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In Ered Luin

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            Dwalin, contrary to popular belief, was a very patient dwarf.  Not on the surface, perhaps – he had never suffered fools, gladly or otherwise – but at bottom he was a warrior.  Most of being a warrior was the travel between battlegrounds, and much of the rest was training and caring for his weapons.  Actual combat was so infrequent that bards could still write songs about all the battles Dwalin had been in.

            He was a patient dwarf, and he did what he set out to do.  He’d told Bofur he would regain his trust, and he meant to do just that.  If the only way to regain Bofur’s trust was to refrain from committing violence upon his person for a few decades until Bofur believed it, Dwalin would wait out the decades.  He wouldn’t like it, but he would do it.

            Dwalin could admit to relief when he heard Bofur take up his flute again; the silence had been awful beyond the bearing.  Dwalin had spent the night before going over the options if it turned out he’d ruined everything between them.  There were always Orcs to kill, campaigns to join, glory to be earned – but all that had lost a bit of its luster.  Dwalin had a home now, and for all he thought his King a bit silly and graceless, it was the first home he’d ever had.  He didn’t want to leave it.  He didn’t want to leave Balin and he didn’t want to leave Bofur.

           Bofur was so damned determined to act as if nothing had changed, as if nothing had happened at Bag End between them, and Dwalin didn’t see that he had much choice in the matter.  Dwalin couldn’t fix this awkwardness between them any more than he could fix his body.  He could bind away the most offending bits and try to pretend the rest didn’t exist… which must be what Bofur was trying to do.

           So he would be patient.  And thank Mahal, they would be among other dwarves again soon.  Bofur would regain his equilibrium when he had other dwarves to laugh with, and Dwalin was looking forward to Ered Luin for a very different reason.

           Where there were dwarves, there were ink-artists.  Dwalin had wished for decades that he could tattoo his chest, and he meant to do so as soon as the incisions from surgery had healed completely.

 


 

 

My dearest Balin,

           We have arrived at Ered Luin at long last.  The innkeeper tells me that the quarterly mail will depart in two days, so tonight I write the unofficial letter, and tomorrow I will write the official letter for the King.  The journey took longer than planned for reasons better discussed in person, but you can tell the King that Bofur has mended any insult felt by Lord Elrond for Thorin’s mistrust of him. 

           Both Lord Elrond and our burglar send greetings to all of Thorin’s company.  The Halfling is now uncle to a wee sprog with a healthy set of lungs and sticky paws.  My beard may never recover.

           The Council of Fourteen feasted in our honor tonight.  Bofur and I met too many people to remember.  They were deadly dull, so I’m sure they were very important people.  After watching him tonight, I think Bofur would make a good diplomat.  I fear he was not a wise choice to send for this business, however, since they know him only as a simple miner.  They forget that he proved himself a dozen times over on the quest and in battle.

           By rights it should have Bifur who came instead of Bofur; they’d never underestimate Bifur.  And by rights, it should have been you to come instead of me.  I know you can’t be spared for something of so little importance, but diplomacy runs in your veins the way scholarship runs in Ori’s.  I’ve no talent for polite words and careful maneuvering.  I will be blunt: I think these dwarves cowards and weaklings.  They deserted Thorin when he needed them most, and try to wheedle their way back into our good graces now.

           We don’t know yet how many will choose to return to Erebor with us.  Possibly none, which truth to tell would be a relief; a caravan will be a target for thieves and Orcs alike.  I hope we will be home by harvest time, but will be content if we manage it before the first snow.

In health, I remain, your affectionate brother,

DWALIN

 


 

 

           As evening fell, they were escorted with much honor to the Council Hall.  Dwalin longed for his brother.  Balin was a master of polite small talk, where Dwalin had never had either the inclination or the patience for it.  Not for the first time, Dwalin wished he’d paid attention to the advice Balin had heaped on him before they embarked.

           Dwalin didn’t recognize most of the greybeards who welcomed them with words of respect and praise, but he despised them already.  The Council of Ered Luin had refused to aid Thorin in his quest; when the company departed for Erebor, these dwarves had jeered.

           Dwalin had been in Ered Luin only seldom, and only with Thorin.  Thorin had not stayed long after he’d gotten the refugees settled; he had been furious to be relegated to simply one of fourteen clan heads on the Council, with no recognition of his royal title.  Some of the dwarves, indeed, had taken a malicious delight in calling him Mister instead of King.  Thorin only ever returned because his kin was there, and he took the duty of training his sister-sons and heirs seriously.  Balin had served as the Longbeard clan head in his stead for many years.

           By Mahal, if these people would just stop offering condolences about Thorin, Dwalin would be fine.  Sodding hypocrites wouldn’t send anyone to help retake the Mountain, and Dwalin could smell the guilt and fear on them.  None of these dwarves would dare to show himself in Erebor, no matter what the invitation in King Dain’s scroll.

           He knew he’d likely offend somebody gravely by forgetting their name or saying something rude.  He could hear his answers become shorter and curter as his irritation increased, but he couldn’t help himself.  He was no good at this sort of thing, and Bofur had disappeared –

           He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to snarl at such presumption.  Instead, he sighed in grateful relief.  Bofur had not abandoned him after all.

           “Mister Krevlin,” Dwalin said to the fidgety dwarf whose head he’d just been fantasizing tearing from his shoulders, “may I present my good friend Bofur of clan Broadbeam.”

           “Krevlin!” Bofur bowed.  There was a broad grin on his face, and he looked utterly relaxed in the crush of people.  “How go the silver mines, my good fellow?”

           “Producing, producing…” the dwarf hemmed.  He rolled forward on the balls of his feet nervously.  He looked tired, harried; as if a strong wind would blow him over.  “You are much missed in these parts.”

           Bofur laughed.  “I very much doubt that,” he said, slapping Krevlin on the back like an old friend – which for all Dwalin knew, he was.  “I’m sure there were many grateful prayers offered to Mahal when I left off my troublemaking.”

           “I won’t deny it,” Krevlin admitted with a nervous smile.  “But just as many who wish you had not left.”

           Bofur sobered.  “The east passage, then, under the shale… surely no one was mad enough to try to expand so dangerous a vein?”

           Krevlin fidgeted and did not answer.

           “How many dead?” Bofur asked tightly.

           “Seventeen.”

           “Seventeen?!”  The shout took Dwalin by surprise, as did the fury on Bofur’s face.  He glanced around; heads were turning.  An old greybeard, the Firebeard clan head if he remembered correctly, made his way over to them, a look of grim distaste on his face.

           “Ah, Bofur.  Em, Mister Bofur,” the greybeard corrected when Dwalin glared.  “We are delighted to see you again.  It seems the good Mister Krevlin has told you of our recent tragedy.”

           “So it seems.”  Bofur’s voice was icy.

           “Seventeen dead?” Dwalin asked.  “What happened?”  Bofur had been upset for months after three of his men were buried in a collapsed mine tunnel.  Seventeen!

           “Mining is dangerous work,” the Firebeard clan head said.  The answer was rote; clearly it had been given many times.  “The lads know the risks.”  He sighed and tried to change the subject.  “Come, Mister Dwalin, let us speak of happier things.  I am told you are personal guard to the King Under the Mountain?  My congratulations.  How is King Dain?  It’s been years since we last saw each other.”

           “The King is well,” Dwalin said, and noted how the Firebeard angled his body to exclude Krevlin and Bofur from the conversation.  Abruptly, he tired of this oily man.  “Forgive me, sir.  Bofur and I have many more people to greet before the feast can get started.”

           The greybeard was left openmouthed at the insult, and Dwalin strode away.  Bofur followed a moment later.  “You should not have done that,” he said, a smile playing on his lips.

           “Seventeen men?” Dwalin demanded.

           The smile disappeared.  “Aye.  You’d think they’d learn, but they never do.”

           Dwalin didn’t like the flinty edge to Bofur’s tone.  “How much longer before this is done?” he growled to change the subject.

           Ah, there was Bofur’s smile again.  The more surly Dwalin became, the more cheerful Bofur seemed to get.  “Another half hour of pleasantries before the feast,” Bofur said.  “The feast itself?  Three or four hours.  There will be little sleep for us tonight, my friend.”

           Something hungry in Dwalin’s chest stopped gnawing for a moment when he heard Bofur say the word “friend.”  Some of the tension in Dwalin’s shoulders and jaw relaxed as well, and he straightened.  He could face these petty men, maybe even bring some of the people they ruled home to Erebor at last.  It wasn’t the chieftains and clan heads whose skills were needed at the Lonely Mountain, after all.

           Bofur leaned in and murmured, “Right flank,” and Dwalin glanced right.  He was grateful that Bofur was with him, for the sight almost took his legs out from under him.

           Indeed, he went down on his knees in front of the regal dwarf who strode towards him, skirts sweeping the stone tiles.

           “Lady Dis,” he whispered, and bowed his head.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

          

           “Lady Dis.”  He went down on his knees in front of her, bowing his head.  The hall had gone silent; he knew people were staring.  It didn’t matter.  All that mattered was Dis. “Forgive me,” he rasped.  “I promised I would keep them safe and I failed you.”

           He felt rather than saw Bofur kneel beside him.  “My lady,” Bofur said quietly.

           Strong fingers clasped Dwalin’s jaw and forced his head up.  Dis’s face was beautiful and terrible to behold.  He clamped down on the cowardly instinct to close his eyes.

           He gazed up at her, caught in the accusation of her eyes.  Dis looked so much like Thorin that it took his breath away, but Thorin had never looked at him like this.  Thorin had never looked at him like Dwalin was a criminal who’d committed a heinous act.

           In her eyes he could see Fili and Kili as they’d been at the end, when Dwalin and Gloin had sorted frantically through bodies, calling their names.  Kili, cut open from stomach to sternum, lying on his back.  Fili, two broken arrows in him and blood still oozing from the wound in his head, wrapped around his brother, one dead hand trying to hold his brother’s ragged flesh together to staunch the crimson flow.

           Dwalin had hated Thorin then, for this stupid quest and his stupid pride and for letting nephews just out of the nursery run laughing into battle.  He’d grown angrier still as he returned to searching through the dead, friend and foe and those in-between allies, until Balin came to tell him that Thorin had been found.

           “My lady,” Bofur said, bringing Dwalin back to the present, “Your sons died honorably and with valor.  They made their choice as all of us did.  We all knew the risks.”

           Dwalin thought of spiders and barrels and goldlust and wanted to laugh, because none of them had had the least idea of the risks.

           “They were children,” Dis said.

           “They were not, my lady,” Bofur said, quiet but firm.  “They died as men.  They were the best of all of us.”

           Dis’s eyes flashed anguish and fury, but she kept her voice level.  To Dwalin, she said, “You will visit me tomorrow and tell me of them.”

           “Yes, Lady Dis,” he said hoarsely.

 


 

 

           Bofur must have pulled him to his feet.  Later, Dwalin wouldn’t remember much of the next half-hour.  He did remember that Bofur was a steady, worried presence at his back, making introductions and guiding him through the maze of dignitaries and hangers-on.  But he couldn’t have recognized a single one of the people he exchanged stiff pleasantries with.

           Krevlin brought him some wine, which helped.

           Several dwarves tried to take Bofur aside and talk to him about mining, which seemed curious to Dwalin when he was calm enough to think on it.  Ered Luin mined silver and iron, while Erebor mined gold and precious stones.  And as far as Dwalin knew, Bofur had been a simple miner in Ered Luin; he hadn’t held a position higher than crew leader until he’d been given the western mines at Erebor.

           On the other hand, Bofur had done everything in his power to make sure nobody lost their life in his mines.  Dwalin had heard Oin complaining about having to be more careful about safety lest he lose his miners to Bofur.

           When the room went silent again, Dwalin looked up.  A tall, almost skeletal dwarf with thinning white hair stood before them.  He did not bow.  “Bofur,” he said.  No “Mister,” and Dwalin had half a mind to object to the repeated insult, but Bofur was bowing regardless.

           “Uncle,” he said in the same flat voice.  He turned.  The normally expressive face was wiped of all cheerfulness.  “Dwalin, may I present Balur, head of clan Broadbeam.  Uncle, this Dwalin, son of Fundin.”

           Dwalin bowed automatically, then wished he hadn’t.  Family or not, Bofur didn’t like this man.

           Balur returned the bow.  “I am at your service, Mister Dwalin.”

           Dwalin inclined his head without answering.

           The dwarf looked disconcerted, but rallied.  “Ah, Mister Dwalin, if I may beg a favor?”  Dwalin waited.  “The King most graciously sent a letter – about my son –”

           Confused as to why he was the one being asked, Dwalin sought Bofur’s eyes.  Bofur shrugged and shook his head slightly. 

           “Mister Bifur acquitted himself honorably at the Battle of the Five Armies and slew many Orcs,” Dwalin told the old man.  “Eleven, if memory serves.  He is an accomplished warrior and a good friend.”

           “But why has he sent no news?” Balur fretted.  “Surely he could have a letter written for him, or one of his cousins could write?”

           Again, Dwalin sought Bofur’s aid.  Bofur just grimaced.

           “Really, it’s too much, not to send a single letter to the man who raised him from a babe,” Balur said.

           Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but for just a moment Dwalin thought Bofur looked almost murderous.  But the moment passed and Bofur said to his uncle with a smile, “Well, we’ll put it right when we go home.  I promise you a letter from your son if I have to write it myself.”

           “Please don’t,” the old man sniffed, looking at his nephew as if he were something particularly disgusting found on the bottom of a boot.  “Bombur shall write if Bifur cannot find a scribe.  You never did master your letters enough to write legibly.”

           “Right you are,” said Bofur cheerfully.  “In the meantime, Dwalin can tell you about Bifur’s position as King’s guard.”

           Dwalin grimaced.  The last thing he wanted to do was spend more time in Balur’s company; if Bofur didn’t like him then he wasn’t worth knowing.  But a father did deserve to know of his son, and Bifur was one of the best warriors Dwalin knew.  “Bifur and I are bodymen to King Dain,” he said.  “There are eight of us, two guarding him at any time.  Bifur has foiled two assassination attempts.”

           Bofur’s eyes widened at that.  Bifur must not have mentioned it to his cousins, Dwalin realized.  Fair enough; the royal guard didn’t like to speak of such things.  Dwalin had said nothing of it to any but Balin; it was something of an embarrassment to the guard that the assassins had gotten as close as they did.  Nori had been livid – and mortified.  It had convinced Dain to spend the funds necessary for a decent network of agents and spies to let Nori do his job, at least.  Were it anybody but Nori, Dwalin would have suspected the head of security himself – but it was Nori, and Nori didn’t lie to his comrades even if he was willing to lie to the King.

           “And why was Bifur not sent as part of the King’s delegation?” the old man demanded.  “I would have liked to see my son, and no doubt he would have liked to see his father.”

           Bifur was not much for words, but Dwalin knew him fairly well, and in three years he’d never spoken of his father.  Dwalin had assumed his parents were dead.  “We obey the orders of the King, Mister Balur,” he said blankly.  “It is not for us to question his judgment.”

           Balur sniffed again.  “I see.”

           They were rescued from an awkward silence when the doors of the feasting hall were opened to great fanfare.  The crowd swept them inside.  As guests of honor, they sat at the head table with the fourteen clan heads, but Dwalin was relieved to note that Balur had been seated at the very end.

           “Is he always that unpleasant?” he demanded after they’d been seated with much bowing and further introductions.  A moment later he realized how rude the question was and flushed.

           “Generally, yes,” Bofur said absently.  “Oh, is Lady Dis the clan head now that Thorin is gone?”  Dwalin turned to see her taking a seat several places down the table.  “I wonder at it – but she was always a shrewd politician.”

           “Most of the Longbeard clan has returned to Erebor,” Dwalin pointed out.  “Besides, she’s the last dwarf with Durin’s blood in her veins.  Why should she not be clan head?”

           To his knowledge, there had never been a female head of clan, but if anyone were going to change that, it would be the Lady Dis.

           His kinswoman was a power to be reckoned with.  He wasn’t looking forward to meeting with her on the morrow.

           The feast proceeded much as it had among the Redbeards, only with more pomp and ceremony.  Dwalin was obliged to stand and offer many more polite words than he’d ever have been able to keep straight in his head.  Fortunately Bofur, who had presumably been prepared by Balin, whispered the right words when he fumbled.

           The feast was deadly dull, all formal posturing.  Dwalin made Bofur lead the toast to Thorin’s memory.  He wasn’t sure he’d be able to bite his tongue around these hypocrites.

           And he ached when the bards came to sing the Battle again.  Dwalin and Bofur, who had been there, were offered no part in the telling this time.  While it was a relief – once was enough – it also felt wrong, as if the dwarves of Ered Luin were trying to claim the victory for their own.  And in the speeches that followed, Dwalin kept hearing about the “special relationship” between Ered Luin and Erebor.  He seethed.

           Finally it was time to unwrap the scroll he’d carried across a continent, and read the words of the King Under the Mountain.  Dain thanked the dwarves of the Blue Mountains for welcoming their brothers all those years ago – Dwalin repressed a snort of disbelief; they had hardly been welcomed – and urged the refugees and any others who wished it to return to their ancestral home.

           Dwalin couldn’t stop the gusting sigh of relief when his duties were finally done with.  Mahal above, how he hated politics!

           Bofur elbowed him with a grin.  “Stop scowling, you’re scaring them,” he murmured.

           Dwalin turned his scowl on his friend, instead.

           And then finally it was over.  Dwalin and Bofur made their way outside, still bowing and responding to polite inquiries.  Out in the street, even Bofur looked relieved.

           “Bofur!”  They both turned at the sound of the shout.  Dwalin had just time to see Bofur’s face light up in unadulterated pleasure – the way it did sometimes when Dwalin joined him of an evening, back in Erebor – before a dwarf with red-gold hair hurtled across the plaza toward them.

           When Dwalin glanced at Bofur again, the look of pleasure was gone; Bofur looked wary.  Dwalin’s hand went instinctively to his sword, ready to protect his friend. 

           “Bofur,” the new dwarf panted, stopping in front of them.  “I was afraid I’d miss you.”

           “Havlin.”  Bofur stepped forward to clasp hands, and was pulled into an embrace.  For just a moment, Dwalin thought Bofur resisted, but then he laughed and pounded the dwarf on the back. 

           After they’d embraced, Havlin held Bofur at arm’s length to look him over.  “You mad bastard,” he said with a grin.  “Krevlin told me you’d come back.  I never thought to see you again.  Oh, but you’re sight for sore eyes!”

           Bofur laughed and his cheeks turned a little pink.  “You’re looking well too, Havlin,” he said.  “Come, let me present you to my friend.  Dwalin, son of Fundin; Havlin, son of Gavlin, and brother to Krevlin who you met earlier.”

           “At your service,” Dwalin said, bowing.

           “At yours.”  Havlin sketched a sloppy bow that reminded Dwalin jarringly of the princes.  “Any friend of Bofur’s is a friend of mine.”

           “Likewise,” Dwalin said politely.

           “Oh!” said Bofur abruptly, studying the runes on Havlin’s dress tunic.  He reached out to trace the tooled leather.  “You’re the clan heir!  But that means – your father…”

           Havlin nodded, suddenly sober.  “Da passed not long after you – after Thorin started on his quest.”

           “Then Krevlin is clan head, and I offered him neither honor nor condolences,” Bofur said, guilt thick in his voice.  “I grieve for your loss, Havlin.”

           The dwarf nodded.  “My thanks,” he said.  “But I would prefer to dwell tonight on cheerier subjects.  May I buy the heroes of Erebor a drink, perhaps?”

           “Yes, of course,” Bofur said.  Then he glanced at Dwalin.  “Or – tomorrow?  We’ve had a long journey…”

           “You go,” Dwalin grunted.  It had been a long time since he’d seen such happiness on Bofur’s face, and he was as loathe to interrupt it as he was to witness it.  “I will see you in the morning, Bofur.”  He nodded his respects to Havlin and strode away before Bofur could protest.

 


 

 

           Dwalin couldn’t sleep.  It was annoying, but it was inescapable.  The midsummer heat was oppressive here in the shadow of the mountains, and the room was stuffy.

           After writing his letter to Balin, he climbed through the open window onto the small balcony that joined his room and Bofur’s.  The air was a little cooler out here, and he could see the stars.  Rather undwarven of him, his fondness for the stars, but he justified it by telling himself they were akin to diamonds.

           He hadn’t known that Bofur had left family and friends in Ered Luin.  Of course, Bofur made friends everywhere he went.  But he’d never spoken of home.  Twice in as many weeks, Dwalin was left wondering just how well he knew his friend.

           He sighed, leaning back against the stone wall, and gazed out over the dwarven city below.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

            Two hours and three pints of ale after they’d entered the pub, Bofur and Havlin tumbled through the door to Bofur’s room at the inn, laughing.  Bofur was the first to regain his feet and most, if not all, of his composure.  “Shh!” he admonished Havlin, and started giggling again.  “We’ll wake Dwalin.”

            Havlin knocked a fist against the wall.  “Dwarf-cut stone, my friend,” he said.  “We’ve all the privacy in the world.”

            That was Bofur’s only warning before Havlin launched himself at Bofur, crowding him back against the door and kissing him within an inch of his life.

            Bofur went instantly hard. Mahal, how he had missed this!  Havlin knew exactly how to take him apart: mouth on his adam’s apple, fingers buried in his hair, a thigh pushed between Bofur’s exerting just the right amount of pressure to drive him wild.  Any moment now, Havlin would drop to his knees and mouth at Bofur’s cock through his trousers –

            “Get off.”  With rather more force than he’d intended, Bofur hurled the other man away from him.  They faced each other across the room, both still panting.  “I said we could come here to talk.  That wasn’t secret code for fucking instead.”

            “Bofur –”

            “You have no right!”  And thank Mahal for stone walls, because Bofur couldn’t have modulated his fury if he’d tried.  “You have no right, after the way we parted.”

            “The way we parted?  You’re going to blame me for that?” Havlin demanded, and Bofur could remember a time he’d loved this man for his fiery temper.  “You’re the one who ran away and wouldn’t let me apologize!”

            “There are things an apology can’t fix, Havlin,” Bofur said icily.  “You dishonored both my family and your own the last time we spoke.”

            That shut the other dwarf up for a moment at least.  It hurt to see the shame on Havlin’s face.  “Aye, I did,” he acknowledged.  “You’ve no idea how much I wish I could take that back.”

            Bofur had always let Havlin win too easily, and he wasn’t going to do it again.  Pretty apologies were all very well, but when nothing changed, they were just words.  “I don’t believe you.”

            “Why, then?” Havlin asked gently.  “Why did you greet me as a friend?  Why didn’t you strike me, as you should have when I first offered insult?”

            The anger disappeared, leaving only tiredness behind.  “I don’t know,” Bofur admitted, lowering himself heavily to the bed.  “I suppose I wanted –”  He swallowed.

            Havlin crouched before him.  “What did you want, love?”

            Bofur shuddered.  It was just that he’d felt that old leap of pleasure when he’d seen Havlin in the square, and Bofur had reacted as if there had not been a quarrel and three years gone between them.  And then he’d found himself in a tavern opposite a grinning dwarf, laughing too loudly at his mirth.  And he’d told himself the lie that maybe they could still have this much, this pleasure in each other’s company.  Foolish, aye – just as foolish as the delusion that he and Dwalin could ignore a summer morning’s kiss.

           “I suppose I wanted to pretend that after twelve years together, I hadn’t lost all of you.  That we had our friendship still, if nothing else.”

           “Friendship,” Havlin repeated flatly.  He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, the way he always did when he found Bofur particularly trying.  “Can you understand, Bofur, why I took it to mean that you’d forgiven me and wanted more than friendship in return?”

           Ah, Bofur, you really ARE a fool, he told himself.  Of course it would appear that way.  “Aye,” he said, head in his hands.  “I’m sorry; I didn’t think.”

           Havlin let out a heavy breath and pushed back to sprawl against the wall, his face a picture of disappointment.  They watched each other across the small room.

           “You should go,” Bofur said finally.  “Tomorrow Dwalin and I –”

           “Is he the reason?” Havlin demanded, gesturing in the direction of Dwalin’s room.  “Is it Dwalin?  Is that why?”

           “Yes – no – I don’t know!” Bofur stuttered, taken off guard.  “No.  No!  Havlin, if Dwalin weren’t here, I still wouldn’t say yes.”

           “Did I really ruin everything with just a few words that night?” Havlin’s eyes pleaded with him.

           “Yes,” Bofur said bluntly.  “Some things can’t be forgiven, Havlin.”  How many nights had he lain awake, going over that last conversation in his head, wishing for a different outcome?

           “So you ran away with the first dwarf to smile at you, is that it?” Havlin spat.

           “Thorin?  You were jealous of Thorin?”  Bofur laughed, but there was no mirth there.  “Thorin might as well have been made of stone, for all the interest he showed in any of us.  Nice to look at, but spikier than a hedgehog.”

           “I’d say the same about Dwalin, except the ‘nice to look at’ bit,” Havlin muttered.

           Bofur glared, and forced himself to his feet.  “If you’re going to insult my friends as well, you can leave.”

           Havlin stood, too, looking repentent.  “Bofur, if I could take back that last night, I would,” he said quietly.  “I would do it right; I would ask your kin for permission to wed you.  You didn’t deserve my… stupidity that night.”

           “I didn’t,” Bofur agreed, and opened the door in pointed invitation for Havlin to go.

           He was completely unsurprised when Havlin reached over and pushed it closed again.  Stubborn bastard.  Never knew when to give up.

           Bofur felt his resolve falter when Havlin gently placed his hands on Bofur’s shoulders and stepped in close, bringing their foreheads together.  They rested that way, sharing breath, the way they had so often before.  Bofur’s eyes drifted closed, memories washing over him.  He couldn’t stop the wanting that burned through him.  He wanted so badly to give in, to lose himself in Havlin, to be held and loved and kissed again.  Three years was a long time, and he felt his very skin hunger for touch.  And he knew it would mean disaster, but a small part of him didn’t care.

           Later, he would be grateful that Havlin chose that moment to say exactly the wrong thing.

           “I made a hash of proposing,” Havlin murmured, nuzzling behind Bofur’s ear.  “I just – I expected you to ask, and you didn’t, and I finally got it through my head that you never would.  By Durin, Bofur, why didn’t you ask and save both of us years of dancing around it?”

           Disbelief stole Bofur’s breath away.  For the second time that evening, he shoved Havlin away.  Startled blue eyes flew up to meet his.  Bofur seethed.

           “You,” he breathed, “you – you blind, insufferable, egotistical, self-involved, ignorant prick.”

           Havlin’s eyes widened.  “What?”

           Bofur was too furious to speak for a few moments.  “For Mahal’s sake, Havlin!” he shouted when he found his voice.  “What world are you living in?  I couldn’t ask, you miserable bastard.  It would have taken me five years to pay off the marriage price, and that’s if I let my kin starve.”

           Havlin looked stricken.

           “And your father would never have accepted my suit, not after what happened in the mines the year the crops failed,” Bofur added.

           “Bofur –”

           “No.  No.  We were together for twelve years, and you knew there were days the only food I had was what you sent me off to the mines with of a morning.  How could you be so simple-minded as to believe I was free to propose?  How?

           “I – I didn’t think…” Havlin said.

           “No, you didn’t,” Bofur said, finally realizing the truth of it.  “You never thought.”

           “Bofur –”

           “It’s time for you to leave,” Bofur said coldly.

           Havlin opened his mouth to argue, but something on Bofur’s face must have told him that this time, argument wasn’t an option.

           “I’m sorry,” he said simply, and took his leave.


 

Chapter Text

            For once, Dwalin woke several hours after sunrise.  A sleepless night had finally given way to fitful dozing, and he hadn’t really nodded off until after the moon went down.

            Sometime in the wee hours of the night, he’d realized with a wry smile that the heat wouldn’t be so Mahal-cursed oppressive if he took his shirt off.  He wanted to kick himself for taking so long to think of it, but a century and a half of habit was hard to break.

            It was the height of luxury, lying back and enjoying the slow currents of stifling air over his bare chest.  No linen and steel binder holding him captive, not even a shirt to save his modesty.  He almost hadn’t wanted to sleep, he enjoyed it so much.

            He awoke to a knock on his door, and he forced himself to get up and answer it.  This was another novelty: he could answer the door without a shirt, without worrying that his entire life would fall apart.  He wondered if he would ever take this freedom for granted.  That would be pure decadence.

            Bofur looked just as tired as Dwalin felt, his eyes looking a bit bruised.  Other than fatigue, though, there was no sign in Bofur’s face of the conversation Dwalin had overheard last night.

           “Did I wake you?” Bofur asked with some surprise.  “I thought I’d see if you’d like to come to the baths this morning – they’ll be mobbed in the evening and everyone and his brother will want to meet us.”

            “Aye, I’d rather not meet every dwarf in Ered Luin all at once,” Dwalin agreed.

            The baths were virtually empty at midmorning.  Built into the mountain, they were one of the few underground structures in Ered Luin, which had started as a town of Men.  After the first fall of Khadzad-dûm, the dwarven diaspora had spread their race across the face of Middle Earth, but seldom did they settle above ground.  Ered Luin though, with its complicated history and political structure, had never had the leadership that could plan and build an excavated city underground.

            It was nice to be under the earth again, comforting.  Dwalin let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding, and sank back into the warm water.  Bofur chatted with several dwarves who evidently had no idea who they were – which was also nice.

            “Where are the women’s baths?” he asked when the other dwarves had departed and they were left in relative solitude.  He had vague memories of the women’s baths in Erebor when he was a child.  When they returned, he would finally get to see the men’s baths.

            “Down in the town.  They aren’t nearly so nice, from what Merced told me.”

            “Your sister-in-law?” Dwalin asked.  Bofur nodded.  Dwalin hestitated over his next question, but Bofur looked relaxed enough.  “Do you have any other kin here?”

            “Other than my uncle?  No.  We’re all that’s left of clan Broadbeam, the four of us.  I’m surprised that the Council let him keep his place as clan head after we departed.”

            Dwalin chewed his lip.  “He… does not seem to like you.”

            “No,” Bofur agreed.  His body was still relaxed, but he avoided Dwalin’s eyes.  “We’ve not got on for years.”

            “Kin or no, he should not offer you such insult as he did last night,” Dwalin growled.

            To his surprise, Bofur smiled at this.  “He’s an old man, alone and half-mad with grief.  Bifur recovered from the Orc who put that axe in his head, but his father never did.”

            “That’s nothing to do with you,” Dwalin growled.

            “I know,” Bofur said.  “But kin is… complicated.”

            Dwalin thought of Lady Dis, tied to him by blood and history.  Complicated, indeed.

            “And Havlin?” he asked as casually as he could.  “You’ve never spoken of friends left behind.”

            He felt as much as saw Bofur’s hesitation, and saw the moment Bofur decided to take the plunge.  “Havlin was my lover.  We ended things shortly before I – before the quest.”

            Dwalin had prepared himself for a lie, and wasn’t quite sure what to do with the truth.  There was something tight in his chest, akin to fury but with shame in it, too.  Jealousy.  So that's what it feels like, he thought.  He’d always wondered.

            He wanted to ask why they’d ended it, what Havlin had done, but he wasn’t sure if he had the right.

            Bofur shifted uncomfortably under his scrutiny, and Dwalin made himself look away.  “I’m to see Lady Dis this afternoon,” he said.

            Bofur nodded, looking troubled.  “Dwalin, why does she blame you for their deaths?”

            “I promised I’d look after them,” Dwalin said, “And here I am alive when all her kin is dead.”

            “How could you be expected to save all of them?” Bofur asked gently.

            “I think she’d be more understanding if I’d fallen with them.”

            Bofur began to respond, but appeared to decide it was better not to.  They left the baths and made their way back to their inn.

            “Several dwarves asked in the pub last night about Erebor.  When we’ll be leaving, things like that,” Bofur said.  “I’ve no idea how large a party we’ll have, but if it’s more than a handful we can’t live by hunting alone.  We’ll need a caravan for supplies.”

            Dwalin grimaced.  A caravan would be a target.  “No doubt people will need weeks to make arrangements, sell their homes,” he agreed.  “We’ll need a plan.”

            Over the midday meal, they sketched out a rough plan.  Bofur argued for leaving in a month; Dwalin said it had better be six weeks; reluctantly they agreed that two months was a more realistic target when asking people to pack up their entire lives and set out across a continent.

            The big unknown was how many dwarves would leave with them.  It could be twenty or two hundred or two thousand.  Dwalin sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be more than a few hundred; the last time thousands of dwarves had crossed Middle Earth looking for a home had been a complete fiasco.

            “We can ask the innkeeper to keep a list of those who want to come and how many in each family,” Bofur told him.  “The Council won’t like it, but they’ll give us use of the Council Hall for meetings if we need it.”

            “Why won’t they like it?”

            “They stand to lose a lot of miners, and with them a lot of profits,” Bofur said.  “We’ll be very unpopular with the locals by the time we leave.”  He looked rather pleased at the prospect.

            Dwalin let them enjoy a companionable silence, not wanting to give up any moments of ease with Bofur.  In the end, though, he sighed and began to collect their notes.  “I must call on Lady Dis,” he said heavily.

            Bofur took the notes from him, and looked him in the eye with a slight frown.  “Dwalin, their deaths were not your fault.  No matter what she says, you must believe that.”

            Dwalin shook his head.  “You believe that, Bofur.  But I know that I broke an oath, and now she has lost everything.”

 


 

 

            Dwalin was greeted with all the honor due to both kin and to a victorious hero.  Dis was scrupulous about the proprieties; Thorin had said once that the farther they were from Erebor and their proper station in life, the more important ceremony and custom became.  Dwalin had little patience for such things, but he’d learned in Erebor that tradition was the backbone on which a king could build power.  Dain owed as much to his stuffy insistence on formality as he did to Balin’s machinations on his behalf.

            It was a special kind of torture, to be welcomed so formally in a house he had once counted as a sort of home base.  Dis blandly asked after Balin and Erebor as she served tea, and Dwalin was dreadfully aware that there was no kin for him to ask about in return.

            Finally, the pleasantries done, Dis looked him in the eye and commanded him to tell her about her sons.

 


 

 

            Since the royal mail would be departing the next day for the Lonely Mountain, Bofur penned a short letter to Bombur and Bifur.  He mentioned seeing his uncle and debated asking frankly if the old man had been provided for.  He decided against it; Bifur would take the question amiss if he’d already sent money, and anyway it was unlikely a reply would arrive within the two months they’d be here.  Bofur would need to ask around – discreetly, of course – and see whether his uncle was still living in that miserable little hovel.

            Guilt descended, because the three of them had left without a thought to Balur’s welfare.  His uncle was banned from the mines that had been his livelihood; drunkenness in the mines might be overlooked, but not when it led to deadly accidents.  Bofur had been so relieved when Bombur set up his household with Merced and invited his brother to live with them.  After Merced died, things got bad enough that Bifur slept at their house most nights.  There had been talk in the town of removing Balur from the Council, even – but no one was quite willing to face an enraged Bifur on the subject.

            Surely his cousin would have made arrangements for his father?  If not before the quest, at least afterwards.  It was difficult to send gold long distances, but not impossible…

 


 

 

            Dwalin was unsurprised that the official tale of the quest and the Battle of the Five Armies was not enough for Dis.  She made him start again from the very beginning, hounding him for details, drinking in each word of her sons with a hunger that seemed almost feral.  Dwalin talked until his voice was hoarse, and at the end of two hours hadn't even gotten them to Rivendell.  It was surprising how many pranks and jokes he could recall; the young princes had kept the party merry.

            As the evening shadows lengthened and Dwalin described the fight in the trolls, Dis became restless and distant.  The questions ceased.  Dwalin hesitated, not sure what she wanted of him now.

 


 

 

           Bofur had hoped for a quiet drink at the corner pub, and already he could tell that that was too much to ask.

           He’d chosen this pub because it wasn’t one of the miners’ pubs, and the grub was reputed to be not half-bad.  Nobody else in Ered Luin had approached Bombur’s talent with a skillet and carving knife, but there were decent eating establishments here.  Bofur had just never had the funds to patronize them.

           It still felt odd, pushing coins across the table to the proprietor and not having to worry about an empty purse.  He almost ordered the cheaper fowl before realizing he could indulge in some good mutton.

           It was almost indecently delicious.  Simple, uncomplicated pleasures like good food, good music, and good company: these were the things that Bofur loved in life.  He savored the meat, exiling all worries about Havlin, about Dwalin, to the back of his mind.

           Bofur was not inclined to pay attention to the dwarves who interrupted his enjoyment to seek his counsel.

           He recognized them, of course; he recognized all the miners.  He could probably dig up their names if he concentrated hard enough, and the details that mattered: how many children, which mines they’d worked and when, specialties, injuries...

           The short one had been blessed – or cursed – with five little ones, and she’d had to take time off from the mines for each one.  She’d brought her babes to work when they were still nursing, in a carrier fashioned for the purpose, and Bofur had negotiated hauling duty for her rather than let her expose the dwarflings to falling rock in the mineshafts.  Ainu, that was her name.

           And Roru, her cousin, always hotheaded.  Always the first to throw a stone in a riot.  Bofur had been as fond of him as he’d been exasperated by his antics.  He’d had to make sure to sit on the lad when negotiations with the Council were nearing a close...

           “What can I do for you youngsters?” he said, sighing.

           Roru looked at him almost hungrily, and Bofur felt a surge of guilt for the mutton.  He pushed the plate over to the man before realizing that the hunger was of a more metaphysical type.  But Roru didn’t look a gift meal in the mouth, and shoveled the food down his throat without a second glance.  Since his mouth was full, it was left to Ainu to say, “There’s a meeting, tonight.  Will you come?”

           Bofur winced.  “I’ve no place at your meetings now, lass,” he said as gently as he could manage.  “I’m no longer one of you.”

           Roru’s face crumpled.  “But you’re still a miner!” he cried.  “And they’ll listen to you, now!”

           That was a low blow.  The Council had listened to him.  ...Sometimes.  When they had to.

           “Aye, for the month or two I’m here,” he acknowledged, his heart heavy.  “And then what?”

           They stared at him, at a loss for an answer.

 


 

           Dis stood by the window, her face turned away from him.  “Tell me now of Erebor,” she commanded.

           Dwalin was at a loss.  “What shall I tell, Lady?” he asked.  “You know of the magnificence of the stonework caverns, of the depth and greatness of the mines.  All is being restored to its former glory.”

           Dis shook her head impatiently.  “No.  Tell me of Dain, of his advisors.  Tell me of the Court, of who comes and goes.”

           Dwalin frowned.  Dis did not seem the type to be interested in Court gossip.  Slowly, he began to talk of the King and the dwarves who surrounded him.

           “You will send a letter with the royal mail tomorrow, will you not?” Dis asked abruptly when he ran out of words.  “I would have you include my greetings to Dain and to Balin.  Also to Nori.”

           “Nori?” Dwalin repeated.

           “He is Dain’s spymaster, is he not?” she asked coolly.

           Dwalin was taken aback.  He knew Nori had taken up some of his old tricks again, but he’d never thought it was on Dain’s behalf.  “He is the head of internal security,” he said, and the answer sounded naive in his own ears.  “He works with the guards to protect the King.”

           “Balin would never let a talent like that be wasted just on protecting Dain,” Dis said dismissively.  Dwalin wondered if he should feel insulted by this; his own talent was being used exclusively for the King’s safety.  He was intrigued, though; perhaps Dis was right about Nori.  His network of informers was already impressive, and Dwalin had often wondered if there were more who didn’t appear on the official books.

           Part of Dwalin was a simple warrior who enjoyed working things out on the battlefield.  That part of him disliked the idea of spies; it felt like cheating, somehow.  But he had been Balin’s brother for too long not to appreciate the usefulness of such agents.  Information on the enemy –

           He stopped.  What enemies did Erebor have?  Just who was Nori spying on?  And was it for Dain – or for himself?

           Dis was watching his face.  “You’re too clever by half to be relegated just to guard duty,” she said.

           Dwalin tensed.  “I take the duty to the King very seriously.”

           Her lip twisted.  “Your duty to King Dain, perhaps,” she sneered.

           He breathed through the red haze, trying to calm himself.  The implication that he could care more for Dain than he had for Thorin – that he had failed Thorin –

           He swallowed.  He had failed Thorin, in the end.

           Perhaps Dis knew her victory, for she said, “We will speak again tomorrow.”

           He nodded, bowed, and left the last scion of Durin alone with her grief.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Dwalin rose before sunlight the next day, a restlessness upon him.  He knew this feeling of old: it had always prompted him to head out adventuring.  But now adventuring wasn’t an option.

            He went through his morning exercises, wishing the room were big enough to swing an axe properly.  The long practice room for the guards in Erebor wasn’t a place he’d ever thought he’d miss, but he would give a lot to be back there now, sparring with Bifur and the other bodymen.

            That was an idea, though: there was a city watch here in Ered Luin, and they must train somewhere.  Perhaps they’d let him join them.

            Dwalin smiled suddenly.  Of course they’d let him join them.  They wouldn’t dare say no.

            “Y-yes, of course, my lord,” the captain on duty stuttered when Dwalin stomped in carrying Grasper and Keeper.  “We would be happy to have your expertise.”  Dwalin did not correct the “my lord,” and he spend an enjoyable two hours roundly trouncing the less prudent members of the city watch.

 


 

            The marketplace in Ered Luin was grander than the one in Dale, Bofur had to admit.  If the goods were not as rich, they were more varied.  Ered Luin still had a large population of Men, and relations with the Elves at the Grey Havens were not as strained as Erebor’s were with the Greenwood.

            Bofur loved it, traipsing from stall to stall, looking at new things with the energy and attention span of a dwarfling.  One moment he was delighting in the cunning clockwork brought from far to the East; the next he was inspecting expertly-crafted toys and dolls made by an old friend of Bifur’s.

            Dwalin followed at a more sedate pace, taking his time over the tables of weapons.  He was deep in conversation with a metalmaster when Bofur joined them.  Dwalin certainly had an eye for metalsmithing, Bofur noted; this was the best work in the market.  If it wasn’t as fancy as it would be in Erebor – if the handles were not inlaid with gold and precious stones – the daggers and swords and axes were still beautiful in their simplicity.

            Bofur trailed envious fingers over a selection of knives, beautifully balanced.  He had no use for such things, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t admire the craftsmanship.

            Behind the knives, there stood a silver-plated box that reminded him disconcertingly of Elrond’s box of surgical instruments.  He flipped open the lip and gave a low whistle.  It was the most beautiful set of woodcarving tools he’d ever seen, the blades tipped with mithril.

            He picked up the adze and the chisel and inspected them closely, impressed.  This was a master work, and few people in the world knew carving tools enough to appreciate it.

            “How much?” he asked the metalmaster, thought he knew he couldn’t justify the expense, not when he had a perfectly good set of tools at home in Erebor and hadn’t made toys seriously for several years.  He barely heard the answer, toying with the drawknife, testing its edge against his thumb.  He grimaced when blood bloomed across his finger.  These tools would not be friendly to amateurs.

            When he realized he’d spent too long fondling the rasp lustfully, he reluctantly closed the box.  “They’re gorgeous,” he told the metalmaster sincerely.

            Dwalin was looking with similar appreciation at a set of long-handled knives, but he frowned at Bofur when the latter wandered away to inspect a linen-merchant’s stall.

            They joined up again an hour or so later when Bofur found his friend looking through the drawings at an ink-artist’s stall.  Dwalin paged through the book of etchings, brow furled.

            “Is there any part of you left to ink?” Bofur teased.

            “Aye,” Dwalin said seriously, indicating his chest absentmindedly, his attention on the book.  “I haven’t decided what design I want, though.”  He paused on a drawing of crossed axes.  “Thorin had something similar,” he mused, “stylized in knotwork.  I always admired it.”

            Bofur swallowed.  He reached out to trace the design of the axes, feeling a sudden deep sadness.

            Look at the two of us, both still hung up on old lovers, he thought.  Because that’s what Thorin was to Dwalin, for all they had never slept together.

            What hope is there for us?

            “Axes at your back and axes at your front; people will start to say you’re stand-offish,” he said, smiling, because fantasies were supposed to stay fantasies and he’d been the one to pull away from Dwalin’s kiss.  It was no use being melancholy, he reminded himself.  Mahal knew he’d been exceptionally blessed by fate, and nothing good ever came of wanting more than could be given.

 


 

            Dwalin was puzzled when Bofur left the metalmaster’s table.  His friend was one of the few people in Middle Earth who could appreciate the craftsmanship of the woodworking tools and also had the funds to purchase them.  Though they had not brought much coin with them, they had a draft on Oin and Gloin’s share of the Blue Mountains' silver mines, and could comfortably purchase the entire town of Ered Luin several times over should they wish to.

            “Why mithril-tipped?” he asked the merchant.  “Not much call for it for tools, and it’s hard to come by.”  Mithril came from Moria; there had been no new mithril mined for almost a millennium.

            The old man sighed.  “Aye.  I shall have to melt it down if the set doesn’t sell soon.  It was a commission.  I’m fortunate that I asked for half up front; that at least covered the cost of the materials when the deal fell through.”

            Dwalin visited the leather-merchant’s stall next.  The axe-harness that had served him well for over a century needed some adjustment, now that he wasn’t quite so thick through the chest.  The straps chafed against skin used to being covered with a linen and steel corset.  He didn’t mind the pain, welcomed it for what it meant, but he was not such a fool as to continue to let his skin be rubbed raw when a minor repair would fix the problem.

            His thoughts strayed back to Bofur.  Clearly Ered Luin had not treated him kindly.  Dwalin bit down on the helpless fury he’d felt at the revelation that Bofur had endured years without even enough to eat; there was nothing he could do to change the past.  Bofur was normally so cheerful and quick to laugh that Dwalin had assumed his life before the quest was carefree and pleasant, but perhaps Bofur was that way because the alternative had been despair.

            Dwalin stood still as the woman took his measurements and frowned over the axe-harness.  He chewed his lip thoughtfully.  He had thought that the change in Bofur’s demeanor was because of him, but he was realizing that it had to do with this place, too.

            Bofur was an expert at jollying Dwalin out of a bad mood.  Over the past few years, Dwalin had even come to expect it, and to seek out his friend’s company when he was feeling particularly frustrated with Dain or Balin.  Maybe he could do the same now for Bofur.  Maybe, if the sadness at the back of Bofur’s eyes was not just of Dwalin’s making, he could help his friend find his way back to his customary cheer.

 


 

            Dwalin chose the tavern for the midday meal.  It was a miners’ tavern, but Bofur just gave an internal shrug; he couldn’t avoid the miners forever.

            Bofur was surprised to be greeted with shouts of welcome and a bit of “hail the conquering heroes.”  He recognized most of the lads, and they set him and Dwalin up with a round or three of drinks.  The tavern was crowded and noisy: just the sort of place he had missed most in Erebor.  Maybe some of these dwarves would return with them.

            He watched Dwalin perk up a bit with ale and food, and was pleasantly jolted when his friend joined in the roar of laughter when a tipsy young dwarf took to dancing on the tables.  Dwalin hadn’t laughed since Bag End.  Bofur felt a smile spread over his own face, and something relaxed inside him at long last.

            At the urging of the miners, he brought out his flute and played a merry tune while more and more dwarves joined in a rousing song.  Dwalin ordered a round of drinks for everyone – murmurs of awe and appreciation at this largesse shushed the crowd for a moment, and then everyone was downing their ale in the most spectacularly messy fashion.

            For the first time, Bofur really felt like he’d returned home.  Erebor was a much more sedate sort of place, dignified in its history.  Aye, Thorin’s company still made merry when they gathered together, but most of the taverns in Dale were owned by Men and looked askance at the rowdiness of dwarves.  Also, though Bofur could be friendly with the men he supervised, they were not friends, not comrades-in-arms the way he had been with these dwarves here.

            Bofur would have to convince an Ered Luin tavern-master to emigrate to Erebor.  He mentioned the plan to Dwalin, who toasted the idea.  “I’ll ask our host if he’s interested,” the big dwarf rumbled.  “Erebor needs a proper pub.”

            “Leed?  He wouldn’t go if you paid him,” Bofur scoffed.  He tipped his head in the direction of the scowling proprietor.

            Dwalin grinned.  “I could loom over him for awhile until he decided it was in his best interest?” he suggested, making a show of inspecting his knuckledusters.

            That startled a laugh out of Bofur.  Laughing and joking; that was unexpected.  “You’re in a good mood today.”  Dwalin had come back to the inn the night before pale and troubled.  What had changed?

            Dwalin shrugged.  “Aye.  About time, I’d say.”  His eyes twinkled.  “You should come down to the city watch’s training rooms tomorrow and help me hand them their collective arses again.”

            Bofur laughed.


 

            “May I ask a question, my Lady?” Dwalin asked.  He had just finished describing the troll hoard and the fabulous weaponry found there.  He did not mention the “long term deposit.”  Now that he knew them better, he didn’t hold it against Bofur and Nori – it was likely more gold than Bofur had ever seen in his life, and Nori was a thief through and through – but he still felt that Gloin should have had more dignity than to hoard a few coins when their quest would bring them a literal mountain of treasure.

            “If you wish,” Dis said, pouring him more tea.

            Dwalin really couldn’t stand tea.  He half-suspected Dis knew it, too.

            He frowned, and tried to think how to word his request.  “It’s about Bofur.”

            “Bofur?”  Her voice held polite surprise.

            “Clan Broadbeam,” he said.  “You met him the other night.  He lived here in Ered Luin before the quest.  Brother to Bombur – ”

            “Yes, I know Bofur,” she interrupted.  “He used to make toys for my boys when they were young.  What is it you would ask?”

            “Last night, there was some sort of meeting,” Dwalin said slowly.  “Every miner we met yesterday asked him if he’d be there.”

            “And did he go?” she asked.  There was an edge of interest to her voice, but when he looked up her face was its usual expressionless mask.

            “No, we stayed in last night.”

            Dis raised an eyebrow.  “Go on.”

            Dwalin scowled.  “Several people have said something about… troublemaking.  But that doesn’t sound like Bofur.  He takes his mines very seriously.”

            “He took the mines here very seriously, too,” Dis said.  “Too seriously, some said.”

            “What do they mean, then, about troublemaking?”

            She looked at him, her eyes searching.  “Your friend Bofur, you know him well?”

            “Yes, of course.”  Which was why it frustrated him that he had to ask Dis to explain this.  For some reason, Bofur was avoiding the topic.

            Dis pursed her lips.  “Here in Ered Luin, Bofur was friend to everyone; I doubt that’s changed in Erebor.  He knew all the miners, even if only a little.  Everyone liked Bofur, even the Council.  Everyone trusted him.”

            “Yes, but what – ” Dwalin began impatiently.

            “Mining is dangerous work,” Dis interrupted.  “It often brings the miners into conflict with those who own the ore they mine.  So you can see how it would be useful to have someone who everybody likes and trusts, when one side is trying to talk to the other.”

            “Aye, I suppose I can see that,” Dwalin grumbled, still perplexed.

            “The thing about Bofur,” said Dis, warming to her subject, “is that he’s really quite good at getting people to agree on things.  The miners used to try and speak with the shareholders, but they could never agree on what they wanted.  Some wanted better wages; some wanted the tunnels to be shored up to prevent cave-ins; some wanted the widows of those who died in the mines to be given a pension.  But unless it was something very dangerous and very pressing, they could never speak with one voice.”

            “Bofur spoke for them?”  Aye, he could see Bofur doing that.

            “Yes.  But he also got them to agree on what to bring to the shareholders and what not to.  There were threats of strikes before, but the miners were never organized enough for it to be a real danger to the shareholders.  Just by talking to people, getting them to trust him, Bofur changed that.  He became a very powerful dwarf in Ered Luin, though I don’t think he ever realized it.”

            “Powerful?  But he was just a miner.”  How could Bofur be powerful if he couldn’t even make enough money to feed his family?

            Dis shrugged.  “Just a miner, perhaps – but the shareholders knew that if he promised something, he would keep his word.  He could get the miners to accept negotiations that weren’t always in their favor, and he had to do it sometimes, in the lean years when we’d all starve if there wasn’t enough ore mined.  Half the Council loved him and half hated him.”  She gave a thin smile.  “He drove your brother crazy.  I’m not surprised he arranged for Bofur to have management of the mines in Erebor; it’s the best way I can think of to keep him out of trouble.”

 


 

            Dis laughed at Dwalin’s description of Radagast.  It was a bitter laugh, but it took them both by surprise.  She flashed a brittle smile and said, “I should have known all wizards are mad.”

            “Gandalf saved our hides half a dozen times,” Dwalin protested, but privately he rather agreed with her.

            “And how many of those times was he responsible for the danger you were in?”  She had gone back to brooding, the moment of mirth vanished.  “Thorin would never have gone on this mad quest if it weren’t for your precious wizard.”

            “Yes, he would,” Dwalin said.  “We talked about it for years.”

            She looked at him sharply.  “Then Thorin was mad, too.”

            Dwalin didn’t say what they were both thinking: that madness ran in the House of Durin.

            He could tell that she was proud when he told of Fili and Kili beating back the Orcs while the rest of the company escaped underground.  When he spoke of their first glimpse of Rivendell, he waited for her to say something derogatory about Elves.  Instead, she smiled wryly and said, “I’m surprised Thorin didn’t march you all right out of there and back into the arms of the Orcs.  He never could see sense when it came to the Elves.”

            “Sense?” Dwalin repeated.  He’d have sworn the Line of Durin was united in their hatred.

            “Elrond Halfelven offered our people aid after the fall of Erebor.  My grandfather was too angry with Thranduil to accept.”

            This was news to Dwalin.  “Did Thorin know that?”

            “I doubt it.  His rage blinded him to many potential allies.”  She was silent for a moment.  “It galled him to know that he’d have done the same as Thranduil, in his place.  No dwarf wants to admit that he wouldn’t give his life cheerfully for a lost cause – but how many were willing to stand with Thorin for your quest?”

            Dwalin scowled.  He hated all the dwarves who had refused to stand with Thorin, and he hated Thranduil even more viscerally, having been subjected to his hospitality.

            It occurred to him yet again that Dain was one of those who had refused to stand with Thorin, and the world lurched a little around him, the way it always did each time he remembered and had to put it out of his mind again.

            Dis was watching him closely.  “Your loyalty to Thorin does you credit,” she said.  “But there’s no denying it was also foolhardy.”

            Dwalin did not want to think disloyal thoughts about his king, so instead he latched onto something she had said.  “What aid could Lord Elrond have given?  We would not have refused soldiers if they were offered, even from the Elves.”

            Dis shook her head.  “No.  He would not have risked his kin against the dragon.  Elves have long memories, and many fell to the last dragon they tried to fight.  He sent food and other supplies, but Thror sent the Elves back saying it was probably poisoned.”

            Dwalin felt sick.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of dwarves had died in their search for a new home.  “How do you know this?”

            “You don’t believe me?  Ask Balin.  Dain isn’t the first fool he’s ever served.”

            Dwalin had been in the Iron Hills, still mostly a child, when Erebor fell.  Everything he knew about that time came from the refugees – and from Balin’s tales.  Balin had never mentioned such a thing.

            He wouldn’t, not around Thorin.

            “You have a very poor opinion of your family, my Lady,” he said.

            That surprised a bark of laughter from her.  “You speak the truth,” she agreed.  “I have a rather poor family, when it comes to it.”  Her eyes flicked over him dismissively; Dwalin was included in her opinion of her family.

            “Why am I here, then, Lady?” he asked bluntly, tiring of her barbs.  “I will tell you of your sons.  But why do you mention other matters when you hold me in such poor esteem?”

            Something flickered behind her dark eyes.  For the first time, Dwalin felt like Dis was actually looking at him.

            The silence stretched out long, to a breaking point.  Dwalin thought to excuse himself and take his leave, when Dis finally came to a decision and said, “I will not tell you my game, Fundinson.  But I will tell you one of the cards I hold.”

            Again, he longed for Balin, who understood politics.

            Dis rose and crossed to stand by the window again.  She held herself regally, and her voice was cool.  “Did you know,” she said distantly, not looking at him, “that my mother was good friends with yours?”

            Dwalin froze.  Desperately, he tried to think back.  His mother had died when Smaug came.  Dis and Thorin’s mother, what had become of her?  He tried to remember.

            “Your mother was lady-in-waiting to mine,” Dis said, her voice still far away.  “The princess helped deliver both of her children.”

            A stone settled in Dwalin’s gut.  Dis knew.  This bitter woman held his secret, and could do anything with it.  She was answerable to no one and had no loyalties left alive.

           A thousand questions clamoured for answers, but in the end only one was important, and Dwalin couldn’t help the desperation in his voice as he choked out,

           “Did Thorin know?”

 

Chapter Text

            Dwalin paced the length of the little room at the inn, caught in the throes of a full-bore panic.  Dis had refused to tell him anything more, had sent him away with a preemptory wave of the hand, and he couldn’t do anything.  He couldn’t remember returning to the inn, just a sense that Bofur would help calm the terror welling in his chest.  But Bofur wasn’t here, and the landlord said he’d gone for drinks with some miners.  Dwalin may have said some very derogatory things about miners when he heard that.

            Will she tell everyone?  Will she blackmail me?  Will they kill me for what I’ve done?

           Eight steps across the room, eight steps back.  Deep breaths, calm the mind.  Eight steps across the room, eight steps back.  He had to decide what to do.  He had to stop panicking.

            In the century and a half since he’d first been forced to keep his secret, only twice had someone found it out.  The first had been Bofur himself, and the panic then had been different.  The first thing Bofur had done was to cover Dwalin’s naked chest from Kili’s view.  That told Dwalin that Bofur wouldn’t humiliate him publicly; the reveal would be private, most likely to Thorin alone.

         – Did Thorin know? –

           When Balin told him Bofur said he had no intention of telling, Dwalin didn’t believe it.  He didn’t believe it for weeks, months even.  Not until the Battle of Five Armies – not until Bofur beheaded an Orc that had slipped under Dwalin’s guard.  Bofur had no reason to save his life if he meant to destroy it later on, so Dwalin finally had to trust him.

           The panic when Bofur revealed the secret to Elrond had been drowned in the white-hot fury of betrayal.  Dwalin could count on one hand the number of people he trusted in this world.   And also there was the knowledge that if Dwalin killed Bofur, Elrond would most likely kill him and his secret wouldn’t matter – though that wasn’t what stayed his hand, in the end.

           Dis was not Bofur.  She was not Elrond.  There had never been any gentleness in her soul except for when it came to her sons, and Dwalin had always admired that in her.  Now he could see why it unnerved people.

           He didn’t know what she wanted.  She had lost everything; revenge would be hollow, because Dwalin wasn’t the one she really blamed.  It was just there was no one else left.

           Would she choose to destroy him in a fit of directionless grief?  That didn’t sound like the shrewd, calculating woman he knew of old.  But madness did run in the Line of Durin – it had taken Thror; it had taken Thorin.

         – Did Thorin know?? –

           There was no way to know what Dis would do, short of waiting for her to show her hand.  Dwalin growled in frustration, pacing still the eight steps across the bedchamber; there and back, there and back.  He wanted to punch someone.  He wanted to take his axes to the rough-hewn wood of the beds.  He wanted Orcs to attack so he could do something useful with this anger.

           Anger was better than panic; he could feel his thoughts becoming slightly less chaotic.

           A century and a half with nothing to lose: he had never been proud of his lack of fear because until recently he hadn’t understood what fear even meant.  Fear was caring about losing something.

           His first instinct was to run.  He’d always known discovery was a possibility, so he rarely stayed in one place long enough to form attachments.  He could leave now, take his axes and one of the ponies, head south.  See if there really were Oliphaunts, or warrior women who cut off their breasts.  Middle Earth was vast; he would never have to see another dwarf again.  He could outrun his own fame, if he traveled far enough.

           He had a good head for maps.  He could remember the ones he’d poured over with Ori in the Archives when he’d thought it kinder to leave Bofur with only memories.  Even without a map, he was skilled at navigation in the wilds; Thorin had counted on him for it during the quest.

         – Did Thorin know? –

           But Dwalin did know one thing, through all the confusion and clamoring running through his mind.  He knew that he couldn’t race off without telling Bofur he was leaving.  So he paced, and he thought, and he paced, and he cursed every miner in Ered Luin until he was surprised Mahal didn’t strike him dead for blasphemy.

 


 

           Bofur rapped on Dwalin’s door just as the latter’s thoughts were finally beginning to settle.  Dwalin had thought a smoke might calm his nerves, but the pipe had snapped in his shaking fingers.  He borrowed Bofur’s and raided his stash of pipeweed while he was at it, having forgotten to replenish his own at the market.  It turned out to be Halfling stuff, but Dwalin was not overly particular in that moment.

           The knock was cheerful, and Bofur pushed the door open without waiting for a reply, which meant he must be cheerful as well; Bofur became tentative when he was sad or anxious.  And Dwalin could have kissed him – not that he would; he’d learned that lesson well enough – for the bright smile on his face, because if Bofur was his normal merry self then the world couldn’t possibly be too bad, no matter what Dis might choose to do.  Dwalin clung to that thread of hope.

           Bofur was already talking a mile a minute when he came through the door.  “You’ll never guess!  I found out why they let Uncle keep his place on the Council –  Dwalin, what happened?”  He was at his friend’s side in an instant.

           Dwalin looked up into eyes wide with concern.  Bofur sat on the bed next to him, looking alarmed.  “Was it Dis?  Dwalin, you don’t have to keep visiting her, not if she’s going to torture you.”  Hesitantly, Bofur settled an arm over Dwalin’s shoulders and leaned his forehead against Dwalin’s, offering kin-comfort.

           They’d barely touched in days, and Dwalin was surprised at the pure relief that swept through him at the gesture.  Balin and Thorin were the only ones to offer him kin-comfort since he’d come of age.  He closed his eyes and breathed in calm and the scent of Bofur.

           “I hate this place,” he said at the end of several minutes, when the panic had dulled to just a low throbbing in his belly.  He lifted his head to meet Bofur’s eyes again, shifting out from under Bofur’s arm self-consciously.  “I want to go home.”

           Bofur swallowed hard and nodded, gnawing on his lip.  “Aye.  Me, too.”  He tugged on Dwalin’s shoulder.  “Shall we get you some supper?” he suggested.

           Supper did sound like a good idea.  He stood, but he couldn’t keep his hands from shaking from the adrenaline crash.  Bofur noticed; of course he did.  Bofur noticed everything.

           A queer look came into Bofur’s eye.  He narrowed his eyes consideringly.

           Dwalin balled his fists to stop them from shaking and raised an eyebrow at him.  “Trouncing the city watch, was it?” Bofur said, as if in response to some question.

           “What?”

           “Earlier, you said that trouncing the city watch put you in a good mood.”

           That was true.  Dwalin wouldn’t trust himself with them now; he was clinging too tightly to the reins on his anger, and someone might get hurt. 

           Bofur was still looking at him with a strange light in his eyes.  He nodded decisively.  “I know what you need,” he announced, and bared his teeth in a smile, turning toward the door.

           It was not a nice smile at all.

           Dwalin picked up his sword belt – no, he didn’t care if most civilized people left off their weaponry for meals, thank you Balin – and made to follow, but Bofur shook his head.

           “Leave your weapons,” he grunted, and removed the daggers at his own belt, leaving only the one Dori had made for all the company, too beautiful to use in an actual fight.

           Once upon a time – three or four days ago – Dwalin probably would have balked, but he’d never seen that dangerous glint in Bofur’s eyes before, and he was too intrigued to argue.

 


 

           The tavern they went to was outside the walls of Ered Luin, in a district where Men lived.  Indeed, it was a tavern for Men, with tables and chairs sized to fit.  Dwalin glanced around uncertainly.

           “Oh,” said the tavernkeep flatly, looking unhappy when she saw Bofur.  “I thought we’d gotten rid of you at last.”  Dwalin’s eyebrows shot up.

           Bofur flashed her his most charming smile.  “Come now, Mistress, is that any way to greet an old friend?”

           “Friend, my left tit,” the Woman grumbled, but she didn’t look completely put out.  She rolled her eyes at Bofur’s bow.  “Will you be dining with us tonight, sire, or should I begin to collect the crockery now?”

           The feral smile was back.  “We’d like some food, if you please,” Bofur said sweetly.

           The tavernkeep held out a hand, palm upward, affecting boredom.  “Money up front, if you please,” she drawled.  But her eyes widened in startled amazement when Bofur dropped three gold coins into her palm.

           “That’ll cover the crockery,” Bofur said.  The smile was soft but the words were hard-edged.  Dwalin wished he hadn’t removed his knuckledusters back at the inn; he didn’t like the undercurrents to this conversation.  Bofur had just paid her enough for ten meals.

           Dwalin would have chosen a seat as far as possible from the Men in the tavern, but Bofur dropped his bag on the table closest to the roughest-looking bunch.  Dwalin heard them muttering, belligerent glances darted their way.

           The food was surprisingly decent, for Human fare.  Bofur quaffed and belched and picked his teeth with an ostentation that had Dwalin staring, and the muttering from the nearest table became buzzing.

           “Bofur,” he said quietly, “I think there’s going to be trouble if we don’t leave soon.”

           Bofur smiled, sly and dangerous, and Dwalin saw the mad glint in his eye.  “Why do you think I brought you here?”

           Adrenaline slammed through Dwalin as he suddenly understood, and Mahal, why hadn’t he thought of this?  It was brilliant, this; the only thing better would have been picking a fight with Orcs.

           A wide smile spread over Dwalin’s face.  “Here I thought you were the sane one of the two of us,” he breathed.

           “Not here.  This town could drive anyone mad,” Bofur said, his smile turning shark-like.

           “You’ve done this before?”

           A smirk.  “So long as no one’s permanently injured, it’s outside the walls and the Council can’t do anything.”

           Dwalin knew they shouldn’t do this; knew that as ambassadors the rules were different; knew that Balin would have his hide if he ever found out.  He couldn’t bring himself to care.

           “How do we get them to jump us?” he asked.  They grinned at each other, feeding off the pre-fight exhilaration: the closest thing in the world to flying (besides being rescued by Eagles, of course, not that anyone had had time to enjoy that).

           “Nothing simpler,” Bofur said, and when the serving girl approached to take their dishes, he whistled at her.

 


 

           It was hardly a fair fight, five Men against two dwarves.  They never had a chance.

 


 

           The two of them stood back to back like they had in the Battle of the Five Armies, the same adrenaline singing in their blood.  They moved almost in harmony.  Sometime in the middle of the fray, Dwalin caught sight of Bofur out of the corner of his eye.  There was a fierce glee on Bofur’s face as he assisted the Man who dove at him to run face-first into a wall.  Dwalin knew his own face held a similar joy.  With a roar, he jumped at the nearest Man and took him down, arms swinging.

 


 

           Half an hour later, Dwalin stood in the middle of the wreck of three tables and inspected his split knuckles.  Two of the Men had fled into the night.  A third was stretched on the floor, groaning.  Another lay against a far wall where Dwalin had thrown him, and no one knew where the last was.  Bofur, laughing a little manically and still coming down from the high of a good brawl, was paying off the tavernkeep.  She looked less than impressed, but happy enough to have the coin.

           Dwalin wondered what Bofur had done back in the days he didn’t have money to pay her off.  He saw the speculative gleam of interest in her eyes, and hoped the conclusion he jumped to was just jealousy talking. 

           If he were going to be jealous of everyone Bofur charmed, he mused, he would spend a lot of his life being jealous.  That would be ridiculous, so Dwalin put it from his mind.

           Back at the inn, Bofur insisted on seeing to the cut over his eye and on bandaging his hands.  It was oddly intimate, the cleaning of wounds.

           Bofur read the tattoos on the hand with the split knuckles and snorted.  “Do you know, I didn’t think you even knew what a sense of humor was for the first year I knew you?”  He squeezed water out of the wet cloth in the washbasin and started on his work.

           Dwalin smiled.  Bofur had a bloody nose and some brilliant bruising on his arms and torso.  But the mad glint was gone from his eyes, and there was only the usual warm welcome there.

           Dwalin, too, felt the contentment of a good fight centering him.  Dis could be dealt with on the morrow.  The only way to discover whether she planned to expose him was to ask her.  If she wouldn’t say…

           “How angry do you reckon the King would be?” he murmured.  “If we left for home?”

           Bofur gave him a lopsided smile and started wrapping the bandage around Dwalin’s hand.  “He’d shout a lot, and I don’t think he’d ever forgive us, but he wouldn’t dare do much more.”  He raised an eyebrow at Dwalin.  “We can go if you need to.  We’ve delivered the King’s message for him; we could say nobody’s interested.  It’s true enough; no one has come forward yet.”  He tied off the bandage, reached for the washbasin, and started scrubbing at the cut over Dwalin’s eye with a cloth.  The blood must have gotten into his hair, because Bofur went far afield of the cut in his scrubbing.

