The hair was streaked with grey.
Dwalin's hand runs lazily through the thick black strands that are covering the pillow beside him, trails over the muscular shoulder underneath and gets tangled in a patch of wiry chest hair. He is rewarded with a low grunt as the body before him shifts and moves closer towards him, but the desire that was just beginning to reawaken in his limbs is stifled by the unwanted thought, and the touch of Thorin's thighs against his own feels cold. Not yet, he tells himself angrily. The hair is black as a raven's wing, his friend's body is warm and inviting, and there is no blood on the face that is turning towards him now, bright blue eyes blinking in sleepy confusion.
"What now?" Thorin mutters drowsily and Dwalin forces the sickening images from his mind, images of white skin and too much blood and long dark hair that is shot with grey.
"Nothing," he lies. "Go back to sleep."
"Thought you wanted."
"No." He does not even have to argue the fact. It is as plain as day that he is not aroused. "Not now. Won't put you off your sleep for that."
"Considerate of you." Thorin's familiar sarcasm is softened by sleep. "Suit yourself."
He does not ask what is wrong, although he must sense that something is amiss. Dwalin knows this is because a thousand things in their lives are wrong, each of them reason enough to lie awake at night, and asking about them will not make them better. But a broad hand covers his own and holds on tightly as Thorin sinks back into the pillow, and his hair - black, not a single strand of grey - is soft in Dwalin's face.
He finds little sleep that night.
They will be adults when they die on the battlefield.
Now they are not even reaching up to his shoulder and the sword that is currently wielded by the mighty warrior-king Fíli the Fearless is crafted from wood, not steel. The boys are sparring on the lawn beside the riverbank while Dwalin and Dís are watching, unbeknownst to them, from afar.
"He's good with the sword, he is," their mother observes critically, shading her eyes against the midday sun. It is always too bright out here, especially on a clear summer's day like this, but they had to get used to that long ago. "Kíli can't match him. I'm glad he's taken up the bow. He'd make his father proud."
"He's got a good aim," Dwalin agrees. "And a long-range weapon can come in handy."
Víli would be proud indeed, of both his sons. They are bright and joyful and bursting with life. The younger one will inherit his weapon, the sturdy hunting bow that Víli carried on his body when he died. The older one looks just like him, blonde and handsome, and he'll make a fine warrior and, one day, a proud king.
Except that he won't.
The sharp cuff to the ear takes Dwalin by surprise. "Everything all right in there?" Dís asks casually.
"Keep your paws to yourself," he growls, though he is not cross that she pulled him from this particular line of thought.
"Sometimes you're miles away," she counters, unimpressed. "No idea what you're thinking, but it's sure as hell not pleasant. Don't make me mistake you for Thorin."
"I sure hope not," he grumbles, and she laughs at him, just for a moment, the way Kíli does. He wishes he could see it more often.
"Grouchy old buggers," she says affectionately. "It's enough that you're sharing a bed, don't go sharing an attitude as well. But come now, help me capture our little terrors, Thorin will be waiting with lunch."
They have not walked far when Fíli's shrill voice carries over to them. "No!" he wails, exasperated at his brother's thick-headedness. "You're dead! You must lie down! Like this…" and he sprawls onto the lawn, limbs askew and face twisted into an odd grimace.
Dwalin grits his teeth and remembers the promise he made to a ghost.
Give me time. Not yet.
Balin's beard whitens too early.
Dwalin attempts to ignore it for years, tells himself that, while the grey that has been tingeing his brother's dark mane since his early adulthood has faded over the years, it is still a very light shade of grey. But the day comes when he and Balin stomp through thick snow that covers the road on their way home, and when Balin pushes back his hood, the cold winter sun makes his hair glisten like a thousand diamonds. White. There is no arguing about it.
"You gonna stand out there all day?" his brother inquires, and then gives him a sharp look. "What're you gawking at?"
"Nothing," he snaps, as he usually does whenever someone hits too close to home, whenever they touch upon the painful secret he cannot bring himself to share. "You've gone white, is all."
"You're noticing that now?" Balin shakes his head with a chuckle. "And guess what? You're going bald. We're not as young as we used to be, brother dear. Anything else you've missed for the past five years?"
Dwalin glares at him and pushes past him to enter their modest home, but his brother catches his arm.
