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The Protector

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Nori passed out of range of Ered Luin's lights, and lit a little lamp to see by as he took to exploring less-used paths and cracks in the stone.

Nori did like Ered Luin. Of all the places he'd lived with Dori and Ori, Ered Luin was his favorite. He might be surface-born, but he was still a Dwarf in his soul. He loved the feel of stone above his head and stone beneath his boots. It was nice to live somewhere everything was sized right, too, and not ridiculously tall. Ori was getting a good education, and Dori had settled in sturdy as bedrock. She'd found her place, set up her tinker's shop and would not be moved.

Nori's siblings were here, in Ered Luin, and so he could try to be in Ered Luin too – even if it was not always easy. He knew his khuzdul... a little bit. He could understand it, mostly, but the tenses and gender signifiers always threw him when he tried to speak. He was marked a surface-born Erebor refugee the moment he opened his mouth. Dori could have been an Ereborian noblewoman, with her beautiful looks and her accent. Ori was young enough to pick up the Blue Mountain accent, sharpened only a touch by contact with Dori's, and fit right in. That left Nori as the odd one out, but it wasn't so bad. He wasn't the only surface-born who'd made his way to Ered Luin, and he made some friends with them. Nori's spotty khuzdul wasn't the worst of it.

The worst of it, for as long as Nori could remember, had always been Dori's disappointment that he didn't have a true craft. Nori was too old to be apprenticed in Ered Luin – not that anything really called to him. Smithing or mining or stonecarving did not call to him any more than pottery or weaving or farriery had interested him when he lived in towns of men. He was a fair hand at any number of different jobs, and he did alright as a tinker alongside Dori, doing simple work, but nothing called to him.

No, Nori took that thought back as he took off his pack to squirm through a smaller crack in the rock. He'd learned how to drag it along with his foot, a good trick for a Dwarf as small as him to get into even smaller places. The worst of it wasn't Dori's disappointment. The worst of it was that Nori's eyes, well-trained in the towns of Men when he and his siblings were young and starving, still roved over things that were not his. When he walked down a street, his mind cataloged the best ways to get into the houses and gone unseen with the valuables - the best way to get at the purses of the Dwarves around him.

He liked Ered Luin, but it was best Nori was not there when his fingers started twitching.

Dwarves had lived in the Blue Mountains since the founding of the world, if you believed those stories. There was no denying that Belegost and Nogrod had been huge sprawling civilizations under the stone before they fell, and so many smaller towns with them. It was no honest profession, but there was a living to be made searching out pockets of ruins deep in the mountains and ransacking them for old goods. The stone-born Dwarves of Ered Luin would look down their noses at anyone who did it, even as they would fight each other tooth and nail to buy a first-age earring, or comb, or hair clasp.

Nori wasn't ever going to be respectable, no matter what he did, and he seemed to have a knack for the stone and ruins. It was a living, and one that did not depend on stealing – or at least not stealing from anyone who was alive to care about it. They weren't about to starve anymore, but it was still money. It was that little extra he could give, something they could save up for if times went bad again. Nori would do anything for his siblings; absolutely anything to make sure they were hale and whole and safe.

There was light ahead of Nori, and he squirmed his way through the pinched passageway toward it. The crack opened into a larger space, and Nori pulled up his bag to sling it over his shoulders again. He knew where he was, reviewing his knowledge of the Ered Luin environs in his mind. He knew this crack in the stone, knew a dozen passages into and out of Ered Luin from it, and there should not be light here. There had never been before. Nori walked, bemused, toward a side passage he'd never seen. How had he never seen it before? It was right there, and well lit. There wasn't much to be found so close to Ered Luin, it was well explored, but Nori had made a few good finds. Maybe this place was only lit when the sun was just right.

Nori squeezed through the crack, and froze. This was no ruin. This place was right on the backside of Ered Luin. Maybe some temple or rich household had pushed back into the mountain for more space? The ceiling was carved above him, vaulted like ribs, and at the heart of the place was a pedestal.

