My Aragon Stories
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On Merry Yule: 10. Hedge and Bridge
Late Afternoon, 30 Mersday, Foreyule
The Dwarf looked around at the sound of his name, and waved at Bilbo and Frodo standing just outside the Lane Door. The Hobbits waved back. With a brief word to Mac, who clapped him on the arm and nodded, Dalin left the ox cart and strode up the slope towards the Hall. His hood was thrown back, and the last rays of the winter sun glinted on his tawny plaited hair. The scarlet cloak snapped behind him, while a shadow walked before him, ten times the size of its owner.
‘Mister Baggins! Master Frodo! How good it is to see you,’ the Dwarf exclaimed as he approached. Bilbo offered his hand and a thump on the shoulder in greeting, very glad that Dalin only returned the handshake, and not the thump.
‘My dear Dalin, I have been leaving at the mercy of my relatives,’ Bilbo apologized. ‘I had no idea the lads were going to take you off and make you work for your keep! That was very rude of them.’ Dalin just laughed, motioning for them to go in the door. Bilbo could barely walk beside the Dwarf in the narrow passage.
‘No worries, Mister Baggins, no worries,’ Dalin assured him, a chuckle in his voice. ‘I have been mightily entertained by your young cousins over the last week. They have introduced me to a great many fine, hospitable folk who have stuffed me with wonderful fare and have filled my ears with the most interesting news. It is as King Dáin would have me do! Though, truth be told, I was glad for a chance to swing my axe. I was ready to burst from the hospitality of the goodwives of Buckland. One more plate of stew and dumplings, and I am not certain I could have fit through the door. I begin to see why Hobbit doors are round.’
Bilbo and Frodo both laughed merrily at Dalin’s joke, then allowed as to how it was more than a little true. They made their way through the corridors until they came to Dalin’s room.
‘Shall we leave you to rest, Dalin?’ Bilbo politely inquired. ‘You have been walking all day from Rushey. You must be quite weary.’
‘Nay, Mister Baggins, I have scarcely exerted myself,’ Dalin assured the old Hobbit. ‘I can hardly call it a walk. It was more a gentle stroll, and often interrupted with stops as the Masters Brandybuck spoke with the goodfolk along the way. Poor Master Sara, though. The fellow had been kicked by his pony or something, and was quite sore the entire time. The walk was much a trial on him.’ The Dwarf opened the door to the room and gave a small bow. ‘I would count it an honor should you and Master Frodo care to visit with me for a while before we are called to supper.’
‘How can we turn down such an invitation?’ Bilbo replied. ‘Frodo, go fetch our pipes and hurry back!’ Soon, all three were settled contentedly on the floor before the hearth, enjoying a few silent minutes of smoking. Dalin’s axe stood in a corner, catching the flicker of lamplight on its broad head. Frodo broke the silence.
‘Dalin, did you see any sign of those Grey Riders south on the River Road?’
‘Nary a sign, not even a turd,’ Dalin chuckled, ‘and none of the people I spoke with had noticed their passing a week past. But most have at least heard rumor of them. One of the Hobbits we supped with in Rushey, a Farmer Wetfurrow, he said that another, Farmer Maggot, thought they rode through every month, always riding south.’ Dalin puffed thoughtfully. “So they are a patrol of some type, I’d say, if this Maggot fellow knows truly.’
Bilbo thought back to the previous day, when he had been so strongly drawn by the vision of galloping to the South on Dove. Are they patrolling, or are they simply riding off? I wonder. What is the pull of the South? Again, he found himself wishing for Gandalf’s counsel. He toyed gently with the chain attaching the Ring to his pocket, but resisted reaching for his ring itself. South. I wonder what is happening there? Gandalf had seemed very concerned about affairs in the South the last time he had visited – not that he would speak his concerns! – and the thought of going there was both frightening and fascinating. Pay heed to Gilda, Baggins. No more adventures until Wilwarin grows up. Bilbo thought it desirable to change the topic of conversation.
‘So, Dalin, you had a chance to put that axe of yours to work, did you?’ The Dwarf gave a satisfied rumble and grinned.
‘Aye, that I did, Mister Baggins! And quite worthy trees they were that Shadow Foe cleaved.’
‘Shadow Foe?’ Frodo asked.
‘My axe! Its name is Shadow Foe, and it was made to wreak terror upon all Dark things,’ Dalin cheerfully replied, ‘though, in the absence of Orcs, a stout tree trunk will keep it content.’ Frodo shot a nervous glance at the deadly metal, and nodded. Bilbo remembered the axes of Dáin’s army. They bit through the leather and iron armor of the goblins with less effort than through wood. Before he had been knocked out, he had watched the axe-men, clad in dull grey shirts of steel rings, make short work of their poorly-armored foes. Only the goblins’ enormous numbers had given the Dwarves any trouble. The Dwarves could wield their axes in any number of ways, all equally deadly, making them into swords, knives, or clubs as the situation demanded. They even threw them with lethal accuracy. He hoped Shadow Foe had only ever known the give of wood beneath its edge.
Dalin spoke on, either not noticing or not minding the Hobbits’ silence and wary glances. ‘Shadow Foe was my first great work, Master Frodo. After a Dwarf has prenticed with a master smith and has learned all that he can, the test of his knowledge lies in the making of his own axe. And you’d best do well at this task, for this will be your dearest friend in dire times! It must be made with hard and solid, but not brittle, with heft enough to hold back an enemy and to bite deeply, but light, too, so it will move as you need it in the thick of a fight! I knew I had wrought truly when I thrust it into the cooling sink. The hiss of the water told me. And how should it not have been true? I had learned my forging from Lord Glóin himself, one of the greatest master smiths of Erebor. I knew my business then, and have come to know it yet better.’