Balin's mind has always been too keen, and he knows his brother better than Dwalin would like to acknowledge. Especially now.
"I've just about had enough of this nonsense," his brother informs him in a sharp, low voice that bodes ill for anyone having the misfortune to be at the receiving end. "Every once in a while you say things that don't make sense. Close yourself off from everyone around you. You've done it for years, and I want to know why."
"No idea what you're talking about," Dwalin scoffs, but Balin does not let go. His brother possesses a surprising strength, considering that he is nearly a head shorter than Dwalin.
"It's been decades. I used to think it was Azanulbizar, but I'm beginning to see it isn't. So what is it?"
For a moment they stand staring at each other, locked in a silent battle of wills, before heavy footsteps approach the door. Thorin needs only a moment to take in the situation, then his mouth becomes a thin line.
"Drop it. Whatever it is."
For all that they are his closest friends, he is still their king, and they both recognize the order as such. Balin shoots his brother a vicious look and disappears into his room, slamming the door with a force that bends the hinges. Dwalin throws himself into the chair beside the fireplace and pulls off his boots, painfully aware of his best friend hovering beside him with crossed arms and a dark expression on his face.
Dwalin ignores him. Thorin promised not to ask, once, long ago, and they both remember. Eventually his friend relents with a sigh and turns away to slice some bread.
Balin does not speak to his brother for two days. Dwalin pretends not to notice, and he stubbornly tries to ignore the nightly visions that appear in his dreams, of lifeless dark eyes and a white beard that is drenched in blood.
Not yet. Please, not yet.
It is not like he could ever forget the promise he made to his dead friend, and he needs to be prepared when the time comes. Yet after all these years he still struggles to understand how he is supposed to change the fate of those he loves, even if that love is worthier than life for him, was mightier than death for Víli. He trains the boys mercilessly with every kind of weapon they can lay their hands on, but surely he would have done that regardless, and even the highest artistry of sword and axe will not prevent the deadly strike of an arrow when your back is turned. He remains at his king's side, refusing to let him out of sight for more than a few hours, but he has always been his friend's self-appointed bodyguard, so it is not like this would have been any different had he not possessed knowledge of the future, knowledge he did not want and was never supposed to have. He does not even know what to do about Balin, because Balin has always been very much his own protector and his brother's eyes are nearly as sharp as his mind. He knows that the subject will come up again. He does not know what he is supposed to say when it does.
It is mind-boggling and Dwalin is no schemer, so he doubles his efforts in every way he can think of. He's a fighter, after all, and so he'll fight against fate itself. He finds it harder to fight the paralyzing feeling of helplessness that threatens to overcome him every so often.
"The mountain smoked beneath the moon;
The dwarves, they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled their hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon…"
The mourning tune echoes through their small rooms as the very earth beneath their feet appears to vibrate from the deep dwarven voices. They are gathered by the fire like so many nights, singing and telling stories, and the boys are finally grown enough so that they can legitimately refuse to be sent to bed early. Fíli made a show of trying to coax a tune out of Thorin's small harp, their cousins Óin and Glóin brought a flute and a gittern, and Dwalin's fiddle is cradled in his lap. But now the line between cheer and gravity is blurring, and when someone starts to hum the old tune, the others join reverently as by an unspoken law.
It is there in the room with them: Erebor, the lonely mountain, the golden home of their youth and never forgotten Promised Land. Bleak white walls and plain furniture appear to dissolve in the flickering firelight, and beneath them loom spacious halls of green marble, endlessly spiraling staircases with golden handles, halls glittering with mithril and gold and precious stones, shaped into nameless beauty by those who came before. Faces, too, long gone and still remembered. Parents, siblings, friends; there is none of them who has not lost a loved one to the flames. Only Fíli and Kíli are too young to know. The Ered Luin are their home, but not their destiny; they have grown up with tales of the mountain, and there is no doubt in their minds that one day they will see its glory. This is the one surety that unites everyone in this room: that one day they will go back, when the time is right, and the years of poverty and exile will find an end. They are a small community, the Erebor dwarves, and they never quite blended in wherever they chose to make a temporary home. It is their hope, their vision of a brighter future that gives them the strength to carry on.
