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Mithril Veins

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The Third Age: Year 3007

The echoes of Dwalin’s roar reached the deepest nooks of Erebor, as if the mountain itself was shaking in his anguish.

Dread had washed over Dwalin before Bofur had even spoke. Bofur, who radiated joy from his eyes, cheeks, smile, and the way he moved like he was always dancing, looked as though a troll had squeezed all the happiness out of him. His approach was slow, shoulders hunched and eyes downcast, hidden underneath the brim of his hat. It seemed like Bofur used all his remaining strength just to meet Dwalin’s gaze, and when their eyes met, Dwalin could see that the usual glimmer was replaced with a lusterless grey.

It was a look Dwalin had not seen since Azanulbizar, when he had lost his father, Fundin. The same blank stare and stone features he had last seen when Thorin and his nephews Fili and Kili had all met their end at the Battle of Five Armies. He knew what words were coming. But this was different from all the other times he had heard them. He had no shield. No adrenaline of battle coursing through his veins. No enemy with whom he could release his rage and fury and pain. Dwalin had been dulled by peace, and he took the full force of the Bofur’s words like a hammer to the skull.

“They’re all dead, Dwalin. Everyone who left for Moria. Ori. Oin...” He couldn’t even say the next name without choking on the word.

“Balin.”

There hadn’t been any word from Moria in thirteen years. No one had considered it was cause for alarm. The earliest reports were a joy to read, they told valiant tales of how Balin’s Company arrived at the mountain to find the dwarven city pervaded with orcs, but they stood no chance against the heroic might of a veteran that had lived through Azanulbizar and the Battle of Five Armies. After that, each story they received was of the discoveries being made, of relics and artifacts and secrets that had lain untouched for almost nine centuries. News arrived frequently at first, but the distance between updates increased as they ventured deeper into city. And any letter that arrived was always uplifting; Ori’s expertise with the quill captured the very essence of Balin’s excitement as new treasures were unearthed. There was nothing to suggest the journey had turned out to be anything other than as wonderful as Balin had dreamed it would be.

Despite all the hardships endured to reclaim it, not even Erebor could keep Balin within its mighty halls. No mountain could contain a spirit that thirsted for the world. It was as though a lifetime of exile had created an itch in Balin that intensified the longer he went without seeing what was beyond the horizon. He had only settled down for seven years before leaving with Gandalf to visit Bilbo in the Shire. Not even a decade had passed after that trip before Balin began talking about Moria. As soon the seed had been planted, it grew within him like a verdant grove. His vitality was contagious too, with Ori and Oin unable to keep from swept up by the romance of Durin’s descendants bearing his Axe once again after so long.

It made Dwalin so happy to see the youth in Balin’s eyes again. Even when they all gathered to celebrate Balin’s second century, you could have dyed his beard black and mistaken him for an adolescent. Balin laughed, drank, sung, and danced with merry fervour until the night began to break. That was also the night Balin met Eimi. As the celebration was drawing to a close, and Dwalin was finding the call of sleep very appealing, he caught his brother talking with a dwarrowdam that had recently arrived from Ered Luin. A few decades younger than Balin, her long, crimped hair was decorated by wisps of silver that cut into the darkness of her midnight locks like the crescent moon. Short of stature and heavy of build, she was an adept ironcrafter, and had the muscular curves of one who spent hours at the forge each day, perfecting her art. Her round, cheerful face was cradled by a short, thick chinstrap beard, and her eyes, violet like amethysts, were windows to a playful, friendly soul and an intelligent mind that could best even Balin’s wit.

For Balin, it was love at first sight.

They wed after five blissful years of courting, and Balin had never been happier. Together they planned their adventure to Moria; there was nothing that could stop Eimi from staying at her husband’s side, should the legends of Mithril be true she longed to be among the first dwarves to craft it after a millennium. It seemed like everything was perfect, until a few months before their departure when little Burin entered their lives. Balin was so proud the day his son was born, and not even Dwalin could maintain his stoic demeanour the first time he held the little thing in his arms.

It was three years before Balin and Eimi spoke of Moria again, and they agreed that it was time they stopped prolonging the quest. It was decided that Balin would lead the first expedition to establish a colony and make a new home for his wife and son. From that point, it didn’t take long for the Company to be organised and for preparations to be completed. They celebrated with one last feast, and shared goodbyes, and Balin left for Moria with the same burning passion in his eyes that Thorin had for Erebor all those years ago. The same dream that, like his king, he would never see realised.

It crushed Dwalin to know he would never see that fire again. That his sister-in-law would never see her beloved again. That his nephew would grow up never knowing his father, not even remembering what he looked like. Once Bofur had spoken the name of his brother, Dwalin was enveloped in numbness. Unable to feel anything, he collapsed to his knees and fell forward, arms reaching out instinctively before his body hit the cold, hard floor. He couldn’t feel the stone. Couldn’t taste the air. Couldn’t breathe. Balin. Gone. Forever. He gritted his teeth, slammed his fist against the granite, and released his heartache with an anguished cry.

Dwalin howled until his throat was hoarse, until there was not a breath within his lungs, until it could no longer escape because the grief was strangling him.

And when he could no longer howl, he wept.

Chapter Text

Iron fractured like chalk.

Bofur never imagined he’d witness anything crack Dwalin’s tough exterior. Strongest dwarf he’d ever known; the Battle of the Five Armies was punishing to each member of the Company, in every conceivable way, but Dwalin never broke. He was the strongest of them all. Bofur’s heart had never felt heavier, approaching the big dwarf in the city square, knowing the ordeal his dear friend was about experience. The memory of burying his companions after they had finally reclaimed Erebor had left a painful scar that twinged each time it was recalled. Laying Thorin and his nephews to rest had been one of the hardest things Bofur had ever done. With remorse, Bofur felt fortunate on rare occasions, that after all that had happened he still had Bifur and Bombur. He could not fathom the pain of losing kin known one’s entire life, the torture he was about to deliver to Dwalin.

Despite how it transpired, Bofur had not intended to tell Dwalin in the plaza outside the courts of Erebor. Bofur’s semblance of a plan was to take Dwalin to nearest watering hole first, so that after cutting Dwalin with his words, alcohol would be on hand to douse the fresh wounds. There would be tears, aye, but there would also be toasts, and they would sing songs in memory of those they had lost. Bofur had steeled himself to do that for his friend. When their eyes met in the square, however, Bofur felt as though he was being read like an open book. Unspoken secrets were spilling out, and Dwalin’s face was filling with apprehension. Bofur wished he was Bilbo at that point; the hobbit had an incredible knack for disappearing whenever he pleased, and Bofur wanted nothing more than to be whisked away. He hadn’t make a sound and it was enough for Dwalin to figure everything out, and the damage was being dealt. Bofur didn’t know how to fix it, the whole thing was a shambles. It was at that point he had the great idea to just tell Dwalin now, get it out of the way, and then it’d be done, and they could begin to heal.

As soon as he’d begun to speak, however, he regretted everything. This definitely wasn’t a better idea, and the point of no return was somewhere over the horizon. He stumbled before he had even finished the sentence he was never going to be able to take back.

The earth cracked asunder, and the mountain collapsed.

Bofur could never have predicted the tragic turn this day would take. There was absolutely nothing foreboding about the morning at all, it had in fact been a rather pleasant day. It all began spinning into chaos the moment Bofur lost his hat.

Well, to say the hat was lost is far too kind. Stolen is a more apt turn of phrase.

Traders from Lake-town visited Dale on a regular basis, and the merchants would offer items and trinkets acquired from the furthest corners of the world. Every week they set up their stalls, and it was an enjoyable pastime of Bofur’s to peruse the wares, sample exotic tastes, and treat himself to the occasional luxury. The vendors were also good for their conversation; it was refreshing to hear about the world outside the Lonely Mountain, and Bofur was always keen to catch the latest rumours, gossip and tidbits that the merchants brought with them.

On this particular morning, however, it was local happenings that drove the chatter on the streets. The word was, King Bain had taken ill, and everyone had their own unique piece of the whole story; Bofur heard a variety of different causes of the king's ailment. Poisoning and assassination seemed nigh improbable given all the years of peace, more likely that after seven decades he was simply succumbing to his years. Some spoke optimistically, that he would be well enough to feast for the thirtieth anniversary of his coronation, others were more skeptical, hypothesising as to what kind of king Brand, his son, would make.

Bofur didn’t pay too much mind to the hearsay, but it did make him a little sad that the wee lad who had helped his dad sneak thirteen dwarves and a hobbit into Lake-town was staring mortality in the eye. Bofur never got involved in the affairs of kings and court; it was a life he could have chosen as a member of Thorin’s Company, but after exile, dragons, and battles, the call of a much simpler life was far more desirable. And so, it was not of Bain the king, but of the brave little man who was kind to dwarves, that Bofur was nostalgically reminiscing about when an osprey swooped down, ensnared his hat in her talons, and flew off with her prey.

At once, Bofur had been snapped back to reality, and was immediately vexed. “Oi! That’s not food ya mangy chicken,” he called out, surprising the nearby pedestrians who weren’t quite sure to whom the curses were directed. The osprey circled around in response, and whether it had been intended or not, Bofur had been taunted. He looked around to find something he could throw, and after deciding quickly on a cobble laying by the side of the road, he began to run in the direction the bird was flying.

Bofur knew he had no chance of catching the damned bird if he were to run through the square, he would be incapable of keeping his eyes on the prize whilst simultaneously navigating the maze of stalls and crowd of shoppers. He instead took to the alleys; despite being more likely to lose sight of the open sky from between the tall buildings, he could stay focussed on the bird’s course without worrying about running into anything and that made it easier to pick up its trail. Not that it was making a quick getaway. The hat was probably a very cumbersome prey to hold on to. Bofur mused that in that sense, his hat was fighting to get back to him. He and that hat had been through a lot, after all.

The osprey ended up leading him towards the outskirts of the city, and as he gained distance away from the plaza, Bofur made his way out of the narrow lanes and into the wider streets, which were indeed less crowded. This in turn allowed him to pick up his pace, for without obstruction he could keep his eyes affixed to the fiend that would dare challenge Bofur the dwarf. She flew over the city walls and Bofur stayed on her tail, sprinting past the guards keeping watch at the open gates. He was out of Dale now, and being led along the road which headed uphill to the foot of Erebor. The bird seemed to be tiring, her flight getting more and more erratic with each beat of her wings. The burden was only getting heavier the longer she flew, and as Bofur ascended the foothills he felt as though he was only getting closer. He imagined that despite being a little gamey, she would taste good roasted, seasoned with a little rosemary, thyme, and sage. A fine feast after all the trouble he’s been through.

They were well beyond the city limits when the osprey finally gave up, dropping the hat at the base of a dying walnut tree. Bofur dropped his cobble as he took the hat into his hands, inspecting it to make sure her talons hadn’t ripped the fabric. Once satisfied that no permanent damage had been done, he placed the hat back on his head, and looked up to see where the osprey had flown to, so that he could run cheers in her defeat. It hadn’t gone very far, in fact, it had perched on one of the lower branches. Bofur was about to begin searching for the stone he had dropped when the osprey lowered her head in a bow and said “I offer my deepest apologies, Lord Bofur of Erebor, the Magnificent.”

Bofur was taken aback by the flattery. It was also infuriating to know this was one of the more smarter animals; Bofur never could eat anything after he had talked to it. It probably had something to do with that time he and the Company had sought refuge with the skin-changer, and met all the intelligent critters that lived with him.

But then again, maybe just because this bird could talk didn’t make it so clever. He pointed to his hat. “This ain’t a rabbit, ya idiot,” he exclaimed.

“And I am not a chicken,” the osprey responded. Realising that she shouldn’t be aggravating the dwarf after what she did to get his attention, she got back to the point. “I bear grave tidings from Moria.” That gave Bofur pause, for he knew that any news of Moria was news of his companions.

As the osprey told her tale, Bofur’s exasperation shifted for disbelief, and then despair.

Chapter Text

Any experienced patron of the markets of Dale knows that the premier items always disappear first. Should a thrifty dwarf from the Lonely Mountain wish to acquire such affordable treasures, they rise with dawn and make the journey to the neighbouring city as the stalls are being set up. It was still too early in the day for customers to have given up all hope of finding that elusive bargain, and despondent purchasers hadn’t yet begun trudging their way back to Erebor. Hence, Bofur and the osprey had some privacy, despite having their conversation under the barren branches of an old walnut tree on the side of the main thoroughfare between the two cities.

Not that Bofur would have noticed any passerby. The bird had succeeded in acquiring the full attention of the dwarf.

It had been over a decade since word had come from Moria, and Bofur’s mind was racing with thousands of questions prompted by the name. What news? Why now? Why this bird? Why not a letter? Why did the letters stop? None of these questions reached Bofur’s lips though. The osprey had made one thing clear in her statement, that it was not good news. Bofur’s reaction to this, like any stubborn dwarf, was to get defensive.

“So the hat-snatcher wants to me to believe there’s word from Moria? You’re going to have to do better than that!” Bofur glowered as he pointedly lifted his hands to his hat, gripping each ear flap protectively. “I’m not a dwarf that gets taken for a fool easily!”

The osprey felt urgency to build some confidence between them.

“My name is Sornairë,” the osprey explained, “and I have flown under many suns and moons from my home at the fork of the rivers Celebrant and Nimrodel to speak with you. My ancestors were once friends with the dwarves; we lived harmoniously as you do with the birds of Ravenhill, until the tragedy that befell those who lived within the walls of the Mountains. Though generations have passed since my kin have been of service, the call flows dormantly within my blood, and recently my heart has begun to beat to the rhythm of its song.”

Despite maintaining a hold of his hat, and a wary gaze, he hadn’t dismissed Sornairë as yet. She took this as an invitation to continue her story.

“When I was a nestling, my mother sang the songs of the dwarves of Moria, as her mother did for her. The songs of old carry a sorrowful melody, but most finish on a hopeful note, that one day the dwarves will return and Moria will flourish again. Under those suns, my mother also sang a joyful song. She said that it was one her mother did not teach her, but a new song about how the dwarves had indeed returned to bring the Mountains to prosperity. It was my favourite, and a song I would have sung to my own chicks, had it not ended.

“Beneath the last sun before I first took to the skies, there was no longer a cheerful song for the dwarves. I begged my mother to sing it again, but she refrained. She simply that when it gets stormy, the breeze becomes a gale, and the happy songs can get blown away and lost to the skies. We might not be able to hear them for a while, but if we wait and listen, the winds will carry the tune again.

“After a moon, I understood. The first time I soared on the breeze, I could hear all the songs of the world, and the whispers, which spoke of how the Mountains did not welcome the dwarves who had ventured in from the Lonely Mountain, and that they had all perished. I did not understand the truth in the lyrics, but I remembered the melodies.”

Sornairë ceased as the weight of her words sank in.

“So you’re saying... they all died?” Bofur had let go of his hat, his hands clenched into tight fists at his hips, his face twisted into a scowl. “Ori… Balin… Oin… dead?” He bent down, clasped a pebble, and threw it angrily at Sornairë. It sailed past her.

“Get away,” he barked. “Go on! You’re just a lyin’, thievin’ crow.” He flung his arms at her aggressively as an attempt to shoo her away. He turned around and began storming off towards the Lonely Mountain, only taking a few steps before he caught Sornairë sweeping past on his left. She cut around to the front of Bofur, dropping a small, dark object a few paces ahead, and circled back towards the safety of the tree.

Even Bofur wasn’t obstinate enough to ignore it.

It had been crushed, and was covered in a layer of rust, moss, and other stains after years of being exposed to the elements of the river, but there was no mistaking the small, metallic funnel. Bofur started to tremble as he bent down to pick up the familiar object.

“Oin,” he murmured, his fingers tracing over the ear trumpet that had belonged to his close friend and companion.

Sornairë allowed the dwarf several moments to process what he held in his hands, before explaining softly, “I did not understand the truth in the lyrics, but I remembered the melodies. A few suns ago, after rains had given strength to the rivers that provide for me, I came upon this, swept by the currents. A curiosity, but the moment I grasped it in my talons I heard the distant echoes from the Mountains. The winds carried the howls of the dwarf who had last held this item before being swallowed by the waters at the western gate, the last breaths of the Company who died fighting against an insurmountable force within, and the eulogies as they buried their leader, Lord of Moria, in the city that is now their catacomb.”

Bofur just stood silently looking at Oin’s trumpet as Sornairë spoke. No matter what he tried to say to Oin now, it would go unheard.

“Before the song had even finished, I heard the harmonies. There is not a bird who does not sing of the dwarves and hobbit who travelled across the land to reclaim their home. Their songs joined the chorus, and before long I could feel my heart beating to the melody. An ancient call from within to sing this song, to serve the dwarves as my ancestors did so many suns ago. I was an instrument for the music now, and I did not rest as I flew over the Wilderland to found you.”

Bofur had heard the song, and he held the truth of it in his hands.

Chapter Text

Bofur would not be able to remember the events which led him to Dwalin from that spot on the side of the throughway with any clarity. The world had been stripped of colour, of sounds, of warmth, of everything that existed outside the maelstrom of thought that swirled within Bofur’s mind, and the soiled, cold trumpet he held delicately in his hands. He had barely the capacity to thank to Sornairë for her endeavour to deliver the sad news, and certainly nothing left within him to carry the conversation any further.

Instinct alone guided Bofur into the mouth of Erebor and wove him through its network of streets until he found himself at the doors of Bifur’s workshop. Intuition determined that only his brothers would help Bofur find the strength that was needed in the days to come.

As soon as Bifur had clapped him on the shoulders and wrapped him in a bear hug, Bofur found some of his vitality had returned. Only a drop, but it would do.

The two dwarves walked side by side through the market district to Bombur’s tavern, and it was only once all three brothers were sitting together that Bofur revealed the trumpet and disclosed what he had learned. Facing the grim reality of the situation, they discussed what they would need to do.

Once a course of action had been decided, they all went their separate ways, and Bofur found himself before an obliterated Dwalin.

As the flood of tears narrowed to a trickle, Bofur slowly approached his friend. Steadily, he knelt and reached forward to place his hand gently on the big dwarf’s shoulder as it shuddered against his sobs. Bofur felt helpless, that such a small action was the best he could do to comfort someone he considered kin. If this gesture could remind Dwalin that he still had family, brothers who would stand by his side and share in his grief, it would be enough.

***

The dwarf that had been Bifur faded away the moment his forehead had been cleaved during the Battle of Azanulbizar. If not for the fact that dwarves had notoriously thick skulls, the blow probably would have killed him. The appendage had not been removed, for fear of dealing further damage, but that was not enough to seal the draft through which the fog seeped. When Bifur opened his eyes for the first time weeks after the Battle, his mind had been clouded. He could not recall the war, nor the dwarf he had been before it. He did not even remember his mother, a brave warrior who had joined her family on the fields of battle, but one of the many who had not survived the struggle.

The only tie Bifur had to his past was his father, Dozur.

Dozur, who never left Bifur’s side while he slept in one of the tents that had been erected for the wounded. For as long as Bifur took breath, Dozur protected him forcefully from anyone that would so much as hint that all hope was lost. It mattered not to Dozur that Bifur had come back broken, that his son had returned at all was more than could have ever been hoped for. Even if Bifur did not recognise the dwarf holding his hand as he stirred from his long slumber, he would discover, even if it seemed as though for the first time, his father’s love.

It was not an easy recovery, however. As well as his memories, Bifur had lost other faculties. Gone was his ability to speak, he could not walk, and he no longer had any control over the finer motor functions of his hands. Dozur would help his boy regain everything he could. The memories didn’t come back, and neither did the words. After a decade of rehabilitation, Bifur could walk unassisted. It was around that time that Dozur had allowed himself to love again, a love that brought Bombur and Bofur into Bifur’s life. It was with his brothers that Bifur learned to use his hands.

Bifur’s hands could do so much.

He appreciated the impact they had on the world. The way they could change things. Change people. They were powerful. As his dexterity improved, Dozur taught Bifur many skills. Bifur mastered the boar spear, and his hands could provide for and protect the ones he loved. He perfected tinkering, and his hands could craft treasures out of junk. He learned how to play the clarinet, and his hands could foster sadness and joy through their music. When Dozur passed on Iglishmek, the dwarven hand language, Bifur could use his hands to bridge a chasm across which he had been stranded for so long. With a simple gesture, he could express ideas. With a tiny sign, he could tell stories. Once he had his hands, Bifur felt whole again.

Bifur kept his hands busy whenever he could, and thus he was engrossed in his tinkering when Bofur entered the workshop. Little silver bells above the glass paneled mahogany door chimed as the younger brother crossed the threshold into the junk-filled atelier. It was between strikes of the hammer that the door closed with a thud, breaking Bifur’s focus. Lifting his gaze, Bifur looked through his goggles to see that his brother was very downhearted, and appeared to be holding something. Bifur placed his hammer gently on the bench, and beside it, his goggles, after unclipping the leather strap behind his head that held them firmly in place. He then moved around to stand before his brother, and firmly placed his hands on Bofur’s shoulder. He offered his younger brother the warmest smile he could muster, and then wrapped his arms around him.

He rocked gently as he hugged his brother tightly. After he deemed it long enough, Bifur released his hold. Right hand to the chest, thumb, index and long fingers pointed to the ceiling, Bifur motioned towards Bofur. With fluid motion, his fingers adjusted so that he was pointing to Bofur with his index, and followed by closing his fist and pointing his thumb upwards.

Are you alright?

Bofur shook his head. “I have news. It’s not good. Figured you and Bombur’d be able to help. Can you close up shop?”

Bifur nodded as he offered a reassuring smile, put his arm around his brother, and led him towards the door. Bofur went through first, and Bifur followed, pulling a key out of his pocket and turning it in the lock once he had closed the door behind him. He wrapped his arm around his brother again, and guided him away from his workshop down streets illuminated by fire within the Mountain.

Bifur supported his brother as they weaved their way through the crowds of dwarves competing for space on the road. This particular district was home to some of the more renowned artificers of the Mountain. Dwarves would travel from other areas when in search of goods of the highest quality, if they were not afraid to part with their coin. Bifur did not really compare in skill, but as one a member of Thorin’s Company, his brand carried a certain prestige that went with his name. Most of the artisans of the neighbourhood were quite prosperous, and not only did their workshops have shopfronts, but also living space so that they could live in proximity with their families. Many could also afford their own forges, and from these workshops, smoke billowed from the chimneys towards the ceiling of the vast, hollowed out cavern, where it would find vents that released the ashen clouds to the blue sky above the Mountain.

As Bifur and his brother traveled towards the edge of the underground chamber, the stores that had been erected of wood and stone within the centre gave way to those that had been carved into the Mountain’s walls. One such establishment was a quaint little tavern, the Gold Dragon, which was distinguished for its food more so than its ale, and for the fact that the proprietor was also one of the famous Company that helped reclaim the Mountain. Not that the proprietor spent much time in the kitchen these days.

The moment Bifur and Bofur entered the Gold Dragon, a large bellow trumpeted over the loud hum of conversation and clattering of steel against porcelain. They looked towards the red-dyed leather booths adjacent to the rear wall to find Bombur waving from his seat, his table stacked with an assortment of delicacies. Bifur led Bofur around the back of the bar, so that instead of twisting between the tables of customers enjoying their lunch, they only needed to squeeze past Bombur’s third-born son, Nombur, who was serving the drinks. Despite having celebrated his fifth decade a few months ago, the stubble Nombur called a beard had barely begun to thicken. It was a fiery red colour, handed down from his father, much like his chestnut eyes. He was a sturdy, muscular dwarf, though he did not have enough meat on his bones as far as his father was concerned. Nombur politely nodded and leaned aside as the brothers wormed past.

Bombur had done quite well for himself upon completing the quest. Settling down in Erebor, it did not take long for him to establish his restaurant with a portion of his fourteenth’s share. He married, and before long had five beautiful sons and a daughter with whom to share his recipes. As they came of age, Bombur assigned more responsibility to his children, and eventually they were able to look after the Gold Dragon in his stead. For the past two decades, Bombur had resigned himself to the position of house taste-tester, and this appointment had taken its toll on Bombur’s body. He did not walk anywhere without the assistance of a cane, and it only took the slightest exertion to have Bombur wheezing. Bofur never really minded so much, as long as Bombur was happy, but Bifur had begun to fuss over his younger brother, and so as he sat down he made sure to slide the plates of smoked pork drizzled in sweet apple and onion sauce with roasted sweet potatoes out of reach. Bombur was about to complain, but the elder brother gently shook his head. With his right hand, Bifur aimed his index finger towards the floor, and then thrice pointed to his left palm.

This is important.

He then reached for Bofur’s hand, who had sat down next to him, and clasped it comfortingly. Something had shaken up the poor dwarf, but he had his family, and they would be strong for him. Bofur placed his other hand on the table, and lifted it to reveal the Oin’s ear trumpet. He then told his brothers everything that he had learned about Moria. Bifur reached over to grasp Bombur’s hand as the story was told.

Once Bofur had finished, Bifur pointed, first to his younger brother, then his shoulder, and then his elbow. He followed those motions by opening his hand, palm aimed at the ground, wiggling his fingers, and then closing his fist with his thumb lifted to the ceiling.

You were strong. You’ve done well.

Bombur nodded. “Aye, what terrible news you’ve had to bear. This is a dark day indeed. It’s not going to be easy to tell the others.”

Bofur nodded solemnly. “It was hard enough telling you lot. Like, saying it makes it real, you know?” Bifur squeezed Bofur’s hand again and nodded.

“All the same, the others will rather hear it from us than someone else, and it’s the least we can do to share in their grief,” Bombur declared. “We’ll need to decide how we’re going to do this.”

There were five within the Mountain that they would need to locate. Dwalin would probably be at his post in the vicinity of the royal courts. Dori spent the day hours working at his tailor shop, and with luck, Nori would be hanging about, assuming he wasn’t off getting into trouble. Eimi would be down at the forges with her son; Burin had been learning her craft and it wasn’t until the late evenings that he’d sneak off to go read in the library. The brothers decided that Bofur would go to Dwalin, Bifur would seek out Nori and Dori, and Bombur would find Eimi and Burin. Bifur knew this would not be easy on Bombur, and was prepared to go on his brother’s behalf, but Bombur was adamant.

“For Balin, I will tell his family even if it kills me!”

Ravens would need to fly to the West for the news to reach Bilbo, Gandalf, and Gloin. Bilbo of course had returned home after his adventure. Whilst Gandalf never stayed in one place too long, he was known to be travelling in those parts as he would regularly pay Bilbo visits; Balin had even joined him on one occasion. As for Gloin, it was only just recently he had made the journey back to Ered Luin, with his family and caravans loaded with merchandise. Despite his fourteenth’s share, there still wasn’t enough profit under the Lonely Mountain for the entrepreneur, and so he had ventured forth to expand his business and establish a trade centre in the West. It was Gloin’s plan that once Oin had brought Moria back to prosperity he would take his business there, and continue to grow until every dwarven kingdom was demanding his wares.

Once the ravens had been sent, they would go together to advise King Dain of the failed expedition, and begin the funeral preparations.

All things decided, Bifur and Bofur stood to assist Bombur from his seat. He embraced his younger brothers to share whatever strength he could rally, and then he found himself walking away from the Gold Dragon hoping that when he faced Nori and Dori, his hands would find the right words.

***

Bifur’s hands could do so much.

A gentle push through the door of the shop, and Dori and Nori stopped what they were doing to greet him.

A pull on their arms had them following Bifur to the back room where they would have some privacy.

A squeeze of their shoulders was all it took to get their undivided attention.

With only his right hand, he created a circle with his fingers and thumb that sparked curiosity.

O.

With the same hand, he crossed his index and long fingers and pointed them at the ceiling, and the brothers inwardly began to guess what signal might come next.

R.

He closed that hand to a fist and raised his little finger, and their eyes widened as they realised what name had been spelt.

I.

With only one hand, Bifur had completely mesmerised the brothers.

He could do so much more with two.

He brought both his hands to the front and lifted the index and long fingers of each to the ceiling, and Dori and Nori had their breath stolen from them.

He did not need to lower his hands much, certainly not enough to complete a word, before Dori’s legs were too weak to carry him, and he stumbled back, aghast.

Two quick steps and his hands were within reach to catch the elder brother. His hands embraced Dori as tightly as possible. His hands caressed Dori’s back.

Yet, despite all Bifur could do with his hands, they could not do enough.

His hands could not stop the younger brother from almost ripping the door from its hinges as he violently left the room.

They could not silence the elder brother’s moan of despair.

They could not return the little brother they had lost.

Strength slipped through Bifur’s fingers, and he could not hold back the tears.

Chapter Text

From the high recesses that decorated the walls of the colossal underground chamber, the distant fires that illuminated the city below looked like stars flickering in the night sky. Between those lights stirred the tiny silhouettes of dwarves going about their daily business. Unlike the constellations that enveloped the world outside the Mountain, shared by anyone looking skyward on a clear night, this particular array of starlight belonged to only one dwarf. A dwarf whom, at any other time, would be enjoying his private celestial dance in peaceful contemplation.

But not on this day.

Instead, the dwarf’s eyes were firmly affixed to the wall. A single candle had been lit, one solitary star glimmering for any dwarf that would look up into the looming blackness above them. Its light flickered across the alcove, giving life to the mural that had been chiseled into the stone at the height of this vast, hollow cavern. The dwarf’s little brother had told him, once, that the halls of the first King under the Mountain had first stood at this level, and that these chambers had been decorated with stone-cut reliefs depicting the legends of Durin’s folk. Over time, the foundations of these royal chambers were leeched of their riches, requiring them to be relocated closer to the heart of the Mountain. The floors were excavated for their minerals, until there was nothing left but a great, empty expanse that towered over the city at its floor, and the immense pillars that soared to the ceiling to support the Mountain’s summit. The effigies that lined the walls at this height were all that remained of these forgotten halls, only to be witnessed by those dwarves who would dare to climb.

It was no accident that this lone dwarf found himself in this particular alcove, staring at this specific chapter of history. Of the monster that had ravaged the ancient underground city Durin’s folk had called home for over five millennia, leaving nothing but a black pit.

Nori glared at Durin’s Bane with quiet intensity.

His heart was beating furiously, adrenaline coursing through his veins, muscles burning after the long, precarious ascension up the wall. Usually, when he scaled to these historic recesses, Nori would bring rope and tie it through pitons he had driven into the walls on one of his first climbs. Not only did it provide safety, it meant that he could cease climbing to catch his breath if the effort was taking its toll. Nori had thrown caution to the wind today, and had scaled all the way up with only the natural fissures and jugs serving as holds, fighting past his aching arms and legs until he had reached the peak. He wanted solitude, and as quickly as possible he had taken himself to a place no dwarf would ever find him. He lay at the base of the alcove, gazing raptly at the balrog that moved with the quivering glow of the candlelight.

His auburn moustache flittered against the force of strong, short breaths, chest undulating to the rhythm. Upon his stomach rested his hands, and they too rose and fell with each gulp of air. In his hands was a small book, covered with thin, black leather that was beginning to wear. His fingers absently thumbed through the course, yellowing pages. It was a rare moment when Nori did not carry this book with him. He had read the words it held enough times that they were all committed to memory, though only half the pages had been inked with their story. It had yet to be completed, and there were many blank pages waiting for their words. It was that same emptiness which occupied Nori’s mind. Absolute stillness, no thought, no emotion. Water without wavelets. Nothing but the touch of leather and paper, and the beast that returned his stare.

The silence was engulfing, disturbed only by the soft sounds of Nori’s breathing, the ruffling of the pages, and the fluttering of firelight. It was quiet enough for the dwarf to hear the beating of his own heart. The rumble of activity in the city below could not soar to these heights. Nothing could reach Nori. He had escaped.

Only then, the faint echoes of a deep roar reverberated throughout the hollow chamber, and for just a moment, broke the silence. It was small, but enough to begin a ripple within the calm pool in Nori’s head. There was no mistaking the heavy, gruff baritone. Nori’s thumb stilled.

“Dwalin,” Nori murmured to the balrog.

Dwalin’s sorrowful cry had punctured Nori’s solitude and a trickle of thought had begun to leak out of the emptiness. Nori found himself perplexed that he was the one that wasn’t feeling anything. As soon as Bifur had begun signing the word dead Nori had become numb. He had not even considered what Dori would be going through as he had fled. Of course, like Dwalin, his elder brother was probably grieving, and Nori almost certainly should have stayed with him. Instead, he was here, alone in this high place, lying beneath this beast. Nori’s instincts were now suddenly so confusing. Why was it, that of all the places he could have retreated, he had chosen this place? Why was it that impervious, indestructible Dwalin was so grief-stricken, but not Nori?

The balrog appeared to be laughing at him.

Of all the dwarves of the Company, Nori knew Dwalin least of all. Nori considered him a companion and shield-brother, but they had never really connected whilst on the quest. Dwalin simply had nothing in common with him. Dori and Ori, of course, were his precious brothers. Gloin could always tell what an item was worth, and understood the markets; Nori had learned a lot from their conversations. He had bonded with Oin as a comfortable distraction whenever he had needed to be stitched back together. Bifur knew how to make things, and was always more than happy to oblige whenever Nori had a wild idea for a strange contraption. He could easily appreciate Bombur’s love of food, and frankly, there was no finer chef in Erebor. Bofur could hold a conversation, was fun to share a drink with, and good for a laugh. Balin was not only wise, he could draw out a dwarf’s best qualities, and was good to Ori. But what was Dwalin? Strong, loyal, stoic, lawful, impossible to read beyond that. There was simply no way to approach him, and so Nori never had.

When they had been preparing to fight in the Battle of Five Armies, Dwalin had been so focussed. If he had been fazed by what might happen to his companions, or his brother, he did not let it show. Even after the Battle, Dwalin did not cry out at the loss of Thorin, Fili, and Kili. Dwalin had always remained strong, tougher than Nori ever was. In all the years Nori had known Dwalin, his hardy exterior had never cracked.

Except…

Except for the day they had said goodbye to Balin’s Company, on the day they left for Moria. Yes, on that day, as they had gathered at the gates of Erebor to bid Balin’s Company farewell. Dwalin had been trembling.

The memories of that day flooded in on a cascade.

He remembered standing beside his companions as they said farewell to the seven dwarves bound for Moria. As Ori was saying his goodbyes to Dori, Nori had observed that Dwalin’s hands had been quivering. There had been a conspicuous twitch in Dwalin’s lower lip, and a shaking in his shoulders. It was as though Dwalin had been afraid; so scared that his emotions had begun to show. Dwalin had kept it to himself, never said a word about it, and Nori hadn’t given it any thought. But it had been there, boiling under the surface, and if Dwalin had been suppressing that fear for all these years, then of course the eruption would be catastrophic. Even though Nori had noticed, albeit briefly, the thought of it had been drowned out, swept aside by his own imminent farewell.

Nori’s thumbed the pages of the book again. He had been caught by the tide of his memories now, drawn into the whirlpool, and unable to swim away.

As Balin’s Company set off on their journey, Ori had stayed behind just a little longer, to share some parting words with Nori.

“Nori, before we say goodbye, I have a gift.”

He reached into his knapsack and pulled out a small book, which he offered to his elder brother. Nori recognised the thin, black leather cover. He opened it, and found, as expected, Ori’s accounts of their quest to reclaim the Mountain that he had written on the journey. Nori flipped through the pages. The hand-writing immaculate, the artworks exquisite, there was no other scribe who had the talent his little brother possessed. He thumbed through the pages admiring the work until he turned to nothing, no ink on the paper, just empty canvas.

“My part in Erebor’s tale has come to an end now, brother,” Ori explained, “and I was hoping you could continue the story.”

Nori stared at the open, blank page. He could not fathom what kind of story it would be. As his elder brother, he only wanted to make Ori proud.

“Then it’s only fitting that I give you this, little brother,” Nori said, and he reached into his own bag.

Nori handed his brother a larger, thicker book, bound in stiffened leather, and painted with wax to provide a sturdy cover for pristine, white pages that were finely stitched together and meticulously glued to the spine. Runes had been etched onto the cover that read: Mazarbul Sigin-turgul Khazaddûmul. Ori’s fingers traced over the symbols, and his eyes began to well with tears.

“Records of the Long-beards of Khazad-dum,” he read aloud, reverently.

Nori smiled. “One story ends, and another begins, and who better to tell it than you, little brother. At least you’ll have something to do while you’re off galavanting about.” The air escaped Nori’s lungs as Ori suddenly clasped his arms around his elder brother in a tight embrace, hand still gripping the book.

“Oof! I can’t take all the credit. Dori, Balin, and Bifur all helped. I wanted it to be perfect.” Nori’s arms found their way around the smaller dwarf, and returned the hug.

“I love you, Nori.”

“Same, Ori.” Nori’s fingers grasped Ori just that little bit harder as he said the words.

They pulled back, and Ori placed the book in his knapsack. Turning to his pony, Ori lifted a foot into the stirrup dangling on his side and hoisted himself onto the saddle. He looked back at his elder brother with a cheeky grin on his face.

“I have one last gift for you, Nori. A riddle.”

Nori groaned. Ori had learned the riddle game from Bilbo whilst on their quest to Erebor. When Bilbo had returned to the Shire, Ori had begun bothering Nori until he had resigned to start playing it, which was frustrating because Ori would never give up the answers. Nori’s solution, of course, was to cheat by coaxing Balin into giving them away. They both received a thrashing once Ori had discovered what he was up to, and his younger brother even threatened never to speak to him again. It took a lot of charm, and even more grovelling, to earn Ori’s forgiveness, but eventually the younger brother relented and they resumed play. However, from that point on Ori made up his own riddles, so that not even his Master could decipher the answers. Nori had been stumped until he realised that though he might not know the riddles, he knew his younger brother. And therein lied the clues.

“The first bell may sound a lie
But on twelve, truth always tolls
These bells that keep the dead alive
Once struck, are chimed by all
If your hand can make them ring
Your name will never fade
But that will cost you everything
The price is always paid.”

“When next we meet, brother, I hope you’ll have an answer.”

Smiling, Ori pulled on his reins to pivot his pony and followed his Company on a new adventure.

Nori experienced a moment of clarity as the memory drifted away.

Aye, Nori knew his younger brother. Knew that he had not said goodbye to the innocent youth he had been before his first quest, but to a full grown dwarf. One of the most intelligent, bravest, and strongest dwarves Nori had ever known. A warrior-scribe who wanted to write not the stories of others, but his own. To carve his legend into the enduring stone of the Mountain, to be read aloud by dwarves who would not be born for millennia, never forgotten. A dwarf who knew the price for such a legend, and would bravely pay the cost.

“When next we meet, indeed,” Nori muttered to the balrog.

Nori’s thumb flipped through the pages of the book one last time, and then he set it aside on the floor of the alcove.

The torrent was no longer a wild, swirling eddy, but a stream, flowing purposefully, with one course, one destination. Floating along its currents was not desolation, but resolve. Nori understood now why instinct had brought him here. Why he was not feeling distraught. If there was one thing that he knew about his younger brother, it was that he did not want to be mourned. He wanted to be remembered. He wanted his tale to be told.

Somewhere, deep within the dark depths of Moria, Ori’s story lay dormant, waiting to be read.

A legend that Nori would not allow to die.

With determination steaming in his breath, and fervour coursing through his veins, Nori glared straight into the eyes of the balrog. Continuing to lie on his back, and without making a sound, Nori slowly stretched his right arm toward his thigh. As his hand moved past his hip, his fingers deftly unfurled the flap of a small pocket, and he reached within until they traced over the hilt of a dagger, warm leather wrapped firm around cold iron. His fingers tightened, and with reflexes fast as a lightning strike his elbow pulled back, unsheathing the knife. His abdominal muscles flexed, and in one motion, he sat up and thrusted his arm forward, blade sparking as it cut against petrified beast. Nori knew his edge would only dull against dwarven stonework, but to his satisfaction it had etched a mark that would permanently scar the creature’s face. With unwavering purpose, and hazel eyes unblinking, Nori pointed his dagger at the statue, and issued his challenge.

“Ori’s story will be heard, and not even you will be able to stop it.”

Chapter Text

The year Dis celebrated her first decade, the dragon came. She was one of very few dwarves that had been inside the Mountain at the time and lived to remember the carnage. One of few that could recount the enormity of a roar that would quake the rock and scorch the air, how the sound resonated within her core, and how paralysing it was. She would not have made it out alive had it not been for her father, Thrain. Through passageways filled with choking, coal-black smoke they had fled. It was only by chance that they had encountered her grandfather, Thror, and by that same luck they had escaped. She did not remember how they had absconded, only the roar.

And so it was that as Dis made her way across the arcade overlooking the plaza, she was not so startled when Dwalin suddenly cried out. It was unexpected, certainly, but fear was not among the mix of thoughts and emotions that the shout evoked. Most strongly felt was concern. Anything so devastating to the captain of the royal guard would surely impact the Mountain in some form. Dis had lost everything for the Mountain, and if there were any such fiend that would threaten it, she herself would drive a lance through its heart. There was also doubt, for though it had sounded like Dwalin, she had never known him to ever shout out in agony like that. Dis was no dwarf to take action on assumption alone, and so it was her uncertainty which guided her steps towards the arches through which she could confirm what her ears had sensed.

There was also something else that Dis felt. A sentiment that she had tried to reject, had attempted to convince was not a part of her, but could not entirely eradicate. It lived within the darkest depths of her soul, a parasite, small, dormant, waiting to be fed so that it might grow to consume her. As she surveyed the square, and identified Dwalin near the centre, kneeling before a despondent Bofur, shoulders shaking in his grief, this twisted, repugnant emotion feasted. It was only for an instant, no longer than it took for the heart to beat, but long enough that it devoured the sight of Dwalin’s misery and filled her to the brim.

The satisfaction of seeing the dwarf that thrice failed her suffer.

It abhorred her that she felt that way, and after the moment had past her stomach roiled with guilt. Dwalin was loyal, committed, and had given everything to her family. She knew that it was wrong to blame Dwalin for his shortcomings, that he truly did not deserve her loathing. Yet still, sometimes she would look upon him and see not a dwarf who had given so much, but rather a dwarf that had let everything slip through his fingers, and she would have to fight the kindling of her wrath. Cursing her weakness, she buried her hatred under obligation, to her Mountain and her kin. She turned away from the scene, and began a brisk pace along the passageway, the hardened leather of her boots clacking against the mosaic of marble-cut tiles that decorated the stone floor.

As she moved past the dwarves that had stopped to ogle at the spectacle, most of them scholars that had been heading either to or from the great library at the end of the arcade, she spied an apprentice scribe, practically beardless with fine, straw hair tied back without braids, with a physique lithe enough that would serve her purpose. Too distracted to notice her approached, he dropped the parchments he had been carrying when she demanded his attention. “Scribe,” she commanded, “cease your gawking and make yourself useful. I’m sure by now you’ve noticed we’re a guard down. Report to the garrison and find a replacement. Speak to Skirfir, big dwarf, long grey beard, you won’t miss him. He’ll be able to assign someone.” The scribe, knowing better than to ignore an order from the Lady of the Mountain, fumbled for his papers in haste before dashing toward the nearest stairwell. Her duty to the Mountain settled, at least for the moment, Dis proceeded to follow the young scribe in order to fulfill her duty to her kin.

She quickly descended the wide, spiralling, stone-hewn stairs that took her to the lower level, and proceeded into the plaza. She approached Dwalin and Bofur, who had knelt beside his friend in attempt to offer some comfort. Fighting against the coldness, Dis also knelt before her cousin and placed her hand over his, clasping it with as much warmth as she could muster. Bofur had noticed her arrival, and their eyes met.

“What happened?” Dis could see that whatever had put Dwalin in this state had also not been kind to Bofur, and she did not wish for either of them to relive it, but if she was going to be able to do anything at all to help, she simply had to know.

“Received word from Moria after all these years,” Bofur answered somberly. “They perished, the lot of ‘em.” She squeezed Dwalin’s hand, knowing all too well the pain he was feeling, she could not help but empathise with the poor dwarf. In his grief, however, he was unresponsive to her presence.

“The others, do they know?” Dis inquired.

Bofur replied, “Bifur and Bombur have gone to tell Dori, Nori, Eimi and Burin, but who knows how they’re taking it.”

Not well, she suspected. Seven dwarves had left for Moria eighteen years ago; Balin, Floi, Frar, Loni, Nali, Oin, and Ori. Only six ever laid eyes on the underground city itself. The loremaster, Floi, had died valiantly in battle at the Mirrormere. Of those six, no ill word had been received during the five years that they had remained in contact with the settlement, until word had ceased. Dis would personally inform the kin of Frar and Nali that lived under the Mountain. She would also see to it that ravens carried the word. Most of Loni’s kin had either died fighting in the Battle of Five Armies or had remained at the homes in the Iron Hills. Oin’s brother, Gloin, and his family had travelled West to Ered Luin, and then there was Bilbo in the Shire. She would see all this done, but her first priority was to inform King Dain. If there was anything she could do to help those mourning their losses it was to face Dain’s reaction to the terrible news in their place. Dain had never approved of Balin’s quest, and it was begrudgingly that he had given them leave. He was not going to be happy that he had sent such fine dwarves to their death.

With her free hand, she grasped Bofur’s shoulder. “You’re going to need to be strong for Dwalin, at least for a little while,” she told him. “Can you take him somewhere he can mourn?” Bofur nodded, and replied, “If we can get him up I’ll walk him back to the Gold Dragon.”

Dis caressed the side of Dwalin’s face, and said softly to him, “Be strong, Dwalin. Just....” She paused. Thinking of her own brothers, she knew there were no words, only false comfort. The best she could offer was an apology. “I’m sorry.” At least it was sincere. He did not even look at her, so lost he was in his misery. Together, she and Bofur reached under Dwalin’s shoulders and pulled him up. When Bofur was supporting him, Dis released her grip and stood back. Dwalin was slumping, but standing on his own two feet. A start, Dis thought to herself, but there was still a very long road to traverse. She clasped Dwalin’s hand within her own one last time, and to Bofur, she said, “I will meet you at the Gold Dragon as soon as I take care of things here. I will bring the news to Dain.” She let go of Dwalin’s hand, and added, “Stay with him, he should not be alone right now.” Bofur nodded, and together the pair slowly turned and walked out of the plaza. Dis watched for a time; it was only once she had convinced herself that there was nothing more she could do that she turned back towards the royal chambers where she would find Dain.

Chapter Text

As Dis strode towards the Heart the Mountain to meet with Dain, her ears twitched as she heard the quick rhythm of heavy footsteps drum louder and louder from behind. Her pace slowed and she turned her head to see Thorin running to catch her.

Thorin. Third of his name, son of Dain, next in line as King under the Mountain and of all Durin’s Folk.

Born only two years after her youngest, Thorin was roughly the age her own children would have been had they survived the Battle of Five Armies. Thorin had been spared from fighting in that battle; Dain had protected him, kept him at the Iron Hills where it was safe. In fact, Thorin had never seen war, never had to fight for his keep, did not know what it meant to risk everything. All that was his had simply been handed to him. At just over fourteen decades of age, Thorin had lived a life of nothing but comfort and peace, and Dis felt that had made the prince soft. Someday, he would be King under the Mountain. If he was not prepared for conflict, for enemies, for struggle, he would be a weak king. Dis would not allow the Mountain to crumble because its King could not sustain the burden of leadership, and she knew firsthand how heavy the weight could get. She made it her duty to ensure Thorin would be a King strong enough to carry it.

Dis had first ruled as Lady of Durin’s Folk after only twenty-nine years in exile. When her grandfather had been mutilated at the hands of Azog, her father had summoned every dwarf capable of wielding a weapon to Azanulbizar. She would not have been the youngest to follow her father had she marched by his side. Her third cousin, Gloin, had only been sixteen at the time. But, like Thorin, her father had shielded her from the horrors of war, and had charged her with protecting their home, Dunland, in his absence. A female born into the line of Durin was a precious rarity that could not be risked. Her brothers, although far younger than Thorin had been during the Battle of Five Armies, valiantly discovered what it meant to give yourself to a greater cause. Frerin, only nine years older than she, had given everything.

Despite having been placed in the same position as Thorin, there was such a vast difference between Dunland and the Iron Hills that their trials as ruler were incomparable. Thorin had not been tested at all. But for Dis, she had no Mountain, scant resources, a people who could not take up arms should the credible threat of orc attack from the East be realised, and only the experience she had gleaned from her father in observation during their exile. Though she had not fought on the vanguard, nor gambled with the lives of her kin in the game of military strategy, she had to learn very quickly how to play the game of political intrigue in order to support and protect her people and lands. Dis adapted, endured, and survived, and when her kin returned she was a very capable leader.

The second time Dis had been given Durin’s Folk was in Ered Luin, when her brother had set on his quest to reclaim Erebor. Again, she would have gladly marched alongside her brother and her children, but as before, her charge had been her shield. Though she had been left with a Mountain, wealth, a strong people, and no threat of attack from beyond the walls of her home, she instead had to watch out for the knives that would find her back the moment she let down her guard. Thorin had chosen her above the Lords of Broadbeams and Firebeards who had called the dwarven halls of the Blue Mountains home long before the Longbeards had arrived in exile. There were many within those houses that felt that not only did her kin not belong in Ered Luin, but that they also had no right to rule. They uttered whispers of Ered Luin falling as Erebor had, and Moria before that, now that Durin’s Folk were in charge. If that had not been threatening enough, there were also dwarves, even amongst her own kin, that were insulted a woman was ruling in place of a male dwarf, and that her duty was merely to strengthen the line of Durin by bearing as many heirs as she could. But Thorin had not favoured her because she was kin, he had chosen her because she was by far the most accomplished. He knew, from Dunland, and from her counsel in Ered Luin, that she was a fine leader. She did not have to prove it to her brother, but to everyone else, and in order to do so, could not afford to make a single mistake.

Dis knew that at some point, Thorin would be tested. Whether it be war, famine, or cataclysm, as King it would be his duty to lead his people through the struggle, and he would have to bear the weight of each decision. For the Mountain, Dis would ensure that when that time came, Thorin would be ready. As Lady under the Mountain, that was her duty. Dain had given her that title not only in honour of the sacrifice of her children, but also for the reputation she had built in the short time that she ruled Ered Luin. Dain knew her skills were invaluable, and so he had asked her to mentor Thorin. She instructed him in diplomacy, military strategy, the art of negotiation, delegation, speechmaking, when and how to keep secrets, and a good many other skills.

Before the commotion with Dwalin, she had actually been on her way to meet Thorin in the library for a lesson in their history. That he was now racing toward her meant he had started searching for her when she never arrived.

"Dis! Lady Dis!" He started calling out to her as he drew close enough that he did not need to shout, sucking in needed air between words after the exertion of running. She halted, to allow him to catch up. "Rumour has it that something's happened to Dwalin. Is everything alright," he asked, panting as he caught his breath. It concerned Dis that he was so worn out. Part of his training involved daily sessions with Dwalin in the fighting pits where the soldiers practiced, but perhaps he would need to focus less on strength and more on stamina. He was too young to get so tired so quickly. His russet beard and braids would be adorned with copper strands for many more decades before they turned to silver.

"Dwalin has received some rather unfortunate news. I'm actually on my way to meet with your father now and inform him.” Dis paused for a moment of thought. “Now that you’re here, you should probably attend, because this in turn will affect the future of our Mountain. I want you to reflect on the implications." He might as well learn something if he is going to observe, Dis decided. When he is King, he will have to learn to think rationally even when his emotions are trying to control him. The news would not be easy for Thorin to hear; Thorin had grown close to Balin and Ori since his arrival at the Mountain, as they had been tasked by Dain to further his education in languages, culture, and history, at least until they had embarked on their expedition.

Thorin nodded in compliance with Dis’ instruction, and together they continued down the corridor until they reached two heavy, intricately engraved oak doors, each with their own dwarven sentry that began pushing them open Dis and Thorin approached. The stone that was surrounded them opened up to a gaping cavern that was the Heart of the Mountain. The natural light, channeled deep into the Mountain by mirrored tunnels, shaded the prodigious chamber with a golden hues of sundown. It cascaded from windows positioned high behind the dais upon which Dain was throned, illuminating the wide bridges which spanned the great chasm and the great pillars supporting the ceiling.

At the end of the great bridge, before the King, stood those envoys that had been waiting until day’s end to speak with Dain; two emissaries that had travelled from afar to arrange trade agreements, foster diplomatic relationships, or deliver messages. As Dis drew closer, she could see that the diplomats were in fact elven, mostly likely from the Woodland Realm. Dain had worked hard to maintain a prosperous relationship with the silvan elves after the Battle of Five Armies. It appeared that Dis had caught them just as they were finishing their discussion, for before she and Thorin were within range to catch the nature of the conversation, the elves were bowing. Noticing their entrance, the elves also turned to pay their respects to the Lady and prince, before they began gliding along the bridge toward the chamber’s exit.

Dain stood and beamed at Dis and Thorin. "Thorin, Dis, as always you are a sight for tired eyes.” He stretched and began stepping down the dais. “I wasn't expecting a visit from my two favourites under the Mountain!" He clasped his son on the shoulders, and then he and Thorin cracked their heads together. “My goodness, your head is thick! No wonder you’re not buried in your books!” Dain laughed and looked at Dis. “I swear, if you keep riding my boy so hard his skull will be too large for a helmet!” Their eyes met and Dain could see the solemnity in her stare. The smile disappeared from his face and his brow furrowed with concern. “Is everything alright? What matter has brought you here?”

"There has been word from Moria." The last drop of warm sunlight faded from the room. "I’m afraid that the expedition has ended in tragedy. Neither Balin nor any of his Company survive."

At first, nothing, as the words sank. Then, Dain clenched his fist, and he turned to pace a few steps toward the dais. Thorin gasped beside her. There was an eerie silence and stillness in the chamber as the shadows grew thicker around them. It was the same calm that came before a storm. Once Dain had finished contemplating the news, he turned back to Dis, and she could see the fury drawn on his face.

"I told 'im. Told 'im that it would be a waste. The Battle of Azanulbizar would not have happened had your grandfather not gone to that cursed city.” He pointed at Dis, aggressively, fire burning in his eyes. “My father died because of Thror’s lust for that wretched place!” The words cut Dis, but she did not flinch. “That city is poison. I knew it. I remembered. And I warned him.” Dain lowered his arm, and released a long, exasperated sigh. He let go of his anger, and withered as it left him, until Dain was just an old, tired dwarf that had spent too many years watching his kin march to their death. “I’m not going to send an army to avenge them,” Dain said wearily, “Balin knew the risks. He left knowing full well that pit would become his tomb. But I’m not going to allow any dwarf that lives under my protection make the same mistake again.”

The shadows began to dim under the cold silvery lustre of the moon.

“I'm forbidding any dwarf under the Mountain from ever setting foot there again. Moria is taboo, and should any dwarf decide to go there, they can in exile."

Chapter Text

Dwalin felt nothing but the crushing despair.

He had been swept away, carried off by an avalanche of hopelessness and regret that took him far from the plaza outside the royal courts. He did not fight it, he allowed himself to be swallowed up by his anguish. He had failed. He had failed everyone. As far as Dwalin was concerned, he did not even deserve a seat in the halls of Mahal, for how could he confront all those faces he had disappointed. He had failed. He was worthless. Nothing. Better to be forgotten.

Seven times Dwalin had sworn an oath of protection. Seven dwarves he should have given his life for. Seven that had perished, whilst he lived on. Seven failures.

Too many.

He should have been there for Balin. All their life, they had done everything together. It was only natural for Balin, as he started to give life to his dream of Moria, to ask Dwalin to join him. It was with great reluctance that Dwalin had refused. Of course he wanted to go, to join Balin on his quest, to stand by his brother’s side. But he had vowed to protect the Mountain. It had been returned to Durin’s Folk for a hefty price, and Dwalin simply could not turn his back on those that had given everything to pay it. As soon as Balin could see the turmoil he had placed on his younger brother, he tried to relieve the pressure. “It’s a difficult decision, I know. Dain needs you. Thorin needs you. Whatever you decide, you will be doing something great, and you should be proud, brother.”

Standing at the gates of the Mountain before his departure, Balin had asked his brother one last time.

“You’re absolutely sure I cannot change your mind, Dwalin? There’s always a place for you.”

“You’ll be fine without me, Balin. If your wits don’t keep you out of trouble, the smell will,” Dwalin laughed, but it was false. He wanted more than anything to go. If something were to happen to his brother, Dwalin would never forgive himself. He felt himself tearing apart.

They held each other’s shoulders, and together they cracked heads. Before they parted, Balin eyes met his brother’s.

“Well, I’d best be off. The city isn’t going to restore itself.” He beamed warmly. “Take care, and look after the Mountain while I’m gone. I hope someday to welcome you to the halls of Khazad-dum, when the city prospers once again.”

Balin turned and began saying his farewells to his wife and child. As Dwalin watched, he could feel the heat in his eyes, the sweat in his palms. He was trembling, struggling to keep his fears contained. Afraid that this would be the last time he ever saw his brother alive, that by not going, he would not be protecting his kin. He had to be strong for Balin. Dwalin had to believe he’d made the right decision, but struggled to convince himself over the growing doubt and regret. He watched in silence as his brother straddled his pony and began riding down the road to Dale. He could not control his quivering.

Dwalin felt the gentle touch on his shoulder.

As Dwalin turned to the sensation, he was faced with his prince, Fili. It was no longer a bright spring morning; the late winter sun was now obscured behind a ceiling of dark, grey clouds. Looking at the young dwarf, Dwalin could see the trepidation drawn on his face. Fili was adorned in light battle armor, and held swords sheathed on both sides at the hip, with a warhammer equipped at his back. Dressed for the oncoming battle.

“Dwalin…”

He gave his prince a hug. It was okay to be anxious. Dwalin remembered how he had felt, the first time he had stood before the battlefield. The drawn-out anticipation was unsettling.

He sensed the approach of another, and Dwalin shifted to welcome Kili into the embrace. They stood like that, for a time. When they released, Dwalin placed a hand on each of their shoulders.

“Be strong, lads.” Dwalin told them. “You’ve been trained for this. You can handle it.”

“There must be some other way, Dwalin,” Kili replied. “Some way we can snap uncle out of his madness, make him see reason.”

Dwalin was not blind. He knew Kili did not want war between the elves and the dwarves. He’d seen the way the lad had looked at Tauriel. Before they had embarked on the quest to Erebor, Dwalin would have been repulsed by the affection - he had no love for elves. But Dwalin also aware that he knew nothing of love. He’d seen the way Bilbo had been able to make Thorin smile, and Dwalin hadn’t seen a joyful expression on his King in over a century. If the elf girl could bring his prince that same happiness, Dwalin would accept it.

Regardless of how Thorin felt about Bilbo, though, he had been completely taken over by the gold sickness, and had felt betrayed by the hobbit’s actions. Dwalin himself had tried to convince Thorin otherwise, but there was no way to reach his King. The clash between dwarves and elves was inevitable, and Dwalin was powerless to stop it.

“The most important thing is that you stay by my side, lads.” Dwalin told them. “You cannot protect anyone if you don’t stay safe yourselves. I will be your shield. If it gets too much out there, breathe.”

As if prompted, Fili exhaled slowly, then steeled himself. “I won’t let you down, Dwalin. We’ll all make it.”

Dwalin yearned for more time. He knew that the lads might feel ready, but nothing could ever truly prepare them for what they were about to face. There was still too much to be said. Too much to be learned. And there was no more time. The sounds of war cries began reaching the Mountain. The Battle had begun. He could hear the shouts of men, and the trumpet of elves. But through that, the guttural screams of orcs and the howls of wargs; for Dwalin, those sounds were not expected, but unmistakable.

Thorin’s deep roar carried over the chaos. “Rally to me, my kinsfolk!”

Called to war, Dwalin joined in the battle cry as he turned to fight by his King’s side.

Dwalin felt the hands clasp around his own.

There was no warmth to their touch. They felt cold. Dwalin was no longer running out onto the foothills towards the battle. The princes were no longer by his side, they had now left this world. Instead, he now found himself back within the Mountain, inside one of the royal bed chambers. Scarlet curtains of thick velvet were draped behind a large, acacia bed. It was dark, but for the torches that flickered on either side of the room, their light shimmering against the armour, shield, and sword that had been cast aside on the floor of the room. In the bed lay his King, silk blankets hiding the stained bandages that had been wrapped around his bare chest. Dwalin had knelt beside the bed and was holding Thorin’s hand. Of all those he had failed, this loss had been the most devastating.

“Dwalin.” When Dwalin heard his King speak again, he sounded so hoarse, the life was draining from him. Fili and Kili had given themselves to keep their uncle alive until now, but it hadn’t been enough.

It should have been Dwalin.

“Is… is Bilbo…” His voice was feeble, but it was Thorin. The gold sickness had waned, and Dwalin was relieved that his King had returned before the end.

“Aye, Bilbo’s here. I can fetch him for you.” Dwalin knew it would be the last thing he did for his King, so that things could be made right before he drifted away.

“I… I need to tell him… He needs to know... that I’m sorry. That I was insane. That I love him.”

Dwalin squeezed tighter. He fought back the tears. He had to be strong for his King. “You will tell him. I will find him.” It was the least he could do.

And so Dwalin stood up and turned from his King to fulfill his duty. As he crossed the threshold out of the bedroom, Dwalin did not step out into the corridor, but rather found himself moving between the canvas of a military tent. Far from the Mountain now, Dwalin was standing before the river Celebrant. A clear, azure sky blanketed the encampment, but the winter sun shed no heat with its light. The grass that lined the hills not immediately beside the river had been painted gold, and for the first time in Dwalin’s life, he felt claustrophobic between the looming mountain walls that surrounded the valley. He ran his hand over his head and felt the thick strands of his mohawk run between his fingers.

Dwalin’s attention was suddenly caught by the approach of two dwarves that he had not seen in over a century. The younger dwarf had a short beard, but long, goldenrod braids framed his face, which held eyes as blue as the sky. He wore light armour and carried a double-bitted axe. The older and taller of the two had not a single hair on his head, which instead had been decoratively inked with Cirth runes. His beard, however, reached all the way to his firm, round stomach, which was encased in heavy armour. A large maul was sheathed upon his back. The large dwarf opened his arms as he approached, and enveloped Dwalin in a hug.

Dwalin felt the hands caress his face, and heard the words, “Be strong.”

“Of course, father,” Dwalin replied, the quaver in his voice revealing his anxiety.

“Frerin and I will be riding ahead in the vanguard. I want you and Balin to follow in the main.”

This wasn’t how it had been planned. They were all supposed to march into battle together, and fight by each other’s side.

“But father, what if something happens? We won’t have each other’s backs.” His heart was beating rapidly.

“Just remember your training, my boy. You are among Durin’s finest warriors. Thorin will be leading the mainguard, and I need you and Balin to stay by his side.”

“Father…” Dwalin started, but Fundin placed his hands over his son’s shoulders.

“No soldier can be in more than one place. You can’t protect everyone. In fact, you won’t be able to protect anyone if you don’t look after yourself first. No matter what happens, the most important thing is that you live, Dwalin.”

After everything, that was the one thing Dwalin had been able to do.

Frerin approached and ruffled Dwalin’s mohawk. “And make sure you keep my brother out of trouble.” He was grinning, but there was no mirth in his eyes. Dwalin nodded. “I promise,” he replied.

A broken promise.

The two dwarves turned, and began walking upstream, towards the Mirrormere. As they moved away, the world dimmed. The crystal blue water of the stream darkened until it was black, and the sky disappeared behind a thick canopy of green. His memory of this place, at this time, was hazy, but Dwalin knew why he had been brought here. Of all his failures, this was his greatest. There had been no goodbye.

Dwalin felt the cup between his fingers.

Though they had been travelling in the greatwood for days, hardly a word had been shared between Dwalin and his companions. They had tried to keep to the path, but it seemed to wind in circles around the massive boles that had grown within the wood. It was yet another night, after what seemed like too many to count, and Dwalin, as always, had taken first watch. Supplies had begun to dwindle, and his waterskin was almost bone dry. He was parched, and despite the blackness of the river, Dwalin was struggling against the temptation to quench his thirst. He had begun reasoning with himself, weighing the risks. He was so thirsty, another few days without a good drink and he would no longer be able to think clearly. The river was flowing steadily enough, so the water probably wasn’t stagnant, though he was unsure of what contributed to its dark colour. If he were to boil the water, that might be enough purify it. Just one little drink. That was all he needed. A sip.

He knelt beside the stream and collected a mouthful with a scoop of his cup. It did not appear muddy. He brought it to the campfire and allowed the water to stew. Once he had deemed it long enough, he allowed his beverage to cool. When it was no longer steaming, he clasped it and brought it to his parted lips, and allowed the clear liquid to slide over his tongue and down his throat.

It was bitter. That was unexpected. An overwhelmingly strong flavour that burned, and Dwalin began coughing. The forest faded around him, the shadows subsided, replaced by the homely, golden light of braziers and torches. He was in a tavern, and Dwalin recognised it as the Gold Dragon. The cushioned leather soft against his back, the air warm on his skin, and the scent of roasted meat and spices filled his nostrils. A relieved Bofur sitting across from him, and standing nearby, Nombur, son of Bombur.

Dwalin had been brought back.

He felt everything.

He stood, and Bofur reached out to him. “Dwalin… it’s alright. It was one of Nori’s brews. Thought maybe a hard drink’d bring you back. You were lost.”

“I never should have come back,” Dwalin replied bitterly. “It should have been me. Not them. I failed them all.”

“Dwalin… You can’t blame yourself,” Bofur started, but the big dwarf had already begun sliding out of the booth and was attempting to get to the door. He stumbled, light headed. He hadn’t eaten in some time, and the concoction he’d just consumed was very potent. He steadied himself, but Bofur, who had followed him, grabbed his arm.

“Dwalin, please, it’ll be okay. Just stay, Dis’ll be here…”

Dis. No, Dwalin thought. He would not be able to face Dis.

He shook his wrist out of Bofur’s grasp and continued toward the door.

“Just leave me, Bofur. I need to be alone.”

He pushed his way through the door and out onto the street. As the day turned to night the crowds that filled the road had begun to thin. Dwalin lumbered away from Bombur’s tavern, keeping to the wall for balance. He did not want to be seen. He turned into the first adjacent alley he found, so that he might be able to wander aimlessly in the backstreets. He had no idea where he was going, or what he would do. He was worthless. A failure. There was nowhere under the Mountain he could go to escape that truth.

Away from the fires that danced in the streets, the alley was cold and dark. His eyes hadn’t quite adjusted to the shadows, but he had the trained ears of a royal guardsmen. Dwalin never missed the faint scrape of soft leather against hard stone. Another dwarf lurked in the darkness; graceful, but not enough to sneak past Dwalin.

Dwalin was not alone, and he knew the sort that lurked in the alleyways. Many thoughts ran through Dwalin's mind.

A thief, perhaps.

Maybe he would not take kindly to being caught by a guard.

Should it come to that, would he fight?

He heard the sound of metal slide against leather, as a dagger was unsheathed. Instinctively, Dwalin tensed, readying to defend himself, but he resisted it.

No, Dwalin told himself. Just let him take me. I have nothing to live for. I’ve never been able to protect anyone. I am utterly worthless.

Dwalin closed his eyes and gave himself to the stranger.

The shadow lunged.

Chapter Text

He was barely recognisable, shuffling clumsily down the dark backstreets, shoulders hunched, head downcast, but it was most definitely Dwalin. Despite the shadows, there was no mistaking his shape; smooth head, thick arms, broad shoulders draped in fur, there was hardly a dwarf as muscular or as tall. There was no doubt it was Dwalin, but it was not the Dwalin that Nori knew.

He had never seen his friend so broken.

Nori had been on his way back to Dori’s shop, and as always, cutting through the alleyways was the most efficient route. He had reached the familiar passageways of the market district, near Bombur’s tavern, when he realised another was stumbling their way through the narrow lanes. Nori stilled and remained hidden, until he identified the dwarf that had staggered into view.

Dwalin seemed so lost. He obviously hadn’t taken the tragic news well. It appeared as though he’d been drinking, but it was difficult for Nori to guess how much or for how long. There was something frustrating about seeing his friend like this. Dwalin had always seemed impervious to all the misfortune they had ever encountered, but now he was teetering on the brink of despair. Nori did not know how to respond to such a sight.

It was simply out of the question that Nori was going to leave Dwalin to fumble around in the shadows. Nori himself had been lost, and though it had been unintended, it was Dwalin that had reached him, and brought him back. Nori felt obligated to return the service. But how was he to reach Dwalin? He'd had so little to do with Dwalin, he really didn’t know the large dwarf all that well. Dwalin lived in a class completely above him, playing knight in the royal courts, whereas Nori was just a scamp, a nobody. He had joined Thorin’s quest only to watch out for his brothers, not because he truly believed in the cause. If Nori were to be blunt, he would argue that he didn’t believe in anything. He just took each day as it came. But Dwalin lived for his King, and his Mountain. He served, and he fought. Perhaps, Nori thought, that was the key. He would not reach Dwalin with words; they’d hardly exchanged more than a handful since they’d known each other, and it was doubtful Dwalin was in a state to listen anyway. He just needed to speak a language that Dwalin would understand.

Nori inched forward, just a fraction, and Dwalin paused.

A response.

He could see Dwalin tense as his warrior instincts kicked in. Yes, Nori thought to himself, this is the sort of place where you need to stay on your guard. It was the first sign that the old Dwalin was still there. Maybe this is how I can bring you back. You just need to be reminded that you can fight through this, that you’re strong enough.

Nori slowly reached down and pulled his dagger from its leather scabbard. Dwalin did not move a muscle. Is he waiting for something, Nori asked himself. If you won’t start fighting, I’ll make you.