‘And I suppose your axe made short work of the Sun-return logs,’ Bilbo hastily interjected. He did not wish to know how Dalin had put Shadow Foe to use before they had met.
‘Oh, aye, they were grandfathers of trees,’ Dalin responded without hesitation, unperturbed by the turn away from more martial concerns. ‘They were well cured, and some splits had already begun in them. The chopping went quickly. Now I must needs find another woodlot in which to work off the tender generosity of the ladies!’ Dalin concluded with a laugh, rubbing his belly. Bilbo wondered at how easily blood and cheer could live together in the Dwarvish heart. ‘When I rejoin my fellows in Belegost, what tales I shall have to tell of this sojourn!’
‘Tales of what, Dalin?’ Frodo asked. ‘Nothing ever happens here. You have chopped some wood and eaten some good meals. There is naught to be said about such things, except that they were done.’
‘Not so, Master Baggins! You are too used to what you see. This is a busy, welcoming place, a rare thing upon the Road. I have never met more industrious and good-hearted people, not even among the folk of Dale. You are this way to strangers! I have taken table with a different family every day and, once shyness is overcome, I have been treated as a lost kinsman. Do you know how odd, even exotic, this generosity is? All bear tools, but none bear arms, and all is ordered and bountiful. It is a marvel! Dwarves prize things of craft and creation, but we treasure things of joy as well. We are not made of stone, though we can endure more than bones of the mountains. I shall delight my companions with my accounts of the Shire. It is a magical place.’
Bilbo nearly laughed at Frodo’s incredulous expression. Wait until you journey upon the Road, Wilwarin, and you will see how magical it is. He and Dalin exchanged a knowing look. You know, do you not, Master Dwarf, how rare this little plot of earth is. When even your close neighbors are not so hospitable to you as Shire folk. His musings were interrupted by a knock on the door. One of the kitchen boys was in the hallway, the handles of several ewers of hot water grasped in his strong hands. Bilbo quickly relieved him of two, gave one to Dalin, bid the Dwarf good day, and took the second back to their room so he and Frodo could wash up for supper. Frodo was silent during this, no doubt thinking how such a dull place as the Shire could be considered magical. Bilbo chuckled to himself and left the lad to his thoughts.
Tomorrow morning, before Wintermark preparations were too far underway, he would take the scroll translation to Gilda. He and Frodo had worked diligently all day – no excursions into poetry, however beautiful – and had completed their translation of the first quarter of the scroll. That would be enough to leave with Gilda while they tackled the next part. We’ll get half of it done before we leave for home, and then work on the second half with no blasted interruptions. Then would begin the back and forth of translations, amendments, re-translations, further corrections, over and over again until Gilda was satisfied with the accuracy of the information. He would keep a copy of it all, Elvish and common tongue, at Bag End, and send the original scroll along with a pristine translation for Gilda’s records.
The scroll had been an excellent excuse to avoid the swarm of relatives that descended upon the Hall that day. From the window of the old dining room, Bilbo and Frodo had watched the procession coming to the door in the weak mid-winter light. Gis, Odovacar and Rosamunda had shown up at mid-day. It was shocking how old Gis looked, and even more shocking when Bilbo remembered that he and Gis were practically the same age. Asphodel and Rufus arrived with Milo and Peony, and were loudly greeted by Bargo and Bluebell. Bilbo knew he would need to speak to Rufus and Milo later about happenings up in Northfarthing and the complications of the bad harvest in Eastfarthing. It would have to be handled carefully, given Odovacar’s presence and the various Took factions mucking about in the deal, but Bilbo had no doubt that he could augment his own business to Frogmorton with some more harvest from the Burrowses’ own holdings. Neither of the Burrows men had much of a head for business, but they were affable and trusted him enough to follow his lead. Peony was always all too happy to do favors for mad old Uncle Bilbo.
Bilbo sighed, and concentrated on his shirt buttons. He disliked playing on the greedy hopes of avaricious relatives, but it was such a handy tool when he needed things to be done quickly and quietly. And soon they will begin cozying up to you, Wilwarin. He glanced up at Frodo and sighed again, this time in exasperation. The lad was wool-gathering and looked like an unmade bed. He walked over and began making the boy presentable. Frodo smiled sheepishly and allowed himself to be neatened up.
A light tap-tap was followed by the door slowly creaking open, and Merle’s mischievous face peeked around the edge. The door slammed the rest of the way open as she and Merry darted in. Frodo soon again looked as he had before Bilbo's efforts.
‘Mama and Papa sent us to collect you and Mister Dalin for supper,’ Merle proclaimed once she and Merry had tickled and teased their big cousin into helpless submission.
‘Am I invited as well?’ Bilbo asked.
‘Of course, Uncle Bilbo, don’t be silly!’ she scolded. She slapped Merry’s hands away when he tried to take Frodo’s, claiming Frodo for herself. Bilbo offered a hand to Merry before a squabble could break out between the siblings. She shyly tugged on Frodo’s arm until he leaned down, then she gave him a kiss on the cheek and blushed furiously. Frodo offered her his hand, and they set out to collect Dalin. Merry was brought out of his sulk over not being able to walk with Frodo when he realized that he had the Dwarf to himself. Merle and Frodo led the way to the small dining room, Bilbo right behind them. Dalin and Merry slowly brought up the rear, Merry regaling the Dwarf with tales of his own adventures while Dalin was away.
Bilbo watched the way Merle gazed up at Frodo and thought of the flowers sitting on the desk. Frodo had told him the entire story of them that morning, amused at Merle’s gift, but Bilbo had wondered. What have you said to this girl, Attercop? He remembered Esmie’s plan for her daughter. No matter. Merle was young enough that by the time she was of an age for her attentions to be taken seriously, Frodo already would be wed. But the Queen of Calamities is not the only one who will have ambitions for her daughter, he reflected, and certain kinds of cozying will appeal more to a young lad than others. Bilbo stifled a sigh at the complications. Wilwarin needed to be encouraged to pay court to the lasses, but also to be made wary of certain attentions. Not that I can say anything of you, Spider. All he could hope was that he could contrive to keep Frodo and Esmie apart over this Yule, and then let distance do its work.
