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Nature's Bastards

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Blessed, they called them. The Sons of Durin, Kings Under the Mountain, and indeed, when the new prince was born, the healers named him strong, and the portents indicated good fortune.

He was cradled in the arms of his proud mother when he was first shown to his people, and even from a distance, the family's pride in their newest member was clear. Even Thror, the stern king, smiled kindly at the small fists waving in the air.

The Line of Durin was secure.

And perhaps that was why Fate mocked their unfailing belief, their portents, and took from them that which they took so much pride in.

The pack of orcs led by Azog the Defiler chased the royal party unrelentingly, and the dwarven prince was ripped mercilessly from his mother's embrace. Some survived, but for Thrain's wife, the grief nearly accomplished what the orcs could not.

But dwarves endure, they always have, against all odds, and with the birth of two more heirs, the lost prince was forgotten save as a cautionary tale.

It has become a habit, observing his squadron as they arm themselves for battle. His men believe he does it to unnerve them, but that is merely a pleasant side-effect. Dwalin watches as they put on their armour, strap on their axes and blades, and commits each name and face to memory.

Today, he promises himself, none will be lost.

Balin steps up next to him. "The scout has returned," he says. "Be careful, brother; the Black Bastard rides this day."

Dwalin grins. "Then he'll get a warm welcome." He claps his brother on the shoulder and turns towards his men. "Good news, lads! It seems the Bastard has decided to show himself." It starts some muttering among the dwarves, but Dwalin is pleased to see that none of them seem worried. "We will cut them off before they reach Dale. Kill the orcs and wargs, but I want the Bastard taken alive. None of them will return to their master today."

They leave Erebor with cheers and battle cries on their lips.

The mountains offer many safe havens for those they favour, and Dwalin expertly leads them to a deep alcove by the road. They do not have long to wait -- the orcs' guttural cries soon echo among the mountains. Dwalin draws Grasper and Keeper, and his men silently follow his lead. He waits until the rocks tremble, then gives his first nod.

The first group of dwarves attacks quickly, aiming for the wargs' legs, and swiftly crossing to the other side of the road once their cuts have been made. The wargs howl and the orcs scatter as they try to find their attackers.

Second nod.

With the wargs injured, evading the dwarves' swift blows becomes almost impossible. The orcs adjust quickly, however, and begin to surround the small group fighting on the road. Dwalin waits for them to pass and, with a roar, launches himself and the rest of his men towards their rear.

Blood spills quickly, flowing black and thick on the ground. Cries, moans, howls fill the air, each just as sweet to his ear. Above them, a deep voice thunders suddenly, and Dwalin pulls Keeper from a warg's neck and looks up.

The Black Bastard sits astride his black warg on top of a small hill, both their teeth bared. The orcs begin to rally, and Dwalin shouts an order. His men raise their shields as arrows rain down upon them. Dwalin locks eyes with the Bastard, and grins.

With a harsh shout, the Bastard speeds off towards him amidst the shrieking, fleeing orcs. Dwalin drops his axes and grabs the hammer strapped to his back. He lifts it with both hands and waits for the black warg.

He swings. The breaking of bones is audible, and the warg's jaw snaps shut as he is sent flying. Its rider lands on his back, and Dwalin turns his weapon in his hands and walks up to the orc who was once a dwarf. He delivers one swift blow to the head, and the dwarf slumps back and lies still.

The battle is quickly won once their leader falls. He waits for the last of the dying sounds to still, then raises his weapon and lets out a victorious roar.

His men pile the corpses of their enemies with good humour, preparing them for the flame. Dwalin looks down at the prone form at his feet, and feels a quiet thrill.

Today, Azog loses his Bastard. Tomorrow, perhaps his head.

The Bastard awakens before they reach Erebor. There is a sudden commotion behind him, and Dwalin orders his men to a stop and shoves his way through the ranks. Three of the strongest fighters are straining to hold the Bastard back despite his bound arms, and another of his men lies on the ground, blood flowing from a wound in his neck.

"What happened?" he barks. The Bastard stops his struggles and bares his teeth in a snarl.

"He bit Anrak in the neck, Sir."

The show of spirit pleases Dwalin greatly, though he doesn't show it. "Anrak, can you stand?"

Anrak clambers to his feet, and Dwalin carefully inspects the wound. "Seek out a healer when we return," he orders. "We don't know what filth he carries with him."

As if the words mean something to him, the Bastard suddenly renews his efforts to escape, to the clear dismay of the dwarves holding him. Dwalin steps up to him and takes his chin in a firm grip, staying out of range of his sharp teeth. They stare at each other, and Dwalin finds himself surprised by the clear blue colour of the Bastard's eyes.

He comes to a quick decision. "Knock him out."

Anger sparks in the Bastard's gaze when the sword handle hits his skull, but it only lasts a moment. Dwalin returns to the front of the lines once his men have picked the Bastard up once more, and they reach Erebor without any further setbacks.

Balin's messenger awaits them at the gates. "Your presence is requested in the royal hall," he says with a shallow bow. Dwalin nods and sends him on his way.

"Toss that one in a cell," he orders, "and see that two of you stay by it until I get back."

His axes and armour reek of orc stink, but he learned very early on that one does not delay a summons to the royal hall. He waits to be announced at the massive doors, and walks in with his head held high.

Balin wears a small, proud smile. Dwalin halts next to him and sinks to one knee.

"Rise, Dwalin, son of Fundin." He stands, but lowers his head respectfully before his king. "What news do you bring of your raid?"

"We took them by surprise, my Lord. Their eyes did not even chance upon Dale."

"How many of their ranks survived?"

"Only one. The Black Bastard is currently in the dungeons." He dares to look up. Thror's face reveals little, but Dwalin knows the signs of the king's displeasure. "Respectfully, I think he will be useful to us. He can tell us of Azog's forces, his plans, maybe even how to defeat him."

"I thought he spoke only the Black Speech."

"Aye, but he can be taught the Common Tongue."

King Thror's brow furrows, and he beckons for Balin to come forward. They converse together quietly for some time, and Dwalin quickly begins to feel impatient. He itches to pay a visit to the dungeons, to finally discover what -- who -- hides beneath the orcish filth. He has had ample time to become intimately familiar with the Black Bastard's prowess in battle since his sudden appearance next to Azog near ten years past. But with each encounter, he felt his curiosity about the enemy dwarf growing. Perhaps now he will finally find out if the wild rumours about the Bastard's mixed parentage bear any truth.

"You may attempt to retrieve information from the Black Bastard," King Thror's voice cuts through his thoughts. "However, should he become a danger to the kingdom, I expect you to deal with him in a suitable manner."

Dwalin bows, and exits the chamber with blood pounding loudly in his head.

He takes the time to put on a clean set of clothes and wash off the worst of the grime before heading for the dungeons. The noise that reaches his ears even beyond the door tells him their guest is already awake. When the guard lets him through, he can see the Bastard tugging at the solid, iron bars of his cell with all his strength, snarling and frothing at the mouth. The two dwarves guarding him are keeping a safe distance.

"Dismissed," he says, and bites back a smile at their undisguised relief.

"So," he says after they leave, "we finally meet properly." He waits for an answer, a sign of recognition that his words hold meaning for the dwarf, but none is forthcoming. The Bastard's eyes flick to the side in what Dwalin supposes is an uncharacteristic nervousness, until he glances that way himself.

There is a platter with meat and bread set against the far wall. Dwalin chuckles under his breath and takes it to the cell. The Bastard's eyes gleam, and he fairly salivates at the sight of the food. "We're all ruled by our stomachs, eh? Here."

