Fic: The Apprentice – Part 4 of 4

The days are passing.

Thorin speaks with the aldermen. The old smith died without issue, his property defaulting to the town. On Thorin’s reference, they confirm they will take Dervil on to run the smithy, for a shared profit.

“Will you be his apprentice when I’m gone?” Thorin says to Oswald, at noon-day at table.

Oswald looks anguished. He throws his bread down and stalks out into the yard.

In due course, through much stammering, they confirm that this means yes.

Thereafter Dervil will sometimes tell Oswald what to do, with mixed results. Once he even ventures to tousle his hair, whereupon a small fight breaks out, and Thorin is obliged to pretend not to notice.

The old smith’s ledgers serve as an account of every service the townsfolk asked of him for the last several years. Each day they read through the ledger until they come to something Thorin has never seen Dervil do. Then Dervil must do it for him, and Thorin will critique it. Then Thorin has him explain how he will teach it to Oswald.

By night, the master is the apprentice.

They begin to take their clothes off directly after supper, without discussion – for there can be no question how they will spend the evening.

One night Thorin pushes Dervil onto his back on the pallet and says, “Will you show me how to –?” He mimes putting something in his mouth.

“Aye,” Dervil says faintly. Wonderfully, his cock stands itself up before Thorin’s very eyes. Thorin is impatient to begin.

Thorin leans over him, his hair falling on Dervil’s thighs. Thorin begins to gather his hair aside, but Dervil says, “No!” Dervil tucks only a little hair behind Thorin’s ear – just enough, Thorin realises, to leave the weight of it on Dervil’s skin, but allow Dervil to watch.

Dervil wanting to watch makes Thorin want to be watched. He keeps his eyes locked on Dervil’s all the way down as he lowers his head to lick the head of Dervil’s cock, which has a glossy little bead of fluid at the tip. The briny, gamey taste of it is curiously palatable. Even as he is reflecting that he ought to be disgusted, a wave of involuntary, sympathetic desire rolls through him.

Dervil’s belly is heaving. “Good,” he says. Thorin can hear him trying to govern his voice.

At Thorin’s first attempt to take it inside, Dervil squeaks, “Teeth!” Thorin tries again with his lips puller tighter. That does the trick: Dervil sighs like a punctured waterskin.

Then Thorin has the knack of it. Dervil begins to struggle upwards, the way Thorin remembers doing himself, when Dervil did this to him. It is most pleasing to hold him down – to torment him with Thorin’s superior strength. Thorin is learning that lovemaking is often a form of torment for mutual enjoyment.

Then a perverse thought comes to Thorin. Carefully, lightly, he uses his teeth on purpose. Dervil cries out, as if anguished. But Thorin has learned that a lover’s outcry need not be a protest. Teeth sunk gently into tender flesh, Thorin looks up at Dervil. Dervil’s eyes are wide and intent upon him. Thorin licks the place he has scraped with his teeth. Then he scrapes it again. Air hisses from Dervil’s nose, frantic.

Thorin sucks him down forcefully. Dervil shouts and grabs his hair, twisting painfully.

There is a moment of confusion. Thorin coughs several times. He realises Dervil has just finished directly down his throat.

It is as if Thorin has woken from a dream. His jaw is aching from unaccustomed use, and he is fulsomely, luxuriously pleased with himself. He is also wildly aroused, so that his hands shake.

Dervil rolls himself onto his front in invitation. Thorin fumbles for ointment, blood roaring in his head. When he begins to use his fingers, Dervil says, “No, just do it.”

So Thorin does it, for the first time – pushes in without preparation. It is stranglingly, gorgeously tight. He cannot get very deep at first. He pushes harder, and Dervil makes a sharp, keening noise. “All right?” Thorin asks, freezing.

“Yes, go on!” Dervil says, ardent. And Thorin understands that Dervil was indeed keening in pain – and that Dervil likes it.

Thorin withdraws a little, then presses in firmly, a touch deeper than before. It is like the first time they did this. Dervil whimpers urgently, and tilts his hips up to present himself more fully. Thorin is almost frightened to be hurting Dervil so deliberately – not at all playfully, like he did with his teeth before – but there is a kind of wonderful, terrible contract between them that he is helpless to resist. Thorin gives Dervil what his lifted hips demand – vigorously.

Afterwards Dervil pants and clings to him, and Thorin strokes his back.

Eventually Dervil’s breathing quiets. He laughs under his breath and says, “That was fun.”

