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In the Dark

Chapter Text

The battle was finally over and the alliance had won. Bella was staggering back towards the encampments, numbness and shock battling for dominance in her system. She couldn't believe the events of the past several days and she couldn't believe that she had somehow miraculously survived the battle. It had been a clash much too big for one tiny, lost hobbit lass that was so very far away from home. All she wanted to do was lay down and sleep, fatigue weighing on every inch of her.

She had just reached the allied encampment, surely Gandalf could spare a tiny corner of his tent for an exhausted hobbit to rest, when she ran into a pair of dwarven guards. She was just going to nod and pass them, but they swept forward and grabbed her, pinning her hands behind her back and tying them roughly with a coarse rope. When she cried out hoarsely from the pain, one of the guards hit her upside the head, causing her head to reel and her body to go limp, "None of that now, traitor! You're under arrest, don't resist or it will go worse for you."

Bella was too dizzy and exhausted to protest, allowing them to drag her off to a tent on the very edge of the encampment, far enough away that no one would be able to hear her. She wanted to protest that Thorin had banished her from Erebor, not ordered her locked up. She wanted to demand that they fetch Gandalf and he would sort this mistake out simply enough. After all, as soon as she possibly could, she was heading back to the Shire and no one would ever have to look upon her again. But the guards tied her roughly to the center pole and left before she could gather her wits enough for any of those options. She wanted to cry and scream, but the battle and her wounds won out and she passed out.

* * *

Over a day passed before anyone came back to the tent. Her wrists were raw from tugging against the bonds, her mouth was so dry that she couldn't speak, and her stomach was about ready to stage a full out rebellion. It was edging towards midnight when the tent flap opened up again and two different dwarves entered carrying a torch, a bucket, and a tray.

Seeing them, she croaked, "Water."

Both of them looked at her with pity and one dwarf took the ladle and carefully held it up for her to drink. Once her thirst was slaked, she looked at the pair of them, dread coiling in her gut. Still, panicking would do her no good at this point. She asked calmly, "What's going on? Why am I being held here against my will?"

The one holding the torch muttered to the other, "I told you that she was touched in the head, why else would she take the Arkenstone and give it to the leaf eaters? She doesn't deserve this, poor lass."

The other one just shook his head, "It's not our place to make assessments or pass judgements, we're only to carry out orders. Now, shut your gob."

She asked quietly, "What are your orders? What is to become of me? What is my fate?"

The one who was in favor of just following orders carefully untied her and handed her the tray. Her stomach rumbled and even though it was plain fare, she ate eagerly. Satisfied that she wasn't going to run, the dwarf said quietly, pity filling his expression, "For your actions against Thorin Oakenshield and the kingdom of Erebor, you have been sentenced to life imprisonment in the dungeons of Erebor. Your sentence is merciful indeed, as most who committed this crime would be shaved bald, branded, and feed to the wolves or vultures. But for your service in helping rid the mountain of the wyrm, you shall live, but you will be imprisoned."

Bella kept eating, her body demanding sustenance, even as her mind rebelled, "That cannot be right. Thorin banished me, he didn't order me locked up. Has anyone spoken to Gandalf, he will vouch for me and straighten out this misunderstanding. I would've left right away, but there was the entire battle." She clenched her hands in fists and tried not to scream or demand answers, "I don't suppose you know if the company survived the battle or not."

The one holding the torch had been silent up until this point finally spoke up, "The entire company survived. It was touch and go for the king and princes for a bit, but between all of the healers they managed to pull through and are expected to make a full recovery given time."

She met his eyes before nodding her thanks, unable to speak from the relief flowing through her. She silently finished the tray, her mind whirling as she sought to find a way out of the situation that she had found herself in. However, before she could beg the guards to find Gandalf and at least tell him what had happened, the flap flew open and the dwarf who had treated her so roughly the night before stormed in.

He snarled at the guards, "If you're done molly coddling the traitor, I'll have you remember that you're supposed to take her to her cell."

Bella rose steadily to her feet and met his gaze head on, "I think that there had been a mistake."

Before she could finish her sentence, he back handed her across the face, "Silence! There has been no mistake, traitor. You will rot in the depths of Erebor and none shall ever remember your name."

She straightened, having staggered a step from the blow. Dabbing at the trickle of blood from the split lip his blow had given her, she met his gaze with an icy one of her own, "And just who do you think that you are? Thorin might have ordered me thrown into a cell, but he would never countenance the abuse of a prisoner."

