Long past nightfall, the riders turning their horses in after their finished watch at the borders of the village would hear the steady pounding of metal on metal from the forge behind the stables. At first, the ones new to the night watch would trade glances and shake their heads in wonder, but eventually, they would only stop to listen at those times when the beating suddenly ceased. Still, after a while, it always returned, and did so until dawn was at hand and exhaustion brought sleep even to the lonely worker by the anvil.
The village was grateful for their smith. Since he came, neither their harvesting scythes nor their battle swords had ever been sharper or more enduring. They were keen to take good care of him, for he had come to them out of nowhere, and they feared that he might one day be gone as tracelessly as he once came. He asked for no higher wages than what was necessary to cover his most basic needs and slept in a child's bed in the shed next to his forge. Every now and then, when a unit of riders came to pass through the village to restock their supplies and add to their own numbers, the smith would arm himself and mount along with the others. Orcs and wargs were on the move south, their numbers increasing with every year. They had made the green lands dark and perilous to live in, and the Rohirrim fought ever harder to track down and keep them at bay.
Through the wilderness a rumour spread of a small shadow fighting alongside men, wielding a bright blade of elven make that gleamed with the light of the sun. On his left arm, he bore a strange shield made of a hardened wood. The villagers called him Ácenscild, but if the name ”Thorin” ever reached their ears, it meant little to them. They were a simple folk, who lived far from the world of the great legends.
* * *
Nearly four decades Thorin had spent as a blacksmith, a hunter, and a soldier. His hair had greyed, though the once obsidian colour was still hinted at in his long braids and thick beard. He felt no signs of old age yet, but he knew that it would come upon him quickly once his body decided that it was time.
Nearly four decades he had been fighting – throwing himself into every battle with the relentless rage of one who has long ago ceased to know fear. Yet he had prevailed, returning to whatever he during that season or year had forced himself to think of as home, adding fresh scars to aging ones, none of them telling any story worth remembering.
Tidings from the far north were few and scarce now. Once, Thorin had sought out every possible source of news who came in his way and listened obsessively to anything they had to offer, but as time wore on, and information became replaced with rumours, he willed himself to lose interest. He told himself that the Blue Mountains lay far to the west – far from danger. Sometimes, though, he wondered how much of the world that he had left behind still remained.
One day – one of the first days of winter – a large éored rode into the village. A ranger had discovered an organised unit of warg riders on the North-South Road, possibly the vanguard of a greater host. Already, several other éoreds were mustering and heading for the Fords of Isen. Thorin ran back to his forge, packed his saddlebags, and sharpened his weapons.
East of the Gap of Rohan, they came at last upon their enemies. When both lines had broken, Thorin got off his horse and took them on from the snow-clad ground. He slaughtered his way through dismounted orcs – their beasts struck down by arrows – until he felt a light touch just below his hairline, and blood began to trickle in fierce streams down into his eyebrows and lashes. He blinked and reeled as it stung his eyes, searching for a gap to retreat – to find a brief respite, just so he could lift his shield arm and wipe the sticky warmth out of his vision. But the line was closed around him. He drew a quick, deep breath, filling his lungs with cold air, and braced Orcrist in front of him anew.
”Baruk khazad! Khazad ai-menu!”
Parry. Strike. Turn. Block. His thoughts reduced to their most primal level.
Block again. Pain. So much pain.
Sight loss. Silence. Pain gone. Danger. Dwalin.
* * *
Dwalin picked his way carefully up the hill that the greater part of the village was built upon, taking care not to slip on the muddy, trodden ground. The hood of his cloak shielded his eyes from the heavy rain, but did little by now to keep him from feeling utterly soaked. His pony trudged after him, looking equally miserable, but at least the warmth of the summer was not yet gone from the lands, and anyway, they were just about to find shelter.
He was stopped in front of the first houses and halted immediately, bowing deep in an attempt to lessen the two men's wary suspicion.
”I am Hannar, at your service.”
The leaner and more haggard looking man stepped forward.
”Show your face, stranger.”
Dwalin straightened and threw his hood back. The reaction was instant. The faces of both men turned as stiff as stone, and the closest of them quickly took half a step back again. Dwalin sought his eyes, eyeing him calmly as he regained his posture.