“I was afraid I was hurting you,” Thorin says. Immediately he curses himself for a coward – there is no uncertainty that he was hurting Dervil.

“Oh, you were,” Dervil says warmly. “I wanted you to. It’s nice sometimes.”

“Oh,” Thorin says.

“Are you worried about it?” Dervil says, teasing.

Thorin resists the urge to deny it.

“Don’t be worried,” Dervil says, and begins to kiss him all over his face.

This is more than Thorin can take. He rolls Dervil over forcefully, holds him down and tickles him into a jelly.

They sleep in an embrace that night. At one time, Thorin wakes from a doze, and is vaguely, reflexively anxious. But Dervil’s breath, slow and damp on his throat, lulls him. He feels the anxiety leave him like liquid draining away. Sleep trickles in, instead, and fills him.

Their deadline is coming. With the time Thorin’s teaching takes, they are behind, and work past sundown each night. Dervil gives up his lodgings formally, at last, and moves in. He owns, as it turns out, barely more than Thorin does, so it makes no difficulty.

They run so late that Thorin begins to feed Oswald of an evening, half the time, which Dervil is inclined to resent, until Thorin takes him outside and gives him a hushed talking-to. “He’s your apprentice now,” Thorin says, and is pleased to see the understanding dawn in Dervil, like a shade being pulled up.

One night Oswald simply falls asleep, flat on Thorin’s floor, while waiting for dinner. They lay a rug over him and leave him there. When they go to bed, they are chaste in nightshirts, with a hand’s breadth between their elbows. Thorin is almost asleep when Dervil begins to paw him. “He’ll wake and hear us,” Thorin whispers.

“I don’t care,” Dervil says thickly.

So Thorin takes him out into the smithy, and lays him out in the cool moonlight like a meal on the common table, nightshirt around his armpits. Dervil is already arching his back, though Thorin has barely touched him. Thorin runs his hand up Dervil’s flank, and lets his hair fall on Dervil’s belly, to encourage him. The feast has become so delicious, Thorin almost cannot bear to begin.

At last Dervil cannot contain himself any longer, and makes a noise like a wounded animal. Thorin clucks at him chidingly. Then Thorin relents and devours him.

They are packing the swords straight into crates as they cool now. Thorin is half-sorry to put the lids down, when they’re full – it is a lovely array of shining metal, a clutch of the feathers of a fantailed silver bird. It’s far better than these skinflints deserve.

He sees that Dervil is beginning to think of himself as the master of the smithy. It is there in the way that when he goes on an errand, he squares his shoulders and walks slow and sedate down the road, in the care he takes with his notes and ledgers, in the assertive way he will greet a visitor at the gate.

They have less than a week to go. Thorin brings out his ledger at the noon’s meal and updates his tallies. “Well, lads,” he says. “We’re running to time. We need only carry on as fast as we have been, and we will make our date. So: my thanks go to you both.”

“You’re very welcome,” Oswald says.

“Will you stay on a few days after we’re finished?” Dervil asks. “To help us start the ordinary trade of the place?”

He is not asking this in the dark, in the privacy of their bed, his breath hot in Thorin’s ear, Thorin notes. He’s asking him at table, as one man of craft to another. In front of Oswald, too.

“I’d be happy to,” Thorin says. “I’ve arrangements to make, in any case. I must write to my nephews, and await their reply.”

For all they have reached the home stretch, the weeks of work at this pace are beginning to tell. Some nights now Dervil falls asleep right after supper, simple as an animal, still in his clothes. Thorin will ease his boots and belt off for him, then leave him be. Dervil’s beardless face in sleep sometimes looks frighteningly young – each eyelash and freckle new-minted and vulnerable. Other times he is animate, squirrellish, with eyes rolling under their lids, and he will mutter and twitch like a hound dreaming of a chase.

Several nights, too, Thorin takes pity on Oswald and sleeps him on a rug on the floor. Then Thorin and Dervil go out into the shuttered smithy again – or once, memorably, into the yard, where they hide from the bright of the moon in the deep shadow of the tree by the fence.

Then, between one hour and the next, it is done. The last sword is packed in the last chest. Thorin straightens up and looks at the two of them.

Oswald is bright as a light.

He sees Dervil’s throat move in a swallow.

“I believe, my lads,” Thorin says, “there is a pint at that tavern with each of your names on it.”

