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Dust of Snow

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The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

(Robert Frost)

 

Winter comes early this year.

The first snow begins to fall while they are in Laketown. It lies in muddy patches on the road as they make their way towards the mountain, not pure but grey and wet and dirty, and the river is covered in thin plates of ice. Dwalin wonders if he should take it as a sign, the early frost that means the death of living things that are not yet prepared for the merciless cold. Later he remembers that there were other ominous signs that should not have passed his notice. Not once does Thorin's hand reach out for his own during their uneasy stay in this morass of human fickleness and deceit. Not once does his friend voice the dark thoughts that are mirrored in his eyes as he stares into the distance, looking without seeing towards the Lonely Mountain.

Dwalin is afraid. He has reason to be afraid, and it is not one he can bring himself to share with any of the Company. Unwanted thoughts keep squirming into his mind, cut his temper short and make him lie awake at night, unable to get any rest.

Yet he fails to see the most dangerous threat until it is upon them.

 

"I do not see the significance." Bilbo Baggins draws himself up to his inconsiderable height and glares daggers at each of them in turn. "A gem. You want to find a pretty gem. Smaug is wrecking havoc in Laketown, all those people there, you know they took us in and they... they're innocent and he'll kill them, and all you want is this cursed gem?"

"Yes, and as fast as possible, if you please." Thorin does not bother to conceal his impatience. "Before the worm returns. Now get going, we've no time for idle chatter!" He turns around and glowers at his companions, who have the grace to look vaguely nervous. "Now!" he barks, and a flurry of activity results when every dwarf of the company begins to balance on unsteady piles of gold and jewels, ploughing through them as if they were mere earth to find the one artefact that ensures the success of their quest.

Every dwarf except Dwalin, who is held back rather than urged on by the sharp tone of his friend's voice. His sense for danger has been overstrained for the entire course of their journey and his whole being is in a perpetual state of alarm, which means that he is not about to ignore any critical situation, however harmless it may seem.

The burglar is not participating, either. Bilbo watches the commotion with thin lips and a frown on his usually cheerful face.

Then Thorin turns towards them, and his eyes narrow. "You!" he snarls. "Both of you. Get your lazy hides down there, and I'm not saying it again!"

There is a sharp intake of breath from Bilbo, and suddenly Dwalin worries for his safety almost as much as for Thorin's. He steps behind the hobbit and shoves him towards the stairs that lead right into the piled gold. Bilbo whips around to give him an angry glare, but when their eyes meet, his expression softens and indignation is replaced by a grim understanding.

Dwalin looks away first. He will not admit it, not to Mr Baggins nor anyone else, but Thorin has never spoken to him like this. Not once in nearly two hundred years.

He digs his nails into his palms and steps past Bilbo onto the mountain of treasure.

 

To find one single gemstone in a mountain full of treasure might be considered a useless endeavor.

"We'll sure need the blessing of Mahal, we do," Bofur announces with a sigh. The miner wipes his sweaty forehead with a dirty sleeve and smears a trail of grime across his face before he turns around and flashes a grin at Balin. "Well. About time, eh?"

Balin nods and lets his gaze roam across the alcove through which they have been digging for the past three hours. There is a haunted look in his brother's eyes, Dwalin notes. Balin's hands are running restlessly through a pile of coins, as if the touch of gold is soothing him, and Dwalin fights the urge to grab them and hold them still.

"Sure, laddie," his brother replies with a forced smile. "We're here, against all odds. The Maker would have vicious sense of humor, to lead us so far only to abandon us in this hour of need."

"Well, he does, sometimes." Bofur shrugs and digs his boot into a heap of gems. It collapses, but no white glow appears from the depths. "No use fretting about it, I say. What's to happen will happen, and we can't change fate, can we? But perhaps he's kind to us, after all."

Dwalin's fingers grip the rough stone wall to his right until his nails are splintering. Images are flashing through his mind, well-known but still terrifying, and for a moment all he sees is blood.

We can't change fate, can we?

Perhaps he cannot. Perhaps Víli's warning was nothing more than the twisted joke of some malevolent god. The air around him seems to thicken, and it is getting difficult to breathe.

"Kind?" he grouses bitterly. "No-one's kind to us, mate. If we don't bend fate to our will, it'll crush us. That's vicious humour for you."

