Fic: The Apprentice – Part 3 of 4

Thorin is uncertain of the etiquette of these things. But he feels – perhaps – shy about getting up to wash himself in the bath until Dervil is breathing deep with sleep. The water is long cold, so he only crouches gingerly and splashes, before getting out again. He rinses too the corner of the drying sheet he used to wipe off with earlier.

He is hungry, and there is yesterday’s barley stew still in the pot. But he cannot eat without his guest, surely, and his guest is asleep.

He resigns himself to hunger, and turns to go back to bed.

Dervil is not asleep – the faint starlight from around the shutters reveals him up on one elbow, covers pooled around his waist.

“I’m hungry,” Thorin says quietly. “Do you want some cold stew?”

“Yes. Thanks,” Dervil says.

Thorin lights a taper on a coal in the stove, then lights a candle with the taper. Dervil blinks at him like someone craning to see across a vast distance. He stays up on his elbow and watches Thorin as he goes about fetching the crockery and dishing up. Thorin is left rather wishing he were wearing his nightshirt. But then, he has no spare to offer a guest.

He returns to bed with the candle and the food, and throws the covers over his lap.

As they eat, Dervil’s arm bumps his, and Thorin shifts away to give him more room. Dervil lays the whole palm of his hand on Thorin’s arm, and smiles.

When they are done, Thorin sets their bowls aside on the floor. Dervil lies down again.

Thorin lifts the candle and looks down. There is a naked youth reclining on his pillow, gazing up at him complacently.

Thorin blows the candle out.


The pallet is hardly sized for two, and Thorin sleeps poorly – short of violence, it is not clear what is to be done about Dervil’s encroaching elbows and knees.

He permits himself to abandon the attempt at sleep just after dawn. The disrepute of the room in the morning light is pointed: bowls on the floor, discarded clothes in every which place, the bath abandoned. He tidies, washes up, drags the bath outside and tips it in the sump pit in the yard. Dervil sleeps peacefully on, his face and bare shoulder serene in the light from the open door. So there seems no harm in doing more – sweeping up the floor, for instance.

He is hungry. It is not too rude to break his fast already, is it? He has a sausage to char on the fire, and some yesterday’s bread. Dervil could always eat his half later. He throws some kindling on the coals.

An hour-bell sounds, distant in the town square. Thorin decides to resolve the problem by shaking Dervil’s arm. “Wake up,” he says. “There’s some sausage to eat in a minute.”

Dervil murmurs, and rolls on to his back, blinking. He runs his palm up Thorin’s arm.

“Your clothes are on the end of the bed,” Thorin says, and goes to get up. But Dervil’s hand tightens at his elbow.

Dervil flips the covers back, away from his hips.

It is strange how absolutely Thorin is compelled to cooperate. The lad’s hard cock leaps at his touch – it is under the same spell.

Thorin has been kissed on the mouth before, but not in this lewd way with tongues. It takes some getting used to – there is some confusion about the role of teeth, and working out whose tongue’s turn it is – but it is very agreeable.

How like battle lovemaking is proving to be: the jerking, shocky brightness of everything – the loss of all thought but that of the present moment.

Thorin very nearly takes a cheeky wad of spunk to the chin in the end, though he jerks away at the last second. Dervil’s beaming face is barely sorry at all.


They are late opening the smithy that morning. They find young Oswald waiting outside the gate, looking curious. There is no mistaking that it was locked last night with Dervil on the inside.

“He did himself in yesterday, and fell asleep here,” Thorin says. Then he realises that only a day ago he would not have deigned to explain. Then he suppresses a strong urge to explain further.

Dervil is still in a state from yesterday, last night’s bath notwithstanding – he is walking like the crossbar of his shoulders has fused solid. Thorin starts him off fetching and carrying.

He feels curiously aware of Dervil as he moves around the smithy, as though the young man’s body has begun to radiate unusual heat. Again this is like battle – the way one may track a particular enemy in a melee. And Thorin finds him noticing a thousand small opportunities where he might plausibly touch the lad, though he takes care not to avail himself of any of them.