The plate clatters to the floor. Blood quickly gushes from his brow, flooding his eye. He reaches blindly and pulls the Bastard against the cell bars. Once, twice, again and again until he hears something hit the floor. He shoves the dwarf back then and explores the ground with his boot until something scrapes beneath it. He kicks the weapon away and moves back from the angry snarls.

The dungeon guard enters at a run, and Dwalin holds up a hand to forestall his questions. He gingerly feels along the edges of the cut. Deep enough to scar, and long to boot, from his forehead right across the bridge of his nose. The fact that it missed his eye is a small comfort.

"Sir?" the guard asks uncertainly. "What should I do with him?"

Dwalin presses a clean cloth to the cut and regards the enraged dwarf with his good eye. "Not very clever, biting the hand that feeds you." He walks towards the doorway, and stops when he draws level with the guard. "He's not to eat until I say so. Clear?"

The guard nods, and Dwalin leaves him to deal with the feral howls. All wild beasts can be tamed. This one is no exception.

He really shouldn't have expected it to be simple.

The few orcs they've managed to capture and hold over the decades never revealed much, their fear of Azog (and, later, his Bastard) greater than that of hunger or pain. They succumbed to death quickly, perhaps even gratefully. But the Bastard doesn't seem willing to give up, and neither does his master.

The orcs' attacks become more frequent, and more often than not Azog can be seen at the head of his considerable forces. Time is measured in a series of bloody skirmishes, and the losses on both sides are staggering. But Azog persists, bellowing his rage at the mountains, and sometimes, the dwarves of Erebor can hear an echoing roar from deep within the keep. Perhaps even the Defiler has someone he cares for.

Dwalin makes a point of visiting the Bastard every day, the guards' reports notwithstanding. True to his command, they haven't given the Bastard any food. Each day, Dwalin steps up to the iron bars, and stares at the dark, hate-filled eyes. He knows the look of a beast biding its time, but it's Telra whose compassion leaves her to suffer the fatal bite.

His fingers itch for his axes that day. But he turns away from the Bastard's satisfied smirk, and gives orders to deprive him of water as well.

And he waits.

By the second week, the Bastard's ribs are starting to show. He looks gaunt, and while he still makes an effort to snarl and growl whenever Dwalin drops by, he can tell the Bastard's heart is no longer in it. But he waits a few more days, and then goes down to the dungeons with two bowls in his hands.

"Leave," he orders the guard. The Bastard is lying on the floor, dirty hair covering his face. Dwalin puts the bowls on the ground, one to each side, and sits cross-legged between them. Slowly, the Bastard raises himself up until he is slumped against the wall, and their gazes hold.

Dwalin pushes the bowl of water forward. The Bastard can do little else but crawl towards it, and his hand shakes faintly when his fingers brush the bowl. He lifts it carefully between the bars, and descends on it with fervour. Some of the water spills to the floor, and when the bowl is empty he licks up even that. Dwalin hides a grimace, and gives the second bowl a nudge. The Bastard's sharp gaze turns to it.

"You can have it when you tell me your name."

The Bastard doesn't seem to hear him, but a fist slammed against the bars grabs his attention. Dwalin points a finger at his own chest. "Dwalin," he enunciates. He then points the finger at the Bastard with a raised eyebrow.

He is about to write the Bastard off as an utter dimwit, when a guttural voice says, "Brulk."

"Brulk." Dwalin rolls the harsh sounds on his tongue. Satisfied, he places the bowl of light broth within reach. Brulk devours it as quickly as the water, with equal finesse, and when he's finished he lets out a string of sounds that Dwalin takes to mean, "More."

"Tomorrow," he says. Whatever meaning Brulk takes from it doesn't seem to please him, but he stays surprisingly composed and keeps his resentment to a brief baring of his teeth.

The bowls Dwalin left in Brulk's cage are still intact the next day. He takes it as a positive sign. The water is in a pitcher this time, and he points at one of the bowls. Brulk shoves it through the bars and Dwalin refills it many times, until Brulk has drunk his fill. He unwraps the small package then, and lays the bounty out for Brulk to see.

"Meat," he says, pointing at the small, rare piece. Brulk salivates and licks his lips. Dwalin tugs the wrapping back towards him, and Brulk hits the bars with a snarl when he reaches after it.

Dwalin only smiles. "Dwarf," he says, pointing at himself and then at Brulk, who looks decidedly unimpressed. He thinks for a moment, then tries, "Khozd?"

Abruptly, Brulk laughs. He laughs until it echoes in the chamber, until moisture seeps from the corners of his eyes, and the sound sends a chill down Dwalin's spine. Brulk's gaze is mocking when he finally stops. "Dwarf," he dutifully echoes, and Dwalin gives him the meat despite the malicious glint in his eyes.

That is how it continues. Dwalin visits the dungeons first once a day, then more often when Brulk seems to retain his newfound calm. He teaches Brulk simple vocabulary, everyday words. Brulk only pays as much attention as it takes to get his next meal, but sometimes Dwalin thinks he can see a spark of true curiosity behind the contempt.

He decides on a change a few weeks later.

"Stand," he orders, and Brulk scoffs but complies. Dwalin holds up the contraption he has fashioned. "For hands," he says, holding up the two cuffs and the tether tied to the identical strap on his left wrist. "Outside."

Brulk regards him through slit eyes. After a few moments, he steps away from the bars and holds up his arms.

The cage door opens with a creak. As is his norm, he sent the guards out when he came in. If Brulk attacks him now, he thinks, all he'll have to defend himself is a pair of leather cuffs.

He ruthlessly squashes his misgivings and steps into the cell.

Five minutes later, he leads Brulk out amongst a sizeable group of gaping dwarves. Brulk bares his teeth in a sharp grin, and snaps them at a dwarf who dares venture too close. Dwalin ignores his antics and lets him lead where he pleases. He tugs on the tether only once, when Brulk seems to be headed in the direction of the royal hall.

"Why?" Brulk asks as they walk the other way.

"Because." Brulk only rolls his eyes.

The excursion ends without any bloodshed but with a stench in his nostrils that Dwalin isn't sure he'll ever get out. He draws a bath when he returns to his rooms, and as he sinks into it he wonders how Brulk would react to washing.

He ducks his head below water with a grin.

Azog's increasingly ferocious attacks keep Dwalin away from the dungeons for several days. He returns with blunt blades, a heavy heart, and ten more names to add to his conscience. He washes off the worst of the blood and then falls into a deep sleep that lasts for more than twelve hours. But when he awakes, he feels almost normal.

He devours his breakfast and starts making arrangements before releasing Brulk from his cell. A grin stretches his face when he descends the stairway, but his good cheer fades at the words that greet his ears.

"Filthy traitor," he hears, followed by a grunt. "Kinslayers don't deserve to be fed the way you are. You oughta be stoned to death, like in the old days."

There's a hissed Black Speech phrase and a thud, and Dwalin enters the small hall with thunder upon his brow.

He drags the guard forcefully out of Brulk's cell, arm wound around his neck. When the guard struggles, he turns them both around and shoves him into the nearest wall. The guard rights himself and looks at Dwalin with a mixture of fear and stubborn righteousness. A glance at Brulk shows him the same dwarf he has come to know -- strong in the face of adversity, with eyes defiant. But the pattern of bruises on his chest and collarbone tell their own story.

"He attacked me first, sir," the guard tries. "I was giving him his food and he came at me without provocation. Had to defend myself, I did."

"And where are your bruises, then?" Dwalin snarls, and the guard cowers back against the wall. "Hand me your insignia. Your services are no longer required."

The guard stares at him disbelievingly before dredging up the last vestiges of his boldness. "It's no more than that filth deserves! I'm loyal to the King, I'm sure he'd--"

"He's a dwarf." Dwalin reaches out and rips the insignia off the guard's uniform. "A dwarf who has survived worse circumstances than any of us has known. Perhaps you'd like to try your luck with the orcs, see if you could retain your morals and convictions. I'd be more than happy to take you to them myself."

