”By my heart,” he whispered. ”You are fairer to me than all the gold of Erebor.”
And the scarred dwarf smiled.
”I do not believe you. But I will have your love nonetheless.”
* * *
There are few women among dwarves.
They seldom walk abroad, instead being kept safe and hidden from the outer world, lest their number should decrease further and the lines of their people break.
Perhaps that is why what he does is forbidden.
See, dwarves take only one spouse in their lives. Such is their nature, it is told.
When you may only love once, make sure you love right.
Many dwarves, men and women alike, do not desire marriage. This is as it should be. The love of dwarves for their crafts, in which they surpass all other people of the mortal world, is a gift from their maker, and it runs forever in their blood.
Perhaps that is what makes what he does wrong.
Perhaps there is a hidden choice, and the options are to give your undivided heart to the metal and stone, or to vow a piece of it to one who will bring you an heir or several, and either way the choice is ever for the sake of your people.
But who truly knows the reason behind the law? Who would ask the question when there are still realms to defend, veins to be discovered, crafts to be perfected? How would indeed ask about that which is supposed not to be, when there are so many other things that are?
And yet, there is him.
For every law to exist, there must be some who break it.
* * *
He sat alone on a high bench behind a shed in the garden and had crossed his legs under him, not comfortable with having them dangling in the air. His eyes were lowered, looking at nothing in particular, while he absently traced the bruises on his fingers. They were nothing compared to the purple marks all over his torso, now hidden only by his tunics. He had made sure that no one would see him when he first freed himself of his heavy garments, wincing and looking at what he had until then only felt with every move he had made. He had found minor wounds that were bleeding, in addition to the cut and the scrapes in his face, but overall he was more sore than injured. He had bathed and cleaned himself up as well as he could, moving at last out of the chill water to stand again on the river bank. Not until then had he called for the healer, who had been waiting respectfully with his back to him, in addition doing him the favour of standing guard over his privacy. Oin had made the same judgement, smearing his stinging salve on the open wounds when Thorin had dried a little.
Thorin had kept his distance to the others as they walked the long way from the Carrock to the house of Beorn, being led by Gandalf, and the others had all warily kept their distance to him. He had gone as far as manners craved with their new host, and then he had slipped out of the great, suffocating house, finally knowing that no one would have a reason to follow him.
Or, almost no one.
Thorin straightened his back when the quick padding of heavy boots on the grass reached his ears. He smiled a little as he heard his name being called, but answered nothing and did not turn his head until a tall shadow had appeared around the corner and stopped dead in its tracks.
Thorin quickly locked eyes with the warrior, breathing softly through his nose. He betrayed no emotions yet, focusing on observing the other man while keeping himself under control.
”You're lucky Oin told me you're fine, or I'd have you killed for avoiding me all day and then sneak away under my nose,” Dwalin muttered loudly.
But for all his words and the strength behind them, there was tenderness in his voice. Thorin gave him a slow nod. Dwalin sized him up, mimicking the blank stare until Thorin broke his facade and offered him a wide smile, ignoring the wounds in his face that ached from the strain. The night before they had walked on the edge of death. Now, here they were – still alive, and for the moment safe.
Dwalin seated himself on the bench close beside him, dangling his feet disapprovingly. Thorin smiled at that too. I still find myself in the strangest of places, his mind whispered, and you are there with me. Then he tensed, breathing in sharply, as Dwalin's arm came to rest around his shoulders.
”Dwalin, this is no –”
”Oh, quiet,” Dwalin dismissed him softly. ”They're all inside, no one'll come here.”
Thorin hesitated, even though he knew that he could trust his companion's judgement. We must never let our guard down, he thought. Never risk anything.
Still, it had been far too long. And the night before, Dwalin had seen him crushed down – he blinked hard at the flash of memory – and thought him the first to fall in an inevitable slaughter marking the end of everything they had set out on this quest for.
Thorin licked his lips slowly and lifted his chin to face the warrior. His hands cupped Dwalin's bearded jaws as he leaned into him, drawn closer by his big arms and drawing comfort from their strength. Their breaths mingled, unsteady with the longing of uncounted days and nights. Then Dwalin's firm, warm lips met Thorin's, and Thorin gasped as his mouth was forced open. Dwalin's tongue thrusted against his, bringing forth weak moans of pleasure and anticipation. No one else, Thorin thought, would ever hear those sounds from him. Not in the crushing pain of death would the King Under the Mountain give to anyone else what he gave to Dwalin son of Fundin. His beloved hummed softly into the kiss. It would take more to make him lose his control, Thorin knew that – but he also knew how it was to be achieved. Oh, he knew. Every line and every spot on Dwalin's body. How to make him cry out, or how to make him sob. How to make him beg for anything that Thorin could give him.
He was shaking from his own thoughts when they parted. The heaving of his chest sent little sparks of pain through his body, even though Dwalin was holding him as lightly as he possibly could. His eyes sought Dwalin's, and again he silently thanked Mahal for the grace that had been given him, bringing them both back into safety.
”They're setting the table for supper” he mumbled. ”We should get back.”
Of course. Too soon as always. Thorin grabbed the fur on the Dwalin's shoulder – Dwalin was still fully dressed, even carrying most of his weapons – and breathed heavily against his ear. The warrior stiffened a little. Thorin traced the edges of the orc bite with the tip of his nose, remembering, as he always did, the exact feel of the ear cuff that had used to sit there against his tongue.
”Very well,” he said quietly between his teeth. ”But what of after supper?”
Dwalin shook his head fiercely, pulling back to stare at him.
”No. Too dangerous.”
Thorin sighed. Of course it was. It had always been too dangerous. Even where they had been able to lock their own doors behind them it had been dangerous, but in all these years they had never been caught. No one, as far as he knew, had ever suspected anything. And he had yearned for so long to have Dwalin again. The night before was just one of the many times on this journey when their lives could have ended, but now – after this night – Thorin felt his longing grow into something unbearable, despite all his efforts to suppress it. It crushed his chest with a force that made his physical suffering fade into nothing. Let the others think that he pondered on the burdens of his heritage when he avoided them. He thought of Dwalin every single moment.
His love, his light in the darkness. The face projected before his eyes as they had lost all their true vision, before unconsciousness took him. How would it be possible for him to turn his full focus back to the quest without assuring his body that Dwalin was still by his side? It is dangerous to have a split focus, he thought. So this was for all their sakes, was it not? He let go of the fur and stroked the greying streaks in his beloved's beard with an unsteady hand.
”I need you,” he said hoarsely, shaking his head as he forced the words out. ”I am lost without you.”
Dwalin lifted his hands and silenced the pleading, signing his loving answer in the air before he took Thorin's face between them and captured his lips in a second, briefer kiss.
* * *
Thorin's heart sunk when he learned that they were not to stray outside as long as the sun was down. The thought that they might slip away before sunset, lock themselves in a shed and return at dawn came to him, but it was a passing reverie more than a safe and useful plan. Yet, at last, when Beorn had slammed the great door shut behind his dark shape, and they all made for their beds, he excused himself, simply telling Gandalf that he would sleep alone tonight. He picked up the mattress and the blanket he had been given, fetched a lamp, and walked quietly across the hall. Behind his back, he could hear Dwalin's footsteps, and he knew that the tall warrior was following him like a strange shadow, probably nodding politely at Gandalf as he passed him. Dwalin followed him as the King's Second and Guard – and also as his advisor, whom he would turn to when the counsels of Balin, the elder, grew too hesitant and wary.
They passed through room after room, opening doors and closing them behind them. Thorin had paid attention to the doors leading from the great hall to each one of the two wings, and he had chosen the one through which none of Beorn's animals had seemed to disappear when they left for the night. At last they came to a room that was particularly small and had no windows. Dwalin stepped forward and closed the door to it from outside. He turned the large key in its lock, pushed and tested it. The door held firm. Thorin lowered his eyes, almost swaying with relief and thrill. Dwalin laid one hand on his arm, squeezing gently, as the other turned the key back and opened the door again.
Thorin entered the room and made his bed on the floor in the middle of it. Dwalin made his just outside the door, and with that being done, he stepped inside with the key in his hand. They both listened as the lock slid and clicked, speaking its promise of safety. The room might have been some kind of storage space – perhaps the place their beddings had come from – for right now it was quite empty save for a pile of mattresses looking very battered, and a barrel on which Thorin had placed the lamp. He waited for Dwalin's attention to return from the surroundings to himself and raised his hands as soon as he had it.
”All clothes off.”
Sharp movements, a pause between each sign.
”Bad idea,” Dwalin grumbled, staring into Thorin's eyes, big muscles flexing at his jaw.
Thorin tilted his head a little.
”Aye,” he agreed, switching back to spoken language. ”Yet, if we die tomorrow, was it a still a bad idea?”
”Still a bad idea,” Dwalin echoed firmly.
He lifted his hands to his collar.
”Our lives've been nothing but bad ideas, Thorin.”
He slid the garment over his head.
”Get yours off then, or I'll do it myself.”
The rest of their clothes were removed quickly, quietly, in a rush of breaths. After all these years, Thorin only found it harder to tell if he was panting from anxiety or arousement. He turned his tunic inside out and threw it on the straw mattress where it, in a moment, was joined by Dwalin's shirt. It was an old ritual – better to have their own clothes sullied than the beds of their hosts. And, Thorin thought, with a twitch of his lip, their clothes could not possibly be made to smell any worse than they already did. Dwalin laid a strong hand on his arm and urged him to turn around slowly. Thorin kept his head high and fixed his gaze in the distance as his injuries were exposed to the probing eyes. His jaw clenched, and he bit down hard to fight the impulse to tense up completely in front of Dwalin. He would relish in being on his back, Dwalin pounding into him, holding him down and filling him with heat, but he would never, ever get used to being looked at in this way.