Balin's head snaps up, and Dwalin catches the alarm in his brother's gaze just before a heavy hand lands on his shoulder.

"Just what I was going to say," Thorin growls as he steps past him. "And I'll be damned if I don't bend it to my will this time. So stop wasting time and find the stone, or everything will be in vain!"

Thorin's eyes are pale in the dim light, and small beads of sweat are shining on his brow. His gaze is roaming across the treasure as if he could find the King's Jewel by the force of his will alone. He does not meet Dwalin's eyes, as he rarely does ever since they have arrived at the Mountain. They have known each other so long and so intimately that they can understand each other without words, but now Thorin seems to look right through him, and for the first time ever Dwalin feels like his best friend is beyond his reach, separated by an invisible wall.

It makes him want to scream in frustration.

Balin and Bofur exchange a glance and return to their labour, and Thorin turns on his heels and walks away to admonish the rest of the Company. Dwalin watches his back until he is out of sight. Then he grips a large gem that is lying at his feet, a sapphire, blue as Thorin's eyes and big as his own fist and polished into a thousand sparkling facets, and smashes it against the wall again and again until his fist is bleeding. Shards of the splintered stone are digging into his hand and Balin is clinging to his arms, holding him back and speaking frantically, though he cannot make out the words over the roaring of blood in his ears.

He falls back against the rock and gasps for breath. Slowly he is regaining control over himself and fights back the fury, the all-consuming rage that is always waiting to spring to life and overtake his senses ever since they entered the mountain.

Balin said that a sickness lies upon the hoard.

He swallows and looks at the concerned faces of his friends, both of them still standing close enough to hold onto him, should the need arise. He shrugs them off and steps past them.

"I'm fine," he growls and resumes his search.

 

For days they are waiting. The constant threat is washing away the patience of even the most good-natured members of the company. Ever they are listening for far-off roars, for the scratching of large talons and the beating of leathery wings and the scent of fire that wafts through the vast, empty halls. Ever they are continuing their search that becomes more frantic with every hour, and there is no joke and no song to be heard in the short breaks they allow themselves for no other reason than to avoid falling over from exhaustion.

Thorin is never among those who rest.

Dwalin is holding himself together by will alone. His body, strong and reliable as it is, will do a while without rest or a decent meal; it is his mind that rebels, his nerves that have been strained far beyond the breaking point. For eighty years he has been on his guard, always waiting, always watching, always fearing that his next mistake will be the one that causes a tragedy. He knows that it is drawing near now, and most of the time it takes all the strength he has to keep himself from roaring his rage through the echoing halls of the Mountain, to smash his fists at the cold marble walls until the bones break just like a captured beast throws itself against the bars of its cage.

Balin never leaves his side. Of his ghastly premonitions Dwalin has never spoken, but Balin has known for decades that something is weighing on his brother's mind. He has offered his silent support ever since their first uncomfortable argument about the subject.

"We can still make it work," Balin tells him now as the two of them are sitting on a narrow pathway that leads through the treasury, and sharing dry piece of cram. "Maybe we have to re-think our searching strategy. So far we have covered the general area where the stone was last seen, but perhaps the dragon has taken it somewhere else. There may be an area within the hoard where he has piled his most valuable prizes."

Dwalin watches his brother in silence, and for the first time in his life he beholds a strange and highly unsettling sight.

Balin's hands are shaking.

"You think we'll fail," Dwalin announces. Subtlety has never been among his virtues. "You think we don't stand a chance."

"What? Oh, no." Balin sighs and shakes his head. "No, that's not it. We all knew it was a risky venture and it's not over yet. Never give up until you're beaten, laddie."

Dwalin doesn't return his brother's smile. Balin starts to fumble at the frays of his worn sleeves, and Dwalin wishes he would finally keep his hands still.

"How much do you remember, nadadith?"

Dwalin looks up in surprise. His brother stares into the distance as though he is watching something that is invisible to Dwalin's eye. His hands are still moving restlessly.

"You were just a lad when it happened. Do you remember…?" He breaks off, and as abruptly as a heavy marble door falls shut and blends seamlessly into the surrounding rock, his expression becomes blank. "Never mind. Let us go, we don't have time." With that he rises and stuffs the last piece of cram into his pocket.

