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Where the Pathways Lead

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“I cannot see where the pathway leads!” Dwalin shouted to the others. “Do we follow it or no?” He was hoping against hope that they would say “no”. The path was shadowed, narrow and rocky, and reminded him of...

“Well, follow it o’course!” Bofur hollered back. Dwalin gulped, but nodded and began making his way in with the others behind.

As Dwalin scooted his way through the compact space, he could feel his throat closing. He could hear his breaths growing quicker and heavier.

“Mahal save me,” Dwalin muttered hoarsely. Why, why was his childhood still haunting him this way?


 

“Well, follow it o’course!” Bofur cried incredulously. He saw Dwalin nod and disappear. Bofur didn’t know why Dwalin couldn’t figure it out for himself. They’d just been attacked by wargs and Elves (well, not really the latter, but Bofur wasn’t choosy), and Dwalin wanted to go back up there just to face them again?

I didn’t think he was so hungry fer battle, Bofur said to himself. However, as he followed Dwalin, he noticed the warrior’s shoulders starting to lock up with tenseness, and beads of sweat were trailing down his neck. What was wrong?


 

Óin wasn’t sure why, but he was certain he could sense panic among his companions. Or simply one of them. As he looked ahead, he realized who it was. Dwalin was almost hyperventilating; not quite, but very close, and he was moving faster through the tunnel of rock.

Instantly Óin understood. By Mahal, he still remembers. It was such a time ago, but he still remembers. Sympathy and sadness tingled through him as Óin recalled the panic in a younger Dwalin’s eyes. They’d been exploring a cave while their parents and their friends ate a picnic outside, and then it had all gone wrong.


 

“Come on!” Dwalin called, clambering up a rocky ledge. “Balin! Óin! What are you, those old Men-folk we saw in town? Hurry up!”

Balin watched his brother with a fond smile. “He’s always been a bear like that, climbing everywhere. I guess we should’ve known he would be when he found some way onto the top of our bookshelf as a babe.”

Óin laughed. “Yeah, my brother’s that way too. He would’ve loved to come, but Ama punished him for getting in a fight with—”

At that moment they heard Dwalin exclaim in surprise and awe. “Balin! Óin! You have to come see this!” Glancing at each other, Balin and Óin leapt up the rock face and ran toward Dwalin’s voice.

Balin saw what Dwalin had found and stopped up short, causing Óin to run into him. “Oof! What is it?” Óin complained. “Oh. By...”

“Mahal...” Dwalin finished Óin’s sentence, gaping at the cave tunnel before them. Crystals, embedded into the walls, shone and flickered with a brilliant light.

“If the miners knew about this...” Balin trailed off, tentatively touching one of the gems.

“They’d have tons of workers down here,” Óin agreed, shoving a crystal deep into his pocket.

“Why do they have to know?” Dwalin asked, mirroring his cousin’s actions, and then breaking off another. “We could claim this tunnel for our own. Ama’s birthday’s coming soon; we could surprise her with some of these sparklers.”

“These caves belong to the king,” Balin said sternly. “We need to tell him.”

Dwalin sighed exasperatedly. “Uncle Thrór has enough riches already! And with the way he trades goods with the Lord of Dale, he’ll have two times as much by the end of this year. Come, Balin, let’s keep this to ourselves for now!”

“Dwalin’s right,” Óin declared.

Balin swallowed hard. Guilt was pushing bile into his throat. It felt like stealing. “Well—” he started uncomfortably.

“Glad you agree,” Dwalin said, grinning and slapping his brother on the arm. His eyes lit up. “Oh, let’s see how far this tunnel goes!”

“We should be making our way back to the others,” Balin said anxiously, glancing over his shoulder. “Ama and Adad’ll worry.”

Dwalin scowled. “Alright, Balin. You go back, eat your lunch, and be a boring sod. I’m going to explore.” With a curt nod of farewell, Dwalin disappeared into the darkness, Óin following close behind. Balin was ridged with irritation as he stomped after them.

After he’d marched along for a bit, Dwalin paused, looking around. Doubtfully he called, “Balin? Óin? Where are you?”

When he no longer heard Dwalin’s footsteps or Balin’s cross grumbling, Óin hesitated, and turned slowly in a circle. Where had they gone? “Dwalin? Balin? Hello?”