Like a cat, Nori sprang forward. Two steps was all it took to close the distance, and his blade was across Dwalin’s throat. If this had been a serious tussle, Dwalin would be finished. Too easy, Nori thought to himself, and from so close he looked into Dwalin’s eyes to find them closed. He isn’t fighting! He’s given up! This infuriated Nori. How dare he just resign like this? This is not what Balin would have wanted. Maddened, he threw the knife aside, and clutched Dwalin’s tunic by the fur at the collar. He pulled Dwalin down to his level, leant back and slammed his forehead into the big oaf.

If there was one thing that could be said for Dwalin, he had an incredibly thick skull. Nori did not usually resort to such barbaric tactics, and consequently his peaks were starting to look dishevelled and he was seeing spots. It seemed as though Nori had landed the blow just above the bridge of Dwalin’s nose, based on the way Dwalin held his face as he recoiled. Nori wasn’t about to give Dwalin any quarter, however, and shuffled forward so that he was pummel some sense into the lout. Nori’s right jab caught Dwalin in the rib, but his left ended up in Dwalin’s palm. Two thoughts immediately raced through Nori’s mind. Firstly, Yes, that’s it, fight back! This was followed very swiftly by That’s quite a grip he has! Suddenly Nori felt like he was trapped in a very dangerous position, and that making Dwalin angry had possibly been the worst, and maybe even the last, idea he’d ever had.

Nori was not about to give up easily, however. This was about more than just knocking some sense into Dwalin. This was Nori’s first test. If he was truly serious about embarking for Moria, he would be facing against terrible adversary. Nori wouldn't be able to rely on others. Not like before. When the Company had ventured to Erebor, they had faced trolls, goblins, orcs, elves, and war. Each time, the Company had escaped by the hairs on their beards, and Nori hadn't been able to do a thing, except survive. That simply would not work if Nori was going to do it alone. It had to be different. This time, he would need to be able to win against anything that went against him. Dwalin was the strongest dwarf under the Mountain, and Nori knew that if he could not handle this, he didn’t have much chance of making it to Moria and back.

So as Dwalin’s fist clenched and Nori felt his bones cracking under the enormous pressure, he grit his teeth, and with his right hand deftly loosened a small knife from his sleeve, twirled it in his fingers and poked Dwalin’s hand, enough to pierce leather and draw blood, and more importantly, release his grip. Nori managed to jump back and avoid Dwalin’s steel knuckle dusters just in time. Nori’s left hand throbbed. It was useless, unless he wanted to risk severe damage, which he did not. Dwalin was suffering the same handicap, growling as he clutched his own hand, but Nori didn’t feel like the odds were even yet.

Now that Dwalin was awake, brute force was not going to work. Nori needed to play to his strengths. He was lithe, agile, nimble, and had the stamina to outlast almost any opponent in a long fight. None of that played well in the confined alleyway. There was barely enough room to stay out of Dwalin’s range, let alone run about freely. Nori had just enough time to note that there was slightly more room on his left, and darted in that direction as the giant to his front suddenly charged forward. Dwalin was annoyingly quick, and Nori had to continue sidestepping as an arm reached out to catch him. Fortunately, it was Dwalin’s weaker arm. Nori had not sparred with Dwalin in some time, and it was astonishing just how fast such a large dwarf could move.

Nori continued circling around Dwalin, tucking and rolling to keep below any of Dwalin’s swings. His braids were completely unraveled at this point, and if Dwalin’s eyes had adjusted to the lack of light he probably would not recognise Nori. Which was fine, because Nori had not finished yet. He still had to win. Jumping to his feet, Nori prepared to surprise Dwalin with a precise thrust to the kidney, but Dwalin had already turned had launched himself in Nori’s direction. He caught Nori and shoved him against the wall, knocking the air out of his lungs. He felt Dwalin’s thick forearm against his neck, the other pressing at his stomach. Nori was suspended, his feet did not even touch the ground.

“IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT?” Dwalin roared, and Nori could feel his hot, wet breath spatter against his face.

“No…” Nori began hoarsely.

“THEN WHAT?” Dwalin demanded.

“...ri…”

Dwalin didn’t understand, and he relaxed his hold, just a little.

For Nori, it was enough.

He lifted his knees so that his feet were pressed against Dwalin’s abdomen and he kicked as hard as he could. He fell to the floor as Dwalin was pushed back. Nori leapt forward and tackled Dwalin, bringing him to the ground. Nori reached for Dwalin’s hands and pinned them down, his legs straddling Dwalin’s torso. Breathing heavily, their eyes met, and Dwalin seemed to focus under Nori’s gaze.

“Nori?” Dwalin asked, his unscarred eyebrow cocking in confusion. Nori did not have an answer. He was exhausted, and ending up on top of Dwalin like this, he suddenly found the situation ridiculous. And so he started to laugh. Relaxing his grip, he collapsed on top of Dwalin, giggling like a lunatic. Dwalin just lay on his back, speechless.

Eventually, the amusement wore off, and Nori sat up. He studied Dwalin, who was staring back, still looking utterly bewildered. Nori owed Dwalin a reply, and so he said, “You were looking a little lost. Thought I might help bring you back.”

“By trying to kill me?!” Dwalin demanded.

Nori frowned. “At first, it seemed like you were ready to accept it.”

Dwalin turned his head away. “Aye.”

Nori didn’t say anything to that. He sat quietly for a moment, and then reached into a pouch to fish out some clean cloth and a small flask. Nori took Dwalin’s hand, unstrapped the leather band of his knuckle duster and slowly pulled it off. Once removed, Nori examined the wound on Dwalin’s hand, where Nori had stuck his knife. He opened the flask and poured a clear liquid on the wound, cleaning away the blood. Dwalin winced, but did not make a sound. Once clean, Nori dabbed at the cut with the cloth, and then proceeded to wrap Dwalin’s hand. Once finished, Nori rested Dwalin’s hand on his chest.

For a while, neither spoke. It was Dwalin that broke the silence.

“Nori.”

“Yes Dwalin?”

“D’you think you could get off?”

Nori considered for a moment. “That depends. Are you going to do something reckless.”

Dwalin sighed. “No. I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I’ll figure it out.”

“You’re not doing this alone,” Nori assured him.

Nori lifted his leg and rolled off Dwalin. He hopped up, and then gave the larger dwarf his good hand, and helped pull him up.

“Come on, Dwalin. I’m taking you home.”

“I think you sprained my ankle,” Dwalin grumbled.

“Then I’ll carry you home,” Nori compromised.

Dwalin did not resist, and so he leaned his weight onto his good leg with Nori’s support. He rested his arm over Nori’s shoulders, and together they limped off for Dwalin’s home.

***

Nori carried Dwalin all the way back to his house in the neighbourhood where the dwarven nobility resided. Side by side, they navigated the dark backstreets instead of the wider, illuminated streets, and encountered no other dwarves en route. It became a little difficult for Nori as he unlocked the front door with his one good hand, and even more so when he was confronted with the stairs which led to Dwalin’s bed chamber, but he managed. Once they were beside the wide, mahogany bed, Dwalin rolled off Nori to lay atop the thick furs which covered a canvas mattress filled with straw, head placed upon a down and feather pillow. He lay on his back, arms outstretched.

“Will you be alright, Dwalin,” Nori asked, looking down at his friend. “Or do I need to tie you down and hold you in place until morning?” He wasn’t entirely sure why he found that idea so appealing.

Dwalin grunted. “I’ll be okay. I promise. I just…” He struggled to phrase his question. “How is it that you’re holding on?”

Nori turned, and looked out towards the open door, to the corridor. Out there was the path that would take him far from the Mountain, all the way to the Misty Mountains. Where Ori still lived on in his legend. For Nori, the answer was simple.

“I haven’t said goodbye.”

Dwalin said nothing.

Nori stepped towards the door. “Go to sleep, Dwalin,” he suggested. “With each day things will get a little easier.” As Nori placed his hand upon the knob, he heard Dwalin murmur his name.

“Nori.”

“Yes?”

“Thank you.”

Nori closed the door, climbed carefully down the stairs and locked the main entrance as he exited Dwalin’s home.

His hand still ached from when Dwalin had crushed it, and Nori thought bitterly that though he had managed to pin Dwalin, it was only with a cheap trick that he’d gained the upper hand.

It wasn’t a true victory.

He was weak.

***

Nori returned to Dori’s shop to find it closed. There were no light glowing from the windows, and the entrance had been locked. He fished a key out of his pocket, and with careful, practiced motions, he opened the door. From many a late return home he knew how to avoid disturbing the bells dangling on the other side. Slowly, and gently, Nori entered, and closed the door behind him without so much as a click or a thud. The boutique was silent and still, but the peace was deceptive. Nori did not want to torment his brother, but having seen the state of Dwalin he could not imagine how Dori must have suffered. Nori regretted that his instinct had been so selfish. He only hoped that he could be there for his brother now.

Dori always had an appreciation for finery, and had spent a portion of his fourteenth share on various elegancies and comforts. Among these included stylish carpets from the South; intricately weaved patterns of dyed wool rolled across the stone floor which felt warm and soft on bare foot, and also, if you were the sort to sneak in late at night, absorbed any noise that would have come from one’s boot. This was a feature Nori took advantage of as he noiselessly crept through the shop, maneuvering his way around oak cabinets displaying garments of silk, satin, flax, ramie, wool, and fur. Nori continued past the counter and carefully open the door to the back room. Nori found himself alone, and so he proceeded to tiptoe up the stairs which would take him to the living area. As Nori walked across the landing to the living area he caught the sight of two dwarves huddled together on the couch in the sitting room. Dori was nestled on Bifur’s right, arm wrapped around his chest, head leaning into the crook of his neck. Bifur had an arm around Dori, and was gently stroking him on the shoulder. The other hand was clasping Dori’s, and he was gently brushing it with his thumb. His cheek rested upon Dori’s forehead.

Nori was glad Bifur had stayed to provide comfort to his brother. Bifur looked up and spotted Nori, his eyes filled with dry sorrow. He motioned for Nori to approach and patted the cushion to his left.

Dori stirred and saw his brother. Nori sat beside his brother and wrapped his arms around him.

“He’s gone, Nori. Our little baby brother.”

Nori pressed his forehead against Dori’s. Dori sounded so empty. Nori did not have the words to make everything better. There weren’t any. But Nori hadn’t given up; a piece of his brother still lived and he was determined to find it. He hadn’t originally planned to say anything, but seeing the despair on his brother’s face, Nori desperately wanted to give his brother something to cling onto, some small hope. He pulled back and met Dori’s gaze.

“I’m going to Moria,” he whispered. “Ori was a scribe, and right now his story is waiting to be told. I’m going to find it, bring it home, and share it with everyone. It’s what he would have wanted. I know it will be dangerous, but I’ve handled far worse.”

Nori was not sure what to expect, but he had presumed Dori would most likely despise the idea, and had braced himself for a fight. But Dori closed his eyes and contemplated silently for a moment, and when he opened them again, they were focussed. Dori’s response caught Nori completely off guard.

“I’m going with you.”

Nori had not anticipated that, and his eyes widened at the declaration. He saw Bifur, who was nodding. The mute dwarf pointed to himself, and then pointed his fist to Nori, extended his thumb and little finger, and slid the handshape from one side to the other, and back again.

Me too.

Nori’s jaw opened in protest, but Dori was determined. “You can’t stop us from coming with you. If you’re doing this, then you’re not doing it alone.”

Nori contemplated whether he would be able to change their minds. He hadn’t intended to put their lives in danger. His hand throbbed, and suddenly Nori was thinking that maybe their proposal wasn’t such a bad idea. A proper plan would need to be devised, he wouldn’t be able to make things up as he went along. He would be responsible for their safety. But he wouldn’t be alone. It was a long road to Moria, and making the journey by himself would be long, difficult, and risky. The more he considered the idea, the more sensible it seemed that he should have a company go with him, as Thorin did, when he called for those that would follow him to Erebor. Alone he was weak, but together, they were strong.

It was clear to Nori that he should not undertake this quest by himself.

“Very well then,” Nori yielded. “We’re going to Moria.”

Nori stayed with Dori and Bifur, quietly making plans until he was captured by a dreamless slumber.

Chapter Text

As the sun began to rise over the skyline, painting the sky in vivid shades of amber and ultramarine, three ravens took flight from Ravenhill. Harbingers of sadness, each had been tasked with carrying the terrible news of the tragedy that had occurred deep within the underground city of Moria to the distant family and friends of those dwarves that had lost their lives. The eldest and slower of the trio, Cau, separated from her companions and flew to the East, bound for the Iron Hills. The other two, Oär, and her brother Wark, were lively, stalwart ravens, capable of flying the long journey West, across the Wilderland and over the Misty Mountains, all the way to the Shire and faraway peaks of Ered Luin beyond. This was not the first time the two had crossed Rhovanion and Eriador, but for Oär, it was the first time she had heard a song floating on the breeze that called to her by name.

She and her brother had not been flying for very long; from the Mountain they had soared south-west, and were high above the Kingdom of Dale. Their intended route would take them in that direction until they spotted the peaks that rose from the deep green sea of Mirkwood. From there, they would fly alongside the Dark Mountains, their westerly course taking them over the High Pass that cut through the Misty Mountains. Once they had crossed over to the West, they would follow the East-West Road to Hobbiton, where Oär would bid Wark farewell. Alone, she would continue on, veering to the north-west to pass between the Tower Hills and Hills of Evendium until her destination, the Blue Mountains, spanned the horizon. They had not even made it over the borders of the greenwood before she heard the melody, and once she had, she knew that their plans were changed. It was soft, but compelling. Together, the birds commenced a swift descent, diving to the source of the music.

Spiralling down toward the boundary of the forest, Oär and Wark caught sight of a man standing alone in the wilderness, below the branches of an ancient oak. A burly figure with long white hair that flowed from his face and head, giving away his age. Draped in long robes, azure as the midday sun, he was easy to spot against the green. It was his voice that boomed deeply through the air, summoning them. Slowing their descent as they approached, the ravens gracefully perched on the elder’s forearms, balancing with care so as to not drive their claws into man’s flesh. Once settled, he carefully folded his arms around. The ravens met his eyes, but it was an unblinking, milky white that returned their gaze. All at once, his tune was quieter than a whisper, and the birds listened with intent. The lyrics did not stop until the sun had peeked over the edge of the world. A grave message had been shared, and with it, instructions. Once all had been sung, the man spread out his arms and the ravens took flight. They did not fly to the West. Wark, the faster of the two, travelled east, beating his wings furiously in an effort to catch Cau before she arrived at the Iron Hills. Oär made her way back to Ravenhill, so that the man’s song would be repeated and all the birds of the Lonely Mountain had heard the melody.

It would be more than a decade before she would see the Blue Mountains again. Until then, her original message would remain undelivered.

As the ravens departed, the old man’s eyes unclouded, revealing hazel irises flaked with gold. He was blinking as his pupils readjusted when a gruff whining sliced through the silence of the countryside.

“Next time I’m talking to the birds, Pallando,” the voice uttered from the other side of the oak. “Your cacophony was enough to drive away even the most vile creature that lurks within these woods.”

“Consider it a blessing that I have protected us so; you are indebted to me, Alatar,” Pallando responded.

Alatar jumped out from behind the great tree, and the untrained eye would think Pallando’s reflection had stepped out from a mirror. The differences were subtle, but Alatar was a little smaller than his larger partner, and quite athletic, despite his age. His beard was also shorter, and his hair greyer. His robe was tailored identically, but had been decorated with the debris of the earth upon which he had been sitting. “Indebted! Preposterous! You know full well that I am the only thing keeping you safe so close to the wood!”

“Even so, tonight, food and lodging is on you,” Pallando smirked. “I’ve already completed my share of work for the day.”

Alatar began sputtering. “The sun has barely peeked over the horizon and you dare say such a thing?” He crossed his arms, sulkily. “I hunted yesterday.”

“Yes, you did, for like today it was I that did the singing,” Pallando retorted. “Much as you complain, I am far better at getting the birds to listen.” He turned and began walking away from the forest and across the grassy plains.

Alatar stepped quickly to catch up. “And what of Sornairë? Did she do as she was asked,” he enquired.

“She completed her task admirably.” Pallando explained. “It may have taken a long time to find her, but she was definitely the one we needed. She played her role, and now we must play ours.”

Alatar frowned. “We haven’t ventured this far West for some time. Are you certain there’s absolutely nothing else we can do in the East? Their forces will only continue to rebuild and regroup.”

“There isn’t anything we can do about that. Not anymore,” Pallando sighed. “The rest must come from the dwarves.”

“I still feel as though we’re playing at a disadvantage.”

“That may be true, but we can still win. As long as the Mountain does not fall, all is not lost. We simply need to take the hand of the fate, and guide it.”

“You make it sound so easy, Pallando,” Alatar huffed.

“It won’t be easy, my dear Alatar. There is much to be done.” Before Alatar’s next question, Pallando preemptively answered. “Our next task is to reveal ourselves. Soon there will be a funeral, and our attendance is required.”

They walked in silence for a short time through the long grass, before Alatar broke the tranquility again. “Do you think Gandalf will murder us, should he ever find out what we’ve done?”

Pallando blanched. “I find I sleep easier if I don’t think about it.”

Chapter Text

Sleep did not come easy for Dwalin. Tossing restlessly, once his eyes finally did close for more than a few moments, he found himself standing in the plaza. He’d forgotten why he was even there in the first place. No matter how much he tried, he could not leave, he was affixed to the ground as though the stone floor had swallowed his feet. The anxiety washed over him as he anticipated Bofur’s arrival with the news that would change his life. But it was not his friend that appeared. It was Balin. His brother approached slowly, and Dwalin began to struggle harder as he tried to reach him, to hold his brother one last time. Balin stopped just out of arm’s length. With a look of disappointment, he mouthed a phrase wordlessly to Dwalin. He didn’t need to hear the words to know what his brother was trying to say; the lips were easy to read.

“Failure.”

Balin then turned and began walking away. Dwalin tried desperately to lift his feet, but they were heavier than lead. He could not run. Could not catch Balin. He was powerless. As Balin approached the edge of the square, the orcs emerged, and armed with bloody swords, maces, and spear they flooded the plaza. He couldn’t see his brother anymore. He was surrounded. Suddenly, Dwalin was no longer the hardened warrior that lived under the Mountain, he was the young, frightened dwarf seeing battle for the first time at Azanulbizar. It was too much.

He awoke, damp from sweat that dripped from his skin.

The images followed Dwalin from his nightmare to the waking world as he opened his eyes to the pitch-black darkness of his room. The orcs continued to swarm across his eyes, and he was unable to discern if he was truly awake or still asleep. He felt paralysed. It was the jolt of pain he felt in his right hand as he tightly grasped the blankets brought him back to reality.

Nori.

He clenched his fist harder. His hand stung, but it was real.

The words that had been exchanged echoed in Dwalin’s mind.

“With each day things will get a little easier.”

It was a side of Nori he’d never seen before.

With shaking hands he used some flint, iron, and char cloth that he kept by his bed to light a slow-burning wax candle. The softly illuminated, familiar surroundings offered some small peace, but not enough. Feeling hot and clammy under his clothes, Dwalin removed the knuckle-duster on his right hand, his furs, wool shirt and cotton underclothes and tossed the clothing on the ground beside the bed. He then untied and kicked off his boots, pulled off his socks, unfastened his belt and stripped himself of his leather pants, carefully so as to not agitate the soreness in his left ankle. Completely naked, Dwalin sat on the bed. With the soft fur of the blanket brushing against the sensitive underside of his muscular thighs, and his feet settled firmly upon the smooth, stone floor, Dwalin steadily breathed in the cool, moist cavern air that touched his skin. He lifted his bandaged hand and inspected it under the flickering glow of the candle. There was a dry, crimson stain at the back of his hand, but he didn’t untie the dressing to inspect further. It had been expertly wrapped; tight, without constraining the flow of blood nor limiting his mobility.

Nori had taken care of him. That had been totally unexpected.

Dwalin lay back down upon the bed, his injured hand suspended above him as he examined it. Did Nori even understand how Dwalin felt? He must. Little Ori had also been lost. Ori was not the youngest member of Thorin’s Company, but he was of those that had accompanied his King outside the royal line of Durin. The youngest to volunteer. He had never seen battle, yet courageously fought beside his companions time and time again as they had made their way to Erebor. Every member of the Company had watched out for the brave little dwarf, even Dwalin. Nori must have felt that need to protect Ori even more so, as his elder brother, even if he never showed it like Dori had.

“I haven’t said goodbye.”

Dwalin lowered his right hand beside him, his left tracing up along the fur that lined his firm stomach to rest upon the thick pelt that covered his broad chest. Dwalin could not make sense of what Nori had said, and many ideas raced through his head. Perhaps Nori was in denial; that he believes that somehow there’s a small chance that Balin’s Company might have survived? It seemed like small hope to cling on to. Almost desperate. But Dwalin had not seen desperation in Nori’s eyes. He had seen determination. Resolve. Strength.

Dwalin closed his eyes, and tried to draw some of that vigour from Nori’s words as exhaustion slowly carried him back to sleep.

This time it only felt like he had blinked before was roused by the sound of thumping. At first, Dwalin could not discern whether or not he was dreaming lucidly. He opened his eyes to the dim light of what remained of his bedside candle, and waited until he heard the drumming again, coming from downstairs on the other side of his front door. Shuffling to the side of the bed, he sat up and picked up his leather trousers and wool shirt, and slipped them on. He stood to find he still could not quite put all of his weight on his left foot. Limping, he exited the room and made his way down the stairs. The pounding continued sporadically until he opened the door to reveal Dis, wearing the same clothing as yesterday, her tired eyes still cutting him like cold steel.

“My lady,” Dwalin greeted formally. Dwalin knew she despised him, even though she tried to bury those feelings. He had failed her so many times that he felt totally undeserving of her forgiveness; he had not even sought it. He knew how important the Mountain was to her, after everything she had lost, and so the best he could offer her was his continuing service to its people.

“I expected to find you at the Gold Dragon last night. Instead, all I found was Bofur, pitifully drunk, offering weak excuses about how you wanted to be alone. I’m going to be having a word with him, once he sobers up.” Dwalin recalled Bofur trying to keep him from leaving, and he almost felt sorry for the poor dwarf. Dis did not give Dwalin a chance to defend Bofur, however. She had a tendency to get to the point as quickly as possible. “Are you fit for duty, or do you need to be relieved, so that you can mourn?”

Dwalin clenched his right fist and thought of Nori. Wallowing in his misery is not what Balin would have wanted. Somehow, Nori had moved on, and Dwalin needed to do the same.

“I’ll report for duty as soon as I’ve cleaned myself up.”

Her expression seemed to soften, as Dis took a moment to respond. She placed a hand on Dwalin’s shoulder. “You’re allowed to grieve, Dwalin. No one will hold it against you. I won’t either.”

Dwalin was not sure how to take the sudden comfort, but he knew he would not be able to shed another tear, even if he tried. He was empty.

“I’ll be alright, Dis, thank you. With each day it will get easier.” As Dwalin repeated Nori’s words, he felt stronger, as though saying them aloud was enough to make them truth. “Just tell me where I’m needed.”

“If you’re sure you’re ready, head to the training grounds. I shall send for Thorin and you can spend the morning with him.” She paused, thoughtfully. “Focus less on his strength, and try to concentrate on building his endurance.” It hurt Dwalin’s pride when Dis commented on how he trained the fighters, but she was never going to hear him complain.

“In the afternoon you will meet with Dain.” She hesitated. “Just… be aware he is not happy with how things turned out in Moria.” That was expected, it was no secret that he had disapproved of the expedition. “I have sent ravens off to Gloin and Bilbo in the West, and to Loni’s kin at the Iron Hills.” Dis continued. “I have also personally delivered the news to the families of Frar and Nali who live under the Mountain. We have not started preparing a funeral ceremony yet. For now, we’re allowing kin to mourn in their own way.” Dwalin understood why Dis had been awake all night. It must not have been easy for her.

“I’m sure everyone appreciates all you’ve done for them, my Lady. You should probably get some rest too.” Dwalin acknowledged. “I promise I won’t let Dain get under my skin, I know he’s not afraid to speak his mind.”

“Well, he’s adamant that no dwarf under the Mountain should ever take a step towards Moria again. The city is a temptation, its promise of riches and grandeur is false. It is a bane that only brings destruction. Dain wants to discourage his people from falling for its lust. He especially wants to ensure that should a dwarf insist on going, that they do not encourage others to march to their deaths. As captain of the guard, it may fall to you to enforce that ruling.” Dis’ gaze hardened again, as she prepared to measure Dwalin’s reply. “Are you sure you’re up for it, given it had been Balin’s dream?”

Dwalin contemplated his response. Moria had claimed the lives of many dwarves. Too many. And it had taken his brother.

The answer was simple.

“Aye, that city is cursed. No dwarf should ever set foot there again.”

Chapter Text

It was the delectable scent of the sizzling bacon and eggs that stirred Nori from his slumber on the couch in Dori’s sitting area. He had sprawled across all of the cushions, his head resting upon the cushioned arm. Both Bifur and his brother were gone, replaced by a wool blanket that enveloped him warmly. He caught it before it fell to the floor as he sat up stretching with a yawn. His hair was a mess, cascading down over his shoulders, and his beard was in dire need of a good brushing. He flexed the fingers in his left hand. It still ached, but his dexterity had returned, and so Nori was suitably pleased. Slowly the memories of the previous day began to float to the surface of his consciousness, of which, two battled for dominance; his newfound resolve to venture to Moria contended with an unexpected rival.

Dwalin.

Nori was not used to this kind of preoccupation. He was normally far more impulsive, acting first and dealing with the consequences later. Before he had joined Thorin’s Company, when he and his brothers lived in Ered Luin, that sort of thinking had a tendency to get him into trouble, but therein lay the fun of it. Now that he was rich beyond measure, he could comfortably live on whimsy, and simply did whatever took his fancy. It was a very easy-going lifestyle, and Nori did not ever feel like he was missing a sense of purpose. He had never sought for meaning. He simply was, and that was enough. He had never felt deeply passionate about anything before now, aside from the love he had for his brothers. These new feelings were just odd, and Nori could not make sense of it. Especially his thoughts of Dwalin. Of all the dwarves to keep jumping into his head, why him?

His stomach settled the matter for him. Growling as the aroma in the air intensified with the addition of parsley. red pepper and olive oil, Nori’s priority was clear. Can’t think on an empty stomach, he decided, and stood up to follow the pleasant odour to the kitchen where he found Dori, absorbed in his cooking. Nori made himself perceptible by brazenly clearing his throat as he took a seat at the hickory dining suite in the centre of the room, where Dori usually ate when not entertaining guests.

“Bifur isn’t staying for breakfast?” Nori asked.

“No, he left before you awoke,” Dori answered, without taking his eyes off the food. “Not that I didn’t insist that he remain and eat something. He thought it best that he go and check on his brothers, as he hadn’t seen them since yesterday.”

Nori was keen to probe further. “It was very kind of him to sleep over, don’t you think?”

“Yes, it was,” Dori agreed, as he lifted the cast iron frying pan from the embers of his clay-brick stove. He distributed the spiced, sunny side eggs and bacon on the two plates that had been set on the table, and returned the pan before sitting down to join Nori, who had ravenously started eating. “We weren’t sure whether you were planning on coming back at all.”

Nori swallowed his mouthful. Guiltily, he admitted to his brother, “I never meant to worry you. I just needed some time to think, was all.”

Dori gently lowered his fork to the side of his plate. “Yes. I haven’t forgotten what you said last night, about going to Moria. Bifur is probably going to mention it to his brothers, too. We’d never seen you so determined before.”

Nori simply shrugged. “I meant it. Ori knew what he was getting into, and I’m not going to let it be for nothing.”

“Have you given any thought to how we’re going to do that?” Dori enquired.

“No,” Nori answered, scooping his next morsel of breakfast.

“You’re going to need a plan.”

“Mm-hmm,” Nori hummed in agreement.

“Have you thought about who else should accompany us?”

Dwalin immediately sprang to mind. Of course, Nori thought exasperatingly, but it made sense. Dwalin was a strong asset, and it would also probably mean something to him that they were going to find out what happened and bring their story back to the Mountain, where it would be remembered. If Nori was not doing this alone, he should definitely ask Dwalin to join them.

“I might see if any of the old Company would be up for it. At least we can spend a few nights on the road together without tearing each other apart,” Nori responded aloofly, once he had finished chewing.

“Right,” Dori announced, “I think the first thing we should do is head to royal library and visit the wing where Balin and Company compiled their research. I’ll also collect the letters Ori sent us over the first years, and we can use those notes to get a better idea of what to expect.” Dori had already begun organising the entire expedition, Nori realised. In truth, he didn’t mind. It was better to see Dori fussing about rather than suffering in misery. If this was needed to help his brother cope, Nori was glad for it.

“The first thing I am going to do is take a bath.” Nori corrected as he stood, the plate before him clean. He still felt a mess from the previous evening, and wanted to groom himself before they headed out, as was his usual practice. It also presented an opportunity for a little solitude before he spent the day with his brother, and Nori felt some alone time would help him get his mind in order. He carried his plate to the bench where Dori would take care of the washing up, and then took himself downstairs to the bathroom that was found in the lower quarters behind the shop.

A personal bathroom was one of the perks of Dori’s status, featuring a large copper tub, a furnace, and a well that ran deep to one of the many aquifers that supplied the Mountain with water, and wide enough to swallow even the larger dwarves. The common-dwarves generally shared the public wells that could be found along the city streets. Most also used public bathhouses that offered heated pools, steam rooms, and saunas, and attendants would collect the water and work forges. If you could tolerate the smell, the natural hot springs that the volcanic mountains provided were a fine alternative; Nori had indulged himself with those at Mount Dolmed of Ered Luin on more than one occasion. Having a personal bathroom required one to collect and heat the water themselves, but if the privacy of bathing in your own home was favoured, it was a luxury. Nori enjoyed company, but more often preferred being left alone, and so he did not mind the extra work involved to bathe in peace.

Nori removed his leather vest and cotton shirt, placing them in a wicker basket by the door beneath an iron hook on which hung a fluffy towel. For a dwarf, his physique was lithe, but toned, decorated by wisps of copper fire that lightly covered his chest and trailed between his abdominal muscles. Now shirtless, Nori stoked the furnace and set the coal aflame, and began drawing the first bucket of water, winding the rope with a crank. Once retrieved, he placed it atop the furnace to boil, and started gathering the second bucketful. By the time Nori was untying the full pail, the first was ready to be poured into the tub, and the process repeated. Dori’s tub took 10 bucket-loads to fill to the brim, and a decent half-hour passed before the bath was prepared. Once full, Nori wasted no time stripping himself of his remaining clothes and untying his braids. He delicately lifted his leg over the rim and placed his toes into the warm water. It was heavenly.

Nori immersed himself in the blissful heat and closed his eyes. Silence. Nori breathed in the steam emanating from the tub deeply, and for a moment felt utterly relaxed. Mere minutes passed, however, before he began fidgeting. Usually a soothing pastime, Nori would soak until his skin had pruned and the water had turned tepid. But now he was feeling antsy. Why are you here? You should be preparing, he heard from within. Desiring just a little more quiet, Nori attempted to shake the thoughts by reaching for one of Dori’s lavender scented soap cakes. There will be time to deal with all of that, but let’s take it easy for now, he tried to tell himself, not that he was convinced. Nori rubbed the soap in his hands until he had whipped up a thick lather, and began massaging the suds into his skin. The scent was pleasant and calming, and it felt good as he glided his slippery fingers over his body. It was not enough to distract him, and his mind turned to the other object of his musing. The vivid image of Dwalin’s large fingers tracing over his body caused his cock to pulse, and Nori’s cheeks reddened. Water sloshed over the rim of the tub as he sat up.

He’d never thought of his friend in that way before. Where did this obsession come from?

Nori stood, and the water dripped down his naked body. He resigned that he was not going to be able to relax after all. Something burned within him, and Nori was beginning to sense that resistance was futile. He climbed out of the bath and left a trail of puddles as he stepped toward the towel to dry himself off. He would simply have to figure out these two problems as he moved forward. One was simple enough, he just needed to travel halfway across the world, sneak into an orc-infested city and retrieve the last remnant of his brother’s legacy.

Dwalin was an entirely more complicated matter.

Chapter Text

Once Nori had dried himself to his satisfaction, he drained the tub, and the water flowed down a pipe into sewer tunnels that ran to the Celduin. Wrapping the towel around his waist, he left the bathroom and collected a pair of sand-coloured hemp pants and a long sleeved white cotton shirt that were roughly his size from the stores at the back of Dori’s shop that wouldn’t be missed too much. He slipped them on before a large mirror, and once clothed, reached for his pouch and fished for his grooming products; specifically a comb, beard brush, and a tub of hair cream that was his own recipe of pine resin, vinegar, lemon juice, and an oil made from cedarwood, basil, peppermint, lavender, and tea tree. He raked the comb through his hair until it was hanging down his back long and untangled, and then brushed his much wilder beard. Next, he scooped up a small amount of cream with two fingertips, rubbed it over his hands, and then began massaging it into his hair. Using the comb, he styled his hair into three distinct peaks, held in place by the lotion, which were folded back to meet at the base of his neck and tied into a thick triple braid. Two strands at the front were spared, and were weaved intricately along the centre of the middle spire. He then worked his beard into an artfully complex arrangement of plaits. Once he deemed himself fit to be seen in public, he rinsed his hands, packed away his supplies and went back upstairs to see how his elder brother was doing.

Dori had finished cleaning up in the kitchen, and was waiting in the sitting area looking dolefully at a collection of old parchments in his hands. Nori sat beside his brother and peeked at the topmost page, a letter written in the graceful script of his little brother.

“It’s still hard to believe that we’ll never receive another message from him. That we’ll never see or hear his voice again,” Dori murmured.

“There’s still a piece of him left,” Nori asserted. “You’re sure you want to come with me?”

Dori pulled out a lace handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his eyes. Then he rolled up the papers. “Regardless of what’s out there, I’m bringing Ori home with you, brother.”

United in their resolve, Nori took Dori’s free hand and helped him out of the seat. Together they left the shop and began marching through the market district to the grand stairwells that would take them deeper into the Mountain. Before they made it to the steps, however, Bofur caught them.

“Nori… Dori… Is it true,” he huffed between gasps for air. “That you’re leaving?”

“I guess you’ve spoken to Bifur,” Nori presumed.

Bofur looked up. “I don’t s’pose you’ll also be needing a dwarf of my talents along on your adventure? We’d have never made it to Erebor if weren’t for me!”

“If you think you can handle it,” Nori teased with a grin. His smile was genuine, though. Bofur was a good friend, and it was typical of him to want to jump blindly into this quest. It meant a lot to Nori.

Bofur playfully jabbed at Nori’s shoulder. “Hah! If anything, I’ll spend most of my time keeping you out of trouble! Just tell me what you need me to do.”

“We’re heading to the library now to gather notes on the previous expedition, and work out how we’re going to do it,” Nori explained.

Bofur shuddered at the word library. Reaching beneath his hat to scratch his head, he asked, “Is there anything else I could do? I bet you haven’t even thought about supplies yet, I could try rustling a few things up.”

Nori thought about Bofur’s suggestion. “Sounds good to me. Look into finding ponies and provisions for five dwarves for two months, for now. Once Dori and I have figured out exactly what we’ll need, we’ll add to the list from there.”

“I’m on it, boss,” Bofur confirmed with a cheeky smile, and he twirled around and started back toward the markets at a sprint.

Dori cocked his eye at his younger brother. “Did I hear you correctly? As far as I could tell, only four of us were going at this point. Do you have someone else in mind?”

As nonchalantly as possible, Nori answered, “I figure it’d be easy to convince Dwalin to go with us, and we could certainly use the muscle.” He didn’t look Dori in the eyes as he spoke, instead looking back toward the stairs and continuing to make his way down to the lower level. Dori simply hummed in reply, and matched his brother’s pace.

The staircase was broad, and coiled downward for some time before it opened up to the lower hall. The streets were wider here than on the upper level, tiled with marble instead of stone cobbled, and the buildings that lined the roads stood impressively, the architecture and masonry a completely different class. Likewise, the dwarves that walked along the paths were dressed in finer textiles and decorated with finer jewels and rarer metals. The library was not far from the stairs, and the two brothers did not encounter anyone familiar as they entered through the large oak doors. The foyer of the library was actually the upper landing of the main chamber. Behind gold balustrades Nori and Dori gazed down the cylindrical hollow lined with mahogany shelves that were filled with books, tomes, parchments, artworks, volumes, and so many other forms of the written works of dwarves, elves, hobbits, and men. There were no torches, excessive firelight was discouraged in this place, although scholars were allowed to carry glass-cased lanterns. Instead, phosphorescent fungi grew along the walls, casting ghostly hues of aquamarine, turquoise, and emerald across the large space. Nori never ventured into the library very often; he had done more so back when Ori lived under the Mountain, but since his brother had left he had little reason to come here, not being much of a reader himself. He looked down into the library with new eyes. Balin and Ori particularly had worked tirelessly to restore the Mountain’s collection after the dragon, and this was their legacy. Many scribes, scholars, and historians carried their dream on, and though they had died, this library would live on. Little Ori had already left his mark. It filled Nori with awe.

He just needed to retrieve the final piece.

Dori and Nori walked down the stairs that spiralled along the edges of the chamber, until they reached the very bottom. Between two bookshelves stood a door at the opposite end of the hall from the base of the stairs. It was unlocked, and opened to a small room illuminated in the same viridescent tones as the exterior, though there was an ornate chandelier on the roof that would emit warmer colours once its candles glowed. The left wall was obscured entirely by another full bookshelf. By the right wall, sat several clean desks and a bare easel. On the rear wall hung a slab of porcelain enameled steel that had been painted a shade of dark green. The chalk markings that covered the board had not been wiped, and on it was drawn a map of a large underground city, with various notes lining the sides.

Moria.

This was Balin and Ori’s study, where the expedition had come to life. Nori nodded to Dori, and wordlessly made a start. They barely had skill of a novice scribe, but it was enough for the task at hand, and together they began looking through the books, letters, and maps, and copied down everything they thought they would need to know about the ancient city and the roads which led there. The notes they found in the study, compiled with Ori’s letters, painted a detailed picture of the route that had been taken.

From Erebor, Balin and Company had travelled south to Lake-town, where they acquired most of their provisions. From there, they barged down the Celduin until they were well within the borders of Mirkwood, where an escort of sylvan elves, organised via correspondence with Thranduil, joined the party. They continued downstream to where the Old Forest Road crossed the river, south of the Mountains of Mirkwood. Leaving their boats, they walked along the woodland path until the trees gave way to the valleys of the Anduin, and did not encounter any trouble. Balin had been incredibly cautious with regards to Mirkwood.

Once outside the forest, they said farewell to the elves, and continued west along the Old Forest Road until they reunited with Beorn. They spent a night with his family, having the opportunity to meet his wife, Bera, and son, Grimbeorn, who were also skinchangers. After enjoying their hospitality, the Company resumed their journey west, crossing the Anduin at the Old Ford, and onwards until they reached the High Pass. It was a few week’s journey out of the way, but the Company decided to detour from their intended route and head to Rivendell. The High Pass was a lot safer since the Battle of Five Armies, as the Beornings kept the passage clear of orcs and wargs in return for tolls. They marched between the peaks of the Misty Mountains until they were greeted by Elrond at the gates of Rivendell. They feasted, shared stories, and restocked their supplies.

After two weeks, they travelled back across the Misty Mountains, and made their way south until they reached the Celebrant. At Elrond’s suggestion, they withheld from immediately venturing to Moria, and instead went southward a little further to visit the forest city of Lothlorien. There, they met the Nandorin Elves, and their rulers, Celeborn and Galadriel. They stayed the night, and it had been very pleasant, according to one of Ori’s messages, although he mentioned that Galadriel took him aside and warned him that they were heading into danger. The Company was resolute to press on, but heeded her advice, and the next day followed the Celebrant upstream to the Mirrormere with caution. Despite their wariness, the orcs were still able to ambush them. Their leader, Kuzughash, pincered the dwarves in the valley, and the Company had no choice but to fight their way out. Their loremaster, Floi ended up battling against the chieftain, and took a mortal wound delivering the final blow, earning him the name Stonehand. It was a terrible price to pay, but enough to cause the enemy to scatter. It bought the dwarves enough time to bury their friend by the shore of the Mirrormere, locate the East-Gate, and open the doors to the city.

Once inside, the Company set up camp in the Chamber of Mazarbul on the seventh level. It was there that they would find the book, Nori realised. That was their goal.

Chapter Text

Nori and Dori researched and scrawled notes for hours in the study at the bottom of the library. Dori was surprised at how focussed his little brother was. He could not remember the last time he’d seen Nori work with such fervour. It was a testament to the love Nori had for Ori. Dori could not help but feel inspired to match his brother’s intensity. The labour also kept Dori’s mind busy, not only preventing him from succumbing to grief but also reinforcing the idea that Ori would always be there, and that they were going to bring him home.

It was Nori who broke the silence first, as he began thinking about their own expedition. He walked to the wall opposite the door, and with a piece of chalk found in one of the desk drawers, scratched the names of those that had agreed to join this quest on the blackboard. Nori, Dori, Bifur, Bofur. Hesitating for a brief moment, he added one more. Dwalin. “Is there anyone else we should ask? We should at least have someone who knows a little about doctoring,” he posed.

The brothers continued to raise questions and make suggestions to each other as they toiled. Sometimes they would have an immediate answer, other times they would make a reminder to investigate it further. “Perhaps it would be safer to enter via the West-gate,” offered Dori. “Aside from the food, the accommodation at Rivendell was quite comfortable, we could rest and restock there. Are there any documents on why Balin didn’t consider travelling along the Western side of the Mountains?”

Nori wasn’t convinced involving the elves was the best course. “Balin had connections, and was a friend of the elves,” he argued. “It might not be so easy for us. I was thinking if properly prepared we may not need their help at all. If we keep on the Celduin until we’re south of the Wood and head east once we reach the Brown Lands, we could bypass that wretched forest altogether. If we’re decently supplied, on ponies we could cover the distance in two weeks.”

The brothers carried their efforts over into the afternoon, without even breaking for lunch. “Have you thought about submitting an expedition proposal to King Dain,” Dori enquired. “It’s probably worthwhile getting his support too.” Nori added it to the growing list of things that needed to be done.

“How much gold do you think we’ll need?” When Nori asked this, it caught Dori by surprise, for Nori was never quick to part with coin. He was truly serious about offering everything to this cause. All for Ori. Before Dori could respond, however, the room echoed with three muffled taps from the door. Both brothers looked up from their parchments, and Nori, who had been kneeling before an arrangement of papers lain on the floor, stood up and walked over to the entrance. He opened the door and found Bifur standing on the other side, one hand behind his back. The silver and jet strands of his beard had been in entwined in their usual braids, but his hair, usually wild and unkempt, was slicked back, damp, as though he had groomed himself by placing his head under a running faucet. Upon closer inspection, Nori noticed that Bifur had clipped his braids with silver and copper beard rings, which was an interesting choice to say the least, and it seemed as though he’d gone so far as to polish the axe fixed to his head.

Bifur’s eyes searched past Nori for Dori, and he beamed as soon as they made contact. Nodding politely to Nori, he strode past and approached the elder brother. Bifur presented what he had been hiding behind his back; a beautifully crafted rose, fashioned from an alloy of lead, antimony, and tin. The petals had been blackened in oil, but the stem and leaves were a lustrous taupe. Dori’s breath was stolen as he took the exquisite metalwork into his hands.

“Bifur… this is beautiful,” Dori exclaimed.

As Nori stepped forward to examine the rose more closely, he recalled the significance of the gift.

He was taken back to one of the first days of their journey from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain. To the surprise of many within the Company, Bilbo had sprinted through the Shire on bare feet, contract fluttering in his hand, to join them. Nori had lost a pouchful of coin to Oin because of the change of heart. They had been travelling for over a day, and Bilbo was still very reserved around the majority of the Company. It did not take him long, however, to befriend Ori. He was by far the most approachable dwarf, being sweeter and gentler than the others. They also had a surprising amount in common, but it was their love of books and riddles that bonded them at first. The Company had been riding alongside the Barrow-downs before their arrival at Bree, and had stopped for lunch beside a hill from which the great monoliths protruded. Away from the road, one barrow was surrounded by a vibrant rainbow. While the Company prepared to continue after the rest, Bilbo and Ori had run to the great stone to take a closer look, and Nori simply watched the two from his vantage point upon the soft grass near the camp. When they returned, their hands were conspicuously concealed behind their backs.

“What do have you there?” Nori asked curiously.

Ori just smiled and recited a verse.

“Once the yellow spring sun ascends
Share me with those you call friends
By the orange summer bonfire
Give me to your heart's desire

With red autumn leaves high above
I belong to your true love
Stepping over white winter snow
To the pure of heart I go

Light pink cheeks upon your face
I'm a gift that's full of grace
Should that pink have a darker hue
I am used to say thank you

As sky turns violet before the night
I will mean love at first sight
But when black shadows lurk nearby
Offer me to say goodbye.”

Nori could only cock his eyebrow in confusion at Ori’s rhyme, but Dori answered from behind. “You’re speaking of roses.”

“Yes! You solved it!” Ori laughed. “Each one has a different meaning depending on the colour!”

He revealed his hands from behind his back and revealed two roses, one white which he extended to Dori, and one pink, which he held before Nori. Such flowers did not grow near Ered Luin, and Nori had never seen them bloom so large or so vividly. The aroma was intoxicatingly sweet. Nori happened to spy Bilbo offering Thorin one of a deep lavender colour.

Nori plucked the rose from Ori’s hand with a bow. “I shall treasure it always, my dear brother,” he proclaimed with a laugh.

Unfortunately, it was lost in Goblin-town with the majority of their supplies.

Once Erebor had been reclaimed, Ori had tried to grow his own roses at the Mountain, but they were not suited to the harsh winters of the North. As Nori watched Dori gaze at Bifur’s expertly crafted rose, dark as the new moon, thoughts of Dwalin invaded his mind yet again. He imagined presenting Dwalin with a rose of his own, a deep orange that blazed like fire, and he felt the heat of that flame burn in his heart. Nori quickly shook his head to snap himself back to the study.

Bifur’s hand was flowing like water as he pointed to Dori, moved it to his chest, opened his palm and curled his ring and little finger, motioned forward, then raised it to his neck and slid it down to his stomach.

Are you hungry, he asked.

Dori nodded. “Now that you mention it, I feel famished.” He turned to his brother. “I think we’ve accomplished much today. Do you suppose we should rest for now and continue on the morrow?”

Nori grinned. “Why don’t you two go and get something. I’m going to stay just a little longer. I’ll catch up with you as soon as I’m done.”

Not that I have any intention of disturbing the two of you, he added quietly to himself.

Dori patted his brother on the shoulder, and left the study with Bifur close behind, leaving Nori alone. The tranquility was comforting, and Nori stood looking at all of their plans. He began picking up some of the pages scattered on the floor, so that he could order them and work from one of the desks. It had only been a few minutes, and Nori hadn’t quite finished organising the notes, when the click of the door latch reverberated throughout the chamber as the door opened.

Nori looked toward the entrance at his unexpected visitor.

“Nori,” the deep, rumbling voice exclaimed.

The walnut chair scraped noisily against the stone floor as Nori stood to face Dwalin. His hand was still wrapped up, but he stepped without a limp, so he was healing up nicely. What mattered more to Nori was that his friend was not holed up in misery. To see Dwalin out and about eased Nori, but amidst that was also a different anxiety, which caused his heart to palpitate and the tiny russet hairs at the back of his neck to stand on end. He still had no idea why he had become so obsessed with Dwalin, and the last thing he wanted was to make a fool of himself.

“Dwalin, it’s good to see you up,” Nori said in greeting. “What brings you all the way down here?”

“I bumped into Dori outside the library, and he mentioned that you were looking for me. He said this is where I’d find you,” was Dwalin’s reply. Against the radiance of the bracket fungi gripping to the walls, the silver in Dwalin’s beard gleamed sapphire, and the pools of lapis lazuli that returned Nori’s gaze twinkled a deep steel blue. The ink that embellished Dwalin’s smooth head also seemed to glow under the soft light. Nori could not help but be absorbed by every detail. It was as though he was looking at Dwalin for the first time. Nori was captured by Dwalin’s tall stature, and the way he balanced his weight so evenly on both legs, ready to spring forward like a cat despite his size. The way his broad chest swayed to the rhythm of his breath. The way his scarred eyebrow seemed to hover a little higher than his left as they furrowed…

“Is everything alright?” Dwalin uttered, as the stillness between them dragged on a little too long.

Curse my brother, Nori thought to himself. Why under the Mountain was he meddling? “Yes, everything is fine. Why wouldn’t it be?” he answered pathetically. He was definitely making a fool of himself, as far as he was concerned.

Dwalin stepped toward the bookshelf and picked up one of the books. He clumsily flicked through the pages with his large paws, often turning more than one at a time. “I was never much of a reader,” Dwalin explained, “But these books meant everything to Balin. I suppose it was the same for little Ori. For those two, this was a special place.”

“Aye. Each story was a world they lived in as much as ours,” Nori replied.

“Do you think someday there’ll be stories about them?” Dwalin asked.

“Aye,” Nori said. “They will live on in legend.” He thought back to Ori’s riddle, the one shared outside the gates of Erebor the last time they would ever see each other, and under his breath, murmured the final lines. “But that will cost you everything, the price is always paid.”

“Sorry?” Dwalin didn't quite catch the words.

“Nothing,” Nori covered up. “Just something Ori once said.”

They stood in silence for a moment in quiet reflection. Eventually, Dwalin closed the book he held and placed it back on the shelf, and turned to face Nori again.

“You know, you really helped me last night,” he disclosed.

“It was nothing. We both lost something. It seemed only right to lend a hand,” Nori answered.

“You said… you hadn’t said goodbye. What did you mean?” Dwalin asked.

“Exactly what I said. They’re not gone. Not until they’re forgotten.” Nori’s eyes grew more determined. “And I won’t let that happen.”

Dwalin didn’t say anything in return at first. He seemed to be thinking over Nori’s words, when slowly his attention shifted, and Dwalin was looking beyond Nori, focussed on something from behind. The larger dwarf’s expression intensified.

“Nori…” he began, inflecting on the second syllable. “Why is my name etched on the wall?”

Chapter Text

No.

It couldn’t be.

Dwalin refused to believe it.

Dread surged through him as he awaited Nori’s answer, afraid that the next words would only confirm his fears that it was not sentimentality that brought Nori to this chamber. That instead, he intended to follow in his brother’s footsteps.

That Nori was going to Moria.

Dwalin had not been handed the title of Captain of the Guard because of his status as one of the fourteen that had reclaimed Erebor. It was also not just because he was one of the most powerful fighters under the Mountain. Dwalin’s investigative mind was as sharp as the legendary Angrist. As soon as his suspicions had been roused, it was impossible for Dwalin not to see the evidence; the parchments, the maps, the books, and particularly, the names scrawled on the wall. Dwalin had seen it all before. He looked into Nori’s hazel eyes, burning with resolve, and Balin stared back.

Nori was planning to go, and he was going to die.

Dwalin wanted desperately to be wrong. All day, Nori had been in his head. Dwalin felt him; with each heartbeat the wound on his hand pulsed with a tiny sting, and Dwalin was reminded that he was not alone. He still suffered the emptiness of his loss, but Nori had given him the strength to go on. It had completely taken Dwalin by surprise. He had remained close to the dwarves of the Company after they had settled back in the Mountain, but he’d barely exchanged more than a few words with Nori, and then it was usually only when he bumped into the elusive dwarf on a visit to Dori. Before the quest, Nori had a reputation for being a bit of a troublemaker, and Dwalin had assumed that Nori simply felt uncomfortable being around the guard, even if Dwalin was a friend. Not that Nori had gone back to his old ways; with all the gold he had earned, there was nothing under the Mountain he could not afford. Yet, unlike the others, Nori never found his calling. Balin and Ori had restored the library, Oin had continued practicing medicine, and Gloin had invested his money in trade. Bombur had established the Gold Dragon, Bifur had set up a workshop, Bofur had picked up his mattock and had begun exploring Erebor’s mines, and Dori had begun tailoring. They had all contributed to the prosperity of the Mountain, but Nori. It was as though he was still trying to figure out his purpose. Dwalin had never given it much thought, until now.

Had Dwalin been able to spar with Thorin in the morning, there might have been some distraction. But as his left foot had not been able to support his weight, he had not been fit to join his prince in the ring. Instead, he had taken Dis’ suggestion and decided to push the prince’s endurance, ordering the prince to run laps around the grounds, traverse across the Mountain walls, perform crate jumps, lateral bounds, and pull ups, all the while dressed in a full suit of heavy iron armour and carrying a great lead maul on his back. Thorin was very dedicated to his training, and no matter how much Dwalin pushed him, he never complained. Thorin had an incredibly strong will, though he had lived such a sheltered life. He was just over fourteen decades old, and in that time his father had never allowed him to venture away from the protection of the Mountain. It was entirely opposite to the life of Dwalin’s Thorin. In as many years, Thorin Oakenshield had fled his home after it had been taken by the dragon, lived in exile, fought in the Battle of Azanulbizar, and had ascended the throne in. Dwalin could see that Thorin yearned to see the world, and in Dwalin’s opinion, it would be good for the young prince to gain some worldly experience. The guidance of he and Dis would only get Thorin so far. At least he was determined to do his best.

Watching Thorin work up a sweat was not enough to keep Nori out of Dwalin’s head, and so Dwalin embraced his feelings. He wanted to see him again, to talk to him, to know him. Nori had saved Dwalin; he had pulled him away from the brink of despair, and gave him hope to cling onto. Dwalin began to feel he was almost indebted to Nori in some way. He wasn’t sure how, but he’d figure out a way to pay Nori back.

It was well past the lunch hour by the time Dwalin had finished torturing his prince, but he waited while Thorin cleaned up so that together they could get something to eat. Once fed, their plan was to meet with Dain and Dis, where Dwalin would receive his next assignment. They were walking past the library before the royal halls when Dwalin spotted Bifur and Dori exiting via its prodigious oak doors. Dwalin placed his hand on Thorin’s shoulder and they stopped.

“Dori…” Dwalin greeted solemnly as his friends made their way down the broad stoop to the street. He opened his arms and wrapped them around Dori, who returned the embrace. When they parted, Dwalin clasped Dori by the shoulders.

“How are you doing,” Dwalin asked earnestly. He couldn’t imagine how Dori must have suffered at the news. No dwarf had shed as many tears as Dori, bidding their kin farewell as they departed for Moria. Only a blind dwarf could not have seen how important little Ori was to his elder brother; during their quest Dwalin doubted the dragon himself could have separated the two. For Dori, watching Ori go must have been the hardest thing in the world, but it meant everything to the young dwarf that he prove he was a grown dwarf, and Dori had relented. Dwalin had seen Dori’s anxiety build as the years passed without any news. The tidings must have crushed him.

“I’m as fine as can be, truly,” Dori replied. “It was hard, at first, and in many ways I still feel so very lost.” He reached for Bifur’s hand. “But Bifur has been a good friend during this time, and Nori has helped me find a way to move forward.”

He helped me too. Dwalin wanted to say, but hesitated, and instead enquired, “How is Nori?” He felt heat rise to his cheeks as the words left him.

Dori seemed to inspect Dwalin before he answered. “You know, you should ask him yourself. He’s actually hoping to bump into you. You can find him at the study at the bottom of the library.” There was a pause; Dori must have guessed what that place meant to Dwalin, and that it may not be easy for him to go down there. “I could always tell Nori to visit you later, if you would see him.”

Dwalin did feel uneasy about going down there; that study held many memories for Dwalin. It was where Balin had realised the dream that had taken his life. But the fact Nori was there, and wanted to see him, relieved any trepidation Dwalin felt. He did not know just what he would have done in his grief, but he was certain that Nori had saved him. If Nori was with him, Dwalin was sure he could go down to that place.

“No, it’s alright Dori. I can see him.” He looked to Thorin. “Would you mind if I caught up with you later?”

Thorin offered a friendly smile, and patted his belly. “I can’t promise there’ll be any food left, but I’ll try to keep a morsel aside for you.”

Dwalin bowed to his prince, and told Bifur and Dori that he would see them later, and then turned towards the library and started making his way down to the lowest floor. With each step, he felt his nerves build. Butterflies danced in his stomach as he opened the door. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but suddenly it was just him and Nori, who was looking up from the papers on the desk under the cool light. Being back in this place brought on a wave of nostalgia that washed through Dwalin, but he just focused on Nori. On the intricately wound braids of his fiery beard, and the eyes that glistened like tourmaline in the emerald light. It was soothing, devoting all of his attention to the dwarf. It felt right.

At first, Dwalin saw the papers and thought that Nori had been reminiscing. But that had changed as soon as Dwalin read his name on the wall. He saw Dori and Bifur’s names there too. “Nori has helped me find a way to move forward,” Dori had said. Bofur’s name was also listed. Why? What was Nori thinking?

“I haven’t said goodbye.” That’s what Nori had told Dwalin the night before. He wasn’t thinking he could go and rescue his brother, was he? That would be madness. Moments had passed, and Nori had not provided Dwalin with an answer. Nori had been acting a little peculiarly in Dwalin’s presence. He’d been watching Dwalin with intent, and seemed distracted. Dwalin simply had to know what was going on, and if Nori wasn’t going to front the information, he would interrogate.

“Nori, you’re not…”

“I am,” Nori interrupted resolutely. His eyes were keen, and Dwalin knew he was being read. Nori was on the defensive, and was quickly getting tense.

“Nori, you can’t,” Dwalin insisted. “Moria is death. It has taken our brothers. They’re gone, Nori.”

“The records remain.”

“I’m sorry?”

“The book of records. It’s his story. His legacy. I’m not letting it go untold.”

“You’re marching to your death.” Dwalin was getting impatient. “Please, just let it go. Don’t do this to yourself. Don’t do this to Dori.”

Don’t do this to me. He thought desperately.

“I’m sorry,” Nori apologised, “but you can’t stop me from doing this. I thought you, of all dwarves, would understand. That you would come with me.”

“Go with you?” Dwalin bellowed. “Nori, I forbid it! This is madness. I’m not going to allow you to do this.”

Nori scowled. He coiled like a cornered fox, poised to fight his way out. “Forbid it? I’d like to see you try,” he snarled.

“You forget yourself. I’m the authority here, and I have the King’s backing,” Dwalin growled.

Nori didn’t answer with words, instead his right hand was slowly moving toward his belt, his fingertips brushing the pommel of the dagger sheathed at his side. He doesn’t seriously think he can take me, does he? Dwalin examined. I’m between him and the door, and he doesn’t have a hope of getting past me. He must know this.

Nori stood as still as stone. His eyes, now cold, gazed unblinkingly. His muscles were taut, ready to spring forward in attack. As soon as there was an opening he would strike. It was ludicrous. They had fought last night, and Nori had measured Dwalin’s power and speed. Surely he realised that he had no chance.

Unless he could see that Dwalin was incapable of fighting him.

It was a numbness that pervaded Dwalin from his very core. He could not… Would not… hurt Nori. Dwalin had never felt so paralysed.

But he absolutely needed to do something.

“Nori… please,” Dwalin implored. He held up his palms in surrender. “I don’t want to fight you.”

Dwalin thought that perhaps Nori would pounce, but he did not. Instead, he relaxed a little, and his arm went limp.

Without breaking eye contact, Dwalin stepped forward, took Nori into his arms, and held him close. At first Nori resisted, but Dwalin felt Nori clutch his furs and bury his face into Dwalin’s chest as he gave in. Dwalin wrapped himself tighter around the smaller dwarf. He breathed Nori in, and found the dominant scents of pine, lavender and mint soothing.

“It’s okay. It’ll be okay.”

He helped me. Now I’m helping him. Nori remained silent, but Dwalin just continued to caress him. It felt right. Holding Nori. Protecting Nori. Even if he’d never been able to protect anyone else, he could protect Nori now.

Dwalin opened up to Nori. “I know you want to go so badly. I miss them so much. I feel so terrible that I wasn’t there for them. But I honestly don’t know what I could have done for them. They’re gone… but we’re alive. That’s all that matters. You need to live, Nori.”

Dwalin wasn’t sure how long they stood like that, but he did know that there was something about being so close to Nori that felt good, and he didn’t want it to end. But it had to, and Dwalin tore himself away and looked into Nori’s eyes, which were cold, dark pools.

“We can get through this, Nori, you have my word. But I need you to promise me you won’t do anything rash. Please, Nori.”

“I promise,” Nori assured Dwalin flatly, and Dwalin released a sigh of relief.

“Shall we go and find your brother?” Dwalin suggested. “We should all stick together until this is past us. I think we all need each other.”

“Can you give me a moment?” Nori asked, turning away from Dwalin and looking to the pages that covered the desk. “I… want to clean up here first. I just need to be alone.” His voice was monotonous. He was hurting.

“Aye, take as much time as you need. I’ll wait for you up the stairs,” Dwalin replied. After a brief silence, Dwalin turned and retreated out of the room, closing the door behind him.

***

As Dwalin left the study, Nori did not look back

He was still too weak. As with the previous night, when they had fought in the alleyway, Nori had been spared by Dwalin lowering his guard for him. It was not a true victory. No orc would do the same. He needed to be able to fight and win. If he was going to make it out of Moria, he would need to be stronger, and even more so if he was going to protect his Company.

It was infuriating. He was angry with himself as much as he was wrathful with Dwalin. He felt betrayed.

He walked to the back of the room and picked up a small piece of chalk that had been placed on the narrow shelf along the base of the blackboard.

He hadn’t been able to get Dwalin out of his head all day. But the Dwalin he imagined had been an illusion. There was no way the real Dwalin would go with him.

Holding the chalk firmly between his fingers, Nori sliced through Dwalin’s name.

Nothing had ever felt so wrong.

***

Dwalin hadn’t made it halfway up the spiralling stairs before he saw a dwarf charging down the steps, grasping the balustrade tightly in case he stumbled. As he approached, Dwalin realised that it was Thorin. If he’s still got that kind of energy, maybe I should go harder on him next time, he thought to himself. He was about to comment, but then he read the urgent expression on Thorin’s face, and realised this was not the time for light-hearted banter.

“Thorin, is everything alright,” Dwalin asked.

“Dwalin! You need to the throne room immediately. We should probably fetch Nori as well,” Thorin uttered between heavy gasps.

Dwalin looked back down the stairs, towards Nori, and then back up at Thorin, trying to keep a calm head as the adrenaline began to pump through his veins. “Is it Dain?”

“Not my father. A messenger from Dale,” Thorin began, pausing as he regained his breath.

Dwalin didn’t not like where this was going.

“It’s Bain. He is lost.”

Chapter Text

It was a new morning, and as always, Aylward awoke early to greet the sun and commence his routine.

Ever since he came of age, Aylward had spent most of his days at the gates of Dale. It was a simple life; this age of peace did not invite many unsavoury types to the city. All the same, he considered it a great honour that someone from his humble family had the privilege to serve his King, and he did so with pride. The older, more experienced guards, tended to scoff at his enthusiasm; that he always arose at the crack of dawn to clean and polish his armour, sharpen his blade, oil the gates, sweep the cobblestone, and generally take care of all the tasks that nobody else would willingly do. If that was reason enough to keep him around, Aylward was more than content.

Occasionally, dwarves would travel from the Lonely Mountain to the city. He had never ventured to the Mountain himself. The way it loomed over Dale seemed almost menacing, and frankly, Aylward shuddered at the thought of residing in a dark, dank cave. It was far more sensible to live under the sky; to bask under the sun, feel the breeze in his long, blond hair, and watch the majesty of nature as the seasons changed year after year. Not that Aylward would ever indicate such feelings to the dwarven folk. If not for the them, his grandfather would never have settled in Dale, and he might not have experienced the comfortable, peaceful lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed. Instead, he may have ended up a lowly fisherman or merchant of Lake-town, with no King, and a monstrous dragon lurking nearby. Aylward had heard all his grandfather’s stories in his youth; the Battle of Five Armies, Smaug the terrible and the surviving the torching of Lake-town, and the dwarves, the hobbit, and the wizard that travelled across the world reclaim the Mountain. He did not even dream that he would encounter such legendary heroes in his lifetime.

Which was why that morning he was completely oblivious that the strangers he saw approaching the gates were anything other than two ordinary, old men.

At a glance, Aylward would have said they were identical twins, though the one of the left was not as tall. Draped in long, ostentatious robes, blue as the summer sky, their white beards floated over them like clouds. It was their equipment which really differentiated them; the one on the right supported himself with a seven-foot hardwood quarterstaff, whilst the stranger on the left was armed with a greatsword, oddly sheathed on his right side, and strapped to his back was a longbow and quiver of arrows. Aylward was normally very happy to allow most passerby into the city without question, but if a visitor was going to arrive armed to the teeth, he was inclined to make their intentions his business.

Aylward stood before the more threatening of the two and held up his hand.

“Can you please state what brings you to the Kingdom this peaceful day?” He tried to make his voice sound a little deeper and more imposing than usual. Aylward was smaller and lankier than this stranger, and probably much less experienced at swordplay. He hoped that should it come to a fight, one of the other guards was nearby.

At the question, the man turned to his companion and grimaced dirtily whilst the other maintained a tranquil composure without giving any indication that he’d noticed. Huffing through his nose, the first faced Aylward again and offered a much friendlier expression, though still appeared a little tense.

“My good friend, we are here to pay our condolences to King Brand and his family in their hour of grief,” he said, placing a hand over his heart, and bowing solemnly. “We are very sorry for their loss.”

“King… Brand…?” That didn’t make any sense. “You must be mistaken. Prince Brand is the son of our King, Bain, who is still very much alive.”

At that moment, the deep toll of a great, lead bell resonated through the city. It was not the melodious, joyful chimes that Aylward regularly heard from the bell towers. In fact, in all his life he had never heard this particular bell sound. It chimed from one of the tallest steeples of the castle, and Aylward understood at once what it meant.

King Bain had indeed passed away.

Of course Aylward had heard the rumours that his King had not been well, but he hadn’t doubted for a moment that his liege would make a full recovery; to find himself so wrong was heartbreaking for the young man. Aylward did not immediately lose all hope, however. The black bell would ring once for each year Bain had reigned as King. If this was a terrible mistake, the castle guards would cease the chiming before reaching the final count. Aylward struggled to breathe as he tallied each toll.

As the twenty-ninth ring sounded, Aylward felt goosebumps rise all over his skin and shivered. Bain had passed away only a month before the thirtieth anniversary of his coronation. Instead, the city would be feasting the beginning of Brand’s reign. A deep sadness welled within Aylward. Contrarily, the armed stranger seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, and the other standing with calm indifference, eyes closed as though he was falling asleep where he stood. Aylward suddenly found their demeanour incredibly suspicious. He drew his short sword and pointed it at man on the right before he could reach for his own.

“How did you know?!” Aylward asked accusingly. “Did you have a hand in this?”

“Put your sword down, lad,” a deep, rasping voice growled from behind. Aylward turned to look at his grizzled, balding commander, Durmond, sporting the same scowl he always wore. “Those rumours have been floating around for weeks, and these two were here yesterday spouting the same nonsense. That they were right today is nothing more than coincidence.” Aylward had not been stationed at this gate the day before, so he hadn’t known. He lowered his sword back into its sheath.

The old man with the sword and the bow huffed. “Well, now that the funeral bell has tolled, surely now you will let us pass? We simply wish to pay our condolences.”

Durmond glowered at the two distrustfully. “We’re not about to allow just anyone to march their way into the castle. Unless you’re noble emissaries, or kin, access to the royal family is restricted.”

The shorter man began sputtering. “Just anyone? I’ll have you know…” He did not finish, for his companion opened his eyes and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“What my partner is trying to say, is that the wizard Gandalf offers his most sincere apologies. He knew Bain, and wanted nothing more than to be here to offer his sympathy to Brand and his family, but urgent matters has kept him far to the West.” He bowed, and pulled his friend down with him. “My name is Pallando, and my companion is Alatar. You may not know our names, but should you give them to Brand, I am certain that he will welcome us in Gandalf’s place.” He kept his head lowered while Durmond considered what he had just been told.

“We will inform the castle that you have arrived, and they will see you only should they choose to accept you,” was Durmond’s reply. “Wait here until they have reached a decision. Aylward, watch them.”

Durmond turn and began up the hill, and Aylward stood alone with the two strangers. Standing proudly at attention, he did not move a muscle, but underneath his mind was racing. Gandalf? Did he just say he knows Gandalf? Just who were these two. He’d never heard their names before. He was still reeling from the shock of the death of the King. This was all too much.

It was at that moment a party of dwarves arrived from the Lonely Mountain. On their approach, Aylward motioned for the two men in blue to stand aside as the company marched past. He very quickly realised that these weren’t just any ordinary common-dwarves. A contingent of six dwarven soldiers were being lead by the Mountain’s captain of the guard, Dwalin son of Fundin. The rumours were true, he was tall for a dwarf, and he did bear tattoos of their history upon his bald head. But he wasn’t the only recognisable dwarf. Immediately after the soldiers walked Dain, their King. Behind him was his son, Thorin third of his name, and Dis, mother of the heroic Fili and Kili and sister to Thorin Oakenshield himself. He recognised her because unlike all the male dwarves, she didn’t have a beard, just unusually long sideburns. Following them were the other members of the legendary Company. Bofur, still wearing the hat he was renowned for, and Bifur, it was true, he did have an axe in his head. Then it was Nori, his hair styled in three crests, and Dori beside him. After those two there were six young dwarves, all with fiery orange hair and beards. Behind them was a dwarf with silver and black hair, and he was accompanied by a very young dwarf; Aylward guessed maybe twenty years old at most. Then came the rear guard, another troop of six dwarven soldiers. Aylward didn’t see any opulently large dwarves that might be Bombur, and according to the rumours, Balin, Ori, Oin, and Gloin had all travelled West. All the same, Aylward was dumbfounded by the number of famous dwarves that had passed by him all at once.

