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We Are Made Wise

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“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.” ― George Bernard Shaw.



Gandalf sat. And smoked. And thought.

The longer he sat, the more he thought, and the more he thought, the more he smoked.

“If I did not know better, Mithrandir, I would think you destined to become a cloud!” came Glorfindel’s voice, preceding him out of the darkness like a beam of sunlight on an otherwise grey day. Gandalf raised a shaggy eyebrow at the bright elf, but it did nothing to dim his dazzling smile.

If Lady Galadriel was the light of the sacred trees, silver and softly golden, then Glorfindel was the sun—burning white and splendid.

“Destined,” Gandalf muttered around the stem of his pipe. “Hm.”

Glorfindel stepped up next to where Gandalf sat on an outcropping of rock, down in the yet uncleared section of mountain. It was a good place as any to sit and think—and he would be undisturbed, besides. Or—that had been the plan. Instead, he had Glorfindel towering above him—at easily seven feet, the elf could do little else—frowning an exaggerated pout.

“Better make that a thundercloud. What bothers you so, old friend?”

Gandalf’s eyes snapped to him. “Did I not just say?” he barked. “Destiny! The fate of the world!”

Glorfindel narrowed his eyes. “Young Gimli says we escaped darkness before, so it may yet be done again. Difficult, sure, and worrisome, but—“ he cut himself off, tilting his head. “That is not what has you so aggrieved.”

“No,” Gandalf said. “No it is not. It may be nothing—it is probably no matter.”

“And how often has that truly been the case?” Glorfindel asked.

Gandalf scowled with little heat—just once in his life, he’d like to be wrong.

“It is said, if any are again yet found, it would spell a final doom for Middle Earth,” Gandalf said, and he watched as Glorfindel’s eyes widened in understanding. “It may not be, for there was no ‘finding’ to be had, but—“

“Gimli forged a silmaril,” Glorfindel breathed, and closed his eyes, pained. “Oh, Elbereth!”

“Indeed,” Gandalf said, and placed his pipe once more between his teeth. “Let us pray that in our efforts to heal, we are not simply sealing our doom.”

***

"Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,” Gimli muttered to himself. He had faced greater dangers than this--he had stood in the face of all the darkness of Mordor and was not cowed, for Mahal’s sake. Yet it did little good—his heart still hammered in his chest, his knees still trembled, and his guts still churned as if with water. In the mirror, his reflection was ashen and his eyes too wide.

Legolas appeared behind him, out of the shadows of their rooms. Gimli could not see Legolas’s face with the mirror angled as it was, but he could see his long, pale hands settle on his hair, could feel their weight, warm and comforting, on the sides of his head.

Gimli sighed. “I don’t think I can do this,” he said, and hated the way his voice broke, leaving his last words near whispered.

“You can,” Legolas said gently, his strange woodland vowels soft as flickering candlelight. “Because you are strong. You will because it is right, and you have never lacked the strength to do what is right.”

“Still," Gimli said, as Legolas’s hands fell to his shoulders. "I am glad you are with me, my husband. What strength I lack, I have ever been able to draw from your presence.” He reached up with both hands, placing them over Legolas’s, running his thick fingers over the delicate bones, knuckles, and the still-strange bumps of rings Gimli had found and resized for his husband over the long winter.

Several months had passed since the council of Erebor, and a harder winter than Gimli had yet to experience. The snows were deep around the mountain, and the wind biting cold. With no stores and the weather driving even the winter game away, there had been times that Gimli wondered who, if any of them, would live to see the spring. Their lives were indebted to King Thranduil, who continued to send what supplies he could to the Mountain. It was never enough, really, but the deliveries came always in the last possible moment, and they continued.

It was a trying time for the new King Under the Mountain, and Gimli was happy to say that Fili had risen to the occasion. He still had his fair share of doubts, and there were days when the cold was too much for Fili’s recent wounds. Used to being a more active dwarf, Fili hard took the days he could not get up from bed, and it often led to several more days when he could not escape the darkness in his own mind. (“Runs in the family,” Dain had joked darkly one night when supplies were such that they had naught but ale for their supper. “And Family is the answer for it,” Thorin had said, but his face had reamined hidden in shadow for some time after.)

All winter, the Lady Dis watched her son with sadness in her eyes, for she felt his pain as if it were her own, and Lord Dain would take up the mantle of regent and do what he could in Fili’s name until Fili could once again gain his feet. “I know what it’s like, to have your body betray you when everyone and their brother is looking at you to fix their problems,” he had said calmly to Kili one night, when, in his own frustration on his brother’s behalf, Kili had accused Dain of seeking the kingship for himself. Kill had paled, as if he had just remembered the beginning of Dain's own rule, and no more was said on the matter.

But there were times, when the cold was not so cold and the snow not quite so deep, when Fili’s golden head could be seen hobbling around the mountain. He walked with a cane now--the cane, elaborately carved from oak and inlaid with gold, had been a surprising gift from Thranduil—it had arrived at midwinter with a note that simply read “for the King.” There had been many at court who seemed inclined to take offense on Fili’s behalf, the cane was perfectly balanced and heavy—perfect for supporting the weight of a full grown dwarf with a bum knee. Somehow, Fili was sure, the cane would also make a perfect cudgel, if necessary. So, Fili had quietly—yet publicly—started to use the cane, and after a few days the murmurs had died down. Oin had said that Fili must use it for at least the year, but that he might find his need less over time, until he reached such an old age that his need became inevitable. Gimli did not think the lessening of need was happening at a pace Fili would have preferred. But Fili seemed glad enough to be up and around, and carried himself with a dignified sway with just a hint of his previous cocky gait. His mood had picked up considerably a few weeks before, when the few pregnant goats began to foal, and there was fresh goats’ milk and cheese and butter once more. The whole mountain seemed to waken, then, and take heart.

Spring was here; they would live to see the summer.

Spring thaw, however, meant travel could resume as the ways and paths cleared, and this new fellowship of theirs was due to depart in only a few days. Gimli’s hair had run out of time.

Gimli knew, despite the plan to have his hair cut and bleached of color, that he would not actually look all that hobbitish—he had too much hair, still, over his cheeks and on his arms. The only place where he didn’t have too much hair was his feet—and there, he didn’t have enough! He was taller than any hobbit he’d seen, even Pippin after his experiences with the ent draught, but hobbits were yet unknown in this part of the world, and many, when they saw dwarves, stopped looking as soon as they saw the beard. As, to date, only Gollum had ever truly seen Bilbo with the Ring, many had been quick to assure him that their ruse was unlikely to be discovered.

Further, as Gandalf had explained, the enemy did not see with true sight, and his servants’ gazes were forever darkened to all but shadow. As long as the ring remained unworn, the enemy could not truly see him.

It was not, in Gimli’s estimation, a good enough reason to hobble him for the length of their journey. In addition to his hair, Gimli was to wear hobbit-style clothing (no armor, save for a coat of mail under his vest), could carry no weapon but Sting (loaned to him, reluctantly, by Bilbo), and a pair of cleverly designed soft leather shoes meant to mimic hobbit feet. They wouldn’t hold to close scrutiny, but any who came that close would find themselves with other problems to deal with. Dori had made them, with help from Bombur, and they would hold as all true dwarven craft would, but they added length to his feet and though he had been practicing with them for most of a month, he still found them difficult to walk in, let alone fight.
Luckily, they were to take ponies as far as they could, all the way to Lorien if possible.

“We were supposed to take our Bill through the mountains, as well,” Gimli had grumbled. “You saw how well that turned out.” Legolas had looked at him with sympathy, and Gimli had borne it with ill grace. Legolas did not have to disguise himself, after all. No one was asking him to cut his ears, or hide his luminescent skin or anything else that made Legolas elven. Luckily, Legolas had understood where Gimli found his temper, and Gimli was able to apologize without causing him much distress.

Now, Legolas squeezed Gimli's shoulders, placing a kiss on the crown of Gimli’s head and holding his lips there for a long moment. “Always,” he said against Gimli’s hair, and Gimli forced a chuckle.

“See? You will miss it as much as I.”

“Aye,” Legolas said, turning his head to press his cheek instead. “But I have seen your hair change before, and you are still young yet. It will grow back, my love.”

“Hmph,” Gimli grumbled. “All right. But get it over with.”

Gimli turned from the mirror. He’d do it—it was his duty and he would do it, Mahal curse it, but he'd be damned if he would watch.

He heard the sliding hiss of metal on metal as Legolas lifted the shears, and Gimli closed his eyes. The first cut drew forth a shuddering breath, and when Gimli felt air on his nape, he stopped trying to hold back his sobs. Legolas, bless him, held Gimli tight until the tears slowed and they could continue.

Deep within him, the steel in Gimli’s spine hardened like star-forged mithril, and he held steady until Legolas signaled the end by pressing Gimli’s marriage braid—bead and all—into his palm, to keep safe until it could be rebraided into Gimli’s hair.

“Gimli?” Legolas asked, quietly. ”Meleth-nin?”

“Aye,” Gimli said. “I’m still here.” He tightened his fingers around his braid until the bead dug into his palm.

Later, Gimli, freshly shorn and feeling rather unmoored, slipped away from his rooms and his husband, and he climbed to the uppermost parapet. The small balcony was usually deserted, especially in winter, and even in summer it was mostly a place for ravens. It was perfect.

With his cloak’s hood drawn against the early spring chill, Gimli sat on a stone, feeling the heat of him leach quickly away. He lit his pipe. Once again, Gimli felt himself longing for his lost supply of Old Toby. The midwinter solstice had brought a surprise - a wagon from the Iron Hills filled with small comforts in the spirit of the holiday. Dain had personally handed Gimli a box of pipeweed, a darker breed from the East with thicker, spicy smoke, that Gimli remembered the scent of fondly. He found the taste harsh, and a bit too sweet, but he really was not going to complain. Breathing deeply, he let out a long sigh, streaming smoke from his nose and mouth.

“You look like a dragon yourself,” a warm, welcome voice said from the corner of the parapet. Surprised, Gimli fumbled his pipe, nearly dropping it as he turned to the Lady Galadriel.

“Lady,” he said, quickly standing to bow. “There’s no need to insult me.”

Galadriel laughed. It had been…interesting, having the Lady in residence for the winter, especially as Gimli knew she was only staying for him—for the Company. Winter posed little threat to her, or to Glorfindel, who also stayed. HIs presence was like summer (and Gimli had seen more than one dwarf try to bask in it), but the Lady was bright like the end of August—full of summer's heat, but with the nights growing colder in anticipation of the coming frost.

“You must be eager to leave. Erebor is much different from Lorien, especially in winter,” Gimli offered. Galadriel hummed, stepping forward to the archer’s railing. It came up to Gimli’s shoulders, over his head at its highest points, yet the lady measured it just over waist-high. She looked out over the desolation, still covered in snow. (The thaw would bring seeding, Gimli know, and by the time the caravans arrived, enough would be green to show how rich the expanse would someday be.)

“I will not mislead; I have longed for my trees these past months, but I have lived centuries. What is one season to the long, slow march of time?” Galadriel looked back at Gimli, over her shoulder. “And I find I have much enjoyed the company.”

Gimli grinned, pipe between his teeth. “Aye, and Gandalf was glad of it, too,” he teased. The Istari’s respect for the Lady was plain as the nose on his face, and the continued presence of his friend had served to lighten Gandalf’s spirits--as light as they ever were, anyway.

Galadriel laughed. It wasn’t the first time Gimli had wintered with Gandalf, but then it had been Gandalf the White in the years after the final fall of Mordor. Gandalf the Grey was far too restless—indeed, Gimli would not be at all surprised if the only reason he stayed was because Galadriel was in Erebor and not back in Lorien.

“Mithrandir is often good company, yes,” Galadriel said. “I find his thoughts most keen and wise, and I find him most entertaining to talk with. But I did not mean Mithrandir, as you well know.”

“Aye,” Gimli admitted, hopping off his bench and walking around to regain the feelings in the back of his thighs. “And on behalf of my kin and myself, I thank you.”

Galadriel beamed, and Gimli felt his heart lift. Whatever happened, it would be all right.

Gimli smoked his pipe, staring out over the winter-barren land, and felt his thoughts begin to darken. The little cherry flare of the embers glowed at the corner of his vision, almost uncomfortably resembling the fires that had spread during the battle. His memory of the future weighed on him; he had seen this land war torn once before, when he had from Gondor and seen the toll the War in the North had wrought. Fiercely he desired to keep the mountain from further turmoil, but the future was again uncertain. The Enemy was returned to these lands, and none were safe--not even the Hobbits, unaware in their peaceful little Shire.

“Heavy are your thoughts,” Galadriel said, breaking Gimli from his reverie.

“Aye, well,” Gimli said, and shrugged. “When I returned from my future, I knew the path events would take. My task was not to stop the quest from happening, but to change enough to make the outcome different. In that, I must have succeeded, for the outcome is very different.” He paused. “But now, I find that I am without guide, and once again the Enemy has returned.” He swallowed. “I fear both that my influence has been not enough to change the coming darkness, and that it has been too great and the Enemy will return with an even greater evil than before.”

Galadriel was quiet for a long moment. “If it is comfort you wish for, I fear it is the one thing I cannot give,” she said, quietly. “I see many things in my mirror: things that were and are and may yet be, yet even I can not see the way this path is heading. Do we act to prevent our dreams, or will our action cause those dreams to come to pass? It cannot be said, for only Iluvatar knows the entirety of the great song. We may only glimpse and hope.” She smiled without humor. “This is the burden of prescience.”

Gimli looked at Galadriel and wondered for a moment what she had seen that made her look so very melancholy. She caught him watching, and raised an eyebrow.

“There are some things, Gimli son go Gloin, that not even the Valar can change.”

“Aye, I know” Gimli said, looking out over the destruction brought by the dragon and war alike. “So we turn our hope to us mere mortals, more the fools we.”

Their conversation then turned to lighter topics: the health of Gimli's family, the warming weather, the agonizingly slow courtship between Thorin and Bilbo, and the whirlwind romance that had swept up Kili and Tauriel. Gimli would never, could never, think of the Lady as an idle gossip, but she did titter like a songbird when Gimli told her of the way Thorin had flushed bright red when Bilbo first appeared in fully dwarven attire, and asked that Thorin re-braid Bilbo’s hair by “putting it back in.”

“Hobbit hair is different, you see,” Gimli said, twinkling. “Braids don’t hold long. It’s not a problem, but Bilbo asked in ear shot of Dain and Dis both - and neither have given Thorin a moment of peace since.”

The Lady’s laugh echoed along the mountainside, and Gimli’s cheeks hurt from his grin. The wind that blew around them finally whipped Gimli’s hood from his head, and the cold air on the back of his neck had his grin falling fast. He scrambled to grab at the hood, to pull it back up, and stopped when he felt Galadriel’s hand on his own. Gimli froze, and forced himself to drop his hands. He would have to get used to having his head seen—and the Lady had seen far deeper inside of him than this, besides.

It took him longer than he would readily admit to look her in the eyes.

“Such sacrifice,” she murmured. From anyone else, Gimli would have taking it as mocking, an insult to the dedication of him and his kind to their hair—a crude lack of understanding of dwarves culture that still got his blood up—but she was herself, and Gimli felt his eyes tear with the genuine sympathy of her words.

“It’s only hair,” Gimli said, trying for levity and missing. “It will grow.”

“Future growth does not lessen current pain,” The lady said. “Others may not recognize what you have done here, but know that I bear witness, Gimli son of Gloin.”

Gimli closed his eyes and bowed his head. “I thank you, Lady.”

Then, Lady Galadriel bent and kissed the top of Gimli’s head, and when Gimli looked up in surprise, she was already gone.