The dwarf turned bright crimson but didn't touch her again, "You think that you are so high and mighty, but you will never see the light of day again. I am Lern, son of Dorn. Learn my name well, because I'm the one who decides exactly how long you manage to survive the hole I'm going to throw you in."

She offered him a sly smirk, one that she had copied from Nori, "You keep telling yourself that."

He growled, the sound low and menacing, even as a vein throbbed visibly in his forehead. He roared, "Get her out of my sight!"

The guard swiftly tied her hands behind her back and dragged her from the tent. Bella didn't bother to fight, too busy trying to sort out exactly what was going on anyway. The guards threw a cloak over her, tugging up the hood so that it covered her face. She would've said that it was for her protection from angry dwarves, but the camp was sleeping other than the guards rotating around the perimeter.

She thought about trying to reach the ring and disappearing, but something made her hesitate. There on the battlefield, during the battle, it had almost seemed like it was drawing the evil things to it with some sort of silent signal. She couldn't be sure, of course, but it had been enough to make her wary. Especially after the tales that the company had told her about enchanted objects that had developed a mind and a will of their own, often to their owner's detriment.

So she allowed the dwarves to march her out of the camp and up into Erebor. She gawked as they passed the bell that the company had used to break down the barrier, although she didn't bother to speak. The guards pulled her onwards, firmly but not roughly. They didn't linger but marched her swiftly through Erebor, down, down, down far below the levels that she had explored during her time in Erebor.

Finally they reached an area where there were several torches burning in the brackets on the walls. They had obviously scouted out the location earlier before coming to fetch her. As they opened the cell door, she couldn't help but flash back to the elven king's dungeon. The cells there had appeared to be inescapable, especially as Dori and Ori couldn't escape even with their Ri strength. This cell looked even more impenetrable. The only way that she would be leaving would be if someone let her out.

The guard untied her and handed her a tin of salve and some bandages for her raw wrists and wounds. He said dispassionately, "This is all that I can do, don't expect anything more from this point on."

She nodded her understanding, "I thank you for this."

They didn't respond, simply locked the door behind her and walked away. Bella looked around and shivered slightly, sitting gingerly on the edge of the cot. She would be all right, she only had to endure this for a few days. Gandalf would find out and sort out the situation, it had to be a misunderstanding of some sort. Thorin had banished her, never wanted to lay eyes on her again, he hadn't said anything about locking her up forever. It was a mistake and she would be released, she just had to hold on.

* * *

As she waited for the misunderstanding to get straightened out, Bella came to realize something. Being imprisoned was boring. She had slept most of that first day, or at least she had assumed that it was the first day, it was impossible to tell time in the depths of Erebor. When she woke again, most of the torches had burned out and only a single torch was burning along with a tray setting outside the cell door. She ate gratefully and listened carefully, straining to hear the sound of anyone else, but only silence greeted her.

This set the tone for the next several days. Best she could figure out, she was fed once a day, meager portions but at least she was being fed. More often than not, she sat or napped in darkness, the torch rarely replaced. By the end of the week, or what she thought was a week, according to the delivery of the meal trays, she was ready to climb the walls. She had carefully marked the delivery of the tray on the wall, so she could keep track of the days to the best of her ability, but that only took mere seconds at the most.

No wonder the dwarves had all been so cranky in the dungeon, insisting that she find a way to free them. It was boring, being confined in the same space, with nothing to do or keep her hands busy. She had been irate with the company, having been running herself ragged trying to find a way out, but now she could totally understand their frustration and wished that she didn't. Still, when she got out of here, if any of them would talk to her, she would apologize for being so snappish during that time.

It was on the third day that she realized that it might take longer than she hoped for things to get sorted out. She hadn't seen another soul during that time, whoever had left the tray having done so while she'd been asleep, so she couldn't even ask if Gandalf would speak with her. Realizing that she had to accept the fact that she might be down here for a month or two instead of the original few days that she had first anticipated, she knew that she had to prepare herself for the long haul.

Thankful that there was a fairly fresh torch burning, she examined her cell closely. There was the stone ledge that served as a bed along with the rough blanket. It was literally carved into the wall, so there was nothing hidden under it. On one wall, there was a tiny trickle of water that ended at a ledge. She examined it carefully and decided that the ledge could be hollowed out into a basin given enough time. She would most likely be long gone by that point, but it didn't hurt to be aware of it.

