Tauriel peered curiously at the dwarf in the prison cell. Why should elves bother with such a one? The patrol should have shot him full of arrows, or let the spiders take him.
He looked harmless enough now, slumped on the cell’s bench. A tangle of granite-colored hair spread over his face. His blocky form was covered in dark, heavy fabric studded with bits of shiny metal, like flecks of mica in stone. Perhaps the rockiness was natural for his kind. Dwarves lived in tunnels underground. Tauriel knew all the stories.
She wouldn’t have minded if he had become a spider’s lunch. But the King had said to put the dwarf in the dungeon, and now it was Tauriel’s duty to guard him.
She sighed. Although she was Captain of the Guards, guard duty was not fun. It was dark in the dungeon. There was nothing to do except stay there, watch the prisoner, and try not to get bored. Usually she was able to avoid serving as a guard herself—simply a matter of proper scheduling. However, it was better for morale if she took the occasional shift, so she stood regular guard duty at least once a moon.
And last time, she’d guarded Lothiel—that had been fun, because he'd spent the whole time arguing with her and pleading to be let out. She’d pretended to consider it and once she’d even picked up her keys, enjoying the bright eager look that came into the thief’s eyes. But she'd put the keys right down again, and given him a tongue-lashing for daring to think that she, the Captain, would shirk her solemn duty.
“I need water,” the dwarf said, startling her. One bright blue eye was open and glaring at her. “Or do you plan to let me die of thirst?” He struggled to sit up without using his hands, which were bound behind him. Cuts and bruises covered his face, and he winced as he righted himself. He looked even more rocklike sitting up.
Tauriel exhaled slowly. The dwarf's sudden speech had caught her by surprise. She nodded toward the small table on his left, which held a carved wooden pitcher and a drinking cup. “The water is clean.”
He curled his lip. “How do you expect me to lift the cup?”
The elves who had brought him in should have freed his hands. What was she, a servant to be attending to the prisoner's basic needs? Huffing out an impatient breath, she grabbed the keys from her belt and opened the cell door. “Stay where you are.”
He sat back and raised his eyebrows, his eyes fixed on her.
She sloshed some water into the cup and put it up to his lips. “Drink it.”
After a long moment, he drank. He gulped as much as he could, awkwardly, and she helped him drink until he’d emptied the pitcher. His panting breaths revealed how thirsty he’d been.
After a moment, the dwarf spoke. “Thank you.” In the lamplight, the sharp angles of his face looked resentful, as if he regretted having to show even a tiny amount of gratitude. “For the water.”
She shook her head, dismissing his thanks.
He watched her as if weighing her. Testing her. “The bonds on my wrists are tied too tightly. If you don’t free me soon, I’ll lose my hands.”
She rolled her eyes. Did this dwarf believe she would fall for a pathetic, childish trick like that? She’d come up with cleverer dodges before she’d climbed her first tree.
“You don’t believe me? Take off my gloves and see for yourself.”
Carefully she approached him and tugged off one glove. To her dismay, she saw that the hand was purpling with a lack of circulation. Or was that normal for dwarves? How was she supposed to know? The dwarf’s hand was bigger than she expected, callused, with square, blunt fingers and a wide thumb.
He glared at her over his shoulder. “You see? It would be more merciful just to cut them off.”
She flexed her own fingers, imagining what it would be like to lose the use of her hands, and felt a little sick. Troubled, she gathered up the cup and pitcher and re-locked the cell door. Sitting down again in the shadowy nook intended for jailers, she tried to sort out what she should do.
Usually, the patrol would search their captives, remove all weapons, and bind them to ensure they could be led to the dungeon without any trouble. Once they were in their cell, the patrol released the bonds. This time, they hadn't done so. Had they just been careless, or was this prisoner extremely dangerous?
She strode down the corridor to the hidden door that led out into the forest, and whispered to the archer stationed there. “The patrol left the prisoner's hands bound. Go to the King, and ask if I am permitted to cut his bonds.”
She watched as he made his unhurried way through the trees to the front of the palace. Sethiel, his name was. He was an ambitious young elf, confident of his abilities and never eager to follow orders. She shook her head, then looked around the forest, gauging the progress of the night.
The air was calm and clear, spiced with the crisp scent of early autumn. A few stars twinkled through the canopy of leaves overhead. The trees were at ease. The hour was early—it would be a long while before a regular patrol would pass by, and there was no telling when the archer would return with instructions. For now she would have to manage on her own. Gloomily, she returned to her prisoner.