Dwalin stares at him for a moment before he complies. He wonders what kind of memory it is that makes his brother's hands shake, but he does not ask.

 

The dragon does not return to the mountain, but still there is fire in the night when a long row of lanterns and torches light the road that leads from the river towards Erebor. It is a vast armed host of lake-men that marches up to the Mountain and makes camp right at the foot of the front gate. They ignore Thorin's inquiry as to their purpose, and instead proceed to light fires and settle for the night. The sound of songs and laughter echoes through the valley, accompanied by the distinctive sound of elven harps.

"Why are they here?" Fíli grouses as the Company is watching the commotion from the battlements. "And why have they brought elves?"

"Why do you think?" Thorin snaps angrily. "They seek to take which is ours. Surely they were prepared to step over our dead bodies, but we will not make it so easy!"

"But the dragon..." Fíli shakes his head in confusion. "Where's the dragon?"

But there is no answer to that, and the dwarves return into the halls to find a bit of uneasy rest for the night. Dwalin lies awake and listens to the faint metallic sounds that carry over from the treasury.

Thorin is not resting by his side, and he tells himself that the cold that makes him shiver has nothing to do with fear.

 

The diplomatic interactions do not go well.

The men's bearing is insolent, their demands are ridiculous, and the fact that they are accompanied by the elven king who detained Thorin's company on their quest is an outrage. Thorin is seething with fury, and for once Dwalin knows exactly what is going on in his mind because he feels very much the same. There is no way they can give in to those terms, not if Thorin wishes to keep face and be respected as a ruler, although it is very clear that there is no respect to be lost right now because their adversaries have none for them.

The Company members watch in helpless rage as Thorin ends the conversation with a well-aimed arrow in the messengers' shield, and they are officially under siege.

 

"He who calls himself King Under The Mountain," Kíli fumes. "How dare they? Were they lying to us all the time? They were cheering to us, they promised to help!"

"They blame us for the destruction of their homes, and they feel entitled because they killed the dragon," Balin mutters with worry in his eyes. "This is very bad. We need an alliance, Erebor cannot stand alone..."

Thorin slams a fist upon the railing. "We'll see about that," he growls. "Balin, see if you can find a raven, I'm going to send a message to the Iron Hills. Now that we've taken back the mountain, Dáin will surely help us defend it from a handful of grave-robbers."

Balin nods, but before he turns away he exchanges a look with his brother, and Dwalin is reasonably sure about its meaning.

Only if we have the Arkenstone.

Thorin's cousin is a decent sort and a good friend, but it is by no means certain that he will lead his soldiers into a war against the other free people of Middle Earth. Not unless Thorin wields the King's Jewel, the symbol of leadership and glory that will unite the seven armies of the dwarves against any foe.

If we find the Arkenstone, Dwalin knows with sudden clarity, there will be war.

Not a glorious battle, but death and destruction. They do not stand a chance against an army that, even should they receive aid from the Iron Hills, still outnumbers them, and he knows the outcome because he has seen it. He still sees it in his dreams.

Thorin, white and cold, bleeding out on a narrow cot. Balin's heart pierced by a black arrow. Dark blood soaking Fíli's blonde hair and pooling around Kíli's broken body.

Their father believed that Dwalin could save them, if only he knew.

It was not the dragon, he realizes with a sinking heart. It is this he has been waiting for, this battle that he must prevent at all costs, or his loved ones will die and his own life will fall to pieces.

"Don't do that," he hears himself say against all better judgment.

All eyes turn towards him. Thorin's frown deepens even further. "Do what?"

"Go to war." He is aware that his companions are gaping at him and Balin has stopped in his tracks to give him an incredulous look, but he ignores them and carries on regardless. "They're bastards, but Balin is right. We need them. We must not start a war."

Everyone around him has gone very quiet. Thorin stares at him as if he does not believe his own ears, and Dwalin feels the blood rise to his cheeks. He is a warrior, a proud dwarf of a clan that grovels to no one, and he is Thorin's most loyal follower. He is supposed to stand steadfast behind his king, as he always has as long as he can remember.

He should not seek peace with a bunch of robbers and blackmailers who deny Thorin his rightful title and the respect they owe him.

It is not his right to question his leader's political decisions in public.