Gimli remained on the parapet long after she departed, pulling his hood up once more against the chill. He was not fretting, however, no matter what his husband might have said. It simply made sense to review what he knew, to prepare and plan for possible futures.

When even Gimli had to admit that his thoughts were just chewing gristle, he made his way back into the mountain. The sun had long since set, and the halls of Erebor were even emptier than they had been of late.

Dwarves, underground as they lived, were not technically daylight creatures. What purpose do lights in the sky have for a race that does not see the sky nor have need of light? And yet, many dwarves elected to keep a day to night schedule that fit that of their trading partners (and, Gimli knew, to further separate them from the truly dark things of this world, the creatures that lived in shadow and moved only at night). Ultimately, that meant dwarven cities were always bustling.

It made the emptiness of Erebor all the more stark—

—and made the warmth of lived-in quarters all the brighter. Gimli couldn’t keep himself from smiling as he entered his family’s rooms.

Gloin was standing near the fireplace, pipe smoke curling and streaking grey in his hair, gesturing with his mug of ale as he spoke. Oin was sitting in a high-backed chair, the recent fruits of Gimli’s labor—He had turned to anxious reclaiming of furniture in his down time as they neared the company’s departure date—and was nodding along with the air of a dwarf who had heard this damn story before, brother.

But Legolas sat at the kitchen table, long fingers wrapped around his tankard, listening to Gloin’s story with total fascination. It was a sight Gimli never thought he’d see—and a sight that gave him pause, especially when he heard just what Gloin was saying.

“…then he let loose and pissed all over the damned thing!”

Legolas let loose a sharp peal of laughter, leaning back on his heels and clapping delightedly, as best he could while holding a mug.

“Da!” Gimli cried out though the laughter. They had skipped this step last time, somehow, between the war and Aglarond. Everyone turned to him, his father raising his tankard.

“There he is, my fine lad.”

Legolas beamed at Gimli, bright as stars. “Gimli-nin,” Legolas said. “Your father has been telling stories.” There was a faint flush high on Legolas’s cheeks - just how much of that ale had he had?

“I can see that,” Gimli said, and pulled off his cloak to hang it by the door. The room grew suddenly quiet and Gimli looked up to see their mirth sobered. Legolas was staring with his elvish intensity, as if he could see Gimli’s hurt like a physical thing, and offered only love in return. Oin watched him with dark and serious eyes—like Gimli had learned some lesson Oin had never wished on him. And Gloin—

Gimli’s father was flat out staring, mouth dropped. Gimli rolled his eyes.

“You’ll catch flies,” he said, walking further into the room. Legolas handed Gimli his tankard and Gimli drank gratefully.

“Sorry, son,” Gloin said. “I—I didn’t know it would be today. I would have been here—“

“Aye, well,” Gimli said and waved him off. He walked over to the fire to warm his limbs. “Neither did I, but the time was right.” He raised a hand and ran it through his hair—the shorter length of it had tightened the curls and this fingers hit empty air far too quickly. It made something unpleasant turn over in his stomach.

“Well,” Gloin said. "Are ye hungry, my son?”

Ravenous, Gimli thought. He’d been constantly, gnawingly hungry since—well, since Beorn’s. Adolescence. “Aye,” Gimli said. “I can eat.”

“Though not as much, I think, as a hobbit,” Legolas teased, and Gimli fought a grin, cocking his head to consider.

“A dwarf on a feast day can match a hobbit on a good day, but none can beat a hobbit on a feast day and a dwarf cannot feast every day.” He grinned, flashing his dimples. “Not even Bombur, and he’s undefeated at feast day games.”

“Oh, he’d try,” Oin said.

“Aye,” Gloin agreed, recovered and bearing a bowl of hearty soup and old bread—supper. “He’d do it, too, make no mistake.”

“I wouldn’t dream of underestimating Bombur,” Legolas said.

Gimli dunked his bread in the soup to soften it, and bit heartily. Spices burst across his tongue—hot peppers and smoky salt, sweet cinnamon and cloves—and it occurred to him that, in a few days time, he would be on the road once more, and it could be years before he tasted dwarven cooking again. He chewed slowly.

While Gimli ate, Legolas began to talk, telling Gloin and Oin of the prank war that had started between Merry and Pippin in Gondor in the days of waiting for Frodo and Sam to wake—the war that had escalated quickly to involve all members of the company and only ended when Aragorn had gotten involved.

No one pranked like the King of Gondor (and honestly, who would believe it?) and the young hobbits had to admit defeat.

Yet to this day, Gimli snickered when someone mentioned cabbages. It was no different now, and Gimli snickered helplessly into his soup as the room roared into laughter.

It was a good memory that had lasted Gimli the rest of his first life—this night would make a good memory as well, to bring with him to guard against the coming darkness.

***

Bilbo sat at his desk—an overlarge and incredibly ornate beast of a thing that was gilt, not in gold and silver, but in in copper and bronze. “Writer’s metals,” Balin had assured him, tapping the side of his nose. Bilbo had no clue what that was all about. Dwarves were still a strange culture, but the desk was well large enough to hold his notes and the growing pieces of parchment that were rapidly becoming the first draft of a manuscript. A memoir. His memoir.

The Baggins side that still lived deep within him longed for a proper journal—something to impose a sense of order on this mess. The Took half took great delight in reminding his Baggins half that there was no order in a proper adventure (no matter how much that half may wish for it). Either way, Bilbo would sit at his desk when a rare free moment came, and when he put his pen to parchment the words would come—a torrent, a flood, and it was all Bilbo could do to keep up, to stay afloat in the words and not drown. His hand ached constantly, and his arm was frequently sore, but when he sat, he wrote whatever freely came to mind.

Now, he sat and picked up the flintspark starter to light his candles (a gift from Beorn and the shifters. One giant candle could last them nearly a month as giant bees apparently made giant beeswax candles). He struggled with the mechanism, muttering to himself about helpful dwarves who still didn't understand just how much stronger they were—when a great, broad hand closed gently over his own.

“Oh!” Bilbo said, with some surprise, looking up into a very welcome face. “Thorin! I didn’t hear you.”

“So I gathered,” Thorin said, softly, his smile private and warm, and Bilbo melted like so much beeswax, sure he was flushed to the tips of his ears. Calmly, Thorin took the starter from Bilbo and lit the candle with a deft move, a show of dextrous strength that made Bilbo swallow thickly.

“Your shift over then?” Bilbo asked, and Thorin nodded, humming.

With so much of Erebor still damaged, repairs were going quite slowly. It would feel faster to focus more dwarves on a single task, working until completion—but then, while they worked, other parts of the mountain languished. It was not simply a matter of establishing priority, however; Erebor was an interconnected city, working like the innards of a clock. With only part of the mountain working, daily operations placed great strain on others, causing more damage to be dealt with. It was bad enough dealing with the aftermath of reigniting the forges (and thankfully for Bilbo’s toes in the dead of winter, they could not be easily shut down again, and had helped to warm the city).

Thorin placed his hands on Bilbo’s shoulders, bending his head to nuzzle at Bilbo’s ear. Bilbo bit back a whimper when Thorin’s beard, longer now that Bilbo had ever seen it, brushed at sensitive skin.

“So delicate,” Thorin murmured, his words making Bilbo shiver. “Soft and warm as a summer peach, yet more fragile than marble.” His lips, warm and soft, brushed the tip of Bilbo’s ear.

“Oh," Bilbo breathed, and twisted on his chair to kiss his—lover? No, not yet, despite Bilbo’s—despite both their desires. To call him Bilbo’s fellow, the way one would courting tweens, seemed childish. Better to call him simply Bilbo’s.

Thorin rumbled deep in his chest, pressing in closer, and Bilbo flushed with sudden heat, and he bit at Thorin’s lips. It made Thorin pause, just a bit, and he grinned, slow and with promise, but it was enough.

Bilbo forced himself to pull back, eyes closed as he breathed, breath shuddering. It was getting harder and harder to resist. Bilbo opened his eyes and saw the flash, so quickly hidden, of disappointment and hurt in Thorin’s eyes.

If only Bilbo could explain why, but whenever he opened his mouth to try, all his fancy words deserted him, drying up on his tongue.

Thorin smiled anyway, and Bilbo was relieved to see the affection was genuine. “You are working on your tale, then?” he asked, and leaned forward again to lift a page from the desk. Bilbo's eyes fluttered - Thorin smelled like hot steel and leather and hard-earned musk, and Bilbo licked his lips, chasing the scent even after Thorin pulled back.

Pulling a rather clever pair of spectacles from a pouch at his belt, Thorin muttered to himself as he read Bilbo’s spidery handwriting. Bilbo felt his heart fill with a different kind of warmth, and he braced his head on his hand as he watched Thorin with a fond smile.

“Oh, come now,” Thorin said, pushing the parchment away and peering at Bilbo over his lenses. “I don’t sound nearly so…so..”

“Pompous?” Bilbo asked. “Arrogant? A horse’s arse?”

“Oi,” Thorin protested through a laugh, and Bilbo grinned.

“But you were, though.” Bilbo said, pointing his finger. “Always be nice to the hobbit with the pen,” he grinned, cheeky. “For it is he who controls your reputation.”

Thorin raised both his eyebrows, as if to say he cared not one whit what a hobbit thought of his reputation, but he could not hold his scowl for long. Gently, he leaned in and pressed his forehead to Bilbo’s before leaning back and placing a tender kiss on the same spot.

“I must wash. Will you join me for dinner, after?”

Bilbo smiled. “Of course, my dear,” he said, and as he watched Thorin walk away, his smile slowly faded and he pulled his fingers from his pocket, the weight of the ring falling heavy against his side.

***

Fill knew it would be a good day when he woke and his knee hurt less than the day before. The gnawing ache in his other leg had faded to a dim pressure, and when he stretched, his muscles moved with him instead of seizing in the cold. It was almost enough for him to believe he might one day regain his old ability.

Almost.

Either way, seasons change, and some things are easier to bear in the spring—easier enough that when Dis arrived to wake him at seventh hour, she found him already up and washed, hobbling quickly with his cane around the room to get the kettle on for his morning kafe. He grinned at her.

“Morning, Mum,” Fili said.

“You’re up,” Dis said. She was enough of a diplomat to hide her surprise in pleasure, but Fili was learning to move about in such spaces as well.

“Aye,” he said, pulling a mortar and pestle down from its place on the shelf. He took the mortar with him into his pantry, filling the small bowl with a handful of the aromatic dried and roasted beans, and carrying it back to the counter. On a good day, like today, Fili could walk with the same speed and surety as before; if anything, his limp added to his old swagger.

“Kafe?” He asked, holding up the mortar before he placed it on the counter. He balanced his cane against the table behind him, and picked up the pestle, grinding the beans. “I can make one cup as easy as two.”

“Thank you, no,” Dis said. “I refuse to drink kafe without milk, and the goats have yet to make more than for their kids.”

“Tea, then?”

Dis shook her head and sat at the table. Fili shrugged and turned back to what he was doing. Once ground, the beans went into the kettle to brew and steep, and Fili grabbed an earthenware mug from its shelf. He had a few such mugs, purchased from a woman of Laketown who made such items from the clay-rich river soil. Collecting it was hard in winter, and dangerous, but they were still the first crafts made in the mountain—human made or not—and Fili felt a sense of pride when he saw them.

Fili looked over his shoulder at his mother. “You look like you’re here for a reason,” he said.

Dis raised an elegant eyebrow. She, like many of the others, had forgone tradition in favor of simple work wear, and so her braids were thicker and less elaborate and her face unadorned, but her natural sharp beauty showed through despite it all. “Can’t I just visit my son on this lovely spring morning?”

Fili snorted. “If you were here just to visit, you wouldn’t be wearing working clothes.” He smiled, softening the blow of his words.

“A mother worries,” Dis said.

“And you are right to,” Fili said. “The past few months...” he shook his head, leaning heavily on his cane. It was exhausting, never knowing which way each day would go. He breathed deeply, forcing himself to brighten. “But not today.”

“No,” Dis agreed. “Not today.”

The kettle rattled and Fili pulled it from the fire, carefully filling his mug. He added a few spoonfuls of Beorn’s honey, thick and raw, and carried the mug back to the table.

Fili sat, and blew across the surface of his kafe, and felt, for the first time in well over a year, a sense of peace.

It was a good morning, warm and easy, and eighth hour found them leaving Fili’s chambers for the great hall. He wasn’t holding open court--it made no sense with so few dwarves in the mountain and everyone’s days preoccupied by the constant rebuilding, but there were meetings and decisions to be made--and it was Fili’s responsibility to manage them.

Dain was there already, sitting on the floor next to the throne, helm perched on his head and pushed down over his eyes, his booted feet kicked up on a worn footstool. He looked, for all the world, asleep, and Fili knew that was just the way Dain wanted it. Dwalin and Balin were also there, speaking quietly together, and Ori had his lap desk out, his pen moving quickly across the parchment--sketching, probably. Bard was there as well, with Sigrid and Dulcan, the latter looking quite tired. He had been working the night shifts for the past week or so, though that should be over soon so he could rest before the quest began.

Fili hadn’t seen much of the company--those that weren’t family (or part of the White Council), anyway--and they were still mostly strangers to him. He found that oddly disquieting. It wasn’t like the jobs he and Kili would take, where they were hired to travel with strangers, but Gimli did not seem concerned. “I didn’t know a single soul in my Fellowship,” he had said. “And I ended up married to one!”

Easing himself onto the throne, Fili rapped his knuckles on the arm above Dain’s head. “Morning, Cousin,”

“Morning, lad,” Dain said, tipping his helm back to peer up at Fili. “You seem in a fine mood.”

“I had a good morning,” Fili said, honestly, and Dain grinned wide.

“Good! That’s good to hear!” Dain lifted his fist, as if he was lifting a mug of ale. “Here’s to many more.”

Fili laughed, raising his fist as well, and looked out across the hall. The Lady Galadriel had entered with Glorfindel, and the sight of the two tall, bright figures seemed to light the far end of the hall. Galadriel laughed at something Glorfindel said, and Fili found himself smiling. He could easily see why Gimli spoke of the lady with such reverence. As Fili watched, the Lady Dis approached the pair, saying something that made Glorfindel throw his head back, holding his sides as he laughed. The lady grinned at Fili’s mother, and took both of her hands, kissing each cheek and gently tapping foreheads.

“That’s terrifying,” Thorin said, and Fili started. He hadn’t heard his uncle enter. There was a dull thwack, and when Fili looked, Bilbo had the hand that had swatted Thorin’s arm tucked into his elbow. Thorin was grinning like he had won a competition only he was involved in. “Are you sure we can’t just send the two of them to Mordor? Sauron would never have a chance.”

“It would take far more than even the combined might of such formidable ladies, I’m afraid,” Gandalf said, coming closer. He usually smelled thickly of pipesmoke, but today the scent was thick enough to choke a raven, and Fili had to blink his eyes several times to keep them from filling with water.

“Pity,” Thorin commented, dryly. While Thorin’s contempt for the wizard had passed with his sickness, their close quarters all winter had hardly helped their relationship grow. Gandalf, if he was aware, was choosing to ignore Thorin’s bitterness to his face, through Fili was sure that Gandalf went out of his way to pester Thorin.

A side door opened, and Dori came bustling in, a parchment roll in his fist and an expression like a caldera just before the mount burst, and Fili braced himself. Apparently, the day had begun. It was only when Bilbo started muttering about elevenses that Fili realized that Kili had yet to make an appearance.

Where in Mahal’s name was his brother?

