that the conception sometimes happened on a wedding night. What if she and Thorin were to... She was sure that her face and neck were very much crimson now, but her eyes remained firmly shut, not daring to look at Thorin’s face nor other thrilling parts of his body. Especially the one that seemed to pulse with a life of its own, temptingly brushing against her soft skin, silently demanding more. 

“I burn for you, my sweet, can you feel it?” her One murmured into her ear, nuzzling her earlobe slowly. “I have been yearning for you since the day I tasted your sweet lips for the first time. As if you cast a spell on me…” he placed a flaming kiss on her neck, and then another, and another, making her shiver with pleasure, slowly moving down, to her neckline. 

“I’m not... a sorceress,” she protested faintly between moans. Surely, he was the one who knew how to do magic, not her. His nimble fingers bared her shoulders and breasts, letting her chemise slide down her skin and pool around her waist.

“And yet you are bewitching,” he breathed huskily, lowering himself on the bed, his hungry eyes feasting on her nakedness. A hoarse growl escaped his lips as he grasped her round hips and swiftly pulled her towards him, making her straddle him. Instinctively, she clung to him, finding his lips with hers, yearning for more, feeling his scorching body pressed against her, his incessant kisses covering her skin… It was as if a dam broke within him. His eager hands wandered along her curves, curious, meticulous, acquainting themselves with her, unceremoniously getting rid of the last of her clothes. At that point, her timidness was all but forgotten. The primeval need to give herself to him fully and unreservedly run through her veins, craving fulfillment. Everything seemed to happen at once. His tender nibble on her lower lip that made her gasp. His hand that gently kneaded her breast, making her tremble. His lips that moved to her neck as she arched back her head, closing her eyes. And then his strong arms encircled her, holding her close as he lowered her onto the bed as if she weighed as much as a feather.

“My treasure of treasures,” Thorin murmured into her ear, his deep voice reverberating in his chest, rekindling the fire that burned away the last shreds of propriety inside her.

She laid under him, trembling with anticipation, her heart beating faster and faster. The glistening waves of his dark mane covered her body when his mouth moved to her breasts, tasting their hardened rosy tips and covering their snow-white slopes with a trail of kisses. 

Ása couldn’t stop herself and moaned as his mouth continued his ministrations. Through the haze she felt one of his hands staking out a trail along her side, past her waist and resting on her thigh, squeezing it firmly and sending a rush of red hot lava through her veins. She moaned, recalling the last time when his bold hands found their way to that secret place between her legs, bringing her immense pleasure. She wanted to feel it again. She moaned again when his hand covered her mound of pleasure and slid between her already slick thighs that parted willingly, invitingly. Thorin lifted his head and rested his eyes on her face, watching her in fascination. A longer and louder moan escaped her mouth when his fingers started working their way along her silky folds, sending tingling waves of pleasure throughout her body, and she quickly covered her mouth with the back of her hand, trying to muffle the noises she made. He took her palm in his, kissed it, and placed it on the nape of his neck.

“There is no need, Amrâlimê. Tonight you can be as loud as you like,” he rumbled as his fingers found the treasure they have been trailing towards, the priceless pearl hidden among the silky pink petals of her maiden flower. She whimpered once, and then again and again as his thumb circled the sensitive spot, sending shivers of ecstasy throughout her body, her attempts at trying to contain her moans completely forgotten.

“Perfect, my sweet, I want the whole Erebor to hear the echoes of your pleasure,” Thorin’s lip curled up with satisfaction, his eyes glistening like gold, filled with desire.

“Thorin... you…” she moaned, her cheeks colored slightly at his words. Ása wanted to scold him playfully but wasn’t able to compose even a single complete sentence in her mind. Sweet ripples of pleasure ran through her body while his fingers teased her mercilessly, exploring and moving in circles, parting the tender petals of her maidenhood, prospecting, exploring, refusing to miss even a single place. His movements stopped for a blink of an eye when his middle finger slowly slid into her wetness and retreated.

“Please…” she half-moaned, half-murmured, catching his gaze, hoping that he’d understand her plea. His thick digit returned, lazily delving between her folds again, making her whimper, and then once, twice, thrice more, settling into a steady pace. He was like a pilgrim from afar, his touch full of both devotion and reverence, finally finding his way to her divine temple, offering her his votive gifts with an enthusiasm of a zealot.

“You are completely drenched, my sweetest,” Thorin said hoarsely. His quickly rising and falling chest told her more than she needed to know. He truly wanted her in that scandalous, raw way that made her slightly apprehensive and very much excited her at the same time. 

“Thorin, I must… I need more…” she lifted her hips slightly towards him.

“Are you certain, my sweet? You are so sensitive,” he admitted, his eyes shining with lust as deep as the deepest sapphire mines of Erebor.

She pulled his face towards her, an ardent kiss being her only answer.

“I see that you mean it, my lady,” he rumbled, returning the kiss, making her marvel at the emotions that stirred inside her after their lips met. Ása gasped into his mouth and opened her eyes as the pressure between her thighs intensified. His second finger joined in in the ministrations, finding the entrance to her temple, a thirsty wanderer in search of the hidden treasure, and plunging forward into her velvet depths, making her body yield to him even more.

“Is this too much for you, my heart?” he whispered huskily.

“No,” she shook her head, not wanting the new, dizzying sensations to stop. “I want this…” 

He growled and in one slow movement thrust into her with his fingers in a way she’d never experienced before. It was an amazing feeling, a delicious one, in fact, his large, coarse fingers waking a new hunger inside her as they started their explorations once again. His mouth covered the erect tip of her breast; his silky beard prickled her smooth skin. A new heat uncoiled inside her as he delved deeper, his movements intensifying, his palm becoming a bearer of ecstasy, changing each touch into minuscule explosions of rapture accentuated by her moans.

She clung to him, eagerly succumbing to his caresses, trembling with expectation. His movements intensified as his mouth mercilessly attacked her breasts, not stopping even for a blink of an eye, continuing, adding to the fire that burned inside her.

“Come to me, Amrâlimê,” his low voice, thick and sweet as honey, seeped into her ear, promising and giving pleasure at the same time. Her breathing became erratic, her hips bucked against his unstoppable hand. He did his sensual magic once more and it was enough to send her over the edge. Her body arched and a long whimper escaped her while a storm of indescribable sensations passed through her, leaving her limp and unmoving in its wake.

“Was it good for you, my love?” he asked her a few moments later, his lips gently brushing hers. Her lover. Her husband. Thorin.

 “It… you… amazing…” she mumbled dizzily, as he lowered himself on the bed beside her. After a few moments her breathing steadied, her eyelids fluttered and Ása managed to place a hand on his bearded cheek, smiling dreamily. He was the most handsome dwarf on the entire Arda, the waves of his long hair falling over his shoulders, the gaze of his deep-set eyes sliding along the curves of her body, his mouth slightly open. A perfect picture of a legendary warrior of ancient dwarven sagas who chose to recline on the bed so close to her at that very moment. 

She thought she felt fully satisfied, but now, his closeness made her intoxicated once again. The width of his shoulders, the muscles of his chest, the dark hair that dusted it, this and more made desire stir within her. Her hunger for him raised its head once again as her gaze traveled all the way to his navel and lower. She swallowed. His small clothes did nothing to conceal the shape arousal and she quickly moved her eyes back to his face, her cheeks reddening, hoping that he hadn’t noticed her curious glances. One look at his face proved her wrong. She bit her lower lip.

A smile tugged on his lips when he sat up and said, “Is there anything my lady wishes to say?”

She nodded, turning to him, and spoke hesitantly, “C-can I touch you?”

“You are my wife and you can touch me whenever you wish if it pleases you.”

Thorin took her narrow palm into his and placed it on his chest. When she began her timid explorations, his skin was even warmer than she expected. As her fingers danced along his pectorals, she wondered whether it was true what some legends said about dwarves being created by Mahal from the hardest rock in existence. The coarseness of his chest hair contrasted alluringly with the smooth expanse of his tanned skin. Her palm followed the dark line of hair making his well-defined abdomen muscles contract when she reached his navel. A low growl came from his throat, making her freeze.

“Should I stop? Is it not to your liking?” she raised her gaze in alarm and was met by his intense stare that seemed to engulf her completely, his eyes as dark as the evening sky after dusk.

“It is very much to my liking,” Thorin growled, his jaw set tight, a warning in his voice.

He took her hand into his and slid it down his trim abdomen and below, placing it on top of his amazing hardness. She gasped, feeling the scorching heat of his manhood.

“This much,” he rumbled. Ása’s body responded instinctively as she felt certain familiar sensations stirring inside her. There was a place deep inside her that yearned to be filled by this very part of him completely. Her body called for him. She craved to be fully claimed by her One, to join with him, oh Mahal , how she longed for him.

“Thorin…” she took a deep breath.

“Amrâlimê?” his eyes burned with thirsty, dark blue fire.

Finally, the time has come to say the words she tried to utter in the pool. She took a deep breath. “I… I want you, Thorin, my husband,” she added the last two words, averting her gaze, not daring to look at his handsome face. She was a wanton woman after all, and such words were very unladylike. 

A low growl reverberated in his heaving chest, “And I desire you, my wife.”  

Ása could clearly sense how tense his muscles were. He was barely moving, as if not fully trusting himself around her. She placed her hand at the edge of the last piece of cloth that covered him, observing him as he pulled his small clothes down, revealing the mysterious parts of male anatomy she heard so many stories about. Ása stared at him in fascination, forgetting to breathe. His manhood was much more impressive than the books she studied told her to expect. Large, breathtaking, and only hers, she realized. And there were those twin magnificent orbs below, the enticing source of male virility. Hesitantly, she reached out to touch him, encouraged by his nod, guided by his hand. A stifled growl escaped his lips when her fingers curled around his manhood, her palm too small to encircle him fully. His skin was amazingly soft, but she felt the impossible hardness within. She squeezed her thighs together, feeling the moisture forming between them. A similar drop of moisture glistened on top of his shaft as well, making her lick her lips involuntarily.

“Your… your hammer… it is so... beautiful,” she admitted with admiration in her voice, trying to hide her concern at the same time. Her body yearned for him, wanted him, but what if she would turn out to be too small for him? What if it would be too painful? What if they wouldn’t somehow fit together?

Thorin regarded her from under his eyelids without a word, his white-knuckled fist pushing into the bed mattress. Every single thing about him emanated power that slumbered inside his body, but he remained motionless as if he was concerned that he would scare her off with a sudden movement. What was he waiting for? Was she supposed to do something specific? She slowly moved her hand along his manhood, admiring its shape, making him hiss in response. One swift movement of his arms and she was straddling his lap, her secret place throbbing with need. Thorin placed his hand on her hip, steadying her.

“You are trembling, my heart. All will be well,” he kissed her soothingly. “I will be gentle. Will you guide me?” he whispered.