Whatever the guard sees in his eyes is enough to have him turn tail and flee the dungeons. Dwalin pockets the insignia with a quiet snarl, and turns his attention to Brulk. "Hurt?"

Brulk's eyes glitter strangely in the dark, observing him with curiosity and something else he can't define. He shakes his head, and when Dwalin examines the bruises he is forced to acknowledge that Brulk has seen far worse at his hands.

He sighs, and gestures at the door. "Come on," he says, and they make the trip to his chambers in silence.

When Brulk sees the tub full of piping hot water, he instantly begins to struggle. The days of deprivation and lack of regular exercise have weakened him, but he still makes it hard for Dwalin to maintain the upper hand. He manages to wrestle both of Brulk's arms behind his back eventually, and tugs them tight until Brulk grunts.

"You stink of death and rot," Dwalin says. "It's time to see what's hiding beneath the grit."

Unceremoniously, he tumbles Brulk into the tub, and takes a few steps back until the splashes subside.

Brulk is clearly sulking, but now that he's in the water he doesn't seem inclined to put up any further resistance. Dwalin reaches for the rough cloth and bar of soap he had placed to the side, and begins to scrub years of dirt off Brulk's skin.

The downside to teaching Brulk to speak is the complaining. "Burns," he grumbles. Dwalin finds the temperature suitable. "Stinks," he grimaces. The soap is one of Dwalin's favourites, and the scent of pine woods is preferable to Brulk's odour. Finally, when he finds nothing else to gripe about, he comes up with, "Itches."

"It will not kill you." He dumps a bowl-full of water over Brulk's head.

Brulk sputters in a very undignified manner. "Kill you," he snarls. Dwalin finds it almost endearing.

"I'm going to wash your hair," he warns.

The lather quickly turns dark between his fingers, and the grease and grime that have taken root among the dark locks are almost enough to make him shudder. He runs another bowl of water over the top of Brulk's head, more careful this time, and bends back to his task with fresh suds and determination.

His fingers find several things among the strands. Pieces of cloth used to tie back untidy braids, small bones serving as ornaments, each more unsavoury than the next. There is metal in there, too, something he keeps rubbing against, tangled so deeply that he can't yet make out its features. But he perseveres, scrubbing and rinsing until the water comes away clear.

The comb comes next, and that is when he sees the clasp.

It is of dwarven make, no doubt. The etchings are fine and delicate, the metal pale and unblemished by the abuse it must have endured over the years. A relic from Brulk's past, perhaps -- the only clue to his identity.

He patiently continues to brush through the tangled locks, clearing them away from the metal. Its twin sits around what may have been a braid at some point. He opens them carefully and puts them aside despite his curiosity.

When the hair is as neat as it will be without a trim, Dwalin ties the mane back with a simple leather strap. "That'll do. Dry off."

Brulk stands up and the remainders of the dirty bathwater cascade down his chest and back. His skin glows from the scrubbing and warm water. The scars criss-crossing his toned body rival Dwalin's own. He wonders at some of the marks, recognizes others from blows dealt by his hand. Brulk's beard is unruly and could use a trim and a braid, but his face is no less compelling for that. It is the colour of his eyes, however -- finally visible after weeks of hiding behind locks of hair -- that strikes a chord. Clear, bright blue, glittering like an uncut gem, as fierce and untamed as the veins of mithril threaded through the mountain, they behold him with a fire born of many battles. There is no hint of self-consciousness, even when Dwalin's gaze lingers far longer than would be considered proper.

He turns away when Brulk reaches for the towel, and scoops up the two clasps. Carefully, he traces the lines and curves, his finger following the familiar outline of an emblem he knows as well as he knows the scars on his own arms.

There are runes etched on the other side, a different one on each clasp.

Firstborn, says the first. Blessed, says the other.

Dwalin glances at their bearer, and wonders at the game Fate seems to be playing.

"Take me to see him."

Dwalin gives his axes a final twirl and embeds them in either side of the wooden figure's neck. Sweat drips into his eyes, and Dis's form looks blurred for a moment. The stubborn set to her jaw is, however, unmistakable.

"I will not." His shirt is on the ground behind her. Since she doesn't seem inclined to give way, he steps around her to pick it up and wipe his brow. She turns to face him once more with a scowl he remembers from earlier days. It is the same scowl that got her out of her tutors' grasps and on the training grounds under his guard and supervision, when he was still himself a young dwarf. The years have not dulled its effect.

"Why not? It's not as if I don't know who he is."

"And I would ask how you know, but I suspect I'd be wasting my breath." Her network of spies far surpasses the one at Balin's disposal, something he knows causes his brother no end of grief.

"I only ask you as a courtesy," she says.

Dwalin rolls his eyes, the motion hidden from her keen gaze as he tugs on his shirt. "His location isn't a secret. Go see him, if you like." Her ferocious glare makes him grin. "They wouldn't let you in, would they. That's why you're here, making demands so you can pretend it's not grovelling."

The string of curses coming from a daughter of the line of Durin would make other dwarves flush. "I do not ask this for myself, Dwalin," she says with forced calm. "Do you believe Thorin's first encounter with one of his blood should be in my Grandfather's hall?"

It feels strange, hearing the name from her lips. He can sense her longing and fierce, unconditional love seeping from the syllables, and it almost softens him.


"You know I can't," he says regretfully. "You will see him when the King deems it safe."

"Safe," she scoffs. "If he were not 'safe', you wouldn't have let him out at all, leash or no."

"He's not a bloody pet," he grumbles.

And that was clearly a mistake, because Dis's gaze becomes calculating. "Indeed. And it would be to his benefit if someone familiar with traditions spoke with him before his meeting with our Grandfather."

He can admit there is sense in what she says, but, "I am sure the King is aware that Br-Thorin's manners will be lacking." And possibly counting on it to gain more information, Dwalin thinks.

Perhaps Dis suspects the same. "I'll fight you for it," she says with steel determination. "And when I win, I will meet with Thorin in your chambers."

"We aren't children anymore," he informs her. Never mind that her dare sets his blood stirring.

She grins impishly. "That is not what you said a few fortnights ago when you demanded information from one of my contacts. Are you worried?"

"Yes," he admits easily. Her grin grows sharp. "And what if you lose? There is nothing I need at present."

"Then you may redeem your win at a later date." She must read the acceptance in his face, for she quickly takes off her mantle and coat, leaving them in the dust like common clothes. There is a sword strapped to her side, but she removes that as well. Dwalin clears the vicinity of any obstacles, and waits for her at what he decides is the centre.

Her stance is loose and fluid, her first jab lightning quick. But he is used to her ways and neatly avoids it and the subsequent undercut. It gives him a small opening, and he grabs her firmly around the waist. She reacts before he can take her to the floor, however, and the box against his head loosens his grasp enough for her to gain some distance.

They circle each other warily. Dwalin's feint goes ignored, although he does manage to land a punch in her gut a moment later. She doubles up with a groan, but he stopped feeling sorry for her the first time she kicked him where no man should be kicked. His satisfaction lasts until Dis rushes towards him with a savage cry. He does his best to defend himself against the sudden barrage of fists, but she is fast, relentless, and while he is focusing on her arms, one leg delivers a crippling blow to his knee.

He buckles, and knows immediately that he has lost.

They're both breathing heavily, Dis straddling his chest and holding her arm a hair's breadth above his windpipe. "Yield," she demands.

"You win." He takes her hand and offers her the traditional gesture owed to one who shows themselves superior in battle. She rolls her eyes, clearly exasperated by his formality, but there is a hint of pride in them as well.