           “We’ll see,” Dwalin said.

           Bofur hummed to himself over the task, chasing the line of dried blood behind Dwalin’s ragged ear.  “You never did tell me,” he said conversationally, “what took a chunk out of this.  Orc or Warg?”

           “Fili, actually,” said Dwalin.

           Bofur laughed loudly.  “There’s a story there, I’ll wager.”

           Dwalin reached for another wet cloth and dabbed ineffectually at Bofur’s nose, only managing to spread the blood around.  “I’ll tell you it someday,” he said.  “I’ll only say it’s no easy thing being a dwarfling’s first weaponsmaster.”  He paused.  “You were going to tell me something earlier, before… supper. About your uncle.”

           Bofur huffed a small laugh.  “Ah yes, that.  It turns out, he was removed from the Council after all.”

           “But he’s been restored?”

           “Aye.  In deference to me, it seems.”  Bofur sounded amazed.

           “And why not?” Dwalin demanded.  “You’re a hero of Erebor as much as the rest of us.”

           Bofur shrugged.  “I don’t feel like a hero,” he admitted.

           “No one ever does.”

           “Balur won’t thank me for it,” Bofur said dryly.  “Already he’s complaining about clan watch duty.”

           Dwalin searched his memory.  He knew he’d stood for the duty several times for the Longbeard clan.  “Two dwarves from each clan?” he said slowly.  “To head the city watch each day.”

           “For a week.  Clan Broadbeam has been added back into the rotation.”

           “But there’s only two of you.”

           “Aye.  Bifur and Bombur and I used to trade off, and sometimes Havlin would stand with me.  Balur’s very put out that he’ll have to stand watch; he thinks it’s below the dignity of a head of clan.  But I can hire from outside the clan to stand with us, so long as one of us is there.”

           “When do you have to go?”

           Bofur grimaced.  “Tomorrow.”

           Dwalin smiled, and made another attempt on the bloodied nose.  “So you had your own reasons for wanting to annoy the Council by fighting.”

           Bofur closed his eyes and held very still while Dwalin removed the dried blood as gently as possible.  Only the curve of his lips gave Dwalin an answer.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

            Dwalin awoke with a pleasant ache in his muscles and a contented smile on his face.  He even hummed a little as he dressed, a tune Bofur had played on his flute the day before.  He thought of his viol, lost when the ponies fled shortly before Rivendell, and wondered why he’d never replaced it.

            On the way down to the watch house, he saw three dwarflings playing hopscotch under the watchful eye of their father, and felt an absurd longing to join in.  He grinned to himself.  He had no right to be in such a good mood, not when the prospect of Dis and disaster loomed.

            Bofur would no doubt be surprised to learn that Dwalin had never been in a tavern brawl before.  He’d been present at the beginning of many, of course; any dwaven pub worth its salt got its bar smashed at least monthly.  But he’d always slipped out when things got heavy.  It was a hedge: if he were going to risk being knocked out in a fight and having his secret discovered, the fight needed to be important.

            Having a friend at your back made all the difference.  The danger wasn’t eliminated – Bofur could be knocked out, too – but the payoff was worth the risk.

            Bofur couldn’t possibly have made a regular practice of it though, Dwalin thought as he passed the Council Hall.  If Dis could be believed, Bofur hadn’t been in a position to expend the Council’s goodwill by making trouble outside of the mines as well as inside.  He wondered what else Bofur had done when he was upset, to calm down.

            Sparring and fighting were Dwalin’s favorite ways to calm himself.  Thorin used to sharpen his weapons when he wanted to kill somebody and knew he couldn’t get away with it; sometimes he would spend hours at it.  Balin would go off and sit quietly, chanting old poems to himself.  Gloin drank; Ori holed up in a corner and wrote.  Bombur cooked and Kili set up target practice.  Nori stole trinkets just for the thrill of it when he could; when he couldn’t, he caught the eye of the nearest attractive dwarf and tumbled into bed with them.

            From years of living and fighting on campaigns with Men and dwarves, Dwalin knew that fucking was a favorite way to deal with fear and frustration.  The night before a battle, easily half the warriors would distract themselves with their companions.  Now that Bofur had told him what to look for, Dwalin suspected he’d been propositioned more than a few times for just that purpose.  “Check the weaponry,” indeed.  Dwalin snorted.

            Bofur had had a lover here in Ered Luin, Dwalin reflected.  Did he bury himself in his lover when he was upset, work the frustration out of his body with sex?  Unbidden, the image of Bofur that had haunted Dwalin’s dreams since Bag End flashed through his mind, and he shivered: Bofur, head thrown back and eyes closed, face taut with pleasure.  It had been pure torture to listen to Bofur’s small, breathy moans from outside the window when he was kissing Havlin that first night.  Dwalin hadn’t let himself look, because to know what Bofur looked like aroused, and know that he’d ruined all chances of ever having him: that would be beyond bearing.

            Dwalin stowed his gear in the guards’ changing room, looking forward to the practice.  He’d noticed yesterday that his balance was slightly off; Elrond had taken just enough mass off of his chest that the muscles were still adjusting to the loss.  He needed to retrain the muscle memory so that the new distribution of weight became instinctive.  It was an annoyance, but one he welcomed.

 


 

            Bofur went down to Alís’s tavern to say hello to his old friend and Bombur’s former employer.  He’d been putting it off for too long.  Alís, with a welcoming grin on her face, poured him a tall mug of ale and sat him down to demand the story of the quest.

            Telling it was getting old, but Bofur didn’t mind, not for Alís.  He and Bombur owed everything to her generosity.  She’d taken Bombur on as an apprentice even though they didn’t have the gold for guild fees, and she had handled Balur’s drunken tantrums by dropkicking him out the back door when he came to harass his nephew.  The tavern was one of the few places they could count on a respite from their uncle.

            And Alís didn’t give a fig for the official story of a great battle already renowned in verse and song.  She wanted to know how her boys were faring in Erebor.  Her eyes gleamed when Bofur described Bombur’s kitchens and their daily output.

            “And tell me about your mines, laddie,” she said, pouring him more ale.  They both knew he wouldn’t drink it, and they both knew she didn’t mind the waste.

            Bofur told her of veins of gold that went on for miles, of the way he’d organized shifts, of the new equipment he had commissioned the metalmasters to craft.  He suddenly missed Erebor very, very much.  He sipped the ale around the lump in his throat.

            “The King doesn’t mind the changes you’ve made?” Alís asked shrewdly.

            He shook his head.  “We’re lucky.  Erebor is rich; we could purchase food for many years if we needed to.  It’s not like here, where every ounce of ore taken from the ground means a child can be fed in the winter.”

            “I’m glad,” she said quietly.  “We all appreciated your troublemaking – a lot of good miners would be dead without it – but I’d hate for you to go to all that trouble getting a new kingdom and have to fight the same old horsedung.”

            He wanted to ask how on earth seventeen men could have died, who could have ordered mining under the shale – but he also wanted, desperately, not to be pulled into this fight again.

            “Come now,” she said, studying his face.  “We shall talk on other things.  Your traveling companion, Dwalin – is he as nice a fuck as he is to look at?”

            Bofur choked and sputtered.  “Alís!”  He coughed; some of the ale had gone down wrong.

            “Come, sweeting, a blind man could see he’s your type.”  She regarded him across the table.  “You have bedded him, haven’t you?  He’s treating you right?”  A worried crease appeared between her eyebrows.

            “I – we’ve not – ”  Bofur forced himself to calm.  “No.  No, I’ve not bedded him.”

            “Whyever not?” she demanded.  “It’s not for lack of wanting – that’s as plain as the nose on your face.”

            Bofur groaned.  This was the trouble with Alís – she knew him too well.

            Her face softened.  “Is it because of Havlin, laddie?” she asked gently.

            Bofur tensed.

            “If you’re wanting him back, lad, I think you’ll find him not uninterested,” she told him.  “He went after you, you know.”

            “He what?”

            “He went after you, when you left with King Thorin.  Went all the way to Bree before he lost the trail.”

            “What did he think he’d do?” Bofur demanded.  Insult me more?

            Alís shrugged.  “Bring you home and marry you.  Or go on the quest and marry you.  He secured your uncle’s permission to ask before he went.”

            Bofur was silent for a moment, considering this.  Then he pushed it aside.  Even if Havlin had come to his senses after their quarrel, that didn’t excuse the things that were said.  Confound Havlin, anyway!  Even after more than three years, Bofur couldn’t help that a part of his heart still leapt at Havlin’s call.  If he hadn’t been so insistent that Bofur would never be truly happy without children, they’d have wed years ago.  Bofur would never have left with Thorin – and he would never have met Dwalin.  The thought made his stomach clench.

            Alís patted his arm.  “Nevermind, laddie.  You’ve plenty of time to sort that out before your journey back to Erebor.”

            Bofur nodded.

            “How long before you go?”

            “Two months, we think.”

            She hummed.  “Just long enough to remind the Council how much they hate you, eh?”  She smiled grimly.

            He avoided her eyes.  It gnawed at him, those seventeen dwarves.  Would they be alive if he hadn’t run away?

            Bofur remembered what he’d come to ask, and for once it was a relief to turn to the subject of his uncle.  “Alís – I’ve a delicate question to ask – about my uncle – ”

            She did not readily supply an answer.

            “Is he… well?” Bofur asked.  Balur had never been “well,” but Bofur didn’t want to admit, even to Alís, that he’d shirked his familial duties by failing to provide for him.

            “As well as he can be,” she said, her voice gentle but her eyes hard.  Alís hated Balur with a passion that Bofur sometimes envied.  She was kind to try not to express it.

            “I…  Did Bifur provide for him?” he whispered.  Humiliation curdled in the back of his throat.  “We left him with little enough, but surely after the Battle – ”

            “I don’t know, lad,” she said frankly.  “He still lives in his flat, and he has coin for food at the market.”  Bofur breathed a bit easier.  “He’s not said anything about a windfall from his son, and that’s something he would crow over.”

            “And then drink it away,” Bofur said bitterly.

            “Aye.”  Alís took one of his hands between hers.  She looked him in the eye.  “I’m sorry you had to come back to Ered Luin, Bofur.  Much as it brings me joy to see you, I can see it pains you to be here.”

            He gnawed his bottom lip and nodded.  He was afraid the tears would spill.  Instead, he burst out, “How did it happen, Alís?  Seventeen dead?  Who could have been mad enough to mine under shale?  Why did the miners not lay down their hammers and picks, and refuse?”

            Alís looked at him, sorrow written large on her face.  She’d always had a youthful bearing, but for the second time since he’d known her she looked her age.  “There’s a huge order in from down south, for weapons and armor,” she said.  “More ore than the miners could bring up in a year.  The Council accepted, of course.  We couldn’t lose a sale that large to Erebor or the Iron Hills.  They offered everyone higher wages if they’d work double shifts.”

            “That doesn’t sound so bad,” Bofur said, though he knew that working double shifts for more than a few days at a time tended to result in accidents.

            Alís nodded.  “But the mines couldn’t produce what Isengard was asking for.  Month after month, we fell short.  Every miner had extra gold in his pocket, but the shareholders were taking risks.  The lads knew that the east passage had been closed – you negotiated that – but the shareholders insisted it was safe.  They said they’d turn away any dwarf who refused to mine where he was told.”

            “But you just said that they couldn’t afford to turn anyone away – ” Bofur began, but fell silent.  He’d left his miners, his friends, with no one who knew how to speak for all of them or get them to agree on a course of action.  He’d assumed that someone would take his place.

            There was no accusation in Alís’s face or voice, but there didn’t need to be.  “The two sides were used to having a voice of reason.  The shareholders knew they couldn’t get away with more than a little danger, and the lads weren’t sure they could pull off an organized strike, not when wages were so high.  But they were used to having you there to joke and cajole until everyone agreed on something sensible.”

 


 

            “You have to tell me,” Dwalin growled at Dis, trying to keep from pleading.  “Tell me whether Thorin knew, and we’ll be done with it.”  He towered over her, hoping he could intimidate the answer out of her.

            “I don’t have to tell you anything,” she returned, eyes flashing.  “What does it matter whether Thorin knew of your – your perversion?”

            Before he knew it, Dwalin found his hand reaching for the knife at his belt.  It was half-unsheathed before he stopped himself.

            Dis glared at him.  She had never looked so much like Thorin, majestic and contemptuous at the same time.  “You wouldn’t hurt me,” she said coolly, her gaze boring into his.  “You’ve still enough honour left that you wouldn’t stoop to harming kin.”

            She was only right because he’d had most of a day to cool off, Dwalin thought.  “You don’t know that,” he growled, showing teeth.  “I hurt Bofur when I thought he’d betrayed me, and I like Bofur a great deal more than I like you.”

            He could see the flicker of surprise in her eyes; could see her filing that tidbit away in her memory.  The closely-leashed rage thrashed in his gut, begging to be let out.  He could kill her here and now, if only she didn’t look so cursed much like Thorin.  “You speak of honour, but tell me my lack of loyalty got your family killed,” he hissed.  “You can’t have it both ways, my lady.”  The carving on the hilt of the knife bit into his palm.

            She was a Durin; there was no fear in her eyes when she looked at him and the threat of the still-unsheathed knife.  “I will gut you where you stand if you take another step,” she said flatly.  “I’ve had plenty of practice.  Thorin had bodyguards; Frerin and I did not.

            Instinctively trusting that she meant the sentiment even if she perhaps hadn’t the skill, Dwalin took a step back.  He took a deep breath to steady himself, and sheathed the knife.  She also breathed deeply, and stowed the garrote he hadn’t noticed in a leather purse at her side.  Dwalin revised his estimation of her abilities; he should have caught that.

            They glared at each other.

            Two months, Dwalin told himself.  I’m only here for two months.  I can withstand anything for two months.  He turned to leave.

            “Where do you think you’re going?” she said sharply.

            “To start another bar fight so I don’t strangle you,” he said.

            “You will NOT,” she said, and her words were those of a queen, utterly sure that her will would be obeyed.  “You will stay and tell me of my sons.”

            Dwalin closed his eyes to steady himself.  Aye, he would stay, he knew.  He’d stay because if his grief for Kili and Fili was a depthless river, Dis’s must be an ocean entire.  And he’d stay because she was the kind of woman who would give him the answer he sought only after he’d jumped through every last hoop she placed in front of him, and Dwalin had to know if Thorin had known the truth about him.

            So they settled down to their obscene ritual of pouring and drinking tea that neither wanted, and Dwalin told her of Rivendell and the stone giants.

 


 

            Bofur wasn’t at the inn when Dwalin returned with blood boiling.  He grimaced, recalling that his friend had clan guard duty; Dwalin could really use a cheerful face just now.  He considered going to join Bofur, but decided that he ought to ask first instead of just showing up.

            Pacing his room wasn’t helping, and there would be too many dwarves at the baths for it to be relaxing.  Dwalin was sure he shouldn’t be alone, however.  Alone, he would drive himself mad with frustration.  He headed out in search in a quiet pub.

            He could not kill Dis.  He would not kill kin, especially not one he had once held dear.

            She kept my secret for more than a century, he reminded himself.  She knows she has no further power over me should she tell it.

            Dwalin paused, coming to a full stop in the middle of the street.  Would Dis be believed, if she told?  Dwalin had not spent a great deal of time in the baths here, but he had been seen.

            Suddenly it became drastically important that he go and demonstrate to the dwarves of Ered Luin that he was not hiding a woman’s body under his clothing.  Dwalin turned his steps abruptly toward the mountain, heading for the baths.

            Once inside, he surveyed the crowded pools with no little dismay.  Bofur had been right to steer them toward bathing in the morning.  Bofur might prefer the energy of a crowd, but all Dwalin could think was that in the press of people, someone might accidentally jostle his prosthesis and discover that it wasn’t flesh.

            Maybe he should wait for Bofur after all.  It rankled a bit, feeling that he needed protection; Dwalin was not used to relying on anyone but himself to ensure his safety.  Even fighting back-to-back with Bofur was not quite the same…

            Then Dwalin thought of the stringy dwarf at the Redbeards’ stronghold who had wanted to lie with him, and how Bofur hadn’t hesitated to chase him off.  He felt as if somebody had reached into his chest and squeezed his heart.

            “Ah – em?”  The sound of someone nervously clearing his throat caused Dwalin to spin around, reaching for weapons he’d left in the changing chamber.  The throat-clearer took a step backward in alarm.  “My, er, my apologies,” the dwarf said.

            The speaker was familiar; Dwalin racked his brain.  “Krevlin?” he asked.  He couldn’t recall the name of the clan he headed, but the dwarf had brought him wine after the shock of seeing Dis that first night.

            Krevlin gave him a faint smile.  “Mister Dwalin.”  He inclined his head.  “I did not mean to startle you.”

            “No apology is necessary,” Dwalin rumbled.  He gazed out at the mass of dwarves.  There was no helping it; he’d have to chance it, even without Bofur.  He looked around for the pool with the fewest dwarves.

            “May I offer you the use of the Council pool?” Krevlin asked.  “It will be less crowded, though you may find you’ll have to talk politics.”

            Dwalin accepted gratefully.  He would return tomorrow, but he’d bring Bofur with him.  “My thanks,” he said gruffly to Krevlin.

            There were only two dwarves in the Council bath, but one of them was the Firebeard Dwalin had been rude to that first night.  The other he distantly recognized, but couldn’t bring his name or clan to mind.  Fortunately, the unnamed dwarf was a talker, and chattered over the tension between the Firebeard and Krevlin.  Dwalin found himself drawn into a conversation on the lost art of wolf-training.  Some of the dwarves of the Iron Hills still raised wolves from pups, and even used them in battle, but nobody had tamed a wild wolf in centuries.

            For his brother’s sake, Dwalin tried to bring the Firebeard into the conversation, and found himself speaking of his fostering in the Iron Hills.  The Firebeard clan head had fostered there as well, but that seemed to be the extent of what they had in common.  Finally the other two dwarves left, and before he could catch himself Dwalin had let out a loud sigh of relief.

            He caught Krevlin’s rueful smile just before the dwarf ducked his head to hide it.  “It would be too much to ask that you be blessed with political sensibilities when your brother and cousin are already so gifted,” the dwarf said, eyes twinkling.

            Dwalin wasn’t sure if he’d just been insulted, but decided Khrevlin wouldn’t dare.  “My cousin?” he asked instead, wondering if he meant the King.  Dain was no better at diplomacy than Dwalin, to Balin’s great chagrin.

            “The Lady Dis.”

            Dwalin couldn’t help the tension that ran through him at the mention of her name, but he hoped Krevlin didn’t see it.  A slightly raised eyebrow might have indicated that his hopes were futile, but the dwarf said nothing.  Now that Krevlin had spoken of her, though, Dwalin remembered that he’d been wondering something.

            “How did she manage to become Longbeard clan head?” he asked, curious.  “They’ve never allowed a woman on the Council before, even when it was the obvious choice.”  More than once, a puppet had been appointed to the Council as clan head, though everyone knew that he spoke for the more powerful woman who backed his claim.

            “Most of the Longbeards left for Erebor not long after the news reached us of your victory,” Krevlin said.  “The ones who remained… would not have suited.”  He looked uncomfortable.  “They were miners, you see, whereas the Lady Dis is a shareholder.”

            Of course.  “It was about money, then,” Dwalin said, oddly disappointed.

            “We-ell, yes…” Krevlin said slowly.  “On the surface, anyway.  Lady Dis has always been a power behind the Longbeard Council seat, and some of the other clans’ as well.  Some days, I must admit that I think she actually had more power when she was moving behind the scenes.”

            Dwalin frowned.  Yes, Dis had always been intimately involved in the political goings-on of Ered Luin.  He was surprised that she was content with just a seat on the Council.  By rights, he thought, the throne should have passed to her.

            An awful thought struck him.

            “Mister Dwalin?” Krevlin asked, his voice tinged with concern.  “Mister Dwalin, are you feeling well?”

            Dwalin accepted the mug of cool water numbly, trying to put together the pieces in his head.  Could Dis possibly – ?

            The mug was taken from his hand again and suddenly he was drenched.  Dwalin sputtered; someone had poured the liquid over his head.  He opened his eyes and glared daggers at Krevlin.

            “Apologies,” the dwarf said, looking not at all sorry.  “You seemed to be going into shock.”

            Dwalin narrowed his eyes at Krevlin.  “I’ve killed dwarves for less,” he growled.

            Alarm flashed in the little dwarf’s eyes, but he squared his shoulders and said bravely, “Then allow me to tell you that you should learn to control your temper, my lord.”

            Dwalin let out a bark of laughter.  Yes, he could see why Bofur liked this man.  “Not a lord,” he said by way of apology.

            “No?”  Krevlin’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.  “But I was given to understand that you’re third in line for the throne.”

            Was he really?  Suddenly Dwalin felt very, very stupid.  Just moments after a realization that was obvious in retrospect, he was confronted with a truth that probably the entire world had realized, and Dwalin had somehow managed to miss.

            He knew Balin was next in line if Dain died; knew it was why Dain didn’t entirely trust his closest advisor.  But somehow Dwalin had never put it together that now that everyone accepted he was male, he too was part of the line of succession.

            No.  No no no no no.  This was not good.  Thorin had once been third in line to the throne.  Thorin was dead.  Kili had once been third in line, and he too was dead.  And Dwalin – Dwalin couldn’t be King.  He just couldn’t.

            “Shall we get you back to your inn, my lor – er, Mister Dwalin?” Krevlin asked anxiously.  “I think some supper might do you good.”

            I’ll abdicate, Dwalin thought wildly, following Krevlin to the changing chamber.  I’ll abdicate and Oin will have to do it.  He’ll murder me in my sleep, but at least I won’t have to be King Under the Mountain.  He shuddered.

            Krevlin must have decided he couldn’t be trusted to walk back to the inn on his own, for he accompanied Dwalin through the twilight.  Dwalin felt better, calmer, in the cool air and with his clothes on.  He was definitely enlisting Bofur’s protection for the baths tomorrow.

            “My thanks, Mister Krevlin,” Dwalin managed when they reached the inn.  He bowed.

            Krevlin returned the bow, but did not turn to leave.  “Er, Mister Dwalin, if I might…”  The nervousness was back.

            “What can I do for you?”  Dwalin wanted nothing more than to hide in his room for a bit and sort out his thoughts, but he was aware that Krevlin had been rather generous in not asking questions this evening.

            “Your assistance in a rather awkward matter,” Krevlin said. He steeled himself visibly.  “It concerns my brother.  Or rather, my sister,” because Dwalin had already opened his mouth to refuse; he would do no favors for Havlin.  Krevlin waited for Dwalin to nod his assent to continue.  “My sister is very fond of Bofur.  She would very much like to invite him for supper.  No, please let me finish, Mister Dwalin,” Krevlin said, holding up a hand.  “For reasons that are obvious to everyone except her, this is a very ill-advised idea.  But Taelin is as stubborn as her brothers, and she secured my promise that I would at least offer the invitation.  If you will do me the honor of refusing on Bofur’s behalf, some feelings might be spared.”

            Dwalin was silent, for the first time really looking at Krevlin.  The dwarf still looked as strained and tired as he had the first night, as if all the cares of the world were laid on his shoulders.  Dwalin had written him off as weak and overwhelmed by his new responsibilities as clan head, but this spoke to both diplomacy and family, and perhaps Krevlin was not to be discounted as a player on the field of Ered Luin politics.

            “Yes, of course,” Dwalin said finally.  “Our regrets, of course, but we have so many invitations…”  They had none, he realized, and that was odd, wasn’t it?  The only invitation was from Dis.

            “Thank you.”  But Krevlin wasn’t finished.  He again straightened and squared his shoulders, as if bracing himself for a blow.  He drew a deep breath.  “Mister Dwalin, although I am saddened that Bofur will not become my brother-in-law as I had long hoped, I can see that you are a good dwarf in addition to your renown as a warrior.  I am glad that Bofur has found such a one as you to make him happy, and I wish you both great joy.”

            A long moment passed as Dwalin tried to puzzle out this statement; then the pieces fell into place.  “Mister Krevlin,” he said, “you are mistaken.  Bofur is not my lover.”

            Dismay was written on the little dwarf’s face, and Dwalin understood that it went deeper than just embarrassment at a social gaffe.  Krevlin had just realized that Bofur had refused his brother not because he had a new love but because he did not wish to be with Havlin.  It was a subtle difference, but no doubt heartbreaking for anyone who cared about Havlin.

            “I am sorry to hear it,” Krevlin said, and rapidly took his leave.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

           It was late when Bofur finally returned to the inn. Dwalin heard his laugh in the stairwell and felt both relief and annoyance. Relief that Bofur had returned at last, and annoyance that his friend had evidently been enjoying himself while Dwalin was in turmoil.

           He opened his door to greet the dwarf warbling on the stair – by the Maker, it was that little ditty about blunting knives and breaking plates – and was taken aback to find Bofur with an arm over the shoulder of a familiar dwarf with red-gold hair.

           A horrible, icy feeling ran through him.  Even after everything else that had happened today, this was somehow the worst. This was the proverbial ingot that broke the packmule’s back.

           “Come on, Bofur,” he heard Havlin say as he guided Bofur up another few stairs. “We’re almost there.”

           Another burst of song ended in a fit of giggles, and Bofur swayed, almost falling.  Havlin grabbed hold of him and dragged him up the last three stairs, looking torn between exasperation and fondness.

           “Is he – ” Dwalin asked.

           “Drunk? Yes,” Havlin said briefly. He unwound the arm over his shoulders and pushed Bofur toward a startled Dwalin.

           Bofur stumbled a little, and Dwalin caught him instinctively. “Dwalin!” Bofur cried, delighted, the sweetest smile Dwalin had ever seen spreading across his face.  If Dwalin had any pity to spare for the dwarf who had hurt Bofur so deeply, he would have pitied Havlin at that moment. The pain was clear on his face. But Dwalin couldn’t bring himself to care. What was Havlin thinking, getting Bofur drunk?

           “Do you think you can make it to bed?” Dwalin asked Bofur.

           Bofur nodded, but almost fell over halfway to the door of his room. Dwalin and Havlin both grabbed at him. Bofur laughed and started humming again softly, oblivious as they glared at each other over his head.

           Eventually Havlin let go with bad grace, and Bofur slumped against Dwalin. Still glaring, Dwalin kicked the door open and hauled Bofur inside as gently as he could. He helped Bofur over to the bed and sat him down. Bofur flopped back with a big smile on his face. He chuckled at the ceiling.

           “Can you stay put for a few minutes?” Dwalin asked, trying to hide his smile. As annoyed as he was, Bofur’s good humor was infectious.

           Bofur nodded and hummed happily.

           Havlin was halfway down the stairs when Dwalin caught him, pushing him against the wall and glowering down at him. “How dare you?” he growled, bringing the full force of his intimidation to bear. “Stay away from him, or I’ll make you sorry you ever met him.”

           He was used to people cowering in fear when he used that particular voice; it had never failed him before today. So it took him completely off guard when Havlin pushed back and snarled up at him, “All I did was bring him home before he embarrassed himself. What were you doing that he had to go drown his sorrows?”

           Dwalin blinked down at him. First Dis, now Havlin. It wasn’t as if Dwalin made a habit of getting what he wanted by looking threatening, but he’d always been able to count on it as a backup plan. “You didn’t get him drunk?”

           “No!” Havlin shook off Dwalin’s hand and straightened, looking disgruntled.  “Bofur doesn’t get drunk. I’ve only seen him like this once.” He ran his fingers through his thick hair, looking troubled. “It wasn’t because of you, then,” he said flatly.

           “I haven’t seen him all day,” Dwalin said. Havlin was right; Bofur never had more than a few pints, and even when he got tipsy it was often more an act than any real impairment. “When?” he asked, frowning.

           “When, what?”

           “When did you see him like this?”

           Havlin gave him an odd look. “When his sister-in-law died,” he said slowly, “and his uncle…”

           Dwalin growled impatiently when Havlin didn’t continue.

           “I won’t repeat what that bastard said,” Havlin muttered. “It’s the only time I saw Bofur mad enough to kill someone.”

           That didn’t sound like Bofur at all. “Did something happen today?” Dwalin asked. Surely he would have heard if someone died?

           Havlin scowled. “How should I know? I found him at the King’s Arms and brought him back here.”

           Something fierce and animal twisted in Dwalin’s chest. “You’ll stay away from him from now on,” he growled, fisting a hand in the front of Havlin’s shirt to drag his face close and stare him into submission. “Leave Bofur in peace.”

           Again, Havlin was not cowed by the implied threat. He pushed Dwalin back and twisted free. He would not have managed it if they’d not been on stairs and if Havlin had not thrown Dwalin’s center of gravity off just enough that he had to steady himself on the rail. Before he knew it, Havlin was in his face and snarling.

           “Is that how you want it? Dogs fighting over a bone?” Havlin sneered, voice low and intimate and dangerous in a way Dwalin had never encountered before. “No. No, you listen to me, you great brute. You can threaten me all you want but it doesn’t matter.  He was mine for twelve years.  If you hurt him, there is no power in Middle Earth that will keep me from tearing out your liver with my bare hands and feeding it to the rats.”  He stepped back, eyes still stormy, and turned to leave.

           Dwalin didn’t move, still stunned.

           A few steps down, Havlin turned and said in a more natural voice, “Bofur gets to ask me to stay away. You don’t, and he wouldn’t thank you for trying.”

           When he’d gone, Dwalin sat at the top of the stairs and massaged his temples with his fingertips. He’s not my lover! he wanted to say, and he didn’t know why Bofur hadn’t told Havlin that.

           If you hurt him… And in the end, who was Dwalin to judge Havlin for hurting Bofur? Dwalin had done worse. He too had had a chance and lost it. As it turned out, he and Havlin had more in common than Havlin would ever suspect.

 


 

          For about half a second, Dwalin considered going to bed and leaving Bofur to take care of himself.  It had been a long day with too many revelations, and more emotions than he’d experienced in a long time.  Dis, and the succession, and Krevlin: Dwalin was tired, wrung out.  He didn’t want to deal with Bofur in his cups.

           The things you do for kin, he thought.  He’d gotten off rather lightly in the responsibility to kin department.  Balin had never called on him for anything.  There was the small matter of Thrain and then Thorin asking him to reclaim their home from a dragon, but other than that –

           Dwalin laughed a little at himself.  If he was willing to offer his life to his cousin, the least he could do was make sure that Bofur was properly abed.

           Bofur, of course, wasn’t.  He had managed to remove one boot, but had apparently lost interest halfway through unlacing the other, for Dwalin found him rummaging haphazardly through the chest of drawers that held his belongings with one shoe off and the other on.

           “Looking for something?” Dwalin asked, amused by the pile of things Bofur had upended onto the floor.  Clothes, of course, and supplies, but also an odd assortment of other objects.  A bag of honey candies from Beorn that Bofur had sworn up and down they’d eaten the last of; a book from Bilbo with the words There and Back Again worked into the leather binding; the workpouch with a block of softwood and two handmade knives – anger and worry.

           “Yes,” said Bofur, frowning in wide-eyed consternation when the last drawer proved to be empty.

           Dwalin straddled a chair and rested his chin atop his crossed arms on the high back.  “What is it you’re searching for?” he prompted when Bofur poked forlornly at the pile.

           Bofur chewed his lip, thoughtful.  “Don’ remember,” he said, and laughed.

           Well, at least Bofur was a cheerful drunk.

           Dwalin pulled the clean chamberpot out from under the bed in case his friend became ill.  “Do you want to go to bed?” he prompted hopefully.  Then he blushed beet red, because with me could so easily be implied, and Bofur wasn’t up for making such distinctions just now.

           But “No,” Bofur said, and Dwalin had to laugh through his relief, remembering Kili and Fili answering that exact question with the same simple denial when they were tiny.

           “Very well then, will you go to bed if I ask nicely?” Dwalin teased.  With the princes, the next step after asking nicely was to roar and chase them laughing around the bedchamber until Dis yelled at all of them.

           “All righ’,” Bofur said, the same sweet smile on his face.  He tried to rise but collapsed back on the pile of clothing, giggling a little.

           “C’mere.”  Bofur was a grown dwarf and couldn’t be picked up like the princes had been.  Still, Dwalin helped him stand and let him lean heavily against him as they stumbled over to the bed.  Dwalin was surprised Havlin had managed to get Bofur to the inn at all, he was so unsteady on his feet.

           “’M sorry,” Bofur mumbled into Dwalin’s shirt, looking very lost and young.

           Dwalin settled him on the bed and knelt to unlace the second boot.  “You want to tell me what brought this on?” he asked.

           Bofur didn’t answer; he was distracted by Dwalin’s axe harness.  He hummed and ran his fingers over the thick leather straps, now properly fitted.  One finger dragged against the shirt underneath, and Dwalin shivered.

           “Did something happen today?” Dwalin pressed.  He tugged the boot off.  “You had guard duty with your uncle, didn’t you?”

           Bofur’s smile dimmed and he seemed to curl in on himself a little.  “Yes,” he mumbled, turning his face against the pillow.

           And suddenly Dwalin couldn’t bear to ask.  Bofur had been happy just now; Dwalin didn’t want to take that away.  “Nevermind,” he said.  “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”  He looked at Bofur and raised an eyebrow.  “You can undress yourself, can’t you?”

           Bofur got a bit tangled in his tunic, but he was giggling when Dwalin rescued him.  He beamed up at the big dwarf; Dwalin felt inexplicably teary-eyed.

           He took the tunic and trousers from Bofur, leaving just the shirt.  He helped him get under the blankets, again remembering countless nights in Kili and Fili’s bedchamber, trying to coax them to sleep.

           Fili used to like to talk at bedtime, trying to prove he could stay up late; finally, choked by yawns, he would doze off mid-sentence.  Dwalin reached out to stroke the young prince’s hair, and opened his eyes when his fingers caught against a messy braid.  Bofur was gazing up at him with the same open, childlike trust that Dwalin remembered from Thorin’s sister-sons.

           Dwalin had to look away.  He got up, in fact, and put Bofur’s clothes in the chest of drawers, then started stowing his friend’s scattered belongings in the drawers as well.  Behind him, Bofur started singing to himself again.

           When he’d steadied his shaking hands, Dwalin brought the chair over by the bed and sat down.  He could see Bofur was not going to drop passively off to sleep.

           Bofur had sat up and was casting around him, looking for something.  “Hat?” he asked anxiously.

           Dwalin dutifully fetched the hat from where he’d stowed it and dropped it on Bofur’s head.

           He thought back to Fili, so determined to stay awake, and said, “Tell me a story.”

           Bofur grinned.  He started talking and did not stop for a long time, meandering far off topic and devolving into fits of laughter.  Dwalin soon lost the thread of it, though he gathered that Bofur must have been very young, and his mother still alive, and Bifur still able to talk.  Dwalin would ask about it tomorrow, when Bofur’s speech wasn’t slurred and he’d stopped listing to one side and giggling every time he noticed.

           It wasn’t until Bofur fell silent that Dwalin focused on him again.  Bofur was looking up at him with the intent concentration of the very drunk.  Dwalin raised his eyebrows in inquiry.

           “I don’t mind, y’ know,” Bofur said quietly, his words hardly slurred at all.

           “What don’t you mind?”

           “That you haven’t got a cock.”

           Dwalin’s brain stuttered and went silent.

           He had a peculiar talent that he’d developed on the battlefield.  A hundred things could be happening around him, all vying for his attention, every one of them important and life-threatening.  Dwalin’s talent was that he was able to tune all of them out except for the one that he needed to deal with right at that moment.

           Later, when he thought back on it, he would mentally roar at Bofur, Well I bloody well mind!, but in that moment he was so startled that he could form no thoughts.  There was only an awful dread, because if the next words out of Bofur’s mouth were “I don’t mind that you’re a woman,” Dwalin would have to leave, would have to find a campaign somewhere to join and bury himself in war and fighting, and never think again of Erebor and home.

           Dwalin held his breath.

           “I minded at first,” Bofur said, eyes bright.  “’Fore I really knew you.  Ruined all my fantasies, see.”

           He’s drunk.  He wouldn’t be telling you this, else.  But Dwalin couldn’t help the mix of anger and sorrow that flooded him at the words.

           “You had fantasies about me, did you?” he managed, trying to keep his voice light, trying to deny that Bofur had put the root of their trouble on the table for discussion.

           Bofur nodded, eyes slipping closed as he leaned against the wall for support.  “Don’ mind anymore.  I fan – fant – dreamed ’bout your fingers instead.”  He smiled to himself and hummed a few bars.

           “My fingers?” Dwalin said stupidly, looking down at them.  The tattoos stood out in strong contrast to the pale skin underneath.

           “Mmmmm.”  The sound Bofur made was positively pornographic.

           Once again, Dwalin was rendered speechless.  He closed his eyes and breathed through his nose.  He should leave now, before Bofur could tell him more things he’d regret.

           He felt a hand on his.  “I had to stop,” Bofur said earnestly.

           “Stop what?”  Dwalin’s voice was hoarse.

           “Thinkin’ of you.  When you – the Woman you paid…  You don’ like sex.  Had t’ stop wishing…”  Bofur looked very sad.

           “Didn’t you stop wishing when I –” tried to strangle you?  Dwalin couldn’t say the words aloud.  He couldn’t bear to hear Bofur talk about that with the frank honesty that came of drink.  As long as he didn’t know what Bofur really felt, there was still a chance Dwalin could be forgiven for what had happened at Rivendell.

           But there was something he did want to know, something that had almost driven him away from Erebor.  He might never get another chance to find out.  “Bofur… in your fantasies – what was it you thought of doing to me?”  I don’t, I don’t want to fuck you, Bofur had said, but Dwalin couldn’t fuck him, could he?  He didn’t have the required parts.

           Bofur couldn’t possibly be satisfied with just fingers, could he?

           Bofur made a noise of confusion, forehead wrinkling.  “Couldn’ dream ’bout that,” he said seriously.  “Don’ know what you’d let me do.”

           Dwalin was thoroughly confused by this answer.  “So you only fantasized about my fingers?”

           Bofur let his head roll back and he closed his eyes, humming a little again.  “Sometimes,” he began, and stopped.

           “Sometimes?” Dwalin prompted.  He held his breath.

           “Sometimes I dreamed ’bout pleasuring you with m’ mouth,” Bofur hummed.

           Dwalin reminded himself to breathe.

           He tried to imagine it.  He’d done it once, with the Woman he’d paid.  It had been uncomfortable and hardly worth the brief flash of pleasure, and he’d been relieved really.  If sex didn’t matter, he’d never have to think about the lack between his legs again.  Menses were bad enough, but at least they didn’t involve another person.

           Dwalin put his head in his hands.  What were you thinking? he raged at himself.  That he’d be satisfied with just kissing?  Maybe Bofur had done him a favor in pulling away from the kiss at Bag End; even if Dwalin could manage kisses, the thought of further intimacies left him cold and sweating.

           He tried one more time to imagine it, the two of them together.  Bofur would kiss down his belly, playing with his nipples – Dwalin thought he wouldn’t mind that, not now that they weren’t attached to useless lumps of fat – and then his kisses would dip lower, into the thick hair –

           His mind shut down and he gasped for air, clutching the bedframe with white-knuckled hands.  If the thought of Bofur’s mouth was so terrifying, how could he ever hope to let Bofur into his body?

           When Dwalin opened his eyes again, Bofur was looking at him sadly.  “Had t’ stop thinkin’ ’bout it,” Bofur said.  “Not fair t’ you.”

           Not fair to me ?  What about you?

           “Have – have you ever – ”  Dwalin stopped to clear his throat and to clasp his shaking hands together.  “Have you ever been with a – ”  He could not, would not say the word.  “ – with someone with parts like mine?”

           He meant a Human, of course.  Female dwarves tended to take only lovers they were thinking of marrying, for a pregnancy and marriage meant leaving their own family and joining their husband’s family or clan.  Some husbands even insisted on virginity, though that was widely considered rather high-handed and even in poor taste.  Female courtesans were few and far between, and they served only the richest and most prestigious.

           It had become traditional among the Longbeards, since the dragon, to pay a Human woman to teach a lad the ropes when he came of age.  Dwalin suspected the other clans did something similar, but he didn’t know if Bofur’s family would have been able to afford such a thing.  Indeed, he could remember Thorin grumbling about having to borrow money from Gloin to afford such services when Fili came of age.  Bofur most likely had never had the opportunity to bed a Woman.

           But Bofur surprised him by nodding.  “Havlin and I shared a widow, once.”  He frowned, and glared into the middle distance.  “Never forgave 'im for that,” he said after a long pause.

           “Is – is that what you quarreled about?” Dwalin asked.  He knew he was supposed to be horrified.  Marriage was one of the things dwarves held most sacred, and a widow or widower stayed in mourning until death, never taking another lover. 

           Bofur shook his head.  “No.  Was m’ own fault,” he slurred.

           When it seemed like he wasn’t going to continue, Dwalin said, “What was your fault?”

           Bofur shook his head again and kept shaking it, as if he’d forgotten how to stop.  Dwalin reached out and touched his cheek to still him.  Bofur looked at him with miserable eyes.  “Thought he meant a Woman, not a dwarf.  Never would have said yes.”

           Even though it was taboo, Dwalin was a little surprised that his easygoing friend felt so strongly about it.  He tried to think of something comforting to say.  But instead he said “Why not?”

           “Alís,” Bofur said.

           Dwalin knitted his brows.  “Alís?  The tavernkeeper?  She was the widow?”

           Bofur looked at him in confusion.  “Rae’s alive.”  He seemed to lose interest in the conversation.  Never one to sit still long, he began playing with the corners of the knitted blanket.  He looked rather ill.

           “You should drink some water,” Dwalin realized belatedly.  He brought the pitcher and mug over and made Bofur drink, though he balked at a second cup.

           “Tell me how Alís comes into it,” Dwalin said, wondering if he could piece together the story or whether Bofur was too far gone to make sense.  “Just tell me about Alís, then,” he said, when Bofur looked perplexed.

           Alís must be special if she could bring out a smile like that.  Dwalin told himself sternly not to be jealous.  It was hard to remember when Bofur said happily, “Love Alís.”

           “Aye?  Was Havlin jealous, then?”  Untangling Bofur’s past would be a lot easier if he wasn’t monosyllabic and drunk, but then Bofur also wasn’t likely to volunteer any of this while sober.  Dwalin had never thought of his friend as guarded before this.

           “No, silly.”  Bofur drew out the word like a dwarfling would.  “Alís is kin.  Can’t be jealous of kin.”  He had found a loose thread in the knitted blanket and was earnestly pulling the stitching free with a child’s enthusiasm.

           Dwalin rolled his eyes but didn’t try to stop him; they could afford to replace a blanket.  “She’s not clan Broadbeam, is she?”  Bofur had said it was just the four of them left.

           “Ironclaw,” Bofur said absently.  “Merced’s mother.”

           Oh.  Almost a mother-in-law to Bofur, then; a piece of the puzzle fell into place and Dwalin relaxed.

           “What’s she to do with Havlin?”  It was worse that trying to talk with Elves, Dwalin thought glumly.  But he was learning so much that he couldn’t stop himself asking.

           Bofur looked up from the growing pile of yarn that had distracted him, perplexed again.  “With Havlin?” he said uncertainly.

           “And your widow?” Dwalin prompted.

           Instantly Bofur looked miserable again, and Dwalin’s gut clenched.  Havlin had a lot to answer for, even if Dwalin couldn’t work out just what the dwarf had done.

           “He never said so,” Bofur muttered, “but he must a’ gone t’ Alís for her.”  He shoved the ragged blanket onto the floor and hunched into himself, bringing his knees to his chest and wrapping his arms around them.

           “I don’t follow,” Dwalin said, blank.

           Bofur gave him a look of frustration.  “Best brothelkeep in Ered Luin.  She can get y’ anything if you’ve th’ coin for it.”

           Oh.  Oh.  Havlin must have enlisted Alís’s aid in purchasing the widow’s services.

           “Practically m’ mum,” Bofur said.  “Couldn’ look her in th’ eye for weeks.”  His face crumpled.

           Dwalin watched, feeling helpless, as Bofur choked on what might have been a sob.  But soon that concern was replaced by another.  Bofur kept choking, eyes fever-bright.  Dwalin only just got the chamberpot under his chin before he was thoroughly sick.

           Dwalin fetched more water and helped his friend drink it.  Bofur was pale and his skin was clammy.  “I think it’s time you tried to sleep,” Dwalin told him, and Bofur didn’t protest when he was pushed onto his side and the blanket draped over him.

           “First step is closing your eyes,” Dwalin reminded him, biting back a smile.

           Bofur looked up at him, face still open and vulnerable like a child’s, and Dwlain couldn’t resist petting him a little the way he used to do the princes.  “Stay?” Bofur asked, exhaustion clear in his voice.

           “Until you sleep.”  Dwalin thought about kissing him now, to see if Bofur’s lips were as soft as in his memory, but if Bofur remembered tomorrow he might be angry – and Dwalin didn’t think he could bear it if he kissed him and Bofur didn’t remember.  Instead, he sat by his friend’s side and thought of all the questions he’d like to ask.  Tell me about your uncle, and Do you still love Havlin?  What did he do to insult you so much that facing a dragon was better than staying here? and Did my brother vote against your miners on the Council?

           If I’d not hurt you in Rivendell, would we have a chance?

           Then he thought of a question he’d never be able to ask in the clear light of sobriety.  “Bofur – back with the Redbeards – the little fellow who propositioned me, what did you really say to him?”

           But Bofur was asleep.

           Dwalin stroked the ends of the messy braids, enjoying the chance to get to look his fill.  Then he dropped a gentle kiss on Bofur’s forehead and blew out the lamp.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

    Bofur awoke from a dream that a smith was using the inside of his skull as an anvil.  Sadly, the waking did not stop the pounding.  He pulled the pillow over his head and went back to sleep.

    When he woke again, the pain had subsided to merely excruciating.  He contemplating getting up for some water and to relieve his bladder, but decided instead to burrow down into the blankets and return to the oblivion of sleep.

    Finally he was roused again by a knock at the door.  The sound only made him want to kill himself a little, so he figured the hangover was subsiding.  “Who’s there?” he called, his tongue thick in his throat.

    The door swung open and Dwalin came in.  It must be nearly midmorning, for his boots were dusty; he had already been out today.

    “How are you feeling?”  Dwalin’s rumble sent a spike of pain through Bofur’s forehead, and he almost begged the big dwarf not to walk so loudly across the floor.  Dwalin pushed a mug of... something... into his hand.  “Landlord says that’ll put you to rights,” he said gruffly.

    Bofur’s mind was catching up at last.  He remembered drinking in the pub.  He remembered guilt sharper than the pain that was currently slicing through his head.  He hoped he didn’t remember Havlin being there, but with his luck...

    “How did I get here?” he asked, even while his sluggish brain supplied the memory.  Havlin had dragged him here from the pub, and Dwalin -

    “Someone brought you back last night,” Dwalin said.  Bofur eyed him closely to see if he’d embarrassed himself, but Dwalin’s face gave nothing away, Mahal curse him.

    “Will you be all right?” Dwalin asked.  “I’ve got to visit Lady Dis, but - “

    Bofur sat straight up, alarmed.  “What time is it?” he demanded.  He rode out the wave of nausea and grabbed the mug, downing half its contents in a matter of seconds.

    “Mid-afternoon,” Dwalin said.  “I thought it best to let you sleep it off - “

    “Mahal take it!” Bofur cursed.  “I’ve got to be at the south gates for clan watch duty at three.  Uncle will be furious.”  He stumbled out of bed, tripping on the blankets he’d scattered across the floor.  “Where’s my tunic?”

    “I put it in the cupboard,” Dwalin said, and Bofur froze for just a moment.  Durin’s beard, he hoped Dwalin hadn’t had to undress him.  Carefully, he unfroze, gulped the rest of the hangover remedy, and fetched the tunic from the chest of drawers along with his boots and coat.  Avoiding Dwalin’s gaze, he pulled his dress surcoat from the wardrobe and strapped on his sword.

    “I’ll have the landlord pack you something to eat,” Dwalin said, backing toward the door.

    “I wouldn’t be able to keep it down.”  Bofur shoved his feet into his boots and ran.

 


 

    Dwalin left the ink-artist’s stall reluctantly.  He was pleased with how the design was developing, and was not looking forward to trying to keep his temper in Dis’s presence.  It was as if she were trying to provoke him to violence.

    That was a thought, though, wasn’t it?  What might she gain if he did lose his temper?  She wasn’t one to let emotions rule her head, not Dis.  He would have to be extra careful around her.

    Dis wasn’t the only thing troubling him.  This morning when he’d shown up at the watch house to spar with the guards, the captain had taken him aside.  In a stammering voice, he’d begged my Lord’s forgiveness for offense offered, and further begged Dwalin not to hold the guards responsible.

    “Explain,” Dwalin barked when it became clear that the man was too terrified to be coherent.

    It took a long time and multiple assurances from Dwalin that he would not hold the city watchmen responsible for the offense before he could piece together the story.  When he did, Dwalin almost broke his word, cold fury electrifying every nerve.  The long and short of it seemed to be that when Bofur had showed up for clan watch duty the day before, his uncle had taken the opportunity to heap abuse and reproaches on him.  In front of the watchmen.  For almost an hour.

    “'Tisn’t right,” the captain said a third time, upset almost to tears.  “Him a hero and all, and we know Balur’s half-mad but he’s a clan head and Councilman as well, so no one can do anything.  And Bofur - sorry, Mister Bofur - he didn’t say a word.  Kept smiling, and it made the old man crazy.  It shouldn’t be allowed.  Someone should do something.”

    Clearly, though, the captain of the watch did not think that he had any responsibility to do something.  How long had this town let Balur bully and abuse his family?

    Dwalin was halfway down the street when he realized that he didn’t know where to find Balur.  For that matter, was there anything he could do?  He couldn’t punch an old man in the face, no matter how much he wanted to, and no matter how much the man deserved it.  Roaring at him would cause Bofur further embarrassment.

    Now at least Dwalin had an explanation for the state he’d found Bofur in last night.

    And of course Bofur would stand his ground and smile at his uncle through it all.  Mahal above, why couldn’t Bofur just get good and angry?  Dwalin could count on one hand the number of times he had seen Bofur angry.  He still wasn’t sure if it was that Bofur didn’t get angry or that he hid it very well.

    The metal’s been overworked.

    Yes.  I was very angry with you.

    Dwalin growled and found a bench to sit down on.  Durin’s beard!  It might do Bofur good to get properly angry sometime.

    Not that Dwalin’s own anger was helping anything just now, he was very much aware.  He hated having enemies he couldn’t kill.  Who could have thought that living with his own kind would be more difficult than adventuring and war?

    He couldn’t do anything about Balur, not at the moment, though his hands itched to hold a knife to the dwarf’s throat and warn him what would happen if he dared bother Bofur again.

    Bofur won’t thank you for it.  Havlin had said that last night.  It had been true then, and it was true now.  In the rational part of his mind, Dwalin knew he couldn’t fight Bofur’s battles.  But this was worse than the time that blasted Elf had toyed with Kili’s heart and Dwalin had been unable to intervene.  Here, he could do something, but he knew he shouldn’t.

    He considered returning to the watch house to train, but he couldn’t spar when he was in a killing mood; someone would get hurt and it wouldn’t be him.

    Instead he’d gone back to the inn, fetched his axes, and spend several long hours in the courtyard practicing his fighting forms again and again until his muscles ached and his mind calmed.  The only silver lining was that as long as he was concentrating on being furious, he didn’t have to think about Bofur’s words from the night before.

    Now, on his way to Dis’s residence, Dwalin could feel the battle tension rising again.  If his suspicions of his cousin were correct, she was far more dangerous than he’d ever suspected before.

    Honestly, he’d take orcs any day over the intrigues of his fellow dwarves.

 


 

    “Dwalin,” Dis greeted him.

    “My Lady.”  He bowed perfunctorily.  Formalities over, they sat down.  She poured him tea, but he only pretended to sip it.

    He opened his mouth to take up the story of the quest where he’d left off, but she held up a hand.  “I would hear more of Erebor today,” she said.  “Many old friends and allies have returned to the Mountain; tell me news of them.”

    He thought back to what he’d told her the first time she asked about the goings-on at Court.  He hadn’t taken note of the names she’d asked about.  That was an unforgivable mistake.  He could almost hear both Balin and Nori muttering about clueless dunderheads with rocks for brains.

    This time, he paid attention to the questions she asked.  Always there was an excuse: this one was kin; that one she’d known in her childhood; the next she corresponded with regularly.

    Dis was circumspect; she did not press him for information, instead waiting for him to volunteer it.  And she was remarkably skilled in getting him to give up details before he even quite realized he was doing so.  The conversation was polite and engaging - just catching up on old friends - and she played on his instinct to keep it so.  But when he realized that he’d given away more about any particular person than he’d meant to and moved on, she let him.  She didn’t push.

    She was a better interrogator than Nori, even.

    There was only one person she asked about twice.  Gremai, one of Dain’s former generals.  Dwalin barely knew him; knew only that he was not close to the King.  The general had acquitted himself honorably during the war and had been very involved in the rebuilding of Erebor.  His was the type of quiet competence that would never receive its just reward.  Most dwarves would have boasted of their doings enough to be recognized; Gremai instead was assigned more work with no increase in status.

    Dwalin didn’t say all this to Dis - or rather, didn’t mean to, and because he had noticed how effective she was at prying, he managed to hold back his private opinion that Gremai had done enough to deserve a place as at least a minor advisor.  If Dwalin were the dwarf in question, he’d be very put out at the lack of acknowledgment.

    He didn’t know why Dis wanted this information, and he didn’t know if Gremai was any more important than any of the others she asked about.  Indeed, he found himself half-convinced that Dis’s mother really had been bosom friends with Gremai’s mother.

    Dis was very good at this, Dwalin realized yet again.

    “He sounds hard done by,” she said when he paused.  “I’ll write to Dain and tell him so.”

    “Do you correspond with the King?” Dwalin asked, surprised.

    “Of course.  Mail is only quarterly, but he has been a most faithful correspondent.”

    Balin must know, then; Balin often reviewed the King’s correspondence to weed out anything the King should not be bothered about.  And if the things the King should not be bothered about extended to the smooth running of Dain’s kingdom, well, Balin generally knew best.

    “I correspond with your brother as well,” Dis said, as if she could read the direction of his thoughts.

    All the air left Dwalin’s lungs, and for a moment he felt as if he were teetering on the pinnacle of a tall precipice.  Suspecting Dis of plotting was bad enough - was it possible Balin could be mixed up in this as well?

    No.  No, that was ridiculous.  It was beyond ridiculous; it was absurd.  There were things that Dwalin could not, would not believe.

    He looked up to find Dis regarding him with a curious little smile on her face.  Maybe she really could tell what he was thinking.  Dwalin shivered.

    She poured him another cup of that thrice-cursed tea with a sangfroid that made him shiver again.  If Balin was mixed up in her plotting, he would likely be eaten alive.

    “You left off yesterday having killed the Great Goblin,” she said.  “I trust the rest of the journey was less dangerous?”

    “Not exactly...” Dwalin said.  “Especially the next bit.”  And he began to describe the adventure of Azog, Thorin, and a Hobbit with more courage than sense.

 


 

    “I’m in need of some advice,” he said later.

    “Is that so?”  She arched an eyebrow at him, as if inquiring why on earth he’d come to her for advice.

    “We were extended an invitation by one of the clan heads last night,” Dwalin said, ignoring the look.  “It made me realize - it should not have been the first.  By rights, they should be fighting over us.”

    Dis’s mouth thinned into a grim line and her eyes flashed.  “You should have too many invitations to count!” she hissed.  “Those cowards.  You are the heroes of Erebor and should be accorded all honors!”

    Dwalin took a step backward at her sudden fury.  It wasn’t as if anyone had dishonored them by not inviting them for supper...

    Unless they had?  Dwalin didn’t know the usual rituals, but Thorin and Balin often did have to go to parties and dinners back in the old days, as a gesture of political good will.  Was the lack of invitations an insult?

    Dis narrowed her eyes.  “Only one clan has an excuse not to invite you, and even then I’d be surprised to hear if they hadn’t.”

    “The invitation was from Krevlin,” Dwalin confirmed.

    “Of course it was.  I hope you turned it down.”

    Dwalin looked at her, surprised.

    She rolled her eyes.  “I neither know nor care whether the rumors about you and Bofur Broadbeam are true, but it would be cruel to both Bofur and Havlin to subject them to such a thing.”

    “But you don’t think it’s cruel to subject us to political niceties with the other twelve clans,” he grumbled.  He hated such political affairs; fortunately Balin rarely made him go.

    “Actually,” she said slowly, “I’d very much like to be a fly on the wall.  Most of them have voted against Bofur and his miners at one time or another; it will be amusing to see what they have to say now that they have to be polite.”

    Dwalin gritted his teeth.  It was as he suspected.  Ered Luin had not been a happy place for Bofur, then.

    “And the Longbeards?” he growled.  “Did we vote against the miners as well?”

    She gave him a withering look.  “I know you’ve got brains, Dwalin.  You might try using them for once in your life.  Until Thorin reclaimed Erebor, our entire fortune was tied up in those mines.  Of course we voted against the miners.”

    Though not unexpected, it was still a punch to the gut.  It was a miracle Bofur had ever signed up for the quest; more of a miracle that he’d sworn loyalty to a king who hadn’t looked out for his people’s interests.  At least, that was how Bofur would see it, and Dwalin was inclined to think he was right.

    He cursed Thorin, who had hated politics enough to leave them to the totally pragmatic Balin.

    “Is that why you’ve issued no invitation?” he demanded.  “Afraid to look Bofur in the eye?”

    “My business is my own,” Dis snapped.  “But the insult to the heroes of Erebor is my business as well, for it is an insult to my kin and to my clan.  It will be remedied.”

    “We’d rather not - ”

    “It will be remedied,” she thundered in Thorin’s battle voice, and Dwalin found himself jumping to attention.  “Those cowards are too intimidated to face a mere miner - ”

    Dwalin didn’t remember the next three seconds.  When the world righted itself, he was on his feet with Dori’s ornamental dagger six inches from Dis’s throat.  “Bofur isn’t a mere anything,” he hissed.  His breath came very fast, and the fury pounding through his head tinged his entire vision with red.

    The look Dis gave him was deeply unimpressed, which brought him back to the present a little.  So much for not threatening his kin.

    “Look down,” she said gently.

    He followed her gaze.  A long, wicked-looking knife was poised at just the right place to enter his kidney if Dis flicked her wrist upward.

    “Can we agree that I’ll not insult your friend, and you’ll not threaten to kill me again?” she asked with all the long-suffering patience she used to use on Fili and Kili.

    He backed away, ashamed.  He hadn’t even brought any proper weapons; he’d been afraid of something like this, and still he’d lost his temper.

    “I think perhaps,” he said slowly, “we had both better disarm ourselves before we kill each other.”

    She snorted.  “You first.”

    Holding her gaze, Dwalin set the dagger down on the table.  He unbuckled the knuckledusters and tossed them down, then bent to retrieve the knives in his boots.

    Dis raised an eyebrow.  “Am I supposed to believe that that’s all?”

    Dwalin shrugged.  “Believe what you like.  I didn’t think I had to come armed to the house of my kin."

    The sound she made was skeptical.  “I’ve given you no reason to trust me.  Quite the opposite.”  The long knife was slapped down on the table.  The garrotte came out of the pouch next.  Three thin daggers were extracted from the braids in her hair.  Then she hiked up her skirt and unstrapped a small handaxe from her ankle.  She tossed it on the pile, then crossed her arms and looked challengingly at Dwalin.  “I still have a weapon,” she said seriously.  “I know your secret.”

    “Yes,” Dwalin agreed.  “But I know a secret as well.”  He gave her a shark’s grin.

 


 

    “No,” Dis said flatly.  “My son would never do something so - so - ”

    “Thorin had a lot of words for it,” Dwalin said.  “Shall I repeat them?”

    “No!” she snapped.  “I know exactly what he would say about my Kili taking up with an Elf!”

    “And you know what people would say if it were to become known,” Dwalin ground out.  “Kin or not, I will tell the entire world, if you reveal my secret.”

    To his surprise, Dis grinned.  It was sharp-edged, but there was humour there.  “I knew you’d fight back eventually.”  She sat down with a flourish at the table piled with weapons.  “More tea?”

    He stared.  Was she serious?

    She sighed.  “Sit down, Dwalin.  Tell me the story.”

    “No tea,” he growled, and sat.

    She snickered a little before settling down.  Then her face turned serious.  “Was my Kili in love?”

    “He thought so.”

    “And the Elf?  Did the Elf love him?”

    “I don’t know.”

    Dis sighed.  “And how did Thorin react?”

    “Kili lost his honor by lying with an Elf.”  Dwalin wished there were a way to put it less baldly when Dis flinched.  “Thorin tried to marry him off.”

    “Of course he did.”  Dis sounded tired.  “My poor boy.”  She was silent for a long moment, and Dwalin suddenly wondered if she’d ever been in love.  Her marriage had almost certainly been arranged, probably for a stake in the Ered Luin mines after Smaug came.  “Tell me about the Elf,” she said, turning away so that he could not see her face.

    “One of Thranduil’s...”

    A snort of laughter.  “Aye, Kili always did know how to get under Thorin’s skin.  He never did anything by halves.”

    “Her name was Tauriel.  She was Captain of the King’s Guard.”

    “Very beautiful, I suppose?”

    Dwalin shrugged.  “Perhaps, for an Elf.”  He found the hairlessness of Elves offputting.  They looked like improbably tall children with very little muscle definition.  He’d gotten used to Elrond, but Elves would always look strange to him.

    Dis sighed.  “I hope they had a little time for happiness before Thorin found out.”

    Dwalin was silent.  There were things a parent was not meant to know.

    “Very well, then,” Dis said, as if in answer to a question.  “I will keep your secret and you will keep my son’s secret.  I would not have his name tarnished now that he is not here to defend it.”

    Dwalin felt relief, but he also felt a little sick.  Could he really have brought dishonor on Thorin’s sister-son?  Had it been an empty threat he couldn’t follow through on?

    Balin was the pragmatist.  Balin would have told him that he’d accomplished his purpose, subverted Dis’s power over him, and that the details didn’t matter.

    Balin had voted for Longbeard profits over Bofur’s miners.  Dwalin wasn’t sure what to believe anymore.

 


 

    When Dwalin returned to the inn for supper, Bofur was still absent.  Upon inquiry, the innkeeper told him his friend had returned but had gone out again for a miners’ meeting.

    “And a good thing, too,” the innkeeper said.  “The men won’t return to the mines since the accident, but we’re going on a month now with no wages.  Hopefully Mister Bofur can pull off some of his magic.”

    “Where is the meeting?” Dwalin demanded, which was how he found himself being denied entry to a tavern near the mine entrance.  A nervous-looking dwarf quailed before Dwalin’s scowl but resolutely burbled that only miners were allowed inside.

    Bofur wouldn’t thank him for wringing the dwarf’s neck, so Dwalin waited with bad grace, entertaining himself from time to time by baring his teeth at the hapless guard and making a show of sharpening his knife.

    “Stop that,” Bofur told him, stepping out of the tavern half an hour later.  “The poor man’s terrified.”  He looked amused.

    “He should have let me in, then,” Dwalin said.  “Have you had supper?”

    Bofur took him to Alís’s tavern.  The food was good, though not a patch on what it used to be when Bombur worked here, Dwalin was assured.  When they’d eaten and were finishing their ale in companionable silence, a grey-haired dwarrowdam with an impressive beard joined them, trailed by a wolfhound.  Or -

    “Is that a wolf?” Dwalin asked Alís in disbelief.

    She grinned.  “Rae found him in a beartrap a few years back.  They’ve been inseparable ever since.”

    Dwalin offered the wolf a hand to sniff.  Upon being accepted, he scratched the creature behind the ears.

    “One of the clan heads was swearing up and down to me just yesterday that nobody’s tamed a wolf in centuries,” he commented.

    “Facho was born tame,” Alís snorted.  “Completely useless, that one.  Would rather lick a thief’s hand than bite it.  And of course Rae spoils him rotten.”

    Bofur grinned.  “Bombur used to as well.  He’d always give the wolf any leftovers at the end of the night instead of bringing them home to me and Bifur.”

    “Softhearted fools, Rae and Bombur both,” Alís scoffed, but she scratched Facho under the chin.  She turned to Bofur.  “Tell me, lad, will they break the strike?”

    Bofur grimaced.  “They may well,” he admitted.  “The shareholders won’t budge.  Nobody will mine under shale, but a month of lost wages is too much to swallow.  Some parts of the mines will probably reopen in the next few days.”

    Alís swore, comprehensively and fluently.  Dwalin was impressed with the extent of her vocabulary.  “Seventeen dead and the bastards choose now to stand firm?  Can’t you talk sense into the lads, Bofur?”

    Bofur shrugged, clearly unhappy.  “It’s not my place anymore,” he said slowly.  “I’ll be gone in a month or two.  The only thing anyone would ever trust is a new contract, and I can’t stay for that.  The last one took eight months, and there wasn’t even much changed.”

    “Balur’s back on the Council,” Alís said.  “Surely that changes things a little - the miners can count on him to vote their way, if only to spite the other clan heads.”

    “Counting on Balur is a fool’s game,” Bofur said, which seemed to close the subject.

    As they walked back to the inn together in the late summer twilight, Dwalin tried to puzzle out Bofur’s mood.  His friend seemed on edge.  No doubt it had to do with the miners.  Unless it was to do with what had been said last night...

    “Alís seems a good sort,” Dwalin said, hoping if Bofur started talking it would chase away the furrow between his brows.

    Would his heart always lurch a little at the sight of Bofur when he smiled with genuine affection?  “Alís is the best,” Bofur told him.  “She was a bit of a mother to Bombur and me.”

    “Yes, I - “  Dwalin snapped his mouth closed.  So, Bofur really didn’t remember what he had said while he was drunk.  Dwalin wasn’t sure whether he should feel relieved or disappointed.  He felt both.  “You talked about her a bit last night,” he said carefully.

    Something shuttered at the back of Bofur’s gaze, but he gave no physical sign of tension.  “I suppose I owe you an apology,” he said.

    “An explanation, perhaps?” Dwalin said.  “You’re not normally one to drink overmuch.”  He didn’t think Bofur would tell him about Balur, but he wasn’t sure if his friend would lie.

    Bofur shrugged, and now Dwalin could see the tension in his muscles.  His cheeks were pink and he wouldn’t meet Dwalin’s gaze as he said in a low voice, very quickly as though he were afraid he’d lose the words if he slowed: “It was careless and foolish of me and I apologize.  It won’t happen again.”

    “Bofur, it’s not - ”  Dwalin paused, trying to sort out what to say.  He was sorry he’d brought up the subject.  “You can do as you like, of course.”

    An awkward silence stretched out between them, ending only when they reached the inn.  “Did you want to go to the baths?” Dwalin asked as they made their way upstairs.  Maybe being in a crowd would restore Bofur’s good spirits.

    For a moment he thought Bofur would refuse, but his friend nodded and ducked into his room to fetch his things.

    Dwalin lingered in the doorway, a thought that had niggled at him all day coming to the fore.  He finally decided to just ask and see how Bofur reacted.  “Could I try it?” he asked.

    Bofur, looking through his belongings for a clean shirt, paused and blinked up at him in confusion.  “Try what?”

    “Getting drunk.”

    Bofur was giving him a queer look, but he didn’t seem upset, which was what Dwalin had feared.  “Why wouldn’t you be able to?” he asked.  “You don’t need my permission.”

    “No, I - ”  Dwalin sighed, frustrated.  “I never have before,” he explained.  “Too dangerous.”

    Bofur’s eyes went wide.  “Ohhh.”  He grimaced.  “Really, never?  No, I suppose not.”

    Intoxication would be even more dangerous than being knocked out in a barfight.  Like Bofur, Dwalin had perfected the art of seeming to drink more than he really did.

    Bofur made a face.  “The morning after is no fun,” he warned.

    “I just want to see what it’s like.”

    That earned him a small smile.  “I’ll remind you you said that when you’re cursing me at dawn for letting you drink so much.”

    Dwalin grinned, taking this as the acquiescence it was.

    Having collected a clean change of clothes for Bofur, they stopped at Dwalin’s room for a similar mission.  Bofur had that skittish look on his face again, and he was chewing his lip nervously.  But he was doing it openly, not trying to hide, which meant he wanted Dwalin to ask.

    “What’s the matter?” Dwalin asked dutifully, not sure why Bofur couldn’t just tell him.

    Bofur met his eyes, looking troubled.  “Dwalin - last night, did I - ”  He swallowed hard and steeled himself.  “Did I embarrass myself?”