To her delight, there was a small patch of moss in one corner of the cell along with a tiny patch of mushrooms, just three, but it held potential. She rested her hand lightly on the moss and let out a sigh of relief. It had been so long since she had been able to touch an untainted patch of something growing. Smaug's taint hadn't reached this deep, having traveled outwards instead of down. To have that little bit of pure nature brought tears to her eyes and a sliver of peace to her soul. She didn't know how long she sat there touching the moss, but when she rose to continue her examination, she was much more at peace.

There wasn't much more of the cell for her to examine. It was five paces wide and seven paces deep, the only place of entry being the cell door which looked impenetrable to her admittedly untrained eyes. There also didn't appear to be any other prisoners nearby, judging by the heavy silence, the very air feeling weighted and uneasy.

Satisfied that she had examined everything as well as she could have, she settled cross legged on the floor in the middle of the cell. Once she was comfortably settled, she went about clearing her mind. She hadn't done this in months, the company having never stayed long enough in one place to make it necessary for her to do this. And the places where they had stayed longer than a few days, Rivendell already had protections, she was much too busy in Thranduil's palace trying to find a way out, and previously in Erebor, she had been too distracted trying to keep the dwarves from being lost to gold sickness.

Bella wondered absently if she had taken the time to do this properly, things would've played out differently, before putting the thought aside. One could second guess themselves to death, things had played out the way that they had and it was no use angsting over what-ifs. Once her mind was sufficiently clear, she began the ritual that was ingrained in every hobbit from when they were very young.

First, she expanded her awareness to cover every inch of the cell. She thanked Erebor for her shelter and protection and asked her permission to include her own layer as well. Erebor hummed back, the sound weak and tired, yet agreeable to the idea that Bella held out for her to inspect. Once she had Erebor's permission, she started the process that was as old as hobbits could remember, all the way back to their wandering days.

It was the way of hobbits to make a shelter, a haven, for their protection. She carefully made sure that every inch of the cell was covered with her awareness, from the bars of the cells down to every last bit of rock. Once she was certain that there was no gaps, no matter how minuscule, she allowed it to sink into all of the surfaces, like a plant growing roots. Although others admired the Shire and were baffled by it in turn, none of them truly understood. All they saw was a beautiful, soft land, filled with soft, defenseless people. A land of farmers, not fighters. None of them, not even Gandalf, understood a hobbit's connection to the land and growing things. It wasn't something that hobbits hid, it was just such a part of their every day lives that they never even thought of it.

What they didn't realize when a hobbit spoke of their connection to the earth, they meant it literally. There were legends from their wandering days that when the Shire was found, it was a wasteland, unwanted by any of the other races. However, where the other races only saw bleakness, the hobbits had seen the possibility of balance and healing, because weren't they as bleak and scarred as the land they had found? So they had given up wandering and settled in, sending their roots in deep, finding the pockets of imbalance and corruption and nurturing back to health, much like lancing a wound. The first several years were rough as the land struggled to produce enough food to feed them and they struggled to heal their own wounds. But as their own wounds healed and their roots sank deeper into the land, the land started to respond in it's own way. The knots of corruption started to ease and each planting became more bountiful as the earth started to achieve a healthy balance again. It even started to protect the people upon it in it's own way, making those not connected to it wander, unable to find an easy path.

And as life bloomed and returned to the wasteland, renamed the Shire, so too did life return to the hobbits. The race of hobbits had been dying. Fewer faunts had been born every year and those families who were blessed with faunts struggled to find them enough food to keep body and soul together. So imagine everyone's surprise when several years after the Shire was claimed, there was suddenly a bumper crop of faunts, nearly every family welcoming a new little one into the family.

The hobbits joy over having a safe haven and enough food echoed through the very land itself, sinking their healing roots in deeper, the joy helping to ease the years of sorrow the land had endured. And with every birth, the hobbits connection to the land only got stronger, especially when each faunt grew old enough to add their own set of roots to the land. Before they knew it, several generations had passed and the hobbits fate had firmly intertwined with the Shire. When the hobbits prospered, the land did as well, and vice versa. Because the hobbits were caretakers of the land and were careful to fully fulfill their duties, making sure that the land was healthy and without corruption.

However, when something went wrong with one, it went awry with the other. There was a year where there were heavy bandit raids, not quite thirty years after the Shire was settled, and many Shirelings were carried off. It took three years before the Shire produced a bountiful crop again. Then there were times that the land rebelled or suffered and the hobbits had grown ill or had few faunts. But a century passed and then another and the Shire became the place that it is known for today. Few remembered that the Shire had once been a wasteland, not even the hobbits truly remembered.

