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Echoes of the End

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Erebor, the golden kingdom of the dwarves, is meant to be a place of beauty and life. The large halls are supposed to be filled with laughter and enterprise, with dwarven craftsmen and artists and officials bustling along endlessly spiraling staircases and across railingless bridges. The noise of raucous feasts should sound from the banquet halls and the clatter of axes and soldiers' curses from the training grounds. One should have to take care not to stumble over children chasing after tiny mechanical oliphaunts, or bump into scholars with stacks of books and parchments on their way to the library, and the markets should be overflowing with precious goods from all corners of Middle Earth.

This is what Dwalin remembers. It has been vivid in his heart for more than a century, kept alive by wistful talks by the fire, by shared dreams of a better future that would see him and his loved ones back where they belonged, together and home and finally whole again.

Now the kingdom is reclaimed and the dragon is slain, but Dwalin will never be whole again. And as he walks the ruined, echoing halls of the Mountain, he knows that Erebor will never be what it once was.

They were fools to return. Erebor was lost long ago, and now the blind determination to deny their fate has claimed the lives of Thorin and both his nephews. Oh, how they dreamt to rebuild the old glory side by side, the rightful king and his most faithful friend. Instead they found only madness and death and a kingdom that is vast and empty and broken. Those who survived the battle have begun to make repairs already, but they have barely moved beyond the few rooms around the entrance, with the exception of the large chamber deep beneath the rock where Dwalin's heart lies buried along with those he loved more than his own life.

His aimless wandering has taken him to a corridor that used to lead toward the lower training grounds. None of them has ventured this far from the main gate yet, but they are as good a place to see as any, and he is not expected back within the next few hours. Exploring the ruins is a necessity, though strictly speaking they are not supposed to go alone; but Dwalin has little patience for anyone but Balin these days, and Balin is otherwise occupied. So he strolls along the well-trodden path, idly running his hand over the wall of greenish stone that is sprinkled with flecks of gold and trying to recall where each of the side doors and crossroads lead.

The wave of panic hits him out of nowhere. Suddenly the air around him seems to freeze into a crystal mass of ice. He cannot move his feet, even while his mind is flooded with the overwhelming urge to turn away and run as fast as he can. With an effort he breaks free of the invisible hold, only to lose his balance and stumble blindly against the wall.

Then the ceiling crashes down.

It is pure reflex that makes him huddle against the wall and cover his face. When the dust clears, his paralyzing fear simply vanishes along with it. He shakes off the rubble and holds up his lamp, and in the flickering light of the candle he sees enough to become aware of two facts.

The first is that the rest of this tunnel seems perfectly solid. There are no visible cracks, and it does not look like the dragon was here at all. Dwarven stonework does not wither in a century or two. There is no explanation of why a part of this structure broke down so suddenly.

Second, the momentary surge of panic saved his life. One step further would have brought him to a painful death.

 

Not much happens in the next few weeks, and although he never forgets the incident, other worries take precedence. He is grateful for them because they give him something to do. There are repairs to be made, wounds to be tended and bodies to be recovered. The humans of Laketown need their aid, for the winter is harsh and their homes are burnt, and Dáin has declared in unmistakable terms that Erebor shall never turn away fugitives, regardless of their race. The delicate negotiations with the Woodland realm rest on the shoulders of the newly crowned king and on Balin, but Balin's worry has always been Dwalin's as well. He is grateful beyond measure for Dáin's political prowess, his unwavering loyalty and strength; yet when the day is done, when their cousin takes off the crown that was never meant for him and rubs a hand across his weary face, the toll it is taking on him is plain to see by the select few who are allowed to do so. While the dwarves of Erebor have regained their home, Dáin has lost his own. He will never be able to return to the Iron Hills, except perhaps for a brief stately visit.

There is no joy left in Dwalin's life, but during the day he keeps himself so busy that he is mostly able to suppress his overwhelming grief, which he considers a remarkable achievement. It does not shield him in the wee hours of the morning when, in the dream-like state between waking and sleeping, he reaches for a body beside him and finds none. Each single morning the knowledge that Thorin will never again wake up by his side hits him like a falling rock and crushes him just as thoroughly. More often than not he awakens in the middle of the night, tortured by visions of lifeless blue eyes and dark blood pooling on a river of ice. Each day he momentarily forgets and then he spots Kíli's bright face in the crowd,
or a young dwarf with golden hair passes him on the way to the forges and he almost calls out. He cannot count the times he has turned to meet Thorin's eye, sharing a thought without speaking it aloud, before he remembered. But by and large, he gets along.