Ása nodded, her cheeks flushed, her heartbeat quickening in anticipation. She lifted herself and hovered above his groin, unsure of her further action. His warm hand covered hers and led it to his manhood. She lowered herself slowly, and then there was this unbelievably hard, all-consuming heat sliding between her folds, teasing her, becoming covered with her wetness, demanding entry. A small adjustment of their joined hands and her hips and they quickly found each other. Her moan intertwined with his growl as he started entering her, as hot as a freshly forged iron blade. 

She whimpered, desperately eager to accommodate for his size, trying to withstand the intensity of the sensations she felt.

“Ása, my heart, does it pain you? Shall I stop?” he rumbled, freezing in place. Only then she realized that she somehow clenched her jaw and forgot to breathe.

The feeling was not what she expected, the pain, the roughness, the discomfort - they were all there, but so was that new sensation, an enticing sparkle of something wonderfully pleasant. She wanted him to continue, being so close to uncovering that great mystery of the marriage bed. 

“N-no, please, don’t stop,” her whisper was barely audible as she hid her face among his curls at the nape of his neck, her hands resting on his shoulders. “It’s just… you are so big, but I need to feel you inside me so very, very badly, and besides, the books said it may take some time to adjust and…” she blabbered senselessly, her mind in a complete haze.

“Shh, my sweet, I do not wish to hurt you. We will take our time,” his steady voice reassured her as his hand caressed her back.

“I’d like that very much,” she replied, feeling his hand travelling down her belly now. “Oh…” she moaned in surprise when he placed his thumb on the pearl hiding between her legs and lazily circled it, sending a wave of sweet pleasure through her body.

“You were saying?” his lip curled up in satisfaction, while he continued administering pleasure to her in this unrushed manner.

“This is so… oh,” she moaned again when he gently pushed forward with his hips, her silky folds giving way, taking in another inch of his burning desire. “So good…”

“A blacksmith’s hammer’s place is in the forge,” he huskily whispered an old dwarven saying into her ear, making her cheeks burn up again as his voice traveled all the way to her molten core.

“Just a bit more, my sweet,” Thorin caressed her cheek.

She nodded, trembling in anticipation, barely able to move. 

“Mahal, have mercy on me, you are so delicate,” Thorin let out a low groan, his hands clasped her hips as he moved once more, burying himself in her to the hilt with one swift stroke, filling her completely, smothering her cry of pained pleasure with his mouth. Her body welcomed him in, stretching more than she ever thought possible, pouring hot, molten lava into her veins.

“So perfect… ” he murmured, resting his forehead against hers, taking in a deep breath, as if steadying himself. “Amrâlimê, my sweet, look at me.”

She met his intense, midnight blue stare that seemed to consume all of her being. His arms held her firmly, his skin against hers, their breaths mingling, their hair interlaced, her golden strands against his obsidian waves.

“We are One,” he murmured. “You and me.” He brought his palm to hers, their fingers intertwining, fitting together perfectly as two pieces of a dwarven puzzle finally coming together to create a whole. Inseparable in their hearts until the end of days.

“One,” she placed a careful kiss on his lips. 

The books explained what to expect of a joining between two dwarves, but they never mentioned how overwhelmingly intimate it was and how much pleasure it could entail. None of those dusty tomes were of any use to her any longer. Ása let the sea of pleasure wash over her when Thorin’s fingertips skimmed along her skin, feeling the softness of his lips and the coarseness of his beard covering her breasts as he continued his explorations, together with his infatuating whispers promising endless ecstasy. Her legs were tightly wrapped around him when he finally started moving, unhurriedly plumbing her depths like a sailor on uncharted waters in search of a hidden cove.

“Do you like this?” he asked in a raspy voice, his eyes firmly set on her face.

“I do…” she moaned in pleasure, closing her eyes, arching her back, enjoying his firm grasp on her buttocks as he continued his movements. When her fingers curiously moved over his back, feeling the muscles under his skin, a satisfied hum escaped him.

‘And how do you like this?” he held her close against his torso and lowered her back on the furs below, hovering above her and burrowing himself deep inside her. His muscular body covered hers and their lips met, his dark waves of hair cascading all over her milky white skin. 

“Do it once more,” she whispered and he obliged only to retreat a moment later, making her yelp in surprise.

“Come back,” she purred with displeasure, lifting her hips to him. When he immediately responded with a thrust, she pulled him towards her, not letting go. It felt as if something raw and powerful has taken over Thorin. A primeval force of nature. He was like an unstoppable avalanche, constantly growing in force, multiplying her sensations with each thrust. Thorin, her Thorin, always in perfect control of his passion, seemed to have turned into a carnal beast. It was both something that she’d never experienced before and something her senses were very eager to see, feel, hear, touch, and taste. 

She responded with equal eagerness, complementing his movements with her own. Her hands ran along his back, nails digging into his skin in ecstasy, making him growl against her moans of pleasure. Thorin put her body on fire, burning her, filling her with aching pleasure in a rush of scorching passion. 

They pursued their passionate efforts in abandon, their bodies finally singing their song of love in unison, intertwining, insatiable. The intensity of these emotions overwhelmed her, making her breathing shallow and irregular. Rapture was uncoiling deep inside her and she could already sense the first signs of sweet fulfillment on the horizon of their passion.

“Thorin, I will… I must…” she tried to speak, but her mind was filled with desire instead of words. He responded with a growl, burying his face in her neck, planting zealous kisses along its curve, sinking into her ardently in throes of passion, loving her without end.

She knew she would surely come undone under him in a blink of an eye when his large hand slid under her buttock, squeezing it gently and pressing her hips against his as he rocked his hips rhythmically, sending new, intense ripples throughout her body. 

“Kiss me,” he rasped huskily. When their lips joined, it was enough to send her over the precipice. Her world shrunk to the sweet fire that exploded between her legs as ecstasy claimed her. He followed swiftly, catching up with her with a satisfied groan, pulsing inside her, claiming her, shattering her into millions of pieces, sending her high among the stars and then catching her and holding her close, uncountable constellations of rapture shining in his eyes. 

She was completely his now. And he belonged to her. 


***

The embers in the fireplace were slowly flickering out when Ása interrupted the silent bliss that surrounded them.

“This was wonderful, much better than they wrote in all those books!”, her cheek rested on Thorin’s bare chest while her fingers played with his dark chest hair. She decided that it would be one of her new favorite habits from that very moment.

“I will take it as a compliment, my lady,” he chuckled, holding her close to his body in a possessive way that she found very enthralling.

“Please do, my lord,” she allowed playfully. “And did you find it to your liking when we…,” she blushed slightly. Ladies weren’t expected to speak about such things, after all.

“When we made love, my sweetest?” his impossibly low voice rumbled in his chest with amusement, reverberating against her skin.

“Y-yes,” she admitted timidly.

“More than you can imagine, my heart,” he placed a tender kiss on her head. “More than any book could say.”

“So you had to read those books too?” Ása lifted her head with interest. She always wondered what kind of education young dwarven men received when it came to intimate matters.

“To be honest, my books were mostly filled with pictures,” he admitted with a glint in his eye. 

“It is unfair. Mine were quite boring and they completely omitted how amazing it is! If I knew earlier,” she lifted her head and looked at him mischievously, “I would have probably ravished you that day when we first met, in the forest!”

You would have ravished me ?” Thorin asked and she thought that she saw his lip twitching.

“I would!” she eagerly confirmed.

“Then I should probably be grateful that the authors withheld this important detail. I am not sure if I could have survived the shame of losing the status of an eligible bachelor. None of the dwarven maidens would have married a prince who’d been ravished. Even if the deed was done by a very beautiful forest dryad,” he spoke with a solemn tone of voice, but Ása could clearly see a hint of laughter in his eyes. Mahal , how she loved the azure depths of his gaze.

“Well, I could have taken pity on you and wed you eventually,” she grinned, pecking his cheek. She adored the way the silk of his beard felt against her lips.

“I am thoroughly humbled by your mercy, my lady,” Thorin placed a kiss at the top of her nose, pulling her closer to him.

“Ah, the things we do for love,” she beamed at him, enjoying the firmness of his arm around her body. 

His expression softened as he kissed her and said huskily, “Has anyone told you how lovely you smile when you are satiated?” 

“Perhaps...” her voice trailed off.

“Who is this insolent dwarf? Tell me at once!” he demanded, mockingly furrowing his brow, sparks dancing in his eyes.

“Well, if you must know...” she giggled when he nuzzled her neck.

“I must!” he insisted, kissing her earlobe.

“He is a prince,” she whispered confidentially, revelling in the touch of his lips in that sensitive place.

“Is he now?” his murmur filled her ear.

“And his kisses make me lose my head,” she had to admit. It was true, she was losing her head already and he hadn’t even reached her lips yet.

“What a scoundrel! How dare he?!” he gnarred. That smooth, velvet voice of his was her undoing every time he spoke.

“Oh, he does dare quite a lot,” she let out a sigh when his hand moved along her bare skin.

“I wager he cannot make you forget your own name like I do,” with those words he moved to her lips, kissing her with such ardor that she had no choice but to capitulate very quickly. Everything seemed to disappear from her thoughts, starting with her own name, of course. Soon, only his lips remained, the rest of the world ceasing to exist.

Chapter Text

Khuzd tada tabjabi d'ahlut yusth mud ashmur diya ins ubnanhu. *
A dwarf that chooses to take a wife must guard her as his greatest treasure.

 

Thorin learned this saying a long time ago, but he’d never believed in it as strongly as he had at that very moment. He watched over his Azyungal*, his treasure of treasures, as she slept peacefully. Resting on his side, he observed her with tenderness and fascination, her petite frame curled up to him, her nose buried in his chest, their legs entangled. He didn’t want to miss the slightest movement she made, the quietest sigh she gave out. The woman he loved and cherished was finally his wife and he could not wish for a greater honor.

Ása’s hair was smooth to his touch. Scattered on the pillow, it looked like freshly spun golden yarn. He ran his fingers along the new braid in her hair, the one he pleated himself a few moments before she fell asleep in his arms. Thorin clearly remembered every move he made to create this unique pattern using three interweaving silky strands of her hair. In his heart, they symbolized love, sensuality, and devotion. This, and much more, he was willing to give her for as long as there was breath left in his body. 

The braid that marked her as his spouse was clasped by two silver beads adorned with sapphires, one of them being the courting bead he gave her not so long ago. A similar braid with two jade beads hung in his dark mane. A slight smile appeared on his face when he remembered Ása’s eyes shining with happiness and excitement when she pleated his hair sitting beside him gloriously naked, placing a kiss or two on his cheek from time to time, her previous nervousness disappearing without a trace.

His lovely, wonderful Ása. The forest dryad who found her way to his heart like no other woman before. His fingers touched the pleasant warmth of her bare arm and trailed along her side down to her hip, enjoying the softness of her skin. She gave out a little sigh and clung closer to him. His eyes followed down her shapely legs, finding something that he hadn’t noticed before. An intricate golden bracelet adorned her ankle. He recalled its leafy pattern clearly, but surely, it couldn’t be. It was exactly the same bracelet he saw in one of his passionate dreams that tested his resolve so greatly. Was it possible that he’d seen this bracelet on her before he dreamed of it? On her wrist, perhaps… Yes, that was quite possible. His mind was simply playing tricks on him.