At last Dwalin finished his examination and stepped closer again. He took Thorin's face in his hand and nudged the tip of his nose with his thumb. Thorin flinched, more on instinct than out of pain.
”Broken?” Dwalin asked.
Dwalin looked triumphantly at him.
”You're made of mithril, Thorin. Told you.”
Thorin raised his eyebrows and smiled faintly.
”You'll get a mighty scar across that handsome nose of yours, I'll wager,” Dwalin murmured, still stroking Thorin's face tenderly. ”Will serve as a reminder to all folk of who you are.”
Thorin abruptly backed out of Dwalin's touch and looked sharply at him, his breath caught in his throat.
”Dwalin,” he spat bitterly, ”I received it because I failed.”
The warrior endured his gaze silently, licking his lips before he finally sighed.
”Do not count being alive as a failure, Thorin. Your time'll come.”
My time, Thorin thought. And would that be my time to thrive, or my time to die? He frowned. Yet, Dwalin had always been there, telling him to let matters go when he would listen to no one else, and it had always helped him to pick himself up, and to focus on that which was more important. Dwalin was the one he would trust when he was so far gone that he trusted not even his own senses. He sighed and decided that he would trust him now as well.
The darkness in his head lifted a little as soon as stepped into Dwalin's embrace. The bath they had taken in the river had done them little good, due to the long, hot walk in still dirty clothes that had followed upon it, but for all that, Dwalin still smelled like Dwalin. Thorin buried his head against his broad neck and breathed in deeply, allowing himself to start relaxing for the first time in days. They remained on their feet for a long while, soon kissing fiercely and stroking each other's shoulders and backs. Thorin silently acknowledged that Dwalin had done a good job mapping out his bruises, as his beloved at all times kept his hands on the patches of unharmed skin. Heat was flowing into his groin where Dwalin pressed them both together. He took Dwalin's hand and sat down on the covered mattress, in the fluent motion that he had now learnt was the least painful. They faced each other with legs crossed, and Dwalin kept cradling Thorin's hand in his own, rubbing small circles to work the tension out of it. Thorin rolled his shoulders with a sigh, relishing the calm. They were in no hurry.
”Do you remember winter track training camp?” he said, lying down on his back. ”All eyes were on us. Me, being the King's grandson, and you – the tallest dwarf around.”
Dwalin merely smiled, blinking at him to go on.
”Remember when we knew?” Thorin said softly. ”When we kissed in the darkness by the bridge, after you had dared me to bite you?”
”After you bit me,” Dwalin corrected.
”Mhm. I'm still sorry for punching you.”
”Don't. I told you to, for Durin's sake.”
”Aye, but half the force would've been enough to cover up that bitmark.”
”Thorin, all you did with that punch was turning me on.”
Dwalin's smile widened as Thorin let out a small gasp of air. He leaned forward on his elbows and knees and brought their lips together, and Thorin kissed him crudely and passionately, like he had done that night so many years ago, when there was moonlight and broken skin and blood, and all the ferocity of youth.
Then, from somewhere outside, a growling noise came slipping through the walls. Dwalin drew back like a bowshot. Thorin threw himself up on one knee, one feet planted in the ground and the toes of the other pushing against the floor – to get him on his feet in less than the blink of an eye when need would rise. He jerked his head to one side, then kept completely still, focusing on the strange grunts and rustles, which came from the direction of the courtyard.
”What is that?” he mouthed, catching Dwalin's eyes.
They kept listening.
”Whatever it is,” Dwalin said at last, ”it's making enough noise out there for us feel quite safe in here.”
Thorin did not move. Never let your guard down, he thought. Never risk anything. Bad idea, screamed a voice in his head. Nothing but bad ideas. Yet, once again, he at length found himself having to agree with Dwalin. He had already abandoned his first thought – that they or the rest of company might be in danger – and the commotion outside might indeed serve as both a diversion and a sign that they were safe unless it came closer.
”That is well then,” he managed at length, breathing out through his nose and standing down from his readied position.
”Best keep an ear open though,” Dwalin added in a low voice.
Thorin nodded, his heart still pounding in his throat.
Not until he began to relax again, did his injuries make themselves remembered, and his breath came in short bursts as pain spread through his chest. Dwalin took him by his upper arms to help ease him down on his back, but released him when Thorin shot him a thunderous look.
”For Durin's sake, Dwalin, I'm not a dwarfling.”
He lay down by himself, and the thin mattress did little for his comfort, but the warmth of Dwalin's strong body leaning over him soon distracted him from the displeasure.
”How d'you want me?” Dwalin asked, his voice low and hoarse in the way that would always send hot shivers up Thorin's spine.
Thorin opened his mouth, still annoyed with the dent to his pride, but unable to silence his arousal.
”I want to claim you. I want to feel you come undone beneath me. I –”
”Out of the question, love. As badly as I want you to, you're in no condition to fuck me, Thorin.”
Thorin sighed heavily, rolling his eyes and looking away. He drew his hands slowly through his own hair, smoothing it back.
”Then just …”
He gestured and made a move to sit up, but Dwalin held him down with one hand spread out over his chest.
”After you,” the warrior whispered and bent down for a kiss.
Thorin gave in at last, admitting to himself that his ribcage would appreciate the turn of events. He began to play with the lengths of Dwalin's wiry hair as the kiss deepened, and Dwalin tugged lightly at his lower lip.
That was the feel of teeth against his skin. Thorin tensed for a moment, but then Dwalin released him and began to place soft kisses on his neck instead.
Next to all the fear and shame that came with them being together, this was perhaps the worst part: knowing that they would never be able to draw pleasure from the act of marking each other. They had done it, of course, when they were younger, like so many other stupid things – Thorin recalled how he would have to avoid taking off his clothes in company for days – but then he had sprained his wrist during swordplay, and he still remembered the terror engulfing his whole body when he thought that he would be forced to take off his tunic in front of the medic, displaying the red crescent marks all over his chest. A dwarf of lesser blood might get away with an anonymous bite mark, but not one of the line of Durin, and certainly not a king to be. He and Dwalin had bit and scratched each other enough times to know what it was like, and to long for it still – every single time he touches me, Thorin's mind whispered – but they had made an agreement long ago that none of them was to ever try again, lest they should both lose their restraint and go too far.
Thorin let out a barely audible whimper as Dwalin's kisses left his neck and began to trail over his collar bones, one hand drawing smooth circles over his chest and sides. He bucked upward a little as it strayed down over his stomach and hip bone, letting out a louder moan as it returned to his chest again. Dwalin mumbled something in his ear about him being impatient, but then his mouth joined his hand and began to play with the skin on Thorin's chest, alternating kisses and soft tongue strokes through the hair. Thorin's breath sped up as Dwalin's hand came to rest over his left nipple. Dwalin brushed his palm lightly over it, and Thorin once more became aware of his sore state when his tender muscles beneath contracted from the sensation. He took hold of Dwalin's hair to guide him to the right, only to be teased again with light touches and kisses that missed the mark, but then – then – there was a hot mouth on his right nipple, and a hand caressing the other between thumb and forefinger, and he gave a small cry as the pleasure shot through him.
Dwalin's hands now travelled over Thorin's body, steady but gentle, while his mouth kept coaxing his nipples into full hardness. He payed extra attention to the inside of Thorin's thighs as well as to his knees – two of the spots where he knew that his touch would make Thorin twitch and shudder. Thorin was squirming under him, his discomfort close to forgotten. Before long, he tugged at Dwalin's hair, lifting him off one tender, red nipple and made an attempt push him downward. Dwalin tilted his head and met his eyes from under bushy eyebrows, a wicked smile playing on his lips. Thorin stared him down, breathing heavily, until his lover rose a little and shifted his position. He hissed as Dwalin began to kiss down his stomach, wet lips leaving cold trails on his skin. Dwalin's hands now worked their way deeper inward over his thighs, until they came to rest on each side of his sack, the back of them brushing against it with not nearly enough pressure to make him satisfied. He moaned anyway, trying to encourage Dwalin to speed up and get on with it. This earned him another of Dwalin's teasing smiles, which he frowned at before he closed his eyes again.
He was achingly hard now. Dwalin finished kissing his stomach and pulled his legs further up, placing his lips first on one knee and then on the other. He spilled kisses down Thorin's thighs, alternating between them, until his hot breath hit the region where they joined. Still holding his legs spread apart, Dwalin leaned deeper down and nuzzled into the thick hair beneath his erection. Thorin lifted his hands into the air, making a motion as if to take hold of the warrior and press him down, but then thought better of it and instead sought the edges of the mattress. Soon enough he gripped them hard, a moan slipping from his lips as Dwalin's hand closed around the base of his cock at the same time as his mouth opened hotly over his balls.
Thorin looked down at the sight – a drop of precome already glistening on the tip of his cock in front of Dwalin's scarred brow. His lover began to slide his hand up his erection, stopped but halfway, and moved patiently back to the base. Then, with both hands, he brushed Thorin's dark curls out of the way and raised his head a little to seek out the bottom of the shaft with his tongue, soft probes soon turning into firm, wet caresses. Thorin let out a low grunt. His mind raced for a moment through all the possible ways that he could pleasure Dwalin while being pleasured himself, but he let go of the idea as Dwalin's licks became more fervent. He did not have the strength of mind to interrupt this.
Dwalin carefully made his way up his cock, tracing the edges of the head, paying extra attention to the underside of it. Then he lifted his head and looked up at Thorin, a mischievous smile already formed on his wet lips. Suck me, Thorin thought. No more of this dreadful teasing. Please. Then his mouth opened wide as he saw, even before the sensation hit him, Dwalin closing in. A soundless groan was in his throat as he watched himself disappear into his lover's mouth, warm lips pushing down over his hard flesh. He felt Dwalin's tongue swirl across him, making the edges of his vision go dark. He threw his head back down, pushing damp strands of hair out of his face before desperately gripping again at the mattress with both hands.