 

***
Tauriel fell back against the furs, pale skin flushed like rosy quartz as she breathed, glistening in the firelight. Kili ran a broad hand along her side, feeling his callusing pull and drag against the softness of her skin. Her eyes were still blissfully distant and they fluttered at his touch. He brushed a thumb over her nipple, still drawn up tight, and she gasped, focusing on him at last. She smiled, bright and free, reaching out to cup his face in her hands and pull him in for a kiss.

Kill went happily, humming against her mouth. The skin on her cheeks and chin were warm, rubbed raw from his beard, and he placed gentle kisses in apology (even though he was actually rather proud. His beard had finally consented to grow, and had filled in thickly over the winter).

”Amrâlimê,” Kili said, quietly.

”Meleth e-Guilen,” Tauriel replied, her voice low and clear as a mountain spring.

Kili’s grin curled at the edges as he watched the firelight twinkle like stars in her eyes. “You amaze me every day,” he said, and to his delight, Tauriel flushed, looking away. “Come now, you cannot be shy!”

“And why not?” Tauriel returned. “I am not used to such talk.”

“You will be,” Kili said, brushing her hair from her forehead and rubbing gently at the pointed tip of her ear. She hummed, her eyelids falling heavy and her teeth sinking into the plumped flesh of her lower lip. “For I will tell you every day until you are sick of it.” Sick of me, he thought, and pushed it away. There was no place for such thoughts here.

Tauriel seemed to hear it anyway, and she pushed herself up on her elbows, insistent. “Never,” she promised.

“Never is a long time for an immortal,” Kili said, his fingers trailing down the side of her face, along her neck to feel the pulse strong under her skin, and down again to play along her collarbone. She took his hand and pressed it to her chest over her heart and between her breasts. It beat like a war drum.

Guren be ‘ureg,” she said. “For as long as I live, I will love you,” she swore, and Kili grinned and kissed her dearly. For the first time in a long time, Kili was looking forward to the future.

Chapter Text

Hobbit clothes were very strange. They fastened with buttons at the waist, instead of a fly, and their waistcoats added little in the way of either warmth or utility. Although Gimli had to admit that at the very least the waistcoats didn’t impede movement (and Dori had found a way to add clever little pockets to the inside where Gimli could hide away various necessities), he found the amount of buttons simply ridiculous. He growled as a tiny button slipped from his fingers again.

“Hammer and bloody tongs,” Gimli swore, reaching for the small button once more. The vest, which was a yellow and gold brocade, had matching tiny yellow buttons helpfully crafted into tiny acorns courtesy of Bifur, whose eye for detail and unparalleled. However, Bifur had designed the buttons for hobbit fingers, and even Gimli’s nimble dwarvish hands were no match for the tiny slick surfaces. They were going to be late to the meeting, and Gimli was still only halfway dressed.

“Here,” Legolas said, rising from where he had been sitting and tending his arrows. Gimli grumbled, but dropped his hands, letting Legolas deftly do up his buttons. It took him only a fraction of the time it had for Gimli to close the bottom of the vest, and Gimli bore being dressed like a dwarfing with all the grace he could muster.

Legolas smoothed down the front of the vest. “There,” he said. “I’m sure Bilbo will agree that you look proper and respectable.”

Gimli raised an eyebrow. “I feel ridiculous.”

Gimli stood before the mirror in their room, one hand on his hip the other scratching at the back of his hair. He couldn’t stop fiddling with it, even though the constant reminder hurt. It hurt less every day, however, and Gimli knew one day it would simply be a painful memory.

“Well if it helps,” Bilbo said from the doorway, and Gimli turned ‘round, surprised. “You look ridiculous.” Bilbo stood, one arm crossed over his chest to grip his elbow. His other hand rested at his chin, his curled fingers brushing his cheek.

Gimli snorted, dropping his hand. “Thanks,” he muttered.

“Don’t mention it,” Bilbo said lightly, and then shifted to cross both arms across his chest. His smirk faded. “I am grateful, you know, Gimli. For all of this. I just wish—“

Gimli waved him off and Bilbo stumbled to a halt. “Think nothing of it, Bilbo,” Gimli said. “I may whine and moan, aye, but I would do anything to help you. You’re my friend, Bilbo.” Gimli stepped forward, cupping his hands around Bilbo’s upper arms and squeezing gently. It wouldn’t do to accidentally bruise their hobbit, after all. Thorin would kill him. “And named Friend to Dwarves; ’t’would be a lowly bastard indeed who would turn away from you when you were in need.” Bilbo shook his head, as if to deny it, and Gimli leaned in for the punch. “Besides, you’re nearly family.”

Bilbo flushed the color of his prized tomatoes and sputtered. “I have no idea—“

“Yes, you do,” Gimli countered, poking a finger into Bilbo’s chest. “I’ve seen you and my cousin circling; you’re like a pair of pining buzzards, the both of you.”

Bilbo spluttered for a moment, and then he sighed, suddenly very weary and looking older than his years. “It’s not that easy, Gimli.”

Gimli glanced over at Legolas, who was busy packing his gear. There was no chance Legolas couldn’t hear every word they were saying, but it was kind of him to pretend, for Bilbo’s sake. “It never is, when it’s worth it.” Gimli and Legolas had lived through all sorts of hardship, for all that they were rewarded by peace and prosperity, and had done their fair share of pointless pining.

Bilbo, however, still wouldn’t meet Gimli’s eyes, and Gimli frowned. This could be more than Gimli had first thought. Whispers that, their pageantry aside, the ring would remain in Erebor with Bilbo—and Thorin, rose in Gimli’s mind “Bilbo?”

Shaking his head, Bilbo inhaled sharply through his nose, pasting on a smile. It was a good facsimile, Gimli would give him that, but even though it might pass muster for Shire society, it still wasn’t real.

This was the worst time for Gimli to travel, but before he could press the issue, Bilbo stepped back. “Well, now. Let’s have a look at you for real, shall we?”

Obligingly, Gimli opened his arms in invitation. Bilbo darted in, quick as a wink, tugging here and there, then retying the lace on the back of the waistcoat. He tutted over the feet, muttering something about “not having mange, for pity’s sake. I have more hair than that,” but there was little to be done about it now. Gimli took careful note of all the little changes that were made. He doubted Sauron’s spies would know proper Hobbit knot-work, but it was important to Bilbo, and Gimli knew the importance of proper detail.

Bilbo stepped back, frowning. “Well, you’ll never make for a hobbit of Hobbiton, but you might pass for a hobbit of Bree; one of the Stoor lines, perhaps.” Gimli raised a heavy eyebrow, and Bilbo grinned at him. Cheeky. Still, Bilbo reached into his own pocket: deep, proper dwarven pockets, as Bilbo still dressed in dwarvish style—and likely would while the winds still blew down from the frozen north. Hobbit clothes were made for the Shire climate, not for the winters of Erebor.

“If I’ve learned anything, as an adventuring hobbit,” Bilbo began, “it’s the importance of a good, solid,” he pulled his hand from his pocket. In his grip were several folded squares of pale green cloth, “pocket handkerchief.”

Gimli laughed and took the handkerchiefs with a bow. They were fine linen, if obviously man-made, and hand stitched with the small image of an acorn and two small bees. Gimli frowned. “Did you stitch these?”

Bilbo nodded. “Well, yes,” he said. “Busy fingers are the key to a calm mind, after all” he said. “You’ve all given me so much, I…” Bilbo trailed off. “I wanted to return the favor.”

Gimli pressed the handkerchiefs to his breast and bowed, once more, then tucked them into his pocket. “You do realize,” he said, “That we do so much to thank you; you returned our home to us, Bilbo, and we dwarves have long memories.”

“Indeed,” Legolas said, joining them at last. “Their respect and their ire can both last centuries beyond the initial incident.”

Bilbo arched an eyebrow sharply. “You mean like the elves?” he asked, and Legolas grinned.

“Aye,” Legolas said with a laugh. “But don’t tell. Both sides would deny it so fervently, it may start yet another blood feud.”

“Nay, not a blood feud,” Gimli said. “Those we save for special occasions.” He winked at Bilbo, who shook his head, a fond smile tugging at his lips. “But a grudge, aye. A grudge can be held for millennia, and no dwarf would bow from its weight.”

“Oh, is that why you are so short? Are you pressed down by the weight of such grudges?” Legolas asked, and bit his tongue lightly between his teeth.

“I am not short” Gimli counted. “You are too tall.

Legolas looked to Bilbo for support, but Bilbo just snorted and spread his hands. “I’m afraid I’m with Gimli on this matter. Dwarves are taller than hobbits, it’s true, but they’re still a respectable height.”

Legolas pressed his hand to his chest, his eyes blinking wide in mock surprise. “Are you saying I’m not respectable?” He asked, and Gimli pulled him down to kiss his cheek.

“You are a very silly elf,” Gimli said, full of feeling, and was gratified when Legolas flushed pink.

“Silly or not,” Legolas said, “I do believe Bilbo came to us for a reason.”

Bilbo cleared his throat. “I did, in fact.” he said. “They’re waiting for you in the throne room. Everyone is ready to leave.”

“And so are we,” Gimli said, and bent to pick up his pack—made in imitation of Bilbo’s leather satchel from Bad End—already fully packed. Legolas retrieved his own pack, smaller than Bilbo’s and thinner, for it did not need to carry the same in clothing; elves apparently felt the weather less than those burdened with mortality, and thus needed no winter cloaks.

“I miss my Lorien cloak,” Gimli grumbled, adjusting the clasp and drape of his own cloak, fur lined wool and warm—a gift from the Dwarf King, if anyone got close enough to ask. The Lorien cloak, light as it was, was never too warm or too cold, and it never seemed to pinch his chin the way this cloak seemed determined to do.

"I miss my bow,” Legolas said, smoothing his hands over the drape of the cape, brushing away the small wrinkles that had developed in the fabric. “But we can only go forward, not back, and who knows? A better cloak may await you at journey’s end,” Legolas teased, and Gimli humphed, pinching his husband’s hip.

“We ready then?” he asked, and Legolas nodded. Bilbo hesitated for just a moment, but his nod was decisive and sure. With one last look about the room, Gimli turned towards the hallway. Always, it seemed, he was leaving rooms for the last time, and Gimli wished that soon he and Legolas would be able to settle down once more and make a set of humble rooms a true home.

They were certainly a sight as they walked down the hallway: the hobbit, the dwarf-in-hobbit’s-clothes, and the elf. Others turned to watch them as they passed, and Gimli heard whispers echo behind them. Where once Gimli was sure Bilbo would have hunched his shoulders, now he stood tall, chin up, and let them talk.

This was the Bilbo that Frodo had spoken of on their quest—fiercely proud and not giving a single, solitary hoot what anyone else thought of him. Gimli bit his lip to hide his smile. He was glad to have him.

They stopped before the grand doors, closed still from the night before, and Bilbo stepped ahead to speak with the guard, who stood in shadow. As Bilbo neared the shadow moved, and Gimli was only a little surprised to see Dwalin there; the old warrior had spent little time away from Thorin’s side since the battle, and Gimli was surprised to find Dwalin out here and not inside.

After a moment, however, Dwalin banged loudly thrice, and the doors opened. Gimli strode forward, Legolas as always by his side, and together they stepped into the throne room.

Like his first quest, it was not a grand send-off. It was early enough, yet, that the sun still not yet risen outside, and it would still be the better part of an hour before the mountain was returned to full bustle.

Initially, Gimli had spoken out against leaving in the dark—it felt far too clandestine, but it was Glorfindel who had pointed out the need for dramatic behavior. Visibility was important, but so was appearance. If they left as if they were a secret band, more would believe they were a secret band, after all.

The hall was silent at first, conversation ceasing as the Ringbearer and his double walked into the room. Gimli stopped next to Bilbo before Fili, who sat on his throne with his head already weighed down by his crown and looking far too gobsmacked for a king. Gimli bowed low.

When he stood, Gimli spread his hands. “Whelp,” he said. “Here I am.”

***

Legolas looked about the room as covertly as he could; it was not his first time in this hall, but the time he had spent there was not for many years yet—or perhaps it would be better to say that it would not be for many years yet…or even that it was many years ago. Anyway, the room was not well known to him, and he had long been curious about dwarven design.

The room (unlike its cousin above them, whose spanning paths and dizzying open spaces were meant to inspire awe) was a room intended to be used among the people and among them only. Legolas knew how odd it was to have non-dwarves in these lower levels of the mountain, to let them see the secret and sacred images carven into the very walls.

And carved they were—all throne rooms were intimidating in their own way, after all, and while this room certainly felt warmer than the one above, it was just as clearly not meant for outsiders. The writing that Legolas could see was all in runes, as old and ancient as the people themselves. Gimli had mentioned once, during their days in the havens, that the language of his people had been a gift from Mahal himself, created when the dwarves themselves were created away from the knowing eye of Illuvatar. That the language was known to Illuvatar anyway, and that Illuvatar allowed the dwarves to keep the speech given to them by their creator, spoke much of the nature of the Valar.

Still, the dwarves had learned to keep these letters and this tongue secreted away from the world, like a child hides an injury, fearful of the hurt growing worse.

(”Our heritage is not a wound!” Legolas heard in his mind, so clearly as if Gimli himself had actually said it. True, and not a thing to be ashamed of to be sure, but there was hurt there—from the way the Valar and Illuvatar’s first children reacted—all the same.)

But it was not only runes carved in the rock that made these walls; too, there were images—the only ones of their kind that Legolas had ever seen.

Dwarves, as Gimli had explained, appreciate the skill required to carve perfectly straight lines and intricate designs—the more delicate the carving, the more skilled the craftsman, after all.

Gimli had gone quiet then. There are still some things, my husband, that are difficult to speak of, even if as my husband it is your right to know of them. There are lessons taught to us young, and never spoken of again, except in the most sacred of our ceremonies. Do you understand?

Legolas hadn’t understood, but he thought he had, so he had nodded, drawing in to hold Gimli’s hands—broad and strong like a gnarled root of an oak tree.

It is long held wisdom that the divide between the elves and the dwarves came about because we are not both the children of Illuvatar—and I do not doubt it, for I have seen with my own eyes the competition between kin when the eldest son is in competition with his cousin. Legolas started and Gimli began to laugh. Never heard it in those terms before? Well it is true, is it not? We are the children of Mahal, who is kin to Illuvatar…perhaps cousins is a bit too close. Perhaps a son to a nephew? Gimli had waved it off. It matters not. You have heard the story of our creation?

Mahal, impatient for the coming of the firstborn and wishing for someone to teach and speak with, had created the dwarves in secret. Illuvatar’s wrath upon his discovery of the dwarves had been fierce, and Mahal—Aule—had bowed before him, offering to strike down his children.

The dwarves had cowered in fear.

But Illuvatar was wise, and asked why. When he was certain that Aule had not acted from malice, but had simply desired to be like Illuvatar the way a child imitates a parent, he had been merciful and breathed true life into the dwarves even as he ordered them to sleep in the stones—for none could be first before the elves.

To create the likeness of another is our most sacred and our most forbidden act—to do so is to be like our creator, but must only be performed by a craftsman of true purpose—for if the craftsman’s desire is flawed, so, too, will be the final image. A craftsman worthy of such a craft does so out of fierce love of the craft, not the product of the crafting. Therefore, to see the likeness of others in art is reserved for the secret places—the sacred places of power.

Legolas found his attention drawn back and again to the carvings on the wall—deeply in shadow (so deep that Legolas was certain only the dwarves saw them clearly, and perhaps thought that only they could; the ability of the dwarves to see in the dark was well known), yet flickering in the firelight as if possessed of their own unique life.

Movement by the throne drew Legolas’s attention back to the matter at hand.

Thorin, who looked a bit wide-eyed and yet still far too amused, carefully reached over and shut his son’s mouth with his finger. It was enough to shock Fili back to himself.