Thorin has not got properly stonkered in some time. The alderman he spots at a table in the rear of the tavern’s common room is certainly pleased to hear that the swords are finished on time, but admittedly (Thorin concedes to himself later) could have stood to hear a fraction less about how fine a smith Dervil is growing up to be. Dervil, who can hear this, sits several tables away with his face in his hands, resisting all invitations to come over. The three of them are saved only by the fact that young Oswald is about to get into a fight with a grown man twice the size of him. Thorin is so entertained that at first he does not attempt to intervene – until he sees that Dervil is going to if he doesn’t.

“Sir,” Thorin says, clapping his arm around Oswald’s shoulder, “whatever offense this young scamp has offered, I will surely discipline him.”

“Rather do it meself,” the man says, “if you don’t mind.” His tone is not polite.

“He’s my apprentice,” Thorin says, “and his discipline is mine.”

The man makes a show of looking Thorin up and down – or rather, down and further down. Thorin stares him in the eye.

The man shrugs. “See that you do it,” he says. “The little shit.” He retires to his table.

A man to their left has been watching this exchange – and Thorin’s person – with some interest. “Mate,” he says, “don’t suppose you fancy an arm-wrestle?”

“What, with you?” Thorin says, with more contempt than is probably wise.

A number of men get up from their seats – to form a queue.

If Oswald starts quietly taking bets in the background, Thorin is rather too busy to put a stop to it.

Thorin is not in the best health of his life the next morning. He sits up on the pallet, but does not rise. Dervil still sleeps beside him, the snuffle of his breath louder than usual.

On the floor, Oswald gives a piteous moan, raises his head and stares piercingly at Thorin. Then he vomits a extensive puddle of sick onto the rug.

Thorin lurches to his feet. “All right, up, up!” he says, and lifts Oswald to his feet with his hands under his arms, then shovels him out the door onto the grass outside, where he promptly collapses to his knees. Thorin folds the rug up carefully and carries it outside to dump on the grass as well. He draws a bucket of water from the well and delivers it to Oswald. “Clean yourself up,” he says.

He draws another bucket, and drags the rug over to the sump pit to rinse it off. Just then, Dervil emerges from the living quarters, nightshirt twisted, hair like broken rushes.

A rattle at the gate, which is still locked although the sun is a good way into the sky. It’s the carter, come for the swords.

“Pardon me, sir,” Thorin calls, wiping his hands on a clean corner of the rug, and coming to the gate.

The carter’s boys load the crates up on their wagon, while the carter has a good look at the three creatures in the smithy, all in their nightshirts.

“I am afraid, sir,” Thorin says, “I led the lads astray last night, celebrating the completion of this armoury stock, on which they have worked very hard.”

The carter only nods. Thorin is rather irritated by his smile.

“Master Dervil,” Thorin says, “will you settle with the gentleman?”

Dervil looks startled for a moment, but goes to fetch the ledger and the purse. Thorin explains, “As you may have heard, sir, the young master will have the running of the smithy once I’m gone.”

Dervil is back with the man’s coin, and a smile. “Sir, I undertake to have breeches on for all our future dealings,” he says, in a fine, firm, uncringing sort of way. “I recall you were a most valued associate of my late master, and I can only hope our relationship might be half so productive.”

“Indeed,” the man says. “I look forward to it. Breeches included.”

And then the carter is gone, and the three of them stand, looking at each other.

“I suggest,” Thorin says, “a bath for all. Then one of you must run into town to make an appointment with the aldermen to get us paid. Then we stocktake the storeroom.”

They toast some bread and sit on the grass to eat it while the bathwater boils. The plan seems an excellent one, right up until the water does boil, and someone needs to get up and go and deal with it. They all stare balefully at each other.

Thorin, at last, bestirs himself, and goes inside to tip the hot water into the cold. He comes back out and fixes his stare on Oswald. “You!” he says. It seems this adequately communicates the depth of his resentment, as the boy gets up and goes in to the bath without further protest.

Once he’s out, Thorin sends him off the errand. Then he gestures to Dervil, and points towards the door to inside.

“Are you coming?” Dervil gets up and says.

“It’s your turn,” Thorin says.

“Yes,” Dervil says significantly. “But wouldn’t you like to help?”

“Oh,” Thorin says.

By the time Oswald gets back, they have only just managed to get their clothes on, and are sitting at the common table, ruling up a tally sheet.

“Hello,” Oswald says. “Been tupping the whole time, then?”

Every hair on Thorin’s head stands up.

“Oh hush,” Dervil says mildly, without surprise. “None of your business.”

Thorin gets up. “Can we –” he begins. But his voice is wrong. He starts again: “Can we get moving on this storeroom, thank you.”

