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The Eastern Clans

Ciryaher

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A rather sullen, young dwarf ruffled through a stack of papers and glanced over his shoulder to make sure that nobody had snuck in to the chamber while he had picked up his papers. Grumbling, he sorted through the stack and put them back in order being sure to calm his wits with occaisional sips of mead. Running his hand across his lips, he set the now-sorted stack down on his small table and looked up just in time to see a blue-haired dwarf standing in front of him. "Yes?" he grouched, "Oh, huh, you must be here for the council." He hummed to himself irritatedly and adjusted his beard, "Go right in. Take this paper, and DON'T LOSE IT!" He pushed a paper into the other's hand and waved him on, directing him to the opening over his shoulder with a jerk of his head.

The other dwarf looked at the paper briefly before stepping by and into the room, taking a slow look around. There was a vast, oaken table surrounded by pleasantly upholstered chairs and the air smelled faintly of mead, which made sense because there was also a large barrel of the stuff very near to the door along with a large platter of breads and cheeses. After a moment of consideration, he picked up a plate and mug and helped himself before moving to the table and kicking his feet up onto it, leaving the plate in his lap and mug in one hand. "I'm the first one here, it seems. I might as well enjoy myself as I wait," he said to himself, taking a bite of bread and a swig of mead.
 

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Not very long after that, a portly, middle-aged, vacant expression wearing Dwarf came waddling into the first room. He was absentmindedly kicking a good sized mace with his foot as he walked with his nose in the air. Once standing in front of the small desk, pointing to the next room ---> "I smell food. Is it in that room, sir? Oh, excuse me. This is where we come if we want to help with the new expedition, isn't it?" The little guy would then notice that he did not radiate the best qualities of Dwarves by his actions, lower his head respectfully, and throw his mace awkwardly onto his shoulder.
 

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Catching the elder's glare, Zûbrim removed his feet from the table and folded his hands on his lap briefly before rising to his feet. "Well," he began, clearing his throat, "There are four of us here...perhaps there will soon be more. I'll warrant there'll be more than this lot for such a great mission." He seemed a little disappointed in the small congregation, but went on, "I don't mind talking about the same thing twice...so...as you know, we're to find one of the eastern clans...the Ironfists, I believe the manuscript said...and recover the lost art of forging khôvi stones. The smiths here," he peered around at those present, "Are sure to be greatly interested in that."

He began to pace as he stuck his thumbs into his belt and puffed out his chest a bit. With a haughty glance, he looked at those present, "Well I, for one, am not. I'm here to get you there, us there, and get that secret back here intact. That is all. We'll all become fabulously rich, of course, which is good, but more importantly we'll re-establish contact with our lost brethren. It has been so many long years since Mahal woke us and we first met the Elves; we had little contact with the East to begin with, and none now." He took a swig of mead at this point, then continued, "And we are going to rectify that. Questions?"
 

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After getting confirmation from the Dwarf in the adjoining room (and a snack), Boffin took a seat and tried his pathetically best to look like the others. Listening to Zubrim's briefing, he was reminded of how much he admired the typical Dwarvish way of speaking. The honesty, the quick, efficient wording. He wanted to ask when they were supposed to leave, too, but after hearing that, he practiced what he thought were judicial gazes. When the older Dwarf shot out his question, Boffin tried to hide his fear that, if he didn't know, he would be seen as useless again.

In an attempt to be as forceful and determined as the Dwarves that he admired, Boffin stood with a small bow towards his elder and said ---> "I have not, sir, and I am skeptical as well, but this expedition is not being organized primarily for that purpose. Yes, to acquire more knowledge of this form of art would be a great boon for our craftsmen. The reunion with our lost brethren should demand the bulk of our attention, as our host has pointed out." The words felt unnatural in his mouth, and after saying them, he sat quickly to chide himself for speaking at all just yet.
 

Ciryaher

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Zûbrim nodded quickly to Boffin, "Indeed, you are quite correct. Think of the new trade routes that could be established by reuniting the two clans with the bonds of fellowship." He paused momentarily and gazed around the room, seeming to rock back and forth on his feet. Clearing his throat, he made a vague, uncertain gesture and said, "Well...perhaps we should become acquainted with one another if we are to travel together...I am Zûbrim, son of Zûbrin, and with my knowledge of travel, I will serve as your guide on this journey." Looking back and forth between the others, he gestured to them, "Might I have the pleasure of knowing your names?"
 

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Dvarim

Erdin, one of the top generals of the Ered Luin, looks upon his personal unit of elite soldiers as they complete their daily exercises, pride shining vibrantly in his eyes. Each member of the company he had carefully selected, based on what they could contribute to the unit. Whereas other generals might have had personal units with more overall talent, Erdin's was without a doubt the most effective in combat, for each soldier knew his place and performed his assigned role. As they complete laps during this sleepy predawn hour, that group mentality shows. The troops run in a pack, their boots sounding on the stone floor in perfect unison. Erdin smiles, basking in the joy of what he has created.


But suddenly, there comes a dissonant noise. One soldier begins to lag behind the others, his boots striking out their own, flawed rhythm. Erdin's smile fades. Already he knows the soldier's name. This time is not the first that he has disrupted the general's perfect order. The last lap is completed, and the soldiers gather in a knot to await General Erdin's further instructions. The commander approaches, his eyes intently focused on the straggler.