As the dwarves paraded through the gate, the two old men Aylward had been charged to watch seemed to not pay the procession much mind. The one called Alatar seemed particularly uninterested, more concerned with casting impatient glances for the return of Durmond. Pallando’s expression appeared to go back to the same vacant, somnolent stare he’d had for most of their previous conversation. Had Aylward not been so distracted himself, he might have caught Pallando watching the dwarf with the tri-pointed hair with keen, sharp eyes.

It did not take too long for Durmond to return after the dwarves were out of sight beyond the top of the hill.

“The King welcomes his esteemed guests to his hall, and apologises for having kept you waiting. If you shall follow me, I will take you to see him now.”

Pallando politely bowed once more to Aylward. “Thank you for keeping us company.” Alatar just humphed sulkily. As they walked away, Aylward overheard the shorter man complaining to his friend. “A wizard is never early indeed! You will have to educate me on what part of that humiliation you call punctual,” Alatar moaned.

Did he just say… wizard? Aylward could not believe what he was hearing.

“On the contrary, my dear Alatar, our timing could not have been more perfect,” responded the other, smiling.

“You’re still paying for our next meal and lodging,” Alatar grumbled.

As Durmond escorted the two men in blue up the hill towards the castle, Aylward simply had no words to describe what he had just witnessed. Someday he would meet a woman, have kids, and share this story with his family, and there was positively no way it would ever be believed.

Chapter Text

In Dale, they did not bury their dead.

After Smaug the Terrible scorched the city to cinders, there was no one left to bury those who perished in the blaze. Even if there were, the winds scattered the ashes of the deceased to the far corners of the world. After the dragon at Lake-town, the survivors said farewell to the lost with a ritual of fire, burning the remains so that they might join their ancestors in the sky.

As the sun fell below the horizon, and colour began to fade from the heavens, the citizens of the city lined the streets bearing torches as the funeral procession ambled slowly from the castle to the square at the centre of town. Leading the march was Brand, now King, dressed in a brocade of raven silk with a gold and silver weave of fire and stones that glittered in the firelight, and caped in the pelt of a large black bear. His hair and beard were kept trim, a lustrous brown that was about to start fading with age. By his side was Dain, and along with four other noble patriarchs of the Kingdom, they each bore a canvas stretcher upon which lay Bain in eternal sleep. As they moved through the wide boulevards, the people that guided their way with torchlight joined the rear of the column like a river of stars flowing across the night sky. As the avenue opened up to the open court at the heart of Dale, the six carried Bain to the middle of the space, and the stream of lights behind them circled around the perimeter. The stalls of the marketplace had all been cleared, and was replaced by a large pyre.

Nori joined the procession at the castle along with the rest of his kin, and after walking through the city, he filed into the plaza behind the rest of the dwarves, together forming an arc along a side of the outer circle, in front of the crowds of Men. Watching the Kings and nobles lay Bain to rest upon the stack of kindling at the centre, Nori stood in silence holding his torch at the far end of the line of dwarves. Dori was to his right, with Bifur by his side, and then Bofur. Eimi and Burin were next; they had been invited in place of Balin. Nori hadn’t spoken to either of them since they’d heard the terrible news. Neither had spoken since they had left Erebor, but maybe it was something that they were at Bain’s funeral at all. Nori wasn’t sure whether or not he should mention what he’d been planning to them; Burin was still very young, and frankly Nori didn’t want to be responsible should anything happen. There will be time to see how they are at the feast, Nori had decided.

Beside Burin stood Bombur’s children, oldest to youngest. They had attended for their father and mother as Bombur simply did not have the energy to make a trip outside the Mountain anymore, and his wife had stayed behind to look after him. First, Embur, his only daughter, with deep emerald eyes and fiery red hair, of which more grew on her arms than on her chin, despite that out of all Bombur’s children her beard was the thickest. Like the rest of the children she rotated shifts at the Gold Dragon, but when Embur was not on duty she would be found deep in the mines; she had an innate talent for locating veins of iron ore hidden behind stone. To her right was Timbur, Bombur’s eldest son, and Umbur close by him. An inseperable pair, each took after their mother, their hair more bronze than copper and their eyes periwinkle pearls. Nori saw both of them joining the royal guard as soon as they were old enough; they could not be kept out of the sparring pits, and often their injuries kept them from their shifts in the kitchen. At that moment Umbur was holding his torch with his left hand, with three of his right fingers wrapped together in a splint after he foolishly tried to catch Timbur’s mallet with them. Then there was Nombur, who sported even thinner hair than his younger siblings. Out of all of Bombur’s children, he spent the most time helping out at home and at the tavern. The youngest pair were twins, named Fibur and Kibur, in honour of Fili and Kili, but that was where the resemblance ended. The two had little in common; Fibur was a boisterous, outspoken lad who wore tattoos under each sleeve and hadn’t picked up any constructive hobbies, and Kibur was so shy his voice was rarely louder than a whisper, and certainly not heard against the hammering in the smithies where he dutifully learned how to forge metal in his spare time.

Dis and Thorin were standing within Nori’s peripheral vision towards the other end of the arc. Between them and Kibur stood half of the guard Dain had brought with him. Nori felt that had been a bit excessive, but being the first time the prince had left the Mountain since his arrival, Dain was not taking any chances. He’s going to have to let Thorin grow up at some point, was Nori’s opinion. From Nori’s vantage point, the prince looked very reverent, and Dis looked fierce, but that was not unusual for her. The remaining six guards stood to her right, and then finally, at the other end of the arc of dwarves, well within Nori’s sight without needing to turn his head, was Dwalin.

Nori could feel Dwalin’s eyes on him. Nori had been trying to avoid him all day, but there was no escape. Dwalin was genuinely concerned about Nori, and that made things incredibly difficult.

Nori had promised Dwalin he wouldn’t go to Moria, and the lie had shattered his heart. Nori knew that he could not be stopped. An uncontrollable desire had burned within him, and for a brief moment, he had almost given in to it down in the depths of the library. As Dwalin stood before him, blocking his path, Nori had felt himself going numb. The sensation crept up from the extremities like needles poking into his skin, along his limbs, in his chest, and finally on his head. A throbbing chill of adrenaline fueled by a passionate urge to get to Moria by whatever means necessary. He recognised his hand was moving on it’s own, moving towards the dagger by his side, as though he were being manipulated like a puppet. It felt so right, succumbing to it was euphoric. He was poised to do whatever was required to fulfil his mission.

But then Dwalin took the initiative with a surprising move; his surrender.

“Nori… please… I don’t want to fight you.” Dwalin’s words had pierced Nori’s heart, and suddenly there was a hole through which the overpowering madness drained. Nori had never felt weaker. That was when Dwalin took Nori into his arms and surrounded him with an immense, comfortable warmth. It overwhelmed Nori just how perfectly they fit together. Suddenly Moria did not matter. Nothing mattered. There was only Dwalin. Burying his face between those broad shoulders, with soft, salt and pepper whiskers brushing against his forehead, Nori felt as though he was where he belonged. It was impossible to resist. He clutched at Dwalin’s furs and breathed in his musky, masculine dwarven scent. It was ecstasy. He hadn’t been able to get Dwalin out of his head all day, and perhaps it had been divine anticipation for that moment. It was utter bliss.

Eventually, Dwalin pulled himself away, and Nori felt incomplete without his touch.

He had never faced so difficult a choice in his life. Up until now, Nori had lived freely and easily, but now he was being torn between two opposing urges. What made Nori feel even more helpless was that he was completely at the mercy of his impulses, and he did not understand why. Ever since Bifur had come to him with the terrible news about Ori, something fundamentally Nori had changed. His whimsical, carefree, happy-go-lucky self had disappeared, and Nori wasn’t sure if he would be able to find that part of himself again.

All he knew for sure was that he wanted to go to Moria, and he wanted Dwalin. He just didn’t know how to have both, and how extremely frustrating that felt.

Not going to Moria was out of the question, though. Nori felt queasy in the stomach at the idea. But his encounter with Dwalin presented new complications. If he were to go to Moria as he had planned to with Dori, Bifur, and Bofur, then he’d be getting the three of them into a lot of trouble. Dwalin had mentioned he had the King on his side, and it was no secret that Dain was against any dwarf setting foot towards Moria. He remembered how hard Balin and Ori had to fight for Dain’s approval for their expedition. Nori wasn’t so concerned with himself, but the other three had a lot more to lose, having made decent lives for themselves in the Mountain. On the other hand, going alone was too risky. He hadn’t been able to defeat Dwalin, and any opponent he encountered on the road would give him no quarter. He wasn’t strong enough. Not only that, but if he suddenly disappeared into the night, he’d be breaking Dori’s heart, and there was no telling how badly that might break him.

No matter what course he took, he would be betraying Dwalin.

Nori was disturbed from his daze by the deep, loud clang of a funeral bell. He felt heat rise to his cheeks as he realised he’d been staring at Dwalin the entire time he’d been lost in thought, and hoped that the larger dwarf hadn’t noticed. Turning his attention back to the ceremony, Nori noticed the six nobles were now standing around the pyre holding their own torches high before them, and Sigrid and Tilda, Bain’s sisters, were by Brand’s side. They had been so young when Nori had first met them sneaking into Lake-town, and had grown up so much the last time he had seen them, at the funeral of their father, Bard. Now they appeared withered and grey, and by comparison, Nori had hardly changed at all.

Brand took slow, steady steps towards his father’s resting place. Sorrow drawn across his face, he carefully placed the burning tip of his firebrand into the kindling. As the fire commenced its feast, Sigrid and Tilda began to sing.

“Ier uru colir arangwa anailwë
Násië tíras sénya coiuva vórë.”

Once they had finished the verse, in unison, Dain and the other nobles stepped forward and offered their fires to the pyre. They stepped back to their places, and the entire city watched in silence as Bain was swallowed by the hungry blaze. The golden light emanated off the great pillar of billowing smoke and cast a shining aura over the plaza. The inferno at the heart of the square burned hotter and brighter than the sun.

Nori found the spectacle difficult to watch, but he did not look away. Even as his eyes began to sting, and glistening tears slowly trickled down his cheeks, he did not stir. Even though he knew that amongst those in the crowd entranced by the ceremony, one pair of eyes was fixed on him.

Chapter Text

The crescent moon had reached the apex of its circle across the night sky by the time the raging bonfire was reduced to glowing ashes. Most of the commonfolk had dispersed earlier in the ceremony, but the aristocrats and invited guests of the royal family stayed on in silent vigil. Nori’s legs were stiff, his back ached, as did his arm, after several hours holding a torch that had dwindled to a smouldering glow. He was no worse off than any of the other dwarves, and even young Burin had managed to persevere for the entire ritual. As the cold night air conquered the final, resisting embers of the funeral pyre, Brand turned back towards the castle and commenced the slow procession back. One by one, all those that remained joined him, including Nori. The city was asleep, the only disturbance was the sound of boots clomping against cobblestone as the congregation marched together under a sea of stars. As they passed through the castle gates, their torches were collected by servants and Nori continued to follow as the assembly was guided to the guest dining hall where a large banquet awaited them.

The hall itself was illuminated by wrought iron chandeliers hanging from the tall ceiling and torches fastened to the walls. Large, arched windows lined the walls that, during the day, would have brightened the vast room even more so, but were instead like mirrors against the darkness behind them. Velvet carpet lay on the floor, patterned shades of shamrock and sky blue that matched the silk banners decorated with the emblem of the Kingdom of Dale draped over the large pillars that supported the immense roof. Of course, these adornments could not distract Nori from the four long tables that stretched along the hall, one shorter than the others for those visitors from the Mountain, each blanketed by crisp, white linen. Upon those tables lay a delectable feast that watered Nori’s mouth before he had even seen it, the aroma alone was enticing enough. Stag, pheasant, chicken, duck, boar, veal, roasted and seasoned to perfection, glistening in their succulent juices and drizzled in onion and mushroom gravy. Freshly caught salmon, pike, and eel, smoked and paired with horseradish butter. There was also a myriad of vegetable dishes, though they were slightly less appealing to Nori’s tastes; he did notice steaming bowls of pottage, creamy mashed potatoes, and roasted carrots, peas, pumpkin, and sweet potato that would go nicely with the appetising meat dishes. The guests would not go thirsty either, there were tankards frothing with mead and ale, as well as glasses of deep red and sparkling white wines, and squires at the ready to keep them full.

It was a testament to the prosperity of the Kingdom that so much could be prepared in just one day.

There were more than ample chairs to seat all of the King’s guests, and leave many spare for those who wished to move about during the dinner in search of tasty morsels or good conversation. Initially, however, all the dwarves sat together at one table. Nori continued to stay close to his brother, picking the seat to Dori’s left. Bombur’s children were lined across the table, with Umbur directly in front of him, his broken right hand cradled in his lap. Up close, the food smelt and looked even more delicious, though nothing would be touched until Brand was seated and had commenced eating. Nearest to Nori was a tender, moist bacon loin, basted in a sweet honey mustard. Before he had a chance to investigate the other irresistible courses within his reach, movement at his peripheral stole Nori’s attention. The large dwarf he had been hoping to avoid during the meal had decided, of all places, to sit next to him.

Of course he would, Nori thought to himself, as Dwalin got comfortable. There was plenty of room between each seat, but Dwalin sat with his legs spread wide under the table, and Nori found Dwalin’s knee brushing against his thigh. Nori was about to protest, but it just felt so warm, and those uncontrollable thoughts began clouding his judgement, so he allowed it.

“You don’t mind if I sit here, do you,” he asked Nori in his deep voice, low enough that against the hum of chatter that filled the room, only Nori could hear it. Dwalin’s cobalt eyes were shining with hope that Nori might allow his company, his expression was almost soft. Nori tried to relax, but he felt his stomach churning. Whatever Dwalin sought from Nori, he would only get lies and false promises in return, and Nori felt sick for doing so. Suddenly he wasn’t so hungry. But he had to play the part. If Dwalin got suspicious, it would only make things more difficult.

“I won’t object,” Nori replied, trying his best to offer a friendly smile, “but are you sure Dain doesn’t need you by his side?”

Dwalin seemed disheartened by the answer. “Aye, I will need to move on soon shortly, but I really wanted to see how you were.” Dwalin’s adjusted his knee slightly, and Nori felt it rub against his leg. His heart began beating with quicker tempo. “With everything that’s happened, we haven’t had a chance to speak since…” His voice dropped even lower, almost a whisper. “Since our last encounter. Are you alright?”

Nori didn’t know how to even begin answering Dwalin’s question. It did not help that he was feeling flushed by Dwalin’s touch. He chose to initiate with the truth, and then build the lie from there.

“I truly felt like going to Moria was what I needed most. To bring that last chapter of Ori’s story home, so that it will be remembered.”

“But Nori, surely you know that it all means nothing if you get yourself killed. The best way to remember him is by living.”

I won’t die, Nori thought adamantly to himself. Out loud, he said, “You’re right, I just needed to be told in order to believe it,” knowing that rehashing their previous argument would not help his cause. Dwalin appeared happy that Nori agreed with him.

“I’m relieved to hear you say that. You know I’m just looking out for you. You’re a…” Dwalin hesitated. “A good friend. I don’t think I ever said as much before. We’ll get through this.” It was genuinely surprising to hear Dwalin say that. It had been an emotional few days, but Dwalin had never been so open about his feelings, at least, not to Nori. He truly seemed to care, and that just made things all the more complicated for Nori.

Nori was struggling to quickly think up a reply that wasn’t awkward or overly sentimental when he was saved by the sudden clamour of neighbouring dwarves beginning to dig into the food. Nori looked towards Brand and saw he was at his table and had made a start on his meal. Dwalin’s attention had turned to Dain. “I suppose I better attend to our King. I hope you enjoy the meal.” Dwalin’s knee pulled away from Nori’s leg as he rose, and Nori instinctively kicked out trying to maintain contact. It was a tiny movement, but enough that Dwalin paused for a second, and Nori realised that he had been detected.

“Sorry,” he apologised weakly. “They never quite seem to get the height of these tables right for us dwarves. It’s hard to get comfortable.” It wasn’t much of an excuse, but if Dwalin didn’t buy it, he didn’t make it obvious.

“I know what you mean, sometimes Men can be as bad as elves” Dwalin responded with a smile as he finished getting out of his seat. He patted Nori on the shoulder, lingering at the final touch, and then began walking up the table to an empty spot next to Dain.

Nori looked back at the banquet and found he had no appetite at all. It didn’t take Dori long to notice that his younger brother was not piling his plate, and offered Nori the samples he had already collected.

“You must eat something,” Dori ordered. “You haven’t had anything since lunch, and this food is simply too good to waste.”

“I think I just need a moment of fresh air,” Nori refuted, pushing his chair back. Dori opened his mouth in protest but Nori insisted. “Just quickly. I’ll be right back. Promise.”

He left before Dori had a chance to disagree, and paced swiftly around one of the huge pillars. Leaning against the rear of the column, he had a good view of the festivities without standing out himself. It was as close to solitude as he was going to get, and so he allowed himself to wallow in his frustration.

Nothing was going well. He was completely and utterly confused about the entire situation. About Dwalin. About Moria. About how helpless everything felt. There just didn’t seem to be a way he could have everything, nor any way he could convince himself to just let everything go.

Nori’s brooding was interrupted by the sound of a man clearing his throat.

He turned to find a tall, old man dressed in a long, azure coat had joined him. Nori recognised him as a man they had passed at the gates of Dale. The man had been accompanied by a bodyguard, who also looked like his body double, and he had been rather intent on staring at Nori as he had walked past.

It was the stranger who broke the silence first.

“There is only a single reason for one not to indulge themselves at a feast such as this, and that is because they hunger for something the table doesn’t provide.”

Nori cocked his eyebrow. “Is that so? Then, tell me, what is it that you hunger for?”

“You are quite a perceptive dwarf, Master Nori,” the old man replied, and Nori winced. Ever since he became famous he had never enjoyed people knowing his name by reputation. It often put him at a disadvantage. The stranger continued. “There is most certainly something that I lust for, something that imparts us with a great deal in common.” He extended his hand. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Pallando. You do not know my name, but you know Gandalf, and he and I have been acquaintances for a very long time.”

Nori narrowed his eyes cautiously. If not for Gandalf they never would have survived their quest, but that didn’t change the fact there was something incredibly mysterious about the wizard, and that made Nori feel uncomfortable. Dealing with anyone affiliated with Gandalf would definitely only make Nori’s life even more complicated. But Pallando had already tempted Nori’s curiosity. He grasped the frail-looking hand and shook it to find Pallando had an unexpectedly strong grip. When Nori attempted to loosen his clasp, Pallando kept a hold of it for an extra moment before releasing, and closed his eyes.

“I noticed you were watching me at the city gates,” Nori accused once he had his hand back. “What do you mean we have something in common?”

Pallando pondered for a few seconds before lifting his eyelids.

“It is my desire to help you, Master Nori. I have come to you this night to form a partnership. My companion, Alatar, and I, wish to help you find that which you seek, for we have much to gain in doing so.”

Nori wasn’t enjoying the fact that Pallando seemed to know everything, whilst knowing nothing himself. It made him feel awfully defensive. “Oh? And what makes you so sure about that?”

Pallando’s response was prompt. “Mazarbul Sigin-turgul Khazaddûmul lu sullu tada zalafa undu Urâd Shathûrul.”

Nori stared wide eyed at Pallando. Not only was he unaccustomed to hearing the secret language of dwarven-folk spoken by Men, but Pallando knew what Nori sought after and where he intended to go. Nori wasn’t sure how. He might have spoken to one of the other dwarves, Bofur particularly would have struggled to keep the secret. But Nori found himself surprised to consider that it was more likely that there was simply more to Pallando than could be perceived.

Dealing with wizards would definitely make Nori’s life more complicated.

But Pallando did say it was in his interest to assist him. The best course of action, for now, would be to play along. “I see. Mutual gain. And just what exactly do you have in mind?”

“Things may seem insurmountable right now, but they always do when one is lost. Sometimes all that is needed is to be pointed in the right direction,” Pallando responded cryptically.

“And which way is that, exactly?”

Pallando gestured to the banquet, towards Dain. Nori inspected the table, and observed the empty chair next to the King.

The prince had wandered off.

“You’re not the only one who is lost. If you can help Thorin find his way, he in turn will help you find yours.” Pallando handed Nori a small shred of parchment. “When you’re ready to leave, you will find my partner and I in this tavern. Go there first, we will be waiting for you.”

Nori took the slip of paper. Inked in neat handwriting were the words 'Waterfront Inn'. He folded it cleanly and placed it safely in his pocket.

“Is there anything else,” Nori asked.

“Just one thing. You need to listen to your instincts. Destiny has a way of telling us the important things. You just need to follow your heart.”

It must have been obvious that Nori didn’t entirely understand the enigmatic way he had spoken, because Pallando clarified.

“If you do not bring Dwalin on your quest, it will fail.”

Chapter Text

It was not difficult for Nori to slink out of the loud banquet hall; the room was well and truly alive with chatter and clatter, and any wandering eyes were drawn to the exhibition of empty plates being removed from the tables to be replaced with the second course. Finding Thorin also proved not to be a challenge. From one of the side doorways, Nori followed a trail of dwarven guards that looked particularly out of place, standing in their cold, hard armour in the warm, soft corridors of the castle, warily scrutinising all that passed them. They clearly marked all the doors through which Thorin had walked, along hallways decorated with beautiful paintings, rich carpets, finely woven tapestries, and ancient relics, ceramic and metal, preserved in meticulously clean glass cabinets. Some artifacts were new, gifts from foreign lands with whom the Kingdom of Dale now treated, and others were ancient, damaged prizes recovered from before the terrible reign of Smaug. Before Nori had stood amidst the vast wealth amassed within Erebor’s treasure room, he would have been completely entranced by these riches. Back when he lived in Ered Luin, he could not have dreamed of such opulence, a meagre handful of coppers meant food and survival, and having as much was the most valuable thing in the world. Now, Nori glided past immeasurable fortunes with no more than a passing glance as he chased after Thorin.

Even though Nori was considered a noble on account of his deeds, he never felt like it. Gold did not flow through Nori’s veins, only iron. He’d joined Thorin Oakenshield’s quest on a whim; to join his brothers, and get out of a little trouble. He was as common as dwarves came, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t above using his status when it worked to his advantage. Being able to move freely around the castle after a prince was not something to be taken for granted.

The path of dwarven guards led Nori to the entrance of a tower stairwell. At the summit, after ascending several flights, Nori found a ladder fashioned of iron and fastened to the wall with heavy pins, above which rested a heavy, oak trapdoor. Climbing the rungs and heaving the door open on well-oiled hinges that did not squeal, Nori was greeted by cool night air, a glimmering sky full of stars and the laughing moon. Nori pulled himself up and carefully closed the hatch behind him, so that he did not disturb the tranquility. The watchtower was barren of furnishings, there was nothing but ashen cobblestones radiant under the glittering starlight, and the dwarven prince leaning against the battlements, looking out beyond the sleeping kingdom toward the only portion of the sky that did not shine. Thorin had folded his arms over the crenel and was resting his chin upon them, and gave no indication that he observed Nori’s presence, though he must have. Nori approached the crenel to Thorin’s right and took in the panorama. Dale was quiet; very few lights glimmered in the city below, but under the brilliant moonlight, Nori’s dwarven eyes captured every detail of the quiet, labyrinthine city. In the distance, the Mountain was a shadow that cut into the sky, swallowed the stars and loomed over the Kingdom. His prince did not acknowledge his company, and once Nori had fully appreciated the view, he pierced at the serenity.

“Not hungry?” Nori asked. He’d never really spoken to Thorin before, but figured there would be no harm in speaking to him as he would to any other dwarf.

“Not really. I needed some air, and was just thinking.” His eyes were fixed on the Mountain. “We dwarves see many Kings of Men in our long lives. In the time since the Kingdom of Dale was reborn, it has had three; first Bard, then Bain, and now Brand.” Nori looked down at the still buildings nestled in the valley below. Most had been rebuilt after the Battle, and their smooth stone walls did not carry the wear or dirt that came with age. His prince continued. “Everything Brand has learned, all his training, each accomplishment, has led to this moment. I have lived within the walls of Lonely Mountain under more suns than Brand has seen in his entire young life, and now he rules this Kingdom. Whether he is ready or not, Bain’s scepter has now been passed on, and now Brand bears the weight of this responsibility.” Thorin let out long, drawn-out sigh, as he pushed himself away from the wall and turned his back on the Mountain. “Dwarves are not like elves. We are not immortal. The day will come when I will wear Brand’s shoes. I cannot imagine how hard that will be, and sometimes I don’t know if I will ever be ready.”

Nori swivelled around, but kept contact with the battlements, leaning against them with one elbow propped up, and a leg crossed over the other. Thorin stood at the centre of the tower with his neck arched and head towards the sky. His eyes were closed, as were his fists. Nori stood in silence as his prince worked out his feelings. Eventually his eyes fluttered open and he looked at Nori.

“I am truly sorry for your loss, Nori,” Thorin offered. “I studied with Ori under Balin’s tutelage. Sharper than the finest axe, yet the most gentle dwarf I’d ever met. He was one of the Mountain’s greatest treasures, and a wonderful friend.” Thorin stepped closer and embraced Nori, who, surprised by the sudden affection, awkwardly patted his prince on the shoulders. Upon releasing Nori, Thorin stood beside him and faced the Mountain again. “Ori was also far braver than I; he sought adventure, and was half my age when he first ventured beyond the horizon.” Thorin looked down at his hands. “After fourteen decades I can still count the number of times I have slept under the stars with one hand.” Thorin counted with his fingers as he listed. “The first was when I travelled from the Iron Hills to Erebor after it had been reclaimed. The second was a night like this, the night Bard passed away. And now tonight.” Thorin frowned at his half-opened hand once he had finished. “When Thorin Oakenshield was my age, he had seen the whole world. He’d travelled across the Wilderland, and over Eriador. He’d fought in the War of the Orcs and Dwarves alongside my father and grandfather. Compared to dwarves like Thorin and your brother, I have achieved nothing, having lived safely behind the walls of Mountains my whole life. If I was even a little like your brother, I would be a far greater dwarf. That he was so young and still volunteered to face a dragon, Ori will always have my deepest admiration.”

A chill breeze blew over the tower. Thorin’s words brought forth a lot of memories for Nori, but it was an honour for the prince to speak so highly of his brother. “Thank you. I am sure you will make a fine King, one the Mountain would be proud of. It’s not as though you’ve been idle. You’ve trained with Dwalin and Dis almost every day, and who better to prepare you than they?”

“A month on the road is worth years of counsel,” Thorin argued. “The closest I have come to experiencing anything beyond the Kingdom of dwarves is only through what I have read.” He began pacing around the watchtower again. “I long to discover the world for myself, but my father has insisted on keeping me safe, kept me under the Mountain. I have always been protected, and too cowardly to stand up to my father.”

Nori’s brow furrowed in disapproval. “I noticed he has half the royal guard following your every footstep. Whatever has him so worried?”

Thorin sighed. “My mother died when I was very young. Too young to even remember what she looked like. She loved to hunt, and often left the walls of the Mountain to join hunting parties, with my father’s blessing. It was a perfectly ordinary summer day, and my mother departed with her party as she would any other, but unlike any ordinary day, she did not return before the sunset that evening. I remember being worried, but my father consoled me. It was a time of peace for the Iron Hills; there had been no attacks along the borders of the Kingdom for over decade. My father told me no enemy would dare harm her. Nonetheless, by morning, she still hadn’t returned, and things did not look promising. My father led the search, and it was he that discovered her butchered body along with those of her party. A band of Balchoth raiders had ventured within our borders and had slaughtered them all. He swore retribution would be delivered, but the Balchoth are not known for staying in one place for long. She was never avenged. Those events changed my father, and he has shielded me from the world ever since.”

Nori shivered. He might have blamed it on the blast of freezing air that flurried over the tower, but in truth it was the realisation that should he proceed to Moria he might experience that same horror Dain faced all those years ago, finding his brother’s mutilated corpse. It was not enough to sway his resolve even slightly, though. “You never thought about just leaving? Making up your own mind?”

Thorin laughed wryly, crossing his arms. “Of course I have. Remember when I said I was a coward? If I was half the dwarf Ori was I’d have rebelled against my father years ago.”

Nori sauntered away from the north side of the tower to face west. The darkness in the distance, where the land kissed the stars, was Mirkwood. “Before he left, Ori told me that legends have a price. I knew that he was prepared to pay it, if it meant his adventures would live on as stories told generation after generation.” Nori hesitated, he knew he was about to give Thorin his most honest advice, but that did not change the fact that it was also utterly terrible. “If you truly want to see the world, I think you should stand up to your father, regardless of what it might cost you. You should just go!”

Thorin looked up at the stars again, as though he yearned for them. “I just don’t think I can.”

Nori stared determinedly out into the distance. “I’m going to.”

“I beg your pardon?” Thorin clearly didn’t understand.

“I’m going to stand up to your father. I’m going to Moria.”

Nori braced himself as he heard Thorin approach to tug at his shoulder, whirling Nori around until their eyes met. “Are you mad? Moria is your brother’s tomb, and my father’s talking about exiling any dwarf who even thinks about going there. You’re not talking about seeing the world, you’re talking about suicide!”

Nori locked eyes with Thorin and firmly held his gaze. He needed Thorin to understand his resolve. “I’m not planning on colonising it. I’m only after one thing. The book of records. It’s the last chapter of my brother’s story and I’m not letting it die. Right now it’s lying on the seventh level of Moria in the chamber of records. I’m going to Moria, retrieving the book, and coming home, and nothing is stopping me. Not your father, nor an army of orcs, nor even Durin’s Bane himself.” Thorin eyes were wide, but he said nothing. Nori took this as permission to go on. “My brother survived the dangers that lurked in those caverns for five years. I’ll be there less than a day. I know the risks, but just like Ori, I am prepared to face them. The thing about adventures is that you have to deal with whatever gets thrown at you, no matter how frightening or cumbersome. Do you think it was any different when Thorin Oakenshield travelled across the world to reclaim the Mountain from a dragon? If going means I have to deal with your father’s wrath, then that is the least of my worries. I am prepared for everything.”

Thorin took a few steps backward and then collapsed onto the floor. Lying on his back, he stared upward at the night sky, frozen if not for the undulation of his chest. Without taking his eyes of the stars, he responded. “It sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought into this.”

“Not just me, but Dori too. Bifur and Bofur are also on board.” Nori decided not to mention the wizards for now, and even though Pallando had told him bringing Dwalin was an absolute necessity, Nori still had utterly no idea how he was going to convince that oaf to join him. He leaned back against the battlement and sat down. The stone was cool but at least he was shielded from the brisk wind.

Together they gazed up at the stars, and the silence between them spanned several minutes. When Thorin finally spoke, he sounded confident and assertive, the way Nori expected a prince of Erebor to sound. “I’ll talk to my father.”

Nori couldn’t help but smile with relief at Thorin’s words. Having the prince on his side would make everything a lot easier. “You will?”

“Indeed,” Thorin affirmed. “Rest up tonight, Nori. Tomorrow, you will gather those who are going on this journey, and collect all the necessary supplies. I’ll talk to my father and get his blessing. We’ll meet at the stables at noon, and from there we will head out.”

Nori’s grin vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared. “We?”

“Of course. In exchange for my help, you’re taking me with you. It’s about time I saw the world too.”

Chapter Text

After his conversation with Thorin, Nori left his prince to rejoin his kin at the banquet. He still didn’t have much of an appetite, but he knew that this would the last opportunity to fill his stomach for some time, and he would be needing his strength. Nori had anticipated that Dori would save him something from each course, and Nori accepted the stacked plates gratefully and ate in silence, too absorbed in his plans to taste any of it. Being ready by lunchtime the next day would be a challenge, but it was feasible. Before they’d been interrupted by the unforeseen and terrible news of Bain, they’d already completed a majority of the preparation. Bofur had organised the bulk of the supplies, and Dori and Nori mostly agreed on a course, based on the previous expedition. All Nori needed to do was tell the others it was happening tomorrow.

The greatest challenge was Dwalin, a problem that tormented Nori immensely. The wizard, Pallando, had said it was absolutely necessary that Dwalin join them on their quest, and that was a sentiment Nori shared, he wanted Dwalin by his side more than anything; not that he understood his sudden infatuation with Dwalin. Ever since the Mountain had been reclaimed, Nori had lived capriciously. He’d never settled down like the others had, he just drifted about comfortably. He hadn’t really been searching for anything more because there simply hadn’t been anything to find. The moment Nori had learned the fate of his little brother, everything had changed in a most unexpected way. Instead of grief, Nori had been filled him with a profound urge to get to Moria, and an earnest longing for Dwalin. Pallando had described it as destiny, but Nori wasn’t sure about that. All that was certain was that Nori was a slave to these feelings, and it tore him deeply that he did not know how to have everything. Dwalin was completely opposed to notion of journeying to Moria, and Nori had no clue how to change his mind. Words would not work, but what could Nori do? Kidnap him? The idea was preposterous. He had to convince Dwalin to go, somehow, and he had very little time to figure out how.

Throughout the meal, Nori looked towards the head of the table, at Dwalin, sitting beside Dain. He was practiced at discretion; watching dwarves from a distance without drawing attention to himself was a skill he’d honed back at Ered Luin, when the easiest way to earn coin was with patience and quick fingers. Nori was intrigued to discover, however, that Dwalin was not so subtle. He too was casting furtive glances across the table, and whenever their eyes met, Dwalin would clumsily look away. Nori suspected that the way Dwalin’s cheeks flushed whenever he was caught had nothing to do with how much mead the large dwarf had consumed. He wasn’t oblivious; Nori knew that something about Dwalin had changed. He’d softened somehow; his hardy exterior had been fractured. Nori saw it in Dwalin’s eyes. There was something affectionate about the way he’d been acting towards Nori ever since their clash two nights ago. Not that it mattered. Nori had lied to Dwalin, and as soon as discovered the truth was inevitably discovered, whatever was going on between them would end. It was hopeless.

Nobody bothered Nori as he ate. The seat to his left had remained vacant after Dwalin had moved. Before him, Timbur and Umbur before him were having a heated debate about something inane. Dori, on his right, was totally engaged in his conversation with Bifur; which was mostly one-sided. Dori chattered nonstop whilst Bifur listened intently, unable to take his eyes away. Eventually, the remaining plates left over from the third course were removed from the table, to be replaced with dessert; pears cooked in red wine and seasoned with ginger and cinnamon, custard tarts, and a wide variety of flavoured cakes and pies. It was during this transition of courses that Dori noticed Nori’s quietude, and was unable to contain his concern.

“You’ve been awfully quiet. Is everything alright?” Dori asked.

Despite the boisterous atmosphere in the banquet hall, Nori didn’t want to risk being overheard. He leaned toward Dori, and Bifur, who had been watching, slanted closer until his chin was hovering just above Dori’s shoulder.

“I spoke to Thorin,” Nori responded with hushed voice. “I told him about what we’ve been planning. He’s in.”

Dori clasped his little brother’s hands and beamed. “That is excellent news. I thought that he and Dain might disapprove, but their support is an honour to us and to Ori.”

Nori looked away. Dori wouldn’t be so thrilled once he understood the truth of the matter. “Well, to be perfectly clear,” he began, his tongue flicking across his lips and along the roof of his mouth as he sought the right words, “Dain doesn’t actually know what we’re planning. Not yet, anyway. And when I say Thorin’s in, what I mean is, that he’s coming with us.” Dori’s eyes began to widen, and Nori figured that he might as well reveal everything all at once. “Also, we leave tomorrow at noon.”

Dori’s jaw dropped. Nori could read his brother well, but it would have been obvious to any dwarf that Dori was not happy with the turn of events. All the signs that Dori was about to make a fuss were emerging when Bifur quickly placed a hand on his shoulder, to both calm Dori and draw his attention. Without breaking eye contact, Bifur started to sign in Iglishmek. With his right hand, Bifur pointed to his right shoulder, and then his left. Then he opened his palm, brought his thumb to his nose, and tilted his hand downward. Next, he closed both hands into fists, placed his right on top of his left, and twisted his fingers outwards. Finally, Bifur opened his right palm and held it out facing the ceiling, clenched his fists one last time, and lightly tapped his left with his right. We will make it work. The rising tension in Dori’s shoulders dissipated as Bifur signed. Dori reached for Bifur’s hand and gave it a little squeeze, a development Nori found fascinating.

“Alright,” Dori said once he had properly calmed down. “Tomorrow, then. We’ll need to get up and head back to the Mountain early if we’re going to be ready on time.” He glanced over at Bofur, who was sharing a spirited laugh with Embur. “We’ll inform Bofur once things quieten down. Have you spoken with Dwalin yet?” Dori eyed his little brother keenly at the mention of Dwalin’s name. He hadn’t given Nori much time to think up a good lie.

“No, well, I have, but I haven’t mentioned our quest yet,” Nori stammered.

Dori’s eyes narrowed at the reply. “You had better tell him soon.”

Nori didn’t need to be reminded. Suddenly he had no appetite again, and craved solitude. Nori feigned a yawn. “Well, you’re right about waking up early tomorrow. I think I will call it a night.” Nodding at his brother and Bifur, Nori stood up. He peered across the table one last time at Dwalin, who was looking toward him yet again. Their eyes met, and this time it was Nori who felt awkward, guilt and frustration washing right through him. Despondently he turned away to find someone who would show him to his room.

As esteemed guests of Brand and his family, the dwarves were invited to spend the night in the castle. A guest room had been prepared for each of them, all large and luxuriously furnished, with wide windows overlooking the Kingdom. Once Nori had removed his clothes and his braids, he climbed onto the large mahogany bed and found its goose-feather mattress as soft as a cloud. Wrapped beneath the fine silk sheets, Nori could not have been more comfortable. Unfortunately, it failed to take Nori swiftly to slumber. He lay awake, swimming in his thoughts, most of them of Dwalin.

He was still alert as he began to hear muffled bootsteps thudding outside in the hallway. The feast had ended, and the others were going to their rooms. Nori’s ears were attuned enough that he could recognise each dwarf by the way they walked. Dori was the first to roam past, and Nori guessed that he was staying in the adjacent room, based on when the footsteps ceased and the faint sounds of the neighbouring door opening and closing. Bifur crept by shortly afterward, and Nori detected that he also entered that room. That was interesting. Very interesting. Nori couldn’t help but smirk. Bofur went by next, stumbling drunkenly. Nori hoped that Bofur hadn’t gotten too carried away, and wouldn’t be feeling sick the next morning. One by one, each of the other dwarves turned in. The one Nori was truly listening for was the last to march by. He had the heaviest feet of them all. The timing of each thump kept to a steady rhythm, until it was right outside his door, when, to Nori’s surprise, it suddenly stopped. Silence. Nori’s heart raced, and his breathing grew shallow. Dwalin was just outside his room. Nori wished desperately for the door to open, for Dwalin to enter. He swallowed. The moment stretched for an eternity. Eventually, the feet shuffled, and the heavy tramping resumed, gradually fading away down the corridor. Nori’s heart sank. Feeling completely drained, he drifted into a dreamless sleep.

***

As the dawn light beamed through the window and touched Nori, he roused from his slumber. He hadn’t slept for long, but once he processed his surroundings, and realised the time, adrenaline surged him awake. The morning had arrived. Today was the day. He was ready. It didn’t matter that this would be the last time he would rest anywhere so comfortable for months, Nori cast the blankets aside and leaped out of the bed. Slipping back into his clothes and quickly grooming his hair and beard, Nori left the room and followed the smell of breakfast to the banquet hall. A buffet had been prepared, offering a wide selection. Nori piled his plate with poached trout, scrambled eggs seasoned with pepper, fried bacon, baked beans, and roasted tomatoes. He had finished eating by the time Dori arrived, and Nori noticed that he came down alone. He couldn’t help but smile at his brother.

“Where’s Bifur?” Nori felt smug as Dori’s face turned scarlet.

“How… How would I know?” Dori blurted. Nori guessed they weren’t ready to draw attention to whatever was going on between them, and that was fine. Didn’t mean he couldn’t have a little fun tormenting his elder brother. It relaxed him, made him feel like his old self again.

“You two seem to be getting along, is all.” Nori replied slyly. Dori huffed, and left Nori to get some breakfast.

The instant Nori was alone, the anxiety returned. His impatience grew with each passing moment. There wasn’t much time. He needed to get back to the Mountain. As soon as Dori sat down beside Nori with his breakfast, Nori told his brother what he needed. “I’m going to head back to the Mountain and start packing. Will you check on Bofur? He seemed more than a little tipsy last night.”

Dori clasped his brother’s arm. “Aye, I can do that.” He kept holding firmly as Nori began to pull away. “And you’ll speak with Dwalin?”

Nori couldn’t look at Dori. The words “I will,” left his lips, but they sounded like a lie that not even he believed. “I need to go. We’ll meet at the stables at noon.” Dori released his grip, and Nori began the long hike back to the Mountain.

He did not encounter Dwalin.

***

The study at the bottom of the library was immaculate. All the research, notes, and maps that Nori and Dori had assembled were carefully packed away in Nori’s rucksack. No book, scroll, or page was left out of place. Everything was still, and quiet. There was not a sound. No matter the tumult in the districts above, the stone of the Mountain had a way of stifling every noise. It was peaceful. Nori thrived on the silence. It helped him think. Helped him focus.

Except this time.

He had agonized over his dilemma the entire trek home. Every possible solution was flawed. Dwalin would never listen. There was nothing he could do. It was torture. Anything Nori considered trying would only turn Dwalin against him. It was inevitable. Nori had felt that maybe if he returned to this place one last time, something might come to him. An idea. A possibility. Anything.

Nothing did.

Dwalin… He lamented inwardly. He yearned for a way to make Dwalin understand how he felt. To let Dwalin know how much he needed him. There simply wasn’t a way.

He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a little strip of parchment. He read the words silently to himself. ‘Waterfront Inn’. The first stop on their journey. Pallando had given this to him right before he had expressed to Nori how important it was that he convince Dwalin to join them.

It just wasn’t possible. Dwalin would never forgive Nori for lying to him. He would feel betrayed. He would hate Nori. Nori couldn’t bear to face that.

He was too weak.

The small piece of paper slipped through Nori’s fingers and gently floated to the cold, stone floor as Nori picked up his bag and left the room.

***

Nori stopped by his home after the library. Along with his notes, Nori had packed everything else he would need for a long journey. An assortment of daggers, tools, fifty feet of rope, flint and steel, blankets, waterskin, grooming supplies, climbing equipment, medical supplies, sewing kit, a pouch of gold, and spare clothes. Once he was sure nothing would be missed, he secured the valuables that would be left behind, locked the entrance, and said farewell to his home. Carrying the heavy luggage on his back was cumbersome, but he knew he would be relieved once he got to the stable.

He was the first dwarf to arrive. The groom on duty was Marr, a straw-haired dwarf about Nori’s age. Bofur had indeed spoken to her about hiring ponies for a long journey. Five had been set aside. Nori remembered painfully that one had been intended for Dwalin. Instead, it would be Thorin’s. He successfully negotiated for two extra ponies would serve as packhorses.

As he waited for the others, Nori became acquainted with the pony he would be riding on the journey; a proud stallion named Borak. His sleek fur was white as snow, and his mane was long at the fringe but shorter along the neck. Nori brushed Borak tenderly; they would be spending a long time together and might as well start their adventure on good terms.

Dori, Bifur, and Bofur all entered the stable simultaneously. Between them, they carted their own personal supplies along with the rest of the provisions they would need; food, water, and other necessities. Together, they prepared the ponies while they waited for their prince. They all seemed enthusiastic enough. Nori played along, this was all his idea, and he didn’t want to reveal how apprehensive he felt.

It wasn’t long before Thorin arrived. “It is done. I’ve spoken to my father. Best we leave now before he changes his mind.” There was an urgent undertone to his voice, but Nori had so much on his mind that he missed it.

The time had come.

Nori hoisted himself up onto Borak, and got comfortable on the saddle.

“Well then, everyone, we have a long road ahead of us. Let’s move out!”

As they left the Mountain, Dori rode beside Nori and asked him one last time, “What was Dwalin’s answer?”

Nori frowned. “Dwalin… Dwalin’s not coming,” he admitted in defeat. He hoped Dwalin would understand. He hoped he would be forgiven.

Chapter Text

Dwalin couldn’t remember the last time he felt so rested. Stretching with a loud yawn, he rubbed his eyes and blinked several times as they adjusted to the bright morning sun. Beyond the toasty blankets that enveloped him, the air was cool, and Dwalin allowed himself a moment to appreciate the soft warmth. He had slept peacefully that night, for the first time in several. The difference had been Nori. Nori had occupied his dreams in a way no dwarf ever had before. It had been intimate. It had been wonderful.

The previous evening, Dwalin had snuck glances at Nori at every available opportunity; the temptation had been irresistible. When he’d seen the tears glistening on Nori’s cheeks during the funeral ceremony, Dwalin’s heart burned hotter than the flaming pyre. Grief had finally struck Nori as Dwalin had been hit the instant Bofur had told him of Balin’s end, and Dwalin regretted not being closer more than anything. Unfortunately, Dwalin had a duty to uphold to his King and his prince, one that he would always put before his own desires. All the same, as the vigil ended and the dwarves were guided into the banquet hall, the vacant seat next to Nori beckoned to Dwalin. Just a quick word, Dwalin thought to himself. That will be okay. Being so close to Nori was something special. Dwalin remembered how it had felt to hold Nori, to breathe him in. He wanted to experience it again. As he spoke awkwardly to Nori, Dwalin had deliberately shifted his leg until it brushed against Nori’s leg. It wasn’t much, but enough, at least while it lasted. Nori didn’t oppose it, in fact, when Dwalin moved away, it seemed as though Nori tried to maintain contact, though he denied it. Dwalin wished he could have stayed by Nori’s side.

When Dwalin moved to his assigned seat beside his King, he muttered curses under his breath when he discovered Thorin had slipped away whilst he’d been distracted. Fortunately his guards had followed the rebellious prince, but it was unacceptable, nonetheless. Dain didn’t seem to mind, the lad never had any chances to explore the world outside the Mountain, and it was probably just wanted to gaze at the stars. Dwalin thought his sense of guilt might make him more diligent, but as the feast went on, his eyes started wandering again. During the early courses, Nori had disappeared, perhaps to get some fresh air himself. By the third course, Nori had returned, and Dwalin found himself staring absently in his direction, blushing whenever he was caught. This only occurred briefly; Nori only stayed for one course. Desserts were always Dwalin’s favourite, and the honey cakes were particularly divine; so fluffy that they simply melted over Dwalin’s tongue, and the cream was delightfully sweet. Dwalin thought maybe Nori would enjoy them, but when he lifted his head to see Nori’s impression, he was already standing. Their eyes met one last time before Nori turned and left the hall.

Dwalin needed to stay by his King, and so he continued to enjoy a wide selection of sweet delicacies. When Dain had eaten his fill, Dwalin walked with him to his room and made sure two of the guards were on hand to deal with anything Dain needed. Dwalin thought it best to check on Thorin, too. The prince had never joined them at the feast. Arriving at his room, the guards posted informed Dwalin that he had gone to the tower for air, and then straight to his room. There was nothing unusual to report, except for that Thorin had received a single visitor; Nori. Dwalin’s eyes widened at the revelation. Nori had gone to visit Thorin? Whatever for? Without thinking, Dwalin began marching to Nori’s room. It was only when he was right outside the door that he froze, fist suspended just before the heavy oak. Dwalin’s heart hammered in his chest. Nori was probably asleep, he wouldn’t want Dwalin to barge in? Or would he? What would Dwalin say? He suddenly felt flushed. Tomorrow, Dwalin decided. I’ll talk to him tomorrow. Lowering his arm, he slowly walked away to his own room.

~~~

When Dwalin was finally all alone, he stripped himself of his clothes and hopped into bed. Sleep took him the instant his eyes closed, and Nori was there with him. They were together, naked, in the bed, sharing their warmth, skin against skin, Nori’s back against Dwalin’s firm stomach, his large arms wrapped around the smaller dwarf, his face nuzzling into Nori’s long hair. Nori smelt of pine and mint and Dwalin longed to lick at his skin to find out how he tasted. It felt so right.

As Dwalin lay awake on the bed appreciating the comfort, his right hand found its way down to his cock, so hard that it stood erect against his stomach, with hot, viscous precum leaking from the tip into the thick fur on his belly. Dwalin’s calloused fingers gripped the broad shaft, and traced his thumb over the wet, exposed head, smearing the precum all over. He squeezed gently, and his cock throbbed within his grasp. Dwalin let out a soft moan. He thought of Nori and licked at his lips. Breathing heavily, he started pumping slowly with his hand, increasing the intensity as lust overwhelmed him. It didn’t take long. Every muscle in his body tensed as he came, white streams shooting onto his belly as he was engulfed in pleasure. Satiated, he rested with his hand slumped across his sweaty, sticky abs and smiled for the first time in days.

~~~

Dwalin was certain that he needed to find Nori. He had saved Dwalin from depression, and had awakened new feelings within him. Feeling refreshed and alert, Dwalin cleaned himself up, got dressed, and went immediately to Nori’s room. It was empty. That’s alright, Dwalin thought, I’ll see if Dori knows. His quarters were also bare. Perhaps they’ve gone to breakfast. They weren’t in the banquet hall either. Dwalin approached one of the guards. “Have you seen Nori this morning?”

“He was the first to arrive at breakfast, and as soon as he finished, he headed back to the Mountain. He’s not the only one to leave either, his brother, as well as Bifur and Bofur, have also returned to Erebor,” the sentinel answered.

Dwalin eyebrows tilted outwards in disappointment, and he frowned. He’d missed him. “I see. Thank you,” he replied.

He would have to wait until he, too, had returned the Mountain. In the meantime, he had his own responsibilities to attend to. It was about time he reported to Dain, anyway.

***

Dwalin was among the last of the company to get back to the Mountain. Most of Bombur’s children, as well as Eimi and Burin, left after breakfast. To Dis’ annoyance, Thorin also asked for permission to head back at that time too. She had hoped he would stay and join his father in the morning discussions with King Brand. It was bad enough that he hadn’t taken part in the feast. As soon as he’d started begging, however, Dain granted his request. When Dis got back to the Mountain, Thorin would be scolded, Dwalin was certain. He ordered the dwarven guards that had accompanied him to Dale to escort the prince back, and report for new assignments once he was safely back within the walls of the Mountain.

The conference between Kings was rather mundane as far as Dwalin was concerned, but he did his best to act interested. They lasted so long that it wasn’t until mid-afternoon that Dain, Dis, and Dwalin finally arrived home and went their separate ways. Dain headed to the throne room, Dis left in search of Thorin, and Dwalin decided that it was a good time to seek out Nori.

Dwalin was surprised to find that Nori was nowhere to be found. Not at his home, nor at Dori’s shop. Both were completely closed up, no sign of life whatsoever. He wasn’t really thinking anything of it. It wasn’t until he was on his way to the next most likely place to find them, The Gold Dragon, when Dis found him, and changed his life forever.

Dwalin heard the quick footsteps approaching from behind, and when he turned, Dis was fuming, tightly clasping a scrunched up scroll in her hand. She thrust the parchment into Dwalin’s chest, and he quickly reached for it before it fell to the ground. Holding it up with both hands, Dwalin read the runes that had been inked onto the page.

Dear father,

I know that I am coward for telling you this way. I only hope that you will understand.

For entirely selfish reasons, I have left the Mountain. I am going to see the world for myself. It is the only way I will ever be the King the Mountain needs.

Dwalin’s heart stopped. His fingers began to tremble, and he couldn’t focus on the words as the paper fluttered in his hands. Unable to continue, he looked up at Dis. She was furious.

“He’s gone, Dwalin,” she said sharply. “We need to find him now.”

The instant Dwalin began to think of where Thorin might have gone, a crushing idea shocked every nerve in his body. He remembered back to the previous night, at the guard’s report.

Thorin had received a single visitor; Nori.

No. Dwalin didn’t want to believe it. Without explanation, he started running toward the main stairwell, to the library in the lower district. Dis kept up behind him. They sprinted all the way down the spiralling stairs, and Dwalin burst through the door to Balin’s study. Everything was gone. All the maps. All the research. Everything. The only evidence that remained were the etchings on the wall at the rear of the chamber. The names were still completely visible under the phosphorescent glow that illuminated the room, written clearly in Nori’s script. The only exception was Dwalin’s, which had been gashed by a scar that cut straight through the runes.

“What is the meaning of this?” Dis asked. She had knelt down to pick up the only item out of place, a tiny scrap of parchment that had fallen to the floor. “Waterfront Inn,” she read aloud. “Does this mean anything to you? Why exactly are we here?”

The Waterfront Inn. Dwalin knew the place. It was a small tavern beyond the southern wall of Dale, popular amongst traders from Lake-town.

“We have to give chase. We need to catch them as soon as possible. They absolutely mustn’t get away.” He turned to dash for the stairs, but Dis blocked his path.

“Who?!,” she asked in frustration.

Grabbing her by the shoulders, Dwalin answered. “Nori. He’s corrupted our prince. Thorin thinks he’s going on a grand journey to see the world, but he’s not. Nori is taking him to Moria.” It broke his heart to say the words. Nori had betrayed him.

Chapter Text

There wasn’t any time for discussion. Nori and Thorin were getting away, and there was no way to tell how much of a head start they had. Still clasping Dis by the shoulders, he gently guided her to the side and launched himself towards the door. Dis only hesitated for a moment as the words sank before quickly racing to catch up to Dwalin. Powering up the steps two at a time, they exploded out the library and then immediately started up the stairwell that would take them to the district above. Once they’d reached the peak, they surged through the crowds that filled the streets, barrelling down the road leading to the mouth of the Mountain. They could not falter. The prince’s life was at stake. Nori was going to lead Thorin to his death.

They did not stop running until they arrived at the stable. If they were truly planning to embark on a long quest, Nori and the others would be riding, and it would be impossible to catch them on foot. There was only one groom on duty, a dwarf named Marr. She was mucking out the stables as Dwalin and Dis entered. Whilst Dwalin caught his breath, Dis took charge. “The fastest ponies you can muster. Now,” she ordered.

“Ooh err, yes ma’am, right away ma’am, no problems. I’ll getcha horsies right away,” Marr acknowledged. She knew who she was dealing with, and that it was wise to keep royalty waiting. She set aside her broom and walked briskly to the rear of the stables. Though Marr came across as simple, like most dwarves, she excelled at her craft. She had two ponies saddled and shoed by the time Dwalin was breathing normally and his heart rate had returned to normal.

Dwalin took the larger of the two, Bayard, a temperamental stallion with a jet-black mane and rich caramel fur. Dis rode a mare named Esther. She was skewbald, with chestnut and ivory fur. Her mane was snow and her tail was coal. As soon as they had both mounted, Dwalin urged Bayard into a trot. They built up speed as they descended the foothills, and by the time they’d reached the valley, Dis and Dwalin had accelerated into a lope. Esther was the swifter of the two; Dis galloped with Dwalin following closely. She wasn’t as experienced a rider as Dwalin, but Esther had dealt with novices in the past, and had a good sense for what was needed. It was easy for Dis to stay in control as the flew down the road. Hooves pounded against cobblestone like war drums, and the wind whistled through Dwalin’s beard. Adrenaline coursed through Dwalin’s veins. He felt numb, nothing except his drive to reach Nori and the others. He had no idea what he would do once he caught them.

They raced along the throughway to Dale. Marr had certainly outdone herself in terms of providing fine ponies. They reached the city in record time and charged through the gates; the young sentinel on post barely made it out of the way. He yelled out in anger at the dwarves, but his frenzy did not reach their ears. The Waterfront Inn was established outside the walls of Dale just beyond the South gate, along the bank of the Celduin. It featured a stable, cheap food and ale, and was a homely residence for travellers who did not intend on staying for an extended stay. Its patrons consisted mostly of merchants from Lake-town. Dwalin wasn’t sure why Nori was heading there first, but he suspected he had organised passage to Lake-town. If he and Dis weren’t quick enough, Nori would be freighting across the Long Lake by the time they reached the inn, and then all hope would be lost. The swiftest route was along the main road that cut through the heart of the city. Crowds wandered the streets, but it was quicker than going all the way around the city walls. Dwalin still cursed each time Bayard was forced to slow down. It was particularly dense at the centre of town; the market stalls had been re-erected after the ceremony the night before, and business had resumed vehemently. Once they had made it through the square, however, the pedestrians began to thin and Dwalin and Dis resumed to a canter, and once they were beyond the gate, they were galloping. It didn’t take too long to reach the Waterfront Inn from there.

Dwalin and Dis jumped out of their saddles the instant they had arrived at the tavern. “Wait here,” Dis commanded the ponies, as Dwalin stormed towards the entrance. Though anger was drawn all over his face, inwardly Dwalin felt desperate. He hoped more than anything that he would find the others at the inn. That it wasn’t too late. He didn’t want to lose Thorin on his watch. He had already lost too many princes and Kings. He couldn’t bear the thought of another failure. He shoved the door open and scanned the room. The interior was a rustic, open space, without many furnishings hampering his view of those enjoying an afternoon drink. All Men. No dwarves. Dwalin’s hand, which was gripping the pine frame of the door, clenched tightly, and left indentations where the fingers pressed into the wood.

A middle-aged woman with rosy cheeks and bright red lips, ceased cleaning a mug behind the bar when she observed the dwarf’s presence, and greeted Dwalin. “Good afternoon, can I help you?”

Dwalin approached the counter, with Dis at his tail. “Did five dwarves pass through here,” he barked.

The bartender reflected for a moment, stroking her fingers across her smooth, round chin. “Hmm, it wasn’t too long ago, actually. I saw a band of ‘em out the window,” she said, gesturing. “Only one of them came in though, he wore his hair in an unusual style. Very distinct. Didn’t order anything either”

Dwalin felt a lump sink in his chest. His palms were clammy with sweat, and his heart picked up the pace. “Three peaks?”

“Yes, you know him do you?” The bartender leaned closer, eager to share her gossip. “He met with two guests that had been staying since about two days ago. Strange fellows they were; I was prepared to haggle the price of two rooms down but they insisted on staying together. Didn’t even want to pay for an extra bed. That sort of thing doesn’t happen around these parts. You know, I think that…”

“Which way did they go?” Dwalin interrupted, slamming his fist on the table. He did not have any time for idle banter, if Nori was halfway across the lake there would be almost no way to catch them.

The woman appeared shaken by the sudden outburst, but she was still eager to impart whatever she knew. “Had they been going south, I’d have said you’d missed them; they’d already be on their way to Lake-town, and the next barge doesn’t depart until after dinnertime. I have a clear view of those that travel down that road from the window, and I didn’t see them go that way.” Dwalin released a sigh of relief. “They either went back to Dale, or they’re on the West Road, the one used by the wood-elves from the Great Greenwood. You should be able to catch them if they went in either of those directions.”

Dwalin tipped the lady a gold coin, nodded to Dis, and together they hurried out of the inn. “We didn’t pass them. They’re heading west. Straight for Mirkwood,” he stated through gritted teeth. Esther and Bayard were waiting obediently where Dis had left them. Quickly mounting their ponies, the dwarves bounded up the trail heading west, hooves crunching against loose pebbles as they abandoned the wide cobblestone road for a narrow gravel path that weaved its way west between low undulating hills.

Dwalin gripped his reins so tightly his knuckles paled. How could I have been so blind?

The air was crisp and the sky a brilliant cerulean. The bright afternoon sun accentuated the hue of the golden mops that lined the path, contrasting against the deep forest greens of alders that acted as a windbreak between expansive fields of young, jade wheat. Only a few creamy clouds floated in the heavens. Dwalin and Dis hurtled past it all. It was lucky Nori hadn’t taken them to Lake-town, but they still had to reach them before they crossed the border into Mirkwood. It was Dis who first spotted the string of ponies moving leisurely between the trees before them.

“Dwalin. Up ahead,” she called out.

Another boost of adrenaline shot through Dwalin. He pushed Bayard forward with a roar, and flew past the company of dwarves; Nori, Dori, Bifur, Bofur, Thorin, and two old men draped in long, cobalt robes. Dust billowing from behind, Dwalin brought his pony to a halt before them, blocking the path to Mirkwood. He cast a murderous glare directly at Nori, who seemed surprised by the intrusion. Dwalin hopped off the saddle, landing heavily on the soft dirt, and began stomping towards Nori in order to drag the wretched dwarf to the ground. Dori sensed the intent, and hastily dismounted to put himself between Dwalin and his younger brother, as Nori sat frozen upon his pony.

“Move, Dori,” Dwalin growled. “I have something to say to your little brother.”

“Yes, and are you going to use your words, or your fists?” He wasn’t as tall as Dwalin, but Dori puffed his chest out intimidatingly. Dori was strong; Dwalin would not walk away from that fight without injury, but he was so furious he didn’t care.

“It won’t be my words dragging him back to the Mountain, that’s for sure,” he spat.

“We’re not going back.” Dori answered, standing his ground. “We have Dain’s blessing. If you don’t want to come with us, then it has nothing to do with you.”

“Dain’s blessing? Is that what he told you,” Dwalin countered, pointing at Thorin. “He’s in just as much trouble; behaving more like a spoiled brat than a prince of Erebor.”

“You forget yourself, Dwalin,” Thorin intervened. “I am a prince of Erebor. And I am no child. I understand the significance of this quest, and the risks. If I am going to be the King the Mountain needs, I must start making my own choices. I have heard Nori’s plight, and I am going to aid him in his quest. You do not have the authority to stop me.”

“But, my prince...” Dwalin began, feeling his strength draining as his prince opposed him.

“No, Dwalin,” Thorin interrupted, “my decision is final. I must do this. I need to see what lies beyond the horizon. I cannot be a good King for the Mountain unless I can prove myself. Spending my life behind its walls will not prepare me for the trials that await as King.”

Lost for words, Dwalin turned to Dis for support. She was still atop Esther, closer to the rear of the party. Her eyes had narrowed as she thought carefully about the situation. An awkward silence passed between the dwarves. Finally, she reached a conclusion.

“I agree with Thorin.” She focussed on Nori. “I would like to know precisely what your intentions are once you get there, but it is most certainly time Thorin left the Mountain." Thorin breathed a sigh of relief. "But I'm not leaving him in the care of this band of misfits.” She turned her gaze over the rest of the party, eyeing the two strangers cautiously. “I will be accompanying you as well.” It was not a request.

Dwalin was shocked. “Join them? Dis, that’s preposterous. You can’t be serious!”

“I am serious, Dwalin,” she said, glowering searingly. “Deadly serious. Thorin needs this, and he’s not doing it without me. Too many times have I waited for those I love to return from their crusades, never to see them again.” Her words were a dagger in Dwalin’s heart. “This time, I’m personally ensuring that the prince will return to the Mountain.”

Dwalin’s shoulders sagged in defeat. He had failed. He could not protect anyone. Useless. Dis didn’t need to tell him so, but she had, and her words wounded him. “Well, I’ll head back, then,” he announced over a quivering lower lip. “I’ll report to Dain, and let him know what has transpired.” He mounted Bayard without looking any of them in the eye, especially averting his gaze away from Nori. “Good luck to you all.” Before the other dwarves could say anything, Dwalin urged Bayard to take him back down the path that would return them to the Mountain.

***

Nori was unable to do so much as peep during the exchange. He watched, paralysed, as the events unfolded like an avalanche; a catastrophe he was powerless to prevent. He was weak. Dwalin was gone, and hated him. His fears had been realised.

Pallando moved beside Nori and placed a hand on his shoulder, waking him up again. The tall wizard lowered his head and whispered into Nori’s ear. “Go to him.”

Nori did not turn his eyes away from the bend in the road he last saw Dwalin. “There’s nothing I can do.”

“Make him understand how you feel,” Pallando instructed.

“I don’t know how,” Nori despaired.

“Just be true to yourself. You know what you want. Take it!”

At that moment, there was indeed one thing Nori desired above anything else in the world. “Wait here,” he ordered the other dwarves, and with a squeeze of his legs, Nori thrust his arms forward and Borak began the chase. It didn’t take long to catch Dwalin, his horse was weary after the long gallop, whereas Nori’s steed was fresh and energetic. When Dwalin noticed he was being pursued, he tried to ride faster, but he was unable to get away. He veered into Dwalin’s path, and called out to him. “Dwalin! Wait!” Dwalin pulled at the reins and dismounted once his pony came to a stop. Nori followed, but as soon as his feet reached the ground Dwalin lifted him by the collar and thrust the smaller dwarf against one of the alder by the side of the trail. Startled, the ponies skirted out of the way, but did not go far.

“What is the meaning of this, Nori?!,” Dwalin cried out. “Why are you tormenting me? Why couldn’t you just let me go?”

“I had to know if I could change your mind,” Nori explained, staring into Dwalin’s steel blue eyes unwaveringly. “Please, come with me.”

Dwalin frowned. “Just go on without me.”

“Dwalin, I… I can’t. I need you.” Nori swallowed. He was close enough to smell the sweat glistening on Dwalin’s skin. It smelt salty. Nori was still being pressed against the tree, his feet barely touching the ground. He decided to risk everything.

~~~

Reaching up to grab Dwalin by the fur on his shoulders, Nori pulled Dwalin closer. Dwalin didn’t resist as Nori tilted his head and brought their lips together. To Nori’s surprise, Dwalin tasted sweet. As Dwalin relaxed into it, he steadily lowered Nori to the ground, and Nori leant on the balls of his feet with raised heels to keep his head at Dwalin’s level. Once he had regained his balance, Nori released his grip on Dwalin’s collar, and his hands found their way around the larger dwarf, one nestling at the small of Dwalin’s back, and the other settling into Dwalin’s nape, with soft strands of salt and pepper hair coursing between his fingers. Dwalin’s hands wrapped around Nori, and holding each other closely, their kiss intensified. Closing his eyes and drawing in long, passionate breaths through his nostrils, Nori parted his lips without breaking contact, and flicked his tongue across Dwalin’s mouth. Dwalin opened his jaw, inviting Nori inside. Nori’s tongue slid into Dwalin, the tip tracing along the roof of Dwalin’s mouth as he cradled Nori’s tongue with his own. Nori breathed harder as Dwalin’s lips tightened around Nori and suckled at the protuberance. Dwalin was so warm, so moist, so sweet, it was intoxicating. Shifting his weight onto his left leg, Nori lifted his right, and curled it around Dwalin’s hamstrings, bringing him even closer. Impeded by cloth and fur and leather, they were joined at the stomach, and just below the belt, their hard, aroused crotches rubbed together. The sensation sent waves of pleasure throughout Nori’s body, and it awakened him.

~~~

Remembering himself, Nori opened his eyes and broke away from the kiss. Dwalin did the same. They continued to hold each other close, however, as they gasped for air.

“Come with me,” Nori insisted one last time.

Tenderly stroking Nori's cheek with the tips of his fingers, Dwalin replied. “Aye, I will."

Chapter Text

The tavern was dilapidated; the sign was caked with grime and mold, impossible to read, and squeaked noisily as it waved against the harsh wind. The thatched roof had been worn by the unending rain that had plagued the town for the past week, and droplets streamed inside, damaged the ceiling, and cascaded into metal buckets with a ceaseless clamour. The ambience inside was no better; the plywood floor was permanently stained with mud and grit, broken furniture was simply left to rot, and it establishment reeked of spoiled ale. Visitors were not welcomed here. Only the truly desperate, or those looking for food and drink without questions, came to this inn. It was a place to be ignored.

For this reason, one mysterious traveller always stopped by whenever he was hungry and in the area. A drifter, who, as far as any of the locals could tell, wandered the lands aimlessly. There were rumours, of course, but everyone told a different story. He found work when he needed coin, but never kept at the job for very long, only until he had enough to buy food. He had no name; his only discernible characters were that he was a dwarf, with a short, ginger beard, and a lean, strong build. He was always seen wearing an old, tattered cloak, frayed at the ends, that had faded to grey a long time ago. The only other feature that was known about the stranger was that he never stayed indoors for extended periods. He would get anxious, irritated, and begin looking for escape. A claustrophobic dwarf was less a dwarf and more an elf, some hillmen jeered, and hence referred to the grey-cloaked traveller as ‘Singollo’. There was never any objection, he never held conversations with them, only said what was necessary and then disappeared.

On this particularly dreary afternoon, the traveller pushed through the doors to find he would not be dining alone. Two men occupied a rear booth, their table littered with several dirty mugs that presumably were once filled with mead. One had thinning, tawny hair, the other, facing away from the traveller, wore long, greasy, charcoal curls. Both were draped in deep black cloaks. They seemed absorbed in their own business, talking with hushed, slurred words, and did not react when the door swung open. The traveller considered going elsewhere, but he had not eaten in over a day. He decided to take the risk. Closing the door behind him, he walked left from the entrance, towards the bar, and sat on a stool with a torn cushion.

The bartender, a fat, perspiring man with slick, blond hair, approached along with an invisible, pungent cloud of stink. He addressed the traveller with a high pitched, wheezy voice. “What’s ya poison?”

“A bowl of whatever soup you’ve got, and water,” he ordered in a quiet voice, tossing a silver coin on the bench. The bartender palmed it with thick, clammy fingers and left the room.

The traveller waited in silence for his food, eyes fixed to the maple countertop, and listened. Nothing. Not a word. The two nearby had ceased their discussion. Facing forward, without turning an inch, the traveller focussed on his peripheral vision. He observed them in the corner, the blond one, facing his direction, nodded to his companion, and together they slipped out of their booth. The traveller heard their boots clomping against the wooden floor as they neared, until they were on either side of him. Settling on the adjacent bar stools, the traveller grimaced at the undue attention.