"I'll have him in my chambers in two hours."

"Good." She grins. "That will give you ample time for a bath, and you do need one."

Dis's voice only trembles slightly when she introduces herself. Thorin stares at her as if the words mean nothing to him. But her smile never falters as she speaks of her childhood, her life, spinning a happy and content tale that only barely resembles the truth. She continues to smile and laugh in the face of Thorin's prolonged silence until she finally runs out of words.

And still, Thorin says nothing. Dwalin can only shrug when Dis sends him a questioning look. Thorin's Common has improved leaps and bounds, so it can't be that he doesn't understand what Dis is saying. But beyond that, Dwalin can only guess at his motivations.

"I know this must be strange to you," she says after a moment of stillness. "Being a prisoner and then finding out that your family is-- well." She lets out an awkward chuckle. "And we don't know each other yet, but I hope that will change. I just wanted you to be assured that I will help you in whatever way I can."

"Help," Thorin repeats. Dis nods eagerly. "Help me escape then."

Her face remains stoic. "I meant help you adjust to life in Erebor. It will be difficult, but I will teach you everything you'll need to know. And Erebor will soon feel like home to you. Until then, I will make sure you are safe and cared for." She reaches out and places her hand on Thorin's arm. "You will see that the world has much more to offer than you thought."

Thorin moves, faster than Dwalin has ever seen him do, paying no heed to the furniture he scatters. His large hand closes around Dis's neck and he lifts her as if she weighs nothing, holding her up against the wall. "What do you know of the world?" he spits out. "You, the princess hiding in her fortress, offering me her protection when she cannot protect herself."

Dwalin roughly grabs the back of Thorin's shirt, but Thorin stumbles back against him before he can pull. Dis's eyes are flashing with ire, and the knife in her hand is stained red. Not willing to take any chances, Dwalin pushes Thorin back into his seat and keeps one hand firmly against his chest.

"I know never to underestimate others," she says hoarsely. She sheaths the knife and steps closer. "Is it deep?"

"Dis," Dwalin warns, but Thorin is regarding her with something akin to bemusement, and doesn't seem inclined to attack her again when she inspects the cut she inflicted.

"Dwalin, fetch your kit."

With a last threatening look at Thorin, Dwalin steps into the bathing chamber and comes back out with his meagre store of medical supplies. He watches as Dis threads one of the large needles and sticks it into Thorin's arm without preamble. Thorin roars, and Dis smirks.

"We are not so different, Thorin," she tells him while she sews. "Our spirits are similar, and we share the blood running through our veins. You may not think of me as family yet, but know that I am honoured to call you brother."

"You take me for a fool." Dwalin raises his eyebrows. That is a word he can't remember teaching Thorin, and not the first he has heard today.

"I do not. But if you think me your enemy, you must be one."

Thorin snorts. To Dwalin's relief, his eyes show the first hint of respect for his younger sister. Dis must sense the change as well, because she finishes with a much lighter touch. She rises without a word and, with a nod towards Dwalin, leaves the chambers.

"She is a warrior," Thorin comments when Dwalin escorts him back to his cell.

"She is a daughter of kings, not meant for battle."

"Fighting does not create warriors," Thorin says dismissively. "Warriors are born to lead. It is the same with orcs."

The memories of a thousand battles pass between them, one leader to another, and Dwalin understands.

"You knew Common before you came here." He isn't entirely sure he's right when he lets the accusation slip, but Thorin's obvious amusement confirms his suspicions. "Suppose I'm the fool then, spending all this time teaching you a tongue you know."

"There is benefit in letting others believe you are weak," Thorin says. "Perhaps the female has something to teach you as well."

The summons from Thror comes after three days.

Dwalin is allowed to escort Thorin to the throne hall, but is denied even a glimpse through the door. He paces the hallway for some time, until one of the sentries tells him that he will be sent for when Thorin's meeting with the king comes to an end. Faced with that, Dwalin can do naught but leave, and resume his pacing in the privacy of his own chambers.

He wonders if Thorin will remember to curb his tongue, and whether he was truly ready to come face to face with the king. He is more orc than dwarf yet, Dwalin's tutelage notwithstanding. Often, when he doesn't know that Dwalin can see him, he looks towards the gate of Erebor, and Dwalin recognizes the look of a prisoner awaiting his chance to escape.

Azog's pull is strong still and, not for the first time, Dwalin wonders what Thorin's upbringing was like.

An hour passes before a guard comes for him. "The king's guest awaits you in the dining hall, sir."

So he's a guest now, Dwalin muses as he hurries through the hallways. Dis's grooming must have made a favourable impression.

He strides into the room, takes one look at the storm brewing in Thorin's eyes, and sends the group of armed dwarves surrounding Thorin away.

The remnants of the meal on the table remind Dwalin that his unease kept him from his own dinner. But there still seems to be some ale left, and he drags that along and seats himself next to Thorin. "It went well?"

"For your king, yes. He still lives."

His voice is cold, vicious, hatred curling in black strands around the words. Dwalin's fingers nudge the flask, and Thorin gives him a scornful look before taking it and drinking deeply.

"And you are to be his guest."

"So it would seem."

Dwalin grunts. "Can't say I'll be sad to stop ferrying your arse to and from the dungeons every day. And maybe a few nights spent in a bed will soften your disposition."

"You dwarves," and Thorin spits the word, "have grown too soft. You languish in your comforts and hold fast to your treasure, and have forgotten that all creatures were once beasts." His eyes gleam darkly, dangerously. "It will lead to your doom."

Dwalin raises an eyebrow. "If you wish to sleep on the floor, merely say so. You can stay in a bare room." Thorin stays silent. "Would that help you hold on to your hatred? Feel more like an orc?"

Thorin snarls and reaches for his throat, but Dwalin has got used to his volatile temper. He stills Thorin's arm with an iron grip and waits for the struggle within the dwarf to dissipate.

"I do not wish to play your games."

"Then don't."

A question hovers in the air between them. Thorin turns away from it. "He sheds a tear and thinks this makes us kin."

"You may not want it, but you are kin."

Thorin growls low in his throat. "My true kin roams free without me." The sudden, brutal honesty comes as a surprise to Dwalin, and perhaps to Thorin as well, judging by his posture. "Were I asked, there would be no contest."

"A cat may think of itself as a mountain lion for a time." Dwalin shakes his head. "You are no orc, Thorin, son of Thrain. They accepted you for a time, but soon enough they would have turned against you."

"That is the way of orcs. Loyalty is born of fear, and violence brings an end to all problems."

Dwalin stares at him for a moment, deep in thought. "You need something better than drink," he says. "Come."

He takes Thorin to one of the chambers they use for training.

There are no weapons there other than the ones he places against the wall. He removes his coat and gestures for Thorin to do the same. "It's been some time since you fought anyone."

Thorin raises an eyebrow. "For fighting, one needs a weapon."

"Not for this. Or do you intend to kill me and make your escape?"

For a moment, Thorin's eyes burn. But it passes, and Thorin meets him in the middle.

It is fast and brutal, the way their battles always were. Thorin aims for his throat, his midriff, his groin, with no regard for chivalry, a concept Dwalin will be sure to instil in him when he has breath to spare. He evades the blows as best he can, remaining on the defensive, and waits for Thorin to show an opening. When it comes, he strikes at Thorin's left side, and brings his arm up under Thorin's chin.

The victory is merely temporary, for Thorin throws himself backwards and topples Dwalin along with him. He squirms out of the hold and tries to bend Dwalin's arm back, but Dwalin recovers quickly and, crossing his legs behind Thorin's back, rolls them over. Thorin is relentless, however, and when he finds his way back on top and plants his knee solidly in Dwalin's gut, Dwalin pants out his surrender.