Dvarim, he is called. He is old, hobbled, an artifact from a bygone era. In this moment he stands bent over, hands on his knees, his breathing ragged. The others look at him from the corners of their eyes. Some feel bad for him, others are merely annoyed. All know how Erdin feels on the matter. He stands right before Dvarim. The old soldier looks up at the general, his eyes narrowed in a fierce glare. He is trying to fend Erdin off with a gaze alone, his determined squint a threat in itself.

At one time this tactic would have worked. Dvarim's glare could have given pause to an entire army. But now there is something lacking within those eyes. The power that once lay behind them is gone, its remnants found only in the dusty, faded scrolls in which Dvarim's accomplishments are recorded. Erdin does not fear him. He dismisses the others to breakfast in the mess hall, and takes Dvarim with him to his office for a talk.

They sit and face each other, their wills locked in a silent battle before their tongues join the fray.

"You are become a distraction to my unit, Dvarim," says the general. "Not only do you slow them down, but you divert their thoughts from their duties. They wonder daily now whether you shall be able to complete your exercises without keeling over, or whether you shall soon be in need of a cane to stand erect. In short, their minds are stuck on you, and while I've no doubt that all of this attention pleases you greatly, it is cutting into my company's efficiency."

Dvarim's nostrils flare and his teeth grind together. He is not about to take this assault on his pride lying down. "You are the one whose mind is distracted, General. You wish to create a fighting unit without flaw, but such a company cannot exist. So you look for a convenient soldier to blame when all does not function perfectly. You target me because of my age! Now all your thoughts are set upon removing me from your company, and so you invent reasons for my dismissal that do not truthfully exist!"

Erdin shakes his head. "Your pride blinds you to the truth. The time has come for your retirement, Dvarim. Give up this game, for you are fooling none save yourself."

"Retire! Do you think me that useless? Transfer me to another unit, then, if you have so little faith in my abilities. I can guarantee you that dozens of companies would be honored to have me as a member."

"Only because of your reputation, Dvarim, not because of what you can contribute to them. Your will and arrogance remain strong, but your body has little left to give. I believe that if you continue to participate in the daily exercises of the army, they will surely be the end of you. Such a dishonorable death that would be, for your heart to fail during a routine jog. Therefore, I shall not transfer you, for your own safety, if nothing else."

Dvarim's eyes widen. "What sort of grudge have you against me, that you would hold my future hostage?"


Erdin closes his eyes and shakes his head. "You have no future, Dvarim. That is the truth that I am trying to make you see."

These words shock Dvarim to the very core, and for a time there is silence between the two. At last, the general speaks again.

"There are two ways that we can go about handling this matter. Either you retire voluntarily, receive a grand send-off befitting a soldier of your tenure and caliber, and take up a comfortable position as a military adviser to our lord, or I discharge you from the service, you receive no recognition for your years in the army, and live out the rest of your life tainted by dishonor. Which shall it be?"

Dvarim sputters, enraged by the impertinence of this general. Such disrespect to him, a hero of the Ered Luin! "How dare you!"

Erdin nods slowly. "You are not prepared to make the decision now, I understand. I hereby dismiss you for the remainder of today. Come back here tomorrow morning with your answer."

Dvarim shoves back his chair and shoots to his feet, and for a moment it seems that he might strike General Erdin across the face. Erdin stands as well, slowly, calmly. He has dealt with stubborn old soldiers before. He knows enough to show Dvarim that he is not intimidated. Their stand-off continues for a few moments before Dvarim turns abruptly and marches out, slamming the office door behind him. Erdin sits, and without another thought of the elderly soldier sets to reading over some paperwork that has recently arrived on his desk. Something about an expedition to the East...
 

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Dvarim, Part 2

That evening, Dvarim sat at the bar of the Ale Beard Tavern, alongside Thuri, perhaps the only fellow that he could truly call a friend. The two of them had come up through the army together, though now they served in separate elite units. For a time, they casually spoke of inconsequential things, but after a few drinks Dvarim cast their chit-chat aside and cut right to the point that had been troubling him.


"General Erdin is tryin' to force me into retirement," he said dourly, slumped on his barstool and gazing wearily at the bottles that stood on proud display upon shelves behind the bar.

Thuri glanced over at his old comrade with a hint of a scowl beneath his gray beard. "And who's he to sway your hand on the matter?"

Dvarim grumbled, "Says that I'm distractin' the others... says that I can't contribute any more."

"Well do you think that's true?"

"Of course not!" spat Dvarim immediately, sitting up on his stool. "He just has somethin' against me... never could handle that my name was more famous than his..."


Thuri paused, looking thoughtful as he took a sip from his mug. "Well, you know, you can't stay in the army forever."

"Nae..." Dvarim slumped again.

"At our age, it's something to keep in mind. We're blessed with a long life, our kind. And most of that life we spend in top shape... but I suppose the trade-off is that we lose hold of our abilities all too quickly, perhaps before we even realize that they're slipping away from us."

Dvarim glanced at his friend warily, and it was clear that he was a bit tipsy. "Are you sayin' somethin' about me, Thuri?"

