The hunger and the helplessness were grating Dwalin down more and more with each passing day.
What use was she as a guard for the company if there was nothing but the never ending feeling of dread of the dark and an empty stomach to protect her charges from? What use was her strength or experience in travelling outside of mountains, and what use where their weapons and arrows when there was nothing to hunt down that wasn’t strange and rotten, and what good were tracking skills when they couldn’t leave the path and search for fresh water when even that was poison in this forest.
The stale tasting water in their supplies was rationed more and more, as everyone feared how it might run out before they reached the other side of the forest. Not an issue Dwalin had ever had travelling before either, as she knew of ways to get to fresh drinking water in near any region. Usually a forest was the easiest, as trees and plants could serve as a source if an actual stream wasn’t near. Nobody really trusted the ancient twisted trees around them to try that either though.
Any last temptation to try and drink from the streams they came across was dashed when the company tried to cross a larger river. Bombur, exhausted from dehydration and the weight he carried on his back, lost his footing on the damp ground by the river bank, and fell into the water with a splash. When he was dragged out he was unconscious, and nothing would wake him though he seemed to only be asleep.
There was nothing left to do but divide their supplies anew and take turns in carrying their fallen companion through the forest with them. It was hard work dragging a large weight through the narrow and slippery path that already was hard enough to master with nothing but a bag on their backs.
Bifur seemed even more withdrawn after that, and the fear and worry for his little brother made Bofur look uncharacteristically glum.
Dwalin’s throat ached for water all day, the air around her and the knowledge of being in a forest making it so much worse than it was. She’d gone with little food and water for extended periods of time before, but this somehow was different. Not one of the Dwarves were doing any better at least, and Bilbo was staring off into space as if he’d just been dragged out of bed and hadn’t yet regained his wit.
It was impossible to walk as quickly as everyone wanted under these conditions, leaving everyone to drag their feet over the ground to at least try and walk from morning to when they assumed sunset to be.
At the end of the day everyone was exhausted and hungry and yearning for fresh cool water, but sleep would not come easy at all. They would all sit down where they stood, leaning against each other and the thick roots rising over the ground, quietly hoping that this would be over soon.
Dwalin usually tried to block out everything when she was trying to rest like this, but when Nori sat only inches away from her, his breathing irregular and his face twisted in pain, she couldn’t help but take note. He was struggling with the food rations and the pack he still carried all the way through, with more things being loaded into his supplies as others carried Bombur’s unconscious body through the forest. Nori had muttered something about losing all but the food and running if he were on his own before.
“This’ll be over either way soon,” Dwalin said, when she saw his misery and felt like he needed some form of comfort.
He threw Dwalin a dirty look, but she would not try to sweet talk him any more. They would either die, or they would get out of the forest on time. Of course she would not give up and fight her way through those cursed woods until her last breath, but Dwalin had long learned that a warrior had to be prepared to face the chance of death as well.
Thieves must know of that outlook on life too, as Nori let out a dry laugh and tried to settle back more comfortably. He looked less tense at least.
“All those years ago, when we met…” Nori started, his voice quiet and rough from dehydration. “Did you ever think we’d be on the same side of a quest like this? As… as companions? Most likely about to starve side by side?”
Dwalin couldn’t even muster the energy to snort at that.
“No. It’s the last thing I envisioned when I first met the scoundrel that you are.”
Nori’s hand crept over the forest floor until his fingers brushed against the edge of Dwalin’s knuckledusters.
“Never thought that haughty little sell-sword would try to comfort me when we’re in a situation like this.”
Dwalin’s fingers wrapped around Nori’s pinkie gently. She wanted more comfort than this, wanted it for herself and for him as well, but there were too many others too close by, even if it didn’t seem as if anyone was paying any attention at all.
The guilt she’d felt return to her with the forest’s nightmares was tugging at her mind again, and Dwalin suddenly felt the need to speak to Nori about this.
“They say you will be able to settle any issues with other Dwarves you have more easily in the Halls of Waiting,” Dwalin said, feeling Nori’s eyes on her. “I don’t want to take my issues there though.”