“Cousin, your dedication to the course is well marked,” Fili began, and then cleared his throat. “Gimli, your sacrifice is—“

“Aye, I know,” Gimli cut him off. “No need to dwell on it.”

Legolas placed a his hand on Gimli’s shoulder; his love was harder than stone from tension, practically thrumming like the pulled line of a bow, and Legolas urged him to calm. Taking a deep breath, Legolas felt Gimli settle. On his throne, Fili smiled.

“It is good to see that you have lost none of your spirit, Gimli,” Fili said, wry. He looked out over those assembled. “You’re going to need it.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” Gimli muttered, but then stood straight as the Lady Galadriel came near. Gimli bowed low and Legolas touched his breast with his open hand, a greeting befitting esteemed family. “My lady,” he said.

“My champion,” she returned, and Legolas could hear the laughter dancing in her voice—but not mocking, never mocking. Apparently, Gimli heard it as well, for her answered her with a rueful grin.

“Aye, I make a poor hobbit, I know,” he said, and went to tuck his thumbs into his belt. He caught himself halfway through, and gripped the lapels of his coat instead.

“You can eat like one,” Bilbo chimed in, “And you’ve a taste for smoking, which will take you far. I dare say you’ve got a ear for town gossip, and your pretty words would make you very popular with the right sort of people—and give you the ability to tear the hide off those who think they are, but aren’t.” Bilbo sniffed. “Good gentlehobbits are not concerned with the appearance of wealth or good breeding, they simply *have it*—by birth or not.” He cleared his throat when he realized all eyes were on him. “Though I suppose you don’t have to pass as a hobbit from Hobbiton—not to those you’d meet out here, anyway.”

Gimli snorted, and nudged Bilbo with his elbow. “You’d find yourself a bit hard to fit in now, too.”

Bilbo favored Gimli with a sardonic look. “What makes you think I fit in before?” he asked, and waved a hand dismissing the thought. “I faked it well enough, I supposed, but there was a reason Gandalf chose me, Gimli. It just took me time to realize it myself.”

“And you did an excellent job of that,” Gandalf said, coming to stand with the Lady. The wizard smiled at her, and Legolas was amused to note that even the Istari were taken by Galadriel’s grace.

“Aye,” Gimli agreed, and a wicked grin grew, flashing his dimples for the world to see. Legolas felt a bit week in the knees at that. “You—“

Whatever Gimli was going to say was cut off suddenly as the doors opened once more, Kili and Tauriel walking through, still taking in low voices to each other. Noticing the attention of the room, Kili stopped still. Tauriel flushed nearly the color of her hair as they bowed to the room.

There was something about Tauriel—the way she moved, perhaps? Or her ease within the stone-- that hadn’t been there before. Something was different, though Legolas wasn't sure he would be able to tell what without a closer look.

King Fili covered his face with his hand, as if warding off a headache. Kili looked contrite for a moment, before schooling his features and shoving everything behind a happy grin. It was quick, but Legolas saw the look Tauriel gave him—and really it was frustrating not being able to tell what exactly was different—and knew there was something more going on behind that expression. Legolas, unfortunately, had some idea what that might be, and he felt for the young prince. To find happiness in the face of another’s sadness…

Kili joined Fili, Lady Dis, Dain, and Thorin around the throne, greeting his family enthusiastically. Tauriel looked about the room before coming to stand at Legolas’s side, opposite Gimli. Legolas raised an eyebrow at her, but she only flushed a shade darker and met him look for look—a challenge.

But over what?

Legolas looked around the room at the assembled parties. Nearly everyone from Thorin’s company was there, and it was no surprise; Gimli was one of them, and he was going off on a quest. That Balin was also leaving them to face the same dark halls that had sealed his fate in another life was not lost on them, however, and the company—especially Ori, who was also receiving some last minute advice from Balin as he would ultimately serve as Fili’s seneschal—hovered around him.

During the battle, Ori had caught an Orcish blade across his face. He’d been lucky to keep the eye, though the scar pulled the side of his face down and, as he confided to Gimli out of Dori’s hearing, his vision in that eye was greatly lessened. “I’ll need specs like Balin once we get the glassworks unburied. My left eye is fine, but my right..I’ll need two different lenses!” Ori said, shaking his head to sweep the hair from his eyes. It was finally being allowed to grow, and Ori used the greater length to hide his face when he could.

The wound alone would have been dangerous enough, but orc weapons are far from clean even not during a battle, and infection had set in. With the chaos of the aftermath, Ori had delayed in reporting the way his wound ached until he near-collapsed from fever. As a result, Oin had to move quickly in removing the dead flesh—

Legolas had seen many horrors in life, but the reality of Dwarvish field medicine he found far harder to look at. Elves, when they were wounded thus, suffered from a fire in their blood, or a black creeping like twisted vines under the skin. They did not puff and swell the way of men and dwarves.

The result was a hollow on the side of Ori’s face that twisted his features further. It was a warrior’s mark to be sure, and Legolas knew Ori’s companions had done all they could to ease Ori’s mind about it—even Dwalin had given it his turn—but still Ori hid the mark as best he could with the fold of his braids and the fall of his hair, and Legolas worried for him—and worried more, because Gimli was worried as well.

“Giving him a job to do, responsibilities to handle, may just be the best thing for him,” Gimli had said to Legolas when they had first heard of Ori’s promotion. “Give him confidence and keep him from brooding. Ori’s got a mind for this sort of thing; the Mountain will be running like it never fell in no time, mark my words.”

Judging from the look in Ori’s good eye, Legolas wouldn’t be surprised if the mountain was running better by the time they were able to return. From the look on Nori’s face as he looked about the room, he would make sure of it. (Nori had never quite turned away from the more…shadowed side of life, even with the gold he’d earned as part of the company. His talents had been turned to overseeing a network of whispers, to keep Dain apprised of the goings on in the mountain that would be otherwise kept from the king. The position had suited him well, and Gimli had spoken to him about assuming that position this time around as well).

Bofur, with Bombur and Bifur, were keeping an eye on Gloin, who stood almost apart from the rest, watching his son with keen eyes. Gloin had come far in accepting his son as he was, and accepting Legolas as his son’s chosen, but a single winter was not enough to change the thoughts of years, or the attitudes of a lifetime. Legolas wasn’t sure if the separation would help, but he hoped it would. Watching Gloin struggle was not easy for Gimli.

But the company were not the only dwarves in attendance. Dain was there, sitting next to Fili with a small entourage of soldiers, including Ster, their representative from the Iron Hills.

If Legolas was honest with himself, there was something about Ster that concerned him. The dwarf was taciturn, even by their standards, speaking little and saying even less. If Ster smiled or laughed, then Legolas had never seen it happen. It was... unnerving. (Then, Legolas would be reminded of his thoughts of Gimli at their first meeting, and was quite ashamed of the turning of his thoughts. He would not make assumptions, or judge Ster before they could prove the mettle of their character. It helped, however, that even Gimli grumbled after speaking with Ster).

Most of the Greenwood elves had left in the wake of the battle, returning to their woods and leaving only a small contingent in the mountain to continue to help the rebuilding efforts, and to be council to Legolas and Ceruleador. Legolas, as per his habit, often ignored said council, but he knew it was a comfort to Ceruleador, who remembered all too well the damage a dragon could do—he being one of the few who had returned with Thranduil from the War of Wrath.

Of the elves of the Greenwood, Curuleador was one of the few who was obviously descended from the exiled high elves, a tie made apparent by his dark skin and hair. Gimli had professed some amazement at an elf darker than himself, than his mother and her kin, for the tales of elves had always painted them pale as moonlight. Gimli had looked Legolas over, glowing faintly as he was in reflected starlight. “And yourself haven't really challenged that opinion.”

Legolas had shrugged. “His parents were born across the sea, in the time of the trees and the sun—many who were born then were colored thus. I am from those who did not sail, and so we retain the colors of starlight and those things that were born in twilight.”

Also hovering near the rear of the room, as if uncertain of their welcome, stood a party of the men of Dale. Bard was with them, and Bianca, though Bard’s children were most likely still abed. Dulcan stood with Brig, speaking to her softly with his hands on her shoulders. Brig was smiling at him fondly, the way a child does to a parent who is repeating the same instructions for the fourth time.

As Legolas watched, Curuleador separated from his party to join the small group of Men. He stopped behind Dulcan, waiting for a moment for the opportunity to speak. Duncan startled when he did, whirling with a hand to his weapon—only to pause halfway and glare at the elf. Curuleador smirked and a moment later, Dulcan turned back to a giggling Brig and pointed at the elf.

“And watch out for the fey folk!” He said, loud enough for Legolas to hear, and Legolas had to smother his laughter.

“Something funny, love?” Gimli asked, and Legolas’s attention returned to his immediate surroundings.

Legolas grinned. “I believe that Curuleador and Dulcan are fast becoming friends.”

“That will serve them well,” Glorfindel said, coming up from behind. He, too, was late to the gathering, but Legolas could see of no reason why. Knowing Glorfindel, he was just as likely to have overslept as he was to have been called away on vital business. The key, Bilbo had whispered to him long ago, is not to ask. Or, rather, to refuse to say. People will draw their own conclusions.

It was a wonder that Glorfindel approved of this plan.

“I believe we’re all gathered,” Lady Dis said to Fili, and Fili nodded.

“If we could begin,” King Fili said, and waited as all chatter ceased and all everyone turned to him. If he was unnerved by such rapid and unwavering attention, it never showed. Instead, wisely, he waited in ready silence until the chamber cleared of even the last echo.

It was a commanding move, one that was already setting Fili apart from others of his line.

Fili sat tall in his throne, the Raven Crown glittering above his brow. It looked heavy; it was heavy, but Fili bore its weight well. “It has been three months since the Battle of Five Armies, as it has been so named.” He looked over to Gimli, who had first said the name, and Bilbo, who had written it down in the first place. Gimli lifted his chin while Bilbo fiddled with his buttons, smiling tightly. “In the aftermath of battle, with wounds still fresh, many decisions were made.” He paused for a moment, breathing deeply.

“I know it as well as any that time heals many things; so, too, does time change things. The life we had then is not the life we have now.”

Gandalf straightened at Fili’s words, looking as if he might chime in, but he held himself back when Galadriel smiled as if Fili’s words had touched a secret thought in her heart that she was glad to see spoken.

“I call forward the Company of Nine, whose tasks are many, but first to confuse our Enemy and draw his Eye away from the One Ring.”

Legolas stepped forward, his hand reaching for Gimli’s automatically, and was pleased to find Gimli’s hand waiting. Gimli squeezed Legolas’s fingers tightly, and Legolas relished the warmth of that hand, that warded off the chill. Gandalf and Glorfindel stood to Gimli’s other side, with Ster stepping away from Dain to join them. Tauriel stepped away, standing awkwardly between the dais and the company of Greenwood elves, and Curuleador took her place. Duncan, Brig, and Balin joined his other side.

“Now,” Fili said, “As the time is upon you, I ask again: Are you willing to see this deed done, before you are sworn to your next tasks? There is no shame in refusing to risk your life in this endeavor; we will all have many opportunities to fight in the coming years.”

There was a pause as the room considered Fili’s words. They were wise, and Legolas was reminded of Elrond, who would take no oaths from the original Fellowship.

Gimli snorted. “It’s a bit too late for me to back out now,” he said, and the room rippled with soft laughter. The corner of Gimli’s mouth twitched. So that had been his intention. He breathed deep, letting go of Legolas’s hand to step forward and stand tall.

“I said at the start of my first quest that he is faithless who turns away when the road darkens. I hold by my words even now, for the road before us is very dark indeed, and I intend to walk that path.” Gimli bowed, and though no trick of the Lady’s Gift showed Gimli in his older glory, as it had during the battle, Legolas was sure he saw it anyway.

Legolas stepped forward. “My place is with my husband, wherever he fares, but even were that not so, I would not change my path from the one so set before me. I, too, will see the quest done.”

“As will I,” Gandalf said, joining them. “There are many places I need to be, and not enough me to be there; yet I feel that here is where I am needed the most, for soon I will be needed there and I will be near when the day comes.”

“That’s not cryptic at all,” Legolas heard Bofur say, possibly louder than he had intended, and bit back a smile at the sound of Dori and Ori shushing him in matching tones.

Ster stepped forth. “My word was given. I will go.”

Glorfindel stepped forth. “My mind has not changed. It has been long years since I last saw the Golden Wood, and even if my courage fails me, I would consider that well worth it.”

“And I,” Balin said, stepping forth. “I have no fond memories of Khazad-Dum, which is now called Moria. The Battle of Azanulbizar is one of the darkest in my memory.” His hands fisting, Balin went on. “I will see our ancestral home returned to our people. No more shall the greatest of our realms be called a pit. I will travel to the wood, and from there to battle our darkness.”

“It will less dark, now,” Curulaedor said. “As will be the breeding grounds in the North. Long have I wrestled with my purpose, for I desire most to go North and join the fight there. But South will I travel, for the war North will hinge on the Eye drawn South.”

Dulcan stepped forth. “What he said,” Dulcan said, hooking his thumb at Curuleador. It surprised Legolas to laugh, and Gimli nearly barked with it. Dulcan seemed pleased with the reaction and bounced on his heels. “I’ve been King Bard’s right hand for years,” he began, and Legolas heard Bard’s heavy sigh. It seemed the King of Dale still had yet to fully accept his title. “It doesn’t feel right to leave him now, but I gave my word to watch over Brig,” Brig rolled her eyes, though she smiled. “And If I don’t know, Bard would run away to avoid being King, and I can’t let him do that.”

“Oi,” Bard said softly, though Legolas wasn’t sure if it was because Dulcan’s gentle mocking held no truth—or held too much.

Brig stepped forward. “It’s my boat,” she said with a shrug, but didn’t elaborate more past a bright grin. Next to her, Dulcan rolled his eyes and looked as if he was praying to the Valar to give him strength. Fili ran his hand over his beard to hide his smile, though he regained his composure quickly.

“Then we are agreed,” King Fili said. “You nine shall accompany the Lady Galadriel back to the Golden Woon, and there shall the great eye focus his attention.” He stood, standing upright with ease though Thorin and Lady Dis both turned to him, ready to steady him if need be. “Then what blessings I may bestow, I lay upon you. Go with the favor of Erebor and the Dwarves of the North. ”Gaubdûkhimâ gagin yâkùlib Mahal!”” Legolas bit his tongue as several of the dwarves grumbled about Fili’s use of their secret tongue, but Fili paid them no mind. It seemed as if Fili planned to be a different sort of king. “May we meet again with the grace of Mahal.”

Gimli bowed low, and Legolas followed suit, the entire company showing their respect to the King of Erebor.

***

The formalities done, Company gathered their things and followed Dwalin out of the chamber and down to the docks. Fill watched them go, and tried to ignore the pounding of his heart.

“Farewell cousin,” Fili said. “May luck follow you."

***

Deep beneath Erebor ran the River Running—that which the elves called Celduin. The River began high above Ravenhill as a mountain spring that gained size as it trickled down, running under the ice into the rock itself to emerge as a slow river in the heat beneath the mountain. Tales said that the river was first discovered when the digging had breached the chamber, high above the water.

(Tales also spoke of the spirits that lived in the low fog that lay across the waters, but Gimli thought the less that was said of those when he was forced to spend his time there, the better).

There the first Dwarves of Erebor had worked, carving free the rock to a height that let them sail ships beneath the mountain if they so wished. The rocky shores became docks, and a small fleet of merchant ships still sailed.