But for the strange noises that rose and fell in the night outside, the only thing that was heard for a long while was the heavy breathing of both dwarves, Thorin's occasionally rising into grunts and moans, and Dwalin's made irregular and mingled with slick, wet sounds as he worked his mouth over his beloved. Yet, even though the pain in Thorin's chest had eventually subsided more or less from his mind, he found that he was still tense, and that he did not give himself up to Dwalin the way he usually did. One downward glance was enough for him to tell that Dwalin would not mind going on like this for a small eternity, but his own insides were aching with the need for release. He tried to move the clothes under him a little to lie back more comfortably. Dwalin instantly let him go and raised his head.
”Aye. Just tense.”
Dwalin rose a little higher on his elbows.
”You're not hurting, are you? If you're –”
”Shut up and go on.”
Dwalin cocked an eyebrow at him, then rearranged his arms and resumed his duties.
Thorin sighed in relief as the hot pleasure returned, his mind a little clearer than before. Soon he was moaning softly, encouraging his lover to go faster.
One arm below his thigh shifted and Dwalin's hand made its way up his side. Thorin bent closer, desperate, until Dwalin found his flushed nipple and began to rub and pinch it. He welcomed it with a deep groan, restraining himself in the last moment from screaming.
”Harder,” he breathed.
Dwalin made a low rumble in his throat as he obliged.
So close. Thorin felt the wave rising – the tension in his body as it built steadily, driven forth by Dwalin's mouth and hand. Then Dwalin closed his other hand, firm and warm, around his balls, and Thorin cried out, rising up against his protesting ribs, spending himself into Dwalin's mouth with a long shudder of pleasure. His lover hummed approvingly as he swallowed hard around him. Thorin fell back down with a thud against the floor, feeling Dwalin lick him clean with ardent strokes. He closed his eyes and did not move again for a very long moment.
”Be with you soon,” he mumbled. ”Let me just –”
Dwalin laughed – a soft, quiet thunder deep in his chest.
”Oh, take your time. I so love watching you all spent.”
Thorin opened his eyes and glanced over at his naked lover, his own body tingling with the knowledge that he needed only to reach out in order to touch him in almost every way that he had dreamt of during all the long nights since they left his halls behind. Dwalin moved to lie down and buried his big nose in Thorin's hair, breathing happily at the spot behind his ear. Thorin stared up at the unfamiliar wooden ceiling. After a while he turned carefully to lie on his side. Dwalin caught his lips in a soft kiss. It grew, slow and tender, until their tounges were curling around each other and their breaths once more shivered and shortened.
At length Thorin broke the kiss, little dark specks swimming at the edges of his vision as he opened his eyes to look at Dwalin. His beloved returned his gaze, lifting Thorin's hand to his mouth and touching the fingertips to his lips. He kissed them reverently before lowering the hand to the floor between them. Thorin immediatly raised it again and began to trace the sides of Dwalin's nose. He cleared his throat, feeling very light as he drew a slow breath. He mouthed Dwalin's name – his true, secret one.
”Do you know what your name means to me?” he asked.
His let his fingers trail over Dwalin's face as he spoke in Khuzdul, his voice a soft whisper.
”It means my One.”
He outlined the scar on Dwalin's forehead.
It means Love, and Chosen, and Mine.”
He began signing each word one-handedly as emphasis, his moving hand sliding across Dwalin's cheek.
”It means Bonded, and Betrothed.”
”So does yours then,” Dwalin stated with a wry smile.
Oh Dwalin, Thorin thought, finding himself smiling back lightly. I'm such a talker to you – and only getting worse with the years, I presume. Though I know of you that you use more words in bed with me than you do in a whole day without me. Then his thoughts faded again as he was drawn into a kiss much more savage than the previous one.
When they parted, Dwalin raised his head and caught Thorin's earlobe between his lips. Thorin sighed happily, drying his mouth with the back of his hand.
”Feeling rested now?” Dwalin murmured in his ear, gripping the hair behind it tightly.
Impatient son of a warg, Thorin thought – but you have all reason in the world to feel impatient, my love.
”Roll over,” he commanded affirmingly. ”On your back.”
Dwalin grinned as he obeyed the order. Thorin got on his knees and offered him the mattress with a nod. No need for the King's betrothed to lie on the floor.
He settled down close to Dwalin, throwing his own leg over the warrior's broad thigh. Then he took Dwalin's hands in his own and lifted them over his head. He watched as Dwalin obediently steadied them, fingers curling around the upper edge of the mattress. Thorin slowly began tracing the muscles of his burly chest, kissing and licking at his neck, always taking care not to nibble or suck in any manner that might go out of hand. The memories of a pain that rose and heightened all other sensations stirred again, unbidden, in his head. His young lover screaming in pleasure, pressing him harder to his chest and urging him on, urging him to sink his teeth deeper. Thorin drew a sharp breath, pushed the thoughts away, and refocused. He showered Dwalin's collarbones in wet kisses and continued down his chest, his tongue pushing through the thick hair. He allowed himself to roam freely over the warm skin with hands and mouth, pressing much more firmly than Dwalin had done. He rested his brow on his beloved's shoulder for a moment and breathed in his heavy scent as his fingers found one dark nipple. How on earth had Dwalin managed to be so careful with him?
Dwalin's nipples had never been as sensitive as Thorin's own, but Thorin was still rewarded with a low growl as he rubbed them between his fingers. Soon, his leg slid further up between Dwalin's thighs to rest against his groin. His beloved muttered something incomprehensible that Thorin took to consist mostly of curses, and he ignored it happily as he continued his explorations. This body, he thought, is the treasure that surpasses all wealth of the world. All muscles and strength, the stories of your life written upon you in scars – about which I know all that there ever was to know. There were stories of triumph and stories of defeat, but they all told Thorin that Dwalin was his.
He shifted his weight to the knee between Dwalin's thighs and moved the rest of his body in between them. Dwalin eagerly pulled his knees up to give full access, and Thorin gasped at the sight of the dark cleft below his heavy balls. He bent down and stroked the inside of his thighs, moving closer gradually to where he so desperately wanted to be, while his lips placed kisses in the thick curls on Dwalin's abdomen, on each side of where his proud cock nestled. No fucking like they would usually do it tonight, agreed, but he would take everything that he could have.
He kept one hand on Dwalin's thigh and closed the other around his cock, stroking slowly and watching the warrior's face as he lost more and more control over the fine muscles keeping it straight. Dwalin's length was already thick and hard, but Thorin knew that it before the end it would feel like iron in his hand. He slid down between Dwalin's thighs and caressed his balls briefly before pressing two of his knuckles into the area below them, massaging firmly. Dwalin's lips twitched and bared his teeth, making him look even more warrior-like. Thorin smiled at the reaction and kept pressing a little more before he straightened his fingers and turned them to fit in between Dwalin's buttocks. Dwalin drew a sharp intake of breath.
”Just my finger, nothing more,” Thorin promised, keeping his hand completely still.
Dwalin grunted in approval, spreading his legs further apart.
”Mm, you're perfect,” Thorin murmured, biting his lip.
He began rubbing one fingertip gently against Dwalin's hole as he resumed his pace on his cock. Dwalin rearranged his hands on the edge of the mattress, and Thorin knew that it was becoming increasingly hard for his beloved not to let it go, push Thorin's hand away, and touch himself fast and roughly. Thorin removed his hands for a moment and lifted them both to his mouth, coating them in as much spit as he could. His right hand returned to Dwalin's cock, sliding down over it and drawing a low groan from Dwalin's lips, which was followed by more as Thorin renewed his grip and moved the foreskin over the moistened head. His left forefinger traced the tight entrance between Dwalin's buttocks, pressing carefully, finding the angle where the tip of it would slip in without effort.
Dwalin was breathing heavily, the slightest of tremors moving through his body. Thorin pushed more firmly now, stroking his cock faster as encouragement. Usually it would be easier to enter him, but he could tell that Dwalin was tense too. At last, his finger was buried carefully inside as deep as he could get it in this position, and he felt Dwalin pulsating around it. He watched Dwalin's face lovingly as he crooked it, pushing up against the slick spot inside. Dwalin gritted his teeth like he was trying to shatter them. Thorin kept pressing and sliding, bending forward to place his mouth on Dwalin's cock, which at last stood hard as metal in his grip. He kissed the tip of it, closing his eyes with a sigh as he flicked his tongue over the slit and tasted the salt precome. Weak, dreamy moans spilled from his lips in rhythm with his own movements as he opened up and began to suck on the length, taking as much of it into his mouth as he could. He had thought his longing unbearable, but not until know did he realise how much he truly had been starving.
Dwalin warned him with a sharp grunt. Thorin broke the pace and looked up from under his eyebrows. Dwalin locked their eyes together, and a mesmerised look was on his flushed face as Thorin slid his lips slowly back down over his erection.
”Oh Thorin,” he mumbled, his voice softly rolling the syllables, ”you don't know what you're doing to me.”
Thorin would have smiled, had his mouth not been so full with the warrior's hard length. Soon he began to speed up again, moving his crooked finger in and out of Dwalin, while steadying them both by putting his free arm around his thigh. His mouth worked until his jaws were tingling from the strain, but he would continue forever, as long as he was urged on by Dwalin's pants and occasional bursting groans.
However, it did not take long before Dwalin began bucking into Thorin's mouth and clenching around his finger. Thorin removed his arm from his thigh and steadied the base of his cock with his hand as he sucked faster, pushing his tongue against the twitching length. He was aware of Dwalin's torso jerking upward and heard his lover's breath change into a low cry, building steadily, held back only by a last remnant of self-control. Then hot fluid hit his tongue, and he swallowed blissfully, coaxing Dwalin through the rest of his climax with lips and tongue and hands.