They were the last to arrive to table. It was only the close family: Gilda and Rory, Esmie and Sara, Mac, Dilly, and Berry. A cheerful shout of welcome went up, and Berry extricated himself from his father’s arms to rush over to hug Dalin. The children led the Dwarf to the seat of honor next to Gilda, then found their places with their parents. Frodo was definitely subdued as he slipped into a seat between Dilly and Gilda, not quite meeting anyone’s eyes.
‘Well, beggar, what have you been doing all day?’ Gilda asked.
‘Working on your translation, my dear, and talking to Dalin about his impressions of the Shire,’ Bilbo cheerfully replied. The food was laid in platters on a sideboard, but he did not see Maddie or any of the kitchen girls to help serve. Rory began to stand, and Bilbo waved him back to his seat. ‘And if you will permit me, Master, Mistress, I would be delighted to serve the table this fine supper. No, no! I insist!’ he twinkled at them. ‘The boys have been hard at work for three days, and the ladies are all worn out from Wintermark preparation. Let this old fool earn his keep.’ He quickly served first Gilda, then Dalin, then Rory. Esmie whispered something to Merle, who bounced up from the bench to take the plates Bilbo had prepared to their proper owners.
He took the opportunity to observe the table. Gilda looked tired but cheerful, as did Rory. Sara was sitting stiffly, as though his ribs hurt him, and Bilbo recalled Dalin’s observation that the lout had been kicked by his own pony. Were I his pony, I would kick him, too. Esmie was steadfastly ignoring Frodo and gazing adoringly up at Sara. Frodo had moved at a gesture from Bilbo and was filling wine and water glasses all around. Mac had an arm wrapped around Dilly’s waist, with Berry on his other side. He leaned forward and addressed Dalin across the table.
‘Mister Dalin, my great thanks to you for your fine help these last few days. I’ve never seen the Sun-return logs chopped so well and so quickly! Are you rested from your trip?’
‘Yes, Master Mac. I have had a good smoke, an excellent time sitting with my dear friends and now have the pleasure of your company once more,’ Dalin politely replied.
‘Rory,’ Bilbo asked as he put together a plate for Dilly, ‘who is sitting Master in the main hall tonight?’
‘Saradas and Amalda are doing the honors tonight,’ Rory wearily replied. ‘Wili and Prisca are helping as well. Gilda and I need to rest for tomorrow.’ Rory turned to Dalin. ‘So, Mister Steelhand, what are your impressions of Buckland? May we count on more visits from our Dwarven friends?’
‘Most certainly, Master Rory. As I said to Mister Baggins not two hours ago, this is a friendly and busy land. After our own halls, I think there no better place for a Dwarf to be. I am humbled by the hospitality your folk have shown me.’
Bilbo prepared his own plate and sat between Berry and Rory. He could observe the Snake and the Spider, as well as Dalin and Gilda, quite well from this vantage point. ‘What kind of trade do you think can be done, then, Dalin, between the Mountain and the Shire?’ he asked before taking a bite.
‘Well, with all this talk of a failed harvest, I am hesitant to say anything,’ the Dwarf began, ‘but Belegost would fain reduce its food trade with the Elves of Lindon. We tire of fish and dried greens from the sea! There is no true road beyond the Far Downs, but the land is gentle enough along the track that wagons could get through, and make a road of the path. Harvest roots and fruit, dried meat, flour, grain – any of these would be welcome.’
Rory nodded emphatically. ‘Perhaps not roots this season, but there are other things to be traded. Mind you, though, I don’t think folk from about here would be any too eager to journey beyond the White Downs.’ Dalin shrugged.
‘Well, and perhaps Dwarves would be happy enough to take things into their own hands beyond that point. A bit of portage means naught to us.’
‘Rory, I think it might be worth looking into finding a few sturdy lads who would be willing to do some regular carting past the Downs,’ Bilbo interjected. ‘There’s always a few good boys ready to have a small adventure. They need not go all the way west and south to the Dwarf mines, though they might want to go as far as the Elves. The Shire could stand to increase the salt trade, both for the Shire and for our neighbors.’
‘What does salt have to do with Elves?’ asked Sara. He grimaced a bit as Merry bumped into his side, and Bilbo suppressed a smirk at the thought of the bruise the pony’s hoof must have left on Sara’s ribs. Frodo piped up.
‘Sara, that is where salt comes from. Well, not from the Elves, but from the Sea, and the Elves gather it. The Dwarves who come from the west do not simply bring metal work and stone carving. They bring barrels and bags of salt from the Elves.’ Frodo’s tone was reasonably polite, though there was a slightly patronizing air to it. So, you have been listening to my lectures on trade, lad. Perhaps it is time to introduce you to the ledgers. But the reminder of who brought the salt made Bilbo realize he might have misspoken in front of Dalin.
‘And a devil of a time it is to bring it, too!’ Dalin responded, gesturing vigorously with his fork. ‘I’ve heard the Firebeards complain mightily of sledging barrels over, or of carrying sacks on pack ponies. They’d be glad for carts, and more glad not to have to deal with the Elves.’
‘Well, I think there is much to be done between the Blue Mountains and the Shire, but is there anything to go East, to Erebor?’ Bilbo asked. While trading to the West might be simple and relatively peaceful, it pleased him to think that there could be regular traffic between the Shire and the Lonely Mountain. ‘I know there is much Erebor could offer the Shire – glass, fine ceramics, the purest steel and iron, and any type of well-crafted thing.’