Nori walked up cautiously. He did not see any danger, no guardians, no traps. But a place like this must be protected, wouldn't it? Why would they not seal the crack he'd come in, if there was something here?

The floor was engraved with words spiraling inward and up the pedestal, all carved of a single piece. It was some old variant of khuzdul, not one Nori knew how to read. His boots followed the curved path of the letters, almost on their own. Nori's eyes followed the writing up the pedestal, and his breath caught on a moan.

Lying on the top of the pedestal was a set of knives, and they were perfect . There was no other word for them, no knives in the history of metalwork and gemsmithing had ever deserved the description, beside these knives.

They were just Nori's size, a Dwarvish angularity to the curved shape of the knives he'd first learned to fight with. He was damn good in a fight, and a good thing too. All Dwarves were male among Men, but Dori was womanly enough more than a few had picked up on it – especially when Ori was a baby in her arms. Dori could defend herself of course, she was stronger than Nori would ever be, but Nori was meaner. She hated fighting. Nori was always glad when he could protect her instead. Knives like these, but endlessly inferior to them, had served him well then.

The light rippled off the blades, thousands upon thousands of folds lending a sense of depth, like silk, like water endlessly running over them. They were stamped with a maker's mark he did not recognize. The edge gleamed more wicked than any razor Nori'd ever slashed a rich strangers purse-strings with. Nori wasn't above anything when little Ori cried for hunger.

It was the jewels, though, that caught Nori's eye. He could tell a first-age gem cut as well as any Dwarf. They couldn't cut amethysts like this anymore. These amethysts were deep, rich purple. They'd been the jewels of his mother's house in Erebor, hadn't they? Since the dragon, they couldn't even afford the palest amethyst for Dori to decorate herself with. Nori was surface-born, but he had a Dwarf's heart and it was going to break when he pried the gems out of these perfect knives to sell them. But he would do it. They'd be worth more sold separate from the blades than all together. For his family, he would do it.

Nori watched his hand, like a stranger's hand, reach out and take the knives. The leather-wrapped handles were warm, welcoming, as though he'd only just put them down. Nori marveled at the knives, loved them fierce as any Dwarf could love beauty, for only an instant before the bells sounded.

Nori dropped the knives and sprinted back toward the crack he'd come from, heart in his throat. He should have known better. Why had he come in here? Why had he picked up something that was obviously not part of a ruin? Why hadn't he checked for alarms if he was going to do some burglary!? Everyone knew Dwarves were far harder to steal from than Men. Nori squeezed back through the crack and looked both ways down the main pathway. No one was coming after him, not yet, but they would be. He didn't recognize the bell pattern, it didn't sound like calling up the guard, but it must be. It must be something like that.

Which way was safer? Back toward Ered Luin, hide among other Dwarves until it blew over? Out of Ered Luin, out into the world of Men to hide? Nori hesitated, looking one way and the other, back the way he had come – it was dark now – and then down at his hands.

He was holding the knives.

Nori spat a sharp curse in Westron as he threw the knives back behind him and chose to go out . Away from Dwarves would be safest. The knives were perfect, but they weren't worth his life or his family shame to be caught stealing them. They'd send guards after him – whoever it was he'd nearly stolen from. Guards, big burly Dwarves wearing armor. Nori blew out his lamp and made his way by feel and memory alone, headed toward a path even he could only barely squeeze through. He took his pack off as he ran, holding it under his arm and tucking away his lamp and the knives...

The knives!?

Nori threw them away from himself as hard as he could, and for the first time he noticed that they did not make a sound. They did not clatter against the stone, or strike sparks in the darkness.

And Nori was holding the knives.

Cursed knives. He had picked up cursed knives, why had no one ever warned him of this? Nori shoved them into his pack and tried not to panic as he squirmed into a tiny crack in the stone.

First order of business had to be escaping from whoever was going to be after him. Then he could figure out how to break the curse and ditch the goods.