* * *
Thorin smiled into the darkness of his closed eyes at Dwalin's whispered words.
”I love you too.”
He had nestled into Dwalin's side, his hand on his beloved's chest.
”We should've been quieter though.”
Dwalin made a low, rumbling sound.
”We were quiet,” he said. ”My ears were open all the time, you telling me yours were not?”
Thorin ran his fingers through Dwalin's greying chest hair, ignoring the remark.
”We'd have heard the doors and footsteps long before they heard us,” Dwalin soothed.
”Bilbo's as well?” Thorin asked meaningly, opening his eyes and looking up at Dwalin.
”He slept like a little stone with his head on the table before Beorn left. No doubt he fell asleep again, soon as he found his bed, and'll need a snarling wolf at his throat to come around before dawn.”
”Do not underestimate him, Dwalin. I made that mistake already.”
The room bathed in silence for a moment – even the noises outside seemed to have moved further away.
”I'm glad you were mistaken,” Dwalin finally said.
”Speaking of sleep,” Thorin whispered, nudging his beloved with his shoulder.
”Aye,” Dwalin agreed.
They sat up and kissed each other briefly, before rising and putting their clothes back on.
”We should've had a little water,” Thorin mused longingly.
”D'you want me to –”
”No. No need to disturb anyone. Come here.”
Thorin waited for Dwalin to step into his arms, and then he held him hard, kissing him deeply with the last remnants of his strength.
”Sleep well,” he murmured in his beloved's ear. ”That's an order.”
They parted, and Thorin smiled, looking deep into Dwalin's eyes, which were dark in the faint light. Dwalin blinked at him, turned around and went to unlock the door. Thorin eased himself back down on his warm mattress, breathing in the lingering scents of their lovemaking. He was vaguely aware of his thoughts fading into a blissful emptiness even before Dwalin had closed the door behind him.
* * *
The next morning, Beorn and Gandalf were nowhere to be found. Thorin sent Fili and Kili, and later Bofur and Nori, to look for their host, but they all came back again without any news. Very well, Thorin thought. Gandalf ever made a secret of having his own purposes in all this. As for our host, his house seems safe enough for a day's rest. Without the man here himself to stride about and peer down on us, I might enjoy staying here for now. Everyone seems happy, and the food is indeed welcome, though no doubt the others too must find these animals at least a little excessive – how can we know that they are not spying on us? Oh, last night, Dwalin, I know we should not have …
As the sun rose higher in the sky, Thorin found himself more at ease. He sat down and had a solemn, but comforting talk with his nephews, who still were a little taken by the events that had passed. He could tell that he managed to lift their spirits considerably just by assuring how proud he was of them.
Dear little Kili – a formidable warrior for his age. And Fili, who was often closer to searching for errors in his own actions than most people ever realised. He might seem a little reckless to older dwarves, and from time to time he was, in an innocent way, but there was strength in him, and endless will to progress.
”All I could think of,” he said, fidgeting with the hem of his brother's shirt, ”was that I'd never be able to get everyone safe back home again.”
”You did well,” Thorin repeated with emphasis on each word. ”Everyone in this company cares for themselves and for each other, Fili. You never stand alone, remember that.”
At those words, Kili looked at his elder brother and smiled, punching him affectionately in the side and making Thorin smile as well. Aye, he was indeed proud of them both. Yet, even though talking to them made him calmer, he could not escape the dark guilt that grew inside him as they sat side by side on the floor basking in his praise. I am a fraud of a leader, he thought. If they knew me for what I truly am, they would not bear to look in my direction.
When the shadows began to grow longer and there still was no sign of neither Beorn nor Gandalf, Thorins restlessness returned. He asked Dwalin to accompany him for a walk along the tall hedge that encircled Beorn's dwelling, and they left the others behind playing a game of runes with Bilbo watching.
They walked in silence until they were certain that they were out of earshot.
”Feeling better?” Dwalin asked eventually, in a low voice.
”Not much,” Thorin admitted, ”but it hasn't grown worse either.”
”Well, that's something.”
Thorin traced the top of the hedge with his eyes, marvelling again at the fact that their host had chosen a bush to protect his home.
”Do you too –”
”– find this place mighty queer, aye,” Dwalin muttered.
He looked at Thorin, waiting for him to confirm the guess.
”You know why it makes me unsettled,” Thorin said.
”Done is done, Thorin.”
Thorin threw him a glance. He fell silent for a while, rubbing the heavy ring on his finger with his thumb and focusing on the texture of it. A swarm of large bees passed them by closely.
”Dwalin,” he said at length.
”I have missed you.”
Dwalin clicked his tongue.
”That you need not tell me.”
They looked at each other, more thoroughly this time, and Thorin would have smiled, had he not been so intoxicated by Dwalin's mere presence as he walked slowly beside him.
I can have him. All these days on the road, and I can have him. I need only decide, and he's mine for one more night. It's dangerous of course, but we've already done it once. We've all been forced to sleep all but on top of each other for far too long a time – no one would find it strange if I choose to spend my second night here in privacy as well. Aye, I am still hurt and would do wise to rest, but I will heal under his touch, like I have done before. He was all that kept me sane when we had lost everything. He's what keeps me sane now, when … No. Don't think of it. Think of Dwalin, not of him. I don't want his pale, wicked, mutilated shape in my head. We could … I want …
By the time they returned to the house, Thorin's head was still filled with thoughts – and became even more so when he learned that Beorn and Gandalf were still gone. He found that supper was being laid out in the hall and went to seat himself on his bench, resting his elbows on the table and watching Beorn's animals move about as he waited for the rest of his company to join him. They entered the hall in small groups, and he caught fragments of conversations among them that indicated that, at some point, they had started playing their game for money, and that Ori had lost quite a fair amount to someone, despite Dori's efforts to keep him from participating. Thorin wearily decided to hold a little speech on the issue later, perhaps even proclaim a ban. Men had killed each other over lesser things than gambling.
”Should we wait for Gandalf?” Balin asked, leaning over the table in front of Dwalin to catch Thorin's attention.
”No,” Thorin snarled, grabbing a golden piece of bread and breaking it in two. ”Why should we wait until our dinner is cold for someone who slips away in the dawn without notice?”
All heads turned to the door at the sound of the wizard's voice. Thorin raised an eyebrow, making a point of throwing the bread down hard on his plate. Questions rose among all of his company in an instant and were voiced loud into the air, but to no avail, since Gandalf pushed them all away and announced that he would not be talking until he had eaten.
”Eat then,” Thorin heard himself mutter.
At least the food was satisfying.
After finishing his meal, Gandalf insisted on having a long smoke, by the end of which Thorin looked at him with all but sheer malice. Yet when the wizard had finally spoken, Thorin felt too astonished and relieved to pursue his indignation of being mocked. He pondered on the tale in silence for a while. A meeting of bears, one set of tracks leading away over the river and up into the mountains. If Beorn indeed had gone off to seek the place of their battle the night before last … Thorin's head filled again with flashes of memories. Azog charging. Blood in his mouth. Awakening. No oaken shield by his side. He closed his eyes for a moment, hearing Bilbo blurt out something ridiculous at Gandalf, but his small voice seemed muffled and far away. Suddenly there was a hand on his arm, and he came back with a jerk, recognising Dwalin's touch. His beloved looked at him with concern. Thorin sighed. He slammed his fist a little overly briskly in the table and rose, summoning his company to the fire for a song or two before sleep. Ever since he was a child, singing had always managed to soothe him.
* * *
Thorin had not mentioned his plans to Dwalin, so when he picked up his bed this time, he was given a long and doubtful look. To be fair, there had not been much to tell before, since he had not made up his mind until the last song had ended and he rose and called it a night. Yet, as always, when he at last had decided, his decision held firm. He crossed the hall with the faint clinks of Dwalin lighting a lamp behind him and began walking through the rooms, mattress slung over his shoulder.
One more night. And then they would be back to sneaking touches under the cover of friendship. A hand on the shoulder when the road was was hard, lingering for the shortest of moments. Nothing but brotherly comfort.
Thorin had already laid himself out on the floor when Dwalin's heavy footsteps began to echo closer.
”Just want to sleep in private?” the warrior whispered as he appeared in the doorway.
The doubtful look on his face was still present, yet it mingled with an arousal that he made only a weak attempt to hide. Thorin looked at him from under his lashes.
”No,” he signed and returned the question. ”What do you want?”
The answer came without delay.
Dwalin closed the door, locked it, put down the lamp, and was bending over Thorin, kissing him, before Thorin had barely taken another breath. He sighed into the kiss, grasping the front of Dwalin's shirt to draw him down, but Dwalin braced himself on his elbows, staying clear of Thorin's torso. In that moment, Thorin thought that he would rather take the pain than not feeling his lover's weight against him, but he realised that if he was supposed to last throughout the night, Dwalin was right. His hands moved up to caress Dwalin's neck, and they kept kissing each other, tongues intertwining as if it was crucial for their survival. Dwalin fondled both of Thorin's ears, now and then massaging firmly to bring forth a pain that would leave no marks. Last night was comfort and relief, Thorin thought, biting back a far too loud moan. This night will be ecstacy.
They sat up and began undressing themselves and each other, breaking their kisses only when it was necessary in order to remove a garment. Taking the risk of being naked the night before made it so much easier to do it again, Thorin thought – and then he forsook his worry, as Dwalin once more began attending to his ears. He rested his face on Dwalin's chest, moaning quietly into the soft hair as Dwalin pressed the thick folds above his earlobes together between his thumbs and forefingers. His own hands roamed over Dwalin's warm back, taking hold of him, carefully avoiding to use his nails. Not until Thorin felt as if his whole body was melting from the stimulation, did he wriggle out of the touch and lift his head to seek Dwalin's gaze. His lover's eyes glittered faintly in the lamplight.