Dalin did not reply at once, but ate a few thoughtful bites from his plate. ‘There is not too much I can think of,’ he finally admitted. ‘Dale and the Esgaroth are plentiful lands and give us all the foodstuffs we could want with little effort. Leather, too, and wood is plentiful in Mirkwood, when the Elves will let us be. But these are darkening times on Durin’s Road, my friend, and perhaps trade to the east is not wise.’
‘Nonsense,’ Bilbo replied sternly, ‘when times darken is when you most need to find and strengthen your friendships! Is that not the lesson of the Reclamation of Erebor?’
‘And only Men and Dwarves have held true to that friendship! And Hobbits! The Elves slunk away, as usual. But you are right, Mister Baggins, dark times are a call for firm friends. Would that we could improve things upon Durin’s Road. That is a noble way, and has been the route of trade and alliance since before the Sun was in the sky.’ Dalin smiled at Bilbo and raised his wine glass in a toast. All of the other Hobbits around the table simply stared at Dalin, dumbfounded, though Gilda had a measuring glint in her eye.
Sara found his voice first. ‘What kind of nonsense is that, begging your pardon Mister Dalin, “before the Sun was in the sky”?’ Bilbo smiled to himself at the others’ ignorance.
‘No kind of nonsense, Master Sara,’ Dalin rumbled back, equally perplexed. ‘There was once but stars in the sky, and a great light from the West where the Mistress Sun was moored, but She was set loose, along with Master Moon, to drive away the Shadow.’
‘How could there never be a Sun?’ Esmie snapped. ‘There must always be Sun, else things would never grow or warm. That is the point of Wintermark!’
‘Of course there was never a time without the Sun, Mistress Esmie,’ Dalin hastily added. ‘But there was a time when She was chained in one place. It is so!’ he protested at Esmie’s unbelieving expression, ‘Durin woke and walked in a world lit by naught but stars, and he saw the first rising of the Sun and Moon!’
‘Dalin is right, of course,’ Bilbo blandly said. ‘I’ve spoken to Elves and they know of such things. But Men and Hobbits have always lived under the Sun’s gaze.’ He smiled genially. The little children were paying no mind to the adults’ talk, but the rest of the Hobbits were trying to decide if this was the truth, or if Mad Baggins was playing another joke on them. Then Frodo cocked his head and nodded.
‘That is what the one poem was trying to explain,’ the lad said, more to himself than to the others present. ‘The poems you gave me, Uncle Bilbo; there was one I never could make sense of because the Sun rose in West, but if She was moored there, then it does make sense.’ Frodo looked down the table at his uncle, delighted at having puzzled it out.
Esmie shook her head. ‘Well, it still sounds like perfect nonsense to me!’ She glared at Bilbo, who smiled benignly in return.
Dalin shifted uncomfortably in his seat. ‘Well, mayhap I have been taught wrongly in the case of the Sun, Mistress Esmie,’ he rumbled, ‘for I am not a clever fellow on matters of lore, not like Mister Bilbo or Master Frodo here. What I do know with certainty is that Durin’s Road was built a very long time ago by Durin’s folk. The world was fair in Durin’s day, and it is Dwarves who made the way which still serves to join our peoples in peace and friendship. We cut the trees and brush, carved out the paths through passes, delved the tunnels, built the bridges, and laid the stone.’
‘Indeed, then, Dalin, the work of the Road over the High Pass is to be claimed by the Dwarves, not the Elves?’ Bilbo asked. He remembered the narrow, but true, path he had traveled on twice, though only once in its entirety. At the crown of the pass there had been a marvelous stone tunnel, carved about with knots and whorls, ravens and axes. He knew the tunnel was Dwarven, but had not known all the road was their handiwork.
‘Elves? Faugh, they would hardly know what to do with a road if they fell flat on their faces upon it!’ Dalin growled. ‘They trip along through woods and fields, and pay no mind to where they tread. Nay, there is scarce an Elf in Middle-earth who could imagine such a road. If you see stone upon the Road, it is Dwarven work.’
‘And a good thing it is we have this Road to travel on,’ Bilbo said cheerfully, wishing to get away from arguments about Elves, ‘for it is, as you said, the route of our alliance for all remembered time. But is there truly nothing that could go from the Shire to Erebor?’
‘What about cloth?’ Rory asked. ‘Do these Big Folk produce cloth enough for you?’
Dalin shook his head as he swallowed a mouthful. ‘No, Master Rory. There are no spinners or weavers worthy of the name among them. We buy wool and cotton from the Eastern traders out of Rhûn, and spin and weave for ourselves. We produce decent enough cloth. Sometimes we buy finished cloth from the traders, too.’
Gilda reached out and laid a shaking hand on Dalin’s arm, brushing the cloth. ‘Is this Dwarven work, Dalin?’
‘Yes, Mistress Gilda.’
She snorted, ‘We do better here in Buckland! That is what we can send to you in your Lonely Mountain.’ Rory and Bilbo exchanged a look, and both grinned.
‘Mister Steelhand,’ Rory said, getting Dalin’s attention, ‘Cousin Bilbo and I were having an interesting conversation yesterday on cloth, and he mentioned to me that you know something of a mill for spinning things.’
‘We have a small spinning mill on the Running River, Master Rory. It spins a good amount of wool, better than what we can do by hand, but obviously not good enough.’ Dalin gave Gilda a rueful look.
‘Well, there’s been some talk of a need for a mill along the Water to give us better-spun wool and flax, and leave our women free to weave,’ Rory said slowly, ‘but we’ve no one in the Shire who would know about how to put such a thing together.’
Dalin sat up with a bright gleam in his eyes. ‘First off, I would need to see the place on the Water where you would want to put a mill. Unless the river runs with enough force to turn all the many gears, you cannot use it. I do not know if the Water runs strongly enough for such a mill.’