A muffled sound came from Ása’s lips and then her nose wrinkled up. Her eyelids fluttered, he observed, admiring her beautifully arched dark lashes skimming her cheeks. And then, a moment later, he was drowning in her bright, green-tinted eyes until their lips met in a tender kiss.

“Queen of my heart,” he murmured, wrapping his arm around her.

“My king,” she replied, a small smile tugging at the corner of her lip.

“Finally I know how lovely you look after waking up,” he said, slowly tracing the high line of her cheekbone.

Ása blushed slightly at his words and sleepily placed a wonderfully clumsy kiss on his lips. “And now I know that I want to wake up in your arms every day.”
“You will, Amrâlimê*,” he confirmed. “Knowing my mother, she has probably already started preparing our new chambers, now that we are married.”

“New chambers? Do we need them?” her eyes widened.

“According to the court protocol, we are to live in larger chambers with several bedrooms,” Thorin looked at her expectantly.

“Several bedrooms? But why would we… Oh. I see,” and there it was, a lovely pink blush blossoming on her cheeks. “Do you… Is it your wish to…”

“Only if you do too, my sweet, and if Mahal chooses to bless us,” he replied, holding his breath, aware that this was one of the topics they were supposed to discuss during their courtship before everything changed for them but they never had a chance to do it properly.

“I-I think, Mizim*, I would like to… help you fill these bedrooms with sons and daughters,” she looked at him timidly. An immense wave of warmth filled his chest as he exhaled, still holding her close.

“From what I read in my books, I am supposed to be the one who is helping,“ he teased her, unable to stifle a grin. “But I will have you know that I am willing to take this strenuous task upon myself as soon as you wish,” he winked at her, making her giggle.

“Strenuous?! That is not what you said before!”

“Is it not? Pray tell, what did I say?”

“Let me think… it was mostly: ‘oh, Mahal’, ‘this is heavenly’, ah, and my favorite, ‘I have died of pleasure and gone to the halls of my forefathers’,” she was merciless and the worst part was, these words seemed awfully familiar to him, but he would never admit it.

“I have no recollection of ever saying that,” he said, looking at her mischievously as she stifled a laugh. “My lady… I am shocked. You are trying to mock your husband! I believe punishment is in order,” his hands moved quickly to the sensitive places on her skin he knew well.

“Thorin, don’t you dare!” she burst out in giggles almost immediately after he started tickling her mercilessly. Ása swiftly rolled away from him in a feigned attempt to escape, but when he reached out to grab her, she counter-attacked. Thorin failed to evade her touch and soon his laughter joined with hers. The joyful look on his beloved’s face made him feel like the happiest dwarf under the Mountain.

Since the battle left both of them breathless, they decided that there was no clear winner. Instead of retreating into the opposite sides of the bed, he pulled her towards him and wrapped in a hug, nuzzling her neck. She gave out a satisfied purr, nestling herself in his arms, her back flush against his torso. The moment he felt the softness of her skin against his abdomen, a rise of desire stirred in his groin. Taking a deep breath, he tried not to think about her closeness and the captivating flowery scent that surrounded him. He was aware that he had to let her recuperate from the onslaught of his passion. His wife needed him to be patient and so he would wait. There would be other nights. They had all the time in the world ahead of them, after all. 

When his breath finally steadied, his fingers once again started wandering across the silky expanse of her skin. And then his breath hitched.

“It is your coming of age tattoo, is it not?” he asked carefully when the tips of his fingers found their way to a complex geometric pattern on her left shoulder blade and began to trace its green lines.

She hummed in agreement with her eyes closed.

“I like the design. May I ask why you chose a dragon?” he could clearly make out the creature’s spread out wings, its maw, and even the stylized flames that seemed to come out of it.

“A dragon?” she turned to him with an expression of surprise on her face. “No, it is simply an older version of the sigil of my house. I have always thought it resembled a greenfinch soaring in the sky. And do you see those wavy patterns coming out of its beak? It’s singing!” she replied.

“Why did your ancestors pick a greenfinch for their sigil?” Thorin never heard of a dwarven house that would choose such a peculiar symbol. A sigil should symbolize power, wealth, bravery, or similar attributes. A tiny songbird was certainly not associated with these qualities.

“There is an old story,” she took a deep breath, “of my great great great great great great grandfather from my mother’s side, Wulfgar, who faced a mythical creature of legend, a great serpent. His prowess in battle and bravery were unmatched. Wulfgar managed to kill the foul beast in a series of swift and deadly attacks, singing his battle song, just like a greenfinch that attacks a worm. The legend says that he finished off the beast by jumping on top of the creature’s back and chopping off its head with one blow of his axe. That is why he was later called “Serpentrider”, in honor of his feat,” Ása explained with enthusiasm.

“What a remarkable story. I never knew you were a descendant of such a mighty warrior,” he admitted.

“And now I am in the arms of another great warrior,” her smile melted his heart.

“I can only hope for becoming one, one day,” he murmured.

“Oh, but you are a great warrior. You managed to accomplish a near-impossible feat,” she grinned.

“Which is?” he raised one brow.

“You conquered my heart,” she whispered, leaning towards him and kissing him on the lips. A satisfied groan escaped him as he decided to conquer her mouth as well when the bed started shaking underneath them along with the whole bedchamber. A low, thrumming sound filled the air and reverberated in the walls of his chamber. He knew these harbingers of danger all too well and reacted instinctively, protectively covering Ása’s body with his, holding her close beneath him.

“Thorin, what is it?” her eyes widened in fear.

“Do not move, my sweet, it will pass. The Mountain has awakened,” he replied, praying to Mahal that the tremors would subside soon and that the ceiling of his chamber would hold. The movements of Erebor’s bedrock happened from time to time, but he had to admit that the last episode happened quite a few years ago and their sudden appearance worried him. They were decidedly stronger than the previous ones.

She stiffened in his arms like a small, defenseless forest creature, her heart beating as fast as that of a mortified hare, but he was there to protect her from harm, whispering reassuring words into her ear. The ground shook beneath them for long, countless moments just to stop as abruptly as it started.

 

“It is finished, my sweet,” he caressed her cheek, trying to calm her down. “All will be well now.”

Ása’s shallow breathing and the terrified look on her face told him that she probably hadn’t experienced anything like this in the Iron Hills. She clung to him, refusing to let go.

A bell sounded in the distance, calling for help. Thorin froze. This was not the regular alarm bell.

“The mines!” he exclaimed, glancing at the hourglass. The night shift wasn’t finished yet. “Frerin! He is there!” the prince sat up quickly, gathering his thoughts.

“Your brother? In the mines?” Ása’s eyes widened even further.

“He decided to work the night shift in the mines tonight,” he hastily started putting on his clothes. There was no time to waste. “I need to find him. That bell means that there was an accident in the mines.”

“I will go with you, I can help,” she started helping him with the ties of his tunic, just like a dutiful wife would, and then looked at him with her enchanting, bright greenish eyes. His chest filled with warmth. There was nothing else he would rather do than have her by his side at all times. His heart refused to let her go out of his sight. Not now, not on their wedding night, not when his father and the Orocarni delegation plotted against them.

“No, my heart, you shall stay here. The mines are not safe. I would not forgive myself if something was to happen to you,” he took her hands in his and kissed them.

“But there might be wounded miners, the healers will need every available pair of hands…” Ása opposed. He admired her willingness to help even though he saw how tired she looked after an eventful day and evening. For him, one of the most precious things about his One was compassion and the natural way she acted, putting those in need first. The qualities of the woman he loved dearly, his future queen.

“If help is needed,” he spoke, “Master Filur would prefer someone who is at least a bit rested,” the hint at their nightly activities made her cheeks flushed. “Rest now, my sweet, until the morning. I will leave Ottar with you so that you can rest undisturbed. I will send someone with news as soon as I know more.” 

With visible reluctance, she finally agreed, warning him that she would visit the mines in the morning. Thorin had no choice but to agree to her wishes in turn, even if he didn’t quite like them. At least Ottar would be by her side to protect her in his place.

“I will see you in the morning, my wife,” he kissed her lingeringly, enjoying the feel of the last word he spoke on his tongue. She was his.

“Be safe, my husband,” she returned the kiss. He could still taste the sweetness of her lips when he hurried down the walkway leading to the mines. 



***

 

Ása stifled a yawn and promised herself to rest her eyes for a short time and then join Thorin by the mines. Her treacherous body, however, had other plans, yielding to the velvety respite sleep offered.

She awoke to loud shouts coming from somewhere outside Thorin’s chambers. It took her a moment to realize where she was, her befuddled mind still grasping at the last wisps of a quickly dissipating dream. To her astonishment, it was a completely normal, blurry dream in which she was drifting in black, warm waters under a stone ceiling while the waves gently caressed her skin. There were no terrifying dragons, no golden treasures, and no gushing blood in that dream, just an endless bliss. She couldn’t recall when was the last time she had such a languorous dream.

The shouting intensified. Now she could make out at least two angry male voices. It didn’t look like they were supposed to stop and let her sleep more, so Ása decided to get up, dress quickly and check what was going on, trying to ignore the sweet soreness between her legs, a reminder of her and Thorin’s nightly endeavors.

Someone banged at the door when she entered Thorin’s study, closing the door to his bedchamber behind her.

“Thorin!” a raspy voice bellowed. She froze in mid-step. No, no, not him!

The door flew open and a burly dwarf rushed in, shooting furious glances around the room.

“Your Highness,” she curtsied to the figure that loomed toward her. 

“Thorin! Where is he?”, Prince Thráin glowered at her.

“Forgive me, my lady,” Ottar’s voice came from the direction of the door.

“GET OUT!” Thorin’s father roared at him, making her flinch. When Ottar disappeared without a word, he turned back to her. Ása noticed that a quick shadow passed prince Thráin’s face, but he quickly composed himself, only his foot stomped impatiently against the floor. 

“Lady Ása. Would you be so kind and explain to me what you are doing in my son’s chambers at this hour?” he said in an ice-cold voice, as chilling as his unmoving eyes that seemed to pierce her, freezing her to the spot.

“P-prince Thráin, I…” she lowered her gaze.

“It is Crown Prince Thráin, child,” he corrected her coldly. “Speak quickly!”

“I am waiting here for Crown--,” she cleared her throat, seeing a frown on his face, “for prince Thorin. He has already gone to the mines, to help,” she straightened up, trying to gather her courage.

Thráin narrowed his eyes and spoke slowly, “Then you overstayed your welcome here. Return to your chambers at once and I will try to forget that I found you in my son’s study at night without a chaperone,” there was still a polite tone in his voice, but his fist was firmly clenched. 

She took a deep breath before saying, “I… I am staying here, my lord Thráin.” 