"Tell me," Kíli begs when the sound has died down and the room is silent except for the cracking logs in the fire. "About the city of Dale. If, one day." He pauses, staring into his mug. The firelight is casting deep shadows on his young face. "When. When the dragon is gone, we will need allies to support Erebor, won't we? But Dale was destroyed."
"The survivors must have fled somewhere," Dís says thoughtfully. "Maybe they aren't far. Last we heard, there are several human settlements in the vicinity."
"We'll have to re-establish the old trade routes," Balin explains in his calm, pensive way. "The whole region will prosper again. All will profit from the wealth of the mountain."
"We will make allies." Thorin leans against the wall and turns his pipe between his fingers. His eyes are gleaming in the dim light. "Our people were always on good standing with the men folk around the mountain. They will not have forgotten us. We will help them bring Dale to new glory, and the old alliance will stand strong again!"
Dwalin listens to his friends, and his heart yearns for the visions they evoke in their crowded little room, visions of prospering kingdoms at the dawn of a new age. But when he closes his eyes, all he sees are the twisted corpses of Fíli and Kíli, Thorin's blood-streaked, lifeless face and the blood that soaks his brother's chest.
It is hard to dream when the future holds the grim promise of death and despair.
Things come to a head on a smoldering hot summer's day towards late afternoon as Thorin and Dwalin are trudging over a rocky plain on their way home from a trade journey. The attack is swift, brutal and far too coordinated to be casual. As he is fighting back to back with his friend, Dwalin thanks the Maker that there are no more than eight of them, nor are they particularly well-trained. They are Men, large and bulky and ragged-looking, and the two warriors take down three of them before their attackers realize that their smaller frames do not make them easy prey. They become more cautious after that, and even as Thorin and Dwalin are defending themselves with swift, practiced movements, their hits rarely strike the enemies' flesh.
"They're dwarves," one of them shouts angrily, a huge fellow with dirty blonde hair and a large spiked club. "They don't tire, but they're small! Strike them down, will you! Take his head and leave the carcass to the beasts!"
It is pure reflex that prevents Dwalin from freezing to the spot as the world around him slows down.
Almost in trance he watches a blade coming down upon him, watches his own hand move upward as Keeper slices right through the attacker's arm.
Then his vision goes red.
Afterwards he cannot tell exactly what happened after he threw himself upon the enemy with a roaring war-cry and nary a thought for his own safety. There is a blur of bodies and blood and steel, a dance so practiced that it needs no conscious control beneath the pure animalistic rage that fuels it. He strikes and parries and hacks and slays, until one of the attackers collapses on top of him and throws him off balance, and he stumbles backwards and trips over a rock.
One false move is usually fatal. Dwalin has no time to react as a large figure appears before him and raises his sword for a deadly strike…
…and then the Man chokes and gags and collapses in a heap, shuddering violently before he lies still. Thorin is standing behind him, the blade of Deathless dripping with blood.
They stare at each other in silence, and Dwalin realizes that the battle is over. Their enemies are dead, which means they cannot be made to tell who was behind the attempt on Thorin's life, and right now Thorin is just as likely to rip his head off as one of them would have been.
After a moment the king turns around and stalks off, and Dwalin takes a deep breath and follows him without a second thought for the dead bodies they leave in their wake.
Dwalin can tell that his friend is seething as they make their way home. He is too upset himself to care for it, because now the knowledge that it could happen any time hits him right in the guts. What if he is too sure that Thorin's hair will be greying when he falls and thus misses a deadly strike that comes before the time? Now someone wants Thorin dead and he effectively ruined the chance to find out who it is. He is going to prevent it or die trying, he decides savagely, and Thorin can think about that whatever he likes. But all he has to offer is even more vigilance, more violence, more protection, and how can giving more of what he would he have given regardless possibly make a difference?
Thorin stomps through the flat, shedding soiled boots and bloodied weapons on the way, and Dwalin follows on his heels in a remarkably similar mindset. They both ignore the alarmed gazes of Dís and Balin, who are seated in front of the fireplace with a chess board between them, and Dwalin closes the door of their room with a loud bang. An instant later Thorin has slammed him into the wall and grabbed a handful of his tunic that tears under the rough twist.
"Have you lost your mind, you goblin-brained ass?"
