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The Darkest Hour

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Night had cast itself over the tall mountain as yet another day drew to a close. The summer months had faded into memory and the bite of the cold autumn eve was growing harsher with each setting sun. November had taken the company by surprise, and they reminisced of the spring that had been in full bloom when they first departed from the Shire. Even inside the shelter of the Lonely Mountain the cold had begun to seep in, leaving the dwarves with strong want of warmth.

Only nine dwarves, and their burglar, were assembled around the fire’s keep. Óin was taking the first watch of the night, and Glóin had offered to keep his brother company. Thorin was off in another part of the mountain devising some sort of strategy, and Balin had gone with him. The two had expressed high hopes that the dwarves from the Iron Hills would reach Erebor by night fall, and that Roäc would soon bring word of their arrival. They had sent the message to their fellow dwarves days ago, and were soon met by a hasty response that they would, indeed, come to the aid of their kinsmen. The company of dwarves knew there was no convincing Thorin now to give up his birthright in trade for safe passage from the mountain, and they began to grow fearful of what would happen if they ran out of cram – their supply beginning to run dangerously low – if Dáin and his army did not appear sometime in the next few days.

As Nori fed the fire another log, the band of dwarves heard a noise come from one of the ancient passageways several yards off. Kíli and Fíli scrambled to their feet, reaching for their weapons as they stood. They knew the chances of an oncoming enemy were slim, but even so the dwarves all feared being caught off guard. They softened their stances once Balin emerged from the shadows, hands enfolded in his coat’s long sleeves, beard bobbing against his chest with each step he took.

“Anything?” Dori asked, relaxing at the sight of the old dwarf.

Balin did not respond at first. As he came to a halt in front of the group, he held the gaze of the fire’s blaze, a contemplative expression on his face as he watched the flames dance in the cold night air. Though he tried to hide it, a certain sorrow clung to his aging eyes.

“Still no word from Dáin,” he finally spoke. He took his place next to Dwalin as the dwarves grunted responses of dismay. Dáin had refused to come to their aid when Thorin’s company had first set out upon this quest nearly half a year prior, and the dwarves worried that Dáin would, yet again, fail them.

For a moment the only sound heard was the crackle of the fire’s dance. Ori prodded at the orange and yellow beast with a stick he had found earlier, causing the flames to sift in the opposite direction. The youngest member of the party glanced around at his elder dwarves, a question dangling from the tip of his tongue. A part of him was afraid to ask it, as he already knew the answer, but he knew it had to be said by one of them.

“Do you really think we’ll be going to battle?” he timidly asked, finally voicing the question that was on all of their minds.

Dwalin gave a swift nod as he began to sharpen one of his axe’s blades. “Aye laddie.”

“No way around it now,” Nori muttered, warming his hands against the fire’s glow.

A sense of foreboding doom hung over the dwarves and hobbit, until a huff came from Kíli, still standing from when Balin entered the room. He plucked his fallen bow off the ground, pulling the string back with all his might, as if he were putting on a show for the others.

“Can’t be all that bad,” Kíli stated boldly. “We’ve fought worse than some mere elves and men. We can take them when the time comes.”

The younger dwarves of the company took comfort in this notion, remembering how they successfully fought their way out of the goblin caves only a couple months before. The older dwarves, on the other hand, were weary of Kíli’s words. They remembered all too well being taken hostage by the trolls, coming close to torture by the goblins, climbing trees to escape the wargs, the spiders’ venom seeping through their veins, and imprisonment for weeks by the Mirkwood elves. They knew their track record was not exactly up to par. What’s more, the elder dwarves knew battle. They had seen it many a time, and had somehow managed to live through each one up till now. While most of them were considered great warriors amongst their peers, they knew better than to speak so arrogantly of war.

“Bite your tongue. You don’t know anything about battle, boy,” Dwalin growled, causing Kíli’s haughty smile to fade.

