'Maybe,' said Gimli; 'and I thank you for your words. True words doubtless; yet all such comfort is old. Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only a mirror, be it clear as Kheled-zâram."
- The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter VIII, "Farewell To Lorien"
Thorin has always been the responsible one.
From his childhood, he has known he will one day take his place upon the seat of his fathers under the Mountain. The weight of the raven crown will press upon his head, the clasp of the last of the Seven will be upon his finger, and he then must needs be as strong and unmoving as the rock. He will be the one treating with the men of Dale, with the tall, cold Elves of Mirkwood, with emissaries from lands and princes yet more distant. All would look to him for answers and he had to provide them.
Younger by some five years, Frerin feels no such pressure.
Frerin knows he is not cut out for such duties, and is glad he will never inherit them. He is glad to learn his lessons about economics, about foreign countries and culture, and about their history from Balin, and then promptly forget most of it. He is glad he does not have to be present at official occasions, decked out in heavy robes and forced to stand still while some human drones on or while the Elves whisper to each other behind their hands in their flowery language. He is glad he will never be the one to sit upon the throne.
He is glad because he knows Thorin will be a much better king that he would ever make.
Dis is cut from the same cloth as Thorin. She scolds and berates both of the boys from the time when she is old enough to imitate their parents. Neither of the boys is fond of being lectured by their younger sister, but they come to realize that, sometimes, she has seen farther and more deeply than they have. She knows what is expected of them, and she holds them to it.
Mostly it is Frerin she upbraids. Frerin is the first to admit he does not like rules. He bounces off to Dale, roaming the streets until an irritated Dwalin is sent to hunt him down and bring him home. He pranks the pale, haughty Elves when their delegations visit. Whenever he is trapped into some official ceremony, he is inevitably grinning or otherwise making faces behind the solemn silhouettes of his sire and grandsire.
Dis swears that he will bring down only shame upon the line of Durin.
Frerin smiles and laughingly agrees, but his heart is rooted deeper than that.
Frerin sees everything that Thorin does for the kingdom. He watches with the same dread Thorin and Dis share as their grandsire grows ever fonder of gold. He watches as Thror slips off to his treasuries time and time again, counting his stacks of coin with an endless, childish fascination. He watches as Thorin tries to care for his grandsire, shielding some of his obsession, at least, from the public eye. He watches as Thrain takes over much of the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom.
Frerin does not take their work for granted. He knows they do much better at their duties than he ever could. That is not the work he is cut out for.
Without words, without assignment, Frerin finds his place. He knows he will never be the political advisor Thorin will turn to when he becomes King under the Mountain; no, that place is best left for Dis. He knows he will never be the warmaster, the leader of Thorin's armies; no, that place is best left for Dwalin. He knows he will never be a scribe or a historian, teaching everything he once learned to his nephews and nieces one day; no, that place is best left for Balin.
Frerin knows where he is needed.
He is Thorin's shadow, and he is good at it.
He knows when even Thorin has lost his patience with their grandsire. He knows to draw Thorin aside, cheerfully send him off to cool down, and then take his turn with the money-added Thror. He tries not to look at the last of the Seven on his grandsire's hand – he knows the ring led the Dwarves to veins of the purest gold yet, but he does not trust it.
He knows when Thorin needs something, and fetches it for him. He knows when Thorin has spent long nights studying, and he is the one who barges in, cheerfully reprimands him, and sends him to get some rest. He is the one who drags Thorin out on sunny days to Ravenhill or to Dale.
He always says that Thorin needs to smile more. Dis comes with them, and she smiles. Then Frerin knows that, for once, his pranks and his light-heartedness have come in use.
Frerin knows when Thorin needs someone else to help him. He knows when to fetch Balin to explain something. He knows when Thorin is angry and needs to spar with someone to work out his feelings. Those times, Frerin fetches Dwalin, or, if the large Dwarf with the mohawk is unavailable, he spars with Thorin himself. Frerin is no match for Thorin, of course. The brothers might be just as tall as each other, but Frerin still looks every bit of those five years younger than Thorin.