“Hello, friend,” the curly-haired one greeted. “You fancy games?” He was to the traveller’s left, the only obstacle in the way of the door. The problem was whether he could take both of them. He rued that he allowed his hunger to put him in this reckless situation.

Not that he believed the bartender would come back with his meal.

The silence was broken before it got too uncomfortable. “Now, now, don’t be like that. We’re all friends here.” The cadence in the man's voice was melodically smooth, and the traveller recognised the accent as one spoken far in the East. “We just want to have a little wager.” He shifted closer. “All you have to do is guess what I’m thinking. Riddles is all. Maybe you could lend us one of your silvers if you can’t.” He smiled, his teeth were oddly pristine. “My name’s Sol. See, we’re friends. What’s yours, dwarf?”

The traveller said nothing.

“I hear they call thish one Shingollo,” the other one garbled in a deep voice. “He’sh not much of a dwarf. Too shkinny. Shcared of cavesh.” The traveller ignored the jabs at his expense.

“Come now, friend, I’m just trying to be neighbourly. Let’s have one little game. Only looking to make a bit of coin.” He spread his legs, and his cloak billowed, revealing his weapon. It was a dwarven blade, but no dagger; rather, an old, iron hunting spear that had been fashioned into a knife with a customised, lead hilt. It was not the sort of blade that was traded by merchants. It was a trophy; paid with blood.

They wanted to play. Perhaps an opening would reveal itself during the game, or maybe they would leave him alone if they won. The traveller felt he could take them, but only as a last resort. He hadn’t quite been backed into a corner, yet.

“Fine, I’ll play,” the traveller submitted.

“Wonderful, just wonderful.” Sol beamed. “Why don’t I start, then, my friend, and we’ll see how you do.” Sol cleared his throat, and shared his riddle.

“As the drum beats,
I always run,
Should I escape,
Then you are gone.”

“Blood,” the traveller answered promptly, knowing his answer would not end the game.

“You’re a clever dwarf, aren’t you,” Sol smirked. “Go on, then, your turn. Make it difficult, will you. This one can’t tell a good riddle to save his life.” He gestured to his friend and snickered.

The traveller thought for a moment, and then issued his challenge.

“Four fingers on my left paw,
One on my right,
I growl at the moon,
Though it isn’t night.”

“A wolf,” the tawny one called out.

Sol gave his companion a dirty look. “No, imbecile. That’s too obvious.” His brow wrinkled, and he stroked his chin. He seemed to be enjoying himself. His face lit up as he solved it. “Four fingers is a fork, one is a knife. The moon is an empty plate. The answer is hunger.”

“Correct. You win,” the traveller declared. For good measure, he bribed them with a silver, setting it flat on the counter.

It was ignored.

“No, no, no, we’re just getting started,” Sol cooed, pushing the coin away. “I have another riddle that you might like. I thought it up, just for you.” He licked his lips, and grinned menacingly.

"I am gold,
But more dear,
Whispers quiet,
In your ear.

To your desires,
I will take you,
One of seven,
I will break you."

The traveller froze. As it happened, he only carried one item of personal value. It was tucked safely away in his pocket. A small, gold ring that he had stumbled upon long ago in the dark. It was his secret. His treasure. It took all the strength he could summon not to reach for it.

The riddle had been a deliberate choice. The traveller was exposed.

Sol seemed to revel in the tension.

“No answer? A pity, really.” He stroked his chin once again, musing. “Do you truly not know, or are you hiding something?” His eyes widened at the possibilities. “Well, no matter. I have another one for you. Consider it a gift.” He leered at the traveller maliciously as he spoke.

“In peace is punished,
In war, earns cheers,
Takes just a moment,
But also years.”

The traveller did not wait for Sol to reveal the answer. Instead, he lunged for his daggers.

Chapter Text

“20 gold coins says Dwalin kills ‘im,” Bofur joked, in a weak attempt to break the tension.

All it achieved, however, was a dirty look from Dori. The shorter, more bedraggled of the two Men that accompanied the dwarves looked as though he was about to make a comment of his own, but he faltered after receiving a similar glare from his comrade. Dis eyed them closely. The instant she had noticed their presence, she knew there was more to this quest than what floated on the surface. There was an air about them, a power she had not felt since Gandalf had last walked within the Mountain. Though she did not know their names, she remembered what Ori had told her, about the five wizards that roamed the lands, and the two draped in sapphire robes that had ventured to the East. Though she did not know their names, there was no doubt in her mind that these were the blue wizards Gandalf had spoken of. That they were here with her prince, meant that Thorin had been caught by a current of fate there was no fighting against. She would have to drift alongside her prince and do her best to keep him safe.

It didn’t change the fact, however, that to get here, the prince had behaved selfishly. “Even though I agree with this quest, Thorin, the manner of which you left was unbecoming of a prince of the Mountain” She removed the scroll hidden within the inner pocket of her robe, and handed it to Thorin. He recognised the letter he had written at once, and felt ashamed. “In our haste,” Dis went on, “I ended up taking this with me. Right now your father is completely unaware of your disappearance. I don’t know for sure whether Nori is capable of encouraging Dwalin to come back, but should he succeed, I must insist we return to properly inform the King.” Frankly, it would be simpler if Dwalin did not return at all, she thought bitterly. Is he truly capable of protecting Dain’s son?

“Dain will be made aware of everything,” the taller wizard explained. “A raven is waiting for my signal to deliver the news. He will come to understand, but it will take some time. At first, he will stop at nothing to reach us and put an end to this quest, and so it is imperative that we make it to Mirkwood before nightfall.”

“I’m sorry, but it would seem that you are speaking on behalf of our prince without giving me your name,” Dis snapped back. The target of her cutting words seemed unfazed by the remark, but the other wizard’s eyes widened and his face went red.

“I do apologise, my Lady”, he said, placing a hand over his heart. “My name is Pallando, and this is my partner, Alatar.” Pallando bowed respectfully, and Alatar followed, although somewhat begrudgingly.

Using her title indicated that he was aware of who Dis was, and so she did not bother introducing herself. “Very well then, Pallando. I would like to know the reason why this quest must be undertaken so urgently. The book of records is nothing more than an account of the expedition of Balin and his Company. The reports we received initially contained no surprising information.” She turned toward Dori. “I can appreciate the sentimental value, but I’m not sure why it is worth risking your own lives and the life of our prince, nor why it beckons the presence of two wizards.” She called them such to emphasise that she knew who they were. “What information could it possibly hold?”

“It would be better to wait until we make camp, when the entire company is in attendance, before we explain. There is much to tell,” was Pallando’s answer. It wasn’t very satisfactory.

Dis made a decision. “Very well. Thorin and I will accompany you until then, so that we might hear your story. But if I am not content with your cause, we shall head back to the Mountain tomorrow.”

Pallando smiled. “I accept your terms, my Lady.”

She turned to Thorin. “Do not think you will be getting out of your duties as prince. On the road we will be continuing your studies, and you will further your training. Clearly you haven’t learned much at all, making such rash decisions without considering the impact it will have on the Mountain.”

Thorin frowned. “I am doing it for the Mountain. I...”

“You can tell yourself anything you like,” Dis interjected. “But it was not in the Mountain’s best interests that you snuck away to go on an adventure. I know that keeping you cooped up is not the best way to prepare you to rule one day, but it was your father’s wishes, and rebelling against him will not make you a good King.” Thorin averted his gaze, and did not answer back.

Having scolded her prince, Dis decided it was time to assess their provisions. They hadn’t accounted for her arrival, and it would be best to ensure there was enough to get by. A journey to Moria and back would take several months. She dismounted her pony and began inspecting the supplies carried on the backs of their packhorses. Overall, they were quite well prepared; the experience they had gained from their previous adventure showed. Though Bombur himself was not fit to join them on this quest, he had guaranteed they would not go hungry. He had dried, smoked, and cured various meats, baked cram, as well as provided numerous roots and mushrooms, and plenty of water; all of which must have come from the stores of the Gold Dragon. It also seemed Bifur and Dori had raided the stock of their own shops for anything that might be useful.

What concerned Dis next was how she would defend herself should they run into trouble. Each member of the company carried armour and weapons on each of their steeds, except for Pallando, who seemed unarmed. Among the packhorses were spare weapons and armour that Dis could use. Rummaging through them, she confiscated one of Bifur’s boar spears. The head was quench-hardened steel, with smooth, sharp blade edges and two lugs fashioned into a pair of dragon’s wings. Including the shaft, the weapon measured about five feet, and though it was a little heavier than Dis was used to, with practice it would do. She named it Uslukh. As for armour, Nori was probably the closest to her size; in the worst case that would have to do. But with Bifur’s tools, adjusting one of the spare suits was a viable option.

It was as she was carrying her claimed equipment to her pony that Nori returned to the clearing, followed by Dwalin. The others, who had been talking quietly among themselves, except for Thorin, went quiet. The rest of the world didn’t seem to mind the unease; the birds could still be heard singing, the bees hummed away, and the wind rustled through the leaves above them.

“We’ve… talked things over,” Nori announced. “Dwalin has decided to come with us after all.”

Dis was curious about what could have possibly changed the captain’s mind. Nothing was said on the subject, however; he simply climbed onto his pony, and, feeling everyone’s eyes on him, barked, “Well? Are we just going to stay here, or are we moving out?”

Dori approached the large dwarf. “There’s not going to be any trouble, is there? I don’t want you threatening Nori again.”

“It’s alright, Dori,” Nori said with a smug look in his eyes. “Dwalin has apologised and everything. He’s very sorry.”

Dis looked at Dwalin. He didn’t seem apologetic, rather, he seemed unfocused. It doesn’t seem like he’s committed, more distracted. His presence won’t mean anything if he doesn’t snap out of it. At the very least, this time, she was there. She would personally ensure Thorin’s safety, even it meant her life. That was something Dwalin was not capable of.

Nori mounted his own pony, followed by Dori, and finally Dis, once her equipment was fastened securely. Nori turned to Pallando. “Where to, then?” His cheerful demeanour was quickly livening up the mood.

“We shall press on the path for another mile, then veer to the south,” Pallando explained. “We need to travel across the wilderness to ensure we aren’t followed.”

“The wilderness?” Dis was confused. “Keeping on the road will take us to the Woodland Realm. You’re not suggesting we move through Mirkwood without the assistance of the elves, are you? A dwarf can easily lose themselves in the Greenwood.” She could not help but stare at Dwalin as she said that last part, and she felt guilty for blaming him again. It wasn’t his fault, she told herself, as she had many times before, still unable to convince herself.

“We have organised a guide, one who is quite familiar with forest. She is waiting at the frontier, marking our entry,” Pallando replied.

“And are you going to tell us who she is?”

Pallando just smiled. “I don’t like to ruin the surprises.” He then turned and began to lead the company down the path. As Dis moved past Bofur, who was leading the packhorses by their halters, he said to her, “Don’t worry, all wizards speak in riddles. Eventually, you just sort of learn to smile and nod, and trust that they know what they’re on about.” His advice provided no comfort whatsoever. On one hand, she could see why they might avoid the Sylvan Kingdom. The first thing Dain would do when he learned of their departure would be to send a raven to Thranduil. The relationship between dwarves and elves had been strong since the Battle of Five Armies, and the King of the Wood-elves would be obliged to block passage through Mirkwood at Dain’s request. On the other hand, attempting to sneak under Thranduil’s watch was foolhardy and reckless. They would need quite the guide in order to succeed.

With Pallando in the lead, they set forth down the trail. Alatar followed his companion closely, then Dis, Thorin, Dwalin, Nori, Bofur, and then Bifur and Dori at the rear. They moved at a leisurely pace until they reached what appeared to be a fork in the road. Clearly, the path swerved to the right, north, toward the Woodland Realm. The south path, however, very quickly reached a dead end, with dense underbrush blocking any clear route. Though it appeared they could not continue any further, Pallando led the dwarves into the thicket, which seemed to give way as his horse pushed through. There appeared to be no nettles or thorns that would scratch the horses. One by one, they left the path. As they moved between the thick bushes, Dis couldn’t help but keep looking back to make sure those behind her were not lost.

By the time they reached the next clearing, the sun was beginning its descent beyond the horizon. The azure sky was beginning to turn to gold in the west and a deep indigo in the east, and greens of the earth started to darken into blackness. Stretching along the far perimeter of the vast field before them was the deep, dark forest of Mirkwood. Whilst on her own travels Dis had never personally encountered the dangers that lurked within the Greenwood, she knew of the terrible things that hid behind the great trees, waiting for the opportunity to keep an unsuspecting dwarf from ever seeing the light beyond the canopy again. She shuddered at the prospect of putting her prince at such risk, and hoped that the guide Pallando had appointed was capable of keeping the party out of harm’s way.

Pallando scanned the darkening panorama until he spotted a flicker of torchlight in the distance, at the forest border. “That will be her,” he exclaimed, and commenced a trot towards the solitary flame, with the others keeping pace.

As they approached, Dis made out a single, tall figure standing beside the fire. She was an elf, with long, copper hair. Dis did not know her, but as her features became more distinct, the others clearly recognised her. It was Dori who identified the elf first. “It can’t be… Tauriel?”

“It is!,” shouted Bofur, and he raced past the others to greet her first, releasing his hold on the packhorses. Bifur, Dori, and Nori all hurried ahead in chase, whilst Dis and Dwalin took the ropes of a packhorse each. Pallando smiled to himself.

By the time Dis and the others arrived at Mirkwood’s edge, the others had already squeezed the life out of the elf with their hugs. Though he contained his own excitement, Dwalin was just as happy to see the familiar face. “Tauriel, you haven’t changed a day,” he said.

“You look quite well yourself, Dwalin. It’s good to see you,” she replied.

“And you, too,” Dwalin answered. “Whatever brings you back here?” Dis was also curious as to why Tauriel had returned. The last she had heard, Tauriel had been banished by Thranduil from the Woodland Realm.

“It’s… it’s a long story,” she began, “One I would be happy to share once we set up camp. But first, we need to move. In order to avoid the patrols, we have a long way to go. We must move quickly.”

Pallando nodded. “Tauriel was a captain of the Elven Guard. She knows all of their routes, and not even the elite scouts can move through the forest without her sensing them,” Tauriel assured her. “It is best that for as long as we are within the wood, we follow her every instruction.”

With Tauriel escorting them on foot, the rest mounted their ponies and made their way into the gloomy forest. Dis turned back towards the Lonely Mountain for one last look. The golden light of the dying sun glinted off the summit. It would be a long time before she saw home again.

Turning away from the Mountain, Dis entered the darkness.

Chapter Text

The last remnants of the dusk sun were withering away against the mighty shadows of the night when Tauriel spied the company of dwarves galloping towards her. Faces she hadn’t seen in an age. They had hardly changed at all.

Tauriel had steeled herself for this moment, convinced that her heart had long since turned to stone, and thus, was incapable of feeling any more pain. As soon as she saw his kin, however, it all flooded back, and she felt the all-too-familiar twinge of heartache stabbing at her chest. She had fled a great distance to get away from that suffering. So far that the Lonely Mountain could no longer be seen piercing the skies, and only unknown songs were carried by the breeze. It hadn’t been far enough. After all the years, and all the miles, she still loved Kili, and that love which had driven her so far away had now brought her back to this place, to his people, where she was needed most. It hurt, but it also gave her the strength to bear the sting.

She extinguished her torch the instant she spied Bofur speeding towards her, with Bifur, Dori, and Nori on his tail. While she had waited for Pallando and Alatar to return with the dwarves, she had been busy monitoring the patrols of her kin as they marched along the borders of the Woodland Realm. She still keenly remembered all the routes devised during her time as captain, and despite a few, subtle differences, not much had changed. Though she had been away from the forest for so long, her senses had not dulled; in fact, they had grown sharper. Scouting the elf-guards as they made their rounds had been child’s play; she moved in whispers, whilst they roared. If she still had her title, she’d have rebuked their carelessness. Instead, she used it to her advantage. There was little chance she or the dwarves would be discovered along the route she was planning to take them. All the same, avoiding unwanted attention wherever possible was ideal, and so, at least until they were well beyond the borders of the Woodland Realm, she would not be beaconing their location with firelight once they entered the Greenwood.

As the dwarves reached Tauriel, they each tumbled off their ponies to embrace her, and she was utterly surprised by their warm welcome. Her time with them had been brief, but it was enough for them to realise what she meant to their prince, and had not forgotten. As far as they were concerned, she was still one of them. It was touching, and even managed to get a smile out of her. It had been some time since she’d received that kind of affection. Elves were a reserved people, but the dwarves expressed themselves freely. Once Kili had taught Tauriel how to do it, she hadn’t been able to stop.

Bofur, Nori, and Dori flooded Tauriel with hugs and questions. She didn’t exchange any words with Bifur; dwarven languages were secret, and she could not read the signs he used with the others, but the grin on his face and the strength with which he embraced her was enough to convey how happy he was to see her. Eventually, the others caught up, and even stoic Dwalin seemed pleased to see her. With the arrival of Pallando and Alatar, Tauriel knew that everyone had been gathered. Among the company were two dwarves that she had not met, Thorin and Dis. Thorin was a young male with a regal bearing and hair the colour of mahogany. As for Dis… though Tauriel had never seen her before, she immediately recognised her eyes. Instinctively, Tauriel’s hand crept into a side pouch, where she absently fondled a small, smooth stone that never left her side. Her thumb traced across tiny indentations that signified a broken promise.

He had his mother’s eyes.

An intense pang of sorrow and regret threatened to consume Tauriel, but there was no time for her to be overwhelmed. They needed to get moving. Though the elves patrolling the woods had not met Tauriel’s standards, by comparison, the presence of the dwarves was deafening against the regular sounds of the woods. The quicker she guided them to the clearing she had selected to be their first campsite, the better. Urging the dwarves to follow, she began to lead them towards the heart of the umbrous forest.

Tauriel had chosen their route very carefully. It steered the dwarves well away from any paths the elves on watch might take. It wasn’t exactly a blind spot in the defences of the Woodland Realm; in fact, had they intended to enter the Kingdom of the Sylvan Elves, by Tauriel’s estimation, the dwarves had no chance of sneaking in without being noticed. The elves merely paid less attention to those that would simply slink around the outskirts of their borders. All the same, Pallando had insisted that above all else, the attention of the elves was the last thing they wanted, and so the forest roads were prohibited. Unfortunately, though the way she had selected was secret, it was not easy. The trail was narrow; conifers with heavy, contorted trunks corkscrewed about them wildly, difficult to see under the gloom of night while their eyes were adjusting after the daylight. Upon their ponies, the dwarves were suddenly required to learn how to duck their heads, an unfamiliar concept for most of them. Tauriel winced as those that learned slower than others released loud curses upon hitting their heads. The challenges did not only lay above them; brambles and shrubbery reached for them on each side of the path, tugging and clawing at the party with sharp, needle-like fingers. The forest floor was littered with coarse woody debris; slippery, moss covered stones, fallen logs, and the twisted remains of large branches. It wasn’t long before the dwarves began to complain.

“Stick to the forest-track,” Dori grumbled. “That’s what Gandalf told us the first time we crossed these woods. It seems now we couldn’t be further from it.” He called out to Tauriel. “Are you sure we’re going to right way?”

“It’s just a little further,” she assured them. Had she been travelling alone, it would have taken only moments to arrive at their first checkpoint, but with the dwarves and their ponies, it was markedly more slow-going. For many years, it had just been Tauriel, Pallando, and Alatar. She was unaccustomed to travelling with others, and the difference was notable. Navigating through Mirkwood undetected may be more difficult than I thought, she realised. As a precaution, she did not take the dwarves along the most direct route, but rather on a wider circle around the nearest patrol. The dwarves were still out of earshot, but she couldn’t be too careful. She had been charged with the safe passage of the dwarves over their comfort. If the journey took a little longer then so be it.

Eventually, the thickets parted to reveal a small clearing. The canopy was less dense, and beams of glaucous moonlight managed to reach the soft forest floor, decorated with budding violets, marigolds, and dandelions. Harlequin-green fireflies danced in the heavenly radiance, and Tauriel, whose night-vision was poor in comparison to dwarven eyes capable of sight in the deepest underground caverns, saw their surroundings with acute clarity. The grove around them was impenetrably thick, as the dwarves had discovered, and few elves had discovered this glade. In her youth, Tauriel had come here, and only a few others knew of its existence. Outside the Woodland Realm, a corruption permeated throughout Mirkwood that warped and contaminated plants and animals alike. After half a century, this evil had only grown more palpable, but thankfully, Tauriel found this spot to be yet untainted. There was still good in the forest, if one only knew where to look.

The dwarves had already surmised this would be where they’d resting for the night, and had already begun dismounting their ponies. “No fires,” Tauriel insisted. Before any objections arose, she explained, “we are still too close to the Woodland Realm, and we are not looking for an audience with Thranduil.” No one raised any complaints, and in silence, they got to work setting up camp. Bifur, Dori, and Dis tended the ponies, whilst Bofur and Nori unfurled and laid out the bedrolls, as well as distributed strips of jerky and cram. Dwalin watched the surrounds, and Thorin simply found a place to lie down and gaze up at the sky with an awed expression on his face. Tauriel listened for any sign they had been discovered over the clamour of the dwarves and the noises of the forest; the hooting of owls, croaking of frogs, and chirping of crickets. She had been careful. The elves had no reason to venture near this place. They were safe.

Once settled, they all sat in a circle eating their dinner at the centre of the glade, and Dis, whom Tauriel had been avoiding, broached the subject on everyone’s minds. “Alright,” she exclaimed, “here we are. I think it’s now time for someone to explain everything. This is clearly more than just a quest to retrieve the Book of Mazarbul. The need for secrecy and the accompaniment of two wizards is evidence enough that something deeper is afoot, and I’m not allowing our prince to risk his life on this journey without knowing the full story.”

Her demand for answers had been directed towards Pallando, but it was Tauriel who felt compelled to respond. “It all started with this,” she said. Reaching into her pouch, Tauriel retrieved the stone. She stood, walked across to Dis and knelt before her, offering the token. Dis took it, and recalled it at once. Holding it in her palm, she stroked the runes inscribed, and, stone-faced, read the words aloud in a sober murmur.

“Innikh dê.”

Tauriel felt obliged to explain. “Kili gave this to me in Lake-town, the morning after Smaug had been slain, before he returned to the Mountain with Fili, Bofur, and Oin.” She swallowed. “He made the same promise to me that he had made to you. That he would return.” Her lip trembled, and her eyes began to burn. “Dis, I am so sorry I was unable to protect him. He… he loved me, and I was not worthy of him,” Tauriel apologised. Dis said nothing, her eyes focussed on the last memento of her son. “I couldn’t bear the loss of him,” Tauriel continued, “I realised far too late that I loved him in return, and at that point, he was already gone. I couldn’t endure the pain of heartache, and for that reason, I couldn’t stay. In order to escape my suffering, I had to leave...”

Chapter Text

“They want to bury him…”

The Battle had been won. The armies of orcs and the wargs had been decimated; realising all was lost, the opposing forces that persisted had begun to flee from the Mountain. But there were no cheers of joy, no triumphant cries, no celebrations for the victors. Only the agitated silence of the survivors that walked among the dead. The landscape was a ravaged wasteland, soaked with the blood of friend and foe, littered with the bodies of kin and enemy. The fighting had ceased, but swords and bows were still gripped tightly, soldier's instincts denying them the right to lower their guards. Tauriel, however, had cast her weapons aside, along with everything else. All had been taken away from her. Her energy, her will, her spirit; what little remained was slowly draining away with her tears. She was kneeling down on the cold, muddy earth, before the dwarven prince that had given her his heart. Her hands were clasped tightly around his, but there was no pulse, no warmth, no life. He had been taken from her, and she would never get him back. Her chest felt tight, as though she were being swallowed alive, crushed under a terrible weight of grief. It was too much.

“Yes,” Thranduil affirmed. He was standing by her side, looking down on her, and even though he was close enough for Tauriel to detect the note of pity in his voice, at the same time it was so distant. She had turned her back on her people, on her King, all for Kili. Tauriel never imagined she would dare oppose Thranduil, with an arrow nocked and pointed directly at his heart, but for Kili, nothing had felt more right. Thranduil’s words from that time echoed in her mind. “Yes, they will die. Today, tomorrow, one year hence, a hundred years from now; what does it matter? They are mortal.” She had refused to listen, and he had challenged her resolve. “What do you know of love? Nothing. What you feel for that dwarf is not real. You think it is love? Are you ready to die for it?” At the time, Legolas had intervened, and she had never given her King an answer, but in battle, when faced with the choice, her answer was a resounding yes. She had attempted to save Kili as he battled for his life against Bolg in every possible way. She had slashed and stabbed and kicked, and taken blows in Kili’s place, and it had all been in vain. Though Tauriel was prepared to give her life for Kili, her determination was nothing compared to his desire to protect her at all cost. His love for her had been immeasurably greater, and with his final act, Tauriel realised that she had only ever caught glimpses of its depth. And so it was he that paid the ultimate price, and offered his life for her. He died, and she lived. Nothing felt more wrong.

“If this is love, I do not want it. Take it from me, please,” she implored her King. If she could give it all back, she would. All the events that led to this moment played before her, and she desperately sought the point from where she might have been able to alter this terrible outcome. It was hopeless though, even if she found it, she would never be able to change things. She would live, and she would do so bearing the insufferable ache of her loss. It hurt so much. Seeing Kili lying before her so cold, so still, was agony. “Why does it hurt so much?,” she asked her King.

There was a pause before Thranduil answered, and he gave his answer gravely. “Because it was real.” Her eyes widened at the words, and she looked up at him, surprised. Perhaps he had now seen more than a glimpse of what she felt for Kili, because it seeped from her along with the rest of her being.

Yes, she agreed bitterly. It was. She understood, and there was nothing she could do. Turning back to Kili, she gently placed her lips to his, and offered her first, and final, kiss. It would never be enough. Leaning over him, her hand brushed against his. Within his fingers was the runestone she had given back. His promise to return to her. There would be no coming back. Not from this. The promise had been broken. Instead, he would return to the stone from whence he was made, as all dwarves did when they passed. And she would linger on, with her grief, for eternity.

Tauriel couldn’t bear the pain any longer. She stood, turned away from Kili, and walked away. She did not acknowledge Thranduil, not that he made any effort to stop her. She did not say goodbye. It didn’t matter. Nothing did.

She wandered the ruins of Ravenhill listlessly. All around her, dwarves, elves, and Men alike all appeared to be suffering. The Battle had taken so much. So many had perished. There were cries, and screams, and howls of sorrow, but Tauriel couldn’t muster the strength for so much as a whimper. Numbingly, she continued to place one foot in front of the other, as she attempted to get as far away from the death as possible.

And then she ran into Bilbo.

He, too, had the same empty look of despair drawn on his face. The lusterless expression of one who had lost everything, whose heart had been torn asunder. His spark, his liveliness, had been extinguished. He too, bore the pain she carried. She had lost her prince, and he had lost his king. That sudden realisation reawakened the misery within her, and the tears once again began to flow. Whatever was holding back Bilbo’s sadness also gave way, and the two embraced and shared in each other’s grief until they were empty once again. Without the energy to stand, Bilbo collapsed to the ground, and Tauriel joined him.

For a while, no words were exchanged. There was simply nothing to be said. Bilbo seemed to be contending his thoughts, however, and eventually, announced a decision. “I’m… I’m going to see him, one last time,” Bilbo said, swallowing. “I need to… say goodbye, if I’m going to move on. Not that I believe I ever will. But maybe… just maybe… it will help.”

Tauriel thought of Kili, lying frozen, like stone, and of how she couldn’t bear to witness him like that again. It wasn’t how she wanted to remember him. At least, that’s what she told herself. Deeply, she was afraid that she would simply succumb to sadness all over again, and that she might not be able to pull away from her despair. She did not have the courage little Bilbo had. The hobbit continued to amaze her.

“I knew that if I was to fall in love with him, that I would eventually have to say goodbye,” she responded. “It’s a destiny any elf must accept, should they fall in love with a mortal. But by the time I even understood what I was feeling, it had ended. A fleeting love shared for no more than an instant, yet one that I shall hold onto for as long as I wander these lands.” She sighed. “It does not compare to the love he had for me. He is now returning to the stone, and I cannot comprehend it, for Kili was so much more than stone. A stone cannot love as he did.”

Looking out into the distance, at the desolation before them, Bilbo pondered Tauriel’s words. “On my journey, I learned a lot about the dwarves. Ori and Balin particularly taught me much.” He met Tauriel’s gaze, and behind the grief in his eyes was a flicker of determination. “There is a place for the dwarves in the halls of Mandos, a special place that Mahal has laid out for them. They are waiting for us there.” She had never heard that story before, and even if it was a false hope, she wanted to hold onto it more than anything. He continued, “It may take me my whole life, but I shan’t stop until I know how to find him. And I will return to him.”

Even now, Bilbo continued to astonish her. Within this wasteland of gloom and woe, the little hobbit had found hope, and he was going to hold onto it. Tauriel looked at Bilbo and did not doubt his success. Someday, he and Thorin would be together again. She could not help but smile. “If there is a hobbit capable of reaching him, it’s you, Bilbo. You are remarkable.” With warmth returning to his cheeks, Bilbo blushed at the compliment. “I don’t know much,” she went on, “but if you do intend to go on such a journey, I would suggest visiting Rivendell when you are ready. If anyone can help you on your quest, it would be Elrond.”

It was then Bilbo’s turn to smile. “Thank you,” he said. “Thorin had a tough exterior, but underneath all that, there was warmth.” His voice choked. “Such warmth.” Tauriel clasped his hand. “I only wish… I only wish I’d told him sooner. How I truly felt. Maybe that would have made all the difference. Somehow, someday, I will tell him.” Tauriel felt the same way. Maybe, someday, she would find Kili again, and have the chance to tell him, too. Unfortunately, that day was a long way away. Until then, she would have to bear her regret. But Bilbo’s comforting words made it just that little bit easier.

They sat in silence for a short while longer, and then, thinking about what she was going to do next, Tauriel asked, “Are you going to stay in Erebor?”

Bilbo did not consider his answer for too long. “No,” he said. “After everything we’ve been through, I will always consider the dwarves my friends, but… things will never be the same as they once were. After the funeral, I think I will take my leave of the Mountain, and begin my journey west with Gandalf and Beorn. It’s about time I returned to the Shire, to my hole in the ground. There are… too many memories here.”

Tauriel nodded solemnly in agreement. Not only were there too many memories, but also, nothing else left for her here. She would not go back to the Woodland Realm.

“Where will you go?” Bilbo asked.

“I’m not sure. I imagine Thranduil will offer me a pardon, after all that has taken place, but I do not feel as though the Woodland Realm will ever feel like home to me again. I don’t know if anywhere will feel like home again. I think I am going to go far, far away from here. Wherever the wind may take me.”

Bilbo rose to his feet, and helped Tauriel up.

“Wherever you may end up, I hope that you will find happiness,” he told her.

“And you too,” Tauriel responded. “I wish you luck on your quest. No matter what you do, you will inspire whoever meets you. You are quite the hobbit.”

Bilbo took Tauriel’s hand, and gave it a firm shake. “Thank you, Tauriel. For everything.”

And so, Bilbo turned and began walking towards the dwarves gathering around Thorin, and Tauriel continued to get as far away as possible.

It wasn’t long, however, before Tauriel heard footsteps shadowing her. She recognised them at once. Out of all the dwarves, he was definitely the most nimble, but not so much that he could sneak about without her noticing.

“Nori, are you not going to pay homage to your King?,” she said dismissively. She didn’t want to say goodbye, nor be talked into staying.

“I will, but first, I wanted you to know you’ve forgotten something,” the dwarf explained. She turned around, and found the dwarf carrying her bow and quiver. He offered her equipment to her.

Taking her weapons, she asked Nori, “You’re not going to try and stop me? You’re just going to allow me to leave?” She expected that he would at least try to convince her to stay.

“If you’re going wherever the wind may take you, I’m sure it will carry you back eventually, when you are ready,” he replied with a shrug and a smug grin.

The little dwarf was sneakier than she’d credited. “Just how long were you following me? Were you listening to our entire conversation?”

“Oh, one more thing,” he said, ignoring her question and instead reaching into his pocket. Whatever he retrieved, it was small enough to fit in his hand, for he simply held out a closed fist to her. She placed her hand underneath and he released a small, round runestone that landed softly in the centre of her palm. She had no words to describe what she felt at that moment. But Nori did. His expression became sincere. “Kili gave you his heart, and that makes you one of us. You will always have a home here in the Mountain,” he explained. “His promise is now yours. Wherever you go, however you may live, remember him, and return to him someday.”

She grasped the stone tightly, and held it to her heart. Her eyes began to well up again.

“Tell the others, goodbye?,” she asked.

Nori nodded his head, his complacent smirk returning. “Of course.” And with that, he left Tauriel, to pay his respects to his fallen kin.

She stood there, for a time, clasping Kili’s stone tightly. Perhaps Bilbo was right. Somewhere, out there, Kili was waiting for him. When she was ready, she would return to him. I promise, she swore. For now, however, she would have to figure out how to live again. With nothing left for her at the Mountain, nor at the Woodland Realm, Tauriel followed the wind, and headed east.

***

Tauriel did not allow herself to get caught up by her emotions as she told her story. Bringing forth memories of that painful day drew tears from Dori’s eyes. Bifur had shuffled closer to comfort the old dwarf, offering a handkerchief and a hesitant pat on the shoulder, as though he yearned to offer his friend more. The others listened in silence. Dis did not raise her eyes once, they were held firmly to the little stone nestled in the palm of her hand. Dwalin also seemed to listen absently; he stood keeping watch, his gaze on the forest unwavering. The only indication the large dwarf was listening at all was the way he stiffened at the mention of Nori’s name. Most of the other dwarves had turned toward Nori at that point, but he paid them no mind. Pallando was nestled down beside Alatar, one arm around his partner’s shoulders, the other resting in his lap, his fingers entwined in Alatar’s. He gave Tauriel a slight nod, which she read as approval to go on. Drawing in a deep breath, Tauriel resumed her story.

Chapter Text

The vast plains of the East stretched around Tauriel in all directions. There was no undulation in the landscape; no hills, no valleys, no trees, only an unending sea of grass caught in an eternal dance with the wind, that grew to a height just above her hips. In Rhun, everything was boundless, a land without walls. There, Tauriel felt a unique freedom she had never known before. With no home, no laws, no kin, there was solitude, yet at the same time, a kind of oneness with the world, as though she were a part of everything.

Out of necessity, she adapted swiftly to life on the wide prairies. The ways of Rhun were entirely unknown to her, and at first, she felt exposed and unsafe. Without the refuge of tall trees, the only haven lay within the grass. Tauriel was unpracticed at moving between the blades without disturbing their rhythm or being seen above the surface. At first, the trail she left behind her was a signal for any predator or assailant that happened to cross her path. It was by watching the creatures that inhabited the fields that she learned how to drift through the plains invisibly. Some animals she recognised; foxes, weasels, and hares. There were also wild horses, that dashed speedily across the land much faster than Tauriel could ever run. But what surprised Tauriel the most were the creatures she encountered that were unfamiliar to her. She sighted large, speckled cats with short tails, thick ruffs, and elvishly long ears. She also discovered deer with unusually long muzzles, and, instead of branched antlers, pairs of long, spiralling horns above their dark, round eyes. Most impressive of all were the Kine of Araw; giant cattle, white as snow, with intimidatingly huge horns protruding from their broad heads. Tauriel had heard stories of the kine, but had never seen how majestic they truly were until her exile. She did not speak their languages, but their words were beautiful. As a show of appreciation for teaching her how to survive, she refrained from hunting the beasts of the East, surviving instead on the lembas she carried, and whatever edible roots or plants she could scavenge amidst the fields.

The true danger of this land was its people. The clans of Easterlings hunted the tablelands savagely. They were a nomadic people, travelling in small gangs that traversed the plains on horseback with their chariots, wagons, and caravans, ravaging areas to desolation before moving on. The metalcraft of the Balchoth was unique, very different to the style of the elves, dwarves, and Men of the West. Their armour and weapons were thin, preferring mobility over defence, though she did not doubt the protection they offered. They handled polearms on horseback; glaives, spears, and halberds with hooked, bent blades that favoured slicing as opposed to thrusting. They also carried swords for more closely ranged combat; heavy swords with hilts as long as the steel, and great, curved blades worn along the wielder’s back. The Wainriders were even more menacing. Where Balchoth soldiers were masters of the art of death, the Wainriders fought by maiming and torturing their enemies. They wreaked havoc on the lands for their own amusement, their weapons wicked instruments designed to disable and mutilate their foes. They hunted aggressively, and Tauriel often heard them cheering and hollering with mad excitement as they honed in on their prey. The most valuable lesson the creatures that survived in the East taught her was that it was better to remain hidden than to dare challenging them.

Tauriel travelled with haste to put as much distance between herself and the Mountain as possible. Even though it stood no taller than a pebble, without anything to obscure it in the flatlands, the Mountain was always watching her from the West, a constant reminder of her past. After a year of roaming the tablelands, she arrived at the northern coast of the Sea of Rhun. The first time she laid eyes on the Sea had been breathtaking; a restless pool that spanned to each horizon, Tauriel could not discern where the water stopped and the sky began. Compared to the Sea, the Long Lake was no more than a puddle. That was the first day Tauriel did not look back at her past, only forwards.

Eventually she arrived at the deep woods that grew along the north-east coast of the Sea, Taur Rómen. The trees were unfamiliar to her, but she felt safe under the protection of the canopy. It was a sanctuary she was familiar with, yet one that did not bear the same corruption as her home in Mirkwood. It was a verdant, lush place, with strange, colourful fruits growing on most of the trees, and flowers were more vibrant than any she had ever seen. She was not alone there. The forest was also inhabited by Avari. Tauriel had never encountered the dark-elves before, but after watching them from a safe distance, she found them to be peaceful. In many ways, they were much like the Sylvan-Elves of the Woodland Realm. She knew the language they spoke was a form of Avarin, but not having been a scholar, she never had cause to study their words. It was clear they were aware of her, though, but it seemed that as long as she didn’t encroach on their territory or hunt their food, she was permitted space in the forest to live in isolation, which suited her just fine. She felt no desire to engage with them. Only one, a small, curious elf-child, who occasionally ventured into the forest to find and watch her. For a long time he was the closest thing Tauriel had to a friend, and she grew to like the adventurous little Avari.

Each night, she fell asleep clasping the small runestone she always kept by her side. She would trace her fingers along the engraved runes, and ask herself whether she was ready to return. Every day, the answer was the same. Not today. She had no idea what she was waiting for, but despite all the new things she was experiencing, she still felt empty inside. She wondered if she would ever feel whole again.

***

After five years living in Taur Rómen, Tauriel’s desire to see the Mountain again began to grow. It had been a long time since she had seen it standing alone on the Western horizon, and she felt it calling to her, beckoning her. It was enough time had finally passed, and her heart had finally begun to beat again. It was this feeling which lured her from her home in the woods, and back out onto the great steppe of Rhun. Looking West for the first time in over half a decade, the Mountain still stood as it always had, so small in the distance she had to concentrate to make it out. She took out Kili’s stone from its pouch and held it in her hand. Perhaps it wanted to go home. Maybe, after all the years that had passed, it was finally time to return.

Those that hunted her travelled against the wind, silently, so that nothing would give them away. By the time Tauriel had noticed them, it was already too late. She turned, shocked by the sudden, bloodthirsty wails of her hunters, and for a moment, she was petrified. She had forgotten how dangerous the grasslands were, and she had been distracted. She cursed to herself for failing to keep her guard up, and leapt into the grass. She weaved rapidly through the blades, trying to get back to the woods, her asylum, as quickly as her legs would take her, but to no avail. The booming hooves swept around her, trapping her, blocking her path. The Wainriders of Rhun were the masters of this realm, they already knew in which direction she would flee. They did not need walls to back their prey into a corner. They had her surrounded, and there was no escape.

Tauriel had no intention of going down without a fight.

She stood, reaching for her bow, but they were ready for her. The enemy knew how to read the swaying of the grass, and had honed in on her with practiced ease. Before her fingers had so much a chance as to brush the yew of her bow, she felt a bite in her left thigh as the bevel of a javelin sliced through cloth and skin. The shaft shot past her, quivering menacingly after the spearhead embedded the ground. Inches closer and she’d have been impaled. She hesitated only a second, before continuing to arm herself with her bow, and drawing her first arrow. There were six on horseback, circling her, and their chief, one large beast of a man who rode a heavily plated kine. Each brigand was heavily armoured, bearing many different types of weapon; spears, halberds, scimitars, and sickles, many with twisted, serrated edges. They also carried iron shields. Up close, Tauriel could see that they weren’t simple savages; they were hardened warriors. She wouldn’t be able to take them easily, and they knew it. In fact, they appeared to welcome her challenge. One went so far as to open his arms, exposing his chestplate, repeating the word ‘sinovo’ at her. She did not know what it meant, but she guessed he was daring her to release her arrow. She held back. They knew her arrows would not pierce the tempered steel they wore, and she did too. She began eyeing them off, identifying the lethal gaps in their armour, the weapons they carried, how they might fight, how they might move. She had to be absolutely certain of her targets before she struck. She could fire seven arrows quickly enough, but she needed to identify the opportunities. For each opponent, she doubted there would be more than one chance.

Their leader, atop his great white beast, bellowed at her with a deep, booming voice. “Ottoxo cosnao,” he called out, eyes fixed to her.

She gave him nothing. He looked to his comrades, and in turn, they all began to laugh mockingly at her.

“Sono quondo ho murryo vihiyu olulyo,” said the rider to the right of the chief with a guttural tone. “Osso meri tyali curovoco.” The others began snickering louder. She stood, poised to defend herself. She couldn’t tell which would strike first, but she was very quickly running out of time. She thought of Kili. It wasn’t time for her to die. She had a promise to keep. She could not let these men finish her. Her fingers twitched in anticipation. She was ready to strike.

All at once, the one who had challenged her first, ‘Sinovo’, arched his back rigidly with a short, sharp gasp, and Tauriel remained frozen in place. For a moment he sat in that awkward pose, perfectly still, and then he slumped, sliding off his saddle. A large, black arrow was lodged at the base of his spine. The other riders all immediately turned to the source. In the distance, a man shrouded in blue was nocking his next arrow. The hunters panicked at the sight.

“Astar! Wintivo!,” their leader shouted, and all at once they began to scatter. The stranger loosed another arrow, and it sailed through the wind, tearing through armour like paper once it found its target, piercing another rider through the ribs. Whoever the stranger was, he only seemed interested in driving the Wainriders away. She was an easy mark for such a skilled archer, but no arrows came for her.

As soon as the Wainriders were far enough away, another man dressed in blue surfaced from the tall grass, and together, they approached her. Once they were close enough for their features to appear distinctly, she was surprised by their age. The archer had holstered his bow, and held out his hand to her as a friendly greeting. “Lu vurnu naro,” he said to her.

Tauriel shook her head. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” she explained, lowering her own bow.

The other, unarmed, old man, smiled warmly at her. “You’re safe now,” he translated.

Chapter Text

Tauriel never anticipated it would happen, but she ended up spending the next six decades travelling with Alatar and Pallando.

At first, she had felt too proud to accept further aid after her rescue, but the Wainrider blade that had gashed her leg had been coated with a slow poison, one that would not impair her immediately, but would take its hold over the course of a few days. It was a cheap measure to ensure that even if she had managed to escape from their clutches, her freedom would be short-lived, followed by agonizingly painful decay. Alatar tended to her, gave her medicines which countered the effects of the poison, and she did not suffer. After that ordeal, she felt a sense of obligation to them, for saving her life, and kept by their sides. They insisted there was no debt to be repaid, of course, but honour prevented her from leaving until she had shown them her gratitude in some form.

After only being with them for a short while, however, Tauriel learned so much about the East. By day they travelled the lands, and by night, the wizards told her stories of the history and culture of the Eastern Kingdoms. They spoke at length about the six tribes of the Avari that dwelled in the East, the Cuind, Hwenti, Kindi, Kinn-lai, Penni, and Windan, and apprised her of the dwarven clans of the Orocarni, the Blacklocks, Ironfists, Stiffbeards, and Stonefoots. And of course, they shared with her tales of the Easterlings themselves. Pallando taught her ramanpiti, the common language of Rhun, as well as the three dialects of Avarin. From Alatar, Tauriel learned how they fought in the East, how they hunted, how they survived. She was captivated by their wealth of experience, and her desire to stay by their sides became driven by a newfound thirst for knowledge. They did not mind her company, and were more than content to divulge what they knew. In return, she told them of the West, of the Woodland Realm, and the blight that plagued Mirkwood, and of Erebor, and the Battle of Five Armies. She shared all that she knew of the Kingdoms beyond the borders of her home, and of the lands west of the Misty Mountains.

As they wandered Rhun, Tauriel also learned of their quest, to disrupt the rise of the Easterling armies, that they shall never outnumber the forces of the Western Kingdoms. Whenever a leader would rise up and start bringing clans together, Alatar and Pallando would appear, and thwart them. They had become legends in the East. Keeping the Easterlings at bay had helped maintain peace in Rhun, and in various tongues, Alatar had become known as the darkness-slayer, and Pallando, the East-helper. The Easterlings had learned to fear the blue wizards that roamed the lands. Over time, Tauriel began providing support to Alatar in his strikes. By helping the wizards, she was protecting the Woodland Realm and the Mountain in a way she never dreamed. Tauriel felt like her life had meaning again; she was no longer wandering aimlessly, she had found new purpose.

As the years passed, she came to know the wizards more personally. More than anything, they loved each other deeper than any two souls Tauriel had ever known. She still remembered Thranduil’s word when she had challenged him. “What do you know of love?” Tauriel thought she had known, but Alatar and Pallando had shown her that she had no idea how happy it could truly make someone. She regretted that she never had the opportunity to experience that same happiness with Kili. It was all the more reason to hold onto Bilbo’s words of hope, that she might someday see him again, that she might keep her promise.

Alatar was a skilled hunter, any weapon in his hands was wielded with mastery. Despite his age, Tauriel never bested him when they sparred together, possessing speed and strength that seemed almost unnatural. He was also highly competitive, and Pallando would often jest that should she ever gain the upper hand, that the better move would be to surrender it than suffer Alatar’s sulking. Alatar also held a respect for the land that was far greater than his love for those that dwelled upon it. It appeared that not only did he know the language of the trees, but also that of the shrubs, the flowers, the grass, and the earth itself. He told her that every living being had a name and a spirit, and that the greenery was no exception. He would also proudly point out to Tauriel those plants he had sown himself. They were like children to him. He had a strange tendency to get very short-tempered during the harvest season. What Tauriel found particularly odd, though, was that he had no qualms about killing animals for survival.

In many ways, Pallando was the opposite of Alatar. Where Alatar was brusque and unruly, Pallando was placid and easygoing. He had never held a weapon in his life. He was much tidier than Alatar, and generally the more well-mannered and articulate of the two. Pallando was incredibly knowledgeable, but it was far deeper than any scholarly education. He had an innate understanding of history, and an uncanny ability to anticipate events before they occurred. Nothing surprised him. It was as though he did not always live in the moment, but instead would wander into the past or the future. In the sixty years that she spent travelling with Pallando, Tauriel had never heard him ask a single question. He just seemed to know everything.

One night, she asked Alatar about this trait of Pallando. That was the night everything changed.

It was a warm summer night, and they had made camp in a clearing where the grass did not grow so tall. The moon was full, and the prairie was bathed in silver light, radiant enough that they did not start a campfire that eve. They were enjoying a supper of berries and fruits when Pallando stepped aside to relieve himself. The two were usually inseparable, and Tauriel felt embarrassed asking in Pallando’s presence. When she asked, Alatar laughed and commented that it was nothing to be ashamed of.

“To my knowledge,” he explained with a smile, “Only once has Pallando ever asked a question. Whenever I bring it up, he denies it, but I am adamant that he already knew the answer.” When Pallando returned, Alatar gestured for him to join them in on the conversation. “It may come as a surprise, but I alone was tasked to vanquish the forces of Sauron in the East, for my skill as a hunter. It was I that begged for Pallando to join me. It was easy enough to make a case. Pallando was a seer, one of many at the time, now one of the last. You already know how stubborn I can be, and after much deliberation I convinced everyone that I could only complete my quest if I had someone pointing me in the right direction. But that was not the true reason I needed him.” Alatar looked deeply into Pallando’s eyes. “I fell in love with Pallando the moment I laid eyes on the man. I had always been afraid of living a long life. I would only bear it for as long as the one I loved was by my side.” Alatar’s grin widened. “I was overjoyed when he said yes. Of course, we hadn’t started courting at that point. That came later; and those years were wonderful. At the onset, I only knew in my heart that I needed him by my side, more than anything else in the world.” He revealed to Tauriel the metal band he wore on the ring finger of his left hand. It was crafted from an alloy of silver and copper, with a single rose-quartz crystal set atop the head. “It was long after we’d journeyed to the East together that he proposed to me.” He reached for Pallando’s hand. “I never get the words right. Would you share them, my love?” He gave Pallando a gentle kiss on the cheek, and Pallando closed his hands around Alatar’s. Upon making contact, the colour from his eyes faded away behind a grey haze.

“The future is a tempest, swirling, ever-changing,” Pallando said, “I see glimpses of possibilities through the storm; different destinations, some more reachable than others, depending on the course upon which we travel. It is incredibly difficult to navigate through the maelstrom without some kind of connection to that destination, a compass to guide the way.”

“This is the part where he reveals the ring,” Alatar interrupted with a wink.

“I had this ring forged a long time ago, but not once have I dared peek at its future,” Pallando continued. “This ring was meant for you, Alatar, so that, with certainty, there was something that would bind our futures together for all eternity. I dared not gaze into its future because I could not bear witnessing a life in which I did not have you. Alatar… would you accept this ring, my heart, and my love, from now until the end of time?”

“How could I refuse?,” Alatar asked rhetorically, giving Pallando another kiss as colour returned to his eyes. “It was the happiest day of my life. I would have this ring of love over a Ring of Power any day.”

Tauriel could only think of Kili’s runestone. Of the promise she had made. Was it a compass that guided her to her love?

Sleep did not come for her that night. She had to know.

Alatar had already fallen asleep, but Pallando sat awake, still enjoying his view of the starlit sky.

“Pallando…” she began.

“It’s alright, Tauriel,” he said. “We have never asked about why you journeyed so far from home, it never mattered to us. Your company has always been a pleasure, and we knew that you would either share your past with us willingly when you were ready, or you wouldn’t. Either was fine with us, as long as you were not troubled. But I always knew something from your past haunted you.” Tauriel looked startled, but he held up his hand to ease her. “No, I do not peer where I am not wanted, except out of necessity. Your past and your future are yours alone, unless you wish to share them. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen you caressing that stone each night before you sleep, nor heard the name you call in your slumber.”

She felt slightly embarrassed that he already knew, but that didn’t matter. She needed to know if there truly was hope to cling onto. She felt maybe that was why fate had taken her East, why it had brought her to Alatar and Pallando, why she was standing now in that very spot. She reached into her pouch and fetched the stone.

“It was a gift,” she explained as she revealed the memento. “A promise. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I think I do now. I need to know that I’m not holding on in vain. That I have something to believe in. That I might indeed meet my love once again someday.”

“Once you know the truth, there’s no return, until such time that you might be lucky enough to forget. That is what's at stake,” Pallando warned.

She hesitated for only an instant. “I’m certain,” she answered, holding her hand open with the stone resting on her palm, glistening in the moonlight.

Pallando gently plucked the runestone from her and clasped it within his hands. He drew in a deep breath, and closed his eyes. Tauriel could hardly breathe herself. Time passed, and Pallando stood quietly, lost in his own world. He went pale. The quiet started to become unsettling.

“Is everything alright,” Tauriel asked him. He did not reply. She began to grow concerned.

Suddenly, Pallando collapsed. Tauriel quickly reached out to catch him. “Pallando!,” she called to him as she lowered him to the ground. “Pallando!” She shook him, but there was no response. He was lost. He lay there, still, as though he no longer inhabited his body, an empty husk devoid of spirit. She never meant for this to happen. “Alatar!,” she cried desperately. “Alatar, come quickly! Something is horribly wrong!”

Moving faster than anyone his age should, Alatar appeared. He knelt beside Pallando and grasped his partner’s hand firmly.

“Come back to me, my love,” he whispered, and then gently brought his lips to Pallando’s. Colour returned to Pallando’s skin, and he broke out into a cold sweat, gasping heavily as he resuscitated. He opened his eyes widely; they were clouded at first, but the fog quickly lifted, and Tauriel could see he was desperately searching for Alatar. Once found, Pallando fixed his gaze on his companion, and his breathing began to settle.

Tauriel picked up the runestone, brushed off the dirt it had collected, and held it close to her heart. “I’m sorry,” she apologised. “I never meant for that to happen.”

The wizards seemed to ignore her. “What did you see?,” Alatar asked his love.

Pallando gripped his partner tightly. “Something unintended.” He began to tremble. “The East has been veiled in shroud for some time, and we have been stumbling blindly in the shadows. A great darkness is about to unite the East, and we cannot stop it. We are already too late. We have failed.”

***

“I don’t know specifically what Pallando saw, and I know better than to ask,” Tauriel said in conclusion. “After weeks of meditation, Pallando finally told both Alatar and I that it was hopeless to stall the rise of the Easterling armies any longer. An assault on the West is inevitable, and we had already done all that was possible to thwart it.” All the dwarves, Dis and Dwalin included, were shocked by the revelation. “There is hope, however. Since we left our post and returned to the West, Pallando has been searching for another way, and it would seem he has found it. The key to victory, however, lies within this quest to Moria. It is absolutely imperative that we succeed.”

“Is the Mountain in danger?,” Dis asked directly. She was looking at Pallando fervently. The Lady was experienced at burying her emotions beneath her duty to Erebor.

“Not imminently,” Pallando answered. “There is still time. But as events stand, the Mountain will fall unless certain preparations are made.” He aimed his gaze at Thorin. “I fear that having been sheltered his whole life, the prince lacks the courage he is going to need. If he is to confront an army, he must learn to face fear. This quest provides the perfect opportunity for him to gain that experience.” Thorin swallowed, but said nothing. Pallando’s eyes then drifted from dwarf to dwarf, lingering slightly on Nori. “But there is more. I believe that deep within the heart of Khazad-dûm lies a long-forgotten relic of Durin. Should we discover it, then victory against the rising forces in the East is assured.” He sighed. “Alatar and I are getting old, however, and it has been too long since we last ventured this far West. We require the assistance of an experienced Company that knows the way.” Pallando gestured towards Nori. “It was serendipitous that Nori was planning such an expedition at just the right time.”

“And what of the Mountain in our absence? Why have you not gone to Dain?” Dis asked.

“I promise that you will return from this quest to find the peace your Kingdom has attained intact,” Pallando guaranteed. “Informing Dain now will only add fuel to the fires of war, and that is not a path to victory. Bringing the fight to the Easterlings is to their advantage, not ours.”

Dis considered Pallando’s words for some time, toying absently with the memento of her son. Finally, she stood. “I will put my trust in you, Pallando, on your word that the Mountain will be safe.” She approached Tauriel, and placed Kili’s runestone in her hand. “You have kept your promise,” Dis said, “and for that, I am certain he is smiling. I know in my heart that he is waiting for you as much as you long for him. Patience was never his strongest quality, but he will need to endure it for a while longer, until it is time for you to join him. I do not doubt it will happen.”

Tauriel brought stone to her heart, clutching it tenderly. “Thank you,” she replied softly. Then, with renewed energy, she gave the dwarves her instructions. “In the morn, Thranduil will receive word of our departure from Dain. The elves will be on the lookout. We must move carefully, and quickly, lest we be stopped by them. Rest up, for tomorrow you will need your wits and your strength. This forest is not kind to the unwary, though I guess you already know that.”

Chapter Text

As the dwarves settled in for the night in the glade Tauriel had led them to, it was not the hidden dangers lurking behind the trees that kept Nori awake. It wasn’t that he had forgotten how gruelling the forest had been the last time were there. He remembered with stark clarity how it felt to be dizzyingly lost, and so hungry that it ached. How burdensome it had been to carry Bombur after he had fallen into the black river, and the harrowing uncertainty of whether his friend would ever wake up at all. He recalled the petrifying fear that something was whisking them away one by one, not knowing where Ori or Dori had disappeared before everything faded into darkness. He could still feel the maddening frustration of being captured by the elves and the despair of utter helplessness in their captivity. Returning to the forest had evoked all of those terrible memories, but not even they were powerful enough to sway Nori’s mood.

Nori felt good.

He was more content than he had been for some time. These terrible woods were precisely where Nori wanted to be at that moment. It all felt right. He was on his way to Moria, for Ori. The quest was underway, and soon Nori would be holding the book of Mazarbul, the last legacy of his little brother. Nori would bring it back to the Mountain, and it would live on. He would never allow Ori to be forgotten. Indeed, fear was not the cause of Nori’s restlessness, it was the excitement that tingled in each of his muscles in anticipation of what was to come. But that was not all. Nori’s heart had been torn into two pieces, and, with just one kiss, it had become whole again, and now it pulsed with exhilaration.

As Nori lay in his bedroll, musing over all of the developments of the past day, he shifted onto his side to gaze at Dwalin. He was not snuggled cosily within his own bedroll, instead, he was standing still as a statue, maintaining his watch over the woods. The silver moonlight that beamed through the canopy cast a celestial aura over the vigilant dwarf. Nori realised he looked at Dwalin differently now, ever since their kiss. He was so tall, so strong, so masculine. Nori drank in the shape of Dwalin’s broad, powerful shoulders, his firm ass, and thick, burly legs. Nori wanted it all. He couldn’t believe it had taken until now to realise it. It was as though the tragedy of Moria had bound their souls together. Nori hadn’t been able to keep Dwalin out of his mind. The thought of going on this quest without him, well, it had almost broken Nori. He had been too scared to even face Dwalin. Too weak. It had taken Pallando’s encouragement for Nori to pursue Dwalin, and Nori was so glad for it.

“Come with me,” Nori had insisted, after their first, passionate kiss.

“Aye, I will.”

Once Dwalin had assented, it had taken all of Nori’s self control not to kiss him again, to keep kissing him, to never cease kissing him. But Nori’s sense of reason reminded him that the others were waiting, and that there would be plenty of chances to continue from where he and Dwalin were leaving things. Reluctantly, he had dragged himself out of Dwalin’s embrace, his hand lingering long enough to offer Dwalin one last squeeze. They didn’t share any words heading back to the group. In a single moment, they’d shared more than all the conversations they’d had in a lifetime. In one embrace, Nori had discovered more wonderful things about Dwalin than he had travelling across the world by Dwalin’s side. And now, Nori yearned to discover more. To indulge in these new emotions that coursed through him. He wanted to learn how warm Dwalin’s skin felt against his body, to familiarize himself with each mark on Dwalin’s body, to memorise the scent of his musk. He wanted to feel Dwalin’s hardness pressing into him again, to take Dwalin’s desire, to give Dwalin his own. Nori’s cock throbbed at the idea, and that brought him back to reality. Dwalin hadn’t budged from his spot, and to Nori’s dismay he could not see a way to lure Dwalin to his bedroll without disturbing anyone else. He could hear Dori tossing and turning restlessly beside him. As soon as there’s a chance, he thought to himself as he regarded Dwalin’s rugged handsomeness, I’m giving everything to him. It was difficult to guess when that might be, in this place, but Nori was certain that opportunities would present themselves. Even if they required a little bit of influence on his part. As he schemed, Nori eventually drifted into a dreamless slumber.

***

The next morning, Nori was roused by slender fingers gently shaking his shoulder. He opened his eyes to the veil of pre-dawn darkness, and he blinked several times to eliminate the debris that had built up in the corners of his eyes during the night. As his vision sharpened, he noticed that Dwalin was not to be found where Nori had last seen him standing. Must have just taken the first watch, Nori presumed, wondering how closely Dwalin slept. Drawing in a deep gulp of cool, morning air, he rolled onto his back, allowing Tauriel, who was crouching beside him, to come into view. Reading his alertness, she whispered, “It’s time.” Nori nodded in agreement. Adrenaline was beginning to wake him up properly. There would be no going back to sleep. “Wake the others,” she asked him. “I’m going ahead to make sure the path is clear.” Nori nodded once again, and watched as Tauriel disappeared between the trees without so much as the slightest rustle of the foliage. Reuniting with her after so long had not only been a pleasant surprise, but if there was any elf better suited to escorting them through Mirkwood safely, Nori hadn’t heard of them. With Tauriel as their guide, Nori felt confident that the forest wouldn’t pose any danger at all. Luck was certainly on their side.

Sitting up, Nori’s gaze swept across the campsite. Everyone was sound asleep. Seeing them there with him truly meant something to Nori. To his left, Dori was snoring quietly, and it was good to see that he was no longer lamenting the loss of their younger brother. Once we return to the Mountain, he will never be forgotten, Nori reminded himself. Beside Dori was Bifur, who had shuffled quite close during the night. Soon, those two will be inseparable, Nori thought, thinking back to the night they had spent as guests in the castle of Dale, when Bifur had snuck into Dori’s bedroom. Then there was Bofur. Out of all the dwarves of the Mountain, Bofur was definitely Nori’s best friend. Even if Bofur had properly considered what he was getting himself into, Nori did not doubt that he still would have joined them in a heartbeat.

On Nori’s right was Dis and Thorin. The presence of the Lady and the prince created additional risks, but for Nori, it wasn’t too bothersome. Those same complications had existed on their last quest. Like her brother, Thorin Oakenshield had been equally concerned about the well-being of his nephews. The only difference was that Dis was slightly more intimidating, and so Nori would be working extra hard to keep Thorin out of trouble. Even though it was not Nori’s objective that kept them here, their support was invaluable.

Tauriel had told quite the tale the previous evening. Nori had listened as intently as the others as she described her adventures in the East. He couldn’t imagine such a place as Rhun, an unending flatland with no walls or ceiling. Nori felt agoraphobic just thinking about it. Dwarves were definitely more comfortable with a Mountain to call home, and Nori was no exception. Gandalf had never mentioned much of Alatar and Pallando - he’d said that he didn’t even remember their names. Just how long had they been wandering in the East? Of course, it troubled Nori that an army was rising there, and that it posed a threat to the Mountain. He recalled the struggle that had been the Battle of Five Armies, and he certainly didn’t want to relive it. However, Pallando had said that something hid within the chambers of Moria that would help them, an artifact that was the key to victory. Nori had no idea what it might be, certainly nothing that Ori had ever mentioned, but if it meant that Nori had the assistance of Dis, Thorin, and two wizards to boot, then that was all that mattered. It assured Nori that his quest to retrieve the book of Mazarbul would be a success. After all, they only had one wizard backing them on their way to Erebor, and everything had worked out fine. Mostly, anyway.

They all looked so peaceful under their toasty blankets, Nori almost felt guilty about disturbing them. The day promised nothing other than a long, arduous slog through Mirkwood. The first of many. No point delaying the inevitable, Nori told himself, and cast the layers protecting him from the brisk morning air aside. Standing up with a yawn and a stretch, he wrapped a leather coat lined with fur around himself so that he did not feel so exposed, and donned his boots.

There was no question about whom Nori would awaken first. He immediately began scanning the clearing in search of the heftiest sleeping bag. Allowing the others a little more sleep while I wake up Dwalin won’t hurt, he mused. Counting them off, however, Nori realised that there was a dwarf missing. His dwarf. Nori did a sweep of the clearing, and identified where Alatar and Pallando had made themselves comfortable together, but Dwalin’s bedroll was nowhere to be seen. Perturbed by this, Nori decided to head towards the ponies. Maybe he didn’t want to lug his belongings over everyone while they slept, and stayed close to the horses, he surmised. Circling the animals, he found Dwalin, but not asleep. He was still standing at attention, eyes fixed to the wilderness. Has he been up all night? Nori wondered. As far as Nori could tell, Dwalin hadn’t noticed his approach. He was disappointed that he’d been denied the opportunity to rouse Dwalin, blood had already begun to flood to his crotch at the possibilities, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t say good morning. Quietly, Nori padded across the soft, damp grass. He thought he was being discreet enough, but before Nori reached Dwalin, the guard’s ears twitched, and he turned.

“Nori… you’re up,” Dwalin murmured gruffly. “Is it time to start moving out?” His eyes were puffy and bloodshot. Dwalin hadn’t rested at all. Nori reached for Dwalin’s hand, and blood rushed to the large dwarf’s cheeks.

“You didn’t sleep?” Nori asked, concerned.

“No…,” Dwalin answered, averting his gaze. “I was feeling restless, so I thought I might help Tauriel keep watch. The forest is a dangerous place, after all.” He ran his other hand across the tattoos on his head.

“You could always join me if you’re having trouble sleeping,” Nori teased. He drew Dwalin into an embrace, and his cheeks went even redder. Nori wrapped his arms around Dwalin’s waist to keep him close. He felt so warm. Pressed against him, Nori observed Dwalin’s cock hardening, which only fired up his own lust.

“You don’t think your brother might object?” Dwalin asked, starting to relax. Nori noticed Dwalin’s husky arms enveloping him, and nothing could have been more perfect.

“Not at all,” Nori said with a sly grin. “He’s too preoccupied with his own romantic interests to be thinking about who I take into my bed.” Dwalin raised his eyebrows at Nori’s ambiguity.

Nori was just about to draw Dwalin in for a kiss, when Dwalin’s focus shifted beyond him. He pivoted his head to identify the distraction, to find Tauriel standing behind them. Inwardly, Nori could not have been more furious, but he tried desperately not to let it show. “The way is clear,” she announced. “We should get moving.” She didn’t comment on the fact that everyone else was still asleep, nor on the way he and Dwalin were holding each other, she simply turned and walked to where the others were resting so that she could get them on their feet.

“We better go wake the others,” Dwalin agreed, pulling away to Nori’s chagrin. The morning air suddenly seemed a lot colder. He beckoned for Nori to join him before he began striding towards the camp.

Nori pressed his lips together. Well, that didn’t go according to plan at all, he brooded. Hoping that he would find a greater opportunity to ensnare Dwalin with some privacy that evening, he scampered to catch up so that they could commence the day’s journey.

Chapter Text

As it turned out, having Dwalin to himself proved more difficult than Nori liked. There wasn’t a chance for so much as a quiet conversation as they moved through the forest. From dawn until dusk, the company slowly advanced between the thick underbrush in single file. It was no accident that Nori had placed himself behind Dwalin on the trek. At first, having an unobstructed view of Dwalin’s physique was quite pleasing for Nori. He thoroughly enjoyed the way Dwalin’s onyx and silver locks flowed over his burly shoulders, and the way his solid muscles and firm buttocks undulated as he rode. Nori amused himself by imagining how wonderful a sight it would be if Dwalin’s layers of clothing and furs were torn away, and found the idea alone was enough to rouse his lust. The moment I find you alone, Nori promised, I am going to ravage you, handsome beast.

As the morning wore on, however, Nori noticed Dwalin begin to sag in his saddle, his head nodding as he struggled to stay alert. Occasionally Dwalin would sit up rigidly as he fought against the waves of fatigue, but it was a losing battle, and it was never long before Dwalin slumped into slumber. Of course, being the largest of the dwarves meant that he was most susceptible to the low-hanging branches dangling above the trail, and it pained Nori to watch his dwarf mutter curses whenever he was slapped awake by a pitiless tree. By noon, Nori’s only wish was that Dwalin would find peaceful respite that evening. Eventually, he daydreamed again, about how it would feel to arrange his bedroll beside Dwalin’s and drift to sleep lying against his warmth.

It was difficult for Nori to ascertain how well the other dwarves fared, given how challenging it was to catch glimpses of them between the trees. Occasionally though, Nori would at least turn around to see how Dori, who followed immediately behind him, was coping. Being fluent in the subtle nuances of his elder brother’s expressions and body language, Nori could easily interpret that Dori was getting grumpier as the day progressed. He was putting on a brave face, but having been denied so much as a spark for a steaming brew of tea both the previous night and that morning, Dori was suffering tea withdrawals. His discomfort was compounded by the fact that despite having been the mightiest of the Company on their journey to Erebor, he was now the softest after decades of living on lavish food and soft cushions. Nori did not doubt Dori would adjust quickly enough to being without his luxuries, but the meantime would be most unpleasant. He hoped Bifur would continue to look after his brother during these trying times.

The company didn’t stop very long for lunch. To call their waypoint a clearing would have been too generous, there was barely any room to move about between the ponies. Their only solace was the golden sunlight penetrating the shade of the woods, casting a resplendent aura that made the forest feel slightly less intimidating. A facade, as far as Nori was concerned. It wouldn’t be until they were well beyond the borders of the Woodland Realm that he would feel safe from the elves, and even then, that worry would only be replaced by giant spiders. The sooner they were out of Mirkwood, the better. As though she felt his same uneasiness, Tauriel disappeared during the break, checking to make sure they weren’t being followed and that they hadn’t left any marks that might give away their passage to elf scouts. By the time she returned, the company had finished their cram rations, stretched the weariness out of their aching, saddle-sore muscles, and ensured the ponies had been watered, fed, and were rejuvenated enough to carry them on for an afternoon of steady, silent travel. With no point in delay, they pressed on.

The going was slow and there was little to lighten the mood. Dwarves seldom felt claustrophobic, but Nori was certain the forest was attempting to strangle them, or swallow them whole, one or the other. He had plenty of tears on his clothes and scratches wherever his skin was exposed to prove it. As time passed, his eyes drifted again, occasionally settling on Dwalin, who was still lethargic, and Dori, who was still crabby. He also tried to catch anything that might be skulking about out of sight behind the trees, but with no luck. He listened, but heard nothing but the rustle of thicket against pony and dwarf, and the snap and crackle of dry leaves and twigs under hoof. As far as Nori could sense, there were no dangers at all. Though Nori would never let his guard down, he did feel optimistic that as long as they had Tauriel, nothing would go wrong. Neither Dain nor Thranduil expect that we are being guided by an elf, Nori thought with a smile. Unless they were counting on us getting hopelessly lost from the beginning, this is perhaps the last place they would ever look for us. He reminded himself to thank Tauriel personally later. No matter how unpleasantly boring the day had been, with each step, they were getting closer to Moria. It will all be worth it, Nori told himself, once I bring the book of Mazarbul home.