Thuri shook his head. "It happens to all of us, friend. It might be happening to you now, but I don't know that for certain. My point is... you have to be aware when that time comes, for most assuredly it must. Such is Mahal's design..."

Thuri trailed off, and between the two friends there was silence as the raucous sounds of their fellow patrons filled the air. Dvarim's head gradually lowered to the table, and for a moment he appeared to be dozing, but in a sudden, violent movement, he lifted his entire body erect once again, and all of his pride welled up in him as he turned to Thuri and spoke.

"There was a time... in battle... when I raised my axe up high... all of the troops who could see it would flock to me." With these words Dvarim emphatically jabbed his index finger into his chest, his voice straining. "To me! And they would charge behind my blade. You were along with them, Thuri... do you not remember?"


"Aye," spoke Thuri, nodding with a sad, nostalgic smile upon his wizened features. "There are many yet alive who have not forgotten those days."

"But now..." said Dvarim, turning away from Thuri, glancing about the tavern and all of its inhabitants as if he were lost, "Who would come to my side now? Who would heed my call?"

Thuri placed a steady hand upon Dvarim's shoulder. "Never have my ears been deaf to you, Dvarim. I shall stay beside you in whatever is to come."

Dvarim lowered his gaze to the dirty floorboards beneath his stool. "Erdin wants a decision from me by tomorrow morning."

"Then give it him," said Thuri. "But consider all things beforehand. You must strive to look upon yourself and your condition without obstruction. Only then can you know for certain whether it is your time to retire."


Dvarim nodded slowly, and he seemed sobered now. "Thank you Thuri, for your kindness and wisdom. I shall think long upon this matter tonight."

Thuri nodded silently and withdrew his hand. The two old soldiers finished their drinks and then left the bar.

---

Upon the next morning, Dvarim entered General Erdin's office with his head held high. The general was behind his desk, and stood as his second-in-command entered.


"It appears that you have your decision made," said Erdin, "and I have little doubt as to which path you've chosen. But before you speak your choice, I would request a few words in advance. They just might alter your course of action."


Dvarim raised one of his bushy gray brows, but nodded. "Speak, then."

The general strode out slowly from behind his desk, hands clasped behind his back. "Yesterday, I spoke harshly to you. Though I felt it necessary at the time, perhaps I was overly aggressive in presenting you with that ultimatum. I should think that neither of those choices would seem appealing to you. Now, however, an opportunity has presented itself that would give us room for compromise."

Dvarim folded his arms across his broad chest and tilted his head to the side. This gesture was Erdin's indication to continue.


"I have recently received word of an expedition to the lands of the East. Seems that there's some interest in communing with one of the tribes that has settled out there. The reasoning is that we could swap some secrets that would be beneficial to both of our realms. Now... as of this moment, the members of this expedition are still in need of a military escort. The lord's council wants me to select the leader of this escort."

Erdin smiled slightly. "Of course you can see where I'm headed now. Here's my compromise for you: I appoint you the leader of the escort. Your name lends credibility to this expedition, and you receive further accolades for your service to our realm. After your return from the East, you settle into a comfortable retirement. Now how does that sound?"

Dvarim took a few steps forward, contemplating. He did not appreciate the general's condescending tone. Despite the fact that Erdin framed it as a compromise, this plan was simply a different way of forcing Dvarim out of his unit. And yet... it was the best choice of action available to the old dwarf. General Erdin was set against him, that much was evident. This expedition would provide Dvarim with a greater opportunity to cement his legacy than toiling under Erdin would, certainly.


So it was that with only trace signs of reluctance Dvarim acquiesced. "How large must this escort be?"

Erdin smiled wide, sensing his victory. "Not large. Four others, I’d say, to be selected by yourself."


Dvarim nodded. "I shall set to work on this task with all due diligence. My thanks for this opportunity."

His words sounded without emotion, echoing dully off of the office walls. Dvarim turned his back on the general, and departed.

---

Dvarim assembled the escort quickly. Thuri was the obvious choice to be his lieutenant, and while Erdin would not offer any of his cogs to serve under Dvarim, Thuri’s commander generously volunteered another three of his best dwarves to complete the small unit. These three had little time to get acquainted with their new commander, for the council on the expedition was soon upon them. They arrived late in the council chamber, their tardiness somewhat strange for a group of soldiers. Still, it appeared that they hadn’t missed much. There were only four other dwarves in the chamber when the five infantrymen marched in, and it appeared that these others had only just begun to introduce themselves.


“A good thing they brought us in,” thought Dvarim as he glanced over the four other dwarves. “This group doesn’t appear fit to defend itself.”

It was indeed a sorry lot... a scrawny bluebeard, a pudgy fellow with a mace, a fuzz-faced, overeager looking youth, and a graybeard who appeared to be even older than Dvarim. Once the bluebeard was finished introducing himself as Zûbrim, all eyes went to the five newcomers. Dvarim cleared his throat.

“Greetings... we have been assigned as your escort for this expedition. I am called Dvarim... I command these troops.” He turned to his right and introduced the other four on down the line. “Thuri, Halak, Kiril, and Malkin. We are all at your service.”


The five soldiers rose from their chairs, bowed low, and then sat down once again.
 