He looked up as she approached. Something about the sharpness of his eyes reminded her of a falcon she’d once known. Funny to think that this dwarf, a creature who lived in the earth, resembled a being that belonged in the sky. She smiled.
“Enjoying yourself?” he growled.
She wiped the smile off her face. “More than you are.”
She grasped the iron bars of the cell and looked at him thoughtfully. He shifted his hands slightly, as if to ease the pain of the bonds. She could see the skin puffed up around the one exposed wrist.
She should wait for the archer to come back. This was not some ordinary thief or mischief maker, but a stranger—a dwarf, one who had nearly dragged down a full patrol of elves before being taken captive. He had resembled a great stag beset by hounds, Dantiel had told her. It had been a terrifying battle, he’d said.
What did she know of dwarves, anyway? She’d never even seen a dwarf before. She’d be glad never to see one again. The king himself had ordered him to be placed here. The king should decide what to do, not Tauriel.
“Will you untie my wrists?”
“No,” she replied sharply. Dropping her hands from the bars, she drew back. But his exposed hand was swollen, and unpleasant to look at. She pressed her lips tightly together. “We’ll see.”
“I’m already your prisoner,” he reminded her. “Locked in this…very secure cage of yours. Why do you need to keep me tied up as well?”
Ah. Pleading and arguing. Now this game, she understood. She gave him a smile, bright and cold as the crescent moon in winter. “You tell me, dwarf. What are you planning to do? Escape?”
“How can I?”
She crossed her arms. “You must think I’m very foolish indeed. And it is a very secure cage, when you don’t have any weapons or tools. You were searched.”
“I know that.” He shifted restlessly. “So, am I going to lose my hands?”
What a terrible fate that would be. A wave of nausea threatened her and she beat it down. “Don’t be stupider than you can help.”
His shoulders sank. She thought he sighed.
She clenched her fist. Where was that archer with orders from the king? She hated to take such an action without permission, but to leave him tied and helpless would be sheer cruelty. Pulling a dagger from its sheath on her hip, she marched to the cell bars. “Reach your hands through the bars.”
He obeyed. She sliced through the tight bonds on his wrists then turned on her heel, retreating to the jailer’s nook. The dwarf sat heavily down on the bench, rubbing his hands and wrists against his thighs.
There hadn't been time to wait for the archer's return, Tauriel told herself. Besides, she felt sure of what the order would have been. Elves weren't needlessly cruel. Now, she would simply watch the prisoner carefully all the time and when word finally came to untie his hands… she would have merely anticipated the king’s command.
She watched the dwarf as he flexed his fingers gingerly, testing them as the livid color receded. There was something grim and purposeful about his actions, like a wood-elf checking his weapons before the hunt. But this dwarf was a stranger to hunting, to the woodland; a stranger to everything in her life. He was a creature of rocks and darkness.
“How can you stand it?” she asked abruptly.
He glanced over at her. “Stand what?”
“Being always in the dark, not having any green growing things around you,” she said. “Living like moles burrowing underground. How can you stand to live like that?”
The faintest smile ghosted over his lips. “Is that what you think? That we dwarves live like animals in the dirt? No. We live in palaces of stone, with pillars as tall as trees and ceiling vaults as high above our heads as the clouds are in the sky. Our rivers sing as they dance over the rocks in the deep, and our walls are studded with gems that sparkle like tame stars. My home—my real home—is bright with gold that shines like the sun. It is much more beautiful than any forest.”
She laughed, delighted. “Not possible. Nothing’s as beautiful as a forest. In the forest, dew-drops sparkle like stars made new every day. We have the music of rivers and birds. The day brings every color of the rainbow. And who needs gold? We have the sun already.” She thought for a moment. “But your home sounds...lovely, in its way.”
He sighed. “It is.”
She leaned forward, eager to hear more of the story. “Then why leave your home? What do you want with us?”
His face darkened. “We never left. We were driven out,” he growled. “We want nothing from you elves. What we do is none of your business.”
Hurt, she snapped, “Haughty dwarf! You’re our prisoner.”
Scowling, he folded his arms and bowed his head.