"Shut up," Dwalin snaps and catches a handful of Thorin's hair to pull him closer, because they both know what this will lead up to and they need it right now like nothing else. Thorin begins to palm him roughly through his trousers without releasing the grip on his shirt, and Dwalin grabs the back of Thorin's head and pulls him into a brutal kiss.
They don't even make it to the bed this time, stumbling to the floor in a heated tussle of biting and hair-pulling and the careless tearing of clothes, a display that would be taken as a vicious battle for dominance by any who doesn't know them well. Eventually Thorin ends up flat on his back while Dwalin takes him roughly, half-dressed as they are, with one of Thorin's hands pinned to the cold stone floor while the other is clawing deep red marks into the bare skin of his shoulder. They move together as one in pleasure as in battle, both skills being honed through hundreds of encounters on the training ground and between threadbare sheets, and occasionally against the dirty walls of cheap wayside inns. Dwalin's free hand is moving between them to pleasure his friend, upon which Thorin grabs his hair and forces him into a kiss that tastes of blood, and he cannot tell which of them is crying out when reality dissolves and they both drown in a flood of pure sensation.
Moments later there is the sound of a heavy object hitting the door, followed by a curse Dwalin has heard before in the soldiers' quarters but never from his brother's lips. It makes for a harsh return to his actual surroundings, and he ignores it for the moment in favour of watching his friend in a rare moment of relaxation, still breathing heavily and with his features open and unguarded for once. Thorin meets his eyes, solemn and searching, as if he is looking for an answer he cannot find. Then he pulls Dwalin's head down and buries his face in the other's shaggy beard.
"Idiot," he growls against Dwalin's skin, and Dwalin silently agrees.
Later he watches his sleeping friend, spread out naked in the warmth of their room that provides insufficient shelter against the summer heat, and he repeats the words in his mind, over and over again, that he has never allowed himself to say aloud.
I love you. I cannot lose you. Promise me you'll never leave me behind.
His hand roams over Thorin's bare body, gently so as not to wake him; over muscular buttocks and a broad back with thick shoulder blades, and he combs through the full dark hair that falls over the shoulders, unbound except for the two narrow braids at the king's temples. Dwalin lets one of them slip through his fingers, and then he stops as the breath catches in his throat.
Woven into the tight braid are the first shimmering strands of silver.
"You're sure it was him?"
Thorin shrugs and leans back in his chair. Their sparse baggage is neatly piled beside the door on which they both have a wary eye. It appears to be necessary after Thorin's encounter with the legendary wizard.
"Pretty sure. No ordinary traveler, that's for certain. Knew what he was doing. Knew what he wanted."
"Erebor." Dwalin straightens the fingers of his left hand and absent-mindedly inspects his knuckle dusters. He has not even had the chance to get out of his coat, and now they're going to leave as soon as Thorin has finished his tale. It will be dangerous to sleep outside, but no more than here in this room while a bunch of cut-throats know where they're lodging. "What interest does Tharkûn hold in Erebor?"
"The dragon, it seems. He thinks…" Thorin's expression is more serious than Dwalin has ever seen it. "He thinks the dark forces are stirring again. If that is true, none of us will be safe in Ered Luin. It doesn't look like a choice to me."
"You would go even if there was a choice."
"I would." Thorin pauses. "But I wish we had a sound plan. The wizard's ideas are hazardous at best."
There is nothing to say to that. Dwalin sighs.
"He didn't have any idea who's after your head?"
"No. But he seemed to think I'd better run." Thorin chuckles, but there is no humor in it. "Might as well run to Erebor."
They share a look of wordless understanding. Neither of them is ready for this. As often as they dreamt about it by the fire, as surely as they always believed in their eventual return, now that they are charged with the task it seems to crush them before they even started.
Thorin is not ready, and it is one reason why he sought to find his father in whose return he desperately believes ever since rumors of Thráin's whereabouts reached his ears. Thráin, whom he deems more competent to complete such a mission. Thráin, who was sure to come up with a reasonable plan instead of this mad suicide venture. Dwalin knows that his friend does not think himself worthy of the task, that he fears more than death itself a failure that would crush the hopes of his people and disappoint his forefathers. He will go, regardless. But he is afraid. They will not talk about it, but Dwalin knows.
He laces his own iron-clad fingers with Thorin's, and Thorin looks up at him with a grim little smile. They know each other well, and they will face it together. There is no need to exchange words over this.