Well, had sailed. The Dragon got most of them long ago; they burned adrift on the river as the merchant dwarves fled to the water. Those that remained rotted through, and many sank to the bottom of the river. It would take some time to raise those wrecks, especially in the icy cold mountain waters.

Now, however, the docks had been filled with the boats of the men of Dale, who had sailed what few ships remained upstream to dock in the safety under the mountain—safe from the winter storms, and safe from the ice.

Gimli’s father fell into step with them as they climbed down the long and winding stairway that led to the river’s entrance deep below. He didn't speak, for they had already said their goodbyes, but he walked next to Gimli all the same, a silent presence of strength.

It was a great comfort.

It was not long before they came at last to the docks, entering the chamber from high above and winding their way down the far wall. The chamber was lit by the dawning sun as it peered through the open entrance to the river and was reflected off many mirrors.

Despite the early hours, the chamber was busy—Fishermen are up before the dawn, after all, and there was much work to be done.

Those with the skill had been tasked with building more ships—small enough for speed but large enough to carry cargo. These were to be trading ships, after all. There weren't many left, but new shipwrights were being trained as the build continued, and the fleet of merchant sailors had nearly doubled in size. The rest had put their efforts towards repairing the ships of the old fleet, bringing the waterlogged boats back to peak shape.

Bifur, of all dwarves, had taken an interest in the ships. The war had taken much from him, and the axe which had been lodged in his brain had been torn free, leaving him without speech and often without a clear presence in the present—to Gimli’s regret, Bifur’s fate was much akin to before. The difference lay, however, in the presence of the great healers of the elves. Lord Elrond had spent much time with Bifur before the Lord of Imladris left once more for his halls, and Bifur showed the signs of one who had spent long hours with elven magic.

His speech was still slow, if it was there, and there was less Khudzul even than was before, but his fingers could still speak what his mouth could not—and more, his fingers could carve.

Bifur, watching the ships and the play of light off the water, would whittle and carve from wood and create little floating toys. At first, these toys were of dwarven boats. Then, Bifur crafted the boats of men and of elves—dainty little things, like leaves on the water, but seaworthy all the same.

Then, Bifur had begun to create.

Tall ships, long ships, ships powered by coal and steel and paddles. Ships of deep water and ships for rivers and ships for marshland. Bifur carved them all, and Bofur did what he could to bring the little fleet to life. It was enough to draw the attention of all in the mountain to lived upon the water, and the first full-scale model of one of Bofur’s designs—a boat like a pillion, armored and fast—was under construction at the far end of the port.

Their boat, however, was docked near the entranceway.

The boat had initially belonged to Brig’s father and had passed to her mother when her father had died. Now the boat belonged to Brig.

The boat had more in common with the pirate ships of the corsairs than Bard’s barge, and as they came closer, Gimli could see the damage the dragon had wrought.

While Gimli was sure the boat was seaworthy, there were still several scorched marks along the hull, several badly damaged areas already replaced with fresh wood. The paint had peeled from undamaged hull, and the bare spots had been patched with pitch. Even the sail had not escaped damage, and there were several patches that would enable the sail to still catch the wind.

Either way, the ship was big enough for the company, if only just.

Besides, Gimli thought to himself. You only have to make it to the Old Forest Road. From there, they would cut across Mirkwood to the Anduin and follow that river south once more into Lorien.

Soon, you’ll again see the Golden Wood, a sight you had never before thought you’d see. It was nearly enough to make Gimli forget that he was dyed and dressed as a hobbit for their journey.

Nearly.

“Lad,” Gloin began, stopping suddenly. Gimli stopped and turned to him. Many of the others were saying their own goodbyes, and Gimli had to blink back hard tears. They had cried for each other earlier! He did not have it in him to cry now.

Still, Gloin reached out and pulled Gimli into a tight hug. Pulling back, he knocked their heads together, resting his forehead on Gimli’s.

“Come back to me,” Gloin said. “My wee warrior, you come back home.”

Gimli closed his eyes. He couldn’t promise that. No one could. After they arrived at Lorien, they were aimed for Rohan, and then for Gondor. No—Gimli would make no promises—not even ones he fully intended to keep. When going into the unknown, it was all too easy for even the best intentioned oaths to break.

Instead, Gimli squeezed his father tighter.

“I’ll miss you, too, Da.”

Gimli just hoped that it was enough.

Chapter Text

And just like that, they were ready to make way. As when the Fellowship left Elrond’s halls, there was no fuss in boarding the boat. Their grand farewell had already been given. Last minute goodbyes said, they were to be off.

Brig was already aboard the boat when Gimli and Legolas arrived, attending the rigging for the simple sail and making ready to depart. Dulcan was aboard as well, receiving instructions with the ease of someone well familiar with this style of sailing.

It surprised Gimli that he recognised exactly what it was Brig and Dulcan were doing, and in the next moment felt rather foolish. Had he and Legolas not sailed together across the sea for those long months? Of course Gimli would be well-acquainted with sailing, even if he doubted that Brig’s vessel would sail as fine as the boat Legolas crafted under the tutelage of Cirdain.

Still, it would be a fair sight better than the little leaf-boats of Lorien.

Curuleador appeared before them, nodding his greeting at the pair, and then leaped lightly across the water and onto the deck. The weight of his impact barely rocked the boat as he landed with elven grace. Gimli pursed his lips; he had grown used to sailing, aye, but there was competency and then there was elvish showmanship.

“It seems fate has conspired once more to get you upon the water, Meleth-nin,” Legolas said, sotto voice.

“The things I do for the greater good,” Gimli grumbled, his frown softening as Legolas’s laugh rang out to echo through the cavern.

“You seem in good spirits,” Glorfindel teased, coming up behind with Balin. Gimli turned, lips pursed but with no real ire. The Balrog-Slayer was dressed simply in reds and browns, the color of autumn woods, and seemed to shine in the low light as if he walked in his own patch of sun. It was enough to turn the heads of the dwarves and men that he passed, though where the men were admiring, the dwarves were disconcerted.

Balin, for the first time in Gimli’s memory, did not seem to have the weight of the Mountain upon his shoulders. There was a strength in his step, and a fire in his eye that burned not unlike it had the first time Gimli had watched him leave to reclaim Moria. He was also not even bothering to hide his smile at Gimli’s expense.

Gimli grunted, a deep foreboding taking root in his heart.

“My husband carries no love for water travel, it is true,” Legolas said in that way he had, where not all were sure if Legolas spoke with mirth or censure. “Though, as with riding our Arod, he has shown significant skill, despite how he grumbles.”

“I’ve said it before,” Gimli began, pushing away his misgivings for now. “I’ll say it again. A Dwarf’s place is on the earth. From stone we were made, and on stone should we remain.”

Balin cleared his throat “In my youth, we were visited by Ironfist traders,” he began, his eyes looking inward. “They brought many rare treasures from the far East, and spices like you would not believe. Their ships were the epitome of Dwarven craft, and when you walked across the decking, it was as if you walked across the halls.” He sniffed. “But I daresay, this boat will be quite different.”

“They must have been a sight to behold, if there was as much art in their creation as in these,” Glorfindel said, a sober note of honest respect in his voice as he nodded to the fleet behind him.

“They were,” Balin said. “But that’s enough dawdling, I believe. Time to go.”

“After you, friend Balin,” Glorfindel said with a bow and a wave of his hand. Balin simply rolled his eyes and walked ahead.

Legolas cocked his head as they watched the pair board the boat. “It is good that they are friends,” he said. “It will be strained enough, I fear, for old grievances hold too fast.”

“Aye, and we may have more of that than we wish,” Gimli said, and jerked his chin to indicate where Ster stood near the gangplank, unmoving.

“They have not spent much time with the others of the Company,” Legolas said, softly. Gimli shook his head once, considering.

“I do not wish to read too deeply into what may yet be insignificant events, however...” Gimli trailed off. In his experience, there was little coincidence in the world. Everything happened for a reason, even if that reason was disadvantageous to oneself. “Our concerns will bear fruit, or be for naught, and there is nothing to be done about them now. Are you ready, Givashel?

Legolas smiled, the same smile he had given Gimli since they were married some century ago, and yet every time felt as the first. “I am, Meleth,

The last boat Gimli had boarded had been...well, it had been Bard’s boat, hadn’t it? Hidden in barrels to be smuggled into Laketown. Gimli had nearly forgotten about that, in the fervor that had filled his thoughts after being reunited with his husband.

Before that, however, the last boat Gimli had boarded had been in another life. His old bones had been stiff as stone, and though his pride would naught let him admit it, he found it difficult to move as he once had. Legolas had helped him board, clasping his hand in a gesture at one romantic and steadying, the other at his back both tender and guiding. It was transparent, as were most of Legolas’s attempts at subterfuge, but Gimli had never been so stubborn to reject help outright from his loved ones--especially not when so gently offered.

This time, Gimli had no such difficulty. With the legs and knees of a lad of sixty-five (had it only been a year since he had woken in Ered Luin? It felt like so much longer), Gimli lept from dock to deck with ease, though he landed heavily and without the dainty touch of the elves. No one commented, though when Legolas landed lightly next to him, Gimli knew he was amused.

Brig’s boat was not actually built for a company of their size, and the next several days would be a tight fit. At that moment, the ropes tying the sail to the mast gave way, and the large swath of canvas unfurled between them. Brig called a sharp warning, and Gimli saw Culeador tug Gandalf out of the way. A moment later, Brig appeared, ducking around the mast, and let fly with a string of invectives that would have made Bofur blush at the sight of the rope anchor. The charred wood had finally given way, and it was only the fact that the brass had caught on other ropes that prevented it from becoming a rather deadly accident.

“Oh, that fills me with confidence,” Gimli murmured, even as a team of three dwarves, shipwrights by trade (at least one of them claimed it formally. The others preferred to be referred to as carpenters only), ran forward to consult with Brig about the nature of the repair work needed.

“The boat is water-tight,” Legolas commented. “Or can you not feel the way it rests upon the water, with no places of quick or easy give?”

“What good is that if we’re all dead from that contraption,” Gimli countered, pointing at the damaged anchor.

He turned, warming up to his rant, and caught sight of Ster standing on shore, just beyond the entrance to the boat. They were still, as if stone, and though they wore their helmet, Gimli was quite sure he could see the whites of their eyes.

Glancing around, Gimli quickly signaled Legolas to stay where he was and made his way back towards the dock.

”Never been on a boat before?” Gimli called to them, pitching his voice so it carried to Ster and no further.

A moment passed, and Gimli wondered if Ster had heard after all, but then their breath hitched, and they glanced at Gimi.

”Am I that obvious?”

Gimli shrugged. ”There’s enough ruckus in sailing to obscure any number of things. ‘S why I much prefer walking; you can just go. But while it’s likely that no one else’s noticed, they will, soon enough.”

“I was not built for water,” Ster said, their Westron heavily accented — heavily enough that Gimli wondered how much of the language they actually spoke. It would help to explain why Ster didn’t mingle as much as the others, but...

Gimli remembered the Erebor of his youth, and the isolationists that hounded King Dain. Not that Dain ever appeared to be bothered by their constant yammering, and he certainly never let it affect his policy. Nothing seemed to bother Dain in those days.

He seemed bothered, now that it was Fili bearing the brunt of the petty politics, but it didn’t surprise Gimli that Dain’s temper was more raised when it was his family than when it was himself.

“You’ve a reprieve, yet,” Gimli called back. “It’s best the boat is not weighed down when they repair this work – nor filled with so many possible targets.”

Ster nodded, backing away a step to allow the others to egress, one at a time.

“An auspicious beginning,” Ster murmured, and Gimli wondered if Ster had a proclivity to oracle, as his Uncle had.

Gimli remembered, too, the last time he had set out with a company, and Frodo’s simple question. Is it left or right?

The most important of quests, with the most humble beginnings.

“Better that it be caught now than on the open water,” Balin said, coming to stand with Gimli, and Ster nodded, unconvinved.

Dwarves had no true affinity for scrying with water or with cloud, bird nor blood, though they understood stone and fire. Standing by the dock, staring at the way the river ebbed and flowed, pooling in ripples about the prow, Gimli had the oddest sense of that he was trying to read a text for which he had no words.



The doors of Orthanc slammed shut, the echo racing ahead of Saruman, booming a herald of his arrival.

Not that there was anyone to herald. Saruman was alone, and that better suited his purpose.

It was kept in a room of it’s own; the palantir upon it’s velvet cushion, atop a pillar of obsidian where it had rested for so very long, untouched and yet gathering no dust.

It lay forgotten no longer. Saruman hurried along the corridor, his pale robes flapping as he went, the candlelight catching on the faint prism deep in the weave of the cloth.

Travel from Barad-Dur had been hard and slow, and Saruman had left his lord waiting long enough.

The door to the chamber flew open at a gesture at his approach. The palantir seemed to loom before him, a manifestation of his Lord’s displeasure.

Saruman held his hand over the orb, closed his eyes, and reached towards the void.

Sauron shrieked his displeasure, a torrent of wind and fire.

“My Lord,” Saruman called into the chaos. “How may I serve you?”

The silence was sudden and absolute. The eye of flame burst into being, near enough that Saruman could feel its heat. “When the world is mine, the Elf-Witch will burn a thousand agonies for her arrogance! Her skin will crack, her blood boil, and her hair will char to ash!”

His lord’s voice grated like volcanic rock over granite, for all that it whispered. Saruman remembered the way it once rang like bells, beautiful and clear, and he forced back a shiver.

“You will is my command, Lord,” Saruman said. “Of course. Shall I send my armies? They much desire to burn and blacken the shining trees.”

Sauron hissed. “No. The elf witch is yet too powerful, though she will not remain such for long.” There was a pause, and Saruman couldn’t help the sudden sense of dread that filled his belly.

“No,” Sauron said again, almost to himself. “We will focus on a different target. There were no few fools who opposed me, at the end, but it was Isildur’s heir that rallied the men against me, that dared lead their forces to my very gates.”

“Isildur’s heir,” Sauron said, with some surprise. “Arathorn was the last of that line, and he’s been dead these past nine years.”

“His son lives,” the voice hissed, the flamed flaring brighter. Saruman refused to flinch away, though he felt the heart searing. “In Rivendell, they call him Estel. You will find him there.”

Sarumon nodded. “It will be done.”

Sauron watched him for a long moment. “You have been loyal, old friend,” he said, his voice nearly sweet as it had been ages past. “And I am…greatful. A boon, I will give to you – the means to create an army unlike any before seen on Middle Earth.”

Bowing, Sarumon smiled. “You are generous, my lord.”



After the delay of only a few hours, this new, strange fellowship at last set sail. Gimli, to his surprise, found himself sitting at the bow of the ship, watching the waves break before them. The boats of Lorien sailed almost above the water, creating barely a ripple as they moved, and while the ship he sailed with Legolas had both sail and mast, moving at speed upon the water was different in the open sea than on even a wider river.

“It doesn’t feel the same, without the hobbits,” Gimli said, quietly, and Legolas, who sat crouched next to him upon the railing, like some blond bird or waiting gargoyle, cocked his head as he considered.

“They did add a certain levity to the trip,” Legolas said. “It’s hard to see the world ahead as a dark and dreary place when you had Merry and Pippin finding delight and mirth wherever they walked. And I know you enjoyed Sam’s cooking.”

“That hobbit knew how to treat a tomato,” Gimli agreed, letting himself be bolstered. His moods had been darker of late, though not without reason, and he was more than willing to look for an innocuous reason. “Perhaps that is all it is.”

As it perfectly timed to interrupt his musings, the boat hit a pocket of water that sent them upwards, the boat dropping away to follow the current, and for a heavy moment Gimli was in the air. He came down hard on the deck when the water sent it back up towards them, and it was only the bright peel of elvish laughter close to his ear that let Gimli know that Legolas had not been knocked overboard.