She sat in her jailer's nook, playing with her dagger. It was a bad practice to become distracted while on guard duty, but she couldn't just sit there doing absolutely nothing. Tauriel picked up a leaf and made a small slit with the dagger, then blew through the hole. It made a tiny piping sound. She blew into her improvised whistle a couple more times, then got bored. The silence lengthened.
“Where are the others?” The dwarf's voice roused her from her thoughts. She looked up to find him staring at her, glowering under his dark brows.
“Others? There are other dwarves in the forest?” No one had mentioned other dwarves to her. She put on a sneer. “Don't worry. If they escape the spiders, we'll capture your friends just as easily as we caught you.”
“I'm not surprised to know you wood-elves are in league with the spiders,” he growled. “Murderous, flesh-eating monsters—they're probably your distant kin.”
She jumped up and strode over to the cell. “No, they’re not. But what kind of monsters are your kin, dwarf? Probably some kind of cave-dwelling, gold-loving, cold-hearted killers. Like dragons.”
With terrifying speed he lunged at her, crashing against the cage-like barrier between them. His hands gripped the bars, tore at them with ferocious power. The iron bars shivered and creaked. She jumped back, her heart jammed high in her throat.
His voice was hoarse with rage. “A dragon killed my people, drove us from our home, took everything from us. Don't you ever compare me to one of them. Ever.”
She lifted her chin, glaring at him. She hadn't expected him to move so fast and he was much stronger than she'd anticipated. Clearly she'd been wrong to worry about him losing the strength of his hands. She should never have cut the bonds. Too late now.
But she had goaded him into this rage—and there was pain as well as fury in his eyes.
“The last time I saw my home, it was a charred and smoking ruin,” the dwarf went on. “A lifetime ago, but I can still hear the screams and smell the burnt flesh. Everything peaceful and good was destroyed, our wealth stolen by that foul, poisonous worm Smaug. All we could do was weep and starve. And did anyone help us then? Any elf, who had benefited by trading with us? No. Of course not. Why would you care?”
Fire and loss and heartbreak—these were hurts she knew too well. A sudden stab of remembered pain lanced through her and she reached out her hand in instinctive sympathy. He jerked backward, then looked at her in frowning puzzlement.
She dropped her hand. Oh, she was a fool. “You are right. Why should any elf care?”
“It doesn't matter whether you care or not,” he said fiercely. “One way or another, I am going to get out of this cell, and I am going to find and kill the dragon. I'm taking back what is mine. The dwarves are going to live under the mountain again, and nothing is going to stand in my way.”
A rustling sound from the doorway caught her ear. Finally, the archer was back with her answer. She felt her shoulders relax as a small amount of tension fell away.
She shrugged. “It's nothing to me. You can have your mountain and everything in it, for all I care. Give me sunlight and air and good things to eat, and you can keep every rock and tunnel in creation.”
The dwarf's anger receded as quickly as it had been roused. He grinned, his teeth a surprisingly bright flash in the dim jail. “Fair enough.”
Frowning, she turned away from him to see what was keeping the archer from reporting to her. She stepped outside, but no one was there. A pair of squirrels scampered overhead, chittering in angry dispute over a cache of nuts. It must have been the squirrels she'd heard. Sighing with disappointment, she went back to her prisoner.
She sat down in the jailer's nook and began digging in the wall with the point of her dagger. Surely the archer would be back soon.
“What's your name?” asked the dwarf.
Hah. Now he was playing games. Without turning her head, she slid her gaze toward him. One corner of her mouth quirked up. “What's yours, dwarf?” she countered.
“Why should I tell you?” He stretched out his legs in front of him and crossed them at the ankles.
Vastly pleased with the game they were playing, she replied, “So I don't have to keep calling you 'dwarf.' Or 'prisoner.' Or 'you, there.'”
He laced his fingers together and tucked them behind his head. “I might not be here long enough for it to matter what you call me.”
“Or you might be here for a very long time,” she pointed out. She looked at him consideringly. He wasn’t evil. Dangerous, yes, certainly—she wondered again if she'd done the right thing in freeing his hands. But she'd had to do that—his bonds had been much too tight. Still, the dwarf's pain was understandable, as was his desire to regain his home. And it seemed he could be friendly when it suited him.
“I'll tell you my name if you tell me yours,” he offered.
“Thorin,” he said. He was staring at her intently, watching her so carefully that she wondered what she was missing. Was there something about this game she had not understood?
She took a deep breath and put all her charm into her smile. “I'm Tauriel.”