    Dwalin wasn’t sure what Bofur meant about embarrassment; would he count the throwing up, or was he talking about something else?  There was really only one way to put Bofur at ease.  Dwalin stroked his beard, looking thoughtful as his friend squirmed.  “Depends,” he said slowly.  “Telling me you have dreams about Gloin licking honey off your toes - is that embarrassing?”

    Bofur’s eyes widened.  “I told you about that?” he squeaked.

    A beat passed.  Dwalin’s jaw dropped.  Then he looked into Bofur’s eyes and saw the gleam of merriment there, just as his friend burst into peals of laughter.

   “You - you - ” Dwalin sputtered, and Bofur was out the door lightning-fast, laughter echoing down the stairs.

   With a roar, Dwalin plunged after him, and chased him laughing through the streets to the baths.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

            There was a silver-plated box standing on top of the chest of drawers.  Bofur caught sight of it when he rose early the next morning, and he was sleepy enough that it took a few moments for the import to sink in.  Then, with trembling hands, he brought it over to the bed and sat down, not trusting his knees to hold him.

            The mithril-tipped tools fit in his hands as if made for him.  Bofur didn’t know how long he spent, picking up one after another, marveling at the craftsmanship, barely able to comprehend that he could own – that somebody could give him – anything so perfect.

            Somebody – it had to be Dwalin, surely.  Who else would have the funds for such an extravagance?  Bofur’s face went hot as he realized that he had the funds.  He was an extraordinarily rich dwarf now.  He could have bought these tools when he saw them at the market, and the sum of gold that would once have made his head spin would now make no appreciable dent in his coffers.

            Too soon, his mind spun off guiltily into how many dwarves that much gold could feed now during the strike, but Bofur dragged it back to the beautiful tools.  He would not taint Dwalin’s gift with his own misgivings.  And no one was stopping him from giving his own gold to the miners, when it came to it.

            He would have to do something lovely for Dwalin in thanks, Bofur thought.  His fingers caressed the smallest knife again, perfect for the finest detail-work.  Next he moved to the chisel and drawknife, then settled on the largest shaping knife.  He found the block of softwood he’d purchased the other day – just a small block, he remembered; he still wasn’t accustomed to the thought that he could buy more than the minimum at any one time – and holding his breath, made the first cut.

            A pleasure almost sexual flooded through him, and he lost the next few hours in experimentation, using every one of the gorgeous tools and stopping only when he’d whittled the wood to almost nothing.

            He laughed at himself when he realized he was seriously considering taking a saw to the bedposts.  At the same moment, his stomach rumbled, and a glance at the window told him he was due in an hour for clan watch duty.

            With great regret, he packed the tools away, pausing to run still-disbelieving fingers over each one.  Unable quite to part with them completely, he tucked the adze in his breast pocket; a touchstone that would make him smile all day.

            It wasn’t until he was downstairs catching a quick bite to eat that it occurred to him that the gift might not be from Dwalin.

            Frantically he thought back.  How long had the box been there?  He wouldn’t have noticed it yesterday, first hungover and later distracted by his conversation with Dwalin.  And the night before that he’d been in no shape to notice anything.  But with a lump in his throat, he remembered that Havlin had brought him home from the tavern.

            Havlin couldn’t possibly afford – which meant nothing; Havlin was impulsive in his generosity, to his father’s chagrin and Bofur’s too.  It would be very much in character for his former lover to make the purchase and only later think about where the funds would come from.  And something this expensive would have to come from Havlin’s marriage portion.  Bofur swallowed.  Havlin might have ruined himself with this gift.

            I’ll have to return it, Bofur thought hollowly.  I can’t accept it, not from him.  It was far too much.

            From Dwalin, Bofur could accept such a gift.  Maybe it was because he’d given Dwalin a gift in return; no matter how badly Bofur had bungled the mission to Rivendell, Dwalin was happier for the surgery.  A weight had been lifted.  Bofur remembered wanting to give Dwalin his heart’s desire; that wasn’t possible, but Bofur had given him what he could.

            But Havlin…  Everything in Bofur cried out against giving up the precious gift, but he would have to, if it turned out to be Havlin who’d given it.

            How will I know?  Bofur’s hand closed around the adze in his shirt pocket.  Both of them would assume I knew it was from them…

            Dwalin appeared at the door of the inn at that moment, which helped calm Bofur’s distress a little.  Bofur watched his friend’s graceful swagger, the way he held his shoulders so proudly.  He stomped down firmly on the familiar surge of lust.

            Dwalin must have been at the city watch, training, for his face was still a little flushed and he was in a good humor.  He settled down in the seat across the table from Bofur with a pint of ale and one of his rare grins.

            “Sleep all morning?” he teased.

            “No,” Bofur said, still fingering the adze in his pocket.  “Dwalin, did you – ”  But it was no use.  If he asked and the tools hadn’t come from Dwalin, how would his friend feel about the assumption that they had?  “I was working on some carvings,” Bofur said carefully, smiling.

            But Dwalin didn’t pick up on the cue.  Bofur tried to stifle his dismay before it could show on his face.

            “I’ve been thinking,” Dwalin began after a long swallow of ale.

            “Sounds dangerous,” Bofur put in, still reeling internally.  Could Dwalin have meant the tools as an anonymous gift?  Oh Mahal, Bofur didn’t want to have to give them up!

            Dwalin flicked a fingernail against the surface of the ale, sending a few drops in Bofur’s direction.  Bofur ducked, chuckling.  “I manage occasionally,” Dwalin retorted.  “I’ve been thinking about the caravan home to Erebor.”

            “Signups, you mean?”  Bofur had been thinking about that too.

            “Lack of signups,” Dwalin said darkly.

            “How many do we have?”

            “Three.”

            Bofur winced.  It would be embarrassing to have traveled all this way and get only three takers.  “What do you propose?”

            Dwalin grimaced.  “I think leaving the list to the innkeeper means people have already forgotten why we’re here.  I don’t like it, but we may need to get a stall at the market and answer people’s questions.”

            That didn’t sound too bad.  Bofur liked talking to people.  Dwalin didn’t, but between the two of them they could manage.  But – “What if we still only have three by the time we leave?”

            “We’ll look the fools when we get to Erebor, but at least the journey will be easier with fewer to manage.”

            “I’ve only a few more days of clan guard duty,” Bofur said.  “You could manage the stall for a few days, couldn’t you?”

            “Aye,” Dwalin sighed.  “Though I’ve meant to ask – offer, rather.  I’ll stand duty with you if you need extra men.”

            Havlin used to stand for clan watch duty with Bofur.  Bofur tried to remember if he’d ever said so to Dwalin.  “If Lady Dis will not object, I’m short one dwarf tomorrow.  I can hire someone easily enough though if you’d rather not,” he added anxiously.

            “I could use a day off from the Lady Dis,” Dwalin admitted.

            “She’s part dragon, isn’t she?” Bofur commiserated.

            Dwalin laughed.  The sound was still able to make Bofur’s insides melt.  He wondered if he’d ever be able to turn off these inconvenient feelings.  “That she is,” Dwalin agreed.

 


 

            Dis was less than pleased when she heard that Dwalin was throwing her over for watch duty the next day.  “Broadbeam has no right to ask it of you!” she snapped.

            “They didn’t ask, I offered,” Dwalin snapped back.  Dis was in a particularly bad humor today.  “It’s ridiculous to ask a clan so small to serve watch duty unaided.  Everyone knows it’s just an excuse to kick Balur off the Council as soon as Bofur leaves.”

            Dis glowered.  “Than man has no place on the Council.  He should never have been allowed his seat back.”

            “The entire Council voted him back,” Dwalin said through gritted teeth.  He’d been asking around.  “The vote was unanimous.

            Dis glared at him.  “We’re in no position to insult Bofur Broadbeam.”

            That was interesting.  “Why not?” Dwalin wondered aloud.  “As far as I can tell, the Council has done nothing but insult him.  Just because he’s a hero now – ”

            Dis sighed.  “A major contract is in jeopardy because of the miners’ strike.  If the miners turn to Bofur for support, we’re sure to lose it.  Probably to Erebor or the Iron Hills, which would be… embarrassing.  Not to mention devastating to the miners themselves.”

            “Surely Erebor is too far away to be any real competition?”

            Dis shrugged.  “Ered Luin is far from Isengard, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the wizard.”

            “To the wizard!”  Could she mean Gandalf?

            “Saruman.”

            Dwalin tried to remember if Gandalf had spoken of a Saruman, but he hadn’t paid much attention to anything not actively helping or hindering their progress during the quest.  Politics and trade treaties were Balin and Thorin’s game.  In many ways, things had been simpler before they got their home back.

            “What does a wizard want with so much iron?” he wondered aloud.

            Dis shrugged again.  “He says he’s building a tower of pure iron.  But who knows with wizards?”

            Possibly Saruman was the type of wizard who actually did magic, Dwalin thought.  Gandalf only ever seemed to go in for last-minute rescues – and bloody good fireworks, of course.  But what anyone would need an iron tower for was beyond Dwalin.  Shrugging, he gave it up as the vagaries of the powerful.

            “Have you received any invitations yet?” Dis asked, abruptly changing the subject.

            They had, actually.  The Ironclaw clan head had approached them last night as they were leaving the baths and said that the clan would be honored to have them to supper on their first free night.

            It had flustered Bofur, Dwalin could tell, but his friend was quick on his feet.  “Oh!  We would be delighted, of course,” Bofur told the old greybeard, who untensed visibly at the acquiescence.  “Tomorrow evening won’t work, but perhaps the evening after?”

            “What’s happening tomorrow night?” Dwalin had asked when the clan head withdrew.  He tried to stifle the immediate jealousy, the vision of Bofur with Havlin, but he was having a harder time mastering his emotions when it came to Bofur.  He knew he had no right to be jealous – Bofur wasn’t his, and even if he had been, Havlin’s words echoed in Dwalin’s mind: He won’t thank you for it.  Dwalin didn’t think Bofur would have much tolerance for jealousy.

            “There’s another meeting of the miners,” Bofur said quietly.  “I don’t know whether I should be there – but they asked for me…”  He’d bitten his lip, gaze hooded.

            “Ironclaw?” said Dis with a hint of surprise, and Dwalin was dragged back to the present.  “Yes, I suppose that makes sense.  They usually vote with the miners.”

            “The Bluebeard clan sent a messenger this morning as well.”

            “Bluebeard is not so friendly.  Stay sharp with them, and don’t ask after the clan head’s wives.”

            Dwalin’s eyes widened.  “Wives?”  He’d never heard of a dwarf with more than one.  Both together, he wondered, or sequentially?  Or were there more than two, even?  It seemed awfully selfish to take more than one dwarrowdam when there were so few of them.

            “Don’t ask,” Dis repeated.  She paused to consider the other clans, and went on: “Firebeard will be most hostile, and they’ll make you wait the longest for an invitation.  I suggest you accept for both of you, but make an excuse for Bofur shortly before you go.  Family responsibilities or something.  The others might be unpleasant to him, but Firebeard will be vicious.”

            Dwalin gritted his teeth.  “I’d like to see them try.”  He had only his knuckledusters today, but he knew how to jingle the chains and display the sharp edges to make them look menacing.

            Dis gave him a deeply skeptical look.  “And you had better learn how to behave.  Balin has been far too lenient with you.  There’s still a chance you might be King Under the Mountain someday; the least you can do is be polite to the people who may be in a position to serve you someday.”

            Dwalin’s blood froze to ice.  “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” he demanded.  “Having a king whose secrets you know?  It would make you a very powerful woman.”

            She rolled her eyes.  “I am a very powerful woman,” she said, a touch of impatience in her voice.  “I’ve title to a fourteenth of Erebor’s wealth.  That kind of gold can buy as much power as you want it to.”

            He hadn’t thought of that.  Thorin and Fili’s shares had passed to Dain as the next male heir, but Kili wasn’t of age when he died, so his share would revert to his parents…

            Dis was suddenly a thousand times more dangerous than he’d thought.

            Too-familiar fury slammed through him and he was on his feet, snapping, “Can that kind of gold buy you an assassination or two?”

            And regret followed close on the heels of fury.  Stupid stupid supid, Fundinson, you’ve just given her the only card you hold, and you left all your weapons at the inn – why would you walk into the house of a suspected murderess with only your knuckledusters?  They were right, the dwarves who said that Balin got all the brains.  You will never be able to play this politics game, even if by some miracle she doesn’t gut you right now.

            Dis had gone completely still, her face carefully expressionless.  It reminded Dwalin of the way Bofur got when he didn’t want anyone to notice that he was upset or furious.

            “Am I to understand,” she said slowly, rising to her feet, “that you believe I am behind the attempts on our cousin’s life?”

            There was no use denying it.  Dwalin nodded numbly, bracing himself.  Even weaponless, he wouldn’t go down without a fight.

            She stared at him.  The tension in the air was palpable, but he couldn’t decipher the look on her face.

            Then Dis began to laugh.  It was a terrible laugh, humorless and hopeless, and it brought home to Dwalin that Dis had lost everything she loved and truly had no stake in what was left.

            The laughter was almost like sobbing, harsh and desperate, and it went on longer than either of them was comfortable with.

            Finally she quieted, though her shoulders shook for long minutes as she suppressed the aftershocks that wracked her.  Dwalin stood frozen, unsure whether to brace for an attack or try to offer comfort that she would surely refuse.

           “Dwalin,” she said at last, holding his gaze, “please believe me when I say that if I wanted Dain dead, he would already be dead.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

            Dwalin walked slowly through the rich quarter of Ered Luin, deep in thought. 

           After her pronouncement, Dis had not said another word, had put down her teapot and left the room, and after half an hour Dwalin realized she wasn’t coming back.  He’d let himself out, and found himself with an entire afternoon and evening ahead of him and nothing to do, and too much to think about.

            The thing was that he believed her.  He shouldn’t believe her, but he did.  He knew that Dis’s mind was twisty and devious, that she would beat him at this game no matter how hard he played, but he did believe that she had nothing to do with the assassination attempts on King Dain.

           And that was a relief; he did not want to have to arrest his kin.  He did not want to have to weigh the danger of his secret getting out – Dis would definitely use that as a bargaining chip if he tried to arrest her – against the safety of his King.  Kili’s ill-fated romance was not something Dis wanted known – but Kili was dead.  Dwalin was very aware that his threat of making Kili’s secret public was far outweighed by the threat of Dis outing his own.  He had leashed her with his threat, but only barely.  

            It was a relief too that he could put away the fear at the back of his mind that Balin had conspired with Dis to gain the throne for himself.  It wasn’t that Dwalin thought that Balin wouldn’t make a better king than Dain – honestly, sometimes he felt like a trained Warg-pup might make a better king than Dain on his worst days – but suspecting that your own brother might have such a thing in him was not… pleasant.  Dwalin wondered if this was what Nori’s world was like every day: suspecting everybody around you, looking always for who stood to gain in every situation.  It was no wonder that Nori worked too hard and had made no friends outside of Thorin’s company.

            And if it weren’t for Thorin’s company, Dwalin wouldn’t stay in Erebor, he knew.  It was his kin, not the place itself, that made it home.  Life at the Mountain was pleasant enough, but that was all it was: pleasant.  Boring, even.  The most exciting thing to happen was the Midsummer Fair, where he could finally put his training to some sort of “use.”

            He’d not even been there for the assassination attempts.  Bifur had – and no, he was not going to start suspecting everyone; he was not going to start suspecting Bifur, because really, what would Bifur have to gain by Dain’s demise?

            Part of Dwalin still itched to leave, wanderlust crawling underneath his skin.  The glory of battle, having a purpose…  Again, he wondered if he would feel this way if it were Thorin on the throne.  Thorin would not have relegated him to simple bodyguard duty.

            …Thorin would have angered every one of the clans by choosing only those of his company and perhaps Dain as his inside advisors.  Thorin would have been his own worst enemy on the throne, now that Dwalin thought about it.  But Balin would put him right, and perhaps Dori and Nori as well: Dori who could soothe even the most ruffled ambassador from the distant thrones to the East, and Nori who knew what everybody’s agenda was even before they did.

            Dwalin had felt honored originally to be the King’s personal bodyguard.  It spoke to trust; only the dwarves that Dain trusted most made up his personal guard.  Except for Dwalin and Bifur, every single one of them came from the Iron Hills. 

           At the same time, in spite of the restlessness, Dwalin knew he couldn’t leave.  He couldn’t leave because Dain was in danger and Dwalin had given his word to protect him.  But mostly he couldn’t leave because of Balin.  If Dain was in danger, then Balin was in danger too.

           And he couldn’t leave Bofur.  He couldn’t leave Bofur.

           The air gusted out of Dwalin’s lungs as he realized this; realized that there was never going to be a time that he could leave.  Even if all this political mess got sorted out, there would never be a time that he wanted to leave Bofur behind and go out adventuring.

           Maybe Bofur would come with him, someday, if he asked?

           But Bofur missed his kin badly, though they’d only been gone a few months.  It wasn’t something Dwalin could ask anytime soon, and definitely not before they found who was trying to kill the King.

           Dwalin had been thinking of Bofur as his kin for many months now, but that’s not all it was, was it?  The tying of two lives together, that was –

           Dwalin’s mind shied away from the word.  He had spent his life able to leave anything behind, anything.  Even Thorin, when necessary.  What made Bofur different?

           A strong longing to see his friend filled him.  Bofur would be at clan watch duty right now, and after he had a meeting with the miners.  Perhaps after that…

           Dwalin paced down a side street, restless and impatient.  He didn’t want to have to wait; he didn’t want to share Bofur with the miners.

           Really, what was there for Dwalin to do in this place?  He thought about his options: he really had very little he could do.  He glanced at the sun; the market would be wrapping up soon, but perhaps the ink-artist would still be there.  He couldn’t monopolize all of Bofur’s time, especially not when he was working.

           With a scowl on his face, he headed down to the market.

 


 

 

           After supper, he was not feeling nearly so patient.  The innkeeper, always a font of knowledge, told him where the miners’ meeting was being held, and Dwalin headed down to the pub.  He did not give the guard at the door a chance to protest, merely shoved by him with a fierce growl that made the man step back.  At least someone was still intimidated by him.

           Inside, the miners looked up with some surprise at his entrance.  Bofur looked startled too, but then he smiled at Dwalin.  “Do you need me for something?” he asked.

           “No,” Dwalin grunted, and took a seat at the far end of the room.

           The miners muttered.

           Bofur raised an eyebrow at him, but shrugged.  “I see,” he said.  He turned back to the miners.

           The muttering continued.

           Dwalin tried to ignore it, but the cheerful look on Bofur’s face was rapidly diminishing.  Low words were exchanged, and finally Bofur said, loudly so that Dwalin could hear, “He will give his word that nothing will be repeated to the Longbeards.”  And he fixed Dwalin with a stare that said clearly Don’t you dare argue with me about this.

           Dwalin nodded; he could live with that.  “I give my word,” he said gruffly.

           In all actuality, he wasn’t even going to listen to their plans.  What did he care for the miners and their petty concerns?  Either they would continue the strike or they wouldn’t; either way, nothing ever seemed to change.

           Dwalin lounged back in the chair and tuned out the arguing.  There were maybe twenty dwarves at the meeting, but only one was worth watching.

           Bofur was amazing to watch.  In fact, Dwalin couldn’t keep his eyes off of him.  Bofur was in his element here, the way he always was in a crowd – but here he also had a purpose, and it showed in every line of his body.  The normally-laughing voice was filled with passion as he gesticulated, jabbing his hands in the air to punctuate his points; shouting sometimes over the din and other times speaking softly so that everyone else had to hush their murmuring to listen.

           Bofur was good at this.  Dwalin wondered whether it was something he was able to do back at the Mountain.  Here he was a natural leader among his peers; in Erebor, he had been given a position high above them, and though Bofur was friendly with everyone, the miners there were not his friends.  You could never truly be friends with someone who had such power over your life.

           Dwalin wondered suddenly how long it had taken Bofur to consider the rest of the company friends – or whether he even did.  Dwalin certainly did: kin, friends – it was all the same.  But Dwalin had very few friends, and he was content that way.  Bofur had dozens, if not hundreds, because everyone he met was a new friend.  And yet –

           Longbeard had voted against his miners.  That had probably been Balin, but it could have been Gloin.  Longbeard had had such power, so much power in Ered Luin, where Bofur had had none, or only what little he could scrape by uniting the miners.

           Why had Bofur decided to follow Thorin on his mad quest?  Dwalin had asked once, and Bofur grinned at him and said that he was promised free beer.  But Bofur didn’t even like to drink very much. 

           No, it was entirely possible that Bofur didn’t consider the company friends.  Probaby not Balin, anyways.  Nori, yes; Bofur and Nori were fast friends and had been since the beginning.  And Ori, possibly.

           Kin, yes – but not friends.

           That made Dwalin sad, knowing that there was some level on which Bofur would probably never trust Balin or the rest of the Longbeards.  They had not looked out for those not in their clan, and they should have.

           As the sun slowly sank in the west, Dwalin watched the arguing through half-closed eyes.  As the lamps were lit and a fire stoked in the grate, he was reminded of that first night in Bag End when they’d all met.  Most of them knew each other before then of course, but Dwalin had only known Bofur by sight: a cheery smile and a ridiculous hat.  He remembered them singing the song of the Misty Mountains before the fire.

           Unexpectedly, he felt homesick for Erebor, for the place he had just minutes ago been wishing he could leave.  He wished they were back in his private rooms there, one level down from Dain’s personal quarters, sitting before the fire.  As his eyes drifted closed, Dwalin imagined Bofur beside him, barefoot and shirtless, his hair unbound and unbraided.  Dwalin wanted to bury his fingers in the dark auburn waves of it.  They sat close together, the firelight turning Bofur’s skin a deep golden bronze that flickered as the fire crackled, his friend looking at him with that open, happy expression that he sometimes wore.

           Dwalin opened his eyes, coming back to himself.  He shifted uncomfortably in the chair and realized that that tight, hot, anticipatory feeling that he sometimes used to get with Thorin had returned, a heat centered between his legs – and he didn’t want to think about what that meant.

 


 

 

           After the baths, they returned to the inn.  Bofur nerved himself, retrieved the bottle of whiskey he’d bought earlier, and took it to Dwalin’s room.

           Bofur had wondered if Dwalin would become violent or belligerent with drink.  As it turned out, he just became sleepy.

           Dwalin didn’t fight it when Bofur coaxed him into bed.  At the last moment, though, he tried to get up again and looked bewildered when his legs would not cooperate.

           “What do you need, my friend?” Bofur asked.  “I’ll fetch it for you.”

           “Grasper,” Dwalin said seriously, “and Keeper.”

           Bofur pondered the inadvisability of giving a drunken dwarf his axes, but Dwalin was already trying to rise to his feet again.  He pushed him back down.  “Lie down,” he said sternly, and crossed the room to where the axes were stowed.

           Dwalin gave him a heartbreakingly beautiful smile when he returned.  He reached for the axes and Bofur handed them over, relieved to see that Dwalin instinctively turned the blades away from his body.

           “Are you going to sleep with them?” he teased when Dwalin had settled down in bed with his arms wrapped loosely around two axe-hafts.

           “Yes,” Dwalin said.

           Bofur chuckled and hoped it would not end in blood.

           He decided he would stay until Dwalin slept, and settled down on the floor by the bed with a bit of wood and one of the beautiful new tools.  When he looked up a few minutes later, however, Dwalin’s eyes were on him.

           “What is it?” Bofur asked quietly.

           Dwalin beckoned, though it was more a flapping of his hand; the alcohol had destroyed his coordination.

           Bofur shifted closer, and Dwalin offered him one of the axes, looking solemn.

           “What’s this for, then?” Bofur asked, taking the axe.

            “’S Keeper,” Dwalin told him.  “She’s my favorite.  Don’t tell Grasper.”

            Bofur bit back a laugh.  “Why are you giving me your favorite axe?”

            Dwalin regarded him with serious, if unfocussed, eyes.  “In case I hurt you again.”

            Bofur sucked in a shocked breath and stared at him.

            “She’ll look out for you,” Dwalin told him.  “’N me, too.  I’ll look out for you.  Not gonna hurt you again.”

            “Dwalin...” Bofur began, but he didn’t know what to say.

            Dwalin smiled at him again and curled his body around Grasper’s handle, closing his eyes.

 


 

            Bofur sat on the floor with his back against the bed, Keeper in his arms.  As Dwalin’s rough breathing eased into gentle snoring, Bofur felt tears of relief sting behind his eyelids.

            He could no more have stopped the sobs than he could have prevented the sun rising.

            He had tried his best not to think about it all afternoon and evening; he knew he couldn’t put it off because already he dreaded it.  And he had told himself that he’d been around dozens of drunken dwarves in his life and only a few turned out to be anything like his uncle.  So after clan watch duty he’d stopped by a tavern to buy a bottle of liquor for his best friend and face down his deepest fear.

            He felt his shoulders shaking and didn’t bother to muffle his sobs, knowing that Dwalin wouldn’t wake now.  The relief was powerful after such elevated tension; it flowed through his veins like water.

            And it was years of tension, really, when it came to it.  The first time Bofur had left a tavern after Havlin had a bit too much, his lover just asked, “Where did you disappear to last night?”  The next two times, he’d been hurt and angry.  And then, because Havlin could buy a clue, he never overindulged around Bofur again.  They didn’t speak of it.

            Bofur cried now because he’d never trusted Havlin, had never given him the opportunity to prove that he wouldn’t turn on Bofur.  Bofur had never had the courage to see if the possibility he dreaded most was true.

           In a sudden fury, Bofur snatched up the empty bottle and hurled it at the wall.  It shattered satisfyingly, and he wrapped his arms around his knees and cried harder.

           He hated that his uncle had this kind of power over him.  Twelve years with Havlin, and through it all Bofur had never dared to face what truth Havlin might tell him while in his cups.

           Bofur pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, trying to stop the tears.

           The things that Balur said hurt, but the barbs dug into scar tissue.  Havlin would have the ability to cut Bofur to the core.

            He wouldn’t, Bofur knew that; knew that alcohol did not make all men monsters the way it did his uncle.  But he hadn’t trusted Havlin, even after years.

            And he hadn’t trusted Dwalin either.

            Coward, his uncle whispered.

            I’m not a coward! Bofur raged.  I stayed, I faced my fear, you blasted old drunkard.

            Aye, with a knife at your back, Balur sneered.  How would he feel, knowing you armed yourself against him?

            Bofur swallowed hard, one hand dropping to the workpouch that held two amateurish iron knives, more comfort than actual protection.  But he clutched Keeper to his chest and glared at the specter of his uncle.  Dwalin himself had armed Bofur against him, and the only truth the alcohol had brought forward was that he wasn’t going to hurt Bofur again.  And if the relief of it made Bofur sob a little more, it also filled up part of the gaping wound Balur had left.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

            A lot of things were subtly wrong when Dwalin opened his eyes the next day.

            The first was that he was wearing a shirt, and he’d stopped wearing a shirt to sleep as soon as it occurred to him that he could, now.  Even when it was cold, he brought out an extra blanket instead of a shirt, determined to enjoy the luxury of sleeping bare-chested.

            The second was that there was an axe in bed with him.  Dwalin squinted down at Grasper and dimly remembered telling Bofur that Keeper was his favorite.  Keeper, it transpired, was leaning against the wall next to the bed, inches from the table that held the lamp.  Next to the lamp was a mug of what turned out to be the innkeeper’s hangover remedy, along with two of the honey candies Dwalin had found in Bofur’s things a few nights ago.  Dwalin sat up and downed the contents of the mug, even though the pain was only a dull pressure behind his eyes.  He was more grateful for the candies; his mouth tasted like something had died in it.

            The third thing was that the light was all wrong.  Surely he couldn’t have slept the whole morning away?  He was supposed to stand watch duty with Bofur in the afternoon…

            Dwalin cursed and jumped out bed.

 


 

 

            He could hear Balur’s voice, shrill with age, as he rounded the corner to the square where the watch was assembled.  As he’d feared, the old man was berating Bofur for not having a full complement of men.

            Mahal curse the old reprobate!  He was only ten minutes late…  Dwalin was reassured to see Bofur openly rolling his eyes at his uncle, and his body language clearly conveyed that he was putting up with the scolding only for the sake of peace.

            …Which was further infuriating Balur, but Dwalin thought it a far better solution than Bofur’s earlier one of absorbing the old man’s criticism and drinking away the fallout.

            Dwalin stomped up in the middle of Balur’s escalating monologue and settled into parade rest, axes in hand, making sure to use his most menacing scowl.  “Apologies for my tardiness,” he grunted.

            Balur gaped at him.  Bofur beamed.  The shadows of yesterday had been banished; the Bofur standing before him bore much more resemblance to the cheerful dwarf he’d been before Rivendell.  Bofur smiled at him like an old friend again.

            Dwalin was taken aback by the change, but he didn’t want to question it.  He wasn’t sure what had happened, but he was immensely grateful that it had.

 


 

 

            That night, after a laughably awkward formal supper with the Ironclaw clan, he was surprised to open his door to Bofur’s knock and find his friend with another bottle of whiskey.

            It didn’t feel quite right, but he remembered how changed Bofur had been today, so he said, “You or me?”

            “Both,” Bofur said.

            Later, he was pretty sure Bofur wasn’t actually drunk when his friend said, “The mithril-tipped carving tools we saw in the market the other day.  Did – did you…”  His voice faltered.  “Did you buy them for me?”

            “Yes,” Dwalin said blankly.  Of course he had bought them; who else could Bofur have thought –

           Oh.

            “Thank Mahal,” Bofur breathed, flopping back on Dwalin’s bed as though the release of tension had turned his bones to water.  He grinned up at the ceiling giddily.  “And thank you.”

            Dwalin remembered how happy he had been to finally have something concrete he could do for Bofur, and how confused he’d been that Bofur hadn’t just bought the tools for himself.   “I expected you to get them.”  It was a question.

            Bofur, still on his back, gave a boneless half-shrug.  “It honestly didn’t occur to me that I could,” he said.  “There’s not so much to buy in Erebor that I’ve gotten used to it yet.”

            Dwalin frowned.  An elaborate market had been growing in Dale over the past few years.  Then he thought of the way Bofur could often be found even on his days off down in his little office next to the entrance to the western mines, and decided not to correct his friend.

            His head was spinning a little with the drink, so he sprawled out carefully next to Bofur on the bed.  He remembered how, in the first flush of excitement over being richer than Durin the Deathless, Bofur had gifted all the company with thoughtful, expensive presents.  He remembered how Bofur had heaped gifts on Bombur and Bifur, and how they had done the same to him.  They had been like children at first, and Gloin especially had rolled his eyes at it.  Dwalin had thought it rather sweet – but they’d all been sobered a little too quickly by Thorin’s gold-madness, and things settled down after that.

            Now, he was suddenly, fiercely glad that he had overridden his doubts and bought the tools for Bofur.  Bofur deserved nice things in his life, and he’d not had many in the first century and a half.

 


 

 

            They set up their stall at the market the next day with a simple handpainted sign and two chairs.  At first people crowded around with questions, but nobody was willing to commit without consulting their families and looking into arranging the details.  After an hour or so the crowd thinned out.  When everyone had drifted away, Bofur was bored within minutes.  He fidgeted, wishing he’d thought to bring his tools.

            Dwalin smirked at him, amused.  “Ah, go on,” he said, making a shooing motion with his hand.  “We’ll take turns.”

            Bofur beamed at him and shot out of his seat.  He made a beeline to the lumber merchant to arrange for some quality hardwood to be delivered to the inn.  He wouldn’t insult the beautiful new carving tools with anything other than the best wood.

            He was wandering back toward Dwalin when he ran smack into Havlin’s sister.

            “Bofur!” Taelin cried, dropping her basket and flinging her arms around him.  He hugged her back awkwardly, aware of people’s eyes – aware of Dwalin’s eyes.

            “Hullo, lass,” he said.  She was even more pretty than she had been three years ago, a fine strawberry-blonde beard descending down her neck in a cloud of curls.  No marriage beads, though.  It was a little surprising.

            No dwarf woman was ever required to marry – law and custom forbade that – but most did.  Especially after the devastation of Azanulbizar, children had become even more important.  Taelin must have a dozen suitors if she hadn’t settled down yet.

            “Krevlin said you’d come back – why didn’t you come to call?” she asked, excitement in her voice.  “I went to your uncle’s to invite you to supper.  And Krevlin tells me you’re friends with Dwalin son of Fundin!”  She whispered the name with childish awe, and Bofur smiled.  He’d felt much the same at the beginning of the quest.

            “Would you like to meet him?” he offered, grinning when her eyes widened in delight.

            “Yes!”

            He took her arm and guided her toward their stall.  “Dwalin!” he called.  “I’ve someone who would like very much to meet you.”

            Taelin flushed and stared when she came face-to-face with a real live hero.  One hand pulled nervously at a beard braid, but it was clear all words had fled.  She goggled at the big bald dwarf.

            “Dwalin, son of Fundin; Taelin, daughter of Gavlin and sister to Krevlin and Havlin.”

            Dwalin bowed formally, but even more stiffly than he had with Krevlin and Havlin.  “At your service.”

            Taelin gaped, still awe-struck.

            Oh, dear.

            Dwalin was wearing that impassive expression, the one that covered any emotion he’d rather not be having, and Bofur suspected the emotion just now was embarrassment.  But surely Taelin couldn’t be the first star-struck youngling to meet an old legend?  If the awkward silence was anything to go by, either she was or Dwalin had never learned how to respond to it.

            Bofur tugged on Taelin’s arm.  “Come, lass, and I’ll stand you a drink at the King’s Arms.”

            She nodded dazedly and let him drag her away, turning once or twice to stare at the dwarf who was the hero of so many songs and tales.

 


 

 

            They spoke on many subjects, but when Bofur teased her about the young dwarves who must be beating a path to her door, she blushed and said “I am not being courted,” in such a low voice that it made him worry.  Hoping to spare her any embarrassment, he changed the subject and told her about the Archives at the Lonely Mountain.  Taelin was fond of reading and had trained under Balin as a journeyman copyist; her calligraphy was beautiful and much sought-after.  The only time he’d ever heard genuine passion in her voice was when she had had the opportunity to recopy a Second Age tome that was falling apart.  Ori would be lucky to have a dozen like her to help restore the Archives, Bofur reflected.

           “Bofur,” she said softly, touching his hand across the table to get his attention.  “Will you come to supper with us?”

           “I’m sorry, lass,” he said as gently as he could.  “Havlin and I had hard words last week.  I don’t think it would be wise to poke that wound any more than we already have.”

           He wondered suddenly how much she knew about how he and Havlin had parted, and had his answer when her eyes filled with tears.  She swallowed, clearly trying to keep the trembling out of her voice, and whispered, “I knew he’d muck it up.  I told him he would.”

           He patted her hand reassuringly.  “I’ve done alright for myself as a result, you’ll notice,” he pointed out.  Krevlin’s brother and sister had always welcomed him as part of the family, but he still surprised by the emotion on her face.  If she knew what Havlin had done, shouldn’t she be furious with her brother?

           Her jaw firmed and she took his hands in hers, looking up at him through large, artless blue eyes.  “Bofur, I know that you think what Havlin proposed before you left was awful.”

           “It was awful.”  He wished to Mahal that she didn’t know of it, that her brother had been wise enough to keep it from her.  “It was an insult to my honor and to his.  And – and – ”

           She squeezed his hands.  “It was not an insult to my honor, Bofur.  I need you to believe that.”

           “It was,” he insisted.  “He had no right – ”

           “I asked him to."

           Bofur went quite still.  “You… you what?”

            She huffed a frustrated sigh.  “I knew I should never have let him try to explain it alone.  It was my idea, Bofur, not his.  He wasn’t trying to – ”  She stopped, but Bofur’s own words to Havlin from years before rang in his ears.

            Don’t you dare try to sell your sister to me like a broodmare.  There had been other words, stronger words, and his face burned as he remembered them.

            How many times had he gone over what had happened that final night in his head, trying to understand what had gone wrong?  Trying to will away the words Havlin had said, because if Havlin could speak such blasphemy how could he ever have loved him?

            Pieces were falling together in Bofur’s head, and finally he could see the outline of something that made sense if only in a twisted, perverse fashion – but how could Taelin, sweet gentle Taelin who still a child in so many ways, how could she possibly have…

            “Why?” he asked dully.  He looked at their clasped hands.

            “Because I don’t want to marry,” she said simply.

            “Nobody would make you marry against your will,” he said.

            She laughed, and it wasn’t a nice laugh.  Taelin wasn’t supposed to laugh like that.

            “The only daughter of a clan head?  Of course I will marry.”

            His gut twisted.  It shouldn’t be true, but it probably was.  “Why me?”

            “Because you wouldn’t pester me to share your bed if you had Havlin.  And I could give you babes.”

            Bofur wanted to throw up.  Havlin had never been able to let that go.

            “Your father would never have said yes.”

            “He would have,” Taelin said quietly.  “If I said I was with child.”

            Bofur closed his eyes.  Alís had just about murdered Bombur for getting Merced pregnant before formal courting gifts had been presented, and Alís was nowhere near as well-off and powerful as Taelin’s father.  And of course Bofur would never have been able to afford the marriage price for Taelin either, but neither Havlin nor Taelin had considered that.

            “I need to go,” he said.  He needed to think.  He needed – he wasn’t sure what he needed.

            She clutched at his hands.  “Bofur, please don’t blame Havlin.  He was trying to make both of us happy.”

            He shook her off, unable to reply, and hurried away.

 


 

 

            Bofur was quiet and pale when he returned from the tavern.  Dwalin gave him a concerned look, but Bofur ignored it.

            When Bofur said he could man the table until it was time to leave for clan watch duty, Dwalin took the hint and sought out the ink-artist.  He was pleased to see that she had finalized the design, and she offered to get started on it immediately.

            As if on cue, a messenger arrived, slightly breathless, with a message from Dis.  She was caught up in Council business and would not be able to host him this afternoon.  Dwalin felt tension he’d barely been aware of ease from his back; he was not looking forward to seeing his cousin, and another day’s grace would be much appreciated.

            “Let’s start,” he agreed.

            The chair she indicated he was to sit in was behind a screen, but it still took him long moments to realize that she was waiting for him to remove his shirt.  He flushed and began the tedious process, removing knuckledusters, axe harness, vest, the knives strapped to his belly, and finally the shirt.  The ink-artist looked amused.

            He’d been tattooed many times in his life, but he was utterly unprepared for the piercing pain of the needle just inches from his nipple.  He clenched his jaw, feeling yet again betrayed by his body.  Even now that his chest was all broad plains of muscle, it was still tender to the touch.  He tried not to flinch; no one had touched his chest since Elrond, and at least then all sensation had been deadened.  And other than running his fingers over the scars every morning to remind himself that it was not all a dream, not even Dwalin had touched very much.

            “You’re more tender in the chest than most,” the ink-artist said casually, and Dwalin froze.  He released the breath when she added, “Nothing to worry about, just it’ll be a bit unpleasant the closer I get to the paps.”

            He nodded through clenched teeth, and let his head fall back.  It had been agony getting his hands done as well, but a different kind of agony.  He hadn’t been mentally flinching from the artist as he worked over the knuckles and digits.

            He reminded himself to breathe deeply.  He wanted this.  He had wanted this for years, and he could get through a little pain and discomfort to have it.  He closed his eyes and started reciting the lay of Durin the Deathless to distract himself.

 


 

 

            After Bofur returned from clan watch duty, they dressed in their formal clothes to dine with the Bluebeard clan.

            “Don’t ask about his wives,” Bofur advised as they approached the residence.

            “How many?” Dwalin wondered aloud.

            “Four at last count, possibly more since we left.”

            “At the same time?”  Really, that was taking the dwarven instinct to hoard to extremes.

            “No, of course not.  No one would stand for it.  Nolai is the present wife’s name, if I remember right.”

            The Bluebeard clan head’s wife was introduced as Tammer, and Dwalin obediently did not ask.

 


 

 

            “Baths?” he asked when they were walking home, but Bofur shook his head. 

           “I promised some of the lads I’d meet for a drink and see if there isn’t anything else we can think of to do about this Mahal-cursed strike,” he said.

           “Is there anything you can do about the strike?” Dwalin asked.

           Bofur sighed, looking unhappy.  “I don’t know.”  He sounded upset.

           Once, Dwalin would have let it pass, assuming that Bofur would not appreciate interference in his business.  But now he saw it as a cue; Bofur would not have brought it up if he didn’t want to talk about it.  Bofur liked to talk things out, and even if Dwalin didn’t really understand it – talking changed nothing, so far as he was concerned – it was something he could do for his friend, and he liked that.

            “If you don’t want to go – you don’t owe them anything,” he said as gently as he could.

           “I do, though,” Bofur said.  “I abandoned them, thinking someone would take my place.  It took me years to learn how to talk to the shareholders, and I forgot that.”

           “But can you give them any help with this?” Dwalin asked.

           Bofur bit his lip.  “Probably not.  But I have to try.”  He let out a frustrated sigh.  “I don’t have much time to try and train them.  I think if I could talk to the Council alone, we could work something out – but that doesn’t help the miners once I’m gone.  And how can I give them years of knowledge when I have only weeks?”

           They had reached the inn.  Dwalin squeezed Bofur’s shoulder, then brought their foreheads together briefly for kin-comfort, unsure what to say.  When he pulled away, Bofur looked startled but not unpleased.

           “You’ll do your best,” Dwalin said.  It was what he used to say to Fili when he worried about whether he’d be a good king.  It was what Balin had said to him when he’d fretted over whether it was absolute madness to try to steal a mountain back from a dragon.  It was a wholly inadequate answer, and the only one there was.

 


 

 

            Bofur had been carefully not thinking about Havlin all day, so he was less than pleased when the dwarf walked into Alís’s tavern where they were having a strategy-session-slash-morose-boozeup.  The strike would be broken by tomorrow, and even Bofur’s offer of gold was not a solution that would hold.

            Havlin approached their table warily.  Out of the corner of his eye, Bofur could see Obi, Alís’s bouncer, inch towards them as if he expected a fight to break out.

            All the miners went completely silent.  No one but Bofur could have told that Havlin was nervous as he placed a scroll on the table in front of them.

            “What’s this?” Jahreh growled, not reaching to pick it up.

            “Krevlin and I have worked out a solution with the Council that should hold for a while,” Havlin said.

            Bofur started in surprise.  He’d heard nothing of this…

            “We have the proposal ready and they’ll vote on it tomorrow if you agree.”

            Kiri reached for the scroll.  She read better than most of them.

            “What’s the tradeoff?” Bofur asked.  “What are you asking us to give up?”  Havlin had watched him do this work for years; they both knew the politics behind such things.

            “Call off the strike, of course.”

            Bofur snorted.  “And what do the shareholders give us?”

            Havlin tilted his head a little at the use of the word “us,” and Bofur remembered that he was not of these miners.  He sighed; things had been simpler when he was.  “Payment at pre-strike wages, and no dwarf will be asked to mine any section of the mines not approved by a safety expert chosen by yourselves.  We know it won’t hold more than a few months, but in the meantime it should get us all by.”

            Bofur’s eyebrows shot up.  That was more than they had ever hoped to get.  “How did you manage to get the shareholders to agree to that?” he demanded.

            “We didn’t.  We got the Council to agree to make it law.”

            “The shareholding clans must have screamed.”  How on earth had Bofur not heard about this?

            Havlin smiled grimly.  “They don’t know yet.”

            Bofur was aware that his jaw was hanging slightly open.  Havlin had secured eight votes without letting the shareholders know?  It was impossible.

            He closed his mouth with an audible click and reached for the scroll.  Working with the Council for so long, he knew what to look out for in such a document, and he read each line to make sure they weren’t being stabbed in the back.  But no, in spite of the legalese, it was all there very nicely.  With eight signatures.

            “How did you do this?” Bofur demanded bluntly.  “We’ve been trying for weeks.  Eight votes usually means bribes and concessions, and your clan wouldn’t have funded that many bribes.”

            Havlin clenched his jaw.  Bofur wondered if money was a sore point.  They had studiously avoided the subject for twelve years, as it was a very sore point for Bofur.

           “Concessions are not always monetary,” Havlin said, his voice clipped.

            Bofur looked at the scroll.  “This is already law if it’s signed,” he said.

            “Yes, but it’ll need to be read in a formal session of the Council.  And they want the miners’ agreement that they’ll go back to work immediately before they’ll call a Councilmeeting.”

           “Who’s to say they won’t change the terms as soon as we’re all back at work?” Jahreh demanded.

            Havlin barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes.  “You’d just strike again.”

            “Once a strike is broken, it’s hard to get everyone to stand firm again,” Kiri said.

            “It’s true,” Bofur told him.  “They have little reason to trust you.”

            Havlin looked into his eyes, and Bofur couldn’t help but catch his breath.  “You have reason to trust me,” Havlin said softly.

            Bofur forced himself to harden his gaze.  “As it happens, trust is not a word I’d associate with our dealings,” he said, jaw tight.  It was an unfair thing to say, by what Taelin had told him this morning…

            Havlin shook his head.  “You trust my word on this.”

            And it was true; Bofur did.  Havlin would deal honestly with the miners.  Bofur hoped his former lover wasn’t doing this in an attempt to win back his favor.

            Bofur hoped that if he was, it wouldn’t work.

 


 

 

           When they set up their table in the market the next morning, Bofur had brought his carving tools and Dwalin had brought his weaponry.  He only meant to clean it, but Bofur pointed out that it wouldn’t be a bad thing to remind the dwarves that they were being offered the chance to go on a journey with Dwalin son of Fundin.

           “You’re a hero, too,” Dwalin said.

           “You were a hero before the quest,” Bofur said, laughing.  “They already know me.”

           Dwalin looked around the market.  “There are fewer dwarves here today,” he observed, choosing which weapons he’d practice with first.  Axes were suitably impressive; he could move on to warhammer and knives later when he’d warmed up.

           “Aye, there’s a Councilmeeting going on.”

           “About the strike?”

           “If all goes well.”

           When Bofur didn’t elaborate, Dwalin started in on the practice forms with his axes.  It was soothing; his body knew these forms by heart, and would fall into them automatically in battle without conscious thought.  Nori had similar forms for knives that he’d eventually been prevailed upon to teach; Dwalin was good at them but he was best with axes.

           A group of dwarflings gathered around to gape.

           While Dwalin methodically practiced with each of his weapons, Bofur answered a stream of questions from adults and dwarflings alike about the strike, Erebor, and Dwalin son of Fundin.

           Dwalin was almost startled out of his training reverie by a small girl tugging on his belt.  He laid the warhammer aside and smiled down at her.  “What can I do for you, young miss?” he teased.

           “Is it true that you fought a dragon?” she asked.

           “Well, no,” he admitted.  “A lot of Orcs, but it was a Hobbit and a Man who faced the dragon.”

           “Is it true,” asked a young boy, slightly older, “that you eat Orc eyeballs for breakfast?”

           Dwalin snickered.  “Ach, Orcs taste terrible,” he said.  “What would you want to eat an Orc for?”

           “You can’t be Dwalin son of Fundin,” his big brother said.  “You haven’t got a mohawk.”

           Dwalin grimaced.  He missed his mohawk.  He missed his hair.  “And how do you know that Dwalin has a mohawk?” he asked.

           “It’s in our storybook!  There’s pictures,” the little girl said.  “About the battle of Azabul – Anazul – ”  She frowned, mouthing the word to herself.

           “Azanulbizar?” he suggested.

           “You are Dwalin!” she crowed.

           He tousled her hair.  He didn’t get so self-conscious with younglings; it was dwarves like Bofur’s friend yesterday that threw him offkilter.  He’d never been sure what do with hero worship, especially when it came from a woman.  Too often, women tried to flirt.

           Immediately he was besieged by more questions, and then he was helping the lads trying to lift his warhammer, and without quite knowing how he found himself showing all three of them some of Nori’s knife forms, though he did insist that they use sheathed and bonded knives for it.

           That attracted other onlookers and participants, but mostly of the older set – when he looked around for the children, he saw that Bofur had distracted them with tall tales of the exploits of some heroic character he really hoped was not Dwalin son of Fundin – and  then he was demonstrating hand-to-hand fighting with dwarves young and old.  When the group grew too big, he separated them into pairs to practice on each other.

           It was great fun.  It reminded him of training the young princes in their youth, and of how he and Nori had taught Ori and Bilbo how to fight on the journey.  He chuckled when he realized that several dwarves headed straight from the practice over to Bofur to add their names to the manifest.

           And then someone came running form the direction of the Council Hall, shouting that the strike was at an end but it was all right, the shareholders hadn’t won, and a loud cheer went up from the whole market.

           Dwalin couldn’t stop grinning.

 


 

 

            After the jubilation of the marketplace, the silence in Dis’s parlor echoed.  Dwalin accepted a cup of the blasted tea, trying to gauge his cousin’s expression.  All he could see was that it was stony.

            For lack of anything better to say, he began to tell her about Beorn.  Kili and Fili had loved the time spent with the skinchanger; some of their best pranks had been played there.

            It was hard to talk about pranks and silliness when the person opposite was in no mood to laugh.

            “I apologize for suspecting you,” Dwalin blurted halfway through the rendition of how Ori had baited the princes to poke a sleeping bear, and their subsequent scramble when the bear turned out not to be Beorn.  “I accused you of murder with no proof.  I will make what amends are necessary for the insult to your honor.”

            Dis blinked at him, and he got the feeling her thoughts had been very far away.  He flushed, but scowled stubbornly.  He had made a mistake and he would rectify it.

            Dis was scrutinizing him through narrowed eyes.  “What reparations would you consider appropriate for the insult to my honor?” she asked.

            He groaned.  “My lady, I don’t know.  I should never have – ”

            “You should have kept your suspicions to yourself,” Dis said tartly.  “You have every reason to suspect me, and you had every reason to not let me know it while you gathered more information.”

            Dwalin closed his eyes.  She had the right of it.

            “I’d suspect me, too,” Dis said, as if she were discussing the weather.  “Here’s what nobody ever seems to understand, though: I don’t give a fig for the throne of Erebor.”

            Dwalin couldn’t keep the skepticism off his face.

            “I don’t,” she repeated.  “It’s lost me every member of my family.  Why in the Maker’s name would I want such a cursed throne?”

            For just a moment, the careful mask slipped, and he could see the depth of grief and anger behind it as she whispered, “I hate that Mahal-cursed Mountain and everything in it.  I wouldn’t be Queen if you dragged me back there in chains and threatened me at knife-point.  I’d die first.”  Then she closed her eyes and the fury abruptly vanished from her face; she was back in control of herself again.

            “Do you hate Dain?” Dwalin asked, because he had to; he believed her but he had to make sure that Balin would believe it too.

            Her smile was almost wistful.  “Aye, a little,” she admitted.

            He swallowed.  “Me too,” he said hoarsely.

            She gave him a sharp look.  “You’ll not repeat that again to anybody, you hear?  Not even your brother.”

            He nodded.  She was right, of course.  Still, he was almost sad that she wasn’t going to make a play for the throne.  “You’d make a better king than Dain,” he said quietly.

            She shook her head.  “I’d make a more competent king than Dain,” she said.  “That’s different than ‘better.’”

            He raised an eyebrow.

            “You don’t see his strengths because you’re comparing him to Thorin,” she told him.  Her voice was almost gentle.  “Thorin could inspire great courage and devotion in those who would hear.  Which, in the end, was only twelve of you.”

            Dwalin put down the teacup before he broke it in his hands.

            “He’d have inspired a great many more, no doubt, after he’d proven himself,” Dis said.  “Dwarves would have flocked to Thorin’s Erebor, just as they have to Dain’s.  And then Balin and I would have spent the rest of our lives trying to protect Thorin from his own worst instincts.”

            Dwalin stilled, feeling guilt stab through him.  It was uncanny; he had had thoughts along those exact lines not long ago, and it felt disloyal to Thorin to know that it was true.

            “He wouldn’t have been a bad king,” Dis said calmly.  “If the gold-sickness could be held at bay and Balin managed him well, he’d be no worse than many.  Left to his own devices, though, he’d tear the kingdom apart with his stubbornness.”  She paused.  “It’s a shame that the qualities that are needed to gain a kingdom often end up being the qualities that undermine the king later.  His pigheadedness gained Thorin as much as it lost him.”

            Thorin would never have reached out to any clan but the Longbeards, Dwalin knew.  He would never have trusted allies; he would never forgive and forget.  He would never have made treaties and trade agreements with the Elves, though hopefully he would have come around regarding the Men of Dale.  Balin would have fought him at every juncture, and might even have ended up on Thorin’s list of enemies.  It hurt to think it, especially when Dain had no notable qualities except an excellent record of leading dwarves into battle.  …More dwarves than Thorin had led since Azanulbizar.

            And Dain ruled the Iron Hills for years, while Thorin had never had a kingdom.

            “It isn’t nice to think about, I know,” Dis said softly.  “Balin and I laid years of groundwork, trying to make sure that if the miracle happened and he retook the Moutain, he wouldn’t undermine himself in the first year.  Alliances, bribes, friendships, favors owed; we’ve a network throughout much of Middle Earth.”

            “Why are you telling me this?”  If Dain or Nori were to find out that there was a whole network of influence, Balin would be the first suspect.

            “Because someone is trying to kill Dain, and much as we would like it to be Elves or Men, it’s probably dwarves.”

            He went still again.  “You know who it is,” he breathed.

            She shook her head, regret in her eyes.  “I have suspects,” she said.  “Six of them.”

            “Tell me,” he demanded.

            She chuckled a little at that.  “Do you really think I’d give you this much and not the suspects too?”

            Suspicion came roaring back at that.  “Why?” he demanded.  “Why are you telling me?  And why now?”

            She rolled her eyes at him.  “Can you really afford to turn down this information just because you don’t understand my motives?”

            Of course he couldn’t.  Still he couldn’t help scowling, and was surprised when she threw back her head and gave a throaty laugh.

            “Ah, Dwalin, your brother should have trusted you years ago.  I think he was trying to protect you, but you’d have been a great asset.  You were always Thorin’s dwarf, though.”

            “So was Balin,” he protested.  And why was he upset that she thought him Thorin’s?  He was, after all; Dwalin’s loyalty had been largely personal.

            “Balin is loyal to the Durins,” she said, “and he’ll look out for our best interests no matter who is on the throne.”

            “And you?”

            She paused.  “Before it lost me my sons,” she said at last, “I’d have said my interest was that of Erebor’s.”  She looked down into her teacup as if there were some arcane wisdom there.  “Now, I don’t know.”

            Dwalin was remembering how the Longbeards had voted against the miners, and how many potential allies that had alienated.  He wondered whether things had changed when Dis took the Council seat; he wondered if she’d even thought of the miners at all.

            “Which side did you vote for this morning?” he asked abruptly.

            The question took her off guard, but he could see how she worked through his line of reasoning to arrive there.  “I accepted the concessions Krevlin offered our clan in exchange for our vote,” she said.  Then she added, “He’s new at this game; he gave away much too much for a measure that will only last until the next time there’s a cavein.  I’d have voted for anything to end the strike; it’s madness to risk the contract when the shareholders know they need to shore up the mines anyways.  Everyone knows it.”

            “Then why don’t the shareholders do something?” Dwalin wondered out loud.

            Dis grimaced.  For a moment, he thought she knew the reason and was going to explain, but she said nothing.

            He didn’t press it.  Instead, he returned to the subject of Dain.  “You said you wouldn’t make a better ruler than him,” he said.  What did she see in Dain that he didn’t?

            She sighed.  “If I were a man, I would be a better ruler,” she said.  “But I’m not.  If I were to become Queen Under the Mountain, I’d spend the rest of my life challenging every Longbeard who felt he had a tenuous claim on the throne, and every clan chief of the other clans who wanted to take advantage of internal divisions.  It’s hard enough to survive in situations like that, let alone lead.”

            “But you’re the clan head here,” Dwalin protested.  “Does our clan challenge that?”

            “Yes,” she said bluntly.  “All the time.  As queen, it would be a thousand times worse.  I am a realist, Dwalin, if only because nobody else in the family was ever able to be.  I can do a lot more for the Longbeards and for Erebor from behind the scenes.”

            Dwalin wanted to argue, wanted to say that it wasn’t like that – but he knew it was just that he didn’t want it to be like that.  Dis would make an excellent Queen Under the Mountain if the rules of succession had allowed it, but they did not.  Perhaps if Erebor had not taken all that she loved, she might be willing to try.  But if Erebor had not taken all her family, she would not have had the opportunity to try, either.

            “And Balin?” he asked.  “Are you going to tell me that Balin wouldn’t make a better king than Dain?”  His breath came quicker at his own words: this bordered on treason.  But he wanted to hear what she would say.

            She gave him a wry smile.  “Are you armed today?” she asked pointedly.

            He flushed.  “I no longer think you’re trying to assassinate my king,” he grumbled.

            “So I’m no longer a danger?”  Her voice was mocking, but this time he could tell she was trying to get a rise out of him.

            “You are the most dangerous person I know,” he said simply.

            She blinked; she hadn’t been expecting that.  But she rallied.  “Balin is excellent at leading from behind,” she said.  “He’s done it his whole life.  He could make Thorin believe an entire course of action was his own idea.  From what I hear, he does the same with Dain.”

            “He makes sure the king doesn’t muck everything up,” Dwalin said.

            She smiled.  “Aye, Balin makes sure that the king doesn’t muck up Balin’s plans,” she agreed.

            Dwalin hadn’t thought of it that way.  Balin was the sensible one, the levelheaded one; Balin was so often right about things that Dwalin hadn’t thought to wonder who defined what was right.

            “Dain needs Balin,” Dis said.  “But Balin also needs Dain.  Balin doesn’t know how to lead from the front.  It’s not in his nature.”

            Again, Dwalin wanted to protest.  But he couldn’t protest what he knew to be true.  “That doesn’t tell me why you think Dain is a good king,” he said instead.

            “We can talk about that tomorrow,” she said, her voice dismissive.  “What I’d like to know is, does Balin think that Dain’s a good king?”

            Dwalin caught his breath.  Was she seriously implying that Balin was a suspect in the assassination attempts?

            She was.  She laughed at the outrage on his face, and waved him away.  “Tomorrow, Dwalin.  I can’t give you everything; you need to work some of it out for yourself.”

            He clenched his fists and left.

 


 

 

            It couldn’t be Balin.  It couldn’t.  Dwalin wouldn’t believe it.  Balin had proven his loyalty time and time again; had gone on the same suicide missions for Thror and Thrain and Thorin as Dwalin had; had fought in countless battles for the Line of Durin.

            If the thought of arresting Dis for treason had terrified Dwalin, the thought of arresting his brother opened up a blankness that he couldn’t surmount.  If Balin was plotting against Dain, Dwalin wasn’t sure he’d be able to arrest him.

            He could overpower his brother physically, he knew, even though Balin knew some dirty tricks when it came to fighting.  But Dwalin didn’t know what he would decide if it came down to a choice between his brother and his king.

            Worse, if Balin was plotting against Dain, Nori would probably have found out something by now.  And if Nori hadn’t brought it to the bodyguards, that meant that Nori was siding with Balin.

            Dwalin gulped, and sat down on a low wall; he was feeling dizzy with the implications.  Dori would side with Dain; Bifur would too.  Ori and Bombur and Bofur wouldn’t be pulled into it, but Oin and Gloin could go either way.

            In spite of Dis’s words, Balin wouldn’t make a bad king, Dwalin reflected.  Just because he had different strengths than Dain didn’t mean he’d do it badly.

            If it did turn out to be Balin, what would he do?  He couldn’t turn his own brother in for treason.  Balin would be beheaded, and Dwalin would never be trusted again. 

           Balin would be beheaded.  Dwalin couldn’t allow that, couldn’t watch any more family die.

           But could he watch his brother become a murderer?

            Thus far, only assassins had died.  But what if bodyguards died in the next attempt?  Would Dwalin be able to look his brother in the eye if good dwarves died protecting their king?

            Could he look his brother in the eye if Dain were killed?

            Dwalin buried his face in his hands.  He wished again that he had never come to Ered Luin, that he had never met Dis again.  If he couldn’t trust his own brother, who could he trust?

 


 

 

            Bofur had expected the order for mallorn wood to take several weeks, but apparently the lumber merchant had pulled out all the stops for a dwarf of Thorin’s Company.  Bofur didn’t think he’d ever get used to that.

            He’d never worked with mallorn, for it was quite literally worth its weight in gold.  He’d only ever seen it at Rivendell and Thranduil’s palace, and he hadn’t had high hopes when he’d asked if it could be acquired.

            Looking over the paperwork that came with the purchase, he began to understand that this was a wood completely unlike any other.  Elves held the mallorn trees sacred, so of course they would never cut them down for any reason.  Only a tree that had died naturally or limbs lost in a storm could be sold.  And even these came with pedigrees and official certificates.

            Fortunately the certificate had been translated into Westron, as Bofur did not read Sindarin.  He didn’t read Westron well either, but he could muddle through.  He found the name of the forest, the name of the tree, the ancestry of the tree, the name of the Elf who had gathered the broken branch, the ancestry of the Elf, and an official listing of all the merchants who had possessed this particular branch.  There was much more that hadn’t been translated, but he’d have to bring it to Ori; he could only hope that he was not committing some particular blasphemy by working in mallorn wood.

            He put the mallorn branch back in its specially-made carrying case.  He doubted he’d be able to obtain such a specimen again, so he had to make sure that his design was complete before he started.

            He’d started sketches when he heard the knock.

            Dwalin looked terrible.  He usually looked terrible after seeing Lady Dis, but this time he looked desperate.  Bofur didn’t even think about it; he wrapped his arms around his friend and pulled him close.  He tugged Dwalin’s head down so he could offer kin-comfort, and they stayed like that for long minutes, breathing each other’s air, until some of the tension went out of Dwalin’s body.

            He pushed Dwalin into a chair, and darted off next door to fetch his friend’s axes.  Dwalin would feel safer with them at hand.  Bofur wasn’t sure why he didn’t bring them when he went to see the Lady Dis.  Possibly it could be construed as insulting to bring weapons to the house of his kin…

            He dug out the bottle of whiskey and poured Dwalin a dram.  Dwalin drank it obediently, then held out the cup for another.  Bofur tried not to flinch as he poured.  He was teaching Dwalin bad habits, but they were the only habits he knew.  He poured himself a dram as well.

            “Can you tell me?” he asked after the third or fourth drink.

            Dwalin shook his head, misery in his eyes.  “Not until I know if it’s as bad as I think it is.”

            Bofur sat beside him, one hand on his arm in silent comfort, and wished he could do something to help his friend.

 


 

 

           The alcohol took the edge off the wall of fear Dwalin had been teetering on, and he was finally able to stow away the question of Balin for the next morning.  Dis would have evidence to back up her accusation; she had teased him with it only to see where he would fall.

           Dwalin didn’t know where he would fall.  He’d pledged loyalty to his king.  His loyalty to his brother was every bit as ingrained.

           Tomorrow, he reminded himself.

           It was easier to concentrate on the dwarf at his side.  Bofur hadn’t pressed him for details, for which Dwalin was grateful.  Dwalin couldn’t tell Bofur about this until he’d chosen a side.  Tomorrow.

           Bofur’s hand on his arm felt like the only solid thing in a world that was crumbling around him.

           Dwalin studied the other dwarf out of the corner of his eye.  Bofur was nursing the liquor slowly, though they’d both had a fair bit.  He was chewing his lip, and his eyes looked sad.

           He’d been surprised when Bofur pulled him into a hug.  There had not been much touching since Rivendell, and he couldn’t blame Bofur for that.  No, that was entirely his own fault.

           But by Mahal, it made things more difficult.  He had seen how Bofur hesitated just a fraction of a second before each touch, as if debating with himself whether it was safe.

           “Will – will you ever be able to trust me?  Not to hurt you, I mean?”

            He hadn’t meant to say it out loud, and when the silence went on for a long time, Dwalin lost hope.  Numbly, he looked at his hands.  Too far, too fast.  Years, he’d told Bofur, and it had only been weeks.

            “Dwalin,” Bofur said, his voice sounding very far away, “I don’t think there will ever be a time when a little part of me isn’t braced for an assault.”  He looked up at his friend, his face as serious as Dwalin had ever seen it.  “It isn’t lack of trust, though.  Even if you’d never hurt me, I’d still expect it.”

            Dwalin didn’t know how to respond to the revelation.  It was bad enough that Bofur had been hurt at Dwalin’s hands, but infinitely worse that he hadn’t been able to protect his friend from others.  Fury gnawed again at his insides, but smashing heads was useless against this.  Unless – “If it was Havlin, I’ll break every bone in his body,” he growled.

            Bofur looked startled, then exasperated, and finally fond.  “Not Havlin,” he said.  “Havlin was the first person to treat me as if I mattered.”  He reached for the bottle and took a swig, not even bothering with the cup on the floor next to him.  “You don’t have to like him, but you do have to believe that he would never hurt me like that.”

            “Did… did you love him?”

            “Yes,” Bofur said simply, and it shouldn’t hurt so badly, because Dwalin already knew that, but it did.  He watched Bofur fidget with the bottle.  “It wasn’t the kind of love you hear of in story and song, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real – or important.”

            Dwalin wasn’t sure he could make himself say the words, but they were clawing at the inside of his chest, jealousy and fear.  “Do you still love him?”

            Bofur put the bottle down and didn’t answer.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

            They’d been together almost eleven years when Havlin had the box of woodworking tools commissioned as an engagement gift.  An extravagant expense, and his father didn’t speak to him for four months after he found out, but Bofur deserved the best.

            “It’ll take a year,” the metalmaster told him, and Havlin didn’t have the coin to speed the process; he barely had the coin to front the deposit.

            He was sure Bofur would ask.  They loved each other and they’d talked about marriage, after Merced died.  “I wish I could give you little ones,” Havlin had whispered when Bofur cried in his arms after the burial.  “You’re the last of your clan who has a real chance for children.”

            Bofur got that mulish look in his eye the way he always did when anyone implied his cousin would be less desirable as a husband because of the axe, and Havlin hurried on, “I don’t want to be the reason clan Broadbeam dies out.”

            Too, if Havlin proposed, Bofur would join his own clan, which seemed cruel to Bombur and Bifur.  Things were hard enough for them already.

            But Bofur didn’t ask, and Havlin felt his heart grow heavy every time he saw his beloved watching the dwarf children playing in the square outside Bombur’s flat.  Bofur would kiss him and say that it didn’t matter, that he didn’t need dwarflings to make him happy, but Havlin knew it wasn’t true.

            He thought he had hit upon the perfect solution – a way to have Bofur, children, and expand clan Broadbeam all in one.  He’d been so excited.

            The shocked dismay on Bofur’s face was like a bucket of icy water thrown over all Havlin’s hopes and dreams.  He’d never seen Bofur so furious, not even the time the Council had voted not to require mine shareholders to replace rusting tracks and two of Bofur’s friends had died when a collection cart derailed.  Later, Havlin would realize that Bofur had expected the Council’s betrayal.  He had not expected Havlin’s.

            And yes, in the months after Bofur left to go commit suicide by dragon, Havlin came to understand that Bofur had taken his words as a betrayal and an insult.

 


 

            Two weeks after Bofur and his kin disappeared, the metalmaster sent word that his work was done.

            What was there to be done?  Havlin had counted on paying with the money his father would give him when they announced their engagement.  The metalmaster raged and threatened, but Havlin could do nothing.  He felt awful about it, but still he could do nothing.

            At the very least, the metalmaster had shaken Havlin out of his numbness.  Going after Bofur was a gamble; he could search all of Middle Earth and not find a handful of dwarves who didn’t want to be found.  But as soon as the idea came to him, he knew he had to try.  He had no illusions that he’d be able to coax Bofur home.  There would be contracts involved, and Bofur was a dwarf of his word; if he’d sworn fealty to Thorin sodding Oakenshield, Bofur would stay to the grim end.

            But looking around at the mess he’d made of his life, at the prospect of a future without the dwarf he loved, Havlin knew he’d prefer facing dragonfire to the alternative of never seeing Bofur again.

            A very rude little woman in the Shire informed him that a pack of great ugly dwarves had kidnapped her cousin, and it was such a bother because the hobbit couldn’t be declared dead for another year.  Havlin thanked her for the information and headed east.

            It took him weeks to admit to himself that he’d lost the trail.  He could hear Wargs howling in the night, and thought his own heart might howl with them.  Bofur was gone, and it was his own fault.

 


 

            When word reached Ered Luin that Erebor had been reclaimed and the dragon slain, he wept tears of relief that Bofur hadn’t died because of Havlin’s stupidity.

            “You could write to him,” Taelin said quietly one evening not long after their father’s death.