“What’s there to know?” Fíli responded, coming to his brother’s defense. He made his way towards Kíli and gave him a nudge with his elbow, and the once faded smile quickly returned to the younger sibling’s face. Fíli couldn’t help but grin back. “We can take ‘em. Without a doubt.”

“It’s more than that,” Balin said, a soft shake of the head in response to the foolish words of the young ones.

“Much more,” Nori agreed.

Fíli’s brow furrowed as he looked around at the dwarves. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this. Do all of you have so little faith in our company? In our race?”

“We’re an army of thirteen, Fíli. Fourteen if you count Mr. Baggins,” Dori spoke. “And even if the army from the Iron Hills comes to our aid we will still be vastly outnumbered.”

“What hope then do we have?” Ori whispered.

“How can you all be so forsaken?” Fíli asked, raising his voice as he spoke. “We are kinsmen of the mountain. My brother could take any simple man that comes his way, and I’ll be damned if I can’t slay any ozodl elf in my path. Maybe all of you will fall in battle, but Kíli and I will stay strong.”

In a flurry of fur, Dwalin tossed his axe to the ground and was on his feet. Before anyone could protest, Fíli found Dwalin’s face only inches away from his own. Dwalin grasped the young dwarf by the hair on the back of his head, physically forcing Fíli to look him dead in the eyes and not break contact. Dwalin did not care a lick how he handled Thorin Oakenshield’s nephew, not when he was making such an ass of himself. As Dwalin spoke, he did not raise his voice, but instead talked in a harsh whisper, sending chills up the backs of each and every one of the dwarves and the tiny hobbit.

“Just wait. Wait until you’re on that battlefield. Wait until you’ve got the enemy coming at you from every direction. Wait until you’re taking on five at a time, only to have more running right for you. They won’t stop. They will never stop, not unless they’re dead or you’re dead. You’ll cry for help, but no one will come to aid you. The only person you have to rely on in battle is yourself, because trust me, no one will be thinking of you when they have their own skin to worry about. You’ll watch your friends die. You’ll watch your family die. All you’ll see is blood. Blood and death. That’s all war is. So don’t you talk to me of winning battles when you don’t even know the half of it.”

As Dwalin ceased this grievous speech, he found a new sense of fear laced in Fíli’s eyes. The arrogance in him was gone. The large dwarf pushed the young prince aside, grumbling to himself about the ignorance of youth.

It was at this particular moment that Ori sniffled quite loudly. As the company of dwarves looked towards their youngest, they realized he was stifling tears. Dori placed a hand on his youngest brother’s shoulder and gave it a tight squeeze.

Dwalin realized his words and immediately felt regret that he caused such fear in the young dwarf. The fear had been intended, to remind the dwarves – especially Fíli and Kíli – what war was, but he did not mean to elicit such an emotional reaction. He ran an awkward hand over his smooth head, looking for the words to encourage the frightened youth. “Don’t be scared, lad…” Dwalin said, attempting – not all too successfully – to soften his tone. “It… It will all be fine.”

“This is all quite ridiculous,” Bilbo Baggins finally piped up. “Why can’t you all just share the wealth? The men of Lake-town slew Smaug. It only seems fair to give them a reward for their troubles.”

“Because this treasure is ours,” Kíli snapped. “It belongs to Thorin and his kingdom, and to all of us. I’d die to protect what’s rightfully mine.”

Bilbo sighed. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“That’s because you’re not a dwarf, burglar,” Fíli said.

Hoping to draw the focus away from the pointless bickering, Nori patted Ori’s leg. “It will be all right. Dáin’s army will arrive soon.”

Ori looked around at the dwarves, embarrassed that they saw how upset he was. Back at Bag End he had put on a show so everyone would think he was braver than he was (except for Dori, who had always been able to see through his gimmicks since he was a child), but after all he had been through and might be going through soon, he could not lie any longer. “I know… it’s just… I’ve never seen battle before. I honestly thought I never would. I just… death… I suppose… I’m afraid to die.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Dori scolded. “You’ll get us all thinking that way, and that’ll be the end of us.”

