“I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed.”
JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit
The morning after his funeral, Thorin Oakenshield woke up.
At least he thought it was morning, and he thought he was awake. He was in a long hallway, with a ceiling so high it disappeared into the shadows overhead. He could see no windows, but light entered from somewhere, soft as spring. It fell on the platform where he was lying, bathing his face and form in shimmering gold.
A frown appeared between his eyes. Despite his final words to Bilbo, he was not sure he truly believed in a life beyond the physical, and wondered if somehow he had managed to survive that cataclysmic final battle. He sat up slowly, taking stock of himself. No wounds, no gashes, the great spear thrusts from the battle either healed or …
“I know you’re confused. I was, too, when I got here,” said a voice from the end of the hall. Thorin slid off the platform, reaching for a sword that wasn’t there, every muscle tense. The voice belonged to a ghost from long past, one that had haunted his dreams for years. He still remembered stripping the body of its weapons and armor to keep it from the orc scavengers, and the trails his tears had cut through the filth and blood on his face. It could not be.
The speaker came closer, into the golden light, and stopped a few feet away. “It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it? That’s why they sent me to fetch you.” The speaker smiled and shook his head. “I could wish the meeting had been longer delayed, but the years look good on you, brother.
“Frerin … “ Thorin breathed. The hot-headed young brother who fought at his side at the Moria gate looked as he had the morning of the battle – thick black hair caught in a braid down his back to keep it out of his way, beard laced with silver rings, and smiling blue eyes full of laughter and a hint of devilry. In many ways so like the sister-sons he had never known. Thorin’s heart twisted at that thought. “Then it is true, I am dead, and these are the Halls of Waiting.”
“This is more the Antechamber of Waiting, but yes,” Frerin grinned. “Come with me, there are others who await you.” Thorin hesitated a moment, then clasped his brother’s outstretched hand. It felt real, solid and warm, and the tears in his eyes felt real, too. He pulled his brother into an embrace, and felt the breath nearly squeezed out of him in return.
Frerin pulled back and draped an arm around Thorin’s shoulders. “Save your questions for now – and I know you have them, you always did. Father said once if he didn’t know better, he’d swear Mother got you by someone else. Smarter than all of us, you were. I think he was jealous. But he knew you were his, you were too much like Afi not to be.”
“I’ve heard that said before,” Thorin said, smiling, but a dark voice in his mind whispered, perhaps more like our grandfather than anyone knows.
“Well, you can ask him yourself what he thinks when you see him. But I’ll wager you right now, you’ll barely recognize him.”
“What does that mean?” Thorin wondered.
Frerin laughed. “You’ll see … and I think you’ll be pleased.” He pushed open the great double doors at the end of the corridor. “Welcome to your new home, brother. Perhaps it’s not Erebor, but on the whole, it’s not a bad substitute. And the quality of the company is of the very highest. We’re keeping it down to immediate family for now, don’t want to overwhelm you completely.”
The chamber they walked into – for so vast a space could hardly be called a ‘room’ – was the largest and grandest Thorin had ever seen, rivaling anything in the kingdom under the mountain. Along the walls stood intricately carved statues so lifelike Thorin could swear he saw them breathing. And who knew, in this place perhaps they could. There was a raised dais on one end large enough to accommodate a score of musicians or skaldi with room to spare. A multitude of instruments stood waiting along the edges for anyone to use. Long tables filled the main area, gleaming dark wood laden with a variety of bottles, decanters and foodstuffs. Thorin’s stomach surprised him by rumbling quietly at the sight of the food – how could one be dead and still want to eat? Somehow that wasn’t something the legends had ever talked about. Benches flanked the tables, and there was other seating scattered about the space in various arrangements meant for conversation. Tapestries of the finest workmanship, studded with jewels and chased with precious threads, warmed the walls. Thorin had spent many years as a craftsman, priding himself on his skill, and could see the level of artistry displayed here was far beyond anything he could have achieved. “Magnificent,” he murmured, turning slowly to take it all in.
A figure came through a door at the other end of the chamber, clad in simple but elegant leathers, such as a wealthy merchant or artisan might wear. Long iron gray hair cascaded over his shoulders, braided and caught back at the sides with twin silver clips, and his beard was plaited in a simple, utilitarian fashion. Eyes of a bright and piercing blue met Thorin’s, and a wide smile blazed out from the beard. A booming laugh echoed off the richly clad walls. “Well, it’s high time you got him here, lad! We thought you got lost along the way – we were about to send out a search party!”