Golda waved her arm in a dismissive gesture. ‘You men and your contraptions,’ she scolded. ‘There are more than enough strong arms and talented spinners and weavers in the Shire to keep an army of Dwarves well dressed! Spin us all the wool you like, or none at all. There will be plenty of good Shire cloth to send on your pack ponies, either way.’
‘Though, it would be good if thread could be spun more quickly,’ Dilly ventured. ‘Particularly if it is better than what can be done with a spindle.’ She leaned into Mac, and he hugged her protectively. Gilda threw her timid daughter-in-law a scornful glance.
‘If it is better than what a goodwife can do with wheel or spindle, I shall be surprised,’ Gilda scoffed. ‘The cloth you wear, Dalin, does not speak terribly well of this thread mill. Though perhaps if true spinners oversaw its building, decent yarn could be produced.’
‘Perhaps, Mistress Gilda,’ Dalin replied apologetically, ‘though perhaps it could not compare to the what the women of the Shire can do. I have been impressed by the beauty of the cloth I have seen. It is smoother and softer than Dale work, and much stronger than Elven work. Before even the wants of Erebor, I know that Belegost stands in dire need of things of comfort and civility. Your cloth and your small crafts would be appreciated there.’
‘Why is that, Mister Dalin?’ asked Mac. ‘You Dwarves can make pretty much anything you need, can’t you? Uncle Bilbo explained to me that you might not be able to grow anything inside a mountain, but you can make everything else.’
‘Belegost is ancient and worn out,’ Dalin sadly said. ‘Once, it was a great kingdom, home of the Firebeards, and a place of wonder. But that was a very long time ago. In recent times, it has been a bare refuge during our years of exile by Smaug. Erebor is a kinder place, even though we still labor to repair the dragon’s ruin, and the Iron Hills offer more comfort. The Firebeards are few, now, and most have become part of Durin’s folk in Erebor.’
‘Do not their wives and sisters make things comfortable?’ Gilda asked. ‘It is the part of women-folk to make a home of a dwelling. Surely they know something besides metal-craft. Who was it who made your clothes?’
Dalin turned almost as red as his great cloak. He stared down at his plate, then sent an entreating look to Bilbo, who could not figure out what was upsetting the fellow so much.
‘Dalin? Dear guest, I have upset you. Please, tell me, how have I offended you?’ Gilda gently asked.
‘I am trying to think of how to answer you, Mistress.’ Dalin’s whisper was still louder than some Hobbit’s speech. ‘There are no more women folk of the Firebeards. They are all wed into the folk of Durin, now, and there shall be no more. Belegost is but a mining colony, and only the men live there. They know not the ways of civility. Please, Mistress Gilda, ask me no more. I do not wish to refuse the kind questions of my host. It is not – proper – to speak of our women before outsiders.’
‘Then there shall be no more such questions,’ Gilda crisply replied. ‘If we are finished with supper, then I think we should go to the parlor and speak of proper things before we retire. I would know more of the stonework of Dwarves along the Road and in the Shire.’ She offered her arm to Dalin to be helped up from the table. Bilbo called Frodo over and sent the lad to fetch their and Dalin’s pipes. He walked with Dalin, Rory, and Gilda, while the others went ahead to light lamps and build up the fire. Frodo arrived just as they reached the parlor, a little out of breath, but with three pipes in hand. Rory sent him dashing off again to bring the jar of Old Toby from his study.
Soon, everyone was comfortably arranged in front of the fire. Dalin sat at one end of the hearth, firelight making the gold beads in his beard glow. Sara had claimed his usual chair, and Merle sat in his lap. Esmie sat at his feet, cradling a sleepy Merry in her arms. Gilda was at one end of the couch, braced with some small pillows, and Dilly sat next to her. Berry nestled in between his parents, and Rory sat leaning against his wife’s knees, just as Bilbo had sat with her the night before. Bilbo claimed a chair, having had more than enough sitting on the floor for one day, Frodo at his feet. The men smoked their pipes, and Gilda smoked hers, a lovely slender bone pipe that Bilbo had given her as a present many years before.
‘Dalin,’ Frodo asked, ‘did you get to see the cider vats up near the Old Orchard? Are they Dwarven work?’
‘Indeed I did. On Sunday past, Master Sara and I went up there, and I took a look at them. Indeed, they are most certainly Dwarven! Not like the pillars in the dining hall, which are Hobbit work. The vats were made by Dwarves, but not for Hobbits. They are too old.’
‘Really?’ Bilbo sat forward in his chair. Now this was news. ‘So they are older than the Fallohide brothers’ colonization. Were they made for the High King when it was still the King’s lands?’
Dalin laughed deep inside, a rich chuckle that made his whole body shake. ‘They were made for a high king, all right, my dear Mister Baggins, but not for the old king of Men. These vats are ancient, ancient work. The stone in them sings a song far older than this age and the settlement of Men.’ The Dwarf smiled, his face crinkling up, new shadows making a mask of the folds and curves.
‘Nay,’ Dalin said more quietly, ‘these were made for the High Elves and for their High King, two ages past, when all moved East to found new homes and kingdoms. This was Dwarven work done by those who fled the Blue Mountains and the second ruin of Belegost. Ere they left, they showed their friendship to the High Elves by laying stone on which the Elves could build their own new kingdom. Dwarves had no wish to stay so close to the Sea. When they had done with this gift to the High Elves, they left a small colony in the remains of Belegost, and they walked to Khazad-dûm, the greatest of all Dwarf kingdoms, south and east in the Misty Mountains, or else they made their way to Mount Gundabad at the northern end of that range.’
‘But, no, that cannot be right, Dalin,’ Bilbo exclaimed. ‘The goblin army that attacked Erebor, that army came from Mount Gundabad. At least, that is what Gandalf said, and I am certain some others said this, too!’