Frerin knows well enough the times when he should not leave Thorin alone – times when he does not trust the Elves in the Mountain, times when Thorin has been around Thror too long. Sometimes he knows he needs to keep his hand on his knife and watch for other shadows dogging his brother, and sometimes he knows when Thorin just needs a brother.
Frerin does not look for thanks. He does not need anyone. He knows where he belongs.
Frerin knows the signs of dark things descending with Thror's madness just as well as anyone else. He sees the crows flying past the mountains, and the odd bat strayed from Mirkwood. He sits upon the tower at Ravenhill and keeps watch for these signs of ill omen. He fells a crow with his bow, once. It smells of orc, of foul things from the deep.
They burn its carcass and scatter the ashes to the winds.
Frerin knows, with some deep instinct, what is coming when he looks up from his perch on Ravenhill and sees the pines on the mountains bent to the ground. From behind him, he hears the gurgling roar of a dragon's challenge, and whips around in time to see the gates of Dale explode in flame.
The great golden-red worm is unstoppable. Tower after tower explodes, black dragon saliva splashing upon it and burning, unquenchable. The reek of charred flesh saturates the air. Smoke fills the sky like cloud; ash showers down like the winter rains. Within mere moments, it seems, Dale is no more than ruins.
Frerin knows his place in these moments. He scrambles down from Ravenhill, rushing towards the front gate of the Mountain. The dragon precedes him. He watches in agony as the dragon rears back and spews his flame upon the doors. So weakened, they burst inwards at the thrust of a massive paw. The dragon strides on in, ignoring the dwarves he sends flying to their deaths.
Everyone else flees from the dragon. Frerin runs after it. He knows his place in these moments; it is with his family. He finds Thrain, injured in the assault of the dragon, and soon locates Dis, running with Balin out of some side hall along with other panicked survivors. They have grabbed everything they could. Frerin has no mind for possessions. Frerin only needs his family.
When there is no sign of Thror or Thorin, Frerin is about to run headlong towards the treasure room after the dragon. Weeping fiercely, Dis grabs him by the collar and holds him back. Balin ushers them all towards the shattered front gate, but Frerin's gaze is locked on what he is leaving behind.
For what seems like hours, he believes he has failed his brother. He let Thorin go alone, and this is the price their people will pay.
When Thorin appears, practically dragging Thror away from the treasure rooms, Frerin cannot speak for joy. He has still failed Thorin, but the price was not demanded.
Frerin vows he will do better next time. Thorin needs a shadow to look after him. It is all Frerin can do for their people.
Exile is bitter.
The people of the Lonely Mountain divide, some traveling east to the Iron Hills, some making the long trek under Thror and Thrain across the Misty Mountains to the Ered Luin. They pass through wastelands and farmlands, through elf-country and through the territory of men. They pass a small, green land of halflings.
The dwarves view the halflings as soft, no better than grocers who happen to live along the sides of the dwarves' ancestral roads. Frerin, though, likes to watch these halflings. They do not haggle for dwarf-gold or carry weaponry, and their faces are full and round, but they have strength somewhere. Frerin believes they draw strength from each other.
The dwarves are strong individually. They were fashioned out of the living rock, by Mahal, their Maker, in the deeps of time. They live together; they build together; they fight together; they die together; but they are proud. They wish to stand alone, without help from another race.
Frerin, though, would like to know more of these halflings – in some happier time, perhaps. But he cannot linger.
Even in exile, Thror does not lose his madness for gold. Frerin watches as he wanders around, blue eyes lit with some crazy fire as he mutters to himself of Moria and of mithril. Frerin notices the last of the Seven gleaming with the same mad blue, and he distrusts it more than ever.
Finally it seems that Thror has lost all concern for the fate of his homeless people, and he takes with him only one old companion, white-bearded Nar, and they disappear out into the night. They heard no word from him for months.