Uncertainty and unease cut through Balin’s anger as he halted, peering into the darkness. “Dwalin, Óin. Answer me!” Balin gulped, turning and hoping to see the tunnel with the crystals. In the darkness he could barely see anything and Óin was the one who carried the fire kit. “This isn’t funny! C’mon, where are you, lads?” His voice trembled a bit on the last word, and Balin pursed his lips, rotating again in a large circle.

Wait for them. They’ll come, he told himself, backing up. At that moment, his heel caught on a crack running through the ground. Balin pitched backward, howling as he fell.

Dwalin looked up as a cry echoed against the walls. He knew it to be his brother. “Balin!” he bellowed back. “Where are you? What’s wrong?!” There was only silence. Pulse quickening in fear, Dwalin dashed in what he hoped to be the right direction.

Óin heard the scream as well, and rushed forward, only to slam into a wild-eyed Dwalin. “Did you hear it?!” Dwalin cried.

“How could I not?” Óin gasped. “It came from that way!” they shouted in unison, pointing in different directions. The cousins glanced helplessly at each other, and then decided to go Óin’s way, the left.

Dwalin took the lead, hurrying down the path. His guilt and fear for his brother was suffocating him. He had convinced them to go further into the tunnel. If anything happened to Balin because of him...

Dwalin’s thoughts were interrupted as he stumbled on a crack and nearly lurched forward into a yawning void of blackness. With lightning speed Óin snatched Dwalin’s collar and jerked him back. A horrible thought dawned on them at the same time, and together the lads peered fearfully into the abyss.

“Balin?” Dwalin called anxiously. When there was no answer, Dwalin looked at his cousin. “Do you still have your kit?”

“A-aye,” Óin whispered, fumbling with his supplies. As Óin prepared to light a thick twig, a thousand possibilities burst into Dwalin’s mind. What if Balin had been skewered on a stalagmite? What if he’d snapped his neck? At last, Óin made fire. He and Dwalin leaned down toward the opening of the chasm. By the dim light, Dwalin and Óin could just make out a dreadfully still form below.

“Balin!” Dwalin cried out again. Though he knew there would be no answer, the hush still landed a blow on his conscience and heart.

“We need to get down there,” Óin said urgently, and began to climb down feet-first. He landed unsteadily and fell on his hands and knees. His handmade match went out. Not to be deterred, Óin began crawling toward his unmoving cousin. He had managed to keep a hold of his kit and lit another twig, handing it to Dwalin, who had scrambled along behind him.

When gently shaken, Balin swam out of unconsciousness. As quadruple-images fused and became clear, he saw his brother and cousin looming over him.

“Dwalin—” Balin choked out.

Dwalin let out his breath and grasped Balin’s hand. “Balin, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he moaned. “I didn’t mean for anything to happen!”

Balin coughed a bit and shifted, trying to sit up. Óin stopped him.

“Don’t. Just stay still. Do you think anything’s broken?”

Balin began to reply and then gasped in pain.

“What?” Dwalin barked anxiously. “What is it?!”

“My ribs...” Balin brought a hand to his side and yelped like a young dog. Oin cringed as the sound echoed off the walls and Dwalin buried his head in his hands.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he continued to whimper to no one in particular.

“We have to get out of here,” Óin said worriedly. “Do you think you can stand, Balin?”

“I can’t even sit up. There’s no way I’d make the climb,” Balin answered, his voice tight with discomfort.

Óin gnawed on his lower lip, a habit of thought. “One of us is going to have to get back up and go for help,” he concluded at last. His eyes turned to the obvious choice.

“Dwalin...you’re the only one who has a chance of climbing back up there,” Balin said through pain-clenched teeth. “You go.”

“No!” Dwalin burst out. “I’m not leaving you alone; that’s what got us into this mess!”

“I won’t be alone. Óin is here with me; we’ll be alright.”

No, Balin. I can’t leave you again. All this is my fault in the first place.” Dwalin’s voice hitched, and he looked away as their makeshift match went out.

For a long while the only sound was the dripping of water far, far away. Then Balin’s voice rose out of the darkness, soft and profound with imploration. He needed only one word.

“Please.”

After a pause, Dwalin exhaled slowly and murmured, “Óin, I’m going to need your kit to get me through the cave.”

When he held the precious light-supplying box in his hands, Dwalin stood, and lit another twig. Carefully he studied the ledge from which he and Óin had jumped, and the grooves and small ledges carved into it.