YayGollum

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Boffin lowered his head with embarrased appreciation to Zubrim, was about to stand and introduce himself, but shifted uncomfortably in his seat and stuffed his mouth with more bread when the troops entered. As if he didn't feel foolish enough already! He briefly considered trying to back out of the expedition then but knew that his shame would plague him for years to come. He truely wished to be seen as a helpful member of Dwarf society, and this Zubrim didn't seem to have been disgusted by his last contribution, so he set his jaw and stood again.

At the new Dwarves, then towards Zubrim and the others, starting to look hesitant when he starts to talk about himself ---> "We are deeply honored and encouraged by your presence. From what I know of our path, your talents will be most appreciated. Ah, and I am Boffin, a sort of, um, diplomat, you could say, and a wanderer myself. I have spent many years studying some of the strange cultures we might encounter. Eager to reach our lost brothers."
 

Ciryaher

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Zûbrim made an appreciative gesture and nodded to Dvarim, "Greetings to you and your soldiers. I am sure that they will have much opportunity to prove their skill on this journey, and the rewards that we will surely reap will be much appreciated." The dwarf paused and looked to the old dwarf and his young companion, "And what might you say of yourself, comrade?"
 

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A brief silence followed the final introductions, and Dvarim, somewhat annoyed at this pause in the proceedings, leaned forward on the council table, placing his right hand on his hip. He had not wanted to get overly involved in these preliminary deliberations, but it seemed that with this group, strong leadership was sorely lacking.

"So... down to business, then. My troops and I know little of this expedition's aims, save that if all goes as it should, we shall meet with our long-lost kin in the Eastern Lands. Of course, you are all aware that these realms are clear on the other side of Arda. Unless someone has managed to arrange an eagle transport for us, it shall be quite the march! What is our path, then?"

He cast his old commander's eyes on Zûbrim, and his gaze in that moment seemed to weigh the fellow's worth.

"You seem to be the one in charge of things. Perhaps you'd care to map out the proposed route for us?"

Thuri smiled faintly beneath his beard as Dvarim spoke. Age clearly had taken nothing from his friend. He was still just as lively and combative as ever, especially when the situation called for a strong personality. This expedition ought to be good for him... one last opportunity to command before nature made its final claim on him. Thuri settled back comfortably into his chair and carefully watched Zûbrim's reaction to Dvarim's words.
 

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Zûbrim nodded and stepped towards a map, seeming to be quite in his element now that he could point something out. He ran his finger along an east-west chain of mountains and tapped on the center as he spoke, "The Grey Mountains, and here is Gundabad, which is quite infested with the orcs, despite our best efforts. The best route to take, I believe, would be to cut across northern Eriador to the Emyn Uial, travel south into the warmer--and safer--lands, and then go east once again to cut through Hollin and pass through Khazad-Dum for a time of rest and rethinking. Beyond that, I cannot say for the time being. I will need to know more of the weather and the...political situation to make a plan from there."

He took a breath and a drink of mead, then went on, "As I said, I am an outdoorsman. I will have no quarrel with leaving the fight to you and your troops, nor will I have a quarrel with you leading in situations...but if I may, sir, I insist that I make the final call on where we go." He beamed with pride and added, "It is my specialty."
 

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Even though he had very recently been trying to look as Dwarvish as possible, he mind started to wander back to the forests and a particular lesson of Sindarin. He was staring off into a corner, munching contentedly on cheese, when he saw Zubrim head for a map that he probably missed noting on his way in. Since the stuffiness of the stone halls were constantly making him feel cramped, he eagerly leaned in a bit to look at the map. He rearranged his face again to look grittily stubborn, crossed his arms, and quickly threw together a suitable Dwarf sounding remark ---> "When do we leave? I assume that you will arrange for supplies and mounts."
 

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As Zûbrim finished his speech, Dvarim displayed one of those wily grins that only veterans could properly manage, with but a hint of a glint in his eyes as he took in the blue-bearded guide. He had made his little test, and Zûbrim had performed admirably, displaying an encouraging confidence in his navigational skills. Dvarim had been somewhat hunched over the conference table, but now he leaned back slightly from it, speaking with a slightly less forceful air.

"Of course, I shall do my duty and take control of the situation when it is called for. My troops and I are here to ensure that none of you others have to trouble yourselves with self-defense. Should we encounter a hostile group, you need only stay behind us, and we shall handle them for you."

It was a bold claim to make, but Dvarim was never one to hedge on his assertions. He had full confidence in himself and in his subordinates, though he had met three of them only a few hours previous. That self-assurance shone through in his prideful appearance, as he sat erect in his chair and fashioned his gray features into a supremely noble look.

As Boffin spoke, the soldiers seemed to look a tad uneasy, and all of their discomfort could be traced to one word: "mounts." As good, old-fashioned dwarvish infantrymen, they had a healthy distrust for anything with more than two legs. Kiril and Halak in particular had some choice remarks on the idea of riding ponies across the land, but neither of them chose to speak ahead of Dvarim, their new commander, for they knew not how he would react. Kiril noticeably had to bite his tongue, however.

Dvarim felt the displeasure of his troops, and spoke for them.

"It is a long journey that we are making, I am aware. But are mounts a necessity? There is, after all, no cavalry unit in the Ered Luin. My troops and I are not familiar with beasts of burden, and I should think that we would all be far more comfortable making this trek on our own two feet."
 