            Havin had thought of doing it, or of going to Erebor with the refugees who wanted to return home – mostly grizzled old greybeards, but a few young adventurous types among them.  But even if Havlin could get Bofur to forgive him, things had changed.  In Ered Luin, Havlin had been able to offer Bofur a lot with a marriage alliance: financial stability, connection to a powerful clan, an end to the daily grind in the mines.

            Now what could he offer?  Just himself, and Bofur had made very clear at the last how he felt on the subject of Havlin.  Bofur now ran the mines of Erebor, and he laid claim to more wealth than Havlin could fathom.  He was a hero and a confidante of kings.  Alís shared her letters from Bombur and said nothing about the moisture in Havlin’s eyes.

            He’d never really believed that old wives’ tale that dwarves only love once.  He’d had lovers before Bofur, and Bofur had too.  None of them could hold a candle to his love for Bofur, of course.  And that was the trouble, wasn’t it?  Everyone from here on out would be compared to Bofur and found wanting.

            And Bofur, sweet and generous and brave and true, had no doubt already found somebody to make him happy.  Havlin hoped for his sake that it was the beautiful daughter of a clan chief, for Bofur deserved nothing less.

            “He’s beyond my reach now,” he told Taelin.  She looked sad, but she nodded.

 


 

            Krevlin didn’t tell him when Bofur returned to Ered Luin.  No doubt he meant it kindly, but Havlin would have given anything to see Bofur at the Council feast.  As soon as he heard, he raced through dark streets to the Council Hall.

            Bofur was even more beautiful than he’d remembered.  He stood in the central square with a big burly dwarf – clearly a noble by the cut of his cloak.  The warmth in Bofur’s eyes as he looked up at the big dwarf made Havlin’s chest ache.

            But he put on a smile and embraced Bofur.  And there were a few short hours when he let himself hope.  Bofur smiled at him, laughed with him, and when Havlin finally brought their lips together, Bofur kissed him back.

            Less than ten minutes later, Havlin stumbled blindly out into the street, Bofur’s words ringing in his ears.  How could you have thought I was free to propose?  How?

            Part of him raged that of course the marriage price would have been waived; Bofur should have known that.  Even if Havlin’s father balked, they would have taken on and worked off the debt together.  They were supposed to be partners in this endeavor.

            But Bofur hadn’t known that, or hadn’t believed it.  And why should he?  Bofur had worked for years to help Bombur pay off Merced’s marriage price.  Alís had been unusually generous in canceling the debt when Merced died; Havlin remembered the whispers all too well.  In Bofur’s world, debts were only waived under extraordinary circumstances.

            Havlin should have known.  He should have realized that Bofur wasn’t holding back because of children or anything else, but Havlin had been so focused on ensuring a future for clan Broadbeam that he’d ignored the obvious.

            But it wasn’t until Havlin returned to the metalmaster – determined to ransom his entire future if he had to – and found that someone else had purchased the commissioned tools that he realized it was over.  Havlin had nothing to offer Bofur, and nothing to keep except for bittersweet memories.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

            Dwalin rose early so that he would have time to practice his axe forms in the privacy of his room.  It would help clear his head.  His sleep had been troubled by memories of the three dwarves he’d killed all those years ago, but nonetheless after some rest he was ready to look at the situation more objectively.

            Dis had not actually said that Balin was one of her six suspects.  What was it she’d said?

           What I’d like to know is, does Balin think that Dain’s a good king?

           If he took it as a question and not an accusation, Dwalin didn’t actually know the answer.  What did Balin think of Dain?  His brother had never let a word slip, never even sighed when the King was being particularly difficult.  Balin was Dain’s most trusted advisor; even if he hated the King it would never be in his own interest to let on.

           Dwalin held the pose of the third axe form until his muscles screamed.  He had to decide what he would do if Balin was plotting, and he had to decide before he saw Dis again.  He didn’t have to tell her, but he had to know.  He wouldn’t be able to look Balin in the eye if he didn’t know.

           All right.  Scenario: Nori brings the bodyguards information that implicates Balin.  No, that made no sense.  If Balin were traitor and Nori wasn’t, Nori would never bring that information to Balin’s brother.

           Scenario: Balin tries to kill the King outright – no, Balin would never do anything so foolhardy.

           Scenario: I come across information that links Balin to the assassination attempt.  What would I do?

           The fourth axe form was the most difficult, and required the most concentration.  Dwalin pushed the problem to the back of his mind, which was better at picking apart such things anyways.

           And the back of his mind yielded an answer when he eased into the fifth form.

           Balin is not the dwarf I know and love if he could do such a thing.

           All very well, he told the back of his mind crossly, but what does that mean?

           The answer was unexpected: That I won’t join him.  That I will stop him.

           Dwalin had to rest his axes on the ground and gulp in a deep breath; all his muscles had turned to jelly.  It wasn’t quite relief; more as if he were meeting himself again and recognizing himself after a long absence.  He had been thrown off-kilter by the fear that if Balin committed treason, he would break his own vows of loyalty to Dain; knowing that he would not, he felt centered again.

           Next question.  Would I turn Balin over to Nori?

           He didn’t even have to turn that one over to his subconscious.  No.  Because he is my brother, I would give him the choice to leave Erebor or face trial.  After the trial, I would arrange for the means for him to take his own life instead of being beheaded.

           He would choose the trial.  Because he is an honorable dwarf, and he would want to make sure that no stain came upon my reputation and my loyalty.

           …He is an honorable dwarf.  He would never betray his oath to the King.

           What was it Dis had said?  Balin was loyal to the Durins.  Dwalin’s loyalty was personal, which was why he had such a hard time reconciling his oath with a king who fell short of what Dwalin felt he ought to be.  Balin wouldn’t have such troubles.  Balin had probably never thought for a moment about walking away from his king.

           Dwalin’s thoughts drifted back to his dark dreams, and for a moment he felt that familiar half-guilt: the half of him that had been an honorable dwarf for seventy years felt almost proud of the neatness of the solution of offering Balin a means to slay himself for the crime of plotting murder.  At the same time the other half of him, the half that had murdered three dwarves by the side of a forgotten road seventy years ago, whispered that he was a hypocrite and a liar.

           It served nothing to dwell on it, so Dwalin pushed the guilt aside and started in on the knife forms.

 


 

           Dwalin was barely inside Dis’s door when he said, “Balin may be a suspect, but you don’t believe he’s a traitor.”

          “Don’t I?” she asked politely.  She seated herself and poured him a cup of the wretched tea.

          “I hate your tea,” Dwalin growled.

          “I know.”  There was an edge of a smile in her voice.

          By Durin, she would always have the upper hand in their interactions, wouldn’t she?  It set his teeth on edge.

          “Sit, Dwalin.”  She gave him a quelling look, and he’d obeyed even before he recognized it as the look that could shut the princes up and make them behave from half a mile away.  Dis hadn’t always set his teeth on edge…

          He sipped his tea sulkily, but didn’t protest.  She was a matriarch with no family left.  Once she’d had a household to look after: Thorin and Balin, Kili and Fili and their father, and Dwalin when he wasn’t off adventuring.  He didn’t know what role she played now – and probably neither did she.

          “I won’t waste your time,” she told him.  “You’ll need to mark my words well, though, for anything I write today I will burn.  Your memory is all you’ll be able to take with you.”

          Was she really going to tell him the suspects?  He’d thought she would tease him with it, the way she was with the knowledge about Thorin.

          She had a quill, ink, and a small pile of parchment scraps next to the tea service.  She took up the pen and wrote a name in a clear hand on the top scrap, then pushed it over to Dwalin.

          “Gremai, son of Temai of the Iron Hills,” he read aloud.  “He’s the general you asked about the other day, the one you said had been done wrong by.”

          She smiled.  “Good to know you were paying attention.”

          “Why do you suspect him?”

          “People who work hard and don’t receive credit are prone to growing resentful,” she said.

          “Is there any evidence?” Dwalin asked, skeptical.  “Or is this all just a pleasant theory?”

          “He’s got a brother who gambles,” Dis said, not rising to the bait.  “He bails the brother out on a regular basis, despite having little gold to his name.  Also, he offered a rather extravagant courting gift to a Blacklock noblewoman recently, much more than he could afford.”

          “Hmm.”  It would bear looking into, at least.  Nori could trace the dwarf’s gold easily enough.  “Who’s next?”

          He was not pleased with the name written on the second scrap of parchment.

          “Thranduil?” he demanded.  “Why is it that the Line of Durin can’t let go of that old enmity?”

          Dis looked amused at his indignation.  “Perhaps because it is just that: an old enmity.  It’s not been put to rest.”

          “We have treaties and trade agreements with the Elves now.”  Dwalin hated the Elves as much as the next dwarf, and he bore no love for the Elf who had imprisoned him in his dungeons for so long, but what did Thranduil stand to gain by killing Dain?  Another dwarf would take the throne, and another after that.

          “We had treaties and trade agreements in my grandfather’s time as well,” Dis said sharply.  Dwalin winced.  “If you think the Elf King doesn’t have agents inside the Mountain, you are sorely mistaken.”

          “No dwarf would spy for an Elf!” Dwalin hissed.

          “No dwarf would commit murder, and yet we sit here talking about who might be plotting against their king!” she retorted.  “No matter who is behind this, there are dwarves who are collaborating.  The time for youthful ideals is gone, Dwalin.”

          Dwalin glared at her, took up the quill, and wrote “Dis” on a new scrap of parchment.

            “You don’t believe that,” she said calmly.

            “I don’t,” he admitted.  “But it’s the first thing Nori will do when I take this to him.”

            “Do you trust Nori, then?” Dis asked, an eyebrow arched.  She snatched the quill back and wrote Nori’s name on another piece of parchment.  On the next, she wrote “Balin.”

            Dwalin clenched his fists in his lap and told himself he still couldn’t punch her in the face.

            “If it helps,” Dis said almost gently, “I don’t believe it’s Balin.  But he’s a clearly interested party, and there’s some evidence that points his way that needs to be explained.”

            He unclenched his fists a little.  “Who else?” he sneered.  “How far down the line of succession will you go?  Me?  Oin?  Do you think little Gimli is plotting?”

            “You don’t want it because there’s too much potential for your secret to get out,” Dis said.  “Oin was never interested in power even when he could have had it here in Ered Luin.  And if Gloin were at the head of the line of succession, I’d suspect him – but he’d never wish harm to Balin, or you, or his brother.”

            As far as Dwalin was concerned, anyone in Thorin’s company was above suspicion.  “What would Nori gain with Dain’s death?” he demanded.

            “His death?  Potentially very little,” Dis said.  “But if Dain were made to feel always that there were threats, he would grant Nori much more gold and power than he has now.”

            Dwalin nodded reluctantly.  “I thought it might be him, after the second assassination attempt,” he said.  “The first one nobody took very seriously.  But the second one took place in the King’s private bath; nobody should have been able to get there.”

            “I understand there was some evidence discovered on the Man who was killed.”  Her voice was casual, but it froze the blood in Dwalin’s veins.  She should not have known about that; almost nobody knew about that.  Bifur, Nori, two of the other bodyguards, and the King; no one else.  Even Dwalin shouldn’t know about it, except that Nori came to him after.

            “What do you know?” he asked, his mouth dry.  “And how do you know it?”

            “I have my agents in the Mountain, just as Nori has his here in Ered Luin,” she said.  Dwalin was startled to hear that.  “Did Balin ever know?”

            “Not unless Nori told him,” Dwalin said.  Nori probably had told Balin, if he’d told Dwalin.

            “I hope he did,” Dis sighed.

           “The evidence was ridiculous,” Dwalin snapped.  “It led directly to Balin.  If Balin were involved, he’d be at least five steps removed.”

           “Which is the reason Dain still trusts him,” Dis said.  “It was so obviously planted to implicate your brother.”

           Dwalin did not say aloud the next thought: that if Balin were plotting against the King, the best way to put people off his trail would be just such an obvious foil.  Balin was an honorable dwarf, and he was loyal to the Line of Durin.  As far as Dwalin was concerned, he was not a suspect.

           “Nori doesn’t need – doesn’t even want – more gold or more power,” Dwalin said.  “He did want the King to fund his efforts so he wouldn’t have to do so out of his own pocket, but that was more that he wanted Dain’s recognition of the importance of what he does.”

           “Which he got after the assassination attempts,” Dis pointed out.  “He uncovered a viper’s nest eventually.”

           It had taken the better part of a year for Nori to track down the dwarf reputed to be behind the first assassination attempt.  Murder, even attempted murder, was the worst taboo a dwarf could transgress; it was almost unthinkable to kill a fellow dwarf.  Dwalin had attended the execution; the violence of it still troubled his dreams sometimes.  Nori had been livid; he thought the line of influence stretched back farther, and wanted the prisoner for interrogation.  Other heads had prevailed, however…  Dwalin would have to find out who those other heads were.

           “Well, he’s gotten his recognition if that’s what he was after,” Dwalin said.  “But a dwarf died, and Nori’s a lot of things but he’s not a murderer.  If the attempts were a ruse or a power play on his part, he wouldn’t have let things go that far.”

           Dis shrugged.  “He stays on my list of suspects, although I agree that if it’s him, we won’t see another attempt on Dain.”

           So far, out of four suspects – five if you counted Dis – Dwalin only believed that one, Gremai, was capable of actually being behind the crime.

           It still bothered Dwalin to have to suspect dwarves.  Murder was something that Men did, not dwarves.  Sometimes a dwarf would kill another by accident or even in anger, but the thought of one dwarf sitting down and coldly planning out the death of another…  It was unnatural.  Perhaps because there were so few dwarves in the first place, lives were precious. Dwarves who killed other dwarves were shunned; they had no rights, no family, no home.  Dwarves didn’t make war on one another the way barbaric Men did. 

           But Dis had spoken of attacks on her and Frerin even as children, which made Dwalin’s chest hurt.  He knew things were different for the royal family – he was the King’s bodyguard, after all – but dwarves were supposed to be better than the other races, more noble.  Youthful ideals, indeed.

           “What about the Men?” he asked, catching hold of the last thread of hope.  But then he added, “Not King Bard – he wouldn’t.  But possibly one of his advisors?”

           She nodded approvingly.  “In fact, I have uncovered some agents in the pay of the Men of Dale,” she said.  “Of course, Dain has agents in Bard’s court as well, and it’s only to gather information, so you can’t read too much into it.”  But she was already writing “Dale” on another scrap of paper.

           “Who else?” he asked.

           “I’ve one more suspect inside the Mountain, and two more outside,” Dis said.

           “Hold up.  That makes eight, and you said six.”

           “Yes,” she agreed.  “Two of the suspects we’ve talked about, I’ve already dismissed from consideration.”

           “Which ones?”

           She gave him a cool stare.  “I’d like to see if you can work it out yourself.”

           “Balin,” he said promptly.  “You said so.”

           “Yes.  And the other?”

           “Nori.”

           “No; I do suspect Nori of machinations, if not actual murder.”

           He hesitated.  “You don’t think it’s Thranduil either,” he guessed.

           He was rewarded with a small smile.  “I think that Thranduil has better things to worry about than a Mountain full of treasure he cares little for,” Dis said.  “Also, Elves are sly, but assassination is just as distasteful to them as it is to us.”

           Dwalin wondered how she knew that.

           “Speaking of Elves,” she said, “I believe the company was just starting the journey into Mirkwood when last we spoke.  Tell me, how did you manage to fall into Thranduil’s hands when you had a whole forest you could have kept between you and him?”

           Dwalin glowered at her.  “Am I supposed to guess the other three suspects?” he demanded.

           “I’d be very surprised if you could,” she said.  “We’ll discuss the others tomorrow.”

           “Why tomorrow?”

           “Because I said so,” she snapped.

           He couldn’t make her tell him, so he began the tale of the long march across Mirkwood.

 


 

           Bofur brought his tools and some scrap wood with him to the market, but not the mallorn branch.  When he was ready to start work on it, it would take his total concentration, and the market was full of distractions.

           They had about forty dwarves signed up on the manifest, and about twice that many who were still making up their minds.  Bofur, realizing that supplies were going to be rather tight, put in a word with the wagonmakers, the smiths, and the horsetraders that there would be a run on their stock in the next few weeks.  He and Dwalin had come on ponies, but if they were leading a caravan they’d need a wagon of their own, and a tent, and provisions for the whole journey; there wouldn’t be any place along the way that could restock so many dwarves.  They couldn’t rely on inns and hunting, even if their group remained just forty.

           Over the first few days he made a dozen or so little wooden toys in between talking to prospective immigrants.  He wished Bifur were here to add the clockwork elements he was so good at.  Then, as the design for the mallorn carving started taking shape in his head, Bofur began practicing, working out how the different parts would fit together; where to start and where to follow.

           It had to be perfect before he made the first cut.

           Dwalin relieved him at the table several times each day, but they both knew that Bofur was better at talking to people, better at helping them work through their questions and worries, and better at telling those who were not cut out for a long journey that perhaps crossing Orc-infested territory with only a few trained warriors to protect the rest was not the best idea for them.  Dwalin, in turn, was an excellent recruiting tool: he had set up an impromptu sort of school at the edge of the marketplace, and each morning spent several hours drilling eager learners in axe, sword, and knife fighting.  Bofur was very pleased that many of those who’d already signed up for the caravan were showing up to learn; all dwarves learned basic fighting skills, but most dwarves in Ered Luin had never seen battle or even a skirmish in their lives.

           The first two days, Dwalin had sweated through his clothing by lunchtime, and when he would spell Bofur at the table he made everything he touched rather damp – including the manifest.  On the third day, one of the dwarves practicing axe forms took off his shirt under the hot sun, and Bofur saw Dwalin’s eyes go wide.  With barely restrained glee, the big dwarf almost tore off his own shirt, getting it caught in his knuckledusters.  Then Dwalin was standing bare-chested in the sunlight, looking so happy it almost hurt to see his face.  Bofur caught his breath, unable to look away.

           More than a few dwarves and dwarrowdams were staring as well, Bofur found when he came back to himself long moments later.  Bofur grinned, delighted at his friend’s raw pleasure.

           After that, Dwalin took his shirt off every day, with a relish that brought a smile to both their lips.  It was a precious freedom, and Bofur offered up thanks to Mahal that he’d been able to bring it about.

           Dwalin had been leading weapons practice at the market for about a week when Havlin joined one morning.  Bofur didn’t notice at first, distracted first by a little girl who was admiring the carving of a wolfpup he was making, and then by the girl’s mother who wanted to sign up but wasn’t sure she could afford a wagon.

           “The wagon is non-negotiable,” Bofur said gently, knowing it meant she probably couldn’t come.  “You’ll need provisions for a three-month journey.”

           The dwarrowdam nodded, her lips a thin, nervous line.

           “But,” Bofur said brightly, “the King is subsidizing immigrants of certain trades, though we’re keeping it quiet so I’ll thank you not to pass it along.”

           “I take in washing,” the woman stammered.

           “And your husband?”

           “Ah…”  Her face fell.

           “Washerwomen are in high demand,” Bofur said smoothly.  “How many little ones?”

           “T-two.”  There were tears in her eyes that Bofur politely ignored.

           “Sign here.”  He’d have to see about having an order put in for more wagons; he was pretty sure that this would not be the only impoverished family whose way he would end up paying.

           When she’d gone, he glanced over at the weapons training.  They were practicing swordplay.  Most of them used sticks as they’d had no formal training in swords, but a few had brought their own weapons.  Havlin was practicing with a young dwarf, wielding his sword with a finesse that reminded Bofur joltingly of Fili.

           He told himself not to stare, and concentrated on carving a rabbit.  When it proved to have three ears, he decided his concentration needed some work.

           When he looked again, Havlin and Dwalin were demonstrating sword forms together.  Each form had a counterform, and the choreography of lunge and deflect was like a dance, their blades weaving in and out of the spaces where bodies had been just moments before.

           Havlin had had a warrior’s formal training, though he’d only ever put it to use for the occasional skirmish with Orcs.  Bofur should not have been surprised to see him so proficient in this.

           Watching the two of them together, moving smoothly and flawlessly, was mesmerizing.  It was beautiful.  They were beautiful.

           Bofur had schooled his body not to respond to Dwalin – and though it needed daily reminders, he hadn’t embarrassed himself yet.  But this, this was entirely different.  Bofur was grateful for the table that hid his arousal.  He watched the two people he wanted most, and wished he were anywhere but here.

           Everyone had gone silent, watching the two of them finish the last of the forms.  They bowed to each other, knocking swords together – the dull sound was loud in the silence, reminding everyone that they had not touched once during the duel – and then Havlin turned to go.  Dwalin turned to his students to demonstrate the first form again.

           Bofur was seized with a sudden fear that Havlin was here to sign up for the caravan.  He honestly couldn’t tell whether he wanted that or not.  What he definitely did not want was for Havlin to see his face right now.  Havlin would be able to tell that he was aroused and Bofur couldn’t bear that.

           Mahal did not hear his prayer, for Havlin approached the table.  Bofur kept his eyes on the rabbit with three ears, trying to decide which one to lop off.  He decided on the one on the right.  He tried to keep his breathing even.

           Havlin was silent, but he didn’t move either, and eventually Bofur was compelled to look up at him.  He knew his cheeks were flushed, but at least his hands weren’t shaking.  Havlin had a strange look on his face.  He was looking at the mithril-tipped blade in Bofur’s hand.

           “You have new tools,” he said at last, and his voice was a little odd.  Bofur couldn’t make out his expression.

           “Yes,” he said, holding the knife up for inspection.  “The mithril holds an edge like nothing else.  They’re wonderful.”  He wanted to add, “Dwalin got them for me,” but it would be petty, and it would imply something more than there was between the two of them.  He wasn’t sure why he found it comforting to let Havlin think Dwalin was his lover, but he did.  For one wild moment, he wondered if he could get away with implying that he and Dwalin were engaged – See, someone wants to marry me even if you don’t – but that was even worse than petty, and it would no doubt backfire spectacularly when Havlin, ever polite, offered his congratulations to Dwalin.

           “It’s beautiful,” Havlin said, returning the knife to him, and left abruptly without another word.

 


 

           Invitations to dine with clan heads continued to come.  Bofur wished he could forget about the Council now that they’d finally voted in a sensible policy, but every evening he and Dwalin dressed in their best and visited a new mansion.  It made him grind his teeth to see first-hand the luxury the shareholding clans lived in, while there were miners who still couldn’t afford firewood in the wintertime.  Bofur knew it wasn’t what Dwalin saw when he entered, and he tried not to mind too much.  He let Dwalin do most of the talking; it was unusual for them, but this was much more Dwalin’s world than his own.

           The third evening he was feeling this way, he realized that he lay claim to more wealth than all the clan heads in Ered Luin put together, excepting perhaps Lady Dis.  It was a strange thought; a disquieting thought.  He wasn’t sure if he’d ever get used to it.  He wasn’t sure if he wanted to.

           Conversation was generally awkward and stilted, and Bofur did not go out of his way as he usually would to smooth it down.  Perhaps it was petty to enjoy his tiny revenge for years of being maligned and talked down to by the Council, but he didn’t care.  There was often a scramble to find a neutral subject to speak on.  One of the clan heads carried on an indecently long conversation with Dwalin about taming wolves, and refused to believe that Alís could possibly have a real wolf in her possession.

           “I remember when Rae came home with Facho,” Bofur said, and when he’d been a mere miner someone would have said, “Oh, but Rae must have been mistaken; it must be a dog.”  Now, nobody would challenge his word, at least not to his face.  It was a surprisingly hollow victory.

           No one mentioned his uncle, but Bofur seethed at the slight – perhaps imagined – when the Blacklock matriarch pointedly left an entire wine bottle by his plate instead of the glass everyone else got.  He didn’t touch it even when Dwalin commented that it was quite good, and the elderly dwarrowdam informed him that it had come all the way from Rohan.

           The Firebeards, ever haughty, had not yet issued an invitation, but they would.  They would not miss the opportunity to break bread with the heroes of Erebor; it was something they would tell their children about.  A brush with greatness.  No, Bofur would never get used to that.

           After these interminable affairs, Bofur would meet with the core group of miners who’d organized the strike.  He tried to impart to them all of his knowledge: the labyrinthine Council politics, who owed favors to whom, who could be trusted to keep his word, whose palms needed to be slicked with gold for a vote.  All of his information was three years out of date, but most of it was still useful.  He wrote it all out painstakingly; Balur was right, Bofur had never been much for writing.  Only a few of the miners could read well, but he couldn’t count on them remembering all he’d told them.

           Then there were long lessons on how to say what you meant without it sounding like a challenge; how to hold firm without being accused of stubbornness or willfulness; how to meet an insult with a smile instead of a fist.  They didn’t believe him that such lessons were necessary; they preferred to believe he had some special magic that would allow him to retain his pride when negotiating from a disadvantage.  They would learn that he was teaching them the rules of that magic, but not until they were forced to try it for themselves.  Only Kiri seemed to understand that these lessons were the most important; that if they didn’t know how to speak with the shareholders and the Council then all the information in the world would not help them.  It didn’t surprise him, but it did make him wish there were more dwarrowdams involved in the strike leadership.

 


 

            Bofur almost wept when he first began to work with the mallorn branch.  The wood was everything he could ever have dreamed of; in fact, it was like carving a dream.  He made progress much faster than he’d expected, because this wood didn’t impose its own personality on the carving; it stood steadfastly behind whatever he chose to shape it to.  It was an unnerving amount of power to be granted: an artist with a blank canvas.

            He’d reserved a third of the branch just for practice; that should leave him enough for the actual design.  There could be no mistakes.

            Bofur wasn’t one to boast of his own skills, but he knew with a quiet certainty that Elrond Halfelven would receive a gift that equaled the one the Elf had given Dwalin.

 


 

            Dwalin didn’t understand why, but Dis would only give him one suspect per day.  She seemed preoccupied, her mind elsewhere, and her temper had never been generous with him.  They clashed more as each day went by and as his story brought them closer and closer to Erebor.  He thought he understood: soon he would have to tell her of the Battle of Five Armies, and there would be no more stories of her sons left to tell.

            On the first day, the scrap of parchment read “Fardald,” and Dwalin’s eyebrows shot up.  Fardald was one of Dain closest advisors; if he were conspiring against the King, they were all in quite a lot of trouble.

            Dis readily admitted that the evidence against him was sketchy at best.  The dwarf had his fingers in every pot and a web of influence to rival her own.  In short, he was a politician like Balin, and he played the game skillfully.  If Dain died, he would become principal advisor to Balin, the King’s right-hand man.

            “If that’s what he wants, why not take out Balin instead to create a vacancy?” Dwalin asked.  He wondered if perhaps Balin should be assigned bodyguards as well.

            Dis shrugged.  “He bears watching,” she repeated.  “If nothing else, if he’s innocent, he’ll also have his agents looking for those behind the assassination attempts.”

            Dwalin thought wistfully of the time when being the King’s bodyman had been boring.

            The next name was “Lady Sogere.”

            “The King’s sister?!”  Surely, that was too much.  No dwarf would slay their kin.  They were not Elves.

            “Hear me out,” Dis said, smiling faintly at his outrage.  “Sogere has a son almost-grown, Thir.  She would like him to be Dain’s heir.”

            Dwalin frowned.  “Why isn’t he?”

            “Because she married the chief of the Redbeard clan; he died recently, and Thir will become chief when he comes of age in a few years.  She has been subtly trying to feel out Gloin to see if a marriage could be arranged with Gimli.”

            “Gimli!”  Gimli was still a boy!

            “She plays a long game.  If I don’t miss my guess, she’d like to pin an assassination attempt on Balin.  That would remove him from the line of succession, and you as well; if your brother were named traitor you’d renounce your claim to the throne.”

            Dwalin grit his teeth.  How could she talk so casually about this, as if there weren’t real people and real lives involved?  Yes, he would renounce his claim to the throne if Balin were found to be a traitor – but he’d do it even if Balin died of natural causes.  Was there a way to remove oneself from the line of succession formally?  He’d have to find out.

            “Oin could be dealt with easily enough; it’s easy to assassinate a deaf man,” Dis said, her tone still conversational.  Dwalin shuddered.  “Gloin would be a harder target, and I suspect she’d wait him out.  Gimli would be crown prince by that time, and Thir his consort.”

            Dwalin regarded her.  “That’s quite a tale,” he said.  “Would she really kill her own brother?”

            “Possibly.”  Dis shrugged.  “She was very angry when she found out that Thir was not in the line of succession.  But she might just wait for him to die; as I said, she plays a long game.”

            “It seems a bit far-fetched…  Not exactly a simple plan.  What makes you think that Gimli would offer for Thir?”

            “Nirma – Gloin’s wife – says that the Redbeard clan offered to foster Gimli until his coming of age.  The lads know each other a little, and are friendly.”  Dis shrugged.  “And should Gimli prove to prefer women, she’s got a daughter as well.  A bit young, but that’s never stopped an ambitious parent.”

            “You got that whole plot out of an offer of fostering?”

            “No.”  She smiled at him, all teeth.  “I got that whole plot out of knowing Sogere rather well.  Do not underestimate her, Dwalin.  I will admit my imagination may have run ahead of me on this one, but she is a player in any political move affecting either the Redbeards or the Longbeards.  She’s acting chief of the clan until Thir comes of age, and she will find that power difficult to give up.  If she’s not plotting now, she will be soon.”

            There had been real warmth in Dis’s voice when she spoke of Sogere, Dwalin thought later.  He wondered if they had once been friends.

            The third piece of parchment just read “Firebeard clan.”

            “The entire clan?”  He arched an eyebrow at her.  “Several thousand dwarves want Dain dead?”

            She rolled her eyes.  “They are Nori’s chief suspects,” she told him.

            “Nori didn’t tell you that.”  Dwalin’s eyes widened at the implication.  “You’ve turned one of Nori’s agents!”

            “I suspect more than a few of our agents collect double pay,” she said dryly.  “It comes with the territory.  At least we’re not working at cross-purposes, so the information is generally reliable.”

            “Why does Nori suspect the Firebeards?”

            “I don’t know.”

            That surprised him, and she chuckled at the expression on his face.

            “I don’t hold all the pieces, Dwalin.  This list of suspects is incomplete; I know for a fact that Nori has at least two more on his, and I know he doesn’t have Gremai.  He’s thrown a lot of resources at Dale and at Thranduil, but I think that’s because the King would like to believe that dwarves wouldn’t wish him dead.”

            “What motive could the Firebeard clan have for killing Dain?”

            “I don’t know,” she said again.  “Though a staged-but-failed attempt could have been a reminder to Dain of his mortality; he’s been dragging his feet about finding a wife and producing an heir.  An alliance with Firebeard is the obvious choice.”

            “That seems almost simplistic compared to Lady Sogere’s supposed crimes,” he said, surprising a laugh out of her.

            “As I’ve said, you’ll have to consult with Nori.  And I’m certain Balin will have his own theories.”

            Dwalin was never going to be able to return to being just a simple bodyguard again.

 


 

           On a whim, Bofur tried the iron knife he’d made in Rivendell on some of the mallorn scraps.  He hadn’t been quite able to throw the two knives away, thought they were useless now that he had real tools.  Anger and worry, he remembered as he looked at them, and wondered if it was symbolic that he couldn’t let them go.

           The wood cooperated just as beautifully with inferior tools, though of course the results were not as fine.  Bofur amused himself by making a series of finger-sized replicas of Grasper and Keeper.

           “For your admirers,” he teased Dwalin when his friend found him at it one evening, and was amused to see Dwalin blush.  “I meant the children,” he said more kindly, for there was a handful of dwarflings who fairly worshipped the warrior.  Not that Dwalin didn’t have a good number of adult admirers, too, some even brave enough to proposition him openly.  Dwalin would ignore even the most direct hints – sometimes Bofur wasn’t even certain Dwalin understood what was being asked – and go impassively haughty when the proposals could not be misunderstood.  Bofur couldn’t chase them away the way he had at the Redbeard settlement, staking a claim that wasn’t his, so he tried to stay near his friend and glare the most impertinent down.

           Dwalin picked up one of the miniature carvings of Keeper, a rare smile lighting his face as he studied the runes etched in its wooden blade.  “It’s very good, this,” he said gruffly, and Bofur could tell he was pleased.  Bofur hid his own smile of pleasure at the praise.

           Dwalin’s hand hovered over some of the other carvings, both mallorn and softwood, and reached for the rabbit Bofur had carved while trying to ignore Havlin.  His brow furrowed.  “It’s got three ears,” he said, holding it up to inspect it.

           “No it hasn’t,” Bofur said lightly.  He busied himself with sanding down another miniature axe, preparing it for the etching of the runes.

           Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Dwalin frown.  “Yes it has,” his friend said, holding it out to Bofur to inspect.  “See?  Three.”

           Bofur cast an eye over the little rabbit.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about," he said solemnly, stifling a laugh.  He loved teasing Dwalin, especially that moment just before the big dwarf realized Bofur was having him on.  He could tell that Dwalin hadn’t grown up in a family that teased, for it always took him a beat longer than most to figure out that there was a joke.

           Sure enough, humor bloomed in Dwalin’s eyes.  “Ye’re mad,” he said affectionately.  He held up the rabbit.  “Can I keep this?”

           Bofur blinked.  “If you’d like,” he said.  He pushed forward the small pile of wooden axes.  “These too.  The children will like them.”

           “Thank you,” Dwalin rumbled, and Bofur felt his insides melt at the warmth in his friend’s eyes.

 


 

            Dwalin glanced up from showing a young woman how to turn an attacker’s knife against them to see a tall, decrepit dwarf picking his way toward their table.  Bofur was finishing up with a group of miners who had decided to share a wagon as they weren’t bringing their families, and when he noticed his uncle he went very still.  For just a moment, grief stood naked on his face, but it was quickly wiped away.  Dwalin couldn’t hear the words that were exchanged, but they did not sound happy.  But Bofur pushed the manifest forward, white-lipped, and Balur signed it.

            Bofur showed few outward signs of what he must be feeling inside, but Dwalin knew him well enough to recognize the agitation of his fidgeting, his pale cheeks, and the way he didn’t look anybody in the eye even when speaking to them.  Bofur was deeply upset.

            Dwalin called a halt to the weapons practice.  Most of the participants drifted away, but some stayed to spar with each other.  Dwalin paid them no attention and went to sit next to his friend.  “We don’t have to let him come,” he said.

            Bofur started, as if he hadn’t noticed Dwalin was there.  “I…  He’s kin,” he said eventually, helplessly.  “He’s as much right as any to come to Erebor.”

            “It’s not his home.”

            “His son is there.”

            “His son hates him.”

            Bofur flinched.

            Dwalin was feeling helpless too.  “Can he afford to come?” he asked.  Surely Balur would not have the gall to demand that Bofur pay his way?

           The anger on Bofur’s face was unexpected, and Bofur glared daggers at him.  “If you think for one moment that I would deny my own kin for lack of funds – ” he hissed, then broke off.  He covered his face with one hand.  “I’m sorry,” he said, and abruptly he was out of his seat and had fled.

           Well.  That could have gone better.

           Another family signed up to come – five little ones, an unheard-of abundance – and Dwalin watched the clock and worried about Bofur.  He had just decided to pack up early and stop by the inn to see if Bofur might be there, when a dwarrowdam with frayed clothing and a babe in tow sidled up.

           “I am a washerwomen,” she whispered, her eyes skittering away from Dwalin’s.

           “Is that so?” he asked politely.  “Are you interested in emigrating to Erebor?”

           “Yes?”  She sounded uncertain, chewing her lip and unable to meet his gaze.  “I heard… I heard the King is in need of washerwomen.”

           “The Mountain does produce a great deal of laundry,” he said, feeling he was missing something.  “I’m sure you will be able to find a position.”

           For some reason, she looked frightened.  “Is Mister Bofur here?” she asked plaintively.

           “No,” Dwalin said, at the end of his patience.  This was the reason Bofur manned the table; Bofur was good at people.

           She gave a little squeak of dismay, and darted away.

           What on earth was all that about, he wondered.

 


 

            Telling Dis about the gold-sickness was difficult for both of them.  Dwalin did not like to remember that time, and he especially did not like to remember the way Thorin had changed.  Dwalin should have seen, should have recognized – but he’d been caught by goldlust as well.  Thank the Maker they’d had their burglar with them, or they’d all have perished for naught.

            Dis was silent for a long time after Dwalin stopped talking.  She had risen and was looking out the window, as she often did when she was troubled.  Dwalin had thought of not telling her, or of playing down the extent of the truth, but he was certain she would be able to tell.

            “Erebor saved by a Halfling,” she said at last.  “I suppose the wizard had the right of it after all.”

            “Thorin was himself, in the end,” Dwalin told her.  “He didn’t die with the madness still upon him.”  Not like his grandfather.

            “Good.”  She swallowed, and he could see a fine tremor in her hands where they clutched the windowsill.  He wondered that she let him see her so.

            “I am sorry, my lady,” he whispered, ignoring the burning in his eyes.  “I failed you twice over.  I failed to see his madness, and I failed to keep him alive.”

            She held up a hand, almost desperately, for him to stop.  “Not today.  Do not tell me of their deaths today,” she said, her voice hoarse.

            He understood.  He did not think he could bear it, either.

            “When does your caravan leave?” she asked abruptly.

            “In two weeks,” he said.  Later, he wasn’t sure of his own motivations when he said, “Will you come with us, my lady?”

            There was a long moment of silence before she shook her head.  “There is nothing for me in Erebor.”

            There is nothing for you here either, he thought but did not say.

            “And Dain?” she asked suddenly.  “Does he show any signs of gold-sickness?”

            “No,” he said.  “He only looked at the treasury once, and then he said it was better not to spend time there lest he fall prey to the madness.”

            She turned back toward him, a grim smile on her lips.  “Not a complete fool, then,” she said.

            No, not a complete fool, he had to admit.  He himself avoided the treasury; not only were there bad memories there, but he also didn’t know that his reason wouldn’t be dazzled again.  Balin, always prudent about such matters, had the dwarves who worked in the treasury on a rotation that took them out of regular contact with the gold.  Gloin, who might have been head of the treasury or the Chief Exchequer had he wished it, had chosen instead to head up the forges; he was ashamed that after more than a century of level-headed work as an accountant, he had lost his head in one fell swoop.

            Dis poured him more tea then, and he gave her a dirty look for it.  It pleased him to see her stifle a smile; it meant she was no longer brooding.  They sipped their tea in companionable silence, and for once the tension between the two of them was gone.

            Dwalin’s thoughts drifted back to Bofur and his uncle.  He didn’t know the details of why Balur disliked Bofur so much – Dwalin was inclined to think it must be a peculiar form of madness, because nobody disliked Bofur – but the reasons didn’t matter.  Balur was part of why Bofur hated Ered Luin, and now he was coming to Erebor.  And Bofur would not protest, because Balur was kin.  Perhaps with a clan so small, he couldn’t afford to worry about whether or not he got on with his kin.

            Why did Balur want to come to Erebor, anyways?

            “My lady,” he said, “will Balur lose his seat on the Council again after Bofur goes?”

            She raised her eyebrows, surprised at the question.  “I suspect he will,” she said after a moment.  “It won’t happen immediately, of course.  His kin are powerful men now, and it wouldn’t do to offend them.  We’ll waive the clan watch duty requirement; that was just the Firebeard clan being unpleasant.  But Balur will lose his seat all on his own.  There’s only so many times a dwarf can show up drunk to Council functions before he’ll offend enough clans to make it worth the risk of offending Bofur, Bifur, and Bombur.”

            Dwalin blinked.  “Drunk?” he echoed. 

            She gave him a curious look.  “You didn’t know?”

            “Know what?”

            She paused, as if weighing her words.  “I supposed Bofur would tell you, but I can see why he wouldn’t.  After all, I don’t go around talking about the madness in the Line of Durin.”

            “Explain,” Dwalin growled, clenching his fists.

            She dismissed the threat in his voice with a roll of her eyes.  “Balur is a drunkard. He got five miners killed, and he’s not been allowed in the mines since.  It was shortly after Azanulbizar, so he’s been nothing but trouble to the Council for eighty years or so.”

            Dwalin did a quick calculation; Bofur would have been sixty, still a child, when his uncle lost his livelihood.  He remembered Bofur had once told him he’d first started mining at sixty-five, and Dwalin had thought it scandalous that anybody had let a boy so young into the mines.

            He thought of the way Bofur was so careful not to drink too much, and how that had changed in the last week, and he scrambled to his feet.  “I need to go,” he said.

 


 

            How was it that Bofur could talk so much, and yet never say the things that Dwalin needed to know?

            He ran through what he knew as he hurried back to the inn for the second time that day.

           First: Bofur had gotten very drunk after Balur shamed him in front of the guards last week.

           Second: Bofur and he had shared a bottle of whiskey the night that Bofur asked about the tools.  Why?  Did Bofur really need liquid courage to ask about the gift?

           Third: The last time they drank together, the whiskey had loosened Dwalin’s tongue enough to ask if Bofur would ever feel safe with him, and Bofur’s had been loosened enough to tell him the truth.

           And there was a fourth time, the time that Dwalin had gotten drunk – and damn and blast, if his experience of drunkards was people like Balur, Bofur must have been scared out of his wits when Dwalin had asked if he could try it.

           Mahal take it, why couldn’t Bofur tell him these things?  Why did Dwalin have to piece them together and then feel ten kinds of awful for making his friend feel awful?

           Aye, because you’ve proven so trustworthy so far, he reminded himself, remembering yet again what had happened at Rivendell.  Is it any wonder he doesn’t tell you his secrets?  And there’s plenty of things that you never tell him.  You haven’t told him about Dis or about Dain.  He might have your biggest secret, but you haven’t ever told him the secret that really matters.

           Of course I haven’t! he argued.  He would hate me if I told him about the dwarves I killed. 

           Bofur wasn’t at the inn, so Dwalin headed down to Alís’s to see if she knew where the miners might be meeting.  When he stepped into the crowded tavern, he was hit with a wave of laughter and song, and instinctively he looked for Bofur in the middle of it.  Sure enough, Bofur was seated with some friends, and Dwalin breathed out his relief.  Then he felt foolish, because of course Bofur was all right; Bofur was the most resilient person he knew.  Bofur wasn’t like a gem that would crack under pressure.  He was like the true metals: he could be shaped and molded by forge and anvil, but it would never change his true nature.  The worth of the metal would shine through a thousand smeltings.

           It wasn’t as if Bofur’s cheerfulness was armor; it went to his core, and it was his strength.  Bofur wasn’t fragile; it was one of the things Dwalin loved most about him –

            Durin’s beard!  Dwalin sat abruptly on a free stool by the bar, trying not to panic.  This was bad.  This was so very, very bad.  He couldn’t be in love with Bofur.  He couldn’t.

            Alís set a mug of ale in front of him and he gulped it down, barely tasting it.  “Slow down, lad,” she said, and it was a welcome distraction from the buzzing panic at the back of his mind.  He gave her a baleful look for the “lad” bit though; she couldn’t be more than forty years older than he was.

            She chuckled.  “All my customers are ‘lads’ here, even the greybeards,” she told him.  “If I like them, it’s ‘laddie.’”  She paused.  “If I don’t like them, it’s ‘miserable swine,’ and I help them through the door with a swift kick to the rear.”

            It surprised a laugh out of him, and Dwalin could feel himself calming.

            “You came for Bofur?” she asked, nodding toward the table of miners.

            “Aye, but it seems a shame to interrupt them.”  Dwalin wasn’t sure he could face his friend just now, after his new-found revelation.

            She raised an eyebrow, but did not argue, turning away to serve other customers.

            Dwalin looked around the tavern.  It seemed ordinary enough, but since he knew to look for it, he saw how every few minutes a dwarf would approach Alís, speak with her for a moment, then head over toward the stairs.  A thick-set dwarf who Dwalin assumed was her bouncer stood at the bottom of the stairs, arms crossed over his massive chest.  At a nod from Alís, he would let the dwarves pass.  The brothel would be on the second level.

            Dwalin had never been in a dwarf brothel.  He’d seen his share of Human ones, much to his chagrin.  Men had odd ideas about whoring and the places were always dark and unclean.  Back in Erebor, becoming a courtesan was a perfectly respectable trade, with apprenticeships and journeyman examinations and, before the dragon, their own guild.  Ered Luin’s leadership was built more on clans than on guilds, and Dwalin had heard that not all dwarves here shared the Ereborean view of whores.  He wondered if Alís had been a courtesan herself once.  “Best brothelkeep in Ered Luin,” Bofur had called her.

            Alís returned with another mug of ale.  As she set it before him, she said in an almost motherly tone, “I don’t need an immediate answer, lad, but before you leave Ered Luin I expect you to let me know what your intentions are toward my lad Bofur.”

            His eyes flew to meet hers.

            “He’s not got any kin here – leastways, not kin that matters,” she said, casually dismissing Balur.  “But the Broadbeam lads are the sons of my heart.  If he’s just a passing fancy to you, don’t think that any of the legends about your strength in battle are going to prevent me from giving you a hiding you won’t soon forget.”

            Dwalin stared, trying to recall the last time another dwarf had threatened him.  It had been at least seventy years.

            Alís raised her eyebrows at him as he looked her over.  She was impressively built, with thick, corded muscles.  He did not doubt that she could take on most dwarves with little trouble.

            “I…” he began, and found he did not have any further words.

            Her smile was almost indulgent.  “He’s only ever brought one other dwarf to meet me,” she said, as if this should be reassuring.

            It took him a moment to understand.  Bofur had only ever brought one other dwarf to meet his mother.

            Bofur had suggested it so casually, Dwalin had trouble believing it meant what Alís thought it meant.  He’d brought Dwalin for the midday meal, and they had talked about the miner’s strike and about Alís’s wolf, and it had all been so utterly ordinary.  No, Alís must be mistaken; Bofur was simply introducing a friend.

            “I must speak with Bofur,” he said, needing to get away from her and whatever it was she thought she knew.

            But something stopped him just before he left.  He turned back to her for moment and said, “It is not a passing fancy,” before quickly striding away.  He might not have the first clue what his intentions were toward Bofur, but he was sure of that much at least.

            Bofur made room for him at the table with a smile and some prodding at the more drink-addled miners.  No one protested Dwalin’s right to sit at Bofur’s side, and Dwalin realized that that had been true back in Erebor as well.

            Shadows still lurked in Bofur’s eyes, but he was clearly trying to enjoy himself, and seemed to be succeeding.  Dwalin had to remind himself to look away every so often so Bofur wouldn’t catch him staring, but it was hard to keep his eyes off of his friend.

            They walked to the baths next, Bofur effervescent and speaking a mile a minute as he bounced along beside Dwalin, and though the big dwarf could not have repeated later a single word that Bofur had said, he enjoyed every minute of it.

            How could I not have known?  How did I not notice?  Of course he was in love with Bofur; it was impossible not to be.

            Never had he been so grateful for the fact that Bofur let him stay silent when he wanted to be, and never pressed him to join in a conversation after Dwalin grunted at the first question or two.  It meant that Dwalin had the privacy, even in the crush of dwarves at the baths, to just look at his friend and marvel.

            He had been a fool.  This beautiful dwarf had wanted him once, and Dwalin had never even considered saying yes.  And now –

            He could probably coax Bofur’s affections back, Dwalin realized.  With enough patience, it could probably be done.  He still caught the occasional longing look out of the corner of his eye every once in a while, even once or twice after Rivendell.  If he could manage to stifle the panic that ran through him every time he thought about sex, he could have Bofur in his bed; have Bofur as his lover.

            But Bofur would never love him.

            Bofur might love the Dwalin he thought he knew, but he could never love who Dwalin really was.  If Dwalin gave him his last, worst secret, Bofur would see him for what he really was.  Bofur could never love a murderer.

            A heavy stone of grief settled in the pit of Dwalin’s stomach.

            No wonder he had been in denial about loving his friend, he thought, watching Bofur laugh with a miner with a big scar across his face.  It had put off this inevitable realization that he would never have him.

            Dwalin closed his eyes.  He could pretend, had spent years pretending, to be an upstanding dwarf.  If he kept up the charade, he could – with luck and patience – have Bofur’s affections.

            And it would be torture every day, having the thing he wanted and knowing that if Bofur knew the truth, it would all turn to ash.

            He was tempted.  He was so, so tempted.  He of all people should be able to make peace with living a lie, he thought.  But no, that wasn’t true: he had run away as a boy because letting people think he was a girl had felt like living a lie.  He’d not been able to stand it then, and he couldn’t stand it now.

            He couldn’t lie, not to Bofur.  He had to tell his friend the truth about his past, about the three dwarves he had murdered in a rage more than seventy years ago now.  It could very well mean losing the friendship; it definitely meant losing every chance of ever being intimate with Bofur.  Murderers had no kin, no clan, no home; if they weren’t put to death, they were cast out and tended to die quickly.

            Again he watched his friend’s expressive face, smiling at the joy Bofur took in his animated conversation.  Everything he did, Bofur did without reservations: when he laughed, he laughed with his whole body; when he joked, he held nothing back.  Dwalin would not be able to watch Bofur after he’d told him the truth; the other dwarf would want nothing to do with him.

            Balin and Thorin and Bofur himself had often despaired of Dwalin’s tendency, once he had made up his mind on a course of action, to plunge directly into it without waiting.  He liked to get battles over with so that he could win the war, he used to say.  But there was no winning here.

            Except that there was a chance, the slightest glimmer of a possibility, that Bofur might not hate him for his crime.  Dwalin didn’t want to allow hope into the equation, but if there hadn’t been hope, he would have found a way to keep his mouth shut and to live with the lie.  Hope was cruel in that way; it removed the choice.  If there was a chance, however small, that Bofur could accept the truth, Dwalin had to take it.

            Retaking Erebor had been a bigger gamble, he tried to tell himself, and that had turned out all right in the end. 

           …If by “all right” you meant half the Line of Durin slain.

            But he had to do this.  He had to tell Bofur everything and risk seeing horror in his friend’s eyes.  It was his only chance, slim though it might be, of a happy ending.

 


 

            “There’s something I need to tell you.”

            Something in Dwalin’s voice must have given away the gravity of the subject, for Bofur glanced up from where he was inspecting the pile of practice carvings he’d made.  They were in Bofur’s room, and Dwalin had for the past hour been trying to work up the courage to tell his friend the second great secret of his life.

            Bofur frowned at his expression, and pulled open the top drawer of the dresser.  He set the bottle of liquor on the table and looked at Dwalin.

            Dwalin’s stomach knotted.  Aye, it would be easier to say this through a fog of alcohol, but now he knew that ease came at a price.  He’d hoped he was wrong, but he could see this was going to be an issue.  He couldn’t take it on just now, though: he was still having trouble summoning the courage for what he needed to tell Bofur.

            He stretched out a massive hand and laid it on top of the bottle of whiskey, stilling Bofur’s fingers before he began to pour.  He met his friend’s eyes for a moment, but Bofur’s gaze faltered and he looked away.  Dwalin wanted to reassure him, but he stopped himself.  “I need to be sober when I tell you this,” he rasped instead, “ and I need you to be sober when you hear it.”

            Bofur nodded and put the bottle away, silent.  He sat down on his bed.  Dwalin saw that his hands were trembling just a little.  Later.  If he’ll still speak to you, you can talk about it later.

            He didn’t know how to begin.  He rose and paced; movement felt more reassuring than standing still.

            “I’ve never told anybody this,” he said abruptly after the fourth turn around the small room.  “Except Elrond.”  Bofur’s eyes widened.

            It all came tumbling out in a disjointed mess: the story of the three dwarves he had found on the road – the terrified Woman covered in filth and blood – the way the dwarves had laughed and invited Dwalin to join their sport –

            He couldn’t look at Bofur as he told him the worst of it.  How Dwalin had lost all control in his shock and anger – the shearing of their beards, the severed hair lying bright and obscene on the green grass –

            And then he’d killed them.  He didn’t tell Bofur any details, because what he told was horror enough.  He was confessing to murder, to killing fellow dwarves.  It was a crime beyond even treason; there was no need to torture Bofur with the particulars.

            And he didn’t tell Bofur the worst detail of all: how after it was over and done with, the traumatized Woman had offered herself to her rescuer.  It had brought him back to himself, to the horror of what he had done, and she clearly expected him to do the same as his fellow dwarves.

            It was the only time he had ever voluntarily revealed himself.  When she hadn’t comprehended the corset, he pulled down his trousers roughly – she flinched but didn’t move away – and showed her that he didn’t have a cock, that he couldn’t continue her torture if he'd wanted to.

            He didn’t tell Bofur that part, because he had no more words at this point.

            He had stopped pacing.  Now he stood, clutching the back of the empty chair next to the table with white-knuckled hands, and waited for the axe to fall.

            He didn’t dare look at Bofur.  He had lived with this guilt for so long that he had grown around and through it, incorporating it into himself.  He could go whole days without remembering that he had snuffed out lives in the grip of a murderous rage.

            This is why, he wanted to say.  This is why we never had a chance, even if I had the right sort of body.  You could never love me when you found out the truth.

            In Rivendell, he had practically demanded that Bofur forgive him, that Bofur trust him again.  He’d left his friend with no choice but to acquiesce.  Now Bofur had a choice.

            “What happened to the Woman?”  Bofur’s voice, though soft, was loud in the silent room.

            Dwalin blinked.  It was not a question he had expected.

            “I gave her my spare tunic until we reached a town and I could buy her some clothes.”  She had not been all that much taller than Dwalin – he was tall for a dwarf – but the tunic only barely covered the top of her thighs.  It had felt, somehow, even more obscene than her nakedness.

            She spoke very little as they traveled, and when he asked about kin she just shook her head.  Dwalin wasn’t sure if this meant she had none or that she didn’t want them to see her like this.  In the town, he found a doctor, but she wouldn’t go.  He gave her the money anyways and was not surprised when she did not return to the inn that evening.  It had been a relief, really; feeling impotent and useless had worn on his temper, though he’d managed not to let her see.

            “And the dwarves you killed?”  Dwalin couldn’t glean what Bofur was thinking from his voice; it held almost no emotion.  “What happened to them?”

            Part of him had raged that burial – even burning – was too good for the likes of them, but his guilt had finally smote him.  He had nothing to dig with but his bare hands.  He dug a shallow grave, put the mutilated corpses in it, and then with rope and brute strength set about rolling a nearby boulder over them.  Part of him hoped the stone would pin their spirits there so they not haunt him.  It hadn’t worked; he carried them with him always.

            “I buried them and said the death prayers over them,” he told Bofur.  Every dwarf had a duty to his fellow dwarf to say the last prayers to return their souls to Mahal, but for Dwalin saying the prayers had been almost vindictive.  Mahal would hold them accountable for the horror they had wrought.

            Just as one day he would hold Dwalin accountable for their murder.

            He still couldn’t tell what Bofur was thinking, but at least there was no hatred in his face, not yet.

            There was a long silence, during which Dwalin had time to thoroughly regret the impulse that had led him to this moment.  Surely living a lie with Bofur was preferable to Bofur hating him?

            “You told Elrond,” Bofur said slowly.  “Why?”

            Dwalin wasn’t sure why it mattered.  Nevertheless, he said, “Elrond asked when the last time was that I’d lost control like that.”

            “Seventy years,” Bofur said, his voice distant.  “Most people lose their temper more often than that.”

            It was a strange thing to say.  Dwalin frowned.  “I lose my temper on a regular basis,” he said.  “I’ve only lost control a few times.”

            “Should I could myself as lucky that I didn’t end up dead too?” Bofur asked, his voice as flat as his expression.

            Dwalin’s stomach threatened to turn on him.  It had begun.  Any minute now, he’d see fear – or worse, loathing – in Bofur’s eyes.  It took all he had to keep his supper down.  “Yes,” he whispered.

            Bofur gave him a long, assessing stare.  Dwalin resisted the soldier’s urge to settle into parade rest and stare forward with unfocussed eyes.  He made himself look at his friend.

            Bofur’s face settled into hard, unforgiving lines, and the little part of Dwalin that never let him forget what he’d done, that screamed at him always that he was a murderer, a liar, a deviant : that part of him welcomed the condemnation.  At last, it seemed to say.  At last you will pay for your crimes.

            Dwalin let his eyes fall closed, a fatalistic relief washing through him.  Bofur was a good man; he’d know what to do.  There would be a trial.  They wouldn’t dare execute the King’s cousin, but at least no one would call him a hero ever again.  Maybe they’d lock him up, and Dis would smuggle a dagger in so he could take his own life and remove the stain of dishonor upon his clan.  But blood would never wash it out; he would always and forever be a murderer.

            “That’s crap,” Bofur said, his voice harsh in the taut silence.  Dwalin’s eyes flew open.  Bofur’s body was rigid with anger.

            It was, perhaps, not the time to feel happy that Bofur finally trusted him enough to show his anger openly.  Dwalin shook the thought away.

            “That’s complete horsedung,” Bofur snarled, stalking toward him.  Dwalin had to fight the instinct to retreat in the face of Bofur’s fury.  His friend stopped only inches from his face and glared up at him.  “If you mean to tell me that you turn into a ravening murderer every time you lose control, why am I not dead?”

            Dwalin jerked his head up to stare at Bofur.  It was not the response he’d expected; it was nowhere on his list of possible reactions, not even in the brief moments he’d let himself hope that Bofur wouldn’t hate him after he revealed the truth.  Not once had he expected Bofur to argue with him, not about the facts.

            Perhaps he should have.  Of course Bofur wouldn’t want to accept that his best friend had done such evil.  Bofur hadn’t hated him even after the assault; now he would be searching for a way, again, to reconcile the dwarf he admired, the hero – Dwalin cringed at the word – with the monster Dwalin was at bottom.

            “What do I have to say to make you see?” Dwalin burst out.  “Should I tell you how they screamed?  How they begged for mercy?  How I cracked their bones with my bare hands and felt nothing but satisfaction?  I killed dwarves, Bofur.  I killed dwarves, and I would have killed you if Elrond hadn’t been there.”

            Bofur didn’t back down; in fact, he looked even more furious.  “That’s a lie,” he hissed.  “You could have snapped my neck in three seconds, and Elrond could not have done a thing.  You think I don’t remember?  You think I don’t still have nightmares about it?”

            Dwalin gulped down the wave of shame he felt at Bofur’s words.  Abruptly he was back there in Elrond’s study, seeing himself terrorize the man he loved.

            “Stop it!” Bofur shouted, and Dwalin felt the world shift a little as he was just as abruptly dragged back to the present moment.  “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and listen to me!”

            Dwalin looked at him helplessly.  Feeling sorry for himself?

            “Listen to me,” Bofur said, no longer shouting, though his voice was just as intense.  “Listen.  You did not lose control and almost kill me.  You lost control and you chose not to kill me.”

            Clearly Bofur thought the distinction was important, but Dwalin didn’t.  He began to speak, but Bofur cut him off.

            “When else have you lost control?  Did you kill then?”

            It took him a moment to realize that Bofur expected an answer.  “…Dis,” he said.  “I almost killed Dis the other day.”

            He thought he heard Bofur mutter something under his breath about Mahal-cursed fucking Longbeards, but decided he must be mistaken.  Bofur almost never swore.

            “When else?”

            Three times.  He’d lost control three times in his life, and the first time had scared him so badly he’d made it his life’s purpose never to lose control again.  He stayed away from the people he loved, he went out adventuring because nobody would ever get hurt if he weren’t there to hurt them, and because killing Orcs calmed the violence in his heart.

            He was fearless in battle because what was there to fear?  He had nothing to lose.  A lifetime of hiding two secrets: one that would get him ostracized, and one that would get him executed.  Dwarves did not kill other dwarves.  If you killed, you were not a dwarf; you were an animal and needed to be put down.

            “When.  Else?”  He had never heart such steel in Bofur’s voice before.

            He forced himself to reply.  “Just those three times,” he said, and then wished he hadn’t used the word “just.”

            “Three times,” Bofur repeated.  “And you killed people only one of those times.”

            What was Bofur driving at?  “What does it matter how many times?” Dwalin demanded.  “You’re the one who isn’t listening!  I killed people.

            Bofur’s nostrils flared; he was frustrated, but Dwalin wasn’t sure by what.  Dwalin watched him take a deep breath to calm down.  “I can’t believe this,” Bofur said, and he hadn’t calmed down at all because there was frank fury in his eyes when he looked back at Dwalin.  “I cannot believe that you’re asking me for reassurance about this.”

            “I’m not – ” Dwalin protested.

            Bofur cut him off, eyes flashing.  “How else was this conversation supposed to go?” he demanded.  “I have two choices.  I can tell you I hate you and go to the city watch and see you imprisoned.  Or – this is what you want, isn’t it? – you want me to tell you that it doesn’t matter.  That I don’t care what you did, even though you almost did it to me, too!”  He paced the small room, his fists clenched, before whirling to face Dwalin.  “Well, I won’t!” he shouted.  “It does matter, and I’m never going to tell you that it doesn’t.”

            Dwalin stood frozen.  It was true, what Bofur accused him of.  He’d wanted – hoped for – Bofur’s forgiveness; wanted to be absolved of his guilt.  If Bofur made the decision that Dwalin shouldn’t face trial, maybe Dwalin could stop being haunted by the faces of the dwarves he’d killed.

            But that wasn’t something that he could ask of Bofur, and it wouldn’t work anyway.  Even if Bofur told him it didn’t matter, it did.  Bofur couldn’t erase his guilt.

            He could see the other dwarf was reaching the end of his anger, for he stopped pacing.  When he spoke, his voice was quieter.  “You’re supposed to be my friend.  After what you did to me, Dwalin, how can you ask me to forgive you for something even bigger?  What kind of a friend would ask that of me?”

            All the fight seemed to go out of Bofur then, and he sat down on the floor against the wall and put his head in his hands.

            Dwalin tried to remember how to breathe through the broken glass in his chest.  He could feel himself going numb.

            He wasn’t sure how long they stayed there, silent, as the candle slowly burned down.

            Finally, Bofur said, without looking up, “A trial would have sentenced them to death.”

            “To bearding, maybe,” Dwalin said.  Rape was so foreign to dwarves that there were not even laws against it.

            Bofur laughed, a bitter, unpleasant sound.  “You haven’t lived with dwarves much.  The three of them would have been turned over to the Humans for justice, and no one would protest the outcome.”

            Dwalin wondered if he were right.  He probably was; Bofur understood how people worked better than Dwalin did.

            The silence settled like a blanket around them again.

            Dwalin found himself watching his friend.  No doubt it was the last time he’d be afforded the opportunity.  He knew he should probably regret telling Bofur the truth; knew he would regret telling Bofur the truth.  But – “I just… I just couldn’t keep lying to you,” he said.  “I need you to know what sort of man I am.”

            “I know what sort of man you are,” Bofur said.  He didn’t look up.

            He knew it wasn’t what Bofur meant, but it was like a knife to the stomach.  It pierced the bubble of denial he’d built up around his most deeply buried fear.  Years of hiding, stripped away with a single sentence.  Dwalin could taste bile in his mouth, and his eyes stung with shameful, womanly tears.

           “That’s the problem, isn’t it?” he whispered, finally recognizing what he’d been running from for all these years.  Something was breaking, deep in his chest.  “I’m not.  I’m not a man, and because of that I – I – ”  He would not weep.  He would not weep.

           The old familiar crumbling feeling of failure swept through him, horror fast on its heels.  He had killed them because he wasn’t a man, no matter how hard he tried to be.

            He wasn’t sure how Bofur reached him so fast, but suddenly the other dwarf was right there, and had laid a hand, gentle but firm, over Dwalin’s mouth.  Dwalin looked at him helplessly, feeling himself tremble all over.  Three dwarves had died because of his perversion –

            “Don’t.”  Bofur’s voice was sharp.  The next words came out more gently.  “Don’t do that to yourself, Dwalin.  You are a man.  You didn’t kill them because of what you are.  You killed them because they did an awful thing and they made you ashamed to be a dwarf.”

            Dwalin could feel his mind grasping his at the words, trying to believe them, take comfort in them, but he couldn’t hold on to the strands.

            Bofur turned Dwalin’s head so that he had no choice but to meet his friend’s eyes.  His voice was low and intent.  “The body you have under your clothes has nothing to do with why you killed them.”

            Dwalin tried to speak, but realized that if he did, the sob building in his chest would escape.  He wanted to believe Bofur, but it wasn’t true.  Bofur himself took every move against the miners personally, because he had once been a miner.  Dwalin couldn’t help but feel some kinship with that Woman, and it had been that kinship that tripped his rage into loss of control.

            Bofur’s brown eyes bored into him; Dwalin couldn’t look away.  “I know what sort of a man you are.  You’re a man with darkness on his soul,” Bofur said.  “Same as the rest of us.”  Dwalin must have made some sort of noise of protest, for he said, “What, you think you’re the only one?  Dwalin, we’ve all done things in this life we’re ashamed of.”

            “Ashamed of!” Dwalin managed to choke out.  Shame was so mild it didn’t come into the equation.  “What I did was… was evil.”

            Bofur grasped his shoulders, and Dwalin found that the pain of the fingers digging into his flesh made it easier to breath, easier to concentrate on his words.  He had never seen Bofur look so serious in his life.  “It doesn’t mean you’re evil.  It means you’re a man who’s done an evil thing, and you have to live with the consequences.  A person isn’t just the worst thing they’ve ever done, Dwalin.  Or the best thing, either.”  A wistful expression flitted over Bofur’s intent features.  “You’ve got murder on your soul, but you’ve also got retaking Erebor.  You’ve saved dozens of lives, maybe hundreds.  You don’t get to forget the one and only see the other.”

            Some of Bofur’s usual kindness leaked back into his eyes, and Dwalin wished it wouldn’t.  As long as Bofur was being brutally honest, he could perhaps bring himself to believe his friend. “We’ve all got darkness on our souls, Dwalin,” Bofur said gently.  “You’re no more inherently good or evil than I am.  You choose to do good or evil things, that’s all.”

            “You’ve never killed anyone.”  Dwalin heard bitterness in his own voice and was distantly surprised.

            “No?”  The expression on Bofur’s face now was not a nice one.  After a moment, Dwalin identified it.  It was self-loathing.  “I’ve sent men to their deaths, though.  I’ve sent them into rotten mines because we wouldn’t have the resolve to strike until a few more deaths piled up.  I’ve sent them down unstable mineshafts because there was famine and the town would starve if we couldn’t get that bloody ore out of the ground and sell it.”  Bofur let go of him and stepped back.  “You want to know the reason we draw lots for who goes down the hole first?  It’s because I realized I was always sending the men I disliked down first – as if they didn’t have families and loved ones same as me.”

            Dwalin looked at him in shock.  The thought that Bofur – cheerful, happy Bofur who worked so hard to make sure the western mines were a safe and happy place for his men – had ever had to make such decisions…  It didn’t seem possible.

            How could anyone stay sane – let alone happy – when the world forced them to such things?

            Bofur gave him a look that was at the same time almost derisive and yet apologetic.  “I know you think I’m naïve, that I look at the world like a child.  And maybe I do.  Maybe I’m too hopeful in a world that doesn’t warrant it.  But that’s the only way I’ve figured out how to be.  If I dwelled on my own darkness, made it a part of me – I’d never get out of bed.  The world is cruel, awful place, and we’re the only people who can make it better.”

            He looked so impossibly vulnerable and at the same time so incredibly strong, that Dwalin felt torn between an instinct to protect and a sense of awe.

            The anger seemed to go out Bofur completely then and he sagged a little, sitting down on the bed.

            “I’m sorry,” he said in a small, tired voice.

            Dwalin shook himself a little.  “For what?”

            Bofur gave him half a smile.  “Telling you who to be?”

            Dwalin wanted to tell him not to apologize, but he couldn’t seem to summon any words.  His mind was picking away at the despair in his belly, because what did even Bofur’s forgiveness matter if Dwalin would never be right in the world?  You killed them because they did an awful thing and they made you ashamed to be a dwarf.  If only it were that simple.

            You killed them because they did an awful thing and they made you ashamed to be a man.  The sentence fell fully-formed into his head, still in Bofur’s voice, but Dwalin knew it was something inside himself trying to protect him, trying to protect his sanity.  He wondered if he could convince himself to believe it.

            He put his face in his hands and forced himself to breathe deeply.  He reached for calm.  Calm felt like Bofur’s smile, and he tried to wrap himself in it.

            Bofur wasn’t a miner anymore and he still took the miners’ troubles personally, Dwalin told himself.  He didn’t have to be a woman to be horrified at the violation those dwarves had visited upon the Woman he'd saved.

            Is that true? the nasty little voice of doubt demanded.  Or is it what you want to believe?

            For a timeless moment, Dwalin felt himself teetering on the brink of the decision.  As far as he could tell, on one side lay a life of constant lying and trying to be what he was not, a life of madness.  On the other side, a life of hiding in plain sight and trying to redeem his past.