One afternoon, when the sun is westering in a blood-red sky, Nar returns, his beard torn from weeping. He spills out the tale of how Thror led him to Azanulbizar, the Dimrill Dale east of Moria, and how he had walked into the abandoned Mansion of the Dwarves. Days later, the decapitated body of Thror was flung out onto the steps, the letters AZOG branded onto the head.
Even while Thrain sits alone for seven days, wordless, eating little, Frerin already knows what is coming. He checks that his knife and sword are sharp, and he readies his bow. Thorin will need his shadow.
At last Thrain stands. He calls north, east, and west. From the corners of Middle-earth come the forces of the Dwarves to avenge the insult to the heir of Durin the Deathless. From peak to peak the Dwarves go, sacking orc strongholds and hunting from Mount Gundabad in the north to the Gladden Fields in the south for Azog.
In all the battles, Frerin stands with Thorin. Thrain leads, and Thorin and Dwalin charge with him. The orcs give way before them, but Frerin always follows in their steps. He is a faithful shadow, and he sees to it that no other, ill-intentioned shadows find their way to his brother.
He does not need thanks. He knows where he belongs.
Finally they come to Azanulbizar. They stand between the arms of the mountains, looking out upon the unruffled surface of Kheled-zâram. The Dwarves set up a great shout, but the hills ring with the replies of their enemies. Out from the gates pour orcs and goblins beyond number, and battle begins.
It is an ill day. Chill winds of winter swirl around them, numbing fingers and blinding eyes. Scudding clouds overhead obscure the sun in thick veils of cloud. Without the horrid light of the Yellow Face, the orcs do not waver as they swarm over the rocks. The hordes drive back the first assault Thrain led, drive it right past the now-bloodied Kheled-zâram, drive them right into a stand of ancient trees.
Orcs crowd them from all sides. Goblins leap into the trees and rain down death from above. Goblins lurk behind bushes and sprang out with jagged knives. The earth muddied by the winter rains now becomes slick with the red blood of Dwarves and the black blood of orcs, and death prowls with every breath.
Frerin sees Fundin fall. He hears Dwalin's cry as the son is unable to come to his father's aid in time. Frerin watches in agony as his father's own eye is blinded, as Thrain crumples to the earth, his leg sheeted with blood.
Once again, Frerin is failing his family.
He sees death when it comes. Death is a giant Gundabad orc, his loincloth the skinned faces of fallen Dwarves. Death has the pale skin of the dead sky above them, the mad eyes of the blue gleam of the untrustworthy ring. Frerin knows instantly that ring is what pulls Death towards them, and he knows that Death will not stop until he wipes out the line of Durin and brings it home, glittering blue, to his master.
Frerin cuts down the orcs swarming towards his father, and spins, looking for Thorin. Dwalin is chasing the goblins that slew his father, Balin on his heels. Thorin is nearby, dealing out to goblins the same fate that was dealt to his grandsire, but he has not seen Death coming for him.
Frerin knows his place. He takes it. He calls his brother's name as he runs past, runs in vain to stop Death.
When Frerin falls, ribs crushed by Death's mace, he knows he has not been a good shadow. But perhaps he has been good enough. He could give one last warning.
When Thorin whirls to face the pale orc, his nemesis is no longer Death but only Azog. He is only an orc, not the silent Lord of the Halls of Waiting. His arm is bleeding from Frerin's sword.
When Thorin blocks the orc's mace with a tree branch and picks up his fallen sword, he completes Frerin's attempt. The orc bellows in pain, clutching the bleeding stump. The howl brings Dwalin and Balin rushing to Thorin's side, and other orcs to Azog. They bear him off into the mines, and the orcs waver.
Nain and the Dwarves of the Iron Hills arrive then in that last hour, chasing the goblins before them. Nain falls at the steps of Moria, but Dain pursues the stragglers up to the very gate.