By the next hour-bell, Dervil is still slow and hunched. So Thorin has him jump up and hang by his hands, moaning quietly, off the eaves of the smithy’s porch.

Oswald has been buoyed by the spectacle of Dervil’s comedown today, and now adopts a grand stance as he condescends to chop some wood.

Dervil cannot stay up there long. His soft cry of dismay alerts Thorin, who turns around in time to see him fall, his knees buckle, and his backside hit the dirt. Thorin sets his work down and goes to offer him a hand up. Dervil looks at the hand as though it is a bucket of boiling oil, but takes it, and grits his teeth and closes his eyes as Thorin pulls him to his feet.

“Any better?” Thorin says, as Dervil brushes off himself off.

“Maybe?”

“Well,” Thorin says, “there comes a time when kindness is no longer kindness.” And he waves Oswald away from the wood, and sets Dervil to it instead.

Thorin returns to the forge, and brings Oswald inside too, that Dervil may muster his dignity as best he can.

The rhythm of the blocksplitter, as Thorin overhears it at the forge, never reaches the speed he would like. After a time, it becomes perilously slow. After that, far too fast and shallow.

Thorin puts his work down again. This will be the second time he has to reheat the same incomplete weld; he’ll be lucky if it doesn’t shatter. He goes outside. “All right, all right,” he says, and catches the blocksplitter in mid-air. Dervil surrenders it instantly, arms falling limp. “Come inside.”

He sets Dervil to confirming the tallies in the old smith’s accounts. The lad is puzzled, but does it. When Thorin checks back in with him, he has all right but one, but the one quite spectacularly wrong. So Thorin shows him how to estimate first by roughly adding the largest numbers, so that he might check his total against the estimate.

Then Thorin gives him the receivables, the payables and the cash ledger, and asks him how much a particular townsman owed the old smith. Dervil mutinies at last. “What do you want to know that for?” he scoffs. “He’ll never pay now.”

“If you’re to be the master here after I’m gone, you will need to keep books,” Thorin says.

“Who says I am?” Dervil says.

“Do you not wish to be?” Thorin is confounded.

Dervil gives no reply, only slumping in his seat.

Thorin cannot see what else to say, so pushes on. He sends Dervil into town to obtain quotes for packing their finished blades for delivery. He wishes to compare the price of ready-made chests and packing from the carter with the cost of making up their own from planks and rags.

“You are most keen to be rid of us, it seems,” Dervil says.

“We’ve less than a turn of the moon left on the contract,” Thorin says, “as it has always been.”

Dervil leaves without further remark.

Oswald has been lurking, wide-eyed, just at the edge of Thorin’s line of sight, for a while. Now Thorin turns to him.

Oswald sees Thorin’s expression and dashes back to work like a pack of dogs is after him.


Dervil returns late from his errand, and repeats the numbers the merchants gave him in a flat voice.

The carter has given two quotes for ready-made chests; the cheaper one is if they’re also paying him to transport them, which is what Thorin envisaged. Thorin puts it to the lads: “It’ll be a few coins less in your final pay. But we’ll be running behind as it is. My view is, banging up crates ourselves is just a rod for our backs.”

“It’s all the same to me,” Dervil says, surly.

“Aye,” Oswald says.

“Well, that’s settled, then,” Thorin says. His intention was to put this up for discussion, and teach them something about the business of being in trade. But it seems his gambit has fallen flat.

“If you don’t need me, I’ll be on my way,” Dervil says.

And so, for the first time in weeks, Dervil does not stay for supper with Thorin. Thorin cooks and eats alone. It certainly involves less mess and far less heckling than usual.

Afterwards, he picks up a walnut bookend he has been working on carving with Dervil. There is a sense of displacement – irrelevance. The object no longer seems to have any value outside he and Dervil’s conversation over it.

The sun is full down, and the night insects singing outside, audible now that Thorin has fallen so still.

He will go for a walk.

He pulls his boots back on. He will stay off the riverside and the main street both, so he ought to encounter neither toughs nor the night’s watch, but still – he slips a dagger into his belt, for caution.