Ori wiped his nose with the sleeve of his coat, then drew his legs up to his chest and hugged them tight. “Sorry,” he mumbled against his knees.

Balin sighed. “No, lad. You’re not wrong to worry. Even if Dáin’s men do come to our aid… Dori was right. We will be outnumbered against the men of Lake-town and the Mirkwood elves. It seems that these could very well be the last days for some of us. Maybe even all of us.”

It was then that the group fell into silence.

From his place against the wall, Bofur sat hunkered between his brother and cousin. The three of them had been silent throughout the conversation amongst the company. Bombur had not spoken once, as he had been too busy chewing on the same piece of cram in hopes of making the meager bit of food last longer; whereas Bifur sat in silence because that was how it was with him. Bofur, however, observed the conversation closely. For any other occasion he would have given his two cents in tenfold by now, repeatedly, but for this conversation he could not bring himself to speak. He knew that several of the dwarves had never seen battle, and despite Fíli and Kíli’s forward bravery, he knew that they were not prepared for the reality of war.

Bofur chewed on the end of his pipe, wondering if there were any words of encouragement he could give young Ori, as well as the rest of the group, but he found himself short. He liked to think of himself as the party’s optimist, always finding the light in the darkest of hours, but these particular times were beyond dark; they were pitch black. Even Bofur himself had not been in a war of this grandeur. Oh he had been in a battle or two in his day, but not like this. Never like this. All they could hope for now was that the Iron Hill dwarves would arrive soon and that their strength would be enough.

Suddenly, without warning, Bifur brought his fist down, hard, upon his cousin’s shoulder, causing Bofur to drop his pipe as his hand launched for the place that had been beaten.

“Ow!” Bofur yelped. “What’d you do that for, ya big luge?”

This drew the attention of the other dwarves, most of them thankful for the sudden distraction.

“What’s his problem?” Kíli asked with folded arms.

“Beats me. He just hit me out of the blue,” Bofur said, rubbing the sore spot as it began to bruise. “Gentle toymaker my foot…”

Before Bofur’s complaints could carry on, Bifur began to speak to his cousin. It was more words than the rest of the band had heard the dwarf speak before. They were accustomed to Bifur communicating through grunts and hand gestures, with only the occasional dwarfish phrase thrown in. To hear him go off in this manner left a few of them bewildered. Only Bombur and Bofur had heard him speak in such lengths before.

“What’s he saying?” Bilbo asked quietly, reminding the dwarves that the hobbit was still in their presence.

Bofur glanced at his friend, and then looked back towards his cousin. He caught Bifur’s gaze and was amazed to find that the blank look Bifur was so well known for was gone. It was almost as if he was his old self again, brought back to life from all those years ago…

“He’s speaking in Khuzdul. The tongue of the dwarves… and he wants me to translate.” This shocked Bofur. Bifur had never asked to have his words translated before. Khuzdul was the dwarves’ secret language and was not to be spoken in front of any non-dwarf beings. Bofur glanced around the troupe. None of them seemed to mind revealing their language to the hobbit. He had been around Bifur long enough to hear snippets of their language already, and so many of them had come to respect Bilbo in all that he had done for them, it only seemed fair to mark him as an honorary dwarf on this particular occasion.

“Well, go on,” Bilbo said.

Bifur grunted, spoke a phrase, and then looked to Bofur.

“He says… he says that we must be prepared.”

Fíli rolled his eyes. “Does he really need to point out what we already know by –”

“Hush!” Balin scolded, and then nodded to the two cousins.

Bifur paused for a moment, almost as if he were collecting the right words inside his mind. It was the most lucid Bofur had seen Bifur since the accident. As Bofur reflected in this moment, he began to realize just how much good the quest had done his cousin. Bifur seemed to stare off at nothing far less than he once had, and while he still only spoke in Khuzdul, he seemed to be present in mind for more conversations than not. If anything good came from this journey, Bofur thought it was truly the healing of his long-wounded cousin.