            He felt Bofur’s hand come to rest against his back, almost tentative, offering comfort.  Dwalin felt the warmth soak through the fabric.  We’ve all got darkness on our souls, Bofur had said.  Did it matter what the truth was?  There was only one decision that let him move forward.  He would make it truth: He was a man.

            Dwalin breathed easier; already the rightness of it was settling back into his bones.  He had done a terrible thing, but he could let go of the fear that something beyond his control had made him a murderer.

 


 

            He felt Bofur shift next to him, and wondered how long he had been sunk in his reverie.  Bofur, who believed that what he did in the future was just as important as what he’d done in the past -

            The silence stretched between them as words crowded out everything else in Dwalin’s head, demanding to be spoken.  “Do you really…”  He whet his lips and told himself not to hope too deeply.  “Do you really believe that a man is not the worst thing he’s ever done?”

            Bofur hesitated, and Dwalin wanted to cry out as his hopes were dashed.  Bofur looked at him then, his eyes clouded with concern.  Dwalin didn’t think he’d be able to bear platitudes or lies meant to reassure him.  He sat beside Bofur, gripping his arm tightly to get his attention.  “The truth,” Dwalin rasped.  “I need the truth, not whatever it is you think I want to hear.”

            Bofur gripped his arm in return, and their gazes locked.  Bofur whet his lips nervously in unconscious imitation of Dwalin’s action only moments before, but did not look away when he said, “I want to believe it.  I want to believe it for you – I do believe it for you – and I want to believe it because if it’s true for you then it could be true for me, too.”  There was no lie in his eyes.

            Dwalin thought on this.  He did not believe Bofur was evil for what he’d done for his miners, and if it was true for Bofur…

            “You don’t hate me,” he said, because that was easier than thinking about guilt and evil.

            Bofur’s eyes softened, though there were still hard lines to his face.  “I don’t hate you,” he said.  He smiled faintly.  “You are as kin to me, Dwalin, and I could never hate my kin.”

            Not even your uncle?  But now was not the time.

            Bofur did not hate him.  Dwalin felt the air rush out of his lungs, and he was glad he was sitting down; he didn’t trust his legs to hold him.

            He had made plans for what he would do if his first secret got out – escape plans, contingency plans, a bag always packed and an extra purse of gold in reserve – but not for this one.  There had never been any danger of this secret becoming known without his telling it.  It had been seventy years and the Woman was no doubt long dead.

            He had spent so long holding the memory buried deep that now that he’d told, he felt hollow, scooped out.  It didn’t feel quite real.

            He remembered this feeling of unreality from when Bofur first found out about him: how Dwalin had watched for weeks, wary, unable to believe the other dwarf wasn’t going to tell the company, wasn’t going to tell Thorin…

            He trusted Bofur now.  If Bofur said he didn’t hate him, it must be the truth.  Still, Dwalin couldn’t fathom it.  How could Bofur just accept his crimes?

            “Because you regret it,” Bofur said, and Dwalin realized he must have said something out loud.  “You hate what you’ve done, and you do everything you can to make sure it won’t happen again.”

            “Sometimes I fail,” Dwalin said, recalling what Bofur had said about nightmares.  He wished he could erase that scene in Elrond’s study from his memory: the way Bofur had gone limp as Dwalin shook him, the way bruises had formed under Dwalin’s fingers.  More, he wished he could erase it from Bofur’s memory.  “Is…”  Dwalin swallowed.  “Is there anything I can do to make amends?”  He could hear the raw pleading in his voice.  It was years too late to attempt anything for the dwarves he’d killed – there was no way to find their families, no way to make sure they were provided for – but maybe it wasn’t too late with Bofur.  Right after the assault, Dwalin had demanded forgiveness and offered nothing, when Bofur should have been the one making demands.

            “If I were especially cruel,” Bofur said, his voice and face distant, “I would ask you to make amends by not hating yourself.”

            That was another gut-punch.  “It’s not that simple,” Dwalin protested.

            “No,” Bofur agreed, and their eyes met again.  The anger was gone completely now from Bofur’s face; he just looked sad.  “Not for me, either.”

            Dwalin hated the thought that Bofur might torture himself about the choices he’d made.  “At least,” he began, and wondered if he had the right to argue with what Bofur saw as the facts, “At least you did what you did to make things better for your miners.”

            The bitterness returned abruptly to Bofur’s face, and Dwalin cursed inwardly.  “Did I?” Bofur asked, hurling the words at him almost as an accusation.  “You don’t know, Dwalin.  You don’t have any idea the things I’ve done.”  He swallowed, then put his head in his hands.  “You’re not the only one with secrets he’s ashamed of.”

            Dwalin frowned.  Were there other things that Bofur felt guilty for?

            He didn’t know if he was doing the right thing, if this was what Bofur wanted or needed, when he enfolded the other dwarf’s hands between his own.  He held them tightly.  “You – you don’t have to tell me,” he said, uncertain of his welcome.  “But I can’t imagine anything worse than what I’ve done…”  He couldn’t think what Bofur could possibly feel so guilty about.  “I can promise that if you tell me, I won’t hate you for it either,” he offered.

            Bofur tried to laugh, but it came out as a choked-off sob.  It took him some time to be able to look Dwalin in the eyes, but when he did, Dwalin saw fear there.  A moment later, he realized that Bofur was letting him see the fear, was trusting him with this, and it hit him with the force of a rampaging mountain troll.

            Before he could convince himself it was a bad idea, he pulled Bofur against him and wrapped his arms around him, wishing there were adequate words to offer comfort.  “Don’t tell,” he rumbled, holding Bofur tightly as if to protect him from whatever was troubling him.  “It doesn’t matter.  I will never hate you.”

            To his amazement, Bofur hesitantly put his around him in return and rested his forehead on Dwalin’s shoulder.  He took deep, shuddery breaths, as if he were trying not to cry, and Dwalin couldn’t help wondering what on earth Bofur could possibly have done that upset him so.  After all, it was Bofur: he wasn’t capable, as far as Dwalin was concerned, of being unkind.

            “I promise I’ll tell you,” Bofur said, voice muffled against Dwalin’s tunic.  “Just… not yet.  I haven’t the courage yet.”

            Dwalin moved his hand comfortingly along Bofur’s back, a small part of him marveling at the fact that he got to hold Bofur at all.  It was not something he would have thought possible when he woke this morning – but then, this morning he did not know that he was in love with Bofur, either.

            He was careful to hold Bofur loosely – he never, ever wanted his friend to feel trapped by his strength again – and he let go when Bofur sniffled and drew back.  Bofur gave him a small, rather embarrassed smile.  Dwalin squeezed his shoulder in reassurance.

            When he moved to get up, though, Bofur caught his sleeve.  “Dwalin,” he began, and then stopped.

            Dwalin waited, trying not to tense.

            Bofur tugged on his sleeve and Dwalin looked up, this time meeting Bofur’s eyes.  Bofur looked serious, though he gnawed his lip nervously.

            “I promise,” he said.  “I promise I’ll tell you someday.  I – I’m not ready yet.”

            “All right,” Dwalin agreed.  Bofur still looked at him intently, and he thought perhaps he was missing something.

            “I will,” Bofur said softly, his gaze never wavering.  “I promise I’ll be ready someday.”

            Dwalin caught his breath.  Could Bofur mean – ?

            “As – as long as you need,” Dwalin said hoarsely, hardly daring to hope.

            Bofur smiled and squeezed his arm, then murmured, “Good night.”

            Dwalin wasn’t sure how he made it to his own room.  He paused at the door and looked back at Bofur, hardly able to believe that his world could change so much in one short day.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

            Blinking awake in the half-light of dawn, Dwalin muzzily tried to remember why he felt so happy this morning.

            Oh, yes.  Bofur.  Unbidden, a smile turned up the corners of Dwalin’s mouth.  He felt, unexpectedly, as giddy as a dwarfling.

            Bofur did not hate him.  Bofur would never hate him, because he knew the worst of Dwalin and hadn’t turned away.  And Bofur might –

            In the harsh light of day, Dwalin worried a little that maybe Bofur hadn’t meant what Dwalin wanted him to mean last night, when he said “I promise I’ll be ready someday.”  But not even that was enough to dampen his good mood.  Everything else that he’d recognized yesterday still stood.  Bofur had wanted him once, and was still attracted to him.  With patience and concerted effort, Dwalin could convince Bofur to want him again.

            Dwalin found he was grinning like a fool, and couldn’t bring himself to care.

            The nagging voice of fear – how strange to find that after years of fearlessness in battle, he could finally recognize it as the everpresent emotion at the back of his throat that circumscribed every decision he made – reminded him that if he took Bofur as a lover, eventually Bofur would want more than kissing and touching.

            But if Bofur could promise to work through his fear and tell Dwalin whatever it was he thought was so awful, then Dwalin could face his own fear and see whether he could enjoy sex.  He could trust Bofur to do his best to make it nice for him.  Even if he didn’t end up enjoying the act itself, he thought he would probably enjoy making Bofur happy.

            It would not be terrible.  Bofur would make sure of that, and by the few words he’d spoken on the subject the night he was so drunk, there were thing he’d enjoy other than penetration.

            One battle at a time, Dwalin told the voice of panic that clamored for his attention.  Touching first.  Penetration later.  He would face the first fear today, right now, and put it behind him.  Time enough to think the rest later.

            If he didn’t think of the body involved as being his, his mind easily fell into an orderly campaign plan to prepare himself for the day Bofur wanted to touch him.  First he would need to stop his mind from shying away from the place between his legs he’d spent so much of his life avoiding.  He would need to get used to touch there, because Bofur would be hurt if he shied away instinctively the first time they lay together.  Once Dwalin had mastered touching, he would move on to see if having something inside him was as unbearable as it sounded…

            Dwalin groaned, realizing he was planning out a military campaign against his own body.  Frustrated, he rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes.  This was all wrong.  Bofur wouldn’t want him if he were tense and unhappy through the whole thing.

            Perhaps he was going about this the wrong way.  What would he enjoy with Bofur?  Perhaps he could build from there.

            He’d liked their brief kiss at Bag End, Bofur’s lips warm and soft beneath his own, gently teaching him what to do.  He’d never really understood the appeal of kissing before, but he’d spent a lot of time since thinking about that kiss: the way his hands slid into Bofur’s hair, the way Bofur opened his mouth just a little to share his tongue.

            It had sent warm shivers all through Dwalin at the time, and the memory of it brought heat to his cheeks now.  He’d seen the King kissing his courtesan, of course; there wasn’t much privacy allowed, especially after two assassination attempts.  But with the King it looked messy and unpleasant, for all he seemed to enjoy it well enough.  There was none of the sweetness that Dwalin remembered in Bofur’s kiss.

            Yes, this was a better plan.  Start with kissing and see what would happen from there.  He’d started to imagine this the other day: Bofur kissing him deeply, then trailing his lips and mustache over the sensitive skin of Dwalin’s neck.  Dwalin ghosted his fingers over his neck and collarbones, imagining Bofur pressing gentle kisses there.  Perhaps he’d get distracted and kiss down Dwalin’s arm, laying a kiss in the palm of his hand and laving his hot tongue against the pads of his fingers.  Yes, Dwalin thought, he’d definitely like that.  And he’d enjoy returning the gesture, taking Bofur’s own hands in his.  He would kiss Bofur’s knuckles, then pull the tips of his first two fingers into his mouth.  He could imagine Bofur’s eyes fluttering closed and the way he would moan, low and deep.

            Dwalin’s own eyes flew open, surprised.  He’d had no idea that he wanted to hear Bofur moan for him.

            The panic remained, just under the surface, but it wasn’t screaming at him – not yet –

            Kissing… kissing was manageable, and hands.  He would enjoy that.

            What else?  Bofur had said he wanted to pleasure Dwalin with his mouth, but Dwalin didn’t think he could face that, not yet.  Perhaps he could work up to it.

            Kissing.  Kissing was safe; kissing was nice; imagining kissing Bofur sent a pleasant warmth through Dwalin.  He wanted to go kiss Bofur right now; patience was not his strong suit.

            Nonetheless, he would have to be patient, he reminded himself.  Bofur had said he was not ready – what was probably a good thing, as Dwalin definitely wasn’t ready.  See-sawing between anxiety and impatience was not a good strategy.

            Dwalin kicked off the blankets restlessly, and paused at the sight of his chest.  The tattoo was almost finished; three or four days’ more work would see it completed.  But that wasn’t what caught his attention.

            More sensitive than most, the ink-artist had said of his nipples, but Dwalin had seen the King licking and biting his courtesan’s paps so it must be something men found pleasurable.  He wondered if Bofur liked it.  He wondered if he’d like it.

            No time like the present to find out.  Sternly telling the fear whispering at the back of his mind to shut it, Dwalin lay back, and let his fingers drift over his chest.  He did this every morning, just to remind himself that his body was right now, but he had avoided the nipples, thinking them still overlarge.

            He ran a thumb across one, and was a little disappointed to feel nothing.  The King’s courtesan seemed to enjoy this, but aside from the nipple tightening to a peak, nothing seemed to happen.  Dwalin rubbed at both of them until they were hard; it didn’t feel unpleasant, but he didn’t feel whatever it was that made Dain’s partner gasp and writhe.

            The problem was, he reflected, that most of what he knew about sex came from camp gossip and glimpses of the King in his bedchamber.  Even his own experience almost a century ago with the whore wasn’t much use in teaching him how to pleasure Bofur.

            He was getting ahead of himself again.  Worrying about how to pleasure Bofur was for the future; he could only face one hurdle at a time.

            On a hunch, he licked at his thumb and ran it over the left nipple again.  Still nothing.

            Maybe the ink-artist was wrong and he wasn’t more sensitive there.

            Or maybe it would be different with Bofur?  Dwalin closed his eyes and tried to picture it: he and Bofur lying entwined in bed together, kissing languidly.  He would take the time to really enjoy Bofur’s kisses, and he would revel in his friend’s compact, muscular body pressed against his own.

            Would Bofur be hard?  Dwalin’s mind teetered on the edge of panic at the thought, but he pulled himself back firmly.  Yes, Bofur would be hard, but his attention would be focused on Dwalin.

            …That wasn’t working.  Panic wormed its way back in and Dwalin groaned, frustrated that he could be so upset by an imaginary erection pressed against him.

            Very well, he’d revise a bit.  Instead of being pressed flush against him, Bofur would lean back a bit and trail fingers down Dwalin’s body while at the same time pressing open-mouthed kisses to his neck and shoulders.  Dwalin imagined him running his tongue over the scar tissue of the ragged ear, and felt a shudder run through his body when he imagined Bofur taking it in his mouth.

            Oh…  He could feel that he was getting wet between his legs, and was hit with a conundrum.  He had always hated it, the handful of times it had happened before – listening to Thorin’s husky voice late at night by the fireside after a few pints had been responsible for most of those times.  It was a betrayal, his body doing something unwanted and womanly, and he’d never grown used to it as he had the menses.

            But if he were to do this with Bofur, he’d have to get used to it, wouldn’t he?  It was part of pleasure, and that was the whole point of this entire blasted exercise.  He wanted to share pleasure with Bofur.

            Mahal take it!  Bofur would be able to tell if Dwalin wasn’t enjoying it, so he had to learn to enjoy it.  But it was too much, too big.  Dwalin fisted his hands in the blankets, discouraged and frustrated.  It was good to know he could come alive to Bofur’s touch, but what did that matter if the next thing that happened was that he froze?

            No doubt Bofur would be patient with him if he panicked in bed – but Bofur shouldn’t have to be.  Dwalin should be able to control this, conquer it, overcome it…

            And Mahal, he was still thinking in terms of a military campaign, he realized, and couldn’t help chuckling a little despite the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

            He thought perhaps he could stand it – possibly even enjoy it – so long as Bofur didn’t touch him there, that place between his legs he didn’t even have a word for.

            But he couldn’t ask for that, could he?  It wouldn’t be fair.  The last thing he wanted, if and when he got Bofur in his bed, was to be a disappointment.

            Bofur was a hundred and forty years old.  He must have had many lovers in the years since he came of age, Dwalin realized with some dismay.  He was an easy dwarf to love and took pleasure in simple, sensual things like good food and a hot bath.  And no doubt to him, sex was simple and fun.

            For Dwalin, sex would never be simple.

            I’m not ready for this, he acknowledged to himself.  It would be a mess if I tried to bed him now.  It would hurt him, and I never want to hurt him.

            For a moment, he considered giving up.  But then his natural stubbornness kicked in.  He was in love with Bofur Broadbeam and he was going to find a way to make this work, even if he had to inch toward the final outcome with his heart in his mouth.

            Take it step by step, he reminded himself.  This is just the first step.  Maybe I don’t even have to think about Bofur touching me there yet.  Maybe I just need to think about what I would like.

            Kissing, of course.  He hoped Bofur liked kissing a lot, for he intended to do it every day as soon as he’d secured Bofur’s affections.

            Kissing – and holding Bofur in his arms.  And touching him.  And Bofur touching him, anywhere but there.

            He closed his eyes again, imagining Bofur sprinkling kisses over his shoulder and chest.  And his neck – Dwalin rubbed two fingers over the sensitive stretch of skin just under his beard, feeling the heat start again as he imagined Bofur gently biting at the base of his throat.  He let his hands drift down his chest, and caught a nipple between his fingertips, imagining Bofur’s mouth closing over it and sucking –

            Oh!  Dwalin’s eyes flew open, startled at the fire that laced through his belly down to his core.  He hadn’t known he could do that…

            Would it be like that with Bofur the whole time?  If so, maybe he would be too distracted to pay attention to his deep discomfort with the wetness between his legs.

            He pinched the nipple gently between his fingertips again, but the fire did not return.  He was glad; he didn’t think he’d like it if that happened every time he was touched.  But it did feel nice…  Possibly, just possibly, this would not be something he had to endure, but something that actually felt good?

            That brightened Dwalin’s spirits considerably.  Not even the distasteful wetness could dampen his pleasure at the thought that perhaps he’d be able to offer himself to Bofur without dreading being bedded by him.

            That was enough for one day.  He would count it as a victory and return to his campaign tomorrow.   Dwalin rose and began to dress, making a face at the slick feeling at the juncture of his thighs.  It almost felt like he’d begun his menses…

            He frowned then, calculating backwards.  He bled for two weeks every four months, and it was almost five moons ago that he’d last bled.  That couldn’t be right…  He scrabbled in his pack for the little notebook where he kept the dates written, but he knew he was right.  He’d last bled just as the first spring crops were being planted, and he should have started again about a week after they reached Ered Luin.

            It was fifty years too early for old age to put a stop to the indignity.  Not that he would mind if he never bled again, but he hoped it didn’t mean something was wrong.  And Mahal, he didn’t want to be bleeding while they were on the road, with no privacy to dispose of the blood-soaked cloths he used.  He was always afraid that Orcs would scent it and track him because of it.

            His mind flew immediately to his deepest fear, but there was no way he could be pregnant.  Except for a few short days after surgery in Rivendell, he could account for every moment of his time since the last flow of blood, and even if he didn’t trust the elves completely, Bofur had been there.

            He hated the menses, but this unexplained delay or absence was worse.  What if something was wrong?  Where on earth was he going to find a doctor he could trust?

            So much for a good mood…  Dwalin decided that he needed to return to the watch house to train this morning, because only physical activity was going to quiet the anxiety raging through him now.

 


 

            Bofur worked on the mallorn branch carving in the mornings, and already he was almost a third of the way done.  But this morning he was finding it hard to concentrate and he put the wood aside, not wanting to ruin it just because he couldn’t get his mind to settle.  When it was finished, this piece would be his master work, the best he’d ever make, and there was no need to hurry the process.  With such a large caravan, he would have several months before they reached Elrond’s lands, and if he was not done by then he could finish it at Erebor and send it with the next ambassador to Rivendell.  No, there was no hurry.

            He felt restless and thought of waking Dwalin for company, but Dwalin was the reason he was so distracted.

            He had years of practice squelching his attraction to his friend – it should be getting easier, not harder.  But it wasn’t.  And instead of dreams of violence and betrayal, lately his dreams of Dwalin had been altogether more sensual in nature.  He was getting as bad as a lad half his age, and the guilt was beginning to eat at him.

            Dwalin didn’t like sex, and had told him no that first Midsummer Fair, and it was wrong to fantasize when he couldn’t let it just be fantasies.  Because Bofur wanted Dwalin, viscerally, and it was getting worse.  He’d had to take himself in hand several times over the past few weeks, just to keep from embarrassing himself in public.  And he shouldn’t be thinking of his best friend like that, not when that friend would never return the passion.

            Dwalin might return the emotion.  Bofur knew several pairs of dwarves who loved each other deeply yet never shared a bed, and if only sex hadn’t mattered to Bofur either, he could see their friendship deepening into such a match.  But Dwalin couldn’t return the passion, and Bofur couldn’t turn off the wanting.  It would never work, and Bofur needed to find some way to get past it.

            He was a grown dwarf; he should be able to control his body better!  The fact that his very skin seemed to cry out for touch meant that something had to be done.  Perhaps an old lover could help him sate his lust?  Not Havlin though; that would be even more disastrous than starting something with Dwalin.

            He’d had a fair number of lovers in the years between coming of age and meeting Havlin.  He didn’t love them – Havlin was the first he’d ever loved – but some he had fond memories of.  Others, not so much: he’d found early on that he was often attracted to the men his mother called bad news.  Big, dangerous dwarves who might or might not be careful with him.  Bofur wasn’t stupid, and not even he could avoid recognizing the pattern after the fourth or fifth time he had to talk Bifur down from a murderous rage when Bofur came home with bruises.  Bofur didn’t want to end up one of those dwarves in a loveless marriage, terrorized by his partner.  So he learned to ignore the attraction; he stopped flirting with danger.  And he hadn’t regretted it: he’d gotten some very good lovers out of it.  And he’d gotten Havlin, tall enough to ping the big side of the attraction if not the dangerous.  Havlin had only become dangerous when Bofur fell in love with him, and that was another sort of danger altogether.

            When he’d first met Dwalin, Bofur was hit with that familiar old attraction and a sinking feeling in his gut.  But when he’d asked around, that sinking feeling turned to exhilaration, for everyone said that Dwalin took no lovers.  Finally, someone safe to fantasize about!  There was no chance of anything ever happening, so there was no chance of Bofur ending with bruises to mind and body.  And it had been a wonderful distraction after Havlin’s betrayal.  Bofur had been afraid that he’d never be attracted to anyone again after Havlin; the lore that dwarves only loved once still ran strong.  Just the fact that he could be attracted to Dwalin had been a good sign.  It made it that much better that Dwalin stuck close to Thorin and didn’t seem interested in getting to know the rest of the company; Bofur wasn’t even tempted to flirt.

            All that comfortable fantasy was stripped away when he discovered Dwalin’s secret.  Some days, Bofur wondered if they would even have become friends if they didn’t have that tying them together; if Dwalin hadn’t been forced to trust him.

            And now – now fantasizing about Dwalin was dangerous, because if Bofur weakened and kissed him Dwalin would probably kiss him back, and it would be good right up to the moment Bofur wanted more than Dwalin could give.  And Dwalin might try to give it, that was the problem.  It made Bofur’s skin crawl to think that Dwalin might feel obliged to do something he found distasteful just because Bofur wanted it.

            No, this was something he had to take care of before he hurt Dwalin with it.  If he couldn’t find an old lover, there were always Alis’s lads.  Bofur had never had the money to pay for such a thing before, and he had to admit to some distaste for the idea: he wanted his bedpartners to want him.  And the affection that he found to be the best part of sex would be missing as well.

            Still, perhaps a good hard fuck would get this itch out his system for a while.  He and Dwalin would be sharing close quarters on the journey home, and Bofur wouldn’t have the privacy to discreetly take care of the problem when the attraction got overwhelming.

            Bofur disliked it, this raw needy wanting.  It was getting to the point where his skin ached desperately for a lover’s touch, and he was petrified he’d do something foolish or impulsive if he let the lust rule his head.

            He was determined that he would not let this misplaced attraction hurt Dwalin or undermine their friendship.  Back in Erebor, he would need to find someone for a discreet arrangement.  Nori might be willing; Nori wasn’t particular about whom he took to bed so long as they didn’t make demands or get attached.

            And hopefully this intense longing would calm with time, and he would never trouble Dwalin because of it.

            But even if he calmed the lust somehow, there was still danger on the horizon.  He’d promised Dwalin last night that he’d tell him some of his secrets.  Dwalin had looked startled, and then he lit up like a bonfire, beaming at Bofur as if he’d given him something infinitely precious, when all he’d done was promise to tell him the dark places in his own soul.

            Bofur was dreading telling him.  It wasn’t as if Dwalin could throw stones – murder did tend to trump most crimes – but Bofur would be less in his friend’s eyes after he’d told, and that hurt.

            Dwalin didn’t give a fig about the politics in the mines, so that story wouldn’t make a difference – thought it was the one that rankled most for Bofur.  But Dwalin was friends with Bifur, and Bofur dreaded telling him the second tale, the one about how Bifur had been injured.

 


 

            Bofur frowned at the manifest, counting again.  They’d had a lot of families sign up this week, and the pace was growing, not slowing.  At this rate, their caravan would end up in the hundreds.

            Dwalin came over to their table, leaving the dwarves he was training to practice in pairs.  “What’s the matter?” he asked, pulling the manifest toward him to read it.

            “It’s too many.”

            “You think we should close signups?” Dwalin asked.

            “No…”  That didn’t seem fair; there were dwarves who were waiting to see if their houses and property would sell for a good price before committing.  Given the sudden glut in the market, they probably wouldn’t – but some of those dwarves would choose to come anyway.  “But you and I can’t manage this alone.  There’s too many things we just haven’t considered.  Like food – we’re having everyone bring their own, but what about firewood?  There won’t always be wood on the way, and we certainly can’t ask everyone to bring firewood with them.”

            Dwalin looked thoughtful.  “You’re right.  Every army I’ve ever fought with had a central cooking kitchen and mess when we were travelling.  Is that what you had in mind?”

            “Not exactly,” Bofur said.  “I think we need to hire someone.  A caravan leader – someone with experience to think of things we haven’t.”

            His friend nodded slowly.  “The mail caravan left last month.  Are there others?”

            “There’s a trade caravan slated to come through next month, but that doesn’t help us,” Bofur said.  “I’ll need to ask around.”

            In amiable silence, they both watched the paired dwarves practice ducking and blocking.  Many of the dwarves had brought their weaponry along – old stuff mostly, family heirlooms or hunting spears or repurposed tools from the mines.  These were not wealthy dwarves.  They’d be travelling through Orc-infested territory with children in tow, and all the training in the world wouldn’t make up for the lack of weapons and guards.

            “Another thing,” Bofur said.  “We’ll have to arm them.”

            Dwalin brightened.  “I’ll talk with the metalmaster today.”

            Bofur laughed; Dwalin wore a look like a dwarfling in a sweets shop.  Procuring arms for the whole caravan would put him in a good mood for weeks.

            Bofur’s attention was distracted at that moment by a very strange sight.  A dwarf was approaching their table with some trepidation.  She looked very strange.  When a smothered laugh wafted through the market, Bofur realized why.  She was a he: a dark-haired dwarf dressed up in his elderly grandmother’s bonnet and frock.

            Bofur tried to keep a straight face when the dwarf marched up to their table and announced in a high, obviously false voice that she would like to sign up for Erebor, please.  “I’m a washerwoman,” the dwarf added, and a moment later Bofur recognized him and burst into peals of laughter.

            “You’ve never washed anything in your life, Sirna Blacklock,” he chuckled.

            The miner’s face fell dramatically and he turned to go, but Bofur caught his arm, still laughing.

            “Come now, old friend.  You don’t really think I’d turn you away?”  Bofur pulled out the manifest and wrote Sirna Blacklock, washerwoman with a flourish and a big grin.

            Sirna scowled at him, a peevish look on his broad, friendly face.  “Can’t afford a wagon,” he muttered, “not after a month of striking.”

            Bofur stopped laughing, and clapped a friendly hand to Sirna’s shoulder.  “Let me take care of the wagon,” he said.  “Can you manage three months of provisions?”

            Sirna hesitated, looking troubled.  “See here, Bofur,” he said.  “Much obliged and all, but I couldn’t – not from you…”

            Bofur wasn’t sure if he should take offense.  Instead, he smiled and raised his eyebrows.  “You’d take the King’s charity but not a brother miner’s?  I’m hurt, Sirna.”  He softened the words with a laugh, but they were still true.

            He could see Dwalin open his mouth to speak, and made a shushing motion.  Dwalin might not understand why he needed to do this, but Bofur wasn’t going to let him say anything that might embarrass Sirna further.  Bofur knew how humiliating it was to accept the generosity of fellow dwarves when he was in need.  Even in those rare instances when there weren’t strings attached, taking favors when he could give nothing in return had been the very worst part of poverty as far as Bofur was concerned.  He’d eventually trained Havlin to stop offering, and Havlin had eventually convinced him that accepting gifts wasn’t always about a power exchange, but it had been an uneasy truce.

            Bofur wished he could say the King was subsidizing miners too, but they’d be swamped with requests if he did.  It wasn’t that Bofur didn’t have the funds; it was just that there was a limit to how big a caravan could be, practically speaking.  There were a lot more miners than there were washerwomen in Ered Luin.

            Sirna fidgeted, looking unhappy.  “The King is one thing – who cares about the King? – but it’s different when it’s a… when it’s a friend.”

            Bofur wasn’t sure why he needed to be able to give other dwarves the same chance at a better life that he had so undeservedly been granted, but it was suddenly very important to him that he be able to do something for this miner at least.

            “It can be a loan, then,” he said lightly, for surely honor would be satisfied if it wasn’t a blatant gift.  “You know I can afford it now.”  He gave Sirna a smile that said I’m sorry I’m rich when you’re not; I wish you could be too and tried to swallow the guilt that had dogged him ever since he first saw his share of the dragon’s gold.

            To his relief, Sirna nodded and told him rather formally that he’d draw up a contract.  Bofur knew that they wouldn’t be friends again, not really, until the dwarf had paid him back, and it felt so odd to be on this side of the equation and realize that things that had seemed so important with Havlin – taking turns buying drinks for each other even though it meant sometimes that they couldn’t go to a tavern because Bofur didn’t have the coin; pouring his heart and soul into every gift he made for Havlin because he couldn’t just go buy him something nice – from Havlin’s side, that scrupulous equality really hadn’t been important.  It made Bofur angry and sad at the same time.

            After Sirna had gone, Dwalin asked, “Washerwoman?” and Bofur had to explain.

            “What does it matter?  It’s my gold and I can do as I like with it,” he said, peevish, when Dwalin was silent for too long.

            Dwalin gave him an odd look, and Bofur silently despaired of ever not overreacting when it came to money.  “But you’re lying to them,” Dwalin said. “They’ll thank the King instead of thanking you.”

            Bofur knew he’d never be able to explain that he wouldn’t be able to bear it if they did thank him.  It would be mortifying.  And worse, they would think of him as – as – as rich, as nobby; they’d think he was the sort that wanted their thanks when really all the thanks did was emphasize that he had power over them.  Sirna would be friendly after he’d repaid the debt – but Bofur would be surprised if they were ever close again.

            Or maybe he was wrong.  Maybe it was just Bofur who had such trouble.  Maybe he was projecting all of his discomfort onto Sirna, who felt none of it himself.

            Dwalin was still silent, and Bofur wished uncharitably that his friend would just come out and say whatever it was he was thinking.  Bofur didn’t want to have this fight – Dwalin would never understand what was to grow up poor, so what was the use trying to come to some understanding about it – but he would if he had to, because the issue wasn’t going to go away.

            Instead, Dwalin said, his voice oddly hesitant: “I’ve been telling Lady Dis about the quest.”

            “Aye, I know,” Bofur said, confused.  What did this have to do with the caravan?

            “I – ” Dwalin said, and stopped.  “I’ve told her everything… except for the Battle.”

            Bofur felt a twinge of guilt.  All the signs were there: Dwalin was holding tension in his shoulders, and the worry line had reappeared between his eyebrows because his face was set in a scowl.  And Bofur hadn’t noticed, caught up in his own concerns.  “You’ll tell her the story this afternoon?” he asked.

            Dwalin nodded.  For just a moment, the look on his face was the same one that had been there just after Thorin died: a mix of exhaustion and hopelessness.  Bofur reached for his hand and squeezed it.

            Dwalin looked up at him then.  “Will you come with me?” he asked.

            There was only one answer Bofur could give, and he gave it.  “Yes, of course.”  He didn’t want to any more than Dwalin did, but it had to be done, and he would give his friend whatever aid he needed.  He’d meant to visit his uncle this afternoon and talk about what he’d provide for the journey, but this was more important.

            Dwalin nodded.  “Thank you.”  He stood, and moved off toward the dwarves he was training.  As he moved, it was as if he was redonning armor: his back went straight, his step became more confident, and he seemed to get bigger.  In the course of a few seconds, he was every inch the warrior the bards sang of.  Watching him stride over to the fighters, Bofur wondered which Dwalin would come to Dis’s this afternoon to tell her about her sons.

 


 

            After the fighters dispersed, Dwalin disappeared over by the ink-artist’s stall and Bofur began to pack up their own table.

            He saw Taelin across the thinning crowd but did not call out to her.  He hadn’t worked out how he felt about their last conversation, and fond as he was of her, he didn’t want to face her until he’d already decided what to say if she brought up the topic of marriage again.

            She was approaching their stall though, and he didn’t have the time to settle on a course of action.  He’d have to wing it and hope for the best.

            “Good morning, Bofur.”

            “Good morning,” he replied automatically.  Mahal, he had never realized how pretty she really was.  He’d known, of course, that Havlin’s little sister was a beauty.  And he wasn’t the sort who thought that having a lover meant he wasn’t allowed to look – but she was Havlin’s little sister.  It had never occurred to him to look.

            He reached for the manifest to pack it away, but Taelin put her hand on it.  He glanced up at her, surprised.

            She came to the point quickly.  “If I asked to set my name down in this,” she said, “would you forbid me?”

            Bofur stared.  If she was asking if he would forbid it, that meant either her brothers had said no or she hadn’t asked them yet.

            “Travelling alone?” he asked, and his voice came out higher-pitched than it should have.  “Taelin, what would you do once you got there?  Your clan has no kin in Erebor.  Where would you stay?”

            “Are there no inns to be had in Dale?” she asked.  “I’ve enough gold to my name to keep me until I can find lodgings, and the Archivist is an old friend.  If he won’t hire me, he’ll help me find work.”

            Ori?  They must have been apprentices together, Bofur realized.  But – “Your brothers,” he said helplessly.

            Her pretty eyes narrowed.  “Will you forbid me?” she asked again, indicating the manifest she kept trapped under her hand.

            “Taelin – ”  He couldn’t just steal her away from her brothers, without their permission or consent…

            “Don’t make me ask,” she said, jaw tight, “to come as one of your washerwomen.”

            Bofur stepped back as if struck.  He knew that some of the women he’d signed on – there were seven of them by now – had not informed their husbands of their plans.  Others had no husbands, and might be able to pass themselves off as widows in a new land, their children no longer bastards.  He hadn’t argued with them; hadn’t asked them about clan and family and lodging.

            “You’re right,” he said, and pushed the manifest toward her.  He couldn’t leave it at that, though.  Krevlin and Havlin loved their sister.  “Please tell me, Taelin, that you’ve told them of this plan at least, even if they said no.”

            Her jaw tightened even further, and she looked away.  “I will tell them before I leave,” she said.

            Her hand shook a little as she took up the quill, but her handwriting was flawless as ever.  Ori would be ecstatic to have her.

            She rose to go, and Bofur couldn’t leave it at that.  “Lass – ” he began, and she froze.

            He realized she thought he had changed his mind and the fact that he had such power over her life made him angry.  “Tell me why?” he finished helplessly, trying not to let her see the anger.

            She looked at him dubiously, and he knew she was deciding whether or not to tell him a lie.  After a long moment, she said, “Krevlin is in negotiations to marry, to secure a political alliance.”

            Bofur nodded.  Krevlin had always been slated for a political marriage.  Hopefully his clan would secure more mining rights by it, and if nothing else it would expand the clan’s stake in the Ered Luin mines, meaning they’d have more of a voice as shareholders.

            Taelin looked unhappy.  “Havlin…  As part of the negotiation for the last Council vote, to end the strike, Havlin agreed to allow one of the clan heads to court him.”

            Bofur took an involuntary step backward.  Everything in him cried out at once in protest.  He can’t!  He’s mine!

            But he wasn’t.  And it was just the sort of rash, impulsive thing that Havlin would give away to secure a vote.  Allowing a courtship was not a promise, of course, but it indicated that an offer would be sincerely considered.

            Bofur couldn’t bring himself to ask which clan head.  It would just make things worse, more real.

            His eyes focused on Taelin and he was glad to have an excuse not to dwell on the subject of Havlin’s marriage.  “Have they asked you to marry politically as well?”  Their father had built and broken marriage alliances for his three children over the years – he disapproved of Bofur mainly because it took away one of his bargaining chips – but Bofur couldn’t picture Krevlin asking Taelin to consent to an unwanted marriage.

            “They would never ask,” Taelin said.  She paused, pursing her lips.  “I would offer, though,” she explained.  “If they can marry for the good of the clan, it would be selfish of me not to do the same.”

            It was the word selfish that struck him, because he’d had it much on his mind over the past week.  None of his miners had asked him to stay, not directly, and they wouldn’t.  But the more he tried to teach them, the more he realized there was left to teach, and sometimes partial knowledge could be worse than no knowledge at all.  He had considered, for half a second, telling Dwalin to return with the new settlers and that he’d follow in the spring.  But he hated this town with its politics and its memories, and he was selfish enough to pretend that his duty to his mines back at home was an adequate excuse to leave his friends here.

            Was it selfish to want happiness when others would have to bear the cost?  It wasn’t right that Taelin would be obliged to marry, and it wasn’t right that her brothers were, either.  Havlin – no, he was not going to think about Havlin.

            “You will need a wagon,” he said abruptly, “and supplies.  I would offer that you travel under my protection, but given the circumstances I think your brothers would not appreciate the gesture.”  Havlin might interpret it as Bofur choosing his sister over him, and Bofur never wanted him to think that.  “If you can find a family to travel with, that would be best.”

            She nodded.  “Thank you,” she said quietly.

            “Don’t thank me,” he growled; he didn’t think he could bear her gratitude.

 


 

            Bofur was quiet and pensive as they walked back to the inn.  His face was blank, though, so Dwalin didn’t know if he wanted to be asked.

            True to form, the mood did not last.  Bofur emerged from his room wearing his formal dress tunic and a small smile.  He offered Dwalin one of Beorn’s honey candies.

            “You said we’d finished these right after we left the Redbeard settlement,” Dwalin accused, unwrapping it and popping it in his mouth.

            “At the rate you were eating them, there’d have been none left,” Bofur told him with a grin, unwrapping his own sweet more slowly.

            “What you’re saying is, you lied to me.”  Dwalin affected a growl.

            “What I’m saying is, I had to protect my share!” Bofur retorted, laughing.  “You ate your half by Rivendell.”

            “I never did!” Dwalin protested, but he knew it was most likely true.  He’d always had a sweet tooth.

            “If you’re going to make a fuss about it, I won’t share the rest,” Bofur told him, his smile pure sunshine.  Dwalin laughed aloud.  He was in love with an amazing dwarf, one who could lighten his heart even right before the most painful conversation he’d ever be called upon to have.

            Bofur sobered too as they neared the Longbeard residence.  They walked the last half mile in silence.

            They were shown into the sitting room.  Dwalin couldn’t help but notice the way Dis went stiff when she caught sight of Bofur.  He hadn’t thought how she might feel about Bofur’s presence; he’d just known that he needed his friend at his back for this battle, just as he had for the Battle of Five Armies.

            “My lady,” Bofur said, his bow very correct.  “At your service.”

            Dis nodded, looking as regal as if she really were Queen Under the Mountain.  “At yours,” she said crisply.  She turned toward the tea service.  “Tea?”

            Apparently Bofur merited tea that did not taste like dirty dishwater, for Dis called for a different blend.  “I mix all my own herbal blends,” she told Bofur blandly, “but the one Dwalin prefers is not to everyone’s taste.”

            Dwalin glowered at her.  He knew she was torturing him with her horrible tea!

            “No need for a whole new pot,” Bofur protested.  “I’m sure I wouldn’t mind trying it…”  But the pot had been whisked away.

            Dwalin decided he didn’t have to wait for a new one to enjoy Dis’s excellent oat biscuits.  He smiled a little to himself when Bofur absently pushed his own biscuit in Dwalin’s direction.  There were benefits to Bofur’s lack of a sweet tooth, it turned out.

            “Since you’re here,” Dis said to Bofur, “I have an unpleasant duty to discharge.”

            “Yes, my lady?”

            “The Council has asked me to relay a request to you.”  Dis’s mouth flattened into a grim frown.

            “To me?”  Bofur looked surprised.

            “Well, to both of you, but you are the intended audience,” Dis said.  She looked reluctant, and when a new kettle of hot water was brought in, she busied herself preparing the tea.

            “What request does the Council have for us?” Dwalin demanded, impatient.

            She raised an eyebrow at him and did not answer immediately, slowly pouring hot water over the tightly-packed mithril tea strainer.  She enjoyed making him seethe, curse her.

            “They ask – we ask – that you turn away any miners who are interested in joining your caravan to Erebor.”

            Next to him, Bofur tensed.

            “Don’t be absurd,” Dwalin said to Dis.  “Why on earth…”

            “We cannot afford to lose any portion of the labor force in the mines,” Dis said, her face expressionless.  “We are already struggling to fulfill the contract with Isengard.”  Especially after the strike, she did not say.

            “If you can’t afford to lose them, you should stop letting them get killed!” Bofur snapped, on his feet, furious.  Then he paled, realizing who he had just spoken to.  He looked away, his hands clutching nervously at the fabric of his tunic as he sat again, awkward.  Under the table, Dwalin nudged a boot against one of Bofur’s, wishing he could offer more explicit reassurance.

            Dis did not react to Bofur’s outburst, inspecting the steeping tea and serving them both more biscuits with delicate silver tongs.  The silence stretched as Bofur calmed himself.

            Why was she doing this, Dwalin wondered.  Why today?  There was no way Bofur would react well to this news.  What strategic advantage did she gain by infuriating him just before they were to tell her of her sons’ death?

            Maybe Dis was trying to drive Bofur away, or upset him as she would be upset.  Dwalin should not have brought him.

            Bofur finally broke the silence.  He was calm again, his face as bland and friendly as always.  His eyes were all wrong, but the mask would fool most people.  “Tell me, Lady Dis,” he said politely, “is this truly a request from the Council as you say, or is it an order?”

            Dis gave him a small, satisfied smile, and Dwalin understood.  If she hadn’t provoked Bofur’s anger, he would not have asked that question.  “The Council has no authority to order you to do anything, of course,” she said.  “It is merely a request.  Call it a gentleman’s understanding.”

            Dwalin winced, but by the look on his face, Bofur too had realized that the barb was designed to manipulate.  “You forget, my lady, that I am no gentleman,” he said quietly.

            Dis nodded serenely and poured tea for them.

            When Bofur accepted his cup, he said, “You may tell the Council that I will keep their request in mind as we sign on dwarves for our journey.”  He flashed her a smile, all teeth.

            “I’m glad we understand each other,” Dis said, and sipped her tea.  Smugness radiated from her for a long moment.

            Dwalin took a sip of his.  He did not much like tea, but this was infinitely preferable to the blend Dis had inflicted upon him in past.

            He wondered a bit at her motives.  The Longbeards were shareholders in the mines, and stood to lose a lot if the contract with Isengard fell through.  While the loss would barely touch Lady Dis – a fourteenth share of the Lonely Mountain treasure would buy all of Ered Luin and the Blue Mountains and beyond – she was supposed to look out for her clan’s interests.  What deeper game was she playing?  Or was she simply sick of watching miners die because of the shareholders’ neglect?

            Bofur and Dis made polite smalltalk over the tea, but all three of them were bracing for what came next.

            Finally Dis put down her cup and said, “Tell me of the Battle.”  She folded her hands in her lap, composed her face, and waited.

            There was not, in the end, very much to tell.  Dis was not interested in the general story of the Battle; she had heard that before.  She wanted to hear of her brother and sons.  She wanted to hear of their deeds and of their last moments, but she also didn’t want the story to end, and Dwalin felt himself desperately trying to extract more details from the fog of adrenaline-soaked memory.

            Bofur helped, for he had a knack for remembering the bards’ songs, and could fill in details that neither of them remembered directly.  But they could not put off the ending: there was a battle, and the king and princes died.  All the valor and glory and detail in the world would not change that fact.

            Dwalin choked up when he spoke of finding the princes, and thought it kinder not to describe it, but Dis insisted.  Her face did not change, but tears stood bright in her eyes as he talked.

            He found he couldn’t talk about Thorin’s last hours; the lump in his throat wouldn’t let him.  There was a burning pain all through his chest, and he barely felt Bofur’s hand on his back.  But he was grateful when Bofur picked up the tale, telling of Thorin speaking with the Halfling, and of his words to his kin and to Dain.  Then he told of the funeral and the burial, while Dwalin and Dis both wept silently.

            When Bofur stopped speaking, Dwalin saw Dis’s shoulders shaking.  It lasted only the briefest of moments before she stilled herself, and he wished she didn’t feel the need.  He wished there were something, anything, he could offer her.

            They were silent for long minutes, and even Bofur didn’t fidget.

            When Dis finally spoke, it was in a whisper.  “You promised me you would look out for them."

            “I’m sorry, my lady,” he said.  What more was there to say?  He had failed her.  He had failed them.

            “They should each have had a proven warrior at their back,” she accused, not bothering to wipe away the rivers of tears on her cheeks.  “How could you leave them unprotected?”

            “I’m sorry,” he said again, helpless.  Did she think he didn’t wonder the same?  There wasn’t a day that went by when he didn’t wonder if he could have saved any of the three of them.

            “They did, though.  They did have proven warriors at their backs.”

            Both of them started a little at the sound of Bofur’s voice.

            Dis shook her head.  “All of you in the company, you paired off, a warrior with a less experienced fighter.  Except my boys.  You left them on their own.”

            Dwalin swallowed.  He hadn’t wanted Bofur to know that, to know that Thorin had assigned the warriors to look after the others.

            But Bofur shook his head.  “They proved themselves time and time again over the course of our journey.  When they asked to be allowed to protect each other, your brother could not refuse.”

            “He’s right.”  Dwalin looked at Dis’s griefstricken face and wondered if maybe it would be kinder to leave her someone to blame.  “I was to look after Kili, and Balin was to pair with Ori, and Gloin had Fili – but Dori wouldn’t hear of anyone but himself protecting his brother, and Kili and Fili asked that we do them the honor of treating them like the warriors they were.”  It had seemed like such a little thing at the time, their asking.  It was an acknowledgement that they were adults now and had earned the right to make their own choices, and Thorin had honored that choice.

            Dis looked like she was about to shatter into a thousand little pieces.  “And my brother?” she asked desperately.  “Who was there to protect him?”

            Dwalin closed his eyes.  This was the worst part, the part he should have fought harder.  “A king must stand alone,” he whispered.  Thorin had insisted, the stubborn bastard.  He would lead and fight side-by-side with Dain, but he refused to have anyone watch his back.

            “You should have been there!” she cried.  “Whether he wanted you or no, you should have been there!”

            It was true.  No matter what Thorin said, Dwalin should have stuck close and protected his king.  He should not have trusted Dain, no matter how renowned a warrior, to care as much about Thorin as Dwalin himself did.  No doubt Dis was thinking exactly the same thing about Dwalin just now, with regards to her sons.  She blamed him because she blamed herself – for letting them go, for not going with them.  “I should have been there,” Dwalin agreed.

            “And disobey a direct order from your king?”  Bofur’s voice was soft, but there was steel at the back of it.  He turned toward Dis.  “My lady, if there is blame to be assigned, I bear an equal share.  Dwalin was unable to protect your kin because he was assigned to protect me.”

            No!  “It wasn’t like that,” Dwalin protested.

            Bofur looked at him quizzically.  He didn’t look upset; his eyes were calm.  “It was, though,” he said.

            “You can’t blame yourself – ”

            “But you can?”  Bofur was still calm, absolutely sure of himself.  “I don’t blame myself, Dwalin – but by your logic I should.  So I suppose I should ask – do you blame me?”

            Dwalin stared at his friend, frozen.  Of course not, he wanted to say.  But he couldn’t make his tongue work.

            Bofur looked back at Dis, his brown eyes still unnaturally calm.  “You can spend your life on what-ifs, my lady,” he said gently, “but they’ll still be dead.”

            The finality of the words struck Dwalin like a blow.  All his guilt – all his grief – what did it come to?  Thorin and the princes were dead.  Nothing would change that.

            He thought of Thorin: his rare smile, his mithril-strong will, the stubborn hope that had taken him across a continent twice and into countless battles.  He thought of the princes: of Kili’s mischievous humor, of the way he went absolutely still and centered inside when he drew his bow, even in the middle of raging battle; of Fili’s gentleness and his fierce pride, and the way he inhabited his skin with a surety that Dwalin had sometimes envied even after Fili, quite young at the time, had bashfully confessed that he’d learned it from emulating Dwalin himself.

            His cheeks were wet with tears again.  If he gave up his guilt, he would be giving up them.  He wasn’t ready to do that, not quite yet.  For the first time, though, he understood that it was possible: that one day, perhaps soon, he would truly bury them and let them go.  He would always grieve for them, but it didn’t always have to be a stone weighting down his heart.

            But he wasn’t ready yet.  And by the stark anger on her face, neither was Dis.

            He expected her to lash out at Bofur and was preparing to intercede, but it was him she attacked instead.  Her eyes were full of hate and tears when she said, “I thought you of all people I could trust to love them as I did.”

            “I did love them,” he said, because how could she accuse him of a lack of love?  He could count the number of people he’d truly loved on one hand, and the three Durins made up more than half.

            “Thorin wouldn’t let me come,” she said.  “It was my duty – always my duty, never his – to look after our clan.  He said he’d die before he let harm come to my sons, and it was a lie.  He always loved Erebor best, the miserable bastard.”  She choked on a sob.  “But you – you promised, and I thought at least you would be – I thought you could give them a mother’s love…”

            He was confused.  The princes had a mother.  He was an uncle at best; a mentor, sometimes even a surrogate father after their own died, but he would never dream of trying to take Dis’s place in their lives.

            The worried frown on Bofur’s face told him he had missed something.

            “I let you share their upbringing…  I thought I could at least trust another woman to understand.”

            It still took him a moment to comprehend.  It was the tension radiating from Bofur that clued Dwalin in that she was talking about him.

            Bofur met Dwalin’s eyes.  “She knows?!” he mouthed, looking stricken.

            Dis looked impatient.  “Yes, I know,” she snapped.

            It was odd to watch Bofur panic on his behalf.  His eyes darted between Dis and Dwalin, clearly wanting to ask, but when he opened his mouth nothing came out.

            Dwalin put a hand on his arm.  “It’s all right,” he said.

            Anger sparkled in Bofur’s eyes.  “It’s not all right!” he spat.  “What – how – ”  He stopped.  “Is this why you keep coming back?” he demanded.  “Is she blackmailing you?!”

            “Yes,” said Dis, just as Dwalin said, “It’s not like that,” and he stared because it was true, it was like that, and how had he managed to forget it?

            Bofur looked sick.  He rose, rounding on Dis.  “How dare you?” he demanded, and even Dis was surprised by the anger in his voice.  “He’s your kin!”

            “She let my sons die!” Dis cried, standing as well.  “And you – you’ve no right to talk about duty to kin!”

            Bofur sneered.  “If you think to make me feel guilty on that score,” he snarled, “you’ll need to find another dwarf.  You – how could you?  Dwalin gave everything for your grandfather, for your father, and he gave everything for your brother and sons.  He saved their lives a dozen times on the journey.”

            “She’s alive and they are dead,” Dis said, “and I will never forgive her for it.”  She was trembling.

            “Fine,” Bofur snapped, having worked up a righteous fury.  “We’ll leave you alone with your hatred.”  He turned to Dwalin.  “Come,” he said, still glaring at Dis, “we’re leaving.”

            Dwalin shook himself a little.  He couldn’t quite believe that Bofur was so upset on his behalf – or so willing to shout at a grief-stricken woman.  The Bofur he knew was invariably kind to everyone he met.

            Dis had collected herself, and all her grief seemed to disappear in cold anger.  “Do you think you can just walk away from me knowing?” she demanded of Bofur, her voice an icy hiss.  “Dwalin took everything from me; I can take everything from her.”

            Fear speared through Dwalin.  This was why he’d tried so hard never to provoke her – she had the Durins’ legendary temper, and she might well destroy him if he wasn’t careful.

            Bofur glared her down.  “You won’t,” he said.  “As soon as you’re calm you’ll know it isn’t in your own interests.”  He tugged on Dwalin’s arm.  “Come on, Dwalin.  You don’t have to stand for this.”

            Dwalin stared at him, feeling numb.  How could Bofur ask him to leave, when with only a word Dis could destroy his whole life?  Didn’t Bofur understand?  He had no choice but to stay.  He could submit to Dis’s demands or he could kill her, and he still bore her brother enough love that he would let her destroy him first.

            Dis shot Bofur a haughty look.  “She won’t go.  She has questions only I know the answers to.”  She had calmed; the tears had stopped and she was in control of herself again.  Any decision she made now would be calculated, not a product of a rush of anger.  In some ways that made her less dangerous, but in some ways it made her more so.

            Bofur turned to Dwalin.  “Questions?  What questions are worth this?”  He gestured to Dis, the tea set, all of Ered Luin.

            A mass of conflicting emotions was roiling in Dwalin’s throat, and he was afraid that if he tried to speak they’d swirl out of control.

            He glanced between his cousin and his friend, both of whom seemed to be waiting for him to choose… something.  Dis could expose him.  But he owed Bofur everything.

            Would Bofur understand?  Dwalin whet his lips.

            “She can tell me…" he began.  "Thorin.  I have to know.  I have to know if he knew about – about me.”

            Maybe if he could take Bofur aside, calm him down, his friend would understand.

            Bofur’s eyes widened in comprehension, and for a moment Dwalin breathed easier.  But then – “Why?” demanded Bofur.  “Why do you have to know?”

            “I have to know if he knew the truth!”

           “What truth?  That you’re a man?”  Bofur shook his head.  “Why does it really matter?”

           Dwalin swallowed.  He didn’t want to do this, not now that he knew he loved Bofur.  But he had to know.  “I have to know if we could have…”  He sent Bofur a pleading look.

           A look of deep grief passed over Bofur’s face.  “Thorin was in love with Erebor,” he said.  “You would always have been second fiddle.”

           Dwalin flinched, feeling his last nerves scraped raw.  Bofur wasn’t supposed to tell him this.  Bofur was too kind to tell him.

           There were angry tears in Bofur’s brown eyes as he insisted, “It was on him to tell you, if he knew.  Either he didn’t know or he didn’t want you that way.”

           Dwalin wanted to run.  He wanted to run, because it was the truth, and it hurt, and if he didn’t run he’d get angry.  More angry.  He clenched his teeth, trying to hold the wave of emotion at bay.  It was mounting, an unbearable pressure at his temples.

           “What’s the real reason you need to know?” Bofur demanded, his voice unnaturally high.  “Were - were you in love with him?”

           Dwalin had to look away from Bofur’s knowing eyes.  He tried to make his throat work, and eventually managed, “I don’t know.”

           Bofur shook his head.  “You’d know.  When you’re in love with someone, you know.  You might lie to yourself, tell yourself all the reasons why it can’t work, but underneath it you know.”

            Dwalin wanted to reach out to him, wanted to steady himself with Bofur’s touch, but he was frozen.

            Bofur looked between him and Dis, finally settling on Dis.  He was calmer but still furious, and it made Dwalin afraid, because Bofur was supposed to balance him, and if they were both angry at the same time, what might happen?

            Bofur looked at Dis, and his lip curled slightly in a sneer.  “Blackmail.  For all the Longbeards’ talk of kin and honor, the line of Durin believes in neither.”

            Dis’s mouth tightened in anger at the insult, but Dwalin took it as a gut-punch.  How could Bofur say such a thing of Thorin?  Of Dain, of Balin, of him?  Duels had been fought over less.  Rage bubbled at the back of his throat, and he gripped the table tightly to keep it all inside.

            “If we’re speaking of kin,” Dis said tightly, eyes flashing, “who are you to speak of honor?  You left your uncle to die alone!”

            Bofur’s face went rigid.  “Aye, we left him to fend for himself,” he rasped.  “Fortunately for him, someone felt sorry enough for him to allow him just enough money to keep him inebriated for three years.”

            Dis flinched.

            Bofur laughed, a hollow sound.  “You thought you could help by giving him enough coin that he’d have to choose between food and drink, didn’t you?” he said.  “We could have told you how well that would work.”

            Dis looked briefly unnerved, but she rallied.  “He fought at Azanulbizar.  I could not let him starve.”

            “Funny how no one seemed to care about him starving when you kicked him out of the mines and left our family with nothing,” Bofur said.  “Am I supposed to be grateful to you?  Does your kindness to broken warriors help you sleep at night after you’ve betrayed your own kin?”

            It occurred to Dwalin, belatedly, that Bofur might be trying to defend him against Dis.  It was hard to think about, though, because the roil of emotions was taking all his concentration to contain.  He tried to think soothing thoughts before he exploded.  Axe forms, he needed to think of axe forms.  …He needed to not think of burying his axe in the middle of the tea tray.

            Dis looked at Bofur quizzically.  “I don’t suppose it would help matters,” she said slowly, her voice calmer now, “if I were to admit it wasn’t Dwalin I was blackmailing, but her brother?”  But her eyes were on Dwalin, not Bofur.

            “No, it bloody well would not!” Bofur spat.

            Dwalin, however, had caught her meaning.  “Is that all this is?” he demanded.  “A power play to gain access to the new King?”  That… was almost disappointing.  She had so much potential to be a real player on the field of battle.  He’d thought she played a larger game.

            She half-grimaced, as if sensing his thoughts.  “Not all,” she said.  “But having the King’s right-hand man means I have the King.”  She frowned.  “Should I decide I want him,” she added.

            She hadn’t even decided if she wanted to play the game, then.  She’d been manipulating him and taunting him, and she might not even take the field.

            It was very likely she didn’t even have an answer for him; why would Thorin tell her if he knew the truth about Dwalin?

            Bofur looked disgusted.  “You’re mad,” he told her.  “Only a fool would try and corner Balin.  He would never betray the King, not even to protect his brother.”  He turned to Dwalin.  “We’re going,” he ordered, his face set and fierce.

            Dwalin looked at Dis.  Then he looked down at his hands.  They still gripped the edge of the table.  They were shaking.  He clenched his jaw.  He would not let the anger out.  He would not.

            “Dwalin!”  Bofur’s voice shattered his concentration.

            “You don’t get to make that decision for me!” Dwalin roared, and Dis stepped back in surprise, but Bofur didn’t.  “She’ll take away everything, she’ll take away – ”  It took the last ounce of control he had to choke back the word you.  “They’ll kill me, Bofur, and if they don’t I’ll still never be able to live among dwarves again.”

            Dimly, he saw Dis open her mouth, but the look of pure hatred Bofur sent her seemed to startle her into silence for the moment.

            To Dwalin’s shock, Bofur did not back down.  “She won’t,” he insisted.  “She wouldn’t dare bring that dishonor on your clan.”

            “You don’t get to make that choice,” Dwalin bellowed.

            “But you can’t – ” Bofur began, and for just a moment, Dwalin’s control slipped.  White-hot rage burned across his forehead, and he grabbed a fistful of the front of Bofur’s tunic, dragging him forward.

            Anyone else would be afraid, but stupid, beautiful Bofur wasn’t.  His eyes widened slightly, but there was no fear there.

            With a curse, Dwalin dropped him, backing away, and –

            too late, too late – there it was, the fear blooming in Bofur’s eyes, and Dwalin should have left with him after all because what more could Dis do now that he’d lost everything?  He’d regained Bofur’s trust and broken it again.

            They stared at each other across the small room.  Dwalin wanted to throw up.  The rage still boiled, but now it was all directed at himself.

            Was it only this morning he’d felt liberated from self-loathing?  He should have known it couldn’t last.  Mahal had never let him have more than a scrap of pure happiness at a time.  He shouldn’t have dreamed of more.

            “Fine,” Bofur said.  “Stay then.”  He turned and strode out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

            There was a long silence after Bofur stormed out.

            Dis rested her elbows on the table and her head in her hands.  Dwalin gazed unseeing at the far wall, replaying the argument time and time again in his head, unable to banish the memory of Bofur’s wide brown eyes looking up at him in fear.  His stomach was sour with unhappiness.

            He wondered if Bofur would ever speak to him again.  Maybe it would be a kindness to his friend if Dwalin left for Erebor immediately and let Bofur follow later with the immigrants.

            Dis poured herself a cup of tea.  Dwalin almost overturned the tea service in a rage, but caught himself – his anger had already done enough damage this day.  Dis still had power over him, though if Bofur was no longer a part of his life, that power was greatly diminished.  If Bofur wanted nothing to do with him, Dwalin would leave Erebor after warning Balin of the danger to the King; any revelation Dis chose to share would not affect that plan.  He was too numb, just now, even to summon any hatred for what she’d done.

            Far below the guilt, hurt smarted deep in his chest.  How could he ask me to risk everything?  Doesn’t he understand?

            “Was that your first fight?” Dis asked.

            He looked at her blankly.  He’d been in fights since he was a child.

            “The first few are the worst,” Dis said.  She seemed to be addressing the teacup.  “After a while you learn to trust that they aren’t the end of the world.”

            But this was the end of his world, he thought miserably.

            “You may not think it now,” she went on, “but you seem to have a solid foundation.  Most wouldn’t dare challenge a dwarf like you.  But Bofur’s not afraid of you.”

            But he was.  Dis might not have seen it, but Dwalin had.

            She sipped her tea while he sat, still numb, trying to find a way out of this mess that he’d created for himself.

            “Dwalin,” she asked after a long silence, “why was Bofur so upset that I called you a woman?”  There was only curiosity in her voice, but still Dwalin hated her a little for it.  Why did he have to explain and justify something that just was?  Nobody asked the rock to explain itself, or the sky.  Nobody questioned Bofur’s right to be a man.

            “Because I’m not a woman,” he said, knowing she would never understand.  He felt exhausted just at the thought of trying to explain.

            “You’ve been to the baths and you never used to go, so someone must have taken your breasts and given you a cock,” she said.  “But you were born a woman.”

            He shook his head.  “No.”

            She eyes him thoughtfully, as if trying to puzzle him out.  “Mmm,” she said, and frowned.  “I thought – ”  She stopped.

            He was entirely uninterested in what she thought, so he didn’t ask.

            “I thought you disguised yourself because you wanted to be a warrior,” she said a few minutes later.

            On the one hand, she was right – and on the other hand, she was completely wrong.

            “It’s not a disguise,” he said.  “Even if I weren’t a warrior, I would still be a man.”

            She frowned again and chewed her lip thoughtfully, but thankfully she did not say any more on the subject for the moment.

            Trapped here until she gave him license to leave, his mind relentlessly made him play out scenarios.  Bofur would not speak to him and Dwalin would leave; Bofur would speak to him but only because they were on the King’s mission, and they’d travel with this tension between them for three months; Bofur would choose to stay in Ered Luin and marry Havlin, now that the marriage price was no barrier between them.

            Dwalin had seen the look Bofur gave Havlin the other day, and he knew that look.  It was longing.  He used to catch it on Bofur’s face sometimes when the other dwarf thought he wasn’t looking.  Remembering it directed at Havlin, Dwalin felt his stomach knot up with an awful feeling of loss.

            But Bofur should not have asked him to risk Dis’s wrath.

            “Was it Elrond who took your breasts?”  Dis’s voice roused him from his thoughts.  He looked at her, unsurprised that she’d somehow managed to work that out.

            She shrugged a little self-consciously.  “Your mail was read, of course,” she said.

            He considered being angry at that, but couldn’t summon the energy.  Nothing mattered anymore.

            “The other option is Oin, and you’d never trust someone that old-fashioned with this,” she went on.  “If you could have trusted a Human doctor, you’d have done it years ago.”

            “Yes.  It was Elrond,” he said, since she already knew.

            The silence was even longer this time.  Then she said, “Do you think he would do mine?”

            Would she never understand?  “No,” he said.  “You’re a woman, Dis.”

            She looked so lost, so young suddenly, that he felt himself relenting a little.  “They should have let you be Queen,” he said.  “They should have let you be a warrior.  It’s beyond stupidity that you had to give up power just to serve on the Council.  But you’re a woman, and you would still be a woman without your breasts.  You don’t want to be a man – you want to have what men have denied you.”

            Maybe she understood, or maybe she thought him simple and not worth arguing with, or maybe it was somewhere in between.  She had a speculative look in her eye as she studied him, and he braced himself against what she would do next.

            She put down her teacup.  “You may go,” she said.  “I will not tell your secret.”

            He was sure he had misheard.  His eyes flew to hers, but her face gave away nothing.

            “I wish you a good journey, and much joy in Erebor,” she said, clearly dismissing him from consideration.

            He blinked at her stupidly, unable to believe his reprieve.  Then he narrowed his eyes, suspicious.

            She didn’t even bother to glare at him.  “Go, Dwalin,” she said, rising and turning away.  “You have told me of my sons, and I have told you of the threats that surround Dain.”

            He hesitated.  Did he dare leave it at that?  No, there was some game here.  She would never give up that kind of advantage, not voluntarily.  “My lady – ”

            “Go,” she snapped, rounding on him.  Her eyes were nearly black with hatred, and he’d never thought he’d had her goodwill before until this moment when he understood that he’d made a true enemy.  “No one will hear your secret from my lips, you have my word on it.” 

            And since the word of a Durin was a bond, Dwalin went.

 


 

            Regret was already eating at Bofur by the time he returned to the inn, though the anger was by no means extinguished.  He kept seeing Dwalin grab him and then freeze, kept hearing, “You can’t make that choice for me!”  He was terribly afraid that Dwalin wouldn’t forgive him for that, for insisting that he leave when the leaving really could have been catastrophic.  At the same time, he was furious with his friend for not standing up to Dis when she would gain nothing – and lose much, Bofur would bet – by exposing him.  And most of all, he was furious with Dwalin for not telling him.  Dwalin had been visiting Dis for weeks, and she’d been holding this over his head.  He’d not said a single word to Bofur, who was supposed to be his best friend.

            Dwalin should have told him.

            He would be back soon, and Bofur wasn’t calm enough to face him, wasn’t calm enough to apologize without starting to shout again.  He needed to get away from here, needed to get some space.

            If he went to a tavern, he knew he’d get drunk, and that would not help things.  And for once, he didn’t think that being around people would help.

            The familiar itching under his skin whispered that a good bar fight would make him feel better, but he rejected this idea just as quickly.  He wanted to hold onto this anger.  After the anger burned out, the regret would truly set in.  He knew he had made a dreadful mistake in demanding that Dwalin put his secret in jeopardy.  Dwalin was right.  It wasn’t his decision to make.  Asking of it of Dwalin had been wrong.

            Regret was going to hurt, though.  He would cling to anger for as long as possible.

            He headed toward the city gates.  He didn’t want to deal with people, so he would take refuge outside the city.

            A few hours later, he reentered Ered Luin, much calmer.  A little anger still simmered – Dwalin should have told him – and he wasn’t ready to face his friend yet, but twilight was beginning to deepen and the gates would soon close for the night.

            He wandered the streets for a bit, not sure where he was headed.  He didn’t want the boisterous rowdiness of the baths, not at this time of night.  What he wanted was to pass a quiet evening at the inn with Dwalin, working on his sculpture.

            He wasn’t all that surprised to find himself in front of Havlin, Krevlin, and Taelin’s house.

            It was a stupid idea, though, so he left.  Five minutes later, deep in thought, he ran smack into Havlin himself.  Havlin was dressed in his formal tunic and had his sword with him; he must be returning from clan watch duty.

            “Bofur!” he said, surprised.  Then, catching sight of Bofur’s face, he asked with some concern, “What’s the matter?”

            Bofur wished suddenly that he could tell Havlin everything.  Havlin knew him well enough to be able to offer guidance.  He was good at gently pointing out Bofur’s blind spots and suggesting solutions that wouldn’t have occurred to him.  In turn, Bofur had been able to give Havlin an outsider’s perspective on navigating the labyrinth of political machinations Havlin’s father had pushed him toward at a young age.

            But of course he couldn’t share Dwalin’s secret with Havlin, and of course he couldn’t ask Havlin to stand in the role of a lover and offer support.  Perhaps if they were friends – but even then, it wouldn’t be fair: the support was too bound up in the love they’d shared to be easily separated.