“You are speaking nonsense, girl! Do you want to ruin your reputation?!” he responded, first signs of agitation showing on his face.

“I do not. That is why I am staying in my lord husband’s chambers,” her heart beat frantically against her ribs, but she knew that these words had to be said.

Crown Prince Thráin didn’t respond at first. Unhurriedly, he walked towards a small table in a corner of the chamber, poured himself a cup of water and drank it in one long swallow. And then the silence changed into an angry cacophony of sounds.

His heavy boot thumped against the stone floor.

The empty cup met the aforementioned floor with a loud crash.

His roar filled the room.

“What did you say?!” he quickly approached her. “Do not play games with me, girl, I am not a patient man!” Thráin hovered over Ása, gazing down at her with his icy, terrifying gaze.

She tried to breathe slowly and remain calm, but her body protested. Seeing his terrifying expression, she knew she wouldn’t be able to utter even a single word. Her shaking, clammy hand moved to her loose hair, uncovering her new braid adorned with marriage beads.

Thráin’s eyes glinted with fury when he recognized the pattern on these ornaments. He stretched out his arm to touch her hair, stopping halfway through as if realizing the inappropriateness of his gesture.

“When did this happen?!” he hissed through his clenched teeth.

“In the evening, my husband,” a new voice joined in. Ása lifted her gaze to see Lady Sigrun entering the room. “And there are witnesses, including me.” Her face was slightly paler than usual, but her blue eyes were full of determination as she approached them hastily.

“I did not allow this!” Thorin’s father bellowed. “Their marriage is not valid!”

“It was idazûl. The War Wedding,” Lady Sigrun positioned herself next to Ása, taking her arm in hers. “You have no right to invalidate it. Besides, husband , our dear Ása already has her marriage braid in her hair. I believe you know what that means, do you not?”

Ása blushed involuntarily, understanding that Lady Sigrun alluded to the element of this tradition that allowed the couple to braid their hair only after their union was consummated. Thorin’s mother squeezed her arm and smiled encouragingly.

“You…” another hiss left Thráin’s mouth as he cast his wife a menacing stare. “It was your doing, wife !”

“Not more than it was yours, through your actions. If your goal was to push them into each other’s arms, you did it splendidly,” she retorted.

“Do you not realize what you did, Sigrun? He is my son, the heir of the throne of Erebor! It is my decision whom he marries! I had splendid plans both for him and our kingdom and you ruined them!”

“I would like to remind you that our son is of age and capable of making his own decisions. Including marrying his One,” Thorin’s mother withstood his furious glare without the slightest flinch while Ása tried to convince her legs not to give way beneath her, glad for having the lady’s arm for support.

“His One?” he snorted, but Ása saw that his eyes moved to her face for a short moment and his forehead creased into a frown. “Do not tell me you believed that ridiculous story. It is a fleeting infatuation on Thorin’s part and you, girl,” he pointed his bulky finger at her and roared, “you fancied marrying a prince of Erebor and dreamt of being a queen, did you not? Well, I have news for you. If you had been more patient, you could have become the queen of all the four dwarven kingdoms of the Orocarni. But now, since you both disobeyed me, there will be nothing for you. As of now, I am disinheriting Thorin and revoking his status as my heir. The only place you will see a queen’s crown on your head will be in your dreams! And as for you, wife,” he sneered, “we will talk about your act of disobedience later,” he turned his back towards them and stormed off the room. 

“Thráin!” Lady Sigrun, pale as a sheet, shouted after him, “He is your firstborn son! You cannot do this to him!”

“Watch me,” her husband retaliated coldly over his shoulder and shut the door behind him with a deafening thud.

Chapter Text

“Master Brogi, please inform me of everything that happened here,” Lady Sigrun asked when she arrived at the entrance to the mines of Erebor with Ása accompanying her. The area was swarming with dwarves: miners, workers, warriors, and even regular able-bodied citizens. It looked as if half of the kingdom turned up to help. A group of engineers worked on their mechanical contraptions that, Ása guessed, were supposed to aid the rescue effort. Several injured dwarves were being transported out of the mines, with Master Filur and other healers tending to them nearby.

Brogi, The Mining Master, was a mature dwarf with a silver beard pleated into one thick braid adorned with several conical copper beads. His face bore evidence of years of hard, physical work, all of it now covered with smudges of stone dust.

“I’m afraid the quakes were rather serious, m‘lady,” he replied, respectfully bowing his head. “We managed to rescue a large group of miners from the upper levels, but several galleries are still cut off together with the miners who have been working there.”
“What about my sons?” Lady Sigrun’s voice was strained, but her face didn’t reflect any emotions.

“As of now, we are doing everything we can to reach Frerin’s group. They are stuck on one of the lower levels. Thorin is down there, working with my best miners, clearing out the rubble. It shouldn’t take more than until the noon bell. There’s no need to worry, m’lady, they have plenty of air there,” Master Brogi reassured her.

Ása smiled faintly to Lady Sigrun, not wanting to show how worried she felt in fact at the thought of Thorin navigating his way through the dangerous areas of the Erebor mines.

“Master Brogi, is there anything I can do to help?” she asked.

“But m’lady, there’s no need, you’re our King’s ward,” the dwarf protested, clearly taken aback by her question.

“That she is, but Ása offers her help as Thorin’s wife,” Lady Sigrun interjected. Master Brogi’s eyes widened as he looked at the young dwarven lady’s hair, noticing her new braid.

“I didn’t know, m’lady,” he bowed quickly and his face brightened with a smile. “May I offer my best wishes to you and your husband?”

“Thank you, Master Brogi,” Ása replied, feeling a slight blush creeping up her cheeks. “Forgive me my restlessness, but I cannot sit idly by while my h-husband is working down below,” she stumbled over the new word, enjoying the joy it brought. It hadn’t been a dream, she thought. They were really, finally married and she wished everyone to know and take part in their happiness.

“Of course, m’lady, I understand,” he replied in a slightly more reverent tone of voice than before. “Let us find you something suitable.”
Lady Sigrun nodded encouragingly to her and went off to join a group of engineers while Ása followed the mining master. Luckily, there weren’t many wounded and the healers seemed to have everything in hand, so she was assigned to a group that distributed food, water, and supplies among the dwarves who were a part of the rescue operation. Every time a group of battered dwarves emerged from the mines, her eyes eagerly scanned their faces, searching for Thorin, and not finding him. From what the miners told her, the three rescue groups worked in the lower levels and her prince, her husband , she corrected herself, was in one of them. 

“They’re too deep down to go all the way up just to take breaks, m’lady,” a tired-looking dwarf explained, his face caked with dirt and grease. “That part of the mines got hit hardest, and we want to reach the trapped miners before their air runs out.”

Ása thanked him and returned to her work, trying to focus on the task at hand, but her mind was racing, constantly coming up with various dangers that Thorin might be facing in the mines at that very moment. And if that was not enough, a strange, nagging sensation overcame her. Something was not quite right. She tensed as the hair on the back of her neck rose, making her unable to shake off the feeling that she was being watched. She looked around several times, unsuccessful in discerning the source of her discomfort. As her eyes rested on Ottar, he nodded at her reassuringly. Since the early hours of the morning, he was always nearby, always watching over her. After Thorin had informed him of their marriage, it felt as if the guardsman became even more diligent in his duties, if that was even possible. 

Ása cast another quick glance at her surroundings, seeing the injured, two rescue groups of miners preparing to enter the mines once again and quite a few other dwarves helping with the effort. Nothing out of the ordinary. She shook her head and yawned. After such an eventful evening and night, oh, Mahal, what a night! , fatigue was slowly catching up with her. Perhaps this, together with her recent worries, was the reason behind her current uneasiness. Crown Prince Thráin’s cruel words still rang in her head. She wondered where he was and, most importantly, what he was up to. As far as she knew, he hadn’t visited the mines since the accident but perhaps it was for the best. A tight knot formed in her chest at the thought that she could have to face him alone. She hoped that before she would see Thorin’s father again, her beloved would be there, by her side, protecting her from Thráin’s wrath.

Noon came, but there was still no sign of Thorin nor Frerin. Instead, around two dozen dwarves emerged from the tunnels, quite a few of them wounded. Shouts and cheers welcomed them; it was a group of rescued miners along with the exhausted ones who had saved them. At that point, Ása’s help was needed elsewhere. Master Filur sent her and several nurses to the infirmary together with the dwarves who required more complex medical attention. She kept on working side by side with the healers, trying to take care of the injured as best as she could. 

It was evening when another group of miners arrived at the infirmary. Thorin wasn’t among them either. One group of the dwarves that had worked the night shift was still unaccounted for. Frerin’s group. And her One was still somewhere down there, together with his team, trying to reach the trapped miners, his brother among them. So many hours underground. They must be exhausted. Ása spoke a silent prayer to Mahal in her mind. 

Her stomach clenched with worry... and rumbled loudly, as she smelled a pleasant whiff of fried sausages in the air. When was the last time she ate? She couldn’t remember. Ása stifled a yawn and rubbed her forehead in an attempt to lessen the first signs of an oncoming headache.

“Your food, my lady,” Ottar’s voice reached her as she sat down. A plate filled with sausages, bread, cheese and dried fruit appeared in her hands.

“Thank you, Ottar, but I should return to my work,” she spoke as her stomach loudly protested with further growling.

“First, you will eat and rest, my lady,” the warrior looked sternly at her, folding his arms across his chest.

Her stomach enthusiastically, and much too loudly, agreed with him, Ása had no choice but to capitulate. She blamed those delicious, mouth-watering smoked sausages, a specialty of Erebor. No one, at least not her, could pass by them indifferently, and certainly not when they were combined with mild cheese and freshly baked buns. She dug into the food greedily, stuffing her face in a very unladylike fashion, but at that moment, she couldn’t care less. It was only between her and these succulent sausages.

When Master Filur ordered her shift to take rest, she found an unoccupied bed in one of the infirmary rooms and quickly fell into a dreamless sleep, her belly full and her body thankful for the much-needed respite.

Shaking ground. Noises. Helpless shouts.

Ása suddenly opened her eyes. A chill ran down her spine. Fear grasped her heart.
That low, thrumming sound was there again. She tried to stand up but lost her balance in the darkness that surrounded her. The floor seemed to move from side to side. Falling to the ground, she hit her back on the bed behind her and a pained sound escaped her.

“Stay here, my lady,” Ottar appeared next to Ása, steadying her on the ground. She heard voices shouting in adjacent rooms. The air was dry, smelling of stone and iron. The tremors continued, growing in strength, each shake more intense than the one before. She closed her eyes and tried to slow down her breathing, imagining Thorin’s strong, protective arms around her, shielding her the same way he did last night. 

Something fell on the floor nearby. Someone bellowed a warning a few chambers away. The mine’s bell started ringing loudly, its tone more frantic than before. Her body jerked.

“The mines… Thorin!” she cried out, trying to rise again.

“No, my lady,” Ottar’s firm grasp prevented her from executing her intention, “It’s not safe. Not yet.”