He was still quiet as he waited for Dwalin to go on, so she carefully tried to gather words to say what she wanted without having anyone who overheard guess at what she meant.
“When we parted ways. For decades it’s been a weight on my mind, and now I have nightmares about battles and death and that day-“
Dwalin took a deep breath, her hand curling around Nori’s.
“I don’t want this to be left unsaid, I don’t want there to be any doubt about how sorry-“
“There’s no need to apologize in this,” Nori said quietly. “For neither of us. It’s in the past and we’re here now so lets just not think of it. Lets think of whatever good there’s in this situation we’re in.”
At that Dwalin did let out a short bark of laughter.
“Has there ever been something we were both involved in that didn’t end badly?”
“One thing turned out perfect, yes. And maybe this will end well yet.”
They clasped their hands together, and sat side by side as they waited for sleep to give them just a few hours of relief.
Dwalin didn’t know how the fight started.
Angry accusations of having lost the path after all, about being led astray by a meddling wizard and of losing food or water were thrown around and before she knew it Dwalin was holding back fistfights that threatened to break out.
Thorin stood as if in a daze, staring at his company dissolving in yelling and insults. Dwalin acted on instinct, keeping her body between any two who tried to attack each other or looked like they might.
She saw Dori and Bofur yelling something incoherent at each other.
She saw Fíli and Kíli move towards Ori as if they were about to lunge on him, and Ori’s face twisting in a sneer as he wouldn’t back down until Nori pushed them apart, looking so haggard and tired of it all…
They blamed each other for the tiniest mistakes that had brought them into their current predicament. Everyone was ranting about some nonsense, things that Dwalin knew to be false words born from hunger and exhaustion, and yet it all seemed worse than that.
She didn’t see where Glóin came from all of a sudden, but she heard Nori’s surprised yelp just in time to turn and see her thief being thrown against some roots.
Nori’s back hit the damp wood hard enough to knock the air from his lungs, and he braced his feet hard against the ground to keep himself from sliding down. He glared up and Glóin was there again, his hand clenching in Nori’s collar.
“What have you done?” Glóin hissed, giving Nori a shake.
“Nuthin’!” Nori hissed back, eyes flashing with a fire Dwalin hadn’t known he still had in him this deep in the forest.
“Get your hands off me!”
He batted at Glóin’s arm, but the merchant wouldn’t release him.
“You knew Dwalin from before, don’t you? From before Azanulbizar? I heard you talk.”
Nori froze, and Dwalin could feel her own heart stop for a moment.
“I know something happened to her, though she never told,” Dwalin’s cousin went on, the anger the forest was waking in everyone somehow different in him, making something he must have thought of before emerge. “A thief, or someone like that. Someone harmed her and she’s been hunting them down on caravans. It was you, wasn’t it?”
Dwalin crossed the distance in two quick steps and tore Glóin away from Nori, who’d not made a single move to defend himself or try to deny the accusations.
“Does Nori look like he could do anything to me and live?” Dwalin growled at her cousin, too worn down to feel gratitude for how Glóin had been concerned for decades now. He had drawn the wrong conclusions anyway, and the Mirkwood was no place to discuss this at all.
“Leave him alone and go help the others figure out how to brave this forest.”
For a moment Glóin looked as if he was about to snap at Dwalin as well, but then decided to back up after all. Few people tried to argue with Dwalin when she glared them down like that after all.
She threw a look at Nori, who hadn’t moved at all even after Glóin walked away.
“Lets not dwell on this,” Dwalin told him with as much encouragement as she could muster up, and Nori nodded quietly.
Behind her Thorin was finally putting the company back together He wasn’t quite yelling as he spoke too quietly for that, but his voice harsh as he reminded everyone that they couldn’t afford stalling for a petty little fight like this. Everyone was shrinking away under the words, bowing their heads in shame.
“Come on,” Dwalin said and clapped Nori’s arm. “Lets hope we get out of this mess as quick as we can.”
The company set into motion slowly, a wary silence settling among them once again.
The path under their feet was broken and covered with rotten foliage and roots, and Dwalin no longer was sure if there was a way out at all.