Thorin's eyes seem calmer, and he shifts so his knees are on either side of Dwalin instead of trying to cut off his breathing. They pant together in companionable silence for a moment. "Have you never fought without weapons before? How do orcs train then?"

"With weapons. If one is killed during training, it shows they were not fit to live." Thorin grins. "But some fight as we just did."

"To settle quarrels over who gets the better piece of warg meat?"

Thorin leans closer, his breath a soft whisper over Dwalin's lips. "Among orcs, fighting without weapons is foreplay."

And with that, he stands up, leaving Dwalin with an onslaught of visions that burn his eyes, and one that sends heat elsewhere.

The first attempt occurs a week later.

The banging on his door pulls him from his sleep, and he rolls off his bed with a growl. "What?" he barks at the guard, who cowers in the face of his ill humour.

"Sir, your help is needed. He's run off."

Thorin's new quarters are in the vicinity of Dwalin's, something he suspects was done for just such a situation. "How long?" he asks as they quickly stride towards the nearest gate.

"We're not sure, sir. His guards were found unconscious by those who came to take their places."

Not killed, then. His throat relaxes. "Is he armed?"

"He took a maul off Normir."

The sound of the commotion reaches them before they reach the gate. Thorin is struggling within the grasp of two others, and as Dwalin watches, Thorin's head collides with one of the dwarves behind him, causing a roar and giving him enough room to fight once more.

And fight he does, snapping and snarling like a warg, and even these seasoned fighters seem weary of stepping closer.

Dwalin calmly threads his way through the throng, and greets Thorin with a punch to the side of his head that sends him stumbling. Dwalin gets Thorin's arms behind his back before he can recover, and maintains his hold until Thorin stops fighting to break free.

"Will you give in?" Dwalin asks quietly.

Thorin shakes a moment but nods, defeated. Dwalin lets him go despite the clear discomfort of the guards. "Back to your posts," he orders, and unleashes the full force of his glare on the dwarves surrounding them until, finally, they are alone.

"Why do you keep me here?"

There is a hoarseness to Thorin's voice that surprises him. He looks at the closed gate, sees the rock and forests far beyond, and turns back to Thorin. "This is where you belong."

He'd known from the very beginning that reintegrating Thorin into the ways of dwarves would be a struggle. It isn't merely that Thorin so clearly does not wish to stay, although that is what pains his sister most. The tutors that Balin arranges for him are well-respected scholars in their fields, and they explain everything in a way even Dwalin, who readily admits he is no thinker, finds simple to understand. But Thorin has no wish to learn, and takes to his lessons with ill humour and a wandering mind that he knows will irritate his tutors. Often, Dwalin finds himself called in to deal with Thorin when he is being particularly difficult. He is only grateful that he hasn't yet been prevented from simply punching Thorin until he (sullenly) complies.

He fervently hopes, however, that the king never finds out.

And so the days pass, with Thorin learning of his heritage and culture, belatedly taught the duties of a prince and heir and the history of Erebor. And learn he does, pleasing Thror with his slow but inevitable progress. Dwalin is the only one who sees beyond that, and knows of the toll it is taking on the new-found prince.

Every few nights, he will wake to the sound of shouting, and be forced to find Thorin's latest escape route before the guards feel obligated to inform the king. Sometimes he finds him quickly, when Thorin's desperation clouds his thinking and he simply runs for the nearest door like a mindless beast. But there has been more than one occasion where Thorin almost got away. Each time, Dwalin fights him into submission, but even that is becoming harder. He's not sure if it's because Thorin has begun training in the fighting style of dwarves, or simply because part of him wishes for Thorin to find his freedom.

After a particularly strenuous fight by the eastern gates, Dwalin orders for Thorin's bedding and belongings to be moved to his chambers. Thorin takes to it about as well as he did when Balin insisted he should learn to braid his hair, and Dwalin holds some sympathy for the loss of both their privacies. But it does serve to give him a handful of peaceful nights.

It doesn't last.

As soon as Thorin storms into their shared chambers, Dwalin knows there will be no sleep for him tonight.

Thorin's eyes betray the rage boiling within him, his frustration and helplessness. Dwalin sits by quietly as one item after another is thrown against the walls, doesn't react even when his helmet suffers the same fate. Eventually, the noise stills, and when Dwalin looks up Thorin appears calm. They eat, and Thorin accepts his usual tankard of ale before taking to his bed, his back turned towards Dwalin.

But still, he suspects.

He sleeps lightly that night, the way he usually does beyond the safety provided by Erebor. He startles awake past midnight, and his eyes narrow.

"Go back to sleep, Thorin."

Thorin turns towards him, eyes wild like a caught animal, and when he lunges Dwalin barely avoids the sharp point of the wooden stake crudely fashioned out of a broken table leg. Dwalin swipes the weapon away with the back of his arm, knocking into Thorin's hand hard enough to send it flying. Thorin snarls and aims for his throat, but Dwalin is prepared.

They fight, but it is different from their sparring, different even from how they once met in battle. It is primal and unrelenting. Thorin batters him with fists, scratches at his neck and cheeks with hands that feel like claws, and Dwalin tries to manoeuvre them so he can subdue Thorin while keeping both of them from harm. They toss and turn over the ground, each gaining the upper hand for scant seconds before the other flips them over. Dwalin grunts when Thorin's elbow slams into his gut, and uses his legs to roll Thorin onto his back. His hands grab Thorin's wrists and pin them forcefully above his head, and he settles against the dwarf in such a way that he can move no longer.

Their chests brush against each other as they both struggle for breath. Dwalin shifts, thinking to give them room to breathe. His groin brushes against Thorin's for a mere moment, but Thorin's back arches as he pushes into the touch, and there is no mistaking his arousal.

A soft whisper in his mind talks of sparring and foreplay. Thorin's eyes are dark, his face twisted with anger and need, and he bows his back once more to rub against Dwalin. It tears a ragged moan from his throat, loud and unashamed, and the sound sets Dwalin's blood ablaze. He grinds down against Thorin, and is rewarded with a groan that rumbles through them both.

Dwalin quickly loses himself in the intensity building between them. Thorin's legs spread for him and he settles between them, aligning their clothed cocks and establishing a punishing rhythm. Thorin meets his desperation and pushes his hips into each thrust. Suddenly, he surges up and takes Dwalin's lips in a bruising kiss, all teeth and tongue. The taste of blood spreads through Dwalin's mouth as Thorin's tongue laves at a sore spot on his lower lip.

He is aching now, the friction torture against his pulsing cock. The rhythm of Thorin's hips stutters and Dwalin can sense his fervour as well as his own. He stops a moment to glance at the dwarf beneath him -- dark hair fanned over the ground, eyes glittering, a prisoner in his own kingdom, and always, always, a warrior.

Desire is like a haze over his mind, but something relentlessly draws him in. The fingers of his free hand brush over Thorin's neck. Thorin's eyes fix upon his and Dwalin bends his head to lick along the expanse of skin. The wrists captured in his other hand push against his hold. With a soft growl, he grinds down against Thorin in short pulses, and marks Thorin's neck with his teeth.

Thorin shudders as he comes, and Dwalin finds himself transfixed by the sight. But his own arousal will no longer be denied and, after a few more thrusts, he too finds his release.

He rolls off Thorin after, lying next to him, the sound of their combined pants filling the room. Thorin sits up first, almost idly rubbing at his wrists. Dwalin feels a momentary pang of guilt when he notices the red marks, but when Thorin turns to him it is not with recrimination but a small, sated smile.

The resulting twist in Dwalin's chest has nothing to do with lust.

Dwalin is quick to take the initiative the next time Thorin begins to show signs of an impending escape.