‘Another of our lost homes,’ Dalin growled. ‘We have warred with the Orcs for three ages over that peak! Durin awoke in that place, and we shall reclaim it as we reclaimed Erebor. It is ours! Gundabad is long settled, long loved and long embattled among Durin’s folk. In the age of the Great Enemy, it was assailed, but held. In the age of Alliance, we lost it briefly, but reclaimed it again. In this age, they wrested it from us with the aid of Angmar, but they were weakened after Nanduhirion, and weakened again in the battle for Erebor. Gundabad shall be ours again, and soon.’ Dalin’s voice was a promise set in steel. The Hobbits all drew back a bit.
‘Well,’ Bilbo said with false cheer, ‘there will be another set of deeds to be turned into a song when that happens, my dear Dalin. But I fear we Hobbits are more interested in the peaceful things that Dwarves can do, like building roads and bridges. We do not much understand battle, but we appreciate a well-made bridge!’
‘Well, said, cousin!’ Rory hastily agreed. ‘Mister Steelhand, when I and my cousins and brother spoke yesterday, we spun many fanciful tales about things that might be built or done in the Shire to improve trade. Your talk of stonework and bridges remind me of one of our ideas – to build bridges over a few strong streams and join two roads into one. I think it is a Dwarf we should talk to if we are to build the bridges aright.’
The fiery look in Dalin’s eyes subsided, and his Dwarven love of building came to the fore. ‘Now, there is something to trade for, Master Rory! Solid work for solid goods, that is the way it should be. What road do you wish to build?’
‘The River Road. It turns sharply west at Deephallow because the Shirebourn blocks its path, then comes to a complete stop in Willowbottom up against the Thistle Brook. We thought to build a bridge over the Shirebourn just short of Willowbottom to cross the stream and continue South, eventually joining up with the road to Longbottom. It would make moving leaf north much easier…’ Rory’s voice trailed off as Dalin shook his head.
‘Master Rory, I have to advise against building any bridges to the South, not in these times,’ the Dwarf said sternly. ‘Dangers lie South and East. The High Elves guard the eastern ways on this side of the Misty Mountains, and the Dwarves and Beornings guard the paths on the far side. I know not what might protect you to the south, though perhaps these Grey Riders patrol for dark creatures from those lands. Do not provide an easy way for a foe to come upon you unawares.’
‘You said there were Orcs in the mountains when you crossed, Dalin, and that the Elves had fought with them,’ Frodo said anxiously. ‘Are there Orcs and goblins south of here, too?’
‘I know not, Frodo, though Orcs are not the only dark things that prowl. Wolves, evil Men, and other fearsome creatures are also to be feared, and they all increase.’
‘Since when?’ Gilda’s imperious voice cut through the mutters at the news. She had pulled herself to the edge of the couch and was staring intently at the Dwarf. ‘I want to know when these things began, as reckoned by the Dwarves.’
Dalin bowed his head at her command. ‘Counting from the Reclamation, there was peace and ease for about ten years after the Battle of the Five Armies. Then we were brought news by the Dark Elves and the Beornings in the west eaves of Mirkwood that dark creatures were once more prowling in the southern reaches of that dread wood. About three years after that, there came rumors of fire and war far to the south.’ Bilbo began to count years in his head and realized with a shock that this matched Gilda’s account of when she had first noticed things were not right in the Shire. He glanced over to Gilda, who was nodding grimly at Dalin’s report.
‘Since then, things have crept out from caves and from shadows in greater numbers,’ Dalin continued. ‘Orc attacks increase near the mountains, and at ever-further distances from them. None travel in Mirkwood below the East Bight, not even the Dark Elves. The Old Forest Road has been abandoned again; the Wargs roam almost at will along it, and the great spiders’ webs are thick within the trees. The herdsmen to the south of the Running River are beginning to come north. They say the grasslands near the wood are tainted, and weaken their herds. Their cows and mares are not calving and foaling as they should. The ravens of Erebor tell King Dáin that shadows lengthen, and the thrushes of Dale say the same to King Bain. Things are well enough to the eye, but hearts are troubled.’
‘And what of four or five years ago?’ Gilda demanded, ‘What then? Was there anything unusual?’
‘The birds of Erebor would not take to the air for days in the late autumn four years past, and fish beached themselves upon the northern shore of Esgaroth, as though fleeing from a terror to the south,’ Dalin confirmed. Gilda shot a meaningful glance at Bilbo. Four years ago and a terror took hold of your soul, my girl. He began to believe that it might not be illness that made Gilda shake.
‘It sounds a time for hedges, not bridges, Bilbo,’ Rory said into the silence.
‘No! It is time for alliance!’ Bilbo snapped back. ‘Perhaps, as Dalin says, we need to think more about putting up new bridges, but we need to not hedge ourselves about so that we are isolated from friends. And, Dalin, perhaps the Dwarves would be well served to heed Gandalf, and seek better friendship with Thranduil’s folk. If birds and fish and herd beasts sense a danger, why should thinking beings stand apart from one other?’
Dalin’s face turned red and he glared at Bilbo. ‘Nay, Mister Baggins, nay! There will be no friendship between the Dark Elves and the Dwarves, not until they make amends for the Sack of Nogrod and the Siege of Belegost. The realm of the Firebeards began its fall in the First Age because of the treachery of the Dark Elves.’
‘What did the Elves do?’ Sara asked. ‘I’m not liking the sound of Elves.’
Bilbo gestured his idiot nephew to be silent. ‘Tell me this story, Dalin,’ he asked, ‘for it is not one I have ever heard. Perhaps the rift between Elves and Dwarves is beyond healing, but until the story is known, then there is no way to be sure.’
‘It is not all Elves,’ Dalin insisted, ‘just the Dark ones, the Wood Elves, who are little better than animals. Their ingratitude and deceit knows no limits. They know little save to kill things and to satisfy their own wishes. Aye, they are fair to look upon, and their voices enchant, but their hearts are fickle and warped.’