When the moment had passed, Bifur looked once more towards his younger cousin as a sign that he was ready to speak. Bofur leaned closer, not wanting to miss a single word. As Bifur spoke, Bofur translated the words into the common tongue for the benefit of Mr. Baggins:

“War. It is harsher than any winter, rougher than any journey. Many of us have gone through it before. Even those who have not yet fought in war have been affected by it in their lives. All of us have lost loved ones, family, and friends to battle. War is a monster that swallows all that we love whole. It is relentless, jagged, penetrating, cruel. There is no escape from the greed of war. It takes and takes and takes and takes and it does not know how to stop. It won’t ever stop. War will outlive us all. When we are dead, war will still thrive.”

It was in this moment that Bifur paused. Taking a deep breath, he lifted his right hand to gently touch the orc axe blade lodged deep in his forehead. A shiver ran up Bofur’s spine as he was suddenly plagued with vivid memories of the past.

Visions of a once great leader drifted through his mind’s eye; a dwarf who used to lead others into battle when it was necessary and gave such tremendous speeches to inspire his fellow fighters. Memories appeared of a younger Bofur and Bombur, visiting with their elder cousin, listening to his brilliant tales and laughing over pints of ale. Bofur recalled a happy dwarf with a beautiful wife and babe at his side. Such happier times. Blissful days of laughter and love, until one night when the sudden attack on the village came…

Bofur looked to his other side and his eyes locked with his brother’s – who had long since stopped munching on his measly clump of cram. He found Bombur’s expression was akin to his own. They both remembered the night all too well. Springing from their beds to find a messenger beating at their door, who had hurriedly told them of the news of the attack on the town over. It was then that they learned of the tragedy that had befallen their cousin. How they raced for the neighboring village, only to have the dwarf doctor turn them away at the door. How they paced outside the home all night, worrying they would never again hold conference with their beloved relative. They paced and paced throughout the night only to be told come morning that the cousin they so loved, the cousin they had known since they were babes themselves, would never be the same. He would live, there was that to be thankful for, but it would be a different life. He’d never be the same cousin, nor the father or husband he had once been before he lost all that was dear to him. He would become simple, detached, unpredictable, and unstable.

He would never be the same dwarf again.

Bifur dropped his hand back to his side, and Bofur and Bombur broke their gaze. Tears were now attempting to slip passed the corners of Bifur’s eyes, but he squeezed them shut and fought back the urge. He took in another deep breath, drawing courage from deep within himself, and then pressed on with his words.

“But that does not mean all hope is lost. War is never ending, yes, but it is possible to beat. You say we are alone in war,” Bofur translated as Bifur pointed a finger at Dwalin, “and that is where you are wrong. In war, we are strongest when we stand together. When we watch each other’s backs and look out for one another, only then will we prevail. War is not a one dwarf victory. It takes a team – an army – to conquer, and if we stand side by side in the light of a new day, whether Dáin and his army come or not, we will be victorious. Even if we fail and if we fall, we will still be victorious, because we have taken a stand, not as a band of dwarves, but as one.”

As he spoke those last words, Bifur placed a hand on Bofur’s shoulder. He looked to the two dwarves who sat beside him; his only real family left in the world. The cousins who kept him a part of their lives, despite the deterioration of his mind and his sporadic phases of instability, and nursed him back to health in his time of need. They did not find his face grotesque, his manner appalling, or his person unbearable. Bifur knew his injury rendered him useless at times, and flat out crazy at others, but his cousins had never cared. They had been there for him, and he had every intention of returning the favor in the days to come.

Not looking away from Bofur and Bombur, Bifur spoke one last sentence to the company.

Mâ khâh kheluz udu mi nudûd harûn dushur.”

“What does that mean?” Bilbo asked.

Bofur glanced out amongst the group, surprised to find his fellow dwarves changed anew. No longer did they look frightened of the future. Now, instead, they look rejuvenated. Even little Ori appeared inspired by Bifur’s words. It was almost like the old days, like Bifur was back to his former self, and that was enough to cause Bofur to smile before giving one last translation:

“We draw strength from our brothers when the hour upon us is darkest.”