Keeping them safe and unseen was definitely Tauriel’s sole concern, and that evening, she did not relent on her directive to keep the noise to an absolute minimum, and certainly did not permit any activities that might give away their position. Not that there was much room for a fire, between the bedrolls and the ponies in the small space that was their campsite for the night. Only a few seemed unperturbed. Alatar and Pallando were more than content to eat in silence and then snuggle together under their blankets for an early night. Bifur was never much of a talker to begin with, and had been rather chipper until, not reading the warning signs, he incurred the full brunt of Dori’s foul mood. Nori couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor dwarf. Thorin was also denied the opportunity to relax after the long day's ride; Dis had noted that the previous evening the prince hadn’t volunteered to help set up camp, and clearly she had spent her day crafting a near-insurmountable list of chores in retribution. Not being the target of anyone’s ire, Bofur remained in high-spirits, but that meant that he stuck to Nori like glue, even having the nerve to settle his bedroll precisely where Nori had hoped Dwalin would sleep. Not that the guard had any intention of unpacking his own. Once again, he had resumed his post, surveying the surrounding thickets for any hidden threats that concealed themselves beyond.

Swaddled in his bedroll, Nori began to feel sour. He had been kidding himself for thinking he’d catch Dwalin alone. At this point, he would take whatever contact he could get. Knowing he would be unable to doze off until he had at least spoken to Dwalin, Nori cast his blankets aside, stood up, and silently crept over the dwarves sprawled around him without disturbing them.

“You should sleep,” he insisted quietly, once he was by Dwalin’s side.

Dwalin looked down at him through exhausted, but nonetheless gorgeous, cobalt eyes. “Just let me have first watch. Then I’ll sleep. I… I just want to be sure. That it’s safe.”

Nori frowned, unconvinced that whatever troubled his dwarf would ease during the night. Standing beside Dwalin, he directed his gaze outwards towards the dark woods.

Realising that Nori hadn’t returned to his sleeping bag, Dwalin attempted to encourage him to get some rest. “You don’t have to…,” he began, but Nori didn’t let him finish.

“I want to,” was all he said, and Dwalin didn’t have the energy to argue Nori’s resolve.

It wasn’t what Nori had envisioned, and he knew he would probably be cranky in the morning, but after what had been a very long day, he was finally alone with Dwalin, and that was all that mattered.

Chapter Text

As days of riding in silence slowly dragged by, the spirits of the company continued to deteriorate. Even Nori, who was determined to persist no matter how tough the journey became, was beginning to crack under the constant strain of not knowing when an enemy might strike. His unease had also been amplified by his weariness; ever since he decided to spend his nights keeping watch with Dwalin, who obstinately refused to sleep, he found himself utterly drained of energy. The big oaf never offered any explanation for the cause for his restlessness, not that Nori would ask. He knew any attempts to coax it out of Dwalin would be fruitless, as much as Dwalin knew there was no hope of convincing Nori to stand down. Nori did not remember another time Dwalin had been so tense, so agitated. Nori found himself wondering about their last trek through Mirkwood. Was he like this the last time? He’d been so focussed on keeping his little brother safe that not a moment went by when his eyes weren’t on Ori. Also, to his regret, Nori felt as though he had never truly seen Dwalin before that night in the alley, and simply couldn’t recall if Dwalin had been as restless on their first adventure together. It annoyed Nori to think that Dwalin might have suffered, but rewriting the past was impossible. All he could do now was stay by Dwalin’s side each night, enduring his burden with him. If that was enough to alleviate Dwalin’s worries even the smallest bit, then nothing would sway Nori, no matter how heavy his eyelids felt.

His pony, Borak, proved to be quite an intelligent beast, and seemed to sense that Nori required his help during the day. Nori found that he could doze without worrying about veering away from the others, and that was, at least, a little comforting. Of course, that did not mean that he did not stir the instant he felt anything twitch beyond the path, whether it be the slightest change in the wind, or the faintest quiver of the leaves. In the heart of Mirkwood, danger could strike from almost any direction. Twice they had been captured on their last venture, and both times the Company had been caught completely unaware. It was reassuring that this time, they had Tauriel, but being so far from the Old Forest Road, Nori had never felt so lost. His sense of direction had vanished completely. If Tauriel was leading them around in circles, Nori would have been completely oblivious. It was always especially uncomfortable whenever she would disappear to scout ahead or check their trail, as it was a reminder that they were never truly out of harm’s way. If she didn’t return, Nori feared he would never see the sun again.

At night, their camps always felt cramped and restrictive. For as long as they were within the reach of Thranduil and his scouts, who were certainly seeking them out desperately, Tauriel did not allow the company to speak any louder than a whisper, and Nori was beginning to forget the sound of his everyone’s voices. The nights felt cold without a campfire or a hot meal, and Nori wanted more than anything to snuggle beside Dwalin for warmth, an impossibility under the circumstances. Nori could tell that his brother felt the same; Dori hadn’t gone so far as to place an arm around Bifur whilst in the presence of the company, and it was making him very tetchy. It didn’t help that, like Nori, his brother hadn’t been getting much sleep. Though Nori was deliberately forgoing slumber, it simply did not come very easily for the others. They were all overtired. With the sustained risk that at any moment, everything could collapse, there was never a point where Nori felt truly safe; never a moment of privacy.

Which was why, on the tenth evening, Nori was suffocating.

It had been another long day, much like those before it. Another long day after another long night, standing guard by Dwalin’s side. After ten days, Nori still had no idea exactly what they were keeping an eye out for. Whether it was elves, spiders, or some other horror, each night they watched, and the dawn always arrived with no sign of a threat. Dwalin was never satisfied, however, still as edgy as he’d been the moment they’d entered the woods. Being as stubborn as any other dwarf, there wasn’t a chance Nori would back down now he had committed himself. Until Dwalin was mollified, Nori was determined to suffer the long nights by his side. It was just proving more difficult with each passing day. Whilst on previous days, Nori had found some reprieve, having been able to snooze at least a little on the ride, on this particular day he had not been so lucky. His attempts to nod off on horseback had gone entirely unsuccessful, and his stamina was utterly spent.

As usual, the company pitched camp that evening, just before the sun dipped below the horizon. The company unpacked their supplies and settled down for yet another meal consisting mostly of dried meat and cram. Like every day before, Pallando and Alatar turned in early, and the others had just begun to do the same. Dwalin, of course, was not preparing his bedroll, and neither was Nori. Tauriel had left them, as was her routine, to inspect the surrounding area and their path they had rode, until she was satisfied they would be hidden until dawn.

Everything felt cramped. After ten days without any solitude, Nori felt confined, trapped. He craved the taste of fresh, cool, air. Just one gulp would be enough to revitalise him. He considered the risks. They’d been travelling for ten days, and they’d seen nothing. Not even a trace of the tiniest forest critter. The going had been slow, but they must have been close to the edge of the Woodland Realm after so many days. The chances of a running into an elf scout at this point had surely dwindled to nothing. Besides, he only intended to be gone a moment. Just enough time to collect his thoughts, and breathe. He would even let one of the others know, in case something happened. Nothing could go wrong. Feeling confident he had assessed all of the dangers, he started to feel better already about his decision.

Bofur happened to be the closest dwarf to him, limbs sprawled under his blanket as much as the crowded sleeping quarters would allow. Nori gave his friend a kick. “Hey, uh, I’m just going to step out the camp for a bit,” he whispered. “I need to relieve myself. I’ll be just behind that tree.” Nori gestured to one of the large oaks that towered over them.

“Mm-hmm,” Bofur murmured. “If anyone’s looking for ya, I’ll tell ‘em where y’are.” He immediately rolled over and made himself comfortable again.

As soon as Nori was away from the camp, he felt free. At once, his energy reserves began to fill up. He sucked in deep lungfuls of woody air, savouring the sweet flavour against his tongue, and for the first time in over a week, he was alive. He took in the surroundings. The canopy soared above so high it almost seemed as though he was staring at a starless sky, but for the last gleams of dusk that touched the tips of the tall beeches and oaks that reigned supreme in this part in the forest. He settled down at the base of the tree, getting comfortable with his back to the trunk, amidst the tangle of roots that held up the colossal giant. On the ground, as always, the woods were deathly still, devoid of life. But at that moment, it appeared almost peaceful. We must surely be well beyond the borders of the Woodland Realm by now, he thought to himself as he studied the frozen wilds. They surely wouldn’t be searching this far west. Upon reflection, he could even admit that Tauriel seemed to be loosening up. It mightn’t be too much longer before she relaxed enough to allow us a fire. A warm meal is all it will take to liven up everyone’s mood. He could almost taste it.

Feeling optimistic for the first time in a long while that their luck was about to change, Nori smiled.

***

“WHERE IS HE?” Nori opened his eyes the instant he heard the loud, booming voice. At once, he had pulled out his dagger and was gripping it tightly. It seemed darker than it had a moment ago, but not so much that he couldn’t see that the forest was no longer still. Suddenly, it had flared to life. All around him, the undergrowth quivered as tiny rodents and small birds scattered. Have they been there the whole time? Nori wondered, surprised by the activity. It hadn’t fully registered why all those creatures were scurrying about when he heard yet another thunderous roar. “NORI!” His eyes widened as he became more alert. Dwalin? he wondered. Why is Dwalin calling my name? It was flattering, really, hearing Dwalin sound so concerned, and on impulse, he looked around for his dwarf. It only took a moment for Nori to realise why he couldn’t see Dwalin, or the others for that matter. Another moment to understand why Dwalin was calling out his name. And only one more, to grasp what those cries meant, and for panic to set in. Oh no… He stood up, trying not to trip himself on the moss-covered roots. I dozed off! Immediately, he rushed back to the clearing, into chaos.

Dori, Bifur, and Bofur were wrestling with Dwalin, holding him from stampeding into the forest. Dori had one hand clamped over Dwalin’s mouth, in an attempt to prevent further outcries. Dis was hissing at him to be silent. It was Thorin who noticed Nori first. “Everyone! He’s here, it’s alright,” he exclaimed. As soon as Dwalin’s eyes locked onto Nori, he stopped struggling, but the others weren’t quite ready to release him. Nori felt the forest tremble to the waves of Dwalin’s echoes. If the elves hadn’t pinpointed their location already, they most certainly had now.

“Could you have been any more careless?” Dis snapped at Dwalin.

“It’s my fault,” Nori said, standing between them. “I wandered off. I shouldn’t have.”

Tauriel burst back into the camp just as Alatar and Pallando were arriving to the scene from where they had been sleeping. Tauriel didn’t bother to ask what had happened, it was inconsequential. “We haven’t much time. Those cries were loud enough to be heard by the elves of Rivendell. Alatar, lead them West, and do not stop. Not tonight, nor tomorrow. I will do everything I can to lure them away, and will find you after night falls. Lend me your horse.”

Alatar nodded, and without another word, Tauriel mounted his steed and launched between the trees at a trot, making as much noise as possible.

A grim silence washed over the camp as her hoofbeats faded into the distance. The dwarves all looked to Alatar, who appeared to be finding his bearings. Once he seemed confident enough, he nodded again. “This way,” he declared. “We’d best get a move on.” In agreement, the dwarves began packing up the camp.

Dwalin’s eyes were affixed to the ground as they prepared to move out. He avoided everyone as much as it was possible without affecting the rate he helped them collect their things. Feeling incredibly guilty, Nori reached out to him. “It wasn’t your fault,” he said, quiet enough so that only Dwalin would hear. “I… I fell asleep. It was foolish. If you hadn’t called out, I might have been caught. I was careless.”

Dwalin did not reply, and he did not appear consoled. He simply carried on working.

As soon as they were ready, they moved in single file away from the clearing into the dark, gloomy forest with Alatar in the lead. Nori didn’t doubt the wizard felt at home in the woods, but he remembered that it had been a long time since he’d been this far west. Nori’s spirits could not be any lower.

Great, Nori thought. We’re in the deepest, darkest part of the forest, we’re wandering without a guide, and Dwalin is blaming himself for my blunder. What else could go wrong?

***

It only with the greatest luck that they managed to make it through the night and the following day without encountering any of Thranduil’s trackers. Nori spent the entire time hoping his actions hadn’t cursed Tauriel. There was no way to know for sure until she returned, and until she did, his guilt would gnaw at him.

As soon as they found a suitable space for their camp, Dwalin collapsed at the base of a wide tree and buried his tattooed head into his large hands.

Nori knelt before Dwalin. “Please don’t blame yourself, it was my fault.”

“I shouldn’t have come with you,” Dwalin moaned. “I’m only going to fail you all.”

Nori placed a hand on Dwalin’s broad shoulder, and gave it a little squeeze. “There is no way I could do this without you.”

Dwalin brushed Nori’s fingers away. “Please, just leave me.”

“I could never do that,” Nori insisted, but Dwalin gave no acknowledgement. Before he could say more, Nori’s ears twitched at the mention of Dwalin’s name, barely audible, from behind. Deciding he should check on the others, Nori stood up. “I’ll be right back. I promise.” Dwalin didn’t respond.

“Is he alright?” Dori asked quietly as Nori approached.

“He hasn’t been sleeping,” Nori explained. “Something’s been bothering him ever since we entered these confounded woods. I figured he was just worried about what might be out there, and so I’ve been staying up with him.”

Dori raised an eyebrow at the revelation.

“If I could just make some chamomile tea, with a hint of lavender,” he began, “that would certainly calm everyone down.”

“I just hope he can get some rest,” Nori admitted. “It was only a mistake. My mistake.”

“It would have been better if he hadn’t joined us,” Dis announced sourly. “Dwalin hasn’t been on point from the moment we got here. He’s a burden to us.”

Nori glowered at her. “It was my fault,” he said, gritting his teeth. “I shouldn’t have wandered off alone. I’m the one to blame.”

“It was his lapse of judgement which put us in this situation,” she retorted. “There is no place for ineptitude on this quest.” Dis closed her eyes and sighed. “You should never have gone after him. He will only bring us misfortune. He has nothing to offer.”

Nori was fuming. “How dare you,” he snapped, raising his voice. The other dwarves looked up at Nori, shocked. Dori’s mouth was agape. A dwarf talking back to the Lady of the Mountain like that was unheard of. “Dwalin offers us his protection. He is the strongest of all of us! Without him, this expedition has no hope!” He recalled Pallando’s words at the feast, the night of Bain’s funeral. “If you do not bring Dwalin on your quest, it will fail.”

“Dwalin has never been able to protect anyone!” Dis’ own anger was getting the better of her, and she too was losing her composure. “If you think this is the first time others have paid for his foolishness, then you do not truly know him! He is incompetent!”

Her words were infuriating, and Nori was beginning to see red. Without even thinking, his hand was finding its way to the scabbard by his belt, fingers deftly unfurling the flap and reaching for the hilt of his dagger. He was being guided only by his enraged impulses, and was about to do something incredibly rash, had a deep, hoarse voice not called out to him in intervention.

“Nori…” Dwalin’s voice was weak, almost choking. “Please… just stop.” Nori turned back, surprised. Only then did he realise that they had been talking loudly enough for Dwalin to hear. “Dis is right. For as long as I have wielded an axe, I have failed everyone in my care.” He lifted his glistening eyes to look at Dis. “Seven charges, seven failures. Seven times it was my duty to die, and seven times I lived while those I am sworn to protect have perished. I carry the weight of my mistakes every single day. That’s why I cannot find peace in this forest. That’s why, after all these years, Dis holds me in contempt.” Nori glared angrily back at Dis as Dwalin continued. “What she’s saying… it’s all true. I… I’m a failure.”

Nori looked back at his dwarf. “That’s just not true, Dwalin,” he argued, pained by the look of sorrow on Dwalin’s face.

“I failed to protect Frerin and my father during the battle of Azanulbizar.”

“You were too young.”

“I was unable to save Thorin and the lads.”

“Neither could any of us.”

“I lost Balin.”

“He and the others went to Moria knowing full well the risks," Nori said, too flustered to realise he was also speaking of his little brother. "None were more prepared for their fate.” He was getting exasperated at his inability to console Dwalin. “You can’t blame yourself every loss! It’s preposterous! Nothing was ever your fault!”

Dwalin cast his eyes downward again. “I… I killed Thrain.”

Nori was taken aback by the sudden admission. Nori had never heard such a story. It was impossible.

Chapter Text

The Third Age: Year 2841

It was a beautiful winter day, and the sun was beaming down the vast gorges of Barikkazlîn amidst a perfect, azure sky, basking the deep city of Ered Luin in a warm glow that shimmered against the fine-grained crystals embedded in the porphyritic stone. The Broadbeams and Firebrands that had lived in this Mountain for generations frightened their little ones with stories of the War of Wrath, and the terrible power that had obliterated the ancient dwarven cities of Gabilgathol and Tumunzahar, where their clans had first resided. After the battles and the devastation had subsided, with no homes to return to, those dwarves that did not abandon Ered Luin for Khazad-dûm instead travelled north, to find that the Mountains still standing had been ravaged with great scars, solid basalt torn like cloth, painful reminders of the power that had taken everything from them. It was within these cavernous ravines that they found refuge, and over time, rebuilt their homes with the iron, copper, and sapphires that the Mountains provided, until cities such as Barikkazlîn began to flourish. It had taken centuries, but Ered Luin was finally prospering again, and now it was difficult to see the monstrous calamity of the past behind the shining hope of the future, especially on perfect days such as this. And on this day in particular, Dwalin was feeling exceptionally hopeful.

Marching along the main corridor of Barikkazlîn with a broad smile across his face, Dwalin was unable to bury the happiness bursting from his heart under his usually stoic demeanour. There was no masking the grin that stretched from cheek to cheek, and even if there were, his joy would still be found gleaming from his eyes. Whether they be Broadbeam or Firebrand or Longbeard, the pedestrians that filled the streets ordinarily found the towering Captain of the South Gate frightfully intimidating, with his giant stature, daunting scars, and fierce mohawk. On any other day, dwarves with the least bit of sense strived to keep out of Dwalin’s way as best they could, but today the gruff guard appeared no more menacing than an overgrown puppy, and his merry temperament was contagious to all that noticed.

As he moved through the busy passageway, between the crowds of dwarves perusing the market stalls lining the cobalt-blue walls of the chasm, conversations turned to playful rumours over what might have their captain so chirpy. The walls echoed with whispers of newfound romance, criminals brought to justice, and recently established bakeries that specialised in sweet delicacies. None came close to guessing the true reason for his elation; a message delivered to him by a steward of the royal palace, stamped with the seal of Durin, that had changed his life forever.

Dwalin had known for some time that specially selected dwarves were receiving summons from their King; he was Thorin Oakenshield’s best friend after all, and as such was privy to some of the inner goings-on at the royal household. Of course, Thorin refused to spill all the beans, but Dwalin knew that an expedition of sorts was in the works, the details of which being a tightly kept secret, but a journey to be led by Thrain himself, with a hand-picked elite to accompany him. It was the sort of adventure that caused Dwalin’s heart to palpitate with excitement. A glorious opportunity for any dwarf to prove their worth. A chance Dwalin had been longing for ever since the Battle of Azanulbizar.

It wasn’t that Dwalin had brought dishonour to his name during that struggle; on the contrary, Thrain had recognised his loyalty and valour by awarding him the rank of captain upon their arrival at Ered Luin. But after the war, not a day went by without Dwalin blaming himself for all that had been lost. His father, his prince, he cursed himself for being too young, too inexperienced, too weak to keep them safe. He had trained every day since, waiting for a moment to show everyone that he was strong enough to protect those he was sworn to. Finally, such a time had arrived. Thorin had not hinted that Dwalin would be among the lucky chosen, but the moment the messenger arrived at the southern barracks and asked for Dwalin, he knew at once that all his dreams had come true. He was overjoyed, and frankly, was mustering all of his self control not to skip down the vast corridors on the way to the palace.

Upon reaching the end of the chasm, Dwalin left the balmy sunlight for the chill, damp shade of a gaping tunnel that gradually sloped down towards the heart of the Mountain, where the palace had been carved. Despite having just bathed in the sun, the base of the colossal gorge was still remarkably deep, so much that Dwalin would only need to follow a gentle decline down to the royal halls, no stairs needed to be climbed. The shaft was wide, illuminated not by torches, but instead tiny crystals embedded in the basalt that carried their own luminescence, that twinkled like bright mauve stars over an indigo sky. Occasionally, Dwalin would pass entrances to other tunnels, that would take him to massive hollows, once mines, that served as residential districts, or to other ravines, the natural throughways of Ered Luin that connected neighbouring Mountains.

It was from one of those adjacent tunnels that three little scallywags attempted to ambush Dwalin.

The first one caught Dwalin by surprise, but only for an instant. A lithe, teenage dwarf, with flowing, molten copper hair tied back in a ponytail, pounced from the hallway, fingers stretching for the parchment Dwalin held in his hand. Though Dwalin did not know the name of the young lad, he recognised him at once. The boy hadn’t even begun to grow whiskers on his chin, yet had the impudence to scamper about Barikkazlîn as though he were King, going where he liked and taking what he pleased. He never did anything too reckless, but of all the youths of Ered Luin, no other kept Dwalin on his toes like this scamp. He was certainly the only dwarf foolish enough to dare challenge Dwalin, as though he liked to push his limits, a trait Dwalin secretly found admirable. But not when it was used for mischief. Once Dwalin realised the game, he quickly hopped back to the centre of the tunnel, swiping for the small boy and clutching him by the scruff of his neck. He was just a little thing, and Dwalin had no trouble lifting the troublemaker at arm’s length as he clawed at Dwalin’s wrist and thrashed his legs about in mid-air. Dwalin furrowed his brow at the lad, but couldn’t help but smirk.

“You’ll have to do better than that if your intent is to take on me,” Dwalin taunted. He had caught the ringleader, but he knew that his two cronies wouldn’t be far. They were about the same age; one was a chubby lad with bright ginger hair and a little stubble, the other was leaner, with rich umber hair and the emergence of a moustache over a mouth that never stopped smiling, no matter how much trouble he was in. Listening carefully, he heard their feet shuffling against the stone floor behind him. Dwalin turned swiftly, holding out his prisoner. “Best not try anything lest you end up like this one!”

The look on their faces was priceless. The larger of the two shrieked, “You said his guard was down!”. The other was shocked speechless, but for only a moment, before his panicked expression was wiped away as he burst into laughter. They gave up their attack immediately, and bolted away from the guard towards the markets, abandoning their comrade.

“Hey! Come back and save me!” He demanded, throwing a myriad of vile curses at them. Once they were out of sight, he stopped wriggling and went quiet and limp. Dwalin knew better than to think he had given up easily, however. He curled his arm so that he could look at the boy directly in the eye, but the lad insolently averted his gaze.

Dwalin held up the summons he held in his other hand. “Now just what were you thinking, trying to take this?” The parchment itself was worthless the moment Dwalin had read the message, and he doubted the young dwarf wanted it for the sentimental value it had for Dwalin.

The little scamp seemed to mull over his answer before giving it. “My brother got one,” he said. “He didn’t want it though, threw it in the fire. I just wanted to see what it was, is all.” His answer surprised Dwalin. He had always assumed the lad was a Firebrand, for his hair, but if his brother had received a similar summons, then he was definitely a Longbeard. Not only that, but his family must have done Durin’s folk a great service. Perhaps the brat’s kin had also fought by his side in the Battle of Azanulbizar. Unless lying was one of his other talents.

Dwalin decided to interrogate further. “Oh, and just who might your brother be?” The response, however, was a swift, sharp kick to the leg, catching Dwalin in the inner thigh. Though not damaging enough to cause injury, the sudden jolt was enough of a distraction that Dwalin released his hold. The young dwarf seized the opportunity, dropping below arm’s reach and dancing nimbly away from Dwalin, after his treacherous friends.

Rubbing his thigh, Dwalin watched as the little scamp disappeared into the shadows. How curious, he thought, inspecting his summons once again. What kind of dwarf would refuse their King? He frowned. To cast aside a call from his King was unthinkable, and Dwalin searched for a more reasonable explanation. The kid's just a brat. It was probably nothing more than a ruse to sneak into the palace. Dwelling on the mischief of a child wasn’t going to get Dwalin anywhere, however. He had his own duty, and his heart urged him to get a move on. Turning back toward the palace, Dwalin continued his gradual descent towards his destiny.

At the end of the tunnel was two viridian, bronze doors, sealing the entrance to the royal halls, with two armoured guards holding dwarven halberds before each. They knew Dwalin, and as he approached, they readily clasped a large, copper ring attached to their respective doors and pulled at them so that they swung inwardly. Dwalin gave both a nod as he passed between them into the vast chambers of the King. Now marching over polished jade between ornate copper braziers and immense columns, Dwalin heard the heavy doors boom as they closed behind him. He never ceased to be impressed, walking within the grand halls of the King, but he did not falter, continuing his steady pace towards the centre where the palace stood. As it came into view from behind the shadows, Dwalin marveled at its splendour. Chiseled out of shimmering basalt, it was a single block of stone that had been carved hollow to house a great hall, bed chambers, kitchens, washrooms, chapels, storerooms, and many others. It was a masterpiece of dwarven masonry.

Once Dwalin was close enough to identify the faces of those gathered at the entrance to the palace, his eyes widened with joy to find that waiting for him at the top of the stoop was Balin. If Dwalin had doubted he could smile any wider, he was proven wrong. Either his brother had heard the news of his summons, and wished to congratulate him, or he had received an invitation of his own, which was cause for even greater celebration. Unable to withhold his excitement, Dwalin bounded up the stairs two at a time. As soon as he’d spotted his younger brother, Balin offered Dwalin a warm smile of his own, glistening white teeth above his long, charcoal beard.

Dwalin couldn’t control his patience, and didn’t even bother to greet his brother properly. “Did you receive an invitation too?,” he asked hopefully, showing Balin his own.

“Aye,” Balin replied, revealing his own summons. “Only just recently, in fact, but then I did not have to travel all the way from the South Gate.” Balin was a scholar, and as such, lived and worked in the grand libraries found within these royal halls. He would not have had to walk far at all, upon receiving the news. He gave Dwalin a playful smack on the shoulder. “I thought it best to wait and see if they had sent for you as well before I went in, but I didn’t anticipate you’d take so long. You’re getting slower.”

Dwalin released a loud guffaw, startling the nearby nobility. “Perhaps we should put that to the test, dear brother! I doubt you’d be able to keep up in your old age. How many more hairs of yours will turn grey before you’re in need of a cane?” Chuckling, Dwalin ran a hand through his own jet-black mohawk.

“Well, we could stay here and quarrel about it, but I think the time for lingering is past,” Balin declared, betraying his own eagerness. “How about we head inside and find out what this is all about!”

Dwalin could not have agreed more. Never had he been so happy. At long last, he thought to himself, I can prove my worth!

Chapter Text

As it turned out, Dwalin was the last of the dwarves that had been summoned to arrive. Including Balin and himself, over sixty loyal subjects had amassed before the tall, palace doors. There were many Dwalin recognised; one thing they all had in common was that each dwarf present was a seasoned warrior, a veteran of the War of the Dwarves and Orcs. Though it irked Dwalin that there were those who would not answer the call of their King, it was pleasing to find so many who shared his sense of fealty.

A loud click echoed over the murmurs of the crowd as the bolts holding the doors in place were released, and a hushed silence swept over the assembly. Several stewards appeared from the palace and explained the proceedings. In pairs, they would march through the great hall, beneath the grand staircase, to the throne room. There, they would line up before Thrain and bow in unison once they were all in position. “This is a momentous occasion,” the chief steward, a round, snowy-bearded dwarf who did not speak without flailing his hands, explained. “And as such, calls for a little ritual.” Dwalin was never one for formalities or etiquette, and suspected that the ceremony was not so much for their King but for the pleasure the steward gained from telling people where to be and what to do, but he was not about to complain. He simply stood beside Balin in the procession and waited for the cue to march to his King.

Once the order was given to move forward, Dwalin could not help trembling with excitement as he entered the palace. The great hall was magnificent. The staircase ran along each side of the room, the balustrades of which decorated with statues of the dwarven Kings of old. Everything had been shaped from the one colossal block of shimmering basalt, which sparkled like gold in the light of torches mounted to the walls. Even the intricately cut chandeliers that hung from the ceiling were not metalcraft. It never ceased to amaze Dwalin what his kin could accomplish with chisel and hammer.

Dwalin’s bootsteps were muffled by the elegant, crimson carpet that ran along the centre of the room, between the grand stairs and under the landing, to a portal which opened up to the opulent throne room. Pillars lined the hall to the dais, upon which sat Thrain, King of Durin’s Folk, on an extravagant stone throne. To his right sat Thorin Oakenshield, playing the role of prince and looking particularly solemn, and Dwalin noticed that the left throne was vacant. Behind the thrones, a great mural had been carved, of four arches depicting four Mountains. The left-most Mountain represented Gundabad, where Durin the Deathless, father of the Longbeards, first awoke. To the right of Gundabad was the Mountain under which lay the underground city of Khazad-dûm, where the sons of Durin had discovered mithril and prospered until they had been driven away by Durin’s Bane. Next was the Lonely Mountain, that had been their home until it had been taken by the dragon, and then finally, Barikkazlîn of Ered Luin, where they lived now. Floating between the peaks of the Mountains were three giant rings; the Rings of Power of the Longbeards, Broadbeams, and Firebrands, signifying the unity of the three clans living in harmony under one Mountain. It was simplistic in design, but it was an icon of their story, their history, and it was a powerful image that resonated strongly with Dwalin.

As the parade reached the base of the dais, the dwarves spread out, and Balin and Dwalin seamlessly moved into position once it was their turn. They stood at attention, waiting until the shuffle of footsteps could no longer be heard, and there was absolute silence. Then, all at once, they bowed before their King and prince.

“Rise, kin,” Thrain commanded. Hearing his King’s instruction, Dwalin suddenly felt weak at the knees, as though they were no longer sturdy enough to support him. Get a hold of yourself, his inner voice roared, and that was enough for Dwalin to find the strength to persevere. Eyes wandering to Thorin, Dwalin found it easier to relax. For a brief moment, their eyes met, and Dwalin issued his friend a smile that was not returned. Dwalin wasn’t offended, however; it was hard enough getting Thorin to smile at the best of times, let alone when he was playing prince. But at least Thorin knew he was there.

“It warms my heart to see so many standing before me, heeding my call,” Thrain began. “Almost four decades have come to pass since we first sought sanctuary at Ered Luin, at the generous welcome of the Firebrands and Broadbeams that live here. With each passing year, more of our brothers join us in these Mountains, to end the long exile that has cursed our people.” This was met with cheers from the crowd, but Thrain quickly raised his hands for silence. “Our exile is not over,” he continued. “Though we are eternally grateful for its hospitality, these Mountains will never be our home.” The sudden shift in Thrain’s tone surprised Dwalin. “As our numbers grow, Ered Luin fails to provide for our kin. We cannot survive on silver and copper alone. It is only on gold that Durin’s folk can thrive, and these Mountains bear none.” Thrain paused to allow the severity of his words sink in. “It is only a matter of time before we cannot afford to feed our people, and when that time comes, the long famine we have escaped will catch us once again.”

Dwalin looked at Balin, who seemed just as shocked by the news. If the threat of famine was at their door, it had even caught Balin unaware. Dwalin certainly hadn’t noticed, but then, guards generally did not go hungry. If there were dwarves starving under the Mountain, to Dwalin’s shame it had been happening under his nose. Other dwarves in the crowd seemed just as concerned, and some were nodding their assent to their King’s words, that they had already begun to witness the signs. Thorin scowled as he watched the unrest building in the audience. Thrain, on the other hand, seemed unperturbed. He gestured once again for their attention.

“There is hope,” he announced. “The time has come to take destiny into our own hands and shape it for ourselves. I have called you here, the strongest, bravest, and most loyal of my kin, so that together we can take back our true home.” Dwalin was so captivated by what Thrain was saying that did not notice he was holding his breath. “I have heard it calling to me in my dreams, the Mountain to which we belong. Across the Rhovanion and Eriador, over the Misty Mountains, from the distant East, Erebor beckons to me, to us all. It yearns for our return, that we might reclaim it from the claws of the beast that stole it from us. I have heard its cry, and I shall not ignore it. It is prophesied that the Lonely Mountain shall be ours once again, and I intend to see that dream realised." Reaching into his cloak, Thrain revealed a silver key and a roll of parchment. "With this key, and this map, I intend to set forth and take back what is ours by right! But I cannot achieve this vision alone. I have summoned all of you here today, to ask each and every one of you personally, will you follow me?”

Dwalin could not believe what he had just heard. Erebor. In the first years of their exile, Dwalin was but an infant. He never had the privilege of walking within the great halls of the Lonely Mountain. But of course he had dreamt of it, especially during the long years wandering the lands with no Mountain at all. He had heard so many tales of its glory; that for all the splendour of Barikkazlîn, the Mountains of Ered Luin were nothing in comparison. To see it with his own eyes was more than Dwalin could have ever hoped for. And yet, here he was, surrounded by the Kingdom’s most elite soldiers, asked by his King to be among the first to enter the halls of Erebor in over seven decades. It was a wondrous opportunity, not only to witness the marvels of Erebor for himself, but to serve his King and his people in the greatest capacity imaginable, by giving them back their home.

There was only one answer.

Dwalin was the first to unleash his roar of support, followed by quickly by the others; an eruption of cheers that thundered throughout the throne room. The chorus lasted until throats were hoarse, those not pumping their fists in the air with exhilaration applauded uproariously. The prospect of returning to their home was so intense, it called for tremendous celebration. In his excitement, Dwalin failed to notice that two dwarves did not share his enthusiasm. Balin and Thorin, the two closest to him above all else in the room, remained quiet.

Chapter Text

Sweat glistened off Dwalin’s exposed, furry chest as he lifted his heavy, lead maul above his shoulders with taut, muscular arms. Ubrad, it was called, the crusher, heaviest of all the great hammers forged in Ered Luin; only the mightiest of dwarven warriors could wield it without buckling under its weight. Dwalin practiced with it every day, to keep from going soft in peaceful times, until his prowess as a warrior was needed once again. As it was needed now. With full force, he emptied the last reserves of his strength in a powerful swing that struck his mark with deft accuracy. His target, one of the practice dummies used by the guards at the South barracks when training, exploded in a burst of straw and cotton upon impact. Whilst a solid hit, his opponent offered no resistance, and Dwalin, who was trying to blow off steam, felt unfulfilled. Holding the maul firmly in his strong hands, Dwalin searched for something to hit next, but found nothing. He had decimated every single target; their remains nothing but debris scattered about his feet. As Dwalin scanned his audience for a more satisfying adversary, those that had paused their own training to gape at the carnage of their captain very quickly immersed themselves in their own practice.

Just what was Balin thinking, challenging his King?, Dwalin asked himself, resting the head of the hammer on the ground as he wiped the sweat from his brow. It was the day after their meeting with Thrain, and Dwalin was still irritated by the way Balin had behaved once the assembly had been dismissed. As soon as the chorus of cheers had waned, Thrain had left them with a note of caution. “This quest will not be without its perils,” he’d said. “Any of you eager to march by my side must think long and hard on it before you commit yourselves, about what it may cost you. Discuss it with those you hold most dear, and only if you are absolutely certain, join me at the South Gate three days hence, at dawn. On that day, we will set forth at first light. Those that choose not to follow me will not be branded as cowards or dishonourable. But those that do will be greatly rewarded, not only in the riches that await us, but also in the glory of being among those that will save our people!” With that, they were released, but not without bursting into acclaim once more. It was only as the crowd began to trickle out of the throne room that Dwalin noticed his brother’s disquiet. As the others left, Balin lingered, and Dwalin felt compelled to stay by his brother’s side to discover the matter. It was only once they were alone with Thorin and Thrain, that Balin stated what was bothering him.

“What of Smaug?”

Thrain’s friendly veneer melted away almost immediately, a contemptuous scowl crossing his face at the question. “Don’t you dare speak that name in the halls of our people!,” he spat. The sudden change in demeanour took Dwalin by surprise. He hadn’t seen that side of Thrain since before the War of the Orcs and Dwarves, upon receiving the news of his father’s fate at Moria. Of the four that remained in the throne room, only Dwalin had not witnessed the terror of the dragon with his own eyes. He could not imagine the nightmares that had plagued the others since their escape from Erebor. Dwalin grew worried for Balin, having upset Thrain with those painful memories. Fortunately, Thorin came to his defence.

“He’s right, father,” Thorin said. “How can you be certain that the dragon has abandoned what was once our home? It is said that only when the birds flock back to the Lonely Mountain, that it is time for the dwarves to return to their home. With no word of any such signs transpiring, how can you guarantee the safety of your people?”

Thrain glared at his son. “We have spoken about this, son, and I’ve told you, I just know,” he insisted. “Every night, when I close my eyes, I see it, more wondrous than I can possibly remember. So vivid are my dreams, that not only do I see the vast treasures waiting to be reclaimed, but I feel the cool air of its halls, the heat of its forges, and I can hear the echoes of our people as they dance joyously in its chambers once again. It is beyond my comprehension, but if our home is truly reaching out to us, who better to hear the call than its King. I will not ignore it. I am not leading my people to their deaths.”

Dwalin did not believe Thorin’s intent was to advocate Balin’s argument, and was disturbed to find that the prince’s comment had only emboldened Balin to further state his case. “Is it truly worth taking the chance, my King? I’ve been studying the ledgers alongside the most trusted and knowledgeable of your advisors, and it shows that even if our population here in Ered Luin were to double, we could survive, even if our mines do not supply us with gold.” As soon as Balin had finished speaking, Dwalin knew he had crossed a line.

“Do you challenge me, Balin son of Fundin?,” Thrain demanded, rising from his throne. From atop the dais, their King loomed over them like the giants of legend, and Dwalin was certain that further debate on Balin’s part would be digging his own tomb. If it carried on any longer, it was not going to end well. Before Balin had a chance to reply, Dwalin intervened.

“No, my liege, he does not,” Dwalin answered, “and we humbly apologise if we have given you cause to question our loyalty.” He bowed, and surreptitiously nudged Balin to play along, hoping he wasn’t stubborn enough to carry on with this reckless discussion. To Dwalin’s relief, Balin took the hint, and lowered his head.

The King relaxed at the subservience, but his expression did not soften. “If you do not wish to follow me to Erebor, so be it, I will not judge you,” he declared, eyes narrowing. “But do not question me again.”

“Yes, my King,” Dwalin declared, and then he latched onto his brother’s wrist and began leading him out of the throne room. From behind, he heard Thorin stand up from his seat and storm out through one of the side doors. Dwalin clutched Balin tightly as they marched briskly through the grand hall, and it was only as soon as they were outside that he let go of his brother, albeit roughly.

“What were you thinking?,” Dwalin asked gruffly. “If the King wants counsel, he’ll bloody ask for it! It’s not your place to simply speak your mind!”

Balin sighed. “It just doesn’t make sense. Our people might not be as prosperous as we once were, but we can still live here, even on copper and silver alone.”

“But Balin,” Dwalin argued, “this is an opportunity to take back our home. Erebor! If there’s even the slightest chance that we might succeed, surely we must take it!”

“Aye, and if we were to march across the world only to find a dragon, what then?” Balin challenged, getting heated. “It would be our doom.”

Dwalin could see the fear in his brother’s eyes. Taking a deep breath, he put a hand on Balin’s shoulder, and tried speak calmly. “Balin,” he implored, “if it’s the order of our King, who are we to question it? If there is one thing in this world that we can believe in, that we can always know in our heart is true, surely it is the word of our King. If Thrain says it can be done, then it must be so.”

Balin frowned. “So, that’s your answer then? Your King asks you to throw your life away, and you would do so willingly?”

“Of course…,” Dwalin answered, shocked at the disloyal implication of his brother’s question. “To die for my King… there is no greater honour.”

Balin was staggered by Dwalin’s response. He was lost for words. At first, Dwalin took it as a sign that perhaps he’d gotten through to Balin. “You’ll see,” Dwalin said. “When our people stand within the halls of Erebor once again, it will all be worth it.”

That only seemed to provoke Balin. “No,” he responded, stirred back to his senses. “If you’re going to kill yourself with blind loyalty, I want no part in it.” It was Dwalin’s turn to be left speechless. Before he had a chance to compose himself and reply, Balin was already stomping away. Enraged, Dwalin stubbornly decided not to follow.

Fine, he thought angrily. If you want to be a coward, that’s your choice. You’re not going to bring my name down with yours.

Dwalin had been in a foul mood ever since. Even after returning to the barracks to begin preparations for his journey, he was grumpy. He just wanted to throttle Balin until he saw reason. Any dwarf with a modicum of wits about them knew to keep out of Dwalin’s way as best they could. He stewed on it throughout the night, until morning came and he found himself no less vexed by the matter. That was when he’d decided to head to the barracks grounds to release his aggression the best way he knew how; through physical violence. The other dwarves that had risen early to train took one look at their captain and knew that joining him in the pits would only result in bruised skin and broken bones, if they were lucky, and steered clear of him. The only willing opponents Dwalin faced were the practice dummies, stuffed dolls woven by young dwarves seeking favour or apprenticeships with the royal guard. He had made short work them before they were nothing more than debris, the havoc failing to vent his frustration the slightest.

It also failed to impress one dwarf that had stopped by to observe the carnage. “With you by his side, at least father will be safe from the scarecrows.” Seething at the remark, Dwalin was more than ready to accept the challenge of any that would dare mock him, and swivelled around arming himself with Ubrad once again to find Dis leaning against the wooden fence surrounding the fighting pit, with a cocky smirk on her face. Even though she herself was a skilled fighter, Dwalin was not foolish enough to challenge Dis out of anger; not only was she as close a friend to Dwalin as Thorin was, but the wrath Thrain revealed the previous day was nothing compared to what Dwalin would face should he harm the King’s daughter. Feeling a little foolish, he lowered his weapon, and Dis chuckled at her successful taunt.

“Judging by the way you obliterated those poor, defenceless souls,” Dis said, as Dwalin approached the fence. “I’m guessing my father got to you too?”

“Not Thrain,” Dwalin corrected, confused by her assumption. “Balin.” As far as Dwalin was concerned, his King was innocent. “Whatever makes you think Thrain put me in this foul mood? I’m honoured to have been chosen to march by his side in this venture,” he said as he leaned over the barrier beside her. “As for Balin, well, he was just out of line, confronting Thrain like that.” He was hesitant to mention that his brother’s comments outside the palace were on the verge of mutinous.

“Thorin doesn’t seem to think so,” Dis revealed with a sigh. “Balin came to visit almost immediately after the conclave yesterday, and those two stayed up well into the night complaining about my father’s grand plan to retake Erebor.”

This was surprise news to Dwalin. “Oh?,” he uttered. “I thought Thorin was just trying to protect Balin from making a fool of himself. I didn’t realise his objection was serious.”

“It was,” Dis confirmed. “In fact, my brother and father haven’t been on speaking terms since it was first brought up. Thorin is adamant that the time isn’t right. He wants father to wait until we’ve received at least one sign that the dragon is gone. That until then, we should focus our efforts into building Barikkazlîn into the thriving dwarven city it could be. But they’re both as stubborn as each other. Father wants Thorin by his side more than anything, and Thorin won’t budge.”

“And what do you think?,” Dwalin asked. Hearing Dis talk of Thorin agreeing with Balin was putting him at ease.

Dis raised an eyebrow. “What do I think? I think that whether I wish it or not, father is going through with this. When he gets in this state, there is no changing his mind. It’s exactly the same as when he led our armies to Moria, seeking revenge against Azog. Father will never back down when the honour of our people is at stake.” She cast her eyes down towards the stalks of straw dispersed across the ground, and spoke more quietly. “The longer our exile from the Mountain, the more my father takes it as a personal affront. The changes have been subtle, but I see it in the way he looks at this city, at these Mountains. He despises it. Now father rules this Kingdom wearing a mask that hides his disdain, and only Thorin and I have seen the contempt that lies behind it.”

“I had no idea,” was the only response Dwalin could muster.

Dis ran a hand through her long beard. “Deep down, I know they’re both doing what they think is best for their people. As long as they carry that sentiment in their hearts, I can believe in them, and will support them to the fullest extent. That’s all I can do.”

“So, will you go with Thrain, or will you stay with Thorin?,” Dwalin asked.

Dis’ sly grin returned. “If you think Thorin’s capable of running a Kingdom all by himself, you’re dreaming! Besides,” she added, stroking her beard again. “I’ve met someone.”

It was as though she knew that piece of gossip would get Dwalin’s mind off his troubles, and she was utterly correct. Dwalin couldn’t help but beam widely at the news. “You… courting? I don’t believe it.”

She just gave Dwalin a wink. “No…,” he said incredulously. When she did not deny it, he released a hearty laugh. “That poor sod! Does he know what he’s in for?”

“Watch it,” she said, playfully jabbing an elbow into his solid ribs. Dwalin didn’t even flinch, let alone stop cackling.

Once he’d regained his composure, he could not contain the hunger of his curiosity. “Well, don’t spare the details. What’s his name?”

“Ha!” Dis laughed. “We’re still just getting to know each other, I’m not about to have you ruining everything just yet.” Her expression grew more sincere. “But, there is something different about this one. The few times we’ve spoken, I find time escapes me. I never want the conversations to end. I haven’t even told father yet, and he was absolutely flustered the first time I was late for council.”

Dwalin suddenly felt sober. “Thrain’s planning on leaving in two days. Are you sure you shouldn’t say something?”

Dis sighed once again. “The timing is unfortunate, but it is still far too early to be making announcements. It certainly won’t convince father to stay, at worst it will just distract him on his journey.”

Suddenly, she reached out to Dwalin, placing her soft hand over his giant paw. All at once things were serious. She swallowed.

“Dwalin, out of everyone I know, you’re the strongest, most loyal dwarf that lives under our Mountain. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel honoured to have you as a dear friend. I know that you would follow my father to the ends of the world, and that you would give everything for him. I know that means you’re the last person I would need to ask of this, but still, I must beg you, because it is so much.”

“Anything, my Lady,” Dwalin offered honestly.

She was trembling. “Promise me…” she began. “Promise me that you’ll protect him, that you’ll keep him safe. Even… even if it means going against his word. If the Mountain cannot be claimed, promise me that you’ll bring my father home.”

Dwalin didn’t even hesitate in his answer. “Dis, of course. On my life, you will see your father again. As your friend, you have my word that I will bring him back to you, no matter what.”

Chapter Text

With so much to do leading up to the day of departure, between ensuring he had everything he would need for the long journey ahead, and putting his mind at ease that the order he had established in Barikkazlîn would not fall into shambles in his absence, Dwalin did not have much of a chance to make amends with his brother. Even though Dis had helped him to understand where Balin was coming from, he knew that speaking to his brother would only result in him Balin to persuade him to stay. As that was simply out of the question, Dwalin figured it would be easier if he just focussed on what needed to be done; he did not want to have another argument. Dwalin’s plan worked fine for as long as he kept busy, but on the final eve, when there was nothing left to do but wait, Dwalin found himself unable to sleep as regret gnawed at him.

As far as quarters went, Dwalin’s room was very comfortable. Before his arrival in Ered Luin, Dwalin could have counted the nights he’d slept under a roof with his fingers. Though the nights he spent under the stars were certainly nothing to complain about, having a room under a Mountain resonated with Dwalin in an unspeakable way. Call it dwarf instincts, being surrounded by stone just felt safer and cosier, despite his room being a little cramped. His large, dark cherry bed covered in thick warg pelts occupied most of the space, with just enough room for a small, matching desk opposite the foot of the bed, and night tables on either side of the headboard. On any other day, pages would be strewn all over the furniture in messy piles, as Dwalin was not tidy when it came to keeping logs. Now, they had all been ordered, stacked neatly, and tucked away inside drawers for the next captain. The only items out in the open included a small, wax candle by the bed, and a rucksack holding Dwalin’s personal items resting by the door, ready to go with him at first light.

The luxury that set Dwalin’s room apart from most others in the barracks, was a large archway on the wall opposite the door that to a balcony with an unobstructed view of the gorge. It was where Dwalin spent most of his time when he couldn’t sleep, and that was where he found himself now after tossing restlessly for a large portion of the night. Looking up at the giant slice of sky in the heavens, he could already see jet black transmuting into a deep amethyst. Slowly, the morning light would illuminate the chasm, and the city would rouse from its slumber to greet the new day. It was always a sight to behold. Leaning against the iron balustrade, Dwalin could already see dwarves walking through the predawn shadows that enveloped the gorge, heading towards the South Gate with their loved ones, carrying heavy packs upon their backs. Those that would accompany Dwalin on his new adventure were already beginning to gather. It would not be long before Dwalin would have to say goodbye to his home of the last four decades and join them. He felt wistful, knowing that each passing moment marked more parts of the city it was too late to see one last time. And with them, his fear that it was too late to say goodbye to his brother festered. Dwalin was no longer sure why he hadn’t just faced Balin earlier, when he had the chance. There was nothing he could do about it now, and he felt utterly foolish. It would take too long to make his way to the royal halls where he would find Balin and back. He was already beyond the point of no return.

Sighing, Dwalin drank in his personal view of the city one last time before he turned towards the door, hoisted his rucksack over his shoulder by its thick leather strap, and exited his room. The next bed I call my own will be within the walls of the Lonely Mountain, Dwalin reminded himself as he closed the door behind him. He then marched quietly down the corridor to the stairs which would take him to the barracks common area. He stopped by the mess first, where the cooks had already begun preparing breakfast, to pick up a freshly baked roll stuffed with pork sausage, eggs, and cheese. Then, he went to the armoury, to fetch his short-hafted axes, Uhklat and Umraz, which he sheathed across his back. He decided not to take the warhammer, Ubrad. With such a large company, all the available packhorses were assigned to transport base supplies, which meant each dwarf was to arm themselves only with the weapons they could carry. Though Dwalin did not doubt he could manage lugging Ubrad with him, it would be cumbersome, and so he opted to rely on his axes alone. With his equipment sorted, Dwalin was completely prepared. There wasn’t anything left for him to do but join the others at the gate and wait for his King.

Dwalin arrived at the gate to find a larger congregation than he was expecting. It seemed as though word of the expedition had gotten out, and others had been compelled to take up the cause and help their King retake their home. The loyalty of his kin did not fill him with joy as it might have, however, because at that moment Dwalin only wished Balin was among them. A wretched guilt overwhelmed him for his foolishness. Leaning against the smooth stone of the Mountain by the gate, he watched despondently as his comrades said farewell to their families. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters; some shed tears, others hid their trepidation behind a facade of courage. Dwalin wallowed in his own self pity as he listlessly surveyed the panorama of emotions before him, not really paying much attention until he spotted some unexpected familiar faces.

Two little dwarves sped past Dwalin, failing to notice him, instead latching onto each leg of an old dwarf ready to march to Erebor with his King; their father, judging by the cries of “Adâd!”. They were the rapscallions that accompanied that mischievous copper-haired lad, the one that dared to challenge Dwalin. He suddenly found himself regarding them with interest. Until now, he had no idea who they were, but he recognised the dwarf whose legs they clutched as Dozur, another that had fought beside him in the battle of Azanulbizar. His beard had turned to silver, and what remained of his hair was buried beneath a fluffy trapper hat. So those little brats are his, Dwalin realised. Dwalin faintly recalled Dozur having an older son, and his hunch was confirmed as another dwarf joined them, limping slowly behind as he held onto an older dwarf that must have been Dozur’s wife. Bifur, Dwalin thought to himself as he recalled the name, had suffered a terrible head injury during the War, but at least seemed to be making a steady recovery. Dwalin noticed the axehead responsible for his affliction was still embedded in his skull.

Dozur acknowledged the arrival of his eldest son and his wife with a nod, before kneeling down to give his full attention to the little ones nuzzling their faces into his knees. He wrapped his arms around them and gave them a big cuddle. The heftier of the two lads managed to stifle his tears, but the scrawny one was struggling to say goodbye. “Adâd, I don’t want you to go,” he cried.

“I must, Bofur,” Dozur insisted. “Remember what we talked about? About how nice it would be to live in a big house with plenty of food, to want for nothing? This is a chance to provide you and Bombur with so much more than I ever could here. The Lonely Mountain promises the brightest future for us.” He smiled. “I know you like my toys, but making them is not enough to live by. I need you to understand, and be brave for me, my son.”

“I don’t care,” Bofur snivelled. “I want you to stay.”

There was sorrow in Dozur’s eyes as he beheld his son. It was clear to Dwalin that he didn’t want to part ways, but was compelled to do what he thought was best for his family. Bombur seemed to grasp the situation and was putting on a courageous face for his father, but Bofur’s sadness was overcoming. Dwalin thought that nothing would dry the lad’s tears, but then Dozur removed his trapper hat from his head, and plopped it on Bofur’s. It was exceedingly oversized for the young dwarf, drooping over his eyes, ears and nose. “Much better,” Dozur said with a satisfied grin. “It hides away the tears, but not the smile.” He gave his son a poke with his finger in the belly, followed by a flurry of tickles until Bofur was giggling. “Can you make me a promise that you’ll keep smiling?”

Bofur lifted the brim of the hat over his eyes to meet his father’s gaze and nodded. “Yes, adâd.” To prove it, he flashed his teeth at his father, which only widened Dozur’s grin.

Dozur turned to Bombur next. “I’ve got something for you too, my boy.” He reached around his back and revealed a pristine, perfectly honed cleaver knife. “This is for keeping out of trouble, not getting into it. Got it?” Bombur nodded as he received the blade, admiring it in both hands.

Then Dozur stood so that he could say goodbye to his eldest son, whose cheeks were glistening with tears from silent sobs. Dozur began weaving signs in Iglishmek. He pointed to both cheeks with his index and long fingers before arching them towards Bifur, and then clenched both hands into fists and rubbed his knuckles together. Look after your brothers, Dwalin interpreted. Bifur responded with a nod and then swallowed his father up in a hug. The younger dwarves also dove in. It was a touching scene, and bearing witness to it, Dwalin suddenly felt as though he was encroaching on a very personal moment. He started thinking of Balin again, and felt his own eyes beginning to burn. Mahal, why was I so stupid?

He tried to focus on something else, anything, to keep from falling into despair. His eyes searched for anything that might take his mind off his pain, and caught it from behind the parapets above the gate. As it turned out, Dwalin was not the only one who had been watching Dozur say goodbye to his children. He was well hidden, keeping below the wall, but there was no mistaking the flashes of russet as the spy stole glances of his partners-in-crime. It’s him..., Dwalin thought, remembering his last encounter with the brazen youth. He’s not down here saying his farewells, so his brother must not have had a change of heart. Then Dwalin became perplexed. How did he even manage to get up there anyway?

The only way to the ramparts, aside from climbing up the steep wall without getting caught, was through the guardhouses on either side. Either way, the cheeky brat had found a hole in Dwalin’s defences and was using it to go where he pleased. It was the ultimate insult! Dwalin glared angrily at the rascal, who must have felt the angry guard’s eyes boring into him. He turned towards Dwalin, smirked impertinently, and then disappeared beneath the battlements. Infuriated, Dwalin was about to lose himself in the chase when a gentle hand clasped him on the shoulder, bringing him back to his senses. Still heated, Dwalin span abruptly, and his anger quickly dissipated when he realised who had sought his attention.

It was Balin.

Dwalin didn’t know what to say. He felt himself losing control of his emotions. His lips trembled, and his palms were slick with sweat. Swallowing tentatively, Dwalin’s voice cracked as he broke the silence. “Balin…”, he began. He wanted to tell Balin how sorry he was; to express that he had spoken to Dis, and understood where Balin was coming from, but had made her an oath to protect his King. Most of all, Dwalin wanted to convey how happy he was that Balin had given him the chance to say goodbye. Clumsily, he failed to find any of the words, and instead merely remarked, “You’ve come to see me off?”

“No,” Balin replied, leaving Dwalin thoroughly baffled.

“I don’t understand.”

Balin explained. “What kind of brother would I be if I let you do this on your own. Someone needs to look out for you.”

The words sank in, and Dwalin almost cried. He wrapped himself around his brother and buried his face into Balin’s neck. One sob managed to escape, and Balin patted his brother comfortingly on the shoulders.

As soon as Dwalin collected himself, he released his hold on Balin and ran a hand through his fierce mohawk. Feeling bashful at the thought of others having seen his momentary weakness, he buried his feelings deep inside and offered his brother a grunt. “More like I’ll be looking out for you.” He knew there was no masking the happiness in his voice. As Balin set his provisions down beside Dwalin’s, he felt compelled to ask, “Are you sure about this?”

“Aye,” Balin reassured. “I might not agree with this venture, but like you, I will not abandon my King.” Dwalin was satisfied with the answer.

The chance to talk further with his brother was cut short, as Balin was not the only one from the royal halls to have arrived at the South Gate. The entire company was now present, as well as their loved ones, bidding final farewells. Dis and Thorin had also made the trek to see everyone off, and they had no intention of allowing Balin and Dwalin to get away without a proper goodbye.

Thorin and Dwalin cracked skulls together, the young prince adding, “I’m sorry we haven’t spoken much leading up to this moment. I wish you well on your journey.”

“You have a Kingdom to look after now,” Dwalin replied. “I think you’re going to have the harder time.” The quip managed to get a small smile out of his friend.

Dis wrapped her arms around Dwalin. “I know that with the two of you by his side, my father is in safe hands,” she whispered.

“I don’t see your boyfriend,” Dwalin teased. “I do hope you’ll be introducing us when we return.”

“Aye,” Dis agreed. “It’s a promise.” There was a brief pause, and then she added, “Please come home safe.”

“You have my word,” Dwalin reminded her.

After Dis and Thorin had finished bidding their farewells, they moved onwards to the front of the procession to await their father. As Thrain strode past, he simply took one look at Balin and said, “I’m glad you came to your senses.” Balin did not reply, and their King continued on to join his children at the van. “Thorin,” he said to his son, “I’m leaving everything to you in my absence. Take care of your sister.” To Dis, he offered a warm embrace, and kisses on each cheek.

Finally, the King turned to all those that would follow him. “My kin, today we write our destiny! Let us go forth and take back what is rightfully ours! Let us reclaim the Mountain!”

Chapter Text

The Third Age: Year 2845

“Dwalin! Dwalin, wake up!”

Balin’s voice pierced through the darkness like the first beams of dawn cutting through the night sky. Dwalin’s eyes were as heavy as lead, but there was a sense of urgency in Balin’s tone that gave him the strength to pry them open, despite his the irresistible impulse to fall back to sleep. It was dark, his vision hazy, despite his proximity Balin was nothing more than a featureless blur. He felt his brother’s hands pulling at the fur of his collar, shaking him out of his slumber. As Dwalin’s senses returned, he began to feel pain creeping across his body. His head began to ache, as though he had received a terrible blow he could not recall, and his stomach felt as though it was being crushed by a hand reaching through his abdomen. Lethargic and disoriented, Dwalin attempted to bring forth memories of the night before, or at the very least, remember where he was and how he got there, and was rewarded with another stab of pain and spots danced across his sight. He pinched the bridge of his nose until the pain subsided, clutching tightly onto a single word, the only thread of memory he could pull from the reaches of his mind, fetched as though he had turned to the beginning of a story rather than the previous page.

Moria.

He had lost count of just how long they’d been holed up in the ancient city, but Dwalin estimated it had easily been over a year. Their goal had been to pass through the dusty tunnels as quickly as possible, as a means of sneaking across the Misty Mountains. Shortly after their arrival, however, the orcs that plagued the frozen halls that had once been the home of their people had sniffed them out and attacked them from all directions. It was yet another assault in a relentless series against the company, from the moment they had left the Shire. Out in the wilds, the company had been ravaged by an onslaught of attacks by the wolves and wargs. The sheer number of dwarves that marched behind their King mattered not; predators would lurk just beyond sight, waiting for the moments when unwary dwarves lowered their guard or found themselves separated from the group, to pick at their numbers piece by piece. As a result, the journey had been slow going, taking them almost a year and a half to reach the Misty Mountains. By then, they had lost fifteen dwarves and four packhorses. They knew Moria was not safe, but for the company, to be surrounded by walls once again was a reprieve after suffering for so long in the open wilderness of Eriador. They entered the caves of Moria confident that whatever lurked within was no match for their force.

There was no way the dwarves could have fathomed the swarm that ambushed them, like ants, the orcs flooded the tunnels, and completely overran the company. It was only by a miracle that they survived, but Dwalin and the others did not get a chance to recover before they were faced with the second wave of orcs. With each storm, Dwalin lost yet another he had come to know as friend. The assailment did not end until the third day. What remained of the company had fled to the upper levels, where the orcs were thinner in number. It was Dozur that had devised a plan to ensure Thrain would be safe. He and two others left the company to collapse the connecting tunnels. Though they succeeded in their mission, it had cost them their lives. Dozur had become yet another sacrifice to Thrain’s cause, for his children’s future. For the time being, the company was trapped, but they were safe.

Their forces had been decimated. Though Thrain was adamant to find a way to press on, it was impossible to do so until the company had recuperated. Thus began the long wait. Though closed off from the depths of Moria, the upper chambers contained many passageways which led to the surface. Traversing the terrain above was perilous even to the most experienced mountaineers; the steep peaks at the heart of the Misty Mountains were utterly impenetrable. The ancient dwarves, however, had found all the hidden ridges and slopes flat enough for the tilling of soil and the farming of crops. Dwarves were not the most self sufficient of peoples - they relied heavily on trade alliances with neighbouring cities to thrive, exchanging metals and minerals for food. That didn’t mean that dwarves were incapable of falling back on farming and hunting in desperate times. After a few days of surveying the Mountainside, the company had found a place they could set up a small farm to replenish their supplies as they healed. The first sign that their luck had begun to turn was the favourable spring weather, and the fact that the orcs had not managed to breach their sanctuary. And so, Dwalin, Balin, Thrain, and the remaining survivors took refuge within the shallow halls of the ancient city, and there they spent the next few months recovering, regaining their strength and morale, and planning the next phase of their journey. Going back into the Mountains was impossible. The only way forward was to traverse over the Mountaintops, however dangerous that may be. It was late autumn by the time they were ready to depart, and with the approach of winter came one of the worst storms they had ever witnessed. There was no going anywhere.

“Dwalin, what happened?”

Balin once again fractured Dwalin’s daze, and so he made another attempt to focus. His head throbbed, and his stomach churned, but it was not as punishing as it had been the first time. As he took in his surroundings, Dwalin realised his perception was at odds with his memory. For one thing, the air was not cool and damp against his clammy skin, it was warm, and smelt unfamiliar, heavy with the pungent fragrance of unknown flora. Nearby, he heard the bubbling flow of a trickling stream. He was sitting, leaning against a surface that was not smooth like stone, but coarse, rough, woody. Likewise, the floor unexpectedly soft, like wet loam. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, Dwalin noticed he was surrounded by thick vegetation; grass, mushrooms, flowers, bushes, and towering trees like none he had ever seen before. He was at the bank of a forest brook, its coal-black water returning a distorted reflection of the woods around him. Beyond that, there were cries, shouts, dwarves calling out from beyond the trees, but the voices were muffled, unintelligible. Between Dwalin and the river were the charred remains of a small campfire, and beside that, an empty cup, its spilled contents long soaked into the earth. Above, Dwalin couldn’t tell whether he was staring at a starless night sky or the thick canopy of the looming trees. It was obvious to Dwalin at once that this was no cavern of Moria. Dwalin had no idea where he was, or how he had come to be there, only that Balin was with him.

Suddenly, Dwalin felt his innards wrung by an intense spasm, and he keeled over to retch, sputtering out the meagre contents squeezed from of his stomach. The sharp pangs continued long after he felt empty, and he heaved drily until the sour taste of stinging bile left his mouth. Dwalin felt his brother’s hand on his shoulders, rubbing and patting him gently, comfortingly. As he cleaned himself up with his sleeve, Dwalin coughed into his forearm, his throat burning for water.

“Are you alright?” Balin sounded quite concerned.

“Balin…,” Dwalin growled, his voice hoarse. He coughed once more, to clear his throat, and tried again. “Balin, where are we?”

Dwalin wasn’t looking at Balin’s face, but he could feel his brother’s perplexity. “Why, Mirkwood. We’ve been here for months now.” That didn’t make any sense to Dwalin. “Do you not remember?”

Dwalin shuddered, his uneasiness a mixture of disbelief and nausea. “Mirkwood…?” He tried to think. Surely he would know if they had left the Misty Mountains. He had spent many days surveying the surface. It would have taken weeks, if not months, to cross those peaks. How could he have forgotten? He tried to think, but nothing came to him. He wanted to disbelieve, but Dwalin could not deny the truth staring back at him. He had definitely awoken within the heart of Mirkwood. Yet, the pages of his memory were blank.

There was no hiding the bewilderment written on his face, especially not from his brother. “Dwalin…,” Balin asked tentatively. “What is the last thing you remember?”

Dwalin buried his face in his hands. His head ached, but he fought through his headache and tried to remember. All of the details were foggy; Dwalin had spent so many days trapped in the Misty Mountains that they had all blended together. He definitely remembered the storm, the howling wind, the heavy snow, but nothing beyond that.

“Moria,” Dwalin announced, feeling compelled to give his brother something, no matter how unsatisfactory his answer might be. Balin squeezed Dwalin’s shoulder.

“Truly…?”, Balin said incredulously.

Dwalin tried harder to remember more, anything recent, with no success. Had he the energy, Dwalin would have bashed his fists against his skull, he was so frustrated.

Then he found it.

A flicker of detail behind a sea of haze. Small, distant, he struggled to hold onto it. Something about Balin and Thrain. Dwalin could feel it slipping back into the darkness. Clenching his teeth and closing his eyes tightly, he focussed.

He couldn’t tell how long it had been since they were ready to leave the halls of Moria, but it was at least a few months after the storm had started. Thrain’s patience was wearing thin. Of course, he had been agitated the moment they had found themselves confined in Moria, but the longer they stayed put, the more off Thrain became. It had been subtle at first, but with each passing month, Thrain’s mood grew more erratic, his efforts to remain composed becoming a struggle. He would lash out at his followers over trivialities, and occasionally, Dwalin would catch his King muttering to himself incoherently. Dwalin had attributed Thrain’s shift in demeanour to his irritation of being powerless to continue the quest, and had dared not admit that something was wrong. But Balin had grown too concerned to stay quiet. He had become suspicious about something, and had taken Dwalin aside to discuss the matter.

Dwalin could have cursed. He could see Balin’s mouth move, his lips shaping to form the words, but the sound was lost. He knew it was significant. That it concerned their King. He felt as though Balin was suggesting something had taken control of their King, a corruption, and that they needed to do something about it. Dwalin couldn’t make sense of it. Just as things were becoming clear, he found himself losing his grip on the memory. He tried to hold on, but it drifted through his fingers as though he was clutching at ashen smoke, and vanished amidst the haze in his mind.

Dwalin opened his eyes and looked around again in disbelief. “Aye. The last thing I remember is being stuck in Moria, during the storm. Nothing more.” He was hesitant to ask the next question. “How… how long ago…”

“It’s been over a year since we left the Misty Mountains.” Balin explained. Dwalin was shocked. A year?! So much can happen in a year, certainly enough time to make their way across the Wilderland from Moria to Mirkwood. Dwalin was afraid of what he may have forgotten, what he might have lost. His eyes darted around, trying to find anything that might fill in the missing pieces. The forest was too dense to see much of anything. As far as Dwalin could tell, it was just he and Balin, alone in these woods.

Then, a startling realisation came to Dwalin. “Thrain…” His King’s name escaped his lips, and his heart began to beat faster. He tried to scramble to his feet, but he felt light-headed, dizzy, and crumpled back down at the base of the tree he had been sitting against. “Balin… where’s Thrain?”

Balin could not hide the fear in his eyes. “Dwalin… I was hoping you could tell me.”

There was another cry from beyond the trees, and this time, there was no mistaking it, the panicked sound of a companion calling out his King’s name.

Thrain wasn’t with them.

“Balin, what’s going on?!”, he asked, unnerved.

“I’m not sure. I awoke to find his bedroll empty.” Balin answered. “This isn’t the first time he’s tried to wander off, and it’s difficult to say how much of a lead he’s got this time.” Dwalin could not believe what he was hearing. “He’s lost his sanity, just like in Moria. We’ve been lost in these woods too long. Our only hope was to get him to Erebor, but we’ve lost the way.”

No. Dwalin refused to believe it. They had travelled for so long, and lost so much, it couldn’t end like this. He had to help search, no matter how disoriented he felt. Fighting against his pain, his queasiness, Dwalin clambered to his feet. Keeping steady by holding onto his brother, Dwalin asked, “Balin, surely one of us was keeping watch. Did anyone see Thrain leave?”

Balin shook his head. “Brother, we’ve all suffered immensely on this journey. You mustn’t blame yourself.”

“Balin, what do you mean?”

His brother averted his gaze, as though he knew the answer would pain Dwalin. “I found you by the river, unconscious. I couldn’t rouse you. I was beginning to think you wouldn’t wake up at all. It’s difficult to say what happened, especially if you cannot remember. You mustn’t blame yourself.”

Dwalin felt his energy ebb away. “Who… who was on duty?” His brother gave no reply, but his silence was enough of an answer for Dwalin. No, he thought, as panic consumed him. No, no, no, it can’t be my fault. Thrain can’t be gone. I can’t have failed. He pulled away from his brother, but only managed a few steps before collapsing into the soft earth by the river.