When he turns, his face is ashen-pale.
The next morning, Thrain claims it as a victory. Dain responds that, if this is victory, their hands are too small to hold it. He warns that he saw the shadow of Durin's Bane in Moria, and that now is not the time for the Dwarves to retake their lost realm.
Thorin does not need Dain to voice what he already knows. Victory is more bitter than exile.
As they burn the bodies of the fallen Dwarves, Thorin remembers the ashes of Dale. He watches the Dwarves around him, flickering shadows in a nightmare. As if in a dream, he turns – but only his shadow on the ground mocks him.
Thorin has lost his shadow. He finds that the world seems too quiet, too empty without another forever tagging at his heels. He finds that all the world has grown as gray as the smoke and ash without the life that walked forever behind him, giving everything and asking for nothing.
Thorin cannot give the thanks where it is due. It was never asked for. It is too late now.
It is years later that Thrain leaves, taking with him Balin and Dwalin. As Thror had done, he said nothing of where he planned to go but departed in the night, without a word.
Thorin and Dis are left to lead their people in exile, and it is not easy. But Thorin has always been the responsible one, and he does his duties. Even now, though, sometimes he looks back and opens his mouth to speak to one whom he still expects to see, only to find emptiness and silence.
Dis notices. Thorin never mentions it, so she says nothing, either. Sometimes words are not enough.
The hammer, at least, keeps the arms strong until they can wield sharper implements. Slowly, the lost people of the Lonely Mountain regain part of what they have lost. Balin and Dwalin return, beards torn with grief, unable to give answers for Thrain's disappearance in the depths of Mirkwood.
It is another thing Thorin remembers but does not speak of. Memories fill him, and he can never escape from the past.
Dis, at least, is able to build something on into the future. A few years after the disappearance of Thrain, she marries a Dwarf with steady gray eyes and thick, fine hair as yellow as spun gold. Thorin can do nothing but accept the one who has brought Dis out of mourning, and Dwalin for once has nothing ill to say about him.
Thorin knows he will never marry, so when Dis bears a son it is understood immediately that this child is the heir of Durin. Fili, as Dis names him, has his father's spun gold hair and dimpled smile, but something of the blue of the line of Durin shines in his eyes. It is tempered somewhat – more of a blue-gray than the piercing blue of Thror, of Thrain, and of Thorin, and Thorin wonders if that is an omen of good or of ill. He first thinks of the clouds over Azanulbizar, and then he remembers the madness in his grandsire's eyes and hopes the dragon sickness never touches his sister's son.
It is certainly an omen when, exactly five years later, Dis bears another son. Dark-haired Kili does not have his father's gray eyes or his mother's blue eyes. Instead, his gaze is the same dark brown as the eyes of another little brother who last drew breath at Azanulbizar.
They all notice the resemblance – Thorin, Dis, Balin, Dwalin – but none of them say anything, not even to each other. Sometimes, words are not enough to fill the void of one lost long ago. Instead, they all pitch in to rear these two precious children, the hope of their race.
Thorin says nothing of it, but he knows what he sees in the two boys and wishes to protect it. Especially after their father dies fighting wargs at his side, Thorin does not wish to see the stories of their ancestors repeated in their lives. Durin the Deathless returned five times, their stories say, and if the blaze that was Frerin lit the spark that dwells now in Kili Thorin cannot bear to see it lost again.
He watches the boys grow. Balin teaches them the things he taught Thorin decades ago. Fili is the careful, studious one, never wanting to disappoint his white-bearded teacher, while Kili dozes off or stares out the window. Even after he has been lectured and he sits straight up and seems to try to pay attention, Kili forgets everything promptly.
Dwalin takes over the boys' weapons training. Ambidextrous Fili gravitates to the twin swords used by his father, while Kili takes a while to find a talent for anything. The child seems to have a knack for spectacular pranks and accidents. Thorin and Dis are both reminded of scenes from their childhood: Frerin was just as reckless. Calm, steady Fili trying to keep Kili out of trouble completes the picture.