Yet Thorin has always respected his advice, even relied on it more often than not. Surely he will consider his words at least.

Thorin remains silent for a long moment. Then he catches Dwalin's arm in a hard grip. "Come with me," he orders, and Dwalin grits his teeth and complies.

 

He follows Thorin's fast strides into a small chamber that was once a guard room, conveniently out of earshot but within easy reach from the treasury. Elaborate depictions of long-forgotten battles adorn the walls, jeweled mosaics that catch the light of the torches and reflect it in a thousand glittering sparkles.

As soon as the door has closed behind Dwalin his friend whirls around, and his eyes are blazing with fury.

"That was enough, Dwalin," he snarls. "Do it again and you'll regret it."

Dwalin controls the urge to throw a punch at Thorin's left cheekbone. It would give a very satisfying crunch, and he can just imagine the look of hurt that would appear on his friend's face, the surprise that would immobilize him long enough to receive a damaging blow in the stomach that would make him double over in pain...

He bites his lip and suppresses a shudder. It is all well and good to be angry at Thorin, but his own violent fantasies unsettle him. He does not wish to hurt Thorin. He wants to keep him safe and protect him from harm.

"I didn't mean to question your authority, my king," he says stiffly. "My apologies if my opinion was ill-received."

"It was indeed," Thorin growls, "and you would do well to remember your place." The tone of contempt in his voice is one he usually reserves for those he deems hardly worth talking to. He used to speak like this to the hobbit when they first met him, but he has not done so for a long time, and Dwalin, his best friend, shield-brother and bedmate for more than a century, feels the words twisting into his chest like a knife.

He would do better to hold his tongue, not to give up but as a strategic retreat. Too long he has closed the eyes against that which he cared not to see, but now he is beginning to understand that something is deeply wrong with his friend. Thorin is proud but not foolish, tough but not cruel, and he never treated Dwalin as anything but his equal.

The pain of it is too much to bear. Stronger than before he feels the pull of a darker power seep through his weakened defenses, poisoning his thoughts and making them black with hatred. With a snarl he turns upon his friend, grips his tunic and slams him into the wall.

"You damned fool!" he thunders. "You know nothing! You'll die, that's what will happen! You'll be dead and Fíli and Kíli and Balin too, and I'll be left to pick up the pieces! And I'll tell you what I think of that, no matter if you want it or not!"

Thorin has gone very still in his grip and the flare of rage passes as quickly as it ignited. For a moment they stare at each other, then Thorin raises an eyebrow at the hand that is still clutching his shirt, and Dwalin lets him go like a piece of smoldering iron.

"You are raising your hand against your king."

Dwalin steps back and attempts to control the emotions that are raging inside him. A long moment passes before he trusts that his voice will remain steady.

"Just my king it is, now?" he manages at last.

There is no reply.

He looks at Thorin's impassive face and swallows his despair. They have been friends ever since they were little dwarflings. For nearly two hundred years they have shared sorrow and joy, they have worked together, lived together, fought and suffered and slept together. They have shared a home, a bed and a family, and they knew each other as they know themselves. Now Dwalin does not recognize his friend.

He bows his head, as custom demands. "Forgive me, my lord," he requests. "It shall not happen again."

"Make sure it doesn't."

Thorin turns and leaves the room without sparing him another glance. Dwalin leans against the wall and bites his lip until he tastes blood.

"We must not go to war," he whispers in despair. "This isn't right, you must come back to me, âzyungâl. Please come back."

But there is no answer in the silence around him.

 

"Excuse me."

Dwalin turns around to see Bilbo Baggins hovering in the doorway. The burglar looks as tense as a rabbit prepared to take flight at the smallest notice, but the look on his round little face is determined.

"I could not help but overhear… I'm sorry. You were not exactly subtle."

"Aye." Dwalin glowers at the hobbit. He does not welcome the intrusion. "So what was it you wanted?"

"You're…" Bilbo breaks off and casts a quick glance over his shoulder before he steps inside and closes the door behind himself. "A word, Master Dwarf. If you don't mind. As private as possible, if that's not too much to ask."

He looks pale and nervous and would clearly prefer to be anywhere else than in present company, but his spine is straight and he does not cower from Dwalin's angry glare. There is more to their burglar than meets the eye, Dwalin thinks once again with grudging respect.