Thorin only waits for a letter from his nephews, and then he will leave.

Thorin has Dervil make enquiries, and they discover the travelling merchant who used to sell the old smith his iron and bronze is not expected back in town for months. On market day, they go to the square and buy up every last second-hand knife, tool and cookpot on offer. Anything with an interesting design, they take casts of. The knives and chisels in good condition they grind and polish till glinting; those in poor they melt back into rods, then forge anew. The cookpots and cast tools they melt down and re-cast. Any bone or wooden grip that looks anything less than ravishing they remove and replace with a new one from the woodturner.

There is a stack of crates in the storeroom that is particularly charming to bend Dervil over. But then they need to use the contents of those crates, so they move on to bracing against a rack, which tends to rattle. Oswald once bangs on the door while they are in mid-flight, this way. Thorin’s heart stops, as it always does. “Piss off!” Dervil cries, eloquently.

One afternoon, it becomes clear why Thorin’s nephews have not replied to his letter. It is because they have decided to come themselves, in person. Two cheery, blessedly Dwarf-sized figures are letting themselves in the gate: one blond, one dark.

“Lads!” Thorin cries, and they clasp wrists.

It is wonderful to look an adult in the eye without craning.

Thorin makes the introductions, and shows Fíli and Kíli around. “Well, I suppose you might as well forge in a bathtub as not,” Kíli says, assessing the furnace. His voice is not in quite enough of an undertone.

“None of that,” Thorin says, sharply.

“All right, all right,” Kíli says. Oswald is staring at him from the other side of the forge – Thorin raises an eyebrow to quell him.

“Anyway,” Fíli says, “we could probably make the next village by sundown.”

From the corner of his eye, Thorin sees Dervil pause in what he’s doing, and stand perfectly still.

“We’ll go in the morning,” Thorin says. “There’s space on the floor for you tonight.”

There are just too many bodies packed into the room for Thorin and Dervil to consider sneaking outside. They share the pallet, in nightshirts, collegially.

Lying awake, Thorin is soon reminded fondly that both Fíli and Kíli snore.

Dervil’s breathing, beside him, becomes thick and frantic. Thorin finds his hand in the dark, and Dervil clutches back.

Thorin whispers to him, as quietly as he can manage, “You will do well here. You are a fine young man.”

Dervil’s breathing is now unmistakeably the sound of crying. “Thank you,” he says laboriously.

There is a marvellous pain beneath Thorin’s ribs, with no physical cause – he has never felt the like.

He cups Dervil’s face and thumbs the water away from under his eyes. He guides Dervil’s head onto his shoulder, and strokes his hair and cheek until he quiets.

They will be seen lying together like this in the morning – Thorin will just have to pass it off as inadvertent.

There is not much to pack up, in truth – Thorin came with no more than he could carry on his back, and he is heavier now by only a purse of coins. Fíli and Kíli are keen to set out even before Oswald has arrived for the day, but Thorin has them stand around in the yard till he sees the spindly figure coming up the road. Oswald, indeed, begins to jog when he sees them, as if he fears Thorin will make a break for it. He bursts through the gate with a stricken look, and stops short, staring.

“All right, all right,” Thorin says. “I wasn’t going to leave without saying goodbye.” He steps forward to embrace the boy. “Now you be a good lad for your new master, you hear?”

“I will,” Oswald says, nasal. When he steps back, he is openly crying, his clever little face transfixed with misery. “None of that,” Thorin says, and pats his cheek.

He turns to Dervil. Dervil is dry-faced, but very quiet and still. Thorin embraces him firmly. He cannot linger like a lover. “And you,” he says. “Best of all luck to you. It has been an honour.”

Dervil says nothing, but his breath flutters in Thorin’s hair. Thorin holds on a beat longer than necessary, his neck prickling. Then another beat.

They leave.

At the first bend in the road, Thorin turns to look back. Dervil and Oswald are standing by the gate. He waves, and they raise their hands in return.

Thorin makes Fíli and Kíli stop for an unneeded rest at the crest of the hill, before the town drops out of sight for good.

“Bit of a sad place,” Kíli says. “Did you see that thatch everywhere? They must like to get wet.”

“Yes and no,” Thorin says.

He can only see the fact of houses from here, not their shoddy thatch, and the morning light lies friendly on them. The river too is lit up, shining like metal.

He hopes Dervil is at work.

“They get more out of you than they paid for?” Fíli says, mistaking his mood.

“They always do,” Thorin replies. He gets up and leads them on.


<< Part 3

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