Dis does not dare to say it aloud, but she knows Fili and Kili are mirrors for Thorin and Frerin.
Thorin knows it, too.
Eventually, Fili grows old enough to realize the difference. Thorin always pushes for him to do his best in everything. Consciously or unconsciously, he shapes Fili in his image. Fili never disappoints. He is always the responsible one. He models his steps after Thorin's stride; his diction takes on the same tones and phrases as his mother's brother. He might be the spitting image of his father, but his heart and mind follow the majestic tracks laid down by another.
Still, Thorin is tough on him, while reckless, happy Kili gets away with things Fili would never dream of doing. When a younger Fili wandered off from his mother and became lost in the market place, he had been scolded and kept home until he learned better. When Kili wanders off – and Kili tends to wander off a lot-, he is greeted with scoldings and tears of joy. When Kili begs to be taught how to fight like Fili, Dis is more reluctant to give permission. Balin only sighs and shakes his head when Kili never knows the answer. Whenever Kili is sick or injured, there is an extra edge to the worry of their elders, as if, for some reason, the sight of him unwell strikes a nerve deep within them.
Fili knows Thorin cares for the both of them, but he still notices.
Because Fili is Fili, he says nothing.
Finally, one day Balin takes Fili aside and explains. He weaves the tale of two Dwarf lads in Erebor, one studious and responsible, the other carefree and reckless. He brings their stories out of ash and dragon-fire down to the orc hordes before the Moria gate, where the careless brother fell because he was too careful for the other. Balin tries to tell the tale simply, but Fili can read the grief in the white-bearded Dwarf's faraway gaze and understands all too well.
In that moment, Fili decides he will not repeat the mistakes of his forebears. If Kili will be his shadow, as Kili already bids fair to be, Fili will be the sun to his shadow. They will look after each other, and what befell at Azanulbizar shall not be repeated.
And so the Dwarf lads grow. Bright, happy Kili innocently settles on a bow as his weapon of choice, and it is only when Dwalin pauses and raises his tattooed hand to his face that Kili notices something is amiss. Dwalin tries to explain as best he can, about one responsible dwarfling who had gone on to face down an incoming dragon, sword in hand, and one light-hearted dwarfling who had gone on to curse the fact that his bow could not send an arrow punching through that dragon's golden-red armor. Dwalin has a great heart under his scarred exterior, and Kili knows from the bald Dwarf's expression how the tale of the two lads ended before the last words are spoken.
Kili understands all too well. He is the same way. For him, family is more important than all the gold of Erebor, and if his family can best be kept safe by his being the ever-present, ever-faithful shadow, he has found his place. He knows what to do, and he slips into stride behind Fili. No thanks are needed. He knows where he belongs.
Thorin turns around, and somehow the blond- and brown-headed dwarflings who had rushed to greet him when he walked in the door have become sturdy young lads, too young and reckless to bring with him, but too old and determined to leave behind.
Though none of them have ever spoken of it, the elders fear the ghosts of Azanulbizar still walk among them. Dis does not want Thorin to take her children with him on his quest. It is only when it becomes plain that Fili and Kili would never be able to rule a Mountain they had not fought for and that they would follow their mother's brother to the end that Dis relents.
Sometimes, as they journey to the Shire and beyond, Thorin wonders what he has done. Is he replaying the stories of Thror and of Thrain – taking a few companions with him to certain death? He glances behind him at Fili and Kili, the blond lad smiling while the brown-headed lad talks and waves his hands, and he knows that something out of the past has walked into the present.
It might be only a mirror, and a clear mirror, but Thorin does not think so. He sees before him living, breathing images of days gone by, two figures retelling a tale he had thought ended in the ash of Azanulbizar. He strives with all his heart to carve out a new, different ending to this sequel. Some memories do not bear repeating. Some words are not enough.
Some lives are not strong enough when memory engulfs fact.