What Thorin cannot know, will never know, is that Dwalin is afraid as well. He lifts his hand and brushes a long grey strand out of his friend's face, and then he tries his hardest to control the surge of panic that rises in his chest. This is it, then, he knows with a terrifying clarity. The mountain, always at the end of all the long, winding roads in their exile, the golden land of their dreams, is the place where his own world will be ripped apart. He had almost eighty years to prepare for that, but he will never be ready.
Tell him, a voice in the back of his head is screaming. Tell him now, we must not go, we must leave the boys behind, think of Víli, you promised. You promised!
But he knows that it is useless. They do not have a choice. Erebor is the future of their people, and their chance is now or never. It is not only for the sake of their own small family that they must go, but for all the exiles of the Lonely Mountain who are depending on them. Thorin's burden is heavy enough to bear without the excruciating knowledge that he is marching to his death and taking his loved ones with him. Fíli and Kíli are of age; Erebor is their heritage, even Dís would not force them to stay behind against their will. And even if she did, even if she somehow managed to persuade them to remain behind until the mountain is reclaimed, what if the battle that takes their lives finds them in the Blue Mountains or somewhere on the road? If Tharkûn is right and the dark forces are stirring again, no place is left to safety.
He wants to rebel against it with all his being. He wants to roar and pound the wall with his fists and hack the entire furniture of the Prancing Pony to kindling with his axes. He has waited all these years, and now that he knows the time has come, there is nothing he can do. They will go to their doom like lambs to the slaughter.
A heavy hand smoothes over his brow, and he realizes that his mind has been wandering again. Thorin looks at him gravely, and again there is the searching look that tells him his friend is wondering about his strange moods. He takes Thorin's hand in his own and kisses the knuckles.
"So now the day has come," he says, and his calm belies the storm inside. "My friend. My liege. Where you go, I go."
"I know," Thorin replies with a solemn nod. "There is no more I can ask for."
They almost come to blows when Thorin orders him to stay behind in the Blue Mountains.
"It is only for a few weeks," he insists, and although his voice brooks no argument, Dwalin is feeling mutinous. "We've gone through this. I talk to Dáin, Balin rounds up our allies from the Blue Mountains, you take care of the youngsters. We'll all meet again in the Shire."
"You'll get lost," Dwalin grouses angrily, but in the end Thorin is still his king and he has no choice but to comply.
He is aware that he doesn't even get the worst part. Dís was very vocal about Thorin's decision to leave her in charge of the settlement, but they all know there's no alternative. The wizard's words left no doubt that the times are getting darker, and someone needs to lead the community in Thorin's absence, someone with the skill and authority to protect it in times of danger. She is not pleased, but she yields with a grace, and Dwalin knows he should follow her example.
He finds it very hard to do so.
They depart on a warm, sunny spring day that promises dry roads and easy travel. The air is filled with the faint smell of flowers from the meadow nearby, and a light breeze is playing in Dís' hair as she steps to Dwalin's side and helps him fasten his baggage behind the saddle.
"If you don't return them in one piece I'll cut off your balls with a kitchen knife," she informs him with a smirk, but the smile drops when she sees his expression. "What's wrong?"
"I can't promise," he admits hoarsely. "I'll try. But I can't…" He trails off. Eighty years ago he promised her dead husband he'd do whatever he could. Now he fears that it will not be good enough.
He isn't sure that Víli would understand.
"Dwalin." She stops him with a hand on his cheek, then draws him close and gently touches her forehead against his. "I know. I didn't mean that. I know you'll do anything, and I trust you, old friend. My heart is lighter while they are with you."
He runs a hand through her thick black locks and breathes deeply, savoring the moment of trust and companionship. But when they break apart and he meets her eyes, brilliant blue like her brother's and calm like the sky on a cloudless day, he feels like a traitor.
She is never going to see her children again.
He swallows against the lump in his throat, and she presses his hand with a smile before he mounts his pony. Fíli and Kíli are waving and laughing, excited like a couple of young wolves that are allowed to hunt in the pack for the first time. Their father would be so proud of them.
Forgive me, my friend, he thinks as their ponies are falling into a comfortable trot, and the low, plain buildings of their old life vanish behind a corner.
Somewhere in the distance the Lonely Mountain is waiting for them.