He follows the curve of the hill downward without thinking, till the stamped-earth street gives way to cobbles, and lamplight shines behind shutters. The stars are bright as gems on a velvet ground, above. He realises he has almost walked to Dervil’s boarding house.

A curious thought: what if he could use the starlight to climb some tree outside the boarding house, and knock on Dervil’s window with the hilt of his dagger?

His mind rushes on with the rest in spite of him: inside, in the quiet dark of the bedroom, Thorin would whisper his remonstrations to Dervil for his coldness, his petulance today. Dervil would be unable to argue lest he make noise and his guest be discovered. If remonstration failed, Thorin would kiss him until he was more agreeable.

In reality, he can’t remember for certain, but Thorin is fairly sure there is no tree outside the boarding house. If there is, no doubt it is too short or too spindly to climb – he would fall and hurt himself, and rouse the household, who would probably call the watch. Also, he does not know which window is Dervil’s, and in any case, penniless Dervil no doubt shares a room – perhaps even a bed – with several other boarders.

How strange that the mind can formulate a plan that it already knows is ridiculous, and become so attached to it. What mayhem he might have wrought, had he taken a lover in his youth.

He turns away, and tracks back up the hill. Past the smithy he goes, and through the humbler outskirts of town, the ground steeper and steeper, until he’s free, out in the open on the windy hillside in the dark.

Black earth and jewels of lamplight below; deep blue sky and stars above. It could almost be a treasure cavern under a mountain.

He has become strangely involved in this contract, in life in this town, he sees. He is losing sight of his real objectives. He is not here to play the father – or anything else – to some Mannish youth.

He will be well-paid for his work here, and he had a letter from his nephews last week, saying they profit well from their labours upriver. After this, his people may well be ready to move on westward at last.

Still, a fantasy lurks in his mind. He half-imagines staying here, at the smithy, making his living casting cookware, forging tools and shoeing horses. Dervil always at his elbow, diligent and attentive. Dervil in his bed by night. It is of a kind with the fantasy about climbing to the window – ridiculous. But so sweet.


The next morning, Thorin watches the shape of Dervil’s body approach from a distance up the road. It is an easier, looser sort of shape today.

“How are you?” Thorin asks, as he lets him in the gate.

“Well enough,” Dervil says. Which is, Thorin notes with shame, rather like something Thorin would say – it is markedly unhelpful from this end.

“Will you start with the wood, or at the forge?” Thorin asks him.

“I dunno.”

Just then Oswald arrives, with a piping, “Morning!”

Thorin is mostly joking when he replies, “Do you think he should start with the wood or at the forge, since he won’t tell me?”

“At the forge to start, then come back to the wood,” Oswald declares.

“Well then,” Thorin says, “the master has spoken.”

Later that morning he has to shoo Oswald away from posing with Thorin’s hammer, though he can barely lift it. Oswald then goes outside and heckles Dervil for not chopping fast enough.

“I don’t say that,” Thorin protests.

They both smile at him – Dervil a fraction more embarrassed than Oswald.

By the afternoon, the work has picked up speed, and the two lads are beginning to compete again to see who can finish things first. Thorin is pleased, after the time they lost yesterday, and he joins in where he can.

Still, all day long Dervil is close-lipped, and Thorin struggles to make conversation.

As they’re closing up, he worries Dervil is going home again. He forces himself to speak. “Will you stay for supper?” His voice comes out with a quaver.

“All right,” Dervil says, looking down.


By the time they’ve got the stew on to cook, the silence is becoming intolerable. What is this cowardice that stills Thorin’s tongue? He must steel himself and do it.

“You were angry with me yesterday,” he forces out.

Dervil won’t meet his eye. They are side by side on the pallet. Thorin touches Dervil’s knee with the back of his knuckles.

Dervil leans in to him. “It’s only I don’t want you to leave.”

“Oh,” Thorin says. He moves his arm around Dervil – it seems awkward not to, when they are sitting so close.

“Do you have to?” Dervil says. His eyes are fixed on Thorin’s face. Thorin has a strong feeling that he should kiss him.