He made another decision.
”Dwalin, I want you inside me,” he breathed.
Dwalin frowned, his eyes becoming wary.
”If you have trouble relaxing, we shouldn't –”
”I have not,” Thorin all but bellowed.
He caught himself in a moment and did his best to smile as he lowered his voice again.
”All that tension left me last night.”
Dwalin's expression grew fond, and he lifted his hand to stroke Thorin's cheek. Then he took hold of the braid next to it and drew his king closer for another kiss. Plan confirmed, Thorin thought with a shudder. He climbed into Dwalin's lap and rolled his hips to meet Dwalin's in a slow grind. His lover broke the kiss and growled through his teeth.
This time they barely noticed when the ruffling noises outside returned. The bears had no business with them. Thorin was on his back again, his cock in Dwalin's steady hand. From the pleased look on Dwalin's face, he knew that he must be making the most wonderful expressions in response to the touch. Then Dwalin bent down to take him into his mouth, and he bit his hand to stop himself from crying out. Oh, how come he was so sensitive tonight? They had got to this point fairly quickly, without warming up each other up with long teases like they would usually have done when he felt this way after just the initial phase. Well, all the better, he thought, reaching down to play with Dwalin's beard that tickled the inside of his thighs. His lover sucked hard and fast, yet still not at the level of intensity needed to bring Thorin off. You know me so well, Thorin's mind chanted with love. We could do this forever – forget about gold and titles and stay here until our flesh falls off our bones.
Dwalin reached in under him and fondled his buttocks in his large hands, kneading and parting them.
”Soon,” Thorin murmured. ”Your mouth feels good.”
His lover willingly obliged, working his lips and tongue harder over Thorin as his hands travelled up over his now trembling body to seek out and rub the erect nipples. Thorin bit back another series of loud moans and curled his fingers tighter around the edges of the mattress.
”Now,” he whispered hoarsely at length, when he was beginning to feel so sensitive that it was almost painful.
He was released and received a soft kiss on his mouth, feeling his own taste on Dwalin's lips. Dwalin sat up and began rummaging through his pile of clothes, but after a few moments he uttered something that sounded like a cross between a snarl and a curse.
”Sorry, Thorin. My oil must be in the pile I dropped outside.”
He rose quickly and strode to the door, listening carefully before he unlocked it and disappeared for a little while. Thorin brought a hand to his wet cock and touched himself slowly while he listened to the sounds of his beloved searching among whatever he had brought with him to the doorstep. When Dwalin returned and closed the door again, he was holding the oil as well as a bottle of water. As soon as he saw the big bottle, Thorin smiled contentedly, his grin growing into a light chuckle that made Dwalin turn to look curiously at him.
”Don't mind me,” Thorin whispered, becoming more serious again. ”You're very considerate, that's all.”
He noticed how Dwalin's eyes had drifted down to his cock, so he began moving his hand again, stroking himself rigorously until Dwalin made a harsh grunt and stepped away from the door to get back down on the mattress in front of him.
At first, Thorin thought that he would have to remind Dwalin of his injuries before he was being crushed down and claimed violently by the warrior. Instead, he was kissed softly a second time before Dwalin lifted his legs to part and bend them. Thorin tilted his head comfortably to the side and twisted a little on the mattress, hearing Dwalin growl in aroused approval. Soon, he felt his buttocks being forcefully handled, and then a thumb brushed over his perineum, coming back to press and rub repeatedly. He whimpered quietly and happily. Glancing downward, he saw the crown of Dwalin's head reflecting the faint lamplight – his beloved's face being obscured in shadows. The thumb slid further down. Then it left, and Thorin took a deep breath to gather himself a little as Dwalin straightened and picked up the flask of oil. He pulled the cork out with his teeth and made eye contact with Thorin for a brief moment before he carefully poured some of the liquid into his cupped hand. Thorin let his own eyes travel down to Dwalin's cock, which rested thick and half-hard against Dwalin's hairy thigh. His lover put the flask away for the moment and smeared the oil over his fingers while he leaned over Thorin again, steadying himself on his less sticky hand to reach down to kiss him. Thorin wove his fingers into the beard on his jaws and kissed him back with hunger.
”Don't be too careful with me,” he mumbled into Dwalin's mouth before he released him.
Dwalin, as so often, responded only with a grunt.
Thorin's body yielded to Dwalin's touch much quicker than he had anticipated. His beloved pushed the first finger in slowly, but very soon he was able to let a second finger join it. He buried both digits deep inside Thorin, and when he twisted his hand, fingers crooked to find the right spot, Thorin again had to stop himself from crying out. Then Dwalin began to pump in and out, and Thorin fell back on biting his hand to reduce the sounds he was making to muffled moans and whimpers. He never bit hard, as his own teeth were capable of leaving marks too, but it worked as both a gag and a reminder.
Dwalin looked up.
”Shall I –?”
The fingers left him in a slow, gentle motion. Then they came back to dig into his hair in a much less careful way, as Dwalin yanked him up from the floor by his head, both of them scrambling for for balance on their hands and knees for a moment. At last, Dwalin rose and stood on his feet with Thorin in front of him. Thorin was still on his knees, held in place by his lover's strong, rough hands. Dwalin released him with one of them to grip the base of his own cock, guiding himself to his mouth. Thorin closed his eyes and moaned faintly as Dwalin's sharp scent hit him. He flicked his tongue out to lick and taste the hard skin, and soon he was running his wet, open mouth up and down the underside of his beloved's cock. The hand in his hair was still for a while, following his motions, but eventually Dwalin was done with the teasing and pulled Thorin back, nudging the tip of his cock to his parted lips. Thorin took the head in, swirling his tongue over it, but Dwalin pushed deeper with a flick of his hips and began to thrust in and out of his mouth, rejecting all of Thorin's attempts to add some finesse to the act. Thorin wrapped his lips more securely over his teeth and allowed his beloved to take command – to fuck his mouth the way exactly he wanted to.
Dwalin was rock hard when he withdrew, leaving them both wet with a mess of spit and precome. He dropped to his knees and kissed Thorin fiercely, hand still in his hair, and Thorin kissed him back with as much force as he could manage. At last, he drew back, and Thorin whispered against his lips as he rested their foreheads together.
Dwalin's free hand began to roam over his thighs and buttocks, brushing once over his cock, and then cradled his balls for a moment, before pushing firmly into his cleft. Thorin spread his knees further apart and curved his back a little, giving better access.
”Lie down,” Dwalin growled, his tone impatient.
Thorin took his time to carefully lower himself on his back, shuffling around the clothes under him to straighten out lumps that would dig into his bruises. Meanwhile, Dwalin once more uncorked the flask and coated his thick erection in oil with slow, deliberate strokes. He is perfect, Thorin thought. He is perfect, and I need him, and I will have him.
Dwalin positioned himself and lifted Thorin's feet to his shoulders. He stopped and rubbed the sole of one foot affectionately, pressing a kiss to the curled toes. Memories came to Thorin of long, slow lovemaking – endless nights in ancient chambers, kisses hidden in a mass of brown and black hair, soft and unstained by grey.
”Love you,” he murmured, closing his eyes.
Dwalin laid one hand on each of Thorin's ankles and slid them slowly down his calves, pausing to draw featherlight circles when they reached his knees, before moving further down to tickle the insides of his thighs. Thorin moaned through closed lips, curving his body and spreading his legs wider, begging Dwalin to keep going. Dwalin shuffled closer and brought one hand down to touch his own cock, stroking himself back to full hardness while his other hand pried Thorin's buttocks apart and traced the rim of his hole. Already, hot shivers were travelling through Thorin's body. He moaned blissfully when Dwalin at last brought the tip of his cock to his ready opening. His lover entered him carefully, stopping halfway to thrust slowly in and out. Their eyes locked together as Dwalin searched for any sign of discomfort, and Thorin drank in the sight of the deep lust in his lover's dark gaze. He trusted Dwalin completely to do this – would throw himself at his mercy anytime, anywhere. His beloved was inside him, joining them together once more, and now he pushed the last few inches of himself into Thorin's body, burying himself completely with a shuddering sigh.
”Mine,” he whispered.
”Always,” Thorin answered.
Dwalin gradually began to work his hips in a steady roll, a low grunt bursting from his lips with every move. Thorin's hands clawed at the mattress until they hurt, and he trembled from the tension of holding back his moans. When Dwalin sent his body jerking with a thrust harder than all the previous, a drawn-out groan escaped from his lips despite his efforts to keep silent. Dwalin immediately leaned forward and clasped his hand over Thorin's mouth. He kept thrusting hard and deep into the body under him, catching Thorin's cries in his damp palm, from which they escaped as nothing more than muffled whimpers.
”So close,” he murmured, shutting his eyes tightly.
Thorin pushed the heavy hand off his mouth.
”Hold it for me,” he rasped.
Dwalin's movements slowed and stopped. He held still for a while, panting, betraying exactly how close he had been. Then his hand moved down Thorin's body and began tending to his cock with swift, precise strokes. The other hand found Thorin's nipple and rubbed it in small circles, until Thorin once more had to fight to keep his voice down.
Suddenly, Thorin noticed through his panting that a another rhythmic sound had made itself present. At first it was just on the edge of hearing, but then it stopped for a moment and was replaced by the loud click of a door handle, after which it returned, close enough for him to recognise it. Footsteps. Too heavy to be the hobbit's, and too light to belong to anyone else than one of the younger dwarves. Thorin felt the secure heat of Dwalin's touch leave him, as if a cold veil had been placed over his own body. He looked up at Dwalin, his gaze unsteady as if in some sickly dream. The other dwarf stared intensely back at him.