He knew what he must look like to them – alien features, a bald head covered with strange tattoos, and a thick burn scar over his left temple with ridges stretching out over his cheekbone and brow to match the deep cut scar over the right side of his face. Still, even during their initial shock, Dwalin noticed with relief that the men's hands did not go to their weapons. A moment later, they seemed to have deciphered his foreign appearance and gave him their names. They proceeded to ask the usual questions about his business in voices that were stern, but without hostility.
”I'm looking for someone,” Dwalin answered. ”But for now I'm willing to pay for shelter and a meal.”
* * *
Inside the narrow meeting hall, the air was almost stifling. Dwalin took a seat by the fire, waiting for the haggard man to sit down beside him.
”You've travelled far,” the man said gingerly. ”From ...?”
No doubt seizing the opportunity to be the center of attention afterward, when everyone would want to hear about the mysterious guest, Dwalin thought.
”Far northwest,” he mumbled. ”Blue Mountains.”
The man's eyes flickered between Dwalin and the fire.
”Mhm,” he said indefinitely, as if trying to comprehend how great the distance really was.
Dwalin carefully pulled out his knife and began picking his nails with it to ease his restlessness. The small gathering of other men and women who huddled inside the hall spoke in whispers, and Dwalin felt wide eyes burning into his back.
The man cleared his throat.
”I'm very sorry, what was your name again?”
”Hannar,” Dwalin said, refraining to mention that be had not even attempted to remember his questioner's name.
The man nodded and smiled nervously. He was about to suck in another breath and open his mouth again, when he was interrupted by the approach of a tall woman who held a steaming bowl in her hands.
”Master dwarf,” she said quietly as she handed Dwalin the stew.
She seemed less frightened and more respectfully curious than Dwalin's haggard companion, and Dwalin decided that he liked her a lot more – if only for the delicious smell of the food that she was offering him.
”This is my daughter Cyrse,” the man said proudly.
Dwalin steadied the bowl on his knee and bowed as well as he could sitting down.
”At your service.”
Cyrse looked delighted.
”Now off you go,” her father scolded her. ”The guest needs a drink as well.”
Dwalin finished the last of his meal and put the empty bowl down beside himself on the bench. He cleaned his teeth with his tongue and looked up at the man for the first time since he had begun to eat.
”I thank you for your hospitality.”
The man made a vague, dismissing gesture.
”Now,” Dwalin said, ”I'd like to ask about someone. A dwarf.”
”Ah,” the man sighed. ”Not too many of your kind around here, I'd say.”
”I'm just looking for one.”
The man leaned forward a little, and Dwalin suddenly noticed that there was a glint of expectant amusement in his eyes.
”You're looking for Ácenscild.”
Dwalin froze as his mind raced to comprehend the foreign word. Then he frowned and shook his head slowly.
”I don't know what he calls himself here.”
The man put his hands together in front of him, looking as pleased as if Dwalin was already gone and he was standing in the middle of the village, recounting everything from the dwarf's exact words to the shapes of his axes to the other farmers. Dwalin narrowed his eyes.
”Describe his dwarf,” he requested in a low tone.
The man breathed in deeply and licked his lips, rubbing his hands against each other some more.
”Very well. From what l've heard, he came from the Misty Mountains. Short fellow, about your size, I guess. Ah, then of course, dwarves, both of you ...”
Dwalin sighed, and the man looked slightly startled.
”Right,” he mumbled and cleared his throat with a strained smile. ”Long, grey hair. Sharp nose. Not the kind of face you'll easily forget.”
The pleased look on his face was quickly returning.
”I saw him, you know. I was in the great battle, when we drove the enemy back across the Isen. He was there – Ácenscild.”
The man nodded solemnly to himself as the memories seemed to spring to life in front of him. Dwalin held his breath until his lungs screamed for air. It must be him. It must be Thorin.
”They say his sword was elf-make,” the man said. ”I don't know, but it was very bright, and curved, sort of, never seen anything like it. And then there was his shield. Most peculiar. See, that's what he got his name from. It means ...”
Dwalin stopped listening. The pulse in his ears drowned the man's voice in a thunderous, frantic throbbing.
”That's him,” he finally managed.