Still, the multiple generations had intertwined their fate with the Shire, producing a comfortable, settled land, their roots deep and steady. Because there were so many hobbits now, the occasional hobbit could go off an adventure without disturbing the balance of the land, but most were happy with their sheltered, comfortable existence tied to the Shire.

Bella had been a bit different than most hobbits, more like her free spirited mother than her deeply rooted father. She had loved the Shire, but neither did she feel the deep seated connection that her peers seemed to feel. It was only when she left the Shire on the quest that she realized how much she had taken that connection for granted. She felt rather like a leaf swept down a brook, things moving too quickly for her to get her feet under her.

Mirkwood had been especially bad, the land crying out for care and healing, much like the wasteland must have called to her ancestors. However, she had already been committed to the quest and could not offer balance to the forest, no matter how much she wanted to. And after a few weeks, she didn't even have the strength to offer healing, the corruption pressing in thick on all sides of her. She had been relieved to get out of Mirkwood, only to find a miasma laid just as thick over the land around Erebor, this one hotter and heavier like the dragon itself instead of the cold and slimy feel the Mirkwood's corruption had carried.
She had been unable to do anything about it, first with the dragon, then with all the events that happened afterwards. However, now it wasn't like she didn't have time on her hands now, she might as well take advantage of it. So she carefully sank the root tendrils in, seeking to understand the mountain and what would be her home for the immediate foreseeable future.

She smiled as the tendrils twined into the stone and she actually connected with Erebor, albeit on a very surface level. The dwarves had been right, the mountain was alive, in her own way. Erebor felt warm and nurturing, like a caretaker or a mother, offering care and comfort for those in her care. She was worn and ill, undoubtedly from the dragon's long occupation, but she should begin to heal now that Smaug was gone. Bella vowed to do her best to help that process along for as long as she was in the mountain, until Thorin remembered his original declaration and threw her from Erebor, that or Gandalf came and freed her.
Satisfied that she now understood the foundation and bones of her new home, Bella moved on. She touched the moss, mushrooms, and water, encouraged to feel the life and promise in them, although they were all still in their infancy. She examined the bars, admiring them in a distant way, making sure to carefully wrap them in protective measures, much like the border of the Shire. She did not like Lern in the least and while she might not be able to escape, she would do her best to protect herself.

Finally, she examined her surroundings for imbalance and corruption, anything that needed to be brought back into balance. To her surprise, there was a dark knot of corruption in her. She frowned, examining it closer, and realized that it was not in her, but on her person. Grasping the knot of corruption, she pulled it out and brought it up to the level of her eyes. Opening them, she found the little gold ring she had found all those weeks ago underneath Goblin Town. She sighed, looking at it and muttered, "I knew that you were just too good to be true. Especially after everything the others told me about enchanted objects. Couldn't anyone every just make a nice ring that actually made the wearer happier or able to grow great vegetables or something?"

Closing her eyes again, she carefully nestled the ring between her two hands. Settling her breathing pattern into one of the first ones that she had ever learned, she started humming one of the hobbit songs of praise for Yavanna, a song of thanksgiving and renewal. However, the ring seemed to have a will of it's own and struggled against the cleansing. She didn't know how long she sat and battled with it before she felt the darkness in it ease the barest of hairs.

Opening her eyes, she climbed wearily to her feet and eyed the ring before dropping it into her pocket, vowing to remove the corruption from it no matter how long it took. Blinking, she looked around, noting tiredly that the torch had burned out while she had been occupied fighting the corruption, her body covered in a fine layer of sweat as if she had been running a long distance.

She moved over and stretched out on her sleeping ledge, exhaustion draped over her like a heavy blanket. Still, as she dropped off to sleep, there was a small smile on her face from where she could feel the start of a connection with Erebor.

* * *

Three weeks passed before she finally spoke to another person. It felt like the middle of the night when the sound of heavy footsteps woke her. She sat up and listened carefully, not recognizing the tread. She stood and carefully straightened her appearance as best she could, knowing that her captivity had done her no favors. Then she moved over by the bars, close enough that she could see the corridor but far enough back that no one could grab her unexpectedly.

To her surprise, she actually knew the guards that appeared this time. It was the two guards that had first brought her down here, both of them carrying torches and walking two steps behind Lern. Bella didn't sneer like she wanted to, keeping her expression carefully blank instead. There was a very unpleasant leer on Lern's face and Bella instinctively deepened the protections on the cell door.