”Your nephews do know how to knock …?” he whispered slowly, keeping his voice barely audible.
Thorin worked his tongue against the dryness in his mouth. Even if the dwarf outside would try the handle before making himself known, the door was still locked. Dwalin had locked it. It was locked.
His thoughts broke. The sound of the handle being pressed down reached his ears. And then, the sound a door makes when it opens.
Staring into Dwalin's eyes. The oil forgotten outside. Distractions. Had not locked it.
”I am sorry,” Dwalin's gaze said.
”It was my fault,” Thorin's gaze answered.
It lasted for a split moment. Then Dwalin threw himself off Thorin and flung his hands out wildly in a desperate attempt to gather something – anything – to cover them both with. Thorin gasped as Dwalin slipped out of him, the sound horrifyingly close to a moan. Every muscle in his body tensed, yet he lay still with legs parted, fully aware that he was stretched and open, and still half-hard. And in the doorway stood Kili, dear little Kili who always forgot to knock, and Thorin could not read his expression for the mist in his own eyes. He blinked hard as he fought to get his numb limbs to move.
”Th– I–,” his nephew's voice came stuttering from somewhere distant.
The frail sound of it drowned in Thorin's own heartbeats, which thundered louder and louder inside his head. After what seemed like a thousand years, Dwalin threw his own shirt over Thorin's exposed body. As he felt the fabric against his skin, the spell at last broke, and Thorin jerked up, sitting straight as an arrow on the mattress and clutching the shirt hard to his groin. He dared not look at Dwalin, so instead he tried to meet Kili's eyes, not knowing what else to do. Somewhere deep inside him, something whispered to him, that maybe he could still make this undone. Somehow he would be able to stare into Kili until this erased itself from the young one's memory like it never had happened. This was not supposed to happen. He had to be able to make it undone.
Kili did not look back. An expression of utter disgust had formed on his face, and the muscles around his throat clenched as if he was trying to keep himself from throwing up. Thorin heard Dwalin shift beside him. Please, know what to do, he thought. Please, know what to do, please know what to do, pleaseknowwhattodo.
”Kili,” Dwalin growled, his voice so hoarse that it was closer to a whisper.
”No!” Kili spat in a horrified whimper, before he closed his mouth tighly again, eyes still fixed on the empty wall.
Despite its feebleness, his tone carried enough disdain for Thorin to immediately lower his gaze. He found himself looking down at Dwalin's shirt, and began to stroke it with his trembling thumbs where they held on to it. There was silence for a moment, only broken by his heart still threatening to break out of his chest, and then he heard Kili's boots turn on the floor. The door was slammed, and the house shook with the rapidly retreating footsteps that quickly faded away until only silence and heartbeats remained again. Dwalin rose and locked the door.
* * *
Thorin's mouthed question hung in the air for a while.
”We stay here until morning,” Dwalin finally answered.
Thorin looked at him, then closed his eyes and fell back down on his tunic, his breath leaving him with a ragged sigh. He let go of Dwalin's shirt and lifted his hands to his face to cover it, pressing his palms into all the swollen bruises. Very slowly, the physical pain began to seep back into him.
”No,” he objected. ”You must go outside. If they come back –”
Dwalin's voice was dark, and strong despite the tremble in it.
”There's no way on earth you can make me leave you.”
He sat down beside Thorin, who kept silent, unfolding all his thoughts about this moment that had haunted him for more than a hundred years, and which he had tucked away in his memory, hoping against hope that they would never come to use, but keeping them anyway. Keeping them for this day, so that he would know what to do.
Being the receiver was worse, far worse. In Thorin's mind, it was as if he had always known that, though reason told him that someone once must have passed the idea on to him when he was very young. The receiver was known to be the inciter – a pervert seducing sane men into committing the unthinkable. Once, long ago, Thorin had watched as two men dragged a third one before the throne of King Thror, presenting their captive as a one-who-lies-back. Thror had banished the man from the mountain, five years before Thorin kissed Dwalin for the first time. Yet, when Thorin's shame had forced him to ponder these beliefs during many a sleepless night, he had always arrived at the conclusion that neither him nor Dwalin could possibly be seen as either the receiver or the giver. There is something wrong with the whole idea, Thorin's mind had whispered to him, because it says nothing about Love.
Still, being the receiver was worse. To his company, waiting only a set of doors away, it was as unnatural and wrong as the dark ways of the orcs. Thorin knew exactly how deep his disgrace went, and he knew that there was no absolution for which he could plead now.
Anyone but Kili, his mind screamed, distracting him with hot sparks of anguish. Anyone but my own kin. Not little Kili who adores me. No: who adored me.
”Very well, you may stay with me for tonight,” he said, when he at last spoke again to Dwalin. ”It may not prove wise, but – I think I need you to stay for me to do what I have to do next.
”And that is?” Dwalin asked quietly.
”To tell you to part from me. You must go with the company, back to the Blue Mountains, or wherever they wish to fare.”
Dwalin did not answer immediately, but reached for the bottle of water and a piece of cloth that had been tucked in among his clothes. He offered the cloth to Thorin, who wiped himself crudely with it before giving it back. Dwalin soaked it and cleaned himself with harsh movements, then threw the soiled rag across the room at the spot on the wall that Kili had been staring at. It slid down behind the barrel, out of sight.
”You cannot ask that,” Dwalin said. ”I follow you.”
Thorin shook his head. He had known how impossibly hard this would be, known Dwalin's answers long before he gave them. The pain in his chest doubled, but he fought to clear his throat against it. He had to keep going before he had given himself time enough to hesitate.
”Listen to me. With me gone, you can –”
”Where will you go?”
”To where we've been before, Dwalin. Further south even, meet as few dwarves as possible. We've talked about this, do not –”
”You're not leaving alone. I won't hear it!”
Dwalin's booming voice softened into plead.
”We'll go south and we'll create a new life, Thorin. A poor life, aye, but –”
”Do you not think the rumour will spread? We would be refugees, running and hiding, not only hunted by orcs, but left without aid by our own people!”
Thorin swallowed and took a deep breath before he continued.
”No. With me gone, you're safe. I need you to look after Fili and Kili. Fili – will inherit my title in a matter of hours. You know he's too young. Please. Look after them for me?”
He reached out and clasped Dwalin's hand, feeling tears threaten to well up in his eyes.
”I can bear this only because I know that you have the chance for redemption.”
Dwalin finally stopped objecting. When he no longer had to fight him, Thorin felt the impossible strength he had somehow summoned leave him, and he sank deeper into the mattress with a overwhelming sense of being pulled down and drowning.
”Lie down with me,” he whispered, his eyes seeking Dwalin's in the cold darkness of the room.
There was an emptiness inside him where anger used to follow fright. He found that felt almost calm. The perpetual fear that his secret might one day be revealed had left him, because there was nothing more to protect. It was a strange feeling of relief, lasting only momentarily, and then everything washed over him again. Memories, hopes, plans made in vain.
He swallowed thickly.
”Remember when said that I loved you more than all the gold of Erebor?”
”You've said that more than once,” Dwalin answered tenderly.
”The first time. I said it the first time when I offered you my heart. When we had been joined in body for one-and-twenty years, and I at last summoned the courage to join with you in soul.”
He turned his head to meet Dwalin's eyes, barely visible in the darkness as the lamp burned low.
”I have never regretted it. I knew you were my One. The Maker makes no mistakes.”
He swallowed again, and his lips kept moving, but no more words formed on them. Dwalin reached his hand out and caught Thorin's, and they wove their battered fingers together. Dwalin's were bigger, battle cries carved upon them – the fingers of the only dwarf who would ever make Thorin feel small.
”Yet you did not believe me,” Thorin said at last, smiling faintly.
”Believed you or not,” Dwalin mumbled, ”it came to that, didn't it?”
”Aye. It did. It – It ends like this, then.”
”So it does.”
Thorin blinked hard and turned his face away, keeping his eyes shut as a hot tear trailed down across his cheekbone.
”We always knew,” he whispered tentatively, ”we knew that this might happen.”
”Aye, but there's still Fili,” Dwalin said, speaking with much more calm than Thorin knew that his beloved felt. That's a very poor comfort, he thought.
His voice broke as he regathered his thoughts to speak what he had been about to say in the first place.
”Out with it, Thorin.”
”Dwalin,” Thorin said again.
His beloved squeezed his hand gently and then lay still. At last, Thorin took a deep breath.
”I would have chosen Erebor.”
He choked on the last syllable and bit down on a pathetic sob. On instinct, he tried to free his hand to curl up as far away from Dwalin as he could get, but Dwalin only held on to him harder, shuffling closer.
”I know that,” he said, the words leaving Thorin paralysed with bewilderment.
The tone was questioning, as if he was confused by Thorin putting so much effort in explaining something so evidently obvious. A different kind of instinct hit Thorin, and in the blink of an eye he had closed the distance between them and was pressing himself against against his beloved, face buried in the curve of his throat. Dwalin released his hand to embrace him with both arms, stroking his back tenderly.
”Of course you would,” he said quietly. ”For the sake of our people. Mm. Don't tell me you've suffered guilt over that all these years.”
Thorin kept silent.
They knew that little sleep would come to them that night, yet they stayed silent for the remainder of it, save for a few words of love repeated, none of them having the strength to speak about what was to come in the morning. There were no more plans to make this time. No strategies of caution to be discussed, no risks to be weighed. What was lost, was lost. Dwalin held Thorin close and combed his fingers through his hair, and Thorin hid his face between Dwalin's neck and shoulder and breathed him in, praying that this night would last forever, and that dawn would never come.
* * *
Dawn eventually came, bright and relentless. The lamp had long gone out, but light seeped in along the outline of the door, illuminating the room well enough for their trained vision. They rose and swayed from lack of sleep, and Dwalin clutched at Thorin's back, holding him tight against himself.
