The sky darkens more rapidly than either of them had expected.
It is early afternoon, and the two dwarrows who are trudging along on the mountain path have been wandering all day, only stopping briefly for a bite of dried meat and a drink from their water flasks. They no longer mind the travel that has become a necessity in the three decades they have spent in the Ered Luin, and they often use this particular road that connects their own settlement with the nearest village of men.
But it will be a relief, Dwalin thinks as he squints against the sharp wind that is stinging in his eyes, to be home again. Home, as far as their modest dwelling in the Blue Mountains could ever be called a home to the small family who once called themselves royal, and is now a bunch of craftsmen and traders who have just as much difficulty keeping themselves fed as any of their neighbours. He and Thorin and Thorin’s sister Dís with her husband and their small son, and Balin; and tonight they will be blessed with a hearty meal, for Dís’ husband is a hunter by trade, and he is scheduled to return with his party today after three days in the wild, and is sure to bring some fresh meat back with him. They will gather around the fireplace and celebrate a small feast, for once there will be food and ale aplenty, and Fíli will fall asleep in Balin’s lap while the adults will get out their instruments and play and sing and tell stories until deep into the night. And maybe, if they are still sober enough, Thorin and he will later retreat to his friend’s room to continue the celebration in their own way, with their naked bodies tangled in threadbare sheets and rough kisses making the world outside drown into nothingness.
It is not so much, as far as home goes, but it will be enough for tonight, and Dwalin finds himself longing for it. And it would be a good idea to get there as soon as possible, if he knows anything about the changing weather in mountain territory.
“Don’t like the colour of the sky,” he tells his companion. “There’s a storm coming up.”
Thorin only grunts in acknowledgment and adjusts his backpack as he quickens his pace. They do not exchange many words; it is not their way, nor has it ever been necessary for them. They have been friends almost as long as they both can remember, and they know each other so intimately that there is no awkwardness in a day of silent travel.
They walk on briskly for another few miles, both casting anxious glances at the sky and wordlessly agreeing that they must make all possible speed to reach the settlement before the storm breaks loose. So far their road is broad and easy to tread, flanked by large rocks and bushes and a few scattered trees that are creaking in the wind, but they both know that they will have to cross far more uncomfortable territory before they reach the safety of home.
A movement to their left, accompanied by a soft exclamation, startles them both, and almost as one they whirl around and draw their weapons, for they are highly trained warriors and their sharp reflexes have been tested more than once during their years in exile. But their vigilance proves to be unnecessary. The stout, cloaked figure who has suddenly appeared on a large rock to their left side poses no threat to them.
“Víli!” Thorin exclaims in surprise. “What in Durin’s name are you doing here? Where are the others?”
“We got separated.” Thorin’s brother-in-law jumps lightly onto the path and removes the heavy green folds of his hood. “Just as well, for I have some traps that need seeing to on this side of the mountain. But why aren’t you home yet? There’s a nasty storm brewing.”
“There was a delay,” Thorin admits, “but it shouldn’t matter. It’s just a couple of hours now.”
“That’s not good enough.” Víli glances toward the horizon, and the expression on his tanned face is grimmer than Dwalin has ever seen it. “The weather will be upon us in less than half an hour. There’s no time left for you to reach safety.”
It is unwelcome news, but they both know better than to question Víli’s words. He has been a hunter ever since he was old enough to handle a bow, and he knows these parts of the mountains like he would the inside of his pockets. Even Thorin knows to heed his advice.
“What would you have us do?” he demands. “There is no shelter along the way, and remaining here in the open will prove an equal threat.”
Víli’s sharp gaze shifts from one to the other, and then his eyes narrow, as though a thought has just occurred to him. “I will lead you,” he decides. “It’s still dangerous, but you’re safer with me. And I can spare the time.”
“You should come back with us, anyway,” Dwalin suggests. “Didn’t you promise us all that you’d be home tonight?”
“Aye, well.” He’s not quite sure, but it seems to him that Víli is avoiding his eyes as he busies himself with the large bow that is slung over his shoulder. “I still have some things to do around here. But I also promised Dís I’d help her keep an eye on her favorite pair of troublemakers, didn’t I? Now come along, we don’t have time to stand around all day.”
“What things could possibly… now look here!” Thorin protests, but Víli has already turned his back on them and they have to hurry up to keep his pace.
It turns out that their friend was only too right in urging them to haste. They have not followed him far into the increasingly difficult territory of sharp rocks and steep slopes – and they all know it will get worse – when a heavy rain sets in, sudden as an avalanche of rock that crashes through a peaceful valley. Their heavy gear is soaked in seconds, and the road ahead becomes so slippery that they would have difficulty to keep their footing even if they could see clearly for more than ten feet ahead. Thorin is grim and silent, marching on in stubborn determination, while Dwalin is cursing lowly under his breath. They are not made for this. They are supposed to be inside a mountain, not risking their lives climbing around on the outside in a thunderstorm.