“I do,” he says instead. “My people are – exiles. We are on a long journey westward. We fetched up in these parts when our coin ran out. I have kin – and two nephews – waiting for me to finish here, that we might go on.”

“Where did you come from?”

“Have you heard of the Lonely Mountain?” Thorin says. The old fist of sorrow closes on his heart.

“No.”

“It lies far east and north of here, beyond the Misty Mountains. It is a single mountain that stands alone on a plain, beside a great and beautiful lake. We lived there, under the mountain, as miners. But we were driven out.”

“By bandits?” There is a certain boyish excitement under the sympathy in his tone.

“Of a kind,” Thorin says.

“And you have nephews?”

“Two. My sister’s boys. I taught them everything they know of smithcraft – but I must say they are not as attentive pupils as you.”

Dervil smiles, and Thorin goes to tousle his hair – but Dervil resists. They begin to wrestle. The sorrow has lifted. Dervil stares up at him as they wrestle. Thorin feels again the very strong urge to kiss him. He pushes Dervil onto his back on the pallet, the better to wrestle, and also kiss, him. The wrestling is a touch uncomfortable, between leather, studs, buckles, and the like. “Why do you have your boots on in my bed?” Thorin demands, and begins to wrestle Dervil’s off, while Dervil laughs and struggles.

He can smell the stew boiling, so he gets up to see to it. Dervil lets out such a complaint at the loss of him, that Thorin feels it in his stones. “I shall return,” he says forcefully.

He scrapes down the sides of the boiling pot, stirs it well, and closes the vents on the stove to reduce the heat.

When he turns around again, Dervil is naked to the waist, bootless and beltless, staring. Thorin takes his time returning, and taking a seat on the pallet to remove his own boots. Dervil’s stare is so pleasing that Thorin carries on and takes the rest of his own clothes off, and then Dervil’s breeches off – which makes Dervil wriggle like a fish. Then they have a most enjoyable wrestle, unclothed, with kissing.

Thorin is on top of Dervil, clasped between his thighs. “Will you bugger me?” Dervil says, squeezing with his knees.

Thorin is beyond dissimulation. “Oh,” he says, “by all means, if you’ll show me how.”

“You never have?” Dervil says, as if he means to laugh.

“No,” Thorin says. It seems too late for embarrassment.

“How old are you?” Dervil demands.

“Older than your father would be,” Thorin says, with a grin. He wants to kiss Dervil, but he can’t reach when they’re clinched hip to hip.

“But do you want to?” Dervil says, as if this could be in doubt.

“I’m sure I do,” Thorin says. “I only require guidance.”

“All right, then,” Dervil says. “Let’s roll over.”

And so Thorin learns of a new use for his ointment, and the need for some coaxing of the necessary place into a state of relaxation. Dervil undertakes this himself at first, but then recruits Thorin’s larger fingers. “You know,” Dervil says rather dreamily, “if you do this to me a lot, it will become much easier.”

“By all means,” Thorin says. His voice sounds distant to him.

Then they are doing it – trying to actually get the sword into the sheath. There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing at first – Dervil can sit on it a little way, but then gasps unhappily and retreats a while, only to come back and try a little deeper. Thorin holds himself outwardly, perfectly still, while his insides turn to roiling flame.

How vertiginously strange to see himself disappear inside Dervil this way – Dervil’s body like a split fruit, and Thorin the cleaving knife.

Oh, but how the body knows what to do, once he gives it permission. That instinct to clutch, to drive it in. “Yes,” Dervil croons.

Thorin may never have been in so much agreement with anyone.


“Can’t believe that’s the first bolt you’ve sunk!” Dervil says, afterwards, flopping onto his back.

Thorin shifts; he is sticking to the sheets with sweat. “We have very few women among our kind,” he protests.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Dervil says. “Do I look like a woman?”

“No,” Thorin says. “But it never occurred to me before –”

“Before you met me?”

“Yes.” Thorin fears he is going to blush. But in fact it is Dervil who turns his face away, pink.

Thorin traces the curve of Dervil’s rib with a finger, which makes him squirm slightly.

“Am I any good at it, then?” Thorin says.

“Not bad,” Dervil says.

 

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