”We should go,” Thorin whispered at last, his voice broken and trembling.
Dwalin dug his fingers into Thorin's upper arms and met his gaze with swollen eyes.
”Thorin,” he said. ”Think of yourself for once. I'll come with you – we'll fight together as we've always done.”
Thorin shook his head sadly. I am thinking of myself, he thought. I am saving you.
Dwalin gripped him even harder.
”I will find you,” he said, his teeth pressed so tightly together that Thorin at first could not make out the words.
A sob shook the tall's warrior's body, his broken gaze tearing Thorin's heart to pieces as a single tear slid down his cheek. It was followed by more as he blinked and gulped.
”One day, I'll come for you. Don't you dare die without me. I will find you.”
Thorin closed his eyes and pressed the side of his face to Dwalin's shoulder once more. He whispered all the words of love that he knew against the rough skin of his beloved's neck – ancient and common – and they intertwined with Dwalin's words, which he repeated like a mantra until they faded into soundless sobs and Thorin's voice was the only one left. Then Thorin whispered the Renewal of Vows and received his beloved's response in a faint, yet utterly certain mumble. He brushed his lips against Dwalin's shoulder and tasted the salt of his own tears on the wet skin.
A flutter of a memories came back to him.
”Mark me,” he murmured.
”Mark me. It doesn't matter anymore. Nothing matters anymore, so mark me.”
Dwalin drew back and looked into his eyes.
”I love you,” he said hoarsely, with the tone of these being the most important words that were ever spoken in all the world – and they were, Thorin thought.
”I love you, Thorin.”
Then Dwalin drew a deep breath and jerked Thorin's head backward with a sharp pull on his hair. Thorin gasped, breathing open-mouthed as Dwalin nuzzled into the join of his neck and shoulder, kissing and lapping lightly at first, then slowly sinking his teeth into the skin.
”Oh Dwalin,” Thorin whispered. ”Oh …”
He dug his fingers into Dwalin's back for support and gave himself to the pleasure. The unfurling pain sent shivers down his chest, causing his heart to beat wildly. Dwalin bit deeper and made a low, beast-like growl in his throat when Thorin responded by clawing desperately at the skin on his back. The sound roused Thorin into breathing even harder.
”More,” he hissed. ”More. Please.”
The white-hot sparks rushing through him multiplied and began to whirl inside his stomach, travelling further down until they filled his groin with relentless heat. He pressed his hips forward against Dwalin's, and suddenly a calloused hand found its way in between their bodies and wrapped itself around his cock.
Thorin felt his knees go week and held on helplessly to Dwalin's strong body as he was being simultaneously stroked and bit. I love you, he thought. I love you, I love you, I love you. From his mouth came nothing but ragged gasps, increasing still in pace as Dwalin sank his teeth so deep into him that he thought his skin would break at any moment. Then they slowly drew back, and the grip on his cock lessened, and he was being licked and kissed at the tender spot, wincing in painful pleasure and cursing with blissful relief. Dwalin had known exactly how far to go. There was no way we could have continued this, Thorin thought, but this – this moment – was perfect. I will never forget it. I will carry this memory of you with me always.
”Thank you,” he whispered. ”Should I … do the same to you?”
Dwalin withdrew and looked at him.
”No,” he said softly, cupping Thorin's jaw in his hand. ”You should save it. For when we meet again.”
Thorin lowered his eyes, bit his lip, and swallowed.
They parted, eventually, and when they shared a final deep look into each other's eyes, Thorin thought that there was nothing left inside of him to break. Their last kiss was slow and shallow – their lips merely resting against each others. They dressed, and Thorin unlocked the door. He walked outside in a haze, followed by the heavy steps of the one love of all his life. For a moment, he took the time to wonder how it was that he was still breathing.
* * *
The rest of the company was fully dressed and gathered in the great hall. Thorin noticed that their packs lay ready and neatly ordered in a line by the wall. Even Beorn was there, sitting by himself with his back to a pillar and eyeing the others impassively.
”Ah,” Gandalf said. ”There they are.”
The wizard's voice seemed so gentle and deliberate that Thorin was taken aback for a moment. All of a sudden, he felt like an errant child being met with a glimpse of kindness for the first time in a life of corrections. The moment faded when he noticed that one of the dwarves was missing.
”Where is Kili?”
There was a heavy silence as everyone tried to look at anything but him, some of the less courteous among them shifting uneasily as it became apparent that no one was going to answer the question freely. At last, Fili quietly cleared his throath and raised his eyes.
”He does not wish to see you, Thorin.”
Thorin tried to remain unmoved.
”Thank you, Fili,” he said in a short voice.
He straightened his back a little more and looked steadily into Fili's eyes, not releasing them until his nephew bit his lip and looked down again. Thorin knew better than ever how deep his disgrace went, but that did not mean that his pride would dissolve into nothing. Let it be known that he would not be the first to lower his eyes.
He turned his head to Dwalin, who stood astride with his hands together, meeting his gaze steadily.
”I asked Dwalin to –” he began, stopping when the audible shifting in the company distracted him.
As if they thought that he would really bother to mention details.
”I asked him to do what he did.”
It was not even a lie.
”I love you,” his gaze said.
”The treason lies with me, and for that, I shall willingly go into exile.”
”I would have gone with you,” Dwalin's tortured gaze answered.
Thorin turned away from the deep pain in his beloved's eyes.
Balin stepped forward.
”We are all sorry,” he said in a tone of strained formality that hid any emotions, ”that it should come to this. We – had faith in you.”
Thorin scowled a little, looking away.
”I am glad that you are freely choosing the sensible way out,” Balin continued.
Then he turned to Dwalin.
”And you?” he asked, with the same indifference.
Thorin knew then that Balin had taken the bait. He had hoped desperately that Balin would believe his words to be the matter of a single night because he wanted that to be the truth. The disgrace of his brother affected Balin as well, but Thorin guessed that for Balin, the worst would have been to have learnt that all these years he had been fooled by the ones who were closest to him. It had always been himself, Balin, and Dwalin. Always the two of them to keep faith in him. He swallowed against his guilt.
”Dwalin is to stay with the company,” he answered. ”He will resume his duties under Fili's reign.”
Balin turned to Fili.
”Will you accept his service?”
Fili seemed reluctant to answer, and everyone stirred when Gandalf suddenly broke the silence.
”You will need every help you can get,” he said pointedly.
The wizard's voice was soft, but his face wore an expression that Thorin had come to know as a sign that bad things would follow unless the matter was considered closed.
”I'll accept it,” Fili replied.
”Thorin, Fili,” Balin said. ”You may proceed whenever you are ready.”
Thorin had thought that there was nothing left inside of him to break, but he realised now that he had been wrong. For a moment he truly wished that he would have died at the hands of Azog on that dark cliff three nights ago. Then he looked over at Dwalin again, who still stood with his head raised, daring the other members of the company to meet his eyes, and he took a deep breath to regain his courage.
”One more thing,” he said.
He felt the air in the room thickening even as he spoke.
”Aye?” Balin asked cautiously in a thin voice.
The hobbit, who had been sitting on a footstool beside Gandalf, jumped up with a bewildered look on his face. He shifted between his feet as his eyes darted between Thorin and the other dwarves, seeming equally uncomfortable with all of them. I am sorry that you risked your life to save me only to watch me throw it away, Thorin thought.
”With Balin son of Fundin as my witness,” he continued, with all the authority that he could muster, ”I release you from your contract.”
Bilbo froze a little, then began to look relieved. He mumbled his thanks before sitting down again, straightening his waistcoat repeatedly until Gandalf laid a hand on his shoulder.
His nephew stepped forward, looking pale and grim. Thorin sank down to his knee. He took a deep breath to steady himself, keeping his eyes locked on the young dwarf's bootstraps.
”I, Thorin the Second, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King Under the Mountain,” he began in Khuzdul, speaking slowly, because he knew that when he had finished speaking, he would no longer be a king of anything.
He would have passed the burden on to his sister's son – a burden he would now be forced to stagger under only because of Thorin's selfishness.
Thorin realised that he had half-expected Fili's voice to sound different afterward, as if something of his own spirit would have left him and seeped into his successor. It had not, of course. Fili sounded exactly the same as before. Thorin rose and lifted his gaze.
”Behold Fili, son of Dis, daughter of Thrain, son of Thror, King Under the Mountain,” Balin said.
Thorin tried not to wince. Fili met his eyes again, looking even paler than before, trying a little too hard to seem distant and formal.
”Go in peace,” he said.
His voice carried a faint trace of sadness. Thorin kept his own tone short, refraining from inclining his head.
I will never see you again, he thought. He reached into his clothing and withdrew his grandfather's map and key, but when he reached out his hands to give them to Fili, the young dwarf instinctively took a step back. Thorin turned his head desperately to look at Dwalin, who gave a nod and began walking toward him. Then someone cleared his throat loudly, and Dwalin stopped dead as Balin rushed in between them, taking the items from Thorin and handing them to Fili with rapid movements. The look on his face was horrified, yet Thorin caught a glimpse of a deep sadness beneath it too. Balin's words from months ago echoed tauntingly in his mind.
”There is one I can follow …”
Not anymore, Thorin thought.
Fili tucked the map and key into his clothes without looking at them.
”I declare the quest abandoned,” he said. ”We'll depart and head back to the Blue Mountains as soon as we're ready to leave.”
Thorin knew that his nephew's words were merely formalities. It had been clear to him that the company would make this decision collectively as soon as Kili had run back to them in the night. He suddenly wondered what Kili had come to talk to him about in the first place, not realising until now that he did not know the answer. What if there had been danger? And Kili had not even tried to tell them … He was interrupted in his thoughts when Balin cleared his throat a second time.