"Much as I clearly enjoy my sleep interrupted so I can chase you around Erebor," he mutters as he pushes Thorin against the door, "perhaps we can jump straight to the conclusion."

His hands aren't gentle as they divest Thorin of his clothes, but at least he doesn't tear them. He sighs at the large rip in his favourite shirt, and swears to take it out of Thorin's hide.

The frank admiration in Thorin's eyes soothes the sting of loss. They trail over his form and linger at his groin. Hunger flashes over Thorin's face and under that heated gaze, Dwalin takes his own cock in a loose grip. He lets his fingers stroke along the still-flaccid length, enjoying the way Thorin's tongue darts out to lick at his lips.

He laughs as Thorin pushes him intently towards his bed, and lets the movement of their bodies consume him.

To his surprise, Thorin settles next to him after they have cleaned themselves. The warmth of his body curls gently into Dwalin's side. His hand wanders, restlessly traipsing along Dwalin's body, small touches not meant to inflame. It's curious, to see this side of Thorin, and Dwalin allows it all with quiet amusement.

When the fingers idly stroke along his cock, his eyebrow inches upwards and he turns his head to glance at Thorin. But the other dwarf doesn't look as if he's rearing for another go, and Dwalin soon gets used to it. It is pleasurable despite the strangeness of it, and the fascination Thorin appears to have with his genitals does no harm to Dwalin's ego.

Thorin is still sleeping by his side when Dwalin wakes the next morning. The tense lines etching themselves into his face with each passing day are faded in his slumber. Dwalin traces them with his eyes, and fervently hopes that, one day, Thorin will find a measure of peace.

Sex loosens Thorin's tongue. Dwalin still remembers the first time Thorin had casually started a conversation:

"You're well-endowed," he remarked. His hand was once again busy mapping out Dwalin's genitals, and Dwalin choked on the words that wanted to tumble from his tongue. "And your performance thus far has been admirable," Thorin continued blithely, seemingly unaware of the impending rupture of the bulging vein on Dwalin's forehead.

Most nights, however, their discussions are more tame in nature, and Thorin seems to be fascinated by Dwalin's upbringing. "You were meant to be a warrior since before your birth? How could your kin have known?"

"'Tis tradition. The firstborn of our line serves as commander of the militia and advisor to the king. The second becomes personal guard to the firstborn of the line of Durin." Thorin's hand stops moving on his hip. Dwalin covers it with his own. "I watched over Dis until she grew old enough to refuse a guard. Balin put me in charge of a squadron after that."

"And what if you'd been ill-suited to the task you were meant for?"

Dwalin lifts his shoulder. "Then I would have learned and become suitable."

Thorin's silence stretches until Dwalin thinks he must have fallen asleep. But when he shifts to roll Thorin onto his back, blue eyes peer up at him. Dwalin stills, hovering above him, and lets his hand slide over the well-defined chest. Thorin lets out a soft sigh.

"What of your childhood then?" Dwalin prods.

Lips curve into a smile as Thorin tells him of learning to ride Auzul, his warg. That night, when he sleeps, he dreams of Thorin as a child, loose hair streaming behind him as he rides Auzul. He sees himself standing some distance away, waving as Thorin comes closer. Thorin smiles and offers his hand, and Dwalin climbs astride the warg behind his friend.

He is where he is meant to be.

Dwalin pauses with his teeth clamped around Thorin's earlobe and his fingers where buttons used to be. He pulls back against Thorin's very vocal protests and stares at the shirt he'd been about to remove.

"This isn't yours." Thorin growls low in his throat and rolls his hips into Dwalin's thigh. Dwalin ignores him. "Why aren't you wearing your own clothes?" Now that he's looking for it, he can see that the trousers, too, are simpler and looser than the ones Thorin was given before. The only thing that hasn't changed is the overcoat now lying crumpled on the floor beside them.

"These are mine, and it would please me to not be wearing them for much longer." His subsequent attempt to urge Dwalin onwards comes in the form of a hand firmly fondling him through his trousers, and Dwalin puts his questions aside to take care of more pressing needs.

But he doesn't forget, even after they lie in a spent tangle. "These are commoner's clothes."

"They are comfortable."

"You mean to say yours weren't?"

Thorin snorts. "They were heavy and had too many layers."

"Your grandfather will--"

"The king has decided I am old enough to choose my own garments," Thorin dryly says. "As long as I dress appropriately when called for."

The change in clothes is the opening of the floodgates as Thorin slowly begins to navigate his new position in the hierarchy. When he expresses an interest in seeing the mines, Thror orders Dwalin to escort him. Thorin eagerly follows the head miner and listens to the incessant talk of rock formation and tunnel viability long after Dwalin has closed his mind to the nonsense. His eyes often gaze up, and he smiles when Dwalin asks him if he's waiting for a cave-in.

"It reminds me of sleeping beneath the stars," he explains, pointing at the threads of gold running through the darkness around them. The uncharacteristic wistfulness in his voice makes Dwalin feel a little reckless, and as the miner rushes towards the next boring tunnel he pulls Thorin into a conveniently deserted alcove. He sees the benefit in Thorin's new style of dress then. The laces are much easier to undo than those blasted buttons.

The banquet is an elaborate affair, with dignitaries from the human settlements as well as Mirkwood present to celebrate the return of the lost prince of Erebor. The large hall is full to the brim, and Dwalin once more curses his brother for dragging him into this.

He is seated between Thorin and Dis, presumably to keep the former in check if needed. But Thorin is the very model of courtesy, not a hint of his nature showing through the veneer carefully constructed by his tutors, his family, by Dwalin himself. He smiles and nods and answers the questions directed at him as if he was brought up to do so. Pride floods Dwalin and wrestles with something bitter.

He finds himself constantly shoved backwards during the course of the meal so that Dis can converse with her brother. Her dress is sensible yet elegant as always, but the necklace she chose to wear seems unsuited for the occasion. Dwalin stares at the misshapen pieces of metal bound together with thin wires and frowns. When Dis notices his stare, she tilts her head up and displays her jewellery with unwarranted pride.

"It's a gift," she says, her cheeks flushing lightly with clear pleasure.

"If this is the best courting gift they could think to give you--" Dwalin begins, but quickly shuts up at Dis's menacing glare.

"I'm aware my craftsmanship is still inadequate. I told her not to wear it."

Dwalin turns his head to look at Thorin, raises an eyebrow. "You've decided to become a smith?"

"Would you rather I command an army?" Thorin retorts, and Dwalin snorts. "There is beauty in what your mountain provides."

The soft light of the candles reflects gently off Thorin's dark hair, tinting it with gold, and Dwalin silently agrees.

At Thror's suggestion, Thorin leaves the table to "mingle with his people". He greets the elves first and then the humans, lingering at their table for some time, and when he leaves Dwalin loses track of him. He grits his teeth and constantly scans the crowd, alert for anything out of place, until Dis's elbow jabs him. "If you're that worried, go after him," she says, and he decides that is good advice.

It's difficult to find Thorin among the horde of dwarves. He carefully threads through the masses, but comes to a stop when he hears Thorin's name.

"...don't understand it," the voice says. "They honour him, a murderer who has caused many families grief."

"Perhaps he's reformed," someone dubiously suggests.

"Then if the next criminal among us claims he has changed his ways, should he be let off?" There is soft murmuring among the group. "He's guilty and should pay for his crimes."

"He may still be spying for his master," says another. Several dwarves agree, someone mutters the word "traitor" and the blood pounds loudly in Dwalin's ears. He takes a step forward, but finds himself held back.

He turns his head to find Thorin staring at him, shaking his head imperceptibly. His small smile doesn't reach his blank eyes and his grip is strong enough to bruise, so Dwalin reluctantly lets Thorin draw him away.