            “Long day,” he said instead.

            Havlin touched his arm briefly, fleeting comfort.  “I was on my way home to change, and then I was going to find you,” he said.  Bofur’s stomach knotted.  “I think it’s time we talked.”

            Well, if there were any way for this day to get worse, this was it.  Bofur nodded; might as well get it over with.

            As they walked back to Havlin’s house in silence, Bofur stole glances at the dwarf at his side.

            It wasn’t fair, how gorgeous Havlin was; it wasn’t fair that looking at him still made Bofur’s heart lurch.  It wasn’t fair that the smell of him brought back a thousand memories.  Bofur caught himself picturing the look on Havlin’s face at the height of passion, and felt his cock stir in his trousers.  He cursed silently, and tried to think of anything else.

            Instead of entering the house itself, Havlin unlatched the gate to the rock garden, and Bofur relaxed a little.  If Taelin was home, he didn’t want to have an argument about her coming to Erebor in front of her.  He would tell Havlin that her decision was just like the miners’: if they chose to go, he would not stand in their way, no matter who objected.

            Because Ered Luin was above ground, the more well-off dwarves fashioned elaborate rock gardens to remind themselves of what home meant when dwarves lived underground.  Some were huge works of elaborate sculpture: grottos studded with crystal, mazes of ethereal stonework, sculpture in classical or more modern styles.  Havlin’s family had a modest grotto with some statuary in the Late Second Age style.  Havlin and Bofur had spend much time here in the first year of their relationship, before Havlin put his foot down and demanded that his father recognize Bofur’s place in his life and stop ignoring Bofur when he came into the house.  It had marked, for Bofur, the real beginning of their relationship, the moment when he realized that Havlin didn’t see him as merely some rich boy’s plaything, rough trade to be enjoyed and then discarded.

            He stepped into the grotto and sense-memory washed over him.  They’d shared their first time here, awkward and sweet and breathtakingly intense in that way that only new relationships could be.

            Bofur breathed deep to steady himself.  They’d had a fair share of fights here as well, he reminded himself.  Good fights, most of them: the kind where they came out feeling more secure that they could find a compromise that would work for both of them.

            They never fought about marriage, though it had been a lurking presence in many of their later fights.  Bofur didn’t dare ask for something he wanted so badly, and Havlin – Havlin had thought –

            He didn’t have time for this, Bofur told himself.  Thinking of such things only made them harder to bear.

            But Havlin’s face in the lamplight looked just like it always had: the laugh lines around his eyes as beautiful as ever; the braids in his beard a burnished auburn in the darkened grotto.  Bofur caught his breath and had to look away for a moment.

            When he looked back, though, he found himself caught by the expression on Havlin’s face.  Havlin was gazing at him with so much longing that it took his breath away.  No one had ever looked at Bofur like that before, like he was a precious gem to be hoarded and treasured.

            Suddenly he knew that Havlin had not brought him here to talk about his sister.

            Havlin stepped nearer, and Bofur couldn’t look away.  He was grateful that Havlin did not reach out to touch him, because he was sure he was trembling.

            “Bofur,” Havlin said with a gentleness that made him ache, “I have to know.  Do I have any chance at all of regaining your love?”

            Bofur could not have spoken if his life depended on it.  Which was a good thing, because he might have said, “You never lost it,” and while true, that sounded more like a promise than it was.  He couldn’t help loving Havlin, and he expected he always would.

            He was almost envious of Dwalin; the dwarf Dwalin loved was dead, so maybe someday he’d be able to move on.  It was difficult to grieve when so much had been good in what he and Havlin had.  And it was difficult to grieve when he knew that he could have Havlin back.

            “Dwalin is not your lover,” Havlin said, a question almost.

            Slowly, Bofur shook his head.  He didn’t know what Dwalin was, but he was not his lover and never would be.  After what Bofur had done at Dis’s, he didn’t even know if he was still a friend.

            Havlin sighed.  “I won’t ask why you let me think he was,” he said.  “I can’t really blame you for that.”

            Bofur wished he would, because then he could get defensive.

            “I hear you’re to be married,” he said instead, and told himself that it didn’t hurt to think of Havlin courted by another dwarf.

            At least Havlin had the grace to look guilty.  “I agreed to be courted.  But that’s just politics.  It’ll fall apart soon enough; it was all for show.”

            Mahal preserve him.  That was so like Havlin that Bofur almost laughed aloud.  Perhaps he’d learned it from his father, who gamed with his children’s futures for decades.

            Havlin took a step closer, but he still didn’t touch Bofur.  “Nothing’s been right since you left,” he whispered.  “I know it was my own fault – but Mahal, Bofur, that doesn’t make it hurt any less.”

            It was hard to look into Havlin’s eyes and see both love and pain.  Bofur squeezed his own eyes shut, because his immediate reaction was to try and take the pain away, and that instinct would not serve him well here.  He couldn’t go back to a life with Havlin of always feeling that he loved more than he was loved in return.  It wasn’t that he’d thought marriage would solve all their problems.  It was that marriage might give them the security in each other to build a solid foundation together.

            “What are you offering?” he asked, his voice harsh in his own ears.

            Havlin’s eyes filled with tears.  “The same as I offered before,” he said, looking guilty.  “It’s the only way I have to offer you children, Bofur.”

            Hurt and anger lashed through Bofur, twin whips.  How could Havlin do this to him again?  He felt angry tears start in his own eyes.

            “No!” he cried, feeling something brittle and ancient breaking in his chest.  “Don’t you dare hold that over me!”

            He grabbed hold of the front of Havlin’s tunic, not certain if he meant to push him away or drag him closer.  “You’ll offer me yourself or you’ll offer me nothing, do you hear?”

            Havlin looked at him, his eyes wide with shock.  But Bofur was tired of being the easygoing and genial dwarf, if it was just going to get him this.

            “All I ever wanted was you,” he said, letting go of Havlin’s tunic.  “You’re the one who’s obsessed with little ones!”

            “Bofur…”  Havlin sounded anguished.

            “You.  Or.  Nothing,” Bofur ground out.  The words poured out of him.  “I don’t want your sister, I’d feel sick with guilt every time I touched her, and I’d feel guilty for the guilt, because she deserves better, and…”  His voice trailed off.  Havlin’s face was wet with tears.

            “Just you,” Bofur repeated, blinking back the tears in his own eyes.

            “Just me?”  Havlin was looking at him with something akin to fear.  “How can I – you deserve everything, Bofur.  How can I offer you just myself and ever hope – ”  He cut himself off and looked away, scrubbing uselessly at his wet cheeks.

            Bofur opened his mouth but found he couldn’t speak.  Instead he just stared, because how could Havlin not think he was enough?

            “You always deserved so much more than I could offer you,” Havlin said.

            “That’s for me to decide,” Bofur growled.  You can’t make that choice for me, and no, no, he couldn’t think of Dwalin, not when it could never be.  If this was Bofur’s chance at happiness…

            Could he be happy with Havlin?  Could he ever truly forgive him for the hurt he’d created?

            If the alternative was a lifetime of longing for Dwalin until he eventually drove his friend away – and he’d made a good start with his mistake this afternoon – Bofur was going to damn well grab hold of the nearest thing to happiness he’d ever had.

            “Yourself,” Bofur repeated quietly, relieved to have made a decision even if it turned out to be the wrong one.  He approached Havlin.  “Offer me yourself.”

            There was genuine terror in Havlin’s eyes now.  Bofur couldn’t blame him.  For twelve years, he’d never given himself over to Havlin the way he was demanding now.  The person who was asked would always be more secure than the person who asked.  Even if there hadn’t been the matter of the marriage price to think of, Bofur would never, ever have asked.  He wouldn’t have dared risk it.

            Everything in him was screaming no when he came to the next decision.  He stepped in close, putting his arms around Havlin’s shoulders and tugging his head down so Bofur could kiss him.  They clutched at each other, Havlin still shuddering with suppressed sobs.  Bofur felt inexplicably like sobbing too.

            They rested their foreheads together, breathing heavily.

           Bofur would be strong and face his fear so Havlin wouldn’t have to; wasn’t that what marriage meant?

           “Come to Erebor.”  Bofur wondered why he felt so wretched when he should be happy.  “Come to Erebor and marry me.”

           Havlin sobbed and kissed him again, teeth clinking together in their desperation.  Bofur was sure that he’d recognize the feeling rising in his chest as happiness any moment now.  But then Havlin drew away.

           “Erebor – Bofur, I can’t…” he said.

           No no no no no, it wasn’t supposed to go like this!  Not if Bofur asked.  Havlin would join Bofur’s clan, and his clan was in Erebor.

           “Stay,” Havlin begged, tears coursing in rivers down his cheeks now.  “Stay, and buy a controlling stake in the mines, and we’ll be uncles to Krevlin’s babes.”  He clutched at Bofur’s shoulders.  “You could make Ered Luin the place it ought to be.”

           None of Bofur’s miners had asked him to stay, though he knew they needed him.  It wasn’t fair of Havlin to ask on their behalf, and he could see Havlin knew it.

           “Stay with me,” Havlin whispered, finally summoning the courage he hadn’t had before.  “Please, Bofur.”

            Bofur closed his eyes.  It went against all his instincts to deny Havlin, but how could he stay?  “I hate this place,” he whispered.  “Don’t ask it of me, Havlin.  In Erebor, I have a place.  It’s my home.”  He clung to Havlin, fingers knotted in the fabric of the other dwarf’s tunic.  “We could be happy there,” he begged, wondering why that very happiness seemed to be slipping away.

            Havlin stepped back, looking troubled.  No no no, by Mahal, this wasn’t how things were supposed to go!  Bofur had faced his fear; that was supposed to be rewarded.

            “You could not be happy here?” Havlin asked.

            Bofur shook his head.

            Something was dreadfully wrong, for Havlin was smiling sadly at him.  He disentangled Bofur’s hands from his tunic and held them in his own.  “I cannot come with you to Erebor,” he said, quiet but firm.

            The pain was overwhelming.  Havlin said he loved him – how could he ask Bofur to stay here in hell?  “Why not?” he said, hearing his voice break.  He could hardly see Havlin through the tears in his eyes.

            Havlin caressed his cheek.  There was certainty in his eyes; Bofur would not be able to sway him.  “Because in Erebor, you’re his,” he said simply.

            Bofur stared at him.

            “If you stayed, I would make you happy,” Havlin said.  “You could be mine, here.  But not in Erebor.”

            It was true.  The truth of it lanced the wound festering in his heart that had been clamoring for Bofur’s attention for weeks now, trying to tell him something he hadn’t been ready to hear.

            He touched Havlin’s cheek.  The other dwarf was no longer weeping.  Bofur kissed him one more time, because Havlin was a true friend.  He refused to let Bofur lie to himself.  At great cost to himself, Havlin had offered him the key to saying goodbye.

            One last time, he brought Havlin’s forehead against his own, offering kin-comfort.  He wrapped his arms around the dwarf and soothed the hiccupping sobs that Havlin couldn’t keep inside.  Finally, Bofur said the words they both knew he would say.  He took a deep breath and let the rightness of it settle into his bones.

            “Even if I stayed – even if I was happy,” he whispered, caressing the beloved face, “I would always be his.”

            He knew that his face held the joy of it, and he grieved that it hurt Havlin to see it.  But his grief would not change the truth of it.  He was Dwalin’s, heart and soul.

 


 

            Falling in love with someone was supposed to be an occasion for joy, not grief; Bofur knew that.  But still the knowledge lay heavy on his heart.  He and Dwalin had no more chance than they’d ever had.  Now, though, it would hurt that much more when Dwalin finally told him no.

            And he still needed to see if he could mend things with his friend from their quarrel earlier today.  Guilt clawed at his belly when he thought of Dwalin’s face after Bofur’s slur on the Durins…  He had meant only Dis, but Dwalin had taken it as an insult to Thorin and possibly himself as well.  The rest might be forgiven – even Bofur’s rank stupidity in asking Dwalin to challenge Dis – but that never would.

            Ah well, Bofur thought fatalistically.  Either Dwalin would forgive him or he wouldn’t.  No matter which, Dwalin would leave in the end.  If Dwalin had thought of returning to adventuring when Bofure merely wanted him, how much more quickly would he leave now that Bofur wanted more?

            Stop it, he told himself.  You don’t know that that’s true.  Just this morning you were telling yourself that he might be willing to share his life with you so long as you didn’t ask him to share your bed.

            Bofur had been fighting the knowledge that he loved Dwalin for so long that he felt hollow and tired, as if he’d scaled a high mountain.

            He couldn’t face Dwalin right now, not in the state he was in.  He needed to regain some measure of calm before he apologized.

            He had been ignoring where he was going again, and when he noticed, he found his feet had brought him to the little two-room flat he’d shared with Bombur and Merced.  He smiled a little, looking up at the window.  Another family’s washing hung on the line, and even in the darkness he could see how tiny and dingy the place was.  But it had been a haven for them, freedom at long last from their uncle.  Merced, as fiery as her mother, had made sure of that.

            This place was no longer his home.  Home was Erebor, but if he was looking for home here, there was a better place to find it.  He turned his steps back the way he’d come.

            Alís’s tavern was an oasis of light and happy, rowdy dwarves quaffing and singing and taking their pleasure either in the excellent food or in the delights to be had upstairs.  Rae, who had trained Bombur, was a master chef and one-time head of the guild.  Alís managed the tavern and the brothel and had been trying to establish a guild for the courtesans for years.  There was an apprenticeship system in place and most of the whores were in favor, but the Council had balked and Alís was not willing to pay the bribes it would take to have a courtesans’ guild legitimized.

            Alís would feed him up and give him a bed to sleep in, and would even fuss over him in her practical motherly way should he want it.  Bofur knew that he was lucky beyond measure to have her affection.  It had quite literally meant the difference between eating and starvation after their own mother’s death.  Bofur stepped into the tavern and let the feeling of safety sink into his bones.

            Alís gave him a wave, busy arguing with a drunken customer who wanted to go upstairs.  The dwarf was becoming belligerent.  Bofur took a seat in a corner and watched Alís signal Obi, the bouncer.  The indignant dwarf was hauled out the backdoor and firmly kicked into the trash heap.

            Alís made her way over to him.  “Oh, lad,” she murmured, seeing his face, and she set aside the tray of empty mugs to pull him roughly into her arms.  Bofur hugged her back, almost clinging, and blinked away the prickle of tears in his eyes.  He’d had enough of tears this day to last a lifetime.

            “Can I stay here tonight?” he asked.

            “Of course, my jewel,” she said, and he must look an absolute wreck if she was calling him ‘jewel’ and not asking questions.

            He allowed himself one more moment of comfort, hoarding the warmth of her embrace as if he could hold it like gold, before he pulled away.  “Thank you.”

            “Have you eaten?” she asked.  “Come on back to the kitchen and Rae will fix you a plate of something.”

            Rae greeted him with a smile.  He was juggling half a dozen skillets, two chopping boards, and a carving knife, but he assured Bofur that a plate of something tasty wouldn’t take more than a minute.

            The stew was excellent; Bofur hadn’t had better since he’d left Erebor.  In the old days, Bombur and Rae had switched off the day and night shifts every two weeks, and there were dwarves in Ered Luin who maintained the superiority of one over the other and tracked their schedule closely so as to get the “best” meal for their coin.  If asked, Bofur would of course say he preferred Bombur’s cooking, but the truth was that he hadn’t cared; a day he could eat at Alís’s tavern was a good day, no matter who was in the kitchen.

            When he’d finished, Alís bustled back in.  She’d made up the bed in Merced’s old bedchamber for him.  Bofur followed her in.

            He had a duty to discharge, one he’d long dreamed of.  He reached into his coat and withdrew the bag of gold he’d been carrying around for weeks, waiting for the right moment.  “I have something for you,” he said.  He held out the bag.

            She looked puzzled, and didn’t open it.  “What’s this for, lad?” she asked.

            “We can finally repay Bombur’s apprentice fees.”  He’d included the balance of Merced’s marriage price as well, though it had been waived.

            She looked like she was going to argue, so he took her hard, calloused hand in his.  “We can finally repay your generosity,” he said, looking into her eyes.  She had Merced’s eyes.  It had been hard to meet Alís’s eyes after her daughter died.  He met them now.  “You saved us, and we can finally do something for you.  Please, let me pay what is owed and we’ll have no more debts between us.”

            She nodded her acquiescence, reaching up to tug affectionately at the end of one of his braids.  But there was sadness in her eyes as well.  “You know I’d give all the gold I have to see my boys happy,” she said simply.

            His gaze faltered; he looked away.  “As it turns out, gold is easier to come by than happiness,” he said, swallowing the lump in his throat.  She pulled him close for a moment, her large hand rubbing his back comfortingly.

            “I hope you’ll sleep well,” she said.  “Or if you need taking care of…”  She hesitated.  “You know my lads upstairs are always at your disposal.”

            He thanked her absently, resting their foreheads together in a way he hadn’t been able to do since before Merced died.  “I know your life is here,” he said, “but if you ever decide you’d like to retire to Erebor, clan Broadbeam will be at your service.”

            As he made ready for bed, Bofur’s thoughts turned to Dwalin.

            Now that he’d calmed, now that he had some space, he could look at their quarrel with more equilibrium.

            He had been stupid, he could see that.  He’d not listened to Dwalin when his friend was already feeling trapped, and he’d tried to be protective instead of supportive – as if Dwalin needed protecting.  Instead, he’d insisted that Dwalin put his life in danger.

            He’d had enough lovers’ quarrels over the years to know instinctively when something could be forgiven and when it couldn’t – and this could.  It would take a lot of doing, but they’d get beyond it.  Dwalin would forgive him.

            The only problem was that Dwalin wasn’t his lover.  And Bofur had quite literally put his friend’s life in danger; he didn’t deserve his forgiveness.

 


 

            Were you in love with him?  Axe forms were not helping to calm Dwalin’s fraying emotions.  If anything, having axes in his hands just intensified the need to go out and use them, engage in some wanton destruction or behead a few Orcs.  He’d taken refuge in the watch house training room, but he felt claustrophobic in the enclosed space.

            Had Thorin known?  Had he understood, the way Bofur seemed to – except today; Bofur had not understood today, and that wouldn’t hurt so badly if it hadn’t come as a complete surprise – had Thorin understood that Dwalin was a man no matter what his body looked like?  When Thorin kissed him…

           What if he did?  What if he did know?  How would that change things?

           It would mean that when he kissed me, I could have kissed him back.  I don’t even know if I wanted to, because I couldn’t.  But if he knew…

           If he knew, then he should have told me.

            Something burned in Dwalin’s throat and stung at his eyes, but he ignored it.  Curse Thorin!  He was a surly, moody, non-communicative bastard, and that was on the best of days.  He’d been dead nearly three years now, and not a day went by when Dwalin didn’t ache to see the beloved face one more time.

            You should have sodding well told me! he roared at Thorin in his head.

            He still wanted to bury his axes in an Orc’s skull.  Or Thorin’s skull, maybe, but he wouldn’t do that even in his imagination.

            Dwalin looked around the watch house.  Wanton destruction…  There were some battered practice dummies stored in a corner.  One of the benefits of being obscenely rich was that he could sometimes get away with breaking other people’s toys so long as he paid for nicer ones to replace them.

            He smiled grimly, let out a war bellow, and dismembered the first dummy.

 


 

            Bofur was the sort of dwarf who could sleep anywhere, but tonight he couldn’t seem to settle enough to drift off.  The comforting racket of the tavern quieted down a bit after the bells tolled midnight, but Bofur was still tossing and turning, wishing he could forget the misery on Havlin’s face and in his own gut.

            It was going to be awful, traveling with Dwalin, working closely with him, and all the while knowing that he’d never have what he wanted.  It wasn’t as if Bofur had ever particularly desired this infatuation, but realizing love was at the bottom of it made it even worse.

            Three months at close quarters and not allowed to touch...

            Bofur didn’t let himself think about it as he pulled his trousers and shirt on.  Moments later, he nodded to Obi as he made his way upstairs.

 


 

            Bofur was not at the inn.  He was not at the baths, and he was not at the miners’ meeting, which made Dwalin even more worried than he’d already been.

            He went to Alís’s tavern last.  He knew what sort of reception he’d get if Bofur had taken refuge there.

            Sure enough, Alís’s face was stony as she blocked the doorway, jaw set and eyes glaring.

            “…Please?” Dwalin said, for Balin was always telling him he could get farther with words than with threats.

            He had never seen such anger in anyone’s eyes before.  Alís didn’t answer him; just stood, an immovable force, arms crossed.

            Sod Balin and his precious words.  Dwalin had to see Bofur.  “Get out of the way,” he growled, wishing he hadn’t left his weapons back at the inn.

            Alís chuckled, almost daring him to try.  Behind her, Dwalin could see the bouncer Obi reach for his club.  Dwalin was sure he could take either one of them; together, he wasn’t so sure.  Bofur would never forgive him for destroying his mother-in-law’s tavern.

            Bofur had taken refuge here to get away from him.  Dwalin swallowed a lump in his throat and stepped back.  He didn’t even know what he could say to Bofur when he saw him, but he’d just obliterated the trust between them.  He should let Bofur come to him, on his own terms and on a field of battle of his choosing.

            He nodded to Alís and left the tavern.

 


 

            At the top of the steps, Bofur was greeted by a breathtaking classic beauty.  The dwarf had thick chestnut hair, a full curly beard, and was pleasantly rounded in all the right places.  Bofur couldn’t help staring when the vision bowed and murmured, “Hared, at your service.”

            “Bofur, at yours,” he said automatically, and blushed, because “at your service” promised a lot more in this place than it usually did.

            Bofur had never been up here before, though he used to know most of the courtesans by sight.  Behind Hared, he saw one or two familiar faces, but for the most part he didn’t know these lads.  Bofur frowned before remembering that after a few years, Alís’s boys would cultivate enough dedicated clientele that they could set up their own apartments.

            Hared offered him a cup of mead and gestured expansively at the dwarves lounging picturesquely behind him.  “You honor us, Mister Bofur,” he murmured.  “Is there anything specific you’re looking for tonight?  As you know, our more… specialized services may take a few days to procure.”

            Once, Bofur remembered, someone had asked for an Elf.  It had taken Alís a fortnight to track one down.  It was hardly the most unusual request she’d ever gotten, of course, but it was one of the hardest to fulfill.

            “And of course,” Hared added, “your pleasure is on the house tonight.”

            Bofur suppressed an involuntary shudder.  He was conflicted enough about doing this; the thought of someone not getting paid for their work made the discomfort worse.  No doubt Alís would pay the lad, but it still felt wrong.  Maybe he should call this whole idea off.

            Hared made some signal and three of the dwarves rose, lining up for him.  “You may have your pick of any, of course,” Hared said in that soft lilt that Bofur, under other circumstances, would have admired, “but these are our best.”

            Bofur dismissed the first one immediately from consideration; he was built too much like Dwalin.  The second, a youngish lad from the far east, had dusky skin and wore the clothes favored by his clan.  Bofur wondered how he had ended up in Ered Luin.  In the next moment, he knew that asking such a question would make the dwarf entirely too real for Bofur to lose himself in.  The whole point of paying for sex was to avoid a personal connection – wasn’t it?  Bofur knew his own tendency to get attached to even casual bed partners, and that certainly wasn’t appropriate here.

            The third was another classical beauty: deep blue-black hair, an intricately braided beard, and as stout as anyone could ever wish.  Bofur immediately dismissed him as well, because the dwarf reminded him strongly of Bombur, or of Bombur before Merced died.  Bombur had always been one of the roundest dwarfs Bofur knew, but after his wife’s death he became dramatically more so, as if he were trying to become more Bombur to make up for the empty space that should have held Merced.

            Wildly, Bofur looked over the other courtesans, hoping one of them would magically be what he was looking for, but he realized with a sinking feeling that for the second time tonight, he’d launched himself down a path he didn’t actually want to follow.  Why was he here?  He didn’t want any of these dwarves.  He wanted Dwalin.

            There was no way to back out gracefully, Bofur realized.  Alís considered this a gift, and by coming upstairs he’d already accepted it.

            He wasn’t sure what he should do.  No doubt when he was burning for Dwalin on the journey home, he’d curse himself for being picky now.

            “Choose for me,” he told Hared abruptly.

            The dwarf who reminded him of his brother slid forward at a sign from Hared.  “Enna, at your service.”  His voice was pleasant, soothing almost.  He gave Bofur a startlingly brilliant smile and held out a hand.

            Bofur took it and let himself be led down a hall to Enna’s chamber.

 


 

            The courtesan closed the door and turned to Bofur with a gentle smile on his face.  “What can I do for you tonight?” he asked.  His voice was not sultry, but it was husky in a way that made Bofur think of home and comfort.

            “I – ” Bofur began.  I can’t do this.  You look too much like my brother.  He cleared his throat.  He’d just have to explain that he’d changed his mind.  “I couldn’t sleep,” he began and stopped, mortified at how stupid that sounded.

            Enna didn’t appear to notice the awkwardness.  “It can be difficult to sleep when you’re used to sharing,” he said, a faint question at the end of his sentence.  After a pause during which Bofur tried to summon words – any words – Enna added, “Is that what you’d like tonight?”

            Bofur blinked at him.  “Sleeping?” he blurted, confused.  Was this a euphemism for some sex act he wasn’t familiar with?

            Enna chuckled at the look on his face.  “It’s not so unusual,” he said, his smile radiating a welcoming warmth that must be very popular with his clientele.  “Sometimes customers just want to talk, or hold someone in their arms for an hour or so.”  He touched Bofur’s shoulder briefly.  “Which is not to say that I’m not up for the usual fare as well.”  The look he gave Bofur then was wickedly flirtatious.

            “I – ” Bofur said again, and stopped again.  “Could I – ”  He stopped again, because he still didn’t know what he wanted.

            Part of him wished desperately that he could block out all thoughts of Dwalin by losing himself in Enna’s rich curves, and part of him was screaming at him to bolt now before things got even more awkward.

            Enna took both of Bofur’s hands in his and tugged him gently over to the bed.  He lay down on it but didn’t remove any clothing, for which Bofur felt obscurely grateful.  When the dwarf patted the bed next to him, Bofur lay down, appreciating the fine feather mattress and soft sheets.  He hadn’t realized he missed those little luxuries that he had back home.

            Enna shifted closer, and reached out to touch his hair.  Bofur had braided it properly for the visit to Dis, but he was sure it was a fright now.  “May I take out your braids?” Enna asked, his fingers tenderly combing an escaped strand back into place behind Bofur’s ear.

            If this was a seduction, it was unlike any Bofur had ever experienced.  But then, it had never taken much to coax him into bed.  He liked sex, he reminded himself, and it had been more than three years.  He should be raring to go.

            “Yes,” Bofur acquiesced, and Enna oh-so-carefully began to comb the snarls out of Bofur’s hair with his fingers.  The dwarf nestled close, and continued stroking Bofur’s hair even once all the tangles were gone.  It was relaxing, almost hypnotic, and Bofur gave in and let himself enjoy the oddly tender motion.

            He closed his eyes and curled forward so that his body was flush against Enna’s.  He breathed in and let sense memory wash through him.  After Merced’s death, Bofur had crawled into bed with Bombur each night and held him just like this.  Sometimes there were sobs or nightmares to soothe away, but most nights it was simple comfort.

            For eight months, Bofur had slept beside his brother, curled into the warm reassurance of his bulk.  Finally, one day Bombur had smiled at him and said Bofur had a lover he’d been neglecting, and it was time for Bombur to learn to sleep alone.

            Bofur never told him, because he felt guilty even at the thought, how much he loved those months.  Of course he wished with all his heart that Merced had not died, but he’d never felt so close to Bombur as he did then, not even when they were dwarflings.

            Bofur put his arms around the dwarf lying next to him, and felt Enna wrap strong arms around him in return.  He kept his eyes closed and laid his head on Enna’s shoulder, breathing in deep.  Enna didn’t smell like Bombur, of course, but he did carry the scent of this place the way Bombur used to.  It was enough.

            He’d tried not to dwell on how much he missed Bombur and Bifur.  It couldn’t be helped, the empty ache of their absence.  But things wouldn’t be truly right until he was back in Erebor again.

            Bofur wished fiercely that Bombur were here now.  Bombur might not talk much, but he knew Bofur often better than Bofur did himself.

            Bofur often felt like a bit of a failure when it came to his younger brother.  Usually he got on well with shy people, because he could talk enough to put them at ease and then gently draw them out.  A liberal dose of humor had been known to break through the strongest walls.

            But Bombur wasn’t like that.  He would speak, yes – quite a lot, even – but only when given sufficient silence and space in a conversation to put his thoughts into words, check the words before speaking them, and feel heard once he’d said them.  For Bofur, whose instinct was to fill any available silence with talk and laughter, his brother had always been a bit of a conundrum.  More often than not, Bofur just forgot and chattered away, not minding Bombur’s silence until he thought about it later.

            Whereas Bofur rarely ever said anything of import, Bombur saved his words for when they really mattered.  Bombur might go days without a single word, but he told his kin at least once a month that he loved them, either by word or by deed.  And when Bofur remembered to keep his mouth closed and his ears open, Bombur could give the best advice he’d ever gotten.

            Bombur had urged him once to talk frankly with Havlin about marriage.  He’d said that if Bofur let the matter fester, he might be unable to be happy even if Havlin ever did propose.

            Bofur wished his brother were here now, that they were curled together here in the safety of Alís’s home and it was Bombur stroking his hair instead of Enna.  Maybe Bombur could tell him how to sort out this mess he’d gotten himself into.

            “I don’t want to be in love with him,” Bofur whispered into the solid chest beneath his cheek, and Bombur patted his back soothingly.

            “Why not?”

            It wasn’t Enna who said it, so it must have been his imagination.  Nonetheless, Bofur answered, though silently this time.

            “Because I can never have him!”

            “Why not?” Bombur asked again, impossibly gentle.  In Bofur’s mind’s eye, his brother’s eyes gleamed in the lamplight.

            “Because – because – ”  Bofur faltered.  “Because he hates me now.”

            He could hear the smile in Bombur’s voice.  “He doesn’t hate you.  He’s hurt and he’s angry.  He hurt you and you don’t hate him; why should he be any different?”

            Bofur hid his face against his brother’s chest.  Aye, he’d done something as unforgiveable as what Dwalin had done to him.  In an awful way, it righted the imbalance between them, and Bofur was a little horrified to realize that he’d liked the imbalance.  It had tied Dwalin to him, trying to make amends, and let Bofur be the magnanimous one holding forgiveness like a prize to be bestowed at his leisure.

            I don’t hate him, Bofur realized.  But I haven’t forgiven him either.

            “Do you think you can?” his brother asked.

            “I don’t know.”

            Bombur smiled his wide smile.  “Yes you do.”

            Bofur had tried for weeks not to remember the terror he’d felt back in Elrond’s study, when he wasn’t sure if Dwalin was going to kill him or not.  He clutched Bombur’s reassuring bulk for comfort.  “It’s just – if I forgive him, how do I know he won’t do it again?  It’s like… giving him permission.  It’s saying it doesn’t matter.”

            Bombur petted his hair as if he were a little dwarfling.  “Was everything you told him last night a lie, then?” he murmured.  “Do you think he’d do it again?”

            This afternoon in Dis’s sitting room, he had seen Dwalin lose control again.  And then he’d seen Dwalin master himself in the space of a second, the rage transmuting to guilt and horror.  It had been actually tremendously reassuring to see.  A moment later, Bofur had realized just how unforgiveable it was to demand that Dwalin risk everything he had by leaving, and that he stood a very good chance of losing Dwalin altogether for it.  Of course he’d run – what else could he do?

            Bombur tugged on his sleeve, pulling his attention back to the conversation.  “Do you think he’d do it again?” he repeated.

            “No,” Bofur admitted.  This morning, he’d not have been able to say that; this morning, there had been only hope and a tentative trust.  But he’d seen Dwalin yank himself back from the brink after provocation today.

            “Then you know what to do,” Bombur said, his gentle smile saying he was sure his brother would do the right thing.  It was impossible not to want to be a better person in Bombur’s presence.

            Aye, Bofur knew what he had to do.  The anger that he was clinging to was hurting him more than it was hurting anyone else.  In some ways, forgiving Dwalin was taking the easiest path; it was exhausting to mistrust his friend constantly.  Still, Bofur wasn’t sure he had the courage for it.

            “You always say you’re a coward,” Bombur said, laughing, “but you’re the only one who dared stand up to the Council and the shareholders back in the beginning.”

            That was true.  Bombur, Bifur, and several of his miners had taken to escorting him everywhere that first year, after the threats.  Dwarves wouldn’t kill or maim each other – but a lot could be done short of that.

            But really, Bofur hadn’t had to take the brunt of it, he thought.  Havlin’s cousin Alar was foreman and refused to fire him; he was the one whose life was really made miserable over the five years it took to organize and push through the first contract.  Alar couldn’t be removed without grave insult to Havlin’s clan, but he’d come in for as much harassment as Bofur or more so.  Bofur was very much aware that the miners owed all their progress to Alar’s quiet stubbornness.

            Bombur rolled his eyes; this was an old argument between them.  “Aye, but he’d not have had anything to be stubborn about if you’d not risked anything.”

            Bofur had expected to get fired as soon as it got out who was organizing the strikes.  Enough dwarves were striking that they couldn’t fire everybody, but the leaders were singled out.  Without Alar, Bofur would probably be an unsuccessful toy merchant these days.

            “My point,” Bombur said dryly, “is that if you’re brave enough to face down the Council – or the dragon – or an army of Orcs – I think you can probably manage to be brave and forgive the man you love.”

            Trust Bombur to be unflinchingly honest in his assessment.  Bofur wanted to pout and say, “Don’t want to!” like a dwarfling, but Bombur would just tell him that he didn’t have to then, but he’d best stop whining if he wasn’t going to do anything to change the situation.  Bombur could be maddeningly practical when Bofur just wanted to sulk.

            “If I do forgive him,” Bofur said instead, cautiously tasting the idea, “that doesn’t mean he’ll forgive me.”

            Bombur let his skeptical look speak for him.  “You already know he will.”

            “Yes, well maybe he shouldn’t.”  The more he thought about it, the worse his behavior was in retrospect.  How could he not have realized that he was asking Dwalin to offer up his throat to that madwoman?

            Bombur combed comforting fingers through his hair again.  “It’s easy to forget that he lives with danger every day,” he murmured.  “One wrong move and he’s discovered, and it’s all over.”

            Part of Bofur wanted to say that surely it wouldn’t be so bad, that dwarves did not kill other dwarves – but that was probably wishful thinking.  Bofur had seen dwarves shunned, stripped of family and clan, and it was worse than killing them.  In the very best case, if Dwalin’s secret were discovered, he would be stripped of his place in Dain’s court and forbidden to be a warrior.  The King was not so close that that he would stand for Dwalin.  Balin would, but he’d lose everything by it.  Whispers and insults would follow Dwalin everywhere if he stayed.  Even if they didn’t kill Dwalin outright upon discovery, it would just delay things: eventually they’d provoke him enough to have an excuse to kill him.

            “By Mahal, Bom, I’m putting him in danger every time I drag him to the baths!” Bofur realized.  “Did I make everything worse with this whole blasted idea of the surgery?”

            Bombur flicked his ear and made a huffing sound that told Bofur he was being ridiculous.  He could almost hear his brother rolling his eyes.  “Right.  Because you forced him to it at knifepoint, brother.  He’s perfectly capable of saying no, you know.  He demonstrated that today.”

            Bofur’s eyes burned a little in shame, but also thankfulness for Dwalin’s stubbornness.  Saying no to those he loved was Bofur’s particular demon, not Dwalin’s.

            He buried his face deeper against Bombur’s chest, thinking of Havlin, and how he’d been able to say no today.  He didn’t know if it was the right decision, but he’d been able to say it.

            His brother and his cousin had followed him unhesitatingly the last time he’d said no to Havlin, too.  Bombur had even whispered one night early on when they were sharing a bedroll for warmth that he was proud of Bofur for not staying after Havlin hurt him.

            “How is this different?” Bofur whispered now, returning to the matter of forgiveness.  He couldn’t just snap his fingers and magically forgive Dwalin.  He didn’t know how to move from holding the anger dagger-sharp in his breast to letting it flow away like water.  “Dwalin hurt me.  Shouldn’t I leave?”

            Bombur was right: Bofur didn’t think Dwalin would hurt him again.  But how could he know?

            “He will hurt you,” Bombur said, and Bofur started in surprise.  A protest rose on his lips, but Bombur put a finger over them.  He needed time to sort out what he would say.  “And you’ll hurt him, like you did today.  Even if no one was ever stupid or thoughtless, there will be things you’ll do or say to each other that will hurt.”

            Bofur had been both stupid and thoughtless this afternoon, and he’d been trying so hard, and it hurt to know that he’d failed Dwalin.  It hurt to know he hadn’t listened.

            “You’ll hurt him again, no matter how careful you are,” Bombur said.  “It’s not something you can understand, what he lives with – just like he won’t ever understand what it’s like to be rich when you weren’t before.  This won’t be the last time you make a mistake about it.”

           Bofur flinched.  He hated the alkaline spread of guilt through his belly; he didn’t ever want to feel it again.

           Bombur tapped Bofur’s shoulder to get his attention again.  “It can’t be like it was with Havlin, Bofur, when you were only willing to fight about the things that weren’t important.  You’ll have to tell him when he makes mistakes and hurts you, too.  You know that.”

           Bofur stifled a whimper.  “You’re asking me to be braver than I’ve ever been, and you’re asking me to do it every day of my life.”

           Bombur smiled gently.  “You’re asking you to do it,” he said.  “That’s what being in love is, Bofur.  It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.  And the most worthwhile.”

           Bofur remembered how Merced and Bombur had had to create a whole new way to fight, because Bombur couldn’t fight in the way most couples could; he couldn’t summon words in time.

           Bofur clung to his brother.  “Even if he’ll have me – even if we can work out all the sex stuff – how do I know it’ll be worth the hurt?”  That was the worst bit: the thought that they might try and try and never make it work.

           “You don’t,” Bombur said bluntly.  “You have to decide ahead of time that if you don’t get enough back, you’ll take care of yourself and leave.”  He tugged on Bofur’s hair until he looked up and met Bombur’s eyes.  They were very serious.  “And if he ever loses control and hurts you again, you have to decide now what you’re going to do.”  Bombur bared his teeth a little, and Bofur was reminded that if the real Bombur – or Bifur – ever found out what Dwalin had done in Rivendell, Dwalin was not likely to survive the fallout.  The Broadbeam lads looked out for their own.

           “He won’t,” Bofur retorted, and hid his face again to close the subject.

           “Then why can’t you forgive him?”

            Bofur tried to think about what it would be like after he forgave Dwalin.  It would take a while to convince Dwalin of the fact – his friend, he was realizing, was as good at guilt as he was at killing Orcs – but once he did…

            Once he did, there would be no pulling back from the next kiss.  And there would be a next kiss, Bofur was sure of it.  He had avoided this as he always did, for too long, hoping the growing closeness didn’t mean what he knew it meant.  He’d been avoiding acknowledging it, and he would have continued to avoid it if Havlin hadn’t demanded some sort of choice.  Bofur loved Dwalin, and Dwalin… Dwalin was hardly indifferent to him.  There would be more kisses.

            But eventually, Bofur would want more than just kisses.  “If I forgive him, one day I’m going to have to hear him tell me that he loves me but he can’t share my bed,” he said.  And that was going to hurt.  Even if Dwalin didn’t mean it as a rejection, it was still going to hurt.

            “How’s that any different than what you have right now?” Bombur grumbled, sounding exasperated.

            That surprised a laugh out of Bofur.  His brother was right.  Apparently Bofur was unwilling to look elsewhere for bed partners.  If he asked, he would at least get kisses… and comfort… and Dwalin.

           He’s not a cruel man, Bofur told himself.  He might be willing to bring you off with his hands once in a while.  He wouldn’t hate you for asking.  He loves you.  And if that wasn’t something Dwalin could give, they would work something out.  A discreet arrangement to take care of Bofur’s needs, or perhaps the courtesans had started up a guild in Erebor while Bofur wasn’t paying attention.  They would make it work.

           Bofur suddenly felt breathless, more excited than he’d felt in years.  He had knocked out the very last pillar of “No” in the fortress he'd built between him and what he wanted.  He hadn’t let himself want for so long that to do so now was a heady rush; he was wide awake and grinning happily.  It was like having his old self back – only happier.  It had taken a lot of energy to fight with himself for so long, he realized.

           Bombur tugged affectionately on a lock of hair.  “You’re forgetting something,” he said, but his face was wreathed in smiles.

           Honestly, how could Bofur have thought that forgiving Dwalin would be difficult?

           Bofur took a deep breath, summoning his courage –

           climbed to the top of the precipice –

           teetered one more instant on the edge –

           smiled –

           and let himself fall.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

            There was madness in the Line of Durin.  Dis had known that from an early age, and after seeing it take her grandfather she spent her life watching her kin closely to see if they’d been taken by it.  After Azanulbizar – after her marriage and Nirma’s – she had started watching herself as well.

            Now she sat in her prison, looking out over the town, and wondered if she was running mad at last.  She couldn’t make sense of what had just happened.

            Dwalin said he was a man.

            It didn’t make sense.  Her mind was all in a jumble, and Dis wasn’t used to that; whenever she acted, she had already investigated all the possible outcomes and decided how best to deal with them.  Dwalin had thrown a wrench into the seamless clockwork of her planning, and it left her reeling.

            And Dis had nonetheless let him – her – him walk away.  She had promised not reveal him.

            How did it come to this?

 


 

            It was not love that motivated her.  She wasn’t sure what it was, but it was not love.  Dis would never be so stupid, so womanish as to fall in love with Fundin’s daughter.  She had learned that lesson well with Nirma, who had come happily to Dis’s bed when they were girls, and went just as happily – more so, Dis had to admit – to Gloin’s when they were women.

            Her mother had come across them one morning when they were in their early seventies, curled together under the blankets of Dis’s bed, Nirma squirming and panting against Dis’s fingertips.  Dis had thought then that this too would be taken away from her, as everything she liked always was.  But her mother had not been shocked, which was a surprise in itself; Dis had never even heard mutterings, before or since, of women lying together, and as far as she could tell she and Nirma were the only ones who did.  Her mother instead sat down beside them on the bed and stroked Dis’s beard, looking sad.  Nirma hid her face in the pillow, and it was the first time Dis had ever associated shame with the wonderful thing she shared with her best friend.  Nirma was brave, though: after a moment of hiding, she reemerged, wrapping her strong arms around Dis and looking up at the princess solemnly.

            “You should take what happiness you can snatch while you can, my love,” her mother said.  “But you must keep this a secret.  And you must remember that soon you’ll be given in marriage.”

            Dis had been young then, but not so young as to think she could ask, “But why can’t I marry Nirma?”

            Dis would wonder, after, at her mother’s strange acceptance.  She never heard of dwarrowdams who loved each other as dwarf men did, but she did hear dwarves speak with horror and disgust of the Human women who lay together.  No one could force a dwarrowdam to marry, but after the fall of Moria and the Lonely Mountain decimated the population, there was an unspoken pressure to marry and have as many children as possible.  Two dwarrowdams wasting their childbearing potential on each other: such a thing would never be allowed.  But her mother had not batted an eye.  How much had she known?

 


 

            Then came the dragon, and her mother died.  Try though she might, Dis would never forget the long years in the wilderness that followed.  They lost hundreds to Orcs and starvation, and when they arrived in Ered Luin the dwarves there greeted them with suspicion and hostility.

            Thror had once had offers for her from far-away princes to the east; now she was to be married to a sullen Longbeard dwarf for a portion of the silver mines.  The refugees settled outside the city at first, some fanning out into the smaller towns of the Blue Mountains where there were fewer opportunities for work but the food was not so scarce.

            It wasn’t until after the dragon that she began to hear tales of Dwalin’s exploits.  Her cousin was young, but she was already making a name for herself – or himself, it turned out, because Dwalin had managed to so effectively disguise herself that Dis began to doubt her own sanity.  All through her childhood, her mother had said, “Your cousin Dwalin doesn’t talk back to her mother,” and, “Your cousin Dwalin would never dream of putting glowworms in her brother’s bed no matter what he said to her,” and, “Your cousin Dwalin has beautiful Court manners.”  And Dis would pout and think how unfair it was that her younger cousin, far away in the Iron Hills, insisted on being such a paragon that word had leaked back to Erebor.

            And it turned out that in the end, all of that had been lies.  Dis wasn’t sure how Dwalin had kept the deception from her parents, but she would surely have been discovered if Erebor hadn’t fallen.

            Nobody seemed to remember that the young warrior was a woman – not even Balin, and Dis watched him carefully.  She even began to doubt her own memories, as word of Dwalin’s renown grew.

            In the months before her wedding, she began to hope that Dwalin would visit the Blue Mountains.  Dwalin would show her how to disguise herself.  They would go off and have adventures together, and Thorin would find some noble lady to continue the Line of Durin.  And even if Dwalin didn’t prove to be as precious as Nirma, Dis would treasure another friend.

            She had always been good at swordplay, and her knifeskill was matched only by the guttersnipes she sometimes snuck away to tussle with.  She trained with her brothers and hoped against hope that she would at least be allowed to fight for Khazad-dûm.  Instead, she was sold to her husband, and shortly after, all the men in her clan left for war.  Many never returned.

 


 

            It took fifteen years to ensure that all the refugees had roofs over their heads, and sometimes Dis felt as if she were the only one working on the project.  The men of her family were busy gathering a fighting force to retake Khazad-dûm; that was their plan for housing their people.  It failed spectacularly; even in victory, they could not regain their old homeland.

            Nirma helped her with her work, but things were odd and strained between them until they both had children and could bond again over motherhood.

            Dis did not hate her husband.  He was too stupid to hate.  She was surrounded by idiots, it often seemed; only Balin had a mind that could keep up with her own.  She had allowed herself to hope, once, that she would be married off to him.  When it became obvious that Thorin had no intention of doing his duty and marrying, it fell to Dis to produce the heirs to the Line of Durin; she would have to marry a Longbeard or her children would belong to another clan.  If they hadn’t needed funds so badly, Thror would have agreed when she requested Balin.

            But they had no gold and all the credit of royalty was as naught.

            She did not hate her husband, and to her own surprise, she loved her sons more intensely than she had ever loved anything.  They didn’t have her quick mind – how could they with a father like Vili? – but she found she loved them all the more for that.  They would always need her; she would always have a place in their lives.  She loved Fili’s quiet cautiousness and his brazen courage once he settled on a course of action.  She loved Kili’s impulsiveness; how he found humor in any situation; his kindness to the younger dwarflings; his stubbornness in the face of a challenge.  Through her sons, she could almost love their father.  She surprised both herself and Vili when, after Kili was weaned, she returned to his bed.  There was not the joy there had been with Nirma, but there was at least comfort: enough comfort that when he died, she could go through the ritual grieving without feeling like a hypocrite.

            The first time Dis saw Dwalin, shortly after Azanulbizar, she was disappointed.  Dis had built her up in her head as a shieldmaiden of old, but Dwalin looked no different than her kin.  Taller, broader about the shoulders, but if she had any breasts at all they were hidden well, and she moved like a male.

            If Dis had not been pregnant with Fili, she would have asked Dwalin if she could leave with her the next time she went on campaign.  She’d done her duty to her clan by marrying; she would have felt guilty running away, but she’d have done it.  Instead, she was confined to her bed for most of the fourteen months of pregnancy and never spoke to Dwalin.

            Her cousin drifted in and out of the Blue Mountains for the next eighty years.  Sometimes she would stay for years at a time, and Fili and Kili called her “uncle” until Thorin insisted it should be “Mister Dwalin.”

            Dis welcomed all the help she could get with her boys.  Balin struggled to impart book learning, and Thorin the legends and laws of their people, but they loved their lessons with Dwalin best.  And Dis could see how much Dwalin loved them in return.

            Dis would not let them go with Thorin on the quest until he said that Dwalin would be there.  Dwalin swore an oath that she would protect the Line of Durin with her life.

            Dis should have gone with them.  She should have insisted, should have shouted Thorin down and told him it was her home, too.  She should have known that she could not trust anyone, not even another woman who loved her children almost as desperately as Dis herself did, to protect them as a mother would.

 


 

            She did not get out of bed for two months when the news reached her.

 


 

            She was not surprised that Balin survived the battle.  The wily old fox was built for survival; he would take no glorious, heroic, stupid risks in battle.  She was surprised to hear that Dwalin had not been slain.  Dwalin was the sort of warrior who went in for heroic self-sacrifice, and Dis was relatively certain that Dwalin was in love with Thorin.

            Dwalin had promised to protect her family, and she had broken that promise.  The betrayal cut Dis deep, even deeper than losing Nirma.

            When the first blessed numbness faded, she raged.  Oh, how she raged!  She wondered that Mahal himself did not smite her for her curses upon him.  On a more earthly plane, she hated Thorin with every fiber of her body, even as she missed him with an intensity that frightened her.  But Dwalin – Dwalin was the oathbreaker: her own kinswoman who had failed her.  In the hot fury of the initial madness, Dis swore vengeance.

            After a lifetime of simmering anger hardening to iron will in her veins, she should not have been surprised when the rage of losing her entire world for a second time eventually cooled.  It didn’t go away; it crept into her blood.  It tempered her and bent her to her purpose.

 


 

            By Mahal, she’d liked Dwalin, back when he was a woman helping her to raise fatherless babes.  She’d – he’d – been a symbol of hope for her; Dwalin had taken what she wanted as a young dwarf and had a life Dis envied.

            It had been a long time since Dis had been able to do as she liked.  There was always the clan, her political responsibilities, her children to think of.  She’d not been allowed a moment’s selfishness since the dragon came and her mother died.

            And there were days she hated Thorin and Dwalin as much as she envied them, for what they were allowed.  No one could call them free – they were bound by obligations of family and clan and crown – but they had a say in what happened.  Thorin refused to take a wife, and the bloodline became Dis’s problem.  Dwalin wanted to go off adventuring, and his deeds were celebrated in story and song.  Dis was very much aware of just what would happen if she took it into her head to go adventuring.  Madness ran in the Line of Durin, and it would be easy enough to lock her up and claim she suffered from the family curse.

            It had been bearable when she’d thought it was Dwalin thumbing her nose at everyone who would tell a woman how to live, but now –

            Now, if Dwalin were to be believed, it was just another Durin man being selfish.

 


 

            And yet.

            In the two years since her sons’ deaths, Dis had not taken an interest in a single thing.  Council meetings were rote; even as she worked behind the scenes to jolly the shareholders into being less unbearably idiotic, she was just going through the motions.  Nothing mattered, and nothing would ever matter.  She was just marking the tedious days until her death, and cursing that she had a good seventy years or so before she could join her sons.

            Because nothing mattered, she took the risk and bought off the right people to take her place on the Council.  Her old self would have been more cautious, hoarding the little power she had accumulated instead of spending the investment on the promise of a dubious return.  But nothing mattered, and she was tired of bullying and cajoling her dimwitted kin into doing her bidding.

            And then Dain’s ambassadors arrived.

            It was disconcerting at first, the interest she took in Dwalin when she should have been bent on vengeance.  It certainly wasn’t love or lust – Dwalin looked too much like a man to spark her interest there – but she’d enjoyed seeing how her kinswoman’s mind worked.  People always said that Balin got the brains in the family and Dwalin the brawn, but they forgot that Balin was a renowned warrior in his own right even if he couldn’t hold a candle to Dwalin’s fame.  Dis had long suspected that Dwalin had a sharp mind going to waste, and leading her cousin through the twists and turns of politics had been – fun.  Her boys had never picked up on nuance the way Dwalin did.  Dis had allowed herself to consider herself a mentor to Dwalin, just as Sogere had been a mentor to Dis.  A woman with the kind of power Dwalin might inherit one day had to understand the undercurrents around her.

            And it had been bloody nice not to have to hide her own mind, for once.  Dwalin might be intimidated by it, but she wasn’t a man; she wouldn’t rename her fear and turn it on Dis.  She wouldn’t name Dis a witch or a shrew or a madwoman just because the princess played a man’s game.

           It was dismaying to realize that Dwalin was pretty much completely uninteresting if she – he – wasn’t a woman.  The only reason Dis had been willing to put so much effort into walking her through the politics, delighting in seeing Dwalin bend her sharp mind in a direction she’d never considered before, was because it was so unusual for her to find another woman who could match her.  Even if she didn’t want Dwalin in her bed, Dis was intrigued by her – him, curse it! – and wanted to see what she would do with the information.  The draw had been another woman who unflinchingly took what power she could.

            Except…  Dwalin really did seem to have convinced herself that she was a man.  Dis could respect the power of belief, or even the power of just wishing for something with all your heart and soul.  But Dwalin’s words had shaken her; the conviction behind them: Even without your breasts, you’d still be a woman.  As if being man or woman was independent of body!  Dis hated being a woman; it was not fair that Dwalin thought she could choose and Dis couldn’t.

            And if Dwalin were to be believed, if he wasn’t a woman – then Dis owed him nothing.  She’d protect a fellow woman, a kinswoman especially, until death.  The threat of exposing his secret had never been in earnest.  Dis would never betray a fellow woman to the world, even if she had planned to destroy everything Dwalin cared about as Dwalin had done to her.

           She would be damned if she’d waste another breath worrying about how her actions would affect a man.  A man who had gone off on a fool quest and gotten her babies killed.  What could she expect of a man? A woman was a worthy opponent.  She’d admired Dwalin for her courage and tenacity, and they were the same courage and tenacity but now he was a man and –

           She frowned.  It was all very confusing.  She should expose him and be done with this entire confusing affair.

            She’d given Dwalin her word that no one would hear the truth from her lips, but she could get around that easily enough.  She didn't have to speak to share Dwalin's secret.

 


 

            And yet.

            And yet, she’d liked Dwalin.  And not just as an audience, either.  Though it had been gratifying to show off a little, to someone who could appreciate what she’d uncovered…  But really it was that Dwalin was so refreshingly unpolitical.  Dwalin said what she thought, and she did what she said she’d do, and she didn’t bother to hide it when she was angry or upset.  It was honest in a way Dis had forgotten relationships could be.  In a way, she relished Dwalin’s dislike of her more than a thousand false promises of political support. 

           By the end of the first week, Dis had realized that Dwalin felt the pain of their dead kin just as deeply as she did.  Any vengeance she had contemplated paled in comparison to the torment of his own guilt.

            Dis could destroy Dwalin now just by writing a few lines.  She’d never dream of doing such a thing to a woman, but if he would insist on being a man, Dis owed him nothing…

            She had parchment and a letter half-addressed to the Firebeard clan head when she stopped.  She remembered Dwalin begging, in a broken voice, to know if her brother could have loved her.

            She remembered Dwalin trying to spare her the awful details of her sons’ deaths.

            She didn’t have time for such softness – but she didn’t want to take Dwalin out of the game, she realized.  Even if he was a man.

            She had not been allowed to do what she wanted for so long that the little voice telling her so was barely a whisper.  She’d trained herself to ignore it.  Still, she hesitated…

            Cautiously, she spun out the possibilities if she did not expose him.  Dwalin could be useful, especially since she still had a hold over him.  If nothing else, Dwalin would discharge the duty of investigating the suspects she'd given him about who was behind the attempts on Dain’s life.

            They should have let you be Queen…  Dis didn’t want the throne; she never had.  As far as she was concerned, the blasted thing was cursed.  Dain was incompetent, but no more so than Thorin would have been, and he’d learn eventually.  Having Dwalin in Dis’s corner could help ensure that.  It was hard to watch Dain feel his way in fits and starts down the correct road, but that was more a matter of her disgust with incompetence in general rather than anything specific to her cousin.

            Here in Ered Luin, on the other hand, the incompetence was harder to bear.  The shareholders should have seen the writing on the wall when the foreman Alar started protecting Bofur Broadbeam; indeed, they should have known after the first few accidents that there was a limit to what even dwarves would put up with in the name of greed.  Sometimes Dis wished she could buy up all the mines in the Blue Mountains and put everything to rights once and for all, and let the Council holler all they liked…

            She paused.

            Now that, that was an idea. 

           Blindingly obvious in retrospect; she’d had the funds to do it for over a year now!  Kili’s blood money, and she’d not touched it for anything but clan business.

            Leaving thoughts of Dwalin behind, immediately her mind feverishly spun out the fine details.  It would be a delicate thing to orchestrate.  Nobody would be willing to sell their mine shares outright, not if they knew what she planned.  She’d need to negotiate political favors to trade for portions of the clans’ stakes, and do it in a short enough timespan that no one realized what she’d done until it was too late to stop her.  And she’d need to secure against the Council trying to do an end-run around her once she got control.  No doubt they’d try to vote some idiotic law that circumvented her ownership rights.

            Dis felt a smile light her face as she mapped out a plan of attack: bribes, pressure, favors, straight buys, blackmail…  For the first time in two years, she actually felt excited about something.

            They should have let you be Queen.  And she would be.  This blasted town had ignored her for far too long.  They’d try and kill her, she had no doubt about that.  But what did she care?  It wasn’t as if death wouldn’t be welcome if they managed to carry it out.  But they were men, and men were incompetent.  They’d whisper about the Queen of Ered Luin for years even after her assassination.

            Dis could almost see her grandfather, her father, her brother all looking at her in horror.  You have a duty to your clan! they told her.

            Dis laughed at them, feeling the weight of grief lighten for just a moment as she defied them.  I’ve done my duty to my clan, she told them.  Now I’m going to do what I want.

            You’re mad, her father whispered.

            Aye, they’d call her the Mad Queen.  What did she care?

            Madness ran in the Line of Durin, everybody knew that.  What they forgot was that all dwarves were the children of Durin the Deathless.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

             Bofur sighed and stretched languidly in the luxurious feather bed.  He had not slept so well in an age, he thought comfortably.  He felt like himself again, as he hadn’t since they left Erebor.

            He was still nestled against Enna, his morning erection pressed against the courtesan’s thigh.  Bofur eased his hips away as best he could, but he was entangled in the sleeping dwarf’s arms and did not want to wake him just yet.

            Instead, he took the opportunity to study his companion in the dim light seeping through the shutters.  Enna really was quite startlingly handsome, but also very young – he couldn’t be a day over ninety.  Last night, the last thing Bofur wanted to do was wonder about his bed partner, but now that he felt more himself, his curiosity was sparked.  Enna had done him a great kindness last night, though he might not know it, and Bofur wished to repay it.

             – Which he would do in the time-honored manner of paying gold for having shared the man’s bed, Bofur told himself ruefully.  Personal matters weren’t Bofur’s business, and in a town where some frowned on whoring, Enna would probably not appreciate his curiosity.

            Instead, Bofur turned his mind to everything that needed to be done today.  They’d need to ask around about a caravan leader.  He hoped to Mahal that they found one, because the task was growing too large for him and Dwalin alone.

            Also he would have to go visit his uncle today; he was very much not looking forward to that encounter.

            And he needed to apologize to Dwalin, first thing.  He was looking forward to that even less.

            No, that wasn’t true.  In a strange way, he was looking forward to it.  It was the first of many apologies he’d no doubt owe his friend over the years to come, if Bofur played his cards right.

            And that brought him to the next thought: how to broach the subject of courting with Dwalin.  Bofur may have stopped telling himself he couldn’t have his friend, but he still needed to convince Dwalin it was worth a try.  After the way Bofur reacted to their kiss at Bag End, he couldn’t blame Dwalin for being leery about making any moves.

            Bofur’s instinct was to find his friend and kiss the stuffing out of him – after apologizing, of course, and no, he wasn’t even going to think about what he’d do if Dwalin wouldn’t accept his apology, because otherwise he’d be too nervous to think at all.  But maybe that wasn’t the best strategy…  The last thing Bofur wanted was to scare Dwalin off by moving too fast.  Maybe he should give his friend some time to get used to the idea.

            Bofur realized with some dismay that he didn’t have time enough here in Ered Luin to commission or create a proper courting gift.  Which meant waiting until Erebor.  That was probably better anyways, he told himself, trying to swallow back his impatience.  Dwalin deserved a proper courtship, not one conducted under the prying eyes of the entire caravan.  Dwalin was intensely private, even for a dwarf.

            And if everything went wrong and Dwalin refused him, it would be better to be back Erebor where he could hide in his work and his kin and try to rebuild the pieces of his shattered hopes.

            No, he told himself sternly.  He’d had enough of being morose.

            He wasn’t going to hide his feeling from Dwalin, he decided, even if he didn’t state them openly.  It would be an extended seduction, of sorts, letting Dwalin see how much he was cared for.  Not flirting – Bofur wasn’t sure he could flirt without it being sexual, and anything sexual really would scare Dwalin away – but Bofur could finally stop hiding the depth of his feelings for his friend.

            His half-hard cock protested the no flirting rule, but Bofur told it yet again to behave.  And mmmmmm, he was looking forward to the day Dwalin told him what he was comfortable with Bofur fantasizing about, so that he didn’t have to feel guilty every time he brought himself off.

            But first, apologies.  Bofur worried his bottom lip between sharp teeth at the thought.  His mother had taught him that “I’m sorry” was the second most important phrase after “I love you” in a relationship, and he knew it was true.  But he couldn’t help hating it, too.  It was easier to say “I’m sorry” when there was an “I love you” in place to ensure that the other had an interest in forgiving the fault.

            Dwalin had the stones to apologize to you after he wronged you, Bofur reflected, and he’d probably never done it before in his life.

            Yes, but he’s brave.   He’s Dwalin, son of Fundin, greatest warrior living.

            Oh Mahal, I’m in love with the greatest warrior living!  For a moment, Bofur felt dizzy at his own audacity.  How could he hope…

            It’s Dwalin, he reminded himself.  Dwalin, who took his axes into surgery with him and asked you to stand watch.

            …Dwalin who loves a dead king, the voice of doubt hissed.

            Dwalin who promised me he’d regain my trust no matter how long it took, Bofur spat back.  He’d had enough of doubts.  If he didn’t try for the man he loved, he really was the worst sort of coward.

            Enna stirred and blinked awake, giving Bofur a sleepy smile.  He looked very young but also sinfully debauched in a sleep-rumpled way, and even though Bofur knew there’d been no debauching going on his cock still stood up and took notice at the thought.  Quiet, you, he told it.

            If Enna could be that desirable first thing in the morning, he certainly was in the right line of work.

            Indeed, the smile Enna aimed his way now was edged in seduction.  “Good morning,” he said, and it managed to sound deliciously suggestive and quite sincere at the same time.

            “Good morning,” Bofur said, swallowing.  His mouth had gone dry.

            “Is there anything I can do for you this morning?”

            “No,” Bofur said, not without a little regret.

            Enna looked a tad perplexed.  “I can leave if you’d like to be alone?” he offered.

            Bofur smiled and shook his head, reluctant to face all the tasks of the day.  “I’m enjoying my lie-in,” he said.  Then it occurred to him to ask, “Unless I’m keeping you from your family?  I suppose most people don’t ask for a full night.”

            Enna’s smile was reassuring this time.  “Shifts are always noon to noon next day, in case customers do want the whole night.”

            Bofur realized that that he didn’t have the first idea how much to pay Enna for his time.  “I, er, I’m sorry,” he apologized.  “I suppose I should have asked you about your rates beforehand.  How much do I owe you?”

            Enna laughed, and if Bofur hadn’t been thoroughly in love with Dwalin he would have been enchanted by that laugh.  “My dear Mister Bofur, Mistress Alís would have my head if I asked for a single penny,” he said.  “Especially as you asked nothing of me but my presence.”

            He was very close, and Bofur found himself gazing at the dwarf’s full red lips.  He shook his head to clear it, and smiled as he thought instead of Dwalin’s surprisingly soft lips, which he hoped someday to taste again.  “Your presence was exactly what I needed.”

            “I’m glad,” Enna said simply, a hand on Bofur’s bicep.  “Alís tells us we must always give customers what they ask for even if it isn’t what they want or need.  It’s nice to be able to do both.”

            His words surprised Bofur, their naïve honesty.  “Are you still an apprentice then?” he asked.  Just how young was Enna?

            “Aye, I’ve still got half my apprenticeship left,” Enna said.  “Alís says I’m a good apprentice – but she says I need to learn not to talk about myself so much.”  He grimaced apologetically.  It was prettily done; Bofur could almost believe there was no art behind it.

            “Could I ask a question?” Enna asked shyly a few minutes later.

            “Ye just did, lad,” Bofur teased, “but I suppose I can grant you another.”

            Enna shifted onto his side, propping his head up on a bent arm.  “My Da used to talk of Erebor.  He was a weaver there, and he sold his wares in Dale.  Is it – ”  There was a childish awe in his face and voice – “Is it as wonderful as the legends say?”

            Bofur thought about that.  Certainly he’d been awed when he first saw it, but now it was just – “It’s home,” he said simply.  “And home is always even more splendid than the legends.”

            “Is it true that the streets are paved with gold?” Enna asked, wide-eyed.

            “I believe the King’s apartments are, but not the streets,” Bofur said, laughing.  “Gold tarnishes, lad.  And it’s too soft for building and too heavy for much else.  Can you imagine having to polish miles and miles of passageways?”  He grinned at the disappointed look on Enna’s face.  “Mind, the walls are inlaid with mosaics of precious stones,” he said, relenting.  “And the mines – it’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see, those mines.  We were mining a vein of gold last year, and we punched through a natural grotto all of rubies!  I’ve never seen anything like it.”

            Bofur prattled on about home for an unconscionably long time, and realized it all in a rush when he saw the small smile on Enna’s face.  “Oh!” he said, stopping himself in the middle of a sentence.  “This is one of the ‘what I need’ things, isn’t it?”  Aye, he’d needed the reminder of home.  No matter what else happened, there was home and kin in Erebor.           

            Enna gave him the same startingly brilliant smile he had given him last night.  Mahal, how could he be just an apprentice?

            “Didn’t your Da want to return home when the Mountain was won?” Bofur asked, giving in to curiosity.

            Enna was quite good at hiding his feelings, Bofur realized, because he did not register the question in his face or in any tension in his body.  Instead, it was only because the dwarf reminded him of Bombur and he was alert for Bombur’s subtle reactions that Bofur caught the way something shuttered in his eyes.  “Da died before the Mountain was retaken,” Enna said simply.

            Bofur nodded.  “Brothers and sisters?” he asked.

            “A brother,” Enna said briefly.

            Younger, no doubt.  A picture was forming.  “Aye?” he asked lightly.  “I’ve a younger brother myself.”

            He was treated to Enna’s brilliant smile again, and the man reached up to fetch a miniature out of the drawer in the headboard.  A proud smile on his lips, he showed it to Bofur.  The boy looked to be about forty, and he had Enna’s blue-black hair and sturdy build.  “He takes after Da,” Enna said, affection clear in his voice.  “He’ll be starting his apprenticeship soon.”

            Bofur reached into the bag he kept at his hip and pulled out the oft-unfolded parchment Ori had given him before he left, with a portrait of Bofur with his brother and cousin.  “That’s Bombur,” he said, smiling to realize that the similarities really weren’t so apparent in the light of morning.  “And Bifur.”

            “Broadbeam clan heir,” Enna said unexpectedly.

            “Why yes, I suppose so.”  It hadn’t mattered, back when they were poor as dirt and no one wanted an alliance with a family that included Balur – or Bofur the troublemaker.  Bofur supposed Bifur would be seen as much more marriageable now.  A broad smile broke across his face at the thought.  Possibly he’d get to be an uncle after all.

            “I suppose all the noble families are trying to work out how to marry their children off to him,” Bofur said.  It wasn’t kind to laugh – but Bifur would tell those busybodies where to step off.

            Enna grinned.  “I overhear a lot of nonsense in the course of my duties,” he said, and winked.

            He must, at that.  If whoring was the world’s second-oldest profession*, spying was the third.  Bofur hoped to Mahal that Dis never came across Enna or thought to use any of Alís’s boys for information.  She already knew too much…

            He groaned internally at this reminder of yesterday.  He had to go find Dwalin and apologize, and hope that his friend didn’t hold grudges the way Bofur himself did.

            “I’ve got to go,” he said, disentangling himself from Enna with some regret.  “I am going to pay you though.  I’ll give the gold to Alís if you won’t take it.”

            Enna frowned.  “But – ”

            “Call it a tip,” Bofur said.  He refused to be like those nobles who conveniently “forgot” to pay for things, knowing a simple craftsman or whore wouldn’t dare shout too loudly about it.

            “If you insist…” Enna said, and Bofur briefly worried that he was overthinking things again.

            It was hard to come to any kind of equilibrium, he thought as he traced the too-short distance back to the inn.  He could ignore his money and spend without a thought, and then feel guilty for it, or he could think through every interaction until it became uncomfortable for all concerned – and still feel guilty.