The first words that made sense in the cacophony after was Dulcan’s loud swearing, made course in his time as a guard, at Brig’s apparent casual sailing, demanding that she “slow down, curse it!”

“The water does what the water will,” Brig shot back, moving quick and sure as she checked what she could for security, making sure their course stayed true. “Not my fault the river got cheeky!” However, unless Gimli was mistaken, their speed did lessen. A bit.

The next loudest sound was Glorfindel’s laugher, ringing out. He appeared to be laughing at Gandalf’s expense, as the wizard had been seated near the aft, and the return to the water had sent a wave of it over the side and into his lap. At the moment, Gandalf was ringing out his beard, his body steaming slightly as he attempted to dry himself more quickly.

“You alright up there, Cousin?” Balin called to him, and Gimli called back his agreement, waving a hand. It wasn’t the first time he had been tossed about, and his landing had rattled the teeth in his head, but not knocked any loose.

Por Ster. The dwarf had boarded the boat more readily a second time, but they remained seated deep in the center of the boat low enough to allow the rigging to pass over them, should it need to. It didn’t pass Gimli’s notice that Curuleador sat with them, looking wan.

Legolas pushed himself upright from where he had been sprawled on the deck, tossing his head to free his face from hair. Gimli turned to face him, and had to shove his curls from his vision with a frustrated palm as the wind blew his hair into his eyes. His hair had always grown fast, and it had been decades, well, centuries, since he had to handle hair too short to tie back. He caught clear vision of his husband for a brief moment before the wind blinded him once more, and he growled.

Fingers combed through his hair, long and thin, and Gimli quieted as Legolas twisted his curls into a tight braid with many strands, pulling new sections to join the plait as he went. Legolas had no tie at hand to secure it, but the curls stayed tight enough that the braid would last for a little while – long enough to ease Gimli’s temper, anyway. Gimli opened his eyes to see Legolas grinning proudly, admiring his handiwork.

“Perhaps we don’t have them with us, but you are silly enough for both of them,” Gimli teased, laughing when his husband stuck out his tongue in jest. Still, Gimli took Legolas’s hand and kissed his palm in thanks.

Gimli had often used Legolas as both barometer and ballast for his moods in the past, particularly once they had reached Aman and everything had been strange and new. He could do the same, now.

“Gimli, cousin” Glorfindel called, drawing the attention of all their party. “Come and join us! We have a long way to travel, and long travel is often made short by long tales in good company.”

“Yes, tell us a tale of your adventures,” Dulcan added. “Surely you have many to choose from.”

“So do us all,” Gimli countered. “Even you, Master Dulcan, have tales of adventure.”

Dulcan snorted, dismissive, but his eyes were warm. “Tales of feeding starving families and winning petty points against the Master,” he said, his voice taking on a mocking form of the Master’s affected accent. “They are not the same.”

“No,” Gimli agreed. “Not the same, but perhaps more important.”

It was Curuleador who spoke next, surprising Gimli. “How did you meet the Lady Galadriel?”

“That is not the happiest of tales,” Gimli demurred, but his eyes caught on the way Ster sat separate, and the way Curuleador’s eyes watched, unblinking, tension clear in the lines of his shoulders to any who knew the ways of elves. “But if that is the tale you wish, then that is the tale I will tell.”

He leaned back in his seat, reaching for the pipe in the inner pocket of his coat, and paused. “Cousin Balin, this may be most difficult for you to hear.”

Balin looked at him in surprise. “I am made of sterner stuff, lad,” Balin assured. Don’t worry about me.”

Gimli nodded and bent to light his pipe, his hand curling around the flame of his tinder strike to protect it from the wind on the water. The sight of bare skin above ground was odd, to say the least, but his hands were the oldest part of him, and they looked more familiar, at least, to give comfort.

He had grieved for Balin in his own past, and had managed his wild emotions when he had returned to this past to find Balin alive and well. He would manage this as well.

“Our fellowship had come East from Rivendell, but out attempts to cross over the mountains had proved futile; Caradhras has been swayed by Sarumon’s fell words, and the Gap of Rohan fell too close to Isengard. Gandalf,” Gimli nodded at the Wizard, who indeed look troubled,” and Aragorn had both been cagey about my insistence that we travel through Khazad-dum.”

Gimli paused. “In truth, I cannot blame them. It had been ten ears since we had heard news of my our cousin, and I was too focused on finding answers to see the warnings that were clearly written.” he could not look at Balin. Not yet. He pulled at his pipe, steeling himself as he noticed the sudden pallor to Glorfindel’s cheek.

“We would have never opened those doors had we no other choice, if we had known in truth – but it was some little comfort knowing after.

“We were accosted at the door by the watcher in the water, and had escaped through the door, which was destroyed behind us, and the silence of Moria became clear—”

Gimli stopped, throat going tight. He had already done his grieving! But the horror on the faces of those who understood was second to the confusion of the rest. That he would need to give voice to the terrible things he had seen—

“Khazad-dum had become a tomb, falling to darkness once more after only a few short years in lit with life. Our way forward was through the dark and over the bones of the fallen, picked clean by time and orc.” Legolas spoke quietly but steady, his accent still strange and straining on the dwarvish words, but as close to correct as he could truly come. “Three days we traveled through the dark, through those grand halls – there was too much evil that had crept into that place for me to find its beauty, but the grandeur was clear to any with eyes. We reached the great hall on the third day, and found a tomb.”

Here lies Balin, son of Fundin. Lord of Moria.” Gimli said. “Those words will live forever behind my eyes, for I nearly lost myself to the rage of grief, had Legolas not grabbed my hand and saved my life.”

Legolas squirmed in a way that meant he was blushing. “You would have done the same if we had passed through the wood to find my father dead and the palace a wasteland.”

“It was a small action – but it was enough to build upon,” Gimli turned to smile at Legolas, who kissed his forehead.

“Our luck had run out, as out presence had alerted the orcs who had taken over the mountain – and they in turn had called forth a deeper evil, long slumbering.

“The Balrog,” Gandalf said, unusually quiet.

Slowly, Gimli nodded. “We fled. You, Gandalf, stayed behind to block its path and struck it down – but as it fell, it took you with it.

“Shock and grief carried us from the depths, and the cold light of day met us harsh to our eyes and to our hearts, but we dared not tarry. Daylight was already fading, and if were were in the foothills still when darkness fell, the orcs would hunt us down.”

“Thus, weary and heartsick, we arrived at long last at Lothlorien,” Legolas said, his voice filled with the awe of remembrance.

“We very nearly did not make it inside,” Gimli said, and bit the stem of his pipe as Legolas giggled. His ire was real enough then, but time and experience had dulled the offense, and the memory was now a fond one. “The warden did not with to have a Dwarf pass through his boarders, as it had been against the law of the land for some time.”

“No Dwarf would have wished to,” Balin added, hotly.

“Of course not, filled as we were with tales of dark magic and trickery – but the Lady herself sent word that we were to be allowed passage, and we were brought before her and the Lord of Lorien.”

“Blindfolded,” Legolas added.

Gimli shifted. “I wasn’t going to tell them that part, love,” he muttered. “Doesn’t paint us in the best light, now does it?”

“Perhaps not,” Legolas agreed, after a moment’s thought. “But that was the compromise, and besides – I acted less well of the two of us.”

Gimli shrugged. “It’s your pride, but remember, I was the one who would have been content with only the two of us so bound. It was Aragorn who suggest it be the lot of us, and for good reason.” He puffed his pipe bitterly while Legolas considered.

“True,” he said. “But we saw much of those lands in the weeks that followed, and much more closely than I would have otherwise. I do not regret that entry into those lands, for it led to many great wonders.” He bent, then, and pressed a kiss to Gimli’s curls. Gimli felt himself flush, swore to himself again for his lack of beard, but still caught Legolas close to press his own kiss to Legolas’ cheek.

“Aye,” Gimli said. “And I’d not have traded the bonds we forged there, for any price.”

Legolas grinned. “Silver-tongue.”

A cleared throat interrupted Gimli’s contemplation of the graceful curve of his husband’s cheek, dropping him rather gracelessly back into the present moment. He cleared his throat, pulling away. Since being back in his younger body, Gimli had not had to deal with the physical aspects of being so profoundly in love, as while many Dwarrows did not enter that phase of life until sometime in their sixties, Gimli had been late-hewn.

Of all the impossible times to bloom tk.

Gimli looked at Curuleador, who had the same pinched look as Balin, and realized they were in for a long journey.

“We have the Lady to thank,” Gimli said, trying to recover some equilibrium, despite the amused looks traded between Dulcan, Brig, and Glorfindel (really, that was too much). “She greeted each of us in turn, with warm words honestly meant. She censured her husband before their people for his haste in denouncing my presence and called our sacred places by our own names when sharing our grief.” He paused. “I found myself moved, transformed by the light of her. I spoke, and while I much remember the meaning, I remember not the words.”

“You are in luck, for I remember them well,” Legolas said. “It was not the first you had spoken with such poetry, but it was the first I had allowed myself to listen, to hear what was being said beyond the words chosen – though the words themselves would be enough to call them beautiful. ‘Yet more fair is the living land of Lorien, and the Lady Galadriel is above all the jewels that lie beneath the earth.’”

Gimli smiled. “Aye. I stand by those words—and by the Lady. She offered me kindness and understanding when others would have called me their enemy, for she knows the truth – that there is only one Enemy, and that is he in the East. There is no room for petty squabbles.”

“And so, we return to Lorien!” Legolas cried, bouncing happily. “I had long resigned myself to never again seeing the beauty of that place, and to be allowed there again is a prize beyond measure. Though,” and he looked side-long at Gimli. “I fear Haldir does not yet remember you.”

Gimli snorted. “He will.”



They were still a day’s journey from the southern tip of Mirkwood, and would need to spend the night aboard the boat. Gimli had anticipated landing and sleeping spread on the ground, but by the time the light was low, Brig announced that it just wouldn’t be possible.

“This is no elven boat,” she said. “This is man made, and rides lower in the water. If I tried to land, even keeping to the deeper shores, the boat would run aground, and we’d be traveling by boat no more.”

“And that’s a problem?” Ster murmured low in Khuzdul, and Balin shot him a look, though one Gimli was sure was both censure and agreement.

“We’ll weigh anchor here,” Brig said. “Sleep the night, and raise up at first light.”

“We need not stop, if you don’t wish,” Legolas said. “I know not of my cousin’s skill, but I have sailed before, across the Sea to the West, and there is more than enough starlight to guide my way, and it will be many days before I need sleep again.”

“I, too, have experience on the water,” Curuleador said, in that quiet way of his. “It is not only barrels that our King sends downriver.”

And so it was decided.

There was little space to bed down aboard the boat, but with the Elves unable to sleep, it did lean a little more room for the rest of them. Gimli found himself tucked against the side-wall off the stern, tucked low enough to not be caught were the sail to swing and with just enough space between the boards to rest comfortably. For a moment, Gimli longed for the Fellowship of old, when the Hobbits would pile together to sleep, like so many tired hounds. As an “honorary” Hobbit, Gimli would have fair access to that pile, which offered both comfort and warmth – something that was much missing on the open water.

During the day, it was not much of a bother. The Menfolk would be the worst affected, having not an elf’s natural immunity to cold, nor a Dwarrow’s sterner constitution, but they warmed in the sun like spring flowers, and as long as it was shining, the Men did just fine.

Now, at night, Dulcan was spread beneath his cloak and blanket, clearly unhappy with the temperature but unwilling to do more to warm himself – if, indeed, there was another option, as Brig had bundled herself in blankets like one of Bombur’s pastry creations. Gimli was not sure if she slept, but she had not moved since she had laid herself down.

Aside from the elves, Ster had not yet settled down to sleep. As a soldier, Ster should have developed the ability to sleep anywhere. That they were awake, meant either the rhythm of being on the water was enough to overcome a soldier’s training, or that Ster did not yet want to sleep. Surely, Gimli had been awake all night and all the next day more than once – often when fighting, and on at least one occasion, running.

But they were not chasing the Uruk-hai across the plains – nor were they defending a stone keep from a nightmarish army. They were on a boat, on a river, heading to the southern end of Mirkwood to ease they way across land to Lorien. Ster should sleep. There was more danger ahead than behind.

But before Gimli could say as such, he was asleep, and he slept until morning light.



Fili’s knee ached, and he longed to stand and stretch the stiffening joint, but the work piled in front of him, a deluge seemingly without end.

Thorin either didn’t have the amount of paperwork, completely ignored its existence (which, honestly, Balin would never let him get away with), or most likely, had approached it with the same grim-faced determination that he faced everything and hadn’t thought to warn his nephew.

Fili paused, pen in hand, thinking, back to his childhood, before Kili was born and he was still young enough to be brought along with his mother as she worked, and groaned aloud.

Dis. His mother had handled the paperwork in Ered Luin. He felt like an oblivious idiot.

Standing, Fili gave in to the urge to stretch, taking an extra moment to bend and flex his knee. In what was becoming second nature, Fili grabbed his cane and walked to the door of his study.

Dwarves could accomplish much in little time when driven by home and heart and the rhythm of craftwork, and the dwarves in the mountain had done much in the long winter. Yet, they were warriors by trade, not miners nor builders. Despite the best efforts of the brothers Ur, not much of the more dangerous or complicated repairs had yet been done. Mostly, Dain’s army had helped with cleaning out over one-hundred years of Dragon stink while exploring and mapping the extent of the damage for when the trades workers arrived in force.

All of that meant that Fili’s office was not yet the royal office – much of the king’s official chambers had not been spared by Smaug, though the homes of the royal family had been spared.

Instead, Fili had chosen an office near the library, where Ori had taken charge, and there were often others that passed by.

One such passed by now, and she stopped to bow when she saw him emerge. Fili accepted the deference with uneasy grace, and asked: “Have you seen my mother, the Lady Dis?”

The dwarf paused, considering her words. “The lady came past the library before, but it was some hours ago.” She shrugged. “She mentioned going to see the ravens, but I do know if she would still be there.” She cocked her head. “Shall I go check?”

“No, no, that’s fine. I could use a walk. Besides,” he nodded down the hall to the library. “I don’t want to get on Ori’s bad side by distracting one of his assistants.” He winked, and the dwarf bowed, husting off back to the library.

“Well,” Fili said to himself. “Seems we have a quest of our own.”

Dis was not with the ravens, though they said she had mentioned the kitchens before leaving.

Dis was also no longer in the kitchens before leaving.

Dis was also no longer in the kitchens, though Bombur was. He had taken one look at Fili, ordered him to sit in the most unassuming manner Fili had seen since Balin, and piled a meal before him that was a bit large by even Hobbit standards. Fili nearly protested, as the food needed to first feed the workers and the infirm, but Bombur simply said that he had been experimenting with spices on Bilbo’s advice, and would like the king to give his opinion.

“If you ever want out of the kitchens, Bombur, I could use that tongue in my stateroom.”

“I lose the tongue outside my kitchens,” Bombur countered, and joined Fili with a tankard for the both of them, keeping the king company when he realized he had accidentally skipped lunch.

Bombour was quiet as Fili continued to eat, and the young king felt a knot that had appeared between his shoulders decades before they left Ered Luin finally begin to ease. There really wasn’t anyone in the mountains that he hadn’t fought beside, and quite a few of them could remember him in nappies – and yet they still treated him as if his crown made him a different person.

Cousin Dain had told him to expect such, but Dain’s response had been to grow into the crown and lean into their assumptions, allowing himself to do as he wished to get things done. (The result, Fili hadn’t said, was that King Dain was far more than Prince Dain had ever been, as if shouting to be heard.)

