Tattoo Artists

It is almost never spoken of, but Thorin Oakenshield, supremely majestic King Under the Mountain, and his good friend, Dwalin, a fearsome dwarf lord in his own right, have identical tattoos of the Lonely Mountain inked between their shoulder blades. Very few know of their existence, even fewer know of the reason why they have them, and only two know the whole story—but they’ll never tell.

What is known of those days is that the King Under the Mountain was quickly running out of patience with his two nephews, Fili and Kili. To be sure, they were friendly, kind-hearted young dwarves, and no one questioned their battle skills, but in other areas of refinement expected of princes they fell, well, rather short.

Thorin called in his unruly nephews to him once again and fixed a stern glare on his face, a glare he practiced for moments like this. He perfected it in front of his favorite mirror, a full-length rectangle of silvered glass cut to his proportions with nicely beveled edges in a gilt gold frame. Its twin was behind him so he could inspect his front and back at the same time. It would never do to have his perfect grooming—for which he employed professional hair braiders, lock arrangers, and mustache and beard trimmers—undone by a stray hair dangling on the back of his perfectly brushed fur collar.

In truth, he was disappointed in their lack of interest in the social graces so necessary to politics. They lacked—what was the word?—finesse, and for a lord to be seen as … lordly finesse was essential. It was beyond him that his nephews failed to appreciate the delicacy required to correctly hold a joint of mutton while hoisting a mug of ale, and the way the foam needed to coat the upper lip and edge of the mustache just so. It really is an art form. Well, perhaps Middle-earth had changed, but Thorin Oakenshield would hold fast to the old ways.

His nephews, however, seemed more bred to carouse than to lord over, and neither of them so far possessed the serious and majestic character essential for a future king. But since they had just settled in Ered Luin, Thorin needed their help to lead his people and their help he would have.

“I have here the reports from your tutors,” he said as he waved a stack of papers in front of their downcast faces. Kili stubbed his toe repeatedly against the stone floor while Fili’s eyes darted to the side while he continually adjusted the various leather straps that held his weapons. “You both have largely ignored your penmanship lessons, and your comportment instructor has asked to be reassigned. Fili, did you really throw eggs at your brother during the feast honoring the dwarves from the Iron Hills?”

Fili cast a sidelong glance at Kili who shrugged his shoulders. No help there.

“Well, uncle,” he started hesitantly, “they were hard-boiled after all.”

Kili thought he saw steam coming from Thorin’ ears, little tendrils that curled around his perfectly coiffed braids.

“And I wasn’t throwing them at him, uncle,” Fili said beginning to warm to the subject, “I was throwing them to him.”

Kili looked up and smiled widely as he recalled the scene.

“And what great aim, uncle!” he said as he mimicked a long toss. “He must have thrown those eggs 20 feet right into my mouth!”

Both young dwarves stood there grinning and mumbling about the high points of the evening as they recalled the fracas they started. “Remember the one…” “Oh yeah, great save Ki…”

Thorin’s mouth puckered and his brows drew together to create a single glowering ridge. He looked as though he had sucked on a lemon, that is, if lemons had found their way to Ered Luin.

“And I heard that you danced with the daughter of the ambassador from Gondor, Kili?” he asked with deadly quiet.

Fili motioned frantically to his brother to say nothing, but Kili did not notice. “We really must work out some signals,” Fili thought.

“Yes, uncle,” he said as he nodded enthusiastically, “and I must say that I think I made quite an impression.” He rocked back and forth on his heels feeling pretty pleased with himself.

Thorin nodded drily.

“I’m sure that you did since you danced on the table with her while everyone else was still eating,” he grumbled in a low voice.

Kili turned to his brother who looked away and pursed his mouth as if to whistle.

“I just remember feeling on top of the world Fi,” he said in confusion. “Was it only on top of the table?”

“Enough!” Thorin shouted. “Clearly you both drink too much to know what you are doing and how it reflects upon our house. From now until Bathing Day, weapons classes are canceled and you both will focus solely on your penmanship, manners, and comportment classes.”

“Oh, and no drinking,” he said leaning forward with a satisfied smile, “until your reports improve.”