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Zûbrim rubbed his beard and looked from Boffin to Dvarim, then spoke slowly, "It would be easier for us to use beasts to carry our supplies and walk ourselves. However, Master Boffin, if you would like to ride at the pace of our footsteps, you are quite welcome to do so. It is not as though we would gallop across the lands at any rate." He cleared his throat and gestured to the door, "But as far as arrangements go, I have already done so for beasts of burden, foodstuffs and sundry. I am certain that all of you will be satisfied with the adequacy of supplies, but still we will be sparing and not indulge ourselves. Hope for the best and expect the worst, that's my motto."

Sitting down, the dwarf took another long drink and then looked at Dvarim first, then to each of the others in turn, "I believe we are adequately prepared for what lies ahead...it is now but one hour past sunset. Let us go and prepare our own affairs and be ready to leave from the Upper Eastern Gate an hour prior to dawn. Shall we say that is acceptable and take action upon it, then?"
 

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Boffin looked at Dvarim with innocent surprise when the Dwarf displayed hesitance over the need for mounts. Boffin had always loved ponies, especially Pooftop, the one given to him by an elvish friend of his. They were a large convenience for him, mostly because he tired more quickly than other Dwarves. He stood up and guarded his face with a more Dwarvish look of skepticism.

A grateful nod was tossed at Zubrim, then ---> "Thank you. I shall, um, prepare for the journey." With a nod towards the others, he snagged a bit more of the food and headed for the door. He halted suddenly when he saw that noone else was leaving yet. While standing near the door and waiting to discover if there would be much else to say, he wondered to himself how exactly the average Dwarf would prepare for this journey.

His first thoughts were to find a good meal, then sleep until it was time to go. He tried to make his musings look more intelligent as he replayed everything that he had said to these Dwarves. Did he seem Dwarvish enough? Could any of them effortlessly see through his deceptions? Or had he overplayed it and fooled them into believing that he was a bit too standoffish? He nibbled quietly as he pondered self-doubtedly.
 

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Dvarim nodded, and with a push on the table and a slight groan he rose to his feet, at which the other four soldiers stood as well.

"Tomorrow, then. I wish you all a good night," he said cordially, and led the procession of infantrymen to the door. Each soldier gave Boffin a glance as they passed him on the way out.

Of course, Dvarim was not done with his troops for the evening. Before the council they had agreed to convene at the Ale Beard Tavern after the meeting was through, so as to further discuss the journey amongst themselves. The group managed to secure a table in the back of the establishment, which offered a fair degree of privacy. The group ordered a round of drinks, and as their serving lass was making her way off, Kiril gave a tug at her skirt.

"And a pork pie for me, if you'd be so kind!" he said with a devilish grin. She nodded warily in response and hurried off before he could make another grab at her.

Dvarim leaned forward on the table, his eyes scanning the group before he spoke. "So then... the parameters of our journey have been outlined for us. What say the lot of you?"

"It's a long trip to make," said Kiril as his brow creased. "I should hope that they'll pay us good coin for it."

Dvarim nodded. "I have spoken with a few members of the lord's council on this matter. They assured me that we shall be entitled to regular salary while on this assignment, to be paid upon our return, and that we shall have claim to some bonuses as well."

"Did they elaborate on what sort of bonuses those might be?" asked Thuri, stroking his gray beard with one hand and fishing out his pipe with the other.

Dvarim shook his head. "It depends on the results of the expedition. Should we secure some sort of lasting agreement with the Eastern Clans, then I should assume our reward would be greater."

"Hmmph..." grumbled Halak as the group's drinks arrived. "Well, I should hope that we get a healthy slice of the pie. Seems to me that we'll be doing most of the work when it comes to seeing this journey through. Why, just look at the rest of our party. It’s almost too funny to believe... one's too young, one's too old, one's too fat, and one's too skinny. I'm just glad that I have the four of you along, because I certainly don't trust any of those fellows to watch my back in battle."

"That is a problem," nodded Thuri as he packed his pipe. "I should think that if we were to run into any sort of large ambush, we would have great difficulty in fending it off successfully. A shame that none of the other party members could be in better fighting shape..."

"What surprises me the most," spoke young Malkin, "is that we have no one of noble blood to lead our group. When we meet with these Eastern Clans, I doubt that they shall take us all too seriously without a nobleman to serve as a representative of these mountains. In fact, I believe that they would take it as an insult, for us only to send a group of five soldiers, a guide, and three other civilians."

Kiril attacked his ale violently, guzzling down a good half of it as the others spoke. When Malkin finished speaking he grimaced and gave a look at Dvarim. "Good points all around! Sounds to me like some of these concerns should have been brought up at the council."

Dvarim scowled, and his pride flared at the suggestions that he perceived beneath Kiril's words. "Such is none of our concern. Our assignment is only to see that this expedition makes it to the East and back without casualties."

"Ahh... but you said it yourself, sir: we'll get paid better if this journey winds up a success," said Halak, siding with his friend Kiril. "Therefore, we ought to do everything we can to make sure that we make good friends with our estranged kin in the East."

"What would you suggest we do, then?" asked Dvarim, clearly bristling with annoyance.