He rather thought that Thorin had been born the way he was, and his mother had sometimes intimated as such, though she never actually confirmed it.

Fili didn’t want to become another person – he liked who he was now – but the Kingdom demanded a King, and he was it, for good or ill.

“I need people,” Fili said, almost to himself. The words seemed pulled from him, nonetheless. “I have been trying to do everything myself, and the paperwork alone…” he trailed off. “If a barely habitable mountain is almost too much for me, I dread what Erebor could become.”

Bombour shifted in his seat. “Any cook can create a meal,” he said. “But a cook needs a team to run a kitchen.” It was an agreement, and advice tentatively offered.

It was advice gratefully received.

“How do you do it?” Fili asked. “How do you staff a kitchen?”

Bombour wagged his head slowly from side to side. “You consider the tasks that need to be done, and you look for skill at that job. Back West, my assistant could chop the finest vegetables – potatoes paper-thin, tomatoes that held together yet transparent like sanded glass. I do not have that skill, my talents run to spice, but together we made magic. Yet, between us, she had no love of people, and could not manage the personalities in a kitchen. I can – so, I become the one to run the kitchen, and she prepared the vegetables.”

Fili nodded, slowly. “I need talent.”

“You need options,” Bombour countered. “What kind of food do you want your kitchen to make? Don’t hire a game butcher if you’re planning on cooking mostly fish. Hire accordingly.”

Fili nodded, focus already on the task before him, and pushed away from the table to stand.

“Thank you, Bombour, for the meal,” he said, voice and mind distant. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some letters to write.”

That night, the Ravens flew from the mountain in every direction, reaching out to allies and family alike.

Chapter Text

When Sunní had first received news that not only had Erebor been reclaimed, but that her husband and son still lived, she had sunk to her knees and wept, thanking Mahal and other Valar who might listen to a dwarrowdam for looking out for her family. Then, when her tears had run their course, she set about making plans and preparations. True, Erebor had the company and the army of Dain, but that was a barracks, not a city. For a city they would civilians – merchants and artisans, builders and diggers, trainers and educators – and they were based in Ered Luin.

So, the preparations for the caravans had begun even before Sunní received Dís’s letter on behalf of her son, Fíli the Golden King of Silver Fountains (and wasn’t that a turn up for the books? She remembered when Fíli had been the only dwarfling in their family, wide-eyed and interested in everything. It wasn’t even yet a hundred years ago. She thought, too, of the yellow-haired imp that had been the calming voice in her son’s group of friends – no less inclined for mischief, but with the ability to reason, and she thought that Thorin had made a good decision, naming Fíli his heir, regardless of Dís’s reservations).

It hadn’t been easy, with so many members of the royal family clear on the other side of the Misty Mountains, but Sunní was used to dealing with the egos of dwarves who felt they were better off being listened to rather than be listening.

Wrapping and stacking the plates from the cupboard was just the sort of focused activity she needed. The delicate pottery would require a gentle touch, and the packing a logical eye, both of which would calm her frustration. Then again, she thought as she pulled down a serving bowl that had been gifted to her and Gloin upon their wedding, smashing a few plates would be just as satisfying. Especially if I could use their faces as target practice.

No, Ered Luin cannot empty completely. There would be trouble ahead, and this settlement was needed to help protect the West and the lands of the Shire.

Yes, the Shire. Because you cannot grow crops in rock in winter, and they would be excellent trading partners. They appreciate fine crafts and would be willing to trade some surplus for the ability to have something to show off – or to give – to one of their neighbors.

Yes, I am sure. I have the word of a hobbit – Mr. Bilbo Baggins has written me personally. He is a well-respected member of hobbit society, and would understand their ways better than any here, strange as they are.

Yes, I will be leaving to join my family when the new governor arrives from Erebor. We will be first taking volunteers to stay, and then arranging the rest on a rotating trial basis. I will separate no families indefinitely and forbid no family from going home at last.

The new governor? His name is Dori son of Zhori. Merchant class, he is one of Thorin’s Company, and he will be named Lord of Ered Luin.

There had been many who had muttered angrily at that news. The Ri family had been merchant class for as long as any could remember, but never high enough to intermarry with the line of Durin, as Sunní herself had been. Still, Sunní knew Dori to be a meticulous, if fastidious, dwarrow, and in possession of not only the bureaucratic skills to lead a settlement, but a mean right hook that would shut the mouth of any naysayer.

It had been a long, long winter, though the weather for once was mild. The caravans had begun to head East several weeks past, and now Sunní found herself having to prepare as well. It had been easier than she’d like to admit packing up their belongings. They had more than most, curtesy of Gloin’s skill with coin, but their rooms were to house others, so she had only the more personal items to bring with her.

They would fit rather smartly aboard the main caravan, freeing Sunní to ride her pony unencumbered when the time came.

Dori was due to arrive a few days past, delayed by an unanticipated snowfall, and Sunní rather hoped they would? finally arrive today. She still had no doubt that Dori would make an excellent steward, but there were things that she wished to go over with him before they left. That, and the sooner she was away from the politics of the mountain, the happier she would be.

She was good at them, but she by no means liked them.

Pausing in her packing of her kitchen, Sunní took a moment to silently apologize to Dís and Fili, as the worst of her aggravations had left with the caravan a week ago. Perhaps she should send a separate message for Dis, when the next raven arrived.

She was interrupted by a knock at her door, and when she opened it, she found a young guard, slightly out of breath. “M’lady,” he said. “The travelers from Erebor were spotted. They’ll be here within the hour.”

“Wonderful,” Sunní said. “When they arrive, bring Lord Dori here, along with whomever he feels most appropriate. We have much to discuss and little time in which to do it.”

The guard nodded and ran off. Sunní watched him go and then turned around to look at her half-packed kitchen.

Sighing, Sunny began taking things back out of boxes. There would be time after this meeting.



It was nearly suppertime before there was an official sounding knock at the door, and Sunní went to answer it with a feeling of profound relief. This meeting’s delay had weighed heavily on her mind, but she hadn’t realized by just how much. She opened the door with an honest greeting.

Dori was nearly unchanged – almost comically so. His clothing, while never the finest fabric, was always meticulously crafted and elaborate, well-cared for. He was dressed today in much the same, and though his fingers, ears, and neck were far more richly adorned. When he turned his head, light from the glowlamps caught on the silvered jewels in his hair, as was befitting his new station. Sunní rather figured that metals and stones would last far more in a dragon den than more delicate silks and wools.

His chosen companion, however, was, a bit surprising – Bofur, of the mining guild. Sunní only recognized him due to his uniquely shaped hat and short-shorn beard; he had been a distinct sight among the rest of Thorin’s company.

Which, of course, meant that he was now Lord Bofur. Sunní eyed him as she readied the tea. She might even call him that, if only to see his reaction. There were more smile lines than frown lines on his face, and his eyes were bright with a warm humor – Sunní would bet that his reaction would be entertaining.

“I am Dori, son of Zhuni, Lord of Erebor and Ered Luin. At your service.”

Dori bowed with picture perfect precision – of which Sunní had no doubt was a source of pride. She wondered if he had been briefed by Balin before leaving the mountain. It was the sort of detail Balin would deep important enough to check, but she also wouldn’t put it past Dori to simply be that observant.

Bofur, after a moment, followed Dori’s example with an exaggerated showman’s bow, complete with a doffed cap swept low in his hand, showing the twinned braids of his hair. He popped back up with a bounce and a cheeky dimple. “And I’m Bofur.”

Sunní raised her eyebrow when Dori’s eyes positively crossed with frustration. “Lord Bofur,” he hissed. “We went over this.”

“Aye,” Bofur agreed amiably. “We did.” He grinned at Sunni. “At your service.”

“Sunni, steward of Ered Luin, daughter of Hoki and wife of Gloin,” she said, adding a touch wryly with her shallow curtsey, “Lord of Erebor. At you and yours.”

Dori’s face tightened by his ears in what could have been a pleased expression, until Bofur whistled.

“That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?”

“Indeed, it is,” Sunní said, allowing herself to grin conspiratorially at Bofur. “Luckily, the next part involves drink to soothe one’s throat.” She stepped back, allowing them to enter her home.

If possible, Bofur perked up even more, eagerly crossing the threshold. “Ale?” He asked, clearly hopeful.

“Honestly,” Dori exclaimed from behind him.

“Perhaps later,” Sunní offered. “First, tea. Proper ceremony, and all of that. Things are rather informal here, now, with the mountain turned upside down by the exodus, but there is a right way to transfer power.”

She gestured towards the hooks on the wall by the door, and Dori and Bofur both took advantage to rid themselves of their travel clothes – save, of course, Bofur’s hat. From the look of it, they had come straight here from the road.

The table had been set some time earlier with food that would not spoil or grow cold. Now, Sunní took a moment to retrieved pickles from cooling chest, and half-roast from where it had been keeping warm by the fire.

And with that, the meal was joined. Sunní did not know how their provisions had faired as they neared the Blue Mountains, no matter the plenty of the shire and surrounding lands, but she had not managed to eat yet that day, and it was quite a few moments before anything was spoken beyond “pass the eggs” and “more mustard, if you please.”

Sunní was rather proud of that: she had been making her own mustard for years, and it was quite well sought after.

When the roast was naught but drippings and scraps, the bread bowl empty and the dishes scraped clean, then did conversation turn to more urgent matters.

“Well,” Sunní began. “Let us get to it then. There is much that is in motion, at the moment, so I’ll try to be as brief as I—”

Dori cleared his throat, looked so deeply apologetic that Sunní stopped, concerned. “My apologies, Lady Sunni,” Dori began. “But we come with more pressing news, I’m afraid. We have been tasked by the Lady Dís and her son, King Fíli –”

“She knows who he is, Dori,” Bofur interrupted. “Or in a year’s time did you miss how her little Gimli and Fíli were so close?”

Dori narrowed his eyes, “There is protocol

“Aye,” Bofur interrupted a bit hotly, the first touch of temper Sunní had seen. “And there’s a time and a place for it. But you’re not talking to the Steward of Erebor right now, you’re talking to a Wife and Mum.”

Sunní felt her stomach drop, and when she spoke it was with ice in her words. “What has happened to my boys?”

They both started, and Dori flushed bright across his nose. Bofur seemed chastised as well, but at least he began to speak.

“They are both alive and well, last we saw, make no mistake,” he began. “I’m sure they’ve written to you to tell you they survived the battle, and they were being truthful if they said they took no grave injury – though none survived that day without a few scars.”

“What we were told to speak of was not to be put in any letter sent by Raven, by order of our new king,” Dori continued. “I do apologize for the delay, but on the quest Westward, on our way through the Misty Mountains, our hobbit managed to find that which was thought lost. The Ring. The One Ring.”

Sunní blinked, uncomprehending. “I’m sure there are many rings in those mountains,” she said, but Dori shook his head.

“I’m sorry, but you misunderstand. It was the Enemy’s Ring. The one thought lost all these years past.”

Sunní felt the blood drain from her face. The Ring! - in the company of her son!

“Gimli--!” she gasped, covering her mouth with her hand.

“Practically immune to the damned thing,” Bofur said, impressed.

Dori nodded his agreement. “It’s true. Gimli seemed immune to most perils on our journey – the influence of the ring being the darkest if not the most urgent. He seemed also immune to the Dragon Gold…” Dori sagged a little here. “He may have been the only one immune to the Dragon Gold, in the end.”

“The details of that are for Gimli to tell,” Bofur said, not unkindly, to Dori.

Dori nodded, and pulled an envelope of thick vellum from the inside pocket of his doublet, handing it over. It was sealed with wax and her husband’s signet, though the writing on the front she would have recognized in an instant as her son’s, even had it not read “Mum.”

“I believe he did, there,” Dori said, and again that odd pause. “If you have ale, you may wish it now.”

Perhaps she did, but she wished the words of her son more. Pulling her book knife, she cut the wax of the seal, and opened the letter. It went on for several pages in her son’s neat and tidy script and knowing but not caring that it was poor manners, she began to read.

It started like any formal letter, with Sunní’s full name and title, followed by her son’s…but this time, there were titles she did not recognize:

Lady Sunní Hokisdaughter, steward of Ered Luin and wife of Lord Gloin of Erebor

Lord Gimli Silvertongue, Lord of Erebor and Aglarond, keeper of the Lady’s Gift

“Silvertongue,” she whispered – an appellation was a high honor to achieve on one’s first quest, and Sunní was not surprised that Gimli’s poetry would win him honor – but she had never before heard of this Aglarond. It was a dwarven settlement by its name, but one thoroughly unknown to her.

A secret settlement, perhaps? Or, like Ered Luin, a ruin found and renamed?

And what gift? Who was this lady?

The letter continued informally, Gimli’s voice coming through his words so strongly that the ache of his absence rekindled in her chest, but again, as she read, she noticed subtle differences that left her with a deep sense of disquiet.

Mum,

There have many times in my long life that I have wished for your council, your laughter, your braids in my hair, but have wished in vain. It was with age that I came to appreciate advice that I too quickly brushed aside in my youth and I grew to be very old in age, you see, with a beard whiter that cousin Balin’s and longer than Da’s. I often had to tuck it into my belt. It was magnificent.

There is so much I which to tell you.

More, I am sad to say, then I can fit in this letter.

One day, hopefully soon, I will be able to tell you everything face to face, as I know you are leaving the West for Erebor. But, by the time you arrive, I will be gone.

I am sure that Dain and Bofur have told you by now what exactly Bilbo found in the Mountains. I recognized it immediately, and not just because of Balin’s lessons of history, nor of the creeping miasma that surrounds it when it hungers. It was not the first time I had been in its presence, as I have once before quested by its side in a desperate attempt to rid the world of such evil.

And we did, or so we thought. My presence here confirms only our worst nightmares. The evil survived and moved through time back to its last bid for power – it’s final push that so very nearly won and ended the light forever.

For you see, when the darkness traveled, I was sent to follow. I lived, fought, and died an old dwarf, and woke the next morning to you, Mum, chastising me for lying about.”

Sunní looked up. “What fantasy is this?” she hissed.

Somber eyes met hers. “Read on,” Dori said, not unkindly. “We’ve both born witness to things that prove what he says, if he’s saying what I believe he is. You son is many things, m’lady, but he’s never been a liar.”

“No, he’s terrible at it,” she admitted. “Can’t keep his expression.” She looked at the letter, letting the words blur together. “But this stretches the limits of credulity.”

“So did a company of thirteen taking on a Dragon and winning,” Bofur said. “We have your boy to thank for that, as well.”

“Somehow, that’s easier to believe,” Sunní muttered, her bewilderment turning cross, but it was enough to get her to read on. They were right, Gimli was an honest lad. There had to be some reason for this fantasy.

I had thought I had gone mad. I thought that Mahal’s halls were based on my own past – and you could imagine my horror when I realized that my beard had gone as if it had never been! But when I found my Lady’s Gift, I knew the truth – that I was in my own past, with knowledge of a future that will now never come to pass.

I apologize for my untruths, but I am not in the habit of prophetic dreams. Uncle Oin has often turned towards me with methods of divination, attempting to hone a talent I do not possess. Confessing to him was one of the hardest things I have ever done – matched only by confession to you. I am so deeply sorry that I cannot wait to tell you face to face as you deserve, but plans have been set in motion, and we do not have the luxury of time.

And here is where I must be careful, Mum, as the Enemy – so long defeated – has returned. He has turned his eye towards us with malice aforethought, as we have bested him once before. He is determined that he not be bested again.