Thorin could feel himself staring, and willed himself to stop. “Afi?” This beaming dwarf was a far cry from both the mighty king under the mountain, and the refugee from the wrath of Smaug. The former had worn his pride like a cloak, as much a part of him as the jewels in his beard; the latter had used his pride as a shield against unfriendly eyes. Rarely in later years had he smiled, and even more rare had been his laugh. Almost the only beings who could break through his shell of reserve had been his queen and his eldest grandson. ‘Afi’ had been as close as a very young Thorin had been able to come to ‘grandfather’, and it had delighted the old dwarf, who insisted that each of his grandchildren call him that.
Frerin leaned toward Thorin. “I think I win the wager,” he murmured, barely suppressing a smile. “Yes, Afi, I’ve brought him,” he said in a louder voice. “Be gentle – I think he’s still in shock.”
Thror laughed as he clapped Thorin on the shoulder. “Weren’t we all when we got here? But you’re a son of Durin, you’ll sort it out.”
Thorin started to bow, as was customary when greeting the king, even when the king was blood kin, but Thror stopped him. “Ah, none of that, lad. This king left his crown under the mountain, and there it will stay. We are all equal here. Truth be told, it’s the easiest way to manage. There are just too many kings, and if we stood on ceremony, we’d spend the whole day bowing to each other and getting nothing important done … like drinking!”
Thror led his two grandsons over to a beautifully carved table with comfortable looking chairs grouped around it. Goblets and a decanter of chased silver awaited them. Frerin did the honors of pouring the wine, then Thror raised his goblet. “Sooner than expected, and far sooner than wished, but welcome, Thorin. The skaldi are already composing the song of Thorin Oakenshield, Dain Ironfoot, and the Battle of the Five Armies. It will be magnificent.” The three drank, but when Thorin lowered his goblet, his gaze stayed on it. His grandfather noticed and asked quietly, “What is it, lad?”
Thorin took another sip from his goblet, mouth suddenly dry. “I thank you both for your welcome, but … I have to wonder if a mistake hasn’t been made. If I have indeed earned a place here in so brave a company.” He paused a moment before continuing. “I … watched you, Afi, when the dragon sickness took you. I did my best to keep you away from eyes that wouldn’t understand – even yours, brother. I saw what it did to you, and vowed it would never happen to me. That if someday we reclaimed our birthright, the gold would not taint me.”
He stared into the goblet, seeing his sins reflected in the dark surface of the wine. “The dragon was slain, the treasure room was opened, and I saw the hoard Smaug had held all those years. I could feel it take hold of my heart, my brain, and I did nothing to stop it. I should have shut the doors and walked away. But I didn’t … I couldn’t. My company, brave dwarves all, who risked everything to come with me, were as much captives to the madness as I was because they followed me.” Thorin drained the remainder of his wine, the excellent vintage tasteless as water in his mouth. He sat in silence for a moment, tracing his fingers around the rim.
“So what changed?” Thror asked. “We have heard the tale of the battle, and how your company threw down the barricade and charged into the field. Why?”
Thorin thought a moment, replaying it in his head, then answered, “The orc horns. Our kin, who had come at my call, were fighting them, and dying, and I was not there with them. I could not let that happen. I heard the horns, and I felt the madness flow away from me. I … remembered how to be a king again.”
Thror smiled softly and laid a hand on Thorin’s arm. “I know better than anyone what the shame feels like. It took a dragon and the loss of a kingdom and countless lives to bring me to my senses. But the sickness was just that – a sickness, and none here will hold you to blame for it, any more than they did me. You conquered the madness and regained your honor, and the honor of your House. That is why you have earned your place here.” He picked up the decanter and refilled Thorin’s goblet. “For good or ill, you are a son of Durin, and a son of my line.”
“Oddly enough, someone else noted that resemblance not long ago. He claimed to know you of old – Lord Elrond of Rivendell.”
Thror laughed, deep and delighted. “Of old, indeed! It has been many a year since I visited with him – before you were born, I think. Not a bad sort … for an Elf. Not like that one.” Thorin and Frerin exchanged a look – since the day that Thranduil had turned his people away from aiding the Dwarves, Thror had refused to say his name. Some hatreds, it seemed, thrived even after death. “Can’t say his table was impressive, but there was no faulting his cellars. He was a good host.”
“Yes, he was,” Thorin agreed, thinking of the welcome his company received, the freely granted gift of Orcrist, and the Elf’s aid with the moon runes, though he disapproved of their quest.