The man looked up.
”Oh, yes. Can't be someone else, can it? The Blacksmith Hero of the Westfold.”
”When was this battle you speak of?”
”Only this winter,” the man answered, looking surprised.
He reached out his left arm and rolled up the sleeve of his tunic, showing a bright red scar that stretched from elbow to wrist. Dwalin grunted impatiently.
”Oh. He was wounded.”
The man's expression changed, and he pulled his sleeve back down again. He opened and closed his mouth a few times before more words came out.
”He … He was carried off. Probably dead. No one lives forever, you know.”
Dwalin suddenly felt the urge to throw the sad excuse for a man that sat in front of him into the crackling fire, but his own limbs were far too heavy to move.
I found him. I might have been half a year too late.
* * *
”Show your face.”
By now, Dwalin was used to the response that would follow. The men's reactions had not bothered him the first time, and they still did not. If anything, he pitied these people for living in such a small world, knowing nothing even of the faint echo of splendour that he had left behind or of those that had created and defended it. Yet, in the short time he had spent travelling from village to village, he had begun to take a liking to the people of Rohan. He found them as proud and fierce as they were generous, and he grieved in his heart when they mourned their fallen husbands and fathers in the war against the darkness from the north, knowing only too well what their loss felt like.
He lifted his hood off his head. The young man talking to him barely flinched, and Dwalin gave him an approving look. The braver ones were always less likely to annoy him later on.
”I'm searching for the smith Ácenscild.”
The man frowned.
”Then I have ill news for you,” he said. ”Word has it that he fell in the Battle of the Fords of Isen.”
Dwalin felt the fine muscles in his face tighten.
”So I've heard,” he growled, ”and I've yet to hear proof of it. I've heard from your neighbours west of here that he was with a company that passed through their village when they returned from the battle. They carried him with them, and he was still alive by then.”
The man pursed his lips and seemed to think.
”And they sent you here?” he asked after a moment.
”I come on my own errand,” Dwalin answered, ”but I was told that I might find some news here.”
The man looked like something was beginning to dawn on him. He opened his mouth slowly.
Rohirric, Dwalin thought with a sigh. By now, he had discovered that the language spoken by the Horse-people was not unsimilar to the old language of Dale, but this knowledge rarely helped him to understand the former, as he did not remember much of the latter.
”He was in the same éored,” the young man continued. ”The only man from here who didn't go with our own lord. He might know where Ácenscild was brought to.”
Oh. Dwalin waited for his heart to begin to race. Nothing happened. Taking a deep breath, he realised that, perhaps, this journey had at last deprived him altogether of the ability to become excited about anything. He sighed again.
”Well, what're we waiting for?”
Eáthlére turned out to be a burly carpenter with kind, intelligent eyes.
”I should've gone with the other riders, but, you see, my wife was in labour and she was very ill.”
Dwalin gave a hoarse, compassionate grunt as his eyes wandered over the tools and the works in progress around him.
”Our Captain is very kind. He allowed me to stay with her.”
The man smiled faintly, and Dwalin did his best to return the expression in spite of the emptiness in his chest.
”She – None of them made it. And then a second éored arrived, so I went with them instead. There was no point in –”
He interrupted himself and looked up with glassy eyes.
”Oh, but you don't want to sit here and listen to a young man's sorrows. Forgive me. Have some more bread, please.”
Dwalin took another roll from the basket that was being held out to him.
”I wish to know where he is,” he said, trying to make his voice a little softer than usual.
”I can tell you where he was being brought after the battle, but where he's now – no.”
”The village is called Thrístánas. You can make it there in two days. You've to travel straight east and then turn north when the land begins to fall away. I'll describe the signs to look for …”
Dwalin left the same afternoon and sighted the village Thrístánas short past noon the day after.
* * *
Even from afar, Dwalin could see that many of the houses in this village were better built than most he had seen on his journey. Through the mist of sadness, he found that he liked the thought of Thorin having lived there better than the thoughts of all the other places he had imagined him in. Had Thorin, by chance, made any of the hinges on those tall doors? If he had, would Dwalin be able to recognise his work if only he came close enough?
”Aye,” he mouthed to himself. ”Blindfolded, in my sleep.”