Balin was kneeling in the dirt by his side at once. “Dwalin, don’t push yourself! I don’t know what’s happened, but this is not your fault! We will find him! Everything will be okay! I don’t want anything to happen to you. You need to rest!” Dwalin could hear how unsettled his brother was, but that didn’t matter. Inside, he was screaming at himself to get back on his feet. I have to find him! I must! We can’t fail now, not after everything we’ve endured.

Mustering the last reserves of his strength, Dwalin called out as loudly as he could, “THRAIN! THRAIN, WHERE ARE YOU?!” His roar echoed between the trees, but there was no reply.

I’m not breaking my promise. Dwalin assured himself. I can’t. I won’t. I will find him. Despite his resistance, he felt his body going numb, as though his veins were drained of blood, his lungs empty. He was being pulled back into the dark void of unconsciousness once again, and he could not fight it. The last thing he remembered before fading into blackness was shouting the name of his King.

“THRAAAAIN!”

Chapter Text

The Third Age: Year 2848

Looking up at the jagged, zaffre peaks of Barikkazlîn, Dwalin’s dread swallowed him whole.

Not a day had passed that he did not regret abandoning the search for Thrain. Every night, Dwalin would lay awake, fearful of how Thorin, once his friend, now his King, would react, the moment he learned of how his father had been lost. The company had searched the depths of Mirkwood for weeks after that fateful morning they had found him gone, tirelessly and desperately, but to no avail. On the eve of the third day after their supplies had run completely dry, Balin, who had taken charge, called off the search. Despite being on the brink of starvation, Dwalin had refused to give up. He couldn’t. It’s all my fault. I have to find him; he repeated the mantra endlessly inside his head. Delirious from lack of food and drink, Dwalin was unable to recall whether it had been Balin’s reasoning that any hope of finding Thrain rested on them returning with renewed strength and greater numbers, or the fear in Balin’s eyes that he was about to lose his brother as well as his King, that had persuaded him to stop. He had rued the decision ever since.

For twenty-five gruelling months, Dwalin, Balin, and others that had somehow managed to survive the journey, marched despondently back to Ered Luin; miraculously stumbling their way out of Mirkwood and across the world, until they once again stood before the Mountains of their exile. Of the mighty force that had left those Mountains over seven years prior, only twelve returned, their bodies and spirits worn and defeated. With the Blue Mountains towering across the horizon as he trudged along the muddy banks of the Little Lune, Dwalin found himself more afraid and more apprehensive than he had ever felt in his life. What is Thorin going to do once he learns the truth?

Dwalin had hoped that as time went by, his memory might return, if only that it might provide some clue on Thrain’s disappearance. As they had crossed the Wilderland, nothing returned to him, not so much as a fragment of familiarity. Traversing the lands East of the Misty Mountains, everything that touched his senses, each sight, sound, and smell, was a new experience. The first time Dwalin passed through the Rhovanion, he had been but a babe, carried by his mother as his family fled from the Mountain and the Dragon, too young to remember anything of his life before the Durin’s Folk had settled in Dunland. He would often wonder, as he tossed and turned under the glimmering sky that blanketed the valley of the Anduin, Will I lose these memories, too? Not that Dwalin would ever allow himself to forget. Not until he had revealed the truth. To Thorin. To Dis. He would not let them live not knowing what had happened to their father. Not knowing who to blame for his loss. He owed them the truth, and then, he would accept whatever punishment they dealt him.

The years had not changed the southern gate of Barikkazlîn. The same guards that had once answered to Dwalin were on watch, and he couldn’t help wincing at how quickly he and Balin were recognised by the sentries at post. As a messenger was sent to the palace to herald the return of the company, Dwalin was ready for the ceiling to collapse, to bury him in stone. The guards were all excited to see him return, but for Dwalin, it was agony to so much as look them in the eye. Everyone that greeted their return asked the same painful question, the only one Dwalin could not give answer. “Where’s Thrain?” Each time, his ribs would constrict around his heart and lungs, and it was difficult to breathe let alone speak. Without uttering a word, without raising his eyes from the ground, he and the rest of the party moved on, into the ravine, towards the palace. He didn’t care what anyone thought. Nothing matters anymore, Dwalin thought to himself. It will all change once they know.

Unlike the surface, the great chasm of Barikkazlîn had indeed changed since their departure all those years ago. The city now housed a great deal more dwarves than before; the high walls were now decorated with windows and balconies of newly-hollowed homes, with broad, oak bridges spanning the gorge at multiple points all the way down. Pillars of leaden smoke billowed across the azure shard of sky high above, from forges blazing with industry. Along the canyon floor, the street was bustling with activity. Dwalin had to push his way through the dense crowd of dwarves fighting for whatever they could get their hands on. Most of the markets had little to offer. He couldn’t help but notice that there were dwarves huddled between the stalls, wrapped in tattered blankets, their beards dirty and unkempt. Dwalin did not doubt that Thorin was doing his utmost to help the city to flourish, but it was no simple task. The last thing his King needed was another burden. With each step, Dwalin could feel his feet growing heavier. He was not going to back down. I will not run.

A fiery blur swooped gracefully down from one of the high bridges spanning the chasm, to perch precariously on the parapet of one of balconies above. Dwalin caught it in his periphery, and his focus was drawn to it, out of a mixture of nostalgic cognizance and cautiousness after so many years living on edge.

His eyes met those of the copper-haired youth.

Although, he was definitely no longer a child. He had grown considerably taller, though his silky, russet hair, unbraided, now hung to the small of his back, and thickly coated the skin of his cheeks and chin. He was also growing out his eyebrows, which were tied into little plaits at the ends. His body was lithe, a little on the skinny side, but toned and muscular. It was not the body of a dwarf devoted to any reasonable trade or craft, but that of a troublemaker, suited to scaling the high walls of the Barikkazlîn. A thief. The calculated look in the dwarf’s eyes indicated that it was no coincidence that he was there. He was scrutinising the remains of the party, as though he had somehow heard that they had returned and wanted to see for himself. A moment was all he needed, before he jumped down from the barrier and disappeared into the wall. He’s going to tell Bofur and Bombur, Dwalin surmised. He remembered the two lads that followed their mysterious leader. Dozur had told Dwalin their names early on in their adventure. Before he died. Dwalin felt the tragedy of it all like a punch in the gut. So many lives offered to Thrain, all for nothing, because I failed to protect him.

Once inside the Mountain, the company continued onwards down the shallow, gradual slope that took them to the heart of Barikkazlîn. All doors were opened to them as they made their way through the dark passageway and into the gaping halls which housed the palace. The royal halls were as Dwalin remembered them. Passerby stopped in their tracks to gape and comment under their breath. A large crowd was gathered around the doors of the palace. Dwalin presumed they had intended to hold an audience with the King, but had closed court the moment he learned that his father’s company had returned to Ered Luin. They certainly didn’t seem happy as they stepped clear of the procession. Dwalin was deaf to their murmurs, he couldn’t hear anything over the sound of his own heartbeat, which was throbbing in his ears. He was a sweating, shivering mess, but he would keep going until the end.

In the grand hall, the Kings of old stared down at Dwalin almost disapprovingly. Dwalin averted his gaze, keeping his eyes fixed ahead. Through the portal beneath the stairs, he could see them. Thorin, and Dis, sitting on their thrones. Dwalin felt the tears welling, but he swallowed them back despite the sting. His mind was empty of all thoughts and feelings but his shame. He’d had so long to prepare his apology, but marching toward them now, there were no words. Nothing he could say to redeem himself. To make amends. To give back what he had lost. No apology would ever be enough. He was a fool to have come back at all. A disgrace.

As the twelve drew closer, Dwalin could see the anguish drawing on Dis’ and Thorin’s faces. Thrain wasn’t there. He could see the struggle as they reasoned hopelessly within that things might be okay, that their father was still alive. But there was no hiding the devastating truth. The twelve survivors were scarred, starved, dirty, and downtrodden. They reached the base of the dais and all fell on tired knees, their heads lowered. Dwalin felt he was bowing as much for the headsman’s axe as he was respect for his King.

As the silence stretched on, Dwalin dared not look up. He kept his eyes on the ground, at the luxurious crimson carpet. Beads of sweat trickled down his brow, dripping onto the soft fibres, soiling it. Eventually, Dwalin heard shuffling ahead, as Thorin stood from his throne, and then bootsteps as his King made his way toward them. Dwalin closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see Thorin’s sorrow. His breath shallow and his heart hammering in his chest, Dwalin felt like a coward. He waited, still as stone, for his King to speak, but no words came. Only a brush of strong fingers against his shoulder, beckoning him to rise. He opened his eyes to find his vision blurred and distorted through the tears. He barely had the strength to stand, staggering unsteadily as he lifted himself. His King reached out to him, held him steady, supported him, until Dwalin was on his feet.

Then he felt Thorin’s arms around him, his face burying into his chest. Dwalin couldn’t think. He just held his oldest friend close, and together they mourned.

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, Balin recounted the events of their seven year expedition to Thorin and his advisors. It pained Thorin to hear it, but Balin’s judgement was that there was little chance Thrain could have survived long, wandering lost and alone in the depths of Mirkwood. He explained how, as the journey wore on, Thrain had begun acting irrationally. At times, it was difficult to discern whether Thrain was talking to others or lost in a conversation with himself. His temperament was as unpredictable as the weather. Consumed by his lust to return to Erebor, any talk of turning back was considered treachery. No matter that they didn’t have the morale nor the supplies to cover the distance to the Lonely Mountain, let alone face a dragon. Thrain was prepared to march to his death, and take everyone with him. Balin, Thorin, and the King’s council conferred for some time about whether it was worthwhile sending another party to resume the search, but there wasn’t a dwarf among them who didn’t think it would be a hopeless endeavour, no matter how badly they wished for Thrain’s safe return. Requesting aid from the Woodland Realm was simply out of the question.

To his frustration, Dwalin was kept away from the proceedings. The reason, Balin had explained, was that Dwalin’s perspective was misguided, as a result of the curse he had suffered by the enchanted river, and its lasting effects on his memory. “I know that you might think you’re at fault, but no-one knows the truth of what happened that night, and I’m not about to let you take the blame,” he’d said, when Dwalin told him that he was going to confess. Fearful that he would not be able to stop Dwalin from saying something that could not be revoked, Balin discredited his brother, for his protection.

This infuriated Dwalin. Yes, he had lost his memory, but not his reasoning, and there was enough evidence at the scene to piece the story together. They had been hungry, thirsty, tired, and desperate, after weeks of circling aimlessly in the forest. Dwalin had taken a risk and tried drinking from the river, and subsequently fell under its enchantment. That was the moment Thrain had been waiting for, to finally escape those he deemed were holding him back. It was all because of Dwalin, and now, nobody would listen, especially not Thorin. Balin was using Dwalin’s lapse in memory as an excuse to keep him from the consequences of his failure, and prevented him from convincing Thorin that he should be punished. All Dwalin could do was live with the guilt, and it left him more hollow than the vast chambers he spent his days roaming.

Dwalin thought about perhaps going into exile voluntarily, but abandoning his King was impossible. Even if he’d wanted to, Thorin had insisted he stay close. He’d even offered Dwalin a royal suite, rather than returning to his post at the South Gate. Dwalin had objected, of course, but ultimately could not refuse his King. It was odd, sinking into a soft feather mattress after years of sleeping on firm ground, but it didn’t help him sleep any better.

Whenever Thorin wasn’t with Balin, or at court, he was keeping Dwalin company. Dwalin knew that it was out of pity more than friendship, and that made it all the worse. He had been unable to hide his misery, and he knew that Thorin merely felt sorry for him. He couldn’t push his King away, however, and so with resignation, Dwalin indulged his oldest friend. They ate, drank, and sparred together, and to Dwalin’s grief, it began to feel like old times. Any enjoyment he got from the time he spent with Thorin left a bitter taste in his mouth. After what I did, how can things ever go back to the way they were? They didn’t talk much, and Dwalin was relieved by that, but as time passed it became clear words needed not be exchanged to see that Thorin had his own share of difficulties. Ruling a Kingdom was not easy, especially whilst dealing with the loss of his father. Thorin was aching too, and he needed his friend.

Thorin hadn’t assigned Dwalin any specific tasks, and so when Thorin wasn’t with him, there was nothing to do but explore the palace. Dwalin would march up and down the halls, familiarising himself with the layout of the royal halls, the entrances, the exits, analysing the patterns of the guards, and evaluating the security. It was perhaps a little silly of Dwalin to do so; the very fact that the palace was located at the heart of Barikkazlîn meant that any intruder or assassin would have to siege an entire Mountain to get to the King, but it kept Dwalin’s mind occupied, made him feel useful. As long as he kept busy, he wasn’t so tormented by his ineptitude. At the very least, Dwalin had been somewhat decent as Captain of the South Gate.

A week after his return, he happened to be walking along one of the palace corridors when he finally crossed paths with Dis. She appeared suddenly from around the corner at the end of the hall, and before Dwalin even had a chance to react, it was too late.

He had seen little of her since he’d been back; Dis had immersed herself in her duties to distract herself from the terrible truth that she would never see her father again. Dwalin had struggled to so much as look her in the eye, let alone speak to her. He didn’t know what he would say. She had come to him personally, to request that he bring her father back to her, and he had failed. Of course, it was foolish to think he would avoid her forever, but he didn’t anticipate encountering her so unexpectedly.

The moment they saw each other, they froze, and Dwalin noticed her hesitation. There was a slight waver in her step that indicated she was tempted to turn away, to pretend she hadn’t seen him. She’s avoiding me, too, he realised. The indecision only lasted a moment, however, before she shook her head and continued towards him. Dwalin did not run. He stood, still as a pillar, as she approached, coming to a halt a few paces before him. They were alone, and the hall was quiet. Neither offered to break the silence, and it quickly became uncomfortable. Dwalin’s guilt rushed to the surface, and all at once his need to apologise was overwhelming.

“Dis…,” he began.

“No,” Dis interjected. “Don’t apologise. Balin explained everything. I was wrong. I never should have asked so much of you. I can’t stand seeing you hurt like this. Blaming yourself, when I’m the one responsible for you feeling this way. Deep down, I always knew this would be a dangerous quest. I do not doubt you did everything you could to protect him.”

“Dis, no. I failed you, Dis.” He couldn’t keep quiet any longer. He had to confess. “It was my fault.” She reached out to him, but Dwalin pulled away, stepping back to maintain the distance between them. “What Balin said… about what happened in Mirkwood… it’s a lie. I mean… it’s true that… that I don’t remember what happened. But I was on duty. As I understand it, it was as much to ensure Thrain didn’t do anything unpredictable as much as watching for threats.” Once the words started pouring from his lips, he could not stop the flood. “We… I… was not fit to keep watch. Tired and thirsty, I was at my limit. We’d tried hunting game in the woods, but I’m told it only made us sick. We were very low on rations. I… I was desperate. I tried drinking from the river. My cup was beside me when I awoke, by the charred remains of the campfire where I’d tried boiling the contamination from the water. It hadn’t been enough to break the enchantment. It sent me to sleep, and took away my memory. That was when Thrain escaped.”

Dwalin was starting to struggle keeping his emotions at bay, but Dis’ face had turned to stone.

“Balin is trying to protect me, but I know what happened. I know it was my fault.” His voice was beginning to crack as he started trembling in sorrow. “Dis… I’m so sor-”

“No,” she interrupted once again. Her tone was monotonous, cold. “Not another word.”

“Dis… I can’t… I can’t keep this secret any longer…”

“You must, Dwalin,” she commanded. “Thorin is suffering terribly through all this, and it’s no easier for him now that he is King. No matter the outcome, you are still his closest friend. He needs you, and what you have just told me would break him. I will not let you do that to him.”

“Dis…”

“You must never repeat to him what you have said to me.” It was not a request.

“Am I supposed to just live with the shame, then? Pretend everything was beyond my control? How can I even begin to redeem myself like that? Exile... or death… That’s what I deserve.”

“Exile or death is for cowards,” Dis snapped. “If you truly want to make amends for what you’ve done, begin by giving your life to Thorin. Devote yourself to him. Serve him. Give him your absolute loyalty, as his friend, and servant, until your last breath. If you’re going to die, do it in his name. That’s how you make amends.”

“And what about you? How do I make it up to you?

Dis turned away.

“There’s nothing that can bring my father back now. I’m going to need time, to grieve, and to heal. You’re just going to have to wait, Dwalin. Until then, you have your duty.”

***

She was difficult to track down, but after a fortnight of searching, Dwalin finally found the dwarf he’d been looking for. He stepped into the humble studio and his face contorted as it was slapped by the acrid scent of paint and dye. The room was messy, not only littered with junk, easels, canvases, and containers of paint and art supplies, but the floor, walls, and ceiling were splattered with a rainbow of colours. The room was decorated by depictions of Mountains, trees, and flowers, weapons and treasures, and dwarves of all ages, shapes and sizes, there was not a space untouched by paintbrush. Within all the colour and clutter, there was movement; a short figure with straw coloured hair and beard smeared with splashes of blue, green, and brown, mesmerised as she worked on her next masterpiece.

He cleared his throat and she turned at once. “Yes, can I help you?,” she greeted musically with a smile.

“Are you Nila?”, he asked.

“Aye, you’ve found me. What can I do for you?”

“I have a request,” he said. He moved over the debris to the nearest workbench and dropped a fistful of silver coins, which clattered noisily as they bounced on the smooth oak.

She moved away from her piece to join Dwalin at the counter, and her eyes gleamed at the sight of so much coin. “I am at your service,” she said with a bow and a flourish of her arms.

“An… unusual request…,” Dwalin elaborated. “You were the artist that painted the mural in the throne room of the palace, yes?”

She reflected for a moment. “Yes, the four Mountains, and what an honour it was. You’ve seen it?” She stroked her beard as she regarded him. “Means you’re not just any dwarf, aren’t you?” Only dwarves of a certain class held audience with the King.

“I… I would like you to do it again, if you can.”

She picked up a coin and rolled it in her fingers. “For this price, gladly. I can start today if you like. Though, that’s not so unusual if you don’t mind me saying, it’s my most famous work.”

“Aye, well, it’s no ordinary canvas I was hoping you’d work with.”

“Oh? What did you have in mind?”

He pointed to his forehead, at his mohawk. She scratched her head momentarily, and then she understood. Seeing how serious Dwalin was, she walked across the room, dancing around the debris, to a small chest by the side wall. After rummaging noisily for a short time, she revealed a sharp razor, and a long, slender needle. She carried the items back to Dwalin, picking up a bottle of black ink from the floor on the way.

“You’re not to first dwarf to come to me wanting to have his skin marked,” she explained. “Though you are the first to ask for it on his head. We’ll need to remove the hair, and I must warn you that in order to imprint the design, I’m going to need to pierce the skin with this.” She showed him the needle. “I’m not going to lie, it’ll hurt, and once I start, the marks will be permanent.” She waited to see if Dwalin would object. “Are you absolutely sure about this?”

“I can handle the pain,” Dwalin answered. “And I’m certain. Do it.” He pulled a three-legged stool within arm’s reach closer, and sat down, feet placed firmly on the floor to keep himself steady.

“Very well then,” she said, carefully grasping a clump of Dwalin’s hair and sliced at it with the razor, coal-black strands falling through her fingers to the floor. She displayed a few wisps to Dwalin, in case that might change his mind, but he was steadfast in his resolve.

“So, you want it exactly as it appears in the mural?”, she asked him. “The four Mountains?”

“Five,” Dwalin replied. “Five Mountains.”

“Five? What’s the fifth Mountain?”

“A reminder, and a promise.” To myself, and my King, he added quietly. One that I will never break, and never forget.

Chapter Text

Night had fallen over the encampment, and the sapphire moonlight cast a ghostly aura over Dwalin as he told his story. The forest listened with intent as he shared the tragedy that had haunted him for almost two centuries; there was not a peep from his audience in the camp, and not so much as the chirp of crickets or the snap of twigs heard from the shadows beyond. For most of the company, this was their first time hearing an account of the events that took place during the first expedition to Erebor from one who had seen it first-hand. They all knew Thrain had disappeared, and had learned from Gandalf that he’d ended up imprisoned at Dol Guldur, where he met his end, but the circumstances had always remained a mystery.

Nori had been so young when Thorin was inaugurated as King of Durin’s Folk, but he still remembered how difficult a time it had been. Dori had been greatly troubled by the news. He’d refused Thrain’s invitation to be there for his family. Settling into Ered Luin had not been easy. To learn that Thrain’s quest ended in tragedy left Dori feeling responsible for not being there for his King, not that Nori believed he’d have made any difference, given how few returned. Bofur and Bombur, his closest friends, had lost their father on that expedition, and that had devastated them. He’d certainly been too concerned with their well being to consider the implications of Thrain’s death on the Mountain and its people. And now, he did not enjoy discovering that Dwalin had blamed himself ever since. For how long have you punished yourself?

As Dwalin spoke, his gruff, weary voice carried no spirit. There was no melody in his tone, and he stumbled over his words, occasionally choking on them. Yet he pressed on, determined to finish his confession, and no one interrupted. Not even Dis, who, despite not facing Dwalin once during the story, listened to every word. He had everyone’s undivided attention. Even Alatar and Pallando were engrossed as they sat huddled together. When Dwalin was finally finished, he just went still, sitting at the base of his tree with his arms resting on his knees, hands dangling before him lifelessly, staring blankly at the dirt. He hadn’t looked up once during the tale. Nobody said a word. What could they say? The silence was deafening.

Alatar cleared his throat. “It’s time you all try and get some sleep. Pallando and I will take first watch. It’s difficult to say when Tauriel might return, we might have to go at it alone for another day.” One by one, the dwarves stood up, and began unfurling their bedrolls and tucking themselves in. Dwalin, however, didn’t budge, and neither did Nori.

“Are you going to try and get some sleep?”, Dori asked, as soon as he’d noticed Nori hadn’t moved.

“In a little bit,” Nori replied. “I’m going to check on Dwalin first.”

Dori was about to say something, but stopped himself, instead giving Nori a slight nod before settling down beside Bifur. It didn’t take too long for the camp to become still again, and Nori waited until he heard the first snores floating in the cool air before rising to his feet to approach the downcast Dwalin. He didn’t say anything, just sat down to the left of the giant dwarf. Their shoulders touched lightly. Dwalin shifted, but Nori responded by leaning into him more assertively. Dwalin didn’t have the will to fight. They sat together like that for some time, Dwalin lost in his guilt, Nori watching as the others drifted into as deep a sleep as was possible in such a dark place.

Nori reached into the inner pocket of his vest and pulled out a worn, leather bound book, that he kept over his heart. He thumbed through the dry pages and opened it to a random page. In the dim light, it was difficult to perceive the care that had gone into every brushstroke; the sharp, angular definition of each rune, and the intricate details of each sketch. It didn’t matter so much to Nori, however. He had memorised every page.

He spoke softly, barely louder than a whisper, so that only Dwalin would hear.

“Do you remember the last time we were here, when Bombur fell into the black river?” Nori didn’t ask expecting a response. In fact, he didn’t know himself precisely where the conversation was going to take him. But for as long as Dwalin wasn’t telling him to shut up, Nori was going to speak. “That was the point where I decided that I did in fact hate every inch of these woods, every flower, every tree, every stone. And that was even before the spiders and the elves.” He started turning the pages forward, purposefully. “I mean, of all us to fall under its spell, why did it have to be Bombur?” Nori wasn’t even sure Dwalin was listening. He was trying not to get distracted, but he couldn’t help but acknowledge to himself just how warm Dwalin felt.

“I was so hungry, so tired, so caught up in my own gloom, that I wasn’t concerned for anyone other than Dori, Ori, or myself.” Arriving at the page he sought, he ceased flicking through the book and held it open. “But Ori was different. As young as he was, he was a far better dwarf than I, in almost every respect. Even when things were at their worst, he was somehow able to focus on his duty. He’d have kept quill to paper until his last breath. There’ll never be another warrior-scribe that will come close to matching his talent.”

Dwalin stirred at the mention of Ori’s name. It was the first time Nori had really opened up about his brother since they’d learned about what happened in Moria.

“He gave me this book before he left, his record of our journey to Erebor. I’ve looked through this book more times than I can count, I still haven’t learned all its secrets. It’s amazing how much he was able to record onto these pages. Even when we were starving, thirsty, and miserable, stumbling blind through the depths of this forest, Ori captured everything.”

Nori felt the muscles in Dwalin’s arm tense as he lifted his head and tilted his gaze towards the open page. Though their dwarven eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness, making out the distinction between the letters was still challenging. It was not the words, however, that caught Dwalin’s eye. On the right-hand side of the page was an illustration of the Company, a moment of time frozen on parchment, from their journey through Mirkwood. It depicted the dwarves and Bilbo, shortly after they had run out of food, listlessly waiting for morning for another day wandering through the woods. The detail was remarkable, exactly as he’d seen it all those decades ago. He could clearly recognise the concern on Bifur and Bofur’s faces, as they sat by their brother, tending to him, hoping that he would awaken, with Oin beside them, frustrated that he was unable to help. Nearby was Fili, Kili, and Thorin, who all looked so listless, and yet, so alive, so unaware of what was to come. And then Bilbo, eyes on Thorin, who had done more for his King in the short time he’d spent with them than what Dwalin had in a lifetime. Balin and Gloin stood at opposite ends of the camp, watching the surrounds. Dori was resting on the ground, facing away, and Nori was sitting in front of him. He was sharpening a blade, idly keeping himself busy.

In the background sat Dwalin, at the base of a large oak, much like the one he rested against now. What took Dwalin completely by surprise was how, on that page, Ori had managed to capture all the pain, suffering, and turmoil that was buried deep within. He could see it etched into every line on his face.

“I only wish I’d seen it then. I might have… reached out to you earlier.” Nori struggled finding the words as he tried to express what he was feeling. “You and I, we travelled together for so long, but I was too caught up in myself and my own interests to notice you. I mean, I saw you, but I never really saw you. And not like the way Ori did here, I’m talking about the way I see you now.” Nori cursed inwardly at the lack of sense he was making. “Look, what I’m trying to say is, you’re not in this alone. I’m not saying I can do anything to help, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ll try.”

Nori didn’t even know why he was bothering. He didn’t actually believe he could say anything that could take away all of Dwalin’s pain. But he couldn’t not help Dwalin. He… cared… about Dwalin. It was like when he’d seen him staggering drunk in the alleyway the night they’d heard about Ori and Balin’s terrible end. He was compelled to help, even if he was just making it up as he went along. If only there was something he could say that could make things even the tiniest bit better.

Worried he’d been quiet for too long, Nori felt it best he say something. “Dwalin... I-”

Nori didn’t get a chance to finish, as Dwalin suddenly slumped towards him, almost toppling over the smaller dwarf as he collapsed. Nori only barely managed to keep in an upright sitting position as he supported Dwalin’s weight, his broad shoulder and thick arm pressing into Nori’s, and the whiskers of his beard brushing against Nori’s neck. Nori was about to ask Dwalin what was happening when he realised that Dwalin was in no position to respond.

He fell asleep.

Nori might have been offended had he not known how long it had been since Dwalin had allowed himself a proper night’s rest. After everything he’d endured, Nori knew that this was what Dwalin needed, more than anything. Carefully, so as to not disturb the larger dwarf, Nori slid the little book back into his vest pocket, and adjusted his position so that he was comfortably leaning on Dwalin. Supporting each other, Nori closed his eyes, and let the gentle rhythm of Dwalin’s breathing take him into a peaceful slumber.

Chapter Text

As Nori floated down from his dreams into the waking world, he began to observe a number of peculiarities with his rejuvenated senses, most notably the lack of feeling in his left arm. During the night he had crumpled from his upright seated position into a heap on the hard dirt, and he had supported his head by using his bicep as a makeshift pillow. There was also a sharp ache in his hip, which Nori attributed to the unevenness of the ground. He had either collapsed on top of a smooth stone or one of the thick roots that snaked around the base of the oak. The earth and grass that was his mattress was damp with morning dew, and Nori considered it very likely that his outer s were filthy at best, and home to a colony of ants at worst. His braids had unravelled during the night, and, without needing to open his eyes, he knew he looked utterly unkempt. The fact that he had not awoken earlier was a testament to how tired he must have been.

Despite those discomforts, however, Nori had no desire to move even an inch. For all Nori cared, he could have been lying upon a bed of poison ivy and he still would not have budged. That was because, prevailing over all of those unpleasantries, was Dwalin.

Resting heavily over Nori’s ribs was Dwalin’s rugged, hirsute arm, with his burly hand clutching gently at Nori’s chest, holding him securely in place. Only their thick coats of leather and fur stood between the skin of Nori’s shoulders and Dwalin’s broad, firm chest. Dwalin’s strapping abs traced the arc of Nori’s spine, and his hard cock, standing to attention, was pressed perfectly between the cheeks of Nori’s rear. Though Nori could not share in Dwalin’s dreams, he was happy to know that they must be pleasant. Nori’s limber legs had somehow entwined themselves with Dwalin’s during the night, and together they were locked in place. Nori was warmed by the heat radiating from Dwalin’s body as they lay together, the larger dwarf nuzzling deeply into the disheveled remnants of Nori’s braids as he slept peacefully. He could feel Dwalin’s breath with each soft snore, and Nori found himself wondering whether he could stay like this forever.

To Nori’s regret, he eventually sided with reason, and slowly lifted his eyes to find that the golden glow of dawn was only just beginning to touch the camp. He was the first to awaken; all the other dwarves were fast asleep in their bedrolls, and the wizards were nowhere to be seen. Nori guessed that they had remained on watch all night, but was not concerned for them, for an inexplicable aura of power followed Alatar and Pallando wherever they went, and he just felt that one sleepless night would not hinder them.

Nori lifted his head slightly to allow some blood to flow back into his arm, and Dwalin stirred, holding Nori down more firmly and moaning quietly into the back of Nori’s head. He didn’t mean to wake Dwalin up, but seeing as the damage had been done, Nori wriggled around so that he was facing his bed-partner, and was in a slightly more comfortable position. He draped his arm over Dwalin, tingling as feeling returned to it, though Nori managed to overlook it. Dwalin’s own arm hovered just above Nori until he was still once again, when it found its way around Nori’s waist to the small of his back.

From so close, Nori witnessed Dwalin in remarkable detail. Every wrinkle, every mark, every pore. Beginning at Dwalin’s hooked nose, Nori’s eyes followed the scar that crossed Dwalin’s right eye and along the tattoos that branded his forehead. Nori watched as the iron and lead whiskers of his moustache quivered as he breathed. He looked so serene, and Nori was surprised to find that, instead of wanting to ravage the large dwarf until their lust was satiated, he merely craved reaching out to stroke his fingers gently against Dwalin’s cheek, to plant soft kisses across his forehead, or brushing the tips of their noses together. Simple gestures that would connect the two of them without disturbing this peaceful moment. He’d never wanted anything so small, so badly, in all his life. And yet, though Nori’s every instinct urged him to take whatever he desired, he dared not move a muscle, lest he disrupt the tranquility of this perfect moment.

Dwalin’s breath became less steady, and slightly guttural, as he drifted into wakefulness, his eyes fluttering open groggily to reveal waveless, cobalt pools that met Nori’s gaze, with onyx stones that gradually sinking into the deep blue water as they focused. Slowly, they began to move, studying the smaller dwarf as Nori had beheld Dwalin only moments earlier. Nori didn’t object, though he found himself wondering once again about what was going through Dwalin’s head.

Eventually, the tip of Dwalin’s tongue moistened his dry lips, and he spoke. “I didn’t wake you, did I?” His voice was deep and gruff and powerfully alluring to Nori.

Nori shook his head. “I must have known I was going to wake up to this, and couldn’t wait. It’s certainly better than anything I could dream.”

The blood rushed to Dwalin’s cheeks at the compliment, and to Nori’s delight the corners of his mouth almost tilted into a smile. But then, Dwalin seemed to withdraw, his face growing stern, and his muscles tensing. He tried to pull away, but Nori was not about to allow that to happen. He caught Dwalin’s arm and kept it from breaking contact.

Dwalin tried to explain. “Listen, Nori, about yesterday… about what I said…”

“That was a long time ago." Nori interrupted. "I’m far more interested in where we are right now.”

“But Nori, you have to understand, I’ve never been able to protect anyone. I don’t belong here, on this quest.”

Nori sighed. “Most of us wouldn't even be here without you." He inched a little closer. "And there is no one I want, right here, by my side, at this moment, more than you.” To drive his point home, he leaned forward and pressed his lips firmly into Dwalin’s, parted just enough to allow room for his tongue to flick against the line of Dwalin’s mouth. It appeared to work, as Dwalin seemed to forget his troubles as he opened his own mouth to return Nori's kiss. His burly arm pulled Nori closer, and lightning tore through their bodies as their groins rubbed together. Nori began to suck at Dwalin’s tongue, inviting it inside him, and vehemently they kissed, as his hard cock pulsed in time with each rapid beat of his heart.

Dwalin’s arm began to work its way up and down Nori’s spine, pressing Nori more tightly against him. Nori broke away from the kiss, and he started nibbling and suckling at the firm skin of Dwalin’s neck as he moved up to the soft, sensitive lobe of Dwalin’s scarred ear, which exuded a moan of pleasure out of Dwalin, albeit muffled, as his lips were buried into Nori’s collar.

Nori’s hand had shifted from around Dwalin’s waist to his groin, where nimble fingers were working their way into Dwalin’s pants to wrap around his thick cock, wet with precum, when the two dwarves caught in a passionate embrace were interrupted by the sound of sputtering from the camp behind them. Squalid curses raced through Nori’s head as he turned away from Dwalin to identify the source of the interference, Pallando, who was just finishing clearing his throat as he entered the camp from behind a tall beech. Dwalin had barely enough time to adjust his pants before the wizard noticed that they were the only dwarves awake, and approached. He knelt down beside the disgruntled pair, and wasted no time in sharing his news.

“Tauriel has returned.”

Quickly sobered out of his salacious mood, Nori offered Dwalin a look that very clearly read, We are continuing this later, before getting up to follow Pallando, with Dwalin following closely behind. He danced gingerly around the other sleeping dwarves, dusting the dirt off his clothes and undoing his remaining braids so that his copper hair flowed untidily down his back, so that he was at least modestly presentable as he reached the other side of the small clearing, where the elf was dismounting Alatar’s chestnut steed, Alsvid.

“What happened?”, Nori asked in a hushed tone, so as to not wake the others.

“Fortune has blessed us,” Tauriel explained. “The scouts of the Woodland Realm have not yet ventured beyond their borders in their search, and so we have managed to pass by them undetected.”

Simultaneously, Nori and Dwalin sighed with relief.

“There is more,” Tauriel continued. “The dark forces that have brought peril to travellers passing through Mirkwood have waned in the years of my absence. Even the spiders, who had been pushing the boundaries of their territory, seem to have withdrawn. Should our luck not change, I anticipate our being out of Mirkwood in well under a fortnight.”

It was the first piece of good news Nori had heard since they’d entered the wretched forest, and already he felt his spirits were lifting. He wasn’t about to let his guard drop, but feeling rested for the first time in a week, and with the end of his time in these woods in his sights, Nori allowed himself the pleasure of thinking that things were finally beginning to go his way.

Chapter Text

As the others awoke to discover Tauriel safely returned, the tension they had been carrying since the previous day was lifted all at once, replaced with the first smiles Dwalin had seen on his companion’s faces in a long time after they had heard her report. Even Dis, whom Dwalin suspected was still very much annoyed with him, seemed visibly more relaxed upon learning their little company had evaded the vigilant watch of the Woodland Elves. There was still some time before they would finally be out of the woods, but at last, the light of day was on the horizon, and even the same old cram rations they had survived on for the past week tasted better that morning.

“A piping hot brew of chamomile tea,” Dori exclaimed as they ate. “That’s what I’m looking forward to most, once we’re out of the forest.”

Bifur opened his right hand and placed his index and long finger on his chin, before quickly swinging his hand outward toward the others. Then, he created a circle using his fingers and thumb, with his forefinger protruding out like a hook, and brought it back to his chin. Bofur grinned, nodding at his brother’s gesture. “Bifur’s got the right idea. A hot meal, that’s what we need.” He looked to Thorin, who was sitting at the edge of the circle, next to Dis. “How about yerself? Bet you’re keen to leave Mirkwood, eh?”

Thorin scratched at his head and glanced at Dis, almost for permission, before he answered. “I could never have dreamt of a forest as deep as this. It’s like everything is bigger the further West you go. I imagine the Misty Mountains are the same, a range spanning as far to the North and the South as one can see. I’m looking forward to seeing it for the first time. Preferably without finding out how big the spiders get.”

The group laughed in agreement. “Aye, no one needs to see that,” Bofur said. “And what about you, Nori?”

Nori swallowed his mouthful of food and grinned. “Mirkwood isn’t a very fun place. It’ll be good being able to relax without keeping an eye over our shoulders. A bit of music, some laughter, and a good drink, those are the ingredients of a good adventure. Although, these woods are so confined I’ll be happy with the first chance I get to stretch my legs.” He threw an inconspicuous wink at Dwalin, who only noticed because, as always, he was struggling to keep his eyes off the roguish dwarf.

Nobody forced Dwalin into the conversation, and he was fine with that. If anything, he was glad for the distraction. He still felt guilty about his actions over the past week, failing to get enough sleep, allowing his fears to get the better of him. Even more so, he was disappointed in himself for jeopardising the entire quest in his panic over Nori. He’d grown so accustomed to the stubborn dwarf standing with him throughout the long nights. It was soothing, in a way. Nori made Dwalin feel good like no dwarf had ever made him feel before. When he hadn’t shown up that night, Dwalin didn’t know what to think. It was like a piece of himself was missing, replaced by a terrible loneliness. If Nori had decided to get a good night’s sleep, Dwalin would have been satisfied. He’d never asked Nori to join him, and at least Nori would be getting some much needed rest. But when Dwalin turned to find Nori nowhere in sight, dread overcame him. It was like losing Thrain all over again, and Dwalin couldn’t lose Nori. Of that, he was certain. And so, without thinking, Dwalin called out for his dwarf. Nothing else mattered but Nori. It was an utterly reckless thing to do. He would not let it happen again.

As well as leaving him be that morning, Dwalin was also thankful the others hadn’t brought up the story he’d told the previous evening. It was a secret he’d kept for over a century, that must have been difficult to hear. Who knows what they think of me now, though, Dwalin thought, broodingly. If they judged him for it, they didn’t let it show. Dori, particularly, acted kindly towards Dwalin, taking the time to prepare his pony for the day’s ride as well as his own after breakfast. Perhaps he pities me. Dwalin grunted his thanks, but offered nothing more. He still didn’t feel up to a conversation, at least, not with anyone but Nori, who for some reason, was just so easy to talk to. Dwalin wished they’d had more time alone together. Dwalin had been afraid that Nori, out of all of them, would not have forgiven Dwalin for putting their expedition at risk, but judging by his behaviour the night before, and especially this morning, Dwalin knew that was not the case. He hadn’t intended to end up all over Nori, it just happened. Nori had just been so warm, so soft, and smelt so good, even in the depths of sleep Dwalin found him irresistible.

Maybe it was the simple fact that Dwalin had woken up so comfortably, or that he’d actually gotten some rest, or even just that everyone else was chipper for the first time in a long while, but their ride through Mirkwood wasn’t so bad that day. Dwalin even noticed sunbeams piercing through the canopy, brightening up the otherwise gloomy and dismal forest. Perhaps Tauriel was right, about the evil having withdrawn from these woods back to the dark corner it crawled from. He did not dare allow himself to feel safe, but he certainly wasn’t as strained as he had been.

That night, as they were settling down after the day’s ride, Dwalin took it upon himself to feed the ponies as the others prepared camp. Secretly, he was hoping Nori would see this as an opportunity to catch him alone, and Nori did not disappoint. His own pony, Bayard, was greedily lapping oats out of Dwalin’s palm, when he heard the familiar, spry step of his dwarf approaching from behind.

“It looks like he has the right idea,” Nori observed.

Dwalin chuckled at the thought of Nori eating from his palm. “I have an extra hand if you’ve got any leftovers.”

“Oh, I wasn’t talking about eating out of your hand,” Nori said, as his hands snaked their way around Dwalin’s hips and across his stomach, his body against Dwalin’s back. “I was talking about licking you all over.”

Dwalin couldn’t help but smile. He still wasn’t sure what to call what was going on between them, but there was no denying how much he enjoyed it. He placed his free hand over Nori’s interlocked fingers and gently caressed them.

“I was hoping we might be able to carry on tonight from where we left things this morning,” Nori said. “My instincts told me you wouldn’t object.”

Dwalin agreed. “Your instincts are right on the mark. Aye, I’d like that.” Being around Nori seemed to take care of every worry that plagued Dwalin. There was nothing he desired more than another night holding Nori in his arms.

“I’m going to volunteer for first watch. You should join me,” Nori suggested. “Tonight, however, I’m thinking we ready our bedrolls. Might be a tad more comfortable than the ground.”

“No arguments there, though it could be a bed of daggers and I’d still sleep peacefully if I was next to you,” Dwalin replied, compelled to squeeze in a compliment of his own. “I’ll come join you once I finish up here, alright?”

“Sounds good to me,” Nori concurred. He pressed himself a little closer into Dwalin, so that the large dwarf could feel how much Nori was looking forward to it. He’s just as excited as I am, Dwalin was pleased to find. “I’ll see you in a little while.”

“Aye,” Dwalin said, feeling lonesome as Nori’s arms slid away as he retreated back to the others. He finished feeding the ponies as quickly as he could, enthusiastic about the night ahead. It wasn’t until he was wiping his hands after the last horse was fed that he heard more footsteps drawing closer. As it turned out, Nori was not the only dwarf who saw this moment as an opportunity to catch Dwalin alone. As Dwalin looked behind him, he was unsurprised to discover that Dis also wished to exchange a private word.

“We were lucky,” she stated flatly, once she knew she had Dwalin’s attention.

Dwalin was in no position to fight with Dis. He understood he was in the wrong. “I know,” he replied.

“The others are convinced that your outburst was just the stress that comes with being back in these woods, but I’m not,” she scolded. “Your carelessness endangered our prince. That is simply unacceptable.” Dwalin was ashamed, but noted that his friends had come to his defence. So they are willing to overlook my blunder. It was a small comfort, though not enough to excuse his mistake.

Dwalin lowered his head somberly. “I assure you, it won’t happen again. You have my...” He bit his tongue. Offering Dis his word would mean nothing, and Dwalin knew it. He had to do better. “I was careless. I allowed my fears to take control, and that was wrong. I will do better. I understand what’s at stake.” He lifted his eyes to meet her cold glare, so that she might witness his resolve. “No harm will come to Thorin.” To Dis, that was all that mattered. He hoped that she would believe him.

He must have been persuasive enough. After staring at each other quietly for a short time, Dis seemed to receive the message that he meant every word. “Don’t ever forget it,” she reminded him with a scowl, before pivoting around and leaving him to reflect on their conversation.

Once he was alone again, his shoulders sagged. With a sigh, Dwalin ran his hand across his smooth scalp. As much as he wanted to devote himself to Nori, he had a responsibility to uphold. He hoped Nori wouldn’t be disappointed.

Dwalin waited until the muted chatter of the camp died down before going to find Nori. As expected, the company had nestled into their respective bedrolls, with Nori sitting comfortably in front of a thick spruce. Dwalin crossed the camp and settled down beside his dwarf.

“What a pleasure it is for you to join me,” Nori purred. Shuffling closer, his arm once again found its way around Dwalin’s back. Dwalin returned the favour, though his burly arm practically engulfed the smaller dwarf. Nori didn’t mind though, in fact, he reclined into it, nuzzling into Dwalin even more so. Nori’s head was now resting over Dwalin’s heart, which was drumming fervently.

Dwalin yearned to spend the night like this, with Nori in his arms, but his talk with Dis had left a bitter taste in his mouth. He needed to explain. “Listen, Nori…” Dwalin found the right words difficult to articulate. “I would like nothing more than another night by your side, truly…,” he began, “but I’ve been rather neglectful in my duty to my prince. I have a responsibility to protect him, and even though nothing’s happened, I haven’t been doing a very good job of it. I just think it would be better if I didn’t stray too far from Thorin.”

“That’s fine,” Nori replied to Dwalin’s surprise.

“You’re not angry?” Dwalin was relieved, and leaned down to plant a soft kiss on Nori’s forehead.

“Of course not,” Nori said. “I understand completely. We all have to do what needs to be done.” He looked up at Dwalin, and under the shade of night, his onyx eyes sparkled like the starlit sky. “We can keep watch together like this until our shift ends, and then, if you need to stay close to Thorin, I can just settle down beside you there.”

“Nori… you don’t have to…”

Nori smiled. “I already told you, didn’t I, the first night I joined you on watch. I want to. Whatever you need, I’ll be with you.”

Dwalin couldn’t hold back the kiss that followed. Feverishly, their lips met, and, despite being in the deepest part of Mirkwood, Dwalin felt truly happy.

Chapter Text

Dwalin and the others continued their journey through Mirkwood for three more days without incident. Though they still felt unwelcome in the forest, with each passing day the dwarves knew they were drawing ever closer to their escape from the endless labyrinth of trees. For most of the travelling dwarves, it was that brightening glimmer of freedom on the horizon that kept their spirits up. For Dwalin, it was Nori. Whether it was during the long days on horseback, with one eye always on the shadows lurking behind the trees, or the eerily calm nights, sleeping by Thorin, axes within reach, ready to protect his prince at a moment’s notice, Nori was always there. It felt nice, having someone so close. Dwalin couldn’t imagine a dwarf that loathed Mirkwood as much as he, but with Nori by his side, their trek through the dark woods was surprisingly bearable, if not rather pleasant. The parts of the day Dwalin looked forward to most were those little moments when Nori would catch him alone, when they would kiss. The lingering taste of Nori’s sweet tongue often left Dwalin smiling, and insatiable for more. It wasn’t long before fantasies of the fiery dwarf filled Dwalin’s thoughts and dreams.

On the fourth day after Dwalin had revealed to his friends the disastrous events of his first time in Mirkwood, the company found themselves at the site where misfortune had struck. Dwalin knew of their approach the moment the usual, quiet ambience of the forest was broken by the soft, gurgling popple of a stream coursing its way around fallen branches and moss-coated rocks. A chill swept down Dwalin’s back the instant he recognised the sound, and yet, it did not even cross his mind to turn away. It was just like following Thorin Oakenshield through these parts an eternity ago. Back then, nothing would have kept Dwalin from his prince’s side, no matter how difficult it felt. Only now, Dwalin was following Nori. He looked ahead at his dwarf as the realisation dawned on him. Riding ahead of Dwalin, Nori looked so strong, so confident. Though he was not of royal blood, this was indeed Nori’s quest, and it was he that was leading this company to Moria. Dwalin knew what Nori must be feeling on the inside; losing Balin had torn him apart. But Nori was not going to allow the legacy of Ori die with him, and had put his personal feelings aside to undertake this quest. Nori was a shrewd dwarf, there was no question of his awareness as to what might be awaiting at the end, and he did not hesitate all the same. Nori was braver and stronger than Dwalin had ever realised, and he did not want to let his dwarf down. And so, despite the uneasiness that simmered in the pit of his stomach, Dwalin kept his concerns buried deep, and pressed onwards.

The misleadingly playful bubble of flowing water grew ever louder, and it was not long before the trees parted into a dell, and Dwalin found himself along the silty banks of the forest river, its inky water darker than the lightless tunnels of the deepest mines. Dwalin frowned. Within that coal-black stream swam a terrible enchantment that inflicted a terrible sleep whilst devouring the memories of any that fell into its current. It had cursed Bombur on their last crossing, after falling out of their boat, and it had taken everything from Dwalin the first time he had ventured into Mirkwood. As it rippled past him, Dwalin felt as though the river was laughing at him, taunting him, reminding him of the desperate fool he had been. He didn’t want to consider what the others must be thinking.

A gentle hand on his shoulder pulled Dwalin out of his daze. He turned away from the wretched river to find Nori beside him, and relaxed almost at once.

“You alright?”, Nori asked.

“Aye,” Dwalin replied. “Though I’ll be feeling better once we’re away from this vile place.”

Nori nodded. “The sooner the better.”

Dwalin was not the only one who felt uncomfortable being there. Dori was quick to voice an objection of his own. “We’re not going to have to make a crossing, are we?”, he asked, his agitation unhidden in his tone.

“We will, soon enough,” she answered. “but not here. We shall follow the river for a short way until we reach a point where it veers to the North. There, it is narrow enough for us to ford.”

“That’s absurd!”, Dori exclaimed. “We’d fall under its spell the moment our boots got wet!” Dwalin thought he’d heard the elf wrong. She does not mean for us to cross the river on foot, does she?, he wondered. But then, how were they planning to get to the other side. There was no way for them to bring the ponies across on boat, and Dwalin’s gut was telling him that the animals were just as susceptible to the river’s curse as he was. As though his own pony understood the situation, Dwalin felt Bayard growing anxious beneath him. And it was not only them; all the dwarves were showing signs of worry.

Alatar defused the situation before it escalated out of hand. “The river’s enchantment will not hinder our passage,” he assured the party. “I can counter its magic.”

Dwalin eyed the wizard skeptically. Alatar’s claim was bold, to say the least, even for a wizard. There was no denying the Istari wielded great power, he’d seen it for himself on several occasions on his last adventure, all those times Gandalf had saved their skin with his magic. But not even he had accompanied the dwarves and the hobbit into Mirkwood. No, Dwalin and the others had to face the dangers of the forest alone. There was no telling how much better off they’d have been if Gandalf had been there; Dwalin had never given it much thought on account of them pulling through in mostly one piece.

Before the quest to Erebor, Gandalf already had a strong reputation in the West, even among the dwarves. There were tales and songs of his feats, and those who heard his name knew it meant something. Dwalin could not walk through the tunnels of the Blue Mountains without hearing the echoes of Gandalf’s legends shared by the common folk. Dwalin never really concerned himself with them, at least, not until Thorin had come to him with a tale that would change Dwalin forever.

When Thorin brought to Dwalin the news of Gandalf’s journey to Dol Guldur, and how the wizard had witnessed the old King’s end, all the shame Dwalin had been keeping buried erupted from the depths to the surface. Despite having given himself to Thorin, and served him unfailingly for decades, Dwalin still carried that terrible guilt, and knowing the truth of Thrain’s ultimate end almost broke him again. Thorin did not blame him for it, but Thorin did not know. Not the real truth, anyway. Dark thoughts began to swirl in Dwalin’s mind; he once again found himself replaying the moment over and over, each time trying something different, anything that might have kept his King alive and his honour intact, yet always ending in failure. Dwalin reminded himself repeatedly that nothing would ever change, and he would curse at himself. Lying alone in his room, the word “failure” would sometimes escape his lips, because he could not contain his insults inwardly. He would dream images of self-inflicted punishment, as if pain and suffering might somehow help him atone for his mistake. But each time he started thinking that way, he would hear Dis’ words echo in his head, scolding him for being so weak. Exile or death is for cowards, she had said, and she was right. Ending it all would mean abandoning his King, taking the easiest road, and he simply could not do that. Whenever he gazed upon his reflection, even though he was disgusted by the dwarf staring back at him, he always saw the promise he had made branded on his forehead, that one day he would help his King regain the Mountain. That time had finally come, and he had a duty to uphold.

That sense of duty saved Dwalin, bringing him out of his despair and back to his senses. It wasn’t until he finally met Gandalf, seeing the old man in person, that Dwalin acknowledged the wizard’s mysterious strength. That he had braved the dangers of Mirkwood and Dol Guldur alone, uncovered the secret of Thrain’s disappearance, and survived, was enough to convince Dwalin that Gandalf indeed possessed a mysterious strength, beyond that of any he knew.

But Alatar and Pallando were different. There were no legends of their deeds. The first time Dwalin had seen them was when he and Dain’s company were passing through the gates into Dale, on the day of Bain’s funeral. He had thought nothing of them at the time. Encountering them again on the road with Nori after discovering they’d left for Moria had come completely unexpected. Between then and now, there hadn’t been much of a chance to get to know the wizards better, what with having suddenly found himself sneaking into the Woodland Realm, trying not to get captured by elf scouts. How they had come to join Nori was still a mystery to Dwalin. He hadn’t been with Nori and the others when Alatar and Pallando had first joined the party. The only thing Dwalin knew about them, really, was that they too had business in Moria. He had listened to Tauriel’s account of her journey in the East, and of their battles with the Easterlings, but Dwalin still carried his doubts. It wasn’t that he mistrusted the elf; on the contrary, she had fought to save his prince with her life, and that meant a lot to Dwalin. Her tale just wasn’t a lot to go on. They were still strangers to him.

What does Nori think?, Dwalin found himself wondering. It was odd, but this was Nori’s quest, and Dwalin realised that, without question, he would follow his dwarf down into the murky depths of that accursed river, if that was the path Nori chose. If Nori trusted Alatar, then that was enough for Dwalin. He looked at Nori and saw that on the surface, he did not seem taken aback by Alatar’s claim, like the others were. He was calm. Nori sensed Dwalin’s uncertainty, and turned, their eyes meeting. Those beautiful, hazel pearls seemed to comprehend all of Dwalin’s doubts. A smile flickered across the sly dwarf’s face, and he gave Dwalin an inconspicuous wink before composing himself to address the party.

“Without your help, Tauriel, there is no way we’d have made it this far,” Nori said. “Nobody understands these woods better than you. Not only that, you know Alatar and Pallando better than any in the West. If you trust Alatar to break the curse, then I trust you. But I have too much riding on the success of this quest to leave anything to chance, so I have to ask… are you sure?” Though the question was directed at Tauriel, Dwalin noticed that Nori’s gaze was pointed at Pallando. Dwalin could not read the wizard at all, but it mattered not, for Tauriel responded almost immediately.

“Yes,” she replied. “I’ve seen Alatar do it before, and I know he can do it again.”

Nori smiled and shrugged. “Well, that settles it,” he said. “Let’s carry on then, shall we?” He picked up his reins and set forth on his pony at a steady pace, following the river upstream. One by one, the others followed, with Tauriel, Alatar, and Pallando, and then the dwarves.

Not everyone was happy with the decision. Dis was wearing a frown of disapproval, and Thorin was visibly quite nervous. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”, the prince asked. “I mean, you said so yourself, right, that this river is dangerous. What if we lose our memories? What if we never wake up?”

Dwalin would have been lying if he said he wasn’t afraid. That river had ruined his life. Stepping into it was the last thing he wanted to do. But, with Nori taking the lead, Dwalin felt a warm trickle of courage flowing through his veins. He knew he could trust Nori with this, with everything.

“Everything will be alright,” Dwalin said, believing it, and moved on to catch up to the others, with his prince close behind.

Chapter Text

The few sunbeams strong enough to reach the forest floor shimmered like cascades of honey and butterscotch by the time the company arrived at the shallow bend of the forest river that was their crossing point. If Dwalin had taken his eyes of the river for even a moment, he might have questioned being deep within the heart of Mirkwood. But the cold, black water was bewitching; its oily surface devoured the golden sheen of dusk, reflecting only darkness. Dwalin stared at it with scorn as they rode along the bank, at himself as much as the foul magic that had cost him his King. It was like staring into an abyss, endlessly deep. If the water was indeed shallow enough for the dwarves to cross, it was deceptively so. As he dismounted his pony, he wondered how wet his boots would get before the river swallowed him whole.

Tauriel was unconcerned. “This is where we’ll cross,” she announced, once everyone had caught up with her. “We shall set up camp here, as Alatar will need some time.” There was not a trace of unease in her voice.

Dwalin did not share her confidence. Instead, he felt more like he had backed himself into a corner. Upstream, the river veered Northward, twisting like a snake coiling around its prey. Circling the company on the other side of the bank were perhaps the largest trees Dwalin had ever seen; tall and thick with long branches that reached across the running water. Though they would not slow Tauriel down, for the dwarves and their ponies, trying to move through those trees would be like trying to move through a solid wall. Though the bank was wider here, allowing room for a scuffle if it came to it, Dwalin felt vulnerable, with only two options for escape, following the river either upstream or downstream.

As the others began to set up camp, on the loamy soil blanketed by a thick layer of forest debris, Dwalin joined Tauriel. She was looking out into the wilderness, eyes and ears focussed to the shadows beyond, but Dwalin knew there was no sneaking up on her. “We’re leaving ourselves open to ambush, are we not?”, he asked.

Tauriel continued her surveillance as she answered. “Mirkwood has changed since I last walked within these trees. The spiders that once corrupted these woods with their evil have long since withdrawn, most likely back to Dol Guldur. The forest has had time to heal, and I can feel its strength returning.” Dwalin scratched his head; the forest seemed no different to him. “This place was not kind to you on your last adventure, but I assure you that I will not allow anything to stand in the way of your quest. You have no cause to worry.” Dwalin remembered how fiercely Tauriel had fought during the Battle of Five Armies, and knew that she could back those words if it came to it. “I don’t sense any beasts nearby, but I’ll do a sweep of the surrounding area to be sure. Best not leave anything to chance while Alatar is completing the ritual.”

The wizard, despite being completely preoccupied with his preparations, took heed at the mention of his name. “I will need fire,” he said inattentively, without pausing as he rummaged through his belongings, inspecting and setting aside items haphazardly around him whilst Pallando picked up and organised the various pouches, satchels, and jars being tossed carelessly aside.

“Only upon my return,” she insisted.

“Of course,” Pallando replied on behalf of Alatar, who was too engrossed in his own world. Effortlessly and soundlessly, she leapt between the seemingly impassable trees, almost immediately disappearing from sight without a trace. She makes it look easy, Dwalin grumbled to himself.

Dori’s eyes lit up at the suggestion of a fire. “If we’re going to have a campfire, then I’ll be making tea,” he said. “Otherwise it’s just going to waste, no matter what Alatar has planned!”

Bofur nodded in agreement. “I’d go hunting for something we could roast, but despite what Tauriel says, I don’t trust I’d find anything other than spider out there.”

“Who knows,” Nori mused, “spider could be rather tasty, marinated with chilli and garlic, and maybe a dash of lime. Maybe we should check what we brought from Bombur’s larder, see if there’s anything we can work with!”

“Don’t be disgusting!”, Dori said, repulsed by the suggestion. Nori grinned, and Bofur chuckled. Bifur was also smiling as he handed Dori a small, acacia tea box as a distraction, which worked almost at once.

Alatar looked up from his mess. “Tea would be delightful,” he said. Pallando rolled his eyes affectionately.

***

As soon as Tauriel returned, Dori immediately helped Alatar by sparking a small campfire, and began brewing a pot of tea as Alatar continued to examine the contents of the containers Pallando had neatly organised, an assortment of powders, leaves, and liquids Dwalin could not even begin to name. It was beyond Dwalin’s comprehension as to what Alatar had planned, and he simply could not see how a few leaves and dirt could neutralise the river’s enchantment. He back towards the water, now even more menacing in the twilight. The sounds of the others chatting softly around the crackling fire as the teapot began to whistle faded behind the unending trickle of the black stream. As Dwalin’s eyes adjusted to the shadows, the water seemed eerily darker than the surrounding gloom of night. Were some monster lurking beneath the surface, there would be no way to tell before it burst from the water and pulled him under. The thought sent shivers down Dwalin’s spine, as he imagined himself awakening in the halls of Mahal, his memories taken, not knowing his King, his father, his brother...

“Dwalin, I’ve brought you some tea.”

Dwalin snapped out of his daze, curses ringing inside his head for getting so caught up in his own delusions. He hadn’t even heard Dori’s approach. He turned to find the old dwarf offering a steaming mug fashioned from quartz. “It’s chamomile,” he said. “It will help you relax.”

Relaxing was the last thing on Dwalin’s mind, but he knew Dori was only trying to help. Keeping on edge for their first week in Mirkwood had caused more harm than good, and it wasn’t going to making things better now. “Who says I’m not relaxed?”, Dwalin said, taking the mug from Dori. Breathing in the sweet fumes, he allowed the heat to warm his hands before lifting the brew to his lips. He took a sip, and at once felt like he was glowing on the inside. “That’s good,” he remarked.

“I’ve spent a fair portion of my share of the treasure procuring the finest teas,” Dori explained as he took a drink from his own cup. “I wasn’t about to leave home without them.”

“Aye, you’ve always had a fondness for the stuff,” Dwalin agreed. They stood quietly for a short time, savouring their drinks. Dwalin didn’t really know what to say. He had never been good at small talk, and half expected Dori to go back to the others after making the delivery. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d visited Dori and shared tea. It was a shame really, the tea was truly delicious, and to Dwalin’s liking, often accompanied by sweet honey butter biscuits. I wonder if Dori brought some of those with him, Dwalin mused. He considered raising the question, but Dori spoke up before he had the chance.

“Listen…,” Dori said tentatively. “About what you said a few nights ago…”

The hairs on Dwalin’s arms stood on end. He’d been dreading this moment. This is why it’s better to keep your trap shut, he thought to himself. Will it be pity, contempt, or disappointment that you feel? His shoulders stiffened, and began to brace himself for the cutting words that were to come. Dwalin also knew that Dori was not going to be deterred by Dwalin’s uneasiness. Of all the dwarves, except for perhaps Nori and Dis, Dori was the least intimidated by Dwalin. They were roughly the same age; he and Dori had survived the same wars, and lived through the same hardships. Unlike Dwalin, Dori was soft on the surface, but beneath his cushy exterior lay muscle hard as rock. Dwalin wasn’t sure how Dori managed it, for a dwarf that specialised in textiles. It the sort of business that required delicate handiwork and deft fingers over brute strength, compared with other dwarven trades like smithing or mining. Dwalin had never seen Dori in the training pits either, and so the secret to Dori’s power had always been a mystery. Whatever it was, it had served them well on their previous journey, and during the Battle of Five Armies. Even after peace and prosperity had returned to the Mountain, Dori had not allowed his strength to wane, and perhaps it would serve them well again.

At that moment, though, it just meant there was no getting away from the stubborn dwarf. Dwalin knew he should just accept whatever Dori was about to say, but he did not anticipate the words that came next.

“We all made mistakes back then.”

What? For a moment, Dwalin felt as though he had misheard. He didn’t understand what Dori was trying to say.

Dwalin stared at Dori, and drawn in the lines on the old dwarf’s face was a deep sorrow buried beneath his resolve. “I’ve carried that same, terrible guilt with me ever since the day Thorin was coronated. I know how heavy it is to bear.”

Dwalin felt anger beginning to seethe amidst a torrent of thoughts flooding through his head. You couldn’t possibly understand how I feel. You weren’t there. There’s no way you can know how it feels. His safety was my charge! It was my fault that he died! He didn’t know what to say. His hands clenched into fists, and had his mug not been of dwarvish make, it would have shattered under the pressure of his grip.

“Not a day goes by that I do not regret turning down Thrain’s invitation,” Dori explained. “I’d received the summons, just as you did, for my deeds during the Battle of Azanulbizar. But whilst you had the merit to answer the call of your King, I cast the letter into the fire of my family’s hearth to hide the evidence of my dishonour.” Dori’s voice lowered with shame. “When news came to me that Thrain had not survived the expedition, the very first thought that entered my mind was, could I have saved him? That question has weighed down on me ever since.”

Dori looked down toward the tea cup cradled in his hands. “The worst part was not knowing,” he continued. “Not knowing whether I’d have even survived the journey, let alone been of any help. Like you, so many had followed Thrain, and I’m just one dwarf. But perhaps… perhaps if there had been just one more dwarf keeping watch that night, one more pair of eyes searching for Thrain, perhaps that might have made all the difference.”

Dwalin’s temper dissipated almost as quickly as it had boiled, like the steam wafting from his mug. Before him, Dori was not his strong, fastidious self, but instead, appeared frail and tormented. Dwalin wanted to reach out, but didn’t know how, and so he simply continued to listened.

“What I fear most,” Dori said, hands beginning to tremble, “is that history has repeated itself. That… if I had just gone with him… he might still be alive…”

Dori began to choke on his words, and stifled back a sob. He lifted his mug and took a long drink to calm his nerves. His eyes were glistening, but no tears fell.

“I couldn’t…” He sighed. “I don’t want to spend another century asking myself each day how I could have changed things. This time it would break me. I have to go to Moria. To see it for myself. To know. That’s the only way I’ll find peace.” He turned towards the campfire, towards his brother. “I imagine that, deep down, it’s the same for Nori.” Dwalin’s eyes followed Dori’s to the dwarf he was beginning to care for deeply. He was sitting by the fire, telling a story that had Bofur grinning and Thorin looking like he was about to be sick, as though he didn’t have a care in the world. As though nothing had even happened.

“I don’t know what answers we will find written in the book of records, but I only hope it provides some small closure. Nori is very much in denial over the whole thing, and I worry how he’s going to take it when the cold truth finally sinks in. I still… I still can’t even fathom that he’s really gone. He was so smart, so strong, so brave, the best of all of us. I don’t know how I’d have coped without Bifur. He’s been… a good friend… during this difficult time.” Dwalin had noticed that Bifur wasn’t quite engaged in the others’ conversation, and had been casting occasional glances their way.

They stood there, looking back at the campfire, in silence, as the silhouettes of the others danced across the surrounding trees against the firelight.

Dori took another sip of tea, and colour slowly began returning to his cheeks. “Anyway, I just wanted to say I understand your burden, and that you’re not carrying it alone.”

Dwalin didn’t know what to say in return. He had yet to speak up at all. There were simply no words, no comfort Dwalin could offer that wouldn’t sound like he was lying through his teeth. Because no matter how many times he would tell himself otherwise, he would always blame himself.

“You and Nori do seem to be getting along.” The change in subject took Dwalin completely by surprise.

“Nori…? What do you…” Dwalin stumbled over his tongue. He didn’t know precisely how much Dori was aware of; what he had seen, what he had heard, what Nori might have said. The fact that he had feelings for Nori at all was by no means a secret, it was just that Dwalin still hadn’t worked out what those feelings meant. The way Dori regarded him now suggested that he already held the answer, whilst Dwalin was still putting the pieces together. The heat rushing to his cheeks wasn’t helping matters any further.

“It’s alright, Dwalin,” Dori said, life returning to his voice with a small chuckle. “I think it’s good that Nori is reaching out to you. Sometimes I don’t know what’s going through his head, but occasionally he uses a bit of sense. He was so adamant about having you come with us, and honestly, he was right about that. I felt a lot better about this endeavour after you joined us.”

Dwalin didn’t understand why. Up until that point, he’d only made things worse. But from the bottom of his heart, he did know that he would follow Nori wherever the road took them, and he would do everything within his power to help Nori on this quest, regardless of what that meant.

“No matter what lies ahead in Moria, I’ll stand by Nori,” Dwalin swore.

“Thank you, Dwalin,” Dori responded.

Dori gulped down the last of his tea, and Dwalin did the same.

“I’m going to go back to the others now,” Dori said. “You should join me. It’s better to have you around, rather than out here alone. We’re in this together.”

Dwalin contemplated going with Dori, and as he did so, his eyes were drawn to Nori. The spirited dwarf looked particularly handsome under the light of the campfire. Dwalin thought maybe it was the way the copper in his braids seemed to gleam. The decision to follow ended up being rather easy.

“Aye, I’ll come with you. The fire will be a warm change, after so many nights in the cold.”

Chapter Text

Dwalin opened his eyes. He did not feel uneasy, merely alert. It seemed only a moment ago that he had settled down between Thorin and Nori to get some sleep before the crossing; a blink of his eyes and the golden glow of the campfire had dwindled to cold embers, consumed by the shadow of the dark canopy that blanketed them above. The night was as unfriendly as ever, and yet, Dwalin felt calm. Being so close to Nori was a comfort to him now. The familiar scent of pine oil in Nori’s hair was soothing, as was the warmth emanating from his body through the layers of leather and wool. Nori lay on his side with his back to Dwalin, his lower arm curled over his neck, the other resting over his hip, fingers curled around the hilt of a dagger sheathed in his belt. The only noise that came from Nori was the faintest whisper of breath as it danced slowly through the bristles of his mustache into the night air. Dwalin could only just barely make it out beneath the steady, throaty rumble of Thorin’s snores.

Watching Nori sleep beside him was peaceful, but Dwalin knew that sleep would not come back to him that night. As content as he’d have been staying put, Dwalin knew that restlessness was contagious, especially on nights such as this, and he deemed it better to get up to allow the others to continue sleeping without him stirring beside them. Besides, he thought to himself, I’d be more use keeping watch.. He listened out for the sounds of the other slumbering dwarves, and surmised Bofur was keeping watch from the absence of his easily recognisable grunts and whistles. He already knew Tauriel would be out there, somewhere, that was expected, but Dwalin noted that he did not hear the soft, steady rhythm of Alatar’s breathing, which was a surprise. Of everyone in the company, the wizards had never failed to find a full night’s sleep since their first night together in the forest. Perhaps the wizard is still working, Dwalin wondered.

Carefully and quietly, Dwalin sat up and pushed himself from the soft ground. Nori twitched, and Dwalin leant forward and tenderly placed a hand on his shoulder. He caressed Nori lightly with his thumb, and whispered “sleep”. Nori seemed to comply, and Dwalin rose. Minding he did not step on any of the others, Dwalin made his way to the edge of the camp where Bofur sat fidgeting with his mug, watching the woods vigilantly with heavy eyes. He noted Dwalin’s arrival with a wave of his cup. “You didn’t happen to come with more tea, did ya?”, he asked quietly, anticipating disappointment. “Dori said that last batch would keep me up, but I don’t think he brewed it potent enough.”

Dwalin smiled sympathetically. “Would you settle for some sleep instead? I can take over from here.”

Bofur blinked slowly in response. “You don’t have to tell me twice,” he said, covering his mouth to stifle a yawn as he stood. “You couldn’t sleep?”

“I slept some,” Dwalin replied. “I’m fine. Go, get some rest, before you fall where you stand.” He patted Bofur on the back for encouragement.