"Well," spoke Thuri quietly, trying to calm his old friend down a bit. "You are a soldier of great stature, Dvarim. You have connections on the lord's council, aye? Perhaps you could convince one of the blue-bloods to come along with us?"

"I..." Dvarim scowled, not enjoying this marked deviation from the plan that had been laid out for him. "Well, if it aids our cause..."

Thuri nodded. "I would advise meeting with one of the council members as soon as possible. Those nobles do not like to do things on short notice, and we've precious little time before the expedition departs."

Dvarim nodded, his mind already analyzing the roster of council members, looking for one who could be easily convinced to live his comfortable life in the Ered Luin for a lengthy and dangerous journey. No... practically none of them were mad enough to make such a choice. There was only one fellow with whom Dvarim had a fighting chance. The old commander nodded again as the name came to him. He glanced to his as of yet untouched drink, and grabbed the flagon by its handle, shoving it to his lips as he stood. The four other soldiers watched in slack-jawed surprise as Dvarim knocked back his head and downed the entire drink in one pull. Once he had sucked the drinking vessel dry, he slammed it down on the table, wiped his wet lips with his arm, and tossed a couple of coins upon the table.

"I shall meet you gentlemen upon the morrow, with our noble in tow."

Dvarim marched off hurriedly, and once he was out the tavern's front door, Kiril burst out laughing. "My, my! Seems like the old fellow's quite a drinker! Who knew? Well, I'd sure like to have a few brews with him after all's said and done with this business."

"Ahhh... he'd probably drink you under the table," chuckled Halak, of course knowing that with Kiril's love of drink, it would likely be the other way around.

Malkin turned to Thuri. "Do you think that Zûbrim will be upset to find that we've brought in some extra help behind his back? This whole expedition seems to be his idea, after all."

Thuri removed his pipe from his mouth and shook his head. "Nae, nae. If he's being truthful about wanting nothing more than to show us the way there, he won't care. This noble should just be a figurehead, after all. He'll say some flowery things once we arrive in the East, and hopefully that and his lineage should be enough to suitably impress our kin. Up until that point, however, he'll just be one more piece of baggage."

Malkin smiled a bit at Thuri's description, and sipped on his ale thoughtfully.
 

Ghorim

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Dvarim had quickly made his way to the impressive estate of Froli, a noble whom he knew perhaps better than any of the others on the council. In Dvarim's distant heyday, he had frequently dined with the lord's council as an honored guest, and first met Froli when he was but a lad, attending a ceremonial dinner alongside his father, who was a respected member of the council. The young Froli, of course, had been star-struck, and pestered Dvarim with many a question on his battlefield exploits as they sat next to one another. Even as an adult he still remained an admirer of Dvarim and soldiers in general, since they were everything that he was not: fit, active, and universally respected. For though it had been many years since his father retired as the head of the lord’s council, and Froli had joined the group as a junior member, he had yet to gain the esteem of his colleagues, and was in fact the butt of many a secret joke made between council members. Dvarim chose to approach Froli for all of these reasons, for they would make his will more pliable in the matter at hand.

He concisely explained the situation to Froli as they sat in the noble’s impressive estate. The two of them rested on well-cushioned chairs near a magnificently ornate fireplace. The rotund and ruddy-faced Froli reclined in his seat and cooled himself with a small fan as the fire blazed nearby. A plate of sliced fruits and cheeses rested at the councilor’s side.

“Well!” he began in his highly ceremonial tone, “This mission, or quest, dare I say, sounds to be of the greatest importance. Nothing, I’ve always said, is more important than the blood bonds that unite all the members of our noble race, and for far too long have we allowed our Eastern brothers to drift further and further away from us, until our relations have reached such a perilous juncture! Let me simply reiterate how honored I am that you, Dvarim, hero of these mountains, celebrated leader and expert fighter, have come to me, so humble a public servant, to ask for my assistance in this pressing matter.”

“However, you must be aware that I still have domestic affairs to attend to. There is of course the issue of limiting the number of candles per household, which I have taken on as a personal project of mine. As you may know, there has been a rash of accidental fires started by candles in this city, and I’ve found in my research of the matter that most families already have more candles in their homes than they need to provide adequate light. A limit to me, therefore, seems hardly unreasonable. The council should be voting on it very soon, as my colleagues have assured me that...”

Dvarim had allowed Froli to blather on thus far in hopes that he would eventually run out of breath, but the soldier soon realized that this councilor’s tongue could easily wag on for hours and still not advance the conversation at hand. It was here, then, that he cut in.

“Councilor Froli... with all due respect to you and your concerns, I must be blunt and tell you that many consider you to be the least influential member of the lord’s council. Is this not also your impression?”

The noble’s face blanched as Dvarim spoke, and he stammered a bit in his reply. “Well! I... I... I’ve never asked about on the matter. I certainly feel that I more than pull my own weight...”

Dvarim interrupted him again. “Would not this expedition provide you with the opportunity to greatly increase your renown and prove yourself an excellent successor to your father?”

Clearly, subtlety was not Dvarim’s strong suit, but in this case it did not matter. He was laying out Froli’s most deep-seated fears in front of him, and no anxiety troubled the councilor more in the depths of the night than the thought of having an irrelevant career.

Froli’s bluster left him, and his response to Dvarim’s question was decidedly meek. “I suppose it could... but the journey is long, and I don’t consider myself much of a traveler.”