Víli, on the other hand, appears to be as comfortable in the foul weather as a miner would be in the darkest depths of Erebor. He is uncommonly lithe and agile for a dwarf, and he is deeply familiar with the territory, but never has Dwalin seen the hunter walk with such an easy grace, knowing precisely and without looking where to put his light feet upon the treacherous grounds. There must be an elf somewhere in his ancestry, Dwalin thinks with grim amusement, but he knows better than to voice it aloud because while Víli might tolerate the joke, Dís would certainly sharpen her axe if such a statement should ever reach her ears.
Eventually even Víli’s steps are slowing down, though whether it is for his own or his companions’ sake, Dwalin cannot tell. They have reached the most perilous part of their journey, with a steep rock confining the narrow path on their left side while the ground drops sharply on their right, and though none of them would have given it a thought on a normal day of travel, right now a safe crossing seems near impossible.
“This is madness!” Dwalin shouts, not even sure that his companions are able to hear him.
“We cannot turn back!” Thorin returns angrily, keeping a steadying hand on the wet rocks and trying without avail to shove his dripping hair out of his face. “Move on!”
“Follow me!” Víli’s strong voice is hardly audible over the roaring of thunder that is ringing in their ears. “Watch where I put my hands!”
Dwalin grits his teeth and follows him slowly, with probing fingers always testing his grip on the stone before he shifts his weight and carefully sets his feet, trying not to slip. It seems to take an eternity. Víli is heading along before him, haltingly but still with far less effort than should be possible for a heavy-boned dwarrow. He doesn’t seem to notice or care that the wind has torn back his hood, and his wet blonde hair is little more than a yellow blur in the grey onslaught of water that surrounds them. There is no sound from Thorin, but Dwalin cannot risk turning his gaze and he knows that his friend would have shouted if he had lost his footing, so there is no point in worrying.
They have almost reached safety – the road is already a little wider, and Dwalin is nearly prepared to draw a deep breath and let down his guard – when suddenly a piece of rock splinters under his fingers just as he is pulling himself ahead. His reflexes are sharp, but not sharp enough to prevent his fall when he loses his balance and his foot skids away under him and he crashes down heavily upon the slick ground. His hands grab frantically at the wet stone that slips away under his muddy fingers, useless to stop his fall, and from the corner of his eyes he sees Thorin clinging to the rock with panic in his eyes and his mouth twisted in a scream. Then he is sliding and falling over the edge and the abyss is rushing towards him, before Víli’s arm shoots out and grips his wrist like a vice.
For a moment his thoughts are completely blank, with imminent death looming before him while Víli’s strong hand is closed around his arm like a lifeline. Then, without warning, he is submerged in a drowning wave of vivid pictures.
Dís, her features white and grim, seemingly unaware of the tears streaming down her face and into a beard that is shorn like her brother’s.
Two young warriors, one blonde, one dark, both slain on the battlefield, their bodies twisted in death like two broken dolls.
Thorin lying on a blood-stained cot, looking almost as if he were sleeping except that his face is too pale and too still and there is blood trickling from his mouth, and Dwalin wants to scream because he knows, he knows…
… and then Balin with a black arrow piercing his heart and a white beard that is drenched in crimson.
Save them. The words are not spoken aloud, but he can feel them in the depths of his mind. Their fates are not set in stone. You can save them. Please.
Dwalin hardly notices that Víli pulls him over the edge. He is reeling in shock, and then he meets his savior’s eyes and doesn’t see their usual twinkle but a bottomless grey pit, the echo of something ancient and unfathomable.
They are not the eyes of a living being.
Dwalin is a battle-hardened warrior. It is the only reason why he does not empty the contents of his stomach onto the cold black stone below him.
Then Thorin is beside him and hauls him up, and together they stumble along the slippery path, always following the unnaturally light steps of the hunter who leads them safely along the parts of rock upon which they can tread.
It is almost an hour before the rain stops, and another fifteen minutes before the narrow path broadens into a road that allows for safe and comfortable travel. It is here that Víli stops and turns to face them.
“You can continue on your own from here,” he says. “I must go… and check my traps. Please -,” he falters, and his face softens so that it looks almost wistful. “Please tell Dís I am sorry that I will not make it for dinner.”
“You intend to remain here in the wild?” Thorin objects harshly. “All on your own, until well after dusk? I must hardly remind you of the dangers that may await you.”
“There is nothing I need to fear.” Víli shakes his head, and one of his drenched blonde braids slips from behind his ear and over his shoulder. He always keeps his hair tightly braided, claiming that it is the best way to keep it out of his face while he is using the bow. Dwalin tries to memorize every detail, from the intricately carved beads to the complicated pattern that is woven into his friend’s beard, and the tattoos that adorn the backs of his hands to bless his aim.