“Alright, alright,” the tired dwarf mumbled. He stumbled back in the direction Dwalin had come. He made no attempt to manoeuvre his way around the others; he simply flopped down on the ground as soon as he was near enough to Bifur. Dwalin pondered if he had managed to stay conscious before hitting the ground.

Dwalin turned and looked out into the forest. It was difficult to tell how long it would be before dawn came, but Dwalin’s estimated that it was still some time away. Beyond the thick trees that sheltered their camp, the woods were silent and still. Only the constant gush of the river could be heard above the sleeping company. Dwalin had managed to put it out of his mind earlier, but now that he found himself alone again it began to niggle at him once more. Dwalin’s brow furrowed, and he let out a low growl. He tried to focus on other things. Where might Tauriel be?, he asked himself, and began scanning the lower branches of the trees, curious as to whether he might spot her. It occupied his thoughts for a short while, but it was not long before he could no longer argue against the futility of the exercise. Giving up, he turned away from the forest and surveyed the camp, until his eyes caught Alatar, right by the river, sitting at the water’s edge. A chill tore down Dwalin’s spine. It was as though he were staring back at himself, so long ago, preparing to drink from the river to end his desperate thirst, the mistake that had changed the course of his entire life.

Enraged that Alatar would be so reckless, Dwalin stormed over to the wizard. “Are you mad?!”, he hissed. “Get away from the river!” If Alatar even heard him at all, there was no sign, as though he were trapped in a trance. It was as though the wizard had already succumbed to the river's curse. No, Dwalin thought desperately, I’m too late! Hands trembling, he reached out to pull Alatar back away from the water.

“Ah, Dwalin, your timing is impeccable. Do you think you could hand me that bottle?”

A call for the others had been at the tip of Dwalin’s tongue, and he was only barely able to contain it. Instead, he snapped at Alatar. “I swear my heart had stopped beating for a moment! Have you lost your wits?!”

Alatar scratched at his scalp. “I don’t think so,” he answered. “One can never be so sure at my age though.” The wizard held out an open hand. “The bottle? Did you find it?”

Dwalin fumed. Looking down at the ground, he was barely able to catch the small, glass cylinder at his feet, only a little longer than his own thumb. If he’d taken one more step he’d have crushed it under his boot. He picked it up with a tight fist and thrust it toward Alatar, who accepted it happily, irritating Dwalin all the more. With a smile, Alatar unstoppered the bottle turned back to the water, disregarding the seething dwarf behind him once more. Dwalin was just about to start hurling curses when, holding the bottle firmly, Alatar plunged his hand beneath the murky surface of the water.

Dwalin gasped in horror. Nothing could have prepared him for such a rash action. By the time could comprehend what Alatar had done, it was too late. His mind froze, unable to comprehend what had happened. His instincts were alive, however, and without thinking, Dwalin leapt forward to haul Alatar away from the river, before the wizard collapsed. It was only as his thick fingers were clutching at large-weaved sapphire cotton robes that he realised that the wizard was not keeling over as expected, but rather remained upright as he fished his hand back out of the water, unaffected by the river’s enchantment.

Suddenly, Dwalin found he could breathe again, but he did not release his hold on Alatar’s collar, instead tugging it closer.

“You are mad,” Dwalin snarled through his teeth. “Only a fool would do such a thing!” Alatar, who was still ignoring Dwalin, had pulled out a small cotton cloth from his sleeve and was meticulously wiping the bottle dry. Dwalin angry. Furious. But even in his rage he could not deny that what he had witnessed defied any rational explanation. Alatar was immune to the curse of the river. This realisation gave Dwalin pause, enough that he relaxed his grip on Alatar, allowing the robe to slip through his fingers. Dwalin took a step back and crumpled onto the bank, unable to blink, unable to move. He just sat there and watched as Alatar wiped the bottle, and then his hands, until not a drop remained. He then reached into the robes and pulled out another, smaller vial. Opening it, Alatar poured its contents into the bottle of enchanted river water, which he then resealed and began swirling in his hand.

“The surprises to be found in these woods never cease to amaze me,” Alatar said suddenly. “I feel like a youth again, discovering the wonders of the world for the first time.” Dwalin said nothing. He was still struggling to come to terms with what he had just seen. Alatar turned to face the bewildered dwarf, showing him the bottle and the inky liquid contained within. “Not even the Mistwoods that lie beyond the Orocarni hold such mysteries.”

“You… you’ve broken the curse…” Dwalin stammered, once he mastered control over his breathing again.

“If only,” Alatar chuckled, taking Dwalin’s words as praise. “No, the best I could do was to subdue the effects of the enchantment enough for a safe crossing. Prolonged exposure the river will undo my negation, which is why we’re taking extra precautions to ensure nothing will go wrong.” He smiled. “You can rest easy, Dwalin. Pallando is certain that misfortune will not befall us tomorrow, and his foresight surpasses that of Malbeth.” Dwalin was still barely unable to do more than gape at the bottle Alatar swirled with his fingers. Happy to keep talking, Alatar seemed not to mind. “I will admit, for a short while I was beginning to have my doubts, and had I not discovered the mushrooms sprouting a little upstream, I don’t know what I would have done. Everything is so very new and exotic this far West.”

Dwalin was not following the conversation. “Mushrooms…?”, he asked.

“Why yes, the mushrooms,” Alatar exclaimed. “Tauriel confirmed for me that they grow throughout the forest, but in abundance by the river. Poisonous, disgusting things they are, the elves and animals know better than to go near them, but there is something about the river that seems to amplify their malice.” He sighed. “If there was even a hope of convincing Tauriel to take me to the source, I like to see it for myself, but even I know there’s not a chance of that happening. Anyway, it’s their spores, you see, that are the true origin of the enchanted sleep. The mushrooms lure their prey into a neverending sleep, and once fallen, they attack, multiplying, latching on their quarry, and feasting for as long as they can keep the body alive. Where other, similar mushrooms are sustained by rotting matter, these ones feast on flesh. They’re carnivorous, you see, almost predatory, and I’ve never seen anything like it. However, they do not bring about the loss in memory. The root of that phenomenon is even more remarkable...”

“Alright,” Dwalin interrupted, feeling his head beginning to ache as he failed in keeping up with Alatar. Suddenly he found himself longing for Gandalf, who kept his secrets to himself. “You know what you’re doing. I get it now.”

Alatar restrained himself from rambling any further. Instead, he reached into his robes, and plucked out another bottle, similar to the one he was already holding, except its contents were clear as water. Toying with them momentarily, he extended his arms forward, and offered them to Dwalin. “Here,” he said. “Take them.”

Dwalin just stared back at Alatar, puzzled. “Take them?”, he asked. “Whatever for?”

Alatar reached for Dwalin’s hand and placed the bottles gently into his open palm. “Reasoning a course of action using all the knowledge at your disposal, no matter how limited, is the best anyone can do,” Alatar replied. “There’s no shame in making mistakes, Dwalin. It’s what we learn from them that defines us.” He paused. “Consider these as a gift to aid you. The glass is tempered by my own hand, it will not break, not even from a blow of your mighty dwarven warhammers.” He pointed to the first bottle, filled with deep, black liquid. “A splash from this bottle will send one into a deep sleep. It needn’t be consumed, contact with the skin is enough. The other,” he said, gesturing to the second bottle, “will seize one’s memories.”

Dwalin stared at the gift blankly with a frown. “You speak of learning from your mistakes, and then you offer me something to forget? That makes no sense.”

Alatar shook his head. “They need not be for yourself. Just hold onto them. You never know when they might come in handy. The point is that it’s time to begin reflecting on the future, instead of dwelling only on the past.”

All at once, it dawned on Dwalin what Alatar was trying to do. He’d expected it from his kin, but not from the wizards. He rose to his feet. “I don’t need your pity,” he said gruffly, allowing the bottles to fall from his hand onto the soft earth below. “I’m not some wounded animal that needs to be cared for. I’m a dwarf of the Mountain, and I have no need of these reminders.”

“Wait,” Alatar said as he lifted himself from the ground in chase. “You misunderstand…,” but Dwalin was not about to hear any of it. The stubborn dwarf had already turned his back on the wizard.

“If you’ve finished preparing, you can keep watch for the remainder of the night with Tauriel,” Dwalin suggested coldly. Without lingering for a response, Dwalin lumbered away from the river, back to the others. The weight of the world suddenly felt heavy again, and Dwalin was weary. Carefully, he lowered himself onto his bedroll between Nori and Thorin and lay down on his back, releasing a long sigh. The slightest flutter of movement to his left caught Dwalin’s attention, and he turned to find Nori stirring from his slumber.

“Is everything alright?” Nori whispered, as he rolled over to face Dwalin with one eye half open, the other still closed, behind long auburn strands that fell over Nori’s face. Dwalin couldn’t help but smile at how adorable he was.

“Aye,” he said, brushing at Nori’s hair and tucking it behind his ear. He leant forward and planted a gentle kiss on Nori's forehead. “Much better now.”

Chapter Text

Nori crawled from his slumber feeling groggier than he’d have liked. He had slept restlessly; not for the first time since he first heard from Bifur the terrible news of the Moria expedition, he had been haunted by his dreams. Sometimes, he would relive that experience, his dreams taking him back to that day, spending the afternoon idling about in Dori’s shop as he often did, sitting on the countertop beside a pair of old, worn trousers, badgering his brother as he rummaged through drawers in search of thread. The high pitched chime of the doorbell was always so crisp, so authentic, goosebumps would prickle their way across Nori’s skin as he turned to the sight of Bifur making his way into the shop. Nori knew what was coming next, the dread of which filling him to his core and whisking him back into the waking world. As bad as those dreams were, Nori found they were the easiest to handle. Nothing more than an unpleasant memory, he would convince himself, and was almost always able to find sleep again.

It was when Nori’s imagination ran wild that he would find himself tossing and turning into the night, tormented by his visions. Nori had never been to Moria, but his little brother had shared many artistic renditions and descriptive texts discovered within the libraries of Erebor as he prepared for his journey. It was enough for Nori to paint a vivid, almost realistic picture in his own mind. The halls were cut from the granite and limestone of the Misty Mountains, as he remembered it from his first passage, but the architecture and masonry of the stone chambers were a corrupted medley of that found in Ered Luin, Erebor, and others Nori could not name. Whenever he walked those unknown halls, he was alone, except for a voice that called out to him, echoing from wall to wall. Those cries were the true horror of that place. “Nori, Nori, Nori”. His brother’s voice, calling out to him from the shadows, begging Nori to reach him, to save him. It was impossible, however. No matter how long Nori traversed the labyrinth, he would never reach Ori. The cries would only grow ever distant, until they could not be heard at all.

It was from such a dream that Nori awoke. It left him feeling uneasy, exhausted, and damp with cold sweat. To close his eyes again in the hope of finding more rest was tempting, but not enough that Nori was swayed. Assuring himself that it was out of eagerness to carry on his journey, rather than fear of his dreams, that drove him to wake up, Nori greeted the dawn light to find Dwalin snoring deeply beside him, his large paw clasped around Nori’s hand. He couldn’t help but smile. Discovering Dwalin sleeping peacefully beside him was a good sign that his troubles were lifting, and that eased Nori. The news of Moria had hit Dwalin hard, enough so that it had torn through his otherwise robust hide. Seeing Dwalin suffer made Nori realise how much he cared for the big dwarf. That he was able to help Dwalin find his strength again was a great comfort. He gave Dwalin’s hand a tender squeeze. Dwalin responded with a snort, his eyes flitting open. Nori hadn’t meant to disturb him; he must have already been on the cusp of waking. Their eyes met, and Dwalin beamed.

“Morning,” Nori purred. “How did you sleep?”

“Waking up is proving a lot more enjoyable,” Dwalin replied, bringing Nori’s hand to his lips to plant several kisses. There was a glint of playfulness shining within the copper-blue pearls gazing at Nori that made his heart dance and blood surge to his loins. He flashed Dwalin a cheeky grin. Wrapping an arm around Dwalin for support, Nori shuffled closer, until there was no distance between them.

Dwalin’s mouth parted eagerly as their lips met. In that moment, there were no bad dreams. All of Nori’s worries disappeared, and there was only Dwalin. Nori held Dwalin’s head tightly as passion consumed him and he gave into his lust. Arms clasped around Nori, Dwalin rolled over onto his back, until the smaller dwarf lay on top the larger. Nori adjusted his legs so that he was straddling Dwalin without so much as a pause for breath. Between them, Nori could feel the lump beneath Dwalin’s layers pressing against his own, hard as rock. Reaching down, Nori cupped it in his hands and revelled in the husky moan that escaped Dwalin.

“That’s not fair,” Dwalin murmured, breaking Nori’s trance. “We’ll disturb the others.”

Nori took a moment to assess the risk. It was true Thorin was sleeping close by, and Bofur was not much further away, but those two were the heaviest sleepers of the entire company. Nothing short of a hard kick would disturb them, Nori thought to himself. The others, Nori could not place. He guessed they must have awoken earlier, and had moved to begin organising breakfast and packing away the camp. Nori considered whether the activity was enough to keep his brother busy; should Dori catch him in the act with Dwalin, he was sure he’d never hear the end of it. Not for the embarrassment, although that would certainly stoke up the fire, but because of Dori’s own frustration that he had not been able to enjoy any time with Bifur since they had entered Mirkwood.

Nori realised he must have lost himself in his thoughts, for Dwalin gently kissed him away from his musings, and affectionately ran a hand through Nori’s braids. “Come on,” he insisted. “The sooner we cross that damned river, the sooner we’re out of this blasted forest.” Dwalin offered Nori another smile, but the twinkle had left his eyes.

“You’re sure I can’t change your mind?”, Nori teased, nuzzling into Dwalin’s neck.

“Oh, you tempt me,” Dwalin chuckled, his hands trailing down Nori’s back to give his buttocks a cheeky squeeze, “which is why I’m going to listen to my stomach.” As if on cue, Dwalin’s belly growled. “Dori and Bifur should have something in the way of breakfast, even if it is more cram.”

“Well, there’s no arguing with that then, is there?”, Nori yielded with a sigh. “At least once we’re out of Mirkwood the game will be edible.” He shared one final morning kiss before pushing himself up onto his feet and offering Dwalin his hand. Pulling the larger dwarf up, Nori and Dwalin sauntered around their sleeping prince in search of the others, and food.

Dori, Bifur, and Dis had indeed taken care of most of the preparations for the day’s journey. They were sitting around the charred remains of the previous night’s campfire partaking in a breakfast of dried roots and cram.

“Good morning, brother,” Dori said as Nori and Dwalin approached. “Did you sleep well?” He reached for a helping of breakfast for each of them.

“Best night sleep I’ve had in weeks,” Nori answered, taking a bite of cram; sustaining, but bland. “I think your tea worked wonders, Dori.” Nori seldom lied outright to his brother, but the look of joy on Dori’s face was worth it. “I wonder if Tauriel would allow us the luxury of more campfires here on out.”

“I mentioned it to Tauriel this morning, and she made it perfectly clear she was not fond of the idea,” Dori huffed. “‘Alatar needed fire for his work, and extra caution had been taken’, she’d said. ‘Anymore would be reckless for as long as we wander the heart of Mirkwood.’ Reckless indeed! She said so herself, that the spiders have retreated.”

Nori was sharp, but even the most oblivious dwarf would have noticed the way Dwalin’s posture stiffened and brow furrowed at the mention of Alatar’s name. He also seemed to lose his appetite, despite wolfing his food down only moments prior. He covered for the shift in his mood. “A shame, but probably for the best. Of all of us, she knows best the horrors that lurk in these shadows. Better to forgo a little tea and keep Thorin safe.” Nori wasn’t convinced.

Dori sighed. “You’re right, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“Speaking of Thorin,” Dis said, “it’s about time he awoke.” She stood, directing a pointed glance at Dwalin. “I’ll wake Bofur up too. It’s about time we get moving.” Nobody picked up the conversation after Dis left; Nori and Dwalin ate in silence until she returned with an irritable Thorin and a sleepwalking Bofur. Dori was quick to hand them a bowl of food each. It didn’t take too long before they were animated enough to form words beyond grunts and mumbles.

“So today we cross the river,” Thorin remarked, “and it’s how many days before we’re out of the woods?”

“Assuming nothing goes wrong, about a week,” Nori answered.

“And how exactly are we getting to the other side?”

“With tea,” chimed Alatar, arriving with Pallando and Tauriel. He carried a worn ceramic jug, whilst Pallando juggled enough cups for each of them.

Dori perked right up. “How wonderful!”, he exclaimed.

“I would not be inclined to get your hopes up,” Pallando warned as he distributed the cups. “There is a vast difference in which beverages you and he would call ‘tea’”. The look Alatar gave Pallando was filthy, but Pallando seemed not to mind.

“Nonsense!”, Dori retorted in Alatar’s defence. “I’m sure it will be splendid.”

Alatar showed Dori his appreciation by filling his cup first. Dori graciously brought it to his lips, sipped, and recoiled almost at once. “Orc’s piss!”, he cursed, wiping his mouth. Nori guffawed hysterically. He could not remember the last time Dori had sworn like that, but leave it to bad tea to bring out the worst manners in his brother.

“It’s not that bad,” Alatar said bitterly, but then, more seriously, “I must insist you drink all of it, however. It is a prophylactic that will safeguard each of you from the river’s enchantment.”

Dori braved another taste with a shudder. “For a wizard, you know nothing about tea,” he grumbled. “For Pallando’s sake, I have much to teach you.”

Alatar shared the tea amongst the rest of the dwarves and they all drank. Its acrid flavour tormented Nori’s nose before it had reached his lips. He poured the bitter drink down his throat in one gulp and fought to keep it down. Orc’s piss was too kind, Nori thought to himself. But the deed was done, and that was all that mattered. One by one, the others finished theirs, Thorin struggling the most, but still managing to swallow it all without too much sputtering.

The only one who did not drink was Tauriel. Her role was to cover them from the trees, in case of an attack. Nori questioned whether he might have been able to climb across the branches like she, but at their furthest from the shore, they looked too thin to risk it. He felt more at home climbing stone than wood anyway.

“What now?”, Dis asked over Dori, who was still complaining.

“It won’t take long to have an effect,” Alatar explained. “Your skin will feel numb, but that is expected. For as long as it lasts, you will be protected. Once on the other side, we should change out of our wet clothes, and allow them to dry completely before proceeding, to be safe.”

“Best we get ready quickly, then,” Nori decided. “Before we lose all feeling.”

The others agreed, and together they collected the last of their supplies. Nori began to feel an uncomfortable tingling sensation creeping its way along his toes as he was securing his bundled bedroll to the saddle of his pony, Borak. Nori noticed his pony seemed to share in his discomfort. “We fed them Alatar’s tea earlier,” Tauriel explained. “They’re probably not used to the sensation.” She stroked Borak’s snow-white mane soothingly, despite him being numb to it. “He comes from a line that has served the dwarves for generations. I doubt his ancestors have experienced anything quite like this.”

“We’ll have to find a way to thank you for putting up with this,” Nori said to the pony. Borak just snorted in response.

It was not long Nori’s fingers began to prickle, the feeling working its way up his limbs to his core, until he was numb all over. He felt vulnerable.

It was time.

“Be careful not to wound yourselves,” Alatar warned, “you won’t notice until the effect wears off.” Then, as if to demonstrate, he picked up the reins of his horse and led it to the river. Tentatively, he stepped into the water, his boot disappearing beneath the dark surface. “Watch your step,” he said. “The stones are slippery.” Carefully, Alatar took another step into the river, and began treading his way across, cautiously. Pallando followed close behind.

Nori swallowed a deep breath. Well, one of us will have to go next, he told himself. Leading Borak, Nori approached the river. It did not look welcoming. Moria is waiting, he reminded himself, and this is the path I must take. The Book of Mazarbul. Ori’s legacy. It called to him, from the black depths of an unknown labyrinth. No matter what lay before him, Nori would not stop moving forward. I will find it.

He took his first step into the river, and felt neither its wetness, nor its cold. I still have my wits, he assured himself, so that’s a good sign. He took another. Dori followed, as did Bifur and Bofur. Dis was next, making sure Thorin stayed close to her. Nori turned back to find Dwalin the last to venture into the river, paralysed at the water’s edge with his pony. He could only imagine what was racing through the big dwarf’s head. This river had tortured Dwalin for over one hundred and fifty years. In that time, he had not stopped blaming himself for what happened to Thrain. All because of one mistake any dwarf could have made. It was not fair that Dwalin carried that burden alone.

Their eyes met. For the first time, Nori saw terror in Dwalin’s gaze. It occurred to Nori that he was perhaps the first to see that fear. That he was the first Dwalin trusted with it. There was already no question in Nori’s mind, nor his heart, that he would accept that trust. That he would help Dwalin, no matter what.

“I can’t do this without you,” Nori said. “I need you.”

“I’m no use,” Dwalin murmured, the sound almost carried away by the babbling of the stream. “I would only fail you.”

“No,” Nori responded. “You cannot fail me.” Frustrated, he knew there existed such words that captured his feelings, yet he struggled to find them. “It’s like our souls are bound to each other. As long as you are by my side, I have the strength to move forward. I need that strength. You cannot know how aimless I was without you, because you weren’t there. But it’s true. I didn’t know it was missing until you were by my side, and I no longer felt weak. And now, I don’t want to feel that weakness again. I need your strength, Dwalin. I need you to come with me. I know it's selfish, but I know you must feel the same way too. I’ve seen it. I’ve felt it. You can't deny it.”

“Aye,” was all Dwalin could say.

“Then, let’s do this together. Let’s move forward, together.” He extended his hand out to Dwalin.

The time it took for Dwalin to accept it felt like an eternity, but all that mattered to Nori was that he took it. Clasping it tightly, Dwalin stepped into the water, and together, he and Nori crossed the river.

Chapter Text

“Go down, down into the darkness, to the deepest corner of the Mountain. If the light can’t find you, neither will they. You are only safe for as long as you are blind.”

What? Who’s there? I… I don’t… I don’t know where I am. I can’t see anything! I’m slipping!

“Careful! You must push out with your limbs! Press with your feet! Latch with your fingers! The walls are all around you! You must hold on! To fall now is to die. There, that’s it. Hold on tight. Steady yourself. Catch your breath.”

I… I can’t do it! The walls are too slick, and my muscles ache. It’s only a matter of time before I lose my grip. I was… I was… I don’t remember where I was, nor how I got here. I’m so tired. Why can’t I let go? I would just disappear as quickly as I came to be.

“Death is not yours to claim. Others have paid for your life, and now you must live for their sake.”

Paid for… how? With what? I’m sorry. I don’t remember! How did I get here?

“Now is not the time for questions. You will not survive here! You must make your way down.”

But I don’t even know my name! Who am I?!

“…”

I’m not moving until you answer. Damp walls… narrow shaft… A well! Why is it that I know the words and nothing else? There is no sunlight above, is there water below?

“The well is dry. It has not held water for centuries.”

Then what is it that trickles down the walls? I feel the wetness at my back, and on my fingers.

“It is not water, but blood.”

...Blood?!

“Don’t let go! Focus! Hold fast! It is the blood of your friends that drips down the stone now, their price for you. You must not let their sacrifice be in vain!”

Blood… I don’t believe it. How can this be? I don’t remember a thing! Tell me what is happening!

“You desire answers, but you will not find them here.”

Then where? Where will I find them?

“Down. Down into the darkness.”

***

The traveller awoke with a start. Jerking upright, fingers wrapped around his dagger, he slashed, his blade cutting through the air cleanly. He was alone, sitting atop a bed of straw in the loft of an otherwise empty barn. Beams of late morning light stung at his weary eyes, but he dared not close them, instead enduring it, fixing his gaze out the large window he had been sleeping under to the weeping grey skies above. All that mattered was that he could find the light. Staring out at it, his breathing calmed, his heart slowed, and his muscles relaxed.

Tiny drops still misted down upon the land, as they had for weeks now. Despite the unending drizzle, he had kept the shutters open since his arrival, and moisture had permeated through the barn, eating away at the stores of hay. That was no concern of the lone dwarf that had claimed the shelter for his own. The farm had long been abandoned. Most likely, its owners the unfortunate victims of rogues in need of horses and food. The homestead had been ransacked, and reeked with the stench of death. By comparison, the barn was much more hospitable.

His body did not take kindly to the sudden jolt of movement upon waking, and responded with a solid jab of pain in the ribs. Groaning, he placed a hand over his bruised muscles and eased himself back onto the floor.

Just a dream, he told himself. So vivid they were, those dreams of the dark, that he may have once called them memories. But they were not his memories. No, they belonged to another, one whose name was long forgotten, a name lost in absolute blackness. There were never any visions, nothing to provide some hint of where they came from. He might have doubted he was dreaming at all, but for the voice, urging him deeper, deeper into the shadows. He heard it clearly, as though another stood over him while he slept, whispering in his ear. So compelling it was, he always obeyed, and made his descent. At first, it felt right. There was danger above, and the threat was real. He had to go down to where it was safe, where the answers lay.

The path was always the same. Though it would seem an eternity before reaching the bottom of the well, he would always make it. He never fell. The moment his boots touched the hard, stone floor, he would breathe a sigh of relief, ready to collapse, but there was never any time for rest. He was still trapped, and if he stayed there, he would surely perish. He had nothing with which to cut the stone, but it was weak at the points where the water had drained, cracks eroded over time, enough for him to kick away loosened rocks to an adjacent tunnel. So small it was, he could not even crawl through it on his hands and knees, but rather, had to lie down in the dust and writhe through it like a snake, shuffling with his shoulders and his knees, across the uneven floor, feeling his way forward blindly, scraping at his head against the stone completely entombing him. The voice urged him onward, however, assuring him that he would reach the other side, that he had to press on, deeper into the Mountain. He would listen, and slither forward, until eventually the Mountain relinquished its stranglehold on him, releasing its grip until he had room enough to crawl, and finally, stand.

But still he could not rest. The voice would insist he keep going, direly. He would stumble in the dark until he found a passage that would take him deeper, only now he felt the burning ache of hunger and thirst. The voice would assure him that he was close, that sanctuary awaited, that he was almost there. But this was the point when he would begin to have his doubts. Something was not right. The hand of terror would place its hand around his heart, and squeeze tighter with every step, until he could go on no longer.

“Why have you stopped?”

Something is wrong.

“You must keep going! You’re almost there!”

No… I can feel it… the evil that lies ahead.

“You have to trust me. You are only safe for as long as you remain in the shadows.”

No! You’re wrong! This is senseless!

“Turn back now, and you will die!”

You’re wrong! You’re wrong! There is no refuge in the deep!

And then he would speak to the voice no more, screaming only for the light, until he escaped the nightmare.

Whatever it was he feared, it was gone the instant he opened his eyes. Everything was left behind in the dark, and all that remained was a nameless dwarf, a drifter with no past.

Just a dream, he told himself again.

His muscles still throbbed, and he winced. Lifting his shirt and looking down, he inspected himself to find his skin was still spotted with yellow bruises. The thugs that had assailed him in the bar a few weeks back had not been kind, having managed to land quite a few damaging blows. Had he been top-form, he’d have made easy work of the Men. But instead, he had been hungry, desperate, and taken by surprise. Despite quickly disarming his nearest opponent, the one with a fondness for riddles, of his ornate dagger and a few fingers, they were not deterred. In fact, they seemed to welcome the challenge with bloodlust. Without flinching, the riddler launched himself into the dwarf, taking him to the ground, and assaulted him with a flurry of punches with his remaining good hand to his face and his ribs.

A well-placed kick slowed his enemy’s attack enough for the traveller to slice again with his dagger, this time at his man’s face, barely grazing the skin. He kicked again, and this time it knocked the man off his feet, sending him into the nearest table with a crash. That was when the other charged, but the traveller did not hesitate to respond. A quick swing of his feet caught the man off balance, and he fell face first into the rounded rim of the countertop. It was just enough to buy the dwarf a chance to scramble to his feet and flee.

Ignoring the pain, he ran out of the bar, towards the outskirts of the town, to lose them in the wilds. He knew they would be after him. They knew his secret. It was dangerous, but he didn’t have a choice. Reaching into his pocket, the dwarf found the item they prized and slipped it around his finger. He used the very power they sought to escape them, and it was for that reason alone that he had been able to remain hidden for so long, as he recovered from his injuries.

The traveller pulled out the ring and examined it. Its gold gleamed magnificently, even under the subdued light of the cloudy skies. Eerily, it seemed both familiar and unknown to him all at once. It had been with him since before he had lost his name, and it was perhaps his only tie to the dwarf he once was. Like him, he was sure it had a name, only it had been forgotten. If only he could remember what it was, he might learn something about himself. He knew it was hopeless, though. He'd been trying as much for years, and in that time, had recalled nothing. All he knew was what it could do, and what it did to him.

But apparently, he was not the only one aware of its secrets. And, even more surprisingly, that person had given the dwarf a clue.

"I am gold,
But more dear,
Whispers quiet,
In your ear.

To your desires,
I will take you,
One of seven,
I will break you."

The traveller smiled for the first time in an age. A wanderer he was, but until that moment, he lacked the one thing a wanderer needed most, a direction in which to walk. With no past, and no knowledge of from where he’d come, his compass had spun wildly, and he had walked aimlessly. Suddenly, it was still, and, despite his pains, the dwarf tingled with excitement at the prospect of a future.

“One of seven… it would seem you are not one of a kind.” He hadn’t known that. Perhaps… perhaps if he found the others, he might also find himself.

He knew it could cost him, but it was worth the gamble. He slipped the ring on his finger, and listened.

It uttered a single word.

“East.”

Chapter Text

Thorin’s first step out from under the shade of Mirkwood and into the sunlight that bathed the Vales of Anduin was blinding. Squinting, he took a moment to allow his eyes to adjust, noting how good it was to feel sun’s embrace upon his skin for the first time in weeks.

Nothing could have prepared him for the sight that awaited him.

Before him, the Misty Mountains spanned the horizon, stretching from the furthest reaches North to distant South, as far as could be seen, like a great wall of stone that towered up, up into the sky beyond the silver clouds. The sky was a brilliant blue, the grass and trees majestic in their greenery. In the distance, he could spot the Anduin weaving its way through the Vale.

It took his breath away.

“What do you think?”, Nori asked, taking pause by the young prince to admire the view himself.

Thorin didn’t know what to think. Compared to the tremendous peaks rising before him now, the Iron Hills where had grown up were nothing more than mere knolls. Until his arrival at Erebor, they had been the tallest Mountains he had ever known, but were still impressive in their magnitude when contrasted to the Lonely Mountain, all on its own. Now, they seemed like children, standing on the tips of their toes, arms outstretched, barely able to brush against the sky with the tips of their fingers.

“It’s as though I’m seeing Mountains for the first time,” Thorin replied with awe.

Nori didn’t comment. His gaze had drifted to the South, toward their destination. Moria. Suddenly Thorin realised he could no longer picture how vast the ancient city must be, housed within such enormous alps. It was beyond his imagination.

This is why I am here, Thorin reminded himself. To see such wonders with my own eyes. He’d come a long way in the weeks since they’d left the Mountain the day after King Brand’s coronation. Never would he have guessed that he’d traverse the treacherous Mirkwood, let alone come out of it completely unscathed. He had Tauriel to thank for that.

Sleep had eluded him during his first nights in the forest, as he lay awake considering the mess he had gotten himself into. If the wood-elves were to catch them, there was no telling of the wrath his father would bring down upon them, especially on Nori. He meant to talk to his father about the quest, truly, but he had been afraid. He had never challenged his father before, and even though he was determined, he felt as though his one chance to see the world was just going to slip through his fingers before he was even able to grasp it. He knew his father would say no, that there was no convincing him otherwise, and that terrified Thorin.

By lying, Thorin figured he was buying himself time. That perhaps, on the journey, he might find his courage, and return to the Mountain strong enough to accept full responsibility for the quest and face whatever punishment his father might impose. But after his weeks in Mirkwood, despite not encountering any danger first-hand, he did not feel any braver. Knowing that at any moment, spiders, scorpions, or beasts untold could hurtle from the shadows and slaughter them all, he had remained fearful. Even with all his years of practice with the axe, spear, and sword, Thorin did not believe he had any prospect of survival against such monsters. Knowing the stories of the Company’s last expedition through Mirkwood, and hearing Dwalin tell his own, of how the forest had claimed Thrain, he felt utterly dependent on the protection of Tauriel, Dwalin, Dis, and the others. That they were so tense themselves did not help him rest any easier.

“What a relief it is to be out of those woods!”, exclaimed Dori. “I know it is your home, Tauriel, but I find Mirkwood completely unsettling. It’s a relief to put it behind me.”

“There is no insult,” Tauriel responded. “Your first impression was as unpleasant as could be, after being attacked by spiders and then captured my own people.”

“I’m sure the day will come when we shall experience the Greenwood under more inviting circumstances,” said Alatar. Beside him, Thorin heard Dwalin snort.

“For now, let’s put as much distance between us and Mirkwood as is possible,” Dori said to his brother, under his breath, not nearly quiet enough for Tauriel to miss. His pony seemed to agree eagerly; for too long their advance had been sluggish, traversing through thick forest underbrush that scratched and pricked at the skin. Now there was room to run, and the animals were keen to stretch their muscles.

“The sun is still high in the sky,” Nori observed. “I think we should make it to the Anduin well before sundown.”

“Of course, the earlier we get there, the better the odds that we’ll be smoking trout for dinner,” Bofur chimed in, mouth watering at the thought.

“Smoked trout!”, Dori cried out. “What a marvellous idea!”

Bofur took off at a gallop, with Dori following and Bifur close behind. Nori cast a playful grin at Dwalin before racing to catch up. Thorin looked up at the bearish captain. “Is it safe for them to run off like that?”

Dwalin hummed. “This land here is the realm of the Beornings. They don’t take too kindly to dwarves, but their leader, Beorn, should remember us at least. Since our last journey through these lands, his people have guarded the Ford of Carrock, and have kept the High Pass over the Misty Mountains clear of orcs and other fiends. As long as we are here, we have less to fear than we did in Mirkwood. Also," Dwalin added absently, "Nori knows better than to let his guard down.” He tightened his hold on his reins. “All the same, better that we don’t get left behind. Are you ready?”

“Aye,” Thorin replied, and together they sped after the others. Dis was right on their tail, as were the wizards and Tauriel, who was sharing the ride with Pallando. The crisp breeze whistling through Thorin’s beard was refreshing, and he felt well and truly alive as he bounded across the fields. Now this was adventure!

***

Bofur and Nori were already knee deep in the water, boots off, trousers rolled to their thighs, and barechested by the time Thorin reached the Great River. Unlike the enchanted river of Mirkwood, the Anduin was crystal clear, its bed of round, bronze stones sparkling in the afternoon sun. It was easy to spot the streaks of silver darting their way upstream. Thorin had never seen so many trout before, not in the Celduin, nor in the Carnen of the Iron Hills. He dismounted his pony, who began lapping at the cool water thirstily, and watched the two dwarves fishing in the stream with fascination.

Standing still as statues, they waited, arms poised, ready to thrust their hands into the water. Bofur was the least patient of the two, and it was not long before he plunged his arms like spears into the water with a mighty splash.

“I was just about to get one!”, Nori yelled angrily.

“I almost had it!”, Bofur argued back, beard dripping wet. “They’re slippery little critters!”

“Don’t just grab them, tickle them!”

“I keep telling you, that doesn’t make any sense!”

Nori, exasperated with his friend, shoved Bofur into the water.

“Those too will never catch any fish at this rate,” Dori sighed, as Bofur launched himself back at Nori, tackling him into the river. “Bifur, would you perhaps join me further downstream where we might have better luck?”

With his right index finger pointing to the sky, Bifur looped it around his open left hand. Then, again with his right, he pointed twice at his left index finger, once on the underside, and once on the fingernail, and then at Dori. Next, he curled his right index finger, and tapped his hand against his breast twice. Then he made a diamond shape with both hands, which he closed by curling his fingers and thumbs together. Breaking the shape by moving his hands apart, Bifur clenched them into fists, pointed at Dori with both index fingers, and then brought his hands together again.

Thorin wasn’t quite sure what had been said, as he was not so fluent in Iglishmek, but the response seemed to be favourable, as Dori smiled and said “Of course, if you are willing to reciprocate.”

“If you have enough time to stand by idly watching the others, then perhaps instead you ought to resume your training, Thorin,” said Dis suddenly, surprising Thorin.

He sighed. He hadn’t practiced his drills since he’d left the Mountain, and his edge had most likely dulled. It wouldn’t take long for Dwalin to notice, and that meant that he would not go easy on him. Dis was right, though. He needed to be ready in case anything happened. He turned to his Captain. “Dwalin, would you mind running through some exercises with me before dinner?”

Dwalin offered no reply. He was completely transfixed by the Bofur and Nori’s horseplay in the river. He hadn’t even dismounted his pony. “Dwalin?”, Thorin asked again, but he may as well have been talking to a rock. “Dwalin!”, he tried again, this time assertively. That caught the large dwarf’s attention.

“Thorin, I…”, Dwalin stammered, his voice drifting. “Apologies. I was distracted.”

“I should probably be training,” Thorin said unenthusiastically.

“Aye,” Dwalin agreed, now more focussed. “That you should.” He dismounted, collecting his axes, Uhklat and Umraz. Thorin rummaged through his own pack for his sword, and when he turned back around, he discovered Dwalin had unfastened his cloak and taken off his shirt. Thorin stifled a moan. He knew this game. He removed his own cloak and tunic and lifted his sword.

“You know the drill,” Dwalin said, axes at the ready. “Try not to get cut.”

***

The silver clouds were shining gold, and the sky was a rainbow of rose, amber, azure, and indigo by the time Dwalin was finished with Thorin. The young prince was beaten, battered, and utterly exhausted. To say he was out of practice was an understatement; he had not managed to land a single hit during the entire exercise. He knew the next day would have him feeling sore all over. Dwalin had not even broken into a sweat. After such effort, the smell of dinner was particularly enticing.

Dori and Bifur indeed had more luck when it came to fishing than their younger siblings, and had caught plenty for everyone with enough time to clean them and bathe them in a brine of salt and water. They had shaved chips of wood from a nearby maple, and soaked them in water so that they burned slower. Once the chips were smouldering, and the fish cooking, Thorin’s stomach was growling hungrily. A bottle of ale was opened, and that night Thorin enjoyed the best meal he’d had in a long time. He was sleeping soundly long before he had the chance to fully appreciate the tapestry of stars draped across the night sky.

Chapter Text

The next morning, despite his muscles aching after his rigorous work out with Dwalin, Thorin felt completely rested. Not only Thorin, but everyone’s spirits were reinvigorated. Even Dis was less stern than usual. Bright and early, they enjoyed the last of the trout, which tasted even more delicious after being left to soak overnight, and the company was quick about packing up the camp for another day’s ride. The ponies were full of energy in anticipation of another run over the Vale’s soft, grassy fields, and were just as eager to set forth. They were on the move just as the sun was beginning to poke its head over the Eastern horizon, its golden fingers reaching out to the highest peaks of the Misty Mountains.

They rode at a leisurely pace, following the river South, as colour slowly returned to the world. Aside from the rhythmic hoofbeats of the ponies, the steady gush of the river, and the occasional birdsong, the Vale was quiet and peaceful. So much was new to Thorin. Watching the river, he saw foxes, rabbits, deer, and other creatures had come to the Anduin to enjoy an early morning drink. They gathered abundance, far greater numbers than he had ever seen before, and, to his surprise, the animals seemed to pay the travelling company no mind as they sipped from the water.

Thorin asked Dwalin about their odd behaviour. “Surely they must fear us as hunters? Why don’t they scatter?”

Dwalin explained. “The Beornings are Skin-changers. They take form of beasts. Why, Beorn could transform into a great, big bear. I guess that means they share a special bond with the animals. It would explain why they do not hunt them. Here, the animals are friend, not food.”

“They don’t eat meat at all? That mustn’t be very satisfying.”

“I thought so too, until I tried the honey-cakes,” Dwalin said reminiscently.

That was enough to pique Thorin's curiosity. “Will we be paying Beorn a visit?”

“Perhaps...”, Dwalin mused, stroking his beard and licking his lips.

Thorin smiled. He certainly wanted to meet Beorn, and learn more about the Skin-changers, and try the honey-cakes. “His hall sits at the foot of the Carrock, right?”

“Aye, that it does. We should be there in a few days.”

Looking ahead into the distance, he failed to identify the stony hill. I’m sure I’ll see it soon enough, he thought to himself. As excited as he was to meet Beorn, he was a little anxious about what else lay ahead. If there was still some time before they arrived at the Carrock, Thorin was happy to enjoy it while it lasted.

***

They covered a great distance that morning, and when the sun was at the pinnacle of its journey across the sky, the company stopped by the river again to allow the ponies to catch their breath and quench their thirst. Thorin was tempted by the thought of hunting game for a hearty lunch, but was hesitant to make the suggestion. The thought of accidentally catching and eating a Skin-changer turned his stomach. Dori more than made up for the lack of meat by happening upon a patch of blackberries, ripe for the picking. Thorin helped Bifur harvest the fruit as Dori collected the leaves for tea.

“This turned out to be a good spot for a break,” Thorin commented.

“If only we had some lemons,” Dori sighed. “We could make jam.”

Thorin shared the blackberries with the others, and settled down to enjoy some himself at the base of a smooth, granite boulder, almost as tall as Pallando, that had somehow come to rest on the gravel riverbank. Years by the water had resulted in the large stone being encrusted with lichen and moss, but underneath its decorations, Thorin saw that its surface was quite pale.

“I’ll bet a stone-giant threw this one,” Bofur said, joining Thorin.

“Like the ones that live on the Mountainside?”, Thorin asked in disbelief. He turned to look at the Misty Mountains. As imposing as they were, he could not fathom the boulder had soared over such a distance. “Impossible!”, he exclaimed.

“You say that, but then you’ve never had one thrown at you, now have ya? Something like that I’d only wish on a goblin, and the rocks they hurled at us were much bigger than this one. Lobbing a boulder like this all the way out here would be nothing to a giant, like flicking a pebble.”

Thorin knew the story of the Company’s perilous crossing through the Misty Mountains, but he’d never really thought about how it must have felt to inch their way along the high ledges, battling the snow and wind above the clouds, as the giants tossed boulders at each other.

“Bofur doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” chimed Nori, casting a blackberry into the air and catching it in his mouth. “If this had flown all the way from the Mountains, it’d be dust.”

“Hah! A rock like this does not break so easy!”, Bofur argued back. He tore away at the moss to expose the surface of the stone, and tapped it with his fist. “The composition of quartz here is much greater than that back at Erebor. It’s what gives it that shine.” It wasn’t shiny at all from Thorin’s perspective, but perhaps that was due more to the fact it was still rather grimy, more than Bofur having made an error. Bofur was a dwarf of the mines, and he knew his stone. Thorin was far more inclined to side with him than Nori.

Nori, however, was adamant that Bofur had just proven himself wrong. “Shine? Bah! There’s more quartz in your head than in that stone!”

“Really? Perhaps we should try cracking it with your skull and see how tough that is!”

The conversation only degenerated from there. As the two continued bickering, Thorin wondered more about the stone-giants. Am I truly capable of facing such danger? He wanted to believe so. He’d braved Mirkwood, but that was because they had been so cautious. I crossed the enchanted river, he reminded himself. That was something. Admittedly, it was only because he had been trying to keep up with Dis and Dwalin that he’d set aside his doubts. It was nothing in comparison to the achievements of Thorin Oakenshield at his age. Thorin wanted desperately to prove he was just as capable.

My chance will come soon enough. With each passing day, they were drawing ever closer to Moria. There, they would lose all guarantee of safety. Eventually, their luck was going to change, and Thorin knew that he was going to be tested. He only hoped that he would be ready. I’ll practice again with Dwalin this afternoon, and this time I will hit him, he swore.

***

As soon as the ponies were revitalised, the company set forth again. “We’ll keep riding until the sun dips below the peaks, and then we’ll set up camp,” Nori said. “Might as well cover as much ground as we can while the going is easy.”

Though the landscape had plenty of character, it did not vary much as they ventured southward. Before long, Thorin had discovered all the Vale had to offer. Dis had explained to him the names and stories of the trees and flowers that he did not know, and learning about them had helped pass the time, but now he found himself out of ideas to occupy his mind. The animals of the Vale were no longer anywhere to be seen, and so he was on the lookout for anything that might catch his attention.

He spotted the boulder a little way to the West, on the other side of the Anduin, nestled cosily in a meadow behind a copse of willow. He would not have spotted it at all had it not been gleaming subtly in the afternoon sun. A new addition to the Vale, Thorin thought. Its surface is clean, it must have landed here recently. Bofur was right about the quartz giving it a little shine. It was very pale, a light sky-blue in colour, and bigger than the one they’d found by the river. All the more impressive that it had been thrown so far. The stone-giants certainly live up to their name.

He kept watching it as he rode along to get a better view of it once he was beyond the trees. As he circled it, he noticed that the boulder had broken up a little on impact with the ground. Pieces of it seemed to have scattered in the grass. He also noticed that it was not smooth all over; there were little protrusions running across the top, like broken pieces of a petrified tree that had rooted itself into the stone, but not tightly enough to hold on during the flight. That might explain why the stone had weakened, though.

Thorin's interest in the boulder was waning the more he had to twist his head to keep his gaze on it, and was about to turn away when a glint of deep blue caught his eye. A sapphire embedded into the stone glistened at Thorin, and it captivated him, enough that he lost his balance and tumbled off his saddle.

“Thorin! What happened?”, demanded Dis.

“I saw…” he looked again for the radiant gemstone fixed to the rock, and was surprised to find not one, but two, staring right back at him. He froze, unable to move an inch, not even for so much as a breath. The boulder, however, began to shift. Slowly, it rose from the ground on four slender legs armed with serrated, hooked claws. Its tail uncoiled, slicing through the blades of grass behind it. It opened its mouth to reveal its sharp, hungry fangs.

At that point, the others had noticed their prince’s strange conduct. One by one, they matched the direction of his gaze, and found what had startled him. Thorin didn’t need them to announce what it was. He knew.

It was not a boulder at all.

It was a drake.

Chapter Text

Thorin!

Dwalin leapt off his pony and was by his prince’s side in a heartbeat. Just like any other dwarf, Thorin had his flaws, but it was a rare occurrence for him to demonstrate the clumsiness of slipping off his saddle. Dwalin hoped desperately nothing was wrong. Kneeling down, Dwalin placed a hand on Thorin’s shoulder. “Is everything alright?” There was no obvious sign of physical injury, but it was clear as crystal that Thorin was far from fine. Jaw agape, eyes wide, he lay prone, propped up by his arms yet unable to pick himself up any further. Something had struck terror into his heart, something from which he could not be torn away. Dwalin looked up and knew at once the source of Thorin’s panic, and felt it himself, coursing through his veins.

Laying eyes on the long, reptilian snout lined with silvery scales and sharp teeth, and the cold, lapis eyes staring back, ‘dragon’ was the first word that sprang to mind. But having witnessed the magnitude of Smaug the Terrible first-hand, Dwalin questioned that notion. As formidable as it was, the beast before him now was most certainly a lesser creature. Though the resemblance was striking, there were many keen differences. For one, it was much smaller; twice as large as a fully grown horse, and about four times as long by Dwalin’s estimation. Colossal before dwarves, yet puny when compared to the monster that had single handedly taken the Mountain. Of course, Smaug’s enormity had been exacerbated by his vast wings, a feature this behemoth lacked.

Even more notably absent than wings, however, was the wrath of dragon fire. The nearby trees were uncharred, the grass around it unsinged; there wasn’t the slightest trace of ash or cinder, nor so much as a smoulder wafting from the beast’s nostrils. Instead, it was armed with two large, intimidating horns on its forehead, and numerous ivory barbs running down its spine. As well as possessing menacing claws and a whip-like tail, the beast boasted a dangerous arsenal at its disposal. That there was no risk of being burned was of little comfort to Dwalin.

A cold-drake. That was the name for such a creature. What one was doing in the Vales of Anduin was a complete mystery. It was unheard of for them to venture South below the Grey Mountains, they had not done so for several centuries. Even more bizarre was that it would do so when these lands belonged to the Beornings. For a moment, Dwalin feared that something had happened to Beorn. But only a moment. The drake had no intention of allowing the dwarves time to contemplate their situation. It was eager to demonstrate that its inability to fly was more than made up for by its speed.

Pouncing like a cat, it leapt from the long grass and began bounding across the meadow toward them. There was hardly time for response, but Dwalin's instincts kicked in immediately. Grabbing Thorin by his collar and his belt, he tossed the prince over the saddle of his pony like a sack of potatoes. Reaching for the nearest weapon within arm’s length, his mighty warhammer, Dwalin roared at the others.

“Run!”

His pony, thankfully, appreciated the urgency in Dwalin's voice. Taking off at a gallop, it raced past the others, who were still paralysed by what they were witnessing.

“I’ll hold it off!”, Dwalin barked. “Flee! At all costs, protect Thorin!”

Dis was the first to snap out of her daze. She saw the drake, and knew that she needed to get Thorin as far away as possible. Dwalin was doing his part, and she needed to act too. She snapped at the others. “Come! We have to go now!” Alatar, Pallando, Tauriel, Dori, Bifur, Bofur, she had their attention. “We cannot stop, even for an instant!” Of course, not even she could resist looking at Dwalin one last time before turning to catch up to Thorin. There was something about the way he was so ready, so prepared, to stand between his prince and a drake, surely knowing it would cost him his life… Why does that surprise me? There was no time. The drake was almost at the far banks of the Anduin. She charged after her prince, and the others thundered quickly behind.

Pallando, with Tauriel saddled behind him, and Alatar, immediately followed Dis after Thorin. Feeling helpless, Bifur and Bofur gave chase, but Dori hesitated. Nori hadn’t budged, his eyes fixed on Dwalin. Dori called to his brother. “Nori! What are you waiting for?!” His cry fell on deaf ears.

“Dwalin! Are you mad?! Get on!”, Nori demanded. He was offering his hand to Dwalin, urging him to climb up onto his pony. Thorin’s ride had bolted in fear after the prince fell, Dwalin’s own stallion was carrying him to safety. There was no alternative means of escape but for the large dwarf to ride with another.

But Dwalin was refusing.

You fool! Get out of here!, Dwalin thought angrily, the grip on his hammer so tight his knuckles were white as bone. “Nori! Fly South! To the Carrock! To Beorn! There is no time!”

“Not without you!”

The drake met the gushing waters of the Anduin with a tremendous splash.

You think I want this? What choice do I have? It pained Dwalin terribly, but they had very quickly run out of options. To die for Nori... that was the best he could do now. It was the only way he could show Nori how he felt, deep inside. But it meant nothing if Nori did not run! Thinking quickly, Dwalin realised how to sway Nori. I have to remind him what matters. “I’ll hold it off as long as I can," he said, "but you need to leave now. For Ori.” Nori winced. It would be difficult, but Dwalin knew that above all else, Nori had to complete his quest. All that mattered to Dwalin was that Nori was safe.

But still the stubborn dwarf did not budge. The drake was thrashing through the water, drawing ever closer. Dwalin could see the hesitation on Nori’s face, but it wasn’t enough. “If you die here, his legacy is lost.”

Nori frowned. “Dwalin… I need you! I…”

Don’t make this harder than it already is. Dwalin turned to face the drake, a chill wind cutting at his skin.

“Nori!”, Dori pleaded. “There’s nothing we can do! Dwalin… if anyone can slow it down, it’s Dwalin. There's no finer warrior here. The best we can do is take the chance he’s giving us.”

With Dwalin’s back to him, and his brother’s pleas ringing in his ears, Nori was at a loss. He remembered what Pallando had said, the night of the feast.

”If you do not bring Dwalin on this quest, it will fail.”

Is this what you meant?, Nori asked himself. That Dwalin must come all this way, only to die here? He refused to accept it. He hated feeling so helpless.

The drake buried its claws into the smooth stones of the near bank and began scrambling onto the shore.

“Nori!”, Dori begged.

There’s so much I have yet to say…

“Please!”

So much left to do…

“We have to go!”

It can’t end like this...

“Now!”

...Not now.

As the drake’s damp scales glistened in the sunlight, dripping sparkling diamond beads, time slowed down for Nori as adrenaline flooded his veins. Suddenly, he was thinking of Bilbo. What would Bilbo do? He always had an answer. At every sign of trouble, every danger, Bilbo always found a way through it. A mere hobbit! It was Bilbo that had bought enough time for Gandalf to save them from becoming a troll’s dinner. Bilbo, that freed them from the clutches of the spiders of Mirkwood. Bilbo, that snuck past the wood-elves and plotted their escape from Thranduil’s dungeon. Bilbo, that had found the Arkenstone. Every time, Bilbo. And what did Nori accomplish? Nothing. He was supposed to be the sneaky one. In Ered Luin, he could go where he pleased, nothing could stop him. Swift-footed, fast-handed, quick-witted, and yet, when it counted, he failed to achieve anything. In the end he had only slowed everyone down. A burden. Weak.

When Nori first decided to embark on this quest, he had chosen to do so alone. He knew he would face adversity, like none he had ever faced before, and that he would need to find the strength within him to overcome it. Meeting Dwalin in an alley, drowning in his despair, Nori saw an opportunity to prove that he was strong enough, by beating the strongest dwarf under the Mountain. Of course, he failed. He was no match for Dwalin. And yet, Nori did not lose hope. At the time, he thought perhaps it was because he had been wrong about his decision to do it alone. Dori, Bifur, Bofur, they had all signed on at once, agreeing to lend Nori their support. Then Pallando, Alatar, Thorin, Dis, ...Dwalin…, and Tauriel. With their strength, as well as his own, how could they fail?

But that wasn’t it at all. They weren’t the reason he kept going.

It was because, deep down, Nori knew he had the power. Not only to protect himself, but everyone else, too. He may not be a hobbit, but he was a dwarf. That meant he was capable of something.

I am done being the one who needs saving.

Even against a drake. There was a way. Nori just had to find it.

I will not lose you, Dwalin!

Muttering under his breath, so that only his pony would hear, Nori whispered, “Borak, I need you to do something for me. I promise I won’t get you killed.”

Borak snorted with about as much enthusiasm as Nori could have expected.

Dori… I’m sorry, His brother was not going to like what he did next. If, somehow, he managed to survive the drake, he could only hope that his brother wouldn't murder him.

Before Dori could understand what was happening, Nori charged towards the beast.

Chapter Text

The drake was already across the river and charging towards Dwalin, separated only by mere moments. Dwalin relaxed his knees, ready to spring away from the first attack, whether it come from a snap of its powerful jaws or a swipe of its vicious talons. There would be no time to think, only react. Deeply drinking in one final breath, he forced Nori out of his mind, his last hope that Dori had managed to convince him to escape, and glared at his enemy with a piercing, unblinking gaze.

Then the drake was upon him. Up close, it was an incarnation of every dwarf’s worst nightmare, enough to turn even the bravest of warriors into cowards. But not Dwalin. Armed with the knowledge that he was saving the others, saving Nori, he was ready to die. I promise you this, Dwalin swore. You will lose your taste for dwarf by the time you’re done with me. The beast arched its neck and opened its mouth wide, ready to swoop down and swallow the dwarf with one bite. Dwalin raised his hammer and prepared to swing with everything he had.

“NORI!”

Dwalin’s focus was cracked by Dori’s high-pitched squeal, and shattered by the streak of silver and copper that bolted past him.

Nori? No! He hesitated. The drake did not. Gaping darkness surrounded by fangs descended on Dwalin.

“Take this and begone!” A small, leather projectile caught the beast just below its right eye, jingling so distinctly there was not a dwarf nor dragon that did not recognise the sound. Gold?! Bribing a dragon was so witless an idea that it was unheard of, but the distraction worked. Dwalin leapt backward, feeling the shock of the drake’s savage maw as it clamped tightly around the space he had been standing.

“Leave him alone!” Another pouch, slightly bigger, catching the drake on the neck. Expecting another lunge, Dwalin rolled, but none came. Instead, the beast’s pupil drifted away from the dwarf in front and centred on the menace to the side. With a snarl, it turned its head. Nori had its attention.

That’s it, over here, come for the shinies, Nori urged as he darted out of range of its dangerous foreclaws. Of course, it was already whirling around to catch him with its tail, but Nori anticipated this. “It’s gonna be close!”, Nori told Borak. “But it’ll go for me! Keep low, and as soon as there’s an opening, get away from here! Don’t worry about me!”

Freeing his feet from his stirrups, Nori hopped up onto the saddle, balancing precariously for an instant before springing toward the drake. Vaulting on the dragon’s thigh, Nori reached for its back, the tips of his fingers seizing hold of the spiny ridge while his toes sought desperately for a foothold. He’d climbed walls both smooth and slippery in the past, but they were nothing compared to dragonskin. Its ironlike scales were coarse, but slick from the river, and writhed about as the drake moved its hind legs. Pulling himself up with his arms, Nori clambered onto its back as quickly as he could, narrowly avoiding a powerful flick of the drake’s tail.

Nori cast a quick glance at Borak. As he’d hoped, he was the drake’s true target, not the pony. Borak had been able to duck under its swing, and was now galloping away with incredible speed. Nori might have felt relief that Borak had escaped, but the drake was already preparing its next lash. Nori began scrambling up its spine, but not fast enough. This time the drake did not miss. The tip of its tail thrashed across his back, his muscles tearing as they held on for dear life.

Seeing Nori take that terrible blow snapped Dwalin back to reality. The drake had been ignoring he and Dori, preoccupied instead with the pestilent dwarf that was climbing it. Dwalin had no idea what Nori was thinking, only that the fool was going to get himself killed.

“Dori.” Dwalin said flatly. “Plans have changed. We’re taking this beast.”

“N… Nori… what is he…”

“Nori has decided to fight. So shall we.”

“Dwalin… I can’t lose… not again…”

“It will not touch another hair on his beard,” Dwalin growled through his teeth. Nori hadn't fallen, which meant he was still fighting, but the drake was moments away from assailing him again. Another strike, and Nori was finished. Dwalin was not going to let that happen. He looked up at Dori, eyes ablaze with determination. “I will protect him.” Then, he whirled back toward the drake, charging for its nearest talon. As the dragon’s tail began to descend upon Nori, Dwalin lifted his hammer and crashed it down onto an ivory claw. There was a great crack as dwarven steel ruptured dragonbone, followed by an ear-splitting shriek.

***

It tore Bifur’s heart to leave Dwalin behind, but there hadn’t been any other choice. The drake glided over the grasslands faster than they could sprint. Their only means of escape was that somehow it was delayed. Bifur knew that out of all of them, Dwalin was the most capable of doing so, but not even the Captain of the Royal Guard stood a chance of surviving against such a foe. Dwalin was giving his life for them, and there was no way to repay his sacrifice but to move forward and protect the others in his place. Tears streaming down his cheeks, Bifur vowed to do just that.

Wiping the moisture from his eyes, Bifur focused on what lay ahead. The Vale was no longer safe. Encountering one drake meant there could be others, or worse. He had to do everything he could to keep Thorin and Bofur safe. He knew Bofur could handle himself; what worried Bifur was that he was prone to acting recklessly. On the other hand, Thorin had just revealed how inexperienced he truly was. Still slumped over his saddle in shock, Bifur doubted that the prince was capable of fighting at all, if it came to it. Getting them both as far away from danger as possible was their best hope. Without pause, they would reach the Carrock within a day. With luck, Beorn might help them.

Even though Bifur worried dearly, he had every confidence that Dori was right behind them. As soon as he had collected Nori, he would catch up. He could understand why Nori had been unwilling to leave. Sharing in their loss had brought Nori and Dwalin closer together than they had ever been. What burned between them was a fire not ready to be extinguished. But it was nowhere near as bright as the resolve Bifur had witnessed the night Nori had announced he was going to Moria. With the Misty Mountains looming over them, the truth behind the Moria expedition was almost within their grasp. No matter how strong his feelings for Dwalin, Bifur did not believe Nori would give up on his quest. He was also adamant that Dori would not let him. As tough as the old dwarf was, decades of peace had eroded his will to fight, like the grit that polishes a rough stone. Dori would not stand up to a drake, and he would not allow his brother to do so either. As stubborn as Nori could be, he always listened to his brother. Yes, Dori was on his way. There was no doubt in Bifur's mind.

The drake’s high-pitched wail shook Bifur to his core, and stopped the entire company in their tracks.

“What was that?!” Bofur called out, turning to look.

Heart racing, Bifur steered his pony around, his eyes widening with horror at the sight that awaited him. Dori was not coming back to him. He hadn't been able to convince Nori at all. He was still there!

Bifur had reached for his boar spear and was galloping back before he was even aware he was doing it.

“BIFUR!”, Bofur cried. He was about to launch after his brother when Dis suddenly blocked his path.

“No!”, she barked. “You will not go after him!”

“But Dis…”, Bofur pleaded.

“Enough! I am ordering you to take Thorin to Beorn's house! You’re the only one left who knows the way and I will not allow you to leave Thorin's side!”

Bofur frowned, and Dis glowered back, challenging him. I dare you to try something. Her fingers were poised over her spear, ready to stop him. No matter what, Thorin came first, and she was not going to allow another dwarf to throw their life away.

“Bofur, go with them,” Pallando said calmly as he dismounted from his horse. “Wait for us at Beorn's house. We will meet you there, along with Bifur and the others.”

“You’re going to fight?”, Dis demanded with a glare.

“Our mission depends on Nori’s survival,” the wizard explained. “We must ensure no harm comes to him.”

“But what about Thorin?

“With you and Bofur as his escorts, he will be fine. Get there as quickly as you can, and wait for us. As soon as we have dealt with the drake we will find you. All of us."

Alatar and Tauriel had also dismounted. “I’ll provide cover,” Tauriel stated, bow in hand and quiver on her back. Without waiting for a response, she cut through the grass like a knife, straight for the nearest vantage point.

“You’re sure you'll look after Bifur?”, Bofur asked tentatively.

Alatar stepped beside Pallando and smiled. “You have the word of a wizard, and there’s none more trustworthy than Pallando's.”

Alatar’s confidence in his partner alleviated most of Bofur’s anxiety. Riding up beside his prince, he gave the dwarf a little nudge. “Come on Thorin, get it together. We need to move.”

“I… I couldn’t… Dwalin…”, Thorin stammered.

Seeing Thorin like this, Bofur knew Dis was right. He was too helpless to be left on his own. He gave Thorin another whap on the head, harder this time. “It happens to the best of us. Now pick yerself up and let’s move!

That seemed to reach Thorin. Shaking his head, he propped himself back into an upright position. With a deep breath, he calmed himself. “I’m ready,” he announced.

“Then let’s go!”, Dis commanded. With that, Bofur, Thorin, and Dis continued their journey south at full pace.

Alatar cocked an eyebrow at Pallando once the dwarves were out of earshot. “You had no idea he was going to fight, did you?”

“I do now, and that’s all that matters.”

Alatar sighed. “Are you going to help me take the shot?”

“Of course. We must leave nothing to chance.”

“Well, we mustn’t delay. Tauriel will do what she can, the rest we must leave to the dwarves.” Alatar reached for his yew longbow, and a single, heavy arrow fashioned from the heartwood of an old hickory, with an arrowhead cut from moonstone, and feathers bestowed by a great horned owl for fletching. Then, he revealed a small, glass vial filled with a clear, viscous liquid from a hidden pocket nestled in his sapphire robes. He uncorked it and splashed the contents over the arrowhead. “Are we in position?”, he asked as he notched the arrow, aiming it toward the drake.

“A little closer. You’ll know when.”

Gently, Pallando put his hand on Alatar’s back, and filled his lungs with air. Alatar did the same, and, concentrating on Pallando’s touch, they exhaled together. Breathing slowly and synchronously, Alatar listened for Pallando’s pulse, focusing on its steady rhythm until it drowned out all else. It helped him to relax, to connect with his partner. As their minds cleared, their hearts began to beat in unison. Pallando waited patiently for the moment their souls bonded into one spirit. Then, the colour of their eyes faded behind mist.

As one, the wizards moved forward.

Chapter Text

The drake’s howl cracked through the air of the valley like the clang of a smith’s hammer on anvil, shrill and shattering. Dwalin’s ears were deaf to it; his senses consumed by the image of the beast’s whiplike tail striking Nori across the back. It filled Dwalin with a blinding fury that would not be quelled until the enemy was utterly defeated. The last time he’d felt this way was during the Battle of Five Armies. After losing Thorin, Fili and Kili in the maelstrom, his desperation and his fear burned into a fiery rage that burned relentlessly upon the orcs and wargs like a force of nature. It had not been enough to save his King and princes then, but things were different now. There was only one foe. Nori was still holding on, still fighting. His hammer had already taken a bite of his enemy. He was not powerless. He was not at the mercy of his enemy. I will defeat you! his mind roared.

Without hesitating, Dwalin used the recoil of the first strike to poise himself for the second. Muscles on fire, his hammer plummeted toward the fracture in the dragon’s claw. The drake reacted with a hasty retraction of its claw, narrowly avoiding the dwarf’s wrath. Dwalin immediately followed with a lunge, relentless in his pursuit, but caught only air. He was off balance now, lurching forward as the drake prepared to swipe back. Dwalin used his momentum to launch into a roll, feeling the wind rush above him as the drake sliced the air. Dwalin did not stop. Springing into a charge, he immediately went for the other foreclaw. He was under the drake now, in its blind spot. He had a clean shot. His next strike splintered the bone like brittle rock. The drake buckled off balance, and Dwalin jumped aside to avoid being crushed under its weight.

Before it had a chance to find its footing, Dwalin struck at the drake’s side. His hammer bounced off its scales. Then I will grind its bones into dust! It’s claws! Its fangs! It will not so much as scratch Nori’s skin again! Dwalin glanced at Nori. He was indeed still holding onto the drake’s back, a relief! Dwalin was encouraged by this. The bond between them was unspoken. I will draw the drake’s attention, while you execute your plan! I believe in you!

Only, it was not Dwalin that had captured the drake’s attention. Instead, it was eyeing easier prey, the only other dwarf that had not fled. A dwarf that was standing there, bewildered as the events unfolded, petrified at the danger his brother was in. There was no way Dwalin could reach Dori in time. The drake had already opened its mouth, ready to swallow him whole.

“Dori, you fool! Run!” Dwalin cried out.

The drake’s jaw snapped shut with a mighty crack, and for a moment, Dwalin’s heart stopped beating. The drake lifted its head and his friend was nowhere to be seen. Dwalin cursed as his hammer struck the drake’s claw a third time, shattering the talon into thousands of tiny shards. The drake screeched in agony. Dwalin doubled back as another claw swooped in to catch him. As he ran, his foot caught on a large lump obscured in the grass. He stumbled and fell down onto not one, but two dwarves, as the wind following the drake’s strike whipped the hairs on the back of his neck.

“Dori! Bifur!”

There wasn’t any time for relief, they were all too vulnerable. Bifur knew it too, helping Dwalin move to the side as he readied his boar spear. There was a fury in his eyes that matched Dwalin’s. Dwalin prepared his hammer, and together they covered Dori as the drake snarled furiously. It’s next assault was delayed, however, as a flurry of arrows began raining down near its eyes. Tauriel! Dwalin had no intention of wasting the opportunity. The drake was shielding its eyes with its wounded paw, and Dwalin set his sights on the next within reach.

***

Nori winced. The drake had whipped him good, and his entire body was wracked with pain. There would be a bruise for sure, and Nori could only hope that the extent of his wounds did not run too deep. However, he wasn’t incapacitated, and was still holding on despite his own pain and the drake’s thrashes. Dwalin was providing a distraction from below, and Nori knew had to make the most of it. There’s no time to stall - I have to end this quickly.

He picked up his dagger and cut at the scales to no effect. Damn… tough as mythril!. His dagger was a prize of dwarven artisanship, but it wouldn’t be enough. He had to reach the drake’s head.

But first, he fetched a small, corked vial from his pocket, and placed it in his mouth where he held it carefully with his lips. No matter what happened, he could not afford it to break. Steadily clambering onto his hands and feet, he began to edge his way along the drake’s back, gripping onto its spines for support. It was the hardest climb he’d ever made.

***

Dis couldn’t help but turn back one last time to see Thorin and Bofur off. They were some distance away now, but that was little comfort for the Lady. I can only hope they find Beorn. He will know what to do.

The drake was disoriented. Dwalin was keeping it bay with swing after swing of his hammer. It was… remarkable. She’d always known Dwalin was a distinguished warrior, but this was her first time seeing him in battle. His endless barrage of attacks was like nothing she’d ever witnessed on the practice grounds. It surprised her, for she had known Dwalin almost her entire life, and now he appeared before her almost a stranger.

Then why couldn’t he save them? the voice whispered from the darkest corner of her heart. She swallowed her contempt - now was not the time. Every moment they fought was another moment bought for Thorin. She could not let anything happen to her prince. That was her duty as much as it was Dwalin’s. Picking up her spear, she raced across the valley until she reached Bifur.

“Where’s Nori?!” she asked. The wizards had said that his survival was paramount. The least she could do was cover him whilst Dwalin kept up the offensive. It caught Dis off guard when Bifur pointed up towards the drake, but only for an instant. Nori was hanging on precariously on the spines around the drake’s neck. She could not comprehend his motivations, but at least there he was safe from claws and teeth.

“Keep Dori safe!” Dis ordered Bifur. “I’ll flank it from the other side!” Bifur nodded, and Dis began circling around, keeping a safe distance between herself and its wildly thrashing tail.