“Tell me, is this a private party, or can anyone join in?” a voice full of light music interrupted his reverie. Thorin looked up and felt his mouth stretch into a wide grin. Khedrin, musician and instrument maker, had traveled through Ered Luin looking for a likely place to set up shop, and had chosen their village – possibly because of a certain dark-haired Dwarf maiden. His golden hair and deep dimples had Dis smitten at first sight, though of course she hid it well. He’d had no hesitation in wooing a king’s sister, braving both her seeming indifference and the open hostility of her brother. Their years together had been cut short by orc arrows, but not before he had seen the birth of two strong sons. Thorin marveled again at how much the elder of them resembled his father. He’d often wondered if that had ever sent a pang through Dis’ heart, or if she had found the reminder a comfort. He’d never had the courage to ask her.
“This is a family gathering, but since Dis took complete leave of her senses and married you, I suppose you qualify,” Frerin laughed, rising and clapping him on the shoulder. “I think we’re going to need more wine – be right back.”
Thror’s attention was claimed by a skald who wanted his opinion on a bit of verse. He excused himself, and Khedrin took the empty seat, sinking into it with a sigh of relief. “I know time stands still here, but today I feel truly old. I can’t believe just how much they’ve both grown.”
“Fili and Kili are here?” Thorin asked, willing back a lump in his throat.
“Aye, and running me off my feet. I’ve been showing them around, and I lost them at the armory, trying out every sword and bow in the place. Their grandfather Thrain is with them so they won’t get into too much trouble. Did we have that much energy at that age, Thorin?”
“I’m not certain anyone ever had that much energy,” Thorin said with a rueful smile. “There were times I wasn’t sure that I’d survive their childhood …. or that they would.”
“Well, they’ve grown up well, both as warriors and as Dwarves. I have you to thank for that, and I do.”
Thorin shook his head. “That was Dis’ doing more than mine – if you knew how many times I wanted to crack their thick skulls together, you might not thank me. But they turned out well enough, I grant you, and they’re good lads.” He chuckled. “Never let them know I said that, though.”
Khedrin laughed. “Not a word.” His face became serious, and his eyes went soft. “How does my wife these days?” he asked quietly. “All this time, and I still miss her.”
“And she you. When last I saw her, Dis was well enough, though angry at me. Fili and Kili wanted to come with me to Erebor, and she was dead set against it.”
“I don’t doubt it. I wonder you were able to persuade her – I remember her temper could stop a raging boar in its tracks and send it squealing home to its mother.”
“Believe me, it hasn’t gotten any sweeter over the years. I told her she couldn’t keep them by her hearth fire forever, and pledged to her that I would see them safe. When she gets the news … “ He stopped, unable to go on for a moment.
“I know. How many times can a heart be broken before the pieces become too small to mend? Even the heart of a daughter of kings?” A commotion from the door had Khedrin turning. “And the hurricane blows in,” he said, a smile forming on his face, though Thorin could still see the sadness in his eyes. “Thank you for bringing them back, Thrain. So, my sons, how was your adventure?” he asked, rising and walking toward them.
“Father, that was amazing! That bow Idris made – you could take down a hawk in flight at a thousand yards with it!” Kili’s voice was bubbling with excitement. Thorin didn’t dare turn to look at him, for fear his heart would shatter all over again, as it had when he’d been told of their valiant sacrifice.
“Well, a decent archer could,” Fili commented. “You, on the other hand … “ The sound of a slap against a shoulder, and a laugh. “But that sword, it made Orcrist look like a cheese knife … “ The exuberant voice stopped on a gasp. “Thorin?”
Thorin bowed his head for a moment, took a deep breath, then stood to face his nephews. They both stood frozen for a moment, disbelief and grief battling across their features. Then the spell broke, and they exploded toward him, skidding to a halt an arm’s length away, as if fearing to come closer.
“This … can’t be!” Fili whispered.
Kili’s protest overlapped his brother’s. “When Beorn carried you back to the mountain, we thought … “ Dark eyes flooded with sorrow. “It was for nothing, then.”
“We failed you, Uncle,” Fili said thickly. “We failed our king.” To Thorin’s shock and dismay, they both fell to their knees in front of him, heads bowed.
It took a moment for Thorin to find his voice, and then it was shaky. “Do you see what I mean about wanting to crack their skulls together?” he told Khedrin with a tremulous smile. “On your feet, both of you, and look at me.” After a moment’s hesitation, they complied, and he laid a gentle hand on each of their shoulders “Hear me well, sons of my heart. I was already past help when I was taken away. Had you not been there, my life would have ended on that field. You bought me time I would not have had otherwise, time to set things in order. I just wish that it had been paid for with less precious coin. You did not fail me – I failed you.” Bitterness washed over him, and his grip tightened for a moment. “Your mother was right -- I should never have let you come with me to Erebor.”