“I need to be on my way. Take care of her, will you? Her and the boys.”
“We will,” Dwalin promises gruffly just as Thorin echoes in obvious confusion, “Boys?”
Víli gives them a sad smile and turns away without another word, and Dwalin catches Thorin’s arm before his bewildered companion can stalk after his brother-in-law to demand some answers.
“Come,” he tells his friend. “We need to go home.”
They return to a house of mourning.
It was early afternoon, Dís tells them tonelessly, just before the storm broke loose, that the hunting party returned with Víli’s body. They had accidently upset a huge black bear, everything had happened too quickly, Víli was the only casualty, they had all known that his occupation was dangerous and he was prepared to take the risk. Thorin’s sister is speaking with an unnatural calm, her features white and grim, and she seems unaware of the tears that are streaming down her face and into her beard that is now shorn like her brother’s.
Thorin is thunderstruck, but he possesses enough presence of mind not to burden her with the tale they might tell, and Dwalin is grateful for the small mercy. Perhaps another time, when the grief is not so fresh for all of them.
They only talk about it once, later that same night. Dís has shoved them both bodily out of her room because she desperately needs to be alone, and Balin quietly shakes his head when Dwalin places a hand upon his shoulder. His brother is sitting beside the fireplace with Fíli in his lap, but the boy refuses to go to sleep, so Balin narrates him endless stories of dragons and kings while they despair over how to tell him what happened to his father. Thorin and Dwalin eventually retreat to Thorin’s bedroom for a short break, and if Dwalin has longingly fantasized about it earlier, that seems half a lifetime away right now. He wants nothing more than to collapse in his friend’s embrace, to drop all pretenses for once, the need to be strong, to endure, to protect; he wants to bury his face in Thorin’s shoulder and wrap his arms around Thorin’s body and forget all the hardships and sorrows of the world outside. But the other steps ahead of him and leans against the wall with crossed arms and narrowed eyes.
“You knew,” he growls, and Dwalin recognizes an accusation when he hears one. He bows his head in acknowledgement.
Dwalin looks into his friend’s clear blue eyes, into the beautiful face with the strong dark brow and the nose that is just a tad too small and the worry lines and the glorious black hair, and remembers how Thorin looked like when he was lying cold and still upon his deathbed.
He cannot tell him. He will never tell anyone of the horrifying images that are burned into his mind, of his best friend, his king and greatest treasure, of Fíli and his brother who is yet unborn, of his own brother who is the very foundation of his world. He is certain it is the future that Víli showed him, or at least one possible future; but he has not the first idea what to do so he can prevent it from happening, although he knows now that he will spend the rest of his life trying to do just that.
“Do not ask me,” he says hoarsely. “I beg of you.”
Thorin watches him with a furrowed brow.
Dwalin draws a deep breath. “You have to trust me, my friend. Please.”
It was the right thing to say, for Thorin’s expression instantly loses all severity. He steps closer and places a rough hand on Dwalin’s cheek.
“Always,” he says softly. “Greatest of all friends. You know that.”
“Then do not ask.”
Thorin hesitates, then leans forward to touch his forehead against Dwalin’s in the dwarven gesture of deepest affection.
They do not indulge; not today, not after this. They simply hold each other for a while, with Thorin’s head leaning against Dwalin’s cheek and Dwalin’s nose buried in Thorin’s hair, and if they notice the tears in each other’s eyes, neither deems it necessary to mention them. There is no shame in mourning a friend. Eventually they break apart, and Thorin catches Dwalin’s hand as they step outside their little sanctuary, towards Fíli and Dís and Balin who need them now, need them to be strong and comforting. They have done this before; they can do it again. They are used to sorrow and hardship and they were made to endure, whatever grievance fate may place in their path.
Dwalin tells no one of the visions that were the legacy of their dead friend. When he and Thorin next cross over the mountain pass, it is a beautiful day and the sun is warming their faces and all memories of rain and storm and impending doom fade before the glorious scenery in the full light of morning. They stop briefly at the boulder where they encountered their ghostly companion, and Thorin watches quietly as Dwalin places a small, pure white stone upon a patch of moss. It is a promise, one that Thorin cannot begin to understand, and he does not ask, but Dwalin repeats it in his mind as he closes his hand around his gift for one last time. I do not know if I can do what you ask of me, he thinks. I do not even know where to start. But I promise you that I will do whatever I can to try. And thank you, my friend, for the warning.
He looks around to meet his companion’s eyes, and they remain for a moment in silent remembrance. Then Thorin turns away and steps back onto the road, and Dwalin follows him faithfully, as he always will. Whatever else he may or may not achieve, this much he can guarantee.