“But he…” Ása’s protest died down in her throat when another wave of tremors loosened some rubble from the ceiling. A cloud of stone dust filled the room, making her cough.

When the quakes finally stopped, Ása remained still, waiting apprehensively for more aftershocks to come but that ominous thrumming was gone. A commotion started in the chambers nearby, a healer rushed past them, searching for newly injured dwarves.

“It’s safe now,” Ottar stood up and reached out his hand to her. Ása took it.

 

***

 

“Where are the drilling masters?!”

“What are you waiting for?! Bring more ropes!”

“Put her on the stretcher! And go! Go!”

“Can’t see anything, we’ve run out of candles!”

“The main winch is jammed!”

“Healer! We have wounded here!”

 

The area leading towards the mines was full of chaotic running around. Alarmed shouts filled the air and pieces of damaged machinery littered the floor. Ása’s eyes were drawn towards a group of dwarves gathered around a lady in a wide, brown gown who stood stiffly in the middle with her eyes covered with a hand, her hair pulled back neatly in a bun. Lady Sigrun.

“We don’t know if anyone survived,” Ása heard one of the miners as she approached them. “The chances are…” he cleared his throat and looked away. “It was an enormous one. We can’t get through. Forgive us, my lady.”

“Lady Sigrun, I’m here,” she started, putting an arm on Thorin mother’s shoulder. “What happened?” she asked, dreading the answer.

“The main tunnel is blocked with rubble, m’lady,” said another, holding a bent helmet in his hands. “It will take time until it’s cleared out.”

Lady Sigrun quickly cleared her throat and uncovered her face, accepting Ása’s arm.

“How long?” Thráin’s wife asked in a slightly trembling voice, her face pale.

“A week,” the first miner started, and added hesitantly after a pause, “to clear out the main tunnel. And at least another one to get to the lower levels.”

“If they aren’t as damaged as the upper tunnels. But you need to know this... it doesn’t look too good. I’m sorry, my lady,” added the one to his left, staring at his boots.

Lady Sigrun swayed somewhat, but Ása was there to support her.

“What are you saying?” Ása couldn’t believe her ears. A sickening cold grasped her heart. “Two weeks? But Th-- the trapped miners, they can’t wait that long! There has to be a way!”

The miner shook his head slowly.

“The Mountain gives, and the Mountain takes, my lady,” another miner murmured apologetically. When he took off his helmet and lowered his head in reverence, his companions followed suit, repeating his words. Ása felt a cold lump growing in her throat. She squeezed the fan she held in her hand, its cool metal surface pressing into her skin. One of the last gifts from Thorin.

“The Mountain gives, and the Mountain takes,” Lady Sigrun repeated, her jaw visibly clenched. “Thank you, Master Gulv, I know you are doing your best. Please keep me informed.”

“Of course, my lady. We will be working day and night,” he replied, but Ása wasn’t able to register his words, staring hopelessly at the entrance to the mines, now filled with rubble and completely collapsed.

 

***

 

The familiar sound of creaking hinges brought Ása to wakefulness, freeing her from a restless, dreadfully paralyzing slumber filled with images she couldn't recall.

“She is still asleep, Barb,” she heard Lady Sigrun’s voice from behind the door that stood ajar. There was a muffled reply she had trouble understanding, footsteps tapering off in the distance, and then everything went quiet once again. 

Ása looked around in confusion. Her head hurt and there was a soreness in her eyes. A faint smell of herbs filled the air. It took her a moment to understand where she was. She laid in her bed, in her room at Lord Beldrum’s and Lady Barba’s chambers. Everything seemed unreal to her. The tremors, the mines… Perhaps it simply was a very bad dream. Surely, it must have been. A glance at the hourglass told her it was early morning. She would wash, eat a quick breakfast, and meet her beloved. Thorin. Her betrothed.

Her mind protested. 

Her fingers found the braid in her hair, moved along its pattern and touched two beads that clasped it. Two beads, not one.

Thorin. Her husband.

A chaotic flood of recollections filled her groggy mind.

The quakes in the Mountain. The wounded miners. The mines. The rubble. “We don’t know if anyone survived.” Lady Sigrun’s trembling voice when she asked Ása to stand up while she dried her cheeks with a soft handkerchief. Why was she laying down among the rubbles? Had she been crying? Young Glóin appearing out of nowhere. Helping her up. The coarseness of his grey tunic under her hand. Dark tunnels filled with rocks and pebbles. Cracks in the walls. Stone dust dancing in the air. Two weeks. A death sentence. The sadness in Lady Barba’s eyes, as she fondly caressed her protégé’s cheek. The bitter taste of herbs on Ása’s tongue. The softness of her bed. Darkness.

Ása wiped off the tears that once again appeared on her cheeks. She felt an urge to return to the mines, she had to do it… She couldn’t think straight, but she was convinced that being closer to Thorin would help… would bring him back from… where...? It would make him... find his way back to her. Somehow. Her hands trembled. First, her clothes. And her shoes. Her pouch and fan. Then, her shawl. Her favorite green shawl, the one that Thorin… She swallowed. No, she would not think about it. Not now.

She sneaked out from her room. Silence surrounded her. The corridor was empty. A few moments later, she felt the coldness of the door handle under her hand. A blink of an eye later, she closed the entrance door to Lady Barba’s chambers behind her.

“My lady?” Ottar greeted her with a frown. “You ought to be resting.” She felt a pang of shame, realizing that he’d been on his guard duty since the day before without a chance to properly rest. 

“I… I can’t. Ottar, I need,” her voice trembled, but she steadied it, taking a deep breath. “I am going to the mines,” she took on a commanding tone and started walking decidedly. Each step took her closer to Thorin.

The guardsman grunted and followed her without a word, effortlessly matching her pace.

The walkway leading to the mines was almost empty at that time of the day, so Ása immediately noticed a figure in a yellow tunic running towards her from the direction she was heading.

“Lady Ása?” a young dwarf with a copper-colored stubble asked, trying to catch his breath. 

She nodded.

“I have an urgent message from… from…” he panted. “From Mining Master Brogi. They found prince Thorin, my lady!”

“What?!” she exclaimed. Her heartbeat quickened. This meant that Thorin was alive and well! Oh, Mahal! She couldn’t believe her joy.

“Prince Thorin has been found! They want you at the mines as soon as possible,” he said, clearly excited. 

“We need to inform Lady Sigrun!” she stopped in her tracks.
“No need, my lady, no need! They sent a messenger to her as well. Please, my lady, hurry! Prince Thorin needs you,” he urged her. 

Ása’s eyes widened. Did this mean that Thorin was injured? She opened her mouth to ask the dwarf, but he disappeared around a corner. She quickly gathered her skirts and followed him, accompanied by Ottar and his grunts. 

“This way, I know a shortcut!” the messenger hastened his pace. They turned into a side corridor and then into a less-frequented walkway.

“Does he need my help? Is he well? Is prince Frerin with him?” she peppered the messenger with questions as soon she caught up with him.

“You will see for yourself soon enough,” he smiled at her. “We need to turn here,” he pulled on her sleeve, directing her towards a corridor leading downwards.

“This is not the way to the mines,” Ottar opposed him. Ása froze in place, looking at the guardsman in surprise and then her gaze moved to the copper-headed dwarf, recognizing the confusion on his face.

“It’s a shortcut!” the messenger protested. “Lord Thorin is waiting, my lady!”

Lord Thorin? What a peculiar choice of words. Ása looked at the young dwarf in bewilderment. No one in Erebor would call him “Lord”. He was either “Prince” or “Crown Prince”; or simply Thorin.

And then the shadows started moving. Several figures loomed up from the darkness, clad in black, with hoods of their cloaks covering their faces, encircling them slowly in frightening silence. A shiver of terror crept up Ása’s spine. They came to hurt her. To kill her. They resembled prowling wild mountain cats, each of them armed with a sharp dirk instead of deadly claws.

One of the assailants shouted a word she didn’t recognize and moved towards her, fast as lightning. She stood there, completely paralyzed, barely able to understand what was happening.

With a loud howl, Ottar lunged at the attacker, unsheathing his sword. Another cloaked figure turned towards the guardsman and plunged his weapon into his thigh. She heard a muffled groan.

“Run, my lady!” Ottar’s shout cut the air while he was engaging the enemy. His words snapped Ása out of her stupor as the cloaked assassins were closing in on her. She ran, passing through the gap in their ranks created by her protector. 

“Follow her!” one of the enemies shouted raspily. 

Something, someone pulled at her back, no, it was just her shawl they grabbed, she freed herself from it and sped up, her hair falling into her eyes, blood pumping in her veins, her lungs taking in as much air as she could, her legs moving faster and faster. She was almost at the end of the corridor, almost...

She tripped over something hard. Fell to the ground with a dull thud and a pained moan.

Ása squinted, feeling disoriented. A dark, cloaked figure hovered over her with a long, menacingly looking object in their hand.
“Don’t move. It’ll soon be over,” a low, muffled voice informed her. A woman’s voice.
“Please,” Ása croaked, trying to cover herself with her arm when the enemy moved to deal a blow, but it wasn’t enough. An explosion of white pain blinded her as her head hit the ground. 

Just before darkness shrouded her with endless oblivion, the last conscious thought flickered faintly in her mind.
She was about to join Thorin forever.
Nothingness swallowed her completely.

Chapter Text

The warmth of his hand touching her cheek. His nose nuzzling against hers like the lightest touch of wind. The smell of pine needles, iron and... blood.

“Amrâlimê… You came to me,” his low, velvety murmur rumbled in his chest. His feverishly hot fingers caressed her skin.

“Thorin?” her eyelids fluttered. Her gaze met the twin azure oceans of his eyes.

“My lovely Ása…” he murmured, laying down in front of her on his side, a soft smile playing on his lips. “You are truly here,” he found her mouth with his. Ása purred, returning his kiss with equal tenderness, her lips joining his in a sweet, intimate dance.

“I missed you,” she touched his cheek and traced the line of his jaw, caressing his beard. It was more unruly, coarser than she remembered. Then she ran her fingers through his tangled mane, feeling the flecks of stone dust underneath them. Was there a crust of dried blood in his hair as well?

“Thorin, you are hurt!” she whispered in fright.

“Nothing ails me, my love. I have you in my arms,” he replied, holding her close. She ran her hand through his hair again, but this time she found nothing. Something was not right, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. There was something she should recall, something dangerous and terrible that had happened. Whatever it was, it was gone from her mind.

“Where are we?” she looked around in distress, seeing only darkness around them.

“We are together, my One. Nothing else matters,” Thorin murmured. Only then Ása noticed the softness of the furs beneath her and the vague shapes of four bedposts around them. She sighed in relief, resting her forehead against his. Thorin’s bedchamber. There was no need to worry.

“I thought I’d lost you,” she heard herself say, the words leaving her mouth before she could register their meaning.