***

Dwalin had managed to get in a few good hits, but none so damaging as the first three. The drake was moving cautiously now, timing its strikes such that Dwalin did not have chance to move in. His muscles ached and it was only a matter of time before they betrayed him. The drake was bigger and stronger than anything Dwalin had faced one-on-one before, it had the advantage. But Dwalin would never surrender, and so he kept up his onslaught. Tauriel was keeping it distracted, but the arrows had little effect against its tough armour. Bifur and Dis had joined the fray, but their spears were also not suited against the scales, they were minor inconveniences at best. Still, it was something, even the smallest aid was welcome at this point. He was panting heavily, and his stature beginning to drop. At best, he had just a few more strikes left in him before he was taken out by one of those vicious swipes. He hoped that was enough time for Nori to do whatever he was thinking of doing.

***

Alatar watched the world not from his own eyes, but from the eyes of his arrow. They were fixed on the scales. Every time he rushed to meet them he would bounce off in a dizzying spiral of sky and grass before collapsing on the earth. Then, Pallando would bring him back to the bow, to fly again. It seemed hopeless, but Alatar knew they were not impenetrable. He just needed to hit the right one, in the right way, and it just needed to be within Nori’s reach. Alatar flew again, after countless times, racing through the air towards the beast, only this time he did not only see scales, he saw flesh.

He loosed the arrow, and it flew.

***

Nori was hurting all over. He’d made it to the neck, but he could not go any further, not without being tossed like a stone from a sling. He tried chipping away at the armour with his dagger, but that only served to make the blade dull. It was hopeless. He’d asked himself What would Bilbo do? but the difference between he and Bilbo. While the hobbit fared well against a dragon, the dwarf was helpless to stop a drake. Nori couldn’t help but laugh wearily. Whether it was talent, or luck, he simply wasn’t made of the same stuff as Bilbo.

His eyes caught Dwalin. The large dwarf’s strength was waning. It was only a matter of time before all was lost. He’d come too far too give up. Coiling his muscles, he leapt forward with every last ounce of his strength onto the dragon’s forehead. He clutched with his thighs and his biceps, but it wasn’t enough - Nori knew it. The drake’s cold eyes rolled up at stared at him icily. He plucked the vial from his mouth and stretched out his arm, but he was still too far. He could not inch forward any further. He had failed! The drake readied to twist its head to shake off the infuriating dwarf.

The arrow stabbed cleanly between the scales roughly where the drake’s eyebrow would be. Nori didn’t waste an instant. He ripped it out by the shaft, deftly tossing it aside whilst keeping a firm grip on the vial, and then, as delicately as he could, popped off the cork and let the contents pour out onto the wound. The drake buckled in anguish with such force that Nori could not hold on any longer. Launched into the air, he sailed towards the ground bracing for a painful impact. Darkness swallowed him before it came.

Chapter Text

“NORI!”

Dwalin watched in horror as the dwarf flew through the air like a stone. In that moment all memories of the drake vanished, and he bounded through the grass as fast as his legs would carry him. He found Nori collapsed in a heap in the earth. Dwalin fell quickly to his knees and cradled Nori, wiping the dirt from his brow and running his fingers through his tangled braids. “Nori, Nori, come on, wake up.” The dwarf did not stir, he just lay still in Dwalin’s arms. “Please, Nori… I… I can’t…” Dwalin choked on the words. “I can’t lose you too. Not you.”

A rustling noise from behind broke Dwalin’s daze, and he turned wildly to find an exhausted Dis. A jumbled mess of pleas spilled from Dwalin’s mouth all at once. “Dis… Nori… the drake…”

“Dwalin, get a hold of yourself!” she barked sternly, shaking some sense back into him. “The drake has fallen. As for Nori… have you checked if he's breathing?” Dwalin wasted no time placing his cheek alongside Nori’s face, and concentrated. The breath was faint, but it was there, just enough to tickle Dwalin’s whiskers. He sighed in relief. “Aye, he’s alive, but he’s taken quite the beating.”

“We should try and get him to Beorn’s house at once. Bofur and Thorin are already well on their way there, but I fear for their safety. A cold-drake this far south of Ered Mithrin is unheard of. This does not bode well. Who knows what other dangers lurk ahead? We must make haste if we are to catch up to them.”

Dwalin gently placed Nori back on the ground and stood to survey the vale. The drake lay prone, eyes closed, breathing deeply and rhythmically as though it had drifted into a deep sleep. “How…” Dwalin began to ask before he was interrupted as Dis, who anticipated the question. “I don’t know,” she said flatly. “It all happened so quickly.” She looked at Nori. “Perhaps Nori can enlighten us once he has awoken. Whatever he planned seems to have worked. It would seem that there’s more to him than can be judged by appearances alone.” Dwalin couldn’t have agreed more, but he said nothing, his thoughts directed to the hope that Nori recovered quickly.

“Where is he? Where’s Nori?” From the grass emerged a panicked Dori, followed closely by Bifur. Seeing his brother, Dori dropped immediately beside him and clasped their hands together. Bifur put a hand on Dori’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Nori… I… I’m sorry. There was nothing I could do… I froze… I’ve failed you as a brother…” he sobbed. “I’ve failed everyone. First Ori… and now you too…”

“He’s not dead,” Dwalin asserted, for himself as much as for Dori. “Once Alatar and Pallando get here, they’ll know what to do.” Impatiently, he started looking for them, and found them approaching on horseback with Tauriel in tow. He began striding to meet them by the unconscious drake. As he got closer, he noticed a wound above its right eye. Did Nori do that?

“A little help?” Alatar asked when Dwalin met them, “Pallando and I are feeling a little weary.” Dwalin helped Alatar from his horse while Tauriel took care of Pallando. Dwalin wasn’t sure why they were so worse for wear, not being caught up in the middle of the battle, but he didn’t raise the question. There were more urgent matters that needed attending. “You need to see to Nori… he’s injured,” he insisted immediately as Alatar was on his feet.

Alatar looked at Pallando quizzically before heading towards the fallen dwarf. Dori shuffled aside as the wizard knelt down and reached within his robes for a modestly well-crafted dagger. With careful movements he cut down along Nori’s garb until could be removed easily. Then, he began examining the dwarf, running his hands over his body, pressing gently in places, assessing the damage. Eventually, he said, “He’s a little battered, but he’ll be alright. A few bruised ribs and a bump on the head is the worst of it, but as long as he doesn’t exert himself he’ll recover nicely. He just needs to rest.”

“I’ll make sure…” Dori began, but stopped as Dwalin spoke over him. “On my honour, I’ll be sure he does.” Dori quietly regarded the dwarf who didn’t realise his interruption.

“Right,” Alatar said, steadily lifting himself up. “Now for the drake.” As he traipsed back to Pallando and Tauriel, something on the ground caught his eye. He stooped down to pick it up; a small, deceptively fragile-looking vial that appeared to have survived a fall intact. He dusted it off and inspected it curiously before proceeding.

Dis nudged Dwalin. “I think it best if we find out what the wizards have to say about the drake.” Dwalin was about to object, but Dis insisted. “Dori and Bifur will stay with Nori. Remember Dwalin, it is your prince that demands your attention. Don’t place your feelings over your duty.” Dwalin’s cheeks felt hot with shame, for he knew Dis was right. He had a duty to uphold. Giving Nori one last concerned look, he left with Dis to go speak with the wizards.

“Alright, what in the blazes happened?!” Dis demanded when they arrived. “Thorin could have been killed!”

Pallando showed Dis his palms. “I assure you Dis, no harm will come to Thorin. We will find him safely with Bofur at Beorn’s house in a few days time, you have my word.”

“A few days time?! Our ponies have scattered! It will take us months to get there on foot, not to mention the supplies we’ve lost!”

“Alatar will summon the ponies the moment we’re a safe distance from the drake.”

“I hope you’ve got a good explanation for what it’s doing in these parts!”

Pallando frowned, and tugged at his beard. “I’m afraid I don’t. If you would give me a moment.” He stepped forward and placed a hand on the great beast. The hazel in his eyes faded behind a cloud as they closed. With Pallando lost in a deep trance, Dwalin’s attention turned to the wound on the drake’s forehead. “Did you do this?” he asked Alatar. “Or was it…”

“It was my arrow that pierced its armour, indeed. But it was not I that put the drake to sleep.”

Dwalin’s gaze turned in Nori’s direction. “Nori did this?”

“Yes, it appears so.” Alatar replied. “I had doused my arrow with a rare toxin that is known to be potent against the stone-drakes of the east. The effect it has is quite hallucinogenic, conjuring nightmarish images that strike fear into the hearts of the afflicted. My intent was to drive the beast out of the vale, that it might scamper back whence it came and never return. But Nori had other ideas.” He revealed the empty vial to Dwalin. “Do you remember that night in Mirkwood by the river, when I offered you those elixirs?” He reached into his azure robes for a small bottle and handed it to Dwalin. The dwarf grimaced painfully at the memory, but nodded. “It would seem Nori had been eavesdropping that night. He must have caught on to the idea, and filled a vial of his own during the crossing, when it was safe to do so." Dwalin's jaw dropped. "For now, the drake sleeps. When it awakens, it will have no memory of us. That was his plan.”

Dwalin felt flustered. He couldn’t decide whether Nori was a fool or a genius. He stared at the bottle in his hand, such a small thing, yet powerful enough to bring down such a beast. Powerful enough to lose a King. Repulsed by the thought, he offered it back to Alatar. “Keep it,” the wizard insisted. “That potion will induce slumber without stealing away one’s memories. I am certain that if you hold onto it, there will come a time when you will find a use for it. Just as Nori did.”

At that moment, Pallando suddenly broke contact with the drake with a loud gasp, and staggered back. His face was pale. “Pallando!” Alatar called. “What did you see?” He rushed to his partner’s side and took his hand.

“It is difficult to comprehend,” Pallando replied weakly, “for in all the centuries I’ve had the Sight I have never experienced anything like it.”

“It’s alright, I’m here,” Alatar said reassuringly.

“There was something there… Something monstrous. I don’t know whether it resides in the creature’s past or its future… but wherever it is, it saw me, Alatar. I observed it, and it stared right at me. It is unfathomable, but it knew I was there. I don’t know what to make of it.”

“Perhaps we can brood over it later,” Alatar suggested. “Right now, it won’t be long before the drake awakens, and when it does, it will be hysterical. It would be better for us if we were well beyond its reach at that time.”

Pallando said nothing, but nodded his assent. Alatar turned to Dis. “The answers will come in time, but for now we must make haste. If you would round up the others...”

“Very well then,” Dis conceded. “Come on, Dwalin.” He didn’t need to be told twice. He absently pocketed the bottle he had been holding and marched back to Nori, who was still resting peacefully on the ground with Bifur comforting Dori by his side.

“We’re leaving,” Dwalin explained, “before the drake wakes up. I’ll take Nori.”

“You don’t have to…” Dori protested, but Dwalin was adamant.

“I insist. It’s… the least I can do.”

Gently wrapping a burly arm around Nori’s head, and sliding the other underneath his knees, Dwalin lifted Nori from the ground and braced him over his shoulders. He felt warm. “Let’s go,” he said.

The others got up and gathered their belongings, Dori making sure to take Dwalin’s hammer. Dwalin carried Nori to where the wizards and Tauriel were waiting. “Here, take my horse,” Alatar offered. “I’ll ride with Pallando.” With Alatar’s help, the two managed to get Nori up onto the saddle. Dwalin climbed up and made sure Nori was secure. Then, at Alatar’s command, it began walking them south.

Dwalin looked back at the drake as it disappeared from sight, then at Nori. Please, he pleaded silently. Come back to me.

Chapter Text

“Wake up, Nori.”

...tired...

“It’s time to get up.”

...just let me sleep a little longer…

“Don’t keep me waiting.”

...

***

Nori opened his eyes… or so he thought. Everything was pitch black. He blinked once, twice, and nothing changed. I can’t see. He lifted his hands to his face. Nothing. He patted his body until he found his pockets. Where are my matches…? Ah! There they are. He removed the small paper box from his pocket and plucked out a match. He scratched the tip on his belt buckle and it lit up with a spark. The tiny orange glow pierced his eyes. Gah! It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust.

Where am I?

Holding the match with his arm outstretched, he surveyed the area for clues. The dim light struggled to penetrate the darkness. After circling once he stepped forward, but where his foot anticipated ground, it instead found only air. In a sudden effort to reclaim his balance, he stumbled backward, dropping the match. However, he did not fall; rugged, powerful arms reached under his shoulders to catch him. Dwalin? He felt relieved. Getting back onto his feet, he turned around to embrace his dwarf, yearning for his firm, inviting chest, to get lost in his whiskers, to be caressed by his strong hands. Only, it was not Dwalin that awaited him, but the grotesque, stone effigy of Durin’s Bane, with vicious fangs and soulless eyes, and a fresh scar running across its face. Nori leapt back, mindless of the void behind him, and he fell. He tried reaching for the wall desperately, but it was well beyond his reach. The balrog, looming over him now, seemed amused by his helpless struggle. As it faded into the darkness above, Nori could hear its scornful laughter. It rang louder and louder, until Nori pressed his hands against his ears to make it stop. And, to his surprise, it did. The silence was absolute. Tentatively, he removed his hands, and indeed, there was not a sound, not even that of the wind. Everything was perfectly still. Was he still falling, or floating in the dark? It was impossible to tell.

“I’m still waiting.”

A whisper, so quiet, and yet so close to his ear that Nori felt the speaker’s lips brushing against his lobe as the words were spoken. He looked back, but no one was there, only the ground rushing to meet him.

***

When Nori opened his eyes this time, he was greeted by the grass moving steadily beneath him. The sound of a river burbling nearby, birds chittering in the distance, and the steady tramp of hoofbeats. He didn’t feel comfortable. Lying on his stomach and draped over a horse... Alatar’s, if he remembered correctly. All over his body, his muscles ached. The instant he tried moving, he was met with a sharp pain in his side. He moaned.

“Nori?” It was such a relief to hear Dwalin’s familiar, deep voice. He was out of sight, and as much as Nori desired it, he lacked the energy to so much as turn his head to see him. On his side, however, he could feel the heat radiating from a husky body that could only be Dwalin, and Nori welcomed it. “Dwalin,” he murmured in response.

“Nori! You’re awake!” The grass stopped moving beneath him as the horse came to a sudden halt, and Nori winced as the horse shifted its weight to accommodate the quick dismount of one of its riders. But then, there he was, Dwalin, handsome as ever, looking up at him with deep, gorgeous blue eyes full of concern, clasping his warm, calloused hands delicately around his own. “Nori, how do you feel?”

Nori grinned feebly. “Better now that you’re here.” Though fragments of memories were slowly piecing themselves back together in his mind, the picture was far from complete. “The drake, is it…”

“Aye, you stopped it. You were amazing.” High praise, coming from Dwalin. Nori’s smile widened. But then Dwalin’s voice took on a more serious tone. “But still, what you did was dangerous. You could have gotten yourself killed. You can’t be taking risks like that.”

“And what about you?” Nori interjected, somewhat annoyed. “You were just as eager to throw your life away, were you not?” Dwalin lowered his eyes shamefully. “Just how were you planning to come back to me, after taking on the beast yourself? You’re the greatest warrior I know, but no dwarf has ever single-handedly defeated a drake. Were you to be the first?”

Dwalin stammered for an excuse. “I… I have a duty…”

“Yes, and so do I. It’s selfish, and there’s no honour in it, I know, but it’s mine. I will go to Moria and find Ori’s record. I’m not going to let anything stop me.” He squeezed Dwalin’s hand as tightly as his aching muscles would allow. “...but I can’t do it without you, Dwalin. I’ve told you time and time again that I need you. I’ll be damned if I let anything happen to you. If you’re ever to try something so foolish again, know that I’ll be there, right by your side, to the end.”

The way Dwalin looked up at Nori in that moment, it was as though he was seeing Nori for the first time. As weary as he felt, the resolve to keep his promise burned so profoundly within Nori that all the pain he felt melted away. The two stared at each other for yet another moment that transcended time.

"Nori, I..."

“Nori?!” Dori’s sudden cry broke the spell. At once, the weariness and the pain flooded back, and Nori’s expression turned to a mix of yearning and helplessness. Dwalin gave Nori’s hand one last squeeze, and murmured heavily “We’ll finish this later.” He released Nori just in time for Dori to step in. “Dwalin, you were supposed to fetch me the instant he awoke!” he scolded. He didn’t wait for a reply before turning his attention to Nori. “Are you alright? Where does it hurt? What were you thinking?! You almost died! I almost died! How could you be so reckless?! Do you need water? Food? Something for the pain? Anything?” He asked more questions than Nori could even begin to answer. “Whatever was going through your head, I’ll be making sure it doesn’t happen again! I’m not going to lose you too, you hear me? I won’t be letting you out of my sight.”

Nori rolled his eyes and sighed with exasperation, and then flinched as the very act of filling his lungs stung his ribs. This only drove Dori deeper into his frenzy, and Nori knew he wouldn’t be escaping any time soon. His palm felt empty without Dwalin, and so he found himself absently stroking the flank of the horse he rested upon as Dori coddled him. He didn’t seem to mind. It wasn’t too long before they continued heading south, and Nori felt every bump along the way.

They settled down to make camp as the golden sun was kissing the trees of Mirkwood far on the horizon. Alatar and Dori helped Nori down onto his bedroll as Tauriel and Dwalin hunted for supper and Bifur tended to the fire. Once Nori was as comfortable as could be, Alatar left the group to summon the scattered ponies. Nori wished he could contribute in some way, but moving even the slightest was an ordeal. And so he lay still, listening to the others as they went about their chores and watching the stars twinkle into view one by one as the colour faded from the sky.

Everything hurt; breathing, eating, drinking, resting, but for Nori, it was a small price to pay. He’d taken on a drake and lived. Perhaps he had what it took to complete his quest after all. Whatever dangers are awaiting us in Moria, I’m ready.

Chapter Text

“There it is! The Carrock! We’re almost there Thorin!”

Thorin might have wept upon hearing those words, had he the energy to spare. They were well into the second night since leaving the others to face the drake, dashing without pause under sun and moon and sun again. The ponies were well beyond their limits, but still persevering to get as far away from the monster as possible. Once Thorin spotted it, there was no mistaking it; a tall island of bleached granite that rose from the waters of the Anduin. By the light of the half moon above, it appeared to Thorin as a silver greatsword that pierced the stars over the vale.

A sword that will protect us, Thorin assured himself. We just have to reach it! We’re so close!

Thorin yearned to feel safe again. Knowing that creatures like the drake lurked out in the wilds, having witnessed it with his own eyes, he felt vulnerable out in the open. Danger could strike from any direction, and it was impossible to keep his eyes everywhere at once. Even when riding among the groves of oak trees that dotted the countryside he felt exposed. He longed for walls, a roof over his head, anything that might stand as a barrier between himself and the monsters of the world. He missed home, his father, Dis, Dwalin, everyone that had ever protected him. He didn’t know whether he’d ever see them again.

As they approached the Carrock, the trees clustered together more thickly, and it became difficult to keep up their pace. Eventually Bofur dismounted, and Thorin followed, though his legs, which felt like flan, almost buckled beneath him. “The hall is around here somewhere,” Bofur whispered as they led their ponies through the wood. “I’m sure of it.” Thorin didn’t respond; it took all he had just to keep standing.

They meandered between the trees for a short while until finally they arrived at a thick hedge. “This is it!” Bofur declared. “We just need to circle ‘round to the gate. It should be this way.” They followed the bramble away from the river until they found a large gate, unlatched and slightly ajar. Seeing it positioned like that struck Thorin as odd, but Bofur made no comment on it; he just pushed it open and moved through. Thorin followed, but stopped briefly to make sure the gate was closed properly once he and his pony were inside.

Enclosed beyond the gate was a clearing wide enough to hold several buildings, including a great log homestead at the centre. Beorn’s hall, Thorin presumed, though it did not look anywhere near as inviting as Bofur and the others had described. The house itself was cold and dark. There was no smoke puffing from the chimney, no warm light radiating from the windows, and no lingering scent of dinner. The surrounding garden had grown rampant with weeds. Thorin tried to convince himself that it was just the gloom of night playing tricks on his tired mind, but he failed to shake off the sinking feeling of disappointment and dread.

“Are you sure this is the place?” he asked Bofur nervously.

“Most definitely, it’s just as I remember it… though it doesn’t seem like anyone’s home, does it?” He noticed how troubled Thorin looked, and attempted to comfort his prince with a smile. “Tell you what, why don’t you wait here while I go take a look.”

Thorin glanced about wildly. “Here? Alone?! Are you serious? What if something happens?”

“Nothing will happen,” Bofur asserted, “and I won’t be too far off if somethin’ does. Why don’t you give the ponies a treat in the meantime. They’ve sure earned it. Just keep an ear out for when I give the all clear.” He gave Thorin a playful slap on the shoulder. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

Bofur, wasting no more time, turned and started for the house. As he slipped further and further away, Thorin guided the ponies from the gate to the closest gathering of trees. Leaning behind one of the trunks, he continued to watch Bofur as he made his way past the overgrown garden. In his head, he tried to recall what Bofur had told him to do in case something went wrong. Ride south until I reach the Old Ford, then follow the road west through the High Pass until I get to Rivendell. Find Elrond… he will help me get home. He repeated the instructions over and over, committing them to memory, all the while hoping he wouldn't be required to act on them. He had absolutely no confidence he would be able to do it on his own.

Quietly and carefully, Bofur crept up onto the verandah and to the door. He wrapped his hands around the knob and gave it a gentle nudge. Thorin shuddered at the faint squeak of its hinges, but nothing else seemed to stir at the sound. Bofur opened it further, and then slunk into the shadows within. With his friend completely out of sight, Thorin slumped down onto the damp grass, curled his arms around his legs and buried his face into his knees. Please, please let Bofur be alright, he pleaded to nobody in particular. I’m so… useless. A weak, pathetic excuse for a prince. A coward. Nothing. Father would be so ashamed if he knew I fled in terror while everyone else fought for me. Dwalin... Dis… what will I do without you? He tried to stifle his tears with a sniff, but it wasn't enough. The trickle rapidly turned into a cascade. This never would have happened if I hadn’t left the Mountain. It’s all my fault. It’s all my fault! It's... His pony nudged his head firmly with his nose, pulling him from his descent into despair. “Oh, right. Sorry. I can’t even do that right,” he muttered, wiping his wet eyes with his sleeve. Sniffling, he climbed back to his feet and searched through his pack for some berries. The ponies accepted them voraciously.

“Psst!” The noise almost startled Thorin out of his skin. It came from the hall. He turned to find the silhouette of Bofur’s hat peeping from the door, and an arm beckoning him to come. He clutched at his racing heart until it calmed down, and then, after making sure his face was completely dry, he took the reins of the ponies and brought them to the house.

“The place is deserted,” Bofur informed Thorin once they were together again. “If Beorn’s out doing bear things, he’s been gone a long while, and there’s no sign he’ll be back anytime soon. I’m sure he wouldn’t even notice, let alone mind us using the place while he’s gone.” Under better circumstances, Thorin might have objected to trespassing into someone else’s home, but overwhelmed by his weariness, despair, and fear, he agreed with Bofur’s suggestion without overthinking the matter.

“Alright, whatever you say.”

Bofur gave Thorin another pat on the shoulder. “Right, well then, there’s still a bit to do before we can rest. First, we’ll get the ponies settled into the stable. It’s the least we can do for ‘em after getting us here in one piece. Once they’re comfy, we’ll head inside the hall and see about finding a place to get some sleep ourselves. The rest’ll be right leaving ‘til the morning.” Thorin nodded in assent.

The stable, fortunately, was nearer to the front of the hall. Thorin was happier not having to walk all the way around. It sapped the last of his dwindling energy making sure the ponies were fed, watered, groomed, and cosy in their lodgings. By the time they were finished, he was staggering to keep up with Bofur on the way back to the hall, utterly at his limit.

Bofur held the front door open for the prince and gestured for him to enter. “After you,” he said. The interior was as unwelcoming as the outside. Devoid of life, the empty hall appeared unnaturally still and eerily quiet. A thick layer of dust coated the furniture, and the air smelled musty and stale. No one had been inside for some time.

“Where do you think everyone is?” Thorin asked.

“Dunno,” Bofur replied as he closed the door behind him. “The beds are just up ahead. We should try not to worry about where everyone is for now, and instead focus on getting some rest. It’s been a long few days.”

Bofur led Thorin about halfway down the hall, stopping at a raised platform that held mattresses and blankets. “Here we are,” he said. “I don’t know about you but I’m ready to drop. Will you be alright?”

“...yeah,” Thorin said unconvincingly.

Bofur was too tired to notice. He climbed up onto the bed and was out the moment his head hit the pillow. Thorin tucked himself into the bed adjacent, but sleep did not come so quickly for him. Instead, he found his mind plagued with ill thoughts.

You are nothing like Oakenshield.

You’re a coward.

You’re weak.

This is all your fault.

In time, the voice in his head was drowned out by Bofur's snores, and weariness pulled him into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

The first, fleeting moment of Thorin’s day was bliss. He was warm, he was safe, he was home. Back in Erebor, his Mountain, shielded by stone, surrounded by friends. His father, just down the hall, preparing for a day at court. Dis, in the library, collating notes for Thorin’s lessons later that day. Dwalin, at the practice grounds, drilling the guards until they could hardly stand. Dori and Bifur, at their shops, preparing for what they hoped would be a profitable day. Bofur, head under his pillow, recovering from a night out on the town. And Nori… Thorin wasn’t quite sure where Nori would be. He didn’t really know all that much about him. Where was Nori?

Nori was fighting a drake…

Reality came crashing down on him like the roof of a collapsing tunnel, and Thorin was home no longer. No longer safe, no longer surrounded by friends. He was alone.

He sat up with a start, and took another moment to collect himself. He was in Beorn’s hall. Bofur was nowhere to be seen. The bed he’d slept in was empty but for a discarded leather jacket atop the tousled blankets. It didn’t take long for Thorin to guess where Bofur might be; echoing faintly outside, a rhythmic thwacking could be heard, the distinct sound of wood being chopped. Thorin turned to the fireplace at the centre of the hall. It looked as empty and cold as he felt.

Falling back onto the pillow, Thorin’s eyes remained fixed to beams that ran along the ceiling as he listened to Bofur work in the distance. All the energy he had regained from sleep slowly ebbed away, until the idea of getting out of bed seemed insurmountable. Eventually, he pulled the covers back over him, and rolled to face the wall.

When the front door squeaked open, it came as a surprise. Thorin hadn’t noticed things had become quiet outside. The sound of boots clomping heavily along the floor filled the room, followed by a loud clattering of logs being dropped by the fireplace.

“You up, Thorin?” Bofur asked. Thorin closed his eyes tightly, and hoped that the bed might swallow him whole. He couldn’t deal with Bofur, not then. Please, just go outside and leave me alone, he pleaded inaudibly. After a silence that stretched for an eternity, Thorin heard the welcome sound of Bofur’s feet shift. As Bofur trod back to the door, Thorin felt relief sweep over him with each step. As the door closed with a thud, he felt as though he could finally breathe again.

Thorin lay still, staring at the wall. He was now committed to staying in bed, and frankly, had no interest whatsoever in leaving it. Not that it would make any difference if I did, he thought sombrely. Eventually, he found a spot that kept his attention until his eyes were too heavy to remain open, and sleep took him once again.

***

When Thorin awoke for the second time, he did not feel any better. The only difference was the compelling need to relieve himself. Resisting the urge for as long as possible, he eventually rolled over to see if Bofur was inside. He didn’t want to engage in conversation if it could be avoided. Unable to spot Bofur, presumably because he was still outside, Thorin decided to take the risk and quietly climbed out of bed. He tiptoed down to the southern end of the hall in search of a chamber pot.

Though it was clear no one had tended to the hall in some time, everything was relatively well kept and tidy. The furniture was arranged neatly and there didn’t appear to be any signs of disrepair. At the rear of the house, he found several well-ordered storage cupboards, one of which holding a small, clay chamber pot on the bottom shelf. It wasn’t until he had finished using it that he remembered there was no one to empty it. As tempting as it was to leave it for Bofur, it didn’t seem fair, especially as he’d been out all day performing other chores. Besides, as soon as Bofur found it, he’d know Thorin had been up, and would probably use that as an excuse to get him out of bed. With a sigh, he closed the lid over the top of the pot and carried it to the rear door.

The garden at the rear of the house looked just as wild as the front had the previous night. Weeds had begun to grow along the path that stretched across the garden to a row of beehives at the far end of the garden. Where it appeared animals might have once roamed freely within the grounds, it was now devoid of all creatures. Bofur was still nowhere to be seen, and Thorin, not keen on emptying the chamber pot by the house, set out towards the beehives. As he got closer, he began to hear a low hum; the bees, at least, still called this place home.

He was about halfway across the garden when he decided he had gone far enough, and emptied the pot onto a rosebush. As he made his way back, he spied Bofur peering out through the rear door of the house. Thorin didn’t have time to even consider ducking for cover before he was spotted. Silently, he cursed as Bofur waved cheerily at him.

“Good to see you’re awake,” Bofur said with a smile as Thorin stepped back up onto the veranda. “You sure slept a while…” Bofur’s mouth continued to move, but his words became muffled as Thorin struggled to stay attentive. How could he stand there making idle banter when they might never see the others again? Anything he had to say was just inconsequential. No words had the power to change their situation. It wouldn’t bring anyone back. It wouldn’t get them home. Expending the effort to listen was a wasted endeavour. Thorin just wished it to be over so he could crawl back into bed.

“You alright?” Bofur said, giving Thorin’s arm a playful slap. “You seem a tad off. I said did you want something to eat?”

“No, thank you,” Thorin replied absently.

Bofur reached for the waterskin tied to his belt and offered it to Thorin. “Well, at least have something to drink.”

“I’m fine, really.”

“You’re sure? You haven’t had anything proper for a few days now. You need to keep your strength up.”

“I’m fine,” Thorin insisted tetchily.

Bofur took the hint that it was time to change the subject. “Well, I was thinking of heading out for a hunt. It’s a nice enough day for it, there’s probably a lot of decent game out in the woods, and it might make a nice meal for the others to return to. Also might help take our minds off things. Did you want to come along?”

“I haven’t hunted since mother died,” Thorin answered coldly.

“Oh! I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean…” Bofur hadn’t intended to remind Thorin of how he’d lost his mother, and was getting flustered by his inability to reach him. This annoyed Thorin to no end.

“It’s fine. Just leave it, please.”

“Well, why don’t we go fishing instead? The river’s not far, and who knows, we might run into Beorn and his family.”

“I think I’ll just stay here if that’s alright,” Thorin snapped. Their conversation had already gone on too long.

“...Sure, that it is.” Bofur’s shoulders sagged in disappointment. “You do whatever you need to do. If you change your mind, jus’ follow the path from the gate to the river. You’re more than welcome to join me.”

“Right.”

Thorin brushed past Bofur as he went back into the hall, and closed the door behind him. Leaving the chamber pot there, he stormed back to bed, pulled the covers over his head, and tried to shut out the world.

***

The third time Thorin awoke that day, it was to the smell and sound of fish sizzling in a pan over the warm glow of the fireplace.

Bofur, sure of himself that the aroma would lure Thorin from his slumber, had been waiting for the prince to stir. “Got some fish here if you want it,” he offered.

Thorin was about to refuse, but the growl from his stomach betrayed him. He could not deny how hungry he was. Reluctantly, he climbed down from the bed and found a seat next to the fire. Bofur handed him a plate.

“I’ve cleaned away most of the bones, so go ahead and dig right in.”

One bite was all the encouragement Thorin needed to wolf it down. He was hungrier than he realised.

“Have some more,” Bofur insisted, pleased that his humble cooking was fit for a prince. “I caught extra in case the others arrived, but it’s not looking like they’ll be here in time for dinner. I’ll brine whatever we don’t finish for tomorrow.”

Thorin cast his eyes down at the floor at the mention of the others. “Do you truly believe that they’ll come?” he asked as he picked at his second helping less enthusiastically.

“Course I do,” Bofur replied with confidence, to Thorin’s surprise.

“How can you be so sure?”

“Well, I trust ‘em, just as they trusted me. I have no doubt they’ll be here as soon as can be.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“Then I’ll rest knowing they gave that drake good reason to fear the dwarves. They won’t have gone down without a fight.”

“And you’re okay with that? How can you possibly be okay with that?!”

“Okay?! I’m proud is what I am! What they did took guts, and they did it for you, their prince. You should be proud too, not moping about… if you’ll pardon me saying so.”

For me…, Thorin thought glumly. They fought for me… but… but… “I’m a coward.” His last thought ended up slipping through his lips.

“Sorry?” Bofur asked between mouthfuls of fish.

“I’m a coward!” Thorin declared, this time far more assertively. “I couldn’t do anything! I just ran… and left them… that’s never what Thorin Oakenshield would have done. I’ll never be a King like he was. I’m nothing like him. I’m pathetic.”

Bofur placed his half-eaten morsel beside him. “Whoever said Erebor needed another Thorin Oakenshield? He was fearless, aye, the sort of dwarf that could claim a Mountain from a dragon. But is that really the sort of King Erebor needs now? We live in a time of peace lad, and a well-earned one at that. Erebor needs a King who can keep it, and while I don’t have the faintest clue what kind of King that may be, the one thing I do know is that whichever kind it is, it’s still gotta be you. Instead of trying t’ fill Thorin Oakenshield’s shoes, you should be filling your own.”

“But you saw it with your own eyes! I couldn’t do anything! I’m weak! If this is how I’ll be when I’m King, then… then... they died for nothing!”

Bofur looked Thorin sternly in the eye. “Not if you keep moving forward, they didn’t. A good King doesn’t throw their life away at every chance. You have to pick your battles, and know there’s no shame in relying on the strength of others.”

“But…”

“No buts about it! What d’you think would Dis say if she heard you spouting such nonsense? Do you honestly think she’d accept it?”

Thorin looked down again. “She’d probably slap me across the back of my head and tell me to snap out of it.”

“Then for as long as she’s not here, you need to do that for yourself. Remember what they taught you, and learn from their lessons. Use their strength to do better. Nobody dies until they are forgotten.” Bofur pointed to Thorin’s plate. “And you can start by filling your stomach. No one can think clearly with an empty belly.”

From there, the two dwarves ate in silence. As soon as they had finished their meal, Thorin collected the empty plates and began to wipe them clean while Bofur remained settled by the fire and pulled out his flute. It was the first time he had done so since they had left the Mountain, and Thorin listened as Bofur brought the mouth hole to his lips and started to play. It was a spirited, energetic piece, not to Thorin’s taste at all, but as he scraped and scoured the dishes, he found the vibrant rhythm easy to match his movements to, and that he was suddenly getting the cleaning done a lot faster. Once everything was spotless, he joined Bofur, who carried on playing for him.

“What song is that?” Thorin asked when the music finally came to an end. "I've never heard it before."

“It doesn’t really have a name,” Bofur admitted. “I was making it up as I went along. It was something me, Bifur and Bombur used to do on evenings like this when we were young. We’d sit and watch the fire dance, and we’d play for it. Here, just watch…”

Bofur gestured towards the fire, frisking and frolicking erratically. As soon he started playing again, Thorin could see the way it moved to the music, twirling and dancing to the melody. It was entrancing. As Thorin watched, his troubles began to melt away, until there was nothing left but the song and the dance.

***

"Wake up, Thorin! Wake up!"

Thorin couldn't even remember falling asleep, but as his senses returned, he found Bofur rousing him excitedly.

“Bofur… what’s wrong?” he mumbled.

“Nothing’s wrong Thorin!” Bofur exclaimed. “Nothing’s wrong at all!”

“Then why are you waking me like this?”

Bofur couldn’t contain the wide grin bursting from his face. “It’s the others, Thorin. They’re here!”

Chapter Text

They’re here. It came as such a shock to Thorin. He could hardly believe it. His heart was pounding in his chest like a drum as he stared at Bofur with a slack-jawed expression. They’re here. The words echoed in his head over and over, and each time he found himself no closer to accepting them. “You mean… Dis… Dwalin…” he asked tentatively.

“Right outside! Don’t just sit there, come on!” Bofur’s confidence was overwhelmingly convincing. Of course they’re here. The realisation struck Thorin like a punch to the face, and his eyes began to well with tears. How could I have ever doubted them?

Bofur had already started for the door, and Thorin raced to catch up, casting his blankets aside and leaping from his bed to the floor with a thud. He bounded past Bofur, across the hall, and wrenched the heavy door open as though it were made of cedar and not oak. His heart wavered for an instant when he didn't immediately see them, but then he heard the commotion coming from the gate; familiar voices he hadn’t heard in days, voices he feared he would never hear again. It was dark, but he made out their shadows in the distance. Thorin burst toward them, fighting to keep his balance as he stumbled over the tangled weeds strewn about the garden.

“Thorin!” Dis was leading the party, and the first to spot him running toward them from the house. She barely had enough time to dismount before Thorin was upon her, wrapping his arms so tightly around her she could hardly breathe. She gently caressed his head as he buried his face into her shoulder and wept. “It’s good to see you Thorin,” she said as he released her.

“I’m so sorry,” he sobbed. “I… I’ve failed you…” She interrupted him with a shush and a finger over her mouth. “All that matters is that you are safe.” She smiled warmly at him. “Did you encounter any trouble on the way here?”

“No,” Thorin sniffed. “We got here as quickly as we could. Bofur… he’s been taking good care of me. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for him.”

“I’m very grateful for that.” Her eyes wandered across the yard to find him. He just happened to be passing them by at that moment, striding directly towards his brother, who had dismounted at a more leisurely pace along with the others. Bifur was positively thrilled to reunite with Bofur, and accordingly stretched his arms as widely as he could to engulf him in the biggest hug he could muster.

Bofur, however, felt differently. The moment he was within reach he thrust his arms forward and shoved Bifur firmly in the chest, propelling him back into Dori’s solid frame. Dori, surprised by the sudden jostle, scrambled to catch Bifur before he hit the ground. He awkwardly managed to position his arms under Bifur’s shoulders in time to keep him from falling.

“How could you go off and do something so stupid?!” Bofur demanded. “You could’ve gotten yourself killed!” Arms dangling wildly, Bifur was in no position to respond; he just stared at Bofur abashedly. “Running off to take on a drake? Mad! Jus’ mad!”

Bifur tried flailing his arms apologetically, but it was completely indecipherable.

Bofur “And what the blazes was I supposed to tell Bombur, eh? Did you even think about how he’d take it?! He’d be devastated is what!”

Bifur let out a small whimper, and that was when Dori decided he’d heard enough.

“Bofur! Stop it at once!” Dori shouted. “He saved my life! If you want to blame someone… blame me.”

Bofur sucked at the night air deeply to cool his temper. “He... saved you?”

“Aye, that he did.”

Bofur considered it briefly, and then beamed. “Well then,” he said, extending an arm out for Bifur to latch onto. “Why didn’t you say so sooner?” Bifur took his brother’s hand, and Bofur pulled him into a hug. “I wouldn’t have worried so much if you’d have told me the drake was no match for ye!”

“It was Nori who bested it,” the deep voice cut through the clamour like a knife. Thorin turned towards it, and was smitten with a profound sense of awe. The last time Thorin had seen Dwalin, he'd been standing alone, ready to single-handedly take on the drake. He was still standing now, without so much as a scratch on him; at least, no new ones. He had returned completely unscathed. Meanwhile, Thorin felt even smaller by comparison, standing beside him with whiskers doused in tears.

“Thorin… you’re alright!” Dwalin exclaimed. Stoic as he was, Dwalin could not mask his relief in seeing the prince unharmed. He stepped closer, and it was then that Thorin noticed that Dwalin’s gait was hobbled, and his stature slightly hunched. “Dwalin! You… you’re…” he stopped himself from saying “hurt” as he noticed the extra pair of legs dangling from his waist, and arms wrapped around his neck.

“Is that… Nori? Is he…?”

“I’m fine,” Nori answered from behind Dwalin’s shoulders. “Never better, in fact.” It was a terribly unconvincing lie.

“If yer feelin’ so good, then why’s grumpy carrying you like a baby?” Bofur asked, giving Dwalin a playful tap on the chest with his fist.

“Nori needs to take it easy for a bit is all,” Dwalin explained. “I’d like to get him to a bed. Where’s Beorn?”

“Haven’t seen him, or is family,” said Bofur with a shrug. “Dunno where they’ve gone, but I figured they wouldn’t mind us being here.”

“I’ll show you to the beds,” Thorin offered. “Follow me.”

“Then I’ll help the rest of you settle the ponies,” Bofur added.

Thorin led Dwalin down the garden path and to the hall, holding the door for them as they lumbered through. He took them down to where he and Bofur had been sleeping, and gestured towards one of the unoccupied beds.

“Ow,” Nori yelped as Dwalin climbed up and placed him onto the mattress.

“Sorry,” Dwalin muttered as he tucked Nori under the blankets. “We’re here now. I didn’t hurt you too badly getting you here, did I?”

Nori smirked. “You could have been a little more gentle.”

“Is there anything I can get you?” His voice was hushed, almost soothing. Thorin had never heard Dwalin talk that way before.

“Some new ribs would be fantastic.”

“I’ll have a word with Alatar. There must be something he can do now that we’re here.”

“A few days rest and I’ll be fine. That’s a promise. The sooner we get moving, the better.”

Dwalin gave Nori’s hand a tender squeeze. “Shall I stay?”

“No… go see what the others are up to. I’m not going anywhere.”

Dwalin lingered for a few moments before climbing back down to Thorin, and glanced back several times as the two made their way back outside.

“What happened?” Thorin asked.

“Nori got knocked around a bit during the fight trying to take the beast down. He suffered a few blows, but came out on top. I’d never seen anything like it.”

“I’ve never even heard of a dwarf taking on a cold-drake of the North, let alone living to tell of it.”

“He’s something, alright. I don’t know how I never saw it.” His voice trailed off into silence, and Thorin, despite desperately wanting to ask more questions, decided it was best to leave Dwalin alone for the time being. Judging by the sounds coming from the stable, Dori was in the midst of telling Bofur anyway.

“Nori did what?!” Bofur asked incredulously as they entered.

“Climbed up onto the drake’s back he did… taking a nasty swipe from its tail, too. But he held on, climbed all the way to its head, and stabbed it right above the eye with his dagger," described Dori.

“And that finished it?!”

“Not quite. Once the flesh was exposed, he used some of the water from the cursed river in Mirkwood to put it to sleep. I don’t when he decided to pick that up, but he must have known it would come in handy.”

“It sure did! Bloody brilliant!” Bofur guffawed loudly, startling the horses and ponies. “Well now I’ve heard everything! A dwarf riding a drake! I always thought he had more sense than to do something like that! What you must have been thinking!”

“It was hard to think much at all. I could hardly move,” said Dori. “Everyone else was busy trying to distract it. Dwalin was quite reckless himself, chipping away at its claws with his hammer. I’ll never forget how it screamed when he shattered one.”

Hearing Dori tell it, Thorin couldn’t help but stare at Dwalin with wide eyes. Amazing.

Seeing Dwalin, Bofur walked over and gave him a hearty slap on the back. “Never should have doubted this one! Just wait ‘til everyone back at Erebor hears about this. No one will ever believe me!”

Together they finished taking care of the horses, and then, because the hour was late, they decided it would be better to get some sleep before worrying about anything else. Bofur boasted that he would cook them the best breakfast they’d ever eaten. As he led Bifur and Dori back to the hall, Thorin noticed that the others remained behind. Though he was a little sleepy himself, he decided to wait with them.

Dis crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes at Pallando and Alatar. “First we find a cold-drake in the Vale, and now Beorn is nowhere to be found. This bodes terribly. Did you know about this?”

Pallando ran a hand through his beard. “I did not. As I said before, many things that I once saw clearly are now shrouded behind a veil of darkness.”

“I don’t have time for riddles. Tell me what you know.”

“I cannot say whether the drake’s presence and the Beornings’ absence are linked. If we are to stay here for a while, I might be able to glean something.”

“I can scout around the Carrock to see if Beorn left a trail,” Tauriel offered.

“The Beornings have guarded these lands for generations. If they’ve gone, its possible we may run into orcs further down the road,” said Dwalin.

Dis nodded. “Indeed. Tauriel, if there’s anything you can find out, we must know. We don’t want to run into any more surprises. As for you two,” she looked back at the wizards, “I need to hear you say it once again. Do I have your word that no harm will come to Thorin?”

“That you do,” Pallando replied solemnly.

Hearing everyone's concern for him made Thorin’s stomach churn. They wouldn’t be saying these things if I could look after myself. If I wasn’t so weak. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I thought I was ready, but I was wrong. I didn’t realise… I had no idea...”

“Battle always tastes bitter,” Dwalin said, "and only the mad relish it. The only way to get used to it is by honing your edge, which is why tomorrow we're going to start your training again.”

“But what if next time is the same? What if I can't do anything?”

Dwalin placed a hand on Thorin’s shoulder. “It won’t be. Nothing will ever be the same. You’ll understand when the time comes.”

“We’ve gone too far to turn back now,” Dis added. “Besides, I think it was right for you to come. When you’re King, you won’t have the luxury of letting others make decisions for you. You need to learn to be decisive under all kinds of pressure, especially that which cannot be built within the comfort and safety of the Mountain. The question that remains is, how long do we intend to stay here?”

“At least until Nori is feeling better,” Dwalin insisted. He turned to Alatar. “Is there anything you can do to speed his recovery?”

“Now that we’re no longer on the move, Nori can get the rest he needs, that’s the most important thing. I’ll tend to him in the morning, and with a bit of luck he’ll be back on his feet within the week.”

Dwalin glanced at Dis. “Is that acceptable?”

“It will have to do. For now, we should probably join the others and get some rest ourselves. It’s been a long few days.”

“That it has.”

With everyone agreed on what they needed to do next, they left the stable and retired to the hall.

Chapter Text

As Nori’s eyes fluttered open after what had been a deep, dreamless sleep, they welcomed the sight of the roof that sheltered him. The morning sun had not yet risen high enough in the sky to gleam through the unshuttered windows revealing a sky of lavender and rose. He tried to listen for the sounds of the waking world outside, but heard nothing over the snores of the others.

Nori wasn’t really all that surprised he was the first up; the past few days had been long and tiring for them all. He placed a hand gently on his side, which still ached, and the pain sharpened dramatically wherever he pressed. Daring to risk it, he attempted to prop himself up into a seated position, but the pain became unbearable all too quickly. Not happening today, I guess, he sighed at the ceiling.

It isn’t all bad, he bargained with himself. At least I’ll be staying in bed today. That’ll speed things along. The long days on horseback couldn’t have been good for his recovery - he’d felt every excruciating bump and divot on the way, and there’d been hardly a moment where he didn’t feel like someone was twisting a knife in his side. The only reason he’d survived the trip at all, as far as he was concerned, was that he’d been lucky enough to ride with Dwalin. They hadn’t spoken much, if at all, but that had been alright. Once he was up on the saddle, Dwalin held him securely from behind by wrapping a beefy arm around his waist. He’d done well not to put too much pressure where it was sore. Nori reflected on how warm Dwalin’s chest felt on his back. How his long whiskers brushed against the back of his neck. If he hadn’t been in so much pain, the journey would have been pure bliss.

Nori began to find himself slightly aroused as reminisced. He could feel his breeches getting tighter. If only he were here right now, he thought to himself, I bet he would be more than happy to keep taking care of me. It occurred to Nori that he didn’t actually know where Dwalin was sleeping. Why, there’s a chance… Excitedly, he tilted his head towards the wall and pouted when he found himself face to face with his brother, mouth open wide mid-snore. Of course. He’d accepted weeks ago that his luck had run completely dry; why would today be any different? Tilting his head over towards the other side of the hall, he couldn’t see Dwalin there either. Beyond the smoldering embers of the fire, Pallando and Alatar looked very comfortably entwined together. Now fate’s just rubbing salt in the wound, he thought bitterly.

With a loud yawn, Nori resigned himself to the fact he wasn’t going to fall easily back to sleep, and began to scheme about how he might be able to improve his bedridden situation.

***

It wasn’t too long before Nori heard a rustling of sheets and the creaking of wooden boards from beyond his vision as the first of the others climbed down from their bed. Nori was pleased, but not surprised, to discover it was Dwalin; with the exception of Tauriel he was almost always the first one up, and if it had been Tauriel, Nori probably wouldn’t have heard anything at all. The footsteps stopped right beside him, followed by a scuffle as Dwalin climbed part way up to check on him. It was good to see his face.

“Did you sleep well?” Dwalin murmured smoothly under his breath, so as to not disturb the others.

“It was better lying in a bed than on the grass,” Nori answered. “Though I’m still feeling pretty lousy.”

“I’ll make sure Alatar sees you later today. That’s a promise.” Nori found it adorable to see Dwalin look so concerned for him at that moment, but he wished he wouldn’t worry so much. “I’ll be back on my feet in no time,” he said with a grin. “And how about you? Did you sleep alright?”

Dwalin looked away meekly, and hesitated before replying. “Yeah... I slept fine.” Nori was well-versed in the art of lying, and it was obvious that Dwalin was less so. Something was troubling him, and Nori had a sneaking suspicion as to what it was.

“This wasn’t your fault, you know.”

“It wouldn’t have happened if I was stronger,” Dwalin said flatly.

“It was a drake, Dwalin. Cut yourself some slack, nobody could have been prepared for that.”

“I’m supposed to be prepared! It’s my duty!” His voice was getting louder now, and Nori sensed his brother stirring from behind.

“And you did great! You held your ground against that thing… If it had been anyone else, they’d be lizard feed! Not only did you buy enough time for Thorin to get away, but also enough for me to put it down. I couldn’t have done it without you!”

“I never wanted you to get hurt…”

“I keep telling you, this is nothing,” Nori insisted. “In a few days I’ll be all healed up, as though it never happened. So don’t beat yourself up about it, alright?”

“...morning…” mumbled Dori, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he sat up. “Dwalin… you didn’t wake Nori did you?” His tone shifted from surprised to annoyed.

“I was already up,” Nori explained. “We were just talking.”

Dwalin huffed. “I better leave you to rest. I’m going outside to train.”

“You’ll come back later, right?” Nori asked, but Dwalin had already disappeared below the side of the bed and was trudging to the door.

“You shouldn’t even be talking Nori, you should be resting...” Nori thumped his head against his pillow and rolled his eyes back towards the ceiling. Once Dori started, there was no stopping him. Though it had only just begun, Nori knew it was going to be a long day.

***

Picking up his hammer and boots along the way, Dwalin stepped outside onto the veranda. The morning air was chill, but it did nothing to cool his temper. Ready to work up a sweat, he found a bench by the door and sat down to strap on his boots. He hadn’t finished tightening the first lace before the door swung open again. What now? he thought irritably. He was about to tell whomever it was that he wanted to be left alone, but held his tongue when he glanced up at Dis.

Returning to his boots, he commented on her entrance gruffly. “You’re up early.” At least Dis would leave him alone.

“As are you,” Dis retorted. “For some training, I presume?”

“Aye.” It wasn’t like her to make small talk.

“Care for a sparring partner?”

Dwalin’s hands froze. He couldn’t even remember the last time Dis had asked to spar with him. Over a century at least. Ered Luin, he thought as he recalled the distant memory. Before…

Dis was still waiting for a reply. Without even thinking about his answer, he blurted out “Sure,” regretting it almost at once.

“Very well then.” She joined him on the bench to put her boots on. With her next to him, Dwalin could only fumble with his own laces. It was the very last thing he’d expected. He didn’t know what to think. He was still finishing up by the time she was back on her feet and stepping down onto the garden path with her spear.

She was limbering up as he met her out on a spacious patch of grass away from the weeds. Dwalin warmed up with a few practice swings before turning to her and asking “How easy d’you want me to make thi-” Dis lunged with her spear before he had the chance to finish speaking. Quickly dodging to the side, Dwalin wheeled his hammer up to block the swing that followed. The shafts collided with a sharp clang. Using the momentum of the recoil, she spun quickly to catch Dwalin on the other side. Unable to match her speed, it was his forearm that caught the swipe. The sting meant nothing to Dwalin, but he grunted loudly to test whether Dis would lower her guard. She didn’t, instead coming in again with another swing. This time however Dwalin was ready, and when their weapons clashed again, he lunged, catching the lug of the spearhead such that Dis couldn't draw it back. Immediately, the spear twirled in her hands, unfettering it, and she was able to withdraw it. She jumped back before he had the chance to retaliate. The two dwarves circled each other, looking for openings, waiting to seize the first opportunity to strike. Dwalin tested the waters, but Dis had no intention of letting him get close.

Well, if she won’t let me come to her… He raised his hammer with both hands, opening himself up, and she took the bait. As she thrusted, Dwalin kept the hammer aloft with just one hand while the other dropped to parry. He brushed the spear aside with his hand, then latched onto the shaft tightly and yanked it out of her grasp as he swung down. Dancing out of the way, Dis was able to slide in close and, with Dwalin still caught in the momentum of his swing, managed to grapple his arm and throw him off balance. He lurched over her shoulder and landed on his back with a thud, knocking the wind from his lungs.

“Had enough?” she taunted.

“Not even close,” Dwalin countered as he rolled onto his side and kicked out at her legs. She leapt back and knelt down to pick up the hammer, while Dwalin continued to roll until he found the spear. He collected it mid-roll and had it ready just in time as Dis brought the hammer down upon him. The shaft quivered in Dwalin’s hands as it absorbed the impact. He whipped it around toward Dis, and as she jumped to avoid it, he lifted his legs and in one motion flipped back up onto his feet. He brandished the spear confidently as she switched to a defensive position. “My turn now,” Dwalin said as he burst into a flurry of jabs. Dis deflected the first blow, but the second glanced off her sleeve, and the third stopped right before it poked her between the eyes.

“Alright, I yield,” Dis surrendered, lowering her weapon. Dwalin did the same. “I should have expected no less from the captain of the guard.”

Dwalin rolled up his sleeve and inspected his forearm. “You held your own. I’ve got a bruise that proves it.” They both took a moment to catch their breath, and then Dwalin asked, “Who’ve you been training with?”

“By myself. Back in the palace, my schedule is almost always full, so I usually don’t get a chance until late in the evening. But I try to practice every day. You never know when you’ll need to protect yourself, or your prince.”

“Well, it’s paying off. You could show the guards a thing or two.”

“I think they’re already in quite capable hands.”

Dwalin was at a loss for words. Praise? From Dis? It had been too long since that happened. It was like old times. Before all the tragedy, before all the loss, before he had failed her all those times. Perhaps it was better not to say anything at all, in case he ruined the moment. He managed to muster up a “thanks,” and left it at that.

They continued to sit there catching their breath until the first beams of sunlight peeked over the treeline to illuminate the grounds.

“That’s enough for me,” Dis announced, climbing back to her feet with her spear in hand. “I’m going inside to wake up Thorin. You can spar with him next, assuming you’ve got the stamina to keep going.”

“Hah! I could go all day.”

After taking the first step back towards the hall, she turned back one last time. “Same time tomorrow?”

“Of course,” Dwalin answered. As she disappeared inside, there was nothing that could have wiped the smile from his face.

Chapter Text

For Nori, the morning stretched for an eternity. After Dwalin had gone outside, Dis had followed, and he couldn’t help but wonder what had happened between them after she returned bearing a tear in her sleeve and a brightness about her demeanour that he’d never seen before in his life. She seemed to practically relish getting Thorin out of bed for training, and Nori had assumed she was incapable of enjoying anything. The lady and the prince exited the hall together, and it wasn’t long after that before the others began to arise at their leisure. Once awake, Bifur, Bofur and Alatar left to organise a breakfast feast, whilst Dori and Pallando remained. Pallando seemed intent on pottering about the house, inspecting everything that had been left in Beorn’s absence. Dori, meanwhile, fussed over Nori relentlessly. He tolerated it for a short while, but the thought alone that it might go on for days to come was enough to drive him to either do something about it or go mad.

“Dori, what does this mean?” he pointed his index finger towards the ceiling and waved it forward twice as he asked.

“Brushing up on your Iglishmek, eh? I suppose that isn’t too strenuous.” Dori brought his fingers to his chin and thought for a moment as Nori bit his tongue to stop himself from commenting on his brother's judgement. “Well, it could mean a number of different things depending on the context," Dori explained, "but typically when that sign is used it’s to denote solitude, loneliness, that sort of thing. Why do you ask? You’re not feeling lonesome, are you?”

“Oh no, it’s nothing like that.” He chuckled innocently to alleviate Dori's rising concern. “It was just something I saw Bifur say earlier, and I couldn’t remember what it meant.”

Dori’s eyes widened with curiosity, just as Nori had hoped. “Bi...Bifur made that sign?”

“Yeah,” Nori said nonchalantly as he nestled his head into his fluffy goose down pillow and closed his eyes with a satisfied smile. “Thanks for clearing that up.” He knew his brother well enough that he could easily imagine the conflicted look on his face. It didn’t take long before Dori asked “You… wouldn’t happen to remember the sentence, by any chance? I just… want to be sure I didn’t get it wrong. You know how tricky Iglishmek can be, don’t you?”

“Hmmm,” Nori drummed his fingers lightly on his stomach. “It’s tricky to say. I wasn’t really paying very much attention. But if I do remember correctly, it was right after Bofur asked Bifur how he’d slept.”

“How he’d... slept?” Dori repeated.

“Yeah. I guess Bifur was just telling him that he had slept by himself.”

“That doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Dori muttered under his breath.

“Sorry?” Nori pretended he hadn’t heard.

“Oh, nothing. I just… how did he look? Bifur, I mean. Was he well? I haven’t seen him… I mean, with you, I...”

“Hmm. Well, to be honest, he did seem a little down.” He wasn't being honest at all.

“Really? Oh my.” Dori’s voice trailed away as he became lost in his thoughts.

Now to strike while the iron is hot, Nori thought to himself. “I heard he saved your life during the battle with the drake. Have you thanked him properly yet? I’m sure a token of appreciation is bound to cheer him up.”

“He knows how grateful I am,” Dori said, but then he paused. “I mean, he should know. I did tell him so. But with so much else on my mind... I had to make sure you were alright. You need me. But perhaps I have been a little remiss.”

“I think he needs you too.”

Dori gulped bashfully. “Oh?”

“I’ve seen the way he looks at you. For a dwarf of so few words there’s a lot said in those looks.”

Dori said nothing. His expression was that of a deer, after stumbling upon a hunting party in the woods. So Nori continued. “I’ve seen the way you look at him, too,” he added with a smirk.

Nori reckoned Dori’s cheeks had never turned so red as they did at that moment. He tried to cover them up with his hands as he turned away, flustered.

“Relax brother, I think you two make a great pair. You should be with him now, not here doting on me.”

“But…”

“But what? There is no safer place in the Vale than Beorn’s hall! Whether he’s here or not, there isn’t a creature out there that would cause trouble in his home. Right now we have the opportunity to relax, and you should be making the most of it. Our next destination isn’t going to be anywhere near as pleasant.”

“...Moria.” Dori’s features paled. “The last time we were there… Ori was…” His lower lip began to quiver. “Oh Nori, are you sure about this? What awaits us… there’s no coming back from it.”

Nori reached into his pocket and retrieved the small, leather book he always kept with him. Ori’s journal. He thumbed through the pages until he reached the first blank page after Ori’s last entry. “My part in Erebor’s tale has come to an end now, brother, and I was hoping you could continue the story.” Ori’s words echoed in his mind. “I have to do this,” Nori said resolutely. “I know to you he was always ‘Little Ori’, but the day he left Erebor for Moria, I realised there was something different about him. Something that separated him from all other dwarves. Not like royalty… our blood is as common as dirt. But it was a similar sort of difference. Something that made him special. He was gifted in so many ways... strong enough to keep up with Dwalin in the pits, smart enough to provide Balin with facts not even he could remember, and brave enough to retake a Mountain from a dragon. He was the youngest of us, but on that day I realised I was only catching a glimpse of just how far he’d surpassed us. He was destined for greatness. No matter what happened in Moria, I know he succeeded.”

Dori squeezed Nori’s hand. “I believe that too.”

Nori continued. “Ori was far too talented with the quill for his words to be lost in time. They must be found so his story can be retold for generations. I’m going to find it, and when I do, I’ll share it with everyone. If Ori is watching us from Aulë’s hall, he can do so proudly, knowing that his chapter of the dwarven tale will become history.”

We’ll find it. Together.” Dori said. “And then we’ll all go home safely.”

“That we will," Nori agreed. "But there’s still plenty of journey ahead of us, and who knows what else we might find along the way. All the more reason why now is the time to relax and rebuild our strength. You should definitely be spending time with Bifur.”

“But what about you?” Dori asked. “What if you need something? I’d prefer it if someone was close enough to keep an eye on you.”

“Well…” Nori scratched at his ear, as though in thought. “How about Dwalin?”

“Dwalin?! He’s a bit rough, don’t you think? And besides, he has his hands full enough as it is. Why don’t I ask Bofur? He did a splendid job taking care of Thorin. I think he’d be perfect.”

Nori sighed. “You make a good point. But if something were to happen while we’re here, not that I think it’s at all likely, I’d just feel safer knowing the strongest of us was by my side, ready to whisk me to safety at a moment’s notice. Especially while I’m so immobile.” He looked away sheepishly and buried his face in his hands. “I just can’t stand being so vulnerable. It’s humiliating.”

“Oh Nori, I had no idea you felt that way,” Dori said sympathetically. “If only all those peaceful years in Erebor hadn't dulled my skills. Would you like me to talk to him for you?”

Nori nodded pathetically, keeping his face hidden. It was taking every ounce of strength to hold back a grin of smug satisfaction given Dori was playing right into his hands. If he were to catch even the slightest hint of truth behind Nori’s intentions, he wouldn't allow Dwalin to be in the same room for as long as he was recovering.

“Alright. Leave Dwalin to me. I’ll make sure he finds the time to be with you tonight.”

“You’re such a good brother,” Nori said. “Whatever would I do without you?”

As Dori left the hall, Nori couldn’t help but feel triumphant. Well that went better than expected, he thought gleefully.

Chapter Text

The morning wore on. Alatar, Bofur and Bifur returned from their morning hunting trip with a wild boar. Dis stopped them before they could bring it onto the grounds. “From what I know of the man, Beorn was a friend to the animals of the Vale. He never killed to eat. It would be disrespectful to bring game into his home and cook it on his hearth.” When they protested, she stood her ground. “We’re already taking advantage of his hospitality by staying here uninvited. Do we want to add insult, after taking you in on your journey to Erebor and fighting alongside our kin in the Battle of Five Armies?” They did not, and so they sulkily carried it to the river where they intended to set up a makeshift spit to roast it. When word reached Nori, he was disappointed that he was missing out on the barbecue. What Beorn doesn’t know can’t hurt him, he thought bitterly. Hopefully someone will sneak me some bacon.

With everyone outside, the hall grew tiresomely quiet. Only Pallando remained, still inspecting and fiddling with the items in the house, oblivious to everything else that was happening. They’re mistaken if they think he’s going to keep an eye on me. I doubt he’d notice a balrog barge in.

“All the good stuff’s at the back,” Nori declared once he was well and truly weary of Pallando’s peculiar behaviour. “Not that there’s anything of value. I checked the last time I was here.”

As Nori more or less expected, Pallando just ignored him and carried on fidgeting. He didn’t really mind. Talking to Pallando was difficult at the best of times. It was as though the wizard was always in two places at once. Sometimes he would have your attention, but other times it was like talking to a wall. Alatar knew how to get through to him, but Nori couldn’t fathom how many years that had taken. More than can be counted, was his guess. It was as Nori reflected on this that Pallando suddenly approached him bearing a small teacup, catching him by surprise. He offered it to Nori.

It was a small, delicate little cup. Well taken care of, but aside from perhaps its sentimental value, utterly worthless. Inside, it was empty but for a thin layer of dust, much like everything else left abandoned in the hall.

“You could have at least filled it with something,” Nori sighed. He tried to pass it back, but Pallando refused, instead closing his larger hands around Nori’s, still holding the cup. “Let me show you something,” Pallando insisted. “It’s easier to see if you close your eyes.”

Nori wasn’t sure what was happening, but without anything better to do, he complied. It didn’t take long though, before lying on his bed holding the cup with Pallando felt quite awkward. What am I doing? This is too strange. He opened his eyes, but instead of looking up at Pallando, he saw someone else. He didn’t recognise her, but she was sitting across the table from him. The cup was still clasped within his hands, only it was warm, steaming with a sweet aroma that was perhaps the most tantalising thing he’d ever smelt. Drawn to it, he brought the cup to his lips and savoured the syrupy flavour of honey and lemon that warmed him to his core.

The woman before him spoke. “Come now Grimbeorn, finish your tea and head out into the garden to help your father. Quickly now.”

“Yes mother,” Nori found himself speaking the words before he even had a chance to consider how strange a thing it was for him to say. Hearing himself speak them was an even stranger experience, for it was not with his voice, but a stranger’s. Grimbeorn, he could only assume as the body he inhabited quickly brought the cup to his lips to gulp down the remainder of the tea. Full of fire, he placed the cup down to go outside. As his fingers slipped from the glazed ceramic, the world faded into darkness. In as much time as it took for Nori to blink, he found himself back on his bed with Pallando standing next to him once more.

“What was that?” Nori asked, somewhat bewildered by the experience.

“The past.”

“It felt like a memory, only it wasn’t mine.”

“It was Grimbeorn’s.”

“What?!” Nori cocked an eyebrow in suspicion. “How can I remember something that happened to Grimbeorn? I’ve never even met him!” As he said it, he remembered Pallando was a wizard, and surmised that this was probably just a demonstration of his magic. Pallando’s answer, however, was far from anything so simple.

“But you have met him. Through the cup, just now.”

Nori quickly felt foolish for asking in the first place. Of course he wouldn’t get a straight answer from a wizard. He shook his head in submission. “Never mind,” he yielded. The vision had indeed been surreal, but Nori knew it would only bother him for as long as it was on his mind, and that he’d feel better once it was forgotten. He could accept that some things were beyond comprehension.

Pallando wasn’t satisfied by Nori's surrender, and tried to explain. “Everything has a memory. From the tiniest ant to the tallest tree. It’s a mysterious force that’s far bigger than any of us, and yet lives within us, almost paradoxically. Memories are our most deep, personal possessions, but they can be shared without ever being told. It’s how infants know how to breathe, how to eat, how to dream.”

Nori had never thought about it before. “That’s just instinct.”

“That’s a word for it, yes,” Pallando responded. “Memory connects us. It connects us to others, and to ourselves. This cup, for instance. Holding it like this, it’s now a part of me. If I were to place it down on the table over there, my connection with it does not cease, for it never would have reached there without my influence. Its history is forever changed because of me. It is the memory of this moment that binds us together.”

Nori had heard Dwalin used an old adage when training his recruits. “In order to be effective with a weapon, it must first become an extension of your body.” But what Pallando was saying was nonsensical. “You, me, Grimbeorn... we’ve all touched the cup. Are you saying it’s all of us now?”

“It depends on how you define self,” Pallando answered. “When lovers marry, some might call them one. When children are born into families, some might call them one. When families join together to form clans, some might call them one. Whether the cup is one or many is just a perspective, and memories are not limited by perspective.”

Nori felt he was beginning to grasp Pallando’s words, but there was still so much beyond his reach. He decided to keep arguing for the sake of it. “Alright, but just because you place a cup somewhere doesn’t mean it remembers you. It’s just a cup.”

“You, of all dwarves, know how easy it is to leave unwanted traces of yourself in places you would not wish them found,” Nori felt a little violated at the allegation, but couldn’t deny the truth in Pallando’s words. “There are also traces of spirit, or aura, or memory, that get left behind too. And though it might seem those traces fade as time passes, a memory is never lost because it is forgotten. It can always be found if one looks in the right place.”

Nori tried to put the pieces of Pallando’s riddle together. “And let me guess, you know where to look?”

Pallando looked up at the wall, but to Nori it seemed as though he were gazing off into the distance. “My kin, a long time ago, once shared memories by telling stories. One day, a seer among us discovered how to do so more... directly. Soon after, she began to see the memories that lingered in all things. She could see memories that had been, and memories that were yet to be. She was nearing the end of her life when she finally mastered the art, and among her final acts, she shared her secret, her memories, with my tribe. I was but a boy at the time, but eventually, after I had come of age, they were shared with me.”

Nori had too many questions. How can there be memories of things yet to happen? Is that prophecy? Can anyone learn how to see these memories? He weighed the queries in his mind against the likelihood of Pallando providing a satisfactory answer, but soon realised there was only one question he wanted answered.

“So whose memory are you looking for?”

“Beorn’s. I’m trying to find him, with the hope it might also explain how that drake came to be so far south of the Grey Mountains.”

“No, not here. Whose memory are you looking for in Moria?”

Pallando regarded Nori, but did not answer.

“It’s why you’re here, isn’t it? When we first met at Dale Castle, at Bain’s funeral, you mentioned that Mazarbul Sigin-turgul Khazaddûmul is not all that lies beneath the Misty Mountains. You’re looking for something. You said it was a relic, but that’s not true, is it? What you’re after is a memory. Is it Ori's?!”

Pallando still did not answer.

“You looked at my memories, didn’t you? Was it my past? My future?!” Nori felt himself getting heated. “What’s going to happen?”

“I don’t like to…”

“...ruin the surprises?” Nori interrupted, suddenly overwhelmed by the sense that Pallando was about to cheat him of a real answer. In saying so, he realised he was right. Talking was pointless. He would get nothing from the wizard, only riddles. Hopelessness quickly doused the fire that had ignited inside of him, and he rolled over to face the wall, ignoring the stabbing pain in his side, to sulk.

Pallando apologised. “I’m sorry. The future is not written in stone. It flows like a river. Sometimes looking ahead is all it takes for the current to take you down a different course. Right now we’re heading towards turbulent waters, and for the first time in my life the danger lurks beneath the surface, out of sight.”

Nori wasn’t sure if Pallando was waiting for a response, but he had no intention of providing one. Eventually, Pallando took the hint that the conversation was over, and left Nori to his brooding.