“You couldn’t have stopped us, short of tying us up in a sack and dumping us down a well,” Kili said. “And even then, we’d have gotten loose and come after you.”
“We had as much right to be there as anyone. Erebor is our heritage, too – you taught us that,“ Fili added.
Strangled by my own words, Thorin thought, shaking his head. “Mahal save me from the stubbornness of Dwarves,” he muttered under his breath. “I couldn’t teach you to pick up after yourselves, but this … this you learned.”
Their father’s eyes were shining with pride. “Perhaps some lessons are simply more important than others.”
“Well, that’s the first intelligent thing you’ve said in years,” Frerin said, coming toward the group. He’d been standing back a bit, but had heard everything. “Now that we’ve gotten that bit of family bonding out of the way, I think another drink is in order, and perhaps a song or two to lighten the mood. What say you?” he asked Khedrin.
“Sounds like a fine idea.”
“Hold a moment,” Thorin said. He looked at Fili and Kili, and nodded toward the musicians’ dais. “Lads, make yourselves useful.”
The two brothers broke into grins, ran to the dais, and after a bit of rummaging brought back a pair of fiddles. Kili also carried a harp, which he thrust into his uncle’s hands. Thorin took it, surprised for a moment, then caressed the strings, checking to see if it was in tune. Fili and Kili whispered together for a moment, then lifted their fiddles.
A two-part harmony issued forth, and Thorin smiled, adding accents with his harp. His fingers knew the song well, and he watched Khedrin’s face as he played. The blond dwarf’s face went slack with surprise, then tears formed in his eyes, threatening to spill over. He took a deep breath, waited for the melody to begin again, then added his clear sweet tenor to the ensemble, a slight quaver in it at first, then stronger. It ended on a high note that echoed off the walls of the chamber, tapering to a whisper then fading entirely.
There was a moment of silence, then Khedrin asked, “How did you …?”
“Mother used to sing it to us, she said it was the one you wrote for her when you were courting. It always made her smile when she sang it,” Kili said quietly.
“When we started learning to play, Thorin made sure we learned it. That way we’d never forget you,” Fili added.
“Such a gift I never thought to receive,” Khedrin whispered, and gathered his sons in close. “Thank you … all of you,”
“The two of them worked for weeks until they got the harmonies perfect,” Thorin said. He remembered their mother’s face the first time they played it for her, the joy and pride shining through the tears in her eyes. “They each wanted to leave their own mark on the song.”
“I’d say they succeeded,” Frerin said, uncharacteristically quiet. “Well done.”
“Indeed,” Khedrin agreed, releasing Fili and Kili and stepping back. “And the three of us are going to make you proper fiddles, worthy of your talent. We will visit my workshop and you can help me with the design. And for you, Thorin, a new harp of your own. It would be a pity to let your skill rust – I remember the songs on winter evenings. It will be good to hear them again.”
“And these two dwarrows will have to teach us the songs the young ones sing, if they’re fit for these old ears,” Thror said, rejoining the group. He smiled his approval at his great-grandsons’ performance.
Kili blushed a bit, and Fili inclined his head with a smile. “We would be honored, my L … “ Thror shot him a stern look and he amended, “uh, Afi.”
“And while you’re waiting for the harp to get made, Thorin, you can give me a hand at the forge,” Thrain put in. “Perhaps we’ll put these strong lads to work, too, if their father can spare them from his workbench. There are swords and axes that need repair, and not enough skilled craftsmen to do the work properly.”
“Wait … weapons needing repair? How did they get damaged?”
Thror let out a hearty laugh. “How do weapons usually get damaged, lad? Do you think we sit around all day drinking and playing music? That’s no fit occupation for a warrior. No, there are many here to try your skills against, with no need to be gentle. Come the day of the Dagor Dagorath, Manwe may need all the troops he can muster. We Dwarves will be called on to rebuild Arda anew, but if we are needed before that, we intend to be ready.”
The Last Battle that would end the World – Thorin’s warrior heart was stirred by the thought, remembered from Dwarven legend. Though Dwarves did not revere battle, still they numbered many champions among them. There had been need to fight as well as create over the years, and they had risen to the challenge when called.
Thorin looked at his brother and his sister-sons, and saw the same light in their eyes he knew was shining in his. Perhaps their time would come again. Until then, the forges would keep their arms strong, as they had before. Taking up arms against the heroes of old would hone their battle skills. He looked into the faces of the generations before him, and the ones that came after, and he realized that nothing had truly ended. In some ways, it was just beginning. For the first time since finding himself here in the Halls of Waiting, Thorin felt that he belonged.
Haven’t seen the end of it yet
We’ll fight as long as we live.
-- “Song of the Lonely Mountain”