“I will always be here,” Thorin’s eyes brimmed with tenderness when he took her hand in his and placed them both over her heart. Their fingers intertwined, fitting together perfectly while their hearts beat as one.

Ása’s eyes rested on his wrist. The Idazûl ribbon was still wrapped around it, bound with the ceremonial marriage knot. The golden fabric was covered with dirt and there was a dark stain on it as well.

“Is it… blood?” she touched it. Her One followed her gaze, his eyes widening in surprise.

“Blood…” he spoke slowly, as if to himself. “There was blood…”

Suddenly, a whiff of cold air appeared out of nowhere. Thorin wrapped his arms around her in a desperate, tight hug, and placed a fervent kiss on her mouth. Only then she noticed how chapped and dry his lips were.

“It is time for me to leave,” Thorin smiled sadly, gazing deeply into her eyes. “I wish I could stay with you forever.”

“No, Thorin, don’t go!” she exclaimed, clinging to him.

“Be safe, my heart,” he kissed the tips of her fingers in that intimate way she always adored so much.

And then he was gone. Only darkness remained with her.

 

***

 

His last words rang in her ears as she opened her eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks. The world was shaking and spinning around her, making her dizzy. Her head hurt. She closed her eyes immediately, trying to stop the oncoming wave of nausea. Was the Mountain quaking again? Where was that sound of hoofbeats coming from?

“Your lordship, I’d like to report that no one is following us,” Ása recognized Mistress Adra’s voice from a distance.

“It took you long enough,” she heard a slightly muffled male voice. Lord Randorm.

“Erebor is in turmoil after yesterday’s events. I wanted to make sure there’d be no surprises after we left. Our departure didn’t arouse any suspicion. We succeeded, your lordship.”

“We did, but King Durthun will hear about your recent actions, Adra,” Lord Randorm replied harshly. 

“I was following my orders, your lordship,” Mistress Adra replied.

“In such a manner?! This is outrageous! The lady is to be his majesty’s wife! She ought to be treated with respect and certainly not assaulted nor kidnapped!” the anger in his voice was unmistakable.

“Would you prefer to return to our King empty-handed?” Adra hissed.

“The negotiations had been finalized! She would have gone with us of her own free will!”

“And how would she do this, being the wife of the prince of Erebor?”

“What are you insinuating?” Lord Randorm spoke after a moment of silence with a clear warning in his voice. 

“When she wakes up, take a good look at the braid in her hair, your lordship. She wed prince Thorin sometime between the feast and yesterday,” Mistress Adra explained, clearly enjoying herself.

“This is preposterous! The agreement… His Royal Highness Thráin wouldn’t go back on his word!”

“Perhaps. And yet she covertly married the late prince. The miners of Erebor had been overjoyed to share this news with everyone as soon as it was made public. They claimed that their betrothal was unusually short. You know what it may mean...” Ása’s breath hitched. She stopped listening as cold dread seeped into her heart. The late prince? What was Adra talking about?! Thorin was alive, he had to be, he was just… underground. Under all that rubble. She was sure that the rescue miners would do everything they could to reach him and the other trapped dwarves. Two weeks… Could they survive that long without any supplies? Why was Adra so sure that Thorin was already... Ása refused to even think about it. Thoughts chaotically swirled in her head when she realized Lord Randorm and Mistress Adra were still speaking.

“...so it was necessary to act quickly after the accident,” the warrior woman said.

Lord Randorm uttered a few quiet words, but Ása was unable to hear them clearly.

“I understand your agitation, your lordship,” Adra replied, “but Lady Ása is now a widow and can be married to our King. If she is not expecting. We will know soon enough. And even if she is, there are ways...” Ása gasped in fear and, without thinking, covered her belly in a protective gesture.

“Not a word more! I will not listen to your vulgar ideas! Do not dare to lay a finger on your future queen! Leave my sight at once!” the Ironfist lord roared. Ása heard a few mumbled words, and then the sound of rapid hoofbeats that disappeared after a few moments.

Everything around her kept on shaking and swinging back and forth at an unusually steady pace. Ása swallowed and slowly opened her eyes once more. Walls of a very small tent surrounded her makeshift bed that consisted of several pillows. She wore the same clothes she had on her when she was attacked. Her pouch with necessities along with her fan were still attached to her belt. Apparently, her kidnappers hadn’t fallen so low as to resort to thievery as well.

Ása could clearly hear hoofbeats nearby against a backdrop of several dwarven voices speaking in Khuzdul and ponies neighing from time to time. After surveying the tent she was in, she finally understood that it wasn’t shaking but rather moving. She was travelling in a horse-litter hung between two walking ponies. 

It seemed that the Orocarni dwarves somehow managed to smuggle her out of the Mountain and hide her inside this tent, away from prying eyes. She wondered whether the dwarves of Erebor discovered her kidnapping. A shiver ran down her spine as she recalled the cloaked figures that attacked her. They injured Ottar! He was a skilled warrior, he must have survived, she reassured herself. He had to be alive. Just like Thorin… Her vision blurred as her eyes filled with tears. The Ironfists were wrong. Thorin couldn’t be gone. He wouldn’t leave her alone. Not like this. She still remembered the warmth of his arms that surrounded her, even if it only happened in a dream some moments ago. Strengthened by this recollection, she found an opening in the tent’s wall and peered outside. 

The afternoon sun shone straight into her eyes, making her squint. Her carriage was surrounded by a large group of the Orocarni dwarves, both warriors and noble envoys, travelling horseback. They quickly moved through the wilderness, leaving the Lonely Mountain far behind. Her heart clenched when she noticed the long distance they had already covered.

“Good afternoon, my lady. How are you?” Lord Randorm approached her on his pony with a polite smile on his face, his eyes looking at her searchingly.

“How do you think I am, my lord, having been kidnapped by dishonorable brutes?” Ása took a deep breath, hoping that her voice wouldn’t betray her, and tried to use the same tone Lady Barba did every time she was greatly displeased with someone. “I demand that you take me back to Erebor at once!”

“I am very sorry, my lady, but this is not possible. I would like to apologize to you for the manner you have been invited on our journey, but rest assured that the guilty will be punished.”

“I do not care for your apologies, Lord Randorm,” she continued. “I wish to return. Now. My lord husband will not be pleased when he hears of your deed!”

“Your lord husband?” the Ironfist lord asked. He clearly wanted to hear it from her own mouth.

“His Highness Prince Thorin,” Ása obliged him.

“I did not know that you were married, my lady,” he asked indirectly.

“I am now. It was a private ceremony,” she withstood his gaze.

“Then it pains me greatly that I cannot wish you all the best. I am obliged to offer you my condolences instead,” he spoke solemnly. A lump of ice formed in Ása’s stomach. So it wasn’t mistress Adra’s reckless slip of the tongue.

“What do you mean, my lord?” she asked in a demanding tone.

“I regret to inform you, my lady, that there was a cave-in in the mines after the quakes subsided,” he replied solemnly.

“A... cave-in?” Ása paled.

“And a powerful one. No one could have survived it,” there was a hint of sadness in his voice.

“No, this cannot be true!” she protested.

“I swear on Mahal’s hammer that my words are true,” Lord Randorm replied, placing his hand over his heart. “May our brothers and sisters quickly find their place in the halls of our forefathers. Including prince Thorin and his brother,” he lowered his head in reverence, whispering a prayer.

Ása stared at him in confusion, forgetting to breathe. She expected everything, but not this. No dwarf would dare to swear such an oath falsely. She didn’t want to believe the words she heard from the Ironfist lord, she refused to accept them, but there was something in his countenance that made her think twice. A seed of doubt sprouted in her mind. Ása averted her gaze, looking back at the gigantic silhouette of the Lonely Mountain looming over the grassy plains. Her vision blurred.

“My lady? How may I help to ease…” Lord Randorm started, but she shook her head and returned into the safety of the isolated litter.

There had to be a way to see whether his words were true. She had to return to the Lonely Mountain and see it for herself. This was the only way.

 

***

 

The first time Ása tried to escape was when the Orocarni dwarves were setting up camp that evening. When everyone was busy with their tasks, she disappeared in a nearby maze of large rocks. Unfortunately, several Ironfist warriors had already been waiting for her on the other side, their impressive anthracite-colored armors devouring the last rays of the sun.

“Were you lost, my lady?” Mistress Arda asked with a cold stare, her face devoid of emotion.

 

***

 

The second attempt was more difficult to execute since there was always one warrior watching over her every day. Ása planned it better and waited. Several days later, she managed to slip away from her guards under the guise of bathing in a stream. None of them would dare to look at her while she washed, after all. They found her further downstream from the bathing place. She swam as fast as she could, but their ponies were faster than her arms.

 

***

 

Her third attempt, a week later, wasn’t successful either. She tried to crawl off into the nearby forest under the cover of night but was surprised by a scowling guard returning from his scouting duty. Neither Mistress Adra nor Lord Randorm were amused.

 

***

 

Her fourth escape was her last one. Ása galloped away on one of the ponies and managed to run away farther than before, but the animal turned out to be too well-trained for her tastes. When the dapple grey mare heard his master’s whistle, she simply stopped in her tracks, refusing to go any further. From that point on, two guards followed Ása everywhere she went. That included a dwarven woman who accompanied her whenever modesty did not allow men to escort her.

 

***

 

“I understand that you are in distress, my lady,” Lord Randorm sat next to her when they set up camp that evening and started filling his pipe with tobacco. “But may I be so bold as to ask you to cease your attempts to leave our company?” he looked at her from under his bushy eyebrows.

“You took me by force from Erebor. Against my will,” she explained coldly.

“We do not mean you any harm, truly. On the contrary, as soon as we reach our kingdom, you will be most comfortable,” his attempt at placating her only angered her more.

“I did not agree to become King Durthun’s wife. I was not even informed about the treaty.”

There was a short pause before the Ironfist lord started speaking again.

“I… I am sorry to hear it. I was made to believe that you were most eager to leave Erebor.”

“You were falsely informed,” she protested, wondering what other tales prince Thráin had spun. “When you were signing the treaty, I had already been betrothed to prince Thorin.”

“So I have heard,” he nodded. Pipe smoke escaped his mouth as he exhaled. “Nevertheless, the treaty is signed and in force. As for you, my lady, forgive me, but you are not married any longer.”

“I refuse to believe that Thorin...,” she said harshly, her voice cracking with emotion, “that my husband is gone.”

“It is most understandable in your circumstances. However, King Durthun is a very reasonable ruler. I am confident that he will grant you a suitable period of mourning before your wedding,” Lord Randorm explained in a calm voice and put his pipe into his mouth.

“I will not wed anyone! I already have a husband!” Ása could not contain her emotions any longer and hid her face in her hands. She took shallow breaths, swallowing her tears, a wave of nausea rolling over her. 