He sneered, a dark triumph in his eyes, "Enjoying your accommodations, traitor?"

She bit back the retort that flew to her tongue and said blandly instead, "I've no complaints. Has Gandalf asked to speak with me? He will sort out this misunderstanding."

At her words, a nasty smile spread across his expression, "The wizard left a week ago and said that he left your fate entirely in Oakenshield's hands as you had signed a contract of your own free will placing yourself under his authority."

Bella felt her heart wrench at that, even as part of her whispered that that did not sound like Gandalf, especially as he had saved her when Thorin had wanted to throw her from the battlement. Still, she kept that from her face, instinctively knowing that this dwarf would pounce on the least sign of weakness, "Then perhaps I might speak with Balin or Dwalin. They both know that Thorin banished me and Dwalin is in charge of both guards and prisoners. They will see that Thorin's orders are carried out and that he never has to see me again."

Lern chuckled darkly, "Ah, but his orders are being carried out. The company and Thorin will never have to see your miserable existence again. And you couldn't leave the mountain right now, even if you wanted. We are locked in by the first blizzard of the winter. As much as I would take joy in sending you out to freeze to your death, his majesty has declared that you are to spend the rest of your days slowly rotting in a cell and who am I to question his orders. You will live a very long, very miserable experience. Never again will you see the sun and fresh air. And before the very end, you will have lost your sanity, your very self, which is the least that you deserve for your actions."

Bella saw the truth of the situation then. There was no rescue, no one was coming for her, there was apparently no misunderstanding. She was to be confined in Erebor for the rest of her natural life for the crime of taking the Arkenstone. And this miserable excuse of a dwarf was to be her jailer, all of the company having apparently turned their backs on her, even Gandalf had forsaken her.

Anger coursed through her and she took it and turned it into ice, turned it into strength. Drawing herself to her full height, she looked down on the taller dwarf, her voice filled with disdain and contempt, "Very well, I might very well spend the rest of my days here in this cell for my actions. But know this, I have faced much worse than this and overcome greater trials. You are nothing but a dwarf with delusions of power and grandeur. You are less than nothing. I vow this, in the name of the Green Lady and her husband, no matter you do or what happens, you will not break me! I will endure and last long after your name is dust and forgotten. I will not break."

The last words were flat and emotionless, yet the very mountain seemed to resonate with her words. Lern grabbed the bars of her cell door and snarled, "You say that now, but before the year is out, you will be begging me for mercy and to end it all. I have broken stronger dwarves than you and it will be child's play to break you as well."

When she didn't respond, he swore in Khuzdul and turned on his heel, storming down the corridor as he called over his shoulder, "You will break, this I vow!"

The pair of guards silently exchanged their lit torches for the burnt out ones before wordlessly following after Lern. Bella watched them go, a thin thread of satisfaction coursing through her at the way that they hurried away from her gaze. Only when she could no longer hear them did she allow herself to sink down on her sleeping ledge, all of the strength draining away from her, her legs refusing to support her.

She didn't realize how stubbornly she had been clinging to the hope that it was all a misunderstanding and that Thorin would come to his senses and pardon her or that the company would talk him around and get him to agree to release her. Hearing that none of them wanted anything to do with her cut deeply. She had thought that they had grown closer during the quest. Become almost family. And that didn't even begin to take into account the thing/not thing that had been between her and Dwalin. But apparently that was all ashes now.

Laying down, she stared at the ceiling and scowled, how did she even know that that lying worm was telling the truth. Lern struck her as a bully and a petty tyrant who wanted to destroy anyone he thought that they thought they were better than him. No, she would not lose faith in the company, they would eventually come to their senses, she just had to wait for however long it would take. From what she had seen, gold sickness was not easy to shake and it would take time for them to return to the dwarves that she knew before.

She just had to stay strong and outlast this ordeal, it would come to an end eventually. Her scowl deepened as she thought about the cursed Arkenstone. Given the choice, even if she knew that she would end up locked in a cell in the depths of the mountain far from any contact with living people, she still would have done it to save her family. Still, they'd better not take too long to come to their senses or she would be very miffed.

Rolling on her side, her back to the door, she willed herself to go to sleep. She was just fading into dreamland when a tear slipped down her face and Dwalin's name whispered from her lips.

* * *

Balin walked silently through the corridors, his heart heavy in his chest. Outside a blizzard roared, but one couldn't tell within the shelter of Erebor's thick walls, the corridors in this part of the mountain filled with thick silence. He didn't really have time to be in this far flung part of Erebor, having a million and one other things to oversee, but everything else could wait as this was the most important thing.