“But think of the rewards, sir. You would forever be known as the one councilor brave enough to march all the way across Arda, the councilor whose expert negotiations secured a lasting and profitable trade agreement with the Eastern Clans.”

Froli dropped his fan at Dvarim’s words, and made no effort to pick it back up. He blinked, and when his eyes once again opened they were filled with visions of himself, venerated and immortalized on history’s page, the toast of the council. Those dreams had long lain beneath the surface of his daily thoughts; he had only needed someone to stir them to the fore of his mind, as Dvarim had just done.

Dvarim smiled gently at this sight. He had known well how to argue his point, for he too was in this mission to secure his legacy. It had grown tarnished over the years, as his reputation now was that of the faded legend who refused to let go of his career. With this mission, he could prove to his detractors, General Erdin not the least among them, that he was still capable of seeing an assignment through. Aye, one last adventure for Dvarim before he succumbed to the rocking chair by the fire with its drowsy reminiscing.

He had Froli in his pocket now.

“We depart tomorrow, one hour before dawn, from the Upper Eastern Gate. Shall you be with us then?”

The councilor nodded slightly, still mesmerized by his own fantasies. “I shall.”

“Tomorrow, then,” said Dvarim as he stood. He left the mansion at a brisk pace, opening the imposing front door before one of Froli’s servants could do it for him. The barracks were his destination now, for he was much in need of rest. Within a few hours, he would rise to take on his final assignment.
 

Ciryaher

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As the others filed out of the chamber, Zûbrim remained behind, examing the map for a bit longer before running a hand over his gaunt face and beard. "Hmm... I wonder if Dvarim and his troops are going to go and fetch someone important to take with us...with their training, they should be thinking of these sorts of things," he thought out loud. Finding no answer within himself or the chamber, he shrugged and stepped out, making his way after a brisk walk to the Upper Eastern Gate.

As he stepped through the threshhold, his face was met with a cool breath of air and a pale light from the moon. Taking in some of the night air, he let it out with a sigh and walked to the stables to check on the pack animals that had been arranged as well as his own supplies. Finding all well, he sat down in a pile of straw and looked through his quiver of arrows, running an idle finger through the fletching or tapping the arrowheads against his teeth.

The night was growing old when he woke again, and all the land was blanketed in the twilight silence when Zûbrim stirred, blinking his eyes slowly before rising to his feet. Briskly, the dwarf rucked up his gear and led out the animals, picketing them a stone's throw away from the gate. Patiently, and with an apple in hand, he stood and waited for the others to begin to arrive.
 

YayGollum

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After having apparently been shoved out of the room, Boffin trundled off to toss a farewell at his family, and maybe obtain a hearty meal out of it. He plopped into bed following the uncomfortable supper with a family that had pretty much given up on him. Luckily, he had told them all about his upcoming trip. His very annoyed looking father dragged him out of bed and pointed him in the direction of the east gate. He found that his pony Pooftop had been efficiently loaded up by his family's servants and looked for a quick place to grab a bite to eat before the appointed hour.
 

Ghorim

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The soldiers scattered to their separate appointments that night, each returning to his home for one last taste of its comforts. For Dvarim, that home was the barracks. He had never taken a wife, though he had been much coveted in a time long past. A female would have only hindered him in his pursuit to perfect his deadly craft, or so Dvarim had convinced himself. He slept soundly in his bunk that night, his mind at ease.

The others departed one by one from the Ale Beard Tavern, with Kiril staying the longest, for he considered any establishment that could supply him with drink to be a home. After his comrades had all marched off into the night, he migrated from the empty table over to the bar, and found himself at the center of a colorful group of drunken characters. The soldier was in his element, somehow managing multiple conversations with his bar mates, the highly verbal tender, and the tavern lasses as they came to and from the bar to pick up drink orders. Faces came and went from his memory in blurs. His drink toll kept mounting, loosening his tongue, and sharpening his wit, or at least so he thought. He rambled incessantly about the assignment upon which he was set to embark upon the morrow, and only after several times of thoroughly describing the mission did he realize that perhaps it would be prudent to get some sleep before the long march began. So he bid farewell to all of his newfound friends, and stumbled from the tavern back to his barracks, humming an old traveling song as he went.

---

Malkin, meanwhile, enjoyed a quiet evening with his parents and younger sister, and praise rang endlessly in his ears that night, though it was tempered by some concern for his safety. The young soldier shrugged it all off, reciting the normal assurances to his family. He was serving with an excellent group of soldiers, and their guide clearly knew the safest route to take. He was struck by a peculiar feeling of nostalgia as he settled into his old bed for the night. It was a sensation that a fellow so young ought not to feel, yet it was simply too powerful for him to ignore... the quaint familiarity of the sheets, the sight of the house cloaked in nighttime shadow... they were comforts to him as he drifted into slumber.

---

Thuri had made the mistake of telling his older daughter Ingrid of his plans for departure before the council took place. She was the sort who was always looking for an excuse to round up the family for a gathering, and quickly pounced on this opportunity for a get together. When Thuri returned to her house to say one last goodbye, he found his entire extended family there to see him off in celebratory fashion: his two daughters, Ingrid and Milena, all three of his grandchildren, and a host of cousins and in-laws, some less familiar to him than others. All of this festivity annoyed the old soldier greatly, for he strove to always conduct his affairs in an austere manner, and loathed being the center of attention. Still, Ingrid’s gesture was not lost on him. For her sake, Thuri soldiered on through the evening admirably, fending off handshakes, exchanging greetings, partaking in some ale and cake, and even giving a brief speech to those assembled.