The Ironfist lord gave her a handkerchief without a word, a glint of sympathy in his eyes. She took it, embarrassed by her outburst. This was not how a highborn lady should act, showing her weaknesses, especially not in front of the dwarves belonging to another clan. Lady Barba would certainly disapprove of her behavior. Dear, dear Lady Barba. Was she doing any better? Did she know that Ása had been kidnapped? The young dwarven lady wished to be by her side, to feel her cool hand patting hers in a consoling gesture. She could almost hear her strong voice: “There, there, my child, it will all be better tomorrow. Now go and show them that your heart is made of the strongest dwarven steel.”

There will be time to let her feelings run free. She needed to stay composed and try to carefully plan her future actions.

Immersed in thought, she didn't notice that Lord Randorm had started talking to her again.

“... also think of the agreement between Erebor and the Orocarni. Your marriage to King Durthun will cement a union between the most powerful dwarven clans. The Longbeards will once again be joined with the Ironfists, Stiffbeards, Blacklocks, and Stonefoots, as it was when King Thrór took Lady Urtha as his wife,” he went on explaining. “You have the power to keep the Lonely Mountain safe. With our military support, our dragonstone weapons and armors, no enemy would stand a chance against Erebor. Not even a dragon,” he paused, waiting for her reaction, but she was blindly staring into the flames of the bonfire that burned brightly in front of them. 

Lord Randorm’s words rang empty in her ears. She didn’t grace him with a reply. How could he speak so calmly about her situation? How dared he talk of Thorin, her Azyungal, as if he already was feasting in the halls of his forefathers? She wouldn’t accept it. How could she?

After a few long moments of silence, the Orocarni lord emptied his pipe and started cleaning it. Finally, he stifled a sigh and continued, “Prince Thorin was known for his commitment to his realm, just like his grandfather and father. He bravely gave his life for his people. Will you honor his sacrifice and fulfill your duty?”

Her lip quivered. She bit on it and took several deep breaths, observing how the flames lazily licked the logs, slowly turning them into charcoal, and then into ashes. Into nothingness.

Lord Randorm’s last words soared up to the evening sky along with the sparks from the bonfire, drifting above the treetops until Ása finally found some solace in her sleep.

 

***

 

A soft, gentle kiss was placed on her lips. Fingers ran through her hair. He smelled of pine resin, wood and stone dust, but a distinct, worrying smell of something burned filled the air around her as well.

“You came…” she heard Thorin’s low raspy rumble. “I prayed to Mahal to see you once more. To hold you in my arms,” Ása was pulled in a tight embrace. The naked skin of his broad chest burned her like a furnace filled with molten bliss. She was safe now. No evil could reach her when she was in his arms.

“They told me you were gone,” she whispered, placing her palm on his bearded cheek, wanting to make sure that he was really there. It felt as smooth as she remembered and, at the same time, as coarse as it had felt before.

“I am here now,” he reassured her, a smile brightening his handsome face. Her heartbeat quickened in joy as his fingers delved deeper into her hair and slowly pulled her head closer to him. She nuzzled her lips against his, and then kissed him slowly, lovingly, sweetly, feeling his whiskers prickling her skin as he brushed his lips against hers. And then, a flutter of butterfly kisses covered her face, as he intertwined his caresses with words.

“My beautiful Ása,” he grazed her lips. “My treasure of treasures,” he whispered into her ear and wrapped a thick strand of her golden hair around his finger. “My light in darkness,” his eyes shone brightly as their azure depths met the turquoise pools of her gaze. She desperately wished for this moment to last forever, but there was a shadow of melancholy tugging at the corners of his lips. A menacing whiff of cold air surrounded Ása's body for a blink of an eye. She looked at her beloved in alarm.

“Stay with me, Thorin, do not let me go,” she wrapped her arms around his neck as fear filled her heart.

He shook his head in defeat. His hair brushed against her skin.

“I cannot stay with you, my love, nor can I follow your path,” the sadness in his voice overwhelmed her. “They are waiting for me in the darkness.”

Fingers of dread, cold as ice, crept down her spine as she suddenly noticed his cracked, swollen lip and a bruise on his temple. They hadn’t been there just a moment ago.

“Please, Thorin, then take me with you!” she traced his injuries with her fingers, hoping that they would somehow disappear as fast as they appeared.

“It is time to say our farewells, my sweet,” Thorin spoke huskily as if he hadn’t heard her. His large, warm hands cupped her cheeks, his eyes roamed her face as if trying to forever memorize the way she looked at that very moment.

“No, do not do this, do not leave me!” her voice quivered. Until she tasted the saltiness of her own tears on her tongue, she hadn’t known she was crying.

“Be strong, Amrâlimê, as you have always been. Be happy,” he placed a tender kiss on her temple and then looked deeply into her eyes once more. “Remember that you will always have my heart.”

Chapter Text

At dawn, the sun painted the skies with streaks of pink, heralding a new day. The forest was slowly waking up, basked in hazy sunlight. Ása had been looking forward to spending the whole morning on her own among the trees, away from the hustle and bustle of Erebor. Lady Barba was expected to return from Dale in the afternoon, so she could finally enjoy some freedom and sneak out of the Mountain.

Ása was eagerly looking forward to hearing the sound of wind rustling through the trees, feeling the sun kissing her skin and perhaps even finding some ripe, succulent wild strawberries. She wanted to taste their sweetness on her tongue. Yes. Hunting for berries was the main reason she woke up earlier than usual and snuck out to visit this place. It surely couldn’t have anything to do with the handsome prince. Nor with his dreamy voice when he told her he hoped to see her by the pond again. A smile played on her lips when she recalled their recent visit to the Queen’s Gardens when he held her hand in his large, warm palms. She would never forget the way his lips lightly brushed across the back of her hand and lingered for many fluttering heartbeats when the two of them once met by accident in a secluded corridor. And then, there were the scorching looks he would give her whenever he saw her on public occasions. She remembered his strong arms encircling her from behind when they snuck out to the forges during a boring feast and Thorin was showing her how to work the hot iron and blow the bellows. She shivered in pleasure, recollecting the sensation she felt when his hot breath fanned her neck. A blush crept up her cheeks when she recalled how she enjoyed feeling his muscular body pressed against her. Or rather, she had to admit it to herself, how she’d pressed her back against his broad, hard chest as her mind drifted among the clouds instead of focusing on the secrets of the blacksmith’s trade he presented to her.

Ása smiled to herself, directing her steps through the thicket towards the forest pond she liked to visit. She definitely needed a splash of cold water on her burning cheeks. Lost in thought, she hadn’t noticed a dark silhouette sitting against a nearby tree by the pond until it was too late. She froze, knowing that she was discovered.

“What does a blacksmith do at my spring?” Ása asked in surprise, furrowing her brow and trying to ignore the butterflies in her stomach.

He raised his head and closed the book he held in his hands. Silver beads glistened among the long strands of his thick dark mane. His azure eyes found her face, radiating joy and mischief at the same time.

“He came to keep company with the frogs,” Thorin grinned. “They seem to like being read to when their dryad is not around.”

She sat down on the soft moss carpet beneath the tree at an arm's length from the prince, not daring to raise her embarrassed gaze.

“What book are they so fond of, Master Blacksmith?” Ása said, curiously looking at the thick tome in his hands and secretly admiring the way his strong fingers wrapped around its back.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the First Elven Empire, volume five ,” he recited in a hopeless tone of voice. 

“Do you want the poor frogs to die of boredom?!” she exclaimed, recognizing the title she had been constantly tormented with by her tutors.

“On the contrary,” Thorin rumbled, clearly amused. “They seem to have developed a great appreciation for ancient history. I have been reading to them every morning. Allow me to demonstrate, fair Dryad,” the prince said with a solemn look on his face, reopened his book and started reading.

After the failure of the Gondolin line, the choice of the high council might be justified in some measure by the characters of Arduil and Enduil, but the latter of the princes confirmed and dishonoured his reign by the perfidious murder of Aegnor the Great and his sons who too vigorously exacted the debt of gratitude and obedience. The inheritance of Inglor the Wise and of the east was peaceably devolved on…*

Ása stifled a sigh listening to Thorin’s deep, captivating voice as he kept on reading. Even reading a dreadfully dull book like this one, he could make it sound interesting. His words thrummed into her ears, finding their way into the core of her being, enchanting her with their melody. She wondered how it would feel to hear him murmur sweet nothings into her ear with this voice of his while he would hold her in a tight embrace. Would he… 

She shook her head, breaking the spell he weaved around her with his voice. That was enough! She didn’t come here to pine at the unreachable heir of Erebor nor wither of old age while he read from that monstrosity, terrifying the local fauna. In a swift move, she tore out the tome from his unexpecting hands and hid it behind her back.

“This has to stop now, Master Blacksmith, or there will be casualties,” she warned him. “You wouldn’t want the whole population of the frogs to escape from the forest. The mosquitoes would eat us all alive!”

“I see that the Dryad is very determined today,” he chuckled.

“Yes, she is!” she huffed.

“Very well, then. I promise not to torment these poor creatures any longer. May I have my book back?” Thorin reached out his hand. “My tutor would be very unhappy if I were to lose it… yet again,” his eyes flickered and a smile tugged on his lips.

“It will be returned to you in Erebor, not before,” she informed him haughtily, not wanting to risk further exposure to the contents of the book.

“I need it now, my lady,” he rumbled, lunging towards her. She squealed in surprise as he leaned over her, planting his hands firmly on the ground on both of her sides. Ása instinctively tried to move back, but her back pressed against the tree trunk along with the book she kept behind her. Perfect. How could she forget about the tree? A blink of an eye later she forgot about everything else. The prince smiled triumphantly and slowly lowered his face towards hers. His azure eyes darkened slightly. She forgot to breathe. Her heart hammered in her chest. How could she forget that he was even more stunningly handsome from up close? Thorin cast her a searching look as if waiting for something, but Ása was at a loss as to what he could expect of her at this very moment. She had never been so close to a male dwarf before, unsure how to act, but she already knew she liked it and wanted Thorin to move even closer. 

She licked her lips. 

“My prince, I…”

“There are no princes here,” he murmured raspily, sending a shiver down her back. “Only a very happy blacksmith,” he gazed deeply into her eyes. The smell of pine needles, leather, and spice surrounded her. Oh, Mahal, he was so close, his large, manly silhouette loomed over her. She could feel the heat radiating out of him as if he was the greatest furnace in the forges of Erebor. She knew very well that a proper young lady should be outraged at his behavior and should scold him. Wondering how his lips found its way so close to hers, Ása took a deep breath.

“Why are you so happy, Master Blacksmith?” she whispered timidly instead, unable to take her eyes off him.

“Because I have seen the treasure of the forest again,” Thorin explained in a low voice while the distance between their faces was rapidly decreasing. His wavy hair swept against her cheek. His head tilted somewhat to the side and his nose brushed against hers. There was a small smile playing on his lips under his whiskers. The warmth of his breath reached her cheek.

“W--what treasure…?” she mumbled, hypnotized by the unending depth of his stormy eyes. His lips moved slightly apart, preparing to speak. 