            In the old days, he could feel proud of the small amount of gold he put in the family pot every week.  He had earned that gold.  His dirty, sweat-soaked clothes and aching muscles were a testament to that earning.  He had always rather hoped that one day he’d be in a position to make toys full-time.  But it was a speculative gamble he couldn’t take after Bifur’s accident left him totally dependent on his cousins.  After Merced’s death especially, with the loss of her income from the forge, Bofur went over the numbers in their meager budget again and again, and he’d had to accept that if the shareholders managed to fire him in the end for his troublemaking, his family would be out on the street.  He had floated the idea of stopping, in fact, but both Bombur and Bifur had protested so vociferously it brought tears to his eyes.

            And now, rich beyond his wildest dreams, a part of him missed the aching shoulders and back that told him that he at least deserved what he had.

            Following Thorin had been more running away than anything else.  And yes, Bofur had fought in a war to protect Erebor, but Balur had fought in a war too; did his uncle deserve less?  And Bofur had had the greatest warrior in Middle Earth watching his back.  A long journey and then a few hours swinging his mattock at Orcs did not merit the river of gold that ran through his private vault.  He’d not answered Thorin’s call out of any patriotism or longing for home; not even personal loyalty.  Bofur was born and bred in the Blue Mountians, and the affairs of kings had little to do with him.  And now – now he had a favored position at Court, and the King was obliged to at least listen to him if Bofur wanted a word.

            Almost three years, and it was still surreal.

            He was glad he’d been at the Battle of Five Armies, though, for he had saved Dwalin’s life, and that was something to be proud of.

            It was both wonderful and a little painful to think of Dwalin just now.  Bofur remembered this, this slightly-dazed awe, from the first time he’d realized he was in love.  But that had also been different in that Bofur had been sleeping with Havlin for almost a year before he found himself in love.

            First things first.  Apologies had to come before declarations.

 


 

 

            The knock on Dwalin’s door was tentative.  He sprang to answer it; he had been pacing restlessly ever since breakfast.  He ought to have gone back to the watch house to practice with the guards, but he’d destroyed all their practice dummies the night before and had had to admit it to the captain when he came by at dawn.  A generous offer of gold had cured the dwarf’s appalled stare, but Dwalin was aware he would be the subject of gossip in days to come.

            Also, he wanted to be at the inn when Bofur returned.  When, not if, he reminded himself.  Bofur would return.  He had to.

            The bells had just tolled nine o’clock, and Dwalin had not expected Bofur until shortly before the market opened.  It was an uncharitable thought, but Bofur did tend to leave contentious situations until the last minute.  It would never excuse Dwalin’s behavior – but if Bofur had just told him what he meant to do in Rivendell ahead of time, if Dwalin had had some choice in the matter, his anger would not have escalated to violence.  At least, he hoped it wouldn’t have.

            But here was Bofur, a full hour earlier than Dwalin had expected him.  Dwalin realized that he was woefully unprepared.  What on earth could he say?  What was there to say?

            “I’m sorry,” they both blurted at the same time when Dwalin pulled open the door.

            Bofur’s hair was askew, his clothing rumpled, and he was wringing his hat anxiously between his hands, but there was an air about him that gave Dwalin pause.  He knew Bofur had been unhappy since they came to this town – no; since Rivendell – but that had all disappeared from the way his friend held himself.  Bofur’s body language said he was nervous, but the restless melancholy was gone.

            Dwalin had realized over the past several weeks that Bofur chose which emotions to reveal and which to hide, and it was possible his friend had decided not to let him see the unhappiness anymore – but he didn’t think so.  He didn’t think that it was something Bofur held consciously.

            So something must have removed Bofur’s unhappiness since Dwalin last saw him.  And the only time he’d seen Bofur happy here in Ered Luin was with –

            Havlin.

            Dwalin swallowed.  He’d not only driven Bofur away; he’d lost him completely.  Bofur would stay here in this Mahal-forsaken town and be happy, and Dwalin…  Dwalin would be all alone, just when he’d finally realized what it was he really wanted.

            “Are you well?” Bofur asked, concern tingeing his voice.

            Dwalin came back to the present with a jolt.  He looked at the beautiful dwarf before him.  Bofur deserved happiness, and all Dwalin had done was hurt him.  He would not be so selfish as to deny Bofur this.

            “You came back,” he heard himself say.  Why had Bofur come here if he could stay with Havlin?

            Bofur’s eyebrows rose.  “Of course I came back.  Did you – ”  He cut himself off, shaking his head.  He looked as serious as Dwalin had ever seen him.  He watched Bofur chew on his lip, then take a deep breath.  “I wish I could take back everything I said yesterday,” Bofur said.  “I hope someday you’ll be able to forgive me for it.”

            Dwalin blinked at him, startled into speechlessness.  He should be the one apologizing, not Bofur…

            “You were right, I had no right to tell you to put yourself in danger.  I – I was frightened for you and I reacted badly.”

            Dwalin stared.  Why was Bofur apologizing?  Dwalin was the one who had broken the trust between them.

            “Next time,” Bofur was saying, looking sad, “ – I’ll try not to let there be a next time, but if I’m stupid about it again – tell me earlier?  I promise to do my best to listen better.  You – you had every call to be furious,” he finished in a small voice.

            Dwalin looked at his friend in mounting horror.  How could Bofur try to take the blame when it was Dwalin who had lost control?  It was wrong, so wrong.  Bofur blamed himself for Dwalin’s anger?

            He felt a wave of hopelessness roll over him.  Bofur was looking at him anxiously, waiting for Dwalin’s forgiveness when Dwalin should have been the one begging his.

            “Think nothing of it,” Dwalin said, his mouth dry.

            Bofur hesitated.  “But I – ”

            “Don’t,” Dwalin said, already feeling his temper fraying.  “It was my fault.  I should be apologizing to you.”

            Bofur looked mystified.  “If you say so…” he said slowly, brow furled.

            “I do,” Dwalin said firmly.  He opened his mouth to begin doing just that, but Bofur raised his hand just a little to say he wasn’t done.

            He seemed to be having trouble finding words.  Dwalin waited as patiently as he could.  Finally Bofur asked, “Why didn’t you tell me that Lady Dis knew your secret?”

            Dwalin could see the hurt behind the words.  It took him by surprise – and it shouldn’t have.  “I…”  His voice trailed off.  “It didn’t occur to me to tell you.”  He frowned.  He was not used to having someone he could rely on, someone who would care.  He’d been on his own for most of his life.  “I’m sorry,” he offered.

            “You should have told me.”

            “But what could you do?” Dwalin asked.  Why should he bother Bofur with things he couldn’t solve?

            Bofur grimaced.  “It’s what friends do, Dwalin,” he said, sounding tired.  “Friends share the burden, even if they can’t fix the problem.”  Dwalin would give a lot for Bofur not to look so discouraged.  “If I were being blackmailed and I didn’t tell you, wouldn’t you be upset?”

            “I’d remove the blackmailer’s head with my bare hands,” Dwalin growled.  “Problem solved.”

            Bofur laughed a little.  “I’ll take that to mean you’d be upset,” he said, and Dwalin was relieved to see the small smile on his face.

            Friends.  Dwalin didn’t have many friends; just Thorin’s Company, really.  The closest friendship he’d ever had was with Thorin himself, and he couldn’t quite imagine telling Thorin about any matter if it wasn’t something he could help with.  Thorin might think him weak for sharing his impotence in the face of Dis’s determination.

            He eyed Bofur, trying to understand.  If Dis had been blackmailing Bofur instead – if Bofur had kept it from him –

            “Oh,” he said, finally comprehending.  “I’m sorry.”

            Bofur bit his lip, still looking troubled.  “Next time, will you let me share the burden?” he asked.

            “I hope there isn’t a next time.”  One blackmailer was enough, thank you very much.

            Bofur made an impatient gesture.  “Next time there’s something that neither of us can solve, I mean.”

            “Yes?” Dwalin said cautiously.  He wasn’t sure he’d remember to; silence was an ingrained response and had been since he’d gotten his first beard.  “I’ll try.”

            Bofur did not look satisfied, but he appeared to take this as the best offer he was likely to receive.  “Very well,” he said, and Dwalin allowed himself a moment of relief that the subject was closed.  “Speaking of things neither of us can solve – I need to go speak to my uncle this morning if he’s not too hungover.  Can you set up the stall in the market and I’ll meet you there when we’re done?”

            Dwalin nodded.  “Is there anything I can do?” he asked.  “About your uncle, I mean.”

            Bofur shook his head, smiling.  “I’m afraid not.  He’s going to be perfectly dreadful on the journey.  He’s impossible when he’s drunk – and he’s worse when he’s sober.”

            Dwalin nodded, wishing that there were something he could do, some action he could take.

            Oh, he thought for the second time in as many minutes.  That’s what he meant about sharing the burden.  All right, I can do that.

            So, because he was pretty sure Bofur was a little wary of his welcome, Dwalin reached out to settle a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder.  He watched relief transform Bofur’s face and felt the tension flow out of his friend, and realized that Bofur too had been genuinely worried that he’d lost their friendship.

 


 

            It was strange not to have the prospect of a visit to Lady Dis hanging over his head.  Dwalin told the ink-artist he could stay as long as she needed.  She gave him a sharp-toothed grin of satisfaction.

            “Done,” she grunted a few hours later, eying her work critically.  “Mind, most won’t hardly notice it, under all that lovely fur.”  Her eyes on Dwalin’s chest were frankly envious, and he felt pleasantly surprised and shy at the same time.  Nobody had ever really looked at his chest before.  The one time Bofur had, in Rivendell before the surgery, his eyes had skittered away nervously.

            Dwalin knew that other dwarves admired his strength and his muscles, but what he’d told Bofur was true: he’d gone out of his way to make himself less appealing as a potential lover.  Losing his hair had helped.  But now that he wanted Bofur as a lover, it was strangely reassuring to see admiration on the ink-artist’s face.

            He was reminded then that Bofur had disappeared, probably to go find Havlin, and he felt the tenuous pleasure vanish as quickly as it had come.

            He trudged back to the inn, feeling restless.  The call of the open road was louder in his mind; there weren’t as many Orcs to slay after the Battle of the Five Armies, but they weren’t all gone.  Bofur would stay in Ered Luin, and Dwalin would see the refugees home to Erebor.  From there, he would plan a campaign.  Maybe something glorious and possibly hopeless like retaking Moria.  Balin had urged the King to send an exploratory team of fighters to see how many Orcs remained in the dwarves’ ancestral homeland after the purging of the Battle.  It would serve as a good distraction.

            To his surprise, when he reached the inn he found Bofur’s door open.  A gray-haired dwarrowdam sat across the table from his friend, scrawling notes on a piece of parchment.

            “Ah, here he is,” Bofur said, beckoning Dwalin inside.  “Dwalin, Krevlin was kind enough to recommend a caravan master.  This is Mistress Miril.  Mistress, may I introduce Dwalin son of Fundin.”

            The dwarrowdam swung to her feet and bowed, looking him over.  “At your service,” she said, sharp eyes taking a careful survey of his visible weaponry.  Dwalin returned the bow and stared just as frankly at hers.  None of it was new or flashy, but it was of good quality and well cared for.  His estimation of her went up.

            “I hear you’ve been drilling dwarves in the marketplace, training them to fight,” the woman said.  “Does that mean you don’t intend to hire guards for your caravan?”

            The notion of hiring guards had never occurred to Dwalin.  He tried not to let the surprise show on his face.  “Do you think they can be found on such short notice?”

            She gave him a calculating look.  “It depends on how much your King is willing to pay,” she said.

            No doubt she’d drive a hard bargain for her own services as well.

            “What experience do you have leading caravans?” he demanded.

            “I spent the first two hundred years of my life doing it,” she returned tartly.  “What experience do you have leading them?”

            Older than she looked, then.  Retired, probably.  “We wish to leave in eight days,” he said.  “Is that possible?”

            She snorted.  “You’re mad – but aye, it can be done.  If you have me a contract by tonight.”  She eyed them both.  “If what Mister Bofur tells me is true, you boys are woefully unprepared.”

            And they wouldn’t have Bofur for the return journey, Dwalin reminded himself.  Aye, he’d pay this woman whatever she asked to take the responsibility off his shoulders.

            Still he choked when he heard her price.  “That’s highway robbery!” he bellowed.

            From the gleam of amusement in her eyes, she knew it.  They hollered at each other with great relish until he’d bargained her down to just outright larceny, and then he smiled broadly.  This was the King’s idea, and this money would come out of the King’s coffers.  Dwalin would have paid her the highway robbery price if she’d insisted.

            “We’ll draw up the contract and send it over to you tonight,” Bofur said when they’d shaken hands on the deal.  “Thank Mahal!” he added when she’d left.  “I wasn’t looking forward to being the person everybody could complain to along the journey.”

            Dwalin tensed.  When was Bofur going to tell him that he wasn’t coming?

            “We’ve the Firebeards’ invitation tonight,” he said when Bofur said nothing further on the subject.  “You’ll need to stay in, or you’ll put the lie to my telling them that you have to attend to a family matter.”

            Brown eyes met his, worried.  “I can go,” Bofur offered.  “Not even Feron Firebeard would dare offer too grave an insult to one of the heroes of Erebor.”

            Dwalin wished he wouldn’t do that, give that self-deprecating little smile every time he spoke about being a hero.  Bofur was a hero.

            Shaking his head, Dwalin said, “Even Dis agrees you shouldn’t go.  They’ll just be unpleasant.”

            Bofur’s brows came together.  He began to say something, and evidently thought better of it.  Instead, he said carefully, “It seems that Lady Dis spoke of a great many things with you.”

            Dwalin tensed again.

            “Are you going to tell me about them, or are you going to make decisions for me without talking to me first?”  Bofur’s voice was calm, but when Dwalin met his eyes he saw the anger there, banked but glowing.  Bofur was more upset with him about Dis than he’d admitted.  Dwalin was used to dwarves ranting and yelling their anger; it was quickly spent.  Bofur didn’t do that.  Perpetually cheerful Bofur didn’t seem like he was angry at all, ever.  And perhaps he was not, usually.

            “I’ll… try?”  Dwalin wasn’t sure what to say to fix things with his friend.  He thought back to everything he and Dis had discussed.  He couldn’t tell Bofur about the threats to the King; Nori and Balin would have his head.  And –

            Dwalin frowned, rethinking this.  Why couldn’t he tell Bofur?  Nori and Balin would not be pleased, but just because Bofur couldn’t help didn’t mean he shouldn’t know.

            “Politics,” he said abruptly.  “We talked a great deal about politics.  And about… about who is trying to kill the King.”

            Bofur inhaled sharply, his shock showing on his face.  Right: that was why Dwalin hadn’t thought it right to tell him; Bofur’s face showed what he was feeling, and this needed to be a closely-guarded secret.

            But Bofur was capable of keeping secrets as well as anyone Dwalin knew.  When he chose, his face would betray nothing.

            “You told Balur… two assassination attempts?” Bofur said, still wide-eyed.  “You’ve no idea who’s behind it?”

            “Oh, we’ve ideas,” Dwalin growled, letting the old frustration fill him.  “Too many ideas, it turns out.  Dis has narrowed it down to eight suspects, and Nori has a few more.”

            It was Bofur’s turn to frown.  “That’s assuming Dis herself isn’t behind it.”

            “Aye,” Dwalin acknowledged.  “It’s a damn mess, is what it is.”

            “Dwalin.”  Bofur looked troubled.  “How far can you trust her?”

            “I don’t think she wants the throne,” Dwalin told him.  “If she did, I think she’d have made a move by now.”  Please believe me when I say that if I wanted Dain dead… he would already be dead.

            Bofur shook his head.  “She’s been grieving.  Her whole family is dead, Dwalin, and Dain refused to send any of his men to retake the Mountain.  She’s not going to forget that.”

            “You think she’s biding her time, waiting to kill him?”

            “I don’t know.  But she gave you a whole lot of suspects, and it seems to me that if Nori spends his agents going after the people she tells you to, he’ll have less time to devote to the most obvious suspect.”  He began to pace, agitated.  “For all we know, those people are her political enemies!  She could be manipulating you into taking care of them for her while diverting suspicion from herself.”

            Dwalin scowled.  He was certain Dis hadn’t tried to kill the King.  He couldn’t say why he was certain, just that he was.  Nobody was so good an actress as to fool him day after day.  But if he couldn’t convince Bofur, how could he ever hope to convince Nori and Balin?

            “I’ve no love for the Lady Dis,” he said at last, “and many reasons to hate her.  If I had any cause to think she was plotting, don’t you think I’d say so?”

            For the third time that day, Bofur very clearly stopped himself from saying something, and it was beginning to annoy Dwalin.  “Say it,” he snapped.

            Bofur grimaced and shook his head.  “It won’t help anything.”

            “You clearly think my judgment can’t be trusted,” Dwalin snarled.  “You could do me the courtesy of saying it to me direct.”  When are you going to tell me about Havlin, Bofur?  Am I going to have to pull that out of you, too?

            Bofur looked a bit bewildered at his vehemence, but he nodded.  “Very well.  Your judgment can’t be trusted.  You can’t see her clearly through your guilt.”

            Dwalin kept silent with a force of will, and Bofur’s face dissolved into remorse.  “I’m sorry,” he offered, “but I do think your guilt has clouded your vision.  Even if it hasn’t… she’s still dangerous, Dwalin.  She could still destroy everything for you.  If not the King, she could be plotting any number of other things.”

            Just yesterday, Bofur had asked him to turn his back on Dis and deny her power over him.  Today he urged the opposite.  What had changed?  Was this what Bofur had been trying to apologize for this morning?

            If that was the case…  Dwalin felt some of the tension in his chest ease.  Taking a deep breath, he tried to focus just on Bofur’s words now, setting aside their quarrel yesterday.  If it had been Nori or even Balin accusing him of blindness when it came to Dis, Dwalin would have snarled and spit.  The only person he’d ever allowed to question his judgment was Thorin – and often he only bit his tongue lest he make the King look bad.

            “I don’t think she wants to hurt Dain, and that’s what I’ll tell Nori,” he said at last.  “He’ll keep an eye on her, for it’s certain that she’s planning something, even if we don’t know what.”

            “Dwalin,” Bofur said in a small voice, “does Dain suspect your brother?”

            The tension was back.  What if Bofur suspected Balin, too?  It was a logical place to look, just as logical as suspecting Dis.  “Aye, I think so.”  Dwalin felt drained, the way he always did when he had to focus on politics.

            Bofur winced.  “So when Balin insisted that two ambassadors travel to Ered Luin, where they would no doubt meet with the only person in Middle Earth whose claim to the throne rivals Dain’s…”  He looked ill.

            Dwalin sat down heavily.  Of course Bofur would trust Thorin’s Company.  It wouldn’t occur to him not to.  “You’re right.  We’ve done my brother no favors.”  He touched his chest, feeling guilty; his happiness might have come at a high price.  His guilt was mirrored on Bofur’s face, but when his friend opened his mouth to speak, Dwalin help up a hand.  “Don’t,” he said.  “Balin didn’t even know the reason, and still he granted your request.  He wouldn’t have if it would put his position in danger.”  He couldn’t bear to hear Bofur apologize for the greatest gift he’d ever received.

            Bofur gave him a faint smile.  “Very well.  We were speaking of the Firebeards, earlier.”

            Dwalin managed to refrain from groaning aloud, but only just.  He felt like they’d been talking for hours, and it was not the easy talk they usually shared.  Today, he had to examine every word lest he push Bofur even further away.  It was exhausting.

            He couldn’t understand why Bofur would want to go to the Firebeards’ tonight.

            “Why do they dislike you so?” he asked.  “Is it just the...”

            Bofur’s lips twitched in a smile.  “My troublemaking?  Aye, I’ve cost them some serious gold and that’s a fact.”  He shrugged.  “That would be enough to earn their hatred.  But I had it even before that; my uncle and Feron Firebeard are old enemies.”

            A clan feud?  “Why – ”

            “Balur married the dwarrowdam Feron had chosen for himself.”

            “So?” Dwalin demanded.  “No one can force a dwarrowdam to marry when she doesn’t will it.”

            Bofur gave him an odd look.  “We always say that…” he said quietly.  “Have you noticed that we never say it about men?”

            “She’d every right to refuse Feron, no mater how much gold he brought to the union,” Dwalin snapped, confused and irritated by his confusion.  “That was between her and her clan – ”  He stopped, realizing that her clan had probably not been happy with her choice either.  “Turning it into a clan feud is just childish,” he grumbled instead.  What right had the Firebeards to punish Bofur for something that had happened before he was born?

            But Bofur laughed.  “It wasn’t just my aunt.  You see, Balur had the audacity to save Feron’s life at the battle of Azanulbizar.”

            “What?”

            “Ah.  Well, that’s not how he sees it,” Bofur explained.  “Feron says Balur stole a kill that was rightfully his.  The Orc was behind him and he’d never have been able – but no matter.  Firebeards rival Longbeards for stiffnecked pride.”

            Dwalin’s mouth dropped open at the insult, his back going ramrod-straight as he drew himself up haughtily.  Then he caught sight of the merry gleam in Bofur’s eyes and had to laugh, chagrined.  “I see,” he said.

            “And then I challenged the shareholders, and a private feud became a clan feud,” Bofur explained.  “Since then, it’s been open war.”

            “Then why do you want to come tonight?” Dwalin demanded.

            “I don’t want to come tonight.  But I don’t want you to be alone when they start being unpleasant.”

            “Why would they be unpleasant to me?” Dwalin asked blankly.

            Bofur gave him a small smile.  “Because it’s a clan feud, and by being my friend you’ve already chosen sides,” he explained.  “They won’t insult you directly – they wouldn’t dare – but…”  He grimaced.  “They don’t know you.  They’ll assume you’ve more muscles than brains.”

            “I can handle a few insults,” Dwalin growled.  He’d like to see their faces when they realized he’d understood their insinuations!  He hated dwarves like that, those who used words instead of honest fists to fight.

            “Can you?” Bofur asked.  “Dwalin, we’re ambassadors of the King.  You can’t challenge them to a fight just because they insult you.”

            A sinking feeling opened in the pit of Dwalin’s stomach.  “You think I’ll lose my temper,” he realized.  But really, would that be so bad?  Ambassador or not, he didn’t really care; anyone who offered him or Bofur insult, he would punch in the nose.  But – “You think I’ll lose control?”  Did Bofur think he had to play nursemaid lest Dwalin really hurt someone?  The sinking feeling curdled in his gut.  Of course Bofur had no reason to trust that Dwalin could keep control.

            “No!” Bofur said, then hesitated.  “Your temper, yes.  I think you’ll lose your temper.  But they’re not important enough for you to lose control.”

            Dwalin relaxed a bit on hearing that.  He wasn’t sure why Bofur thought it important not to challenge the Firebeards – but if it mattered to Bofur so much…  “I’ll promise to keep my temper if you’ll promise not to come,” he offered.

            Bofur gave him one of those uniquely Bofur smiles, the kind that told Dwalin he’d made his friend unexpectedly happy.  Dwalin would, he reflected sourly, do a lot for a smile like that.  Love really did scramble the brains, didn’t it?  But he didn’t have much time left with his friend; he’d have to get as many of those smiles as possible before the caravan left.

            “Then you can tell the Firebeards the truth; I have family business to attend to,” Bofur said.  “Uncle wasn’t in this morning, but he’ll be easier to find this time of day.”

            Dwalin wanted to protest; no doubt Balur would be even nastier to Bofur without an audience.  But he kept his peace.  At least he’d spared his friend the Firebeards.

            He turned to go, but Bofur said his name then in a soft, hesitant voice.  “Dwalin?”

            “Yes?”  Bofur’s face was half-obscured by shadows.

            “When – when I insulted the L-longbeards yesterday,” his friend began.  “I – I didn’t mean you…  I – I didn’t think.  I didn’t mean anybody ex-except Dis, and I just wanted to hurt her, and I hurt you instead.”

            To Dwalin’s surprise, there were tears in Bofur’s eyes.  Bofur looked up at Dwalin with sorrow and guilt written all over his face, and Dwalin had the strangest urge to grab Bofur and hold him tight until things were alright again.

            But he could make this, at least, right.  “I know,” he said.   As soon as he’d calmed down, he’d known Bofur didn’t mean it.

            Bofur worried his bottom lip between his teeth.  “I will make what amends are necessary for the insult to your honor,” he said earnestly.  It was the legal phrase offered by dwarves found in the wrong in the King’s court of justice for offenses against another dwarf’s honor.  They had to make restitution to the dwarves they had wronged, and those same dwarves got to choose the method.  Dwalin had used the same words when he apologized to Dis for accusing her of plotting an assassination.

            It was much too drastic a method to deal with words spoken in anger.  Bofur must think he was mortally offended for the slur on the Longbeard clan.

            …And he would have been, he realized, if any but Bofur had said it.  But he knew that Bofur didn’t mean it.

            “It is already forgotten,” Dwalin rumbled.  Bofur looked like he would protest, so he raised a hand.  “I have asked your forgiveness in the past; how can I ask it if I’m not willing to offer mine in turn?”

            “It doesn’t work that way,” Bofur said.  “Please, you must let me do something to make it right.”

            Looking at the guilt in Bofur’s eyes, Dwalin thought perhaps it was less a matter of forgiving Bofur than of Bofur forgiving himself.  Very well, then.  “I’ll think on the matter and come up with some restitution, if it is important to you.”

            Bofur relaxed visibly.  “Thank you,” he murmured.

            A dwarf’s honor was a precarious thing.  Dwalin would have to think of something severe enough that Bofur would accept it in exchange for what he considered a grave slight, but not so onerous as to cause hardship.

            Stay with me.  Come home to Erebor, Dwalin wanted to say.  I’ll forgive everything if you do.  But it was not something he could ask.

 


 

 

            Dwalin donned his axes and most of his weaponry for the supper that night.  He did not care if the Firebeards took it amiss.

            Feron Firebeard oozed forward to greet him when he entered, a tall young consort on his arm.  “Mister Dwalin!” he exclaimed.  “You do us honor!  But where is young Bofur Broadbeam?”

            Dwalin executed a perfunctory bow.  “Mister Bofur had a clan matter that needed to be sorted out.  He sends his regrets.”

            “Oh, thank Mahal,” the consort murmured.

            Dwalin glanced at him and blinked, startled.  It was Havlin.

            “Has that uncle of his made a fool of himself again?” Feron asked, disappointment clear on his face.  For a moment, Dwalin glimpsed veiled rage in his eyes and almost took a step back.

            The greybeard rallied, his face smoothing into a politician’s oily mask.  “Mister Dwalin, may I present my betrothed, Havlin of clan Stonefoot.”

            “Your betrothed?” Dwalin repeated, staring.

            Havlin didn’t even try to mask the look on his face: chagrin, shame, and a banked fury.  But when Dwalin’s eyes sought his, Havlin shrugged philosophically.

            “My dear Havlin has agreed to make my waning years a time of joy,” Feron said, maliciously running a proprietary hand over Havlin’s back.

            “But I thought – ”  Dwalin snapped his mouth shut.  Did Feron really hate the Broadbeams so much as to arrange to steal Bofur’s lover from him?

            Bofur couldn’t possibly know about this.  The old Firebeard had hoped to hurt him with it tonight; that much was clear from the disappointment on his face.

            But such arrangements between wealthy families took weeks, if not months, to arrange.  Havlin had known about the betrothal for some time – which meant he wasn’t free to say yes to Bofur – which meant –

            All the air gusted out of Dwalin’s lungs at once, and he felt dizzy with relief.  He had been wrong this morning, about Bofur’s happiness.  It had naught to do with Havlin.

           Bofur wouldn’t be staying here in Ered Luin, then.  Dwalin sent a brief prayer of thanks to the Maker. 

           Then he opened his eyes and bared his teeth in a grin at the malicious old greybeard.  He’d promised Bofur that he wouldn’t lose his temper, but he hadn’t promised to make any effort whatsoever to be pleasant.

 


 

 

            Bofur paused across the street from his uncle’s abode, almost wishing he were at the Firebeards’ supper ignoring pointed comments and subtle insults.  When he realized he’d been standing in the same place for five minutes, he made himself move.  It wasn’t as if this day could get particularly worse.

            Balur lived in a squalid little hole that made Bofur’s skin crawl.  He realized when he banged on the door that his uncle was most likely at a pub, this time of night.  He’s have to start a search of the nearest ones.

            To his surprise, though, his uncle answered the door.  He glared at Bofur with a surly look on his face.  “About time,” he sniffed.

            “Good evening to you too, Uncle,” Bofur said, stepping inside.

            He knew Balur well enough to tell that he hadn’t had more than a few drinks so far.  Enough that he was still coherent, but just on the edge of the nastiness that would emerge with each consecutive glass.

            “I thought we should discuss preparations for the journey to Erebor,” Bofur said, keeping his voice and his face neutral.

            His uncle narrowed his eyes at Bofur.  “What took you so long?” he asked petulantly.  “You should have visited me when you first arrived in Ered Luin.”

            Bofur swallowed back a protest and instead said mildly, “You offered no invitation.”

            Balur glared.  “We are kin,” he said.  “Kin does not need an invitation.”

            Once, that would have made Bofur feel guilty.  But his idea of kin had shifted over the past few years.  Balur was kin – but so were the rest of Thorin’s Company.  Kin meant obligations, certainly – but it also meant getting something back: security, trust.

            “Well, I’m here now,” he said.  He took a seat at Balur’s grimy table and tried not to look around the room.  It would just make the guilt that much harder to hold at bay.  He took out the lead pencil and the parchment he’d brought.  “Let’s make a list of the supplies I’ll provide for your journey.”

            He found he was unconsciously bracing for an indictment of his handwriting again, but Balur said nothing.  That was a first.  From the day Balur first taught him his letters, he’d heard little else on the subject except how stupid he was not to be able to write better.  Bifur and Bombur had both learned reading and writing relatively painlessly, but sharp raps over the knuckles every time Bofur got the letters backwards just left him twitchy and upset.  His mother had put a stop to it eventually when Bofur started in the mines; she said a miner didn’t need to write.  It was an irony that Bofur spend much of his time in his office in the western mines painstakingly filling out paperwork these days.

            He dragged his attention back to the present moment.  “I’ll provide a wagon,” he said.  He would be damned if he would expose Balur to anyone else by making them share a wagon with him.  Especially Dwalin.  Although if he and Dwalin quarreled again, Bofur wasn’t sure if Dwalin would want to share a wagon between them; Bofur might be forced to share with Balur.  He shuddered.  He’d dig that mine when he came to it.  “Since it will just be you in the wagon, we’ll use the extra space for communal supplies.  I’ll buy a pony or a packmule for you, and three months of food, and a tent.”  He braced himself.  “I will not provide any drink.  If you want it, you’ll purchase it yourself to bring.”

            He’d never provoked his uncle’s ire with such a direct hit before.  He wouldn’t have dared.  He watched fury gleam in Balur’s eyes, and for the first time realized that he didn’t care if his uncle became vicious.

            Balur’s eyes flashed in skeletal face.  “Just how am I supposed to do that?” he hissed.  “Our clan is one of the richest in Middle Earth now, but my family has seen fit to provide me with only a pittance!”

            Bofur paused.  Balur must think that the money from Lady Dis had been sent by his son.  Bofur shivered.  It wasn’t like Bifur to be so unkind as to neglect his father, but Erebor was far away, and it had been easy to forget.

            It would be equally unkind to Bifur to bring his father to interrupt his contentment, but what could Bofur do?  Bifur would agree that it was the only choice.

            “You’ll only get a pittance in Erebor as well,” Bofur warned.  Balur would drink himself to death, else.  Then Bofur glanced around the miserable room.  “We’ll set you up in decent quarters, though, deep in the Mountain.”  Maybe if he were properly underground, Balur would not be so unhappy.  The outside took some dwarves that way.  Ered Luin, the only above-ground dwarf city, was sometimes said to drive dwarves slowly mad.

            “Don’t be ridiculous,” Balur snapped.  “I will live with my son.”

            “You will not,” Bofur said firmly, marveling at his own temerity.  “Bifur and Bombur and I share quarters, and I won’t have you.”  It was a heady feeling, saying no to this man.  Bofur held all the cards; for all Balur’s insistence on kin, Bofur didn’t have to do anything at all for his uncle.  He had all the power, and he liked it.  Finally, he could make his uncle suffer.

            Something went very still deep inside him when he realized that.  Silently, he watched his uncle work himself into a righteous rage; heard but didn’t listen to the torrent of abuse that once would have laid him out for days.  He saw Balur getting more and more hysterical as Bofur ignored him, and he smirked when the old man lifted a fist in an aborted threat.  They both knew that Balur no longer dared throw a punch like he would have in the old days, and they both knew that Bofur would no longer stand still for it.

            He couldn’t blame Bifur for his choice to forget.  Bifur had protected his younger cousins from the worst of it, and who was Bofur to deny him the revenge of never again wasting a moment’s concern on this wreck of a dwarf?  Bofur was enjoying his own revenge right now, their roles reversed, watching Balur flail impotently in his tantrum.

            Nothing; Bofur owed him nothing.  He didn’t have to bring Balur to Erebor.  He’d offer the wagon he’d ordered for Balur to Taelin.

            His mind stopped there, on Taelin.  He remembered her eyes the other afternoon, fierce and desperate, when she’d been reduced to begging.  Bofur had as much power over her as he did over Balur: the power to bestow or deny future happiness.

            Bofur suddenly felt sick.  It was a power Balur had wielded to great effect on his own family.  Now that he was older, Bofur could see how politics, war, and the death of Balur’s wife had rendered his uncle powerless over anyone but his family.

            Taelin had thanked him, thanked him, and he hated that she’d had to, and less than three days later here he was playing god again with Balur.

            NoI will not do to my uncle what he did to us.  I am better than him.  Bofur firmed his jaw.

            “We leave eight days hence,” he said, and Balur stopped his tirade about ungrateful relations long enough to stare at him.

            His uncle’s eyes filled with tears, and Bofur thought that if he heard a thank you from him he really would throw up.

            “I will not purchase drink for you and you will not live with us in Erebor,” Bofur said firmly.  “Those are the conditions under which I will travel.  We will provide for you in Erebor or here, whichever you choose.”

            Balur’s face twisted.  He must have had more to drink than Bofur had thought; for a tantrum to last this long was rare.

            “Just because you’ve found a noble to make you his bumboy doesn’t mean people don’t know where you come from!” his uncle spat.

            Their eyes locked across the small room.  Balur’s were full of hate.

           Bofur laughed.

           There was joy in it, because he’d give a lot to be Dwalin’s bumboy, no matter what people thought.  But mostly he laughed because for the first time, Balur’s words didn’t hurt.

            And because some vindictiveness still lurked in his soul, he smiled and dropped a small bag of gold coins onto the table.  “Spend it how you will,” he said jovially, and turned and left.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Balur snatch up the bag, and then heard him howl insults after him.  It was just enough gold to purchase three months’ supply of the worst liquor imaginable – or a week of the very best.

            Bofur smiled grimly and set his feet toward the inn.  With every step, he felt his heart grow lighter.

 


 

            The dinner was interminable.  The old Firebeard clan head had at least finally given up trying to needle Dwalin directly, but he spoke at length of politics.  Dwalin knew just enough to know that the topics he brought up were contentious ones between Firebeard and Longbeard.  Havlin kept trying to turn the conversation to more neutral topics, but neither Dwalin nor Feron rendered him much aid in the endeavor.

            “We hear that the Men of Dale have made an attempt on the life of the King Under the Mountain,” Feron commented when the dessert course was finally brought out.

            Dwalin forced himself not to react.  The cherry tart turned to ash in his mouth; Dis had saved the Firebeard clan for last in her list of suspects, and he thought he knew why.  “There have been attempts on the King, yes,” he grunted.  “And the Men of Dale are among our suspects.”

            “Spoken like a true politician,” Feron said archly.

            “No need to be insulting about it,” Dwalin retorted, hoping the greybeard couldn’t see his clenched jaw.

            “Who else could it be?” Feron went on.  “Perhaps the Elves?  But we have heard that there were those among your Company who were named Elffriend.”

            Dwalin clamped down on the surge of anger that elicited.  But if this withered old husk dared to insult Kili directly…

            “The Halfling got on well with the Elves, it is true,” Dwalin said, keeping his voice bland.  “And yet Thranduil never did forgive him for burgling us all out under his very nose.”  He sipped at the glass of excellent mead.  “The Elves are suspects as well.”

            “Of course,” Feron mused, “it couldn’t be a dwarf.”

            “Of course,” Dwalin agreed, his smile showing teeth.

            “And yet we have heard that one was executed?” the old man asked.

            He shouldn’t know that.  No one should know that.  The King, his guards, and a handful of his councilors were the only ones who knew that.  Dwalin swore to himself.  He almost wished Bofur had come, so he could lay a calming hand on Dwalin’s knee under the table.

            “Have you?” he asked with as much nonchalance as he could muster.  “How rumors do grow in the telling.”  He returned to his tart, making a show of relishing it.  But sadly, it seemed that Firebeards could ruin even good food with their insinuations.

            He was relieved when they were interrupted by the big door banging open.  A frightened-looking dwarf in the Firebeard livery ran in.  “My lord!” he gasped, out of breath.  “My lord, there’s been another cave-in in the mines!”

 

 

 

*For dwarves, the world’s oldest profession is mining.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

           Havlin was on his feet, a terrible anger in his eyes.  “You bastard,” he spat at the Firebeard clan head.  “You bought off the inspector!”

           “Do sit down, my dear,” Feron said soothingly.  “Not all of the mines have been opened for work.  No doubt it was one of the unstable sections.”

           The dwarf in livery shook his head, not catching his master’s glare.  “No, it’s one of the ones they just inspected.  Five buried, they say!”

           “Where do you think you’re going?” Feron demanded, and Dwalin turned back to snarl at him, but the Firebeard was speaking to Havlin.  The greybeard had caught hold of Havlin’s sleeve.  “You’re still my betrothed – ”

           Havlin shook him off with a fury Dwalin hadn’t thought he possessed.  “I am not your betrothed!” he snapped.  “Our contract was contingent upon a clean inspection of the mines so that work could start again – ”

           “Which you received,” the clan head snarled.  “Just because you chose an incompetent inspector – ”

           Havlin laughed, almost manic in his fury.  “Come now.  You only want me so as to torment Bofur Broadbeam.”  His eyes glittered.  “But the joke’s on you, Feron.  When Bofur – ”  He cut himself short for a moment, eyes flickering to Dwalin.  “When I asked Bofur to marry me, he said no.”

           The Firebeard’s bluster stuttered to a halt and he stared at Havlin as if he’d just turned into a viper.  Dwalin stared too, frozen halfway out of his seat.

           Havlin smiled an unpleasant smile as Feron realized his miscalculation.  “So perhaps it should be me quoting the terms of our contract and you trying to find a way out of it, my lord,” he hissed.  “I’ve changed my mind; it’ll take a lot of gold to get rid of me now you’ve no use for me.”

           Dwalin cared little for Havlin’s woes or for his plans.  Bofur would be at the mines now.  He shoved the chair away from the table, standing.

           “No need to leave, Mister Dwalin!” the Firebeard cried.  “We’ll solve this… unpleasantness… after the evening’s entertainment.  Please sit!”

           Dwalin stood to his full height, letting his knuckledusters clank menacingly as he opened and closed his fists.  He’d had enough of this nonsense.

           “Bofur made me promise to offer no violence tonight,” he rumbled.  “But you offer me great provocation, my lord.  In insulting Bofur Broadbeam, you insult one I claim as kin.  You will not do so again.”

           The Firebeard lord stared at him, open-mouthed.  Dwalin turned his back on his new-made enemy and strode away.

 


 

 

           Havlin was only steps behind him as Dwalin ran through the streets toward the mine entrance.

           It seemed like half the town was there, but the crowd parted to let them pass upon recognizing them.  The mass of dwarves was thickest around the entrance to the northern mines, and the two dwarves were hard pressed to fight their way through.  Dwalin caught sight of Krevlin, pale-faced and clench-jawed, and made his way over to him.

           “What’s going on?” he barked.  “Where’s Bofur?”

           Krevlin nodded to the nearest mineshaft, where several dwarves had rigged up a ropes and a winch.

           Dwalin almost staggered under the weight of sudden dread.  His voice, when it finally emerged, was a croak.  “He’s one of the buried?”

           “What?” Havlin cried, going pale, and Dwalin realized distantly that Havlin was the only person in Middle Earth who had the least idea how Dwalin was feeling right now.

           Krevlin shook his head.  “He went down to see if there are any left alive.”

           Terror gripped Dwalin’s heart.  “And you let him?” he roared.  “That’s an unstable mine shaft!”

           “He didn’t give us much choice,” a dwarf Dwalin recognized from the miners’ meetings said.  “Bofur’s always the first one in when there’s a rescue.”

           Krevlin met Dwalin’s eyes.  “Why do you think the miners trust him so?” the clan head asked.  “He’s saved seven men over the years.”

           Dwalin thought of Bofur calling himself a coward.  Brave, stupid, precious Bofur.  No wonder he was so careful about safety in his mines back home.  Dwalin wanted to shake him.  He wanted to hold him safe in his arms and never let him go.  More than anything else, he wanted Bofur out of that mine.

           Havlin plucked at Krevlin’s sleeve.  “I’m no miner,” he said, “but it can’t be safe to have all these people near an unstable mine.”  He nodded at the press of dwarves around him.

           The dwarrowdam Dwalin recognized from Bofur’s meetings – Kiri? – snorted.  “They are miners.  They’d never have ventured this far if it were completely unsafe.”

           “Five miners ventured into a completely unsafe mine,” Krevlin pointed out.

           “True,” Kiri admitted.  “These people won’t leave, though.  It’s their kin and friends down there.”

           “They’re putting their kin and friends in more danger if the mine collapses completely,” Dwalin growled.  He rounded on the crowd.  “You lot!  It’s not safe here!” he roared.  “Everyone needs to move to the mouth of the mines.  Now!” he added when nobody moved.

           “My brother’s down there!” a dwarf yelled back.

           Out of the corner of his eye, Dwalin saw Kiri nod to her fellow conspirators.  They fanned out at the edges of the crowd, linking hands and herding the press of dwarves back.  “Now Hardeng,” Kiri said in a placating voice to the dwarf who had shouted, “if the mine goes, they won’t be able to rescue your brother.”

           The dwarf snarled imprecations at her through his tears.  She was tiny, her head barely reaching his chest, but she held on to the chain and pressed him back inexorably.  A friend tugged at his shoulder and he fell back, giving in.

           “You, too,” Krevlin told Havlin, jerking his head in the direction of the retreating crowd.  He eyed Dwalin.  “Both of you.”

           “Like hell I will,” Havlin growled, but they were interrupted by a shout.  The dwarves manning the winch were pulling hard.  Another shout came from the crowd, which broke through the linked barricade and surged back toward the mouth of the mineshaft.

           To Dwalin’s profound relief, he soon saw Bofur’s head and shoulders appear.  He had an unconscious dwarf slung over his shoulder.  There was a great cheer as he was hauled over the lip of the mine, and a dwarf pushed forward to claim his son.

           Dwalin couldn’t help himself.  He fought his way over to Bofur and pulled him into a bone-creaking embrace.  For once, he didn’t spare a single thought for the tears running down his cheeks.  He just clung to the man he loved, trying to slow his rabbiting heart and convince himself that Bofur was all right.  “Thank the Maker.  Thank the Maker you’re safe,” he heard someone saying, and realized moments later that it was himself.

           He felt Bofur trembling, and froze.  For a moment, all his doubts resurfaced.  He had no right to touch Bofur, not after breaking his trust.  He hadn’t even apologized properly yet.

           But when Dwalin tried to let go and step back, Bofur’s hands fisted in his tunic.  Bofur clung to him, still trembling, and hid his face against Dwalin’s neck.  Tentatively, Dwalin brought his arms back up to rub soothingly over his back and shoulders, wishing he could do more to offer comfort.

           The shouting went on around them as they stood together, an oasis of stillness in the mayhem.  Finally even Bofur’s trembling ceased, and he lifted his head to look up at Dwalin.

           Their eyes met and caught.  Dwalin could not have looked away if an Orc army had been attacking.  He couldn’t decipher the look on Bofur’s face, but it was raw and terrifyingly tender.

           There were dried tear tracks running through the dirt on Bofur’s cheeks, and Dwalin brushed them away with his thumb.  Bofur’s cheek fitted exactly into the palm of his hand, and he found he couldn’t bear to move it away.

           Bofur didn’t object.  As Dwalin watched, Bofur’s eyes flicked down to Dwalin’s mouth, and he whet his lips with a ragged breath.  “Dwalin…” he whispered.  He leaned forward and up, his face barely inches away.  Dwalin’s heart stood still.

           “Bofur!”  A dwarf hurtled into them, breaking them apart and shattering the moment.  Suddenly the shouting of the crowd seemed ten times louder.

           It took Bofur a moment to adjust; while Dwalin watched, he shook himself, put a mask over his frustration, turned to the dwarf – and blanched.

           “My brother,” Hardeng begged.  “You’ve got to go back for my brother.”

           It took everything Dwalin had not to roar at the poor dwarf when he saw the look on Bofur’s face.  Guilt, grief, and the self-hatred Dwalin had hoped never to see again: all passed across Bofur’s visage.  Then it resolved into the worst of all: a deep compassion.

           “I’m sorry, Hardeng,” Bofur said quietly.  “Hurleng was pinned under a boulder.”  He pulled away from Dwalin and laid his hand on the dwarf’s shoulder.

           “But we can get it off,” Hardeng begged.  “I’ll go down with you – maybe only his legs are pinned – broken legs only take a few months of healing…”

           “He’s dead, Hardeng,” Bofur said gently.

           Hardeng shook his head.  “No,” he said, sounding anxious.  “No, he can’t be.”

           “I’m sorry,” Bofur said, twin tears trickling down his cheeks.  “I’m so terribly sorry.”

           “No!” Hardeng wailed, a sob bursting out of him.  “You brought back Joauld.  Why didn’t you bring back my brother?”  He hammered impotent fists on Bofur’s chest as more sobs were torn from his chest.  Dwalin started forward but was brought up abruptly by a tiny dwarrowdam sliding in front of him.  Kiri looked up at him and shook her head.

           Bofur’s hands closed gently around the fists and he held them immobile.  “Please,” Hardeng begged through his tears.  “Please, let’s just go back down and find him?”

           Bofur looked haunted but he just continued to murmur, “I’m sorry.”  Kiri approached and put a hand on Hardeng’s arm, then enfolded him in her arms when she had his attention.  He sobbed against her, and Bofur was able to let go of his hands and sag back.

           Both Havlin and Dwalin moved to support him at the same time.  They both heard the next onslaught.

           “Bofur, lad,” an aged Blacklock asked, tears trembling in his eyes.  “My Lucenn?”

           Bofur flinched.  A dwarrowdam with red hair was behind him.  “And my sister Robaney?”  There were tears in her voice; she already knew the answer.

           Dwalin couldn’t hear what the third one asked, but he could guess because Bofur flinched at each question as if struck.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “They are dead.”

           The crowd went silent for a long moment at his words, but then the murmuring started.

           “The mines were to be inspected!”

           “How did this happen?!”

           “Jahreh said they were safe!”

           Havlin looked up at this.  He had brought Bofur water, but he shoved the waterskin into Dwalin’s hands and turned to the crowd.  “The inspector was bought off by the shareholders,” he declared in a ringing voice.  The crowd shifted and muttered, anger growing.  “He betrayed us all.”

           The crowd was halfway to rioting before the hapless inspector was dragged up.  Bofur stared, uncomprehending, at Jahreh.

           “I don’t understand,” Bofur said.  “You were with us from the first.  How could you let them die?”

           The dwarf had been shoved to his knees before his former friends, and he looked about wildly for a friendly face.  There was none.  Finally he looked up at Bofur, eyes wide with terror.  “Please,” he gasped.

           Bofur knelt so that he was even with the man.  “I called you friend.  I trusted you.  What could they possibly offer that was more important than your fellow miners?”

           The crowd made an ugly hissing sound, and Dwalin realized that Jahreh would probably not live to stand trial.  They might not kill him outright, but there were more subtle ways to kill a dwarf.  Strip him of clan and family, and he’d hold the blade himself and take care of the matter quietly.

           Jahreh focused on Bofur, realizing that this was the only person here who might spare him a moment of pity.  “Bofur – ” he said, voice broken, “you have to understand – my father was so ill – we couldn’t afford a doctor – ”  He was begging.

           For a moment, Bofur just looked at him.  Then Dwalin saw him turn dead white.

           All eyes were on him as he stepped back, faltering.  “I’m sorry,” Bofur said to them.  “I can’t…”  Then he turned and walked away, through the crowd and out of the mine.

 


 

 

           Dwalin would have gone after him, but there was a larger matter on his hands just now.  “If we’re not careful, they’re going to kill him outright,” he said to Kiri, nodding at Jahreh.  “Do you think we can get him to the watch house?”

           “Maybe it’s best to let them,” Havlin said.  “It’s kinder than what will happen after the trial.”

           Krevlin shook his head.  “No.  We’ve the upper hand now, against the shareholders.  Kill him and we’ve lost the moral authority.  The guilt would eat at every one of those dwarves, and we wouldn’t be able to stand firm.”

           “Can you distract the crowd?” Dwalin asked Kiri.

           She exchanged glances with her fellow conspirators again and nodded.  “We can try.”

           Krevlin and Dwalin were most of the way through the press of dwarves when somebody noticed the darkhaired dwarf between them and cried, “Where are you taking him?”

           “To the watch house,” Dwalin growled, elbowing through the sea of bodies.  “He’ll stand trial after the Council meets.”

           “He will sleep in chains tonight, you have my word on it,” Krevlin added.

           Dwalin expected more protest, but it appeared that the dwarves were relieved that someone seemed to know what should be done.  It didn’t hurt that it was a Councilman, Dwalin reflected.

           Jahreh, ashen-faced, began to stumble as the adrenaline of fear leeched from his body.  Krevlin and Dwalin each took an arm and steered him toward the city gates.

           “Will they execute him?” Dwalin asked when the dwarf was safely locked up.

           Krevlin looked troubled.  “Perhaps.  His actions caused the death of four dwarves; there’s a case to be made for murder.”

           “There’s a case against the shareholders, too,” Dwalin snarled.

           Krevlin looked frustrated.  “The shareholders on the Council have exempted themselves from such laws.”

           “You’re mad,” Dwalin barked.  “You’re all mad.”

           “Perhaps,” Krevlin agreed.  “But it’s no different than your King and your nobles.  Everywhere there are those who make the laws and place themselves above it.”

           “At least we’re not dying of it in Erebor!” Dwalin snapped.  “Why don’t you do something?”

           “Aye?  And what, kind sir, would you suggest we do?” Krevlin demanded, steel in his voice.  “The miners could riot – the miners have rioted.  What did it get us besides more dead in the riots?”

           “There’s got to be something you can do.”

           “We are doing what we can do,” Krevlin said.  “It will take years of hard-won battles for every inch they give us, and victories will come only after the kind of bloodshed we saw today.  It’s stupid and it’s difficult and short of wholesale murder of the shareholders, it’s the only way!”

           Dwalin left him then, fuming.  It couldn’t be true.  The world should not work that way.  It was – it was wasteful.  Patience did not come easily to dwarves, for all they were a long-lived people.  Perhaps it was because they were a long-lived people that it did not.  Where a Man could put up with misery for his seventy years or so of life, a dwarf would not do so for his three-times-seventy.

           Or perhaps – perhaps he was wrong.  Dwalin had spent much of his life away from his people; it was the reason he’d inscribed their history on his very flesh.  There had always been the rich and the poor, the miners and the king.  Had things always been this bad for miners?  Had Dwalin never noticed because his clan had always owned the mines rather than working them?

           Surely not…  Aye, there were tales of cruel and greedy kings, but they were tales.  And tales that had happy endings; those kings were eaten by dragons or –

           Dwalin blanched.  That hit a little too close to home.

           Surely the tales would say, though, if the grandeur of Belegost or the glory of Moria were built on misery?  The tales spoke of the wonder of the mines there, and the crafts that came from their workshops.

           But it wasn’t the miners who’d written those tales in the volumes that filled the archives.  It was the scribes of the kings.

           No.  Dwalin did not want to believe it.  Dwalin would not believe it.  Dwarves were a proud people; they would not put up with this for year after year.  He knew Bofur’s miners at home in Erebor were happy.  It must be this place, something unique to Ered Luin.  Maybe it was because they didn’t have a king…  A good king could make all the difference.

           A bad one…

           Dwalin found himself in front of the inn with little memory of how he’d gotten there.  It had been almost two hours since he’d last seen Bofur; the paperwork for the arrest had taken a long time even with a Councilman’s presence there to speed things along.  It was one of the reasons Dwalin had become a warrior rather than a guard or watchman: much less paperwork.

           He hoped Bofur was at the inn.  His friend had already been through hell and back today; Dwalin had seen him reach his limit with Jahreh.  Hopefully, the miners would leave him alone until morning at least.

           The thing that tore at Dwalin was the realization that this wasn’t the first time Bofur had rescued somebody – and it wasn’t the first time he’d had to break the news of the death of others to hopeful family members.  Bofur had known what to do, known what to say – had known how useless the words were, even, and still said them.  “I’m sorry,” again and again.  No wonder Bofur didn’t think he was a hero.

           And still he hadn’t broken until Jahreh revealed his betrayal.

           To Dwalin’s dismay, there was a small group of dwarves clustered outside the door to Bofur’s room upstairs.  Havlin and Kiri were among them, and several others Dwalin recognized from the miners’ meetings.

           Kiri jumped to her feet when she saw him.  “He doesn’t answer,” she said.  “We’re not even sure he’s here.  Do you know where he might have gone?”

           “If he doesn’t answer, it’s because he doesn’t want to see you,” Dwalin snarled.  He had no idea where Bofur might go.  To Alís’s, perhaps, but the miners would have already thought to look there.

           “We need him,” said a gaunt Ironclaw with flinty eyes.  “We can’t waste another tragedy like this; we have to do something this time.”  Seeing the looks of horror on his friends’ faces at the word waste, he scowled and muttered, “It may not sound pretty, but that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?”

           Havlin sighed.  “It is,” he admitted.  To Dwalin, he said, “We do need to talk to Bofur.  He’ll know what to do.  Will you let us in?”

           “No,” Dwalin grunted.  “And anyhow I haven’t got the key.  You can wait until he’d ready to see you.”  He yanked open his own door.

           “Wait!”  Havlin caught at his arm, but when Dwalin rounded on him with a snarl he thought better of it and stepped back, holding up his hands.  “Sorry,” he said.  “Could we speak privately?”

           Dwalin went to slam the door in his face, but Havlin, grim-faced, got a boot in the doorjam and muscled his way into Dwalin’s room.  “It’s important,” he hissed.

           “It’s important that you sodding well get out of my room before I smash your face in,” Dwalin snarled, jingling his knuckledusters menacingly.  Bofur wouldn’t forgive him if he hurt Havlin, but oh, it was tempting.

           Havlin rolled his eyes, and Dwalin had to admire his courage.  “Oh, for Mahal’s sake,” Havlin muttered.  “Look, you have to help Bofur.  You can’t let him wallow in his guilt.”

           “What?”  Dwalin was confused.

           “He’s in there.”  Havlin jerked his head in the direction of Bofur’s room.  “He’s in there convincing himself that because he couldn’t rescue the four dead, the one he did rescue wasn’t enough.  It’s your job to shake him out of it.”

           “Why’s it my job?”

           “Because it’s not mine anymore!” Havlin snapped, furious. 

           Dwalin kept quiet, thinking what this had to be costing him, to tell the dwarf he believed had taken Bofur from him what was needful.

           When Havlin spoke again, his voice was quieter.  “You can’t let him wallow in it, or he’ll get stuck there.  You need to help him do something so that he doesn’t stay in the failure.”

           Dwalin just looked at him.  He wasn’t altogether sure that Bofur would accept that from him.

           Havlin must have caught the beseeching look on his face.  “That’s what you do for… for the people you love.  You help them to be the person they really are, when they’re afraid to be.”

           What was Bofur afraid of?  Bofur was one of the bravest dwarves Dwalin knew.  “The person he really is…” he said hesitantly.  “Would know what to do next?”  Aye, maybe it would help Bofur feel better to do something.  Maybe he’d want to get the mines shut down again.  Maybe he had other ideas for how to handle the shareholders.  But was it too much to ask?  Bofur had already been through enough today; why couldn’t someone else be the hero?

           “I hope to Mahal he has some idea, because we don’t,” Havlin said.

           Dwalin looked at the other dwarf.  Havlin looked terrible.  The man he loved had almost died today, and he’d not been allowed to comfort him.  He couldn’t comfort Bofur now either, and had to so through Dwalin, by telling his rival what Bofur needed.

           “I’ll try,” Dwalin said eventually.  He couldn’t bring himself to thank Havlin, not when he thought about the long years Bofur had suffered wanting more from him and not being granted it.

           Havlin nodded and left swiftly.

 


 

 

           Dwalin climbed out onto the balcony and knocked at Bofur’s window.  When he heard nothing, he pried it open and let himself in.

           Bofur was curled up against the wall in the corner, his arms around his knees and his face hidden.  The bottle of whiskey stood about a foot away from him, and Dwalin’s heart sank when he saw it.  Was he already too late?  But the bottle was closed, and he couldn’t smell alcohol in the air.

           He approached Bofur, feeling helpless.  What was he supposed to do?  Havlin spoke as if there were some trick to keeping Bofur from dwelling on his guilt, but Dwalin himself had never learned how to keep guilt at bay. 

           He knelt by his friend and touched his shoulder.  Bofur had welcomed his touch earlier, but now that he’d calmed and had time to remember…

           Bofur looked up at him, misery writ large in his brown eyes.  He nodded to the whiskey bottle.  “Will… will you take it away?”

           Dwalin took up the bottle that was tormenting him and strode over to the window.  He hurled it out.  There was a sound of shattering glass.  Behind him, Bofur made a sound that was half laugh and half sob.

           He returned to Bofur and, for lack of anything better to do, sat down next to him against the wall.

           The silence lasted a long time, Dwalin feeling more and more helpless with each passing minute.  He didn’t know what to say.

           Finally Bofur asked, “What happened to Jahreh?”

           “Krevlin and I took him to the watch house.”

           Bofur shuddered.  “They’ll beard him, at best.”

           “He’s from a mining clan,” Dwalin said heavily.  “They’ll repudiate him.”

           Bofur nodded, very pale.

           “It’s not your fault,” Dwalin offered.  There was no way Bofur could have known they had a viper in their midst.

           Bofur shook his head and lapsed into silence again.

           “They could use your help,” Dwalin said several minutes later.  He was beginning to be frustrated with Bofur’s lack of response.

           “I don’t deserve to help them.”

           That was patently ridiculous, and Dwalin told him so.  He could see Bofur didn’t hear it, though.  “Just because your friend is a traitor and a liar – ”

           Bofur gave him a sick look.  He put his face in his hands and whispered something.

           “What?”

           “I did the same as he, once,” Bofur said, so softly Dwalin was sure he’d heard wrong.

           “You never,” he said firmly.  “You wouldn’t.”

           Bofur smiled faintly.  He looked like he was about to throw up.  “I told you I had darkness on my soul,” he whispered.

           Bofur would never betray his miners like that.  He wouldn’t.  “I don’t believe you.”

           Again, Bofur laughed humorlessly.  “Ask Oin.  When Merced died…  I’d have given every miner in Ered Luin over to save her.  I told Oin I’d exempt the silver mines if he’d save her and the babe.”

           Dwalin stared.  He couldn’t believe his ears.  The miners meant everything to Bofur; how could he –

           “I’d do it again,” Bofur said, almost defiantly.  “I’d do it for any of you, any of my kin, and oh – ”  Another sob wracked his frame, and he hid his face away.

           Dwalin could see how it tore at him, the knowledge that he’d put the people he loved before the lives of his fellow miners.  This must be the root of Bofur’s self-loathing; he hadn’t lived up to his own ideals.

           Dwalin tugged Bofur’s hands down from where they blocked his face, and leaned in to rest his forehead against Bofur’s.  Kin-comfort seemed like such a meager offering in the face of Bofur’s grief, but it was all he had.

           Bofur hiccupped through his sobs, clinging to Dwalin’s sleeves.  “They’re going to kill him, or worse, and I’m just as bad…”

           “You’re not,” Dwalin said.  “Nobody died because of you.”  In fact…  “You’d never have done what Jahreh did.  You wouldn’t send dwarves to their deaths.”

           If anything, of the two of them, Dwalin had more in common with Jahreh.  They both had the blood of fellow dwarves on their hands.  It wouldn’t be helpful to say so now, but it gave Dwalin the beginning of an idea.

           Bofur sniffled.  “How do you know?” he said brokenly.  “I betrayed them all for Merced; I might do it again for Bombur, or Bifur, or you.

           “You wouldn’t.”  Dwalin was sure of that.

           Bofur shook his head, but held tightly to his sleeves, his breath fast against Dwalin’s cheek.

           “It’s all right if you don’t believe it,” Dwalin said when Bofur’s breath had slowed a bit, and his friend was calmer.  “I’ll believe it for you until you can believe it yourself.”

           That surprised a chuckle out of Bofur, a huff of breath against his cheek.

           Dwalin stayed there, their foreheads pressed together, for at least a quarter of an hour.  He was beginning to get a crick in his neck, but he’d stay all night if he had to.

           “I want to go home,” Bofur whispered at last.

           “Soon,” Dwalin said.  “We’ll go home soon.”  He rubbed Bofur’s shoulder comfortingly.

           Bofur sighed.

           A while later, Dwalin said, “They’re still out there waiting for you, you know.”

           Bofur tensed again, and Dwalin cursed Havlin internally for making him do this.  But “Aye, I know,” was all Bofur said, and eventually he disentangled himself from Dwalin and got to his feet.  “Eight more days,” he said, as if to fortify himself.

           “Seven,” Dwalin pointed out.

 


 

 

           He just wanted things to be over.  Seven more days.  Putting on the mask that would let him face the friends he’d betrayed, Bofur took a deep breath and squared his jaw, then strode across the room and opened the door.

           Instantly he was surrounded, all the miners talking at once.  Krevlin had joined them as well.  The clamor of questions was almost deafening.

           Bofur held up a hand, and one by one they fell silent.  “Why are you here?” he asked in a voice of iron.

           They stared at him, taken aback.  Kiri rallied first.  “We need your help,” she said.  “What’s the strategy?  What should we do?”

           Bofur shook his head.  He’d been afraid this would happen.  He had to correct it now.  “I leave this town in a week.  You won’t have me to ask about strategy then.  Why are you asking now?”

           They gaped.  Even Krevlin gaped a little, though there was a speculative look in his eye.

           “We don’t know what to do,” Ursin, a tall Redbeard, burst out.  “The miners are like to riot, but we’ve got to do something while we have the upper hand.”

           “Yes,” Bofur agreed.  “You do need to do something.  If I were not here, what would your strategy be?”  He couldn’t tell them what to do or they’d never learn.

           “You’re… not going to help?” Havlin asked.

           Bofur shook his head.  “I will help, but I won’t lead.  You’ve had three years to learn what to do.”  He turned to Kiri.  “Kiri, what’s the most important thing just now?”  Of all of them, he trusted Kiri’s instincts the most.

           She tilted her head, considering.  “We can’t let the miners riot,” she said promptly.  “At least, not before the Council vote tomorrow, and hopefully not then either.”

           “Council vote?”  Bofur nodded to Krevlin, impressed that he’d been able to pull that off so quickly.  “Well done.”

           Krevlin bowed his head briefly in acknowledgement.  “It’s been a long time coming,” was all he said.

           Bofur turned back to Kiri.  “How will you ensure that they don’t riot?”

           She looked at the group, her brow furrowing as she thought it through.  “There’s eight of us.  We’ll each need to take two miners’ taverns.  We’ll…”  She paused, thinking.  “We’ll put out the word that the funerals will be tomorrow.  That everyone’s to come pay their respects at the Council square tonight, by torchlight.”

           A funeral was a somber enough affair to keep them from rioting.  But it was also a show of force.  Bofur nodded; it made sense.  “And then?” he prompted.

           “Some will go home, but some will stay to see what happens.  We stay until the Councilmeeting tomorrow.”

           If only one in four came, there’d be at least five hundred dwarves in the Council square tomorrow when they voted.

           “How will you keep them from rioting?” he asked.

           Kiri chewed her lip.  One day soon she’d learn more confidence, and wouldn’t show such hesitation even in front of her friends.  “We’ll need to get the families of the dead on board.  If they’re there, it’ll be harder to riot.”

           “What else?”  Dwarves were not known for their patience, and they’d been stretched to the breaking point over the past fifty years.  “What will you do if people start yelling and the crowd takes it up?”

           Ursin scowled.  “It’s usually the same people start the heckling, every time.  Is there a way we can keep them away?”

           Kiri’s face lit up with an idea.  A wide smile spread across her face.  “No!  We don’t keep them away.  We assign them to enforce the peace!”

           Bofur grinned.  He’d never have thought of that.  “So we spread the word through the taverns to meet at the square at midnight, but tell the loud ones we have a special role for them…”

           “Send them to meet at Alís’s at eleven,” Havlin said.

            “Will you speak with them?” Kiri asked Bofur, anxiously.  “They’ll listen to you.”

            “They’ll listen to you,” he said.  “But I’ll be there if you need me.”

            “It’s a lot of waiting,” Dwalin pointed out.  “People are sure to get restless.”

            “Do we dare organize chants for the dead?” Havlin asked.  They looked at each other uneasily.  It was uncomfortably close to blasphemy.

            “We dare,” Krevlin said, nodding decisively.  “We can’t let more die in vain.  Chanting vigil until dawn; people will drift away but we’ll tell them to come back in the morning for the Council vote.  Just the fact that something is being done may be enough to forestall any rioters.”

            Bofur nodded.  “Krevlin, you and I should go talk with the families of the dead.  We’ll need their permission for the chanting, and it’s a terrible time to have to ask it.”

            Dwalin stepped forward.  “I’m coming as well,” he said, his voice brooking no argument.  Bofur remembered the fear in his friend’s voice as he embraced him earlier that afternoon, whispering, “Thank the Maker,” again and again.  It wouldn’t hurt to have Dwalin son of Fundin in the background, and Bofur didn’t mind Dwalin being protective so long as he didn’t get in the way.

            “And one of the miners should go as well,” Kiri said pointedly.

            Bofur flushed.  He’d fallen into taking charge again.  “Aye, you’re right.  You should come, Kiri.”

            She looked at the rest.  “You five can cover the taverns?”

            Ursin nodded.  “Go.”

            “It’s ten o’clock now,” Havlin said.  “We’ve not got much time.”  With few words, they headed out.

 


 

 

            The chanting vigil felt surreal to Bofur.  He was exhausted, and around two in the morning felt himself falling asleep on his feet, but he gritted his teeth and made himself keep his eyes open.  The Council would gather at nine for the vote, and really even they could not get away with voting against Krevlin’s perfectly reasonable proposal.  Not with hundreds of angry dwarves right outside their windows.

            Bofur had no illusions; if the Council vote did not go their way, the miners would riot.  He knew the watch had been called up to deal with the possibility, but the watch was thirty dwarves.  They would beat a strategic retreat to protect the Councilmen, and let the miners’ anger play out against one another.

            All four families had agreed to let their dead be used tonight, but still Bofur couldn’t quite convince himself it was right.  But it had quieted the likely troublemakers – and if riots broke out before the vote, the Council wasn’t likely to vote to placate the miners.  All any of them could do now was pray.

            There’d been easily six hundred dwarves gathered at midnight, though many had left to return the next day.  Head throbbing, Bofur wished he could do the same.

            Realizing someone had stopped before him, Bofur lifted his head and opened his eyes.

            “Go home,” Krevlin told him seriously.  “We’ll need you tomorrow, but get some sleep now.”

            Bofur shook his head.  He had to stay.  They were using the dead for politics; the least he could do was stay here to honor them.

            “There may be trouble in the morning.  If there is, we’ll need you rested and sharp,” Krevlin said.  His eyes flicked to Dwalin, who stood at Bofur’s left side.

            Dwalin lay a heavy, comforting arm across Bofur’s shoulders.  Bofur allowed himself the wish to snuggle in against it.  “Come,” Dwalin rumbled.  “You’ve done enough this day; no one will fault you for needing your bed.”

            “But – ”  He was too fuzzy-headed even to mount a proper protest.

            He heard, rather than saw, the smile in Dwalin’s voice.  “If you don’t come quietly, I’ll sling you over my shoulder and carry you,” his friend threatened.