‘Then tell us the story of their treachery so that it is not only known to the Dwarves,’ Bilbo entreated.
Dalin nodded, then sat for a while and puffed his pipe, composing the tale in his mind. His deep voice was a soft roll of thunder when he began.
‘In ages past, there were the Khazâd and there were the Dark Elves and there were none others. At first there was friendship. The Khazâd wrought for the Dark Elves the mansions of Menegroth, splendorous caverns of stone and gems in the heart of the Ensorcelled Wood. Peace there was, but pride took the Dark Elves, and they treated the Khazâd as servants, not friends, and were churlish in their manner. But the Khazâd gave it no mind and asked only for fair payment for their labors, and were content. Then the Sun brought the High Elves, and true friendship was struck, and the Khazâd stood beside these Elves who had seen the truth and glory of Mahal, and together they did battle with the Shadow. Then Men came out of the East and learned the truth and the glory from the High Elves, and joined in the fight against the Shadow, and the Dark Elves hid in their woods and were as animals.
‘The Firebeards of Gabilgathol, of Belegost, turned their backs on the cowardly Elves, but the Broadbeams of Tumunzahar, of Nogrod, continued to traffic with them. Their honor was tainted by their association with these dark creatures, and it was their downfall. They wrought a great work for the Dark Elf-king, and were seized by greed for it and wrongly tried to take what was not theirs. The Dark Elf-king spurned them and withheld not only the jewel, which was his, but also any payment for their labors. In fury, they slew the king and fled with the jewel. The Dark Elves pursued and reclaimed the jewel, slaying the killers of their king, which was just. Two of the Broadbeams escaped the slaughter, and brought word back to Tumunzahar of the treachery of the Elves. The realm demanded war to avenge the murder of their craftsmen.
‘The Firebeards were asked to join in this war. They refused, and counseled the Broadbeams to set aside their anger, for their folk had killed a king, and his people had taken just vengeance. The Broadbeams had become as Dark Elves in their hearts, and they lusted for blood and for baubles. The Firebeards argued and tried to dissuade them, but, when the Broadbeams emptied their caverns and sent all of their men in arms to take Menegroth, the Firebeards sent word to the High Elves of the threat that approached. The High Elves said naught to the Dark Elves: even their own kind would not defend them.
‘The Broadbeams marched on Menegroth and battled fiercely. They slew and were slain, but they killed neither woman nor child, for to that depravity even their dishonored hearts would not stoop. They seized all of the works that had been of their hands within those halls, including the great jewel of the Dark Elf-king, and they marched off with their payment and their pride. And their pride was their destruction, for their plunder weighed them down and they could not fight the trap laid for them by the One-Hand, husband of the daughter of the Dark King. Dark Elves fought from hiding and refused to come to open battle with honor, and they sang to the trees, who lashed the Khazâd with their branches and crushed them with their roots. And when all the men folk of Tumunzahar had been killed, the One-Hand bound the great jewel about his neck and the Dark Elves followed him. They followed the Road of the Khazâd, the westernmost reach of Durin’s Road, to the halls of Tumunzahar, and they slew there every Broadbeam they found, sparing not the oldest crone nor the youngest babe. And all could see the bloody hearts of the Dark Elves.
‘Gabilgathol heard of the destruction too late to come to their kinfolk’s aid. Soon, their realm, too, was besieged, but Gabilgathol was far more defensible than Tumunzahar and the Dark ones could not force entry. For months they hedged the Firebeards about with archers and warriors, killing any who ventured out of the mountain stronghold. They cared not that the Firebeards had naught to do with the attack on Menegroth, but sought only to kill all Khazâd. Secret tunnels were hewn, and a few could slip out to gather food, but starvation haunted the caverns. The Elves would not fight openly, as even an Orc would do, but fought as sneaking thieves and cowards. Eventually, they tired of their leaguer, and slipped away, skulking off. Three years later, the High Elves descended upon them in the Ensorcelled Wood and killed all but a few of them who managed to flee, so disgusted were the High Elves with their own kind.’
Dalin ended his tale and bowed his head to the room. Dilly and Esmie were clutching their sons to them, horrified at the account of the killing of the mothers and children. Bilbo realized that his right hand hurt, then saw that Frodo had taken hold of it and was gripping it tightly. He gently pried the lad’s fingers off. So there lies the root of the enmity between Forest and Mountain. What a miracle that they allied for even the hours of the Battle of Erebor. He did not envy Gandalf trying to bring peace between these peoples.
‘And when was all of this war, Mister Steelhand?’ Rory asked.
Dalin thought for a moment. ‘Just over sixty-five hundred years ago, at the end of the First Age.’
‘How long ago?’ Mac asked, incredulous. ‘More than six thousand years ago? How can you still be hating someone after that long? That’s longer ago than forever!’
Dalin fixed his black eyes on Mac until the Hobbit shifted nervously in his seat. ‘And forever, Master Brandybuck, is exactly how long the Khazâd shall remember the murdered children of Tumunzahar and the starved mothers of Gabilgathol. The Dark Elves who live now in Mirkwood are of kin to those who did these foul deeds. Some of them are the ones who raised sword and nocked arrow and wielded club against those children and mothers, for Elves are immortal, even Dark ones.’
Dalin turned to Bilbo. Frodo shrank back a bit against his uncle’s knee and tried to make himself small. Bilbo met the Dwarf’s eyes, which still smoldered a bit, but also held a bit of humor.
‘So, now, Mister Baggins, do you understand why it is not such a simple thing to live with these Elves? The Dwarves have offered a hand of friendship, or at least of honest trade, since the earliest days. And this is how we have been repaid.’