His grandchildren proved to be a handful as always, clamoring for his attention throughout the evening. He gave them each a turn on his knee and talked to them as much as could be afforded, but it seemed that nothing could appease them. At long last their bedtimes came, and their parents escorted them from the dining room to their beds. The rest of the guests took their time in departing, and it was only after several farewells that all of the extraneous party members had departed. Exhausted from all of the commotion over his imminent departure, Thuri plopped down upon Ingrid’s couch and fell fast asleep.

---

Halak’s last night in the Ered Luin proved to be far quieter. He went to the home of his mother, as he often did. She now lived the empty life of a widow, and was only able to maintain residence in her husband’s house due to Halak’s wages. He entered as quietly as his armor would allow, and glancing into the darkened dwelling saw his mother seated in her rocking chair, creaking back and forth in steady rhythm. The light source in the small home was a solitary candle, so that only the elderly dwarvish woman and her chair were visible. She seemed to exist in an abyss, about to disappear at any moment.

Halak frowned a bit and turned to his left, removing his helmet and hanging it on the third of three pegs that stuck out of the wall. He never placed his helm on the other two pegs... those forever belonged to his father and older brother. Dimly the soldier remembered when his mighty father installed the three pegs for each male in the family, back before either of the sons was in the army. Someday, they would all hang their helmets up together in a proud display of their shared profession. But that time never came, as the father fell in a campaign against the orcs shortly before Halak enlisted. Then the brother’s time came not long after, as the campaign dragged on, leaving the young Halak to preserve the crumbling remains of their family. The lad’s despondent mother was now under his sole protection. He kept her comfortable for all those years, because it was all that he was capable of doing for her... she was inconsolable, and grief at all times enshrouded her thoughts.

Halak pulled up his father’s armchair to sit in front of the rocking chair, putting his axe down on the floor.

“Good evening, mother.”

She just smiled at him emptily, still rocking back and forth. It had been like this for a few months now... Halak often worried for the state of her mind... whether she could even understand him any longer. He sighed gently, and set to informing her of the expedition east, for he had not gotten the chance to tell her of it earlier. Her smile faded as he described its length and alluded to some of the potential dangers, but he quickly moved on to the rewards that awaited him at journeys end, and how he could ensure her comfortable living for the rest of her days with the bonuses that were due to him. Of course, he did not yet know how much he would earn in bonus payments, but nonetheless spoke to his mother of the extra reward as a sizeable sum.

Her smile returned at these words, and this expression encouraged Halak to keep talking to her, describing the other party members, even telling a few jokes at their expense, anything to keep her happy. She smiled on, just enjoying the sound of her son’s voice. Soon Halak was telling her whatever popped into his mind, reminiscing on old family outings, reciting off-color jokes from the barracks, not wanting to fall silent, as his mother’s expectant and sorrowful eyes prodded him on. Eventually, however, Halak’s strength began to fail him, and his chin nodded toward his chest as he muttered on about a trip that he and Father had once taken to watch a musical performance in the main square. Finally he dozed off, in mid-sentence. The music of that distant concert haunted his dreams, distorted and off-key.

Halak’s head rose several hours later, and he found his mother still sitting before him, rocking steadily, her mournful gaze upon him. The candle had burnt itself out, and he could barely make her out in the dark. Halak rubbed his eyes and stretched, smiling gently.

“Seems that I talked myself to sleep. Did I snore?”

The continued creaking of the rocking chair was the only response to his question.

“Well... my apologies if I did.”

After a brief pause, he picked up his axe and rose to his feet. “I’d best be going. Stay strong while I am away, mother... I shall... return...”

Halak’s last sentence trailed off as his mother extended one of her feeble hands toward him. He reached out to take it gingerly, afraid that too strong a grip would crush her hand. She tugged gently, and Halak knelt before her rocking chair, looking into her eyes with a growing concern. With her other hand she reached out and stroked his beard, caressingly, still with that old mother’s touch. In her fractured mind, Halak was still her baby boy.

“Don’t,” she said hoarsely, just that word, and she repeated it.

Halak’s brow knitted, and he shook his head. “I have orders, mother. But I can make this work. I shall come back with money... money for you... I’ve already made arrangements for my regular salary to go to you while I’m away, and...”

Her gaze left his eyes, and turned toward the pegs by the door, where Halak’s lonely helmet hung. He followed her gaze, and quickly turned back to her.

“No, no... it won’t be like with them. It won’t.” He rose slightly, and leaned forward to kiss her on the forehead. “Farewell, mother... I shall not be long.”

He stood, and she gazed at him silently now, her eyes appearing to tremble. With some effort, Halak turned away from that pleading stare and marched for the door. He grabbed his helmet on the way out. Without turning to look over his shoulder, he briskly opened the portal and then shut it behind him. The soldier paused outside the house for a few moments, taking some breaths to compose himself, before proceeding at a hurried pace for the Upper East Gate.
 

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