“You,” Thorin purred huskily. And then he couldn’t speak any longer. Ása surprised herself by closing the remaining distance between them, innocently brushing her mouth against his. His lips were surprisingly soft, enticingly warm and very gentle as he sealed her mouth with a tender, chaste kiss. There was this peculiar, but surprisingly pleasant sensation in her stomach as if hundreds, no, thousands of butterflies fluttered inside it without end. So that was how a kiss felt like, she mused. She adored this sweet, intoxicating sensation that enveloped her. Her heartbeat quickened rapidly and Ása felt light-headed, melting under Thorin’s careful kiss. Her whole body tingled with the need for… what? She couldn’t think straight while his beard pleasantly, very pleasantly brushed against her skin. 

When their lips parted, Ása’s cheeks burned with a blush. She panted as if she had just finished a race. Indescribable exhilaration ran through her veins. Her eyes fluttered open only to see his glimmering gaze brimming with emotion. Thorin affectionately caressed her cheek and was rewarded with a timid smile as her fingers intertwined with his.

“Ása… my sweet forest dryad,” these were only five words, but the tenderness in the way he uttered them spoke volumes. Definitely more volumes than that the dreadful History of the Decline and Fall of the First Elven Empire’ consisted of, Ása decided dreamily.

 

***

 

Ása opened her eyes, peering into the darkness of the night. Thorin was gone. Whenever she closed her eyes to sleep, she couldn’t see his face any longer. Not since that heart-wrenching last dream. Memories of their past were her only companions, just like the memory of their first kiss she’d just recalled.

Would she never feel his strong arms around her again? Would she never hear his laugh nor listen to his entertaining stories? What about their tender kisses? Was running her hands through his silky mane of hair a thing of the past? She dreamed of hearing him say “Amrâlimê” in that velvety voice of his, of seeing the love shining in his eyes. How was she supposed to keep on living without all those things, those little pieces of him that used to pour happiness into her heart? How could she find her strength every morning and the will to keep on going without her One?

She felt as if her heart had been buried together with him in the mines of Erebor. A hollow, numb shell rattled in her chest instead. Each breath seemed to take too much effort. Even the simplest activities seemed too taxing. Ása wanted to close her swollen eyes and wait for the eternal sleep to claim her. Her swollen eyes? Had she been crying again? She touched her cheek only to discover wetness under the tips of her fingers. Staring blankly at her hand, she wondered how long she would survive without touching Thorin, without hearing his voice, without his closeness.

The light of her hope was slowly but steadily flickering away. 

 

***

 

Days passed, turning into weeks. Ása lost track of time, or perhaps simply didn’t care for it any longer. She didn’t seem to care for much these days. A bowl of food would appear in her hands every morning, noon, and evening, and she would eat it mechanically, out of habit, not even noticing its taste. Her hopes for being rescued died within the first weeks of travelling through the wilderness. There hadn’t been any signs of the Erebor dwarves pursuing them whatsoever. 

She was so far away from the Mountain now that even if she was to make another escape attempt, she wouldn’t know the way back to Erebor. The terrain they passed, the hills, the forests, and the rocky ridges were completely unknown to her. Her kidnappers seemed to change their route quite often and avoided inhabited areas. Ása was only sure of one thing: the Lonely Mountain was somewhere behind them, in the south, and each day put a greater distance between her and Thorin. Or his grave deep in the mines. She shivered at this paralyzing thought, dreading this possibility. Whatever had happened to him, she had to see it for herself, even if she would have to dig into the rubble with her own bare hands.

Hounded by these thoughts, she hoped to find at least a morsel of respite in her sleep, but even this was taken from her. The dragon dreams returned on their ominous wings, assaulting her without warning. Terrifyingly vivid, full of unquenchable wrath and gore. Ása dearly wished she had the elven herbs with her to make the dire images of slaughtered animals and killed Men disappear. The dragon in her nightmares would fly above the barren, sun-scorched plains, showing no mercy to the living creatures below, and dragging Ása’s tormented mind along to an unknown destination.

 

***

 

Lord Randorm would join Ása every evening and spin tales of the wealth and prosperity of the four dwarven kingdoms in the Red Mountains and of King Durthun III, a just and valorous ruler. Whenever the Ironfist lord spoke, he would subtly allude to the agreement they signed with Erebor, the advantages she would gain as their queen as well as the great benefits the Lonely Mountain would gain if she married their ruler.

Ása, however, was secretly becoming more and more adamant about taking quite a different course of action, especially since a certain realization poured hope into her heart. One of her guards, a dwarven woman named Gisla, approached her one day and discreetly informed her that she would gladly supply her with fresh rags whenever she needed. The rags. Her moon days. Ása had somehow completely forgotten about them during all the recent events. After quickly counting days in her head, she realized that she was several days late. Her heart fluttered in her chest. What if she was expecting a little one, her and Thorin’s child? It wasn’t entirely improbable, after all.

Sleep hadn’t come to her that night. Ása’s mind was in turmoil. As her hand rested on her lower belly, her eyes gazed at the dark sky and the seven stars of the Durin’s Crown shining down on her in hope of finding some solace in the symbol so closely associated with Thorin. It almost felt as if he was watching over her from above. Was he really there, waiting for her in the halls of his forefathers? The stars blinked at her in silence, jealously guarding their secrets.

Ása was so far below them, completely out of reach, at the edge of an unknown forest, in a camp full of dwarves, many leagues from Erebor. The only keepsake she had to remember Thorin by was the fan he made for her. The patterns on its black metal surface made her think of his flowing sable mane and the sapphires at its base shone like his eyes did whenever he smiled. A lump formed in her throat. Now, she was on her own. It was time to decide on the best course of action. 

After recalling what Mistress Adra said shortly after she had been kidnapped, Ása was certain that her child’s life, if Mahal had indeed decided to bless her, would be in danger. King Durthun needed a wife who would bear him his heir, and not one who would carry a child from her previous marriage. Besides, Thorin’s offspring would be an heir of Durin and a pretender to the throne of Erebor. Such a child would become yet another political pawn in the hands of the Orocarni dwarves and their king. Ása wouldn’t allow it. Her little one wouldn’t suffer her fate. She had to flee.

 

***

 

“My lord, we sighted the beast again! It was on the top of those rocks we passed earlier!” one of the Ironfist warriors reported one evening.

“Did you take a good look at it this time, man?” Lord Randorm asked irritably. “What was it? A wild animal?” 

“No, my lord, it was something huge, much bigger than a warg. It had a great coat of fur on its back,” the warrior explained. “I’ve never seen anything like it! And these jaws… this beast could easily split a deer in two.”

“Yesterday morning, I noticed tracks of a predator in the vicinity of our camp. About this size. Long, protruding claws,” Mistress Adra turned to the scout.

“It could be the same creature, Mistress,” the warrior confirmed. “It may be on a killing spree.”

“It is clearly following us, so we need to be on our guard,” Lord Randorm furrowed his bushy eyebrows and ordered, “Double the night watch and the scouting parties.”

“It would be a better idea to track it and kill it before it attacks us,” Mistress Adra opposed.

“May I remind you that time is of the essence to us? We can’t afford delays, and we need to secure the safety of…” Lord Randorm’s voice turned into an undistinguishable murmur as the group of dwarves moved out of Ása’s earshot. She grunted in displeasure and returned to eating her food while observing the whole camp.

 

With each passing day, both her guards and the other Ironfist dwarves were becoming more and more distracted. Something had been following them for a few days now. Every night, they would hear distant roars in the forest and there would be no animals to hunt as if something had chased them away. Even in the state of constant tiredness, Ása noticed that the forest birds would flee or hide among the highest tree branches, their usual cheerful twittering changed into single warning chirps. 

In the evenings, the mood in the camp was gradually becoming more tense. Being forced to resort to the tasteless travel rations of cram instead of a fresh supply of meat wasn’t helping. Some dwarves were already showing clear signs of irritation and fatigue due to lack of sleep, a feeling she knew all too well. Ása waited patiently, carefully preparing and discreetly gathering what supplies she could without raising suspicion. She had to be ready to disappear whenever the occasion presented itself.

 

***

 

After tending to her private needs, Ása was on her way out of the forest when she heard voices nearby. She froze. Goosebumps appeared on her skin. Her guard, Gisla, had her back turned towards her, busy with finding the best route through the thicket. It wasn’t difficult to slip away. Carefully Ása took a few steps to the side and followed the sounds. The path led her to a small clearing. Hiding behind a tree, Ása quickly spotted two dwarves standing in front of each other with hands resting on their weapons, clearly ready for a fight. One of them was the sturdy Mistress Adra and the second one… She cringed in fear. Her breath hitched. No. It wasn’t possible, he shouldn’t be there, he was supposed to be gone forever.

“You will give me what’s rightfully mine,” Zohur snarled.

Chapter Text

“Go away before I crack your skull, mashakkalûn*!” Adra glared at the dwarf in front of her, her face contorted in anger.

“You aren’t worthy to receive the glory of our Lord,” Zohur spat under Adra’s feet, growling in anger, flashing his gold teeth. He wore shabby clothes and looked differently, thinner and hairless, with streaks of dark paint on his face, resembling a member of an ancient tribe. “We had a deal!” he added, narrowing his eyes.

“You ruined everything with your drunken assault on the girl! And now this! You lost your mind!” Adra retaliated, fuming in anger.

“I came back to claim my prize!” the former Ered Luin envoy opposed.

“You forfeited your and your chapter’s right to your claim!” Adra took a long stride towards him, clenching her fists and shouted straight into his face. “Look at yourself! You betrayed our cause!”

“I did what I had to survive!” he roared, his face reddening.

“Then I tell you once again, you have no place among our ranks, filth!” the warrior yelled.

“You’re wrong, the whole order is wrong! The Grand Mistress…”

Adra raised her axe and spoke coldly, “Get out of my sight before I kill you.”

A rustle in the bushes behind her made Ása turn her head towards the noise. It was Gisla, her guard, who approached her quickly with a frown on her face.

“My lady Ása, you shouldn’t…”

“INRAAAAAS*!” Zohur yelled at the top of his lungs.

At that moment, the silent forest turned into chaos. Black, menacing silhouettes appeared between the trees and started moving towards the dwarves, picking up speed rapidly, trampling bushes and roaring. 

“Orcs!” Ása whispered, blood draining from her face. They were armed with pointy, terrifying weapons she’d never seen before. 

“Quick, follow me!” Gisla grabbed Ása by her arm. As they ran deeper into the forest, Ása heard Zohur’s screeching laughter behind them.

“My way is the Lord’s way!” his yell was punctuated by the clang of metal against metal. Mistress Adra was fighting him, but Ása didn’t dare to stop and look closely.

They ran as fast as they could, lashed by tree branches and followed by the heavy clomping of the orc boots.

“Hide here, my lady!” Gisla guided her towards a hollow in the ground masked by a large fallen tree, its gnarly roots of an old tree pointing in all directions.

Ása had barely time to crawl into the hideout when a group of orcs caught up with Gisla, quickly encircling her. 

“F