“Here, hold this,” Dwalin said. He handed the match to Óin as he tossed the kit up the ledge. Then he began to climb, slowly, with three times the caution he’d scaled the ledge near the tunnel entrance. A few times he very nearly slipped and fell but managed to catch himself.

At last he found himself looking down at his cousin and brother by the quickly fading light of Óin’s match. Dwalin sucked in a breath.

“No matter how long it takes, I’ll come back for you.”

“I know you will, Amagur,” Balin assured him. Dwalin felt his heart ache when he saw the unwavering trust in the eyes of his brother. His dear, dear brother, who had been severely injured because Dwalin himself had not thought of caution.

“I’ll come back,” Dwalin repeated emphatically. Balin nodded encouragingly, but his smile was strained and the gleam in his eyes revealed not only his faith, but his understated suffering.

“Go, Dwalin,” Óin pled quietly. “Get help.”

Dwalin swallowed slowly and stood, clutching Óin’s kit to his chest. As he set off Dwalin heard a soft poof behind him as Balin and Óin’s match went out.


 

Dwalin ran through the twisting tunnels of the cave, squinting in the flickering light of his twigs. Even with them lit it was hard to make out things that might be familiar.

When he saw a rock formation that looked like a crooked smile hanging from the ceiling, Dwalin knew that he was heading the right direction. Then he was plunged for yet another time into the gloom. He fumbled with the kit, and cursed profusely when he found that he’d run out of matches. He’d have to go on in the dark.

With every step he prayed that he’d find the adults soon. He prayed that Balin and Óin were alright. He prayed that Balin would forgive him for his thoughtless actions and rebellious attitude.

He was right, Dwalin thought miserably to himself. It was never a good idea. But I didn’t listen and now he’s hurt bad.

Dwalin’s breath wavered in his throat and then stuck completely. He froze, listening carefully. Had he heard voices? He heard it again and nearly wept with relief; he knew those voices.

“Adad!” he shouted. “Uncle Gróin!”

“Durin’s beard, where are you?!”  Gróin bellowed back.

“It’s dark; I can’t see where I am!”

“Just stay there and keep shouting,” Fundin called.

Dwalin knew he had to confess what he’d done—now was as good a time as any, since he had to keep shouting for his father and uncle to hear him. “I brought Óin and Balin to this new tunnel! I wanted to see how deep it went...but then we all got separated!” Dwalin swallowed hard and forced himself to continue. “Balin’s hurt, Adad! I think he broke his ribs!”

All at once there was a lantern shoved in his face. Fundin knelt and rested his cheek atop his younger son’s head. After a moment of breathing in the comfort of each other’s warmth, Fundin held Dwalin away from him.

“You say Balin’s hurt?” he repeated gravely.

“Aye, I left him with Óin some ways back, down off a ledge.”

“Take us there,” Gróin instructed.

Dwalin led Fundin and Gróin back the way he’d come, his heart pulsing in his ears. He hoped he wasn’t getting them even more lost than before, but that worry was crushed when he heard Óin’s anxious voice.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me!” Dwalin cried back. “Adad and Uncle Gróin found me!”

“Adad?” Balin’s voice drifted up, deeply weary, and Dwalin gnawed on the inside of his lip.

“I’m here,” Fundin replied, jumping easily down the ledge, followed by Dwalin and Gróin. Óin leapt into Gróin’s outstretched arms while Fundin knelt. Setting the lantern aside, Fundin carefully thumbed away a streak of dust on Balin’s cheek. “How do you feel, my boy?”

“My ribs hurt awfully,” Balin admitted in a murmur. “And my head too.”

“Well, let’s get you back to the others and see if our friend Hifur can put you to rights,” Fundin said gently as he scooped up his eldest in his arms. Dwalin trailed behind, praying and praying that his brother would forgive him.


 

Dwalin startled as Balin bumped shoulders with him. “Here now, brother, you’re holding up the line,” he told him, in a low voice for the sake of Dwalin’s pride.

Dwalin glanced down at his brother and deferred to the sudden urge to put his arm around Balin’s shoulders. Balin was surprised but he didn’t pull away.

They emerged in a brilliantly clear, sunlit valley and Dwalin found that at the sight of it the tightness of his stomach eased a little. This seemed a safe place to explore and rest, with no dark pitfalls or danger or enemies—

Oh, Mahal. An Elf haven.