He tugged at the reins and halted, still studying the houses while absently stroking the neck of his tired and sweaty pony. If I were to turn back now, he thought, I would never have to know. I could pretend that he's alive and content, or that he died swiftly and without fear. I'd never have to know. But I love him.
A one-eyed man on a lively horse came wading over the shallow stream that divided the village in two. He had an axe resting casually on his shoulder and shouted something in greeting. Even as Dwalin threw his hood back, he began to feel as if he had swallowed a mouthful of sand. This time, his heart suddenly raced in his chest like a galloping horse again. This time, it had a reason to. The man rode up to him and halted, eyeing him with bold fascination. Dwalin swallowed hard and tried to clear his throat, but his own voice sounded strange to him despite the best of his efforts.
”I'm Hannar, at your service. I'm looking for the smith Ácenscild.”
Don't be dead.
The man nodded slowly without breaking eye contact.
”Is he expecting you?”
Is he ... He is. He is here. Bastard. No weapon can kill him, not my Thorin. He'll be grey now just like me, but his eyes are still like aquamarines, aren't they? His lips are soft even when they're chapped, but his toes are always cold, and he pushes them in under my legs when I sleep next to him. I love him. Breathe in now. Answer.
”I told him I'd come.”
”Well then, I'll show you to him. He's probably just woken up and had breakfast.”
The man turned his horse, and Dwalin followed as fast as he could, holding.
”We'll be passing the stables on our way. Now, don't you mind the women – you'll get looked at here, I'm afraid. Two of you now! Well, if these aren't strange days to live in.”
Let them stare their eyes out, Dwalin thought. He's alive. He's here.
* * *
Thorin put down the empty bowl of porridge. He lifted his legs and turned so that he could place both feet on the bench he was sitting on. Then he rolled up his breeches and placed his forearms on his knees, letting himself relax as he turned his face toward the bright sun. Once, he would never have thought that he would take so much pleasure in something that belonged so entirely to the overground – something so seemingly dull and mundane.
He did not open his eyes when he heard footsteps approaching, deciding that anyone who wanted his attention right now would have to speak up first. He was a little surprised when he footsteps stopped and no one spoke. Then nothing happened for a while, and he became irritated to find himself tensing up against his will – his body always ready to fight at the slightest sign of danger. He was just about to open his mouth, when a voice spoke to him in Khuzdul, and his eyes flew open as if someone had hit him straight across the face.
”I'm here now.”
Thorin blinked hard as his mind tried to encompass what his ears and eyes were telling him. Never in all his life could he have mistaken the dwarf in front of him for someone else.
”Is this some kind of fraud?” he said out loud, his voice low and threatening.
The other dwarf shook his head slowly.
Thorin's breath left him as if it had been violently pushed out of his lungs. For a moment, he could do nothing but stare down at his own knees. Then he looked up again and made a careful move to rise.
”Dwalin, I –”
The name took effort to shape, and it felt strange in his mouth. He abandoned apprehension and was on his feet even his as voice broke completely. Dwalin was running toward him, slowing down in front of Thorin just enough to avoid crushing him when he seized him in his big arms and held him to his chest, strong fingers digging into Thorin's back. Thorin's hands were on Dwalin's chest, trembling and clutching at the fabrics of his worn clothing.
”I need to feel –”
”I'm here, you do feel me –”
”I – I might forget how to breathe –”
”Thorin – oh Mahal – Thorin, you've no idea –”
Thorin closed his eyes and pressed his face into the curve of Dwalin's neck for a moment.
”I do,” he whispered. ”You know you're – Dwalin, I love you.”
”I love you, Thorin. I love you so much. Now, don't hate me for this, but –”
Thorin slowly let go of Dwalin's shirt and took an unsteady step backward, easing himself out of Dwalin's softened grip. They remained still for a moment, looking deep into each other's eyes.
”I know,” Thorin whispered.
Dwalin's expression was filled with longing and bitter bliss as he smiled.
”Some things never change.”
Thorin shook his head in affirmation. Then he licked his lips and returned the smile, his whole body feeling wobbly and light.
”Would you like to come inside?”
Dwalin's smile morphed into a breathless grin.
”Do you really have to ask, dearest?”