“No fighting! No drinking!” the dwarves wailed. “But uncle! We’re doing so well in our weapons classes!”

Thorin smiled grimly.

“I am happy to say that at least there you are proficient,” he said, “but since we are not going to war any time soon, you now need to concentrate on other aspects of rulership.”

Fili and Kili looked at each other in horror at the thought of endlessly copying lines in their primers.

“Um, uncle,” Fili ventured hesitantly, “may I ask why penmanship classes are so important. Balin writes well, and he can sign for us if need be.”

Thorin pinched the bridge of his nose, debating whether to explain again.

“Because Fili,” he said very slowly as if addressing a dwarfling, “you will appear uncouth and unintelligent if you do not know how to write well. Also, anyone can counterfeit an easy signature, so you need to learn the appropriate flourishes to distinguish your own, unique signature.”

Thorin’s signature was so ornate that couriers and dignitaries had learned to book a room for an extra night’s stay when one was required, and if Thorin was feeling especially creative he sometimes used different color inks. In fact, a number of ruling houses had his signatures framed and hung in their record rooms.

“Do I make myself perfectly clear?” he said firmly. “I expect to see great progress by annual Bathing Day one month hence.” His nephews nodded glumly and slunk off only to meet with Dwalin in the corridor. He stood there with his burly arms crossed over his chest and a self-satisfied expression on his face.

“In front of the king again, lads?” Dwalin asked chortling, “and no throwing back the wet this time, eh?”

“How did you know?” Kili asked.

Dwalin puffed out his considerable chest and put his forefinger to his nose as he leaned in.

“Because I’m the king’s trusted advisor, boy,” he said, “and that is what I advised.” Then he straightened and jauntily marched away.

“Well, that tears it,” Fili said despondently. “With Dwalin watching there’s no getting out of it now.”

“Aye,” said Kili, “well, it’s only for another month anyway.”

Enforce abstinence seemed to spur them on, and Thorin started receiving somewhat better reports. In fact, since his nephews started truly applying themselves, Thorin started hearing some praise. Fili has a natural gift for flourishes, he was told, and Kili actually showed some finesse and perspective in his penmanship. Thorin was pleased.

The night before Bathing Day, Dwalin and Thorin and all his councilors and advisors enjoyed a feast whereupon Dwalin produced a bottle of something new to Ered Luin.

“I believe it’s called whiskey, my lord,” Balin said. Kili and Fili looked at each other in alarm for that very drink was responsible for the egg-throwing and table-dancing fiascos, though it didn’t seem to interfere with Fili’s aim, or perhaps it made it better.

“Um, uncle, that drink is much stronger than our usual ale or mead,” Fili attempted, “perhaps it would be wise to try it first in small glasses.”

Thorin immediately dismissed his comment with a patronizing flick of his fingers.

“Are you saying that I can’t hold my drink?” he asked incredulously. Dwalin laughed and slapped his thigh.

“This is Thorin Oakenshield, laddie,” he said proudly, “and he’s more than a match for any bottle,” and all the king’s advisors nodded in agreement.

“But, uncle…” Fili said trying again, “my comportment teacher said …”

With a dismissive grunt, Thorin tipped up the bottle and then passed it to Dwalin while the rest looked on. Dwalin brought out another five bottles, and all the advisors advised themselves to finish them off. Even Balin tippled a bit and started giggling straight away. Kili and Fili looked on with chagrin.

“How come they get to get away with this?” Kili whispered indignantly to Fili.

“Because he’s king,” Fili replied irritably, “and I guess he can break his own rules in his own house. Well, back to our lessons. Remember, we have to practice.”

“But it just isn’t fair!” Kili said. “When do they ever have to learn a lesson?”

The next day Thorin woke up feeling like his head was used as a battering ram to open the gates of Erebor.

“Oof,” he said heavily as he plopped back on his bed. “My head may fall off and my back hurts something fierce.” He staggered out of his door and tried strike a kingly pose, but he only managed to put his hand heavily on the door frame as he leaned on it to support his weight. Then he decided to let his majesty hold him up and he pushed his shoulders into the door frame so that his thick fur coat wedged him upright.