"Quick, then, and get it over with," he growls.

"Right." The hobbit draws a deep breath and meets Dwalin's eyes. "You and Thorin… you're very close, I understand that much."

"We were. Not now, it seems."

"So, if I may ask… why do you oppose him?"

"Beg your pardon?" Dwalin grits his teeth to keep his temper from flaring.

"You're the only one who speaks up against him. We're all seeing what he's like, we can't help but see, can we?" Bilbo's laugh sounds hollow. "That's not… normal, is it? But you're the only one who questions him. It made me wonder."

"What's it to you?" Dwalin snarls, his anger rising slowly. "Can't see how that's any of your business, Master Burglar."

"Maybe not." Bilbo's hand twists nervously inside the pocket of his coat. "You said you didn't want a war."

"Well, I don't."

"What if there was a way to prevent it?"

Dwalin's thoughts come to a sudden halt. He does not even spare a thought on the way he must be gaping at the hobbit.

"How?" he demands.

"You're going to kill me. I know you will." Bilbo lets out a shaky breath. "Right, then. What if I told you that I might know… I don't have it on me, just so you understand… but what if I know where the Arkenstone is?"

That is not what Dwalin had hoped to hear. "Thorin will be delighted," he says curtly.

"But I don't think I should give it to him." The hobbit takes a step back, clearly prepared to run. "No, hear me out. He wants it so much. I've never seen anybody want a thing so much." He pauses, biting his lip and avoiding Dwalin's eyes. His right hand is still moving in his pocket.

"It is a dangerous thing," he continues softly, "to want something too much. It captures your mind and ensnares your senses. It will never let you go."

"What do you know of it?" Dwalin demands quietly, because this conversation has taken an altogether unexpected turn. He ignores the twinge of fear that tells him the burglar is right, and Dwalin should know because he knows what it means to want something too much.

"Who, me? Oh, nothing. Nothing at all." Bilbo flashes him a winning and entirely fake smile. "Now, as you said, you don't want a war and neither do I. If Thorin's not listening to you or Balin, he'll listen to no-one, right? But if… it's just a thought, mind you, but I really don't know what else to do… if I gave the Arkenstone to Bard, then Thorin would be forced to… ouch, will you get your hands off me!"

For a moment Dwalin's senses are blurred by white-hot fury, and he lifts the insolent little creature by his shirtfront and shoves him roughly against the wall. "How dare you!" he hisses in outrage. "How dare you even suggest such a thing, you treacherous little…"

"Now will you hear me out, you foolish dwarf!" Somehow Bilbo manages to look indignant even with his feet dangling a foot above the ground, and his righteous annoyance surprises Dwalin enough to pause for a moment. This is how a wolf must feel, he thinks, when the rabbit bites back.

"I'll have you know that I could simply have done it," Bilbo informs him angrily. "Snuck over the battlements, it would have been child's play for a master burglar, because that's what I am, if I may remind you. But I didn't. I don't want a war, I don't want them all dead, Kíli and Fíli and Bofur and all the others, and if you've got a better idea, I'll be delighted to hear it!"

Slowly Dwalin sets him back to the ground and lets him go. He slumps heavily against the wall and closes his eyes.

If Thorin gets hold of the Arkenstone, then it is over.

Handing it over to the enemy is the last thing he would agree to do if he lived to be a thousand years.

But if it remained hidden…

Dwalin fights back the nausea that is rising in his throat. This is high treason. The mere fact that he is considering it must be counted as such.

He does not know how long he remains still and silent, but when he opens his eyes, the hobbit is still watching patiently. Bilbo's face is drawn and pale, and dark rings are shadowing his eyes.

"Maybe," Dwalin says slowly, "if we would hide it. Just for a while. Just until he's recovered."

"But what if…" Bilbo begins, and then breaks off. Dwalin glares at him. The suggestion that Thorin may never recover will not be voiced in his presence. The burglar clears his throat.

"So. How do you think that would help?"

Dwalin breathes deeply and steels himself. This is the one chance he has been waiting for almost eighty years. He has no choice but to take it, even if it makes him the lowest of traitors. If Thorin ever learns about this, their friendship will be ruined beyond repair, and it is no less than he deserves.

"Do you have any idea," he asks, "what the Arkenstone is?"

 

(- End of part 1 -)