That night, in the quiet of their rooms, Dwalin touches Thorin with reverent intent. He allows himself to linger, brings fingers and lips to Thorin's body to assure him of his worth. It brings soft sighs out of the dwarf, but whenever Dwalin glances at the blue eyes that once burned so brightly, he stumbles.

All he can think is that they have killed him, all of them, stripped Thorin of all he was and remade him in their own image, and left him a mere shell of what he once was -- brimming with life. And suddenly slow isn't what he needs.

He swallows Thorin's cock and scrapes his teeth along the underside, relishing the sharp hiss. When he does it again, Thorin's hands wind themselves in his hair. The pinpricks of pain send a shiver through him, and when he looks up something seems to stir behind Thorin's eyes. He slides off the length until just the head is clamped between his teeth, and sucks on it until his skull begins to ache from the force Thorin is exerting on his hair. His nails leave red scratches on the insides of Thorin's thighs and his teeth mark every smooth patch of skin with angry marks. Fire is once more blazing in Thorin's eyes and Dwalin finds himself on his back with Thorin straddling his thighs. His cock is nestled against the crack of Thorin's arse and Thorin moves back against it.

Dwalin's hands harshly grab Thorin's hips as he thrusts upwards. His fingers dig into the arse cheeks to spread them and his cock nestles into the cleft with every rock of their hips. Thorin moans with abandon, and it reminds Dwalin of their first time and stirs something in his chest. The fingers of his right hand slip between their bodies and seek out the ring of muscle there. At the first brush, Thorin gasps above him, eyes flying open. He looks wild and untamed as his body rocks feverishly into the touch. Dwalin keeps it to gentle presses until Thorin's moans turn into harsh cries. He is grinding down against Dwalin's fingers and cock, his own length leaking without being touched, and with a growl and no sense Dwalin presses one finger inside.

It's dry and uncomfortable but Thorin clenches around the intrusion. His arse quivers against Dwalin's hand, his breath comes out in harsh pants and Dwalin can clearly see the hints of pain around his eyes, but still he pushes down for more. Dwalin runs his hand briefly over the head of his own cock, spreading some of the leaked moisture over his finger and slides it in again, soon following with a second.

Thorin's hand curls around his cock and Dwalin watches as he touches himself. He lets Thorin build up a rhythm and relishes the break in it whenever he moves his fingers. Curses spill unbidden from the dwarf's lips, Common mixing with Black Speech and even a little Khuzdul Dwalin knows he didn't teach Thorin. He is stroking in earnest now, and when his release hits he roars with it.

When Thorin opens his eyes once more, the look in them is achingly familiar, and suddenly this is no longer enough.

He runs a hand over his chest, collecting the seed and spreading it over his hand. He coats his cock and uses the rest of Thorin's release to coat his entrance. Thorin pushes into every touch of his fingers, his glittering eyes intent on Dwalin's. He takes the three fingers Dwalin shoves into him without complaint, just begins to ride them as if Dwalin's cock is already in him. He feels tight still, but Dwalin can wait no longer. He removes his fingers and positions his cock at Thorin's hole. The muscle spasms against the head as he guides it in, inch by torturous inch. But Thorin seems to have different ideas.

Once the head is in, Thorin slams his hips down against Dwalin's and swallows his length. It tears a groan from Dwalin and he stills his hips with an iron will until Thorin stops gritting his teeth against the pain. "Stubborn fool," he pants, but Thorin just grins at him and leans forward to bite at his lips. Then he begins to move, quick, shallow thrusts. His soft cock bobs before him and Dwalin feels his control begin to slip.

Perhaps Thorin knows it too, because he guides Dwalin's hands to his hips. When Dwalin thrusts up and slams into him he makes a pleased noise and clenches around Dwalin's cock. He times it to Dwalin's rhythm and the pressure around his cock eases with every rock of their hips. But then Thorin leans forward and reaches behind himself, and when Dwalin feels a fingertip brushing along the base of his cock where it is stretching Thorin's hole, he finally spills.

They stay like that for some time. Trickles of his come slide out of Thorin and onto Dwalin's balls. He is taken with the urge to slip two fingers back into Thorin along his softening cock, and decides it's really best not to resist. Thorin's hole stretches obligingly around the new intrusion and his blue eyes glitter with renewed challenge. He clenches and unclenches around them, creating a sound that would have had Dwalin hard again were less exhausted. Instead, all he can do is huff out a laugh and use his slick fingers to reel Thorin in for a surprisingly soft kiss. He rolls them over until Thorin is on his back, but when he tries to pull out the other dwarf digs his nails into his arse and pulls him back in. Dwalin draws back to look down at him, but sees only lazy contentment on his face. Thorin is once more Thorin, and they fall asleep still connected, a smile stretching Dwalin's lips.

Training new recruits is a bloody thankless job, Dwalin thinks as he finally reaches the sanctuary of his own rooms. His head aches, frustration has soured his mood (permanently, perhaps) and he's sure one of the bastards managed to slice off a good chunk of his hair. He lets his helmet clatter to the ground -- one more dent will hardly be noticeable.

His rooms are still empty, despite the late hour. Dwalin frowns, and leaves again without taking off his armour.

"Where is Thorin?" he asks the sentry standing some way farther down the hall.

The dwarf stiffens and wastes precious time saluting him, before saying, "He hasn't returned yet, sir."

"Returned from where?"

"Dale, sir." The dwarf looks at him uncertainly. "Lord Gilian extended an invitation to escort him around the city."

The words settle heavily in his gut. "On whose authority was he allowed to leave?" he snaps, and the sentry's eyes widen.

"Th-the king's, sir!"

Without another word, Dwalin turns and stalks away. His feet carry him in the direction of Balin's work chambers, but as his thoughts chase each other in circles, his frantic steps begin to falter.

Maybe there's nothing to worry about, his mind tries to reassure. Clearly, the king and Balin trusted Thorin enough. And hasn't he seen the changes himself? The proper demeanour, the newfound courtesy towards others, the disregard of blatant insults said to his face and behind his back. Thorin is every inch a dwarf of noble lineage.And what would happen if he uttered his accusations and they were unfounded? What of the harm it would do to the tenuous trust that binds Thorin to his family and the place of his birth?

With worry gnawing away at him, Dwalin turns on his heels and walks back to his chambers. He does not sleep, merely sits by the crackling fire and waits for someone to appear at his door.

The messenger comes at dawn with a summons from the king, but the king only confirms what Dwalin's heart already knows.

Thorin has at last found his peace.

Patrols are sent off every morn at dawn, and return long after the sun has set. No ground is left uncovered, no human, dwarf or even elf allowed to pass without interrogation. Day after day, the scouts return, with no inkling as to where the prince of Erebor has gone.

And when, after months of constant onslaught, Azog's attacks cease, there is no more need to search.

It surprises Dwalin that the loss of Thorin could weigh so heavily upon a kingdom that spent so long scorning him. Even Thror seems shaken beneath his commanding front. For his part, Dwalin spends his days pursuing every strenuous activity he can possibly think of, so that, when he stumbles to his chambers in the evenings, he is too tired for the ghost in his bed to haunt him.

Balin sends for him a month after Thorin's disappearance. "You are overworked," he says kindly, in that blunt way Dwalin is used to. "I have arranged for you to take a leave starting next week."

"I don't need--" he begins, but clamps his mouth shut at Balin's narrow-eyed look.

"Now, it appears we can't spare you for longer than a fortnight, much as I would have liked to give you a full month," Balin continues. "Take this time to rest, brother. Truly, you've not been yourself."

He bites his tongue and accepts his forced respite with all the grace of a sullen ox.