I have told my story to the wisest among us, and we have settled on a course of action. I will leave the details to Dori and Bofur, for they are best not written anywhere, save to say that my knowledge and my (unfortunate for now) stature have aligned to send me on a new quest. Take comfort in the fact that I do not travel alone! Cousin Balin is with me, as is Ster, an officer in Dain’s army. We also travel with two Men – the guardsman Dulcan and the boatwoman Brig. They are of the Men of Dale and are good company.

We travel also with three elves.

“Elves!” Sunní exclaimed.

“Aye,” Bofur said. “They aided is during the battle, when the Orcs attacked from the North.”

Sunní shook her head. “Elves helping Dwarves, questing together. What exactly has my son gotten into?”

Dori looked pinched, but Bofur laughed, sudden and with great glee. “Legolas,” Bofur said, between cackles, and Dori cuffed him lightly on the back of the head. Bofur rocked with it, clearly used to the gesture, but calmed.

We travel also with three elves. Glorfindel, the Balrog slayer,

Sunní blinked, and read it again. Still the page said Glorfindel. He was an elf well-known to the dwarves. That he would be there…

He is not much like the tales, save for the accounts of his prowess in battle. He is jolly as Dain is jolly – the sort of mirth that comes from seeking life after seeing too much death. The second is Curuleador, a woodland elf of some prominence. He is old enough to have fought dragons in the North but is far more taciturn than Glorfindel. He would be cold, if one could not see the sly mirth eek through at times. Most often, it is when he is teasing Legolas, the last and, in my opinion, greatest of the three.

Mum, he is my One, and before you get cross, we have been married for well over a century.

“Married?” Sunní whispered.

Like me, he has returned from the future. He believes it is precisely because of our marriage bond, which works slightly differently among the elves. Where a dwarf widowed from their one may turn to be as stone with grief, heart hardened and actions heavy, an elf binds their very souls, and the two would die together.

I mention this only to say how deep our bonds, how committed we are to each other, and to give fair warning that his father, Thranduil of Mirkwood, is none too pleased that his son has bonded to a mortal.

“To the Elvenking’s son?!”

“Your son is a force of nature,” Bofur said, fond.

I think you’ll like him. You did before.

Sunní scanned the rest of the letter, but there were no more revelations. Gimli’s farewell lacked the formality of his greeting, which reminded Sunní that, memories of centuries or no, Gimli was still her darling lad, and was at his best when he was being honest and earnest.

Sunní refolded the letter and placed it carefully upon the table. Then, she stood and poured herself a tankard of ale. After a moment, she poured one for each of her companions as well.

Dori was watching her with concern, and Sunní was reminded of the ways he watched his own brothers. What had happened on that journey that let him loosen his grip? Bofur took his tankard with a grin of thanks and drank deep before he spoke.

“The battle for Erebor,” Bofur began, “Bilbo named it The Battle of Five Armies, you know, but it was more than that. We had just fought a Dragon, and we were battling elves and men, orcs, wargs, trolls, wizards – even the shapeshifters got involved. There were beings of tavern tales and nursery songs right there, fighting and dying next to you. And in the middle of it all was wee Gimli, glowing like the Arkenstone itself, looking to be of an age as his own father. Watching him fight was like watching Durin himself.”

“There were several times when Gimli showed knowledge, he shouldn’t yet have, and offered council beyond his years. If Balin had not confirmed that it was a trait he already had begun to show, we may have noticed sooner.

“Gandalf believes him,” Bofur said. “And Gandalf is not one to let himself be put over.”

Sunní shook her head. “It’s all so much,” she said. “But what else can I believe? My son is no liar. I knew even then that there was a secret he kept.” So did Dis, in fact. It was part of why she left to join them, after all.

“So,” Sunní said. “I will continue to consider my son’s true age later. Now, tell me what was so crucial that it could not be written down.”

So, they did. Taking turns in their odd way, they told it all, as it had been explained to them.

War in the North. A deception in the South. Building resources in the East and West. It was an ambitious plan, and one that perhaps depended too deeply on victories that were not guaranteed.

“What if it fails?” Sunní had asked, staring into her own tankard and wishing for far sight in the depths of her ale. “Gimli’s quest – what if it fails. What if the enemy is not fooled? What if the Kingdoms of men do not listen to a Dwarf not yet grown into his beard? Such kingdoms only ever treat with Dwarves when they can take something from us – the fruits of our drafts, our labor, at wholesalers’ prices!”

Neither Dori nor Bofur had been able to respond to her satisfaction, and she sighed. “I had not said anything before now, as this, too, should not be in writing, though for – I thought – less dire reasons.

“There are certain members of Thorin’s court, and certain high-ranking guild members, who grew…accustomed to power during Thorin’s years here. He was often away, as you know, and in his absence, they often took power onto themselves. Many did so simply out of need and were happy enough to transfer their allegiance to Fíli or volunteered to stay behind. Dori, as you begin your own term here, you will meet them soon enough. I recommend listening to them and working with their egos. We have limited years to do what needs doing, and there is no time for petty squabbles.”

“They will listen to me,” Dori said, and dropped his hand palm down on the table, setting it to rattle. “Or they will listen to me.

“I have no doubt,” Sunní said. “But what worries me are those who are already en route to the Mountain. They sought power not from need, but from desire, and those who desire power rarely give it up once more. They will cause problems for Fili, make no mistake.”

“Fíli has the Lady Dis,” Dori countered.

“Aye,” Bofur said. “And King Dain.”

Sunní paused for a moment. She had forgotten that Dain had not yet returned to the Iron Hills. His son, named for Thorin, was older than Fili, and had acted as steward before. The Iron Hills would be fine without their King…for now.

“That could prove to be very interesting,” Sunní said.



By calendar reckoning, it was well and truly spring, but Thorin knew that Spring came in her own time, following the sun and was often slow to reach the northern lands. Even Erebor was still snow-covered, though the first glimpses of green could be seen peeking through the snow top and creeping in from the woodlands beyond. The men and elves both in the company had walked with a lighter step when they could still hear the first of the songbirds.

But here, a day’s march from Mount Gundabad herself, Spring came late, if at all.

Camp had been made in the shadow of a cliff face, to provide some shelter from the wind and hide the fires from the enemy. They had been dwarrow-built, to keep the smoke to a minimum, and there were far fewer than there had been even two days previous.

They say that elves were impervious to cold, and they seemed to show it, and Dwarrows carried the heat of Mahal’s forges within them, but the men were temperate, and snow could kill them as readily as fire.

Thorin wasn’t one to question the makers of the world, but as he carefully wound his way to the top of the cliff, to better scout the day ahead, he found himself wondering why the valar would make beings so fragile in this world.

His boots made barely a sound as they tread over the snow – it was freshly fallen and dry like powder, catching and holding sound. When he finally crested the peak and stopped to breathe, it was if no sound was left in the world.

Much is told of the strengths of Elven eyes, but even the first of the elves, born before the sun, could match the dark vision of dwarves, who were crafted without knowledge of the light. Here, on this moonless night, away from the fires below, Thorin could see clear through to Mount Gundabad.

The path north approached the mount from the narrow end, and until one was closer, it looked to be a single, snow covered peak, rising jagged above the surrounding mountains, but Thorin knew better. Mount Gundabad was comprised of three peaks, called spires: The Twisted Spire, the Cloven Spire, and the Great Spire. Most of the mountain fortress was dug deep into the root of the mountain, as it was with all Dwarven settlements.

It had belonged to his people, once.

Legends tell that Mount Gundabad was where Mahal had first crafted the Dwarves, in the secret depths. It was there that Durin first woke, where a grieving Mahal had nearly ended his children then and there, and there that his people had slept away the ages, until the Elves had covered the surface of these lands.

It was from Gundabad that Durin’s folk were first run out of their homes – the first mass exodus of the Longbeards.

Thorin remembered his father, in the early days after their flight from Erebor, bringing up the idea of retaking Gundabad for once and for all. The enemy had not been seen in centuries, and the population of orcs had to have dwindled in that time. They had reclaimed Gundabad once before, after all. If memory served, it had been Balin who had talked Thráin out of such action.

Snorting in amusement, Thorin shook the memory away. Balin was even now traveling south, preparing to take on another of their lost homes, and here Thorin was, once again following his father.

With a general’s eye for detail, Thorin gave the fortress one last look before descending once again. It was time to get out of this damnable wind.

 

Once back to camp, Thorin wove his way through those brave enough to be up and away from the fires – elves who paused to bow in their funny way, hand to their chest and eyes always on his face, and dwarves who showed the proper difference for a member of Durin’s line by nodding sharply before getting on with business.

If Thorin wanted courtly manners, he would not have ceded his crown.

His tent, when he returned to it, was empty, and he set about preparing for his next and final task of the night. A piece of his small supply of coal went into the belly of a small brassier, one that could safely sit next to his writing desk. It was a portable model, carried by necessity with any military procedure. His would be left with the camp tomorrow, and retrieved after, were they to survive. He would not bother with the fire, but for that while Dwarves could withstand the cold, his ink would otherwise freeze.

He set up his tools quickly: a gift from Bilbo before Thorin had left.

“Write to me,” Bilbo had said, one hand fiddling acorns in his pocket as he watched Thorin undo the leather wrapping embossed with holly and oak by a steady if not professional hand. Bilbo’s own work.

Thorin tugged off his glove to run bare fingers over the soft leather. This more than anything that convinced Thorin of the depths of Bilbo’s affections.

For Bilbo, he would write.

Leaning out of the tent for a moment to collect some clean snow in the small brass cup, Thorin then set it next to the brassier to melt. The ink was a cake much like the paints his brother had loved in their youth, and the pen more of a very fine brush. It made writing more akin to painting than Thorin was used to – he had a very fine collection of fountain-style pens that he had collected over the years, now being kept in Bilbo’s care while Thorin was away. Unfortunately, that style of pen would freeze solid, and Thorin did not want to risk either the pen cracking with the cold or being too frozen to write.

When he saw the water had melted, Thorin dipped his pen into the water before pressing it to the cake. It had taken him time to learn the technique, and his first few letters looked worse than his first attempts at letters while he had been a dwarfling, but Bilbo had sounded so happy in his return letter, that Thorin had kept at it.

He was much better now, and when he set pen to parchment, his words emerged more or less as he wanted them.

Dearest Bilbo he began and paused. It wasn’t strong enough. After a moment, he picked up a little more ink, twirling the brush to a finer point, and painted a tiny “my” at the beginning of the line. Better.

My dearest Bilbo,

We have reached the foothills of Mount Gundabad and have made camp. Tomorrow will be spent in preparation, for we plan to approach in the night to attack at the dawn. The majority of the fighting will most likely be inside the mountain, but if we catch them unawares, then the daylight will put us at an advantage.

We know so little, but that far fewer orcs returned to this mountain than came to Erebor.

Still, I find myself hopeful. We have beaten great odds before, and I have faith in the soldiers around me.

Yes, Bilbo, even the Elves. What my Father would think to hear me say.

Quite what I imagine your own Mother would say were you to suddenly befriend those Sackville-Bagginses of yours – though I dare say that is closer to you befriending the vile Dragon, Smaug.

There – I do listen when you talk of your home.

I would like to see it again, one day. Perhaps when the sun is shining, and I can truly scandalize your neighbors. Huff all you want; I think you’d enjoy that. I could set up a forge, and spend my days making pots and pans and hoes and plows and whatever metalwork is needed or desired in the Shire. It would be a good business venture, I think, with value given to the novelty of it. I would certainly have reason to practice flower motifs.

Or, perhaps a carpentry shop, though I dare say there are Hobbitish carpenters who might object to my presence. I could make fine things – pens, perhaps. I remember the look in your eyes when you first saw a proper dwarvish fountain pen. I could make them from different woods in intricate designs. They could be heirlooms passed down from parent to child, given as wedding gifts to help with thank you notes, or as subtle reminders to write more often.

I think I would do quite well among hobbitish society, don’t you think?

I miss you, kurdel. Every day, every hour that separates us makes this ache worse. I had foolishly hoped that my many years without you would prepare me for the absence of your presence. I knew my foolishness before I had even stepped foot from the mountain.

I dreamed of you, last night. I dream of you most nights. In my dream you came to me as if to our marriage bed.

Do you dream of me?

I wish I could see your face as you read this. Your cheeks often turn rosy when you think of such matters, and I long to place my kisses there, to feel the warmth of you.

I wish to place my kisses elsewhere, too feel your warmth.

I am wicked, teasing you thus, I know, but in this I would gladly revel in wickedness with you.

The flap to Thorin’s tent went wide, sending a blast of artic air across his desk and sending the flames sputtering. Thorin glared at the intruder, but Kíli closed the flap behind him as quickly as he had opened it.

“Sweet Mahal, a fire,” Kíli moaned and came quickly forward, hands outstretched. Rolling his eyes, Thorin moved his papers aside, careful to hide his last words from the curious eyes of his sister-son.

“There are fires,” Thorin grumbled, though his heart wasn’t in it. Kíli had often insisted that he had forgiven Thorin for his bad actions the moment Thorin stepped up to correct them, but he himself did not find it so easy to forgive. His madness had nearly ended his line – and it was only by some unknown but welcome provenance that Kíli was alive before him.

“Aye, there are,” Kíli agreed. “But none allow me to bother my favorite uncle.”

Thorin eyed Kíli sideways, but the lad merely grinned back, unrepentant. “Why are you here, Kili, and not with your…” Thorin trailed off, waving his hand. If Tauriel had been a dwarf, he would have called her his betrothed, but he knew enough about elves to know that they did marriage differently, and he had no idea how to give context to their relationship.

Perhaps he ought to have asked Gimli before leaving.

Kíli’s grin softened and shrank. “It’s our last night here, Uncle. I had hoped we could spend it together.”

It was true. Thorin had not liked to dwell on that fact: the thought of letting Kíli out of his sight – at least Fíli was safe back in Erebor. Kíli would be wandering the northern wilds, looking for Rangers that would not be found if they did not wish. Sure, he would have Tauriel with him, and two traveling in dangerous territory were safer than an army for the way they could avoid detection, but…

There were more dangers and darker than orcs that roamed in the North.

“I would like that, as well,” Thorin said. “I had planned to come find you, once my task here was complete.”

Kíli brightened once again, like a child’s toy that reacted to the lightning in the air. “Wonderful! I shall fetch Tauriel!” and then he was gone once more, the tent-flap fluttering after him.

Sighing, bittersweet, Thorin turned back to his letter, righting the parchment before picking up his pen once more.

Alas, but our revelry must wait. My time to write grows short, so I will end this missive here.

Be well, my love. I hope my words reach you swiftly and bring you comfort and warmth on these cold nights. I would ask for your words in return, but I do not know how long our siege will last. I will write to you when I can, once it is safe again.

Forever yours,
Thorin.

Thorin rolled up the parchment, and from the same tin that held his inks he pulled a lump of silvered wax, already half gone, and held it over the fire to melt. Swiftly, he pressed it to where the parchment overlapped, and then used his ring to emboss the seal. He pulled out, too, a length of ribbon. When knew, it had been a rich, forest green, but sun and time and weather had leeched much of the color from it, leaving it a shade of spring leaves. It had been attached to Bilbo’s first letter to him, and Thorin sent it back to him now, as he had with every returning letter.

Outside his tent, he could hear the soft sounds of the camp as they settled in for the night: the crackling of the fires, the soft yet excited murmur of Kili’s voice, and the oddly light laughter of Tauriel as she was no doubt dragged along behind his nephew.

Almost a year ago, Thorin had set out with twelve companions from Ered Luin on a hopeless quest to reclaim his home from the dragon that had held it for far too long. He had been cold in his determination, the fire in him rousing only with his temper. His goal had been singular – defeat the dragon or die trying.

Now, at the base of another mountain, he had a new goal.

Protect his family and see that ribbon again.