            Bofur wanted to be convinced, so he let himself be.  He nodded.

            Dwalin steered him through the crowd.  Exhausted, Bofur followed blindly.  He didn’t see the way the crowd parted to let them through, and he didn’t hear the murmurs of the dwarves he passed.  All he knew was the steady, reassuring presence of Dwalin at his side.

 


 

 

            Bofur leaned against him heavily on their walk home.  If Dwalin hadn’t been sure his friend would protest, he really would have carried him.  He was just thankful that Bofur had agreed to sleep for a bit.

            Bofur was dead on his feet by the time Dwalin got him up the stairs to his room.  He steered Bofur to the chair and knelt to unlace his boots.  Then he poured the exhausted dwarf into bed.

            “Stay?” Bofur asked, catching one of his hands.  So Dwalin sat on the floor beside the bed, running his thumb over the knuckles of Bofur’s hand.

            To his surprise, Bofur did not drift off immediately.  In the dim light, he could see that Bofur’s eyes were open.  Dwalin waited, holding Bofur’s hand between both of his.

            “Dwalin?”  Bofur’s voice was barely a whisper.

            “Yes?”

            “The dwarves that you killed… do their spirits haunt you?”

            It was not a question he’d expected.  Dwalin frowned.  “They haunt my dreams sometimes,” he said honestly.  “Less than they used to, but I carry them always.”

            Bofur did not answer.  He sighed a little and turned his face away.

            A dreadful suspicion was forming.  Alarmed, Dwalin reached over and brought Bofur’s face back around so he could see.  He looked into pain-deadened eyes.  Alarm squeezed at Dwalin’s throat.  “Tell me,” he commanded hoarsely.

            Bofur let out a sigh almost of relief, his eyes fluttering closed.  “Hurleng was pinned under a boulder.”

            “He wasn’t dead,” Dwalin realized.  His eyes widened.  It was as good as death, but that meant Hurleng was down there right now, alive…

            “He wasn’t dead,” Bofur confirmed.

            Dwalin flinched from the horror of it.  How could Bofur have left him like that?  Even if Hurleng had asked it, how could –

            “We’ll go down at first light,” he said hoarsely.  “With enough of us, we can roll the boulder off.  We’ll bring him up to die properly…”

            He felt rather than saw Bofur shake his head.  “He’s dead now,” Bofur muttered, at the edge of sleep.

            “You don’t know that.  We can’t leave him down there – ”

            “I know it,” Bofur said almost dreamily.  “He was dead when I brought Joauld up.”

            The dwarves that you killed… do their spirits haunt you?

            “No,” Dwalin said helplessly, feeling his heart break in two.  “No.”

            Bofur’s fingers tightened around his own, but the dwarf did not open his eyes.  Dwalin knew the moment that sleep claimed him, for some of the tension in Bofur’s body eased.

            Dwalin’s cheeks were wet, but he couldn’t remember weeping.  He clutched at Bofur’s hand like a lifeline, both praying for the dawn and wishing it would never come.  With all his heart, he wished that Thror had never brought their people to this place; that Thorin had never made Ered Luin his home base; that Bofur had never made plans to return.  If this was the price of Dwalin’s happiness, it was too high.

            Bofur looked wan and exhausted in the dim lamplight.  Dwalin wished he could protect him from everything that was to follow: the nightmares and the self-doubt and the guilt, and the terrible question of whether it was the right thing to do.  But these weren’t things that Dwalin could slay with his axes.

            Was he fated never to be able to protect the people he loved?  How could love be so exalted in song and story when it made one so vulnerable?  At least with Thorin, Dwalin had been able to offer his axes and it meant something.

            Dwalin thought of the miniature axes Bofur had carved from mallorn scraps, etched with the names Grasper and Keeper.  Dwalin had given most of them to children in the marketplace, who were delighted with such tokens.  He had kept one pair for himself, kept in his pouch next to the three-eared rabbit.  He wasn’t sure why he felt the need to keep them – a lifetime on the road had cured him of the sentimentality of holding onto physical objects – but he hadn’t been able to let them go.

            Now he tucked the little wooden axes into the breast pocket of Bofur’s tunic.  He knew it wouldn’t help anything; not even his physical axes could help Bofur.  Still, it made him feel a little better to think of Grasper and Keeper so close to Bofur at all times, protecting him.

            It would be a long wait until dawn.

 


 

 

            Dwalin roused Bofur before the sun came up, and together they made their way in silence down to the Council square.

            Bofur’s head was clearer for the sleep, and the bone-deep despair had faded.  He knew he was one of the lucky ones; it never lasted, with him.  He sometimes saw other dwarves caught in it for months and even years, fading listlessly or burying themselves in drink like Balur.  Bofur’s innate cheerfulness provided some protection; already the claws of anguish had loosed their hold, and he allowed himself to hope that some good would come of the Council vote.

            He clasped hands with each of the four families of the dead who were serving as focal points in the crowd, and added his voice to the chant.  The sun came up, spreading the warmth of early autumn over the assembled crowd.

            It was hypnotic, the chant for the dead.  Unless there was a battle, usually only the close kin of the deceased would chant.  Bofur had chanted these prayers four times in his life: for his father, for his mother, for Merced, and after the Battle of Five Armies.  Perhaps this was another battle: a battle for the lives of the miners who remained.

            Things couldn’t go on like this.  Even if they won the vote today, things had to change.

            The chant filled his lungs, resonating through him, echoing against the buildings and against the pale pink sky.

            As the sun rose higher, the square slowly filled with dwarves.  Miners and miners’ families; soon the press became uncomfortable.  When a whisper ran through the crowd, Bofur looked up.  Dis, looking regal in her mourning clothes, moved through the multitude of dwarves, stopping to speak with each of the families.  Then she moved to where Krevlin was standing, and joined in the chant.

            It was well done of her, but ultimately meant nothing.  She would cast the Longbeard vote in favor of the Longbeard stake in the mines.

            Dwalin dug in his pockets and brought out some biscuits, offering two to Bofur.  Bofur nibbled on one, resting his voice.  When he’d chanted for Merced, he’d gone on for so long that he’d almost lost his voice.  He passed the second biscuit to a young girl next to him, and shared his waterskin with those nearest.

            When the bells tolled nine, the other Councilmen arrived.  Redbeard, Ironclaw, Broadbeam, and Stiffbeard would be for the miners; Firebeard and Longbeard would be against.  Other than that, Bofur could only guess.

            When the Firebeards arrived, Bofur was surprised to see Havlin approach Feron Firebeard and even more surprised that the old greybeard, though he scowled, appeared to be listening.

            By the time the Bluebeard clan head arrived, there was not a square inch of room on any side; dwarves had to climb up onto roofs and water barrels to let him through.  He was the last Councilman to enter the Hall, the chanting of the witnessing dwarves eerie in the morning air.

            And then they waited.

            Bofur, restless at the best of times, held himself still only with a force of will.  He chanted the endless cycle, trying to find relief in the repetition.  But the longer the day wore on, the less meditative he found the chant.

            The Council had been deliberating for three hours now.  Bofur cursed silently to himself; he should not have allowed himself to hope that the Council could see beyond the end of its collective nose.  He knew better.  He should have spent last night greasing the palms of those Councilmen who could be bought, and cutting deals with those who could not.

            If only he had more time.  They left for Erebor in a week.  Even if this vote fell through, he might be able to juryrig something if he had more than seven days.  But he had much to do to prepare for the caravan.

            He froze.  Had they sent the contract to Mistress Miril last night?  He’d meant to do it after he returned from his visit to his uncle, but on his way back to the inn he’d gotten word of the cave-in…

            They hadn’t, he realized with a lump in his throat.  They’d forgotten the contract.

            Everything was falling apart, and he couldn’t do anything.  He’d failed his miners, and Balur would be impossible to manage on the three month journey and Dwalin would despise Bofur for it, and if he could just stop remembering the way Hurleng begged him for help last night, he’d be fine, and –

            Cold metal nudged the back of his hand.  It was Dwalin’s knuckledusters.  The big dwarf frowned at him, plainly worried.

            Concentrating hard, Bofur calmed his too-fast breathing.  The blackness receded a bit, and he was able to take up the thread of the chant again.

            It was a relief that Dwalin didn’t hate him for yesterday.  Dwalin could throw no stones – but Bofur hadn’t exactly reacted well to Dwalin’s revelation, and now that the tables had turned Bofur was thankful that his friend had not turned away.  Bofur hadn’t meant to say anything – he’d meant to take the memory to his grave – but Dwalin had been so steady and comforting last night, and he’d been so tired…

            He wished Dwalin had not seen him at his lowest, struggling with the ever-present desire to hide at the bottom of a liquor bottle.  It frightened him, how strong the urge had been last night.  It had been years since he’d had to fight himself so hard.  Three years, to be precise.

            Mahal, how he hated this place!

            Another hour passed.  The chant was unbearable.  Bofur could see that he was not the only restless one in the square; dwarves ran through their supply of patience quickly.  But if riots broke out now…

            At midday, dwarves slipped away to the market by twos and threes, some returning with food for their comrades as well.  For a time there was a reprieve.  The chanting swelled and grew softer by turns, and the late summer sun beat down upon them as the minutes inched forward.

            By the afternoon, Bofur felt sick with dread.  Kiri had rallied the usual troublemakers by going around to them one by one to remind them of their duty to keep the crowd from rioting, but the energy in the square had shifted.  An ugly undercurrent rippled through the crowd.  Bofur himself felt tempted to hurl stones through the Council Hall window in frustration; how could he expect the rest to do any better?  What on earth was taking so long?

            By his side, Dwalin was as still and impassive as stone, his deep voice steadily rumbling out the chant as if he could go on forever.  Bofur wondered if it was because he was used to keeping cool in tense situations or because he had less of a stake in the outcome of this one.

            Dwarves had passed in and out of the Council Hall all day, but the Councilmembers were closeted in the back room deliberating.  Late in the afternoon, word was passed that they’d moved to the public part of the Hall.  That cheered the crowd for a time, and rumors started flying fast and thick.

            At half past five, Havlin stepped out of the Hall and made his way over to Bofur.  The crowd was not as thick as it had been earlier – Kiri had asked her troublemakers to send the most restless home – but he still had trouble pushing through the crush of people.

            <Krevlin thinks he can get more concessions if there are no riots,> he signed in Iglishmêk.  <Can you hold them another two hours?>

            Bofur let out a breathe he hadn’t known he’d been holding.  Krevlin had managed to secure the votes!

            He looked around at the sea of faces.  All eyes were on him and Havlin, though the chanting did not falter.  There was a desperate hopefulness running through the crowd now.

            <An hour,> Bofur signed.  <No more, or we’ll lose everything.>

            Havlin nodded and returned to the Hall.

            A murmuring began under the chanting.  Bofur winced as it loudened to a dull roar.  There would definitely be riots if the Council delayed much longer – but there could be riots even if the vote went through in the miners’ favor.  If that happened, the Council would no doubt reverse itself.

            How can we leave our very lives up to the whims of the clan heads? he thought, frustrated.

            Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dwalin signal to Kiri.  She did not have to fight the crowd; they parted to let her through.  Already they were treating her as a leader; that was promising.  He’d not been sure that they would.

            Bofur pretended to ignore the conversation taking place in Iglishmêk beside him.  In all honesty, he was surprised that Dwalin even knew the miners’ sign language.  It wasn’t like Khuzdul, taught to all dwarves.  Bofur had taught it to Havlin, whose father had seen no use in teaching it to his children.  Maybe Dwalin had learned it to speak with Bifur, or with Oin.

            Dwalin was telling Kiri that even if the news was good, it was important to keep chanting.  Kiri looked puzzled.

            Dwalin explained, fingers flashing too fast for Bofur to follow out of the corner of his eye.  Kiri nodded thoughtfully, then raised an eye at Bofur, questioning.

            <Your call,> Bofur signed.  If they could pull it off, no one would accuse them of exploiting the deaths for political ends and then abandoning the proprieties as soon as they’d gotten their way.  And if the Councilmembers emerged to solemn chanting, it would be a testament to the miners’ resolve; the Council might think twice the next time they tried to undercut the miners.

            But most of all, if the chanting held, it would be a buffer against the wave of emotion that could end in rioting.

            Kiri nodded and turned to her lieutenants.  Within minutes, word had spread through the crowd.  Bofur searched out Kiri’s troublemakers-cum-guardians in the square; they looked grim and determined.

            An hour and a half later, a shout went up from the door to the Council Hall.

            We’ve won!  The whisper went through the gathered dwarves like an electric current, followed quickly by questions.  There was cheering, then more cheering.  Bofur didn’t trust rumors or fickle crowds.  He sent up a prayer to Mahal that it was true.

            The cheering continued, but at the same time the chanting grew louder.  Bofur’s pulse came quickly.  Dwarves were pouring out of the Council Hall.

            A small boy darted through the crush over to Bofur, a piece of parchment in his hand.  Not stopping the chant, Bofur crouched down to take it from him.

            Havlin’s writing:

 

            All unstable mines closed in perpetuity

            10% of profits to be spend on safety investments

            Full pensions for families of the dead

            Inspectors in teams of five, including one Councilman; ALL to be jailed and fined if inspected mines fail

 

            Under that, he had written: Nine votes for, one abstention.  Longbeard with us.

             

            Bofur stared, his mouth hanging open in disbelief.  He had never dared dream of so much.

            It was impossible.  How on earth had Krevlin pulled it off?

            Longbeard…  Was that Dwalin’s doing, or Dis’s?

            Dwalin nudged him, and Bofur looked up to find the crowd mostly silent, except a few still chanting.  Not quite certain if he was dreaming, Bofur put up one fist in token of victory.

            The roar was deafening.  Jubilation swept through the square, with dwarves hollering and whistling.

            Bofur closed his eyes and thanked Mahal with every inch of his being.  He’d never thought to see this.  With this in place, he could leave Ered Luin without guilt.

            Two of the clan heads emerged from the Hall in the light of the setting sun, and the square went abruptly silent.  Only a few voices kept up the chant for the dead, Dwalin’s among them.  The clan heads were Firebeard and Bluebeard, two who had almost certainly voted against the miners.

            Almost in unison, the crowd remembered their instructions and the chant swelled, mournful in spite of the victory.  All the dwarves glared at the Councilmembers as they filed out.  It’s your fault they’re dead.  We won’t forget it.

            Dwalin was right; it was a show of force that they couldn’t ignore.  It spelled a threat for the next time they gamed with people’s lives.

            Even after the Council Hall was empty, the chant went on.  Looking surreptitiously around, Bofur realized that no one was sure when it should stop.

            He signaled to Kiri, <Follow me,> and made his way over to Hardeng.  The stout dwarf looked slightly lost, his lips forming the words of the endless chant and his face still damp with tears.

            Bofur clasped his forearms and bowed his respect to Hardeng.  “I grieve for you loss,” he said.  “If there is aught I can do to ease your sorrow, please do not hesitate to call upon clan Broadbeam.”

            Hardeng blinked up at him, dazed, and Bofur stepped away.  He found the next bereaved family and repeated the ritual.  Behind him, Kiri embraced Hardeng.  After her, another dwarf came, and another.

            After he’d spoke with the fourth family, who thanked him – Bofur shuddered – he was finally able to escape.  He headed toward the oasis of Alís’s tavern, still not entirely able to believe what had just happened.

 


 

 

            They celebrated, of course.  They couldn’t not.  But a veneer of solemnity permeated the festivities.  A full day of chanting couldn’t help but focus the mind on those who had given their lives for this victory.  It reminded Bofur a bit of the feasting after the Battle of Five Armies: the bone-deep relief of it’s over and we won wrestling still with the price was far too high.

            Krevlin, who hated accolades, nevertheless joined them halfway through the evening.  The tavern gave him a standing ovation.

            Dwarves kept trying to congratulate Bofur as if he were the one who’d achieved this victory, and Bofur was glad to have someone to steer them to.  Kiri and the rest of her crew were looking overwhelmed as well.  Krevlin gave them a dirty look but spoke politely with each wellwisher.

            “When will the mines open again?” someone asked during a lull.

            “Not until there’s been a full inspection with the new team,” Krevlin told him.  “I tried to include back pay for the days the mines have been shuttered in the terms, but I had to trade it for the safety investments.”  He looked apologetic.

            “Ye did plenty, friend,” Ursin rumbled, clapping him on the shoulder.  Krevlin rocked under the buffet, but smiled.

            “Who was the abstention?” Bofur wanted to know.  “And how did we get Longbeard’s vote?”

            “I don’t know who convinced Longbeard,” Krevlin said, glancing inquiringly at Dwalin, “but Lady Dis brought Bluebeard along with her.”

            Dwalin shook his head.  “Naught to do with me,” he rumbled.

            “As to the abstention…” Havlin said, a rueful smile on his face as he sought out Bofurs eyes.  “Feron Firebeard realized that he really didn’t want to marry me.”

            Bofur gaped.  Then he threw back his head and laughed, delighted, because if anyone could get himself in such a scrape it would be Havlin.

 


 

 

            Some of the dwarves had stayed in the Council Square, keeping up the chant for the dead.  Dwalin was glad of it.  He sat on the tiny balcony outside his room and looked up at the stars, remembering the last time he’d chanted for those lost, after the Battle of Five Armies.  The square was too far away to hear the words, but the familiar rhythm was as comforting as it was inexorable.

            For just a moment that morning, when Dis had joined the mourners in the square, he had seen Thorin instead.  It had shaken him, the bare second of relief at seeing his King, followed by a fresh stab of loneliness when he realized a moment later that Thorin had gone where he couldn’t follow.

            He wondered again, with a lump in his throat, if Thorin had known.  He would never find out now; Dis would not tell him.

            He turned at a sound; it was Bofur opening his window.  His friend crawled onto the balcony and came to sit beside Dwalin.

            Together, they listened to the chanting in the night.

            Bofur had not chanted after the Battle of Five Armies, Dwalin remembered.  The dwarf who never stopped talking had been unable to speak for days, tears glistening unshed in his eyes as he stood vigil with the mourners.  Dwalin was relieved to see Bofur’s lips echo the rhythm of the distant voices now.

            He shifted so that his shoulder touched Bofur’s, and was pleased when Bofur likewise shifted to lean against him at the invitation.

            Together they watched the stars and listened to the mourners in the square, and Bofur wept silently.  Dwalin blinked back tears of his own, Thorin’s memory still upmost in his mind.

            “I wish I could have told him,” he whispered much later, not sure if Bofur was even still awake.

            Bofur did not ask “Why couldn’t you?” for which Dwalin was grateful.

            It hadn’t mattered to him, back when they were brothers in arms, that Thorin know something so insignificant.  Thorin was his best friend and his King, and Dwalin was his right-hand man.  Dwalin had allowed no room in that relationship for thoughts of anything more.

            But now that Bofur had opened the possibility in his mind for more, Dwalin couldn’t help but wonder.  If he had kissed Thorin back that night in the inn so many years ago, how would things have changed?  Would Thorin have been more put out by the fact that Dwalin lacked a cock – or by the fact that he hadn’t told him sooner?

            Bofur’s words in Dis’s drawing room still rang clear and damning.  Erebor had always been the most important thing in Thorin’s life.  It was hard to love a king; Dori could attest to that, though he’d deny to his dying day that he loved Dain.  Bofur was easy to love, and Dwalin was having a difficult enough time with that; it would have been near impossible to make things work with Thorin.

            He couldn’t help fantasizing, though, that if he had been able to accept it – a big if – he might have been able to change things.  Could he have prevented Thorin from falling so deeply into the gold sickness?  Would Thorin have let him fight at his back if they were lovers instead of friends?

            Dwalin had never had much time for what-ifs, he reminded himself.  But then, he’d also never had much time for thoughts of love, and he’d thought of little else this past week.

            “I wish I could have told him,” he repeated.  He never would have told Thorin, he knew, even if the King had lived.  He would never have risked their deep friendship with something so trivial.  It was only now, with Bofur’s unquestioning acceptance, that Dwalin began to wonder why he should even have to hide at all.

            Falling in love with Bofur had changed everything.  It had changed him; Dwalin still wasn’t quite sure who he was or should be now that he’d fallen.  He wondered if Bofur would be changed, too, if by some miracle Dwalin could win his love.

            Don’t, he told himself glumly, even as he leaned into the comforting warmth of Bofur’s shoulder against his.  It’ll just hurt more.

            “I wish you could have told him, too,” Bofur said softly.  He smiled sadly at Dwalin.  “I think you were right, though, in keeping silent.”

            At least Bofur did not think him a coward, Dwalin thought.  Dwalin did not have many regrets in his life, but he would regret anything that made Bofur think poorly of him.

            But somehow, not even the things that Dwalin did regret had lost him Bofur’s regard.  Dwalin didn’t understand it, but he’d be forever grateful for it.

            And even though the years ahead were going to be painful, Dwalin couldn’t bring himself to regret falling in love with Bofur.  He might not be sure who he would turn out to be how that he had, but he was absolutely sure that loving Bofur had already made him a better man, and that it would continue to do so.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

            “Shall we go to the baths this morning?” Bofur asked over breakfast the next morning.

            Dwalin glanced up from decimating six or seven sausages.  Bofur ought to know by now that he shouldn’t try making conversation before Dwalin’s belly was full or he’d be liable to get snapped at.

            He stuck another piece of sausage in his mouth so that he wouldn’t say something unpleasant, and grunted.  Bofur shrugged and started prattling about… something.  Wasn’t Bofur the one who had trouble getting up, mornings?  Why was he so Mahal-cursed cheerful today?

            Probably because he’d gotten a little sleep, while Dwalin hadn’t.

            Half an hour later, feeling immensely better for having devoured half his body weight in ground pork, Dwalin thought about the baths.  It would be nice, but – “We should get to the market early today.  Tomorrow’s the last day of signups; we’re going to be busy.”

            Looking up, he was surprised to see Bofur’s cheerful face dissolve into misery.  “Mahal take it,” his friend muttered.  “Dwalin – we forgot to send Mistress Miril the contract to lead the caravan.”

            “No we didn’t,” Dwalin said, puzzled.  “I sent a runner with it that evening.”

            It was Bofur’s turn to be puzzled.  “When?  Not before you went to the Firebeards, and after that you were at the watch house, and then with me.”

            “Just before we visited the families of the dead.”  Dwalin couldn’t decipher the look on Bofur’s face.  “You had enough on your shoulders,” he muttered, defensive.

            Hadn’t he thought just the other morning that he would do just about anything to elicit the warm, pleased smile that Bofur seemed to reserve just for him?  Dwalin felt his heart lurch a little.  He would give half his fortune to see Bofur smile like that every day, even if the git did insist on being cheerful before breakfast.

            Bofur signaled to the landlord to come speak with them, and Mistress Miril had indeed received the contract and sent it back the next day with a tart note about her having hired caravan guards while they stood around all day.  She informed them that they would meet her after the close of the market that afternoon and review the arrangements she had made so far.

            Dwalin glanced at Bofur to see if the dig about standing around all day had been taken hard.  Bofur gave him a rueful smile, shrugging.  “She’s efficient,” he said cheerfully.  “It’s a relief not to have to do it all ourselves.”

            Remembering another matter, Dwalin beckoned the landlord back over.  “Is there any news of when Jahreh will stand trial?” he asked the dwarf.  Then he noticed all of Bofur’s happiness slide from his face again, and cursed inwardly.  He could have asked privately and spared his friend the reminder of betrayal, first thing in the morning.

            “Three days hence,” the landlord told them.  “It would be sooner, but they can’t find a solicitor willing to stand for him.”

            “If Feron Firebeard had a scrap of honor in his body – ” Bofur began hotly.

            “Won’t Jahreh’s clan provide one?” Dwalin asked.  Balin had been asked to serve as legal counsel for any number of hopeless causes; it was no stain on the solicitor if he took a case for a member of his clan.

            The landlord shook his head.  “There’s a rumor it was Blacklock itself that bought Jahreh’s betrayal.  They’ll do nothing that puts their reputation in jeopardy.  They’ll let the lad take the fall, even though everyone knows it had to be Firebeard, not Blacklock.”

            Bofur was pale.  “Have they already cast him out of the clan?”

            “No, not officially.  They’re waiting for the court to do it for them.  They haven’t even had the decency to send the lad his weapons so that he can remove the stain on his clan’s honor.”

            Dwalin glanced again at Bofur at this mention of suicide, worried.  He still didn’t know if Bofur had simply aided Harleng or whether he’d had to perform an outright mercy killing.  Bofur would feel equally guilty about either option.

            Bofur’s lips thinned.  “His clan should provide a solicitor,” he said.  “It isn’t right for them to put politics first.”

            Later that day, Dwalin was not surprised to hear that Bofur had been asking around about hiring legal counsel for Jahreh.  But it turned out that someone – in his clan or outside it – had gotten there first.  Jahreh would have a solicitor for his trial.

            It wouldn’t affect the verdict, Dwalin thought glumly.  Whether sentenced to death or sentenced to repudiation, Jahreh would still die.

 


 

 

            “And what craft do you practice, my good dwarf?” Dwalin rumbled, hardly looking up from his list.  Their makeshift table was scattered with paper.  Dwarves had been visiting the inn all day to put their names down; already there were more than two hundred for the journey back to Erebor.

            “I –”  Enna flashed Bofur a helpless look.

            Bofur, standing behind Dwalin, dropped a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “I can vouch for him,” he said.

            Dwalin frowned up at him, then at Enna – but acquiesced.  “Very well, Mister Enna.  Any family?”

            Enna looked relieved.  “A brother, Onna.  Still a lad.”

            “Ponies or wagon?”

            “I don’t know yet.”

            “We won’t have many chances to restock, so be sure to bring supplies for a three month journey.  A wagon is best if you can come by one.”

            When Enna had gone, Dwalin raised an eyebrow at Bofur, asking for an explanation.

            “He’s a good dwarf,” Bofur said.  “He works the upstairs at Alís’s tavern.”  When Dwalin still looked blank, Bofur coughed and said, “Er, he provides services of a… discreet nature.”

            “Oh!” said Dwalin.  “He’s a whore then?”

            Bofur paused, blinking at him.

            “I made use of one once, if you’ll remember,” Dwalin grumbled at his startled look.  “I know it’s not just humans who do such things.”  He scratched out a note on the manifest.  “Dori will be pleased.”

            “Dori?”

            Dwalin tilted his head at Bofur thoughtfully.  “Sometimes I forget you weren’t born in Erebor,” he grunted.

            Bofur waited patiently.  Sometimes Dwalin took a roundabout way to come to the point.

            “Before Erebor fell, Dori was a courtesan for the royal court.”

            Bofur stared at him.  “Dori?

            “He was considered quite handsome in his youth,” Dwalin said, shrugging.  “Still is, to some.”

            “Dori?!” Bofur sputtered.

            Dwalin grinned.  “You do not agree?”

            “I – he’s lovely, of course he is – I just can’t imagine –”  Bofur paused.  “You said he’d be pleased,” he said suspiciously.

            “Yes.  He keeps getting propositions and turning them down, and I heard him say to Nori that he wished some of the dwarves who came back to Erebor were interested in that line of work.”

            “Well bless my beard,” Bofur said, shaking his head in amazement.  “I’d never have guessed.”  But he furrowed his brow, finally putting some things together in his head, and he turned wide eyes on Dwalin.  “King Dain?!” he demanded.

            Dwalin looked surprised, but then his eyes twinkled.  “Of course, I can neither confirm nor deny who the King takes to his bed.  But I can tell you he doesn’t share those that he does.”

            “By Mahal!” Bofur murmured.  Dori…

            “I think Dori’s quite pleased with the arrangement, actually,” said Dwalin.  “Of course, Dain will have to marry soon and that will put an end to it.”

            “But Dori – he’s so proper – so fussy –”

            Dwalin shrugged.  “Perhaps the King likes to be fussed over.  In any case, Dori will be glad to have somewhere to send his unwanted suitors.”

            “I don’t think Enna is quite what you might call a courtesan,” Bofur warned.  “He’s, er, served a very different class of people here in Ered Luin.”

            “If he’d like to move up in the world, the position is open.  He’s pretty enough, isn’t he?”

            Bofur raised an eyebrow.  “You’re a better judge of what the upper classes think is pretty,” he teased.

            “You think him pretty,” Dwalin said gently, and Bofur blushed.  Trust Dwalin to notice that.

            “I think he reminds me of Bombur,” said Bofur.  When Dwalin blanched, he chuckled and added, “And I didn’t bed him, so you needn’t look so appalled.”

            Dwalin gave him a smile that was pure sunshine, leaving Bofur reeling a bit.

            He thought of declaring then – of dragging Dwalin somewhere private and asking permission to kiss him senseless – but another family of dwarves was approaching their table, and within a week they’d be on the road.  Dwalin deserved a proper courtship, not one conducted in snatched moments between duties to the caravan.

            And, well, if Dwalin refused… Bofur would rather be home and have a place to hide and nurse his wounds.

 


 

 

            Mistress Miril, Bofur decided, was worth her weight in mithril.  The old dwarrowdam had no patience for nonsense, and seemed to bring order and calm to everything she touched.  In the space of a day, she’d hired twenty guards to defend the caravan as it made its way across Orc-infested wilderness.  In another afternoon, she’d sorted out the communal supplies like food and firewood.  She thought of things that Bofur would never have considered, like a rotation to dig latrines each night and a system to ensure that the caravan got on the road no later than two hours after the sun came up.  Two hundred-odd dwarves took a great deal of wrangling, and Miril did it with a deft hand and a quick wit.

            She earned Dwalin’s adoration by letting him place the order for arms for the immigrants.  Everyone needed to be able to defend themselves if the guards were occupied battling a main attack, so even the dwarflings would get blades.  Dwalin spent several days matching dwarves with the best weapon for each, and drilling them by groups in the marketplace.  Bofur had never seen him so content.

            And Miril had earned Bofur’s everlasting gratitude by taking Taelin under her protection, so Bofur had no part in the fight that occurred when Taelin finally told her brothers of her plans to leave.

            Even with all the movement, Bofur still felt impatient.  He longed to be back in Erebor, safely underground.  He longed for the day he could finally court Dwalin.  He missed his mines and his miners, more than he had ever expected.  And most of all, he could not wait to be quit of this wretched place and its wretched memories.

 


 

 

            Four days before the caravan was to leave, someone tried to break Jahreh out of the watch house.  Dwalin and the watchmen arrived for early morning training to find the place in an uproar.

            Dwalin had the story direct from the captain of the watch.  It was Jahreh himself who’d given the alarm, and the night guards had burst in to find him sitting serenely in his unlocked cell.

            “He wants to bring down whoever it was that paid him off for the bad inspection,” the captain opined.

            Dwalin was more inclined to think that Jahreh already considered himself dead, having been rejected by his clan, and was just waiting for the formalities to be done.  He didn’t say so to the watch, but he did voice his further suspicions to Bofur.

            “Firebeard or not, it’s a powerful interest that stands to lose a lot if the trial proceeds tomorrow,” Dwalin said.  “If they can’t break him out, they might try to kill him to keep him quiet.”

            They were eating supper at Alís’s with the other miners, and Kiri stared at him with wide eyes.  “Kill him, Mister Dwalin?  Do you really think any dwarf would do such a thing?”

            “I think,” Dwalin said, voice hard, “that the lives of miners have been held far too cheaply in this town.  When they demand that you enter a mine they know may kill you, what can you call it other than murder?  If they’ll do that, why not outright murder?”

            Even Bofur looked taken aback at his words.  Had they been fighting this fight for so long that they’d begun to believe that their lives were worth as little as the shareholders and the Council kept telling them they were?

            Thorin had hated Ered Luin, but Dwalin had thought that was because it wasn’t home.  He hadn’t thought it was because there was something wrong with Ered Luin itself.

            He couldn’t wait to get Bofur away from this awful town.  For now, he went to speak to the watch captain about doubling the guard on Jahreh.

 


 

 

            Three days before the caravan was scheduled to leave, Jahreh stood trial.  It went about as well as could be expected.  The defendant did not give up the names of those who had paid him.  Bofur wasn’t surprised; he’d seen Jahreh’s father in the audience, wearing new clothes and a much healthier pallor to his skin.

            Jahreh knew he was already dead; Bofur couldn’t blame him for choosing to buy that death at the price of his family’s prosperity.  Even if he’d named the other conspirators, with enough gold and influence they’d have found a way to wiggle out of it or pin it on some other party.

            Indeed, Bofur was also unsurprised that the charge of murder brought against Jahreh had been dropped.  When the courts were run by the rich and powerful, they’d do their best not to establish a legal precedent that might bite the shareholders in the arse later.

            Jahreh’s father was the only Blacklock in the crowd, and when the verdict came down that Jahreh would be stripped of clan and all rights, Bofur wished he hadn’t had to see it.  It would be terrible to see a son destroyed for his love of his father.  Bofur himself had never told Bombur what he’d done on Merced’s behalf – and he wouldn’t have, even if she had lived because of it.

            Jahreh’s beard was shorn, and Bofur felt a fine tremor go through Dwalin, who was sitting next to him.  Dwalin was watching one of his deepest-held fears come to life.  Bofur squeezed his friend’s shoulder and wished it were over.

            The manacles were unlocked from the wretched dwarf’s wrists, and he was free.

            It was a dreadful freedom.  A shorn dwarf was not a dwarf.  He could never live among dwarves again.  He had no family, no clan, and he was utterly invisible.  From this moment on, no one would look Jahreh in the eye, acknowledge his presence, or offer the least bit of food if he were starving.

            Death would have been kinder.

            Dwalin swung to his feet, tearing away from Bofur’s grasp, and stalked out of the courtroom.  Without looking at Jahreh, others started to do the same.

            The condemned dwarf would leave the city by sunset; after that, there was no punishment for any insult visited upon a shorn dwarf.  If the shareholders wanted him dead so he could not speak, they could do it with impunity.

            No wonder Dwalin couldn’t bear to watch.  It was the punishment he would face if his past were found out.

 


 

 

            Dwalin couldn’t sleep.  He’d been at his axe forms for hours, and still he could find no peace.  He’d ignored Bofur’s knock earlier, not wanting to lose his tenuous grip on his temper.

            In the wee hours of the night, he came to the decision he’d been fighting.  He donned his leather armor and made his way downstairs, trying his best to look inconspicuous.

            It felt odd not to carry his axes, but he didn’t want to be recognized.

            Once during the quest, Balin had asked Nori with evident exasperation how on earth he’d always been able to disappear from Ered Luin ten minutes before suspicion fell on him.  Nori had shrugged as if to say, “Nothing easier.”  He’d described a rockfall against the southern wall of the city that concealed a hole just large enough for a dwarf to crawl through.

            He’d meant, of course, a dwarf of his own size, Dwalin thought sourly when he finally found the hole.

            He had a bad moment or two on his way through, when he was sure he was stuck and would remain stuck until Bofur organized a search for him.  The legendary son of Fundin caught sneaking out of the city in the dead of night because his shoulders were too broad.  He’d never live it down.

            With enough dreadfully undignified wriggling he made it through, cursing all the way.  He allowed himself a brief fantasy of making Nori pay for misleading him, but dismissed it from his mind in the face of the wide expanse of open forest before him.

            He was a decent tracker, but he’d always used his skill to track game or Orcs, never a dwarf.  Still, no one had ever accused a dwarf of being good at being inconspicuous.  It was depressingly easy to find Jahreh; he’d not even tried to hide his trail.

            Dwalin looked with some dismay at the shivering dwarf, curled up in the embrace of two large tree roots.  Jahreh hadn’t brought a coat or any supplies; he meant to die out here.

            Well, nothing for it.  Dwalin kicked a rock gently against the sleeping dwarf’s book to get his attention.

            Jahreh was on his feet in seconds, black hair in disarray, clutching a knife that looked to be his only weapon.  Dwalin stepped back so as to be less threatening when he saw the terror in Jahreh’s eyes.

            The dwarf whet his lips and spoke with some difficulty.  “Are – are you here to kill me?” he asked.  There was a desperate plea in his voice, and Dwalin wasn’t sure if it was a plea for clemency or a plea for quick release.

            “No,” Dwalin said, showing his empty hands.  Then, “Jahreh is already dead.”

            The Blacklock’s mind was clearly sluggish with exhaustion and despair; he shook his head to clear it.  “What?”

            “Jahreh is dead,” Dwalin repeated.  “You are no longer Jahreh.  You’ll need to choose a new name.”

            The dwarf shook his head and turned away, his body saying eloquently, “What’s the use?”

            “You’re no longer Blacklock,” Dwalin said as gently as he could, and the dwarf flinched.  “I will claim you for Longbeard.”

            Jahreh stared at him, uncomprehending.

            Adoption into a clan wasn’t unheard of, but Dwalin had never seen it done in his lifetime.  Great shieldbrothers of history had done it on occasion.  Balin would know what sort of legal documents would be required, but Dwalin wasn’t interested in paperwork.  What was important was that Jahreh stop thinking of himself as anathema.

            Dwalin took a letter out of the pocket inside his coat.  “I was fostered in the Iron Hills,” he said.  “This is a letter to my cousin Hramon.  It asks him to provide you with a place in his mines.”

            Jahreh was shaking his head as if to clear it; as if he must have misheard.

            “My kin will give you a home until you can find your own.”

            The dwarf had changed over to eying Dwalin dubiously, as if he suspected the warrior had run mad.

            Dwalin waited.  He wished he had Bofur’s patience for things like this.

            “You know I caused their deaths, don’t you?” Jahreh asked.  Dwalin winced at the rasp in his voice, and handed over his waterskin.

            “I know,” Dwalin said.  “Do you know it?”  If Jahreh didn’t feel guilty, Dwalin was doing nobody any favors by giving him a second chance.

            Jahreh looked at him through red-rimmed eyes and Dwalin was caught off guard by the visceral memory of the day the numbness wore off.  It was shortly after the Woman disappeared; her presence had been enough to ward off nightmares of the screams of the dwarves he’d murdered.

            He remembered the shocky, bottomless depth of guilt, an acid stomachache throughout his whole body; how it hurt to move but restlessness would not give him a moment’s peace; how he thought that a life of feeling this permeating through his bones would not be worth living.

            The reality was that the mind was just not made to sustain that level of guilt.  The relentless, nauseous pulse of self-blame shut itself off to protect him after a week.  Dwalin tried not to listen to the justifications his mind whispered to him.  He knew it was something in him fighting for sanity, but he couldn’t stand that he wasn’t strong enough to face what he’d done and pay the consequences.  Ironically, it was when he was feeling better that he’d thought seriously about suicide.

            He looked at the Blacklock dwarf – Longbeard now, though it would be many moons before he merited such a name, shorn clean as he was – and wondered if Jahred felt a similar guilt.  Maybe he didn’t.  Maybe he thought it was worth it, for the life of his father.

            There was no way to know.  Jahreh would tell Dwalin what he wanted to hear.  Dwalin would never be able to fully trust any words.

            Did it matter?  The particular situation that led to four dead dwarves was unlikely to be repeated.  Dwalin had no way of knowing if Jahreh deserved a second chance – but Dwalin himself hadn’t, and here he was both a legend and a very rich dwarf.  If he didn’t give Jahreh the same opportunity for redemption, Dwalin knew it would haunt him.  Not as much as the blood already on his hands, but enough that he’d never feel easy.  If Jahreh died out here alone when Dwalin could so easily have prevented it…

            “Why?” Jahreh rasped, and Dwalin realized that he didn’t have an easy answer.  It wasn’t, he knew, that he thought Jahreh deserved a second chance.  It wasn’t even, really, that Dwalin himself had been lucky enough not to get caught and had to live with the guilt every day.  If he were a better dwarf – more like Bofur – he might be able to countenance the self-forgiveness required to feel empathy for Jahreh, but he wasn’t.  What was it Bofur had said?  If I were a cruel man, I’d ask you to forgive yourself.

            Dwalin closed his eyes.  He could picture Bofur perfectly as he had been a few days previously, curled in around the wound of having to choose his family over what he knew was right.  Dwalin would never be able to take that pain away; there would be no self-forgiveness there, either.

            Bofur had gotten a second chance, too.  Of course Oin, the healer, had tried to treat the wound.  But it would never heal.

            “Someone I love once made a mistake like yours,” Dwalin said at last.  “I can’t do anything for him.  But I can help you.”

            Jahreh looked at him through dull eyes.  It was possible Dwalin was already too late.  It was also possible that it was no kindness, what he was doing.  Death would be easier.

            “You can never make it right,” Dwalin said, remembering blood flowing freely over his knuckles and the wide-eyed Woman watching as he worked his fury into the flesh of the dwarves who had assaulted her.  “They’ll always be dead.  You’ll always be a murderer.”  He paused.  “But what you do with the rest of your life – that’s your choice.”

            Seventy years ago, he had made the choice to devote his life to the royal family.  Now he would devote it to making Bofur happy.  If that meant caring about mining safety and adopting forsaken dwarves into his clan, Dwalin would take it with gratitude.

            “Here.”  He removed his coat.  “You won’t get far if you don’t keep warm.”

            Next he handed over a pack filled with weaponry and supplies.  Dwarves were hardy, but Middle Earth was full of dangers.  A lone dwarf needed all the help he could carry.

            Buried at the bottom of the pack was enough gold for Jahreh to set up a life for himself, if he wished.  He didn’t have to go to the Iron Hills.  He could go anywhere he wouldn’t be recognized.  But if he chose the Iron Hills, he would have a clan.

 


 

 

            As Dwalin made his way back to the city through the pre-dawn twilight, he thought about kin and clan and family.  He had always been able to rely on his clan, even when he was out adventuring.  There were Longbeards everywhere, and they welcomed him in.  As his fame grew, his welcome grew.

            Nori had been a traveler most of his days, but he’d not been welcomed as Dwalin and his cousins were.  He was a Longbeard, but no one was generous with him the way they were with Dwalin.  It wasn’t just that Nori was as slippery as an eel.  It wasn’t just that he’d make off with the silverware.  It wasn’t even the scandal of being born years after his mother’s husband died.  Even before they knew him, Nori had a mark against him.  So did his brothers.

            All the refugees had been in bad shape when they reached Ered Luin, but the royal family had at least been extended hospitality, if not welcome.

            And Bofur – Bofur’s clan was almost gone.  There might be more Broadbeams in the Eastern Lands, but there were only four left here.  Dwalin could remember the Broadbeams who had formed a small contingent at the battle of Azanulbizar – and the brave fools had been in the first wave of the attack.  Balur had seen almost his entire clan die.

            Balur.  That was another loose end that needed tying up.  Dwalin would have to think on how best to handle it.  It would not do to embarrass Bofur about the matter.  Bofur was very loyal to his kin – even, it seemed, when they didn’t deserve his loyalty.

            Kin.  Dwalin counted Bofur as his kin, but he couldn’t adopt Bofur into his clan the way he had just done for Jahreh.  For one thing, Bofur wouldn’t accept.  But Dwalin needed a way to make it clear to people like Feron Firebeard that they would answer to Dwalin son of Fundin if they continued to treat Bofur as if he were a mere miner.

            And if he were a mere miner, they still shouldn’t treat him as they did! Dwalin thought, still furious.  He wished he could challenge the Firebeard clan head to a duel, but everything he’d ever learned from both Balin and Dis told him he couldn’t.

            The gates of the city were just opening when Dwalin reached Ered Luin.  The guards gave him an odd look, but who would dare ask in the face of his scowl?

            Fortunately, Bofur was hard at work at whatever it was he was carving – he’d told Dwalin it was a gift for Lord Elrond, and nothing further – and didn’t notice Dwalin’s dusty boots.  Dwalin seated himself cross-legged on the floor of Bofur’s room and began methodically cleaning his weaponry, a process that always soothed him.  He wanted to let go of all thoughts of Jahreh, because they brought along with them thoughts of his own guilt, and he didn’t want that blackness here with Bofur.

            As he cleaned and polished each piece, he watched his friend.  Bofur was absorbed wholeheartedly in his carving.  Other than his brief smile when Dwalin entered, he seemed to have completely forgotten that he was not alone. 

            Dwalin appreciated the silence.  Bofur talked enough for the two of them combined, and normally Dwalin didn’t mind, but it was nice to know that they could be quiet together too.  And it gave him the perfect opportunity to look his fill on Bofur without his friend noticing.

            Bofur hadn’t put his hair in its usual haphazard braids yet, and his hat dangled from a bedpost.  In fact, he wasn’t even completely dressed; he wore only his trousers and shirt; tunic, belt, and boots lay scattered across the floor where he’d dropped them the night before.  The soldier’s sense of order in Dwalin made him itch to pick them up, while at the same time he was delighted by Bofur’s messy exuberance.

            Dwalin had always been faintly envious of those dwarves who had a craft.  He’d tried his hand at weaponsmithing and wasn’t bad at it, but there was nothing in him that drove him to it.  There were dwarves who spend their whole lives creating, forgoing marriage and even kin.  Dwalin sometimes wished he knew what it was like to care about something so deeply.

            The morning sun caressed Bofur’s intent face.  Just this once, Dwalin let himself stare.  By Durin, had there ever been a dwarf so perfect?  Dwalin finally understood for the first time a thousand love ballads that had left him cold for a hundred and seventy years.

            He hissed when he nicked a finger with the blade he’d been polishing absentmindedly.  Dwalin flushed; he hadn’t made so juvenile a mistake since he was a child.  Bofur glanced up just in time to see Dwalin pop the finger in his mouth.

            Without missing a beat, Bofur rose and fetched a bandage from the chest of drawers.  Kneeling before Dwalin, he inspected the cut.  Dwalin felt unexpectedly breathless as Bofur tied the bandage securely around the injured finger.  Part of him wanted to protest that he wasn’t a child, that it was just a cut – and part of him thrilled to be the focus of Bofur’s entire attention where just moments before his friend had been wholly consumed with his carving.

            “There,” Bofur said finally, breaking the electric tension in the air when he rose.  “Shall we go to breakfast?”  He surveyed Dwalin from head to toe, taking in the muddy boots and dirt-streaked clothing.  “Were you out without your coat?” he scolded, sounding so much like Dwalin’s father when he was small that Dwalin laughed.  After a moment, Bofur grimaced and laughed, too.

            Bofur would make a wonderful father someday, Dwalin thought.  His heart squeezed painfully at the next thought, of Bofur finding a beautiful dwarrowdam and falling in love with her.  That was what it would take, wasn’t it?  And Bofur wanted that so much…

            Would Dwalin have to stay silent and watch while Bofur found happiness elsewhere?  Of course he wanted Bofur to be happy.  But it would hurt so much, seeing him love someone else.

            It’s your own fault, he told himself for what seemed like the thousandth time.  He would never trust you with his heart, not after you betrayed him twice.

            A hand touched his shoulder, and Dwalin looked up into Bofur’s worried eyes.  “Is there aught amiss?” Bofur asked.  “You looked so grim all of a sudden.”

            Dwalin shook his head to clear it.  He would rejoice if Bofur found love, of course, even while he grieved privately.  And he’d have the chance to be uncle to Bofur’s little ones…  He’d loved being uncle to Fili and Kili.  It would not all be pain, the road ahead.  “Breakfast,” he grunted, turning away from the concern on Bofur’s face.

            He’d have a coat made at the market today, and he’d find a way to bury the longing he felt so that Bofur need never be troubled by it again.

 


 

 

            Toward the end of breakfast, Kiri and Havlin ran in.  By the looks on their faces, they were not bearing good news.  Bofur rose to greet them, and Dwalin rose to follow Bofur.

            Kiri was blunt.  “The shareholders voted this morning to dissolve the contract with Isengard.”

            Dwalin didn’t absorb the implication immediately.  He was distracted by watching Bofur go very still.  The set of his mouth was the only thing that gave away his despair.  That, and in the next moment he’d put his fist through the door.

            It happened so fast that Dwalin almost didn’t catch it.  Havlin’s mouth dropped open, and Kiri’s formed a silent “o” of surprise.  All four of them stared at the four-inch solid oak door of the inn that Bofur had cracked down the center in his emotion.

            Red blood welled up over Bofur’s knuckles, breaking Dwalin out of his frozen spell.  Swiftly, he unwrapped the bandage Bofur had put on his own hand just an hour ago, wrapping it tightly around Bofur’s hand this time to stop the bleeding.  If Bofur had broken the bones in his hand, he’d need a surgeon.  A toymaker couldn’t afford to injure his hands…

            Bofur was still standing stock still, staring at the fractured door.  And no wonder; a door that heavy and thick must have lasted decades, if not centuries.  The strength of the anger behind his fist –

            “I’m sorry,” Bofur whispered, looking panicked.  “I didn’t mean to.”  His eyes were focused on something beyond Dwalin’s shoulder, and Dwalin turned to see the landlord also stunned into silence.

            Bofur’s eyes were wide, dilated with fear, and it took Dwalin precious seconds to realize what was the matter.  When he did, he stepped in front of the landlord, interposing his body between him and Bofur.

            “Sir,” he said, loud enough for Bofur to hear, “we will have somebody repair your door today.  If you’ll commission a replacement, we will pay the woodworker in gold up front.  Our apologies.”  He took the dwarf by the shoulders and guided him away from Bofur so that his friend could regain his composure and calm down.  When he did, he’d remember that he was one of the richest dwarves in Middle Earth.

            Dwalin had no idea how much a door would cost.  For that matter, he had no idea how much a miner got paid in Ered Luin.  Not enough, if Bofur had had to go hungry.  And now that the contract was broken, it was possible a lot of dwarves would be going hungry.

            “It’s not all bad,” Kiri was saying earnestly when he returned, having pacified the landlord with a direct application of gold.  “Everyone was working too much overtime.  It wasn’t safe.  We’ll still sell to Isengard.”

            Bofur shook his head.  “Now they’re free to fire the troublemakers.”  He was staring fixedly at his bandaged hand.  Havlin was missing; presumably he’d gone to fetch a doctor.  “It’s all politics, Kiri.  They’ll make you pay for defying them.”

            “The foreman won’t let them,” she insisted.  “Alar protected us before; he’ll do it now.  This is the only thing they can do to hurt us.  It doesn’t matter.”

            Bofur shook his head, too weary to argue.

 


 

 

            While Havlin and Kiri accompanied Bofur to the surgeon’s to set the fractured bones in his hand, Dwalin went to see Dis.

            If this was the price of love, he’d pay it.

            The princess hid her surprise quickly when he was shown into her sitting room.  She was working on something, a mess of papers spread out before her, but she swept them all away and rose to greet him.

            “Dwalin,” she said, calm.  “Tea?”

            The blasted teapot was at her right side, and apparently she did actually drink the foul stuff voluntarily and not just to torture him.

            “The shareholders,” he said, coming right to the point.  “Why didn’t you stop them?”

            She seated herself regally and poured tea into a second cup, setting it before the other chair.  Dwalin remained standing.  “The shareholders had a temper tantrum,” she said.  “I didn’t have time to persuade them of their folly.”  She shrugged and sipped at her tea.  “It won’t make a great deal of difference.  Isengard would have canceled the contract within the next few months; we’ve simply not been able to provide them with enough raw iron, even when the mines weren’t closed.”

            Dwalin silently cursed, wishing he had Bofur’s or Balin’s way with words.  If he could only convince her…

            “I tried, Dwalin,” she said, looking him right in the eye this time.  “I don’t have control of enough shares, yet.  In a year, things will be different.”  She motioned.  “Sit.”

            Dwalin sat, slumping in defeat.  There wasn’t anything that could fix this.

            Figuring he couldn’t feel any lower, he tasted the tea – and shuddered.

            Dis chuckled.  “It tastes dreadful, doesn’t it?”

            “How can you drink it?” he asked.

            She looked at him speculatively.  “You really don’t know?”

            “Know what?” he demanded, irked.  He was a hero, and he couldn’t fix even the littlest thing for Bofur.  What use were his axes to the dwarf he loved?  If he were any good at politics, perhaps…

            Dis was still studying him intently.  “Nevermind,” she said after a pause.

            They sat together in silence for a time.

            “How can you do it?” Dwalin asked at last.  “How do you keep calm when they’re so stupid, and when Longbeard interests mean we have to be stupid too?”

            She laughed, a short bark.  With a pang, Dwalin remembered that when the princes were still alive, she used to laugh long and rich.  Sometimes she could even get Thorin to laugh with her.  “It’s not easy,” she admitted.  “Your brother, now, he loves playing this game.  But you and I were never suited to it.”

            He paused, surprised at her words.  She was good at the game of politics, one of the best.

            “We’re dwarves who prefer action,” she explained.

            He nodded, but he was fairly certain he was missing an undercurrent to the conversation.

            “No matter,” she said, pouring herself more tea.  “The shareholders will be dealt with.  Unless they manage to fire the foreman, the miners shouldn’t feel too many ill effects.  After all, it’s in the shareholders’ best interests to mine as much as possible with or without the contract.”

            Dwalin trusted Bofur’s swift anger more than Dis’s cool assessment, but maybe the truth was somewhere in the middle.

            Because he’d always been stubborn, Dwalin tasted the tea again.  If anything, it tasted worse today.  How could Dis drink it every day?

            If you started your day off with something that noxious, everything else was bound to look better by comparison.

            Dis didn’t seem to mind the silence, so he let his mind wander.

            She was being surprisingly forthright today.  Usually she wouldn’t look him in the eyes or give him a straight answer.  But today, she seemed less interested in taunting him.  Except about the damn tea.

            She’d looked him in the eye, which she didn’t do often.  Thorin had been the same, especially with people he wasn’t comfortable with.  Dwalin had learned to read Thorin by whether the king was willing to meet his eyes when he spoke.  Lying didn’t come easy to dwarves – they were a forthright people, for the most part – but Thorin was a military commander.  He often had to shade the truth to motivate the dwarves in his command.  When Thorin couldn’t look Dwalin in the eye as he gave orders, Dwalin knew he was lying about their chances.

            Carefully, Dwalin put away further thoughts about Thorin.  It was still too tender.

            He was tempted to ask Dis about his menses.  He was almost a month overdue for bleeding, and there was no dwarven doctor he could consult.  A human doctor might be helpful, but might just as soon be ignorant.  If he didn’t bleed before he got back to Erebor, Dwalin would have to find a secure way to get a message to Lord Elrond.

            Could Elrond have done something to alter his menses?  Dwalin was fairly sure the healer would have asked first.  Dwalin would have jumped at the chance.  But this – this was torture because he didn’t know if something was wrong.

            Dis had said she wouldn’t tell anyone, and she’d looked him in the eye as she said it – but he shied away from giving her another secret of his.  Knowledge was power, in her world.

            When he looked up, Dis was looking right at him.  She looked very pale, and vulnerable in a way he hadn’t seen her since just after her husband died.

            She whet her lips nervously, uncharacteristically hesitant.  “My boys – ” she began, and faltered.

            He waited.

            Her eyes were pleading.  “Were they happy, on the quest?”

            In his mind’s eye, Dwalin could see in startling detail Kili nestled with his brother of a night, neither willing to admit to homesickness.  That had continued for most of the quest, especially in Mirkwood.

            But he also remembered the startled joy on Fili’s face the first time he offered his advice as a warrior and Thorin took it unhesitatingly.  And he thought too of how the two had learned to temper their pranks with friendliness rather than simple levity.  And he remembered how, when Bombur fell in the enchanted stream and couldn’t be awakened, Kili and Fili were the only dwarves in the company to shoulder their burden without complaint.  Bofur had been distraught with worry, and Kili especially had gone out of his way to be kind and try to distract him.

            “They grew up on the journey,” he said at last.  “It wasn’t a child’s joy, for all they were the most merry of all of us.  They came into their own, and they were so proud of each other for it.”

            Dis looked away.  A tear slowly worked its way down her cheek.

            “They were dwarves, fighting for King and realm,” he said simply.  “Yes, they were happy.”

            Dis’s breath came quick, as if she were trying to suppress a sob.  “And Thorin?” she asked desperately.  “My brother was never happy here.”

            “Thorin gained everything he’d ever wanted,” Dwalin said.  “Yes, he was happy in the end.”  Not until he was dying, he did not say.  That was a memory he would not make her bear.

            “I’d like to be alone now,” she whispered.

            The chair scraped along the floor as he rose.  Her face when she looked at him, though streaked with tears, was strangely calm.

            It felt wrong to leave her alone.  At the door, Dwalin paused and glanced back.

            He returned to the table, unbuckling his axe harness, and set the twin axes on the table.  Keeper, his favorite, had a cunning compartment worked into the handle.  He peeled back the molded leather grip and shook out the tightly-wound scroll hidden beneath.

            It was not an elaborate portrait.  It was not even done on fine parchment.  Dwalin had asked Ori to do the sketch years ago, when he woke up one night terrified because he couldn’t bring to mind the exact angle of Thorin’s nose or the quirk of his infrequent smile.

            Dis spread the paper out, holding the edges so that it would not snap back into a scroll.  This time she did sob, gazing at the pen and ink rendering of her brother and her sons.

            “May Durin offer you peace, my lady,” he said.  He turned to go.

            “Dwalin,” Dis whispered when he was at the door.  He turned back again to look.

            She kept her eyes on the portrait before her, running her fingers over the beloved contours of the faces of her kin, just as Dwalin had done countless times.  When she spoke, her voice was hoarse.  “Thorin knew.  He knew about you.”  She turned her face toward him, but she couldn’t quite meet his eyes.  “He – it didn’t matter to him.”

            Dwalin felt his own eyes burn with unshed tears.  With his heart in his throat, he thanked her for the lie, and stumbled out the door to find privacy for his grief.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

           The day they were to leave dawned bright and chilly.  Two hundred and forty-three dwarves had signed on to the caravan, and if all went well it would be two hundred and forty-four before they reached Erebor.  In the early morning light they gathered, just inside the gates of the city: a parade of thirty-five wagons and dozens of ponies and mules.

            People had been packing all night, and finally everything was tied down and ready to go.  Dwalin had left the arrangements to Bofur, who had to outfit Balur’s wagon as well.  Now, Bofur saw Dwalin’s raised eyebrow when he found their wagon piled rather higher than might be expected.  Bofur had arranged for extra food stores in both wagons, knowing that some of the poorer families could not afford to bring enough.  He was grateful when Dwalin made no comment.

            Bofur glanced, worried, at Balur’s wagon.  He had not seen his uncle yet this morning, and surely he would want to bring the few possessions he had?  Bofur bit his lip and tried not to fret.  He was dreading the next three months.

            It seemed most of the town had come to see them off.  There were pompous speeches from several Councilmen about the partnership of Ered Luin and Erebor.  When eyes turned expectantly their way, Dwalin grunted a few polite words of thanks for the hospitality extended to the two of them.  Bofur saw him grind his teeth at having to do it.  Dwalin had never forgiven Ered Luin for not welcoming the refugees after the dragon.

            Bofur nudged Dwalin.  “Have you seen my uncle?” he asked, worried.

            Dwalin shook his head.

            Then it was time for goodbyes.

            Bofur saw Havlin, his face streaked with tears, embrace his younger sister.  Behind him, Krevlin looked like a strong wind would lay him out flat.  Taelin clung to both of them, but her expression remained resolute.

            Bofur’s miners crowded around him, clapping him on the shoulder and wishing him well.  He embraced them each in turn, and waited until the others had drifted away before pulling Kiri into a hug.

            “Take care of this town for me,” he whispered.

            Kiri bit her lip, looking anxious, but she nodded.

            Alís was approaching, and Bofur slid an arm around her waist, tugging her close as well.  “Alís will steer you right if you need advice,” he told Kiri.  “But you’ve already got a good head on your shoulders.”  He smiled at her.  “You’re going to be magnificent.”

            When Kiri had gone, Alís laid her forehead against his and wrapped her sturdy arms around him.  Bofur closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of safety.

            “There’s a box in your wagon that’s gifts for your brother and cousin and you,” Alís said, her voice thick.

            Bofur clung to her like a dwarfling, wishing he could beg her to come.  “I hope you’ll visit us someday,” he whispered when he could trust his voice.  “Or even stay.  Courtesans are welcome there.”  He didn’t want to have to think about never seeing her again.

            She smiled, a mother’s kindness in her eyes.  “Ah, lad.  My place is here.  I’ve my lads and my husband and my whole life here.”  Seeing the tears well in his eyes, she dropped a kiss on his nose.  “But I do hope to visit someday,” she promised.

            He pulled her closer and buried his face in her shirt, and tried to memorize the sensation of her fingers in his hair.

            When he emerged, red-faced and tear-stained, she nodded toward Dwalin, who was speaking with Lady Dis.  “You ought to tell your dwarf that you love him,” she said.

            He gave her a watery smile.  “I mean to.”

            She smiled back.

            As he tried to gather the courage to let go, she took a letter from her breast pocket.  “A favor,” she explained.

            “Anything,” he promised.

            “I’m told there’s a trained courtesan in King Dain’s court.  Would you give this to him?”

            “Of course,” Bofur said, wondering why she would be writing to Dori.

            “Enna’s only halfway through his training.  I hope he will be able to continue his apprenticeship.”

            “I’ll ask Dori myself,” Bofur promised her, and embraced her one more time.

            Havlin came next.  He embraced Bofur silently, swiftly, then stepped away, nodding his respect to Dwalin.  To Bofur’s surprise, Dwlain nodded back gravely.  Some sort of understanding seemed to pass between the two of them, and Havlin retreated.  Part of Bofur was relieved, and another part cried out that he would never see Havlin’s face again.  He pushed aside both parts, and turned to say goodbye to Krevlin.

 


 

 

            “I’ve brought you a gift,” Dis said to Dwalin, her voice gruff.

            Dwalin could not have kept the surprise off his face if he’d tried.

            Dis laughed, surprising him further.  “It’s not a gift you’ll thank me for just yet,” she said, with just a hint of Fili’s cheeky smile.  She handed him a package.

            He unwrapped the paper, wondering what on earth she could have gotten him.  It seemed to be… leaves?  The scent hit him a moment later, and he groaned.  She’d given him a package of her foul-tasting tea!

            She laughed again at the expression on his face.  It was Thorin’s laugh.  “There’s a recipe card in there, too,” she said, blue eyes gleaming with merriment.  “You’ll thank me for it, later.  Trust me.”

            He couldn’t think of a single reason why he might thank her for it, but a conscience that sounded very much like Balin kicked in and he muttered an ungracious thank you.

            “Take care of yourself, Dwalin,” she said seriously.  “And take care of our cousin.  He has more enemies than he knows.”

            Was that a threat?  He eyed her suspiciously, but was only treated yet again to a laugh achingly like Thorin’s.

            “Farewell, cousin,” she said, and moved away to stand next to Alís.  The time for goodbyes was over; everywhere, dwarves were climbing onto mounts or into wagons.  When Dwalin next looked for her, Kiri had joined them.  He couldn’t help feeling a bit relieved that Ered Luin had three such women to help protect it from itself.

 


 

 

            Bofur couldn’t help the alarm he felt – and the treacherous hope – as the caravan began to prepare to get underway.  Mistress Miril was issuing orders right and left, the queen of her domain, and Balur had still not appeared.

            I shall have to fetch him from some tavern, soused out of his wits, Bofur realized, despairing.  In vain, he turned to Dwalin.  “You’ve seen naught of my uncle?” he asked.

            Dwalin held Bofur’s pony so that he count mount.  “Mistress Miril says he’s chosen not to come,” he rumbled.

            Bofur faltered halfway into the saddle, paralyzed by surprise and a sudden, terrible hope.  Dwalin caught him when he would have fallen, and helped him up onto the pony’s back.  “When?” Bofur gasped, his mind whirling.  “He’s not coming to Erebor?”

            “It seems not.”

            Something in Dwalin’s voice, studiedly calm, gave Bofur pause.  He shot a piercing look at his companion, but Dwalin’s face was completely neutral.

            Almost, Bofur asked.  Almost, he demanded to know what was being left unsaid.

            But he quelled the urge and held his tongue, for once.  It was the best stroke of luck he’d ever been granted; asking further might take it away.

            “Very well, then,” he said.  “That will no doubt make the journey smoother.”  The understatement could not contain the wave of elation he felt swelling inside him.  He looked at his friend; he didn’t have to hold back the emotion for the sake of propriety, not with Dwalin.  Bofur let his relief and happiness show on his face.

            Dwalin grinned back at him.  Bofur thought of the reserved, grim dwarf who had started the journey with him.  He often saw a smile on Dwalin’s face now, sometimes even twice a day.  If for no other reason, the journey had been worth it for that.

            Bofur looked back at where Havlin was fussing over the blankets Taelin was sitting on.  The trip had been worth it, too, to close that chapter of his life properly.  The wounds Havlin had left on his heart were no longer gaping and bleeding.  Finally, Bofur could look back on twelve mostly good years and remember the joy as well as the sorrow.  It would always hurt, a little, how things had ended – but this time he wasn’t running away.  This time he was going home.

            As Mistress Miril gave her final instructions and warnings, Bofur looked out over the crowd that had come to see them off.  He was relieved, after recent events, not to be the person the crowd looked to for guidance.  He had no illusions that he’d escape responsibility altogether on the journey home, but he was genuinely thankful that Miril had agreed to be their leader.

            Only one pair of eyes was on him.  Most of the way across the square, Feron Firebeard was glaring at him.  It was an old enmity, and had grown sharper over the years.  With the Longbeards the animosity had at least been all business; with the Firebeards it was personal.

            Bofur glanced down at his bandaged hand, useless until the small bones mended.  There was no way to know if he’d ever be able to wield a woodworking tool with any finesse ever again.  Dissolving the contract with Isengard had been a personal attack, to hurt Bofur in the only way that remained: through his friends.

            The old frustrated anger filled him again, a familiar despairing burn through his chest.  It just went on and on, what these people would do, and Bofur wouldn’t be here to protect his friends.

            Across the square, he saw the Firebeard clan head smirk, as if he followed the direction of Bofur’s thoughts.

            Cold fury burned through him.  The pain in his hand was enough to remind him not to be rash this time, but enough was enough.  He was no longer just a miner, without the resources to fight back.

            Miril was surprised when he signaled her, but she acquiesced.  “You have something to add, Mister Bofur?”  There was a touch of testiness to her voice, but he ignored it.

            “I do.”  Bofur let his face harden and he looked directly at Feron Firebeard even as he pitched his voice to reach the entire crowd assembled.

            “Most of you know that the King has given me charge of the western mines of Erebor.”  He paused.  The Firebeard clan head looked at him curiously.  “They’re the largest and deepest mines outside of Moria.”  He felt a smile spread over his face at the thought of them.  “Words cannot describe the splendor of Erebor’s mines.”

            The crowd’s attention was caught, but Mistress Miril had a “get on with it” expression on her face.

            “My mines are not perfect.  Last year, I lost three good miners in a cavein.  I cannot guarantee that it won’t happen again.”  He locked eyes with the Firebeard.  “However.  No expense has ever been spared to ensure the very best safety possible.  No miner in my mines has ever been required to go into a mine he thought was unsafe.  And when there is such a mine, we either make it safe or we shut it down.

            Feron still hadn’t figured out Bofur’s endgame.  Bofur smiled at him, showing his teeth.  “The western mines have only just begun to penetrate the vast veins of gold and precious stones beneath the Lonely Mountain.  We are always in need of more miners.”

            The Firebeard’s head came up and he stared at Bofur, alarmed.  There.  Now he’d sussed it.

            “If any miner from Ered Luin wishes to emigrate to Erebor, I will guarantee him a place in my mines.”  A ripple of astonishment ran through the crowd.  “Furthermore, I will provide the first six months of housing free of charge.”  It couldn’t be just the well-off miners who came.  Bofur let the buzz grow for a moment.  “Moreover,” he added, glaring right at Feron, “after that miner has served for five years in the western mines, I will repay him the direct cost of all expenses associated with making the journey from here to Erebor with his family.”

            He couldn’t have hidden the satisfaction he felt at the Firebeard’s impotent fury if he’d tried.  With terms like he’d just offered, the shareholders of Ered Luin would have to start treating their miners better.  If not, they were liable to lose all of them, and thus their profits.

            This wouldn’t be the only change coming to Ered Luin.  Havlin’s idea was a good one.  When Bofur got back to Erebor, he would buy a controlling stake in the Ered Luin mines.  He might even send someone he trusted to manage that stake, if he was feeling generous at the end of the journey.  If not, they would have to deal with Balur representing the Broadbeam stake, and Mahal help them.

            Mistress Miril arched a sardonic brow at him.  Her expression said, Are you quite finished with your theatrics?

            Bofur nodded, ceding the floor.  Miril gave a few order orders, and the first few carriages lurched haltingly forward.  One by one, the rest of the procession followed.

            As he passed through the heavy gates of the city for the last time, Bofur felt a great weight fall from his shoulders.  He breathed in the cool morning air and glanced back at Dwalin, feeling gratitude overwhelm him.

            They were going home.