 

One day three months after the battle a group of five Iron Hills soldiers sets out to clear the path toward the Northern emerald mine. They do not return. Their tools are found abandoned in one of deep tunnels, without any hint as to why they were left behind. The search for them claims two lives when a stairway collapses for no apparent reason, and another when a guardswoman slips on a narrow bridge and tumbles to her death. But the lost soldiers are not found.

Dwalin dreams of Thorin that night, and this time it is no dream of ice and blood. His friend is shouting at him, but he cannot understand a single word.

It is not Dáin's way to abandon his people in the face of adversary, even though their chances of survival diminish with every hour. On the second day of the search Dwalin is teamed up with Balin, Bifur and Bofur to cover a previously uncharted maze of tunnels that connects the emerald mines in the North with the large storage rooms in the lower levels.

Their steps echo in the empty halls as they descend on endless stairs deeper and deeper into the mountain. They walk in silence, each lost in his own thoughts. Bifur and Bofur marvel at the sheer size of the mines. Dwalin admires the fine stonework, the brilliant architecture that blends the dwarven craftsmanship seamlessly with the structure of the rock beneath. He wishes that Thorin were here to see it.

Here and there they find reminders of the mining work that used to be done down here, sheds with dust-covered tools or mechanical devices used for the transport of rocks. In a small storage room they discover three mummified bodies half-buried under fallen debris. But there is no sign of the missing soldiers.

Eventually they reach a spacious hall made of green marble, so large that they can hardly see the wall on the far side in the half-light even with their sharp dwarven eyes. Chairs and tables are arranged in rows, and the whole room is cluttered with boxes of jewels, leather-bound books, scales, weights, measuring rules and other tools Dwalin has never seen before. The dwarves who worked here must have left in a hurry and never returned, for now the things they left behind are covered by a thick layer of dust.

Bifur is the first to speak. I do not think we will find them here, he says in his ancient tongue. This room looks untouched. Why is it so warm down here?

Bofur looks up sharply from the box of emeralds beside the door that evidently distracted him for a moment. "Too warm," the miner agrees with a frown, and now that he voices the thought, Dwalin knows that he is right. There are no torches and fires lit beside their own feeble lamps, no reasonable explanation for the warmth that seems to grow stronger with every moment. Dwalin has the strange feeling that something is moving around them, something he cannot touch, and the air seems to be vibrating in the darkness like it usually does in the summer heat.

Balin raises his lamp and steps further into the hall. The faint light does not reach the walls and throws flickering shadows on the ground.

A wave of cold sweeps over Dwalin, and his feet stop of their own accord. There is a loud ringing in his ears, and he curses his own weakness. Is he so broken that he cannot even be of use in one simple mission?

"Don't you think," Bofur says slowly, "that there's a strange smell around here?"

"Must be the lamps," Balin suggests, not sounding convinced in the slightest, and he is wrong because it is not the lamps, not at all, and the ringing turns into a voice Dwalin knows, muffled shouts that make him freeze in terror.

get out get out get out

The air smells of smoke. There is a rumble in the deep, and the strange scratching sounds of giant claws on hard stone.

GET OUT OF HERE, YOU THICK-HEADED FOOLS

Dwalin whirls around and grabs Bifur's arm. "Balin! We must leave this place! Quick!"

His friends trust him implicitly and don't waste time for explanations. Together they barge out of the room and run back along the corridor and up the narrow staircase, slowing only at a safe distance.

The halls behind them are black and silent.

 

"I can only tell what was there," Dwalin says irritably. "Smoke in the air. Strange sounds. Reeked of danger."

Balin narrows his eyes and says nothing. Bofur looks confused. He was not there when the dragon came, so he will not remember the sights and sounds that are burned into Dwalin's memory, but Balin must know. Bifur probably knows as well because he always knows things, but he just leans against the wall and watches Dwalin expectantly.

"If there was another dragon down there, we'd know about it," Balin declares at last, which makes Bofur's eyes go wide as dinner plates.

For a moment none of them says a word. Not a single sound is heard from the depths. The voice in Dwalin's head is silent.

"Let us go back and find Dáin," Balin decides eventually. "We must tell him about this."

As they climb up the endless stairs toward the upper levels, Dwalin cannot shake the feeling that he is being watched. But there is no one behind him.