Thorin threw the door to his little house open and stepped in with Dwalin half a step behind him. They waited a short moment for their eyes to adjust to the darkness before Thorin shut the door and bolted it. Dwalin threw his arm around his shoulder.
”Put on your boots, Thorin. I'm terrified of stepping on you.”
Thorin turned around with his eyebrows raised.
”Take yours off!” he exclaimed in playful exasperation. ”Your feet will thank you.”
Dwalin did not answer, but pulled Thorin close and rested his head on his shoulder. Thorin frowned and licked his lips, his stomach churning with emotion.
”I'm sorry,” he mumbled and swallowed. ”I'm sorry. I know I've –”
”Don't,” Dwalin said firmly. ”Don't apologise. Don't for a moment believe that I'd think less of you for anything you've done, anything that's changed.”
Thorin closed his mouth again and found himself smiling faintly into Dwalin's wild, grey hair.
He drew back and placed his hands steadily on Dwalin's shoulders, listening intently for a moment. Nothing but silence seeped in through the walls and the door. He met Dwalin's eyes, then, and leaned in slowly, his heart creating thunder in his chest. As their lips touched, Dwalin's hand came up and seized hold of his hair, as if he needed to assure himself that this really was happening – that Thorin was real and not about to dissolve into another dream.
The kiss was sweet and gentle, and Dwalin's lips tasted of salt. Thorin breathed in sharply through his nose as they mutually deepened the pressure, their lips folding around each others, wanting more, needing more. Thorin dared only to allow another moment, and then he pulled back, slowly, slowly.
”I though it would feel – strange but right,” he whispered breathlessly. ”But not so strange and so right at the same time.”
Dwalin had released his hair and was now stroking it gently.
”I've had no one to talk to for thirty-seven years,” Thorin mumbled, not sure if he was apologising for what else he might blurt out to ruin the moment or if he merely needed to say the number out loud. ”At least no one I wanted to talk to.”
Dwalin gave a pained snort of laughter.
”I quite see what you mean.”
”Dwalin,” Thorin murmured softly, ”these people have been good to me. They truly have.”
”Aye, and I'd have ripped them to shreds if I'd thought otherwise. Let's sit down.”
Thorin slowly walked over to his bed and sat down on the head-side.
”You limp,” Dwalin stated carefully behind him, before he came to join him, taking off his cloak and weapons on the way.
”You have a new scar,” Thorin answered, nodding at the left side of his beloved's face.
”Many,” Dwalin corrected him, slowly spreading his fingers over Thorin's hand, which rested beside him on the wheat-coloured blanket.
They became silent for a while, looking at each other, and what had at first been a wait to find out who would begin to talk turned into a passionate quiet of taking in and re-remembering. Thorin wondered what Dwalin's eyes found in his aged features, and if he still found him as beautiful as Thorin found Dwalin. Eventually, he forced himself to put his pleasant musings aside.
”How are my nephews?”
”Oh, they're fine. You know I'd never've left as long as they weren't. I gave you my word.”
Thorin gently shifted his hand and wove his fingers together with Dwalin's.
”Well, they're both over a hundred now, as you know,” Dwalin continued. ”Fili makes a fine king. His brother is of great support to him.”
A secretive smile began to form on his lips, and Thorin sat up a little straighter.
”Five years ago,” Dwalin said, ”Fili married a woman of Durin's line. Last year, she gave birth to a son.”
Thorin turned to look at wooden wall in front him. Dwalin released his hand to take hold of his shoulder.
”The line will endure, Thorin. There's hope.”
Thorin's voice came out dark, almost scornful.
”What news from the east then?”
Dwalin were still for a moment before he answered.
”None. I'm sorry.”
Thorin covered his face in his hands for a moment.
”No. No, I'm sorry. These are – These are good news. I am happy, truly so.”
”I know, dearest. I know.”
They sat in silence for a while. Then Thorin sighed and smiled faintly.
”What's his name then?”
Dwalin told him, and Thorin nodded to himself.
”A strong name.”