Finally he reached the quarters that their family had occupied before the dragon, the rooms now technically belonging to Balin and Dwalin. He was searching for Dwalin, his brother having disappeared once everything had successfully been battened down before the storm started and everyone had been settled for the night. Balin had the feeling that he knew what Dwalin was doing, but hoped with all his heart that he was wrong. However, when he saw the dust disturbed by the door and the single track of footprints, he knew that he wasn't.

Pushing open the door, he entered to find Dwalin standing motionlessly in the middle of the main room, a small pack clutched in his hands. Balin hesitated in the doorway, uncertain what to say or do. Dwalin's voice was rough but even as he said, "Come in, nadad. This is your home too."

Balin took a few tentative steps inside, looking around at a home only half remembered, "Aye, brother. In a way. I'm still thinking about reclaiming the rooms that I shared with Mela, though."

Dwalin looked over at him, his expression tired and broken, "Won't that just hurt more, being surrounded by memories of her, your lost love?"

Balin ran a hand through his hair and then nodded at the bag in his brother's hands, "Sometimes, it can help to be surrounded by their things. In my case, it would be the place where I was happiest in the world. It would be nice, to be in a place that held happy memories of her, at least until we meet again in the halls."

Dwalin sank to his knees, unable to hold himself upright any longer, grief and exhaustion weighing him down, "How can you survive it? The knowledge that you are still here and she, the other part of your heart, is just gone."

Balin followed him down to the floor, arranging himself in a cross legged position, feeling everyone one of his years, "It was necessary for me to go on, our people needed me. That was the only thing that kept me going, the constant struggle for survival. By the time we finally established ourselves enough so that we didn't have to spend every minute scrambling, the pain had morphed enough to be more bearable, although I will always miss her until the joyous day that we are reunited in the halls. But she would not be happy with me if I abandoned all of my duties and responsibilities just because I missed her, so I wait patiently until the time comes for me to go home."

Dwalin clutched the pack even tighter, his anguish clear on his face, "At least you had happy times, I never told her, we never got the chance..."

Balin sighed before asking the question that he had been avoiding, "Are you certain that she is gone? We never found her body, she could still be..."

Dwalin finally met Balin's eyes, his own dark with grief, "I just don't know. The way that things happened, there was so much turmoil. Like you said, we never found Bella's body. But she was the bravest lass we've ever met, if she were still alive, I believe that she would've found her way back to us, to me. Especially after Thorin issued the proclamation pardoning her. I don't feel like the world is a darker place. But she was just a small, defenseless lass who should've never been involved in the battle. There are so many different ways that she could've died and we would never find out. But still, my heart cannot help but hope. She has survived so much, gotten through so much."

His hands clenched into fists and he growled, "I should've been there, I should've protected her. I should've never left her side, never left her vulnerable and afraid. She should've never been on the quest in the first place."

Balin shook his head immediately, "The fates worked as they willed. She was supposed to be on the quest, how many times did she save us? And if you're not certain, there is still a chance that she's alive. When you know for sure, the pain is nigh on unendurable. Maybe she used her little ring and used the battle as cover to head back to the Shire, thinking that we all still hated her. Come Spring, we can send ravens to the Shire in search of her and I bet that she'll be there, in a fine temper over the way that we treated her. Then you can go after her and beg her forgiveness on your hands and knees. Don't lose hope."

The anguish in his eyes retreated slightly, but he protested, "We don't know..."

Balin climbed to his feet, "No, don't give up hope until you know for sure, one way or the other. Now, come on, let's head back to the others, where it's warmer."

Dwalin climbed slowly to his feet as well, "You go ahead first, I just want to look at something really quick."

Balin nodded, "I'll be right in the hallway, take your time."

Dwalin just nodded and waited for Balin to leave before moving through the rooms, examining them. Balin's words had sparked an idea in his mind, about being surrounded by a loved one's things. He would turn these rooms into a home for him and Bella. If she were still alive, there would be a place for her to come home to. If she had passed on to whatever the hobbit equivalent of the halls was, then at least he would be surrounded by reminders of his love until Mahal called him home.

Setting the pack carefully on a dust covered bed, he turned to join Balin, his mind already busy planning all the changes that he would make. At least it would help keep him busy during the winter while he waited.

Closing the door behind him and joining Balin, Dwalin sent a silent prayer heavenward, 'Please, Mahal, let her still be alive.'