‘Yes, Dalin, I begin to understand these things better, and I see why it is even a wizard may fail in such a task,’ Bilbo calmly replied. ‘But I have also seen far more evil things than Dark Elves. We have been speaking of dark portents all evening, and alliance is preferable to being picked apart. If Dwarf and Elf can ally for one struggle, they can ally for others.’
‘We will ally with Men, with the High Elves who never have wronged us, and with Hobbits,’ Dalin replied in an equally calm tone, ‘but we wish no dealings with these unwholesome creatures. I would rather do battle with an Orc than speak to a Dark Elf. The Orc has as much honor. Dwarves do not care to treat with those who wreak such butchery on the young of another, and will not repent of it. They live like animals in a forest, making noise and little else. They do not know how to bring new things into the world. They are not like High Elves, who craft cities of stone in the mountains and high places, who know the sacred call to create and to treasure, and who delight in fire. They know not the industry of Men, and have not even the skills of Hobbits, to till, to weave, and to tend flocks. If they wish to fight the Shadow, well enough, but they may do so on their own. Like as not they’ll simply hide in their woods, as they always have.’
‘Like as not,’ Bilbo sighed.
‘Thank you for your tale, Dalin,’ Gilda said with great dignity. She tapped Rory on the shoulder, who rose and began to help her to her feet. ‘I fear I must retire for the evening, for tomorrow shall be a long day for the Mistress.’ Dalin scrambled to his feet and gave her a deep bow, his beard nearly touching his knees.
‘Forgive me, Mistress Gilda, for having spoken of dark and dire things.’
‘Life is full of dark and dire things,’ she replied, ‘and it is good to be reminded that they have existed in the past so that we know we can bear them in our own times. Good evening, friend Dalin.’
‘Attend your mother,’ Rory curtly told Sara and Mac. The two Hobbits quickly came to their mother’s side, made a chair of their arms and carried her out. Bilbo hoped Sara’s sore ribs would not interfere with carrying Gilda. Dilly and Esmie swiftly followed, casting a few wary glances at Dalin as they left the room. Bilbo saw Rory’s signal that he should stay.
‘You may go, Frodo. I will be along later.’
The lad gave him an enquiring look, but did not protest, accompanying Dalin out of the parlor. Rory picked up the jar of Old Toby and set off towards his study, Bilbo trailing behind. After they arrived, Rory held his hand out for Bilbo’s pipe, and slowly prepared it and his own. Bilbo lit a few candles near the hearth, but did not stir up the fire. Soon Rory handed him his pipe and a glass of brandy. They sat for a while, smoking and sipping.
‘This Elf medicine, the scroll,’ Rory began, ‘which Elves is it from?’
‘It is from Rivendell.’
‘That’s the High Elves, right? You told me that once.’
‘Yes, the Elves of Rivendell are mostly Noldor, though there may be a few others. It is the Last Homely House, and Lord Elrond welcomes all travelers who come in peace, Elves, Dwarves, wizards, even Hobbits.’
They sat silent again. Bilbo mulled over the tale of the Khazâd and the Dark Elves. Dark are the creatures that wander in the shadows and darker yet are the hatreds of our hearts. How has this simple Yule visit become filled with such dire thoughts? Baggins, the dangers of the Road still dog your steps. He sipped the brandy and tried to not remember the battle.
‘Perhaps now is not the time to be mixing with strange folk, brother.’
‘Why do you say that, Rory?’
‘All the talk tonight of strange things, the odd things that have been happening, I… I begin to think a Hedge for the Shire is not such a bad thing.’
‘You cannot keep the Troubles away with hawthorn, brother.’
‘No, I know that, but perhaps we need not offer a bridge for it to reach us, either.’
‘I think we can avoid both hedge and bridge, Rory. Perhaps we should be more careful of what lies beyond the Shire, but we should work against divisions within it. Cantankerous kin notwithstanding.’
Rory chuckled a little and sipped. ‘This is true, Bilbo, and I would not wish to close out the Dwarves. They are good folk, at least those whom you’ve brought around.’
‘Which is exactly one Dwarf!’ Bilbo laughed back. ‘I like the Dwarves, Rory, but they are no better and no worse than anyone else. Dalin is a jolly fellow, but he is also quite young in their reckoning. The older Dwarves are more dour. Though no less good-hearted. With Dalin’s news, I think we will need to be looking West, not East or South.’
‘I am not looking any further than tomorrow and Wintermark,’ Rory grumbled, draining his glass. Bilbo followed suit, then held out his own for more. Rory obliged. Some time passed, then Rory looked over at Bilbo.
‘What Dalin and you said about the Sun,’ he asked in a half-joking tone, ‘that wasn’t true now, brother, was it?’
‘What parts of it?’
‘That there was a time without the Sun?’
Bilbo studied the candle light through the brandy for a bit, then took a large sip. ‘Yes, Rory, I do believe it is true. I read and heard such things when I first stayed in Rivendell, and then I spoke with Gandalf about this on our journey back from Erebor. I spoke with Elves on the return stay in Rivendell. They are very wise, and there was an Elf there who could tell me of the day she first saw the Sun. It first rose in the west. There once was a time in Middle-earth when there was neither Moon nor Sun, only the stars of the heavens.’
‘Could… could it happen again? I mean, a time without the Sun?’
‘If times go wrong enough, brother, yes, it is possible. Though I do not think it likely. I asked Gandalf the same question, and he did not think it worth worrying over.’ Though he himself was silent and brooding all day afterwards, and cast many glances South. Wizard, where are you when I need to speak to you? Bilbo drew on his pipe, and blew a few smoke rings.
The cousins sat quietly, finishing their pipes and their brandies. Bilbo set the empty glasses on their tray, and Rory snuffed out the candles. They walked back to the family corridor with an arm around each other, lost in their own thoughts. They kissed each other good night, and retired.
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