”The company will wait outside,” he said very quietly. ”I suggest you pack your things quickly.”
The rest of the dwarves collected their packs and left the house followed by the hobbit. Thorin and Dwalin were left with Gandalf and Beorn. As soon as they were alone, the prodigious man rose from his bench by the pillar and walked slowly up to Thorin. As he bent down, looming over him, Thorin noticed something in his hand. Without a word, Beorn handed him the item. Thorin stared at it, dumbstruck, where it lay in his arms. It had looked too small in Beorn's hand for him to recognise it immediately. Yet, here it was – the very thing that had earned him his name so long ago.
”Thank you,” he breathed at last.
He swung the shield around and braced it in front of himself, looking at it again as if some frail promise of a purpose had returned to his life at last. Beorn grunted.
”You dwarves are a strange folk,” he said, ”and I still don't know what to think of you. Yet, let it be known to you as well that I have provided your company with food and mounts for part of their journey back. And let it also be known that I shall follow you, Thorin Oakenshield, south for a while – for it seems to me wrong to leave a warrior alone and afoot in the wild while orcs and wargs scout the land.”
With that, he turned his back to Thorin and strode out of the house.
Thorin turned around to Dwalin and Gandalf, his mind reeling. His eyes sought Dwalin's, but the dwarf simply stared at the raised shield.
”So you'll be hunting orcs,” he said plainly, when he at last looked up.
Thorin drew a deep breath, opening his mouth.
”Don't,” Dwalin interrupted him. ”Don't you dare.”
And his eyes repeated again what his mouth could not:
”One day, I will find you.”
No, Thorin thought. This one time I cannot trust you, Dwalin. Beorn called me a warrior, and that is all that is left of me, unless I were to go back to toiling as a blacksmith by a lopsided anvil I barely reach up to. I cannot do that. Not as long as I have amends to make to my people. The least wasteful I can yet do with my life is to end it fighting – and you will not be there with me, Dwalin. We will not fight together again.
Dwalin looked softly at him, and Thorin pressed his lips together, trying to shake his head as imperceptibly as possible, painfully aware of Gandalf's looming presence. If they broke down now – if one of them let through what he truly felt in this moment …
Thorin pressed his arm tightly against his chest, desperate to regain the slightest feeling of control and safety. He threw a glance at the wizard's face – and all his hope of surviving another heartbeat vanished when he saw it flaring with a wild, dark anger.
”Dwarves!” Gandalf suddenly exclaimed.
The thunder of his voice made the unlit torches rattle in their holders all around the hall. Thorin felt himself shrink back and saw, in the corner of his eye, Dwalin do the same.
”Never have I heard,” the wizard continued, ”of such stubbornness, and dogmatism, and absurdity!”
Thorin held his breath, feeling as if someone had hit him in the guts with a sledgehammer. He strained against the clenching pain and forced himself to try to meet Gandalf's eyes, realising then that Gandalf was looking at neither him nor Dwalin.
”We had done perfectly fine until now, coming all this way with everyone still alive. And then, of course, there is some petty custom of dwarves getting in the way, and then –”
Gandalf threw his hands in the air, and there was a change of light in the hall, as if a flame had leapt up from the cold hearth in the middle of it.
”– the quest of Erebor forsaken, and Smaug may sit on his pile of gold and breathe fire over all the North.”
At the last words, the wizard seemed to sink back, diminishing until he was just a worn, old man again, with weary eyes filled with an immeasurable sadness. He looked at last at Thorin, who felt his heart thundering like a thousand hammers in his chest.
”Something threw itself at the door tonight,” the wizard explained at length, in a voice that sounded endlessly old and tired. ”Kili ran off because the others wanted your help in case it should break in.”
Thorin exchanged a brief look with Dwalin. The irresponsible litte brat …
”Though it eludes me why on earth it would,” Gandalf added quietly, as to himself.
Then he turned and addressed Dwalin.
”I shall go west with you, as long as I can be spared elsewhere. Not for the sake of any dwarf, mind you – I only take it upon myself to bring Bilbo safely back home. Though …”
He cast a glance over his shoulder at Thorin.
”… I think it is for the best that both Beorn and I shall follow one of you for a while.”
Thorin looked again at Dwalin and wished that someone could have explained why Gandalf, instead of cursing them sevenfold, seemed to suggest that he somehow still cared for Dwalin's well-being.
”If they want me to partake in the official renouncing of your name I won't do it,” Dwalin muttered.
Thorin stared at him.
His beloved looked back at him with the same deadly stubbornness with which he had followed Thorin's lead through all the years of triumph and defeat. Thorin sighed, feeling at loss for words.
”You were supposed to be packing, I believe,” Gandalf reminded them gently.
* * *
Thorin packed and re-packed several times, putting things down in his bags with shaking hands in entirely the wrong order. Pull yourself together, he repeated to himself and tried to focus on breathing slowly and deeply, one breath at a time. When he at last was done, Dwalin had stood and waited for him long enough to have made him distressed from that as well. He straightened and put the bags at his feet.
”There,” he whispered, his tongue feeling thick and swollen from dryness.
”All set?” Dwalin asked, his eyes velvet-soft.
Thank you, Thorin thought. Thank you for speaking to me, thank you for letting me hear your voice. You sound beautiful.
Gandalf strode forward from his part of the room.
”The time has come.”
The cold inside Thorin's limbs spread to his heart, and he fought down his rising panic by sheer force of will. Dwalin took a few steps toward him. Thorin reached forward instinctively, but then he remembered the look on Balin's face when he had tried to hand Dwalin the map and the key. His arms fell, and his left hand brushed against Dwalin's. He felt his beloved trying to press into it before the touch was gone. Thorin held his breath, the anguish within him once again making his guts cramp. His hand felt cold and numb where Dwalin's warmth had grazed it.
”How do I do this?” he heard himself asking, his own voice sounding weak and high-pitched, almost unfamiliar to his own ears.
But Dwalin had no answer to give him.
”Mister Dwalin,” Gandalf sighed, ”if you will open the door.”
Again, there was that burning compassion in his voice, which bewildered Thorin more than it gave him comfort. Dwalin picked up his bags with a last, lingering look on his former king and lover, before he walked slowly past him. The light flooding in when he opened the door illuminated his face, revealing the red in his eyes and the deepening lines of many years and hardships. He turned his head to look at Thorin again – don't you dare die without me, I'll come for you, don't you dare – and stepped outside. Gandalf followed him, signing at Thorin to wait yet a moment, and Thorin obeyed. Before he left the hall, he reached inside his collar and pressed hard against the swelling mark on his skin, bracing himself as he breathed in with the bittersweet ache.
Outside, they others had mounted. Thorin tried to spot Kili, but could not see far past the busy riders in front of him. The ponies refused to stand still – turning back and forth on their spots and neighing among themselves – apparently feeling as uneasy as their riders. Beorn were standing with Dwalin's pony, holding its head between his enormous hands and whispering something to it while Dwalin swung himself into the saddle. Thorin soon found that no one was willing to look in his direction, except for Gandalf. He wizard adjusted his stirrups and rode up to him, leaning down over the horse's neck to lessen the distance between them.
”Farewell, Thorin Oakenshield. I am afraid it is beyond my power to wish for you a safe journey, but I shall wish you the safest journey possible.”
Thorin looked up at him from under his brows. He did not nod or change his posture, fearing that he would at last crumble altogether if he so much as attempted a bow, but he hoped that his eyes conveyed his thanks. Gandalf smiled – a gentle, secret smile – and straightened again in the saddle. He urged his horse forward and rode past the others to take the lead at Fili's side. Thorin now saw the dark back of Kili's head where he sat on the other side of his brother. As rest of the company fell in behind them, Fili turned his head once to cast a quick glance at Thorin, which made several of the others dwarves turn and do the same, but Kili kept his head forward, quickening the pace of his pony.
Beorn's great shape reappeared at Thorin's side.
”I will follow them to the gate,” he said.
Most certain that it was not an invitation, Thorin still chose to treat it as such. Every fiber in his breaking body ached to prolong what time there was left before the inevitable parting.
They kept their distance to the company when walking. Thorin soon stopped looking for glimpses of his nephews and kept his eyes fixed on Dwalin, who rode at the tail end.
”I have some tasks to see to before we are ready to leave,” Beorn rumbled beside him. ”I advice you to rest and eat while you wait for me.”
Then silence fell again and lasted until the company reached the gate. As Kili got off his pony and opened it, Beorn shouted a few words. They were mostly final warnings about the dangers lying ahead of them, and Thorin felt his throat clench. Most of the dwarves had turned around to look at Beorn while they listened to him, but none of them spared Thorin a glance, save Dwalin. Their eyes met for a moment, and then Thorin lowered his gaze, not willing to risk the others' attention.
”Mahal, protect him,” he began whispering to himself, reciting the first fragments of the long, ancient prayer.
Meanwhile, the company thanked Beorn and bade him farewell, and moved forward out through the gate. Dwalin's coarse, grey-streaked hair fell over the axes crossed on his back, and Thorin remembered when it had been dark and wild in places where angular tattoos had since long replaced it. Then the gate closed, and Thorin was alone.
He turned around, eventually, and walked slowly through the great garden, not stopping until he came to a long row of sheds. The bench waited for him behind the first of them. He climbed up on it and crossed his legs under him, looking at nothing at all as his fingers slowly traced the spot where his neck became his shoulder. A sparrow flew down and landed on the grass not far from him, twitching its head. Thorin studied it indifferently for a while, his fingers coming to a halt without leaving the patch of skin.
”This too means Bonded,” he said to it. ”Bonded, and Betrothed.”
Having realised that he was not carrying any food, the bird chirped and took off again, leaving nothing but silence behind.