“Now I only need to stand here thinking for a few moments so that everyone can see that I’m on my feet,” he said as he majesterially glowered in the doorway, giving everyone the impression that the king was thinking kingly thoughts. When he recovered sufficiently, he made his way to the king’s bathing pool, where the royal family and select others were allowed to bathe apart from the general populace. Royal and noble dirt was of a different kind and deserved a separate bathing area.

Fili and Kili were already in the pool when Thorin, Dwalin, Balin, and the advisors arrived, all moving slowly and seemingly concentrating hard on a difficult political matter. The brothers looked at each other and nodded.

“Good morning, uncle,” they chorused cheerfully, “good morning, Dwalin.”

“Is it?” Dwalin said gruffly as he slowly disrobed and lowered himself into the pool into the large copper bath filled with steaming hot water. The water felt good against his stinging and aching back. Fili and Kili cordially addressed each of the king’s advisors and gave the proper respect to each.

“Um, uncle,” Fili said, “we are finished here, and we’d best be getting back to our lessons now.” Kili nodded his head vigorously.

“Yes, sir,” he said. “We have to work on our penmanship now.”

Thorin nodded blearily and waved his hand to dismiss them.

“I am impressed by your improvement, nephews,” he said as he slowly and painfully lowered himself into the hot water. “Ahh, this feels wonderful.”

The boys dried themselves off quickly and took their clothes to the wardrobe room to dress away from the eyes of others as was proper.

“Dwalin,” Thorin called from across the tub, “pass me the soap if you please.”

As Dwalin bent down Balin gasped as he looked at his brother’s back.

“By Durin, brother,” he said horrified, “what is that on your back?”

The advisors crowded around to see a tattoo of Thorin’s smiling face between Dwalin’s wide shoulders. The tattoo was perfect in every detail down to the elaborate braids and perfectly trimmed beard and mustache. It showed remarkable creativity as well with different colored inks bringing out kingly skin tones and the glittering blue of his regal sapphire eyes. Below the portrait in elegant flowing script read, “If you need a king, give him a ring. Thorin for what ales you.” The flourishes were most elaborate and exquisitely executed. All together it was a beautiful work of art if not for the fact it was on Dwalin’s back. Thorin stared until his sapphire eyes seemed ready to pop out from his head and into gold filigree settings.

“Who dared do this!” he thundered as he looked around the large tub. The work could only have been done when they all were sleeping off their intense political discussion from the night before, and all of his advisors stood there speechless. As Thorin turned to each and fixed on them his practiced glare, a gasp arose.

“My lord!” one advisor cried raising a shaky finger at Thorin’s back.

“What?” the king yelled. “Where’s my hand mirror?” An advisor ran for the square gold mirror with a handle in the shape of a sword. “No, not that one, the other one,” Thorin said impatiently. The advisor picked up the jewel encrusted mirror with a handle that angled so he could see his back. No one drew breath as Thorin looked over his shoulder to see Dwalin’s smiling face inked on his back. The portrait was a perfect likeless save for an unlikely grin usually seen on a used cart salesman, and it had an added sparkle winking off one of his snaggled teeth. A master hand had done the work with every one of Dwalin’s sparse hairs gleaming and his full beard gloriously fluffed and perfect. His bald head looked scrubbed and polished and beneath the portrait in perfect bold lettering read, “Come a squallin’ if you want Dwalin.”

“It almost looks real,” Balin said as he reached out to touch the beard. Thorin slapped his hand away.

“Grrrofff,” Dwalin grumbled. “I will kill whoever did this!”

“My lords,” one advisor said tentatively, “I suggest that you have this inked over immediately before news spreads.” A general murmur of agreement rose from the group. “Perhaps something large and symbolic that no one will question.”

Meanwhile, Kili and Fili toweled off and changed in private.

“Your flourishes have really improved, Fi,” Kili said politely. “I am most impressed.”

“I thank you brother,” Fili said graciously, “and your work shows great finesse and perspective.”

Fili held open the door for his brother as they exited the dressing room.

“One thing though, Ki,” Fili said. “You misspelled ‘ails.'”

“No, I didn’t,” Kili said, and they both started laughing as they ran to grab their swords.

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