Two weeks to spend with only his own thoughts for company. He grimaces and makes his way to the nearest tavern.

That is where Dis finds him some time later, her hands not at all careful when she drags him out of his seat. He has drunk enough to dull his senses, but not nearly enough for the dreamless sleep he fervently longs for. But his protests and feeble struggles are for naught, and Dis does not stop until the cool night air hits his face.

There are few stars out that night, but Dale's lights shine like a beacon in the darkness. He stares at the signs of a bustling city as Dis lets out a heavy sigh beside him. He looks at her then, and feels a stab of guilt when he sees her haggard face. He is not the only one mourning that which was lost.

"Do you think he's there, somewhere?" she asks, voice soft, as if afraid to disturb the peace.

He wants to reassure her with platitudes he does not believe himself, but she has always been much stronger than that. "He'll not be anywhere civilized."

"Did we do wrong by him? Do you think he felt ill-treated by his kin? Surely we must have cared for him more than the Defiler and his scum."

"The orcs cared for him in their way," he says, unthinking. She flinches, and clumsily he tries to mend the pain his words have caused. "It's nothing to do with you. He felt affection for you, that I know."

"But more for the orcs." Her fingers are tense and white on the stone barrier, and almost he thinks she might shatter the ages-old rock.

"He never felt as if he belonged," he says, and knows it to be the truth. He'd seen it, hadn't he, and ignored the signs simply because it suited him to believe otherwise. Dwalin can admit to himself that part of him is pleased that all their attempts to tame Thorin ended in failure. He remembers all too clearly the lifelessness he'd seen in Thorin's eyes, how the fierce beauty of his spirit had started to wane. Remembers, too, his attempts to rekindle that flame, and can't regret too much that he succeeded. "We were wrong to try."

Her eyes glitter with rage. "You think it a better fate for him to live among our enemy, and perhaps die there."

"At least he will die free."

For a moment, he thinks she will strike him. But the anger leaves her and she deflates.

"I've seen him," the ale says using Dwalin's voice. He bites his tongue, a moment too late.

Dis stares at him. "Where?"

"In the forest," he admits, "during one of our searches. I don't think he saw me."

"Did he seem--"


"I see." The silence stretches. Then, she says, "You give up too much, Dwalin."

He chooses to take it as a jest. "Aye, you demand many sacrifices." He expects her to laugh, perhaps hit his arm or pull his beard as she is wont to do, but all she does is cast her eyes down. "It is my honour to serve as warrior to my king and protector of his line, Dis, daughter of Thrain."

Her smile is wry. "I do not doubt it. But this is not the life you would've chosen for yourself."

Once, full of ale, he'd shared with her his dreams. The next day, she had insisted to her father that she meant to train as a son would, as her brother would have. "I was born to take his place," she'd said, and faced with her wilfulness, Thrain had agreed.

"I am a poor substitute for my brother," she continues with a soft laugh.

"It doesn't matter. I am bound to the king and his kin."

"Thorin is still kin."

Dwalin inclines his head in acknowledgement. "But he's not here."

"Does that change your duty towards him?" she presses. Her questions send his head spinning, and he blinks at her. "The line of Fundin has long sworn an oath, that their second son would guard the first born to the line of Durin in each generation."

"He's not here," Dwalin repeats, confused.

"But you know where he is."

A sliver of anger slices through the fog. "Should I go to him, then? Beg the orcs to take me in as well?"

Dis only smiles. "Travellers lost need not worry, for if their will is great and their destination known, they will find many paths to lead them there."

His hand, when he presses it to his side, comes away red. There's pain lancing up and down his other arm and his shoulder throbs. Keeper suddenly feels too heavy, and slips from his fingers to join Grasper on the ground. The noise of the battle peaks, blurs, fades into an incessant ringing. An orc falls at his feet, throwing axe still protruding from its skull. He pulls it out and stumbles, but manages to steady himself against the next blow. Dark blood spurts and flows from the orc's neck, but there are more coming and his strength is waning.

Someone else will have to carry the list of the dead this time.

For a moment he thinks he can see Thorin, sitting on Auzul and observing everything from a rock outcropping -- above it all, unsullied. He laughs and tastes iron. Someone pulls sharply on his hair, forcing his head back. He stares into the eyes of the orc that will end him and grins.

A dark blur passes overhead.

The orc looks surprised, and continues to look so as its head slides cleanly off its neck. Dwalin abruptly finds himself free to move, and he struggles to his feet and turns around.

Dwarves and orcs blend together, all stained with battle. Few are left from the group he was with when they were ambushed, but the sight of so many orc corpses littering the rocks heartens him. The orcs are shrieking something, gathering in the middle, between his men and--

A roar sounds above all else, and Dwalin watches as Thorin's sword slices through several of his own orcs. He takes a step forward, another, but his body has endured too much for his spirit to hold up, and as he crashes his vision turns black.

Green leaves float above him when he wakes. The sun filters gently through the canopy, casting everything in a soft glow that soothes his eyes. He becomes aware of resting against something comfortable, warm, familiar. His hand lifts and reaches for the black strands he knows will be within reach.

"Don't move," and yes, his body protests, that is a very good idea indeed. His arm sags, but Thorin is suddenly leaning over him, and Dwalin finds it in him to smile.

"You're a sight for sore eyes," he mumbles around a harsh cough. "I know this forest. Have you taken me prisoner then?"

"You were unable to defend yourself. If I hadn't taken you away, you would have died there."

"And what of my men?"

"Some survived."

Silence falls between them. There is much to say, but Dwalin has never had his brother's skill with words. He sits up, ignoring Thorin's growl, and allows himself a few moments to remember how to breathe. His shirt has been stripped off him and shredded to bind his wounds. The tight wrapping eases the pain when he laboriously stands.

Thorin is looking at him from a safe distance, expression inscrutable. But his eyes tell Dwalin much.

"How did you know?"

"They were indiscreet."

"There have been other attacks. Why show yourself now?"

"I heard your name."

They stare at each other. Suddenly, Thorin begins to laugh -- harsh, broken, the laughter of a madman. "I can never go back," he says after. "You have cost me everything."

"Not everything." He bridges the gap between them quickly, ignoring the protests of his shoulder and ribs, and takes Thorin's arm in a firm grasp. "Come back with me."

"I cannot." His eyes are wild. "I look like a dwarf, but I am not. I do not belong in your world. An orc dressed in finery will kill you all the same."

"You are no orc."

"No." Thorin lowers his head. "Your men will come searching for you soon. I will show you the way back."

Dwalin grits his teeth and resists the urge to shake the other dwarf. "I am not leaving you here. What will you do on your own?"

Ire flashes across Thorin's face, and he pulls his arm away. "I am not your prince, Dwalin. Return to your people and perform the duties you have sworn to do."

"My duty," Dwalin growls, shoving Thorin against the trunk of a tree with his good arm, "is to protect the firstborn. To do otherwise would be a true betrayal." A lock of Thorin's hair has tumbled over his eye, and Dwalin tucks it back behind his ear. He's let his braids go again, he thinks, and the rush of fondness no longer surprises him.

"I will not have you give up your home and kin."

"As you said, you're not my prince, so the decision is mine alone." Thorin's lips twitch. "There is always another path. And if none can be found, we will forge one."

Thorin's mouth surges forward to claim his, and if Dwalin sags against him a little he is kind enough not to mention it. He doesn't ask Dwalin if he's sure, which proves him clever as well, since Dwalin's tolerance for foolishness is rather low at the moment. The gentleness of his touch belies the hunger underlying the give and take of their tongues.

"And where will this path lead?" Thorin asks when they part for breath.

Dwalin smiles against his ear. "West, perhaps. I've always wanted to see the Blue Mountains."