Silence again. How long ago did I forget how to talk? Thorin thought. No. That's not it. Beyond all hope, he has come to me, and here I am, trying to care about politics again. Which I don't. And I can't. Not now. What would it change? I've left that behind, I know that. I cannot bear that burden now even I'd want to. It's just memories of a dream long lost. Maybe I'll ask later. Not now. Now is for us. He cleared his throat and blinked, feeling as if he had at last let something loose that had been very old and heavy inside him – hundreds of years, that were suddenly beginning to take flight and scatter into the late-summer air.
”I have a horse. She's on loan to a friend until this evening. We'll get out of here as soon as she's back. Now, you must tell me. How on earth did you find me?”
* * *
So Dwalin told Thorin, in short, of his journey from the Blue Mountains through all of Eriador and among the villages of Rohan, and then they traded other stories of travel and battle.
”Wrestled an archer with a flaming arrow on his bow. Good thing I was already half bald.”
”Shortened tendon. There's no pain anymore. I was in a bed for a long time, half unconscious from my other injuries, and it didn't get stretched properly, even though I could have had a worse healer. They marvelled a good deal at my survival, these men, I think.”
Dwalin lifted a grey strand of hair from Thorin's shoulder and rolled it between his fingers.
”Ácenscild, the Blacksmith Hero of the Westfold …”
Thorin's raised eyebrows earned him a satisfied smirk.
”Have I got a new title?”
”It seems beyond you to pass unnoticed, Thorin.”
It was lightly spoken comment, but Thorin felt himself become defensive.
”These men are farmers,” he began. ”Most of them were never trained to be warriors, but they're now forced to take up arms, because this is time of war. I came here, and I found myself needed, and for the sake of everyone I've failed, I could not give them less than I have.”
Dwalin had let go of his hair and waited respectfully for him to finish before he took Thorin's hand once more in his own.
”I've been told that the Marshal might request my presence when he learns that I'm still alive,” Thorin said. ”Have me ride in the éored of his household. I'd have the right to refuse, as I'm not one of his subjects, but –”
”I know,” Dwalin said again. ”Thorin, whatever you choose, I'll follow you.”
He smiled – his old, scarred face alight – and Thorin's heart fluttered. He opened his mouth, but Dwalin silenced him with a shake of his head and continued.
”If you're needed here, then the Westfold will have to do with two dwarven heroes. If that fails, we'll go somewhere else. Anywhere in the world. I trust the Maker to put us to use.”
Thorin clenched his teeth and swallowed.
”Dwalin, I swear to you … This time we'll do it right.”
His beloved leaned closer, his smile still lingering in the wrinkles around his eyes.
”Live together, die together.”
Thorin mirrored the motion and rested their foreheads together.
* * *
They had a meal – during which Dwalin urged Thorin to eat twice his usual portion – and then they packed their bedrolls and the rest of the food and set off to the stables. If Thorin had felt hesitant about riding his massive horse next to Dwalin's properly sized pony, his apprehension disappeared when Dwalin took to teasing him endlessly for using a box to stand on when tacking her up.
”She's small for a horse, Dwalin. That's why I could afford her in the first place.”
”Exactly my point. Just stand on your toes, or have you shrunk, Thorin?”
A few men passed in and out of the stable as they loaded their animals, and threw glances at the dwarves with increasing curiosity as the unintelligible Khuzdul vibrated between them. Thorin checked the last straps with nimble fingers.
”Done. Are you ready?”
Thorin bit his lip and looked around.
”Could you hold her for a moment?”
Dwalin gave him a slightly suspicious look, but walked over and took the horse's reins in both hands. Thorin smiled at him and stepped away. He walked over to Dwalin's pony, which stood untied closer to the open doors, grabbed it by the bit, and went outside.
”Oh, no no,” Dwalin's voice warned him from behind.
Thorin turned around.
”I just gave you the faster horse. You'll be able to catch up.”
”Thorin! You're more childish than you ever were as a child!”
Thorin laughed and mounted. He turned the pony and looked again at his most beloved, his grin stretching until he knew that he must look beyond ridiculous. Taking a deep breath, he threw his hair over his shoulders and did his best to collect himself for a moment.
”I'm not a prince now, Dwalin. And, for that matter, I'm not a king either. I'm just a dwarf.”
Dwalin's mouth fell open.
”And I'm too old for waiting,” Thorin added, ”so get on my horse.”