 

It is late when he returns to the chamber he has taken to share with Balin, bone tired but unable to rest, while the events of the day whirl in his head like large mechanical wheel. He sinks down onto the soft furs that make his bed and leans his head against the wall.

A draft of cold air wafts through the room. The lamp starts to flicker.

He sits up, suddenly alert. It is a long shot for sure, but he knows what he heard, and if there is only the slightest chance he will gladly make a fool of himself.

"Thorin?"

The lamp flickers again. Dwalin stares at the flame as it continues to undulate although the air surrounding it is stuffy and unmoving.

Thorin never had much use for ghosts. When they were young, he and Dwalin would delight in spooky stories by the fire, and sometimes they would sneak off into dark tunnels and forgotten chambers and dare each other not to turn around when the air grew chilly around them. But Erebor had fallen and their careless youth had ended too early, and grown-up Thorin was far too practical to worry about lingering spirits of the dead. Dwalin has never been entirely sure, but he has not given the matter much thought.

Now he thinks that perhaps he should have.

"You're here, ghivashel, aren't you? You're trying to tell me something?"

The small flame dances in an invisible breeze, and then it dies. Dwalin leans back into the furs and lets the cold air surround him. If this is indeed a ghost, he does not fear it.

He dreams again that night, but in the morning the visions are gone.

 

The King Under The Mountain is most decidedly not amused. He paces his writing chamber in silent wrath while Balin holds his ground, looking thoroughly unruffled and patiently waiting for him to speak his mind. Bofur is looking from one to the other in notable unease. The miner may have known Thorin and his family for many decades, but still he does not walk lightly in the company of kings and politicians. It was another story entirely when the kings and politicians in question were living a humble life among their fellow craftsmen. Their new status could hardly be more different.

Bifur watches the scene with interest.

"I don't know what it is," Dáin snaps eventually and glares at Balin as though it was his personal responsibility, "but it is not a dragon."

"Never said it was," Balin returns placidly.

"If it was a dragon," the king continues, his volume rising steadily, "it would be in the treasure chamber, not in the mines. Besides, it's not as if there's room down there for such a giant beast. You were there, Balin, for Mahal's sake, you saw what he did to the front door!"

"Dáin," Balin interrupts him calmly as if he were trying to soothe an agitated battle pig. "I do not think that there is a dragon in the mines."

Dáin throws himself into a chair and runs a hand through his beard. The exchange is an almost verbatim repeat of the discussion they led the evening before, and they are running in circles. Dwalin wonders if he should speak of his own outrageous suspicions.

"Something's wrong," the king admits after a long pause. All the fight seems to have left him in a heartbeat. Now he looks only drawn and tired. "This is the third incident this week. People disappear, stairways collapse, and now you talk about dragon noises. By the Maker, Balin, if it wasn't you telling me... But there's nothing for it." He looks at each of them in turn. "Suggestions?"

"Well..." Balin muses, "We should certainly try to get to the heart of the matter, so I suggest we mark the sites on a map and ..."

But Dwalin is not listening.

The air in the room has suddenly become stifling. The papers on Dáin's desk rustle in a dry, hot wind. Peals of sweat have appeared on Bofur's forehead.

Balin breaks off, his eyes widening in disbelief.

Then Dwalin is enveloped by a familiar wave of cold. He turns around to see Thorin standing beside him.

His friend looks just like he did when they laid him to rest, strikingly beautiful his simple chain mail and the dark leather coat, and the sudden pain in Dwalin's chest nearly chokes him. But there is no time to give into it, because Thorin's eyes are wide with terror and he is pointing urgently towards the door. He seems to be shouting at the top of his voice, but no sound comes out. Dwalin reacts in an instant."Out, now!" he screams and throws himself towards Dáin.

The chamber bursts into flames.

There is a whirl of fire and smoke and incoherent shouts as all five of them scramble for the exit. Dwalin clutches Dáin's robes, and then there is a strong arm around his waist as his cousin holds onto him and drags him forward. The hot air is burning his lungs and bringing tears to his eyes. Someone is coughing violently, and there is a crash and a cry of pain. Dáin shoves him through the door and turns around, just to see their friends stumble out of the flames and into their arms, each on his own feet and blissfully alive. The king roars a command to his guards, but before anyone can set off the alarm and get help to extinguish the fire, the noise behind them stops abruptly.

Dáin grabs Dwalin's arm so hard that there will be bruises, but Dwalin feels no pain. Instead he stares at the scene in utter disbelief.

No more than a smoldering mess is left of the king's study, but the fire has vanished without a trace.